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 😉

Matrix plotlines…

Before moving onto the final installment in the Matrix trilogy, I thought I’d tackle the big glaring issue that stood out during Reloaded. And that would be that whole subculture that came out between sequels, the one where people seemed to think they knew what was going on, but really had no idea. That was the rationale I asserted in my last review, and yes, its based in part on the fact that I never agreed with them. And that they were WRONG! Yeah, I was too; the theory I came up with to explain how Neo could have neutralized those squiddies in the real world and how it was all going to end… WRONG! That’s the consensus that that friend of mine and I came to once we both saw Revolutions and reconvened. But it just goes to show you how little sense a movie can make when everyone who went to see it had to make up their own ending, only to come away disappointed by the actual one.

But I digress. Allow me to recap on what happened during that eventful summer when Reloaded came out and fans everywhere showed up at the theater to see what was going to happen, only to leave confused and bewildered. Given the need for some brevity, I was only able to gloss over what actually happened in the movie and why it confused the hell out of people to the point where they had to make up their own plot. So to recap, here is what happened:

Reloaded: Okay, now this movie takes place about six months after the first movie. Neo is at the height of his power and is beginning to have prescient nightmares. He sees Trinity die, and is haunted by the feeling that even though he is the One and has realized his potential, he has no idea what he is to do now. Solid, it makes perfect sense that a messianic figure, once they’ve realized their role, would not know how to proceed. After all, the prophecy that was alluded to several times in the first movie never gave any details as to how the One’s arrival would end the war. Just that it would…

We also learn that the machines are tunneling to Zion. This was first mentioned in Final Flight of the Osiris, the animated short that was part of the Animatrix. It is also recapped during the opening expository scene where the Captains of the various hovercraft meet up inside the Matrix, which is difficult given all the squiddy activity of late. Question! Why not just meet up in the real world if its so dangerous? Is it just so they can all be decked out in their leather outfits and shades and Neo can have his big fight with the agents? Who cares? Point is, Morpheus attributes this attack to the success they’ve been enjoying of late. Neo’s powers seem to be a decided advantage now that they don’t have to run and hide from the agents but can actually face them.

So, Neo goes to the Oracle, who tells him that the One must go to the Source. That’s where his path will end and the war too. But of course, there’s cryptic, convoluted answer shit to be sure! He’s also told that his dreams, after a fashion, are true. Once at the Source, he will have to decide between saving Zion or Trinity. Tough call, but one he must make! Why? Because he’s the One. Harsh shit, man! But it sets up some obvious tension. But, wouldn’t you know it, there’s a snag! Smith is back! And he’s brought friends. Like a perfect metaphor for a virus, or “ego” as Hugo Weaving described it, Smith is expanding, copying himself onto other programs and absorbing their powers. That much is cool because it means he’s able to upgrade his software and is becoming more and more of a threat to Neo and the system. And it kind of fit nicely with what the Oracle rambled on about sentient programs running around the Matrix in defiance of the system. Sure as shit, we didn’t get anything else from that speech, like what the hell it meant or how it was significant! She just says it in passing as if it was a segue into the bit about how Neo must go to the Source and how he’s haunted by dreams about it.

Getting back, Neo and his buds, after a long, convoluted series of events, get the Keymaker, who is the key (sorry!) to getting to the Source. He is just one in a long list of characters who we get the feeling were supposed to be complex and inspired, but ultimately served no real purpose other than being stand ins that advanced the plot. Seriously, all they do is show up, make a big speech, and then go! But anyway… the characters do more action-shit to make sure Neo can get to the Source and – wouldn’t you know it?- Smith shows up! Seems that he too has access to the backdoors of the Matrix, he wants everything, he says, and is getting more powerful. They escape him, and make it to the Source where (wait for it!) another character is introduced, makes a big speech, and we get the last, confusing explanation we need.

So here’s how it is… The Matrix is many centuries old. It was, as Smith said in movie one, originally meant to be a perfect world but humanity wouldn’t accept it because the human cerebrum is designed to expect suffering, misery and conflict. That was a cool idea, but here it just gets convoluted like everything else! The solution, after some trials, was what the Architect described as the “choice” option. The Oracle, an intuitive program created to study human feelings (holy obvious case of pairing here!) designed this concept where humans were given an unconscious choice to either accept the programmed reality or reject it. 99 percent of subjects did, but the remaining one percent were like Neo and the rest – they could not bring themselves to embrace the delusion. And of course, every so often a One would emerge who not only rejected it, but could manipulate it to his advantage.

These two phenomenon represented an “escalating probability of failure”, as the Architect said, so something needed to be done. Basically, this was accomplished by a one-two punch. One, force the One to comply by threatening to crash the system and take out every human being wired into the Matrix. And two, sending the squiddies out to destroy Zion. The Matrix would then reboot, the One would take a handful of humans to start a free colony (aka. Zion) where the “red pills”, the one percent who wouldn’t accept the program, would be sent off to. When a new One would emerge, the whole thing would start over again. The machines would head for the new Zion, the system would lurch towards crashing, and the One would be driven in the direction of the Source where he would be given the same choice. Reboot the system and restart Zion, or watch humanity die! Naturally, all the Ones prior to Neo complied…

What was brilliant about this was it successfully managed to subvert everything we saw in movie one. The One seems invincible, but when confronted with this problem, he essentially becomes helpless. Really, what good can such powers do someone when all of humanity is held hostage? Second, the weapon at humanity’s disposal is a prophecy that foretold of victory, but it was essentially a lie. The war would “end”, it said, but it never specified how. In truth, the entire war and ongoing nature of the struggle between free humanity and the machines was something designed by the mathematical genius of the Architect. It serves the sole purpose of keeping the Matrix running and the machines functioning. Very 1984! Whereas humanity believes its been fighting the AI war for over a century, the sad truth is they lost, and what they’ve been doing ever since is been playing a part in play much bigger than themselves. No one knows the truth, because no one is old enough who remembers. Seriously, 1984!

And if you think about it, it was all hinted at throughout the movie. Speech One, where the Oracle says the war would end and how she’s a program and there are others like her who defy the system. Speech Two, where the Merovingian tells them that the true nature of life is cause and effect, and we are all out of control. Speech Three, where the Architect explains how Zion and the One represent a “systemic anomaly” which is the only remaining exception to what is otherwise “a harmony of mathematical perfection” or some such shit! It essentially comes together in the end. Only problem was, NOBODY GOT IT! It was told in such a quick, rushed way between action sequence and using cryptic, expository dialogue that everybody just gave up and accepted the last few minutes of the movie as their truth of what was going on. Which brings me to phase two… what fans thought was happening.

“Matrix within a Matrix:” So like I said, in the months between the release of the second and third movie, fans everywhere formed up and began detailing what they thought was the coolest idea ever proposed! Far from being based on the many, many, big speeches in Reloaded, it was based entirely on the last few minutes and the assumed significance thereof. Perhaps I am being harsh. In truth, it was a cool idea.

To recap! Neo managed to stop those squiddies because they were STILL in the Matrix! Neat! But what would this mean? Well, according to the theory, the Matrix exerted control over the free humans by ensuring that once they broke free from the first Matrix, they were still contained in a second. Some went so far as to say that there were up to seven or more layers of the Matrix, like it was based on some variation of the Superstring Theory or something! Also neat, and years before Inception! One problem… makes no sense! If there were multiple layers of the Matrix keeping humanity controlled, what the hell was the point of everything we’ve been told up until this now. The red pills are controlled by allowing them to form a colony, then periodically destroying it. The One is controlled by crashing the Matrix in time with Zion’s destruction and making him reboot it so that humanity will continue to live.

Why do all that if they’re all still in the Matrix??? If they’re just part of a delusion no matter what, let them have their victory! But even more to the point, if the red pills – i.e. that one percent that was always aware that they were living inside a program – couldn’t bring themselves to accept the program, what were the odds they would accept the program within the program (or any other layer of it for that matter)? It was a cool idea, but in short, it negates EVERYTHING the movie was based on up until this point. But asking the fan community for perfect consistency is even worse than asking it from a writer/director, or worse, two of them!

My Idea!: Lastly, let me get to what I thought was going on. It’s short, so bear with me just a little longer. Basically, I thought Neo stopped those squiddies because his contact with Smith meant that HE was changed too. Smith said his destruction in movie one changed him, and we all saw it in action. So why couldn’t the same be true in reverse? It too seemed hinted at, Neo was always somehow aware of Smith’s presence, as well as the “connection” Smith mentioned. I thought that this would be the means through which Zion would be saved and the war would be won in movie three. Neo would be given insight into the machine’s minds, how they functioned. He would be able to stop them in the real world just like he did in the Matrix. I admit, it was thin, but as far as the rest was concerned – what did this mean, what did that mean? – my answer was, who the hell cares? We’ll find out in movie three. As for what’s happening, the only people who knew that were the Wachoswki’s, and of course the actors and set people.

But of course, that wasn’t going to stop us armchair critics from speculating. And here I am still talking about it now, even though the movie came and went! But what the hell, it was fun while it lasted! And considering how we all ended up disappointed by the real ending, I’m thinking maybe some armchair critics could have done a better job of writing the ending! Speaking of which, stay tuned for the final installment, The Matrix: Revulsions!

Of Dune and its Alternate Ending

Not long ago, I joined a few Dune fansites and became part of the growing trend of Herbertians who are disillusioned with the path his franchise has taken (see the link below for the specific web sites). All of us were in agreement about how poor a job his son Brian and KJA have done since they stepped into his shoes. Amongst us, there wasn’t a single person who didn’t think they had exploited, abused, misled, and even raped the franchise for all it was worth. Foremost amongst our complaints was the rather cliched and shallow way they would present characters, construct plots, and just generally fail to meet our expectations. To be fair, Frank set them pretty high, but nevertheless…

Another MAJOR gripe we all had in common was how the Dune franchise ended. None among us could accept that Herbert EVER left notes indicating that his story was to conclude with robots returning to the known universe to wreak havoc and get their revenge. Nor could we believe that it was all meant to climax with a meeting between Duncan Idaho (the ghola-turned Kwitatz Haderach) and Erasmus (Evil the robot), and working out an agreement whereby humans and robots would learn to live together. Not only was it a terrible cliche, a ripoff of the Matrix, totally shallow and bereft of any of the original depth and commentary that Herbert wrote into his originals, it made no sense! The evil robots returning did not fit with Herbert’s original books at all, at no point was the Butlerian Jihad anything more than deep background, and no mention made of them at all when talking of humanity’s future of Leto’s “Golden Path”. Nor was there ever any hint that the robots were evil, that was merely the product of Brian and (much more likely) KJA’s juvenile mind! So really, that ending could only have been the result of them wanting to tie the ending to their own terrible contributions.

But the question remained, what WOULD have been a good ending by actual, Herbertian standards? How would he have ended the whole thing, if in fact Dune 7 were really meant to be an ending and not just another installment? For example, who were the old man and woman in the garden that Duncan kept having visions of? What was the true nature of the threat that the Honored Matres were running from? Why was it they needed the Bene Gesserit’s famed defences against poisons and toxins? How would the Bene Gesserit, Tleilaxu alliance deal with it? In book six of Dune (Chapterhouse), they had already found a way to neutralize the HM’s sexual imprinting by programming it into Duncan. Odrate and Lucilla managed to bring down the HM and orchestrate a merger by taking over the leadership of their sisterhood. And the remaining Tleilaxu master was in possession of the ghola genes of many of the Old Empire’s most famous people, something which the old man and woman seemed marginally concerned about. And Duncan had plotted their no-ship to fly to another galaxy, in the hopes of getting away from the old man and woman and exploring new space with his crew. So the question remained, where was Frank going with all that?

Naturally, it couldn’t have been that the old man and woman WERE Omnius and Erasmus, the evil hive mind and his sidekick! And the purpose of the gholas couldn’t have been to just bring them back for no reason except so that all the original characters could have another run at life and live happily ever after! But strong hints were given that the threat to the HM’s, personified by the old man and woman, were in fact, evolved face dancers who had broken free of their masters and were now a threat to the Old Empire itself. As for their interest in Duncan, they seemed to think he was a threat to them, otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered trying to catch him in their tachyon net, which itself seemed to have something to do with fold space technology. All the while, there was the fact that the BG were once again producing natural spice, turning Chapterhouse into a new Dune now that the original had been destroyed. In so doing, they were once again breaking the hold of any one group on the production and distribution of the product, and were once again breeding Leto’s sandworm. By this point in the story, Leto’s hold on humanity was broken with the death of the sandworms and destruction of Arrakis, but it had also been revealed (in the storehouse he left for them to find) that he had foreseen this crisis and was still urging them towards a special purpose.

All of that was established. So what was about to happen? Well, whereas many of my counterparts felt that by this point in the books, Leto’s vision (the “Golden Path” as it was called) was at an end, I felt that it was still going. I believed, based on my own reading of the text, that Leto had been preparing humanity without its knowledge for the threats that would be facing it come book 5 and 6 in the original series. The Famine Times and the Scattering were part of his initial plan, the consequences of his 3500 years of rule and deliberate control over spice production. These, in turn, served the purpose of breaking humanity’s addiction to spice and forcing them to develop alternatives, and ensuring that they were scattered in many directions so that no fate could claim them all. The development of the HM’s and their return to the Old Empire was also a result, therefore one could argue that it was something Leto had intended. By this logic, I felt that this threat had to be the thing that threatened humanity’s extinction.

In the original works, nothing was ever said about an external threat to the Old Empire. However, ample page time was dedicated to saying that humanity had become complacent, too static, too dependent, and was not prepared to deal with threats to survival. Teaching about survival was the main theme of Leto’s “Golden Path”, preventing humanity’s extinction the overall purpose. While other fans suggested that those threats came and went, I believed they were just on their way. And my own feelings were that they had something to do with two things: one, a possible alien race, once hinted at when it was said that one of the main reasons humanity kept its nukes was because of the possibility of encountering another “intelligence”. Two, the ongoing hints that the worm and the spice were not indigenous to Arrakis, but had come from somewhere else. Leto’s Scattering placed humanity in different galaxies and universes, perhaps one of these was the original source of both? And, now that humanity had reached out, perhaps they had found them and were drawing their attention, bringing them back into the Old Empire. An alliance between the HM’s, the BG’s with the various houses, Ixians, Guild and remaining Tleilaxu, was what was needed to defeat them.

Or not… Chances are, I’m wrong on several or all fronts. But that’s because I’m not Frank Herbert and chances are, only he ever knew what Dune 7 and/or the conclusion to the saga would really look like. His death had deprived us of that vision, and his son and KJA are either unaware or it too, or are unwilling to share it as originally presented. I HAVE to believe that, because there’s no way I’ll ever believe they based their Hunters and Sandworms of Dune on his original notes! Could be wrong on that too, but I doubt it!

For more on these and other Dune related topics, check out these sites:
Hairy Ticks of Dune
Jacurutu – The Cast Out