[Edited to add: This is turning into a modestly popular series of posts, with comments continuing to trickle in (the Long Tail!). Please be sure to peruse the comments to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. And, err, Part 5.]
It's time to sum up. This has turned out to be a very interesting set of posts on the topic of religion in science fiction -- interesting for me to work out some thoughts I had, and interesting to read some comments that others have had. I opened with some musings about the portrayal of human religion in science fiction, followed up with a short aside on the alleged conflict between science and religion, and wondered why so little of science fiction shows humans with religion.
The thesis (or perhaps more accurately: supposition) is as follows:
Very few novels in science fiction portray humans as religious.
Please note that I am referring to religion of humans in science fiction (not religious themes, or religion of aliens). Religion may be rife in science fiction, but largely in the purview of aliens (religion as The Other). I would frankly expect the opposite -- that we would unconsciously assume religion to be a human endeavor, while rarely if at all ascribing religion to aliens. Instead I find that authors typically portray humans as areligious.
Lately I've been mentally contrasting science fiction and fantasy along these terms. A typical fantasy novel: the priest character is so common, he's a cliche (the use of a gendered pronoun was intentional, but not relevant to this topic). Don't tell me that religion is necessary to fantasy: sprites and gnolls, knights and magic -- all these can do just fine without gods. There's no need for religion at all. But pull a random science fiction book off the novel, and do you find the characters praying for their safety before dropping out of FTL? I think not. (And why not?)
Hence my statement that humans in science fiction are rarely portrayed as religions, and my confusion as to why this is so.
Of course, my thesis has been disputed by the commenters (you know who are), but the more I think about it, the more I think I'm right. (After all, nothing can convince a man -- or troll -- faster than someone who tells him he's wrong.)
In this post, I want to offer a very, very brief list of science fiction novels that do directly portray humans as religious. Not surprisingly, the commenters covered all the novels that I am familiar with, and offered some more that I will hopefully read soon. (With apologies for my pathetic attempts at one-sentence teasers.)
Let's start with the ones I was thinking about:
- A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, Jr.): humans have been nuked back to savagery, but the Catholic monastic orders preserve knowledge for the future of humanity.
- A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle): Meg is torn by the long disappearance of her physicist father (hey, that's me!) and her concern over her very young brother's social isolation. The curious Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which offer their help, and Meg must do her part in the struggle against evil -- on the other side of the galaxy. (Thanks to Mrs. Billy Goat for reminding me of this fantastic series.)
- The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood): in a near-future Christian fundamentalistic theocracy, officially-recognized concubines bear children in place of barren upper class women (male infertility is a subversive concept). (Frankly: boring.)
- Contact (Carl Sagan): the novel itself is not entirely well-known, but you've probably heard of the movie. The main characters in the novel struggle with faith and religion, but this is certainly well into the background of the larger plot.
- "The Last Question" (Isaac Asimov): this short story focuses on the question of whether entropy can be reversed. I had the opportunity to see a planetarium show adaptationy, and it was brilliant. You could probably get the same effect by reading the story out loud while pretending to be Leonard Nimoy. Try it. Let me know how it goes. (To be fair, short stories in science fiction often address religious themes. I have unconsciously equated "science fiction" with "science fiction novels" for this series of posts, but I like this story so much I have to mention it here.)
- Space Trilogy (C. S. Lewis): Mr. Lewis' science fiction is garnering a little bit more attention. Like his better-known (and better-written) Narnia Chronicles, the Space Trilogy is a vehicle for Mr. Lewis' Christian philosophies. The first two works, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, read more like late 1800's science fiction, and are not entirely memorable. That Hideous Strength, however, is quite good (and may be read on its own). Science fiction meets World War II England - very, very good.
- Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein): a wonderful novel, and quite well known. Valentine Michael Smith grows up under the tutelage of Martians, but is returned to Earth and must painfully learn to understand just what brand of monkeys we really are. But still puzzling to me: what exactly is Heinlein trying to say about religion? Does he buy it? Or does he think it's total crap? Am I missing the point, or are his ideas entirely muddled?
- Dune (Frank Herbert): brilliant (but for the love of all that's dear, don't read the sequels). Dune presents a wonderfully envisioned future of medieval, backstabbing politics. The plots and counter-plots swirl around the House Atreides, which is crushed on the desert planet of Arrakis. The heir, Paul Atreides, survives with the help of the indigenous Fremen.
- The Hainish Cycle (Ursula K. Le Guin): I'm afraid no one- or two-sentence summary can describe these works. Some deal more explicitly with religion (The Telling), while others merely have religion quietly in the background (humans who belong to the Ekumen appear to have a kind of quiet spirituality). I can strongly recommend The Left Hand of Darkness (yes!) and The Dispossessed (double yes!), although as I mentioned, don't expect overt religious overtones.
In addition, the commenters kindly offered the following: The Sparrow, Children of God, Factoring Humanity, Revolt in 2100, the Riverworld series, Xenocide, The Rise of Endymion, the Long Sun series, The Electric Church, The Mote in God's Eye, Instrumentality, Return to Planet of the Apes, Gather, Darkness!, Players of Null A, Variable Star, and Starmaker.
Hopefully I got 'em all? A few I have already read, but most not; I think Sparrow, Instrumentality, and Gather, Darkness sound most promising.
However, I currently have a request list of approximately 40 books and movies at the public library, so clearly I won't be getting to these books soon. Thank to the readers who shared!
And finally, any missing books that show a science fiction humanity with religion?