We love it when science fiction gets cosmic. And some of science fiction's greatest creators have proved, over the years, that science fiction doesn't have stay away from big religious topics — as long as you avoid some basic mistakes. In fact, science fiction can say things about the nature of the universe, and the Divine, that plain old theological texts just can't.
We asked five theologians what questions they would like to see science fiction tackle — and here's what they told us.
Images by Dinyctis/Deviant Art.
One thing's clear once you start looking around: theologians love science fiction. They're writing books about SF and theology, they're doing conferences on the topic, and they're seeing SF as a great vehicle for looking at the huge questions in their field. (I was sad that I was unable to get in touch with Stephen May, an Anglican priest and professor who recently gave a talk on Iain M. Banks.)
Science fiction is great for proposing answers to huge questions, without being stymied by "theological firewalls," or having to stick to the rigor of formal philosophy, says Lorenzo DiTommaso, a religion professor at Concordia University.
Science fiction has a special power to explore theological questions because of its ability to "build well-imagined worlds," says Robert Geraci, a religion professor at Manhattan College and author of Apocalyptic A.I.: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality When you inhabit the worlds of a great SF author, you can experience ideas in a personal way, that's different than just reading about abstract ideas.
But also, science fiction authors don't have to give you the answer, says Geraci — they just have to raise the questions. He adds:
For example, Charlie Stross on the Singularity. His book Accelerando is, in some sense both criticism of and cheerleading for transhumanist expectations for the future. A theological text on transhumanism is almost certainly going to have to come down on one end of the spectrum or the other... [but] Stross gets to have it both ways.
Some science fiction and fantasy authors make their theological explorations more obviously, like Mary Doria Russell in the "Jesuits in Space" novel The Sparrow, says Davidson College's Fuji Lozada. But there are also obvious theological concerns in the work of people like Ursula K. Le Guin.
Religions always have a conception of what it means to be human, and some science fiction writers have pushed the boundaries of what it means to be human in religious terms as well. Clearly, Philip K. Dick, Asimov, China Mieville, and even Data from Star Trek do this with cyborgs/robots, but [authors] like Kathleen Ann Goonan and Greg Bear have done it in terms of biotechnology. As a China specialist, I especially like Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age in terms of what it means to be human. I read it on my Palm phone while in Shanghai, and it was eerie how much I can see future and current Shanghai in it.
It's hard to think of a theological topic that science fiction hasn't dealt with, says James McGrath, a Butler University theologian who writes for the Exploring Our Matrix blog. "Predestination and free will have come up regularly," says McGrath: "a couple of examples that come to mind include the Dune novels and Robert Sawyer's FlashForward."
And there have been some great explorations of religion in relation to time travel, like Michael Moorcock's "Behold the Man." Science fiction can say some interesting things about whether the past is "something that always exists," and whether history can be changed, opening up questions about human freedom, adds McGrath — who has a time travel and religion story that he's dying to write.
So what theological topics would these theologians love to see science fiction deal with more extensively? Here are some:
Geraci would like to see science fiction writers trying "something self-reflexive: analyzing their own medium as myth." Since science fiction writers literally create worlds, it would be interesting to look at this as a mythological construct: what worlds do SF writers create, and how do they create them? How much can a writer reshape the actual physical world, and how many ways can you do this? "This is directly tied (in my mind) to the question of what kind of work and the limits of such work that can be done with a religious text," says Geraci.
"I would like to see science/speculative fiction move away from escapist fantasies and post-apocalyptic nightmares, and move towards formulating a coherent philosophy for the future," says DiTommaso, whose next book is The Architecture of Apocalypticism, the first volume of a trilogy. He wants to see science fiction writers try to create a more coherent philosophy that balances "liberal values and respect for all life forms with the demands imposed by the effects of runaway population growth in a limited and increasingly unbalanced ecosystem."
McGrath would love to see more science fiction stories set in a universe where God was out there, and you could seek His advice or help. Says McGrath: "Relatively few stories explore a scenario in which something like a monotheistic God - even if that is in fact a sentience that emerges from the universe as a whole rather than being external to it - exists and can be sought for its/his/her wisdom and intervention." He mostly liked how the rebooted Battlestar Galactica dealt with the notion of a monotheistic God that might answer prayers, but remained mysterious.
If it turned out that what you think of as "God" really exists, but is an alien life form like Star Trek's Q or is a cosmic sentience that emerged from a previous universe, prior to the last Big Crunch and subsequent Big Bang, would they still worship such a deity? Reflecting on theology through the lens of sci-fi can be a good way to explore what you believe and why, and what is really important to you.
Says Geraci, "It would be amusing (from my perspective) to see a story on 'what if the Creationists are actually right?' As the Young Earth Creationists are locked in (to them) mortal combat with mainstream science, it would be a nice spin on what SF usually does while remaining within the functional confines of the genre."
Adds McGrath, "It could be interesting to have time-traveling fundamentalists eventually cause the 'literal truth' of all the stories in their Scriptures (whether the Bible or some other text in another tradition) and eventually go back and create the world — thus making themselves "God" in the process of trying to defend the God depicted in their sacred texts."
Lozada says a lot of great science fiction explores the sometimes rocky relations between religion and science, and this is something that actually helps you to explore religious ideas in general. He adds:
People can read Stephen J. Gould's Rock of Ages or Ages of Rocks, contrast the ideas of Richard Feynman and Sir John Polkinghorne (OK, I make my students read that stuff) to examine the sometimes contentious, sometimes harmonious relationship between science and religion as knowledge and meaning creating human practices, but a classic that I use is Sagan's Contact (I'm a big Jodie Foster fan, and college students like movies, but the book is much more expressive about exploring the relationship between science and religion, other than the obvious embodiment in the Jodie Foster/Matthew McConnaughey relationship). This also comes out in Stephenson's Quicksilver trilogy (if you consider that sci fi).
He also thinks science fiction has something useful to say about the ways in which religious organizations and societies are structured — and he'd love to see more anthropological science fiction, in the vein of Le Guin.
And finally, the theologians we talked to said they'd like to see more science fiction about why people believe in God to begin with. McGrath asked on his blog a while back, "What would it take to make you lose your faith/change your beliefs?" If you were given a TARDIS and had access to all of time and space, would that strengthen or weaken your religious beliefs? That's another thought experiment that McGrath finds interesting.
And science fiction often deals with the future — which is essential to people's conceptions of God, says Christopher McMahon, Associate Professor of Theology at Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, PA. The whole notion of revelation and the end of the world is tied up with God, and science fiction can help to illuminate the nature of these constructs. Why do people need to have some conception of the future to respond to God in the present? What does "eternity" mean? These are religious questions that science fiction can help to make clearer, says McMahon.
And finally, McGrath has a provocative notion:
I don't think that "science fiction" is a completely separate category from either "philosophy" or "religion." They overlap — one is a genre, the other two are domains of human exploration. Philosophers have long written science fiction stories as a way of engaging in thought experiments (Daniel Dennett's "Where Am I?" is my favorite example), and sci-fi has regularly explored philosophical terrain (The Matrix has as its premise an updating of Descartes' exploration of the question of whether our senses might be entirely deceived so that our perception of reality could be completely wrong). Religion told stories about traveling to worlds "up there" and visitors from them coming here, long before the science element became part of our storytelling conventions.
And so what science fiction does is bring to the fore the changed context we inhabit compared to past generations - we have sent people upwards and know, unlike the author of Genesis, that there is no dome right up there with lights fixed into it. And through advanced telescopes we know that the universe is far bigger than most (but not all!) ancient people tended to imagine. Science fiction provides a great way of asking what theological and philosophical ideas from the past still make sense in our modern context, of winnowing out those that do not, and of exploring ways to adapt and update those that kind of might but at least require a bit of tweaking. And by exploring these things in a genre that is (for most of its writers and fans, anyway) explicitly fiction, it can do so in a manner that is more tentative and exploratory, and thus potentially less controversial, than if someone wove a narrative about other worlds and about sci-fi gods and presented it as fact rather than myth or fiction.