Entry updated 28 August 2023. Tagged: Theme.
Familiar Definitions of SF imply that there is nothing more alien to its concerns than religion. However, many of the roots of Proto SF are embedded in traditions of speculative fiction closely associated with the religious imagination, and contemporary sf recovered a strong interest in certain mystical and transcendental themes and images when it moved beyond the Taboos imposed by the Pulp magazines. Modern sf frequently confronts age-old speculative issues associated with Metaphysics and theology – partly because science itself has abandoned them. Speculative fiction always tends to go beyond the merely empirical matters with which pragmatic scientists concern themselves; perhaps something called "science" fiction ought not to include metaphysical fiction, but the genre as constituted obviously does.
It was the religious imagination of people such as Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) which first envisioned an infinite Universe filled with habitable worlds, and it was visionaries like Athanasius Kircher and Emanuel Swedenborg who first journeyed in the imagination to the limits of the solar system, and beyond. John Wilkins, who first supposed in all seriousness that people might go to the Moon in a flying machine, was a bishop, and so was Francis Godwin, the author of the satirical cosmic voyage The Man in the Moone (1638). Other early speculative fictions were attacks upon religious cosmology and religious orthodoxy by freethinkers such as Cyrano de Bergerac, Voltaire and, later, Samuel Butler. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) takes its imaginative inspiration from the image of the scientist as usurper of the prerogatives of God. The boldest of all the nineteenth-century speculative fictions, Camille Flammarion's Lumen (1887; trans anon 1892) [for further publication details see Flammarion], was the result of the astronomer's desperate need to reconcile and fuse his scientific knowledge with his religious faith. J-H Rosny aîné, the prolific writer of evolutionary fantasies, also saw the object of his work as an imaginative revelation of the divinely planned evolutionary schema, and he too wanted to remake theology so that it might be reconciled with modern scientific knowledge – a task later taken up by the heretic Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). C H Hinton's stories and essays about the fourth Dimension were inspired by the notion that a four-dimensional God might be omniscient of everything that has ever or will ever take place in our three-dimensional continuum. Marie Corelli re-envisaged God as an entity of pure electric force in A Romance of Two Worlds (1886). John Jacob Astor's A Journey in Other Worlds (1894), Jean Delaire's Around a Distant Star (1904) and John Mastin's Through the Sun in an Airship (1909) are among many novels borrowing the literary devices of Scientific Romance to dramatize cosmic voyages whose real purpose was to "justify" theological dogmas. Edgar Fawcett's The Ghost of Guy Thyrle (1895) does not hesitate to engage its hero in conversation with a messenger from God at the edge of the Universe.
In virtually all late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century speculative fiction the antagonism of the scientific and religious imaginations – sharpened by controversies regarding Darwinian Evolution, socialism and humanism – is evident, whether the thrust of the narrative is toward reconciliation or conflict. Many of the early UK writers of scientific romance-notably George Griffith, M P Shiel, William Hope Hodgson and J D Beresford – were the sons of clergymen who converted to free thought and used their fiction to justify and explore the consequences of their decision. Cyril Ranger Gull's When It Was Dark (1904) as by Guy Thorne and Shiel's The Last Miracle (1906) both feature rationalist plots to discredit Christian faith, although the authors take up very different positions in extrapolating the consequences. In Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World (1907) a humanist socialist woos the world to his cause, but proves to be the Antichrist; its companion-piece, The Dawn of All (1911), offers an alternative vision of a Utopian future in which people have renounced such heinous heresies as materialism, humanism, socialism and protestantism. Ronald A Knox's sardonic "A New Cure for Religion" (April 1924 Blackfriars) describes a gland that when inserted fills the patient with true religious belief; or, if removed, instils atheism. Some humanists were equally prepared to turn religious imagery to their own purposes: H G Wells brought a new kind of angel to Earth to observe the sins of mankind in The Wonderful Visit (1895); his later flirtation with a reconstituted faith – explained in God the Invisible King (1917) – led him to produce a new Book of Job in The Undying Fire (1919), and towards the end of his life he rewrote the tale of Noah in All Aboard for Ararat (1940). A similar interest in "alternative theology" is central to the work of Olaf Stapledon, whose Star Maker (1937) explores a vast cosmic schema, and culminates in a vision of God the Scientist, constantly experimenting with Creation. C S Lewis co-opted the methods and ideas of scientific romance for his theological fantasies Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943; vt Voyage to Venus 1953) and The Great Divorce (1945 chap). In France André Maurois confronted a Scientist with proof of the existence of the soul in Le peseur d'âmes (1931; trans as The Weigher of Souls 1931); and the Austrian Franz Werfel wrote Stern der Ungeborenen (1946; trans as Star of the Unborn 1946), a bizarre futuristic Satire promiscuously combining ideas from the scientific and religious imaginations. The dedicatedly sceptical philosopher Bertrand Russell produced the Voltaire-esque contes philosophiques "Zahatopolk" (in Nightmares of Eminent Persons, coll 1954) and "Faith and Mountains" (in Nightmares of Eminent Persons, coll 1954), two vitriolically scathing treatments of organized religion and faddish cults. This long tradition of theological and antitheological speculative fiction extends into recent times in such works as John Cameron's The Astrologer (1972), Romain Gary's The Gasp (1973), E E Y Hales's Chariot of Fire (1977), Bernard Malamud's God's Grace (1982), Jeremy Leven's Satan (1982), Theodore Sturgeon's Godbody (1986) and James K Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter (1990).
If speculative fiction in the Mainstream has always been as much concerned with the visions of the religious imagination as with those of the scientific imagination, within Genre SF religious issues were for many years excluded by editorial Taboo. One pulp subgenre to be exempted was the Shaggy God Story, often dealing with Adam and Eve; writers mostly played safe by scrupulously avoiding the New Testament. Godlike aliens were treated with circumspection, Clifford D Simak's The Creator (March/April 1935 Marvel Tales; 1946 chap) finding a home only in the semiprofessional Marvel Tales. The future evolution of institutionalized religion was considered in Robert A Heinlein's "If This Goes On –" (February-March 1940 Astounding; rev in Revolt in 2100 1953), in which a tyrannical state of the future operates through an Established Church headed by a bigoted fanatic – a recurrent image in sf. Heinlein's Sixth Column (January-March 1941 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald; 1949 as Heinlein; vt The Day After Tomorrow 1951), based on a John W Campbell Jr story whose original version was ultimately published as "All" (in The Space Beyond, coll 1976), shows the USA overthrowing Asian conquerors by means of a fake religious cult – another recurrent image. The fake religion of the "Galactic Spirit" helps consolidate the Foundation's early colonial expansion in Isaac Asimov's Foundation (May 1942-October 1944 Astounding; fixup 1951). Fritz Leiber amalgamated the two ideas in Gather, Darkness! (May-July 1943 Astounding; 1950), in which the tyrannical rule of a state religion is overthrown by a cult masquerading as witches and warlocks. Robots sceptical of what humans tell them about Earth construct a new faith for themselves in Isaac Asimov's "Reason" (April 1941 Astounding). But all these religions were mere superstructure: the theological issues remained untouched. In the pages of Unknown, Campbell's authors used angels, Gods and Demons with gay abandon, but such stories as Henry Kuttner's "The Misguided Halo" (August 1939 Unknown) and Cleve Cartmill's "Prelude to Armageddon" (April 1942 Unknown) were conscientiously playful in dealing with the apparatus of the Christian mythos. Only A E van Vogt's The Book of Ptath (October 1943 Unknown; 1947; vt Two Hundred Million A.D.; vt Ptath 1976) came close to serious speculation about metaphysics; it is posited that godlike abilities stem from the prayers of the faithful via a channeling of mass Psi Power into a single person/god.
Mention should here be made of the "space-god" Klono in E E Smith's Lensman, who has no associated religious beliefs or trappings – the roles of Gods and Demons in this universe being played by the Arisians and Eddorians respectively – but exists solely as something to swear by (see Swearing).
After World War Two there was a spectacular boom in sf stories which, without any trepidation whatever, cut straight to the heart of theological matters. The space travellers in Ray Bradbury's "The Man" (February 1949 Thrilling Wonder) follow Jesus on his interplanetary mission of salvation, while the priests in "In this Sign ..." (April 1951 Imagination; vt "The Fire Balloons" in The Silver Locusts, coll 1951) encounter sinless beings on Mars. A robot in Anthony Boucher's "The Quest for St Aquin" (in New Tales of Space and Time, anth 1951, ed Raymond J Healy) emulates St Thomas Aquinas in logically deducing the existence of God, thus justifying its own – and the author's – adherence to the Catholic faith. In Paul L Payne's "Fool's Errand" (October 1952 Thrilling Wonder) a Jew finds a cross in the sands of Mars. In James Blish's classic A Case of Conscience (September 1953 If; exp 1958) a Jesuit interprets the axioms of his faith to infer, heretically in the Manichaean style, that an alien world is the creation of the Devil, and that it must be exorcized. In Lester del Rey's "For I Am a Jealous People!" (in Star Short Novels, anth 1954, ed Frederik Pohl) alien invaders arrive to take possession of the Earth, having made their own covenant with God and become his chosen people. In Arthur C Clarke's "The Star" (November 1955 Infinity Science Fiction) spacefarers discover the wreckage of inhabited worlds which had been destroyed by the nova that shone over Bethlehem. Philip José Farmer's The Lovers (August 1952 Startling; exp 1961) features a future Earth whose social mores derive from the "Western Talmud"; its purported sequel, A Woman a Day (June 1953 Startling as "Moth and Rust"; rev 1960; vt The Day of Timestop 1968; vt Timestop! 1970), continues an earnest exploration of future religion and of resistance to the oppressive Sturch or State Church. Farmer's "The God Business" (March 1954 Beyond Fantasy Fiction) is a phantasmagoric, pantheistic fantasy whose hero ends up as a deity; and the same opportunity is offered to a conventional Churchman in "Father" (July 1955 F&SF), part of a series featuring the priest John Carmody, whose conversion as a result of authentic transcendental experience is described in Night of Light (June 1957 F&SF; exp 1966), and whose eventual mission is the subject of "A Few Miles" (October 1960 F&SF) and "Prometheus" (March 1961 F&SF). The most impressive single work to come out of this boom is Walter M Miller Jr's A Canticle for Leibowitz (April 1955-February 1957 F&SF; fixup dated 1960 but 1959), which describes the role played by the Church in the Post-Holocaust rebuilding of society after a nuclear Holocaust. Even stories like Robert A W Lowndes's Believers' World (September 1952 Space Science Fiction as "A Matter of Faith" as by Michael Sherman; exp 1961), James E Gunn's This Fortress World (1955) and Poul Anderson's "Superstition" (March 1956 F&SF), which deal with fake or misguided religious cults, exhibit a far more sophisticated view of the Sociology of religion than "If This Goes On –" or Sixth Column.
James Blish, tempted to try to explain this remarkable phenomenon by his own involvement with it, wrote the notable essay "Cathedrals in Space" (Autumn 1953 Skyhook as by William Atheling Jr; exp rev in The Issue at Hand, coll 1964), citing the stories as "instruments of a chiliastic crisis, of a magnitude we have not seen since the chiliastic panic of 999 A.D.", and drawing a parallel between them and the boom in atomic Armageddons – a parallel made explicit by Boucher and Miller Jr and spectacularly developed by Blish himself in Black Easter (August-October 1967 If as "Faust Aleph-Null"; 1968) and The Day after Judgment (August 1970 Galaxy; exp 1971). The supposed panics of 999 CE were in fact a myth invented by much later apocalyptic writers, but the argument holds good. The advent of the atom bomb in 1945 was a revelation of sorts, and the 1953 invention of the H-bomb gave to each of two ideologically opposed nations the power to annihilate the entire human race. The interest in theological issues, and in metaphysical issues in general, prompted by the acute sense of existential insecurity to which this awareness gave birth became gradually more powerful, though often less explicit. The 1950s also saw a remarkable proliferation of images obviously allied to religious notions but shorn of their association with actual religious doctrine. Arthur C Clarke has said that any religious symbolism or imagery in Childhood's End (April 1950 Famous Fantastic Mysteries as "Guardian Angel"; much exp 1953; rev 1990) is "entirely accidental", although the text itself refers to the climax as an "apotheosis" and the events described there are strikingly – but coincidentally – similar to Teilhard de Chardin's notion of the coming-together of displaced planetary "noöspheres" at an apocalyptic Omega Point. (However, Childhood's End also refers incidentally to the fading of existing Earth religions in the light of factual information from Alien-supplied Time Viewers.) Clifford D Simak's Time and Again (October-December 1950 Galaxy as "Time Quarry"; 1951; vt First He Died 1953) is similarly free of formal doctrine, although the Alien symbionts which infest all living things are obviously analogous to souls (see Eschatology). In later works by Simak – particularly A Choice of Gods (1972) and Project Pope (1981), the latter featuring a Computer Pope – religious ideas do become explicit, and here again there are strong echoes of a Teilhardian schema. Sf works explicitly based on Teilhard's ideas are George Zebrowski's The Omega Point Trilogy (2 parts published 1972, 1977; omni, including 3rd part, 1983) and Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) and The Urth of the New Sun (1987). The syncretic approach of these stories, which blends the religious and scientific imaginations, contrasts with uncompromising stories using Time Travel and other facilitating devices directly to confront the central symbol of the Christian faith: the crucifixion. Richard Matheson's "The Traveler" (in Born of Man and Woman, coll 1954) visits the scene in order to find faith. The heroes of Brian Earnshaw's Planet in the Eye of Time (1968) go there to protect faith from subversion. The protagonists of Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man! (September 1966 New Worlds; exp 1969) and Barry N Malzberg's Cross of Fire (1982) must become Christ and suffer crucifixion in search of redemption for themselves. The Time-Travel tourists of Garry Kilworth's "Let's Go to Golgotha!" (15 December 1974 Sunday Times Weekly Review) discover the horribly ironic truth about the condemnation of Christ. More oblique treatments of the motif can be found in Harry Harrison's "The Streets of Ashkelon" (September 1962 New Worlds; vt "An Alien Agony" in More Penguin Science Fiction, anth 1963, ed Brian W Aldiss) and Philip José Farmer's Jesus on Mars (1979). Jack Vance subjects human religion to biting and/or comical Satire in several mid-period books: notable examples are the merely venal and corrupt "Bezzler"-caste priesthood of The Blue World (July 1964 Fantastic as "The Kragen"; exp 1966) and the ludicrous yet oppressive religions of Emphyrio (July-August 1969 Fantastic; 1969) – whose Temple of Finuka practises devotional hopscotch – and The Anome (February-March 1971 F&SF as "The Faceless Man"; 1973; vt The Faceless Man 1978), whose obnoxiously puritan, woman-hating Chilites commune with their goddess via "spasms" induced by Drugs and (it is hinted) group masturbation.
There was a very noticeable change, too, in the attitude of sf writers to Alien religion. Before World War Two, it was taken for granted that all such religions were misguided, ripe for Satire and open mockery; after World War Two sf writers were prepared to treat Alien beliefs reverently, and frequently to credit them with a truthful dimension which Earthly religion lacked. In Katherine MacLean's "Unhuman Sacrifice" (November 1958 Astounding) missionaries to an alien world find that the "superstitions" they set out to subvert are not as absurd as they assumed. In Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961; text restored 1990) religious ideas imported from Mars become important on Earth. In Robert Silverberg's Nightwings (September 1968 Galaxy; fixup 1969) and Downward to the Earth (1970) humans seek their own salvation via the transcendental experiences associated with alien religion, although his Tom O'Bedlam (1986) is more ambiguous in its treatment of a cult based on visionary experience of an alien world, and "The Pope of the Chimps" (in Perpetual Light, anth 1982, ed Alan Ryan) is highly and ironically ambivalent. In D G Compton's The Missionaries (1972) alien missionaries bring an enigmatic offer of salvation to mankind. Poul Anderson's "The Problem of Pain" (February 1973 F&SF) is a fine conte philosophique about the relativity of values deriving from human and alien religions. Satan is portrayed as a wise and misunderstood alien in Harlan Ellison's "The Deathbird" (March 1973 F&SF), which argues that the story of the Fall is a fraud perpetrated on us by God. In the first part of Gregory Benford's and Gordon Eklund's If the Stars Are Gods (in Universe 4, anth 1974, ed Terry Carr; fixup 1977) alien visitors seeking a new sun-god allow a man to share their enigmatic communion with our Sun. In George R R Martin's "A Song for Lya" (June 1974 Analog) humans again seek and find transcendental experience in alien ways. The first section of Dan Simmons's Hyperion (1989) deals with an alien religion based in the effects of alien Parasitism (or perhaps symbiosis). Alien gods are treated with much greater suspicion in Zebrowski's "Heathen God" (January 1971 F&SF), Ian Watson's extraordinary God's World (1979) and Ted Reynolds's The Tides of God (1989), which is robustly unsentimental in proposing that if God is an alien the best thing we can do is get out there and destroy Him. Such an assassination takes place, with adverse consequences for the quality of Earth life, in Barrington J Bayley's "The God-Gun" (in The Seed of Evil, coll 1979). Members of the faux-Ancient Egyptian pantheon in Roger Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969) also devote much effort to the attempted destruction of what seems to be a surviving remnant of the Old Testament God.
Sf also became increasingly eager to look at religious experience from the "other side", exploring the experience of being a (or even the) God. This notion was tentatively developed in pulp stories about scientists presiding over tiny creations, including Edmond Hamilton's "Fessenden's Worlds" (April 1937 Weird Tales) and Theodore Sturgeon's "Microcosmic God" (April 1941 Astounding), and in Shaggy God Story squibs like Fredric Brown's "Solipsist" (in Angels and Spaceships, coll 1954) and Eric Frank Russell's "Sole Solution" (April 1956 Fantastic Universe). It received more serious consideration in Farmer's "The God Business" and "Father" and in Robert Bloch's intensely bitter "The Funnel of God" (January 1960 Fantastic), and was more elaborately explored in a number of novels by Roger Zelazny, notably Lord of Light (1967), Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969) and Isle of the Dead (1969), and in Frank Herbert's The God Makers (February 1960 Fantastic as "The Priests of Psi"; exp fixup 1972). The last presents gods as major foci (human or otherwise) of Psi Powers, and religious ritual as both training exercises and tests of worthiness for such gods.
The sf writer who has dealt most prolifically with issues in speculative theology is Philip K Dick, whose long-standing fascination was brought to a head by a series of unusual and possibly religious experiences which he underwent in the early months of 1974. Novels like Radio Free Albemuth (written 1976; 1985), comprehensively reworked as VALIS (1981), are attempts to get to grips with these experiences. The development of Dick's theological fascination can be tracked through such works as "Faith of Our Fathers" (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison), Galactic Pot-Healer (1969) and A Maze of Death (1970), and culminate – as far as fiction is concerned – in The Divine Invasion (1981) and the non-sf The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982). Dick's vast nonfiction "Exegesis" of his experience has appeared only as excerpts, the most comprehensible (but still very selective) being The Exegesis of Philip K Dick (2011) edited by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem.
Artificial religions and cults (see also Cultural Engineering) still crop up regularly in sf, sometimes deployed for satirical purposes, as by Kurt Vonnegut Jr in The Sirens of Titan (1959), Cat's Cradle (1963) and Slapstick (1976), sometimes in the cause of thoughtful extrapolations in the sociology of religion, as in This Star Shall Abide (1972; vt Heritage of the Star) by Sylvia Louise Engdahl. Keith Roberts's Pavane (coll of linked stories 1968) and Kingsley Amis's The Alteration (1976) are both Alternate-History stories endorsing the thesis of Max Weber (1864-1920) regarding the Protestant Ethic and the spirit of capitalism by displaying an unreformed Catholic Church dominating a Europe where the Industrial Revolution is only just getting under way in the twentieth century. Roberts's Kiteworld (fixup 1985) is one of the more memorable sf images of oppressive theocracy. More earnest explorations of possible developments in future religion include Richard Cowper's Kinship series begun with the novella "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" (March 1976 F&SF). A number of books excoriate future theocracies, particularly fundamentalist ones, such as The Stone that Never Came Down (1973) by John Brunner, recent examples of the assault on fundamentalism being Parke Godwin's Snake Oil series, beginning with Waiting for the Galactic Bus (1988), and several books by Sheri S Tepper, notably Raising the Stones (1990). Conversely, in several of Orson Scott Card's novels a thinly disguised version of Mormonism is depicted with a utopian glow. In contemporary sf, however, perhaps the most sophisticated and detailed treatment of a future religion is The Starbridge Chronicles by Paul Park, beginning with Soldiers of Paradise (1987), in which the seasons of a generations-long Great Year encourage contrasting faiths.
The test-to-destruction of faith through suffering is central to Poul Anderson's "The Problem of Pain" (February 1973 F&SF), to the already cited subplot of Dan Simmons's Hyperion (1989), and to Mary Doria Russell's sometimes very painful The Sparrow (1996). A more recent treatment of note, depicting the sufferings of yet another human missionary to aliens, is Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things (2014).
Several writers depict religion as a pernicious Meme or mind virus. In Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992) the eponymous infection is both a Computer virus and a biological one. The mind-controlling meme One True in John Barnes's Kaleidoscope Century (1995) – and other books in his sequence The Century Next Door – emerges from a religious war fought with mind-altering software: its name derives from One True Church. A biological disease origin for religious obsession is assumed in Linda Nagata's Deception Well (1997) and Vast (1998), and again in Alastair Reynolds's Absolution Gap (2003); an earlier work featuring a faith-inducing virus is Leo Perutz's Sanct Petri-Schnee (1933; trans as The Virgin's Brand 1934; trans as Saint Peter's Snow 1990).
Of real-world religions with their roots in sf, the best known is the Church of Scientology (which see), whose "secret" texts written by L Ron Hubbard draw heavily on Pulp sf tropes. The neopagan Church of All Worlds, founded in 1968, is directly based on the mystery religion of the same name introduced in Robert A Heinlein's above-cited Stranger in a Strange Land. The Earthseed religion or philosophy central to Octavia E Butler's Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) led to a humanistic pagan belief-system also called Earthseed, along with two others known as Solseed and Terasem. Jediism or Jedism, a loose nontheist movement inspired by the Jedi Order in the Star Wars films, has received some prominence since 2001 as an alternative religion claimed (for the most part as a joke) by participants in national censuses.
There are many interesting theme anthologies dealing with religion, including Other Worlds, Other Gods: Adventures in Religious Science Fiction (anth 1971; vt Other Worlds, Other Gods 1974) edited by Mayo Mohs, An Exaltation of Stars (anth 1973) edited by Terry Carr, Wandering Stars (anth 1974) edited by Jack Dann (a collection of Jewish sf), Strange Gods (anth 1974) edited by Roger Elwood, Chronicles of a Comer and Other Religious Science Fiction Stories (anth 1974) edited by Roger Elwood, The New Awareness: Religion through Science Fiction (anth 1975) edited by Martin H Greenberg and Patricia S Warrick, Perpetual Light (anth 1982) edited by Alan Ryan, and Sacred Visions (anth 1991) edited by Michael Cassutt and Andrew M Greeley. [BS/DRL]
- Lois and Stephen Rose. The Shattered Ring: Science Fiction and the Quest for Meaning (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1970) [nonfiction: pb/Robert A Stratton]
- Francesca T Barbini, editor. Follow Me: Religion in Fantasy and Science Fiction (Edinburgh, Scotland: Luna Press, 2023) [nonfiction: anth: in the publisher's Academia Lunare series: pb/]
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