Speculative fiction, whether fantasy or science fiction, has fascinated me since my adolescence. In created worlds, echoing our own or totally alien, writers in these genres question the nature of the universe and our species. Who hasn’t pondered the Big Question: Why am I here and what’s so special about my consciousness?
Not too long ago, by the light of my bedside lamp, I opened a ponderous tome, Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s Big Book of Science Fiction (Vintage Books, 2016) to see what matters sci-fi writers have addressed since the early 20th century. Every story examines at least one compelling issue, for example, a tragic flaw, a technological disaster, dehumanization, or alienation, among others. One of the anthology’s editors, Jeff Vandermeer, has written his own new-weird genre books, Borne, Annihilation, Dead Astronauts, and many others, envisioning an apocalyptic future arriving only seconds from the present.
Curious about the authors, I left a bookmark in the Big Book and read Vandermeer’s Borne and the Southern Reach trilogy. He writes about a near future consisting of strange and dangerous hybrid species living and hunting each other in a world of nightmarish landscapes and toxins. Humans in adaptive and involuntary chimeric forms live without faith in each other nor in the technology that brought the species to that point.
My bookmark rested between pages 274 and 275, at the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s 1955 story, “The Star.” The Vandermeers wrote in their preface to the story that “The Star” embodies one of Clarke’s darkest visions, but that assessment depends on where the reader stands. Here, a space exploration team discovers a situation that leads one person among them, the only one believing in God, to question his faith to which he has clung unquestioningly. Is the absence of faith inherently destructive?
Clarke’s tale offers an apocalyptic vision quite unlike Vandermeer’s. Whereas Annihilation and the rest of the Southern Reach books imagine a world in chaos, Clarke’s tale assumes an orderly setting where science and technology have only enhanced nature and the human condition. The film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose screenplay Clarke co-wrote, exemplifies that perspective at least until the film ends. Multiple interpretations, allegorical and literal, exist about that finale, but, as I see it, humanity ceases to exist in its usual form, just as in Clarke’s Childhood’s End. The species and its world transcend themselves in an orderly way, determined by highly technological aliens—or is God at work there?
In “The Star,” a galactic mission travels from Earth’s moon base and arrives on the one surviving planet of a sun, which had exploded in a supernova long before. Spoiler: that stellar catastrophe, which annihilated an apparently benign and advanced humanoid species, was a star seen on Earth about 2020 years ago. The lead scientist of the mission is a Jesuit and an astrophysicist who holds onto his religious faith until discovering evidence of the lost civilization. He says, “Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?” In this story, Clarke questions the ways humans define or imagine the meaning of the universe. Is the loss of faith likewise a kind of final destruction, not through the failure and misuse of technology, but because of it?
In these times, when we question not only the sustainability of our planet but also of our species, writers like Vandermeer and Clarke challenge us to question our choices and their consequences as well as our beliefs. For that reason, I am still reading and re-reading the genre.