Where can I publish my book on Science Fiction criticism?

I was asked this by a colleague who wanted to turn their doctoral thesis into a monograph. That in itself is not a straightforward task, and there are guides elsewhere on the web discussing that process. In short, a thesis is not a book (yet).

Anyhow, once a book is in sight, or at least in the planning, the next question arises as to where to publish it? SF criticism is not as marginalised as it once was, and there are now quite a few academic publishers with specialist series looking at the genre.

I collated the following list, which I emphasise is far from exhaustive, as potential starting points for my colleague. I’m sharing it here after a commenter on the ever excellent London SF research community Facebook page suggested it might be of use to others. If I encounter anything which looks relevant, I may return to edit this and add things later.

Do note that it really ISN’T exhaustive. There are many other options too, depending on the type of book you may have in mind. Biographies of major authors have traction beyond academic publishers for example. Books on popular TV or cinematic SF might do likewise. Even academic critical texts on SF may find a home outside these specialist series. A book on religious futurism for example may well find a home in a series on theology rather than on SF, for example.

Other publishers, such as Oxford UP, Cambridge UP, Bloomsbury and so on will often publish SF criticism without necessarily including it in a specific dedicated series. Bloomsbury for example list over 200 SF-themed texts on their website. So this resource really is just a starting point for someone looking for a place to publish their text.

As always, do your own due diligence, and remember that it’s better to find an editorial team who you like working with and who are supportive of your book than to go with the allegedly prestigious or prolific imprint which may process your book as in a sausage factory, or fail to promote it among a lengthy roster.

(For that very reason, I went with Gylphi for my book on SF and Catholicism, even though they may not be the most prestigious or established of academic publishers, because their small attentive team really prioritised and helped me produce the best possible iteration of my idea, and I felt really supported throughout the whole process.)

SFCatholicism

And on that note, don’t forget you’ll have to do a lot of promotion of your book yourself these days, including identifying potential review outlets. I believe the LSFRC might be looking at producing a resource on that too, which I for one would welcome.

Without further ado, in no particular order…

Series NamePublisherEditorsSample publication/ additional information
Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and StudiesLiverpool University PressDavid Seed, Sherryl VintA longstanding series – 69 publications to date, many by leading SF scholars – innovative but can take a conservative approach at times.
Wesleyan Science Fiction / Literary CriticismWesleyan University PressArthur B. EvansPublish anthologies and early classics editions as well as critical monographs. Closely connected to SF Studies journal.
Modern Masters of Science FictionUniversity of Illinois PressGary K. WolfeMonographs series focusing on individual SF authors. The press also publishes other SF-related texts, including a trilogy of Ray Bradbury biographies
Gylphi SF StoryworldsGylphi PressPaul March-RussellAn innovative and eclectic series of SF monographs and critical essay collections, spanning literature and other media.
World Science Fiction StudiesPeter LangSonja Fritzsche and Gerry CanavanRelatively new series of monographs focusing on postcolonial and decolonised topics. Be warned, the publisher may seek a payment contribution from the author.
Studies in Global Genre FictionRoutledgeTaryne Jade Taylor and Bodhisattva ChattopadhyayNew series which examines global iterations of genre fictions, open to receiving proposals relating to global SF
Studies in Global Science FictionPalgrave MacmillanAnindita Banerjee, Rachel Haywood Ferreira, and Mark BouldRapidly establishing series which focuses on localised iterations of global SF, publishing single author monographs and edited collections.
Ralahine Utopian StudiesPeter LangRaffaella Baccolini, Antonis Balasopoulos, Joachim Fischer, Michael J. Griffin, Naomi Jacobs, Michael G. Kelly, Tom Moylan and Phillip E. WegnerTwenty volumes to date, examining utopian studies in general and not solely in a SF context, though many are reprints of classic utopian studies texts.

Addendum:

New Dimensions in Science Fiction, eds. Pawel Frelik and Patrick B. Sharp, University of Wales Press, which has published six texts to date, including examinations of Indian SF, early SF feminism and, intriguingly, Plants in SF.

New Suns: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Speculative, eds. Susana M. Morris and Kinitra D. Brooks, Ohio State University Press, which to date has specialised in Afrofuturism criticism but has a remit to look at other forms of (marginalised) identity in SF and cognate fields.

Tentatively adding Routledge’s new series “Studies in Speculative Fiction” which to date has published two quite different texts with more forthcoming, and advertises a remit of “literatures from all around the word that fall within the speculative fiction umbrella, including but not limited to, science fiction, fantasy, horror, apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, utopian/dystopian literatures, and supernatural fiction.” The editors for this series have not been identifiable.

For more options, see Jo Walton’s extensive comment below.

Ray Bradbury, William Blake, and Catholics in Space

Back when I was writing my book on Science Fiction and Catholicism, I came across a story by Ray Bradbury which I meant to include, but I couldn’t decide where to discuss it.

On the one hand, it appeared to speak to the Catholic Church’s earliest involvement in SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), but on the other, it spoke, as did Bradbury’s poem “Christus Apollo” (which I did include in the book) to Christianity’s main problem as regards non-terrestrial intelligence – whether Christ would have to incarnate on other worlds.

In the end, I had to cut a lot of text, and ideas, from the book and I didn’t get around to looking at “The Machineries of Joy”, the title story from Bradbury’s 1964 collection. So, as it’s Christmas, I thought I’d do so now, as it offers an interesting perspective on the predictive component of religious futurism.

Bradbury wrote the story for Playboy magazine originally in 1961, at a time when people could legitimately claim to read the publication for the prose. It’s a low-key narrative, mostly related via dialogue between priests who take opposing positions on the appropriateness of man’s expansion beyond the bounds of Earth. The story has not been well-examined. Neil Gaiman’s 2010 introduction to the collection refers to it descriptively and briefly as “Priests debate and argue about space travel …” But it’s worth taking a closer look.

It wasn’t Bradbury’s only foray into Catholicism as a theme of course. His story “The Man,” is a classic of the Jesus-in-space sub-genre. And priests often featured in his fiction, usually as a kind of shorthand for the religious disposition rather than any specifically Catholic theological purpose.

In short, Catholicism performs in Bradbury’s fiction similarly to the kind of ‘faux Catholicism’ I discussed in my book, a largely fictional form of faith that is innately conservative, faintly anti-science even when embodied by priest-scientists, and certainly anti-progressive politically.

This faux Catholicism is, in short, ultimately anti-Enlightenment, and is positioned by SF generally in order to present an easily grasped opponent to the utopian, atheist, scientific, pro-technological, almost posthumanist impetus that much of SF espouses, either tacitly or overtly.

In “The Machineries of Joy”, Ray Bradbury presents us with a narrative of warring priests. In the progressive corner is the Italian priest Fr Vittorini, who stays up all night watching television in the hope of witnessing the launch of a rocket from Cape Canaveral. In the regressive corner, we have the Irish priest Fr Brian, who finds the idea of humanity expanding beyond Earth to be an existential risk for the Christian faith itself. Presiding over this debate is their boss, Pastor Sheldon, who brings about an end to the hostilities by encouraging debate, understanding and a nice glass of Lacryma Christi Italian wine.

Their debate takes place on two battlefields. The first is the existence of a papal encyclical by Pius XII on space travel, written in 1956 at the time of an “Astronautical Congress” held at the pope’s summer home in Castel Gandolfo. The second is William Blake, claimed by the Irish priest as a kind of Irishman (allegedly descended from the Irish on his mother’s side, so he alleges) and his own particularly visionary version of Christianity.

It ultimately transpires that the papal encyclical does not in fact exist, and has been invented by Fr Vittorini as a way of annoying his Celtic colleague. Bradbury conveniently does not explain to us how Vittorini might have fabricated a plausible newspaper clipping about the Astronautic Congress, however.

Equally, Vittorini has also invented a poetic phrase which he attributes to Blake but later admits to having invented himself – the titular “Machineries of Joy.”

“Somewhere did Blake not speak of the Machineries of Joy?” asks Fr Vittorini slyly. “That is, did not God promote environments, then intimidate those Natures by provoking the existence of flesh, toy men and women, such as are we all? And thus happily sent forth, at our best, with good grace and fine wit, on calm noons, in fair climes, are we not God’s Machineries of Joy?”

“If Blake said that, I take it all back. He never lived in Dublin!” is Fr Brian’s comic response.

What’s curious about both of these loci of variance among the priests is the religious futurist component. Perhaps Bradbury was aware of the Catholic Church’s early involvement in SETI and cognate astronomical research. Certainly the mention of Castel Gandolfo suggests that, as it is not only the papal summer home but also the location of the Vatican Observatory, which has driven much of the church’s research in this area, including later hosting a series of conferences on SETI and astrobiology.

Blake did not, to my knowledge, mention the phrase “machineries of joy” anywhere in his work, and certainly not in the very acute sense referred to by Fr Vittorini. Indeed, as Bradbury and Vittorini acknowledge, this is pure invention. But whether Bradbury was aware of early Catholic involvement in extraterrestrial research or not, he certainly seems to have been referring obliquely to Blake’s famous poem “Eternity”. The poem, which is brief, is worth quoting in full at this point:

Eternity

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy

He who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise

To Blake’s concept of flying joy, Fr Vittorini, as a proxy for Bradbury himself, adds the trope of machinery, specifically rockets in the early Space Age era. Bradbury’s story seems to warn against a regressive luddism in terms of Fr Brian’s negative reaction to the idea of transgressing the boundaries of this planet. Only by kissing the joy as it flies beyond those boundaries, in its machineries, can eternity be achieved, he seems to suggest.

Equally though, after Fr Brian has done penance and come to personal terms with this astronautic progress, the conclusion gives us a curious conundrum. Fr Brian in his mind’s eye merges with the machineries, with the astronauts themselves. “He waited for the thunder. He waited for the fire. He waited for the concussion and the voice that would teach a silly, a strange, a wild and miraculous thing.”

What is that miracle? “How to count back, ever backward … to zero.”

The miracle is to be reduced to nothing. This is also, perhaps, an iteration of eternity that Bradbury intends to convey, or equally, the conflict between the positions of Vittorini and Brian have not been fully resolved. Theologically, it’s a beautifully poised conclusion.

But also, it demonstrates the difficulty of engaging in religious futurism. Bradbury’s story evokes opposing perspectives from within Catholicism to express positive and negative opinions about the idea of leaving this planet. He correctly identifies the existential difficulties that Christianity might face if extraterrestrial sentience was encountered, a theme he pursued to greater length in Christus Apollo.

But he could not have foreseen that the Church’s ultimate engagement with astronautics would be neither counting itself down to zero in resignation, nor seeking colonially to dominate space as once the Church sought to bring its version of salvation to the New World of the Americas.

Despite those teasing hints at prophecy, Bradbury did not actually foresee that Catholic futurism would ultimately be driving research into life beyond this planet, or that a pope would not merely write encyclicals in favour of rocket travel, but actively espouse the baptism of Martians as Pope Francis has done.

The multiplying tensions of religion(s) and the future

Just a quick observation on religious futurism(s).

With religions, we might term revelatory knowledge, which is deemed to be eternal, of divine or suprahuman provenance and therefore unchangeable wisdom. With the scientific method, we have a progressive, though unending, search for fundamental reality, generated via the attempts to disprove hypotheses empirically.

There is clearly a potential if not actual tension between the two, and we’ve seen this in the centuries since the Enlightenment period when the scientific method first came to the fore.

What happens when we add the temporal factor of futurism to the mix? Do we add tensions or multiply them? How do they manifest?

It’s going to be different for every religion, predicated on the nature of each faith’s own sense of revelatory knowledge of course. Some will be more malleable than others, and some more malleable on certain topics than others.

It’s also dependent on two other aspects which are perhaps less immediately obvious. The first of these is the future vision embedded within a particular religion. If a faith has a designated end point, in terms of apocalypse, apotheosis or otherwise, then obviously any world view based on that faith assumes that the world is moving inexorably towards that position, perhaps at varying speed, perhaps with occasional setbacks, but overall, invariably towards a set destination point.

The second aspect which may not be so obvious is a particular religion’s comfort zone in terms of adapting to scientific developments. A more fundamentalist faith is going to struggle with this more than a less rigid one, for example. In this sense, some religions may be somewhat surprising.

Catholicism is often perceived, from outside at least, as antipathetic to science due to anti-scientist positions it occasionally assumed during the Inquisition period. Nevertheless, Catholic clerics have played significant roles in the development of a number of scientific breakthroughs – genetics to name but one – and the Vatican observatory today is one of the leading institutions in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In short, Catholicism has a strong sense of futurism even if elements of its dogma are not especially malleable or open to debate.

Islam likewise has been a strong supporter and fellow traveller of science at various geographic and historical points, and has no issue with futurist concepts such as alien intelligence, or space travel.

By contrast, Buddhism, which is often understood at least by non-practitioners as one of the more rational, or less revelatory, forms of faith, has a number of points where it finds scientific rationality tricky to engage with. There are reams of books attempting to square this particular circle, some of them inspired by or even co-authored by the Dalai Lama, who is well aware of just how hidebound his own particular variant of Buddhism is.

What is the disconnect here? The answer of course is adherence to the notion of a godhead. The Abrahamic monotheisms are unapologetically attached to the concept of a creator deity. It’s their core belief. Buddhism on the other hand manifests very differently. Some forms, inspired by Hinduism, have many supernatural beings in their pantheon. Tibetan Buddhisms in particular are prone to this. Others, and one thinks of some of the more austere Theravadan forms, do not espouse gods of any kind or form.

Because of the existence of the latter, Buddhism MAY not require belief in a godhead, and therefore it has tended to be perceived by atheists who practice science (or who practice futurism, in the form of science fiction or otherwise) as potentially more acceptable. The reality on the ground and across the entirety of the belief complex, is not as clearcut of course.

As always, I do not have any simple answers here, especially as answers would require the power of prophecy. It is unknowable how religions will develop in the future alongside further scientific insights and discoveries, because it depends on the nature of the discoveries, how they relate to existing revelatory dogma in various faith forms, and how faiths respond to apparent contradictions.

But it does seem to me that the simple tension between revelatory knowledge and empirically tested knowledge leads to a much more complex relationship when we try to project any of this into the future.

And based on the study I have personally done on Anglophone SF and its relationship with Catholicism, and now Buddhism, it seems to me that the futurists are to date struggling to encompass the complexities of that potential relationship.

Defining Religious Futurism

We need a way of taxonomising religious futurisms due to the wide range of territory the term covers. There are three main strands of religious futurism, with a number of additional topics that are at least cognate or germane.

The first, and perhaps most recognisable, form of religious futurism simply describes futurisms derived from existing terrestrial religions, for example Islamofuturism. This form also includes futurised hybrids of these religions, such as the Zensunni and Orange Catholic beliefs described in Frank Herbert’s Dune.

The Orange Catholic Bible: In the Future the OCB will Unfold Reality:  Interplanetary Religion, International Council on: 9781508508724:  Amazon.com: Books

A second rich category of religious futurism relates to religious belief systems, or nascent belief systems, which are either influenced by or directly derivative of SF, for example the Church of Scientology or Jedi beliefs.

Inside the Church of Jediism, Where 'Star Wars' Gets Spiritual
Church of Jediism

An additional main strand of religious futurism, what we might term creative or speculative religious futurism, relates to invented religious faiths ascribed either to future populations or alien civilisations in SF and cognate genres, such as the Church of All Worlds in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, or Bokononism, which Kurt Vonnegut invented for his novel Cat’s Cradle.

Where we get some lack of clarity is in overlaps. There is evidence, for example, that religious futurisms of this latter category can migrate into the previous one. There is some evidence, for example, of people pursuing Bokononism in reality, and clearly Jedi commenced as a created belief system depicted within the Star Wars universe, and was not originally intended to be a religious belief. Indeed, to become one, it had to be fleshed out with doctrine by fans.

Cat's Cradle - Wikipedia

But then what of something like Scientology, which emerged from L. Ron Hubbard’s work on Dianetics, and was clearly influenced by his own career as a SF author, but was presented to the world as a revelatory knowledge? Or what of Mormonism, also presented to the world as a revelation, but one which in its origin story as told by proponents clearly contains elements of fantastika, if not overt SF futurism?

There are other anomalies too. What do we make of the non-theist belief system propagated in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, where most of the population believe the universe they inhabit to be a simulation? This particular theory, first popularised by Nick Bostrum, is gaining a lot of traction among both physicists and the general public. Is it, too, a religious futurism? Is religious even the correct descriptor? Is futurism?

Simulation Theory
Simulation Theory

As we expand in focus, the anomalies proliferate in this regard. Given the fantastikal aspect of most revelatory origin stories for religions, are we to retroactively consider all religions as religious futurism at an early stage of their development? If we locate the concept of futurism as relative to now, ie the present day, does that simply create a kind of moving walkway, in which, perhaps, Jedi beliefs will at some point cease to be religious futurism and simply become religion? What, other than the passing of time, is required for it to qualify otherwise?

In my own work on SF and Catholicism, I’ve sought to identify how the Anglophone literary tradition of SF constantly depicts Catholicism of the future as a threat – oppressive, anti-science, threatening to democracy and liberty, totalitarian in many aspects.

But this Catholic futurism is not the same as describing the actual likely organic evolution of Catholicism, which has to its credit, played a significant role in a range of scientific development from genetics to astrophysics, and which in its liberation theology form in Latin America has strenuously defended liberty and democracy from totalitarian regimes.

In other words, I wasn’t attempting to predict the future of Catholicism at all, but rather to chart what future Catholicism signified to the Anglophone culture of the recent past.

Likewise, we need to distinguish Islamofuturism from actual potential futures of Islam, though again the anomalies proliferate. What are we to make of Saudi Arabia, a highly conservative Islamic state, granting citizenship to a robot, the first ever robot citizen of any nation?

Sophie the robot citizen

I don’t claim to have easy answers for such questions. What I hope is that scholars of art, culture, the future and theology can start asking them and similar ones. Only collaboratively can we hope to close in on a working definition of religious futurism.

Mythopolitics in South Asia

The University of Oslo has a number of fascinating research projects and this latest one is of particular interest to anyone intrigued by religious futurism.

The Mythopolitics project is looking to recruit a doctoral researcher to examine if and how, 2014 onwards, there have been significant effects on popular public opinion and the political culture of India due to shifts in the construct of Hindu identity and Hindu nationalism. The popular media platforms could range from traditional to social media, for example: Bombay cinema, Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook.

Applications before January 15th 2021 are invited from candidates with a Master’s degree in visual studies/art history, film studies, culture studies, visual/cultural anthropology or allied disciplines.

More info here, if that’s you.

Robert Fisk and Islamofuturism

Only two weeks after this wonderful documentary about the work of Robert Fisk was released, the man himself is dead.

TIFF 2019: Documentary on Robert Fisk highlights how the foreign  correspondent manages complex, grim realities - The Globe and Mail

He was a paragon of journalism, whose doorstop book, The Great War for Civilisation, based on his PhD taken at Trinity College Dublin, is the single best explanation for why we find ourselves in the world we are in. You really should read the book, but for a taster, here’s Fisk speaking at his alma mater about his experiences in the Middle East.

The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East: Amazon.it:  Fisk, Robert: Libri in altre lingue

Fisk was a journalist of the old school, by which I mean he believed in travelling to the site of an event to explore it in person, in examining the evidence for himself, in speaking to people (directly and in their own languages ideally) to get a rounded perspective on events, and in doing careful research and taking copious notes to augment his own prodigious knowledge and memory.

In this age when the old gatekeeper media are dying out, being replaced by both the amateur hordes of opinion mongers and influencers on the one hand, and by AI algorithm reportage and platform curation on the other, Robert Fisk’s methods seem like the craftsmanship of a lost age.

His decades of reporting on the affairs of the Middle East – its conflicts, their origins and of course Western interference – stands as a testimony to how proper, factual, neutral journalism was once the norm, or at least the aspiration, before the onset of web 2.0, clickbait, alternative facts and post-truth.

Of course, all journalism is ultimately ephemeral, at best the first draft of history. Fisk however had accrued a depth of knowledge, not only of Middle Eastern cultures and politics, but of the long history which had led to the current affairs he reported on. In order to gather this information together in one place, he wrote a doctoral thesis which eventually became his magnum opus – The Great War for Civilisation.

One often feels as if one needs a doctorate in the fraught and complex history of the Middle East to comprehend why things there happen as they do. Fisk had one, and it showed in his writing. He was fully able to account for his own Westernness in his writing about Islam, Arabs and the Middle East in general, as he had spent many decades imbibing the rich, sour and often bitter history of the West’s engagement with all three. And only a Westerner of his ilk, an Englishman with a military heritage and of ultimately Norse extraction, could have been the credible voice within the West that he was.

It is a tragic sign of the times that the fraught relationship between Islam and the West has entered a deadly new phase, just as the carefully researched journalism that Fisk embodied has been jettisoned almost entirely by news outlets motivated to generate sensationalism for clickbait income. What comes next is likely to be ugly, and I’m sorry we will not have Robert Fisk to help explain it for us.

Fortunately we do have many great creators, artists, writers and filmmakers from Muslim backgrounds who are already hard at work attempting to imagine into being better futures not only for the Middle East, or for Islam, but for the world and indeed all worlds. (Allah, after all, is called God of All Worlds in the Qu’ran.) Many of these – it sometimes feels impossibly like all – are featured in a new text about Islamofuturism.

Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World has been written by Jörg Matthias Determann, and was recently published by Bloomsbury. I have written a full review which will run in Foundation in the fullness of time. But for now, and without wishing to preview that review, I would like to note that Islamofuturism may well be the ultimate resolution for the many problems between Islam and the West which Fisk spent his life exploring and reporting about.

Media of Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life

This is, of course, a somewhat utopian position to take, and I am an ardent anti-utopian. (Too many utopian visions result in gulags, thought police and death camps for my liking, no matter how well-intentioned they commence.) Nevertheless, what struck me while reading Determann’s fascinating survey of Islamofuturisms from Indonesia to Syria was the pervasive presence of two things in the multifaceted iterations of this rapidly proliferating genre and movement.

Firstly, the omnipresence of the shadow of The Thousand and One Nights. We have an ongoing origin debte among Western SF about when SF originated. Was it, as I’d argue, in the late 19th century alongside the development of professional science and industrialisation? Many, most prominently Brian Aldiss, argue for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) as an origin text, and this is somewhat persuasive. Others see SF in earlier eras and texts – the voyages extraordinaires of the Age of Expansion; the lunar visitation texts of Rome, even in the automata described by Homer in the Iliad, or the “alien spaceships” of the Book of Ezekiel. But these are all from the Western tradition. From an Islamic, Middle Eastern tradition, it makes perfect sense to identify The Thousand and One Nights as a seminal SF text.

The Thousand and One Nights - Literature 114 (Spring 2014-2015) - Harvard  Wiki

Secondly, Islamofuturist cultural outputs almost entirely derive some of their animus from Western SF, according to Determann. Western forms, narrative devices and even sometimes direct lifts of scenes or characters are repurposed by Islamofuturism. Star Wars and Star Trek are huge influences, no less so than the indigenous cultures of Cairo, Istanbul or Jakarta.

What struck me, reading Determann’s book, is the sheer proliferation of Islamofuturism. His text is timely. In only a few years, the kind of survey he has conducted will no longer be possible in a single volume. Instead we will have to talk about Turkish cinematic visions of the future, Egyptian pulp SF novels, Indonesian feminist futurisms, and so on. In all of these environments and genres, Muslim dreamers are creating futures that contain Islam, centre Islam, challenge Islam, modernise Islam and most significantly, find modes of rapprochement between Islam and the West (yes, including revenge myths of total annihilation and takeover, but this is far from the norm.)

Robert Fisk and Islamofuturism thus function as two sides of one coin, or rather, as a Janus statue with one head looking back to the complex origins and sad histories of Western engagement with Islam and the Middle East, while the other looks forward, more in hope than expectation admittedly, to the future.

I hope that the Robert Fisk of a century from now has a happier narrative to write than The Great War for Civilisation. I hope he, or she, Western or Muslim or both or neither, can tell a tale of Islamofuturism and it’s reshaping of Islam and the West.

Stranger in a Brave New World

Recently I’ve been researching Heinlein, for the ongoing project on Buddhist futurism, but also in light of Farah Mendelsohn’s recent book, which I have sitting on the shelf, waiting to be read properly.

I thought it would be worth catching up on existing criticism of Heinlein first before tackling her magnum opus, so among other things, I picked up a copy of “The Martian Named Smith”, a thin but weighty text on Stranger in a Strange Land by William Paterson Jr and Robert Thornton.

Amazingly, the second hand copy I purchased was the one that Paterson had given to his father, before he died.

The book was as I say slight as in short, but managed to be incredibly dense on detail and panoramic on perspectives on what remains an influential and also controversial novel. This is not necessarily surprising, as Paterson was a great scholar of Heinlein, perhaps the best to date.

What most struck me, though, was that this density and range of perspective was aimed at undergraduate readers, perhaps even secondary school students. I derive this conclusion from the fact that each chapter had debate questions at the end for discussion in class.

This book was published in 2001. What an odyssey we have embarked upon since then. Paterson and Thornton’s work exudes a sense of the scholarly mission. It acknowledges different schools of thought, weighs up seriously competing perspectives and ideologies. It’s becoming hard to imagine such a text emerging nowadays, when polemic and activism are supplanting the pursuit of knowledge.

The present is a strange land, and this book, like so much scholarship from the (even very recent) past, seems a stranger in it.

What is religious futurism?

Best perhaps to start with what it’s not. It’s not a form of futurology, or attempting to predict what has yet to take place. Few people during the tenure of Pope John Paul II would have predicted that his right-hand man would relinquish Peter’s throne in favour of an Argentinian Jesuit. Futurology is best left to those who make a living mugging companies by claiming to predict societal trends, and gamblers. It’s simply not academic.

Futurism, on the other hand, is an attempt to read the the present through how it depicts the future. This means looking at cultural outputs, such as art and literature which address future-related themes and analysing them.

alien-priest painting 1400 AD | ANCIENT ARCHIVES

Recently there has been a number of shifts in focus in this area, casting new light on how previously marginalised visions of the future, emerging primarily from non-caucasian communities, envisage the road ahead. Afrofuturism, or aesthetic depictions of the future from an African(-American) perspective(s), is the most prominent, but there have been many from a disparate range of sources, all now thankfully achieving academic scrutiny and consideration.

Religious faiths have not been excluded from this process, despite the predominance of atheist beliefs among those who produce Science Fiction and other futurisms. However, they have yet to attain similar levels of academic attention. I have an interest in how SF and cognate art modes consider the future of religion in general, and Catholicism and Buddhism in particular. Other scholars consider how the Hinduism, or Islam or other faiths are envisaged as developing (or dying) in the future.

Religious futurism can help us understand not only how art, but also how society is responding to evolutions in world theology in real-time. It can allow us to process better the role of religion in the world by understanding better how the world imagines religion will be in years to come.