Answering the ultimate question: British science fictionís curious relationship with God.
Although much of it takes place in the heavens, science fiction is usually regarded as an atheistic literature. Its stories of alien life forms, parallel galaxies and cold, chaotic reaches of deep space donít leave all that much room for 'God'. But when you peer closer at the gaps between the nebulae, the star cruisers and the alien marauders, you find that British science fiction has had something of a fixation with the Christian God - or, at least, a 'creator' - for much of its existence.
Such concerns are evident even as the first British writers forged ahead with early scientific romance. In Mary Shelleyís Frankenstein (1818), the professor suffers terribly for his attempts to play god and create new life. For some Victorian writers that followed Shelley, Darwinís "blasphemous" theory of evolution was a deadly serious affair that threw the basic principle of Biblical creationism into question, while others drew inspiration from these shifting sands.
The first writer to find a 'god' at the end of the universe was, ironically, a committed atheist; Olaf Stapledon. Not a writer who has ever taken centre-stage in the world of science fiction, Stapledon is nonetheless a hugely influential figure amongst writers within the genre. Possessed of an incredibly far-reaching imagination, and a deeply philosophical conscience, Stapledon wanted to get to grips with the immensity of the universe. In his book, Starmaker (1937), he attempted to do nothing less than chart the entire history of the cosmos. At the centre of Stapledon's cosmos we meet the Starmaker, a god-like figure. But this was not the benign creator one might hope for. Rather, the Starmaker is a somewhat indifferent experimenter, building universes as if they were cell cultures in a Petri dish.
Unimpressed with Stapledonís experimental universe and its uncaring deity, CS Lewis decided to bring Christianity to the cosmos in Out of the Silent Planet (1938). Much like Lewis' later Narnia books, this story was set in a universe of clearly defined good and evil, filled with parables lifted from Christian beliefs.
More impressed by Stapledonís incredible starscapes was Arthur C Clarke, a fellow atheist, who would also end up creating some timeless quasi-religious images. Perhaps the best known of Clarke's creations in this regard is the StarChild, a possibly god-like being that emerges at the beguiling end to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. With its uplifting epic score and mystical visuals, this iconic cinema moment seems caught halfway between hippiedom and the Holy Bible.
For a literature thatís purportedly the province of atheists, British science fiction has sure had its fair share of God - and the antithesis: the darker trappings of religion have often been put to good use as set dressing. The ancient aliens responsible for humanityís progress that are buried beneath London in TVís Quatermass and the Pit (1958) have the appearance of devils, the story suggesting that - thanks to the early intervention of the Martians in Man's evolution - the iconography of evil in religion is but the result of a distant race memory. British director Paul W Andersonís film Event Horizon (1997), meanwhile, proposes a physical link between hyperspace and hell itself.
Deep Thought, the extraordinarily powerful super-computer in Douglas Adamsí classic pastiche, The Hitchhikerís Guide to the Galaxy, proposed that the answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything was ... 42.
It's about as definitive an answer to some of the difficult questions of life, religion and reality that science fiction has yet to come to. But let's not be disheartened - science fiction writers are sure to continue tackling the God Question for many years to come, and we're sure to have some entertaining and thought-provoking times along the way.