My first idea was to study how Wolfe's focus on spiritual and religious themes in The Book of the New Sun (BotNS) challenge established definitions of Science Fiction (such as Darko Suvin's) which aim to exclude religion and spirituality in order to focus more on the hard science aspect of the genre. I found, however, that the real challenge of BotNS to SF definitions was that it manages to be both SF and Fantasy, blending tropes of the two genres expertly. Wolfe's theological and spiritual discussions remain somewhat abstract – their bearing on the events of the narrative being somewhat uncertain. While there is definitely something to be studied in Wolfe's treatment of theological topics in BotNS, such as Christology and the Free Will / Predestination debate, I decided to shift my focus to The Book of the Long Sun (BotLS). The protagonist of BotLS, Patera Silk, is a priest in a fictional religion which is both pagan and a parody of Catholicism. I narrowed the possible areas of study down to three topics:
- The religion of The Book of the Long Sun as a parody of Catholicism.
- Patera Silk and the role of the priest in science fiction.
- Patera Silk as messiah figure – particularly as compared to Severian, the protagonist of BotNS, who is cruel and malicious, unlike the truly 'good' character of Silk, but is also explicitly a messiah figure.
After much deliberation I have settled on the second topic, which lends itself well to a comparative study with other texts, and also offers a promising three-chapter breakdown. In brief, I plan to contend that there are two dominant uses of the priest protagonists in SF:
- To affirm the priest's faith / religion and its positive effect (e.g. the missionary goes to an alien planet, converts its inhabitants, and brings peace and utopia to all).
- To debunk the priest's faith and expose it as false (e.g. by having the priest discover something that has him renounce his faith).
These will provide the topics for the first two chapters of my thesis. In the third, I will address Wolfe's use of the priest protagonist in BotLS, which I will put forth as an interesting and unique case. Wolfe, I will contend, manages to synthesise the two dominant uses of the priest in SF, by simultaneously debunking Silk's religion (the pagan religion in which he serves as priest) and reaffirming monotheism (through Silk's growing faith in 'The Outsider').
My next task is to read a heck of a lot of SF that has priests as protagonists. Top of the list are James Blish's A Case of Conscience and Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. I can't wait till this semester is over so I can get stuck into my reading!