Across the Universe: Genre and Truth

This column first ran in The Tablet in February, 2012

“When modern scientists begin to discuss religion, I often wish that some kindly soul had thought of sending them to Sunday School...” That sums up the science-and-religion talk I often give, pointing out the naive misconceptions of so many of my skeptical colleagues. But this comment dates from 1950: Dorothy L. Sayers, replying on the BBC to a program from the astronomer Fred Hoyle.

I heard this recording last week at the Marion Wade Center at Wheaton College, Illinois, while in Chicago attending a science fiction convention and speaking at nearby Benedictine University. When Dr. Chris Fletcher, a Sayers scholar and professor at Benedictine, offered to take me to the Wade Center I jumped at the chance. (She was eager to show me a collection of humorous verses on heresies that Sayers had written for the Jesuit philosopher Martin D’Arcy. Among them, most appropriate for my own work: “That everything is Matter / is the heresy of the Mad Hatter; / That Matter isn’t there / is the heresy of the March Hare.”)

It may seem odd that a small evangelical college in the American midwest would house a major resource center for seven notable British authors: Owen Barfield, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Dorothy L. Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. None of them were intimates of the prairie, and most were theologically distant from American evangelicalism – all but MacDonald were fond of pubs, the sort of environment frowned upon at Wheaton College. But perhaps we should re-evaluate our prejudices of supposedly narrow-mindedness of Evangelicals. (Their reputation for outstanding courtesy, on the other hand, was quite evident when I visited.)

Another remarkable facet of these authors is that all were writers of what is often dismissed as “genre” literature: mysteries, fantasy, children’s books. But somehow their works are still being studied long after many of the literary giants of their eras are forgotten.

For some reason, many people don't take Genre literature seriously. With artwork like this, I can't imagine why.

Genre fiction – specifically science fiction and fantasy – was the topic of the convention I also attended that week. Along with getting to see old friends and meet some favorite writers, our activities ranged from a discussion of the Jacquard Loom to demonstrating 3-D printers.

The 19th century looms, programmed by punch cards, reproduced intricate portraits on silk cloth. The forerunners of computers and their imaging techniques, they are also lovely examples of the technology featured in “steampunk” novels, the latest rage in science fiction.

In another room, I watched, mesmerized, as a platform controlled by a laptop moved beneath a heat gun spewing thin layers of plastic that built up an elaborate model of Dr. Who’s Tardis, via a design stored in that computer. In contrast to steampunk, “replicators” like the 3-D printer were the rage in science fiction stories fifty years ago (see Damon Knight’s story “A for Anything” from 1957).

Music and books can already be reproduced electronically, at no cost; what happens when we can download the design of household items and print them out for ourselves? In their time, programmable looms disrupted the economy of the weavers’ world. Exploring how technology affects society is a goal of good science fiction. One of the best at this, Cory Doctorow, was the convention’s guest of honor. He gives away his books on-line, knowing that fans will go back and pay for what they like. And, indeed, several Wade Center authors have works already available free of copyright on-line; yet people still find them worth purchasing.

New age gurus and modern religions charge a fee for their teachings; the biggest gurus charge top dollar. Perhaps if we charged for Sunday School, skeptics would attend. But this science-fictional technology suggests that equating value with money is as false as assuming that “genre” literature is ephemeral and unimportant. Gurus can be naive, too.

Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

This blog is made possible by contributions from visitors like yourself. PLEASE help by supporting this blog.

Get the VOF Blog via email - free!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


Across the Universe: Genre and Truth — 1 Comment

  1. The Sayers’ picture represents a genre apparently influencing Garrison Keillor in his satirical skit “Guy Noir, Private Eye” in his weekly PBS radio program “Prairie Home Companion” from the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His word image paints a picture in the mind more descriptive than the visual graphic. Garrison puts it out there: Some buy it and some don’t.

Leave a Reply