Separation of Church and Spaceship II

A reader asks:

But must science fiction be hostile to religion? I have seen reams of hostility towards Christianity from the likes of Charlie Stross and Robert Silverberg; is this simply an unjection of the author’s personal prejudice, or is rejection of the supernatural and metaphysical a pre-requisite of science fiction?

My answer:

Science Fiction is not required by law to be hostile to religion.

For example, I think C.S. Lewis in OUT FROM THE SILENT PLANET and PERELENDRA does an admirable job of depicting a planetary romance in a solidly Christian mythology.

But please notice what he does: In order to depict Christianity in SF, you need to change the names. In the same way the Japanese call Jehovah “Kamisama”, the men of other worlds and times are expected to call God by names suited to their background. So instead of talking about angels, for example, C.S. Lewis talks about “eldil”.

Also, Gene Wolfe has a very strong Catholic sentiment running through his books, and in IN GREEN’S JUNGLES a character has a religious experience handles as being no more extraordinary — and no less — than falling in love or having a baby or any other ordinary, extraordinary event in human life. He pulls the same trick of names in SHADOW OF THE TORTURER. Jesus Christ is called “The Conciliator” — which, by no coincidence, was a Medieval euphemism for a torturer.

Nor is this limited to Christianity. VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsany is clearly science fiction. A man travels to a far world to find truth and death and discover the secret of the hidden god of that remote, titanic sphere. The theology depicted is something out of Byron or Nietzsche, where man’ heroic nature is thrown in sharp relief only by pain, and pleasure rejected as degrading and false. Likewise again STARMAKER by Olaf Stabledon merely has God, the Star-Maker of the title, as one of the characters, appearing on stage in the last act of the book. But this is not the loving Christian God, or even the law-giving Jewish. Unlike the God of the Mohammedans, He is not Compassionate, Merciful. The Star-Maker is God as an Artist, and creation is an unsatisfactory potter’s clay, and we are supposed to adore and love God even as He ignores and tramples us: sort of a cosmic battered-wife syndrome.

I cannot recall any SF books taking place in a universe where oriental or pagan religion turned out to be the metaphysical background.

I do not mean fantasy. Fantasy books, of course, have pagan gods in plenty: it is mildly shocking when Diana the Huntress is mentioned in THE WORM OROBOROUS by E.R. Eddison. BRIDGE OF BIRDS, an excellent book, very well crafted, takes place in a background of Chinese folklore. And WIZARD OF EARTHSEA has a strongly Taoist flavor to it, even to the point of having dragons be the good guys (as they are in the East) rather than bad guys (as they have always been in the West). I believe LeGuin was the first to introduce this strange and modern idea, not found in any ancient source, of a good and wise dragon, now ubiquitous.

But of SF, I don’t recall reading an eastern C.S. Lewis. I do not mean LORD OF LIGHT by Zelazny, or any book where an oriental religion is merely a fraud as in GATHER DARKENSS by Fritz Leiber—I mean a story where Buddhism or Hinduism or Shinto turn out to be actually correct depictions of the universe.

Reincarnation, yes: I have seen that theme in IMMORTALITY, INC., by Robert Sheckley or Farmer’s RIVERWORLD. But an actual metaphysics where Buddha or Kannon or the Great Goddess Amaterasu turns out to be in charge of the universe and steps forth to set things right? You have to watch Japanese Anime to get that. And even in Anime, I have not seen these elements actually handled as homiletics: Krishna never pauses to preach the themes from the Bhagavad Gita, for example.

The one great exception to all this, as we all know, is the religion of the ancient Egyptians. In every Mummy movie ever made, Egyptian gods and goddesses are clearly portrayed as real, as active, and as able to smite the evil Mummy in the last act. Their holy books and prayers actually and truly resurrect the dead—something you will never see the Bible or the Koran do in a movie.

In the most recent Mummy movie I saw, one starring the delectable Rachel Weisz, not only is her character the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian ninja-babe who cat-fought other ninja-babes half-naked, but her character’s son brings her back to life!

(One wonders why, in this world, there are not long lines waiting outside Revivalists tents for the Goddess Isis, perhaps with Billy Graham wearing a pshent, warning of the dangers of Apep and asking if your heart will be heavier than a feather when it is weighed by Osiris.)


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