[SL: I used to think I'd read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and I have, but my reading depth in the two genres pales in comparison with Lorenzo's efforts, and probably with Legal Eagle's, too, if I'm to be honest. I've read enough, though, to appreciate that readers can become ghettoized, much like writers, to the point where it's hard for them to recognise good writing outside their bailiwick. I've known this for a while, but it was brought home to me with some force when I read Neil Gaiman's American Gods and then started looking around the interwebs for essays on it. Now American Gods isn't my favourite 'theology in fiction' book, for the simple reason that Gaiman doesn't believe in his pagan gods enough to encourage me to want to suspend my disbelief in them, but Irish writer Julian Gough's argument--where he riffs off Gaiman's work--is nonetheless still a telling one:
I just read a book review, in Saturday's enjoyable and infuriating Guardian Review, which throws some interesting light on what's wrong with the modern literary novel, and with modern literary criticism, and with the modern literary ghetto. (A ghetto that doesn't know it's a ghetto: a ghetto that thinks it is the world.)
The review is by Kamila Shamsie (author of Broken Verses, a literary novel, published by Bloomsbury). It is of The Opposite House, by Helen Oyeyemi (also a literary novel, also published by Bloomsbury... but that incestuous connection isn't the main problem, thought it does reveal a lot about the tiny size of the British literary pond).
This is the first line of the review: "The Opposite House is not the first novel to suggest that migration is a condition, not an event; but it may be the first to contend that the condition afflicts no one so profoundly as the gods."
Now, I couldn't quite believe that was her opening claim. But it was. She really thought that her stablemate at Bloomsbury was probably "the first to contend" that migration "afflicts no one so profoundly as the gods". And editors and sub-editors had let this stand.
Which means that nobody involved in the whole process was aware that Neil Gaiman had spent nearly six hundred pages, in his novel American Gods (which is not "literary", nor published by Bloomsbury), writing about nothing but how migration profoundly afflicts the gods.
Since I've won literary prizes, I suppose in some senses I'm in the ghetto too, but I try not to be. I try to 'read the other way' and read widely, even in genres I don't really 'get'. I think I've read widely enough to say that much of the most interesting stuff I've come across is science and speculative fiction (less so fantasy, with notable exceptions). Science fiction (as a genre) in particular still 'thinks' (if you don't mind the anthropomorphizing) that ideas matter, that they have consequences. In this guest post, Lorenzo discusses some fictional instances of a particular possibility: not only do ideas matter, but what if some ideas turned out to be more real than most of us--even religious believers--care to admit?]
I once asked a friendly wizard to summarise the difference between Buddhism and Taoism. He responded with this story:
The Tale of the Three Vinegar Tasters
Three sages (a Confucian, a Buddhist and a Daoist) walk into a bar. There in the middle of the floor is a big cauldron. Sage 1 steps forward, says ‘I’ll handle this’ and takes a sip. “Ewww! It’s sour!” quoth he and recoils from it.
Sage No.2 steps forward, has a taste and says yes. “It’s bitter. But then, life itself is bitter, so it all fits really.”
Sage No.3 has a taste and says “Hmmmmm. Probably REALLY good with fish and chips.”
Which made me laugh, but is also very Taoist, for it gave one much to ponder on very succinctly.
Taoism turns up in various speculative fictions: notably Barry Hughart’s delightful novels of Master Li (who has a slight flaw in his character) and Number Ten Ox. Two speculative fiction authors who incorporate Taoism in their stories in a rather more positive form than does Hughart (who presents the Buddhist-originated Taoist-as-self-seeking-alchemists view) are the urban fantasies of Kylie Chan and Naamah’s Kiss by Jacqueline Carey.
Descendants of Angels
Jacqueline Carey is much the better, and more profound, writer. I know that some of my friends who tried the first book in her D’Angeline stories, Kushiel’s Dart, were put off by the heroine of the first trilogy, Phedre’s, concern for her own beauty and the dark eroticism but, if that does not bother you (or you can get past it), you are taken along in grand stories full of striking characters and a vividly imagined world.
One of the things that most struck me about Carey’s D’Angeline stories was her theological insight: her ability to get into how different theological premises lead to very different consequences, including social consequences. The D’Angelines—descended from angels who came to Earth out of love of Elua, the earth-born child of the blood of the crucified Yeshua ben Yosef—are all about beauty and eroticism. To them, rape is heresy but willing eroticism is to be celebrated. They are polytheists for whom sex and gender are part of the divine: not monotheists for whom sex and gender are inherently deeply problematic because sex is not part of the divine and gender is tied up in the absolutely trumping authority of a God conceived as masculine (which thereby associates masculinity with authority and femininity with the lack of it).
Carey is true to her stories. So the heroine of the first trilogy, Phedre, is a courtesan (hence her attractiveness matters deeply to how she makes a living) and an anguissette, someone who can take pleasure from pain. In a sense, she is formed to be a courtesan, and of a very specific sort. Phedre is as she is, in a very particular culture. Just as the hero of the second trilogy, her adopted son of royal and traitorous blood, Imriel, starts off as a whiny adolescent because that is what he is, where he is coming from. But he ends up somewhere well beyond that. (And, to be fair, he had some fairly horrible boyhood experiences.)
Phedre’s trilogy does not only explore the implications for human actions of our cosmological assumptions, to use the language Deepak Lal invokes to analyse culture, but also a world where theology really is history, really is grappling with part of how things are. In the last book of Phedre’s trilogy, Kushiel’s Avatar, what had seemed an interesting backdrop for the stories becomes a fundamental driver of the narrative as the aspirations of even the most cunning mortal characters become the flotsam of the plans of gods. Carey explores what serving a divinity that genuinely hungered for destruction would be like. Yet, even here, Carey gift for making even her villains understandable – which makes them all the more memorable and effective as characters – can make a monster a person yet still be a monster: they are made comprehensible, they are not thereby justified or vindicated.
Showing that the theological insight about monotheism and polytheism is not a one-off, Carey explains the difference between Taoism and Buddhism rather well in Naamah’s Kiss, the first book of her third D’Angline trilogy. Our heroine, Moirin—part D’Angeline, part Old Folk of Alba (Britain)—becomes the student of Master Lo Feng, a Daoist sage from far Ch’in. In the course of their travels, the men of the party she is in, including Master Lo Feng, disguise themselves as Buddhist monks. So he introduces them to the teachings of the Enlightened One. There and elsewhere in the story, Carey shows she gets the difference rather well.
The second book in the series, Naamah’s Curse is even more of “this happened, then this happened, then this happened” quest story than the first. During the course of the tale, Moirin is captured by a Yeshuite patriarch of Vralia (Russia) who finds her witchcraft and sexuality both repellent and seeks to have her to confess her sinfulness, hoping to use her as a great prize in vindicating and spreading his very erotophobic and misogynist monotheist vision. This allows Carey to very explicitly explore the tension between an outlook that celebrates sexuality and one that sees it as inherently sinful. Moirin is frustrated with her inability to come up with knock-down arguments to justify her life and nature (even beyond her powerless position as enchained prisoner facing a possible death sentence). But Isaiah Berlin’s point that human values are, at bottom, incommensurable and cannot be fully harmonised also implies that there are no knock-down arguments in such a situation. Not merely because there are not enough shared premises but because values are in part aspirations, and so are about directing possibilities, and hence have a scope to them that makes some conflict inevitable. Moirin not only being physically trapped but also trapped in a cognitive net she is not able to get out of, without giving up something integral to herself, is powerfully conveyed.
Elsewhere in the tale, Eastern theology is the centrepiece and the conflict between Hinduism and Buddhism, particularly over the burdens of caste. This is conveyed both through Moirin’s very European puzzled hostility to the constraining implications of caste and the born-untouchable Spider Queen’s bitter and searing indictment of its toils. While the story’s hostility to caste is very Western, there are plenty of thoroughly South Asian rejections of caste – most obviously, Buddhism itself.
Order and chaos
Kylie Chan writes engaging pulp. But one of the joys of her tales is that she is rather good at explaining Chinese mythology. Being an Australian woman who married a Hong Kong Chinese husband, studied martial arts and became fascinated by Chinese mythology is clearly a good start. That she ran an IT consultancy probably helps in explaining esoterica to a lay audience.
Chan does quite well at explaining why Asian philosophies can have problems with the Western notion of Good and Evil. In the West, we tend to take it for granted that good and evil are basic moral (indeed religious) categories, but that is not necessarily so. As Norman Cohn pointed out in Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: the ancient roots of Apocalyptic Faith the older and more common division is between order and chaos. At its most basic, order means the harvest arrives on time and people get to eat; chaos means the patterns of life are disrupted, so people go hungry or starve. Order is preferred, but may take require actions we would regard as immoral to maintain. “Do justice, though the heavens fall” is a profoundly wrong principle, in this outlook. Conversely, condemning an entire family for the sins of one member because, if they brought up someone so destructive, clearly the family is itself dangerously flawed, makes perfect sense. As does Mesoamerican human sacrifices to keep the cosmos working.
An alternative take is that the great division is between balance and imbalance, with much the same implications.
The notion that the universe is structured according to good and evil arises from monotheism, with its notion of a single definitive source, authority, perspective and trumping purpose. Which Cohn nominates as the original vision of Zoroaster. This can be a very dangerous idea, since the notion of an absolutely trumping transcendent good can be deeply oppressive, can deeply distort your sense of how things are. As C. S. Lewis noted:
Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences.
How much bigotry, tyranny and even mass murder has been done out of a sense of some absolutely trumping good? How much have things which are part of the natural order been declared not so on the basis of some theory of “the good”?
One of the things I have long appreciated about fiction is that a good novelist is a good explainer but also a good considerer. If you are prepared to glean insights were they come (rather than from some notion of where they ought to come from), there can be much to learn from a novelist, even if they are not producing Great Literature: even if it is just a pithy and effective way of expressing an idea.
When it comes to insights in fiction, it is hard to go past Lois McMaster Bujold. Her Miles Vorkosigan stories are a delight – A Civil Campaign may be part of a space opera cycle of novels and stories, but it is also one of the finest, and funniest, comedies of manners you are ever likely to read:
The Countess sat back, and regarded him with a horribly thoughtful expression, the one she acquired when you’d made the mistake of getting her full, undivided, attention.
The books are full of insights – the difference between honour and reputation; the joys, burdens and terrors of parenthood; the consequences of being partnered to a feral emotional parasite; the burden of being son and grandson of great men; the tensions between technology and tradition.
But the cycle of stories where Bujold explores the implications of theology are the splendid Chalion stories: The Curse of Chalion and The Paladin of Souls, exploring an alternative Reconquista Spain, and The Hallowed Hunt, in the world’s version of the medieval First Reich. It is a world of five divinities – Father Winter, Mother Summer, the Lady of Spring, the Son of Autumn and the Bastard, the offspring of Mother Summer and a redeemed Great Demon. The Bastard is the God of balance, leftovers and things out of season (such as, for example, same-sex love). The Quintarians worship all five divinities, the Quadrenes only four, holding the Bastard to be a demonic interloper.
Guess what that means for those who fall in love with members of their own sex? Often they are hanged, but the standard punishment is removal of tongue and thumbs (the signifiers of the Bastard on the body: as a priest of the Bastard explains, he is the God of balance and the thumb touches all other fingers). Bujold the thoughtful observer of human nature is well in evidence:
“Take my advice, and do not use magic to court her. Most especially, do not yield to the temptation to use it directly to induce her favor.”
By his embarrassed grin, he knew precisely what she implied—and this wasn’t the first time the notion of some sort of aphrodisiac spell had crossed his mind. “Mm.”
Ista’s voice dropped further. “For if you do, and she finds out, it will destroy her trust not only in you, but in her own mind. She would never again be sure if a thought or feeling were truly her own. She would be constantly halting, second-guessing, turning around inside her own head. Madness lies down that road. It would be less crippling and more loving if you should take a war hammer and break both her legs.”
Or just sheer fun dialogue:
The Provincara … grinned, was one could call her horrifying gleeful expression. “What do you think, my lord Castillar?”
Cazaril swallowed. “I think … if you lent me a razor now, for me to cut my throat with, it would save ever so many steps. Please Your Grace.”
The Provincara snorted. “Good Cazaril, good. I do so like a man who doesn’t underestimate his situation.”
In each of the books, the actions of the divinities matter and are part of the narrative. While I very much enjoy watching the operation of a well-thought out theology – which becomes a genuine science because it does deal quite directly with how the world is – I was particularly struck with Bujold’s concept of saints and her treatment of shamanism.
Her notion of sainthood is very simple. A saint is not marked by being nice, or even particularly worthy. A saint is marked by a special sort of psychological absence that makes them a willing vessel of a god, who can only act in the world of matter through such vessels: a limitation on divinity that gives humans the ability to act, and a realm in which they can do so, without overwhelming divine presences. This concept of sainthood sets up various complex possibilities, which are explored in the books.
In The Hallowed Hunt (which has one of the most disturbing villains you are ever likely to meet in fiction) we are introduced to a notion of shamanism involving taking on the spirits of animals. Particularly of Great Animals: beasts that carry an animal spirit which has been passed into animal after animal, generation after generation. The problem is, one cannot pass into the world of the Gods while so possessed. If one does not pass at death to the Gods, for whatever reason (for example, too great a burden of memories to carry), one becomes a ghost; a fading spirit sundered from the Gods.
The founder of the Empire (clearly the analogue of Karl-lo-magne), fought a long, brutal battle against the forest shamanistic pagans whose consequences, centuries later, the protagonists in the story find themselves entangled in. All peopled with the memorable, but particular, characters Bujold has such a gift for:
“Thank you, Most Learned, for your … um … always thought-provoking commentary.”
“Yes,” muttered another under his breath, “trust you to come up with a horrible complication no one else ever thought of. ”
“But even the gods cannot see infinitely far ahead. Our free will clouds Their vision, even though Their eyes are more piercing than ours. The gods do not plan, so much as take advantage.”
“You set the past for your future court starting even now, prince. If you discourage men from speaking unpalatable truths in front of you, I trust you will develop your skill in sifting through pretty lies, for you will spend the rest of your reign, however short, wading in them.”
Ingrey let his mild tone suggest that it was a matter of utter indifference to him which Biast chose; Ingrey would manage just the same.
“So what did you and the god really say to each other?”
“We … argued.”
Hetwar’s lips curled up in a genuine, if dry, smile. “Why does this not surprise me?”
Gesca flinched under his glower. “Give over, Ingrey. I am no monster!”
“But I am,” Ingrey breathed, “Clear?”
Gesca scarcely dared inhale. “Very.”
What Carey, Chan and Bujold all do is have their theology an immanent part of their narratives. This is, of course, the virtue of speculative fiction world-building, you can build the theology in and thereby explore its consequences. Which also allows one to consider our world as one–in the absence of such consequences and manifestations–where theology really is entirely a human creation.
Just the beliefs
Speculative fiction can also explore the implications of theology, even if just as cosmological worldviews, without building them into the world. Which is what L. E. Modestit Jnr does in some of his “hard” science fiction.
Modestit does rather tend to tell the same story – young or youngish male leaves/is ejected from his original background, develops/has revealed extraordinary powers, has to learn his way around the confusing and dangerous new context, meets woman who is more emotionally perceptive than he is and whose love he has to earn. Modestit’s societies often have rather implausibly homicidal internal politics (though that does add to the excitement). But he spins a good yarn and embeds his yarns in engaging ideas and contexts.
Modestit is best known for his Saga of Recluce novels, which explore a world where order and chaos drive white and black wizards respectively. (These are not moral categories; indeed, the stories have fun in playing with our preconceptions.) There are no manifesting divinities – although there is certainly prophecy and legend – and explicit religious beliefs, while not entirely absent, are minor background.
In much of his “hard” science fiction, however, religious belief is very important because it drives particular culture(s). Specifically, it makes them aggressive and intolerant: imagine an interstellar Mormon theocracy with spaceships. (He has lived in Utah since 1993.) Figures from “that” culture (it turns up in several books in apparently different universes without much in the way of notable differences) are almost never protagonists and the one that is – in The Eternity Artefact – is both one of several narrative-centres and not sympathetic. Modestit is mostly not so interested in the “Saint” culture: what interests him is the question of “how do we deal with these people?” It is one that his protagonists either deal with directly (notably in The Parafaith War and its sequel The Ethos Effect) or are on the sidelines of (as in The Elysium Commission) or that question is part of their story (as in Haze).
Modestit’s metier is exploring cognitive systems and outlooks. When Modestit deals with a society which clearly does have real gods – The Hammer of Darkness – it is easily his least successful novel of the ones I have read.
Modestit does consider the question of what makes a god a God in Gravity Dreams, as a nanite-based culture of the far, post-collapse, future deals with a mysterious, clearly very powerful, being that some of its members have started to worship. But the real issue of the story, apart from the dealing with massive cognitive shock (our hero is violently ejected out of his original culture into that of the nanite ‘demons’), is what makes a society stable and effective.
In Modestit’s recent Imaginer books, there is both motivating theology and theology-as-engaging-ideas. In our hero’s culture, folk worship the Nameless, whose enemy is the Namer: the idea being that putting labels on things distorts in dangerous ways. Our hero regularly mulls over extracts from sermons given by the priest whose services he attends.
Interactions with nature (Modestit’s stories are pervaded with a concern with the interaction of technology and environment), social functioning, human aspirations and ethical and other constraints are continuing and central interests throughout Modestit’s fiction. He is often thought-provoking on these subjects, even when I do not agree with some basic premises.
Another way to treat theology in fiction is to leave it completely open how real the gods are. This is the path Sarah Monette takes in her four Melusine/Doctrine of Labyrinths novels, which are an astonishing literary debut.
The first two books (Melusine and The Virtu) use alternative narrators, Mildmay Foxe and Felix Harrowgate. In the third book, The Mirador, Mehitabel Parr is added as the third narrator. In the fourth book, Corambis, it is Kay Brightmore. Felix and Kay are both ‘molly’ or ‘ganumedes’ (i.e. homosexual): something I particularly appreciate about Monette is her gay males have testosterone, they are not just “women-with-penises”.
The city of Melusine is almost a character in itself. Imagine a cross between C18th London and C16th Venezia with magic and heresy hunts added in. Mildmay is a denizen of the lower city; a facially-scarred cat burglar-cum-assassin, a mostly illiterate lover of stories, told with a fair bit of “thieves cant”. His is the first and last voice we hear in the four books.
Felix Harrowgate is an almost pretty-handsome, witty, charming and cruel powerful wizard and former male prostitute. He is a wizard of the Cabal, so a denizen of the Mirador, the enormous palace that looms over the city, both physically and socially, and lover of the brother of the Lord Protector.
Monette provides us with vivid characters and a richly-imagined detailed world with a complex history. Both the history and geography we learn in snatches as we are taken through the story. The alternative narrators allows Monette to not only provide different perspective on the world, but also play with perspective: how a character narrates their story “from the inside” can be rather different from how they come across to others (including the other narrators). But the very different social experiences of the narrators also provide a means to explore perspective. For example, Mildmay’s commentary on how little the denizens of the Mirador understand of the lower levels of the city they officially rule.
Theological fears, religion-as-ritual, the open possibility (but no more than that) that the gods exist become part of the story and its context, along with wizardry, theories, practices and schools of magic. The connection between wizardry, religion and scholarship becomes part of the richness of the world.
One of the bizarre aspects of our culture is the lack of respect genre in film and novels has among those who feel themselves to be cultural arbiters. The number of paid film reviewers who do not “get” genre in films is truly astonishing – particularly when one considers how dominated by genre box office returns are. Similarly, to suggest, for example, that Robert Heinlein dealt far more effectively, and readably, with the notion of a theocratically ruled US in Revolt in 2100, and told a rattling good yarn as he did it, than Margaret Atwood did in her portentous and turgid A Handmaid’s Tale would be absolute heresy. (Heinlein’s portrayal of how revolutions are organised is seriously implausible: his depiction of the feel of monotheist theocracy is fairly spot on – for example, he anticipates aspects of the Islamic Republic of Iran decades in advance.) But Heinlein was noticing and writing about the possibility of rising theocratic politics in the US literally decades before the literati or intelligentsia got around to noticing. The SF novelist – most famous for his juvenilia – saw possibilities much in advance of oh-so-clever folk. (Heinlein’s conception of theocracy, like Modestit’s, is Mormonism-on-steroids: but that is a conception of expansionary monotheism resonant in the US.)
(As an aside, Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers is seriously more intelligent than the film of the same name notionally based on it. For example, Heinlein published a book in the 1950s with a Hispanic hero — Juan “Johnny” Rico. Who does Hollywood get to play the part? Casper van Diem. The original book is, in part, a critique of democratic triumphalism: this is turned into sad anti-fascist potboiler sentiment.)
Similarly, to suggest that Bujold’s A Civil Campaign is a wonderful, intelligent, funny, perceptive comedy of manners would be widely discounted because it is part of a space opera cycle. But that is to focus on form way over substance. Speculative fiction gives one a much wider canvass to explore ideas and issues. Such as putting theology into the imagined world and exploring its implications. Or even just distilling and projecting patterns of belief into imagined realms to explore the wider implications of belief and cognitive inertia.
The great thing about fantastic worlds is that one can see the human in new and striking ways. Yes, it is true that the burden of world-creation can strain a novelist’s creative powers so they are spread rather thin. But, in the hands of genuine masters of the genre, they can be wonderful, revealing and thought-provoking explorations of the human as much, or even more, than more “respectable” literary forms. Which, after all, can suffer from their own excess burdens of fashionable pretension.
The great thing about novelists who write to be read, is that they usually believe in story, and possibly even character. Precisely because they have to convey a world clearly different from our own, they are often far more upfront and confident in being story-tellers. You can explore the human to particular effect if the people of the story have to be familiar so as to give the reader entre into the unfamiliar.
Genre can be a fine way to explore the implications of belief and the implications of different rules. So, in the hands of masters such as Bujold or Carey, theology can be made alive and revealing. Or, as in Monette’s novels, part of rich and engaging context in which to weave a complex tapestry of story. So, take your insights where you find them: quite a good principle for life, surely.