Ad Astra Per Libros:
Further Reading in Science Fiction & Faith
by Susan Haarman
Header image created on DreamStudio by Joseph Vukov
Whether the dialogue between science and faith is newer to you or part of your everyday work or meditations, reading science fiction is a great way stay in the conversation. Since its inception with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, science fiction has pushed readers to grapple with existential questions: what does it mean to be alive? Who should be considered human? Is all progress beneficial? Good science fiction, much like engaged religious faith, invites us to go to the horizon of our own knowledge, consider what lies beyond it, and reflect on what those possibilities could mean for our lives now.
Below is a curated list of science fiction works which encourages these kinds of questions. Avid readers may recognize some classics, but I have also included some newer works by breakout authors who have been redefining the genre - many of whom are women and people of color.
Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller
Canticle belongs to the classic science fiction pantheon. Even though it was written in 1959, its condemnation of war and deep concern for humanity's propensity to use technology to destroy rather than create is still salient. The book’s three interconnected stories are set in a Catholic monastery in Utah after a nuclear holocaust. The stories themselves take place over centuries as the monks labor to preserve knowledge in the face of disaster - and later grapple with its uses and abuses when it is “rediscovered.” Miller’s work is a blistering condemnation of nuclear warfare. Through its depiction of humans suffering from extreme, fallout-induced mutation, it also invites invite reflection on what it means to be “made in God’s image” when the form is not easily recognized.
Both a meditation on the cyclical nature of history and humanity’s brokenness, the book presents a view of science and technology that challenges readers who consider either simply neutral. The apocalyptic landscape is amongst the most brutal and vivid I have read. Yet the book also displays a remarkable commitment to a scriptural conception of hope that rests in a belief in the movement of God amidst tremendous suffering. While Miller’s religious zeal and near total lack of complex female characters does not read as well seventy years later, the conclusion of the final story is a devastatingly beautiful commentary of the triumph of grace over humanity’s narrow conceptions of what is right.
The apocalyptic landscape is amongst the most brutal and vivid I have read. Yet the book also displays a remarkable commitment to a scriptural conception of hope that rests in a belief in the movement of God amidst tremendous suffering.
Binti Series by Nnedi Okorafor
Also a trilogy of stories, Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti Series presents all the tropes of a science fiction coming-of-age tale: leaving home to travel the stars, tragedy on the journey, a galactic university. However, these Hugo Award-winning stories are also masterworks of Afrofuturism, which employs science fiction to imagine possible futures through a black cultural lens and to engage themes such as how technology can be used to liberate and how society must honestly engage historical legacies of oppression and suffering. The titular character Binti faces these familiar science fiction challenges with compassion, empathy, and intelligence rather than violence and superiority. Her articulation of deep calling to explore the stars invites readers to consider the ways in which science can serve one’s vocation. The stories turn classic science fiction on its head as Binti pulls strength and perspective from the faith and traditions of her family to address seemingly impossible conflicts. Her unabashed descriptions of how she honors her own heritage through cultural practices around her hair and the ways in which she uses technology to enable better cross-cultural communication challenges the traditional image of a science fiction hero rooted in whiteness and conquest. The story - and readers - are better for it.
Okorafor’s truly galactic vision of the universe features some of the most compelling alien species and characters in modern science fiction. As Binti negotiates with aliens for survival, she is constantly examining their moral differences. Binti struggles to stand by her own values of peace and dignity, while also trying to collaborate to prevent greater violence. The moral negotiations are an essential part of the narrative, and Okorafor manages to make them exciting and organic rather than preachy or stilted.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Arguably no list of science fiction books that intersect with religion would be complete without The Sparrow – the story of Jesuits establishing a mission in outer space after the discovery of intelligent extraterrestrial life. The book is a recent addition to the unexpected subgenre of “Jesuits in space,” which includes James Blish’s A Case of Conscience and Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, “The Star.” Russell’s book takes on issues of missiology and evangelization in a complex and respectful way. It highlights the ways in which the scientists and missionaries seek to both understand and love the aliens they interact with while also causing near catastrophic unintended consequences. The plot presents a convincing model of how lay scientists and Jesuits might work together on galactically-expanded missionary frontiers. It also creatively explores the ways in which Jesuits might muster their myriad skills and academic pursuits into a space-faring expedition. At the same time, the author’s clunky prose is grating, as is her cloying portrayal of the main Jesuit protagonist, Emilio Sandoz, as nearly perfect. Despite its faults, Russell does infuse the book with a deep respect for Ignatian Spirituality. She also uses the character’s experiences to raise difficult questions of theodicy.
The plot presents a convincing model of how lay scientists and Jesuits might work together on galactically-expanded missionary frontiers.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
Set in an unnamed Islamic Middle Eastern city at the time of the Arab Spring, Alif the Unseen introduces to us to Alif, an unlikely and unwilling hacker who begins the story concerned only with getting access to information. After he runs afoul of a shadowy governmental censor, however, Alif finds himself on the run. He is aided in his adventure by unlikely protectors: not only djinn, but by the magical tome Alf Yeom (The Thousand and One Days), which threads secret knowledge throughout its stories.
This book manages to combine cyberpunk with political espionage, humor, and cultural critique, all while sustaining serious theorizing about quantum computing. The book also offers reflective discussions on what it means to practice one’s faith in a rapidly changing world. It is a charming and exciting book full of characters that are as fantastical as they are memorable, but the ongoing conversations around intersections of faith, culture, activism, and truth shine throughout.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Patterned after The Canterbury Tales, Simmons’ work features seven pilgrims on the way to the Time Tombs, located on planet Hyperion and guarded by the Shrike, a horrific nine foot tall steel being worshiped by a cult. Because of an impending interstellar invasion, the pilgrimage is the last of its kind, and the seven tell each other stories as they seek to understand why they were chosen. The stories range from horror to noir to romance, and engage a spectrum of topics: from the ethics of cyberwarfare using omnipotent AI to whether an android with human memories could fall in love. All three Abrahamic faiths feature heavily in the identities of the characters and themes of the stories. Simmons’s reading of these religions can be one dimensional and unflattering at times, yet he unflinchingly centers the universal struggle of how we deal with human hubris and tragedy that confounds understanding. The priest’s tale, for example, imagines interactions between an exiled Catholic priest and alien life forms which raise questions about the role of suffering in salvation. While providing few answers and an ending that some will find frustratingly anti-climatic, Hyperion’s world and the questions it raises will stay with you long after you reach its conclusion.
The stories range from horror to noir to romance, and engage a spectrum of topics: from the ethics of cyberwarfare using omnipotent AI to whether an android with human memories could fall in love.
A Psalm for the Wild Built & A Prayer for the Crown Shy by Becky Chambers
For those who are not drawn to brutal tales of the failure of humanity, this duology of Becky Chambers’ novellas will serve as a warm cup of tea straight from the main character’s teacart. While both works are more meditations on larger issues with vivid characters than plot-driven tales (ala Jonathan Livingston Seagull or The Little Prince), the novellas are excellent examples of the burgeoning solarpunk genre, a cluster of science fiction pieces that imagine a future in which humanity has realized and begun to undo climate change with technology and rewilding. In the world of Chambers’ fictional future, robots are now a thing of myth. After gaining sentience over 500 years ago, AI-infused robots promptly withdrew to the forest to tend to nature and consider their own existence free from human intervention.
Sibling Dex, a traveling tea monk, encounters Mosscap, a sentient robot who has been sent by its community to find and make contact with a human. Mosscap’s mission: to ask the humans what they need to determine if the robots should return to the larger world or if doing so would risk their enslavement and suffering. The majority of the text is dialogues between the two on the nature of change, environmental interdependence, free will, and consciousness, on what is considered a soul and the ethics of dealing with creatures whose consciousness does not resemble our own. Both books are gentle affairs, with most of the conflict coming from within the heart of Dex, who is struggling with their sense of purpose and what it means that beings without souls seem to be more moral than humans. These books are light on plot, but rich with hopefulness, and Mosscap may be the kindest robot since WALL-E.
The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
If Mosscap’s compassionate curiosity does not sound compelling, Murderbot may be the non-human that steals your heart. The self-named Murderbot is a security cyborg operating in the near future where private corporations jockey to run nearly every aspect of space exploration and governance. Far from being a homicidal maniac, Murderbot has been in control of its own actions and sentience since a malfunction of its governor module. In All Systems Red, the first novella in a seven-part (and counting) series, Murderbot is assigned by an insurance agency to protect a group of scientists on an expedition to a hostile planet. Carnivorous and scheming corporations provide an exciting plot, but the best part of this story (and most of the rest of the Murderbot Diaries) is Murderbot’s internal dialogue. They are snarky, grossed out by humans, and would prefer to watch the science fiction version of Netflix than do anything else. Well’s dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny and Murderbot will remind you of your favorite eye-rolling teenager who ultimately always seems to show up and do the right thing, even as they claim to hate every minute of it. While its tone is decidedly sarcastic, the series examines questions of consciousness, free will, the dehumanization of capitalism, and the risks of emotional vulnerability. Like any good science fiction robot story, Murderbot ends up feeling more humane than most of its human allies or adversaries. If you listen to audiobooks, I would highly recommend the audio versions of these stories as the voice actor behind Murderbot brings them brilliantly to life.
BONUS MEDIA: Video Games
For folks who play video games, one of the greatest examples of a science fiction narrative that grapples with religious themes is the Mass Effect trilogy. These three mid-2010s games were recently remastered and re-released as Mass Effect Legendary Edition. An epic space opera in every sense of the term, the games follow Commander Shepard, a space marine trying to unravel mysteries of major conflicts across the solar system and saving the galaxy in the process. All the major non-player characters are rich and fascinating, and the story lines cover major ethical topics: genetic engineering, xenophobia, transhumanism, artificial intelligence, and trafficking. One of the primary storylines features the Geth, a group of sentient synthetic hive mind creatures who rebelled when their creators refused to recognize their consciousness. Some Geth have since developed religious beliefs and are waging holy war against their former masters, while others believe all creatures in the universe deserve self-determination. The game asks the player to make numerous difficult choices around several morally gray issues. One Geth’s continual question of “Does this unit have a soul?” belies the deeper issues the game’s narrative pushes the player to consider.
Dr. Susan Haarman is the associate director at Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Engaged Learning, Teaching, and Scholarship where she facilitates faculty development and the university's service-learning program. In addition to having a PhD in Cultural and Educational Policy Studies, she holds a Masters in Divinity, a Masters in Community Counseling, and is licensed therapist. Her research focuses on the intersection between social justice education, community-based learning, civic identity, and imagination. She is also an improviser and a storyteller.