(For more of these Explorations of Faith in Science Fiction and Fantasy, see Wrestling with Gods blog where this was first published)
[SPOILERS if you have not yet seen last Sunday’s Game of Thrones episode “Dance of Dragons”]
Sunday’s Game of Thrones shocked many with its depiction of a father who decides to sacrifice his only daughter and heir to his name in order to Win the Throne. George RR Martin may not have put it in his books yet—but he did tell the showrunners, DB Weiss and Dan Benioff, that this was definitely coming. I don’t want to address the level of violence in the show. I think its characters are appropriate to their world. We have seen beheadings, slayings, burnings, stabbings, as well as rape, mutilation, etc. from good and bad characters. This is the world Martin has written, so by those rules this is how our characters react to crisis and achieve goals. It is profound then that level, compassionate heads are in short supply these days (and being mounted on spikes every season). I count Tyrion, Doran, Jon, Samwell, Varys, Margeary, Olenna, and a handful of others as being the people I would listen to if I lived in Game of Thrones. The Hound and Dario might have the most practical means of getting through this world alive, but I wouldn’t want to become them, so I wouldn’t want them as advisors.
Who one listens to—having good advisors—is a form of power, no different than a Valyrian sword, I will say. We all cheered when Dany and Tyrion met because, frankly, Dany could use some good advisors. Her decisions have been erratic–as she seeks to maintain power in a desperately sinking cultural situation.
I want to highlight three “gods” or specifically, three “speakers” for their gods who have become either advisors or powerful people themselves, and ask questions about the ideas that Martin brings out (or the showrunners highlight). I want to look at how an author might use religion or faith in his or her work to mirror, echo, or highlight something in our own culture.
Read the rest of this entry »
Back in 2009, Charlie Jane Anders published a nifty blogpost on io9 in the midst of the BSG finale, last of the LOST episodes, and after the aftermath of Heroes, about how NOT to put religion in your science fiction. Things she was tired of seeing, but also things she believed you might also be tired of seeing. The blog post still feels relevant, though you can argue her points. It challenges us to come up with ways to avoid putting faith in science fiction badly. Try putting one of your “deadly sins” of putting religion in science fiction (or fantasy) in the comments section here–and let’s see if we can come up with our own version of this list.
The 7 Deadly Sins of Religion in Science Fiction.
Religion is a huge part of science fiction – and it makes the genre better and more fascinating, as Battlestar Galactica proved. But there are seven mistakes SF should avoid in portraying the spiritual realm.
BSG wouldn’t have been nearly as epic if it hadn’t included spiritual themes from the beginning. The inclusion of religious elements added a way bigger scope and grandeur to the story of humanity’s last remnants struggling to survive – and it was realistic, since you’d expect people to be asking the big theological questions in that situation.
In general, religion and spiritual topics are a huge part of science fiction – if you’re really determined to avoid them altogether, you’re probably stuck with a few golden age novels, and a handful of Lost In Space reruns. But just like other science fiction elements, like first contact, time travel and space battles, science fictional religion can be done well – or it can be cheesy and weird.
Here are seven mistakes science fiction sometimes makes in handling religion (and I freely admit I was influenced to think about this by all the comments on Annalee’s final BSG recap and some of our other posts):
1. The cargo cult. Yes, I know, the gods really must be crazy. But I’m really sick of stories about primitive peoples who discover high technology and start worshipping it. Or the descendants of high-tech people, who have become primitive and started worshipping their ancestors’ technology. Like the Ewoks worshipping C-3PO, or the desert people worshipping the spacesuit in Doctor Who‘s “Planet Of Fire.” There’s usually an undertone of “See? This proves religion is teh stupid.” Also horrible: robots worshipping the people who made them, or aliens worshipping humans. Or aliens worshipping Ferengi.
2. The cheap Jesus. There’s nothing wrong with having a messianic figure in your science fiction – I’m not trying to take all the fun out of everything here – but don’t just pull the Jesus imagery out of thin air and expect it to mean something. Yes, I’m looking at you, crucified Neo. And I’m looking at you, Jesus H. Baltar. (And even though I love the ending of Doctor Who‘s “Last Of The Time Lords,” I’m also looking at you, floaty cruciform Doctor.) The indispensible TVTropes website has a great list of “random religious symbolism tossed in for no reason” moments.
3. The dumb space gods. Whenever we actually meet a god or gods in science fiction, it’s almost always a letdown. (There are exceptions – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine managed to have our heroes meet the timeless Prophets inside the wormhole, without ever losing their mystique.) Usually, though, when we meet a god or a godlike alien, it’s a cheesy old guy with a funny beard. Or it’s Jodie Foster’s condescending dad.
For the other 4 deadly sins…. seek out this link: http://io9.com/5185748/the-7-deadly-sins-of-religion-in-scien
I’m late to the game in loving Babylon 5, having dismissed it for years because everyone said it was “better than Star Trek” and that I “should” watch it. I resist those kinds of marketings. Tell me I “should” do something and I naturally resist. This is why I only joined Team Harry Potter long after Book 7 was published. I certainly didn’t like the implications that B5 might be better than Star Trek.
Be that as it may, I have now binge-watched the whole series. I was waiting to do an essay on the religion and faith I found embedded in Babylon 5, but I think this essay, originally on Right Fans, captures something of that–and so I’ll put it on the table to consider. I’ll start the article here, and then provide a link so you can finish it.
I think the author does a great job at highlighting the Catholic-friendly parts of Babylon 5. I think there’s room for me and others to discuss the other faiths in Babylon 5 as well, and when Straczynski goes full tilt away from organized religion. Still Babylon 5 is a great example of weaving in faith subtly into a story. It also deals with multiple faiths well and shows a kind of Buddhist nature at accepting all those faiths together. (You can click on the title to go to the full article, or read part here and follow the link at the bottom of the excerpt.)
More on Babylon 5 soon.
Stephanie remarks: For many years, I’ve wanted to write an extended essay on the Catholic-friendly philosophical and spiritual undertones of Babylon 5, so when Declan sent this to me, I squealed like a little girl. One day, when I have more time, I will write an extended addendum; for now, please enjoy Declan’s contribution!
While I have been both a cradle Catholic and a cradle geek, I can honestly say that the two rarely intersected for a good chunk of my life. Most of the time, my thoughts on faith and science fiction consisted of wondering why the starship Enterprise was a naval vessel without a chaplain.
Then the year was 1993, and the name of the show was Babylon 5.
While never as big a hit as Star Trek, Babylon 5 – or simple B5, as fans call it – was one of the few science fiction shows that fought and won against the Star Trek franchise without being run over by the monolith.
But one thing that made it special was religion.
Originally, Babylon 5 had been easily dismissed as a Star Trek: Deep Space 9 ripoff, even though the creator, Joseph Michael Straczynski (best known as simply JMS) had pitched Babylon 5 to paramount the year before Deep Space 9. Even my family were a little wary of it at first. It was fun, but nothing particularly special.
Then came the episode By Any Means Necessary. A subplot revolved around an alien ambassador trying to obtain an artifact necessary for his religious ritual. The ritual involved burning a plant in the sunlight that touched a particular mountain on a particular day. Since they’re in space, the ambassador had to acquire the plant, and lead the ceremony at the same time as his people back home. When the station Commander finds a way to get the required plant, it was too late, the time had past. Until science fiction and faith collided. As the commander says:
What you forgot to take into account, is that sunlight also travels through space….The sunlight that touched the …. mountain 10 of your years ago, will reach this station in 12 hours …. But it’s still the same sunlight.
The ambassador agrees, and comments, “Commander, you’re a far more spiritual man than I give you credit for.”
The commander answers, “There are a couple of Jesuit teachers I know who might disagree with you.”
Welcome to Babylon 5, with the first openly Catholic commander in science fiction. My family was hooked.
Later on, in Season 2, there were two strong episodes that hit home. The first was called Comes the Inquisitor. The plot was simple: our heroes are in a war with an ancient enemy that make Sauron inLord of the Rings look nice, and an alien ally known as the Vorlons want to make certain that one of our heroes, named Delenn, is in it for the right reasons. What are the wrong reasons? To be a hero! To be adulated! To be the leader of a holy crusade!
Follow this link for the rest of the article.
Jo Walton has a nice 2009 review of Molly Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day over on Tor.com. This is another book to add to your reading list if you like faith represented in science fiction/fantasy, and want to present faith reasonably well–without being preachy, or limiting a faith. Certainly this book caught my attention. I went to a seminar once on Quakers in Science Fiction which rattled off quite a few of those books. I no longer have that list with me, but there is an annotated list of Quaker references in science fiction at adherents.com site. Let me hit some highlights for you, and then give you the link to Jo Walton’s essay on Molly Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day.
Some of the books with major Quaker themes/ characters/ plot lines include:
Nancy Kress CROSSFIRE
David E. Morse THE IRON BRIDGE
Judith Moffett PENNTERRA
Joan Slonsczewski A DOOR INTO OCEAN, STILL FORMS ON FOXFIELD, THE WALL AROUND EDEN
How Can Quakers Be Helpful in Contemporary Science Fiction?
1. They value peace. When a lot of science fiction–and society–seems to glorify war, or see war as an inevitable part of our collective futures, Quakers do what they can to keep peace. In our futures, a culture that establishes or tries for peace is a valuable asset. We’d like our futures to be war-free. How do we get there? Could the Quakers hold a key? So much of our science fiction is becoming GrimDark. Quakers as characters who value peace can help your story try to create peace as a goal–without fighting. Though Friendly Persuasion was a big movie for Quakers–as it showed Quaker life well–unfortunately, the plot was about pushing a Quaker to the point where he would use a gun and go to war. I hated that. I don’t think that’s the only plot/arc available to Quaker characters: the above mentioned books and The Dazzle of Day have more than that arc to play with. If you want to understand more about creating peace, research some Quakers, consider throwing that into the mix.
2. They value equality. While some came late to the Welcoming and Affirming practice, the services of Quakers can be a lovely lesson in re-distributed, decentralized power. They tend to avoid creeds and hierarchies. Sometimes you sit in a service, an unprogrammed meeting of worship, in a circle and wait for the Spirit to move someone to speak. If it doesn’t happen, you just sit there, or you may sing. Even when I attended a church in the Nebraska Yearly Meeting, a programmed worship service still had an extraordinary moment when the pastor stopped talking, and there was silence after the sermon for the Spirit to move in the congregation and then anyone–ANYONE–who wanted could stand up and speak. It was Open Mic. Quakers knew that the Spirit could speak through anyone–not just the pastor. Also, a higher majority of women were the strength and voice of the church than in most denominations I had attended. (I think the United Church of Canada has that same equality of voice and strength).
3. They resisted authority. Oh, did they. Some in the Friends community I knew refused to pay taxes as long as they went to War efforts. And they were successful! Your space-faring quakers might well be those who can lead a rebellion just through resistance. They won’t fight, but they will resist.
4. They have a strong community. Want your characters to have a strong sense of community? Quakers stick together. They aren’t ruled by following one charismatic leader–so therefore there’s a tendency to want to keep everyone together since anyone could have the wisdom that week. And they’re modern. They aren’t Amish, but they still feel separatist, even surrounded by society. The Amish might not be able to run a spacecraft, but a whole bunch of Quakers–sure! They love technology. It doesn’t interfere with their faith.
I think something that helps Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day is the fact that it’s shaped like a memoir, with a memoir-voice. Faith literature is mostly first person, and to really tap into the faith-side of your science fiction, going with a first person narrator gets your reader deep inside and intimate with a character and their deepest beliefs. I think it’s a beautiful way to chart a spiritual journey.
Here’s Jo Walton’s review of The Dazzle of Day:
The Dazzle of Day is an astonishing short novel about a generation starship.
There have been plenty of books set on generation starships by everyone from Heinlein to Wolfe, but thing that makes this stand out is how astonishingly real the characters are, and how well fitted to their world. Gloss has an immense gift for getting inside people’s heads. This story is about people both like and unlike us—they are culturally Quakers and they’ve been living on the ship for generations, which makes them very different, and yet they’re unmistakably people. They’re my favourite kind of characters, people I can understand and get inside their heads, and yet very different from the standard kinds of people you get in books. They’re very much individuals, not types, and they’re very much shaped by their culture and experiences.
For the whole review, follow this link.
Let me praise Aronofsky’s Noah for its fleshing out of an iconic thin narrative of Noah in the Bible and making it a story.
The story of Noah in the Bible is relatively sparse. Noah never says anything. God does all the talking. In the movie, well, God may be doing some communicating, but since the narrative is told more from the ground, from Noah and his family’s perspective, Noah is the main character, making choices.
Making choices. I think that’s an important thing to highlight. One of the strange ironies of religious life, it seems, is that the closer we get to our God, whomever that may be, the seemingly fewer choices we get–until we are the Hand of God, the Feet of God, the Puppet of God. I don’t think this is really the case. But depiction in movies and books sometimes have us think characters who are devoted to their god cease to think and act based completely on the commands of God. One should add “the interpretation of what they believe to be” between “on” and “the” in that last sentence. Because in many cases, believers have to do a lot of interpreting.
The movie holds out that question to answer. Certainly Noah has to decide HOW he is hearing God. He gets parts right—there is going to be a flood. God wants him to build an ark. The animals are going to come and get on board the boat. After that, though, Noah is subject to some speculation and extrapolation when he can’t really hear a clear answer from God.
Aronofsky is not afraid to make God a real entity; he is not afraid to represent things in the Bible as they seem to be—the angels cast out of heaven, the unbelievably old people like Methusaleh–close to 1000 years old when the film begins. These are fantasy elements, but Aronofsky plays them straight because believers believe them as fact.
(Full disclosure: As a Christian myself, I tend to believe most of the Bible stories as fact–since all the fantastical elements are explainable through communication and interaction with a god that I don’t fully understand or comprehend. Gods have powers. They can do whatever they want and it happens…so angels from heaven, eternal people, giant massive floods–I’m okay with that. It is my belief.)
Some Christians did not appreciate Noah. At least that’s what I heard. Over here the Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax does a good run down of comparing Christians who loved the film with those who hated it–and why.
I loved the Christianity Today response especially–thoughtful and positive. Not what I expected, but very happy.
My point: Depicting someone’s sacred scripture is never easy. When you are given such meagre bits of story that have been idealized, and in some sense, covered up, when the original sounds like a fable or a fairy tale to begin with, where characters are not that well-drawn, you invite interpretation and imagination. Always a good thing. But a dangerous thing. Where your imagination filled in Noah’s story with THIS, mine filled it in with THAT. And as we’ve talked about here before, interpretation differences fuel arguments when it comes to scripture especially.
What does Noah do right, though, as a film of a sacred story?
Read the rest of this entry »
I have to admire Star Trek for the way they evolved on matters of faith, by showing the complexity and the cultural aspects of faith, and how religion impacted society, at least in one series.
Star Trek hasn’t always been like this. Faith and Religion seem to be the target of early Gene Roddenberry design. In TOS and STNG, faith and spirituality were often shown to be merely a way to manipulate the masses (hello, Karl Marx). Both Kirk and Picard showed the natives that their gods were machines (“The Return of the Archons”) and (“The World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”), usually, or fickle higher powers prone to jealousy (“Who Mourns for Adonis”, and “The Apple” come to mind from TOS), or merely keeping people young and stupid for the whim of the gods (STNG “Who Watches the Watchers?” ) or (VOY: “The Caretaker”). Worse was when a believer realized that his/her faith was empty (VOY: “This Mortal Coil”, or VOY: “Emanations”).
In STNG, Q also represented the gods at their most amoral and irresponsible. A whole slew of gods that were bored but fascinated with humans (HUMANS are the object of everyone’s curiosity… what, no god wanted to explore Betazoid culture? ) What a scary concept for a higher power.
But Deep Space Nine seemed to want to explore religion and faith a bit more deeply. True, the requisite aliens were present in the Wormhole next to Bajor, but Roddenberry wasn’t beyond saying that gods could be higher forms of life that we don’t understand. Certainly I agree. My concept of God is that he is a much higher form of life—an alien, yes, but still God. But unlike Q, the gods of Bajor, the Prophets, care for the people of Bajor. They are higher life inside the wormhole and emotionally attached to a humanoid species.
Bajorans themselves are almost all religious, having to deal with the reality of gods who live in the wormhole. The gods intervene in history; they send little Orbs that light up and give you prophecies, and Bajoran faith has completely mixed with politics in a way that is eerily similar and yet very different than American culture today. The US may not have preachers as politicians, but they have politicians who think they are preachers, and who create laws as if God himself were speaking to them. At least Bajor is up front: it’s the Pope in charge of the world, thank you very much.
I give DS9 a lot of stones for making this faith and religion complex.
What I think is useful for our purposes here at Tess 18: Wrestling with Gods are the following ideas, I humbly submit to you for your thoughts:
- Bajoran believers are very different. There are those who are fundamentalists, those that embrace new theologies, those that take on whatever religious fervor will bring them to power, those that are seekers, those that are skeptics, and those that believe deeply despite great reasons not to believe.
When we write believers, we need to determine how much a believer they are and what kind of believer they are. What do they believe? How has it influenced them? Are they part-time believers? Or are they in all the way, letting their faith guide their judgment?
- The believers are not all good or bad. Kai Winn, in particular, is shown as a pretty power-hungry believer, and it helps to play fundamentalist when it brings her power, but she actually believes. She devotes herself to the gods of Bajor, in hopes that they will say something to her, do anything with her, and when she is ignored by the gods, she determines her own path—in the end to bring them down and punish them for abandoning her. Kira Nereis, a main character on Deep Space Nine is a believer, but helps run the station with Starfleet, a whole gang of skeptics, but her faith is so much a part of her that it influences her decisions. Not always for the better. When her faith comes in conflict with her life on board DS9, she can sometimes be swayed by faith first; she has made some poor decisions, too, but it’s her character flaws that make her real.
When we write believers, they should be complex people. Their faith shouldn’t prescribe a mono-personality of enflamed fundie-ism out to destroy diversity, nor should it be Polly Goodheart who never had a bad thought or deed. It’s the war inside of ourselves, that inner conflict, that fascinates George R.R. Martin—and religion or faith is an influence on that conflict but it doesn’t end that conflict. I still could sympathize with Kai Winn, even to the last episode—she was a believer scorned by the gods, and she acted accordingly.
- The religion was a complex part of their culture. Bajoran culture and civil society was built with a religion in mind. So was the US, so was Canada, so were Middle Eastern countries, European countries—while they may not show it as much as a fundamentalist nation might, they still were influenced heavily by faith and religion. Look at the coinage, the heraldry, the history. Bajorans felt like their leaders had a divine connection to the Prophets—and that the Prophets were a part of that decision making process.
When we write cultures that have a faith (or multiple faiths), thinking about how that culture has affected society is important. How have laws changed? How is power determined or passed from one group to another? How does worship and citizenship intertwine?
- People could question their faith or religion, could lose faith, but not lose the values associated with that faith, or could improve the faith for everyone.
Characters could fall in and out of faith with the Prophets or with their religion, but didn’t always change fundamentally as people. Commander Sisko didn’t change character as he moved from skeptic to believer, as he moved from seeing the Prophets as “wormhole aliens” to seeing them as a guiding, shaping part of his life. Their influence on him may have risen, but his fundamental character remained the same. He wasn’t “brainwashed” and didn’t lose reason just because he gained faith.
Simultaneously, Vedic Bureil might instigate some new ideas about faith or worship based on his new understandings of the religion or the Prophets—so the religion or faith was able to grow, or change. People have an impact on faith and religion—sometimes just one person can have that impact. In the episode “Accession” where a voyager is found and revealed as the true “Emissary”, the whole culture changed for a short time. Instead of people following their own paths with guidance from the Prophets, they followed their clans’ or family’s paths before them. The Prophets had to intervene with Commander Sisko to support Sisko’s Emissary status.
Frequently, characters questioned the faith or religion of the Bajorans. Case in point, the “Destiny” episode, where a doom prophecy looked as if it were about to be fulfilled and awful things were about to happen, but instead the reading of the prophecy turned out to be in error, and science investigation actually helped do something beneficial. The prophecy came true, but in ways no one expected. The episode causes Kira to question her faith—when her faith comes in conflict with her commander. While Star Trek often asks every culture to question their faith eventually, (and often destroys a planet’s faith or culture in the process) DS9 asks the viewer, and the Bajorans, to question carefully, and with respect.
- Star Trek DS9 writers respected the religion of the culture. Bajorans were not written as idiots, or unsympathetically. Not all episodes went to the formulaic and stereotypical science vs. religion route (“In the Hands of the Prophets”)—which, this episode, to its credit, does so much better than the evening news which tries to put people into categories of science-hating believers and science-loving atheists.
Writers do this by having the sympathetic characters show us how to respect the culture. They don’t just nod, or give lip service to the culture. Many of the main characters have encounters with the Orbs, or with different religious figures; there is respect on the Starfleet side towards Bajorans’ faith and faith leaders. Often, there is respect coming from the Bajorans to Starfleet, though it is more rare.
When we write characters whose religions or cultures clash, we can write in such a way that gives away our inner feelings about that religion. We can be sarcastic in our word choices, have other characters disrespect them, make their dialogue one-dimensional, or their characters flat. Or we can make them complex, and show that others with equally interesting faiths can interact with them without prejudice. Your inner feelings about faith and religion will always surface in your work unless you try very hard to make the narrative neutral (or give us a reason that the narrative has such opinions).
The Bajoran Way: be true to the culture, be kind to the believers, be honest about the impacts.
Following DS9’s way of talking about religious culture means making religious characters complex, sympathetic, interactive, wildly different in their fervor and belief and giving the story a chance to show a neutral or respective way to view religion. Let the reader decide if the religion is interesting. Let the reader decide if the character is good or bad or complex based on what he or she does. Try not to bias the reader about faith in general, but let the faith reveal itself to be positive or negative in each character, or each culture. There were Bajorans who died for their faith to create positive things, and those who sacrificed their lives for the same faith to create what ended up to be negative things. It’s the difference between martyr and suicide bomber—though often both believe they are savior.
Great books and further online discussions on this very topic are:
Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion, and American Culture by Jennifer E. Porter and Darcee L. McLaren
Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos by Jan Lundeen and Jon Wagner
What Makes a God? Wormhole Aliens and Bajoran Religion on Transpositions.
Back Through the Wormhole, Part V: What does God Need With a Space Station on Asking the Wrong Questions
What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below.