Sniffing Out Science Fiction

Science fiction is now making it big in the pop culture field. But there was a time when scifi fans were closet believers, carefully covering their science-fiction treasures with the dust covers of more reputable volumes.

The current popularity didn’t happen overnight. It has been growing for some time. Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain may have contributed to bringing scifi out of the closet. Crichton placed the action of the novel in the near enough future to avoid the fantastic ethos that has usually been a part of this genre.

The most visible evidence of the new popularity of science fiction is the continual replaying of the television series “Star Trek.” It has gathered a group of fanatical fans among the young.

Defining science fiction is as difficult as analyzing it. Brentano’s Washington store in a shoulder-shrugging gesture has simply put all fantasy and science fiction together. There sit H. G. Wells and Charles Williams comfortably side by side. That would probably disturb neither author as much as the fantasy devotees. A scifi fan who has graduated to fantasy freak is as intolerant of his past as a reformed alcoholic. Perhaps it will suffice to call science fiction technological fantasy.

My own on-and-off infatuation with the genre began in my teens when my father presented me with a small anthology of science fiction short stories. Among them was a gem by William Rose Benet entitled “By the Waters of Babylon.” If you can find it, read it! Written in the thirties, it describes the return of humanity to stone-age culture following an undescribed disaster and the rediscovery of an automated New York City by a stone-age youth. The city is deserted, but the lights still go on automatically each evening.

From there my scifi search went along the usual paths: Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.—with side trips to the likes of Edward Bellamy and C.S. Lewis.

Before writing this I checked with my local bookstore to see what kinds of works the new scifi buffs are buying. The manager affected the role of the piano player in the bordello: he knew there was considerable activity but he wasn’t sure of its precise nature. However, he consented to look over the shelves with me for whatever helpful comments he might be able to make.

I did learn several interesting facts about the science-fiction patrons of his store. One of my discoveries may destroy a lot of theories about the reading tastes of Americans. It seems that there are devotees of scific cover art. These people buy the books just for the highly stylized, symbolic, super-realistic covers. They would no more think of reading them than a stamp collector would think of using a stamp from his collection to mail a letter.

Article continues below

A second fact I discovered is that the old favorites headed by Heinlein and Bradbury are still the top sellers. Some of the newer entrants like Ursula K. LeGuin and Robert Silverberg are gathering a following, but they have not yet overtaken the writers from the golden age of scifi—the thirties and forties.

All this new activity may be deeply significant or it may simply mean that the Saturday morning “Jetson” fans have grown up and are unwilling to leave science fiction behind. I leave that profound determination to someone else.

Any literature, of course, reveals something about its readers and even more about the age that produced it. Science-fiction writers usually look at their own times from a vantage point in the future. From there they can show where the follies of their day are leading.

While a number of science-fiction “predictions” have come true, the authors have done better at revealing the age from which they speak. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000–1887 is highly revealing about the manners, morals, and ideals of nineteeth-century liberal socialists. However, since it predicts the demise of human selfishness, labor unions, management, money, and war, one concludes that Bellamy’s prophetic gifts left something to be desired. (It is probably the only novel that ever resulted in the formation of a political party. The Nationalist party was founded to work toward the utopia pictured by Bellamy.)

In the same way, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, with its society of hermaphrodites, tells us more about the twentieth century’s confusion and difficulties over sexual roles than about the future or meaning of sexual polarity.

Science-fiction writers operate very much within the thought patterns of their day. Someone has said that the secondary artists of any age show the age more clearly than the artists of first rank. Artists of the first rank have their own independent vision. The secondary artists reflect the views of the culture around them. And that’s just as true of science-fiction authors as any others.

As for those who sniff that science fiction is inferior simply because it’s escapist literature, let them sniff. Those of us who know the territory know that the escape to Erhenrang is essentially the same as the escape to Lilliput.

Article continues below

The subjects of science fiction are overwhelmingly politics, technology, and their interaction. Religion, sex, and other interesting social activities normally appear only peripherally or occasionally.

One of the more overtly religious “Star Trek” episodes experiments with a religious theme about the conflict of Christianity and the Roman Empire. The Star Ship Enterprise discovers a civilization that is a modern Roman Empire complete with televised gladiator contests. A dissident minority is interpreted by the space crew as being sun worshipers. Only after they leave do they realize that the dissidents were worshipers of the Son—Jesus.

This raises an interesting theological question: if there are other fallen civilizations, would God become incarnate for them? Or is his dealing with the human race unique?

A number of religious and theological themes run through the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. His book Cat’s Cradle has a humanistic religion, Bokononism, complete with Bible, sacraments, and a messiah. Vonnegut uses Bokononism and its conflict with the government as a vehicle for his own humanistic philosophizing.

The film Planet of the Apes featured a religion that aped fundamentalism. The remaining intelligent human beings had descended to the idolatrous worship of the last nuclear ballistic missile.

This put-down of religion is more typical of science fiction than is the sympathetic treatment a few authors give the subject.

In 1972 Revell published an interesting volume of Christian science-fiction short stories edited by Roger Elwood entitled Signs and Wonders. The stories were Christian in the sense of being written from the standpoint of orthodox Christian doctrine. In one story a visitor from another world is evangelized by an earthly Christian.

C. S. Lewis’s work, of course, falls into a special category. One of his striking devices was the assumption that the inhabitants of another planet might never have rebelled against God. Since the woods are full of Lewis thralls ready to pounce on any critic who might make a misstatement about the master, let me simply say that Lewis has produced what—at this point—is the ultimate in theological science fiction.

Even though religion itself is a minor and despised subject in scifi, one theological theme continues to appear: sin. And that theme threatens to last a long time.


John Vernon Lawing, Jr., is feature editor of the “National Courier,” Plainfield, New Jersey.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.