More than Sand

My sci-fi roots may be showing, but when John W. Morehouse posted a story on TheoFantastique’s Facebook page about Dune, I had to follow up.  The story was from Wired magazine, and the title asks “Should There Be a Religion Based on ‘Dune’?  Although I grew up on Poe, science fiction was my favorite genre as a kid.  Frank Herbert’s classic was published when I was only three, but it was experiencing a resurgence before the movie came out.  Dune was  complex world building.  It was immersive, and compelling.  The movie, I felt, didn’t do it justice.  I’m not surprised that people are now wondering if it shouldn’t become a religion.  Other sci-fi-based religions do exist.  Star Wars and Avatar have both developed fan bases that consider the films their religion.

Movies have a way of becoming part of our reality.  The other day I was reflecting on how much my frame of reference for life is based on movies.  I quote from them frequently.  I draw wisdom, and sometimes just plain inanity from them.  But I remember them.  I spend a lot more time reading than I do watching movies.  If a book is engaging I’ll remember it well, but it isn’t unusual to forget—although I hope it’s still there somewhere in deep storage—a book that failed to make much of an impact.  I suppose that’s true of movies too, but I recall my first viewing of The Jungle Book in theaters.  How those hypnotic snake eyes scared me!  And there was a film whose title I can’t recall, but I remember it was vignettes of Hans Christian Andersen stories, I believe.  One was called “The Tinderbox.”  I still remember it well although I was probably about five when I saw it and I never watched it again.

This staying power of movies suggests their religious potential.  People today, I suspect, are less concerned with the antiquity or bona fides of a religion than they are with the practical issue of whether or not it works for them.  Does it bring them near some sense of transcendence?  While the Wired article doesn’t seriously suggest a religion based on Dune, I sometimes ponder how the wisdom of ancient religions is often entombed in forms and structures that “true believers” mistake for the actual essence of the religion itself.  Sci-fi based religions reach for the newly created realms of transcendence.  They are filled with wonder.  But it will only be a matter of time before that awe fades into arguments about which canonical version is literally true.  It’s happened before.

Gods and Fans

The blog Theofantastique started a couple of years before this one.  I remember that sense of childhood wonder that flooded me when I first saw its posts about books and movies with monsters—the kinds of things l always liked to read and watch.  But it was more than that.  This particular blog presents the very tangible connection between religion and horror.  Not only horror, though.  As the title indicates, this is a place for genre fiction of three closely related kinds: science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  The three are separated by mere degrees of semantics, and all three play very near to the third rail we call religion.  In my way of thinking, horror is probably the closest of the three, but I shift among this secular trinity and often wonder in which genre I am at the moment.

For someone who grew up being taught that religion was all about history—including a history of the future, mapped, plotted, and planned just as carefully as a summer vacation—seeing the connection with genres that are all acknowledged to be fiction was, at first, a little shocking.  I’d been taught in literature classes that genre fiction wasn’t really literature at all.  “Pulps” were printed on cheap paper because, as you might again guess from the name, they weren’t worth much.  Many of those books are now collectors’ items and cost a pulp mill to purchase.  My list of books from my childhood that I’d like to recover has me looking with some worry toward my bank book.  The thing is, these are often insightful statements about religion.

Monsters were always a guilty pleasure for me.  Being small, shy, and insecure, it was easy to understand things from the monster’s point of view.  And very often religion was implicated.  Sitting in my apartment in New Jersey, at times unemployed, I began to explore the connection between religion and horror.  I thought I was the only one.  Eventually I discovered kindred souls, and soon came to understand that monsters are perhaps the purest representations of what religion can do.  Even after writing two books about this subject, Theofantastique is a place unlike any other I know.  It has far more readers than I ever will, but this isn’t Godzilla v. Mothra.  No, we’re all in this together.  And we’re gathered together for one purpose.  In any other circumstances you’d say it was religious.

Utterly Indifferent

One of the main purposes of this blog, apart from being a kind of daily tablet for my thoughts, is to demonstrate that religion continues into the age of secularity.  It would be an uncomfortable stretch of the imagination to suggest Kurt Vonnegut was a religious writer, but it would also be a disservice to him to ignore just how much religion shows up in his novels.  Often the remarks are subtle and perhaps easily missed, but one of his early works, The Sirens of Titan, treads pretty solidly in that territory.  From the fact that monument to the twelve great religions was made by artisans who don’t know what those religions are to the founding of a new religion to unify humankind, this story never strays far from it.  It’s also, in my experience, the most science-fictiony of Vonnegut’s books.

The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent is the goal of Winston Niles Rumfoord’s doomed Martian attack on earth.  Because the Martians are actually brainwashed earthlings, they are sacrifices to the grand vision of all people sharing a single religion that recognizes God does nothing to help humans and humans, therefore, should not worry about serving God.  Clearly a religion that functions the opposite way of most actual religions—which try to keep God happy, often by harming other humans—Rumfoord’s vision is a united Earth.  One of the pawns in his scheme is his unhappy wife, and another is the biblically named Malachi Constant.  Constant built a ship to take humans to Mars.  Christening it The Whale, Constant took the pseudonym Jonah, which is something readers are increasingly ill-equipped to understand, but which demonstrates Vonnegut knew his Bible.

Religion plays throughout Sirens of Titan in ways that both poke fun at the seriousness with which religion is treated and with a certain respect for its power.  Vonnegut’s famous nihilistic leanings pervade the novel with an almost Job-like portrayal of Rumfoord, and several ethical questions lie beneath the apparent space-travel story.  Genre fiction, as I’ve intimated before, is intended to be slotted easily into recognized categories.  Critics reserve the sobriquet of “literary fiction” for those pieces that don’t really fit other patterns—not all fiction obeys the rules—and that’s where I’d put Sirens.  Yes, people zoom around in flying saucers and invasions from space are standard sci-fi tropes.  Engagement with religion, even if it is to question it, tends to move fiction into more serious categorizations, excluding, of course, novels written to promote a particular religion.  None of them would suggest a Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.  Unless, of course, they came from Kurt Vonnegut.

Bookmark This

I haven’t forgotten about horror.  In fact, this past late winter my list of must see movies has continued to grow.  I don’t subject you, my kind readers, to endless barrages about Holy Horror since I believe the idea behind the book is novel in its own right and can stand on its own.  The other day I even ordered bookmarks to be made, for free distribution.  Thing is, days are getting longer, and warmer, and people are thinking the opposite of horror just as spring is the equinoctial opposite of fall.  Like a good monster I’m biding my time.  And doing so on an editor’s budget.  (The pay scale’s not the same as that of a professor; believe me, I know.)  Horror’s funny that way—it is seasonal, at least in most people’s minds.

I make the point in the book that fear serves a useful function.  It occurs in other genres quite frequently, although they bear the outcast label less overtly than horror.  Perhaps this gets to the root of my fascination.  Having grown up as part of the pariah social class of the poor, my sympathies are with the genre that often fails to find respectability.  Many of those who criticize horror do not watch it.  Some of these films are quite sophisticated, and the genre blends into other “speculative” categories such as science-fiction and some action, as well as into the more naturalistic thriller.  And thrillers are merely dramas with an elevated pulse rate.  This difficulty of distinguishing genres sharply is one reason Holy Horror addresses some films that aren’t strictly horror.

Work continues apace on Nightmares with the Bible.  Again, the ex-professorate never receives sabbaticals during which concentrated work might be done on books.  In the pre-dawn hours, however, I steadily make progress.  Very shortly an article I wrote for Horizons in Biblical Theology on the topic will appear.  Safely during the spring.  As the days grow longer more of my weekend time is demanded by the outdoors aspect of home ownership, cleaning up after the freezing and thawing of a long winter when infelicities were safely covered under snow.  Sometimes I fear for the progress made on my next book—it is the first advance contract I have ever had—but then I remind myself that fear does serve useful functions.  It’s not called a deadline for nothing.  So even as the darkness fades I prepare for the next round to begin.

The Persistence of Unity

I came across some Ray Bradbury books while unpacking.  I recently learned that Ray Bradbury was a Unitarian.  Now, the religion of a writer is only ever an ancillary bit of information, yet for someone of my combination of interests, it’s compelling intelligence.  Having grown up reading Bradbury, my own fiction often comes out seeming like an imitation of his.  I discovered him the way I found most of my early, influential writers—through Goodwill.  Living in a town with no bookstores, Goodwill was a great venue for walking out with a good handful of books for under a buck.  Since Mom was there looking for “practical” stuff, I hovered over the book tables and discovered a new world.  Then I grew up.

Embarrassed by my childish interests, I gave away or sold most of my Bradbury books after college.  I was more sophisticated than that now.  I read Greek and was soon to learn Hebrew.  Books were meant to have footnotes, and lots of them.  Who wants to be seen with Bradbury on their shelves?  But the indiscretion of youth does come back to haunt one.  About two decades later I began to yearn for something missing from my life.  Perhaps like a good Unitarian I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but I knew it was lacking.  Then my daughter was assigned Fahrenheit 451 for school reading.  I tried to read whatever she was assigned, and once I did memories of Bradbury flooded back.  I no longer had his books, but that could be remedied.

Occasionally I’m criticized for having too much in the way of books.  I’m sometimes asked if I will ever read some of them again.  The answer is how should I know?  I jettisoned Ray Bradbury with Episcopal pretention, only to find that behind the ceremonial there was a more unified version of things waiting.  A continuity with my younger self.  A lust for imagination.  A desire to remember what it was like to walk on Venus.  Or to see a man presciently covered with tattoos.  Or simply to thrill at the idea of October.  I began to acquire the old books again.  The newer editions lacked the visual resonance of the old, but the essence was still there.  Orthodoxy, I discovered, often isn’t true to life.  What’s true is what we discover early on.  Sophistication isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  And yes, I may well just read that again after all.

Moon Base

Late last year scientists announced that a tunnel they’d found on the moon (remotely, of course) would make an ideal location for a human colony. The moon, you see, is quite cold and, lacking an atmosphere, constantly exposed to naked solar radiation. It’s a tough sell, even for first-time buyers. Still, with a little hole to crawl into, and some homey touches, this might be the future of humanity. Of course, offshore relocation has been a staple of science fiction from the beginning. Technically encumbered by the whole speed of light thing, we’re left with neighboring planets and moons that are either too hot or too cold, our species having evolved on the Goldilocks of solar system real estate. Moving to the moon might sound like a good idea right about now, but it’s going to take more than Two Guys and a Truck to get us there.

Fantasies of moving abroad come in two varieties—those of optimism and those of pessimism. Either things are going so well that we want to spread the evangel of our soaring success to the universe or things are looking so terribly Republican that even the dark side of the moon seems enlightened. There’s no question which phase we’re in at the moment. The moon is relatively close after all. It has been a fairly quiet neighbor over the millennia. We’ll want some good insulation, however, and despite the Weir version of Martians, we’ll depend on those back earth-side to send us some grub every now and again.

In ancient times the moon was frequently a goddess. Some ancient cultures pegged our satellite as masculine, but many saw her gentle light as more befitting a powerful female. Heading outside in the predawn hours with a full moon overhead is a pleasant, if chilly, reminder of just how bright our constant companion can be. Light without heat. Ancient desert-dwellers found the moon more benevolent than the sun, for night was relief from the fierce heat of day. Still, moving to the moon would meaning making a new world in our own image. Nothing, I suspect, would defile a goddess quicker. Our costly detritus already litters the once untouched face of Luna, and our size-nine-and-a-half prints are permanently left behind there. Heaven has always been that undiscovered country somewhere over our heads. The discovery of tunnels on the moon where we might snuggle down and be free may sound great. But we need to get things settled out on the ground first, otherwise our one and only satellite will merely become our next victim to exploit.

Unidentified Angelic Phenomena

Few topics have to be approached as gently as space aliens. Those who’ve seen UFOs are subject to an immediate ridicule response partly generated by the belief that galactic neighbors, if any, are simply too far away to get here. So when the Washington Post runs not one, but two stories in the same week about the subject of UFOs, without a hint of snark, it’s newsworthy. I’m in no position to analyze the journalistic findings, but I do consider the idea that other species might be more advanced than we are not at all unlikely. Look at what’s going on in Washington DC and dare to differ about that. Human beings, now that we’ve rid ourselves of deities, have the tendency to think we’re the hottest stuff in the universe.

I’ve admitted to being a childhood fan of science fiction. Space stories were always among my favorites in that genre. When I learned in physics class that travel faster than the speed of light was impossible, I was sorely disappointed. I also learned about the posited particles known as tachyons that do travel at such speeds. This to me seemed a contradiction. Or at least short-sighted. If our primitive physics suggests that some things can travel faster than light, why limit our ET visitors to our technological limitations? This wasn’t naivety, it seemed to me, but an honest admission that we Homo sapiens don’t know as much as we think we do. The universe, I’m told, is very, very old. Our species has been on this planet for less than half-a-million years. And we only discovered the windshield wiper in 1903.

Around about the holiday season people’s thoughts turn to heavenly visitors. What would the Christmas story be without angels? (For the record, some evangelical groups have historically claimed UFOs were indeed angels, while others have called them demons.) The idea was championed by Erich von Däniken, if I recall correctly from my childhood reading. Where angels might come from in a post-Copernican universe is a bit of a mystery. As is how they’d fly. Those wings aren’t enough to bear a hominid frame aloft, otherwise we’d see flying folks everywhere, without a two-hour wait at the airport. Then again, belief in angels almost certainly will lead to ridicule among the cognoscente of physicalism. The presents have been unwrapped, and angels have been forgotten for another year. And who could know better what’s possible in this infinite yet expanding universe than “man the wise,” Homo sapiens?

Celestial Happenings

Science fiction used to be the mainstay of my reading. Unlike a true fan, I was never exclusively devoted to it—my tastes are far too eclectic to be contained by any genre. Nevertheless, at a used book sale, on a whim, I picked up Frederik Pohl’s The Day the Martians Came. It had a cool looking spaceship on the cover, and I recognized his name from my childhood reading. I prepared myself for an adventure. Instead I found a disillusioned tale of humans and their foibles, many of them religious. Many tales, in fact. Indeed, I wasn’t surprised to find out that this was originally a set of discrete short stories later laced together into a novel. The point, it seems, would be appropriate to Qohelet. Human beings run around doing their pointless things and failing to communicate with one another. That much was true to life.

The Martians, who are more evolved and intelligent than humans, but who appear to be mere docile animals, are discovered near Christmas. Much is made of the fact that humans still celebrate Christmas on Mars. And, if you can cut through all of the snark, there’s also a message that we like to live out our prejudices whenever possible. So the humans, excited about Martians being transported back to earth, try to take advantage of each other any way they can. Some of the most complex of the stories involve religious leaders who dismiss science and assert mystical knowledge of these extraterrestrials. These leaders, of course, are only after the money of the gullible. They’re playing the popularity circuit, or running cults, and the clueless are drawn to them. And so the book isn’t really about Martians at all, but about human folly. Mainly religion.

Science fiction means different things to different people. In a used bookstore I noticed Neil Gaiman under science fiction. As much as I enjoy his work, I’d classify it as general literature instead. Genres are there to help us find related material. The name Frederik Pohl and the word “Martians” in the title suggest science fiction, but the book itself doesn’t really meet the criteria. At least for me. Perhaps it’s because we’ve landed rovers on Mars and are now talking about a human expedition. Mars has become somewhat less exotic. Religion, meanwhile, continues to churn and muddy the waters. Not always as cynical as the leaders seem to be in this book, nevertheless they are part of the discussion since once we get off this planet we’re going to have foreign deities with which to deal. Whether we respond with snark or science fiction is entirely up to us.

Found in Translation

embassytownTraduttore, traditore—“translators are traitors”—is an Italian saying invested with a great deal of truth. Anyone who’s worked with the proliferation of languages in the world knows the truth of the adage. What is said in one language can’t be stated precisely in another language with all the depth and texture of the original. China Miéville’s Embassytown is a sprawling novel that addresses the question of how cultures evolved on widely separated world can ever understand one another. I can’t possibly go into a detailed summary of the story—it took me about 30 pages to begin to understand what was going on—but the book drew me in nevertheless and left me happy to have expanded my conceptual world.

The reason that I’m bringing this novel up in a forum where religion lurks in the background is that Miéville explicitly brings religion into his story. It may be impossible to explain precisely how he does this without the detailed summary that I’ve already begged off giving, but it is nevertheless noteworthy that in any sufficiently complex world religion emerges. We tend to think that religion is something that evolved from the slime and now that we’ve bathed in the light of pure reason it will eventually be washed into the gutter of discarded concepts. History demonstrates repeatedly that such is not the case. Religion is resilient and, dare I say it, inevitable. Human beings—perhaps also other conscious beings—know that there is something outside ourselves. That’s the foot in the door for higher beings or forces or worlds. In a word, religions.

Fiction writers frequently appeal to religions for verisimilitude. Are imaginary worlds believable without religions? It’s a long stretch. Star Wars has characters calling belief in the force a religion. Star Trek, in any number of episodes, dealt with gods. Anathem was based on the monastic ideal. Science fiction has trouble when it leaves religion completely out of the picture. A non-deistic universe is nearly incomprehensible to the human mind. Even great scientists and other rationalists occasionally lapse into thoughts about luck, fate, or fortune. Embassytown doesn’t focus on religion throughout, of course. It may be a minor subplot. But translating an alien world with a language that can’t be understood into a fiction of English is facilitated by putting a religion into the general mix. This is a smart and complex world, but when you read it you’ll find it believable because a religion naturally emerges. And that, I say, is realism.

Stations, Everyone

Station11There has been a movement, of late, among some sci-fi authors, to envision a more optimistic future. I have always been a fan of dystopias, myself. Perhaps it’s the working-class mentality backed up by being raised in poverty speaking, but sometimes I feel that collapse is more fair than progress. What passes for progress, anyway. Maybe I’m thinking this way because I just finished Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. This book has been on my radar for some time since it is one of the more hopeful dystopias out there. The story of a group among the very few who survive banding into a traveling troop of musicians and thespians is about the most hopeful outcome I can imagine. Not a day passes when I don’t feel the effacement of humanity that has been slowly taking place since I first became aware of the world. Sure, I do appreciate the strides made in medicine. Of this internet, which is the only place anyone ever really sees me, I’m less sanguine. It has its benefits, but even Mandel mentions the cell-phone zombies that are all too real and as omnipresent as an omnipotent deity used to be.

Station Eleven has, as many dystopias do, a religious sect that emerges after society collapses. This element of bleak futures is actually very accurate, I anticipate. We’re constantly being told by the “intellectuals” of the public variety that religion is for weak-minded dreamers with milquetoast aspirations for fantasy. The fact is the vast majority of people in the world are religious. The numbers are nowhere even near close. If a pandemic were to wipe out all but one percent (and hopefully it wouldn’t be the one percenters that survive) those who remain would, without doubt, turn to religion. People are easily led in this area of life. Mandel gives us The Prophet. His vision of the world is not helpful, but he has no trouble gathering a following. He’s also somewhat messianic: child of a single parent, raised in Israel, he comes to bring a sword to a nation already prostrate in the dust. This is powerful stuff.

Societies that try to rebuild themselves after traumas quite often rely on religion. This is hardly surprising as civilization itself began as religions coalesced into temples and their priesthoods. What is surprising is that so many intelligent people today can’t see just how important religion is to our species. As I suggested before, part of this is that religion defies simple definition. It’s easy to belittle “magical” thinking when it’s assumed religion has to do only with the supernatural. Religion, however, reaches into whatever we believe. Some ideas in modern cosmology, derived from physicists and their mathematics, can look sort of religious when viewed from a certain angle. As those who write dystopias know, religion is complex. It may lead to massive destruction. Chances are, however, that if there are any human beings left to crawl out of whatever pit we dig, they will do so with religious ideas in their heads. As usual, the writers have foreseen it.

High Castle Blade Runner

DivineMadnessGrowing up evangelical, one of the popular topics of conversation was crypto-christians. (My spellcheck insists that this is a lowercase expression.) Crypto-christians are people, generally famous people, who might be secretly “Christian.” You see, despite stereotypes most evangelicals really do want people to go to heaven. In fact, they tend to be obsessed with it. And besides, it can’t hurt to have a celeb backing your claims. One name that never came up in my circles was Philip K. Dick. I grew up reading science fiction. My reading patterns (which haven’t changed much) involved reading what I could find among used books at Goodwill. We were poor, and besides, there were no bookstores in our town. Like many people, I’m sure, I learned of Dick by watching Blade Runner. I occasionally heard others discussing the movie, but I hadn’t seen it myself and thus continued blithely unaware until I began teaching. I then read how Blade Runner is a possible Christian analogy, and curious, I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Since then Dick, who never made it big in his lifetime, has become a staple of the sci-fi diet. In The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick Kyle Arnold explores the now famous 2-3-74 episode. Dick, in addition to being over-medicated, had mystical experiences. The “big one” took place beginning on the date implied in its title. This vision, while not orthodox by any standard, is clearly religious. Critics tend to think that Dick may have either faked it or that he underwent some kind of schizophrenic episode. Arnold, a clinical psychologist, has the chops to demonstrate that these latter explanations are off base. Dick had a legitimate visionary experience—something even neuroscientists can’t access because the experience is subjective and personal. It had a large impact on his life, but it did not make him mentally ill.

Arnold is not, as far as I can tell, a crypto-christian hunter. He is a psychologist attempting to understand a most complex and tormented writer of superior science fiction. What becomes clear, however, is that Dick was well-informed about Christianity. He imagined himself a secretive first-century Christian in an oppressive Roman Empire. This aspect of his life tends not to emerge in pop culture discussions—how Christian can you be and still be cool? Certainly Dick was not a conventional believer, but religious imagery and even actions became some of the most important moments of his life, according to his own recollections. Philip K. Dick was clearly a haunted man. And one of the specters haunting him was an often undiagnosed religion.

Gods and Giants

Day of the GiantsComing back to a book you first read as a tween, in the days before tweens even existed, can be a revelation. Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants introduced me to Norse mythology as a kid, and, along with Thor comic books, was my Nordic Bible. The last time I read it was probably in the Ford administration. As part of a reading challenge I’m undertaking this year, I had to select a book I’d read before and, amazingly enough, I still had my copy. Reading the book as an adult, however, proved a very different experience from reading it as a child. For one thing, I noticed quite a bit more of the implicit theology of the story. Del Rey was no theologian, of course. This little book, however, makes a statement that is difficult to miss regarding the gods: they are victims of tradition.

It is probably not worth worrying about spoilers over half a century after a book was published, but I’ll try to be sensitive nevertheless. Leif Svensen, our protagonist, finds himself in Asgard on the eve of Ragnarok. All the familiar Norse gods are there: Thor, Loki, Odin, and kith and kin. As they prepare for the battle with the frost giants, who, in the mythology win the contest, the deities are decidedly subdued. They believe their fate is sealed by a prophecy of defeat. Leif, being a true American, gives them a rousing speech about overcoming the old ways. Gods, by nature, are conservative. They don’t have to bow to tradition—they are gods, after all. The deities are not swayed by the logic of a mere mortal, even after his apotheosis. Fate, it seems, trumps even gods.

I’m pretty sure that Lester del Rey wasn’t attempting to make any profound theological observation here. One can be an accidental theologian. Ideas of gods and what they must do can be a detriment to their own future. Even with the evidence of the failure of their own prophecy, the gods can see no way forward other than that they’ve recognized as fate. They are, without saying too much, out-maneuvered by human resourcefulness. A man tames his god, and it can become a man’s best friend. I wasn’t expecting such theological insight from a sci-fi book from my youth. Then again, you never know what may happen when you come back to a book after leaving it on the shelf for four decades.

Resurrecting Color

ColorOfDistanceIf you’re one of those people who’s attached to books, you know the frustration of someone who borrows a book and never gives it back. Many years ago I stopped lending out books for that very reason. I do, however, sometimes give them away. A friend recently reciprocated the gift of a book, giving me Amy Thomson’s novel, The Color of Distance. It is a profound story involving, as is common on this blog, themes of resurrection and transformation. A science fiction tale, it is set on another planet where something has gone wrong with an Earth survey team. The humans are dying on this alien world when one of them, Juna, is transformed by the alien into something like one of them. She comes back to life transformed. It wasn’t until I finished the book that I read the cover blurb that reads “Reborn in her savior’s image, trapped in her savior’s world.” Not a bad summary, capturing as it does the deep religious elements in the story.

The religious aspect, however, comes through most clearly in the environmental elements of the novel. Humans, somewhat optimistically, had set in place protocols not to interfere with alien life. So much we know from Star Trek’s prime directive. What makes this so interesting in the case of The Color of Distance is that Thomson knows that any contact is contamination. Two worlds cannot meet. They must collide. There is a gentleness, however, in her narrative. Juna, marooned (long before The Martian) on a foreign planet, has to learn to see things through alien eyes. And every little thing that humans have done has left a footprint on the planet. Protecting our own planet is a profoundly religious undertaking.

It is clear that Thomson has influenced later writers and stories. Not only does The Martian pick up on the stranded aspect, but Avatar clearly presents a world similar in many respects to the planet of the Tendu. The Color of Distance is a book not easily forgotten. The world into which the reader is drawn is indeed one of transformation and resurrection. I suppose spoilers aren’t an issue with a book two decades old, but I will satisfy myself merely with noting that another resurrection takes place as the story winds to its close. Deeply hopeful, and almost prophetic, this novel should be more widely read, for the sake of the world on which it arose.

Latter-Day Battlestars

Science fiction, when I was a child, constituted my fantasy life. I read such science fiction books as were available to a kid in a small town with no actual bookstore, and I watched what I could on a television with three or four channels. Star Trek and Twilight Zone were staples. As I got to high school there were more offerings, and one that I remember particularly liking was Battlestar Galactica. I was disappointed when the show ran only a few months. Something about looking for a home, being a scrappy, rag-tag fleet fighting against the odds appealed to me. Although I grew away from sci-fi as I went to college and studied more “serious” subjects, I never completely abandoned it. So the other day when I had reason to use the word “cylon” in something I was writing, I decided to do a little reading about the original series. I never did watch the reboot, as I was far too busy for television by then.


I was surprised to learn that the original 1978 series was an exploration of Mormon theology. The show’s creator, Glen A. Larson, was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and, not surprisingly, used his fiction to promote his religious ideals. After all, Orson Scott Card, of Ender’s Game fame, is also a Mormon and elements of its theology come through in his work. As a child I didn’t watch television for religion, but rather as form of escape. I wouldn’t have guessed, however, that I was escaping to Mormon theology. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a bit more shy about telling outsiders its theology than many Christian bodies are. Mainstream Christianity, after all, is one of the main ingredients in our cultural soup. Any Methodist will be happy to tell you Wesley’s theology, if they happen to know it.

I haven’t watched television for over two decades. Very select shows we’ll watch on DVD, being the old-fashioned sort, but I missed the reincarnation of Battlestar Galactica in 2004. I’ve always had a soft spot for the originals when it comes to sci fi. The original Star Trek, the original Star Wars, and even that sleepy and terribly dated Space 1999. I suppose as a working-class child looking for an escape these shows had a kind of religious message. Although my religion taught a conventional Heaven and Hell, I wondered what was out there beyond even that, since the tri-partite universe was basically earth-bound. And science fiction offered to lead me to other worlds where things might be better. On the Enterprise we might whizz past the Galactica and wave, even if it was piloted by Mormons in space. And L. Ron Hubbard was known to me only as a writer of science fiction rather than the creator of a new religion.

Hello, I’m Not In

I recently received two “out of office” replies to my own “out of office” message. Being a fan of futility in all forms, this struck me as a great paradigm for the modern age. Email has made vacation superfluous, of course. I was actually out of town moving my daughter back to college, so email was not high on my list of priorities. When I’ve tried to leave work without putting on a message explaining that I’m not there (I tend to respond to emails quickly for an editor, so I’m told) I’ve been politely informed that it is rude not to let people know you’re away. Or computers. My non-message prompted a non-messages from other vacationers’ email accounts, and when I returned, I had to read them as well as the original email that had received my impersonal reply. Both had sent their replies, despite their out of office messages. This is indeed a brave new world.

It is a world where human interaction is optional, at best. Our industry grinds away making devices and services that people will buy with electronic money sent over a network that no one really controls. And we think nothing of it. Business has blinded us to how meaningless humanity has become. Business runs for business’s sake. Even so, we’re asked to check our email when we’re on vacation, in case something important comes up. I used to think vacation was important. It is the sop we’re thrown for working jobs that lack the visceral appeal of growing our own food and relying upon ourselves. Thoreau on the web.


Science fiction is the great predictor of where we might go. Most of it is completely fiction, or course, but some manages to catch glimpses of the truth. Skynet, or even the Matrix or Hal, have sent messages to us. Machines that think are devices we don’t understand. We haven’t even defined consciousness to a level that satisfies anyone. We know it because we feel it. Oh, I’m not really an alarmist about all that. I do wonder, however, where we are headed when technology races ahead while the humanities are disparaged. All those who emulate Spock seem to have forgotten that his appeal is that he’s half human. We build our aliens to specification. And they now pass polite greetings when they speed past each other on the cyber-highway with no laws.