Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Science fiction & supernaturalism

SF is a very popular literary and cinematic genre. What accounts for its popularity?

It’s often said that SF is the Western genre transposed to outer space. There’s some truth to that, but not the whole truth.

The basic appeal of SF is the domestication of the impossible. Technology makes possible many things which were hitherto impossible. And futuritic technology extends the domestication of the impossible.

Technology is a kind of mechanized magic.

SF has often been a vehicle for secular humanism. The utter antithesis of Christian supernaturalism

And yet, at a deeper level—or, should I say, a more superficial level?—SF is a secularized strain of supernaturalism.

It’s a way of making miraculosity acceptable for the self-respecting atheist. He doesn’t believe in God, angels, demons, healers, or seers.

And yet he’s still a mirabilist at heart. His boxy materialism feels too claustrophobic to house the limitless aspirations of the soul.

So he creates an ersatz supernaturalism. A literary genre which allows him lead a double life—to play Moses or Elijah in the movie theater while he impersonates Bertrand Russell or Richard Dawkins in the classroom.


  1. I do find it curious that many non-believers categorically rule out any possibility of a physical resurrection because it’s "scientifically impossible" to cheat death.

    Most of my non-Christian friends who take this view are also enthusiastic fans of science fiction: yet, if Spock, Obi-Wan or Conor McLeod be not risen from the dead (without violating all conceivable laws of science), then this definition is in vain. That is, what they’re watching/ reading is not science fiction but fantasy (a genre most of them reject with disgust, except for Tolkien) on a par with elves and unicorns.

    Have they forgotten Clarke’s Law, that any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic? Yet they won’t attribute the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection or the loaves and fishes to Velikovsky/ von Däniken-style intervention by vastly superior aliens, masquerading as Yahweh or as angels.

    Instead, they simply assert that such events are complete inventions and could never have happened at all.

  2. Instead, they simply assert that such events are complete inventions and could never have happened at all.

    Yeah, those atheists are so stoopid. Blind acceptance of whatever we're told is much better than their highbrow skeptical discrimination!

  3. This is true and false because it lumps together things that are unlike. There is a difference, sometimes a vast difference, between "science fiction" and "sci-fi". What I think you're referring to here is the latter; this is a common confusion, and in many people's minds there isn't any difference.

    According to John W Campbell, Jr, who edited science fiction magazines in the 1930s through 1950s, "science fiction" presumes a technically competent author who thinks that the future-fictional scenario he's (I'm old enough that my use of "he" is not meant to be gender-specific) writing about is actually possible. For example, when Arthur C. Clarke wrote about satellites in geosyncronous orbit in the 1940s or 1950s, it was science fiction. Now everyone with satellite TV depends on it. Much (not all) of Robert A. Heinlein's work falls into this category.

    "Sci-fi", however, fails one of the two tests. Much of what passes for "science fiction" in the mind of ordinary folks is really stuff like Babylon 5, in which a (self-admitted) technically incompetent writer/creator who's read enough from both categories composes a decent story in a fairly consistent universe, though he does it without the scientific knowledge to get everything right. He also inserted a supernaturalism on the universe that was a combination of Buddhist and Hindu influences and was unable to do without it.

    There's a third category some folks use, charmingly named "skiffy". Skiffy fails both of Campbell's tests; it uses science fiction props (usually) in a futuristic universe, but without technical competence on the part of the author and without the presumption on the part of the author that the events described might actually happen; frequenly metaphysical devices are also added to the story.

    Star Trek (all versions) waffles between this latter pair of categories; beginning with The Next Generation series, it was famous for telling writers not to actually put the names of any technology into their scripts, but to use annotations like "[insert tech here]".

  4. Steve,

    I enjoy science fiction and am a Christian. Are you saying that there is a problem with Christians enjoying it, or just that there is a strong correlation between the genre and naturalistic tendencies?

  5. Due to common grace, there's a lot of suitable reading material which may not be Christian.

  6. > "Yeah, those atheists are so stoopid. Blind acceptance of whatever we're told is much better than their highbrow skeptical discrimination!"

    Interesting that you assume Christians blindly accept whatever we're told. Your evidence for this?

    I've also noticed that, in science fiction, whenever a character (usually an alien) claims that some apparent miracle occurred, the other characters (usually skeptical Earth scientist types) [a] first deny that it could have happened at all, and then [b] if shown it did happen, posit a naturalist explanation for it.

    I realised this watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (until Pastor Chuck ordered me to stop watching atheist propaganda, so of course I immediately obeyed...). The Federation characters don't believe the Bajorans that "the Prophets" exist at all. When it's shown that they do, the naturalist explanation immediately flips to "Well, of course they're just highly advanced aliens, then. They can't really be gods."

    It's the "of course" bit that's a giveaway: the explanation is *always* very obvious and simple. Analogous to skeptics' duelling explanations of the Resurrection: well, *of course* Jesus died and stayed dead. He did reappear alive? Oh, well, then, *of course* he must have just swooned on the Cross.

  7. Steve while I agree that many if not most science fiction writers do posit a naturalistic explanation for everything. There are those Christian science fiction writers that do use a Christian worldview in their developement of their story. Lewis' Space Trilogy comes to mind. I think it depends on what you mean by "science fiction" there is in that genre both the "hard" style which is very detailed orientated and sometimes even brings in scientific formulae to back it up. There are others who just use "technology" as a prop to tell the story.

  8. There are examples of Christian believers writing science fiction, even the 'hard' stuff - I talked about some of them here: