Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Science Fiction and Religion: A Spectrum of Views

Some science fiction stories imagine a future without religion and without any belief in the supernatural, thereby expressing the secularist's dream that humanity will outgrow such things. Is science fiction the enemy of religion? Other sf is more friendly to religion, making room for priests and gods along with robots and aliens. As I've suggested before, the reimagined Battlestar Galactica is one case in point. But what do religious folks think about science fiction? Opinions vary.

First, a representative from the alarmist camp.

A more thoughtful reflection, but still very much a cautionary tale -- and one that seems not to take notice of the genre's wide sweep. (I've mentioned this one before.)

A balanced view, perhaps?

And for a couple of suggestions that the relationship may be a rather promising one, consider...

Margaret Atwood meets Karen Armstrong on NPR.

How Science Fiction Found Religion

What do you think? Is there some kind of tension between (a certain kind of) speculative fiction and (a certain kind of) religious belief?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Souls are extremely volatile at altitude

One of my favorite lines from the independent film Cold Souls starring Paul Giamatti. The basic premise? If your soul is weighing you down -- if you're feeling "stuck" -- a company called Soul Storage will extract it for you and then store it in a glass tube, as seen above. But that's not all. You can also have another soul inserted to see what that's like.

Part of what's so wonderful about this film is how seriously it takes this surreal premise and runs with it, yielding a delightful mixture of the mundane and the absurd, the profound and the ridiculous. Giamatti plays himself; he has his soul (which turns out to look like a chickpea) removed in the way one might try a new diet or exercise program or self-help strategy as a way to deal with one's suddenly unbearable life. Check out the exchange when he finally fesses up to his wife about what he's done, since he's behaving so strangely that she suspect he's having an affair:
Paul? Is there someone else?

No. For Chrissake, no. There isn't anyone else.

Well, I'm sorry, but things have been pretty strange round here recently. You smell different. You feel different. What am I supposed to do? Just watch you come in at dawn?

Honey, uh- Honey. If I were a different me... in the same body... would you still love me?

What are you talking about?

I have, uh, extracted and stored my soul. But now, uh... they've misplaced it. They don't know where the hell it is. It's a total nightmare. It's a total nightmare. It's a total- I can't - It's-It's the end of my career. And, uh- And it's-it's the end of us.

Why would you do that?

Eh- Uh- l-I don't - I just told you. I don't know! I don't know. I'm, uh- I don't know. Max told me that his mother-in-law did it. And then she told me that, uh-that Cynthia was thinking about doing it too.


Yeah. What does it ma- Yeah, Cynthia- I just- I got- I got confused. I got confused. It was-It was just for two weeks. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

So, you're completely soulless right now?

What? No, no, no, no. Not exactly, no. I still have five percent of my soul.

Five percent?

But I rented the soul of a Russian poet.

You did what?

borrowed from an online transcript
Now, mainly I bring this to your attention because it's clever and creative and just a very different film. See it. However, it strikes me that it does fit into the conversation I have with many of my students about the soul. What does a soul do, after all? Once upon a time we thought that the soul was responsible for all life functions. Then it was just our higher cognitive and affective functions. Now those who still believe in the soul have to figure out what belongs to the soul and what belongs to the brain. The upshot is that this kind of dualism suggests that a soulless human being isn't a zombie but rather someone who's missing something -- but what, exactly? And do we need to keep hanging onto the soul when it seems to have less and less to do?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I'm Here

As the post title indicates, I'm once again making the attempt to do some blogging on a somewhat regular basis. Uncoincidentally, I'm teaching Philosophy and Science Fiction this semester.

Much more significant than my reappearance in the blogosphere is a recent short film by Spike Jonze, also titled I'm Here. If you haven't seen it, follow the link and watch this haunting and beautiful film straightaway. One of the many thoughts I've had after watching it is how nicely it refutes the idea that sf can be written off because it's about "weird stuff" like robots or vampires or aliens or whatever. Like a lot of good sf, this film is really about us, isn't it?

Jonze also directed several other films belonging to our genre: Where the Wild Things Are (2009), Adaptation (2002), and Being John Malkovich (1999). The latter two are based on scripts by the wonderfully quirky Charlie Kaufman.

The soundtrack (streamable) to the film is quite nice, too, featuring Sleigh Bells, Girls, Animal Collective, and others.

After you've seen it, come back and say something!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Random Bits: The Avatar Edition

I don't have a lot to say about Avatar that hasn't already been said by lots of people in lots of places. It goes without saying that it's visually stunning, although you'll still find a few folks who complain about the CGI. More than any other, this film manages to take us inside the world it creates. And I didn't even get to see it in 3D.

It's a simple and predictable story, but I don't object to that. My quarrel with the film has to do with its political message of the evils caused by the marriage of big business and the military. Cameron is pushing this so hard that it made me fall out of the story a few times. A story shouldn't be a mere vehicle for someone's agenda. Further, the villains would have been more interesting and more threatening if they were less stupid and banal. Still, I very much enjoyed watching the film and want to see it again. You, too? Until then, check out these items, most of which have been making their way around the sf blogosphere...

Some people love Avatar so much that they find real life depressing: Post-Avatar Depression Syndrome? Really, CNN?

If you want to know more about Pandora, check out the Pandorapedia (which includes a video narrated by Sigourney Weaver). There's even a (farfetched) story about why mountains can float.

Is Avatar a racist film? Some say so. Mark Mardell argues not (although it might be about the U.S.)

SF author China Mieville on Avatar

SF author Nancy Kress on Avatar

SF author John Scalzi on Avatar

SF Gospel weighs in on Avatar

From Failblog we get the inevitable observation that Avatar's plot sounds awfully familiar...

The Avatar-as-a-Dune ripoff video is also entertaining.

You have anything else to add to the mix?

Oh, and yes there will indeed be an Avatar and Philosophy volume.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Time Travelers Never Die

Some time travel stories throw a wrench into the gears in your head. Your mind grinds to a halt and you have to read them again, or watch them again, to see if they make sense or if they're cleverly constructed nonsense. Stories like these make us flex our philosophical muscles. Robert Heinlein's "All You Zombies" is the locus classicus here.

Other time travel stories are just a heckuva lot of fun. Time Travelers Never Die, by Jack McDevitt, is that kind of story. Shel and Dave inherit time travel technology--a handheld time machine, no less, much like an ipod--from Shel's father, who has gone missing. In their search for him, they travel throughout history. They go to see Galileo, Shakespeare, Aristotle. They check out the library of Alexandria and bring back some lost plays of Sophocles. It's rather like a liberal arts version of a time travel story. Where would you go?

What about the paradox of time travel? You know, all that business about (not) killing your grandfather. Well, McDevitt humorously solves that problem with a little something he calls "the cardiac principle." A researcher makes the fateful attempt to alter the past and create a paradox and she drops dead of a heart attack. Get it? Shel tries it for himself and somehow he's dropped in the ocean. Evidently something is protecting the integrity of the timeline. If you're going to appeal to a deus ex machina, why not be like McDevitt and be up front about it--and have a good time with it, too? But don't think about it too hard. Just enjoy the story!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

More Random Bits

Thanks to io9 for pointing the way to Ryan Dunlavey's comic strip mashups, which "take popular genre characters from comics, sci-fi, and draw them in the style of a classic newspaper comic strip." Here's one example:

Jones Soda presents a limited edition Dungeons and Dragons Spellcasting Soda. Yes, really. I'm feeling a thirst for some Illithid Brain Juice myself.Have you met Gary the Cylon? If not, you should. There are at least 16 episodes, two of which I'll embed below. They're funny in their own right, but they also remind us how amazingly bad and painfully melodramatic the original BSG series could be. You can easily find the rest on your own.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Random Bits

Ursula Le Guin reviews Margaret Atwood's new novel The Year of the Flood. Included in the review is a wonderful discussion of Atwood's claim that her books are not science fiction. See the discussion at io9, to which I owe a tip of the hat.

Nnedi Okorafor provides an interestingly different take on District 9. Found this at SF Signal.

John Scalzi, author of Old Man's War and others, entertains us with his discussion of epic design FAILS in both the Star Wars and Star Trek. Also amusing are the various fan attempts to show Scalzi he is mistaken.

Check out the 9 most questionable Batman toys at Topless Robot. Especially the water pistol.