And then I wrote… this is the English version of an article that appeared in the Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica as “Tutti i cattolici delle fantascienza” in the July/August 2017 issue.
“Why does Sci-Fi have so many Catholics?”
In November 2015, soon after I was named the director of the Vatican Observatory, Grayson Clary in the Atlantic wrote an article quoting me extensively, with the provocative title, “Why Sci-Fi Has So Many Catholics.” In it he wrote, “Consolmagno cites science and science fiction as sources of great joy, including spiritual joy, in keeping with a core principle of Jesuit spirituality: Find God in all things.” Among other things, the article has made all the more prominent my own bonafides in the world of science fiction.
The summer of 2017 found me wearing my science fiction hat at two conferences. As happens whenever the World Science Fiction Convention is held outside of North America (that year, in Helsinki, Finland) the North American fans organized a “NASFiC” – North American Science Fiction Convention; the 2017 NASFiC, in Puerto Rico, had me as one of their Guests of Honor. (I also attended the Helsinki Worldcon.)
Meanwhile, I also participated at a more academic conference at Notre Dame University: “Trying to Say ‘God’: Re-enchanting Catholic Literature”. The organizers explained, “The main title is drawn from Fanny Howe’s Winter Sun, referring to the reluctance of many writers to write about religion and spirituality in a time when religion is suspect or passé. They might choose to avoid traditional religious terminology, yet there has been a turn to religion and spirituality among a number of poets, novelists, memoirists, and science fiction writers, and some authors grope for new forms of saying ‘God.’ ”
Thus the conference set up discussions of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and memoir, fantasy and science fiction, bringing together both well-known and emerging writers who, in the words of the organizers, “struggle with spiritual topics in their writings and attempt to do so in new ways.” I was there as a Catholic science writer and science fiction fan.
“What drew you to science fiction and fantasy?”
In the lead-up to the conference, the organizers of the Notre Dame meeting asked me a series of questions… questions that I think are a good starting point to understanding fantasy and science fiction from my Catholic perspective.
I started reading science fiction at a very young age… about the same age as when I became an altar boy. In the public library of the town where I grew up, science fiction was kept on a shelf right at the entrance to the “grown-up” section. I suspect the librarians put them there thinking such books were barely suitable for adults; I saw them as an entrée into the world of “real” novels, much as being an altar boy was a step into participating in the liturgy of the Church. My family were all heavy users of the library, and when my siblings and I had chosen the books we wanted from the children’s section, we would wait for our mother at the front of the regular library, next to the science fiction books.
The book that really whetted my taste for science fiction was a compilation of classic “Golden Age” (1940’s) short stories, A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, edited by Anthony Boucher. Boucher (the pen name of William A. P. White) was a founder and editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, long considered the most literate of the science fiction magazines. And as it turns out, Boucher was also noted in the science fiction world for being a devout Catholic. At a time when a strict materialism like H. G. Wells’ was considered de rigueur for a “modern” rational-thinking scientific man — no women need apply — his Catholicism was considered quite an oddity.
Though it is hard to find many books of short stories in the bookstores today, and the traditional science fiction magazines have a dwindling circulation, short stories still remain the perfect starting point for a science fiction reader or writer. Unlike a novel, a short story can survive well on one clever idea and a few deftly-sketched characters. Even better, the brevity of the format means that there’s no room for the major pitfalls of too many bad novels (and not just science fiction novels): pointless side plots or dreary descriptions.
In particular, while the writer must have in their own mind a clear and very detailed understanding of the world where the action takes place, they cannot waste any space in a short story outlining all the details of that world. One character cannot say to another, “as you know, Bill…” to start a long and unrealistic explication of the things that make this universe different from ours. Instead, the author must hint at the way the world of the story works within the guts of the story itself. This technique of seamlessly scattering clues into the text has been dubbed “incluing” by the SF critic and author Jo Walton.
(How does that work? Here’s one example. Say you have invented for your fictional universe a machine, important to your plot, that’s as ubiquitous in the story’s universe as, say, a photocopier is in ours. Nobody in the real world spends time explaining to someone else how a photocopier works; we’ve all used one. So how do you get the characters in your story to talk about how your machine works? You write a scene where the machine breaks down! Then, as one character complains to another about what isn’t working, the reader can pick up how it is supposed to work when it is working.)
One of the charms that attracted me to science fiction – and I confess probably drives others away – is the fun of ferreting out those details, solving the puzzle that the author has set for their readers. After all, that’s precisely what we have to do when we try to understand the universe we study as scientists. God is a master of incluing… the ultimate science fiction author!
“How did it influence your own career?”
As I have said, the puzzle-solving skills I learned from reading science fiction are the skills I use as a scientist. But more than that, the very reason I wanted to study planets was because I first encountered them in science fiction, as places where people have adventures.
That sounds trivial today, but it wasn’t always so. People once thought of planets simply as bright dots of light in the sky. In the days before the space age, from the time of Ptolemy, including Copernicus and Kepler and Newton, up to the mid 20th century, astronomy was the study of planetary motions. The goal was to find ways to predict at any given moment the exact positions of those lights, relative to the constellations… maybe to make accurate horoscopes, or to show off your math skills by calculating accurate orbits. In either case, the actual question of what those planets were rarely entered into the discussion.
This is what you find in the popular books and astronomy textbooks of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which I’ve read in the Vatican Observatory’s library. Those authors sometimes will give you the size and even the masses of the planets and their moons… factoids that can be deduced from observing their relative motions. But they never bother to divide the mass by the volume to calculate a planet’s density, much less speculate about what sort of stuff might be found inside those planets with just that density.
One exception to this rule was Father Angelo Secchi SJ, the Italian Jesuit whose 1859 book On the Physical Framework of the Solar System (Il Quadro Fisico del Sistema Solare) described the surfaces of Mars and other planets, famously discovering the dark markings on Mars that he suggested were “canali” — what he saw was real, unlike the so-called “canals” made infamous by Percival Lowell and H. G. Wells. Secchi, famously, was also the first person to systematically classify stars by their spectra, which is to say their compositions… the beginnings of what we call astrophysics.
Most astronomers at the time of the above-mentioned Lowell considered him to be a publicity hound, not a serious astronomer. The fact that his imagined canals were featured in popular newspaper Sunday Supplement magazines, and inspired the proto-science fiction novel of H. G. Wells, didn’t help. During the first half of the 20th century, from Lowell’s last book to the beginning of the space age, the study of planets came to a complete halt. Thinking of planets as places simply wasn’t done… until NASA decided to pay good money for people to study those planets. Even then, even my generation of planetary scientists – I began my studies in the early 1970s – were only grudgingly welcomed into the world of astronomers.
But that didn’t bother me. I wanted to know about the places that had occupied my childhood dreams. Indeed, the very fact that I attended MIT is precisely because of science fiction. I was actually attending Boston College when I visited a high school friend of mine at MIT who showed me the science fiction library there. I was hooked, and immediately began plotting my transfer… which included a shift of my vocation from lawyer or journalist, to one of scientist.
“What are some of your favorite books and authors?”
Because I was attracted by that sense of adventure, it’s no surprise that my first love was the sort of adventure stories that are often belittled with the designation “space opera.” But the ones that captured my imagination then, and still fascinate me today, are stories that included fascinating settings where those adventures could take place.
The ocean planet described in The Demon Breed by James Schmitz (1968) was as important to the story as any of the characters. In Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970), the world itself (a ribbon surrounding its star, created from the debris of a planet) was more interesting to me than the story. And of course, Dune, by Frank Herbert (1965), with its unforgettable desert planet (and mystical religion) launched the concept of ecology as a literary theme. World building in a larger sense is one of the things that attracts me to modern fantasies. Among my favorites (beyond the obvious, I’m a huge Harry Potter fan) include the works of Diana Wynne Jones, Patricia Wrede, and P. C. Hodgell.
But none of these books would be worth reading if they didn’t also have characters that I can identify with (or against), care about, and who ring true to how I also have experienced this world. If you don’t have real people facing real decisions, then you have no story… no reason to turn the pages.
“How can a Catholic get into this sort of genre writing?”
Comedians succeed by telling funnier jokes. Story writers, Catholic or not, have to start by telling good stories. Bring me a plot that makes me turn the pages, characters I care about, settings that entice me. Show me something I haven’t seen before.
There are many outstanding writers in this field who are Catholic; J. R. R. Tolkien and Gene Wolfe are only the most prominent examples in a long list. Judging from their example, it seems to me that being a Catholic gives you two legs up in writing fantasy or science fiction.
The Catholic understanding of a flawed humanity means we expect characters who can be loved even as they make mistakes and do wrong. Superman, ultimately, is a bore; Frodo we love precisely because we know he can suffer and fail… and still triumph.
In addition, no small advantage is that as a Catholic you already have a pretty sophisticated idea of what triumph and failure actually looks like. Saving the universe (that invidious habit) is pointless if you don’t know what a saved universe looks like, much less precisely what it is in the universe that is worthy of salvation.
As for breaking into the field, the only absolute is that you have to have read the literature before you can contribute to it.
Like every other human endeavor, ultimately science fiction is a conversation already-in-progress, and you have to listen to where the conversation is before you can contribute to it. One advantage of SF, however, is that you can take the time find out where the conversation has been by reading the back history of the field… so many of the best books in the genre remain in print.
Thus, while John Scalzi’s adventure stories are fun all by themselves, they are much richer when you’ve read Robert Heinlein and can see who it is he’s really talking to. Lois McMaster Bujold’s long train of Miles Vorkosigan Saga (some 20-odd works) is fun reading, but the fun is sweeter when you recognize what it shares, and where it differs, from the Star Trek universe.
With so much science fiction on the shelves from the past, and more being published every year, how do you know where to enter the conversation? If you want a fast introduction to the field, past and present, I can highly recommend Jo Walton’s book, What Makes This Book So Great. (She quotes me in it.)
There are two awards given annually for work in science fiction. The Nebula Awards are presented by the professional society of SF writers, SFWA: the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America. Meanwhile, the fans who attend the Worldcon (like 2017’s convention in Helsinki) get to vote for the Hugo awards. Interestingly, it’s rare for a given work to win both awards. (A warning… in recent years, though not this year, a subsection of the fan base worked to rig the Hugo nominations to favor only their favorites. As a result, the rest of the fans have voted “no award” in a number of categories in recent years.)
Science fiction fandom today is far more diverse than when Anthony Boucher was writing (the 2017 list of Hugo nominees for best novel included no white males!) and prides itself on accepting all sorts of oddities within it. Several of the most prominent SF editors today — the people who buy stories and books — are, like Boucher, practicing Catholics. Be assured that there is no overt prejudice against Catholics (or any other religion) in this field. But there is an unalterable prejudice against bad stories. That includes cheap characterizations and holy-Joe piety. If it’s bad religion, it’ll be bad storytelling as well.
Indeed, it is noteworthy that the most successful Catholic writers (including Tolkien and Wolfe) rarely introduce their religion overtly into their stories. Catholicism is not holy water and meatless Fridays: it’s a set of assumptions about the universe beyond what the astronomers can tell us.
Good stories often come from the collision of world views. The best are those that can show, sympathetically, how and why different views come into collision, and how that collision can give us new insights into the eternal question of what it means to be human. Being a Catholic in a secular world means you live that tension; you’re already halfway there.
“What do you see as the future of Catholics and genre fiction?”
Our challenge, and indeed our vocation, is precisely to be Catholic in the original meaning of the world: to promote a vision that is indeed big enough to be worthy of the word universal.
If all you can offer is a 1950’s vision of Sister Mary Angelica driving a stick-shift spaceship, then your vision is maybe a trifle narrow. (That is not to say that, with the right twist, you couldn’t make a pretty good story out of that setting… but your vision has to go beyond, to see the humor precisely by having a wider horizon than an uncritical image of religion tied to a naive understanding of science.) Indeed, our goal must be ultimately to find new ways to say “God,” even as we stay true to the one true One.
One of the remarkable things that gets missed in most discussions of science-vs-scripture is how the remarkable idea found first in Genesis of a loving God creating a universe from nothing continues to ring true, even as our scientific understanding of cosmology has gone through a dozen revolutions. The change from ancient Babylon’s flat-Earth-and-dome, the best science of the day when Genesis was written, to even just the Roman-era epicycles of Ptolemy is so vast, that the shift from Ptolemy to Copernicus seems like a minor tweak in comparison. Yet through every revolution in our understanding of how the physical universe works, the eternal questions explored in Sophocles and Shakespeare continue to resonate with us.
A writer with a Catholic understanding of good and evil can always bring new light on these old questions. By posing them in settings or situations that pull us away from our comfortable clichés and presumed solutions, we see them, and ourselves, in a new light.
Our Catholic faith can teach us how to see our own story. Adventures set on other planets show that the laws of right and wrong are as universal as the law of gravity. And a Catholic science fiction also can remind us that what the world counts as a happy ending is not always the happiest ending.