In November 2015, Grayson Clary in The Atlantic wrote an article with the provocative title, “Why Sci-Fi Has So Many Catholics.” In fact, science and science fiction can be sources of great joy, including spiritual joy, in keeping with a core principle of Jesuit spirituality: “Find God in all things.”
I write as a scientist and fan of science fiction. Recently, I participated at a workshop at Notre Dame University: “Trying to Say ‘God’: Re-enchanting Catholic Literature.” The organizers explain: “The main title is drawn from Fanny Howe’s Winter Sun, referring to the reluctance of many writers to write about religion and spirituality in a time when religion is suspect or passé. They might choose to avoid traditional religious terminology, yet there has been a turn to religion and spirituality among a number of poets, novelists, memoirists, and science fiction writers, and some authors grope for new forms of saying ‘God.’ ” Thus the conference set up discussions of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and memoir, fantasy and science fiction, bringing together both well-known and emerging writers who, in the words of the organizers, “struggle with spiritual topics in their writings and attempt to do so in new ways.” In the light of this I want to explore fantasy and science fiction from my Catholic perspective.
The taste for science fiction and fantasy literature
I started reading science fiction at a very young age about the same age as when I became an altar boy. In the public library of the town where I grew up, science fiction was kept on a shelf right at the entrance to the “grown-up” section. I suspect the librarians put it there thinking such books were barely suitable for adults; I saw them as an entree into the world of “real” novels, much as being an altar boy was a step into participating in the liturgy of the Church. My family were all heavy users of the library, and when my siblings and I had chosen the books we wanted from the children’s section, we would wait for our mother at the front of the regular library, next to the science fiction books.
The book that really whetted my taste for science fiction was a compilation of classic “Golden Age” (1940s) short stories, A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, edited by Anthony Boucher. Boucher (the pen name of William A. P. White) was a founder and editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, long considered the most literate of the science fiction magazines. And as it turns out, Boucher was also noted in the science fiction world for being a devout Catholic. At a time when a strict materialism like that of Herbert G. Wells was considered de rigueur for a “modern” rational-thinking scientific person, his Catholicism was considered quite an oddity.
Though it is hard to find many books of short stories in the bookstores today, and the traditional science fiction magazines have a dwindling circulation, short stories still remain the perfect starting point for a science fiction reader or writer. Unlike a novel, a short story can survive well on one clever idea and a few deftly-sketched characters. Even better, the brevity of the format means that there’s no room for the major pitfalls of too many bad novels (and not just science fiction novels): pointless side plots or dreary descriptions.