Monday, May 21, 2007

shaggy god story

I just learned the term "shaggy god story" after sifting through some Wikipedia articles. My search was prompted by my just having re-watched "2001: A Space Odyssey," a film I haven't seen in years. Although I knew that many sci-fi films owed "2001" an artistic debt, I had forgotten just how great that debt was.

For example: almost every spaceport takeoff and landing sequence in the Star Wars movies is a reference to something out of "2001," especially that scene where the PanAm Clipper docks with the orbital station. To understand what I mean, watch the end of that "2001" docking sequence, then watch Vader's shuttle landing in the Death Star at the beginning of "Return of the Jedi." Uncanny. No, not uncanny: deliberate.

Musical tropes as well: the soundtrack for "2001" is largely from old and modern classical pieces, but I had forgotten that one piece also makes it into the Alien series as well-- that quiet piece which I best remember hearing at the beginning of "Aliens" as we see Ripley's tiny spacecraft drifting toward us.

Back to Star Wars: the large shuttle that conveys Heywood Floyd from the orbital station to Clavius Base on the moon is the obvious precursor to the lifepod we see ejected at the beginning of "Star Wars: A New Hope." In fact, I'm pretty sure Lucas was quoting Kubrick in that scene where the lifepod is tumbling toward Tatooine.

Whoa-- the above was a massive digression. A shaggy god story, as it turns out, is a story in which science is used to explain something biblical. As the Wikipedia article notes:

In its original sense a Shaggy God story features a heterosexual pair of astronauts landing on a lush and virgin world and in the last line their names are revealed as Adam and Eve. The term has now spread into general usage to mean any science fictional justification of theology. It is widely considered a cliché.

One of Larry Niven's stories in his collection Limits is a bit like this: humans land on a new planet and have children, but their children are born looking shockingly deformed. As the kids grow up, it becomes obvious that they look, think, and act like Neanderthals or some other sort of hominid, and the scientists eventually realize that it is part of human biology for the genes to "start again" when humans reach a completely different world. Thus, the scientists represent both the source and summit of humankind on this new earth, as these children's descendants will eventually come to look like the original scientists. Weird, eh? Not Niven's best story, to be sure.

I wonder: is the entire BSG series a shaggy god story?



kwandongbrian said...

As I recall in that (or anyway, one) Niven story, they learned through radio reports -many years old- that on Earth, Neanderthal-like babies were also being born. The story was not about genes starting again only on a new planet.

I have read many stories that follow the main point of this post, though. I guess I'm just vying for nerd points by showing off my knowledge of science fiction trivia, much as I did, quoting Monty Python, years ago.

From a 'leftie',


Kevin Kim said...


You remember the story better than I do; I read Limits well over ten years ago and haven't touched it since. I should have looked the story up online before posting.



Charles said...

I wonder why it is a "shaggy" god story, though. The Wikipedia article doesn't explain that, and I cannot see the connection. As far as I can tell, the originator of the term simply assigned meaning to an arbitrary adjective.

Kevin Kim said...

Aha, it's 2010, and I'm only now responding to Charles's comment!

My surmise: the "shaggy" comes from "shaggy dog story," which I suppose implies that shaggy GOD stories are essentially a series of irrelevancies leading up to the corny and clichéd Adam-and-Eve punchline. "Why 'irrelevancies'?" you ask. At a guess, it's because everything in the story is purely to get the reader to that conclusion, thereby making the plot's details nothing more than insignificant plot devices. Everything in a shaggy god story, except the theological punchline, is a McGuffin.