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Part 2 of Catholics & Science Fiction | An Interview with Sandra Miesel
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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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