Thursday, August 07, 2008

Jesuits in Space

I am struck by the number of science fiction novels and short stories that I have recently read or re-read that included Jesuit priests as a main protagonist. It is possible that being Jesuit educated that I have sought out these stores and there is a positive selection process in place, either in the choosing or the remembering, but I cannot rule out that they are popular characters to include in a book.

These musings were prompted by the novel The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (which coincidentally won the Arthur C. Clarke award, see the Clarke reference below) and its sequel Children of God. In The Sparrow the Jesuits themselves send a mission to another star system when a radio signal reaches Earth revealing an intelligent, technological civilization conveniently close around Alpha Centauri. While the UN debates, the Jesuits just go. The novel is a way for the author to explore First Contact with an alien culture, reflect on the Jesuit's missionary history and point out that what you don't know about an alien culture can kill you. "Things are not always what they seem."

In Children of God, poor Father Sandoz, the protagonist of the first book, returns to Alpha Centauri, less than willingly, and sees the consequences of the previous book played out on the planet. The novel serves as a case study in the sometimes corrosive nature of contact between two dissimilar cultures.

The wikipedia entry on The Sparrow points out that James Blish wrote a novel "A Case of Conscience" in which a main character is also a Jesuit priest joins an expedition to the planet Lithia, a pleasant enough place, but with no concept of God or the afterlife. This forms the basis of tension in the book. The book was expanded in 1958 from a novella written in 1953 and reflects its times in archaic psychology and a dystopian future that is a product of the Cold War mentality of its day. I enjoyed the Cities in Flight series more.

I actually wrote a report for freshman English class in high school (Jesuit high school, of course) about the short story The Star by Arthur C. Clarke. (text) I suppose I thought I was being clever, since the teacher was a Jesuit priest and the main character is a Jesuit priest on a mission to another solar system. The Jesuit explorer and his team discover the ruins of a great civilization destroyed by a supernova thousands of years ago. The main characters faith is shaken as we and he slowly come to realize that the supernova was the Star of Bethlehem.
"God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?"
Heady stuff for a high school student, I guess. I should find the paper and see what score I got.

In Manifold: Space Stephen Baxter answers Fermi's paradox with a burst of alien colonization activity flowing over the outer reaches of the Solar system starting with the Von Neuman machine-like Gaijin. The Gaijin don't fly from system to system, they use an ancient interstellar teleportation network. After Reid Malenfant is the first human to travel through the blue ring that is a gate of the network at the edge of the Solar system, others eventually follow. One is a woman priest, Dorothy Chaum (Catholic!) who travels through the blue gateways as an envoy of the Pope and the Vatican. She is qualified to deal with the Gaijin aliens in the novel because they prefer to talk to humans using Latin because of its logical structure. The light speed limit of the gateways and the long trips she takes has her most likely outliving the Catholic church in the novels. This is only hinted at once or twice in the book. She travels after Reid Malenfant to try to save his life because he has to "save the universe".

Baxter also has a Jesuit in (inner) space appear as an illegally created sentient program in the short story Dante Dreams in the collection Phase Space.

What Jesuits in space have I missed?

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