Nietzsche once declared that God is dead. Later he added that Man ought to be. “Man,” he wrote, “is something that is to be surpassed. … What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame. … Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman—a rope over an abyss” (from “Zarathustra and the Overman”).
Some would think this epitaph premature. Others would like to chisel the date of death beneath it. They call themselves transhumanists, and they are looking forward to a post-human world.
Max More, one of the pioneers of transhumanism, asserted, “Humanity is a temporary stage along the evolutionary pathway. We are not the zenith of nature’s development. It is time for us to consciously take charge of ourselves and to accelerate our progress. No more gods, no more faith, no more timid holding back. Let us blast out of our old forms, our ignorance, our weakness, and our mortality. The future is ours.”
The road to this future lies through nanotechnology, meets cybborg technology, and ends in a post-human utopia. The dream of transhumanists is to reinvent humanity with nanotech and cybernetics. As Katherine Hayles summed it up, “In the posthuman, there are no essential differences, or absolute demarcations, between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot technology and human goals.”
At this point, it’s a crazy theoretical. And all crazy theoreticals are the happy playground of speculative fiction.
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Science fiction has sometimes been viewed as atheistic and humanist, fantasy as sorcerous and pagan. The stereotypes are not wholly groundless. The space-future, as drawn for us, is often blank with irreligion. The magic realms of fantasy are always entangled with spirituality — sometime the light, sometimes the dark. We wander far in speculative fiction, but never too far from our existential dilemmas. Sometimes we move closer to them.
Take, for example, the ambitions of transhumanism. That’s rich fare for SF readers and writers. Many good books and movies could be spent mining the possibilities of that. And inevitably we would have to borrow the question from the theologians, dust it off from the philosophers’ shelf: Is there such a thing as the human soul?
The transhuman dream lives or dies on that. If we’re all biology, then we are, to borrow a phrase, up for revision. If we have souls — if we are souls — then there is something in us no technology could ever touch.
Beyond the issue of whether we have the power to recreate humanity, is the issue of whether we have the right. If we were brought this far by blind evolution, there’s something to be said for a little guided evolution. Why not make a calculated evolutionary leap?
But if God lives, the enterprise takes on a darker nature. It thrums with the blasphemy of Philip Ivywood: “The world was made badly, and I will make it over again.”
“Woe,” the prophet said, “to him who quarrels with his Maker.” It’s unwise, and more than a little dangerous, to criticize your Creator’s work. How much more unwise, and how much more dangerous, is it to try and do His work over again?
And so the brave new world of nanotech and transhumanism leaves us standing with our oldest ancestors, asking the oldest questions: Who is God, and who are we?
I have always been fascinated by the intersection of religion and speculative fiction. I enjoy exploring the new ideas through the old ones, and the old ideas through the new ones. It’s an interesting exercise to fit strange, imagined realities with the Ultimate Reality.
I am sure some would say that dogma runs against imagination. I would say that of such clashes stories are made. Think again of transhumanism — a wild piece of imagination in its own right. The transhumanist sees nanotech leading to utopia. Secularists who would not go that far can still see a Great Society without poverty or disease or environmental damage. But Christians see a dangerous path, riddled with pitfalls, with the doctrine of Original Sin dictating that whatever can be used for good, humanity will use for evil. We can debate which of these visions is the most rational. There’s little debate which has the most story potential.
The Christian view of a nanotech revolution is tight with tension — the tension between the potential for doing good and the potential for causing harm, the tension between breaking nature’s bounds and abiding by God’s, the tension between creature and Creator. There is the tension of embracing the promise of nanotech while dodging the danger. And tension, as any good writer will tell you, is the heart of story.
The first glory of speculative fiction is to imagine things that do not exist. The second is to ponder things that do. The endless possibilities are captivating — Elves and aliens, distant planets and hidden realms, the power of unbounded technology and the inscrutable laws of faerieland. At the center of these foreign things is everything human and divine. Right and wrong, courage and fear, sin and faith, God Himself — in our most far-flung tales they are right at hand.
Speculative fiction has a way of elucidating spiritual ideas, showing the ends of beliefs. Often the ideas elucidated in SF were grown in the philosophy of Nietzsche and Darwin. No doubt that has worked to spur Christian leeriness of sci-fi and fantasy.
Yet we should be at home in the crossroads of imagination and truth, because our God is the God of both. Seeking His creativity, holding on to His Reality, we can tell great stories — and even greater truths.
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Shannon McDermott is the author of The Last Heir, as well as the Christian Holmes series. She also works as an editor and researcher for SALT Magazine. You can read more of her articles at her blog.