From the Jedi Order to the Torturers’ Guild: Science Fiction’s Preoccupation with Monks in Space

Why are there so many monks in space?

The Jedi are the obvious root example. Robed and reclusive, prone to politics when by all rights they should steer clear, any given Jedi Knight is a tonsure and a penguin outfit away from the Order of St Benedict. Dune’s Bene Gesserit have a distinctly monastic (or convent-ional) quality, in their withdraw from the world and their focus on the Long Now via their messiah breeding scheme. Hyperion has its Templars, robed dudes who hang out in spaceship trees—along with its xenoarchaeological Jesuits (priests, sure, but relevant to this conversation) and Jewish academics. A Canticle for Leibowitz follows monks through the postapocalypse, and Stephenson’s Anathem culminates in a double handful of monks being launched into space for a hundred-fifty page EVA. (Surely the spoiler limit on this one has passed by now?) Sevarian’s Torturers’ Guild is a monastic order of St Catharine, and the berobed, contemplative Utopians in Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series have more than a whiff of the monastic about them.

Monks fill the galaxy, singing compline on Mars, illuminating manuscripts on Andromeda. Babylon 5 features at least three monastic orders and that’s only counting the human variety. LeGuin’s Ekumen also has a tinge of the monastic.

When I sit down to write books set in space, I find monks popping up like mushrooms. “The Scholast in the Low Waters Kingdom” was written in part to pacify the Space Mohists who kept appearing in my other projects, asking me to do something with them. When I dove into Empress of Forever, I didn’t last beyond chapter three before the monks arrived.

So: why monks? And why space?

Dedication

Astronauts don’t have many days off.

It makes sense if you think about it. Lifting a human from Earth’s gravity well is insanely dangerous and expensive, without even mentioning the added cost of supporting life up there in space for any length of time. So Mission Control tries to make the most of it. Astronauts’ days are heavily scheduled: conduct this experiment, that experiment. Fifteen minutes for lunch. Experiment, experiment, EVA, conference call, experiment, check in, we’re already ten minutes behind, straight through from morning to night to morning to night to morning to… Well, to be fair, it’s morning every thirty minutes on the space station, but eventually you do go back to sleep. Whether or not the Skylab slowdown in 1976 really was a strike as it’s sometimes characterized, it speaks to the overwhelming work conditions in orbit that 93 minutes of radio silence could constitute a remarkable disruption.

Many astronauts come from military and scientific backgrounds—in some cases both. Military and academic careers do involve a certain level of routine—but they also value independent thought and agency. A year of endless repetition of basic tasks in an unchanging environment—even an environment of weightlessness and awe-inspiring glory—can chafe. There’s a whole field of Mars mission prep focused not on radiation shielding or delta-V but on the human factor. What kind of person can live in the tight, constrained conditions of a Mars voyage (let alone a Mars colony) without going mad?

But that’s life in the monastery. Different orders (and, of course, different religions!) have different rules, and customs shift from monastery to monastery, but let’s take Christian Benedictine monks for an example: their day begins with Matins at around two in the morning, and proceeds through eight services until Compline around sunset. Between church services and daily communal meals, monks work to maintain the monastery—gardening, farming, brewing beer, giving out alms, cooking and feeding the monks themselves, copying books. Many orders require that monasteries be self-supporting, which in the modern day means the monks’ activities often have a commercial component, whether that’s making jams and furniture or (in the case of at least one Franciscan monastery in the ‘90s) web design. The schedule is rigid, communal, and mutual—you attend services, do your work, and live with your fellow monks, not out of a desire for fame or adventure, but out of a desire to serve the always-unfinished cause of salvation, and to help your community survive.

The monastic existence doesn’t have a lot of draw for people who want to be heroes, or win a Nobel Prize, or cure cancer, or turn people into dinosaurs. Becoming a monk means acknowledging that you’re one small piece of an effort that began long before your birth and will continue long after your death. Which brings us too…

The Long Now

Monasteries last. The Order of Saint Benedict was conceived during the long fall of the Roman Empire as (massive oversimplification warning) a kind of ark and alternative to a failing society. Rather than continue to work and live in the shadow of decaying Rome, Saint Benedict thought, instead retreat with your like-minded fellows. Tend gardens, live by simple rules, and take care of one another. Those structures, close to the ground, dedicated, and united (more or less) in their mission, survive today. Sure, the role of Benedictine monasteries in European life has changed over the centuries, but they’ve lasted through all those centuries to change. Few other institutions—corporations, dynasties, governments, even governmental systems—can say the same. (Universities come close, but then, universities drew heavily on the monastic and clerical model.)

Space, meanwhile, is big. Even when we’re talking about fictional universes that feature such dramatic conveniences as faster-than-light travel, few authors represent that travel as instantaneous. Most include some hat-tip to the idea that space takes time to cross—weeks in hyperspace if not generations of sub-light acceleration. Even in settings that allow for real instant travel between settled systems (like Hamilton’s Commonwealth, Cherryh’s Gates, Simmons’ Hegemony of farcasters, or the Stargates of SG-1), going someplace totally new—and carting around those instantaneous FTL gates—takes days, weeks, months, years. More common is the imperial travel time suggested by Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire: months to pass from the periphery to the core.

Space Rome isn’t built in a space day. Any prospective interstellar civilization will have to bridge vast gulfs of time with raw intent. Few groups have that kind of staying power. Representative democracies are notoriously bad at maintaining consistent motivation (on things like infrastructure maintenance, say) over a scale of years, let alone millennia. Dynasties can can cobble together a century or two of executive intent, enough to build a cathedral, but that’s small potatoes next to the time you’d need to settle even a tiny fraction of space. Monks, though: you get them started and they just keep going.

Insignificant Compared to the Power of the Force

We’re all insignificant in space. No matter how planet-smashing the setting, no matter how vast and all-consuming the star wars, they’re dwarfed by the stars themselves. All the stellar empires and spaceports and Big Dumb Objects you care to name amount to so much pocket change in the reaches of eternity. We can cleverly suggest that our deep-space action fills the cosmos by shooting our spaceships from underneath and positioning the camera so the Imperial Star Crushers fill the screen, but we all know that’s movie magic. Space is just too big for us to matter in it.

The other social structures we humans might bring to bear on the challenge of surviving and thriving in Space—universities, militaries, governments, corporations—aren’t known for their ability to confront their own utter irrelevance. They’re limited spheres of endeavor that confuse their own limited concerns with the Ultimate.

Monks, on the other hand, live in conversation with the ultimate. Different faiths and traditions construct that conversation differently—not every faith has a Book of Job to rub humanity’s face in its own tininess—but to be a monk is to acknowledge that there are things bigger than you, bigger than your family, bigger than any terrestrial desire or ambition. The concerns of the monastic life—death, time, liberation—are beyond any individual monk’s ability to see through to their end. Even if one individual monk becomes a saint or bodhisattva or even (heaven forfend) famous, achieving some deeper understanding or personal revelation or miraculous power, the work of monks in general remains. The road is straight, and goes on forever.

That’s not to say individual monks (or whole orders) don’t find themselves concerned with short term goals, fighting for their lives, making the best beer, getting more funding or protecting their land, whatever. Just that when a monk returns to the heart of their calling, when they ask themselves “why am I here,” the answer isn’t going anywhere.

And neither is space.

And in the end…

There are so many sorts of monks in space, and so many facets to the monastic life that seem well suited to life in space, that I could go on listing correspondences for another few pages without doing more than scratching the surface, and spin the examples out into a master’s thesis. Which raises another question: is there a reason monks and space (or, to be more specific, the imaginary of space, the picture we have in our heads of what life in space might be, and the kind of stories we tell about it) go together like chocolate and cappuccinos? Is this fitness just a coincidence, or… what?

In physical life we might easily say, it’s a coincidence, monks just happen to be the best space-tool for the space-job. But this is a conversation about stories, too, and coincidence does not sit easily in a story’s stomach.

Space is the “final frontier.” It’s the unmapped territory, the uncomprehended edge, the giant question mark. Space contains mystery on mystery. Ask yourself where we came from, where we’re going, what happened in the immense gulf of before-time to bring us to this moment, and how our atoms will, over millions of years, decay—whether our culture will survive the next century or the next millennium—what life is and whether it has any destiny to speak of—the answer is out there in space. Or maybe what’s out there are only more questions—an endless sequence of questions curled up and hiding inside other questions, like the coiled-up higher spatial dimensions.

Rudolph Bultmann, in The New Testament and Mythology, points out that the picture of the world encoded in Christian teaching—the world view in which there’s a heaven up there with gods, a hell down there with demons, a living earth realm caught between them, and spirits that move from realm to realm according to some set of rules—is not by any means exclusive to Christianity. It’s a common way that a resident of Judea in 0 CE would have described the universe. It wasn’t until modern times, Bultmann says, that we started to peer down into the bowels of the earth and see, yes, fire, but no demons—and peer up into the stars and see no Heaven, but… Space.

For Bultmann, that creates a crisis in Christian teaching. Modern Christians find themselves forced into doublethink: Hell does exist, it is “down there”, but not down there down there, just sort of ‘down’ in a different ontological direction. Heaven, similarly, is up, but not up-up. To live in the modern world and use modern technology is to accept on some level the picture of the world that underlies that technology, even if you claim to disagree with it. You have two visions of reality in your mind at once. For Bultmann, this is a maddening proposition—and that leads him to investigate the inner content of the Christian teaching, what human truths early Christians were trying to communicate using the language of the world as it was commonly understood in their time.

But that sword cuts in the other direction, too. Spiritual truths, great unanswerable questions, are posed in the common language of every century and every people. And when a person who accepts the general scientific picture of the material universe—whether or not that person thinks of themselves as particularly secular—wants to ask questions about (or tell silly stories about, which amounts to the same thing in the end) deep time, human destiny, death and fate, where we’re going and where we come from and what we do on the way—that person looks up into the Ultimate, where we see the beginning and end of all things, our insignificance and our wonder, and uses the language of that world to express their convictions.

Space, in short, is a spiritual realm. So of course it’s full of monks. They go where the work is.

Max Gladstone is a fencer, a fiddler, and a two-time finalist for the John W. Campbell Award. He is fluent in Mandarin and has taught English in China. He is the author of the Hugo Award-nominated Craft Sequence of novels, a game developer, and the showrunner for the fiction serial, Bookburners. A graduate of Yale, Max lives and writes in Somerville, Massachusetts. His novel Empress of Forever is available from Tor Books.

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