This World and the Next: Classic Books on Science Fiction and Spirituality

By Palmberg, Elizabeth | Sojourners Magazine, November 2008 | Go to article overview

This World and the Next: Classic Books on Science Fiction and Spirituality


Palmberg, Elizabeth, Sojourners Magazine


Some--okay, a lot--of science fiction treats religion, and even spirituality, as pre-rational claptrap or dangerous authoritarianism. But jostling on the same shelves as the neo-imperialist space wars and the vampire-themed soft porn, there's a universe of spiritually relevant good writing. Some examples from the last decade:

Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn

When a starship full of insectoid aliens crash-lands in a German village just before the advent of the Black Plague, the author gives credit and care to the parish priest's training in logic, to Christian caritas, to the 14th-century European political and intellectual landscape, and to how they might interact with giant grasshoppers from space. (Tor, 2006)

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Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, by Octavia Butler In response to a near-future U.S. wracked by environmental and social breakdown, young Lauren Olamina starts her own religion, Earthseed, whose scriptures proclaim that "'God is change" and that humanity's destiny is to reach the stars. Her vision leads her into deep family complications, somewhat manipulative behavior, and multiple run-ins with the nasty Church of Christian America. (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993; Seven Stories Press, 1998)

The Telling, by Ursula Le Guin

In this fine offering from one of fiction's best living writers, a young woman named Sully travels to another planet to record its (titular) spiritual lore, which the planet's government is trying to eradicate in an effort to emulate other "technically advanced" societies. Flashbacks relate Sully's youth on an Earth dominated by Colorado-based militaristic monotheists. In other hands, these critiques of globalization, U.S. theocratic tendencies, and sci-fi stereotypes would be thinly veiled polemic, but Le Guin's characters, as always, are deep, solid, and seldom beyond the hope of unpredictable redemption. (Harcourt, 2000)

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The Dazzle of Day, by Molly Gloss

This book's premise is that only Quakers are community-minded enough to keep a multigenerational starship's ecosystem going. But these Friends in the sky are no angels. They're oft-broken people who can pose a danger to themselves or others, and who lead lives full of gossip, beauty, regret, monotony, love, and ambiguity.

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