Friday, December 18, 2009

A Science Fiction Ghost Story?! Why Not?

I was born during the Truman administration, in America, and have spent the vast bulk of my life in that country. I learned that a few subcultures believe, firmly, that only the material world is real - and that everybody who doesn't agree with them is narrow-minded, intolerant, and stupid.

Quite a lot of science fiction/speculative fiction is written by people who fervently, vehemently, want materialism to be so. And some is written by people with an (occasionally odd) set of ideas about spirituality.

I'm not a particularly "spiritual" person - in one sense of the word. I don't go around seeing things that nobody else can see, or buttonholing people and asking, "ARE YOU SAVED?!" (More, about what I believe, in A Catholic Citizen in America - yeah, I'm one of those people)

On the other hand, I'm not affronted by some of the assumptions behind poems like this:
William Hughes Mearns (1899)

"Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away

"When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn't see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don't you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don't slam the door

"Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away
("Hughes Mearns," Boston University School of Theology)
I've read that the poem was: "Inspired by reports of a ghost of a man roaming the stairs of a haunted house in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada...." ("Antigonish (poem)")

I like some ghost stories, don't assume that every haunted house has some supernatural aspect, but don't assume that a haunted house can't be haunted, either.

And I like some stories that I'll call 'anti-ghost' stories. The best-known examples are probably the old "Scooby Doo, Where Are You?" cartoons, where 'those meddling kids' unmask the apparently-supernatural goings-on as the work of some scalawag. Hanna Barbera didn't create that sort of plot, though. A number of the John Dickson Carr (not John le Carré) mysteries were of this sort. And so, in a way, is part of Daniel 14.

Then, there's the sort of story where there's an apparently-supernatural event. Like a "locked room" problem with no apparent solution. The detective (or elderly spinster, teenage sleuths, whatever) finally arrives at a perfectly logical (read: secular, material) explanation. Sometimes with a sort of 'Whew! it looked like there was a real ghost/vampire/werewolf/whatever!' Then, on the last page of the last chapter, the ghost/vampire/werewolf/whatever appears. Or - in one case - wrote the closing comments.

'Obviously,' You Can't Write a Science Fiction Ghost Story

My guess is that you'd have trouble getting a science fiction ghost story published in any of the traditional sci-fi magazines. Not events that weren't part of the preferred reality of strict secular materialists as part of the plot.

"Obviously," that's not science fiction.

Well, if you define "science fiction" as being fiction with an exclusively materialistic, secular worldview that deals with science and society: yeah, then by definition there could be no science fiction ghost stories.

But, if "science fiction" were defined as a story "literary fantasy involving the imagined impact of science on society" (Princeton's WordNet), then there just might be room for a spook story or two.

It'd probably be pegged as "fantasy," though. (There's a pretty good discussion of fantasy, science fiction, and the vibrating gray line between them on the website: "Science Fiction Versus Fantasy" - Don't be fooled, that 'versus' is used more in the 'compared with' sense)

How Could Anyone Possibly Write a Science Fiction Ghost Story, Anyway?

There's an old cartoon: some mechanics are standing a few paces away from a car, eyeing it tensely. The foreman's talking to the car's owner, saying something like, "the boys think there's an evil spirit in the clutch housing. We've called an exorcist."
Evil Spirit in the Clutch Housing?!
Science - technology, anyway - is there: the car. The impact of science/technology on society is there - the mechanics, the foreman: by implication, the whole socioeconomic impact the automobile had on American society in the 20th century. And who knows? Maybe there really is an evil spirit in the clutch housing.

I doubt it, though.

I think one problem that most Americans, anyway, have in taking anything supernatural seriously is that so many got their theological instruction from movies like "Ghost Rider" (2007). But that's another topic, for another blog.

That 'evil spirit in the clutch housing' cartoon was a joke - and intended to be that.

Let's look at some other possibilities.
Are Robots/Androids/Clones People?
There's the obvious, and old, 'are robots/androids people?' thing. Or, more immediately, 'do clones have souls?' I suspect that the American judicial system will decide they don't - otherwise, using clones for parts and research would be illegal. I'm one of those people - so I go with the Catholic Church's teaching: Yes, clones are people; and they have souls. (February 2, 2009, in another blog)

I'll admit that I'm not quite as "scientific" about the lofty ideals of humanity's best minds and the right they have to do pretty much what they want to with inferior classes. Being a survivor of a medical experiment may have something to do with that. ("Medical Ethics and Human Experimentation: Why I Take it Personally" A Catholic Citizen in America (February 3, 2009))
The Haunted Computer
This is pretty much the same approach as the "are robots/androids people?" story question: but it's a bit closer to home.

And, it's been done: "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (1970); "Terminator" movies' Skynet (1984 and following); Kôkaku kidôtai (1995) (that's rōmaji for "Ghost in the Shell"). Those are the ones that are, in my opinion, a cut or two above the 'mad scientist invents berserk robot which is blown up by handsome scientist' things.

Colossus and Skynet are (barely) plausible speculations of what might happen if a massively networked computer system 'woke up.' "Ghost in the Shell"? I've only encountered that as an English-dubbed animation. That series was, again in my opinion, well-done and technically plausible. And, a great deal more thoughtful about the inner workings of the mind than most "serious" science fiction.

Here's an idea I don't take all that seriously - but it could make a seriously spooky story.

A team of programmers and information technology specialists produce a system that exhibits artificial intelligence. Their brainchild is even able to pass the Turing Test: responding to input in a way that's indistinguishable from a human's responses.

Impressive, to say the least. The team becomes famous.

The system is even developing a personality - a very obliging one. It's ever so eager to solve problems, give advice, and fulfill the deepest desires of the team members.

Think 'Colossus meets Faust.'

Pleasant dreams.

Related posts: More:
  • "Faust"
    • Fairly well-referenced

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