Science fiction is a branch of literature which, with its far-reaching images, stimulates the reader to look at reality in an original, unexpected way. This genre may often “bring heaven down to earth,” and may seem demythologizing by transferring concepts of transcendence or numinous mystery—such as other worlds, fantastic beings, fairies, gods, etc.—to a material world of “other planets” or to a hypothetical (but materially not impossible) future.
But all these instances may be seen as figures, too. And even when they are not consciously used as symbols by an author, they circulate universal images that may awaken the imagination of the readers to Something Else. They may give flesh to something more mysterious, and generate a longing for the transcendent. Some authors deliberately use science fiction images to express higher things, but many probably don’t; the images then speak for themselves.
I will briefly outline two types of science fiction images loaded with symbolic potential. Both belong to very frequent—we may even say, prototypical—themes of science fiction: first, other worlds, and second, time travel vs. alternative history (uchronia).
Other worlds as images of paradise, transcendence or fallen humanity
C.S. Lewis, an author known for the Christian inspiration of his novels, consciously re-mythologized space in Perelandra (1943) by bringing images of paradise together with ‘extraterrestrial life.” He offers a striking description of paradise, temptation, and a glimpse into what may have been if man had not fallen. This happens to a new humanity on Venus. The divine commandment is, here, not to settle on the mainland, but to accept the unpredictable quality of paradisiac floating islands—a metaphor of the faith and absolute trust God demanded from man in Eden, but which, wrongly using the freedom God had granted him, man renounced in order to ‘become like God.” Here, this “bent” (twisted) use of freedom is represented as a temptation to decide autonomously where to dwell, to be humanly sure of tomorrow. When finally temptation is conquered and the tempter destroyed, humanity can take the place God has prepared for it, which is on the continental mainland. It was their legitimate kingdom, but only after accepting to dwell in faith on the “floating islands.”
Often, the intention of the author is not linked to the powerful figure which he succeeds in creating. This is probably the case for “Frost and Fire” (1946) by Ray Bradbury. In this story, people live only for eight days because of the toxic radiation on the surface of their planet. But they always struggle to reach another cave where they may live some days longer. They are unconsciously longing for another condition, for a greater fulfilment in life. The heroes of the story, a couple, manage to reach a rocket, which was in fact the one which had brought human beings to that planet many generations ago. In this rocket they find out about the past, and the full span of human life is restored to them. Here, I think, we can identify an image of fallen humanity longing for its condition before the Fall.
Time travel and alternate history – the paradox of freedom and providence
In The End of Eternity (1955), Isaac Asimov imagines a meta-temporal commando unit resembling a monastery in some respects (as the members are all men vowed to celibacy and renouncing their original world), situated in a no-time non-place called “eternity,” and where carefully selected men live and dedicate their life to optimize history. But as a result of this optimization, history becomes flatter and events diminish in importance and character. Because every time a development that would have provoked a war is stopped by the “eternals,” humanity has been prevented from “reaching the stars,” i.e., to conquer space, and human culture dwindles and is conquered by other species.
Finally, one eternal understands this danger and acts in order to “stop eternity” and let history unfold by itself, thus permitting humanity to invent and develop interstellar travel.
Father Alexander Men saw in this story an image of the danger of an easy answer to the “problem of evil.” If we expect God to solve our problems and deliver us from evil in the literal sense, by avoiding each difficulty, then humanity might not be able to evolve spiritually, and “reach the heavens.” Asimov (who was a declared atheist and probably did not see the story this way) invented imagery that can open the reader’s imagination (as it did for Father Men) to deep theological reflexion about the crucial role of creative and moral freedom—making evil likewise possible—for the deification (theosis) of man. “Reaching the stars” is a powerful image which speaks for itself even if, in the story, it seems to refer only to the science fiction theme of interstellar travel.
Another kind of time travel story, the “alternative history’ (or uchronia), also provides us with theological metaphors. The possible worlds as they may have been if some event had or had not taken place offer an image of human freedom taken into consideration by providence. Some well- known examples which deserve a more detailed discussion are Philip Dicks’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (1953).
Here, I will confine my analysis to a short story by Vladimir Volkoff (1932-2005), a French author committed to the Orthodox faith. In “The Angel of the Quest” (from Chroniques angéliques [Angelic Chronicles, 1997, not yet translated into English]), he creates a science fiction inspired-image for the Orthodox teaching of the “yes” voluntarily given by Mary to Gabriel . The archangel in Volkoff’s story is sent to look in all possible universes for a young virgin suitable to accept the incarnation of God through herself, and willing to do so. The story assumes Gabriel comes to many others before reaching Mary. Three cases are presented to us, all in alternate histories near our times, which are very different times, too, because in these alternative universes Christ is not yet born. Other pure virgins refuse the proposition of incarnation for three different reasons: unbelief in the possibility of God becoming flesh, a preference for human love, and a kind of fearful humility. In the end, the archangel prepares to try for his last chance, a Jewish girl in the little village of Bethlehem. In this story, Mary’s free choice is the main subject and it is through the science fiction theme of alternative universes that this theological concept is “iconically”‘ incarnated.
Stories about robots are another field of intersection between science fiction and theology—more precisely, anthropology—and would be a natural continuation of these thoughts about free will and incarnation. However, this would exceed the frame of this article.
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Alexandra de Moffarts holds a PhD in general linguistics from Heinrich-Heine-Universität in Düsseldorf, Germany and a “licence” from St. Sergius Institute in Paris. She teaches religion in three colleges (high schools) and is a faculty member at St. John the Theologian Institute in Brussels, where she resides and attends Holy Trinity/SS. Cosmas and Damian Church.