science fiction

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“The Summoning” – The Christological Allegory of Babylon 5

I’ve never watched Babylon 5 before, but I got the whole series on a great sale and have been watching it from the beginning. In this post, please do not SPOIL anything past the episode discussed. There will, of course, be major spoilers for this episode.

“The Summoning” – The Christological Allegory(ies) of Babylon 5

I’ve often argued that science fiction can explore the deepest questions of the human condition. It allows creators to make stories of how humanity ought (or ought not) to be. It also lets people play with themes in ways that are unexpected, subversive, or meaningful in many different ways. Babylon 5 frequently explores religious themes in its episodes. “The Summoning” has several themes come to a head as we see just how deep some of the allegorical background of the show flows.

G’Kar is an alien character who has endured much throughout the series to this point. His people, the Narn, have been at war with another alien species, the Centauri. The Centauri have enslaved the Narn after defeating them. G’Kar has gone from a prestigious ambassadorial post to a pariah on the Babylon 5 space station. Finally, he is captured and put at the whims of the Centauri elite.

The Emperor of the Centauri at this point is Cartagia, a kind of Nero stand-in. He delights in tormenting G’Kar for his own pleasure, and for that of his court. G’Kar endures several ways of suffering which parallel Christ’s suffering. The image I used in this post shows him carrying one of the instruments of his torture in a scene that is surely intended to parallel Christ’s carrying of the cross. In one scene, he is wearing a kind of crown with spikes seemingly screwed into it around his head, akin to a crown of thorns. Though the imagery is somewhat overt, the subtleties behind the imagery is its own commentary on the depth of the show and its allegory of Christ. Cartagia wants to force G’Kar into some expression of pain, and finally resorts to a lashing. No one has managed to survive 40 lashes, and G’Kar is whipped 39 times before he finally cries out in pain. That number may not seem important, until one turns to Deuteronomy 25:3 and sees that punishment is not to exceed 40 lashes. Traditionally, some have said that Jesus was lashed 39 times. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 11:24, discusses being lashed 39 times on five separate occasions. Throughout this whole sequence in this episode, as well as the few before, we see that G’Kar is a kind of allegory for Christ, suffering in behalf of his people. 

I already mentioned how Cartagia is like Nero, but I wanted to draw that out. His hedonism at the cost of all else is one of the most obvious parallels. His utter contempt for any other people is narcissism, yes, but it’s so over the top and insidious that it takes it to another level. As he smiles, there is an ominous tinge to everything he does. Others try to emulate him to keep him pleased, and end up failing and being discarded or killed. The Nero parallels are there, but he could also be interpreted as a kind of stand-in for love of self over others, the easiest but also most easily corrupting sins. The greatest demonstration of this may be in his willingness to toss aside his own people for the sake of being remembered as a god. Cartagia’s delusions of grandeur could almost be humorous if he didn’t have the will and power to bring about some of his most dastardly plans. Cartagia then–whether he is a Nero, a Satan, or a kind of stand-in for human moral failing that evolves into monstrous evil–is another religious theme here. Is it a commentary on the overbearing power of the nation state? A questioning of the human condition? A nod to the spiritual power of corrupting evil? I think each viewer can take something away from it, and that is the power of a truly excellent work of art.

Babylon 5 is a show that inspires as much as it entertains. It makes viewers think, even decades after the show run finished. A powerful emotional response is almost unavoidable in an episode like “The Summoning,” and I’m sure I’ve missed some details as well for how the parallels might play out. Regardless, it’s a beautiful narrative that leads to reflection on the life–and death–of Christ, as well as how evil can so readily corrupt in heinous ways. 

Links

Babylon 5 Hub– My “Eclectic Theist” site features a number of posts discussing my first watch-through of Babylon 5. Check them out here!

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Also see my other looks into television (scroll down for more).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“The Dead Lady of Clown Town” by Cordwainer Smith- Love as Resistance

It’s no secret that I love science fiction. I’ve written on various science fiction works on this site before, and have a second website that is largely dedicated to writings on science fiction (Eclectic Theist). I’ve been on a journey discovering vintage science fiction. Cordwainer Smith is a major figure in that scene, and for good reason. Though he died fairly young, he churned out a number of short stories, novellas, and one novel, almost all of which are set in a shared universe spanning thousands of years. Smith was a Christian who pushed the boundaries in his fiction, using the strangeness of his world.

“The Dead Lady of Clown Town” is one of the stories set in his larger universe. It is intentionally resonant with the story of Joan of Arc, down to a character named D’Joan. In this world, there are the underpeople–animals who have been cross-bred or genetically altered to express various human features–whether physical or mental. The underpeople are used as, essentially, slave labor. They’re discarded and tossed aside whenever their usefulness is undercut. At one point, Smith writes of hospitals for humans that stand empty even as the underpeople are desperate for their care. The reason the hospitals are empty  is because  the underpeople aren’t allowed to be treated in them. They’re underpeople, after all.

The climax of the story has D’Joan being burned alive, but even as she burns, she cries out in love for those who burn her. The other underpeople had risen up with her, crying out and embracing people, calling out that they loved them. The love the underpeople bring unlock all possibilities. Robots come to be aware of their selves; Lords and Ladies are horrified or delighted by turns. Humans run in terror; while others stand around in shock. It’s a dizzying, poignant scene that, even more than 50 years later, evokes images of resistance.

The resistance of the underpeople is one of love. They reach out and embrace those who would seek to hate or even destroy them. Their resistance is built upon a powerful cry that resonates with that of forgiveness and hope rather than hatred and injustice. The underpeople cry “love; love!” and they die smiling. It’s a stunning scene, and one that we cannot help but see parallels throughout time. Smith published this story in 1964, in the heart of the Civil Rights era. It is impossible to not see parallels with Martin Luther King Jr.’s resistance movement and his nonviolence, even while calling out injustice in the strongest terms.

But the resistance of the underpeople is transformational: it changes their whole society, as well as everyone it touches. If we truly desire a just society, we must have a society that is capable of changing rather than rejecting. When those we’ve designated as the “other” reach out to us for embrace, we must not reject them. We must treat them as we wish to be treated.

Set in the context of Smith’s other stories, this is a story that sets off the founding of a religion based on equality of all sentient beings. It’s a beautiful, hopeful future envisioned by Smith. In our own time, as resistance to injustice builds, we have powerful voices also rising up to cry out for those who are downtrodden. May it ever be.

Links

“We the Underpeople”  – Cordwainer Smith and Humanity in the Future– I look at Smith’s vision for the future of humanity, good and bad; bleak and hopeful.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Popular Books– Check out my other posts on popular books, including several other science fiction works. (Scroll down for more.)

Cordwainer Smith– Another blogger writes on the themes found throughout Cordwainer Smith’s science fiction.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Passing Through Gethsemane” – Babylon 5 and the Fragility of Humanity

A very fragile human moment.

I’ve never watched Babylon 5 before, but I got the whole series on a great sale and have been watching it from the beginning. In this post, please do not SPOIL anything past the episode discussed. There will, of course, be major spoilers for this episode.

Babylon 5 and the Fragility of Humanity- “Passing Through Gethsemane”

There are moments when you’re watching something on TV or a movie when you realize it’s a transcendent time. Something about what’s happening on the show clicked; one of those moments where everything aligned. “Passing Through Gethsemane” was one of those episodes for me. It may be the first time TV has ever touched me on such a spiritual level.

Near the beginning when we see Brother Edward, a Trappist Monk, talking about the Garden of Gethsemane. He says that there, Jesus could have chosen to leave, postponing the inevitable. It was a “very fragile human moment” that resonates so deeply with Brother Edward. Later in the episode, we discover that  Edward has been mind wiped and is, in fact, a notorious killer. He himself starts to discover this as a telepath reawakens his memories–apparently as a step of a plot to get revenge from families of the victims. Edward finds himself in a kind of broken psyche, realizing who he was, but also that his entire life and outlook on the universe has changed. Who is he, now?

Edward asks whether there is “enough forgiveness for what I’ve done” as he contemplates his former life, and the implications of being that same person. The answer, provided by Brother Theo of the Trappist Monks, is simple: “Always. Always.” Edward’s killed by the families of his victims, but he chooses to go to his death, knowing what they will do. He sees it as his own “passing through Gethsemane” and the fragility of the human condition one finds there. He apparently saw justice and forgiveness align and chose that path.

One astute reader pointed out the problematic nature of seeing Edward as a good man, since he was, in a sense, made that way. As a viewer, I viewed Edward-as-he-is as a completely new and different person than Edward-as-he-was, the murderer. This is aside from the moral question of the mind-wipe as punishment which seems highly questionable at best. (Feel free to comment on that below, I’d love a discussion on that, too.) As I reflected on this, it reminded me (as a Lutheran, particularly) of baptism. Edward’s old self was like the Old Adam, which we drown in the waters of baptism, creating a rebirth and, in a sense, a New Adam/self washed clean by Christ. The metaphysics of this metaphor playing out become quite complex as one thinks about it, because here the question of the morality of a mind wipe is writ large. But I’m thinking of the outcomes, not in a consequentialist way, but in a pragmatic one. If Edward has been created anew, however that happened, he seems a new man. For the baptism analogy, this plays out quite well and, while likely unintentional, makes me think even more on that sacrament. 

Theo and Sheridan have a conversation about “Where does revenge end and justice begin?” and Sheridan makes a point that forgiveness is a “hard thing”–likely himself thinking about his wife. But then, we discover Malcolm–one of the men who committed the vigilante act against Edward–is mind wiped and himself one of the Trappists. And Theo turns Sheridan’s words back on him. Knowing Sheridan is enraged by this vigilante killing, Brother Theo says that Sheridan himself just made a comment about forgiveness being a hard thing. Sheridan pauses in his rage and shock, and finally shakes the new Brother Malcolm’s hand. 

It’s not often that you get to see full on theologizing in a television series, but this episode presents just that. Of course, it never fully realizes the whole of the Christian message, but it is powerful and compelling for Christians all the same. It may also speak to those who aren’t Christian, due to the beauty of the moment. And I suspect that’s what the writer(s) was going for. Christ, here, is seen as facing a “very fragile human moment,” but the total importance of it is made to sound more like an ethical moral choice than something about the fate of humanity. However, there is no question that this episode beautifully shows the humanity of that moment. Yes, Jesus Christ is God the Son, but we must not forget that he was the God-man, fully human as well. I was struck deeply by how this episode made that point so clearly. To humanity as turning on this moment with Christ in Gethsemane, able to “delay the inevitable” but choosing instead to pass through Gethsemane. It’s beautiful. 

The other ethical-theological aspect here is the notion that individual humans can also “pass through Gethsemane” with their own trials/temptations. We have our own fragile human moments, and those can define who we are. Babylon 5 doesn’t portray the help we receive from the Holy Spirit here, but I still think it is to be commended both for the genuine look at the humanity of Christianity and the beauty of its story.

Appendix: A number of comments on Facebook when I shared this post raised questions about the death penalty and the justice of the mind wipe. I’m opposed to the death penalty, and I think that the book and movie of “Just Mercy” help explain some of the issues surrounding that. They’re highly applicable to discussions of the mind wipe as well.

Links

Babylon 5 Hub– My “Eclectic Theist” site features a number of posts discussing my first watch-through of Babylon 5. Check them out here!

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Also see my other looks into television (scroll down for more).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

 

Sacrifice and Sacrament in Dan Simmons’s “Hyperion”

Hyperion by Dan Simmons is a Hugo Award-Winning science fiction novel that reads like a kind of modern Canterbury Tales. The theological depth and beauty of Simmons’s Hyperion is as profound as it is repelling. The stories told in the novel range from horrifying and vulgar to profound and deep. Each traveler has their own purpose for being on the journey, and Simmons draws readers in with these tales. Here, we’ll discuss one story that moved me deeply. There are, of course, SPOILERS in what follows.

Sacrifice and Sacrament

One story, in particular, sticks out for me. That is the story of the “cruciform” told by Lenar Hoyt, a Roman Catholic priest who tells the story of Paul Duré, a priest who was exiled to the planet Hyperion and researches a strange population there. As readers go on, they see through Duré’s eyes, that the people he’s researching are apparently immortal, and that they follow the way of the “cruciform.” This leads Duré to believe he has found something that will bring life to the Christian church at large–rock solid evidence that Christianity is true and that everyone should follow it.

But as the story goes on, we discover that the immortality of these people is something much more horrifying. The “cruciform” is really a kind of parasitic organism that sustains the host humans while draining their will to do anything other than serve it. The price of immortality is unconscionably high. Pain removes the cruciform creatures, but it manipulates the others into killing the host only to resurrect them from whatever is left so that it can continue living. Duré, unwittingly, had consigned himself to an endless existence serving the cruciform.

Duré, though, discovers a way out: he burns himself continually so that the cruciform will at last remove itself from his body. Hoyt finds him and is able to end his years of endless torment by removing the cruciform and allowing him to die at long last. The cruciform was a mockery of Christian salvation and resurrection hope, something Duré himself came to realize. His own death was a kind of sacred sacrament, a burning away of the evil of artificially discovered immortality that brought nothing but misery and a deliverance into the eternal life after.

Duré wrote, in one of the entries after he realized the abomination that was the cruciform:

If the church is meant to die, it must do so–but do so gloriously, in the full knowledge of its rebirth in Christ. It must go into the darkness not willingly but well–bravely and firm of faith–like the millions who have gone before us, keeping faith with all those generations facing death in the isolated silence of death camps and nuclear fireballs and cancer wards and pogroms, going into the darkness, if not hopefully, then prayerfully that there is some reason for it all, something worth the price of all that pain, all those sacrifices. All those before us have gone into the darkness without assurance of logic or fact or persuasive theory, with only a slender thread of hope or the all too shakable conviction of faith. And if they have been able to sustain that slim hope in the face of darkness, then so must I… and so must the Church. (91)

The sure and provable scientific fact that Duré had been seeking when he found the cruciform initially confirmed his faith before the horror of it made him literally burn it away. But what he found in its stead was a newfound hope, however slim, that in the face of darkness and evil, without the most persuasive evidence, his faith could sustain him. It’s a profound commentary on Christian hope, and one that should be read fully to experience.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Ted Chiang’s Religious Vision and Critique in “Exhalation”

Ted Chiang is one of the more well-known names publishing science fiction and fantasy short stories today. His short story, “Stories of Your Life” was the basis for the film “Arrival” (which I discussed here). His latest collection, Exhalation: Stories is another thought-provoking, moving collection of stories that will make readers think deeply about many questions. What struck me is that, despite Chiang being an atheist, his is remarkably knowledgeable about religion and, though he challenges various religious traditions at points, he also writes stories that resonate with them. I wanted to discuss his religious vision and critique in this book. There will be SPOILERS for some of these stories ahead.

Omphalos

Readers who have done a lot of digging into the esoteric origins of young earth creationism will recognize the title of this short story a nod to one of the most obscure but also earliest examples of young earth literature, Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot by Philip Henry Gosse. In Gosse’s book, written before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, he argues that the fossil record was actually created with the appearance of age and thus doesn’t give evidence of the actual age of the earth. Gosse effectively introduced the argument of “appearance of age” into the young earth creationist repertoire of arguments for their position, and he did it before the evidence for evolution had reached the stage it has now.

In Chiang’s short story, he imagines a scientist interacting with the world that genuinely does appear to be young. In this world, fossils are found that show no evidence of prior age. Tree rings do not falsify a young earth. The evidence on the planet all gives way to yielding the result that the Earth really is young. But some evidence isn’t fixed. The multiplicity of language begins to show that it is from accident rather than by design. Moreover, some question comes into mind as to why the universe was created–was it really made for us, or for some other group of beings somewhere else? The evidence for the miraculous continues, but the purpose of the character we follow in the story begins to get called into question. This leads to the challenge that if this person was not created with a specific purpose, they are left to their own devices to find purpose, and they choose to search… for purpose.

“Omphalos” serves as a lens to question: what would it mean if the universe were not made for humans? (I don’t think it was, and wrote this article to that effect, though it has diverged some from my current views in 6 years.) Chiang’s story is a masterful look at how we might perceive the universe differently as what we think collapses around us. It also asks questions about purpose in a universe in which we don’t have our own, unique purpose. It’s a thought experiment but one that needs to challenge us.

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

The first story in the collection, “The Merchant…” is a series of smaller stories about how some different rings that allowed for time travel impacted people’s lives in a fantastic setting with explicitly Muslim religious expression. As the stories told by the merchant make the reader understand, the longing to be able to change the past and set events right to make up for mistakes is strong. But the concluding lines of the story make clear the point:

Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough. (36)

I have read this story before in another collection of Chiang’s, but it still struck me as forcefully as it did the first time. The deep yearning to change the past is found in so many of us now. But it is a longing we can’t fulfill. Yet even without magical rings that allow for time travel by passing through them, we can still find what is enough: repentance, atonement, and forgiveness.

Exhalation: Self-Destruction and Miracle

The title story of this collection, “Exhalation,” was a Hugo Award winner for best short story. In this story, there is a society of mechanical beings with brains that work based on pressure of the air. One of these beings discovers that its society is beginning to slow down in computations and the reason is due to the way they’re using their resources, pumping air from one place to another, which changes the air pressure and thus their capacities. From this, the being basically finds the second law of thermodynamics and posits that all things will eventually move towards equilibrium–dooming its society.

This short story has many intriguing threads. First, the notion of self-destruction by actions that are initially seen as good or profitable or beneficial. Clear parallels exist between this story and our own, as humanity continues to destroy the good creation of God through our own efforts to seek ease of transportation, luxury, and profit over all else.

Another startling aspect of “Exhalation” is the conclusion towards the end, that life itself is miraculous, because it manages to survive in a universe that is bent upon ultimately driving it out (the second law of thermodynamics means there will be an inevitable heat death of the universe). Life does seem to be a miracle: its diversity, persistence, the emergence of consciousness, and the very fact that life exists stand out. Though there may be natural explanations for these stages, the wonder of them cannot be totally explained in such naturalistic means. There is a sense of the miraculous in life.

Conclusion

There are many other themes found throughout this collection of stories, as well as his others. Questions about what it means to be a person; what mental life is like; how we destroy ourselves; and more. What are some themes you’ve picked up? What stories resonated with you? Check out Exhalation: Stories for some though-provoking stories.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The (Un)Just City- Jo Walton’s “The Just City,” Gender, Gods, and Morality

tjc-waltonJo Walton’s The Just City is unlike anything I’ve read before. She seamlessly combined philosophy, theology, and fantasy into an epic tale that was difficult to put down. The plot is centered around the notion that Apollo and Athene, the Greek gods, decide to go through time and collect people who desired to attempt to build Plato’s Republic. Here, we’ll examine the book from a worldview perspective. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

Christian Morality Opposed to Justice?

One scene features Maia speaking with Ikaros, a man who had embraced various aspects of the Republic with fervor. Maia believes that Ikaros was a Dominican monk in his former life, but she finds that he is quick to exclude Christianity from the bounds of possibility in the City. The reason is because he doesn’t believe Christianity to be true, or at least any aspect of truth capable of matching their new perspective:

[Ikaros reasons:] “I reconciled Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Platonism, and Zoroastrianism… But don’t you see, we were doing it starting from a belief that Christianity was true. If instead it’s the Greek Gods who are true… then what price salvation? They can mix from the other side, we could say that Plato was really talking about God. But from this side [believing the Greek Gods], well, we can’t see that when Jesus said he’d be in his father’s house that he was really talking about Zeus, now can we?” (88)

Ironically and horribly, after having this conversation about how Christian morality is not Truth and also needlessly complex, Ikaros rapes Maia. He reasons that they are allowed to have eros love without obligations required by Christian morality, and he mocks her adherence to Christianity.

Concentric Circles of Gods

In the world of The Just City, the Greek gods are very real and active. What might this suggest about Christianity and other faiths? We’ve already seen how one character argues that introducing Christian morality would have been unnecessary. But what of Christianity itself?

Apollo is incarnate within the City and only a few know who he actually is. He has a discussion with Sokrates (Socrates) and Simmea regarding souls and gods. We’ll pick up his commentary at “the good part”:

Many circles [of divinities] is right; all human cultures have their own appropriate gods. But the only thing on top is Father. It isn’t a set of concentric rings… [the one Apollo is correcting] thought of it as a hierarchy with divinities subordinated to others. It isn’t like that at all. It’s a set of circles of gods pretty much equal to each other but with different responsibilities, and linked by Father.” (285)

When he is specifically asked about Jesus and Mary, etc., Apollo states:

Christianity is one of those circles… Jesus is just as real and just as much Father’s son as I am… (285-286)

Such a view of course is just as fantastical as the book itself is. The attempt to mash all religions together into one amalgam centered around a divine being not only does injustice to those faiths which have no divine being, but also to those that do. The latter would have to effectively shed all pretext of having truth claims about reality, as I’ve argued elsewhere.

It will be interesting to see in the next two books of this trilogy who the “Father” turns out to be and how the attempt to reconcile different faiths plays out, but at this point it is fairly obvious that it will play out in a way that Christians and believers of other faith traditions could not endorse.

Gender

Maia, a woman from the 19th century, finds that the options she has ahead of her in her own time are quite bleak. She loves scholarship, but has no way to pursue it. In the introduction to her character we find that she longs for a God that is not limited by masculine concepts of divinity. We can take this as a challenge to ourselves to not make God into a gendered being (apart from the gender of the man Jesus Christ).

There are several explicit scenes in the book, and these tie into the themes it is exploring with gender. The scenes largely center around the issues of power that come into sex. Thus, the aforementioned rape of Maia by Ikaros. Apollo himself is trying to figure out why Daphne preferred to turn into a tree rather than “mate” with him (aka be raped by him). Apart from the obvious (this book is not for children or even young adults), we find that preconceptions about gender and power are challenged throughout. Women say no, and mean it (shocking, right? [sarcasm]); men begin to discover that the actions they take are often sexist; beliefs that women are incapable of philosophizing are challenged.

Conclusion

The Just City turns out to be as much about injustice as it is about justice. In a way, we may think of this as what would inevitably happen whenever imperfect beings attempt to create true justice on their own: they fail, often miserably. It will be interesting to see what happens with the “circles” of deity that Walton has come up with to try to integrate divergent and differing worldviews into one. Including such discussions of course makes the book stand firmly against Christian orthodoxy; but the context these challenges are set in makes it worthwhile to offer counter-arguments to the sections that are objectionable. It can, in a way, be practice for critically examining one’s own beliefs.

Whatever the case, for now we find that the “Just City” is not.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Read through my other posts on popular books here (scroll down for more).

Source

Jo Walton, The Just City (New York: Tor, 2014).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“We the Underpeople” – Cordwainer Smith and Humanity in the Future

wtu-smith

Cordwainer Smith (actual name: Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger) was an expert in psychological warfare, a scholar of Eastern Asia, an Anglican, and a science fiction author, among other things. He wrote a number of short stories and one novel all set in the same universe–our own. These stories go from the past into the far future and put forward a vision of the future that is at once hopeful and bleak. Here, I’d like to discuss a few themes in the works of his I’ve read, collected in a volume called We the Underpeople by Baen. There will be some minor Spoilers in what follows.

Free Will and Determinism

A prominent theme found throughout Smith’s work is the discussion of free will and determinism. The “Rediscovery of Man” is a time period in which members of the Instrumentality decide that they need to change the world such that people aren’t always happy any more. You see, they made it so that accidents wouldn’t happen (or if they did, prompt healing was available), people wouldn’t say bad things, and the like. If someone did get unhappy, they were brain wiped and reconditioned. Everyone’s happy, see?

Yet the members of the Instrumentality argued and finally allowed for some unhappiness to be allowed back into people’s lives: the Rediscovery of Man.

Smith here notes that human freedom is something that is at the core of our being. Without it, “happiness” falls away into determinism. We may be “happy,” but it is a happiness that is not truly experienced or real. The feelings might be there, but the reality is not. The human capacity for wrongdoing and suffering is there, but it must be in order to have the capacity for truly experiencing and enjoying happiness and delight.

A challenge might arise here: what of heaven? I think this is a tough question, and one that I admit I have no answer I feel firmly about. It’s possible that the choices we make are, over time, enough to solidify us into a sinless existence (a position of Greg Boyd). Perhaps instead, the renewal of our minds that takes place in the New Creation helps us to avoid doing those things that we would not like to do but find ourselves doing in our fallen state.

Humanity and Inhumanity

Humans in Smith’s world have created “underpeople”–animals that have been bred to serve humans in various capacities. Yet these animals are self-aware and brutally oppressed. They experience free will and life, but are trampled by human wants and desires. They are not “people.”

The poignancy of this theme hits close to home when we consider those people who are often set aside in our own world. Things like the Rwandan Genocide are allowed to happen by those we have put in power because there aren’t resources there deemed worth protecting; people are allowed to starve to death because we don’t want to give “handouts,” and the like. How might we as Christians work to correct the wrongs in our own world done to those we have deemed “underpeople”?

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a major theme in Smith’s novel, Norstrilia. The main character, Rod McBan, is attacked by a bitter man, the Honorable Secretary, who is upset that he cannot also have his life extended for a very long time. At a pivotal scene in the book, McBan forgives the Honorable Secretary for the attacks. However, he also forgives himself, for he had–even in thought–mocked the man and his inability to get the same treatment as everybody else to extend his life. McBan realized that his own behavior towards the Honorable Secretary had, in part, lead to the man’s wrongs.

It is a stunning change in the tenor of the plot thread, for the reader had been prone to sympathizing with the main character and forgiving his own “innocent” jabs at the man who tried to kill him. Yet here, Smith elegantly points towards the need for mutual reconciliation and the need to confess one’s own sins. It is masterfully done and speaks very highly of the power of forgiveness.

Conclusion

Cordwainer Smith masterfully wove his Anglican worldview into his science fiction, but he did so very subtly. I haven’t even touched on some of the other messages conveyed in his body of work, such as the allegorical story of Joan of Arc. There is much to contemplate in the works, including human freedom and the need to forgive. I highly recommend his science fiction to my readers.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Popular Books– Check out my other posts on popular books, including several other science fiction works. (Scroll down for more.)

Cordwainer Smith– Another blogger writes on the themes found throughout Cordwainer Smith’s science fiction.

 

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Zeroboxer” by Fonda Lee- Bioethics in the Future, oh, and boxing

zeroboxerFonda Lee’s Zeroboxer is a science fiction work about the sport of zero-gravity boxing. See my review for more details on the work. Here, I’ll be highlighting aspects of the book that deal with bioethics, and offering some philosophical and theological comments on them.

The basics of the book are that Carr “The Raptor” Luka has been rising in the ranks as a great zeroboxer (one who boxes in zero-gravity). As his star rises, so does his fame, and possibly his infamy. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

Genetic Therapy vs. Enhancement

The first question is simple: What is the difference between genetic therapy or genetic enhancement? I wrote about this distinction elsewhere:

Gene therapy is the use of genetic research and information to cure illness. Speaking very hypothetically, suppose that we were able to discover the exact genetic code for illnesses like sickle cell anemia, isolate it, and replace it with a non-anemic code before a person was even born; that would be gene therapy. Genetic enhancement takes this a step further. It allows for modifying people genetically to enhance certain features such as physical strength, endurance, mental aptitude, and the like. It would, in a sense, create “super humans.”

In the world of Zeroboxer, genetic therapy is standard, and enhancement is regulated, but normalized.

The main character, Luka Carr, unbeknownst to himself, has “illegal” levels of enhancement. His mother allowed a criminal to modify him and make him some kind of superhuman. But it is hard to see why he should be faulted for it–after all, as he says, he’s still himself. It isn’t his fault that others made such choices around his life.

Enhancement is more common on Mars than on Earth. The latter, so-called “Terrans,” stage protests on Mars and about Martians as they seek to go against their “freakish” ways of enhancing. It’s not hard to imagine just this would happen. Who are we to play God, after all? But that kind of argument leads to questions about what it means to play God. Is it playing God to prevent illnesses through modern medicine? How far a step is it from surgery to correct vision to enhancing vision genetically? These questions defy easy answers.

Poverty and Enhancement/Therapy

Lee also raised the issue of poverty and the enormous inequalities that could be created by furthering genetic enhancement. Luka remarks on the state of a friend, Enzo, who’s just shown up wearing glasses:

“Why don’t you get your eyes fixed, then?”
[Luka] guessed the answer before Enzo lowered his face in embarassment. “My mom doesn’t have the money right now. She said maybe in a few months…”
A surge of anger brought heat to Carr[ Luka]’s scalp. It was bad enough that the kid had an asthmatic wheeze and carried around an inhaler. Now he was half-blind too? What next, a peg leg? Didn’t Enzo’s mother care that her son walked around with genetic poverty written all over him? (117)

The phrase “genetic poverty” is forward-thinking and possibly prophetic on the part of Lee. What happens if and when genetic therapy and enhancement become norms? It seems to me that therapy is potentially very valuable and a great good. But what kind of greater inequalities would come to be from it? We must try to anticipate these and work to prevent further inequalities. As Christians, we need to care for the impoverished, and that includes what might be considered “genetic poverty.”

Supposing diseases begin to be cured on a broader scale through genetic therapy, it seems that Christians ought to support these changes with every effort. After all, curing illness and helping those in need is what we are called to do. But what does this mean for enhancement?

That question is much more complex. Enhancement, it seems to me, would necessarily increase the inequity between the haves and have-nots. After all, those who have the money to get super-sight or super-strength or predispositions to being great musicians could simply cash in to do so. Those who don’t, cannot. But does this mean it is wrong? It’s a very difficult question, and one that I don’t have a firm answer on. I lean towards saying that such things are permissible, but regulation seems a wise choice given we have little idea what impact modifying genes might have on the broader person. Again, I’ve written more on these questions here. What are your thoughts on answers to these questions?

Conclusion

Zeroboxer is an unexpectedly thoughtful book. Though it has some flaws, it is a worthy read. Just be aware of the violent and explicit content. See my review for more details on that. Exploring these issues related to genetics is very important. I see this as a field that will be expanding rapidly over the next decades. Christians need to engage with it and think about it ahead of time.

Links

Genetics and Bioethics: Enhancement or Therapy?– I delve into deeper questions about genetic enhancement vs. therapy. I also provide some further reading on the topic.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Popular Books– Read through my other posts on popular books–science fiction, fantasy, and more! (Scroll down for more.)

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Man of Steel” – A Christian look at themes in the film

man-of-steelEvery movie has a worldview. “Man of Steel,” the latest iteration of Superman, is no different. In fact, many explicit questions of worldview come up. Here, we’ll take a look at some major themes found in the movie. There will, of course, be SPOILERS below.

Morality

The question of morality looms large throughout the film. What does it mean to seek to do good in our world? At one point, Faora Ul, a commander in General Zod’s army, discusses how the fact that they have moved beyond morality has become an “evolutionary advantage” and that “evolution” always wins. I was struck by this brief aside for a few reasons. First, would moving apart from morality really be an advantage? Surely, it may lead to no self-sacrifice, but that self-sacrifice itself is something which preserves a race. In fact, the whole thrust of the film centered around the notion of self-sacrifice by Superman giving up those things which he liked or wanted in order to save others. The fact that Superman overcomes the moral nihilist is significant.

Second, does evolution always win? This is a question to consider for a different time and place, but surely I think one must wonder whether it is the case that having an advantage would guarantee victory in the race to survive. Any kind of random fluke could happen to eliminate a better-suited creature. Again, these are questions for another time, but in context of the movie, the whole notion was again overthrown, because Superman, with a stringent morality, overcame.

But at what cost? The climactic scene in which Superman confronts General Zod ends with Superman snapping Zod’s neck to prevent him from killing even more people. Superman’s self-made (but unmentioned in the movie) ethos of avoiding killing is thus itself overthrown. What does this say about objective morality? Is such a killing ever justified? Or, might it mean that Superman abandoned morality in order to confront the moral nihilist? Perhaps, instead, there are shades of virtue ethics found throughout, which confront Superman with a choice and allow him to carve out his own moral sphere?

These are questions suitable for reflection, and I think the movie does a great job asking the questions without spoon-feeding any answers.

Shades of a Savior?

Superman is, of course, readily seen as a savior-stand in. Superman is 33 years old, which is also the generally accepted age of Jesus at death. One scene depicts Superman in a church, and his face is set against a backdrop of a stained-glass depiction of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The scenery is surely intentional–Superman is seeking to give himself up for the sake of humanity, just as Jesus did. But the way in which they go about this self-giving are radically different. Superman’s ultimate sacrifice is compromising his moral code in order to save people, while Jesus’ was the ultimate sacrifice–taking on death and becoming sin for our sake.

The question which all of this begs, then, is whether Superman might be envisioned as an interesting Jesus-parallel, a kind of allegory to be utilized to discuss the real Savior, or whether Superman is instead a kind of rival savior figure intentionally subverting the narrative of an incarnate deity. Support for the latter might be drawn from the notion that Superman would be “viewed as a god” simply because he came from a different world and the atmosphere/sun of Earth strengthened him to superhuman (groaner, I know) levels. Is this a subversive way to describe Christ? Well, really only if one wants to accept that Jesus of Nazareth was some sort of alien and that a radical deception has gone on for two millenia. Of course, some people would like to suggest just that, but how grounded in truth might it be?

Conclusion

It seems to me that the film, then, is a useful way to juxtapose saviors. What does it mean to be a savior? How does one bring that about? There are parallels between Jesus and the story of Superman, but the most important things are perhaps the contradictions in their stories and lives. Many interesting questions about morality are raised in the film as well, and it would be hard to argue that the story of the movie is not compelling. “Man of Steel,” it seems, is another way to integrate the Christian worldview into every aspect of life. What are your thoughts on the movie? What other themes might be discussed (like this post on Platonic thought)? Let me know in the comments below.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more.

Book Review: “Hollywood Worldviews” by Brian Godawa– Speaking of worldviews in the movies, why not check out my review of this book which seeks to provide a method for analyzing film from a worldview perspective? Let me know what you think.

Engaging Culture: A brief guide for movies– I outline my approach to evaluating movies from a worldview perspective.

I have a number of ways in which I have critically engaged with culture in movies, books, and other arts in my posts on current events (scroll down for more posts).

Virtue Ethics and the Man of Steel– Check out this interesting post on the Platonic thought found throughout the movie.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

 

Book Review: “Theology and Science Fiction” by James F. McGrath

One of my favorite pastimes is to read and write science fiction. One of my others is to read and write theology. Thus, the intersection of the two is sure to catch my interest, and James F. McGrath’s book, Theology and Science Fiction serves as an excellent way to show how intertwined the two are. McGrath’s central thrust is to show how people may think of science fiction and theology as a cultural interchange. He does this by showing several parallels with science fiction and theology, and then outlining various views of science fiction and theology (science fiction against/as theology; theology as/against science fiction; etc.).

McGrath ably utilizes key source material while avoiding the pitfall of assuming readers of the book will be familiar with the entire field of science fiction. Rather than a survey of the who’s who in science fiction, then, the book serves as a kind of primer on how to reflect theologically upon science fiction, as well as how to perhaps integrate the two in meaningful, forward-moving ways.

The book is therefore full of broad points that trace themes such as “robots as gods” or “aliens as saviors,” reminiscent of the excellent Scientific Mythologies. The key with McGrath’s book, however, is a less negative assessment of science fiction overall. Yes, he acknowledges that often science fiction can be written against theology, but also draws out key areas in which the two overlap and even where theology can be written as science fiction and vice versa. These make for great ways to reflect on one’s own reading and writing in these areas and open avenues for research.

Gnosticism, Daoism, and many other views of the world are surveyed alongside science fiction as McGrath ably shows the wideness of the field.

Overall, Theology and Science Fiction is a worthy, exciting read. It would serve equally well as a textbook for a kind of cultural-integration theology course or as reading for those interested in either science fiction or theology (and certainly both). It comes highly recommended.

The Good

+Avoids potential pitfalls of being too negative or too positive
+Surveys wide range of views and possibilities
+Provides fruitful discussion points that may lead readers to more exploration

The Bad

-A tad short
-Perhaps too few examples

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher. I was not obligated to provide any specific kind of feedback whatsoever. 

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for my writings on science fiction, history, fantasy movies, and more!

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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