Wednesday, April 6, 2011

500 Words on Mormon Science Fiction and Fantasy

Within the last thirty years, many Mormon writers have worked within the genres of science fiction and fantasy. Orson Scott Card and Stephenie Meyer, of course, are likely the most famous among them. I’ve read and reviewed works by both authors, and while I have been critical of Meyer’s Twilight series, I have always had a great deal of respect for Card’s work.

(For Low-Tech fun, here are my reviews of Card, Meyer, and Meyer.)

Still, I’m not a big reader of science fiction and fantasy. Last year, for example, I read only three novels that I would label certifiably science fiction or fantasy (Interview with the Vampire, Breaking Dawn, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and one that I would label as borderline (Slaughterhouse-Five). I don’t know why, but I’ve never been able to get into sf&f—even though I like a good sci-fi film or TV series. Maybe I’ve had too many students approach me with the first twenty pages of their lousy fantasy novels, begging me to give them my “expert opinion” on their work.

I’ve always drifted towards realistic fiction. While my friends in high school were reading Robert Jordan and writing stories about guys named “Xyff,” I was reading Hemingway and writing “gritty” stories about a kid named “Steve Wyler” who spends a summer canoeing with a suicidal girl named “Karen.” Of course, I tried to read and write the kinds of speculative stories my friends liked, but they never hooked me. Even today, I prefer stories about normal people with relatively normal problems.

This might make me an exception among Mormon readers. Mormons, after all, love speculative fiction, and there are many fantastic Mormon writers out there who work wonders within the genre. Of course, I’ve heard many theories as to why this is the case. Once, for example, at a conference dedicated to the Twilight series, I heard a panelist argue that Mormons prefer to write fantasy because they can’t face the realities of life. At the same time, she also speculated that Stephenie Meyer has not yet been excommunicated because the Mormon hierarchy wants her tithing money.

Obviously, the panelist who spoke at the Twilight conference based her claims on a rather superficial awareness of Mormonism and what’s going on in Mormon literature. While the best-known names in Mormon literature—Card and Meyer—are science fiction and fantasy writers, I’m not sure their work is typical of Mormon literature in general, which is surprisingly polygeneric. Moreover, I think it’s silly to suggest that speculative fiction, because it’s based on a highly stylized presentation of reality, does not face the realities of life. Such a claim says more about the reader than the genre.

Still, as much as I admire the work of Mormon sf&f authors, I doubt I’ll ever become their avid reader. Part of me feels this way because the stuff I really value—the realistic Mormon fiction—is not getting enough attention. Maybe I’ll change my mind when realistic Mormon fiction starts selling as many copies as the latest Fablehaven novel.

8 comments:

  1. It's my take that realistic Mormon fiction and sf&f by Mormon writers aren't in competition with each other in any meaningful way -- even when it comes to attention within the Mormon literary community. As your example demonstrates, for the most part people just don't read what doesn't interest them.

    The Mormon sf&f community, as I see it, isn't a subset of the Mormon literary community: it's a separate group with only a few common members and events. That said, I think there's room for interesting criticism to be written about ways that sf&f by Mormon writers reflects Mormon perspectives. For a long time, Mormon literary criticism has been dominated by works that are culturally Mormon. Sf&f by writers such as Card, Wolverton/Farland, Wells, Bell, Sanderson, Allred, and many others opens up an interesting ground for investigating what it means for fiction to be thematically or symbolically Mormon *without* being culturally Mormon.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree with you, Jonathan, although I admit that I'm moderately interested in reading more Mormon sf&f and looking at how it is thematically and symbolically Mormon.

    One things I find interesting about Mormon sf&f is its chameleon nature. As works that are only thematically and symbolically Mormon, they are much more accessible to those who know nothing about Mormonism--in fact, the apparently Mormon elements in them go right over their heads without any significant loss. They blend in much better than realistic Mormon fiction.

    For me, though, it's also about my time investment. This is why I've never read a Harry Potter novel. When I select books, I select them on the basis of what I can potentially do with them. Rarely do I "read for fun" (although, in a sense, all reading for me--even required reading--is fun). Since getting to know Mormon fiction is something I have to do on my own time (since the University I attend doesn't offer classes on Mormon lit), I tend to gravitate to those works that I feel I can do the most with critically--and, as I state in my post, to those that I feel need more attention.

    That's not saying, of course, that I can't do anything with Mormon sf&f or that it doesn't need any more attention. Again, as you suggest, it all comes down to taste.

    As something of a spoiler, though, the next book I'm reviewing is sf&f.

    ReplyDelete
  3. If I may offer a suggestion: if you haven't done so already, someday you really ought to read "For the Strength of the Hills," a Mormon alternative history sf novella (or something roughly that length) by Lee Allred. It was originally published in Writers of the Future XIII (won him a first place in the contest, as I recall), and then reprinted I believe in Irreantum.

    Essentially, it's very, very good historical fiction -- with a twist. I had never considered the linkage between slavery and polygamy in U.S. history before in quite the way this story suggested. Not to mention that it's simply one of the best sf&f stories of its type that I've ever read, anywhere.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I haven't yet read "For the Strength of the Hills," but it sounds fascinating. I'll look around and see if I can find a copy of it somewhere. Which reminds me: one thing that really interests me is Mormon Steampunk. Does it exist?

    I think, if we want to keep making distinctions, that Mormon sf&f can also be split between stories that are thematically Mormon sf&f and those that directly engage with Mormonism, like "For the Strength of Hills" or Eric James Stone's recent "Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made." The latter type interest me more than the former. Of course, I like how Card's Alvin Maker series kind of blurs that distinction.

    Can you read the Alvin Maker novels without actively acknowledging its Mormon subtexts?

    Maybe, but part of the fun of those novels is the interactions of the narrative with the Mormon subtexts.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I believe there will be some steampunk stories in Monsters & Mormons, which will be published later this year. The whole anthology may be of interest to you; details at A Motley Vision.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Yes...I'm looking forward to Monsters and Mormons.

    By the way, Marnie, I checked out your Mormon speculative fiction bibliography. Great work!

    ReplyDelete
  7. The idea that Mormon's write speculative works because they can't face reality is truly laughable.

    My personal belief on the gravitational pull of it is simply, where else will a people who are taught that someday they will be Gods of their own worlds-brainstorm and ponder over such things.

    Speculative fiction, even on a unconcious level grants that experimentation and imagination of what IF, perhaps even as a release factor.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Maybe you would like Mormon SF&F more if you read less Stephanie Meyer and more Brandon Sanderson.

    ReplyDelete