Religion in Science Fiction

SF God by Eric Peltier Very often science-fiction writers treat the ideas of religion and spirituality as being quaint at best and harmful at worst.  Characters who believe in a higher power are often ridiculed for their faith, for not supplicating themselves before science as being the be-all/end-all.

There are exceptions to this tendency; however, positive religious SF stories are much harder to track down.  So when I was researching SF markets to submit my own stories to, I was taken aback by Eric James Stone’s “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” in the September issue of Analog.

I read the sample on the website, was hooked, then scrambled to find the full copy of the novelette.  The Kindle subscription to Analog gave me October’s issue.  I went to the only local bookstore that would carry the magazine, and they, too, had October’s.  I finally found the issue on Fictionwise and sat down to finish the story as soon as it downloaded.

The Hook

The reason that “Leviathan” grabbed me is simple: it’s about alien Mormons.

It’s not often that literature deals with Mormons (much less has a first-person LDS narrator), so being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints myself, I was sucked right in.  But the thing is, the Mormonism in “Leviathan” could have just as easily been any other Christian denomination, as its main tenet was the prevention of sexual assault and the cultural implications of said prevention.

When I read Ender’s Game for the first time, I said to myself, “this author has to be Mormon.”  And listening to the afterword on the audiobook, I was right.  Orson Scott Card is.  But his story wasn’t.  No characters actively attended services or even made reference to a spiritual affiliation, if I recall correctly.  The kicker for me was the Wiggin family had the same values toward family and children that I grew up with.  That’s it.

Stone, however, places the LDS Church front and center in “Leviathan,” and he makes no qualms about it.  However, he does provide a counter for the religion in Dr. Merced, a hard-line atheist.  Stone says on his blog:

I think it helped that the story had a sympathetic atheist character who could rationalize to herself the events that the Mormon character believes are the results of divine intervention. That allows the story to fit as “hard science fiction,” while an undeniable deus ex machina ending would not.

He’s right.  Because even as a sympathetic reader, unrestrained proselytizing through literature bothers me, even the brand of spirituality to which I personally subscribe.  This is literature, after all, and not Sunday school.

SF authors must understand the limitations that putting spirituality into a hard SF story can cause.  Only then can they break away from the mold and actually tell their story.

The Fear

What many writers and readers fear is that the inclusion of spirituality in SF could easily be misconstrued as propaganda.  It’s a fine line to walk, but talented authors can and do every day.  There’s a reason that Angels and Demons or The DaVinci Code aren’t anti-Catholic.  Or why the simple inclusion of an LDS protagonist does not automatically make the fiction pro-Mormon.

It’s because of something that mainstream audiences have yet to grasp fully: presentation does not equal promotion.

For instance, just because a movie has a rape scene in it does not mean the filmmakers are saying sexual assault is okay.  Just because a book has an all-male cast of characters, it is not automatically antifeminist.  And a piece of science-fiction that does not bash religion and spirituality does not mean that it is actively trying to convert its readers.

Sometimes literature just includes certain elements to tell the best story possible.  There may not be an agenda.

The problem arises when there actually is an agenda, but it gets handled the wrong way, like in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy. At one point in the third novel, a character who is a former nun says something along the lines of “Christianity is a convenient lie…”  (Thank you, Dickie and Karl for pointing out my mistake regarding the quote and character who said it.)

I have no problem with him espousing an atheist agenda.  Goodness knows C.S. Lewis and countless other authors do the same thing for Christianity; it would be hypocritical to think the other side shouldn’t be given the same opportunity.

Initially, I had thought that the quote was spoken by the narrator, which brings up the following argument from me:

However, instead of assuming that his readers were intelligent enough to make their own decisions about the themes contained within his books, and simply nudging them along by crafting an intricate plot, he has his third-person narrator—not even a character—just tell the reader what to think.

This is promotion rather than presentation because there is no counterpoint to what he says.  The narrator has no boon companion to provide an alternate perspective.  What the narrator says in fiction is typically taken for gospel.

However, that doesn’t stand for this particular example anymore because it was a character who said it.  What does bother me, however, is that it came from an adult character in a series written for children.  Which also gives the target audience the feeling that whatever is said should be taken at face value without questioning it. Which is where I think The Chronicles of Narnia are a better example, not because they espouse Christianity, but because there is still a story to be told that never directly references the religion.  It’s there for those who see it, but it’s not the cornerstone of the narrative, as it is in His Dark Materials.

So in order to avoid seeming as though they are promoting an agenda whenever they really aren’t, most SF writers tend to err on the side of caution by omitting any kind of spirituality from their fiction.  Or, if they do include religion, it is something that bears little to no similarity to anything readers know about, making it little more than set dressing.

The Solution

It’s simple: write a good story.

Analog3bookfanInteresting characters, good plots, fun writing all make the natural inclination to shy way from religion in SF moot.

Do you care what religion Harry Potter is?  What about Ender Wiggin?  Alex Cross?  Odd Thomas? Captain Ahab? Does it really concern you whether or not your protagonists attend mass or Sunday school or nothing at all?  If they’re interesting enough, their biases and beliefs become a part of the character that cannot be dislodged, nor would we want them to be.

If SF writers continue to tack on religion as though it were an afterthought, then there will continue to be the split between promotion/presentation and atheism versus spirituality.  The fear of losing readers or alienating them based on including spirituality in fiction is a little insulting.  I don’t have to agree with everything the characters I read about do, nor do I have to share their same belief systems to want to keep buying the books they’re in.  If they’re atheist, make it for a reason, give them some dimension.  And if they’re religious, do the same thing.

The reason that religion in SF fails is because it is so often tacked on.  Characters are Catholic or Mormon or Baptist for no reason other than to say that they are.  The converse is true, too, with characters being atheist for no reason other than that they’re scientists.  For some reason scientists in SF have to believe in nothing but what is quantifiable, which makes them generally uninteresting to me.  I have yet to meet a scientist in real life who does not have a staunch belief in something greater than him or her; it may not be God, but there’s an inherent sense of wonder and curiosity in the scientists I know that fictionalized scientists often lack.

The lack of religion in SF is an open invitation for writers.  Eric Stone’s “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” is a shining example of a hard science-fiction story that deals with faith in a way that nothing in it comes across as promotion.  It is just presentation.  If he can do it, others can, too.

If anything, SF writers need to see this gap in the genre and try to fill it instead of skirting around it.  Religion and science don’t have to be at odds in literature anymore than they do in the real world, but it’s going to take some reevaluation of the genre and its popular archetypes before that will happen.