Lent began last week, the traditional forty-day season of self-examination, repentance, prayer, and fasting in preparation for the solemn commemoration of Jesus’ death during Holy Week, and the joyous celebration of His resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Now, if you don’t observe Lent, that’s okay. I’m just using it as a jumping-off point to explain why I’m writing a series of posts about death in speculative fiction.
Lent starts out on Ash Wednesday with an affirmation of our mortality: Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return. It steadies me a little, hearing that, and sets me off on a journey along roads I’d rather not travel, given the choice. My life on this Earth will end someday, maybe sooner than later. What have I done with it? What am I doing with it? What should I do with it from this point forward? When I’ve reached the end, what will happen? Will I be ready?
Speculative fiction spends a lot of time dancing with death. Whatever flavor of spec-fic story you’re reading, chances are, somebody’s going to buy the farm before it’s over. The manner of death itself may be speculative: death by dragon fire, death by curse, death by disintegration, death by nuclear blast, death by getting kicked out an airlock, death by exotic alien disease, death by exotic alien, death by petrification, death by planetary extinction event, or my personal favorite, death by death-ray.
Sometimes the focus of the story is cheating death itself, whether via magical or technological life-extension, cryo-sleep, time travel, regenerative powers, or winning a game of Twister with the Grim Reaper. Captain James T. Kirk built an entire career on surviving certain death against impossible odds, which always made the last ten minutes of any given Star Trek episode interesting. How’s he going to escape this time?
Science fiction often paints a picture of how a future society might handle death–or not. We see immortal societies that long for death but can no longer find it, as well as cultures that routinely euthanize the old, ill, impaired and undesirable for the sake of convenience–or in the name of mercy. In the popular zombie apocalypse scenario, humanity goes mano a mano against death, wielding shotguns, chainsaws, and baseball bats. Even then, death might be slow and stupid, but it never stops coming. It never gives up. Ever.
What happens after death is ripe fruit for speculation. Supernatural stories set up shop here with tales of ghosts and hauntings. Science fiction usually steers clear of metaphysical explanations, preferring some technological means of reincarnation, preserving consciousness beyond physical death, or more likely, rejecting the question entirely: Death is annihilation–nothing comes after. Christians certainly embrace the reality of life after death, and our fiction reflects it, whether the afterlife is held out as a hope, posed as a warning, or staged as the triumphant final act of an end-times holocaust.
Less common are speculative stories dealing with the process of death–how people deal with death’s inevitability when they’re in the middle of it–the stages of mourning, the acts of mental and spiritual preparation, the tying-up of loose ends, the regrets. Frankly, it doesn’t sound very entertaining. Who’s up for a story about somebody dying? Anyone? Anyone? Mister Bueller? Perhaps there’s not much room for speculation about our response to death, other than to illustrate that it doesn’t change much, however extraordinary the circumstances.
More about that later, and if you’ve got anything in particular you’d like to talk about regarding death and spec-fic, let me know. Next week, it’s all about cheating death…if I’m still alive.
Okay, Grim, spin it.
“Bwah, ha, ha ha! Right hand, yellow!”