Mentioning Mormons in science fiction

Before I turn to my subject, I just want to call attention to the Nebula Awards ceremony taking place this Saturday at 8:15pm EDT.  Two LDS authors, Brad R. Torgersen and Nancy Fulda, are nominees.  From what I understand, the ceremony will have a live video stream.  I’ll update this post with a link once I have one. Update — Here’s the link: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nebulaawards

Possibly my favorite Robert A. Heinlein novel is Double Star.  The main character is an actor hired to stand in for an important political leader who has been kidnapped. (I sometimes wonder if the idea for the movie Dave was stolen from this book.) The plot involves important negotiations with the Martians–the book was written two decades before the Viking probes landed on Mars–and at one point the main character participates in an alien adoption ceremony:

I reached the ramp leading down into the inner nest and started on down.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

That line of asterisks represents the adoption ceremony. Why? Because it is limited to members of the Kkkah Nest. It is a family matter. Put it this way: A Mormon may have very close gentile friends—but does that friendship get a gentile inside the Temple at Salt Lake City? It never has and it never will. Martians visit very freely back and forth between their nests—but a Martian enters the inner nest only of his own family. Even his conjugate-spouses are not thus privileged. I have no more right to tell the details of the adoption ceremony than a lodge brother has to be specific about ritual outside the lodge.

I can remember reading that as a teenager and being impressed that Heinlein knew what he was talking about when it came to Mormons.  The use of the word gentile from a Mormon perspective is particularly telling, but I also liked the respect shown to the sacredness of the temple.  More than that, though, I was thrilled that a major non-Mormon author thought Mormons could still be around in the future.  Much of the science fiction I read at the time tended to at best ignore religion in the future.  Some of it was actively hostile, assuming humans would outgrow the need for religion, or using crazy religious people as antagonists for the rational heroes.

At Adherents.com there’s a list of mentions of Latter-day Saints (or Utah) in mainstream science fiction. It even categorizes the references as positive, negative, or neutral.  Unfortunately, the list doesn’t seem to have been updated in the last few years, but it’s still a pretty interesting look at how our religion is portrayed in science fiction.  Most of the 308 references are by non-LDS authors.

There’s also a surprising chart of the percentage of award-winning science fiction or fantasy novels (up through the year 2000) that mention Mormons.  For the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for best novel, about 25% of the winners mention Mormons.

Obviously, science fiction writers need not fear mentioning Mormons in their work.

Yet for several years, I did fear doing so.  I didn’t fear putting Mormon themes in my work (it would be almost impossible for me to not include such themes), but I was worried that mere mention of Mormons would turn off readers because they would consider it proselytizing.  In the first five years of my publishing career, only one of my stories mentioned Mormons: “Loophole,” which was published in an online LDS literary journal and in UVU’s student-run science fiction and fantasy magazine Warp and Weave.  Because it was a story with a Mormon protagonist and involved Mormon doctrine, I didn’t even bother sending it to national publications.  (I still don’t think a national publication would have accepted the story–not because of the Mormon protagonist, but because much of the humor relies on LDS in-jokes that wouldn’t really make sense to people unfamiliar with Mormon culture and beliefs.)

I probably would have continued avoiding the mention of Mormons in my fiction aimed at national audiences for quite some time had I not gone to a 2008 writing workshop run by authors Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and editor Sheila Williams (none of whom are LDS).  One of the workshop assignments was to write a story with a main character based on myself.  Because being Mormon is so central to my life, I decided to use that aspect for the character. Except in the LDSF anthologies back in the 1980s, I had never read a science fiction story with a faithful Mormon protagonist in a high-tech future, so that’s what I wrote.

As I wrote the story, I deliberately made some choices that I felt would make the Mormon elements of the story more palatable to a non-Mormon audience:

  1. I had to work in some explanations of things that most Mormons would know. (Science fiction readers are accustomed to picking up on clues about cultures different from their own, which means the task might be more difficult when writing about Mormon characters in other genres.)
  2. Since I was telling the story in first person from the Mormon character’s point of view, I put in some self-deprecating humor.
  3. While the Mormon character remains faithful and believes in God throughout the story, I gave him some flaws.  The most important of those was pride, as that’s what leads to a humbling crisis at the climax of the story. Making a Mormon character a paragon will tend to distance non-Mormon readers.
  4. I created a rational, atheist character to serve as a foil to the Mormon character. And that character also remains true to her beliefs throughout the story.  Not only that, but she ends up making the same moral choices (relevant to the plot) as the Mormon for her own reasons.  My purpose in writing the story was not to prove that Mormonism is superior–I merely wanted to show a intelligent, faithful member of the Church in future society.
  5. Although the Mormon character sees a divine hand at work in the resolution of the plot, the atheist character is able to come up with a non-divine explanation that satisfies her.  In my experience, people tend to stick to their world-views and come up with explanations that fit. For example, as Mormons we might attribute the impulse to phone someone who we then find out is in trouble to inspiration from God, while others would explain that away as coincidence or the result of subliminal cues we’d received from that person earlier.
  6. Nobody is converted to (or from) Mormonism during the course of the story. The characters who were Mormon before the start of the story remain so, those were not are still not at the end.  While I think it is possible for well-written conversion stories to appeal to a non-Mormon audience, such stories are more easily dismissed as “proselytizing.”

After I finished the story, I ran it past some non-Mormon friends to see if they felt it was too Mormonish Mormonous Mormonal Mormony.  They didn’t think it was, so I sent it off to Analog Science Fiction and the editor bought it.  Some people still dismissed it as “Mormon proselytizing,” but the story got some good reviews from non-Mormons and garnered some (secular) award attention.  Far more good than ill came from my mentioning Mormons.

So I encourage LDS authors not to be afraid of including Mormons in their writing for non-Mormon audiences.

 

About Eric James Stone

A Nebula Award winner, Hugo Award nominee, and winner in the Writers of the Future Contest, Eric James Stone has had stories published in Year’s Best SF 15, Analog, Nature, and Kevin J. Anderson’s Blood Lite anthologies of humorous horror, among other venues. One of Eric’s earliest memories is of seeing an Apollo moon-shot launch on television. That might explain his fascination with space travel. His father’s collection of old science fiction ensured that Eric grew up on a full diet of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. While getting his political science degree at Brigham Young University, Eric took creative writing classes. He wrote several short stories, and even submitted one for publication, but after it was rejected he gave up on creative writing for a decade. During those years Eric graduated from Baylor Law School, worked on a congressional campaign, and took a job in Washington, DC, with one of those special interest groups politicians always complain that other politicians are influenced by. He quit the political scene in 1999 to work as a web developer in Utah. In 2002 he started writing fiction again, and in 2003 he attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. In 2007 Eric got laid off from his day job just in time to go to the Odyssey Writing Workshop. He has since found a new web development job. In 2009 Eric became an assistant editor for Intergalactic Medicine Show. Eric lives in Eagle Mountain, Utah.
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14 Responses to Mentioning Mormons in science fiction

  1. Wm says:

    I’ll be using “Mormonal” quite often from now on.

  2. Lee Allred says:

    Very good article, Eric!

    As luck would have it, I’m right in the middle of writing an essay on including Mormons in one’s fiction (the don’t dos as well as the how tos) for a project I have going on and will now undoubtedly be pulling tasty, tasty quotes from this article. I’d already been planning using your excellent story as a how to example, but this really helps.

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    Very nice article. I like your recipe for how to mention Mormons without offending or “losing” non-Mormon readers — all of the items on the list make sense and have good reasons for me.

    Based on my experience, I have to wonder whether any *Mormon* readers have thought your stories were “too Mormon” for a national market. My experience is that Mormons often think non-Mormons won’t “get it” when in fact they get it pretty well.

    A side note: It looks like your point 4 was truncated at the end. Was there something you intended to add after “wanted to show”?

    • Thanks for pointing out the truncated sentence. I’ve fixed that.

      As for the question of whether any Mormon readers felt it was too Mormon for a national market: Not to my knowledge. I ran it through two writing groups populated with Mormons, and nobody raised that concern about the story as a whole, although they might have pointed out some things I could clarify.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        Maybe LDS sf&f readers are less paranoid about that than the general mill of LDS readers. In fact, it would make sense. That thing you mentioned about the reader *always* needing to interpret an alien environment…

  4. As a non-Mormon who just followed you over here from Facebook, I have to say it ranges from a non-issue to a mild positive for me. I think the most irrational projection some writers make is a future where human beings do not have faiths. We have for all recorded history. Ruthlessly atheistic societies have failed to stamp out faith. If you want to write believable future characters, you might be able to ignore matters of faith, but you can’t believably pretend that faith won’t exist.

  5. Meg Stout says:

    So that 2008 workshop was the birth of your Nebula story? Sweet. Loved that one. Then again, I don’t think I’ve had anything other than positive inclinations to any of your polished works (or even non-polished, darn you for being so brilliant).

    On re-reading your Nebula story, I was super impressed with the economy with which you covered everything. I don’t know that there was a single wasted word.

    I think any story that makes itself accessible to a wide audience can be a success. A problem with some ‘Mormon’ fiction is the writers lack the perspective to make their tale accessible. You give some very good pointers on addressing that problem.

  6. mormon says:

    You have a point in what you have said here. It’s enlighten me more about Mormons. Thanks for your God’s given wisdom to share it. It is like sharing the Gospel of the Lord. It Makes all difference. God bless your working hands.

  7. David Stone says:

    I also loved Double Star. But the root of that novel probably goes back to the late 1800′s, or early 20th century, to The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope.

  8. Emily says:

    I don’t know if the 1980 Japanese film Kagemusha is based on a true story or not, but it’s similar to what you’ve described as well – someone needing to impersonate a missing leader. Thanks for this great essay on some useful ways to incorporate LDS characters in a text meant for a broader readership!

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