The World in the Satin Bag has moved to my new website.  If you want to see what I'm up to, head on over there!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and God

Yahoo! Answers is a remarkably interesting place to go if you're interested in seeing what other people are saying about your favorite genre. Sometimes the responses are dead on and other times they're so outlandish that I'm left scratching my head. But, they do get me thinking, if not on a deep, intellectual level, then at that knee-jerk level that puts me in the mood to write something new.
One of the interesting discussions in science fiction is about the inclusion of God, or gods. While people in the United States are overwhelmingly Christian, there are plenty of people elsewhere in the world that believe in different forms of the same basic idea. We are, by default, a species of many beliefs, customs, and ideals.
With that in mind, I came across this question:
If God is mentioned in a story does it make the story science fiction?
I'm reading a story entitled "The Nine Billion Names of God" and it's considered a science fiction story, but why? Is it because of the notion of God or what?
And this response:
Yes, because God is not fact. Some people believe in it, but then again some people believe in dragons and unicorns. That's why it's science fiction.
I'm a bit perturbed by the complete lack of knowledge about science fiction and fantasy. Since the primary issues here are similar to the issues that rose out of the werewolves discussion from before, I'm going to try to focus on one rather alarmingly ignorant assumption: that science fiction is not about fact.
While it is true that science fiction is not necessarily about what is necessarily fact, the genre does arise out of a fact-based reality. The land of Middle Earth did not exist, while Mars and Jupiter do. It is also true that science fiction can often be rather outlandish in its portrayals of future peoples.
But what separates science fiction from fantasy is the very fact that it is intended to be about what is possible based on what we know at the time (this explains why many older science fiction stories are now out of date and completely ridiculous). The notion that something is science fiction simply because it isn't fact is an ignorant assumption. All fiction is fake. If it were real it would be called something else (which it is). The assumption intentionally ignores what science fiction is actually supposed to be and makes light of it as a genre. Fantasy is a more accurate fit for something not factual, because it is a genre about things that aren't established facts or established truths: people can fly or shoot fire out of their hands, or dragons, in the mythical sense, fly around burning villages while knight-like individuals run around in armored suits swinging their enchanted swords (and yes, I know that fantasy can be far more complex and interesting than this, but I'm making a point here). Science fiction is intended to be the genre of the possible, based on what is real.
To mention God in a story doesn't make it any sort of story, let alone science fiction. That's absurd. It's even more absurd to say that a story that mentions God is science fiction because God is not a fact. That would mean that any story with non-factual elements are automatically science fiction--and that's fortunately not true at all. Equally absurd is to say that because a story mentions spaceships it must be science fiction by default. Science fiction isn't a broad genre in the same sense as fiction. It's a narrowed field with parameters and logical limitations.
Moving to the specifics of the question, however, we find that the story "The Nine Billion Names of God" by Arthur C. Clarke is not a story about a fantastical concept akin to, say, flying chipmunks or Greek gods. It's actually a story about monks wanting to calculate all the names of God because they believe that once that happens, the universe will end. Okay, sounds like fantasy right? Well, no. You could argue that the story is fantasy based on its ending, but because the story itself deals with an abstract religious concept and no God actually appears to wave his hand magically we can assume that perhaps the story is attempting to be more "current" and realistic.
The story is primarily about calculating the name of God--a scientific concept. The Monks believe they're really finding the names of God, but if you think about it you'll find that the Monks could be calculating anything, but are calling it something else. What if the names they are finding are related to astronomical signs or some such? A lot of questions can be raised once you've finished the story, and for good reason.
The ending, though, is the one section of "fantasy" because the universe does begin to end. Okay, but can that be explained? Perhaps. Clarke never provides the explanation. It could be mere coincidence, or it could be the end of the world as the Monks see it, or it could be something else entirely (perhaps calculating whatever is being calculated is some sort of early and quite twisted form of quantum physics). Ultimately, it doesn't matter. What matters is the overall story, and that story is clearly science fiction.
Science fiction is perfectly capable of dealing with God, religion, etc. It's capable of a lot of things, actually, but what must be true for a story to be science fiction is that the story and the science arise out of a realistic current reality. Otherwise it becomes fantasy. That's what I think, anyway.

Related Posts by Categories

Widget by Hoctro | Jack Book

No comments:

Post a Comment