The other day, I woke up and wound up writing — well, this. And so I decided that I might as well share…
Science fiction as a genre has a high and holy calling of engaging us in dialogue with science, the future, and technological change (corresponding to fantasy’s calling to engage us in a dialogue with history, mythology, and the unconscious, but that’s a topic for a different essay). Like most such callings, it is a potential caught mostly in glimpses, seldom if ever fully realized. Yet for all the protestations one hears of simple storytelling with no pretense of oracular or legislative responsibility (Shelley notwithstanding), it is a vocation pursued with remarkable persistence by most of the genre’s writers and never really forgotten by the bulk of its readers. (I speak now of literature. Movies are a different thing entirely.)
Take, for instance, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover stories: not “hard” science fiction by anyone’s definition, seemingly more like fantasy than sf in its quasi-medieval setting and magiclike psionic “science.” And yet the scientific and technological focus is there as well: in the focus on culture and technology clash when Terra rediscovers Darkover; in its questioning of how long a local culture can maintain its distinctiveness in confrontation with a technologically, materially, and politically stronger competing culture; and even in its exploration of the natural limits of specific psionic abilities (as in Stormqueen!) before that ability becomes a menace to society and to its possessor.
Later in her career, Bradley went back to explore the material circumstances and societal beliefs that could have led to the establishment of such a society by refugees from a modern technological Earth. Still later, she launched into books set on a Darkover during its time of isolation when its psionic technology was at a peak. Yet even those books maintain a science fictional element, as Bradley explores issues about the limitations of technology that consumes its own critical resources (in this case those individuals possessing strong psionic abilities) and what might happen once those practitioners start to question whether they ought to do more than simply accept the orders of their political leaders.
Certainly many of the reasons why I liked the Darkover books as an adolescent had to do with other elements of Bradley’s stories: the less technologically developed society she was so gifted at evoking, her sympathetic (usually adolescent) characteris, and the color and drama of the psionic gifts themselves. (I have always been fascinated by the idea of communicating mind-to-mind, without the alienating interposition of language and isolated consciousness.) But the other was there as well, for me as a reader as well as (clearly) for the author. Else why would I so consistently have sought out for my entertainment stories possessing those elements?
A recent conversation wtih my older son reminded me that my teenage wish-fulfillment fantasies included not just magic and superpowers but politics and science as well. My best friend and I would imagine ourselves as leaders of our own small modern-day terrestrial countries, clandestinely building our political strength by luring the best, brightest, and most creative of scientists and inventors to our shores with promises of tax breaks and ample funding for pursuing their own research interests. Yes we did. And while this was a game we played strictly for our own amusement, clearly there were some building blocks of understanding (and misunderstanding) about how the world works, and particularly of the role science and technology play in the fate of nations. You don’t get that, by and large, from mainstream literature.
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So how does this tie into Mormonism, and the frequently observed fact that Mormons readers and writers seem to have a particular affinity for science fiction (and fantasy, but again, that’s a topic for a different essay)?
I want to start by making the point that in my experience and observations, readers tend either to like science fiction or not. Either you’re the sort of person who is intrinsically engaged by stories of this type, featuring the kinds of more serious concerns I’ve mentioned above but also with the trappings of spaceships and mad scientists (or upset engineers, as Bujold has it), or you are the type who is largely left cold by such fiction, with at most a kind of abstract appreciation of specific instances that “transcend” the genre.
I insist on this point partly because one still encounters the view that reading and writing of science fiction among Mormons somehow is at the expense of other types of literary production and consumption. Quite aside from the notions of the lower relative value of science fiction this often involves (which still set my teeth on edge, tired though others may be of hearing about it), it seems to rest on the false assumption that if I were not reading science fiction, I would be reading high-quality mainstream fiction instead — or writing it. But this is not the case. Mainstream fiction doesn’t offer what I want — or at least, it doesn’t offer what I go to science fiction to get.
It’s true that some of us like both science fiction and mainstream/realistic fiction, at least in some of its incarnations; but generally speaking, we go to these different types of literature in order to satisfy different appetites. And it seems to me that the same thing applies to readers of other genres as well. The genre wars in Mormon literature aren’t, by and large, about allocation of limited resources: it’s all different pies, served at different tables, to members of (mostly) different dinner groups.
If anything, the genre wars are mostly about mutual support and critical attention, which in the unfortunate world of Mormon letters often comes down to the writings of a handful of us in a few public venues. Include two or three regular contributors who talk mostly about science fiction and suddenly you’re monopolizing the conversation. Which, don’t get me wrong, can be a real problem, especially in attracting new people with differing interests. But the answer isn’t — can’t be — just to wish really hard for an alchemical transformation of science fiction readers into readers of others genres, or worse still try to scold them (us) into making that kind of change.
I would also suggest that if there are distinct reasons for liking different genres, then taste in genres is largely independent of literary education. It’s true that it’s hard to like something without speaking its language, and in fact there are literary works I can appreciate (if not like) largely because I have learned how to analyze and respect what they are about — such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, in my case. But the basic impulse that makes me love Dandelion Wine in the same way that others report liking Huckleberry Finn (or, less comprehensibly to me, Catcher in the Rye, or Lord of the Flies) seems intrinsic to myself. I can hear the report of such readers, and hopefully come to better understand them as individuals by learning why those particular works speak to them. But it is primarily an exercise of the intellectual and literary imagination, and doesn’t tend to change my own personal taste that much.
Instead, education primarily operates in developing taste within genre, in my experience. Thus, for example, readers who start by enjoying relatively simple and straightforward stories by Isaac Asimov or Andre Norton may also come to appreciate more challenging work by author such as Frank Herbert and Ursula Le Guin. (Note that “challenging” is not necessarily the same thing as “better,” but it illustrates the point I’m making.) Authors themselves demonstrably may stretch to create better work as they grow in their craft and in response to the developing expectations of the field — as did, for example, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Gordon R. Dickson, and Asimov himself. Sophistication does not necessarily lead outside the genre; rather, there is a sophistication within the genre that can fully engage the intellect of those, including educated Mormons, to whom such work appeals.
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The existence of a Mormon science fiction and fantasy community is an observable phenomenon. It exists. It has a history, events, a structure. For most of its existence, it has been largely self-contained, with strong internal connections, substantial connections to the larger world of sf&f, but few connections either to the world of Mormon literary fiction (the “AML crowd”) or to the community of popular Mormon authors (the LDStorytellers/Deseret Book/Covenant/Cedar Fort group).
It’s my sense that Mormon literary scholars are often baffled in trying to place this community in the Mormon literary landscape, at least partly because on the surface, it doesn’t seem very Mormon, except by accidents of history and membership. For the most part, these writers don’t write for specifically Mormon readers, and they don’t use science fiction as a vehicle for exploring Mormonism. There are, of course, exceptions, such as D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints and various stories from the recent Mormon-themed anthologies by Steve Peck and William Morris. But that’s largely a recent development. Most Mormon science fiction authors have not done much with science about Mormon topics; many have not even tried. (Orson Scott Card, as I recall, famously claimed that it couldn’t be done, or at least not done well, before going ahead and doing it.) By and large, the affinity of (some) Mormons for science fiction can’t be explained by its aptness in exploring our religious identity and heritage.
Demographics certainly factors into this question. Science fiction is predominantly a literature of geeks, and most especially geeks with a science and technology bent. I don’t know if Mormons disproportionately pursue these fields — but Mormons are famous for our emphasis on education, and for our unusually high percentage of college-educated members who stay in the faith. Put simply, Mormons include a pretty large number of people who are intrinsically inclined to like science fiction, just because of who we are and what we do.
But that doesn’t explain the sense of community and mission within Mormon science fiction readers and writers. Recently, I wrote to friend in the Mormon literary world: “I don’t know if I can adequately communicate to you the sense of mission that I and my compatriots at BYU felt about ourselves as Mormons becoming writers of science fiction and fantasy. For us, this was a literature we felt passionate about — for reasons connected to our Mormonism, because how could anything that was important to us not be connected to the thing that was most important to us?” Any discussion that doesn’t account for this sense of community and mission ignores an important piece of data.
Others have pointed out the clear affinities between Mormonism and several common science fictional themes and tropes — most obviously the notion of humans as gods in embryo, which aligns well with humanistic dimensions of science fiction that often find themselves at odds with religion. The literalness with which we as Mormons treat concepts such as the universal human family also aligns interestingly with science fiction’s way of externalizing metaphor into literal (literary) reality, and then exploring the implications of that reality. But this too seems to me inadequate as an explanation of science fiction’s draw for Mormons such as myself, not least because my own taste for science fiction — and that of other Mormons I know — extends well beyond the exploration of such themes to embrace the field of science fiction as a whole. To put it bluntly: we like all of it.
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Which brings me back to where I started these musings.
As Mormons, we believe in an eternal “general education” that imposes no boundaries on what we should ever want to know: religion, mathematics, linguistics, science, or anything else. In this life, I may be a literature major — but my soul includes the seeds of every other kind of intellectual exploration. Moreover, in the eternities, I will get to go down all those paths, not just those that time and opportunity allow in this life. That’s terribly exciting to me. Based directly in my view of the gospel, I view every area of knowledge as a playground I will one day get to explore.
Science fiction caters to that impulse as a literature of intellectual curiosity — particularly, as I noted previously, among readers and writers who like fiction and also possess an interest in science and technology, which are such a huge part of life, particularly considered as an existence not limited to the here and now. Where else can a story lead you to talking about the biological and cultural implications of a planet possessing a moon, or if gestation could take place outside of human bodies, or what humans would be life if we had only a single gender? Where else do you get to explore the implications of modern advertising taken to an extreme, or the various different ways that technological development might affect a society (especially in ways that didn’t actually happen historically — but might have somewhere, somewhen else)?
Part of the traditional (and slowly dwindling — but ask why BYU no longer offers a class in science fiction as literature) bias against science fiction in English departments is that as a genre, it places too little importance on character development and the norms of contemporary society, and too much on elements that are typically not considered central to literature, many of which are usually relegated to discussions of “setting.” The idea that literature can’t be about science is largely a modern one (see, for example, Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe), and one that I think is slowly reversing — but from what I’ve seen, it still plays a large role in discussions of science fiction as literature, many of which seem to shy away from discussion of those elements that make a story science fiction: a more subtle kind of literary imperialism.
In the meantime, there has developed in science fiction an entire literary tradition that is largely about the way that humans understand and interact with the external physical universe. Banal though it may seem, science fiction provides a home for the part of me that believes in an eternal destiny to learn all that God knows, and that looks to stories for a foretaste of that. I think that as a Mormon reader of science fiction, I am not alone in that.