For a genre that grew out of and thrived on a fascination with modern science and technology, science fiction has had a surprisingly longstanding love affair with religion. Two of the genre's "Big Three" writers, Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, who were both devoted atheists, explored religious themes in many of their works. Religion is a central theme in Frank Herbert's Dune, which regularly polls as one of the greatest science-fiction novels of all time, as it is in This Immortal, the first novel by Roger Zelazny, with whom Herbert shared his Hugo Award for best novel in 1966. And if genre literature is often fascinated with religion, media genre works can be said to be obsessed by it: almost every major genre blockbuster, from Star Wars to Avatar has carried a religious subtext, as has every significant genre television show, from the original Star Trek to the recently re-imagined V.
Studies about the genre-religion relationship in literature and media have been written before, but as the title of Douglas E. Cowan's book Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television suggests, he aims to examine the subject from a very specific angle. Cowan is a professor of religious studies whose previous books include a study of religious aspects in horror cinema. In his study of science fiction in the media, he chose not to deal with parallels between our world's modern and ancient religions and those portrayed in genre works (in fact, he dismisses such parallels as superficial) but instead focuses on demonstrating the religious theme of the quest for transcendence—a higher form of mental existence—in these works. Just how common is this theme in genre works, particularly in the media? Cowan has assembled an impressively large corpus of works that he examines in the book to convince his readers that it is indeed common enough. But the manner in which he presents his analysis of these works is somewhat problematic: I finished the book feeling that he has indeed hit upon something significant, but had left large portions of his argument oddly undeveloped.
Cowan opens with a lengthy introductory chapter in which he explains the notion of transcendence and its relevance to the science fiction genre, using Robert Zemeckis's 1997 film Contact as a prime case-study to illustrate his argument. While Contact is a film that aims higher, in terms of its intellectual aspirations, than most American genre films, Cowan uses it effectively to build his argument about the importance of transcendence in genre cinema, using the film as a template for the search of meaning often embarked upon by genre films' protagonists. The rest of the book is divided between chapters that examine common narratives in science fiction works through numerous examples (mostly cinematic) and chapters devoted entirely to in-depth examination of specific works (mostly television shows). In both types of analysis chapters the book suffers from serious problems, mostly in Cowan's choices of the works he examines.
The corpus of films and television shows discussed in the book is entirely American, and there is a strong emphasis on productions from the last three decades. As noted by Cowan early in the book, he couldn't possibly have covered all the genre productions ever made for film and television, and focusing on a certain group of texts is certainly a legitimate choice when conducting research. What's problematic is that Cowan never explains the logic behind his selection of these specific texts. This is a real problem in the book's early chapters, in which Cowan strings together films with little care for their significance or influence, and with no explanation for choosing them over other films beside the fact that they apparently demonstrate his argument. This makes it hard to treat his conclusions as something that applies to genre cinema as a whole.
This is a shame, because Cowan's analysis is actually quite fascinating. The book's first chapter, dealing with robots, thoughtfully examines the transcendence concept through stories of robotic characters that aspire to understand, and even become, human. But while the analysis of most individual case-studies is excellent, making sense of them as a group is difficult. Cowan moves from Star Trek: First Contact (1996) to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to I, Robot (2004), to Short Circuit (1986), to Blade Runner (1982). Though all these films are certainly science fiction, and all feature the type of artificially-intelligent characters Cowan is interested in, each film's handling of these characters is very different. Perhaps more importantly, each represents a different kind of production in terms of its artistic aspirations. This makes it difficult to reach any general conclusion about the theme of transcendence in science fiction films, as the book's title proclaims. Another problem is that some of Cowan's film choices are plain odd. 2001 and Blade Runner are certainly more art-house-oriented than the average genre film, but even if Cowan wanted to balance his analysis by discussing more popular productions, he could have picked better films to analyze than I, Robot and Short Circuit. The problem isn't that these aren't good films, but rather that they have left very little impression. Even restricting himself to blockbusters, Cowan could have found more significant films—the Terminator franchise comes most readily to mind
The next chapter deals with aliens and with different forms of contact with them. Cowan's varied choice of texts here (among them selected episodes of The X-Files, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and, again, Contact) makes a bit more sense, as they correspond better to the different kinds of alien contact stories that he identifies. I still had a hard time drawing a conclusion at the end of the chapter, because again, the similarities between these texts pretty much end with their belonging to the science fiction genre and employing the same plot device in very different ways. A more focused analysis is offered in the following, shorter chapter, which compares cinematic versions of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds—George Pal's version from 1953, and David Michael Latt's direct-to-video version from 2005 (barely touching on the big-budget Spielberg version of the same year, and also making some points about the somewhat-forgotten television series from the late 1980s). Though the analysis in this chapter moves from Cowan's focus on transcendence to a more general discussion of religion, it is nonetheless a very good analysis, and it features the historical perspective that is so sorely lacking from the other chapters
The second half of the book, discussing specific genre television shows, is significantly better than the first, mostly due to the feeling that the chosen texts have a lot more in common with each other—basically, covering the popular space-operas on American television from the early 1990s to the current century. Two chapters take an in-depth look at the various alien religions of Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5, making some excellent points about transcendence in these religions as a general concept, rather than viewing these religions as thin metaphors for our world's society. I especially liked the amused but nonetheless analytical manner with which Cowan examines the Ferengi trade-religion (Cowan's unapologetic love for the Star Trek franchise is made clear very early in the book, and I get the feeling that the chapter about Deep Space Nine is the one that he had the most fun writing). The examination of Babylon 5 as a personal work of its creator J. Michael Straczynski also brings a new perspective to Cowan's arguments about transcendence, as it offers a view of the subject from a more creator-oriented angle. Some points could have been developed a bit further—I think the strong messianic content of both shows, for example, deserved a more extended discussion than it was given—but overall, these chapters make for a very good read. They are followed by an excellent chapter about Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica, digging deep into the show's existential aspects and its theme of transcendence for both human and Cylon characters. This chapter adopts a more academic tone compared to the rest of the book, and casual readers might find it a bit harder to follow, but it is well worth the effort.
Sacred Space's final chapter is perhaps its most frustrating. It touches on elements that should have been examined more extensively through the rest of the book, but which remain largely undeveloped. Why is the quest for transcendence featured so prominently in science fiction films and television shows, and how does it compare to the handling of the concept in genre literature? How is it portrayed in films that are considered to be not just genre-defining but also generation-defining, like The Matrix or Star Wars (Cowan claims that he has decided not to discuss Star Wars in depth because the film has already been over-analyzed many time—an odd argument, given that other films he examined throughout the book have been subject to an equal if not greater amount of study)? Above all, the bottom line of the book, a reaffirmation of Cowan's basic arguments about the reflection of the human need for transcendence through genre works, pushes aside the more interesting question—just why is the genre so preoccupied with the concept? It seems that Cowan decided to teach his readers about transcendence through science fiction, instead of the other way around, which I personally found very disappointing.
Sacred Space contains many excellent bits of analysis, but ultimately fails to come together. Fans of the many works analyzed in the book will probably find it a good read, but those looking for overall conclusions about the genre as whole—even in the limited scope of film and television, as the title promises—are in for a disappointment.
When he's not working on his PhD researching animation as a text, Raz Greenberg works as a content editor for an internet company, and spends his time writing reviews, articles, and stories. His articles have appeared in Strange Horizons, Animated Views, and RevolutionSF; his fiction has appeared in FutureQuake, Murky Depths, and Ray Gun Revival, and in several Hebrew genre magazines in his home country of Israel. In 2010, a short story by him was nominated for the Geffen Award, given by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy.
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