Isaac Asimov could have written I, Robot without Karel Čapek’s help, but he would have needed a different word for the artificial life forms featured in his writing. Asimov’s robot stories shifted the paradigms of science fiction by exploring the unintended consequences of creating something smarter and stronger than a human, but without a human’s ethical configuration. For over half a century he probed dark and difficult territory, asking questions and spinning scenarios that remain disturbingly applicable to our present reality. Yet Asimov neither invented the word “robot”, nor initiated the inquiry into the potential nemesis of unbridled technological innovation.
Bad things happen when man plays the role of God, as Mary Shelley demonstrated in 1818 with her first novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Shelley brought the question into the modern era, but it was Karel Čapek who mechanized it. Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossumovi univerzální roboti; Rossum’s Universal Robots) was a success from its first performance in 1920. The play introduced international audiences to the Czech word robota, meaning hard work, a word rendered into English as robot. The play is not a comedy; in Čapek’s imaginary world the robots are manufactured life forms designed to assist humans, but eventually they rebel and extinguish all human life.
Čapek revived this scenario in War with the Newts, a novel published in 1936 as satire on the hypocritically self-serving international system which enabled Nazi Germany’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia two years later. It is a humorously dark tale about a race of sentient amphibian creatures discovered in the waters of Indonesia. The newts prove to be swift learners and adept at a multitude of tasks, making them ideal candidates for exploitation not only as workers, but also as undersea warriors. In time the newts, like the robots, rebel, destroying the dry land and turning it into shallow waters suitable for their environmental needs. The nations of the earth find themselves in a war for survival against a global amphibian army. It is a war humanity will not win, but Čapek reveals that the victorious newts will turn on themselves and become the instruments of their own destruction, leaving a remnant of mankind to rebuild the planet.
It is frightful to contemplate the end of one’s world, particularly when the end is justly deserved. Asimov, Shelley, and Čapek relate scenarios of judgment resulting from mankind’s own selfish shortsightedness – playing God, if you will. The element of terror they invoke lurks in the revelation that the instruments of judgment are the works of our own hands. As usual, art imitates life. YHVH renders judgment on those who disregard His standard of righteousness and set up standards of their own – playing God, if you will. Judgment brings a sentence of destruction and death, which is terrifying enough. What makes it more chilling is to learn the name of the one who will bring about the anticipated death and destruction. About 35 centuries ago, the doomed Canaanite civilization experienced that very thing shortly after Moses spoke these words:
It is the Lord your God who will cross ahead of you; He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them. Joshua is the one who will cross ahead of you, just as the Lord has spoken. (Deuteronomy 31:3 NASB)
אַחֲרֵי מוֹת / קְדֹשִׁים
What is this fascination with the possibility of life beyond this planet? Are we so insecure in our human existence that we cannot bear the thought of dwelling on the only inhabited territory in the entire universe? Or is it, perhaps, a deep-seated sense of being incomplete in ourselves? Whatever the reason, since the dawn of human existence we have sought for something, or Someone, beyond ourselves who shares our experience of sentience and can explain it to us.
For over a century the search for the Interstellar Other has found expression in science fiction. Novelists like H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke have made their marks on several generations of impressionable youth, yet the massive explosion of science fiction onto popular consciousness came not with books, but with movies. Clarke’s collaboration with Stanley Kubrick in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey took science fiction movies to a new level. It combined world-class writing with world-class filmmaking to proclaim to audiences that we are not alone, but in so doing left more questions than answers. Ten years later, Steven Spielberg sought to answer some of those questions in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, proposing that the Interstellar Others have been visiting earth for a long, long time, and asserting that humanity had reached a point where these advanced beings could take us into their confidence and educate us further. Movies produced over the next generation investigated different aspects of this question. Some, like M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 thriller, Signs, explored the dark possibility that alien visitors are not friendly. Signs clings to the hope that humanity can defend itself from alien intruders, and that the hostile encounter restores a sense of purpose we did not know we had lost. And then there is Knowing, a 2009 drama in which Dr John Koestler, played by Nicholas Cage, embarks on a search for the meaning behind clues predicting one global disaster after another. He learns at last that he can do nothing about the disasters; they themselves are clues all-knowing alien watchers have tracked through time to warn humanity about the imminent destruction of our planet in a massive solar flare. The aliens have no intention of letting the human race pass into extinction. Their clues guide people like Koestler in gathering children so the aliens can take them to a place of safety where humanity can begin again.
A recurring motif in these science fiction films is the search for meaning behind the evidence of alien presence. In 2001 the evidence is a mysterious monolith, and in Close Encounters it is the connection of unexplainable phenomena across the globe. In Signs it is the appearance of crop circles, and in Knowing it is the incomprehensible code of numbers and letters scratched by a child and left in a time capsule. The story tellers would have us believe that the answers to human existence are all there if we can only decipher the patterns.
The science fiction story tellers are correct in that an Interstellar Other has left patterns for us to decipher. What they have missed is that the Interstellar Other is the Holy One of Israel. His clues are in Torah, and His answers are in the rest of Scripture.