Show Your Hand

When I first heard of Triplanetary, recommended as one of science fiction’s great space operas, I caught the copyright year 1997. When I actually got the book in my hands, I realized 1997 was the copyright renewal, 1948 was the original copyright, and much of the book had run as a serial in 1934. Triplanetary is, in a word, old. Old books are often the best to analyze; they come unhindered by current debates, unfiltered by current assumptions.

Triplanetary, an epic clash of four intelligent species framed as an even more epic struggle for galactic destiny, presents an excellent case-study of how a creator’s stories reveal his beliefs. In the first place, it has actual ideas; in the second, it is not a book with a message, so what comments it makes on philosophy or religion are subtle and, perhaps, unconscious. The novel opens with the chance meeting of two alien races hundreds of millions of years ago. The races, super-intelligent and practically immortal, are about equal in ability but polar opposites in nature. Multiple galaxies are not big enough for the both of them, and the benevolent aliens, thinking long-term, hatch a plan: They will find some promising planet and, over the course of thousands of generations, “develop” a new race to outstrip their rivals and finally take the place of Guardians of Civilization.

Not that I imagine it’s a spoiler, but that race is us.

With this idea, the author tips his hand regarding his essential worldview. A Christian author could easily write a secular book, but even there – even in a sci-fi novel nobody believes anyway – he’s unlikely to portray humanity as the product of aliens monkeying with the evolutionary process. The aliens’ “program of genetics” – managing blood lines and human mating, through means that are never described – hints at eugenics; it’s ambiguous, however, whether the aliens’ genetic program advanced the evolution of humanity or created a master race within it.

The most important idea in the novel is Civilization (capitalization from the original). It’s curious that Civilization is never defined; perhaps the author assumed that people would know what he meant by it, and perhaps, back in 1948, he was right. Probably what he meant was Progress, in every way the word can be understood. Triplanetary presents a long history of malignant aliens engineering the destruction of civilizations, from Atlantis to Rome to the United States, and an equally long history of benevolent aliens raising up newer, better civilizations in their place. One sees, in the long panorama, a climb out of chaos and violence, a march toward science and technology. You might even call it the long arc of history, bending toward justice. This unexamined optimism, with its touching idealism and materialistic faith, is old and widespread.

The ethic of Triplanetary is not our modern ethic. It’s too archaic in its reverence for womanhood, its definition of manhood by courage, resolve, and physical heroism; its casual assertion of moral principle above love is bracing. At the same time, it is not a Christian ethic. The sense, felt sometimes in the pages of the book, that Civilization matters more than the millions lost along the way is cold and foreign. The ethic of Triplanetary is, moreover, divorced from God – amicably divorced, to be sure, but divorced all the same.

Triplanetary is revealing of its time and its author. Beliefs about God, the universe, and right and wrong have a way of becoming apparent, even when left unspoken. We all show our hands in the end. It’s only a matter of how.

A Christian Twist

(I am going to state right here that this is not my finest work. But I wrote it under the influence of a summer cold, and this is as good as it’s going to get, people.)

 

Christian speculative fiction, as a whole, has evolved along distinct lines from secular speculative fiction, acquiring its own hallmarks and characteristics. There are many reasons for this, too many to explore or even list; different cultural pressures, different audience demands, even the division between Christian and regular literature (did it exist a hundred years ago?) all played their parts. Another cause, and the one I want to focus on today, is that Christianity itself – so much the intellectual and cultural background of these works – introduces different elements into fiction. The handling of these elements may or may not accord with Christian thought and biblical exegesis, but the source of the material is beyond doubt. Here, then, are a few of these elements:

Angels/demons. Many different cultures and religions harbor ideas of angels and demons, and then there are free-floating, popular notions – for example, the belief (unattached to any actual religion) that people die and become angels. What Christianity provides, then, is not the general idea of angels but a specific idea of who and what they are. The two greatest representations of angels and demons in modern Christian fiction are Peretti’s This Present Darkness and Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. There have been many others, all containing variations of their own. But one great commonality cuts across all Christian portrayals of demons and angels: They are always dedicated to the service of either Heaven or Hell; never do they act as free agents. In Christian SF, angels never exist without God and rarely exist without the devil. Christian doctrine on angels is so established, and so developed, that it encourages the use of angels in Christian SF – far more prodigious than in secular SF.

The Nephilim. The Nephilim appear only briefly in the Bible, but long enough to stir up all kinds of controversy. Various interpretations of what they were have been put forward, some quite tame. Naturally, the wild interpretations have gotten a foothold in Christian SF. Half-demon supermen are rich material for fantastic novels, and this is obvious even if you are one of those Christians who are just driven crazy by the whole phenomenon. Nephilim stories are unusually bound to our own world and history, especially to (borrowing a phrase) the days of Noah and the days of the Son of Man. The incubus is made in a similar mold, but it inhabits a different milieu than the Nephilim and lacks the absolute identification with angels and the Bible.

The End Times. To speak of the End Times as the end of the world is accurate but desperately incomplete. The language of the End Times, both revolutionary and catastrophic, makes it clear that it will be the end of the world, the universe, and the current cosmic order. So when Christians use the term End Times, they aren’t whistling Dixie. The End Times have become an established niche in Christian fiction, inspired by the stormy visions of Revelation and driven by Christian enthusiasm (periodically intense, never entirely dormant) for the subject. Left Behind carries the field, but C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle entered it more than sixty years ago, and newer books carry on the charge.