Holy Sci-Fi!: Where Science Fiction and Religion Intersect

Springer Verlag has started a new series Science and Fiction that wants to bring popular science (in relation with literature) as well as novels (with a strong science plot). This sounds very much like Science Fiction (which it is in several cases) but, as far as I understand, the "science" is supposed to be dominant and the "adventure" that is often predominant in SF literature is pushed to a second level.

The eight titles in the series currently listed on the Springer website includes books with speculative essays about space travel, genetic manipulation, etc, but also novels. These novels have appendices with a discussion of the underlying science aspect which can be psychology, medicine, biology, physics, etc. The book by Nahin is not a novel but explores how religion was dealt with in SF literature. Paul Nahin is best known among mathematicians for his popular books dealing with mathematics or probability (An Imaginary Tale, Dr. Euler's Fabulous Formula, Duelling Idiots, Digital Dice, Number Crunching,..., mostly published with Princeton University Press). However mathematical physics and SF are never far away with Nahin. It may be less known that he also has committed some SF short stories, but more prominent exponents of his love for science and SF is his 1993 book on Time machines and in 1997 he wrote one on Time travel. So one might expect this book to be in the same vein. If you are primarily expecting a lot of physics and mathematics, you will be disappointed though. The main goal, as the subtitle of the book says, is to highlight the religious aspects, questions, and dilemmas that one may encounter in SF literature. The relation is quite obvious if one starts thinking about what is "out there", when we humans are placed in a cosmological context, or what if other, non-humanoid civilisations exist? Did God create them? With a soul? Do humans have a soul anyway and what does that mean? So there is a lot of philosophy and metaphysics going on in this book. If there are no answers to all the questions, at least it makes you think about them. Many SF authors did tackle such questions in their work. Nahin is obviously well read in SF literature and there are many summaries and references, not only to SF novels but even more so to a long list of short stories. Many of them are classics from the early days of SF. But Nahin is still Nahin and he cannot deny his background. So there is still some science and mathematics, often in the beginning of the chapters.

In an introductory chapter Nahin declares himself as an agnostic to hedge against criticism and strongly claims not having the intention to be offensive at any moment. He also gives some appetizers for topics to come, like in a SF novel by C. Sagan where a secret message from God is given because somewhere in the sequence of digits of pi, there is a sequence of zeros and ones, that when printed on a matrix printer as a square array, it forms the picture of a circle. Not all examples are as funny, but it gives an idea.

Next, a sketch is given of the start of SF in pulp magazines at the end of the 19th century, although there were novels that preceded (H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and others). There is Voltaire's Micromégas and even Kepler wrote about a trip to the moon in Somnium that was published posthumously. Nahin summarizes several examples of early SF stories having a strong "religious" component.

Then the subjects are discussed in a more systematic way in the subsequent chapters. For example, the title of chapter 3 is "Time, space, God's omnipresence, and free will". The Time machine by H.G. Wells was about the first using time travel, and he was certainly not the last. Since Einstein, we know that time and space are not independent and that at least in theory, time travel to the past is possible. However, it involves travelling faster than light (FTL). It has not been done, but what if practical restrictions could be solved. Exploring the consequences of these "what ifs" is what SF is all about. We certainly would end up with paradoxes. If at time t we end up in situation A, can I go back in time to change the initial conditions to not end up in A. Well no! because we ended up in A, otherwise I would not have gone back. Does that eliminate free will then? Does the finite speed of light prevents God's omnipresence? All these themes were discussed in several SF stories, of which Nahin gives several examples.

In the next chapter ponders on the question whether intelligent robots can become "human" or even God. The beginning lies in the theoretical developments by Norbert Wiener and Alan Turing. If a machines passes the Turing test, it can not be distinguished from a human, and numerous are the SF stories where a supercomputer takes over the power and pretends to be God or rather the Devil or at least it pretends to be an almighty human usually with bad intentions. If it is not human, then what is the difference? Is it lacking a soul? Then what is this soul that makes the difference?

The next topic is space travel, and encounters with aliens, close encounters or by radio contact. Given the astronomical amount of possible earth-like planets and the time the universe exists, the probability that advanced civilizations exist is quite high. However, we did not have contact. The Great Silence still rules. Why? Where are they? Or where is the physical evidence that we have been visited? That is the Fermi paradox. SF writer Stanislaw Lem (one of Nahin's favourites since he is cited a lot) states somewhere that it is remarkable that mathematics, the abstract product of our intellect, is able to describe our physical observations. However, the match is only local, in our "bubble" of physical laws. With our growing understanding and the ability of mathematics to describe reality, our bubble grows larger. When these bubbles of different physical laws meet each other, we get a Big Bang. The Great Silence is a consequence of the impossibility to communicate between bubbles. What we believe to be impossible now (e.g. time travel) is because we have not understood enough the proper laws of physics, or at least mathematics was not able to describe physics well enough in all its details. Nevertheless, answering the "what if" question, alien encounters is an often returning issue in SF literature and movies.

Once more in the next chapter Nahin returns to time travel. Isaac Asimov, one of the best known SF authors rejects it, just because the paradoxes make it impossible. Also Hawking doesn't believe it is possible, although Kurt Gödel has shown that it is theoretically possible according to present knowledge of physics. But Hawking conjectures that improved physical knowledge will show it impossible which he calls the Chronology Protection Conjecture. It is actually a reformulation of Niven's Law after the SF writer Larry Niven who formulated it 20 years earlier. The topic of this chapter is whether we, or whether God, can change the past. For example could we go back and prevent the crucifixion of Jesus? Would we not go against God's will because it is exactly his intention to die on the cross for the salvation of humankind. Perhaps the crowd in those days consisted mainly of time travelling tourists who wanted to attend "the real thing"?

The last chapter discusses another what-if question: What if God revealed himself? Aldous Huxley in Point Counter Point has a character mathematically prove the existence of God using zero times infinity is finite, translated as an almighty can create something from nothing. Many people, among which SF authors, have discussed this topic of which Nahin relates. The bit string in the digits of pi that I mentioned earlier is just one example.

In an appendix some game-theoretic paradox is explained and in others a number of short stories are (re)printed. The book is also available in e-form, each chapter having a different DOI. That seems to come at the expense of a less nice typesetting for the printed version. There are many references included as footnotes. These do not affect the fixed text height so that is okay. There are a few illustrations that do not seem to float properly. They are inserted following a particular sentence and if they do not fit at the bottom, they are moved to the next page possibly leaving a large blank space at the previous page as on p.184. There is even a large blank space without an obvious reason (p. 130). Much more frequent inserts are quotes which are left and right indented and typeset in a smaller font but on p.117, it happens to be in a tiny footnote size font. When reading an e-version these flaws might not be so obvious, but it is somewhat disturbing in a printed version. Of course, this does not diminish the intrinsic value of the contents which clearly illustrates that science and fiction really meet in SF and when deeper and fundamental questions are at stake, then philosophy, and yes indeed, also religion, in not far off.

A. Bultheel
KU Leuven
Book details

Paul Nahin is the author of several books on popular mathematics and physics. He is also a lover of science fiction and author of a number of SF stories. In this book he explores the relation between science fiction literature and religion, connecting the three topics: science, fiction, and religion.



978-1-4939-0617-8 (pbk)
21,19 €

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