Theologian James F. McGrath covers familiar territory with Theology and Science Fiction. He previously edited and contributed a chapter to Religion and Science Fiction (2011) and also co-edited Religion and Doctor Who: Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith (2013), but this is his first extended solo treatment of the subject. In this slim volume of 113 pages, McGrath argues that “Theology can be expressed by and through science fiction, and science fiction can provide opportunities for the exploration of ideas.” Readers of Pop Mythology will find this thesis persuasive as it echoes this publication’s stated goal of “probing popular culture for embedded wisdom.”
McGrath is a first-rate scholar with the rare gift of being able to present complicated concepts in clear and concise language. The book is based on an undergraduate course he teaches at Butler University. It refers to major thinkers in theology and philosophy at a high level and keeps the footnotes to a minimum. You won’t need a PhD in biblical studies to read Theology and Science Fiction.
McGrath makes the choice to keep his references from sci-fi fairly general. For example, he repeatedly mentions Star Trek (most effectively in discussing “Beam me up, Scotty”-technology as cloning), but does not include a close reading of any episodes or films from the franchise. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. The biggest advantage is the reader doesn’t have to have seen a specific episode of a series that was canceled 47 years ago to follow along. The trade-off is that the sci-fi references whiz by without a detailed exploration of how McGrath’s ideas might apply to a specific work.
On the same note, McGrath often describes a generic sci-fi plot device without citing a specific work featuring that device. For example, he briefly mentions stories that imagine the end of our world followed by ’a new earth’ with a ‘new sky” without citing any of them; Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle, three related series of books published between 1980 and 2001, immediately sprang to my mind (see my review of Book of the New Sun). Again, this makes the book easily accessible to someone who might not be familiar with that specific work. It also supports the idea of a certain universality of stories that exists in both sci-fi and theology. But the lack of concrete, recognizable examples makes it more difficult for non-experts to retain comprehension of some of the theological concepts. I remember questions raised about copying bodies and souls because McGrath successfully welded them in my mind to Star Trek’s transporters. I’m struggling to remember other concepts that were not so strongly attached to examples that come quickly to my mind.
To his credit, McGrath seems to have recognized this problem, although his solution is a bit puzzling. The final chapter includes three original stories that are meant to illustrate some of the book’s concepts. He is capable of writing a good sci-fi story (see his contribution to Touching the Face of the Cosmos, 2016), but these aren’t really complete stories so much as sketches that might be confused with synopses of Twilight Zone episodes. It would probably have been more effective to analyze well-known, or at least widely-available, works of sci-fi.
Theology and Science Fiction is overall an accessible overview of how theology and sci-fi “speak” to one another. McGrath writes clearly and explains complex concepts effectively. But the book could have benefited from more detailed analysis of specific examples from sci-fi to illustrate his points.