Separation of Church and Spaceship IV

After I posted that last post, I thought of an SF version of “ITS A WONDERFUL LIFE” by which I mean a tale that takes Christian mythology as accurate, and treats it in a perfectly respectful way (as respectfully as SF authors treat the laws of physics, at least, cough, cough).

My candidate for lighthearted Christian fantasy is ON A PALE HORSE by P Anthony. There is a scene where Death arranges, as a last request, to have a church choir come by and sing. God is clearly a character in those books, and it is a basic nondenominational Protestant God, sort of along the lines of George Burns.

Another movie that falls into “Mainstream Fantasy” is STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN starring David Niven. Amazing that I forgot to mention this one, as it is a particular favorite of mine–it is sort of the reverse of DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, where a man is on trial to go to heaven–but he does not want to go because he has fallen in love on Earth. The film is famed for its art direction, the strange and beautiful art deco architecture of heaven. The theme is handled so seriously that I hesitate to call it a comedy, but it is a lighthearted idea of heaven, where there is a bureaucracy that makes mistakes, and juries of the blessed who hold trials to set things right. Of course, it is possible that the young airman on the operating table is just dreaming …

Is this a particularly Christian fantasy? Well, at the time when it was made, I am not sure such questions came up. I think the audience was supposed to assume that this Heaven was the Christian or possibly Judeo-Christian Heaven without it being said. Perhaps they avoided being too literal for fear of offending the faithful in the audience.

Compare this with the ALWAYS a Spielberg film starring Richard Dreyfuss—all the elements of a mainstream life-after-death fantasy are present, but there it is a nondenominational afterlife, just a “Good Place” where Audrey Hepburn is. I got the impression ALWAYS takes place in the same background universe as JOHNATHON LIVINGSTON SEAGULL, sort of a New Age theology without the elements of the Fall, Salvation and Last Judgment.  Here I think Christianity is not mentioned, not because the audience is assumed to believe in it, but because the audience is assumed not to.

Anything where both Christianity and New Age agree on is a perfectly safe middle ground from which to tell a ghost story. The story GHOST starring Demi Moore was in that middle ground—the black shadows that came out to carry off the Bad People certainly were meant to be hellish, and a writer can talk about The Light that beckons to the death without saying who is exactly waiting for you on the Other Side of that light.

I also have to point out a perfectly successful but theologically unsound movie, CITY OF ANGELS a remake of a German film, WINGS OF DESIRE. It is amusingly heterodox, I assume unknowingly—the “good” angel is lured by attraction for a woman into falling, literally falling, gets his wings clipped and he becomes mortal. They copulate immediately without the sacrament of marriage, which is supposed to be the norm these days (trollops being more highly regarded than wives, you know). When the lady love dies what we might call a ‘Stupor Ex Machina,’ (which I hereby dub to mean an arbitrary stupid thing shoehorned in a plot because the author wanted something dumb to happen to kick life back into a frozen plot) the fallen angel stands mourning on the beach, but his fellow angels tell him this death is not a punishment from god, but, rather, a part of life, and so we should all be joyous!

I seem to recall the exact same sentiment voiced by Olaf Stabledon in his masterwork LAST AND FIRST MEN, where the Last Men are spiritual enough in their non-religious spiritually to enjoy and salute when their world is boiled away by a solar flare. Rejoice!

By the way, this bittersweet, life-affirming happy ending where the fallen angel gave up heaven for a one night stand and is now supposed to be happy playing in the surf while his love lies moldering in the grave—I should mention the death is a particularly crude and stupid one. She is run over by a truck when she goes out bike riding with her eyes closed. I do not know if you can get into heaven by getting run over by a truck for biking with your eyes closed, but you can sure win the Darwin Award. This is what our frolicking fallen angels are telling the young lover to be joyous about: your girlfriend, no doubt pregnant, just got killed when she street-pizzzaed into an eighteen-wheeler, because she was gliding down hill with her eyes closed, delirious with happiness because of the thought of all your good ex-angel lovin’. And she looks like Meg Ryan, but she’s dead now, and they have to scrape her off the tarmac with a spoon. No, sorry, that sounds like if you can shrug it off without tears, you are one shallow, shallow jackass.

I suspect Father Grundy of the Slapface School of Theological Niceties might have a different take on the film: namely, that angels who leave Heaven for a little bit of hide-the-love-sausage are DEEEEEMONS; that fornication is a sin; that mortality is not a thing to be cheered but a grim punishment for a universal state of corruption in which all men, through Adam, participate.


The reason why I think none of these kind of “Mainstream Fantasies” where people come back from the dead or melt Nazis with the Ark of the Covenant or talk to invisible rabbits can ever be put in a science fiction background is because of the “HG Wells Rule” that a tale contain one and only one marvel in a story. If everything can happen, nothing really can happen.

If the pilot in ALWAYS or in STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN was in a spaceship crash before he met the afterlife, nothing would be added to the supernatural elements in the story. To seem authentic, the After-World must seem timeless, unchanged by Earthly fashions. Likewise have a spaceship pilot get a date with an angel or find a genii in a bottle seems pointless if the plot revolves around the marvel of having a spaceship.

You can sometimes find the odd SF book that treats with life after death as if it is merely one more undiscovered scientific phenomenon. A famous book—one of the few that got wide mention outside the SF field—is STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, which has a nondenominational heaven, complete with angels in halo and wings, who are on good terms with the afterlife arrangements of both Mars and the Middle East. There the treatment of religion was disrespectful and meant to be (it was a satire, for goodness sake) but even so there are religious characters portrayed positively, and life after death is a matter of fact. (Nor do I think Christians need to take offense at this book on those grounds: most Christians and all Protestants have at least some suspicions about organized religions, and all are supposed to be wary of false prophets. We have lots of other grounds on which to take offense.)

In a “science fantasy” background, where you tell an Arabian Night’s Tale simply set on Leigh Brackett’s version of Mars or something, the supernatural element enters the fiction in the same role as the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones: a spooky McGuffin, a gimmick. If the Star Trek crew runs into the God Apollo, he makes passes at Leslie Parrish in a sheer evening gown. If Star Trek crew runs into God, he’s a fraud, and Spock shoots him.

But, other than that, SF tropes have aliens to lend the sense of menace or awe we get from gods and monsters in mainstream fiction, and time-travelers can do anything the Oracle of Apollo can do, or the Ghost of Christmas Future. Space-Vampires (a la Van Vogt or Colin Wilson) are usually victims of atomic energy blood-poisoning, and don’t need to be unclean spirits from the Pit. Space Demons (a la Lovecraft or EVENT HORIZON) are from Yuggoth, and don’t need to be from Hell.

(It should be embarrassing that I can think of TWO stories starring space vampires without even googling the names. Jeesh. What have I been reading?)

In most SF, adding a supernatural element won’t amp up the wonder quotient. Adding more will not get you more. I mean, would the movie ALIEN have really, really been improved if, in addition to the acid-blooded flesh-eating alien monster, Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees and Chucky the Possessed Doll had been on the Nostromo killing off the crewmen one by one?

Any science fiction writers out there are invited to prove me wrong. I throw out the general challenge.  Not Gene Wolfe! I already know he can do it, and with mastery.


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