November 12, 2009


The Cross and the Stars: Catholics in the field of fantasy and science fiction. (Sandra Miesel, Catholic World Report)

The acknowledged masterpiece of Catholic SF is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1922-1996), a novel whose appeal broke genre bounds. Ironically, it was written when its convert author was no longer a practicing Catholic. During World War II Miller had participated in the bombing of historic Monte Cassino Abbey. His reparation was Canticle, a chronicle of scholarly monks laboring to rebuild civilization after a nuclear holocaust, only to see the historical cycle repeat. But God keeps writing straight with crooked lines and brings forth a new breed of human while ours escapes to the stars. Deeply depressed after his wife’s death, Miller committed suicide. Atheist Terry Bisson later completed—without cover credit—an unsuccessful sequel to Canticle entitled St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.

R.A. Lafferty’s Past Master is another great critical favorite although it did not win a mass audience. Lafferty (1914-2002), a self-educated man who spent most of his life in Oklahoma, lived and died as an unfashionably conservative Catholic. A prodigious teller of tall and shaggy tales, his was the most eccentric talent ever to grace SF. Armed with “the high hilarity of love and laughter,” Lafferty says, “We must kill the Devil afresh every day.”

Past Master sends St. Thomas More a thousand years into the future to save a diabolical imitation of his Utopia by dying a kingly death. Similar concerns underlie Lafferty’s Fourth Mansions, which takes its title from St. Teresa of Avila and demolishes the evolutionary fancies of Teilhard de Chardin. His historical fantasy The Flame is Green pits a wild young Irishman against the Devil’s own son during the European revolutions of 1848. In the past, present, or future, Lafferty’s faith-drenched universe keeps gyring upward according to divine plan.

Among Lafferty’s keenest admirers is today’s premier Catholic SF writer, Gene Wolfe. A Grand Master of the field who sold his first story in 1965, Wolfe relishes his freedom to write about “everything that could exist.” (For the scope of “everything,” see his new collection The Best of Gene Wolfe.) This retired engineer’s unfettered imagination exploits the ambiguities of perception, language, memory, even identity. Beginning with The Shadow of the Torturer, Wolfe’s 12-volume Solar Cycle is fiction of dazzling virtuosity that presents two shocking Christ-figures: a torturer and a priest of false pagan gods. It is an epic of personal and planetary renewal that challenges readers’ capacity to follow non-linear narratives told by unreliable narrators. Those who persevere will see that man-made solutions cannot save Man. The Infinite alone can satisfy.

Like Lafferty and Gene Wolfe, Tim Powers acknowledges a debt to G.K. Chesterton. Also like Wolfe, he enjoys teaching writing. In an interview at Powers described himself as “fascinated with stuff that’s grotesque and weird and funny and dramatic.” He unveils mythic resonances behind meticulously researched historical settings, for instance putting the Grail King at the poker tables of Las Vegas (Last Call) or hiding Egyptian gods in Regency England (The Anubis Gates). Body-swapping and psychic vampirism are recurring elements in his fiction. Whether battling ghosts, pirates, or zombies, Powers’ heroes never prevail unscarred. His finest novel is Declare, a cross between the Arabian Nights and John le Carré spy thrillers. It is an explicitly Catholic story of grace vanquishing magic and malevolence older than the human race.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 12, 2009 9:44 AM
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