I recently read Mary Doria Russell‘s science fiction novel The Sparrow, after hearing an episode-long interview with Russell on the NPR show Speaking of Faith. (By the way, SOF is amazingly cool. Terrific ideas and conversations, on average. Their tag line is “Conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas“–although I distinctly remember that a few years ago they billed themselves as “Conversation about belief, meaning, ethics, and ideas.” An interesting tweak, I would say….) The Russell episode is entitled The Novelist as God, and also bandies about ideas such as the (human) invention of God, the value of suffering to a “good story,” and other stuff of provacativeness.
The Sparrow raises all sorts of thoughts and conflicts in my mind. Perhaps I’ll eventually get the chance to write about several of them. Let’s start with the engagement of religion in fantasy/SF. Bryn and other writing persons recently commented here on the utility of religion in world-building, but Russell comes at it from the other side: instead of basing her “built” world (in this case, a small planet in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri) on a religious system, she brings modern human religions (in the form of a Jesuit-led mission incorporating also characters of other faiths) into contact with this new situation, ecology, civilization, evolutionary biology–and explores the challenges posed to faith and by faith.
As such, Russell’s novel has perhaps more in common with Orson Scott Card’s Folk of the Fringe and Francine Rivers’s The Last Sin Eater than with Marie Brennan’s Doppelganger world and Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy books. The subtlety, however, with which Russell credits religion is far beyond Card’s or Rivers’s. Both Folk of the Fringe (or, more specifically, its opening story, “West”) and The Last Sin Eater disturbed me deeply, in that the authors both chose to argue for the peace of religious acceptance by contrasting it with unqualified atrocities in their characters’ pasts. In my world, the reason for believing is not horror at the prospect of unfettered human amorality, which it seemed to me Card and Rivers (whose books, by the way, share nothing else) both implied. The Sparrow is one of those books that jumps back and forth chapter by chapter between then and now; I realized late in the novel that the reason had to be that the reader would feel too disoriented and betrayed by the pain and confusion and despair of the now if the beauties and hope of the then had been all that preceded it in the reading. So you see that the horrors in The Sparrow happen inside the context of religion. God doesn’t just come in to make everything okay. God makes (arguably, everything), and the humans decide on their own what of it is okay, and how to deal with it.
I suppose some of my first experiences with religion in speculative fiction were probably Dune (Frank Herbert, of course) and Guy Gavriel Kay’s trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry (beginning with The Summer Tree). The former is–well, it’s everything (I’ll get back to that contention someday)–but I was going to say that Dune is, of the categories I sketched out, in the “Let’s see what happens to religion in this world” rather than the “Let’s see what kind of world such a religion suggests.” Religion is organic to the world of Dune, and one cannot imagine the Fremen without it, but as on our Earth, religion is a human institution. The Tapestry has actual gods appear and speak with, give gifts to, have sex with, &c., mortal characters, although the gods don’t rise to the level of characters themselves. They’re more forces of nature, which is of course one perfectly appropriate way of looking at divinity (see Greek pantheon).
Jacqueline Carey’s take on religion in the D’Angeline world is quite sophisticated–the religions she presents (mostly adaptations of regular-human religions) are deeply suffused into the characters’ lives, simply a part of how they were brought up and how they experience their world, although higher beings of one form or another do show up, too. When I wrote to Carey to tell her how deeply I identified with some of the spiritual experiences in the series, she wrote back that it was nice to hear from someone who appreciated that aspect of the story for its own sake (though she’d heard from others who read for the adventure, intrigue, politics, or for the sex).
Any other particularly interesting religious-system SF/F that you can point me towards?