Future Alternative Past: Religion. Seriously.

Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can also look through the archives of the column.

I teach writing classes. One thing I ask my students to do is fill in a spreadsheet for their work-in-progress’s characters, noting race, age, sexual orientation, so forth, so on. And the category of character traits they usually haven’t thought about before is religion. Or the absence of it. Which is weird.

The default religious status in this time and place is a vaguely Protestant-ish Christianity. But SFFH authors aren’t necessarily working in the here and now. Post-apocalyptic landscapes may be the breeding grounds for a warped Catholicism such as that pervading Walter M Miller, Jr.’s 1959 classic A Canticle for Leibowitz. In Canticle, monks preserve scientific knowledge through a new Dark Age. The lives of religious institutions are protracted compared to human lifespans, so they can easily perform this sort of centuries-long service, as Octavia E. Butler has the heroine of Parable of the Sower realize. So Butler’s pragmatic Lauren Oya Olamina devises her own religion, “Earthseed,” as a means of guiding future generations to the stars.

In Daniel José Older’s dark fantasy Half-Resurrection Blues, Santeria, an Afro-Latin spiritual tradition, colors the half-dead hero’s interactions and grounds his world. In the new novel Tentacle, Rita Indiana writes explicitly of Santeria’s Dominican version, pitting a poor trans man newly initiated into the mysteries of the ocean deity against coral bleaching and mass fish die-offs. This tradition is my own, and it appears in several of my stories, too, most notably in “Wallamelon,” in which a young woman learns how to divine.

What about atheism? Anti-religious SFFH writing seems far more prevalent than straightforwardly atheist plots and themes. The God in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is tyrannical and vulnerable, and killing him is an act of heroism. However, he does exist. In “The Old Rugged Cross” by Terry Bisson, collected in Greetings and Other Stories, condemned convict Bud White’s vision of Jesus is very likely a hallucination, but it’s not explicitly so. Better cases can be made for Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Galileo’s Dream and Arthur C Clarke’s Hugo Award-winning short story “The Star,” since in both the antagonist is a belief system rather than a deity.

Sometimes encounters with religion are the point of a piece of SF, as in The Sparrow or Behold the Man or “The Tower of Babylon.” Generally, though, the topic is simply not mentioned. Typical SF backdrops are big on vague secularisms, which can be interpreted any number of ways — including as the casual Christianity most US readers identify as their own.

In the case of fantasy and horror, there are almost always clearer delineations of characters’ spiritual practices and beliefs. Not everyone in a given story is a practitioner, though — which is as it should be. But what the exercise I mentioned at this column’s beginning is meant to provoke, what I’d like to see, is more thought, more care and consideration given to why and how and what each and every single one of them believes. Or doesn’t. Schisms, doubts — they’re part of the human experience. Maybe the transhuman experience, too. Help me find out.

Recent books recently read

MR Carey’s novel The Girl with All the Gifts won my heart and mind completely with its outrageous child-zombie viewpoint. To a slightly lesser extent I also dug Fellside, a later novel which was in no way related. Carey’s new book, Someone Like Me (Orbit), shares themes and focus with Fellside — identity, bodilessness, sanity, violence — but packs as much punch as Girl. Hapless Liz Kendall, self-blaming victim of a series of domestic beatdowns, finds herself host to an alternate personality who has studied her abuser through thousands of parallel worlds and knows just how to fight back. Liz’s sometimes irksome moments of passivity are nicely balanced by the activeness of her co-protagonist, feisty Fran Watts, and the unswerving bravery of Fran’s putatively imaginary friend Jinx. As Carey shares the details of how teenaged Fran confronts the kidnapper who shattered her life when she was only nine, and Liz learns crucial survival skills, he evokes the shivery desolation haunting the most mundane landscapes. At the book’s beginning love and geography link Liz and Fran’s storylines; by the end they’re inextricably dependent on one another for a gut-wrenching, teeth-gritting climax.

If you’d asked me when I first read Fahrenheit 451 which book I would want to emulate its dystopia-dwelling characters by memorizing, my unhesitating answer would have been The Last Unicorn. Author Peter S Beagle has written many wonderful books since then, but his latest returns to this favorite of mine, which is also the favorite of millions of others. The Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey (Tachyon) opens with the full book’s immortal opening lines:

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of seafoam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night.

In addition to poetry and mystery, there’s humor and contrarity in The Last Unicorn, and Journey includes plenty of both — especially in the person of a new character, a two-headed demon named Azazel. Stephanie Law’s charming interior illustrations and the author’s reminiscences on the story’s 1962 genesis round out what could have been an unsatisfyingly thin publication; the story stops rather than concluding, but Beagle’s many admirers will gratefully accept these fresh fragments of his most entrancing tale. And I can add their recitation to my post-apocalyptic repertoire.

Couple of upcoming cons

The website for Imagicon is almost entirely in Dutch. I can’t read it, but I guess most potential attendees are going to be fine, since this event takes place in the Netherlands. Judging from photos and loan words, there will be a boatload of cosplay there, including a cosplay dating game. Also films, workshops, gaming, and panels — with one on strong females and the Ghostbusters sequel. In Dutch.

Though I’m not one of their Guests of Honor this year, I hear that Confusion is still the hip, happenin place to be. Its suburban Detroit location isn’t smack dab in the continent’s middle, but it’s close enough. And an impressive array of the emergent and bodacious shows up there: John Chu, Margaret Killjoy, Maurice Broaddus, and Monica Valentinelli, to name a few. Cheap and thrilling and convenient, this is a convention to take sweet advantage of.