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Some rambling sci-fi thoughts

I really enjoy science fiction novels (a genre many describe as an exploration of human nature and our responses to social and technological change), especially when they touch on themes of religion or faith. I don’t usually get much of a chance to read sci-fi these days—too much on my plate already—but I just hauled through two novels and pleasantly discovered that they both carried a similar underlying theme: there is no such thing as a utopia.

Why is this pleasant—and what does it have to do with faith or religion? Because, dag-nabbit, I get so frustrated with sci-fi novels that insist there is such a thing (and, believe me, there’s a slew of them out there). Be these nirvanas stumbled upon or manipulated into existence by the “correct” politics, the absence of religion or the perfection of humanity through science, these novels fail to realize the single most important thing about the human race: sin.

Now, sin may be in its throes of death (Romans 6), but there’s no way—at least from a biblical standpoint—we’ll get heaven on earth until God says so. We are living in the “not yet”, the middle of the Grand Story. When God erases sin from his creation, we’ll find ourselves in a utopia none of us can comprehend on this side of the Story’s grand finale. Until then, however, this world, our societies and our future have to deal with the consequences of sin’s existence and sway. The only way to deal with sin and overcome its hold on us is through and in the new life Jesus so abundantly gives. Our own efforts at creating that kind of life, however noble (or lame-brain), will only fail.

So, what are these novels I’m talking about? The first is Return to Mars by Ben Bova. This near-future (with technology that’s actually excitingly plausible) novel is a sequel to Mars (which I read after NASA’s rovers landed on the Red Planet and started sending back those incredible pictures) in which a manned trip to the planet nets the discovery of life in the form of lichen—and the possibility that intelligent life once existed on that planet. In the sequel, another manned mission returns to explore those discoveries—and here’s the paragraph (the thoughts of the narrator as he contemplates the indifferent, cold landscape before him) that had me reaching for my black ball-point pen:
The real dangers are those we carry with us: envy, ambition, jealously, fear and greed and hate. We carry it all with us, locked in our hearts. Even here on Mars, we haven’t changed. It’s all here with us because we brought it ourselves.
That could be a paraphrase of Romans 1. Kudos to Bova. The novel itself? The premise is a bit of a stretch, it’s got a soap-opera feel at times, but it’s an okay read (two out of four stars, perhaps).

The second novel I just finished is Vitals by Greg Bear. Bear is known for his hard-science fiction (I read his novels just as much to learn about the science as for the plot), and this novel combines that with some fanciful rumination about man’s search for immortality. The novel is laced with biblical imagery (multiple references to the Garden of Eden, Tree of Life, Jonah, figurative flaming swords, etc.) and plays with the idea of what would happen if we discovered a path towards delaying inevitable death—and it isn’t pretty. Heh, Wikipedia’s summary puts it best (warning: big spoiler): by the end of the novel “the main characters are all either dead, irrelevant, or the victim of mind altering xenophages.” Man’s sin-tainted attempt to return to Eden twists it into a hell on earth. So, no utopia here, either—which leads me again to give kudos to the author. As for the novel itself, it’s not Bear’s best (and it is very sin-tainted, if you get my drift). Like Return to Mars, I’d give this one two out of four stars.

While both of the these authors may be familiar with religion and/or faith, I don’t think either of them (that I’m aware of, at least) are religious themselves or hold to the Christian faith. However, at least in these two novels, they do recognize something about human nature that’s reflected in a biblical world view: we are all bent towards sin. And that, my friends, precludes any destiny of heaven on earth by our own efforts.



Adrienne said…
One of the things that really drives me crazy about Christianity is the emphasis on humankind's essentially flawed and "sinful" "nature".

I'm a sociologist. I don't BELIEVE in "human nature".

And regardless of whether i do or not, the essential imperfectibility of humankind has always struck me as a deeply destructive and disgustingly self-fulfilling belief. If we can't be perfect, well, then, every imperfection can just be written off as "sin" and "forgiven" by "God", and we're under no REAL obligation to TRY to be perfect. Or even *better* than we are now.

It strikes me as similar to a belief in free will -- whether it's true or not, i think that any civilization *i* want to live in believes that people have free will and are responsible for their own actions. Likewise, any civilization *i* want to live in believes that people CAN be free from "sin" and error -- whether it's true or not, it's the only way to open up the *possibility*.

You guys just close that whole possibility off forever. "Oh, can't be done -- don't bother! You'll sin; then all you have to do is apologize and God will forgive you. No harm, no foul!" How can you people LIVE with yourselves, for that?
Carmen Andres said…
Ack, that post was a little sin heavy, huh. But I’m thinking that we agree on two things: we want to live in a world of free will and we want the possibility to be better than we are. Most Christians, in fact, even believe that those two things are reality: inherent in our world and in us.

The difference, I guess, is that (as a Christian) I’m fairly certain we can’t get to the “better” by our own effort, no matter how hard we try. Recently, one of things that hammered this home for me was when I realized that no one can do the “right” thing every single time, but, if they wanted to, they could do the “wrong” thing every time. For example, you could decide to tell the truth (not lie) for the rest of your life, but eventually, you would tell a lie. But if you decided to lie every time someone asked you something, you could do that—not that you’d want to, but it would be feasible. Or, if lying doesn’t work as an example, think of the values you believe are right or just behavior. Chances are most of those are behaviors or attitudes you can do most of the time but will fail at sometime down the road. Even if we “master” one value or virtue, chances are we are failing at another. My experience with myself and people in general tells me there is an inherent flaw in us. We will, no matter what, do the wrong thing at some point—even if we don’t intend to. We will, in biblical terms, miss the mark. While we are creatures of free will and can choose to do better, Christians believe that ability to do better comes from God and not our own effort (aside from what we can do to continually surrender to him). No religion makes us behave better—only God can do that.

The attitude you mention (“no harm, no foul”) actually isn’t a Christian principle but, sadly, is a false assumption many people claiming to be Christians believe. People who are truly seeking to follow Jesus and his Way know this not to be true. One can’t be really following Jesus and be comfortable with continuing to embrace behavior that misses the mark. In fact, when we are truly following Jesus, our behavior actually gets better—not on our own effort but because God is changing us from the inside out. Ironically, we also become more and more aware of how much we miss the mark, which, fortunately, makes us depend more and more on God (who then helps us miss the mark less). I recently stumbled upon this concept (while reading about Johnny Cash) as being the “walking wounded” and “perpetually healed.”

While Christianity says we can’t get to utopia on this side of heaven, Jesus commanded that until then we form communities that are shaped by a better way to live—a God-within and God-shaped way of life. These communities aren’t made up of “better” people, but people living a better way, living life the way it meant to be lived: in peace, in joy, in fantastic love and in happy surrender to a God who is full of more love and more hope than I ever dreamed possible. That, in many ways, is a taste of heaven, of utopia. It’s still not perfect, not heaven, but it will be one day.

So, yeah, I think that post should have been balanced with a lot more hope than I gave it. As a Christian and from my own personal experience, I know people are bent towards sin. But, as a Christian and from my own experience, I also know there’s a heaven waiting just around the corner—and we can taste it now if we choose.

Thanks for your post. Blessings.
Elliot said…
Interesting post and intriguing ideas. I'm going to have to think about that some more.

I'm interested in the juncture between SF and faith myself. In case you're interested I've got a survey of the subject starting here:

Most of the time I'm discussing famous sf authors who are Christians or at least interested in religious thought. You may already be familiar with many of the books I mention.
Mirtika said…
I don't think you need to apologize for focusing on a particular thing--such as sin or sin nature.

One can fully believe we're flawed and born with hearts shadowed by the fall, and yet believe we are CREATED to strive to be better, finer, than our dark impulses; COMMANDED to be better, in fact, by the One who calls us to accountability.

Christians have the highest standard of behavior, and we don't live up to it. But we're still supposed to TRY and WORK and SEEK to overcome our selfishness and envy and covetousness and gluttony and wrath and lust and etc.

To know who we are and what we can be is necessary, even if what we are is a case of bad news/good news.

Mirtika said…
Adrienne is very much mistaken. Christ says we are to be perfect, as the Father is perfect. To realize we are very far from perfect and to realize there is a standard of perfection--both are guides. The starting point of reality, and the journey toward the "best", and the endpoint: "We shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is."

Sanctification is a very Christian term, and it's a term that says we ought to be running that race toward virtue every day, our eyes set on the One who is perfect as our role model.

The possibilities that Christ--and true Christianity--should seek to close off are the ones that set us back into the dark and the dingy and the filthy and the vile. Those are good possibilities to close off, the way we'd cover up a sewage tank or an empty well or a contaminated dump site-- so as not to bring harm to others.

Becky said…
Carmen, I followed Elliot's link here. I'm a Christian fantasy writer and of course am interested in your thoughts on speculative fiction.

There's a new Christian SF novel out that I haven't read yet, but you might be interested in taking a look" The Evidence by Austin Boyd (NavPress, 2006).

I'm currently discussion good and evil in my blog--something I'm pretty sure your reader Adrienne would have much to disagree with.

Carmen Andres said…
thanks to all of you for popping by this post. it's been a good group of comments. blessings.
Austin Boyd said…

I'm Austin Boyd, the author of The Evidence. Give it a whirl... also current technology, very near future mission to Mars, three book series. The Proof, book 2, is out in September. You can read more about it at

My first novel takes a Navy pilot and experienced astronaut through some faith challenging experiences as he seeks to make a difference in the lives of his Space Station crew and his family. He's tested, he's a real person fighting real temptations and stresses, and deals with them in a way that helps the secular reader to see Christ in the characters, and leaves the Christian reader with a sense that 'this is real life'. Hope you enjoy it. Thanks to Becky for the recommendation.

Austin Boyd