Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Science Fiction as Sacred Text

Genre of the Sacred

To most of us, science fiction is a sub-genre of fiction. The specific scientific scenarios of a given Sci Fi tale are usually possible within scientifically-established protocol, though some elements may be imaginative and/or philosophic speculation. Science fiction has always provided humans with a glimpse of what might be. It is a contemporary “cautionary tale” that serves to warn humans about traveling the reckless road. Science fiction is at its best when it speculates on alternate possibilities that are contrary yet plausible to known reality.

Science Fiction is an exercise in the consideration of the imaginative potential in a given story’s premise. It modernizes and rationalizes the “tales of wonder” of old. Sci Fi returns the epic story to the realm of possibility in the minds of its audience. It is a contemporary retelling of the great mythic tales of humanity’s ancient past. The hero’s journey… the quest for the Holy Grail… chance meetings with the fairy folk… contact with the gods. The Science Fiction format revives a sense of relevance to this most important oral tradition.

In the telling of this modernized mythology, the hero traverses the heavens, not on the back of a winged horse, but in a starship. Demons of old become acid drooling alien creatures. The fairy folk become benevolent almond-eyed visitors from another star system. Camelot becomes “The Federation”. Never-Never land is accessed via a “wormhole” or “star-gate”. The very gods become ancient astronauts.

The medium through which our modernized myth is conveyed is a crucial component of the story’s telling. Traditionally, Sci Fi has been enjoyed and contemplated in text format. Reading a thought-provoking Sci Fi book is a wonderfully intimate experience that allows for meticulous philosophical contemplation. Certain tales that border on the fantastic are well suited for other types of media. Although acid drooling aliens may not seem believable upon calm reflection… safe and sound in one’s own living room… the suspension of belief is complete while at the cinema plex… bombarded by Dolby surround-sound and viewed in ultra-mega 3D. Media aside, the context of events placed in a technological near future are more compelling for a contemporary audience.

The magnitude of the Sci Fi tale tends to accommodate large, far reaching consequences if a given scenario is played out to its logical, if not inevitable conclusion. The scope of the dilemma often is global (if not galactic) and usually deals with catastrophic, civilization ending events. Popular forms include giant asteroids careening toward earth… exceptionally virulent strains of alien virus brought back inadvertently on a returning spacecraft, decimating earth’s population… and various forms of weird science, run amok. More often than not, these catastrophic consequences are a result of unwise choices made by humans or humanity.

Of all the Sci Fi scenarios that thrill, instruct and forewarn us, the most compelling, most self-evaluating one is that of “contact”. Close encounters with the “Other” has always captivated the imagination of humanity. Great earthling philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Jean-Paul Sartre have postulated that a person's cognition or definition of the 'Other' is paramont in defining one’s sense of self. When the “Other” is from a different star system, the philosophical consideration of self and self consciousness re-focuses to humanity as a galactic species. We are no longer alone in the vastness of universe but part of a larger community. The moral consideration given to other-worldly beings provides new insight into how we see ourselves.

Consequently, Sci Fi can rise to status of parable in that it can provide contemplation on how to live one’s life. It ties in the ramifications associated with the decisions being pursued within the story by illuminating the moral and ethical considerations, as well as practical outcomes. In this way, Sci Fi becomes a forecasting instrument... a predictor of the near-future based upon current events… and a “moral compass” that allows for self-reflection and soul searching. Herein lays the value of the medium. It becomes a measuring rod whereby we gain perspective on our humanity. It becomes a lightning rod that conducts the power of universe and infuses us with renewed sense of wonder in experiencing universe.

Prophets of the Genre

The first prophet of Science Fiction has to be Philip K. Dick (12/16/28 to 3/2/82) whose published work during his lifetime was almost exclusively written in the Sci Fi genre. The predominant theme of Dick’s work is spirituality, as explored through several religions and philosophies, including Christianity, Taoism, Gnosticism and even Jungian psychoanalysis. Dick explored sociological, political and metaphysical themes in novels dominated by monopolistic corporations, authoritarian governments, and altered states. In his later works, Dick's thematic focus revolved around his personal interest in metaphysics and theology.

This focus culminated in his masterpiece VALIS trilogy. The title is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, Dick's contemporary gnostic vision of God as information. In the first book of the trilogy, also titled VALIS, the metaphor for God takes the form of an intelligent satellite originating from the star Sirius in the Canis Major constellation, in orbit around our planet and in communication with the hero of the story, Horselover Fat. Blurring the distinction between fact and fiction, Dick himself recieves information from VALIS, which he chronicled in a gnostic journal he titled Exegesis.

Another prophet of Sci Fi is Frank Herbert (10/8/20 to 2/11/86). Herbert used his science fiction novels to explore complex ideas involving philosophy, religion, psychology, politics and ecology. The underlying thrust of his work was a fascination with the question of human survival and evolution. Herbert has attracted a sometimes fanatical fan base. Indeed such was the devotion of some of his readers that Herbert’s writing and concepts rose to cult status, something Herbert was very uncomfortable with.

Herbert’s masterpiece of Sci Fi was the Dune series. Dune chonicles the life and times of young Paul Atreides, aka: Maud’Dib as he and his family accept control of the desert planet Arrakis, the only source of the prescient awarness inducing spice… melange, the most important and valuable substance in the universe. The story explores the complex and multilayered interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology and human emotion, as factions of the Empire confront each other for control of Arrakis and its spice. The prophetic aspects of the series studies to destructive nature of fanaticism (jihad), and the adverse enviornmental impact of extractive economies (spice=oil). Herbert was one of the first authors of the genre to draw attention to enviornmental considerations.

Honorable mention goes to William Gibson (3/17/48) for his ground-breaking “Neuromancer” series. Gibson has been tagged the "noir prophet" of the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction for coining the term "cyberspace" in his short story "Burning Chrome" and later popularized the concept in his debut novel, Neuromancer… book one of the series. In the context of Sci Fi as sacred text, Gibson put a new spin on the journey of the hero monomyth: A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man (Joseph Campbell).

The above list only scratches the surface of the increadable wealth of authors who write in the Sci Fi genre. Dozens of names come to mind such as Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke… and that’s just the first 3 letters of the alphabet.

Sacred Text

The works of the great science fiction writers, such as Dick’s Exegesis, provide new perspective on the earth-bound myths and become a wellspring from which we draw fresh philosophic sustenance. The greater the insights, the more important and valuable the texts become. Sacred texts are texts that a culture considers to be of central importance to their religious tradition. Typically they pertain to religion, mythology, folklore and the esoteric. Many religions and spiritual movements believe that their sacred texts are divinely or supernaturally inspired. Again, Sci Fi reveals and examines new facets of these questions that allow us to ask… what is meant by supernatural… what is divinity?

The essential importance and value of Sci Fi as a medium of the sacred is its ability to examine the age old questions with new eyes and to consider new possibilities in relation to “the powers that be” in our phenomenal universe. The old myths and legends transform anew into contemporary relevance as our consciousness reaches out to the stars. As the newly recycled parables present themselves, the new perspective brings fresh insight. An example of looking at old wisdom with new eyes… specifically in reference to our experience of the “other-worldly other”… the ancient truth known as the golden rule becomes:

Treat alien entities as you would like to have alien entities treat you.

Are our contemporary Science Fiction tomes comparable to the sacred texts of Earth’s great religious and philosophic traditions? Is the comparison absurd? Do they have the richness of content… the density of information? Does Dick’s Exegesis have the philosophic legs to be able to stand next to the Essene fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Today… the answer is… probably not… with the following caveat:

What would future historians think of these works if they were recovered in some archaeological dig of the 23rd century? Would today’s Science Fiction be looked upon as entertainment, or would they be studied as the beginnings of a new philosophic amalgamation? Would they be looked upon as a bridge between archaic earth-centric traditions and a galactic worldview? What began in the last half of the twentieth century as UFO phenomena, evolved into a global expectation of “disclosure” in the first half of the twenty-first century. At this most interesting juncture in history, would the above authors be seen as obscure story tellers or something more?

At the end of the day… any literature (or science) is only as good as its ability to teach us something about ourselves. If it can do that, then its worth the paper (or parchment) it’s written on.