Saturday, May 23, 2015

Fictional Prophets and Jihads

Essay: Science fiction, like any literature, seeks to explore the human condition, and nothing is as central to human life and thought than the desire to know what comes next. 

The prophets I explore here, though, are not writers who have successfully predicted the next step in technology, but science fiction novels with themes of religion and the soul's rightful life, with characters who became prophets.

These religious leaders are Shak Lin in Round the Bend (Nevil Shute), Michael Valentine Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert A. Heinlein), and Paul Muad'Dib in Dune (Frank Herbert). Each crosses through life in an arc of development, moving from ordinary mortal to revered prophet.


Round the Bend: Shak Lin

Nevil Shute himself thought Round the Bend was his best novel. The messiah-figure of this story is Shak Lin, a Western-educated Malayan aircraft mechanic, who begins life as a Bristish boy named Connie Shaklin. His message is the moral imperative of good maintenance of the machines upon which others’ lives depend:
...we are not like that, we engineers. We are men of understanding and of education, on whom is laid responsibility that men may travel in these aeroplanes as safely as if they were sitting by the well in the cool of the evening.

Or, as is quoted within the introduction to the paperback where I first read it:
…Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need…
Rudyard Kipling, The Sons of Martha

The religious movement that grows up around this inoffensive and admirable dictum eventually leads to Shaklin’s martyrdom—and the quiet growth of a new religion. The story shows the way a religious meme grows; in seemingly-barren soil, fertilized by the religions that precede it—and watered by the blood of martyrs.

The narrator has the last word:
I still think Connie was a human man, a very, very good one—but a man. I have been wrong in my judgments many times before; if now I am ignorant and blind, I’m sorry, but it’s no new thing. If that should be the case though, it means that I have had great privileges in my life, perhaps more so than any man alive today. Because it means that on the fields and farms of England, on the airstrips of the desert and the jungle, in the hangars of the Persian Gulf and on the tarmacs of the southern islands, I have walked and talked with God.


Stranger in a Strange Land: Michael Valentine Smith

Heinlein’s Stranger In a Strange Land explicitly considers the making of a messiah. For those who have not encountered this novel in either the original release or the 1991 uncut version (all three of you), Stranger is the story of Michael Valentine Smith, a young man raised by the puissant Old Ones of Mars, who then returns to Earth to spread the Gospel (and related powers) they taught him. 

Heinlein uses the story to jab at the tabloid and mainstream press, fringe and established churches, courts and lawyers, and (of course) the government.
"Do you really think they're shadowing us, Ben?" Jill shivered. "I'm not cut out for a life of crime."
"Pish and likewise tush! When I was on the General Synthetics scandals I never slept twice in one place..."

But along the way, the story—maybe inadvertently, although I doubt anything ever appeared in Heinlein’s work that he didn’t plan with glee—underscores the original message of the Christ: love each other. 

It also tells us in a less-brutal way (perhaps because it is fictional) than Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the consequences of preaching love to those focused on money and power—or scripture.

Dune: Paul Muad'Dib

The first reading of the novel Dune reveals Herbert’s empathy with the nomadic Arab of pre-mandate Palestine. (Remember, Herbert was British.) But to reread this book today is to experience the spooky realization that the Fremen are also eco-terrorists.

The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it. You've agreed I have that power...

More to the point, the conversion of Paul Atreidies to the messianic Muad’Dib—from conservative ruling-class heir to fundamentalist jihadi leader—maps the slippery path of proselytic education, leading to perception of all who believe differently as evil and deserving of death. 

Whether you see echoes of mujahideen, urban rioters, or red state/blue state bomb-throwers in the story may depend more on today’s headlines than on Frank Herbert’s words.