Science fiction has improved my grasp of God and the reality of the human condition. Statements such as this can be fun to say to my students. Yes, as a teacher, it is my job to make those light bulbs of understanding turn on. However, confusing their preconceptions in Socratic fashion is sometimes a prerequisite to deeper understanding. Sometimes, you have to dim the lights that are already on and focus a spotlight, so that the students can grasp that they need to, and perhaps can (if they try), see something more clearly than they did before.
However, is it really possible that science fiction can inform some of our greatest realities? Many see science fiction as “out there.” It often is. I cannot defend the entire genre; as a whole, I do not want to. However, it has been a gateway to understanding for many. Ironic? Anthony Esolen writes, “all kinds of unsuspected truths, particularly those combined in paradoxes, await our attention but we are too dulled by habit to notice.” One benefit of science fiction is just that. Often full of paradoxes by its very nature, such as time travel, it breaks this dulling habit and helps us notice unsuspected truths. Of course, the imagination is an essential faculty here. Most science fiction demands that we stretch the imagination — but not to the extent of abandoning the concept of reality. I say the “concept of reality” because some things that are not real, and cannot be real, are not necessarily incapable of bringing us to realizations. “A red shirt that isn’t red” is indeed meaningless. We cannot learn anything from this contradiction in terms. However, “a world without gravity,” while a scientific impossibility, is not meaningless. It has all kinds of narrative possibilities. Chesterton writes similarly, “You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.” Since we cannot experience these narrative possibilities directly, the imagination must completely take over.
Now, we have to be careful with the phrase “completely take over,” which could imply that reality is no longer needed or is somehow left behind. This is not at all the case. “To infinity and beyond!” cries Buzz Lightyear. As a kid, I found the phrase to be a grand battle cry of adventure. As a teacher, I notice it to be a contradiction in terms — as well as an example of how some people incorrectly view the imagination. While good science fiction breaks the boundaries and limitations of reality, thereby approaching Buzz Lightyear’s “infinity,” the purpose is not to head into the inconceivable “beyond.” As William Lynch notes about romantic escape, this would be taking part in the “unrealistic but highly imaginative intellectual efforts … to stop the coursing of time, or to transform the brief, sad instant into an infinite.” Science fiction does not have to be part of the endeavor to reach eternity without God. Rather, the purpose of science fiction can be to come back to reality with a greater understanding of our finitude — or God’s lack thereof. Ironically, exploring things that do not, or even cannot, exist is a great way to have a better understanding of existence itself.
How can this be? The answer lies in the fact that one of the chief qualities of truly provocative science fiction is that it removes one or more limitations on reality so we may view reality from a different perspective. Lynch, in his dense but captivating tome on the literary imagination, paints a fantastic portrait of the limitations to which I am referring:
Human life . . . is simple and limited. It is a process in which one simple moment follows another, in which we take one limited step after another, draw one small breath after another. We can do but one thing at a time. . . . We are born in helplessness and end in it. The human race is not a great complex entity called man, but many individual men, each leading his own separate, concrete life, each life having its own limited separate identity.
Anyone familiar with science fiction can easily think of dozens of stories that are based on imagining a situation in which one or more of these inherent limitations of man do not exist: time travel, cyborg implants, wormholes, group-minds. We are suddenly exploring an existence that lacks at least one of these properties Lynch describes. Perhaps science fiction works on reality like a dissection; you have to be willing to take apart what is there to learn how it works. Of course, it is useless if you leave it that way. The nature of man and his experience is inherently one of limitations, so he must return to it. However, I contend that we can come away with a better understanding of the reality of our limitations for having examined life in their absence.
Science fiction has improved my grasp of God and the reality of the human condition.
I originally said this to a group of junior high students in a theology class. I was trying to explain a phrase made somewhat meaningless by its commonness: “There is no time with God.” A year later, I received a letter from a student of that catechism class. She had drawn a picture of two concentric circles. One was labeled “time.” The other was labeled “space.” A stick figure, representing mankind, was in the middle of the circles. The word “GOD” was neatly drawn outside of them. The entire diagram was a recreation of a sketch I had drawn on the board to illustrate “the space-time continuum,” a famous science fiction catch phrase. “See!” her letter said. “I still remember some things you taught us!”
Douglas LeBlanc, “To Infinity and Beyond,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 2. (Summer 2020), 101-106.
Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///to-infinity-and-beyond-science-fiction-imagination-and-education/
Ken Myers, Interview with Anthony Esolen, Mars Hill Audio Journal, Volume 87, https://www.marshillaudio.org/catalog/volume-87