Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

So Anglosphere SF/F Isn't Sacral?

First let's start with an extreme view. I can't get in and read this article, but Project Muse contains the following abstract:

Nikolajeva, Maria "Fairy Tale and Fantasy: From Archaic to Postmodern"
Marvels & Tales - Volume 17, Number 1, 2003, pp. 138-156
Wayne State University Press

The essay discusses the ontological, structural, and epistemological differences between fairy tales and fantasy literature, two genres often treated together in critical works. Using contemporary theories of the fantastic, it is argued that unlike fairy tales, with their origin in archaic thought, fantasy literature is firmly anchored in twentieth-century science and philosophy, especially the postmodern concepts of uncertainty, intersubjectivity, heterotopia, and heteroglossia. The characteristic features of postmodern fantasy literature are illustrated by the works of Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, and Russell Hoban.

and Google contains the following line from it:

"....however, fantasy has distinctly lost the initial sacral purpose of traditional fairy tales."

It's hard to know where to start on a comment like that. First off, are we truly sure that fairy tales had sacral purpose always and everywhere, or are we drawing a line around what fits the thesis and calling everything else a folktale?

Second, has Nikolajeva deliberately chosen examples which leave out fantasy written for sacral religious purposes, and is she misreading the examples she has and missing that purpose? I mean, including Pullman is just one giant gimme. (But it also argues against her thesis, because Pullman is a perfect example of an atheist with a fierce interest in promoting beliefs which he holds by faith. He is no less a missionary as his despised Lewis and MacDonald, which is endlessly amusing to the rest of us.) And no, contemporary mainstream fantasy isn't particularly known for promulgating Christian religious beliefs, but there are tons of folks promoting pagan and gnostic beliefs. The quote should not have been "fantasy has lost the sacral purpose", but rather, perhaps, "The need to get authors and sell books in a religiously pluralistic society has made sacral purpose a nice but not essential element of fantasy."

Although, to be honest, if you don't have religion in science fiction also, you are betraying the fact that you don't think religion is real, and isn't just a nice nostalgic element we don't believe in anymore. Which leads us to this essay by Vladimir Gakov, "The Clever Heresy of the Fantastic" (via the Sacral Fantasy LJ community).

Gakov, quoting from the article on Religion in Peter Nicholl's e Science Fiction Encyclopedia, claims that religion was TABOO back in the old pulp days. Well, yes and no. (And Nicholls, that capitalization of yours!)

Now, sex, that was TABOO. Religion was not TABOO in horror magazines at all, because any evil priest or whatever was just being possessed by the Devil -- though it behooved the editors not to offend their Catholic buyers. Religion was only semi-TABOO in fantasy, which found a home right next to horror in Weird Tales and its few imitators. But the science fiction zines were dealing with a crop of young science-minded people, some of which were extreme atheists, some of which were extreme believers in all sorts of religion, and all of which were willing to get worked up over tiny things. More than that, they were dealing with drugstores and newsstands which they wanted to stock their magazines, blue laws they didn't want to break, and parental and ministerial anger they didn't want falling on their heads. They were living in an America in which depicting the President in a play or movie was deemed disrespectful, much less Jesus. So religion was a subject the editors just didn't want to deal with, unless it came from a "classic writer", like in a reprint of H.G. Wells, or it was some exotic Eastern belief. Writers could just save the religious discussion for hardcover books.

Indeed, as soon as American science fiction writers got a chance, they did start writing about religion. Often not in flattering terms, and often coming up with new "heresies" -- yes, Gakov is right about that. But often too, writers came up with deeply religious stories. He admits that Bradbury often sounds very religious -- so much so that Russians didn't get to read him for forty years. He doesn't spend any time on Poul Anderson's classic story of a telepathic alien and a black hole, which begins and ends with a main character praying among the nuns of a convent on the Moon, set up to pray perpetually for starfarers. He doesn't mention Anthony Boucher, Zenna Henderson, Manly Wade Wellman, or the little faith stories or religious characters that have always showed up here and there. But oddly enough, Gakov's Russian take on Isaac Asimov's Robot stories is much more religious than I ever read them to be; he reads the whole thing as a sort of rabbinic discussion of morality.

The problem with these sorts of cross-cultural discussions is that so much depends on the size of your net and what you've happened to drag in. The place of religion in British and American sf/f and horror has varied widely over the years, but it has never gone away entirely. Even the atheists -- especially the atheists -- would never let it go.


  • At 1:41 AM, Blogger Steve said…

    What's the name of that Poul Anderson story with the convent on the moon?


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