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Close encounters of the God kind: Scalzi, others mix religion in science fiction

Science-fiction author John Scalzi speaks about his new book, "The Consuming Fire," on Oct. 22, 2018, at the American Writers Museum in Chicago. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

CHICAGO (RNS) — With a roll of the dice, John Scalzi sealed his fate.

At his appearance in late October at the American Writers Museum in Chicago, the best-selling author, newspaper columnist and social media maven tossed a 10-sided die to determine what he would speak about that evening.

Sometimes it’s explaining the meaning of life. Sometimes it’s how he wrote his latest science-fiction novel, “The Consuming Fire,” in two weeks.

Sometimes it’s even preaching. During an appearance at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Fort Collins, Colo., to talk about his new book, Scalzi, a self-described agnostic, preached on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from the book of Matthew.

It’s a passage that speaks to him — because it asks why we do what we do.

“Even as an agnostic, to ignore the wisdom of religious teaching, to ignore the fact that so many people are religious, just doesn’t make sense,” he told Religion News Service.

Religion doesn’t just show up in Scalzi’s book tours. It also plays a role in many of his books — which look at themes like reincarnation, predestination and the role of overzealous missionaries, along with examining the good and evil that religion can do in the universe.

And that’s not unique to Scalzi.

Religion and science fiction often intersect. They’re found in the fictional worlds of sci-fi — like the imagined religions of N.K. Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or the Jewish faith of mathematician-turned-astronaut Elma York in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series — as well as in the lives of its authors, like theologian C.S. Lewis, who also wrote a Space Trilogy, or sci-fi writer turned Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

There’s a simple reason for that, Scalzi said during a panel on sci-fi and religion at the Religion News Association conference in September in Columbus, Ohio.

“The reason I think there is religion in science fiction is because there are people in science fiction,” he said. 

John Scalzi, left, participates on the panel “Close Encounters of the God Kind: Religion in Science Fiction” during the 2018 Religion News Association Conference on Sept. 13, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio. Kimberly Winston, right, moderated the panel that also included James McGrath, second right, David Williams and Farah Rishi. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

People always have looked to both religion and science fiction to imagine the future and examine the present, said James McGrath, the chair of New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis. McGrath, who served on the panel with Scalzi, has taught classes on religion and science fiction.

“Stories about attempts to create artificial beings … stories about beings from up there coming and visiting down here and people from down here possibly being caught up there go back to ancient times — go back as far as we can trace human storytelling,” McGrath said.

Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” published 200 years ago this year, is often viewed as the first science-fiction novel, McGrath said. It’s the story of a scientist playing God, a now-common trope in the genre.

Before that, there was the story of the Golem, a creature made from inanimate materials and brought to life in Jewish folklore, he said. And there’s a long history of “looking up in the sky and wondering about our place in the cosmos” captured in Psalm 8.

Farah Rishi, who has written about science fiction in Islam and will release her first sci-fi novel in fall 2019, pointed to science-fiction tropes in the Quran, as well.

The first sura describes Allah as “lord of the worlds,”  she said during the panel. That “leaves a lot of room for creativity, for speculation.”

She also recounted an Islamic story of the seven sleepers who escape religious persecution by hiding in a cave and emerging hundreds of years later. That’s essentially a story about time travel, she said.

It’s a tradition she said has continued through the real-life science of the automatons of al-Jazari to recent works of science fiction and fantasy like the new Ms. Marvel comics and “Frankenstein in Baghdad.”

For many Muslims, Rishi said, reading widely — including science fiction — is an “unspoken tenet” of Islam, a religion founded, she said, with the angel Gabriel’s command to the prophet Mohammed to read.

And science fiction allows readers to imagine a better world.

“It’s an act of self-care to imagine a world in the near future where Muslim people exist and have relevance that is something beyond terrorism or something beyond violence,” she said.

The Rev. Wil Gafney, associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, uses science fiction in the classroom.

Gafney has used “Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus” by Orson Scott Card, a book about a group of scientists who travel back in time to stop the conquest of indigenous peoples in North America, to discuss the idea of conquest in the biblical book of Exodus. She’s used “The Sparrow” by Maria Dora Russell, about a Jesuit priest who experiences “hell on several planets” after being sent as a missionary to aliens on another planet, to discuss suffering in the book of Job.

“Science fiction, for me, is inherently theological,” she said. 

Hugo Award-winning author Kowal imagines an alternate timeline in her Lady Astronaut series in which Earth moves to colonize the moon and Mars after a catastrophic meteor strike in the 1950s. Kowal, who is Christian, said she made her protagonist Jewish not because she wanted to explore religion but rather because she did not want to ignore it.

What I wanted to do was give her the same emotional life that all of my other characters have,” she said.

Science-fiction author John Scalzi speaks about his new book “The Consuming Fire” on Oct. 22, 2018, at the American Writers Museum in Chicago. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Religion plays a huge role in the Interdependency series by Scalzi, who is friends with Kowal, for similar reasons — because “religion tends to be a supporting strut in civilization, period,” he said.

Scalzi’s Interdependency is an interstellar empire founded on a prophecy and connected by a stream between star systems. Its leader is head of both the empire and its largest religion. When the connections between planets collapse, she uses the church as a “tool for doing good.”

“The good, in this case, is saving as many people as possible from this natural collapse. That is an inevitable. It’s going to happen. How do we save as many people as we can, even if and when the empire itself is falling?” Scalzi said.

A positive portrayal of religion can be surprising for some to see in science fiction, Scalzi acknowledged. But he said it’s part of the complexity of humans, both in real life and on the page.

Religions ultimately are about people. In the hands of some leaders, religion is a profound source of good, he said. In the hands of others, it can be evil.

And so is science fiction.

The genre is “about people dealing with a different time, dealing with different technology,” Scalzi said. “But they are still people, and the religious impulse is never going to go away.”

And science-fiction writers can’t ignore it.

“When 5 billion people out of 7 billion very strongly have professed religious belief of some sort or another, to ignore it, minimize it or just say it doesn’t matter is foolish,” he said.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

14 Comments

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  • I have no trouble believing that many people would like religious fiction. The TV shows “Highway to Heaven” and “Touched by an Angel” were built on it. I hear “God Friended Me” is on now (although I have not actually seen an episode.) Better be careful with anything on the dark side, though. People will feast on that too, to everyone’s detriment.

  • Religious Fiction is a huge industry! There are some folk who will ONLY read such books. They ONLY watch and listen to religious radio and tv programs. Then they are confused when the reality of the world slaps them in the face.

    We seem to get these religious themed TV shows on main stream TV when the world we live in seems headed the wrong way. How many years ago was it that “Touched by an Angel” and “Highway to Heaven” appeared 15 years or so? Who was president at that time? Do you remember?

    I haven’t watched this latest edition “God Friended Me”, the very title turned me off! I don’t however think it will change any minds or turn people away from their favorite reality TV show–survivor or Big Brother!

  • Highway to Heaven ran 1984-1989. Touched by an Angel ran 1994-2003. I liked Highway better, because I liked Michael Landon for doing Little House first, always thinking that in addition to being a TV businessman, that he was trying to give something positive to America both times.

    All of these still run on the over-air cheap channels. My wife and I have seen Little House on the Prairie recently and, as an old guy, I have come to believe it should have been called The Karen Grassle Show. As Mrs. Engles, Karen Grassle created a pitch-perfect character for the show and the times. She also is reported to have spent time lobbying for the Equal Rights Amendment, so apparently a leftie in real life. (That’s off-subject rambling on my part.)

  • Wouldn’t that be “God, if there is a God, Friended Me” and “A non-existent ‘deity’ Friended Me”?

  • No, it’s about a social media account named God friending a guy on his social media account. God wouldn’t go around questioning Godself such as you suggest.

  • Another example of science fiction with religious overlays is the late great series Babylon 5 (from which … full disclosure! … my Internet handle is drawn). 

    It’s not a religious show, per se, but many of the characters have religious beliefs that play key roles in the series. For instance, one alien ambassador (i.e. Delenn) is from her race’s religious caste and pursues a religious prophecy in several ways through the series (changing herself, for one, and in how she deals with her homeworld’s politics). Another alien ambassador (i.e. G’Kar) literally transforms, through the length of the series, into a religious figure or even a “prophet” in his own right, having followed the teachings of a legendary religious leader from his race’s past. Other characters belong to religions invented for the show (e.g. Dr Franklin and Foundationism). Clergy from human religions also figured in (e.g. the Catholic monk Brother Theo). 

    And in the course of the show, religions (and their followers) were portrayed in many ways. Some were flattering, e.g. Brother Theo, and even heroic (like the cadre of clerics who visited, part of the “underground” resistance to a tyrannical Earth government in one episode). Others were less so (e.g. the aliens known as “children of the egg” in an earlier episode). The handling of religion runs the gamut in B5

    The show’s creator is himself an atheist, but he’d said people would bring their religions with them to the stars, and on his show, that’s what they did. 

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