“Is It Something in the Water?” Why Mormons Write Science Fiction and Fantasy
In a 2009 article published in the Boston Globe, Mormon author Carol Lynch Williams explains how book publishers these days have a tendency to look at the proliferation of authors in Utah and wonder, “What the heck is in the water here?” They’re not the only ones who have taken notice. From book publishers to bloggers to scholars of Mormon culture, a number of people have noted the success of Mormon authors, particularly in the genre of science fiction and fantasy, and have speculated as to why Mormons seem to be unusually well-represented in this field.
The most well-known Mormon writer of science fiction and fantasy is, of course, Orson Scott Card. With the publication of his first science fiction story, “Ender’s Game,” in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine in 1977 and his receiving the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer from the World Science Fiction Convention in 1978, Orson Scott Card was the first Mormon science fiction and fantasy author to achieve notable success in this field. He won both the Hugo and Nebula awards two years in succession for Ender’s Game (1986) and Speaker for the Dead (1987), something no author had done previously nor has done since.
A number of other Mormons have followed Orson Scott Card’s break into the science fiction and fantasy scene. Dave Wolverton, M. Shayne Bell, Susan Kroupa, James Jordan, and Virginia Baker, inspired by Orson Scott Card’s success, have all been winners in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest, the highest-paying contest for amateur writers of science fiction and fantasy—one that is said to draw thousands of participants each year.
In just the past few years, there has been quite a bit of high-profile activity from Mormon authors in the national science fiction and fantasy market. Brandon Sanderson, who writes epic fantasy novels, is a New York Times bestselling author who was recently given the distinction of being asked by Robert Jordan’s widow to finish the Wheel of Time, a popular fantasy book series that has sold over 44 million copies worldwide. Shannon Hale won a 2006 Newbery Honor award for her bestselling middle-grade fantasy novel Princess Academy. Stephenie Meyer followed up her wildly successful vampire paranormal romance series Twilight in 2008 with a science fiction novel, The Host, which stayed on the New York Times Best Seller list for over a year. Internationally known crime fiction author Anne Perry has recently taken her own plunge into the market with the publication of two fantasy novels, Tathea and Come Armageddon. Brandon Mull, Aprilynne Pike, and other Mormon children’s authors have consistently shown up on the New York Times Best Seller list for their middle grade and YA fantasy series.
Along with the success and awards, there is also the strange trivia of Mormon involvement in science fiction and fantasy. According to Scott and Marny Parkin, who maintain the online Bibliography of Mormon Speculative Fiction (mormonsf.org), Zenna Henderson, another Hugo Award winner, was raised Mormon. Glen Larson, producer of the science fiction television show Battlestar Galactica, is famously credited with having included aspects of Mormon theology and culture (a planet of origin called “Kobol,” a Council of the Twelve, marriage for “all the eternities,” etc.) in the series. Screenwriter David Howard co-wrote the screenplay for the successful Star Trek spoof, Galaxy Quest, which won the 2000 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. Gary Kurtz was the executive producer of Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and a fantasy film directed by Jim Henson called The Dark Crystal.
There’s even an unlikely connection between Mormonism and Ray Bradbury, one of the most honored and influential writers of science fiction and fantasy in the 20th and 21st centuries. According to BYU professor Linda Hunter Adams, Ray Bradbury once told her in a phone interview that he was good friends with Reid Nibley (Hugh Nibley’s brother) when he was a boy, that he sometimes attended MIA activities with Reid, and that they even wrote Mormon roadshows together—Ray writing the scripts and Reid composing the music.
Several people have speculated about why Mormons seem to be unusually represented in the science fiction and fantasy genre. Mormon scholar Terryl Givens points to Mormon theology as a possible source for the “affinity” Mormons have with science fiction in particular and speculative fiction (defined as “imaginative” or “non-literary” fiction) in general.
Says Givens in his book People of Paradox, “Science fiction (or the more-encompassing ‘speculative fiction’), though still struggling for respect as serious art, is the literary form best suited to the exposition and exploration of ideas at the margins of conventional thinking, whether in technology, ethics, politics, or religion. And indeed, some Mormon doctrine is so unsettling in its transgression of established ways of conceiving reality that it may be more at home in the imagined universes of Card than in journals of theology.”
Two examples of Mormon doctrine that Givens sees influencing Mormon science fiction and fantasy writers’ work are (1) the theme of apotheosis—that men and women can progress to the point of becoming divine beings, and (2) that God has created other worlds and other peoples. Givens points to examples of Orson Scott Card stories that include these themes. Stories that include other worlds and peoples definitionally fall into the category of science fiction and fantasy. Recent examples of apotheosis, however, can be seen in some works by Mormon authors, such as John Brown’s Servant of a Dark God series and Brandon Sanderson’s novel Warbreaker.
Scott Parkin identifies the same theological and cultural explanations that Givens mentions and also adds another explanation: the idea that Mormons tend to be comfortable with rational explanations of things, including our very relationship with God. Since Mormons are comfortable integrating their religious faith with rational explanations, science is something they tend to embrace rather than avoid.
Says Parkin in an interview on the Morehead’s Musings blog, “The idea that there are rational explanations and that it’s okay to explore those explanations is one of the reasons why the rigors of science fiction appeals to so many Mormons. For example, Mormons have a view that science is an explanation of the way God gets things done. Religion answers the question ‘Why?’ and science answers the question ‘How?’ and they are complementary disciplines. So that sense of rationalism within the LDS theological construct brings the religious and speculative science together.”
Shannon Hale seems to agree with Parkin and Givens about why Mormons, unlike some other religious denominations, are not afraid of science fiction and fantasy—that it comes from our theology. From the 2009 Boston Globe article: “Mormons believe a lot of things that are pretty fantastic—we believe in miracles and angels and ancient prophets and rediscovered Scripture—so maybe it is almost natural for us to dive into these other stories.”
In an interview on A Motley Vision, John Brown offers a less theological and more practical explanation for why Mormons have done well in the science fiction and fantasy genres. “Do we even know if Mormons are over-represented in the SF/Fantasy field?” he questions. His theory is that the inroads Mormons have made into speculative fiction, particularly science fiction, is more regional than it is religious and has more to do with several people having broken into the field (Orson Scott Card, Dave Wolverton, and Tracy Hickman) and then making efforts to teach their craft to young writers, which, because these authors lived in Utah and were affiliated with the tight-knit Mormon community, means they ended up teaching their craft to young Mormons.
While Brown’s idea that Mormon involvement in science fiction and fantasy is more of a regional than it is a theological or cultural phenomenon does seem to be a good explanation for why Mormons have been successful in the field, it doesn’t take into account why Mormons might originally have been drawn to the field—and that the Mormon tradition of speculative fiction is much older than Orson Scott Card. Mormon scholar Gideon Burton has pointed to a short story by Parley P. Pratt as perhaps the first example of Mormon speculative fiction. The story, called “Dream of the Future,” which was read “In a Council of the Church, in the presence of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” is a fantastical tale about a young man who is given a vision by an angel—a vision of an idealized theocratic society that flowers in the Western prairies after the existing American government collapses. Says Burton in his introduction to an online version of the story, “Pratt’s ‘dream of the future’ recounted in ‘The Angel of the Prairies’ demonstrates an early and ongoing affinity between Mormon theology and speculative fiction.”
Another early piece of Mormon literature that represents an early foray into speculative fiction is Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon, a novel that tells the story of several spirit children who progress through premortal life, mortality, and the spirit world. Added Upon was originally published in 1898 and remained in print until 2005 and is credited with having influenced later Mormon works such as Saturday’s Warrior and My Turn on Earth.
Mormons from the very beginning, it seems, have been interested in exploring their beliefs and imaginations through fiction, and science fiction and fantasy seem to be a natural fit for that exploration. The jury is still out on whether Mormons are actually over-represented in science fiction and fantasy, and Scott Parkin acknowledges that Mormons may seem to be particularly involved in the genre not because there are actually more Mormons writing science fiction and fantasy (proportionally to other religious and minority groups), but because Mormons “are more aggressive in identifying themselves as Mormon in connection with their work.”
Theology, regional tight-knit communities, a history of speculative fiction, and strong self-identification all seem likely explanations for what has been a highly fruitful relationship between Mormons and science fiction and fantasy. Whatever the cause, the relationship seems to be rapidly growing in depth and scope, as this issue of Mormon Artist illustrates.
And who knows, maybe there really is something in the water. ❧