This article reflects a lifelong interest of mine, and had much relevance to my current activities.
I’m a lifelong science fiction enthusiast. After a few “Run Spot Run” picture books, and the Hardy Boys series, my mother’s science fiction (SF) paperbacks are the first literature I can remember reading.
For this article, I’ve gleaned ideas from my overall reading, other’s speculations, and speakers at various SF and technical conferences.
Among society’s elites, it’s common to denigrate commercial ‘genre’ fiction. So, is SF mere escapism? Hardly! Unlike certain genres I could name, it provides intellectual as well as emotional fulfillment. One of SF’s explicit purposes is to get people thinking, and in whole new ways. It has done this well for over a century.
Numerous SF authors are working scientists, and more than a few are philosophers in their own right. In Piers Anthony’s novel Macroscope, a group of brilliant children unfold layer upon layer of realization, and build their comprehension of increasingly vast and wondrous cosmic realms.
Over a century ago, Jules Verne, HG Wells, and a handful of other visionaries foresaw our modern world. Jack London wrote some lesser known SF stories. Then George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World shocked humanity, by describing how terrible things could become.
Along these lines, SF has often been used to address human concerns from a fresh perspective. By removing the scene to an alien world, current problems can be examined without the ‘baggage’ of prejudice and misconceptions. Stories that portray dystopian societies have cautionary value, and are known in the trade as ‘If This Goes On’ plots. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek universe does this quite well.
Some SF tales are almost commonplace, with familiar situations ‘flavored’ by the use of some advanced gadgetry, or by the presence of an alien visitor. Other stories are so ‘far out’ they’re mind-boggling, taking place in the distant future, or on planets totally unlike Earth, or even in a cosmos with different physical laws.
Of course, their authors are all (so far as we know) ordinary humans, and we remain the only examples of intelligence and civilization we have to go on. (I’m not counting the ‘maybes,’ such as primates or dolphins, in this case.) Also, commercial fiction must be somewhat intelligible, or else few readers would bother.
I direct an online writer’s group. One point I sometimes make to its members is this: the basic attitude, and zeitgeist, of fiction authors get expressed in their novels. Sometimes this happens unconsciously, while at the other extreme, they’ll pound you with didactics.
For example, most of SF’s ‘cyberpunk’ authors are radicals, as with Neal Stephenson’s rebellious Snow Crash. Quite a few SF writers are conservative. Michael Flynn’s The Nanotech Chronicles has many social lessons built in.
As for SF’s companion genre, most Fantasy authors are pagans at heart. Opposite this, a mere handful invoke a clear Judeo-Christian morality. Best known for this is CS Lewis. Others include Madeleine L’Engle, Zenna Henderson, and JRR Tolkien.
In his ‘Perelandra’ trilogy, Lewis wrote explicitly about sin and salvation. The protagonist, Dr. Ransom, visits a planet where the Fall never occurred, then another where he valiantly defeats Satan, at the very brink of ruin.
This inherent expression of ideas is also true with children’s books. The Harry Potter novels are beautifully crafted, if less original than many readers suspect. JK Rowling’s fundamental dualism, as with Potter’s several mirror-image foes, would’ve shocked Tolkien. Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy is wondrous and exciting–and thoroughly pagan. (Most of his villains are clergymen.)
F&SF authors, and their fans, are great debaters. For many, their convention’s high point are the Panels, where writers and experts hold forth on a given subject, then engage in vigorous debate with the audience, during and after the formal sessions.
One topic I pitched right in with was: would extraterrestrials believe in God? Either way, what sort of ethics and motivation would govern those alien’s interactions with each other, and then later, with us?
Many authors assume the aliens would be atheists, as are nearly all of Isaac Asimov’s characters. Others suppose they’ll have found proof of the Divine, as depicted in Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God.
Some other topics have been: if an alien intelligence arose from a race of herbivores, rather than predators (as humans did), how would that affect their mindset and society? How could aquatic or sessile beings develop technology? (There are possibilities.) What if the aliens didn’t have genders, or had more than two?
Star Trek, and similar fictional universes, are populated by weird ‘subspace’ and ‘wormhole’ creatures, which exist outside our familiar space and time. Some of these creatures are explicitly connected to the human/mortal afterlife.
No subject is too intense for F&SF, and each topic reflects directly upon our human nature and endeavors.
Okay, that’s all fine speculation, you say. But, you hasten to add, let’s get real! Philosophy is about actual people, and what we can observe and mentally grasp.
Guess what? As science expands its reach, many of SF’s wildest ideas are coming true, and even familiar.
Is there extraterrestrial life? We may know soon. The Mars Rovers have discovered evidence of liquid water, so life could’ve developed there. Following probes will check directly for fossil or microbial life. Farther afield, larger space telescopes will look for oxygen atmospheres, and thus living ecospheres, on worlds orbiting distant stars.
Of course, people really want to find (or are afraid we might find) an intelligent species. As for them finding us, it may already be too late. By the year 2005, our radio and TV signals have spread across dozens of light years, passing thousands of stars along the way. Even now, aliens (with sensitive enough receivers) could be watching I Love Lucy.
What about alien signals? The SETI Institute is listening for such broadcasts, whether directed at us or not. That whole field is swarming with skeptics and crackpots, but I’ve talked with the SETI people, and they know what they’re doing. Their efforts, and actual staff, are well portrayed in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, and the even better movie version.
Detecting an alien civilization would rank as one of the greatest events in history. Ongoing communication would affect every aspect of human life and society. If there are aliens, no matter what they believe, most religions will have to rework their creation stories. Otherwise they’ll fade into irrelevant obscurity, rather like new Flat Earth Societies. (One such scenario is depicted in Jack McDevitt’s novel The Hercules Text.)
I’m well aware that some folks would cheer traditional religion’s transformation, and more so its demise. But don’t assume that secular ideologies, and many other cherished human assumptions, would fare any better!
Following such a momentous event, people will turn to the experts for guidance. Philosophers should be well prepared.
Here are some F&SF novels I recommend. (Most are part of a series.) Over the years I’ve talked to many of their authors.
You can find these titles in the library, online from Amazon.com or ABE Books, and at many Used Book shops.
1) Fantasy Worlds:
Sheepfarmer's Daughter, by Elizabeth Moon. (Comparable to Tolkien. She can sword fight in real life.)
Swords in the Mist, by Fritz Leiber (Rollicking, ribald adventures. My friend David Wilson edited some of his work.)
2) Alien Interactions:
Gateway, by Frederick Pohl. (Puzzling, hidden aliens.)
The Pride of Chanur, by CJ Cherryh. (Feline, very-alien heroine.)
Midnight at the Well of Souls, by Jack L Chalker. (Bizarre transformations.)
3) Time Travel:
Atlantis Found, by R Garcia y Robertson. (Time travel with Bronze Age humor.)
The Time Patrol, by Poul Anderson. (Officer rides his timecycle.)
The Fires of Paratime, by LE Modesitt. (Corrupt rulers are undone.)
4) Fantastic Encounters:
A Logical Magician, by Robert Weinberg. (Nerd outfoxes the supernatural.)
Magic Kingdom for Sale-Sold! by Terry Brooks. (Man finds a parallel universe.)
5) Astonishing Concepts:
The Star Diaries, by Stanislaw Lem. (Funny and highly imaginative.)
Brightness Reef, by David Brin. (Startling aliens, and galactic intrigue.)
Excession, by Iain Banks. (Huge, self-aware starships.)
A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge. (Interwoven levels of galactic civilization.)
The Broken Land, by Ian McDonald. (A silent heroine, and bare-hands biotech.)
6) People Stories:
Resurrection, by Arwen Elys Dayton. (Alien lady visits Earth on a desperate mission.)
Rite of Passage, by Alexei Panshin. (Girl comes of age on a starship.)
Reefsong, by Carol Severance. (Young woman defends an aquatic world.)
Way Station, by Clifford D Simak. (Old codger serves the galaxy.)
The Final Planet, by Andrew M Greeley. (Irish psychic finds love.)
Leap Point, by Kay Kenyon. (Small town lady saves Earth.)
7) For Adults Only:
Memnoch the Devil, by Anne Rice. (An offbeat, but in my personal opinion nearly accurate, theology.)
The Void Captain’s Tale, by Norman Spinrad. (Really transcendental eroticism.)
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