Science fiction is a literary genre based upon imagined scientific discoveries, technological innovations, or encounters with alien life. Stories can be set in the future, in the present with actively unfolding discoveries, or even in the past, by inserting anachronistic technology into a historical setting, by placing events on a different planet in the past, or by allowing characters to travel backward in time. Key to the genre—problems and accompanying solutions are supposed to be within the realm of actual possibility, with modest exceptions. Impossible phenomena like travel faster than light or backward in time may be permitted with the assumption of eventual paradigm-shifting scientific discoveries.
The creation and description of alternate worlds or realities can be fascinating in its own right (at least for some of us), but it is also fertile ground for exploring human nature and the trajectory of societies in unique ways. The worldview of the writer is reflected in the consequences of decisions made as characters and nations respond to otherworldly pressures that nonetheless mirror real life. It should be rich literary soil for Christian writers—but it doesn’t take a deep search to discover that the number of published books filling this literary niche is not large.
Among Christian publishers, few actively seek science fiction works. Publishing representatives and literary agents attending writers’ conferences will post the type of material they are looking for ahead of the event. At a typical Christian writers’ conference, one or two agents may mention fantasy, but rarely science fiction.
The general disinterest in faith-friendly science fiction strikes me as very odd, for there has long been a general market for science fiction, and the best works of sci-fi are great stories. Why is it that Christians seem to give the genre a wide berth? With some thought, I believe the reason is a combination of the history of the genre, where a number of atheistic authors rose in prominence, and a general suspicion that science fiction intrinsically tugs against the boundaries of biblical orthodoxy. The internet does not help with the latter, as a Google search will turn up sources like a “top 10 Christian science fiction” list that includes titles such as The Sparrow, Empyrion, A Canticle for Lebowitz, or Stranger in a Strange Land – none of which portray Christianity in an appealing or positive light.
I have compiled a short list below of themes that concern Christian readers, followed by encouragement for more Christian engagement. I have not singled out specific books or authors for each identified theme. The observations draw mostly from my reading of works by writers such as Robert Heinlein, Arthur Clarke, Mary Doria Russell, Walter Miller, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Piers Anthony, and Stephen Lawhead.
Society moved beyond religion
Many books portray a time or a place where the society has moved beyond religion. Conditions may still be bad, but at least it is not because of antiquated belief in imaginary gods. In some cases, the post-religion culture is implicit by virtue of the absence of any reference to religion, while in others, the end-of-religious-belief is openly praised. Still others start with a culture entrenched in religious belief, but with a protagonist who (consciously or unconsciously) assists with their awakening and enlightenment through an increasing scientific awareness.
Dystopia as a result of a government of religious zealots
Where religion is still present, it is rarely portrayed as a force for good. Leaders impose strict, repressive religious laws upon citizens, while routinely breaking those laws themselves. The only ones who stay true to the faith may be portrayed as maniacal.
Religious characters tragically discovering their faith is misplaced
Some writers have used future settings or alien encounters to portray dedicated religious characters undone by discoveries that their faith is unfounded.
Hero freed from the pointless restraints of religion
The most common expression of this freedom is sexual (which may also explain why it is nearly always a hero, rather than heroine). Promiscuity and gender fluidity comes free of emotional baggage, disease, or brokenness.
Far future time – is Jesus really returning?
Stories set far into the future suggest, for some readers, that the return of Christ is not so imminent, or maybe that it will never really happen. This may be especially true for stories where mankind has given up on Earth and has moved on to other worlds or ships.
Time travel – is God sovereign over history?
The notion of jumping backward in time and altering the outcome of history strikes some as undermining the sovereignty of God. If humans can rewrite the events of the past, could even the judgements of God be undone?
Post-apocalyptic settings – final Judgment not so final?
Stories set in a post-apocalypse world may give a sense that things can get really, really bad, but humanity with find a way to survive on its own. There is no final Judgment to fear, other than what man may do to himself through his own hubris and stupidity.
Does an alien need Jesus?
Aliens are a hallmark of science fiction. Which comes with the inherent dilemma. If salvation comes only through Christ, what is to become of a sinful sentient creature from another world? The answer many Christians have for this is to declare there is no other intelligent life in the universe. Stories that include them are held at arms’ length.
Science fiction, and speculative fiction in general, builds stories around the question, what if? What if robots became sentient; what if coastal cities were drowned by rising seas; what if tiny aliens began to live secretly among us? When Christian writers probe this space, the result can raise doctrinal eyebrows. A galactic society in an alternate future where the promised Messiah has not yet come (Firebird, Kathy Tyers). A mysterious hero, fighting against dystopian Bible-quoting tyrants, speaks words of universal love and acceptance (Choosing, Rachelle Dekker). Or a troubled journeyman torturer serves as a Christ figure (The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe). Such themes arguably stretch the definition of the Christian moniker.
Does all this mean that science fiction is essentially off-limits for the Christian market? As the apostle Paul was fond of saying, “May it never be!” The history of science fiction reflects its authors, which does not define or limit the genre itself. A good science fiction story is under no obligation to glorify science over religion, nor does it need to promote carnal or self-destructive behaviors. Dystopian settings are not the exclusive domain of self-righteous zealots. An honest look at history gives ample material for future dystopias created by the suppression of religious expression. Far future settings, post-apocalypse, and off-world colonizations are not beyond the scope of Christian orthodoxy. We are already two thousand years beyond when many first-century Christians thought Jesus would return. It could be another two thousand years or more before history culminates. Post-apocalypse settings are ripe territory to illustrate the often repeated biblical theme of the remnant. God inflicted judgment on Israel and surrounding nations at various times, but always preserved a faithful remnant. And there should not be a problem at all with the idea of populating a new world – unless one fears that God’s reach is limited.
To add to this, there is nothing about a far future, or post-apocalypse, or off-world colonization that requires belief that it could actually happen. We love life-lessons told in stories involving talking animals after all (Narnia, Aesops’ Fables, and innumerable children’s picture books). These fictional, often impossible settings simply serve as a stage that reflects human nature and foibles, with the potential for communicating something deeper and meaningful.
But what about aliens? I have three answers. One, see above. If you can read a story with talking animals wearing human clothing without cringing, you can handle aliens. Two, it is helpful to recall that God does not need anyone to solve the apparent problem for him. If intelligent creatures should happen to exist elsewhere in the universe, he has it covered. Three, for my own writing, I allow my characters to explore the question within the story itself. In The Mulapin Trilogy, Daniel Quib wrestles with this very question, resolved by … well, read it and find out!
There is some encouragement to be found in a growing movement of aspiring authors, artists, and small publishing houses that are engaging the culture on this front. In 2012, Becky Minor started Realm Makers, a resource and conference specifically for authors and artists of Christian speculative fiction. The annual conference has grown from 60 participants back in 2013, to closer to 400 in 2019. Small presses have also started (and, sadly, some have shut down) specializing in faith-friendly speculative fiction. Most can be found represented at Realm Makers.