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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Catholic and Protestant Imaginations and SF

Posted by John Holbo on 02/17/09 at 01:43 AM

I’m preparing to teach six weeks of Philosophy and Film. I focus on science fiction, so I’m reviewing a stack of critical writings on SF. I’m taking another look at The History of Science Fiction, by one Adam Roberts, which I’ve read before ... and I suddenly realize that I don’t quite get what is supposed to be a large component of the main thesis.

Adam wants to set up an opposition between ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ imaginations, and he wants to privilege the latter - not in quality terms, but for purposes of defining SF. The main SF line is ‘Protestant’ in its imaginings, with Catholic impulses providing important counterpoint. Roughly, Protestantism is all about the ‘disenchantment of the world’ and Catholicism is about magic and sacralization. So SF is Protestant and fantasy is Catholic, and the fact that SF is often hard to distinguish from fantasy just goes to show that Protestant and Catholic imaginative impulses can intertwine and do complicated stuff. “If I am asked to condense into a single sentence, my thesis is that science fiction is determined precisely by the dialectic between ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ (or, if one prefers less sectarian terms, between ‘deism’ and ‘magical pantheism’) that emerges out of the seventeenth century” (p. xi-ii).

I take this binary to be vague but intuitive. (And really I’m not hoping for any non-vague theses hereabouts.) Fine. But now this:

“I am not saying, as some critics have done, that SF ‘embodies religious myth’, or secularizes religious themes. SF may, of course, do either or both of these things, but this is not my argument. My argument is that the genre as a whole still bears the imprint of the cultural crisis that gave it birth, and that this crisis happened to be a European religious one” (3). The crisis is the Reformation, obviously.

But here’s what I don’t understood. Before I noticed this sentence, I did take Adam to be arguing that SF ‘embodies religious myth’, or ‘secularizes religious themes’. I took him to be saying that this is the evidence that SF still bears the imprint of its Reformation-era origins. So now it looks to me like Adam is saying: I’m not arguing A, I’m arguing A & B. Which isn’t exactly a denial that you are arguing A. 

So what does it mean to assert that SF ‘bears the imprint’ of the Reformation, while not asserting that it is a matter of secularizing religious themes. I guess I’m not getting it. Adam, what say you?


’Secularizing religious themes’ covers a lot of, er, sins; and isn’t well chosen, as a phrase, by me there.  ‘Embodies’ or ‘encodes specific religious myth’ means something more precise; that sort of sf that rewrites the Bible in space (or more specifically specifically retells or allegorises Biblical myth).  Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming books, or Lessing’s Shikasta.  Or the original series Battlestar Galactica, though not the new series, which is more complex.  So some SF does this, but not much, and not the more interesting stuff.

The Reformation was about a lot more than ‘religion’, in the sense that Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland didn’t really spend the last quarter of the twentieth century trying to kill one another over doctrinal differences to do with the status of the eucharist.

In retrospect “between ‘deism’ and ‘magical pantheism’” isn’t very well put, either.

By Adam Roberts on 02/17/09 at 05:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmmm, I don’t mean to get all picky about the choice of terms. (The subject won’t withstand any attempt to shave things too fine.) I was sort of curious whether maybe the idea was that both religion and science fiction express certain speculative metaphysical pictures. Or ideas about modernity.

I guess I get it about not ‘embodying religious myth’ if you mean it very strongly, in the Aslan-grade ‘in your world I have a DIFFERENT name’ sense. You aren’t saying that all science fiction is this C.S. Lewisesque attempt to feed modern folks religion dressed up as exciting fantasy or science fiction (I haven’t read either Card’s Homecoming books or Lessings Shikasta.) But does anyone actually say the opposite?

By John Holbo on 02/17/09 at 08:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I read Adam’s book as specifically setting itself up in opposition to, say, Alexei and Cory Panshin who define sf in terms of myth in their history of the genre.

Also there are many ways in which the origins of sf in the 16th and 17th centuries owe a great deal to the Protestant reformation (changing attitudes to education, to science, Baconian experimentalism, attitudes to hierarchies, the rise of empiricism, etc, etc) which fed directly in to the nature and character of the genre.

I disagree with Adam in detail on a number of points in his history, but in this broad shaping of it I think he is spot on.

By on 02/17/09 at 08:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"the 16th and 17th centuries owe a great deal to the Protestant reformation (changing attitudes to education, to science, Baconian experimentalism, attitudes to hierarchies, the rise of empiricism, etc, etc)”

This is fair enough, of course, but I would tend to use Protestant Reformation as one item alongside the others, rather than as a master term covering the lot.

I reiterate that I agree with what I take Adam to be getting at. I’m just not sure what it is yet. I personally tend to talk a lot about Enlightenment/counter-Enlightenment to my students. And it’s sort of the same disenchanting/re-enchanting canny/uncanny dialectic, but the Enlightenment is also obviously a significantly later intellectual formation. It fits better with giving the palm to Mary Shelley and “Frankenstein” a la Aldiss. (Not that I am invested in doing that - or not doing that. But it’s clear that there are some real stakes here, regarding when we see things properly getting started.)

So I’m trying to think: is it better to call it Protestant/Catholic or Enlightenment/counter-Enlightenment? What would be the basis for preferring one or the other term for the dialectic that we sense at work here? I really don’t know what I think.

By John Holbo on 02/17/09 at 09:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One thing that Adam and I do agree on is that science fiction clearly pre-dates the Enlightenment (even if you take Roy Porter’s argument that the Enlightenment in Britain began in the 1680s). The Enlightenment added a lot to the development of the genre (notably a sceptical attitude), as did the somewhat later romantic attitude to science. But sf itself is a product of the late Renaissance.

I am not entirely comfortable with the Protestant/Catholic binary, but I might be persuaded if it was put in terms of Reformation/counter-Reformation.

Incidentally, I don’t use the Protestant reformation as a master term covering things like education and empiricism; but neither would I put it as just one term alongside the others. Rather I think the Protestant reformation was the condition that allowed all the others. The radical Protestant notion that individuals should read the Bible, should engage with God directly rather than through a hierarchy of clerics, led to a revolution in education. In turn this greater importance of the individual underlay the growth in experimentalism and subsequently empiricism. And so forth.

By on 02/17/09 at 10:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Would you be willing to share with us a list of texts/films you will be covering in your course?

By on 02/17/09 at 10:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Not to interpret Adam while Adam is actually here—I don’t fully agree with him—but I don’t think that you’re really getting what I took to be the most interesting part of his thesis.  (You’re using the Palgrave book, right?  He’s written more than one history, I think.) The difference between “embodying religious myth” and what I took to be the meaning of Adam’s summary sentence is that “embodying” is not really dialogical.  It’s not that the “the main line is ‘Protestant’ in its imaginings.” It’s that SF as a whole exists as the conflict between ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ imaginings.  Without both, it couldn’t exist.

Which is where I have a different interpretation from Adam; I don’t believe that SF really did exist before Kepler’s Somnium.  In his history, before that there’s really just ancient Greece, where the examples are quite equivocal, and mostly assumed into existence as works that haven’t survived.  I think that Adam weakens his own thesis, there, in an attempt to make SF more universal than it is—I don’t think that ancient Greece had the same dialogue going on.  That’s where I think your confusion is coming from, really; the argument is sort of made and also sort of drawn back from.

I think it’s much more interesting to say that SF is a product of the Catholic / Protestant clash (in the sense that Adam means) than that it’s a sort of universal type of adventure story.  For one thing, it means that SF can end.  As culture gets more postmodern, and as people take this less seriously, SF fuzzes out back into adventure stories / fantasy, and science is just something we do.

By on 02/17/09 at 10:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sure, Nick. I’ll try to post some more stuff about my syllabus a bit later.

By John Holbo on 02/17/09 at 11:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As you know John-Bob, there’s a late William Empson jumping off point, critically speaking, in the History.  Empson in his later career became particularly fascinated by what the belief that there were a multitude, or worse an infinite number, of inhabited worlds in the cosmos did to core Christian beliefs about the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice.  He sees this chiming through a whole bunch of seventeenth-century lit.  Either Christ died for us alone and the Martians go unredeemed, or else there are myriad and possibly an infinite number of Christs all being crucified all over the universe, which would monstrously dilute the potency and uniqueness of our Christ’s sacrifice.  So there’s a whole bunch of C17th texts in which humans meet space aliens and the first thing the aliens say is: hey we’re redeemed by the blood of Christ too.  Now this is kind of tenable if the aliens you’re meeting live on the moon; but gets hard to credit if they’re superintelligent shades of the colour blue from Sirius.  Catholic hostility to Bruno, or Galileo, was in part an attempt to retain a Dantean, pre-Copernican man-sized cosmos, where this question needn’t trouble us.  Actual cosmology, though, expanded the cosmos, and worritted away at it.

One of the criticism made about the History (Paul K. is far from alone in having serious reservations about it) had to do with the selection of figures in the twentieth century chapters: critics saying as it might be ‘why doesn’t he make space for Barrington Bayley? (or whomever) Barrington Bayley is an interesting writer of SF.’ Which is true.  I couldn’t do everybody, but the selection wasn’t random, or driven only by my taste.  It was implicitly part of the argument I was making.  So: I selected what I took to be the significant texts and figures from the welter of C20 names.  ‘Significant’ sails, of course, dangerously close to mere subjective assertion; and if I say ’Dune and A Case of Conscience and E.T. are really significant SF texts of the 20th century in ways that Saberhagen’s Berserker or the short stories of Barrington Bayley just aren’t’ it’s hard, without a lot of tedious and probably unconvincing waffle, to ground the assertion.  But that’s where the history starts, in taking a hard look at all those texts.

To be precise, it starts with a sense that certain things keep reappearing in key C20th SF, and that they’re not the things you might think.  So there’s a lot of SF all about messiahs, and messianic problematics, that is more than just adoslecent superheroic wish-fulfullment: that is, indeed, quite particularly about (this is the argument I make) the terms of redemption, the uniqueness of the messiah, and especially about atonement—substitutionary atonement, often.  Why should SF be so concerned with atonement of all things?  There’s also a lot of stuff about Will that comes pretty directly from the Nietzsche reservoir, but then again there’s a good deal about free will and predestination (especially time travel stories, but also eg Asimov’s Foundation).  SF is also often about the way metaphor actually functions, and about the dialogue between the literal and the figurative; although I haven’t found a lot of SF about the precise status of the eucharistic wafer.

Now you could say, if you want, that C20th SF is about these things because they’re versions of deep-rooted eternal human questions, but I don’t buy that.  I don’t think they’re even particularly pancultural, which is one of the reasons (I’d say) that SF, though a global phenomenon, is still so European and North American in flavour.  (Alternatively you could say that C20th SF is not about these things at all, and insist that its all the SF that doesn’t really deal with these issues that is the ‘significant’ trend).

But play the game my way and there’s a chance you’ll look at this and say that SF is about these things because it is a mode of cultural discourse rooted in a particular historical and cultural moment, which it’s still working through.  ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ are shorthand terms, rather than deliberately sectarian identifiers, for this; but it does allign SF with the Reformation more specifically than the Enlightenment.  (So, I don’t think SF is really about ‘Enlightenment Science’.  I’m struck by how often it’s not about that, actually).

It does rather depend upon what you consider important, and how you read those texts, of course.  The Dark Knight, say, strikes me as an important contemporary SF text; but maybe it’s not.  Still. I’d say its weird narrative through-line is all about atonement, about Batman taking on the sins of the criminals he fights (directly Two-Face, but also the Joker, and in some sense of Gotham as a whole) in order to redeem Gotham.  Again, it doesn’t seem to me immediately obvious why this should be.  Or look at poor Wall-E, with his sisyphean cleaning-up task that he alone must perform, an act of penal substitution on behalf of messy flabby humanity.  Don’t you feel a little sorry for Wall-E, with his doleful great eyes?  Don’t you?  Or do you have a heart of stone?

By Adam Roberts on 02/17/09 at 11:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Oh I do feel for Wall-E. I do!

By John Holbo on 02/17/09 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I don’t think they’re even particularly pancultural [...]”
“ [...] it is a mode of cultural discourse rooted in a particular historical and cultural moment, which it’s still working through.”

I understand and agree with this, which makes me again wonder why the extension to ancient Greece is there.

By on 02/17/09 at 12:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"As you know, Bob-John...” didn’t sound right.

My conspicuous silence, Rich, on your point is a tacit acceptance that you’re right.  The Ancient Greek Novel is a whole other thing.

By Adam Roberts on 02/17/09 at 12:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, thanks for that last bit, Adam.  Not being an academic, I sometimes get unreasonably concerned about whether people just sort of skip my comments.

Here’s note 7, which I copied from a translation of Kepler’s Somnium by Edward Rosen.  It’s about Copernicus and the way that people were told they could read him as long as they didn’t, you know, read him as saying anything real:

They were able to castrate
The bard lest he fornicate;
He survived without any testicles
Alas, O Pythagoras,
Whose thinking wore out in chains,
They spare you your life,
But first they get rid of your brains

That angry poem is not only part of the beginning of SF, in some strange way it prefigures (as history repeating as farce, perhaps) a good chunk of SF fandom too.  It’s a sort of wobbly line from there to fans are slans.

By on 02/17/09 at 12:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d not seen that before, Rich: it’s several varieties of splendid.

I should add that the originality of my argument in the History (insofar as it can claim originality) is in the religious angle, not just in the 1600 date tag.  What I mean is: there have been ‘long history’ critics of SF before—although the majority of SF scholars have been ‘short history’ (’...it begins with Mary Shelley’; ‘...it begins with Verne and Wells’; ‘...it begins with Gernsback’). Long history critics sometimes posit their argument on a ‘this is where proper science begins, therefore this is where science fiction begins’.  That’s an argument that doesn’t persuade me.  Which is to say, Paul Kincaid’s take on the Reformation as formative of SF because of their ‘attitudes to science, Baconian experimentalism, attitudes to hierarchies, the rise of empiricism, etc...’ isn’t why I situate the Reformation as the starting point of SF.  For me it is the religious-cultural foment that is key; although of course (I’d say) that was all tangled-up with ideas of science, as science was understood.

By Adam Roberts on 02/17/09 at 03:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with your take, and suggest that Kepler’s Somnium in itself may be a good textual argument that it’s the right time period, at least.  I mean, the work is so multi-form—I don’t really know what to call it.  It’s not disorganized, precisely; it just hasn’t settled into a recognizable formal genre, at least not one I’m familiar with.  It has an SF short story and accreted around it are science footnotes and bits on religious politics and this little bit of poetry and some personal memoir about Kepler and his mom and so on.  Mary Shelley, Verne, Wells, even Gernsback, whatever their stylistic infelicities, wrote finished works that appear to be part of a history of “how people should write such works.” Kepler looks like he’s just scrambling around, inventing things de novo.  Perhaps that’s just because I’m not as familiar with texts from his time.  But it really looks like what I’d imagine the ur-work of a genre to look like, not because it was influential—who knows how many people read it—but because it seems itself to be so formally weighty yet un-influenced.

By on 02/17/09 at 03:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My understanding of AR’s dialectic here is that sci-fi more often than not offers us a world-view that runs the spectrum from a naturalistic atheism to deism: the world in the text, no matter how weird it is, is governed by certain physical laws and rules.  In contrast, fantasy offers a world shot through with magical forces that are unpredictable, ambiguous, without regular laws or patterns.

Now, I don’t quite get how the latter form is “Catholic.” If anything, the world of fantasy traces easily back to the various European pre-Christian epics, from Homer to the Eddas to parts of Beowulf.

By on 02/17/09 at 04:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure I’d peg Fantasy as construing a world ‘without regular laws or patterns’.  Magic in Fantasy is frequently governed by all sorts of complex rules and laws.  For me the Platonic form of genre Fantasy (there are, I appreciate, people who would reject this) is Tolkien.  The Catholic angle is the extent to which these sorts of worlds are sacramental subcreation.

By Adam Roberts on 02/17/09 at 06:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

AR—then clearly I didn’t get the distinction either. 

Tolkein’s biggest influences are probably the anglo-saxon and nordic literatures he translated, analyzed, and taught.  (His piece on *Beowulf* is a great example of the sea-change from treating such a text as an artifact and treating it as art.)

Working at a Catholic high school with a great librarian, I am aware of a lot of tension between the Church and fantasy/magic literature.  Not sure the Catholics would like to be tied to fantasy as a genre.

By on 02/17/09 at 09:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As an on-line discussion of speculative fiction grows longer, the probability of debating the distinction between science fiction and fantasy approaches one.

By David Moles on 02/18/09 at 05:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, when you look at the way knowledge of, ideas about and attitudes towards the world changed (especially in northern Europe) during the Renaissance and Reformation I don’t think you can possibly separate religious turmoil from the political, social, cultural and scientific changes. They all fed into (and fed off) each other to such an intricate extent that to say science fiction began with Bacon’s new science is also to say that it began with the religious foment; to say that it began with changes in the nature of religious belief is to say that it began with the political wars of the period, and so on. So i have a feeling we’re saying the same thing on this.

By on 02/18/09 at 06:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m a newbie to this discussion, so before I start, let me make sure I understand the terms correctly.  When Adam draws the distinction between enchanted(Catholic) and unenchanted(Protestant) worlds, I interpret an “enchanted” world to be a place in which phenomena are intelligible through narratives, especially moral narratives.  In such a world, your field burning is best understood as, say, Zeus being pissed and hurling a thunderbolt--or, as things get more sophisticated, bad things happen because Eve plucked the apple.  An unenchanted world is the opposite, where things happen for reasons that have nothing to do with human moral understanding.  Your field burned because of charge differentials between the sky and the earth and millions died in WWI because of a game-theoretic security dilemma.

Assuming I haven’t butchered your thesis, my question is this: Where does the “psycho-history” of the early Foundation novels fit into this schema?  On the one hand, psycho-history suffuses the world of Foundation with narrative: everything happens with a purpose, the universe has a plan, etc.  Prophecy is one of the hallmarks of an enchanted world, is it not?  On the other hand, psycho-history seems like the apotheosis of the natural science that was responsible for disenchanting the world in the first place.  The laws of psycho-history are impersonal, indifferent to the desires and intentions of any individual human.

Of course, the introduction of the Mule in the later books complicates this question even further.  Either he is an example of the power of blind chance to destroy the enchanted, narrative-laden universe, or he is a reassertion of the importance of individual human will in determining the course of things--a one man renchantment.  Where you fall on this is going to depend in large part on how you understand the psycho-historical timeline he disrupts.

I’m curious what you guys think about this.  Have I misunderstand Adam’s thesis?

By on 02/18/09 at 06:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Paul: I couldn’t agree more.

Salacious: I do touch on Buber’s distinction between the I-It cosmos of science (for instance, of Asimov’s novels) and the I-Thou cosmos of religion ... Middle Earth, to take a for-instance.  If Lost (say) reveals that the island is conscious (that it manifests eidolons of eg Jack’s Dad directly to talk to people like Locke) as I rather suspect it will, then we’re talking about the elaborate dramatisation of an I-Thou world.  This is what Locke himself believes, in the show, I rather miss the days when characters would take either sciencetifictional or Fantasy perspectives on their predicament.

By Adam Roberts on 02/18/09 at 08:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t take this idea to mean a binary in which fantasy is Catholic / enchanted and science fiction is Protestant / unenchanted.  Rather, if you want to look at it in terms of enchantment, fantasy is Catholic / enchanted, science is Protestant / unenchanted, and SF is the dialogue between the two.  Something like Asimov’s psycho-history is not easily classified as one or the other exactly because it’s uneasily part of both.  On the one hand, it has all the trappings of science—math, probability, possibility of being wrong, lack of fated consequence.  On the other, it’s clearly a way to invest the story with all the tropes of chance vs fate, the importance of the individual will vs the universe, and so on.

That, again, is why “embodying religious myth” doesn’t seem to me to be the right idea.  It’s not an embodiment.

By on 02/18/09 at 10:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"The radical Protestant notion that individuals should read the Bible, should engage with God directly rather than through a hierarchy of clerics, led to a revolution in education. In turn this greater importance of the individual underlay the growth in experimentalism and subsequently empiricism. And so forth. “

You probably aren’t doing this intentionally (or maybe you are), but this statement embodies some generalizations and biases that I would like to push against (full, Peter Lake-ian disclosure: I’m Jewish and I have no horse in this race).
I understand the Protestant propaganda that holds up the Reformation as an egalitarian populist uprising against the stultifying tyranny of the Catholic Church, but the scholarship of the past twenty years has really problematized this historical perspective. First, its important not to speak too generally of “The Reformation” as if it were one monolithic event (I know you know that, of course, and you are talking about Science Fiction and not trying to give an exhaustive account of Reformation history, but bear with me). In fact, different “reformations” erupted throughout the 16th and 17th centuries (leaving aside the various “reformations” that can be said to have been championed in the Middle Ages), dispersed not only temporally but geographically as well. The history of Lutheran reformation in early 16th century Germany is not the history of Henrician or Elizabethan Reformation in England. Since we are all Anglophone and all indebted most immediately to the literary production of the British Isles, I think it is worth pointing out that a lot of sharp revisionism of the past twenty years has done a good job exploding old Whiggish notions about a populist Reformation in England(see Duffy and Haigh). A fair look at the facts can lead one to conclude that the English reformation was, in fact, a brutal, top down, mass subjugation, as well as a thoroughly regressive and autocratic whitewashing of a vibrant and highly artistic culture. 
Perhaps “radical Protestantism” placed “a greater importance of the individual” that allowed for more experimentation and innovation, as you say. But I think a fairer estimation of the theological issues points toward simply a substitution of one kind of domination for another. Yes, Luther spoke of casting off the yoke of Rome, of monks abandoning the false hierarchy of the cloister, while Calvin derided the asceticism and self-denial of Catholicism as “false spirituality” and “intolerable idleness.” But, what they advocated instead was a Christian surrender to “the vocation” that to which God calls each and every individual. Rather than seeking mystical perfection in the monastery or through religious devotion, we should all do our part to be good, productive cogs in the wheels of the economic engine. The cobbler should not look beyond cobbling, nor the farmer farming. This is not populist, nor is it leveling: if you ask me, in theory if not in practice this world view is actually more like some kind of dystopian Apartheid.  It replaces religious authority with capitalist chains.

By on 02/25/09 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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