Name of Article | Name Of Author
Catholics & Science Fiction | An Interview with Sandra Miesel | March 9, 2005
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
Sandra Miesel: Before I get into that, lets 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 theyre 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
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 didnt 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 Id already been heavily
exposed to fairy tales, myths, and legends from the time I could read.
Andrew Langs 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 Bradburys Martian Chronicles in high school,
and Walter Millers 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 Id 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 fanzinesmuch like the papers I used to do in grad schooland
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. Ive edited about a dozen
collections of stories by Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson (Im
the worlds greatest expert on those two authors) and co-edited two
anthologies with David Drake. Im 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 dont 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, Ive 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 theyll go on doing
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. Lewiss 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 fields 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. Its harder
for the reader to find whats 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. (Im
sure Im 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 suspectbut have no way of knowingthat 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
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 its 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 cant manage "the willing suspension of
disbelief" then this literature isnt 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. Its
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 Sturgeons
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. Theres
lot of cultural/moral relativism and protagonists dont 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 Genjipagan creations allmuch
less nearly all of whats been written in English since the Reformation.
And on a less exalted level, its not a bad idea to keep tabs on
factors influencing modern societycultural engagement, anyone? C.S.
Lewiss little book, An Experiment in Criticism, might be
IgnatiusInsight.com: Are there fantasy and science fiction writers who
aren't believers but who nevertheless deal with themes that should interest
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 dont
recommend what he wrote post-1971!)
Poul Andersons 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
You didnt ask about Christian writers but Ill 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 Kirks
excellent ghost stories are collected in Ancestral Shadows.
Manly Wade Wellmans 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 Goudges 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
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 thats 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. Its
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 Goldsmiths
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 didnt sell so I gave up the plan.
I wrote "The Book-Healer in a pseudo-medieval "shared universe" (where
the background is provided). Its the worlds only fantasy about
art conservation. "The Salt Garden" was set on Andre Nortons 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
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 everyones Catholicismwhich 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 its
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
Miesel: I havent had time to follow developments in the field
for the last few years, so Ill 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 Moons 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 Nixs
Old Kingdom trilogy is a Young Adult fantasy remarkable for both
its imagination and its prose. Lois Lowrys The Giver and
Gathering Blue are thought-provoking Young Adult SF by a Christian
with Sandra Miesel about The Da Vinci Code.
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