I’m a bit of a sci-fi nerd. And not just the good stuff, either—I really like bad sci-fi. One of my favorite pastimes is to put on a made-for-TV sci-fi or monster movie and revel in the sheer badness of it all. I love fake-looking monsters and ludicrous situations. Even so, there’s something refreshing about seeing the filmmakers’ earnest efforts to bring incredible things to life on screen in spite of their limited resources.
Science fiction, of course, is fiction that is based in science or makes use of science-based elements, often involving alternatives such as alternative lifeforms, alternative settings, alternative timelines, alternative societies, and so on. These elements sometimes turn people off, but they’re really just a framework for asking a few fundamental questions: Who are we? Where are we going? What’s wrong with the world? How do we fix it? Engaging with these questions and the answers that are proposed provides wonderful opportunities for Christians to understand and reach out to the people around us.
As a genre, science fiction truly came into its own in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, birthed during a time of rapid changes in science, technology, and philosophy. The pace and scope of those changes was often bewildering, and authors picked up on science- and technology-based themes to explore their consequences.
During the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, optimism was the order of the day, as many people believed that mankind was advancing to a more civilized state. The world had shaken off the primitive notions that had held it back (including belief in the Christian God and His authoritative revelation) and was committed to uniting and working toward a bright new future.
The optimism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries crashed when it came up against the horrors of World War I. Rather than advancing in civilization, mankind seemed to take a giant step back into barbarism in the blood- and gas-filled trenches of Europe. It was thought that this war was so horrific that no one would dare fight such a war again. That notion, too, collapsed just two decades later when the Nazi Wehrmacht marched across the Continent. The myth of human progress seemed trite in the shadow of concentration camps, the siege of Leningrad, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Then and now, in the context of tumult and disorder, sci-fi authors have used various approaches to imagine what’s next for mankind or to try to make sense of the world. Given the technological and scientific advances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some authors have imagined what things would be like if man continues to advance. For instance, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 (and Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film) portrays an interaction with a benevolent alien race that has pushed mankind’s evolution and speculates about mankind’s next stage. Other authors explore where we might end up if we don’t get our act together. Examples include H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which all posit futures where something has gone horribly awry.
Some authors grapple with the transformation of society by pushing their audiences to reflect on and respond to situations in their own day. Star Trek, for example, portrays a future where earthbound racial differences have been rendered meaningless by interaction with alien races, with the implication that we should set aside those differences now.
Even bad sci-fi gets at these themes. Creating situations where disasters and monsters harry our heroes confronts us with a world that is fundamentally antagonistic. Such stories allow the reader or viewer to vicariously live out a scenario where extreme circumstances are faced and conquered, and they thus provide a catharsis in the midst of a real world that often doesn’t make sense to us.
Science fiction asks good questions. But what of the solutions that such works recommend? Interacting with these solutions can provide fertile ground for discussions with non-Christians.
For instance, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five wrestles with the horrors of World War II as seen through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, a survivor of the Dresden fire-bombing who becomes “unstuck in time.” He comes to accept a fatalistic philosophy learned from a race of aliens called Tralfamadorians. Such fatalism can be attractive because it frees one from truly having to grapple with the ills of the world. Such ills cannot be explained because the world is fundamentally inexplicable. But, as you might point out to friend with whom Billy’s credo resonates, this philosophy also denies the existence and meaning of human choices, making it impossible to live out such thinking consistently, as Billy himself demonstrates in the book.
Or consider the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This tale of a small town’s takeover by a race of parasitic alien spores is often interpreted as an anti-Communist allegory. The danger is the perceived flattening of humanity, the elimination of individuality. Communism, the film seems to say, threatens our destruction because it destroys what makes us human. The solution is to fight and assert our individuality. However, stories like this tend to externalize the danger to human beings, which runs the risk of ignoring the reality of sin in our own hearts.