Creation writing: is sci-fi a 21st-century religion?
Ever since mankind began to count, the uncountable stars have been filling us with awe. But the splendour revealed by a cloudless night reveals only a fraction of the universe’s truly awe-inspiring scale. The Hubble space telescope reveals a tiny smudge in the sky such as Andromeda to be a galaxy vaster than our own, teeming with a trillion stars, one of a hundred million other galaxies spread across the heavens.
Science today shows us a very different universe than the clockwork model imagined by Isaac Newton in his description of gravity. Jules Verne could imagine shooting a rocket from the Earth to the moon in 1865, but could not have imagined the vastness even of our solar system’s Kuiper belt. It was only when Edwin Hubble identified the first star beyond the Milky Way, and only when the telescope that bore his name photographed 3,000 galaxies in a single patch of “empty” space, that the human eye could glimpse the near infinite depths of space.
The work of the most ambitious SF authors like Iain M Banks, Vernor Vinge and David Brin manages to capture the true scale of the universe in fiction. And even then SF can detail only the tiniest portion of a cosmos some 93bn light years wide (and expanding ever more quickly), shaped by the unifying force of gravity, where the elements of life are created in supernova explosions and destroyed in black holes. The scientific model of the universe begins to look eerily like that expressed by Hindu astronomers over 3,000 years ago, in which the cycles of the universe are measured in aeons 1.28tn years long, reality is maintained by the force of Vishnu, and all things are created by Brahma and destroyed by Shiva.
Perhaps it’s these mythic resonances that have seen science fiction trend more and more towards religious zeal in recent years. The Singularity, a point in the near future when technology evolves so fast that it allows life to transcend all physical boundaries, is now a common idea in SF, explored by writers from Damien Broderick to Charlie Stross. Its believers style themselves as singulatarians and transhumanists, but their rhetoric of life after death in silicon virtual realities so deeply echoes fundamentalist Christianity that no one is joking when they call it the Rapture of the Nerds.