restricted access Religion and Science Fiction ed. by McGrath, James F (review)
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McGrath, James F., Ed. Religion and Science Fiction. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011. 195+ viii pp. paperback $22.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-60899-886-9

This anthology edited by James McGrath consists of eight chapters, each of which addresses various religious themes in light of, or germane to, different science fiction phenomena and/or popular media “texts.” The topics are quite diverse but tend to concentrate on lesser-known, or less discussed, science fiction media such as the films of French director Jean Jeunet, the British cult television series The Prisoner, the Wrinkle in Time book trilogy of Madeleine L’Engle, and the nineteenth-century classics Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau, to name a few. Only part of a chapter attends to the original Star Trek series, for instance, while scant mention is made of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Babylon 5, or other more popular sci-fi products which are rife with religious issues and imagery.

This diversity is both a strength and weakness of the book. On the one hand, it does, as McGrath puts it in the introduction, give the reader “different approaches to and angles on the subject itself” (1, emphasis his), as well as provide some interesting insights on texts which are often neglected by interdisciplinary projects of this kind. On the other hand, many readers who are only familiar with more popular media will be disappointed by the relative obscurity of the texts discussed and will for that reason not find it to be as suitable an introduction to the topic as McGrath suggests elsewhere (4).

One aspect which is a definitive weakness is the lack of any attempt to clarify what is meant by both “religion” and “science fiction.” While both of these phenomena are notoriously difficult to define, one can make the opposite mistake of including too much within their parameters. For instance, C. K. Robertson’s chapter on superhero mythologies, while insightful, would be considered by many to belong in a different genre than science fiction. In addition, the discussions of consciousness, good and evil, and artificial intelligence which appear in several chapters would not strike every reader as uniquely or even particularly religious. That being said, this is a shortcoming which the book shares with many others of its kind.

A more bothersome problem, again shared with many projects in religion and culture, has to do with the hermeneutical approaches to the sci-fi material; namely, the tendency to find “God,” the “sacred,” or some other confirmation of one’s own worldview within a text where it was not meant to be found. For example, Joyce Janca-Aji’s reading of Alien Resurrection as a rejection of patriarchal Christianity and an embrace of an egalitarian Gaia theology seems at times to grossly overinterpret the film’s admittedly thick symbolism. The same is true of Elizabeth Danna’s discussion of The Prisoner and Teresa Blythe’s chapter “Uncovering Embedded Theology in Science Fiction Films.” The latter’s title itself suggests the kind of heavy-handed methodology with which many religious people view pop culture texts. Authorial intent, while not the only factor to consider, has come to be greatly neglected in far too large a portion of religious approaches, as exemplified in these essays.

On the flip side, there are a few real gems in this collection. Janca-Aji’s essay is otherwise rather helpful in unpacking Jeunet’s strange cinematic worlds; Alison Bright McWilliams provides a quite useful literary, historical, and philosophical analysis of some classic science fiction literature; McGrath, in his later chapter, offers many interesting conjectures on how robots, if [End Page 173] we ever get to that point, would deal with religious belief and worship; and Eriberto P. Lozada Jr. presents a brilliant and well-documented analysis of the roles of science, science fiction, and religion in contemporary Chinese culture.

Overall, the topics and quality of the essays in this volume are so varied that it is difficult to make a general recommendation. It would be best for a potential reader to explore the table of contents prior to purchasing it, as only the most committed and well-versed science...