Messiahs

Tagged: Theme

In the Mythology of the Old Testament the Messiah is the deliverer of prophecy, destined to lead the Jews to their salvation; the New Testament claims that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. The term is applied by analogy to any saviour or champion whose arrival is anticipated, hoped for or desperately needed. Because Christian images of the future have always been associated with ideas of the Millennium and the Apocalypse, a preoccupation with messiahs in the futuristic fiction of Western culture is only to be expected. Many Heroes in sf play quasimessianic roles, but there is a more-or-less distinct category of stories which deals specifically with this aspect of Judaeo-Christian religion.

Early sf featured numerous messianic political fantasies, including H G Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) and Victor Rousseau's The Messiah of the Cylinder (June-September 1917 Everybody's Magazine; 1917; vt The Apostle of the Cylinder 1918); the most literal of these is M P Shiel's Lord of the Sea (1901). Earnest futuristic religious fantasies of the same period featuring messianic figures include Cyril Ranger Gull's And it Came to Pass (1915) as by Guy Thorne and Upton Sinclair's They Call me Carpenter (1922). William Hope Hodgson's "The Baumoff Explosion" (17 September 1919 Nash's Magazine; vt "Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani" Fall 1973 Weird Tales) strikes a more sceptical note in describing a re-enactment of the crucifixion which goes hideously wrong. There is little or no trace of messianic mythology in the sf Pulp magazines until the 1940s, when it became possible for a Superman to play a quasimessianic role, as in Darker Than You Think (December 1940 Unknown; exp 1948) by Jack Williamson. What Dreams May Come (1941) by J D Beresford likewise features a superhuman messiah, although The Gift (1946) by Beresford and Esmé Wynne-Tyson is a more straightforward religious fantasy. L Ron Hubbard's Final Blackout (April-June 1940 Astounding; 1948) has an inordinately charismatic hero who may qualify as a messiah. Ordinary men sometimes take on similarly charismatic roles when they are transplanted into Parallel Worlds, as in Henry Kuttner's The Dark World (Summer 1946 Startling; 1965) and James Blish's The Warriors of Day (1953).

Messiah-figures increased in popularity when Millennarian fantasies became newly fashionable in the wake of the Bomb. C S Lewis's trilogy of interplanetary religious romances was concluded in That Hideous Strength (1945), in which a messianic role is assumed by Merlin, though he is in effect an agent only of the trilogy's true messiah figure, Ransom. Jesus first appeared in Genre SF in this period – in Ray Bradbury's "The Man" (February 1949 Thrilling Wonder) – but it was not until the 1960s that Time Travel was used to confront his life and death directly. For further discussion, see Christ. In Philip José Farmer's "Riverworld" (January 1966 Worlds of Tomorrow) the crucifixion is re-enacted in the human race's new incarnation. The most notable story featuring a re-enactment of the crucifixion on an alien world is "The Streets of Ashkelon" (September 1962 New Worlds; vt "An Alien Agony" in More Penguin Science Fiction, anth 1963, ed Brian W Aldiss) by Harry Harrison. Nativity stories are more common; they include Robert F Young's "Robot Son" (September 1959 Fantastic Universe), Edward Bryant's "Eyes of Onyx" (in Protostars, anth 1971, ed David Gerrold and Stephen Goldin) and John Cameron's The Astrologer (1972).

The theme of redemption through sacrifice is more or less explicitly linked to Christian mythology in many sf stories, including Robert F Young's "Redemption" (July 1963 Amazing; vt "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory" in A Glass of Stars, coll 1968), Cordwainer Smith's "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" (August 1964 Galaxy), Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' said the Ticktockman" (December 1965 Galaxy) and R A Lafferty's Past Master (1968); Robert A Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961; text restored 1990) also belongs to this category. Clifford D Simak's Time and Again (October-December 1950 Galaxy as "Time Quarry"; 1951; vt First He Died 1953) features a resurrection of sorts as well as a sacrifice, as do Thomas M Disch's Camp Concentration (July-October 1967 New Worlds; 1968) and Jack Williamson's Firechild (1986). Explicit (and mostly ironic) science-fictional accounts of the actual Second Coming include Edward Wellen's "Seven Day's Wonder" (March 1963 F&SF), J G Ballard's "You and Me and the Continuum" (March 1966 Impulse), Damon Knight's The Man in the Tree (1984), Philip José Farmer's Jesus on Mars (1979) and Theodore Sturgeon's posthumous Godbody (1986).

More enigmatic messiahs, who offer little in the way of redemption, are featured in Vidal's Messiah (1954; rev 1965), Robert Silverberg's The Masks of Time (1968; vt Vornan-19 1970), Brian M Stableford's The Walking Shadow (1979), Stuart Gordon's Smile on the Void (1982), Somtow Sucharitkul's (S P Somtow's) Starship and Haiku (1984) and Kim Stanley Robinson's The Memory of Whiteness (1985). A fake messiah, used as a political instrument, is featured in Robin Sanborn's The Book of Stier (1971). An enigmatically sinister "messiah" is featured in Philip K Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964), but later Dick novels, including A Maze of Death (1970), play in ever more complex and constructive fashion with messianic figures – a process which culminates in The Divine Invasion (1981). The most elaborate messianic fantasy in modern sf, however, is that in Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965) and its sequels, following the career and posthumous influence of Paul Atreides, messiah to the desert world Arrakis. Herbert has also deployed messianic mythology elsewhere in his work, notably in The Jesus Incident (1979) with Bill Ransom. Another writer constantly fascinated by messianic mythology is Roger Zelazny, whose many fantasies in this vein include "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" (November 1963 F&SF), Lord of Light (1967) and Isle of the Dead (1969). Many of Zelazny's messianic fantasies take a broadly syncretic view of such figures, linking them to mythologies other than the Christian one; a similarly generalized theory of messianic revivification is featured in James Kahn's Time's Dark Laughter (1982).

The most significant contemporary religious fantasy about a messiah is James Morrow's brilliantly bitter Only Begotten Daughter (1990), which cleverly deploys sf motifs alongside more traditional imagery. Jack Womack's Heathern (1990) is another almost seamless alloy of sf and religious fantasy. [BS]

see also: Gods and Demons.

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