Monday, 11 January 2010

SF reading update - A Case of Conscience; Hyperion

I am still struggling through James Blish's A Case of Conscience, but I'm nearly finished! It's not even that long a book - I'm just not feeling much love for it. The science is absurd, as is the logic behind the apparently random events of the book (e.g. the crazy smokes at the bizarre dinner party, and the only (?) alien on Earth being a popular talk show host). I should finish it very soon though, and then I can rant or complain about it at length.

I have, however, started reading Dan Simmons's Hyperion, which I am thoroughly enjoying. I have finished reading Father Hoyt's tale and the embedded narrative of Father Duré's journals - they form one of the most fascinating, and chilling, treatments of religion in science fiction that I have read. Since the priest's story is told primarily through Duré's journal (of which Duré is of course the narrator and the protagonist), it should prove to be a useful text to study for my honours thesis. I found it interesting how Duré's faith fluctuated between weakening (when he arrived at the planet and believed the Church to be doomed), strengthening (when he found the 'basilica' and supposed proof of his faith), and weakening again (when he found this cross-centred faith to be quite evil, and was unable to understand how God could allow such a wickedness to take place). Though perhaps weakening and strengthening are not the words I am looking for - more like pessimism and optimism perhaps; or fluctuating between seeing God as a merciless, even cold and heartless deity, and a powerful, loving and merciful one. I can't wait to see how the story turns out. Thanks to those who recommended it! It has already been worth while.


  1. Hi there,
    Nice blog! Though of course I'm partial to Gene Wolfe references. ;-) Great idea for the thesis. I see people have already made good suggestions but I'll just add my two cents:

    In terms of priest-protagonists in the SF canon, I think these works are central:
    The Quest for Saint Aquin - Boucher
    A Case of Conscience - Blish
    The Star - Clarke
    A Canticle for Leibowitz - Miller
    The Book of the Long Sun (obviously!)
    The Sparrow & The Children of God - Russell

    I think you'd have to reference those, at least in passing, or have all the SF experts jump up and shout "Yeah but what about...!"

    Now, personally I'd also suggest:
    Eifelheim - Michael Flynn (a thoughtful medieval priest encounters aliens)
    "The Streets of Ashkelon" - Harry Harrison (a deeply stupid priest taints an alien race)
    "The Seraph From Its Sepulchre" - Gene Wolfe (a priest lives amidst the ruins of an alien civilization)
    "Last Day" - Gene Wolfe (a robot priest tries to preserve his religion)
    "Samaritan" - Connie Willis (a minister has to decide if he should baptize a monkey)
    "Gus" - Jack McDevitt (a cynical priest gets to know a computerized version of St. Augustine)
    "A Case of Consilience" - Ken McLeod (a Presbyterian minister tries to evangelize radically different aliens - with a surprising twist).

    Of course, there are also lots of interesting stories about popes (Wolfe's "How the Whip Came Back" or Silverberg's "Good News From the Vatican"; and apostles (Lafferty's "Walk Now Gently Through the Fire," Cordwainer Smith's E'telekeli in his novel Norstrilia, and other apostles in a few of Michael Bishop's stories); not to mention fascinating priest characters who aren't protagonists (like Father Roche in Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book or the mysterious Enoch Root in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.) But they don't fit exactly so I'll say no more! ;-)

    Since you're a fellow library guy I assume you're already pretty good at tracking down short stories - I didn't find it too hard to get used copies of the books I was looking for when I was researching this material ( was invaluable) but I'm not sure what the situation in Australia is like. There are some out-of-print but very handy anthologies on religion in SF out there. "Sacred Visions," edited by Andrew Greeley & Michael Cassutt, is probably the best one for your purposes.

    Come to think of it, there's a short story I read some time ago which fits your thesis rather well - it was about a priest who encounters the ruins of an alien civilization - with each new discovery he veers between almost losing his faith and regaining it, almost as if the author was playing with the conventions you're studying. I'll have to dig out the collection it was in and get back to you.

    Anyways, you're probably already aware of a lot of this material but hopefully some of it will be helpful to you. Good luck and I look forward to hearing more about your research as it develops!


  2. PS:
    Ok, the story I was thinking of is, oddly enough, by an Australian - Damien Broderick. It's entitled "The Magi" and I found it in an anthology called Perpetual Light, edited by Alan Ryan, which came out in 1982. The priest-protagonist is a Jesuit scientist named Raphael Silverman.

  3. Hi Elliot!

    Thanks lots for your comments and recommendations. I had not come across The Quest for Saint Aquin by Boucher, but I will be sure to get hold of it now. I'm yet to read Russell as well - that's next on my reading list. Haven't read any of the stories from your second list (even the Wolfe ones! I'm still working my way through his *many* short stories), but I'll definitely track them down. My library has a very good document delivery / inter-library loan service, and I too frequent AbeBooks.

    On the topic of the apostle, Wolfe's Book of the Short Sun seems to be a story about the trials of apostleship, with Horn being the disciple of Silk. (Of course this gets much more complicated, but I won't go in to that here.)

    re: "The Magi" - it seems that most priest-protagonists in sf are Jesuit scientists. My honours supervisor believes that it is because Jesuits are considered to be the "smart Catholics". I guess there is a history of scientific pursuit in the Jesuit order, and in sf this embodies a perceived 'conflict' between science/empiricism and religion/faith.

  4. You're welcome! The Quest for Saint Aquin is from 1951 - probably one of the earliest SF stories in the American SF canon explicitly dealt with Catholicism. And it's a classic, which is why it shows up in many anthologies - just a few years back a friend of mine was assigned it in a English literature class (at a secular university.) Anthony Boucher was a Catholic and though he wasn't that prolific in writing SF, his work as a magazine editor made him an influential and popular figure with many early SF authors.

    I should specify that in my reference to Michael Flynn's Eifelheim I meant the novel - apparently it was a short story first but that didn't involve the priest directly.

    I think Wolfe would probably qualify as a great sf author on the strength of certain short stories & novellas alone - I envy you the opportunity of reading them (or at least some of them) for the first time. BTB, you may know this already, but his novel "Pirate Freedom" has a priest as its protagonist. Though it's only partially SF.

    I think you're right about Horn and Silk; though, yeah, it gets complicated and we probably shouldn't post any spoilers in public... ;-) Speaking of apostles and sainthood, I'd recommend Cordwainer Smith's story "The Dead Lady of Clown Town," which sounds ridiculous but is one of the most powerful treatments of religion & martyrdom in SF I've ever read. It might not fit your thesis but I think you'd enjoy it - maybe as pleasure reading when you're done writing.

    Jesuit scientists certainly are popular in SF. Have you read anything by Guy Consolmagno? He's a real-life example and I believe he's an SF fan. I think partly it has to do with their early missions in China, Japan and North America - it's easy to imagine them as emissaries to alien cultures because they already had that role to some extent.

    Anyways, good to hear from you, and keep us informed as to your progress (when you can)!

  5. PS: Just remembered two more sources with priest-protagonists - if not for reading then for your bibliography: The Child Goddess by Louise Marley has a female Catholic priest trying to protect a child from an alien planet. "Infinite Space, Infinite God" (ed. Robert & Karina Fabian) is a recent anthology of sf stories about Catholics/Catholicism, and the stories feature clergy-people from a Pope down to a deacon.

  6. PPS: Er, I should have said, the female priest is trying to protect a child who is FROM an alien planet, not protecting her from the planet itself. Bad grammar.