Is Science Fiction Prophecy? Is Prophecy Science Fiction?

Is Science Fiction Prophecy? Is Prophecy Science Fiction? June 25, 2017
Cartoon by Tom Gauld
Cartoon by Tom Gauld

One of the questions I posed in my class on religion and science fiction last fall was about the relationship between prophecy and sci-fi. The key question is whether predicting the future and getting it right is the point of these two genres. On the one hand, if Jesus predicted the end of history and full dawn of the kingdom of God during the lifetime of his hearers, does that invalidate his message the same way that the presupposition of breathable atmospheres on Mars and Venus undermines our enjoyment of C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy? And on the other hand, is the fact that Star Trek was right about doors that would slide open as we approach them the point of the series, and what makes it valuable to us, any more than that disaster struck Israel soon after Amos of Tekoa delivered his warnings of imminent doom?

If the point of both genres is really much more about social commentary on the present than predicting the future, as has often been emphasized by commentators who study ancient Israelite prophecy or science fiction, then we may be able to better to appreciate older examples of these genres – or perhaps we should even speak of them as a single genre, characterized precisely by the use of predictions about the future as a means of communicating critiques of and warnings about what is happening in one’s own time?

Below are links to some other posts related to this theme. But before turning to those, let me recall an earlier post here inspired by discussion of this topic in my class. It was suggested that perhaps Christianity might survive, even thrive, as a “meme” independently of archaic church buildings and structures. As it turns out, a recent article highlighted the role that church buildings are playing in drawing younger people to faith.

Elsewhere, David Brin looked back at Heinlein’s vision of the future.

Charles Stross suggested that sci-fi matters more when the future looks dangerous.

on why Jesus hasn’t come back yet (and the answer may shock you)

guess what: prophecies aren’t predictions of the future (you can look it up)

Apocalypse? We’ve All Been There

20 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books with a Message of Social Justice

Sunday Meditations: The Book of Revelation, the Bible, and Us

Doonesbury isn’t sci-fi, but its cartoon about a Trump candidacy is still interesting as we think about prediction in literature and the arts.

And of course, this image needs to be included:

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Did Jesus predict the end of history or the end of the age?

    Regardless, I agree with the larger point. If what we require of biblical prophets is laser-like (no pun intended) accuracy, there’s probably not a single one that measures up. They look at what’s going on and make projections about the future involving a vibrant imagination and expansive imagery. In most cases, this is to indict the present and warn the people at the time of the consequences of continuing the current trajectory. The value is that they’ve more or less correctly diagnosed this situation even if the details don’t work out.

    By that criteria, they do pretty well, and also by that criteria, some works of science fiction could qualify as a sort of prophecy. I guess I personally think of prophecy as it appears in the Bible being chiefly defined by the “social corrective” aspect more than the “predicting the future” aspect, so I’d probably evaluate science-fiction as prophecy the same way. If someone happens to predict a particular technology, I wouldn’t necessarily think of that as prophecy. But if someone wrote a sci-fi story about America becoming a post-apocalyptic Thunderdome because Sam Brownback became a chief adviser to the President, that would look a lot more like prophecy to me.

    If you go down this road, here’s what you can expect, so don’t do it. Or, this end is coming inevitably due to what’s happened, so prepare for it. Those are the kinds of things that characterize prophecy to me. Predicting the future is just something the prophets have to do as part of delivering that message.

  • Michael

    re: breathable atmosphere . . .

    for a good take “science fiction as failed prophecy,” see the intros to the “Old Mars” / “Old Venus” anthologies edited by Martin & Dozois.

    What do you do when you find the atmosphere isn’t breathable? You deliberately and overtly suspend belief and write retro stories honoring the Golden Age of science fiction!

  • Michael

    Also: Stross has repeatedly mentioned having to make changes in his storylines when writing because of contemporary events.

    One might find parallels to similar editorial activity in some biblical compositions!

  • macsnafu

    I don’t think science fiction is *really* about predicting the future, although some sf writers may try to do so. For me, good, serious science fiction is about the exploration of ideas, especially on the societal scale. They don’t *have* to be right or good at predicting the future, but they have to provoke some thought, even if you just have to explain to yourself what’s wrong with the idea. And even wrong ideas might point people to better ideas. “This is what’s wrong with this idea, but it might work better or be more likely if you did it THIS way instead.” So CS Lewis’ Space trilogy may have gotten some things scientifically wrong about Mars and Venus, but that wasn’t his intent or point.

    And of course, ‘science fiction’ is a broad umbrella. Space Opera (and some other forms of sf) are primarily intended for entertainment, and not about big ideas or predicting the future. But even, or perhaps especially, popular fiction intended for mere entertainment reflects the ideas of the current society. Comic books, movies and TV shows used Nazis or neo-Nazis as villains quite frequently until enough time had passed after WWII.

    And the audience is an important part of how a piece of art or fiction is perceived, regardless of artistic intent. It’s easy to say that “The Force” from Star Wars is a symbol or allegory of something else, something spiritual, or perhaps the holistic interconnectedness that science sometimes suggests. Regardless of what George Lucas may have intended. Look at the various critical interpretations of Lord of the Rings, for example, even though Tolkien repeatedly said that there was no allegory or symbolism in his work.