Treating the Divine in Science Fiction

Editor's Note: This is the fourth and final installment in our series on religion and science fiction

By Ada Palmer|March 15, 2018

Editor's Note: This is the fourth and final installment in our series on religion and science fiction. Be sure to read the three previous issues in this series: Audrey Thompson's "'Cross'-examining the Biblical Witness in War for the Planet of the Apes" (October 19, 2017), Emanuelle Burton's "Deus ex Machina" (November 9, 2017), and Rebecca Raphael's "Parable of the Times" (January 24, 2018).

This column contains some spoilers for Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Babylon 5 (1993-1998), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996), and Too Like the Lightning (2016).

Treating the divine in science fiction presents a subtle writing challenge, often invisible to those who haven’t considered the question from a writer’s perspective. Using religious imagery, comparison, or metaphor is easy: from surrounding Superman with Christological imagery in Man of Steel (2013) to Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film Ghost in the Shell quoting “through a glass darkly” in order to encourage viewers to take a providential and eschatological view as we watch the advent of purely digital life born from the manmade sea of information. But fiction can also deal with the divine directly—actual miracles, actual gods, actual intervention—and this, counterintuitively, is where the freedom of science fiction to invent fantastic technologies and improbable lifeforms makes the writer’s job harder.

Think of the eternal Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). This story of a guardian angel intervening to prevent a suicide requires the viewer to accept that the angel is real, that Heaven exists, and that divine intervention is actually happening. It is easy from the start to accept that the writers intend the angel to be real, partly because the audience is primed for Christmas miracles, but more because the rest of the story is strictly mundane, so the angel appearing and disappearing and moving the protagonist around in space and time has no other explanation. Set the same story on the starship Enterprise out in deep space, and the writer’s task is suddenly much more difficult. When the angelic being appears the viewer’s mind fills instantly with explanations: Is it another godlike alien? The holodeck malfunctioning again? A hallucination caused by mutant space flu? A temporal anomaly from passing near a black hole? Because science fiction has so many possibilities, such a richly established palette of godlike phenomena, the writer has to work extra hard to communicate when the strangeness is genuinely supposed to be a miracle.

This is one manifestation of the larger phenomenon that science fiction settings introduce ambiguity into elements whose meanings would be clear in other forms of fiction. Samuel R. Delany discusses the examples of “His world exploded” and “She turned on her left side” (see his essays in Trouble on Triton), both of which become unclear in settings where whole planets can explode and people can be half robotic. I myself was recently working with a writing student who used the phrase “fingers in her hair” in a fantasy novel—in a Harlequin romance this would clearly mean a lover’s affectionate stroke, but at the beginning of a fantasy we might be dealing with a finger-haired medusa alien demon creature. We don’t know. 

This is especially challenging in the opening scenes of a work of genre fiction, when the fantastic elements of the world and characters have not yet been established, so the reader’s mind is open to anything. To use an example from my own Too Like the Lightning, my peculiar narrator thinks of the character Thisbe Saneer as a “witch,” but it is important that the reader see this as a quirk of the narrator, not a literal witch. Thus I couldn’t have the narrator call Thisbe a witch in the opening scene: that early on the reader, who does not yet know whether this world has magic, would have been too willing to believe him. A few chapters later, after I firmly establish that this is a future Earth descended from our present, I can have the narrator call someone a “witch” and be certain the reader won’t believe him.

The extra challenge this poses for writing about divine intervention—crafting our science fiction version of It’s a Wonderful Life—is that it can be remarkably difficult to communicate to a science fiction audience when you genuinely intend to depict a miracle, not an alien, not a space phenomenon, not sufficiently advanced technology, an actual miracle. The recent television series Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) struggled with this enormously. Providential language was introduced as early as the opening credits, which warn “…and they have a Plan” (capital P), and as early as episode ten, “Hand of God,” the genius scientist character Gaius Baltar concludes that humanity’s improbable survival must be following a divine script, declaring: “I am an instrument of God.” Yet even as prophecies consistently came true and providential language saturated the series, a huge portion of viewers were well past the line, “I see angels,” before it occurred to them that the writers meant actual angels. Nor were viewers wrong to be uncertain about this, as the very similar series Babylon 5 (1993-1998) also included prophecies, and providential language, and things that looked like angels, but these all turned out to be the result of aliens, time travel, and genetic manipulation.

My own Terra Ignota series introduces miracles in the opening scene. We see an overt miracle, it’s called a miracle by the narrator, it’s witnessed by a priest figure, it’s followed by more miracles, and they’re discussed by all the characters in terms of God and Providence. Yet because the setting is science fiction, I know that all my readers are prepared at any moment for the apparent miracles to turn out to have some scientific explanation. Beyond that, I even know that some portion of my readers will be 100% certain that a scientific explanation is coming, and will be surprised if it does not.

This phenomenon can set up a rare kind of shock for a science fiction reader, the shock of things turning out to be exactly what they said on the tin. Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996) features giant robots called Eva (or Eve) defending something called Adam from giant monsters called Angels which make cross-shaped explosions when they blow up, and no Evangelion viewer can forget the tingle of amazement when we realized it wasn’t just imagery, that these were actually angels. This shock can be good, as in the immense success and influence of Evangelion, but if it isn’t handled with great care it can also make audiences feel betrayed by the writers. This happened to many viewers of Battlestar Galactica, a reaction worsened, I think, by the series’s strong audience overlap with Babylon 5, since Babylon 5 did offer material explanations to cover all the seemingly supernatural content so individual viewers could settle on an atheist reading or a theist reading, whichever they preferred. In addition, in my experience a not-insignificant number of hard SF fans are not only atheists but uncomfortable with theism, and turn to space adventures precisely because theism rarely appears in tales of humanity’s technological triumph over the stars. Such viewers found it particularly unsettling when the end of Battlestar Galactica admitted no atheist reading.

Divine imagery versus divine intervention—the distinction can be blurry, almost a gradient, in a work like Voltaire’s Candide, in which the very subject of the book is the ambiguous distinction between Chance and Fate and God and the Author controlling characters’ lives. Yet in science fiction that line is often starker, and riskier—from the writer’s perspective—to cross. You can easily imagine how awkward it would have felt if, instead of Superman being compared to Jesus through the script’s visual imagery, our superhero had been shunted back in time to 33 AD and actually been Jesus. And yet the writers could have done it. Writers have done it, or things like it, in innumerable short stories and television episodes, in skinny comic book issues and brick-fat tomes where superhero Jesus, cloned Jesus, time-traveling Jesus, robot Jesus, innumerable variants play with the power of religion but with a strange concreteness, beyond simple use imagery, that is rarely an issue outside genre fiction. As I continue to balance the presence of the divine in my own novels, and to feel how difficult it is serving what I know is a split audience—some of whom do and some of whom do not believe that I intend to depict real miracles—I view with renewed awe authors who succeed at blending science fiction with miraculous or divine action. And I hope that those who analyze religion in fiction will think about how not only “his world exploded” but “meet your maker” or “she had the voice of an angel” must be handled very differently in worlds of science fiction.

Image: Babylon 5 (Warner Bros.)

Author, Ada Palmer, is a history professor at the University of Chicago specializing in the Renaissance and the history of ideas. Her first nonfiction book is Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance (Harvard University Press, 2014). She is also the author of the award-winning science fiction novel series Terra Ignota (Book One: Too Like the Lighting), published by Tor Books. She writes about history for a popular audience at and about SF and fantasy-related matters at

Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco (AB’07, MDiv’10), a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.