Why Story is important to life; why SFF is important to theology

Clerk’s log, MJDate 54213.9: In honor of International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day (inspired by this discussion), I present the following. No, it’s not fiction. It’s a paper I delivered at the 2005 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. My purpose in it was to introduce science fiction and fantasy to people who were not necessarily familiar with SFF — for that matter, who may not have been familiar with fiction in general — and to show them why they should give it their attention.

I’ll warn you up front: it is not “written for the web” — no bullet points, and some great honking big paragraphs. Nonetheless, I hope you like it.

To Find the Truth, Look to the Lie: Contributions of Science Fiction and Fantasy to Theological Expression

Michael S. Spence, Ph.D.
Grace College & Theological Seminary
Other Voices in Biblical Interpretation Study Group
Evangelical Theological Society
Annual Meeting, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
16 November 2005


“The data about Earth speaks for itself—” Selv’s thin, angry voice came back.

No data speaks for itself,” McCoy said, forceful. “Data just lies there. People speak. The idiom ‘speaks for itself’ almost always translates as ‘If I don’t say something about this, no one will notice it.’”

— Diane Duane, Spock’s World1

Anything that’s good, whether it’s Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, or Robert Louis Stevenson, is something that sails very dangerously close to the truth. And you usually find that more often with fiction than non-fiction, odd as that is.

— Kinky Friedman2

The study of narrative as a medium for theology has attracted considerable attention in the last few decades, yet for most of the time the study has focused on sacred writings and other documents with explicit theological import. Very little such study has been done in evangelical circles with secular, or “profane,” literature. Less still has been done with a focus on imaginative literature that is not only secular in origin but composed with an eye toward marketing the finished product to the general public for recreational use — that is to say, works that we may call “commercial.” The category is broad and includes genre fiction, so-called “literary fiction,” non-fiction, poetry, plays and scripts, and particularly the large (nowadays) prose works labeled “best-sellers.”

Calling a work commercial does not automatically disqualify it for the additional label “literature.” Authors who have earned both labels include William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, both of whom were able to publish or stage their works because they played well to the crowd, so to speak, and the authors needed revenue in order to put bread on the table. We may use “literary” here to refer to the quality of a piece or to its evaluation by readers and critics (as opposed to the above-mentioned “literary fiction,” which usually means fiction that eschews genres and aspires to rise above them), and “commercial” to refer to the process or raison d’être for its production. Commercial work, regardless of its literary quality, is produced in order to be sold to the public at large.

In this paper I propose that commercial works of science fiction and fantasy offer benefits to evangelical readers, preachers, and students of theology. This proposition is actually two: first, that commercial fiction by non-Christian authors offers such benefits, and second, that speculative fiction in particular offers such benefits. Because these two postulates have not been universally embraced by the evangelical church during the last hundred years, they call for some discussion.

During most of the twentieth century in the United States, the evangelical attitude toward commercial fiction was both apprehensive and dismissive; indeed, it was “an attitude of defensiveness among many believers who label all but the explicitly Christian as ‘dangerous’ or unworthy of the attention of the faithful.”3 Only a few decades ago bibliographies for Christians would relegate fiction to the sections listing books for children, implying presumably that the available reading time of adults was more profitably spent on non-fiction. Occasionally believers would celebrate writers of imaginative prose and poetry, but more often than not these authors were believers themselves, such as George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Calvin Miller. Among my own campus fellowship during the early seventies, the general attitude seemed to be that unbelievers had nothing to teach Christians, let alone the ability to entertain us in a way that is truly to our benefit. The English majors often preferred to write their independent-study papers and theses on Christian authors such as Lewis, George Herbert, and Charles Williams. One student even went so far as to maintain that non-Christian fiction was at best a waste of time; at worst, enemy propaganda.

Terry Glaspey believes that this mindset has become more common in recent years, the product of not only the deterioration and increasing rejection of what has been a “Christian consensus” in America, but also the current postmodern denial of absolute truth.4 While it may be true that the polarization in the minds of believers has grown, it appears to have been with us at least since the change in relationship between fundamentalism and its host culture in the early twentieth century. This move enabled fundamentalism to coalesce and know itself as a fairly homogeneous group in terms of both doctrine and social politics. The move furthermore led to an increased sense of alienation between these conservative Christians and their host culture, making it easier for them to see themselves as critiquing the culture from without rather than within.5 In the latter decades of the twentieth century, this separation (or, one could say, self-sequestering) has resulted in “our own subculture. We have Christian music, Christian bookstores, Christian television, Christian schools, and just about anything else you might think of…. We face the grave danger of devaluing all that does not specifically wear the label “Christian.’”6 The “devaluing” includes fiction that creates a world that does not match the parameters of biblical doctrine or our perceptions of reality, particularly if the fiction is written by one who is not a Christian.

This devaluation is easily criticized by any believer who holds to a doctrine of common grace. God is able, after all, to demonstrate his power and artistry in such a way that even an unbeliever can observe (Rom 1:19–20 is relevant here) and reflect these qualities in imaginative works, even praising them if not also praising their Creator. And yet, one can respond, since the believer’s time on earth is so short, why bother with such works when others, by Christian authors, are available? And since science fiction and fantasy by nature deal in worlds so divorced from our own environment, why should we not rather concern ourselves with stories that address the real world — the world around us, the world in which we must live?

These responses can be used to explain the rapid growth in the Christian fiction market. Adherents of all the major genres, including mysteries and romances, can now find offerings in those genres from Christian novelists and Christian publishers.7 Moreover, because so many of these recent releases venture into science fiction and fantasy, even readers of this category can indulge their enthusiasm for works that provide elements of the outré while staying reasonably close to the limits of the world that we “know” either doctrinally or by observation. (Even something as lavishly “unreal” as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings may be read solely as an allegory of Christian values in this world. The practice is by no means new: some in the church’s history required this kind of interpretation in order to feel comfortable acknowledging the Song of Solomon as canonical.)

Perhaps the most influential recent factor in the growth of Christian fiction has been the remarkable popularity of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s Left Behind novels, based upon LaHaye’s own premillennial-dispensational construction of the events just prior to the second coming of Christ. These novels are arguably science fiction, yet they are created by Christians and can be viewed by dispensationally-minded readers as presenting a plausible scenario for the near future.8 They are therefore tied explicitly to the reader’s own reality and thus, for the reader who wishes to avoid non-Christian authors and material that is overly distanced from the real world, can be considered “safe.”

This kind of literary quarantining, however, is neither helpful in the long run nor necessary. Speculative fiction — a term we will use for the spectrum of imaginative literature, including both science fiction and fantasy — can indeed relate to our lives, even when on the surface it appears to deal with persons and situations far removed from our reality. Furthermore, non-Christian authors can provide insights not always found in literature of Christian origin, particularly insights into human nature and thus the thought patterns of people in the world Christians are trying to reach with the message of Jesus Christ — not to mention the thought patterns of Christians themselves. Those insights can be used both to communicate more effectively with the non-Christian public and to help us look more accurately at ourselves.

The Importance of Story

Let us consider the nature of stories in general, and stories of speculative fiction in particular. We have said that in the term speculative fiction9 we are including both science fiction and what is called fantasy. (The abbreviation SF [or sf] refers to speculative fiction when it occurs here, even though many prefer to use it to refer to science fiction alone.) While the line between these two subgenres is difficult to draw, they both share one outstanding characteristic: they venture outside the patterns of our customary experience. Kathryn Hume’s definition is helpful: “any departure from consensus reality.”10

One may ask of every piece of writing, “Is it true?” When we are contrasting fiction and non-fiction, the answer at first seems obvious: the latter is, and the former is not. Fiction is in the final analysis “made up”: this event did not happen; that person never actually existed. Yet on a deeper level, the answer is not so obvious after all. The difference might become clearer if the question were reworded, “Is it the truth?” In other words, does a piece of fiction explicitly or implicitly transmit a message (or, in hermeneutical language, a text) that the reader can relate to his or her own world, or is the piece merely a transitory entertainment? If it does transmit such a message, is that message congruent with reality?

If we ask, “Is such a transmission possible?” the answer is yes. Although to be a writer of stories is to be, in the words of writer Harlan Ellison, “a professional liar,”11 a story’s falsehood is often only skin-deep. The storyteller may be a “liar” in the sense that he or she speaks of people who never existed and events that never took place. In another sense, however, a storyteller has the potential for stating truths about the human condition more effectively than someone who, if it were possible, merely recounts facts.

A moment’s reflection will show why this must be so. As Dr. McCoy points out in the epigraph to this paper, the facts never “speak for themselves.” If any lesson or principle is to be taught using them, it will be because someone has first interpreted them. Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter demonstrate this point in their 2000 novel The Light of Other Days: given the unlimited ability to see into the past, their characters find that the past is surprisingly dull. Why? Because to anyone who simply watches it without any kind of analysis, it is a mishmosh of events — a white noise of occurrences, as it were. In the novel, one Professor Patefield of M.I.T. makes this comment in his testimony before a Congressional committee: “The lack of pattern and logic in the overwhelming, almost unrecognizable true history that is now being revealed is proving so difficult and wearying for all but the most ardent scholar that fictionalized accounts are actually making a comeback: stories which provide a narrative structure simple enough to engage the viewer. We need story and meaning, not blunt fact….”12

The professor’s words illustrate two central points in our discussion. The first point has to do with structure; the second, with meaning. Both are relevant not only to the historian’s art but also to that of the fiction writer. Both seek to show us, with a minimum of extraneous detail, the salient events (meaning both actions and thought processes) in a space of human life, and what pattern appears when those events are arranged into a system.

Story as a Declaration of Structure

Structure is critical to the comprehensible presentation of information. In both historical and scientific research, the accumulation of raw data is by no means the end of the task. One must sort through the piles of observations to find the particular chains of causality and, in the case of history, the interpersonal relationships that explain subsequent events. Interpretive analysis is indispensable if we are to discern the consequent among the merely subsequent, the “signal” amid the “noise.”

For that matter, what we are calling events or facts are themselves interpretations of observations, which in turn are influenced by the perspective of the observer, in science no less than in other endeavors.13 Consequently, not even the person who wishes “merely to recount facts” can truly do so. History (meaning recorded history) is thus at least twice dependent upon hermeneutics: once as the historian observes events or reviews records thereof (and the latter are themselves interpretations), and once in arranging his or her account of those events in such a way as to produce a coherent picture of “what happened.”

Thus we see that Clarke and Baxter’s professor is neglecting a subtle but important point. The real problem is not the bluntness of fact but its silence, its refusal to interpret itself. It is not that we do not need “blunt fact”; indeed, most of us have probably thought at one time or another that confronting a few blunt facts would do the public a world of good. But as Dr. McCoy notes, data do not speak for themselves, and it is only by the efforts of the people who do speak that other people are made aware of the data. Professor Patefield’s description of the accounts that his public wants as “fictionalized” conceals the truth that even histories are the product of craft.

The term craft may need some clarification (or, perhaps, defusing). In using the term we are by no means presuming to devalue histories and other pieces of non-fiction in order to increase the value of fiction. The line between fiction and non-fiction is real, a fact acknowledged especially by those who accuse a given author of attempting to blur it. And we are certainly not saying or even implying that histories are fabricated, or that writing history is an Orwellian transformation of events into something they are not. Rather, to call a history the product of craft is to acknowledge not only that events are not self-interpreting and that interpretations are informed by the historian’s perspective, but also that interpretation and presentation are both skills that can be mastered.

Fiction is a kind of prose that involves some degree of fabrication. If the writer is treating historical information, then fictional elements that appear in the final work may be there because the available historical data contain gaps that need to be patched,14 or because some historical datum interferes with the flow of the narrative and is therefore dropped or revised.15 The fictional elements may not be as obvious as that of the science fiction writer who is willing sometimes to stretch a scientific principle or two for the sake of the story, but they are nonetheless there. In either case, the result has been constructed using creative reasoning.

Similarly, an historian interpreting observations of past or current events is constructing a work in which creative reasoning is an essential ingredient. We are not saying that history is not true; on the contrary, the historian wishes to present the true significance of the chronicled events. Nor are we saying that history is merely subjective; rather, one’s interpretation of events is better described as perspectival. The events themselves are real, and the historian’s credibility depends upon starting with data upon which both writer and readers can agree.

The use of imaginative construction to solidify and present a system of historical events is a time-honored practice. For example, philosophers have generally endorsed Plato’s veracity as a chronicler of Socrates’ dialogues, even though many of the words Plato quotes would have had to be reconstructed after the fact (as some of Martin Luther’s students would have had to do in order to preserve his “table talk”). Similarly, Thucydides is highly regarded as a historian, even though his History of the Peloponnesian War contains many extended speeches presented as direct quotations.

Compare what the historian has assembled to H. Maxwell Butcher’s proposed definition of story: “the pattern that we see in events.”16 Consider also his description of the storyteller as “the one who traces the pattern running through other people’s lives, and expresses it in [and] through a choice of words, who interprets to the listeners or the readers the reality that has been there all along, unseen. The storyteller is the visionary who can bring into focus the blurred image, the artist who can set down not only what is apparent, but what can be perceived behind the visible.”17

In this sense the historian, like the professional novelist, is a storyteller.18

Story as a Declaration of Meaning

We do no disservice to historians by including them in the college of storytellers, for thus we acknowledge their importance to the psychological and spiritual well-being of a culture. Here is the importance of Professor Patefield’s second point, which involves the issue of meaning. For while he may be glossing over the role of craftsmanship in the historian’s work, he is right on target when he says that “we need story and meaning.” In point of fact, it is Story — let the capital S distinguish it from individual stories — that allows us to lay hold of meaning, both as we write the stories and as we read them.

Consider the finding of Viktor Frankl,19 recorded in his remarkable book Man’s Search for Meaning, that prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz most successfully attained the inner strength necessary to survival when they changed their perspective on life.

We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.20

What was more, these problems and tasks differed from person to person. Nor were they abstractions, as though life could be disposed of in a philosophical discussion. No, by “tasks” Frankl means actual, concrete actions — real deeds and real events. Life had an agenda for these men, who had to learn to read it.

In this way the prisoner determined the meaning of his life. And it is this meaning that was essential to his mental health and, building thereon, his physical endurance. Indeed, claims Frankl,

Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why — an aim — for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.21

This experience strengthened Frankl’s belief that “the striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man,” a doctrine that underlies Frankl’s brand of psychotherapy, which he terms logotherapy (using logos in the sense of “meaning”).22

Meaning furthermore assumes a social context. Quoting Harvey Cox’s statement “All human beings have an innate need…to have a story to live by,” Butcher interprets the statement as “saying two things: first, that we need to have a firm root in the society that bred us, a sense of identity within our culture, of continuity with our past; and second, that from that root we need to branch out into our own story.”23 We need to understand not only the meaning of our past and our agenda for the future, we also need to know where and how we fit into the world in which we have been placed — a sense, if you will, of where we are.

The concept of Story, then, which underlies all fiction, has significance in and of itself. Questions remain to be answered, though: Why should it be so important that we need to relate things to past and future, rather than to the present alone? What about stories that are not our own — are they useful to us also? If they are, then does this apply also to the stories of people who do not exist — to fiction?

Story in Human Culture

We have said that the concept of Story is inseparable from meaning and significance, that it is the ability to tell our own story that enables us to keep our lives on track, as it were, because it enables us to find the track in the first place. But why do we need something besides a picture of our present position? Why can we not just take an inventory of the present moment and go on from there, living in the moment and ignoring the rest?

For we obviously do not live solely in the moment. Not only is it important for us to address the future of our own lives, but there is something about Story — not just our own stories, but stories about others — that is deeply rooted in our makeup. So firmly rooted is it that a child naturally says, “Tell me a story,” and “Then what happened?” And what is arguably the most profound question in the universe — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — assumes the existence of a story. Why is Story so integral to our nature, both in our own story and apparently those that other people tell? At least four reasons may be offered, reflecting a four-fold quest: for sequence, order, analogy, and understanding.

A Search for Sequence

One reason is, in a word, time. We are temporal creatures. We live, not in a frozen moment, but in a sequence of moments which we perceive as moving inexorably onward at the rate of one second per second, one hour per hour. It is extremely difficult for us even to think of an isolated point in time without also being conscious of the moments before and after. Where there is sequence, there is change; and where there is change, there is the essence of Story.

A Search for Order

A second reason is that we are not only temporal creatures, we are orderly creatures. Even if our behavior be undisciplined and our living space disastrously cluttered (and it takes a sense of order to perceive one’s environment as cluttered), we are nonetheless arranged, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Whatever we declare their origin to be — intelligent design or natural process — we recognize and respect the systems that comprise our physiology, and even when those systems go awry we nonetheless understand to a great degree how they ought to work. When it comes to politics, economics, or other areas of human interaction, we have an idea of how our community should be functioning, whether that idea is practical or not. In short, we are builders. As nature abhors a vacuum, so do we abhor chaos. Emulating the God who turned a “formless and empty” earth into a water-channeled, planted, inhabited, intricately illuminated, energetic world, and in whose image we are made, so we ourselves look at something chaotic and look for some kind of order in it. If the order isn’t there, we will do our best to put it there and to see that, behold, it is very good. And when we find the order, the patterns, that run through people’s lives, then by Butcher’s description we have created Story.

A Search for Analogy, Actual and Artificial

The third reason we look for stories, this one involving the stories of others, is that we are accustomed to learning from others things that we may apply to ourselves. Analogy is therefore a key concept in understanding the mechanics of fiction.

Butcher points out that a storyteller who wishes his or her tales to have the ring of authenticity should construct them using analogies to his or her own story.24 The reverse is true as well: At some level, the one who reads or listens to a story is on the lookout for analogies to his or her own life as well; these not only make a story convincing, they suggest ways that the reader (hearer) might guide his or her own path (or, in the case of someone looking for escapist reading, they suggest ways that the reader wishes his or her life would go, whether it actually could or not). The reader may come to a story looking only for entertainment, but often will leave with a proposed “you are here” mark on his or her personal map of the universe. Indeed, a story may be so enlightening as to redraw the map completely.

Here we discover why fiction is often included in the quest for stories. In light of the search for applicable analogies, we see that for this purpose, the only practical difference between stories of actual persons and those of fictional characters lies in the reader’s (hearer’s) confidence in the storyteller. Whether in biography or fiction, if the story has that ring of authenticity Butcher mentions, then the reader will feel more comfortable with it. (And as Butcher suggests, authenticity occurs when the fictional story is based on the storyteller’s own experiences; some fiction thus has its roots in biography.)

We also see here why some readers choose to avoid fiction altogether, preferring to read about things that “actually happened.” These are the readers who do not put their confidence in the storyteller’s ability to “get it right,” to create characterizations and chains of events that sound plausible. (Let us not forget, though, that a biographer who conveys false information can damage his or her credibility more easily than a novelist can, because he or she claims explicitly to be telling the truth). Other readers, on the other hand, readily give the storyteller an opportunity to show what he or she can do.

A Search for Understanding

The last reason we propose for seeking out stories is that Story is essential to an accurate understanding of those around us. In a remarkable essay, Rodney Clapp defends the study of narrative in theology by showing how indispensable narrative is in depicting characters’ identity, personality, and values. What makes the essay remarkable is that he does this by turning aside from explicitly theological literature and examining instead the songs of Tom T. Hall, who has gained a solid reputation in the field of country music for his storytelling ability. In the process Clapp shows that narrative is necessary if we are to understand a person’s psychological and spiritual makeup, because people do not exist in a temporal vacuum. Everything a person is, he is because of his history, and without knowing that history we cannot be certain of properly understanding the person we see before us.

But Clapp does not stop at this point; he goes on to say that theology that makes use of narrative is essential for the study and presentation of Christianity, in that Christianity centers on a person, Jesus Christ. Because one cannot know a person without knowing the narrative that makes up that person’s history, one cannot know about the person of Christ apart from the biblical narratives about him. Narrative reveals character. Furthermore, since the foundation of Christianity is not a system of doctrine but a series of events — or, as some collectively call them, the Christ-event — one cannot speak of them without telling a story. These happened in time, we credit them with a divinely intended order, and so they are the stuff of narrative.25

This last consideration brings us to the subject of the present discussion. For if the theological study of narrative is not only possible but necessary in dealing with biblical literature, then it is feasibly applied to other forms of literature as well. If one narrative yields theological fruit, so can others.

Histories of Imagined Time

So far we have dealt primarily with narratives that claim to recount actual events, and have seen that a writer of such a narrative attempts to communicate the meaning that he or she sees in those events. For a writer of explicitly labeled fiction, the task is reversed: Drawing upon his or her own life-experiences and observations, the writer must construct characters and chains of events in such a way that they present the kind of meaning that one might find in life. As it happens, this practice has a long history.

Parable was well known as a teaching method long before Christ used parables to convey truths concerning the kingdom of God. His parables drew on the agreed-upon patterns of life in first-century Palestine but constructed nonhistorical scenarios in order to illustrate a point (or, for those who weren’t supposed to understand, to obscure it). They also could stretch reality for effect, such as the story of the servant who owed his king ten thousand talents (Matt 18:23–34). Centuries before, Jotham used a parable that stepped even further outside the consensus-patterns of contemporary life, depicting dialogues between trees, a vine, and a bramble in order to warn the men of Shechem of the consequences of making Abimelech their king (Judg 9:7–20). These two varieties of parable differ only in the extent to which the teller has exceeded the boundaries of historical reality.

“Lies” that Speak Truth

To be a successful crafter of fiction26 one must be both adept at telling “lies” and dedicated to telling the truth. These are not the lies of a deceiver, of course; Scheherazade was not as interested in robbing or injuring the king as she was in keeping him engaged long enough to forget about executing her. Nonetheless, inasmuch as they do not represent actual truth, they may be described casually as “lies.”27

On the one hand, a writer must be an artist at a kind of confidence game, able to win the provisional trust of a reader and tell an outlandish28 tale in such a way that the reader willingly suspends disbelief for the length of time it takes to reach the final paragraph. All of this is done with the reader’s permission, in an unspoken contract under which the reader agrees to suspend that disbelief for as long as he or she — not the writer — chooses. The moment the reader loses confidence in the writer’s ability to engage him or her, the contract is broken, the “lies” stand exposed as not only fabrications but worthless fabrications, and the reader is free to leave.

On the other hand, the most enduring “lies” remain popular because they paradoxically reveal the truth. Lewis Carroll’s fanciful works are much loved, but perhaps they would not have stayed with us so long if their “nonsense” did not indirectly appeal to readers’ “sense” as being fact, that is, the way the people in Carroll’s own world normally approached life. Those works succeeded because they possess a quality we may call analogical authenticity — that is, we can build analogies, however fanciful, between them and our world. The same could be said of Jonathan Swift, whose Gulliver’s Travels presented a deliberately skewed picture of popular attitudes of his day, or George Orwell, who did much the same thing with politics in Animal Farm and whose 1984 was a reflection of trends present in 1948. The more successful a writer is at this kind of “lie,” the better he or she will depict his or her times — and thus the better a resource he or she is for one who wants to understand what we are all about.

Although stories set in our everyday world present less of a challenge to suspension of disbelief, the usefulness of fiction as a social diagnostic does not end when one crosses the boundary into speculative fiction. SF stories must possess an analogical authenticity as strong as that of others if they are to succeed as fiction. They may take place in extraordinary worlds; they may have robots or elves or goblins as characters; but they must say something accurate about people like ourselves. Ellison, speaking to would-be writers in this field, states the principle thus:

The only thing worth writing about is people.

I’ll say that again. The only thing worth writing about is people. People. Human beings. Men and women whose individuality must be created, line by line, insight by insight. If you do not do it, the story is a failure. It may be the most innovative scientific idea ever promulgated, but it will be a failure. I cannot stress this enough. There is no nobler chore in the universe than holding up the mirror of reality and turning it slightly, so we have a new and different perception of the commonplace, the everyday, the “normal,” the obvious. People are reflected in the glass. The fantasy situation into which you thrust them is the mirror itself. And what we are shown should illuminate and alter our perception of the world around us. Failing that, you have failed totally.

Melville put it this way: “No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”29

The fantastic elements are window-dressing, analogical décor. The real focus is humanity.30

Why Study Speculative Fiction?

We have seen why someone wishing to study a culture such as that of late-twentieth-century America might want to examine the speculative fiction of the period, whether it was written then or it found a significant audience then. But why should one do so? We offer six reasons.

An Enlarged Toolkit

First, SF provides a unique opportunity to depict human situations in ways not available to fiction that confines itself to normal experience. As Ellison says above, SF serves as a mirror held at an unusual angle, thus providing a new perspective on our world. If the point made by a story set in Flagstaff, Arizona, were no less clear and potent than if the story were set in the Barsoom Junction station orbiting Mars, then there would be no point in leaving Flagstaff. If, however, the environment of Barsoom Junction brings insights to light which would not be as visible in Flagstaff, then to Barsoom Junction one should go. If the depths and horror of Dr. Jekyll’s essential depravity (and, by extension, that of all of us) could be as effectively displayed without showing them in the persona of Mr. Hyde, Stevenson would not have needed to posit the transformation. With the introduction of Hyde, however, the story achieves an impact rarely found elsewhere.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, writing about science and technology, occasionally makes a statement now known as Clarke’s Second Law: “The only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible.”31 The principle has its counterpart in literature as well: The best way to explore the limits of customary human response is to test it with influences that are not customary. Circumstances beyond an individual’s experience can reveal hitherto obscured qualities in that individual. Such is the nature of fiction in general, and even though we as readers may never experience the specific circumstances, we can still consider whether they are analogous to our own lives (in terms of the stress levels or kinds of emotions they produce, etc.) and determine the presence or absence of the revealed qualities in ourselves. When Ellison imprisons his human characters within a worldwide, malevolent computer system in “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” he can demonstrate the degrees to which human beings are capable of love, despair, fear, daring, and paranoia. We may not be in such a stressful and inescapable situation, yet we can see, first, that what we create cannot be expected to be more noble than we are, and second, that under our own duress we might well respond as the prisoners do to their situation.

Taking the principle a step further, however, we find a sound rationale for SF: Circumstances on a scale beyond the experience of humanity itself can reveal hitherto obscured qualities in the human race.32 When Ellison places the spirit of suicide William Bailey under the power of a spirit-broker in “The Region Between,” he brings into sharp relief the human ability to understand one’s situation, learn its ins and outs, and then turn the tables on those who would exploit one. The presentation is extreme, but the analogy created is applicable to life on the twenty-first–century human scale.

Depiction of Things Unseen

This “going beyond” presents a second reason for using SF to study a culture: to examine contemporary conceptions of the nature of reality itself. Because SF goes beyond the boundaries of our experience, it encourages authors and readers alike to consider what might actually exist outside the perimeter of our senses and knowledge. By asking “What if…?,” an author might be suggesting, “Perhaps…”

This point needs some qualification, for writers may differ on how long they wish the readers to entertain these questions. On the one hand, sometimes the intended period only lasts for the time needed for reading. “What if…?” can mean “It isn’t so, but let’s pretend…,” and often does. A fantasy novel dealing with magic and wizards need not suggest that one should pursue something calling itself magic in the real world: the magic “exists” while one is reading the tale and stops thereafter. Indeed, such honored writers as C. S. Lewis, L. Frank Baum, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and James Barrie (not to mention various tellers of Arthurian tales) all wrote of magic, magicians, or other supernatural subjects without personally maintaining that they actually existed. The reader thus reserves the right to understand “What if…?” as simply proposing a different set of laboratory conditions, as it were, in order to uncover something about the human characters who operate within those conditions — the method discussed in the previous section.33

On the other hand, sometimes the sense is not “Let’s pretend” but “Let’s get used to thinking about it this way, because it really is this way.” An example is Ingo Swann’s novel Star Fire, which proposes that human beings have potential psychic power of immense magnitude. The book packaging forcibly announces Swann’s own “documented” psychic power, and Swann has also produced a how-to book to enable the reader to activate his or her psychic abilities.34 Thus fantastic literature is a tool for proposing new ways of understanding the makeup of our universe. Because fantasy steps outside consensus reality, it can address issues about which there is no consensus, and then propose a new consensus. It is thus the ideal form of literature for discussing matters cosmological, theological, and eschatological.35

SF also encourages us to consider what would happen if our consensus reality were to be changed. These changes may involve the discovery of additional human senses or abilities (as in any number of stories involving psi talents, such as Swann’s Star Fire, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels, Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, or Steven Gould’s Jumper). Sometimes these speculations are no more than thought experiments; at other times they can reflect the way the author wishes things were or believes they will be. In this case, “What if?” can mean not only “Suppose this were the case, because it really is,” as in the previous discussion,36 but also “Suppose this were the case, and I will convince you that we should make it so.” Examples would include Edward Bellamy’s utopian Looking Backward, 2000–1887 and B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two. Alternately, “What if?” can mean “Suppose this were the case, and it’s a very good thing it isn’t.” Susan Shwartz’s novelette “Suppose They Gave A Peace…”37 considers what would have happened had George McGovern won the 1972 presidential election and then mandated an immediate end to the Vietnam War. She concludes that the North Vietnamese forces, free to act without retaliation, would have quickly attacked South Vietnam, producing an even greater slaughter among Vietnamese and Americans alike than actually occurred.

Nor is the author’s opinion the only significant one. The reader also can independently find support or influence for his or her own world-view (even if only by analogy) in an SF piece. The popularity of Star Wars, which is often labeled a “space fantasy,” supports the idea that SF can be used as a mirror to popular attitudes. Many in academe are also convinced that this film series does in fact provide such a mirror.38

Fantasy as Roman à Clef

A third reason for using SF in studying culture is that sometimes the author is deliberately, but not always surreptitiously, portraying his or her own cultural milieu in different but recognizable guise for the purpose of satire or comment (from gentle suggestion to polemic). Thus SF becomes roman à clef, even verging on allegory; “What if…?” then becomes a more devious form of “Suppose this were the case, because it is,” adding, “and if you read between the lines, you’ll realize it.” Gulliver’s Travels, for example, succeeds as make-believe for younger readers while older readers recognize it as Swift’s instrument for pointedly satirizing specific attitudes among his society. A principal reason why Rod Serling created The Twilight Zone for television was to tell similarly pointed stories through fantasy; his experience in the industry had proven to him that such stories, if done as “real world” drama, were far too controversial for television executives (this was also a motivation for Gene Roddenberry later to create Star Trek).39 While many in the industry are more perceptive than that strategy suggests, it is true that they are often reluctant to permit elements that might offend an audience. Since the true commodity that television is selling is not products to the viewers, but viewers’ attention to advertising, anything that would reduce the size of the audience is understandably considered a negative factor.

In defense of such a view of SF, it can be pointed out that this method is more pervasive than we realize. For example, although a popular impression is that science fiction often deals with encounters between humans and aliens, that impression is really quite superficial. Beneath the surface ornamentation, the actual number of true aliens in science fiction — at least, the ones that individually take a significant part in the plot development — is very small.

The reason is not difficult to see. That which is truly alien is incomprehensible, a point made in Terry Carr’s short story “The Dance of the Changer and the Three.”40 In this tale the indigenous inhabitants of a world appear sympathetic and even benevolent toward the human settlers, and yet at one point they kill a number of humans — for reasons that neither the settlers nor the readers are able to understand, and which the aliens never explain. A story with this kind of frustration is difficult to tell successfully, yet Carr uses that frustration to make his point: that despite our skills and accomplishments we still encounter things that will baffle or even horrify us because they are beyond our reach, and we need to avoid overconfidence and be prepared for such an eventuality.

The true alien’s incomprehensibility makes him (her, it) usable not as a developed character but as a plot device. The predatory title antagonist in the film Alien is one such: its grotesqueness is a technical achievement on the part of the special effects crew, but does not affect its role as an anonymous Fury (in the mythological sense) that hunts down the crew of a refinery/transport spaceship one by one. It is not so much a character per se as a foil for the Earth-native characters, who as prey reveal various aspects of their personalities which they might not show if they were in control of the situation. By contrast, a so-called alien society such as the Vulcans in Star Trek provides actual characters more than plot devices; they can be seen as isolating that part of humanity that puts its trust in reason to the exclusion of emotional influence. Indeed, Stanley Grenz has described the Vulcan Mr. Spock as the quintessential man of the Enlightenment, representing the acme of the rational investigator and reflecting the late-1960s show’s unstated doctrine that the problems we face are basically rational ones with rational solutions.41

As another example of character versus plot device, consider the differing treatment of the title players in James Cameron’s films The Terminator (based on Harlan Ellison’s television adaptation of his short story “Soldier”)42 and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Each film features an infiltrator-assassin robot come to our time from the future. The first Terminator, despite actor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s top billing, is merely — if one will forgive the inevitable pun — a device. Like the Alien, it plays the role of a mythological Fury: a relentless, virtually unstoppable killing machine inexorably pursuing young Sarah Connor in order to prevent the birth of her as-yet-unconceived son and his role in defeating the machines of the future. This Terminator is two-dimensional, presented as alien in every respect but physical appearance and remaining alien through to the end; it is Connor and the human soldier from the future who guards her who are the actual focus of the movie. The second Terminator, on the other hand, is not a Fury but a reflective personality. Like Data, it becomes less and less alien as it learns to identify with humans, defend them, and even sacrifice itself for them; and thus, like Data, it presents to us specific human characteristics as it learns them.

Realized Predictions

A fourth reason one might use SF in studying culture is that sometimes the speculations become real. Here, “What if?” means “Suppose this were the case, because in the future it will be.” William Gibson wrote his celebrated novel Neuromancer in an effort to portray the multinational, information-driven, and competitive nature of business today by caricaturing it in a world that is thoroughly global, completely information-driven and -dependent, and competitive to the extent that the only way one company can hire a researcher or executive away from another company is to mount a commando raid on his or her current employer. Gibson says explicitly that he wrote Neuromancer not about the future but about his 1984 present, following our roman à clef model,43 yet aspects of our present are coming to resemble Gibson’s constructed future more every day.

Other authors, particularly those who write “hard” science fiction, do in fact, attempt to suggest directions in which our society is evolving. Robert A. Heinlein, for example, frequently used “if this goes on…” as the basis for his stories, even using that phrase as the title of one novel. While the moving roads in his story “The Roads Must Roll” never came into actual existence, the central point of that story — the damaging effects of a transport strike — proved quite accurate. He also predicted various technological developments such as the pocket-sized personal telephone and the remotely controlled manipulators called “waldoes” after his story “Waldo” (although it could be argued whether he predicted waldoes or provided the inspiration for them). These, like Dick Tracy’s miniaturized radios and James Bond’s beeper in the film From Russia With Love, are now commonplace.

The appeal to realized speculation is limited, of course. Influences that shape culture are frequently unforeseen. For example, no one predicted that the invention of the automobile, with the privacy it provides, would contribute to a jump in birth rates by providing what one of comedian Shelley Berman’s monologues once called “a motel room on wheels.”44 And while stories often dealt with large, monolithic computers, even having them rule the world as in D. F. Jones’s Colossus or destroy it as in Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” no one forty years ago foresaw the decentralization of computer systems in the form of desktop and laptop machines. Such stories persist, but now they deal with computer networks — and one wonders whether computer networks, even one as pervasive as the Internet, might not be replaced with something else. Nonetheless, sometimes an author will correctly identify a present-day influence that deserves our attention so that it may be properly handled in the future.

A Significant Cultural Element

A fifth reason why SF is an important tool in analyzing today’s American culture in particular is that it is now a significant part of that culture. The popularity of the Star Wars films from the 1970s onward has already been mentioned. The surprising financial success of three other films also indicated a growing SF influence: Independence Day (Summer 1997), about an invasion of Earth by plundering extraterrestrials; The Sixth Sense (Summer 1999), about a boy able to communicate with the dead; X-Men (Summer 2000), about a group of individuals who, representing a leap in human evolution, manifest unusual powers.

Television programs toward the end of the century increasingly ventured into fantasy and science fiction. Although the original Star Trek required considerable effort by its creator to sell it to networks for broadcast in 1967–70, by the end of 2000 it had been supplemented by not one but four sequel series. Other examples of century’s-end series include Early Edition, in which a young man was informed of events taking place within the next day and had to decide what to do with that knowledge (the show was marketed as drama, but the concept of receiving a newspaper from twenty-four hours into the future is undeniably SF); Xena: Warrior Princess, which gleefully made comic hash of both history and mythology; Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which metaphorically portrayed the trials of adolescence and young adulthood as the vampires and other occult malefactors faced by a high-school- and college-age girl; and Dark Angel, about a genetically engineered young woman who had escaped from the organization that would have made her a soldier.

Today the presence of SF on television has not diminished. Stargate SG-1 is in its ninth year on the SciFi Channel. The 1978-79 series Battlestar Galactica, then a “space fantasy” in the Star Wars mold, has been remade as a treatment of military, economic, and politicial issues in a closed, terrorized society; whereas the earlier version only lasted one season, the newer one is continuing into a second season. And during the 2005–6 television season, three major broadcast networks each introduced a show addressing the concept of extraterrestrial invasion (ABC’s Invasion, CBS’s Threshold, and NBC’s Surface).

While fantasy and science fiction novels abound among popular books, “mainstream” authors such as Herman Wouk (The “Lomokome” Papers), Doris Lessing (the Canopus in Argos trilogy), and John Hersey (The Child Buyer) have also dealt with speculative themes.45 And no discussion of popular literature would be complete without mention of the growing number of paperback romance series involving time travel and liaisons with alien, supernatural, or extratemporal men or women.46


Commenting on the flow of ideas back and forth between writers of science fiction and those of so-called “mainstream” literature, Thomas Disch observes:

From the start, science fiction has had a double nature. At its crudest it is the ringmaster for monsters from the Id,47 bubbling with crude wish-fulfilling fantasies, as in “Helen O’Loy.”48 But such fantasies can be very potent. They will capture the attention not only of a naive audience but of all those alert to such fiction’s primal meaning: to grown-up writers like Ira Levin or Margaret Atwood who can recognize their own features in the comic book grotesqueries of naive sci fi and who then do their own sophisticated recensions of the crude originals.

This dialogic process has been going on so long, among so many different writers, that the confusion of realms between highbrow and low, between naive and knowing, has become a cultural fait accompli…. In short, science fiction has come to permeate our culture in ways both trivial and/or profound, obvious and/or insidious. And its effects have not been limited to the sphere of “culture,” in the narrow sense of one art form’s influencing others. The influence of science fiction, as we shall witness abundantly in the pages ahead, can be felt in such diverse realms as industrial design and marketing, military strategy, sexual mores, foreign policy, and practical epistemology — in other words, our basic sense of what is real and what isn’t.

It is my contention that some of the most remarkable features of the present historical moment have their roots in a way of thinking that we have learned from science fiction….49

It would seem incumbent upon observers of contemporary culture, then, to include SF in their researches.

The study of speculative fiction, then, provides much potential insight to today’s American evangelicals. Not only is this activity related to understanding biblical narrative, it is useful for understanding contemporary culture as well, not only because, as Disch notes, much of our thinking has been shaped by its creators, but also because it has the potential for expressing what we consider to be true about the universe. To be sure, no work of fiction can be automatically assumed to contain the truth; one need only consider the controversy over Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code, which taps into millennia-old Gnostic traditions, to see that fiction can effectively transmit false doctrine as well as true. It is that effectiveness of which we speak, however, and the tools that can make best-selling novels out of heterodox doctrine can also be employed in the service of orthodoxy. The point is that they communicate, and the content that they transmit can tell us much about those who use them and those who read their finished product.

  1. Diane Duane, Spock’s World (New York: Pocket Books, 1988), 228. []
  2. Quoted in Joy Dickinson, “Life by the Book: Which Works Will Linger in Your Mind for a Lifetime?” The Dallas Morning News, 20 January 2002, C2. []
  3. Terry W. Glaspey, Great Books of the Christian Tradition (Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House Publishers, 1996), 121. []
  4. Ibid., 121–22. []
  5. Mark Noll in Between Faith and Criticism describes the withdrawal of fundamentalism from the academic arena after the first quarter of the twentieth century, while George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture describes the move as taking place within the larger context of American society. Mark A. Noll, Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1986); George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870–1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980). []
  6. Glaspey, Great Books of the Christian Tradition, 122. []
  7. That Moody Press has for so long used the slogan “The Name You Can Trust” suggests the extent to which its targeted audience distrusted other sources. []
  8. Tom Doyle argues that this close relationship to the reader’s own world places the Left Behind books in the category of techno-thriller rather than science fiction. Tom Doyle, “Christian Apocalyptic Fiction,” Strange Horizons (8 April 2002), available on-line at http://www.strangehorizons.com/2002/ 20020408/apocalyptic.shtml; accessed 12 November 2005. []
  9. The term was coined by SF author Robert A. Heinlein as an alternative to the inadequate and often inaccurate science fiction. Damon Knight, “Critics,” in Visions of Wonder: The Science Fiction Research Association Anthology, ed. David G. Hartwell and Milton T. Wolf (New York: Tor Books, 1996), 13. []
  10. Kathryn Hume, Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature (New York: Methuen, 1984), 21. Hume uses fantasy to refer to this combined category, as her discussion considers the two influences, the fantastic and the mimetic, that she sees in the fictive process. While such a label is attractive (and I myself find it the easiest to use), it may prove confusing to readers accustomed to identifying the word with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien but not with Isaac Asimov, Hal Clement, or Larry Niven, three writers associated with “hard science fiction,” that is, science fiction that rigorously uses what is known concerning the physical sciences (called “hard” sciences because they involve unchanging laws of nature rather than the more fluid nature of human behavior, a difference analogous to that between “hardware” and “software”). The term speculative fiction, used by Judith Merril, Harlan Ellison, and others for the combined category, is more cumbersome but presents the least difficulty; moreover, it captures the essence of the category: asking “What if…?”
    SF writer Norman Spinrad recalls, “‘Speculative fiction’ was what we were trying to have our New Wave stuff called in those days [the late 1960s], first because the term was more inclusive, second because it sounded tonier in the literary salons to which we aspired, and third, to hedge our bets when it came to getting it published, since it could still lay commercial claim to the initials SF.” Norman Spinrad, “Foreword: The Frontiers of Edgeville,” in Over the Edge: Stories from Somewhere Else, by Harlan Ellison, vol. 1 bk. 1, Edgeworks (Clarkston, Ga.: White Wolf Publishing, 1996), xxiii. []
  11. Harlan Ellison, “Introduction: Good Morning, Folks; I Am Not Kathie Lee Gifford,” in Edgeworks (Clarkston, Ga.: White Wolf Publishing, 1996), 1:xiii. []
  12. Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, The Light of Other Days (New York: Tor, 2000), 185. []
  13. Thomas Kuhn maintains that scientific observations themselves are thus the children of the prevailing mindset among scientists, which dictates the way experiments are set up, and the observations will change when the mindset itself changes. The science done under one matrix of perspectives and theories, (identified by means of a representative “paradigm”) will therefore of necessity be different from the science guided by another, even to the point where the former scientists will inevitably take issue with the latter ones. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970). See especially chapter 10, “Revolutions as Changes of World View,” 111–35.
    The dissension between scientists of differing paradigms is consistent with “Clarke’s First Law.” See note 30. []
  14. Paul Meier’s Pontius Pilate is an example. Although Meier wanted to write a biography of Pilate, the amount of available historical data, though considerable, was not enough to relate Pilate’s life with full continuity. Meier therefore used his imagination to fill in the gaps and labeled the result a “biographical novel.” Paul L. Meier, Pontius Pilate: A Biographical Novel (New York: Doubleday, 1968). []
  15. Eugenia Price makes it clear in the frontmatter of her novel Maria, which deals with the history of St. Augustine, Florida, that the chronology of the narrative has been altered. Nonetheless, the book has been praised as a historical account, and, indeed, likely does a better job of communicating the important causal chains and interpersonal relationships as a result of Price’s authorial license. Eugenia Price, Maria (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1977). []
  16. H. Maxwell Butcher, Story as a Way to God: A Guide for Storytellers (San Jose, Calif.: Resource Publications, 1991), 21. []
  17. Ibid., 31. []
  18. As a parallel to Plato’s and Thucydides’ interpolative imagination, we may consider Truman Capote’s 1965 book In Cold Blood. The book is an account of historical events, namely, the murder of a Kansas family and the capture and prosecution of the murderers. To tell the true story as effectively and in as great a depth as possible, novelist Capote made hitherto unprecedented use of a fiction-writer’s tools including symbolism, misdirection, characterization, internal monologue, and narrative tension. The marketing of the book as a novel raised more than a few eyebrows, yet it is clearly the work of a novelist. At the same time it is also an effective piece of journalism, and Capote has been credited with opening new territory both in journalism and in fiction. As we have seen, however, this innovation is actually a logical extension of the historian’s task. Far from being completely new, the technique has considerable precedent. Truman Capote, In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences (New York: Random House, 1965). []
  19. I am indebted to Butcher, Story as a Way to God, for applying Frankl’s insights to the present topic. []
  20. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, rev. and enlarged ed., Part One trans. Ilse Lasch, preface by Gordon W. Allport (New York: Washington Square Press, 1963), 122. []
  21. Ibid., 121. []
  22. Ibid., 154. []
  23. Butcher, Story as a Way to God, 29, quoting Harvey Cox, The Seduction of the Spirit: The Use and Misuse of People’s Religion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), 9.
    Granted, this idea is not the all-pervading view in American society; indeed, it may not even be the majority view any longer. The will to invent oneself, to establish one’s own meaning, is an increasingly prominent part of our postmodern culture. []
  24. Ibid., 32. []
  25. Rodney Clapp, “Tom T. Hall and the Necessity of Narrative,” in Border Crossings: Christian Trespasses on Popular Culture and Public Affairs (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2000), 33–39. []
  26. Success is used here in the sense of the writer’s producing the desired results in the mind of the reader by means of a work of fiction, rather than the commercial results of the purchase or lease of the work by an editor or reader. I will grant, of course, that the writer’s primary purpose in creating the work might be simply to make money, as Robert A. Heinlein frequently claimed about his work. []
  27. The word is used without shame by various writers. We have seen Ellison describe writers as professional liars; see also (prolific novelist) Lawrence Block, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers, with a new introduction by Sue Grafton (New York: Quill, 1981). []
  28. The word is used advisedly, inasmuch as speculative fiction customarily steps outside the borders of normal experience into unknown “outlands.” []
  29. Harlan Ellison, “Telltale Tics and Tremors,” in The Essential Ellison: A Fifty-year Retrospective, ed. Terry Dowling with Richard Delap and Gil Lamont (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Morpheus International, 2001), 363. []
  30. Thus, Ellison disdains the previously mentioned subgenre “hard science fiction” (see note 10), since it frequently seems less concerned with its human characters than with extrapolating scientific principles and precedents. (The stories of Arthur C. Clarke and much of Isaac Asimov’s fiction could be so described. Hal Clement, Larry Niven, Allen Steele, James Hogan, and Stephen Baxter are current practitioners in this area as well.) This subgenre is particularly significant because from its depictions of the many actual and potential attributes of our physical universe often come the awe, the “sense of wonder” that attracts many to science fiction in the first place. The wonder comes from beholding the nature and potential of the universe, which itself becomes the stories’ hero (or villain).
    It is true that often these stories are simply an extension of “normal science” as Kuhn portrays it, where scientists are engaged in “puzzle-solving,” not searching for new ways to envision the universe but simply filling in the gaps in the vision we now entertain. As such, stories that are mostly science-driven — that is, those that focus primarily on scientific extrapolation — appeal to a somewhat narrower audience than stories that are character-driven.
    And yet Ellison seems to be applying the tar and feathers too freely. Many stories these days combine scientific rigor with strong character development, so that they focus as much on human characters as on the universe-as-character. Many of the more recent hard-SF writers, such as Gregory Benford, Nancy Kress, and Greg Bear, have succeeded in melding the two subjects. Indeed, older stories such as Tom Godwin’s chilling “The Cold Equations” derive their effectiveness from the development of the characters who are pitted against the universe. This kind of story can be quite rewarding, and it is a skilled writer who can meet the dual challenge of requirements of scientific plausibility and effective characterization.
    We should not forget, of course, that stories with a technical focus are not unique to science fiction. Military fiction includes the currently popular “techno-thrillers” of Tom Clancy, Larry Bond, and others. A popular subgenre of mystery stories is the police procedural, including the novels of Ed McBain and J. A. Jance. And even high fantasy — the variety of fantasy that deals with other worlds than our own — has its storytellers who create engaging stories that at the same time are technically somewhat detailed or at least consciously consistent with established physical principles. See, for example, Elisabeth Waters, “Ice Princess,” in The Random House Book of Fantasy Stories, ed. Mike Ashley, illus. Douglas Carrell (New York: Random House, 1996), 141–66, in which the figure-skating techniques of its heroine uniquely enable her to solve a sorcery-created problem; also Larry Niven, The Magic Goes Away (New York: Ace Books, 1978), which addresses magic as a kind of technology. For an example of a best-selling novel that combines the problems of invisibility with the intricacies of securities analysis, see Harry F. Saint, Memoirs of an Invisible Man (New York: Dell Publishing, 1988). []
  31. For his Three Laws see Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible, Millennium ed. (London: Victor Gollancz, 1999), 1–2. Clarke’s First Law states: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist says that something is possible, (s)he is almost certainly right. When (s)he says it is impossible, (s)he is very probably wrong.” One can see Kuhn’s “paradigm shifts” possibly at work here, and perhaps even in Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
    Clarke and the late Isaac Asimov, close friends, shared a dry but quick wit and a great respect for their scientific forebears. Just as Clarke has the above Three Laws, so Asimov has the Three Laws of Robotics. Evidently they felt that if three laws were good enough for Sir Isaac Newton, they were good enough for them. []
  32. One contemporary film reviewer no doubt had this in mind when he criticized Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie Westworld for glossing over the question “How does human behavior change if fantasies can be fulfilled by humanoid robots so that other human persons are not involved?” in favor of a formulaic chase story in which Yul Brynner’s robotic gunfighter functions as an earlier version of the Terminator. []
  33. This is the issue in the current dispute over the benignity or malignity of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels: Are they suggesting that wizardry and witchcraft are real in our world, and perhaps encouraging children to disregard the dangers in current occult doctrines and practices? I would say no, provided the children in question understand the difference between fantasy and reality. If they do not, then they will confuse the two and thus may fulfill some parents’ fears. If they do understand the difference, however, then they will be able to appreciate the fantastic elements of a story while at the same time affirming that those elements are not real, nor are they to be considered real except within the framework of the story. []
  34. Ingo Swann, Star Fire (New York: Dell, 1978); idem, Everybody’s Guide to Natural ESP: Unlocking the Extrasensory Power of Your Mind (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1991). []
  35. For example, a recurrent philosophical question concerns what it means to be, using Heidegger’s term, Dasein — a self-aware entity in the world. This is also a recurrent question in science fiction circles, in works such as Isaac Asimov’s robot stories and the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Asimov’s First Law of Robotics, “A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm,” brings up the question of exactly what a human being is — a question Asimov consciously begged except in two stories, “ — That Thou Art Mindful of Him!” and “The Bicentennial Man” (the latter providing the basis for the recent film Bicentennial Man, written by Nicholas Kazan and directed by Chris Columbus). In Star Trek: The Next Generation the android Data, wishing to be human, carefully studies all the information he can obtain concerning the human condition, with Captain Picard as his mentor.
    For a sample of eschatological SF, see Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End, discussions of which often invoke Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. For another, see the television series Angel (created by Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt), in which the protagonist is a vampire who initially believes he must atone for the evil he has done in the past, but who comes to adopt an existentialist perspective: evil is all-pervasive and overwhelmingly strong, and nothing one can do matters on the larger scale; still, he fights against evil because he must. “In the greater scheme or the big picture, nothing we do matters. There’s no grand plan, no big win…. If there is no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. ’Cause that’s all there is. What we do, now, today…. If there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.” Angel: “Epiphany” (originally broadcast 27 February 2001), written by Tim Minear, dir. Thomas J. Wright. []
  36. Frank M. Robinson’s thriller Waiting describes a conflict between humanity and its evolutionary predecessors, who in the novel have been biding their time for millennia and now come out in force against the violent species (us) that usurped their place. In the prefatory acknowledgments he writes, “For those readers who may wonder what makes a writer tick: I’m fond of didactic novels, books that inform as well as (hopefully) entertain.” He then asks, “Do I personally believe in the major premise of Waiting?” and responds, “You bet.” Frank M. Robinson, Waiting (New York: Tor Books, 1999), vii.
    Nor is this the first time Robinson has entertained the idea of an evolutionary step: his 1956 novel The Power also proposes that one might develop mental powers including telekinesis. Frank M. Robinson, The Power (New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1956). []
  37. In Susan Shwartz, Suppose They Gave a Peace and Other Stories (Waterville, Me.: Five Star, 2002). []
  38. Charles Ealy, “Understanding the Light and Dark Sides of ‘Star Wars’: New Installment Not Likely to Quiet Critical Debate About What Saga Means,” The Dallas Morning News, 9 May 1999, J1, J10. []
  39. “Present at the Creation: The Twilight Zone,” National Public Radio’s Morning Edition (16 Sept 2002), available on-line at http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/twilightzone/; accessed 12 November 2005; Stephen E. Whitfield, The Making of Star Trek (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968), 21–22. []
  40. Terry Carr, “The Dance of the Changer and the Three,” in World’s Best Science Fiction: 1969, ed. Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr (New York: Ace Books, 1969), 260–76. []
  41. Stanley J. Grenz, “Star Trek and the Next Generation: Postmodernism and the Future of Evangelical Theology,” Crux 30 (March 1994): 24-32. Grenz uses the two “generations” of Star Trek to illustrate our cultural shift from modernism to postmodernism. Although Spock continually must learn how to handle the inevitable presence of emotion, he is essentially a rational man and is one of the primary characters in the show, suggesting the rational perspective held during the 1960s. Indeed, it was not unusual for fans of the show to use Mr. Spock as a role model. By contrast, the android Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation suggests postmodernism in a number of ways. He is as much the rational investigator as is Spock, but in this later series his role is no longer primary, nor is he presented as a role model. In fact, were it possible, he would gladly renounce his android attributes in order to become human. Accordingly, says Grenz, the issues faced in Star Trek: The Next Generation are no longer strictly rational ones, but frequently venture into the suprarational area of faith. The world of the first generation was modern; that of the next generation is postmodern.
    One item Grenz does not develop (no doubt owing to the amount of journal space available) is that the modern-postmodern transition actually took place after Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted, and was likely spurred by the passing of its creator, Gene Roddenberry. Data’s desire to be human was not a new development; rather, it was that series’ implementation of a theme present in all of the first four Star Trek series — namely, that an adequate description of humanity involves more than strict rationality. In Star Trek, we observe not only Spock’s skill at rational thinking but also his struggle to reconcile that rationality with the emotional nature he has inherited from his human mother; the struggle is resolved in the later Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, we see the android Data’s determination to emulate human beings, continuing the theme of The Questor Tapes, a post–Star Trek television pilot Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon created. In that teleplay an android named Questor engages his principal engineer as a mentor in emulating humanity; Star Trek: The Next Generation transfers those roles to Data and Captain Picard.
    Roddenberry was a thoroughgoing Humanist, in the sense in which the term is used in The Humanist Manifesto. As such, he was a strong atheist; and he incorporated that characteristic into Captain Picard, a Frenchman who in the pilot episode decries humanity’s earlier dependence on “tribal god-figures,” and who throughout the series maintains a determinedly anti-supernaturalist perspective (in one segment he accurately denies an alien visitor’s claim to be Satan, giving no apparent reason for that denial other than Satan’s nonexistence). In fact, although Grenz maintains that Data’s status as a lesser character than Spock suggests that rationalism is being played down, we could respond that it is alive, well, and pre-eminent in Picard. []
  42. Although in the notes to the DVD edition of The Terminator Cameron claims that he came up with its story independently, both the videocassette and DVD editions contain the credit, “Acknowledgment to the works of Harlan Ellison.” That credit was part of the pre-trial settlement of a plagiarism lawsuit against Cameron and Hemdale Films. At the same time, Ellison liked the film Cameron had produced. The Terminator, written by James Cameron with Gale Anne Hurd, dir. James Cameron (Los Angeles: Orion Pictures, 1984); Harlan Ellison, “Introduction: Working Beyond My Limits,” in Kevin J. Anderson, The Outer Limits: Armageddon Dreams, intro. by Harlan Ellison (Scottsdale, Ariz.: Quadrillion Media, 2000), 8, 15; idem, interview by author, 22 March 2002; idem, Harlan Ellison’s Watching (reprint: Lancaster, Pa.: Underwood-Miller, 1992). []
  43. “William Gibson’s Cy-Fi Reality: His Future Is Closer Than You Think,” USA Today, 2 September 1993, 1–2. []
  44. Shelley Berman, The Edge of Shelley Berman, Verve #MG V-15103. As Harvey Cox puts it,“I wonder if Henry Ford ever realized that his invention would be viewed by many not primarily as a means of transportation but as the urban society’s substitute for Keats’ ‘elfin grot.’” Harvey Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 192-96. []
  45. George Slusser points out that to call other literature “mainstream” is historically nonsensical, since from the beginning American authors have used the tools of speculative fiction extensively, whether they be Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, or Mark Twain. George Edgar Slusser, Harlan Ellison: Unrepentant Harlequin (San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1977), 3. []
  46. Along with the benefits in understanding American culture, the student of SF may also gain an increased understanding of the Bible’s own use of fictive items from its cultural context. In his monograph God’s Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea, John Day examines references in Job, Psalms, and Isaiah, and potential references in Genesis, to a battle between Yahweh and a serpentine, aquatic monster on the one hand, and between Yahweh and the sea itself on the other. He refutes assertions that these are taken from a Babylonian myth about Marduk’s fight against Tiamat; rather, he concludes, the myths in question are Canaanite, and deal with Ba‘al’s fight against Yam, the god of the sea, and against Yam’s “dragon associates Leviathan, El’s calf Atik, etc.” Echoes of the conflict in Genesis 1 are metaphorical, drawing both an analogy and a contrast between the storm-god’s triumph over the sea and God’s powerful word that set the waters in their place.
    Uses in Job and Psalms, Day claims, are actual references to and altered adoptions of the Canaanite story; I would suggest that they likewise are metaphorical: if Job is historical, then God applied the names Behemoth and Leviathan to beasts of which Job was aware, as a way of indicating their strength and stature. Likewise, the application of the dragon-battle story to God’s fight against Egypt suggests both the power of the enemy and the conclusive victory of God.
    Thus we see that the analogical use of an extraordinary story to comment on a historical situation is not a new technique, nor is it only as old as Jotham. It goes back to our oldest records of creation itself.
    John Day, God’s Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea: Echoes of a Canaanite Myth in the Old Testament, University of Cambridge Oriental Publications 34 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 179. []
  47. A reference to the film Forbidden Planet (written by Irving Block, Allen Adler, and Cyril Hume; dir. Fred McLeod Wilcox), in which technology turns one’s wishes into material reality, including — to the horror of all concerned — the subconscious ones. []
  48. A short story by Lester del Rey about a robotic housemaid whose engineer falls in love with her and eventually marries her. Disch views “Helen O’Loy” as a progenitor to Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives, in which a sinister plan produces a community where housewives become totally and selflessly subservient to their husbands. Although this may be the case, I suspect that Levin’s novel is related less to del Rey’s story than to the social upheaval in the 1960s over the rising feminist movement and the resistance thereto. []
  49. Thomas M. Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World (New York: The Free Press, 1998), 11–12. []
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5 Responses to Why Story is important to life; why SFF is important to theology

  1. Martin LaBar says:

    Thanks! This will take a while to digest, I’m sure, but it looks like it will be worth it.

  2. Chris Lester says:

    An excellent monograph, very thoughtful and insightful. I’d be very curious to hear how it was received by its intended audience. 🙂

  3. Michael says:

    To my delight, it was received very well. But then, the Other Voices Study Group by definition deals with issues on the margin of current evangelical activity, so I knew I could go “farther out” with them than with the rest of ETS.

    I would be curious to know what visitors to this site think of it — provided, of course, that they’ve made it this far. 🙂 (Don’t be shy, folks! Comments can be entered below.)

    Incidentally, your own Metamor City Podcast, with its mix of good, evil, and ambiguous characters, is an excellent example of the kind of stories I’m talking about (plus, it’s a lot of fun!). Janus Starson of the Lothanasi Order pursues his guardianship of humanity according to a strict ethical code, but sometimes we’re not sure we’d endorse every element of it. The Lothanasi are called “Lightbringers” by the general populace (and hey, “son of the star” — how much more illumination can a name invoke?), and they do appear to be the Good Guys; but exactly what kind of light is it they’re bringing? And there’s Jenna of “Troubled Minds”: can a supernatural being of a kind we’ve defined through the centuries as evil be something else? If so, how and why?

    There’s plenty of action, intriguing people, and not a little playfulness (Santa Claus as a Sidhe-lord? What the hey—?), so listeners can have a good time and then go on to consider issues such as these. A deftly balanced piece of storytelling indeed!

  4. Chris Lester says:

    Thanks for the compliments, Michael! I do indeed try to make the moral/ethical playing field somewhat fuzzy in Metamor City — and if you think the Lothanasi are ambiguous, wait until you see the Psi Collective in action. 🙂 One of the things I tried to demonstrate in “The Sentinel” (episode 3) was the clash between ethical alignments — not the question of right and wrong, per se, but the question of how the moral code of right and wrong is to be adjudicated in society. Both Agent Starson and Ms. Fallon claim to have the best interests of the child at heart, but each accuses the other of using the child as a pawn to advance their larger political agendas. Are they both right? Both wrong? A little of both? What’s the proper use of the sort of authority that has been invested in the Lothanasi, and who watches the watchers? I leave that for the listener to think about, at least for now. As a wise man once said, questions are more useful than answers. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Fridays of Sword & Sorceress 24: an interview with Michael Spence & Elisabeth Waters | Jonathan Moeller, Pulp Writer

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