Author: Christina Bieber Lake
Publisher: University of Notre Dam Press
Publishing Date: August 25, 2014
Pages: 264 pages (Paperback)
When I graduated from my undergraduate institution with a degree in literature, I can safely say that I never saw this coming: that I would develop in the year 2018 an interest in science fiction. As a husband, a professor, and father of two young children, reading fiction has been a recent recovery after several years of dormancy, but one which—as a theologian and ethicist—is bringing my work to life in new ways. But never in my wildest dreams did I anticipate that science fiction would be a part of that literary landscape.
Some sci-fi, to be honest, is exceedingly tedious (as Isaac Asimov’s Foundations trilogy). But some, like Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, is mind-bending and disruptive. What makes the difference, I think, is neither the quality of the writing nor the technical nature of the prose, but ultimately, the electricity of the vision.
One of the constants of most science fiction is that technology will increase; and with it, the quality of our lives.But within that broadly shared assumption, whether life will be dominated or liberated by these advances, is the difference between a stifling and boring story and an exhilarating one.
There are certain science fiction novels which turn this entire assumption on its head, such as Frank Herbert’s Dune, in which the future is not one dominated by technological advances, but nearly bereft of them. But for the most part, the broad scene is one in which technological advances are simply assumed, and they will either help us or eat us alive. The most interesting kind, however, are the kinds of stories in which these advances are more like a question mark than a period at the end of the sentence; the hubris of technology is simply that humans are free, and thus, never fully containable by the machines that they make. Take a well-known example, Philip K. Dick’s better-known story, “Minority Report.” In this work, police work is done by recourse to what are known as “pre-cogs,” or clairvoyants who can see future actions before they occur, eliminating the guesswork out of crime. This is a fool-proof arrangement, except that the pre-cogs—despite being treated as non-humans—are still humans. And humans are, by definition, creatures of will, wily and free.
Now, whether we see the frailty and fallibility of humans as a good to be cultivated or a liability to overcome is a perennial debate within science fiction, but a question which echoes widely through American literature. In her recent Prophets of the Posthuman: American Fiction, Biotechnology, and the Ethics of Personhood, Christina Bieber Lake tours through a variety of fiction: she goes from the gothic to satire, from short story to pastoral novel to explore how fiction can be therapeutic for our desires to overcome human frailty. Drawing from writers as wide-ranging as Toni Morrison to Raymond Carver to George Saunders, Lake develops a four-part argument that human improvement cannot be done by technique alone, but by seeing ourselves more robustly than as organisms to be refined.
Lake’s book works in four broad parts. In Part One, she explores the dominant ethical vision of technoscientific writing, and the moral vision which is implied within it. As she shows, it is frequently a technocratic one, focusing on what can be done or what can be improved, rather than loving the person who is before us well. Part Two brings various narratives to bear which challenge and satirize the “improvement” thesis of technocracy, and Part Three begins to recover some of the language of hospitality, healing, humility, and humanity, which are needed to provide an alternative to technocracy’s thinning out of our moral vocabulary. Having sketched out a thicker vision of what humans are and what we need, Part Four depicts these goods as being embodied within various communities of care and challenge.
In each part, exemplary novels—mostly from the last half-century—are brought to bear, with readers being introduced to the moral visions of Toni Morrison, Walker Percy, and Marilynne Robinson, among others. The thesis that we are more than bags of meat, but embodied persons who need moral development, virtue, and community is not an entirely novel thesis; philosophers, theologians, and ethicists have long been taking turns at swatting back the technocratic mindset which now engulfs educational institutions and churches alike. But it is rare to have literature enter the fray as carefully and as creatively as Lake brings them in. For Lake, literature is not simply illustrative or instrumental to the task of diagnosing and combatting technocracy: it is the world within which we are cultivated. In the act of reading, we enter not only a set of illustrations which give us principles to live by, but also new parables which instruct, perplex, and guide us into new living. To learn how to be a new person, in other words, we must submit to the art of reading.
Her discussions of George Saunders, Flannery O’Connor, and particularly her chapter on Nathaniel Hawthorne were some of the best, and her argument for literature’s role in the renewing of our minds is compelling. As a former literature major, I am entirely sympathetic to this argument because few things give my heart more joy than to linger in a bookstore, looking for my next new friend. But as a theologian and ethicist, the emphasis on reading as the vehicle of transformation must itself be questioned: is turning to reading as a way of moral transformation not just submitting to a very different kind of technocracy?
I bring this up not as a criticism of Lake’s work, but as an open question to how we should approach the relation of reading and moral transformation. In recent books by C. Christopher Smith and Karen Swallow Prior, a similar thesis emerges: books can be transformative to the moral life. Anyone who is a voracious reader can attest to the ways in which books haunt us, for better or for worse, and can point without effort to those handful of books which they recommend to others without hesitation. But considering Lake’s book, I am now stuck asking whether reading alone can be sufficient.
To be sure, narrative, as Lake points out, orients us and provides us with a compass out of the woods, so that our “hard cases” are determined by the values we have unconsciously absorbed. To go further, narrative provides a sense of coherence, vision, and value to our lives, freeing us from being a series of unrelated choices or disconnected desires. And to go even further: narratives—such as the narratives of Scripture—frame our existence, provide us guardrails and offer us lingering testaments in our consciences. But in taking up a novel, as in Scripture, you are submitting to another’s law and vision, which we undergo in reading.
Books open us to new worlds, and well-written books open us up to new, good worlds—even if they are well-written but morally flawed.But if it is narrative that helps us on the road to virtue, and not just any narratives, but literary narratives, how can we tell the difference between an exquisitely written, but immoral narrative, and a ham-handed but virtuous tale? Is it possible that Amish romances are superior to National Book Award winners on this count? Augustine, in his Confessions, acknowledges this conundrum: that the epics of the Greeks were far superior in literary skill and style to the Old Testament, but that it was the Old Testament which spoke of the true way home. My point here is one similar to Augustine: that literature—and particularly, skilled literature, of Melville and Saunders and Morrison—can be an asset to the Christian formation of the soul, a lantern in the dark which sheds light on the right questions. But their vision and profit—and their ability to form us well—is insufficient apart from a different kind of formation which is one worked out in the body and action. As we engage with one another in bodily ways—in ministry, in argument, in the struggle of flesh and blood—reading can augment and come alongside our formation. Just as we are readers with bodies, our learning of the narrative cannot take place without living that narrative as well.
The stories that Jesus tells, in other words—the parables which shape and frame the imagination of the hearers—are mysteries which are known as the disciples live these mysteries out. As they are faced with their own travelers on the road who have been waylaid, or their own Lazaruses at the gate, the readers of Scripture begin to understand the narrative force in a way that simply reading cannot convey. Reading has long been dying as a leisurely activity, and Lake is right to point us back to it—not just for entertainment, but for the sake of our souls. To understand their goodness, however, we must be striving to live that goodness, to put their questions to work, and to be tested in our own lives.