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There is a belief held widely by those unacquainted with speculative fiction, and even a few without that excuse, that works in the field are either thoroughly secular or oriented toward bizarre heresies (read: “not the things I hear in the house of worship I attend weekly”). That is, I suppose, neither the most nor the least silly misperception of our fields in the larger world.
Science fiction and fantasy is, like all literature, about us, here, now. Authors—at least the better of them, those we are dealing with on this site—who have elected to till these fields have done so because (among other reasons) they offer special opportunities to deal with large ideas in unconventional ways, ways whose unconventionality may enable the author to better say and the reader to better hear (stretching metaphor a bit) those ideas away from the noisy arenas in which they normally appear. It is thus not at all surprising that many fine science-fiction and fantasy books have a theological theme or orientation, and listing some of those books is what this page is for.
Selection of titles for this list was by no means a clear-cut process, in that “a theological theme or orientation” is not a thing so easy to define as it might at first seem. In trying to get my bearings, I established a sort of metaphorical compass.
The first compass point was that the tales need not deal, overtly or implicitly, with the creed of any particular established religion: it suffices that a major thrust of the tale is an examination or expression of one or more metaphysical beliefs. For example, the works of Eric Eddison are powered throughout by—indeed, are the flowering of—a metaphysics that does not correspond even approximately to any established creed, but which Eddison evolved with long labor and felt deeply (check the linked essay on Eddison for more on that point).
A second point is that the religious or theological element or elements need to be “genuine”: that is, a tale does not qualify just because it contains or depicts some “religion”, however important in the tale, that the author invented only to further that tale, a “religion” not itself primarily addressing theological issues. Invented religions as such are not a bar to listing here—as in, for example, Shardik—but they must be (in my judgment, anyway) intended to say or illustrate something meaningful about genuine religious feeling.
A third point is that, to justify the “theological” blanket, the works, however probing, should not be those of an atheist (for example, while the oeuvre of James Branch Cabell deals very largely with how mankind may best deal with mortality, I ultimately excluded it because Cabell’s view was atheistic). By doing that, I do not intend to pass any sort of value judgment on Life, The Universe, and Everything; it is only that this particular list of works is premised on their expressing theological concerns.
(The careful reader will realize that “theological” is not the apt term, for belief systems such as, for example, Buddhism, do not posit a “God” in the sense that most Western religions do, and it is not even clear that Buddhism can rightly be called a “religion”—so that in such cases the theo in “theological” is oxymoronic.)
And the fourth cardinal point was that the tale need not be overtly about theology or metaphysics: it sufficed that the author’s worldview permeate the tale in a way that gives it some theological significance. Several authors, some prolific, in whose work the author’s strongly held religious beliefs manifest in the structure of the tale, but not overtly—J. R. R. Tolkien, Cordwainer Smith, Gene Wolfe, and a few others of that sort—could not possibly be omitted from a list of this nature.
Oh, and one other thing: no tale needed to be solemn. There are not a few light-hearted—even zany (as with the works of R.A. Lafferty)—works that nonetheless express or consider theological issues.
In general, I have, as usual in these specialty lists, tried to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Does Roberta MacAvoy’s “Damiano” trilogy really belong? Better to leave that to you, I think, than to omit it. On the other hand, I have, with serious misgivings, omitted Roger Zelazny’s work; much of that work is pastiches of real religions, from the Greek pantheon to the Egyptian to the Hindu, as well as the invented perhaps-religion of his recurring aliens, but all of Zelazny’s work is permeated with deep—almost morbid—concerns with individuality and death, and comments and insights of a truly religious nature pepper those works. In the end, I decided that they do not dominate the works sufficiently to justify listing them all here, but keep him in mind if literature of this sort is of interest to you.
If a given work or author doesn’t seem to you to belong here, perhaps you and I see his or her work differently, or perhaps I have just erred; but I hope, as I say, that my errors are inclusive rather than exclusive.
If you—like me—are into lists, here are perhaps the most manifestly and powerfully religious writers represented here:
(So why are so many of these known by initials? There’s a PhD thesis topic awaiting an inquiring mind.)
One other thing: I have stuck here to novels—no collections of short stories (excepting George MacDonald’s collected “fairy tales”).
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