Zen and the Art of Science Fiction Ancientness

Due to the production lag of academic work appearing in public (peer review, people working for no remuneration, etc), some of the early work I’ve done on Science Fiction and Buddhism is only now emerging in print/pixels.

The first chapter of the slowly emerging book, which looked at Buddhist Reception in Pulp SF, appeared about 18 months ago, as I noted at the time.

Now two more chapters have emerged, long awaited and then arriving in tandem, like buses of legend. The first of these examines the crypto-Buddhism of Arthur C. Clarke, and can be found in a very excellent essay collection entitled Rendezvous with Arthur C. Clarke: Centenary Essays, published unsurprisingly to commemorate 100 years since ACC’s birth.

Contact the publisher Gylphi if it’s of interest, or else pick up a copy on Amazon or via your favourite brainy bookshop. Like all Gylphi books, it costs only a fraction of most academic texts.

Clarke on Clarke contained therein.

The second publication likewise focuses on a single author, this time Frank Herbert of Dune fame, and therefore it will come as no surprise that it’s entitled “The Dharma of Dune: Frank Herbert and Zen Buddhism”.

It can be found in volume one (of two) of Fantastic Religions and Where to Find Them, or, to name it in its original language, Religioni fantastiche e dove trovarle: Divinità, miti e riti nella fantascienza e nel fantasy. If you follow that link, it will take you to the page of publisher Edizione Quasar where you will find both volumes, which contain an eclectic range of clever and considered takes on religion in a vast array of SFF texts, literary, televisual, cinematic and cultural.

Where can you find fantastic religion? In here!

Many thanks are due to the editors of both volumes, Paul March-Russell and Andrew Butler in the first instance, and Igor Baglioni, Ilaria Biano and Chiara Crosignani in the second.

You might reasonably wonder why all three of these chapters feature rather old SF. That’s partly because I’ve been working on this book chronologically, though I’d expect that the next chapter to emerge blinking into the light might jump a few decades to consider Cyberpunk. Don’t ask me when that will be though. The gestation period of academic texts is an arcane mystery. When it happens, I’ll be sure to let you know though.

The Zen of Sci-fi

Karma, they say, is a bitch. But karma is also a balancing act, a mode of returning one’s energy back to you.

I’ve been fascinated about religious futurisms for some time now, and already wrote a book about SF’s engagement with Catholicism. Since then, I’ve been working on SF and Buddhism, and anyone who’s heard me talk about it knows that I’m putting a lot of energy out there about it, because it’s something I think is fascinating, culturally complex, and also important for how we develop collectively as a society.

Jedis, Buddhism and the translational power of film – Jagwire

That energy karmically returned to me the day I got an email from Eric Molinsky, who runs one of THE best podcasts anywhere, the Imaginary Worlds podcast. It really is essential listening. Eric’s an old pro from the New York radio scene, and his ability to produce magical radio has reincarnated in his new role as host and producer of Imaginary Worlds.

So now you can join the people who’ve heard my energy about SF and Buddhism, because Eric only went and did an entire episode of Imaginary Worlds about exactly that. Better again, he got some absolutely phenomenal SF writers to talk about it too, including one of my favourite authors, Ramez Naam.

The episode is here, and if you rummage around in Eric’s archive, you’re bound to find a load more interesting episodes to occupy your lockdown time.

I’m billed in the podcast as a professor at Coventry University, which isn’t accurate, as I haven’t risen to such nosebleed heights (yet!) and I’m also no longer in Coventry. That’s my karma, I guess.

Defining Religious Futurism

We need a way of taxonomising religious futurisms due to the wide range of territory the term covers. There are three main strands of religious futurism, with a number of additional topics that are at least cognate or germane.

The first, and perhaps most recognisable, form of religious futurism simply describes futurisms derived from existing terrestrial religions, for example Islamofuturism. This form also includes futurised hybrids of these religions, such as the Zensunni and Orange Catholic beliefs described in Frank Herbert’s Dune.

The Orange Catholic Bible: In the Future the OCB will Unfold Reality:  Interplanetary Religion, International Council on: 9781508508724:  Amazon.com: Books

A second rich category of religious futurism relates to religious belief systems, or nascent belief systems, which are either influenced by or directly derivative of SF, for example the Church of Scientology or Jedi beliefs.

Inside the Church of Jediism, Where 'Star Wars' Gets Spiritual
Church of Jediism

An additional main strand of religious futurism, what we might term creative or speculative religious futurism, relates to invented religious faiths ascribed either to future populations or alien civilisations in SF and cognate genres, such as the Church of All Worlds in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, or Bokononism, which Kurt Vonnegut invented for his novel Cat’s Cradle.

Where we get some lack of clarity is in overlaps. There is evidence, for example, that religious futurisms of this latter category can migrate into the previous one. There is some evidence, for example, of people pursuing Bokononism in reality, and clearly Jedi commenced as a created belief system depicted within the Star Wars universe, and was not originally intended to be a religious belief. Indeed, to become one, it had to be fleshed out with doctrine by fans.

Cat's Cradle - Wikipedia

But then what of something like Scientology, which emerged from L. Ron Hubbard’s work on Dianetics, and was clearly influenced by his own career as a SF author, but was presented to the world as a revelatory knowledge? Or what of Mormonism, also presented to the world as a revelation, but one which in its origin story as told by proponents clearly contains elements of fantastika, if not overt SF futurism?

There are other anomalies too. What do we make of the non-theist belief system propagated in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, where most of the population believe the universe they inhabit to be a simulation? This particular theory, first popularised by Nick Bostrum, is gaining a lot of traction among both physicists and the general public. Is it, too, a religious futurism? Is religious even the correct descriptor? Is futurism?

Simulation Theory
Simulation Theory

As we expand in focus, the anomalies proliferate in this regard. Given the fantastikal aspect of most revelatory origin stories for religions, are we to retroactively consider all religions as religious futurism at an early stage of their development? If we locate the concept of futurism as relative to now, ie the present day, does that simply create a kind of moving walkway, in which, perhaps, Jedi beliefs will at some point cease to be religious futurism and simply become religion? What, other than the passing of time, is required for it to qualify otherwise?

In my own work on SF and Catholicism, I’ve sought to identify how the Anglophone literary tradition of SF constantly depicts Catholicism of the future as a threat – oppressive, anti-science, threatening to democracy and liberty, totalitarian in many aspects.

But this Catholic futurism is not the same as describing the actual likely organic evolution of Catholicism, which has to its credit, played a significant role in a range of scientific development from genetics to astrophysics, and which in its liberation theology form in Latin America has strenuously defended liberty and democracy from totalitarian regimes.

In other words, I wasn’t attempting to predict the future of Catholicism at all, but rather to chart what future Catholicism signified to the Anglophone culture of the recent past.

Likewise, we need to distinguish Islamofuturism from actual potential futures of Islam, though again the anomalies proliferate. What are we to make of Saudi Arabia, a highly conservative Islamic state, granting citizenship to a robot, the first ever robot citizen of any nation?

Sophie the robot citizen

I don’t claim to have easy answers for such questions. What I hope is that scholars of art, culture, the future and theology can start asking them and similar ones. Only collaboratively can we hope to close in on a working definition of religious futurism.