Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Religion in Speculative Fiction

I’m currently working on two projects (both that will hopefully become novels if I can stick with them...big IF). One of them is science fiction, the other is a novel-length retelling on a fairy tale. One of the things that I am really wrestling with is how I want to incorporate religion into the worlds I’m creating.

As a Christian, it is impossible for me to conceive of or believe in a universe without a creator God who is holy, just, loving, sovereign, and involved. But I don’t really want to write an allegory or even a book that is explicitly Christian. For one thing, neither of my stories take place in our world and if there is another world out there where God has created sentient life the way He reveals Himself to that world wouldn't necessarily be the way He has revealed Himself here. For another, I want my writing to be read and enjoyed by people of all kinds of belief systems.

So my challenge is writing a book that read true with explicitly stating truths.

That being said, spec. fiction where no religion exists rings so false to me. (I’m looking at you Suzanne Collins, Anne McCaffery, and I know someone will argue with me but- JK Rowling). I really loved certain aspects of all of these authors but I was still left feeling like there was something missing. Especially in dystopian worlds, people would cling to religion (even if it’s one I would consider untrue.) If the author is himself nonreligious, I think that including religion adds another layer of depth to the world (not nessecarily playing a direct role in plot). It doesn’t have to be a complete religion, just a sort of makeshift mythology makes the culture much more believable (like in Wool, for instance).

Some examples of speculative fiction that I love where religion is explicitly included in the story: CS Lewis, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy, Orson Scott Card, even a lot of classic horror like Dracula and Frankenstein include some really deep religious references.

But there are certainly some REALLY bad examples of including religion too explicitly. Tolkien actually put Narnia in this category (I respectfully disagree :-) ). The way Stephenie Meyer included it in Twilight felt forced to me (as did some other aspects of her books lol). I’ve also read some pretty bad fiction that is marketed specifically to Christians, which really put me off the whole genre. (Some is great though, just not all of it). I’m also reading Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris and I think it may belong in this category. He has some really interesting ideas but I feel like there is too much religion. I’m just not interested enough to read about four or five imaginary religious sects warring with each other.

And then there are plenty of series that include several religions simply to make the universe plausible (like Dune) but that’s not really what I wrestling with.

I really love the way that Patrick Rothfuss is dealing with religion in his Kingkiller Chronicles. He’s using characters from his world’s Mythology/religion and actually involving them in the story, thereby taking religion from merely being one of many aspects of a realistic culture and making it real in his universe. I’m leaning toward this strategy in my sci-fi universe, if only I can come up with a way to make it different enough from what he is doing. Of course, one of the hesitations I have with the supernatural taking a direct role in the story is that it would automatically take my story from the sci-fi category and into the fantasy realm in a lot of people's minds. Not that there is anything wrong with that... I'm just not sure it's right for this particular story.

Which of course, is what I believe about my faith, it’s more than just tales of morality to teach children to tell the truth and adults to be monogamous. It’s even more than origin myths and supernatural explanations to satisfy our curiosity and give us purpose. It’s real in the same sense that my breakfast is real. God is not just a force behind the birth of life, but a person from from we have all obtained our personhood. So I love that Rothfuss is making his Mythology play a direct, personal role in his main character’s life.

Of course two of my all time favorite fantasy authors are JRR Tolkien and George MacDonald, both of whom were truly masters of allowing the hope and holiness central to their being simply shine through their stories without having to be explicitly stated. I would go so far as to call them Christian Mythology. I think I’d include CS Lewis’s ‘Til We Have Faces and maybe the Space Trilogy in here too, although it’s much more obviously Christian.

Another author whose work I would put into the Mythology category is my favorite living fantasy writer, Robin Mckinley. She creates stories that in and of themselves read like a Myth, even though there is very little religion mentioned or even implied in her books. I have no idea what her personal beliefs are, but you close her books and pause with the kind of wonder that I hope to create. Lowis Lowry (and a lot of other YA and children’s spec. fiction writers) falls into this category too.

Another writer who is amazing at letting Mythology and religion enrich his worlds is Joss Whedon. He’s unique because he is a self-proclaimed atheist but can’t seem to get away from including super supernatural (haha) elements in his work. He recognizing the deep place that it holds in the human heart, despite believing it to be factually untrue.

And speaking of Joss Whedon...one of my favorite examples of the kind of feeling I want to create is actually in comic books and movies: the world of superheroes. They really are modern Myths. The best depictions of superheroes leave a feeling of joy and wonder and inspiration. They create an excitement and curiosity about the universe and the supernatural. A lot of them include some of the oldest themes in storytelling, the Messiah story being the most obvious and meaningful. A being so  strong and worthy fighting and dying for the helpless and ungrateful.  Of course there are some really terrible examples of superheroes too. I’m looking at you X-men Last Stand.

So yeah, I’m thinking a lot about how exactly I want to include religion in my books. The best outcome I suppose would be if I could simply write the story that I want to write and hope that some small version of the Eternal Story shines through all my grammatical errors. I think that will probably work for the fairy tale retelling, but the science fiction story is SOOOOOO complex. The more I work, the more I realize I need to come up with a semi-plausible system of religion, politics, starflight… heck, I even need to create the kind of food they eat. It is so overwhelming.

Attempting to get this story onto paper is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m losing sleep and forgetting to eat. So I'm sure I'll be back to hash out more of the things that are making me crazy. Stick around and you may even get a sample of the actual stories.

“This is how you do it, you sit down at the keyboard and put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and it’s that hard.” Neil Gaiman