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SCIENCE FICTION AND GNOSTICISM / Douglas A. Mackey AU science fiction is a metaphor for transcendence. Space travel, time travel, the future, other worlds: these are symbolic, from the reader's point of view, of release from the limitations of present space and time. But "escapism" is only part of the appeal. Let us postulate an evolutionary imperative in the human being that promotes change in consciousness. This impulse unravels the "laws" or assumptions that structure our commonsense, consensual world view. Anything is capable of being set on its head. The law of cause and effect, with its one-way movement in time, is circumvented by travel backward in time. The notion that man is at the apex of the evolutionary hierarchy is subverted by contact with superintelligent extraterrestrials. The four dimensions are stretched by faster-than-light space travel. And the very widespread assumption that consciousness is a by-product of the physical functioning of the nervous system is contradicted by science fiction's own brand of mystical awareness. God may be beyond the province of scientists, but He or She is fair game for science fiction writers. In quest of the much desired "sense of wonder," they elevate many a story involving environmental, technological, and physical change to the level of metaphysics. Because the questioning of established notions is essential to the speculative imagination, it is natural that the religious views of SF writers should tend to the "heretical." The gnostic religion, which flourished in the first through third centuries A.D., provides an excellent paradigm for the understanding of the type of religious awareness that much SF favors. The gnostics, regarded as heretics by the faction that became orthodox Christianity, were radical transcendentalists. They believed that man is essentially pure spirit (pneuma), trapped in a cage of flesh. The world cannot be taken at face value: it is one vast snare for the senses, causing man to forget his inner spiritual reality. The being who created it was not God: it was a lower power, an "archon" or demiurge, who masquerades as God to the unsuspecting. This creator is not good but evil, or at least ignorant and self-deluded. Mankind's goal must be to transcend its own nescience through gnosis. Gnostic sects had their own subjective science to accomplish this, involving the development of mental powers to break the tyranny of the archons, and the realization of human pneuma as identical with the divine spirit of God. The gnostic God is alien, an "other" that has no likeness in the material universe. Its reality as pure Being recalls Hindu and Buddhist 212 ยท The Missouri Review notions of the Absolute that underlies and permeates all relative manifestation. But popular acceptance went to the Christian sects that were not as harsh and pessimistic in their indictment of the world. That is the common image of gnosticism: a joyless, anti-life philosophy. Yet it is possible that the gnostics were too optimistic for most people as regards human nature. They held the scary notion that rather than being inherently sinful or fallen, the divine pneumatic essence of man, mired down in the materiality of flesh, has the capability to transcend this tight little island ruled by the demiurge and merge with the true God. The gnostic, who seeks liberation first and foremost, pays no allegiance to the demiurge. Having created man imprisoned and ignorant, the demiurge tries to make sure he stays that way. To the gnostic who rebels against his ignominious lot, the demiurge is a cosmic Big Brother, always watching malevolently and voyeuristically. As Northrop Frye writes in The Great Code, a commentary on the Bible, "One consequence of having a creation myth, with a fall myth inseparable from it, has been the sense of being objective to God, or more specifically, of being constantly watched and observed, by an all-seeing eye that is always potentially hostile."1 In one of Philip K. Dick's hallucinatory worlds in Eye in the Sky (1957), the hero, trapped in the mind of a religious fanatic, rises into the sky on an umbrella and is pulled up into a version of the geocentric medieval cosmos. There he sees a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 112-120
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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