Science fiction is, ostensibly, a twentieth-century invention. Yet, as purveyors of this genre, we know, perhaps more than most, that there is nothing new under the sun. Exotic alien settings and outlandish characterisations merely fudge the core premise of most science fiction—which is an attempt to answer the fundamental questions of life. Why are we here? Where are we going? What are we doing? What’s the purpose to it all? Questions over which the various world religions have had carte blanche up until the beginning of the previous century.
While a minority of stories will address this space-age theology in an overt way, the vast majority go about it via the tried and true methods of parable. Think of your favorite books and movies. For myself, they consist of ubiquitous stuff like War of the Worlds, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Bladerunner, Close Encounters, The Matrix—all movies with aspects of theological parable entwined within their plots. It is true that some celluloid attempts at this do fail miserably, however these are often unsubtle verbatim retellings of doctrine. Movies such as Event Horizon, with its overt Catholic symbolism, should never, in a perfect world, have found the fiscal backing to be made. Mormons in Space…sorry. Battlestar Galactica is another grimace-inducing example that immediately springs to mind—with its twelve colonies, Adama the first man, Seraphs, Count Iblis et al.
Within the world of literature, where an author can more fully explore various religious tenets, there are numerous examples of well-constructed tales which explore the gamut of religious dogma. Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein), Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke), Behold the Man (Michael Moorcock) and Raising the Stones (Sheri S. Tepper) are personal favorites.
While religion demands commitment to particular sets of stories about the world, science fiction invites a more self-conscious examination and sometimes even an ironic suspension of belief. Very occasionally these two fundamental human behaviors intersect: what Manichaeism was two thousand years ago, Scientology is today. It is probably no coincidence that the messiah of Scientology was a best-selling science fiction author. Devotional writers use as many genres as possible in which to hide their message. Let’s face it—no one reads the Bible for fun (do they?!). The underlying question here is the impact of the existence of the universe and science fiction’s attempts to find a place for humankind within it—a vast, mind-blowingly complex reality at once immensely older and scarier than populations generally, and traditional religion specifically, cares to contemplate.
Science fiction, possibly via such influences as Erich von Däniken, has come up with the Aliens as God sub-genre (although Childhood’s End came up with this thesis well before von Däniken). Also pre-von Däniken, Zecharia Sitchin argued for the existence of Nibiru, a planet in a highly elliptical orbit of 3,600 years whence a race of "ancient astronauts" came to Earth (genetically engineering the human species during the course of their visit) hundreds of thousands of years ago (apparently due back in this solar system in 2012, by the way). Of course, this notion has been around as long as humankind has been conscious of the other planetary bodies within our solar system. A full six of the nine known planets (not counting Sedna) have been known to us since prehistory. Venus has always shone brightly in humans’ imagination. Lucian of Samosata wrote True History in 150 AD, working upon the premise that the empire of the Sun and the empire of the Moon fought for the right to colonize Venus.
The Renaissance of new learning caused a relative explosion of speculative astronomy. In 1686, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle wrote Conversations of the Plurality of Worlds in which he says that “my fancy is confounded with the infinite number of living creatures that are in the planets, and my thoughts are strangely embarrass’d with the variety that one must, of necessity, imagine to be amongst them; because I know Nature does not love repetitions and therefore they must all be different. But how is it possible for one to represent all these to our fancy? Our imaginations can never comprehend this variety…”
H.G. Wells debatably started the modern obsession with aliens with War of the Worlds (Orson Welles probably had a hand in it, as well). By combining a knowledge of science with writing techniques incorporated by popular folklore and myth, he morphed the Martians into über-villains. His physical descriptions of the Martians drew upon Darwin’s theory of evolution, so that this highly evolved creature had a disproportionately large brain, big eyes and a small, spindly body, an idea which became a template for the visualization of aliens throughout the twentieth century.
Where does all this leave theological explanations of reality? New ways of thinking as exemplified by such genres as science fiction seem more and more at odds with the attempts of organized religion to justify their dogma. As our universe expands, God’s hiding places become fewer. Perhaps He lives in the interior of a black hole? Perhaps in a derelict spaceship floating at the edge of the universe? For the believer, however, blind faith always has a way of solving these apparent dichotomies. Hoary old chestnuts are conveniently drowned in a torrential flood of devotion.
So the question is this— what was it that Ezekiel really saw? Also—was it really Leonard Nimoy’s suggestion to use the gesture of Aaronic Benediction as the Vulcan salute or is this merely a ruse by Star Trek's nervous writers to keep the public from learning the truth—i.e. perhaps they do know something we don‘t about the origins of universal species? Even—are there really alien bases full of orange Reticulans under Antarctica? Good theology asks questions, but no longer has the power to answer them. Good science fiction does all it can to fill this void. In a way, L. Ron Hubbard was right—there is an answer to theology’s questions if we examine them through the mediums of different genres, like science, and fiction, but we are perhaps still too young a species to exhibit wisdom enough to see the complete picture.