Science fiction has always been a discordant jumble of optimism and bleak despair. On the one hand, you’ve got all the hope that comes from curing diseases, the affordable proliferation of the necessities of life, and the certainty of the results of the scientific method. We can see all that has been done by human reason and apparently without divine intervention, so who needs God? The future is bright and getting brighter!
On the other hand, you’ve got all the despair that comes from knowing a bit about history and human nature. For every cured disease there’s a mutation (occasionally even an intentional one) that brings about something worse. For every increasingly available necessity we are all the more enslaved to those who provide those necessities. Even the scientific method itself is only as good as the morality of those who use it. (None of which is to say there haven’t been real and worthwhile advancements, just that these advancements always come with a steep price tag.) The best science fiction writers are aware of these problems as well as man’s advancements.
And yet, the very best of the best of the science fiction writers will hold to some version of both of these, and yet look beyond optimism and despair and find… well, what they find will depend on their inherent worldview. This is because when you really follow the natural world out to its bitter end–not just a century from now, and not just a millennium from now, but eons and eons from now, what we see is the heat death of the universe. Every scientific advance, everything humans have built, every scrap of memory of human civilization even if it lasts until the end of time will be lost in the end of all things. Which means to be optimistic science fiction writers either need to ignore/be unaware of this conclusion, or they need to be religious and believe in a reality that transcends material existence.
For more on this duality of science fiction, check out the Modern Scholar series ‘From here to Infinity.’For an interesting exploration of what morality looks like with the reality of the death of the universe directly in view, check out Jack Vance’s excellent collection Tales of the Dying Earth. These stories are set at the end of time, in the 21st Aeon, when the sun is about to go out and everyone knows it. Strange creatures roam the land and magic has arisen to replace collapsed technology. Creatures from the ‘overworld’ (it’s hard to tell if this means space, or some sort of spiritual dimension–he seems to use the terms both ways) roam the land, and ancient ruins dot the landscape. Overhead, the sun blinks and quivers as it casts its last feeble rays over the earth. All the while, characters walk through this novel with no internal life, merely passing through on the strength of cleverness and rhetoric alone. Everything action is taken and every word is said not based on transcendent principles, but because ‘the sun will go out soon, so why does it matter?’ The result is a world where good guys and bad guys don’t differ at all, and the only real difference is between survivors and victims.
So in addition to being an excellent book (seriously: go read it!) Tales of the Dying Earth is a great place for a Christian to go and reflect on the value of believing in a transcendent reality (which of course many people do) and believing that the author of all reality has stepped into material creation and redeemed us and reconciled us to Himself by living and dying in our place (which only Christians do). What does a world look like without that truth? Vance’s work is very useful for answering that question.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO, where the sun still shines brightly and people are still just as good and bad as they are anywhere.