October 2007

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

Godís in his heaven, allís wrong with the world

You won’t get many people to agree on a starting point for science fiction. I’ve seen impassioned and authoritative arguments that date the whole genre from Hugo Gernsback, from H.G. Wells, from Edgar Allen Poe, from Mary Shelley, or from Johannes Kepler. Myself, just to push the whole story back a little further still, I tend to favour Thomas More, and the publication of Utopia in 1516.

That is not to say that the whole genre sprang fully grown from that one work. But one of the seeds that grew into sf was planted there. More seeds have been planted over the centuries since then, some by the people listed above, and together they have grown into the complex and indefinable mess that is contemporary science fiction.

If you’ve been reading science fiction as long as I have, it may seem counterintuitive to name a Catholic saint as one of the founding fathers of the genre. After all, as Adam Roberts claimed in his History of Science Fiction, sf is a profoundly Protestant mode. But if you’re a rather more recent convert to the cause, it may not seem that strange at all. Because contemporary science fiction seems to be full of God.

Which is precisely why I have a problem with a lot of today’s sf. 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.

The most recent example is Jay Lake’s Mainspring. On the face of it this is steampunk set in an incredibly mechanistic universe. Imagine that an orrery is a literal rather than figurative model of the solar system. The orbits of moon and planets are traced by immense brass rings across the sky, while the southern hemisphere is cut off from the northern hemisphere by a vast wall topped with the teeth of the cog wheel around which the engine of the universe turns. It’s a lovely set of images, just the setting you would think for a drama that presents a searching examination of predestination, the implacability of the universe, the mystery of structure. Heaven knows, it’s a custom-made playground where you can have fun with all manner of scientific ideas.

Except that Lake doesn’t. In the very first page of the novel we meet the archangel Gabriel who tells our archetypal apprentice boy hero that he has been chosen by God to go to the opposite ends of the Earth to wind up the mainspring of this clockwork universe. From that moment on the notion that everything we see is the creation of God, everything that happens is the will of God, is an unchallenged, indeed an unexamined assumption throughout the book. (The question why an omniscient not to mention omnipotent God would choose to create a clockwork universe that could not be wound up by divine fiat is, presumably, beside the point. As is the question why he couldn’t find someone who lives closer to the mainspring.)

And this is not some off-stage God who might, despite the appearance of Gabriel, be imaginary. No, this is a hands-on God who keeps intruding on the plot. Every time the story runs out of steam he drops a literal plot coupon, a gold tablet engraved with a clue for the next stage of the adventure, at the feet of our young hero. It is, in other words, a novel in which you cannot escape God.

Now God may or may not be rational, but we cannot know the mind of God. So a universe in which God is a player ceases to be knowable or solvable by man. Therefore we are taken out of straight science fiction and into something that more nearly approaches fantasy.

I must stress, first of all, that Mainspring is not the first or even the worst example of this, just the most recent one to have crossed my desk. And second, this hybridization of science fiction and fantasy is not necessarily a bad thing. The borderland between the genres has produced some of the most interesting and challenging writing of recent years. But putting God at the head of a universe that is, in all other respects, purely science fictional is a category error of the most egregious and troubling kind. Let us try to maintain the secular and rational tradition that has been the defining characteristic of science fiction for the last 500 years.