Science Fiction/Fantasy and religion—two sections of the bookstore you don't necessarily expect to find cheek-by-jowl. Yet in the past couple of years, authors and publishers have been producing more SF/fantasy titles that in some way incorporate religion or religious themes than they have since the days of George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis. And whether these books chronicle an omniscient lion or the adventures of a Jesuit in space, they continue and strengthen a long line of speculative fiction born of a fascination with the possibilities of other worlds and the spiritual dilemmas of this one. "I think most of the best science fiction is not really about space ships," says Dave Lambert, executive editor at Zondervan, which publishes a handful of such titles and is planning more. "It is about truths that really speak to the human condition, and that is why the real classics in that field, whether by Ray Bradbury or Robert Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke, never go out of fashion."
A Shared History
Science fiction/fantasy—or, as some authors prefer, "speculative fiction"—and religion have had a fairly long relationship. Algis Budrys, coordinating judge of the annual L. Ron Hubbard "Writers of the Future" contest and himself a Hugo-nominated author, says the first science fiction novel was Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published in 1818. And that novel, he argues, was overtly religious in that its main character, "the Creature," sought answers to the same questions religion addresses: Who are we? Why are we here? "That was the one that broke the mold, in that the character did not address God, but addressed Dr. Frankenstein," Budrys says. "And in science fiction writers after Frankenstein we get these characters who one after another are trying to find their place in the world. But it is sharply disguised—they may be robots sent down from some other place, but basically their questions are the religious questions."
Michael Collings, a professor of English at Pepperdine University who has written extensively about science fiction, says the genre is fertile ground for religious themes and ideas because "both are interested in final answers and what makes things work." Some of the best SF/fantasy books of the last 50 years have blended the two, he says, including Frank Herbert's Dune (Ace, reprint, 1999), Orson Scott Card's Homecoming series (Forge, reprint, 1996), Gene Wolfe's The Book of the Short Sun series (Tor Books, reprint, 1999) and Walter Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Liebowitz (Bantam, reprint, 1997). "They are not about Methodists or Presbyterians or anything that narrow, but about the way the religious impulse shapes our destiny and the way in which the supernatural can intrude upon the natural." Now, Collings says, he is seeing more new science fiction/fantasy that incorporates religion, partly perhaps in response to the turning of the millennium, but more because of a growing sense that science alone will never offer sufficient explanation. "So to write a story in which science has all the ultimate answers and is the ultimate end does not fit with where we stand now," Collings says. "At the same time, religion is recapturing some of its original importance in our society, and writers are more at ease writing about science using religious metaphors," and vice versa.
Similarly, Greg Bear, a topselling science fiction author of a string of books, including Darwin's Radio (Ballantine, 2000) and Moving Mars (Tor, 1993), believes speculative fiction is ripe for making observations about religion and spirituality because it lends itself to parable-telling and mythmaking. "The peculiar thing is that religion finds a home in science fiction when so many people today believe those two things are diametrically opposed to each other," he says. "But science fiction creates a mystic point of view that doesn't deny the other side of the world, the devil's madness."
Are There More?
At trade publishing houses, editors of SF/fantasy seem to be split on the issue of whether there is currently a spike in the number of titles that incorporate religion. But whether they say they are seeing more of these kinds of titles or about the same number they always have, all agree religion—if handled deftly—lends an added layer to the genre. As Zondervan's Lambert puts it, "There is something about creating a world that is not the world we see around us that enables writers to somehow speak clearly about truths that, while we can't see them, we can acknowledge."
Warner Aspect publishes about 30 SF/fantasy titles a year and can count five novels on its latest list that toss religion into the mix. Betsy Mitchell, Warner Aspect's editor-in-chief, acknowledges there have long been books like this, but that they are at this moment getting more attention because they are, in part, about religion. "I am positive the religion in those books is making them more accessible to more people than just SF/fantasy fans," she says. And, she adds, SF/fantasy fans and religion readers have more in common than either might think, because both are generally willing to accept the reality of things they cannot see. "Certainly there is no great gaping divide between science fiction and fantasy readers and people who subscribe to a religion," she says. "They do not cancel each other out, so I do not see why we should not have readers who enjoy both."
Still, books that incorporate both are, in Mitchell's words, "not thick on the ground" because they cannot be manufactured in response to a need or a trend, but, like all good writing, must arise from the personal experiences and beliefs of their authors. That describes Warner Aspect's current offerings in this hybrid, the paperback versions of Octavia E. Butler's The Parable of the Talents (2000) and The Parable of the Sower (1998). Butler, the daughter of a minister, has written a tale set in the near future about a woman who develops a religion called Earthseed. In an e-mail interview, Butler told PW she finds science fiction extremely hospitable to religious ideas because "science fiction is such an open genre that no subject is shut out of it. There are no taboos except bad writing and insufficient research." And she thinks more science fiction writers will begin to explore the spiritual. "With so many aging baby boomers—and I am one of them—writing and perhaps thinking about death more than they once did, I wouldn't be surprised to see more SF writers exploring religion in their work." Warner Aspect also published The False House by James Stoddard (Dec. 2000), a sequel to his The High House (1998), about good versus evil in a kingdom contained within the rooms of a single house. Aspect has also rereleased The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge (Feb.), a science fiction classic, originally published in 1979, about a religion that grows up around a computer database.
Ballantine's imprint Del Rey Books is widely known for its SF titles and has recently published several that incorporate religion, including The Dragon Charmer by Jan Siegel (July 2000), the sequel to her Prospero's Children (1999), about the fantastical adventures of a young boy and girl. The imprint also offers Pavane by Keith Roberts (Mar.), out of print since its original publication in 1966, about a world run by the Spanish Inquisition. Del Rey is reprinting a 25th anniversary edition of Marion Zimmer Bradley's classic fantasy The Mists of Avalon, which chronicles the clash between earth-centered religions and Christianity, set against a mystical Arthurian landscape. The hardcover was released last November, and the paperback reprint is timed for a June release to coincide with a TNT cable production this spring.
Ballantine's Fawcett imprint is represented in this ares by Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow (1996) and Children of God (1998), both originally Villard hardcovers and both about a Jesuit priest's adventures in another world. Russell's works are part of Ballantine's Readers Circle program, with a readers' guide printed in the back of each book.
But Kuo-yu Liang, associate publisher of Ballantine, cautions against reading too much into the number of books blending sci-fi and religion. Science fiction is not "steadily building upon a solid base of theology," he argues. "Sure, there may be recognizable elements from various modern Judeo-Christian theologies, but no more so than are recognizable elements from older, more established pagan mythologies," Liang says in an e-mail interview. "This is a handy tool that many science fiction and fantasy writers use; it lends a tone of familiarity to the story and enables the reader to more easily make their way across very unfamiliar terrain."
Knopf is the hardcover publisher of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass series, about a child caught between good and evil in a fantastical world that includes a class of Anglican priests. Joan Slattery, publishing director for Knopf and Crown Books for Young Readers, says she has definitely noticed a surge in the number of fantasy submissions that come across her desk, but hasn't noticed any number of them including religion. But she noted the series' crossover success with adults might have something to do with its religious element. "These books have an enormous number of layers you can read into them," she says. "A biblical scholar will get something out of it that a kid will not. Pullman raises fascinating questions of religion and morality, but does it without preaching to his reader." Pullman's trilogy has more than one million books in print and includes The Golden Compass (1996), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000).
Getting into the Act
Algonquin will publish its first sci-fi/religion title next month—The Song of the Earth by National Book Award nominee Hugh Nissenson. About a genetically engineered artist who revives a form of earth-based worship, the book is a departure for both its publisher, known for its literary fiction, and its author, whose last book, The Tree of Life , was set in the 19th century. Algonquin editor Antonia Fusco notes that some of the credit for this cross-pollination of genres may lie in the general rise of spirituality titles over the past 10 years. "I think that has to have an impact on the imagination of a writer, and it certainly had an impact on the imagination of this one."
Also taking some steps in this direction is Pocket Books, with The Eternal Warriors series by Theodore Beale. The first book, The War in Heaven, appeared in 2000; the second, The World in Shadow, is planned for March 2002, and Beale is busy on the third installment, The Wrath of Angels. Pocket is known for its paperback horror—Stephen King is among its authors—but Beale, a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, has taken a verse from Ephesians as the inspiration for his proposed seven-part saga about good versus evil among angels, fallen and otherwise. According to Beale, science fiction and fantasy have long been bedfellows, but they seem to have been seeing less of each other in the past 25 years. "I think that's because [in that time] not a lot of mainstream science fiction/fantasy writers have been religious. That makes it hard for them to write about religion." But he too now sees that changing, perhaps in response to the steady interest in religion among readers in general. "I think what you are seeing in terms of a revived interest in religion in science fiction is that literature abhors a vacuum," he says. But although Beale purposely set out to blend religious theology into his fantasy tale, he does not believe sci-fi/fantasy can become "the new theology," as Kevin Kelly, the former editor of Wired magazine, recently suggested in the pages of the New York Times. "In order to construct a new theology you would have to go deeply into philosophy and Aristotle's first principles, and the vast majority of the writing world just is not equipped for that," Beale says. "And they would be trying to reinvent the wheel when there are already some pretty big Ferris wheels out there." Still, he continues, SF/fantasy can point people in a religious direction, and a hefty portion of readers who write to him say they have come to Christianity or some other faith through his books.
Christian literature has a long familiarity with speculative fiction, especially with fantasy. In the 1950s, C.S. Lewis penned The Chronicles of Narnia, a fable-like retelling of the Christian story, and Space Trilogy, a morality tale set on Venus, Mars and Earth about Christian thought in opposition to the chaos of evil. J.R.R. Tolkien recast the Christian story in his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a classic tale of good versus evil. The first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, is scheduled for December release as a motion picture from New Line Cinema, with two book tie-ins from Houghton Mifflin, including a reissue of the book first published here in 1954. Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, yet another retelling of the Christian story, is also widely read by Christians and fantasy fans alike. These three writers owe a debt to George MacDonald, a Scottish minister writing 50 years after Frankenstein, who wove Christian elements into his allegorical fantasies, At the Back of the North Wind and The Golden Key. These books are so widely respected by Christians that last year Eerdmans Publishing reissued six volumes of MacDonald's works in a larger paperback format, including Lilith and Phantastes.
Of course, evangelical publisher Tyndale House is still riding high on the popularity of Left Behind and the subsequent books in the eponymous series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins; the publisher prefers to call it "imaginative fiction" despite its supernatural elements and future setting. (With eight titles and over 28 million copies in print, Tyndale can call it anything it likes.) The next book in the series, The Desecration, is due out this October. Director of marketing Dan Balow thinks Left Behind tapped into a previously unsatisfied hunger for speculative fiction among Christian readers. "I think there was just a pent-up desire to feel what it would be like, rather than be told what it would be like," he says. "This was the first time all the [end-times] theology was pulled together and put into stories, and people are experiencing something they seem to have had a strong desire to experience." (At last year's Frankfurt Book Fair, a Swedish journalist told PW the Left Behind books are read in Sweden primarily by science fiction fans.) Although Balow doubts Left Behind's success can be duplicated in other speculative Christian fiction, Tyndale will try with Safely Home by Randy Alcorn (July), a saga involving angels and different space-time dimensions. For children, Tyndale is publishing The Mars Diaries, a new series from Sigmund Brouwer about the first earthling born on Mars. The first four titles came out last October, and two more followed in February.
Zondervan offered its first SF/religion book in 1999 with Nephilim: The Truth Is Here by L.A. Marzulli. Marzulli, formerly a member of a UFO cult before becoming a born-again Christian, writes about aliens masquerading as angels of light. "Marzulli is a departure for us," says Lambert. "Because of the high amount of interest in things like The X-Files we thought the time might be right." Zondervan will also publish Prodigy by Alton Gansky (May), the third in his series about a Christian sleuth who explores supernatural phenomena. But Lambert is not ready to say he is seeing more of these types of submissions. "What I am seeing is a whole lot more novels having to do with the end times because of Left Behind." Looking at other Christian houses, he sees some interest in sci-fi/fantasy, but says, "it is certainly not a flood of publishing of books of this sort by Christian houses—yet."
Janet Thoma Books, an imprint of Thomas Nelson, entered the field with last year's The Last Star by William Proctor, about a reappearance of the Star of Bethlehem, and his forthcoming Moongate (Jan. 2002), about a hole in space. Thoma, senior v-p of the imprint, thinks Christian interest in SF is being driven by fascination with both end-times theology and science in general. "They are searching for answers, and they are looking in the spiritual realm as well as in the scientific realm," she says. Proctor's books open up a new landscape for Nelson, and it is one they will explore with care. "Nelson is not looking for science fiction as such," Thoma explains. "But if a property comes along that is a definite link between what might be scientific fact in the future and what might happen from a spiritual perspective, obviously we are going to publish it is as long as it is within what could be biblically possible."
Taking its first tentative steps into fantasy is Word Publishing with Tom Williams's two books, The Crown of Eden (2000) and its sequel, The Devil's Mouth (May), about a religious monarchy that punishes sinners by dropping them into the mouth of hell. Senior editor Laura Kendall notes that Williams represents a new direction for Word, but not necessarily one they are looking to take to extremes. "We didn't purposely go into fantasy as a genre—they were good books, so we thought we'd try it." So far, the results have been good, with some reviewers comparing Williams to C.S. Lewis. With The Crown of Eden numbering about 10,000 copies in print—roughly what Word expected it would do—Kendall says expanding the category will depend on the success of The Devil's Mouth.
In the past few years, Jewish Lights has brought out reprints of two Jewish science fiction collections (yes, there are enough stories about Jews in space to fill two collections) and seen both remain strong pillars of its backlist. Wandering Stars (1998, originally 1974) and More Wandering Stars (1999, originally 1981), both edited by Jack Dann, feature stories by Woody Allen, Harlan Ellison and Isaac Asimov, among others. JL publisher Stuart Matlins says he too thinks science fiction and religion are well-suited partners because "both involve the suspension of the rigid laws of the universe from a rational standpoint. So they admit the possibility of the unknowable and the unknown, opening the doors to answering, in a very creative and imaginative way, some of the Big Questions." Also in Jewish science fiction, Devora Publishing has Everybody Has Somebody in Heaven: Essential Tales of the Spirit (2000), the collected SF stories of Avram Davidson, edited by Jack Dann and Grania Davidson Davis.
How to Market?
For publishers, one of the Big Questions is how they are going to market this kind of hybrid title. For some, like Algonquin, a first science fiction/religion title produces some pretty big jitters. Fusco says she and her fellow staffers were not planning to market Song of the Earth as sci-fi, but as literary fiction. That was, until Bookline called it a "science-fiction classic." "Now I guess we have no choice," she says, without disappointment. Indeed, most publishers are finding the answer is to promote these books to more than one type of reader. As Matlins puts it, "It is not just Jews who read Jewish science fiction, any more than it is Irish Catholics who read stories about Irish Catholic detectives." Still, some houses remain uncomfortable with the pairing. Beale reports that he has personally undertaken the marketing of his Eternal Warriors series to Christian bookstores because Pocket has not.
Chris Schluep, assistant editor at Del Rey, cautions against ever expecting the religious content of science fiction to dominate the storytelling. "It's no secret science fiction is fond of dealing with big ideas—and religion is certainly a big idea so I guess it will always have a place in works of science fiction," he wrote in an e-mail interview. "But to suggest that science fiction is dominated by the Judeo-Christian theme is like saying all music sounds like Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys. It may seem like that is the case sometimes, but the statement is still untrue."
Out of this world, too.