Monday, 27 August 2012

SF And The Church Of England

A Case of Condescension

The Rev Giles Fraser is the face of Anglicanism its progressive constituents would dearly like us all to acknowledge. Pro-gay marriage, martyr for the Occupy cause and wrong-footer of that pesky Dawkins, the Rev Fraser is even known to smoke ciggys and listen to The Clash (Actually, I'm not certain about that last one, but every member of the British establishment trying to look modern and edgy seems to do it).

Yet skiffy he ain't. In an otherwise conciliatory piece in The Guardian about religious sceptics, Fraser felt the urge to add-

'...not all of them are science-fiction reading Dawkins geeks.'

Needless to say it got my back up. And, no, not because of the Dawkins snipe (It wouldn't be a Guardian think-piece if it didn't have one and, besides, I'm often unimpressed with his methods myself), nor the odd misplacing of a hyphen that should rightly sit between 'fiction' and 'reading' (Again, Grauniad).

You've guessed it:  the implication of reading SF as being a character flaw got my goat. And you guessed it, dear Pidgin visitor, because you probably felt it yourself. We should be used to it by now, God knows we should, but...

...but it raised a specter I had forgotten. See, beneath the Church's acoustic guitars and inner-city youth projects, behind the tea and scones and Rowan's lovely eyebrows, lies a certain anti-intellectualism, a rugger-bugger thugishness that sneers at a free imagination.

One needs a trained eye to spot it, I think. You have to have experienced education beneath that shadow cast by the church's steeple...

Roleplaying Gamers Cycling to Communion

I attended St Peter's & St Paul's junior school in Syston, Leicestershire. This was middle England in the eighties; Darth Thatcher reigned and God was in the house (albeit as a quiet, mild-mannered lodger). Our school wore its Christianity lightly; teachers would clam up if you asked about hell for instance.

On the other hand, our Vicar would trot over from the church to teach us RE, where there was an implied sense that to be an Anglican was to have won the lottery of faith. I recall one teacher insisting we should be nice to the Hindus (a relatively new visitor to suburbia back then) though their gods 'could be a bit silly'.

I never questioned all this until I got a Dungeons & Dragons box set for my birthday and started press ganging my friends into playing. One of them, Daniel, said he wanted to play but first he had to know whether the made-up people of my made-up lands worshiped made-up gods. Because, if so, his parents wouldn't permit him to join. I can still picture the look of regret and fear in his eyes as I replied to the affirmative.

In retrospect, perhaps it wasn't all that surprising. The Orkney child abuse scandal (a surreal media fever-dream that both English Christianity and the nation seem to have consciously forgot) was still in the air, and if no parent gave credence to a literal Satan they at least entertained the notion neighbors might be practicing devil-worship.

Add, too, a flurry of movies about role playing leading to schizophrenia and you'll begin to understand why my Mum, bless her, feared multi-sided dice might conceivably lead to her son either going insane or getting felt up by Dennis Wheatley. Possibly both.

For the first time, me and Jesus were at odds. I rather liked making gods up, but now it felt dirty. I could imagine only so far, it appeared. To fully round off (the admittedly stock-Tolkien) world I had devised was an affront to the blood-stained and tormented icon that hung above us at Harvest Festival and midnight mass. 

Foolish, really. I should have known the C of E had use for only one kind of world building...


Aslan was a Hero To Most But He Never Meant Shit To Me*

I never liked Aslan. Almost every Narnian character fawned over that four-legged Barry Gibb-alike-- "Oh, I love you, Aslan", "We'll die for you, Aslan!" --yet the git did nothing to earn it aside from possessing the reflected glory of being based on someone else.

Aslan got shoved down my young throat with alarming regularity, along with all his cronies. Narnia, in all its luminous phoniness, is the barely-sugar coated pill of Anglicanism. For the majority of my old classmates, I imagine C.S Lewis is the only encounter with speculative literature they'll ever have. And now I've read that last sentence back I can't say as I blame them.

Let's not split hairs; The Narnia Chronicles is a neutered fantasy, rendered two-dimensional and made fit for the layman's consumption. It wanders, but never too far. It is a fantasy that, by its own warped yet centuries-comfortable standards, endeavors to make the reader a better person. Can you imagine anything worse?

I can:  a science fiction doing same. Lewis' Space Trilogy is a solar system-wide tale involving angelic and satanic energy beings who... oh, you know where Lewis is going with this, I'm sure.

The Trilogy's paranoid anti-scientism is revealing. The final book, That Hideous Strength, has this to say-

Dreams of the far future destiny of man were dragging up from its shallow and unquiet grave the old dream of man as god.

It's a shot across the bows of SF's pioneers, as no doubt Lewis intended. That Hideous... even has a parody of HG Wells the man-- Horace Jules (See what it did with that last name there?) --a pompous cockney science proselytizer who detests the church and transpires (surprise, surprise) to be the unwitting hand of a satanic organization.

But, judging by Lewis' correspondence, it's Olaf Stapledon who really gets his ire. He calls the hyper-imaginative last chapter of Star Maker 'sheer devil worship' and Last and First Men's interplanetary colonization 'essentially satanic'. In terms of the possible native genocide involved, he may have a (flowery) point, but for Lewis it seemingly goes further than that- the act of living anywhere but Earth is satanic.

Witness Lewis' Martians in the Space Trilogy's first book; fully capable of leaving their doomed world but 'wisely' choosing to die, along with their innocent children. And, by Lewis' standards, why not? You can't very well have a divine apocalypse if mortals insist on zipping about.

(Word to the wise:  The final Narnia book, The Last Battle, is deeply obnoxious. It's the only time I've encountered a fantasy world builder who truly relishes annihilating his creation. Last year I had the dubious fortune of reading an issue of Inspire- Al Qaida’s official magazine. The Last Battle shares much of its saccharine, self-pleased oblivion-worship, plus a good dollop of its misogyny too.)

Crucifixes Dressed As Rocket Ships

George Orwell, reviewing That Hideous Strength for The Manchester Evening News in 1946, sums up the novel's major flaw in that scalpel-precise way of his-

(Mr Lewis) is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader's sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance. When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which side is going to win.

And that's a problem with all fantasy and SF fired up on actual Christian belief:  the sense of mission gobbles up everything and the end is a given. Science Fiction can never thrive, being hemmed in like that. Not even slightly.

The Church of England's only use for science fiction is as metaphor. But metaphor alone is at odds with SF's true heart- unbridled speculation, because, to function, metaphor requires the bedrock of everything ultimately being as it appears to be. The gulf between the C of E and SF is not one of belief-versus-rationality but rather certainty-versus-playfulness. The thought experiment is the natural enemy of the parable.

Sometime after his Guardian piece, The Reverend Fraser tweeted this about the movie Prometheus:
'Just seen Prometheus. Sci-Fi tries to do God. Rather good, actually.'

Think I'll avoid it.

*- Taken from Public Enemy's Fight The Power. Paraphrased.

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