The priest-scholar is one of science fiction's most common types of religious characters. Of all Catholic orders, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) is the most commonly used in science fiction. James Blish (author of the classic religious sf novel A Case of Conscience) wrote that the majority of all Christian science fiction features a Jesuit, or at least Catholic, viewpoint (Source: "The Issue at Hand", 1953, under the pseudonym William Atheling).
As Mary Doria Russell explains in a supplemental essay to The Sparrow of the major reasons for this is the historical role of Jesuits as being the "vanguard" of exploration -- among the first people to meet and carefully observe newly discovered cultures. This role is frequently repeated in science fiction as authors seek to bring religious themes into stories of early contact with alien cultures. Jesuits have historically been well-trained in a variety of academic fields, including linguistics and the sciences, making them a natural choice for members in many fictional expeditions.
Interestingly enough, it seems that ordained Catholics are more common in science fiction than practicing lay Catholics. Science fiction authors frequently do not portray practicing lay (non-clergy/non-professional) members of faith communities at all. Although there are practicing Catholics among science fiction characters, when lay religionists are portrayed they are more often members of non-Catholic faiths such as Muslims, Latter-day Saints, or Jews, or members of fictitious churches and religions created by the author.
One reason that full-time clergy are used rather than lay Catholics is that they can realistically be written as speaking very articulately about the intricacies of religious theology, and are thus better vehicles for the exploration of religious themes. Clergy also have the authority of the Church behind them, along with the power to do interesting things such as decide whether or not to proselytize newly encountered alien races.
In John M. Kahane's review of The Sparrow he wrote:
Jesuits tend to be the most common religious figures to show up in American sf, for reasons that I'm not sure about, but perhaps because the Jesuit mission of education and remote, missionary work coincides with the sf theme of exploration and discovery. Or perhaps because Jesuits tend to get into trouble. The central figure of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, Emilio Sandoz, is one of the most tormented Jesuits I've ever encountered in modern science fiction.
This list, a subset derived from the Adherents.com Religion in Literature database, is intended as a resource for literary research. It lists mainstream science fiction and fantasy novels and short stories (speculative fiction) which contain references to Jesuits (the Society of Jesus, a Catholic order). This list is certainly not comprehensive, but eventually it will list all Hugo- and Nebula-winning works with Jesuit characters or references.
This list does not include every reference to Jesuits within each novel. Each novel or story is listed only once, with a brief explanation or sample quote. Many works include more than one reference, and in some Jesuits are a central element, but usually only one sample quote is shown in this list.
Titles in bold have the most extensive Jesuit references or important Jesuit characters. Current number of novels and stories in list: 8.
|Sample Quote and/or Description|
|Patricia Anthony||God's Fires. New York: Ace Books (1997)||mixed||1600||[During the Portuguese Inquisition, the crash-landing of a space ship presents a devastating moral dilemma when the Jesuits capture and imprison three beings, who escape the crash, and must confront the question about who or what these mysterious beings are.];
"Porra! Am I not worthy? I have been damned by sniveling Dominicans and... Cistercians; and yet before each battle Jesuits petitioned God for me. What sort of father are you, who would turn his back on a son who disobeyed Rom for you, who slaughtered Spaniards when you asked? Damn you Jesuits to Hell for serving the Holy Office. For leading this country from one war to another..."
|James Blish||A Case of Conscience. (1958)||?||2150?||This is a classic and important pioneering work in modern religious-themes science fiction. A variety of religious issues are explored in this about a Jesuit priest who gradually comes to believe that a planet full of intelligent, rational lizards is actually of Satanic origin.|
|David Brin||Earth. New York: Bantam (1990)||neutral||2038||[Jesuits are mentioned only in passing.] Pg. 208:
At minimum you've drawn an intriguing sophistry to delight your fellow Franciscans. And those neo-Gaian Jesuits, if they haven't thought of it already.
|Frank Herbert||Dune. (1965)||-||14000||The two central religious groups portrayed in Dune are the Fremen (Zensunnis), who are based to some extant on Muslims, especially Sufis, and the Bene Gesserit. "Gesserit" may be a transformation of "Jesuit." There are many obvious similarities between the powerful Bene Gesserit order and the Jesuit Society of Jesus. The appendix section detailing religious history of the far-future setting in the novel specifically cites Islam and Catholicism as important predecessor religions of the future religious environment.|
|James Morrow||Towing Jehovah. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co. (1994)||?||1994||One of the main characters in the book is Thomas Ockham, of the Society of Jesus. This is a very well-developed character, playing the role of the religious seeker in this novel about an expedition to retrieve a giant corpse from the Arctic, which many believe is the body of God.|
|Mary Doria Russell||The Sparrow. New York: Ballantine (1996)||positive||2019-2021
|This is one of most popular SF novels in recent years to explore religious themes. The "Sparrow" is famed as being the "Jesuits in Space" novel. It involves a Jesuit expedition to the first extraterrestrial sentient society that humans encounter. The author read dozens of biographies by current and former Jesuits in preparing to write this novel.|
|Mary Doria Russell||Children of God. New York: Ballantine (1997)||positive||2061||Sequel to The Sparrow.|
|Winston P. Sanders||"The Word to Space" (first published 1960). Reprinted in Mayo Mohs (editor), Other Worlds: Other Gods: Adventures in Religious Science Fiction. Garden City, NY: Doubleday (1971)||positive||2100||This is yet another story with a Catholic clergyman/linguist. Radio transmissions from the alien world Akron are detected from Earth, and scientists are excited to learn for the first time about an alien culture. Until, that is, the informative broadcasts are replaced by endless Akronite religious propaganda. A Jesuit linguist solves the problem for Earth and manages to do some reverse missionary work at the same time.|
|Dan Simmons||Hyperion. New York: Doubleday (1989)||mixed||2750||One of the main characters in this Chaucer-Cantebury-format novel is Paul Dure, an archaeologist, ethnologist, and eminent Jesuit theologian. Must of the lengthy section this character narrates deals with his work missionary and Catholic religious leader on the planet Hyperion.|
To be added in more detail: "The Star," one of science fiction grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke's most famous stories. The narrator is implied to be a Jesuit in this story about spacefarers far from Earth who discover the actual Star of Bethlehem.
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Web page created 20 December 1999. Last modified 20 July 2004.