Sci-Fi's Brave New World
In recent years, movie and television audiences have been treated to stories both captivating and curious. We've watched extra-dimensional aliens instruct pre-Columbian Native Americans in the basics of civilization. We've looked on as an ancient super-race reluctantly assumes the role of modern superheroes. We've cheered genetically advanced humans with their assortment of superpowers. And we've marveled as residents of space or the future reveal secrets of human origin and destiny.
Despite these far-out scenarios, viewers don't leave movies such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Hancock, X-Men, and Contact—or television programs such as The X-Files or Heroes—scratching their heads in confusion. We are intrigued, but not surprised. Why? Because stories of advanced extraterrestrials, ancient human-alien contact, superior intelligences roaming the universe, and emerging super-races have grown familiar through repeated exposure. Thanks to the longstanding efforts of a wide range of artists, popular writers, and even scientists, we immediately recognize intelligent aliens and advanced humans. We now see space and the future as sources of hope.
The culture-shaping force of science fiction storytellers may be more significant and more widespread than we imagine. That's because they trade in myth. By myth, I mean a transcendent story that helps us make sense of our place in the cosmos. This common definition makes the Christian gospel, as C. S. Lewis suggested, "God's myth"—not because it is fiction, but because it is a story that gives ultimate meaning. We live in an age in which new myths, born mostly of science-fueled imaginations, are crafted and propagated at an unprecedented rate.
The vast international audience for science fiction seldom asks about the origin of the exotic notions that animate these tales. Nor do we usually ponder what their social impact might be. We are well aware of the venomous public assault on Christianity and scientific challenges to faith from militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Yet underneath our noses, creators of blockbuster movies and best-selling books circulate compelling new myths. Scientists write and speak on essentially spiritual themes. Authors invent new religions wholly in their inquisitive minds.
Many of these powerful shapers of culture are unfamiliar to Christians. Life-extension advocate Aubrey de Grey, inventor and author Ray Kurzweil, X-Files creator Chris Carter, astronomer Martin Rees, physicist Freeman Dyson, and Matrix directors Larry and Andy Wachowski come to mind. They are just a few modern mythmakers whose creative minds mold stories that are subtly persuasive and freighted with spiritual implications.
The new myths don't arise from a single source. Yet science fiction has played a disproportionate role in modern myth crafting. The genre has profoundly shaped not only the entertainment industry, but Western spirituality as well.
Recently deceased scientist and science fiction author Sir Arthur C. Clarke captured a generation of readers with his spellbinding visions of the future. The English mythmaker built on the foundation of elder countrymen such as H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. Clarke's early short story "The Sentinel" (1948) and novel Childhood's End (1953) set humanity in a cosmos controlled by evolution and advanced aliens. But his mesmerizing 1968 collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey, revealed Clarke's force as a religious visionary. In that story, the new humanity arrives as an embryonic god floating in space, contemplating the planet of its origin.