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John Wilson

Terra Nova, Part 4

A theology of the Long Now?

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The late lamented (or unlamented) Terra Nova, whatever its merits and flaws, prompts reflection on the relationship between science and science fiction. That relationship is complex, but one aspect of it—so it seems to me, at least—hasn't received as much attention as it deserves.

Scientists writing about the nature of science frequently emphasize that it forces us, again and again, to give up various preconceptions. Now of course this isn't true of a lot of day-to-day scientific work. Nevertheless, it is true—as Richard Feynman, for instance, liked to say—that the findings of science are often counterintuitive, reminding us that we have to adjust to reality (as best as we can) and not the other way around.

Science fiction sometimes accomplishes a similar service. I started reading science fiction intensely around the age of ten and did so roughly for four years. (Then began a period during which I read less and less of it; and then, around thirty years of age, a return to the genre, though much more selective.) I can remember the impact—in those early years—of stories that imagined humanity in a far-distant future. Beneath the surface, there was something frightening about the prospect, but also a sense of exhilaration.

We often think—and read—in separate compartments. When I was ten years old, it did not occur to me to explicitly compare such visions of the human future with what I absorbed at home and at church and at school. At home and at church in particular, there was an assumption—mostly not articulated—that, whether or not we were literally in the "End Times," there was not an unimaginably vast stretch of history lying ahead of human race. (That was reserved for "eternity.") And yet, through science fiction, I was being encouraged to consider the possibility that it might be so, just as it might be so that a Near Earth Object (so blandly designated) would strike our planet with catastrophic impact. Or a worldwide virus could decimate the human population on a scale that dwarfed the impact of the Black Plague. And so on.

As Christians, I think we are sometimes too complacent in our largely unreflective assumptions about the shape of the future. We may be guilty of projecting onto God our notions about the order of things. Suppose that instead of being near the end of human history—before the advent of the New Heaven and the New Earth—we are closer to the beginning? Is such a prospect incompatible with God's self-revelation in Scripture? Or is it merely incompatible with what we have assumed? What would a theology of the Long Now look like?

Science fiction—a very fallible oracle, needless to say!—can usefully provoke such questions, along with its other satisfactions. And when it does so, it lives up to its name.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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