Gods and Demons

Tagged: Theme

The word "God" (or "Gods") is one of the commonest of all nouns in sf story and novel titles. Although this frequency is partly fuelled by the interest in Religion that has characterized sf from its earliest days, we must seek further to explain the sheer scale of the phenomenon.

The sf writer is a creator of imaginary worlds; in that sense his activity is godlike. It is, then, natural that he or she should especially enjoy fantasies (some might say delusions of grandeur) about superbeings with the ability to create and manipulate whole worlds. But it is not only power fantasies that feed into sf stories about gods; just as important are fantasies of impotence (sf's fascination with the uses of power extending as often to the manipulated as to the manipulators) in which we ourselves are the puppets of (or have even been created by) godlike beings. The idea that we are property – a favourite notion of Charles Fort's – feeds strongly into sf tales of Paranoia, which are often stories of gods to whom we are subject; one of the commonest forms of Metaphysics in sf is to ask whether the universe is wholly arbitrary, or whether its patterns of meaning are somehow planned (though not by us), which brings us full circle back to religion again.

A particularly common form of the "we are property" story tale is the retelling of the story of Adam and Eve (which see for examples) in terms of what Brian W Aldiss has termed Shaggy God Stories: recastings of biblical myth into an sf framework. A common variant is that in which some sort of alien power or god seeds Earth with mankind (Adam and Eve in the first instance), or transmutes the existing ape-people, as in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the alien/god takes the form of a black monolith. Such stories were given a new lease of life during the 1970s and early 1980s by the enormous popularity of Pseudoscience books by Erich von Däniken, who saw ancient alien astronauts as having visited Earth aeons ago, bearing technological gifts, and now remembered in race memory as gods. The modern sf version of this motif has strange, enormous alien artefacts (see Big Dumb Objects; Macrostructures) made – often in space – by a now-forgotten race of alien Builders or Forerunners for their own godlike purposes, but seeming to us like incomprehensible sacred relics.

Although sf analogues to the One God are comparatively rare in Genre SF, even in its early days, quite a few works of earlier borderline sf consider the nature of the Christian God. Marie Corelli apparently considered religious experience to be electric in nature, and in A Romance of Two Worlds (1886; rev 1887) postulated a God who manifests himself electrically. In A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), David Lindsay created analogues of the more conventional Christian and Jewish images of God, only to dismiss them in every case as false and cheap in a universe where only pain and personal striving are meaningful. (Analogues of Christ are very much more common in sf than those of God the Father, and are chiefly discussed under Messiahs.)

God-stories in sf are nearly always rationalized, seldom mystical. Many stories are based on the notion that a highly advanced society might seem godlike to a more primitive one, and in many tales of Colonization of Other Worlds the narrative turns on the difficulties and responsibilities of being seen in this light; an example is Trudno byt' bogom (1964; trans as Hard to be a God 1973) by the brothers Strugatski. Conversely, other stories present humans as confronted by some form of galactic intelligence which is so high in the order of life as to seem godlike. A very early work by Clifford D Simak, The Creator (March/April 1935 Marvel Tales; 1946 chap), features a world-creating Alien; the same author's A Choice of Gods (1972) proposes a godlike galactic principle. Eric Frank Russell's "Hobbyist" (September 1947 Astounding) envisages a god who created life in the Galaxy for mere aesthetic pleasure. A benevolent being does the same thing in Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker (1937) in an altogether more serious treatment of the theme; like several sf writers Stapledon wished to dispense with the anthropomorphic aspects of Christianity while preserving a sense of cosmic meaning and pattern. Not all galactic intelligences are benevolent; James Tiptree Jr has a godlike galaxy-destroyer in Up the Walls of the World (1978). Arthur C Clarke proposes a ravening "Mad Mind" in The City and the Stars (November 1948 Startling as "Against the Fall of Night"; 1953; exp and much rev vt 1956), but that was created by mankind.

The Clarke novel raises an interesting notion that recurs quite often, in many forms, from the technological to the quasi-mystical: that a lower form of life might be able to create a higher. A number of stories concern computers that attain godlike powers (see Computers for a list), sometimes alone and sometimes through a transcendental fusion with their operators, as in Catchworld (1975) by Chris Boyce. A recent example of the computer-god story on an epic scale is Dan Simmons's two-volume Hyperion Cantos sequence – Hyperion (1989) and The Fall of Hyperion (1990) – in which human-created AI networks become the secret manipulators of all things, among their tools being other god-avatars (including the paingod Shrike); the books' titles (and structures) reflect Keats's famous poems about the fall of the old gods and the rise of the new. Indeed the Hyperion sequence became overnight the definitive "gods in sf" story, playing almost every imaginable variant on the theme.

More metaphysical methods of god-creation are just as common. A E van Vogt, whose career has largely been devoted to creating Superman figures, devised the ultimate (though not the most interesting) variant in The Book of Ptath (October 1943 Unknown; 1947; vt Two Hundred Million A.D. 1964; vt Ptath 1976), in which a god is created through the force of his followers' prayers, his power being proportional to their number – a vision which governs the most serious of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, Small Gods (1992). Gods are created in the flesh in Philip José Farmer's Night of Light (June 1957 F&SF; exp 1966) through the transcendental union of very good (or very bad) men once every seven years, when the local sun emits a mysterious radiation. In Frank Herbert's The God Makers (February 1960 Fantastic as "The Priests of Psi"; exp fixup 1972) humans deliberately create a god using a blend of mystical, psychological and technological means. In this case Herbert's writing was not equal to his theme; and, indeed, god-stories generally meet severe literary problems in attempting to render transcendental experience through Genre-SF stereotypes. One of the most interesting variants on the theme of the artificially created god is found in Philip K Dick's A Maze of Death (1970), in which a series of mystifying false realities are created, ultimately involving salvation through a godlike Intercessor; only late in the novel is it revealed that the realities and their god are all part of a construct imposed by the computer of a crippled starship.

The focus of interest in most sf god-stories is, paradoxically, not religious, though, in the case of Dick and some others, metaphysical questions about reality are certainly raised. More common are god-stories about the exercise of power or the burden of responsibility, or both. The theme is an old one, for the work of the Scientist has been seen by many as a usurpation of powers that are properly God's; such is the case in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1818; rev 1831), where a scientist creates life but cannot create a soul to go with it. A number of variants have been sardonic. James Branch Cabell features several demiurges (world-makers) in his Poictesme fantasies – notably The Silver Stallion (1926), where Creation occurs through the boredom of a god whose cosmic perspective leads readily to a detachment seen by its victims as sadistic. This image of less-than-perfect god-creators became almost a Cliché in genre sf. Robert Sheckley, for example, has often proposed rather harassed and incompetent gods, overworked and put upon, as in "The Impacted Man" (December 1952 Astounding) and Dimension of Miracles (1968); Douglas Adams echoed this in his Hitch Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy books. More seriously, in "Microcosmic God" (April 1941 Astounding) Theodore Sturgeon has an irresponsible scientist playing god to a miniature world, whose inhabitants he cruelly goads into accelerated technological development. Ursula K Le Guin examines the metaphysical aspects of the fallible-god theme, in a manner reminiscent of Dick's work, in The Lathe of Heaven (March-May 1971 Amazing; 1971). All these works emphasize questions of responsibility.

The "delusions of grandeur" aspect of god stories became, starting in the 1960s, the speciality of two very notable sf writers: Philip José Farmer and Roger Zelazny. Zelazny's "gods" are often, in fact, technologically advanced superhumans, who for not always explained reasons are able to take on "aspects" of godhood, often analogous to those of the gods of legend; the Greek myths in This Immortal (1966), the Hindu pantheon in Lord of Light (1967) and the Egyptian pantheon in Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969). His Isle of the Dead (1969) features a feud between gods, and his Amber series features reality changes brought about by quasi-gods in worlds which are constantly changing copies of some Platonic original, beyond which some more ultimate god-figure might be hidden. Further quasi-superhuman examples are the fake Greek pantheon in Pagan Passions (1959) by Randall Garrett and Laurence M Janifer (the latter writing as Larry M Harris), and the role-playing fusion of Shakespeare archetypes with Tarot trumps in Coriolanus, the Chariot! (1978) by Alan G Yates. Meanwhile, many (if not most) of Farmer's books deal with gods, notably the two series set on artificial worlds: the World of Tiers series opening with The Maker of Universes (1965; rev 1980) and the Riverworld series opening with To Your Scattered Bodies Go (January 1965-March 1966 Worlds of Tomorrow; fixup 1971). The latter series is the archetype of the "we are property" theme, in which resuscitated humans are the playthings of the gods, and the former emphasizes the all-too-human qualities of the gods that do the manipulating. Artificial worlds of this type can usefully be called Pocket Universes (which see for further examples), and have become an sf staple. Farmer and Zelazny regularly and ironically undercut their god-themes with the use of a colloquial and streetwise tone, juxtaposing the sublime with the ridiculous, and this habit has permeated many subsequent examples of the pocket-universe novel. Two writers who have adopted this sort of tone in pocket-universe stories, in which protagonists are manipulated by god figures like pieces on a games board (or perhaps are gods without knowing it), are Piers Anthony (at least sometimes) and Jack L Chalker, the latter so devoted to the theme that it embraces almost the whole of his massive output.

One pocket-universe variant is the novel set in a Virtual Reality (which see for examples) generated by human or artificial intelligences. In the last two books of his Neuromancer trilogy (1986-1988) William Gibson has the virtual reality of Cyberspace actually occupied by gods within the machine itself, these taking the form of voodoo deities. (The sf voodoo theme, in which archetypal aspects of human behaviour are incarnate – somewhere in the hindbrain? – as gods, may well become a new cliché, one of its more interesting manifestations being in Greg Bear's Queen of Angels [1990].)

Philip K Dick's obsession with godhood runs through much of his work, and indeed entered his life. Our Friends from Frolix 8 (1970) and Galactic Pot-Healer (1969) both feature alien quasi-gods and their effect on humans. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), as the title suggests, is about a god-being, once a businessman but now inhuman and metallic, who is able to bring about menacing reality-changes that seem almost to be beyond good and evil. Dick's nightmares of ordinary people being cosmically manipulated carry an emotional charge much more intense than genre sf is normally able to produce. Towards the end of his career, theology became his over-riding theme to an extravagant degree, as in The Divine Invasion (1982).

Much more straightforward gods appear in that small group of books whose genesis goes back to the idea in medieval astrology that each of the planets has a tutelary spirit. Such is the case in C S Lewis's trilogy about Ransom, whose inspiration is directly Christian. The aliens in the novella "If the Stars are Gods" (in Universe 4, anth 1974, ed Terry Carr), the title story of the fixup novel of the same name (1977) by Gordon Eklund and Gregory Benford, believe that the universe is controlled by gods located in suns (an idea to be found in William Blake's poetry); the amusing Dogsbody (1975) by Diana Wynne Jones is another to make use of the notion. A more science-fictional version of the same theme is in the living stars of Frank Herbert's Whipping Star (January-April 1970 If; 1970) and its sequel The Dosadi Experiment (1977). Indeed Herbert is, like Dick, a writer for whom godlike figures are the central theme in a majority of his work, most celebratedly in the figures of Paul Atreides (something of a maimed god) in the Dune Messiah (July-November 1969 Galaxy; 1969) and his son Leto, who is transformed in Children of Dune (1976) and further in God-Emperor of Dune (1981).

Further sf god-novels of note include (some at the fantasy end of the spectrum): The Man Who was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908) by G K Chesterton, in which a recruiter of secret agents turns out to be God; The Circus of Dr Lao (1935) by Charles G Finney, in which demigods are caged in a circus; most novels by Thomas Burnett Swann and (though sometimes obscurely) most novels by Gene Wolfe, including There are Doors (1988); Harlan Ellison's Deathbird Stories: A Pantheon of Modern Gods (coll 1975; rev 1984); Strata (1981) by Terry Pratchett, as well as his Discworld sequence; Courtship Rite (1982) by Donald Kingsbury; Winterking (1984) by Paul Hazel; Planet of Whispers (1984) by James Patrick Kelly, in which whispers from the right side of the brain are interpreted as the voice of God; Waiting for the Galactic Bus (1988) by Parke Godwin, in which aliens take the roles of God and the Devil; The Ring (1988) by Daniel Keys Moran, a Wagner-pastiche in which the gods are genetically engineered superbeings; Neverness (1988) by David Zindell, which has a godlike entity whose being is made up of many star systems and who can be reached only by solving mathematical theorems; Rats and Gargoyles (1990) by Mary Gentle; The Werewolves of London (1990) by Brian M Stableford; and The Face of the Waters (1991) by Robert Silverberg (who has written earlier god-novels, too), in which God is a planetary consciousness.

Gods are comparatively rare in sf Cinema, two exceptions being the appalling Red Planet Mars (1952), where God turns out to be real and in charge of Mars, and God Told Me To (1976; vt Demon), where God the son is reincarnated as a hermaphrodite who tells his subjects to commit mass murder. Fake gods are rather more common: for example, the great flying stone head of Zardoz (1974).

The concept of demons and devils is equally common in sf, but usually at a quite trivial level: they tend, as in non-horror Fantasy generally, to be seen simply as frightening and malicious entities derived from medieval Christian ideas of Hell, and are quite often played for laughs. There are many demonology stories with sf elements, such as the time-warping demon in Anthony Boucher's "Snulbug" (December 1941 Unknown) and the other-dimensional alien blood-drinker in Henry Kuttner's "Call Him Demon" (Fall 1946 Thrilling Wonder) as by Keith Hammond. Norvell W Page's "But Without Horns" (June 1940 Unknown) uses demonic imagery in a story of a telepathic Mutant. Demons proper often appear in Sword and Sorcery; demonic creatures of darkness were all in a day's work to Robert E Howard's Conan. Particularly unpleasant aliens are often given demonic form (sometimes with talk about racial memory) in genre-sf stories, as in A E van Vogt's second published story, "Discord in Scarlet" (December 1939 Astounding; in The Voyage of the Space Beagle fixup 1950) – which may have been the (unacknowledged) source of the film Alien (1979) – and Keith Laumer's A Plague of Demons (1965), both truly nasty creations. A famous twist on the theme is found in Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End (April 1950 Famous Fantastic Mysteries as "Guardian Angel"; much exp 1953; rev 1990), in which mankind is confronted by aliens who are shaped exactly like the Devil (racial Precognition of their arrival explains his bat-winged image in Christian mythology) but turn out to have mournfully paternalistic natures. Several sf-oriented fantasies by Hard-SF writers have imagined that Hell and its demons are real, and created a kind of quasi-scientific rationale for them. An early example is Robert A Heinlein's "The Devil Makes the Law" (September 1940 Unknown; vt "Magic, Inc." in Waldo and Magic, Inc. coll 1950); more recent examples are Operation Chaos (stories 1956-1959 F&SF; coll of linked stories 1971) by Poul Anderson and the Dante Alighieri pastiche Inferno (1975) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Demons are, of course, by no means peculiar to Christianity, though in some other mythologies they are hardly to be distinguished from malign or death-dealing gods, as in the demonic green-eyed boy god who haunts the degenerate Cyberpunk future of Elizabeth Hand's Winterlong (1990).

The strong prevalence of god (and devil) themes in sf strongly suggests that, as a genre, sf is not quite the hard-headed, extrapolative literature its proponents sometimes claim. On the other hand, at a time when many actual physicists publish books attempting to reconcile Cosmology or quantum mechanics with the idea of God, it is hardly surprising if sf writers do the same. [PN]

see also: Gothic SF; Icons; Magic; Monsters; Supernatural Creatures.

Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.