When I was a college freshman—at the time a liberal arts major—my creative writing instructor told us that the way to learn how to write stories was to read stories that were well written. He suggested The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I had never heard of them before. But my best friend from high school, Mike, was studying physics at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and he was a member of the MIT Science Fiction Society (MITSFS). So one weekend we went looking for the Narnia books in the MITSFS library.
When I set my eyes on the world’s largest open shelf collection of science fiction, I immediately started plotting my transfer to MIT. I changed colleges, majors—and indeed, changed vocations—to learn about planets, not just as geological entities but as places where heroes had adventures.
Oddly enough, I hadn’t cared much for fantasy when I was a kid. Back then I only wanted books with “facts”—much, I am afraid, like what poor Eustace Scrubb in the Narnia stories favored. Discovering Narnia for the first time at age 18, and concentrating on the author’s technique more than his content, I was unprepared for the utterly unexpected effect the books had on me. It wasn’t their overt Christianity that startled me; I already counted myself as a practicing Catholic even then. Nor was I particularly surprised to find myself caught up in the adventures; that, after all, was what kids’ books were supposed to do. But the confluence of those two threads did something world-shifting to me. They showed me that my Christian faith was itself an adventure as exciting as any fantasy story. And by that fact, they showed me that fantasy itself was real; for indeed, the reality I was living as a Christian was revealed as a fantastic adventure.
At its best, fantasy is truth. Indeed, there is more truth to be found in science fiction or fantasy than in many a tome of philosophy.
Scholars have long recognized the power of stories to teach us. After all, Jesus taught with parables. Our philosophy, our ethics, and ultimately our religion exist in a lived context. That means a story, a narrative. In her recent book Prophets of the Posthuman (University of Notre Dame), Christina Bieber Lake argues that stories point us to the kinds of selves we can be and help us determine the ethical appropriateness of our actions.
Consider, for example, a hot-button issue: the ethical implications of biotechnology. In the Lois McMaster Bujold science fiction series centered on the character Miles Vorkosigan, we see a number of different effects—good and bad—that arise from “uterine replicators.” The replicators would allow an embryo to develop completely within an artificial womb—and show us some startling implications of human cloning and the genetic “enhancement” of human embryos. For a good entry point into this series, I recommend the omnibus edition Cordelia’s Honor (Baen).
The philosopher Christopher Kaczor’s recent book A Defense of Dignity (University of Notre Dame) discusses exactly those same topics with great erudition and clarity of writing. But while it is important to have such a scholarly perspective, these ideas do not come alive on his pages in the same way they do in Bujold’s books. The science fiction novels give a context to those ideas. As stories, they are centered around people who I can believe really would act the way we see, given the circumstances where they are found. And they’re fun to read.
To be sure, those Bujold books are space opera, not philosophy. They make no pretense to being high literature. The covers are garish, and the plots are full of derring-do. They are, by design, first and foremost page-turners, following the adventures of a highly unusual hero and his equally unlikely sidekicks. Bujold piles disaster and indignity on her hero, which we the reader can endure only because we are sure that somehow it will all turn out right by the last page (which it always does). Part of the charm of the stories is seeing how the author lures you into believing one absurdity after another. And yet, she sneaks some pretty profound moral issues between the pages.
Seeing an idea within the context of a story lets us test that idea by relating the events of the story to the things we are familiar with in our own daily lives. At the same time, observing deep issues at the remove of a story (especially one set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”) lets us drop the defensiveness and prejudice that blind us from seeing our own lives clearly.
But before any of that can take place, a story has to be, well, a story. What do I look for when I pick up a science fiction story? All I ask for are three things: One, make me turn the pages. Two, show me something I haven’t seen before. And three, be honest. Easy, right? But these are precisely the three ways that science fiction brings me closer to God.
First, like The Chronicles of Narnia, there must be an underlying sense of joy, even in tragedy. That’s what gets me to turn the pages. That sense of joy is (as Lewis himself noted) a touchstone of God’s presence. Likewise, novelty is essential; without it, there is no novel. But finding the unexpected hidden among the mundane is the pattern of how we experience God in the real world. And finally, we recognize God when the story is true. That truth is God’s presence; God is truth.
An honest story has believable characters and action that may be surprising, but ultimately the story feels right: “Wow, I didn’t see that coming, but of course, that’s exactly what would happen.” It is not necessarily one full of choices I always agree with or people I like. Indeed, real life means people we love doing things that sometimes we wish they hadn’t done. (After all, if we didn’t love them, we wouldn’t care what they do.) A story that shoves its characters around to fit some preconceived outcome is not honest. One that shows reasonable outcomes to understandable, if deplorable, decisions is one that lets me evaluate the implications of those decisions and the philosophical assumptions behind them, and to learn to understand and love people in real life.
One popular modern subgenre is “urban fantasy,” where the fantastic elements exist side by side with our contemporary world, somehow ignored by most people most of the time but never fully absent. Two recent books do an exemplary job of looking at this interface between the fantastic and the mundane.
Paul Cornell’s London Falling (Tor Fantasy) blends the genre of an urban fantasy with that of a police procedural mystery novel. After all, who is more rational than a team of detectives investigating a murder? What happens when they use the modern tools for fighting crime to try and make sense of a supernatural source of evil?
The book works both as a believable fantasy and as a crime thriller. Our heroes are investigating a gruesome murder that slowly is revealed to have supernatural origins. One of the brilliant touches in this world is that the heroes could easily escape the source of the evil, which turns out to be physically limited to metropolitan London. They could simply leave town. To stay and fight the evil demands a deliberate choice. And the effects of the evil are insidious, far beyond simple death or destruction (with a certain black humor aspect—the book succeeds in being both scary and funny). The result is a rich examination of good and evil, and of the reality that exists beyond those things that can be weighed or measured. It reflects Cornell’s own Christianity.
In her award-winning novel, Among Others (Tor Books), Jo Walton does something even more subtle. Her main character, Mori, is a teenager raised in rural Wales who has suffered a tragedy and is sent off to an English boarding school. The nature of the tragedy is slowly unveiled, as is her experience of the very otherworldly elves whom she has known since childhood. In a lovely twist, the way Mori learns to deal with being uprooted from the familiar environment of her elven childhood is through reading science fiction.
Although the point of view is that of a teenager, this book is not a young adult novel—the irony in many of the scenes depends on the reader having an adult’s understanding of the world. The main character is believably self-centered, and prone to make choices that are patently unwise even as they are completely in keeping with where she comes from and who she is. The book is set in a very specific place and time, corresponding closely to Walton’s own adolescence; many of the more unlikely episodes are in fact autobiographical. If you absolutely refuse to believe in the fantasy elements, you can read the book as depicting the delusions of the narrator. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of magic as she presents it is its plausible deniability.
What startled me were the parallels between the hero’s fantasy experience and my religious life. God’s action in my life also always comes with plausible deniability. If I choose not to believe, God won’t force me. And we all have experienced the feeling that this world is not really our home. Walton captures this reality by the honesty of her writing. She claims no religious affiliation herself; but her truth is true. And the writing is beautiful.
Walton is a master of incluing (she invented the term), the art of spreading hints throughout the narrative to inform the readers about the universe that the author has created. While some readers can be put off by not having these essential points put plainly before them, fans of science fiction savor incluing when it is done well. It’s what makes the universe come alive in a believable way. The art of reading such novels is also, I suspect, a talent that is well developed among those of us who, like the main character of Walton’s book, feel alienated living in a culture “among others” whom we do not easily understand.
Bujold, Cornell, and Walton are just a few of the authors working in science fiction today who combine fun storytelling with provocative, sneakily profound views of ourselves and our universe. The authors that Walton’s hero in Among Others reads—such as Hal Clement, Ursula Le Guin, and Robert Heinlein, just to name three wildly different writers—are a good guide to the classics in the field.
Walton’s recent nonfiction work, What Makes This Book So Great (Tor Books), is a fun guide that also includes more recent authors. Among the ones she discusses whom I particularly like are Vernor Vinge and Connie Willis. Today a whole new generation of writers is making themselves heard in both traditional books and magazines and in online journals and e-books. Among those whose stories I have enjoyed recently are Aliette de Bodard and E. Lily Yu. The annual Hugo and Nebula awards (chosen by, respectively, the fans and the writers themselves) are a good guide to what’s current.
The Hugo Awards are presented at the annual World Science Fiction Convention, also known as Worldcon. Back in the 1930s, when sci-fi stories were published in pulp magazines, those magazines also published fan letters, with the names and addresses of the fans. Soon the fans started writing to each other, forming clubs, and in 1939 they held their first Worldcon. Today these Worldcons are supplemented by hundreds of regional conventions. These conventions are not only places for fans to congregate, but also where the people who produce and publish science fiction gather to meet up, do book deals, or just hone their trade. This overlap is natural because most professional writer and editors are fans as well. These conventions are where I have come to know some of my favorite writers, including Bujold, Cornell, and Walton.
Most of these conventions prominently feature panels about the latest advances in science, at which many scientists volunteer their time to explain their work to an appreciative audience which includes aother scientists. I learned how DNA sequencing works from hearing a biochemist speak at a science fiction convention in Chicago; at that same convention, I got to talk about hunting for meteorites in Antarctica. Just as the professional sci-fi writers started as fans, so too did a lot of professional scientists (like me) first get the urge to study science from reading science fiction.
Since I entered the Jesuits, my status as scientist/religious has made me a popular choice as a convention speaker. For example, I sat on a recent Worldcon panel called “Living in Old Structures,” which brought in representatives of the church, military, academia, and government to describe how things actually work within the sorts of social settings that are often described in fantasy novels. It reminded me again that living and working at the Vatican has been an experience both novel and fantastic.
Science fiction has changed my life. It inspired me to pursue an education—and then a career—in science. It showed me that being a scientist could be a great adventure. But it also showed me the romance of being Catholic. Good and evil portrayed in an honest fantasy can be identified with the good and evil we must face in our own lives; choosing good and fighting evil is exactly the struggle that makes characters into heroes. Meanwhile, seeing worlds that might be teaches me to be more aware of the worlds that are.
In fantasy and science fiction I find truth. I find things I would never have seen before. And I am always reminded of how wonderful it is to keep turning the pages.
This article appeared in the March 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 3, page 35–38).