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Entry updated 7 August 2023. Tagged: Theme.

Eschatology is the class of theological doctrine pertaining to death and the subsequent fate of the soul, and to the ultimate fate of the world. Stories of the Far Future, the End of the World and the End of Time can be categorized as eschatological, but are considered separately; this section deals mainly with the idea of personal survival after death.

The survival of the individual personality after physical death has taken two distinct forms in history: one where the soul continues (or is restored to) functioning – often in an underworld or heavenly realm unknown to living humans – with all memories intact; and a second in which the deceased soul in born into a new body, which grows to adulthood with no memories of its previous self, thus developing (if problematically) into a second individual, although some irruption of the earlier self may take place or be induced. Much Reincarnation involves this second kind, while most of the world's religions that entail survival after death generally describe the soul as retaining the memories and personality it had possessed in life.

Ancient Egyptian Religion included a complex set of eschatological beliefs – variously dramatized, although as sf, in Roger Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969) – which entails the survival of the soul in an afterlife so long as the physical existence of the (mummified) body is preserved. The soul may thus enjoy an indefinite span of posthumous existence; in the Mosaic religions' eschatologies, the soul is considered immortal.

Attempts to dramatize the posthumous existence of the soul in rational or "scientific terms" began only with the development of the Scientific Romance in the late nineteenth century, which coincided with the growth of the Spiritualist movement. The Spiritualists popularized an idiosyncratic version of Christian eschatology with the more divine elements deemphasized and Heaven and Hell (see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below) replaced by an "astral plane" and other features. Spiritualist beliefs influenced several early sf writers, including Camille Flammarion and Arthur Conan Doyle; Doyle's later works – particularly The Land of Mist (1926) and "The Maracot Deep" (in The Maracot Deep and Other Stories coll 1929) – are markedly affected. There is an abundance of Spiritualist fiction, but whether any of this can be considered sf is dubious, despite the Pseudoscientific endeavours of Johann Zollner (1834-1882), author of Transcendental Physics (1865), and other psychic theorists. The most heavily science-fictionalized of these Spiritualist fantasies is Allen Upward's The Discovery of the Dead (1910), which recounts the revelations of a "necroscope". An early Pulp-sf writer who dabbled in Spiritualist fiction was Ralph Milne Farley, as in Dangerous Love (July-August 1931 Mind Magic as "The Man From Ouija Land"; 1946). More interesting is David Lindsay's interstellar fantasy A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), which inverts conventional Spiritualist ideas and routine eschatological aspirations, imagining an intrinsically painful destiny.

The idea that scientists might one day prove the existence of the elusive soul and build traps for it is featured in Charles B Stilson's curious "Liberty or Death?" (10 March 1917 All-Story; vt "The Soul Trap" July 1950 Fantastic Novels), and is developed more ambitiously in The Weigher of Souls (1931) by Andre Maurois. Maurois may have borrowed his inspiration from the fantasy Spirite (1865; trans 1877) by Theophile Gautier, and his example inspired in its turn Romain Gary's satirical soul-trapping story The Gasp (1973), in which the inexhaustible energy of the soul is quickly exploited as an industrial resource. In all these examples, as in most stories in which people supposedly trespass on divine prerogatives, no good comes of it all. Nor does it in Maurice Renard's Le docteur Lerne, sous-dieu (1908; trans as New Bodies for Old 1923), when an experiment in metempsychosis [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] ends with the imprisonment of a person's soul in the engine of a motor car. Arsen Darnay's Karma (1978) features Technology that not only captures souls but programs them to perform a particular task in their next Reincarnation; a Robot in Barrington J Bayley's The Rod of Light (1985) seeks to acquire self-awareness by trapping and somehow utilizing human souls. An experiment in communication with the dead ends tragically in The Edge of Running Water (1939; vt The Unquiet Corpse 1945) by William M Sloane. Larry Niven's Draco Tavern Club Story "The Subject Is Closed" (May 1977 Cosmos) tells of alien racial Suicide triggered by research into the possibility of an afterlife.

C S Lewis's theological fantasy The Great Divorce (1945) acknowledges that some of the ideas used in formulating its image of Heaven are borrowed from sf, but sf writers were slow to develop the hypothesis that future Technology might succeed in securing the life after death that God and Nature had failed to provide. In Robert Sheckley's Immortality Delivered (October 1958-February 1959 Galaxy as "Time Killer"; 1958; exp vt Immortality, Inc. 1959) and James Blish's "A Work of Art" (July 1956 Science Fiction Stories as "Art-Work"), twenty-second century Scientists are able to recover or recreate the personality of a long-dead person and implant it in a living body (temporarily in a volunteer for Blish; quasi-permanently in a vacated body for Sheckley), but in Blish it is made clear that the process does not so much revive the dead man as recreate him de novo, while Sheckley employs his technology for the purpose of loosing his 1958 protagonist in a satiric future and does not otherwise explore its implications.

Philip José Farmer frequently dramatized eschatological issues, notably in Inside Outside (1964), Traitor to the Living (1973) and the Riverworld series (1965-1983), all of which deal in some form with godlike Aliens able to resurrect humans for various mysterious purposes. Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light (1967) uses Identity Transfer technology to actualize Hindu beliefs about karma and the cycle of reincarnation, including divine punishment by transfer into an animal body. Other writers have used sf rationales for the Christian concept of the soul, imagining it as an alien symbiont (see Parasitism and Symbiosis) that invests living beings and survives their deaths. Clifford D Simak, in Time and Again (October-December 1950 Galaxy as "Time Quarry"; 1951; vt First He Died 1953), makes no attempt to describe the life led by such symbionts when apart from their hosts, but Bob Shaw, in The Palace of Eternity (1969), sends his protagonist on a posthumous journey to a pseudoastral plane that proves to be associated with the extra-dimensional Hyperspace employed by Starships. Rudy Rucker's White Light (1980) ambitiously follows C H Hinton in devising mathematical speculations about infinity (and Cantor's extrapolated hierarchy of infinities on infinities) to construct a metaphysics that includes an afterlife. Five Fates (anth 1970, ed Keith Laumer) assembles five novellas – by Poul Anderson, Gordon R Dickson, Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert and Keith Laumer – that each begin with the same prologue in which the protagonist dies; the stories explore various eschatological scenarios, with Harlan Ellison's "The Region Between" (March 1970 Galaxy) the most memorable.

Richard Cowper's "The Tithonian Factor" (in Changes, anth 1983, ed Michael Bishop & Ian Watson) considers the plight of those who had accepted an (inferior) technology of Immortality before the discovery that human personalities do live on after death. Aliens often fare better than humans in this eschatological sf, having some kind of afterlife built into their Biology; examples can be found in Poul Anderson's "The Martyr" (March 1960 F&SF), George R R Martin's "A Song for Lya" (June 1974 Analog) and Nicholas Yermakov's Last Communion (1981) and its sequels (see Simon Hawke). Afterlives (anth 1986) edited by Pamela Sargent and Ian Watson, whose contributions, mostly original to the volume, offer a good overview of the various treatments of eschatology in SF up to the mid-1980s; outstanding among the sf stories are Gregory Benford's "Of Space-Time and the River", Rudy Rucker's "In Frozen Time" and Watson's own "The Rooms of Paradise". Watson is also the author of the very eschatological novel Deathhunter (1981), which speculates that different kinds of deaths might lead to different afterlives.

Perhaps no author has explored various technical means of surviving physical death more than Robert Silverberg. The early Recalled to Life (June-August 1958 Infinity; 1962; rev 1972) dramatized the discovery of a means of reviving anyone (barring serious brain trauma) who has died within the past twenty-four hours; Born with the Dead (April 1974 F&SF; 1988 chap dos) similarly envisions a medical technology that can revive the dead. More interestingly, To Live Again (1969) posits a survival of death that does not involve the physical revival of the body or even of the brain alone – an idea at least as old as Neil R Jones's "The Jameson Satellite" (July 1931 Amazing) – but the recording of the mind, which can be stored (in an inanimate state) and later revived in restored embodiment. In Silverberg's tale these recorded minds (called "imagines") live in the brains of living persons (in a kind of shared tenancy); he does not propose installing them into cultured bodies or running them on artificial structures.

In suggesting that an individual might elect to have his mind recorded and stored for post-mortem revival, Silverberg anticipates what he become a major theme in modern sf: Identity Transfer through the human mind's digital (or chemical) replication and downloading onto an organic or electronic platform. Once articulated, this idea was quickly developed by others: In "Rammer" by Larry Niven (November 1971 Galaxy), the personality of a cryonically preserved individual is extracted from his frozen brain and converted into a form that may be transferred into that of a "mindwiped" individual. We see here an early appearance of the concept of the human brain as a medium whose contents can be read off but also wiped clean. Niven notes that a number of recorded minds could be successively tried out on a given mindwiped body, though he does not pursue the corollary: that the stored personality itself might be multiply copied. Ian Watson takes that step in The Jonah Kit (1975), where the mind of a dead astronaut is transferred first into the body of a young boy and subsequently into a whale.

It is in John Varley's "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" (May 1976 Galaxy) that the implications are more fully developed: Individuals may "deposit" copies of their personalities at a bank as a protection against accidental death (or murder). In such an event, a cloned copy of their body is made and the latest personality recording (a "multi-holo" stored in a "memory cube") "played back into" it. Varley's story and others in his Eight Worlds series published immediately afterward (especially The Ophiuchi Hotline [1977]), appear to be the first to suggest that multiple copies of a human being might easily be made, which would allow for successive, indeed indefinitely repeated, revivals from death. The protagonist of "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" is moreover able to experience a Virtual Reality (Varley calls it "the baffling, on-and-off world that passes for reality in a data system") when his memory is "plug[ged] into a computer and run like a program" (see Upload). This innovation was soon taken up by others: the recorded mind of Rudy Rucker's protagonist in Software (1982) is explicitly identified as a piece of software (it is "run" on a robot), and while this digitizing is not a survival of physical death, William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) offers a "hardwired ROM cassette" upon which the personality of a dead computer hacker, the "Lazarus of cyberspace", is returned to a disembodied semblance of life.

The realization that Technology could offer virtual heavens and hells, especially the latter, has also informed some notable sf. The torments of the damned are inflicted electronically in Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (1990), and cyberhells are central to Iain M Banks's Surface Detail (2010). Earlier than these, the fantasy Inferno (1975) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle has an sf author protagonist who spends much of the book devising technological rationalizations for the real hell – modelled on Dante Alighieri's – in which he finds himself. The ambitious and funny Television series The Good Place (2016-2020) explores many ethical and philosophical issues centred on the titular quasi-virtual Heaven and its counterpart the Bad Place.

In the decades since Software, sf has seen numerous refinements of this general idea, all predicated on the notion that a human can survive death (or evade it) by allowing a recording of his neurological structure (a novel variant appears in Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief [2010]), which can be stored or copied indefinitely and is run like a piece of software (sometimes called "wetware"). In its earliest iterations (Niven, Varley) the Identity Transfer was electrical and chemical in nature; by the early eighties it was explicitly described as the replication of a computer program, a particularly thoughtful treatment in this vein being Greg Egan's Permutation City (1994); later works (such as Wil McCarthy's The Collapsium [2000] and subsequent novels in his Queendom of Sol series) eschew a rationale that is essentially electronic for one involving programmable matter, Quantum Computers and the physics of Black Holes. At this point, Eschatology merges into Immortality, as any posited technology employed to survive physical death can also prevent it. [BS/GF/DRL]

see also: Cosmology; Entropy; Gods and Demons; Metaphysics.


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