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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.