Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Faith and Fiction

Current Reading: The Stories of Ibis, by Hiroshi Yamamoto

Inspirational Quote: "When you have come to the edge / Of all light that you know / And are about to drop off into the darkness / Of the unknown, / Faith is knowing / One of two things will happen: / There will be something solid to stand on or / You will be taught to fly" -- Patrick Overton

I was born and raised an atheist. As I've grown older, though, and been exposed to science, philosophy and the hammer/anvil relationship that is life, I've found belief in nothing to be quite difficult to maintain. I don't think you can go too far in modern science (which consists essentially of asking, "Why?" with the persistence of a 2-year-old) before you run straight into "Because that's the way it is." Substitute, "Because it's God's will," or, "It's random," or "It's predestined, fate," if you like. It all boils down to the same thing. Quantum mechanics is math wrapped around "I don't know," and you can bet Schroedinger's cat was praying the lid would stay shut.

In spite of my skepticism about skepticism, I don't consider myself a Christian, Muslim, Hare-Krishna, Scientologist or anything else, really. If anything, I'm a Zen Buddhist by way of Groucho Marx (who was Jewish, by the way).

You may agree. You may not. Whatever. This isn't about me or what I believe.

This is about faith, and people of faith, and speculative fiction. I don't mean faith in oneself, or faith in science, but spiritual faith: the belief in a higher power. Faith has shaped our history and our present (not always for good). Conflicting ideologies have shaped our maps. But it's surprising, when you look at speculative fiction, how little an impact faith has on our imaginings of other worlds.

Just looking back over the books I've read (see the list to the left), only a handful touch on the impact or importance of faith. In Coyote Horizon, a fanatical bishop does a terrible thing because he cannot abide a challenge to his faith. In Mainspring, it is Hethor's faith that compels him onto his quest. American Gods, paradoxically, is about gods, but not about faith, and Shadow remains skeptical even while his life becomes bound up with the Gods of the title. Very few speculative fiction novels contain people of faith, or are about people of faith.

When people of spiritual faith appear in speculative fiction, they often get characterized as misguided zealots (see Coyote Horizon). Science fiction is full of religious people who oppose just about everything, especially the march of progress (I love Sagan's treatment of this in Contact). In fantasy, religion often gets demoted to cult status and most of those cults are evil organizations worshiping things with tentacles. They exist so that Conan can pillage them. Occasionally, the good cults are showcased for their ability to heal (which seems to be the distinguishing mark of "good" religions). They exist so that the protagonist doesn't have to deal with their injuries. Messiahs are, strangely, a favorite topic for speculative fiction. Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune are two monumental works about messiahs. They always come to a bad end, though.

I have yet to see a speculative fiction story about a good Catholic whose faith helps sustain her through his trials, or a Muslim whose peaceful practice of his faith is key to his ability to withstand the tragedies that befall him. Instead, false Gods appear all the time while true ones only pop up occasionally. There's very little speculation about God in speculative fiction. We don't ponder his/her/its existence except obliquely. We don't wonder about his species or gender, whether he's one or three or three hundred. And yet these questions are central to a great deal of our society.

When religion appears in speculative fiction, there is a predominance of monolithic cultures: all members of a species belong to the same religion. Looking at humanity, that seems ridiculously unlikely. Even within Christianity, which dominates here in Canada, we have Catholic and Protestant, United, Jehovah's Witness, Mennonite... more variants than I can count, each one claiming to worship the one true God in the only right way.

Once in a while, I come across a thoughtful treatment of religion and faith. Speaker for the Dead included a Catholic priest who took very seriously the spiritual well-being of the human settlers on a distant planet... and of the aliens who shared that planet with them. Babylon 5 lampshaded the monolithic spirituality of its aliens in one episode where, to showcase Earth's dominant religion, the commander filled a hangar bay with a line of spiritual leaders that stretched out of sight.

I think faith is an important aspect of character. I know people whose faith has led them to be more tranquil, more tolerant and wiser. I also know people whose faith has appeared to justify their prejudices and allowed them to be abusive without shame. I find it curious that faith, which plays so big a part in our world, plays such a small part in the worlds we imagine.

Naturally, I'm interested in your thoughts on the matter. Particularly any counterexamples: speculative work where faith is an important and positive aspect of character.

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