Aside from C.S. Lewis’s science fiction, and Madeleine L’Engel’s sci-fi/fantasies, I have carefully avoided most science fiction. To me, Star Trek just sounds weird. (Yes, I realize that I’m probably bringing acute pain to at least one person right now.) I don’t have cable, which means I don’t watch BBC, which means I haven’t seen Doctor Who. Most of my knowledge of the show, which mainly has to do with homicidal angel statues, comes from Facebook memes and the references that seem to pour out of some of my friends. In any case, whenever science fiction comes up, I often leave the discussion feeling bewildered.
But this summer I decided to read some science fiction. A good friend of mine really enjoys at least some of it, so I thought I would give it a try. I read four books—the first three books in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, and Fahrenheit 451. Douglas Adams and Ray Bradbury. I suppose it’s difficult to get more opposite than that.
Fahrenheit 451 was a delightful surprise. For a book written some sixty years ago, Bradbury anticipated many changes in technology very well. His “Seashell” ear radios bring to mind the iPod, and his multi-wall TVs–although not currently a reality for most Americans–suggest virtual reality simulations. Bradbury did not anticipate the importance of the computer–few at the time his book was written could have–but otherwise his technologies seem startlingly realistic.
And his description of how books in his futuristic world became banned seems almost historical now. People simply became so caught up in the world of television and virtual reality that they did not take the time to read anything that required much concentration. Magazines are still legal. Books are not, and owning them is severely penalized–the books are burned along with the house that held them. That is what firemen do.
In a world that is tempted to “get kids reading,” no matter what they read, Fahrenheit 451 serves as a caution. If a person is to get much good out of reading, what they read matters. Reading material can change the way a person thinks. It can also prove a continuation of TV entertainment.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series is, as might be expected, quite different. A science fiction spoof, it describes the misadventures of Arthur Dent, one of the only two people to survive Earth’s destruction. (Apparently the extra space was needed to build an intergallactic superhighway. In any case, Earth was only created as a way to discover the question to the answer of Life, the Universe, and Everything.)
A professor I had for philosophy and apologetics would go on short rants against random humor. I don’t think he ever explained exactly what random humor he was referring to, or the specific reasons why he disliked it. His rants actually became funny as we got to know him better, because he had a very random mind himself. Once he spent five minutes using the data projector to follow a bug across his desk. He said that he thought he might have had ADD when he was younger, and I’m inclined to agree.
Having a somewhat random sense of humor myself, I thought that I disagreed with my professor’s anti-randomness rants. The Hitchhiker’s Guide series, however, showed me that he had a point. Random humor can be rather inspired–it’s hard not to laugh at Adams’s description of how to fly, among other things. But the randomness of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series at times seems based on an ability to laugh at anything, no matter what it is.
Human beings have been making funny jokes about serious things for millennia. The jokes about executions alone could take up a large encyclopedia. Laughter can be a way to survive–the gift of God to man. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, the opposite of funny is un-funny, not serious. But what about when you can joke about anything because you do not take it seriously? That seems to describe some of Douglas Adams’s jokes unfortunately well. Adams’s random humor is informed by an atheistic existentialism, insinuating that the universe does not make sense, but that we can continue to function in it anyway, although we unavoidably make ourselves seem ridiculous by doing so.
Bradbury’s book is so different than Douglas’s that I can’t even pretend to compare them on the basis of literary quality. But Douglas’s sci-fi spoofs taught me a thing not entirely dissimilar from one of the themes of Bradbury’s novel. In order to be superior to television entertainment, Bradbury suggests, books must be based on the deepest thoughts and feelings of the authors. Only then will they draw out deep thoughts and feelings in readers. And Douglas, rather accidentally, shows that even books intended for entertainment cannot be based on jokes alone. I still enjoy random humor. But even the randomest humor must first be based on belief.