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Pastimes: Lord Bishop of Peterborough on science fiction

4 min read

In her occasional series, Rosamund Urwin meets up with parliamentarians to discuss how they unwind away from Westminster. Here, the Lord Bishop of Peterborough, tells of his love of science fiction

The Lord Bishop of Peterborough believes that if we ever met aliens, we wouldn’t be able to communicate with them. Donald Allister, who was admitted to the House of Lords in 2014, is a huge fan of science fiction novels, but unlike most of the genre’s devotees, believes “it’s unlikely there is intelligent life elsewhere – life that could look at the stars and wonder”. 

In his diocese, he sometimes finds himself talking to the local swans, and likens this to the interaction humanity would have with extra-terrestrials. “The swans talk to each other and I fool myself that I am communicating with them,” he says. “People from the third planet around Alpha Centauri [the closest stars to our solar system], why should I think I have anything in common with them to communicate about?” 

Allister, 69, fell in love with science fiction as a child. He was a fan of Arthur C. Clarke, best known for co-writing the screenplay of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Isaac Asimov, whose most famous works include I, Robot. “Clarke was interested in the practicality... asking: ‘How can we get to the moon?’” says Allister. “Whereas Asimov was a visionary. He combined psychology and history to predict the future... asking: ‘How will empires rise and fall six centuries hence?’”

His favourite writers now include Kim Stanley Robinson, whose novels combine politics and space exploration, including a trilogy about transforming Mars into a more habitable planet. “Reading those books, you get deeply into geology and botany,” Allister says. “But what they’re really about is the sociology of people living together in extremis... Sci-fi isn’t full of gizmos and ‘Beam me up Scotty!’” He prefers novels to TV shows – calling Star Trek “complete jibberish, though great fun” – but points out that even that series proved prescient: “They invented the flip phone!” 

A former choir boy, Allister never felt there was a clash between his faith and love of science. At Cambridge, where he studied medical sciences, he recalls that there were “more science than arts students in the Christian Union”. While many of his contemporaries became doctors or went into medical research, Allister stayed on to study theology, and was ordained in 1977. 

So why do people assume there is a tension between religion and science? “The danger is people who have studied only one; those who have studied both tend not to find them so,” Allister argues. He adds that literature can enable the two to merge; C. S. Lewis used sci-fi to imagine what the world would be without the fall of man.

Allister’s love for science informs his work in the House of Lords. Before the pandemic, he was in a meeting where “mitochondrial malfunction” was mentioned. “You could see eyes glaze over, but I’m comfortable talking about genetics, AI or vaccinations – as I believe we ought to be.” 
He adds that religion and science are in alignment over vaccination, a subject which he has discussed with his congregation. “Anti-vaxxing is unscientific, but I’m more interested in saying it’s un-Christian,” he explains. “Survival of the fittest is a biological idea, but it’s not a Christian one. Our responsibility is to care for the weakest. That means accepting lockdown and resisting anti-vax nonsense.”

Interestingly, it’s through science that he believes there is a small possibility of interacting with alien life: “Any race that has an understanding of its own world, will have some theory of physics, chemistry, biology and maths. You’re more likely to be able to communicate with them mathematically than you are through language.” He laughs: “It’d be a lovely thing to try to do – if they don’t blast you out of existence first.”

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Read the most recent article written by Rosamund Urwin - Pastimes: To the theatre with Margaret Hodge