Is it or isn’t it?


As I’m writing about religion in science fiction, the first obvious problem is defining “religion.”  What counts?  I.e., what can I not afford to ignore?  Since I’m trying to COMPARE examples, I need a fairly tight definition:  I’m looking at RELIGION, not “the kinds of things religion is interested in.”

Case in point:  late last night, I watched Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001 for the first time in a long while.  (Note:  DON’T watch 2001 when overtired, right before bed, again.  Creepy dreams.)  The two big unanswered questions (I think) are:  what are the monoliths, and what (who?) is the Starchild.  The PLOT seems to be about our nature as a species, especially as tool users, but these two questions determine the significance of that plot.

In act one, a monolith appears on Earth 4 mya, coinciding with early hominids discovering how useful tools are in asserting one’s dominance.  Act two:  a second monolith is found, coinciding with our first significant moves off our planet.  Act three:  our relationship with our most advanced tool (IBM . . . I mean HAL ;o) ) goes spectacularly wrong.  Act four:  an encounter with a fourth monolith coincides with HAL-killer ‘Dave’ evolving into the Starchild.

Based solely on Kubrick’s movie (i.e., not Clarke’s novelized explanation, or any of the later work — Kubrick’s been consistent in saying you can read multiple meanings into 2001) it’s hard to say whether or not the Starchild is a metaphor.

Yeah, it looks all mystical and trippy, but the final scene could be nothing more (or less) than Dave’s dying thoughts:  confronting his own mortality, imagining an afterlife, thinking that RELIANCE on tools is a problem, and realizing that, as we leave our comfy planet, we really are helpless–Starchild is just a metaphor, and the monoliths witness, but don’t cause, evolutionary  leaps forward.

OR . . . the monoliths in some ways TRIGGER the leaps:  giving the Australopithecus the idea to bang on things with femurs, pointing the way to Jupiter, transforming Dave.  Starchild is as objectively real as the monoliths.

So is the Starchild just a metaphor?  I’m not sure I want to know either way, but fortunately I don’t have to figure it out.  In either interpretation, one could argue that 2001 is ‘religious,’ in that it is concerned with issues that are often central to religion:  transcending our physical, solid, temporally finite bodies, or just THINKING about transcendence in the face of our own mortality.  Or we could debate if HAL had a soul, and if Dave was a murderer.  Think Cowan’s book Sacred Space.

But here’s the thing:  the movie isn’t about religion.  No-one mentions god(s), theology, myths or rituals, a social system based on supernatural beliefs.  Now, one could easily imagine religion appearing — the movie could have had an Act 5 in which someone starts a Cult of the Starchild; maybe the monoliths fit into an existing religion’s eschatology.  In the context of my academic work, I’m less interested in looking at unanswerable questions of ‘being’– ultimate reality, the nature of the soul, gods’ existence–but I’m VERY interested in the social systems devoted (more or less) to answering such questions.

I vote “no.”  2001 isn’t about religion, and won’t appear in the book unless I need another counter-example.  Of course one could interpret 2001 religiously, but that would be discussing the significance of the movie, not the actual content. I’m much more curious about how religions (i.e., the observable social systems) are treated in science fiction.  How have attitudes towards religion changed?  What does SF think religion is?  Is it a good thing or a bad thing?  Is it going away any time soon?

In my case, the kinds of historical comparisons I want to make require a fairly specific definition, but there are many ways “religion” and “science fiction” can be defined, and even more ways they can be combined in academic work.  Some have been really good, such as the aforementioned Cowan book, but none seem to have answered the questions I want to ask.  Besides, if I cast too broad a net, anything could ‘count’ . . . and I’ve only got 80k words to play with!


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