Merry Christmas from SF Gospel!
The Gospel According to Science Fiction: From the Twilight Zone to the Final Frontier by Gabriel Mckee
Available now! "This fascinating hybrid of theology and sci-fi is creative, lucid and contains impressive scholarship."—Publishers Weekly
Infinite Space, Infinite God, edited by Karina and Robert Fabian, is billed as an anthology of Catholic SF, but it’s much more than that. The 15 stories cover broad thematic ground, and though the Catholic Church plays a role in all of them, each story offers a vastly different perspective. This volume isn’t just of interest to Catholics—it’s good SF that engages in exactly the kind of speculation that keeps the genre vibrant. The editors’ introductions to the stories are intelligent and informative, giving some excellent background data on the specific aspects of the church that the stories explore. It’s a great anthology, and it’s fitting that it was recently named as a finalist in the EPPIE Awards. Below, co-editors Karina and Robert Fabian share their thoughts on SF, the church, and the future of faith.
Many SF stories about religion use Catholicism specifically to make their points, describing spacefaring priests and nuns or futuristic governments modeled on the church. Why have so many SF authors, regardless of their own faiths, seen Catholicism as the exemplary faith?
Before we answer, we want to point out that I can only speak from an American/European/Australian POV. Neither Rob not I know much about the literature of Asia or the Orient.
There are lots of reasons Catholicism plays on the imagination of authors, regardless of their faith. Catholicism is a familiar yet rich religion, both visually and historically. There's so much an author can play with.
If you say, "Catholic," people immediately have an image: grand churches, men with white collars and women in habits, icons (which are different from idols, like a photo of your mom is different from your mom.) They think of structure, hierarchy, and specific moral expectations. They think of controversy and crusade. Yet they also think of something that perseveres.
Think of what that means for an author! There are cultural templates they can play with, structures they can adapt, and icons that are—snap!—captured in the visceral understanding of the reader.
It's intellectual shorthand: write "Reverend Paul," and the reader gets a multitude of images; write "Father Paul," and readers get a more focused image. Yet because of the history and diversity of the Catholic Church, you can take that shorthand and build it into something so much more.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the wide variety of viewpoints and approaches to Catholicism presented in Infinite Space, Infinite God. The stories don't shy away from talking about some controversial and touchy subjects. The Church isn't a monolithic, unchanging thing, but an active and vibrant community. What sort of effect do you see the kind of open discussion of these stories having on the future of the Church?
We're definitely hoping folks will discuss the issues in these stories. In fact, it's a dream of ours to have Infinite Space, Infinite God becomes course material for theology/philosophy-and-technology courses.
None of us, however, would presume to suggest that our stories will affect the decisions and doctrine of the Catholic Church. You'd be surprised at how much the Church is already thinking and studying the questions we've raised—and at a higher theological level than any of us aspired to. The best we could ask is that it opens minds to ask "What if?" After all, that's what great SF does.
What we are hoping is that as people of any faith read these stories, they'll realize—or be reassured—that there is still a place for faith and for the organized expression of faith. We also want folks to see that the Church is, as you put it, not a monolithic, unchanging thing. It never has been and never will be. Nonetheless, it does stand for some unchanging virtues—respect for life, love of neighbor, and above all, the eternal loving relationship between God and humans.
If there is a single theme that runs through all of these stories, it is that the past can help us understand the future. The wisdom of medieval Catholic thinkers, which has often been rejected by Protestants and ignored by scientists and modern philosophers, may be the key to understanding the problems we will face in the future. How do you think the scientists and explorers of the future will be able to use the Catholic Church's rich intellectual history?
Well, first, they'll have to listen to it. But let's just assume that that's going to happen with increasing frequency.
My friend and fellow writer Ann Lewis noted that one of the strengths of the Catholic faith is that we value reason. "If we can reason, we can discover—and discover from a mature point of view."
The Catholic Church has always taught that reason (logic) and faith need to stand together. Now, I'm certain someone reading this will object, "And what about Galileo?" The Galileo case is much more complex than simply denying heliocentric theory because it "didn't agree with Scripture." I've read several accounts and interpretations, each different according to the person's personal point of view: The Church was too attached to Aristotelian theory; Galileo went too far by directly challenging the authority of the Pope in writing; Galileo insisted he could interpret Scripture better than the Pope; Galileo was not able to prove heliocentric theory with his proofs (His theories were later proven in the 1800s with more exact equipment, but how could the Inquisitors of the time know that?); the Church was afraid of anything that contradicted its authority, even in the area of science... The list goes on, but the point is that it was not just—if ever—a case of science contradicting Scripture. Note that Copernicus, who proposed the heliocentric theory well before Galileo, was a monk and was not punished for his views.
So back to the intellectual history of the Church. Much of the Church's intellectual history is wrapped into scientific thought today, although many scientists and laymen don't realize it. St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas pioneered the scientific method. Gregor Mendel, a monk, conducted one of the first systematic studies of genetics. The Vatican supports scientific research across the globe today via the Pontifical Academy. So the influence is there.
Where we hope the influence grows, however, is in the faith filled application of the science.
One of my favorite stories in Infinite Space, Infinite God is Tim Myers' "Brother Jubal in the Womb of Silence," which describes the life of an anchorite who lives in isolation on the moon, just as early Christian monks lived contemplative lives in the deserts on the fringe of civilization. And your own story "These Three" focuses on a religious order that runs search and rescue missions in space, providing "air, equipment, and the love of God." Given the degree to which monasticism has declined in recent decades, do you see space exploration as providing a potential renaissance for religious orders?
Tim's story is gorgeous. Karina loves Brother Jubal so much, she actually had Tim create some of Brother Jubal's religious writings to quote in the SF novel she's working on right now. It, too, features sisters from Our Lady of the Rescue—the order in "These Three"—as they handle the safety of a crew exploring the first-discovered alien ship in the Kuiper belt.
There's definitely a precedent and a place for religious orders in exploration. Historically, where explorers have gone, priests and the religious have followed. In part to "convert the heathen," but also to serve the faithful. Even more in space than here on Earth, they will need to have a functional role other than spiritual—Brother Jubal Church-sponsored hermitage notwithstanding. That's why we came up with the idea of space search and rescue as a service for our order. It's a necessary service that will no doubt command a high price, so if the sisters do it for "air, equipment and the love of God," they undercut the competition and forge a place for the religious in space. (Sadly, there's no Queen Isabella to fund a monastery on Mars.)
Will it cause a renaissance for religious orders? No, but we suspect we're on the way to one as it is. A study done of religious orders (Shaping the Coming Age of Religious Life) showed that religious orders go through periods of decline and growth as the Church's dominant image changes. Monastic/cloistered orders, for example, were the dominant orders from 500-1200 AD; then came mendicant orders (1200-1500 AD); apostolic orders (1500-1800 AD), and now teaching congregations. With Vatican II ushering in (or perhaps simply recognizing) a new dominant image for the Church, orders are again in a stage of flux, with new communities emerging as some of the older ones decline. At a glance, we'd say we're entering an image of social justice and service to our neighbors, but only time will tell, just as time will tell how religious orders will find their place among extra-terrestrial humankind.
Once we have viable communities in space, religious orders will follow. In one form or another, they are part of the Catholic tradition. Wherever we have Catholics, we will see them as well—both in hermitage and out serving their communities.
In many of the stories in this anthology the Catholic Church is persecuted, imperiled, or forgotten. In Adrienne Ray's "Hopkins' Well," Catholics are exiled on Mars; in Simon Morden's "Little Madeleine," the Church forms an order of nuns to function as bodyguards to protect priests from street gangs. These stories have optimistic conclusions, but they definitely see the potential for dark times ahead. Do you think the Catholic Church will have to face these kinds of difficulties in the future?
A "Hopkins' Well" situation where Catholics are persecuted to the point of near-extinction? No. But one of science fiction's strengths is its ability to change baseline assumptions and exaggerate situations so that we can examine the consequences and repercussions of current trends.
"Little Madeleine" is a good example. Bodyguards for religious? Sister Leonella, who was shot in Somalia this September, traveled with a bodyguard. (He was also shot.) They believe she was shot by Muslims angry at Pope Benedict's speech. However, in Karina's home town, two priests were shot by a disturbed teenager in their own home.
The Joans of "Little Madeleine" are an exaggeration of a trend, yet the overall story is about the larger problems of a world which has caused their order to form—and about the elements of that world that exist today.
That's one of the things we've really enjoyed about putting together these stories, and what makes Infinite Space, Infinite God more than just "SF for Catholics." These stories, while using the Catholic Church as their focus, nonetheless speak to all of us, regardless of faith.
Last week, Showtime's Masters of Horror series aired Joe Dante's adaptation of James Tiptree, Jr.'s story "The Screwfly Solution". The title refers to a method of controlling parasitic insects by interfering with their reproductive cycle. In the story, an alien virus turns men's sex drive into a violence drive, leading to "femicide"—the mass slaughter of women around the world. (Creepy.)
When we first encounter the virus, however, it's not presented as a disease—it's a religion. The "Sons of Adam" cult described in the story's opening pages believes that
"when man gets rid of his animal part which is woman, this is the signal God is awaiting. Then God will reveal the new true clean way, maybe angels will come bringing new souls, or maybe we will live forever, but it is not our place to speculate, only to obey.Later in the story, a Catholic interpretation of this drive to kill appears as a newspaper item:
"Pope John IV today intimated that he does not plan to comment officially on the so-called Pauline Purification cults advocating the elimination of women as a means of justifying man to God. A spokesman emphasized that the Church takes no position on these cults but repudiates any doctrine involving a 'challenge' to or from God to reveal His further plans for man."
Unfortunately, Tiptree doesn't follow through on this religious angle, choosing instead to concentrate on the virus itself. After the first few pages, religion is absent from the story. Dante's adaptation is perhaps even more up-front in the religious characterization of the homicide-inducing virus, giving us non-Christian examples as well—a news report early in the show describes a mass execution of women in Iran for violation of shari'a. And the Sons of Adam function far further into the plot than in Tiptree's story.
Unfortunately, like many Masters of Horror episodes, it shows the signs of its small budget and short shooting schedule, and has a hard time transcending its over-expository script and lackluster performances. Nevertheless, it manages to crystallize its religious themes in a clear and concise way. Dante's adaptation places a heavy emphasis on one key line from the original story, turning into the point at which the story's message about religion, intolerance, and violence crystallizes. When presenting evidence to a board room full of generals and politicians, one of the scientists studying the outbreak declares: "The religion is not a cause, it's a symptom."
I've long been bothered by overly simple statements from a number of people—from Sam Harris to Mel Gibson—that religions cause wars. Throughout history, from Muslim expansion to the Crusades to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religion has been a single factor in such conflicts. More often than not, the causes of these wars are better explained as political, racial/racist, economic. But the conflicts have been described in religious terms because religion is a tool for communication—one that can be used to carry bad messages as well as good. When religion is used to justify intolerance and violence, the language surrounding these things is the symptom, not the cause. The cause is something far more difficult to identify and combat—the virus of anger that can erupt, like in "The Screwfly Solution," to disastrous results.
Though I can't entirely recommend Joe Dante's adaptation of Tiptree's sublimely pessimistic story, I must credit it with helping me understand how the place of religion in the original story can be interpreted.
It's not as original as the New York Times would have you believe, but Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road is one of the most religious postapocalyptic tales since Walter M. Miller's A Canticle For Leibowitz.
I had a bit of a grudge against The Road going into it. Having heard some of the hyperbolic statements mainstream and literary reviewers had made about the book, I was irritated that its debt to some of the fine works of SF that preceded it—and, for that matter, the fact that it is SF—were being ignored. The Guardian's review, for example, compares the book to Beckett, Brecht, and Yeats. But it owes every bit as much (if not more) to sources far below the literary establishment's brow—The Road Warrior, The Stand, the post-Romero zombie film, and A Canticle For Leibowitz. (Interestingly, though, the work to which it owns the greatest debt is not SF at all—the novel is essentially a postapocalyptic adaptation of Lone Wolf and Cub). Contrary to the suggestions of some of its more hyperbolic reviews, the book is not something wholly new, and to treat it as such does a disservice to those influences.
So the genre apologist in me says that The Road is not terribly original. It is, however, very good. It's a bleak book, and the simple, resigned language in which it's written communicates this atmosphere quite effectively. Its two characters, a nameless duo called simply "the man" and "the boy," trudge through a postapocalyptic landscape, searching amongst the remains of a dead world for food, warmth, and shelter. The avoid contact with what few other people have survived, lest they become victims of theft, slavery, or cannibalism. The boy was born into this world, and has no experience of what life was like before the unnamed disaster that created it.
The father has hardened himself to the violent necessities of survival in this decimated world, and is willing to do anything to protect his son. At one point, after he has killed a man who threatened them, he states:
"My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you."Ensuring the boy's survival is a divine mission, and extreme measures are justified. They are not simply keeping themselves alive—the man has taught the boy that they are "carrying the fire." On such a mission, extreme measures are justified.
The boy, on the other hand, has not become so hardened. He is resigned to some of the unpleasant necessities of their world, but he emanates kindness and compassion, even to those who would rob or kill them. When they see strangers on the road, his father's first instinct is to hide from them; the boy's is to offer them food.
And that is the nature of "the fire" that they are carrying—it is this compassion, which was the first thing to be consumed in the flames that have decimated the world. The boy is an embodiment of kindness, of hope, of civilization. When the two encounter an old man—tellingly named Ely (Elijah)—and offer him food, he thinks the boy is an angel. The father's reply: "What if I said that he's a god?" The boy is a messiah for this world because he is able to keep compassion alive.
In the closing pages of the book, the boy is taken in by a small settlement where we see, for the first time in the book, signs of civilization, community, and life. We also see here signs of religion, as the woman who cares for the boy talks to him about God. In the boy's survival, faith and compassion have survived as well. He has carried the fire, and because of him, hope survives in a hopeless landscape.