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Sci-Fi's Brave New World

How the genre draws us to its own views of redemption.
2009This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

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 ...

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