William Morris is a longtime friend of the blog and champion of Mormon Lit. He has a new book out, Dark Watch and other Mormon-American Stories. We encourage you to read it!
One of the truisms that genre fiction writers often trot out is that science fiction is never about the future–that no matter how much of the language of futurism a work of science fiction employs and no matter how much SF writers get right or wrong about future technologies, science fiction is actually about the present. It has to be: the people who create it are always stuck in the present.
That doesn’t pose much of a problem if you’re writing the kind of science fiction that takes place in a distant future, where the extrapolations from current technologies and scientific discoveries can be stretched and metaphorized to the point that they are essentially fantasy in the garb of SF. I’m more interested, however, in near future science fiction because it requires more direct, rigorous engagement with the technologies and Mormonism of now. It intrigues me. I also find it almost impossible to write (even though I’ve written it).
I don’t know if right now is the most impossible moment to write near future Mormon science fiction since SF became a genre category, but it sure feels like it. There are just too many variables, too many potential inflection points. For example, if you are writing about Mormonism in, say, 2023:
* Do women have the priesthood? If so, in what form and how has that affected Mormonism? If not, how has that affected Mormonism?
* What are the status of LGBTQ individuals in relation to the Church? Has that changed since right now? Why or why not and how has that affected Mormonism?
Those two questions are important not just because they are important questions for members of the Church, but also because any changes or not changes in policy/doctrine/attitude will have a major impact on the day-to-day lives of all those associated with Mormonism. Yes, we have had similar questions in the past. The priesthood ban on blacks is the most obvious followed by polygamy. Certainly things like correlation and international growth have changed the Church. And maybe we’ll just muddle along for another decade or two with nothing settled. But maybe we won’t. It’s hard to tell, and to write near future science fiction that focuses on Mormonism is to risk being wrong not only in your prediction, but also in your thinking through of the ripple effects of any changes (or not changes). It’s less about your personal stance on an issue and more about how you view things like revelation, human nature, change and community obstinacy/resiliency/adaptability.
Those two issues aren’t the only questions that a writer of near future Mormon science fiction must consider. There’s also:
* How international has the leadership of the Church become? How has the increased internationalization of the Church changed it?
* More specifically: is China open for missionary work? If it is, how has Mormonism been received in China and how has that reception changed the dynamics of the Church worldwide?
* How has the LDS Church reacted to transhumanism [fn1]? Is it okay with body modifications? If so, which ones? What about brain enhancing drugs? Reproductive technologies?
* Related to all of the above: has the assimilation of Mormons (especially American Mormons) continued or has there been retrenchment on a socio-economic level? How has the larger society reacted to such retrenchment?
* What happens to Mormonism if the singularity [fn2] occurs?
* How does Mormonism deal with the extreme effects of global warming on both pragmatic and socio-cultural levels?
* What if advances in virtual reality mean that cyberpunk is back on the table? (cyberpunk lost steam in the late ’90s/early ’00s when it became clear that the next was actually going to be the world wide web accessed by a web browers, but with Oculus Rift [fn3] getting some traction, I expect cyberpunk to take off again). How does that change the nature of Mormon community and religious practice?
* If you trust that global warming will have far-reaching effects, what will those be and how will they affect the Church? If you don’t have that trust, then what will the future environment of the world look like and how will science being wrong about global warming impact Mormonism?
* How will autonomous driving and home power generation change the geographic nature of wards?
Some of these things are closer to potential reality than others, of course. And most of them are materials that any science fiction author could work with. But, for me, Mormonism seems to me to be one of the most impossible because the combination of continuous revelation, American-centric leadership with a worldwide organization, track record of successful assimilation, young history, and doctrine that both supports and resists Enlightenment thinking (and has been described as science fictional) makes it difficult to anticipate how things will shake out. It adds an X factor to the extrapolation involved in writing near future science fiction. Which means I can’t imagine how I’m going to be able to write any more stories that are Mormon-themed near future science fiction.
That X factor is also what makes it intriguing. For example, Mormonism has generally been quick to embrace changes in technology (just avoid the bad stuff like porn). Will there be a hard limit to that adoption of technological change? I have no idea. And maybe it’s just because I happen to be Mormon, but all of those attributes that make us the successful yet not quite fully embraced, the assimilated but still sometimes wary people that we are. I don’t know. I claim that I’m not a fan of Mormon exceptionalism, and yet I see this whole business of Mormons grappling with their own internal issues as well as those that are fast approaching for humanity as a whole as potentially fascinating, as the stuff of good fiction. Modern Mormons [fn4] usually get portrayed as bland, suburban cultural conservatives. Sure, fine. But where we collide with our weird doctrine and where we collide with all the weird change coming down the pike sounds to me like a very interesting place to do creative work in. I can’t imagine not writing more Mormon SF.
It’s also intriguing because we as a people have a lot of issues to work through. I believe that fiction can help with that. It’s a form of discourse that resists tidy demonizations and insists on complexity (because if it fails, then it’s simply didacticism). The stakes don’t seem quite so high when the exploration is fictional while at the same time fictional narrative can be a powerful tool for building empathy. Science fiction, in particular, adds an additional layer by both warning against our potential futures and demystifying them.
THE INTRIGUINGLY IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBILITIES
Clearly, I’m overstating things when I claim that it’s impossible to write near future Mormon-themed science fiction. After all, writers have done it. That includes me: six [fn5] of the 16 stories in my story collection Dark Watch and other Mormon American Stories take place in the near future. I present a more apocalyptic/retrenchment version of Mormonism in them. Partly because that seemed easier; partly because science fiction is metaphor and those were the images and characters that were speaking to me; and partly because when I was writing most of the stories, I wasn’t thinking through a lot of the issues that I list above. Of the six stories, only “PAIH” is directly informed by the current discussions in online American Mormonism. In it, I intersperse the story of a heterosexual and gay couple who have combined households so that they can better negotiate the financial and social demands of a fractured, tribal pseudo-meritocracy with excerpts from A Practical Guide for the Upwardly Mobile Mormon American. But even though it did require some grappling with a number of potential extrapolations from the current state of Mormonism, it’s such a short story that I don’t explain all of the details and backstory. It’s a bit of a cop out (even though it’s one of my favorite stories).
It’s not just me writing this kind of fiction, of course. Jessica Draper’s Hunting Gideon is near future Mormon cyberpunk where the Mormonism is an integral part of the characterization and plot. “Family History: A Novella”, which concludes Todd Robert Petersen’s collection Long After Dark: Stories and a Novella stretches into near future science fiction, although the SF elements are minimal. And when James and Nicole Goldberg ran a Mormon Lit Blitz contest with the theme of Four Centuries of Mormon Stories [fn6], many of the stories in the 21st and 22nd century categories dealt with the issues I list above (as well as others). For example, Katherine Cowley’s story “Waiting” used holograms and virtual visiting teaching to deal with social dynamics that are familiar to anyone who doesn’t. Steven Peck’s “Avek, Who Is Distributed” wonders about the policies and practical considerations posed by AIs and covenant making. A story, by the way, that is presaged by Steve’s 2009 BCC post “The Future Robot Mission to Wyoming.”
All these stories are worth checking out (and I’m sure I’ve missed some–tell me which ones in the comments). But I believe we need more.
When I was reviewing the discussion of Steve Peck’s Avek story while writing this post, I ran across a comment from Mark Penny. He wrote: “one mission of Mormon sci-fi should be a kind of pyscho-spiritual emergency preparedness.” I find that wording intriguing. I’m not sure I fully agree with it, but I like that it’s such a Mormon way of stating it.
And I do suspect that we’ll especially need more of them over the next five years. There’s conversation to be had, and as impossible as it may be, I hope some of it occurs in the guise near future Mormon science fiction.
[fn1] Transhumanism is the belief that future advances in technology, especially biomedical technology, will increase longevity and enhance human consciousness.
[fn2] The singularity is the belief that at some point computing power will reach a state where artificial intelligence will become a reality. What that state is and what the nature of that intelligence will be is a matter of much debate.
[fn3] Oculus Rift is a 3D gaming headset. It’s still pretty clunky, but apparently the experience it provides is more immersive than anything that’s been developed so far. See: http://www.oculus.com/
[fn4] Back in the pulp era, it was a different story. Mormons were dangerous, oriental and hyper-sexual. See the anthology I co-edited, Monsters & Mormons, for a response to that.
[fn5] Although the first one of the group “Ride Home” takes place in just a few weeks to a year from now and has no elements that would traditionally be considered science fictional.
[fn6] Sadly, the stories from the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories contest were all published at Everyday Mormon Writer, which has been infected with malware so I can’t link to them.