Without meaning to, I’ve recently been reading a pile of religious science fiction. I’ve been doing a series of posts on the Hugo nominees, starting from the beginning and working forward. I’m not reading all the Hugo winners, but if they’re interesting books and I haven’t already written about them, I’ve been re-reading them. So it happened that I read A Case of Conscience, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune, (all links are posts) and I realized they are all science fiction, and they are all concerned with religion. Religion is more usually seen as part of fantasy, and it’s interesting to see how science fiction treats it. It’s also interesting to look at all these at once because so much SF shows us futures which are entirely empty of religion, as if because they have better tech people will give up doing something we have done for as long as we’ve been human.
It seems to me that there are four ways of doing religious science fiction.
There’s the kind of SF where the writer is themselves a member of some religion and this imbues their writing—I think Connie Willis would be a good example of this. Look at the stories in Miracle, or her novel Passage. I don’t have a problem with this unless it spoils the story, but I don’t find it all that interesting either.
Secondly, there’s theological SF, like A Case of Conscience, or Clarke’s “The Star” and “Nine Billion Names of God,” or Brunner’s “The Vitanuls,” where the writer rigorously extrapolates science fictionally the consequences of some religious dogma being true. I love this.
Fourthly, there’s using the way religions have worked in history and extrapolating that into the future. Dune and Stranger are both, in their really different ways, about being a messianic figure starting a religion. Another Hugo winner that does this is Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light (post). If you look at these three you can see one clear use of Christian mythology, one clear use of Islam, and one clear use of Buddhism in a Hindu context. (Zelazny was fond of using different mythologies, he seems to take on a new one for ever novel.) These three are all using historical religions to show religion working in future worlds, with in all cases an additional dollop of mysticism. (The scenes in Heaven in Stranger, Paul’s prescience in Dune, the powers in LoL.) I tend to like this, too.
In the “theological” category there’s also Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow—I can’t stand it, for reasons unconnected to religion, I find the human characters behave in ridiculously implausible ways considering they are supposed to be people. Putting that aside, it’s certainly theological SF—using the aliens and the situation to examine a theological issue.
I have a 1971 collection of religious SF called Other Worlds, Other Gods, which contains several excellent and relevant stories of theological speculation. I commend it to your attention, not that you’ll be able to find it. George R.R. Martin’s short The Way of Cross and Dragon could be put into an update of that anthology—and indeed Martin has been particularly interested in religion, morality, and theology, sometimes in fantasy and sometimes in SF. And there’s William Tenn’s wonderful “On Venus, do we have a Rabbi!” which is a perfect example of extrapolating religious history to the future.
I’m sure you can think of more examples. Please don’t tell me about books where there’s a religous character, or fantasies no matter how great the religion. But if you have any, I’d like suggestions for science fiction that matches my (2) or (4), please.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. Her ninth novel, Among Others, was recently released and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.