The young man stared at the plates of gold and the odd clear stones given to him by the angel. How could he unlock their secrets? Grasping the stones like spectacles, he peered through them at the precious metal. And there it was, opening before him...a saga of a past no one had heard before, and a blueprint for the future as it could be, as it should be.
Science fiction? No, it's the story of how Joseph Smith Jr., a western New York farm boy, deciphered golden tablets given to him by the angel Moroni in 1827. The writings, he said, directed him to found a religion and, ultimately, a utopian civilization.
Now, more than 170 years later, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the church that Smith founded came to be called, finds that among its members are a surprising number of high-profile science fiction and fantasy writers.
Most religions are based on beginnings that, when told in secular terms, sound fantastic. Yet somehow, it seems Mormonism has been a particularly fertile faith for science fiction writers. Is there something about its theology, history, and tradition that shortens the leap to what has come to be called "speculative fiction"?
"Mormons are theologically not so far removed from science fiction," said Orson Scott Card, a Mormon who has won the coveted Hugo and Nebula awards for his science fiction. "We literally believe that God has created sentient beings on other worlds, that there really is faster-than-light travel and that God can go hither and yon.... In many cases, we are writing about a universe we have already thought about from childhood on."
The LDS church counts about 5 million Mormons in the United States and 11 million worldwide. According to adherents.com, a website that tracks religious affiliation and lists speculative fiction writers by faith, there are 175 published writers in that genre who are current or former LDS members.
Compare that with Catholicism, which has 26 million baptized followers in the United States, but just 30 writers of speculative fiction on the list. There are no Hindus or Muslims on the list, one Buddhist and seven Baptists.
"Mormon theology does dovetail with science fiction quite nicely," said Preston Hunter, the Dallas-based computer programmer who created adherents.com and compiled its list of speculative fiction writers. "They have similar outlooks on God and the universe that other Christian churches do not."
"Once like us"
Card has written and spoken often about the link between his Mormon beliefs and his writing. Portions of his "The Tales of Alvin Maker" series include scenes from the life of Joseph Smith. The five volumes of his "Homecoming" series, about a race of earthlings guided to a promised land by the "Oversoul," is a retelling of the Mormon trek to Utah.
He said one reason for Mormon affinity for science fiction is that Mormons view God as a highly developed man, not as a supernatural, ethereal being. He is the kind of highly evolved creature much of science fiction is founded on, Card said.
"We believe in a physical, corporeal being who moves through time and who was once like us," he said. "We believe he is accessible but also bound by natural law, just like us. So the God we believe in is already 50% of the way towards being the God science fiction can accept, so it is a lot easier for us to move the last 50% without compromising any of our other beliefs."
The link between Mormonism and speculative fiction--especially science fiction--is well-rooted in Mormon cosmology and theology, said Dr. Marion K. Smith, professor of science fiction writing and literature at Brigham Young University. He notes that:
"So the concept of lost civilizations, of alien races and other cultures is not foreign to us," Smith said. "And that is a backbone of science fiction, that there are people who have unusual knowledge and act upon it."