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  • Joshua Ziefle

Ex Astra Veritas

It isn't just ray guns and space aliens. Science fiction is a way of understanding and reflecting important truths. For as much as it is a doorway into fantastic infinite worlds it is also window into our own.


If this series of blog entries comes together as I imagine it will, you will likely find out a number of of things about me. I am a Christian believer and ordained minister. I eschew conspiracies. I am a believer in fighting for moderation and the common good. And, of course: I am a science fiction fan.


I come to my interest in the genre through some of the typical entry points--Star Trek, Star Wars, and the like. From these movies and television shows it was only a short distance to tie-in novels. This reading experience opened a whole new set of doors for me. Over the years I have taken it upon myself to broaden my exposure to the related literature. To this end I have engaged such sci-fi luminaries as Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Issac Asimov, and Ursula K. Le Guin.


More recently I decided to purposely read through winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel--an annual prize awarded to works of science fiction or fantasy. There are some relatively well-known titles amongst the winners: Dune, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Ender's Game. And then, of course, there are more obscure works. One of those is what I would like to think about here.


They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley won the 1955 Hugo Award for Best Novel. It is not, by objective standards, a very good book. Yet in spite of that, it has value for a single concept--a feature that is intriguing, haunting, and empowered by its science fictional setting. In the novel, scientists create a machine that will, essentially, reverse the aging process. All one needs to do is get hooked up to the machine and let the computer do its work. The first test subject, a woman who had lived a rough life, undergoes the process and emerges transformed and rejuvenated.


With the success of the device, an older scientist attempts to undergo the process himself. As he does, the machine works and works, but to no avail. It does not affect him. He does not change. Clearly there is some other variable at play. The problem, as it is discovered, is relatively basic. Yet it is difficult to surmount. Quite simply, in order for the machine to remake you, you have to let the machine remake you. In other words, you have to be willing to let go of your preconceived notions and long-held ideas in order to be born anew. As one of the characters says, "The admission ticket to immortality is the willingness to divorce oneself from all frameworks of preconception and prejudice."


A person whose life is full of pain and regret, like the initial test subject, posed little problem for this process. An individual in this situation might be more than willing to admit they could have it all wrong. But the proud scientist? The man who was committed to his own learning and understanding of the way the world works? That would be a much more complicated undertaking.


The novel poses an fantastic conundrum, but nonetheless a true one. Being able to let go in order to allow transformation to take place can be a difficult process. It is also one that makes us wonder if we would rather be right than be whole. Even when we know better. Willingness to change is essential for human growth, personal development, participation in addiction recovery and treatment, not to mention spiritual transformation. And yet the human lives we continually encounter--ourselves included--would far too often rather stay where they are, hold onto their view of the world, and thus deny the possibility for change.


While the basic idea in They'd Rather Be Right works on numerous shared human levels, as a Christian, I cannot help but hear the words of Jesus in it: "For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it" (Matthew 16:25). May we not be so enamored with what is that we do not at least consider what might be. What might change. What might transform.


**For more of my thoughts on this novel, I invite you to listen to Episode 41 of the "Hugos There" podcast, in which I discuss the book as a guest.**



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