Saturday, March 8, 2014

Traditionalist Science Fiction: Does It Exist? Is It Possible?

Yesterday, I went up to CPAC for a day, and I spent the final three hours drinking with some folks from Liberty Island and the National Review -- including Patrick Brennan, who got an earful on the politics of the science fiction fandom and the continuing implosion of SFWA. (Hello, conservative journalist who's younger than I! Let me tell you how science fiction is yet another front in our culture war. Etc., etc.)  At any rate, during the course of our conversation, an interesting question arose: Is there such a thing as traditionalist (aka socially conservative) science fiction?

Because when I think about the science fiction authors past and present with whom I'm familiar, Orson Scott Card is the only one I can think of off the top of my head who's expressed an identifiably traditionalist viewpoint on a particular issue (and his stance on gay marriage certainly doesn't guarantee equally traditionalist stances on other issues). The rest of my mental list is populated by leftists and libertarians. (And thank goodness for the second group!)

Fantasy, of course, has plenty of traditionalists, but do they exist in science fiction? Brennan seemed to think that a traditionalist wouldn't be interested in exploring technological progress or space exploration, but personally, I'm not so sure. After all, the Vatican - arguably the most powerful proponent of traditionalism in the modern world - has an astronomer -- who, by the way, once commented on the possibility of alien lifeforms having immortal souls. And let's not forget that several early scientists were members of monastic orders -- Gregor Mendel, for one.

Unfortunately, while I have been reading science fiction for most of my life, I certainly cannot boast that my knowledge of the genre is complete. So let me throw the above question out to the peanut gallery: Can you name any science fiction works that are clearly traditionalist? Suddenly, I have a mighty need.


  1. Would "A Canticle for Leibowitz" be a traditionalist work? I think is has a human wave underpinning, despite the bleak ending for the planet, and a pretty strictly conservative outlook.

    1. "A Canticle for Leibowitz" does have some traditionalist undertones, yes. I can't believe I forgot that one. Apologies, but I'm still suffering from a CPAC-induced brain fog.

  2. I have a long comment, which I have to split up. This is part one (of, I think, four).

    John Ringo was raised Catholic; he isn't any longer, but one of my favorite convention tales is to mention how he once pounded a table, vehemently disagreeing with his editor Toni, and proclaiming "No! Protestants are just $#&%ing heretics!" He's mentioned the Church favorably in his books, most notably the Aldenata series (which has a baptism of an AI that was made by an alien species, so that might be what you want). He does include, in the same series, the lifting of the prohibition against priestly marriage, but that's a discipline rather than a doctrine.

    In a very non-traditionalist series (as in, the middle of the first book definitely qualifies as erotica, if not outright porn), known as the Paladin of Shadows and starting with the book Ghost, there's a point where Paris is under a nuclear threat. The French government quietly evacuates, but doesn't tell the citizens. The Pope, visiting at that point, is also told. He doesn't leave, but instead goes ahead with Mass at Notre Dame. The main character, when he hears of this, notes that "nobody ever accused the Pope of being a coward." I punched the air. :) (The book was written, though not published, before JPII died, and he seems to be the Pope mentioned in the novel.)

    In addition to John Ringo's other traditionalist traits, you can go down the list for a few other names. There's the very outspoken Larry Correia, though he's just far enough over the line into fantasy that he might not count enough. There's John C. Wright, a Catholic convert. There's small-time author Karina Fabian, too.

    Randall Garrett might count, thought it depends on your definition of science fiction. He wrote the genre-bending Lord Darcy series of short stories, set in an alternate universe where the laws governing psychic powers were discovered but the laws of physics were not. In there, they call it magic, but from our perspective it's science. (One description of the series reads "where magic is science, and science is art.") That setting still has the Holy Roman Empire in the 20th century, with England still Catholic, and a materialist scientist in one story is viewed as borderline insane for not believing in God. These were written in the 60s and 70s.

    1. Part 2 of 4.

      Christopher Stasheff has a series of science fiction novels that also blur the line between science and fantasy by way of psychic powers. It's usually called the Warlock series, though there are two sequel series (The Warlock's Heirs and The Rogue Wizard). The original books are set on a planet called Gramarye, a colony planet that has regressed to a medieval stage. On this planet, many people have developed psychic powers that mimic magic. The Church on this planet is a strong influence, and at one point the Vatican sends a representative to examine things (this is my favorite book in the series).

      That same book introduces a fictional saint, St. Vidicon of Cathode, a tongue-in-cheek character who's the patron of engineers who was martyred trying to keep a televised papal sermon on the air (he used himself as an electrical conduit). Stasheff later wrote the book St. Vidicon to the Rescue, which is a metafictional book based on the audience reaction to that fictional saint. (The character of St. Vidicon knows he's a fictional character, so he's trying to figure out why he exists and what his purpose is. It's also a great look at a saint helping people out, if heavily fictionalized of course.)

      Stacheff's books aren't perfect on the Catholicism side, and his SF series' hero sleeps with a woman before marrying her. His fantasy series (The Wizard in Rhyme) is much better in this regard, and shows a modern fallen-away Catholic learning about his faith in the course of exploring an alternate Earth where magic works through poetry. (Though it still perpetuates a misunderstanding about penances. The rest of that confession scene was pretty good.)

      I feel like I'm missing a science fiction series somewhere. (And no, it's not the Space Trilogy, as that one feels entirely too far to the fantasy side despite its name.) But that should help right now.

    2. Part 3 of 4.

      As for the question you didn't quite ask (namely, "Is there a reason why science fiction isn't traditionalist?"), the answer is yes. Science fiction looks to the future, and so it's a natural place for progressivism. To a certain extent (the extent being that by which progressivism is correct, which is *presses finger and thumb together* not much), this is a good thing. Fantasy is about exploring our relationship with the world around us, which includes both physics and metaphysics. Science fiction tends to be more about exploring the relationship of humans with humans (sometimes using aliens as surrogate humans). The tropes just allow more room for tradition in fantasy, since you're usually looking to the past, or a world similar to our past, and so people expect that there. The most ardent atheist will accept conversations about religion in fantasy (though usually using polytheistic and flawed deities) but rarely in science fiction. The same goes for conversations about gender rights, homosexuality, transgender experimentation, and so on.

      Part of the problem, I think, is Star Trek. No chaplain (but one ship has a psychologist in pride of place), and only three species are allowed a religion (Vulcans, who basically have non-theistic ceremonies that are supposedly connected to their logic-that-isn't-actually-logic; Klingons, who have an afterlife that's sort of like Greek Vikings; and Bajorans, who are often used as a foil for science vs. religion strawmen). Star Trek has had a huge influence on science fiction and, sadly, sometimes very negatively. (Don't even get me started on their idea of an economy.)

    3. Part 4 of 4.

      The rest of it basically falls in line with the idea that science fiction keeps explaining things. That is, things once unexplainable and apparently mystical get defined by science, such as whether lightning bolts are weapons of the gods (or God). It makes it very easy for people to write stories about how aliens visited Earth at some point and we misinterpreted it as religious. This is usually done with ancient pagans (Egyptians with Stargate, Greeks with DC Comics, Norse with Marvel), but without a clear dividing line it's easy to step into more controversial things like whether or not Christ was an alien.

      (There's one amusing roll-your-eyes moment in a book by Dr. Travis S. Taylor, Warp Speed, when the main character imagines that what St. John wrote in the Book of Revelation was actually true. At one point, St. John narrates that, in his vision, an angel gave him a scroll that St. John then ate, after which he was able to understand what languages he heard. Doc Travis apparently thinks it's easier to say that the saint met an alien who gave him a scroll laced with translation-nanites than to say "It didn't actually happen" or "This is an allegory.")

      So yes, there's a reason for it -- but it's not an inevitable reason. It just means there's a bit of a trend against traditionalism in science fiction, one which we have to strive to overcome. For a genre without many dragons, there are a lot of watchful ones.

    4. Matthew: Thank you for bringing Randall Garrett and Christopher Stasheff to my attention. Those names are completely new to me, so yay! More fiction to investigate!

      As for the rest:

      I'm quite familiar with John Ringo. I've been a volunteer at Dragon Con since 2007, and Ringo is one of our perennial guests. While he's very respectful when it comes to religion (and the Church), overall, I wouldn't classify him as a traditionalist. I love his books, though! (And he's a hilarious panelist too.)

      John C. Wright, on the other hand -- yes, he's definitely traditionalist. I follow his blog as well as his fiction, so that oversight was really stupid on my part.

      I've also read books by Karina Fabian and Larry Correia, but I, personally, would classify them as fantasy writers rather than science fiction writers. Of course, definitions are hard to nail down. At Dragon Con, we have an hour long panel every year in which we attempt - and usually fail - to explain the dividing line. ;)

      And regarding the reasons for the relative lack of traditionalist science fiction: Yes, I think your analysis of the trends in science fiction is accurate, and yes, I agree that they don't have to be inevitable. If anything, as our scientific pursuits have become more and more advanced, the universe they reveal has become increasingly bizarre and, dare I say it, mystical. Science and faith in conflict? I don't think so!

    5. We might be thinking of two different versions of "traditionalist," then, covering the literary, social, and theological. Ringo's a literary traditionalist (unless you count Centurions as avant-garde), mostly social traditionalist (where he fails is where his atheism gets in the way), and a theological traditionalist (in that he will defend Catholicism against Protestantism and Christianity against everyone else -- he goes so far as to say that a society won't really be on top unless it's Christian).

      And yes, I can see you follow Wright and Karina from the sidebar -- but I do assure you, Karina writes SF. She's just having a little more trouble on that front. I'm hopefully going to be able to stamp a big fat APPROVED on her latest project. (I'm an editor at Chesterton Press. She wants to sell us on a nuns-in-space story.)

      Oh, and unpublished: Ann Lewis is trying to get a sort of Biblical sci-fi story going. And Lori Janeski (completely unpublished so far, no social media presence) has a sci-fi procedural with Catholic characters.

      Also, Charles Gannon is apparently Catholic. He asked me to review 1635: The Papal Stakes when he found out I was Catholic myself. The theological debate in the second half had me on the edge of my seat.

      As for science and faith, have you ever watched The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization series from EWTN? ( Episodes 2, 3, and 4 deal with that topic.

      There're also these two series from The Great Courses (currently on sale, grab 'em while you can!) from a Catholic professor:

      And of course, there's always books by Fr. Stanley Jaki. I used him heavily as part of a paper in college where I argued that modern science would never have developed without the Old Testament as a guide. (A-minus grade, so apparently it didn't suck.)

    6. I just encountered Karina Fabian a few months ago, so I've only had the opportunity to read books from the DragonEye PI series (which is great, by the way). I'm happy to learn she writes science fiction as well -- and I hope she does get that nuns in space story off the ground, because I'd certainly buy it!

      Regarding the 1632 universe: I'm aware of three novels in the series that deal with the Catholic Church specifically, and according to a friend I trust, they are all excellent and fair. I haven't had a chance to read them yet, though, because the same friend also recommended I read 1632, 1633, and a couple of the short story collections first. (I've finished the first two, but haven't yet gotten to the anthologies. Hey, cut me some slack -- I have a huge "to read" pile at the moment, and it keeps getting larger. :P)

      And yes: The Church did lay the foundation for modern science. As a science major, I had a special interest in educating myself on that topic.

  3. Um... have you read John C. Wright lately? He's Catholic, and a traditionalist. There's also two whole volumes of Catholic positive SF Literature called "Infinite Space, Infinite God". Lots of interesting stories in there.

    Also, the Catholic church first had those discussions about aliens having immortal souls in the 12th Century. Because our technology and knowledge ever increases and generations need to keep thinking about this stuff, they continue to talk about it down through the ages. The pro-soul argument for aliens comes from Thomas Aquinas, since named Doctor of the Church. The impact of his thought is going to be felt for a quite while in those circles.

    While I'm not personally a fan, Fr. Andrew Greeley, of Fr. Blackie (mystery) fame, also wrote some Science Fiction. One of the first books we could call speculative fiction was also written by a Catholic priest, back before the First World War. It's called "The Lord of the World". Some of G K Chesterton's works could be called speculative fiction, though obviously not in the hard SF category.

    Also, let's not forget that the "big bang" theory was first proposed and outlined by a French Jesuit scientist. They not only have an observatory inside the Vatican itself, but also maintain a second observatory at the University of Arizona, also run by Jesuits.

    1. As I remarked in my reply to Matthew above, my failure to remember John C. Wright was a silly mistake on my part. Thank you, though, for alerting me in re: "Infinite Space, Infinite God" and "The Lord of the World;" I hadn't heard of those before now. I am aware of the Church's true history regarding the advancement of science, however. That's why the claim that traditionalists wouldn't be interested in science fiction gave me pause -- because I knew that couldn't be true! ;)

    2. Sadly, many traditionalists, and especially Catholics, have bought into a weird, unspoken notion that it's off-limits. I say unspoken because the moment we start discussing it, it's obvious. That's where the insidious power of progressivism lies: the power of SHUT UP. Silence opposition before it even starts. Then you don't know who out there thinks like you.

      I know a very tough theology professor, for example, one Dr. William Marshner. I'm running a writing workshop at his college (my alma mater, Christendom), and the freshmen and sophomores were surprised that I said he's not nearly as scary as he seems. If you know some science and math, do your readings, have good grammar, and like Harry Potter, he will love you. And he's so particular on the science and math that he actually includes it in his Apologetics course (mandatory third-year course for all students). It's the only time the theology majors aren't rushing to answer his questions. :D (And one of the few times I got a chance to answer them myself.)

    3. Matthew: I hear you on the power of SHUT UP. Our entire cultural infrastructure has been selling the notion that Christianity and the Church are hostile to scientific exploration for ages, and it's hard to break out of that unless, like me (and my brother, by the way), you're a Catholic science major who has a special interest in disproving the Big Lie. That's partly why I wrote the post above to begin with! Not only am I looking for more reading material, but I'm also looking to encourage writers and readers to overcome the negative propaganda.

  4. I think it's fair at this point to say that I came back to the Catholic Church at least in part because of my scientific background. I see no conflict at all between science, science fiction, and my faith. The more I learn about the universe, the more I am convinced that it simply CANNOT be created accidentally...such an accidental creation is too damned impossibly unlikely for me to believe it. Did you know that if the gravitational constant of the universe were different by as little as 0.0000001% (yes, really), life in the universe would be impossible bercause it would either be non-stellariferous (because things wouldn't stick together with gravity) or one giant black hole (because things would stick together TOO well)?

    I mean...come on now...I'm supposed to believe this universe popped into existence with just the right gravity to within seven significant figures? To say nothing of the relationship between electromagnetism, the strong force, the weak force, and gravity in the production of the perfect diversity of different types of matter. Or the Goldilocks zone in which our planet formed (a zone which frequently fails to produce planets even around favorable stars because it gets absolutely bombarded with minor planets and asteroids during the chaotic planet forming period) or the beating our own planet HAD to take and survive for life to have been possible here (that beating produced our way of a miraculous survival of a Mars sized planetoid striking a glancing blow from Earth to give us our moon and tides, and the cosmic rain of millions of comets that brought us enough water to have a biosphere (!!)).

    How anyone could read Earth's cosmic history from the big bang to our arrival and not conclude that the universe was sculpted by God for then creation of life is beyond me.