A Novel Approach to Religion and Science Fiction

A Novel Approach to Religion and Science Fiction July 25, 2016

I’m in the process of finalizing the reading list for my course on Religion and Science Fiction. I found I could not choose from among the many novel options that I considered for the course. In the past I’ve had one novel and the rest of the course short stories and articles. This time I’m just opting for the latter, since there are plenty more short stories than I have included in the past, which would be perfect for this course – indeed, more have been written since the last time I taught it that would fit nicely.

What do you think? Is that a good move or a bad one? And if you think a novel ought to be included, how would you choose from among the following?

Frank Herbert, Dune (and sequels?)

Dan Simmons, Hyperion (or the whole Hyperion Cantos)

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (and Children of God)

Chris Crawford, The Tuning Station

And of course, I could mention others, such as Carl Sagan’s Contact.

As I have been preparing to teach the course again, I revisited a lot of links and websites that I hadn’t for a while, and so they may be new to some of you, too, or ones you’d find it helpful to revisit. Here are a few…

Seven Deadly Sins of Religion and Science Fiction

Religion and Science Fiction: Asking the Right Questions

Religious Science Fiction

SF Encyclopedia entry on “Religion”

The Nature of Science Fiction and Its Relation to Religion

Gabriel McKee on his Top 10

Don’t panic: Religion, science fiction and everything

Sometimes I found articles that I did interviews for, which I had forgotten about…

Fred Kreutziger’s book The Religion of Science Fiction:

Any other reading (or viewing or listening) that you highly recommend on this topic?

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  • Mark Preece

    I reread A Canticle for Leibowitz last summer and really enjoyed it (especially the first section). It has some of the same appeal as The Sparrow, in that it encourages speculation on the future of existing structures as well as on the question of the place of religious faith under the stress of a very different environment. I was reminded of it because I’d read Station Eleven, which I also enjoyed and which would also be a good course book (but its themes aren’t explicitly not religious in the same way).

  • Great to see the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons on the possible list. Father Captain de Soya is one of the very best portrayals of a religious hero in science fiction.

  • Ray Bradbury’s “The Fire Balloons”—a fun short story about Episcopal priests who try to share the gospel with Martians.

  • cjcmd

    LOL, you know my choice. 🙂

    (Chris A Crawford here)

    Though, being mentioned with those other three is pretty daunting…

  • J.B. Stump

    Sparrow and Children of God are two of my all-time favorites for this sort of thing. How about “Speaker for the Dead”, book 2 of Ender’s Game series?

    • I’ve thought about it – and there is already an Orson Scott Card short story on the syllabus, “Mortal Gods.” I used the second book in the Maddaddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood, as a standalone novel and found it worked even without students having read the first one (since even in Oryx and Crake, Atwood drops us into the middle of a puzzling and disorienting dystopian future and we slowly get a sense of what has happened and what is going on. I might assign some of the hymns from that novel as excerpts even if they don’t read the whole book. And we will definitely talk about the Ender’s Game series even if it is not assigned reading.

    • My respect for Jim just went up a notch. 🙂

  • David Evans

    Some very informative links there. Thank you. I have ordered The Tuning Station for my Kindle and am planning to acquire the Sacred Visions anthology, which looks amazing.

    • A favorite story of mine, “Gus,” is in that volume. You’ll enjoy it. And you may remember my review of The Tuning Station from a while back, which really impressed me.

  • You picked some good ones, though my favorites that moved me the most emotionally and intellectually would be…

    Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (must read)

    James Morrow, City of Truth (great novella about a future society that tells no lies, entertains no myths), and see some stories in Bible Stories for Adults that are re-imagined in sci fi format, namely the one about the robot who smashes the original Ten Commandments after their remains were discovered in tiny pieces and the robot had been assigned to put them back together again, great little story about the robot’s final reaction. Also Morrow’s latest novella, The Madonna and the Starship: https://amzn.com/w/AEUNLF4TGQWX

    Circuit of Heaven by Dennis Danvers (great) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/179191.Circuit_of_Heaven

    A Cross of Centuries: Twenty-five Imaginative Tales About the Christ by Michael Bishop, features some sci-fi tales https://www.amazon.com/Cross-Centuries-Twenty-five-Imaginative-Christ/dp/1560259264/ref=sr_1_1

    Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction by Jack Dann, William Tenn, Isaac Asimov

    More Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Outstanding Stories of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction by Jack Dann, Isaac Asimov, Woody Allen

    Galactic Rapture by Tom Flynn

    Nothing Sacred by Tom Flynn

    Galileo’s Children: Tales of Science Vs. Superstition by Gardner Dozois

    36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein [not science fiction, but a philosophically based novel]

    The rhetoric of Apocalyptic AI is strikingly similar to that of the apocalyptic traditions of Judaism and Christianity. In both systems, the believer is trapped in a dualistic universe and expects a resolution in which he or she will be translated to a transcendent new world and live forever in a glorified new body. https://www.amazon.com/Apocalyptic-AI-Robotics-Artificial-Intelligence/dp/0199964009

    • Thanks for mentioning all of these! From the first “Wandering Stars” anthology I’ve used “On Venus Have We Got a Rabbi.”

      If you can recommend any short stories by the novella and novel authors you recommended, which incorporate religious themes, please do let me know!

      • Ted Chiang in Stories of Your Life and Others has a tale titled, “Tower of Babylon”, one of David Brin’s favorites and winner of the 1990 Nebula Award, Sumerian workers labor to reach for the skies and shatter through the vault of the heavens… only to find the unexpected.

        • Thanks for this. I knew there were some things by Ted Chiang that should be included!

          • Yes, Chiang has an award winning novella involving hell on earth, but it is not strictly science fiction, more like fantasy. I think Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein touches on truly religious concepts in a science fictional story. I also recall reading about a science fiction tale about a robot Pope. And there is a novel called The God Contract about finding some way to kill God. The only real problem is trying to whittle all such tales down to the best or most important ones. And at what point does simply reading about religion become a replacement for belief and participation in a particular religion?

          • The “Robot Pope” sounds intriguing :-O

          • “Good News from the Vatican” is a 1971 short story by science fiction author Robert Silverberg (born 1935) featuring the election of a robot to the position of Pope of the Catholic Church.[1] It won that year’s Nebula Award for Best Short Story https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_News_from_the_Vatican

          • Project Pope by Clifford D. Simak

            Review: The return of Simak’s favorite themes–including esp, robots & religion–in a thoughtful, gentle, delightfully original treatment. On the remote planet End of Nothing, a colony of advanced robots has established project Vatican-17: the building of an infallible computerized pope whose accumulated wisdom will eventually create a truly universal religion. Gathering data for the omnivorous Pope are the Listeners, humans with ESP whose agile minds probe thru time & space. Also hanging about, on the fringes of the utopian settlement, is reclusive, anachronistic Thomas Decker & his invisible companion, Whisperer, a childlike alien of awesome latent powers. Best of all in this cast of charmers are some wonderfully Simakian robots: a beguilingly crusty electronic Pope & his splendidly idiosyncratic robot Cardinals. A lovely place–but then Listener Mary appears to have discovered Heaven (literally); the resulting rancorous dispute (Decker is murdered by a robot, there’s a movement to canonize the now-insane Mary) threatens to tear Vatican-17 apart; & the conclusion–involving some secretive, puissant autochthones, trips to weird worlds, a Decker clone & a trio of peevish, megalomaniac aliens–is carried thru with just the right blend of wackiness & humility. Thoroughly enjoyable: one of the best ever from an sf grandmaster whose form has been decidedly variable in recent years.–Kirkus

      • The Catholic sci fi author R. A Lafferty wrote a fascinating novel concerned with religion titled Past Master. I’ve read him and the other sci fi Catholic writer Gene Wolfe. Nobody wrote like Lafferty, he had a very unusual way of saying things and of making plots interweave.

  • Another book by James Morrow: “Towing Jehovah”. “Galileo’s Dream” & “The Years of Rice and Salt” by Kim Stanley Robinson.

  • histrogeek

    Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler.