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Catholics & Science Fiction | An Interview with Sandra Miesel | Ignatius Insight


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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.





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