Science Fiction and Religion Part 1

IMG_0894I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction this summer; not just for fun, but also to explore how current SF writers are envisioning the future and the place of religion within it. Future religion isn’t a new theme in SF — Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series springs to mind as an extensive treatment — but some recent novels deal explicitly with clashes between religious and secular world views in ways that seem strongly influenced by the discourse around New Atheism and secularism more broadly. Ken MacLeod’s novel The Night Sessions is perhaps the best example of this kind of work; I plan to write about it and Macleod’s other fine novels in another post. Today I’m going to talk about Dani and Eytan Kollin’s Unincorporated Man series.

The series begins with The Unincorporated Man (2009). Justin Cord, a 21st-century industrialist, wakes up from cryogenic suspension in the 24th century, in which humans have the capacity to cure any illness, heal any wound, and revive people after death (with some limitations). There is no hunger, no taxes, no crime, no war, no unemployment, and no religion. Mars, the Moon, and various other bodies within the solar system have been colonized. This utopia rose from the ashes after a worldwide economic and political collapse caused by addiction to virtual reality and subsequent withdrawal from real life. So far, so typical. The interesting element of this future world is incorporation: every person is incorporated at birth, with a certain percentage of their personal shares belonging to their parents and another percentage belonging to the government. The society is run by corporations rather than the government, which has a minimal role. Personal shares are bought and sold, rising and falling in value depending on an individual’s actual and perceived potential for success. In other words, people literally invest in other humans, and, as a result, have variable degrees of control over them. Everyone’s goal is to own a majority of shares in themselves so that they can fully control their own lives.

The incorporation system is presented as pretty benign and altruistic in the novel’s opening chapters, but when Justin Cord (note the initials) wakes up, he is appalled by what he regards as slavery. He refuses to incorporate, which leads to an escalating struggle over his right to remain unincorporated. By the end of the novel, Cord has become the leader of an anti-incorporation rebellion based among the asteroid mining colonies. All-out war ensues between the incorporated Earth-based society and the unincorporated asteroid-based Alliance. The next three novels — The Unincorporated War (2010); The Unincorporated Woman (2011); and The Unincorporated Future (2012) — describe this war as an escalation of atrocities that bring humanity to the brink of total destruction.

These novels are not great works of literature, but the series had potential as a commentary on capitalism; that is, at least, what I thought the Kollin brothers were up to as I read the first few chapters of The Unincorporated Man. The incorporation concept is interesting, especially since it is presented as having enabled all the advances in technology, medicine, and societal stability. The Unincorporated Man won the 2010 Prometheus Award for Novel of the Year from the Libertarian Futurist Society, and the book has been compared to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as well as to the later works of Robert Heinlein. This is somewhat peculiar, because the incorporated society seems very libertarian, yet Cord, the hero, is implacably opposed to it and even revives taxation and strong government.

The inconsistencies of The Unincorporated Man’s philosophical underpinnings make more sense once we realize that the novel and its sequels are not really about political economy. The under-developed incorporation debate disappears once the rebellion becomes a war, and the series’ pro-religion agenda is revealed.

The first novel does not deal with religion directly, except, if I recall correctly, for a reference to religion as an outdated meme; however, religious imagery is quite prominent. Justin Cord (JC) is resurrected from his tomb in a cave and becomes the would-be saviour of mankind from slavery; his first sexual tryst with his lover takes place when she is in costume as a sexy devil; the journalist who joins Cord is called Michael Veritas; and so on. The pro-religion agenda takes off in the second and third novels as the Alliance encounters and is joined by several clandestine religious groups that have survived in small numbers, among the asteroid belt population, despite the presumed disappearance of all religion since the great economic collapse. Religious leaders become major players within the rebellion leadership, and religion spreads like wildfire through the Alliance population. The Kollin brothers present religion, in its various (major) forms, as something that humans need — it is not just a convenient tool for motivating a population fighting for its survival. By the final novel, religious faith and faith in the Alliance become conflated, as if they are the same thing no matter which religion an individual adheres to. God is remarkably ecumenical in this future, possibly because much of human history has been forgotten. There is no hint of conflict between the “big three” religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; in fact, they come across as homogenized.

Religious allusions continue, most notably in the betrayal of Justin Cord by one of the Alliance’s inner circle, which results in Cord’s death. The Alliance admiral, a woman and a Muslim, becomes known as the Blessed One and thinks that she receives guidance from Allah. By the very end of the series, after the Alliance and Incorporation forces have reached a negotiated peace, much of the Alliance population opts to leave the solar system in what is explicitly called an Exodus; we learn about this from a holy book written after said Exodus. Cord reappears, still dead, but secretly re-entombed in a cryogenic suspension capsule to await another resurrection.

I think it’s entirely legitimate to postulate the survival of religion far into humanity’s future, and even to suggest that religion might provide an essential sense of meaning for people who have rejected the dominant mode of society, i.e. incorporation in this case. The idea that ecumenism might triumph when there has been a catastrophic rupture with the past (and where there is a common enemy) is intriguing, if unrealistic. The Kollins’ imagined future becomes problematic, for me, when they turn the atheist Incorporated society into a collective of dupes led by sadists. The Incorporation president, Hektor Sambianco, is unremittingly evil; the authors seem to have been trying to make him, and his government, worse than Hitler and the Nazis. They even have the Incorporation government rediscovering the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as they attempt to make sense of the religious revival happening among their enemies. Thanks to the previous civilizational collapse, they don’t know that the Protocols are false, so they take them as historical truth. We even learn, later in the series, that a Mengele-like figure has been experimenting on (i.e. torturing and killing) Alliance prisoners, especially those who profess pacifism on religious grounds. This is revealed in a sickening scene in which a secondary character is subjected to gratuitous sexual and physical violence.

To be fair, both sides in the war experience a ratcheting effect as “eye for an eye” atrocities escalate, and the need for mass attacks on civilians is questioned by some Alliance and Incorporation figures. The moral scales are always, however, tilted in favour of the Alliance: they are fighting for their freedom (and then for survival), while the Incorporation seems to be fighting just to spite this desire for freedom. The Alliance is presented as a community; the Incorporated society is merely a collective of self-interested individuals with no apparent larger purpose or, seemingly, any moral code. The few individuals who act (eventually) against their evil leaders demonstrate a serious failure to think critically or to reject immoral orders until they are brought to their senses by the Alliance leader, who is herself remarkably Machiavellian in her understanding and use of power but refers frequently to God and God’s love. One might regard her as a hypocrite but for the fact that when the war is over, she joins the rebuilding efforts under a new, humble identity as an explicit act of atonement.

The idea that atheists lack any moral code, because they don’t believe in the existence of a higher power, is the primary “argument” used to suggest that atheists are untrustworthy. It’s a very, very old notion that remains alive and well today despite the lack of evidence to show that atheists are more likely to commit crimes, lie, cheat, etc. than anyone else is. It’s a pity to see a promising work of science fiction fall back on such an unimaginative, simplistic vision of what a future atheistic society might be like. The portrayal of a swift descent into atheistic evil is especially disappointing considering that the Incorporated society clearly has some values: there is a strong taboo against virtual reality, and a great deal of effort goes into curing illness, injuries, and death. The society also values freedom in a certain sense: the government is very limited at the beginning of the series, and is not permitted to impose taxes. (On the negative side, the powers-that-be, i.e. the corporation and later the government, are prone to “psychologically auditing” those who don’t play ball.) These values are not, however, strong enough to survive the rise of one evil man after he murders the previous leader.  Essentially, the atheistic Incorporated society falls prey to the Devil’s wiles while the Alliance society rediscovers God, faith, and forgiveness as the keys to a successful human society. When the war is over, members of the devastated Incorporated society begin converting to various religions. Ayn Rand must be spinning in her grave.

The Kollin brothers are well on their way to becoming SF stars thanks to The Unincorporated Man’s success. It will be interesting to see whether their popularity translates into long-term influence within SF, and if so, what impact their pro-religion stance has on a genre that is traditionally critical of religion or ignores it. As much as I dislike the message of this particular “SF lite” series, I’m glad to see SF writers tackling the subject of religion’s future and offering their creative visions.

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