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Space, man

Agnostics anonymous


Any attempt to locate humanity in the cosmos aspires to the condition of science fiction. It's well known that L. Ron Hubbard was a science fiction writer, his crowning work being the cosmological fables of Scientology.  But anyone who takes religion seriously enough to try to imagine it real ends up working in the same genre. Harold Bloom described the literary effect of Paradise Lost as akin to the most powerful science fiction. The lineaments of William Blake's religious art, as well as his ideas, can be glimpsed in a thousand sci-fi graphic novels.

When it comes to putting people in the universe, science fiction is the only game in town, since almost all ostensibly serious fiction will only concern itself with the parochial trivia of human life and history. So why doesn't Christianity make more of it? Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series doesn't count as it is sadistic wish-fulfillment with no science. C.S. Lewis had a go at Christian science fiction but his The Space Trilogy perhaps tells us why he hasn't had many successors. In that, space exploration becomes a way of spreading fallen human sinfulness to other planets.

Lewis feared that the drive away from the Earth was motivated by an anthropocentric humanism, which he associated with H.G. Wells and Prometheus. But this humility is anything but. The Christian God, like all gods, is a local god. His triumphal sway over parts of the Earth looks less impressive when viewed from a satellite swaying in low earth orbit. A mere 1,200 miles or so above the peak of Mount Olympus and all the other mountains where mankind's early tribal deities resided, their cosmic remit very obviously runs out.

Scientific humanism may be vainglorious, but mentally and physically venturing up into or down into the universe necessarily brings humility. Humankind on a cosmic scale is an intrinsically humble object of consideration.  Science fiction at its best is an attempt to humanize the perspectives that science forces on us.  Projecting humanity into the void is an imaginative act that takes on religious dimensions, whether science fiction depicts a holy cosmic presence (as in the visionary portentousness of  2001: A space odyssey), or whether it gives us (in the title of an old Kingsley Amis study of sci-fi), New Maps of Hell.

Science fiction is widely regarded by some folk as silly. But then, so is religion. A lot of people laughed at the news in late September that the 'Nazi Space Buddha was a Meteorite' but this is the world we actually live in. If you want people to take your outlandish stories seriously, you could at least make them exciting.