“Because science fiction primarily deals with the future, it must inevitably deal with the end of the world, and thus SF overlaps more closely with apocalyptic literature than with any other type of religious writing…[and] focuses on eschatology–ideas about ‘the last days’, the end of the world as we know it and the dawning of a radically new era.” Gabriel McKee, The Gospel According to Science Fiction
In this article — the fourth of the series — I’m going to focus on works for which the religious attitudes of two science fiction (SF) authors range from atheist to true believer. And as the quote above suggests, we’re talking about end-times — the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the Ball is Over. For the SF author, this can mean the end of the world — earth — the end of the Universe, or the end of everything (from Creatio ex nihilo to Annihilatio ad nihilum).
There are a host of stories dealing with end-times, ranging from post atomic-war destruction of civilization, destruction of earth by collision with asteroids, alien take-overs of the world, or the final end of the Universe. Rather than giving a catalog of these, I’m going to discuss two classics that span religious attitudes, from atheist to Catholic faithful: surveys of SF apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic works are given in the References*.
END-TIMES WITHOUT GOD–“CHILDHOOD’S END”
Childhood’s End, the classic by Arthur C. Clarke, is a story about a benevolent take-over of earth by aliens (“the Overlords”) who look like the common image of the devil — horns, wings, tail and all that. The Overlords institute a benevolent dictatorship, eliminating nuclear fission and other explosive missiles, want and crime. “Utopia was here at last: its novelty had not yet been assailed by the supreme enemy of all Utopias—boredom.”
However, it was not to give mankind Utopia that the Overlords came to Earth. Rather, they were acting as nannies for a new humankind, and to prevent mankind from destroying itself until that new man emerged. That new, improved species was to be derived from the children of the generation visited by the Overlords.
They would be endowed with supernatural psychic powers, and after developing these powers during a maturation period on earth, would join with the Supermind that had desired this change. They would leave earth in a pillar of fire and as they left, destroy their birthplace:
There was nothing left of Earth. They had leeched away the last atoms of its substance. It had nourished them, through the fierce moments of their inconceivable metamorphosis, as the food stored in a grain of wheat feeds the infant plant while it climbs towards the Sun. (Childhood’s End).
Now, there is nothing of God in this, unless you equate the Supermind, which is composed of the composite minds of many species, to God. The origin and precise nature of the Supermind is not discussed in the story, but then of course if it is a supermind, what can our poor intelligence make of it?
Clarke’s bias against theism is revealed early on in the book by the remarks of one of his characters:
“Science is the only religion of mankind.” and
“Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the nonexistence of Zeus or Thor, but they have few followers now.” (Childhood’s End)
Given Clarke’s proposal that psychic powers, supermind and all such stuff, constitute the next step in evolution, one wonders how seriously to take the dicta in the quotes above. Much more faith is required to believe in supernatural psychic powers than to believe in God and His only begotten Son. But, as G.K. Chesterton aptly put it:
“It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense.” (G.K. Chesterton, Fr. Brown in The Oracle of the Dog)
“You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief — of belief in almost anything.” (G.K. Chesterton, Fr. Brown in The Miracle of Moon Crescent)
(Those are the quotes that gave rise to the saying, attributed to Chesterton by mistake:
“When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” American Chesterton Society.)
Now it seems in the critique above, I have given short shrift to Childhood’s End. That was not my intention. When I first read it 55 years ago, I was moved. Today on re-reading it (after my conversion) I find it unsatisfying and shallow as an aid to appreciate the meaning of end-times.
ATOMIC WAR, APOCALYPSE AND THE CHURCH–A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ
Beloved of both SF and non-SF fans, is the classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, a book which has sold over a million copies and is still in print.
Preparing for this article, I reread it; the message of the book is still fresh and moving. Rather than summarize the plot (go to the link above for that), I want to expound on that message. (Better yet, read the free pdf download of the book, or buy it–you’ll want to reread it.)
The story takes places in three historical periods:
Fiat Homo (Let there be Man): The first period is in the 26th century, several hundred years after the “Flame Deluge”. An atomic war that destroys civilization and engenders a host of monstrous mutant births. The populace, calling themselves “Simpletons”, have risen up against the establishment–killing scientists, academics, government officials — and against the learning that led to this catastrophe. Books are burnt, technological devices destroyed in the rage of the survivors.
An order of monks had been founded some years earlier by a Jewish convert to Catholicism, Leibowitz, who had been an atomic weapons scientist. The special mission of the monks was to save the remnants of learning; each monk is to be a “booklegger”, carrying books in a bindle-stiff to a place of safety. Leibowitz himself was martyred, burnt with his books.
Fiat Lux (Let there be Light): The second period is 500 years later. The rebirth of science takes place, partially in the Abbey of St. Leibowitz (he has been canonized by the Pope in New Rome). A monk of the Leibowitzian order invents a human-powered dynamo to power an arc light, illustrating the new theories of a theoretical genius, a royal bastard (the kingdom is Texarkana). Tensions between the Church and the state rise again, as in the past.
Fiat Voluntas Tua (Thy Will be Done): The third period is some 600 years later. Science and technology have risen again: atomic weapons, interstellar travel (with a few colonies), computers, automated roads are here, to the consternation of the Abbot of the St. Leibowitz monastery. State and Church have reached an accommodation, much as today — most of the populace are unbelievers or Catholic in name only.
There is tension between the two superpowers, the Asian Coalition and the Atlantic Confederacy. The tension grows into an atomic war; even greater destruction is wrought than in the preceding flame deluge, but a contingent of the Order of St. Leibowitz carries civilization and the Church to the stars, to the new colonies.
All the above is bare bones, dry as dust, and conveys little of the power and beauty of the book. I’m going to try to do that with some selected quotes and context. (For a fuller exposition of the plot, again, please refer to the linked article.)
Fiat Homo: Brother Francis falls into the uncovered remains of a fallout shelter containing relics of Saint Leibowitz, is terrified and prays a litany for salvation from the Flame Deluge:
“A spiritu fomicationis,Domine, hibera nos.From the lightning and the tempest,O Lord, deliver us.From the scourge of the earthquake,O Lord, deliver us.From plague, famine, and war,O Lord, deliver us.“From the place of ground zero,O Lord, deliver us.From the rain of the cobalt,O Lord, deliver us.From the rain of the strontium,O Lord, deliver us.From the fall of the cesium,O Lord, deliver us.“From the curse of the Fallout,O Lord, deliver us.From the begetting of monsters,O Lord, deliver us.From the curse of the Misborn,O Lord, deliver us.A morte perpetua,Domine, libera nos.“Peccatores,te rogamus, audi nos.That thou wouldst spare us,we beseech thee, hear us.That thou wouldst pardon us,we beseech thee, hear us.That thou wouldst bring us truly to penance,te rogamus, audi nos.” p. 16 (Bantam Edition).
Fiat Lux Brother Kornhoer has invented a dynamo and electric arc lamp, amazing the great scientist Thon Taddeo (repeat of Galileo or Newton?) who has come to investigate the Leibowitz memorabilia. A discourse on scientific achievements of the past and the preservation of knowledge by the Church follows.
Now a Dark Age seemed to be passing. For twelve centuries, a small flameof knowledge had been kept smoldering in the monasteries; only now were there minds ready to be kindled. Long ago, during the last age of reason, certain proud thinkers had claimed that valid knowledge was indestructible–that ideas were deathless and truth immortal. But that was true only in the subtlest sense, the abbot thought, and not superficially true at all. There was objective meaning in the world, to be sure: the nonmoral logos or design of the Creator; but such meanings were God’s and not Man’s, until they found an imperfect incarnation, a dark reflection, within the mind and speech and culture of a given human society, which might ascribe values to the meanings so that they became valid in a human sense within the culture. For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded, and truth and meaning resided, unseen, only in the objective logos of Nature and the ineffable Logos of God. [emphasis added] Truth could be crucified; but soon, perhaps, a resurrection. (p. 133, ibid)
And so the age of science begins again and again, the Church is the wet-nurse of the new “logos of nature”.
Fiat Voluntas Tua: The Church has had an interstellar vehicle of its own ready for missionary work to the interstellar colonies and, with nuclear annihilation threatening within a short time, decides to send two Bishops and a group from the Leibowitz Abbey — priests, brothers, sisters, civilians and children — to the Centauran colony. (The Bishops are sent to maintain apostolic succession.)
The Abbot, Fr. Zerchi, speaks to the group:
” ‘You will be years in space. The ship will be your monastery. After the patriarchal see is established at the Centaurus Colony, you will establish there a mother house of the Visitationist Friars of the Order of Saint Leibowitz of Tycho. But the ship will remain in your hands, and the Memorabilia. If civilization, or a vestige of it, can maintain itself on Centaurus, you will send missions to the other colony worlds, and perhaps eventually to the colonies of their colonies. Wherever Man goes, you and your successors will go. And with you, the records and remembrances of four thousand years and more. Some of you, or those to come after you, will be mendicants and wanderers, teaching the chronicles of Earth and the canticles of the Crucified to the peoples and the cultures that may grow out of the colony groups. For some may forget. Some may be lost for a time from the Faith. Teach them, and receive into the Order those among them who are called. Pass on to them the continuity. Be for Man the memory of Earth and Origin. Remember this Earth. Never forget her, but– never come back.’ Zerchi’s voice went hoarse and low. ‘If you ever come back, you might meet the Archangel at the east end of Earth, guarding her passes with a sword of flame. I feel it. Space is your home hereafter. It’s a lonelier desert than ours. God bless you, and pray for us.’ (p. 269, ibid)
Brother Joshua, after much soul-searching, decides to accept the invitation to be the Abbot for the Visitationist Friars and be ordained a priest. He climbs into the spaceship as nuclear bombs are falling to the east, slaps his sandals together, shaking the dust from them [see Matt 10:14] and whispers “sic transit gloria mundi” .
I wish that the sequel, the story of the interstellar mission, had been written…and, were I thirty years younger, I would try to do so myself.
*One very fine apocalyptic SF novel by Nancy Kress, “After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall”, was published after these references; it deals with destruction of civilization by aliens and the attempted recovery.