Toward a Mormon Speculative Fiction e-Collective, Part II: Spec Lit and a Theory of Mormon Literature

In the second of three guest posts leading up to the launch of a proposed website dedicated to displaying and developing talent in Mormon speculative fiction, project instigator Mark Penny waxes analytical over the role of speculative fiction writer as disciple of Christ in the community of Zion. To participate in a discussion of the project, click here.

 

An Inclusive Introduction

Six months ago, Mormon LitCrit Scott Hales asked "Do we need a new Mormon literary theory?" Back then I was just starting out in the Bloggernacle, reading and commenting with neophyte abandon on blogs like Dawning of a Brighter Day and A Motley Vision and publishing a bit of poetry on Wilderness Interface Zone, all astir with enthusiasm for this community that discussed and produced introspective fiction about the Mormon experience, and thinking, "Yes! There should be theories!" Now, in the throes of planning and building a Mormon speculative fiction e-collective, I find great urgency in the question of what constitutes Mormon literature, especially in the speculative genres.

Let's start with this idea of speculative fiction, which Collin's English Dictionary defines as "a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements." An article on Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale points out that

Once the term went into popular use [apparently after Robert A. Heinlein's 1948 essay "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction"], editors, readers, academics and some writers developed a tendency to think of speculative fiction as an umbrella term covering everything from science fiction and fantasy to magical realism.

That works for me, but lest anyone obvious feel left out, Wikipedia claims Ms. Atwood elaborated somewhere that speculative fiction is

an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history in literature as well as related static, motion, and virtual arts.

For the purposes of the e-Collective, let us say that speculative fiction includes all fiction "not highly invested in 'realism'."

A trickier issue is what constitutes Mormon literature. My instinct is to restrict it to literature created by a Mormon mind and focusing on explicitly Mormon values, themes, archetypes, scriptures, historical characters or events, and issues: literature of the people, by the people and for the people. But that would exclude C. Douglas Birkhead, author of "Baptisms for the Dead", one of the more flatteringly Mormon contributions to Theric Jepson and Wm Henry Morris's Monsters and Mormons. You see, Birkhead isn't Mormon (personal communication), although his mind appears to have been when he wrote the story and I am inclined to say that Mormon literature is no worse off for Birkhead's story having stowed away in it. Innocuous cuckoos aside, I'm going to stick with my definition for the moment, excluding Stephenie Meyer's Twilight (which seems to me to be no more Mormon than the dental work I got from my stake president) and including certain works by Orson Scott Card, stories, such as The Tales of Alvin Maker, the Homecoming Saga, Saints and The Folk of the Fringe, which explicitly tie in with Mormonism.

The 2012 Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest on Everyday Mormon Writer, which inspired the dream of a place where Mormon spec fic writers could share and discuss their work with each other and with the Mormon spec fic reading public, provides six models from which I would like to draw a few conclusions about what makes a piece Mormon speculative fiction. Let's take a look.

 

Maurine Whipple, 16, Takes a Train North by Theric Jepson

Two authors share a train compartment and discuss literature. Not a very promising concept, but in the hands of a guy who styles himself and his blog with a slurring lithp, you just know there's something impish going on. Sure enough, no sooner does the titular protagonist settle properly onto her bench than she falls (figuratively literally and literally figuratively) into the clutches of a Mephistophelean mentor, for seated across from her is none other than Nephi Anderson, 54, reading Mark Twain's last scandalous opus and itching to free a young, questioning Eve from the blind faith and dreams-of-prince-charmings that make his best-known work (Added Upon) a perennial hit with "all the girls" in Eden. [Download Added Upon]

Maurine Whipple and Nephi Anderson never met or corresponded, for all we know, despite a twenty-year window of opportunity, and Whipple's best-known work (The Giant Joshua) went to press eighteen years after Anderson's death, so, technically (and in a broad sense), Jepson's piece sneaks in as alternate history. However, what grabs me by the speculative fiction lapels is the Saki-esque under reality. If you've read any Saki, you'll know what I mean. In Saki, things happen or are said or done that are normally inhibited by the laws of nature or the social mind of man. I like the term under reality for this approach in general. For Jepson's piece, I offer the additional label Molit punk, because it's alternate history about discussing Mormon literature on a train probably driven by steam.

 

Oaxaca by Anneke Garcia

A Relief Society president and her branch president discuss an upcoming potluck dinner--another less-than-tempting concept that blossoms into something more sinister. Houston-born Hermana Rodriguez and ex-Spanish-speaking missionary, President Buckley, are the yin and yang of the Oaxaca International Branch, which is spiritual home to white and Chicano refugees of politico-military upheaval in the soon to be former United States. Locally, there's stress over the menu and music, but in the wider world, tables are turning as "trouble in Central America" turns a Gucci store into a cow graveyard and the US government prepares to "cede the capitol" of a country which turned out less "solid and invulnerable" than the Church.

For American readers, this is apocalyptic (even dystopian) science fiction, a future in which things fall apart to the dominant culture's disadvantage. The background scenario of this piece seems to be based on an inconvenient conditional future truth in 3 Nephi 21, notably verse 11, in which

my people who are a remnant of Jacob shall be among the Gentiles, yea, in the midst of them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, as a young lion among the flocks of sheep, who, if he go through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver.

Aficionados will remember Orson Scott Card's use of this concept in The Folk of the Fringe. For me, Garcia's piece is a reminder that although the Church was restored in America, it is not an American church, even if the American branch president has the well-intentioned gall to request that the upcoming bi-cultural social "go easy on the Latin music."

 

The Defection of Baby Mixo by Mark Penny

The straight son of gay Mormon parents announces he is leaving the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transsexual LDS Church, in which he was raised, for the Original LDS Church, which is "circling the wagons" against alternative sexual relationships and activity. In this epistolary piece, faith, family and self submit to the judgment of conscience, "part of what Jesus will judge [us] by." More glorified premise statement than proper narrative, this piece attempts to study the issue of Mormonism and sexual orientation with balanced compassionate irony, asking each side to see the other's point of view and to see it as valid, even if the two cannot be reconciled.

Crucial to that agenda are the facts that the protagonist-narrator, through the miracle of "genetic scrambling" or "chromosome mixing", is the genetic child of both fathers, that the LGBT LDS community makes every effort to provide male and female parenting through "home sharing" and fictive kinship, that the community has developed its own alternative sexual and Latter-day Saint identity (symbolized, somewhat clumsily in this version of the story, by migration to Mars), and that, though opposed to alternative sexuality, the protagonist is more inconvenienced than damaged by its presence in his past.

 

Waiting by Katherine Cowley

A pregnant mother of two rambunctious little boys struggles through a phone conversation with her visiting teacher. This sympathetic but mundane struggle is set against a backdrop of advanced communications technology which allows users to mask their reality, a presumably pre-Apocalyptic war, and palpably late-pre-Millenial psychological stress, all factors in a more epic struggle to own up to embarrassing circumstances, hope against hope, and wait in a state of activity and preparation for a rescue with no ETA.

Let's face it, stories written in our time are always about our time, even if they're set in the future or the past, just as stories written by human beings are always about human beings, even if their protagonists are dinosaurs or baby desk lamps. For me, though, Cowley's piece, set in a future which could be very close, holds a jolt that the others in this discussion do not. Yes, it's about us now, clinging to faith and demonstrating faithfulness day by day, but by seeming simultaneously so current and so around-the-corner, it startles us into the pinching realization that what we believe in, hope for and dread could very soon be coming very soon and the best preparation is a lighted lamp with a good supply of combustible commitment.

 

Release by Wm Morris

A twenty-second century human automaton discovers that his unaccountable compulsive behaviours and physical discomforts are key to his service as a deep-cover bishop in a politically dystopian society that makes religious devotion a biotechnologically traceable thought crime. It's Mosiah 24 all over again.

This piece really got me thinking about the nature (and locus) of testimony and the often handicapping tradition of its oral transmission. Many a side-tracked testimony meeting would benefit from the biotech equivalent of a like button. The story also makes me wonder to what extent my supposed spiritual drive to spread the Gospel and serve my fellow sheep is hindered by both the proverbial veil and the psycho-social ban on imposing my religion on anybody else.

 

Avek, Who Is Distributed by Steven Peck

A human seventy tears his hair out over refusing baptism to a disembodied artificial intelligence. In a madcap, technopathic future Greg Bear would feel at home in, the Church baptizes anything that moves, thinks and can convince the Apostles it has a soul. That excludes Avek, who, as the title suggests, has no single fixed abode of any kind, for all he's read the Book of Mormon more times than the combined population of the Church from Lehi to former star ship captain and first android apostle, Elder Janxvon. Naturally, it is the literally and figuratively broader-minded non-human protagonist who moltens the stones out of the mountain and comes up with a retrocontemplatively obvious solution.

From the author of titles like A Short Stay in Hell, The Scholar of Moab and 4C co-finalist "When the Bishop Started Killing Dogs" you expect a little quirkiness with every bite. In this case, to borrow a phrase from an Orc general (movie version), "the city is ripe with it", but it's not hard to see the forest in all these walking trees. Historically, blessings have been withheld from people who didn't fit the mold, and while we can't chuck policy just to be PC (it's a theocracy, after all), we should also never become so attached to policy that we mistake it for eternal truth. Everybody wants to let the misfit in. All we need is a sanctionable way.

 

A Surprisingly Quick Conclusion

To sum up, then, Mormon speculative fiction might

  1. Exploit (and possibly distort) Mormon historical figures (or events) to explore a Mormon issue ("Whipple").
  2. Explore the ramifications of a Mormon prophecy ("Oaxaca").
  3. Depict a typically Mormon situation in a typically speculative fictional context ("Oaxaca", "Waiting").
  4. Explore a Mormon issue in a speculative fictional context ("Baby Mixo", "Release", "Avek").
  5. Recast a Mormon scriptural incident or historical event in a speculative fictional context ("Release").

No doubt there are other configurations to lay out, but these five make a good start. I look forward to input from the 'Nacle.

 

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