Wednesday, November 07, 2007

full of god

In the new issue of Bookslut, Paul Kincaid tells us why he has a problem with today's science fiction.

You see, I think of science fiction as an essentially rationalist literature. That is why I date it from Utopia, that key work of humanist thought. During the seventeenth century, in that ferment of new ideas which saw the Protestant revolution and the rise of modern science, we got the first aliens (in Ben Jonson’s Newes from the New World Discover’d in the Moone), the first mechanical conveyance to another world (in Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone) and the first novel set in the future (Samuel Gott’s Nova Solyma). During the Enlightenment, when rational thought and religion were finally and, so it seemed, irrevocably separated, we got everything from the competent man as hero (Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe) to the competent man usurping God (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). And from those intellectual foundations, rational and secular, you can trace the whole growth of science fiction through the works of Wells and Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke and Bradbury and on up to Gibson and Sterling and Baxter.

The universe was immense, cold, frightening, but knowable. It was a puzzle to be solved through thought not faith. Religion wasn’t absent from science fiction, of course, but where it did appear it was as a sociological rather than a theological phenomenon. And, in works such as Arthur C. Clarke’s "The Star," Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or Harry Harrison’s "The Streets of Ashkelon," it was approached from a questioning if not overtly hostile position. Furthermore, while sf has always had more than its fair share of aliens with godlike powers, they remained images of technological advancement beyond our ken, not objects of worship. When, in Appleseed, John Clute recast as space opera the theme of killing god from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, god is an alien race in the form of the worm ouroburos.

Over the last few years, however, I’ve noticed more than a few stories in which the deus ex machina turns out to be a literal deus. Forever Peace, Joe Haldeman’s feeble sequel to The Forever War, is a case in point. The original was a superb piece of work in which the implacable physical effects of time dilation and the cold immensity of the universe stood for a searing analysis of the effects of the Vietnam War. In the sequel the disruption of the physical laws of the universe turns out to be just the effects of a god messing about with his creation. The universe is no longer a natural occurrence obeying strict laws, but an unnatural place where a supreme being can quietly decide to influence the lives of mere humans. This is science fiction as a child of Homer or Job, not of Shelley or Wells.

More here.