February 3, 2014
The Three Times I Saw God in Science Fiction Movies
by Josh Billings
The first time I saw God He was yelling at William Shatner. Shatner was yelling back.
I was twelve years old. Judging by his belly and makeup, Shatner was seventy—maybe a hundred and seventy. God was immortal, but he needed a starship. More specifically, he needed Shatner’s starship, the USS Enterprise, which had somehow made it past the cosmic energy barrier holding God captive at the center of the universe. God wanted to know if there was any way he could hitch a ride with the Enterprise when it reversed the trick.
I thought it was a reasonable request. After all, this was God—he’d made everything, and now he wanted to get out and stretch his legs a little bit. His kindly face was wreathed convincingly in a flame so gas-blue that it made him look like a gigantic pilot light. If I’d had a starship, I would have given it to him myself.
But Shatner was having none of it.
“What does God need with a starship?” he asked.
“Bring the ship closer,” God said, clearly wanting to hurry things along.
“I said, ‘What does God need with a starship?’”
That was when the yelling started—the yelling and the space lightning. At which point I knew this wasn’t God. Shatner knew it too. A yeller himself, he understood instinctively that God wouldn’t yell. He wouldn’t have to. Ergo whatever was trying to commandeer the Enterprise was lying, was devious—was probably being held prisoner at the center of the universe for a reason. Ergo (in the words of movie captains everywhere): run!
One of the side-benefits of reading and watching an unhealthy amount of science fiction is that you get to see a lot of God. I mean a lot—way more than you’d get from the same amount of fantasy, or crime fiction, or psychological realism. In fact, after a brief and completely biased review of the genres (conducted in the last five minutes, by myself), I am prepared to say that no single genre of modern art is as obsessed with God as science fiction.
I have a theory about this (I repeat: an unhealthy amount). My theory basically boils down to this: the reason that there is so much God in science fiction is that science fiction is actually not interested in God at all. It’s interested in human beings. More specifically, it is interested in human beings’ limitations: the barriers beyond which we cannot pass without becoming something more, or less, than human.
Admittedly, this sounds like what all fiction is interested in, from Robinson Crusoe to Heart of Darkness and beyond, but the difference is that science fiction, unlike other genres of literature, understands the boundary between the human and the nonhuman as something shifting, rather than static. Marlowe goes to the jungle and finds something out about the heart of man (spoiler: it is dark). This something is new to him, but the book presents it as a discovery of something old—something that, like darkest Africa, has always been there, and always will. So no matter how unsettling Conrad‘s book may be, it is also reassuring, since it presents the human heart as something that you can know and, having known, rest on, secure back in England.
In science fiction, on the other hand, no one is ever secure, since what seems like an eternal truth about human nature one day may turn out the next to be only a result of your particular and particularly limited point of view in the universe (the way, for example, that the sun’s constant movement around the earth—a “truth” for millennia—turned out to be just a result of our particular limitations). Which means that the journey of discovery is never over.
Why is human nature shifting in science fiction? Well, the short answer is technology, which is the biggest single thing that sets the genre apart from more traditional realism. Traditional realism doesn’t care about technology—or if it does care, it is only in order to condemn technology’s capacity to distract us from the real quest, which is inward and excavatory. In science fiction, on the other hand, human nature is something you discover by venturing out, past, beyond, “Where no man has gone before.” Technology helps you get there; but along the way it exacts an important price. It’s a two-way street that changes not only the user’s environment, but the user. In this way, it resembles a fairy-tale genie, giving with one hand while it takes away slyly with the other—except that in fairy tales the constant-changingness of the world always turns out to be superficial: a decorative pattern laid over what is essentially a solid order of being.
Science fiction also wants a world it can depend on. But technology isn’t a point to hold on to: it’s a vector, a vehicle, which destabilizes not just the known world of the fairy tale but also the known self of psychological realism, transforming them from equations whose truths we can eventually calculate (and therefore repose in) to fields whose shifting threatens to erode even the significance of our hard-won (and therefore maybe just a little self-satisfied) personal tragedies. This is why science fiction is so anxious, and also why it puts so much value on motion—on boldly going where no man has gone before. It’s looking for something, some wonder that will stay put. Hence, not just its fascination with man, I think, but its fatigue with him. Its desire get to the end of human nature, and to find there some unchanging thing that will allow it to not have to worry about us anymore. God is that thing.
He is not always what we expected; on the other hand, sometimes He is exactly what we expected. Shatner, for instance, smells a rat before long before the Enterprise reaches the center of the universe. His insight is impressive—but then, was there ever any doubt that he would turn out be right? I doubt it—for in addition to being an Olympic-level rock-climber and rhetorician, Shatner is also a believer. What he believes in is not God, but himself.
Shatner’s stubbornness (or rather Kirk’s—although can you really imagine Chris Pine shouting like an enraged baby at God?) surprised me at the time, but it makes sense when you think about where he’s coming from. I’m not talking about Iowa or Canada: I’m talking about John Milton, and more specifically Satan, Kirk’s great precursor in both spaceflight and God-defiance. Ostensibly the villain of Paradise Lost, he wins most readers over with his rakish scowl and unwillingness to compromise. He’s a skeptic; at the same time, he’s a resourceful and even brave captain, whose gloomy soliloquies contain the best poetry in the poem.
His argument against God boils down to what is essentially a very human desire to keep things the way they are. In the theology of Paradise Lost, this desire stems from a pride that we humans (the beneficiaries of the new era) understand to be bad—and yet Milton’s poetry is so sympathetic that it makes us wonder: what if we were in Satan’s position? What if God appeared on earth tomorrow and told us that things as we knew it were going to change—not gradually, but overnight, rendering everything we believed in obsolete? Wouldn’t we want to stop this from happening?
By rewriting Paradise Lost in a way that turns God into a huckster and Satan into a immaculately-coiffed hero, Star Trek V answers this question with a resounding yes. It takes a conservative stance towards the unknown, which may seem strange considering that it’s a science fiction movie—but then, for all its talk about boldly going where no man has gone before, star trek has never had much interest in the unknown. On the contrary: what it’s been interested in is human life as it exists now. God may be a part of this life, or he may not—but he’s certainly not the center of the universe.
The second time I saw God, He was me, which is one way of saying that my taste in movies was getting better.
There may be more reliable ways to blow a nerdy teenager’s mind than to show them the last fifteen minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I don’t know what they are. You remember how it goes. Human history begins when a gigantic black monolith appears near an encampment of our monkey ancestors, who then proceed to beat one another with femurs. Cut to the titular year, the appearance of a second monolith orbiting Jupiter, and pilot David Bowman’s epic struggle with the ultimate in passive-aggressive computing, HAL 9000. Bowman beats HAL, flies an escape pod towards the monolith…and is caught up in a tunnel of multicolored light so disorienting that we half expect hourglasses and differential equations to start floating through it. Emerging from this, Bowman finds himself in a bedroom in what is either Versailles or the Hollywood Hills. He watches himself grow progressively older. Just as the oldest version of himself is about to die, the monolith appears, and Bowman is transformed into a gigantic glowing fetus. The end. Mind officially blown.
But then what actually happens at the end of 2001? Does Bowman die? Is he transformed into a higher form of being—and if so, what form? The movie creates more questions than it answers; and in that way it is less a religious work than a mystical one (“Virtually all the classics of speculative fiction are mystical” – Samuel Delaney): a movie, that is, that affirms the reality of the unknown more than it offers to explain that reality. Compared to Star Trek V, the story that it tells is both more hopeful and significantly chillier. As a character Bowman is not charismatic, inspiring, or even chummy—but then, he doesn’t need to be. Chumminess is a human characteristic: one of the many consolations of that complex of limitations that we call personality. Humanity in 2001, on the other hand, isn’t a place to explore: it’s a place to leave.
2001’s mysticism may seem more God-prone than Star Trek’s Barnum and Bailey hero worship—but at the end of the day I’m not sure it is. Kubrick’s cosmos is perfect, geometric, immaculate—and empty. It feels like a house on moving day: everything is either gone already or on its way out. Human beings in this scheme are like kids wandering from room to room for the last time: anxious to get on with our evolution, our grownupness, which we understand now is less a final point than one more house. God is always beyond us, but because we believe that in our infinite capacity nothing is beyond us, God is nothing.
Eschatology like this looks bleak, but it’s what makes 2001 such a strange and, for me at least, strangely spiritual, epic. This may sound like rhetorical sleight-of-hand, but I think there’s at least some truth in it, the way there’s at least some truth in calling the Iliad a great pre-Christian epic, as Simone Weil famously did, despite the fact that, whoever the writer of that epic was, he or she (or they) could not have had any idea who Christ was. Well, Weil says, so they’d never heard of Him. So there is absolutely no God in the Iliad, nor mercy, nor kindness (she is forgetting a lot to get this argument made, of course, but then that’s what Joan of Arcs do). So this busiest of poems is empty in a profound way—all this proves is her point, which is that there is no more perfect depiction of “the world of force” than the Iliad. Theologically speaking, it’s a vacuum, like space, or whatever was before space—the thing or no-thing whose emptiness was so persuasive, or terrible, or attractive that space found itself unexpectedly called into existence.
Of course, calling 2001 a great post-Christian epic is pushing it; still, there are ways in which its emptiness works in the same way as the Iliad’s. Most sci-fi is essentially humanist, in that it cares about man even when it doesn’t believe in him; but 2001 believes in man without caring about him—or rather, it cares about him in a purely functional sense, the way a house would care about one of its nails (or, conversely, Agamemnon cares about one of his foot soldiers). In this way, it is truly a “poem of force”, as Weil would put it—except that in 2001 the “force” in question has become technological, rather than military.
The effect on a merely human viewer is the same. There isn’t a single particle in the movie that misses God; but the strange thing is that, watching it, I do. I feel bereft, to use an out of date but appropriate word. The eternal waltz of planets and suns convinces me completely, to the point by the time Bowman makes his transformation, I can’t help but think that transformation isn’t really the point. The point is the emptiness itself, which is what the rest of us are left with once our supermen have reached their white rooms.
About rooms: Dostoevsky has one too, although, typically, it doesn’t look anything like Kubrick’s glowing cube. Here is Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment:
“We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is? I sometimes fancy it like that.”
As a vision of eternity this is something different. There is no space lightning—there is not even the unbearable silence of the spheres. On the contrary, one imagines Raskolnikov’s spiders being fairly chatty, as Russian devils tend to be. They would probably have German accents and delight in bad puns. When asked about the meaning of life, they would humbly admit that such questions were above their pay grade. Then they would smile and go back to chewing your toes off.
There’s something cozily defensive about this, as if Raskolnikov had come up with it not just for himself, but in reaction to all the hoity-toity afterlives he’d read about in French novels. It’s a connoisseur’s hell, in other words, presented as plain and artless, but really bookish in its awareness of all the things that it is not. Such hipsterish satisfaction is silly, of course; at the same time, it reflects the intense self-regard that, for Dostoevsky at least, was already half the problem. Raskolnikov “fancies” his spider-infested bath house, but what he doesn’t get is that God doesn’t care whether you fancy hell or not. If He wants shadow and flame, and the baroque bad taste of a Swedish hairdresser grinding your testicles into lunch meat, then that’s what you’re going to get. It may seem groaningly obvious. But it will not be up to you. And maybe this, more than anything, is what would eventually make Raskolnikov’s hell so unbearable: that there’s no God in it. There’s just you, you, you, as far as the eye can see.
The third time I saw God, I wasn’t looking for him: I was looking for a room—a room I had already found. Of all the many differences between 2001 and Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi pastoral Stalker, this structural one seems the most important; the two movies are different shapes, made for different purposes. 2001 is a rocket. It begins in one place (apes) and ends in another (space fetus), without making us wonder which coordinate is more important. Stalker starts out the same way but then digresses, stumbling over its own path like a chess knight trying to swat a fly. About two-thirds of the way in it finds what it’s looking for, but because this is a Tarkovsky movie, based on a Strugatsky novel, the thing it was looking for turns out to be empty. You get to the room where God is supposed to be, and all you find is sand and an old telephone. The phone rings. “What does God want with a starship?” you ask, not to be smart, or even necessarily because you want to know, but because, after all this time, the question is all you’ve got. But there’s no answer. So, lacking anything else to do, you go outside and have a cigarette.
A moment of despair? Maybe in Paris. But there is a resilience in the Russian religious mind that helps it evade this kind of disappointment. There is the lucky double-helix of a civilization whose sense of the supernatural incorporates two at times quite opposite strands: the revelation of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the more domestic, squishy, resilient mysticism of the folk tradition. When one of those strands fails, the other is there to take over. So, when you walk into a room where God is supposed to be, but isn’t, there is still what Andrei Sinyavsky called “the life of the folk,” in which “the supernatural dissolves into the natural and may manifest itself at any moment, anywhere.”
The miracle will happen, has happened, is happening. Later, after the quest has been put to rest for another day, Tarkovsky shows us the Stalker’s mutant daughter Monkey telekinetically moving a water glass across a table. It’s a pretty extraordinary thing to do, but the way it is shot makes it feel ordinary. The two qualities—extraordinariness of the action, ordinariness of the treatment—interact with one another, making the scene seem both very strange and very real at the same time, like a medieval painting in which fishermen, soldiers, ships, have all been rendered with painstaking love and accuracy. As in those paintings, God is not technically depicted; at the same time, he is, miraculously enough, the subject of the scene. The real is holy, and in order for it to be so, the holy must be real.
In the part of Maine where I live and work as a nurse, people tend to die in the hospital—meaning in small, uncomfortable rooms. After they die, the custom is to open a window. Not because of any smell, but to let whatever is in the room out, into the air.
Is air space? Technically, yes. Technically—that is, viewed from a point so distant from the human that the ruffles of experience flatten into the clear lines of definition—the space called outside, and the space in the room, and the space ten thousand miles above the earth are all the same thing. And occasionally it is useful to open a window on the otherwise claustrophobic domesticity of life and remind ourselves of this. On the other hand, sometimes it is a mistake to do this, or at least to get so used to doing it that we think that there is no difference between a hospital room and Mars.
Science fiction doesn’t always remember this, which is one of the things that makes it such a frustrating genre. Anxious and overwhlemed, it has the audacity to imagine a room beyond all other rooms, a space beyond space. Then it imagines a window.
Redshift is an investigation into the weird and mostly under-explored universe of Russian and Soviet science fiction. It takes as its guiding principle the idea, stated on Russian-American cosmologist Andrei Linde’s website, that ‘Instead of being the single, expanding ball of fire described by the big bang theory, the universe looks like a huge growing fractal…a multiverse consisting of many universes with different laws of low-energy physics operating in each of them’. So: fractal universe, fractured investigation. Perfect, in other words, for blogging.
JOSH BILLINGS is a writer and translator who lives in Rockland, Maine. Melville House has published his translations of Alexander Pushkin's Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin's The Duel. Recent writing of his has appeared in The Collagist and The Literary Review. He blogs at begborrowstijl.blogspot.com.