Which is the Best Evil Church of Evil in Outer Space?

In a discussion about SF tropes that are ready to be put to pasture (or sent to the glue factory) the worthy robertjwizard writes:

“Another trope is the “let’s take the church, and make them an all-powerful force of sinister evil”. I dislike it for its transparency and I have never seen it well done. I think it because the author has a bone to pick rather than a story to tell – see Phillip Pullman. Another one is the evil corporation and for the same reasons.”

Let me ask anyone willing to answer: in what books is the tiresome and shopworn trope of the Evil Church of Evil done well?

For my part, I think the trope is done well if one of two things is present, or both:

  • Thing one: the Evil Church has some good reason to be evil.
  • Thing two: if the Evil Church of Evil is evil in a grandiose way, a Darth Vader kind of way, the sheer impressiveness of the evil will carry the day even if the details are unrealistic.

SPOILER WARNINGS! I give away at least two surprise endings in the stories mentioned below, so read cautiously.

When the Evil Church as some good reason for its evil, the tale, instead of being a mere exercise in paranoid anti-theocracy hysteria, is believable enough to be fun, even if not necessarily realistic.

(Unrealistic, because I see far more examples of the Church acting as a bulwark to preserve liberty than as a threat to liberty, far more often helping the poor than trampling them. Being afraid the Church is planning to overthrow the secular law is sort of like being afraid the Treasury Department will take over the other bureaus and branches of the government, and put armed T-Men on every street corner. While such a thing could perhaps happen, history indicates far greater dangers have cropped up from overweening judges, tax-drunk legislatures, imperious executives, and unpaid standing armies than from the Mint.)

Let me list when the trope has been done well and contrast it when it has been done badly.

Consider the Evil Church in Dan Simmons’ ENDYMION. I thought this Church was scary, realistic, and hard-core bad-ass.

The Evil Church has discovered an alien symbiont which could resurrect the dead, interpreted this as a miracle from God, and used the lure of endless life to gather endless power over the multitudes of common folk: and the freaking Swiss Guard in their high-tech power armor aboard their ultra-high acceleration warships were killed dead during high-g maneuvering knowing that the symbiont would bring them back to life at the destination. The Imperial Evil Church of Evil was (as far as I could tell) beneficial to the majority of its subjects, maintained order, and granted its loyal subjects endless life. It was also as sadistic as a cat playing with a mouse. The Evil Pope of Evil was one immortal sort of Antichrist figure, whom I remember as being scary as all get-out, and secretly working for time traveling machine intelligences of evil. The College of Cardinals met once a death to re-elect his newly resurrected self back into ultimate power in a cruelly meaningless ceremonial vote.

So the Evil Church in ENDYMION fits both my criteria: she has a good reason to be evil (a monopoly on eternal life) and has grandiose flare.

Comparisons with Phillip Pullman’s Magisterium inevitably reflect poorly on Mr. Pullman’s work. He had an ax to grind, and he attended to that task so closely, he forgot some of the basic rules of story telling, which includes the rule that a writer must made the antagonists able to antagonize the heroes, or, better yet, make them scary or impressive or something.

As far as my poor memories serves, the Magisterium is merely evil for the sake of evil, serving what turns out to be a drooling and powerless and senile God in heaven, who likewise has no purpose to His actions–and has no actions. The Magisterium was simply too small to be a credible threat for our plucky lie-telling heroine, who was able step through the subtle barrier between worlds and escape any pursuit: they were not an body with branches and agents in other dimensions — someone remind me if my memory has skipped a point. They did not seem to have any magic powers or abilities to stop the Lapland witches or the armored bears. I vaguely recall they had one guy who could read the alethiometer, but I don’t remember him ever doing anything.

There was nothing either of a good reason to be evil nor an impressive grandeur to the evil: indeed, the author went way out of his way to make the Evil God just a drooling nonentity who dies by falling out of bed; and the real leader of the Evil Church of Evil, Lamech or Enoch or someone, gets killed by a femme fatale by being pushed into a pit. The armory and arsenal of the evil scientist Lord Azrael, with its acres of factory-scape and rivers of molten metals, are far more impressive than anything we ever see the bad guys do. The Evil Church here neither has any dark towers like Carce of Witchland, nor any volcanoes like Mount Doom, nor any grim soldiers like the Huntsmen of Annuvin, nor an armored battle station like the Death Star. The Magisterium are a disgrace to the forces of evil.

Pullman may not himself be religious enough a soul to do blasphemy really well or really convincingly. If you want to hear truly awesome and convincing blasphemy, read the majestic speeches that Milton’s Lucifer makes to his assembled infernal peerage, or what Dante hears from Capaneus in the Seventh Circle of Hell.

I want to give honorable mention to the Friendlies in the DORSAI books by Gordon R. Dickson. Merely and only because men of Faith on the Friendly Worlds of Harmony and Association were portrayed as grim, scary, deadly and evil space-Puritans and not as overdressed, deadly and evil space-Catholics do I grant them the honors of being a well imagined Evil Church of Evil. They dress in black and say ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and wear buckles on their hats, just like real Puritans from real history like Arthur Dimmesdale or Solomon Kane. (Note to the humor impaired: that was a joke. Arthur Dimmesdale is not real.)

Because the writers of typical Christophobic literature, in sci-fi or out of it, cannot think of any Church other than the Roman Catholic to be Evil, kudos are granted Mr. Gordon R. Dickson for his originality. If there is a science fiction book out there somewhere, where the evil leader of the Church is a Patriarch of Antioch, and he wears the square beard and solemn panoply of a Russian Orthodox or Nestorian Catholicos, I have yet to hear rumor of it.

Honorable mention should also go to the Whitecloaks, also called The Children of Light, who are their world’s version of the Grand Inquisition or the Knights Templar in Robert Jordon’s WHEEL OF TIME series. This is an Evil Church of Evil with not just a good reason to be evil, but a great one: they are seeking to find and destroy the Dragon of the Prophecy, an all-powerful warlock who, because the source of all magic is poisoned, cannot help but go insane once he comes into his supernatural super-powers. Indeed, I would go so far as to say the Whitecloaks would be negligent if they were not doing their evil Inquisition type stuff. I am not sure if they actually count as a “church” or not, but they are annoying in the sanctimonious way a pushy door-to-door Bible salesman tends to be, so maybe we can include them.

Another good Evil Church of Evil was the one portrayed in GATHER, DARKNESS by Fritz Leiber. The idea there was that technologically illiterate peasants were kept in awe by displays of force fields and robots and energy systems which they were told were divine manifestations, but were actually just high-tech gimcracks. The plot concerns a group of “witches” (actually another group of technicians) using their own high tech gimcracks to conduct psychological warfare on the established church. The Evil Pope of Evil is one of the main viewpoint characters, and he is not a simple cardboard villain.

However, the unreality of the idea that three guys, much less an entire hierarchy, could keep secret the fact that their miracles were all electronic fakery is one the reader merely has to swallow for the sake of the story. The factories where these superscience props are built, the universities where they are researched and studied, the workers who ship and warehouse them, the technicians who assemble and repair them, the guys at the power station, the animatronic technician for the robotic motion-choreography, force field repairmen, and the middle managers who make sure all these techs do their jobs on time and under budget — well, they are all in on the secret, too, and yet somehow the secret does not leak out. The fact that Venus has thriving colonies complete with warships and aircraft shaped like statues of archangels, all that is part of the secret, too.

In Leiber’s book, every priest and deacon and monk and novice just cooperates with the Evil Church of Evil simply because it is so very evil. Not one of the priest-technicians believe the religion in any way, shape, or form. They are merely pushers of the opiate of the masses.

I vaguely recall (but I might be confusing this with another book) the planet was post-atomic-apocalypse, and the Church was trying to keep the technical literacy rate low, so as to prevent the emergence of another society able to blow up civilization.

Despite the unrealism, though, I still list this as a successful Evil Church of Evil, because she was grandiose. The entire roof the gloomy, huge, soul-crushingly titanic cathedral in the Holy City was carved like a gigantic statue of a bearded Great God, who could, at the commands of the priest-crafty priesthood, be moved by subtle force fields so as to come to life, scowl down at any blasphemers, raise his titanic stone forefinger, and (because there was a energy cannon hidden in the finger) blast the infidel with the divine wrath of the fires of heaven. You see, these Evil Churchmen at least had style. (The Witches have more style, but that is because the author is on their side.)

Turning from Sci-Fi to comics, let me mention the Church of the Instrumentality in Jim Starlin’s DREADSTAR. The Church was big and bad-boy and interstellar, and the priest and deacons had superpowers, superweapons, starships, and so on. They atom bomb a city just to try to kill Dreadstar; and they are so evil, they frame Dreadstar for the atom-bombing. Of course the Instrumentality was just another version of the Roman Catholic Theocracy in Space, except merged with the Technocracy, except they also had psionic powers, making them a Psychotechnotheocracy… aw, never mind. I read it when I was, like, twelve. It sated my tastes and expectations of the time. I assume I would like it if I reread it: I do try to keep my tastes uncomplicated and unjaded when it comes to genre fiction.

In any case, the Instrumentality matches both my criteria for a good Evil Church. First, the reason they must be evil is to oppose the otherwise all-powerful Monarchy, which would otherwise overwhelm the galaxy. Second, they are grandiose evil. The Lord High Papal has magical superpowers and he is built like a hyperthyroidal gorilla, and is so badass that he does not need ears or nose or skin color, AND during the ultimate showdown with Our Hero, he freaking breaks Dreadstar’s ultra-powerful magic sword into fragments his freaking bare hands. That is some bad guy, brother! (Since in real life, Pope John-Paul II tore down the Berlin Wall and shattered the Soviet Empire without even having to use his bare hands, I consider this to be a realistic touch rather than mere space opera flummery.)

Let me pause here to pick on Robert Heinlein. He has an Evil Church of Greed in one of his books, the Fosterites of STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, and a Good Church of Evil in another book, SIXTH COLUMN, and an even more Evil Church of Eviler Evil in IF THIS GOES ON.

SIXTH COLUMN was actually a rewrite of John W. Campbell. Jr.’s short story “All” (written under pseudonym Don A. Stuart) and the plot is lifted from Buck Rogers: a horde of Mongols or Pan-Asians or something swoop in from over the North Pole and the West has no warning. (Remember, this was written nor only before artificial satellites were commonplace, it was written before they were imagined, so the idea that the doings in another hemisphere might surprise was not so farfetched). In short order the Yellow Peril conquers the planet. But the haughty Mandarins allow the conquered peoples the comfort of their native religion. Unbeknownst to the conquerors, the last rebel scientists have discovered, too late for the war effort, a gravitational-magnetic and electro-gravitational spectrums, and they can produce many colored rays from their rayguns that can perform whatever feat the plot requires, from making gold to disintegrating matter, to selectively incapacitating Yellow Men with stun rays that leave White Men untouched.

Cunningly, the super-soldier-scientists concoct a church of some sort of bogus pagan religion based on the six inventors, and use bogus miracles of their real high-tech gimcracks to hearten the rebellion and frighten the Pan-Asians, who we all know are a cowardly and superstitious lot and are just as afraid of pagan idols as they are of the Batman, or something dumb like that.

In short, there are about as many rays and rayguns as you might see in an old fashioned pulp yarn like ‘Alwo of Ulm’ by Captain S.P. Meeks, forty or fifty at a go, each with its own color and special effect. In Ulm the submicroscopians wear multi-armed jackets with a different radio controlled raygun up each sleeve; the Sixth Columnists don’t have anything as cool as that. They dress like priests can carry magic wands.

I will not insert in here the typical ritual expressions of horror and contempt we modern political correctors are supposed to use to excuse and dismiss the work of the previous generation, including Bugs Bunny Cartoons and Sax Rohmer novels, because such comments are parochial and humorless and annoying. The eastern nomadic peoples, including the Mongols, freaking kicked everyone’s ass back in the day, raped woman and piled up pyramids of skulls that even an abortion mill would envy. Dark Ages Europe was spared total obliteration from a very real eastern peril only by some sort of unexpected historical miracle that even Hari Seldon could not have anticipated: Attila just up and went home when he was winning. So Yellow Peril threats to western civilization scarred the Western collective psyche just as deeply as threats from the Spanish Inquisition, ergo a science fictional examination of the one set of scars, yarns about futuristic Mongols, is just as legit as the other, yarns about futuristic Inquisitors. So shut the hell up, PCniks.

Both the Heinlein and the Campbell version of the stories showing a similar pulp-fiction insight into the nature of human society and human spiritual longings (that is, not one iota whatsoever of insight). In both versions, the writer just had the scientists make up a religion about as convincing as I made up one afternoon when I was twelve (“Letmesee, The war god will be red colored! And the earth goddess will be green! Black for the death god!”).

The ridiculous idols in Campbell’s “All” at least had a certain pulp-fiction dignity to them; I don’t recall whether Heinlein’s version had even that. So, points for having a good reason to be evil (is not lying evil?) because the Church here is organizing a rebellion against a tyranny, but no points for being impressive.

Fritz Leiber’s GATHER, DARKNESS is the same idea turned on its head, a group of techs using priestcraft to oppress and tyrannize rather than to organize a rebellion. If anyone has ever done a story about a high-tech witchy or pagan society using statue-of-Serapis type priest tricks to oppress society, and having the plucky and rebellious monotheists using their superscience and supertheology to oppose them, I have never heard a rumor of any such story.

Another Heinlein Evil Church is the Church of Foster, which reads sort of like what H.L. Mencken might have written about hucksters holding a tent revival, assuming Mencken had never actually seen one. So few details are given about what the Fosterites believe or do, that it is not clear whether Foster (or Heinlein) ever met a real, live Christian in his life. Foster’s Church is basically P.T. Barnum from Madison Avenue on steroids.

The only reason to mention this one-sided yet ignorant satire of Christianity is that Heinlein is crafty enough a writer to insert a Fosterite worshiper who is goodhearted and sincere, showing that even a bad religion can have a good celebrant. However, that one character is enough to tip my evil-o-meter into the positive side, because it shows an evil church with a realistically good reason for existing: Foster’s bogus cult not only milks the ‘chumps’ and ‘marks’ (that is you and me, folks) it also actually provides some peace and comfort to the spiritually hungry souls like Patty Paiwonski (Heinlein symbolizes goodheartedness by having the character be a nudist: all evil characters in a Heinlein story are non-nudists; all nudists in a Heinlein story are good. If there is an exception, someone point it out to me, please.)

The one irony of the piece, unnoticed perhaps by Heinlein, is that Foster turns out to be right. There are angels, there is life after death, and the angels sit around in the afterlife wearing wings and halos.

Where Jesus fits into all this is ambiguous: Heinlein makes no more mention of Jesus than does Pullman or Leiber. There is no mention of sin or redemption. God is never mentioned in any of these stories except in his role as a wrathful and arbitrary tyrant.

In any case, Foster maybe right about the afterlife and so on, but when the dead get there, there is no one in charge, and no Creator, just kind of a consensus where we, who are all gods, get a vote. Very democratic. Heinlein seems to be straining to invent some new idea religion to have his main character, Mike the Martian, spring on an unsuspecting world, but all he comes up with is the same old Gnostic crap again. Thou are god. We are all god. Everything you do is right. Eat the apple and your eyes will be opened and you will be like god, knowing good and evil. Sound familiar?

IF THIS GOES ON is just a typical left-leaning paranoia fantasy about the United States being taken over by evil Mormons or something. The less said about it, the better. The character of Nehemiah Scudder can be taken as the stereotype of all the stereotyped ideas modern yammerhead atheists have about the dangers of theocracy.

Finally, if you want a really evil Evil Church of Evil, I suggest you crack open NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN by Gene Wolfe.

The mainframe of the multigeneration colony ship is occupied by the downloaded ghosts or memories of Typhon, the tyrant of Old Earth, and his immediate family, and, as an act of particular blasphemy or cruelty, he commanded, like Caesar of old, divine honors be paid him.

The main character, Patera Silk, is a humble auger from a poor manteion on Sun Street (so called because it runs parallel to the “sun” that forms the axis of the great O’Neill colony starship), who is not only as clever and truehearted as Father Brown, he is also as bold as Friar Tuck and as loving as Saint Francis. The gods of mainframe are all monsters from classical mythology: Pas and Echidna, Scylla, Molpe, Tartarus, Hierax, Thelxiepeia, Phaea.

At first, Silk is devout to the gods, and even their cruel antics he somehow interprets to be lessons and morals of a rather upstanding character, and his faith in them inspires him to justice and mercy: if you have ever known a perfectly honest foot soldier to follow a dishonest general, you get the idea.

Or, more to the point, if you ever read hymns or theologies by Stoics or Neoplatonists who interpret the comically diabolical and petty gods of Homer as divine exemplars and authors of goodness, justice, and supernal magnanimity, you will get an even clearer idea.

Now, Pas and his Children are about as real as any gods can be in a science fictional setting: they control their entire world. The energy system is the sun; the climate controls and ventilation are the wind and weather; the plumbing fills the lakes and waters; the labyrinth where the cold-sleep suspended compliment of the colonists are imprisoned form the underworld.

Since the technology allows the gods to upload and download memories into the brains of any worshippers unlucky enough to look into one of their still-functioning ‘sacred mirrors’ reverently maintained in their shrines, they have control of your mind and identity as well. They can induce fake religious experiences and raise up fake prophets to control the people as they so wish. Since the world is a hallowed out asteroid spun for gravity, there are no stars, no outside, no ‘beyond’ for people to see, therefore these are gods of a buried world from which there is no escape.

And since the artificial world is dying, and all the high tech gimcracks are breaking down and wearing out, the gods are willing to take any desperate steps to keep the world running.The are the absolute gods of an inescapable world, inescapably decaying toward a twilight of death.

I notice no other version of high tech gimcrack gods listed above ever has to worry about their tools and toys wearing down or running out of juice. The ruinous and rotting condition of the artificial world is one more creepy yet masterful little touch of realism, yet not without a symbolic resonance, by Gene Wolfe.

But the story opens when Silk suffers what might be an hallucination, or might be a real religious epiphany from an obscure and forgotten god called the Outsider, the god who made the stars outside the tomblike world of the starship.

So, the dread pantheon of Pas not only fits, it exceeds my two criterion. The Evil Church of Evil is evil for a very good reason: the electronic ghosts in the mainframe are the captain and chief officers of the ship, whose business it is to see that the ship survives with cargo and crew intact long enough to reach her destination. They expect and demand divine honors to be paid them because this maintains the social order, and these gods are godlike enough that the high tech gimcracks actually control the whole world, including the minds and memories of those aboard.

As for them being impressive and grandiose, I merely ask the reader to read the book, and find the scenes where, after years and decades of silence, the sacred glass lights up with the face of a goddess, or a scene where the lake waters rise at divine command, or where Echidna with her snakes manifests herself physically through the bodies of her votaries, or where the voice of the god of death, the blind god, speaks softly out of the darkness to a man trapped and dying of thirst in his gloomy labyrinths below the ground.

These gods and goddesses are the real magilla, scary and impressive as all get-out, and the least of them could smash even a deathless Swiss Guard super-marine in his FTL power-armor, or pop the head of Nehemiah Scudder like a zit.

And that, my dear readers, is the way to do an Evil Church of Evil.

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