When science fiction authors write about first contact, or politically fraught cultural exchange, it’s only natural to draw on humanity’s long real-world history of washing up on strange shores and trying to make sense of—or dominate—alien cultures. The historical people making that first contact were often religious missionaries, either people who were seeking a new life away from oppressive governments or religious structures, or those who believed that the greatest role they could have was to spread their religion to people who didn’t know it.
Obviously this did not always go well.
Which is why it makes sense to take stories of missionaries and merge them with stories of space travel! The inherent drama of meeting an alien civilization is only enhanced by the built-in tension of different faiths and belief systems crashing into each other, and that dynamic has resulted in some absolute classics of science fiction. I’ve gathered up six books that follow people of faith on journeys that take them across strange landscapes, and, sometimes, into the stars.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
What could be more natural than to look at Spanish Jesuits heading off into 17th Century North America, a land whose languages they can’t speak and whose customs are utterly alien, and to transform that into a story of…a Puerto Rican Jesuit who heads off to the planet Rakhat, whose language he cannot speak, and whose customs are utterly alien? The story of Emilio Sandoz covers a lot of ground, including Jesuit politics, First Contact, gender equality, assault, PTSD, and mysticism, but at its heart it’s a story of a mission trip that goes terribly, terribly wrong, despite the best intentions of everyone involved. It’s also a riveting story of the evolution of faith, and its loss, as Sandoz struggles between a faith verging on the mystical and a disillusionment that nearly destroys him.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is about a different aspect of missionary work. Rather than going off into faraway lands and proselytizing (at least at the beginning) Miller’s book is more about the slow work of traveling across an inhospitable landscape to preserve knowledge—more like the Irish monks who travelled across Early Medieval Europe bearing Latin texts and founding isolated churches along the way than their globetrotting spiritual descendants. Canticle is a slow, strange, circular read, revolving around the core image of a group of monks preserving the works of St. Leibowitz for generations after a nuclear war destroy most of human civilization in the mid 1950s. As the Catholic Church rebuilds, human society regroups and squabbles and all-out-wars, unknowingly repeating cycles across centuries, but (without spoiling anything) the book ends on the idea that soon the faith of St. Leibowitz might leave Earth entirely and make its way into the true unknown of space.
Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather
…The Reverend Mother looked up to the spot where the crucifix hung. Every shipbound convent and poor colony ministry had the same one, mass-produced on Old Earth and brought by the crateful by newly-ordained priests doing their hardship posts out here in the black. The Reverend Mother hung this one on the wall herself forty years ago, right after the end of the war, when she was a young woman and the ship newly consecrated. They’d both been so young then. After she had affixed the crucifix to the ship’s inner membrane with a dab of bioglue under each of the nails, she had laid her head agains the muculent wall and listened to the heartbeat pumping fluid across the ship’s undulating body.
Most of the Sisters of the Order of Saint Rita acknowledge that there are plenty of gods available in the far reaches of the stars, they simply love their religion the most. But Sisters of the Vast Black also takes place a generation after a terrible war, which was at least partially enabled by the Church’s willingness to deal with an increasingly imperialist Earth government, and the sisters we travel with are a great deal more willing to bend rules for the greater good than their bosses in Rome would appreciate. They’ve been at this a long while, and their Reverend Mother in particular has seen too much of life to follow every rule. (And it takes so long to relay updates through space…who knows what Rome even knows anymore?) They treat their mission not as a proselytic one, but as a chance to hop from colony to space station providing medicine to those who need it, and the occasional baptism or wedding to those who ask for it. At least, until their living ship begins to display a mind of its own, and a new, very straight-laced priest catches up with them, and a distress call comes in that might change their trajectory forever.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber
Under the Skin author Michael Faber contributed a strange and complicated book to the space missionary subgenre—one in which the people who could be vulnerable to a potentially oppressive religious system actually want the religion. Peter Leigh is the type of vicar you meet in movies: a former hard-drinking atheist who almost dies in a car wreck before being brought back to life by the love of a good woman – his nurse, Bea. He accepts Bea’s Christianity, and begins to believe it himself. They marry, and he feels that he has a calling to become a vicar. But they aren’t weird about–they live an ordinary life in England and he only preaches to people who want to listen. But this is not the England we know, or the world we know. This is a world that has “The Jump”—a suspended animation system that can help you travel light years away—and a Oasis, a colony that is a home to Earthlings and an indigenous people who absolutely love Christianity. They call the Bible “The Book of Strange New Things” and since their old vicar disappeared they’d really like a new one. Peter, who has been so happy in his life with Bea, feels the old call again, this time pulling him to a new world and an uncertain future. How can he minister to these utterly foreign people? What exactly happened to their old pastor? And why are Bea’s letters filled with the sense that the Earth he left is falling apart?
The Expanse (Series) by James S. A. Corey
The Expanse is about a lot of things, and doesn’t spend too much time on their Mormon characters, but I wanted to include them here because of just how impressive the Nauvoo is, both in the books and in the television adaptation. It’s a truly TITANIC generation ship, designed to carry a pod of Mormons into the stars, and provide them a home for, well, forever, potentially. The thing is though that they have no idea if there are even any aliens, it’s just that if there are the Church of Latter Day Saints wants to find them and minister to them. They have an entire solar system to range across, but in true Mormon spirit they just want to keep going. And after all the impressive engine talk, and their plans to grow sustainable food, the thing that gets me is that the heart of the ship is, essentially, a transplanted mid-century LDS church, complete with cheesy murals of the Church’s founders traveling across the United States. A perfect example of kitsch made beautiful, as these explorers want to take a piece of the past into a blank slate of a future, and remind themselves of the journeys of their ancestors.
The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss
Molly Gloss’s work has had a recent upswell of attention thanks to Saga Press’ lovely new editions of her books. The Dazzle of Day, her third novel, is another generation ship saga, although told from a slantwise angle. It opens as people are preparing to embark, and, as most of the spacebound people are Quakers, they consider their ship in the larger history of that religion:
The toroid takes its plain Quaker name, Dusty Miller, from the reflective sail’s whitish aspect in the sun’s transparent light, and I have lain awake and imagined it; the small circle of raft—the houseboat, as people are saying—at the center of its great circle of flimsy sailcloth, moving soundlessly across the blackness of space like .a moth, a leaf, a little puff of pollen adrift on a solar wind, which is an image that sits well with me.
But most of the book concerns what happens when the ship reaches its destination. It glides along in orbit, within easy reach of the planet the original travelers set out to find. But now, where shall they land? Do they want to land at all, or keep moving, looking for new world past this one? Since the ship was originally populated by Quakers, and communal decision-making is the central nervous system of their community, every facet of the mission can now be considered, turned over, and refracted through the opinions of all onboard. Rather than a tale of colonization, or proselytizing gone tragically wrong, or the brutality of religious bureaucracy, Dazzle is a gentle book, in which ethics and the desire for true communication fuels every decision.