How does Speculative Fiction speak about religion?

[The following contains spoilers for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Anne Rice’s Memnoch the Devil]

I mentioned the Guardian’s series of essays responding to the question What Can Science Fiction Tell Us About God? last time I posted. Fortunately, the introduction to the series reposes the question as  “how does science fiction help us think about our place and purpose in the universe?” Fortunately, because, much like when students turn up to the first discussion section of Intro to New Testament inform me that they have signed up for the class to find out more about God, I can’t help you much with questions about God. Questions about religion and theology and its place in our society? I am your human-type creature.

Speculative fiction, by the very nature of the genre, is able to examine questions of theology and religion in ways that other literary forms cannot. Which is not to say that other genres are incapable of examining these questions, just that there are particular tools available to authors of speculative fiction that open up interesting avenues through which to explore these questions.

In this post I am going to discuss one aspect of speculative fiction that defines the genre; world-building. A number of authors have used the imagined topographies of their invented world to explore religious and theological questions. And explore is precisely the verb, as characters are quite literally able walk through theological constructs. It is a literary technique with antecedents stretching back at least to the Middle Ages, if not earlier. Think of Dante’s Divine Comedy and its predecessors.

C.S. Lewis, of course, directly lifted a number of medieval literary topographies in his allegorical Narnia chronicles. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for example, was based on the Navigatio Sancti Brendani which narrates St Brendan’s voyage to find paradise. I find The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to be the least interesting of the Narnia chronicles, as a religious studies scholar. Sure, Reepicheep finds his way to paradise, but the book as a whole doesn’t really address any interesting questions and contents itself with a few moralizing asides on the sins of greed.

Where speculative fiction gets interesting is when authors use world-building not simply to give geographical form to a particular cosmology, but to address issues like the problem evil, often in ways that subvert orthodox theology.

Philip Pullman positioned the trilogy, His Dark Materials, as secular humanist response to C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegories.  Like Lewis, he drew on a long literary tradition of allegorical topographies. In his case, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained were the principle touchstones.  In book three of Pullman’s trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, Lyra and Will descend into the underworld. There they discover that the souls of the dead have been imprisoned by the Authority, who represents the establishment of organized religion, and they must release these souls to disperse into the world as Dust by cutting a hole out of the underworld using the subtle knife.

Anne Rice’s Memnoch the Devil has an equally interesting, and equally heterodox, take on how God could allow a place like hell to exist in a good creation. Again, the author presents the reader with a cosmological tour. This time with Memnoch leads Lestat through heaven and hell and recounts the saga of his argument with God. According to Memnoch, he was banished from heaven after challenging God over his disregard for the suffering of humans. Eventually God relents and instructs Memnoch to find human souls who are worthy of heaven and takes them into his realm, but abandons the other souls to sheol. After various arguments between God and Memnoch, and the eventual incarnation of God in human form, Memnoch is placed in charge of hell and instructed to purify the souls of sinners to make them worthy of heaven.

In Rice’s novel, the exploration of specifically Christian theology is even more explicit than in His Dark Materials. Through world-building she is able to utterly subvert the figure of God and pose some fairly radical answers to questions of theodicy as well as explicating a theology of universal salvation.

Both authors have used the genre of speculative fiction and, specifically, the genre’s capacity to imagine new topographies and geographies, to give concrete form to abstract ideas about the nature of evil and salvation. At the same time, the fantastical quality of these invented worlds affords the reader a certain amount of distance, the ability to suspend criticism as well as belief, and consider the authors’ heterodox solutions to age-old questions. Not that this has prevented the books from being placed on banned lists in libraries around the USA.

Next week, I’ll be continuing my discussion with a look at how science fiction’s use of world-building to address questions of religion differs from that of fantasy fiction.


~ by medievalness on August 31, 2011.

4 Responses to “How does Speculative Fiction speak about religion?”

  1. Great post, Ness. Setting aside the very Christian C.S. Lewis, would you say the other authors, and those who read them, are less interested in suspending criticism and belief and are more interested in challenging Christianity in general? You mention that the authors both subvert and at times challenge orthodoxy, but in my limited experience with speculative fiction, my impression has always been that these authors are trying to tell us, by making concrete abstract Christian theologies, that orthodox Christianity is a crapshoot. Do you have some examples of how solutions are offered in addition to disbelief?

    Also, have you ever read speculative fiction that alludes to religions other than Christianity?

    • Sure, there’s tonnes of explicitly Christian spec fic. I can’t say I’ve read any of it. Although I have a vague curiosity about the Left Behind series. Apparently speculative fiction written by Christian authors that poses absolutely no challenges orthodoxy gained a lot of popularity after Harry Potter came out. Kids clamoring for fantasy fiction and parents wanting an alternative to mainstream novels.

      Mainstream spec fic has sort of been known for either ignoring religion in its world building entirely, so you get these awkward secondary worlds that look all medieval but no-one seems to believe in anything, borrow heavily from a grab bag of celtic and germanic myth, or directly criticizing Christian orthodoxy. I’m going to speak about Orson Scott Card next week, and he’s been fairly vociferous about what he sees as the dominance of left wing, atheist view points in spec fic, and he has some pretty interesting perspectives on religion in his mainstream books. He also writes straight up Mormon fantasy fiction.

      Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogies were heavily influenced by Buddhism, and I think there’s been a few other authors who went down the eastern spirituality route and use it present it as a viable alternative to Christianity.

      I’m not sure that the authors who challenge orthodoxy do offer the solution of disbelief, necessarily, even if they’re accused of it. Philip Pullman has very explicitly pointed out that Will and Lyra do not kill God, they kill the Authority, who is described as a figure who has usurped power from a higher being. He also does some cringe-worthy orientalizing with the inclusion of the I-Ching and gypsies, and seems to present vaguely “eastern” religion as a viable and morally superior option.

      C.S. Lewis, also, is held up as this paragon of Christian orthodoxy, but The Last Battle is seriously unorthodox. Every good act done in the name of Tash goes to Aslan, and every evil deed done in the name of Aslan goes to Tash? Hell is just a matter of perspective? None of this sounds like the Protestantism I know. (OK, that’s a lie, it sounds exactly like the wafty episcopalianism I know, but it ain’t orthodox.) But he doesn’t propose disbelief.

      I’m currently struggling with how to deal with religion in my novel, and I’m afraid so far I’ve gone for option a) brush it under the carpet. Which is kind of disgraceful for a religious studies scholar. 😛

  2. In the library where I work, I recently saw a new book about CS Lewis, claiming that the seven Narnia books correspond to the seven heavenly spheres of the Medieval cosmos. Did you ever read his “Space Trilogy”? It’s not as good as the Narnia books, but since it’s about adults living in this universe (and probably because it’s not aimed at children) Lewis drops most of the allegory and generally refers to Christ and Satan as such.

    I know there are some Christians who shun the Chronicles of Narnia because they reference Greek myth so heavily. I think the idea that “hell is a matter of perspective” isn’t that unorthodox (not to Catholic orthodoxy, anyway) if you see it as different people having different reactions to the beatific vision – the good rush to embrace God while the wicked turn away in horror. I’m sure plenty of Catholics would disagree with me on that, though.

    Kristi – I’m sure there are many, many other examples of non-Christian religions in sf, but I can think of two examples off the top of my head. The first is “Lord of Light” by Roger Zelazny, which is essentially Buddha vs. the Hindu gods in outer space. (at least that’s how it was explained to me; someone highly recommended it a while ago, but I haven’t actually read it.)

    There’s also an excellent 2-book series, “The Sparrow” and “Children of God” by Mary Doria Russell, which tells the story of the first Jesuit missionaries to another planet. One of their crew members is Jewish, so it actually talks at least as much about Judaism as it does about Christianity, especially in the second book.

    • I read “Out of the Silent Planet” many years ago but I haven’t read the other books in the “Space Trilogy.” I remember it being a very neoplatonic version of Christianity, with the ascent to unity and light. I think I appreciate his works more as I progress through my doctorate and am exposed to more medieval theology.

      I think the issue of “hell as a matter of perspective” raises the question of “whose orthodoxy?” I was certainly raised with the understanding that hell isn’t a place of punishment, but an absolute absence of God on the side of human experience, rather than God’s experience, as God is always in all places. Which seems to accord with the scene where the dwarves are in paradise with the Pevensies, but the dwarves can’t see Paradise and simply bicker amongst themselves, becoming their own eternal punishment. Even if the idea isn’t entirely unorthodox, I think Lewis uses the medium of fiction to present ideas that are subject to debate and allow the reader to consider them in a way that is different to how they would consider a homily or a tract.

      I haven’t heard about Zelazny’s novels – I’ll have to add them to my ever expanding “to-read” list!

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