Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Pope Reads Science Fiction

In the news recently:

Calling attention to the 20th century novel “Lord of the World” which focuses on this spirit of worldliness which leads to apostasy, Pope Francis cautioned against the attitude of wanting “be like everyone else,” which he referred to as an “adolescent progressivism.”

Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World is one of the great science fiction classics. It was published in 1907, so it's quite early; because a lot of the ideas it is dealing with are long since out of date, some of its picture of the future can look a little odd at times. But it was something of a tour de force -- Benson took a number of science fiction tropes that were popular at the time and turned them into the apocalypse: the Forces of Progress achieve their goals, which involves among other things systematically destroying the Catholic Church, at which they succeed, with the brilliant closing image of the last of all Popes, left with no means of resistance but martyrdom and prayer, standing on the Mount of Olives as the air fleets of the entire world prepare to bomb him and the last surviving Catholic remnant out of existence, and through it all the careful, consistent build-up to that last perfect sentence:

Then this world passed, and the glory of it.

After he wrote it, people kept insisting that now that he'd written a pessimistic Catholic science fiction novel he should write an optimistic one. Finally he gave in, and wrote another science fiction novel, Dawn of All, which is a sort of utopian novel. It's a much less interesting story, but in some ways it's an even greater science fiction tour de force -- Benson takes all the science fiction utopia themes that were bandied about at the time, enlightenment overcoming superstition and everything, and showed that you could keep them all and do a completely Catholic version. But it's Lord of the World that really makes it into the top tier of great science fiction. It's a lot like Chesterton's Father Brown stories -- it really doesn't matter whether you are Catholic or not, or whether you particularly like Chesterton's thoroughly Catholic perspective, because they are, regardless, some of the great classics of detective fiction. Benson's Lord of the World was decades ahead of its time, science-fiction-wise, pioneering new tropes and ideas, creating twists and variations on old tropes and ideas, and showing that one could use these things to tell a powerfully human story.

Lord of the World is, of course, by this point a public domain book, and it's not hard to find free electronic copies.


  1. Martin T.9:27 PM

    One of My favorites, I pretended no to notice the out of date parts and that lest it with a very retro feel.

  2. branemrys9:18 AM

    The impressive thing is how few the out of date parts are -- and, as you say, the parts that do, have a sort of cool retro feel, a little like steampunk but a bit newer. (I love the descriptions of the volors. The Wright brothers, of course, had their famous flight just four years earlier. But I love how bird-like the volors are; there's something rather catching about the idea of people flying around in massive hawklike gliders that cry out to each other like ships in the night.)

  3. branemrys12:42 PM

    I was amused to see on a website that happened to link to this post that we got the usual ignoramus commenter saying that even though he's never read the book or even heard of it, he's "not so sure" that it's SF. I should have expected it, since the point of the post was to explain the Pope's interest, not detail the science fiction elements of the work,and there's always that pretentious pseudo-fan of science fiction who will pop off on the subject even while showing -- and in this case confessing -- obvious ignorance of all evidence and information relevant to the question. The novel (1) is widely recognized as science fiction; (2) is an influence on later science fiction, having pioneered several science fiction tropes that later became common; (3) involves a depiction of the future in which the consequences of advances in not-yet-existent technologies (like supertrains, militarized airfleets, and portable euthanasia kits) play ineliminable story roles; (4) explores the intersection between scientific and technological progress and other facets of human life; and (5) draws allusively on a number of ideas that are drawn from works, like those of Wells, that are undeniably science fiction (indeed, some of the weirder parts of the story are clearly drawing on Wells and similar writers, and thus are torpes that were science fiction at the time, despite the fact that they wouldn't usually be considered so today). Trying to deny that it is science fiction -- particularly without having read it or becoming familiar with the history of the genre at the time -- is pretty much a sign that you have no business talking about the matter.


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