Science Fiction (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Science fiction is the genre of stories and film in which a significant element of the plot depends on the laws of mathematics and the physical sciences, or on the use of technology as currently known or as developed in a credible way. Stories in which natural laws are suspended or violated fall into the realm of fantasy rather than science fiction. Most science fiction plots take place in the future, on a fictional planet, or posit the use of a new technology. They explore the best and worst case scenarios that could result from the application of technology or from a variation in the natural world, though remain based on scientific laws as we know them. Though it seems that science fiction is based on science and the material world, most modern works are character based; science fiction explores human life and action within the context of a fictional but possible world. This fictional world allows the author clearly to explore issues in a context that is contrived, thus without the myriad mitigating or confounding factors the real world might present.
The genre of science fiction can be traced back to nineteenth-century novels such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and Jules Verne's novels of the 1860s and 1870s (Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea). However, the term science fiction was not widely used until the 1930s, when a group of pulp fiction magazines featuring stories based on the premises of modern science was established. Beginning with Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories (after whom the Hugo award in science fiction writing is named), the format was soon copied by several other American and British publications ( John Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction, Science Wonder Stories). Among writers in Britain, a genre called scientific romance grew in the years following World War I with such writers as Olaf Stapledon, J. D. Beresford, H. G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley. In the United States, science fiction remained primarily magazine based until the rapid rise in the production of paperback books in the 1960s, which moved the genre from a predominance of short stories to novels. The science fiction novel emerged as a distinct literary genre in the second half of the century, exemplified in the works of writers such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Kurt Vonnegut.
As the public became sensitized to the effects of science through the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945, the development of the digital computer, and new advances in biotechnology, science fiction also became a staple for radio (Orson Welles's 1938 radio production of H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds), television (The Jetsons, The Twighlight Zone, Star Trek, The X-Files), and film plots (Fritz Lang's Metropolis , Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove  and 2001: A Space Odyssey , Ridley Scott's Blade Runner  and Alien , Steven Spielberg's E.T. , and George Lucas's Star Wars ). Although science fiction novels continue to be popular and widely published, a larger contemporary audience is reached through film and television, mediums that make it easy for audiences to suspend disbelief and that appeal to our highly visual culture. The plots of science fiction films tend to be more adventure- and special-effects-based and less introspective than the written literature, though there are notable exceptions, such as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Popular themes in today's science fiction, regardless of the medium, include intelligent computers or robots, alternative worlds, travel to other planets, encounters with other life forms, the future evolution of the human race, and the ravages of atomic destruction or biochemical warfare. Science fiction has also spawned several subgenres in the late twentieth century, including cyberpunk, stories that take place in a virtual world sustained by computers and dominated by multinational corporations (William Gibson's Neuromancer  and Scott's film Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? ); ecoscience fiction, stories set in either an ecological utopia or distopia (Vonnegut's Galapagos , Spielberg's Jurassic Park , John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up ); and feminist science fiction (Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness , James Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See"  and "The Screwfly Solution" ).
Themes related to religion
The early science fiction pulp magazines were devoted primarily to adventure stories in which the exploration of religious themes or any explicit reference to religion was taboo. However, as science fiction moved into the mediums of novel and film, these strictures fell away. Modern science fiction deals extensively with religion, at times explicitly, at other times through the exploration of metaphysical systems, the nature of humanity or of social structures, the question of mystical powers, or the nature of moral decision making.
A number of science fiction novels have dealt directly with the nature of God. In A Romance of Two Worlds (1886), Marie Corelli explores the idea of God as an electrical force. H. G. Wells explores the nature of a finite or an unknowable God in God the Invisible King (1917) and The Undying Fire (1919). Mary Shelley in Frankenstein (1818), one of the earliest books in the science fiction genre, takes as her premise the question of human usurpation of the prerogatives of God. Stories that examine what it feels like to be God or to have godlike powers of omniscience, omnipotence, or the ability to create life forms range from short stories such as Edmond Hamilton's "Fessenden's Worlds" (1937) and Frank Russell's "Hobbyist" (1947), to novels such as Frank Herbert's The God Makers (1972) and Stanislav Lem's Solaris (1961). The idea of humans who create a god or computers that develop godlike powers is raised in Frederic Brown's "Answer" (1954), Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question" (1956), and Martin Caidin's The God Machine (1989). Many stories raise the possibility that a more advanced civilization would seem godlike to human beings. Philip K. Dick explores the question of beings with godlike powers in Our Friends from Frolix 8 (1970) and the Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964). Stories that posit an evil or incompetent god include Lester Del Ray's "Evensong" (1967), James Tiptree's Up the Walls of the World (1978), and Philip K. Dick's "Faith of Our Fathers" (1980). John Varley questions the basic requirements for being a god in his Titan series (1980).
The nature of humankind is so common a theme in science fiction that it has been used as a definition of the genre. Brian Aldiss writes in Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1986): "Science fiction is the search for definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science)" (p. 25). Almost all science fiction works deal implicitly, if not explicitly with the question of what it means to be human. Common plot vehicles include confrontation by an alien race or by intelligent computers, the challenges of disaster or of a dystopian world, and ethical decision making under limited conditions.
The question of not only what human beings are but what we might ultimately become is explicitly dealt with in Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937). Human transformation into a mystical or spiritual form is also examined in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (1953) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Philip Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1955). The evolutionary ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin are explicitly foundational to George Zebrowski's The Omega Point (1972) and appear implicitly in Clarke's Childhood's End. Clarke also examines what it means to be human from the perspective of Buddhism in The Fountains of Paradise (1979).
A few novels and short stories deal with explicitly Christian themes. The star followed by the magi forms the basis for Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star" (1955). Richard Matheson's "The Traveler" (1952) and Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man! (1966) use time travel to examine the crucifixion of Jesus. While these are among the few stories that mention Jesus specifically, a figure whose advent and saving of a culture are messianic in nature is common and can be found in J. D. Beresford's What Dreams May Come (1941), L. Ron Hubbard's Final Blackout (1940), and Frank Herbert's Dune series (1965). The Apocalypse and the second coming of Christ have also formed a backdrop for much science fiction. C. S. Lewis wrote a trilogy in the form of science fiction that moves from a retelling of the story of the garden of Eden to the days before the second coming of Christ in which Merlin plays the role of messiah (Out of the Silent Planet , Perelandra , and That Hideous Strength ). Walter Miller's, A Canticle for Leibowitz  and Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle  continue the apocalyptic theme, examining human behavior and the role of the church in worlds that have been or are being largely destroyed.
A number of science fiction novels posit a future theocracy, generally in a negative light. This is a particularly strong theme in feminist science fiction, and societies based on a version of Christian or Islamic fundamentalism are found in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1986), Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Shattered Chain (1983), Sylvia Engdahl's This Star Shall Abide (1972) and Sheri Tepper's Grass (1990), The Fresco (2000), and The Visitor (2002). Feminist science fiction has also explored societies that follow a goddess based religion, a theme in Elizabeth Hand's Walking the Moon (1996), Starhawk's The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993), Marie Jakober's The Black Chalice (2000) and Suzette Elgin's The Judas Rose (1994). The effects of a theocracy are also explored outside of a feminist context, as in Lester Del Rey's The Eleventh Commandment (1962), John Brunner's The Stone that Never Came Down (1973), and Keith Robert's Kiteworld (1985).
With or without a theocracy, the priest or cleric is a fairly common protagonist. The strong religious grounding of such a character allows the author to examine human behavior in the light of challenges to one's religious or moral ground. Examples of clerical protagonists are found in James Blish's A Case of Conscience (1963), Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover Landfall (1972), Gordon Harris's Apostle From Space (1978), and Lester Del Ray's "For I am a Jealous God" (1973).
Science fiction is also an excellent vehicle for the consideration of moral questions. In Science Fiction: The Future (1971), Dick Allen describes the genre as "a form of literature that argues through its intuitive force that the individual can shape and change and influence and triumph; that [human beings] can eliminate both war and poverty; that miracles are possible; that love, if given a chance, can become the main driving force of human relationships" (p. 3). Ethical issues that are explored in science fiction include the appropriate use of technology, human relationships in the face of hardship, human responsibility in the face of new technologies, and the conflicts between disparate social groups or species. Many science fiction novels explore the conflicts that result when two societies with disparate ethical systems come in contact with one another. Examples include Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954), Spider Robinson's Night of Power (1985), and Ken MacLeod's The Cassini Division (2000).
Aldiss, Brian W., with Wingrove, David. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. New York: Atheneum, 1986. Originally published as Billion Year Spree. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973.
Allen, Dick, ed. Science Fiction: The Future. New York: Harcourt, 1971.
Cassutt, Michael, and Greeley, Andrew M., eds. Sacred Visions. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.
Greenberg, Martin H., and Warrick, Patricia S., eds. The New Awareness: Religion through Science Fiction. New York: Delacorte, 1975.
Reilly, Robert, ed. The Transcendent Adventure: Studies of Religion in Science Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985.
Ryan, Alan, ed. Perpetual Light. New York: Warner, 1982.
NOREEN L. HERZFELD