The latest in my series of posts on the current season of Doctor Who is up at Religion Dispatches. This week, James McGrath, Henry Jenkins and I ponder the difference between reality and dreams, and possibly an unnameable third choice, in "Amy's Choice." Read it here.
The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter.
This novel, one of Clarke's last (though I think it's safe to assume that Baxter did most of the actual writing), explores the cultural and psychological impact of visual wormhole technology that allows viewers to see what's going on anywhere on Earth... and, eventually, anywhere in the universe, at any time. This is an idea that comes up, briefly, in Clarke's masterpiece, Childhood's End, where the alien Overlords introduce similar technology to humankind, and in the space of a page or two it allows the human race to cast of its myths and illusions and live more fully in the present. That's not quite what happens here-- there is a bit of myth-debunking (on which more below), but for many people the ability to witness the past leads to a morbid obsession with what has gone before. And the elimination of the very concept of "privacy" creates a far more wide-reaching generation/technology gap than Facebook or the iPod ever could.
Religion crops up concretely in a few places in the novel. Early on (before the WormCam is developed) there's an enterprising, technophilic evangelist who uses VR to turn his worship services into grand spectacles. He's a stock character, and on this front the story doesn't give us anything we haven't seen before in, for instance, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. One of the central characters is a Catholic physicist, which proves a bit more interesting: he has a crisis of faith after viewing some bloody scenes from the Crusades over the WormCam. He seeks to get past this impasse by joining the "12,000 Days" project, which seeks to fully chronicle every day in the life of Jesus Christ. Clarke and Baxter devote an entire chapter (albeit a fairly brief one) to presenting their world's true account of the life of Jesus, which the Afterword states is based largely on A.N. Wilson's biography Jesus: A Life. There's nothing terribly shocking here-- the Christmas story is an invention (as, interestingly, was the entire life of Moses); he was more a mason than a carpenter; there were 14 disciples, not 12; there were miracle cures, but all of the illnesses so cured seemed to be hysteric in nature. Things get really interesting, though, when we get to the Crucifixion:
The moment of His death is oddly obscured; WormCam exploration there is limited. Some scientists have speculated that there is such a density of viewpoints in those key seconds that the fabric of spacetime itself is being damaged by wormhole intrusions. And these viewpoints are presumably sent down by observers from our own future-- or perhaps fro a multiplicity of possible futures, if what lies ahead of us is undetermined... Even now, despite all our technology, we see Him through a glass darkly.
Ah, now there's an interesting SFnal take on the death of Jesus! Even in this strictly materialistic novel, the death of Jesus is a special event-- who knows what might be the result of a near-infinite number of microscopic wormholes piercing the fabric of spacetime at the same moment and place? It's a question Clarke and Baxter don't explore further, but I'm not sure they need to. Ambiguity is the point here, after all...
Lastly, there's a brief mention of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the noosphere at the end of the novel. The "apotheosis" at the end of the aforementioned Childhood's End bears a great similarity to Teilhard de Chardin's conception of the Omega Point, an eschatological moment in the future when the human race becomes a single mental entity. Here, nearly 50 years later, Clarke seems to acknowledges that similarity directly, and hopefully sends a few readers in search of The Phenomenon of Man...