February 13th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Democratic Progressive Party ousts Kuomintang

CANBERRA OBSERVED Barnaby Joyce: enigma, loose cannon, deputy PM?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Temporary protection visa holders left exposed

ENVIRONMENT Bob Carter, RIP: mythbuster and fact finder extraordinaire

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Farewell, religious liberty, farewell, conscience

EDITORIAL Syria: U.S. backdown opens door to peace talks

ECONOMICS Bubble has burst on globalisation project

EUTHANASIA Media drives sales in the death market

CULTURE What does a good music review sound like?

CULTURE Can we put a rocket under religious Sci-fi?

CINEMA A melancholy heroism: Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie

BOOK REVIEW Partial but thorough

BOOK REVIEW Brutality of battle


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Can we put a rocket under religious Sci-fi?

by Hal G.P. Colebatch

News Weekly, February 13, 2016

A magazine I frequently write for (not this one) recently published a review of a book of essays advocating atheism. The reviewer pointed out with some enthusiasm that a large number of the contributors were science-fiction writers.

The Wunder War, from the 

Man-Kzin series by

Hal G.P. Colebatch.

This left me somewhat nonplussed. I publish a good deal of science fiction myself, I have also read quite a lot of it, and I am quite unable to see why writing it should be held particularly to qualify anyone to answer the question of whether or not there is a God. Some of the explicitly atheist science fiction, for example Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories The Star and The Nine Billion Names of God, manage to be merely nasty.

I don’t know if it is an actual requirement for the job, but certainly several astronauts are believers and Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, is a lay preacher. I would be inclined to take their feelings about cosmology with more respect than those of even the best-published science-fiction writer.

Historically the contribution of the Catholic Church to astronomy was massive and unequalled. Without it astronomy might very well never have grown out of astrology at all. Cathedrals in Bologna, Florence, Paris, Rome and elsewhere were designed in the 17th and 18th centuries to function as solar observatories. Kepler was assisted by several Jesuit astronomers, including Father Paul Guldin and Father Zucchi, and by Giovanni Cassini, who had studied under Jesuits. Cassini and Jesuit colleagues were eventually able to confirm Kepler’s theory that the Earth had an elliptical orbit.

J.L. Heilbron of the University of California has written: “The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions.”

Science fiction is, by definition, fiction: that is, it deals with things that are the product of a writer’s imagination and are not literally true. In any event, what is and what is not science fiction is hard to define. Simply to say it is about science is meaningless, and while some science-fiction writers are qualified scientists, many are not. Probably even fewer are trained theologians.

There is a dividing line between science fiction and fantasy that has never been properly marked. No one would call The Lord of the Rings (whose author was a strong Catholic) exactly science fiction, although it deals with strange creatures in an imaginary world, or at least an imaginary phase of Earth’s history. It manages to be profoundly Christian although set in a pre-Christian world.

Actually, many science-fiction writers may well be religious believers. The typical themes of science fiction do not call upon the writer to nail his religious or anti-religious colours to the mast.

The number of either religious or anti-religious works of science fiction is relatively small. C.S. Lewis is probably the best known of the small band of writers who set out to write specifically Christian science fiction with Out of the Silent Planet and Voyage to Venus (Also published as Perelandra). His third book in this trilogy, That Hideous Strength, about a university and government departments being taken over by devil worshippers who are finally overcome with the help of Merlin, can’t really be called science fiction.

The Man-Kzin Wars, a series to which I contribute, has fierce carnivorous aliens, and at times touches on the problems of their beliefs and of converting them. I am amused that in some stories I have written in collaboration, such as A Man Named Saul, my collaborator, an atheist, has put some of the best, the most doctrinally impeccable, and I think even moving lines into the mouth of a Christian abbot. Military science fiction, often written for and by soldiers and ex-soldiers, tends to be conservative. I’ll not put the Kiss of Death on such works by naming them.

James Blish also wrote some “religious” stories, but these, such as one ending with the conversion of Satan after God hands His job over to him, are really too fanciful to count as serious religious works, though I think the author held a more serious opinion of them than did readers. There are a lot of stories about deals with the Devil that come into the same category – indeed, this can be seen as a genre of its own.

The total of “religious” science fiction that is published and also worth reading is small, which is perhaps simply a reflection of the fact that little religious art of high quality is being produced in any area today.

Science fiction it seems is not a particularly suitable vehicle for either religious or anti-religious propagandising. H.G. Wells wrote one anti-God story, The Island of Doctor Moreau – it could also be read, depending on the reader’s preferences, as an anti-Darwinian story – which he later disparaged as “an exercise in youthful blasphemy”, but he also wrote several stories inclined the other way.

To write good religious science fiction, or indeed good religious fiction of any kind, is a challenge but one that it would be worthwhile trying to meet. It seems a pity the field has been apparently abandoned to pernicious rubbish like The da Vinci Code, though this seems already, mercifully, to have faded away. In this, as in other areas, we could do with another C.S. Lewis to restate, for children but for adults too, the principles of Christianity in terms to stir their imaginations.

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TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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