Science Fiction and Wonder and Humbug

John Hutchins asks:

Does the Left Behind book count as SciFi in your estimation?
Do things that are heavily influenced by religion like Dune, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and others count as being religious in nature?

Excellent question! Allow me to wax pedantic:

Let me start by saying I am not qualified to answer. I have not read the LEFT BEHIND series. My opinion is necessarily based on hearsay and ignorance. But I used to work for a newspaper, so ignorance of the topic is no excuse for not filling up the column space!

At a guess, from what I hear of it, I would not consider LEFT BEHIND to fit my definition of science fiction.

On firmer ground, I can say I do not consider the science fiction stories DUNE or BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, nor the space-opera fairy story STAR WARS to be religious fiction.

Science fiction stories are poetical or emotional accounts of man’s relationship to the scientific view of the natural universe and the Darwinian view of the origins of life. They are basically wonders stories about the wonders (or horrors) of science, of change and progress. Fantasy stories are the nostalgia of the scientific age for the magic of the medieval and pagan world view, or, at least, the view reflected in their epics, chansons, folk tales, and wonder stories. Religious stories are those primarily meant for edifying the faith, whether they contain elements of wonder or not.

Science fiction by this definition is the opposite of, for example, the Aeneid of Virgil, which showed the eternal laws of the divine gods and the eternal order of the universe as establishing the eternal city of Rome and her central place in it. Science fiction is about change and emphasizes the instability, the non-eternal nature, of those things we would otherwise take for granted, whether the change is, for example, the degeneration of Man into Eloi and Morlock by AD 802701, or the change is the rise of Big Brother in Airstrip One by AD 1984.

All stories, to some degree, are a humbug.

They are make-believe, a humbug willingly believed by the audience for the duration of the story. So all stories, even the most fantastical, must contain an element that makes the audience willing (for the duration) to believe it, to grant the hypothetical, so to speak, to step into the dream.

In a science fiction story the humbug is scientific, or based (however loosely) on the scientific world view. When the Time Traveler of HG Wells sees the fate of man, the humbug is a machine that travels through the dimension of time, and so the story is a scientific romance; but when Scrooge sees his fate, he is escorted there by a ghost in a dream or vision, so the humbug there is ghost-story stuff, fantasy.

Much ink has been spilled on the question of whether unscientific humbug can be legitimately used in science fiction? Does the science have to be real? I dismiss such questions with a supercilious wave of my snuffbox. Science fiction has never been about real science; it has always been about believable make-believe science. What makes the humbug believable is not how realistic the science is — although that helps, particularly in the sub-genre called hard SF — no, what makes the humbug believable is the willingness of the audience is to believe it. The primary thing that makes the audience willing is if the humbug either intellectually or emotionally fits with (and applauds) their world view, which, for the science fiction reading public, is the scientific world view.

If the humbug intellectually fits, it is Jules Verne type fiction, or hard SF; if it emotionally fits, it is HG Wells type fiction, or soft SF. The difference between hard and soft SF is the difference between being shot to the moon in a shell that obeys the real laws of real ballistics, or floating to the moon in an anti-gravity sphere; it is the difference between riding the submersible ironclad Nautilus through the sea or riding the Time Machine through the aeons.

So even a story which takes place in an openly Christian world-view, such as the planetary trilogy by CS Lewis, provided it has even a veneer of elements from the scientific world view, as the space-ship of Weston in OUT FROM THE SILENT PLANET, it becomes science fiction by the definition I am proposing; but where those scientific elements are missing, as in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, it either becomes a fantasy (if the supernatural elements are meant to be regarded as unreal) or as fiction (if the supernatural elements are meant to be regarded as real).

By “meant to be regarded” I do not mean the stance of the man writing the book; I mean the stance of the book itself. CS Lewis, I doubt not, believed that ‘Maleldil’ was real, since this is merely another name for God; but I doubt he believed Merlin the Magician would rise from the grave in England’s hour of greatest need. That is on the one hand. On the other, Maleldil and Merlin are treated both as story elements with an equal degree of make-believe in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH. The believability of Lewis’s “fairy-tale for grownups” depends on how believable Merlin appears when he appears. (And I, for one, regard Lewis’ as the most believable portrayal of that mythic figure I have encountered in any book.)

That may be a confusing way of putting it. Let me try again:

A man who believes in ghosts reading a story by a writer who believes in ghosts, AND the story is meant by the author and taken by the reader to be a fictional but realistic account of something which, no matter how unlikely or romanticized, they both regard as legitimately part of the real world is no more science fiction or fantasy than an unlikely or romanticized pirate story would be when told by and told to and author and audience who believed pirates are real.

BUT a ghost-story, even when told by and to people who believe in ghosts, which introduces an element of the scientific world view to provide verisimilitude, or which introduces a speculation or extrapolation, no matter how farfetched, which is part of the scientific world view (as relativity), or part of the romance surrounding the scientific world view (as time travel) is a science fiction story.

By this definition, Shakespeare’s HAMLET is not in the fantasy story genre, and the genre does not change whether or not the audience believes in ghosts. In the television show VERONICA MARS the teen detective sees her dead friend in a dream, but this show would not suddenly become a fantasy story if the ghost were real. On the other hand, THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR is a fantasy story, because the ghost is akin to the witch in BEWITCHED and the genii in I DREAM OF GENII and the martian in MY FAVORITE MARTIAN — the whole point of the show is the introduction into ordinary life of a fantastic element that has no natural explanation.

If your ghosts create electromagnetic disturbances when they walk, and can be captured by beams shot from unlicensed nuclear accelerators into magnetic containment units as in GHOSTBUSTERS, at that point, ghosts or no ghosts, it is a science fiction story, because you are using elements from the scientific world view to perform your exorcisms.

By this definition, A WRINKLE IN TIME is science fiction and not fantasy even though it has witches and angels and demons in it, because the witches are depicted as space aliens, and the angels and demons, while clearly supernatural, are inhibitors of other planets and parallel dimensions. You could not read WRINKLE IN TIME to Dante without stopping to explain the Kepler model of the solar system and the Einstein model of the spacetime continuum. The fantasy elements exist within the naturalistic model of the modern scientific world view.

Likewise a Gnostic fairy tale like CHILDHOOD’S END is still science fiction, even though it has cartoony devil-creatures with batwings and horns, and ends with the enlightened spirits rising to the Pleroma and achieving unity with Godhead–but the humbug is scientific humbug and not magical humbug, and the Overlords and their Cosmic Over-Mind they serve as described as created by evolution, that is, as natural beings not supernatural, and so the tale is science fiction.

In other words, the story is science fiction if the audience must first understand the basic scientific model of the universe. I mean only the most basic idea: the wandering stars are globes like Terra containing mortal beings, not spiritual realms as in Dante.When Cavor or Barbican travel to the moon, they do not meet the soul of Piccarda Donati, the Empress Constance, or other blessed spirits who broke their vows in life.

While a purist might insist that a movie where spaceships,engines roaring, make banked turns like World War One fighter jets, and make the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs is outside the scientific model of the universe as the Ptolemaic spheres of Dante, I would allow space opera to be science fiction because it is in the spirit of the scientific age, and canptures the romance, even if scientifically illiterate. Call me an “impurist” if you will.

But, by Grabthar’s Hammer and Klono’s carbotanium claws, before you exile STAR WARS and its mystical “Force” to the fantasy wilderness outside the genre of science fiction, tell me how humbugs like the Mind Meld of Mr. Spock, the transporter beams and warps drives of STAR TREK, the mind-controlling Slaver race, teleportation, stasus-fields, ringworld material and breeding for luck from RINGWORLD, the history-controlling Seldon Plan and mind-controlling Psychohistorians of FOUNDATION, the Espers from STARSHIP TROOPERS, the angels (complete with halo and wings!) from STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, or the magical monkey-evolving Monolith spacewarpy magic door (“My God, its full of stars”) from 2001 A SPACE ODSSEY fit in to the standard scientific model of the cosmos, or any model.

Let us turn to the next question — what makes a story religious? 

Myself, I do not regard merely having a character or a society portrayed as having or obeying a religious creed as significant. The religion of the Fremen of Dune, which is descends from Zen Buddhism and Sunni teachings, does not bring the story out of the definition of science fiction, nor more than does the Orange-Catholic religion of the thinly disguised outer space version of the Byzantine Empire of Shaddam IV and the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. I do not see this as different in principle from a story where John Carter, Warlord of Mars, runs across the odd and sinister cult of the Therns of Barsoom, or Conan facing the giant snake worshiped as a god by the Serpent-Cult of the sinister serpent-men of Iss.

Outer space people worship space gods. This has been true in the very earliest strata of science fiction history. In SKYLARK OF SPACE (1928), the green skinned natives of Kondal (a favorite skin color for space people ever since) make a reference to “the First Cause” as a eupehmism for their monotheistic god (to my mind, a repellant and Darwinian god).

Again, in STARMAKER by Olaf Stapledon (1937) a monotheistic god is not only the McGuffin driving the plot, but comes on stage as a character in the apocalyptic climax at the end of this universe in a vision of multiple universes (once again, a repellant and Darwinian monotheistic god).

Before we Christians complain that our god is under-represented in the science fiction genre, I ask them to name for me the pirate stories, wild west stories, detective stories or even (oddly enough) ghost stories and  vampire stories where there is any mention of a god at all, or hint of divine presence, much less a Christian one. If anything, science fiction contains more mention and more speculation about gods and godlike things than other genres.

Science fiction certainly comments about the role of religion in society — usually societies where savage green men are about to sacrifice a gorgeous yet nubile half-clad space princess to an insane all-powerful computer they worship as an idol, so the commentary is usually quite sophomoric; but then again, our beloved genre contains magical monkey-evolving Monoliths and Seldon Plans and Ringworld material and faster-than-light drives, so no one expects our theology or anthropology to be more sophisticated than our physics.

The story of DUNE is certainly about religion: Paul Muad-Dib is certainly a messiah-figure, but there is no implication that a character in the story named God actually selected Paul to lead the Fremen jihad — rather, the clear implication is that genetics and mind-training and alien chemicals gave Paul Way Cool mind powers, but these powers are something that exist as scientific non-supernatural phenomena in that background. The Bene Gesserit Witches are not really witches, not in the sense that Hermione Grangier or Samantha Stephens or Glinda the Good is a Witch.

So I would not call DUNE a “religious” story for the simple fact that it is not read for the edification of the faith, or of any faith. It is not like PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, whose main point is edification of the faith.

STAR WARS is less religious than a sober work contemplating religious themes, such as THE SPECTRE from DC comics or that insightful meditation on the intricacies of Taoism known as BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. I have written an entire essay on the question of religion in STAR WARS, which you can buy here, and which I will not repeat here.

Here I will say only that ‘The Force’ in STAR WARS is by design the most vague and undemanding of mystical humbugs, and the point is to allow space-samurai with laser swords to do backflips, catch blaster bolts, and throw objects with their minds, or shoot lightning from their fingertips.

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA is a slightly different question, because it is modeled on some events from the Book of Mormon, and because, at least in the original series, supernatural good and bad angels came on stage as characters. In that respect, it is like, for example, Orson Scott Card’s HOMEGOING series, which had similar themes.

I assume a Mormon could achieve some religious edification from the work, the same way I receive religious edification from, for example, THE SILVER CHAIR by CS Lewis: but in each case, I don’t think that is the primary purpose of the work.

Contrast this with THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, where I think religious instruction is the primary purpose of the work—it is not a horror story or a ghost story, but a thinly disguised series of lectures on matters particular to the Christian faith.

In this way, the religious stories are like love stories or horror stories. A horror story with a scientific element in the background, such as FRANKENSTEIN, is still shelved with other horror stories because its primary purpose is to arouse a certain emotion in the mind of the reader.

Does having Way Cool mind powers make the story a fantasy? Is it a fantasy if a Luke Skywalker is able to perform psychokenesis, or Mr. Spock able to perform a Mind Meld, or the Gray Lensman Kimball Kinneson able to see through walls, or Jommy Cross able to read minds, or Gilbert Gosseyn able to teleport, or Michael Valentine Smith able to do all of the above?

I would say it depends on the humbug used to explain why and how these people have these powers. If the powers are granted by divine Providence or a Deal with the Devil, it is different than if they are granted by Mentor of Arisia or the Old Ones of Mars.

You can have a story about the rise of the Anti-Christ without it being science fiction — ROSEMARY’S BABY, for example, I would shelve next to DRACULA and THE SHINING in the horror section rather than next to GALACTIC PATROL and STARSHIP TROOPERS.

I do not mean to make my nice, simple definition “science fiction is the mythology of the scientific era” any more complex than it seems, but I have to add one thing: merely writing in a background of a religion some people believe and others do not does not put the book into or out of the science fiction or fantasy genre. I am a Christian: I believe the events of the Apocalypse will take place either literally or symbolically, as described, and I believe echoes or types of those events have already happened.

But if I wrote or read a fictional account of these events, whether or not I defined the tale as fantasy would depend on the type of humbug used to make the make-believe seem believable.

If the anti-Christ came from Mars, as he does in Robert Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, it is science fiction. (Oh, come on, I know Mr. Heinlein did not mean his satire to be read in that way, but as a textbook example of a false messiah, you might admit Mike the Martian preaching eugenics and Free Love fits the bill.)

If the anti-Christ is a talking Ape from Talking-Animal-Land, who preaches that Aslan is the same as Tash, it is fantasy.

If the story took place in the modern world in the day after tomorrow, and the wove real events in the Middle East into the plot, it would be a mainstream fiction or political thriller, and I would not automatically shelve the book with GALACTIC PATROL merely because one of the characters was a modern-day Nero or Anti-Christ, even if he has Way Cool Mind Powers.

Let me put this last point another way: as far as pirate stories go, TREASURE ISLAND is a pirate story, and so is PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, and merely having ghosts in the pirate story does not make it not a pirate story. On the other hand, there are pirates both in GALACTIC PATROL and in ON STRANGER TIDES, which I would call science fiction and fantasy respectively, because the humbug used to explain the make-believe are either scientific (as the Lens of Arisia granting Way Cool Mind Powers) or fantasy explanations (as the lack of iron in the New World allowing ancient magics to thrive there which died off in Europe).

A story in a Christian background, such as A CHRISTMAS CAROL or ANGEL ON MY SHOULDER or HEAVEN CAN WAIT, even if written by a writer and read by a reader who does not take that background as true, is still a mainstream and not an SFF story for the same reason a pirate story with a ghost in it is a pirate story and not a ghost story even for readers who don’t believe in ghosts.

As I said, I have not read LEFT BEHIND books. I don’t if their primary purpose is the edification of the faith or if the writer is merely writing a thriller taking the events in the Apocalypse and playing them out in the modern day.  If the book is a thriller set in the modern day, I would say it is not science fiction.

The religious beliefs of the reader and writer, as far as my definition is concerned, do not matter. It is the way the elements are handled inside the book that matter.

So the reader who does not believe in the Christian faith should not shelve LEFT BEHIND with WIZARD OF OZ in the fantasy section merely on the basis of that disbelief, any more than my pagan friends should shelve THE LIGHTNING THIEF or THE DRESDEN FILES next to GONE WITH THE WIND or HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER in the mainstream fiction section on the basis of their belief in Zeus or White Magic.

82 Comments

  1. Comment by lyda morehosue:

    Intersting musings… I only comment to say that I TRIED to read the LEFT BEHIND series because I write religious SF and people, of course, pointed them out to me. At any rate, I read several chapters into the first book, and your questioner may have asked specifically about LEFT BEHIND because there are very weird bits of science tucked into the narrative that make a wary reader like myself wonder if the setting is supposed to be near future.

    And then it kind of becomes very much on par with other science fantasy stories like BSG or Star Trek…. Yet I think LEFT BEHIND is harder for me to consider SF because, despite a possible near future setting, I don’t think the authors intend it to be read as speculative.

  2. Comment by Panda Rosa:

    Don’t know how much this is connected to your point, but the best analysis of the LEFT BEHIND series can be found on the site Slacktivist.typepad.com, as a page-by-page dissection of what are being called The World’s Worst Books. It not only isn’t science fiction, it isn’t really Christian fiction, or much of anything else either save the authors’ own personal desires/hopes/jeremiad about God and man. Determined Fundamentalists may get into the books and enjoy them at face value, anyone else… well, go check it out.

    • Comment by Martin Barlow:

      Thank you for pointing me to this. I managed about 8 pages of the first book before boredom set in, but Slacktivist gets a lot of mileage out of them. Among the many, many telling criticisms is a simple one which utterly sinks them as SF: the author’s complete failure to think about the post-Rapture world. For example: there should be a lot of abandoned cars, so second hand cars should be cheap (or free) but a week after the Rapture a character buys a car in the normal way.

      And this made me laugh:

      “That seems to muddle the lesson here somewhat. LaHaye and Jenkins are trying to teach their readers that following their duty to aggressive evangelism might have consequences that could hurt their careers, because Christians are a persecuted minority and this world is Satan’s domain. But L&J also believe that following one’s Christian duty results in material success and career advancement, because this is a Christian nation and God is in charge. So I suppose the lesson here was bound to come across as muddled.”

  3. Comment by John Hutchins:

    Battlestar is actually from an LDS interpretation of biblical verses plus statements attributed to Joseph Smith, nothing to do with the Book of Mormon.

    Homecoming series by Orson Scott Card is a straight rip-off of the plot of the first half of the Book of Mormon with extra romance and immorality thrown in and spaceships instead of sailing ships.

    Neither is particularly edifying.

    I always thought the Narnia stories were primarily about teaching people about religion first with the fantasy being the means of doing it, like the parables of Jesus.

    • Comment by Zen:

      Just to clarify a bit, BSG is more of an imaginative rethinking of the return of the lost ten tribes, than anything in the Book of Mormon (as much as I would have enjoyed that).

      And I quite agree that the Homecoming series is not Card’s best work, by a long shot.

  4. Comment by mrmandias:

    In an essay which should be getting published soon, I argue that there are three main types of imaginative fiction:

    Fantasy, which is the imaginative fiction of dead, pre-modern myths.
    Science Fiction, which is the imaginative fiction of modern myths.
    A third, unrecognized category, which is the imaginative fiction of religious myth (i.e., living, pre-modern myths).
    Note that “myth” does not mean “false.”
    Obviously there’s lot of bleed between these categories, since they are all types of imaginative fiction.

    ‘Left Behind’ would fit into the third category, *assuming its imaginative fiction* at all. I’m doubtful it is. There’s a genre of ‘thrillers’ that use futuristic high-tech stuff but that usually aren’t considered science fiction because they aren’t really imaginative fiction. ‘Left Behind’ has the same relation to the third category that thrillers have to science fiction.

    • Comment by mrmandias:

      Obviously I and our host are thinking along the same lines. Indeed, since I made a similar comment on his blog a year ago, and he has clearly not been thinking about science fiction for longer than that, being a mere science fiction writer, I claim all credit for his views.

      My only real disagreement is that I think the modern myths that make up science fiction are broader than the ‘scientific worldview.’ In fact, they can include myths that are at odds with each other, like postmodern myths about the futility of everything and modern myths about the inevitable triumph and heroism of Promethean mankind. Science is one modern myth, but it doesn’t exhaust the category.

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        “My only real disagreement is that I think the modern myths that make up science fiction are broader than the ‘scientific worldview.’”

        I am not sure we disagree. Stories about modern myths that do not involve the scientific world view, such as A DAY AFTER TOMORROW or AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH are fiction but are not science fiction.

  5. Comment by Nate Winchester:

    I HATED the Left Behind series (and I read a lot of them). Not for the theology or anything, they were just very, very poorly written.

    Like… remember your wonderfully expressed complaints about Phillip Pullman’s “Dark Materials” series? It’s the same for LB but worse. Lots of build ups – never any adequate payoffs (or really failed efforts at twists and deceptions).

    I would recommend them for either sporkings, or examples in how not to write. (I was keeping up with Slacktivist’s critique of them – until he started to let his politics take over the posts).

    • Comment by Boggy Man:

      Yes, I unfortunately had to abandon him in his nadir of dementia. He was among the first of the babbling mob to declare the recent tragic shootings to be inspired by heated anti-Obama rhetoric. I cannot stand such mental filth; truly such a sentiment is the socio-political version of sadist porn. Though I truly do miss the vivisection of Left Behind. (Albeit much less so if half of it wasn’t just radicalist dogrel.)

      A cliff-notes version of Left Behind for John and others; A very poorly written Gary-Stu fanfic of Hal Lindsey/Jack Chick heretical “rapture” theology. It’s filled with paper thin, unintentionally sociopathic characters, a bizarre focus on the minutia of phone calls and travel, a complete absence of impact that a rapture of the innocents would have on society, and galloping misogyny. It’s also peppered with paranoia concerning the UN, Jews (oh sorry, in the book they’re called “International Bankers”) Catholics, pacifists, and anyone else who isn’t part of their weird insular sub,sub-culture. (It’s a pity they ran out of sequels, I would have loved to see them work Reptoids, Lady Gaga, and Harry Potter into the Antichrist’s army.)

      • Comment by Nate Winchester:

        truly such a sentiment is the socio-political version of sadist porn. Though I truly do miss the vivisection of Left Behind. (Albeit much less so if half of it wasn’t just radicalist dogrel.)

        Yeah, Fred was one of the internet’s most prolific “armchair” psychologists wasn’t he (did he ever acknowledge the mistake in such sentiment)? Always willing to tell what was wrong with other people based on… well very little data. I started shying away when he spent several postings on one small segment of the LB books and used it to launch into a whole psycho-analyst of the authors. Ironically, I think what set him off was the authors “judging” one of the characters. Ah, irony.

        A cliff-notes version of Left Behind for John and others; A very poorly written Gary-Stu fanfic of Hal Lindsey/Jack Chick heretical “rapture” theology.

        Extremely poorly written. I keep wondering that if that, or Stephanie Meyer can be so popular, what’s holding me back? Or our host, here? He’s far more deserving of at least half of those hacks’ sales (accounting for niche and genre obviously).

        It’s filled with paper thin, unintentionally sociopathic characters, a bizarre focus on the minutia of phone calls and travel,

        Yes! By jabootu’s horns I was almost screaming over this. Not only do they give too much detail on this, but apparently at the cost of actually interesting stuff. I’d call it annoying but that doesn’t do it justice.

        a complete absence of impact that a rapture of the innocents would have on society,

        Or just the rapture, period. The whole thing suffers from a horrible celebrity paradox too.

        and galloping misogyny.

        No, I’d say misanthropy. Fred just highlighted the anti-woman part of the story. As I pointed out (except it was in relation to Twilight), just because something’s anti-woman, doesn’t mean it can’t also be anti-man.

        It’s also peppered with paranoia concerning the UN, Jews (oh sorry, in the book they’re called “International Bankers”)

        I’m… I dunno. Saying that “international bankers” always equals Jews just seems…
        Ok, let me rephrase: that would seem to require more subtlety than I think the authors of this book series are capable of. To amend Freud: Sometimes “international bankers” might just be… international bankers.

        Catholics,

        Yes, even as a protestant, I found their anti-Catholicism uncomfortable (actually I’ve never been that anti-Catholic in the first place).

        pacifists, and anyone else who isn’t part of their weird insular sub,sub-culture. (It’s a pity they ran out of sequels, I would have loved to see them work Reptoids, Lady Gaga, and Harry Potter into the Antichrist’s army.)

        Again, that’s giving the books more credit than their worth. I would like to see ANYONE in the Antichrist’s army.

      • Comment by Nate Winchester:

        Uh…. I think my previous comment got eaten. Unless John’s still moderating it.

      • Comment by Headless Unicorn Guy:

        Don’t forget Left Behind’s Unintentional Canonical Slashfic Setups whenever both Author Self-Inserts are onstage together, with LaHaye’s Self-Insert on top/dom and Jenkins’ Self-Insert on the bottom/sub every time. More Unintentional Canonical Slashfic Setups per 1000 words than anything outside of Yaoi.

  6. Comment by David Ellis:

    It’s an interesting debate as to whether something like OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET can be reasonably considered science fiction. It comes down to the question of whether science fiction can include the supernatural (quite a tricky word to define—a whole discussion in itself) and still be science fiction. In several discussions I’ve argued, atheist though I am, that OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET is, in fact, science fiction. I don’t think science fiction must necessarily assume a naturalistic worldview—which is what the exclusion of the supernatural from it amounts to. One can speculate on the existence of angels as well as aliens. Of an afterlife as well as dimension X.

    On a related note, other than Lewis’s Space Trilogy, can anyone name some good quality examples of science fiction written from an explicitly religious perspective where the writer not only believes in a religion but where the supernatural (however you care to define that) elements of that religion manifest themselves in some explicit way? Offhand, I can’t think of any but I’m sure there must be some out there.

    • Comment by robertjwizard:

      I just finished a Canticle for Leibowitz, very good book. A Case of Conscience by James Blish comes to mind, although I found it rather dumb. A Choice of Gods by Simak may be, but I haven’t read it yet.

      Although it doesn’t fall into science fiction, it does have its post-apocolyptic side, is Stephen King’s megally-retarded The Stand. Here King uses deus ex machina literally and the hand of God literally sets off the nuclear device. It should be taught in schools for its example of bad writing.

      If you go to the Christian fiction shelf in B&N I’m sure you will find some more, but that stuff tends to be not so good.

      • Comment by David Ellis:

        None of those are what I’m talking about if I recall their plots correctly. I’m not just talking about stories written from a religious perspective but ones in which overtly supernatural events actually occur.

        “Although it doesn’t fall into science fiction, it does have its post-apocolyptic side, is Stephen King’s megally-retarded The Stand. Here King uses deus ex machina literally and the hand of God literally sets off the nuclear device. It should be taught in schools for its example of bad writing.”

        My least favorite Stephen King novel (who I usually like quite a lot). I always felt that THE STAND would have made a great novel if he’d avoided the supernatural and paranormal elements and just told a story about the survivor’s of a plague that destroyed 99.999% of the human population of the planet. That subject, after all, is more than sufficiently interesting in and of itself. The paranormal stuff was superfluous.

        Had the same reaction to LOST, for that matter.

        • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

          I wholeheartedly agree with both assessments.

          I have never been able to finish King’s THE STAND, or a similar novel called SWAN SONG by Robert McCammon.

          And after spending so much time speculating what the monster in the jungle was only to find out it was REDACTED turned me off of the show, and I like SF and fantasy.

        • Comment by Brandon:

          In general it does seem to be the case that the better science fiction at least leaves it ambiguous — this is the case with both A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ and A CASE OF CONSCIENCE, in which things happen that could be interpreted as supernatural but need not be (well, it’s hard not to think of at least the Wandering Jew in the former as a supernatural figure, but everything else admits of the ambiguity, and certainly the ambiguity is in some sense the whole point of Blish’s work). A common pattern, I think, in science fiction of a religious tone. Jules Verne’s MASTER OF THE WORLD, for instance, repeatedly makes references suggesting that Robur is cast from heaven by God, and indeed that he could not have been defeated by anything else, but of course being cast from heaven is the sort of thing that could very well happen if you’re arrogant enough to fly a prototype flying machine straight into a thunderstorm. The laws of nature are respected but a religious interpretation is deliberately not ruled out and even to a limited extent encouraged (which is actually true of a lot of Verne’s fiction, although it doesn’t always come through in older English translations). Wells does something similar in THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, although it’s usually missed. In the case of Verne, a Catholic who was aggravated at authors using pseudoscience in stories simply in order to avoid supernatural explanations (double transgression, so to speak: respecting neither Nature nor Nature’s God), it’s almost certainly a matter of real religious conviction; after him it’s increasingly difficult to say how much of it stems from a religious viewpoint and how much of it is just keeping up an ambiguity for storytelling purposes.

    • Comment by bibliophile112:

      I think you could make a case for our host’s excellent War of the Dreaming duology.

      • Comment by robertjwizard:

        You mean the one where every bookstore has book #2 but no one anywhere has book #1? I’ve had book 2 on my shelf for some time, I just haven’t got around to tracking down book 1 yet. I’ve heard about this Amazon thing though…

      • Comment by David Ellis:

        Aren’t those fantasy? I’ve only read THE GOLDEN AGE TRILOGY out of Wright’s novels (and thought extremely good).

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          LAST GUARDIAN OF EVERNESS is a kitchen-sink style fantasy, where everything from Merlin the Magician, Celtic Selkie, Russian vampire-warlocks, Norse trolls, fallen archangels majestic, Greek gods, fairy kings and queens; magic swords, hammers, rings, arrows, wands, horns; black-cloaked vigilantes with the power to Cloud Men’s Minds put in an appearance, not to mention the long-suffering Titan Prometheus and the Most Holy Grail.

          It is not science fiction.

          • Comment by bibliophile112:

            But aside from the giants, magic, wizards, and all the main characters, what about Pendrake’s solution to the main problem of the book? Would you say that’s magic?

            Granted though, that the series is fantasy.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              Aton Pendrake is my homage to Walter Gibson and Ayn Rand: he is what Lamont Cranston would be if, instead of fighting crimelords like Shiwan Khan as THE SHADOW, he fought collectivists like Wesley Mouche. Uh, if the world was being invaded by evil beings from the dream-universe.

              I am not sure what you are calling the “main” problem in the book. To my thinking, that is solved by Lemuel Waylock, who threatens the dark archangel Morningstar to wake the sleeping knights of Celebradon, and forces that horrid being to back down. The archangel can see in his soul that he is not bluffing, and that he has a simple and pure faith in the powers of light and their goodness.

              If you thought the main problem in the book was government over-reach and inflation, well, yes, returning to the gold standard would solve that problem.

    • Comment by Craig:

      Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun quartet begins with a religious experience. It is not entirely clear to the recipient/main character, for some time, that the god who sent it is different in kind than the uploaded entities who are the gods of the world-ship in which the action takes place — but it is in fact God talking to him.

    • Comment by Stephen J. (Genesiscount):

      “It comes down to the question of whether science fiction can include the supernatural… and still be science fiction.”

      Depends on how purist you are about it, I guess… The closest analogy that comes to my mind is, oddly enough, the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett; though those are both fantasy stories and alternate histories, what they are, first and foremost, is murder mysteries. The magic in those stories is very carefully structured so that it no more “solves” the mysteries than forensic science does; it merely reveals clues which the brilliant, non-sorcerous main character Lord Darcy must put together through deduction. In the same way, the presence of supernatural elements needn’t disqualify a story from being “science fiction” if the things that make it science fiction — i.e. the use of imaginary but convincing scientific/technological developments to create new angles from which to look at human nature and human societies — aren’t themselves rendered invalid or irrelevant by the supernatural aspects.

      I would say that it strikes me as a harder balance to find, precisely, because I think that the essence of what is super-natural is that it is not fully explicable or predictable by the scientific method of empirical observation and hypothesis falsification. Some might argue that any element in a story which undermines empiricism as the optimal method of gaining knowledge and understanding truth is contrary to the “spirit” of science fiction, a lot of which does tend to assume that there is no meaningful human problem that cannot be solved by the application of sufficiently advanced technology and the rest of which (i.e. most of the dystopic stuff) tends to assume that if advanced tech can’t fix humanity’s flaws, nothing can — certainly not religion or supernatural forces.

      • Comment by David Ellis:

        “Some might argue that any element in a story which undermines empiricism as the optimal method of gaining knowledge and understanding truth is contrary to the “spirit” of science fiction….”

        But the overt manifestation of the supernatural does not undermine empiricism. If, for example, angels started regularly visiting the earth and conversing with humans it would not undermine our ability to make an empirical study of the world. It would simply provide us with a new category of observable event to be investigated.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “On a related note, other than Lewis’s Space Trilogy, can anyone name some good quality examples of science fiction written from an explicitly religious perspective where the writer not only believes in a religion but where the supernatural (however you care to define that) elements of that religion manifest themselves in some explicit way?”

      This is difficult. Of course, I might ask if anyone can name a good quality example of a detective story written from an explicitly religious perspective where the writer not only believes in a religion, but where the supernatural elements manifest themselves explicitly? Chesterton’s FATHER BROWN stories do not count.

      Or, what about historical fiction? The only story I can think of which would fit this bill is BEN HUR.

      I can nonetheless name a few sci-fi tales with explicit onstage divine manifestations off the top of my head:

      STARMAKER by Olaf Stapledon — God Almighty is being sought by the combined mental unity of the entire sidereal universe, and He comes onstage as a character in the vision that forms the climax of the book.

      DARKNESS AND LIGHT also by Olaf Stapledon — the myriad universes are at the mercy of some demonic and ulterior forces which can only be battled by a zen discipline of mental purity – an in retaliation, the demons send a plague. As best I can tell, Stapledon believed in some sort of Hegelian scientific-mystical mumbo jumbo, so this could have been part of his world view.

      A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay — this is basically a detective story of a man on another world, Tormance, seeking the creator of the world, and being deceived by the snares and lures of the devil. As best I know, Lindsay was an Gnostic of orthodox (if I may use that word) persuasion, and this gorgeous and opiate novel reflected his most profound beliefs.

      NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN by Gene Wolfe — Silk the auger has what could either be a brain disorder or a religious experience at the very beginning of the books, and this god, The Outsider, acts as explicitly as anything else in a Gene Wolfe book, which is to say, not so very unambiguously.

      IN GREEN’S JUNGLES also by Gene Wolfe — Again, it is more than a little ambiguous what is going on here, but one character, who may or may be who he thinks he is, feels a divine presence during a sacrifice, and who has prophetic powers and visitations which makes the villagers believe him to be a warlock. Signs and wonders abound.

      DECLARE by Tim Powers — Spies in the Cold War discover that the Russians are placating Jinn, evil spirits, in order to maintain their empire.

      STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert Heinlein — Angels with wings and halos come onstage explicitly, and run the universe. I am not sure if this counts, because the story is a satire, and I doubt Heinlein really believed in angels; although he clearly believed in the underlying theology, that each man is like unto God, able to define good and evil for himself.

      THE TELLING by Ursula K. LeGuin — This is a little ambiguous, since Taoism is not a theist religion, and does not have a God who could come on stage in a story and perform a miracle. Nonetheless, a character who achieves enlightenment is able to levitate, which is perfectly in keeping with Taoist folk beliefs.

      I will also mention in passing the DRESDEN FILES books by Jim Butcher, but you might call these fantasy or horror rather than science fiction. There are clear manifestations of divine power from the Christian God here and there in the books, from crucifixes repelling vampires to holy swords containing one of the nails from the True Cross, to the faith of the righteous, to angelic visitations.

    • Comment by Richard Bell:

      I have forgotten the author and title, but I read a book lent to me by a friend that had evangelical christian themes all through it. It was definitely science fiction, in that the plot is driven by a reactionless drive that can also go FTL. However, it was definitely a tale of supernatural struggle between good and evil, as there are demons and God given powers to thwart them. It ends with the techno-assisted rapture where all the members of the evangelical sect go beyond the reach of the demonically posessed US government to an Eden-like planet.

      A novel I can name is Sanctuary, where an alien jumps ship and seeks sanctuary with the Catholic Church to escape religious persecution.

    • Comment by mrmandias:

      My co-religionist Eric Stone had a good story recently in Analog called ‘leviathan, whom thou hast made’ that has, if I remember, a miracle at the end.

    • Comment by lotdw:

      Gene Wolfe’s Urth books do. In particular, the main character of the Long Sun books, a sort of priest, has a vision at the very beginning in which he is given a divine mission, and there is occasional divine intervention throughout.

      Some of RA Lafferty’s books likely fit the bill too.

    • Comment by mrmandias:

      My co-religionist James Eric Stone’s story ‘That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made’ which ends with some kind of miracle, if I remember.

      It and Declare are two data points for an emerging trend: sfnal books that reference Job are good.

  7. Comment by robertjwizard:

    BATTLESTAR GALACTICA is a slightly different question, because it is modeled on some events from the Book of Mormon, and because, at least in the original series, supernatural good and bad angels came on stage as characters.

    Have you seen the SciFi channel’s version of the Battlestar Galactica series? I just got into it a few weeks ago (I know I’m slow).
    It is the best television show I have ever seen. The writing is beyond excellent, I haven’t seen so many story threads competently handled. If you haven’t seen it – drop everything you are doing right now – go out and get it, rent it, whatever. Unless you really don’t want to but you would really be missing something.

    Btw, why is there such a big discrepancy is the quality of SciFi’s original movies versus their series? Their movies are the worst. Sharktopus! And then they do stuff in their series like BSG and Firefly, and even the quirky Eureka.

    • Comment by bibliophile112:

      I don’t know, Sharktopus sounds like a pretty enjoyable movie. Not a good movie, not a scientifically accurate movie, but a fun movie.

      • Comment by robertjwizard:

        Their movies are fun the way any horribly inept movie is fun (minus the ones that are supposed to be good like the SW prequels). And I’ve enjoyed a few of the atrociously acted movies, but that is all they do. I would like to see them make something grand for once.

        One of their best ones was Mansquito (yes, man and mosquito!), I laughed till I cried.

        • Comment by bibliophile112:

          By the way, is Sharktopus an actual sci-fi channel movie title?

          • Comment by D. G. D. Davidson:

            Sharktopus is indeed a real title, obviously created with camp in mind.

            I watched two seasons of the new BSG and like Robertjwizard was impressed with the writing and production values. I also agree with Zen’s assessment (below): oversexed is an understatement. Speaking of which, I absolutely hate Cylon 6, who was in serious danger of making me hate the show’s guts. Somebody needs to find her Evil Seductress Switch and turn it OFF!

            Admittedly, I haven’t returned to the new series after the second season and don’t know if I ever will simply because it made me so nostalgic for my childhood that I picked up the DVD set of the original series and discovered, to my shock, that it was just as awesome as I remembered it being when I was a little kid. Oh, Original BSG, I’m so sorry I ever betrayed you for a younger show . . .

            • Comment by robertjwizard:

              I watched two seasons of the new BSG and like Robertjwizard was impressed with the writing and production values. I also agree with Zen’s assessment (below): oversexed is an understatement. Speaking of which, I absolutely hate Cylon 6, who was in serious danger of making me hate the show’s guts. Somebody needs to find her Evil Seductress Switch and turn it OFF!

              The point of Cylon 6 was the relation to Gaius Baltar and his weaknesses and consequent complicity in the annihilation of most of humanity. She plays conspirator to his abject vanity, and persecutor of his conscience. I found the combination to the character of Gauis riveting. Just think of combining the character of Gaius to the cylon Sharon – it would not work. Then again, which cylon 6 are you talking about? They are not all the same, the one he rescues from the Pegasus is not the same one that lives in his mind (or hallucinations) nor the same one that was with him originally.

              I would counter that the story of the cylon Sharon to Chief and Helo more than makes up for whatever inhumanity cylon 6 represents.

              Given that the Cylons can simply download right back into seemingly endless clone bodies and humanity has under 50,000 unable to “respawn”, plus the original fleet objective of making as many babies as possible, I would say it was undersexed. Although it could have done without some relationships, and hookups, but then again I am only in the middle of season two.

              Maybe I am just prejudiced. I am willing to accept a lot for good writing – it is so rare.

              • Comment by D. G. D. Davidson:

                It’s the Cylon 6 in Baltar’s mind I was thinking of. The glasses-and-sweatpants version rescued from the Pegasus is considerably less annoying.

                I entirely agree with your analysis of the character. That doesn’t stop me from finding her incredibly irritating. Call it a matter of personal taste; femme fatale characters grate on my nerves, the fictional character manifestation of nails on a chalkboard.

          • Comment by robertjwizard:

            By the way, is Sharktopus an actual sci-fi channel movie title?

            Hold it, let me get this straight. You question the reality of a movie named Sharktopus, but accept the existence of, without challenge, a movie named Mansquito? Mansquito? You didn’t think I made that up?

            Ha. I’m just fooling with you. Mansquito is real and so is Sharktopus. Would the world be any fun without the dolts who make such films?

    • Comment by Zen:

      SciFi Channel did Stargate SG-1 (and the Atlantis and Universe spin-offs), but it was Fox that did Firefly.

      The new BSG was well done, if fantastically over-sexed.

    • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

      The new BSG was amazing, but be forewarned that there is an unexpected (at least to me) shift towards the end of the series. That said, isn’t Adama awesome!

      • Comment by Doc Rampage:

        BSG is well-made but grindingly painful to watch. It reminds me of the Thomas Covenant series. If you start to really like a character it’s practically a sure thing that something horrible is about to happen to him. And then when you think he is finally getting out of whatever is causing his suffering, something even more horrible comes along.

      • Comment by robertjwizard:

        The character of Adama, as played by Edward James Olmos, is one of the most awesome characters in science fiction I have come across. I think this is mostly due to the skill of the actor, and due to his features, his pocked face, stolid stoicism, and unbending integrity. He brings such a gravity on screen that he becomes the focal point no matter what is going on. And I can’t relate how refreshing it is to have a character that is truly good, not incapable of error, but good.

        When the day comes that I create a character, in writing, like that, I will consider myself as having accomplished something of worth.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “Have you seen the SciFi channel’s version of the Battlestar Galactica series? I just got into it a few weeks ago (I know I’m slow).”

      I have, and I thought it was the best show on television. I don’t mean the best science fiction show, I mean the best show ever of any genre.

      Paradoxically, the show began to sour on me after a while. The behavior of the Cylons (who, at the opening of every show, we are told “have a plan”) stopped making any sense to me, and I lost faith that the writers were going to be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat and make the nonsense make sense. I stopped believing the Cylons had a plan, and that broke the spell of suspension of disbelief.

      The show could not seem to decide whether the Cylons were machines or people, and so the attempts at moral quandaries, such as whether it is right to torture a machine, did not strike me as convincing even slightly.

      Then, the political opinions of the writers began to intrude more and more obviously into the show, and to offend me, so it was with some reluctance that I quit watching.

      I have heard from people whose opinion I trust that later episodes after I quit were even more blatant: the writers were struck with a bad case of Bush Derangement Syndrome, and sacrificed the story on the altar of political preachy-ness.

      • Comment by robertjwizard:

        I’m only on season 2.5, but I see a little of what you are saying. I think shows should only run 2 to 3 years anyway at the most. I can weather the show’s fall, they killed my former favorite show, House, years ago. It bundles along still a crumb of a shadow on a remnant of a speck of what was some damned good tele.

        That, and I still have that gaping stab wound in the back from Lucas’ prequels. It festers and will never heal, but I can now stoically face the fall of any great story.

      • Comment by dirigibletrance:

        Yes. The show’s ending should have been the episode “Exodus, part 2″. It was the best episode of the series, by far. And it had the most awesome space battle in any Sci-Fi television series ever, with the possible exception of the Babylon 5 Episode “Into the Fire”, or the battle at the end of “Return of the Jedi”.

        really, I think Exodus part II is Season 3, Episode 5? 6? Just stop watching there. It’s better that way.

      • Comment by KokoroGnosis:

        Well, I’ll give you one point: The Cylon plan isn’t worth bothering about. The writers themselves forget about it in the second half of the show, and the movie that’s supposed to explain THE PLAN pretty much boils down to, “Lols, let’s kill all the humans.”

        Later episodes of Battlestar actually struck me as relatively fair politically, though. You are asked to side with suicide bombers (worth noting that Cylon suicide bombers are not suiciding at all, since they download and ressurect) at one point, and then the show turns on you and makes you ashamed to have done so.

        BSG isn’t without it’s faults by any means. For every Adama there’s a dozen or so people that I hate in that world. The good points more than balanced it out for me, though, even if I’m in the relative minority that adored season 4.0 and 4.5.

      • Comment by robertjwizard:

        “Have you seen the SciFi channel’s version of the Battlestar Galactica series? I just got into it a few weeks ago (I know I’m slow).”

        I have, and I thought it was the best show on television. I don’t mean the best science fiction show, I mean the best show ever of any genre.

        I have heard from people whose opinion I trust that later episodes after I quit were even more blatant: the writers were struck with a bad case of Bush Derangement Syndrome, and sacrificed the story on the altar of political preachy-ness.

        Very belated reply, but I just finished watching the entire series including the movie The Plan. You should go back and finish it. The political preachy-ness was short lived or just an associative coincidence in the first place due to where the story went for awhile.

        Don’t worry about the plan, that is dealt with in due course. Although they don’t come right out and tell you, what they give you is the plan falling apart. Besides, you missed Dean Stockwell coming onto the series in an awesomely evil part as number One.

        I am probably even more fickle than yourself, but I am glad I watched the whole thing. It really goes wild. You will be glad you did.

    • Comment by KokoroGnosis:

      Btw, why is there such a big discrepancy is the quality of SciFi’s original movies versus their series? Their movies are the worst. Sharktopus! And then they do stuff in their series like BSG and Firefly, and even the quirky Eureka.

      Well, Firefly was Fox. But as far as the other series go, BSG and Stargate and Stargate and Stargate Eureka… I can only assume that the Scifi channel blows their whole budget on the TV shows, and then wakes up Monday morning and says, “Crap! We need something for Saturday night and we only have 42 dollars and change left!”

      • Comment by lotdw:

        While their movies are significantly lower budget than their shows, the real reason the two exist at the same time is that they’re generally targeted at different audiences. Basically, SciFi discovered a few years ago that buying rights to already existing films, which was their initial business model, actually cost more relative to the ratings they received. So they started making cheap-o monster movies in Eastern European countries and the like. Plus Bruce Campbell needed work.

        My personal favorite is Ice Spiders (which has a character in the credits called “Help they’re killing everyone” – he has one line in the film). I thought Sharktopus was pretty lame, except for the concept and a few of the kills which they showed previously in the trailers. I saw Mega Python vs. Gatoroid over the weekend and it was one of those “So bad it’s good” ones – which is the best they can achieve, really.

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  9. Comment by Mark Olson:

    An interesting post! May I offer another definition of SF & F which may be useful?

    * A story is science fiction to the extent that it depends on fictionalized science or applied science (taken broadly to include any rational, empirical body of knowledge).

    * A story is fantasy to the extent that it depends on fictionalized magic or the supernatural.

    A story can be both. A story can be heavily SF if fictionalized science is core to the story, or only slightly SF if it’s basically a side issue or window dressing. (The poorer kinds of space opera are just barely SF because the fictional science is only a prop for a story which could have been moved wholesale to the Wild West (or wherever.)

    I think this approach works because it gives up on the nearly-hopeless task of categorizing stories into the three buckets of “SF”, “F”, and “neither”.

    For me, Out of the Silent Planet is SF because, while the story has a supernatural element, it is probably less important than the purely SF elements. Perelandra is fantasy (to the extent that it is either) because while the backdrop (is an SFish plausible planet Venus, the story primarily revolves around the fictionalized supernatural. Ditto That Hideous Strength, though to a somewhat lesser extent. (While I love all three books, I’d call none of them particularly good examples of either SF or F.)

    David Ellis asks “On a related note, other than Lewis’s Space Trilogy, can anyone name some good quality examples of science fiction written from an explicitly religious perspective where the writer not only believes in a religion but where the supernatural (however you care to define that) elements of that religion manifest themselves in some explicit way?”

    It’s usually pretty hard to say what the writer believes in, and people who write with an explicit intention of advancing some agenda (rather than writing a good story) seldom produce good SF. So, to answer a different question, let me offer a few suggestions of excellent F&SF with a heavy religious element:

    Bujold’s Chalion books
    Poul Anderson’s “The Problem of Pain” (I could name a dozen of his stories, actually.)
    Judith Tarr’s Pillar of Fire (though that’s arguably an historical)
    James Blish’s Black Easter/The Day After Judgment
    Niven & Pournelle’s Inferno

    • Comment by Mary:

      What was the title of that Poul Anderson story where they were preparing Christmas celebrations to welcome newcomers to an alien planet?

      That was the best of his, I think.

      I note that he usually makes the religious characters secondary — aka non-POV characters — which probably helps, but he’s one of the rare author to convince me that his religious characters actually believe.

    • Comment by mrmandias:

      Do name the dozen, if you can. I’m always on the lookout for stuff like this.

      • Comment by Mark Olson:

        I find that I overestimated the number of his stories which place religion front and center, but I think this is because of what Mary (in the post above this one) noted “he’s one of the rare author to convince me that his religious characters actually believe.” It’s not just minor characters — when Anderson writes characters who believe (and he is not reluctant to do so), he writes them so that they *do* believe.

        As far as I know he was an agnostic.

        Some stories which come to mind:

        “The Word to Space” – main character is a Jesuit geologist who uses casuistry to get the data he needs.
        “The Light” – it’s the flavor, really, and a minor touch.
        *Three Hearts and Three Lions* – pervasive.
        *The High Crusade* – main character is a medieval monk recording English conquest of space
        “Kyrie” – main character becomes a nun after terrible experience
        *The Devil’s Game* – It’s entirely possible that Satan does not appear int he book, but the main character certainly thinks he does,
        “Operation Changeling” – a harrowing of a Hell which has a distinctly Lewisian flavor
        “Star of the Sea” – the religion here is fairly ancient, but the characters are still presented as credibly believing
        *The Broken Sword*, *The Merman’s Children* and several others – all contain characters who are believers in ancient paganisms with real gods (who can zap you and play roles in the stories) who are falling back as Christianity advances.

    • Comment by mrmandias:

      I’d argue that Perelandra is neither fantasy nor SF. Its a classic example of imaginative fiction based on Christian myth instead of pagan myth or modern myth, though it does have SFnal and fantastic elements.

    • Comment by Mark Olson:

      And how could I possibly have neglected Gene Wolfe? Try “The Detective of Dreams” of “No Planets Strike”.

    • Comment by David Ellis:

      “A story is fantasy to the extent that it depends on fictionalized magic or the supernatural.”

      This is a definition which assumes the nonexistence of the supernatural and is biased toward a naturalistic worldview. It simply doesn’t work when the author of the book, in fact, believes the naturalistic worldview is in error and supernaturalism is true.

      “For me, Out of the Silent Planet is SF because, while the story has a supernatural element, it is probably less important than the purely SF elements.”

      On the contrary, the supernatural elements are central to the story. As are the speculations concerning alien intelligent life. They are of equal importance and if either element were missing the story would be of an utterly different nature.

      “Poul Anderson’s “The Problem of Pain” (I could name a dozen of his stories, actually.)”

      Just read that story for the first time a few days ago and found it very disappointing. Well-written but intellectually facile. Anderson was clearly not at all familiar with the literature on the problem of evil/suffering.

      • Comment by Mark Olson:

        I did not say that the supernatural does not exist. In fact, I carefully *limited* the definition of fantasy to the *fictional* supernatural. Any real supernatural is beyond the bounds of fantasy just as a chemistry textbook is not SF.

        Doubtless Anderson falls short of a proper treatment of the theology of pain. But how many other SF writers even attempt to address the issue? He made the point again and again that he was first and foremost a writer who made a living writing and had to write entertaining stories — he’d say that his books competed for a share of someone’s beer money. That he could find a way to do even a poor job is wonderful.

        • Comment by David Ellis:

          “Doubtless Anderson falls short of a proper treatment of the theology of pain.”

          To say the least.

          “But how many other SF writers even attempt to address the issue?”

          Good question. Offhand, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s INFERNO and ESCAPE FROM HELL comes to mind. And there’s SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL by Holly Lisle. Although, given the subject matter, people would probably debate whether to categorize them as fantasy instead. HYPERION by Dan Simmons touches on it more than a little. Olaf Stapledon’s STARMAKER and Robert J. Sawyer’s CALCULATING GOD, perhaps, at least tangentially. Heck, even the novel SPOCK’S WORLD touches on it. Anybody know of any others?

  10. Comment by Aurelion:

    Dear Mr. Wright:

    As a fan of your science fiction writing, I’ve always wondered about the relationship between this particular aspect of your life and your religious beliefs. I would completely understand if any of the following questions are too personal in nature, but insofar as you would feel comfortable answering any of them, my questions to you would be:

    1. Is science fiction in general (i.e. as a genre) in any sort of unique position to further traditional beliefs in God, and if so how?

    2. To personalize the preceding question, if money were no object would you abandon science fiction writing and devote your time fully to religious and/or political argument, and if not why not?

    3. To what degree should one read your existing science fiction writing in terms of your religious beliefs? For example, the first time I read “Guest Law” I found myself wondering whether you saw the crew of the “Procrustes” as representing maintstream culture, and the stranger “Descender” as representing you. Similarly, in reading “The Far End of History” I found myself wondering whether the emergence of the new beings who ultimately hosted the Great War’s refugees was meant to represent you and your wife. And finally, I wondered whether the emergence of the hero’s “ring” into full personhood toward the end of your “Golden Age” trilogy was intended to express a position on the sacred nature of life before birth. Do any of these interpretations of your writing have merit?

    In any case, let me say that I’ve enjoyed your writing considerably over the years, and feel it represents a unique voice: themes of heroism and certainty are obviously a refreshing counterpoint to the fatalism and cynicism which seems to imbue much of science fiction writing today. As such, I hope that regardless of where your career, success, and personal interests may take you, that you will always find time to write at least one or two short stories a year :)

  11. Comment by lectorpoemarum:

    Lewis’ Space Trilogy is tricky because he was purposely blurring the lines:

    We tend to think about non-human intelligences in two distinct categories
    which we label “scientific” and “supernatural” respectively. We think, in
    one mood, of Mr. (H. G.) Wells’ Martians (very unlike the real
    Malacandrians, by the bye), or his Selenites. In quite a different mood we let our minds loose on the possibility of angels, ghosts, fairies, and the like.
    But the very moment we are compelled to recognize a creature in either class
    as real the distinction begins to get blurred: and when it is a creature
    like an eldil the distinction vanishes altogether.
    — Perelandra

    Similarly, while Lewis’ solar system is arranged according to modern astronomy, the orbit of the Moon is the ‘frontier’ of the fallen world in accordance with medieval cosmology, and the planets beyond Saturn — not known to the medieval world — are almost ignored; no oyarsa of Uranus or Neptune appears in That Hideous Strength.

  12. Comment by dirigibletrance:

    The Left Behind books were terrible, terrible, poorly written books with flat characters, plodding pacing, terribly predictable plots, frequent breaks from narrative to dive into unabashed religious preaching… the author had no artistic integrity whatsoever. They were not novels, but evangelical tracts disguised as novels.

    They make “The Amber Spyglass” look like a masterpiece in comparison.

  13. Comment by VaidLeVey:

    John, what would you classify the Comic Series “Charge of the Light Brigade” as? I know you have read it, my copy is still at your house.

  14. Comment by SFAN:

    What about Cordwainer Smith?

  15. Comment by obstruction:

    How about Charles Williams? War in Heaven is arguably a detective story with supernatural intervention. And I’m not quite sure what to call The Place of the Lion! The spiritual themes are important, but I wouldn’t call it a ‘religious story’, and there are what I would call parallel universes, but these are explained from a mystical, rather than a scientific perspective, from what I remember.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Charles Williams is either a fantasy in the fashion of ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD, where Christian elements intrude into the real world, or it is a member of that very small and very odd genre, Philosophical Speculative Fiction, where a theological or philosophical belief is explored in its ramifications.

      Practically the only other member of this genre I can bring to mind would be THE SINFUL ONES by Fritz Leiber, which is the terrifying speculation that materialist determinism is true.

  16. Comment by mrmandias:

    This review of The Great Divorce may be of interest. The first half is an attempt to decide what genre The Great Divorce is that I think y’all would be interested in:

    http://www.jrganymede.com/2011/02/04/death-is-lighter-than-a-feather-c-s-lewis-the-great-divorce/

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