Religion in Sci-Fi

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.

Summary:
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 😉

Of Terraforming

Several scientific subjects have piqued my interest as of late, particularly the ones that relate to the colonization of other planets. And there are plenty of good reasons for this. First off, NASA has been talking at length about a possible Mars mission which will be begin in 2030. Second, the topic is central to the novel my group and I are writing. And third, because it’s what I do. I’m a geek, dammit! Do I really need any other reason?

So in honor of this fertile and increasingly relevant topic, I thought I’d dedicate a post to the science of terraforming and its depiction in popular culture. Like the majority of your more radical ideas, the concept first appeared around the turn of the 20th century. As part of the larger trend of exploring planetary colonization, several historical developments contributed to this phenomena.

Foremost amongst them was the closure of the American frontier by 1900 and the partitioning of Africa in 1905. With the “Age of Discovery” officially over, scientists and dreamers began to look farther abroad for the next place to move to. Refinements in the fields of metallurgy, chemistry, and astronomy also contributed to the idea that planets like the Moon, Mars, Venus, Europa, Ganymede, and even other star systems, could be colonized.

And thanks to the advent of the Space Race, the Apollo missions, and Eco-engineering in the latter half of the 20th century, scientists have begun to take a serious look at terraforming, particularly in regards to Mars. While the practicality, feasibility and affordability are all still being debated, the very fact that there is a serious scientific debate would seem to indicate that it may very well be done someday.

And so, here is a list of science fiction novels from the last century that have explored the idea of terraforming. Once again, I hope you enjoy reading about them as much as I enjoyed researching them, and incorporating some of what they taught me!

Last and First Men:
This future history by Olaf Stapledon, released in 1930, is the first time that the terraforming of Venus is made in fiction. This was only a fragment of the larger story, which focuses on human evolution over the course of two billions years. Nevertheless, the move to Venus is an intrinsic part of the story involving the “Fifth Men”, who are forced to relocate after Earth becoming uninhabitable.

This occurs only after humanity pushes the local inhabitants to extinction after a protracted war. Afterward, they begin the process of transforming Venus to meet their needs. Like all early accounts, the description was hampered by the fact that knowledge of Venus was highly inaccurate. For example, Stapledon’s account has Venus covered in oceans, rather than the pits of sulfuric acid which are now known to be there.

Farmer in the Sky:
Here we have Robert A. Heinlein’s 1950 story which focuses on a family which has moved to Ganymede, which is in the process of being terraformed. Earth is overcrowded in this day and age, and farming colonies are being established in Jupiter’s moon to help provide much needed food supplies.

The process of creating the new farms is explained in some detail. For example, the topsoil is created from scratch by pulverizing boulders and lava flows, and seeding the resulting dust with carefully formulated organic material. Pressurized housing is erected to ensure that new arrivals are able to adjust, since the atmosphere is not fully breathable. And Ganymede is shielded from Jupiter’s intense radiation by a massive heat shield.

Hints are even given that establish that Ganymede once boasted an indigenous civilization, or was at least visited by one in the past. This includes a working land vehicle that has many legs, essentially a large metal centipede.

The Sands of Mars:
Next we have Arthur C. Clarke’s 1951 novel, which happened to be his first published work. And curiously enough, it is written from the point of view of a famous science fiction author. A case of art imitating life, or art as wish fulfillment? In any case, the setting is a research facility on Mars, which is in the process of terraforming so it will be able to become a self-sufficient colony.

Based on Clarke’s descriptions, this terraforming process (known as “Project Dawn”) involves some rather curious steps. The first is the ignition of the moon Phobos so that it will become a second “sun” for Mars. It will burn for at least one thousand years and the extra heat, combined with the mass production of the oxygen-generating plants, will eventually make the Martian atmosphere breathable for humans.

In many respects, this served as a preview for the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey and it’s sequel 2010: Odyssey Two (see below).

The Martian Way:
In keeping with the tradition of sci-fi greats, this next novel was written by Isaac Asimov and first published in 1952. The story is told from the point of view of Scavengers, Mars-born humans who spend their time scouring space for the spent lower stages of spacecraft. This sort of lifestyle, making do with less and toughing things out, is known as the “Martian Way”.

At this point, Mars is still very much dependent on Earth for water shipments, which are used for fuel as well as consumption. Life takes a turn for a worse when an ambitious Earth politician decides to cut of the “Wasters”. In response, the protagonists come up with an ambitious plan, to fly to Saturn’s Rings and tow back an asteroid made of pure ice.

The trip is difficult and takes many months, but the Martian Scavengers manage to snag an asteroid that will supply two hundred years worth of water. This, they begin to use to transform the ecology of Mars, and turn the tables on the Earth government.

The Psychotechnic League:
Written by Poul Anderson over the course of two decades, the Psychotechnic League refers to a series of novels and short stories that are set in the same universe. Of all these stories, two in particular deal with the terraforming of Solar Planets. In “The Big Rain”, Venus is being terraformed, a process of planetary engineering that takes several centuries to complete.

In “The Snows of Ganymede”, the focus shifts to the Jovian moon where scientists are able convert the planet to the point where it experiences seasons similar to Earth. This, in addition to Mars, Venus and several other Solar Planets, all come together in time to form the Solar Union. Because of Anderson’s realistic description, the term “big rain” became associated with scientific terraforming models.

The Space Odyssey Series:
Arthur C. Clarke’s series, which began with the novelization of the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, revolves around the terraforming of Europa by a super advanced race. Known as the Firstborn, these aliens use the Monoliths to travel throughout the universe to foster the development of sentient life. Millions of years after fostering the development of high-order primates on Earth, they shifted their focus to Europa, Jupiter’s ice moon.

Much as in “Sands of Mars”, the process involved the creation of a “second sun”, this time involving Jupiter. In the first novel, the story ends with David Bowman, the only astronaut to survive an exploratory mission to Jupiter after their ships AI (the HAL 9000) malfunction and kills the crew.
When he arrives, he discovers a Monolith in orbit around Europa and disappears without a trace shortly thereafter.

In 2010: Odyssey Two, a second mission is mounted to determine the whereabouts of the first. When the joint US-Soviet mission arrives at Europa, they come to realize that the planet is showing signs of life. They also learn that the Monoliths are in the process of turning Jupiter into a sun so that Europa’s icy surface will evaporate and form an atmosphere, allowing all the life contained underneath to emerge and grow.

In the subsequent novels, Europa is revisited after its transformation is complete. Although sentient life does not appear to be possible, the planet does boast an atmosphere and vast oceans, which teem with sluggish sulfur-based lifeforms. In the end, after the Monoliths are convinced that humanity deserves a reprieve, and they land on Europe to commence building peaceful relations with the Europan life forms.

Mars Trilogy:
We finish with the most recent and profound example of all, the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robertason. The trilogy’s three works – Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars – all focus on the ongoing efforts to transform Mars from an arid, hostile world with barely any atmosphere to a lush, hospitable planet capable of supporting human life.

The first novel deals with the initial colonization effort, which begins with the crew of the Ares, a ship carrying 100 scientists drawn predominantly from the US and the Soviet Union. Upon arriving, the crew builds the first settlement, known as Underhill, as well as colonies on the hollowed out asteroid-moon of Phobos.

After debating what is to be done with Mars, whether to turn it “Green” or leave it “Red”, the United Nations Organization Mars Authority (UNOMA) eventually opts for the “Green” option and terraforming begins. This process involves the drilling of “moholes” in the surface to release subsurface heat to thicken the atmosphere and the detonation of nuclear devices deep in the sub-surface permafrost to release water.

Green Mars, which begins 50 years after events in the first novel, during the dawn of the 22nd century. At this point in time, the Martian landscape is evolving thanks to the expansion of plant life, hence the name. The process is stimulated though the use of continent-sized orbital mirrors which focus sunlight to and away from various sectors of the planet, to melting the northern polar ice cap, and digging moholes deep enough to form volcanoes.

In the third and final installment, Blue Mars, long-term terraforming has created atmospheric pressure and temperature conditions that allow for the presence of liquid water on the planet’s surface, forming rivers and seas. This all takes place over the course of the following century, long after Earth has flooded and revolutions have displaced corporate control of the planet. Because of this, Mars has become the principle planet of the Solar System.

Summary:
Terraforming efforts have come a long way in fiction, and hopefully some day soon they will be realizable. Even though the concept remains highly speculative at this point, all proposed efforts are currently focused on Mars. In all ways that count, Mars has everything we would need to make it suitable for human habitation. This includes water, in the presence of the frozen ice caps and possibly underground rivers, and high concentrations of carbon and oxygen in the form of CO2, nitrogen, and gravity to keep the atmosphere anchored.

And most importantly of all, Mars’ atmosphere closely resembles that of Earth several billions of years ago. In time, due to the development of photosynthetic bacteria, enough oxygen was produced to allow for the development of animals. Though the careful introduction of similar bacteria and plants to Mars surface, humans could speed that process along and eventually create a breathable atmosphere. This, in turn, will allow for the creation of an ozone layer and weather patterns. Combined with the melting of the polar ice and underground aquifers, this will lead to surface water in the form of rivers, streams and oceans.

More Utopian Science Fiction

Boy this is fun, and like I said last time, overdue! For fans of literature and science fiction in particular, you really can’t do justice to a genre unless you examine its opposite as well. Not only is it fun and interesting, it kind of opens your eyes to the fact that we find a certain truth in the pairing of opposites.

For one, you come to see that they really aren’t that different. And two, that they essentially come from the same place. Much like light and dark, black and white, heaven and hell, extremes have more in common with each other than anything occupying the space between them. Is that quote? If not, it is now! MINE!

Last time, I buckled down to tackle the big names, the famous classics. Today, I thought I’d cast the net a little wider since there are a ton I missed and there really is no shortage of examples. Here’s what I got so far:

3001: The Final Odyssey:
The final book in Clarke’s Odyssey series, 3001 not only provided a sense of culmination to this epic story, but also gave Clarke the opportunity to share his predictions on where humanity would be by the 31st century. Released in 1997, it also contained a great deal of speculation about the coming millennium and what the 21st century would look like.

The story begins when, just shy of the millennial celebrations, the body of Frank Poole is discovered at the edge of the solar system. This astronaut, who died in the first novel, had been floating at the far edge of the solar system for almost a thousand years. His body is resurrected using the latest technology, and his reintroduction to society is the vehicle through which things are told.

As a fish out of water, Poole is made privy to all the changes that have taken place in the last 1000 years. Humanity now lives throughout the solar system, Earth and most planets are orbited by massive rings that connect to Earth through huge towers. Sectarian religion has been abandoned in favor of a new, universal faith, and the problems of overpopulation, pollution and war have all been solved.

Amongst humanity’s technological marvels are inertia drives on their ships (no FTL exists), a form of holodeck, genetically engineered work creatures, skull caps that transmit info directly into a person’s brain, data crystals, and of course the massive space habitation modules. Though the story was meant to be predictive for the most part, one cannot deny that this book contained utopian elements. Essentially, Clarke advanced his usual futurist outlook, in which humanity’s problems would be solved through the ongoing application of technology and progress.

Though I found it somewhat naive at the time of reading, it was nevertheless an interesting romp, especially where the predictive aspects came into play. And it also contained one of the best lines I’ve ever read, a New Years toast for the 21st century which I quoted on midnight on Dec. 31st, 1999: “Here’s to the 20th century. The best, and worst, century of them all!”

Brave New World:
I  know, BNW is listed as one of the quintessential dystopian novels of our time, and I even listed as such on my list of dystopian classics. However, one cannot deny that this book also contained very strong utopian elements and themes, and it was how these failed to remedy the problem of being human that ultimately made BNW a dystopia.

Set in the year 2540 CE (or 632 A.F. in the book), the World State is very much the product of utopian engineering. Literally all aspects of social control, which are largely benign, are designed to ensure that all people are born and bred to serve a specific role, cannot aspire beyond it, and are emotionally and psychologically insulated against unhappiness.

In short, people have exchanged their freedom for the sake of peace, order, and predictability. In fact, these ideals are pretty much summed up with the States motto: “Community, Identity, Stability.” Another indication is the popular slogan, “everyone belongs to everyone else”. And finally, the orgy porgy song provides some insight as well: “Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun, Kiss the girls and make them One. Boys at one with
girls at peace; Orgy-porgy gives release.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. The goal of creating oneness and sameness to prevent things like greed, jealousy, war, and strife, is a constant theme in utopian literature, elevated to the form of high art in Huxley’s vision. And above all, the dream of a perfectly regulated, peaceful society, where individuality and difference have been purged, was accomplished through pleasure and not pain. This can best be summed up in an exerpt from Huxley’s letter to Orwell after 1984 was released:

“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.”

I, Robot:
In the course of examining utopian literature, a term came up with made me stop and think… Robotocracy. Hence this next example which also contains some rather interesting utopian elements. As one of Asimov’s most recognized works, this collection of interlinked short stories tells of a future where intelligent robots make their debut and gradually become more and more integrated to society.

Ultimately, Asimov portrays AI’s as loyal and gentle creatures who not only improve the lot of humanity, but are incapable of harming their human masters. Whereas most speculative works of fiction dealing with AI’s are cautionary in nature, showing how entrusting our fate to machines will result in death, in this story, all of humanity’s fears prove baseless.

In time, the employment of robots and positronic master computers leads to the development of FTL, optimizes the world’s economy and production, and even prevents problems and conflicts which they can foresee. Human beings express reservation and fear, but in the end, the robotocracy proves to be sensible and caring, not cold and inhuman.

It was for this reason that I didn’t care for the film adaptation. Not only would a repressive, world-domination plan contradict the first and most important of the Three Laws (a robot may not harm, or through inaction, allow to be harmed, a human), it really didn’t contain any inherent logic. How would putting humans under house arrest ultimately ensure their protection? With all humans deprived of their most basic rights, revolution would be inevitable, leading to more death. Ah, whatever. At least the book was good.

Island:
Also written by Aldous Huxley, this novel (published in 1962) represented a possible resolution to the central problem he raised in Brave New World. Essentially, the protagonist of John the Savage committed suicide at the end because he could not reconcile himself to either world, one characterized by primitive freedom and the other by civilized sterility.

In the foreword section of the 1946 edition, Huxley expressed regret over the fact that he could not have given John a third option, which could have taken the form of the various exile communities where the thinking people who didn’t fit in with the “civilization” of the World State were sent.

Hence the setting of Island, a utopia created on the fictional island of Pala. Told from the point of view of a cynical journalist named Will Farnaby who gets shipwrecked on the island, the story was Huxley’s final book and a message to humanity about possible third options and the positive application of technology and knowledge.

As Huxley decribed it beforehand: “In this community economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque co-operative. Science and technology would be used as though, like the Sabbath, they had been made for man, not (as at present and still more so in the Brave New World) as though man were to be adapted and enslaved to them. This last sentence is especially important in reference to Island. Here, drug use, trance states, contraception, assisted reproduction and slogans are all used voluntarily and serve the purposes of learning and social betterment. They are not employed as a means to pacify and control people.

What’s more, from a social perspective, Huxley characterized Pala’s prevailing philosophy as:  “a kind of Higher Utilitarianism, in which the Greatest Happiness principle would be secondary to the Final End principle – the first question to be asked and answered in every contingency of life being: “How will this thought or action contribute to, or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest possible number of other individuals, of man’s Final End?”

The Culture Series:
Created by sci-fi author Ian M. Banks, “The Culture” refers to the fictional interstellar anarchist, socialist, and utopian society that characterizes his novels. Encompassing ten novels – beginning with Consider Phlebas (1987) and concluding with The Hydrogen Sonata (slated for release in October 2012), Banks paints the picture of a universe where humanity has created a peaceful, stable and abundant society through the application of technology.

Told predominantly from the point of view of those who operate at the fringes of The Culture, the stories focus on the interactions of these utopian humans with other civilizations. Much in the same way as Star Trek follows the adventure of the Enterprise crew as they deal with alien cultures, often ones which are less developed or evolved, this provides a vehicle for examining humanity’s current predicament and providing possible solutions.

Overall, The Society is best characterized as post-scarcity, where advanced technologies provide practically limitless material wealth and comfort, where almost all physical constraints – including disease and death – have been eliminated, and the concept of possessions are outmoded. Through all of this, an almost totally  egalitarian, stable society has been created where compulsion or force are not needed, except as a means of self-defense.

At times however, The Culture has been known to interfere with other civilizations as a means of spreading their culture and affecting change in their neighbors. This has often been criticized as an endorsement of neo-conservatism and ethnocentrism on Banks part. However, Banks has denied such claims and many of his defenders claim that The Culture’s moral legitimacy is far beyond anything the West currently enjoys. Others would point out that this potential “dark side” the The Culture is meant to reflect the paradox of liberal societies at home and their behavior in foreign affairs.

The Mars Trilogy:
This ground-breaking trilogy by Kim Stanley Robertson about the colonization and terraforming of Mars is also a fine example of utopia in literature. taking place in the not-too-distant future, the trilogy begins with the settlement of the planet in Red Mars and then follows the exploits of the colonists as they begin transforming from a barren rock to a veritable second Earth.

Even though there are numerous dark elements to the story, including civil strife, internal divisions, exploitation and even assassination, the utopian elements far outweigh the dystopian ones. Ultimately, the focus is on the emergence of a highly advanced, egalitarian society on Mars while Earth continues to suffer from the problems of overpopulation, pollution and ecological disaster.

In addition, the colony of Mars benefits from the fact that its original inhabitants, though by no means all mentally stable and benevolent people, were nevertheless some of the best and brightest minds Earth had produced. As a result, and with the help of longevity treatments, Mars had the benefit of being run by some truly dedicated and enlightened founders. What’s more, their descendents would grow up in a world where stability, hard work, and a respect for science, technology and ecology were pervasive.

All of this reflects Robertson’s multifaceted approach to story writing, where social aspirations and problems are just as important as the technological and economic aspects of settling a new world. Much like the conquest and settlement of the New World gave rise to various utopian ideals and social experiments, he speculates that the settlement of new planets will result in the same. Technology still plays an important role of course, as the colonists of Mars have the benefit of taking advantage of scientific advancements while simultaneously avoiding the baggage of life on Earth. In the end, there’s just something to be said about a fresh start isn’t there?

The Night’s Dawn Trilogy:
Written by British author Peter F. Hamilton, The Night’s Dawn Trilogy consists of three science fiction novels: The Reality Dysfunction (1996), The Neutronium Alchemist (1997), and The Naked God (1999). Much like Robertson’s depiction of humanity in the Mars Trilogy, Hamilton explores humanity’s dark side at length, and yet the tone of his novels are predominantly optimistic.

Set in a distant 27th century, humanity has become divided between two major factions. On the one side there are the Edenists, an egalitarian, utopian society who employ biotech (“biteck” in their lingo) to create living, sentient space stations as well as machines. The use of “Affinity” – a form of telepathy – allows them to communicate with each other and their biteck, creating a sort of mass mentality which encompasses entire communities. Thiee Edenic government is what is known as the “Consensus”, a form of direct democracy that is made possible by telepathic link.

On the one side their are the Adamists, the larger of the two where human beings live with a limited religious proscription against technology. Biteck is forbidden, but nanotechnology, FTL and other advanced applications are freely used. Because the Adamists encompass anyone not in the Edenic camp, they are larger, but far less organized and cohesive than their counterparts.

Through all this, Hamilton attempts to show  how the application of technology and the merger between biological and artificial can create the kind of society envisioned by men like Thomas More, characterized by participatory government, collective mentality, and a consensus-oriented decision-making process. While both the Edenic and Adamist societies are still pervaded by problems, not the least of which is competition between the two, the ideals of betterment through technological progress are nevertheless predominant.

Revelation Space Series:
Another series which examines the beneficial aspects of technology, particularly where governance and equality are concerned, is the Revelation Space Trilogy by Alastair Reynolds. Comprised of the five novels Revelation Space (2000), Chasm City (2001), Redemption Ark (2002), Absolution Gap (2003) and The Prefect (2007).

Taking place in the distant future (circa. 2427 to 2727), the story revolves around a series of worlds that have been settled by several different factions of humanity. The two largest factions are known as the Demarchists and the Conjoiners, both of whom have employed advanced technology to create their own versions of an ideal society.

Though much of the books are dark in tone due to the discovery of a terrible nanotechnological virus (the “Melding Plague”) and the discovery of hostile ancient aliens (the “Inhibitors”), the series still does have some discernible utopian elements. For starters, the Demarchists take their name from the concept of “Democratic Anarchy”, and employ cybernetic implants, nanotech and wireless communications to achieve this.

Within the Demarchist metropolis of Chasm City, all citizens are permanently wired into a central server which allows them permanent access to news, updates, and the decision-making process. As a result, Demarchist society is virtually egalitarian and marks of social status, such as ranks and titles, do not exist. This changed with the spread of the Melding Plague however, causing the city’s structures to degenerate into a gothic nightmare and the class divide to become very visible.

Another important faction are the Conjoiners. These people, who were originally inhabitants with the Great Wall of Mars (above left picture), but who became a star-faring people after the war with the “Coalition for Neural Purity” drove them off Mars. To these people, cybernetic implants were taken a step further, giving every Conjoined person the ability to telepathically link with others, preserve their memories beyond death, prolong their life, and enhance their natural thinking process.

Thus, much like Hamilton and Banks, Reynolds speculates that the advent of nanotech, biotech, and space travel will result in the emergence of societies that are predominantly egalitarian, peaceful, and dedicated to consensus and direct democracy. I personally found these stories quite inspiring since it seems that in many ways, we are already witnessing the birth of such possibilities in the here and now.

Yep, this is still fun, if somewhat tiring and conducive to burnout! I think I’ll be taking a break from these literary-criticism pieces for a day or two, maybe getting back to pieces on robots and cool gear. However, in keeping with the format I used for dystopia, I still have one more utopian article left to cover. Look for it, it will be called “Utopia in Popular Culture!” See ya there…

Ancient Aliens (Updated)

And I’m back with another conceptual post, hard at work exploring the ideas that run deep in the grand genre that is sci-fi. And this is one that I find particularly cool, mainly because it’s just so freaking existential! I mean what is there that can possibly throw a wrench into our collective anthropomorphism more than knowing that there is sentient life out there that significantly predates our own, especially if we were to find out that they had something to do with our own evolution…?

In some ways, this is a shout out to the “ancient astronauts” theory, which speculates that extra-terrestrials came to Earth long ago and left some evidence of their visit behind. This can be limited to something as basic as a structure or a relic, or can run as deep as having influenced human cultures, religions and technological development. Regardless of whether or not this theory is to be taken literally, it is well represented in the sci-fi community. Here are some examples that I have assembled:

2001: A Space Odyssey:
A classic example of an ancient species, ancient astronauts, and one of my personal favorites! Originally conceived in the form of a screenplay by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, the concept of the TMA-1 monolith aliens was a central plot element to one of the most groundbreaking science fiction movies of all time. However, owing to Kubrick’s esoteric style, not much was ever made clear about the species that built the monoliths. Luckily, Clarke went on to develop the idea at length in his novelization of the movie and its many sequels.

According to the novel, and ongoing interviews with Kudrick, the beings that built the monoliths were known as the Firstborn – an extremely ancient race that achieved sentience millions of years ago and were exploring the galaxy long before humanity even existed. The monoliths were their means of traveling from star to star, which they did in order to seek out life and help it along. In the course of their travels, they came upon Earth four million years ago and discovered Simians that were on the verge of starvation. By teaching them to expand their diet through hunting and some basic tricks to cultivate their manual dexterity, they ensured not only the survival of higher order primates, but the eventual emergence of humans as a species.

The story of 2001 thus takes place in the near-future (from when it was originally written) where humanity has developed into a star-faring race and colonized the Moon. Not far from this colony, a monolith is discovered buried under millions of years of moon dust. After examining it, to no avail, they discover that it has sent a signal out to Jupiter. The ship Discovery is then dispatched to investigate, where it finds an even larger monolith in orbit around Europa. The mission ends quite mysteriously as David Bowman, the last surviving member of the crew, flies closer to it in a small pod and disappears. Adding to the mystery were his last words: “My God, it’s full of stars!”

In subsequent books, the mystery of Bowman’s disappearance and the nature of the monoliths is made clear. Essentially, the monoliths are alien machines that contain their consciousness, and some are gateways which allow for FTL space travel. Bowman, when he came into contact with the one around Europa, was transformed or downloaded (depending on how you look at it) and became one with the monolith. The reason they are hanging out around Europa is because they are currently working to transform Jupiter into its own star so that life may blossom on Europa (which scientists speculate is already teaming with life underneath its icey shell).

Cool idea! But you see, there’s a snag… Apparently, the First Ones have also been known to weed wherever they’ve sown. What would happen if they came to the conclusion that humanity was too aggressive for its own good, the result of them teaching us how to harness an appetite for killing other animals and members of our own species? This is the premise that is explored in the finale 3001: Final Odyssey, and which was left on a cliffhanger note. Unfortunately, Clarke died in 2008, leaving fan fiction authors to speculate on how this would all play out…

Alien vs. Predator:
Note: this is not a reference to the terrible movie or its even more terrible sequel! No, in this case, I am referring to the wider franchise, as exemplified by its many video games, comics, novelizations, and even the independent (non-crossover) movies. In these cases, we get a glimpse of two races that predate humanity by hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Their outward characteristics alone make them cool, and they are both pretty badass in their own special ways. But what is especially cool about them is the fact that very little known about them, other than the fact that they are very, very dangerous!

“I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality”. That is how the Alien, or Xenomorph in AVP terminology, was described in the very first movie. Their origin is unknown, as is the timeline of their existence and the circumstances of their evolution. However, one thing is clear: on this last note, it must have been something pretty harsh! I mean really, how difficult must life have been on their homeworld for something like the xenomorph to have emerged. They proliferate at an alarming rate, require living being to gestate, and are designed purely for the hunt!

Overall, their race is divided into two symbiotic and interrelated species. First, there are the “Facehuggers”, the spidery creatures that attach themselves to living creatures and implant them with embryos. This in turn gives rise to the “Chestbusters”, the warrior aliens that seek out, kill and capture creatures for the Facehuggers to use. At the top of the pyramid is the Queen, a Chestbuster who has evolved to become the egg-layer who gives birth to more Facehuggers. An interesting chicken and the egg type arrangement, and something which only adds to their mystery!

The Predators, on the other hand, are relatively straightforward. At their core of their society lies a warrior ethic, where each and every male member of their species is trained to be a hunter. In time, hunters accumulates honor and seniority within their culture by attaining as many kills and trophies (i.e. skulls) as possible, preferably from different species. In fact, it is rumored that a single scene from Predator 2, in which an Alien skull appeared in a hunter’s trophy case was the basis for the whole AVP crossover.

In addition, there are also some clear and apparent rules to the hunt. First, each hunter is drawn to arenas of conflict. In the first movie, one chooses a hunt in Central America where a guerrilla war is taking place. In the sequel, one travels to LA during the height of the drug wars. In both cases, the get a sense of their terrain, taking out the easy prey first, and gradually working their way up to the top carnivore. At first, they rely on their advanced weaponry and stealth. But when at last they face off with the strongest prey, they fight them in the open in hand to hand combat.

God knows how long they’ve been doing this. But given their obvious level of technology, its clear they are not exactly recent additions to space race!

The “Ancient Humanoids”:
Now this was one I didn’t much like, but it’s an example of the concept of ancient astronauts nonetheless. And it comes to us courtesy of Star Trek: TNG. from an episode named “The Chase” (episode 146). In it, Picard’s old friend and mentor turns up dead in the course of an expedition which he claims could be the most profound discovery of their time.

After retracing his footsteps, Picard and the Enterprise are joined by three other search parties – one Klingon, one Romulan and one Cardassian – in orbit around a dead planet. When they reach the surface, they find that all the clues lead to a recording left behind by an ancient species. In the recording, the humanoid alien tells them all that they are the progenitors of every sentient race in the quadrant, that their DNA was planted on countless worlds. This is apparently why so many species are humanoid, and means that humanity shares ancestry with all these would-be enemies.

Heartwarming, and kind of cool if it weren’t such a convenient explanation as to why all aliens in the Star Trek franchise are humanoid. This is something that’s always annoyed me about the franchise. It’s not enough that all the aliens speak English and look like people, minus the occasional molded plastic on their faces. But to make matters worse, they always got to make a point of drawing attention to their humanoid forms. So when it came right down to it, this episode felt more like a contrived explanation than a homage. Personally, I would have thought that limited budgets would be the reason, but what do I know? I’m no xenobiologist!

The First Ones:
Another favorite which comes to us courtesy of the Babylon 5 universe. According to the expanded storyline, the First Ones were the first beings to achieve sentience in the Milky Way Galaxy. By the time of the show, most of them had left our corner of the universe in order to explore other galaxies and what lies between them. Only two remains behind, ostensibly to act as shepherds to the younger races. They were known as the Vorlons and the Shadows. However, in time, the two races turned on each other because of their diametrically opposed ideologies.

The Vorlons believed that development and progress came from order. In the course of their long history, they travelled to many worlds inhabited by sentient races and began tampering with their evolution. In each case, they presented themselves as angels, thus ensuring that sentient beings would see them as creatures of light and truth. In addition, they fostered the development of telepaths for use in the coming wars against the Shadows, whom they knew to vulnerable to psionics.

To illustrate this, the Vorlons are often presented as being aloof and rather stodgy figures. In fact, Lyta Alexander, one of the show’s secondary characters, commented that despite their power, the Vorlons are a highly sensitive people who do not react well to change! In the course of the show, they were initially hesitant to commit their forces to fighting the Shadows, they were extremely irked when Kosh (their ambassador to B5) was killed, and when Sheridan went – and presumably died  – at Z’ha’dum, they began destroying entire worlds in the hopes of erasing every trace of the Shadow’s influence.

In addition, their esoteric, mysterious nature was summed up with one question that they would ask anyone who was privileged enough to speak to them: “Who are you?” If ever you found yourself being asked that, odds were you were meant for some higher purpose, one which the Vorlons had a hand in arranging!

The Shadows, by comparison, were much more enabling and  intriguing, even if they were a little… oh, I don’t know, shit-your-pants scary!  In the course of their history, they too traveled to many worlds as ambassadors, encouraging different people and races to embrace their ambitious, darker side and go to war with each other. Whereas the Vorlons asked “Who are you?”, the Shadows big question was “What do you want?” Again, if you found yourself being asked this question, it meant that you were on their radar and they had big plans for you. The proper response to this would be feelings of flattery followed by abject terror.

In any case, whereas the Vorlons believed in order and stability, the Shadows believed that evolution came only through conflict and disorder. This, they reasoned, is what lead to the development of stronger, more advanced races. As Morden, their own representative to B5 said, humanity would never have come so far so fast were they not constantly “at each others’ throats”. Sure, some races had to be sacrificed along the way to make this philosophy work, but that was all for the greater good. In the end, what came out of it was a series of species that were stronger and better than they were before.

This philosophy eventually led them into conflict with the Vorlons as well as several other First Ones. Many younger races found themselves taking sides as well or just getting caught in the middle. In fact, wars between the two sides became a recurring thing, happening every few thousand years. In the last, which took place 10,000 years before the main story, the Shadows were defeated by the last great alliance between the First Ones, most of whom then chose to leave the galaxy. Then, just 1000 years before the events in the show take place, the Shadows were once again defeated by the Vorlons and an alliance of younger races and forced out of the galaxy entirely. However, as the show opens, we quickly learn that the Shadows are once again returning to their old stomping grounds, and the first spot on the tour is a planet known as Z’ha’dum.

This world is doubly significant because it is this planet where another First One – THE first one in fact – is thought to reside. His name is Lorien, and he is the last of his kind and the sole First One outside of the Vorlons and Shadows that is left in galaxy. All of the others have long since abandoned it, leaving the Shadows and Vorlons to their war and all the other races that have chosen to enlist in it. In the end, however, Sheridan, Delenn and the younger races form their own alliance which they use to draw a line against both races. With the help of those First Ones that they are able to reach and enlist the help of, they are successful. After a brief but decisive fight, both races agree to leave the galaxy with Lorien, never to return. In the last episode, when Sheridan is on the verge of death , he is found by Lorien who takes him to the great beyond where the other First Ones now reside.

Like I said, its a personal favorite, mainly because I felt it was so richly detailed and in-depth.

The Forerunners:
Now here is an interesting take on the whole ancient astronauts concept. Whereas in most versions of this idea, aliens make contact with a younger race and influence them for their own purposes, in the Halo universe, things happen in a sort of reverse order. It is established as part of the game’s back story that eons after they died out, the Covenant races came upon the remains of an ancient race which are referred to as the Forerunners. After learning how to reverse-engineer their technology, the Covernant began to merge it with their own and was able to jump thousands of years ahead as a result.

At the same time, they began to develop a religion and even a theocracy based on the Forerunners and what they believed their most important relics to be. These would be the Halo devices, for which the game takes its name. Believing that the Halos were the gateway to the afterlife, or the source of deliverance, the Convenant became obsessed with finding a working Halo and activating it. All of their mythology for the past few thousands years was based on this, and they pursued it with absolute single-mindedness.

So in this way, the Forerunners had a profound impact on the development and beliefs of the Covenant, but not intentionally. Rather than coming to the Convenant while it was still in its infancy and manipulating them for their own purposes, the Covenant instead found them, but only after they were long dead. In addition, they were influenced by their own assumptions about the Forerunners, and not anything they chose to tell them. And in the end, this influence had a near disastrous effect, given that the Halo devices were weapons of mass-MASS destruction and not holy relics. By attempting to activate them, the Covenant very nearly brought about their own extinction, and that of every other sentient race in the quadrant. One would think there was a message in all this about the dangers of blind faith and the dangers of deification or something!

The Goa’uld:
Here is a perfect example of the ancient astronauts theory, so bang on that you’d think it was tailor made to fit the premise! In the Stargate universe, which has expanded considerably over the years, an advanced extra-terrestrial species known as the Goa’uld came to Earth during the neolithic period and had a vast influence on our history. In the original movie, this involved a single alien who took on human form and appointed himself God Emperor over his human subjects. This, in turn, gave rise to the Egyptian civilization, with the alien-god Ra at its apex.

In addition to creating ancient Egypt though, Ra was also revealed to have taken human beings through the Stargate, an means of near-instantaneous interstellar transportation, and established similar civilizations on distant planets. On each of these, the Egyptian motifs of pyramids and the cult of Ra persisted, in some cases for thousands of years. Meanwhile, back at Earth, a revolt unseated Ra and he fled into the cosmos, to be found thousands of years later when humans accessed the Star Gate on Earth.

In the expanded universe, we learn that the Goa’uld were merely one of many races that visited Earth and appeared as gods to humanity because of their advanced technology. But whereas most had benign intentions,  the Goa’uld were concerned solely with establishing slave colonies on many worlds throughout the universe. In addition, their interference extended to other less advanced races as well. As a result, humanity is now faced with the task of preparing to face this and other threats, all of which involve highly advanced races that have visited Earth at one time or another and could very well be hostile.

Although it was not too good a movie (in my opinion), the concept is still a very fertile one! It’s little wonder then why it was made into a series, one which has done quite well for itself. Aliens came before, they may come again… Can we stop them this time. Who knows? Spooky stuff!

The Orions:
In the video game series Master of Orion, there is yet another take on the concepts of ancients aliens. In this turn-based strategy game, players select from different alien races that inhabit the galaxy and begin the process of colonization and expansion. In time, the concept of the Orions comes up. It seems that each race, though they are different and possess varying special abilities, have their own legends about this particular race.

One of the aspects of the game is to find the Orions homeworld, a place full of secret and advanced technology, but which is defended by a powerful robotic starship known as the Guardian. Whoever is able to destroy this ship and land on the planet is the most likely to win the game. This is advisable, seeing as the how the purpose of the whole game is to become the undisputed master of the galaxy – the Master of Orion, as it were 😉

The Xel’naga:
Another example of this concept which comes to us from the gaming world. of which fans of Starcraft will no doubt be instantly familiar with! Translated literally as “Wanders from Afar”, the Xel’naga were apparently a race from a distant galaxy that was concerned with creating the perfect life form. In the course of their lifetime, they apparent “seeded and cultivated thousands of various species” (from the SC game handbook). This included the Protoss and Zerg, two of the major players in the game, and figures pretty prominently in the game’s backstory.

In the case of the Protoss, the Xel’naga thought that they had found beings that possessed “purity of form” and began manipulating them. However, when they revealed themselves to the Protoss, the latter turned on them and they fled. They discovered the Zerg shortly thereafter, a species which they believed possessed “purity of essence”. They began by enhancing them from the small, parasitic larvae that they were, but found that they were too primitive. They therefore developed the Overmind as well to give them purpose and direction, but this only made matters worse. In time, the Zerg found the Xel’naga, who had chosen to remain hidden this time, and consumed them.

In the course of the game, Xel’naga ruins make only one appearance, in the form of an ancient temple which possesses the ability to sterilize the planet of all other species. However, other ruins are apparently featured in one of the game’s novelizations. Otherwise their is no mention of them, their existence merely constituting part of the story’s deep background.

Final Thoughts:
After looking through these and other examples of ancient astronauts, a few things began to stand out. Like I said before, sooner or later aliens serve an anthropological purpose in science fiction. Or to put it another way, they will always play the role of mirror and meter stick. On the one hand, they are the means by which we project aspects of ourselves onto others so we can study them better. On the other, they are means by which we measure our own flaws and development.

But above all, aliens tend to fall into any one of four categories based on where they fit into the moral and technological spectrum. This spectrum, which I made up myself (!), breaks down as follows:

  1. Benevolent/Malevolent: How aliens behave in our favorite franchises and what purpose they serve often has much to do with their basic motivation. In short, are they kind of benevolent, enlightened overseers as envisioned by Arthur C. Clarke in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood’s End, or are they hostile, conquering species as envisioned in War of the Worlds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers? In either case, the alien serve a basic purpose: as a commentary on humanity. Their murderous ways are our murderous ways, their benevolent, technical perfection what we aspire to be. As Nixon is said to have muttered to JFK’s painting: “Men look at you, they see what they want to be. Men look at me, they see what they are.”
  2. Advanced/Nascent: Another important aspect to the aliens in question is their level of technical development. And, interestingly enough, this can have much to do with their moral character. Oftentimes, the aliens in a franchise are both advanced and malevolent, blowing up the White House Independence Day-style or trying to make us one with the Borg! Other times, they are advanced and enlightened, technology and evolution having erased whatever primitive impulses they might have had, but which humanity still possesses. And in other cases still, their are aliens who are less advanced than humanity and are either ethically challenged because they are behind the times, or noble and “untainted” because they haven’t been perverted by civilization’s greed and avarice. It’s a toss up, really, where the benefits and downfalls of technological progress are seen as having an influence on moral and social development.

Again, these are all mere projections, designed to focus attention on moral and ethical dilemmas that arise out of our collective history. Still, it is fun to take these various examples from popular culture and see where they line up on the moral/technological graph. That way we can see where different franchise place their aliens in terms of the overall spectrum.  And like I said at the beginning, its a cool concept. I mean seriously, wouldn’t it be cool if it were actually true? No one can prove aliens didn’t visit Earth thousands or even millions of years ago and mess with our evolution, right? Yeah, it’s not exactly a sound basis for a scientific theory, but a very fertile source for science fiction!