Literary science fiction is more popular than ever. The success of films like The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, is only helping the genre gain a wider audience.
Bishop Barron had positive things to say about the film version of The Martian. Indeed, many folks familiar with their Catechism could find the good, the true, and the beautiful in Asimov’s Foundation series, Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and other acknowledged landmarks in science fiction without being duped into pantheism, secular humanism, scientific materialism, or the like.
But are there others? Are there more science fiction books that not only have serious literary chops but are good for a Christian’s faith, especially in their ability to ask difficult, speculative questions about the human condition and confront them head-on with reasonable answers?
There are—and here’s a selection of them (I’m saving typical “young adult” authors like Madeleine L’Engle for another time). Because literary science fiction tends to be unflinching in the face of the full human experience, I’m dividing these books into three groups: Just a Bit Edgy, Somewhat Gritty, and Downright Controversial. Choose your own comfort level and dive in.
Just a Bit Edgy
1. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1959)
Long considered a classic, Miller’s novel imagines a future where humanity has to learn how to read and write all over again—and can do so only because of the efforts of monks who have long practiced the art of preserving books. With a formidable knowledge of Catholic liturgy, theology, and monasticism, Miller fills his story with eccentric yet likeable characters, political intrigue, and offbeat humor. Though some find the book a bit austere—there are scenes of deep sadness—others find it wide awake with hope. Besides, there’s a scene that will make just about anybody a fan of “punch a heretic day.”
2-5. Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (1993 – 1996)
This four-book series or tetralogy starts with a character’s being “enlightened” by a god—an experience Wolfe depicts in the language of a Carmelite infusion, or a Jesuit consolation without cause, or a mystic’s vision. The thrust of the rest of the series is simple: the character in question—whose day job is to offer ritual sacrifice for his poor community—must do what this god has asked of him, for love of his people and to honor that god’s request. Wolfe, whose genius is nigh-universally recognized in the science fiction community, drops you into his richly realized world without explaining a thing; part of the fun is figuring out what in the heavens is going on.
6-8. The Space Trilogy by C. S. Lewis (1938 – 1945)
What would it look like if several distinct, rational species on a faraway planet were each in different stages of bodily evolution, knew about each other, and hadn’t had their souls marred by original sin? That’s the provocative question that begins the odyssey of Lewis’s Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, & That Hideous Strength, which concludes right back in 1940s Britain. Truly cosmic in scope, the series has long been celebrated for its spiritual insight, philological creativity, and reasonable apologetics. In fact, how Lewis depicts angels in the series is so convincing that Peter Kreeft quotes from the books in Angels (and Demons), his catechism on angelology.
Also worthy in this category:
9. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (1983)
Powers is well respected in the science fiction community for, among other things, his deft handling of time travel. Ignatius Press has a feature on him as part of their Insight series.
10-14. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (1980 – 1983)
His best-known and most celebrated series, Wolfe’s New Sun tetralogy (which has a fifth book as a “coda”) introduces us to a young man apprenticed to a guild of torturers, who administer punishments handed down to them. There’s one problem: our sort-of hero has a bit of a conscience. Wolfe brings this character, Severian, through adventures galore as the books unfold, where bizarre monsters, warped rituals, and strange imperial politics abound. As fans have discovered, Wolfe draws on Biblical, mythological, and Traditional sources (think rare martyrs) to undergird his intricate storyline, and even folks who have read the series multiple times admit there may be unsolved mysteries within. And yet Severian’s journey is oddly reminiscent of the call to embrace a royal vocation…
15-19. The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick (1952 – 1988)
A mastermind of the genre, “PKD” wrote short stories continuously; presses issue them in five-volume sets. Though he wrote many novels, his stories are well known because many have been made into Hollywood blockbusters: Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, and others. Dick’s tales, especially the early ones, could be pulpy, but the majority of them exhibit his labyrinthine, ingenious plotting; his wealth of insight into human nature; and his keen sense of prophecy. Contemporary readers often comment that, were it not for a telling detail or two (like an analog reel-to-reel machine), they’d guess the stories from half a century ago had been published yesterday.
20-22. The Golden Age Trilogy by John C. Wright (2002 – 2004)
Set millenia in the future, this trilogy imagines what would happen if the so-called “human perfection project” reached fruition: immortality for human beings, artificial intelligence that serves humanity, a utopian world for all. Except…someone isn’t happy, and there’s a crime afoot. Formerly an outspoken atheist, Wright made waves when he converted to Roman Catholicism (through Lutheranism), and he’s been all the more vocal about the compatibility of faith, logic, and science ever since. There’s an enlightening, in-depth interview with him over at Dappled Things.
Also in this category:
23. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)
It’s almost impossible to read this book without thinking of the contemporary video game situation. Jimmy Akin has written a detailed analysis of the whole Ender series.
24. Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
This space-opera saga of interstellar trade, politics, families, and religion is generally considered one of the top science fiction masterpieces of all time. Herbert followed his original Dune with a number of sequels, and the series has been carried on by his son and other collaborators.
Why so controversial? Herbert was raised Catholic but converted to Buddhism, and he all but rejected the truth claims of any particular religion, embracing the idea that all religions can essentially be merged into one (basically, syncretism). This thinking pervades the Dune series; there’s an older discussion thread about it on FishEaters.
What Dune does exceptionally well, however, is show the dangers of worldly messianism, when a leader takes advantage of a group in order to become its only hope, even the savior of the universe. Herbert’s expert world-building brings home the galaxy-shattering consequences of merely human messianism loud and clear. That via negativa message, along with Herbert’s considerable literary gifts, makes Dune very good reading.
Nota bene: David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation is a creative interpretation of the novel with serious departures from the text, while John Harrison’s 2000 mini-series is much more faithful and comprehensive.
And finally: some people think it’s a masterpiece, but I won’t recommend it:
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996)
It’s a bad sign when even the ecumenical-minded Jesuit astronomer Guy Consolmagno has problems with the book. There’s an essay on it and a few other titles over at The Atlantic. If you know people who like the book, you might want to read it so you can respond to them with well-considered evidence.