Friday, August 7, 2009

Religion and Science Fiction Part II (Or why does God need a starship?)

Following up yesterday's post about the concern over the portrayal of religion in The Gods of Mars this piece asks the question is there any religion in science fiction and fantasy? The answer is yes.

To some that would seem an unlikely. After all religion and science has been at odds for centuries, probably ever since Columbus proved the world was round and the first apple bonked Issac Newton. Even recent years have seen attempts to ban the teaching of evolution from classrooms. But science fiction has a strong track record of working religion into its narratives, sometimes positively, sometimes not.

Indeed some of the basic plots of sci-fi and fantasy seem almost drawn from the Bible. There is what can be summed up by (of all people) Ed Wood:He tampered in God's Domain. This sub genre seems more a cautionary tale not to meddle in things man wasn't meant to know. That has ranged from don't attempt to build life out of the dead, otherwise the creation will kill those you love, don't clone dinosaurs otherwise you might get eaten and whatever you do, don't mock religious artifacts or you face will melt off (sorry for the humor).

Another sub genre is the metaphor genre. Indeed sci-fi and fantasy has had their own version of Jesus Christ, from Klatuu to E.T. to Neo. The most famous comic book character ever Superman has had his story reworked to an almost biblical proportions, especially in the first Christopher Reeve film where Brando's Jor-El tells him "I've sent them you, my only son." On the flip side the Devil has also gotten his due from Sauron's big flaming eyeball to Voldemort. George Lucas meanwhile gave us two devils, The Emperor Palpatine who combines both the Devil from Faust and the serpent in the Garden of Eden and Anakin Skywalker whose fall from grace mirrored Lucifer's expulsion from Heaven. (In fact Revenge of the Sith maybe the most religious sci-fi flick in recent memory, complete with it's own version of Hell where Anakin falls.)

A spin-off of this type is The One story, where some ancient prophecy foretells of a saviour that will arise to save his people. This has ran from the Kwistatz Haderach to The Boy Who Lived. On the flip side is the False Prophet plot where the prophet turns out to be evil or falsely leads his believers. Gods of Mars with Issus and the Holy Therns fits this type.

Of course sometimes religion is portrayed in a negative fashion. One show that constantly flirts with this (and let the hate mail flow here) is Star Trek. Any time the Starship Enterprise comes upon a godlike being or something claiming to be God, in the end its usually some insane creature, a spoiled child or a false prophet. The most notable of this (and where I got the sub quote for this piece) is the 5th film in the series. After agreeing to let the Vulcan Sybok go on his religious pilgrimage what they find is not God but a creature with malicious intents. I don't want to say or lead readers to think that Gene Roddenberry or anybody involved with the series doesn't have beliefs but it does seem the series relied on this a lot. On the other hand author Phillip Pullman has made no secret of his atheism or the fact that his own belief has influenced the His Dark Materials trilogy or its central villains The Magisterium. The first movie, The Golden Compass did dial this back to a degree to avoid inflaming more controversy but while the film was well made it still made less than such Catholic backed fantasy films like Chronicles of Narnia. Even True Blood producer Alan Ball has made no secret of equating the Church of the Light and it's anti-vampire stance to the Church's stance on homosexuality.

Whether or not Andrew Stanton even makes the second film is still to be decided. If he does decide to dial down or eliminate things that some might find offensive it won't be much of a surprise. If he does embrace the plot, hopefully it will remain faithful to the story Burroughs written but maybe show that sometimes people have faith and do what is right (John Carter for example has faith in his loved ones and his friends) and that sometimes faith can be violated for the wrong means. In either case it will be an interesting thing to see.

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