science fiction section at the library

The Hebrew Bible in Classic Science Fiction

I would like to return to our discussion of the Hebrew Bible by speaking about some of the ways it has influenced modern literature.  The difficulty with that topic, though, is where to start.  The Bible has touched our literature more pervasively than any other work. The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, being longer containing a greater proportion of narrative, has probably provided even more ideas than the New Testament. The only body of writings which has a comparative influence, at least in English, is Shakespeare’s works.  Accordingly, to make the discussion manageable, I will stick to a few examples from a single genre: science fiction.  I further narrow it down by discussing only classic sci-fi.  Aside from the fact that I like classic sci-fi and have read quite a bit of it, I appreciate the irony that a genre which is often considered the antithesis of spiritual literature and criticised for marginalizing God still manages to mention the Hebrew Bible with such regularity.

science fiction section at the library

Warning, this post contains spoilers!

Consider the fact that the names of at least eleven episodes of the original Star Trek series are recognizable biblical allusions. Gene Roddenberry was a well known secular humanist and in his vision of the future humanity had “moved beyond religion”, but that never stopped his writing team from freely mining the Hebrew Bible for ideas.

The Bible itself makes an appearance in numerous short stories and novels of the 20th century.  If you read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in school, perhaps you remember Guy Montag, the protagonist pouring over his contraband copy of the Book of Ecclesiastes, trying to find the hidden worth in the books which his dystopian society had ordered him to burn.  In an even more dramatic scene, he tears pages from a Bible to force a former English professor to help him.

More interesting still are the authors who reinterpreted stories from the bible.   Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Last Question”, one of the top sci-fi stories of all time, is about a series of powerful self-aware computers, the Multivacs, that spend millennia pondering how to prevent the ultimate heat death of the universe.  Finally, after the whole universe has wound down into darkness, the last computer figures it out, and announces “Let there be light.”  Asimov, it is interesting to note, also wrote a rather excellent Guide to the Bible.

Actually, if you will excuse the digression, the way God is described in the early books of the Hebrew Bible is not inconsistent with a powerful machine intelligence.  God has no back story or childhood, is essentially genderless, and and only slowly begins to manifest human emotions or speak of himself in terms of human relationships.  It is almost as if he was an all-powerful sentient computer which was suddenly turned on one day.

As another example of reinterpretation, take Robert Heinlein’s Job a Comedy of Justice.  This novel, a satirical critique of Evangelical Christianity (one of Heinlein’s favorite targets) is among my favorite late-period Heinlein works.  The protagonist Alex and his lover Marga are bounced from one alternate timeline to another.  Each time the transition occurs they lose everything they have, often including their very clothing.  Through it all, Alex remains true to his faith in God and keeps the biblical law as he understands it.  As a result, when the result that when the rapture occurs he goes to heaven and is soon made a saint.  Heaven, unfortunately, is not nearly so pleasant as he had hoped.  To make matters worse, pagan Marga is not brought with him.  He arranges to be transferred to Hell where he eventually meets Satan and finally gets a straight story for why he was persecuted.  Satan  still feels bad about his role in the original Job incident from the Bible.  With Satan’s assistance, Alex is able to appeal his case to a higher power on the grounds that God has been inconsistent in his treatment of his creations.  His appeal is successful and he and Marga are reincarnated in yet another timeline to live out there lives with no memory of what has transpired.

Other authors weave in biblical elements more subtly.  JRR Tolkien, although his work is not, strictly speaking, science fiction, is a good example.  Tolkien was quite learned about the Hebrew Bible and was a contributor to the Jerusalem Bible, for which he translated the Book of Jonah.  The tone and pacing of several passages in the Lord of the Rings are very reminiscent of that of the biblical Deuteronomistic History.  The cosmology of Middle Earth, in which a creator god works through lesser celestial beings to influence the created world is reminiscent of the God of the Hebrew bible and his use of angelic messengers.  Like Lucifer in the Bible, one of Tolkien’s the angelic Varda revolts against the creator and becomes an enemy to humanity.  Tolkien’s Silmarillion, though it draws on many different mythologies for inspiration, is deliberately organized in the same fashion as the Hebrew Bible, with separate works of different genres bound together, starting with a creation myth.  Tolkien saw it as artificial scripture to complement his artificial elven language, a projects which he could not even have begun without a deep knowledge of both linguistics and sacred texts.

There are many other examples I could describe, but these should give you a taste of the many ways the Hebrew Bible influenced classic science fiction, as it has every genre of literature in Western Civilization.

Tolkien's Bust at Exeter College

Tolkien’s Bust at Exeter College [Julian Nitzsche via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0]

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