The Common Good
November 2008

This World and the Next

by Elizabeth Palmberg | November 2008

Classic books on science fiction and spirituality.

Some—okay, a lot—of science fiction treats religion, and even spirituality, as pre-rational claptrap or dangerous authoritarianism. But jostling on the same shelves as the neo-imperialist space wars and the vampire-themed soft porn, there’s a universe of spiritually relevant good writing. Some examples from the last decade:

Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn

When a starship full of insectoid aliens crash-lands in a German village just before the advent of the Black Plague, the author gives credit and care to the parish priest’s training in logic, to Christian caritas, to the 14th-century European political and intellectual landscape, and to how they might interact with giant grasshoppers from space. (Tor, 2006)

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, by Octavia Butler

In response to a near-future U.S. wracked by environmental and social breakdown, young Lauren Olamina starts her own religion, Earthseed, whose scriptures proclaim that “God is change” and that humanity’s destiny is to reach the stars. Her vision leads her into deep family complications, somewhat manipulative behavior, and multiple run-ins with the nasty Church of Christian America. (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993; Seven Stories Press, 1998)

The Telling, by Ursula Le Guin

In this fine offering from one of fiction’s best living writers, a young woman named Sully travels to another planet to record its (titular) spiritual lore, which the planet’s government is trying to eradicate in an effort to emulate other “technically advanced” societies. Flashbacks relate Sully’s youth on an Earth dominated by Colorado-based militaristic monotheists. In other hands, these critiques of globalization, U.S. theocratic tendencies, and sci-fi stereotypes would be thinly veiled polemic, but Le Guin’s characters, as always, are deep, solid, and seldom beyond the hope of unpredictable redemption. (Harcourt, 2000)

The Dazzle of Day, by Molly Gloss

This book’s premise is that only Quakers are community-minded enough to keep a multigenerational starship’s ecosystem going. But these Friends in the sky are no angels. They’re oft-broken people who can pose a danger to themselves or others, and who lead lives full of gossip, beauty, regret, monotony, love, and ambiguity. Gloss lyrically conveys how the Spirit breaks into our lives through profoundly everyday moments. (Tor, 1997)

Earth Made of Glass, by John Barnes

Respect for religion isn’t a hallmark of Barnes’ writing, but he takes a serious stab at it in this brooding, richly imagined novel about a planet struggling with racial hatred as the narrator struggles with a midlife marital crisis. Is the prophet Ix, a Martin Luther King-like figure who seems to be his planet’s only hope, a politics-playing charlatan or a genuine spiritual leader? Barnes doesn’t say—and even Ix treats literal belief in the gods as part of the problem. (Tor, 1998)

Calculating God, by Robert Sawyer

What if eight-legged aliens came to Earth in order to quiz our scientists and lecture us about intelligent design? Sawyer’s book—which is about cool ideas rather than subtle characterization—has the considerable entertainment value of a late-night philosophy discussion. (Tor, 2000)

The Sparrow and Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell

This two-book series about a Jesuit mission to an alien planet is a standout. Russell’s startling, violent plot twists are utterly logical in hindsight, highlighting the catastrophic effects—personal and planetary—that cultural newcomers can inadvertently trigger. Amid their world-class blunders, however, the Earth people’s concern for social justice—and the alien species’ control of their own destiny—ultimately finds vindication. (Ballantine, 1996, 1998)

Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card

As a boy, “Ender” Wiggin—child of Catholic and Mormon parents—is identified by the global government as the Earth’s potential savior. With proper military training, he can save the world from an attacking alien race. Card’s Ender series, which includes five books and a parallel series, is taught in Catholic moral theology classes and military academies for its ethical conundrums. In Speaker for the Dead, Ender is put in charge of issuing religion licenses to various planets—that’s when things really get interesting! (Tor, 1985; 1986)

Elizabeth Palmberg is an assistant editor of Sojourners. What are your favorite spiritual sci-fi books? Join the discussion by clicking here.

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