Maps in a Mirror, page 75
This is one of the things that has caused most damage to Mormon fiction—the obsessive concern so many writers have with people coming into or leaving the Church. It’s what I call “revolving door fiction,” and I’m weary of it. It suggests that the writers themselves are not yet adults in the matter of religion, not yet committed to a path. I don’t despise their personal struggle, but I do wish they’d find something else to write about. Because what’s really interesting about religious people is what happens after the commitment is made, and that is precisely what can’t be written about by people who have never made one.
My impatience with badly conceived Mormon fiction (and drama, for that matter) was part of my reason for eschewing overtly religious topics or characters in my science fiction. To my surprise, however, I discovered that my work had become more, not less, religious when I stopped dealing with religious subjects consciously. I would go to a convention and somebody would ask me, “Are you Mormon?” “Yes,” I’d say. “Oh, I knew it before I was halfway through reading A Planet Called Treason [or Songmaster or Hot Sleep],” Horrified, I would demand to know what it was that made my work seem so obviously Mormon. When they pointed it out, it would be just as obvious to me—but until that moment I had been completely unaware of it. It seemed that I was writing religious fiction whether I wanted to or not.
But those unconsciously religious elements were exactly the kind of religious writing I was talking about before—explorations of the relationship between human beings and the purposer or purposers of life. There was another kind of writing about religion that I gradually began to want to write. I wanted to write, not only about religious ideas, but also about religious people. Yet I wanted to do it without writing “inspirational literature”—the kind of stuff that gets published in the Religious Fiction category.
Rare indeed is the human society that does not have a powerful religious ritual binding it together. Pluralism such as we have in America is extremely rare, and I think it’s fair to say that it exists even in America only as the result of a conscious effort that is not always happily received by the American people. The very pervasiveness of Christmas and the deep resentment felt by many—perhaps most—Americans about the seemingly absurd finickiness of the courts in their effort to keep government bodies from promoting Christian Christmas rituals show that pluralism does not come easily or naturally even to a people with a two-century history of commitment to it.
Yet if you read most science fiction you wouldn’t have a clue that religion played a part in anyone’s life. Most sci-fi characters are utterly untouched by religion, by ritual, or by faith, except when religious rituals or faith are used to show how benighted or depraved or primitive a particular group or individual is. This is actually right in line with contemporary American literary fiction, so it isn’t just because of a pro-science bias on the part of the writers. Yet this is so contrary to reality and betrays such a profound ignorance on the part of the writers that it should betray to most people a rather uncomfortable fact: American writers tend not to be in tune with America. Or, to put it another way, religious Americans and literary Americans have, consciously or not, separated themselves almost completely.
I think what happens is that religious people who are becoming writers get the idea, from their reading and from the public attitudes of most fashionable writers, that it’s faintly embarrassing to present religion as a matter-of-fact part of life, rather like wearing colors that clash. Writers who would vigorously resist any attempt at censorship, or even editorial pressure to change an idea or a word or a comma, rigorously remove from their work—in fact, don’t even allow themselves to conceive of putting it into their work in the first place—anything that might suggest that they harbor some sympathy for a particular religion or faith.
Even those who do deal with religious people positively take great care to distance themselves from it. Garrison Keillor, for example, keeps quite a common distance between himself and the Catholics and Lutherans of Lake Woebegon; he likes them, but he isn’t one of them. Indeed, this sort of attitude may well arise from many authors’ experience, for most religious communities don’t react well to strangeness, and the kind of character traits that lead one to be a storyteller are generally classed as strange. Much of the avoidance of or hostility to religious people in American fiction may arise out of writers’ painful experiences with religion in their growing-up years.
But the current American trend of almost absolute hostility toward or neglect of characters who have a religious life goes beyond anything that could be accounted for in individual lives. If people’s real experiences with religion were so universally hideous, religions could not survive. I know from experience that religious people are as likely to be bright, good-hearted, and open-minded as nonreligious people. I have found proportionately as many bigots, cretins, and would-be fascists among university intellectuals as I have among practitioners of any religion I’ve known at all well. I’ve also found that religious people tend to have a much better knowledge and clearer understanding of unreligious people than the latter have of the former. The ignorance is mutual, but the nonreligious people have a bit more than their share.
So in this last decade I have turned more and more toward trying to give my characters a religious life, and to undo the skewed picture of religion that is almost completely universal in contemporary American letters. That there are abuses to be satirized cannot be doubted, and I do my share, in stories like “Saving Grace” and “Eye for Eye.” But there are also graceful elements in the life of religious communities, and good people whose religion is part of their expression of their goodness, and such things also ought to be shown.
I deal with this most explicitly in my novel Speaker for the Dead, where I have the story’s hero and title character, Andrew Wiggin, come to a small colony in which Brazilian Catholicism is the established church. I deliberately began the relationship between Wiggin and the Catholics by having the bishop of Lusitania warn his people against the speaker for the dead; and Andrew quickly runs into great resistance from the people because of the bishop’s hostility. In short, I began with the cliché relationship between Wiggin the humanist and a religious community.
Then I set out to transform that relationship—and, with luck, the attitude of the reader. First, I introduced some positive religious characters—a husband and wife from a teaching order called the Children of the Mind of Christ. They were tolerant of, even cooperative with, the speaker for the dead, and they were also the guardians of scientific knowledge and liberal education in Lusitania. Yet they were also absolutely committed to a monastic law that required them to marry but forbade them to have sex, and I labored to make this painful religious sacrifice seem, not bizarre, but beautiful to the reader. It is not something I would personally ever want to do, nor do I advocate it; but I wanted readers to realize that such a painful choice, made for the sake of religion, did not debase the characters but rather ennobled them.
Second, I carefully transformed the readers’ understanding of the bishop himself. As the novel progresses, we begin to see that his hostility to Wiggin was not entirely because of closed-mindedness, but primarily because of a real concern for the welfare of his people. And as his perception of the needs of the people changed, we saw that the bishop—like all good religious leaders—was willing to do what was necessary for his people, even if it meant temporarily allying himself with a humanist minister like the speaker for the dead.
Finally, I showed that Andrew Wiggin himself, as he gradually comes to be part of one family and part of the community at large, realizes that to really belong he must also be a Catholic. He had been baptized a Catholic in his infancy—something that I had put into Ender’s Game just for fun, but now found quite useful—and so as part of joining Novinha’s family and Lusitania itself, he begins to attend mass and act out the rituals of the church. The issue of faith doesn’t arise. What matters is belonging to the community and subjecting himself to th
This is not to say that I show religion in a completely favorable light. The struggle with sin is what nearly destroys Novinha and her family. The people are every bit as intolerant of strangeness as any small town, and their intolerance is embedded within their religious life. They are also superstitious and try to use religion like magic. But in Speaker for the Dead I try to put these things in perspective. They are part of religious life, but not all of it; and religion brings at least as much goodness and comfort as it brings pain into the characters’ lives.
My point was not to show that religion is all good—it isn’t. My point was, first, to recognize what most writers seem to ignore, that most people throughout the world and throughout history are believing members of a religious community—and that usually their religion and their citizenship are indistinguishable. Then, second, I was determined to undermine the fashionably hostile stereotypes that mark American fiction whenever it does include religion. Speaker for the Dead is not a religious book, at least not in the sense that a religious book might demand that you decide whether you believe or don’t believe, belong or don’t belong. But it does include religion in its realistic and proper proportion in human life. In that sense it is far more realistic than most American novels.
Over the years religion has cropped up more and more in my work, until finally, with a series of short stories that became the book The Folk of the Fringe, I dealt explicitly with Mormon characters and Mormon culture in a near-future setting. Oddly enough, these stories—which, because of their separate existence in that book, do not appear in this collection—are actually some of the least religious of my writing, in that they are not about the relationship between the living and the purposer of life. Rather they are almost anthropological in their treatment of Mormonism. They are about the way people connect with and abrade against each other within the tight confines of a demanding religious community.
So I write three kinds of fiction that deals with religion. First, like many, perhaps most, science fiction writers, I tell stories that deal with the purpose of life—with the relationship between man and God. Second, I tell stories that deliberately subvert the clichés about religion that are so widespread in American fiction, by showing religious characters in a full range of roles within my stories. And, third, I tell stories that include my direct experience of religious life by depicting the community I know best, Mormonism.
At no point am I trying to persuade you; I want readers, not proselytes. With Cruel Miracles I have drawn together my stories that most clearly deal with religious matters not often touched upon by contemporary American writers, matters like holiness, awe, faith, comfort, responsibility, and community. You don’t have to be a religious person or even like religious people to receive these stories. I hope, though, that by the end you understand a little more about the religious aspect of human life.
The first contact was peaceful, almost uneventful: sudden landings near government buildings all over the world, brief discussions in the native languages, followed by treaties allowing the aliens to build certain buildings in certain places in exchange for certain favors—nothing spectacular. The technological improvements that the aliens brought helped make life better for everyone, but they were improvements that were already well within the reach of human engineers within the next decade or two. And the greatest gift of all was found to be a disappointment—space travel. The aliens did not have faster-than-light travel. Instead, they had conclusive proof that faster-than-light travel was utterly impossible. They had infinite patience and incredibly long lives to sustain them in their snail’s-pace crawl among the stars, but humans would be dead before even the shortest space flight was fairly begun.
And after only a little while, the presence of aliens was regarded as quite the normal thing. They insisted that they had no further gifts to bring, and simply exercised their treaty rights to build and visit the buildings they had made.
The buildings were all different from each other, but had one thing in common: by the standards of the local populace, the new alien buildings were all clearly recognizable as churches.
Mosques. Cathedrals. Shrines. Synagogues. Temples. All unmistakably churches.
But no congregation was invited, though any person who came to such a place was welcomed by whatever aliens happened to be there at the time, who engaged in charming discussion totally related to the person’s own interests. Farmers conversed about farming, engineers about engineering, housewives about motherhood, dreamers about dreams, travelers about travels, astronomers about the stars. Those who came and talked went away feeling good. Feeling that someone did, indeed, attach importance to their lives—had come trillions of kilometers through incredible boredom (five hundred years in space, they said!) just to see them.
And gradually life settled into a peaceful routine. Scientists, it is true, kept on discovering, and engineers kept on building according to those discoveries, and so changes did come. But knowing now that there was no great scientific revolution just around the corner, no tremendous discovery that would open up the stars, men and women settled down, by and large, to the business of being happy.
It wasn’t as hard as people had supposed.
Willard Crane was an old man, but a content one. His wife was dead, but he did not resent the brief interregnum in his life in which he was solitary again, a thing he had not been since he came home from the Vietnam War with half a foot missing and found his girl waiting for him anyway, foot or no foot. They had lived all their married lives in a house in the Avenues of Salt Lake City, which, when they moved there, had been a shabby, dilapidated relic of a previous century, but which now was a splendid preservation of a noble era in architecture. Willard was in that comfortable area between heavy wealth and heavier poverty; enough money to satisfy normal aspirations, but not enough money to tempt him to extravagance.
Every day he walked from 7th Avenue and L street to the cemetery, not far away, where practically everyone had been buried. It was there, in the middle of the cemetery, that the alien building stood—an obvious mimic of old Mormon temple architecture, meaning it was a monstrosity of conflicting periods that somehow, perhaps through intense sincerity, managed to be beautiful anyway.
And there he sat among the gravestones, watching as occasional people wandered into and out of the sanctuary where the aliens came, visited, left.
Happiness is boring as hell, he decided one day. And so, to provoke a little delightful variety, he decided to pick a fight with somebody. Unfortunately, everyone he knew at all well was too nice to fight. And so he decided that he had a bone to pick with the aliens.
When you’re old, you can get away with anything.
He went to the alien temple and walked inside.
On the walls were murals, paintings, maps; on the floor, pedestals with statues; it seemed more a museum than anything else. There were few places to sit, and he saw no sign of aliens. Which wouldn’t be a disaster; just deciding on a good argument had been variety enough, noting with pride the fine quality of the work the aliens had chosen to display.
But there was an alien there, after all.
“Good morning, Mr. Crane,” said the alien.
“How the hell you know my name?”
“You perch on a tombstone every morning and watch as people come in and go out. We found you fascinating. We asked around.” The alien’s voicebox was very well programmed—a warm, friendly, interested voice. And Willard was too old and jaded with novelty to get much excited about the way the alien slithered along the floor and slopped on the bench next to him like a large, self-moving piece of seaweed.
“We wished you would come in.”
Now that the question was put, his reason seemed trivial to him; but he decided to play the game all the way through. Why not, after all? “I have a bone to pick with you.”
“I have some questions that have never been answered to my satisfaction.”
“Then I trust we’ll have some answers.”
“All right then.” But what were his questions? “You’ll have to forgive me if my mind gets screwed around. The brain dies first, as you know.”
“Why’d you build a temple here? How come you build churches?”
“Why, Mr. Crane, we’ve answered that a thousand times. We like churches. We find them the most graceful and beautiful of all human architecture.”
“I don’t believe you,” Willard said. “You’re dodging my question. So let me put it another way. How come you have the time to sit around and talk to half-assed imbeciles like me? Haven’t you got anything better to do?”
“Human being are unusually good company. It’s a most pleasant way to pass the time which does, after many years, weigh rather heavily on our, um, hands.” And the alien tried to gesture with his pseudopodia, which was amusing, and Willard laughed.
“Slippery bastards, aren’t you?” he inquired, and the alien chuckled. “So let me put it this way, and no dodging, or I’ll know you have something to hide. You’re pretty much like us, right? You have the same gadgets, but you can travel in space because you don’t croak after a hundred years like we do; whatever, you do pretty much the same kinds of things we do. And yet—”
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Other author's books:
- Ender's GameSpeaker for the DeadEnder's ShadowSeventh Son: The Tales of Alvin Maker, Volume IChildren of the MindShadow of the GiantEmpireFirst Meetings in Ender's Universe
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