Sunday, April 28, 2013


One of my earliest sci-fi moments was putting a question to the pretentious stuffed-shirt of a Presbyterian minister who was trying to browbeat my little 8th grade group (all girls) into being good church members.  I asked -- and I was quite serious about the question and quite blind to what the effect would be on the minister --  “Did Jesus die for whatever humanoids live on other planets and, if He did, was it necessary for Him to be crucified and if those humanoids had four arms, would those people wear asterisks on chains instead of crosses?”

Well . . . he never liked me even before I asked my question.  But it was clear that sci-fi and religion had a mixed and rather emotional relationship.  I have an anthology that was published in 1982, the year I left seminary to start ministry.  It’s just a little paperback called “Perpetual Light” that was edited by Alan Ryan, but the collection uses either traditional religious stories or concepts as springboards for sci-fi that’s not on the hard science end of a long continuum.  There’s a pretty blonde feathered angel on the cover.  The VERY first sci-fi I read was my father’s H.G. Wells’ short stories, often a tougher sort of speculation.  The first complete novel was “The Red Planet Mars.”  Robert Heinlein remained important for me and I’m sure he was for George Lucas as well, but I suspect that Lucas never made the connection I did between “The Martian Chronicles” and the Blackfeet nation.  My Blackfeet friend says “A Stranger in a Strange Land” is the story of his life.

Two short stories have remained with me for more than fifty years, though I don’t know who wrote them.  Both were based on classic Greek mythology-religion.  In one story a space sailor went to a planetary brothel where the female intimacy-provider was wearing a big turban.  Settled in a small private room, she unwound her turban, revealing not snakes but worms and not ordinary worms.  They were electric, slithery with the gel used for a sonograms.  They were long and there were a LOT of them.  The sailor was enveloped in ecstasy beyond anything he had ever known.  Finally emptied, the sailor was absorbed by the tentacles into the Medusa.

The other story was about a beloved woman, a dancer, whose body died.  Scientists kept her brain alive and gave her a new body made of golden bangles, cleverly shaped  in rings which fitted together in sequence and reproduced the woman’s shape.  They were held together by magnetic forces.  Eurydice could dance more beautifully than ever before, glinting as she moved.  I forget what equivalent to “looking back” this futuristic Orpheus couldn’t resist, but somehow her brain, her identity source, died.  Maybe the music stopped.  The golden rings showered to the floor, scattered and chiming.

The best science fiction mixes “hard science” with human truths, like the series of stories about the children who survived an alien spaceship crash.  They appeared to be human, but could fly and read minds.  Far from being recognized as “above average,” they were resented -- maybe the way science nerds are in high school -- and had to work out strategies for sticking together.  Prejudice is not always against the stupid or ugly.  Sometimes a person can be too good.  

Or there is another beloved scifi story that comes from the Old Testament fantasies about what an angel might be like.  An old lady is washing the dishes and glancing at her backyard through the window over the sink.  With no warning, straight down out of the sky, an angel crashes, the traditional bare young man with wings.  She rushes out to help him, carrying a mug of warm milk she had made for herself.  Impulsively, she holds up his head and gets him to sip it.  This brings the life back into the angel and he is soon well enough to fly off.  Then she realizes that touching him had brought a kind of radioactive force into her that has healed her rheumatism.

The metaphors go back and forth: sometimes the idea is the mythical Ouroboros, the snake with its tail in its mouth, and sometimes it’s the benzene ring.  There are levels:  science hardware builds the computer, software science writes the programs and algorithms, and the human wetware yearns to go beyond -- tries to capture the unknown, even the unsuspected, maybe by writing stories.  The hard science is intriguing: I recall an essay describing the metabolism of green blood, copper-based, that worked on methane instead of oxygen.  I can’t remember the particulars, just that it was so detailed and possible.  But then the implications:  could a red-blooded human love a green-blooded alien?

The answer to the asterisk vs. cross question is that sentient beings draw meaning from their material culture according to their perceptual means and the issues that concern them.  Crucifixion was specific to the Romans, a penalty imposed on hundreds of people so that the early Christians understood that Jesus was given a common death, to diminish Him, since He dared to rouse the rabble.  On this planet the matrix of vertebrate evolution has been tetrapods -- though the “pods” might be fins or wings -- therefore, a cross.  On another planet there might indeed be people with four arms, but they might not have necks, so nothing to hang jewelry from.  Maybe no impulse to self-adorn anyway.  is an interesting summary revealing that either all sci-fi or the maker of the list is focused on ideas from a Judeo-Christian context, though they may be reinterpreted.  Not Islamic or Buddhist stories. makes a list of stories that include religions.  So far most of the writing I know about is either trying to explain miracles scientifically or depicting an invented institutional religious system.  Few, if any, writers have enough theological or comparative religion background to get below descriptions of material culture or moral systems, but that’s not always a problem.  I remember one tale about a planet that was mostly sea so that the sentient beings that had developed were like our earthly seals except that they were all empathic.  Every individual had full awareness of what was in the mind of every other individual, no matter how distant on the the planet they might be.  As it turns out, there was a pretty dark side to what would seem like a major advantage -- and this was written before the Internet was invented.  Now we’re living out that story.

A new scientific realm is barely opening now: neurofunction in the brain and body.  It has become clear that a lot of what we know is in the muscles and gut, and in the subconscious parts of the mind, but possibly traced and understood through acute technological monitoring.  First came the explanation of how we are conscious, then how we feel we are a “self,” and then an awareness of how much thought is “under” words -- far more than Freud ever suspected.  A human being appears to be a process, like a fire, running on oxygen, never the same from one minute to the next, but unwilling to see things in a new way because it does not know how.  Our work is cut out for us.

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