Long ago, when engaged upon the compulsive activity of the child science fiction addict of those times, namely scouring newsagents, libraries and secondhand bookstalls for anything remotely resembling science fiction, I once came across a number of bulky volumes by the Victorian authoress Marie Corelli. I bought a few of these on the strength of their titles, which resounded excitingly with such phrases as A Romance of Two Worlds and The Sorrows of Satan.
As far as I can recall I succeeded in reading only one of them, and this was a comparatively short novel called The Mighty Atom. How Marie Corelli is regarded today I have no idea. I doubt that many sf readers have read The Mighty Atom. But if, at some date when the phenomenon of science fiction is over, its definitive history is written, this book should find a place in it.
Its theme is the clash between science and religion, a live issue when it was written though not, perhaps, today. What makes it memorable is the way the clash is resolved. The story describes the life of a young boy, ten to twelve years old, I should think, who is the son of one of those formidable 19th century atheists. The boy's education is strictly supervised and the scientific outlook of the time is instilled in him by carefully selected tutors. Religion is ignorance and superstition, the province of the peasants and villagers whose instinctive lives the boy sometimes compares enviously with his own. In the sphere of cosmology a version of the big bang theory is explained to him: the universe and its works resulted from the explosion of a single stupendous primordial atom, the Mighty Atom of the title.
Contrast was a favourite device of Victorian writers. The other side of the dichotomy is represented by the boy's mother, and it is perhaps to Marie Corelli's credit that I was able to side with reason, not feeling. Emotional, full of religion, a weak and helpless woman, she is desperately miserable in her marriage to a man who derides everything she feels, and is forbidden to exert any influence on her son, who she scarcely even sees. But a boy loves his mother, and therein lie the sinews of conflict in the novel.
Of the incidents that fill out the story I can remember almost nothing, only that the boy falls in love with the local gravedigger's daughter, a girl even younger than himself, and this provides a climatic event in that he comes upon this simple but honest rustic digging his own daughter's grave (the choise of gravedigger being an all too glaring case of calculation on Corelli's part). But at any rate he grows increasingly unhappy, unable to deny the reality of his feelings (which we are tacitly invited to suppose descend from his mother) or to know how to reconcile them with the obstinately mechanistic universe which is the only one he has been allowed to admit is real. The sense of his increasing mental isolation is really quite appalling. His mother either dies or is sent away, and in the end he hangs himself, using the cord of a dressing gown she once gave him.
Before putting the noose around his neck he decides upon an act which might be seen as the defeat of his father's influence, but which really is a means of giving expression to his thoughts and feelings. He decides to pray, and he has been told nothing of a supreme being to whom one would pray. The greatest thing he has ever been told about is the Mighty Atom. And so, as best he can, he explains himself to the Mighty Atom.
Possibly this story drips with sentimentality which has dripped out of my memory in the interval, but the mood it evokes in my memory is powerful and moving - a mood which has been more recently evoked, in fact, by the finale of Ullmann's extraordinary opera The Emperor of Atlantis, written in a concentration camp.
Mood apart, what, one might ask, has this plaintive ending to do with science fiction ? First of all, it destroys in one blow the suppositions of both religion and science, using those words in their narrow, popular western sense. It destroys religion's claim to supernatural knowledge, and it also destroys the idea that science is somehow everything that religion is not.
Most of all, it takes both science and religion straight back to their common, ancient source, and that source is, of course, our good old friend the "sense of wonder". This word "wonder" has a double meaning in our language. On the intellectual level it is the beginning of all enquiry. On the emotional level it denotes the sense of awe that the presence of the natural universe, an entity vaster and more powerful than the beholder, might evoke.
Early civilisations were not as differentiated as ours is. The scientist and the priest were the same person; we would not recognise him in either capacity. That the two are now separate and antagonistic (to the extent that, after joining battle for some time, they have drawn demarcation lines and agreed to leave one another alone) is a modern development, which historians of the far future may well view as the rivalry between one religion and another. There seems to me little mystery about the content of most religious doctrines; they read at first sight like improvised responses to the questions I will quote from the mouth of an intelligent four year-old: "How far does the sky (i.e. space) go ? Where did human beings come from, when the world was different from what it is now and there were no other human beings to 'born' them ? What was it like before there was any world, even any sky ?" And, again and again, "How was the world made ?"
When one goes more deeply into religious doctrine it does become somewhat more impressive, and shows traces (in the West, at any rate) of a system of natural philosophy that seems to have been worked out in the Middle Eastern civilisations of three or four thousand years ago. The transition from natural philosophy to worshipping religion is not recorded in the case of Western culture, but one more recent example elsewhere is: the Taoist philosophy of China also turned, in time, into a full-blown church, with gods, temples, shrines, priests, ceremonies and all the rest of the junk that apparently is indispensable to some aspect of the human psyche.
But that is a digression; I am not trying to show that religions are examples of degenerated science. Neither are they some kind of mental aberration that the world is one day going to dispense with. On the contrary, religions pass all the tests of survivability - they proliferate, reproduce and evolve. They have an existence in their own right, and they are very successful in what they set out to do. This, I probably do not need to add, is not concerned with affairs in heaven; if there is a supreme god, I doubt that he has ever heard of the Pope. The actual role of religions is a practical, down to earth one in historical terms, and the ones that actually call themselves religions - the organised, formal religions or churches - are only some of the religions that exist.
Anyone who has personal contact with the younger, more vital sects (I have talked at length with Mormon missionaries, for instance) might be impressed by their decided and often very effective attitude to life and the manner in which it should be lived. The "cosmic background" appears to serve as the numinous power source for a set of roles, attitudes and procedures, a formation of forces that can achieve practical results. New nations are raised out of the wilderness, great works are performed, a people wrests back, by sheer determination and ruthlessness, a homeland it occupied two thousand years ago.
In short, the human mind is not neutral. It is like a compass needle that has to align itself in some fashion with the world around it, and this alignment, the setting of a course, is the function performed by religions. This explains why religion is found in all cultures, and why its outward expression is so remarkably uniform.
The older religions coast along by sheer inertia and social conditioning. What one might call the "living religions" have another component to them, however, and this is conversion by personal experience. This is regarded as indispensable if the sect is to maintain its numinous quality. My mormon friends, for instance, offered me a procedure which they said was sure to bring it about (I didn't follow it, and they don't visit me any more). Once again we are back to our sense of wonder, a personal experience that impinges directly on the consciousness. The momentariness of this experience provides another clue as to why religions are so powerful, so surprisingly "cosmic" in their content, and why they so easily ossify.
One of my pet ideas is that life is very short, much shorter than is measured on the calendar. My own life, I estimate, will have turned out to be five or ten minutes long, maybe as much as twenty if I'm fortunate.
It's not easy to say exactly what this time consists of, except that it's made up of those occasions when we are "serious with ourselves". In such moments reality takes on an earnestness that is remembered, but not experienced, at other times. These are the formative moments of our lives. Influences are implanted, directions are set, and a feeling of certainty attained. The regular run of our lives, on the other hand, is rather like the centuries-long coasting of the major religions. We apply ourselves to this or that endeavour, follow our tendencies, but on the whole there is a habitual, ritualised character to it all.
So pay close attention, because, at great cost to my privacy, I'm going to tell you what I've never told anyone before: an early minute out of my five-minute life.
In fact it's one of the commonest of stories in the science fiction cult, for judging by various autobiographical notes the majority of people reading this will have experienced something like it. It occurred round about the age of six, but was preceded by my being carried home one starry night on my father's shoulders. I looked up at the sky, and asked my parents what the moon and the stars were. Such are the stolid qualities of the English working class that they were unable to tell me, and showed no sign of having entertained the question themselves. My mother, with an eye to advantage noted in mothers, suggested that I should hurry up and learn to read properly, and then I could find out for myself.
After that, to my possibly faulty recollection, I learned very quickly to read well. At any rate my mother proved to be a help, for she found in Picture Post, a popular illustrated magazine of the time, an article on the moon. One evening I was left alone in a neighbour's house, while they both went to the pictures, with the article to to keep me happy.
I can still remember the scene: the tiny living room, where I had never been before, of a wartime emergency house. And me, kneeling on the floor, the magazine spread out before me on the settee. The article explained that the moon was another world, like the Earth only somewhat smaller, but a dead world on which there was no life, no movement, no water, and no air. The article was accompanied by artist's impressions of the moon as it was envisaged in those years, with rearing craggy cliffs, a sense of motionless desolation, and so on.
I was absolutely stunned. What struck me with particular force, I remember, was to contemplate a world, not just with no water, but with no air. I could imagine the endless landscapes of this world, the cliffs, craters, gullies and plains, all existing in the same silent airlessness, a world with its own nature separate and different from Earth's nature. A world other than our own.
Shortly afterwards I began to see Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials at the Saturday cinema. Those rocket-ships were indescribably thrilling, especially the way they used to circle round, spitting sparks and emitting buzz-saw noises, before setting down an alien terrain. I immediately questioned my father on the subject of rocket-driven spaceships for travelling to the other worlds that by now I knew existed far off in space. There were no such things, he told me. They were only fiction; none had been built.
My plaintive cries of "But why not?" eventually annoyed him. I just couldn't understand it. I knew that the prime instrument of space travel - the rocket engine - was already established. The war had just ended, and during it the enemy had directed thousands of V-2s against us. My father himself had told me that these vehicles climbed above the greater part of the atmosphere and impacted with a speed of three thousand miles per hour. (Indeed I knew that a great deal had come out of the war, such as three types of city-destroying super- bomb: the atom bomb, the atomic bomb, and the automatic bomb, their potencies increasing, I presumed, with the length of the name. This sort of ultralogical thinking still plagues me.) Obviously a bit more work on the basic machinery was all that was needed. It was beyond my belief that with the goal of interplanetary travel in sight, everything had not been done to achieve it. I did not know, then, that religious ideas often have to work in an indirect fashion.
During his kampfjahre Adolf Hitler was heard to say that when he came to power he would encourage the development of space flight. It was one of those promises of his that he kept without really meaning to. (But to grasp the idea of space travel at all marks Hitler as unusually imaginative among political leaders.) What on Earth can have persuaded the Nazis to devote immense resources to the development and mass production of a space vehicle with no defensive role and minimal effectiveness, when a modest outlay on guided ground-to-air and airborne missiles (which only the Germans had done any work on) could have regained them air supremacy, at the same time as releasing to the Eastern front all the personnel and artillery that went into a gigantic anti-aircraft effort. One stands bemused at such a crass error of judgment (though the ensuing prolongation of the war would presumably have saved German cities for the atom bomb).
A madman in authority; murderous tyrants paranoically suspicious of their neighbours; a lecherous president seeking national prestige by upstaging aforementioned murderous tyrants - such men as these issued the orders to build space vehicles, and most of them, until informed by "advisers", probably had no more comprehension of the moon and planets than did my dear old Mum and Dad.
These men were not, of course, the motive force behind the projects; they, like the political events of which they were a part, were merely enabling incidents. The development of space travel is a prime example of how an idea can grow and take advantage of circumstances. To the members of the German Rocket Society, who had been plugging dutifully away at their little projectiles for years in pursuit of their vision, the vainglorious Nazi armageddon must have seemed like a miraculous stroke of luck, so much so that in the closing months of the war Wernher von Braun was summoned to Gestapo headquarters in Berlin and accused of working for spaceflight rather than for German victory. It was an accusation that was well-founded. The goal of space exploration was what had brought Peenemunde into existence, and the engineers there had already drawn up plans for a larger step-rocket, designated A-10, to try to make it to space proper. (The excuse for working on this scheme was that it could be used to bombard New York.)
To come to the point I have been preambulating around in the preceding pages, it will not come as a surprise to hear me say that science fiction is a religion. "Religion" is a rather poor word because of it's connotations, but pending a better, perhaps more sociological one, it will have to do. To make the point stick, I will order one or two observations.
a. Sf writers and avid fans often speak of a "revelatory experience" following which they became hopelessly addicted to science fiction literature (see Brian Stableford's Notes Towards a Sociology of Science Fiction in Foundation 15. Stableford speaks of a "perspective shift" which describes one aspect of this experience fairly well). Conversion through a revelatory experience is what distinguishes "living religion" from religion that merely persists through social continuity.The division at (b) appears to have little to do with intelligence, perceptiveness or imaginative capacity. The majority of mankind, and therefore the majority of intelligent, perceptive and imaginative people, are science fiction blind in the sense I am describing, while some of the most gawky and dimwitted have "seen the light".
b. Have you noticed that the world is divided into people who "understand" what science fiction is and to those who don't ? One can usually tell the difference within a few minutes, and to those who don't it's quite futile to say anything. Someone may even tell you eagerly that he reads science fiction, muttering something about Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov, but you'll see clearly that he doesn't know what he's talking about, that he's blind to the light, and that most of the time he reads Zane Grey or something similar. He might even use the horrendous term "sci-fi" and so identify himself as an arrant heathen! With those who are "in the fold", however, there is an instant understanding that is independent of personal type."
c. The science fiction addict feels an inner certainty that the set of concepts through which he perceives the world, and which he enjoys through the science fiction medium, is basically how the world really is. This certainty amounts to religious conviction, so incomprehensible to those who don't share it.
To refer to science fiction as a religion might be thought by some to disparage it, but it is not my intention to do so because I am using the term in a broad sense, and I see religions as instruments of historical evolution. Any ideology or world view to which numbers of people subscribe is a religion on this understanding. The notion that religion somehow emanates from or deals with God is a peculiarly Western misconception; in the East it is recognised as dealing with man, and one major religion, that of the Jains (which started out at the same time as Buddhism) is officially atheist.
I have seen in the pages of Foundation some argument as to whether science fiction is a literature of ideas or not. It is not. It is the literature of An Idea, a big idea from which any others proceed. The idea is the Master Idea of our age. It is scarcely possible to state it exactly, but those reading this are able to cognise it and appreciate it: a revelatory idea, the idea of the cosmos as revealed by science. Above all, it entails an expansion of awareness, into the depths of celestial space, and into future time in which technology fulfills itself. How many science fiction stories don't take place in the future ?
For all of this century the Idea has been gaining strength. Its images have been promulgated and become ever more ubiquitous. The science fiction genre has probably played more part than anything else in this process. And steadily the images have been turning into reality (the Russkies, poor buggers, cut off from the pulp magazines all these years, have to make their spaceships look like something out of Jules Verne). Those who are seized by the Idea or some part of it, such as patronage of Hitler and Kennedy, are adherents of the religion of the age. The rest, as I said above, don't quite understand what's going on. They belong to the past ages, past religions.
And so there we have it: we are the elect, the chosen. We have raised our eyes to the heavens and beheld wonders. With the eye of our mental vision we have espied worlds without end in the infinite void. We have the gift of prophecy: we apprehend future time beyond our span. Just the same, we in the science fiction field are members of the congregation, not priests. Few of us know very much about science or engineering; but we love it, we worship it. And apart from the inspiring content we (still) occasionally find it in the literature, it definitely has a therapeutic effect. It would have been a different story with Marie Corelli's poor young boy, if he had found a few copies of Astounding Stories lying around, wouldn't it ?
Yet lately something disconcerting is happening. The images and thoughts we have for so long prized have become common property. The world we live in is already a science fiction world in comparison with society as it was when the genre began early in the century. There's nobody now who doesn't know what the moon is. Catholic friends no longer sententiously tell us that being interested in space travel is sin and the Pope has forbidden it.
A film was released recently in which the first manned Mars expedition goes wrong and can't take off, so for political reasons the whole thing is faked for the benefit of the world television audience, and the pictures of astronauts purportedly on Mars are really being enacted in an American desert. The film is quite good symbol of what happens when a living cult, bound by a common secret, turns into an established social religion: the Great Science Cosmos vulgarised. Every genuine religious idea is a product of the creative mind, and has an inspirational quality while it remains secret. When it is thrown open, when it is spoken on every tongue, a reverse alchemy takes place and pure gold turns to common brass. The gates have fallen, the holy of holies has been violated, and the rude barbarian, sword in hand, stares gape-mouthed at what he cannot understand.
Because our social discourse is catching up with our genre, the genre itself is leaking at the edges. There are those who are heretics and defilers, who vulgarise and trivialise our holy scripture by mixing it with other kinds of literature, dealing perhaps with "real believable human beings" (the sort I try to avoid in real life and who are ten times more boring when found in print), and then there are the real traitors, the Judases who cash in on popular fashions with some mawkish ecological anti-technological back-to-nature garbage (to hell with the grass and trees; get some engineering in here, I say). But this religion also has its fundamentalists, who will not or cannot compromise, and for whom the vision stays pure and bright. And of which, of course, I am one.
copyright Barrington J. Bayley, 1979