Having a faith or following a religion is important to a lot of people. To some people, faith can be an almost endless source of comfort and strength. Others see it only as a bastion for bigots, prejudice, weakness, and more. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, fiction is still a great place for many of us to work out our feelings about religion. Stories have immense power to shed light and clarity upon abstract ideas. With it’s imaginative settings and world-building, science fiction has special power to make us think deeply about supposed “norms” of our world.
One of my favorite sub-genres of sci-fi (or perhaps a sub-sub genre) is what my family and some friends like to call “Jesuits in Space.” It’s a small genre; not many people outside of the Christian publishing world write a lot about missionaries and evangelism. There are certainly a lot of books that have to do with religion in sci-fi or in space, but these books are specifically about those missionary journeys to convert the poor heathen alien. These books are not all about Jesuits specifically, but one of the first books that I encountered in this little sub-genre, The Sparrow, was about Jesuits, so the nickname stuck.
Something about this idea is so appealing to me. I’m not evangelical, so it’s not the desire to convert others. Generally, I think you should believe what you want and let others do the same. But I think the appeal of this little genre is that you know what is going to happen: you know it’s going to be a shit show. It’s pretty unlikely that it’s going to have a plot arc like: we went to a planet to tell two-headed, five-legged beings about Jesus and they LOVE him and everything is amazing! AMEN!
But that’s part of the appeal: there is something about the prospect of earnest, determined people ready to board a spaceship to convert aliens light-years away to their own version of Jesus that makes me want to get out my bucket of popcorn and enjoy the show. Poor, poor misguided souls. They are going to make so many mistakes; they will die so horribly. If this genre sounds like something you would like to enjoy with all of it’s schadenfreude, I heartily recommend The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, and Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Bring on the popcorn!
To read The Sparrow you might need a fairly high tolerance for reading about the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church. I realize that this will turn off many readers, because honestly, it can be hard to respect the Catholic Church, especially with such anti-feminist stances on things like birth control, women in leadership, and of course, the abomination that are the sexual abuse scandals. But, if you can tolerate some descriptions of ecclesiastical bureaucracy and some sexual violence, you get a riveting story of a Puerto Rican Taino priest, Emilio Sandoz, a linguist sent to the alien planet Rakhat after scientists receive a radio transmission originating there.
Along with a group of other priests and scientists, Sandoz goes to learn about their language and teach them about Christianity. The story is told in flashbacks, testimonies. and confessions from Sandoz, the sole survivor of the mission. As Sandoz’s narrative jumps forward and back in time you are clued into the mistakes that the team of priests and some seriously amazing women scientists make. They try to teach the Runa, one of the races on Rakhat, how to farm, but fail. They try to learn about the planet’s languages, but ultimately misunderstand everything. After a massacre of Rakhat citizens and humans, Emilio tries to honor his captors by allowing them to perform a deeply unsettling and gory ceremony on his hands that will leave him permanently handicapped. Murder, chaos, and failure force Emilio to flee back to Earth and atone for his sins on the planet. Apart from a fascinating story with a breakneck second half, it asks us the question of what we owe god when he’s seemingly abandoned us. Mary Doria Russell also wrote a sequel to this book called Children of God.
Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is the most emotionally devastating of the list for me. Yes, it’s about faith, and it’s about the preposterous story of an English priest going to a far off planet to teach alien populations about Jesus and make them a translation of the Bible, what they have dubbed, “the book of strange new things.” But it’s also about a marriage stretched to its breaking point and the ecological and economical danger that our world is in.
Doesn’t sound sad enough for you? In an interview the author said this would be his last novel, because his wife died and he wrote all his books for her. Oof. Yeah, it may destroy you.
Peter is a priest of the Church of England who is selected to go on the mission to the planet Oasis with the ominous and mysterious USIC corporation to work with the native population. Other missionaries and anthropologists have gone before him. He’s so earnest and yet so simpering about his work that it almost makes you embarrassed for him.
Where the book really shines is in the disconnect between Peter and his wife Bea, shown in different chapters and in their letters. While Peter is teaching the Oasans about “The Book of Strange New Things” and trying to learn all of their names—the followers insist on being called things like “Jesus Lover One” or “Jesus Lover Eleven,” which is hard for Peter and for the reader to keep track of—Bea is at home in England when climatological disaster strikes all around the globe. Tens of thousands of people at a time are killed in earthquakes and tsunamis. The local economy basically collapses and essential city services crumble. She’s all alone to deal with a theft in the church and deaths of friends. She begs Peter to come home but he’s so wrapped up in his righteous work that he can’t see Bea’s desperation. A warning for animal lovers, there is a horrible section about Peter and Bea’s cat, Joshua, who becomes collateral damage in Bea’s crumbling world. Peter eventually realizes he needs to go home, but he’s not sure who or what he will find when he returns. Bea has stopped responding to his letters and the world is almost literally falling apart.
The question that Faber asks us to ponder is, “At what cost do we try to save others’ souls?” For Peter and our planet, the cost is very high: not just our families, marriages, lives, and climates, but also others in the galaxy.
Finally, there is Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Hyperion is different from The Book of Strange New Things and The Sparrow in that only a part of the novel is about a Jesuit in space. There are six main characters and the narrative is presented in six sections wherein the characters all tell their stories Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales style. Simmons is clearly into classic literature with the life and work of John Keats as a clear and obvious influence. Other books of Simmons have robots who love Shakespeare, retellings of the Odyssey on Mars, and musings about Charles Dickens. He’s a good writer for those who like the play the game where you recognize clues from your high school English class—I love that game.
In the novel, the six characters are all drawn to the mysterious world of Hyperion, long after the Earth has been destroyed, in hopes of having their desires granted by the violent and mysterious Shrike, a godlike figure. All have various motivations, but the first section, that of Father Hoyt, makes the most interesting use of religion. Father Hoyt is escorting the disgraced Father Dure in hopes of finding and studying the mythical Bikura. They discover them and their curious secret: they are really the same people who crashed on the planet many generations ago, but have been continuously reincarnated in the same bodies by parasitic cruciform worms. The worms don’t let you die; you just become alive again and again losing more of yourself each time until you lose all language and become basically unintelligent animals.
Simmons also tackles religion with the tales of Sol Weintraub, the Jewish academic who is trying to save his daughter from the adverse effects of Hyperion’s Time Tombs, where time moves in and out like tides. Rachel, his daughter, got caught there once and now ages backward. The Shrike cult, or the Church of the Final Atonement as it’s followers call it, also gives Simmons room to point out the cruelty, barbarism, and ultimately pointlessness of a religion that asks for so much sacrifice from its adherents.
Love, death, sacrifice, cruel gods, and misguided missionaries—these book have a lot going for them. If you have a passing interest in religion, or want to debate the merits of religion without upsetting believer friends, these books could be the ones for you. Are there any books that I am missing? One glaring oversight that friends have noted in my desire for books about space and religion is A Canticle For Leibowitz. It’s on my list, I assure you. Let me know what I need to read and until then, enjoy the schadenfreude of Jesuits in space.