I was excited to get Monsters and Mormons in my mailbox. Not only because it was put together by two of our peeps over here at A Motley Vision, but because the concept was just fun and quirky enough to get my attention, without going overboard. I first read some of the introductory material, and then read the graphic novel/comic book sections, because comic books are a part of pop culture I’ve been a sometimes reluctant, but more often avid fan of since I was in grade school. But somewhere in the front matter, I read that Eric James Stone’s “The Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” was included in the volume. After reading “Leviathan” and some other meaty entries, I’ve realized this was more than just fun pulp fiction and mad Mormon mash ups… this thing had a backbone.
I knew “The Leviathan Whom Thou Has Made” only by reputation. Eric Stone is a Mormon science fiction writer whose “Leviathan” won the prestigious Nebula Award and was a runner-up for the Hugo Award. Even though I’m only an infrequent taster of science fiction and fantasy literature, yet even I knew this was no mean feat for any writer, Mormon or not. So I immediately perked. I had originally intended to read the stories basically from cover to cover, but this particular story’s reputation drew me to it. I jumped straight ahead to “The Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made.”
Now I’m probably going to review the rest of the stories at a later time all together, once I’ve finished the anthology (it’s a pretty thick book, so I guess it may take me a while). But this one story left such a strong impression on me that I felt compelled to give it its own review while its still burning in my mind, heart and belly.
The story takes place in a futuristic human society which has found extra-terrestrial life in the most unlikely of places—the sun. Called, “swales” these great beings of plasma are of ancient origin and are mostly a mystery to the humans who have developed the technology to observe and interact with them within the sun, establishing a tenuous relationship with the swales.
There are four major characters within the short story. Harry Malan is a Mormon branch president who leads a small flock of humans and swales while he is stationed at the sun (“Sol”) for his work. Juanita Merced is a secular “solciologist” who studies the swales and objects to Mormonism’s proselyting to the swales and corrupting their original culture. There is Neuter Kimball (swales are male, female, and “neuter,” all of which are needed in the procreation process)who is a (comparatively) young swale and a convert to the Mormon faith. Leviathan is the most ancient of swales, the “original” swale, and a being of great power and influence among his society… some would say he is their god. It is this interaction between these four characters that make up the spine and soul of the story.
Stone’s writing in this story is exemplary. He wastes no time introducing us to the moral quandries that exist within the relatively new interaction between the two societies. Cultural hubris, religious exchange, scientific sterility, and spirituality all play interesting and even legitimately moving aspects of this unique and beautiful story.
The fact that the nature of some of Stone’s characters’ is sincerely religious, yet never off putting or holier than thou, is an important element to the story. Although characters like Juanita Merced and Leviathan are hostile to Harry Malan and Neuter Kimball’s Mormonism, which they see as a kind of foreign infection into swale society, yet in Harry and Kimball we see likable, striving Latter-day Saints, doing their best with their limited strength and understanding to live their religion, despite the hostility it creates towards them. Its a testament to Stone that he was able to take these characters without an eye of cynicism or patronization, and put them before a national readership and still win such high honors and acclaim for the story.
The story has a philosophical, even moral, makeup, but Stone’s skill in setting that forward never allows the story to become heavy handed or preachy. The acts which we love Harry and Kimball for were taught to them by their religion, but can be appreciated by secular audiences as well. It cuts past negative stereotypes of religious people (and aliens) and shows that, for the most part, they’re just striving to live and love like most everyone else. Showing Mormon characters in that kind of light can turn off the skeptics who are looking for an ax to grind with religious folk, but this story is able to accomplish something truly noteworthy in its nuanced and empathetic development of all its characters, both religious and secular.
So far from what I’ve read of Monsters and Mormons, a lot of it is just fun pulp fiction. Yet it seems some of the stories may cut from the same cloth as Stone did and show that genre fiction can still live up to the highest of literary goals, while never losing some of the otherworldly wonder that makes speculative fiction so fun.