Science fiction author Philip Purser-Hallard looks at faith in an increasingly futuristic world.
I often say that the purpose of science fiction isn’t to predict the future, but to imagine interesting possible futures. And ‘possible’ is a concept which stretches quite some way before it snaps.
Usually the fictional futures which I find most interesting are those which diverge radically from the present – either by imagining some catastrophic discontinuity in future history, or by looking to very distant eras, thousands or millions of years hence.
Such stories take literary prediction from the realm of futurology into that of eschatology. Futurology – the field more formally known as ‘futures studies’ – concerns itself primarily with short-term trends in practical fields like business, technology and demographics.
Eschatology – the study of the eventual destiny of the world and of humanity – has traditionally been a theological discipline.
Most of us take a rather egocentric view of the future, finding little to interest us beyond the lifetimes of our potential children or grandchildren. Our culture marginalises any serious conjecture concerning extreme futures, treating it at best as a source of wacky soundbites for the ends of news programmes.
Postmen vs Posthumans
Accordingly, most popular SF deals with familiar, even cosy futures. (Exceptions might include post-apocalyptic films like Mad Max or The Postman, but even these are relatively conservative, showing humanity struggling to re-attain the status quo of pre-catastrophe civilisation.)
Eschatological SF tends to be rather more hardcore, selling itself to seasoned readers of the genre. Many SF authors, like many religious believers, see humanity’s long-term destiny as holding paramount importance. How can we assess the path our society and species are taking without a clear view of our ultimate destination?
Needless to say, there’s little consensus regarding that destination. In SF, the future is wildly variable. Human beings may modify ourselves until we’re no longer recognisable as human. We may replace ourselves with software, building ever more ambitious computers to run ourselves on. We may evolve into supermen or gods, or mindless animals. We may cause our own extinction, leaving behind a desolate wasteland or a thriving biosphere.
What’s arguably least likely, though, is that we’ll potter on much as we are, expanding out into the solar system and the galaxy, implementing the same old political, cultural and social systems on an ever-larger scale.
Rapture vs Ragnarok
World religions differ equally widely on the matter. While Eastern faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism envisage eternally recurring cycles of light and darkness, we in the West seem to enjoy apocalypses. Our gods and devils are invariably expected to converge in a final battle and a final judgement, although only the most pessimistic belief-systems (such as the Norse myths) suggest that evil might actually win.
The traditional Christian vision of apocalypse is founded in a very literal understanding of the Bible, and in particular of contentious texts like Revelation. In some schools of thought this is accompanied by strongly science-fictional imagery, with mass divine abductions prefacing all-out nuclear armageddon.
Liberal theologians take a less melodramatic view of Christian eschatology. Some suggest that the Second Coming will consist of a working-out of Christ’s values in the world, a constant striving for social justice which will ultimately bring about an earthly state equivalent to the Kingdom of Heaven. This too has its SF equivalent, in the utopian tradition of attempting to construct ideal societies in fictional form.
Most fictional utopias are fundamentally flawed, though usually in interesting ways. In the short term it’s true that such a Kingdom would also be limited, by the constraints of human nature if nothing else.
In the long term – well, God only knows. The beauty of the future is there’ll always be more of it.
• The University of Oxford Future of Humanity Institute
• Future Human Evolution
• Christian Futures Network
• World Network of Religious Futurists
• Philip Purser-Hallard
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