Science Fiction vs. The Bible
"Sci Fi is understood as fiction and makes clear from the outset that it is fallible and only a tentative exploration.
We need more Science Fiction. The world that we find ourselves in is changing too fast to rely on genres that look backwards for their answers. So as a society we need something that will engender habits that help us look forward, dream our own dreams and search for new answers to the new problems we face. Now don't get me wrong, I like the Bible. When I was young I memorized the Sermon on the Mount as well as dozens of other passages. Much of it still inspires me and I can still find value in its pages. It is clear that the Bible and other revealed doctrines have played an important role in society, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. However, whether it has been more on the better or worse half is not my concern here. My only real concern is about the future. The past is just that and our actions won't affect it now. So however much the Bible has done, we in the present simply need to move on. And what we desperately need now is more Science Fiction.
The first time I really fell in love with Sci Fi was reading Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein in high school. While I read it I disagreed with a number of points it made, but its ideas were never really at the heart of my infatuation with it. Compared to my early grounding in the Bible, the book opened up a whole new way of looking at the world. Given all I disagreed with in the book, its most striking feature was that it was something I even could disagree with. And that seemed to be the point of Science Fiction: to ask questions about your beliefs and to outline new pictures of the world. When reading Orwell's 1984 and other dystopias you simply cannot help but wrestle with the warnings they give. The future is not guaranteed to us and it is this complacency that is real enemy of any dystopian novel. When watching Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry, a self-identified Humanist, it's clear that the goal is so much more than mere entertainment. It is instead to dream and be inspired by the new technologies and exotic societies imagined. In this role, Star Trek is more than a fictional exploration, but a serious social endeavor to jump start our real life plunges into the unknown.
Really what I want to compare between these two genres is 'Revealed' 'Truth' versus 'Science' 'Fiction'. Two opposite ends of a pole along a literary continuum. Further, we have two complimentary comparisons to make between the genres. First, we can compare the adjectives 'Revealed' and 'Science'. So while the first says: 'This is', the other asks: 'What is?' While revelation hands over a set of givens, science provides a method for being justified in discovering them. It tells us to explore. Now obviously the genre of Sci Fi isn't simply that prose which one might find nestled in a peer reviewed scientific journal. Instead, good Sci Fi is based on a prediction of the world that, squinting, looks ahead through our present scientific advancements to those worlds that might someday be. The very word 'Revealed', implies a truth outside our grasp. It doesn't give us a method of asking and exploring questions, but simply gift wraps its own answers.
Another foil genre to quickly compare Sci Fi to would be Fantasy. Here a whole range of unexplainables and never-can-be's make their appearance. A world with Merlin's magic is simply not a possibility we might reasonably find ourselves confronted with when compared to colonizing distant planets or some future Dystopia. Now Fantasy and other fiction genres certainly seek to explore human emotions and social issues, but here I am concerned with what is more directly relevant to our lives as we look forward. Other fictional genres assume either worlds that we will not find ourselves in or an alternate past or present. So, in contrast to Fantasy, Science Fiction at its best seeks to paint pictures of what might actually exist in our future given what we know is true. In contrast to Revelation, it seeks to ask questions about this world instead of merely having them dictated to us.
Second, we can compare the 'Truth' versus 'Fiction' half of these genres. Now of course we may never reach Mars, for whatever reason, much less populate distant galaxies. But this is not the point. Sci Fi is understood as fiction and makes clear from the outset that it is fallible and only a tentative exploration. Therefore in claiming that it is fallible, while still trying to get at your own beliefs about the world, it seeks your participation. It presents a narrative of a future 'what if' or 'might be' that we should ponder ourselves. Revealed truth, on the other hand, claims to have no errors or exceptions. It is a static presentation of reality that cannot be amended or argued with. Revelation says 'this is True and that is that'. Putting these two layers together, the genre of Revealed Truth in the Bible, the Qur'an and other books presents an inarguable catalogue of truths. Science Fiction, however, seeks the participation of the reader to use what knowledge we have in musing over the possibilities we might face.
Now why is this distinction important? Can't it even be considered a good thing to be told what is right? And doesn't questioning our moral viewpoints lead along a downward spiral to moral subjectivism where anything is right? Well, no. It doesn't take much to realize there is only one future and we will face it, no matter what our beliefs about it are. Further, it is extremely difficult to figure out what that future might be. And it is here that there is a real sense of urgency. It is because of this, I believe, that we need to shed the habits engendered in the genre of 'Revelation' and start picking up a few more Sci Fi books.
The differences between these two literary genres develop what I like to call Habits of Interpreting versus Habits of Searching. When you have a fixed set of knowns that claim to be complete, like revelations, what do you do when you have new questions? You take your given truths and fill in the blanks to find the answer. The only real virtue present for the scholar of a revelation is that of consistency. When you have a question you interpret the text you have and judge competing interpretations by how consistently they weave together its revealed claims. It will never be the case, believes the Biblical or Qur'anic scholar, that new information will prove old revelations false. When the Revealer is omniscient by definition, if your interpretation brings to light some inconsistency in the book, you simply have the wrong interpretation.
Science Fiction develops a Habit of Searching. It asks you to paint a picture that fluently works with our present knowledge and intuitions in exploring what we know and seeking out answers to those questions we don't yet understand. So if something doesn't work or make sense, scrap it. Disagree if you want. Searching is a never ending process. The habits developed by good Science Fiction aim to test our intuitions and beliefs on a never ending set of predictions about our possible future. Revelation can only be judged by interpretation of a static past. For this reason no one will write a definitive work of Sci Fi. The phrase doesn't even make sense. There will always be a future that will need our imaginations to explore and search further. There will always be a point in which we realize our beliefs somewhere need revising. New books will then be written based on different assumptions we would have once thought silly or plots exploring issues we never could have expected. Sci Fi acknowledges its fallibility and in that acknowledgement takes away any complacency that we already have all the answers.
Habits of Interpretation versus Habits of Searching also end up treating context in very different ways. Revealed texts are always revealed in some specific historical context. This is unavoidable. The result is that we need to re-interpret the proclamations of past prophets by updating their contexts with our own. Why could ancient Israelites commit genocide in the Promised Land? The answer many argue is that it was simply a different context. The eternal truths are buried and the relevant features must be teased out before comparing that distant then to our now. But how do we do that when asking radically new questions, like those we now face about the Internet or Climate Change? When these prophets had no idea even how the climate worked—besides 'God did it'—how can we unearth their hidden wisdoms? Habits of Interpretation engendered by Revelation are merely habits of looking backward into contexts that have often become irrelevant. While what we need is to be looking forward, Revealed Truth requires us to know the detailed intricacies of both the context that the work was revealed in as well as the present one that we live in. Thinking about this for a moment, I believe I can safely say that we have our hands full trying to understand our present context alone. Science Fiction and a Habit of Searching focus exclusively on the future. What are the questions we need to ask? What are the next steps we need to take or avoid? What unknowns can we explore? What we need in tackling the completely novel problems posed by Climate Change or the Internet is to nurture a habit of looking forward that searches out the extremely nuanced details of our own present. Only by looking forward and creating the next generation of Science Fiction will we be able to tackle the problems of our common future. If instead we keep asking what was done in an irrelevant past, we will at best ensure that our future resembles it.
Science Fiction, if anything, is the dreaming of the living, while Revealed Truths, at their best, are the dreams of the dead. Within the worldview of most revealed truths, all new ideas must be found consistent with the past through a Habit of Interpretation. When tied down like this, dreaming our own dreams becomes impossible. The present no longer belongs to those living it and therefore a link to the giants of the past must be severed. However, this is not to say that devotees of Sci Fi cannot 'stand on the shoulders of giants to see farther'. Through a Habit of Searching, everything we have must come together to paint the best picture we can. This includes those towering figures of the past. Revelations, however, claim that all we can do is stand on the ground and accept what their giants can see themselves. But as we approach new problems we cannot afford to merely look backwards for our answers. And in the future I can almost guarantee that we will find ourselves in new contexts that will press the boundaries of our imagination. We need to use every resource at our disposal. And to provide the flexibility needed we must dethrone the words of dead giants locked in dead contexts.
If it is in fact the case that our future problems will be unlike anything we have already faced, our only real hope lies in preparing for these new contexts by dreaming big, focusing on what we know and acknowledging we could easily be wrong. Personally I am excited for this voyage. Without any revealed truths given to us we are confronted with an infinite sea of possibilities. From there, our only option in the face of unforeseen storms is to lean over the bow of our boat, searching.