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Catholics & Science Fiction | An Interview with Sandra Miesel | March 9, 2005


Sandra Miesel is the co-author of the best selling The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code

Since 1983, she has written hundreds of articles for the Catholic press, chiefly on history, art, and hagiography. She regularly appears in Crisis magazine and is a columnist for the diocesan paper of Norwich, Connecticut. Sandra has spoken at religious and academic conferences, appeared on EWTN, and given numerous radio interviews. Outside the Catholic sphere, she has also written, analyzed, and edited fiction. She holds masters’ degrees in biochemistry and medieval history from the University of Illinois. Sandra and her husband John have raised three children.

IgnatiusInsight.com recently spoke at length with Sandra about the world and literature of science fiction and fantasy.

IgnatiusInsight.com: When did you first start reading science fiction and fantasy (SF & F) and what attracted you to it? What were some of the first SF & F books that you read? Which authors did you gravitate towards?

Sandra Miesel: Before I get into that, let’s define our terms. In theory, science fiction is not supposed to contradict known scientific facts while fantasy uses premises contrary to fact. In practice, these distinctions are rather fudgy. Time travel and faster than light travel are impossible as far as science knows, yet they’re conventional devices in science fiction. Angels should belong to fantasy, yet as Catholics we believe them to be real.

It really comes down to what label a publisher uses to market a given work of fiction. Both SF & F can take place in the past, present, or future or alternate versions of same, on Earth or on other worlds. Together SF & F compose the highly flexible literary category of speculative fiction.

My first exposure to science fiction came around 1950 from radio broadcasts of the show Dimension X which dramatized classics of the genre. My father read the magazine Astounding but I didn’t at that time. The first real SF novel I read was A Case of Conscience by James Blish, which incidentally has a Jesuit scientist as its hero. It was 1953 and I was eleven years old. But I’d already been heavily exposed to fairy tales, myths, and legends from the time I could read. Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book and an old British edition of The Book of Knowledge were seminal influences on my childhood.

So I found into the landmark compilations, The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology and Adventures in Time & Space in junior high school, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles in high school, and Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz in college. In graduate school I met my husband John who already had a large collection of SF paperbacks. We liked Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, Philip K. Dick, Jack Vance, read the various SF & F magazines, and discovered Tolkien.

IgnatiusInsight.com: How did you go about starting to write F&SF? What was your involvement in the SF & F world? Which SF & F books and authors, in your opinion, will stand the test of time?

Miesel: When we got out of school in 1966, I had a letter to the editor published in IF magazine (the same publication where I‘d read my first novel). People started writing me, sending me amateur magazines about SF called fanzines, and telling me about conventions.

In those days, fans and pros mingled freely and fandom was a distinct subculture of people with "broad mental horizons." So I wrote lit crit for fanzines–much like the papers I used to do in grad school–and also personal essays and humor. (I was nominated for the Hugo Award as "Best Fanwriter" three times.) The pros liked what I wrote about them, which led to getting assignments to write a lot of Introductions and Afterwords and reference articles, two chapbooks, and even a few academic papers.

One editor that I worked with, Jim Baen, invited me to write a novel and then to help him put together reprints. I’ve edited about a dozen collections of stories by Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson (I’m the world’s greatest expert on those two authors) and co-edited two anthologies with David Drake. I’m still editing a line of Andre Norton reprints for Baen Books. I also sold six short stories.

I remained active in fandom while my pro career was unfolding, attending maybe eighty conventions. (The convention scene is different now and I don’t recommend it.) I won prizes for my costumes and art, the later leading to a spot on the official NASA Artists’ team at the Apollo-Soyuz launch in 1975. (For the record, my art is embroidery.) I had also gone to the last Moon shot in 1972 on credentials from the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Because of friendships with the field, I’ve had books dedicated to me and characters based on me. Kelly Freas used me as a model for some cover paintings. I helped other writers with their research, particularly Gordy Dickson, whom I worked with for twenty-five years.

Will there be books and readers in our future? As to what will last if there are, works that were written even sixty or seventy years ago can still be read now with pleasure and I expect they‘ll go on doing so.

For examples of what SF writers themselves think "classic," track down the SFWA Hall of Fame anthologies or the SFWA Grand Master anthologies. The reprinted Andre Norton novels that I mentioned above are from the ‘50s and ‘60s, but new readers still enjoy them because of their good basic storytelling. For specific books, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and maybe C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series will be read for generations but those are special cases.

Two good bets within our genre would be The Martian Chronicles (1950) by Ray Bradbury and A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) by Walter M. Miller, which have both already shown great staying power. What complicates the picture (besides technological innovation and shifts in popular taste) is the SF & F field’s own transformation after Star Wars (1977) from a niche market to a huge, conglomerate-owned, bestseller-driven genre where half the books published are media spinoffs. It’s harder for the reader to find what’s genuinely good and harder for the writer to be genuinely original.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Were there many other Catholics involved in the SF & F world at that time? In general, what was the attitude of Catholics you knew towards SF & F? How has that changed?

Miesel: During the time of my heaviest involvement, Catholic writers included: Anthony Boucher, Murray Leinster, Daniel Galouye, R.A. Lafferty, Fred Saberhagen, Gene Wolfe, James White, Russell Kirk, Julian May, Jo Clayton, Mark Rogers, Patricia Wrede, Kathie Koja, and Tim Powers. (I’m sure I’m missing some people.)

Walter Miller had left the Church before I came on the scene and John Bellairs sometime during. Prodom and fandom had plenty of lapsed Catholics, of course. I suspect–but have no way of knowing–that the newer pros are less likely to be Christians. Neo-Paganism is conspicuous and the unbelievers are less polite than they used to be. (I should mention that my career in the Catholic press started from my knowledge of Neo-Paganism gleaned in the world of SF & F.)

My Catholic friends outside the field were indifferent to SF & F. But a surprising number of SF & F readers show up in the Catholic blogsphere.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Some people seem to think that fantasy and science fiction aren't compatible with Christianity or Catholic Christianity. Or if they don't go that far, they are extremely skeptical about whether the fantasy and science fiction genres fit with Christian faith. How would you reply to such a position?

Miesel: There are some rigid Christians who are suspicious of fiction itself, unless it’s baldly moralizing and didactic. I recently read a Radical Traditionalist who denounced fantasy in general (and Tolkien in particular) as an affront to God because we had no right to imagine a world different from the one he made. But he made our imaginations, too! If you have no "sense of wonder" or can’t manage "the willing suspension of disbelief" then this literature isn’t for you.

What Tolkien called the "sub-creation" of a Secondary Universe is an honorable way of imitating Primary Creation, whether one is designing an extraterrestrial planet or mapping some corner of Faeryland. There is no genre of fiction intrinsically incompatible with Christianity except pornography. It’s not the fault of SF & F as a form if people chose to write something blasphemous or nihilistic or otherwise objectionable within its conventions. Who would condemn the entire mystery genre that way? Be selective! As Sturgeon’s Law says, ninety per cent of everything is crud.

That said, some people are going to have problems with premises, such as evolution as an explanation in SF and the reality of magic in fantasy. There’s lot of cultural/moral relativism and protagonists don’t necessarily keep the Ten Commandments.

To limit oneself to 100% Catholic materials would wall off much of the great literature of the human race, from Homer to the Norse sagas to The Tale of the Genji–pagan creations all–much less nearly all of what’s been written in English since the Reformation. And on a less exalted level, it’s not a bad idea to keep tabs on factors influencing modern society–cultural engagement, anyone? C.S. Lewis’s little book, An Experiment in Criticism, might be helpful here.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Are there fantasy and science fiction writers who aren't believers but who nevertheless deal with themes that should interest believers?

Miesel: Philip K. Dick, who was drawn to Oriental mysticism, shows "small folk" resisting evil and creating beauty in The Man in the High Castle, Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, and Ubik.. (I don’t recommend what he wrote post-1971!)

Poul Anderson’s explorations of the imperfectability of man in a universe doomed by entropy made him the master of the SF & F novelette. He celebrates freedom, courage, and responsibility in dozens of story collections, any of which will have some good stories. His fantasy classics Three Hearts and Three Lions and A Midsummer's Tempest have a Christian framework but The Broken Sword's is Norse paganism.

Gordon R. Dickson thought that man was perfectible but Pilgrim and Soldier, Ask Not are powerful tributes to faith, courage, and sacrificial love.

You didn’t ask about Christian writers but I’ll list some fine ones from former times anyway. R.A. Lafferty wore his conservative Catholicism on his sleeve in Past Master, Fourth Mansions, and The Flame Is Green. His quirky short stories are like tall tales. Russell Kirk’s excellent ghost stories are collected in Ancestral Shadows.

Manly Wade Wellman’s fantasy stories about Appalachia collected in John the Balladeer and Valley So Low presuppose Southern Protestantism. The SF collections The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith, an Anglican, is overtly Christian and Ingathering by Zenna Henderson, a Methodist, is implicitly so.

At the Young Adult level, try Elizabeth Goudge‘s Little White Horse and Linnets and Valerians which are exquisite fantasies suffused with Anglican sensibility. The Satanic Mill by Otfried Preusler is a vivid historical fantasy with a Protestant background.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Describe your SF&F novel and some of your short stories. How did you go about writing them?

Miesel: My science fiction novel Dreamrider (1984) redone and expanded as Shaman (1989) is based on the idea that what shamans see in their trances are alternate timelines. My heroine is a librarian at a near future University of Illinois living under global "soft tyranny." She is coached into developing shamanic powers that allow her to skip across alternate histories gathering information that will save her own world. Her gifts are psychic, with a pseudoscientific explanation, not magical.

What I do there and in the rest of my fiction, is use absolutely real settings and props for fantastic events. I like to research better than I like to write. I did meticulous research for each project: if I say this is how people in the past cooked custard, penned pigs, or cast metalwork, you can be confident that’s how it really was. I make detailed outlines, slowly prepare a first draft, then one more pass for polishing. I use a version of the "consciously thematic" technique taught me by Gordy Dickson: the point the story is trying to make is symbolically embedded in every figure of speech and word choice, rather than in any overt statement.

The short stories came after the novel and are all fantasies. The first (and best) is "The Shadow Hart," set in Denmark in the 1370s. It’s based on medieval hunting symbolism and on the legend that Danish king Valdemar is cursed to hunt each night until Doomsday.

That gave me the idea of a cycle of fantasy stories set in the fourteenth century, one per decade, imbedded in real history. So I did "The Goldsmith’s Maid" about an arrogant Bohemian goldsmith learning hard lessons after a plague and "The Sword That Wept" about a deal with the Devil in the Hundred Years’ War that leaves paralyzing guilt. (These were the only pieces of fiction that I sold "over the transom.") Then the fourth installment didn’t sell so I gave up the plan.

I wrote "The Book-Healer in a pseudo-medieval "shared universe" (where the background is provided). It’s the world’s only fantasy about art conservation. "The Salt Garden" was set on Andre Norton’s Witch World and was inspired by Chinese flower arrangements made from colored stone. The mythic framework comes from Tibetan Buddhism. My last sale "Miss Lotte" answers the question "What if cats molted rather than shed?" and is set in New Orleans of 1955.

IgnatiusInsight.com: How has your Catholic faith informed your SF&F work?

Miesel: As a critic, I specialized in analyzing myth and religion in SF & F. I wrote on both Christian (Tolkien, Lafferty, Saberhagen, Wolfe, Henderson, Smith) and non-Christian (Anderson, Dickson, Dick) writers that I mentioned above. For the latter, I always tried to draw out elements of universal Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

My novel owes more to Mircea Eliade than to Scripture, but I was dramatizing the fundamental religious experiences of call and initiation. I invented a simple monotheistic religion for my non-human characters, nothing in it inimical to ours. The medieval stories have scraps of pagan beliefs and folklore underlying everyone’s Catholicism–which was the situation in the fourteenth century. In "Miss Lotte," a conventionally catechized schoolgirl collides with Creole superstitions, again drawn from life. A recurring (and very Catholic) theme is redemptive sacrifice and transformation through suffering.

IgnatiusInsight.com: How can SF&F uniquely convey Truth? What do you think is the proper approach toward SF&F?

Miesel: SF & F asks: What if? By taking us "beyond the fields we know," it can pose important questions with special vividness:

What is the meaning of Life?

What does it mean to be human?

How can we relate to intelligent non-humans? To Nature?

What aspects of the human condition are permanent and which changeable?

What makes a good society? A bad one?

What if history can turned out differently?

How would the human race react to an unprecedented catastrophe? To a marvelous invention? To an alien environment?

And SF & F can do this over larger stretches of space and time than mundane fiction does. See Of Other Worlds by C.S. Lewis for discussions by a Christian critic. The validity of SF & F answers is, of course, to be measured in the light of Faith, as everything else should be.

Some final pointers: traditionally, SF & F is more driven by ideas, setting, and plot than by the sensitive delineation of character or literary style (although the latter have improved over time). When judging a book, it helps to understand what sort of a work is under inspection, what it’s trying to do. (Early reviewers of The Lord of the Rings seldom managed to do this.)

A brisk tribute to the glories of engineering expects a different response from the reader than a moody supernatural fantasy. A serious work demands more than a light piece of commercial entertainment. SF & F has its own body of critical literature and has attracted academic study. Although they have axes to grind on certain authors, much useful information about the field can be found in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, edited by John Clute and John Grant, both available in most libraries. The trade publication of the field is Locus, with news at www.locusmag.com.

IgnatiusInsight.com: In your opinion, who are the most interesting SF&F writers today?

Miesel: I haven’t had time to follow developments in the field for the last few years, so I’ll rephrase that to "What current writers might IgnatiusInsight.com readers enjoy?"

Tim Powers’ Declare is a superb Catholic fantasy, a cross between a spy thriller and The Arabian Nights. Powers likes to use real settings and historical periods, with large dollops of mythology. Christian spirituality is implicit in Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy, which is a fantasy about a female warrior in an imaginary world.

The humane military SF of Lois Bujold has won many awards. Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy is a Young Adult fantasy remarkable for both its imagination and its prose. Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Gathering Blue are thought-provoking Young Adult SF by a Christian writer.

Related Links:

Interview with Sandra Miesel about The Da Vinci Code.


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