Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Literary Vacuum: Religion in Science Fiction

This article is part of an on-going series intended to clarify and expand upon elements of the dystopian novel The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism and its sequel Hemegohm’s Tendril.

The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism is a complex speculation on what will constitute the religious experience in the year 2167. It extrapolates on current trends, some of which have actually come to pass ("megachurch") and posits others that hopefully will never manifest. Religion as a topic, especially in science fiction, represents a massive philosophical challenge. In my view, religion can and will take on any form over time (primarily because of its wholly human origins). Before someone takes issue with this statement, let me clarify the foundation of that stance: I accept that true divinity (whatever that may be) is beyond words. It is beyond expression. The most astute religious thinkers in our time accept that organized religion is, by definition, incomplete; the modern experience of "the divine" merely gestures toward an overarching mystery, while cementing the adherent in place with familiar concepts and visualizations (both metaphorical and physical, e.g., god-of-your-choice dashboard figurines, lenticular saints with eyes that follow the follower, the retardation of "Christian metal" as a music genre, etc).

My view is that true religious experience is something completely inward, and has nothing to do with groups, churches, or society (spirituality in group form is neither spiritual nor truly religious within the pages of The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism). In my own experience, the only thing I can liken "true divinity" to is the experience of love. And I don't mean puppy love or love at first sight or something Lennon sang about. I mean the kind of transcendent place that two people can find themselves in that generates an output that is more than the sum of its inputs. Admittedly, this is rooted in my own understanding of pair-bonding, but if you've experienced this (a marriage that really works, for instance), you'll understand. If not, don't take issue. My point here is not to debate true divinity. I felt I needed to clarify certain positions in an effort to support what comes next.

Though a satire, The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism deals with the following ideas: the clash of evolved (or derived) philosophies; the future potentialities - both positive and negative - of highly synthesized drugs; and ultimately, the transcendence of the limitations of human sense perception (the five senses) and the impact of what may lie “beyond.”

You can see how these topics dovetail with age-old religious concepts, both in the traditional sense, and the shamanic. The conflicts in the narrative flow from religion's use as an engine of commerce and galactic expansion in the year 2167. Religion is so infinitely splintered in the future, that it has become much like the way people in our current society get their news: from a source that solely supports their world view. Of course, being a satire, the protagonist (Simon Shadow) is clearly an anti-hero, and some horrible things happen both to him, and to those around him. No one world view can become dominant within the construct of the society in 2167. Society itself (ruled by the "World Order" in the novel) acts as the engine that allows the infinity of religious experience to begin with, and it is all rigorously controlled; it is authoritarian and very governmental. This speculation points to the evil of corporations, themselves abstract entities existing solely to maximize profits and minimize responsibility to the individual (thank you, Ambrose Bierce). In his book Why Religion Matters, religious scholar Huston Smith leveraged the idea that religion, or the religious experience, is shaped within a tunnel of "influences." Imagine one wall is occupied by the media. Imagine the other walls represent education, law, and science. As religion passes through this tunnel, it is transformed by these forces. In The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism, I speculate on the evolution of such a structure. Instead of media, law, education, and science forming the walls of the tunnel, with religion passing through, it is the individual who moves towards the light at the end, surrounded by religion, business, law, and politics (science being innate to the individual). Those four forces comprise what I have termed the "World Order" - which essentially ascends to total societal control in the face of global crisis.

Religion in science fiction is not as common as you would think. When it appears, it is often used as a broad stroke in the background, but religion as a primary theme does occur. Think of the philosophical underpinnings of Frank Herbert's Dune series, or of how religion is presented in some of Robert Heinlein's work. To really take on the topic in a singular way is rare (a good example is Walter M. Miller Jr's A Canticle for Leibowitz). This might have more to do with the fact that if not done properly, dealing with religion in a novel is tedious for the reader. Finding yourself mired in a miasma of fictional spirituality is no different that being a human alive in the 21st century, surrounded by religions of every flavor, all in direct competition with each other. Religions often lack a true connection to modern societies; and being abstractions of an ineffable experience (e.g., the experience of the divine), they exist as anachronisms. As a subject for a writer to take on, however, religion can be overwhelming. The writer inevitably asks "What do I really know about this?" (as a cosmicist, it certainly weighed heavily on me). What I came to realize was that the question itself is a very natural response to the varieties of religious experience within all societies, both modern and ancient. The awareness of a multitude of axioms, scattered like puzzle pieces on the living room floor of every society, quickly overwhelms. It can make the writer feel as if they are not truly informed - as if they do not know enough to write with authority. Writers are often told to "write what you know" - so how can anyone write with any semblance of fairness about a topic so vast, so ancient, and so wholly convoluted? In my case, though I started the novel in 1989, it was not finished until 2001. I spent a majority of that time reading books on the topic, and talking to people of different faiths (admittedly, when I encountered them naturally, in the wild).

Ultimately, my solution was to take a page from religion's play book. To deal effectively with religion in science fiction I was forced to embrace what religion does best, in the broadest sense: mystery. As you approach an experience of the divine it just seems to accelerate away from you; there are no answers. Unfortunately, by claiming, as most modern religions do, that they have all the answers, mystery itself is trumped, and thus, wholly wasted. In writing The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism, mystery had to retain its power, so I planted it within the fertile (and draconian) policies of the World Order. Religion in the year 2167 has been transformed into an incomprehensible engine of commerce. It is against this backdrop that the speculative power of science fiction can go to work; embracing mystery absolves readers from the frustration of trying to acclimate to yet another incomplete approach to the divine, and lets them focus on the story itself.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Literary Vacuum: Symbolic Anachronism

This article is part of an on-going series intended to clarify and expand upon elements of the dystopian novel The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism and its sequel Hemegohm’s Tendril.

Many of the characters in this novel are forced, out of necessity, to use a form of public communication terminal (e.g., a pay phone) to communicate, but the concept itself seems very anachronistic for the year 2167. Recently, I re-read Frederik Pohl's novel Gateway; he won some major awards for this one, and understandably so. The narrative is a juggernaut. The very premise itself is enough to push you to the next page (prospectors taking potentially one-way rides into deep space in misunderstood alien star-ships, with the promise of untold wealth should the ship manage to make it back to the Gateway artifact); but when you read this novel now, you find references to magnetic storage media; to cassette decks and "books on tape." While in 1976 this idea simply blended in, a modern reader finds it highly anachronistic. Here you have a story taking place far in Earth's future, yet you find references to decidedly "ancient" technology by 2007's standards.

The novel The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism is like a recursive parable. There are many symbols in play. When I first started writing, I found myself perpetually frustrated by prevailing science fiction concepts, foremost among them all, the idea of the "communicator" (think Star Trek). Back in 1989, pervasive cell phone usage was nonexistent. There wasn't even a market. Even so, in terms of constructing a story, the concept of instantaneous personal communication was having a limiting effect on dramatic tension. If the police, for instance, were merely a simple call way, the writerly hoops I was forced to jump through to create tension became unwieldy. To use an example from a different medium, I find myself cringing when a film's director is compelled to show me an extreme closeup of the protagonist's phone's "no bars" display.

So I took Simon Shadow's communicator away. I got rid of the communication satellites ringing this new planet. I put him in a wilderness, which was appropriate for the story itself. These characters, whether on the planet's surface or in orbiting battleships, are all living on a frontier. Furthermore, the planet they have left behind was one of such profound religious control (both of thought, action, and expression) that it seemed reasonable that there might also be a limiting of the individual's ability to communicate, even in a distant colony. On an overpopulated Earth, in the year 2167, life is controlled. On the periphery of human expansion, however, the symptoms of this control are still evident. People have moved beyond the solar system, but they are still citizens of Earth. They are living in a controlled variation of the society that they've left behind; such is the power of the World Order, the worldwide theocratic construct that has risen to dominate a besieged population. When Simon Shadow is taken to the desert to die at the hand's of his oppressors, he can't call for help. Public terminals used for communication litter the colony, but in the deep desert, he is alone, and the ability to communicate is out of reach. Even if he had a way to call for help, the colony police force is merely an extension of the World Order's will, intended solely to protect the business of religion.

The effect of this concept on the reader, however, is debatable. I am not sure if this hurts the narrative or improves it, or if it simply exists in a mutable, ever-changing "sphere of anachronism." The concept is powerful, however. Jumping back to films, recall the image of Mia Farrow hiding in a phone booth in Rosemary's Baby, paranoid, terrified, desperate to make contact with her doctor. The power of that scene is negated in modern society, where six-year-olds have calling plans. The onus is now on writers to craft equivalents of such tension. It is difficult, however, when the default is to show the closeup of "no bars." In The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism, an indirect form of tension is achieved by limiting the characters ability to communicate. The prevalence of public communication devices also suggests that the World Order may, in fact, be watching, even across the light years. Does it feel anachronistic? It does. But it is also symbolic, and within The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism, anachronism itself is a symbol. The suggestion is that religion, in all of its forms, when placed within the context of a modern society, is wholly anachronistic.