(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)
In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
Panel title: The Role of Religion in Science Fiction/Fantasy
Panel members: David Boop, Deby Fredericks, Joyce Reynolds-Ward, Peter Wacks
Panel description: This Sunday morning we’ll talk about religion’s role in scifi/fantasy. Is it necessary? Can you write a society and not have religion? How do you make a religion? What do you research? Where do you begin? Join us to learn the ins and outs of religion in genre writing.
PW: I leave out rants about religion from social media, etc. But it does bleed into my writing. How does it bleed into writing?
DF: Religion is often used as an antagonist in SFF. In real life there are skeptics and deniers of climate change who base their beliefs on religion. These get slapped down, but we should also be respectful. Shoot at people’s beliefs advisedly.
PW: Or be offensive about everything like South Park.
JRW: Consistency matters. Conservatives and Protestants are not the same as Catholics, Lutherans, etc. American bishops aren’t the same as the Vatican. Some of us are wired for religion. Some do religion and sci-fi well, like Russell’s The Sparrow. Orson Scott Card incorporates religion into what he writes. The biggest issue is that many write from an outsider’s perspective and don’t get into the internal battles and dialog. Poorly written, it’s just ritual and evil clergy.
DB: It’s not necessarily what the media says but what they portray. The stories should deal with redemption, crisis of faith, and facing one’s fears. The cliche evil religion is too obvious.
DF: That’s why people use churches and cults. These organizations have resources like the government. They have many members and bases to provide a continual source of conflict. While a small group of bandits can be wiped out in one go.
DB: It’s descended from the Cold War generation, where everyone suspected everyone else. You can compare the country to a religion. But there are shades and different levels. Example: Game of Thrones.
JRW: Religion fuels the believers. There are explicit rituals for particular purposes. For the fanatics, it’s the rationale of true believers. An example is Frank Herbert’s Dune.
DF: Members of a criminal gang will likely yield at the end. But religious followers are less likely to surrender. These are different kinds of fight.
PW: I started from a hopeful place. That faith in itself could change worlds and universes. People get caught up in the bad side of the coin. Is there a good side?
JRW: The best stuff doesn’t proselytize. It presents how it affects the character.
PW: How do you write without religion?
DF: Anne McCaffrey didn’t plan for religion on Pern. Is this realistic? We look for patterns in everything. We want to control unknown events.
PW: Lack of faith is a religion.
DB: In society, we can’t escape religion. At some point, someone wants power. The quickest way to get it is to say that you are ordained by God. And there are people with delusions of grandeur.
JRW: It taps into an emotional resonance in the brain. I believe some people are hardwired for faith.
DB: As an author, you can research and explore other worlds and religions to at least understand some of their motivations.
PW: How much of your writing is taking the world in and preaching it out? Do morals come out of the book or just a character on a soapbox?
DF: We all write our own belief. But we must also be aware of the audience. They don’t want religion and don’t want to deal with that. So you give them what they want. Religion can be part of world building. Use religion as set dressing rather than preaching.
JRW: Everything we write reflects our own morals and ethics but we have to be careful promoting one thing. The audience isn’t friendly towards preaching. Be nuanced.
DB: I make sure the voice in the story is the character and not me. I’m careful that what the character preaches is not necessarily what I would preach. Transcend your own belief. Otherwise it’s the same character all the time. Every character is different. Make it clear that it’s fiction.
JRW: Sometimes I’m seduced by a character. One of my recent characters is a woman who becomes a goddess but is unlikeable in some ways.
Q: For most people, religion gives them answers they don’t have to understand. Is this valuable in real life?
DB: Lewis Black said that religion is used to keep people in line. Some people just want to be told what to do.
PW: It’s useful in defining societies in SFF. For instance, in a generation ship, they may need faith and trust. It defines societal ethics.
JRW: It’s used as a support structure, social structure.
DF: It helps in sharing resources in a disaster.
PW: In Good Omens, they shared cookies. It’s a standard.
Q: How do you develop your own religion? How hard is it dealing with all the different facets?
DB: I took a look at the current progression of religion and tried to see what would happen in the future. I decided that everyone agrees that there’s a god and removed the dogma.
JRW: In my fantasy story, I have seven gods that did battle. They’re modeled on Greek mythology.
Q: With faith and religion, is faith in a person or is it in a religion?
PW: It’s only when many people have the same faith that you get a religion.
DF: And they have it at the same intensity.
JRW: Religion has ritual, structure, and protocols.
PW: Religion needs a divinity. Although now we say that media/capitalism is a religion.
DF: Capitalism is about commerce, not personalities. Religion needs a personality. Although now, corporations are trying to be seen as individuals.
PW: There are personalities that represent commercial media, so it’s getting dangerously close to becoming a religion.
Q: How easy is it to write a galaxy-spanning self destructive cult or religion?
PW: It depends on the quality of writing.
DB: Write about it if it is needed for the character to change. If the character changes too easily without a challenge, it’s not interesting. If the cult/religion is just use as flavoring, it doesn’t add to the story so it should be cut.
JRW: You can’t write a galaxy-spanning cult because it will splinter and there’s the problem of communication.
DB: An example of a galaxy-spanning cult is in the trilogy The Damned by Alan Dean Foster.
DF: As writers, we need to grab a common trope to get rolling. When revising, we need to flesh things out. Use something that is unique. Even if you use a cult, find something about it that makes it unique and a surprise.