Religion & SF/F

Well, my hunny wants me to write a diary on religion in science fiction, so here goes. 8^)

I’m a science fiction and fantasy writer myself, though most of my paid writing (thus far) has been for role-playing games. More importantly, Stranger in a Strange Land is the closest thing I have to a bible. Let me put it this way: I’m not a part of the RL Church Of All Worlds because I don’t find them enough like Heinlein’s original CAW. I hasten to add, however, that all the CAWiccans I’ve met are fine folk indeed.

SiaSL literally changed my life, though lack of access to Martian has kept me at mere mortal status in terms of universal attunement to date. I’m working on that too (the attunement, not the Martian ;^). I’m also a fan of a lot of other, more mainstream SF, and after being part of a panel discussing the topic, I came to realize that whatever SF novels may be doing these days, religion is in fact widely dealt with in popular science fiction.

The big exception is the 800 lb. gorilla that is Star Trek, which is an explicitly agnostic-bordering-on-atheist setting — the nearly universal assumption in the Trek universe is that becoming ‘truly civilized’ means abandoning religion. (Even the Klingons don’t have religion, exactly — their rituals mention the gods, but also mention that the ancient Klingons killed them. Go figure.) So the assumption of the panel that SF rarely confronts religion was, I think, a reflection of Trek’s almost black-hole-like power over the genre.

Of course, the other 800 lb. gorilla of science fiction, Star Wars, is among many other things an allegory of religion under political assault. This is one of the core aspects of the central theme, man vs. machine. By the time of Episode IV, belief in the Force has almost died out, a clear (and clearly successful) effort on the part of the Emperor to prevent further competition for talent in the Force. Episode V is basically Shaolin training, a combination of martial arts and Buddhist training, detachment being central to Jedi philosophy. That’s why I could never be a true Jedi, except perhaps post-Luke (a “Reform Jedi” rather than an “Orthodox Jedi?” ;^), but that’s probably another post.

Moving along, one of the other great classics of SF, Dune, deals with religion in many ways. The Bene Gesserit are a cross between a lobbyist group and an order of monks, the Fremen are explicitly religious (“We Fremen have a saying: God created Arakis to train the faithful. One cannot go against the word of God.”), the Mentats’ mantra could be seen to have religious connotations, and so on.

Babylon 5 is a great example of a setting in which religion has no explicit power, unlike SiaSL or Star Wars, but where it wields great influence, just as it does today. As others have mentioned, one of the richest supporting characters is the endlessly interesting Brother Theo, he of the sharp wit, vorpal tongue, and surprising insight. Delenn is of the Religious Caste of her people, and their most important leader (though not always their most powerful one) pretty much throughout the series. G’Kar starts as a comic-relief villain and ends the show being revered as a prophet for his Book. Holy men (and women) become vital to the human resistance to President Clark, because even he is afraid to mess with the masses’ faith. The Vorlons and Shadows have been manipulating younger cultures since long before humanity even existed, and that includes their religions. For a hard SF show written by an avowed atheist, B5 is amazingly spiritual (and respectful to faith and religion). Foundationism, in particular, looks like a great evolution for human religion (possibly growing out of the UU?) and may be the template for the future of progressive faith.

Firefly (and its movie spinoff, Serenity) is less focused on religion than Babylon 5, but one of the main characters is a “Shepherd,” or travelin’ preacher, with the unlikely nom de wanderin’ of Book. Shepherd Book has some mystery about him, and there’s a powerful appearance of serious violence in his past, but “now” he practices what he preaches and is a very neat character. In almost any other series, he’d be the most interesting figure in the lot, but this is Firefly. Inara, the Companion (far more like an Italian Renaissance Courtesan than a mundane lady of the evening), is apparently a devout Buddhist, and the rare interaction between the two is amusing, respectful on all levels, and deeply interesting. I wish we’d be seeing more, but looking at Serenity (both how it went and how much money it’s not making), I don’t think we will.

I could go on for a while (and I haven’t even touched fantasy, really; Tolkien and Lewis both used Christian belief in their stories, Narnia being almost overtly allegory), but I think this covers the basics. Certainly, there is a fair amount of SF that ranges from indifferent to hostile when it comes to religion; some religions’ hostility towards science creates a natural backlash, and the old clockwork/billiard ball image of the pre-quantum universe lent itself to either an indifferent Creator (the “blind watchmaker”) or none at all. As we learn more about quantum physics, however, we find scientists increasingly saying things that mystics have been trying to tell us for millennia. Everything from the magickal Law of Sympathy to the idea that we are all connected and eternal can be found in some visions of quantum theory. (Though the word “hypotheses” may be more acceptable to the truly scientific among us.)

Perhaps, as Dan Brown imagined in Angels and Demons (albeit badly, IMHO, and I liked most of the book), science really is starting to get a look at God, the Tao, Nirvana…whatever we call it, maybe it’s there, between the ironically-named quanta. Quantum means, roughly, smallest (and therefore indivisible) unit, which is funny when you consider that quanta are basically ghosts until they hit each other — particles when we’re “looking,” waves when we’re not. Again, though, that’s a whole ‘nother post — the point here is that it’s a very exciting time for religion, faith and spirituality in science fiction. And if I ever get off my duff and finish one of my novels (here’s hoping that NaNoWriMo gets me sufficiently motivated), I’ll explore it in nauseating depth. 8^)

Coming back around to why Morgan wanted me to write this, those of us in the fen community explore this in depth semi-regularly (it’s one of the reasons I look forward to Conjecture). What we more or less agreed on in the panels and side chats on these topics is that, since the banal world’s societies and religions don’t suit us and we’re creative folk, many of us experiment and try to come up with something better. I think that’s why neo-paganism is so heavily represented among fen, why books like SiaSL, Star Wars and Mists of Avalon create movements as much as they attract fans, and why Firefly seems to have hit the fen zeitgeist so hard — its cheeky flirtation with revolution feels right, what with the Dauphin telling us to eat cake if we don’t have bread.

Maybe Conjecture is a particularly educated group of fen. Maybe we were just in the mood for it, what with so many panels on metaphysics-related program activities. 8^) Still, I can’t help feel there’s a strong, deep core of asking what this is all about in speculative fiction. (Amusingly enough, a fellow panelist I deeply respect disagreed, saying she thinks that all SF is about “now” in a metaphoric or symbolic way. I don’t see why you can’t do both, and my SF is explicitly intended to look forward more than at where we’re at.) So what do folks here think? Does the future have a future? Is there faith out in the black among strange new worlds, to mix my metaphors? Is religion something we’ll shove out the airlock when the time comes, or is it something that will help us reach tomorrow alive?

(/) Roland X
Kaylee: How come you don’t care where you’re going?
Book: ‘Cause how you get there is the worthier part.

15 comments

There is also (4.00 / 2)

the whole Ancients/Ori line in SG1 now.

And I find very interesting spiritual/faith motifs in the Harry Potter series. I know Dr. Dobson and his friends disagree. ūüôā

by Mozh on Tue Oct 11th, 2005 at 20:42:00 PDT

I’ve been surprised (none / 0)

how Christian Harry Potter has turned out. The last couple books, it’s become much more clear.

by Elizabeth D on Tue Oct 11th, 2005 at 23:52:53 PDT

Oh, but JKR disagrees (none / 0)

She has explicitly stated that it is not Christian. And I don’t think it is, either (unlike LOTR, for example). I think it is very spiritual, and I think it is wonderful that she has turned the whole thing upside down– to the wizards cell phones are magic and magic that they have doesn’t make their life any eithier than we have it– just a different set of tools to answer same questions.

by Mozh on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 09:42:38 PDT

cool stuff (4.00 / 2)

NaNoWriMo? ¬†are you going to do that? i have a friend who’s planning to do it this year, along with at least one other person from his writing workshop. ¬†he’s also SF&F. ¬†let us know if you take the plunge, if only so we know to tell you to get the hell off the internets and back to cranking out text.

all that is opposed to love and to peace
is from the fiend and his party.
‚ÄĒ julian of norwich

by zeke L on Tue Oct 11th, 2005 at 20:58:53 PDT

I have been prompted (4.00 / 2)

to examine my faith by DS9 and Firefly.  Tolkien too.  And my favorite, Ursula LeGuin.

“As scientific knowledge advances, it does not mean that religious knowledge retreats.” – horse69 on the bnet recon C&C board

by lonespark on Tue Oct 11th, 2005 at 21:24:02 PDT

NaNoWriMo (none / 1)

I’ve considered doing this several times myself. I think this year might be the year…

That being said, I read mostly fantasy, and have always been intrigued by the way religion is depicted. Two of the best series I know of to confront the topic head on are R. A. Salvatore’s DemonWars series and C. J. Cherryh’s Fortress series. I’d recommend them both to anyone interested in religion in fantasy — or anyone just looking for a damn good read.

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in our day of battle; protect us against the deceit and wickedness of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray.

by Diamondrock on Tue Oct 11th, 2005 at 21:42:12 PDT

Interesting (none / 1)

I read a great deal of scifi/fantasy and I enjoy so many new worlds and ideas. (I am a 61 year old lady who has read for many years).

I enjoyed the haiku and whale songs of David Brin’s Startide Rising and the basic decency of so many heroes who fight evil.

I am hooked by the different versions of Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot etc.  That tale with or without the search for the Holy Grail has surely influenced civilization as we know it in similar ways as the Bible.

The idea of the strong protecting the weak was a new idea in some cultures.  A Viking wrote hundreds of years ago to the Pope once, (my brain remembers dimly), asking why he must give up killing and stealing as it was the way of his culture.

I will be interested in what others say here. ¬†Thanks for this diary. ¬†(I am thinking of Asimov’s three robot rules, too, as I fade into the early morning and of what made a robot wish to be a human.)

“The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.” Kurt Vonnegut

by cfk on Tue Oct 11th, 2005 at 23:12:29 PDT

that’s really remarkably comprehensive (none / 0)

kudos from a fellow fan, though surely more in the “media fandom” mold than yourself.

by Elizabeth D on Tue Oct 11th, 2005 at 23:51:29 PDT

neat diary (none / 0)

I never really walked in the fandom world, though I’ve been a F&SF reader since at least 5th grade. ¬†But this is a great diary – much appreciated.

I’d add Orson Scott Card to the list. ¬†I especially liked his essay in the Maps in a Mirror collection of his short stories that dealt specifically with the religious themes in his writing. ¬†Actually, I got as much out of those essays as the stories! ¬†

by Austin in PA on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 07:57:47 PDT

I wrote a bibliography (none / 0)

“Learning Witchcraft and Paganism by reading science fiction and fantasy.” I could post it, if people would like. It’s not up to date.

Best novel about Witchcraft I’ve read recently:
Hat Full of Sky by Terry Prachett.

“Stranger” has been an inspiration to me since I was in my late teens. I was in CAW until it fell apart. Some of SISL is impossible, or at least very difficult in RL, and some is the result of Heinlein’s prejudices (pro-natalism and anti-gay attitudes, for example). But there is a great deal to admire and strive for.

I’m doing Nanowrimo as well. I guess I’ll sleep in December.

by MagentaMN on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 07:59:31 PDT

Great diary…. (none / 0)

As a long-time SF/Fantasy fan, interesting collection of perspectives…

You could add Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time as another look at spirituality/faith in the genre.

I will have to read some of the other books you mention. I read Stranger in a Strange Land, but it was YEARS and years ago, so perhaps it’s due a re-read.

As I recall, at least in the original series, Star Trek did have a ship’s chapel – it appeared in at least one episode for a wedding. But it was clearly left interdenominational — just a small sacred space for whoever wished to use it. The Bajorans featured on DS9 had a strong cultural faith tradition, though since it was also tied to the “natural” phonomenon of the wormhole it was always left somewhat up in the air whether their Prophets were in fact spiritual beings or a result of alien intervention. ¬†

It is an interesting question. In many fantasy settings that I recall, religion and magic were often set at odds — Barbara Hambley’s The Dark Is Rising (Darwath) trilogy, for example. Does power to do miraculous things come from without (divine power channeled by some holy person) or from within (the magus drawing upon his or her own inner strength)? And is the conflict inherent or simply perceived as such? ¬†Would be an interesting question to explore….

by JanetT in MD on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 09:12:17 PDT

“Like the Shepard said… (none / 0)

… if you can’t do something smart do something right”.

I think Dune is to me what SiaSL is to you.

“The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man.” – Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib by the Princess Irulan

Another couple of fine religiously based science fiction novels are A Canticle for leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, and A Case of Conscience by James Blish. Phillip K. Dick also explored religion quite a bit, especially in VALLIS and Radio Free Albemuth.

by Sarcastro on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 09:48:54 PDT

How about (none / 0)

Tamora Pierce
Diane Duane
Lois McMaster Bujold

They all deal with religion in one way or another, and the consequences of power and issues of responsibility.

If you think Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga doesn’t deal with religion, I have to say you weren’t paying attention when you read the books.

by loggersbrat on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 11:16:35 PDT

Belated Tip Jar (4.00 / 2)

Since my hunny didn’t put one out for himself last night, I’ll do it for him now :-).

I know he reads these at work, but I don’t think he logs (cookies and all that), so it won’t be until after 6ish pm PDT that he’ll likely post any responses. Just wanted to let folx know.

by Morgan on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 11:48:11 PDT

Talk about wide-open! (none / 0)

I think I’d start by pointing out a different interpretation of Star Trek, not as agnostic as such but as a universe where it is impossible to distinguish between godhood and “merely” hyper-science… Trek is overflowing with near-omnipotent beings, albeit flawed/limited in some way to make the story interesting. ¬†“God”? ¬†maybe not, but “gods”? certainly, for all practical purposes.

Similar wealth is to be found in many storylines essentially derived from the concept of “what if you met your God”. ¬†P.C. Hodgell’s God Stalk series is a good place to begin – a world where variously approximately omnipotent/omniscient beings are more-or-less kept safely inside their temples by their believers, while a set of heretical races from… elsewhere… believe in a higher-level but absent deity. ¬†For silliness, try Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.

An alternative to Dune’s Fremen? ¬†CJ Cherryh Faded Sun series – the struggle to reconcile an extremely strict faith and rigid religious practice with incompatible situations.

How about “being” or “becoming” a/the God? Frank Herbert’s The Godmakers is short but sweet. ¬†At the other end of the spectrum, try Lamb by Christopher Moore.

Just about any of Clive Barker’s works play into this topic in more than one way – most are based on what might happen when normal people touch divinity. ¬†Barker’s works especially interesting because although they assume a divergent moral relativism, the truly evil characters are usually human (or human-derived), while divinity just… is. ¬†Try Imagica or The Great and Secret Show.

Heck, the Matrix movies aren’t even a little subtle Christian allegory (ok, so there are lots of other religions in there too).

Anything by Charles DeLint is going to be rife with earth/Shidhe/naturalistic-based spirituality. Neil Gaiman’s The Endless (Sandman) universe is almost a meta-theology.

Alternate spins on the traditional mythology: Steven Brust’s To Reign in Hell, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Jane Lindskold’s Changer… hmmm… not exactly F&SF, but I found The Last Temptation of Christ an extremely compelling and clearly heartfelt treatment of Jesus’s struggle to reconcile his human and divine parts.

There’s also a whole genre in film, literature, and graphic novels derived from violent christian mythology, usually dealing with people trying to avoid Hell (hook, crook, or by doing Heaven’s “dirty work”). ¬†Constantine(film)/ Hellblazer(comic), Spawn (film/comic), Hellboy (film/comic) are recent examples… try Angelheart for a full-length, somewhat grisly example of the flip side.

I’m way meandering now, but this seems more a wikimedia topic, there is so much material… ¬†Thanks for starting it, though…

by mik on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 19:14:13 PDT

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