Episode 9: Eric James Stone on writing religion in science fiction
In this episode, Mormon Artist podcast host Katherine Morris interviews author Eric James Stone about writing religion in science fiction and fantasy. Eric James Stone was on three panels discussing religion at the February 2015 Life, the Universe, and Everything science fiction and fantasy symposium.
- Interview date: February 14, 2015
- Eric James Stone’s website
- Life, the Universe, and Everything website
- Note: Podcast music and sound by Saint Roxcy. Copyright © Saint Roxcy 2015. All rights reserved.
Katherine Morris: Welcome to the Mormon Artist podcast. I’m your host, Katherine Morris.
Okay, I’m at Life, the Universe, and Everything with Eric James Stone, who has been on three panels this weekend dealing with religion: the ramifications of fictional religion, how to treat religion fairly in science fiction and fantasy—these kinds of topics.
One of the panels that he just got out of was a panel of four Mormons—three writers and one editor. And then last night, Friday night, on his panel there was an atheist, Helge Moulding; and someone who was raised Episcopalian, Lee Modesitt; and an editor [Suzanne Vincent] who has dealt with stories that have included religion.
There were a lot of different perspectives that we heard, and so we’re going to talk to Eric James Stone about what he has written, how he has dealt with religion, and then his thoughts about that.
First of all, Eric, tell me a little bit about your background in writing religion in your stories.
Eric James Stone: Well, I grew up Mormon, of course, and I also grew up reading science fiction and fantasy because my dad had a good collection of science fiction and fantasy. One of the things that did kind of bother me was that most authors did not include much about religion in the future, and one of my favorite authors, Isaac Asimov—essentially, his futures very rarely had religious characters in it.
I also really liked Robert Heinlein, and he did a little bit better, I felt, at occasionally including religious characters in his fiction.
So, when I was a very fledgling writer, I actually emailed Orson Scott Card—because I had read Ender’s Game, and there were some religious characters mentioned in there. I asked him, essentially . . . it was weird, because I wanted to write science fiction, but I didn’t want to in some way negate my religious beliefs, and so I said, “How do you deal with the idea that you can’t write stories about humanity 5,000 years in the future because the Millennium will have come by then? That, therefore, if you write about that you’re denying the faith?” He said, “Oh, that’s just a silly argument. They’re fictional stories; it doesn’t really matter.”
One of the key turning points for me was there was a story in Analog magazine called “Sanctuary,” and it’s about a Catholic priest on a space station, and an alien comes to him asking for sanctuary because her race’s beliefs basically say that they should kill her unborn child because it’s illegitimate. She knew about Catholic beliefs regarding abortion and felt that maybe she could gain some sanctuary.
The story was written by Michael Burstein, who is an observant Jew. He did a fantastic job of portraying a realistic Catholic in a far-future setting. The story actually got nominated for a Nebula and I think a Hugo as well. I was at the Nebula Awards ceremony, and I went up and talked to Michael Burstein and basically said, “Thank you for including an observant religious character in a far-future society. I really loved that!”
So, when I was at a writing workshop and I was assigned to write a story with a character based on myself, I decided, well, I haven’t seen a Mormon in a high-tech future as the protagonist. I decided to do that, and that story—the title is “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made”—actually ended up getting nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award and won the Nebula Award.
Since then I tend to end up on a lot of panels about religion and science fiction, but that’s one of the things that got me writing about religion in science fiction.
Katherine: That’s interesting! So, that’s what got you into writing it. What are some of the things that you considered when writing that story? Since it was your own faith, I’m sure that you were concerned, “I don’t want to be preachy,” or “I want this to be accessible to other people,” so what are some useful ways do you think that can be approached in?
Eric: One of the things that I did was—I did not want it to come off as very preachy, and so I created another major character who was not really the antagonist so much as the foil for the main character. It was a scientist who is atheist, and the two of them end up working together, and they clash on their beliefs, but when it comes right down to it, they both make the same sorts of moral decisions. They both respect each other by the end, and both of them feel like their world-views have been confirmed by the events. They view the same events with very different perspectives, and kind of understand what happened differently.
But, basically, by having that atheist character in there to present an opposing view to the main character’s, that gave it a balance, and it ended up getting published in Analog Science Fiction, which is the hard science fiction magazine. The editor basically was an atheist, but he was willing to publish the story anyway, so I think I kind of struck the right balance there.
Katherine: Did he make any comments or have any edits for you on your treatment of religion?
Eric: No, he didn’t. He just—the one major question he had for me was whether the figure I had given for the temperature at the core of the Sun was correct. I emailed an astronomy professor at BYU, and he gave me a slightly adjusted figure, and so I put that in the story.
Katherine: And how was that received? What kind of feedback did you get from readers?
Eric: I had a lot of readers tell me that they loved the fact that I was showing religious characters who were believers and who were rational people, rather than just being kind of the crazy religious person who is causing problems for the secular protagonist. And so, it got a lot of very nice feedback. It also got—there were some people who felt like it was too preachy, and there were some people who objected to it for various reasons.
Katherine: Okay, so within science fiction, is that kind of a trope—that there is a crazy religious figure? I mean, in general, how is religion received in the science fiction writing community, or dealt with?
Eric: Well, in science fiction, because there is kind of a long tradition of science fiction stories, essentially what has happened is that there are a lot of secular, non-believing science fiction writers, and they tend to view some religious people at least with suspicion.
So, when they are writing stories, occasionally they will decide, “Well I need somebody to do something terrible, and what’s a reason why someone would do something terrible? Oh, obviously they’re religious and their religion is telling them to do something terrible!”
Part of it may be that religion is often seen as anti-science or anti-technology, and since science fiction tends toward having people who use science and technology as the heroes, someone who is anti-science or anti-technology seems like a rational choice for a villain of some sort. So, that’s I think why there is sort of a trope of, “Oh, it’s the crazy religious person who’s doing things.”
What I’m hoping is that as we have more writers like Brad Torgersen, Michael Burstein, and others who write science fiction that treats religion with respect that that trope hopefully will become less common.
Katherine: What are some examples as a reader of science fiction where you’ve seen religion dealt with well or not so well—and maybe specifically, it would be interesting to talk about a time when someone who wasn’t Mormon portrayed Mormonism respectfully versus not so much.
Eric: I go back to Robert Heinlein. There’s a novel of his that’s probably my favorite novel of his, Double Star, in which the main character is on Mars and is invited to a special Martian religious ceremony. This was written back in the days when we still thought there might be life on Mars. So, he goes to the ceremony and then the character says, “I’m not going to tell you what went on during the ceremony because it’s sacred, and you wouldn’t expect a Mormon friend to tell you what goes on inside their temples, would you?”
Just showing that much understanding for what Mormons believe, that made a real impression on me. I was like, wow, he must have known someone Mormon, because he could understand how we would feel.
As a bad example, I point to a novel called The Great and Secret Show by horror writer Clive Barker. He has some characters who are Mormons that play a significant role in the plot, but I can still remember about these Mormon characters who are sitting down to their breakfast and having their morning coffee—but it also mentions that they do not drink alcohol because of their religion—and the leader of the local Mormon congregation, Pastor Bob, comes to visit them.
It just—I was like, “This author doesn’t know the first thing about us—okay, he knows the first thing about us—we don’t drink alchohol—but he doesn’t seem to know anything else about us!” And to me, I found that very annoying that he wouldn’t bother to try to get it right.
Katherine: So, it wasn’t even so much that the Mormons were portrayed as villains, it was just that he didn’t even care enough to do a little bit of research, even the most basic research.
Eric: Yes, exactly. The characters were not villains, they were part of the good guys, but he had not bothered to do any research. So, because of that, whenever I write a character of a religion different from mine I do research in order to find out about their beliefs and things like that.
I have a story where the main character is a Tyrannosaurus Sapiens who is Buddhist and only eats manufactured meat. In a sense, I brought that in to provide an interesting contrast to the typical idea of a Tyrannosaurus. But by the end of the story, the fundamental belief of the character about how to properly treat others becomes essential to the resolution of the plot. Basically, I took the principles there from my reading about Buddhism and tried to be as respectful of Buddhism as I would want a Buddhist writer to be respectful of Mormonism.
Katherine: So have you talked to any readers who are Buddhists about it?
Eric: No, I haven’t, actually. But I haven’t gotten any angry letters from Buddhists telling me that I got it wrong.
Katherine: That’s a positive thing. I think you said you had another story where a character was Muslim. Can you tell me about that one?
Eric: I’ve written a couple of stories with Muslim characters. One that just got published, the Muslim is actually the villain, to some extent. It’s a Muslim terrorist who has detonated a nuclear bomb. The main character is a brain scientist, and the government asks him to essentially create a recording of the terrorist’s mind so they can interrogate that recording to find out where other nuclear bombs must be. Essentially, there’s a scene in there where the recording is talking to the terrorist’s mind, and the main character, whose fiancée was killed by the bomb, is unprepared to hear the justifications that the terrorist gives.
I tried to do the best job I could of presenting what the terrorist actually believes and how he feels that his people are being wronged by Americans and Christians, and so even though he is the villain of the story, I am trying to portray his point of view as accurately as possible, and it kind of throws the main character for a loop because he isn’t expecting that kind of rationality from the terrorist.
The other story I’ve written has not been published. I hope to find a market for it eventually, but it involves the Muslim pilot of a starship that is out exploring, and she finds a long-lost Christian colony that is about to be destroyed by a comet, and she has to choose what to do—and she basically sacrifices her life for Christians. There, she’s the hero, and I was trying to in essence base her moral decision on Muslim beliefs that I researched for the purposes of the story. I hope I portrayed it accurately, and if it ever gets published, hopefully I will get a good response from Muslims about it.
Katherine: Have you gotten any response yet on the one that you did get published?
Eric: I’ve had several people say that they really liked the story a lot. The story’s “An Immense Darkness” in the March issue of Analog, but I have not heard from any Muslims about it yet.
Katherine: It seems like it would be a little bit tricky to portray a religion respectfully when it’s part of a villain’s world-view. So, your approach there would be to just try to make the character as sympathetic as possible, and rational according to their beliefs?
Eric: Yeah. Basically, I work off what I call “the universal law of human motivation,” which is “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Whenever someone makes a decision, they tend to make what they think is the best decision in the circumstances that they’re in.
And so, essentially when writing a villain, in order to keep them from becoming a stereotype, you need to get in the villain’s mind and figure out what makes them feel like their course of action is the right course of action for them. In the case of the religiously-motivated terrorist that means looking at the religion and trying to figure out why it is that they would believe this course of action is the one that they should follow, the one that God wants them to follow. Essentially, they are making a rational decision based on the information that they have and their religious beliefs.
Katherine: That sounds like a good model for building any kind of character, not just a religious character.
Eric: That’s right. I just feel like it should be applied to religious beliefs as well as just purely secular beliefs.
Katherine: So, for readers who want to read some science fiction where you feel like religion has been dealt with really well, what would be your recommendations?
Eric: I really like David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which is space opera. I felt like he did a very good job of developing the religion of a planet that he introduces (I think in the second book of the series) that has been isolated for hundreds of years but is now back into the galactic mainstream
It starts off with the main character and the people she’s with thinking, “Oh, these backward Graysons and their backward religious beliefs that are so obviously wrong and terrible.” But during the course of that book and later books, you start to see, “Oh! There are reasons why they developed those beliefs”—and yes there are some terrible people who are part of that religion who do some terrible things—but there are also some wonderful people who act in a very, very moral manner.
He built that religion very realistically, I think, and so I think that’s a very good example for people to follow.
Katherine: Okay. So, for Mormons who want to write science fiction and fantasy and might be interested in portraying religion, maybe even Mormonism, what general suggestions do you have?
Eric: Try not to let your religious characters be too preachy. Instead, try to show by their actions what their beliefs are. Actions speak louder than words. Then try to be as accurate as possible when you’re dealing with religions that are not your own. Treat other people’s religions the way you would want our religion to be treated.
Katherine: Okay, that’s good advice.
Just for these last couple of minutes, we were talking about one of the questions that was posed to today’s panel (which happened to be all Mormons on the panel) which was, “Why do so many Mormons write science fiction and fantasy?”
There are a lot of different theories about that. I wrote an article a couple of years ago about that, and again it was, “Mormon theology: we believe in inhabited worlds and that the spiritual is actually matter,” and then some people said, “No, it’s more Orson Scott Card’s influence,” and then someone else said, “Well, it’s our history of storytelling and our literary history: Mormons read a lot”—I don’t think he said that specifically; I felt like he was kind of going that direction. What is your theory about that? Also, do you think that Mormons are overrepresented in science fiction and fantasy as far as writers of science fiction go?
Eric: I have looked at some numbers in the past, and I do think that there are a disproportionate number of Mormons getting published in science fiction and fantasy. My personal theory is that it’s Orson Scott Card’s influence because back in the ’70s and then ’80s, he was really the major literary figure of Mormondom. When people who were looking for literary success, members of the Church looking for literary success had a major example in Orson Scott Card. I often say that if Orson Scott Card had been a big mystery writer, then maybe people today would be talking about how Mormons are overrepresented in mysteries.
I tend to discount the theories that are based on Mormon theology or Mormon tradition, just because up until the 1970s there were hardly any Mormon science fiction and fantasy authors who were getting published, so we were underrepresented at that time—and I don’t think our theology and traditions have changed so much in that time.
And it’s not just Orson Scott Card. Orson Scott Card influenced some students at BYU who went on to do things like found the Leading Edge magazine and start the Life, the Universe, and Everything symposium, which then attracted more Mormon authors to learning about how to get published, which led to them having more success. And so, I think the big science fiction and fantasy community of authors that has been built here in Utah has been leading to more and more success on the part of Mormon authors.
Katherine: So, would you say that that has contributed to your interest or success in publishing science fiction and fantasy or being interested in writing science fiction and fantasy?
Eric: I was interested in science fiction and fantasy even before Orson Scott Card was getting published, but the fact that he was being so successful definitely influenced my ideas about whether I could succeed as a science fiction author.
Katherine: My last question is about Life, the Universe, and Everything—just what you have gotten out of it in general this weekend. What’s stayed with you?
Eric: I’ve really enjoyed being on various panels and interacting with the other participants. I just think it’s great to see so many aspiring authors who are willing to work at learning how to do their craft and how to write better stories, and so I think we’re going to continue to see an increasing number of Mormon authors getting published.
Katherine: What do you have coming out next that we can read?
Eric: The next thing that I have coming out is my novel—my first novel—which is coming out from Baen Books. The title is Unforgettable, so please remember that. I don’t have an exact release date, but it should be sometime in fall of 2015.
Katherine: Thank you so much!
Eric: Thanks for having me. ❧