It would be hard indeed to be a Western citizen in 1982 and not have had some acquaintance with Science Ficition (S.F. or Sci-Fi to the initiate)—even if it be only an occasional viewing of “Flash Gordon” or “Dr. Who” or a short story in “Reader’s Digest”. To define S F is an almost impossible task, but as a general rule S F involves at least one of the following concepts:
- Man becoming a superman or an immortal being or something new in a huge evolutionary process.1
- Salvation - whereby we are given the only course for humanity to follow if we wish to survive as a race or a species.2
- The end of the human race.3
- Man in a futuristic gimmicky space-age world, facing problems common to our own.4
- Man’s Past—an investigation of the origins of life and/or a consideration of the implications of evolutionary processes.5
All of the above are essentially religious themes. The way in which they are treated by any author, Sci Fi or otherwise, will depend upon the religion of that author.
Since most science fiction writers are evolutionists or atheists or both, the great majority of science fiction is extremely evolutionary in character.
“A prim Darwinian sound” (The Kraken Wakes)
“… given two intelligent species with differing requirements on one planet, it is inevitable that, sooner or later, one will exterminate the other.”6
This is the type of conflict at the base of “Arena”, a short story recently popularised in “Reader’s Digest” (April 1982). A struggle to the death is played out by a representative from each of two opposing groups. Each group has massive strength-all the forces of Earth and a “mighty fleet” of “outsiders”, and the drama was organised by the unseen “Personality”. This unseen “Judge” states as it addresses the Man:
“I am the end of the evolution of a race, fused into a single entity, eternal—an entity such as your primitive race might become. So might the race you call the Outsiders.
So I intervene in the battle to come, the battle between fleets so evenly matched that destruction of both races will result. I shall destroy one fleet without loss to the other. One civilization shall survive!7 In other novels we see that the conflict is stated in borrowed religious tones heaped upon their enemies:
“In the name of the Galactic Spirit and his prophet, Hari Sheldon, and of his interpreters, the holy men of the Foundation, I curse this ship.8
Sometimes the conversation is pure humanism, but with a sharp perception of the irony of man’s ideas of such God substitutes as “Mother Nature”. States one Sci Fi scribe:
“It is because Nature is ruthless, hideous, and cruel beyond belief that it was necessary to invent civilization. There is no conception more fallacious than the sense of rosiness implied by “Mother Nature”. Each species must strive to survive, and that it will do, by every means in its power, however foul.” J. Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos. Penguin, London. P.112-113.
Occasionally the evolutionary concept shows up in terms of life from outer space, such as the Kraken.9
Whatever type of evolution is used as a basis for S F writing, there is always the belief that morals, ethics and values must be decided by those involved in the conflict. There are no real standards to go by. You must make them up as you go. It is this type of thing which is supposed to provide the human interest necessary for the book to be regarded as “good” literature. In the book “The Midwich Cuckoos”, Zellaby attempts to convince the Vicar that the actions of the interloping “children” are justifiable—not because their actions are morally good, but because they lie outside the realm of traditional human morality (i.e. Christian morality). Zellaby says:
“What these incidents really make clear, my dear fellow, is that the laws evolved by one particular species, for the convenience of that species, are, by their nature, concerned only with the capacities of the species- against a species with different capacities they simply become inapplicable.” 10
His implication is clear. Laws, ethics and moral codes are just as subject to evolutionary processes as is physical life. The Vicar responds:
“I don’t know, Zellaby .. I simply don’t know … I’m in a morass.”
The Vicar’s reply is a clear picture of a confused church in an evolutionary age.
Most science fiction follows the pragmatist school of philosophy-everything is supposed to be in a state of change-evolving. when change is all you can be sure of, then nothing will endure forever. 11
Neither religion nor society nor morals - nothing. Only the things we experience are allowed to be called real. It is this firm commitment to change in an essentially physical world that produces the sense of amorality; Man is seen as no better than any other animal. One set of morals is no worse than another. One author puts it this way in his story:
“The Universe sees no distinction between the multitude of creatures and elements which comprise it. All are equal. None is favoured. The universe, equipped with nothing but the materials and the power of creation, continues to create: something of this, something of that. It cannot control what it creates and it cannot, it seems, be controlled by its creations (though a few might deceive themselves otherwise). Those who curse the workings of the universe curse that which is deaf. Those who strike out at those workings fight that which in inviolate. Those who shake their fists, shake their fists at blind stars.12
This is the amorality of evolutionary thought which breeds amorality in man.
“The Stresses in the shell before it buckles under”
It is this acceptance of man’s helplessness in an impersonal world which breeds the pervading sense of futility so prevalent in much S F literature. Arthur C. Clarke’s “Earth light” dwells on how useless life is, and the slim grasp on life which man has in a huge and mechanical universe.
“It was a heart-freezing thought. At any moment, as likely as not, somewhere in the universe a whole solar system, with strangely peopled worlds and civilizations, was being tossed carelessly into a cosmic furnace. Life was a fragile and delicate phenomenon, poised on the razor’s edge between cold and heat.”13
In such cases as this, the writer becomes more than a mere story teller; he becomes a philosopher. He is no longer merely entertaining his audience, but teaching them, giving them a way of thinking and of viewing the world.
Nevil Shut displays a similar sense of nihilism (futility of existence) in his novel “On the Beach”, in which the few remaining survivors of a nuclear holocaust await the inexorable, unavoidable radioactive cloud to overwhelm them. Any vestiges of hope in a religion or in God are demolished also, leaving the characters totally dependent upon themselves. In one scene the survivors:
“… walked around the gallery set aside for the forty paintings in the exhibition, the girl interested the naval officer frankly uncomprehending … They paused before the prize winner, the sorrowing Christ on a background of the destruction of a great city. ‘I think that one’s got something,’ she said. ‘For once I believe that I’d agree with the Judges.’
He said, ‘I hate it like hell’.
‘What don’t you like about it?’
He stared at it. ‘Everything. To me it’s just phoney. No pilot in his senses would be flying as low as that with thermo-nuclear bombs going off all round. He’d get burned up.’
She said, ‘It’s got good composition and good colouring.’ ‘Oh, sure,’ he replied, ‘but the subject’s phoney.’ 14
The Characters were dependent only on themselves. But their independence fails totally to provide any real salvation. Their only recourse is to suicide, which they manage to do clinically and painlessly.
The mother said duly, ‘Peter told me I might have to murder Jennifer.’ A tear formed and trickled down her cheek .. Finally they went together to the bottom and looked at the red boxes in the cabinet. ‘I’ve heard something about all this,’ she said seriously. ‘I never knew that it had got so far … ” One craziness was piled on to another. 15
It is in this total rejection of optimism, that science fiction displays its real nature. Such pessimism is the only possible result of a philosophy built on evolution.
The final part of this article will consider the role of God in Science Fiction.