Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Dark Side of Sci-Fi

The following is an modifed version of the very first post I ever wrote, originally submitted to the old Crux Project blog Situation Critical (no longer available online). This is admittedly one-sided, so please read John's piece for the other side of the coin:

John Colman has written an excellent post defending science fiction’s ability to ask deep questions and point us toward the supernatural. I wholeheartedly agree with him. Ever since I was a kid watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad, I too have loved science fiction. Besides the positive aspects he mentions, I also love the adventure, the dream of exploring the unknown and fighting wicked villains. But most of all, I love the camaraderie that so often characterizes these stories--a tight-knit group of friends facing the future together, come what may!

But our favorite genre also has a dark side that John neglected to discuss. The more I watch these shows, the more I realize just how many of them fairly drip with naturalistic philosophy. Indeed, much of the sci-fi genre is based on thoroughly materialistic presuppositions. And while a lot of mainstream television and film shares these assumptions, sci-fi is uniquely suited to showcase them in that it expresses, more than any other genre, the hopes and fears of a society.

Consider the Star Trek universe, for instance: Here is depicted a future when humanity will finally see past its differences and live in peace and harmony. Of course, there is still war and violence, but not generally among humans or the United Federation of Planets. If every worldview must tell us who we are, what’s wrong, and what's the solution, then Star Trek tells us we are the product of evolution on one of many planets that have evolved life--not the least advanced, but certainly not the most either. What’s wrong with the universe is not human rebellion against her creator, but interspecies strife among the various races in our galaxy. The solution? Not the final victory of God, but the victory of the Federation against all who oppose peace in the universe--whether they be Klingons, Romulans, or the Borg.

Or take another favorite of mine: Stargate SG-1. Where Star Trek generally ignored religion, Stargate tried to reinvent it in light of modern science. The ancient gods were really just powerful aliens who visited earth throughout our history--some, like the Goa’uld, in hopes of enslaving us, others, like the Asgard, to bless and protect us. In this universe, science is king, and God has no real place. Humanity is a fledgling species, teetering on the brink of either a major evolutionary step forward or complete destruction by our own or some malicious alien’s actions.

Just consider the one episode in the show’s ten-season run which included the word “God” in its title ("There But For the Grace of God," Episode 119): Through a “Quantum Mirror” we are taken to an alternate earth (one of the infinite universes that exist alongside ours, we are told) where things have not worked out so fortuitously--earth has been invaded by the Goa’uld Apophis and faces slavery to a false god. In the end, this alternate earth is saved by the intervention of another alien, the Asgard Thor (note the Egyptian and Norse mythology lying behind their names), but it is clear that “the Grace of God” had nothing to do with it. The show does admirably remind us that we cannot save ourselves, but when God is barred from that role, an alien or superhuman is forced to take his place.

For, in the end, shows like Stargate teach that our universe could just as well be overrun with evil as saved by good. Indeed, the fact that there are an infinite number of universes means that an infinite number have been overrun by evil, and there is no good reason why ours shouldn’t be one of them. For sci-fi is not without its pessimists.

Where the ancient Jewish apocalyptic writers maintained an unwavering faith that even their darkest dreams of worldwide catastrophe would be tempered God’s grace, today’s secular futurists have no such assurances. Whether we are threatened with destruction by our own technology (as in Terminator), an alien race (as in Independence Day), or a killer virus (as in Resident Evil), there are no guarantees that human life will survive. Only God could promise that, but he is too often dismissed as a figment of our imaginations, a relic of bygone days when primitive men still believed in a universe controlled by spirits. Now, apart from alien intervention, we must trust our own resources to overcome such dangers and charge ahead to a glorious future, unless of course this is one of those universes that ends badly. I’ll have to watch next week to find out.


Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Couple things. First of all Science Fiction (or for that matter any genre) doesn't work well with god- why would he need any of the characters? If it is all a test it drains away the suspence, if it because he can't do it, that it isn't god and if it is because of free will, you might as well not include god. If you read any fiction you'll notice they rarely, if ever have a single all powerful god in the story- it kills the drama. Stories are about people achieving things, beating enemies, external and internal- not waiting around passively for aid.

On the subject of Star Trek, interestingly enough TOS has a chapel and some referances to religion. After that the series goes into mussy progressive evil direction- I'm amazed you don't complain that the good guys in the series are communists- and not the utopian kind either. A fan of trek v wars did a summary here:
Yeah, it is sort of creepy.

Ken Brown said...

Hey Samuel,
Thanks for commenting. Let me just offer a few responses, but I don't completely disagree with what you are saying:

While God doesn't technically need anything, human free will does indeed make the drama "real." For Christianity affirms not merely that we need to pass some arbitrary "test," but that we need to be transformed into the kind of people God created us to be: loving, other-focused, mature (among other things). But such only means the absence of God from the story if you assume a false dichotomy between absolute control and complete non-intervention. God's interaction with the world is rarely, if ever, overpowering; it is relational, more like a parent than a dictator or a passive observer, and good fiction can and often does present this.

Please note, however, that my point is not that science fiction (or any fiction) must declare allegience to the Christian God; I merely object to the way much sci-fi leaves the question of God out all together. Battlestar Galactica is certainly not Christian and does not present "a single all-powerful god," but it is good theistic sci-fi because it recognizes not only that there is a question to be asked here, but also that the answer might have a real effect on the course of history.

I should also note that, since I first wrote this 3 years ago, I have come to appreciate much more the symbolic value of fiction, such that I would no longer claim that explicit consideration of the existence of God is the test of good fiction (as I come close to implying in this post). Harry Potter is, in my opinion, excellent Christian fiction, but never (that I recall) mentions God at all, except in profanity (heck, even Tolkien restricts his explicit mentions of God to The Silmarillion). In fact, looking back I might even say that, despite the multiverse that episode of Stargate presupposed, it actually did affirm something of humanity's need to work with a higher power to be saved - a Christian theme, to be sure.

As for Star Trek, it had honestly never occured to me that they were communistic, though it certainly makes sense now that I think about it (no money and all).

Timothy Mills said...

Hey Ken, just browsing through your archives and thought I'd drop a thought in on this thread.

As a lifetime reader and fan of science fiction, I too am glad that we have a variety of perspectives illustrated across the genre. From Asimovian images of human transcendence (Robot and Foundation series), to cyberpunk adventures with a sort of soft-apocalypse feel to them (Gibson), to the bizarre-but-not-unimaginable (Greg Bear), we seem to have a bit of everything.

I think you over-state it when you say that the perspective of Star Trek is "the dark side of sci-fi". You are right that it tends to be implicitly naturalistic (in the philosophical sense). But there are episodes (especially in Deep Space Nine, but some in all the series) that suggest the possibility of a creator/guide and of a cosmic plan.

You say that "Battlestar Galactica ... is good theistic sci-fi because it recognizes not only that there is a question to be asked here, but also that the answer might have a real effect on the course of history."

You are right that shows which ignore the question are ignoring (among other things) a key theme in the ages-long human struggle for understanding the universe we live in. But your point goes both ways. If, as many believe, there is no divine safety net, that too would have "a real effect on the course of history." And so it, too, is a possibility worth exploring in our literature.

Of course, television will only ever get us so deep. If you want a tale that both considers the question and presents a realistic note of hope from the naturalistic side of things, I recommend Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy - a titanic read, but well worth it. (And, I might add, superbly suitable for adaptation to the screen as a not-so-mini-series.)

Ken Brown said...

Hey Timothy,
Your criticisms are valid, especially regarding my claim that Star Trek is unreservedly naturalistic. You're right that DS:9 explored the question differently than did TOS, TNG and Voyager; I would add that the same is true of Enterprise, which also gave more space to (alien) religion, though not as much as DS:9 (and even the others did not ignore religion as completely as this post implies - besides, they were fun and explored many other philosophical questions very well - that's part of why I admitted at the beginning that I now consider this post overly one-sided).

I also appreciate your point that good naturalistic sci-fi is of value as well. So long as theism is presented as a valid question, I have no problem with a book or film answering it in the negative and seeking to describe a hopeful world on that basis - though, of course, I may criticize the conclusion :). My only gripe was with the tendency to ignore the question entirely. You might, by the way, check out my discussions of DUNE, LOST and BSG for other perspectives on this issue.

I'll have to add Robinson's Mars trilogy to my list to read; I'd not heard of it.

Timothy Mills said...


For the Star Trek series (mainly Next Gen, but also DS9 and Voyager), think of the Q character. He is basically an ethically-ambiguous omnipotent being (appearing sometimes malevolent, sometimes mischievous, and sometimes benevolent).

Thanks for the pointers. I've read the Dune books, though before I had begun paying attention to deeper questions of human existence.

I watched a couple of seasons of Lost, and some of the original Battlestar Galactica miniseries, but didn't stick with either. Mainly, I just don't have much time for TV right now.

I'm curious; have you read Dante's Inferno? I read Allen Mandelbaum's English rendition, on the recommendation of a friend, and found it very compelling. The later two books not so much - does that say anything about my non-belief? :)

My favorite sci-fi pulp-novel-writing duo, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, have written a sort of response to Dante's work, also titled Inferno. At one level, it's a fun science-fiction take on the land that Dante journeyed through. At another level, though, it speaks some of the deepest reasons that many people reject religion in general, and biblical-literalist Christianity in particular: we cannot accept the proposition that a benevolent entity would allow people to suffer eternally.

I'd be curious to hear a religious person's response to Niven and Pournelle's book - particularly if you are a sci-fi fan in general.

Ken Brown said...

Hey Timothy,
I have read Dante's Inferno, but not Niven and Pournelle's response. As I see it, works like Dante's are not primarily meant to explain the "facts" of the afterlife -- as though Dante really did visit various "circles" of a literal hell and wanted to tell us about it -- but rather to illustrate graphically the consequences of human choice (though I don't doubt he thought those consequences could include going to hell). Thus, when he describes the Proud as condemned to carry heavy rocks on their backs, his point isn't that such will be their literal fate, but that (paradoxically) pride weighs us down and only humility can free us from it.

As for whether eternal punishment would actually be just at all, that's a question I've struggled with and can't say I have a full answer. I do consider the subject here, though in a different context (It was part of a lengthy conversation between Christians).

Timothy Mills said...

Ken, I tend to agree. Although Dante (and most Europeans of his day) probably did believe in a literal hell, his story is clearly not intended as (to put it crudely) a travel-log. I suspect most of my Christian acquaintances take either the universalist position, or an inclusive non-universalism such as you seem to support in your contribution to the discussion you mention. I know (because I asked her) that one Catholic friend of mine simply remains agnostic: she doesn't know whether I (a sceptical agnostic) will make it to heaven or not. She trusts God to decide fairly in such cases.

However, many Christians even today believe in a place of eternal torture where people who do not believe properly end up. So it's useful, I think, for some to continue to point out the infinite injustice of such a view.

Actually, I think that what Niven and Pournelle propose in their reinterpreted Inferno is similar to the concept of sin implied in your statement, "pride weighs us down and only humility can free us from it."

But more importantly (for me), Niven and Pournelle's book conveys what non-theists object to in the idea of hell, while also expressing the hope and optimism that maintains and motivates many modern secular humanists.

PS: I just came across this blog post which gives more detail on their book and its perspective on hell. Including spoilers.

PPS: Their book also introduces some new sins, which (as I remember them) tie into some of the new mortal sins introduced recently by the Vatican.