The Mystical Roots of Science Fiction

Here is a teaser of an audio clip interview with Jeff Kripal, author of the upcoming Authors of the Impossible (due out in early 2010). I've read an advance copy of that book, and I think his take on why people have always been drawn towards the paranormal is exactly right. As the blurb about his book says on the EnlightenNext website:

[It's] about the relationship between mysticism, pop culture, and the paranormal. Weaving together an interesting combination of sources--from Philip K. Dick to the human potential movement to the UFOlogy of French astronomer Jacques Valle—he describes why he thinks that our general cultural obsession with science fiction, as seen in the popularity of TV shows like Heroes and movies like The X-Men, is a modern expression of the same spiritual impulse toward the “supernormal” that lies at the heart of all religious traditions. But as Kripal points out, these new sci-fi mythologies are distinct from the traditions in that they are oriented toward the future rather than the past, allowing us to see our present-day culture as a more primitive version of what has yet to evolve.
Unlike many scholars who dismiss our impulses towards the supernormal as mere fantasy, Kripal recognizes that these impulses reflect something that is quite palpably real, meaningful, and important.


David Bailey said…
I think the best SF is very valuable. Take Greg Egan's books - several of them promote the idea of software consciousness. I know he believes this is possible, because I e-mailed him once, but some of his books - such as "Permutation City" - seem to read as a gedanken experiment showing why such an idea does not make sense. Of course, if computer consciousness does not make sense, then that in turn opens a whole set of questions as to what you need to create real consciousness...

SF has had a leading role in real science before - think who thought of the idea of artificial satelites?
Unknown said…
In reply to David Bailey's comment: I think the "best SF" is only as good as the best science - only 'best' once the consensus likes it. There's a lot of nonsense out there.
David Bailey said…

There is obviously a lot of nonsense out there, but SF has the opportunity to sidestep the peer review process, which means that both dross, and imaginative ideas - genuinely ahead of normal science - can flourish.
anonymous said…
I think it is also instructive to examine the cases where science fiction gets it wrong. One example (from the Foundation trilogy by Asimov, I think) is a voice to text machine that was supposed to replace the typewriter. You spoke into it and it would print out what you said. Unfortunately you had to say it exactly right because there were no editing features. The author completely missed the idea of being able to save and edit a document.

It is important to recognize the limitations to human imagination. Skeptics of all kinds should note that just because you can't think of how a phenomena might work, doesn't mean the phenomena is not real.
I'm with you, David...Greg Egan in particular is one of the most inspiring writers I've ever read. His recurring themes of quantum computation and its role in the hidden order of our world (biology, psychology, and physics) seem spooky-prescient in light of new disciplines such as quantum biology, not to mention some of the wilder claims of psychonauts like Terence McKenna. Both paleontologist Robert Bakker and synthesist Leonard Shlain have argued that art keeps a good 20 years ahead of science...Egan seems to confirm this. What I find most interesting about his work is the apparent disdain he has for mysticism, even when his body of work reads almost as an attempt to describe the hyper-realities of the Vedantans et al.
riprock said…
That's a funny coincidence! You wrote this post at the exact same time I went into a heated discussion about fantasy/gaming fandom!

To omit the heat and share the light, the upshot was that several of the seminal figures in sci-fi/fantasy have been initiated into occult societies.

Consider that Bulwer-Lytton was an occultist, and he invented the fictional superpower with his book "The Coming Race."

Consider Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen -- both occultists, who originated the occult investigator fictional archetype that contributed to pulp heroes and comic books.

In fine, occultists should be proud of their cultural contributions to fiction.

Incidentally, might I ask a question about the page at

That page has the following passage, in red and blue:
"NEW (not in the book): The first US patent for a psi effect was granted to Princeton University researchers on November 3, 1998. Patent "US 5830064" is entitled: Apparatus and method for distinguishing events which collectively exceed chance expectations and thereby controlling an output. This patent specifically covers distant mental control of electronic random number generator outputs."

So if one were to buy the hardcopy book, those two lines would not be in print?

riprock said…
Addendum: While I do not believe him to have been initiated, Arthur Conan Doyle was both the creator of "Professor Challenger," and an outstanding researcher into Spiritualism, so the roots of science fiction spread far and wide.
Dean Radin said…
> So if one were to buy the hardcopy book, those two lines would not be in print?

Lawrence said…
Michael Garfield writes:
"Egan seems to confirm this. What I find most interesting about his work is the apparent disdain he has for mysticism, even when his body of work reads almost as an attempt to describe the hyper-realities of the Vedantans et al."

Yes I noticed the same thing about Egan, he is a stauch admirer of the ultra-scientfic materialist writings of Dawkins and others of that ilk, and yet his SF writings differ in their metaphysical leanings perhaps.

The same can be said for one of the few true masters of science fiction, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem who died recently (the great Russian film by the famed Andrei Tarkovsky Solaris [the Russian '2001'] was based on Lem's book of the same name, as was the American remake by Soderbergh). Lem's best science fiction writings (some of his early work is uneven) are in a class of their own with few equals. Such novels as 'Fiasco',
'Solaris', and especially 'His Masters Voice' must rank as among the best science fiction ever written. His writings express the sheer awesomeness and impenetrable
mysteries of our universe, and how science, the further it goes, only reveals deeper mysteries within deeper mysteries, and how scientists are often enough just bumbling in the dark and comically trying to pretend to themselves that they know what's going on (sound familiar!). Also a constant theme in his writings is man's alienation from himself and his fellow humanity and that space travel and the like never can change this. Namely a man can never get away from who he is, even though he may travel to the stars.

'His Master's Voice' more than any other not only covers these themes, but also the infighting within science, the competitiveness and viciousness, and how in many ways scientists have simply usurped the church's role as a dogmatice self-enclosed elite priesthood. His Master's Voice is very much the scientist's science fiction novel (I cannot recommend it too highly), and Lem very much the scientist's science fiction writer. The irony here entirely lost on Lem btw is that he was a staunch critic and entirely dismissive of mysticism and parapsychology and teleological evolution in nature. If he would ever have reviewed the books of Radin, Sheldrake, Tart and the like he would have been scathing, even insulting in his attacks. Yet his books have a metaphysical flavour that is entirely in sync with the writings of Radin etc. I find this irony amusing more than anything else.

On this subject of SF and psi related themes, the famous (if too prolific) SF writer Robert Silverberg's 'Dying Inside' from the early 70s is one of his very best novels, and touches on the theme of telepathy. It has to be one of the best, if not the best, fictional treatment of telepathy ever written. It also touches on the zeitgeist of the early 70s with consummate skill, and Silverberg also reveals his tremendous knowledge of parapsychology up to that time. It is also a very Jewish novel, and I would rank it as highly as Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and Mordecai Richler's 'The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz' as a great Jewish novel of that time and generation, although it lacks the latter two's humour. Yet in fact if anything its insights into human psychology deeper and far more penetrating than Roth's and Richler's in their novels.

Naturally because of its theme of telepathy the novel was ignored by the 'serious' critics, something that seemed to upset Silverberg naturally enough, yet I don't think it really surprised him. He knew how good Dying Inside was. I admit to not really caring at all for science fiction these days, although I did when I was youngster and much of Silverberg's
output is so mediocre and uneven, yet Dying Inside is actually a completely neglected classic (it is not at all a SF novel). It also makes you realise that Silverberg deliberately chose to write more popular, less serious novels in order to cater to the SF market.

Also important to mention Stuart Gordon (not the filmmaker), the Scottish SF writer, since not only did he write some very good science fiction, which was largely ignored, but he was very interested in parapsychology and edited a book of parapsychology in fact. Psi and mystical themes were central themes of his books. His "Smile on the void" from the early 80s is masterful, brilliant even, and touches on so much parascience (and I mean the real science here, not the woowoo stuff).

I would also like to add the now famous Philip K Dick, yes he is widely read now and Hollywood makes a habit of botching his work on the silver screen (with the exception of the excellent Bladerunner and the interesting R Linklater film A Scanner Darkly), but he almost starved while he was a full-time writer. His oeuvre is of course famous for its meditation on the nature of illusion vs reality, on ontology and phenemonology in other words and so inevitably touches on religious themes. Dick is also worth bringing up because he did take mysticism, shamanism and the paranormal very seriously, even too seriously, since he definitely did become very unbalanced towards the end of his life (maybe more to do with the heavy drugs he did, referenced in A Scanner Darkly).

If you have not read this non-fiction essay written by Dick in 1978, "How to build a universe that doesn't fall apart two days later"
read it. It is one of those personal accounts of paranormal experience and synchronicity that is so bizarro and incredible that it crosses the boggle-threshold, and in its way is stranger than any of Dick's fiction. It is mentioned in Richard Linklater's film "Waking Life" and so has become better known because of it.

Another great science fiction writer whose work touches on grand epic themes of religion, psi and human meaning is the late British philosopher Olaf Stapeldon, considered by many serious SF scholars and afficianados to even be the best SF writer who ever lived (I actually agree with this assessment). His books 'The Star Maker' and 'First and Last Men' and 'Last Men in London' written in the 1930s express the terrible bleakness of their times, yet they are masterpieces, of a metaphysical scope and depth that arguably remains unsurpassed and unsurpassable in SF. Stapeldon's work is of a mystical bent and so like PK Dick's writings, they will strike a chord with people here.
Lawrence said…
I also would like to add another SF writer to the mix, acclaimed British writer Ian Watson. His fairly prolific output has a strong pro-psi bent, and manages to combine a mystical worldview with cutting edge science, and doing it in such a smooth way, his different themes meld beautifully, never jarring. He is never obvious.

In light of the recent thread on ufology at this blog where I argued in favour of the 'parasocial' approach, I need to recommend Watson's "Miracle Visitors", his take on ufology was very much influenced by Vallee, and he researched the subject very seriously. His novel is not entirely fiction, if you know the strange true cases in ufology's files up to that time. Also another novel by a famous (non-SF) writer with a similar take on ufology (and recommended by Vallee) is John Fowles's very strange "A Maggot".
Unknown said…
Thanks for the heads up. I can't wait for Kripal's book; wish I had written it myself. Like metaphysics in philosophy, I have always found science-fiction (in literature) to be a wonderful medium for more speculative kinds of thought--thought not wholly constrained by what we currently think we know.

The imagination of these thinkers and the possible worlds to which their Muses give them access is a constant source of mystical wonder.

To the mounting list of recommendations, I would like to add Neal Stephenson, especially his latest, Ananthem, which develops (defends?) a many-worlds interpretation of QM and wonderful theory of quantum consciousness.
Cougar said…
In 1966 or 1967, local reporters in SF wrote that the hippie movement was entirely inspired by Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (SISL). (I've seen a original newspaper clipping from the sixties that made this claim, but I can't remember the specifics about it.) While this is probably quite an exaggeration, many of the themes of the book did show up in hippie subculture, such as communalism and an interest in alternate forms of spirituality.

This book inspired the creation of the pagan church called Church of All Worlds (CAW), which was a direct copy of a fictional organization in SISL. The founder of CAW in this country was Oberon Zell Ravenheart, who was also the first to reclaim the word "pagan" to describe aboriginal or earth-based religions. Oberon is considered the founder of the neo-pagan movement, and the magazine that he published, Green Egg, was the largest and most read of the pagan magazines for a time. Heinlein both read this magazine and corresponded with Oberon about it and about Oberon's church.

In 1990, Oberon's wife, Morning Glory, coined the word "polyamory" in response to the lifestyle that they together patterned after the Martian lifestyle that was described in SISL. Today, an internet search for this word returns 809,000 hits.

The most important effect of that book was that people who felt unhappy with the predominant culture found support in walking around as strangers in this strange land that we live in. Wearing these lenses was, in my view, one source of the phenomenon known as the counterculture, or at least SISL reinforced this intention and experience for many people.

In SISL, psi phenomena (as well as conscious control over physiological processes) were treated as natural skills that anyone could develop if they had the correct mental maps of reality. This led to a very simplistic idea that what you believe controls whether you have psychic skill, a fallacy that is also shared by certain religious traditions.

The benefit of having this simplistic attitude is that some people have felt that it was easy to change their beliefs and thus their access to psi. The disadvantage is that since this is an incomplete proposition, some people became discouraged at their lack of success and formed limiting beliefs that prevented further development of their latent skills.
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