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Honest Sci-Fi Honors Life

Our culture creates death-celebrating reality but life-celebrating fiction.
| Jan 23, 2014 | 38 comments |
He’s still ashamed of it.

He’s still ashamed of that one story’s moment.

You may have read or seen more sci-fi stories than I have.

But save for one crummy little Star Trek: The Next Generation TV moment, I can’t think of any human-spirit-honoring futuristic fiction that denies the value of life.

Even the weird life. Even the monster’s life.

‘To seek out new life …’

In “Doctor Who,” the Doctor saves every life he can. Even monsters. When a monster dies, such as the Minotaur in the series 6 episode “The God Complex,” it’s a tragedy. But sad is happy — or if not happy, challenging — for deep people. “Doctor Who” dares to go deeper, to the point of the Doctor flirting with pacifism rather than destroy even genocidal aliens.

Every iteration of Star Trek showcases honor for life, even if the heroes aren’t sure it’s life.

In “The Quality of Life,” the Enterprise crew learns that several manmade tools have begun exhibiting signs of life according to every classical scientific definition. In that story:

In the observation lounge, Riker issues a direct order to release the transporter lock, but Data stands firm and will not do so, even if it means a court martial. He argues that sacrificing one lifeform for another is not justified, and based on his own experiences, he must believe that, like himself, the exocomps are alive—and therefore have the right to live.1

“[Our decision today] will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom: expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others.”

“[Our decision today]  could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom: expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others.”

Later Data reminds Captain Jean-Luc Picard that Data acted based on his own experience. In a previous TNG story, Picard legally defends Data himself, after another scientist wants to deactivate and analyze the android. “Your honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life,” the captain pronounces, and points to his first officer. “Well, there it sits! Waiting.”

Which prompts the judge to ponder aloud the value of presuming life and freedom.

Is Data a machine? Yes. Is he the property of Starfleet? No. We’ve all been dancing around the basic issue: does Data have a soul? I don’t know that he has. I don’t know that I have! But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself.2

This classically humanist philosophy proves that such humanism’s ethics are not so far from Christianity (yet Christianity came first). It also proves that Christianity is not alone in defending the value of confirmed human life, and the presumed value of life that just might be human. Beside Biblical Christians stands honest sci-fi stories throughout ages, stalwart and sure, defending — though they may know it not — the sacred worth of the imago Dei, God’s image in human beings. Life is sacred. It is precious. It must not be destroyed.

‘Our own bodies’?


First do harm.

Previously I alluded to one sci-fi exception — one of the sillier Star Trek: TNG stories. “Up the Long Ladder” sets up a monumentally poor allegory in which a dying extraterrestrial race tries to clone Commander Riker and Dr. Pulaski. Outraged, the two Starfleet officers beam to the lab and spy on their maturing, sleeping clones. After one look, they blast them.

Riker (angrily): “We certainly have a right to exercise control over our own bodies.”

Pulaski: “You’ll get no argument from me.”

One would hope that Pulaski, despite not lasting beyond season 2, found her way back to the founding principles on which Starfleet is based: to respect life and not interfere with its natural development, no matter how it got there. Fortunately Riker in later stories became much less of a selfish and homicidal jerk. Confronting his own clone (generated by a freak transporter accident), Riker was not so inclined to phase-blast Thomas Riker in cold blood.

Life vs. death

Here’s why Christians can’t make as a first principle that we are for culture or against culture: “culture” contradicts itself. “Culture” is a schizophrenic mess.

Our stories love and exalt human life, especially children. But in reality people worship false “freedom” even more, the kind that crushes others’ freedom before they even experience it.

Our stories increasingly explore the horrors of dystopian societies in which all-powerful government leaders practice eugenics, worship power, and manipulate or even kill the weak to favor the living. Yet we support leaders who brazenly defend these very evils.

For the weak and unborn, the dystopia isn’t future. It’s already here.

Why do humans do this?

Answers can only start with this: only the spiritually dead could invent such ways to do evil against life. And only One can seek out new life among the dead.

  1. The Quality of Life” episode summary at Memory-Alpha.org; emphasis added.
  2. The Measure of a Man” episode summary at Memory-Alpha.org.
E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Steve Taylor
Steve Taylor

Well said. Thanks

Adam Graham

When I was thinking about this, Stephen, the only thing I could think of that contradicted this really was the mini-series “V” where a teenage girl slept with a Visitor and the resistance came together to secure an abortion for her. So the resistance had its leader (who was a doctor) take the risk of being captured to go into a Hospital to perform the abortion. (Because, being pro-choice is important enough to lose your leader over.)
However, when I think about it further, it actually did work itself in favor of life.  They couldn’t do the abortion because the half human half alien babies couldn’t be aborted without killing the mother. So the pregnancy continued.  At the end of the day,  the baby who was born (one died in child birth) ended up the key to saving the whole planet. And the priest who worked so hard to save her was really a hero.
The only other ones I can think of is an episode of Star Trek: TNG, “Half a Life” which features a planet that has euthanasia. Counselor Troi’s mother falls in love with a man from the planet and he decides to try to defy the law that he must be euthanized at 60. He ends up going ahead with it. It’s sad for her but it’s treated as just a cultural decision rather than something that’s blatantly wrong.  There was also an episode of the original series where an overpopulated planet had young people volunteer to spread a plague and the overall portrayal of the decision was sympathetic.
But in general, you’re right Sci Fi does affirm the value of life and even in situations where general society is taking steps away from it. While our civilization is moving towards “Brave New World” bioethical changes, sci fi usually says no. “Parts: The Clonus Horror” and its ripoff “The Island” said no to making people for parts, and I also in that regard was impressed by the Series 2 episode of the new Doctor Who, “New Earth” where the doctor saved people who were being used to cure diseases by giving them every disease known.

Tim Frankovich
Tim Frankovich

Since I’ve been working my way back through TNG on Netflix lately, I have to add another stupid moment. Season 4, episode: “Half A Life.” The Enterprise aids a brilliant scientist from a world where all citizens are required to commit suicide at age 60. While Lwaxana Troi (of all people) argues for life throughout most of the episode, in the end, she succumbs to the crew’s Prime Directive/respect-other-cultures’-antilife-beliefs arguments and goes with the scientist to witness his suicide. Even though the scientist is on the verge of a discovery that could save his whole world from destruction. Utter nonsense. Oh, and there was an episode of Enterprise where the captain chewed out someone for daring to condemn sex slavery in an alien culture, but I can’t be bothered to look up the actual episode name.
But overall, you’re absolutely right. It’s these very themes that make the stupid moments stick out so blatantly.

Tim Frankovich
Tim Frankovich

One of the highest sci-fi affirmations of the value of life comes from the outstanding movie Gattaca. Can’t recommend that one highly enough.

Leah Burchfiel

All these abortion undertones reminds me of a friend of my high school math teacher. Her fetus had some kind of condition where the skull wasn’t forming, meaning it would be crushed to death during birth. She elected to keep the pregnancy out of pro-life sentiment, though I’m sure nobody would blame her for terminating. I thought her decision was weird/dumb, and this was still while I was pro-life-by-default. But even in the pro-choice camp, we wouldn’t be interested in stopping her, even though I’m sure we would feel the conflict of letting someone do something we thought was dumb. But I’m afraid that people like her will be held up as examples/reasons why a woman should never terminate, even if it tortures her to carry a future stillborn. The Bloggess had an abortion because her body wouldn’t naturally miscarry a solid month after her fetus’s heartbeat stopped. She had a breakdown.

Lelia Rose Foreman

Notleia: I would not call what Blogess had an abortion. I’m so sorry she had a breakdown. The sorrow of a death in utero is tremendous.
My sister had a baby with trisomy 18 who was supposed to die at birth. Little Rebecca lived three days, long enough for all of us to have our picture taken with her. My sister was glad she carried her an extra month because that let her be a mother to Rebecca that month longer.

Leah Burchfiel

I’m glad your sister is happy, but I personally find that to be really morbid. I think in that situation I might end up going through the grieving process twice, once when I find out about the trisomy, knowing the baby would die, and again when the baby does die, and I couldn’t face that. I wouldn’t want anybody facing that if they didn’t elect to, which is why I’m pro-choice.


But you’d still be grieving twice, how is it different?

Leah Burchfiel

Nah, if I went the abortion route (I probably would), I don’t think I’d grieve a second time. Of course, I may be misjudging my reaction, but I think it would give me a sense of closure rather than second loss.

Julie D

I ended up reading an analysis of the Terri Schiavo case last night and came away with one main thought:

How will cases like this play out under the new healthcare regulations?

Despite the heavy government involvement, it boiled down to a family that disagreed over what someone would have wanted. How might this frightening disregard for life play out for those without family?

Leah Burchfiel

I don’t remember the details of Terry Shiavo, but not that long ago I was reading about Jali, I think her name is, the girl who went brain-dead after complications from a tonsillectomy. In Jali’s case, she’s gone. She will not recover. But the family wants her to keep breathing as long as a machine can make her. And I find that really, really morbid. I don’t quite see the point, the value, in life merely, only for life’s sake. I just can’t disregard quality of life.

Julie D

That simple phrase “quality of life” brings up one question: who decides what quality of life is worth living and what isn’t?

Leah Burchfiel

That’s the question, isn’t it.

Paul Lee

Here’s why Christians can’t make as a first principle that we are for cultureoragainst culture: “culture” contradicts itself. “Culture” is a schizophrenic mess.

Yes, a thousand times. “Culture” is an abstraction. There is no culture, just us, the sub-creators, continually framing and re-shaping our perceptions as we incarnate our beliefs to each other through communication.

D. M. Dutcher

C.S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet had a good rejoinder to a lot of science fiction that concerned itself about life. At the end, Weston tries to explain himself to the Oyarsa of mars. He talks about all he did as a way to preserve life.
The Oyarsa devastatingly breaks down his arguments. When he did things for life, he did it only for an abstract thing. That justified himself for all the death and the cruelty he was going to do; break a few eggs to make an omelet. What’s worse was that he didn’t even do it for any real conception of human life as a real thing in the larger sense. What form of life Weston did this for could barely be called even a life force, let alone a living thing.
This is a devastating critique of the idea of transhumanism, because it has the same issues. A lot of wrong was being done in order to promote something which ends up being completely alien to the life you wanted to preserve in the first place. Kind of like a fantasy where a person is so afraid of dying that they become undead to live forever; the life you want to prolong you lose anyways and become something an alien and a horror to it.
So even SF caring about life can not always be a good thing. Sometimes it’s just this abstract, nameless force that is called life, and caring about that can justify some harsh things. A really good point about this was made in Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain series: the hyper-intelligent Super Sleepless decided to “save” humanity by turning them non-human; they enabled people to gain nourishment through photosynthesis and made them plant-human hybrids. Nothing much was said in the book after that about what kind of hell that would be to feel yourself becoming that.

Paul Lee

A lot of wrong was being done in order to promote something which ends up being completely alien to the life you wanted to preserve in the first place. Kind of like a fantasy where a person is so afraid of dying that they become undead to live forever; the life you want to prolong you lose anyways and become something an alien and a horror to it.

I agree. Good illustration.
I haven’t read enough classic SF to defend or criticize its portrayal of life, but I do think at its best moments Star Trek does incidentally defend a very monotheist view of existence and interference, even though for the most part it’s an atheist franchise by default.
Star Trek is actually fairly solidly against transhumanism. It inconsistently applies the view that humans do not have the authority to define or to redefine life.

Morgan Busse

I always liked this quote by Gandalf in Lord of The Rings: “Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

I would apply this to any life. How do we know what their life will be like? How they will impact the world, even by living only a couple days or months? We should not be so eager to hand out death because in our mind that person won’t live up to our quality or standards.

One of the youth leaders in my church years ago found out that she had a heart condition while pregnant with her first daughter. To carry her daughter to term and give birth would probably kill her. She and her husband chose to go through with the pregnancy. She died 3 days after her daughter was born. Today her daughter is an amazing teenage girl who lived because her mother died for her.

My best friend’s son was diagnosed with a rare chromosomal anomaly (at that time there were only 8 recorded cases in the entire world) at 24 weeks gestation. He would be born with many, many problems (if he even lived the full 9 months). At the time, my friend and her husband were not Christians. They were in shock and didn’t know what to do. Giving birth, then taking care of a high needs child did not fit in with their plans. So they considered abortion.

They knew they needed help and churches help people, right? So they went to the church located behind their house, accepted Jesus a week later and were baptized a month later. They chose to carry Alex to full term.

He was born and lived 10 months. He had lots of surgeries and went through more than many adults ever will.

But he also touched more people than most adults ever will either. They could not fit all the people who baby Alex had touched with his short life into that funeral parlor.

Through his life, God saved his parents and radically transformed them, touched an entire NICU, touched an entire church, a community, and many who hear his story.

None of this would have happened if he had just been aborted.

I personally know three women who chose to carry their children to full term, even though their children’s skulls would not form over the brain, thus the child would not live long, if they even lived to birth.

“Even the wise cannot see all ends.” But God can.

Theirs was to walk the path of life and to let God do what He would do.

Kerry Nietz

Thanks for sharing those stories, Morgan. Good stuff.

Maybe this is an oversimplification of the issue, but under what circumstances is a baby ever a bad result? I’m going to offer up the suggestion: pretty much never
“But about the emotional trauma…?”
“What about the quality of…?”
Bah. This comes from a dad with three children under nine, so I’ve done the baby thing fairly recently and often. Take a baby out with you. Everywhere you go you will create smiles. Everywhere. Every place you stop you will have someone, probably multiple someones, pause from their daily routine to take note, to make faces, and to,  at the very least, smile.

A baby is a good result. It is a blessing and a smile creator.
People who miss that need to check their eyes, and their hearts.

Royce Hunt

Soon and very soon, I’m going to reference Parts: the clonus horror, Night Fright, Logan’s Run, and a variety of other B-Movie sci-fi and horror that taught an unregenerate me bioethics before I read my first passage of Scripture.