I really dread it when science fiction writers delve into religious topics. I just wince when one of Isaac Asimov’s rationalistic know-it-alls, for example, condescendingly explains to a ditzy romantic interest that Jezebel wasn’t necessarily such a bad person. You know how Southerners get accused of still fighting the Civil War? Some people act like they’re still arguing at the Scopes Monkey trial. And Ender’s Game was such a great book… but who on earth encouraged Orson Scott Card to make some kind of parochial Catholicism be such a central part of its sequel? (That Hugo Award winning novel right there is all the proof you need that the Hugo Awards are broken!) Dude… I came back because you delivered the exploding space ships. What do you think you’re doing?!
In a similar vein, I nearly aborted my reading of the Honor Harrington series because by the second book, I was positive that the Graysons were just being brought in to function as whipping boys. Using these sorts of people as a punching bag goes back at least to, what? “A Study in Scarlet”? Perfectly legitimate, sure. I’m just tired of it. Of course, Weber had quite a bit more in mind for those characters than the same old same old, but still.
That brings us to this passage from Lou Antonelli’s Hugo nominated work from this year:
Although most people went along with being “volunteered”, after the suggestion was made I agreed willingly. I was single and so nobody else had to suffer with me; I thought it would be worthwhile experience for a young Methodist minister.
I commed the base Commander. “A quick question,” I asked. “Was Joe McDonald the first human die on Ymilas?”
“Why yes, he was. Why do you ask?”
“He’s here in my quarters. He’s become his own Helpful Ancestor.”
The Commander cursed, then asked “What do we do now?”
“I don’ know about ‘we’,” I said, “but I have some counseling to do, and then I call Dergec.”
Now… I don’t have anything against the writer and I don’t think there’s really anything wrong with this story. And I realize that I’m maybe coming from left field with this one. But I gotta say… too many people write about religion in science fiction when they know basically nothing about it. And the people doing it often don’t know that they don’t know. The worst stuff is by the people that have no inkling that a lot of their assumptions about life, nature, and man constitute a de facto religion when they think they quite beyond such things.
The problem with this particular passage, though… I guess it’s twofold, really:
- I don’t think I can tell you that I’ve ever really met a Methodist that successfully gave me the impression that he actually believed in life after death, that heaven was real, that the devil was the prince of this world, that Jesus was real person, and/or that the stuff in the bible actual corresponds to history and reality in any significant way. They’re mostly just nice people that are a touch sentimental about some old stories.
- I’ve never seen anyone involved in any kind of church type counseling see some kind of problem, roll up their sleeves, and say something to the effect of, “yeah boy! I’m gonna do some counseling. Woo-hoo!”
These people– and this is harsh– they’re really some kind of combination of a bureaucrat, a community organizer, and a psychoanalyst. They might have their own veneer of religion-themed jargon depending on their sect… but really…. they’re just ordinary folks mostly. If they were to encounter some kind of actual supernatural type phenomenon, they would be just as gobsmacked as, say, Ebenezer Scrooge when he encountered Jacob Marley’s ghost. But this isn’t some kind of morality play. And there are aliens involved. And there’s some kind of sciencey explanation setting up the premise. So my objection to how “realistic” this feels is entirely subjective and maybe not even fair.
But then there’s this:
I turned in the same direction as Dergec. “Are you okay with this, friend? You ready to go home?”
There was a pause, and then Dergec said “He is fearful, but ready.” He paused and continued. “Joseph said he wants you to know he appreciates your kindness, but he knows nothing awaits him. He learned the true nature of the pilgrimage from the Helpful Ancestors.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
“He says it is good, he realizes there is nothing left for him here, and he would rather be nothing than a ghost on a strange world,” said Dergec. “He said the others have given him courage. He hopes his immortal soul has already reached your heaven.”
“I know it has, Joe,” I said, my voice cracking a bit. “I have faith in that, that’s my job. To have faith.”
Eh, what does that even mean? Does this character have any concept of what he’s saying? I mean… George Michael had faith, what does this guy have?
And back to these real life chaplain types serving doing a job in the context of an extremely diverse range of religions. Maybe the closest to that that many of us might have come in contact with that is a “campus minister” at a college or university. Can you imagine that sort of person saying something like this… and really thinking that it means something? Again, I don’t have some kind of huge beef with this author or this story. But something just seems off to me here. Oh, no… it’s not as bad as, say, depicting rednecks that drink gin. I just feel there’s something more that could be done with this.