I've been writing a fair amount lately about SF stories that get religion wrong—stories that include religion for purposes of stereotype rather than exploration and extrapolation. Religion is a complex subject (or set of subjects), and it frustrates me to read stories that treat it as something simple. What follows is a list of the 10 SF short stories and novellas that I think handle religion the best and, as a result, are among my favorite stories in the genre.
10. Fredric Brown, "Answer."
Many SF stories have embodied fears about our reliance on technology in religious terms. Brown's short-short—it's less than a page—is the most concise approach to the theme, describing a scientist in a far-future utopia who builds a computer to definitively answer the question of God's existence. You can probably guess the ending (in the off chance that you haven't already read the story a dozen times), but that doesn't make the story any less chilling. "Answer" remains a powerful warning against mistaking creations for Creator.
9. Ray Bradbury, "The Man."
"The Man" is a simple parable involving a prophet who travels from planet to planet; his best-known appearance was on Earth roughly 2,000 years ago. The Man doesn't appear in the story himself—instead, it's the story of Hart, a rocket ship captain who lands on an alien world shortly after the prophet's departure. Hart's initial incredulity about the Man soon turns into a violent obsession, and he threatens the quaint alien villagers with violence if they do not help him locate the prophet. Hart's tragedy is that he thinks of God as a destination, something to be found elsewhere. He doesn't realize that wherever the Man visits, he never truly leaves:
"And he'll go on, planet after planet, seeking and seeking, and always and always he will be an hour late, or a half hour late, or ten minutes late, or a minute late... And he will go on and on, thinking to find that very thing which he left behind here, on this planet."
8. Rick Moody, "The Albertine Notes."
Along with Jonathan Lethem's Girl in Landscape, "The Albertine Notes" is the best story Philip K. Dick never wrote. From the life-goes-on postapocalyptic setting to the time-travel-enabling psychedelic drugs, Moody's novella makes clever use of Dickian elements, but this is far more than a simple pastiche. The story takes place in a New York devastated by a nuclear explosion. The inhabitants of this wasteland rely on a drug called Albertine that allows them to vividly relive their pre-war memories. Albertine—as vivid an embodiment of addictive nostalgia as Dick's Can-D or Wash-35—is presented as a debased form of religious experience. Before long some of the drug's mystics experience memories of the future. But what is a prophecy in a world that has already fallen apart? It's a fine homage to a master of the genre, but it's a wonderful and powerful story in its own right, and one of the best SF stories about religious experience in decades.
7. Michael Bishop, "The Gospel According to Gamaliel Crucis."
The concept of the alien savior is one of SF's longer-lived tropes, and it's been botched more often than gotten right. (I'm looking at you, Stranger in a Strange Land.) Bishop knocks it out of the park in "Gamaliel Crucis," probably the most original approach to the idea in SF history. "Crucis" assumes that Jesus was truly God made flesh, but also that every species in the universe has been blessed with its own incarnation. Not all species are the same as humankind—the aliens of Acrux V, for instance, have litters numbering in the hundreds. When God takes on their form, there are scores of new Messiahs. A single Messiah, it seems, "would violate the covenant of their biology and the expectations of their culture." Rather than confine themselves to a single planet, they spread throughout the galaxy. "Gamaliel Crucis" is the story of Mantikhoras, the insectoid prophet sent to Earth. Written in the gospel genre, right down to the chapter and verse enumeration, it's a truly unique tale of salvation.
6. Robert Silverberg, "The Pope of the Chimps." Full story here.
"The Pope of the Chimps" explores the origins of religious belief, speculating about the birth of a primate theology. A team of scientists working with a group of sign-language-proficient chimpanzees begins noticing some strange behavior after one of the humans dies. After talking with one of the scientists about the death, the chimps develop a concept of the afterlife, and before long they have a fairly robust system of ritual and doctrine. Though it would have been easy for the story to become a simple farce, Silverberg takes a more serious route. At the story's end, it's not so clear that the chimps' religion is a simple parody. Their faith makes them more intelligent, more human—what wonders can our human faith work for us?
5. Isaac Asimov, "Reason."
Most of the stories in Asimov's I, Robot are puzzles with a simple formula: a robot begins malfunctioning, violating one of the Laws of Robotics for reasons unknown, and human investigators ponder the cause of the problem for 15 pages or so and then come up with an ingenious solution. The big exception to this formula is "Reason," which may well be the best thing Asimov ever wrote. In this case the puzzle is more of a moral dilemma: the robots working on a space station beaming solar energy to Earth have developed a religion, and they refuse to believe their human masters about the falsehood of their belief. What sets "Reason" apart from the other robot stories is that the puzzle is its own solution: the robots perform their task ably when operating under the belief that the space station is God and the Earth does not exist. Since the mechanics of the mystery don't matter, "Reason" takes more time pondering its themes. Its attitude toward religion appears condescending, but the story ends up giving religion an only-slightly-backhanded complement: the robots actually operate better believing in God, and their manufacturer begins indoctrinating all of their creations in the new faith. In other words, "Reason" argues that faith works.
4. Katharine Kerr, "Asylum."
"Asylum" is a dystopian story set in a near-future U.S. that has fallen to an evangelical coup. The story isn't all hyperbole—it takes at face value the militaristic language of real-life Christian conservatives like Tim LaHaye and Ron Luce (founder of Battle Cry, possibly the most militaristic expression of Christian faith since the Crusades). The story's real strength is that it focuses not on the military violence of this authoritarian regime, but on the emotional and spiritual toll it takes on the families it tears apart. The protagonist of the story is a college professor named Janet Corey who is exiled by the new government. Corey is the author of Christian Fascism: The Politics of Righteousness (an interesting parallel Chris Hedges' real-world book American Fascists: The Christian Right And The War On America). For daring to decry the reactionary movement, Corey is forced to seek asylum in the U.K. The story of her thwarted attempts to contact family and friends in the U.S. makes Kerr's story a top-notch tragedy and a moving indictment of the concept of "spiritual warfare."
3. Philip K. Dick, "Faith of Our Fathers."
Religious paranoia is a hallmark of Dick's writing. The voyeuristic deity of Eye in the Sky and the sinister eucharist of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch ultimately informed Dick's own religious experiences in 1974. His subsequent writing is torn between the idea of a compassionate God and a cruel one. "Faith of Our Fathers," Dick's entry in Harlan Ellison's watershed Dangerous Visions anthology (and undoubtedly that collection's best story), represents the depth of his pre-1974 terror of God. The story describes the ultimate dystopia: an authoritarian government that subdues its populace with hallucinogens that prevent them from learning the true nature of their government. When the story's characters ingest an anti-hallucinogen they discover that the leader of their society is a monstrous predator that also happens to be the One True God. This Lovecraftian revelation makes for a singularly disturbing story; Dick described it as "the most frightening vision I could imagine." The story's grim spirituality shouldn't be mistaken for a complete picture of Dick's religious thought, but the fears the story embodies are an essential aspect of his theology.
2. Robert Silverberg, "The Feast of St. Dionysus."
In the 1970s, Silverberg was the master of contemplative SF, penning bleak mood pieces and character studies about the psychological fallout of technological advances. "The Feast of St. Dionysus" is his masterpiece: the story of a former astronaut, the sole survivor of an ill-fated trip to Mars, who seeks spiritual annihilation in the desert of the Southwest. John Oxenshuer, overwhelmed with guilt over the death of his fellow explorers, seeks to isolate himself from human society, but instead finds earthbound transcendence in a desert monastery dedicated to mystical ecstasy and divine debauchery. "Feast" focuses on the alienation of the frontier, equating the astronaut and the monk as liminal figures at both the physical and the spiritual boundaries of civilization. The mystical implications of space travel are frequently mentioned in SF, but rarely are they explored so thoroughly.
1. Jack McDevitt, "Gus."
The monastery is a stereotypical setting for SF stories about religion. Owing, perhaps, to the success of stories like Walter M. Miller's A Canticle For Leibowitz, dozens of stories have attempted to explore the future of the contemplative life, but few have done so as intelligently as this story (which, tragically, has only appeared in print once, in Michael Cassutt and Andrew M. Greeley's Catholic-themed anthology Sacred Visions.) The story's eponymous character is a computer simulation of Augustine of Hippo, purchased by a Catholic seminary for classroom instruction. The AI embodies the argumentativeness of its progenitor too well, and it soon clashes with the monastery's administration—"The thing must have been programmed by Unitarians," sneers the Monsignor. Augustine is a frequently-misunderstood figure, but McDevitt doesn't fall into any of the common pitfalls, and the story truly brings the Doctor of the Church to life. When a friendship grows between the AI and a young monk, the strength of Gus's characterization makes it a moving journey. By the story's conclusion, Gus has made a compelling case for the existence of his own soul. The care and insight that McDevitt shows in presenting people (and computers) of faith embodies an ideal to which all SF stories about religion should aspire.
Honorable Mention, in no particular order: Theodore Sturgeon, "The Microcosmic God." Brian Aldiss, "Heresies of the Huge God." Richard Bowker, "Contamination." Ted Chiang, "Hell is the Absence of God." Richard Chwedyk, "The Measure of All Things." Arthur C. Clarke, "The Nine Billion Names of God." Philip José Farmer, "Prometheus." Tom Godwin, "The Cold Equations." Harry Harrison, "The Streets of Ashkelon." Ian McDonald, "Tendeléo's Story."
Many of the stories above are discussed further in The Gospel According to Science Fiction.
A note on criteria: Since this is a list of short stories, I have excluded novellas that are better-known for their adaptation into full novels (otherwise Blish's "A Case of Conscience" and Moorcock's "Behold the Man" would have been included, among potential others). I haven't distinguished between stories of different lengths; the whole novella/novelet thing has always both irritated and confused me, so for my purposes they're all just "short stories." There are some excellent stories that include religious ideas tangentially but aren't really about religion ("The Measure of All Things"), or are very much about religion but aren't SF properly speaking ("Hell is the Absence of God"); these have been relegated to the "Honorable Mention" list but are very much worth reading.