Mormon Science Fiction
Last week, after Terryl Given’s piece about Mormonism and politics, I started to wonder about one of my favorite Mormons, Orson Scott Card. I’m not a huge Science Fiction fan, but the Ender’s Game series captivated me as a young teen and I still list the series among my favorite books. Below, in an excerpt from Given’s book People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, is a look at Card in light of his religion.
Orson Scott Card has been called the Mormon “who to this point best — and most radically fulfills the great prophetic hopes for a world-class as well as genuinely Mormon literature.” One of the most prolific and arguably the best science fiction writer alive, Card is best known for his Enders saga, the first volume of which won an unprecedented doubleheader, scoring both the Nebula and the Hugo awards, as did its sequel, in a feat still unequaled (Ender’s Game, 1986; Speaker for the Dead, 1987). Some of his corpus is recognizably Mormon in fairly conspicuous ways. Saints and Folk of the Fringe, for instance, represent direct engagement, the former historical and the latter futuristic, with Mormonism itself. His Tales of Alvin Maker series (six volumes and counting) is a thinly veiled version of Joseph Smith’s life, cast as fantasy that reconceptualizes American history. Earlier, he published a five volume science fiction series clearly based on the Book of Mormon (Homecoming, 1992–1996).
Science fiction (or the more encompassing “speculative fiction”), though still struggling for respect as serious art, is the literary form best suited to the exposition and exploration of ideas at the margins of conventional thinking, whether in technology, ethics, politics, or religion. And indeed, some Mormon doctrine is so unsettling in its transgression of established ways of conceiving reality that it may be more at home in the imagined universes of Card than in journals of theology. This may explain the demonstrable affinity between the genre and the faith. As one Web site notes:
In a literary survey of novels which have won the highest awards in science fiction, the Hugo or Nebula award, twenty-five percent (25%) had Latter-day Saint characters or Utah/Latter-day Saint references. These include books by Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Orson Scott Card, Arthur C. Clarke and Greg Bear.
Another site opines, “It may be the culture. It may be religion or the landscape. Maybe it’s something in the water. Whatever the reason, Utah has some of the nation’s most prolific producers and ravenous readers of science fiction and fantasy, known in the book world as ‘speculative fiction.’”
Most universities produce a literary magazine. BYU produces a science fiction magazine: the Leading Edge. Theology is certainly one explanation behind this phenomenon. God, claim the Mormons, revealed as long ago as 1830 that “worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; . . . And the first man of all men have I called Adam, which is many: (Moses 1:33–34, PGP). The reality of multiple inhabited worlds is not the only doctrine that invites creative speculation of an LDS bent. As Card says, by way of explaining the wide Mormon participation as producers and consumers of the genre, We have no qualms about the idea of life on other planets, faster-than light travel, ancient ‘lost’ civilizations, supernatural events with natural explanations. Another example, appearing in Card’s own work, is the Mormon theme of apotheosis, or man becoming God, which is generally seen as beyond the pale theologically and is treated in most literature as criminal pathology deserving the retribution that usually follows (as with The Man Who Would Be King or Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz). But in Card’s Hot Sleep, Jason Worthing founds a new world, presides over a human race, benevolently rejoices in “the best part of being God, you know when you create someone who surpasses you,” and imitates the weeping God motif found in Joseph Smith’s Enoch text, when he grieves over his burden of godhood.
In this regard and others, science fiction is operating in one of its standard modes: to naturalize the supernatural, to bridge the distance that separates the proximate and quotidian from the distant and (nearly) inconceivable, and to vastly enlarge the scope of the paradigm which encompasses normality not by circumventing reality, but by extrapolating it. Science fiction is, in this regard, as Card has called it, “radical realism.” It should be apparent that the cultural work that this genre performs is aptly suited to a religion in which the sacred and the banal intermingle so indiscriminately. For Mormonism is, as Card again says, “every bit as radically realistic as science fiction; if Joseph Smith and the rest of us in our subsequent theological collective evolution have done anything, we have explained godhood in a completely rationalistic way.”
At times, Card seems to be arguing in his fiction fairly explicitly against the same dichotomizing that C. S. Lewis lamented, and that Mormonism shuns, which consigns the rational and predictable to the natural order, and the divine and ineffable to the religious. The Alvin Maker series is conspicuous for its transparent adaptation of Mormon historical material. But it also reenacts the core ideological tension that puts Mormonism at odds with its host community a particular brand of supernaturalism that is not readily domesticated by prevailing secular or religious models. Card’s dour, orthodox Reverend Thrower repudiates the supernaturalism of the Makers and their community, insisting that the two categories of “science and Christianity” are sufficient to explain all phenomena. But his “science” is sorely limited and crude — typified by the phrenology so popular in Joseph’s day. And his “Christianity” is narrow-minded and superstitious in its own way — denying the miraculous but fearful of “devil-spawn.”
Finally, Card fictively enacts another of the core tensions of Mormonism, that between Eden and exile, community and isolation. It is a tension he feels personally, declaring, “those of us who grew up in Mormon society and remain intensely involved are only nominally members of the American community. We can fake it, but we’re always speaking a foreign language.” Like many science fiction writers, Card deals extensively with themes of migration and colonization. And almost all post-Romantic heroes revel in a kind of existential solitude. Still, Card thematizes the tension between the impulse toward community and to the fringes of faith disconnection from larger society in especially pointed ways, at times signified by the works’ titles (as in Folk of the Fringe).
One of the major works produced by Horace Bushnell, a leading nineteenth century theologian, was Nature and the Supernatural (1858). A major purpose of this book, written in an age of growing skepticism, was to establish intellectual bases for supernaturalism. The best speculative fiction attempts to do the same thing. As does Mormonism. Perhaps that’s why it is proving to be such a fruitful alliance.