Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode.
For Episiode 15, A Fascinating Tension: Multiple Interpretations of Religious Themes and Ideas in SFF, we discussed the following texts:
1) Essay – Introduction to Cruel Miracles
I don’t actually know enough about Orson Scott Card and his beliefs or even his writing until I came across some memes recently in response to JKR’s transphobic comments from fans of Card and Lovecraft welcoming JKR fans into their fold.
This essay proposes that science fiction and fantasy create spaces for religious literature and explorations of literature which might seem contrary to what most people except from such stories. This reminds me of the Faith in Fantasy episode where religious leaders from different faith backgrounds imply that SFF asks and addresses religious questions using different structural frameworks.
He believes that religious literature which is explicitly written and marketed as such doesn’t actually explore religious themes; it simply affirms them for people who already believe.
Exploring issues of why the world/universe is the way that it is and why people do the things they do – these are ideas both religion and science fiction share. Science fiction may be hostile to existing religions but still grapples with religious ideas in its worlds. His arguments about science fiction having more room to explore religious questions without explicitly calling them religious questions weirdly reminds me of The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber where an English pastor goes to a new planet to minister to alien beings. It draws a more direct link between religion and science fiction.
Card set out to write his own science fiction without including religion even though he was a practising Mormon. He thinks many other Mormon writing primarily deals with writing about doubt rather than exploring different aspects of faith – a very narrow yet dominant conception of religious writing. Card’s stories deal with religious ideas rather than religions – though he didn’t mean to include Mormonism in his stories.
The essay briefly talks about how in the US, even though it claims to be a religiously pluralist country, the emphasis is on Christian rituals and celebrations like Christmas. This is similar to India which is supposed to be a secular country – secular in a way which recognises multiple religions rather than no religions – but the preference structurally and culturally is to Hindu celebrations and rituals.
Card thinks that the lack of characters who are religious in not only SFF but also literary fiction is disingenuous considering how important a framework religion is to many people in the US. Is this also similar to India? If everyone was so hostile to religion as our media has us believe – where religion is either invisible or written dismissively or paternalistically – religion wouldn’t survive.
He began including explicit and realistic explorations of faith and religious characters in his stories including those who don’t believe in religion and how they interact with religion. Sometimes it isn’t the faith that matters, it’s the sense of community. This idea resonated with me. He didn’t just include the good parts of religion either; he also included the more negative parts – but all in an effort to challenge the religious stereotypes and tropes that are prevalent in SFF by including a diverse range of religious people – both good and bad.
I wonder how this humanist message sits within the context of his – what I’ve recently discovered – homophobic attitudes.
2) Essay – What Does God Need With a Space Station?
Religion is about people. Even if you live next door to heaven. Even if your boss is God’s instrument on earth. Religion is about people, and people shape their gods just as much, or even more, than those Gods shape them.
I like that some facets of this idea that religion is about people and their relationships with each other are explored in Rick Riordan’s vast mythological universe as well as The Good Place + the fact that multiple beliefs can exist parallel to each other.
The essay explores the ways in which faith, spirituality and religious worship are explored in Deep Space Nine – a science fiction show set in the distant future.
One of the most important themes in Deep Space Nine’s religious storylines, which is also an important theme in religious fiction in general: people get the gods they look for. Winn wants to believe in gods who are wrathful and vindictive, who withhold their love from those who fail to honor them properly, because that’s the kind of god she’d be, and the kind of ruler she tries to be
This reminds me of a similar relationship explored in Small Gods by Terry Pratchett.
There are different ways to explore morality both through religious and non-religious lenses – examples include Deep Space Nine, Small Gods, The Good Place, The Book of Strange New Things, Station Eleven, even Doctor Who.
A religious story set in a universe in which God’s existence is in question can only describe two scenarios–good people worshipping a good god, and bad people worshipping that god.
One extremely comforting way of looking at it–religion as an emotional crutch, something to help you get through the day, regardless of whether the god you believe in exists or is anything like what you imagine them to be.
One of the comments in this article criticised the depiction of self-serving religious extremists in one of the earlier episodes – which reminds me of the Prophet in Station Eleven. While that is a narrow view of religion, one can’t overlook the fact that such people do exist – especially see this in India with the godmen and godwomen.
3) Book extract – Too Like The Lightning
What the world in this novel proposes is that religion should be deeply personal and individual and nobody else should know about your religious beliefs. Like Ziv’s context note suggests, I find this somewhat problematic as well. For religious people, it’s not only hiding away an essential part of you but it also prevents you from finding community which is the most appealing thing – to me – about religion. As they say in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, it provides an opportunity to love people despite you not necessarily liking them (since they come from different backgrounds and beliefs). It also vaguely reminds me of how marginalised people are meant to assimilate to the dominant culture and leave behind their beliefs and practices behind in an effort to fit in. While most countries have a dominant religion, other religions are meant to do something similar.
As the context note says, the society functions similarly in terms of gender where gender-neutrality is the norm. I chafe at the idea of a norm itself because then everything else is othered – rather than just a space which has room for all kinds of differences. Anything that’s coded as gendered seems to be thought of as arcane and ancient. But I also liked the “they” and “them” being used largely throughout the first four chapters. I didn’t know the gender of many characters which was quite a refreshing reading experience. I had to imagine which gender and then question myself for why I assumed this gender even when it came to the protagonists.
I like Ziv’s point of how religion here, and elsewhere, is always seen as a problem to be solved – because the real world doesn’t yet have a way to have multiple religions peacefully coexist. Is that another failure of imagination in our fantastical and futuristic societies? Or is it because most stories doesn’t explicitly deal with religion or religious questions and so the question of how different faiths can live together isn’t a question that’s explored at all.
With what desperation McKay screamed to those with the power to stop it, “Humanity cannot live without these questions! Let us create a new creature! Not a preacher, but a teacher, who hears a parishioner’s questions and presents the answers of all the faiths and sects of history, Christians and pagans, Muslims and atheists, all equal. With this new creature as his guide, let each man pick through the fruits of all theologies and anti-theologies, and make from them his own system, to test, improve, and lean on all the years of his long life. If early opponents of the Christian Reformation feared that Protestants would invent as many Christianities as there were Christians, let this new creature help us create as many religions as there are human beings!”
I love this idea!
“A sensayer is”—sobs punctuated his answer like hiccups—“somebody who—loves the universe so—so much they—spend their whole life— talking about—all the different—ways that it—could be.”
“Sir, you are wrong. So wrong that I shall turn the world against you. It’s not the numbers, not these rare psyches you’re charting that stimulate great progress. It’s groups. I’ve studied the same inventors, authors, leaders that you have, and the thing that most reliably produces many at once—the effect you’ve worked so hard to replicate—is when people abandon the nuclear family to live in a collective household, four to twenty friends, rearing children and ideas together in a haven of mutual discourse and play. We don’t need to revolutionize the kindergartens, we need to revolutionize the family.”
Bacon’s ideal, his scientist, was then the honeybee, which harvests the fruits of nature and, processing them with its inborn powers, produces something good and useful for the world. Our Thomas Carlyle, genius thief, co-opted the simile in 2130 when he named the Hive, our modern union, its members united, not by any accident of birth, but by shared culture, philosophy, and, most of all, by choice. Pundits may whine that Hives were birthed by technology rather than Carlyle, an inevitable change ever since 2073 when Mukta circled the globe in fourpoint-two hours, bringing the whole planet within comfortable commuting range and sounding the death knell of that old spider, the geographic nation. There is some truth to their claims, since it does not take a firebrand leader to make someone who lives in Maui, works in Myanmar, and lunches in Syracuse realize the absurdity of owing allegiance to the patch of dirt where babe first parted from placenta.
I read the first four chapters of this book – which you can read for free on Tor.com – and I’m utterly and immediately bewitched and want to read more! I can’t remember the last time I was so enraptured by a world and its characters and the plot. I was SO disappointed I had to stop reading and I reallyreallyreally want to read more – this utopia that reflects so many of the things I would love! I kept exclaiming, “Oh my god I love this!” at Jack, and then had to go and order it from one of my favourite bookshops.
4) Essay – Why There Is No Jewish Narnia
The writer wonders why there aren’t any famous Jewish writers of fantasy or conversely why there isn’t a Jewish fantasy in the way Narnia (and Harry Potter?) is a Christian fantasy. This makes me think of the Faiths in Fantasy episode where they spoke about how people from different religions read their faiths into their favourite texts. One of the comments on this article adds:
February 20, 2014 at 7:54 pm
I refer you to my post = Reflections of a Jewish Tolkienist. Also my poem – Passover at Bilbo’s House. I see the point about the Midlle Ages – but personally I enjoy fantasy. Isn’t the late Isaac B.Singer a fantasy writer in a way? There are occult elements in some of his writing and plenty of out of the ordinary things going on? Some people think Mr. Potok’s novels are fantsy – they have a heavy religious message.
The supernatural does not itself define fantasy literature, which is a more specific genre. It emerged in Victorian England, and its origins are best understood as one of a number of cultural salvage projects that occurred in an era when modern materialism and Darwinism seemed to drive religious faith from the field. Religion’s capacity for wonder found a haven in fantasy literature.
The article proposes that fantasy is largely rooted in medieval European frameworks, a time and place which wasn’t exactly welcoming for Jewish people – which might explain their propensity towards science fiction and utopian fiction.
To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history. Its halakhic core is not, I think, convincingly represented in fantasy allegory. In its rabbinic elaboration, even the messianic idea is shorn of its mythic and apocalyptic potential. Whereas fantasy grows naturally out of Christian soil, Judaism’s more adamant separation from myth and magic render classic elements of the fantasy genre undeveloped or suspect in the Jewish imaginative tradition.
This is such an interesting idea! I don’t know enough about Christianity and Judaism to fully comprehend or explain this myself, of course – but it’s a fascinating thought nonetheless. And it seems to be very different from Hindu mythology as well where we have a lot of magic and fantastical creatures – but not in the way Christianity does since it’s a polytheistic culture with many gods and goddesses and stories rather than just the one.
The essay also proposes that in the 20th century, there weren’t Jewish writers writing fantasy because of the Holocaust.
For Jewish writers working after the Holocaust, classical fantasy must have made redemption seem too easy. Certainly, the notion of magic and wizards existing in our own world—as in, for example, the Harry Potter books—becomes all but impossible. (Or at least must raise the question of why Hogwarts, like the FDR administration, never tried to bomb the railroad tracks.)
The absence of fantasy writing in Israel is, if anything, even starker than in the Diaspora. The fantasy genre has always been disparaged in modern Hebrew literary culture as being a frivolous distraction from the serious political and artistic missions facing the Jewish people and its writers. Of course, Israelis are just as avid consumers of fantasy literature, film, and games as any other nation. Israelis have flocked to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, their bookstores are filled with Hebrew translations of writers from Tolkien and Rowling to Robert Jordan and Orson Scott Card, and their children play Hebrew editions of Dungeons & Dragons games. And yet none of this production is local. As one writer lamented, in an article in Ha’aretz in 2002 on the absence of Israeli fantasy literature:
Faeries do not dance underneath our swaying palm trees, there are no fire-breathing dragons in the cave of Machpelah, and Harry Potter doesn’t live in Kfar Saba. But why? Why couldn’t Harry Potter have been written in Israel? Why is local fantasy literature so weak, so that it almost seems that a book like that couldn’t be published in the state of the Jews?
This idea about how fantasy is largely structured around a Christian framework and the lack of fantasy which draws from Jewish culture, religion, and worldviews also makes me wonder about the lack of Jewish characters themselves in SFF. It’s something which I only recently started thinking about when someone on Facebook pointed it out in a post. I note the absence at least in mainstream SFF – the ones I read recently and loved that I can think of are The Golem and the Djinni and Spinning Silver.
This article is also very obsessed with a certain kind of fantasy – of the Tolkienesque variety. But hasn’t the dominance of this genre meant that other cultures and beliefs are marginalised anyway – not just Jewish but others too? I think there just needs to be many different kinds of fantasies to the point that no one kind is othered or another is glorified.
Another comment says:
April 15, 2015 at 4:05 pm
While not a specifically historical, my epic fantasy trilogy THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD (DAW Books) draws deeply from Jewish, not Christian, world view and values. I created a culture and characters whose religion is scripture-based, and that scripture contains not only the annals of the people but a creation story that drives the central conflict. Astute readers will recognize the Seven-Petaled Shield (that protects the world from chaos) as a magen-David, with six mystical gems surrounding a unifying center. I used resonances of the Roman conquest, King Solomon’s seals, sacred scripture, the emphasis on literacy, and a solution to the conflict that is based on compassion, not destruction.
In addition, I’ve written a number of fantasy short fiction pieces with specifically Jewish characters. A couple of examples: In “Transfusion” (Realms of Fantasy, and the lead story in my forthcoming collection) an observant Jew befriends and ultimately redeems the humanity of a vampire. I used the historical figure, Gracia Nasi, for “Unmaking the Ancient Light” set in Renaissance Venice (Ancient Enchantresses, DAW).
I hope your readers will take a look at my work.
— Deborah J. Ross
Some more recommendations:
March 11, 2019 at 11:57 am
Is the writer familiar with Jane Yolan, a fantasy writer and author of “Briar Rose”?
Surely he knows Neil Gaiman, also Jewish? Lisa Goldstein? Ellen Kushner?
April 18, 2019 at 5:21 pm
I would second the nomination of Lisa Goldstein; her first novel, The Red Magician, was a fantasy novel that dealt with the Holocaust. Both her parents were concentration camp survivors. Peter S Beagle is probably the best known Jewish fantasy writer; his The Last Unicorn is a classic in the field. Isidore Haiblum’s Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders, which combines science fiction elements with Jewish mysticism, deserves a mention. Francine Prose’s early novels were fantasies; her first novel, Judah the Pious, was a fantasy of Jews in Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages; Marie Laveau, her third novel, draws on different magical elements.
The comments and conversations and debates in this essay are an education by themselves – about Judaism and Jewish representations in SFF and fantastical elements in Judaism.
5) Essay – Fantasy and the Jewish Question
It begins by pointing out that even Farah Mendlesohn responded – not too kindly – to the above article:
Don’cha just love utter rubbish? Simply off the top of my head:
Robert Silverberg; Esther Freisner; Peter Davison; Michael Burstein; Neil Gaiman; Marge Piercy (great grand-daughter of a Rabbi); Peter Beagle; Charlie Stross and Michael Chabon (by pure coincidence I have been reading Gentleman of the Road, set in the ninth century kingdom of the Kazars and, as he says in a post-script “Jews with Swords”, all day today).
I am sure others will add more.
However, the essay points out that there still isn’t any fantasy that incorporates Jewish theological ideas in it in the way Narnia does with Christian ideas.
There’s a reason that the golem and the dybbuk get so much play whenever the Jewish fantastic is mentioned–because there’s not much else out there, and very little that is common currency even among Jews.
At the same time, this essay does sympathise with Farah’s frustration at the previous article’s assumptions and generalisations and glossing over history, geography and national identity.
To put it bluntly, there is no way that a Jewish writer working in the early decades of the twentieth century could have produced The Lord of the Rings, a work steeped in a yearning for a lost pastoral world that Jews, who have for various reasons tended to congregate in urban and commercial centers, would have had little or no experience of. Similarly, the naked didacticism and unabashed proselytizing of the Narnia books is entirely antithetical to Judaism, an anti-missionary religion. One might as well ask why there is no Jewish Divine Comedy.
Weingard completely fails to acknowledge, however, the famous geographical divide between the two genres, the fact that science fiction emerged in the US and fantasy in the UK. It’s easy to imagine young Jewish writers in America gravitating to science fiction in its golden age, because its core ethos of rationalism, progress, and can-do attitude was rooted in exactly the same social changes that allowed them to live entirely different, less proscribed and less ghettoized, lives than their European parents and grandparents. But it’s America that plays the crucial role here, not Judaism.
The essay points out that while the article remarks on the lack of fantasy in the Israeli literary scene and uses that to buttress his argument, there is a similar lack of science fiction as well as speculative fiction of any kind.
Ultimately, what’s most frustrating about “Why There is No Jewish Narnia” is that Weingard is so unclear on what he’s looking for, what his definitions of ‘Jewish,’ ‘fantasy,’ and ‘Jewish fantasy’ are. Tolkien and Lewis (and many other, less frequently mentioned writers like Hope Mirrlees and Lord Dunsany) were trailblazers, creating a new mode which was deeply informed by their religious preoccupations but which very quickly became dissociated from them in all but its deepest levels, leaving room for unobservant Christian, atheist, and even Jewish (or Muslim or Buddhist or what have you) writers to play around in and sometimes bring their own cultural heritage into.
The writer wishes there were more Jewish characters and elements both inside fantasy and out of it and also more devout characters who practised Judaism.
A Jewish Narnia, meanwhile, will be nothing like Narnia, and the real question raised by “Why There is No Jewish Narnia” isn’t whether such a work will ever exist–it’s whether Michael Weingard will be able to recognize it.
One of the commenters reads Asterix and Obelix as a Jewish story:
Raz Greenberg said…
A particularly interesting case of “Jewish Superheroes” (and, for that matter, fantasy) took place outside the US: Rene Goscinny, the creator of Asterix (arguably France’s biggest comics hero) was Jewish, and though he denied any influence of his Jewish heritage (or so I heard), it’s really all over: the story may be about French against Romans, but beneath the surface it’s a classic “the smart Jew makes fun of the stupid gentile” story, with the small village the protagonists live in is the classic Jewish town.
In the comments, the writer talks about Superman as a Jewish tale:
Abigail Nussbaum said…
I think it’s in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay that Michael Chabon has one of his characters sum up the name ‘Clark Kent’ as too WASP to be real, a classic assimilation tactic. And of course, later in that book the Jewish characters, one of whom escaped the Nazis by the skin of his teeth and left his family behind, use their superhero character to battle on page the villains they can’t defeat in real life.
One of the commenters points out that there is a lot of good Jewish fantasy out there but they aren’t mainstream and draws the link between commercial success and Jewish stories:
Daniel M. Jaffe said…
As compiler and editor of “With Signs and
Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction”, I’m sort of puzzled by the claims that there are no significant Jewish writers of fantasy, and that there’s little tradition of it in Jewish culture. What about the Zohar and the rich Hasidic tradition?
- B. Singer, Cynthia Ozick, Bernard Malamud, Moacyr Scliar of Brazil, Teresa Porzecanski of Uruguay, Angelina Muniz-Huberman of Mexico are all major world-class writers of Jewish fantasy. Steve Stern of the US creates a fantasy Jewish landscape in Memphis! Woody Allen is a Jewish fantasy writer of the highest caliber–the fact that many of his fantasy worlds are created through film doesn’t make him less of a “writer”.
The objection seems to be that Jewish writers might not have chosen to express their fantasy writing in terms of fictitious Middle Earth kingdoms. So? Why must our fantasy tradition express itself the same as any others? “Different” doesn’t mean “lesser.”
Perhaps the measure of “great” is commercial success? If so, then we’re talking less about the nature of the literature that’s been produced than about the audience that chooses to receive it (or not). Is it really a surprise that in the predominantly Christian Western world, Jewish fantasy literature has not been as widely embraced as such Christian literature? Especially when many Jewish readers themselves, apparently, choose not to seek it out.
March 05, 2010 2:32 AM
6) TV show episode – Star Trek The Next Generation: Who Watches The Watchers?
The crew goes to help out some anthropologists studying a culture which is at the Bronze age of evolution. The episode explores the idea that their advanced science is perceived as being godly. It reminded me of how in the real world, some people think that aliens were responsible for ancient structures like the pyramids and the Mayan archaeology and civilisation because apparently brown people couldn’t accomplish this themselves?
One of the people from the culture is taken into a spaceship to heal his wounds – the memory wipe doesn’t hold and he believes he died and came back to life completely healed. He believes this is confirmation of his people’s ancient beliefs in these magical beings. This culture has given up beliefs in supernatural beings and fates controlled by stars but now they’ve begun to believe in a god – Picard. When they think that they have inadvertently offended the god, they intend to harm one of the people. Interesting exploration of how trying to understand gods can turn to violence – holy wars, inquisitions, chaos. The episode ends with one of the people shooting Picard to prove that he’s immortal despite Picard’s insistence he isn’t + in an effort to bargain for his dead wife’s life. Interesting picture of how religious violence can erupt for different reasons.
7) TV show episode – Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Accession
Towards the beginning of the episode, a young couple comes to see Sisko, the emissary after getting married for his blessings. The emissary seems to be a version of a priest. He’s also in charge of ceremonies but struggles with being a religious icon and is still getting used to it. He is one of the reluctant leaders of the Bajoran faith. Another character, Kira, also follows this faith.
The plot of the episode involves a wormhole which transports an ancient emmisary – Akorem – from 200 years ago to the current time. Kira is astonished that Akorem, one of the most famous Bajoran poets from history, is now in front of her. Akorem wants to bring the practices of his time back to his future which have done away with these practices. This includes (re)establishing a strict caste system like the one which was prevalent in ancient Bajor where people’s occupations depend on which family you’re born into – lots of parallels with Hinduism. A thoroughly relieved Sisko uses previously-foretold prophecies and this new appearance of Akorem to give up his job as emissary and go back to just being a Starfleet officer.
“That’s the thing about faith, if you don’t have it you can’t understand it. And if you do, no explanations necessary.”
Kira says this while trying to explain the seeming contradiction between acknowledging both Sisko and Akorem as the emissary. It reminds me of what Ziv said in our episode too.
Akorem is a more conservative emissary and believes they’ve strayed from the path of the prophets which is why he wants to re-establish the caste system. He eventually wants a Bajor society where they will deport people who don’t adhere to the caste system. One of the parts of the Bajoran culture involves doing whatever the emissary asks them to do no matter how difficult. Kira explains her doubts about reinforcing this system at the cost of federation membership and her role as first officer – her caste are farmers not soldiers. The federation doesn’t accept members who have caste-based discrimination. Parallels to UN/EU membership? India is currently not only promoting casteism but also oppression against religion – Islam and Christianity. China is also not a bastion of human rights. I suppose in those cases, capitalism trumps morals? Akorem’s pronouncement has ramifications where people with lower caste designations are making room for and being submissive to people of higher caste designations. One of the people kills a person of a lower caste – who prepares the dead for burial – for refusing to follow orders. More Hindu caste system parallels.
This causes Sisko to reconsider giving up his position in an attempt to create a more progressive faith tradition than the one Akorem wants to establish. Akorem draws on the prophecies foretold by the ancient texts and believes he’s the true emissary. Sisko doesn’t think he can rely on these and they need to go through the wormhole to the prophets themselves in order to ask who the true emissary is. The prophets appear in the bodies of crew members and speak through them. The prophets declare that the only reason they sent Akorem to the future was for Sisko to presumably make up his mind definitively about his leadership and guidance. Sisko suggests sending Akorem back to his own time unharmed, something Akorem looks forward to so he can spend time with his wife and family. Akorem doesn’t come across as a bad person, just one with practices of his time which are abhorrent in a more progressive future. He seems to believe he’s doing the right thing. The episode was an interesting and nuanced representation of a fictional faith tradition which draws from different religions but explores real issues.
8) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Rabbi Scott Perlo (Again!)
(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)
With religious texts, canon also relies on individual interpretations and priorities. This is problematised by the fact that it was oral history written down. Which means that what both the writers and readers choose to focus on can depend on their own varying priorities. Retellings and individual/multiple interpretations can expand the text which could, in turn, make room for more voices, especially those which have been traditionally marginalised. Which voices are lifted up as canon? Historically, it’s been patriarchal so men’s voices have been lifted – and only men from a specific group, those who have structural power. How do you negotiate with that today when we have a more inclusive sociocultural context? Now we can look for more of these marginalised voices which were overlooked and erased in history/religion/culture/art. People create their own stories inspired by canon – both religious and cultural texts – as a way to expand the inclusivity of these stories which were limited by its original writers.
9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: The Canon Revisited
Eric talks about how Star Trek is less action-packed and more philosophical which reflects Gene Rodenberry’s emphasis on lack of conflict. However, this is something which fans grew to critique; they felt the characters and the world needed conflict to warrant an entire episode.
Similar to Star Wars, Star Trek has a vast canon – the TV show, the books, the movies. What counts and what doesn’t? Eric has mixed feelings about canons – sometimes they can be inclusive where fans find a like-minded community; but a dense deep canon can be intimidating and off-putting to casual fans. I completely agree – it’s something which put me off comics and Doctor Who for the longest time. The new movies aren’t popular among fans because they feel like J. J. Abrams smashed the canon entirely for reasons like believing in a more hopeful and collaborative future. But wouldn’t the new movies also act as introductions to a newer generation of fans? Like New Who did for me? This reeks of fannish gatekeeping to me.
Eric talks to Rabbi Ben Newman who is a geek and Star Trek fan. He discusses how the Old Testament (also known as the Torah among Jews – which I only just discovered!) is the original canon. Rabbis explored the gaps in the stories with the characters and came up with their own interpretations and explanations – these stories are called the Midrash or the Midrashi – a term I first came across in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. Midrash is a bit like fanfiction – if they feel true enough, they become a part of the canon and a part of the story.
There are further parallels between sci-fi canon and religious canon. The Old Testament has many contradictions and inconsistencies because the stories in it were written by multiple people with different philosophies and interests. The Midrash includes stories which try to explain these gaps. Even within canon, they are responding to each other and to their different interpretations of the people and events.
With Star Wars canon, Disney came out and announced that the video games, books etc. which came after the movies were no longer valid and they would come up with a whole new canon. This angered fans who consisted these stories as canon – similar to debates among religious costumes? Fans were also divided by The Last Jedi. A lot of them hated the centering of women and people of colour but others thought it violated canon including the mysteries in The Force Awakens + thought it butchered Luke’s character who thought about killing his nephew Ben. The rabbi Ben Newman was really bothered by the film too. One of the critiques was that Rey’s parents were cast aside and that mystery didn’t reach a satisfying conclusion. However, this was only the second movie in a trilogy – bit weird to wash your hands off it without watching the third movie. The Rabbi did love the characters and their interactions with each other but didn’t like that the history and canon were ignored. There’s frustration among fans about who is the true voice of Star Wars – what counts as canon and what doesn’t?
Ben pointed out that when Christianity first came to be, there were many different ways of understanding the faith and many different interpretations and storie. But one of the meetings decided what counted as canon – similar to Islam where the definitive and authoritative canon is decided by a specific group of people. Now new authors are coming in to write fanfiction or versions of fanfiction to explain gaps and inconsistencies in popular media canon similar to what happens in Midrash.
10) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: How to Be in Community with Burns Stanfield
11) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: Reclaiming Tradition with Professor Matt Potts
12) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Broderick Greer
13) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Faith in Fantasy
(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)
Rachel read a story called The Mists of Avalon which narrates the adventures of Arthur and his knights from the point of view of Morgana rather than Arthur which completely changed the story for her. In terms of the relationship between religion and fandom, multiple perspectives and diverse interpretations allow people to expand the text and explore its nuances. It also reminds me of what Harry Potter and the Sacred Text do so well.
Different religions have different death rituals which may seem squicky to others not from that background. For example, in Zoroastrianism they leave dead bodies for vultures so as to return the body back to the earth.
Science fiction imagines what the world could be. This idea is something which I keep thinking of along with the idea of faith and hope in human beings rather than a religious text. This sense of hope in the world is such a struggle during the pandemic because you see different sides of humanity. I like to think of all the fantastic things people are doing to make everyone’s lives easier – Some Good News, art, articles, etc. but there is terrible negligence and apathy and lack of empathy too.
What does it mean to be human? How do you answer these questions? These questions remain even in futuristic and fantastical worlds. Religion is just one lens. For me, it’s definitely through stories. Either fictional stories or people’s stories.
14) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: The Book of Dune
Frank Herbert, the writer of Dune, incorporates a lot of different religions in his series but seems to draw a lot from Islam. The episode features an interview a Muslim guest from Pakistan now living in Australia who loved the recognition of Islamic elements and representation in this book series.
Dune, Star Wars and Star Trek were the three major sci-fi stories when one of the other guests was growing up. Eric sees Star Trek as a good utopian world whereas the guest thinks the Prime Directive is condescending and also always being broken. The guest believes it reflected American foreign policy.
There are so many different ways into a fandom. A guest hasn’t read the Dune books but played a video game and watched a mini series based on the books. That’s when they noticed all the Islamic influences and elements in the series.
One guest explains the different contexts and meanings behind the word jihad which has now taken on such negative connotations. Jihad can be as violent as against Hindu rulers in India but also as innocuous as jihad against carbs or falling into a Netflix hole. It essentially means a struggle. Jihad is also used in Dune though in less black and white terms.
Eric is surprised that Frank Herbert is spoken of so positively as a white American man writing about Islamic influences. Would his work not count as cultural appropriation? The guests don’t think it’s cultural appropriation; rather, it’s reading Islam through a European lens. It doesn’t involve placing his interpretation as the definitive Islamic sci-fi over a Muslim writer writing about their own culture. They do acknowledge that there are some colonial perspectives and biases which reflect his social and cultural contexts. Frank Herbert was raised Christian but in a fit of rebellion, became Buddhist. This might explain why different religious influences show up in his books. Dune looks at the power of religion but also the dangers of the power of religion combined with the power of the state – something that you see happening today in India.
To what extent do you believe in free will? In Judaism? In Islam? In Christianity? If everything is preordained, what’s the point of trying to do anything? In Hinduism, your good deeds have an impact on future reincarnated lives. These are questions which religion as well as SFF tackles.
15) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Professor Stephanie Paulsell
Stephanie learned to treat texts as sacred because she grew up with parents who were great readers. Her father used the Psalms while her mother read her Dr. Seuss – both of which felt sacred to her. One is a traditionally religious text which many people find sacred whereas something like Dr. Seuss is less so but feels equally important to her. Even something like Jane Eyre can be a sacred text depending on a person’s individual contexts and priorities.
They explore the idea of sacred texts being texts which are generative i.e. lead to more responses and texts, sometimes creative ones. Harry Potter as sacred because it leads to so many fan responses in different forms – fiction, art, essays, analysis. Stephanie also sees Virginia Woolf’s books as sacred. Even though Woolf was famously an atheist who was raised in a religious family, she used reading to influence her inner life and gain empathy and knowledge about other experiences and find a community with other people. Harry Potter performs a similar function because it is such an important cultural text for many people around the world.
They also discuss the difference between perfect and sacred. Since sacred texts are generative, they have to be imperfect. A perfect text doesn’t leave room for exploration and invite other perspectives and interpretations; it’s static rather than dynamic, whereas a sacred text is never done. Treating a text as perfect and not as a conversation can lead to fundamentalism as we see both historically and currently.
“I’m worried that the Vernon Dursleys of the world are going to ruin the world. And you said back to me, no I think we have to deal with the Vernon Dursleyishness in ourselves.” – Vanessa about a conversation with Stephanie
16) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fear of the Borg
Picard’s arch-nemesis is the Borg, a group who want to assimilate all the species into the Borg collective, which sounds similar to the Cybermen in Doctor Who and the Daleks in one of the David Tennant episodes.
Eric talks to three sci-fi academics who draw parallels between this assimilation and religious assimilation. Sometimes the Federation assimilates cultures as well; in fact, even being a part of the Federation can be seen as assimilation making the Federation a colonising force – something the narrative itself doesn’t seem to suggest. In American culture, assimilation used to have a positive connotation, but there are increasing critiques of this idea of assimilation. What are you assimilating to and what part of your cultural identity is lost? As one of the guests points out, there’s the issue of the power dynamics at play here too. Do you have control or a choice over this process? Assimilation in the lives of immigrants leads to the “erasure of autonomy” where they lose the accent, language, food, clothes, music, culture that is a part of their identity.
Picard is weaponised where he’s assimilated by the Borg and is used in an attempt to destroy the Federation. He never gets over this trauma even after he’s rescued by the crew. There is a Borg named Hugh (?) who becomes a part of the crew. Some of the characters are more welcoming to him than others. Picard especially isn’t convinced that he is capable of change and plans to use him as a way to destroy his race as a sort of Trojan horse. One of the guests thinks of Hugh as someone who’s being deprogrammed from a cult once they leave the cult and are able to negotiate with their life in this cult. This reminds me of the Sacred Text’s theory of the house elves as a cult and Dobby shows the difference between cult and religion by showing that he can leave it. Star Trek is fundamentally interested in the moral imagination – what is the line between what we are willing to do and why.
You also see assimilation in the Potterverse where Muggleborns are expected to completely assimilate themselves into the magical world. Nobody cares about their home culture. It must be so alienating! Maybe that’s why Hermione wanted to fill her already-bursting schedule with Muggle Studies – just as a connection with the life she’s grown up with. Muggleborns have to navigate a new language, new culture, new social and cultural norms, and new rules.