Page 4, 1st May 1998

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DAVID V. BARRETT on God and science fiction

Stardust and Ashes by Stephen May, SPCK £12.99

WA-r POSSIBLF connection could there be between religion and science fiction? For the devout believer, one might think none; for the equally devout unbeliever, as a friend recently wrote to me, "in a sense, all religion is SF". Certainly, enough science fiction ideas are being absorbed into some of the stranger new religious movements. But SF itself is often claimed to be the natural place to examine religious ideas. According to the outstanding SF editor Judith Merril, who died recently, the objective of what she preferred to call speculative fiction "is to explore, to discover, to learn... something about the nature of the universe, of man, or `reality'," This seems a pretty good objective for religion as well.

Stephen May is a lecturer in Systematic Theology in New Zealand; he's a believing Christian, and a science fiction fan. In Stardust and Ashes he attempts to analyse the themes and history of SF from a Christian perspective. Although the publishers seem to think this is something new "Going boldly where no previous guide has gone before..." in fact there is little new here. Over the years there have been numerous articles on religion in science fiction in both popular magazines and academic journals; and there have been previous books on the subject. With one or two exceptions, May seems unaware of this previous work.

Having said that, May's book is a useful examination of how religious themes are apparent in writers from HG Wells, through the giants such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Philip K Dick, up to the more recent generation of authors, such as William Gibson and Michael Swanwick. In their different ways, each has something to say about man and God, or about the purpose of Life, the Universe and Everything.

SF explores the deep questions of life more than any other genre; sometimes it does this subtly, other times overtly. Whether the "Golden Age" SF of four decades ago, or the more carefully considered (and generally much better written) speculative fiction of today, SF is a genre of marvels; one senses that Simon Magus would have loved it. And it's perhaps for that reason that May's book falls down. He discusses enlightenment, or science and religion, or the divinity of creation (all chapter titles), then suddenly seems to panic, and spends his chapter endings desperately trying to divest SF of any right to be religious. He ends up accusing SF of idolatry and blasphemy, and making ridiculously generalised statements like "SF wants to abolish the distinction between Creator and creature, and does so by aspiring to the throne of the Creator". This culminates in the ludicrously facile assertion: "SF is fictitious; Christianity is true".

Of course SF is fiction; and it is because it is fiction that it can address whatever issues it wishes. SF is that area of creative activity which steps aside from the reality we know, the better to examine such reality; it holds up a series of prisms, mirrors and lenses though which we can view our world, our lives, from an unusual angle, a different perspective, and under different light, so illuminating hidden corners far better than mainstream fiction can. In this way it helps readers re-evaluate their perception of "reality", to question values and beliefs, whether scientific, psychological, sociological, philosophical or religious. And the one phrase used more than any other to describe what people get from SF would be embraced by any devout believer: a Sense of Wonder. If May had focussed on this a little more, instead of becoming condemnatory and openly evangelistic, this would have been a much more worthwhile book. SF has never claimed to be a substitute for religion; but what May misses is that there is more than one way to ask metaphysical questions.

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