Alasdair Gray, Bob Shaw, Bram Stoker, Brian Stableford, Colin Greenland, Dante, Greg Egan, Iain Banks, Ian Watson, Jeff Noon, John Bunyan, Lucius Shepard, Ludwig Wittgenstein, M.R. James, Michael Swanwick, Philip Jose Farmer, Rudy Rucker, Russell Hoban, Sheridan Le Fanu, T.S. Eliot, William Gibson
More and more, as I read science fiction, I have become aware that death is the most consistent theme. You could almost say that science fiction is a literature about death. I wrote this Cognitive Mapping piece back in 1997 (it appeared in Vector 195, September-October 1997), I could write a similar column now just using works published since that date. In fact I could write it several times over, so pervasive is the theme. So this is just one aspect of a very much bigger conversation.
Lanark opened his eyes and looked thoughtfully round the ward. The window was covered again by the Venetian blind and a bed in one corner was hidden by screens. Rima sat beside him eating figs from a brown paper bag. He said, “That was very unsatisfying. I can respect a man who commits suicide after killing someone (it’s clearly the right thing to do) but not a man who drowns himself for a fantasy. Why did the oracle not make clear which of these happened?”
Rima said, “What are you talking about?”
“The oracle’s account of my life before Unthank. He’s just finished it.”
In the absence of an effective medical science, Gray argued, the war against death was essentially a war of propaganda, and myths were to be judged in that light – not by their truthfulness, even in some allegorical or metaphorical sense, but by their usefulness in generating morale and meaning. By elaborating and extrapolating the process of death in this way, a more secure moral order could be imported into social life. People thus achieved a sense of continuity with past and future generations, so that every individual became part of a great enterprise which extended across the generations, from the beginning to the end of time.
‘Mortimer Gray’s History of Death‘ (1995)
Death is not the end. Ever since the first homo sapiens told stories to explain their world, the most important explanation has been of the greatest mystery: what happens when we die. It is a mystery that has never ceased to excite us. Practically every religion we have devised has, among its central tenets, a tale of what happens when people die: the righteous go to the glories of heaven, warriors enjoy mead and meat in the vast halls of Valhalla, poets recline with houris in the gardens of Paradise, the bad are reborn as worms or cockroaches. The most powerful gods are those with the greatest capacity for slaughter, the lords of the Underworld are among the greatest rulers in heaven. The epic poetry that formalised myth throughout the ancient world, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Virgil’s Aeneid, from the Bible story of Lot to the Greek legend of Orpheus, all took their hero into the realm of the dead. It is an essential part of Christian belief that Christ rose from the dead, just as it was a central part of the Egyptian pantheon that Osiris was resurrected by Isis. It is a pattern that is repeated again and again: Arthur did not die at Camlann but sleeps with his warriors still beneath Alderley Edge (or any of a dozen other locations) ready to rise again in the hour of Britain’s peril; the Dalai Lama’s spirit passes on his death into the body of a child who must be sought out by Buddhist monks.
Mysteries, of course, enchant us for as long as they remain mysterious. And in our secular age no mystery is greater, or shows less sign of being ‘solved’, than death. Which is why it remains today as commanding and as frightening a subject as it has ever been. When Dante embarked on a comprehensive journey through the realms of death in The Divine Comedy [1307-21] he could no more exhaust the subject than T.S. Eliot could in The Waste Land  or Alasdair Gray in Lanark. In ‘Mortimer Gray’s History of Death‘, Brian Stableford tells of a time when medical science has effectively banished death, unless it happens by accident or by intent. Yet it still cannot banish the mystique of death, and after nearly dying in an accident Mortimer Gray embarks on an epic social, cultural, scientific and philosophical history of death. Interpolated into the story, Stableford has effectively written that history, which he presents as an eternal war against mankind’s greatest enemy, a war in which our myths and stories provide an invaluable propaganda purpose. The one significant omission from Stableford’s history is the way that in our own century science fiction has carried those myths onwards, has revised and updated those propaganda stories.
If death is the enemy, then all that brings us close to death, that takes us into the very camp of the enemy, is frightening. Virtually the whole of horror fiction is built around themes and motifs associated with death, whether it be the dead returning in the classic ghost stories of Sheridan Le Fanu or M.R. James, the undead arising from the grave in Bram Stoker’s Dracula , the Devil bargaining for immortal souls in various versions of the story of Faust, Egyptian Mummies lurching from their sarcophagi or zombies trailing their rotting flesh or simply demons from Hell.
Science fiction and horror are close enough for most of these motifs to have cropped up, in one form or another, in straightforward science fiction stories, such as the voodoo imagery in William Gibson’s Count Zero  or Lucius Shepard’s Green Eyes . In the main, however, science fiction has not treated death as a horror but rather, in the manner of Homer or Dante, has turned it into a landscape, a place through which the hero might journey, replicating the journey of the soul in Christian imagery from the medieval lyric, ‘Lyke Wake Durge’ to Pilgrim’s Progress  by John Bunyan. Sometimes, this science fictional realm of death is one from which we might return, as the hero of Iain Banks’s The Bridge  returns from the landscape of the dead that is a transformed Forth Road Bridge. Sometimes death leads to rebirth, as in Bob Shaw’s The Palace of Eternity , in which the hero dies and is reborn as the son of his greatest rival, in the process undergoing a radical transformation which is the only hope for the salvation of mankind. Death can be a place that might be visited briefly as in various retellings of the Orpheus story from Russell Hoban’s The Medusa Frequency  to Jeff Noon’s Vurt . Sometimes the dead retain some measure of consciousness, sufficient at least to communicate and interact with the living, as occurs in Iain M. Banks’s Feersum Endjinn  or Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty . Such technological ghosts, usually personalities downloaded into computers in one form or another, as in Greg Egan’s Permutation City , actually offer the science fictional hope of avoiding death, of achieving a kind of immortality, one of the most persistent themes in the whole of science fiction.
In the main, however, science fiction offers no handy way out of death. Whether it is the endless river of Philip José Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go , the mathematical eternity of Rudy Rucker’s White Light , or the industrial city of Unthank in Gray’s Lanark, the afterlife offers immense potential for exploration and adventure but not for escape. This is significant, for death is not just an alien planet and the landscape through which the hero soul must venture has a particular symbolism. In the case of Lanark, for example, his wanderings through Unthank do not just echo the wanderings through Glasgow of his former self, Thaw, they also represent his life. As his exchange with Rima indicates, one thing death does is give the hero a chance to re-evaluate his life. The change of state between life and death usually brings both forgetfulness and an increased sense of morality, so that the first and most important task facing the soul in the afterlife is to learn about then compensate for the actions of the hero during life.
Michael Swanwick’s story ‘Radio Waves’ , for instance, follows the pattern precisely: death results in being swept away from this Earth, which is frightening at first so that some newly dead cling desperately to our world, as the hero does. But gradually continued existence in this world becomes more frightening, until the hero has the opportunity to attone for cruelties committed during his life and finally welcomes the release of letting go of this Earth. Swanwick’s parasitic Corpsegrinder, like the insects attracted by the pheromone released on death in Ian Watson’s Deathhunter , personify the way that Death is an attack upon our integrity, our being, which should continue as a moral whole beyond the grave. It is a pattern repeated in numerous other stories, and though the story may be dressed with agnostic or even atheistic declarations, the pattern itself is clearly mythological and the imagery often Christian. It is in this way that science fiction continues the propagandising mythology that Brian Stableford draws attention to in his essay within a story.
In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Ludwig Wittgenstein made the famous remark: “Death is not an event in life”. In science fiction, however, as in religion, death is a way to understanding our life.