SCIENCE FICTION AS THE BIBLE
(DELIVERED AT ‘BETWEEN THE LINES’ at 5PM on SUNDAY 29 AUGUST 2004)
NB: This transcript is taken from a somewhat incomplete minidisk recording of the event. Due to some technical difficulties, recording commenced with the words ‘shambling around going “ughhh”’, and everything prior to this point is reconstructed from my notes. The same is true of the two paragraphs of introduction to Philip K. Dick, where the disk mysteriously jumps about a bit. I’ve omitted the preamble to the talk, where I introduced myself, plugged my novel, and told amusing anecdotes about my thesis.
HOW SCIENCE FICTION GOT RELIGION
Mary Shelley and Frankenstein
Interpretations of Frankenstein
H.G. Wells and The Island of Doctor Moreau
WHAT (SOME SPECIFIC) SCIENCE FICTION AUTHORS BELIEVE
Some Christian Science Fiction Authors
Some Atheist Science Fiction Authors
A Heterodox Science Fiction Author: Olaf Stapledon
Another Heterodox Science Fiction Author: Philip K. Dick
THREE SCIENCE FICTION MYTHS
The Frankenstein Myth
The Myth of the Group Mind
The Myth of the God-Machine
CONCLUSION AND CODA
SCIENCE FICTION AS THE BIBLE
The title of this talk is ‘Science Fiction as the Bible’, by which I mean science fiction considered as a means for authors to convey their own ideas and experiences of God, which can be extremely diverse, of course, depending on the individual author’s faith position.
Science fiction has been capable of this sort of use for religious allegory, as far back as the invention of the genre, which as I’ll shortly be discussing I consider to have happened with the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. I’ll discuss the reasons for why this came about in my talk tomorrow, on ‘The Bible as Science Fiction’ – for the time being I want to look at the ways this takes place in the genre as it now exists.
Science fiction has often been called a ‘literature of the rational’: it’s considered by some commentators to be a literature which deals with scientific, objective fact, and where superstition, in which they would include religious faith, has no place.
Such people tend to spend a lot of their time being rather disappointed, because science fiction is pervaded by religious imagery. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, points out that the word ‘god’ or ‘gods’ is one of the most common words in science fiction titles, and before coming to Greenbelt I had a look through my own bookshelves at home to see if this was true.
I found books called Men Like Gods, The Food of the Gods, two separate books entitled Twilight of the Gods, books called GodEngine, The God Makers, The Gods Themselves, Gods of Riverworld, The Gods of the Underworld, Gods of the Greataway, The Naked God, The Broken God, The Microcosmic God, Children of God and Fallen Gods – as well as other books with such obviously religious titles as The Divine Invasion, The Day After Judgement and Original Sin1.
So there really is an awful lot of religious imagery in science fiction, one way or another. Some authors use this to preach their own religious position fairly explicitly; others use it for purposes of allegory, so that the reader has to do the work in decoding what their faith position may be. Others just make use of the imagery as they find it, whether or not they’re aware of its underlying significance. Some of these authors – more than you might think, in fact – are Christians; others are atheists; and there’s a whole range of weird religious formulations in between, authors who’ve invented their own religions, essentially, and who are keen to tell the readers what they think they’ve discovered. These are often the most interesting, just because what they come up with can be so fascinatingly strange, and I’ll be looking at a couple of specific examples later.
The point I want to make, though, is that all of these people are children of God, and they have a relationship with God, if for no other reason than that they were created by God. What they have to say about God may not chime with our own experience, but it is a valid account of their own experiences of their creator, and we should respect it as such.
In this talk I will be covering three main areas. The first is ‘How Science Fiction Got Religion’, and for that I’ll be looking at the genre’s historical roots in the works of Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells. The second is ‘What Science Fiction Authors Believe’ – although as I’ve suggested, this is actually very varied, so at best I’m looking at what a few specific science fiction authors believe. And finally I want to look at what I call ‘Three Science Fiction Myths’, specifically the Frankenstein Myth, the Myth of the Group-Mind and the Myth of the God-Machine. I’ll be explaining what I mean by all of these later on.
So, to cover the first point first: how did science fiction get religion? How did this religious imagery come to be so pervasive in the works of the genre?
The first work of science fiction, at least according to many critics, is Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or to give it its full title Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, which was published in 1817. I’ll be talking a bit more tomorrow about why Frankenstein is considered to be the first science fiction text, and what exactly that means. For now, though, I want to look at the story itself.
Mary Shelley was the daughter of William Godwin the philosopher, and Mary Wollestonecraft, who was also a philosopher and one of the pioneers of feminist thinking. Mary Shelley was born in 1797 and died in 1851: she was, in fact, nineteen when Frankenstein was first published, which makes a lot of professional authors whose first novels were published when they were, say, 32, feel very jealous, particularly since it’s so damn good. When she was in her late teens she ran away with the poet Percy Shelley, who was married at the time, and caused an enormous scandal. They were later married after Shelley’s first wife died. It’s unfortunate that Mary Shelley’s usually remembered primarily as Shelley’s wife, though, because she really is a phenomenal author in her own right.
Frankenstein, as we all know, is the story of a scientist who creates a man. And he is a man: in the novel he’s referred to as Frankenstein’s ‘creature’, not his ‘monster’. The image of Boris Karloff with bolts in his neck, shambling around going ‘ughhh’, is a splendid cinematic image and I love it, but it isn’t the character that Mary Shelley wrote.
Victor Frankenstein creates a human being. He does it by unnatural and unprecedented means, but it’s his intention to create a man, and that’s what he does. He puts together this person and he gives him life, by means which are never fully explored, but which you can work out if you read the text closely. He selects his features to be beautiful, but yet when he actually causes him to live, he finds that his Creature is hideous, or that he considers him hideous suddenly, and he runs out on him and abandons him to make his own way in the world, which he’s not well equipped to do.
Some time later he meets him again. In the meantime, the Creature has had various adventures: he’s found a family who he can spy on, and who he adopts: he manages to live in their outbuilding, and there’s a tiny chink where he can watch them going about their lives. He learns to read and speak English by having various books read to him, one of which is Paradise Lost, which will be significant. Unfortunately the family rejects him when they see him, because he is, as previously mentioned, hideous, and he goes on the rampage and kills his creator’s family, as you do.
He meets Victor, and they have this kind of partial reconciliation, but eventually he’s betrayed again by Victor, and they end up on this obsessive pursuit to the Arctic Circle, where eventually they both die. And that’s how the book ends, and it’s all very tragic.
Frankenstein is a lot of things, and I really can’t go into the detail of all the things it is because there isn’t time, but one of the things it is is a retelling of Paradise Lost. As I’ve said, the Creature learns to speak English by reading Paradise Lost, but the first reference to Paradise Lost in Frankenstein is actually on the title page. What we have here [showing book], in the Penguin Classics edition, is a facsimile of the original title page of Frankenstein, and the quote there is a quote from Paradise Lost. It’s Adam’s complaint to God after the Fall, and it says:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mold me man? Did I solicit thee
from darkness to promote me [...] ?2
In a sense, this is just a teenager’s complaint of ‘I didn’t ask to be born’, but it is ennobled by its context, especially by Milton. And the Creature comes to connect with Adam’s plight, with his situation. He hears several books read, including some other seminal texts of Romanticism, but it’s Paradise Lost that ends up imbuing his thought and the way he speaks throughout the novel. And the first time he meets Victor after their initial parting of the ways, he says to him:
Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.3
He’s saying that he could have been Adam as he was before the Fall, he could have been an unfallen and loyal creature of Victor’s, but because of the way Victor treated him, he’s not able to do that. He comes to identify with Satan, and to rebel against his creator. And later on he goes into more detail about this. He says:
Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.4
So he takes a deliberate decision to take on the role of Satan and to become this evil nemesis.
He asks Victor to create an Eve for him, a female creature who can be his mate and helpmeet, and with whom he can have children. Victor initially agrees to this, but he has second thoughts, and decides that he doesn’t want to be responsible for propagating a race of monsters upon the earth, and he destroys her before she’s finished, and the Creature murders all his other friends in revenge, and so on. And the novel finishes as I described, with them both dying heroically and tragically.
There are three interpretations of Frankenstein – there are many more than three interpretations of Frankenstein, but there are three I’d like to touch on briefly.
The traditional Christian interpretation of Frankenstein is that Victor is victimised by divine judgement, that he aspires to become God by creating a human being, which should only be God’s prerogative, and that God punishes him by sending his Creature after him to destroy him. This seems unlikely to me, partly on the grounds of Mary Shelley’s beliefs at the time, which seem to have been a form of atheism, but also because there’s no real evidence of God’s involvement in the rest of the novel: it seems that Victor and the Creature inhabit an atheist universe within the fiction.
It seems that what brings Victor down is not divine judgement, but the very human principle that, if you mistreat people, they will mistreat you in turn: if you brutalise them, they become brutal. In fact, the Creature says, ‘I am malicious because I am miserable’. And this is a principle which Mary Shelley’s father had expounded upon, in his book Political Justice (1793).
Alternatively, you can see Victor as being condemned because he aspires to be God – and because there shouldn’t be such a person as God. This fits in more with the atheism, one would presume, in that there should be no person, no individual at all who has creative powers and is able to create other people; and that it’s because Victor is arrogant and aspires to this that he is brought low.
This again seems unlikely, because otherwise Victor’s aspirations seem to be fairly admirable. There are other characters in the novel – well, one other character specifically, who’s the nominal narrator, an Arctic explorer called Walton, who both Victor and the Creature meet in the Arctic Circle, and his urge to find the North Pole and to go beyond the limits of human knowledge in that way, is seen as admirable. Both of them, Victor and Walton, are also seen as analogues of Percy Shelley, who of course Mary Shelley was deeply in love with at the time and admired. So it seems unlikely to me that Victor is being condemned for his aspirations.
What seems most likely to me is the third interpretation, which is that Victor is actually condemned and brought low for turning away from what he started. That if he’d created the ‘Monster’ and then nurtured it, and treated it well – it wouldn’t be a Monster, it would just be a man. And it wouldn’t be his nemesis, it would be equivalent to his son. It seems that what Mary Shelley is saying here is that human beings can aspire to be gods – in fact human beings will aspire to be Gods, it’s part of human nature – but that they must accept the responsibilities of Gods if they do so: they must treat their creatures well.
So Mary Shelley was reworking Paradise Lost in a number of ways in this, and coming to conclusions which are possibly radically different from what Milton intended, although that too is open to question.
But Frankenstein, being the first science fiction text, has been deeply influential on later science fiction. If you look at later Victorian science fiction, such as Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, there’s a strong religious sensibility that runs though it, and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde has a fairly strong Calvinistic morality, although at the time he wrote it Robert Louis Stevenson also had turned away from his Christian upbringing.
The person who crystallised science fiction into the form we now recognise, of course, was H.G. Wells, who wrote a half-dozen or so scientific romances in the late 1890s, in which he came up with many of the enduring images of science fiction which continue to define it to this day. He invented time-travel – he didn’t invent time-travel, he invented time-travel as a fictional device – in The Time Machine. He wrote about space travel in The First Men in the Moon (this wasn’t the first time that people had talked about voyages to the Moon, but it was the first time it had been seen as a goal that was achievable by science). He wrote about alien invasion in The War of the Worlds, and invisibility in The Invisible Man.
His take on the Paradise Lost / Genesis story was The Island of Doctor Moreau, which was published in 1896. Wells’ Dr Moreau is described in terms which recall God, and he does create things which are meant to be human beings, but which never quite manage to get there. He creates his men from animals: he’s a former vivisectionist, and he carries out plastic surgery on these animals to make them human in form. And he then imbues them with a kind of human intellect by some mesmeric process which is never really properly described.
But he seems to be a God of evolution, he’s definitely a post-Darwinian picture of God. The first man he makes is from an ape. But he also creates a creature who seems to be a serpent: he’s setting up his own Garden of Eden on this tropical island where he’s been exiled to. And his Beast Men are failed attempts at making human beings: they never really reach human status. At first they worship Moreau, in terms which recall the God of the Old Testament, a vengeful God. I’ll just read to you their litany, if I can find it...
They say, the Beast Men, and they say this of Moreau:
His is the House of Pain.
His is the Hand that makes.
His is the Hand that wounds.
His is the Hand that heals [...]
His is the lightning flash [...]
His is the deep salt sea [...]
His are the stars in the sky.5
So they deify Moreau, they see him as a God, but later on they turn upon him and destroy him. And this becomes an increasingly popular pastime among people who are created by mad scientists over the next century.
So, Mary Shelley found her Judaeo-Christian imagery of Genesis, of the Creation and the Fall, in Paradise Lost, but she put it into science fiction when she created science fiction in Frankenstein. Later authors such as Wells left it where they found it, and there it remains to this day.
As I say, science fiction authors put this imagery to a great variety of uses since Wells. These include the Christian authors, the atheists and the others, the heterodox authors who come up with these bizarre formulations who I, as I say, find the most interesting.
In many ways, the Christian authors are the most boring, because the religious imagery is out in the open: it means exactly what it seems to, and where’s the fun in that? I imagine a lot of you have read C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. This is interesting because it takes the Wellsian concept of space travel, what would later become high space opera, but it recasts it in the Medieval world view, where other spheres of the solar system contain unfallen populations and have their own guardian archangels.
Lewis takes this to its extreme in Perelandra, where he’s directly rewriting Paradise Lost as science fiction. He obviously makes a couple of changes to the story. The scientist who travels through space to Venus, and then becomes the Serpent tempting the Venusian Eve to disobey God’s commands, is a mouthpiece for Western scientific thinking, and obviously he says what C.S. Lewis thinks Western scientific thinking would say rather than what it necessarily would have actually said at the time. He’s a bit of a straw man in many respects.
Most radically of all, Lewis gives Paradise Lost a happy ending in Perelandra, which isn’t necessarily something Milton would have approved of. But the Venusian Eve does not fall, she remains unfallen, and this enables Lewis to highlight the tragedy of the Fall in contrast to what happens in his story. The effect of this is to show familiar ideas through a distancing lens of science fiction: it gives you a new perspective by showing it in new language and new images.
That Hideous Strength takes these ideas and turns them into an Apocalypse. There’s a big showdown between good and evil, evil again being represented by Western scientific thinking. It introduces elements of Arthurian fantasy, so it rather compromises the plan of showing things through the distancing lens of science fiction, but it has its own science fiction elements. It has the decapitated Head of an executed criminal, which is kept alive nominally by scientific methods but in fact turns out to be the mouthpiece for demons. It has a character who’s based on H.G. Wells, or at least is widely considered to be based on H.G. Wells – the cockney, Jules, who spouts a lot of scientific platitudes in a way which suggests that he doesn’t really understand what he’s talking about. It’s a very unflattering picture of H.G. Wells, if that’s who it is meant to be.
Lewis’s science fiction’s been described as ‘anti-science fiction’6, and this seems a pretty good description. Lewis clearly wants to go back to the Medieval world view because he prefers it to what modern science has come up with.
Other Christian authors have been a bit more tolerant of science, an example being Cordwainer Smith, who in real life was an American diplomat called Paul Linebarger, but who wrote under a pseudonym. His fiction is about a future secular world state where Christianity is carried on, as Christianity was in the Roman Empire, by the slave classes. But interestingly, in this state the slave classes are robots and augmented animals who’ve been given human intelligence. They don’t have any doubts that they have souls, and nor, seemingly, does Smith himself: they carry on the Christian faith and they are faithful.
Other authors of the same period (which I should have mentioned is the ’30s through to ’50s, what they call ‘The Golden Age of Science Fiction’ – rather inaccurately in my opinion, but that’s beside the point) include Anthony Boucher. He was a Roman Catholic, and wrote a story called ‘The Quest for Saint Aquin’ where a perfect robot is created with a perfectly logical mind, and it uses this perfectly logical mind to deduce a watertight proof of the existence of God, and becomes a Roman Catholic Saint.
Another Catholic author was Walter Miller, who wrote A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is widely considered a classic of science fiction. Its treatment of religion is ambivalent and slightly ironic, but it does end with quite a moving, if confusing and a bit odd, presentation of the Second Coming which coincides with the second nuclear holocaust. After the first nuclear holocaust, the monasteries have kept the knowledge of the previous world state alive.
So there is this long-standing tradition of science fiction which is written from a fairly orthodox Christian perspective. At the other end of the spectrum we have the atheist authors – the openly atheist authors like Iain Banks, who’s been outspoken in his criticisms of religion.
I find his works interesting, because he writes about a secular utopia – a galactic secular utopia called the Culture – where human-like beings live in harmony with hyper-intelligent Artificial Intelligences who stand as their protectors. The reason I find this interesting is because it’s very similar, or very reminiscent, of C.S. Lewis’s scheme where happy, unfallen populations live alongside their guardian angels. It seems to be using the same kind of set-up: it’s arguable whether Banks is doing this to subvert the set-up, or whether he is not aware that he’s doing it, whether it’s just that this is a tradition of science fiction and he’s just tapping into that. But it seems interesting that atheist authors like him can use this Judaeo-Christian imagery without making anything very much of it – he never seems to repudiate the Christian overtones of this.
Another atheist author is Isaac Asimov, whose Robot stories frequently draw on biblical imagery. There’s a story called ‘The Last Question’, which shows successive generations of computers becoming more and more Godlike, until the last of them merges with the last of humanity at the end of the universe and, after the universe ends, remakes the universe with the words ‘Let there be light!’ You can’t get a lot more biblical than that.
His stories tend to deify technology and show computers as God, which, given that his robots are computers in human-like form, makes them often seem to be Christ-analogues. One character in particular, a robot called Daneel, has a fully human-shaped body, and uses Christ’s language on several appearances. It just interests me that these atheist authors do use this Judaeo-Christian imagery, in various forms.
But the most interesting by far are the ones who come up with formulations of religious faith which are clearly rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but which diverge from it in radical and exciting ways. One of them’s Olaf Stapledon, who was an early twentieth-century philosopher who wrote a number of novels which are recognised as science fiction but may not have been thought to be by him.
The most famous of them is Last and First Men, which is a lengthy future history of humanity over the next billions of years of its evolution. To my mind, though, his most interesting novel is Star Maker [showing book], which this is a modern edition of – it was published in 1937. Star Maker is a mystical vision which the narrator has of the history of the universe, of all the peoples of the universe, who are many and varied, and how they aspire to union with the maker of the universe, and then fail in that. It also shows the history of previous and subsequent creations which that maker of the universe has gone through, and it ends with a vision of the nature of the Star Maker, as he calls God, himself.
Stapledon’s philosophy was similar in some ways to that of St Augustine. Stapledon and Augustine believed that evil was necessary in creation; that just as in a picture you need the dark areas to show up the light, that evil in creation is necessary to highlight the good, and that therefore for God’s creation to be a work of art – a good work of art – it needs to have evil in it.
Augustine got round this by seeing evil as a simple absence of good, but Stapledon has a more radical take on it. His narrator says:
Irrationally, yet with conviction, I gave my adoration to the Star Maker as comprising both aspects of his dual nature, both the ‘good’ and the ‘evil’, both the mild and terrible, both the humanly ideal and the incomprehensibly inhuman.7
Now, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in that quote are in inverted commas – he’s saying ‘These are good and evil from my point of view, not from the Star Maker’s own point of view’ – but that’s still a disturbing quote for a Christian to come across. The way Stapledon gets round this – and he certainly wouldn’t have identified himself as a Christian, incidentally, although he had a lot of respect for Jesus as a philosopher – the way he gets round this is by saying that virtue in the creator and virtue in the creature are not the same thing, that there’s such a divergence between the circumstances of God and the circumstances of humanity that we are not able to judge God’s morality, that we just have to take it on trust.
And that again is an argument which a lot of Christian thinkers would agree with, although I don’t think they’d see it or couch it in the terms Stapledon does. And in Stapledon’s world view, the best we can aspire to is a serene acceptance of whatever crap God decides to throw in our direction, which again is a position that many Christian mystics would agree with.
The other heterodox author I want to look at – who would have identified himself as a Christian, at least towards the end of his life – is possibly my favourite science fiction author, Philip K. Dick. Dick was always very eccentric: he lost his twin sister in infancy, an experience which he thought scarred him psychologically throughout the rest of his life, although others would certainly argue that his more eccentric characteristics may well have come about as a result of the drugs which he consumed in large quantities during the ’60s8.
Prior to 1974 there was already a good deal of religious imagery in Dick’s fiction. In his most famous novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, we have stuff about the nature of humanity, where he writes about androids in contrast with humanity, to show what humanity’s essential characteristics are. In Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch we have characters creating hallucinatory universes, and effectively becoming Gods within them. In a novel called A Maze of Death we have an attempt to construct an ‘abstract logical system of religious thought’ – which falls short, but is interesting.
In 1974, though, Dick had what he considered to be direct visionary communications from God – at least, he usually considered them to be those. Sometimes he theorised that they were K.G.B. mind-control experiments, or a severe Vitamin C overdose, or the late Bishop of California living inside his head.
After 1974, after these visions, there’s a lot more religion in his work. Not that he wrote a great deal more, because he became obsessed with writing out his theology, and didn’t actually write a great deal of fiction after that. But the classic of this era is Valis, which is an astonishing novel – almost unreadable, unless you’re really into theology. It combines ideas from early Christianity, and from the Dead Sea Scrolls which had recently been unearthed at Nag Hammadi, with some much weirder religious ideas which clearly come from the brain of a science fiction writer.
It contains some alien architects, who may have created humanity and who have certainly been influencing humanity throughout their history. It suggests that Christ is a symbiotic organism who’s passed on by the Eucharist – which is fantastic, and gives you a splendid double-meaning of the word ‘host’. And it suggests that God is an alien Artificial Intelligence in a satellite which orbits the Earth, which communicates with us by beams of pink laser light, and of whom the new Messiah, who’s a small child called Sophia, is a terminal.
It ends with a fourteen-page exegesis of Dick’s current spiritual beliefs, which were undergoing radical revision all the time, which is called ‘Tractates Cryptica Spiritua’. It’s a fantastic read, and I’d like to give you just a flavour of it, if I may. Dick says:
The One was and was-not, combined, and desired to separate the was-not from the was. So it generated a diploid sac which contained, like an eggshell, a pair of twins, each an androgyny, spinning in opposite directions (the Yin and Yang of Taoism, with the One as the Tao). The plan of the One was that both twins would emerge into being (was-ness) simultaneously. However, motivated by a desire to be (which the One had implanted in both twins), the counter-clockwise twin broke through the sac and separated prematurely, i.e. before full term. [...] Therefore it was defective.9
As you might expect, it turns out to be – well, God’s evil twin, basically, who’s responsible for all the evil in the world. I’ve called this talk ‘Science Fiction as the Bible’, rather facetiously, but I think you can’t get a much more vivid illustration than Valis of how science fiction can become effectively a sacred text, or something that’s intended to be read as such.
Both Dick and Stapledon wrote about what they considered to be encounters with God. We may consider that they misunderstood the God that they encountered, but a lot of what they write about is consistent with Christianity, and it’s interesting to see the ways in which it is consistent, and the ways in which it diverges.
Finally I’d like to look at what I’ve called ‘Three Science Fiction Myths’. Throughout the history of science fiction, there have been certain recurring themes and motifs and images which have reappeared. These vary and develop as science and technology vary and develop. They’re retold with each generation, they change with each generation, but they embody either the same truths or similar truths, the same class of truths, and therefore I consider that they’ve become analogous to myths. As Christian readers of course, we’ll interpret their truths within our own Christian framework, and I will talk about that a little bit more right at the end.
The first one of these is the Frankenstein Myth: human beings using technology to create new life. They use various scientific methods for this in various works of science fiction. In Frankenstein and The Island of Doctor Moreau, as we’ve seen, it’s surgery, with some kind of mystic influx which causes the results to actually come alive, but with the developments of technology science fiction authors have written about people creating people in the form of robots, supercomputers, Artificial Intelligences, people in virtual realities, genetically engineered people, cyborgs.
The common theme is that what is created is something that’s alive: it’s something that thinks and moves and feels for itself, and is not just another tool – or, while it may be seen as another tool, has its own individuality.
And there are several ways we can read the Frankenstein Myth. There’s a fairly straightforward one, which is simply that a parent has a responsibility to their child: that any life we bring into the world, whether by natural or unnatural means, becomes our responsibility and we must nurture it.
There’s the literal interpretation, which is becoming increasingly relevant as humanity comes closer and closer to being able to create life. It doesn’t seem unfeasible that, in a few generations, we will be genetically engineering our children, or that we may have eventually succeeded in creating Artificial Intelligence. And I think what many of the formulations of the Frankenstein Myth tell us, or suggest to us, is that the use of such technologies is not in itself wrong; that creating, unnaturally, things which are analogous to people is no worse than creating them naturally, but that the technologies must be applied responsibly; that we’re not just making another tool, that we’re creating what amounts to another soul with whom we must be in relationship, rather than using. And I think this will become an increasingly important ethical and moral issue for Christians of the next few generations, because it’s going to become literal.
But what’s most interesting – for the moment, for us – is the allegorical interpretation, which is that the Frankenstein Myth tells us about our relationship with our own creator. It’s possible that Mary Shelley did intend Victor Frankenstein to be a portrait of our God, or more precisely Milton’s God, but we can contrast Frankenstein’s picture of Victor with our relationship with God, with our experience of God and the Christian tradition of what God is like.
Victor creates a single creature, on his own, then he abandons him; he gives him free will, but he gives him no moral guidance; and when he turns out evil, when he starts being a killer, Victor condemns him in unequivocal terms and refuses to take responsibility for him. By contrast, we believe that God created us with other human beings, created us to live in society with one another; that though God has given us free will, he’s given us guidance as to how to use that free will, he’s given us the Church, the Bible, other human beings to show us the way; and that when we do go wrong, God doesn’t condemn us, he accepts responsibility and he takes himself into creation, he becomes a creature himself, to redeem us.
I think what the Frankenstein Myth shows us is how the world ‘could have been’ – ‘could have been’ in quotes, of course, because it’s an impossible conceit – if it had been created by a less loving God. It’s a picture of the world as it isn’t, in an attempt to highlight the world as it is.
The second myth I want to look at is the Myth of the Group Mind. This is a common motif in science fiction, where people become telepathically linked, and eventually a population becomes joined into a single being which thinks and acts and feels as one, as an individual. Sometimes these consist of small handfuls of people: sometimes they’re the size of worlds, or entire galaxies.
What’s interesting to me is the ambiguity in science fiction’s treatment of this motif. Sometimes the Group Mind is threatening; it’s a hive-mind; it wants to assimilate you; and the society it creates is what we call a dystopia, which is the opposite of a utopia – it’s a perfectly awful society as opposed to a perfect society. On the other hand, sometimes the Group Mind is something aspirational; sometimes it brings unity to humankind; and in more mystically inclined writers like Olaf Stapledon and Arthur C. Clarke, it can become a way for humanity to aspire towards, or approach, unity with the Godhead.
What the Myth of the Group Mind is, though, is a story of self-surrender in the face of something that transcends ourselves. It’s surrendering the individual, surrendering ourselves in the face of something which is much larger than the individual.
Christians will naturally read this as an allegory of religious conversion, as a story of surrender to God, and this accounts, to my mind, for science fiction’s ambiguous treatment of it. On the one hand, the idea of surrendering to God is terrifying (and we’ve all seen churches where all the members appear to be identical, to be drones who want to assimilate you).
On the other hand, if we happen to be mystically inclined ourselves – if we’re that lucky – we know that surrender to God can be an ecstatic experience, and can be something that can bring us closer to unity with a Godhead that we can never truly know.
The third myth I want to talk about is the Myth of the God-Machine. This is either a reversal or a taking to the extreme of the Frankenstein Myth: in the Myth of the God-Machine humans use technology, not to create human-like beings, but to create God-like beings. The technologies they create become effectively omnipotent – as Asimov’s computer did, the one I referred to earlier that recreates the Universe. And often, these computers or other artificial individuals act as deities over the worlds they rule.
Interestingly though, they’re very rarely worthy gods. I’ve mentioned the Head in That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis’s story, which is artificially kept alive and becomes a conduit for demons. This is intended by its creators to become God, to lord it over the human race in the role of God. A character says of it:
It is a man – or a being made by man – who will finally ascend the throne of the universe. And rule forever.10
But of course, C.S. Lewis’s Head is just a tool for the Devil. (And you can quote me on that.)
In Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 and its various sequels, the mysterious black monolith which is humanity’s creator, or at least which imbued the early ape-men who preceded humanity with their intelligence... In the later books, which aren’t read nearly so much as 2001 itself is read, it becomes corrupted, and it has to be destroyed by humanity.
And this happens over and over again in science fiction. In William Gibson’s Cyberpunk Trilogy, the Artificial Intelligences he writes about achieve godhead, but they later fragment and become schizophrenic and fall apart, effectively. A satirical treatment is Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought, who’s created to come up with an answer to the question of the universe, but comes up with a completely useless one – which I don’t need to tell you, I’m sure. Almost always these deities need to be deposed or superseded by the people who created them and who they rule.
And this is a special case of an all-pervading theme in science fiction, which is that human beings need to outgrow the past; they need to outgrow their nature; and they need to outgrow their gods. In some cases they need to go so far as to outgrow their body, and become either ‘creatures of pure thought’ in the Star Trek cliché, or more interestingly, Artificial Intelligences themselves.
The God-Machines are at worst tyrannical, but at best they cause social stagnation and decay: humanity’s self-constructed gods are limited.
And to me this is interesting because it suggests that the gods we construct for ourselves are inadequate; that the true God, if there is such a thing, can’t fit into the human mind. A picture of God which is created by a human being will, by definition, be inadequate. It’s like the interpretation of the commandment to have no idols, which says that we mustn’t put our own picture of God so high in our minds that we close ourselves off to experience of actually-God. God is ultimately unknowable, by this idea, but we must strive to know God.
So all three of these myths, these themes in science fiction, are read by Christians in terms of faith: specifically, of our relationship with God.
So, when Mary Shelly introduced religion into science fiction, specifically the religious imagery of Paradise Lost, it was taken on by other authors, and they have used it in ways which have varied drastically according to their own religious convictions. And certain recurrent motifs have come up from this, which include the three motifs I’ve talked about.
There is a general question, though, which remains: Why should we listen to what science fiction has to tell us about God? If science fiction, or selected science fiction texts, can be considered to be a ‘Bible’, why should we believe that Bible?
Because overtly, on the surface, science fiction is a literature of the rational. It has a paradigm of progress, a theme of outgrowing limitations at all times, and often those limitations include our religions. God is superseded by technology; faith is superseded by science; the past gives way to the future.
When Christians read science fiction, we view it through the critical filter of our Christianity. This isn’t a bad thing: we all bring our own cultural assumptions, which are unique to us as individuals, to anything we read. Nobody reads the same text as any other person. And there are two possible ways of doing this.
Firstly, we can ignore or reject what doesn’t fit with our preconceptions, what we wouldn’t say ourselves if we were writing on the topic. Alternatively, and you won’t be surprised to learn that I prefer this route, we can open ourselves up to the possibility of finding spiritual truth, or even God speaking to us, in unlikely places. If we take this attitude, we’ll interpret science fiction dystopias as visions of Hell, science fiction utopias as attempts to reach out for Heaven or to recapture Paradise.
I’m not dealing with fantasy today, but J.R.R. Tolkien said something interesting on this topic. He talks about ‘subcreation’: about the creation of consistent but false worlds in fiction11. And he sees this as something that’s licensed by God, that recapitulates God’s own work of creation on a much smaller scale. And I believe that God can speak through these ‘secondary worlds’, to us as Christians.
This isn’t to say that we should reject the beliefs of the authors, or ignore them as irrelevant. Obviously an atheist like Iain Banks or an abstract philosopher like Stapledon is just as keen to persuade us of their point of view as an evangelical Christian like C.S. Lewis. We should be secure enough in our own faith to understand what they say fully, and to respect that, and not to wish to deny it.
But this isn’t to say that we can’t read the texts in a way that their authors did not intend. Once an author releases a book into the wild, they have no control or say in how the readers view it. Divergent or subversive interpretations are perfectly legitimate (and even literary theory agrees with me on this point).
So the answer to the question, ‘Why should we listen to what science fiction has to tell us about God?’, I believe, is this. Christian faith, like science, is a constant and progressive search for the truth. God is too large to be completely known by the human mind, but we must always seek to do so: that’s what faith is. As with human populations overthrowing the God-Machines that they have created and which lord it over them, we must free ourselves from the limitations we’ve created for ourselves. We need to free ourselves from our limited, comfortable worlds and perceptions of God.
Like the heroes of science fiction, we need to grow and learn; to broaden our horizons and to explore the divine nature, which unlike the universe is limitless.
As followers of Jesus, though, we do have the comfort of knowing that at least one man has boldly gone this way before.
1. If you really want to know... Men Like Gods and The Food of the Gods are by H.G. Wells; one Twilight of the Gods is by Christopher Bulis and the other is by Mark Clapham and Jon deBurgh Miller; GodEngine is by Craig Hinton; The God Makers is by Frank Herbert; The Gods Themselves is by Isaac Asimov; Gods of Riverworld is by Philip José Farmer; The Gods of the Underworld is by Stephen Cole; Gods of the Greataway is by Michael Coney; The Naked God is by Peter F. Hamilton; The Broken God is by David Zindell; The Microcosmic God and Other Stories is by Theodore Sturgeon; Children of God is by Mary Doria Russell; Fallen Gods is by Jonathan Blum and Kate Orman; The Divine Invasion is by Philip K. Dick; The Day After Judgement is by James Blish; and Original Sin is by Andy Lane. A third of these are Doctor Who books or spinoffs thereof.
6. By, among others, Leslie Fiedler in Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided (1983).
8. My biographical information on Dick comes from the excellent Divine Invasions: a Life of Philip K. Dick (1989) by Lawrence Sutin.
11. The essay in question is ‘On Fairy-Stories’ (1947), reprinted in Tree and Leaf (1964).
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