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.
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.