Greg Benford on “theological” gSF

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[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.”

 

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