In its simplest incarnation, shamanism is a form of animism practiced by some traditional cultures. These cultures believe that the world is filled with willful spirits that have the ability to cause mishaps, pain, and loss. Traditional cultures were helpless in the face of these spirits and they employed individual and group rituals to appease or neutralize them. Shamans were the spiritual soldiers of these cultures. They warned of dangers; they were the spiritual guardians of the community; and they served as the spiritual compass.
The social forces within our contemporary world are not significantly different from those found in traditional cultures. Our world is shaped by science and technology – whimsical and willful modern-day spirits that can be helpful or cause total chaos. Members of our global village often feel powerless in the face of these pervasive technologies and most of us have only a rudimentary knowledge of the benefits, limitations, and social impact of these technologies, these spirits. Despite this lack of knowledge, our community is often asked through legislative referenda, to judge the social, scientific, and moral impact of cutting-edge technologies. Decisions that have significant future consequences are being made by members who barely have the technological wherewithal to program their DVR. Within this community, Shamans of Modernity, through their science stories help us to better understand the spirit world of modern technology and how these technologies interact and shape our community. Like the traditional Shamans, the Shamans of Modernity act as intermediaries between the human world and the spirit worlds. Unlike the traditional shamans, SF writers cannot compel the spirits to do their will.
The Wikipedia entry on Shamanism tells us that “The shaman […] enters supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community. Shamans may visit other worlds/dimensions to bring guidance to misguided souls and to ameliorate illnesses of the human soul caused by foreign elements.” SF writers as Shamans of Modernity, perform a similar service by transplanting parts of our culture to other worlds so that they can be examined in a non-threatening way. In Charlie Jane Anders post on io9 Lorenzo DiTommaso, a religion professor at Concordia University, tells us “Science fiction is great for proposing answers to huge questions, without being stymied by "theological firewalls," or having to stick to the rigor of formal philosophy.” In the same post, James McGrath, a Butler University theologian who writes for the Exploring Our Matrix blog tells us that “Science fiction provides a great way of asking what theological and philosophical ideas from the past still make sense in our modern context, of winnowing out those that do not, and of exploring ways to adapt and update those that … require a bit of tweaking.” One debated etymology of the word “shaman” is “one who knows.” In my estimation, the Shaman of Modernity is “one who illuminates.” The Shamans of Modernity are not expected to provide the answers – asking questions and exploring alternatives are important (and sometimes troubling) services that should be valued by every community.
In our increasingly interconnected world, we are constantly confronted by others - others who outwardly resemble us but do not believe or act like us. Unfortunately, our reaction to “otherness” has not changed significantly in the past 10,000 years. By traveling to other worlds, the Shamans of Modernity show us the “human face” of the others, placing them into a social context that can make them less (or more) threatening. Their stories often have meaning in our modern world. The Shamans of Modernity have shown us what it feels like to have your culture destroyed by an advanced civilization whose benevolent intent is to uplift the ignorant savages and “improve” their lives. They have described the rise of the Corporations and Super PACs who buy legislators and expect them to pass laws favoring them and their ideological dogma. They told us stories about surveillance and identity theft before they became part of the daily lexicon. Increasingly, the Shamans of Modernity have been exploring how it feels to live an age of unchecked biotechnology and bioengineering advances. By employing the strongest of the shamanic traditions, the Shamans of Modernity provide an allegorical framework for examining our world, our attitudes, and our mores. Their stories help us to understand the consequences of our individual and collective choices.
So how do they do it? To be effective, Shamans of Modernity must understand the society they live in – its ethical, social, and belief structures. They need to be grounded in the “now” so that their exploration of other worlds and other times has relevance to their global village. Do they get it right? Not hardly! But SF is the literature of ideas; it is an illuminating force that penetrates the dark areas of our Id, giving the unseen spirits that lurk there shape, form and understanding.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Our outwardly sophisticated, globally interconnected society is fragmented into nano-techno-bio-eco-geo-ethno-ideo-whatever subcultures. The inhabitants of these villages have the same primitive fears of the unknown, unforeseeable, and uncontrollable spirits their earliest ancestors possessed. Shamans of Modernity, through their allegorical stories, spiritual voyages to other universes, and their ability to humanize the unknown, help us all to better understand who we are and where we stand within our societies.
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