In the next few days, we’ll be rolling out a new program exploring the tradition of humanism. During Krista’s interview with Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University, he mentions how he looks to modern literature as a source of understanding.

The next book on my personal reading list is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s a work of science fiction. Like “atheism” or “spirituality,” the term “science fiction” has been painted into a corner. It has come to mean aliens and lasers and space ships. (I’m looking at you, Star Trek…)

(photo: TM Russia 1963, c/o Avi Abrams/Flickr)

But I think more broadly of science fiction as speculative fiction, a protracted thought experiment. Against the utopian dreams of flying cars, world peace, robot butlers, and unlimited scientific progress was set another batch of science fiction. I think of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I think of the German silent film Metropolis, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I can’t stand), and the recent Children of Men.

These represent a hell created by us, not the Hell of Scripture. So these prophetic dystopias are relevant to us in a way that parables of hyperdrives and aliens aren’t. And perhaps for many people, the dystopias may be more relevant than parables of miracles and angels.

We look at an Orwell or a Bradbury or a Huxley and ask, “If we’re heading in directions explored by these dark modern prophets, do we know how to turn around?” But is looking into a funhouse mirror enough? Is it even a start?

(photo: ©Universal)

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What a fun treat to find this on the blog tonight. I *just* watched "A Sound of Thunder" with some friends tonight. It was a truly terrible (read: utterly delightful) movie about the tenuousness of the time-space continuum which featured what we dubbed "flying baboon-o-saurs". And as the final credits rolled, we saw, "Based on the Story by Ray Bradbury".


So we looked it up. The subtleties of the original story by Bradbury, which treats all of the things you mentioned in your post--chaos, the tenuousness of the known universe, etc, were totally lost in the movie version--certainly the aspect of sci-fi that is just looking into the funhouse mirror for amusement. Any attempt they made to say something grand flew out the window when the time waves affected the evolutionary chain in such a way as to create the flying baboon dinosaurs.

(Still, I can't in good conscience advise you not to watch it, because it made for a pretty great night.)

Shiraz, Why can't you stand 2001: A Space Odyssey? Sci-Fi is not particularly my cup of tea,
though I don't turn my nose up at it, but I always thought that was a pretty good movie.
Many people may be unaware that Doris Lessing this year's Novel Prize winner in Lierature,
wrote a series of SciFi books in a series entitled "Canopis in Argos." It's been a long time since I read them, and they never were pleasing to critics, but I rememeber finding them a great read.

The craft and filmmaking in 2001 are superb. What I didn't like was the self-important tone. I think it has a lot to do with the "high art vs. low art" debate, or maybe even that I thought it was boring. But I can admit it was a work of art.

As proof of me being a walking contradiction, I am a fan of a equally overblown and dense novelist, Thomas Pynchon, and the genre of "hysterical realism." I'm still struggling to understand the contradiction. Maybe I need to revisit 2001...

My wife had what I believe was a unique reaction to 2001. We were watching it on DVD, and it was the first time she'd seen it. At some point, near the middle, there's a shot of a space station or something just spinning in the air, and it just spins and spins and spins. And after one or two minutes of this interminable spinning, my wife started laughing and she couldn't stop. From that point on, she couldn't see the movie as anything but hilarious. And though I'd never thought if it that way myself, I couldn't help but agree with her.

I'm old enough to have been in the theater lines when 2001 opened, and was enough of a fan to purchase the vinyl soundtrack. I've probably seen it half a dozen times since then, lastly a year or so ago.

I was disappointed. Maybe no longer in the "target audience?"

To my eyes, it hasn't held up over the years, even considering the comparative infancy of the effects it used. Rather than my perspective having changed so much, I prefer to think that the movie just doesn't have the staying power of others in the genre. "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and the original "Children of the Damned" still rank high on my lists, but 2001 has fallen off. Its relative lack of content and self-pretentiousness made me find it mostly boring.

Ah, I'm so glad I'm not alone!

If "Planet" is on your radar, the Heights Theatre has a new 35mm copy it's showing:
ONE WEEK ONLY May 2 - May 8, 2008.

and (fortunately or not),
ONE WEEK ONLY May 9 - May 15, 2008!
"2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY" IN 70MM (1968)

David, holy smokes, I'm so there. Even 2001 in 70 mm? To quote Keanu Reeves: "Whoa."

Coincidentally, the world lost Arthur C. Clarke recently. He wrote the story "Childhood's End," on which 2001 was based, and later wrote the novelization of the movie, as well as at least two sequels. What little I've read of his work suggests it was of the "speculative fiction" genre.

Two other authors I would recommend are Phil K. Dick and Neil Gaiman (I'd love to hear Krista interview the latter on the topic of "New Mythology"). Dick came very much out of the pulp tradition of the 50s, but his ideas center on the notion of identity and reality. Gaiman knows as much about world mythologies as Joseph Campbell, and applies it with a light touch in his work. I recommend his _American Gods_ in particular.

Neil Gaiman could be fascinating. I never got into Sandman while I was reading comics, but he's got a huge following.

I know we're looking at potentially doing a show about AI at some point. Philip K. Dick could chime in to that. We have some scientists in mind, too.

Oops, seems like we'll need a time machine to interview PKD...

As a genre and in any medium, whether extra-terrestrial or human apocalypse, I think that outside of any religious writings, sci-fi has kept ideas of god, spirituality, and the other in front of a secularized western culture. From the fantastic writers mentioned in this thread to old Twilight Zone episodes and the present Battlestar Gallactica, sci-fi has been more creative in addressing these ideas than most religious writers. SOF should do a presentation.

You might be right about sci-fi in a secular society. It seems that sci-fi is a safe cultural place to talk about these issues.

We had a show a while back on representations of magic and myth in pop culture (e.g. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings), but I think it's worth exploring again. Nowadays, many of us on staff are eagerly/rabidly following Battlestar Galactica on DVD; I'm about to start Season 3, myself.

I listened to the DVD commentary of the Matrix trilogy (deluxe edition) about 3 years ago, and I'm still not over that. Cornel West and Ken Wilber opened up a whole slew of interesting religious interpretations beyond the obvious ones in those movies. I recommend listening to that if you can. It's like "SoF At The Movies." :)

One great guest for a show on this topic might be Orson Scott Card. Card's a practicing Mormon and a legendary sci-fi author much of whose work deals directly with issues of religion. One of his best known books, Speaker for the Dead, specifically imagines a new kind of humanist religious order whose core principle is a relentless empathy: its core ritual is a eulogy which attempts to lay completely naked the deceased's life as he or she experienced it, failures and all, avoiding the beatification that is so common in such situations, and its core texts are similarly empathetic histories of alien civilizations with which the human race has experienced violent conflict.

I started to read science fiction about 3 years ago. Until then I thought most science fiction was GADGET sci fi. Books such as 1984 are SOCIAL science fiction in my opinion. Which is the reason I now take science fiction seriously.

One of the most relevant aspects of Orwell's 1984 is the appendix at the end where he explains double-think and newspeak, as well as how the dystopia came to be. It's completely relevant to what's occuring today where we see a merging of both Orwell's and Huxley's predictions.

Some great suggestions and comments. I can't wait to get started on Orwell. I was fondling the book this weekend at the bookstore, but I have to finish what I'm reading first. I love Animal Farm and his essay Politics and the English Language is a classic, quoted in journalism classes. The reason I want to read Orwell now is precisely because of the whole aspect of "truthiness" (Stephen Colbert's neologism) that seems rife in our political discourse and media, on the left and the right. But I've got Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" on my long list as well. Fairy tale, sci-fi, allegory, satire--it's all good.