It’s the issue that started wars in the past, that sends a wave of groans through the classroom today. It’s the single topic academics don’t like to talk about. It’s religion. After all, how can we debate something we’re too biased for or against to consider objectively? The answer is, through speculative fiction. Fictional religions can be apt allegories for religions today, stripped of our biases and prejudgements. Furthermore, they force us to consider the ugliest parts of human nature. It’s easy to have an evil “god” as an antagonist, but recent speculative fiction reworks this trope, showing us how humans twist the once-pure idea of god to control others. In this way, speculative fiction asks us: do we believe in god to better ourselves, or to have an ultimate scapegoat for our evils? Does god really hold power over us, or do we use the idea of god to take power for ourselves?
In Ian McDonald’s short story The Little Goddess, divinity is transient and akin to imprisonment. During the time the narrator is a goddess, she’s not allowed to touch any ground but that of her palace. She must be carried everywhere and cannot go anywhere alone. Godliness is not her birthright, but chosen for her after the completion of a test. In fact, she stops being a goddess when she injures herself and bleeds. After she’s exiled, people use her as a commodity, either as a trophy bride or an AI smuggler. Whether a god or not, she is always in someone else’s power.
In this story, we see gods portrayed as nothing more than naive, controlled humans – more like servants than deities. The god is a symbol of fear and power, but holds none of this power herself. Rather, she is a tool humans use to control others. Her ascension into godliness is dictated by mortals, her fall again decided by those who supposedly serve her. The only true power she grasps is at the end of the story, when the AI she is smuggling becomes imprinted in her brain, imbuing her with the knowledge she’d been denied and more. This suggests that true power is taken, not given – and that being a god does not mean having others believe in you, but believing in your own power.
Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker shows us a world different from McDonald’s, but where divinity is twisted in the same way. Again, gods are imprisoned and short-lived. The Returned gods are humans granted new life so they might give it away to someone in need when the time is right. They exist to serve, and spend hours hearing others’ pleas and doing chores the priests impose upon them. They’re not allowed to read any books but what the priests give them, and the God King – supposedly the most powerful god of all – isn’t even allowed to speak. Lightsong, the god whose point-of-view we get throughout the narrative, does not believe in himself as a god despite the priests’ assurances of his divinity. He only embraces it when he breaks out of the priests’ power and makes his first decision alone – ironically, the very decision that fulfils the prophecy of his godliness. Again, others’ belief in him is not what makes Lightsong a god, but his belief in himself.
Unlike in Sanderson’s and McDonald’s works, Aslan in C.S Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia holds a divinity that is not transient, but that has existed since the beginning of time and will last forever. He is the sole ruler of Narnia, and has authority over the actions of other characters. However, similarly to the Returned in Sanderson’s Warbreaker, he is ultimately there to serve. All of Narnia’s inhabitants are his children, and he is responsible for them. Not only does he forgive their transgressions against him, but he gives his life for them. In fact, some animals even attempt to use his image to control others, as when they wear a lion skin to pretend to be him. Even when a god does have power, others attempt to make use of this power to achieve their own ends.
Long has speculative fiction told truths about human nature without the veil of propriety other genres hide behind. The topic of religion is no exception. If the religion in question isn’t real, it’s okay to be blunt about it, right? Works like the ones I mention above explore how people twist religion for their own ends, how in many ways, we as humans have more control over god than he has over us. The only difference is, speculative fiction can discuss such issues freely, without fear of hate-mail from readers.
-Contributed by Raluca Balasa