Both science fiction (SF) and science fiction criticism offer great possibilities for rigorous examination of our ethical assumptions and cultural presuppositions. In his essay, Joshua Matthews argues that Christian literary criticism and pedagogy can benefit from integrating SF into our scholarly activities and our classrooms. Although SF academic criticism tends to downplay religion and theology, SF is a key site of the linguistic and philosophical interactions between faith and science.
It is well known that that great Christian apologist and critic of seventeenth-century English literature, C. S. Lewis, also wrote and critically engaged with science fiction (SF). But in his early 1960s essay “On Science Fiction,” Lewis reminds us that his love of SF came during a time in the early 20th century when it was derided by critics as crude and juvenile. Lewis observes a “double paradox” in the history of SF: “it began to be popular when it least deserved popularity, and to excite critical contempt as soon as it ceased to be wholly contemptible.”1 Fast-forward 50 years and even the crustiest critic who harbors contempt for the fantastical visions of SF has to pay it serious attention. For SF has permeated most aspects of modern American and even global culture—movies, music, games, technology, advertising, shopping, manufacturing, politics, economics, and so on—all of which assume at least a few of the tropes and expectations of the future that SF develops in its readers and viewers. This cultural permeation of SF is really the science-fictionalization of modern culture, a set of attitudes towards technology and scientific discourse in society greatly affecting even people and institutions who do not pay much attention to genre SF at all.2
In spite of this permeation and of the many great Christian science-fiction authors in last 50 years (such as Lewis, Cordwainer Smith, Gene Wolfe, John C. Wright, and Madeline L’Engle), Christian scholarship on SF has lagged behind the sweeping social and technological changes that have science-fictionalized the modern world. Possible reasons for this absence are legion—lack of institutional resources, lack of academic respectability, few opportunities to specialize in SF studies—but whatever the causes, the result is that the general academic study of SF grows every year, but with relatively few Christian voices in the conversation. My intentions here are to prompt us to deeper, sustained Christian cultural critiques of SF, with strong support from our Christian institutions, in which teaching and writing about SF will help promote the various missions of these institutions. The cultural realms of SF are so vast that Christian scholars have ample opportunities to critique SF and its interactions with culture and religion, the latter of which tends to be ignored altogether by mainstream academic criticism. I also think that we ought to follow Lewis in writing about, discussing, and critiquing the variety of SF stories that we and our students already read and watch. This essay offers places from which we can launch or improve critical engagements with SF, in an attempt to dialogue with existing academic criticism. It also offers justification for teaching SF at Christian colleges, in literature classes and beyond. As I see it, SF enhances our students’ imaginations for critiquing the development and integration of technology into our lives and for forming a more fully-human society, one that views science and technology from a Christian perspective.
For SF is a literature that is built on exposed philosophical assumptions about technology and society, science and the discourses of science, and the purposes and stewardship of God’s creation. As such, it is an ideal subject for teaching and discussing ethics, worldviews, and the expansion of one’s moral imagination, and for highlighting the religious commitments of any cultural position, including those positions that posture as religiously neutral or as secular. SF, as Brooks Landon has pointed out, is a literature of change and about change (xi-xiii). As such, it foregrounds the possibilities for constructing or re-constructing our world, while displacing readers from their particular historical moment by helping them envision other possible, yet different historical moments. These visions may inspire readers to act on behalf of or against change; they can at least inspire critical thought about whether a particular SF vision is desirable, whether the hope or anti-hope that any SF text is built on is really as desirable or undesirable as the text claims that it is. By foregrounding and envisioning possible future or alternative worlds, SF exposes latent cultural hopes and desires, complexly intertwining them with our views of science and the integration of technology into society. In so much SF, science and technology are inextricable from our fundamental religious assumptions about God and the human condition. Should we read SF carefully, it will show us that science and technology are based on what we have faith in, what we hope for, and what we love and desire.
One caveat: the scope of this essay is limited to written and literary SF (such as allusive and complex SF novels and short stories). While much of the analysis that follows might apply to visual SF and music influenced by SF, as well as to mass-consumer and franchise-based “sci-fi,” it is impossible to encapsulate all of SF in one short essay, just as it is nearly impossible to define the genre. I argue here, following Landon and other SF critics, that literary SF is better viewed as a mode of literature rather than as a genre. By “mode” I mean that SF texts have particular, unique ways of deploying language and of signaling that deployment to keen readers, whose reading practices must shift to the unique ways of seeing and sensing that SF demands. However, I do think that the idea of SF as genre, which has massive cultural cachet, should not be ignored; the analysis of genre SF as a cultural phenomenon and a marketing category is a worthy exploration for historians, literary scholars, and other cultural critics.
Some Basics of SF Criticism for Christian Scholars
Although the scholarly community in science fiction is fairly small compared to other literary fields, its work is robust and often fun to read, with SF writers participating in criticism and even a few critics participating the other way, as writers of SF.3 One glaring hole in academic SF criticism, however, is its engagement with religion and theology. More often than not, important essay collections and academic journals downplay or even neglect religion, any religion, as a topic of focus in SF studies, despite the recent resurgence of religion as an important topic in other areas of literary and cultural study.4 This problem seems more troubling when we note how crucial religion and theology have been to SF writers of all stripes, as well as the frequency with which these topics appear in every medium of SF. As Gabriel McKee shows in his book The Gospel According to Science Fiction (2007),5 SF teems with serious theological and metaphysical discussions of God, the problem of evil, and the questions of material and human origins, not to mention depictions of priests, pilgrimages, religious rites, and other social and cultural aspects of religion.6
The problem of a lack of focus on religion in SF academic discourse has its counterpart. Rarely do lay-oriented works of SF criticism by Christians, many of which focus on SF representations of religion, engage deeply with helpful academic theories and close readings of SF, which means that their analyses are less critically informed than one would hope for.7 This communication gap—between academic criticism and Christian critics who write about SF—has left SF criticism all the poorer, since SF is a key cultural site, perhaps the key site, where religion and science interact. McKee’s book, more popular than it is scholarly,8 makes the best attempt so far at reconciling the divide between academic criticism and religion in SF, although his hypothesis—that much SF challenges the supposed split between religion and science, recombining them into a complex synthesis of the two (xiv)—deserves better justification and extensive elaboration. Rigorous 3Christian scholarship on SF, therefore, could help fill a massive gap in SF criticism. As well, engagement with the breadth and depth of SF academic criticism can help bring necessary rigor to our scholarship and teaching of perhaps any science-fictional text, old or new.
I think that serious engagement begins, at least in part, in college classrooms, where Christian teachers and their students can explore SF and its critical heritage in some depth. The literature on teaching SF is fairly large, and the pedagogical recommendations usually involve explorations of worldview assumptions via examinations of fan and critical reactions to SF works.9 As critic Sherryl Vint says in her discussion of SF as a “literature of ideas,” SF functions in part as “an interpretative framework for working through difficult issues of social power and cultural meaning.”10 More than that, as I will argue later, SF imaginatively wrestles with ethical and worldview questions about every aspect of society. Even if our colleges do not feature a science fiction class as such, SF lends itself to being taught in a plethora of disciplines—notably, literature, philosophy, psychology, and any of the sciences. As well, even Great Books programs feature SF texts and science-fictional thinking as part of their curricula—books by Thomas More, Swift, Crusoe, Shelley, Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, and Stevenson, not to mention the numerous philosophers (such as Plato, Bacon, Descartes) who deal with utopian possibilities and/or with the philosophy of science and its cultural applications.
Thus, whether we are scholars or are training scholars, or even just SF enthusiasts, we can benefit greatly from understanding the recent critical traditions as practiced by serious SF scholars. These even include Marxist critics such as Darko Suvin and Carl Freedman, who have provided helpful insights for Christian teachers and scholars, as well as for reading and teaching SF to promote a Christian critique of ethical assumptions, contemporary cultural perspectives, and critical presuppositions.11 In spite of the reductive materialism of the Marxist critics, their explanations of what SF is and does are worth exploring, so that they can be supplemented, augmented, and properly challenged as reductive. What follows is a summary of some of the key highlights from the recent tradition of academic SF criticism, with an aim towards bridging the communication divide between various communities of SF critics and Christian enthusiasts and teachers of SF.
Perhaps the key theory to contend with first is Suvin’s idea of SF as a literature of “cognitive estrangement,” which has had staying power in academic criticism for almost 40 years. This theory relates SF to a reader’s knowledge of and perceptions of reality. While SF posits weird or fantastic worlds or alternative realities, which “estrange” readers, it attempts to plead plausibility for these worlds or realities, reasonably extrapolating from the present or speculating about the future. Usually, these extrapolations and speculations are premised on culturally acceptable rationalizations and on trusted scientific discourse. Thus SF for Suvin is “cognitive.” Readers of literary SF must think through the critical differences between their own understanding of reality and the crafted worlds built by SF texts. Since much SF assumes that science is a valid enterprise, and since it employs and interacts with the rhetoric of scientific discourses, it demands in part that readers think about whether the odd or the fantastic, as depicted in narrative form, is somehow possible. In addition to that, literary SF texts attempt to show what the cultural, social, religious, and political ramifications of these speculative possibilities are.
For Freedman and others, the differences between three types of fiction—realism, fantasy, and SF—fall on a spectrum between cognition and estrangement. Realism is cognitive but does not estrange readers much because it is highly mimetic (that is, it appears to imitate reality closely). On the opposite end, fantasy is estranging but not, in a scientific or theoretical sense, cognitive or rational; that is because fantasy assumes the plausibility of the impossible, which Suvin and others deem “irrational” (Suvin, 63-66; Freedman, 17). SF falls in the middle of this spectrum, lying in tension between realism and fantasy, between known reality and irrational impossibility. Freedman argues that while realism is about what is or what was, and fantasy is about what cannot be in our material universe, SF helps mediate or expand readers’ expectations for what might be or what has not yet been. In this way, the aim of so many science-fictional texts is, as Landon argues, to make readers better thinkers. The implied belief of these texts is that “better thinking is a desirable goal for humanity and that science fiction can somehow promote that improvement” (Landon, 7).
Suvin’s formalistic theory has led many scholars to think of SF as a mode as well as a genre, as a unique way of structuring language and reading it, as well as a categorized set of texts. While SF has long been treated as a genre in consumer culture for the purposes of marketing and publishing, texts that are in the “science-fictional” mode negotiate linguistically and imaginatively with readers’ existing beliefs in the plausible and possible. Freedman even argues that all literature is science-fictional to an extent, because all fictional worlds estrange readers and yet somehow connect with their understanding of reality. If we consider SF as a mode, then many notable authors who are not marketed as SF have nevertheless written SF, including Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, and Michael Chabon. Likewise, many older texts written before science fiction was named as a category of literature—such as More’s Utopia, Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—may be considered science-fictional. One well-known way that the SF mode attempts to improve critical thinking is through the language of “subjunctivity,” a theory of reading SF texts developed by the writer and critic Samuel Delany.12 Subjunctivity is, in its essence, the way that science-fictional language challenges its readers’ expectations between a fictional text and its relationship to their reality. The concept, as the term suggests, is related to the subjunctive tense in grammar, which can deal in hypotheticals and possibilities that have not come to pass but might. Clever SF writers can manipulate our common understanding of words and their referents by putting them in relationship to hypothetical scenarios that could actually happen in some possible future or altered past, scenarios made plausible by the particular rhetoric of SF texts and their use of scientific discourse.
Another way of putting this is to say that SF texts literalize metaphorical or analogical language, a literary tactic that, while possible in other kinds of fictions, is nevertheless an effective way of creating cognitive estrangement in SF stories. Delany uses the example sentences “her world shattered” and “the door dilated” (this latter one from Robert Heinlein) as poetic-sounding phrases that can be made literal in SF contexts; possible metaphorical meanings of these sentences disrupt a reader’s awareness of their literal or material possibilities. In other words, while the sentence “her world shattered” might only have a metaphorical meaning in a realistic romance story, an SF story might allow for both the metaphorical meaning and its literal possibility as well. Other examples of literalized metaphors include “he turned on his left side,” “she was absorbed in the landscape,” “the stars fell to Earth,” and “the computer ate my files” (Landon, 8-9). My students have howled with delight when we have read these sentences aloud, as they realized the new ways of seeing and imagining that a science-fictional approach to reading allows for. By changing readers’ expectations for metaphors and even cultural clichés, SF can operate as a particular mode of reading that demands that its readers expand their horizons for seeing and thinking about what’s possible in God’s creation. To offer an example from an SF text, Greg Bear’s novel Blood Music employs the seemingly erotic sentence, “Edward and Gail grew together on the bed.”13 Contrary to ordinary expectations—a metaphor for love or sex, or both—what happens here is that an infected married couple literally merges together to become part of a massive organism that absorbs all of humanity into a kind of organic, global corporate body.
Because of this unique feature of SF texts, Marxist critics like Suvin appreciate SF especially because it attempts to create or enhance a critical consciousness in readers. For them, SF is a potent means to expose latent ideologies and cultural- capitalist discourses and to then critique them. Since SF estranges readers, placing in a future or alternate reality that resembles but parts ways with the reader’s own present, it offers them the means of seeing a “rational transition” from one historical situation into a different, and hopefully better, one (Freedman, 85). Much SF acts as a literature of hope, with utopian possibilities. This hopefulness is seen in even post-apocalyptic or dystopian texts; these are hopeful not only in that they posit that there is a future in which something survives somehow and in some way, but that they assume the cultural premises of utopian possibility by being anti-utopias.
For Marxist critics, the utopian hope exposed or promoted by SF is predicated on materialist rationality. Yet SF does not by default promote Marxism or any other sociopolitical ideology. We are better off viewing SF more basically: as a literary mode that was recently discovered as a structural aspect of narrative art, arising rapidly within twentieth-century modernist culture, a mode essentially uncommitted to any particular ideology with which it shares an historical atmosphere. Instead, adaptable as it has been to a wide variety of cultural and historical situations (as the global spread of SF helps demonstrate), SF merely invites highly charged cultural critiques of the past and present. This invitation may seem counterintuitive, since so much SF depicts the future. But as even Freedman argues,
[SF is] of all the genres the most devoted to historical concreteness … the science-fictional world is not only different in time and place from our own, but one whose chief interest is the difference such difference makes, and … one whose difference is nonetheless concretized within a cognitive continuum with the actual (43).
For much SF, some of the future is treated as the past, as history—an estranging thought for many people, to be sure—and the cognitive displacement that the odd notion of the future-as-history offers almost requires readers to investigate critically their own assumptions about contemporary cultural truths that they hold dear but have not analyzed at all.14 As careful readings of SF will show them, these cultural truths may be subject to radical change. SF thus exposes the possibility that reader assumptions may not be as essential or as universal as we think they are. For young readers, particularly Christian college students, SF enhances the spiritual formation process by de-forming and reforming simultaneously. While I think that all fiction can do just this to varying degrees, much SF actively and explicitly challenges what we think is essential and universal, providing easy pathways for classroom discussion and for student reflection on what in fact is and is not essential and universal.
In short, serious reading of SF can make readers aware of their own presuppositions about anything; as Freedman puts it, readers can move from pre-critical to critical awareness of their own worldview. SF offers them the opportunity to reflect on themselves as historical actors whose particular choices are loaded with implicit assumptions about all aspects of reality. And while reading SF may expose the ideological underpinning of these assumptions—one reason why Marxist critics are heavily invested in SF—I suggest that the kind of critical awareness that SF allows for shows these implicit assumptions to be necessarily religious assumptions.
One reason this is so is that almost all literary SF uncovers and plays with the great hopes of the contemporary cultures in which it is produced. Virtually all SF texts contain a “novum,” which is the dominant event or state of affairs in a text that differentiates a reader’s reality from the reality of the text (Suvin 64). Stories may either depict the novum itself, or they may simply be predicated on it. Some examples of novums are basically subgenres of SF. For post-apocalyptic SF, its novum is usually the event that causes or has caused the apocalypse that changed the world—whether nuclear war, viral outbreak, out-of-control global cooling, and so on. In alien invasion or first contact stories, the novum is humanity’s initial encounter with life beyond Earth. Recognition of the novum in any SF text may help elevate a reader’s critical awareness of her or his own worldview assumptions. One of my English department colleagues, no lover of SF or fantasy at all, nevertheless uses Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to conclude his general- education literature course. His reason is that the novel forces students to consider a future world without books, as well as the ways that specific media, especially video as opposed to books, affect their desires and actions. Of course, this is a forced consideration for his students because it is the novel’s novum, which is one reason why the novel works so well for him.
Novums ask readers to consider a major change in all its many aspects. Stories whose novums are global nuclear war—fine examples include Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker—depict an apocalyptic event or its aftermath, showing how a monumental change (due to science and technology) may affect political structures, social relations, ethics and morals, religious institutions, and ecosystems, all at the same time. The same is true of any other novum, whether it involves space exploration, genetic engineering, or nanotechnology. Thus any SF text’s depiction of science or technology is always already a part of a comprehensive worldview that makes particular assumptions about all aspects of creation. These assumptions are religious in nature because, as Albert Wolters has argued, they require belief in and conviction for whatever epistemological and ontological foundations support them.15 I do not think that SF is a philosophically monolithic genre, promoting materialism, scientism, or even atheism; almost all SF stories—like almost all written fiction—present merely their own particular points of view about specific circumstances or topics. Few SF books are encyclopedic in scope or totalizing in their claims. In other words, most SF stories do not present a comprehensive statement about everything, but instead their point of view rests on a worldview, which is exposed by the recognized difference between the novum and the reader. It is possible that elements of the reader’s own worldview can be self-recognized when it is compared to a novum, an act of critical recognition that so many SF texts deliberately encourage.
The religious element of the SF novum, though downplayed by Suvin, is part of its critical invention. Suvin adopted the concept of the novum from Ernst Bloch, who coined the term based on his view that utopian desires are found in all areas of human life. Bloch’s concept of the novum describes our longing for the “radically new” and markedly better, the utopian “Not-Yet” or “Not-Yet-Being,” which is the “object of hope, of our deepest and most radical longings” (Freedman, 64). Bloch not only found this hopeful longing everywhere but ascribes to it the Old Testament tropes of returning to paradise or arriving in the promised land (65). In SF, the positing of a novum of any kind may offer a kind of utopian thought- experiment that “clear[s] space upon which positive alternatives” to present-day inequalities “can be constructed” (66). This is another reason why Marxist critics appreciate SF; it promotes utopian possibilities (for them, materialistic ones grounded in their dialectic) even when it depicts the most dreadful of dystopias. For these critics, SF requires recognition of a desired “Not-Yet” condition, which can equip readers with the critical apparatus necessary for the transformation of reality. SF is not only a literature about vast change, but one that might move us towards the “Not-Yet” utopian state of affairs that we all desire, should we see and act on the transformative possibilities it asks us to imagine.
Christian critics need not go nearly that far, however. Reader recognition of the exact novum of any SF text merely offers the possibility of critiquing its assumptions regarding what our hopes should be, or of what they should not be. No novum, as Istvan Csicsery-Ronay has argued, requires us to accept it. If the novum offers us technological progress, regress, or some mix thereof, we as readers merely have the opportunity to evaluate it. And we do so, he argues, imaginatively as well as cognitively. Csicsery-Ronay makes a strong case that SF is as “ludic” a mode as it is a cognitive one.16 As fiction, an SF text plays with the stuff by which it is built, and readers are invited to play, too. This means that SF is not just about better thinking, but about the expansion of moral vision, offering a better sense of imagining or perceiving beyond assumed or pre-critical boundaries. It is true that one could make a case that all fiction does just this. But because of the dominance of the novums in its texts, SF in particular invites us to constantly re-evaluate the relationship between reality and the speculative or extrapolative possibilities of SF texts, and whether we should invest our hopes (or anti-hopes) in the drastic change offered by their novums. SF may ask us to become better thinkers about the inherent complexity of any change and its consequences, but it does not require us to embrace materialism or technoscientific utopianism of any kind. Instead, more than just better thinking, I believe that SF helps us better envision what our God-given task of the stewardship of creation is and could be, including expanding our imagination and our moral sensibilities so that we are better experiencers and agents for Christ’s kingdom. James K. A. Smith describes our appointed task as one that requires us to “unfold and unpack all the potential that has been folded into creation.”17 Much of SF is exactly that: a fictive, imaginative presentation of what that “potential” might be and what the complex consequences are for us, as stewards who can wield that potential for either God’s glory or for the vainglory of false gods. In short, we may become more fully human if we engage critically with literary SF, which explicitly asks us to reflect on what we believe “fully human” really means.
So SF is an open-ended narrative mode that simultaneously encourages critical, cognitive evaluation and imaginative, aesthetic play. I should note here that some of the best literary SF increases the delight of its play when it posits more than one novum. While shorter forms like short stories and films usually only have space or time to deal with one novum, longer forms like novels and serial TV shows have opportunities to juggle many novums. As an example, one of the greatest of all SF books, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, is set millions of years from now, a timeframe that allows for dozens if not an uncountable number of novums. Csicsery-Ronay offers Philip K. Dick’s novels, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, as potent examples of many-novum texts, one reason that Dick may be so beloved by academics and why he was the first American SF author to get his own volumes in the Library of America series.
Consider the difference between that novel and the celebrated film that it birthed, Blade Runner (1982). Blade Runner, as a two-hour film, focuses on the single novum of manufactured androids who have escaped into society. The main character, the police-appointed bounty hunter Rick Deckard, is forced to hunt down “replicants” (that is, androids) operating as humans in a future Los Angeles society, since these replicants are outlawed and considered sub-human. Deckard, however, is repeatedly confronted with the question “what is human?”, which becomes as much an existential problem for him as an epistemological exercise. The replicants seem to be human in every way, including in their desire to be free individuals and in their capacity to love. Famously, Blade Runner offers us the provocative, open-ended possibility that Deckard himself may be a replicant.
As intriguing as that possibility may be, Blade Runner’s predecessor novel is a richer experience of cognitive estrangement and play. Beyond the novum of android invention, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? contains other novums that Blade Runner excises. The novel is dominated by the aftermath of World War Terminus, a global nuclear war that has caused the death of almost all animals, as well as reproductive problems for humans, due to fallout and radioactivity. As well, even though most humans have migrated to other planetary colonies, they can be connected to humans on Earth (if they choose) through a virtual-reality box called the “empathy box,” which incorporates an invented religious experi- ence known as Mercerism (Csicsery-Ronay, 71). The combination of these several novums—androids in society, the empathy box, and World War Terminus—offer more complex questions than just that of “what is human?,” veering into the epistemological, postmodern challenge of what truth really is and whether truth can be really apprehended and fully known by human minds. The novel’s world features so many artificial objects and experiences—artificial animals, the simu- lations of the empathy box, a mood-organ machine that can instantly change a person’s feelings, fake news and advertising, art exhibits—that it seems troubling that only one thing artificial, the androids, would be prohibited. Because the real and artificial so freely mix in this fictional world, with Deckard himself having to discern what is human from what is android, the novel asks us to ponder whether the fake or artificial discloses the truth of the real (because of real differences between fake and real), or whether it is impossible to know the real because of the proliferation of artificial copies and simulations of it. While Dick initially portrays this conundrum as the major challenge of consumer culture—for example, Deckard wants a real animal, not a robot animal, because it is a key signifier of his social status, and yet it is very difficult for anybody to discern the difference between a real animal and a robot animal—later in the novel, Deckard’s major dilemmas turn into existential and theological problems. For the novel, any answer to the question of “what is real?”, as applied to anything, to both the mundane and the profound, is undergirded by active philosophical assumptions that are necessarily religious. Part of Dick’s genius is the ability to inter-relate all aspects of his texts, to show the philosophical connections between economics, eschatology, domestic life, the effects of technology, and the place of art in society.18
As an example, the novel asks us to view science and technology as inextricable from religion; they are certainly for Deckard about more than just material reality. The novel also re-deploys the concept of “entropy,” associated in scientific discourse with the second law of thermodynamics, as an existential and ontological problem that all humans and intelligent life must wrestle with. For instance, Deckard wants to buy a real animal to impress his neighbors, and to do so he hunts down and eliminates androids. Yet Deckard realizes, as he listens to one of the androids sing in a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, that he is a “form-destroyer,” an agent of destruction on behalf of entropy and the ephemeral desire for elevated social status. The converse of entropy is empathy, the defining quality that makes a human a human (by contrast, androids supposedly cannot experience empathy, which makes them seem psychopathic). Rick feels empathy, ironically, through the stimulation of the artificial; in viewing Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Puberty, works of art that (from a realist point-of-view) distort reality, Deckard better understands the reality of the androids’ plight: they are escaped slaves, constantly frightened because they are being hunted down by him. Perceiving these truths about himself, Deckard continues to believe in the religion of Mercerism even when it is exposed as fake. The Mercer experience, which Deckard has plugged into via the virtual-reality “empathy box,” shows an ascetic in a desert who tries to climb a hill but is assaulted with rocks by unknown entities called “the Killers.” Though almost everybody thinks that Mercer is a real person, this virtual-reality experience is really a Hollywood production, filmed on a soundstage, and yet Deckard finds that it has told him truths about his own existence. In that way, Mercerism for him is not fake. Experience of the artificial might have provided real truths to Deckard, even though he may in the end have become schizophrenic, or at least have entered into a state of cognitive dissonance about his android-hunting.
Deckard’s struggle with the concept of entropy is an example of some SF texts’ ambivalence towards any notion of technological advancement or improvement through increased integration of technology in society. SF critics have long spoken of a mystical “sense of wonder” that SF inspires in readers and viewers, a feeling that they tend to disavow as non-critical because of its subjective, unanalyzable nature.19 But the “sense of wonder” is a widespread phenomenon that so many fans of SF attest to, whether it comes from an idea or a particular vision. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? always evokes it in me when Deckard listens to an android sing a libretto from The Magic Flute beautifully. But for other readers, the virtual-reality box, flying cars, and even the thought of androids socially interacting with humans may also invoke wonder. What is odd about the SF sense of wonder, which seems to involve both insight and delight, is that it sometimes contrasts with hostile attitudes within the text towards the objects that invoke that wonder. Dick’s novel may show us amazing things, but it depicts a terrify- ing future. Likewise, Blade Runner has astounding visuals—flying cars! futuristic corporate palaces!—but it shows us a society where beings that seem to think and love can be shot down, without just cause, on crowded streets.
I suggest that this ambivalence towards future technological development further enhances the kind of critical awareness that SF attempts to foster in us. In a world where we embrace smartphones, genetic engineering, driverless cars, unmanned drones, and facial-recognition surveillance technology without much prior theological debate or civil discussion, SF has long ago started those complex debates and discussions for us. While it encourages wonder and delight in potential discoveries and unexplored possibilities in creation, SF also complicates our relationship to those discoveries and possibilities. It tends to show the integration of technology in society in many or all of its aspects—social, political, economic, ecological, religious—and so it can serve to show the inherent complexity and the religious underpinnings of our speculations and extrapolations.
Ultimately, SF may invite and encourage spiritual formation, of us and of our students, if we engage it while it plays with ideas and with language—with (simultaneously) the past, the present, and the future. Since I began teaching a Science Fiction class several years ago, I found that that class’ discussions and explorations feed into all of my other classes very well, including general-education literature and an introduction to film class. I have moved various texts from an English-major-level class into classes for all students at my college, with reasonable success. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is now a staple of my general literature class. Students tend to remember that novel well, perhaps because it is at once jarring and poetic—by that I mean that is highly allusive, referring to many areas of society and of our lives at once. It speaks the language of their apparent world: rapid change, mass immigration and emigration, disorientation, alienation, simulations of reality, and uncertainty about the near future. In part, SF helps them to imagine change holistically, while challenging simplistic notions of progression or regression. Even if its characters are decidedly not human, SF provides them with unique ways of looking at the human condition. Read critically and carefully, SF points us all back to the relationship between creation and Creator, between ourselves and our Maker. As He invites creativity and play within His creation, we may become better imaginers of what we can do in creation and for Him.
Cite this article
- See C. S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (First Harvest, 1975), 59. This essay is also retrievable online from https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library.
- See Brooks Landon, Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars (New York: Routledge, 2002), xi-xx and 1-7. Hereafter Landon.
- Among these writer-critics are Brian Aldiss, Adam Roberts, Stanislaw Lem, Ursula LeGuin, and Samuel Delany, each of which has several major novels but also major essays, critical books, or histories of SF. This list is far from exhaustive.
- For example, of five recent large essay collections meant for scholars and broader audiences alike—The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014); the Routledge Companion to Science Fiction (2009); The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction (2015); A Companion to Science Fiction (published by Blackwell in 2005); and The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003)—only the last two have lone essays on “religion and science fiction,” one of dozens of SF-related essays in each text. As a particular example of the glaring scholarly lack of connection between religion and SF, the wide-ranging Oxford Handbook, despite a section of essays on “Science Fiction as Worldview” and individual essays on libertarianism and anarchism, theme parks, and body modification, contains no sustained treatment of SF’s handling of serious religion or theology. See The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction, ed. Rob Lathem (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014).
- See Gabriel McKee’s The Gospel According to Science Fiction: From the Twilight Zone to the Final Frontier (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).
- Not only have serious Christians written provocative SF works, including C. S. Lewis, Cordwainer Smith, Gene Wolfe, and John C. Wright, but a wide range of authors of all persuasions have treated theology and religion in some serious, sustained way. A glance at the authors included in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, or at the list of “grandmasters” honored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, shows that nearly all of them have. That list includes Arthur C. Clarke, Olaf Stapledon, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Roger Zelazny, Ursula LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, James Blish, Orson Scott Card, and Octavia Butler. Moreover, serious theological discussions about epistemology, eschatology, and theodicy are featured in critically important SF works—including Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles; Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and His Master’s Voice; Peter Watts’ Blindsight and Echopraxia; the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic; and J. G. Ballard’s Crash. Gabriel McKee also shows how pervasive depictions of religion are in SF movies and TV shows; one could add video games to that list as well.
- As examples, recent books by Steven Hrotic (Religion in Science Fiction, 2014), Douglas E. Cowan (Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television, 2010), James F. McGrath (editor of Religion and Science Fiction, 2011), Paul Nahin (Holy Sci-Fi: Where Religion and Science Fiction Intersect, 2014), and Alan P. R. Gregory (Science Fiction Theology, 2015) try to probe how SF depicts and interacts with religion. The chief problem with these works is that they omit necessary references to, let alone serious interaction with, rigorous academic criticism of SF, including Darko Suvin’s well-known theory of SF as a literature of “cognitive estrangement” and Scott Bukatman’s provocative study of SF and postmodern subjectivity in Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993). See also Steven Hrotic, Religion in Science Fiction: The Evolution of an Idea and the Extinction of a Genre (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2014); Douglas E. Cowan, Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010); James F. McGrath, ed., Religion and Science Fiction (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011); Paul Nahin, Holy Sci-Fi! Where Science Fiction and Religion Intersect (New York: Springer, 2014); and Alan P. R. Gregory, Science Fiction Theology: Beauty and the Transformation of the Sublime (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015).
- Although McKee’s observations are intriguing, his thesis would be much stronger if it directly engaged SF academics such as Brooks Landon, Rob Latham, Joan Gordon, Carl Freedman, Stanislaw Lem (as a critic), Gary K. Wolfe, and Fredric Jameson. Some notable works of SF criticism for any reader, casual or academic, include Sherryl Vint’s Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2014); and Brooks Landon’s Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars (mentioned above). Landon is especially great for his wide-ranging discussions, fun prose, and excellent reference and recommendation sections. Those sections make for exciting scouring and are worth the price of the book alone. Other books that Christian scholars might gain much from include Gary K. Wolfe’s The Known and The Unknown (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1979) and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011); and Seo-Young Chu’s Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). SF studies of individual authors, topics, subgenres, and historical periods increase each year. Dozens of such books could be listed here.
- For starters, see James Gunn’s essay “Teaching Science Fiction” in Science Fiction Studies 23 (1996): 377-384. Also see Andy Sawyer and Peter Wright, eds., Teaching Science Fiction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). As well, many other books on SF theory and history have sections or chapters devoted to pedagogy and instruction. For example, Patrick Parrinder’s Science Fiction has long discussions about teaching, including a chapter on “The Science- Fiction Course.” See Parrinder, Science Fiction (London: Routledge, 2003).
- See Vint, Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed, 113.
- See Carl Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan Univer- sity Press, 2000). Hereafter Freedman. Freedman’s book, while useful for SF scholars, is also provocative for any literary scholar interested in critical theory, since Freedman argues that SF is a “privileged and paradigmatic genre” for all critical literary theories (xv).
- See his well-known essay “About 5,750 Words.” The most recent print edition that contains this essay is Samuel Delany, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, revised edition (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009), 21-37. Hereafter Delany.
- See Greg Bear, Blood Music (New York: Arbor House, 1985), 109.
- One of the common ways that SF prompts critical reflection is in showing readers or viewers something from their present in an imagined future context. In the videogame series Fallout, players encounter a host of objects and ideas from an alternative 1950s world filled with consumer culture of that period, including guardian robots obsessed with stopping Communists. Since the post-apocalyptic Fallout occurs long after a devastating global nuclear war, players have the chance to reflect on mid-twentieth-century political ideologies, includ- ing communism and anti-communism, placed far outside of their context. A host of other examples like this one could be presented here.
- See Chapter 1 of Albert Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005).
- See Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), pages 6 and 55 and his chapter on “Imaginary Science.” Hereafter Csicsery-Ronay. This book has the special quality of being dense, provocative, and fun to read. Any Christian scholar in SF, in my view, must read it and deal with it.
- See James K. A. Smith, Letters to a Young Calvinist (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010), 74. Smith makes the same point in several spots in the text; for example, see pages 109 and 111.
- Two of Dick’s best novels, both well worth reading for anyone, showcase this integration: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ubik. In his last three novels before his death, the so-called VALIS trilogy, Dick made a kind of theological turn that has not been well received by Marxist critics. Nevertheless, those novels—VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer—deserve critical attention for their probing of key religious questions and their incorporation of heavy religiosity, including Dante, C. S. Lewis, gnosticism, and mysticism.
- The notion of the SF “sense of wonder” has hung around almost since SF was codified as a genre in the early twentieth century. For relevant discussions, see Landon, 18-23; and Csicsery-Ronay’s chapter on the “Science-Fictional Sublime.”