Wednesday, 9 September 2009

It's official! I have a thesis topic!

After a fruitful meeting with my honours supervisor this afternoon, I have finally settled on a specific topic for my honours thesis! My intention was always to write something on religion in Gene Wolfe's solar cycle (or sun cycle, or Urth cycle... I'm not sure anyone can agree on what it is called), but I had trouble deciding exactly what to focus on.

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:

  1. The religion of The Book of the Long Sun as a parody of Catholicism.
  2. Patera Silk and the role of the priest in science fiction.
  3. 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:
  1. 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).
  2. 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!


  1. Fantastic thesis topic! You'll enjoy it. Although... maybe you should hold off on the Eddings we were discussing, since his Silk is quite a different character.

  2. Hi,

    I hate to be a downer, but I think you need a broader overview of the figure of the (especially Catholic) priest in SF. Your stereotypes do not fit some major works in the field with priests as major characters, e.g. and off the top of my head:

    Blish, A Case of Conscience
    Russell, The Sparrow
    Simmons, Hyperion
    Clarke, "The Star"
    Peter F. Hamilton, the "Night's Dawn" trilogy
    Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz
    Boucher, "The Quest for St. Aquin"

    and at that I'm sure I'm missing something important.

  3. I think "The Star" might fit—and A Case of Conscience might fit one of your categories in a rather literal way.

    You might be interested in "An Alien Heresy", by S. P. Somtow (IASFM, April/May 2008). It won't disturb your categories, unlike some of the books mentioned above.

  4. Thank you for your feedback. In my defense: I fully acknowledge that I have a lot of research still to do - indeed, I have hardly begun. I also know that these broad categories I have set out above may not hold up under scrutiny - and like 99% of people writing theses, I will end up writing something quite different to that which I originally planned.

    I should have been clearer in my original post, but these crude 'stereotypes' are what I *currently* have the impression are dominant. I gather, from the limited research I have already done, that most SF with priests as protagonists (not peripheral or minor characters) either use the priest to challenge (or shake or debunk) the priest's faith, or to have it reaffirmed. These are, of course, generalisations.

    I *plan* to argue that Wolfe finds a middle ground between these two *dominant* approaches to the priest. I do not plan to argue that no one else has ever done the same and challenged these two approaches.

    Thanks very much sturgeonslayer and Jerry Friedman for your recommended texts - I'm currently in the process of planning my summer reading, and some of these were not yet on my list. Also, I welcome any texts that may challenge these 'stereotypes'.

    It may also have been unclear in my post, but this is an undergraduate thesis - a 15,000 word thesis that I will do in 2010 for my honours degree (we do things differently in Australia, I think). While the broad topic of the (Catholic) priest in SF would provide plenty to study for a PhD thesis, I am very restricted in both the time I have to research, and the length of my finished thesis.

  5. I would recommend checking out the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons. The characters Lenar Hoyt, Paul Dure and Federico de Soya will give you plenty to wrap your head around.