Rejecting Some Science Fictional Ideas

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 14, 2016

The job of science fiction writers is to imagine things we haven’t imagine before. To speculate about the future, distant worlds, alternate histories, extrapolated trends, artificial life, machine intelligences, the future evolution of our species and so on. The territory of science fiction is quite large. As readers we are entertained by these feats of creativity, and all too often we are enchanted by the ideas that science fiction writers have given us. We want travel to distant worlds to be possible. We want to meet intelligent beings from other worlds, or build sentient machines. But I also think we should think carefully about science fictional speculation and reject ideas that aren’t rational.

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I’m currently rereading 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke proposes several ideas in this book, some of which I don’t like, and some of which I hope are wrong. In Clarke’s two most famous works: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood’s End, he theorizes that advanced aliens have or will uplifted our species. I don’t know why this idea is so appealing to him. What’s really a strange is 2001: A Space Odyssey was published in 1968, coincidentally, the same year as Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Däniken, which proposed a rather similar idea.

I find the theory that we needed aliens to uplift us, or accelerate our evolution, or explain some of our accomplishments, to be insulting. And these ideas have a strange kinship with religion. Powerful aliens are very much like how our ancestors imagined their gods. And as much as I dislike von Däniken, he spotted the religious angle. I wonder if Clarke knew what he was doing?

Both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood’s End even appear to want transcendence through alien intervention. Isn’t Clarke just wishing to be reborn into a higher form and live in heaven? Isn’t he rejecting our current existence and state of being? Which is what most religions do too, by their claims the physical world is imperfect, full of sin and suffering. I prefer science fiction that is full of hubris, and humans pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

The second speculation Clarke pursues in 2001: A Space Odyssey is the fear of artificial intelligence. This is more logical, and maybe even practical. But it’s rather oddly religious too. Isn’t Clarke rejecting our ability to create and conceive our own evolutionary replacements? Isn’t Clarke’s warnings against HAL much like the Bible’s warnings against the Tower of Babel? Isn’t it saying God and aliens can create intelligent beings, but we can’t? Are they both saying, don’t aim too high because we don’t have the abilities.

What if we substituted crosses for monoliths in this story, and God for aliens. Wouldn’t it still work? Aren’t both of Clarke’s most famous stories about salvation by high powers? Aren’t their parallels between the beginning of 2001 and the Garden of Eden story? These two novels are very popular. Yet, isn’t that easily explainable? Even today most people seek salvation via high powers. Look at the current election. Isn’t Donald Trump actual claiming he can save us, that he knows more, that he can work magic, and people believe him. But isn’t that also a rejection of our own abilities and accomplishments?

Sometimes when we read a science fiction story we need to reject its ideas. Even though both of Clarke’s masterpieces are compelling stories, I wouldn’t want them to be true. I’d rather believe we’re here alone in the universe, and we evolved through random events. Then again, I’m an atheist.


14 thoughts on “Rejecting Some Science Fictional Ideas”

  1. I don’t see 2001 that way. It seems to me that Clarke is saying that any creation of ours that reaches a kind of sentience is going to have our qualities, and the same capacity for error and the possibility of going insane. So, it’s a warning against our dependence on technology that we can barely understand. It’s also a metaphor for the idea that we create our gods in our own image. Or at least a parallel.

    I think Childhood’s End is more in the tradition of our wanting to be saved from ourselves than one of uplift. I haven’t read it in years, so I’m overdue to do that, but I remember than the only uplift or saving was the children. The rest of humanity was simply discarded.

    1. Yeah, I hate being discarded. And Clarke discards us like we don’t matter. It’s interesting that 2001 ends with the Starchild, and Childhood’s End finishes with all the children flying up into the sky. Both are such thorough rejections of what we are now.

      Since I was reading 2001 I get Clarke’s explanations that aren’t in the movie. In the book it’s obvious the aliens are uplifting the ape-men. If humanity goes to the stars, would it be ethical for us to go around uplifting various lifeforms? I don’t know.

      The one thing Clarke doesn’t explain is – Why? What’s the advantage of evolving into non-material beings?

  2. Maybe Clarke felt that we needed uplifting. I’m sure feeling that way lately, what with chimp-tribalism and avarice seemingly on every side (please don’t delude yourself that this only applies to Trump fans). Anyway, it was a theme he was fond of. His third most famous work would be the stories collected in “City”, wherein Man has gone away, leaving behind uplifted Dogs and Robots. I think Clarke definitely had a streak of mysticism in him, for all his hard-SF rep.

    1. I think many people think we need uplifting. The question is do we need outside help, or can we do it ourselves?

      I’ve always been so curious why Clarke was so high tech and mystical.

      By the way, those wonderful City stories were from Clifford Simak.

      1. Yeah, of course “City” was Simak — who also penned a few stories about mysterious, Fortean aliens now that I think about it. Of course that wasn’t an uncommon theme at the time those two were writing.

    1. I don’t know Daniel. It’s been a few thousand years since The Bible was written, and I don’t think we’ve evolved very much. I tend to think in another three thousand years we’ll have AI machines that are thousand times smarter than we are. I suppose we could bio-engineer our descendants to be Homo sapiens 2.0.

      1. “I suppose we could bio-engineer our descendants to be Homo sapiens 2.0.” Yes, I expect we will. Unlike the last few millennia, we’re now on the cusp of editing our own genetic code. It’s already happening in a few places that have announced their efforts to make human germline edits to correct for infertility or other problems. It’s only going to accelerate, and what we end up becoming in the future is anyone’s guess (although I’d wager we’ll be substantially different from now). I also predict we’ll begin splitting off into different species as time goes on due to cultural selection. Why try to convince people to join your political/religious group when you can create a biologically distinct group that can only reproduce within itself (the ultimate retention mechanism)?

        1. Gattaca is my all-time favorite science fiction film. I think we could be better people now if we all worked at it with discipline. I’m not sure we need more intelligence, or psychic abilities. We just need to focus, become more logical, kill off our delusions, and be far more empathetic.

          I’m not sure how much further intelligence will get us.

  3. Science often makes advances by finding mistakes in current thinking. Science fiction allows us to explore ideas, but still leaves us free to reject them. I haven’t thought too much about 2001, but I did find Childhood’s End disappointing, not only in the disjointed, almost meaningless ending of the “next evolutionary step” of humanity, but in Clarke’s depiction of the 50 year “golden age” that humanity was left with; it was futile, pointless, and not very well thought out.
    A real next evolutionary step of humanity story should be through our own efforts and interaction with reality, but without the alien intervention. The alien intervention seems too much like deus ex machina, than any actual, well-developed plot idea. Not that one couldn’t write a good alien intervention story, just that it shouldn’t be considered necessary for the next step of humanity. If anything, that might be the conflict of the story, that alien intervention is preventing or side-stepping the natural evolution of humanity.

    1. Yes, we need to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. That’s why I see solving the climate change problem as our true test of intelligence. We’ve always adapted to the environment. But now that we’re destroying the environment, can we choose to adapt ourselves.

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