With the coming out of the next installment in the Star Wars saga we couldn’t find a better opportunity to discuss the relationship between Sci-Fi and religion.
Who better to do it then Rev. David Dickinson in his forthcoming book Make-Believe. In his newest book he takes this subject into consideration on the Chapter “Science Fiction – anything believed gains a measure of reality”.
From David Dickinson, ‘Science Fiction: ‘Anything believed gains a measure of reality’, Make-Believe (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2020), pp.44-47. Pre-order here.
‘I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.’ So begins the Nicene Creed, a creed common to most of Christendom and an indicator that religion and science fiction share common ground, for both explore the realms of the seen and the unseen. Both religious practice and science fiction ask what happens if the veil between the real and invisible worlds fray, so that we are able to see through from one to the other. We might therefore ask, from one point of view, what difference does our awareness of the world beyond make to the way we live in the imminent world? From the other, we might ask, what of the unseen can we experience in the visible world? Religious practice aims to lift practitioners, in worship and prayer, beyond the mundane into the transcendent, while science fiction aims to transport readers into other worlds either in the future or elsewhere in the galaxy.
At times, science fiction has appealed only to a niche market, some students of literature have been snooty about the genre and its readers have been regarded as geeks. Some science fiction has, therefore, been published without naming it as ‘science fiction’ so that the appeal of a new book has not been restricted to science fiction officianados. Some writers, most famously Margaret Atwood, have strongly resisted attempts to bring any of their novels under the science fiction banner. While Ursula Le Guin, in an article in The Guardian in July 2017, places Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the Maddaddam trilogy in science fiction as ‘half prediction half satire’, Atwood insists that they be categorised as speculative fiction. The word ‘science’ is the problem, in at least two respects. First, science is to do with ‘knowledge’, and Atwood is not showing the reader what she knows about future society, but what she speculates future society might be like if some of the trends she discerns in contemporary society persist. Second, the use of the word science in SF raises the expectation that books will describe and discuss pioneering, cutting-edge technology, some of which is on the edge of possibility and some of which is beyond the possible. Readers are entitled to expect some science in the fiction. The indistinct boundary between science fiction and fantasy further complicates the task of definition. All this makes science fiction notoriously difficult to classify.
Take for instance G. Willow Wilson’s debut novel, Alif the Unseen (2012), in which the narrator calculates that the unseen or incorporeal world is twice as great as what we can see and touch with our own eyes and hands, and which takes the reader through the veil between these worlds. It seems that nothing in the sales promotion of this novel associated it with the world of science fiction, so this discussion must begin by assessing its SF credentials. Wilson’s novel crosses into several worlds – the world of computer programming and its hacking underworld, the political world of the 2011 Arab spring, the fantasy world of djinns and genies known to us through Arabian Nights, the political and theological world of Islam with its clash between modernity and antiquity, and the seen and unseen worlds. The eponymous Alif is himself caught between two worlds: as the son of an absent Arab father and an Indian mother, he doesn’t quite fit in the hierarchy of Muslim society. The location of the novel’s events is a fictional city on the old Silk Road, never named, but always referred to as the City. It is a liminal place where the earthly world meets the Empty Quarter, the domain of ghouls and ifrit who can transmogrify into all manner of bestial shapes. Interweaving the worldviews of the mosque, political revolution, the computer underworld and the legends of Arabian Nights, Wilson takes Alif, as a fugitive in both the corporeal and incorporeal realms, on an adventure that brings these worlds together. All these worlds are clearly Muslim worlds. With the pace of a thriller, the romance of Arabian fantasy and magical realism elements including walls that people can walk through to reach the Immovable Alley, Alif the Unseen also bears a deep and detailed interest in computers and depicts some powerful and dangerous alien creatures from a fantasy world. The book was deservedly among the 2013 finalists for a major science fiction prize, the John W. Campbell Award.
Until the novel opens, Alif has earned an amoral living as a hacker giving online protection from censorious authorities to a range of nefarious users of the worldwide web. When he devises a computer program capable of identifying users from the pattern of their typing rhythm as they enter text on the screen, he finds he can no longer remain anonymous and hidden, especially when a notorious state censor known as The Hand of God stamps down on illicit computer activity. At the same time Intisar, his lover who is taken away from Alif into an arranged marriage, sends him as a parting gift an old book entitled A Thousand and One Days. Narrated by Islamic spirits, this book contains all their secrets and stories. His chief adversary in the world of computer hacking, The Hand, covets this beautiful and rare masterpiece, as he believes it also contains the key to making the leap from binary to quantum computing. Alif is forced to flee, weaving in and out of real and irreal worlds to escape The Hand. At one stage, he endures brutal treatment for months in a dark, airless and isolated cell, almost dying there, and hallucinating as he moves in and out of the imagined interior world in his head and the filthy prison cell external to his body. His allies include a ferocious djinn, an elderly imam, a renegade Gulf prince, a pious niqab-wearing neighbour called Dina, and a young American woman never named, but referred to throughout as ‘the convert’. The novelist, too, is a young American convert to Islam. In people like these, different worlds converge, and one world enlightens another. For instance, the imam intuitively, but unexpectedly, understands Alif’s explanation of quantum computing because he recalls that it is said that each word of the Qur’ān has 7,000 layers of meaning each of which, although seemingly transgressive or unfathomable, exists equally at all times without ultimate contradiction. These are witty links between two apparently quite unrelated worlds, those of computer science and scriptural hermeneutics.
What distinguishes Alif the Unseen from most novels in this study is that its setting is Islamic. Its world is politically, mythologically, theologically and morally Muslim. Wilson has set Alif’s adventure among the religious figures, the uneasy politics, and the fantastic creatures of Arab society, and demonstrated that religious belief (in this case, Muslim belief) is flexible and multi-faceted enough to slip into different human settings. Not all characters in the novel believe this: one unnamed man, who is unable to help Alif rescue Dina and the convert from danger, is more critical of organised religion and says, ‘Belief . . . doesn’t mean the same thing it used to, not for you. You have unlearned the hidden half of the world.’
But the world is crawling with religious fanatics. Surely belief is thriving.
Superstition is thriving. Pedantry is thriving. Sectarianism is thriving. Belief is dying out. To most of your people the djinn are paranoid fantasies who run around causing epilepsy and mental illness. Find me someone to whom the hidden folk are simply real, as described in the Books. You’ll be searching a long time. Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent. And that, cousin, is why I can’t help you (299).
Although this criticism in the context of the novel is levelled at Islam, it could also be said of other faiths, including Christianity. Indeed, the book can be read as a critique of any organised religion.
Insights in Alif the Unseen might also be true of contemporary Christianity. Prompted by this novel we might ask, ‘Has transcendence been lost in our religious practices?’ What contribution does the popular notion of guardian angels make to the overall picture of Christianity, and how does it relate to the stories of djinn and genies? Where is the crossover from theology to superstition? How do we lift the curtain to see through into the unseen? And, noting that there is an interesting ongoing relationship between the Qur’ān and One Thousand and One Days in the novel, is there a similar relationship between the Christian Bible and other literature such as Milton’s Paradise Lost or Dante’s Inferno?
According to Adam Roberts, the roots of science fiction reach deeper into the soil of world literature than is often accepted. Brian Aldiss traced its origins back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Thomas Disch to Edgar Allan Poe, Patrick Parrinder toH.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and Samuel Delaney traced it back no further than 1926 when Hugo Gernsback coined the term. But Roberts finds its roots as deep in literary history as the fantastic voyages of the ancient Greek novel. Both science fiction and these ancient texts tell of voyages extraordinaire (to use the phrase Roberts borrows from Jules Verne), and they have a shared interest in the technology of travel. In the case of science fiction these extraordinary voyages are journeys through time and space, whether upwards to other planets or deeper into Earth, while in the case of the Greek epic they are sea adventures to locations such as the Gates of Herakles.
Throughout its history, science fiction has been interested in the role of religion. Several critics have examined how an almost symbiotic relationship has developed in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, during a period when the common assumption is that religion and science are dichotomous….
 Roberts,(2016), pp. vii and xv.
With chapters offering analyses of novels from several genres – so-called literary fiction, historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy and dystopia – David Dickinson discusses a wide spectrum of novelists. Both those who are avowedly atheistic and those who have a vested interest in perpetuating biblical stories feature. Well-known writers such as Rushdie, McEwan, McCarthy and Martell rub shoulders with some you may be meeting for the first time. Appealing to literature students and people who simply enjoy reading, whether Christian or not, this study of God in novels invites us to open our minds and allow aspects of our culture to shape our understanding of God and to change our ways of talking about the divine.
Then don’t miss out of this superb book coming out in January, 2020.
Now Available for pre-order