All fiction is fantasy, in so much that it imagines what has never happened. Critics consider science fiction to be a form of speculative fiction (a term often attributed to Robert A. Heinlein) along with heroic fantasy, horror, alternative histories and all other genres which postulate worlds significantly different from our own. What distinguishes science fiction from other forms of speculative fiction are its boundaries, although as is often the case with language it can be challenging to demarcate these edges clearly.
The problem extends beyond defining “science fiction” and into defining “science”, since it is rather unclear what legitimately constitutes 'science' given that different individuals impose wildly different criteria. This is further complicated by the inevitable meandering of scientific beliefs. For example, what nineteenth century author H.G. Wells (dubbed the “Father of Science Fiction”') believed in the context of science was quite different from what mid-twentieth century author Isaac Asimov believed, and this in turn is considerably different from what late-twentieth century author William Gibson believes – as indicated by the kinds of technologies that each author imagined. This issue somewhat invalidates the kind of definition offered by Robert A. Heinlein, namely “realistic speculation about possible future events based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method”. How can the boundary of science fiction be judged by a criteria such as “realistic”when what is deemed realistic changes with each decade?
Vaguer definitions are easier to support, but offer less clarity. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling suggested “fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.” This is a tenable idea, although it still leaves to the individual the question of improbability versus impossibility – do we really think that Star Wars is merely improbable, for instance? (The term “science fantasy” is sometimes deployed pejoratively in order to make this point). Lester Del Rey suggested that “there are no easily delineated limits to science fiction”, and Norman Spinrad proposed that “science fiction is anything published as science fiction” - ideas which comfortably dovetail with the philosopher Wittgenstein's ideas about language, but leave us no closer to a working definition.
It seems odd, therefore, if “science fiction” as a term resists definition, that people regularly deploy the term “hard science fiction” to delineate a cleaving to greater “scientific realism”. When we talk about “hard science fiction” we are really admitting that there is more research and less wild imagination behind such writing; that their conceits are closer to the perceived facts of modern engineering, and so presumed to be less improbable. The trouble with this line of reasoning is that given the rate of change of science beliefs, “hard science fiction” is no more likely to be a predictor of future possibilities than entirely off-the-wall speculation. Consider the extent to which Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey overshot the mark as to what would be possible at the dawn of the twenty first century. All futurism tends to suffer from this shortcoming. Ultimately, “hard” in this context tends to mean something between “well-grounded in current physics” and “unwilling to speculate”, yet there are undoubtedly people for whom “hard science fiction” implies “closer to truth”, however strange this assumption may be on examination.
What is arguably revealed here is the way in which scientific beliefs – many of which are metaphysical beliefs about science or reality – create their own dogmatic traditions in a manner not dissimilar to the encrustation of religious metaphysics with specific dogmas. Wherever one has firm, unshakeable beliefs the seeds of dogmatic belief can be found – and this happens more frequently in the modern world with science than it does with religion (thanks in part to the effects of what Max Weber termed 'the disenchantment of the world' in the nineteenth century and beyond). This is not to suggest that religious dogma no longer has significant influence, merely that new dogmas occur more readily in the sciences than in the sphere of religion, which enjoys considerably slower rate of change of beliefs.
Prior to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the word “science” was used in the same sense deployed by Aristotle: knowledge that was sufficiently secure as to reliably describe how to do something. Thus, all domains of knowledge, some of which we might nowadays consider crafts, were considered under the banner of the Latin word scientia. The transformation of the term “science” into its modern meaning has its root in the Enlightenment, a period usually bounded by the works of two philosophers: Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz in the seventeenth century, and Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth. What characterised the Enlightenment was a shift in the basis for authority. While previously tradition (both religious and political, often hand in hand) had been used to establish legitimacy, the Enlightenment attempted to position reason and rationality as a more appropriate foundation for society. This transformation precipitated a radical departure from traditional religion, but it would be an error to suggest it was a break from religion: both Leibniz and Kant had staunch theological motivations for their philosophy.
What is now called “the scientific method”, which had its roots in Islamic scholarship (particularly the work of Ibn al-Haytham in the tenth and eleventh century) began to gain ground in Europe during the Enlightenment. In the seventeenth century, there was not yet a formal culture of scientific thinking for science fiction to emerge out of, but there were still early “prototypes” of science fiction, mostly embedded in the utopian fantasy genre, which generally constructed their narrative around an imaginary voyage. For example, Francis Bacon, one of the foremost champions of the scientific method in his day, published his New Atlantis in 1627, in which the crew of a lost ship stumble upon the mythical land of Bensalem. Here, the most intellectually capable citizens attend an institution named Solomon's house, in which scientific experiments are conducted in order to understand and conquer nature, for the betterment of society – a vision which prefigured the modern research university.
By the nineteenth century, the transformation of “science” to something akin to its modern meaning had been largely completed. Fuelled by this new rationally motivated, systematic view of the world, writers of this period such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells penned what were termed “scientific romances” (only in the late twentieth century did 'romance' take upon its modern genre meaning; prior to this point it meant something akin to 'heroic fantasy'). These works had a sense of the wonder of the universe to them, and the novelist Farah Mendlesohn has suggested that works of this period “revelled in the immaterial and imparted to genre SF a desire for the transcendent; this vision of the future represented an attempt to peer into the heavens.”
The first signs of science fiction positioning itself in opposition to religion did not begin until the twentieth century. Mendlesohn suggests that this conflict was facilitated by the pulp magazines, such as Amazing Stories and especially Astounding Stories (later, Astounding Science Fiction, the December 1947 cover of which appears above). By frequently representing religion in a purely material and ritualistic context, pulp science fiction created many of the clichés we now associate with the portrayal of religion in science fiction, such as paranoia about theocracy (Heinlein's “If This Goes on”) and internecine religious wars (Fritz Leiber's “Gather Darkness!”).
Yet it would be profoundly incorrect to jump to the conclusion that science fiction is necessarily hostile to religious beliefs. While the philosophy of materialism (the belief that matter is all that can be proved to exist) is foundational to modern science and, by extension, science fiction, the idea that the 'disenchanted world' of materialism is anathematic to religion rests on specific beliefs concerning both religious philosophies and materialism – and within this diverse space there is ample room for many different approaches.
Over the course of the next few weeks, we will look at the portrayal of religion in numerous different popular forms of science fiction, including Dune, Stargate, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars. However, before we can look at the specifics of any given instance, it is necessary to consider the metaphysics of science fiction authors, in order to appreciate why the genre is so often regarded as atheistic literature.
Next week: Metaphysics of Science Fiction
Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.