Published October 7, 2020
I read “The Nine Billion Names of God” in the late 1950s. I was 10, and it stamped me with an endless appetite for science fiction. The story is set in a Tibetan lamasery, and the plot is simple. Buddhist monks hire two Western computer engineers who travel to Tibet. They set up a computer in the lamasery and begin to run a program that will print out the names of God.
The monks claim they’ve been compiling the names by hand for centuries. And for good reason: They believe God created the universe so that man might discover and glorify his many names. When God’s names are fully known – all nine billion of them – the world will end. Thanks to the computer, the monks can speed up the process.
At first, the Westerners are amused by the project. But as the computer computes, and the names pile up, they start to worry. When the work is complete and creation doesn’t evaporate, the monks will be angry. They’ll turn their wrath first on the computer and then on the foreigners who managed it.
On the night the computer starts to churn out the last few names, the Westerners steal two of the lamasery’s ponies. They start their trek down the Himalayan mountainside in the dark. Above them, the sky is ablaze with a carpet of stars. And then, one by one, they begin to go out.
Sixty years later, the story’s ending – a brilliant mix of simplicity, irony, and awe – still moves me. Arthur C. Clarke, the author, was an atheist. But Clarke wrote at a time when the science fiction genre, and science itself, still had a sense of the soul. Thus his work – from his Hugo Award-winning story “The Star,” to his classic novel Childhood’s End – often has an echo of the transcendent.
Childhood’s End drew the special admiration of C.S. Lewis, whose own science fiction novels — Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength – were explicitly theological. Lewis argued that the best science fiction always has a spiritual subtext, a respect for questions about humanity’s final ends and meaning, no matter how well disguised. In his essay “On Science Fiction,” Lewis noted that it’s:
sobering and cathartic to remember. . .our collective smallness, our apparent isolation, the apparent indifference of nature, the slow biological, geological, and astronomical processes which may, in the long run, make many of our hopes (possibly some of our fears) ridiculous. If memento mori is sauce for the individual, I do not know why the species should be spared the taste of it.
Lewis, of course, was a Christian. He believed in a Godly purpose for man that elevated human dignity. Thus his work, including his fiction, was suffused with hope. There was a time when the best science fiction acknowledged at least the possibility of man’s higher purpose. And that brings us to the point of this column.
The 2020 pandemic locked many people in their homes and glued them hopelessly to their televisions. Cable networks duly released a number of distracting new series, some tiresome, some interesting. Among the most curious was an entry from HBO Max, Raised by Wolves, created in part by Ridley Scott.
Scott’s name should be familiar. He directed Alien, arguably the best science fiction film in recent memory. Based on a story by Dan O’Bannon, the movie’s genius – and the word “genius” here is not hyperbole – flows from Scott’s fertile mind. Alien is stunning in its design and execution; forty years after its release, it’s lost none of its power to mesmerize and terrify.
Scott went on to direct and co-produce two of the Alien sequels: Prometheus and Alien Covenant. What’s uniquely intriguing for the Christian viewer about all of Scott’s work is its recurrent thread of anti-religious contempt.
The lone religious believer in both Prometheus and Alien Covenant is weakened, not strengthened, by his or her faith. And in Scott’s film Kingdom of Heaven, set during the Crusades, religion is little more than a psychotic excuse for violence.
Scott variously describes himself as an agnostic or an atheist. But now in his eighties, he might equally be seen as a very gifted, octogenarian bigot. He has an enduring interest in humanity’s origins and future, and a commensurate interest in debunking and deriding organized religion.
In that sense, Raised by Wolves caps Ridley Scott’s career. He directed the first two episodes and served as an executive producer. The story isn’t his, but the look and feel of the series come straight from the Ridleyverse.
Wolves is set in the distant future. Earth has been ruined and humanity nearly wiped out by religious wars. Two hyper-intelligent androids – “Mother” and “Father”– lead a spaceship of surviving human children to an empty planet in a remote star system. They’re tasked with forming a new kind humanity, raising the children as peaceful, self-determining atheists guided by science and guarded by technology.
Into this nascent Eden drops another spaceship, this one carrying a load of fleeing and potentially dangerous religious cultists. The story proceeds from there and gets profoundly weird. What’s most striking about the series is its explicit atheist catechesis from the loving (but non-human) androids. Atheism is healthy and good, according to Mother; religion disturbing and bad. There’s never been anything quite like it.
In effect, Raised by Wolves is a kind of anti-Perelandra, with good and evil reversed. It’s a very long, very dark way from “The Nine Billion Names of God,” but a story perfectly attuned to our times.
As C.S. Lewis observed, “[to] construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw on the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of spirit.” What’s missing in Raised by Wolves, as in so much of modern science fiction, is precisely anything resembling or ennobling the human soul. And the only wolves in the vicinity are the ones who created the series.