LDS Writers and the Fantastic
[This essay was presented to "Life, the Universe, and Everything XXVII," Brigham Young University, 13 February 2010. It also forms the final chapter of my forthcoming collection of critical essays, Toward Other Worlds: Perspectives on Milton, Lewis, King, Card, and Others.]
Twenty-five years ago, I published a paper that explored some perspectives on the LDS church as expressed by science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers.* Over the intervening quarter of a century, I have explored works by that same community of writers, frequently explicitly but always implicitly from an LDS point of view. It seems time to complete the process with this essay and explore my perspectives on why LDS fantasists are drawn to these three genres. As with every essay in this collection, the conclusions reached are mine alone; I do not claim to speak either for all writers of SF/F/Horror or for the LDS Church. But as a member of both communities, as scholar/critic and poet/novelist, I would like to share some possibilities.
It has been frequently noted that there seems to be an unusually large number of LDS writers of the Fantastic--particularly of science fiction, but to varying degrees fantasy and horror as well--especially given the percentage of Mormons in the general population. To get even a minimal appreciation of the phenomenon, one need only consider the regional, nation-wide, and international successes of such writers as Orson Scott Card, Brandon Sanderson, Brandon Mull, Dave Farland (Dave Wolverton), James Dashner, Chris Heimerdinger, Tracy Hickman, Stephenie Meyer, M. Shayne Bell, Lee Allred, Scott Parkin, Glenn Anderson, and many others.
Curious as to how others might answer to the question "Why are LDS writers attracted to science fiction, fantasy, and horror?" I posted it online and invited responses. Most respondents were of a single mind, expressing their thoughts in different ways. One wrote regarding horror specifically:
It's an outlet for the urges that all people have, but that we work so hard to ignore, overcome, or sublimate… If we write stories about really evil guys, we can express that bit of our humanity without endangering either ourselves or others, and we can also make the good win over evil every time...like we know it does.
Another concentrated on science fiction and fantasy:
For me, I think I would have gravitated to SF/F no matter my religion. Not horror, though. I don't do horror.
While I appreciated the responses and noted that they did indeed follow the lines I would have expected, I began to wonder how deeply one might explore the parallels between the Fantastic and LDS thinking before they began to break down. The more I thought, the more intriguing the possibilities became. The result is this essay.
My answer to the question stems from the nature of the LDS religion and teachings themselves. It has become almost a truism at the BYU Symposium on Fantasy and Science Fiction, that Mormonism itself is a science-fiction religion. This is not to say that it was conceived of and developed on science-fictional lines, such as was apparently the case with Golden Age SF author L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology (the name itself suggesting links with the 'science' element of science fiction). Rather, it is to suggest that in their overall outlines, many teachings of the LDS church find parallels or analogues in conventions and devices most often found in science fiction. While some of the more general characteristics--Heroes, Progress--may occur in the wider Christian community as well, others--especially beliefs in Other Worlds and Other Beings--seem more uniquely LDS.
Given these assertions, then, it may prove fruitful to explore--in general terms and, given the limits of time and space, briefly--a few of the more frequently recurring themes, motifs, and tropes associated with the Fantastic and their relationship to LDS theology and thought.
Heroes--We want a hero. The Fantastic gives us one. Whether it be a child preparing to combat insectoid alien invaders, or a badly injured man confronting a resurgent pagan goddess, or a young magician intent on defeating the greatest dark wizard ever--the Fantastic virtually insists upon a single hero (or occasionally a plucky group of survivors from some cataclysm or disaster), willing or unwilling, to battle insuperable odds and save a nation, a planet, or a galaxy. As a genre, the Fantastic is, like its predecessor classical Epic, structured around a belief that the actions of an individual can and must make a difference in the world. The conflict itself must be significant, beyond the fortunes of an individual; instead, it impinges upon the survival of an entire community. Occasionally, the hero may fail or even fall, but regardless, the struggle itself is worthwhile, uplifting, even redemptive.
The desire for a hero is not uniquely LDS, but our heritage is built around the concept of the individual serving, if not sacrificing, for the greater good of the community. We are raised on stories of Joseph Smith and other early leaders of the church, who faced ridicule, persecution, and ultimately death in the name of the restored Gospel. We value the memories of the men and boys who braved winter blizzards to rescue the stranded Martin and Willey handcart companies…and of the pioneers in those companies who gave up all to journey to Zion. We consider every missionary in the field a hero, struggling to save souls and build up the Kingdom of God on earth.
Other worlds--The Fantastic--particularly science fiction and fantasy--relies on the existence of other worlds, either literal, metaphoric, or symbolic. Part of the apparatus of science fiction is the creation of landscapes that are themselves unknown, often unknowable, into which is injected something or someone knowable and familiar whose story is meaningful to us as readers and whose experiences are intended to alter us in fundamental ways. These worlds may be planets millions of light years distant or millions of years in the linear future; they may resemble Earth closely enough for readers to identify with them and their inhabitants; or they may be so utterly different in makeup, in gravity, in overall environmental conditions as to force readers to make mental adjustments merely to read about them and vicariously experience them. They may be virtually congruent with Earth, separated from this world by the thinnest of barriers, yet in essence unreachable to us except though the medium of scientific devices or magic. Regardless of how they appear or where they are, these other worlds serve as proving grounds for values and virtues the writer wishes to explore further, in ways that would not be possible in stories set on our objectively known world.
Other worlds are essential to LDS thought, a belief in them required by the scriptures we accept as God's word. The Book of Abraham tells us that there are worlds innumerable, some closer to the throne of God--a physical place in the Universe--than others. Joseph Smith, in a poetic version of one of his most stirring revelations, section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants, reiterated this point:
One God, one Savior, a multiplicity of worlds. We know little of those worlds or their inhabitants; the particulars of who they are, what they look like, what language or languages they speak are irrelevant to the fact that all of Creation is filled with worlds whose Creator is God and whose Redeemer is Christ--who, for reasons unknown to us, chose this world as the scene of His mortality.
The Journey/Exodus--The existence of other worlds implies moving to or from them. George Slusser once defined the essential movement of science fiction as an Odyssean journey, or to say the same thing in terms borrowed from J. R. R. Tolkien, "there and back again." The journey may complete the circuit, as epitomized by Odysseus's travels from Ithaca to Troy and his long-delayed return. Or it may include only one leg of the journey, frequently an exodus outward toward a new world, a new home, as with Aeneas in Virgil's Aeneid. In non-LDS fantasists, the journey may find its end at the Dark Tower and the beginning of an infinite journey; or transport the reader from Transylvania to London and back again; or reach a final place to call home before doubling back on itself to encompass changes throughout the universe. In the context of LDS writers, it may entail children traveling to their grandparents' house…and from there further outward into the boundaries of a magical country, before they return. Or a remnant of colonists returning, after 30 million years, to the Earth that gave birth to their race.
The history of the LDS Church is itself a journey, beginning in Palmyra, New York and moving ever westward. The travelers settled in what appeared to be permanent homes, rearing structures and building temples, until forced by threats of genocide to journey again. First to the basin of the Great Salt Lake. Then to spread throughout the whole world. And finally to return to Salt Lake City, either physically or spiritually, as epitomized by the turning of the people, first to the Tabernacle, now to the Conference Center for the semi-annual conferences.
In a more fundamental sense, LDS theology is based on a journey. More specifically than most other denominations, LDS teachings identify a setting out from a particular place, an other world, if you will, with full knowledge that not all will safely return. The journey entails a life-long series of crucial events, each testing, altering, strengthening the individual. And finally the individual returns--back to our appointed places within the perfect place from which we all set out.
Miracles: Science and Magic--The Fantastic thrives on that which cannot be otherwise explained except through science and technology or through the uncanny, the supernatural, or magic. In order to fit comfortably within the Fantastic, for example, a story must take as its premise "what if," and that "what if" in turn depends on a fundamental change in the way we perceive the world as operating. The change may be slight, almost superficial, a small extrapolation from that which we know in our everyday lives; or it may be world-altering in any of an almost infinite number of ways. Space flight to open new worlds, increased longevity through medicine; or, looking on the darker side, new diseases that destroy 99.4% of humanity, or developing nuclear weapons that eradicate almost all life or stimulate new, unexpected, potentially threatening forms of life--each can, in its own way trigger a science-fiction or horror story. With fantasy, the device may be even simpler--stipulating a world in which magic works, in which elves or fairies exist, in which ghosts and other revenants return to visit the living. In any event, the alterations seems, from our present perspective, essentially a miracle.
The LDS church accepts the reality of miracles. Much of its history incorporates literal miracles, from the seagulls that rescued the early pioneers from the devastation of crickets to the smaller, individual miracles that result daily from Priesthood blessings. It invites the miracles of medicine as they make our lives more bearable and our deaths more comfortable. It embraces what would have been to our forebears miracles of advanced technology in transportation and communications that allow present-day members worldwide to share directly in the teachings and testimonies of the General Authorities, creating a literal as well as a figurative community of the Saints. And we eagerly anticipate even greater advances that will further facilitate the spread of the Gospel.
The Other/Aliens (as either races or messengers)--Science fiction in particular focuses on the Other, the Alien, the non-human entity or entities who either come face to face with others like themselves or with representatives of the human race and, in doing so, transform humanity or are themselves transformed by humanity. Yet whatever their guise, the alien stands for, represents in the deepest senses of the word, the human. Aliens and their worlds become images of characteristics and traits that the writer wishes to examine, not in their otherness, but in human terms. We cannot perform social or scientific experiments on humans--our lifespan is too long to make such experiments feasible, even if they were morally justifiable. But we can create Others who are subjected to the conditions and demands we are interested in exploring, and through their imagined reactions assess the extent to which humanity meets or fails to meet expectations. The Other is at once interesting because it is different from us and because it is us, regardless of superficial variations of size, shape, or substance.
LDS theology takes seriously the concept of other races, other life forms, if you will, inhabiting the universes. Whether they are identical to humans or not, we assume a connection between ourselves and the peoples of innumerable other worlds. And in a deeper sense, we acknowledge the interactions between humans and aliens--angels and other divine messengers are like us and are not like us, yet they may visit us when necessary, and through their words and actions we are given standards of belief and behavior that we are to strive to reach. To equate heavenly messengers with science-fictional Others may sound strange. It seems more than odd, perhaps, to think of Moroni as an 'alien', for example; certainly he was not a "little green man" or a "bug-eyed monster" to be studied and understood. But just as certainly he was not merely human; in appearance and substance there were elemental differences between him and Joseph Smith. Even so, at core the similarities between the two far overshadowed the differences: both are spirit children of our Father in Heaven, both experienced the time of testing that is mortality; and both share the promises of eternity with God.
Monsters/Demons--The aliens/others we encounter through the Fantastic may be benign or malignant. They may have humanity's best interests at heart or they may wish our total destruction. When the latter is the case, we represent them as monstrous, either in scientific, fantastical, or horrific terms. The Fantastic lends itself as readily to darkness as to the light, and in some cases cannot exist without the representation of fear, terror, horror and evil. Some stories use the darkness to amplify the powers of light; others dwell on darkness to the exclusion of all else. In many cases, the monsters are of our own creation and directly reflect our unhealthy obsessions, vices, and desires; in others, they are external to humankind, appearing abruptly and with devastating consequences. In all instances, the monstrous, when truly identified as monstrous and evil, is to be combated at all costs.
Again, from its inception, the church has accepted not only the existence and interaction of God and angels with humanity, but of forces for darkness as well. Some are insubstantial. Joseph Smith recounts his own experience with darkness:
After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.
The Doctrine and Covenants contains instructions on how to distinguish angels of light from devils in disguise (see Section 129). Records of the early church members refer to casting out of demons from those possessed, and literally and physically combating demons. This is not to say that the church is obsessed with the powers of darkness or sanctions liturgical exorcisms; nor that it recognizes the existence of werewolves, vampires, and other imagined creatures of the night; but rather that it believes firmly that where God is, Satan wishes to intrude and may try to do so.
Faster-Than-Light--Space travel nearly requires faster-than-light travel, or at least something approximating it. Failing that, the science fiction story must take into account the decades, centuries, even millennia that would be required for a space ship to arrive at an extra-galactic destination. Such a journey may itself provide the basis for a provocative story combining elements of the SF journey, other worlds (the inner world of the starship itself), and possibly even aliens. The dream of opening the cosmos to human exploration/colonization, however, to a large extent depends on as-yet unknown technologies that would allow us to bridge the abyss of space.
Given the nature of the LDS conception of the universe, with Kolob, inhabited by God and angels, existing as a fixed point in space, the existence of faster-than-light travel becomes a given. Heavenly beings sent as messengers to individuals on Earth must come from somewhere and do so instantaneously in order to deliver their messages and return to report. The currently known limitations of the physical, terrestrial body do not apply to celestial bodies, apparently including their ability to move at will through space as we understand it.
Time Travel--Need it be noted that time travel is a staple of science fiction, going at least as far back as Wells' Time Machine.
It would be less obviously a tenet of LDS teachings, perhaps, except for the belief that time itself is not necessarily linear--in fact, that it may be necessarily non-linear. Eternal entities are not subject to time as we understand it; the Book of Abraham facsimile 1 blends time and space in a curious way, equating one with the other, suggesting unique permutations of time and distance. And certainly Moses' vision upon the mountain and other scriptural accounts of revelation of distant times are at least partially explicable through the idea of time travel of some sort, allowing the prophets to see past, present, and future in essence simultaneously.
Progress--The idea of progress as essential to human society and culture is primarily a modern one. For most of human history, the assumption has been that tomorrow will be the same as today. Little was expected in the way of social change or mobility; if a man was a farmer, his sons would expect to be--and be expected to be--farmers as well. If any social change was anticipated, it would probably have been retrograde. Yesterday was the Golden Age; tomorrow we will descend further into the Iron Age.
Within the past two centuries, however, that sense has completely inverted. Now the expectation is that tomorrow will be, must be different--and vastly different from today. We teach our children that the jobs for which they are preparing in college now do not yet exist. We are acclimated to such rapid-fire changes in technology, usually referred to as technological advances, that we take for granted marvels that would have astounded our parents or grandparents. We see--or have seen, until perhaps the most recent generations--the future as a consistent progression from where we are now to something unknown perhaps but greater, finer, more glorious.
To a large extent, science fiction requires progress. Space flight, planetary colonization, even the ubiquitous Galactic Empires depend for their existence upon a continued improvement in machinery, technology, and science. When the focus shifts to apocalyptic threats or realized horrors, the idea of progress is still implied; here is what we could have been but because of this mistake or that incursion of evil, that progress has been halted. Even in such stories, however, there is usually a concluding sense that in spite of the darkness and the horror, something good will emerge, frequently something demonstrably better that which existed before.
The sense of progress has been a touchstone of LDS thinking from the beginning. We use the term "Eternal progression" lightly, almost without thinking, usually never stopping to realize how radically different that view of human destiny is from nearly every preceding culture…and from most Christian denominations, for which Time and History do not progress infinitely but come to a definite End.
Apocalypse--In its literal sense, apocalypse means 'to uncover' or to 'dis-cover'. In its lexical senses, it broadens to encompass any widespread or global destruction, or simply a prophecy or revelation--a 'revealing'. Not all SF/F/H is apocalyptic, but there are sufficient examples to include it in a list of the most common characteristics. The sense of apocalypse may be based on a discovery or revelation that alters our perception of humanity (or of the Other). It may broaden to incorporate the destruction of planets or galaxies. It may detail the ending of a specific phase of human existence and the transformation of the race into something that is--to the reader--distinctly Other. It may in the most extreme examples, reach out to detail the end of the universe itself. In any of these cases, the apocalyptic gives the narrative a greater sense of tension, of suspense, and of significance for both the characters limned and the reader.
In the generalized Christian sense, apocalypse refers specifically to the Revelations of John, which are simultaneously prophetic and descriptive (symbolically or literally) of the End of Things. In the sense that Christianity itself is based on the belief in a cessation of this mortality, triggered by a cataclysmic battle between good and evil and followed by something else, substantially different from this life, all of its denominations are apocalyptic. As a literal belief, therefore, the apocalyptic intrinsically comprehends a deep, pervasive sense of oncoming darkness and potential horror, culminating in a eucatastrophe--a global and universal triumph of Good.
LDS beliefs support the sense of an ending. They are not obsessed by it; nor do the members calculate from biblical dates and perform complex numerology to determine the precise day of the Second Coming. We do, however, accept it as essential to our theology. But within the Plan of Salvation as presented by the church, there is a stronger sense of specificity than in many other Christian denominations. We adhere to the belief in a literal resurrection (itself a transformative event); a spirit prison, with both prisoners and ministers; a Second Coming that ushers in yet another transformation for humanity; a millennium; a final judgment; and an eternity in which to learn and progress. The LDS perspective on apocalypse includes pain and suffering, but it is also and more importantly a prelude to humanity as physically and spiritually more refined beings.
The Future--Paralleling the belief in Progress is the concept of the Future itself. Again, this seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon in human thinking. Many cultures and most Christian denominations see human life as coming to an abrupt end, climaxing in an Armageddon-style battle. Ancient cultures perceived the conflict as between cosmic forces, the gods and the giants in Norse culture, for example--the forces of order and stability combating the forces of darkness and disorder…and in the Norse mythologies at least, the giants win. Beowulf similarly ends with distinct foreshadowings of disaster; after the death of the great hero, the enemies will descend and destroy everything. Even within the Christian tradition, which sees an End of all things followed by a nebulous, ill-defined gathering of the righteous unto God, there is little sense of specifics about that future. On a secular level, after decades of developments that have suggested an inevitable future of greater leisure, wealth, and ease for humanity (or at least parts of it), recent movements in scientific and technological experimentation have resulted not only in miracles but also in an almost overwhelming sense of oncoming darkness. We have despoiled and polluted our planet until there is little hope for a bright future.
Science fiction can work against that. With the exception of alternate-earth stories about single changes in the past that have altered the course of human history, much science fiction looks to the future, whether it be positive or negative. To be sure dystopias occur, frequently due to human activities; but just as frequently, the core struggles in the stories result in the sense of renewed possibilities, if not for the entire race, then at least for a part of it willing to struggle against disaster.
LDS thinking is founded on a literal belief in a never-ending future, a concomitant to the belief that intelligences are co-eternal with God. What never began will never end but will continue as a distinct, individual being, as immortal as matter itself. What for other beliefs is the End of Times is for the LDS the Beginnings of a New Time, with specific promises and possibilities. Few if any SF stories, even the most optimistic, moves as far into the future as LDS theology, culminating, if you will, with the concept of humanity moving ever closer to Godhood.
Infinity--There are no boundaries to space in science fiction. Stories have taken readers to the edges of the universe…and beyond into greater, unknown space. Multiverses with an infinite number of near Earths are common landscapes in both SF and fantasy. Change a single element of human past or present and a second version of that Earth splits off and continues on its own path through the future, until a single moment causes that world to split off as well. And on forever. Time and Space have no end in science fiction.
Or in LDS teachings. We are eternal; thus we belong to the infinite. We inhabit one of worlds unnumberable; hence, if we taken the term literally, the space in which we dwell must continue infinitely.
Humanity as central--Within galaxies and universes unnumbered (even if we inhabit nothing more than an average planet orbiting an inconsequential sun in an arm of an inconsequential galaxy somewhere in the hinterlands of the universe), humans are central in the Fantastic. Humanity my be beneficent or malignant, arriving as savior or destroyers, but regardless of the positioning the narrative takes there is still the sense that humanity, more than any imagined alien races, holds a crux position. More crucially, perhaps, the Other in science fiction, fantasy, and horror must in some key ways resemble human nature, reflect human desires, live out human concerns. A truly alien Other would be ultimately unknowable to the readers--as was attempted in Stanley Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey." No matter the physical appearance or psychological makeup, the Other almost always reflects its readers…and its creator.
In LDS belief, humanity is in fact at the center of things. Not in the Renaissance view of humans as inhabiting the apex of a celestial hierarchy of Creation, placed only below the angels and God. Rather, humanity is the purpose behind the creation. This planet--and all planets--exist primarily to be homelands for immortal intelligences, once spirit children of God, now dressed in flesh and blood.
* * * * *
More fundamentally than these individual tenets, however, LDS teachings and philosophy are unusually and enormously liberating to a writer's imagination. Each person is seen as eternal; at the core rests an Intelligence that was neither created nor can be destroyed, but that has existed co-eternally with God Himself.
This belief diverges widely from the traditional view of human origins and destinies held by most Christian religions. For them, humanity is not in fact eternal; individuals come into being at a particular point in the gestation period--often held to be either the moment of conception or the moment of birth--when the spirit enters the body and both together become human. Before that, nothing.
This ties neatly with the conventional Christian view of time, that it had a specific beginning at the instant of Creation, whenever that is held to be, and that Time itself will have an end when all of humanity is judged, determined destined for Heaven or Hell, and the righteous are taken into the bosom of God. All things--with the single exception of God--have a distinct beginning and will, in some real sense, have a distinct ending. What happens after that point, when the righteous portions of the human race have been gathered into God, either literally, symbolically, mystically, or spiritually, is rarely explored. It is and will remain a mystery.
By its nature, this belief seems limiting, widening the already infinite-seeming gap between God and Humanity even further. God is different in essence, substance, and being from humanity, and nothing can be done to diminish that difference.
If, on the other hand, each individual shares infinity with God Himself, is in some way similar to if not identical with God--in essence, in potential--then the effects on the imagination would seem to be remarkable. Whatever an individual can imagine, whatever worlds, galaxies, universes, peopled with whatever alien races the Fantastic can suggest…God has in all probability already imagined them. Whether He has chosen to embody those imaginings with substance or actuality or not, to dress them for a space of time in pre-existent matter (itself as eternal as He) or not, an infinite God would already intellectually comprehend all things imaginable. Yet it is still within human nature--shared in specific particulars with God--to strive to envision those things.
The result, it would seem, would be a loosening of the imagination, a sense that anything conceived of is fair game for exploration…and the result would be an urge toward the Fantastic itself.
* "Refracted Visions and Future Worlds: Mormonism and Science Fiction," Dialogue (August 1984): 107-116.
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