Science Fiction and the perception of a greater truth

Here’s a passage from an early 1960s science fiction story, a story later incorporated into a novel, about a young man who works as a yardboy in a small town in a pre-industrial society near the “Katskil border”. One morning he gets up early enough to watch the sun rise.

For the first time that I can remember, I wanted to know, Where does it come from, the sun? What happens over there when it’s set afire every morning? Why should God go to all that trouble to keep us warm?

Understand, at that time I had no learning at all. I’d scarcely heard of books except to know they were forbidden to all but the priests because they’d had something to do with the Sin of Man. I figured Old Jon was the smartest man in the world because he could keep accounts with the bead-board that hung in the taproom. I believed, as the Amran Church teaches everyone to believe, that the earth is a body of land three thousand miles square, once a garden and perfect, with God and the angels walking freely among men, until the time almost four hundred years ago when men sinned and spoiled everything; so now we’re working out the penance until Abraham, the Spokesman of God, who died on the Wheel at Nuber in the year 37, returns to judge His people, saving the few elect and sending the rest to fry forever in the caverns of Hell. And on all sides of that lump of land spread the everlasting seas all the way to the rim of world. The Book of Abraham, said the teacher-priests, doesn’t tell how far away the rim is, because that’s one of things God does not wish men to know.

The author is Edgar Pangborn, and this 1961 story, “The Golden Horn”, was incorporated into his 1964 novel Davy, which I read decades ago, though I’ve just reread this story this past week. If the reader of this novel can’t guess from “Katskil” and similar references, it’s not set in the past, but in the future. It’s one of the better novels on the fairly common SF theme in the ’50s and ’60s about… what would happen after the apocalypse? Meaning, then, the likely nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. What kind of society would the survivors rebuild? What would they think about their past? A recurrent thread in such stories was the idea of an official church, or at least an official dogma, to explain to ordinary people where they came from and why they’re here. Often, of course, with proscriptions about questions not to ask, in order to maintain the sovereignty of the church, and social order.

The novel, as I vaguely recall, is about the main character Davy leaving his small town to see what the world is really like. (I’ll have to reread the complete novel soon.) And discovering, of course, it’s not at all like what his church said.

The lesson for any prescient reader is obvious. And the theme occurred in SF not just in post-apocalypse settings, but in outer-space settings as well, e.g. Robert A. Heinlein’s novella “Universe” and Harlan Ellison’s aborted “Phoenix without Ashes” TV series, both about residents of enclosed societies, with traditions to discourage freethinkers, who eventually discover that they are passengers on “generation” starships that will not arrive at their destinations for centuries, and who have lost all memory of their original missions.

The insight of these authors, and the lessons for readers, obviously, is, you must be willing to step outside of your society’s assumptions and comfort zones in order to learn the truth about your existence and reason for being. Whatever you think your society’s truth is, the real truth is likely far grander.

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