The topic of Mormons and science fiction seems to crop up with decent regularity every couple of years, and with the recent release of the film adaptation of The Host and the impending release (finally!) of the film adaptation of Ender’s Game, we’re probably about due for another round.
This is a topic that I particularly love because it involves two of my greatest passions. I’ve read lots of really good ideas about what it is that makes so many Mormons write science fiction, why Mormons ought to write “fairy-tales”, and of course the caveat that Mormons might not actually write that much science fiction: they might just be really visible when they do. The empirical question of whether or not Mormons are actually over represented in sci-fi will have to wait for someone feeling more ambitious than I am at the moment, but even if they are not it might still be interesting. As Scott Parkins said:
If you look at the sciences, Mormons are disproportionately represented as scientists, but what’s more intriguing is that more successful scientists are LDS proportionate to the total than other representatives of religion that are active in their faith. I think that carries through here.
In other words: if there are no more Mormons writing than any other denomination, but the Mormons who do write sci-fi view their work or themselves in a religious light more than other authors, well that itself is interesting.
I did a little bit more thinking about this when a reporter for Hollywood.com asked me to answer some questions about Mormonism and sci-fi. He then forgot to notify me when the article was published (turns out it was 4 weeks ago), but in any case I wanted to try out my own theory for why Mormons might write more sci-fi and/or why the Mormon who do write sci-fi might identify that with Mormonism. So here’s my full response to his question: “What is Mormonism’s relationship with science fiction? Why do you think it fosters science fiction creators?”
I think the biggest reason that Mormons write so much science fiction is that our religion doesn’t have any official theology or creeds. Although we have a very hierarchical institution, they confine themselves mostly to doctrinal statements. If Mormons want to try and dig deeper and understand the meaning behind or connections between elements of official Mormon doctrine, then that becomes sort of their own responsibility. And so there’s just this deep culture of amateur theology in Mormonism: we spend a lot of time just trying to figure out how things might work, theologically.And, since Mormonism also makes doctrinal claims that go well outside of most religions (for example,about what happens before and after this mortal life) and also has long believed in compatability between science and religion, the direction that Mormons take with their individual speculation is very compatible with sci-fi. After all, American sci fi writer Pamela Sargent described science fiction as “the literature of ideas”, in Mormonism you have a population of people who are just fascinated with trying to work out these various big ideas that have to do with how we got where we are and where we might get where we’re going. So I think it’s really natural that you would have a lot of speculative fiction (an umbrella term for fantasy and sci-fi) coming out of that culture.
So that’s my theory for why Mormons might write more sci-fi or why, if they don’t actually write more, the Mormons who do write sci-fi view it as particularly tied in with their faith.And let me go a little farther and say that, if you’re willing to buy into that theory, maybe some Mormon science fiction is worth taking seriously from a theological perspective. If Mormons who write science fiction do so at least in part as a natural process of trying to tease out insights and connections from our heritage and doctrine, than I’m inclined to take them at least as seriously as professional academics who–to trade off on their much greater research and education–are trapped in an Ivory Tower that too often prizes provocative novelty and show-off cleverness. Besides, and less controversially, it’s not like we’re faced with an either-or proposition in this regard.
This might all be going too far for many, but for me it’s only a baby-step from the realization that I’ve already been heavily influenced by big ideas in science fiction classics. For me that list starts with Dune and Ender’s Game / Speaker for the Dead, but also includes books I’ve read more recently like A Canticle for Liebowitz, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Man in the High Castle. I simply can’t separate the way those books have impacted me from the way I’ve been influenced by more reputable authors like (choosing from some of the most influential on me) Graham Greene, Paul Bowles, or Albert Camus. (To anyone who is skeptical but willing to entertain a very short example of credibly intellectually engaging science fiction, I would suggest reading Le Guin’s short, brutal evisceration of utilitarianism: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. It’s less than 3,000 words. Here is the full text.)
I know that suggesting we even consider including genre fiction in the “best books” category is going to fail to so much as register as a serious suggestion with many, but what can I say? I grew up with my mum reading books like Harry Potter to the family, and she’s a woman who is unafraid to say that “J.K. Rowling, to my mind, is a prophetess.” Seeking out edification and engagement in popular art is just one more way we can find the sacred in the mundane, and serves as a reminder that we need not accept the world’s present trade off between sophistication and virtue in art.