Frederic Jameson has notably defined science fiction as the literary field most attentive to and invested in the utopian desires of modernity. It is less concerned with dramatizing actual futures as it is with dreaming the possibility of nascent or emergent transformations in the social order and with the technological remapping of human potentiality.
In many ways the best SF (not always the most literary, though it often is) offers nothing less than a poetics of becoming. It accomplishes this through what Darko Suvin, perhaps borrowing from the Russian Formalists, calls “cognitive estrangement,” that is, it presents our own familiar customs and institutions, our habitus, through a glass darkly, as the future, or the alien, that is also the human, now radically defamiliarized.
Yet if Jameson’s approach focuses almost exclusively on SF as an engine for re-imagining and resisting late capital, as in the works of Dick, Gibson, or Robinson, the genre seems equally driven to articulate the late capital desire for radical new economies of secular theology.
With its tropes of technological transcendence, science fiction has long been the domain for representing late, or postsecular, theology as the driver of social evolution. The recent renascence of space opera by authors like Iain Banks, Dan Simmons, and Alastair Reynolds, to name a few, provides a sophisticated re-tooling or upgrade of that hoary, but deeply pleasurable, subgenre.
In Banks’ post-scarcity Culture novel, Excession, for instance, the eponymous and black-body object of the title is revealed to be a sentient probe from another dimension/parallel universe, the artifact of a society vastly more advanced than even the artificial Minds of the Culture. Its enigmatic behavior serves as kind of cosmic MacGuffin, an aporia that drives the plot purely by its negative or passive qualities. In some ways it represents the incursion of the tremendum, a visitation from outside, and, without stretching the point too far, the event or Ereignis, a kind of messianic presence which fails since no one is capable of receiving it.
Similarly, in Dan Simmon’s Hyperion/Endymion novels, the messianic figure of Aenea leads humanity outside of its bondage to both a network of parasitic AIs and a tyrannical future Catholic church by triggering a latent ability to travel through deep space by means of the Void That Binds, a kind of Buddhist/quantum device that permeates the deep structure of reality. (This metaphysical liberation is surely an homage to the conclusion of Alfred Bester's 1951 classic, The Stars My Destination, which Chip Delany once described to me as the greatest SF novel ever written. I could not agree more).
The post-secular sublime – or as Istvan Csiscery-Ronay calls it, the sf sublime – appears in the novels of Reynolds through the canny use of scale. Deep space and even deeper time – stellar distances and eons of development across millions of light-years – form a background of wonder against which the human protagonists play out their dramas and intrigues, challenging and resisting these unimaginable limit fields even as the narrative insists on how dwarfed they are by them.
Equally crucial to this sense of the sublime are the various modes of posthuman or alien transcendence which occur. Baseline humanity, as Reynolds calls it, is an antique. In the Revelation Space series, Conjoining, or the Transenlightenment -- the implantation of nanobots – allows humans to participate in a massive neural network at vastly accelerated rates of cognitive processing. In House of Suns, the Great Leap Forward occurs through cloning. Both technologies impart transcendent powers to human beings (though in HS the clones, or shatterlings, become virtually god-like: immortal, possessed of magical technologies, including near-sentient starships). Even death is circumvented by the power to download consciousness onto software that produces a total personality simulation capable of full interaction.
The catch, as in all Reynolds’ novels, is that transcendence does not obviate traditional moral and ethical dilemmas. On the contrary, it intensifies them. While all the books feature exciting space battles and chases, the main problem for the characters is always a moral one: how does an interstellar super-culture confront historical disaster?
In the uneven, but compelling, Revelation Space, the richly satisfying Redemption Ark, and the tedious and disappointing Absolution Gap, it was the crisis of extinction posed by a machine-race (The Inhibitors) seeking to safeguard an evolutionary galactic balance through surgical genocides of emergent stellar species. In House of Suns, the dilemma is reversed: humanity is compelled to come to terms with its complicity in the genocide of a machine race. Both plots play out, on a galactic stage, Benjamin’s dialectical aporia: that the foundations of civilized order are inseparable from the barbarism it overcomes and represses.
(Coming to terms with "giga-death" (a phrase from Banks' Look to Windward) -- the xenocidal destruction of trillions -- features in all three novelists. Reynolds in particular, like Greg Bear in his Forge of God diptych, explores the potentially pessimistic ethical -- and Darwinian -- implications of the Fermi paradox; namely, that EM-noisy planetary cultures bring down doom on themselves because, as Bear puts it, "the forest is full of wolves," i.e. self-replicating machines intent on preserving their hegemony. While on the one hand this impulse is laudable since it lends a compelling moral and historically engaged seriousness to SF, it also leaves them open to charges of exploiting crimes against humanity for the sake of entertainment. On the other hand, what other genre is so daring? It's tempting to call this new branch of space opera "SF after Auschwitz").
Reynolds’ universes are deeply imbued with historical skepticism, which shifts in mood from the benignly comic (as in the names of the meta-civilizations which come and go: the Perpetual Commonwealth, the High Benevolence, the Pantropic Nexus, etc.) to Spenglerian melancholy. Empire, in his novels, is a kind of pathology. It can only ever end badly, leaving traces of strangely beautiful and enigmatic ruins across the galaxy. This, too, is part of the sublime.
None of these writers are quite the alienated Gnostic modernists that say, Lovecraft is. Their universes may be dangerous, but overall they are hospitable, that is to say. anthropic. The human, or rather the posthuman (always rendered somewhat anachronistically, of course, that is, on a less adventurous imaginative register than Octavia Butler, for example), has a place in it. But that place is also occupied by a pervasive sense of mystery and awe and it is this that imparts to their work, at its best, an uncanny shiver of the sublime that is radiant with theological desire.