Friday, September 30, 2016

The Theology of Science Fiction VI: Karina Fabian's "Discovery"


WARNING:  Possible Spoiler 
"any race advanced enough to cross the stars to visit us must also be
 advanced enough to show us how to overcome all those human ills. They look to the aliens to be saviors of mankind." Vatican Astronomer Guy Consolmagno, as quoted by Catholic News Service, 19th September, 2014.


Karina Fabian asked me to be one of the reviewers of her new Catholic science fiction work, Discovery; I readily agreed.    It's a fine book, one that will probably be a classic in the genre, alongside Walter Miller's great work, "A Canticle for Liebowitz".   I started to read it thinking, "oh no--not another book about religious struggling with their vows,"  and then found I couldn't put it down--finished it in two days. 

This post will not so much be a review of the book (see the reviews at the linked title), but will be a springboard for discussing how the book illustrates very well the quote given above from the Vatican Astronomer Guy Consolmagno.    And necessarily it will be a spoiler.    So if you plan to buy the book, and I strongly urge you to do so, please don't read the rest of this post.   Wait until you finish the book, and then come back here. 


In the magnificent Space Trilogy of C.S. Lewis, only man is vile;  the extra-terrestials are deeply religious and not fallen.   Is it a necessary condition that aliens who can cross interstellar space have achieved an ethical stature beyond ours?   Which picture is correct: the savage Borgs, Klingons and Romulans or the Overlords of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, who shepherded mankind to a new destiny?

The aliens of Discovery are all dead when found, but there is evidence that they are a people (I was tempted to use "species") who love and have visions of an afterlife.  They have an instrument that heals spiritual wounds--an electronic (or?) combination of peyote, magic mushrooms, LSD and.....???   That such an instrument is needed suggests that these aliens are not always well, but sometimes have to use artifice to achieve peace and well-being.

Why do I believe that a race engaged in interstellar travel must achieve a high ethical level?  
  • First,  cooperation and social order must be achieved, and this requires a moral society.   I don't think humans will achieve interstellar travel until resources are no longer devoted to conflict and defense against that, or until there are no longer large segments of society that have be sheltered from poverty, and that will require a greater level of ethical development than we have at present.   
  • Second,  there must be a yearning to explore the unknown. This desire is, I believe, implicitly connected to glorifying the universe God has made.   
  • Third, given that "warp drive"--travel faster than the speed of light--is a device of science fiction and physically unachievable,  a small group enclosed for many years (and possibly many generations) must be able to live together in harmony, and this requires a high level of ethical development.   Science fiction has dealt with this issue:  in Robert Heinlein's, Universe and Common Sense, and Brian Aldiss's Helliconia Trilogy, moral and social standards decline after contact is lost with the larger group of humanity.


That the aliens of Fabian's Discovery have a religious belief is implicit, although there are no indicators of what this belief might be.   If one googles "ethics requires religious beliefs", a host of sites will come up, each with a different point of view.

There is one classic science fiction story in which this question is crucial, "A Case of Conscience", written by James Blish almost 60 years ago.   In this story a race of intelligent amphibians inhabits a planet, Lithia, devoid of mineral resources.   The Lithians have an innate moral sense, but are devoid of any religious feeling.   I won't recount the plot, but only state the misgivings of the Jesuit missionary (part of a scientific team sent to the planet);  he reasons that the Lithians have been developed by Satan to rebut the Catholic doctrine that morality is given by God.  

Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J.,  has criticized both the science and the theology of the novel (see the linked article).  However, he does not directly address this issue: is totally moral behavior possible without a religious foundation?   He does make this valid point:  creatures who cannot sin are not totally free;  freedom requires the ability to make a choice between doing right and doing wrong.   That the aliens of Discovery require a spiritual healing device, indicates that they are free in this sense, that is to say, free to make moral choices.


The title of Karina Fabian's novel, "Discovery", refers not only to the alien ship, but also, I believe, to the moral insight achieved by the characters who use the alien spiritual device--a cleansing of sins and a guide to living in the future. 

No comments: