My buddy and mentor in all things space and internet-related, Fraser Cain, has produced yet another informative video that I wish to share today. The subject in question is, “Could Jupiter Become a Star”? Naturally, this question has a wider context which needs to be understood if it is to make any sense. You see, for decades scientists have wondered whether or not a gas giant could be converted into a smaller version of own sun.
This is mainly due to the fact that gas giants and brown dwarves are very similar; in some cases, it’s even considered acceptable to say that a gas giant represents a failed star. This is not entirely accurate, since a gas giant does not have the necessary mass to trigger a deuterium reaction (aka. fusion) in order to create one. But, as Fraser points out, there are those who have wondered if an explosion – like that created by the Galileo space probe crashing into Jupiter – could cause a sun-birthing explosion.
This question has become relevant once again thanks to Cassini’s ongoing mission around Saturn. Thanks to the prevalence of noble (and flammable) gases that make up this planet as well, some worry that crashing a nuclear powered satellite into it will trigger a massive thermonuclear reaction. But, as Cain points out in a blow-by-blow manner, the answer to this question is a “series of nos”. Put simply, the raw materials and mass simply aren’t there.
Still, it’s a cool idea, and it was the focal point of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and all subsequent novels in the series. In this seminal collection of classic sci-fi, we are told that an ancient race (the First Born) tampered with our evolution eons ago, thus giving rise to the hominid we see every time we look in the mirror. By 2001, when the story opens up, we see a space-faring humanity uncovering evidence of this face, in the form of a strange Monolith buried on the Moon.
After learning that this strange object is sending signals towards Jupiter, several missions are mounted which determined that these same extra-terrestrials are one again at work, this time in the outer Solar System. Believing there is life trapped underneath the heavy ice sheets of Europa, the First Born use their superior technology and know-how to convert Jupiter into a sun, which in turn melts Europa’s ice, giving rise to an atmosphere and letting the life out to flourish.
So while it’s sci-fi gold, its not exactly science. But then again, that’s the beauty of science fiction – you can always postulate that the means will exist somewhere down the road. But until such time as we can manipulate matter, download our consciousness into rectangular monoliths with perfect dimensions, and travel through the cosmos in said same objects, we’re going to have to get used to NOT looking up at night and seeing this:
In the meantime, enjoy the video. Like all Universe Today videos, articles and podcasts, it’s really quite informative. And be sure to subscribe if you like having all your questions about space, science and the answers to the big questions addressed:
Imagine if you will a long tether made of super-tensile materials, running 100,000 km from the Earth and reaching into geostationary orbit. Now imagine that this tether is a means of shipping people and supplies into orbit, forever removing the need for rockets and shuttles going into space. For decades, scientists and futurists have been dreaming about the day when a “Space Elevator” would be possible; and according to a recent study, it could become a reality by 2035.
The report was launched by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), a 350-page report that lays out a detailed case for a space elevator. At the center of it that will reach beyond geostationary orbit and held taught by an anchor weighing roughly two million kilograms (2204 tons). Sending payloads up this backbone could fundamentally change the human relationship with space, with the equivalent of a space launch happening almost daily.
The central argument of the paper — that we should build a space elevator as soon as possible — is supported by a detailed accounting of the challenges associated with doing so. The possible pay-off is as simple: a space elevator could bring the cost-per-kilogram of launch to geostationary orbit from $20,000 to as little as $500. Not only would be it useful for deploying satellites, it would also be far enough up Earth’s gravity well to be able to use it for long-range missions.
This could include the long-awaited mission to Mars, where a shuttle would push off from the top and then making multiple loops around the Earth before setting off for the Red Planet. This would cut huge fractions off the fuel budget, and would also make setting up a base on the Moon (or Mars) a relatively trivial affair. Currently, governments and corporations spend billions putting satellites into space, but a space elevator could pay for itself and ensure cheaper access down the line.
The report lays out a number of technological impediments to a space elevator, but by far the most important is the tether itself. Current materials science has yet to provide a material with the strength, flexibility, and density needed for its construction. Tethers from the EU and Japan are beginning to push the 100-kilometer mark, are still a long way off orbital altitude, and the materials for existing tethers will not allow much additional length.
Projecting current research in carbon nanotubes and similar technologies, the IAA estimates that a pilot project could plausibly deliver packages to an altitude of 1000 kilometers (621 miles) as soon as 2025. With continued research and the help of a successful LEO (low Earth orbit, i.e. between 100 and 1200 miles) elevator, they predict a 100,000-kilometer (62,137-mile) successor will stretch well past geosynchronous orbit just a decade after that.
The proposed design is really quite simple, with a sea platform (or super-ship) anchoring the tether to the Earth while a counterweight sits at the other end, keeping the system taught through centripetal force. For that anchor, the report argues that a nascent space elevator should be stabilized first with a big ball of garbage – one composed of retired satellites, space debris, and the cast-off machinery used to build the elevator’s own earliest stages.
To keep weight down for the climbers (the elevator cars), this report imagines them as metal skeletons strung with meshes of carbon nanotubes. Each car would use a two-stage power structure to ascend, likely beginning with power from ground- or satellite-based lasers, and then the climber’s own solar array. The IAA hopes for a seven-day climb from the base to GEO — slow, but still superior and far cheaper than the rockets that are used today.
One thing that is an absolute must, according to the report, is international cooperation. This is crucial not only for the sake of financing the elevator’s construction, but maintaining its neutrality. In terms of placement, IAA staunchly maintains that a space elevator would be too precious a resource to be built within the territory of any particular nation-state. Though every government would certainly love a space elevator of their very own, cost considerations will likely make that impossible in the near-term.
By virtue of its physical size, a space elevator will stretch through multiple conflicting legal zones, from the high seas to the “territorial sky” to the “international sky” to outer space itself, presenting numerous legal and political challenges. Attacks by terrorists or enemies in war are also a major concern, requiring that it be defended and monitored at all levels. And despite being a stateless project, it would require a state’s assets to maintain, likely by the UN or some new autonomous body.
In 2003, Arthur C. Clarke famously said that we will build a space elevator 10 years after they stop laughing. Though his timeline may have been off, as if often the case – for example, we didn’t have deep space missions or AIs by 2001 – sentiments were bang on. The concept of a space elevator is taken seriously at NASA these days, as it eyes the concept as a potential solution for both shrinking budgets and growing public expectations.
Space is quickly becoming a bottleneck in the timeline of human technological advancement. From mega-telescopes and surveillance nets to space mining operations and global high-speed internet coverage, most of our biggest upcoming projects will require better access to space than our current methods can provide for. And in addition to providing for that support, this plans highlights exactly how much further progress in space depends on global cooperation.
In the course of becoming an indie writer, there is one aspect of the creative process which keeps coming back to me. To put it simply, it is the challenges and delights of world building – i.e. creating the background, context, and location in which a story takes place. For years, I have been reading other people’s thoughts on the subject, be they authors themselves or just big fans of literary fiction.
But my own experience with the process has taught me much that I simply couldn’t appreciate before I picked up my pen and pad (or in this case, opened a word doc and began typing). Ad lately, the thoughts have been percolating in my mind and I felt the need to write them out. Having done that, I thought I might share them in full.
For starters, being a science fiction writer presents a person with particular opportunities for creative expression. But at the same time, it presents its share of particular challenges. While one is certainly freer to play around with space, place, and invent more freely than with most other genres, they are still required to take into account realism, consistency and continuity in all that they do.
Sooner or later, the world a writer builds will be explored, mapped, and assessed, and any and all inconsistencies are sure to stick out like a sore thumb! So in addition to making sure back-stories, timelines and other details accord with the main plot, authors also need to be mindful of things like technology, physical laws, and the nature of space and time.
But above all, the author in question has to ask themselves what kind of universe they want to build. If it is set in the future, they need to ask themselves certain fundamental questions about where human beings will be down the road. Not only that, they also need to decide what parallels (and they always come up!) they want to draw with the world of today.
Through all of this, they will be basically deciding what kind of message they want to be sending with their book. Because of course, anything they manage to dream up about the future will tell their readers lots about the world the author inhabits, both in the real sense and within their own head. And from what I have seen, it all comes down to five basic questions they must ask themselves…
1. Near-Future/Far Future:
When it comes to science-fiction stories, the setting is almost always the future. At times, it will be set in an alternate universe, or an alternate timeline; but more often than not, the story takes place down the road. The only question is, how far down the road? Some authors prefer to go with the world of tomorrow, setting their stories a few decades or somewhere in the vicinity of next century.
By doing this, the author in question is generally trying to show how the world of today will determine the world of tomorrow, commenting on current trends and how they are helping/hurting us. During the latter half of the 20th century, this was a very popular option for writers, as the consensus seemed to be that the 21st century would be a time when some truly amazing things would be possible; be it in terms of science, technology, or space travel.
Other, less technologically-inclined authors, liked to use the not-so-distant future as a setting for dystopian, post-apocalytpic scenarios, showing how current trends (atomic diplomacy, arms races, high tech, environmental destruction) would have disastrous consequences for humanity in the near-future. Examples of this include Brave New World, 1984, The Iron Heel, The Chrysalids, and a slew of others.
In all cases, the totalitarian regimes or severe technological and social regression that characterized their worlds were the result of something happening in the very near-future, be it nuclear or biological war, a catastrophic accident, or environmental collapse. Basically, humanity’s current behavior was the basis for a cautionary tale, where an exaggerated example is used to illustrate the logical outcome of all this behavior.
At the other end of the spectrum, many authors have taken the long view with their sci-fi world building. Basically, they set their stories several centuries or even millennia from now. In so doing, they are able to break with linear timelines and the duty of having to explain how humanity got from here to there, and instead could focus on more abstract questions of existence and broader allegories.
Examples of this include Frank Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series, both of which were set tens of thousands of years in the future. In both of these universes, humanity’s origins and how they got to where they were took a backseat to the historical allegories that were being played upon. While some mention is given to the origins of humanity and where they came from, little attempt is made to draw a line from the present into the future.
Instead, the focus is overwhelmingly on the wider nature of human beings and what drives us to do the things we do. Asimov drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make a point about the timeless nature of history, while Herbert drew on the modern age, medieval and ancient history, religion, philosophy, and evolutionary biology and ecology to investigate the timeless nature of humanity and what factors shape it.
For non-purists, Star Wars and Star Trek can also serve as examples of both tendencies in action. For decades, Star Trek used a not-too-distant future setting to endlessly expound on the human race and the issues it faces today. And always, this examination was done in the form of interstellar travel, the crew of the Enterprise going form world to world and seeing themselves in the problems, norms and social structure of other races.
Star Wars, on the other hand, was an entirely different animal. For the people living in this universe, no mention is ever made of Earth, and pre-Republic history is considered a distant and inaccessible thing. And while certain existential and social issues are explored (i.e. racism, freedom and oppression), the connections with Earth’s past are more subtle, relying on indirect clues rather than overt comparisons.
The Republic and the Empire, for example, is clearly inspired by Rome’s own example. The Jedi Code is very much the picture of the Bushido code, its practitioners a sort of futuristic samurai, and the smugglers of Tatooine are every bit the swashbuckling, gun toting pirates and cowboys of popular fiction. But always, the focus seemed to more on classically-inspired tales of destiny, and of epic battles of good versus evil.
And of course, whether we are talking near future or far future has a big influence on the physical setting of the story as well. Which brings me to item two…
2. Stellar or Interstellar:Here is another important question that every science fiction author has faced, and one which seriously influences the nature of the story. When it comes to the world of tomorrow, will it be within the confines of planet Earth, the Solar System, or on many different world throughout our galaxy? Or, to go really big, will it encompass the entire Milky Way, or maybe even beyond?
Important questions for a world-builder, and examples certainly abound. In the former case, you have your dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and near future seenarios, where humanity is stuck living on a hellish Earth that has seen better days. Given that humanity would not be significantly more adavanced than the time of writing, or may have even regressed due to the downfall of civilization, Earth would be the only place people can live.
But that need not always be the case. Consider Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. In his dystopian, post-apocalyptic tale, Earth was devestated by nuclear war, forcing the wealthiest and healthiest to live in the Offworld Colonies while everyone who was too poor or too ravaged by their exposure to radiation was confined to Earth. Clearly, dystopia does not rule out space travel, though it might limit it.
And in the latter case, where human beings have left the cradle and begun walking amongst our System’s other planets and even the stars, the nature of the story tends to be a bit more ambiguous. Those who choose such a setting tend to be of the opinion that mankind either needs to reach out in order to survive, or that doing so will allow us to shed some of our problems.
Examples abound here again, but Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe seems like the ideal one here. In this series, humanity has access to near-light speed travel, nanotechnology, brain-computer interfacing, neural uploading, AI, smart materials, and has colonized dozens of new worlds. However, the state of humanity has not changed, and on many worlds, civil war and sectarian violence are common.
In either case, the setting also bears a direct relation to the state of technology in the story. For humans still living on Earth (and nowhere else) in the future, chances are, they are about as advanced or even behind the times in which the story was written. For those living amongst the stars, technology would have to advanced sufficiently to make it happen. Which brings me to the next point…
3. High-Tech or Low-Tech: What would a work of science fiction be without plenty of room for gadgets, gizmos, and speculation about the future state of technology? And once more, I can discern of two broad categories that an author can choose from, both of which have their share of potential positives and negatives. And depending on what kind of story you want to write, the choice of what that state is often predetermined.
In the former case, there is the belief that technology will continue to advance in the future, leading to things like space travel, FTL, advanced cyborgs, clones, tricorders, replicators, artificial intelligence, laser guns, lightsabers, phasers, photon torpedoes, synthetic humans, and any number of other fun, interesting and potentially dangerous things.
With stories like these, the purpose of high-tech usually serves as a framing device, providing visual evidence that the story is indeed taking place in the future. In other words, it serves a creative and fun purpose, without much thought being given towards exploring the deeper issues of technological progress and determinism. But this not be the case, and oftentimes with science fiction, high-tech serves a different purpose altogether.
In many other cases, the advance of technology is directly tied to the plot and the nature of the story. Consider cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer and the other novels of William Gibson’s SprawlTrilogy. In these and other cyberpunk novels, the state of technology – i.e. cyberpsace decks, robotic prosthetics, biotech devices – served to illustrate the gap between rich and poor and highlighting the nature of light in a dark, gritty future.
By contrast, such post-cyberpunk novels as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age took a different approach. While high-tech and its effects on society were explored in great detail, he and other authors of this sub genre chose to break with their predecessors on one key issue. Namely, they did not suppose that the emergence of high-tech would lead to dystopia, but rather an ambiguous future where both good and harm resulted.
And at the other end of the spectrum, where technology is in a low state, the purpose and intent of this is generally the same. On the one hand, it may serve as a plot framing device, illustrating how the world is in a primitive state due to the collapse of civilization as we know it, or because our unsustainable habits caught up with us and resulted in the world stepping backwards in time.
At the same time, the very fact that people live in a primitive state in any of these stories serves the purpose of commentary. Simply by showing how our lives were unsustainable, or the actions of the story’s progenitor’s so foolish, the author is making a statement and asking the reader to acknowledge and ponder the deeper issue, whether they realize it or not.
At this end of things, A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max serve as good examples. In the former case, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a lone boy and his genetically-engineered talking dog rove the landscape in search of food and (in the boy’s case) sexual gratification. Here, the state of technology helps to illustrate the timeless nature of the human condition, namely how we are essentially the products of our environment.
In Mad Max as well, the way roving gangs are constantly looking for gasoline, using improvised weapons, and riding around in vehicles cobbled together from various parts gives us a clear picture of what life is like in this post-collapse environment. In addition, the obvious desperation created by said collapse serves to characterize the cultural landscape, which is made up of gangs, tinpot despots, and quasi-cults seeking deliverance.
But on the other hand, the fact that the world exists in this state due to collapse after the planet’s supply of oil ran dry also provides some social commentary. By saying that the world became a dangerous, anarchistic and brutal place simply because humanity was dependent on a resource that suddenly went dry, the creators of Mad Max’s world were clearly trying to tell us something. Namely, conserve!
4. Aliens or Only Humans: Another very important question for setting the scene in a science fiction story is whether or not extra-terrestrials are involved. Is humanity still alone in the universe, or have they broken that invisible barrier that lies between them and the discovery of other sentient life forms? Once again, the answer to this question has a profound effect on the nature of the story, and it can take many forms.
For starters, if the picture is devoid of aliens, then the focus of the story will certainly be inward, looking at human nature, issues of identity, and how our environment serves to shape us. But if there are aliens, either a single species or several dozen, then the chances are, humanity is a united species and the aliens serve as the “others”, either as a window into our own nature, or as an exploration into the awe and wonder of First Contact.
As case studies for the former category, let us consider the Dune, Foundation, and Firefly universes. In each of these, humanity has become an interstellar species, but has yet to find other sentiences like itself. And in each of these, human nature and weaknesses appear to be very much a constant, with war, petty rivalries and division a costant. Basically, in the absence of an “other”, humanity is focused on itself and the things that divide it.
In Dune, for example, a galaxy-spanning human race has settled millions of worlds, and each world has given rise to its own identity – with some appearing very much alien to another. Their are the “navigators”, beings that have mutated their minds and bodies through constant exposure to spice. Then there are the Tleilaxu, a race of genetic manipulators who breed humans from dead tissue and produce eunuch “Face Dancers” that can assume any identity.
Basically, in the absence of aliens, human beings have become amorphous in terms of their sense of self, with some altering themselves to the point that they are no longer even considered human to their bretherin. And all the while, humanity’s biggest fight is with itself, with rival houses vying for power, the Emperor gaurding his dominance, and the Guild and various orders looking to ensure that the resource upon which all civilization depends continues to flow.
In the Foundation universe, things are slightly less complicated; but again, the focus is entirely inward. Faced with the imminent decline and collapse of this civilization, Hari Seldon invents the tool known as “Psychohistory”. This science is dedicated to anticipating the behavior of large groups of people, and becomes a roadmap to recovery for a small group of Foundationists who seek to preserve the light of civilization once the empire is gone.
The series then chronicles their adventures, first in establishing their world and becoming a major power in the periphery – where Imperial power declines first – and then rebuilding the Empire once it finally and fully collapses. Along the way, some unforeseen challenges arise, but Seldon’s Plan prevails and the Empire is restored. In short, it’s all about humans trying to understand the nature of human civilization, so they can control it a little better.
Last, but not least, their is the Firefly universe which – despite the show’s short run – showed itself to be in-depth and interestingly detailed. Basically, the many worlds that make up “The Verse” are divided along quasi-national lines. The core worlds constitute the Alliance, the most advanced and well-off worlds in the system that are constantly trying to expand to bring the entire system under its rule.
The Independents, we learn early in the story, were a coalition of worlds immediately outside the core worlds that fought these attempts, and lost. The Border Worlds, meanwhile, are those planets farthest from the core where life is backwards and “uncivilized” by comparison. All of this serves to illustrate the power space and place have over human identity, and how hierarchy, power struggles and divisiveness are still very much a part of us.
But in universes where aliens are common, then things are a little bit different. In these science fiction universes, where human beings are merely one of many intelligent species finding their way in the cosmos, extra-terrestrials serve to make us look outward and inward at the same time. In this vein, the cases of Babylon 5, and 2001: A Space Odyssey provide the perfect range of examples.
In B5 – much as with Stark Trek, Star Gate, or a slew of other franchises – aliens serve as a mirror for the human condition. By presenting humanity with alien cultures, all of whom have their own particular quarks and flaws, we are given a meter stick with which to measure ourselves. And in B5‘s case, this was done rather brilliantly – with younger races learning from older ones, seeking wisdom from species so evolved that often they are not even physical entities.
However, in time the younger race discover that the oldest (i.e. the Shadows, Vorlons, and First Ones) are not above being flawed themselves. They too are subject to fear, arrogance, and going to war over ideology. The only difference is, when they do it the consequences are far graver! In addition, these races themselves come to see that the ongoing war between them and their proxies has become a senseless, self-perpetuating mistake. Echoes of human frailty there!
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, much the same is true of the Firstborn, a race of aliens so ancient that they too are no longer physical beings, but uploaded intelligences that travel through the cosmos using sleek, seamless, impenetrable slabs (the monoliths). As we learn in the course of the story, this race has existed for eons, and has been seeking out life with the intention of helping it to achieve sentience.
This mission brought them to Earth when humanity was still in its primordial, high-order primate phase. After tinkering with our evolution, these aliens stood back and watched us evolve, until the day that we began to reach out into the cosmos ourselves and began to discover some of the tools they left behind. These include the Tycho Monolith Anomaly-1 (TMA-1) on the Moon, and the even larger one in orbit around Jupiter’s moon of Europa.
After making contact with this monolith twice, first with the American vessel Discovery and then the joint Russian-American Alexei Leonov, the people of Earth realize that the Firstborn are still at work, looking to turn Jupiter into a sun so that life on Europa (confined to the warm oceans beneath its icy shell) will finally be able to flourish. Humanity is both astounded and humbled to learn that it is not alone in the universe, and wary of its new neighbors.
This story, rather than using aliens as a mirror for humanity’s own nature, uses a far more evolved species to provide a contrast to our own. This has the same effect, in that it forces us to take a look at ourselves and assess our flaws. But instead of showing those flaws in another, it showcases the kind of potential we have. Surely, if the Firstborn could achieve such lengths of evolutionary and technological development, surely we can too!
5. Utopian/Dystopian/Ambiguous: Finally, there is the big question of the qualitative state of humanity and life in this future universe. Will life be good, bad, ugly, or somewhere in between? And will humanity in this narrative be better, worse, or the same as it now? It is the questions of outlook, whether it is pessimistic, optimistic, realistic, or something else entirely which must concern a science fiction writer sooner or later.
Given that the genre evolved as a way of commenting on contemporary trends and offering insight into their effect on us, this should come as no surprise. When looking at where we are going and how things are going to change, one cannot help but delve into what it is that defines this thing we know as “humanity”. And when it comes right down to it, there are a few schools of thought that thousands of years of scholarship and philosophy have provided us with.
Consider the dystopian school, which essentially posits that mankind is a selfish, brutish, and essentially evil creature that only ever seeks to do right by himself, rather than other creatures. Out of this school of thought has come many masterful works of science fiction, which show humanity to be oppressive to its own, anthropocentric to aliens and other life forms, and indifferent to the destruction and waste it leaves in its wake.
And of course, there’s the even older Utopia school, which presents us with a future where mankind’s inherent flaws and bad behavior have been overcome through a combination of technological progress, political reform, social evolution, and good old fashioned reason. In these worlds, the angels of humanity’s nature have won the day, having proven superior to humanity’s devils.
In the literally realm, 1984 is again a perfect example of dytopian sci=fi, where the totalitarian rule of the few is based entirely on selfishness and the desire for dominance over others. According to O’Brien, the Party’s mouthpiece in the story, their philosophy in quite simple:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake.We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
Hard to argue with something so brutal and unapologetic, isn’t it? In Orwell’s case, the future would be shaped by ongoing war, deprivation, propaganda, fear, torture, humiliation, and brutality. In short, man’s endless capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others.
Aldous Huxley took a different approach in his seminal dystopian work, Brave New World, in which he posited that civilization would come to be ruled based on man’s endless appetite for pleasure, indifference and distraction. Personal freedom and individuality would be eliminated, yes, but apparently for man’s own good rather than the twisted designs of a few true-believers:
Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered… People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness. One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for.
But even though the means are entirely different, the basic aim is the same. Deprive humanity of his basic freedom and the potential to do wrong in order to ensure stability and long-term rule. In the end, a darker, more cynical view of humanity and the path that we are on characterized these classic examples of dystopia and all those that would come to be inspired them.
As for Utopian fiction, H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods is a very appropriate example. In this novel, a contemporary journalist finds himself hurled through time into 3000 years into the future where humanity lives in a global state named Utopia, and where the “Five Principles of Liberty” – privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism – are the only law.
After staying with them for a month, the protogonist returns home with renewed vigor and is now committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.” In short, like most Positivists of his day, Wells believed that the march of progress would lead to a future golden age where humanity would shed it’s primitive habits and finally live up to its full potential.
This view would prove to have a profound influence on futurist writers like Asimov and Clarke. In the latter case, he would come to express similar sentiments in both the Space Odyssey series and his novel Childhood’s End. In both cases, humanity found itself confronted with alien beings of superior technology and sophistication, and eventually was able to better itself by opening itself up to their influence.
In both series, humanity is shown the way to betterment (often against their will) by cosmic intelligences far more advanced than their own. But despite the obvious questions about conquest, loss of freedom, individuality, and identity, Clarke presents this as a good thing. Humanity, he believed, had great potential, and would embrace it, even if it had to be carried kicking and screaming.
And just like H.G Wells, Clarke, Asimov, and a great many of his futurist contemporaries believes that the ongoing and expanding applications of science and technology would be what led to humanity’s betterment. A commitment to this, they believed, would eschew humanity’s dependence on religion, superstition, passion and petty emotion; basically, all the things that made us go to war and behave badly in the first place.
Summary: These are by no means the only considerations one must make before penning a science fiction story, but I think they provide a pretty good picture of the big-ticket items. At least the ones that keep me preoccupied when I’m writing! In the end, knowing where you stand on the questions of location, content, tone and feel, and what your basic conception of the future, is all part of the creation process.
In other words, you need to figure out what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it before you can go to town. In the meantime, I say to all aspiring and established science fiction writers alike: keep pondering, keep dreaming, and keep reaching for them stars!
Ordinarily, I like to show movie previews before the movie has been released. This time around, I’m a little behind the curve. But my thanks to Rami for bringing this movie to my attention, since it seems like just the thing for us sci-fi geeks and buffs. It’s called the Europa Report, a near-future speculative science fiction film that follows in the vein of the 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Blair Witch Project.
Taking place in 2061, the story follows a group of astronauts who are sent on a private venture to Jupiter’s moon of Europa to investigate it for signs of life. Naturally, things go wrong, lives are lost, and the footage of their mission becomes the basis of a “report” that people back at Earth pour over, hoping to find some answers to the mystery of what happened.
The film was officially released just under two weeks ago, on August 2nd, and has received some pretty kick-ass reviews. Over at space.com, they claimed the movie was “One of the most thrilling and realistic depictions of space exploration since Moon or 2001: A Space Odyssey”, while IO9’s Annalee Newitz wrote of the film:
The representations of Jupiter and Europa in this film come directly from real satellite imagery gathered by NASA, and the journey to Europa itself is both realistic and gorgeous. There’s a lesson here about how dramatic tension and brilliant concept design, even on an indie budget, can create a sense of wonder rivaling that of a VFX blockbuster. And the payoff at the end is electrifying.
Hot damn, that’s a good endorsement! As for me, and I imagine Rami, I plan to see it and offer a review of my own! A movie like this couldn’t be more timely. Already, long-term plans are being made to send a lander or a space penetrator to Europa to have a gander at what lies beneath its icy veil. And I look forward to the day when the reality of that planet and all the speculative fiction can get together and compare notes!
Last weekend, while the wife, our friend and I were all watching the new Star Trek movie, a number of trailers came on that made us antsy for other “coming attractions”! One of them was one I instantly recognized and began saying the title of long before they flashed it across the screen. Months back, when this movie was first announced, I posted the trailer here because it looked to have all the things I love in sci-fi story. And they have since come out with a longer, more detailed trailer which I share now…
Elysium tells the story of a dystopian future, set in 2154, where the wealthy and privileged live in an orbital colony that is peaceful, serene, idyllic, and sees to all their needs (and looks a lot like the station from Space Odyssey). Meanwhile, the remaining 99% of humanity live planetside, where pollution, environmental collapse and economic ruin have made Earth into a veritable hellhole.
Enter into this Max De Costa (played by a cueballed Matt Damon), a man who is near death who comes to learn of a secret that could topple the whole system and achieve a degree of social justice. In order to do this, he has to break into Elysium, a facility that is heavily guarded and run by Secretary Rhodes (Jodie Foster), and undergoes a radical surgery to get an exoskeleton and some powerful weaponry permanently attached.
Directed by Neil Blomkamp – the South-African director who brought us District 9 and provided visual effects for such shows as Star Gate: SG-1, Smallville and Dark Angel – this movie clearly boasts the same kind of gritty, realistic texture he has come to be known for. And after the 2008 Financial Crisis and the subsequent Occupy Movement, it’s message is pretty timely and likely to be well-received.
As for me? You can keep your social commentary and comparisons to other movie franchises, I wanna see me some exoskeleton battles! Enjoy the trailer:
Back in October, some rather interesting news came out of Japan. It appears that a research company known as Cyberdyne produced a robot suit named HAL. No joke, the company is seriously named after the company from Terminator franchise that developed Skynet and the robot suit – who’s name stands for Hybrid Assisted Limb – is named after the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Still, the company is the legit and the new robotic suit is quite impressive. Like many before it, it is a powered suit that gives the wearer enhanced strength and protection. But unlike previous models, this one comes equipped with a network of sensors that monitor the electric signals coming from the wearer’s brain, allowing them to seamlessly control the suit’s movements.
This is expected to remedy a problem which has plagued exoskeletons since their inception, which is the problem of speed. While all exos allow for greater strength and load-bearing capacity, the motors that power the limbs tend to respond slowly to the users commands. By anticipating the wearer’s movements by reading them directly from the brain, this new suit will be able to move in synchronicity with the wearer’s limbs.
The suit is also expected to be helpful with Japan’s ongoing cleanup efforts with the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant. In addition to the new mind-control interface, the suit’s load-bearing capacities are expected to come in handy for workers who are forced to wear a 60 kg (132 lbs) tungsten vest while working in radiation zones. Even for a husky man, that’s quite the load to bear on top of all the additional weight they’ll need to be carrying.
Naturally, there are anticipated hazards as well, like what will happen if the power supply were to suddenly run out. Essentially, the wearer would be trapped inside. However, these and other bugs are expected to be addressed before any units are pressed into service. And with luck, suits like these could available for HazMat workers, construction crews, and people who work in dangerous conditions in just a few years time.
Behold, the cool scenes from every science fiction movie ever made, all in one video. Well, not necessarily all of them; in fact, true geeks may noticed that some of their favorites might be lacking. However, I think you’ll agree, this is a pretty good sampling of a wide array of classic films. In fact, the creators merged footage from 100 movies here, a collection of classic and more recent sci-fi films, and set it all to music (Glitch Mob remix of “Monday,” by Nalepa). Enjoy!
Those who saw Prometheus recently, or witnessed the cinematic spectacle known as 2001: A Space Odyssey, will be instantly familiar with the concept. Basically, it asserts that life exists throughout the Universe and is distributed by meteoroids, asteroids and planetoids. In the more fantastic and imaginative version of this story, the distribution process is being helped along by alien “Engineers” or “Firstborn” who make it a point to seed worlds with their own genetic material, or tamper with existing life to promote evolution.
This new music video, produced by Tom Walsh, is a new and interesting take on the concept. Here, set to the music of “The Last Human on Earth” (by Swimming & Alex Herington), tells the story of a human engineer who is busy distributing human DNA throughout the Universe. Many times over, the name HERA comes up, which refers to Human Evolution Recovery Administration, a group that was formed in 1950 with the purpose of ensuring that humanity survives the death of our sun, our world, and any cataclysms that might come our way.
Check out the video below, and be sure to look up HERA at its website as well. Some very cool reading and watching!
Welcome back! As promised, the second half of my nostalgic, cult classic favorites for you to peruse! Let me know what you think, and feel to add some contenders of your own. Cult hits are nothing if not personal, and what constitutes a classic is open to interpretation. Okay, six to ten, here goes:
2001: A Space Odyssey: Yes, this movie deserves top billing for being a classic! And yet, the movie really doesn’t seem to garner much appreciation from audiences, not unless they are self-professed film buffs or hard sci-fi fans. Not sure I qualify for either, but I loved this movie for the simple reason that it was packed full of mind-blowing themes. Much like Akira, it was chock-full of things that got my young mind thinking and completely shaped my outlook on science fiction.
Sure, there are those who complain that this movie is boring and esoteric, but I found all that a fitting price for the kick-ass subject matter, not to mention the mind-blowing climax. You got a mystery, speculations about human evolution, ancient aliens, space exploration, and existential singularities! All the while, the weight of the philosophical implications are weighing at your mind…
And let’s not forget how inspiration this movie proved to be. Today, the concept of ancient astronauts, aliens who came to Earth millions of years ago and tampered with human evolution, has become all the rage. From Star Trek to Stargate,Battlestar Galactica to Prometheus, the concept of ancient astronauts has played out. And frankly, 2001 has them all beat! Between Kubrick and Clarke, their concept of the aliens and how they altered the course of evolution on Earth was the most realistic I have ever seen.
But I think what I liked best about was the fact that the movie was the subtle nature of the whole thing. At once speculative, philosophical, and visually stunning, this movie was characteristic of Kubrick, who preferred to convey things visually rather than coming out and telling people what was going on. You never really quite knew what happened during that eye-popping final scene, but those who love sci-fi and imaginative filmaking were sure to have ideas!
Alien: Granted, this movie wasn’t exactly under-appreciated, but compared to the lavish attention the rest of the franchise has garnered- even though it was all downhill after Aliens – this first installment truly was the diamond in the rough. Not only did it have a cool concept, awesome set designs and a kick-ass back story, the direction and cinematography captures the story’s sense of dread and claustrophobia perfectly.
Little wonder then why this movie spawned an entire franchise, because it really did have everything. You had your blue-collar peeps working for the major interstellar company (Weyland-Yutani), a frightening discovery made on an uncharted planet, a mysterious derelict belonging to an unknown race, and a terrifying creature awakened from its slumber. And not just any kind of creature, but a complex symbiote that was designed for and possessed of a single purpose.
Or as Ash put it: “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” He had a point didn’t he? In fact, all structures in this movie were pure genius, whether it was the Nostromo, the Derelict, or the Facehugger and Chestbuster combo. As with everything Scott does, attention to detail and the careful construction of a universe was paramount. Every set was richly detailed, well shot, and clearly made to elicit the right feel and impressions on the audience.
Much of the credit for this goes to H.R. Giger as well, the surrealist artist who brought Lovecraftian horror to the alien concept and set of the alien ship. Years later, I still find myself tuning in just to get a glimpse of that Gothic reconstruction, or to see the Space Jockey sitting in its chair, the tell-tale hole punching through its chest. Few movies have managed to capture that same sense of awe and wonder for me, with the possible exceptions of 2001 and Akira
Johnny Mnemonic: Some people might think I’m crazy for listing this movie as a personal classic, but it can’t be helped! And my reasons are pretty simple. On the one hand, this movie kind of has that “so bad, it’s good” thing going on, but at the same time, I also felt it possessed some real signs of quality. Sure, the acting was pretty wooden, the fight choreography total crap, and the low-budget nature apparent throughout. But it was still a pretty faithful adaptation of Gibson’s work and introduced to that world at a still-young age. Hence why I come back to it every few years just to see it again.
Filmed in the mid-90’s, this movie is an adaptation of the short story by William Gibson and previewed a lot of what he wrote in Neuromancer. For example, you’ve got the big bad corporations, the cyberspace jockeys, freelance assassins, Yakuza, and the character Molly Millions. Things are also set in “The Sprawl”, the megapolis that stretches from Boston to Atlanta and is contained in geodesic domes, and the look and feel is definitely of the cyberpunk variety.
Into all this, Gibson introduced the revolutionary concept of mnemonic couriers, people who have “wetwire” implants in their brains that allow them to carry vast quantities of data from point A to point B. Basically, these couriers are the answer of what to do in a world where information is the most precious commodity, and all databases are vulnerable to hacking and protected by “Black ICE” – hostile Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics (aka. viruses)
And, in keeping with Gibson’s style, the story involves a titanic corporation that is fighting to maintain its monopolistic grip, while freelancers, smugglers and assorted little people are fighting to undermine them and distribute the information freely. Naturally, the main character of Johnny is an unlikely hero who is forced to take a break from looking out for number one and help others for a change. Might sound cheesy, and a little cliche, but it works and delivers on Gibson’s style. At the very least, it’s a guilty pleasure flick for me.
Screamers: Now here’s a movie that’s high on the pleasure, low on the guilt. While a low-budget sci-fi flick that was (like Johnny Mnemonic) produced and filmed entirely in Canada, it had many signs of quality that immediately made it a cult hit. There’s the post-apocalyptic setting, the frightening tone, and the Cold War feel of the thing, updated for the 90’s. All the while, there is the knowledge that this is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Second Variety, which sort of makes it a must-see of PKD fans.
Much like in the original story, the plot of the film involves a race of self-producing, self-upgrading machines that are designed to infiltrate enemy territory and eliminate all combatants. But of course, things begin to go awry when the people who produced them realize that they have upgraded to the point where they can impersonate human beings. And whereas the original story was set on Earth and took place between the US and Russia, the updated story takes place on Sirius 6b, a pining planet that became the front line between a the political-economic entity known as the NEB and those who chose to resist its rule.
Personally, I felt the updated version works. Not only does the conflict seem more relevant, being between a mega-corporate entity and a coalition of workers and dissenters, but the off-world setting also feels more realistic. Perhaps it was the fact that in the post-Cold War world, nuclear war between two superpowers didn’t seem a likelihood anymore. Or it could just be that the whole NEB angle was reminiscent of Weyland-Yutani and Alien. All I know is, I liked it!
What’s more, a good deal of attention went into creating the setting and modelling the Screamers – aka. the automated machines that kill people. Designed to be the perfect terror weapons, they emit a high-pitched “scream” before making their attack, and can toy with their targets for some time before moving. This concept, combined with some good shooting, really created a sense of tension which is felt throughout. And of course, the paranoia which is engendered by the appearance of human-like machines was a very nice touch! A good movie, and a fitting adaptation which managed to capture PKD’s cautionary tale about the dangers of runaway progress.
Time Bandits: And last, here is the classic time traveling tale that I first saw in my childhood. Recently, my wife was told by a coworker that she should ought to see it, and my memory was jogged! Yes, this is indeed a cult classic, and one which is deserving of plenty of kudos and praise. Well cast, well written, witty and poignant, it’s one of those quintessential 70’s movies which has been rediscovered by several generations of film buffs and sci-fi fans.
The story opens with an imaginative and historically-minded child who lives in an overly-bourgeois neighborhood with his materially-possessed family. But upon realizing that there is a time-portal in his wall and that people from the past and future can come through it, his world is turned upside down. Quickly, he become the unwitting companion in a group of dwarves who are traveling through time, stealing precious artifacts, and being pursued by both the “Supreme Being” and an evil sorcerer.
Immediately, one can see the layered and inspired plot taking shape here. On the one hand, you have some decidedly Judea-Christian elements, plus a tale of childhood imagination and escapism. The dichotomy of the Supreme Being who possesses the power of time travel and the sorcerer who wants it for himself are representative of God and Lucifer, after a fashion. The dwarves who stole this power for themselves are a sort of Icaran allegory, or possibly Adam and Eve once they ate from the tree of knowledge. And ultimately, the way they are saved in the end from evil represents their redemption.
All the while we are left wondering if the boy is merely dreaming, or if what he is experiencing is real, which is an element that is intrinsic to all tales of childhood fantasies. On the one hand, the protagonists flights of fancy are seen as a weakness and immaturity to those around them, whereas we tend to see as it a rare gift to see past the surface. Should it all be a fantasy, then the story is left without a formal sense of resolution; but if it is real, then the hero has been vindicated and proven right. Appropriately, the movie plays with the two possibilities, going back and forth, but then giving strong hints at the end that it was in fact real. So really, you have a story that is inspired, imaginative, and also suspenseful!
Well, that’s my top ten list for the best cult classic movies of all time. What’s yours? I know I have a few in common with some people ’round these parts, and I also know that a few were previously unheard of. Hence why I want to here from others. I have a feeling there are some which I need to see and would very much enjoy. Already, I’m poised to watch Sunshine, A Boy and His Dog, and a few others which I’ve heard good things about. And I hope that in the course of swapping lists, I might be able to find a few more I’d like to see. Take care, and enjoy the rest of the long-weekend, those of who are reading this in Canada. As for the Yanks in the audience, and the rest of the world for that matter, enjoy the work week 😉
Since its inception as a literary genre, religion has played an important role in science fiction. Whether it took the form of informing the author’s own beliefs, or was delivered as part of their particular brand of social commentary, no work of sci-fi has ever been bereft of spirituality.Even self-professed atheists and materialists had something to say about religion, the soul and the concept of the divine, even if it was merely to deny its existence.
And so, I thought it might make for an interesting conceptual post to see exactly what some of history’s greats believed and how they worked it into their body of literature. As always, I can’t include everybody, but I sure as hell can include anyone who’s books I’ve read and beliefs I’ve come to know. And where ignorance presides, I shall attempt to illuminate myself on the subject. Okay, here goes!
Alastair Reynolds: Despite being a relative newby to the field of sci-fi authors, Reynolds has established a reputation for hard science and grand ideas with his novels. And while not much information exists on his overall beliefs, be they religious or secular, many indications found their way into his books that would suggest he carries a rather ambiguous view of spirituality.
Within the Revelation Space universe, where most of his writing takes place, there are many mentions of a biotechnological weapon known as the “Indoctrination Virus”. This is an invasive program which essentially converts an individual to any number of sectarian ideologies by permeating their consciousness with visions of God, the Cross, or other religious iconography.
In Chasm City, these viruses are shown to be quite common on the world of Sky’s Edge, where religious sects use them to convert people to the official faith of the planet that claims Sky Haussmann was a prophet who was unfairly crucified for his actions. In Absolution Gap, they also form the basis of a society that populates an alien world known as Hela. Here, a theocratic state was built around a man named Quaiche, who while near death watched the moon’s gas giant disappear for a fraction of a second.
Unsure if this was the result of a strain he carries, he created a mobile community that travels the surface of the planet and watches the gas giant at all times using mirrors and reclining beds, so that they are looking heavenward at all times. Over the years, this community grew and expanded and became a mobile city, with each “believer” taking on transfusions of his blood so they could contract the the strain that converted him and allowed him to witness all that he did.
While this would indicate that Reynolds holds a somewhat dim view of religion, he leaves plenty of room for the opposite take. All throughout his works, the idea of preserving one’s humanity in a universe permeated by post-mortal, post-human, cybernetic beings remains a constant. In addition, as things get increasingly dark and the destruction of our race seems imminent, individual gestures of humanity are seem as capable of redeeming and even saving humanity as a species.
In fact, the names of the original trilogy allude to this: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap. Like with everything else in his books, Reynold’s seems to prefer to take a sort of middling approach, showing humanity as an ambiguous species rather than an inherently noble one or foul one. Religion, since it is a decidedly human practice, can only be seen as ambiguous as well.
Arthur C. Clarke: At once a great futurist and technologist, Clarke was nevertheless a man who claimed to be endlessly fascinated with the concept of God and transcendence. When interviews on the subjects of his beliefs, he claimed that he was “fascinated by the concept of God.” During another interview, he claimed that he believed that “Any path to knowledge is a path to God—or Reality, whichever word one prefers to use.”
However, these views came to change over time, leading many to wonder what the beliefs of this famed author really were. At once disenchanted with organized religion, he often found himself subscribing to various alternative beliefs systems. At other times, he insisting he was an atheist, and nearing the end of his life, even went so far as to say that he did not want religious ceremonies of any kind at his funeral.
Nowhere were these paradoxical views made more clear than in his work. For example, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the theme of transcendence, of growing to the point of becoming god-like, is central. Early hominid’s evolution into humanity is seen as the direct result of tampering by higher forces, aliens which are so ancient and evolved that they are virtually indistinguishable from gods. Throughout the series, human beings get a taste of this as they merge with the alien intelligence, becoming masters of their own universe and godlike themselves.
In the last book of the series – 3001: Final Odyssey, which Clarke wrote shortly before his death – Clarke describes a future where the Church goes the way of Soviet Communism. Theorizing that in the 21st century a reformist Pope would emerge who would choose to follow a similar policy as Gorbachev (“Glasnost”) and open the Vatican archives, Clarke felt that Christianity would die a natural death and have to be replaced by something else altogether. Thereafter, a sort of universal faith built around an open concept of God (called Deus) was created. By 3001, when the story is taking place, people look back at Christianity as a primitive necessity, but one which became useless by the modern age.
So, in a way, Clarke was like many Futurists and thoroughgoing empiricists, in that he deplored religion for its excesses and abuses, but seemed open to the idea of a cosmic creator at times in his life. And, when pressed, he would say that his personal pursuit for truth and ultimate reality was identical to the search for a search God, even if it went by a different name.
Frank Herbert: Frank Herbert is known for being the man who taught people how to take science fiction seriously all over again. One of the reasons he was so successful in this regard was because of the way he worked the central role played by religion on human culture and consciousness into every book he ever wrote. Whether it was the Lazarus Effect, the Jesus Incident, or the seminal Dune, which addresses the danger of prophecies and messiahs, Frank clearly believed that the divine was something humanity was not destined to outgrow.
And nowhere was this made more clear than in the Dune saga. In the very first novel, it is established that humanity lives in a galaxy-spanning empire, and that the codes governing technological progress are the result of a “jihad” which took place thousands of years ago. This war was waged against thinking machines and all other forms of machinery that threatened to usurp humanity’s sense of identity and creativity, resulting in the religious proscription “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”
Several millennium later, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a quasi-religious matriarchal society, are conspiring to create a messianic figure in the form of the Kwisatz Haderach. The name itself derives from the Hebrew term “Kefitzat Haderech” (literally: “The Way’s Jump”), a Kabbalic term related to teleportation. However, in this case, the name refers to the individual’s absolute prescience, the ability to jump through time in their mind’s eye. In preparation for the arrival of this being, they have been using their missionaries to spread messiah legends all over the known universe, hoping that people will respond to the arrival of their superbeing as if he were a messianic figure.
When the main character, Paul Atreides – the product of Bene Gesserit’s breeding program – arrives on the planet Arrakis, where his family is betrayed and killed, he and his mother become refugees amongst the native Fremen. They are one such people who have been prepped for his arrival, and wonder if he is in fact the one who will set them free. In order to survive, Paul takes on this role and begins to lead the Fremen as a religious leader. All along, he contends with the fear that in so doing, he will be unleashing forces he cannot control, a price which seems too high just to ensure that he and his mother survive and avenge themselves on their betrayers.
However, in the end, he comes to see that this is necessary. His prescience and inner awareness reveal to him that his concepts of morality are short-sighted, failing to take into account the need for renewal through conflict and war. And in the end, this is exactly what happens.By assuming the role of the Kwisatz Haderach, and the Fremen’s Mahdi, he defeats the Emperor and the Harkonnens and becomes the Emperor of the known universe. A series of crusades followers as his followers go out into the universe to subdue all rebellion to his rule and spread their new faith. Arrakis not only becomes the seat of power, but the spiritual capital of the universe, with people coming far and wide to see their new ruler and prophet.
As the series continues, Paul chooses to sacrifice himself in order to put an end to the cult of worship that has come of his actions. He wanders off into the desert, leaving his sister Alia to rule as Regent. As his children come of age, his son, Leto II, realizes the follies of his father and must make a similar choice as he did. Granted, assuming the role of a God is fraught with peril, but in order to truly awaken humanity from its sleep and prepare it for the future, he must go all the way and become a living God. Thus, he merges with the Sandworm, achieving a sort of quasi-immortality and invincibility.
After 3500 of absolute rule, he conspires in a plot to destroy himself and dies, leaving a huge, terrible, but ultimately noble legacy that people spend the next 1500 years combing through. When they come to the point of realizing what Leto II was preparing them for, they come to see the wisdom in his three and half millennia of tyranny. By becoming a living God, by manipulating the universe through his absolute prescience, he was preparing humanity for the day when they would be able to live without Gods. Like the Bene Gesserit, who became his chosen after the fact, he was conspiring to create “mature humanity”, a race of people who could work out their fates moment by moment and not be slaved to prophecies or messiahs.
As you can see, the commentary ran very deep. At once, Herbert seemed to be saying that humanity would never outlive the need for religion, but at the same time, that our survival might someday require us to break our dependency on it. Much like his critique on rational thought, democracy and all other forms of ideology, he seemed to be suggesting that the path to true wisdom and independence lay in cultivating a holistic awareness, one which viewed the universe not through a single lens, but as a multifaceted whole, and which was really nothing more than a projection of ourselves.
For those seeking clarity, that’s about as clear as it gets. As Herbert made very clear through the collection of his works, religion was something that he was very fascinated with, especially the more esoteric and mystical sects – such as Kaballah, Sufism, Zen Buddhism and the like. This was appropriate since he was never a man who gave answers easily, preferring to reflect on the mystery rather than trying to contain it with imperfect thoughts. Leto II said something very similar to this towards the end of God Emperor of Dune; as he lay dying he cautions Duncan and Siona against attempts to dispel the mystery, since all he ever tried to do was increase it. I interpreted this to be a testament of Frank’s own beliefs, which still inspire me to this day!
Gene Roddenberry: For years, I often found myself wondering what Roddenberry’s take on organized religion, spirituality, and the divine were. Like most things pertaining to Star Trek, he seemed to prefer taking the open and inclusive approach, ruling nothing out, but not endorsing anything too strongly either. Whenever religion entered into the storyline, it seemed to take the form of an alien race who’s social structure was meant to resemble something out of Earth’s past. As always, their was a point to be made, namely how bad things used to be!
Behind the scenes, however, Roddenberry was a little more open about his stance. According to various pieces of biographical info, he considered himself a humanist and agnostic, and wanted to create a show where none of his characters had any religious beliefs. If anything, the people of the future were pure rationalists who viewed religion as something more primitive, even if they didn’t openly say so.
However, this did not prevent the subject of religion from coming up throughout the series. In the original, the crew discovers planets where religious practices are done that resemble something out of Earth’s past. In the episode “Bread and Circuses”, they arrive on a planet that resembles ancient Rome, complete with gladiatorial fights, Pro-Consuls, and a growing religion which worships the “Son”, aka. a Jesus-like figure. This last element is apparently on the rise, and is advocating peace and an end to the cultures violent ways. In “Who Mourns Adonais”, the crew are taken captive by a powerful alien that claims to be Apollo, and who was in fact the true inspiration for the Greek god. After neutralizing him and escaping from the planet, Apollo laments that the universe has outgrown the need for gods.
In the newer series, several similar stories are told. In the season one episode entitled “Justice”, they come Edenic world where the people live a seemingly free and happy existence. However, it is soon revealed that their penal code involves death for the most minor of infractions, one which was handed down by “God”. This being is essentially an alien presence that lives in orbit and watches over the people. When the Enterprise tries to rescue Wesley, who is condemned to die, the being interferes. Picard gains its acquiescence by stating “there can be no justice in absolutes”, and they leave. In a third season episode entitled “Who Watches the Watchers”, Picard becomes a deity to the people of a primitive world when the crew saves one of their inhabitants from death. In an effort to avoid tampering with their culture, he lands and convinces him of his mortality, and explains that progress, not divine power, is the basis of their advanced nature.
These are but a few examples, but they do indicate a general trend. Whereas Roddenberry assiduously avoided proselytizing his own beliefs in the series, he was sure to indicate the ill effects religion can have on culture. In just about every instance, it is seen as the source of intolerance, injustice, irrationality, and crimes against humanity and nature. But of course, the various crews of the Enterprise and Starfleet do not interfere where they can help it, for this is seen as something that all species must pass through on the road to realizing their true potential.
George Lucas: Whereas many singers of space opera and science fiction provided various commentaries on religion in their works, Lucas was somewhat unique in that he worked his directly into the plot. Much like everything else in his stories, no direct lines are established with the world of today, or its institutions. Instead, he chose to create a universe that was entirely fictional and fantastic, with its own beliefs, conflicts, institutions and political entities. But of course, the commentary on today was still evident, after a fashion.
In the Star Wars universe,religion (if it could be called that) revolves around “The Force”. As Obi-Wan described it in the original movie “It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” In Empire, Yoda goes a step farther when he says “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”Sounds rather pantheistic, doesn’t it? The idea that all life emits an essence, and that the fate of all living things is bound together in a sort of interdependency.
What’s more, the way the Force was governed by a Light Side and a Dark Side; here Lucas appeared to be relying on some decidely Judea-Christian elements. Luke’s father, for example, is a picture perfect representation of The Fall, a Faustian man who sold his soul for power and avarice. The way he and the Emperor continually try to turn Luke by dangling its benefits under his nose is further evidence of this. And in the end, the way Darth Vader is redeemed, and how he is willing to sacrifice himself to save his son, calls to mind the crucifixion.
In the prequels, things got even more blatant. Whereas Anakin was seen as a sort of Lucifer in the originals, here he became the prodigal son. Conceived by the “Will of the Force”, i.e. an immaculate conception, he was seen by Qui Gonn as “The Chosen One” who’s arrival was foretold in prophecy. The Jedi Council feared him, which is not dissimilar to how the Pharisees and Sanhedrin reacted to the presence of Jesus (according to Scripture). And of course, the way Anakin’s potential and powers became a source of temptation for him, this too was a call-back to the Lucifer angle from the first films.
All of this was in keeping with Lucas’ fascination with cultural mythos and legends. Many times over, Lucas was rather deliberate in the way he worked cultural references – either visually or allegorically – into his stories. The lightsaber fights and Jedi ethos were derived from medieval Europe and Japan, the architecture and many of the costumes called to mind ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium, the setting and gun fights were regularly taken from Old Westerns, and the Imperial getup and rise to power of the Emperor were made to resemble Nazi Germany.
However, Lucas also dispelled much of the mystery and pseudo-religious and spiritual quality of his work by introducing the concept of the “midi-chlorians”. This is something I cannot skip, since it produced a hell of a lot of angst from the fan community and confounded much of what he said in the original films. Whereas the Force was seen as a mystic and ethereal thing in the originals, in the prequels, Lucas sought to explain the nature of it by ascribing it to microscopic bacteria which are present in all living things.
Perhaps he thought it would be cool to explain just how this semi-spiritual power worked, in empirical terms. In that, he failed miserably! Not only did this deprive his franchise of something truly mysterious and mystical, it also did not advance the “science” of the Force one inch. Within this explanation, the Force is still a power which resides in all living things, its just these microscopic bacteria which seem to allow people to interact with it. Like most fans, I see this as something superfluous which we were all better off without!
H.G. Wells: Prior to men like Herbert and the “Big Three” (Asimov, Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein), Wells was the master of science fiction. Since his time, during which he published a staggering amount of novels, short-stories and essays, his influence and commentaries have had immense influence. And when it came to matters of faith and the divine, Well’s was similarly influential, being one of the first sci-fi writers to espouse a sort of “elemental Christian” belief, or a sort of non-denominational acceptance for religion.
These beliefs he outlined in his non-fiction work entitled God the Invisible King, where he professed a belief in a personal and intimate God that did not draw on any particular belief system. He defined this in more specific terms later in the work, aligning himself with a “renascent or modern religion … neither atheist nor Buddhist nor Mohammedan nor Christian … [that] he has found growing up in himself”.
When it came to traditional religions, however, Wells was clearly of the belief that they had served their purpose, but were not meant to endure. In The Shape of Things to Come, he envisioned the creation of a global state (similar to Zamyatin’s “One State” and Huxley’s “World State”), where scientific progress was emphasized and all religions suppressed. This he saw as intrinsic to mankind’s progress towards a modern utopia, based on reason and enlightenment and the end of war.
In War of the Worlds, a similar interpretation is made. In this apocalyptic novel, one of the main characters is a clergyman who interprets the invasion of the Martians as divine retribution. However, this only seems to illustrate his mentally instability, and his rantings about “the end of the world” are ultimately what lead to his death at the hands of the aliens. Seen in this light, the clergyman could be interpreted as a symbol of mankind’s primitive past, something which is necessarily culled in the wake of the invasion my a far more advanced force. And, as some are quick to point out, the Martians are ultimately defeated by biology (i.e. microscopic germs) rather than any form of intervention from on high.
Isaac Asimov: Much like his “Big Three” colleague Clarke, Asimov was a committed rationalist, atheist and humanist. Though he was born to Jewish parents who observed the faith, he did not practice Judaism and did not espouse a particular belief in God. Nevertheless, he continued to identify himself as a Jew throughout his life. In addition, as he would demonstrate throughout his writings, he was not averse to religious convictions in others, and was even willing to write on the subject of religion for the sake of philosophical and historical education.
His writings were indicative of this, particularly in the Foundation and I, Robot series. In the former, Asimov shows how the Foundation scientists use religion in order to achieve a degree of influential amongst the less-advanced kingdoms that border their world, in effect becoming a sort of technological priesthood. This works to their advantage when the regent of Anacreon attempts to invade Terminus and ends up with a full-scale coup on his hands.
In the Robot series, Asimov includes a very interesting chapter entitled “Reason”, in which a robot comes to invent its own religion. Named QT1 (aka. “Cutie”) this robot possesses high-reasoning capabilities and runs a space station that provides power to Earth. It concludes that the stars, space, and the planets don’t really exist, and that the power source of the ship is in fact God and the source of its creation.
Naturally, the humans who arrive on the station attempt to reason with Cutie, but to no avail. It has managed to convert the other robots, and maintains the place in good order as a sort of temple. However, the human engineers conclude that since its beliefs do not conflict with the smooth running of the facility, that they should not attempt to counterman it’s belief system.
What’s more, in a later story entitled “Escape!” Asimov presents readers with a view of the afterlife. After developing a spaceship that incorporates an FTL engine (known as the hyperspatial drive), a crew of humans take it into space and perform a successful jump. For a few seconds, they experience odd and disturbing visions before returning safely home. They realize that the jump causes people to cease exist, effectively dying, which is a violation of the Three Laws, hence why previous AI’s were incapable of completing the drive.
Taken together, these sources would seem to illustrate that Asimov was a man who saw the uses of religion, and was even fascinated by it at times, but did not have much of a use for it. But as long as it was not abused or impinged upon the rights or beliefs of others, he was willing to let sleeping dogs lie.
Philip K. Dick: Naturally, every crowd of great artists has its oddball, and that’s where PKD comes in! In addition to being a heavy user of drugs and a fan of altered mental states, he also had some rather weird ideas when it came to religion. These were in part the result of a series of religious experiences he underwent which began for him in 1974 while recovering from dental surgery. They were also an expresion of his gnostic beliefs, which held that God is a higher intelligence which the human mind can make contact with, given the right circumstances.
Of Dick’s hallucinations, the first incident apparently occurred when a beautiful Christian woman made a delivery to his door and he was mesmerized by the light reflecting off of her fish pendant, which he claimed imparted wisdom and clairvoyance. Thereafter, Dick began to experience numerous hallucinations, and began to rule out medication as a cause. Initially, they took the form of geometric patterns, but began to include visions of Jesus and ancient Rome as well. Dick documented and discussed these experiences and how they shaped his views on faith in a private journal, which was later published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.
As he stated in his journal, he began to feel that his hallucinations were the result of a greater mind making contact with his own, which he referred to as the “transcendentally rational mind”, “Zebra”, “God” and “VALIS” (vast active living intelligence system). Much of these experiences would provide the inspiration for his VALIS Trilogy, a series that deals with the concept of visions, our notions of God and transcendent beings.
In addition, many of Dick’s hallucinations took on a decidedly Judea-Christian character. For instance, at one point he became convinced that he was living two parallel lives; one as himself, and another as “Thomas” – a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century AD. At another point, Dick felt that he had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah. These experiences would lead him to adapt certain Biblical elements into his work, a prime example being a chapter in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which bore a striking resemblance to the a story from the Biblical Book of Acts, which Dick claimed to never have read.
All of this is a testament to the rather profound (and possibly nuts!) mind of PKD and his fascination with all things divine and spiritual. Though not a man of faith in the traditional sense, he was very much a part of the counter-culture in his day and experimented with drugs and alternative religious beliefs quite freely. And while most of his ideas were dismissed as outlandish and the result of drug abuse, there were many (Robert A Heinlein included) who saw past that to the creative and rather gifted artistic soul within. It is therefore considered a tragedy that PKD died in relative obscurity, having never witnessed how much of an impact and influence he would have on science fiction and modern literature.
Ray Bradbury: Next up, we have the late great Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer for whom all literature was of immense import. This included the Bible, the Tanakh, the Koran, and just about any other religious text ever written by man. What’s more, many of his works contain passages which would seem to indicate that Bradbury held religion in high esteem, and even believed it to be compatible (or at least not mutually exclusive) with science.
For example, in his seminal novel Fahrenheit 451, one of the most precious volumes being protected by the character of Faber, a former English professor, is the Bible itself. When Montag confronts him and begins ripping the pages out of it, Faber tells him that it is one of the last remaining copies in the world that actually contains God’s words, instead of the newer versions which contain product placements.
As the story progresses and World War III finally comes, Montag joins Faber and a community of exiles, all of whom are responsible for “becoming a book” by memorizing it. In this way, they hope to preserve whatever literature they can until such a time as civilization and the art of writing re-emerges. Montag is charged with memorizing the Book of Ecclesiastes, and joins the exiles on their journey.
In the Martian Chronicles, Bradbury is even more clear on his stance vis a vis religion. In the short story “-And the Moon Be Still as Bright”, the Fourth Expedition arrives on Mars to find that the majority of the Martians have died from chickenpox. A disillusioned character named Jeff Spender then spends much time in the alien ruins and comes to praise the Martians for how their culture combined religion and science.
Humanity’s big mistake, according to Spender, was in praising science at the expense of religion, which he seemed to suggest was responsible for modern man’s sense of displacement. Or has Spender put it: “That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.”
In short, Bradbury saw humanity as lost, largely because of it deification of reason at the expense of faith. However, he did not appear to be advocating any particular religion, or even religion over science. When it came right down to it, he seemed to be of the opinion that faith was important to life, an outlet for creativity and inspiration, and needed to be preserved, along with everything else.
Robert A. Heinlein: As yet another member of the “Big Three”, Heinlein’s own religious view bear a striking resemblance to those of his contemporaries. Much like Clarke and Asimov, he was a committed rationalist and humanist, and varied from outright atheism to merely rejecting the current state of human religion. According to various sources, this began when he first encountered Darwin’s Origin of the Species at the age of 13, which convinced him to eschew his Baptist roots.
These can be summed up in a statement made by Maureen, one of his characters in To Sail Beyond the Sunset, when she said that the purpose of metaphysics was to ask the question why, but not to answer. When one passed beyond the realm of questions and got into answer, they were firmly in religious territory. Naturally, the character of Maureen preferred the former, as the latter led to intolerance, chauvinism, and persecution.
In Stranger In A Strange Land, one of the most famous science fiction novels of all time, plenty of time is dedicated to the main character’s (the Martian Smith) experiences with religion. After becoming disillusioned with humanity’s existing institutions, he decides to create a new faith known as the “Church of All Worlds”. This new faith was based on universal acceptance and blended elements of paganism, revivalism, and psychic training. In short, it was an attempt to predate major religions by reintroducing ancient rites, nature worship, and the recognition of the divine in all things.
What’s more, Stranger’s challenge to just about every contemporary more, which included monogamy, fear of death, money, and conventional morality could only be seen by religious authorities as an indictment of traditional values. In that respect, they were right. Heinlein plotted out the entire novel in the early fifties, but did begin writing it for a full decade. He would later of say of this, “I had been in no hurry to finish it, as that story could not be published commercially until the public mores changed. I could see them changing and it turned out that I had timed it right.”
But just in case his work did not suffice, Heinlein expressed his opinions quite clearly in the book entitled Notebooks of Lazarus Long (named after one of his recurring characters): “History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.” These and other quotes illustrated his issues with religion, which included their irreconcilable nature with reason, their inherent contradictions, and the ludicrous things done in their names.
And that’s what the masters had to say on the subject, at least those that I chose to include. As you can plainly see, their opinions ran the gambit from outright condemnation of religion (but not necessarily of faith) to believing that religion had it’s place alongside science as an equally worthy form of expression. And of course, there were those who fell somewhere in the middle, either seeing religion as an ambiguous thing or something that humanity would not outgrow – at least not for the foreseeable future. Strangely, none of them seemed to think that religion trumped science… I wonder why 😉