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Friday, February 11, 2005

Science Fiction and Religion

Here are a few thoughts about some science fiction works that treat with religion which were spurred when recently, on a whim, I started rereading Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, a novel which purports to tackle the question of what directions and forms belief in a Higher Being might take in a future where mankind has found ways of colonizing the Galaxy.

As a science fiction novel, Hyperion is a decent-to-good read. The main setting is a planet named after John Keats' unfinished poem Hyperion; and Keats is the planet's capital city; one of the main characters is
Martin Silenus, ancient, hard-drinking, morality-spurning poet of uncertain provenance and talent; the format of the novel could be said to be based loosely on The Canterbury Tales, in that it proceeds by means of the main characters telling their stories to each other as they undertake a pilgrimage — all very clever, don't you know. In the background is a mysterious, metallic, blades-on-seemingly-every surface, not-quite mythical bloody embracer of pilgrims, a figure known as the Shrike, to whom, of course, the Church of the Shrike is devoted.

I suspect the novel's genesis has significant roots in Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz, a book to which Hyperion (both alone, and together with its sequel, The Fall of Hyperion) is inferior in characterization, treatment of theme, story, plot, breadth and depth of theological meditation — in short, in every way except melodrama.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic novel in which the monks of a small desert abbey are the main preservers of the written word, especially scientific knowledge, through the centuries following civilization's collapse and on into its gradual re-emergence. I would call faith the main character here, as Miller meditates on its forms, difficulties, and suspect rewards through a changing cast of characters who inhabit Leibowitz Abbey as they go about the business of preserving the legacy of their doubtful patron saint. A Canticle for Leibowitz is probably the most successful treatment of religion and theology and their sociological effects ever attempted by a science fiction writer.

The only major science fiction work I've read which might be said to come close to A Canticle's achievement in regards to religion is Frank Herbert's Dune. And while it is, in a sense, about religion, it is much more about cultural ramifications of ecological crises and shortages of natural resources than it is about the probably futile, possibly fatal, but nearly irresistible attraction of mankind to believing in a purposeful Universe. Besides, the Dune series became way too long. One book was enough.

A minor work which delves deeply into theological approaches is Stanislaw Lem's short story, the Twenty-First Voyage of Ijon Tichy, which can be found in the collection the Star Diaries: Further Reminiscences Of Ijon Tichy. In the story, Tichy finds himself on the Planet Dichotica discussing theology with robot monks who belong to the order Demolitia. Hilarious and thought-provoking, it stands as one of the best meditations on the nature of faith that I've ever read. It's a story worth searching out and reading.


Humble Servant said...

well, I love Liebowitz--was shocked to hear Miller committed suicide, which was sorta contra the whole point, I thought. (The point being that there are some things we don't understand, and what do we do about them? Accept the auctoritas of The Church? Even conscience doesn't answer the question when we are presented with a choice between mercy killing and mere stoicism.)

I'm a sucker for scifi that deals with religion, however. I've been reading Paradise Lost, you know.

MackJohnny said...

I hadn't known that Miller shot himself (though when I looked it up this morning I found that when he did so he was living in Daytona Beach and trying to avoid people -- not exactly a recipe for happiness, perhaps).

Have you read Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, the posthumously published novel? I don't think it reaches the standard of Canticle, though it might have if Miller had stayed alive to polish it, but there's some damn good stuff in it (Pope Amen Specklebird, for instance). Still a better novel than Hyperion, I'd say.