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."
This sense of being different is so embedded in Mormon culture that Dr. Michael Collings, a professor of English at Pepperdine University and an authority on the science fiction of Orson Scott Card, sees it as the one chord sounded throughout the work of all LDS writers of speculative fiction.
"I don't see another common theme other than at the base where, whether spoken or not, there is that core of experience that Card so aptly describes as being an alien in one's own homeland," Collings said. "Some of us use science fiction as a way of bridging that difference or of modulating it."
The Mormon boom in speculative fiction began in the late 1970s when Card agreed to return to Brigham Young University, his alma mater, to teach science fiction writing. When Card had to cancel, Dr. Smith stepped in.
The course has been offered every year and is always filled to capacity, but that first class has been the most prolific. It included M. Shayne Bell, author of "Nicoji" and "Lock Down," and Dave Wolverton, author of "Lords of the Seventh Swarm" and "The Courtship of Princess Leia."
Members formed reading groups, e-mail lists and started a magazine, The Leading Edge, which current students still publish up to three times a year. They have begun to call themselves "the class that would not die."
"I think what happened is there were a lot of personalities that were ready to go," said Scott R. Parkin, an LDS member and writer who has compiled a bibliography of Mormon science fiction. "It was a time when, in 1976, the Prophet challenged the [Mormon] community to create Shakespeares and Miltons of our own. There was this big renaissance in Mormon culture, and this class happened soon after that."
In addition to living the same faith, many of these writers live in the same state: Utah. Mr. Parkin counts about 30 Mormon speculative fiction writers who live along the Wasatch River basin between Orem and Provo. There are so many Mormon science fiction writers in Utah that Signature Books, an imprint of the LDS-owned Deseret Books, published a volume of their work, "Washed by a Wave of Wind: Science Fiction from the Corridor."
Do Mormons say the reading or writing of speculative fiction affects one's spirituality? Dave Wolverton said his science fiction writing has deepened his Mormon beliefs. He said he is constantly tapping into them to work out the moral issues confronting his characters. "I find that my writing helps encourage my spiritual questioning," he said in an e-mail interview. "I find that I meditate best in front of a keyboard now."
Card scoffed at the idea that his writing enhances his faith. "This is just my job," he said. "My life as a member of the church, as a husband to my wife, as a father to my children, that's what deepens my spirituality."
Smith said he thinks reading and writing science fiction can serve, in at least a peripheral way, as a spiritual aid.
"I am quite satisfied that there is an influence, but I am just as satisfied that I can never prove it," he said. "Certainly, many people will read this science fiction and say, 'Ah, that helps me understand the theology a little better.'"
But Bradford Verter, assistant professor of religion and culture at Williams College, cautioned against saying that Mormons have a greater connection to science fiction than people of other faiths do. He suggests that their work may stand out more because Mormon culture and beliefs are more distinct from the cultural mainstream.
"I can think of so many science fiction books that have Christian themes," he said, listing C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia," about a Christ-like lion, and James Blish's "A Case of Conscience," about Jesuits in space. There are even a number of Jewish science fiction writers, including Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, Phillip Klass, and even Woody Allen. "But those [Judeo-Christian images] don't stand out because we are so accustomed to those images and references as part of the larger cultural fabric," Verter said.
Still, Mr. Parkin said, speculative fiction has more directly communicated Mormon thought and experience than any other literary genre.
"Science fiction gives you more philosophical breadth" than mainstream fiction, he said. "Because we can work with allegory and metaphors in science fiction, we are able to reveal more of what it is we believe or hope in a direct narrative that doesn't have to be about being Mormon."