Finding the Unexpected

And then I wrote… in 2014, the magazine US Catholic solicited a couple of articles about science fiction from me. One of them ran in 2014 under the title “Get Lost In Space” and the other they included only on their web site. I reprint both of them here… along with the illustration they created for the first article.

How does fantasy teach us truth? Can science fiction help our faith grow?

This cartoon by Tim Foley was commissioned by US Catholic for the article reprinted here; they gave me permission to use it.

When I was a college freshman, and still a liberal arts major at a certain Jesuit college in Boston, my creative writing instructor told us that the way to learn how to write stories was to read stories that were well written. He suggested the Narnia stories by C. S. Lewis.

I had never heard of them. But my best friend from high school, Mike, was studying physics at nearby at MIT, and he was a member of the MIT Science Fiction Society: the MITSFS. So one weekend we went looking for the Narnia books in the MITSFS library. When I set eyes on the world’s largest open shelf collection of science fiction, I immediately started plotting my transfer to MIT. I changed colleges, majors – and indeed, changed vocations – to learn about planets… not just as geological entities, but as places where heroes had adventures.

Oddly enough, I hadn’t cared much for fantasy when I was a kid. Mostly back then I only wanted books with “facts” – much, I am afraid, like what poor Eustace in the Narnia stories favored. Discovering Narnia for the first time at age 18, concentrating on the author’s technique more than his content, I was unprepared for an utterly unexpected effect the books had on me.

It wasn’t their overt Christianity that startled me; I already counted myself as a practicing Catholic even then. Nor was I particularly surprised to find myself caught up in the adventures; that, after all, was what kids’ books were supposed to do. But the confluence of those two threads did something world-shifting to me. They showed me that my Christian faith was itself an adventure as exciting as any fantasy story. And by that fact, they showed me that fantasy itself was real; for indeed, the reality I was living as a Christian was revealed as a fantastic adventure.

At its best, fantasy is truth. Indeed, there is more truth to be found in science fiction or fantasy than in many a tome of philosophy.

Scholars have long recognized the power of stories to teach us. After all, Jesus taught with parables. Our philosophy, our ethics, and ultimately our religion exist in a lived context. That means story; narrative. In her recent book Prophets of the Posthuman, Christina Bieber Lake argues that stories point us to the kinds of selves we can be and help us determine the ethical appropriateness of our actions.

For example, consider a current hot issue, the ethical implications of biotechnology. In the “Miles Vorkosigan” science fiction series by Lois McMaster Bujold we are shown a number of different effects, good and bad, that arise from uterine replicators that would allow an embryo to develop completely within an artificial womb along with some startling implications of human cloning and the genetic “enhancement” of human embryos. (For a good entry point into this series, I recommend the omnibus edition Cordelia’s Honor.)

Now, the philosopher Christopher Kaczor’s recent book A Defense of Dignity discusses exactly those same topics with great erudition and clarity of writing. But while it is important to have such a scholarly perspective, these ideas do not come alive on his pages in the same way they do in Bujold’s books.

The science fiction novels give a context to those ideas. As story, they are centered around people that I can believe really would act the way we see, given the circumstances where they are found. And they’re fun to read.

To be sure, those Bujold books are space opera, not philosophy. They make no pretense to high literature. The covers are garish, and the plots are full of derring-do. They are, by design, first and foremost page-turners, following the adventures of a highly unusual hero and his equally unlikely sidekicks. Bujold piles disaster and indignity on her hero, which we the reader can endure only because we are sure that somehow it will all turn out right by the last page (which it always does). Indeed, part of the charm of the stories is seeing how the author lures you into believing one absurdity after another. And yet… she sneaks some pretty profound moral issues in between the pages.

Seeing an idea within the context of a story lets us test that idea by relating the events of the story to the things we are familiar with in our own daily lives. At the same time, observing deep issues at the remove of a story (especially one set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”) lets us drop the defensiveness and prejudice that blind us from seeing our own lives clearly.

But before any of that can take place, a story has to be… well, a story. What do I look for when I pick up a science fiction story? All I ask for are three things: One, make me turn the pages. Two, show me something I haven’t seen before. Three, be honest.

Easy, right? But these are precisely the three ways that science fiction brings me closer to God.

First, like the Narnia books, there must be an underlying sense of joy, even in tragedy: that’s what gets me to turn the pages. That sense of joy is (as Lewis himself noted) a touchstone of God’s presence. Likewise, novelty is essential; without it, there is no novel. But finding the unexpected hidden among the mundane is the pattern of how we experience God in the real world. And finally, we recognize God when the story is true. That truth is God’s presence; God is truth.

An honest story has believable characters and action that may be surprising but ultimately feels right: “Wow, I didn’t see that coming, but of course, that’s exactly what would happen.” It is not necessarily one full of choices I always agree with or people I like. Indeed, real life means people we love doing things that sometimes we wish they hadn’t done. (If we didn’t love them, we wouldn’t care what they do.) A story that shoves its characters around to fit some pre-conceived outcome is not honest. One that shows reasonable outcomes to understandable, if deplorable, decisions is one that lets me evaluate the implications of those decisions and the philosophical assumptions behind them. (And to learn to understand and love people in real life even when they make deplorable decisions.)

One popular modern subgenre is “urban fantasy,” where the fantastic elements exist side by side with our contemporary world, somehow ignored by most people most of the time but never fully absent. Two recent books do an exemplary job of looking at this interface between the fantastic and the mundane.

Paul Cornell’s London Falling blends the genre of an urban fantasy with that of a police procedural mystery novel. After all, who are as rational as a team of detectives investigating a murder? So what happens when they use the modern tools of crime-fighting to try and make sense of a supernatural source of evil?

The book works both as a believable fantasy and as a crime thriller. Our heroes are a team of detectives investigating a gruesome murder that slowly is revealed to have supernatural origins. One of the brilliant touches in this world is that the heroes could easily escape the source of the evil, which turns out to be physically limited to metropolitan London; they could simply leave town. To stay and fight the evil demands a deliberate choice. And the effects of the evil are insidious, far beyond simple death or destruction (with a certain black humor aspect – the book succeeds in being both scary and funny). The result is a rich examination of the nature of good and evil, and of the reality that exists beyond those things that can be weighed or measured. It reflects Cornell’s own Christianity.

The Polish cover, which is one that Jo especially likes

Jo Walton does something even more subtle in her award-winning novel, Among Others. Her main character, Mori, is a teenager raised in rural Wales who has suffered a tragedy and is sent off to an English boarding school. The nature of the tragedy is only slowly unveiled, as is her experience of the very otherworldly elves whom she has known since childhood. In a lovely twist, the way Mori learns to deal with being uprooted from the familiar environment of her elven childhood is through reading science fiction!

Although the point of view is that of a teenager, this book is not a “young adult” novel. The irony of many of the scenes depends on the reader having an adult’s understanding of the world. The main character is believably self-centered, and prone to make choices that are patently unwise even as they are completely in keeping with where she comes from and who she is.

The book is set in a very specific place and time, corresponding closely to Walton’s own adolescence; many of the more unlikely episodes are in fact autobiographical. If you absolutely refuse to believe in the fantasy elements, you can read the book as depicting the delusions of the narrator. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of magic as she presents it is its plausible deniability.

What startled me were the parallels of the hero’s fantasy experience to my religious life. God’s action in my life also always comes with plausible deniability. If I choose not to believe, God won’t force me. And we all have experienced the feeling that this world is not really our home. Walton captures this reality by the honesty of her writing. She claims no religious affiliation herself; but her truth is true. And the writing is beautiful.

Walton is a master of “incluing (she invented the term!), the art of spreading hints throughout the narrative to inform the readers about the universe that the author has created. While some readers can be put off by not having these essential points put plainly before them, fans of science fiction savor incluing done well. It’s what makes the universe come alive in a believable way. The art of reading such novels is also, I suspect, a talent that is well developed among those of us who, like the main character of this book, feel alienated living in a culture “among others” whom we do not easily understand.

Bujold, Cornell, and Walton are just a few of the authors working in science fiction today that combine fun storytelling with provocative, sneaky-profound views of ourselves and our universe. The authors that Walton’s hero in Among Others reads such as Hal Clement, Ursula Le Guin, and Robert Heinlein, just to name three wildly different writers are a good guide to the classics in the field. Walton’s recent non-fiction work, What Makes This Book So Great, is a fun guide that also includes more recent authors; among the ones she discusses whom I particularly like are Verner Vinge and Connie Willis. Today a whole new generation of writers are making themselves heard in both traditional books and magazines and in on-line journals and ebooks. Among those whose stories I have enjoyed recently are Aliette de Bodard and E. Lily Yu. The annual Hugo and Nebula awards (chosen by, respectively, the fans and the writers themselves) are a good guide to what’s current.

The Hugo awards are presented at the annual “World Science Fiction Convention,” or Worldcon.” Back in the 1930s, when SF stories were published in pulp magazines, those magazines also published fan letters – with the names and addresses of the fans. Soon the fans started writing to each other, forming clubs, and in 1939 they held their first Worldcon. Today these Worldcons are supplemented by hundreds of regional conventions. These conventions are not only places for fans to congregate, but also where the people who produce and publish science fiction gather to meet up, do deals, or just hone their trade. This overlap is natural because most professional writers and editors are fans as well. (These conventions are where I have come to know some of my favorite writers, including Bujold, Cornell, and Walton.)

An important element in most of these conventions are panels about the latest advances in science, and many scientists volunteer their time to explain their work to an appreciative audience… including other scientists. I learned how DNA sequencing works from hearing a biochemist speak at a science fiction convention in Chicago; at that same convention, I got to talk about hunting for meteorites in Antarctica. Just as the professional SF writers started as fans, so too did a lot of professional scientists (like me) first get the urge to study science from reading science fiction.

Once I entered the Jesuits, my status as scientist/religious has made me a popular choice as a convention speaker. For example, I sat on a recent Worldcon panel called “Living in Old Structures,which brought in representatives of the church, military, academia, and government to describe how things actually work within the sorts of social settings that are often described in fantasy novels. It reminded me again that living and working at the Vatican has been an experience both novel and fantastic.

Science fiction has changed my life. It inspired me to an education, and then a career, in science. It showed me that being a scientist could be a great adventure. But it also showed me the romance of being Catholic. Good and evil portrayed in an honest fantasy can be identified with the good and evil we must face in our own lives; choosing good and fighting evil is exactly the struggle that makes characters into heroes. Meanwhile, seeing worlds that might be, teaches me to be more aware of the worlds that are.

In fantasy and science fiction I find truth. I find things I would never have seen before. And I am always reminded of how wonderful it is to keep turning the pages.

Sidebar: SF Books I Hate!

The prolific SF author Theodore Sturgeon is credited with formulating “Sturgeon’s Law”: confronted with the undeniable fact that there’s an awful lot of rubbish published as science fiction, he replied, “yes, 90% of all science fiction is crud; but then, 90% of anything is crud.”

In some ways, SF fans glory in the really awful. Most of us secretly want to try our hand and writing science fiction ourselves, and reading dreadful stuff that’s managed to get published gives us hope. The online SF newsletter Ansible ( has a regular feature called “Thog’s Masterclass” featuring especially ludicrous examples of bad writing. (For example: “A swirling lava lamp of colors boiled on the screen like a hallucination that the cat had dragged in.”from Alexander Besher, Rim, 1994)

But what I want to mention here are widely-praised books that I personally dislike. The reasons why I hate them may be instructive. And in any event, their reputation will easily survive my criticism!

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell: Everyone asks me about this novel of a Jesuit astronaut facing the philosophical challenge of an alien race that may or may not be “fallen”. Beyond the fact that the idea is old (see A Case of Conscience, by James Blish) and the theological speculations presented here are naïve, the real crime of this novel is that the Jesuit characters take themselves far too seriously. Our real reaction to soul-shattering events is, more often than not, to laugh at ourselves and our predicament. Usually with puns. Bad puns.

A Case of Conscience, by James Blish: Speaking of which… Jo Walton sums up the problem with this book perfectly: “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel to point out all the things that are wrong with this book, from errors of theology and science to question begging and jumping to conclusions. But it’s also very good.Its goodness is that it’s a page-turner… if the things that are wrong with it don’t stop you from turning the pages. The trouble for me is that he gets both the theology wrong and the Jesuit spirituality exactly backwards. The author’s idea of what the Church teaches about evolution had already been contradicted by Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis, some ten years before the book came out. And the world-hating spirituality of the main character is not Jesuit but Jansenist: the Jansenists historically were the biggest opponents of the Jesuits. The book is popular because the author tells a good story, but these howlers stop me in my tracks.

Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson: A modern classic, set on Mars, by a brilliant author who went to great lengths to get the setting right. What’s not to like? And yet, I hated it. I only managed to finish it by skipping every third chapter, where the characters drone on incessantly about how they will set up their ideal society on Mars… something that Alexander Bogdanov first did in 1908, in a book called Red Star. His religious characters are one-dimensional hypocrites. (At least he could have made them three-dimensional hypocrites!) And after he irritated me enough with these human howlers, I no longer was so tolerant of his science howlers… such as his gizmos for heating up the Martian atmosphere that violate conservation of energy. (They run on solar energy; but Mars is cold precisely because the input of energy from the sun there is so weak!)

The basic theme of all these criticisms? I can’t enjoy a book if it gets too many things wrong that the author should have been able to get right. I don’t mind if their speculated future turns out to be impossible it’s astonishing how many writers in 1964 thought that 2014 would see colonies on the Moon where all the engineers are men who still use slide rules! But when they get their philosophy or history or science wrong out of laziness, prejudice, or ignorance, then I don’t trust anything else the author might want to tell me. In science fiction, I am willing to suspend my disbelief of one or another scientific principle. But I can’t suspend my belief of how human beings actually behave.