Robot Pontiffs and Alien Pilgrims: Review of Science Fiction and Catholicism by Jim Clarke

Robot Pontiffs and Alien Pilgrims: Review of Science Fiction and Catholicism: The Rise and Fall of the Robot Papacy by Jim Clarke

Anna McFarlane

Under Review:

Science Fiction and Catholicism. By Jim Clarke. Gylphi, 2019.

Debates surrounding the origins and nature of science fiction have long dominated academic discussions of speculative fiction, with Brian Aldiss arguing for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) as an ur-text while others credit the American magazine tradition of Hugo Gernsback and Joseph W. Campbell for giving science fiction its core tropes and ideas. Influentially, Adam Roberts’ significant intervention, The History of Science Fiction (2006), argued that religious schisms in western culture could be taken as definitional. Roberts posits “a cultural dialectic between ‘Protestant’ rationalist post-Copernican science on the one hand, and ‘Catholic’ theology, magic and mysticism, on the other”, and that the tradition of science fiction grows from the former while fantasy is in the tradition of the latter. Making this argument allows Roberts to give a “long” history of science fiction, ranging far beyond the American pulp fiction tradition and Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece. Through Roberts’ treatment, SF becomes a global literature at the forefront of cultural debates about science, philosophy, and the role of religion in an age of mechanism. 

However, Roberts recognised that a simplistic splitting between a Protestant tradition of science fiction and a Catholic tradition of fantasy would be “far too narrowly sectarian”. Jim Clarke’s Science Fiction and Catholicism: The Rise and Fall of the Robot Papacy (Gylphi, 2019), is, in many ways, a rejoinder to Roberts’ project, reading the History of Science Fiction with a close eye in order to find the threads of Catholic theology and cultural tradition that run through science fiction, thus complicating Roberts’ thesis. 

The book consists of four sections, each dealing with a different theme: how Catholicism came to be portrayed negatively in SF; the appearance of robot popes in SF texts at the time of the liberalising council known as Vatican II; exotheology, or the issue of how extra-terrestrial intelligence would be incorporated into the Catholic church; and Catholicism in uchronias (also known as alternate histories). Clarke’s writing is pleasantly meaty, particularly when giving historical context for the confluence of SF and Catholicism. His tour from religious revelatory writings to SF via dream narratives is particularly fascinating, as is his analysis of Giordano Bruno’s canonisation as a hero of the scientific method; Clarke argues that Bruno’s execution was not solely due to his belief in Copernicanism, but, significantly, resulted from his political affiliations, thus showing that the belief in Catholicism as anti-science is based on reductive versions of cherry-picked events. His account of the religious possibilities for robots is also a highlight, as Clarke approaches the status of robots and artificial intelligence with theological seriousness. Inevitably, the book has a lot of ground to cover, given that it comprehensively catalogues significant science-fictional engagements with Catholicism. Occasionally this involves somewhat overly-descriptive engagements with texts that, while essential for mapping the field, are perhaps best read piecemeal by those with a particular interest in some of the more obscure texts covered here.

Clarke’s book is at its best when discussing the overlooked resonance between Catholicism and SF. For example, in his chapter on exotheology, Clarke shows how the Vatican has taken seriously the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence, revealing unexpected common ground between theology and science fiction and reminding us that science fiction’s “sense of wonder”, its technological sublime, taps into that sense of transcendence that is also experienced in religious belief. This is the kind of writing that reframes one’s thinking about the genre and inspires a recommitment to its possibilities. It also suggests a whole field of study into science fiction’s response to world religions—a field that Clarke is currently expanding through work on Buddhism in SF and the promotion of what he is calling “religious futurisms”

Clarke ends the book with a challenge to take politically-conservative science fiction more seriously, which he does through a reading of Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock (2009), a book that Clarke describes as “attempting to unwrite the twentieth century itself, the locus of progressivism and modernity which has proved so fractious within recent sf.” Clarke is interested in the novel’s invocation of Julian the Apostate and gives a thoughtful reading that shows how the novel puts genre and narratology to work in service of conservative political goals. It is understandable that politically-liberal folk, facing the urgency of the climate crisis and fatal racial inequalities, might be loathe to engage with conservative SF, as Clarke recognises, but his reading here shows the value in considering (and challenging) how SF can be used to serve ideologies beyond the liberal agenda. If nothing else, dealing with explicitly conservative SF can bring into focus the less obvious political assumptions in liberal SF, as Clarke does here. 

As well as being an important contribution to the field, this is a particularly well-presented book, published as part of Gylphi’s SF Storyworlds series. The cover art is by Sinjin Li, who was recently shortlisted for a British Science Fiction Association Best Artwork Award for the cover of Eli Lee’s A Strange and Brilliant Light (2021). The bright cover complements Clarke’s lucid prose and humorous title to give an attractive book that stands in stark contrast to titles published by some of the bigger, more established academic presses who often deny authors any input into cover design and, as a result, produce objects that intimidate more than invite. This book is welcoming, and takes the reader through some lively debates about science fiction’s past in ways that will inform how we read it in future.

Anna McFarlane is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Glasgow working on traumatic pregnancy in speculative fiction. She is the co-editor of Adam Roberts: Critical Essays (2016), The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture (2020) and Fifty Key Figures in Cyberpunk (forthcoming). Her first monograph, Cyberpunk Culture and Psychology: Seeing Through the Mirrorshades, is a book-length engagement with William Gibson’s novels and will be out with Routledge in 2021. You can find her on Twitter.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned by editor Ashumi Shah on February 12, 2020 from a hard pitch emailed directly to the editor; the author and editor had no acquaintance prior to the author’s involvement with ARB. A review copy was arranged by ARB.

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