My original science fiction story, “We Have Discerned a Potential Deal,” recently debuted as the first-ever piece of short fiction published online by Mysterion. I’m pleased to be given the opportunity to appear in their debut issue–and I hope you’ll read the story, a lighthearted tale wherein aliens try to blackmail the Vatican.
You can read it here, on Mysterion’s website.
If you’re interested in my thoughts on the making of the story–which are a bit spoilery–you can find them after the jump, below.
One of the unique qualities of religion, compared to more secular history and philosophy, is that its teachings are generally unverifiable and unfalsifiable. Core tenets of the faith must be taken on faith; skeptics are not likely to find anything supporting the existence of Samsara or transubstantiation, but neither are they able to conclusively disprove these largely metaphysical ideas. The teachings of Earth’s most venerable religions have been handed down from time immemorial, the origins of their prophets obscured by the passage of time, the secular records spotty at best. It’s easier to believe that miraculous deeds occurred back in an earlier, more rarefied age, outside the watchful gaze of billions of smartphone cameras. A religion that is ancient is harder to cross-examine.
So, I wondered: What if there was a video? What if somebody came forward with a completely factual, evidence-based record of the prophets and miracles of times past? That what-if question was the seed that led to this story’s creation.
But initially, I struggled somewhat with figuring out just what the plot might be. It’s always fun coming up with gee-whiz what-if science fictional ideas, but that’s not quite the same as having characters and plot and forward action, and as a writer, I do a lot better with active drama than rumination. Thankfully, I was to soon receive some very useful advice on where to find the action.
The draft that ultimately saw print was written at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop back in 2016. The second-week instructor that year was Ted Chiang, whose star is certainly in the ascendant lately–the success of the movie Arrival, based on his work, has moved him from a favorite of genre enthusiasts to a more mainstream kind of writerly fame, and earned him a great deal of press, including a featured profile in the New Yorker. In the summer of 2016, however, the movie hadn’t quite come out yet, and the Cult of Ted was a somewhat smaller circle.
Given the opportunity to question one of the most well-established SF authors, I zeroed in on this question–how do you turn a what-if into a plot? Ted’s approach was pragmatic: An easy place to start looking for a sci-fi story, he felt, was to figure out whose life would be most affected by the emergence of a new technology. If you were writing about automobiles, also write about the buggy whip manufacturer. If you were writing about robot surgeons, examine the plight of a doctor.
So who would be threatened by the truth of faith? Those who teach that truth–the clergy.
On the other hand, I think that most people who take up a religious life in a modern, secular nation do not do so for reasons of power, luxury, or other cynical factors, as might have been the case for some in the medieval period. They generally do so out of genuine religious conviction. I tried to put the friction of that conviction at the center of the story–the fear of being proven wrong against the hope of being proven right.
The exact dimensions of the story took shape under the direction of Andy Duncan in the third week of the workshop. Andy, another well-established SF stalwart with three World Fantasy Awards and one Nebula under his belt, made a large point to stress the utility of using one’s unique perspective and life experience to help inform one’s work. Don’t imitate your favorite authors, he chided the class–try and figure out what you’ve got in your mental drawer that nobody else has. Having spent a fair amount of time around Catholic priests on account of going to Catholic school for nine years, I figured I’d be able to pull out a pretty accurate representation of the Church and its collared staff besides. Science fiction is often quite secular by nature, imagining futures without religion, or futures where religion is a regressive and stultifying force, and I felt that a priest who was committed to discovering the truth at any cost would be a decently interesting inversion.
It all sounds very grim and serious, and the temptation was there to give a definitive answer–are religions real or not?–but I decided that the story should reflect the reality of religion as we experience it in the real world: the answer is always just barely out of reach.