Science fiction casts a flickering light on the future, sometimes extraordinarily prescient, often not. Its illumination of the present is much surer, because what's being illuminated is how people (some people, anyway) are thinking, how they are seeing the world. The zeitgeist, in short. So when Pat Robertson was making his short-lived run for the presidency, leading up to the 1988 election, a boxload of sci-fi appeared, forecasting a fundamentalist theocracy in the United States. As prediction, that was ludicrous, but the books were dead-on in showing how Christians are viewed by the enlightened.

In that sense, the most illuminating American novelist of the last 20 years has been William Gibson, who coined the word "cyberspace" in a 1981 short story that became part of his first novel, Neuromancer (1984), a book whose influence remains potent even today. (The 1999 film, The Matrix, could never have been conceived without Gibson's work.) So it's not surprising that Gibson's fiction illuminates the mindset that informs what the media are calling "the stem-cell wars."

Christians are among Gibson's favorite villains—always "fundamentalist Christians," and one assumes that for him there is no other kind. They figure repeatedly as admonitory examples of blind adherence to outmoded notions of what is natural and right. Members of one sect, the Fallonites, have adapted to modernity sufficiently to believe that God is somehow present on television: "Kind of in the background or something." They are utter fools, but nicer than the Revealed Aryan Nazarenes or the Crucified Jesus People, who carry chrome nails in leather neck-pouches and every once in a while crucify someone.

Writ large, with a gifted novelist's wit and imagination, these are nothing but the "anti-abortion" folks who crop up again in media accounts of the stem-cell debate and related controversies. In contrast, Gibson wants his readers to adopt a permanently provisional stance, an alert openness to a new reality that sometimes violates deep instincts about human life and the order of things (such as the familiar distinction between the natural and the artificial).

But if we are going to throw over the "traditions" that cause some people to oppose the creation of human embryos for research purposes, say, what do we put in their place? Here Gibson is considerably more candid and consistent than the editorialists of The New York Times. "I don't think that there's anything worthy of belief," he said in an interview, "in more than the sense that some things are worthy of being worn for a season. The human belief systems are disposable and replaceable and I suppose we need them but there's some strange part of me that's just never been very enthusiastic for the ultimate answer. It's more the pieces."

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And that's the news for August 6.

John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.

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Loyola University's Monroe Library site has a collection of links to Gibson-oriented sites.

Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:

Memorable Memoirs | Whether telling us about the Spirit in the South or the crumbling atheism of a Chinese immigrant, these books provide windos into others' lives. (July 30, 2001)

The Distorted Story of Memoir Inc. | There are many good autobiographies out there, but do those who write about them have to pretend they're the only books worth reading? (July 23, 2001)

Looking for the Soul of CBA | Nearly anything that can be said about Christian publishing is true to some extent, thanks to the industry's ever-enlarging territory. (July 16, 2001)

Give Me Your Muslims, Your Hindus, Your Eastern Orthodox, Yearning to Breathe Free | Immigration's long-ignored effect on American religion is garnering much attention from scholars (July 9, 2001)

.Shrekked | Why are readers responding passionately about a simple film review? (July 2, 2001)

Debutante Fiction | The New Yorker should have paid less attention to the novelty of its writers and more attention to their writing. (June 18, 2001)

Saint Teddy? | Yes, Roosevelt paid the usual presidential respects to Christianity, but didn't show much explicit personal devotion to it. (June 11, 2001)

History Bully | Christian scholars speak not-so-softly over a big sticking point: Theodore Roosevelt's faith. (june 4, 2001)

'Taken Up in Glory' | The Ascension has been forgotten in many Protestant churches, jettisoning an essential part of the Christian story. (May 21, 2001)

Who Won? Who Cares? | Skip the latest ballot reviews and read Italo Calvino's brilliant election novella "The Watcher." (May 14, 2001)

Infamy Indeed | John Gregory Dunne suggests imperialistic Americans got what they deserved at Pearl Harbor. (May 7, 2001)

Rantings of a Not-So-Primly Dressed Person With Too Much Time | The Chronicle of Higher Education infuses some not-so-subtle bigotry into its fetal-tissue research coverage. (Apr. 30, 2001)