Monthly Archives: August 2013

Defining religion . . .


Time for a little housekeeping.  The book is about representations of religion in science fiction . . . which means I have to define at least two terms pretty carefully.  I’ll worry about “representations” in the book; for now, “What’s religion?”

Two initial observations:  1) Religion isn’t a ‘natural kind,’ but is rather an academic concept.  That is, you can’t walk through a landscape and pick out what is religion and what isn’t.  Nevertheless, academics have a sense that something distinctive exists, and have spent generations trying to determine exactly what the distinction between “religion” and “everything else” is.

2) Different definitions point one towards different data.  If I define “religion” as agreed-upon moral standards, versus as quests for individual transcendence, I would end up looking at very different sets of gSF stories.  Plus, either would exclude a significant number of apparently “religious” traditions in the ethnographic record, and exclude quite a few of the gSF stories I feel need to be included.

For example, In Moorcock’s Behold the Man, morality isn’t a big issue; Jesus makes an appearance, but he’s decidedly not supernatural; nobody ‘transcends’ anything.  ‘Karl’ is influenced, even driven by the religious claims of his society, to the extent that he participates to a self-destructive degree even when the ‘supernatural’ is proven otherwise.

So, following Luther Martin, I’m defining religion first and foremost as a social system, distinct from others only in that in this case, legitimacy is based on claims to supernatural authority.  This also has the advantage of resembling the definitions assumed by many (especially Golden Age) gSF authors — and, not coincidentally, sets up contrasts to other authoritative claims, e.g., science.

I admit, this isn’t the only way I could approach religion in gSF, but I think it’s probably the best.  (The book will describe why in rather more detail!)  But alternatives could still yield pretty interesting books:  see, for example, Cowan’s Sacred Space . . . it’s really good, but very different than what I’m working on.


Renan on religion and the future


Excerpts from Recollections of My Youth (1883), by philosopher and historian of religion Ernest Renan:

“I love the past, but I envy the future. It would have been very pleasant to have lived upon this planet at as late a period as possible. Descartes would be delighted if he could read some trivial work on natural philosophy and cosmography written in the present day.  The fourth form school boy of our age is acquainted with truths to know which Archimedes would have laid down his life. What would we not give to be able to get a glimpse of some book which will be used as a school-primer a hundred years hence?”

“The worst social state, from this point of view, is the theocratic state, like Islamism or the ancient Pontifical state, in which dogma reigns supreme. Nations with an exclusive state religion, like Spain, are not much better off. Nations in which a religion of the majority is recognized are also exposed to serious drawbacks . . . As long as the masses were believers, that is to say, as long as the same sentiments were almost universally professed by a people, freedom of research and discussion was impossible. A colossal weight of stupidity pressed down upon the human mind.”

“This is a state of things which is coming to an end in our time, and we cannot be surprised if some disturbance ensues. There are no longer masses which believe; a great number of the people decline to recognise the supernatural, and the day is not far distant, when beliefs of this kind will die out altogether in the masses, just as the belief in familiar spirits and ghosts have disappeared.”

But elsewhere:

“Religion has become for once and all a matter of personal taste. Now beliefs are only dangerous when they represent something like unanimity, or an unquestionable majority. When they are merely individual, there is not a word to be said against them.”

“The brain, parched by reasoning, thirsts for simplicity, like the desert for spring water. When reflection has brought us up to the last limit of doubt, the spontaneous affirmation of the good and of the beautiful which is to be found in the female conscience delights us and settles the question for us. This is why religion is preserved to the world by woman alone . . . Woman restores us to communication with the eternal spring in which God reflects Himself.”

The ‘ayes’ have it!


I’ve been debating including American Gods in the book.

Pro:  it’s a really good book, with interesting claims about religion.

Con:  I’m afraid I’m already going over the wordcount parameters:  80K, +/- 10%.  [Coincidentally, that’s exactly the same as my dissertation parameters — and my first draft was 125K.  No, they didn’t give me 1.5 Ph.D.s . . . they made me cut 30%.  Really don’t want to do that again.]

Pro:  ending with something published at the very beginning of the 21st century, and 75 years after the founding of Amazing (i.e., on the 75th anniversary of gSF) is pleasingly symmetrical.

Con:  it’s usually described as fantasy, not gSF.  To me, it just feels like science fiction, but as a rule I’ve been avoiding stories in which gods actually make an appearance.  [If they’re around to ask, you don’t need ‘religion’ to figure out what they want you to do, just competent administration.  ;o)  ]

Pro:  as it turns out, Gaiman thinks it’s science fiction!  I had the opportunity to ever-so-briefly talk to him at a book signing, about (you guessed it) religion in science fiction.  Quote:  “People keep telling me it’s fantasy, but it’s not.  It’s science fiction.  There’s a long tradition of ‘religious’ science fiction, like Roger Zelazny.”

I guess the ‘ayes’ have it.  Note to self . . . make sure I included Lord of Light!

The Man Who Awoke


Yesterday was a fun work day — polishing a section on Herbert, sketching one on Heinlein, some heavy-lifting with Jack Chalker, and then happily typing away about Manning’s The Man Who Awoke until 2 am.  Manning reads very much like above-average ’30s-era pulp sf, but his work ages better than most of his contemporaries.

For reasons I won’t be describing in my book, I have a special place in my heart for him.  The Man was a series of five stories in Wonder Stories, 1933.  To my sorrow, I DON’T have a dusty pile of old pulp mags in my office, so I bought the 1975 ‘fix-up’ for the usual $0.01+shipping.  (For the uninitiated, quite a few early 20th century sf ‘novels’ were originally separate stories set in the same world or with overlapping characters, only later pasted together–usually with little or no editing–to be resold as a paperback.  Think The Martian Chronicles, Foundation, and Orphans of the Sky.)

So last autumn, I’m delighted to find The Man beautifully fits the framework I’m building for the history of representations of religion in science fiction.  Specifically, a religion-like-but-secular group with a charismatic leader has found a route to transcending the individual and discovering if there’s a purpose to life via a pretty imaginative technological gadget.  (How, you ask?  I don’t want to ruin it for you:  buy the book.  I suppose you could wait for mine, but it’ll cost a lot more than $0.01+shipping!  At least at first . . . oh, I need a cuppa.)

Anyway, things were going swimmingly until I come across a passage that–insofar as I understood the genre–just shouldn’t be there.  Manning devoted a couple pages to positing that there could be a Creator, that maybe humans are more than just physical, and other ideas that seemed similarly anachronistic.  [Enter frustrations and denial, histrionic declarations of disaster, &c.]

The nice lady at the UVM interlibrary loan department [thanks, Barbara!] was kind enough to acquire scans of the original issues.  THE OFFENDING PASSAGE WASN’T THERE.  That is, the part that sounded ‘way too modern to be in a 1933 story wasn’t in the 1933 story, but had been added (and was the only thing added) to republish it for 1975 audiences.  Incidentally, all that about an anonymous Creator did fit my model for 1975 . . .

I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m still feeling a little smug!  ;o)