By Kajal Basu
Mystical science fiction is a frontier beyond the domains of mysticism and of science. And sometimes of fiction
A good part of the world’s sacred books are articles of both faith and empiricism. Between the lot of them, they have been called names as varied and colorful as sublime erotica, the world’s first fairy tales, God sleeptalking, scientific treatises and, lately, pulp fiction. What no one dare dispute is that they are the matrix of all literature down the ages. But the only place where mysticism and a clear scientific temperament are knit together into an indivisible tapestry is that of a little-appreciated but obstinately alive sub-genre: mystical science fiction.
Many critics have panned this sub-genre, blaming it for an unclear self-identity, for being neither fish nor fowl. But consider the Bhagavad Gita, which has been called an inventory of inventions. Was it science or fancy that played a role in the Mahabharata’s ferocious weaponry and self-propelled vehicles? Was it genetic engineering that ensured that the ills of inbreeding would not knock the First Family of the Old Testament and the incestuous Pharaohs of ancient Egypt out of the evolutionary gene pool? This is the stuff of fiction, science fiction (SF) and of some late 20th century mystical pondering as well. It is also a New Age preoccupation. Questions like these form the basis of the people’s agenda for a wraparound, holistic 21st century where science and mysticism would breathe the same air.
A sort of perverted, decadent soul force may have given life to the monster in Frankenstein, published in 1818 and today considered the world’s first science fiction novel. But Mary Shelley’s inspiration was an experiment of pure science two years before she put pen to paper—a dead frog’s spasmodic muscle response to galvanic input.
Leading from Frankenstein’s premise (once you divested it of its horror potential) organ transplants and a consequent long, if morally unhealthy, life became possibilities, not just probabilities.
A TALE OF TWO DISCIPLINES
One would have thought that the question of immortality, so central to the purpose of human evolution, would have sprouted in thousands of seedbeds. Surprisingly, it is addressed with sobriety by just religion and SF. Each has its own language of discourse: religion has its mesmerizing profundity, SF has its futuristic pseudo-scientific argot. Where they meet, the path to transcendence begins.
But investigations into the supranormal have a way of derailing themselves by the sheer force of their passion. And so it was that even a lifetime of confronting both unpleasant and esoteric aspects of life and death couldn’t prepare philosopher-renegade Bertrand Russell for the late realization that there were more reliable indicators against, than in favor of, God’s existence.
Russell’s God was forged from a scientific temper red-hot in a world on the anvil of unprecedented and disturbingly amoral technological growth. His God died young, and left behind a man of luminescent thought gazing at a spiritual future bleaker than any he had ever anticipated.
Would you be comfortable saddling science fiction with the oracular purpose of ‘speculative fiction’? SF as ‘surrealist fiction’ was conquered and co-opted by one of the most original and influential genres in the history of mainstream fiction—’magical realism’.
For a number of authors’ SF that opened a route to their later mainstream works. Salman Rushdie began his career with a ‘surrealist/science fiction’ literary wipeout, Grimus. Though a turkey, it was the iconoclasm of Grimus that set the intellectual and stylistic pace for the works that made him both famous and assassinable.
How different is ‘mystical science fiction’ from ‘fantasy’? Both portray surreal backgrounds that are not ostensibly connected to science and technology. And both demand a willing suspension of disbelief that hard-core SF abhors.
But hard-core SF also loves its iconoclasts: among other things, Asimov touched upon subjects as ‘unscientific’ as luck and immortality, Biblical astronomy, the universe’s ultimate fate, and America surviving this century. Asimov was so much a man of science that, as the introduction to his Final Fantasy Collection noted: ‘Even his wizards were logicians; and even his dragons obeyed the Laws of Thermodynamics.’
So where on Earth does that put Ray Bradbury?
You would hesitate to pin the term SF on many of his works. They are far too lyrical to be contained by the science—supreme artifice though it may be—of hard-core SF. Yet, there is no way that you can successfully petition the Booker Prize for him. His creative paradigm is sometimes breathtaking crock and some other times prosody nonpareil. His worlds are often foolhardy denials of living logic, worlds unlikely but not impossible, the heartbreaking beauty of their sunsets not creations of chemical pollution but of the palette of God.
Because Bradbury’s sensibility preceded magical realism by a half century, he has been on the cutting edge of mainstream literature since the day his legendary Martian Chronicles went into print. That makes him a genre of one, straddling the fence between two paradigms comfortably and without giving critics nightmares over nomenclature.
You’d probably have to weather a few sniggers if you were to call him a mystical SF writer, or a mainstream non-SF writer, but you wouldn’t be far from right in either case.
Despite the somewhat disappointing findings of the recent Explorer exploration of Mars—no life, no extant life, anyhow—I wouldn’t think twice about gifting my most literal of friends the Martian Chronicles. It is with the same confidence that I approach Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Frank Herbert’s Dunequintology, Stanislaw Lem’s Sofaris, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Arthur C.Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and The Jesus Incident, co-authored by Frank Herbert and Ralph Ellison, a poet.
And these are by now the old fogies of SF, that art of the SF Hall of Fame that halted in the mid ’80s because it didn’t like the financial skullduggery of the future. Most SF writers from the 1800s onward had their creativity both honed and warped by the invincible force of the metal Mammon, the Industrial Revolution. It was a force that would be recognized as the monstrosity it had become only more than a century later, after a rash of compensatory spiritual disciplines came into existence following the horrific social, economic and moral collapse in entirely another part of the world: the Great Depression in America of the ’30s.
Some of these writers went on, to become the founders of the world-weary SF as we know it today, a genre of tired, and thus tiresome, idealism: nine out of 10 were intellectual hippies, the Dadaists of the written word. Pulp SF was Gothic fiction taken to the extreme.
This is the kind of mayhem that gave Niven his stash of four Hugo and Nebula awards, regarded by SF writers as more exacting and desirable than the Nobel Prize. But many SF writers, unsure of the quality of public reception, were mainstream malcontents who went a little mad after midnight.
A whiff of fresh air is that post-cyberpunk, postmodern SF vehemently believes that technology is no enemy ‘of spirituality and that there is no shame attached to speaking of them in the same breath and same sensibility. In fact, permanently on show in the pantheon of ‘intellectual SF’ was Arthur C. Clarke’s Nine Million Names of God, in which the world’s most awesome supercomputer is bought by a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. It’s agenda? Conceptualizing, unearthing, eliminating, dusting, amalgamating, syncretizing, contextualizing, verifying, spellchecking and identifying the nine million names of God, after which the universe—having fulfilled its purpose of holding up to the brilliant, retina-burning light of Sol, the nine million names of God—would come to an end. It’s a bit of a waste, all that blood-soaked history, ambition, compassion, inquisition, zealotry, cannibalism, poetry, procreation, apartheid, dowry deaths and information overload.
The computer does its bidding, the universe begins to end and a spokesperson from the Vatican says, not entirely tongue in cheek, that ‘had Clarke decided to join the clergy, he would have been a menace in the pulpit’.
It’s not the first time that Clarke has been called the Devil’s Hindquarters. But jokes apart, you couldn’t ask for a more flattering endorsement of theological worth than the Vatican pointing an arthritic, accusatory finger at you. Yet, given the mildly perverse fact that the holy scriptures and pulp SF share the same inspirational gene pool, what is inexplicable is that no one has as yet created memorable fiction with humans in terminal, thoughtless, violent conflict with God Almighty. A flash in the firmament, Lester Del Rey did try, but fleetingly, with his short story rendered timid by what he thought was a potential for religious controversy, For I Am a Jealous People, in which humankind declares war on God—and wins. It’s here that we begin to thank heaven that SF is allowed to flaunt its most outstanding characteristic—flamboyance, themes swinging wildly between serious and silly, transcendence and tripe, all in the full regalia of glory with brakes off.
Back on track: what’s the difference between science fantasy and the luridly phantasmagoric? In what is known as ‘referential science fiction’—one that places itself in a future it considers inevitable—is Tek Millar’s sometimes pedantic exploration of a post-nuclear war society. In their destruction-proof tabernacle among the gigantic, dinosaur ruins of urbania, priests and their acolytes find a tiny, ragged-edged chip from a microchip, possibly from one of the supercomputers that oversaw the planning and execution of the neutron bomb war that snuffed out almost everything on Earth.
They were enraptured by the exquisite filigree on the chip. And they had nothing more substantive or relevant from what they ardently believed was a Utopian, mysteriously dead past. It gave their faith nothing more—but equally nothing less—than a sense of the timelessness and continuity that all religions claim in order to invest themselves with lineage and meaning. A divine coat of arms. Thus this fragment from the war is far more than just a chip of great visual beauty: it has God’s silver signature on it. If the priests could have broken the code of what they often thought were words of wisdom from the impenetrable past, they could perhaps have made the past come to the future with its stately ox cart of glittering magic and serene sagacity, carrying the sacred mantra of transcendence.
A jagged microchip as God’s own instrument? We’ve done the same with the Shroud of Turin. It works the other way, too: pride of place in SF demonology has been given, in Clarke’s haunting 1953 novel, Childhood’s End, to the idea of the devil being imprinted in human racial memory as a consequence of precognition of contact with a horned species’ of aliens.
Infinitely more haunting is a story by Harry Harrison of compassionate aliens, the little people of Tolkien’s pet Hobbits, coming into contact with an evangelizing but morally crumbling Born Again priest with conversion, into Christianity his only agenda.
Dismissing warnings from a human renegade interstellar trader that the little people have minds so literal and logical that they live on the foundations of the proven and the no-nonsense empirical, the priest goes ahead teaching them the Bible.
The Bible is probably the largest repository of the miraculous, transcendental fairy tales and plain daft stories—and the aliens have to have every punctuation proven and presented transparently. No questioning their motives: it’s what they do.
What they do is strip the priest and crucify him, creating the same wounds that killed Christ and returned him from his cave grave. There are no miracles, except for one: the little people will carry the albatross of guilt for the rest of their lives and their children and their children’s children…Look into your heart: you’ll find the stigmata there: you have no choice but to lug it around with you for the rest of your life. And maybe your next.
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