Category Archives: Science Fiction and Fantasy

Science Fiction & Religion

By now, many of you will have heard that one of the Vatican’s astronomers has indicated that there might be life on other planets. Even that they might be without sin. Many of my favorite science fiction books involve the intersection of religion and space travel (Dune and Ender’s Game chief among them). But really, this is a classic theme and, I would argue, evidence of atheism among science fiction writers.

Perhaps not atheism but certainly doubt. To dream up a world where all the religions of earth had merged into one (the Orange Catholics), but still managed to find sectarian conflict with the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, only to then join forces against an off-shoot of the latter, requires more than a usual amount of doubt in one’s faith. Even Orson Scott Card’s science fictional religions are not Mormonism, and I liked his approach to Christian evangelism to other planets: Jesus, though he appeared as a Jewish man, came to save us all: Jew, Gentile, Formic, and Pequenino alike.

Then there’s Archangel, where Jehovah, whom the whole world of Samaria worships, rules with a laser fist from on high (yes, it’s a spaceship). And Silicon Karma which explores a technological afterlife created when we stopped believing in a spiritual one. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep explores at what point morality starts applying to inanimate objects, even as they have their own cult of personality (if not a full-blown religion).

What are some of your favorite intersections of religion and scifi? Where any of them instrumental in your exodus from the garden?

On Clarion West and the Zombie Life of an Alternate

Liminal states are not happy states. Take zombies. Zombies are transitional, miserable beings–not quite dead, not quite alive. They shuffle about–no standing still or purposeful striding. Instead of killing you with ninja stealth or a mighty barbarian beserker yell, they mumble and moan. “Nnnnnnn ggahhh brrrrrrrrrr aeeeeeeeeee nnnnnnnssss,” they say, and you’re tempted to stop running and screaming and instead turn and smack them into speaking clearly. At least there’s nothing half-way about their brain cravings.

(What’s with the irrepressible desire for brains, anyway? Are there no chocolate-craving zombies?)

Every time I apply for something that I really care about, like grad school, I shamble through life like a zombie, except with less purpose, until I get a response. Even outright rejection, like a chainsaw or shotgun blast to an undead head, is welcome relief.

In-between is where I’ve been for the past month, while I waited for a response from the Clarion and Clarion West workshops.

Some of you may be wondering what Clarion is. I’ll draw on a parallel example from real life. Let’s say that your dearest dream was to become a famous pirate actor. You learn that every summer there’s a six-week pirate acting school, and that each week is essentially taught by a actor-in-residence, and that hundreds of wannabe pirate actors apply but only 18 get in. And the teachers for this year are some of the most famous pirate actors out there: Keira Knightly, Johnny Depp, Cary Elwes (The Dread Pirate Roberts), Robert De Niro (Captain Shakespeare in Stardust), Dustin Hoffman (Hook). Each week, you and your classmates get up in front of Knightly, or Elwes, and you “harrrrrr” and shiver your timbers and show that you are not left-handed and the actor tells you exactly what you’re doing right or wrong and comes over and shifts your stance just so.

Now replace “famous pirate actors” with “famous science fiction and fantasy authors” and you have the Clarion Workshops. The superstars for this year include the likes of Neil Gaiman and Connie Willis and Cory Doctorow. And instead of helping you talk like a pirate (well, they may still offer pointers on that), they read and critique the stories you and your star-struck cohort produce and have water gun fights and late night conversations.

Clarion at UCSD rejected me (so no quality time with Neil Gaiman this year), but the program that I really wanted to get into, Clarion West at Seattle, neither accepted nor rejected me. I am, instead, an “alternate.” This means that I probably just missed getting in, which is heartening (especially considering that this was a particularly competitive year). But it means that my only hope for going is if I hang out vulture-like (zombie-like?), waiting for someone to drop out so that I can eat their brains take their place. I’m not a very good vulture or zombie. I really, really want to go and spend time with my heroes, but I don’t want someone else to get sick or have a family emergency or fail to come up with the fees.

It’s a weird place to be, most likely not going but wondering if I should still avoid making commitments during half of summer. Do we need to look into childcare options? Should I save up the three thousand dollars for tuition? etc. Work might also be more forgiving if I gave them more than a last minute notice.

All complaining aside, it’s worth being in limbo just to have the opportunity to go. I dream of writing, and SF is my idiom. I will be a zombie for Cory Doctorow. Maybe I’ll get a chance to pick his brain.

Many thanks to xJane for offering an invaluable critique of one of my submission stories.

Random Personal Notes

  • I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so busy.  I applied to a prestigious writer’s workshop last night.  I should hear back in the next couple of weeks.  I’ll reveal more details then, for better or for worse.
  • Reading takes time, and since my free reading time is at a premium,  books are investments.  I’d rather not waste my time (and $$, if I can’t find it at a library) on a sucky book.  I reduce my risks by reading as many of the Nebula and Hugo nominated works as I can each year.  I’ve discovered incredible authors and life-changing stories this way.  The Hugo nominees will be out later this month, but the Nebula list is already out.  What’s really cool is that they make most of the short fiction available online for free!  I’m thinking of creating a reading schedule over the next few months: perhaps one novel per month, one or two novellas, novelettes or short stories per month.  If you’re interested in reading along with me and discussing the works online, please let me know.
  • Finally, if you’re reading this on the 3rd of March, happy Girls’ Day to you!  (also known as hina matsuri) As part of our family’s decision to celebrate the Japanese holidays this year, we’ve got the colorful arare crackers and a very very modest version of the following on display:

Feminist SF and Religion (Part One)

Every student should be able to design their own classes.  Think about how many freakin’ Einsteins we’d have if teenage boys could create classes like “The Chemistry of Blowing Stuff Up” and “The Physics of Breast Movement in 3D Gaming Worlds.” I’m not saying that there wouldn’t be some *negative repercussions.  (We desperately need more women gamers creating games, however.)

I’ve had this glorious opportunity this semester, as I’ve found a wonderfully generous professor to sponsor my brilliantly conceived “Directed Graduate Research.” And no, no bombs or breasts are involved, at least not directly.  Working with my adviser, we’ve assembled a “(Literary) Science Fiction and Religion” bibliography.  The readings will cover four main themes and their intersection with religion:

  1. Feminist SF
  2. Mormon SF
  3. Apocalyptic SF
  4. Technology and Social Change in SF

You’d be surprised at how much stuff there is out there–I actually had to cut back to keep my readings manageable for the semester!  I even have a loose thread running through the entire course: “responses to religious authority.”

I’m working (can I call this “work?”) through the first theme this month.  This section includes academic/critical essays on the intersection of SF, feminism and religion (still trying to decide on these, so I welcome suggestions).  I’m reading the following representative texts:

Each story is a classic, and the first three deal directly with patriarchal religious institutions, as far as I can tell.  I’ve read Butler’s novel before, and you could say that it, too, responds to male-dominated religious hierarchy in some ways.  I plan on reviewing each book on Mind on Fire as I read through them, so if you’d like to join along, let me know.  I plan on getting to them at the rate of about one per week.

*Mind on Fire disavows any responsibility for damage to school property or upturns in the virtual porn software industry. 

Book Review: The Last Colony by John Scalzi

Apologies for all the SF book reviews–in my mad sprint to the end of the month finish line, I’m trying to cram in as many books as I can in an attempt to get close to my New Year’s Resolution. This end of the month clump of reviews is partly the result of my inability to read only one book at a time. If you’re not interested in SF reads, then skip over these–I promise they won’t get in the way of my regularly scheduled ramblings on religion and atheism.

I know John Scalzi more for his brilliant writing at his popular personal blog, Whatever. On topics ranging from the Academy Awards to the coming zombie apocalypse, the man is incapable of uttering inanity. His SF writing is pretty good, too. He’s been crowned the heir to Bob Heinlein, and while this may be a bit much, his writing is every bit as approachable and engaging.

The Last Colony is the final installment in the Old Man’s War trilogy, which also includes The Ghost Brigades (which has my favorite Scalzi character, Jared Dirac, and is by far the most satisfying read). The stories take place in a galaxy where humankind has made it to the stars, only to find that there are a lot of other alien races already out there. Many of them are ready to kill us. Scalzi adds some refreshing new twists to the well-worn concept of the genetically-enhanced super soldier and explores them and their impact on the characters in detail.

The Last Colony pits a little human farming colony against 412 alien races, and Scalzi does a good job of putting the heroes into impossible predicaments and then getting them out believably. I have a few little nitpicks about his writing–after several books, his characters begin to sound alike, and he has the habit of being a little over the top when his characters find out something critical to the plot that they’re not going to share with the reader right away. As a reader, this technique shouldn’t kick me out of the story, however momentarily. These are minor beefs, and I know that when I pick up a Scalzi novel that I’m going to enter a little science fiction bubble and that won’t want to leave for long while. Above all, the man spins a great, no-nonsense yarn.

Book Review: Thirteen, by Richard K. Morgan

Carl Marsalis is a Variant Thirteen–the result of a near future project to genetically engineered abnormally strong and quick and hyper-aggressive soldiers. His kind are feared as humanoid monsters, and most are kept in camps or exiled to colonies on Mars. Marsalis has been hired to help track down a virtually untrackable renegade thirteen who is on a vicious killing spree.

There’s a Blade Runner feel to the world inhabited by the Thirteens–the U.S. is no longer dominant (in fact, it’s split into the coastal Pacific Rim states, a New England allied with Europe and the UN, and the internal “Jesus Land”) and corporations wield power comparable to the most powerful national and international governments. Technological advances have not done much to improve the social circumstances of this world. The balance of power has shifted, but the proportion of haves to have-nots has not changed, and prejudices persist, if with different targets.

What keeps Morgan’s Thirteen from falling into the “I’ve read this before” disposal are the believability of his world and his characters and his deep exploration of race, genetics, politics, religion and tech. Occasionally Morgan spends a little too much time in preachy explication, but for the most part, the richness of detail makes this seem like a world we could be inhabiting all too soon.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and Morgan’s movie-like storytelling and the excellent voice acting got me (relatively painlessly) through a month of exercise–including my first seven mile run in nearly two years.

Book Review: The Tourmaline, by Paul Park

Sound the trumpets folks! It’s book #2 of the 100 I’m supposed to read for this year.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m a little slow coming out of the starting gates. My calculations tell me that I should have completed 7.2 texts thus far. I’ll catch up, I promise.

The Tourmaline may be partly to blame. Paul Park is refreshingly creative, defying all sorts of standard fantasy tropes, but necessitating careful, deliberate reading. This would be fine if I had all year to read these books, but I’m on a schedule, man! (This is why Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell may have to wait for my retirement before I read it). Curse you, Mr. Park, for your dream-logic scenes and unpredictable plot! I can read four formulaic Grisham novels in the time it takes to unravel one of your complex works!

The Tourmaline is the sequel to A Princess of Roumania, and follows the adventures of Miranda Popescu, her friends, and her enemies (Paul Park’s villains are sometimes deeper and more compelling than the protagonists) in the real Europe. Our world is an elaborate, imaginative construct, destroyed when its magical history is thrown on a fire, transporting Miranda and her two friends into a world in which England was torn apart by a natural disaster, Rome is in ruins, and an ancient Greek pantheon competes with the religion of King Jesus and Queen Mary Magdelene (the cross is still the symbol of Jesus, for he crucified the vanquished Roman generals). Miranda and her two friends struggle not only with the trials of this new world, but with the tension between their old New Jersey identities and their “real” Roumanian identities. For example, Miranda’s friend Andromeda, who once shopped at Victoria’s Secret, is also the Roumanian male general, Sasha Proshenko (and somehow also a were-dog).

I’ll be honest–I’m used to more approachable fantasy, and I definitely wouldn’t these to someone who wanted to escape into the world of Dragonlance. That said, I read fantasy to discover new worlds, and in the Roumania series, Paul Park has created an amazing new milieu to explore.

Stranger than Fiction

I can barely keep my eyelids propped open, but I wanted to share some thoughts before I lie down for some sweet, sweet rest.

We live in a stranger universe than anything we could imagine on our own. Recent science news give tiny little snapshots of this crazy reality:

  • Scientists have discovered a black hole that has 18 billion solar masses. Apparently the average density of these special black holes can be lower than air.
  • There is recent observational evidence for cosmic strings in the early universe, tubes narrower than a proton but so massive that a mile of it can exert more gravitational influence than the earth.
  • There may be as many as 1024 –that’s a trillion trillion–primordial black holes (pinpoint black holes with the mass of an asteroid) in the center of our galaxy, wandering about.

We don’t even know what most of the universe if made of. The stars and light and gas and dust we observe make up around 4% of the density of the universe. The rest of it is dark matter (most of it non-baryonic–not the atoms and particles we’re familiar with) and dark energy. The Wikipedia article on dark matter has this to say:

Determining the nature of this missing mass is one of the most important problems in modern cosmology and particle physics. It has been noted that the names “dark matter” and “dark energy” serve mainly as expressions of our ignorance, much as the marking of early maps with “terra incognita”.

I’m not sure why, but I find all of this knowledge/ignorance simultaneously wonderful and sobering. I read a lot of speculative fiction, and this universe seems more fantasy than science. I’m going to retreat now into my constructed reality: a cozy bed, a down comforter and clean sheets, and the warm glow of Jana.

Your Religion got in my Science Fiction!

It looks like my professor is going to approve my independent study on religion and science fiction!

I am faced with an embarrassment of riches: even after I cut out fantasy and limit myself to predominantly literary SF (no Star Trek or Babylon V), I’ve still got way too much. It seems the genre gives authors tremendous freedom to experiment with religion, and practically everyone has, from Mary Shelley to Cory Doctorow. My problem (boo hoo, John) is trying to find ways to narrow down the subject matter. Here are some secondary topics that interest me:

If everything goes well, expect to hear a lot more on this intersection of literary SF and religion.

How about you? What are your favorite treatments of religion and religious themes in science fiction stories?

42

Ever since we first invaded Afghanistan & Iraq, I’ve seen these “War is not the answer” bumper stickers. I like the sentiment, even if I may not always agree with it. As I’ve said before, I’m not and probably could never be a non-violent person. But there are extremes to every situation. I’m not one to rule it out completely, but at least those who do have a place from which to argue. Pacifism can be defended, after all.

Recently, however, I’ve started seeing “War is the answer” bumper stickers. Either they are just like the first (with the “not” removed) or they are the first with the “not” scratched off or replaced, and this is the creepiest to me, with an American flag.

I could agree that sometimes war is, indeed, the answer. As a (an? whichever you like) historian, I could argue that certain wars in the past have been the answer. But these bumper stickers seem to be arguing what, to me, is an indefensible position: that war is always the answer.

Often I see these on SUVs and that could simply be because a substantial number of cars on the road are SUVs but I always want to engage the driver in debate: really? War is the answer to your decision to drive this vehicle? War is the answer to your desire to join the Army to go to college? War on one country is the answer to an attack from a person who lives in a different country? War is the answer to the classic whose-dicks-are-bigger question?

I guess what I really want to know is, if war is the answer, what was the question? Because it’s not Freedom, it’s not Liberty, and it’s not Security.

the Sarah Connor Chronicles

One of my absolute favorite (current) actresses is Summer Glau, the fantastic & freaky major character from Firefly and Serenity. So, when I heard she was a (good) terminator in a new Terminator, I was tres excited. This seemed to be right up my alley. Too bad I’d never seen any of the series (although I did read the graphic novel of the second movie when I was a kid. It didn’t make much sense). So I Netflix’d the Terminator, which is classic ’80s, from the chain jackets to the night club; it arrived damaged, but I was undeterred! Netflix soon sent me a new copy, which showed me crappy special effects (who was in charge of the eyeball scene? seriously.), bad lines, and all around cheesiness. Then I watched T2: Judgement Day, which was vastly better, especially when compared to the original! I was prepared, then, for Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles
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keeping up my end of the bargain

I don’t really feel that I’ve been pulling my feminist weight around here recently (and that big long post about American Gladiators really rose from my husband’s comment; I expanded it because I wasn’t certain all our dear readers knew what AG was). And that really also means I’ve not been pulling my blogging weight around here, either. Part of that is busyness and part of that is intimidation. John has all these grand schemes for the future of MoF and keeps posting these great posts…I’m feeling a little out of my league.

So, instead of coming up with my own words, I’d like to give y’all a round up of my favorite recent feminist posts, in no real order, with a few religion posts thrown in for good measure and well-roundedness.

I’m starting off with Penelope Trunk, a favorite source for business (and, sometimes, feminism). She tackles Five Things People Say About Christmas That Drive [Her] Nuts in a very accessible (as always) manner. She also brings up some great come backs that atheists and agnostics can use (she is Jewish) against rabid Christmasers.

California NOW, which I keep giving another chance to get their blog off the ground, floats a little higher with a very brief discussion of the importance of words in framing a debate. In this case, the use of pronouns when we talk about the next president, and how being able to imagine it as a role for a person (without specifying a gender) is, in itself, progress. The post could be longer, more in depth, and less like a Twitter thought, but it’s still a good thought.

A blog I’ve never heard of before but was linked to by someone gives us an update on the state of women’s hockey gear. As a woman who just went shopping for her favorite sport-gear and found her choices to be lacking, I sympathize. Do I want gender-neutral clothing? Yes. Do I also want color choices? Yes. I picked out a lovely teal-and-ivory set that I hope conveys Snow Goddess to all who gaze upon me and then was given 160s and hideous red poles by the rental lady. I shall bring my own (black, just like the ones she gave my husband) poles next time. Do I think polka dots will build confidence? No. But I also believe that, as my sister once said about a football team whose name never mattered to me enough to remember, “If you look good, you feel good. And if you feel good, you play good.” So here’s to playing good: whether you’re male or female; and to looking good doing it. Preferably without polka dots or purple, two crimes against vision.

Feministe has an awesome list of questions for prolifers, you know, the ones who claim that conception is the start of life (which makes me wonder if I’m 9 months older than I think I am). She takes their arguments to their logical conclusions (not even extremes, although some of them are) to point out their absurdity. She brings up the point that doctors count a pregnancy not from its fertilization but from its implantation, since you can’t measure the former and many fertilized eggs get expelled. Which is sorta true, since it’s been my (limited) experience that doctors track it from the last time a woman was not pregnant (her period), since they don’t actually know when it was implanted. But I digress. Go, read it. And read the comments, they continue the discussion.

A quick hit from CNN.com: this article about Bush selling his daughter. I’ve already mentioned it, but it bears repeating. This is our prez, folks.

Ah, Feministing, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…first off, you continue my discussion of looking good and feeling good with a recommendation to read Trappings, which I shall now have to do. Another good one for comments. Leave your own, or leave it here (or both): what makes you feel powerful? (Men, too, are invited to join the discussion about clothes.)

And then you continue with a story again about men owning their daughters. Makes me glad again that my husband did not ask permission: and also that my father, though a (wing)nut, is not a psychopath.

Another blog I’ve never heard of has an awesome list of Republican candidates and which Buffy villain they most represent. SciFiPolitics, a new genre!

Pandagon has a book review about how bizarre it is to treat virginity as anything other than something made up to keep women in line: “even in the moment of ‘giving’ a man your virginity, you’re more technically presenting him with an opportunity to destroy something that doesn’t exist except as a cultural concept that’s not easily defined”. Hear, hear.

Pharyngula has awesome commentary about more hopeful wishing from the religious. This time, not snow from Ullr, or rain from YAJ, but non-pedophile priests from Catholic-YAJ.

Finally, an awesome religion-feminism post from our own dear Jana over at Sunstone: a visit to a Bat Mitzvah. John told me that they had been invited to a Bat Mitzvah, but this was the first I’d heard of that actually involved a shawl & reading from the Torah. I think I’d’ve cried, too.

That’s all for now, folks, but I’m back in the game. Go read those great stories while I cook up some of my own.