Sneaky transcendence

It keeps slipping in

Photo by John Baker on Unsplash

I wrote last week how the great classic science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s was really modernism in the clothes of fiction. (This is a discovery for me. Sorry if it was obvious to you.) It argued, throw enough Reason and Technology at the world, and its problems will be solved. In a way it was a continuation of the 19th century idea of ‘Progress’ where with enough steam and civilisation, all the ‘savages’ would be tamed. ‘Space,’ said James T Kirk, representing both 1960s SF, and a Victorian mindset: ‘the final frontier.’

I mentioned Arthur C Clarke, science and science fiction writer, my writing hero when I was younger. I have read everything I can find that he wrote, a compliment I’ve paid to no other writer. I studied at the same college as him, and much the same subject. (He did a joint honours in maths and physics at King’s College London, I did physics only, and not so well.) I’ve read about him, his work with the British Interplanetary Society, his meeting at the Eastgate pub in Oxford with Val Kilner, C S Lewis, and J R R Tolkien, his admission of not being exactly ‘gay’ (though he surely was) but ‘merely mildly cheerful’.

He said religion was mumbo jumbo and implied science was the surer answer. (Lewis and Tolkien, both Christians, were technophobes and I’m not sure they possessed a fridge between them. Clarke, at the same time, was calculating orbital mechanics to get his short stories right. So their pub meeting failed, shall we say, to find consensus.)

Clarke’s worlds, set a century or so from the his 1950s present, were places where reason and technology had continued to fuel the upward march of progress. So Clarke was, in worldview, an old-fashioned 19th century liberal, albeit working into the 21st.

Clarke insisted on ‘absolutely no religious rites of any kind’ for his funeral. And yet. The transcendant kept sneaking in to his work. It’s there in Childhood’s End and it’s powerfully present in the Nine Billion Names of God, where a computer successfully prints out all God’s (apparently) nine billion names, thus fulfilling the purpose for which humans were created. Then the programmers, who are on their way home, look up, and in one of the most striking ends to any short story, ever, they see, ‘overhead, without any fuss, the stars were all going out.’

Transcendence. Hard to stamp out.

Crazy evil and crazy good and the limits of science fiction

AI-generated image of Keziah Mordant, anti-heroine of my three novels, who is both crazy evil and crazy good

I have just now realized that the science fiction I loved as a youngster was all modernist propaganda.

Sourced in the 1950s and 1960s, the work of one of my childhood heroes, Arthur C Clarke, and others (including the original Star Trek), described a near-future world where Reason and Technology had solved most of our problems. And they promoted the assumption therefore that the key to the human problem was Education and Science. This is modernist propaganda, and it has happily been blown apart by later writers of SF and fantasy, both comic and serious.

Crazy evil gets in the way. As has been pointed out, a good education and a fine grounding in science can enable, rather than prevent, crazy evil. You need a good education and a fine grounding in science to create gas chambers (for example). And however we try to solve human problems, some human bias against the good and right, a bias we all have, gets us tangled in our shoelaces. Reasoning beings, we aren’t always ruled by reason; and science increases our capacities, rather than our moral sense. Malnutrition declines; obesity becomes a leading cause of death. Childhood illnesses are cured, thanks to medical advances; but one in four late-teen females in the UK report mental health problems. A society awash in reason and technology is a place of ill-health in new ways.

Our happy ending will never arrive by reason and technology alone. There’s too much crazy evil –in us, in society– for that. Yet the desire for a happy ending is so deep in us. Surely it can only be finally attained by crazy good, by grace, by the unearned. ‘I am creating a new heavens and a new earth’ says the book of Isaiah1. ‘If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come 2.’ It has to come from outside ourselves.

This helpful book got me thinking about this stuff (though I found a cheaper version):

And this wonderful book by Mary Doria Russell, about a Jesuit mission to alpha centauri, brilliantly shows as inadequate the modernist worldview in SF. (Russell won the Arthur C Clarke award with it, a tribute to both writers I think.) A pity the author, having written a classic, moved away to other genres.

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