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 😉

Dystopia and Deathmatches in Sci-Fi

Battle Royale:
This controversial story, also adapted into a film, takes place in an alternate universe where Japan is a member region of a totalitarian state named the Republic of Greater East Asia. Alluding to the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of WWII, it is clear that this a world in which Japan won the Second World War and continued on the path of fascist Imperialism.

In any case, the story revolves around what is called “The Program”. Under the guise of a “study trip”, a group of junior high school students from a fictional town are gassed on a bus. They awaken in the school of an isolated, evacuated island and learn that they have been placed in an event where they must battle each other to the death, or all will die.

Officially a military research project, it is a means of terrorizing the population, of creating such paranoia as to make organized insurgency impossible. Every year, fifty classes are selected to participate where students from a single class are isolated and are required to fight the other members. It ends when only one student remains, with that student being declared the winner.

Their movements are tracked by metal collars, which contain tracking and listening devices; if any student should attempt to escape the Program, or enter declared forbidden zones, a bomb will be detonated in the collar. If no one dies within any 24-hour period, all collars will be detonated simultaneously and there will be no winner.

Banned in many countries (the novel and the film) because of its controversial and graphic nature, Battle Royale has gone on to inspire such books as The Hunger Games.  Combining a Lord of the Flies-style appraisal of human psychology with a indictment of reality TV, this story remains one of the most effective pieces of modern dystopian literature featuring death matches.

Dune:
Fans of Dune will remember the lovely scene in the novel where Count Fenrig travels to Geidi Prime to speak with the Baron. Once he arrived, and in honor of Feyd Rathau’s birthday, he was treated to a gladiator match between Feyd and a slave gladiator. This is a common feature on Geidi Prime where death matches are considered public entertainment and every major city has its own arena.

And what better place for this kind of entertainment than Geidi Prime, a world run by ruthless overlords and characterized by harsh, perverse brutality? And that was the point after all. The Harkonnen’s were the bad guys in this tale and everything about them, their appearances, ethics, and homeworld was designed to match.

Robot Jox:
Taking place in a post-apocalyptic world where conventional warfare is forbidden between nations, Robot Jox tells the tale of a gladiator-style sport where giant mechs do battle in open arenas. This is how the two super-nations – the American-influenced Western Market and the Russian Confederation – work out their differences.

Of course, espionage and betrayal remain an integral part of the games, mirroring the Cold War. What’s more, the games often rigged to ensure that one bloc can get a leg up on the other. And in the end, the entertainment factor is also a driving force behind the games. In a post-apocalyptic world, the masses need some form of entertainment to distract them from the shock and horror of their daily lives.

The Hunger Games:
Following in the same vein as Battle Royale and Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games tells the tale of a not-too-distant future where the United States has degenerated into a tyrannical government ruled from a political seat known only as “The Capitol”. Every year, the rulers of this city force all the outlying districts to send two young people – one boy and one girl – to compete in a free-for-all known as the Hunger Games.

The purpose of these games is simple, to keep all districts in a state of awe and fear so they won’t be able to contemplate another uprising. Years back, it is said that the 13 districts committed to one such uprising, the result being that District 13 was destroyed. The remaining twelve now send their competitors and try to exploit the incentives, which just happen to be rations.

Throughout the book, several things are made clear about the games which highlight its satirical nature. Satirizing reality TV shows, we learn that the games are televised, incentives are offered to keep the games going, and contestants draw sponsors based on their popularity. In addition, extra elements like romances and collaborations are encouraged to ensure that the games remain interesting and dramatic.

In the end, the games serve the purpose of keeping people down but also exploiting their destitute nature by offering them a shot at something better. When the games are over and only one person remains, they will receive enough rations to last them a lifetime. Many times over, it is also shown how life in the capitol is opulent and comfortable, whereas the outlying districts are malnourished and must do things like hunt illegally for food. And of course, the farther the district from the capitol, the more difficult life is, another aspect which the capitol exploits to ensure its continued survival.

The Running Man:
Written by Stephen King under the pen name Richard Bachman, The Running Man is also a near-future dystopian tale set in 2025 where the US has become a totalitarian state because of economic fallout and wide-scale starvation. For a population dogged by hunger and martial law, the only real source of enjoyment is a televised TV show where convicts are forced to engage in gladiator-style combat against seasoned “hunters”.

Aptly named “The Running Man”, the show begins when a series of “enemies of the state” – i.e. convicts – are released into a massive arena where they are pursued by a group of network-employed hitmen. For every hour they remain alive, they earns 100 dollars, plus a bonus for every Hunter they kill. If they survive 30 days, they earn a total of 1 billion “New Dollars” and a full pardon. Or so they say…

Though the novel and the movie differ in terms of plot and resolution, the basic elements are the same. In a future where the vast majority of the population is indigent and desperate, brutal spectator sports are seen as the only outlet. In both versions, much is made of how popular the games are and how important they are to both the network and the government, hence why every attempt is made to ensure that the Hitmen always win.

This serves to reinforce the notion that enemies of the state will always lose when faced with the governments brand of justice, which in this respect is similar to a show trial. It also ensures that the most profitable business in that day and age, since the show grosses billions of dollars in sponsorship and betting on convicts is also a big side-business, stays up and running. So in addition to serving as a source of social control, the games are also an example of corporatism, where the government has a lucrative arrangement with its biggest corporations.

Unreal Tournament:
Don’t laugh! Yes, this may have been a glorified (and gory) first-person shooter in it’s time, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also inspired. Though gamers cared little for the storyline, the fact remains that Unreal Tournament actually had a dystopian theme that drew from several classical sources. Set in a future where the Earth government creates a no-holds-barred arena deathmatch game to settle disputes between deep space miners.

However, when it became clear just how profitable and popular the games were, the games expanded to become an interstellar affair where anyone could fight and the prizes were astronomical. In turn, the corporate responsible for creating the games also became incredibly powerful and used every tool in its crooked arsenal to make sure that competitors were in good supply and things always worked in their favor.

Any player who survived long enough to make it to the end would square off against the companies own cyborg. If they were fortunate enough to kill him too, they received the grand prize and rank of Tournament Champion! All of this, though it took the form of a first-person shooter, calls to mind all the previously mentioned examples of dystopian science fiction and psychological realism. By pitting the desperate, the brutal and the avaricious against each other, a company was able to make an obscene amount of money and keep people blind to the true abuses of power in their universe.

Final Thoughts:
In the end, all of these examples have one thing in common. Whether the setting is a post-apocalyptic world or just a destitute nation dealing with economic downturn, the element of social control is always there. By throwing the powerless, hungry and greedy into an arena and ordering them to kill or be killed, a government ensures that it not eliminates potential threats but channels discontent into something truly atavistic and brutal. Though this is in many ways inspired by the Roman example, modern developments seem to be the true inspiration.

Like all dystopian literature, it seems that developments within the late 19th and early 20th century were the crucial factor. It was here that writers and social commentators truly came face to face with humanity’s abundant capacity for distraction, atavistic behavior, and indifference to suffering. That is another thing that all these pieces of literature have in common. Whether it is the brutal cynicism of those who profit from the games, or the uncaring nature of those who enjoy them, a disgusting lack of empathy runs through them all like a vein.

For what is worse than exploiting misery for the sake of entertainment? It’s one thing to persecute people directly, but making the oppressed and exploited fight each other for the scraps off your own table? That’s a real dick move!

Speaking of which, stay tuned for my review of The Hunger Games. I’ve finally gotten to the end of the book and will sharing my long-promised thoughts on them real soon! Thank you all, and remember: don’t let the bastards pit you against each other! FIGHT THE POWER!

Of Dune and its Descendents

I could never create a blog about science fiction without mentioning the man who is by most standards the greatest sci-fi author of all time. Frank Herbert, author of the Dune sextet, was not only a master at creating detailed universes and realistic characters, he was also the man who literally wrote the book on hard sci-fi. In essence, he was the one who taught people how to take science fiction seriously, something rarely seen before his time. Philip K. Dick, another great of hard sci-fi claimed while writing in the 1950’s that whenever he spoke of his work, he would constantly be asked: “have you ever thought about writing something serious?” I myself have fallen into this trap many times, thinking to myself that anything I write that is set in an alternate universe or the distant future is somehow less real, less meaningful than something written about today or true life events.

It took Herbert’s Dune to snap me out of my complacency. It was after reading the first three of his novels (re-reading actually since I’d already cracked them before) that I realized that a bunch of ideas that I had been keeping bottled up in my head could actually be made into a full-length novel, maybe even a series of them. Up until that time I had been looking for something to write about, but had placed any thoughts of a sci-fi nature into a folder marked “idea for a TV series”. Yep, the best I figured I could do with any science fiction material I thought up was maybe pitch an idea for a TV show someday, you know, in case teaching and writing “serious” stuff never panned out. This was a long-shot in its own right, not to mention something I knew nothing about. Writing for TV? Not my thing, but at the time I figured that was all my ideas would be good for. At no time did I think they could be useful in helping to solve my writing dilemma. But then, after reading Dune, I felt inspired and started putting pen to paper (well, fingers to keys if you want to get technical) and the rest has been history.

But this isn’t about my work, its about Frank’s. And as every fan of Dune knows, Frank’s sextet ended on a somewhat uncertain note. His original six novels did not complete the series; for instance, we were still left with many unresolved threads in the last book, the whole “Golden Path” thing that Paul Atreides and Leto II “The Tyrant” had foreseen had yet to be explained or brought to fruition as well. After years of waiting, wondering and speculating, the Dune fan community finally caught a break when his son Brian Herbert picked up the mantle and revealed that his father had kept notes on a seventh and final Dune book in a safety deposit box that would cap off the series and answer all their unanswered questions. I was lucky enough to have finished the sixth book just in time to get in on this and was relatively excited.

And I’m sorry to say that the only thing greater than the build-up was the letdown! I sound like a prick saying this, but I honestly feel that Herbert’s legacy has fallen on hard times in the hands of his son and coauthor, the soft sci-fi writer Kevin J Anderson. After first announcing their collaboration and plans to complete the series, they started out with a pretty sensible and predictable stunt: they wrote prequels. The first was the trilogy known as the “Prelude to Dune” series. I read two of the books in this trilogy, “House Atreides” and “House Harkonnen” (but not the third and final, “House Corrino”) back in the early 2000’s and was generally unimpressed. In fact, it would be an exaggeration to say I read them, Atreides I put down two-thirds of the way through and Harkonnen I didn’t even get one hundred pages into before I got bored and dropped it.

This I blame in part on the fact that I’ve never really been a fan of prequels. For one, they have to be done right! And if the audience is already familiar with the story, the characters, and where everything is going, it’s not going to make for a very good read. It’s just filler, people reading to see how it happened, not what, where, when, and why. Anyone who sat through the Star Wars prequel trilogy ought to be able to relate. Another reason was the fact that the books seemed relatively uninspired. Not only did they suffer from that prequel sense of duty, having to explain how events the readers were already familiar with came to pass, it was almost always in a way that disappointed. When it comes to background, like most things, less in more. And these two authors really didn’t seem to be bringing anything new and original to the table, just recycling old stuff they knew the fans liked. Just seemed… I don’t know, lazy and kinda crass.

However, this did not stop me from perking up when they announced the second prequel trilogy, the “Legends of Dune” series. It seemed a bit consumerish for them to put out another set of prequels keep us fans waiting for Dune 7 like this, but what the hell right? We all wanted to know what the heck this thing called the “Bulterian Jihad” was all about. In the original Dune series, Frank had indicated that 11,000 years in the future – 10,000 years before the events in the first novel – there was a religious war that was waged by humanity against any and all thinking machines. This war altered the shape of the universe and ushered in the socio-political landscape that characterized the original novels. But beyond that, no one knew what happened. So, the son and the coauthor decided to write about it. What could go wrong?

As it turned out, a lot! Purely my opinion, but these books were an example of what never to do in writing. The first book, “The Butlerian Jihad”, I bought with some interest, and I am sad to say it was one of the worst pieces of writing I have ever seen! It was totally one-dimensional, predictable, and the plot was full of starts and stops and just seemed to fumble its way towards the conclusion. The characters were also completely superficial and really just a bunch of bad stereotypes and cookie cutter heroes and villains. But, I finished it, mainly out of curiosity and even managed to talk myself into buying book two, “The Machine Crusade”. Another suck-fest! The same exact weaknesses as the first! The good guys were too good, the bad guys too bad, and the story was ridiculous and thin as the paper it was written on. I couldn’t believe that Brian Herbert and Anderson could even think about putting the name Dune on it! Surely they had to be sick with guilt over it! But apparently not because they just kept on turning them out. To be fair, I never read book three of the series, for obvious reasons. And based on the synopses I’ve read, I think I made the right choice. While some reviewers hailed the literary duo for their ability to connect past with present, others described it using the same words that I did. Namely, contrived, superficial and not up to the originals.

And yet, I still went out and bought the Dune 7 book when it came out! I might have been a sucker for it, but after years of waiting and many dollars wasted on useless prequels that did nothing to satisfy my curiosity, I had to know how the damn thing ended! I was already writing my own novels at this time, so I felt all the more driven to see how my mentors own vision wrapped up. Sure, this latest book was only book one of two, yet another conspicuous act of opportunism by these two authors, but what did I care? I had to know how things ended and as usual, I felt that the writing style and narrative ability of the duo left something to be desired, but I was still intrigued and held on throughout, waiting for the awesome conclusion to book one of two.

Then I read it… I threw down the book in disgust and never touched another publication by them again.

“Seriously?” I said to myself. The conclusion to the whole story was that the machines were coming back? All that build-up, all that talk of humanity’s extinction and the need to alter the future, it was because those lame-ass, tinker toy, evil the cat, cardboard cutout, villainous robots were coming back to settle an old score? Needless to say, I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t believe that Herbert’s own son and the hackish Anderson would ever stoop to ending Frank’s masterpiece with a tie-in to their own pitiful work! I refused to believe that the book was even the result of looking over the contents of a safety deposit box that Frank Herbert’s had left behind. In my mind, this ending was merely an attempt to conclude the series in a way that paid homage to their own weak interpretations of the Dune universe. Attempting to rewrite history, as it were, to suit the son and his second, not to complete the vision of the father. (Bit of a Dune-esque theme in there I’m thinking!)

Of course, I could be all wrong. It’s entirely possible the Legends of Dune prequels and Dune 7 (titled “Hunters of Dune”) were the direct result of Herbert’s own notes. But I couldn’t see how. They were nothing like his original books, and all throughout the originals, where hints were dropped as to the possible outcome of the “Golden Path”, not once was machines mentioned or any hint given that the threat to humanity came from the return of some old enemy. If anything, Herbert seemed to be suggesting that it would come from within, from humanity itself, or possibly from an alien intelligence, something humanity had yet to encounter. And while I wanted desperately to know what happened in book II of Dune 7 (“Sandworms of Dune”), I just couldn’t bring myself to waste the money. Luckily, I managed to get a hold of some reviews and synopses which told me all I needed to know. The story ends with more Deus Ex Machina plot twists, contrivances and plot holes big enough to drive a truck through. And the final message, the moral of the whole Dune saga? Humans and machines need to live together in peace! …Really? Where did they get that shit from, the Matrix playbook? Had they just watched that whole trilogy and figured ripping off another franchise was a good way to end Herbert’s legacy?

I mean really, THIS was how six books about human evolution, ecology, science, social and economic models, politics, social control, revolution, upheaval, prescience, survival, genetic engineering, eugenics, holy wars, secret societies, resource control, awareness drugs, chivalry and knife fights was to end? All that history and timeless wisdom that Herbert drew on, and the final message was that humans and machines need to learn how to live together? Dear God, I could imagine Frank Herbert turning over in his grave! But what can you say when its own son who’s putting out these things? You figure he must have the best of intentions.

But good intentions or not, the duo weren’t finished there. Shortly thereafter, they began writing stories that fell (ahem!) between the original books. Yes, as if prequels and sequels weren’t enough, now they were writing… I’m not even sure what to call those! “Paul of Dune”, “Winds of Dune”, and coming soon, “The Sisterhood of Dune”, are all stories that take place between the respective novels in the original series. Again, out of curiosity, I picked up these books to give a gander at their dust jacket and see just what the hell they were about. Again, I felt my IQ drop and promptly put them back down! Even after all the crap I had endured at the hands of these two writers! And yet, I somehow found fresh reasons for being offended by their latest attempts to cash in on Frank’s good name. One, the stories obviously do not cover anything new! Events between the first three novels are all covered in the originals themselves, and at length! Nothing more needs to be said! Second, these guys had already put out six books of pure filler, unoriginal stuff that does nothing but flesh out stuff Frank already wrote about. So it would hardly be unfair to say that the “Heroes of Dune” series, as its called, will be any different. Every time these two publish a book with the Dune name on it, it becomes an instant bestseller, purely for reasons of recognition, never for reasons of quality or originality. Profit incentive is the only reason to keep doing it!

To be fair, its hard for anyone to step into the shoes of a great author, let alone someone like Frank Herbert who left a mountainous legacy. And hey, we all gotta eat right? But in the case of Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson, I think it’s safe to say that their work and continued attempts to cash in speak for themselves. When it comes to raping the legacy of Frank Herbert and the Dune series, these two just can’t seem to get enough! Where there’s more money to be made and fans to exploit, these two will pen something else thats equally fluffy and superfluous and just sit back and let the royalties roll in. But how much longer can they keep this up? Who knows, these guys are good like that!

So out of respect for the master and original creator, I implore his son, Brian Herbert, to please stop! Its noble and brave that you’ve decided to step into your father’s shoes to finish off his masterpiece, but the direction you’re taking it in threatens to destroy every last trace of authenticity it once had! And to Kevin J Anderson, let me humbly suggest that you take this opportunity to go back to doing what you do best: writing fan fiction for Star Wars, X-Files and other generic sci-fi franchises. Hell, Star Gate has to be hiring, and Halos pretty damn popular right about now, maybe you could pen something for them. But for the love of God, stay away from Dune, it is clearly out of your league and I don’t think the fans can take much more, let alone the memory of Frank Herbert! I know its kind of late in the game to be asking this, but if there’s anything you two have demonstrated, its the ability to find new ways to squeeze blood from Frank’s corpse. So please, in the name of the master and all that is good and literary, I implore you, STOP!