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  • Science Fiction and Life after Death
  • Stephen Burt (bio)

Science fiction (SF) is, and has been since its inception as a self-conscious genre, centrally and persistently interested in presenting some version of or figure for an afterlife, some way to survive the death of the body, some place where our consciousness might live on after we die. We can find representations of an afterlife within every period of SF properly so-called, from late-nineteenth-century “scientific romance” to Campbellian magazine fiction, to the New Wave of the 1960s, to the present day; within every subgenre specific to SF (time travel, space opera, postapocalyptic fiction, first contact story, and so on); and within the works of most, if not all, its influential writers. We can find these representations as aspects of setting, character, and plot, and as persistent figures and symbols, not everywhere, but very frequently, in SF, once we start to look. In saying so, I offer not a new definition, nor a new general theory of how SF works, but rather a distinctive, persistent feature to explore and explain.1

SF’s persistent afterlives admit several overlapping explanations: for one thing, SF is the literature of the future, and it cannot help coming up with symbols for its own habit of imagining what will happen after we die. For another thing, SF’s string of symbols for the afterlife enables the genre to reflect on itself: they present it as a means of escape (from this life, from the constraints of the real) and as a way to reflect on why we tell stories. Above all, though, the wealth of ways in which SF represents the afterlife casts new light on the relations between SF and religious faith.2 The pervasive presence of life after death in SF calls into further question the already controversial claims (the best-known is Darko Suvin’s) that SF, as a genre, must favor the rational, or the empirical. At the same time, that presence supports recent claims (such as those by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.) about the variety of imaginative powers that SF can contain. [End Page 168]

Once we see the persistence of ideas about the afterlife through twentieth- and twenty-first-century SF, we can recognize nineteenthcentury fictions and suppositions about the afterlife among SF’s progenitors. The persistence of the afterlife within SF shows how much we readers, past and present, want to imagine some version of life after death. If we do not find or accept it in revealed religion, we may look for it—as so many earlier Americans did—within the precincts of the empirically verifiable; and if we do not find it there either, then we may seek it, and go on seeking it, in SF, bolstered by SF’s peculiar powers to project a future imagined as comprehensible, yet characterized by forms of life that we do not know. If science (however understood) cannot provide the desiderata of faith, then SF—under erasure, or faute de mieux—might; and none of those desiderata have seemed more contested, more subject to proof or disproof, in the late nineteenth, twentieth, and early twenty-first centuries, than life after death.


Perhaps the most famous opening sentence in American SF, the first line of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), contemplates a place where the dead might belong, up above us, in an electronic medium: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” (1). Indeed, the novel and its sequels have everything to do with “dead channels,” with where the dead go, and with how they can return. Restored to professional life from near-corpselike despair, Gibson’s protagonist Case has to collaborate with ghostlike programs, learning to “work with the dead” inside the “consensual hallucination” that is cyberspace (49, 51). Case’s ally, the Dixie Flatline, is the digitized consciousness of a man who died twice, having had a near-death experience (NDE) online; he says that he wants to be “erased … for good” (106). The sequels to Neuromancer teem with other digital spaces inhabited by “ghosts of … evil ancestors”: the hacker hero Bobby (Count Zero) ends up...


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pp. 168-190
Launched on MUSE
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