Rowena Morrill’s cover for Clifford Simak’s Project Pope (1981).
Rowena Morrill’s cover for Clifford Simak’s Project Pope (1981).
Here’s another example of more recent gSF reversing some of the traditional genre’s views of religion, in this case the belief that religious specialists tend to be judgmental, from Stephen Baxter’s “No More Stories”:
“Simon studied him. ‘I don’t believe, you know. Not sure if I ever did, once I was able to think for myself. You can be as calm and as certain as you like. I think it’s all a bluff.’
Father Nolan laughed. ‘That’s okay. What you choose to believe or not is irrelevant to the destiny of my immortal soul. And indeed yours’ ” (p. 177).
A couple qualifications: Father Nolan turns out not to be (quite?) whom he appears to be, which weakens the boldness of his statement somewhat. Also, that’s from 2007, and doesn’t initially seem to add much to gSF’s schema of religion: there are echoes of Matheson’s “The Last Day,” which I’ve already discussed in this blog, in that the devout person is the one to reach out to the unbeliever — indeed, to shrug off any difference.
But on the other hand, the fact that the one filling Nolan’s duties takes on the persona of “Father” seems somehow more significant than if he had really been a priest. And the … well, not just agreement, but homogeneity between Nolan’s persona and the protagonist at the end of the story … it’s quite moving.
More Stephen Baxter stories can be found HERE.
[Postscript … it’s been a couple days, and I’m still thinking about this story, in particular the central (religious) metaphor, which I can’t describe here without spoiling the ending … sigh.]
Baxter, S. “No More Stories.” In D.G. Hartwell & K. Cramer, Year’s Best SF 13 (pp. 169-184). New York: EOS.
[Yes, it’s been that kind of day! ;o) ]
I just read Gary Westfahl’s review of the last Hobbit movie in Locus. Highly recommended; you can read it HERE. I certainly won’t be composing a complete review of my own, since mine would suffer by comparison. So, I’ll take the low road, and throw out a comment on his review.
Reading Mr. Westfahl’s review was rather like watching the movie itself; I found myself agreeing with most of it, even when it felt a little more extreme than I was comfortable with, but with a nagging little “but” in the back of my mind. It seems that Peter Jackson had two options. 1) Make a movie out of The Hobbit, as written. That would have meant a relatively short, light, kid’s movie that didn’t really dovetail into LotR. Remember, when Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, even he didn’t realize it was taking place in the same world as the Silmarillion. It wasn’t until the planned sequel was turning into the much darker, more nuanced and darker LotR that he made the connection, requiring him to do a little revisionism himself. The most satisfying and reasonable choice seemed to be to declare that The Hobbit was Bilbo‘s version of the story, sanitized for his nephew’s consumption. E.g., in the first edition, Gollum loses the Riddle Game, and gives the Ring away; presumably, Bilbo didn’t want it to look like he did steal the Ring, and once “we” know what the Ring “really” is, we realize it couldn’t have happened as Bilbo described it.
Thus, option 2): film not Bilbo’s account, but what “really” happened. That is, film a prequel to the epic Lord of the Rings movies that includes the basic facts of The Hobbit, placed in a wider context. That seems to be what PJ chose, and I for one am glad he did. In fact, my biggest problem is that he seemed to be too intent on constructing a mini-LotR, up to and including replicating his previous writing tricks: expand a minor bad guy to give the hero a nemesis and the nameless hordes a face; construct a new female character to balance the Boys Club somewhat (and give the rest of us something to look at rather than Legolas). So, instead of a prequel, we get a recapitulation.
However, Westfahl stars with a great point: “In sum, just as the original Total Recall (1990) can be described as an interesting 20-minute adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) padded out with 90 minutes of Arnold Schwarzenegger killing people, one might characterize this film as a charming 30-minute rendering of the last six chapters of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) padded out with two hours of repetitive slashing, stabbing, bludgeoning, and beheading. Tolkien, one imagines, would not be pleased.”
I’ll start with bit of background. If you’re a science fiction fan — especially if you’re in the ‘sf as literature’ camp — you should take a look at HiLo Books’ “The Radium Age” series: a collection of “lost science fiction classics” from 1904-1933 (i.e., the last generation of pre-genre, “proto-” science fiction). It’s a great idea for a series, and respectably successful, showing us what the possibilities for the new “scientifiction” genre would have been had Gernsback been willing and able to pay for more professional and/or contemporary authors: e.g., Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jack London, alongside lesser known but solid authors like Edward Shanks.
Like I said, it’s a great series, but I confess I’m behind in reading the ones I’ve already bought; I certainly haven’t been keeping track of HiLo’s newer releases. I just found out they re-issued Muriel Jaeger (nee Jagger, apparently, and “Jim” to her friend Dorothy L. Sayers), specifically The Man with Six Senses. I find I’m more than a little annoyed with them.
Jaeger definitely deserves to be remembered. BUT … I’ve two complaints. First, why didn’t they re-issue her first novel The Question Mark instead?! Sure, her take on ESP in The Man with Six Senses is good, but Stapledon’s Odd John is a much better contrast to later treatments of superpowers. And I love The Question Mark: it reads like a really late (1926) Victorian utopia; dated of course, but still interesting, especially in her treatment of religion, and (as she points out in her introduction) in her inability to believe that no matter our “progress,” humanity would be perfecting itself any time soon:
“I accept the Bellamy-Morris-Wells world in all essentials—with one exception; I do not and cannot accept its inhabitants. At this point my effort to realize Utopia fails. With the best will in the world, I have found myself quite unable to believe in these wise, virtuous, gentle, artistic people. They do not seem to have any relation to humanity as I know it” (Jaeger 1926: 11-12).
The second reason I’m annoyed is a little embarrassing. I think I can say safely that Muriel Jaeger is a pretty damn obscure author, even for science fiction fans. I only know her from stumbling across her name in a footnote, then looking her up in Bleiler. To the best of my knowledge, her nonfiction books have been out of print for decades, and her fiction even longer. Of all the people I know, I’m pretty sure that I’m the only one who’s ever read her, and I found I really liked her. Which is to say (in a rather elitist, smug, stereotypically male kind of way) I kind of feel like she’s mine. And dammit, I like having a few favorite authors that nobody’s heard of, if only so you can whip them out at the end of the debate.
Yes, HiLo did a good thing by trying to give her her props. But still … Hrumph!
[image found at http://jackgoste.com/ … original source and artist unfortunately not known]
I recently re-read Benford and Eklund’s story, “If the Stars Are Gods.” I’d read it when just starting my book, and liked, it, but decided not to include it … but couldn’t for the life of me remember why not — hence the re-read. Still a really good story, but it doesn’t quite ‘fit’ my definitions. In brief (SPOILER), an almost-retired astronaut meets the first aliens to visit our system. Their interest is not so much scientific as theological: they think stars are conscious supernatural beings, and our Sol seems unusually benevolent. (Incidentally, for anyone interested in that sort of thing, here’s a good place to start: LINK.) The astronaut takes their beliefs seriously enough to try to learn to “talk” to our star the way they do. Interesting premise, but it didn’t ‘fit’ because he gets a glimpse of part of the truth the aliens are already acquainted with; for my book, I focused on normative beliefs about religious social systems, primarily institutions, not on actual “gods” (stellar or otherwise).
But that’s only one facet of religion. Benford wrote an article on “theological science fiction” for Locus, which one can read HERE, and that’s guaranteed to add something to your to-read list. He quotes Freeman Dyson: “Between science and theology there is a genre of literature which I like to call theofiction. Theofiction adapts the style and conventions of science fiction to tell stories that have more to do with theology than with science.” In this category of “theological” (defined extremely broadly), Benford gives us plenty of examples of some of the different ways in which science has engaged religion (also defined broadly).
I appreciate how much he squeezes into a short article but can’t help wanting to quibble on a point or two. For example, he writes, “As a literature of change driven by technology, science fiction presents religion to a part of the reading public that probably seldom goes to church,” which strikes me as recapitulating the old belief that science and religion are necessarily mutually exclusive. Even if we stipulate that gSF readers attend services less frequently than some other group (mSF readers? mystery readers? non-readers?), I don’t think it follows that gSF readers are not religious — if we define religion as broadly as he seems to. The sheer number and variety of examples of science fiction that wrestles with the question of free will, with societal norms and morality, with gods (both present and claimed) and myths (secular and sacred), and yes, even with religious institutions, implies that gSF readers are deeply interested in the same issues we associate with religion. They just wrestle with these issues in different forums, and in a more individualized fashion.
Also, much of the article discusses the Matrix movies, which he presents as clearly an Abrahamic Messiah tale (e.g., “Morpheus plays John the Baptist to Neo’s Jesus”). I wonder — is the messiah imagery intrinsically there, or do we read it into the story? Not every prophesied hero is religious, let alone Judeo-Christian. I remember a conversation in graduate school — OK, not so much a “conversation” as trading pronouncements after a few pints — in which a colleague expounded on his theory that, even though everyone thought The Matrix was Buddhist (you know: existence is suffering, and the only way to free yourself from the suffering is to realize the truth about the illusionary nature of the world), he figured out that it was really Hindu. Remember Tolkien’s distinction between allegory and applicability? If the Wachowskis intended Neo to mirror and/or represent Jesus, from my perspective that’s fairly trivial. Much more interesting is the capacity of the story (regardless of the author’s specific tactics) to provoke images and echoes from us.
Look at it a different way: in epic myths — religious and science fictional — some patterns seem to recur. They just work when you’re trying to capture your audience’s attention and imagination; they make sense to us. Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back is about as material an example of a liminal state as one can imagine, including the belief that to leave that state before one’s transformation is complete is dangerous. This is qualitatively different from recognizing that in Jediism, some take on some of the Star Wars universe as the basis of an actual religion. Suggesting that every example of gSF that utilizes these patterns, or that borrows imagery from a religious version to provoke a response, is (by definition) “theological” erodes both “religion” and gSF as useful categories. I believe there are often connections, but of different kinds: some are deeper, structural connections, or psychological convergence, or cultural syncretism, or another of the myriad options.
But like I said, I’m quibbling. Benford’s point, I think, was to introduce his readers not to the tip of the religion/gSF iceberg (or a dozen icebergs), but just to point out that The Matrix not just echoing a particular religious pattern, but is connected to a long tradition in gSF. And he managed to do it succinctly, and entertainingly. I think he wins: I’ve just used 800 words to say little more than “Yes, but …”
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go order the novelization of “If the Stars Are Gods.”
In the interests of full disclosure, Erica Andrus is a friend of mine. But just because she knows me doesn’t mean she didn’t write a really good article …
I tend to use a very specific — some might say “narrow” — definition of religion, mostly because it focuses on the specific phenomena I’m interested in (social systems and the creation of identities), but also because I find looser definitions messy. I don’t feel comfortable, for example, saying that anything to do with the afterlife is (therefore) “religion”: there are too many examples of religions not particularly worried about the afterlife: and among those that are, there’s so much more going on in people’s day-to-day experience of their religion. I like to say, you’d be better off defining religion is “about food,” since I’ve yet to find a religion that doesn’t have some kind of communal meal, diet proscriptions, etc.
That being said, cross-over interest is naturally common. Moreman & Lewis’s Digital Death (2014) isn’t specifically about “religion” or “science fiction,” but is rather an anthology of work on how technology — specifically social media — is affecting our perceptions and experiences of death. The essays I’ve read so far are all pretty solid … I certainly plan on making students read a couple at the first opportunity.
The most relevant essay to this blog is also the strongest (yes, I’m biased, but I’m also right, dammit!): Erica Andrus’s “Remembering Laura Roslin: Fictional Death and a Real Bereavement Community Online” (ibid., pp. 161-180). It describes a prolonged virtual wake for one of the most interesting of religious figures in recent gSF television, President Roslin in Battlestar Galactica. This passage (from EA’s draft version, so please don’t quote) caught my imagination:
In online, intentional fan communities like this we can find the strongest argument for the idea of online religion embodied in a pop culture form if we follow classical definitions of religion such as those proposed by Geertz and Durkheim –- symbolic systems and culturally constructed meanings based on shared emotional experiences. These definitions, like [S. Brent] Plate’s world making, allow us to overcome the perceived dichotomy between what is “serious” and what is “play” by understanding that the symbolic significance of the worlds we invent in our play reflect the deeper assumptions of our everyday lives. Rachel Wagner’s work in Godwired also addresses this process of continuing to build a world after its commercial lifespan is over: through the serious play that people engage in with transmediation, and the way that this kind of play allows people in a “secular” world to experience faith, simultaneously acknowledging the fantasy of the created world and its fictions, and the reality of the emotional sway it holds over us. The fictional life of Laura Roslin thus becomes a vehicle for individuals to care — about her, about each other, about art, music, the sanctity of a life itself.
William Paden (1994) described “myths” not just as important narratives, but narratives we internalize and re-enact in ways which keep them present. In a sense, the narratives we care about, and “play” in … though I think we adults sometimes must be reminded how utterly serious “play” be. We know games can be serious, but don’t appreciate how real (and socially significant) the world of the imagination can be.
Moreman, C.M. & Lewis A.D. (2014). Digital death: Mortality and beyond in the digital age. Santa Monica, CA: Praeger.
Paden, W. (1994). Religious worlds: The comparative study of religion. Boston: Beacon Press.
It should be obvious that I love science fiction. I have done since I realized that many of my favorite books in my local library’s Kids section had curious little Saturn stickers on the spine. From there, it was only a short step to picking new books simply because they had that sticker. Since then, I’ve been drawn to better understand the genre as a whole, traced the influences of my favorite authors, and had a marvelous time.
Part of the fun has been to try to understand why gSF is so fun for me. (I know, I know; “how very meta”!) I explained one of the components here already: the facilitation of “inside jokes” that enable the experienced reader to detect additional layers of meaning that would be opaque to the neophyte. (If you missed it, it’s HERE.) I’m working on Part Two, but as a preview, it’s not just the material, it’s the reader’s relationship to the material (and by extension the kinship one feels to strangers who share similar relationships).
For me, this relationship is key to understanding why I can appreciate bad science fiction. I don’t mean dated (i.e., the ‘expert’ can see its value relative to contemporary context); I don’t mean flawed (i.e., the expert can see beneath the flaws to recognize traces of genius). I mean reading or watching something just plain bad, and not only tolerating it, but reveling in the sheer awfulness of it all.
I was working on Part Two entirely too late at night, and, as one often does, found myself watching Rob Zombie interviews instead of working. Mr. Zombie and I seem to be thinking along similar lines. (Not for the first time …) Note how he feels about the material he describes, the significance of “quality” as a tool, and how sometimes worse is better! (The interviewer is Mick Garris, who has a long history of interpreting Stephen King stories.)