Posted by: Ken Brown | September 28, 2009

Science Fiction and Mysticism

9From 9. Image copyright Focus Features

Wil McCarthy posted an interesting article today on SciFi Wire asking whether mysticism is replacing science in science fiction. He focuses mostly on 9 and 2012 (though the latter barely seems like science fiction anyway), but the point could easily be made from a host of other recent offerings, especially SciFi’s own Battlestar Galactica. McCarthy seems to think this is a bad thing, and I admit some of his points are good, for instance:

[I]t’s more than a little annoying to see Roland Emmerich [2012] at it again, with bright people like Tim Burton [9] following close behind, pushing the opinion that our civilization went horribly wrong at the Industrial Revolution, and the only way to restore its balance is to retreat all the way to the Middle Ages, or even the Bronze Age.

Science is the cause of all our woes and the solution to none! Only mysticism can save us! Emmerich can’t be dumb enough to believe this himself, or he’d be holed up in a Tibetan monastery, not flitting between luxury homes in L.A., N.Y.C, Stuttgart and London. Bronze-age technology could not feed seven billion people, so who gets to decide who lives and dies?

Of course, he is right that science is not our enemy, but neither is it our savior. For the most part, I welcome this renewed interest in mysticism, and science fiction’s growing recognition that science alone cannot solve all our problems. It was precisely its willingness to engage with such religious ideas that made Battlestar so interesting, and maddening, and continues to add depth to LOST and other recent science fiction. Thus, to me, the “mystical” aspects McCarthy notes in 9 (and to a lesser degree, 2012) make them more appealing rather than less. I want to see a mature science fiction that acknowledges the existence of the soul.

More than this, with many of the commenters over on his article, I have to laugh that McCarthy is bemoaning a shift from science to mysticism in the official magazine of the newly renamed “SyFy” channel, which has itself been steadily replacing its strict science fiction with garbage like Ghost Hunters and low-budget horror films. Seriously?

Religious themes are not the problem, ill-considered dichotomies between “science” and “mysticism” are, whether they appear in the latest blockbuster, or magazine editorials.


  1. well put!

    • Thanks! And isn’t that a great picture?

  2. “…pushing the opinion that our civilization went horribly wrong at the Industrial Revolution…”

    Someone has been reading Tolkien. Unlike a certain Kiwi that makes movies, this includes the Scouring of Shire.

    Nothing new here folks. Just move along.

    • LOL Yes!

      It’s not that Tolkien (and more recent defenders like Wendell Berry) are wrong to emphasize the damage and dangers of industrialism, on that I agree with them (and I was as annoyed as anyone that Jackson left out the Scouring of the Shire, though mainly because it’s where Merry and Pippin finally come into their own). It’s just that this is only half the story–technology is neither wholly good nor wholly evil. That’s just another false dichotomy.

      Since technology magnifies our powers, and since we humans are a mix of both good and evil, technology tends to exaggerate both halves of our nature and create ever greater inequalities between them. Indeed, Tolkien himself implies as much in his treatment of magic (itself a symbol for technology): Sauron can do more harm, but Gandalf can also do more good, than either could without their rings.

  3. Good thoughts.

    I like it when spirituality and an admission that the physical is not everything there is enters the fabric of SciFi.

    Then again, sometimes it just comes across as laziness or silliness. Even though the new Doctor Who series is wonderful, some of the stories, especially compared to the old series, have a decidedly Deux ex machina element to them. Especially silly was then final episode of season 3.

    The worst case is when science fiction tries to incorporate mysticism, but then try to give it a scientific explanation… usually an explanation that doesn’t make any scientific sense.

    • Absolutely!

      Though I have to admit, I love the Stargate franchise even though its central premise is that the gods are merely powerful aliens.

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