Addendum #14: Reformation Day Connections with Hamlet, Science Fiction, and Fantasy

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  –Hamlet

In a so-called normal year with my senior literature and composition courses, I enjoy inviting students to consider connections between Hamlet and the Protestant Reformation. (Among other insights, the original audience had to have been thinking what a good idea it was to get rid of the concept of purgatory because it makes justice so complicated–those complications make Hamlet’s conflicts equally interesting, I might add.) I’m usually just starting the play a few days before October 31st. I typically find that students are unaware of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses’ connection to the 31st since Halloween festivities tend to dominate that day. Some students find it interesting to consider how the Protestant Reformation and its context can connect to science fiction and fantasy. With the second season of The Mandalorian starting on October 30th, I thought it would be a good time to excerpt a bit of historical theorizing from a previous post from not so long ago or so far away…

In The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts carefully examines the contemporary popularity of science fiction and offers a strange point of origin for it in the Protestant Reformation: Adams asserts that his “core argument is not just that SF begins out of the Reformation; it is that the fierce cultural climate of that time shaped SF, wrote its DNA in ways that manifest substantively even into the 21st century.”

Roberts provides a striking contrast to the well-worn arguments about science fiction’s origin in the nineteenth or twentieth century. He notes that his own research that yielded his book’s first edition led him to see science fiction “as a distinctly Protestant kind of ‘fantastic’ writing that has budded off from the older (broadly) Catholic traditions of magical and fantastic romances and stories, responding to the new sciences, the advances in which were also tangled up in complex ways with Reformation culture.”

As I reflect on his thesis, I cannot help but think of the root meaning of Catholic as “whole” or “universal.” Roberts first provides a helpful summation of his view of a classic Catholic vision of human beings in relationship to the universe: “To an orthodox Catholic imagination a plurality of inhabited worlds becomes an intolerable supposition; other stars and planets become a theological rather than a material reality, as they were for Dante— a sort of spiritual window-dressing to God’s essentially human-sized creation.”

In contrast to the Catholic imagination, Roberts shows how he conceives of the Protestant Reformation vision: “[The] cosmos expands before the probing inquiries of empirical science through the 17th and 18th centuries, and the imaginative-speculative exploration of that universe expands with it. This is the science fiction imagination, and it becomes increasingly a function of Western Protestant culture. From this SF develops as an imaginatively expansive, and materialist mode of literature, as opposed to the magical-fantastic, fundamentally religious mode that comes to be known as fantasy.”

So Roberts provides fans of science fiction and fantasy with some interesting connections to historical roots, religious visions, philosophical ideas, and literary ways of looking at imaginary universes. Some fans of science fiction get quite passionate about how one should classify Star Wars as science fiction, soft science fiction, or just fantasy, but Roberts’ analysis leaves plenty of room for complementary imaginations that sometimes overlap and sometimes diverge. There’s plenty of room for Star Wars, Star Trek, Middle Earth, Hobbits, or other strange settings and characters to feed our imaginations.

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