Myth and Mystery

Horse and Bull save us from night everlasting and ice eternal.

From ice, night, and nothingness, Horse was spun, and Horse’s hooves ignited the stars.  From the fire in Horse’s heart Bull was born, and in the plenitude of his might, Bull gored Horse.  From Horse’s blood gods were created, from Horse’s life gods drew their power, and in the fullness of time, the gods killed Bull.  From Bull’s blood men were born, and from Bull’s spirit ghast was given them.

Life from death.  Death from life.  

Tanis and Taris, the goddesses of death and birth, are twins, never parted.  Two faces of the same being.  I must remember; I must believe there is a cycle and a reason for all the sacrifice and toil, that joy must be waiting.

That, dear hearts is the beginning of the pre-Minoan saga, which shall never see the light of day in any form resembling that.

“But then why, Oh Critter, are you making us read this?”

Because I’ve been thinking – and you know how dangerous this is, about belief, religion, myth, mystery and science fiction and fantasy writing.

At some point we were talking in a panel, and it hit us that most sf/f either has no religion at all, or it is a central point of the story (the gods are aliens in sf, or they really exist in fantasy.)  And we looked at each other in shock, because this makes our worlds really different from the real world.

Noises were made about – snort – our people (SF/F people) being more “rational” or less credulous than other people.  Snort!  People, I read their facebook postings.  Leave alone their political eructations, our people are in fact where urban myths go to die.  We like stories, we like good stories, and we will tell stories and believe stories that wouldn’t fool a two year old.  Our disbelief is dangling from the neck and its face is blue.  (Actually of course by “our people” I mean the normal science fiction writers/readers, present company always excepted.  Stop glowering and keep reading.  I have something to say beyond insulting you.)

The truth I think is much simpler.  We – both readers and writers of science fiction – as a rule (there are always exceptions, of course)  aren’t joiners.  In fact, we look upon all forms of groups with a jaundiced eye.  Possibly because ever since we can remember we were the odd kid who stuck out like a sore thumb.  Possibly because the same thing – whatever it is – that attracts us to Science Fiction makes us not fit in easily.  We’ll call the it the sf-gene for ease. (Not that I’m proposing it’s genetic, though what leads us to read and enjoy this stuff might very well be.  It often runs in families.)

The sf gene comes with a non-joining gene.  And while we have any number of atheists, I’d bet we don’t have more than the normal, organized religion.  But I would bet (it’s hard to tell.  All I have is con-going experience) that we also have a higher number of non-denominational believers, or of believers in various religions who don’t attend often, or feel marginally attached to their denomination.  (For one I know a couple of people who have confessed to their reading tastes to church friends only to find they were the object of stares.  Seeing as I get this at normal social gatherings, that makes perfect sense.)

So when we write we tend to think our characters’ beliefs are their own.  It’s none of our business.  And we tend to write societies where religion (always excepting the ones that hit the plot, like, oh Tombs of Atuan) is a private matter.  We assume they exist, we just don’t bother with them.

This creates a very inaccurate picture of human society, since – of course – all societies have religion, even those in which religion is officially forbidden.  It also seems to have very little to do with the correlation between science and technology or with widespread education.  Something in the collective human mind believes in the unseen and the unexplained.  Partly, I think, because it orders what is otherwise a chaotic system in a similar way to what fiction does.  (I’m a believer myself – not a secret – so I’m not implying religion is fiction.  Please, keep the religion wars out of my comments.)  In places like Europe, where religion is discouraged by being considered profoundly uncool and also old fashioned, a whole pop culture religion is arising, resembling to an extent the most primitive religions we have traced: a worship of the Earth and of natural processes, filled with irrationality and fraught with rituals to avert bad luck in personal life.

I will say it again – the human brain craves mysticism, the unexplained, mystery (in the sense of touching the sacred.)  The human brain craves truths larger than ourselves, the feeling of permanence after a life we know is all too brief.  And we crave sense in the world.  It also craves togetherness and a sense of sharing something beyond space and time and  before ya’ll say “But Sarah, you just said we’re not joiners,” I have one word: conventions.  Over time they’ve become fraught with ritual, they have shared beliefs and shared legends, and even shared relationships that exist only at cons.  My theory is that we’re joiners, within our own subset.  We are, after all, as human as the rest of them.

So…  How to get that into science fiction and fantasy.

It’s difficult, of course.  Why of course?  Well, because religion and religious thought is not straight forward and rational.  And in books we have to make things so that they are at least understandable by the people reading, which means in our turn we insert a certain amount of order, in what is often quite chaotic.  Take any religion and even the most rational believer will cling as desperately – or more desperately – to stuff he KNOWS doesn’t make sense even within his belief system.  Take Jorge Luis Borges’ quote “I pray the rosary because my mother asked me to.  I have no idea if I’m speaking at one end of a disconnected telephone.”

And how many, self-consciously agnostic or disbelieving people do we know who cling to one or two rituals because their mother or father did it when they were little?

That’s the other thing – religion is generational.  Which means when an entire population converts, accretions from past ritual still remain, sometimes with new justifications. We know this about the Catholic church – but we often forget it’s all religions, including the more primitive we know.

So… how do I propose to write religion?  Well, in the snippet above the novel IS about religion.  Or at lest their beliefs are inextricably linked to their ability to use Ghast – a supernatural symbion – which in turn is linked to other things, including the invasion they’re fighting.  But note that their religion already shows signs of two belief systems that collided and melded – the world was created by Horse and Bull, but there’s also Tanis and Taris (and a pantheon of gods.)

Even in this novel – which is about religion – I tried not to explain too much.  There are big, important rituals (a couple of them very unsavory or cleaned up unsavory – at the back of all our big rituals is blood, sex and death.  It’s being human that does it.) But there is also a folk religion with the equivalent of “knock on wood” and “don’t spill salt.”

It is important to resist the temptation to explain or to tell us how this came about.  In real religions, one rarely knows (or cares.)

But Sarah, you say, what if my novel is NOT about religion?  Can I just leave the things undercover where they belong?

Well… yes and no.  Yes, you can, and you’ll be as “real” as the next sf/f world – which, mind, can be plenty.  Or you can introduce brief, puzzling bits, and say “Oh, that’s because he’s a Yonolarian, thrice divided.  They worship on every third Monday.”  And let it go.  Or as I did in Darkship Thieves make the casual reference to Gaian religion.  Or Usaian religion (just you wait, I found that in A Few Good Men half the zanies are Usaians, which is part of what brought about this post.)

Alternately you can use it as a plot point: such as Heinlein in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, where part of the reason Wyo is accepted so quickly is that she goes to church with them.

Or you can use it in the sense of Now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t way that seems to inform most people’s belief in the supernatural.  No?  Take ghosts for instance.  Most of us will say “We don’t believe in ghosts” but most of us could also point to one or two instances where we cover up with “Of course it wasn’t a ghost” but we’re not quite sure.  Evoke that, and it will have a very powerful effect on your reader.

Oh, also, please, please, please, rid yourself of the Marxist fallacy (Marx was just such a warm bucket of Epic Fail, in every realm his mind touched) that religion was invented by priests to keep the masses quiescent.  At every period of history you’ll find devout priests and disbelieving peasants, the same as every other type of people.  Don’t patronize your ancestors.  They weren’t that stupid, and half of what you do would strike them as very dumb too.  Not to say the state didn’t use or try to use religion for their ends, of course.  The state uses everything for their ends.  BUT religion is bigger than any state.  Yes, even ancient Egypt.

So…  I’ll finish with some rules for what to do with religion in writing spec fic:

1 – There should be multiple religions, unless it’s a totalitarian state that only allows one religion officially.  (Though even then there will be proscribed religions or sects, some of which still operate underground.)

2 – It shouldn’t make sense.  NOT perfect sense.  Because religions are accretions of age-old belief and ritual, they’re often at internal odds.

3- Most people believe in something not quite rational.  If it’s not religion, then it’s superstition.

4 – In the ultimate analysis, most religions seem to be a way to account for the fact we know we’re mortal and that our mind is infinite but our body all too brief.  (And I’m not saying that religions are/aren’t truth.  As I said, I’m a believer, myself.  I’m just saying that’s how our mind works with religion.)  So, at the center of our religious/superstitious belief is death/sex and always blood as a link to both.

5 – Religion exists even when forbidden.

6 – Religion can serve the state or oppose the state or yes.

7 – Even in a religiously uniform society, there’s ALWAYS dissenters and secret practitioners of forbidden faiths or at the very least of forbidden branches of faiths.

8 – Not all religions are benign.  Not all are malign.  In any fight for freedom, some religions will oppose and some help.

9 – Not all religions believe in eternal life.  Some are just a “rule of conduct” for “proper living.”

10 – The easiest way to preserve the mystery of religion is to give us bits and pieces with NO explanation.

11 – Respect your character’s beliefs.  One man’s religion might be another man’s belly laugh, but it’s deadly serious to the believer.

46 responses to “Myth and Mystery

  1. ppaulshoward


  2. One tendency I’ve noticed in a lot of SF and a fair proportion of fantasy is that religion is Not Fun. The priests spend all their time forbidding things. We very seldom see things like joyous festivals. (H.L. Mencken described a tent revival meeting going on during the Scopes Trial: while preachers took turns speaking in the torchlight, couples kept sneaking off into the woods.) Basically every SF/F writer makes religion the equivalent of Grandma dragging you to church when you wanted to watch cartoons.

    • which is insane. Every religion that survives a long time has a good bit of “letting loose” somewhere in its genes. Mind you, this might be the influence of puritanism in the US.

      • The Puritans have a heck of a lot to answer for. *sigh*

        • Like many faiths (groups? there seems no reason to limit this simply to religion) I suspect the Puritans get blamed for much that they are not guilty of advocating.

          • For one thing, Mencken’s reportage on the Scopes Trial may reflect more “Truth” than fact. As the sage Nilsson observed, You see what you wanna see, you hear what you wanna hear.

            • Maybe. on the other hand, I went to Baptist summer camp a couple of years — my father trying to talk me out of Buddhism — and there was a helluva lot of woods-sneaking-into….

          • ppaulshoward

            Agree. I’m not saying that Puritans didn’t have their faults but IMO they were better people that some give them credit.

            • Well, for one thing they had a … unusual … view on the divine right of kings. Which might explain some of the less complimentary stories about them.

              • Oh dear – I have apparently fallen into a bad reiteration of “for one thing.” That’s another thing to be alert to.

              • My issues are more with the admiring books I’ve read about them, which frankly make them sound like proto-communists. I suppose that too could be in the eye of the beholder, but I wonder.

                • That’s because they were proto-Communists. Not the first in the Christian tradition, either, or farther back — there’s a communitarian experiment in the Old Testament.
                  The Puritan settlement in the New World is important because it’s the first, and up to now only, such settlement not embedded in a larger society it could parasite. They were On Their Own, the Indians not being able to support them, and they almost died of it until the leader of the Colony, one Gouverneur Morris(sp?), forced them into market-based (one could almost say capitalist) reforms, whereupon they began to thrive. The New World was, alas, not the long-sought land of Theory, where everything works.

                  • Morris was one of the authors of the Constitution of the United States, subject of a very good short biography by Richard Brookhiser: Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution.

                    The colonial governor of whom you’re thinking was Governor William Bradford.

                    My suspicions about the Puritans arise from the experience over the years of learning that much of what we think we know about History is twaddle. To quote Shaw’s Devil’s Disciple:

                    Major Swindon: But what about history, sir?
                    General John Burgoyne: History, sir, will tell lies, as usual!

  3. Happy easter!

    Either way – back to the topic, but one thing I dearly loved about Babylon 5 and M Weber’s work is that they very specifically addressed religion and how they shape people for good and bad.

    Oddly, Straczynski wasn’t a believer – but he included it because he believed religion would always be with us, and Weber is very much so….

    • Martin L. Shoemaker

      I was never a Babylon 5 fan, for a very practical reason: the station that aired it in my area constantly preempted and rescheduled for baseball, and so I could never tell when to watch it. And as a consequence of that, the few times I tried to watch it in the first two years, I kept seeing the exact same three episodes.

      But among those three was the episode where each species on the station was supposed to give a demonstration on their faith, and the Commander didn’t know how to handle it. He ended up by having dozens and dozens of different people, each testifying to his or her own personal faith. Yes, that was extremely respectful and realistic.

      • That was the most specific example I was thinking of, but religious themes and belief repeatedly show up and are handled respectfully throughout.

        As far as missing out – easily corrected these days via DVD’s (Netflix, local library, what have you…)

        The acting was sometimes spotty – though almost always competent and occasionally (g’kar and londo, Vir) brilliant. There are many, many loose ends and portents dropped that did not get resolved for a season or two. Prop and set quality reflect the poor budget. The storytelling – to die for.

        I personally care most about seasons 2-4. While season 1 has a lot of useful setup for the rest of the series, it can be gleaned via the lurker’s guide, and the main story of the wars starting, the shadows, etc. doesn’t really get rolling until then. “Shattered dreams” from season 3 – as the station secedes, has possibly the all-time best line in the series, that loses a lot of impact if you hadn’t watched al least the previous season and caught the commander’s backstory.

        Season 4 concluded what was supposed to be the season 5 story arc because they thought they would be cancelled, sucking most of the oxygen out of season 5.

        • Let me just say that I do consider Babylon 5 to be the best televised SF ever made. And the development of the characters and their relationships, particularly those of Londo and G’Kar, are part of what made it that way.

          And, on the topic of the OP, a large part of what made G’Kar’s character development was his religious faith. Indeed, faith and religion was a big part of Babylon 5.

  4. P.S… you can put me down as “loosely affiliated” –

  5. Martin L. Shoemaker

    One of many reasons why I enjoy Jack McDevitt’s writing is that religion is often important to his characters. He doesn’t say whether they’re “correct” or not, but he lets them act in accordance with their beliefs or perhaps feel guilt when they haven’t. I find that makes his characters and his cultures more believable.

    In “A Talent for War”, the first McDevitt book I discovered, a monastic order plays a role in both the prologue and the epilogue, and the faiths of certain characters affect the plot.

    In “The Hercules Text”, the Church ends up performing a key function in the resolution of the plot. I would also argue that it’s a historically accurate picture: it’s not the first time the Church has done what they did there.

    And in “Eternity Road”, the whole point of the story is characters exploring post-apocalyptic faith and folklore that the reader can see is rooted in historical fact.

    I think there’s less of this in McDevitt’s later works. Still, there’s often a sense of the solemn and the spiritual in the Academy books, a series about humanity’s exploration of a mostly-empty universe.

    For another good treatment of faith in SF, I recommend the film “Contact” (and the book as well, but I think the film handled it better). Even though the rationalist scientist clearly doesn’t share the faith of Palmer Joss, she ends up respecting it when she realizes her own core beliefs are just as much faith-based and just as impossible to prove. I thought it was impressive that such an avowed atheist as Carl Sagan could show so much respect for the faith of others. Would that more atheists followed his lead.

  6. Funny. I remember thinking, while reading DST, that the Edenites must have had some Christian influence, since they gave their children Christian saints’ names — in particular Christopher.


  7. While we’re at it – Canticle for Leibowitz?

  8. I don’t know about you guys, but I didn’t really have a Christian faith as long as it was a hand-me-down of “things mom believed.” I like to think that “our people” (the SF tribe) might all believe different stuff, but we’ve come to our own opinions of what’s real or not instead of just accepting something on authority.

    • Of course. Well, some of them. That’s not what I implied. What I implied is that there would still be survivals if your family was heavy on ritual or ways of celebrating something. Note for instance I feel guilty every time a birthday isn’t celebrated with bacalhau (dried, salted cod fish) cakes. It’s not religious, but it’s “the proper way to do things” — I’ll feel guilty if I don’t follow it, because I’m somehow letting down the family. “If grandma knew!” Of course, I’m passing this onto a new and unsuspecting generation every time I DO make codfish cakes for a birthday.

  9. Also remember that even if the Religion is being hijacked (or even founded) by fraudsters, to the people who believe in it, it’s very real

    David Weber’s Safehold series is a perfect example of this (the religion was setup by manipulative people, but that doesn’t make it any less realfor the population, including most of the rulers of the world)

  10. I think Michael Z. Williamson handled it well in Freehold. The main characters were religious with different religions and while it wasn’t central to the book it was a part of their lives and did influence them in various ways.

    In Lois McMaster Bujolds book “Falling Free” there was a sign which said “On the eighth day, God saw he couldn’t do it all so he created engineers.” I loved that line so much that in my own main universe there exists a “Church of the Holy Engineer” where that statement is actually part of their faith. Building and, especially inventing, are holy occupations in that religion and are pursued with religious zeal. That church exists in my world. I just need the right story for it to shine. 😉

    In the fantasy novel which is currently looking for a home (when last I heard it was #100 in the queue at Baen), I put a lot of effort into creating a pantheon of gods that are “real” for that world but from which are based different “religions”. (Same Gods but focusing on different aspects and having different rituals, that sort of thing.) It’s mostly in the background of that one.

    Personally, I generally describe myself either as an “Asatru leaning agnostic” or a “practitioner, if not a believer, of Asatru” depending on mood. By this I mean that, while I find much I like about Asatru (at least as I conceive it–which may not conform very closely to others who profess Asatru), after having broken form another belief because the more I learned about the physical and life sciences the less I was able to accept the religions doctrines simply liking another belief system isn’t enough cause to actually believe it. (I am a scientist and skeptical by nature.) OTOH, I have had some experiences that . . . well, we shall see what the future holds. 😉

  11. Though making movies based on the novels of Philip K. Dick has become a major industry, few filmmakers want to deal with the fact that Dick was a devout, very eccentric Christian, a convert to the Episcopal church and a friend of Bishop Pike. One exception was the excellent movie “A Scanner Darkly” which retained most of the religious content of the novel, though unfortunately the passage in which Donna recounts a young druggie’s experience of meeting God was deleted. I can see why, it would have come at a very tense moment when things are happening, but I still wish they had worked it in. I was still waiting for Winona Ryder to deliver that speech when the moment passed.

    • I have noticed that an amazing amount of christians that write SF books tend to come from the Episcopalian denomination. Not being Episcopalian myself I’m not sure why this denomination seems to lend itself so much more readily than other denominations, but from my admittedly non-scientific analysis it obviously does.

  12. Hm. I’m not sure whether to put Roger Zelazny into the religious fiction category or not.

  13. I’ve always been fascinated by the “trappings” and “rituals” of various religions. If it wasn’t interesting or beautiful in its demonstrations of its faith, I developed not even an iota of interest in it. I’m an aesthete at heart.

    It probably helps that a lot of the fantasy I enjoy reading the most has its own pantheons of gods and at least passing reference to the worship of these gods. (Which gets interesting when sometimes these gods show themselves in some way – a thing I find toe-wiggingly fun.)

    With my own writing, I feel perfectly comfortable writing about some fantasy, exotic-past, or future-society’s religion than any that would be familiar in the present day. (Greek gods? Of course. Catholic… not so much.) I’m sure that one day, a present-day character will speak to me and inform me that they are quite religious and probably stage some sort of civil disobedience in my own head if their core self is left unacknowledged because I’m leery of inadvertently causing offense.

    We’ll see how it goes, since I know that several of the characters in the novel currently left stewing have varying degrees of faith. So, as an alt-history story, the religions will be ones identifiable to modern readers, even if they’re skewed based on the events.

    (Post heavily edited to remove ramblings about the odd things I do that have their roots in religion, though I’m spiritual/Agnostic. Didn’t attempt to write about experiences that turned me away from organized religion, or how I totally agree that I’m a non-joiner by default, though I did this or that for the experience, or my experiences with the supernatural which make me into a “skeptical believer”.)

  14. To understand where I come from theologically: Watch Kevin Smith’s _Dogma_; listen to Monty Python’s “All Things Dull and Ugly” (particularly verse 4, stanza 4); then look up the “Unfinished Book Movement” from the _BattleTech_ universe, specifically why it came about.

    Needless to say, there’s damned-few [ahem 🙂 ] folk who understand me, even when I lay out the details for them.

    And i still need to write the story with the culture whose Holy Writ is the works of the band Queen…. >;)

  15. I am not sure whether the SF/F fan’s non-joiner gene isn’t a conditioned reflex: reject them before they can reject me.

  16. I am unsure but that SF/F’s aversion to joining isn’t a conditioned reflex, an expression of “reject them before they reject me.”

  17. Yes on all this. My current favorite writer’s handling of religion is Bujold’s Paladin of Souls series; it’s one I keep in my head as a model of how to do it right.

    Sadly, religion is right up there with evil corporations when storytellers are looking for villains these days. There is no question that, once any institution becomes powerful, it will attract people who don’t care about the institution, but who want the power, and some of those will abuse it. But that’s only some people, rarely most, never all.

    I (speaking as a respectful agnostic myself) find my atheist acquaintances mostly have a very primitive understanding of religion – the childish beliefs of their old schoolfellows (“if you don’t believe this dogma, you go to hell” kind of thing, which is rough to hear when you’re only, say, nine years old) – and don’t have much experience with an adult’s deeper experience with faith.

    • Yeah. I’ve had that argument with evangelical atheists on a number of occasions — they set up what is in effect a strawman by assuming the 6000-year young-Earth strict Creationist is the dominant kind of Christian. Pointing out that there’s 2000 years of thinking by some of the most rigorous thinkers of the times that they’re ignorant about doesn’t seem to help much.

        • Funny, I typically address the “young earth” questioners by wondering on what basis they insist on a sequentialist view of Time. An entity able to create Time and Space is clearly capable of creating simultaneously, across Time. Since few of these brilliant thinkers have ever tried thinking about Time as simply one more dimension among many they don’t usually have a coherent argument for their assumption.

      • Well, they have a reason for that. It isn’t a good reason, mind you, but it’s a reason.

        Societies develop customs the same way creatures develop organs, by evolution. In most (all?) cases, they don’t know why those customs arose any more than an elephant knows why it has a trunk; they arose, the societies that adopted them survived, the ones that did differently either died out or survived in different niches. All that thinking and philosophizing is retcons — people trying to think up logical reasons for customs to arise. There aren’t any. They just happened, like mutations just happen in Darwinian evolution. Religions are the way those customs got structured and institutionalized, so that the society could evolve by Lamarckian methods instead of slower Darwinian ones.

        If you’ve decided that a particular set of customs is unwise, unnecessary, or simply wrong (being so much wiser than sixty or so millennia of evolution) the obvious point of attack is the structuring, codifying, and institutionalizing organs — religion — and the way you get recruits from the vast majority of people who would rather think about something else is by making the attack as simple as possible: setting up strawmen and stereotypes, and attacking those. It works, as amply demonstrated.

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