One of the best stories I read while researching The Gospel According to Science Fiction was Ian McDonald's novella "Tendeléo's Story." After reading the story, I was excited to learn that it was a sequel/reimagination of his earlier novel Evolution's Shore. Both stories describe the Chaga—an alien lifeform that lands in Sub-Saharan Africa and grows, replacing the native landscape with an otherworldly ecosystem. Governments and individuals alike are understandably alarmed, but after a complex quarantine system is put in place rumors begin to circulate about the Chaga: it does not devour life, but shapes itself to support it. It has redefined its chemistry to match that of our bodies, and it supplies food, shelter, clothing, and even biological improvements on technological achievements like televisions and airplanes. The Chaga's resources are unlimited, and it provides an alternative to the capitalist model of production and consumption, haves and have-nots. In short, it is heaven literally come to Earth—and that is the real reason that the governments of the West fear it.
Most talk about McDonald's Chaga stories focuses on their postcolonial stance, which they certainly illustrate well. (By seeding the Southern Hemisphere, what else does the Chaga do but rectify the wrongs of colonialism?) But I see these stories as profoundly moral and theological works. The Chaga is one of the most interesting of SF eschatologies, showing a means by which our world could be made essentially perfect. The Chaga is frequently described as a "new Eden," and at points it is even called "ecclesiastical." One character in Evolution's Shore paints a vivid picture of this alien New Jerusalem as a place where the sins of human society and biology can be washed away:
"What the Chaga says to me is, now you don't need to compete for resources, now all the rules of supply and demand are torn up: there is enough here for everyone, so now you can experiment with new ways of living, new ways of interacting, new societies and structures and sociologies, knowing that you have permission to fail."
Evolution's Shore is a fascinating novel, but for my money "Tendeléo's Story" tackles its themes with a little more focus. Both offer a fascinating gambit—if paradise were offered to us, would we take it? Neither story gives an entirely optimistic answer, devoting many words to the ways in which the old structures stand against the future. But both stories nevertheless give a vivid picture of what a true kingdom of heaven might look like.
McDonald's next novel, Brasyl, comes out in May, and it sounds every bit as compelling as the Chaga tales. It tells three interlocking stories, one of them involving "a Jesuit missionary sent into the maelstrom of 18th-century Brazil to locate and punish a rogue priest who has strayed beyond the articles of his faith and set up a vast empire in the hinterland." Apocalypse Then?
For my analysis of "Tendeléo's Story," see chapter 10 of The Gospel According to Science Fiction.