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And so, as we come to the end of another religious holiday, it is time to look at one of the most persistent themes of science fiction. It is a subject I find myself coming back to on a regular basis. I feel that God (as opposed to religion) has no part to play in science fiction, that the introduction of a figure who can casually change the whole nature of reality is lazy in science fictional terms. This particular iteration of the point came in one of my Cognitive Mapping columns that was first published in Vector 217 (May-June 2001).

His regret was that she was unlikely ever to know. He had meant to write everything down and put it into the time machine and hope that it would be recovered. It was strange. He was not a religious man in the usual sense. He was an agnostic. It was not conviction that had led him to defend religion against Monica’s cynical contempt for it; it was rather lack of conviction in the ideal in which she had set her own faith, the ideal of science as a solver of all problems. He could not share her faith and there was nothing else but religion, though he could not believe in the kind of God of Christianity. The God seen as a mystical force of the mysteries of Christianity and other great religions had not been personal enough for him. His rational mind had told him that God did not exist in any personal form. His unconscious had told him that faith in science was not enough. He remembered the self-contempt he had once felt and wondered why he had felt it.
Behold the Man (1969)
Michael Moorcock

‘There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists.’
‘So God just leaves?’ John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. ‘Abandons creation? You’re on your own, apes. Good luck!’
‘No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.’
‘Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,’ Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. ‘“Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.”’
‘But the sparrow still falls,’ Felipe said.
The Sparrow (1996)
Mary Doria Russell

Science fiction, if it is anything at all, is rational. When primitive man looked out at the unreachable mountain tops, at the clouds, at the stars, he saw gods. When a science fiction writer ventures above the clouds, out into the heavens, he discovers aliens. These aliens may be powerful or innocent, they may be godlike in countless different ways, but they are beings much like us, In the end, the science fiction writer says, wherever we may go we find ourselves.

Except that time and again, science fiction finds itself unable to escape God (or the Devil which is much the same thing). In films such as Event Horizon (1997) and Contact (1997), space becomes a direct route to Hell or to Heaven. In television shows such as Babylon 5 (1993-) the crew seek out the old ones, beings of godlike powers and incomprehensibility. In novels like The Sparrow a Jesuit priest journeys to meet aliens as part of a personal quest to discover God. Theses are not isolated examples, the spiritual need and uncertainty brought on by millennial tremor bleeding across to infect the nearest available genre. This is an ongoing fascination that can be found throughout the history of science fiction, not with holiness or belief but with the sort of wonder and mystery that, before science fiction, could find expression only in religious belief.

Utopia by Thomas More (later Saint Thomas More) was about finding heaven on Earth, and later utopias or wondrous journeys were prone to be set on such ancient images of godhood, the Sun (City of the Sun by Tommaso Campanella (1623)) or the Moon (Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone (1638)). When Olaf Stapledon sent his everyman to the heart of the universe in Star Maker (1937) it was in effect a spiritual pilgrimage to find a rationalist God. (The pilgrimage is a form often taken by science fiction’s version of the fantasy quest, cropping up in works as varied as Anthony Boucher’s ‘The Quest for Saint Aquin’ (1951), David Zindell’s Neverness (1988) and Dan Simmon’s The Hyperion Cantos (1990).) That same intense celebration of the wonder of creation is to be found in the work of Stapledon’s most important heir, Arthur C. Clarke, notably in the ending of 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968) in which the rewards of a physical journey across space are revealed to be a translation into something at least approaching godhead. There is an echo of this also in Eternal Light (1991) by Paul J. McAuley, a novel which owes much to the breadth of vision and spiritual underpinning of 2001.

What we get in Star Maker or Eternal Light or a story such as ‘Kyrie’ (1968) by Poul Anderson is the sense that some sort of a religious feeling is the only possible emotional response to the majesty of the universe. More often, however, science fiction writers engage directly with religious imagery and notions of god to either advocate or challenge belief. James Blish, in one of the finest and most direct treatments of religious issues in science fiction, A Case of Conscience (1958), introduces a world which knows no evil, and examines the ethical conflicts presented when such people encounter our own belief systems.

Even aside from writers who are priests — such as Father Andrew M. Greely, author of God Game (1986) — there are enough writers whose own religious beliefs inform their fiction. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller (1960) predicates the survival of Catholicism beyond the apocalypse: even the flimsiest of material is enough for the belief which is necessary for humankind’s survival. If the tradition of Jewish humour means that there is a jokier surface to stories such as ‘On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi’ by William Tenn (1974) or ‘I’m Looking for Kadak’ by Harlan Ellison (1974), beneath the surface there is still the assumption of belief.

If Towing Jehovah by James Morrow (1994), in which a God floats dead in the ocean (or Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father (1975) which employs a similar conceit though in this instance the gigantic figure being dragged across the landscape is not literally God but Father), or The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, in which a quest for God ends in horror and humiliation, seem to undermine belief in God, it is that very belief which comes through in the end as vital for healing and resolution. God may be dead but God lives on.

There are many more science fiction writers, however, who are uncomfortable with such contradictions. In a post-Niestchean age they are looking for the rational, the apprehendable, in the universe. Such writers are more likely to undermine religion or its trappings, rather than God; in the way, for instance, that Michael Bishop brings Judas Iscariot back in virtual reality to be acquitted of his crimes in ‘I, Iscariot’ (1995).

In Harry Harrison’s ‘The Streets of Ashkelon’ (1962) a missionary finds that his unwelcome fate is to re-enact the story of the New Testament just as he has told it to his alien flock. The way of Christ leads only to a painful death by crucifixion, a view expressed also by Michael Moorcock in ‘Behold the Man’. In this story of a time traveller who discovers that the historic Christ was an imbecile, the trappings of belief have to be preserved even at the cost of the time traveller fulfilling Christ’s destiny. In fact, belief is the only way left to apprehend and understand the world; although Glogauer has used the scientific device of a time machine to return to Biblical times (re-enacting a journey take by many other time travellers, notably in Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time (1968) or Garry Kilworth’s ‘Let’s Go to Golgotha’ (1974)), science itself is not reliable enough to replace our need for belief. This need for belief is a theme that crops up frequently, often satirically, though always with an underlying acceptance, though what we put our faith in may not always follow the recognised patter of religion. For Philip K. Dick, God is a far from common man, Mao Tse-Tung, in ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ (1967), while M. John Harrison goes even further, making Him a huge pair of fat, unthinking brothers in In Viriconium (1982), and a huge dung beetle in ‘Settling the World’ (1975).

It is, however, Arthur C. Clarke who has done most to challenge conventional religious notions in his science fiction. In Childhood’s End (1953), for instance, it is the demons of conventional Christian mythology who turn out to be the saviours of humanity. While in ‘The Star’ (1955), a stark and powerful precursor for The Sparrow, a Jesuit on a mission to another world discovers that the star which shone over Bethlehem did so only at the cost of an advanced civilisation.

But if such stories seem to ask us to question what it is we believe, remember the ending of ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ (1953) in which the stars go out in perfect and chilling accord with Buddhist belief. Theses stories, however they may seem, do not deny God: no matter how we may be challenged to examine the nature of our belief, the fact of belief is still there underlining all these stories. For dreams and wonders that make us look up at he skies and conjure stories of space and aliens and other worlds are exactly the dreams and wonders that make us look up and see gods and spirits and heavens.