A few weeks back I did a guest lecture on “Science, Technology and Human Being” in the Laidlaw postgraduate course R202 God’s World: Theology and Science and Theology. I framed my discussion using a trajectory through science fiction starting with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” through to contemporary narratives, focusing on the hopes and fears expressed about science and technology at different points in that trajectory.
As part of that, I offered the students some starting points for engaging with science fiction writing with overt theological themes and characters. This wasn’t a definitive list, but somewhere they could start if they were unfamiliar with science fiction.
Here’s my first part of my list of starting points.
James Blish – A Case of Conscience (1958)
“This is the story of a Jesuit who investigates an alien race that has no religion yet has a perfect, innate sense of morality, a situation which conflicts with Catholic teaching.”
For a related story, Ken MacLeod’s 2005 short story “A Case of Consilience” plays on Blish’s story for another take of the proclamation of the gospel in an alien context. You can read the story in a number of science fiction anthologies or at the link below:
Ray Bradbury – The Man (1951)
Space explorers find a planet where the population is in a state of bliss. Upon investigation, they discover that an enigmatic visitor came to them, whom the spacemen come to believe is Jesus. One decides to spend his life rejoicing in the man’s glory. Another uses the spaceship to try to catch up to the mysterious traveller, but at each planet he finds that ‘He’ has just left after spreading his word. Other members of the crew remain on the planet to learn from the contented citizens, and are rewarded by the discovery that ‘He’ is still on the planet.
A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)
A series of three connected episodes over thousands of years in a post-apocalyptic future where the church preserves scientific knowledge in a new “dark age” and civilization rebuilds itself.
The Babylon 5 episode “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars” (Season 4 Episode 22) has a section which closely resembles some of the Canticle material, a point noted by series creator J. Michael Straczynski over at the Babylon 5 Lurker’s Guide where JMS comments:
It was only when I was about halfway into the act that I thought, “Oh, crud, this is the same area Canticle explored.” And for several days I set it aside and strongly considered dropping it, or changing the venue (at one point considered setting it in the ruins of a university, but I couldn’t make that work realistically…who’d be supporting a university in the ruins of a major nuclear war? Who’d have the *resources* I needed? The church, or what would at least LOOK like the church. My sense of backstory here is that the Anla-shok moved in and started little “abbeys” all over the place, using the church as cover, but rarely actually a part of it, which was why they had not gotten their recognition, and would never get it. Rome probably didn’t even know about them, or knew them only distantly.)
Anyway…at the end of the day, I decided to leave it as it was, since I’d gotten there on an independent road, we’d already had a number of monks on B5, and there’s been a LOT of theocratic science fiction written beyond Canticle…Gather Darkness, aspects of Foundation, others.
As an aside, Babylon 5 has some fine theological pieces woven through it. I’d recommend:
- Confessions and Lamentations (S02 E18)
- Passing through Gethsemane (S03 E04)
- And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place (S03 E20)
- Voices in the Dark: Over Here