Priests in Space

Jim Clarke – Science Fiction and Catholicism (Gylphi, 2019)

With a subtitle like “the Rise and Fall of the Robot Papacy,” Jim Clarke’s new book promises fantastic adventures from its very cover.

Dealing seriously with such questions as, “can Jesus save aliens?”, “what does the Vatican think about robots?” and, “if Priests could time travel, where would they go?”; the monograph is a mind-bending journey through the broadest reaches of sci-fi, theology and the politics of religion.

Clarke’s book is, in the first instance, a clear case of writing against. The narrative of science vs religion that predominates in Anglophone sci-fi takes for granted a narrative in which sci-fi’s forerunners are the proto-scientists of the Enlightenment and, before them, the Protestant reformers.

Such a history, Clarke writes, owes as much to Protestant pamphleteering as it does to any true analysis of Catholic “superstition”. He reminds us that Catholics had long separated science and spirituality in the form of Thomism, and that Jesuits are still among the foremost thinkers on the ethics of exoplanetary exploration.

The uncritical support for technocracy celebrated by the first sci-fi novelists, particularly H.G. Wells, are shown to have inherited a tradition of anti-Catholicism. It is a tradition that lingers on even after the genre’s faith in scientific positivism dwindles.

The majority of Clarke’s readings are, for this reason, examples of Catholicism as a villain. The Church is the foremost anti-science force in sci-fi. It comes to stand in as a representative of all religious faith; the rational, the irrational and the superstitious.

What interested me, however, more than the critique of Catholicism-as-bogeyman, was the many instances Clarke finds in which Catholicism plays a more positive, or at least ambiguous role.

Patricia Anthony’s 1997 novel God’s Fires, for example, is set during the Spanish Inquisition. A spaceship abducts a girl from a Spanish peasant village and impregnates her, leading to rumours of a virgin birth. Inquisitors are dispatched, one immediately believing this to be the devil’s work. Another, our protagonist, is of a more searching and (pardon the pun) inquisitive mindset.

The novel serves as perfect food for Clarke’s conflicted thoughts. It is at once a typical case of Anglophones writing about evil Catholics, but it is also a defence of Catholicism in the form of a rational Jesuit (the scientific Jesuit is a recurring character, particularly in religious dystopias).

The way that Anthony thrashes out the conflict between dogmatic and liberal faith is typical of sci-fi’s refusal to ever quite let go of the Roman Church that intrigues them so much.

Other points of insight include Clarke’s analysis of the sci-fi New Wave which, occurring simultaneously to the liberalising Second Vatican Council, leads to a number of strange holy alliances including robot popes, computer popes, a robot saint and devils in the form of algorythms.

Historical moments also serve to enlighten our reading. Clarke recounts the journey of Minoru Asada, chief robotics engineer at Honda, who went to consult the Vatican over the ethics of building humanoid robots. Creating sentient life is typically presented as sinful in Christian myth, Clarke reminds us. Nevertheless, after much contemplation, the Vatican ruled that, if Asada was a good man, then his robotics work must also be good.

Clarke is clearly underwhelmed by this answer.

More nuanced is the Vatican’s approach to “exotheology”: the theological implications of life on other planets. The Vatican observatory has hosted over a dozen conferences on extraterrestrial intelligence. The wide variety of conclusions drawn by exotheologists provide Clarke with a bold new set of theories against which to read his primary texts.

There are certainly a lot of primary texts too. If Clarke fails to convince in his close readings (which is unlikely, as they’re both well-chosen and well-argues), the sheer mass of science fiction writing that deals with Catholicism makes a case for this being an obsession of the genre in itself.

Science Fiction and Catholicism is one of those liminal-sounding books that, once you get stuck into it, you realise is going to impact your thinking in major ways. It obviously recommends itself to sci-fi fans and those with theological interests, but I’d guardedly suggest that it might recommend itself to outsiders even more.

Clarke’s prose is clear and concise, his use of theory is lightly done and always relevant, and Gylphi have done a great job with the book design, making the book a pleasure to read.

A perfect book for the space priest on the go.

– Joe Darlington

The King and I

Roy Bayfield – Desire Paths – Real Walks to Nonreal Places (Triarchy) 

Around Christmas 2016, after a few days offline, Roy Bayfield discovered that he was existing inside a review.

The Reviewer had realised what the game was. He was not unwilling to play along, but knowing too much, he was also unable to completely immerse.

The witness protection program was full. After 2008, the funds had dried up. Opting for an exemplifying tone and strategy was now the only way out.

Like sneaking into the office and posting the story without a byline, hoping the news desk would publish the devious, lying thing anyway.

The Reviewer had no idea if it had been noticed or written elsewhere, but it seemed blindingly obvious to him that Roy is really ‘Roi’, as in King – with a nod to Ubu – and the Field of Bay means an abundance of laurels to be gathered ‘out there’.

Roy Bayfield. It is a banal but ingenious name, as it reaches right back through and to the Grail Quest. Without mentioning a single Templar, it manages to gather them all into a swollen lineage of questing. The Bay is also the place where all the ships arrive.

All those naughty Crusaders, re-appearing in legions on the Daily Express masthead. Sleeper Cells from the twelfth century staring at the same headlines about migrants and Strictly and Clarkson day after day after day.

‘Bayfield’ tries to make them recede in the text, in order, oddly, to try to desperately raise them with impunity.

But the Grail Quest was always the search for meaning, and this book is definitely about that, under the franchising term of ‘Mythogeography’.

There are many contiguous lines and corresponding points in this book for The Reviewer. André Stitt, who he hung out with, Long Mynd, where caught short, he once had to strain at his stool plein air. Caerleon, where Arthur Machen lived.

Machen’s Great God Pan is based in part on a Roman prayer statue in the museum at Caerleon. It was probably dedicated to Nemesis or one of the other gods called on for good fortune when backing a winner, or rather damning an opponent to hell.

You see, what was thought to be Arthur’s Round Table, at Caerleon, when excavated, turned out to be a Roman amphitheatre. It is likely that the statue Machen saw stood in an alcove in the amphitheatre to allow gambling sports fans to make an offering.

H.P. Lovecraft partly based the Cthulhu myth on Machen’s Pan. This means – if we follow the curve of influence on its oxbow mythological course – that Cthulhu is a kind of good luck keyring for blokes out for a flutter.

Not so scared now, are you?

However, if one takes ‘Arthur’s Round Table’ as the myth of chivalry, as a text of benevolent, patriarchal fairness, which actually concealed a site for sick, bloody, amoral entertainments, the real significatory lode can be accessed again.

Can you see how by slicing right through the surface with a sterile scalpel one really gets to the assembling organs? How merely remaining on the surface doesn’t quite ‘cut it’.

This is not why The Reviewer warns against the occult. Nor does The Reviewer warn against it because it is supposedly dangerous, frightening or dark.

Black Sabbath, Hammer Horror, The Omen films and inverted crucifixes. One should worry about the lightweight comedy and melodrama all of that might bring, emerging, as all those cultures do, across their longer historical curves, from Music Hall, Vaudeville and back into the bardic traditions.

This isn’t to deny light entertainment its place in our scrying practices. This book, in opening, cites Heraclitus next to a song called I Am The Walker by the 1960s mod pop band The Creation. ‘I am the walker’, they sing, but Bayfield omits the following half of the rhyming couplet, which is a declaration that he – the singer, presumably – is also ‘the telephone talker’.

Surely then, after affirming a kind of peripatetic mythologising, the text folds immediately back into what Raymond Williams called ‘mobile privatisation’.

Now, the two have folded into each other, as people walk in public with their earpieces, seemingly schizophrenic, talking to a distant body, attached, one hopes, to a brain.

The kind of schizoid norm R.D. Laing diagnosed is here. As he diagnosed it, The Creation described their music as ‘red with purple flashes’. But this book is grey-green with claret text.

No, the reason The Reviewer warns so strongly against the occult is because via it, as The Metaphysician – as he has demonstrated here – he has you all by The Laurels.

Signing off. Votre Roi, et Ami.

– Roy Bayfield 

Some Dirty Secrets

John Barker – Dirty Secret No.8 (Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart)

This strange publication, Dirty Secret, by John Barker, seems to have no website. It arrived in the post yesterday unbidden, eight editions of it, from No.1 to the very latest.

It is a collage of quotations which build into something far larger, even stranger and more sinister. This comes out of a larger project on fabric and colonialism. Dirty Secret appears to be a container for the excess emissions, a political patchwork of overdrive. The latest issue, No.8, apparently exists in the very specific time corridor of October 15, 2016 to Jan 15, 2017.

This one is titled ‘Bitter Abstraction’, which is taken from a quote by Henri Lefebvre. It tells us that Malevich’s tomb has been erased to build luxury apartments. That sort of thing.

Monkeys, arseholes. Training dolphins to swim with machine guns. All of these things leer out of Barker’s explorations of the twentieth century mushroom cloud, which is currently morphing into the twenty-first.

The format is ingenious. Although after all, what are published papers but collages of quotes? This publication simply lays out the citations and images to create something real, but open.

I always forget that this sort of thing can get money in Europe. There it is, at the back. A full roll call of sponsorship logos, from Baden-Baden and Kunst everywhere else.

The dirty secret for us in the UK is that we don’t and now won’t.