An Idea Whose Time Has Come?


Paul S. Jenkins


Read Stan Hinton's "The Devil's Advocate" in this issue of TWU, and consider how powerful a subject religion is for science fiction. Fiction about a deity is the ultimate speculation, and though Stan's story doesn't touch on the the truth or otherwise of religious belief, it nonetheless taps into the concern and interest that religion holds for many people in everyday life.

In the UK we have recently had a powerful three-hour drama exploring an aspect of this theme on our TV screens. The Second Coming by Russell T. Davies is about a rather vacuous video-shop worker (played with cool, savvy conviction by Christopher Ecclestone) who has a sudden revelation that he is the Son of God. The premise of the story is that this is, in fact, the case. Not since The Exorcist, I would guess, has a screen drama so strongly proclaimed the truth of the scriptures, and yet, as with that 70's horror film, many people will have taken offence, especially at the ending, which to some would appear as a negation of religion, but to me looked like a reasonable possibility, given the drama's premise. One thing I didn't think: that it was true. It was a drama -- fiction -- and should be considered in that context, whatever its conclusion.

Speculative fiction and religion make a fascinating mix. Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, first published in the 50's, is set in a post-apocalypse third millennium, where the Catholic Church is once more in the ascendant, and much fun is had at the expense of the monks who don't realise that the sacred documents recovered from an underground 'tomb' are in reality instructions for use of equipment in a fallout shelter.

More recently, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy -- ostensibly a young-adult fantasy, but read with enthusiasm by children and adults alike, and recently dramatised over seven and a half hours on BBC Radio 4 -- also deals with religious belief. Pullman proposes a deity who has lost control of his charges, and who isn't, in any case, the creator of the universe. It's a downbeat interpretation of the creation myth, but one which the story's protagonists must tackle -- and which, in the final part of the trilogy, they do.

The questioning of religious ideas has come much more to the fore in recent times. People are more willing to subject the tenets of faith to intellectual scrutiny. In former times such people were denounced as heretics, blasphemers, and would have suffered the accepted punishments for their transgressions -- most likely to be a variation of protracted, gruesome death, such as being burnt at the stake.

Nowadays, most of us are more tolerant, granting our fellows the freedom to dissent from a majority view. But without the statistics to hand I couldn't say what is the majority view. The established church in Britain, the Church of England, doesn't hold a single view within itself, as far as I can tell, preferring to couch its beliefs in mealy-mouthed euphemism and platitude, which must surely be anathema to anyone who adheres to a more clear-cut Christianity. If we have the fundamentalists at one end of the scale, at the other we have the militant atheists, such as Richard Dawkins. The rest of us lie somewhere in between.

Rather less strident than Dawkins, though no less rigorous in the depth of his intellectual thoroughness, was Carl Sagan, whose book The Demon-Haunted World is an overwhelming indictment of all things religious. But his arguments are not coercive; Sagan presents the evidence, and in the light of it religion condemns itself.

Believers in all kinds of religion won't thank me for suggesting it, but perhaps the reason that religion yields such a rich vein of speculative ore for science-fiction and fantasy writers, is because religious faith is itself a consensus of speculation. Speculative fiction is, by any definition, made up. It envisages systems of existence that are disjointed from the physical world with which we are so familiar -- a world about which we have an abundance of physical evidence. Speculative fiction, like religion, doesn't need evidence. It doesn't have to be true, it just has to seem like it.

We may be entering an age when the speculative elements of religion can be seen for what they are, an age when we can truly apprehend the fantasies of creation myth as no more than stories the ancient sages constructed, with their own internal logic, satisfying and complete in themselves, but bearing little relation to physical fact. If we can see these stories as convenient explanations of the unexplainable, provided to forestall inquisitive doubt, maybe we can stop wasting time debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and concentrate on things that are likely to make a difference to our world.


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