Science Fiction as Prophetic Witness or Scientific Gospel?

james

On iTunes University (in the MIT Arts section) there is a lecture/moderated discussion given by Joe Haldeman entitled “The Craft of Science Fiction.”  In it, Mr. Haldeman briefly discusses Hugo Gernsback, one of the great early Science Fiction (hitherto: SF) pioneers, and founder of the first SF magazine, Amazing Stories.  Gernsback saw SF as a tool to popularize and advocate for science and technology.  Riffing off of that idea, Haldeman proposes that today SF–and especially hard SF:

“is a tool against religion…a tool for rationalism, and a rational approach to solving life’s problems.”  

Ironically, Joe Haldeman’s best known work, The Forever War, could easily be construed as a story about how technology isolates us and makes us less human; hardly a tool for the rational approach to solving life’s problems, but then again we each bring our own biases to the table when we pick up a novel (or any other book).

In any event, it got me thinking: what ideological purposes does/should SF have?  Should a SF story be a gospel narrative about the good news of science?  Or should it be a prophetic voice calling out in the wilderness of of unbridled, post-industrial science-run-amok?

I realized most of my favorites in the genre do not advocate for faith in science or “rationality” as Haldeman would prefer, nor do they (often) completely discount science or technology.  So briefly, I want to mention two books, easily some of the best in the genre, that explore science’s limits and possibilities, and at the same time have things to say about religion and spirituality.  Each of these books deserve multi-thousand word reviews, but this is supposed to be a short post so please don’t let brevity undermine your understanding of these book’s quality or import.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Lem, one of the world’s best and probably Europe’s best practitioner of SF, wrote Solaris in Polish in 1961.  It was translated into English from a French translation in 1970, and a direct Polish to English translation was only just published as an audio book a few months ago with an ebook soon to follow.  There are also two film adaptations which deviate somewhat from the novel.

Solaris is a planet with one giant, conscious organism.  The human characters in the book, all scientists, discover through a certain kind of interaction with this alien organism that science cannot answer all questions, and that the most problematic and disturbing of these unanswered questions are about themselves.  This is one of the great philosophical novels of the 20th century.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller

By my estimation, this is the greatest post-apocalyptic story of all time (and the cover, above, is totally sweet).  After a nuclear holocaust, a remote Catholic monastery keeps human learning and the cultural memory of the past alive.  It is deeply moving novel which–with no lack of irony–simultaneously warns us of the dangers and evils of science without conscience, and commends to us the indomitable curiosity that is one of the noblest and best aspects of humanity and is the basis of all science.

++++

Part of a (Long) Series of (Short) Posts about Science and Technology

The Tragic Irony of Technology  Coltan, cellphones and being connected

Singularity, Progress, and Darwinian Common Sense  Artificial Intelligence and Sciencism

Middleduction A post that would have made a nice introduction

Science Fiction as Prophetic Witness or Scientific Gospel? 

Technology and Language  u r n 4 a gr8 time, lol (coming soon)

Creating the Problem in Order to Fix It (coming soon)

More on Sciencism (coming soon)

Kierkegaardian Dread (coming soon)

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7 Comments

  1. Those are 2 of my favorite novels (and not SF novels, just novels in general.) Canticle for Leibowitz is a special favorite of mine.

    Have you read anything by Neal Stephenson? He also takes a realistic, balanced approach to the development and use of technology, especially in his novel Cryptonomicon.

    Reply

  2. Jordan,

    I have not read Stephenson, although he’s been on my radar for awhile. Someone gave me the second book in one of his series, but I never picked up the first…Cryptonomicon is the one that partly deals with WWII cryptography?

    Reply

    1. WWII cryptography is a major element in Cryptonomicon. But what makes it interesting is that codebreaking is all about finding meaning in apparently meaningless nonsense, and the human drive to search for and interpret patterns in order to make sense of life is what the novel is really interested in.

      I assume the book your friend gave you is King of the Vagabonds, the 2nd novel of the Baroque Cycle. It’s actually kind of a prequel to Cryptonomicon, so you might want to wait on that.

      Reply

  3. I read Canticle and The Road alongside eachother. Both classics of the post-apocalyptic genre. Though I was left cold on the ending of Canticle and left hopeful with The Road. As SF genius Spider Robinson says, “All SF should utlimately be about hope.” And hope is the last word for our faith.

    Reply

  4. That’s interesting, Josh. I have not read The Road. Friends had told me that it was too nihilistic, with no hope whatsoever. That is apparently not the case?

    Reply

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