02 November 1991

God in Science Fiction

Revised 2001

If God didn't exist, man would have to invent Him. - Voltaire, 1769
Safely trancendentalized, the Yaweh of normative tradition has become a kind of gaseous vapor, fit only for representation through the resources of science fiction. - Harold Bloom, The Book of J, 1990
I remember the phrase, "man lost his gods," from Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. Of course, after that loss, the benevolent Aliens who take over the world reveal that they are working for Overmind, a vast fiery mountainous thing that flits from planet to planet absorbing whole intelligent species into itself. It may not be the God of normative tradition, but it's Clarke's best substitute.

His second best is the enigmatic race that made TMA-1, the absolutely black monolith of the 2001, 2010, 2061, 3001 series. Again, not the God of tradition, just the one that enabled humans to evolve from their ape-like ancestors, and then disappeared until humanity went looking for them. If you ask me, they're a high-tech version of Deus Absconditus or the God in Hiding, who started the Universe and then abandoned it (possibly leaving a last message in mile-high letters on a cliff somewhere as in Douglas Adams' So Long and Thanks for all the Fish). However, by 3001 humanity tries to (at least temporarily) kill Clarke's Deus because it threatens to come looking for us.

Isaac Azimov does it, too. In the Foundation series the idea of God starts out as the force of psychohistory, a mathematical description of societal evolution, and Hari Seldon is its prophet. Then the Mule steps in as Anti-Christ, only to be vanquished by the psychohistorians, the forces of Good. But wait, now God changes into Gaia, a planet with organized life that shares a collective consciousness, and makes a bid to take over the galaxy. No, not quite — Gaia is unsure of itself and appeals to another prophet, an ordinary guy who has a (dare I say it) God-given talent for leaping intuitively to the correct non-rational conclusion in any given situation. In his quest to rationally justify his intuitive decision regarding Gaia, he runs smack into God again — this time in the form of a robot who guided the peopling of the galaxy, the foundation of psychohistory, the organization of Gaia, and the final journey of our intuitive wise man. (Otto J. Makela recommends that you also read his short story, "The Final Question.")

Other authors parody our concepts of God. Theodore Sturgeon depicts in the short story "Microcosmic God" an ogre of a scientist, who invents a new miniature life form that lives on timescales millions of times faster than our own. He acts as a force of unnatural selection, forcing the development of an intelligent species called Neoterics, and insuring their compliance to his will via terrible punishments visited on whole populations.

Then there is Stanislaw Lem's collection of reviews of non-existent books, A Perfect Vacuum. In one review he presents a universe complete with intelligent life, that exists only in software. The inhabitants think they are real, and that we are God. In another review Lem discusses the idea that the universe we live in bears little relation to the universe as created — that it has been remade with the various physical constants (including the speed of light) reset so that we later beings can't get at the intelligent godlike Aliens that evolved billions of years earlier.

In short, we do invent and represent God, because it seems we can't do without God even when we reject the traditional ideas of God — and it makes for some damn good science fiction. The best, I think.

More theological SCI-FI. Feel free to add to this list by posting comments.
  1. Calculating God, Robert J. Sawyer. Intelligent Design theory (as distinct from Creationism) taken to its extreme. Mass extinctions seem to have been arranged to occur simultaneously on earth and four other planets in four other stellar systems. An alien from one of them lands in front of a museum wanting to consult an earth paleontologist to find out what God may have meant by this. For more see Robert's website!
  2. Canticle for Liebowitz, Walter Miller. A theological meditation on the religious meaning of nuclear war, complete with Lazarus as the Wandering Jew.
  3. Cradle, Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee. Clarke's Deus shows up as benign this time. The last word of the novel describes the whole book: "Fantastic."
  4. The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. Contains the theological stories "The Nine Billion Names of God," about a Tibetan lamasery that uses supercomputer technology speed up its work, and "The Star," about a jesuit in a spaceship en route to explore a supernova remnant.
  5. Last and First Men and Star Maker: Two Novels, W. Olaf Stapledon. Practically the origin of theological speculation in science fiction. Nearly every sf-writer since has developed themes that Stapledon pioneered in these two works, as well as the technique of plot-as-character, which Stapledon takes to an extreme, because of the vast expanses of time covered in these novels. Last and First Men covers the entire future of humanity from the 1930's to the death of the sun, while the Star Maker covers the life span of the entire universe, including the encounter of the conscious universe with God!
  6. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein. Valentine Michael Smith, raised by Martians, returns to earth and founds a '60s religious movement. Teleportation, telepathy, free love, and grokking give this novel a dated feel, but it is notable for its blurring of the line between life and death — for example, a Martian artist becomes so engrossed in his creation that he works continuously through his own death, causing confusion among Martian art critics as to how to categorize his piece. You can balance it with Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Joe Buss recommends Job: A Comedy of Justice.
  7. Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction,edited by Jack Dann. Explores what it means to be Jewish by taking the question to extra-terrestrial Jews. Full of charm and wit, I especially liked The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV by Robert Silverberg for its valuing of the whole range of Jewish tradition from secular-liberal to Orthodox. — suggested by Kelly
  8. The "Ender" quartet of novels by Orson Scott Card, consisting of Ender's Game,Speaker for the Dead,Xenocide, an Children of the Mind.Via an epic Sci-Fi saga covering the adventure of Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (the Wandering Gentile, if there ever was one) across 3000 years of human expansion into nearby star systems, Card explores themes such as the pre-existence and immortality of the soul, Divine Providence, degrees of foreign-ness, apotheosis, guilt and innocence, dying to oneself, and more. Although the Abrahamic God never makes a personal appearance, religions of all sorts, including a heretical misinterpretation of the Christian Gospel by an alien species, play a pivotal role. It is noteworthy that Card's aliens are really non-human in important and plot-driving ways. The final volume contains just enough of Card's personal theology that one may be inspired to pick up the Book of Mormon, just to see where he's coming from. Andrew McClanahan also recommends Card's Homecoming saga.
  9. The classic Space Trilogy by C. S. Lewis, consisting of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. I haven't read them yet. Would anyone like to contribute a capsule review?
  10. The Sparrow, by Maria Doria Russell, describes a Jesuit mission to Alpha Centauri, and the difficulties in reaching out to alien cultures without harming them or being harmed by them. (Suggested by Kim W.)
  11. Only Begotten Daughter, by James Morrow. "How could you not like a story about the Second Coming happening to a single Jewish man from New Jersey?" writes Jackie Gross.
  12. Solaris, another book by Stanislav Lem, recommend by James Stafford.
  13. Rautavaara's Case, a short story by Philip K. Dick, recommended by Derza Fanistori. The plasma-based beings of Proxima Centauri engage in a bit of experimental theology on a human.
  14. Small Gods, a satire of the church by Terry Pratchett, also recommended by Derza Fanistori. Here is the Wikipedia summary.

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