Monday, July 21, 2008

Mormonism and Science Fiction

Religion has a long history of association with various forms of speculative fiction, however defined, whether science fiction, fantasy, or horror. In the past while doing some research on this topic I was surprised to find a listing at Adherents.com of the various faith backgrounds of authors of science fiction, and I was even more surprised to find a large number of Mormons involved in this genre. Marny Parkin has produced a Bibliography of Mormon Speculative Fiction that she maintains with her husband, Scott, who is also a Latter-day Saint and science fiction writer as well. Both are actively involved in the BYU Symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy, also known as the Life, the Universe, and Everything symposium.

Scott and Marny recently agreed to an interview on Mormonism and science fiction where we had an opportunity to explore this interesting intersection of ideas.

Morehead’s Musings: I’d like to begin personally in terms of whatever personal details you’d like to share as to how you came to be interested in the connection between Mormon writers and speculative fiction?

Marny Parkin: Scott is a Mormon science fiction writer and I like to read science fiction and when we originally got together I was working on BYU Studies, where we did a bibliography once a year of all the Mormon-related works that had come out that year. I realized as I was editing that we didn’t list any of the science fiction writers that I knew about. That’s where I got the seed for this in that I knew all these people that I needed to put in so I started to gather that up for the BYU Studies bibliography. Then I thought this would be of interest at least to the science fiction community of Brigham Young University if not the larger Mormon community. So I decided to pull all those together and I finally able to put together a website. I started on it in 1992 or 1993.

Scott Parkin: As far as the website and bibliography, that summarizes it. As far as Mormonism and general interest in science fiction, my story is a little different. We met at BYU in connection with the Leading Edge magazine but I was very interested in writing science fiction. I joined the magazine as research to figure out what editors are looking for, and I discovered a burgeoning writing community operating at and near BYU. In Mormonism we believe in building communities and helping each other grow. It’s a little unusual in that we have a very tight-knit science fiction community here in Utah.

Morehead’s Musings: How does the number of Mormons involved in science fiction compare with those from other religions?

Marny Parkin: The percentage may a little bit higher for Mormons although I’m not sure. There is a website at Adherents.com that catalogs this and it is run by a Mormon as well. This notes a large number of Catholics, Jews, evangelicals, and a large number of Latter-day Saints. There seems to be a fair number of Latter-day Saints involved.

Scott Parkin: And I would argue that perhaps there aren’t any more Mormons writing, reading or involved in science fiction but what you find is that those who self-identify are more aggressive in identifying themselves as Mormon in connection with their work. There may be more lapsed Catholics who don’t necessarily consider their Catholicism as an essential aspect of their identity as a writer, but a lot of Mormons who do write find their “Mormon-ness” is so important to the way they do storytelling or the worldview they bring to it that this self-identification is much stronger and perhaps higher than other religious affiliations.

If you look at the sciences, Mormons are disproportionately represented as scientists, but what’s more intriguing is that more successful scientists are LDS proportionate to the total than other representatives of religion that are active in their faith. I think that carries through here.

Morehead’s Musings: For those who may not be familiar with the connection between Mormonism and science fiction, who are some of the significant Mormon sci fi writers?

Marny Parkin: Probably the most significant and obvious is Orson Scott Card. Tracy Hickman is another. Brandon Sanderson. Shannon Hale. Stephenie Meyer. David Farland. Those are probably the biggest names right now that people would recognize, though most of them write fantasy.

Scott Parkin: Looking back into more classic science fiction, there’s a golden age writer named Raymond F. Jones, who was never a huge writer but he published every year for about thirty years. Zenna Henderson was raised Mormon but was nonpracticing after her marriage.

Marny Parkin: The other big name that people would recognize is Glenn Larson and his work with the original Battlestar Galactica series in the 1970s.

Scott Parkin: David Howard, who was the writer of Galaxy Quest.

Marny Parkin: Another might be Samuel Taylor, who wrote the stories the Flubber movies were based on.

Morehead’s Musings: It’s interesting to me to see the affinities between some religious traditions and certain genres of literature and film. For example, Neo-Pagans seem to have a connection to fantasy and horror, and it seems as if there is a strong connection between Mormonism and science fiction. Would you have any feel for why there is this strong connection? What is it about the Mormon faith that helps it come together so nicely with science fiction?

Scott Parkin: I think there’s a whole series of reasons. At its base, Mormons believe there is pretty much a rational basis for everything, including our relationship to God. That things can be understood. So the idea that there are rational explanations and that it’s okay to explore those explanations is one of the reasons why the rigors of science fiction appeals to so many Mormons.

For example, Mormons have a view that science is an explanation of the way God gets things done. Religion answers the question “Why?” and science answers the question “How?” and they are complementary disciplines. So that sense of rationalism within the LDS theological construct brings the religious and speculative science together.

When you look at some of the specific aspects of LDS theology, the idea that God organized matter in creation rather than creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), then God approached nature as an engineer or scientist and organized according to natural principles—it was the application of science and knowledge.

One of the great distinctions between Mormons and other kinds of Christians is their concept of God. When you look at classic science fiction one of the great examples is Arthur C. Clarke, one of the great “unbaptized Mormons.” In his novels he tried to debunk traditional concepts of Christianity by providing rational explanations. So in 2001: A Space Odyssey he says, any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. What you have is a technologically advanced race who seems wondrous and godlike to us. In the story, Frank Poole ends up evolving (with direct assistance) into something more. That’s not precisely a statement of Mormon belief, but it is resonant with the idea that we can become more than we are in an almost Humanistic sort of way. Where Clarke essentially offered the idea that God is nothing more than a (technologically) super-evolved man, Mormonism suggests that, among other things, God is also a (technologically and morally) super-evolved man.

It’s directly in keeping with the Mormon idea that we exists specifically to gain experiences and to become more than we are, to evolve to a more advanced form—potentially even to become like God. In fact, man is a god in embryo deciding whether to take the challenge. That is the great heresy of Mormonism, this idea that Man is a less refined, pre-evolved potential god whose God-given (and facilitated) purpose is to continue that evolution. That’s what makes us essentially intolerable to other Christian denominations. That’s not esoterica, that’s core doctrine. That’s heading down a path away from your question, but it’s also part of why science fiction as a storytelling medium doesn’t bother Mormons.

We also believe that God created other worlds and there are intelligent beings on those worlds, and they know him as God. That idea is such a science fictional concept at its core that it presents another affinity between Mormonism and SF.

Morehead’s Musings: What does science fiction provide as resource material for Mormon writers, and what does Mormonism contribute to the field of science fiction?

Scott Parkin: Taking the second question first, Mormons have always had this sense of alienation, of being on the margins of society, they have a sense of what it means to be isolated, to not be understood by the broader culture, and this gives us a bit of an alien mindset. One of the themes in science fiction is the interaction of different cultures. So Mormons draw upon their own experience of being an alien culture and interacting with the mainstream culture. Their experiences can inform their writing and contribute that to the science fiction genre.

One of the two main kinds of science fiction is the hard sf that speculates on the “how” of things, taking a scientific premise and exploring what might be true as a result. For example, how might life have evolved on a planet with extraordinarily heavy gravity? You then speculate on that question and generate stories that result from it. This idea that we can and should explore the hows and whys means that we’re not afraid to touch certain issues. One of the questions we’re not afraid to address is how do we interact with others? This is the core of most of Scott Card’s science fiction. How do we as humans interact with each other, with other humans of different nationalities, of other races, of other forms, or with different social foundations? He develops this in his Ender’s Game books.

Also, Mormons, like Jews, are very much a storytelling people. We learn lessons from stories. So the idea that we would construct stories of any sort is inherent in our culture, and since science is intriguing and informative and educational and opens up opportunities to explore metaphor, that makes science fiction an interesting genre.

To address the first question, science fiction, like any other genre, provides us with an opportunity to create a symbol to talk about issues that if we were to go directly at the question in more concrete terms, would be off-putting. But if you offer the same questions or issues and put them in the context of aliens and science fiction, it creates a level of abstraction or separation that allows us to explore the underlying concepts. It creates a freedom and safe ground for the underlying issues to be explored. As a tool it gives us freedom to deal with religious, social, and ethical questions without the challenges posed in traditional forms of religious dialogue.

Morehead’s Musings: Which leads perfectly into my last question. I see great potential in film in these genres to bring together people for exploration, dialogue, and understanding. As you’ve already touched on, one of the great things about science fiction is that it provides us the distance to look at controversial topics that can be explored in safer ways. What do you think about the potential for science fiction films to be used in conferences or symposia that bring together Christians who are fans of speculative fiction, Latter-day Saints who are fans also, to enjoy these things together, and this medium then becomes a safer venue for us to engage each other as religious cultures?

Scott Parkin: I think you just stated the absolute value and potential of it. We’re able to get away from our individual preconceptions and find neutral vectors for exploring deeper thoughts related to complex issues. We find that at its base, we are vastly more compatible with the kinds of questions that concern us. If we can come together with a neutral venue like science fiction and film and storytelling in general as that vector, I think it facilitates an enormous opportunity to penetrate the social and cultural noise that inevitably surrounds all of us and safely address the real, core questions that all of us chew on in our private moments.

Morehead’s Musings: I am very interested in this possibility and I’d like to keep in touch to explore it with you. I know that you are involved with the BYU Symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy, and perhaps this might become a part of that gathering to provide another expression of exploration and dialogue as an extension of other forms of dialogue already going on. Or perhaps we could work together to organize a separate conference devoted to this endeavor.

Marny and Scott, thank you so much for taking the time to discuss this topic. I look forward to our developing relationship and the possibilities presented for dialogue by science fiction and fantasy film in Utah.

3 comments:

Th. said...

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Good interview. I always enjoy hearing the Parkins' takes on things.

Janette Rallison said...

Very interesting insights. Thanks for posting this interview!

Jack Meyers said...

Very interesting interview. Thanks for posting this John.

My own husband is a struggling would-be Mormon fantasy writer and has known Brandon Sanderson for some time. I haven't read all of these authors, but Brandon Sanderson's style of hard fantasy is top-notch.

My husband has arranged for us to have dinner with Brandon Sanderson and (I think?) David Farland in a few weeks when they're in town on tour. I might have to ask them some questions about their faith and their writing this time.