Futures for Sale

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How
science fiction can help us shape the future by nurturing imaginations

Imagine a boy poised on the brink of adulthood. The simple life
of childhood is gone forever, blown away in the gusts of new powers,
new feelings, new preoccupations. The terra incognita of adulthood
looms ahead, with new privileges, new opportunities, new challenges.
How can he sort through the vivid new intensities of life? The rash
and conflicting emotions? The frightening changes going on in and
around him? Can he send a competent surrogate ahead of him into
that new realm, and, by watching the hero prevail, vicariously acquire
the confidence he needs to make it himself?

The hero saga teaches youth how to behave in a comely manner; how
to live worthily, in terms of the values of the tribe; how to steward
new and magical powers, use them wisely, and overcome the dragons,
trolls, and witches. Science fiction is the modern hero tale, the
literature of adolescent boys, a branch of juvenile literature.
Consider the recurring themes:

  • New worlds
  • New powers
  • New challenges
  • Alien
    creatures

New
Worlds

We
drop in on strangers when we are born. About the time we learn how
to get along with the other members of the family, it’s time to
move out and forge our own way through the larger universe. Can
the family’s laws be extended into the world around us? Or, do we
need to find an entirely new set of values?

A quirk of our culture is the notion that we should embrace two
incompatible religions simultaneously. Children grow up understanding
that there is private “religious” truth, and public “scientific”
truth. The secret to understanding the universe and our place in
it is to first lay aside trivial “religious” matters, such as the
Person, Son, Word, and Work of God. After all, look at all the marvels
Science has provided us with! Since when did a Christian minister
ever do anything of value in genetics? And obviously, there can
be no power higher than The State.

But how is a man to live within the bleak, impersonal world of materialistic
determinism? Unfortunately, much of the church sat out this particular
struggle. Since man cannot live without meaning, though, the artists
stepped in when the Church bowed out. The universe of the standard
science fiction story is frankly evolutionary, reveling in the idea
of continual improvement through continual struggle. Yet, within
that imaginary context, the tale portrays a hero forging his way
ahead, and imposing some kind of meaning on the chaos. Life can
be good, even though ultimately pointless.

New
powers

The
new technology, whether developed by earthbound science, or found
in an alien artifact, is a standard feature of this genre. A lad
who confronts disturbing new powers within his own body can delight
in reading stories of other lives and cultures disrupted by new
things. The standard plot is for the innocent, the everyman, who
acquires said power to use it. Most of the time, the protagonist
achieves new status by coming to terms with the new capability.
Now and then, however, a Victor Frankenstein brings ruin upon himself
and the world through his misuse of the dangerous gift.

New
challenges

Providing
for yourself and your family in the real world is a strenuous activity.
Stephen Gaskin, new age guru, had a saying that went over well with
his college audiences: “The amount of energy it takes to get by
in class is so much less than what is required to make it in the
real world that, the longer you stay in school, the dumber you get!”
That is intimidating. We need the hero stories to nurture our souls,
to build into us the conviction that challenges are there to be
met and overcome.

Aliens

Something
else happens when a boy hits puberty. He starts to notice that the
girls he grew up around have become strange entities. Obsessively
fascinating, yet remote. Desirable, yet unattainable. Creatures
with their own agendas, that do not coincide with his. How do you
negotiate a rapprochement? How do you acquire and develop an entirely
new set of relational skills? Is it any wonder that this obsessive
concern of the adolescent male should be metaphorically dealt with
time after time in our generation’s imaginative literature? (A disturbing
recent trend has been the loss of sublimation. Much new s.f. is
frankly pornographic.)

Observations

Of
course, all generalizations are false. This essay is a thumbnail
sketch of the dynamics that drive the genre. Although there are
believing Christians who practice the art, their name is few. Paul
Lineberger, writing under the pen name of Cordwainer Smith, was
a high-church Anglican whose theological concerns shaped his art.
C. S. Lewis wrote speculative allegory, rather than literature that
used the sciences as major themes. Clifford Simak was a practicing
Catholic. Gene Wolfe, a living writer, is another Catholic. The
best known religious writer currently on the scene is a Mormon,
Orson Scott Card. He honors the name of Jesus in his stories, and
presents religious people as worthy of respect. A poignant expression
of his Mormon faith shows up in his “return to Earth” series, where
the protagonists have a devout relationship with an aging, deteriorating
man-made deity.

Far more typical are giants in the land such as Isaac Asimov, who
was president of the American Humanist Association, and died a committed
atheist. Robert E. Heinlein, who eschewed his Baptist roots upon
discovering Darwin’s Origin
of Species
at age 13. Ray Bradbury, another former Baptist
who still uses themes from that culture. Libertarians owe a debt
of gratitude to Ayn Rand, whose hatred for the God of the Bible
was second only to her hatred for the primary idol of the blood-soaked
20th century, the “scientific” socialist state. For the standard
science fiction writer, religious faith is irrelevant at best, malignant
at worst.

Unbelief did not prevent the best of the breed from writing wholesome
stories of adventure. I had no problems introducing my son to Asimov,
or to the pre-1966 Heinlein. Atlas
Shrugged
permanently immunized my adolescent home-schooled
children to the siren songs of statist “compassion.” Still, to be
honest, I am relieved that my children do not share all of my literary
tastes. As my daughter said after reading the back of a paperback
book, “Dad you read weird stuff! You need to read more wholesome
literature!”

Yet, the market is there. The need is there. Adolescent boys are
still trying to come to terms with new and disturbing powers. Science
fiction is the literature of choice for the young minds that will
grow up to shape our technological future. And, optimistic Christians
are uniquely equipped to meet this opportunity. When fundamentalism
committed itself to an apocalyptic, no-future future, the humanists
were glad to claim the discarded trifle for their own. For a while,
writers populated their Darwinian futures with characters who were
motivated by derivative religious values. That moral capital has
been consumed. The bleakness of the current Weltanschauung
opens the door again for people who have a vision, who have a passion,
who truly believe that they and their grandchildren have a future.

God gave Christianity a thousand years to develop its distinctive
civilization in Europe, before giving his people a whole New World
to occupy for his glory. God gave us another 500 years to carry
the ball forward in this part of the globe. Has our Creator also
hung the next step before our eyes? The first meal taken on the
moon was the Lord’s Supper. I ask God to let the day come when I’ll
be able to look up into the sky at night, and pray for descendents
pursuing their callings on the moon. Or even, perhaps, on Mars.
In the meantime, I ask for grace to present the heroes of the future
with a future as big as the promises of God.

September
25, 2004

Tom
Smedley [send him mail]
is a technical writer living in the Research Triangle Park area
of North Carolina with his wife and four children. Visit
his web site.

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