The key to presenting religion in science fiction

People who are interested in seeing science fiction handle religion in a non-kludgey way should check out B.J. Keeton's essay on the subject. Inspired by Eric James Stone's "alien Mormons" story in the September Analog, Keeton derives some no-nonsense rules.

After reading Keeton's description of Stone's story as well as the excerpt up at Analog, I'm now dying to read the rest of the tale. Here's a particularly fascinating bit:

The Sol Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had only six human members, including me and the two missionaries, but there were forty-six swale members. As beings made of plasma, swales couldn't attend church in the chapel, of course, but a ten-foot widescreen monitor across the back wall showed a false-color display of their magnetic force-lines, gathered in clumps of blue and red against the yellow background representing the solar interior. The screen did not give a sense of size, but at two hundred feet in length, the smallest of the swales was almost double the length of a blue whale. From what I'd heard, the largest Mormon swale, Sister Emma, stretched out to almost five hundred feet-but she was nowhere near the twenty-four-mile length of the largest swale in our sun.

"My dear Brothers and Sisters," I said automatically, then stopped in embarrassment. The traditional greeting didn't apply to all swale members, as they had three genders. "And Neuters," I added. I hoped my delay would not be noticeable in the transmission. It would be a disaster if in my first talk as branch president, I alienated a third of the swale population.

Keeton praises Stone for putting a die-hard atheist character into the story, who can rationalize the events that the main character thinks are a result of divine intervention and prevent the result from feeling too much like a deus ex machina or a departure from "hard science fiction." Writes Keeton:

[E]ven as a sympathetic reader, unrestrained proselytizing through literature bothers me, even the brand of spirituality to which I personally subscribe. This is literature, after all, and not Sunday school.

SF authors must understand the limitations that putting spirituality into a hard SF story can cause. Only then can they break away from the mold and actually tell their story.

Keeton offers some really good tips on how to include religion in a way that doesn't feel either like "set dressing" or proselytizing. It boils down to the injunction: "Write a good story. Interesting characters, good plots, fun writing all make the natural inclination to shy way from religion in SF moot."

Well worth reading in its entirety. [Professor Beej]