What do Worlds of If have to do with Jerusalem? Do Catholic writers have a place among the wizards of fantasy and the starships of science fiction? The very pervasiveness of fantasy and science fiction in today’s popular culture worries some Catholics. Fantasy might open a path to occultism; science fiction could exalt godless Reason over Faith.
Historically, there are good reasons to be wary. From the “scientific romances” of H.G. Wells to the subversive tales of Philip Pullman, writers have wielded their pens against religion in general and Christianity in particular. L. Ron Hubbard drew on science fiction to concoct Scientology. American fans founded a neo-pagan sect based on Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Robert Graves was neither the first nor the last storyteller to promote goddess-worship and other metaphysical fads through fiction.
Although fantasy and science fiction, which belong to the genre of “speculative fiction” (SF), can be hostile to Christianity, so can any form of literature. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about asking “What if?” We cannot afford to abandon this aspect of the human imagination to those who would misuse it in the service of atheism, blasphemy, nihilism, false cults, and New Age delusions. Our call to redeem culture is not limited to a few safe artistic forms.
Speculation has long been a favorite approach for Catholic authors seeking to teach, admonish, or warn. Examples from the first half of the 20th century include G.K. Chesterton, Robert Hugh Benson, Alfred Noyes, Sister Mary Catherine Williams (“S.M.C.”), and Dom Hubert van Zeller (“Hugh Venning”). Michael O’Brien’s recent Children of the Last Days series continues this tradition.
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), “author of the century,” was not only a sublime and faith-saturated writer. In 1965, the American paperback publication of The Lord of the Rings ignited a demand for adult fantasy that still blazes bright. Although never a part of the SF community, Tolkien transformed the market for its wares.
But Catholics were also part of genre SF from its beginning. Murray Leinster (1896-1975), explorer of alienness and understanding, sold his first SF story in 1919, before the field had taken shape as a separate publishing category. The gentle rural and domestic moods evoked by Clifford Simak (1904-1988) reaped awards, including Grand Master recognition from his fellow SF writers. Anthony Boucher (1911-1968) raised literary standards as co-founder and long-time editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Prolific illustrator Richard Powers (1921-1996) introduced abstraction and surrealism into SF art and also enjoyed a gallery career.
It is not feasible to count every Catholic in the SF field. Two veteran writers who can stand for many are Fred Saberhagen (1930-2007), and Michael Flynn (1947- ). Fred Saberhagen was a solid storyteller grounded in traditional morality. In his career-making Berserker series, implacable robotic warcraft attack all that lives, but are repelled in a battle modeled on Chesterton’s Lepanto and tamed by a St. Francis figure. Magic and technology swap places in Saberhagen’s Empire of the East and in his related Swords series. Saberhagen’s dystopian novel Love Conquers All was not, however, well received in the SF world because it attacked the sexual revolution.
Statistician Michael Flynn has been fictionalizing science and the scientific method since 1984. He applies them to historical processes with notable results in Eifelheim, where insect-like aliens land in a rural German village on the eve of the Black Death. The villagers seem more exotic than the aliens to modern scholars exploring the mystery in a frame story. Flynn thoroughly captures the look and spirit of the 14th century, especially the village priest’s use of scholastic reasoning to understand and even convert the extraterrestrials. Flynn’s latest novel is The January Dancer, a space adventure romp.
These days SF reaches a wider audience. Novels by Dean Koontz and Jerry Pournelle routinely appear on national best-seller lists. Although Koontz, a former high school teacher, left genre SF three decades ago, the suspense and horror fiction he now writes often have fantastic elements. For instance, his Odd Thomas series features a young hero who can see ghosts. In Koontz novels, faith and compassion prevail over maniacal evil and social decadence.
Jerry Pournelle, on the other hand, remains a pillar of the SF field. Holder of doctorates in psychology and political science, Pournelle brings long experience in academe, the aerospace industry, and conservative politics to his fiction. He excels at crisp tales of future warfare such as his Falkenberg and Janissaries series, which explore issues of duty, honor, and freedom. Among his highly successful collaborations with Larry Niven are novels of alien menace (The Mote in God’s Eye), world disaster (Lucifer’s Hammer), and ingenious retellings of Dante (Inferno and its newly published sequel Escape from Hell). The latter stories use the Origenist premise that damned souls may yet be saved.
The acknowledged masterpiece of Catholic SF is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1922-1996), a novel whose appeal broke genre bounds. Ironically, it was written when its convert author was no longer a practicing Catholic. During World War II Miller had participated in the bombing of historic Monte Cassino Abbey. His reparation was Canticle, a chronicle of scholarly monks laboring to rebuild civilization after a nuclear holocaust, only to see the historical cycle repeat. But God keeps writing straight with crooked lines and brings forth a new breed of human while ours escapes to the stars. Deeply depressed after his wife’s death, Miller committed suicide. Atheist Terry Bisson later completed—without cover credit—an unsuccessful sequel to Canticle entitled St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.
R.A. Lafferty’s Past Master is another great critical favorite although it did not win a mass audience. Lafferty (1914-2002), a self-educated man who spent most of his life in Oklahoma, lived and died as an unfashionably conservative Catholic. A prodigious teller of tall and shaggy tales, his was the most eccentric talent ever to grace SF. Armed with “the high hilarity of love and laughter,” Lafferty says, “We must kill the Devil afresh every day.”
Past Master sends St. Thomas More a thousand years into the future to save a diabolical imitation of his Utopia by dying a kingly death. Similar concerns underlie Lafferty’s Fourth Mansions, which takes its title from St. Teresa of Avila and demolishes the evolutionary fancies of Teilhard de Chardin. His historical fantasy The Flame is Green pits a wild young Irishman against the Devil’s own son during the European revolutions of 1848. In the past, present, or future, Lafferty’s faith-drenched universe keeps gyring upward according to divine plan.
Among Lafferty’s keenest admirers is today’s premier Catholic SF writer, Gene Wolfe. A Grand Master of the field who sold his first story in 1965, Wolfe relishes his freedom to write about “everything that could exist.” (For the scope of “everything,” see his new collection The Best of Gene Wolfe.) This retired engineer’s unfettered imagination exploits the ambiguities of perception, language, memory, even identity. Beginning with The Shadow of the Torturer, Wolfe’s 12-volume Solar Cycle is fiction of dazzling virtuosity that presents two shocking Christ-figures: a torturer and a priest of false pagan gods. It is an epic of personal and planetary renewal that challenges readers’ capacity to follow non-linear narratives told by unreliable narrators. Those who persevere will see that man-made solutions cannot save Man. The Infinite alone can satisfy.
Like Lafferty and Gene Wolfe, Tim Powers acknowledges a debt to G.K. Chesterton. Also like Wolfe, he enjoys teaching writing. In an interview at www.IgnatiusInsight.com Powers described himself as “fascinated with stuff that’s grotesque and weird and funny and dramatic.” He unveils mythic resonances behind meticulously researched historical settings, for instance putting the Grail King at the poker tables of Las Vegas (Last Call) or hiding Egyptian gods in Regency England (The Anubis Gates). Body-swapping and psychic vampirism are recurring elements in his fiction. Whether battling ghosts, pirates, or zombies, Powers’ heroes never prevail unscarred. His finest novel is Declare, a cross between the Arabian Nights and John le Carré spy thrillers. It is an explicitly Catholic story of grace vanquishing magic and malevolence older than the human race.
How will Catholic SF fare in the future? One of the people shaping it may be John C. Wright (yet another Chesterton admirer), who published his first novel, The Golden Age, in 2002. As evident in his Chronicles of Chaos trilogy and The Last Guardian of Westernesse, he likes “large themes, thunder, fury, and wonder.” Wright’s latest effort is Null-A Continuum, sequel to the 1945 classic World of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt.
A former lawyer turned tech writer, Wright joined the Church only in 2008, about five years after accepting Christianity. Previously, he was an atheist of Stoic temper. His remarkable conversion story (available online at johncwright.livejournal.com) began with philosophical arguments and was sealed by mystical experiences. But in a 2005 interview at the website SF Signal
, Wright said, “I have no idea how much, or if at all, my faith will influence my works.” After all, fiction is art, not propaganda.
Yet as long as faith infuses art, the Cross will stand—seen or unseen—beneath the stars of Elfland or in galaxies far away.