The defining moment for my interest in science fiction came when I was in seventh grade and found a copy of David Pringle’s Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction on a bookshelf at a Mr. Paperback store near my grandparents’ home in Maine. I had already long loved the speculative genre, but Pringle’s book — which gave capsule summary reviews of over 3,000 novels, collections, and anthologies — proved an almost inexhaustible resource in my hunt for new titles to explore. I carried it with me to book stores, and though I’m generally meticulously careful with my books, I tore through it and marked it up so much that it is barely intact today.
In my exhaustive reading of the text, I began to notice what seemed at the time a curious pattern: Pringle’s subtle but evident inclination against religious belief. For instance, he gave 3 out of 4 stars to C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, but concluded his review by saying:
It’s clearly a religious allegory, but it’s nevertheless hauntingly effective as SF. Unfortunately, the novels which follow become steadily more fantastic, religiose and anti-scientific.
This casual dismissal of Lewis’ Perelandra and That Hideous Strength brought into focus for me a broader animus toward religious belief manifest in much of the genre. Indeed, at Christ and Pop Culture, we have explored before the question of the extent to which the Christian faith can operate within the parameters of science fiction.
In a recent post at The Guardian, science fiction columnist and author Damien Walter addresses the issue from a slightly different angle. Walter himself is a skeptic and largely seems to toe the party line in considering religious belief and science fiction to be in the main incompatible; he opens the column with the question, “If SF is grounded in hard scientific fact, and science is killing God, then what place does that leave for divine intervention in the pages of SF literature?” The assumptions inherent in this statement clearly demonstrate his own perspective on the relationship of God and science. Yet he also helpfully notes several instances in which science fiction writers have essentially introduced some reinvention of the notion of deity into their works. For Walter, such reinventions are part of genre’s contrarian DNA:
Ironically, however, none of the innovations Walter describes are really new at all. Rather, they’re as old as faith itself. People have been denying God’s existence or setting up their own alternatives to God all along. Of course, in science fiction, the mechanisms for creating surrogate deities are often new. They may include:
If there’s one thing SF writers like to do, it’s argue. Tell them God is good and they’ll prove why he doesn’t exist. Show them there is no God, and they’ll invent one just to… prove you wrong. Science fiction isn’t so much about science as it is about the quest for new ideas that will smash apart the old ones.
- Godlike aliens (e.g., H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey)
- Godlike machines (e.g., Fredric Brown’s “Answer,” Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”)
- Humans evolving into gods (e.g., Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human)
- Humans only posing as gods (e.g., Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light)
However, such attempts ultimately run the risk of falling back into the same very biblical category: idolatry.
I don’t mean to single out science fiction in calling its materialistic apotheoses idolatrous. On the contrary, the desire to replace the true and living God with created substitutes is a desire that inhabits the heart of every person, atheist and Christian alike. Romans 1 famously and explicitly observes the manner in which humans estranged from a relationship with God instead turn toward their own willful perversions. Every time we Christians value any aspect of God’s creation over Him, we are participating in a form of idolatry — and if we’re honest, we do this far more often than we would like.
What makes science fiction’s idolatry most intriguing is how surprisingly stark it can be, how many examples the science fiction aficionado could list that deny God but set up foreign — indeed, truly alien — gods. Flannery O’Connor famously asserted that the American South in which she lived was Christ-haunted; science fiction, it often seems, is God-haunted. If He is dead (as Damien Walter seems to assume), His spectral images still lurk at the margins or between the lines of countless speculative works. And if there is no God, as many science fiction writers would readily assert, why the fascination with godlike entities? To some degree, it could be a form of reverse proselytizing, i.e., atheist authors feeling the need to rebut religious beliefs that so many cling to despite the apparent evidence to the contrary. But such motivation does not explain the idolatry.
It is one thing to kill God off polemically, as does, say, James Morrow in Towing Jehovah. But the need to bring Him back in some other form — e.g., alien, synthetic, human, transhuman — may speak to a deeper recognition that the human psyche is desperately seeking transcendence. Perhaps that is merely an evolutionary adaptation, but whatever it may be, it is certainly not new. It is what the faithful have been saying all along.