In a few weeks, the next world science fiction convention will be held in Chicago. Alas, I won’t be able to make it. The last time I got to a Worldcon was in Dublin in 2019 (when I also got to visit the Skellig Isles, site of the latter Star Wars movies), and this is the column I wrote about it for The Tablet in August of that year.
This month  finds me at the World Science Fiction convention in Dublin, discussing science, religion, and storytelling on panels ranging from asteroids to epistemology.
Why am I so passionate about fantasy and science fiction? When I was a kid I only read books with “facts,” like poor Eustace from C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books. But when a creative writing teacher assigned us the Narnia books, I was stunned to discover in them that my faith was an adventure as exciting as any fantasy story. From them I learned that fantasy could tell a story that was true, better than any mere compilation of facts.
Out of the silent context
Our philosophy, our ethics, our religion exist in a lived context. Seeing an idea within a story lets us test that idea by relating it to 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. It’s no accident that Jesus taught in parables and not theological discourses.
And you remember stories… which is more than you can say about most of the Epistles you hear on a Sunday.
What do I want when I read a story? Show me something new; make me turn the pages; be honest. But that’s what I look for in a scientific paper or an experience of God.
Looking for Joy
Without novelty, there is no novel. No scientist publishes work that’s already been done. And finding the unexpected hidden among the mundane is the pattern of how we experience God in the real world. What makes me turn the pages? An underlying sense of joy, even when the story is a tragedy; joy is a touchstone of God’s presence.
It’s also what makes scientific work interesting enough to make me want to do it every day… maybe even, interesting enough to get funded. Finally, an honest story has believable characters and action that may be surprising but ultimately feel right. “Wow, I didn’t see that coming, but of course, that’s exactly what would happen.” Truth is God’s presence.
But there’s a fundamental difference between story and reality. Reality is what happened; story is how we tell it. Story is artifice, real life is messier. But then, nature is not the controlled environment we create in a lab; the science we write up in our papers is at best “a story based on true events.”
SF and Tertullian
Indeed one of the reasons I trust the Gospels to tell me things that really happened is that there is way too much messy inconsistency in them to reflect a well-crafted bit of fiction. As the ancient theologian Tertullian put it, “It is certain because it is impossible.” No one trying to invent a believable lie would have made up what happens in the Gospels to Jesus or the apostles. Our whole literature of fantasy and science fiction shows us how our best storytellers do invent stories. Generally, their universes are more self-consistent… and their philosophy not nearly as profound.
I do science because of the exquisite joy I get in following the clever story that the Creator has woven into the universe. In the same way, we create stores ourselves to imitate the Creator who is the author of everything. And we read each others’ creations in imitation of the God who certainly must enjoy the creations we make of our own lives.