Science Fiction and Wonder and Humbug

John Hutchins asks:

Does the Left Behind book count as SciFi in your estimation?
Do things that are heavily influenced by religion like Dune, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and others count as being religious in nature?

Excellent question! Allow me to wax pedantic:

Let me start by saying I am not qualified to answer. I have not read the LEFT BEHIND series. My opinion is necessarily based on hearsay and ignorance. But I used to work for a newspaper, so ignorance of the topic is no excuse for not filling up the column space!

At a guess, from what I hear of it, I would not consider LEFT BEHIND to fit my definition of science fiction.

On firmer ground, I can say I do not consider the science fiction stories DUNE or BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, nor the space-opera fairy story STAR WARS to be religious fiction.

Science fiction stories are poetical or emotional accounts of man’s relationship to the scientific view of the natural universe and the Darwinian view of the origins of life. They are basically wonders stories about the wonders (or horrors) of science, of change and progress. Fantasy stories are the nostalgia of the scientific age for the magic of the medieval and pagan world view, or, at least, the view reflected in their epics, chansons, folk tales, and wonder stories. Religious stories are those primarily meant for edifying the faith, whether they contain elements of wonder or not.

Science fiction by this definition is the opposite of, for example, the Aeneid of Virgil, which showed the eternal laws of the divine gods and the eternal order of the universe as establishing the eternal city of Rome and her central place in it. Science fiction is about change and emphasizes the instability, the non-eternal nature, of those things we would otherwise take for granted, whether the change is, for example, the degeneration of Man into Eloi and Morlock by AD 802701, or the change is the rise of Big Brother in Airstrip One by AD 1984.

All stories, to some degree, are a humbug.

They are make-believe, a humbug willingly believed by the audience for the duration of the story. So all stories, even the most fantastical, must contain an element that makes the audience willing (for the duration) to believe it, to grant the hypothetical, so to speak, to step into the dream.

In a science fiction story the humbug is scientific, or based (however loosely) on the scientific world view. When the Time Traveler of HG Wells sees the fate of man, the humbug is a machine that travels through the dimension of time, and so the story is a scientific romance; but when Scrooge sees his fate, he is escorted there by a ghost in a dream or vision, so the humbug there is ghost-story stuff, fantasy.

Much ink has been spilled on the question of whether unscientific humbug can be legitimately used in science fiction? Does the science have to be real? I dismiss such questions with a supercilious wave of my snuffbox. Science fiction has never been about real science; it has always been about believable make-believe science. What makes the humbug believable is not how realistic the science is — although that helps, particularly in the sub-genre called hard SF — no, what makes the humbug believable is the willingness of the audience is to believe it. The primary thing that makes the audience willing is if the humbug either intellectually or emotionally fits with (and flatters) their world view, which, for the science fiction reading public, is the scientific world view.

If the humbug intellectually fits, it is Jules Verne type fiction, or hard SF; if it emotionally fits, it is HG Wells type fiction, or soft SF.

The difference between hard and soft SF is the difference between being shot to the moon in a shell that obeys the real laws of real ballistics, or floating to the moon in a sphere made of anti-gravity alloy; it is the difference between riding the submersible ironclad Nautilus through the sea or riding the Time Machine through the aeons.

So even a story which takes place in an openly Christian world-view, such as the planetary trilogy by CS Lewis, provided it has even a veneer of elements from the scientific world view, as the space-ship of Weston in OUT FROM THE SILENT PLANET, it becomes science fiction by the definition I am proposing; but where those scientific elements are missing, as in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, it either becomes a fantasy (if the supernatural elements are meant to be regarded as unreal) or as fiction (if the supernatural elements are meant to be regarded as real).

By “meant to be regarded” I do not mean the stance of the man writing the book; I mean the stance of the book itself. CS Lewis, I doubt not, believed that ‘Maleldil’ was real, since this is merely another name for God; but I doubt he believed Merlin the Magician would rise from the grave in England’s hour of greatest need. That is on the one hand. On the other, Maleldil and Merlin are treated both as story elements with an equal degree of make-believe in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH. The believability of Lewis’s “fairy-tale for grownups” depends on how believable Merlin appears when he appears. (And I, for one, regard Lewis’ as the most believable portrayal of that mythic figure I have encountered in any book.)

That may be a confusing way of putting it. Let me try again:

A man who believes in ghosts reading a story by a writer who believes in ghosts, AND the story is meant by the author and taken by the reader to be a fictional but realistic account of something which, no matter how unlikely or romanticized, they both regard as legitimately part of the real world is no more science fiction or fantasy than an unlikely or romanticized pirate story would be when told by and told to an author and audience who believed pirates are real.

BUT a ghost-story, even when told by and to people who believe in ghosts, which introduces an element of the scientific world view to provide verisimilitude, or which introduces a speculation or extrapolation, no matter how farfetched, which is part of the scientific world view (as relativity), or part of the romance surrounding the scientific world view (as time travel) then it is a science fiction story.

By this definition, Shakespeare’s HAMLET is not in the fantasy story genre, and the genre does not change whether or not the audience believes in ghosts. In the television show VERONICA MARS the teen detective sees her dead friend in a dream, but this show would not suddenly become a fantasy story if the ghost were real. On the other hand, THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR is a fantasy story, because the ghost is akin to the Witch in BEWITCHED and the Genii in I DREAM OF JEANNIE and the Martian in MY FAVORITE MARTIAN — the whole point of the show is the introduction into ordinary life of a fantastic element that has no natural explanation.

If your ghosts create electromagnetic disturbances when they walk, and can be captured by beams shot from unlicensed nuclear accelerators into magnetic containment units, as in GHOSTBUSTERS, at that point, ghosts or no ghosts, it is a science fiction story, because you are using elements from the scientific world view to perform your exorcisms.

By this definition, A WRINKLE IN TIME is science fiction and not fantasy even though it has witches and angels and demons in it, because the witches are depicted as space aliens, and the angels and demons, while clearly supernatural, are inhibitors of other planets and parallel dimensions. You could not read WRINKLE IN TIME to Dante without stopping to explain the Kepler model of the solar system and the Einstein model of the spacetime continuum. The fantasy elements exist within the naturalistic model of the modern scientific world view.

Likewise a Gnostic fairy tale like CHILDHOOD’S END is still science fiction, even though it has cartoony devil-creatures with batwings and horns, and ends with the enlightened spirits rising to the Pleroma and achieving unity with Godhead — but the humbug is scientific humbug and not magical humbug, and the Overlords and their Cosmic Over-Mind they serve as described as created by evolution, that is, as natural beings not supernatural, and so the tale is science fiction.

In other words, the story is science fiction if the audience must first understand the basic scientific model of the universe. I mean only the most basic idea: it is Science Fiction when the wandering stars are globes like Terra containing mortal beings, not spiritual realms as in Dante. When Cavor or Barbican travel to the moon, they do not meet the soul of Piccarda Donati, the Empress Constance, or other blessed spirits who broke their vows in life.

While a purist might insist that a movie where spaceships, engines roaring, make banked turns like World War One fighter jets, and make the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs is as far outside the scientific model of the universe as the Ptolemaic spheres of Dante, I would allow space opera to be science fiction because it is in the spirit of the scientific age, and captures the romance of science, even if scientifically illiterate. Call me an “impurist” if you will.

But, by Grabthar’s Hammer and Klono’s carbotanium claws, before you exile STAR WARS and its mystical “Force” to the fantasy wilderness outside the genre of science fiction, tell me how humbugs like the Mind Meld of Mr. Spock, the transporter beams and warps drives of STAR TREK, the mind-controlling Slaver race, teleportation, stasus-fields, ringworld material and breeding for luck from RINGWORLD, the history-controlling Seldon Plan and mind-controlling Psychohistorians of FOUNDATION, the Espers from STARSHIP TROOPERS, the angels (complete with halo and wings!) from STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, or the magical monkey-evolving Monolith spacewarpy magic door (“My God, its full of stars”) from 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY fit in to the standard scientific model of the cosmos, or any model.

Let us turn to the next question — what makes a story religious?

Myself, I do not regard merely having a character or a society portrayed as having or obeying a religious creed as significant. The religion of the Fremen of Dune, which is descends from Zen Buddhism and Sunni teachings, does not bring the story out of the definition of science fiction, nor more than does the Orange-Catholic religion of the thinly disguised outer space version of the Byzantine Empire of Shaddam IV and the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. I do not see this as different in principle from a story where John Carter, Warlord of Mars, runs across the odd and sinister cult of the Therns of Barsoom, or Conan facing the giant snake worshiped as a god by the Serpent-Cult of the sinister serpent-men of Valusia.

Outer space people worship space gods. This has been true in the very earliest strata of science fiction history. In SKYLARK OF SPACE (1928), the green skinned natives of Kondal (a favorite skin color for space people ever since) make a reference to “the First Cause” as a eupehmism for their monotheistic god (to my mind, a repellant and Darwinian god).

Again, in STARMAKER by Olaf Stapledon (1937) a monotheistic god is not only the McGuffin driving the plot, but comes on stage as a character in the apocalyptic climax at the end of this universe in a vision of multiple universes (once again, a repellant and Darwinian monotheistic god).

Before we Christians complain that our god is under-represented in the science fiction genre, I ask them to name for me the pirate stories, wild west stories, detective stories or even (oddly enough) ghost stories and  vampire stories where there is any mention of a god at all, or hint of divine presence, much less a Christian one. If anything, science fiction contains more mention and more speculation about gods and godlike things than other genres.

Science fiction certainly comments about the role of religion in society — usually societies where savage green men are about to sacrifice a gorgeous yet nubile half-clad space princess to an insane all-powerful computer they worship as an idol, so the commentary is usually quite sophomoric; but then again, our beloved genre contains magical monkey-evolving Monoliths and Seldon Plans and Ringworld material and faster-than-light drives, so no one expects our theology or anthropology to be more sophisticated than our physics.

The story of DUNE is certainly about religion: Paul Muad-Dib is certainly a messiah-figure, but there is no implication that a character in the story named God actually selected Paul to lead the Fremen jihad — rather, the clear implication is that genetics and mind-training and alien chemicals gave Paul Way Cool mind powers, but these powers are something that exist as scientific non-supernatural phenomena in that background. The Bene Gesserit Witches are not really witches, not in the sense that Hermione Grangier or Samantha Stephens or Glinda the Good is a Witch.

So I would not call DUNE a “religious” story for the simple fact that it is not read for the edification of the faith, or of any faith. It is not like PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, whose main point is edification of the faith.

STAR WARS is less religious than a sober work contemplating religious themes, such as THE SPECTRE from DC comics or that insightful meditation on the intricacies of Taoism known as BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. I have written an entire essay on the question of religion in STAR WARS, which you can buy here, and which I will not repeat here.

Here I will say only that ‘The Force’ in STAR WARS is, by design, the most vague and undemanding of mystical humbugs, and the point is to allow space-samurai with laser swords to do backflips, catch blaster bolts, and throw objects with their minds, or shoot lightning from their fingertips.

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA is a slightly different question, because it is modeled on some events from the Book of Mormon, and because, at least in the original series, supernatural good and bad angels came on stage as characters. In that respect, it is like, for example, Orson Scott Card’s HOMEGOING series, which had similar themes.

I assume a Mormon could achieve some religious edification from the work, the same way I receive religious edification from, for example, THE SILVER CHAIR by CS Lewis: but in each case, I don’t think that is the primary purpose of the work.

Contrast this with THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, where I think religious instruction is the primary purpose of the work—it is not a horror story or a ghost story, but a thinly disguised series of lectures on matters particular to the Christian faith.

In this way, the religious stories are like love stories or horror stories. A horror story with a scientific element in the background, such as FRANKENSTEIN, is still shelved with other horror stories because its primary purpose is to arouse a certain emotion in the mind of the reader.

Does having Way Cool mind powers make the story a fantasy? Is it a fantasy if a Luke Skywalker is able to perform psychokenesis, or Mr. Spock able to perform a Mind Meld, or the Gray Lensman Kimball Kinneson able to see through walls, or Jommy Cross able to read minds, or Gilbert Gosseyn able to teleport, or Michael Valentine Smith able to do all of the above?

I would say it depends on the humbug used to explain why and how these people have these powers. If the powers are granted by divine Providence or a Deal with the Devil, it is different than if they are granted by Mentor of Arisia or the Old Ones of Mars.

You can have a story about the rise of the Anti-Christ without it being science fiction — ROSEMARY’S BABY, for example, I would shelve next to DRACULA and THE SHINING in the horror section rather than next to GALACTIC PATROL and STARSHIP TROOPERS.

I do not mean to make my nice, simple definition “science fiction is the mythology of the scientific era” any more complex than it seems, but I have to add one thing: merely writing in a background of a religion some people believe and others do not does not put the book into or out of the science fiction or fantasy genre. I am a Christian: I believe the events of the Apocalypse will take place either literally or symbolically, as described, and I believe echoes or types of those events have already happened.

But if I wrote or read a fictional account of these events, whether or not I defined the tale as fantasy would depend on the type of humbug used to make the make-believe seem believable.

If the anti-Christ came from Mars, as he does in Robert Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, it is science fiction. (Oh, come on: I know Mr. Heinlein did not mean his satire to be read in that way, but as a textbook example of a false messiah, you might admit Mike the Martian preaching eugenics and Free Love fits the bill.)

If the anti-Christ is a talking Ape from Talking-Animal-Land, who preaches that Aslan is the same as Tash, it is fantasy.

If the story took place in the modern world in the day after tomorrow, and the wove real events in the Middle East into the plot, it would be a mainstream fiction or political thriller, and I would not automatically shelve the book with GALACTIC PATROL merely because one of the characters was a modern-day Nero or Anti-Christ, even if he has Way Cool Mind Powers.

Let me put this last point another way: as far as pirate stories go, TREASURE ISLAND is a pirate story, and so is PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, and merely having ghosts in the pirate story does not make it not a pirate story. On the other hand, there are pirates both in GALACTIC PATROL and in ON STRANGER TIDES, which I would call science fiction and fantasy respectively, because the humbug used to explain the make-believe are either scientific (as the Lens of Arisia granting Way Cool Mind Powers) or fantasy explanations (as the lack of iron in the New World allowing ancient magics to thrive there which died off in Europe).

A story in a Christian background, such as A CHRISTMAS CAROL or ANGEL ON MY SHOULDER or HEAVEN CAN WAIT, even if written by a writer and read by a reader who does not take that background as true, is still a mainstream and not an SFF story for the same reason a pirate story with a ghost in it is a pirate story and not a ghost story even for readers who don’t believe in ghosts.

As I said, I have not read LEFT BEHIND books. I don’t know if the book’s primary purpose is the edification of the faith or if the writer is merely writing a thriller taking the events in the Apocalypse and playing them out in the modern day.  If the book is a thriller set in the modern day, I would say it is not science fiction.

The religious beliefs of the reader and writer, as far as my definition is concerned, do not matter. It is the way the elements are handled inside the book that matter.

So the reader who does not believe in the Christian faith should not shelve LEFT BEHIND with WIZARD OF OZ in the fantasy section merely on the basis of that disbelief, any more than my pagan friends should shelve THE LIGHTNING THIEF or THE DRESDEN FILES next to GONE WITH THE WIND or HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER in the mainstream fiction section on the basis of their belief in Zeus or White Magic.

Please read and support my work on Patreon!