The Stranger God
Who’s your favorite alien?
Mr. Spock? Alf? E.T.? Chewbacca? Rocket and Groot?
I’ve grown up loving science-fiction, and that love has only deepened as I’ve gotten older. In science fiction, there’s a sort of informal divide between “fun” sci-fi – like Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy and what they call “hard sci-fi”. Hard sci-fi tends to be more believable, based on extrapolations of the best science we have right now. So there’re no warp cores, hyperdrives or Awesome mixes.
Aliens are different between the two kinds of sci-fi, too. Fun sci-fi gives us aliens like Spock, Chewy and Rocket. They’re basically humans with different skins. They’re taller or stronger or smaller or have weird ears or foreheads, and they may speak a different language, but interacting with them isn’t essentially different from travelling overseas to another culture – because in fun sci-fi, aliens are still essentially human.
Hard sci-fi is different. Hard sci-fi takes that word ‘alien’ seriously: what if creatures evolved under a totally different set of rules than Earth has? What if they were so strange, so different, so alien we might not even be able to recognize their technology as technology? What if we couldn’t even tell if they were thinking?
For obvious reasons, we don’t get a lot of hard sci-fi movies. But how many of you saw Arrival a couple of years ago? It’s been hailed as the best sci-fi film of the decade and was even nominated as Best Picture of the year.
Arrival was all about those truly alien aliens who pay us a visit in huge, strange ships that land simultaneously, all over the world. The movie follows a linguist, played by Amy Adams, who is attempting to learn to speak their language.
At the same time, the film is also about humanity, about how we respond to the truly alien in our midst.
As you can imagine, it doesn’t go well. The film becomes a race against time, with Adams’ character trying to discern what the aliens want while the governments of the world, moved by paranoia and suspicion, inch closer and closer to nuclear war.
Could you imagine any truer picture of humanity’s reaction to real aliens? A few of us excited by possibility while the rest of the world reacts out of fear and suspicion? That’s an essentially human response to the Other.
This is what I love about hard sci-fi.
When you don’t allow the magic of warp and hyperdrive and awesome mixes, we’re left with real humans who have slightly better technology. Hard sci-fi exposes the core of what makes us human and invites us to ask some hard questions.
Taking the lead from Arrival, I want to ask some hard questions about hospitality. Because even though we haven’t met aliens (YET!), we all encounter strangers. And believe it or not, hospitality is one of the key Christian virtues. Let’s explore that impulse we have to be suspicious of the stranger.