“Pop-culture fiction, not academic nonfiction, is now the cutting edge of public discourse on spirituality.”
For several months I have been working on an extended project that explores the relationship of pop-culture to societal norms and worldview shifts. In addition to comic books, film, and music, I’ve been looking at science fiction and the search for extraterrestrial life. Science and science-fiction have converged on the subject for quite some time. “Nicholas of Cusa (Kues, German, 1401–1464) was a theologian who in De docta ignorantia endorsed the idea of other inhabited worlds in the mid-fifteenth century. Remarkably, Nicholas even affirmed that the inhabitants of the planets were superior to Earth’s human residents.” It’s surprising how much interest and writing there has been on the subject for more than 500 years! It was surprising.
Extraterrestrial superiority is the norm for modern-day space-travel theorists. Evolution is the driving force behind most of it. It’s the belief of these writers and theorists that space exploration is the hope of mankind. In Star Maker (1937), Olaf Stapledon (1886–1950) “placed humanity on a cosmic evolutionary journey that ends in near divinity. . . . [He] believed we needed a new mythology for the dawning of the technological age.” The claim is made that the inherent principles of evolution will make space a utopia because science and scientists will lead the way.
C.S. Lewis was one of the first modern writers to spot the obvious flaw in space-utopia thinking. In a letter to Arthur C. Clarke dated December 7, 1943, Lewis wrote: “Technology is per se neutral: a race devoted to the increase of its own power by technology with complete indifference to ethics does seem to me a cancer in the universe. Certainly, if he goes on his present course much further man can not be trusted with knowledge.” They continued this debate until 1954. Lewis died on November 22, 1963, and Clarke went on to fame with a much expanded film version of his short story The Sentinel (1948) that became 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Sentinel is about a warning beacon left on the Moon by an ancient alien civilization to signal when earthlings make their way into outer space. Even Clarke understood that man’s moral nature is problematic, not because of sin but due to his unevenly evolved condition. There are two things to keep in mind when reading the star-travelling utopians. First, alien civilizations are portrayed as more intelligent (more highly evolved), and, second, earthlings are a threat to the cosmos because they are yet “savages” when compared to the evolutionary development of other alien races. Here’s how Clarke states it in The Sentinel:
Perhaps you understand now why that crystal pyramid was set upon the Moon instead of on the Earth. Its builders were not concerned with races still struggling up from savagery. They would be interested in our civilization only if we proved our fitness to survive—by crossing space and so escaping from the Earth, our cradle. That is the challenge that all intelligent races must meet, sooner or later.
Much of twentieth-century science fiction that makes it to the silver screen has portrayed aliens as sinister. War of the Worlds, published in 1898 by H. G. Wells and later made into a film in 1953 and again in 2005, is a good example. The same is true of The Thing from Another World (1951, 1982), Invaders from Mars (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978) and many more too numerous to list here. At the end of the 1951 version of The Thing, a newspaper reporter sends out a warning over the radio: “Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!” The message was clear: aliens are bad. They are not our moral equals.
Given the evolutionary overtones of so many scientists and science fiction writers, how is it possible to make any moral assessments? Who are the good guys, and who are the bad guys? How do we know what’s good or bad? Evolution on earth is a history of “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Why is it now wrong to be equally misanthropic in the pursuit of greater evolutionary development? Philosopher Richard Rorty (1931–2007) provided a thought-provoking moral experiment for naturalistic philosophy to grapple with. Rorty challenges atheists to offer a compelling satisfactory naturalistic answer to the following:
Aliens from another planet, with vastly superior intelligence to humans, land on earth in order to consume humans as food. What argument could you make to convince the aliens not to eat us that would not also apply to our consumption of beef?
Rorty’s morality question was done with flair in the 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone “To Serve Man.”A race of seemingly benevolent aliens known as Kanamits is led by “a Christopher Columbus from another galaxy and another time.” This superior alien race lands on Earth and brings with them advanced technology with the promise of a utopian world. Initially wary of the intentions of such a highly advanced race, even the most skeptical humans are convinced when their code-breakers begin to translate one of the Kanamit’s books with the seemingly benevolent title, To Serve Man. Sharing their advanced technology, the aliens quickly solve all of Earth’s greatest woes, eradicating hunger, disease, and the need for warfare. Convinced that the Kanamit’s are alien benefactors, earthlings are clamoring to visit the Kanamits’ home planet where it is believed a paradise awaits them.
All is not well, however, when a code-breaker discovers the Kanamits’ true intentions: Their book, To Serve Man, is a cookbook, and all their gifts were designed to make humanity complacent, to fatten them up for the slaughtered. Here’s how host Serling concluded the show:
The recollections of one Michael Chambers, with appropriate flashbacks and soliloquy. Or more simply stated, the evolution of man, the cycle of going from dust to dessert, the metamorphosis from being the ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone’s soup. It’s tonight’s bill of fare from The Twilight Zone.
So, given evolutionary assumptions, was it morally wrong to turn humans into “an ingredient in someone’s soup”? Evolutionists would surely protest the “dust to dessert” analogy, but there is no basis for any moral aversion. The 1983–1984 television mini-series V offered a similar plot line when alien “benefactors” wanted to suck earth dry and use humans as cattle. Many science fiction films still portray aliens as malevolent (e.g., the Alien franchise), but a trend toward aliens as saviors dominates and began with The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Earthlings are stupid and evil, and only a higher evolved alien race can save humanity. Here are Klaatu’s parting words:
This universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group anywhere can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. This does not mean giving up any freedom except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves, and hired policemen to enforce them. We of the other planets have along accepted this principle. . . . It is of no concern of ours how you run your planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.
Implied in this warning is that man has not evolved enough to understand his place in the cosmos. Aliens, because of their evolutionary development, are our saviors.
E.T.: The Extraterrestrial was the new model. Spielberg summed it up when he said in a 1978 Rolling Stone interview, “The movie will only be successful if, when [people] see it, they come out of the theater looking up at the sky.” It’s no longer “Watch the skies” for danger, watch the sky for salvation. (To be continued. . . .)
1 James Herrick, “Sci-Fi’s Brave New World,” Christianity Today (February 2009), 25
2 James A. Herrick, Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 45.
3 Walter Hooper, ed, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Books, Broadcasts and the War, 1931–1949 (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), 594.
4 Quoted by Richard Mankiw at http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2007/06/richard-rorty.htm
5 Richard Kiel plays the head Kanamit. Kiel played the “Jaws” character in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). He reprised his “Jaws” character in the film Inspector Gadget (1999). In 2002, Kiel wrote his autobiography, Making it BIG in the Movies. He is often confused with Ted Cassidy (1932–1979), “Lurch” in The Addams Family, where he gets the short end of the stick in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) when he declares that there are no rules in a knife fight.
6 Quoted in Chris Hodenfield, “The Sky Is Full of Questions: Science Fiction in Steven Spielberg’s Suburbia,” Rolling Stone (January 26, 1978), 33–38.
Article posted June 22, 2009