Science Fiction/Fantasy and the Areopagus

My kids have been using their spare time to bone up on the Essential Marvel Comics. I know. This makes me a bad parent. Of course, when I was their age, I was poring over MAD Magazine. (I can still recall the cartoons—and the awe-inspiring sound effects—of Don Martin with crystalline clarity. The man was a genius!)

But for my kids, it’s all about X Men, Avengers, Iron Man, Spiderman, and well, the whole pantheon created by the incredibly fertile image minds of the makers at Marvel.

Indeed, what strikes me is how very much like an ancient pantheon the enormous and complex roster of superheroes is. As each year passes, their mythology becomes more and more dizzying. The curious juxtaposition of Limitless Cosmic Powers and “Why won’t MJ go with me to the prom?” human weakness makes Marvel characters so oddly reminiscent of the pagan gods of yore with their strange blend of petty jealousies and titanic omnipotence. The jungle of sheer imaginative complexity is kind of overwhelming. My kids are intimately familiar with all the biographical details of these demi-gods, who they dated, married, fought with, morphed into, killed, raised from the dead, and what not. The head starts to spin after a while. I don’t have enough free time to think about it much. But for a particular subculture, these stories (and thousands like them) are fascinating mythology.

Not that I don’t enjoy science fiction and fantasy novels and films, not least because they constitute perhaps the principal place in our culture where it is routine, expected, normal, and welcome to discuss matters of both theology and philosophy.

 

That’s a curious thing when you think about it. Science fiction is a genre whose founding fathers and mothers tended very often (though not exclusively, of course) to be the sort of people who were hard-boiled atheists of the Arthur C. Clarke/Isaac Asimov mold — people who spoke the word “Science” either with a sort of religious reverence or with the sort of stentorian triumphalism of a Thomas Dolby tune (“SCIENCE!”). Some of them, like H.G. Wells, managed to achieve both science worship and stentorian triumphalism in their work, writing books which were combinations of fun narrative and some of the preachiest, creakiest, most antiquated prophecies in print. Somebody, somewhere, has a doctoral dissertation practically written for them comparing the hilarious naïve socialist utopian optimism of Wells (who was hailed as the Voice of the Future in his day) and the disturbing prescience and truly prophetic work of his contemporary G.K. Chesterton, who was thought to be archaic by Progressive types, yet who foresaw many of the catastrophes his clever contemporaries would unleash by their inhuman theories. Simply reading Chesterton vs. almost the entire weight of pre-Holocaust Enlightened Opinion on Eugenics is enough to cure a person forever of any faith in Enlightened Opinion.

Science fiction and fantasy still has, of course, a strong tradition of the Triumph of the Secular at work in it. One need only look at the enormous cultural impact of the dim-witted social evolutionism in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek or the various incarnations of Childhood’s End tropes which litter the landscape in that genre. Everywhere we go, we see the deathless anticipation of the secular parousia when religion (meaning the God of Abrahamic tradition) will be outgrown, or pressed firmly back into a purely naturalistic and evolutionary setting. Even the great Babylon 5 rather lamely concludes the series with the standard “Scooby Doo” copout (“Hey! That’s no supernatural being before whom our genius is rebuked! That’s just old Mr. Jenkins in a rubber mask!”). Admittedly, Old Mr. Jenkins takes the form of Vorlons and Shadows. But at the end of the day, they are just really really old Mr. Jenkinses and they are no better than we. Indeed, both of these demi-god races are more or less left standing there fingering their hats in their hands nervously and mumbling inarticulately while we schmart guy humans demand they answer the insoluble existential riddles “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” Flummoxed by these mysteries impenetrable to any child that has not read the Baltimore Catechism and believed it, the aliens who have treated humanity as children and cattle retreat in shame at their metaphysical ineptitude while Humankind Come of Age takes its place in a universe now cleansed of our childish need for gods. We head off into history, free at last to create ourselves, etc. blah blah.

Outgrowing God is indeed a favorite theme of science fiction and fantasy. Evolution/technology/aliens/time travelers from the future/computers/what-not are always just about to prove that God does not exist, life after death is a fantasy, the soul is a function of matter, man is but a sophisticated meat machine, Jesus never existed, etc. And yet the astonishing thing is that science fiction and fantasy are absolutely awash in theological speculation. Lots of it is pagan, in the Chestertonian sense. That is, it is an attempt to reach God through the imagination, hampered by the inability to conceive of something truly outside the created world. The result is a sort of quasi-supernaturalism that acknowledges planes of existence beyond the human, but refuses to entertain the notion of angels and demons. Hence, a lot of science fiction/fantasy turns on creating beings who behave like fallen or unfallen angels—or Greek gods—but then falls back on the tired expedient of calling them “energy beings” or “incorporeal intelligences”, etc. It reminds me of nothing so much as Uncle Screwtape’s fervent dream of the Materialist Magician: the hoped-for “man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits’”.

Of course, the basic genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy have created a vast number of sub-genres, phyla, orders, families, species and what-not. And not all the DNA comes from the secular impulse. Tolkien, Lewis, Charles Williams, Madeleine L’Engle and various other Christian authors have made colossal contributions to it. Such figures as Gene Wolfe, Walter Miller, Sandra Meisel and others from a Catholic background have made serious contributions. Some, like Tim Powers, have had great fun vigorously re-asserting a distinctly Catholic worldview in some very wild tales.

A word about this Powers chap: I’ve been hooked on his work for the past several months. He writes “genre-bending” fiction which he describes as “secret histories”. For example, in Declare, he will plunge us into what appears to be a standard-issue spy novel a la John le Carré and then, with strange believability, draw us into intrigues that go far beyond the mere prosaic struggles of the Cold War into the Catholic awareness that “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Before you know it, the spy thriller has become a sort of horror novel involving fallen angels, British double agent Kim Philby, Noah’s Ark, djinn, and a weirdly credible and Byzantine explanation of the real struggle for the soul of the 20th Century that reaches far beyond merely human players.

Powers is a novelist of endless invention who, among other things, is simply having so much fun coming up with wilder and wilder ideas (a Los Angeles underworld that gets off on inhaling ghosts; a Mossad unit of crack psychics working to change history with Albert Einstein’s secret time machine; a man who roams 19th Century London switching bodies with hapless victims; Lord Byron battling Egyptian sorcerers; and much, much more) and he’s right at home in the worlds he creates. But he’s writing all the while as a fully Catholic author who confronts us, on these strange shores, with the Faith of the Church.

Similarly, Michael Flynn is a remarkable writer who brings his astounding erudition to bear on such books as Eifelheim, a fascinating novel set in the Black Forest in 1348. It tells the story of a well-educated medieval Catholic priest who encounters a craft of stranded extraterrestrials. Flynn’s thorough mastery of the culture, science, philosophy and theology of the time presents a modern audience—which is all too likely to imagine itself 800 years smarter than medieval Christians—with the formidable sophistication of the medieval mind. The story is both gripping and heartbreaking and is, I think, one of the finest novels ever written.

Likewise, new converts like the inimitable John C. Wright have a jolly time meeting the fans (a big percentage of them non-Christian with a formidable background in the sciences, philosophy, and literature) and speaking to them in their own terms. Wright, a convert to the Catholic Faith from atheism via non-denom Christianity, is a winsome fantasy writer, an original thinker, and a man bubbling with creativity. He is also just plain funny and equally at home in discussions of artificial intelligence and the need for more Space Princess pulp fiction. He has the knack of empathy and remembers his own difficulties with the Faith well enough that he can speak to those who still have them, while believing very deeply in the teaching of the Church and articulating it clearly.

Such work is, it seems to me, vital. Paul did not wait around for the Athenians to come to him. He walked into a city where, as Luke marveled, “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21), and opened his mouth on the Areopagus. It’s a perfect description of the world of fandom. Our culture has almost no place left where matters of philosophy and theology can be discussed freely in the public square. It’s out of court in politics, it does not sell beer and shampoo on television, our Chattering Classes are so ignorant of the most elementary points of both that the less said the better on almost any talk show you could name. But in the countless worlds of science fiction and fantasy, there is still limitless room for a talented Catholic writer to spin a yarn and proclaim the gospel thereby. God send more gifted apostles to this new Areopagus!

Mark Shea

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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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