Sunday, February 1, 2009

Why I Love the Third Imperium

Recently, I have been able to get into several boxes that haven't seen the light of day in about five years. One of these contained all of my Traveller books. I have played Traveller on and off since the late 70s. However, like many, my favorite aspect of the game has always been reading up on the setting created for Traveller — the Third Imperium.

The one aspect of this massive setting that I love the most is that when humankind finally reaches out to the stars, the first alien species they find is . . . human. To me, this is far more challenging, horrifying, and alien than any of the various alien species offered by any science fiction setting anywhere (as an aside, I also love the fact that the most unsavory of three major human cultures is the one that originated on earth). I have previously explained why humans make the best monsters, and the Third Imperium has certainly contributed to this belief. The concept of human beings as alien forces upon us a very important question — what makes us human?

The game itself offers up three answers to this question, all of which popped up in one way or another over the course of human history:

Culture. In Traveller, over 40 planets were seeded with humanity by the Ancients. Yet, all of them are culturally similar enough that the Third Imperium encompasses most of them.

Technology. In the Traveller universe there are what are called Major Races and Minor Races. The bench mark for this differentiation is the independent discovery of Jump Drive.

Genetics. The Solomani Hypothesis states that all of the various human races seeded throughout the universe are all genetically the same species and that species originated on Earth.

Yet, just as they have been historically, all three are unsatisfactory. Culture, genetics, and technology (and the human intellect and reason that created technology) have all been used as excuses for us to designate one segment of the population as sub-human. This, in turn, has resulted in discrimination, war, murder, and genocide — all inhuman behaviors that make everyone less than human.

Christianity offers an answer to the question that encompasses culture, technology, intellect, reason, and genetics and also transcends them. That answer is found in Genesis when God creates humanity in His image and likeness. In other words, what makes us human is the ability to share in divine characteristics — love, creativity, freedom, justice — and to become like God.

By defining our humanity as the image and likeness of God, we free ourselves from the limitations of culture, technology, reason, intellect and genetics. We are faced with the reality of the radical other. As created beings we are finite with a clear and definitive beginning and end. In contrast, God is beginningless and eternal. Yet, we are endowed with His image and likeness. Throw in Christ, and we are confronted with the reality that this radical other became one of us out of love to ensure that all of creation might share in His eternity.

When we limit ourselves to culture, technology, reason, intellect and genetics, the idea of a sentient alien species wrecks havoc with our belief systems. There are countless sci-fi stories out there that abandon Christianity for this very reason. However, Christianity is not limited in this way, and is far more resilient than many understand it to be. The question we need to be asking of these sentient alien species is this: are they created in the image and likeness of God — Can they love and create? Can they value and participate in freedom and justice? Can they be transformed and become more like God? If these can be answered Yes, then they are human.

I can say this with boldness for two reasons: 1) For us to say that God cannot create sentient aliens — radical others — endowed with His image, especially when He himself (a radical other) became human, is not only is nonsensical, it is to claim that we can limit God. 2) Part of our growth as human beings is a confrontation with the other — both in the form of God Himself and the immense variety found within humanity, with all its cultures, its technology and its genetics. We are called to love the other no matter how alien or different. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if God someday decided that for our own salvation we were confronted by an alien species — a radical other — that challenged us to love His creation as He loves it. Remember, His love is not limited to humanity — He became human in order to save all of creation. This includes every sentient alien species that might exist out there.

The Third Imperium expresses this concept in a real way. It forces the issue by placing an actual human face on the first alien species humanity finds when they reach to the stars. It forces us to come to terms with our own humanity and what it means to be human, what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God and what it means to love as God loves.

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