I sometimes get the feeling that the science fiction community can be hostile toward spiritual things or even anti-Christian. Certainly, there are books (even award-nominated works) that are firmly atheist or anti-theist.
On the other hand, there are some spectacular Christians at work in the genre, both in the traditional science fiction industry and in the Christian book genre. The author who has received the most lifetime Nebula and Hugo awards is a devout Christian named Connie Willis. She attends the United Church of Christ (Congregationalist). And her most popular work, the so-called “time travel series” is a scarcely disguised series of stories and novels about God’s interaction with human beings.
I’m sure many of the readers here at Speculative Faith are familiar with Willis’s work, but a brief introduction for those unfamiliar might bring some interesting conversation for all.
Connie Willis is the most-awarded writer of science fiction ever, with seven Nebula wins and eleven Hugos. Crazy, right? Three of those Hugo wins are for her novels in the time travel series. What you need to know about the story, basically, is this: Time travel is useless for commercial endeavors and has become the realm of scholars who travel back as historians. The prevailing theories say that time travelers can’t change any significant event in the past because “the time stream prevents it.” Try to go to the Battle of the Bulge, and you’ll end up a hundred years too early or two hundred miles away.
The first full-length book of Willis’s that I read (and, as it turns out, my favorite) is the Hugo and Nebula award-winning The Doomsday Book. On the theology side, it’s a meditation on the question, “Why does God allow suffering and injustice?” A young historian travels back in time and accidentally lands in the center of the Black Plague. Our protagonist tries desperately to change things, knowing that she can’t, and watching as the plague ravages the town she is in. It’s about history, fate, God, suffering and beautiful acts of selflessness. A key character is a priest who labors on in the face of hopelessness, bringing beauty and comfort to the sick, and radically impacting our time traveler.
To Say Nothing of the Dog also won the Hugo. This is an odd book, more comedy of manners than time travel book, and it veers suddenly into cozy mystery (or satire of cozy mystery?) part way through the book. Basically, a time traveler accidentally brings a cat back from the past (thought to be impossible) and the time travelers clumsily try to reverse the damage to the time stream, causing more paradoxes and problems as they traipse along. The book is funny, but also an exploration of free will and predestination, and again the time stream is a character in the book, making maddening “choices” that seem to reveal that although our characters have free will they are acting out pre-determined roles.
Lastly, Willis’s Blackout and All Clear (really one novel broken into two) won both the Nebula and Hugo awards. It’s the story of a band of time historians in London during World War 2. In this book, everything we know about time travel from years of reading Willis’s books is challenged. The possibility that the “time stream” is actually God Himself is directly addressed by the characters. What if, they wonder, the time stream actually responds to moral intent on the part of the historians?
A few thoughts and observations. One, these books are wildly different from one another and in some ways are almost historical fiction. The time traveler functions as a “modern voice” allowing the reader to note the strange things about the time period. Beyond that, the time travel device is used for two purposes: one, to build suspense (i.e. “Will we make it back to the future? Have we damaged the time stream? Etc.) and two, to discuss spiritual questions without overtly saying, “And now we will have a conversation about Jesus, predestination, and suffering.”
It’s fascinating to me that the science-fictional elements are the precise ones used for the spiritual conversation, and is one of the great advantages for Christian science fiction writers: since SF is primarily a literature that asks “What if” questions, it’s wide open for spiritual reflection and exploration.
It’s fascinating, as well, that a series of books with such slight SF aspects and such central spiritual discussions is so well regarded and heavily awarded. If nothing else, it should give Christian SF writers and readers hope that there is a place for spiritual work both in Christian SF and in the mainstream SF community.
What do you think? Have you read much of Willis’s work? What can we learn from her? What might we want to do differently?
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Matt Mikalatos is the author of several books, including the forthcoming non-fiction book The First Time We Saw Him. You can interact with him on Twitter, check out his blog or listen to his podcast, the StoryMen. (You may be particularly interested in a recent interview with Stephen R. Donaldson.)