Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Thinking: Why doesn't God get to go into space?

One of the things that struck me as I was reading A Canticle for Leibowitz was that amongst its other qualities was a pretty distinctively benign view on religion and faith. And that set me thinking about other examples in genre fiction and then that set me thinking about why it is such a rare thing.

So we can start with the easy answer – that there is a general belief that as we travel out into space, as a grown up species, that we will put away childish things like region (and racism, and sexism and all those other prejudices that SF likes to discuss under cover of analogy) and therefore 25th century space farers will be as far removed from going to church and praying as 21st century geeks are from mucking out the midden pits. But I’m not sure that washes. For a start, faith and spirituality have been part of human society as long as we have records, and I’m not sure that the invention of jump-warp-light-speed-drives will shake something that seems that primal. And when geeks were relegated to clearing midden pits pretty much every major religion now was a major religion then.

I think the more likely answer is more cultural – insomuch that religion and faith are seen today as largely anti-science and therefore the march of technology will lead to an inevitable victory in that war, But it’s not always been so – Leibowitz has this debate in the novel, far better than I can here – and even today there is a danger in judging a religion or its followers by the more ranty extremists you can find in the press, just as its dangerous to judge science fiction fans by the guys you find hanging outside Star Trek premieres. And then if we do bring religion into space then it is generally portrayed very negatively.

There is obviously something enticing about the imagery of religion, as it is certainly lifted enough times and used for universes too many to list. Frank Herbert definitely got in early with the Dune series, of course, and its many spiritual descendants, cumulating with things like Warhammer 40k, or 2000ad's Nemesis the Warlock, grand, gothic madness and corruption festooned the heavy imagery of oppressive, enforced faith and doctrine. But I think theocratic villains must only come second to “Generic Space Fascists” is the great list of genre villains, and the few examples of a more benign spirituality appearing in genre shows (Galactica springs to mind, but also others) tended to divide the audience when they were pushed to the fore.

Fantasy, with its litany of gods and religions, doesn’t fare much better. Tolkien wrote in a lot of pseudo Christianity into the mythology of Middle Earth, and well as using a lot of very Christian themes, and CS Lewis is a (very long) essay to himself, but as Fantasy has moved forward its gone down the route of pagan and shamanic gods rather monotheistic ones, and the modern trend towards gritty and grim either negates them altogether or lines up with Robert E Howards Hyborian vision of lots of gods, all of them mostly bad. Christianity-alogues certainly appear but are mostly based around what feels like a Reformation-era view of Catholicism; big, rich, and impossibly corrupt.

There are writers whose own faith (or aggressive lack thereof, which is nearly as bad) seeps into their work and often it can be intrusive. I've read criticism laid against CS Lewis, Orson Scott Card, Anne Rice, Julian May, Phillip Pullman and Marion Zimmer Bradley (to name but a few) where their views on religion seep into the story with effects ranging from distorting otherwise good stories and series to turning them into outright polemics. And the point at which it “gets in the way” varies massively from reader to reader – I agree more with Pullman’s viewpoints than Lewis’ but would read Narnia over His Dark Materials any day of the week, and the issues with the end of Julian May’s Galactic Milieu series are larger than just overuse of religious allegory, as much as that’s a handy shortcut if you want to have a rant about it.

Oddly I’m not sure this applies as much to politics. There’s a lot of societal analysis in genre fiction, underneath the Elves and Space Ships, and a lot of strong opinions, but it feels both more par for the course overall and seems to be reviewed with a more dispassionate eye. Sure there is the odd polarising outlier, but when mainstream writers include British lefties like Grant Morrison and American Conservatives like Bill Willingham sitting on the same comic shelves it makes you think that maybe it’s not as firey an issue, even though both writers’ views permeate their work.

Now I’m not saying that we need a wave of religious genre fiction. I’m certainly not saying that we should somehow “leave religion alone” or start having token religious characters in everything. But what I find interesting is that when religion and its associated imagery appears it’s so often unexplored and short-changed, or just flat out ill-used. And lets be honest, there’s enough instances of religions of all stripes needing a good slap. But as I said earlier, Religion and Spirituality have been part of human society for thousands of years, and both SF and Fantasy are perfectly set to explore that shorn of using actual religions that carry a lot of baggage with them. We may not like it but it is part of the human condition, deep down and whilst we may “grow out of it”, equally we may not, and there are stories in that – good stories, stories worth telling.

Maybe we should be telling them.

Edit: Its been pointed out to me that Dune does have a good stab at talking about the difference between religion, and faith, and yes, i've probably dismissed this particular series a bit easily in passing. (i've basically ignored the whole point of Dune Messiah at the very least, which is careless of me). but i stand by my latter point that a lot of later universes have borrowed Dune's style without importing it's substance.

and theres a lot of good reasons creators avoid it as a subject - i think there is a strong atheistic streak in modern geekdom which may be fond of reading stories with religious themes; and a lot of "christian fiction" is overly defined by the "christian" bit, rather than the "tell a good story" bit. and has also been pointed out that religion tends to be an intrinsically personal thing, which can make people wary of being inadvertantly offensive.

All that said i still find it odd that a lot of near- and mid-future SF just assumes that religion is something we'll leave behind without talking about why or how. i guess that's the root of this particular ramble...!