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Thursday, December 23, 2010

DOWN TO EARTH

In the midst of darkness there is light. Under the cold weight of sin, the warm promise of redemption. On the shore of despair, the rising tide of hope.

Long before a certain Nazarene prophet was born in a stable in Bethlehem, our ancestors watched the Northern hemisphere skies and waited in the depth of mid-winter for the passing of the longest night of the year. They marked the time of the winter solstice as a time of celebration, recognizing that though the long months of cold still lay ahead, the sun progressed steadily higher in the sky, bringing warmth and new life in the spring.

The story of the birth of Christ incorporates these ancient ideas of light from dark, renewal from death. And just as the early church appropriated the old pagan rituals around the winter solstice to bolster belief in its fledgling religion, science fiction writers have borrowed the greatest story ever told as the basis for their own views of the universe.

The idea of the alien-outsider-as-Christ is probably as old as science fiction as a genre, but if most SF readers were asked to name one novel with that theme, the first book to come to mind would be Robert Heinlein’s classic Stranger in a Strange Land. Written in 1961, the novel truly came into its own in the late 1960’s, when its ideas of freely shared sexual love, communal living and disregard for authority fit seamlessly with the counterculture of the time. (The women reading it had to look beyond its blatant and horribly outdated misogyny. It took Heinlein at least another ten years to grow out of his male superiority orientation, if he ever did.)

The true messages of the novel, however, can be found around its alien-as-Christ parallels. Its hero, Valentine Michael Smith, is the offspring of dead human colonists on Mars, raised by the very cerebral Martians. A second mission to Mars finds him and brings him home, where he is at first hidden away by the powers that be, then kidnapped by a sympathetic nurse. When Smith arrives at the home of eccentric Dr. Jubal Harshaw (a stand-in for Heinlein himself), he is little more than an innocent, capable of teleportation, telepathy and telekinesis, but unlearned in the ways of Man. Boy, does he learn fast! Soon he is “sharing water” and “growing closer” with all the females of the household and working his way through the encyclopedia just as methodically.

From the beginning, Smith brings with him a message of the immortality of the soul. On Mars, one chooses one’s time of dying, then sticks around to advise those who still retain a body. The “Old Ones” (those who are without bodies) are just as real and present as everyone else. It takes some time before Smith understands that on Earth, those who have “disincorporated” don’t hang around. Thus a belief in immortality is a matter of faith.

Once Smith has learned all he can in Harshaw’s liberal and protective household, he strikes out on his own (with Jill, the nurse who first rescued him) for a more thorough education in the wider world. He works for a while in a carnival, learning how to stroke the crowd. He meets the leader of the largest church in the world (and sends him on to Heaven). He gathers a core group of followers, inducting them in his own philosophy of sharing, loving one another, manipulating the economic system for the common good (the group needs money, after all), and the certainty of immortality.

Eventually, of course, he sees the necessity of forming a “church”, which he mostly uses to screen for candidates for his inner core group. The members of the core group must learn Martian and “share water” with all the other members. No one truly objects, though a few have initial doubts, Harshaw included. (He thinks he’s too old—vanity, vanity!)

Now we all know where this is leading. And sure enough, the church begins to attract attention. Rumors of obscene rituals. Where does all that money come from? And so on. Smith is arrested several times, but a man who can teleport is hard to hold. The massive, beautifully designed temple of the Church of All Worlds is burned to the ground, though no one is hurt. His core group is unworried, even as Harshaw tries to warn them.

Smith has a last talk with his mentor. He is concerned that people are not getting all of his message. Hidden within the apparent hedonism of his “religion” is a steel core of ultimate responsibility. If every sentient being is God (a key part of the philosophy), then there can be no passing the buck. Each person must take responsibility for their own actions, something few humans are prepared to do. How to demonstrate that point?

Harshaw answers, “If you’ve got the truth you can demonstrate it. Talking doesn’t prove it. Show people.”

And seals Smith’s fate. The “man from Mars” walks out to face an angry mob and is torn to pieces.

Harshaw, alone among all the members of Smith’s inner circle, is distraught, truly believing his friend and adopted son to be dead. Until Smith appears to him in “discorporate” form, triumphing over his grisly death at the hands of the fickle crowd.

Heinlein’s seminal novel is not the only example of the alien-as-Christ theme in SF. You don’t even have to read to find one. The 1951 SF film THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL presents some of the same ideas—the benevolent outsider bringing a message of peace, meeting a reaction of hostility and violence, the performance of miracles, his death and (apparent) resurrection. In the same vein, 1984’s STARMAN gives us the innocent alien who so respects life that he must resurrect a deer strapped to the hood of a hunter’s Jeep, an alien who humans later hound to his own death in the desert within sight of rescue.

The differences in these stories reflect not only the individual differences of writers and filmmakers, but the times in which they appeared. In 1951, a stern and authoritarian God still ruled, demanding retribution of a planet that dared to threaten the galaxy with violence. By 1984, the story was written on a very human scale, that of the starman himself and his human lover.

In 1961, the effect of ideas and actions in society was the focus, a POV that is certainly central to Stranger in a Strange Land. The last few pages of the novel make it clear that Harshaw and the others expect Smith’s martyrdom to have a deliberate effect on that society, the same effect Christ’s had 2000 years ago. Transformation.

Life from death. Light from dark. Hope from despair.

Happy Holidays,
Donna

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful, perceptive article, Donna! Love the connections you drew between these classics and our beliefs and traditions.

    I do find one of the most fascinating aspects of SF/SFR is that it's a way of looking at ourselves from the outside, examining the human element (including our beliefs, motivations and/or emotions) from a very different or alien perspective.

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