On a Facebook group devoted to reading science fiction I asked members if they’d stop reading a SF story if they thought the premise unscientific. The general consensus was no, that people read science fiction for storytelling not science. Good enough. On another thread a member asked if we should give up on science fiction about faster-than-light travel since science suggests that’s not possible. This time members objected because they felt we’d eventually find a way around the speed limit of light. I felt many of them were quite passionate about that too.

Over the years I’ve seen many heated discussions over science fictional concepts. That if you separate the concept from the science fiction, many fans will defend unscientific concepts. I believe science fiction has spread certain ideas that people now hold on faith as being possible. I believe a fair percentage of people now have a faith in a Star Trek/Star Wars kind of future where humanity roams the galaxy and colonizes other worlds. I believe a smaller percentage of the population, but a growing one, believes that brain downloading will be possible in the future. And, there’s another group that believes humans have, or have the potential for psychic powers. This group predates science fiction, but science fiction has claimed this concept too.

There is no scientific evidence that any of these three concepts have any validity at all. Some of the faithful of these beliefs say that science offers hope that interstellar travel, brain downloading, and psychic powers can or will exist, but I don’t think that’s really true. Many of these believers base their faith on the idea that science will eventually discover a way to achieve anything. One of their favorite bits of counter logic is to say that going faster than the speed of sound was considered scientifically impossible at one time, but we do it now. That wasn’t true either.

Their trump card is to always say we don’t know what science will discover. That’s true, but I also believe that’s a kind of faith, like faith in the unlimited power of God.

I can’t disprove that FTL is possible. I can’t prove we won’t develop psychic powers or never have our brains downloaded into robots or clones in the future. But the point I’m making isn’t about whether or not these things could exist. I’m fascinated that the faith in these concepts exist.

It’s rather psychologically revealing, don’t you think? For years I’ve considered science fiction a kind of substitution for religion in modern times. Doesn’t the galactic empires of Star Trek/Star Wars represent a kind of Heaven/Nirvana/Valhalla? Doesn’t brain downloading represent a new way of finding life after death? Isn’t psychic powers wanting to become more like God?

I recently reread “Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson for our book club. On one hand it’s lovely fantasy science fiction, on the other hand, it’s a UFO cultist’s wildest wet dream. Carlotta, a sixteen-year-old girl is saved by space aliens and given everlasting life in the heavens with a great teleological explanation. What’s kind of funny is Wilson accepts the speed of light speed limit, and ignores psychic powers yet finds substitutes for both while basing everything on brain downloading. This story begs Freudian analysis, although I believe Freud is currently out of favor scientifically.

Probably most science fiction fans are rational enough to know these wonders aren’t meant for them, but they wish they were at some level, and have a kind of faith they might be possible for future people. And I’m sure most of them will deny their secret faith and claim science fiction is just fun stories.

Even if we’re completely scientific and aren’t tainted by these hopes we still love a good science fiction story based on the fantastic. Yesterday I read “An Infinite Summer” by Christopher Priest that was just beautiful. (see also Wikipedia, and Joachim Boaz)

“An Infinite Summer” is a very unique time travel love story that I doubt anyone would ever believe is possible. I believe it’s the purest form of fantasy science fiction. Most science fiction is fantasy science fiction. I do love scientific science fiction, but it’s not very common. (The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is an example.) I have often criticized fantasy science fiction for being unscientific. I think I’m wrong now. I believe I was really objecting to that whiff of faith I feel some people find in fantasy science fiction. In some ways faith is admirable, but in other ways, it’s a kind of sad hope for impossible dreams.

I love “An Infinite Summer” for being a work of art. It’s a beautiful work of imagination. So is “Utriusque Cosmi” is we only see it as fantasy science fiction. I guess what bothers me philosophically is faith in science fiction where we hope fantasy science fiction could become scientific science fiction.

By the way, I’d love to own a copy of Priest’s collection An Infinite Summer with this cover. Finding one is proving hard. But if anyone has a 300 dpi scan of it I’d love if you’d let me have a copy.

James Wallace Harris, 11/14/20

30 thoughts on “Faith in Science Fiction

  1. You seem (at least in your twitter blurb) to lay out a stringent either or i.e. do you read for entertainment vs. whether or not something can come true. My answer is “neither.” I read to understand the fears, desires, and concerns of a particular moment in time as made manifest by extrapolating futures.

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    1. Good answer. My Twitter blurb was just to get people’s attention. But your answer is what I think a serious science fiction reader wants from good science fiction. It’s what I want. But I think most people read science fiction for the same reason they watch TV — they want a pleasant diversion. What I’m curious about is whether or not people are attracted to science fiction because they want some science fictional futures to come true.

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      1. As your article lays out, I’ve definitely noticed a change in why you read SF — especially from the James comments of years past on my site! I’d never thought you’d enjoy Priest’s “An Infinite Summer.” I will point out that the entire collection is genius — although the rest of the stories (*glancing over my review*) are far more disturbing.

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        1. You remember the past me better than I do. I’m not sure I’ve changed, but I think I’m getting better at explaining myself, although I don’t know if I’m all that good at it yet.

          By the way, I ordered the book because of reading your review yesterday.

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  2. The Canadian Critic Angus Taylor said, that science fiction is foremost fiction not science. All fiction is fabricated and science fiction is a form of it.

    Much of the written genre can be called speculative fiction anyway, as we know, that doesn’t have to conform to the criteria you discuss above. We can just go on enjoying the novels and pieces for their individual merits.

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        1. Most readers say they are only interested in SF for the stories. But my point was if you question them about the concepts separate from the stories many of them believe they are possible. Some even get angry if you say they won’t.

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  3. You’re asking some interesting questions.

    Personally, I read science fiction (any fiction) for the characters. That said, the plot has to make sense, and when said plot calls for a suspension of belief, I oblige it.

    However, the amount of suspension I’m willing to buy into changes based on how far out the science is. Oddly enough, I’m more lenient when it comes to fantastical (fantasy) premises. Meaning, if a writer tries to use current scientific knowledge and goes outside the boundaries of what we know, I get annoyed. An easy example is space travel. We now know a lot more than they did in the 50s.

    While I enjoyed many of the classics, I expect modern SF to do one or two things:

    1) stick to what we know and use it as a backdrop
    or . . .
    2) make up something off the wall, preface it with “let’s say THIS is possible”, and then explore what that would mean.

    The latter falls into what you call fantasy fiction (Star Wars and Star Trek, as you say, being the biggest dogs in that yard). It’s worth knowing the idea of The Force and Jedi Knights spawned an actual religion, so in that regard, it is — as you say — indistinguishable from religious belief (I think Avatar spawned similar feelings/thinking about Pandora). Scientology can directly be tied to SF.

    But, I’m not sure it need be presented as either bad or good . . . if nothing else, the exploration of a different reality than our own can get us to expand the horizon of human possibilities. But that’s not what I consider SF’s job. Like all entertainment media, it’s there only to entertain.

    Here’s what I think: The fact that people may get more out of SF and become obsessed with a particular concept (whether feasible or not) isn’t in itself a problem unless it keeps said people from functioning in the present; the here and now.

    And even then, as long as they can coexist with the limitations of societal norms and behavior, not a big deal (unlike actual religions which seek to mold humans/society to the perceived will of a deity that chooses to only speak through flawed intermediaries).

    But you ask the same question I ask about religious folks: how/why can they believe?

    There are many answers given, but the only one I can accept as truthful is . . . faith.

    I mean, me, I can’t accept things on faith because it means I stop questioning stuff, but some (many mucho grande number of) people are wired differently than I am (meaning, I’m the odd guy, not them).

    Regardless, I stopped asking those questions because there can be no answer that satisfies me. Amuse me? Yes. Frustrate me? Yes. Depress me? YES!!

    Very quickly
    . . . the more we learn, the less FTL seems likely. Can’t be certain, but if I had to put money down on a bet, I’d go with the ‘no’ option.
    . . . on logic alone, the transfer of consciousness (presuming we can one day define and quantify it) is not possible, hence, no singularity. Then again, if one is religious, anything is possible, especially if you believe in a soul and it being the foundation of consciousness.
    . . . same with mind powers, and for almost the same reasons.
    . . . living forever; well, the universe will eventually be a cold and lonely place; not sure I’d want to live that long, but a couple of thousand years? Depends on whether I would need massive quantities of Depends. Meaning, as a healthy human being, sure, why not? Living forever in some version of heaven? … no, thank you.

    Lastly. . . why do you want a copy of the cover? Planning on printing/framing it? It’s copyrighted, so while it may be possible to get it, it depends on what you want to do with it. For instance, as an exercise, I might take the small photo from Wikimedia (copyrighted), run it through GiGaPixels to enlarge it, change it from 96 dpi to 300 dpi . . . but, then what?

    I mean, it prints pretty well up to 8×10 (and probably larger). The title and author’s name is probably not as clear as the original (but then, I’ve not seen an original) but the drawing comes out pretty good. I can then frame it and keep it at home, and that’s about it.

    Anyway, just wondering, and thanks for the interesting read.

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    1. About the cover scan first. I love the art of dust jackets and paperback book covers. I scan them and put them into a folder for my computer’s desktop background. I have a 4K monitor so they look great. Thus my desktop background has become an art gallery.

      Your two approaches to SF are similar to mine. If the story is supposed to be realistic then I want it to be scientifically accurate to what we know now. Otherwise, I just want a far-out fantasy that’s fun. I do accept outdated science in older books.

      Your acceptance of people believing in science fictional concepts is similar to how I feel about religion. As long as those beliefs don’t hurt anyone else, it’s fine. We all need something to believe in sometimes to make us happy.

      Faith is wanting to believe, and that’s cool. It’s only troublesome if we need to be real. Faith that climate change isn’t happening will be self-destructive.

      The reason why I wrote this essay is just to point out that SF has generated a number of concepts that people have chosen to believe. That it has created new faiths. Before SF people didn’t think about FTL, galactic empires, time travel, robots, etc.

      Faith in these new concepts isn’t a problem unless 1) they are expected to actually come true, or 2) you’re writing a realistic science fiction story.

      I do think the singularity for computers is possible. If intelligence can be accidentally created in biology, why not think it can be intentionally created in silicon? I just think our mind/personality is completely integrated with our body so it will be impossible to separate. Eating a meal will change our mood, our sex drive dominates our personality, drugs or diseases can vastly alter our consciousness, the state of the bacteria in our gut greatly affects our personality.

      By the way, if you believe in the soul would you want it captured and put into a machine or clone? That might interfere with a superior plan.

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      1. I thought screen resolution dpi is 72 (or 75). I can see where dpi matters for printing, but for displaying, that just changes the size of the display. I don’t have a 4K screen, so I don’t know, but I’m presuming you want the high resolution to fill as much of the screen as possible (although the image is in portrait and screens are typically landscape).

        Anyway, yes, we agree on much . . . except the singularity bit. Singularity, as I understood it, is a time when we could “upload” ourselves to some sort of storage device. That, I don’t see.

        What you call singularity sounds like SkyNet becoming self-aware. Here, the nuance of the argument matters. Based on my limited understanding of how computers work (and the underlying OS), I still don’t see it, but could imagine a blank slate with some type of learning algorithm achieving something or other . . . but how would we know if it’s self-aware?

        We have trouble determining that in animals and we know a lot more about their brains than we would know about the development of an emergent intelligence from a self-learning program. In fact, we might never recognize the difference between a program that is just doing its thing and a program that has transcended its programming and is conscious and self-aware.

        People who argue for it use the argument that once we have powerful-enough computers (with enough interconnections), self-awareness just happens. I don’t find their arguments convincing because it sounds too much like “and then a miracle happens”, but I won’t discount it since I’m not an expert. Still very skeptical of it because, while not an expert, they say two contradictory things: 1) we don’t know what consciousness is or how consciousness happens, and 2) consciousness is a property of the universe.

        Just to be clear, I don’t believe in a “soul” and I’m not religious, so I don’t know about “interfering” with a superior plan . . . but I’m sure that most believers, given the chance to not die, would rationalize something or other if “it” could be transferred . . . which I don’t believe possible even if it existed . . . which I don’t believe it does.

        . . . things be confusing when talking about magic . . .

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        1. Singularity is when computers become equal to humans in general intelligence. Brain downloading is a different concept. I agree that this will be a major accomplishment that might be much further than what current technologists predict. But I still use the logic if mother nature can accidentally create consciousness we should theoretically do it intentionally.

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        2. . . . then there’s the whole argument (see Sam Harris) that the self doesn’t exist and that consciousness is an illusion, which means nature didn’t create anything.

          The argument is interesting and he lays it out very convincingly based on what we know about the brain. Basically, the illusion of consciousness is a “front end” the brain puts up so that the organism (us) can function in the real world. That’s grossly oversimplified, but it’s worth listening/reading to the argument.

          From a practical standpoint and how we live each day, it doesn’t matter, but for the argument about consciousness being a “thing”, it has profound implications.

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        3. I’ve seen that argument. But we do have a sense of self. We do feel like we’re observing reality. If that’s an illusion it’s very effective. Also, we can act on reality in a knowing way. If we help computers evolve so they can do the same things I will say the Singularity has been achieved, even if it’s also an illusion for machines.

          But I also wonder if the people making the illusion argument is only claiming consciousness is not something we can examine physically. I doubt that too. If you get the flu it can damage your sense of consciousness. If you take LSD it can alter your sense of consciousness. My guess is consciousness is a spectrum that exists even in lesser degrees in other animals. It’s evolved, and our consciousness is just vastly complex. Maybe too complex for us to comprehend. That’s why I think computers will evolve consciousness with machine learning and we won’t understand how it works either.

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        4. Hmm . . . you should read the argument in depth as you might be short-changing it. Harris specifically holds that consciousness is something we will be able to one day understand physically (or, at least, it’s what I understand of his argument), and it’s tied to the free-will argument which has its own deeply uncomfortable implications.

          But, respectfully, I’ll point out you are doing a bit of what you are saying some SF fans of doing. Namely, you heard something, believe it’s possible, and resist counterarguments:

          “The reason why I wrote this essay is just to point out that SF has generated a number of concepts that people have chosen to believe. That it has created new faiths.”

          I should stress that while interesting to discuss, I live a more pragmatic life. Meaning, none of these things affect how I live day-to-day life. Any of these things being “proven” true or false wouldn’t change anything.

          There was an Analog story a number of years ago about parallel universes and how — once people find out “other” versions of themselves made different choices and had different lives — their own lives become meaningless, and they fall into depression and even suicide.

          I thought that an absurd premise because it essentially negates the experience of this life. The potential of another me doing something else (better or worse) has no impact on what I’m doing. Peripherally, it’s one of the reasons I also reject religion, altered states/insight through drugs or meditation, and looking for a “purpose” to our (my) existence, whatever that means.

          There is no “what I am supposed to be doing”; there is what I’m doing and trying to do the best based on what we know.

          Anyway, thanks for the stimulating discussion.

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        5. Oh, absolutely, I’m doing what I’m talking about! No one has any science that proves the Singularity is possible. We all assume it’s a possibility on faith, and we probably all got that faith from science fiction. I’m not immune from this process. My whole point is science fiction has spawned an array of ideas that our culture has embraced in various ways. I’ve been an atheist to many of them, but not all. We all hold countless unproven concepts in our heads, and few people think about where they come from.

          By the way, I just listened to a science fiction story about the illusion of self. See “Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory here:

          http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/audio_11_17e/

          By the way, I recently read a story about people committing suicide because they became aware that there were other versions of themselves making different choices. I wish I could remember what story and author. I didn’t buy the premise at all.

          I aim for a Zen approach of Be Here Now, but I can’t pull it off. I am torn between Western and Eastern philosophies of action and acceptance.

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  4. I don’t believe in science fiction. I make believe in science fiction. It is, in my view, a playground, not a classroom. I think that you take the “science” in science fiction far more literally that most readers, and indeed, most writers. I don’t think most readers believe in science fiction, or read it like tea leaves of the future. Speculative fiction is a far better term for the genre. It’s ideas being bounced off of walls. Quantum mechanics suggests that any scientific “law” is simply the most likely outcome of many possible outcomes. Science fiction is quantum mechanics in words.

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  5. Are you talking about All the Myriad Ways by Larry Niven? I believe for every decision made there are two universes, one for each side of the decision. Anyhow people start committing suicide once these universes are contacted because they know for every decision every possibility has been taken. So their decisions don’t matter – even suicide.

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    1. Again, a false premise. At no point does a person in a given reality get to “move” and live in the alternative realities. Where the premise fails is that the given reality still matters to the person living in it.

      For example, if there is a different me living in a parallel universe and that me doesn’t like pasta with butter and a touch of salt, it doesn’t follow that somehow my enjoyment of it in this reality is negated. I’d feel sorry for the poor sod in the other reality . . . but I’d still eat my pasta and enjoy it.

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        1. I think they were too. But I had said your mystery story sounded like something I had read recently but couldn’t remember the title/author either, and their reply confirmed it was the story I was thinking about. Was it the story you were wondering about?

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        2. Yes, but I thought I read it in Analog or some anthology.

          Although, I did eventually own the book. I owned almost all of Nive’s books except for some of his later collaborations.

          By the way, if the theme allows it, I would suggest you allow levels in the comments as it makes it easier to know which responses go with which comments.

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        3. I only own a few Galaxy issues and they were bought used. I think it’s unlikely.

          I too had checked the reprint history, and the best bet is one of the anthologies as I used to own a number of them.

          As for threading the comments, look under your Admin page, Settings/Discussion

          If the theme allows the option, it should be there under “Other Comment Settings”. It’s where you set the rules for comments in general.

          I have mine set at 4 levels because any more narrows the window too much.

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