Sunday, 10 June 2012

Religion in Poul Anderson

On my James Blish Appreciation blog, there is an article on "CS Lewis and James Blish" which has a section on the treatment of religion by sf writers including Poul Anderson. I have copied an extract below. The theme of the article is not only religion but also "anthropocentricism," i.e., the way in which secular sf writers show mankind controlling future history by contrast with the Biblical account of God controlling past history. In secular sf, men for example become creators of robots, extend their own lifespans and try to find a science of society. It is for this reason that the first paragraph in the following extract refers to robots, immortality, psychotechnics and sociodynamics.

Poul Anderson’s “hard,” scientifically and technologically based, sf contrasts with Lewis’ theological sf and with both Lewis’ and Tolkien’s Christian fantasies although Anderson’s Viking and medieval fantasies compete with those writers on their own terms. In his “Psychotechnic” future history, the first robot is, ironically, unemployed. Organisms can be made immortal only by shielding them, underground, from all radiation and the application of science to society is incomplete because “psychotechnicians” can prevent mutiny in a spaceship but not revolution on Earth whereas, in the expanding intergalactic society of Anderson’s World Without Stars, all human lives are prolonged indefinitely and “sociodynamicists” apply science to economics as effectively as physicists apply it to matter.

Also in World Without Stars, originally published as The Ancient Gods, an ancient race on an extragalactic planet, having bred another species as intelligent slaves, believes that its own members in earlier incarnations created everything else. Escaped slaves, regarding the dominant race as devils, worship our galaxy which dominates their otherwise empty night sky. An Earthman claiming to have come from the galaxy seems to claim to be an emissary of God. He gains local support against the dominant race by using a scientific instrument to show that God is still with us/the galaxy is still overhead even when concealed by sunlight.

Anderson’s “Technic” future history evokes imperial decline more convincingly than Asimov’s series and also addresses religious issues with greater insight. Barbarians, acquiring spaceships and nuclear weapons from unscrupulous traders, worship idols while conquering planets to enslave their inhabitants. Other aliens convert to Buddhism or Christianity. One, ordained as a Jerusalem Catholic priest, seeks evidence of an extraterrestrial Incarnation.

(In Lewis’ theologized cosmology, a second Incarnation or other divine manifestation would have occurred on Venus if the Venerian first parents had sinned. Anderson’s many aliens are as morally flawed as humanity and his later future histories do not contain many aliens: life is uncommon; sapience rare; humanoid extraterrestrials nonexistent. This view, based on current scientific extrapolations, contrasts with Lewis’ idea that God, having become a man, will no longer embody intelligence in any other form.)

Also in the Technic History, an intelligent winged carnivore, believing that the best way to die is to give God the Hunter a good fight, withholds pain-killers from a dying Earthwoman, thus challenging her husband’s Christian faith. The carnivore, when asked whether he believes that the spirit outlives the body, snaps:

“ ‘How could it?…Why should it?’ ”9

Despite its uncompassionate practice, the New Faith of God the Hunter contrasts with the bloody rites of a pagan Old Faith. This story, “The Problem of Pain,” shares its title with a work of apologetics by Lewis. Elsewhere in the Technic History, both Judaism and Christianity influence the planet Ivanhoe. First, a Jewish merchant overthrows a theocracy by introducing the Kabbalah. Later, human traders, by celebrating Christmas as a season of peace, help to prevent a war. 

Elsewhere, a uniformly hostile planetary environment lacking seasonal variations prevents its inhabitants from conceiving of any benevolent or sympathetic controllers of the environment. On yet another planet, with extreme annual climatic variations, one intelligent race hibernates whereas another estivates at sea. They rarely meet and one regards the other as supernatural.

The imperialist Merseians’ deity, favoring their Race above others, is described impersonally as “the God,” implying transcendence without immanence, unapproachable remoteness. A human-ruled Merseian, classed as “pagan” by his Orthochristian employers, invokes not “the God” but potentially harmful elemental beings. Among human faiths, the Jerusalem Catholic Church is either the Roman Catholic Church with its headquarters moved to Jerusalem or a new denomination. For story purposes, it doesn’t matter which.

Aycharaych, a Chereionite telepath serving Merseia, tries to split humanity by cynically fomenting jihad. However, the new belief focuses not on supernaturalism but on the pseudo-scientific hope that an ancient race, whose ruins are found on many planets, went beyond and will return. A shoe maker is telepathically induced to teach that some Ancients oppose entropy whereas others accept it. Thus, conflict is built into the new belief.

The Technic History, originally two independent series, has two main continuing characters: van Rijn, the space merchant, invokes St. Dismas; Flandry, the intelligence officer, prays to his murdered fiancee in the Cathedral where they would have been married but does not receive an answer although her fellow Orthochristians canonise her.

Anderson’s last two future histories transcend anthropocentric futures because they present self-replicating artificial intelligences (AI’s) as superseding humanity. Technology, originally extending hands and brains, now replaces them. In the Harvest Of Stars tetralogy, harmonious AI conflicts with chaotic and arguably redundant mankind and aims to survive the cosmos indefinitely by utilizing the energy of particle decay. Thus, Anderson updated Stapledonian speculation about the ultimate fates of consciousness and the cosmos.

Stapledon’s cosmic mind, which glimpses the Star Maker, is a telepathic linkage between many organic intelligences originating throughout the universe whereas Anderson’s potentially cosmos-surviving mind is an electromagnetic linkage between inorganic intelligences emanating from Earth. Also in this tetralogy, downloaded human personalities preside like gods as the governing intelligences of terraformed extrasolar ecologies.

Anderson’s last future history, Genesis, a single novel with several fictitious historical chapters on Stapledonian time scales, synthesizes the British and American future history models. AI incorporates the recorded memories and identities of dead human beings into a greater consciousness. Solar AI, “Gaia,” “emulates” historical periods and alternative histories inside conscious computer systems. (“Simulates” would imply unconsciousness.) AI might eventually be able to emulate the universe. 

Gaia also re-creates extinct flesh and blood human beings, guides their early development in the form of a deity and hopes that they will build a free, technologically based civilization. However, galactic AI may disapprove of Gaia’s re-introduction of conflict and suffering both in emulations and on Earth. Thus, the creator’s responsibility for suffering, formerly a religious issue, recurs in the scientific-secular contexts both of Frankenstein and of Anderson’s Genesis.

Two quotations demonstrate the difference between the Biblical Genesis and Anderson’s:

“…he made the stars also.” (Genesis 1. 16)

“The stars were also evolving.”10

Anderson’s Genesis also contains a perfect haiku:

“ ‘The shadows, like life,
moved beneath summer daylight.
Evening reclaims them.’ ”

The Old Testament incorporates reflections on transience but such reflections are antithetical to the New Testament message of resurrection and immortality. The only immortality in Anderson’s Genesis is technological.

Anderson’s fictitious histories are past as well as future. Medieval Christians in stolen spacecraft conquer and convert aliens in The High Crusade but this is a joke. Odin appears in historical fantasies; the original of Odin appears in historical fiction; a Time Patrolman is mistaken for Odin in historical sf. Time Patrollers, impersonating gods in order to influence decisions at historical turning points, prevent the murder in infancy of the Biblical Cyrus and ensure that Northern Europeans accept Christianity. A Time Patroller disguised as an angel ensures that neither the Popes nor the Emperors decisively win the medieval church-state conflict. The prevention of absolute theocracy or autocracy allows the growth of science and freedom in the familiar history guarded by the Patrol.

In The Corridors Of Time, a time travel faction exploits Goddess-worship to gain support in prehistoric periods. In There Will Be Time, Jerusalem on the supposed day of the Crucifixion is a convenient meeting place for mutant time travelers seeking their own kind. In The Boat Of A Million Years, a fictitious history of past, present and future, mutant immortals, concealing their longevity, become Christians when expedient but outlast all gods in an indefinite future. This novel, like the earlier Brain Wave, shows humanity remaking itself and transcending religion. It also returns us from the past to the future.

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