During interviews I’ve given—both live and digital—interviewers sometimes expressed interest in how I treated issues of faith in my work, up to and including the Star Wars novels I wrote with the late, truly great Michael Reaves (Patterns of Force, Shadow Games and The Last Jedi.) I’m a Bahá’í, by faith, so my worldview informs my writing and my treatment of faith and religion in my work.
The interviewer who asked that first question about religious themes also asked: What do these themes add to your stories?
One of the greatest things fiction allows a writer to do is present new ideas to a reader that they would never even consider in a non-fictional setting. Like music, fiction can worm its way past prejudice, bias, and dogmatism and cut straight to a reader’s intellect, heart, and soul.
This means I can get a reader to look at a subject (religion, or race, or “humanness” say) in a way he’s never looked at it before. I’ve found that science fiction (which Ray Bradbury has called the “robot child” of fantasy) allows me to ask and seek answers to questions that other genres of fiction do not. I can ask what makes a human being human and not be restricted to studying only people born on Earth to suggest an answer.
It’s not just a matter of spiritual themes, but bringing a spiritual or religious point of view to the story. This allows me to paint portraits of human beings and cultures with a much deeper palette of colors than I would if I only looked at such factors as economics, politics, or even the shallow, limited caricatures of religion that I see too often in SF. Without faith that spiritual constants exist, I think, it is tempting to view mankind as a lost cause, or a product of his genes, or just a slightly smarter animal.
That, frankly, is where a lot of science fiction is coming from—a place of almost hopelessness, materiality and outrage. It seeks answers with no clear idea of where to look for them. I’d like to offer my readers a different way of looking at the world of today by proposing ideas in a fictional future. I’d go so far as proposing that Ray Bradbury was right: that’s what SF is really for. It is a perfect tool for exploring human identity, and therefore, spiritual identity.
A large part of what a writer does in the speculative genres is world-building. We must invent cultures, worlds, races of people. What has always motivated me in world-building is to get the reader to see what religion and religious principles bring to a culture. Not in some glib or shallow way—as if religion were a fashion accessory that one wore and could peel off at the door—but in a way that informs the individual and the society. I also look at the ways in which religion can be, shall we say, misappropriated in ways that have nothing to do with the principles of faith and everything to do with the ways highly motivated people think religion can serve them.
One of the most meaningful kudos I received from a reviewer for my Mer Cycle Trilogy was that I had made the religion a living part of the world. So, religion—or more importantly, the divine principles of religion—not only give me grist for the fictional mill, but also help me build a richer culture that seems more real to the reader.
Next time, I answer a question about the religious themes and ideas that are woven through the cultures of a Galaxy Far, Far Away.