While it is often perceived as an areligious, if not outright atheist, genre, science fiction is in fact highly concerned with religious questions, and uniquely poised to address those questions in a way no other genre can. The novel Contact by Carl Sagan (and the arguably superior movie) is a fantastic example: the main character, astronomer Ellie Arroway, is orphaned at an early age, and not only doesn’t believe but refuses to believe in God. What she does believe in is the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, and searches for it passionately throughout her life. Though she doesn’t name it God, she is consumed by the search for truth and meaning and a larger reality beyond our own; she is a zealot, a missionary, and eventually a prophet. The story’s climactic sequence confronts the issue head-on, raising the surprisingly Mormon idea that if God doesn’t live on Earth, He is by definition an extraterrestrial, and our search for life beyond this tiny planet is at heart a search for Him.
What Ellie Arroway really wants, when you strip away the trappings of science and technology and alien encounters, is the same thing we all want: a connection to the infinite. A knowledge that we are not alone. A reassurance that no matter how big the universe may be, we still matter. One of my favorite sequences in the story actually doesn’t appear in the movie: a brief description of a car speeding through the New Mexico desert, as seen from the perspective of the jackrabbits who live by the side of the road. To them the road is simply a part of the world, and the lights that occasionally streak by at night are as mysterious and unknowable as the comets streaking past in the sky. We are, to the rabbits, as far beyond them as God is beyond us. The question is, is God as unfeeling as we are? Does he pay any more attention to us than we do to the rabbits? The infinite is out there, yes, but are we connected to it?
The same question was posed in the Arthur C. Clarke story THE STAR, a Hugo-winning short story from 1954 and a classic of science fiction; it’s hard to find in hard copy, but you can read the entire thing (it’s very short) here. The story follows a group of astronauts, one of whom is a Jesuit priest, exploring the remnants of a supernova. The priest is an object of mockery among the other astronauts — his devotion to a distant, unprovable ideal is completely foreign to their way of thinking — and at one point on the journey another traveler confronts him directly: “[The universe] goes on forever and forever, and perhaps Something made it. But how you can believe that Something has a special interest in us and our miserable little world — that just beats me.” He looks into the infinite and sees nothing. When they arrive at the ruined star they find the remnants of an ancient civilization, destroyed in the supernova, and the other astronauts take it as final proof that there is no God, for how could God possibly destroy such a happy, thriving, wonderful world?
The priest disagrees, but finds his faith shaken even more deeply by a discovery of his own: this is not just any star. Based on its position, it’s distance from Earth, and the timing of the supernova, he determines beyond a doubt that this was the star of Bethlehem. The supernova that destroyed this world was the sign on Earth that heralded the birth of Christ.
How could such a thing be possible? How could God not only destroy this world, but do so as an announcement of the Prince of Peace? It’s a shocking idea, and Clarke offers no answers, merely the idea itself, and the opportunity to ponder it. It’s a new twist on the age-old conundrum: why, if there’s a loving God out there, does He let bad things happen to good people? Why, if there’s a vast and infinite Truth in the universe, does it sometimes seem as if we don’t matter to it? The details of the supernova are too overt to be accidental; the absolute destruction an entire world and people, for a purpose so counterintuitive, seems to confirm the existence of God even while denying it. How can we react to that confirmation? Does tragedy destroy our faith, or confirm it?
Fast forwarding from 1954 to the present, one of the best science fiction stories of the past year was another religious thought experiment: THAT LEVIATHAN, WHOM THOU HAST MADE. Written by Eric James Stone, a Mormon from Eagle Mountain, Utah, THAT LEVIATHAN… has been nominated for a Nebula and will almost certainly, mark my words, be nominated for a Hugo as well; I intend to vote for it enthusiastically in both venues. The plot follows a young branch president in the new Mormon church on a research-based space station; it turns out there are intelligent beings of pure plasma, called Swales, living in the heart of the sun. You can’t help but admire the audacity of the story, as it involves Mormon converts who are 1) not humanoid, 2) tri-gendered, and 3) raped. One of the Swales comes to the Branch president to confess unwilling fornication, catapulting the story into a fascinating conundrum which, despite its alien participants, every return missionary will recognize immediately: how do you reconcile the Truth of a religion with the culture of it’s converts? How do you bring people to Heaven without destroying the world they leave behind?
Eventually our hero confronts one of the leaders of the Swales — a being so old as to be immortal, so powerful as to be omnipotent, and so far beyond us, so to speak, as we are beyond the rabbits in the desert. He is a god, for all practical purposes, and while the branch president doesn’t worship him he feels humbled merely to stand in his presence. He asks the young man what all the fuss is about, and the man . . . talks to him. He connects to him. The human being matters, not because he is great or powerful or special but because he is, in turn, connected to something even greater.
The universe is an awfully big place, as Douglas Adams so eloquently tells us. It is so full of things that aren’t us, if we ever truly comprehended our place in the vastness of reality it would kill us out of pure depression. And yet we never stop searching. Our search for meaning consumes nearly everything we do, and survives against the harshest of contrary forces. We push through the darkness like seeds under barriers of dirt, pressing up toward the light with a tenacity intrinsic to our very existence. We are connected to the infinite because our potential is infinite; our minds, our imaginations, our capacity for change and wisdom and growth. It’s just like Ellie Arroway says: our future may look like science fiction now, but when we get there — when our minds expand to reach it — it will be the most normal, wonderful thing in the world.