Richard Dawkins vs. Former Pope Benedict: Who Would Win The Hugo Award?

Richard Dawkins vs. Former Pope Benedict: Who Would Win The Hugo Award?

Nestled in Rome, Italy, is a sovereign nation called Vatican City, set apart from the rest of the world. The king of this country is the King of Vatican City, also known as the Pope. This King is the head of the Catholic Church over which he presides along with a bunch of guys who like to wear red. Because or their uncanny resemblence to the songbird known as a cardinal, these guys are also called Cardinals. The Pope is their boss until the Pope dies in which case the more ambitious among the lot have a go at getting elected Pope. 

Normally there is only one Pope living within the walls of the Holy City, but as I write this, in 2013, there are in fact two. What usually happens is that the Pope is king until he dies. That's when the cardinals (the guys in robes, not the birds) put together an election and blow coloured smoke up a chimney. The current official Pope is a guy named Francis. His predecessor goes by the name of Benedict and he left amid scandal, which everyone in Vatican City officially denies. 

Recently, the former Pope Benedict (aka Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger) came out of his mostly silent exile to, among other things, take aim at evolutionary biologist and best-selling author, Richard Dawkins. In a paper, he called Professor Dawkin's 1976 bestseller, "The Selfish Gene", an example of science fiction. Benedict said, "There is, moreover, science fiction in a big way just even within the theory of evolution. 'The Selfish Gene' by Richard Dawkins is a classic example of science fiction."

All this got me to thinking. The highest award for science fiction literature is the Hugo Award, named after legendary editor Hugo Gernsback who created the equally legendary "Amazing Stories" magazine. Gernsback is also credited with coining the term "science fiction" or "scientifiction". Still, despite the award's focus on science fiction, a number of fantasy novels have won Hugos over the years, like 

So, if we compare the science fiction of Richard Dawkins (including the scientific community) and the fantasy of former Pope Benedict (which includes Catholicism and religion in general), who would win the Hugo Award? For the sake of this discussion, I'm going to stick to the award for best novel.

The purists among you might want to point out that the Hugo is an award for science fiction, but fantasy novels have won the Hugo Award in the past. George R. R. Martin's "A Dance With Dragons" comes to mind as does J. K Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire". While the original intention might have been to honour science fiction, the Hugo Award has clearly grown to embrace any form of fantastic literature. By definition, science fiction literature has, at its core, a scientific principle or idea that forms the basis of the story. It could be about a powerful new technology and it's effect on society, such as dramatic life extension that is only available to the rich. 

To be honest, I would give Benedict the edge on winning the Hugo, this despite the fact that I have far more respect for Dawkins. Dawkins' works are largely based on the science of evolution, and even where he is willing to provide a hypothesis or occasional speculation to support the ideas he is writing about, he doesn't venture far outside the realm of the known. Dawkins prefers science to fiction. Benedict, on the other hand champions a world of  angels, gods and demons, men who rise from the dead, kings and warriors, magical deeds performed by an outcast who gathers an army of the faithful about himself in order to spread ancient knowledge from a mystical book, and tons more. Dawkins' works may be bold, but there is little conflict. On the other hand, Benedict's fanciful literature has plenty of conflict, from cryptic conspiracies to sex and murder, rape, incest, slavery, genocide, vengence, and countless battles fought by armies who count an almighty god as their champion. 

On the surface, it's hard for Dawkins to compete with that. Dawkins, however, is literate and careful. He writes well and manages to share his sense of wonder with the reader. Here's a sample.

Living bodies are machines programmed by genes that have survived. The genes that have survived have done so in conditions that tended on average to characterize the environment of the species in the past. Therefore ‘estimates’ of costs and benefits are based on past ‘experience’, just as they are in human decision-making. However, experience in this case has the special meaning of gene experience or, more precisely, conditions of past gene survival. (Since genes also endow survival machines with the capacity to learn, some cost-benefit estimates could be said to be taken on the basis of individual experience as well.) So long as conditions do not change too drastically, the estimates will be good estimates, and survival machines will tend to make the right decisions on average. If conditions change radically, survival machines will tend to make erroneous decisions, and their genes will pay the penalty. Just so; human decisions based on outdated information tend to be wrong.

On the other hand, the fantastic tales in Benedict's world may be filled with action and adventure aplenty, but they are poorly written, sometimes with outrageous prose that reminds one of a child at play, trying out his hand at fiction for the first time.  Here's an example:

The fifth angel sounded his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from the sky to the earth. The star was given the key to the shaft of the Abyss. When he opened the Abyss, smoke rose from it like the smoke from a gigantic furnace. The sun and sky were darkened by the smoke from the Abyss. And out of the smoke locusts came down on the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were not allowed to kill them but only to torture them for five months. And the agony they suffered was like that of the sting of a scorpion when it strikes. During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.

The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. Their hair was like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth. They had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. They had tails with stingers, like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months. They had as king over them the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon and in Greek is Apollyon (that is, Destroyer). The first woe is past; two other woes are yet to come.

Truly fantastic imagery, but hardly what you would call polished. There's also the point that Dawkins' works are his own whereas Bebedict and the various Popes just keep reusing the same material as they have done for centuries. 

According to former Pope Benedict, Dawkins writes science fiction. Benedict meanwhile, works in fantasy.

So who would you vote for? Which of these two men should get the Hugo?

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