The Intriguing Impossibility of Mormon-themed Near Future Science Fiction

DarkWatch-cover-forwebWilliam 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).

THE IMPOSSIBILITY

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.

THE INTRIGUING

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.

Comments

  1. I used to read a lot of science fiction (the need to catch up after starting history so late in life pushed most other reading aside in recent years), and the type that I always liked best was set in the world as I knew it but with one important difference (whatever that might be in a given story), which very often meant the near future. I don’t think I ever read anything with Mormon considerations except OSCard’s “Folk of the Fringe.”

    I’m heading to Amazon right now … aaaaand … loading on my Kindle now. Thanks!

  2. You’ve sold another book. (Was that the point?) And reminded me of morphine induced serial dreams involving a reformed Mormon gay missionary/spy from the East, investigating post-apocalyptic small-town Utah, definitely not reformed anything and where homosexuality officially did not exist.

  3. Thanks! (selling books is always the point — and I should have a another guest post at some point that’s more explicitly about that — but conversation is also the point. The above is something that’s been on my mind every since I started putting the collection together.)

    Re: “Folk of the Fringe” — after I finished the first draft of “Dark Watch” and skimmed back through it, one of my first thoughts was “oh, crap — OSC got here first.” But then I thought about what he had done with his post-apocalyptic Mormon stories and some of the things that had bugged me about them and decided that even though it had been years since I had read FotF that subconsciously part of me must have wanted to respond to his vision of a post-apocalyptic Mormonism even though the driving motivation of the story was to pay tribute to and try to better understand the dynamics of Mormon couples.

    Christian: that sounds interesting, especially if you complicate the small-town Utah a bit so that it’s not just a caricature.

  4. One thing that occurs to me that I didn’t address in the post is the Mormon near future science fiction that takes its cues from the Left Behind series. I’m not very familiar with these works.

  5. Terrific post, Wm. If your fiction is as good as your exposition, DARK WATCH will be wonderful, indeed. I will BUY, yes BUY this book, and anyone else out there who cares about LDS writing will, too. Step up, Brethren, and support Mormon Arts!

    You did not address the most pressing and, actually, most fascinating future scenario: As the Information Age explodes (approaching Singularity) and LDS faith stories, already under attack, are mortally wounded (Dave Banack’s “Day of the Lamanite, Deferred” recently in T&S is a tiny taste) who/what will hold the Church together and how? Just one example: how far can you kick the DNA/BoM can down the road until you either must change the entire paradigm completely or perish? If you change that paradigm, i.e., these civilizations never existed, or, a la Adam Miller, existed somehow in a time warp, how does this change the structure and sustainability of the institution or the meme itself in an age hallmarked by the verify-ability of information?

  6. A review of Dark Watch will come (soon?}. It’s great.

  7. Ukitect says:

    A series by LDS writer A. Scott Howe “Waterball”, “Blister”, and “Chronosphere”, though not blatantly LDS explores how humans become gods through technology, in a Mormon way. The stories are not near future but a little further out. Howe is a NASA engineer so there’s more application of space technology and deeper mystery and a little shallower on character development. There are a few small cliff-hangers hinting that more volumes will follow.

  8. Re: future (corporate) dystopias, I would also submit that we seem to be in the middle of a process by which the Church/corporation is being supplanted by the corporation/Church. Critical information now comes our way via an anonymous Newsroom instead of Prophetic utterance; gone are the likes of BH Roberts, John Widtsoe and James Talmage, supplanted by business managers completely unschooled in the art/science of theology and who dare not venture too far into those rough waters. The founding stories that were once taught with such material substantiality are now being marketed as idea products, with the actuality of the stories themselves in broad retreat. It was not that long ago that BYU was sending archaeological teams to Mesoamerica; now (as indicated in previous post), the word “Lamanite” is not even part of our vocabulary. The shift has been breathtaking and significant and a harbinger of things to come. Forget transhumanism, Wm., the Mormon future is now!
    Read and enjoyed the first story in DARK WATCH but question the reserve that characterizes this piece. Nothing on this blue planet will doom a writer more surely than writing fiction for Mormons (you’ll notice that the responses to your BCC post have hardly lit up the blogosphere). Your talent & technical skills are obvious, but the emotional machinery has not yet fully engaged. Ralph Ellison called literature – fiction – a “moral instrument.” It is extra-national, extra-religious, extra-tribal, and constitutes a special calling. I appreciate your efforts to thread the needle, but your work will suffer as a result.
    I assume you read Evenson. Love him/hate him, he’s a good reference/marker for Mormon noir. If you are writing to actually be READ in the broader world as a Mormon writer, he’s essential.

  9. The PangWitch says:

    this was an awesome post and im sad it hasnt gotten more discussion.

    sci fi has always existed as a way to safely explore the future. think of the post racial world presented in the original star trek

  10. Steve: thanks and yikes.

    Ukitect: that sounds very interesting. Theosis is a common theme among Mormons writing science fiction and fantasy. Several of Brandon Sanderson’s work take up the theme, especially the Mistborn trilogy and Warbreaker.

    The PangWitch: thanks! Race and near future SF is an interesting topic that’s very much in debate in the SF&F field. While it’s not exactly post-racial, I think one of the more successful multicultural set of characters in recent popular near future-ish science fiction is in James SA Corey’s Expanse series (which also includes a portrayal of Mormonism that I both celebrate and quibble with).

    p: I’ve read a little bit of Evenson and have read quite a bit in the New Weird world he is somewhat part of (although more on the sci-fi and fantasy side than the noir/mystery one). I’d say that I’m interested in a much different angle than he is.

    This probably says more about me than the state of Mormonism, but I don’t see the DNA angle as being quite so interesting. I am obviously not a scientist, but I think that making the science sure enough to make the history and anthropology sure enough is not likely to happen in a way that doesn’t leave room for those who believe to believe and those who don’t to not. For me the DNA thing exists much more on the level of rhetoric.

    As regards to reserve: it’s not seemly for authors to respond to reviews, but I’m also a critic and not afraid to be unseemly. That being said, I don’t have much to say because the one thing that is difficult for me to pinpoint is how my fiction comes across. I can definitely be reserved in my writing and in real life. I can also be open and expressive. I have no idea what the result is when it comes to my fiction. This gets back to my interview with Scott Hales, but the Kafka and Fitzegerald and Henry James and others are such a part of my subconscious that it’s hard for me to not be sincere, ironic, darkly humorous and sentimental in the same sentence. But who knows? It’s hard to analyze one’s own fiction without falling into the intentional fallacy.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    “One thing that occurs to me that I didn’t address in the post is the Mormon near future science fiction that takes its cues from the Left Behind series. I’m not very familiar with these works.”

    Isn’t the problem that there’s nothing like the Rapture in Mormonism? Although I guess Folk of the Fringe is the closest to an apocalypse story. The last story in particular where the protagonist ends up fulfilling those 3 Nephi prophesies of the Lamanites in a bizarre unexpected way was quite interesting. It was thematically pretty different from the other stories. Also it was kind of disturbing precisely because of the way it was fulfilled (via adultery in the story by a Mormon). Admittedly that was characteristic of Card at the part of his career. (Before he went all wonky IMO)

    What’s interesting in the few books in the huge Left Behind series I’ve read was that they were consciously basing themselves on the whole technothriller of Clancy in that era. So far as I know no one has done a Mormon technothriller let alone one dealing with the end times. (I know there’s a hacker series that looks Clancyesque that I see at the grocery store – but I’ve not read it)

    “Theosis is a common theme among Mormons writing science fiction and fantasy. Several of Brandon Sanderson’s work take up the theme, especially the Mistborn trilogy and Warbreaker”

    I think it’s definitely there in Card and Sanderson. I don’t think the Sanderson treatment is obviously Mormon whereas many Card stories, especially from his early era, explicitly are. Often invoking an Orson Pratt styled ontology behind the story.

    The other thing that’d be interesting to see well done is not just the apocalyptic techno thriller but also the popular magic noir of series like the Dresden Files. Not sure how you’d do that with Mormon themes although I can think of many examples. Say all those Missionary/Navajo Shape Shifter stories. Or variants on the wandering figures like the three neophites or John the beloved. Mormonism often sees sons of perdition as active in the world in a strong way with the notion of a veil that can drop for some people at times so they see this other realm at work. Ideally your protagonist would be non-Mormon. You could even treat the “magic” in a more science fiction fashion.

  12. I’m sort of wondering how Mormonism and a Singularity-type story would be reconciled.

  13. Clark:

    There was a mini-boom in the mid-2000’s of Last Days novels. Not quite the same post-apocalyptic set up as the Rapture but a lot of shared DNA. There’s Seventh Seal trilogy by Jessica and Richard Draper and Chad Daybell’s Standing in Holy Places. For post-apocalyptic you have Gerald Lund’s The Alliance and Stephanie Black’s The Believer. I believe all of those either are or were published by Covenant, but the sub-sub-genre must have slowed down in sales because it doesn’t seem to be a strong part of their line at the moment.

  14. Wondering is the first step towards story brainstorming, Steve.

  15. How did I miss this? (Well, I know how I missed it. The week it came out I was preparing for a theology conference in Claremont and was reading frantically to get ready). Great post Wm and seriously one of my favorite topics and areas of exploration. I love your questions (In fact, I’m working on a story right now about Climate Change in the near future and it’s effect on Utah. It also has robots. Smart ones.). I actually dare think (I’m optimistic like this), that this genre can be useful to help members of the church transition into the massive challenges that the near-future holds. I.e., by asking questions that explore alternative futures and realities, we can rethink entrenched ideas and open new thoughts and ways to respond to the changes the future holds. The beauty of Science Fiction is ability to explore what if questions, and put Mormonism into new contexts and opportunities.

    My first act is to order your book. My family thought today was Father’s Day (we are often confused like this) and I got some Amazon money and your book is my first priority for the funds.

  16. I have novella set in 2029 as I am a Pentecostal who can do this; the optimistic shit doesn’t work when you create dystopia. Dystopian fiction is always dark as hell when you do it ie turning Chicago into a police state. That sense really will piss people off — you have to realize how fucked up that world is when you see the landscape of cold war. Urban ruins — gang warfare; neighborhoods turned into graveyards. The technology already exists with near future and that’s the easiest to pull off with alt history elements. You have to realize dark subject matter goes hand in hand with near future science fiction.