Spiritually-Inflected Science Fiction

By Elizabeth Palmberg 10-17-2008

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.

In the newest issue of Sojourners (which you can read here), we gave capsule reviews of 11 sci-fi books that incorporate spirituality from the last decade, but just for God's Politics readers, here are more examples from earlier decades. Have a favorite spiritually-inflected science fiction novel not named here? Please add to the list in the comments section below!

Out of the Silent Planet trilogy, by C.S. Lewis. These are justly beloved classics that chronicle the adventures of Dr. Ransom. In the first novel, he's abducted by a power-hungry physicist and taken to the planet Malacandra (what we know as Mars), where he escapes and discovers the strange charm of this new planet. The second novel, Perelandra, was set mostly on Venus, which is like a pre-Fall Eden, and is also known as Voyage to Venus. Finally, That Hideous Strength, the final book of the trilogy, is set on Earth. Warning: The end of the second novel will not please Christian pacifists.

Ingathering: The Complete People Stories, by Zenna Henderson. In this series of short stories written in the 1950s and thereafter, "The People" are humanoid refugees who come to live in 19th-century America after their planet is destroyed. Spiritually minded and generally pacifist, they possess alien powers such as telepathy, but try to fit into their new world while enduring loneliness and isolation in the hope of finding a new home.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller Jr. This haunting novel about nuclear war was written during the Cold War by an author who was torn by remorse over his participation in the bombing of a Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino during World War II. Several main characters are sympathetically-drawn Catholics, and there's a recurrent cameo by a Wandering Jew, who offers a wry voice of reason on human failings.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle. This beloved children's novel about the power of love by L'Engle, a Christian, follows Meg Murray, her brother Charles, and friend Calvin O'Keefe as they try to rescue Meg and Charles' father by traveling to Camazotz, where an evil brain (literally) dominates the inhabitants. The rest of the quartet (A Wind in the Door, Many Waters, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet), track the adventures of the Murray children as they travel through time to fight deadly diseases, befriend Noah, and change history.

Four Ways to Forgiveness, by Ursula le Guin (1995). Le Guin's spare prose unsparingly portrays how slavery, slaveowning, and sexism distort the lives of characters on Werel and Yeowe, twin worlds in the throes of a messy and incomplete liberation. Many of the current and former slaves (and some of the slaveowners) find spiritual rootedness in a (slightly described, but emotionally central) religious tradition around "Kamye the Bondsman." Not to be missed.

The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula le Guin. (1971). This is that science-fiction standard, a book about a man whose dreams change the world -- except, in the case of protagonist George Orr, it's his unconscious nighttime dreams that can change reality to an alternate timeline. This ability justly alarms Orr, who is praised by the narrator in explicitly Taoist terms for his commitment to being more than doing. When he falls into the hands of a well-meaning psychiatrist who wants to use Orr's power to reform world society along rational lines, slight preachiness ensues, but the book is more than redeemed by its deep spirituality, great characterization, alarming plot twists (don't read it late at night), and love story.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula le Guin. (1969). Le Guin takes on big ideas -

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