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The Ark in Science Fiction


“Once, so we are told, … when men had warning of a deluge of water, they built an ark in which the seed of life was preserved. Now we are threatened with another deluge—a deluge of fire. In a properly constructed refuge, isn’t it possible that men might survive again, and emerge to build a new world … a real Utopia?” (Jack Williamson, “Fortress of Utopia,” 1939)

The biblical ark narrative has served as inspiration for interpreters throughout history. Perhaps most striking is its adoption in science fiction, where the ancient myth combines with modern technologies in an apocalyptic struggle for humanity’s survival.

How is the ark narrative portrayed in science fiction?

In Genesis, God threatens to destroy humanity in a great flood. But he commands one righteous man, Noah, to build an ark and thereby save all life from extinction (Gen 6-9). Science fiction writers frequently use this trope to consider how humanity might survive a future disaster. Some characters, like the scientist in Garrett Putman Serviss’s Second Deluge (1911), predict that another great flood will drown the Earth and thus construct a nautical boat to ride out the storm. Others, like the fearful citizens in Laura Martin’s The Ark Plan (2016), build underground bunkers to survive disease or raging dinosaurs. Still others abandon this planet all together. The think tank in Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie’s When Worlds Collide (1933) worries about the Earth’s imminent collision with a rogue planet and constructs a spaceship to escape. Protagonists in this latter category have varying aims. Some populate their space arks with groups of people in order to save as many individuals as possible (Battlestar Galactica, 2004–2009). Others select a single member in order to preserve the culture of the whole species (Star Trek Discovery, “Su’Kal,” 2020). Still others populate their space arks with DNA in order to re-create the species on a distant planet (Vernor Vinge, “Long Shot,” 1972). Finally, there are those who abandon the living altogether and fill their arks with electronic recordings so that the doomed civilization might be remembered even after the people are gone (Star Trek: The Next Generation “The Inner Light,” 1992).

What message do these narratives convey?

These ark narratives reveal common fears that their writers and audiences wrestle with: fear of disease, fear of environmental degradation, fear of annihilation. Yet, the biblical ark narrative is as much about survival as it is about destruction. It focuses on who God chooses to save rather than who God acts to destroy. Ironically, this serves as a perfect model for science fiction. Although not all science fiction writers are religious, they too are concerned about questions of good and evil: Who is righteousness? Who is wicked? What is worth preserving from the human race? The answers these writers provide vary. Some see intrinsic value in all of humanity and try to find space on the literary arks for everyone. Thus, millions of people are saved in Doctor Who’s “The Ark” serial (1966). Other writers posit that only the most valuable of society should survive, though who is valuable is open to debate. Talented youth compete for limited seats in Stephen Baxter’s Ark (2009) while elite members of a secret cult survive in the last season of The 100 (2014–2020). Finally, some writers argue that humanity is not worth saving at all. Thus, the ark in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) explodes before leaving the atmosphere.

What all of these narratives have in common is a desire to explore human resilience in the face of adversity. By adapting the biblical ark narrative to modern circumstances, science fiction writers boil humanity down to its core essence and thereby judge whether the human race is worthy of survival. In some cases, the answer is yes; in others, the answer is no. But in each case, the answer reflects who the writers believe is most righteous in modern society, be they the scientific elite, innocent youth, or no one at all.

  • Tilford-Nicole

    Nicole L. Tilford is an independent scholar living in Atlanta, GA. She holds a PhD in Hebrew Bible from Emory University. She is the author of Sensing World, Sensing Wisdom: The Cognitive Foundation of Biblical Metaphors (SBL Press, 2017) and coeditor of Biblical Themes in Science Fiction (SBL Press, 2023). She has also published articles on sensory criticism of biblical metaphors and reception history of the Bible.