Good News From Outer Space

by John Kessel

Following is an article I wrote at the request of The New Yorker, which was not picked up. It is now available for your viewing pleasure.
hirty-nine shaven-headed web page designers, some of them self-castrated, abandoning their "containers" to rendezvous with space aliens zooming toward Earth in the wake of comet Hale-Bopp. Even down to the name of the comet, Philip K. Dick could not have written it any better. The Heaven's Gate suicides seem like outtakes from some postmodern sf novel. Apparently many of the cult members were fans of science fiction, and the imagery of their beliefs draws on that of sf.

As an sf writer I have to say, what's the big surprise?

Carl Jung wrote in Flying Saucers (1959) that he hoped to "prepare those few who will hear me for coming events which are in accord with the end of an era." Jung said the times were appropriate for people to expect a redeeming supernatural event. The fact that we have microwaves in our kitchens and computers on our desks does not mean we are any less likely to seek redemption than our ancestors, it just means that we'll tend to find it in different places. Early science fiction hoped that rationalism would spread with technology, but most of us don't know how our microwaves work.

Science and religion are mental constructs that give us some sense of control over a universe that does not always seem sensible. So, in its pop fiction way, is science fiction. That which seems to be flying apart--as what does not in the late 20th century?--sf explains, predicts, makes meaningful in human terms. What hurts us as individuals has a cause, and therefore may be transcended. Darth Vader is Luke's father, and by the end of the episode, the Borg can be outwitted.

It's no surprise that L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of Dianetics ("The New Science of the Mind," proclaimed Astounding Science Fiction in 1950) was an sf writer before he invented the new science that rapidly turned into a religion. Yet despite their cosmic theories, their visions of miracle and disaster, most sf writers know they're making it up.

Can the audience be blamed for taking it too literally? We're all looking for explanations. When the conventional ones no longer do service, the lunatic ones gain adherents. But they're no different flesh.