Another Post about Mormons and Science Fiction

April 29, 2013 | 42 comments
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2013-04-29 The HostThe topic of Mormons and science fiction seems to crop up with decent regularity every couple of years, and with the recent release of the film adaptation of The Host and the impending release (finally!) of the film adaptation of Ender’s Game, we’re probably about due for another round.

This is a topic that I particularly love because it involves two of my greatest passions. I’ve read lots of really good ideas about what it is that makes so many Mormons write science fiction, why Mormons ought to write “fairy-tales”, and of course the caveat that Mormons might not actually write that much science fiction: they might just be really visible when they do. The empirical question of whether or not Mormons are actually over represented in sci-fi will have to wait for someone feeling more ambitious than I am at the moment, but even if they are not it might still be interesting. As Scott Parkins said:

If you look at the sciences, Mormons are disproportionately represented as scientists, but what’s more intriguing is that more successful scientists are LDS proportionate to the total than other representatives of religion that are active in their faith. I think that carries through here.

In other words: if there are no more Mormons writing than any other denomination, but the Mormons who do write sci-fi view their work or themselves in a religious light more than other authors, well that itself is interesting.

I did a little bit more thinking about this when a reporter for Hollywood.com asked me to answer some questions about Mormonism and sci-fi. He then forgot to notify me when the article was published (turns out it was 4 weeks ago), but in any case I wanted to try out my own theory for why Mormons might write more sci-fi and/or why the Mormon who do write sci-fi might identify that with Mormonism. So here’s my full response to his question: “What is Mormonism’s relationship with science fiction? Why do you think it fosters science fiction creators?”

I think the biggest reason that Mormons write so much science fiction is that our religion doesn’t have any official theology or creeds. Although we have a very hierarchical institution, they confine themselves mostly to doctrinal statements. If Mormons want to try and dig deeper and understand the meaning behind or connections between elements of official Mormon doctrine, then that becomes sort of their own responsibility. And so there’s just this deep culture of amateur theology in Mormonism: we spend a lot of time just trying to figure out how things might work, theologically.
And, since Mormonism also makes doctrinal claims that go well outside of most religions (for example,about what happens before and after this mortal life) and also has long believed in compatability between science and religion, the direction that Mormons take with their individual speculation is very compatible with sci-fi. After all, American sci fi writer Pamela Sargent described science fiction as “the literature of ideas”, in Mormonism you have a population of people who are just fascinated with trying to work out these various big ideas that have to do with how we got where we are and where we might get where we’re going. So I think it’s really natural that you would have a lot of speculative fiction (an umbrella term for fantasy and sci-fi) coming out of that culture.

2013-04-29 Speaker for the DeadSo that’s my theory for why Mormons might write more sci-fi or why, if they don’t actually write more, the Mormons who do write sci-fi view it as particularly tied in with their faith.And let me go a little farther and say that, if you’re willing to buy into that theory, maybe some Mormon science fiction is worth taking seriously from a theological perspective. If Mormons who write science fiction do so at least in part as a natural process of trying to tease out insights and connections from our heritage and doctrine, than I’m inclined to take them at least as seriously as professional academics who–to trade off on their much greater research and education–are trapped in an Ivory Tower that too often prizes provocative novelty and show-off cleverness. Besides, and less controversially, it’s not like we’re faced with an either-or proposition in this regard.

This might all be going too far for many, but for me it’s only a baby-step from the realization that I’ve already been heavily influenced by big ideas in science fiction classics. For me that list starts with Dune and Ender’s Game / Speaker for the Dead, but also includes books I’ve read more recently like A Canticle for Liebowitz, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Man in the High Castle. I simply can’t separate the way those books have impacted me from the way I’ve been influenced by more reputable authors like (choosing from some of the most influential on me) Graham Greene, Paul Bowles, or Albert Camus. (To anyone who is skeptical but willing to entertain a very short example of credibly intellectually engaging science fiction, I would suggest reading Le Guin’s short, brutal evisceration of utilitarianism: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. It’s less than 3,000 words. Here is the full text.)

I know that suggesting we even consider including genre fiction in the “best books” category is going to fail to so much as register as a serious suggestion with many, but what can I say? I grew up with my mum reading books like Harry Potter to the family, and she’s a woman who is unafraid to say that “J.K. Rowling, to my mind, is a prophetess.” Seeking out edification and engagement in popular art is just one more way we can find the sacred in the mundane, and serves as a reminder that we need not accept the world’s present trade off between sophistication and virtue in art.

42 Responses to Another Post about Mormons and Science Fiction

  1. BTD Greg on April 29, 2013 at 10:00 am

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks. I think you may be on to something about the link between amateur theology and science/speculative fiction.

    Btu that last paragraph made me feel suddenly very old.

  2. Michael H. on April 29, 2013 at 10:26 am

    I’ve said for a while that one of the books with the biggest impact on my theological ideas was Edwin Abbott’s 1884 book “Flatland,” which features at one point a square who meets a sphere and, having seen three dimensions, gets thrown in the asylum when he tries to explain it to his 2D counterparts. There are few things that can get you thinking about what progression “from exaltation to exaltation” can mean than a book that demonstrates how terribly hard it can be to describe something higher!

    In addition, I’ll add that Mormon theology has for a long time -from before the advent of science fiction!- reeked of sci-fi. God gaining his exaltation through learning? Yup. Many worlds in the universe with inhabited planets? Yup. Talk of interplanetary visitation? Yup. BH Roberts even has sections of his “The Truth, the Way, the Life” that ask whether the inhabitants of other planets are altruistic or not… comparing them with missionaries on Earth going out to improve their neighbors’ lives! (Not to mention the Adam-God ideas, which are worthy of sci-fi deelopment.) You don’t get that sort of thing in elementary Protestant theological debate.

    In fact, I attribute the inspiration behind paper I’m working on to develop a theology of animals in Mormonism to my interest in figuring out what place nonhuman extraterrestrials could have in Mormon soteriology – something I’ve wondered about for a very long time. (And its why I much prefer Speaker for the Dead to Ender’s Game.)

  3. Nathaniel Givens on April 29, 2013 at 10:32 am

    Sorry, Greg! I could add that I was actually in high school by the time we were listening to my mum read Harry Potter, but I’m not sure if that will help or hurt the perception of relative age…

    And, Michael, Flatland is another great example. I also prefer Speaker for the Dead over, Ender’s Game, but I didn’t realize this until Speaker for the Dead for the first time earlier this year.

  4. John Taber on April 29, 2013 at 10:35 am

    I had a ward Young Men’s president who is a good friend of Orson Scott Card. He said Brother Card actually wrote Speaker for the Dead first, but then felt he needed to better flesh out Ender’s character first.

  5. Michael H. on April 29, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    In his book “Elements of Fiction Writing – Characters & Viewpoint,” if I recall correctly, Card writes that he had wanted to write Speaker for the Dead for a long time but had no idea who the main character would be. It then hit him that Ender Wiggin, protagonist of the otherwise unrelated Ender’s Game, would be perfect, so that’s how Ender got cast in a book so very different than his first appearance.

  6. Tin Foil Hat on April 29, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    You can’t prove Adam wasn’t dropped off in a spaceship…just sayin’

  7. Gilgamesh on April 29, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    Michael H.

    Make sure to check our Gerald E. Jones’ book “Animals and the Church” for his historical recap of animals in LDS doctrine.

  8. DLewis on April 29, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    The theological angle seems right, but I almost wonder if you got it backwards. It’s not that so much is left undefined for Mormons, as compared to other religions, that give us space to work things out, but rather that we do have fairly concrete ideas of a pre-/post-mortal life that provides the framework for speculation. Mormons don’t strike me as particularly interested in theological mystery, and its materialist theology, coupled with its literalist art aesthetic, makes mapping out a vision of the future/heaven come more naturally than most. Because we make fairly direct claims about what we’ll be doing in heaven, speculating about the future doesn’t seem that unusual. In short, I wonder if the same spirit animating Mormon sci-fi animated “Saturday’s Warriors” (albeit it to very different aesthetic ends).

    So as a Catholic writer like Flannery O’Connor turns to the gothic to engage theological mysteries like incarnation, sin, violence, atonement, Mormons are more eager to flesh out its plan-of-salvation-diagram of the future (albeit from within a secular genre) with science-fiction.

  9. Michael H. on April 29, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    Gilgamesh: Yup, that was the first thing that I looked into!

  10. Nathaniel Givens on April 29, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    DLewis-

    The theological angle seems right, but I almost wonder if you got it backwards. It’s not that so much is left undefined for Mormons, as compared to other religions, that give us space to work things out, but rather that we do have fairly concrete ideas of a pre-/post-mortal life that provides the framework for speculation.

    I really think it’s both. We have a broader scope (so there’s more material to think about), but we have no official theology (so all that open material is up for grabs). It’s like the few doctrinal points we have about pre- / post-mortal life opened up the territory, but because there’s no official theology it’s still frontier-land.

    Things I didn’t mention, but that have been mentioned by others, are also:
    1. The rationalist bent to early Mormonism
    2. The explicit rejection of the supernatural as it’s usually defined (e.g. God works through science, which is basically Clarke’s Third Law a century before Clarke)
    3. The embrace of a monist cosmology

    Those three points, which overlap a bit, are each additional reasons for Mormons to view sci-fi as an intellectual home-away-from-home.

  11. DLewis on April 29, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    Yeah, I can agree with that. I also think you have to account for the fact that beyond abstract, theological concepts, Mormonism’s original story of angels and translated ancient scripture and temple ceremonies shows we have no problem with fantastical elements (even believers acknowledge how bizarre these stories sound) existing within a modern world. The blurring of possible/impossible in Mormonism/sci-fi alike makes the transition pretty smooth.

  12. DLewis on April 29, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    origins*

  13. ideasnstuff on April 29, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    As Hugh Nibley used to point out (sorry, no reference), Mormonism has been the only Christian religion for long, long, time, that could stomach a connection between cosmology and theology. To many thinkers of more “orthodox” views, the very fact that we think God has a location in the cosmos makes our whole religion science fiction, not that much unlike the invention of L. Ron Hubbard.

    Of course I disagree.

  14. J Watson on April 29, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    My cynical side suspects that Mormons trend toward science fiction and fantasy because, as a people, we’re afraid to create serious, literary art. As a professor of creative writing, I see semester after semester of budding writers whose dream is to write like Orson Scott Card or Stephenie Meyer. More specifically, they want to be rich and famous writers like those two. The collective energy of these aspiring writers is misspent, in my opinion. We have our share of YA writers. We need more writers whose approaches are mature and literary.
    I’m aware my reasoning here is reductive and hasty. This is just my conclusion after years of observing student writers.
    Fifteen years ago, most students wrote poetry. After the plague–I mean, arrival–of Meyer, nearly all students write fiction. Did she revolutionize the genre? Hardly. Rather, she showed than a marginally talented Mormon can make it big by appealing to thirteen-year-old girls (and the thirteen-year-old girl that resides in many of us).

  15. Bryan S. on April 29, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    My cynical side suspects that most people don’t aspire to write something that whose target audience is fellow academics. Also, if you consider Orson Scott Card and Stephenie Meyer to be comparable writers on the same level, then to many your opinion is already suspect.

  16. JWatson on April 29, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    Bryan S: Mature and serious literature need not only appeal to academics. Consider Twain, Melville, Hemingway, Faulkner, the Brontes, Achebe, Woolf, McCarthy, etc. These authors aren’t writing for academics, though academics do enjoy reading them and applying critical interpretations. Nor have I suggested Card’s and Meyer’s writing is comparable, only in respect to their fantastical subjects. I respect Card; I don’t respect Meyer. But even though I respect Card, I think we would do well to produce literature that isn’t on every fifth grader’s must-read list. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Card when I was younger. His influence was important in my formation as a reader and writer. Without him, our canon would lose something. What I’m suggesting is that if Card represents our literary ceiling, we’ve further to go. As this is a topic of some importance to me, when I’ve had occasion, I’ve asked a number of contemporary authors why they feel Mormons are overrepresented in popular genres but are underrepresented in more serious forms. In each case, their opinions, hardly conclusive, suggest what I said earlier: we’re afraid to directly tackle in art our most compelling, troublesome theological issues. We do quite a fine job on the scholarly front, and progress there is made year by year. Creatively, though, we have a dearth.
    There is some reason for hope. Brady Udall, Pat Madden, and Lance Larsen, among others are being well received for their thoughtful fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, respectively. Additionally, a colleague and friend has a brilliant forthcoming novel, one which likely will make waves in our reading circles. I think I can say without hesitation it is the most elegantly written novel I’ve read by a mormon author.
    I, for one, applaud their work and hope to see more. I realize what I’ve said has wandered off of topic, but I felt I should respond to your comment.

  17. Nathaniel Givens on April 29, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    J. Watson-

    My cynical side suspects that Mormons trend toward science fiction and fantasy because, as a people, we’re afraid to create serious, literary art.

    The problem with this view is that you have to be a genre-snob to believe it. :-P Suffice it to say, that I don’t think “science fiction and fantasy” and “serious, literary art” are mutually exclusive, and I don’t think anyone who seriously follows the genre can maintain that position either.

    This is especially true as the distinction between “literary” fiction and science-fiction erodes. More and more science fiction is becoming sort of the default setting, and those who fail to realize that are just behind the times.

    For examples, I’d suggest a book like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or even an anthology like The Secret History of Science Fiction.

    I can’t vouch for trying to be the next Stephanie Meyer, but if that’s your prototype for sci fi / fantasy, you’re missing out. A lot.

  18. Nathaniel Givens on April 29, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    J. Watson-

    There’s another lurking assumption in your argument, this time in the idea that if Mormons are under-represented in “serious” literature it’s because our art is inferior or our aspirations too low. An alternative theory, of course, is that “serious” literature is inextricable from an ideology that is incompatible with Mormon values. One of the reasons I have so little respect for “serious” literature (of recent vintage, anyway), is that it to completely embodies and enacts the belief that sophistication and virtue are incompatible.

    I mean: what are the “good” TV shows today? Game of Thrones? Breaking Bad? Mad Men? Before that: The Wire and The Sopranos. How many of these are genuinely compatible with the admonition of Paul? Don’t get me wrong: I’ve sampled enough of these shows to admire their artistry. I am constantly annoyed that there is so little for me to watch that has any depth because of my refusal to basically watch soft-core porn. (True Blood, anyone?)

    So how many Mormons are seeking out genre fiction not because they fear the seriousness of “serious” literature, but because they are unwilling to roll in the filth?

  19. Bryan S. on April 29, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    Fair enough, I don’t have much to disagree with you and though I would like to continue talking about this subject I’ll leave it be to avoid a thread jack.

  20. JWatson on April 29, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    Nathaniel, Brian Doyle, a devout Catholic, is currently one of the most-heralded writers of creative nonfiction. He’s been anthologized in virtually every leading journal and collection of “best-of” essays. In all cases, he affirms positivity and faith. I anticipate during the next decade we’ll begin looking to him, much in the way we previously, and still do, look to Lewis. He’s not as deeply philosophical as is Lewis, but he’s perhaps the better writer.
    Again, I’m not using Stephenie Meyer as the standard for fantastical fiction. I’m using her as the standard against which many or most of my students gauge their dreams of success. I know this is a separate issue from your original speculation. I’m just saying, “Consider this as an additional motivation for a segment of mormon fantasy writers.” As such, it’s disappointing. It also wholly misses the point of your thoughtful post.

  21. Wm on April 29, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    JWatson:

    Please put your friend with the brilliant forthcoming novel in touch with me: william AT motleyvision DOT org. That sounds like exactly the type of thing we want to know about at A Motley Vision.

    Thanks!

  22. Wm on April 29, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    While I agree with Nathaniel on genre snobbery, I also, however, want what JWatson wants although with more of a genre aspect. I’m talking the likes of Kij Johnson, China Mieville, Karen Joy Fowler, Karen Russell, Jeff VanderMeer, Ted Chiang — and to go farther back — Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, etc.

    Steve Peck’s work is a great start. But I would like to see our engagement with genre fiction and literary fiction go a bit farther.

    Also: there have been many lovely, richly realized stories published in Irreantum, Dialogue, etc. But most of the best of those are in the vein of Mormon faithful realism, which I love, but my deepest, darkest love is for the stuff that fits in between science fiction/fantasy and literary fiction.

  23. Nathaniel Givens on April 29, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    Nathaniel, Brian Doyle, a devout Catholic, is currently one of the most-heralded writers of creative nonfiction. He’s been anthologized in virtually every leading journal and collection of “best-of” essays. In all cases, he affirms positivity and faith.

    Wouldn’t you agree that this is a good example of the exception proving the rule? Consider my own list of influential authors: I’ve got Graham Greene there along with Walter M. Miller, Jr. Both writers whose Catholic faith heavily influenced their writing, and both writers who heavily influenced me. One inside the genre ghetto, the other outside.

    So I’ve got no misconception that every writer of “serious” fiction must bow at the alter of explicit sex to demonstrate their seriousness, but surely you don’t deny that this is, in fact, a basic fact of modern art across every medium, do you? And that, as a consequence, this expectation may be a strong an understandable force pushing Mormons away from “serious” fiction as much as Stephanie Meyer is pulling them toward the ghetto?

    In any case, I think that the bright-line distinction you wish to draw between high art and low art has already faded substantially and will continue to do so. There’s plenty of serious literature that is definitively sci fi (I’ve listed a couple, and there’s lots more where that came from) both from authors who started in the genre and grow more literary as well as from author who started outside the genre and then borrowed from the images and themes and settings of sci fi either to make a specific point or purely because that’s the vernacular of our time. No matter how you slice it: trying to keep the genres in their ghettos (especially sci fi) is a losing proposition.

    And that’s to say nothing of questioning the validity of the high vs. low distinction in the first place…

    In the end, I’m sure that Stephanie Meyer is a lamentable role model from a literary perspective, but do you really think the kids who want to write Twilight 2.0 would really have written much better poetry if that had been there goal instead? She certainly doesn’t represent the genre, and I have a hard time seeing her as some kind of devilish pied piper, drawing souls away from the celestial kingdom of serious literature (or poetry!) into the sensual and carnal lusts of genre fiction.

  24. Naismith on April 29, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    Can’t believe we made it to comment #23 without mentioning Brandon Sanderson….

  25. Nathaniel Givens on April 29, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    Can’t believe we made it to comment #23 without mentioning Brandon Sanderson…

    He was in some of my earlier drafts for the post itself, but I’ve only read Way of Kings and don’t have a whole ton to say about him, other than that he seems to be carrying on the Card cosmology rather explicitly in that particular piece.

  26. Wm on April 29, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    I’d say that Warbreaker and the last volume in the Mistborn trilogy are the most interesting of Sanderson’s works in relation to the Mormon worldview.

  27. Ben S on April 30, 2013 at 5:09 am

    Fun post. I haven’t read as much sci-fi as I’d like.

  28. Naismith on April 30, 2013 at 7:59 am

    As far as Sanderson, I found the religion in ELANTRIS to be particularly interesting. And it is a one-off book, which seems rare in fantasy.

    Since I am switching from SciFi per se to fantasy (rivets to trees), another interesting religion is in Curse of Chalion by Lois McMasters Bujold. Caz is indeed an honorable person worthy of emulation, and there is much that we can learn about a life of integrity.

    And yes, scifi can affect our own lives. I have to confess that Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS influenced my decision to enlist in the Army. As a budding feminist, I felt that as an Army veteran, no man would ever again have a right to put me down, having proved my equality, and I could sneer that he shouldn’t even have the right to vote if he hadn’t served.

    And yes, scifi can affect religious outlook as well. One of the reasons that I feel strongly about there being some value in the gender roles that the church teaches* is that I have read THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS and other scifi that describe worlds where there is no/temporary/multiple genders.

    And yet on our earth, we are created with two genders. Is there a reason for that, something that we can learn from it?

    * While I find value in the actual church teachings, I have little patience for idiot males who claim their interpretation of gender roles to justify domination, abuse, or unfairness.

  29. DLewis on April 30, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Nathaniel, the mere presence of sex does not determine whether a work of art is grounded in virtue or not. Of those “good” shows you mentioned, most of them (the ones I’ve seen at least) are deeply moral in the sense that they’re fascinated with the way the effects of moral decisions ripple through our lives. “Breaking Bad,” for instance, does not let us indulge in the fantasy world of most Hollywood action movies where violent acts mean little to the perpetrators or innocent bystanders. People become deeply scarred by what happens and what they force themselves to do. Mad Men, much more gratuitous in its use of sex, is not interested in voyeurism per se but in the way power can manipulate sex and shield itself from its effects, about the jarring dissonance of an upper-crust world living relatively untouched from a society in turmoil. It’s dark comedic satire that expects its audience to come with a general knowledge of the 60s and be critical viewers, reading between the frames as it were to see the corruption the characters ignore or repress. Neither is for everyone, and obviously sex can be a blatant siren call to beckon viewers to the screen (I haven’t seen Game of Thrones, but I’ve read critics call it to task for its “soft-porn” exploitation). But if we can’t make some distinctions about how sex and violence is used in art, then we’re unlikely to encourage Mormon artists to do the same. “Twilight,” from my limited experience, is immoral precisely b/c it is obsessed with sex without depicting it–at least until the end. It pretends that manipulative, unhealthy relationships are great as long as you don’t touch one another’s privates.

  30. DLewis on April 30, 2013 at 9:22 am

    BTW, if you’re jaded about modern lit (and there’s good reason to be), I recommend healthy doses of Marilynne Robinson, stat: she’s a deeply Christian writer who is also one of the most decorated and respected living authors.

  31. Nathaniel Givens on April 30, 2013 at 10:26 am

    DLewis-

    Nathaniel, the mere presence of sex does not determine whether a work of art is grounded in virtue or not.

    I agree with that, but I think that you take it much too far. Your central case seems to be that graphic depictions of sex and violence are OK if:
    1. They are moralizing (“most of them (the ones I’ve seen at least) are deeply moral in the sense that they’re fascinated with the way the effects of moral decisions ripple through our lives.”)
    2. We can construct intricate intellectual frameworks around them (“Mad Men… is… interested in… the way power can manipulate sex and shield itself from its effects”)

    I don’t find either one remotely compelling.

    The fact that bad things happen to bad people in Breaking Bad doesn’t inoculate our humanity from the raw depictions of those bad things. Take this logic to the extreme: include a 30-second epilogue at the end of every porn movie in which everyone cries mightily for their sins. An improvement? Perhaps. Enough to get me to watch it? No, thank you, and certainly not as a matter of routine.

    The second argument I take even less seriously because inventing overly clever and sophisticated rationales for absurdly trivial content is practically the national past time of the educated elite. There’s quite literally nothing you could present to me that I couldn’t invent an elaborate narrative about power structures, class warfare or some other political totem around. And I would have fun doing it, too. (Don’t they have rhetorical competitions in high school and college precisely about the ability to pontificate at great length and with boundless passion on deliberately mundane and absurd topics? I’m pretty sure that’s a thing…) The boundless capacity to invent serious narrative is a terrible excuse for subjecting your soul to desensitizing content.

    I’m all for sophistication in discussion of sex in art–and I agree with your critique of Twilight in that regard–but I think the rationales you present are easily applicable to virtually all content and so in the end represent sophistication without substance.

    I realize this all comes across as harsh and judgmental. If I thought there was a way to talk about sex in art without sounding judgmental I’d go for it, but I think it’s sort of impossible to not sound like a prude if you adopt any position that involves meaningful criticism of popular culture. Since I’m going to criticize popular culture, I figure I’m in for a penny and may as well go in for a pound.

    I will add this one caveat, however, which is that how people react to art is a personal matter, and so I certainly do not presume that the decisions I have made with regard to what I watch and read constitute some kind of objectively “correct” decision. I make my decisions for myself, and everyone makes their decisions for themselves. I think that shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad (and pretty much everything on TV) are worthy of criticism, but I emphatically don’t like crossing over into criticizing individuals who consume that content and, for that reason, I think this is about as far as I can go on this topic.

  32. Nathaniel Givens on April 30, 2013 at 10:27 am

    BTW, if you’re jaded about modern lit (and there’s good reason to be), I recommend healthy doses of Marilynne Robinson, stat: she’s a deeply Christian writer who is also one of the most decorated and respected living authors.

    Thanks for the tip!

  33. DLewis on April 30, 2013 at 11:31 am

    I don’t think I explained myself well, b/c neither explanation of my arguments seems to fit. “Moralizing” is the attempt to extract a moral statement from a work of art (“Don’t cook meth, even if you have cancer!”), and that’s not what I’m getting at. Good art, like “Breaking Bad,” reinforces the reality of a moral universe where actions have consequences (though not always in a straight forward way) and where viewers/readers not only judge characters and situations but their own reactions to the art as well. In the fictional moral universe of good art, there’s no single moral to extract b/c lived moral experience is never so straight forward. Trying to tack on morality at the end is why lots of sentimental or cloy drama are more likely to be, IMO, immoral: they present morality superficially rather than how it actually is in the world. That is what I consider to be moral about these works, and why most popular culture falls short (it’s no coincidence that the art of dramatic TV improved as series began to extend their story lines through each episode and season rather than creating derivative situations over and over).

    I’m confused by the way you characterize the second argument, b/c it seems like a dismissal of criticism per se, which doesn’t make sense considering you just wrote a piece of literary criticism and defended sci-fi as not “absurdly trivial content.” You’re begging the question: what, exactly, makes these shows “absurdly trivial content,” beyond the fact that you don’t like them? Certainly at some level all art is a luxury and gratuitous, but that does nothing to distinguish between the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m not trying to justify the overly-smart cultural commentary that the Internet has spawned, but you’re critiquing the critics, not evaluating the works themselves. If you don’t like the satire it offers, or if you feel it misses the mark, or if you’re not interested in the discussion, fine. But to brush off a work because others are interested in it seems to be exactly the type of knee-jerk response you’re trying to prevent people from making about sci-fi.

    None of what I’m saying suggests that anything is free game on the screen or in print, and no critic seriously believes that. Many prominent critics have reacted to the intense commercialization of violence and sex, and I agree with them. But your critique still feels like blanket dismissals of art based on the amount or quality of sex/violence on the screen. I think we all recognize that context matters in these regards, and that’s way we need to situate these topics with regard to that context rather than relying on the “desensitization” argument–the first moves past the subjective response of the latter. Our mindset going into our experience of art also shapes our response to content (Milton is great on this point). I agree with you: we should be judgmental about sex in art! The more judgment the better! But it has to be a judgment that situates the sex in the work as a whole, not in isolation.

  34. DLewis on April 30, 2013 at 11:32 am

    But trust me on the Robinson.

  35. Jettboy on April 30, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    DLewis, its the half edible bannana in the trashcan conundrum. You feel that there is enough “goodness” and “meaning” in the sex and violence of these shows to justify them. Others, including myself, do not and therefore reject watching them. The Deseret Book writing is, as I have said at another place, thin literature. Still, if you are using Brady Udal, Pat Madden, and Lance Larsen as an argument for better Mormon authors then you will remain disappointed for the rest of your life. They are considered horrible by a majority of Mormons who see them as giving the faith a black eye rather than a leg up. My wife thought, for example, Udal’s book “The Lonely Polygamist” was complete trash. You might argue the merits of the book, but that isn’t going to persaude against gut instincts and aesthetic values. The best you can do if you are serious about better Mormon authors is find out what those instincts and asthetics are and build from rather than go against them.

    My own speculation why Mormons like science fiction and fantasy is that there are no boundaries. You can hide or openly present your views however much you want. There are no rules and therefore it allows you to break any rule without moral or social restraints. In a word, you can be Mormon without having to explain yourself. The worlds, technologies, magics, and characters do the explaining for you. The only ones who will call you out on it are other Mormons or those who are preocupied with Mormonism. The rest will be blisfully unaware of the infusion of religious images and ideas. Brandon Sanderson’s popular “Mistborn” trilogy probably has more Mormonism in it than the whole Twilight series and no one has so much as written about the religious meanings.

  36. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 30, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    Mormons are steeped in a culture in which we take seriously the idea that our true origin is on another planet, that we can tap into powers beyond those of the mundane world, both to perceive things not apparent to the normal senses, and to cause things to happen apparently outside the normal laws of nature, such as healings and other miraculous occurrences. These “unnatural” things are core parts of the Mormon belief system.

    Mormonism responds to the Catholic traditions of the spiritual power of saintly relics, by offering physical instruments that operate with Godly power, including (a) the Jaredite light stones and (b) the Jartedite Urim and Thummim, presumably the very ones left to Joseph Smith to translate the Book of Mormon; (c) the bronze serpent on a staff held up by Moses to heal the Israelites, and referred to in John 3:14; and (d) the liahona, a device that acted like a modern GPS system. These devices crafted by God or angels are regarded as solid parts of our real world. The pocket commuicators used by Captain Kirk in Star Trek are regarded as the ideational predecessor to the cell phone, but what should we say about a small object you can hold in your hand that shines with its own light and has a visual display that can show the sentences of a 500+ page book, plus provide other information from God? Joseph Smith described in 1829 an object that we would call a “smartphone”, tied into a “cloud” of information. Smith even promised that the “white stone” spoken of in Revelation would have similar informaiton appliance functions for all the righteous resurrected. Someone who does not believe the reality of Joseph’s experience should credit his ability to imagine technology of 180 years in his future as a “science fiction” prescience.

    We are regularly immersed in depictions of ancient America and of ancient Palestine, appreciating the similarities and differences of our modern culture with theirs. we know the Bible was not written in “the original English”. We also have deep experiences of foreign cultures through our missionary experiences. Klingon is just one more language to us. We do not suffer from rampant xenophobia.

    We are taught to anticipate a radical transformation of the earth and mankind, within our own (resurrected) lifetimes, including abilities to travel to other worlds in distant star systems. And we have a reason to anticipate that the aliens will look “humanoid”, in a way that Star Trek hardly ever tried to explain.

    We Mormons live in a science fiction universe. And that is one of the great things about our culture.

    Orson Scott Card has been the most prominent among those who have transposed Mormon culture and stories into speculative fiction. In his Memory of Earth series, he uses the Book of Mormon as a frame for a story of a long lost colony of earth’s descendants, who return to earth as a “promised land”. In his Alvin Maker series, he transforms the story of Joseph Smith into an 1820s America where folk magic is a reality, and a prophet lives as a “maker” who gathers people of disparate backgrounds into a new superlative community. In his anthology, Folk of the Fringe, including the award-winning story America, Card takes Mormons literarily into a challenging future earth where nuclear war and climate change have given an edge to the teamwork culture of Mormonism. (an idea that is picked up repeatedly by other science fiction authors as they write about the future, such as Robert Heinlein and Larry Niven).

    One of the standard devices of science fiction is to extrapolate current trends into the future and examine the consequences. The relatively high growth rate of Mormonism has been noted for almost 30 years by sociologist Rodney Stark, who extrapolates that by 2080, there could well be 150 million to 200 million Mormons in the world. there are plentiful stories about the multiplication of robots or other different kinds of people, but what about a story exploring the effect on the world of having a Mormon Church larger than most nations (especially as other populations shrink)?

  37. DLewis on April 30, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    Jetboy: “You feel that there is enough “goodness” and “meaning” in the sex and violence of these shows to justify them. Others, including myself, do not and therefore reject watching them.”

    Not at all. I don’t weigh the aesthetic benefits of these works against their depictions of sex and violence. It’s their depictions of sex and violence that give them their aesthetic value. That’s not dog poop in your brownies–those are chocolate chips!

    I’m trolling a bit, but in all seriousness, trying to dissect art and extract “gratuitous” from “necessary” elements is a lost cause. There’s no such thing as “justified” sex or violence because there’s no such thing as “justified” art; all sex and violence in art is gratuitous because all art is gratuitous. The quest to whittle art down to its solely “essential” features is a quixotic venture that only reveals that we are not that interested in art in the first place. We want it to serve as a vehicle for arriving at a certain emotional or mental state (maybe a philosophical insight, a new perspective, a feeling of being “uplifted”). These are all fine things, and art can certainly help bring these about, but if we’re expecting art to streamline this process, chances are we’ll be disappointed. If we expect art to one specific thing well, we shouldn’t be surprised when it can’t do anything well at all. Why do we think, exactly, that Deseret Book produces “thin literature?”

  38. Stephen R. Marsh on May 1, 2013 at 7:12 am

    “The place they go towards is a place even less
    imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe
    it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to
    know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

    That kind of twists her refutation at the end.

    I have to admit, reading the story my response is to think I’d say a kind word and then leave … and to wonder why no one ever does that. You need not only walk away, you can also break the cycle.

    Not to mention it struck me that she sees a rejection of utilitarianism as always a solitary thing, never anything done as a group or in concert.

    Lots of LDS in FRPGs as well. Sandy Petersen comes to mind, for example.

  39. Tim on May 1, 2013 at 10:31 am

    “Lots of LDS in FRPGs as well.” Given the unfortunate stigma against FRPGs among many Mormons, that’s a bit surprising.

    “Life, the Universe, and Everything,” a sci-fi/fantasy symposium, was held every year at BYU for quite some time. The conformist types at BYU basically kicked the symposium out a couple of years ago, but it’s still held in Provo every year, bringing in some big name writers (and not just LDS). It also brings in quite a crowd.

  40. Nathaniel Givens on May 1, 2013 at 11:39 am

    DLewis-

    You seem to be illustrating my point with your false dichotomy that we must either accept any depiction of anything in art (after all, it’s all gratuitous already) or accept “thin literature”.

    I reject both. I believe that art can degrade and also enlighten, and that one must not accept the premise that everything goes in order to have sophistication. Or even that there’s a tradeoff at all.

    More than that will have to wait for a longer treatment than I can give here, but such a treatment is sadly wanting. I’m getting more than a little frustrated with having to choose to accept filth if I want sophistication in my (popular) art.

  41. DLewis on May 1, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    My point is that the sophistication and value of art is an inherently separate question from the amount of sex or violence it has. Great art can have none, and great art can have a lot. Sex and violence can degrade, and sex and violence can enlighten. Its presence in art can and should impact whether we engage in that art (tolerance levels differ) but its mere presence has no direct bearing on the quality of art (neither in the affirmative or the negative–the idea that art MUST have adult themes to be great art is as superficial as the opposite).

    I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this in your longer treatment.

  42. Nathaniel Givens on May 1, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    DLewis-

    My point is that the sophistication and value of art is an inherently separate question from the amount of sex or violence it has.

    I think both the Clean Flicks “this much sex depicted = bad art” and “amount of sex depicted and quality are totally independent” arguments are too simple. There’s a connection, but it’s not direct.

    Practically speaking, however, we’re currently facing a reverse Clean Flicks philosophy. Partially as a result of ideology and partially as an unintended consequence of the MPAA and marketing, there’s an assumption that you have to have a certain amount of violence and vulgarity to be taken seriously, otherwise you’re just kiddy art. This is cross-medium, but easiest to see in movies, where actors routinely take “edgy” roles specifically to prove how artistic they are. Thus, the real bogeyman for me is not the independence argument, but the dependence argument that is quite common.

    If people actually thought sex / violence were independent of quality (although I don’t think that’s quite right), that’d be an improvement over the status quo.

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