Science fiction and Catholic Sensibility

Author: Guy Consolmagno

Science fiction and Catholic Sensibility

Guy Consolmagno

The following is an excerpt of an article written by the Director of the Specola Vaticana (Vatican Observatory), which will be published in an upcoming edition of “Civilità Cattolica".

In November 2015, soon after I was named the director of the Vatican Observatory, Grayson Clary in the Atlantic wrote an article quoting me extensively, with the provocative title, “Why Sci-Fi Has So Many Catholics.” In it he wrote, “Consolmagno cites science and science fiction as sources of great joy, including spiritual joy, in keeping with a core principle of Jesuit spirituality: Find God in all things.” Among other things, the article has made all the more prominent my own bonafides in the world of science fiction.

I recently participated at a writer’s festival at Notre Dame University: “Trying to Say ‘God’: Re-enchanting Catholic Literat- ure”. The organizers explained, “The main title was drawn from Fanny Howe’s Winter Sun, referring to the reluctance of many writers to write about religion and spirituality in a time when religion is suspect or passé. They might choose to avoid traditional religious terminology, yet there has been a turn to religion and spirituality among a number of poets, novelists, memoirists, and science fiction writers, and some authors grope for new forms of saying ‘God.’”

Thus the conference set up discussions of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and memoir, fantasy and science fiction, bringing together both well-known and emerging writers who, in the words of the organizers, “struggle with spiritual topics in their writings and attempt to do so in new ways.” I was there as a Catholic science writer and science fiction fan. In the lead-up to the conference, [I was asked to reflect on] fantasy and science fiction from my Catholic perspective.

I started reading science fiction at a very young age ... about the same age as when I became an altar boy. In the public library of the town where I grew up, science fiction was kept on a shelf right at the entrance to the “grown-up” section. I suspect the librarians put them there thinking such books were barely suitable for adults; I saw them as an entree into the world of “real” novels, much as being an altar boy was a step into participating in the liturgy of the Church. My family were all heavy users of the library, and when my siblings and I had chosen the books we wanted from the children’s section, we would wait for our mother at the front of the regular library, next to the science fiction books. The book that really whetted my taste for science fiction was a compilation of classic “Golden Age” (1940’s) short stories, A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, edited by Anthony Boucher. Boucher (the pen name of William A.P. White) was a founder and editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, long considered the most literate of the science fiction magazines. And as it turns out, Boucher was also noted in the science fiction world for being a devout Catholic. At a time when a strict materialism like H.G. Wells’ was considered de rigueur for a “modern” rational-thinking scientific man — no women need apply — his Catholicism was considered quite an oddity.

Though it is hard to find many books of short stories in the bookstores today, and the traditional science fiction magazines have a dwindling circulation, short stories still remain the perfect starting point for a science fiction reader or writer. Unlike a novel, a short story can survive well on one clever idea and a few deftly-sketched characters. Even better, the brevity of the format means that there’s no room for the major pitfalls of too many bad novels (and not just science fiction novels): pointless side plots or dreary descriptions.

In particular, while the writer must have in their own mind a clear and very detailed understanding of the world where the action takes place, they cannot waste any space in a short story outlining all the details of that world.

Here’s one example. Say you have invented for your fictional universe a machine, important to your plot, that’s as ubiquitous in the story’s universe as, say, a photocopier is in ours. Nobody in the real world spends time explaining to someone else how a photocopier works; we’ve all used one. So how do you get the characters in your story to talk about how your machine works? You write a scene where the machine breaks down! Then, as one character complains to another about what isn’t working, the reader can pick up how it is supposed to work when it is working.

One of the charms that attracted me to science fiction — and I confess probably drives others away — is the fun of ferreting out those details, solving the puzzle that the author has set for their readers. After all, that’s precisely what we have to do when we try to understand the universe we study as scientists. God is a master of including ... the ultimate science fiction author!

As I have said, the puzzle-solving skills I learned from reading science fiction are the skills I use as a scientist. But more than that, the very reason I wanted to study planets was because I first encountered them in science fiction, as places where people have adventures.

That sounds trivial today, but it wasn’t always so. People once thought of planets simply as bright dots of light in the sky. In the days before the space age, from the time of Ptolemy, including Copernicus and Kepler and Newton, up to the mid 20th century, astronomy was the study of planetary motions. The goal was to find ways to predict at any given moment the exact positions of those lights, relative to the constellations....

This is what you find in the popular books and astronomy textbooks of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which I’ve read in the Vatican Observatory’s library. Those authors sometimes will give you the size and even the masses of the planets and their moons ... factoids that can be deduced from observing their relative motions. But they never bother to divide the mass by the volume to calculate a planet’s density, much less speculate about what sort of stuff might be found inside those planets with just that density. One exception to this rule was Father Angelo Secchi, SJ, the Italian Jesuit whose 1859 book On the Physical Framework of the Solar System (Il Quadro Fisico del Sistema Solare) described the surfaces of Mars and other planets, famously discovering the dark markings on Mars that he suggested were “canali” — what he saw was real, unlike the so-called “canals” made infamous by Percival Lowell and H.G. Wells. Secchi, famously, was also the first person to systematically classify stars by their spectra, which is to say their compositions ... the beginnings of what we call astrophysics.

The very fact that I attended MIT is precisely because of science fiction. I was actually attending Boston College when I visited a high school friend of mine at MIT who showed me the science fiction library there. I was hooked, and immediately began plotting my transfer ... which included a shift of my vocation from lawyer or journalist, to one of scientist.

Our challenge, and indeed our vocation, is precisely to be Catholic in the original meaning of the world: to promote a vision that is indeed big enough to be worthy of the word ‘universal’.

If all you can offer is a 1950’s vision of Sister Mary Angelica driving a stick-shift spaceship, then your vision is maybe a trifle narrow. (That is not to say that, with the right twist, you couldn’t make a pretty good story out of that setting ... but your vision has to go beyond, to see the humor precisely by having a wider horizon than an uncritical image of religion tied to a naive understanding of science.) Indeed, our goal must be ultimately to find new ways to say “God,” even as we stay true to the one true One.

One of the remarkable things that gets missed in most discussions of science-vs-scripture is how the remarkable idea found first in Genesis of a loving God creating a universe from nothing continues to ring true, even as our scientific understanding of cosmology has gone through a dozen revolutions. The change from ancient Babylon’s flat-Earth-and-dome, the best science of the day when Genesis was written, to even just the Roman-era epicycles of Ptolemy is so vast, that the shift from Ptolemy to Copernicus seems like a minor tweak in comparison. Yet through every revolution in our understanding of how the physical universe works, the eternal questions explored in Sophocles and Shakespeare continue to resonate with us.

A writer with a Catholic understanding of good and evil can always bring new light on these old questions. By posing them in settings or situations that pull us away from our comfortable clichés and presumed solutions, we see them, and ourselves, in a new light.

Our Catholic faith can teach us how to see our own story. Adventures set on other planets show that the laws of right and wrong are as universal as the law of gravity. And a Catholic science fiction also can remind us that what the world counts as a happy ending is not always the happiest ending.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 July 2017, page 4

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