SF – A Humanist Perspective

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Here’s another item from the archives – a piece by Harry Harrison written for The Humanist magazine in 1961. Harry Harrison’s views on religion are well-known – see his short story “The Streets of Ashkelon,” probably his finest – and he has spoken on the subject many times on conventions panels. What follows is an early article on the topic.

Science Fiction Comes of Age
by Harry Harrison (1961)

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Science fiction has become a medium in which the implications of humanism can be freely explored

The recent publication of two books heralds the entry of Science Fiction into the ranks of legitimate literature. Kingsley Amis’s New Maps of Hell (Gollancz) is a sympathetically critical survey of SF by a writer of reputation in literature, criticism, and education. Aspects of Science Fiction (John Murray), edited by G.D. Doherty, is no less than a sturdy stone in the underpinnings of the Institution itself – a grammar school text-book. This coming of age of SF is reminiscent of the acceptance of detective thrillers some years ago, but it is of far greater importance to the humanist.

The public image of SF has never been a very good one. When the term is mentioned lurid cover magazines and monster-horror films have a tendency to leap instantly to mind. Science fiction was never quite socially acceptable – at least, not until quite recently. Of course the same could be said about humanism. A glimpse beneath the surface of SF reveals that this is not the only thing these two have in common. Many of the advanced philosophies written about in the pages of this journal are already accepted SF conventions.

Too great a claim should never be made for SF. Like all writing in the mass media it has suffered from an over-expansion; too much of what is being offered under this label is trash by name. But the baby should not be thrown out with the bath water. When all the worst parts have been rejected a vital core remains that is both entertaining and – oddly enough for fiction – informative. Here will be found fictionalized treatments of all that is new and interesting in the physical sciences, philosophy, and sociology. There exist no general taboos or restrictions to limit investigation and inquiry. The very best SF is a literature of non-conformity that can and does turn a critical eye on all of our sacred institutions. Most important is the basic attitude towards reality that is responsible for these stories being written and read.

The essential job of education is getting students to think. This is far more important than the stuffing of facts into unthinking heads. It follows then that the real importance of SF is its profound belief in the truth of the scientific method, and acceptance of the inarguable fact that all things bear investigation. The first step away from unexamined faith towards rationalism must be the cultivation of this mental attitude. Here lies the real value of SF.

Happily, SF is still maturing and we can look for better and more interesting work in the future. In spite of its uncouth youth, spent in the yellowed pages of the pulp magazines, SF appears to be finally clambering into the socially acceptable world of serious writing. (Even its abbreviations are being accepted; the initials ‘SF’ are now used in most literary reviews.) The appearance of these two very important books adds the finishing touch to the new dress of respectability. Mr Amis would never have considered writing New Maps of Hell a few years ago. And if he had, there would certainly have been publishing difficulties. Now it has not only appeared but gained interested attention on both sides of the Atlantic.

Not as well known, but equally indicative of the new attitude towards SF, is the appearance of Aspects of Science Fiction. Mr Doherty is a Senior English Master, and this excellent little volume was produced as a text for grammar school classes. It is a highly readable anthology that can be recommended to anyone who wishes to understand what SF is really about. The introduction, though aimed at young students, has universal application. It says in part,

… all good SF stories demand some serious thought from the reader. The problems presented, though not always easy to grasp, are usually concerned with man in his relation to the universe around him; to appreciate them the reader must have some intelligent views about himself and the world he lives in; that is why SF commands respect as a serious branch of literature even when it is written to make us laugh.

This is a new attitude, and quite the reverse of the one dominant for so long. Twenty years ago, when modern SF was still locked behind the garish covers of the magazines, the confirmed reader was very suspect. He was often asked ‘Do you really believe in rockets to the Moon and all that sort of tripe?’ in the same condescendingly humorous manner that a confirmed believer asks ‘You mean you really believe the universe could exist without God?’

It is impossible to supply a simple answer other than yes – to these loaded questions, since a real understanding of the answer must involve a change in attitude towards the subject the prejudiced are not willing to make. SF has prospered by the rapid advancement of science that has answered many questions such as the one above. Orbiting satellites and Major Gagarin have forced the general public to accept the reality of formerly ‘fantastic’ ideas. The public image of SF is under constant attack from the laboratories. Much that was speculation a few years ago now appears on the front pages of the newspapers.

An important characteristic of SF is that it gives no glorified place at all to religion, unlike popular fiction, where the atheist must appear only as a stereotyped villain. You will, of course, find a few rare stories about nuns in rocketships and monasteries on the Moon – and even one dreadful little yarn about the Salvation Army reforming the rough types on Mars! But these are the exceptions – and I wouldn’t like to see them squeezed out. SF has a healthy attitude of non-conformity even towards its non-conformity. More important than the few exceptions are the generally accepted attitudes expressed in the overwhelming majority of stories. There is no one approved position, but in the many can be sensed a unity of outlook.

The existence of a single world government in the future is so obvious a necessity that it is taken for granted. So is the free exchange of ideas without national boundaries, and the victory of science over disease, poverty, and ignorance. The world has advanced and man’s intellect has done it. Religion and superstition have had nothing to do with it. The dark record of organized religion in separating man from man, and its active part in the causing and continuing of war, is noted and remembered. When revealed religion is mentioned it is usually treated as one of the facets of a young and developing culture, something to be discarded with maturity.

These ideas are rarely expressed in the combative, anti-church mood of the professional atheist. The attitude is usually that of the scientific humanist, searching for the solution to mankind’s problems through man himself. Revelation, miracles, and faith in the unexamined have been laid aside with the rest of the frailties of society’s youth. Kingsley Amis remarks on this in New Maps of Hell:

The uses of religious subject matter are . . . exceptional; an attitude of casual disrespect is far more common. It is as if religion were tacitly agreed to have an earthly, or Terrene, limitation when the scale of human activity has become galactic.

Religious SF is rare, and usually quite bad. A few Catholic SF novels and stories have appeared, and have their own insidious attraction if well written. This occurs because the hardest problem facing the SF writer is the need to create an entirely new world that will have both identification and interest for the reader. Catholicism is the easy way out. The lazy writer needs only to extend this Church into the future and he has a ready-made stock of situations, characters, and references. Luckily the, things that make a good SF writer make a bad Catholic, so the stories that contain this unjustified assumption of Catholic continuity are rare.

Organized superstition doesn’t stand up very well in the harsh light of speculation. A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr, is a novel that proves this. It is the story of the Catholic Church carrying knowledge through the dark ages following a coming atomic war, as they were supposed to have done during the Middle Ages. In spite of the fact it had a Catholic Digest edition, this is an anti-religious book and will frighten all but the completely converted. All of the incidents reveal religion’s lack of any real answer to human salvation in this world, climaxed by a revealing bit of horror generated by the Catholic attitude towards euthanasia.

Scientists Turn Novelists

Anti-religious SF is just as rare as the pro-religious variety. However, what is overwhelmingly present is the attitude that mankind is capable of solving its own problems, and not only cannot except any help from on high but is doomed to failure if it is looking for aid from that direction. The dominant idea is no longer that of H.G. Wells’ Utopian socialism. The fact is squarely faced now that simply improving mankind’s physical lot will not solve all the problems. The solutions are as varied as the theories.

A sampling of some of the SF paperbacks now on sale shows this clearly. The Space Merchants, by F. Pohl and C. Kornbluth, is a satire on the world of the future that is already a near classic. Robert Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children gives one answer to the problem of the short human lifespan – let people breed for longevity. Fred Hoyle handles the impact of a totally new science in Ossian’s Ride.

Hoyle is, of course, more widely known for his original astrophysical theories, and is not the only practising scientist to write SF. Dr Isaac Asimov is a biochemist, now teaching in Boston University. Robert Heinlein is an engineer who has worked on the development of space suits in the laboratory as well as in fiction. Eric Frank Russell is a technical representative for a steel company, George O. Smith an electronic engineer. Many other writers are as equally well known in scientific fields, apart from their careers in fiction.

This does not mean that SF can be read as you would read a science text-book – it is still imaginative fiction. New readers are advised to buy either short story collections or recommended novels. New Worlds and Analog Science Fact and Fiction are two magazines with a consistent record of good stories. A casual dipping into some of the other magazines or paperback potboilers can be a frightening experience. As Kingsley Amis says: ‘Nothing is more typical of science fiction than that it presents what are at any rate interesting ideas, and sometimes even original ones, in terms of electrifying banality.’ Good SF is very enjoyable and the pleasure makes up for the dull stories read while searching for it.

It must be remembered that SF contains no panaceas for the world’s ills – though you will find many theories concerning them. It will convert no one, since there is no one continuous idea to be converted to. But it does contain the atmosphere in which ideas can grow and not be stifled at birth.

© Harry Harrison, 1961

First published in The Humanist, vol.76 no.10, October 1961.

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