Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Thesis topic clarification

There seems to have been some confusion over what exactly I'm planning to do for my thesis topic, and the nature of the thesis itself. The aforementioned project is a 15,000 word undergraduate thesis which I will undertake in 2010 as part of my Bachelor of Arts Honours course. Most simply, my studying how the character of Patera Silk from Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun fits in to the greater context of the narrative function of the priest as protagonist in science fiction literature. While this may seem narrow (there are plenty of PhD thesis topics to be found in Catholic SF in general), I have had to be very specific on my choice of topic since I am greatly restricted by time and word count. I will now lay out a basic (possible) plan for the thesis, then explain some of my (tentative) decisions.

- Very brief history of religion in science fiction; there has been relatively little written on this topic.
- The priest as protagonist is a particularly common narrative device, used to explore faith and religion from 'within'.
- Typically, an author chooses to have a priest as a protagonist for one of two dominant reasons:

1) The 'negative' use of the priest
- Wherein the author chooses to have a priest as protagonist in order to expose them to some extraordinary (science fictional) dilemma which has a negative impact on their faith.
- The priest may have his faith profoundly shaken, or lose it completely. He may discover that God is evil, or come to have a lesser view of God in some way, thus losing faith in God's goodness.
- Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star" would be a good example of this.

2) The 'positive' use of the priest
- The priest is chosen as the story's protagonist so that his faith can be affirmed, or strengthened, thus effecting his faith in a positive way.
- This is not to say that the priest will not experience some challenge to his faith in the course of the narrative; rather, the priest's faith perseveres and is finally seen as a positive thing.
- This may also include instances where a priest's faith remains strong and consistent throughout, and is cast in a positive light.

3) Gene Wolfe's Patera Silk, and the synthesis of these two dominant positions
- Wolfe manages to synthesise these two dominant uses of the priest protagonist, through his use of a pagan religion which is explicitly modeled on Catholicism.
- Silk renounces the religion in which he serves when he discovers that his 'gods' are artificial intelligences unworthy of worship. Since his religion is an explicit parody of Catholicism, Silk can perhaps be seen to be rejecting some aspect (the ritual aspect?) of Catholicism.
- Throughout the tetralogy, Silk's faith in the Outsider (the 'one true God' of monotheism) grows, and in this sense the spiritual aspect of Catholicism is affirmed.

- Something along the lines of Wolfe being an important and profound SF writer, etc. (I truly cannot anticipate this bit.)

I am sure that Wolfe isn't the only science fiction author to ever synthesised these two dominant (?) uses of the priest – there may well be others who do the same, or manage to maneuver straight between the two views along the fence of neutrality. My decision to engage with this seemingly crude dialectical opposition (challenge/reaffirmation) is based on the reading and research I have already done (minor though it may be), and the logic that if an author is going to make their protagonist a priest, they will likely be wanting to do one of these two things with the priest's faith (I think it would be fairly pointless to maintain absolute neutrality – why, then, choose a priest?).

I wish to stress that this is a very tentative plan, and will probably be greatly altered when I have done more research (and I have a lot of research still to do). Indeed, many people writing theses find themselves greatly changing what they planned to write after doing more in-depth research. I would greatly appreciate any feedback that anyone may have, or any suggested readings - I'm still compiling a massive list of all the books I have to get through in the coming holidays!


  1. hello,
    i just stumbled across your blog, nevertheless, (and needless to say), i'm glad i did..i wanted to write my diploma thesis about wolfe's narrative(s), but, sincerely, i'm just not made out of this stuff (sadly)...anyways, looking forward to your achievements!

  2. also, what my actual intent/question was, how do you narrow down your primary literature? will you consider horn" being the one who wrote about silk? (though i can see that your focus does not lie on the narrative of the novels). with regards,

  3. Hi! Thanks for posting and saying hello :)

    When it comes to finding primary literature, I'm hoping I have the chance to do a *lot* of reading over the next few months before I begin the thesis. I'll probably be sticking to a few of the most popular / well known sf stories with priests as protagonists, as well as the suggestions of my supervisor, who knows sf inside and out.

    I'm not really sure how much attention I can give to the complex narratorship of The Book of the Long Sun - I will likely mention it in passing, but my focus will be on Silk as a character (though his portrayal by Horn will probably come into that at some point).

    A narratological study of Wolfe's writing would be awesome - especially with the complexity of The Book of the Short Sun - but there's such a wealth of material to study it'd probably be better suited for a PhD thesis, rather than an honours thesis.

  4. Yes, yes, YES!!! This project sounds amazing. What you've hit on with Wolfe employing *both* uses of the priest in s.f. is spot on! It's an incredibly ingenious move in my opinion and makes for a very creative and effective Christian apologetic for readers in the 'postmodern' era.

    (I don't think Wolfe is an apologist, per se, but there is an unavoidable [perhaps unintentional or unwitting?] element of this in much of his work, not least Long and Short Sun).

    Please see my blog ( for further stimulation. I have a link there to your blog among others.

    I love the way you're writing about faith in s.f. on this site. It's not covered regularly enough and I think you're ferreting out many good examples and dealing with them evenhandedly and insightfully. All the best to you!

    -Daniel Otto Jack Petersen

  5. Hi Daniel!

    Thank you very much for your positive comments! Thanks too for the link to your blog - it looks great, and I'll link to it from this site. I love discovering the writings of other Wolfe fans!

    All the best, Zac.