Magazine article U.S. Catholic

To Infinity and Beyond!

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

To Infinity and Beyond!

Article excerpt

Imagine if someone were to throw science fiction and religion into the same metaphoric blenders. What would be the result? Jesus in a space suit? Martians praying the rosary? Interplanetary dioceses? The answer may not be so complicated. Imagine in the not-too-distant future, intelligent life is discovered on another planet--life that looks like humans, acts like humans, and makes moral decisions like humans. It wouldn't be long before missionaries went to learn about these extraterrestrials. This chain of events may seem unlikely to some, but this exact plotline has already played out in several science fiction books and short stories.

Not all science fiction has religious undertones, but there can be similarities between science fiction and religion. Both often examine the unanswerable.

How did we get here? What does it mean to be human?

How should we act with each other? What life should be respected? What will the future bring?

"Both science fiction and religion look at the same world and are asking the same questions," says Richard Chwedyk, a science fiction writer who is also Catholic. Chwedyk sees the difference between the two in the area of authority. "Most religions claim some, if not all, authority on spiritual matters. Science fiction claims no authority, and as such allows and invites its readers to speculate to their heart's content."

Joe Durepos, senior acquisitions director at Loyola Press, says that science fiction and spirituality both come from "the same impulse to seek beyond." But, he notes, each responds to a different "direction" in the search.

"While science fiction is the literature of the outwardly possible, spirituality is the literature of the inwardly possible," he says. "One looks outward; the other looks inward."

Good science fiction, of course, also has to tell a good story.

"First and foremost, science fiction is entertainment," says Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory and a science fiction reader. But he also points out that these stories are entertaining because they fulfill human desires "to explore over the horizon, to imagine the way things might be, to wonder about how the universe works."

Consolmagno says religious people may get something out of reading science fiction. "It's a relaxing way to ask 'what if' questions, and even if you disagree with the author's premises or conclusions, a good story can often make you look at familiar things from a new point of view."

Monks in space

Of course, not all science fiction directly mentions religion or looks favorably upon it.

"It is relatively rare to find work by a highly competent author who also really understands and is reasonably open-minded toward traditional religions," says science fiction reader Steve Gruenwald.

According to Gruenwald, one book that handles religious themes well is Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz (EOS Books), about a group of monks who survive a nuclear war. The monks find scraps of paper that once belonged to the martyr Isaac Leibowitz, and they use the information on these scraps to rediscover technologies.

Gruenwald says that the novel confronts religion, but not to criticize it. "A Canticle for Leibowitz stands out as unequivocally fine writing, indisputably science fiction, and yet also extremely 'human,' sympathetic to religion, and accessible to readers new to the science fiction genre."

Ender's Game (Tor Science Fiction) by Orson Scott Card incorporates the religious theme of good versus evil. The novel is set in the future when aliens have attacked earth. A gifted child is trained to fight off the aliens. Without ruining the ending, Durepos says the novel brings up the idea of one person embodying twin beings--both a savior and a destroyer.

Some science fiction looks at religion more critically. Chwedyk gives the example of Behold the Man (Overlook), a controversial novella by Michael Moorcock. …

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