Catholic Science Fiction -- what on earth is that?

detail from Franco Brambilla's "Aliens and Priest"
Detail from Franco Brambilla's "Aliens and Priest"
I see it's been a while since I posted anything on this blog, but that's because I've been busy working on my novel. I've also done a little poking around to identify other Catholic writers who are writing science fiction these days, as well as those who have done so in the past. If you know of such a writer, please leave his or her name in the comments at the end of this post.

Too often when we talk about "Catholic writers," we mean not only "writers who are Catholic" but more specifically "who write about Catholic stuff" or "Catholics who write for Catholic readers."  These definitions strike me as too narrow. A number of years ago, I bought a book from Ignatius Press called The Catholic Writer, containing a variety of papers from an academic literary conference sponsored by the Wethersfield Institute. After I got it home, I flipped through to look for a discussion of one of my favorite Catholic writers, Flannery O'Connor -- but there was none! In the introduction to the volume, the editor explained that they only included writers who wrote on Catholic subjects -- i.e., stories about Catholics doing Catholic stuff (presumably attending Mass, praying the rosary, burying statues of St Joseph upside down in their front yards to help sell a house). I thought this was an insane definition of the term "Catholic writer,'' particularly as it necessarily excluded writers like O'Connor, whose stories are positively incandescent with the light of her Catholic faith. (You can read a recent post on O'Connor on my other blog, A Catholic Reader.)

Such writers are usually "preaching to the choir," writing for other Catholics. I'm interested in Catholic writers in a broader sense -- i.e., writers whose imaginations have been informed by their Catholic faith, who see the world from a Catholic perspective and then write about it. They need not incorporate any specifically Catholic elements, or may do so only incidentally, but the tale they tell is nontheless shaped by a Catholic sensibility. I like the definition of "Catholic writers" embraced by the folks over on
Catholic fiction has a Catholic perspective. It doesn’t merely contain the trappings of Catholicism—that is, cultural Catholicism (e.g., kneeling, genuflecting, praying, the presence of clergy in the story, a character who prays the Rosary or who goes to Mass regularly). Instead, Catholic fiction contains Catholic meaning: small instances of a protagonist’s faith, or doubt, sprinkled throughout the story, culminating in a Catholic theme that somehow presents a Catholic message or truth that we (and maybe the protagonist) can discover or realize more fully or in a new way.
In an essay on the subject of Catholic fiction written by a friend and erstwhile colleague of mine at the University of Dallas, Dr. Bernadette Waterman-Ward suggests that what distinguishes Catholic fiction from other kinds is a sense of mystery, in the theological sense meaning that there is more to the world than meets the eye, metaphysical depths that attest to the abiding presence of God in His creation. This view, of course, runs directly contrary to what might be called the dogmatically scientific view, which proclaims that the only realities are those which empirical science can verify (a circular argument which necessarily denies any kind of metaphysical reality). So it might seem paradoxical to talk about something called "Catholic science fiction."

Of course, in science fiction, even the science is largely fiction -- scifi writers don't necessarily write about actual science, but about fictional science, which sometimes has been plausibly extrapolated from actual, known ("real") science, and sometimes is simply made up. If scifi writers were restricted to using only proven science, the whole field of "science fiction" would never have come into being. H. G. Wells would be known for Tono Bungay, rather than War of the Worlds or The Time Machine. The best science fiction is, like most really good fiction, about the human condition, not about science, although a lot of it considers the effect, for good or ill, that scientific and technological developments will have on the human condition. Some of it also looks at how present problems -- sociological, political, or other -- will play out, how they will affect the future.

There is, in fact, a growing body of Catholic (and, more broadly, Christian) science fiction being published, but a lot of it is not very good, either because it is too preachy, intended only for other Christians, or because, with the ease and advent of electronic publishing, writers are rushing to get their work published without paying adequate attention to the craft of writing (or both). This is a shame, because there is already an unfortunate tendency in the contemporary world to disparage all things Christian, and we should not give any more reason for people to think that Christians are somehow stupider or more dull-witted that the population at large. Catholic writers, of whatever genre, who believe they have something valuable to contribute to popular literature, particularly those who want to tell stories illumined by their faith, should respect their God-given talents enough to develop them carefully and to produce the best work possible.

For anyone puzzled about what I mean by fiction informed by a Catholic sensibility without necessarily being about Catholics or "Catholic stuff," an example would be Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas novels, which I've recently begun reading. I'd never read Koontz before, as I'd always identified him as a horror writer and I'm not really interested in horror fiction. However, after watching an interview of him on Raymond Arroyo's World Over show, I decided to give him a go. If you're familiar with Koontz's work but not his Catholic background, try watching the video.

I'd be interested in learning of any writers, particularly but not necessarily writers of science fiction, who do a good job of combining a Catholic sensibility with good writing. If you know of any, please leave a comment below.

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