A roundtable on faith depiction in science fiction and fantasy
August 30, 2019 8:34 AM   Subscribe

In May, the magazine Strange Horizons published a discussion on "the way religion is depicted in much of the genre" among Zen Cho, Aliette de Bodard, Ben Jeapes, Daniel Heath Justice, Liz Williams, Tajinder Hayer, Mimi Mondal, Michael A. Burstein, Ken MacLeod, and Farah Mendlesohn.

Mendlesohn: "What I see far less of is the ways in which religion is culture that shapes ways of meanings."

MacLeod: "A paradoxical consequence of SF’s default secularism and scepticism is that atheism and atheists are seldom explicitly present in the text. And when they are, atheism is often equated with amoral cynicism."

Jeapes: "In too much fiction, religion is purely rules- and dogma-based. The only choices are to fall obediently into line, or gladly abandon it and emerge unscathed. You certainly don’t quietly apply your own experience-based analytical thought processes as you go along."

de Bodard: "One of the things which I don’t see discussed a lot is that the definition of religion itself tends to be quite reductive: a lot of my relatives practise teachings from Confucianism (including ancestor worship) but don’t consider themselves religious, because Confucianism is such a ubiquitous, bedrock practise in Vietnam."

Strange Horizons has published other roundtables on aspects of the genre, such as:
posted by brainwane (43 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Great topic for a post!

I have to take this opportunity to plug one of my favorite SF stories, A Song For Lya by George RR Martin. Basically, there's a huge parasitic blob organism that consumes people while promising everlasting consciousness and bliss and unity to all the people it consumes - and it's never made clear whether or not this promise is actually true, but there's ample evidence on both sides. Two characters face that ambiguity and make very different choices. I think it's the most even-handed depiction of religious faith I've seen in SF.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:51 AM on August 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

Mary Doria Russell should've been invited. She wrote some of the best religiously considerate scifi I've ever read, first contact voyages financed and led by Jesuits, in "The Sparrow" and "Children of God." Heavy on themes of colonialism and subjugation, faith and skepticism, justice and retribution, social class and education, you name it, it's in those books.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:57 AM on August 30, 2019 [19 favorites]

If we're doing recommendations, I've got to say that Ursula K. LeGuin's The Telling is one of my favorite explorations of religious traditions, atheism, and politics in Science Fiction.

And yeah, even as someone who is not religious, but is from a non-Christian religious tradition, the assumption that all religions act like Christianity is something that's incredibly frustrating, but difficult to explain to people. It really does feel like the non-religious future is the 'safe' choice, but it doesn't quite feel right, either.
posted by dinty_moore at 9:03 AM on August 30, 2019 [12 favorites]

Excellent topic--thanks for posting this. By coincidence, I happened to run across several religious-themed SFF stories in online venues this year that I thought were pretty good: Most fall under Aliette de Bodard's point in the article that "genre is more likely to depict the gods rather than their believers," but the story by Olga Tokarczuk is an exception.
posted by Wobbuffet at 9:59 AM on August 30, 2019 [8 favorites]

It's a great topic to look into. I'm not up to date on much science fiction, so I won't comment other than to say it's a subject that could stand more examination in other media/genres as well, so I look forward to reading about it in this specific one as an example.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:59 AM on August 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

The roundtable is a long read, but there's a lot to chew on in it, including some suggestions that I'd like to try to incorporate into my own writing. Some snippets that got me thinking:

Michael A. Burstein: What I’d really like to see is more simple representation. For example, have a team that includes an observant Jewish character who doesn’t participate in activities on the Jewish Sabbath. Or have a character visibly keeping kosher. And have this not be what the story is about, but simply aspects of the character who is part of the story.

Ben Jeapes: I wonder if part of the problem is the human tendency towards binary, either/or thinking? And does SFF have this especially bad due to the scientific predilections of its readers? If you have a binary mind then you just don’t get syncretism.

Tajinder Hayer: I want to write characters that suggest their ethno-religious hinterland naturally rather than act as mouthpieces. This is a challenge given that many minority religions are nearly invisible within SFF and there is an understandable temptation to introduce them through pioneering infodumps. I want to see SFF’s best, most nimble world-building/world-explication also applied to its approaches to religious identity.

Farah Mendlesohn: When I see religion in SF (and fantasy) what I mostly see is Orthodoxy, a right way of practice: rituals get a lot of attention, particularly if they are seen as different from the mainstream…. What I see far less of is the ways in which religion is culture that shapes ways of meanings.

Aliette de Bodard: A story that has spirits or angels for me isn’t fictional, fantasy, or genre, and I think there we do see an atheistic bent (especially for minority religions) that such features of the work mean a departure from reality: for me the fantasy in the story wouldn’t come from the mythical beings but from other features, and indeed many works that are published, say, in Vietnam, would be considered fantasy in the west but simply historical fiction there because there’s nothing imaginary about the supernatural!

Mimi Mondal: I am a “Hindu atheist.” You’ll notice how an atheist who comes from a white/Western Christian background is simply “an atheist.” But that person and I are not the same kind of atheist, because our basic religious worldview (and therefore also the rejection of it) isn’t the same. A lot of us postcolonial non-Western syncretic polytheistic non-believers are not strictly atheists in the Western sense; we’re closer to what Zen described as a “freethinker,” because our faiths aren’t as canonically defined as Christianity either.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:10 AM on August 30, 2019 [8 favorites]

"The" genre: equating science fiction and fantasy as the same genre.
posted by mfoight at 10:23 AM on August 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Personally, I've always been fond of "Tea with the Black Dragon" by R.A. MacAvoy but that was from 1983 and has its problems. And as the review mentioned, even though it was from the CPM era of computers it was Fantasy (which managed to include them) where SciFi skipped them on the way to modern machines.
posted by aleph at 10:25 AM on August 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's extraordinary that Gene Wolfe isn't mentioned at all in this piece. Most of his books are about faith and belief and approaching the divine. His Catholicism was well known and evident in much of this work.

To Liz Williams: What I’m getting from other people is a reaction to the over-simplification in SFF and a desire for more nuance, complexity, and mess. Such works absolutely exist. It's a shame so few are discussed. The aforementioned Wolfe (Severian, Latro, Silk, and "Horn"), Dune (Herbert), and the Inheritance Trilogy (Jemisin) all revolve around issues of faith and questioning that faith. And then there's Zelazny's playful-serious takes on godhood and technology... one could write theses.

This is a worthy topic, but I can't help but feel that they've dug shallowly. I wish there was a somewhat deeper appreciation for the subject than the fairly narrow silos many of them create here.
posted by bonehead at 10:26 AM on August 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

Would it help to maybe reframe the Strange Horizons roundtable piece as a start and a jumping-off point, rather than something attempting to be comprehensive? If there are more comprehensive essays, articles or books folks have found helpful on this topic, please do link!
posted by brainwane at 10:31 AM on August 30, 2019 [5 favorites]

Any time you introduce supernatural forces into science fiction, it becomes science fantasy. Arthur Clarke was the master at blurring that particular line, and thank goodness, but it's ironically a particularly poor hill to fight that religious war over.

Would it help to maybe reframe the Strange Horizons roundtable piece as a start and a jumping-off point, rather than something attempting to be comprehensive?

I think - hope - that we're going to get some really good SF out of AIs and theology, both because we already have a subset of omniscience in our browsers, and because I imagine the AIs will have some pretty fun things to say aboutcreator deities.
posted by Devonian at 10:44 AM on August 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ted Chiang's . Hell is the Absence of God is one of the best Science Fiction stories I have ever read. A modern world very much like ours, but angelic visitations are observable phenomena that get reported on the news, and have quite disastrous consequences. Am also rereading Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series and I had forgotten the quite thorough and thoughtful exploration and questioning of religion and faith.
posted by Zumbador at 10:47 AM on August 30, 2019 [10 favorites]

Religion and supernatural forces are not the same thing.
posted by Quonab at 10:50 AM on August 30, 2019 [7 favorites]

R A MacAvoy's Book of Kells is the best integration of fantasy and religion I've ever read as well as one of the best fantasies period.

And it achieves really amazing levels of religious awe in this particular reader.

But then, every good SFF book I've read has essentially been a temporary religious conversion, where I believe a bunch of ridiculous and completely impossible things and go forward through the story on that basis.
posted by jamjam at 10:50 AM on August 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

"The" genre: equating science fiction and fantasy as the same genre.

They're different marketing categories, but among writers, it's generally acknowledged that they're inextricably linked (and, in fact, the term "SF" is often used to mean "speculative fiction", covering both.)

A con I was at this summer had an interesting panel on religion (second panel down) but it was much more a panel about depiction of gods than depiction of religion, and I've always found the latter much more interesting. My favorite work is probably Bujold's World of Five Gods series (Curse of Chalion, etc, and also the new Penric novella series) in large part because while the gods are characters in the series, there is a functional religion with several variants and different ritual practices, etc, that have impacts on people's daily lives even when there's no supernatural effect.

I'm also rereading Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel books, which are set in our world with some important theological and cosmological differences, and she takes a great deal of care to give each culture its own gods that have equal powers, more or less, and equal validity to their own adherents. (Essentially, Christianity is merely the dominant Jewish sect, and never spread beyond that culture, and the POV culture has a new pantheon derived from the Christian one but differing very much from it theologically.) I can't say that she hasn't trodden on a lot of toes in making the choices she did, but I find it fascinating.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:51 AM on August 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

I think Heinlen had a brief bit where a far future cosmopolitan character was a member of the "Religion of the Month" club. (bad paraphrase): "Do you want to miss your chance at heaven if Yazdânism or Noahidism turns out to be the actual true religion?"
posted by sammyo at 10:59 AM on August 30, 2019

Religion and supernatural forces are not the same thing.

Galactic empires and warp drives are not the same thing, but the one does tend to involve the other.
posted by Devonian at 11:03 AM on August 30, 2019 [5 favorites]

Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology caused a bit of a stir in the late 1960s, and one of the stories that shocked me as a young teen was Lester Del Rey's Evensong.
posted by Pararrayos at 11:10 AM on August 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Any time you introduce supernatural forces into science fiction, it becomes science fantasy.

Minor spoilers for Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun books follow.

Wolfe's New Sun books use all the trappings of high fantasy, then slowly reveal that all the "magic" and "monsters" have a science-fictional explanation. And then when you've gotten comfortable with the idea of being in a world of science rather than magic, Wolfe shows you a wonder and it seems possibly miraculous rather than just the magic of a fantasy world.

Everything in The Book of the New Sun has an explanation of how it could really happen in our world. But Wolfe believes miracles really happen in our world.

Is a ghost story fantasy if the author believes ghosts are real?
posted by straight at 11:12 AM on August 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

Just here to do a little happy-dance because somebody mentioned Olga Tokarczuk.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 11:21 AM on August 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Dune is very much the same. There are "explanations" for all of the transformations and strange wonders that happen. It does ask many the same questions. What is a god? What does belief mean? How far will people go as a result of it?

Cthulhu and friends are a reverse tack. They are unknowable and inexpiable, but equally have, shall we say, explicable edges that fit within the confines of anti-religious belief, though not necessarily human belief.

Zelazny defines "gods" in both the Hindu and Nile Period Egyptian cosmologies in much the same way: their miracles are technological, maybe. Maybe something more?

But there are "scientific" explanations in all of those works.
posted by bonehead at 11:23 AM on August 30, 2019

Religion and supernatural forces are not the same thing.
This is probably the main point of contention between those who seek more (recognizable, historical, contemporary, familiar) religion and religious representation in their speculative fiction and those who do not.

For instance, Dune was eye-opening in both its careful dissection of the implements of religious establishment, spread, and use by the forces of politics, and its despite-all-that exploration of humanity as the means of its own ascension.

When a familiar religious trope is explored as actual verifiable testable and true in the context of a story, I'm interested in "it's a cover for aliens" or "in this world souls are physical, hurtable entities" but not in "religion and its beliefs are sacred and held apart from these other supernatural forces because reasons."

Obviously, many of these authors (and participants in this thread) do want that, which is fine, just not interesting to me as a reader of this genre. For me it's like reading Vinge and having to skim through his libertarian free market nuttery - it clunks up his stories and feels like something he brought into the universe with him that just weighs him down and, if not for it, would allow for a more honest and relatable story.
posted by abulafa at 11:37 AM on August 30, 2019 [5 favorites]

Genre as a topical form categorization isn't based on how the material is marketed but on what topical categories are addressed. One well sourced authority for specific definitions of genres is the United States Library of Congress.

Fantasy fiction as a genre is defined there as: "Fiction in which magic and extraordinary characters are integral to the story" while Science fiction is defined as a genre as "Fiction that depicts imagined scientific or technological advances (e.g., time travel, artificial intelligence) and their impact on society." Scholars and bibliographers - who are also writers - see distinct differences and developmental paths for these genres and don't generally acknowledged that they're inextricably linked, while a reasoned case could be made that the genres of fantasy fiction, supernatural literature, and horror (or dark fantasy) are inextricably linked .
posted by mfoight at 12:05 PM on August 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Scholars and bibliographers - who are also writers - see distinct differences and developmental paths for these genres and don't generally acknowledged that they're inextricably linked

I'd be interested in reading some more about that. I'm skeptical because there's such a persistent historical overlap in writers and readers and publishers of Fantasy and Science Fiction and so many works where there is disagreement about which category best fits them.
posted by straight at 12:23 PM on August 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

To me, Book of the New Sun is clearly science fiction in the Darko Suvin sense. It's also clearly fantasy in the China Miéville sense. It's a book that plays with science like science fiction and plays with literature like fantasy.

It's possibly even fantasy in the Tolkien sense, but few people really pay attention to Tolkien's criticism, and instead, treat it like steampunk. Throw a bunch of gears on it and it's steampunk, throw some elves and conlangs on it and it's "Tolkienesque." It wouldn't surprise me if there are connections between Tolkien, Wolfe, and Chesterton.

I keep coming across Indrapramit Das. "Breaking Water" wrestles with how people reconcile faith with a zombie apocalypse. "The Moon is Not a Battlefield" explores what the space marine might look like if the power struggle was primarily India vs. China. Both involve religion, because curiously enough, religion is a big part of how many people wrestle with problems of mortality and peace.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 12:27 PM on August 30, 2019 [5 favorites]

The fan apparently felt obliged to tell him that this threw him out of the book, because “of course” by the far future time of the novel everyone would understand the God doesn’t exist and all religions would be gone.

I think this is sorta comparable to science fiction stories about canals on Mars. There was a time in the 20th century where many people thought secularization was inexorable. The 21st century hasn't turned out that way.
posted by straight at 12:34 PM on August 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Straight: Check out the bibliographic works of Everett F. Bleiler (Science-Fiction: the early years / Guide to Supernatural Fiction) as well as John Clute and John Grant's WFA award winning Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1999) and the John Clute and Peter Nicholls Hugo award winning Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993).
posted by mfoight at 12:36 PM on August 30, 2019

Scholars and bibliographers - who are also writers - see distinct differences and developmental paths for these genres and don't generally acknowledged that they're inextricably linked,

Eh, I (I thought obviously) meant writers of those genres, but also in those circles it's widely acknowledged as the most thoroughly-beaten dead horse available, so I'm going to drop it there.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:39 PM on August 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

From reading about SFF writers an element is that they are first writers that want to write and get paid for it so they can write more. And once in on one side of the SFF niche they can see a market opportunity. Some are insanely prolific (yea) and write more than is marketable under their primary branding thus use different imprints and even pen names to build maximum market share.
posted by sammyo at 1:08 PM on August 30, 2019

they are first writers that want to write and get paid for it so they can write more.

No, those are erotica writers. Followed by romance writers, and then mystery writers. (Seriously, the disparity in market sales is *massive* and not in favor of SFF.)

(Also Seanan McGuire is an outlier and should not be counted. And she's not making vast quantities of money, either.)
posted by restless_nomad at 1:10 PM on August 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

A very interesting discussion, although it feels like the start of a longer one.
I do enjoy the variety of faith experiences represented.
posted by doctornemo at 1:19 PM on August 30, 2019

One of the things I find interesting about "Breaking Water" is that the Romero-tradition zombie includes a fair bit of American Christian baggage. In the United States, burial has been a default practice, to the extent that as a culture we traditionally made space for people who could not be buried in a religion's sanctified ground. Today, secular graveyards are common. In the Romero tradition, zombies are the only egalitarian society: everyone dies, everyone becomes undead, everyone hungers. They're also a metaphor for the assumed universal judgement of the end times.

Das starts from the view that burial is a religious and cultural practice, not a universal statement of the human condition. The first zombies are marked as crime victims or untouchables. And since religious and cultural practices played a role in determining which bodies could rise, religious and cultural practices play a role in determining how the zombies are treated.

Religion also plays a role in Romero-tradition zombie stories. But because we live in a culture where it's just taken for granted that our ancestors are in coffins just down the road, those religious factors are left unstated.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 1:52 PM on August 30, 2019 [5 favorites]

To me, Book of the New Sun is clearly science fiction in the Darko Suvin sense. It's also clearly fantasy in the China Miéville sense. It's a book that plays with science like science fiction and plays with literature like fantasy.

I find it more useful to simply term it speclit to not start disallowing surprise and an author choosing to take a turn with their narrative because of category "error". In my mind, what separates the mindset of an SF writer from a more realist approach is simply engaging a hypothetical in their worldbuilding: "What if..."

I realize, this is a lumpers vs splitters argument that's as old as human taxonomy, but the older I get, the less I think external, critically-imposed subgenres matter or really help authors or readers.
posted by bonehead at 2:06 PM on August 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

I like speclit myself. But usually the splitting argument involves some degree of "we're about the big ideas, they're just a collection of symbols and tropes." And well, if we take Le Guin seriously when she says that NAFAL, telepathy, ansibles, and gender-fluid hominids are not mere speculation, they're a means to explore big ideas about gender, then we should take Tolkien seriously when he says that it's not just an exercise in speculative anthropology of elves and hobbits, they're a means to explore big ideas about faith and mortality.

In other words, I don't think we should take Pratchett's thought experiments about social constructivism less seriously than Douglas's thought experiments about existentialism.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 3:05 PM on August 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

sammyo, I think the Religion of the Month Club was in Brunner-- The Jagged Orbit, I think, but it might have been Stand on Zanzibar.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 5:48 PM on August 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I’m drawing a complete blank on author and title... a few years back I read a profoundly religious SF book about a human expedition to a recently discovered planet. The mission? To find out if any inhabitants there were advanced enough to be respected and not wiped out if the planet had resources the humans wanted. One of the humans was a priest. The aliens led an idyllic life fulfilled and in peace. They had an advanced civilization. But their lives were not governed by anything that could be construed to be moral, religious, spiritual, etc. They just led good, peaceful lives. And the planet had something the humans wanted. So the humans return to earth to present their findings to the supreme council. All but one of the humans thinks that in this case we should let them be. The one who disagrees is the priest. Why? He could not deal with a world without religion that was perfected. That didn’t fit into his religious view of reality. You had to have a god to be good. Perfection required religion. So he said wipe them out.

The book was part of a trilogy. The first book is about an earth where magic is real and an evil rich guy hires a magician to open the doors of hell and unleash all the demons of hell. Just to see what happens...

The third book escapes my memory. Quite excellent reads for a person who doesn’t really read SF.
posted by njohnson23 at 6:25 PM on August 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think that's James Blish's A Case of Conscience.
posted by Wobbuffet at 6:29 PM on August 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yes, that’s A Case of Conscience. Can’t remember what the other two titles in the trilogy were but I think one was Doctor Mirabilis.
posted by um at 8:49 PM on August 30, 2019

Zelazny had a lot of fun with religions. I love the The Possibly Proper Death Litany from Creatures of Light and Darkness:

Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. […] Amen.

posted by monotreme at 10:20 PM on August 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

Doctor Mirabilis sounds right to me. The one with the demons was Black Easter, which had a sequel The Day After Judgement (that might count as one book in the trilogy you're thinking of).

I don't think they were ever plotted as a trilogy — no common characters or settings or a shared history — but I think Blish considered them linked thematically.
posted by rochrobbb at 4:31 PM on August 31, 2019

And yes, A Case of Conscience was part of that 'trilogy'.
posted by rochrobbb at 4:32 PM on August 31, 2019

Weird. I, too, looked at A Case of Conscience at the library on my late adolescent SF explorations. I'm trying to find the text on the back cover because it directly led to my later atheism - thanks for reminding me of the title.

The gist was "is this Utopia real or the work of Satan?"

I realized at that moment that holding such a world view when encountering alien life would never be my thing.

I recall it was this version.
posted by abulafa at 6:51 PM on September 1, 2019

I think A Case of Conscience is a bad book because there's no plausible line you can draw from modern-day Jesuits to the ridiculous idea that an alien utopia that seems ignorant of Christianity must be an illusionary trick of the Devil requiring exorcism. Blish should have made the main character a member of some sort of weird fundamentalist sect if that's the story he wanted to tell.

The attempt at an ambiguous "Was the planet destroyed by the exorcism or a nuclear chain reaction...or BOTH?" ending only works if there are readers entertaining the possibility that the whole planet really was a Satanic illusion all along. I don't believe there are any such readers.
posted by straight at 4:31 PM on September 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

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