A Critical Introduction to Latter-Day Saint Speculative Fiction


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Symposium: Mormonism and SF


A Critical Introduction to Latter-Day Saint Speculative Fiction

Adam McLain

Mormon literature—at least as the Association for Mormon Letters defines it as literature for, by, and about Mormons—began with the very inception of the religion. Mormonism is, at its heart, a literary religion. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, began his questioning of other religions and his search for a “true religion” with reading, or at least remembering, a verse from the Bible: “If any of ye lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not” (King James Version, Jam. 1.5). Years after receiving his first vision (when God appeared to him and told him not to join any of the extant churches; see “Joseph Smith—History”), Smith claimed to be tasked with translating a work of literature, the Book of Mormon, to be used as proof of his divine calling (see Doctrine and Covenants 20.8-12). Mormonism is as much a literary religion as it is an American religion (see, for example, Bloom; Coppins; Coviello, among many others). Criticism of Mormonism and its literature also began early in the development of the religion. For example, Arthur Conan Doyle, in the first Sherlock Holmes mystery, A Study in Scarlet, characterizes the Danite Mormons as murderers. Jack London, in The Star River, engaged with specific historic Mormon events, in this case, the Mountain Meadows Massacre. And Mark Twain, in Roughing It, gave a simplistic critique of the Book of Mormon: “If he had left [and it came to pass] out, his Bible”—his being Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon—“would have only been a pamphlet” (Twain ch. 16). Outside engagement with and interest in criticizing the new literary religion during its early years in the nineteenth-century was strong and continues to be a strong subfield of religious, literary, and historical studies.

This paper seeks to introduce science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction (hereafter sf) scholars to the history of Mormon literary criticism, especially Mormon sf literary criticism. The purpose of this introductory essay is to explore Mormon literary studies and provide further areas of inquiry at the intersection of Mormonism and sf. Many authors, like Brandon Mull, Shannon Hale, Charlie N. Holmberg, Brandon Sanderson, Orson Scott Card, and Stephenie Meyer, to name a few who are also vocal members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the largest church within the Mormon diaspora), have recently reached the tops of various bestseller lists and won numerous awards in the sf literary community. Because Latter-day Saint authors are part of the most lauded works in contemporary sf, the intersection of the two has become a vibrant and untapped “field . . . white already to harvest” for new critical attention (to borrow a Mormon scriptural phrase, see Doctrine and Covenants 4.4). As such, this paper first examines the history of Mormon letters through an exploration of its criticism and conversations; second, it looks toward the scholarship done on Mormon sf; and third, it offers at least one engagement—that of genre—that connects sf and Mormon scholarship, while discussing the hopeful possibilities of scholarship that can occur at the intersection of Mormonism and sf.

A Brief History of Mormon Letters and Scholarship

The history of Mormon and Latter-day Saint literature (with some nods to the criticism) has been outlined by many Mormon literary scholars (England; Givens; Burton). The most commonly used assessment of Mormon literary periods is Eugene England’s 1982 address to the Association of Mormon Letters, “The Dawning of a Brighter Day,” in which he outlined the 150 years of literature up to that time in BYU Studies. This address was further expanded in a later 2001 article, “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects.” A former Brigham Young University literature professor, cofounder of the Association of Mormon Letters, and one of the founders of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, the oldest independent journal in Mormon studies, England was and still is considered one of the best Mormon scholars in the history of Mormon scholarship. In these two essays, he outlines four time periods of the history of Latter-day Saint literature: Foundations (1830–1880), Home Literature (1890–1930), the Lost Generation (1930–1970; see also Geary), and Faithful Realism (1970–present). These time periods have since been used by other Mormon literary scholars to assess the history of Mormon literature (Burton; Harrell). Of particular  note is England’s end to this periodization, in which he states that the contemporary Mormon literary moment, Faithful Realism, is “good work in all genres, combining the best qualities and avoiding the limitations of most past work, so that it is both faithful and critical, appreciated by a growing Mormon audience and also increasingly published and honored nationally” (England 2001, 8).

While this is a rather optimistic view of where Mormon literature has ended up, England, in general, was optimistic yet pragmatic about the trajectory of Latter-day Saint literature specifically and Mormonism generally. To conclude his “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects,” England states that “the future of Mormon literature is potentially both bright and vexed” (England 2001, 18). He is hopeful about the creation of new periodicals and presses expanding the scope of Mormon literature, along with the national acclaim of authors like Orson Scott Card (to whom we will return later) and Terry Tempest Williams. Yet he is also wary about the “potentially creative tension between the two poles of Mormons’ expectations about their literature—the conflict between orthodox didacticism and faithful realism” which seemed “to be breaking down into invidious judgments, name-calling, and divisions” (England 2001, 18). As Mormon literature has continued beyond England’s initial assessment, this hope and this fear were both realized and are still being realized as Mormons continue to write, publish, and argue.

As an area of study, Mormon literature, much like sf literature more broadly, has debated the question of exclusion or inclusion. Both have struggled over what criteria should be used in determining what is considered Mormon or sf literature and what is not. This question has been central to the efforts of Mormon literary criticism; for a literary critic to be a Mormon literary critic, one must determine what is and is not Mormon, Mormon literature, and Mormon criticism (and, for the sf scholar, what is and is not Mormon sf).

Although this paper lacks the room to delve into this discussion in depth, it is important to give an example of what I mean. In 1990, Richard Cracroft, a literature professor, reviewed Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems (1989), in which he analyzed a poem about a Latter-day Saint ritual and deemed it to be non-Mormon. Even though this poem was written by a Latter-day Saint, focused on a Latter-day Saint ordinance, and was published by a Latter-day Saint press, Cracroft deemed this poem to be “a competent, earth-bound (non-Mormon) poem” (123). Earlier in the review, Cracroft describes “earth-bound” as something that “repress[es] and replace[s] soaring spirituality with . . . humanism” (122). Cracroft’s strong words and determination of what is and is not Mormonism and Mormon literature set off a long-term discussion, spanning the next few decades, over what and who could define Mormonism at all. 

Defending his views of an “authentic” Mormon voice, Cracroft delivered a 1992 address to the Association for Mormon Letters titled, “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature.” In his address, Cracroft relies on Hugh Nibley’s separation of mantic Mormons—those who believe in the supernatural parts of Mormonism—and sophic Mormons—those who strive to make the supernatural understandable. By using this binary, Cracroft attempts to show that he believes that the mantic view is the authentic voice of Mormonism—one that wholeheartedly accepts this thing considered “orthodox theology,” even though what is kept in with the orthodoxy and what is left out with the heresy is never fully defined—while excommunicating the sophic Mormons as inauthentic, non-Mormon, earthborn humanists. Mormon literature, for Cracroft, is for the “right-thinking, red-blooded, and sanctified Latter-day Saint” (“Authentic Mormon Voice” 51).

Cracroft’s declaration of an authentic Mormon voice—one that he could tell was Mormon, but others might not—was a response to Bruce W. Jorgensen’s 1991 Association of Mormon Letters address, “To Tell and Hear Stories: Let the Stranger Say.” Jorgensen’s own address was a response to Cracroft’s review of Harvest. In Cracroft and others, Jorgensen saw Mormon letters shoring itself up within its own walls, keeping precious what is within those metaphorical walls while spurning any literature and ideas that were without those walls. In other words, Jorgensen saw the culture around Mormon literature forming a homogenous “in-group” that had rules and strictures that allowed others to be accepted as Mormon literature; however, texts that did not follow those rules and strictures (even if the text were created by a Latter-day Saint or Mormon or had similar themes) were excluded from this collective “in-group” of Mormon literature and were considered in some ways lesser or unhelpful to the group efforts. This exclusion worried Jorgensen because it meant that along with all the good that is kept within the “in-group,” so the bad was left to fester since the enclosing of an orthodoxy within an institutionalized or exclusive “Mormon literature” causes those practicing the orthodox to reject the heretical literature that might be helpful in revealing biases and blind spots. Jorgensen saw the best cure for this festering to be reaching out to the Stranger, his word for the “Other” or the literature not accepted in Cracroft’s form of Mormon literature, which would allow the homodox Mormon literature to see itself through other people’s perspectives and views. In allowing the “in-group” to mingle with the “out-group,” Jorgensen offered two opportunities for Mormon criticism to express its Mormon-ness: the first, to be generous and hospitable; or, in other words, to allow space for those who do not fit the exclusive rules dictated by Mormon literary scholars. The second was to be “patient, longsuffering, kind” (Jorgensen 48) with Mormon literature that might not fit the normative values created by Cracroft and others. In these two lofty goals, Jorgensen saw Mormon criticism enacting Mormon charity, whereas Cracroft sought Mormon criticism to enact an exclusive Mormonism.

In an attempt at mediating between these two polarizing arguments, BYU English professor Gideon Burton, in an essay delivered in 1994 at a conference and later published in an edited collection on Mormon literature for Dialogue, uses the Mormon idea of restoration as a metaphor for approaching Mormon literary criticism. [1] He states that “if we will view both literature and criticism within the larger context of the Restoration, then the two positions which Cracroft and Jorgensen represent—fidelity to the Mormon ethos and openness to otherness—becomes complementary and mutually independent necessities in a venture so significant it cuts across lines of Mormon membership: effecting a Zion culture” (36). Burton’s thrust toward Mormon Zionism—a culture “of one heart and one mind” (Pearl of Great Price, Moses 7.18)—allows him to contradict and combine both Cracroft and Jorgensen by seeing benefits in both approaches. One cannot recognize one’s self until one has interacted with someone else (in Jorgensen’s terms, interacted with “the Stranger” or the Other), while at the same time, knowing one’s self can benefit one’s interaction with other authors and views (Burton’s approach to Cracroft’s hermeneutic). Burton views Mormon literature as something that “will always change so long as it is a literature living up to its potential for furthering the Restoration” (41)—a Restoration that is continually happening, as more modern Mormon theology has argued (see Mason).

Burton’s mediation, though, has not improved the conversation about what constitutes literature that is Mormon versus Mormons who write literature. For example, around the same time as Burton’s Zionistic and restorationist middle road, Michael Austin published an article that pushed for Mormon literary critics who were in “good standing” with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be the best representatives of Mormon criticism and Mormon literature. I touch further on this crisis within Mormon letters in the final part of this essay, but suffice it to say here that the conversation in Mormon letters is robust and ongoing and, as I discuss later, has much to offer the same types of ongoing conversations about definition within sf studies.

Scholars of Mormonism have also attempted to define a “Mormon lens” or “Mormon theory” that can be used when approaching literature. Jack Harrell, for example, in both his 2014 article “Toward a Mormon Literary Theory” and his 2016 book Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism, attempted to offer a utilization of Mormonism itself as a way to understand texts; in other words, Harrell wants to use the theology and culture of Mormonism as a lens through which to approach literary analysis. “I propose,” Harrell offers, “a theory grounded in Mormon cosmology; a theory that accounts for the mythic proportions of Mormon thought; that seeks to build culture, specifically a Zion culture; that values language and ‘The Word’ and the redemptive power of art; that utilizes elements of ethical criticism as it assumes an inherently moral force in literature; and that aligns with the current movement called ‘Post-Postmodernism,’ or the ‘New Sincerity’” (22-23). While Harrell’s theorization of a Mormon theory has not been brought to full fruition, I believe that in it, there are hints of possible engagement between Mormon theological aspirations and science fictional literary realizations.

A Brief History of Mormon Sf Criticism

While I have shown above that Mormon literature is part of a strong and robust conversation, at least within Mormon studies itself, Mormon sf literature has not been subject to as much analysis as one might like (for further engagement with the literary history of sf, see Busby 2020a, 2020b, 2020c; Hunter; Parkin; Todd). As I have shown above, one of the main contentions within Mormon literary criticism is what defines it as Mormon. Within Mormon sf literary criticism, one of the main contentions is how sf and Mormonism can cohabitate within literature and media. 

To discuss this contention, I turn to a conversation in the 1980s between Michael R. Collings and Sandy and Joe Staubhaar that played out within the pages of Dialogue and Sunstone, two liberal—or, at least, more critical and academic—publications within Mormon scholarship. Writing in the 1980s, Collings firmly lays out his view that Mormonism and sf are antithetical on the basis of prophetic revelation: as much as sf predicts the future, it will fundamentally undermine Mormon prophetic revelation; and, as much as Mormons believe in prophetic revelation, it will fundamentally undermine sf projections. To this point, Collings published an article titled “Refracted Visions and Future Worlds,” in which he showed how many sf texts stereotyped and caricatured Mormons: Philip Jose Farmer, Flesh (1968); Robert Heinlein, Strangers in a Strange World (1971); Ian Watson, The Embedding (1977); Piers Anthony, Planet of Tarot trilogy (1979–1980); John Varley, Wizard (1980); and Dean Ing, Systemic Shock (1981). This article argued that “science fiction and religion—and Mormonism in particular—seem essentially incompatible. One [science fiction] asks the questions . . . while the other [Mormonism] answers them” (116). [2] Collings, then, saw that “in order to assimilate science fiction, Mormonism seems either to subordinate the fictive forms to the larger purposes of salvation and alter the genre into something else” like a parable or “to entertain momentarily and imaginatively perspectives drawn from other worlds” (116).

In a rebuke of Collings’ view that Mormonism and sf cannot align well, Sandy and Joe Staubhaar reacted to Collings’ praise of Orson Scott Card with “Science Fiction and Mormonism: A Three-Way View.” In it, they laud the potentiality of sf, considering it the “perfect milieu for new explorations of these ancient philosophical and religious questions, precisely because the canvas is blank when the author begins” (53). They see sf as a chance to paint the capital R version of religion—the theology, the soteriology, the eschatology, the cosmology—onto a different world and thus interrogate it through the lens of sf: “At the very least [sf] has afforded us a good many hours of harmless entertainment, sometimes mindstretching, sometimes not. At the most it has offered us some moments of transcendent spiritual joy—as well as more concrete food for thought in the transcendental vein” (56). Different from Collings’ approach, which saw Mormonism’s claim to revelation as antithetical to the claim of future prediction in sf, the Staubhaars saw Mormonism as capable of being interrogated by sf.

The Staubhaars’ thread of sf as a medium for interrogation reflects what many sf scholars like Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, and others have argued about cognitive estrangement and the possibilities of sf, whereas Collings’ article seems to have been influenced by a fundamental belief that Mormonism is the overarching truth and must bend all media to its will. As criticism of Mormon sf has continued throughout the years, many scholars seem to oscillate between these two polarizing sides, either by attempting to be faithful to the religion (as seen in various Mormon-authored reviews of sf, see Straubhaar 1981 and 1988; Curtis; and Busby 2020c, 2020d, 2020e, 2020f; see also, Winston) or seeing how the religion might be interrogated by sf (Bialecki; Repphun).

Much of the work within Mormonism and sf has centered around an analysis of the groundbreaking work of Orson Scott Card and Stephenie Meyer, both Latter-day Saint authors who have reached international fame and acceptance within the sf genre. Card’s work has been analyzed, first to positive analysis (Collings 1990, 1996; Blackmore; Heidkamp; Doyle; Doyle and Stewart) and then to more critical analysis (Suderman; Campbell; Day). For example, Suderman’s article, “Card’s Game: The Unfortunate Decline of Orson Scott Card,” focuses on the seeming demise of his work’s messages in relation to the growing emphasis on identity politics and supporting minority communities (e.g., Card has been staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage, which resulted in a boycott of the movie adaptation of Ender’s Game). Card’s work, like other assessments of Mormon authors, has also been used in the intersection of sf and religion, as seen in Meredith Ross’s “House of Card: Ender’s Game and Speculative Fiction as a Vehicle for Religio-Political Values.” Most likely due to his staunch homophobia and antagonism toward same-sex marriage, Card has not been frequently used in studies of the body or gender, even though his earlier work, especially in the later books of the Ender series, has fascinating mediations on the concepts of body, soul, and gender.

Although not all of her writing is science fictional, Stephenie Meyer’s corpus of work begs attention as it fits into the broader sf community, the Mormon community, and popular literature of the twenty-first century. The Host (2008; an alien invasion and human revolution story) is Meyer’s book that most relates to science fiction; however, it, along with The Chemist (2016; a thriller adventure), have received little critical attention from sf scholars, even though her books are widely popular. For example, The Host is only mentioned in passing in reviews by Jana Riess (BYU Studies, 2009) and Jonathan Green (Dialogue, 2009). Most scholarly work on Meyer deals with broader sf studies, including horror and fantasy studies. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series (Twilight, 2005; New Moon, 2006; Eclipse, 2007; Breaking Dawn, 2008; The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, 2010; Life and Death, 2015; and Midnight Sun, 2020) has been used, as with Card’s novels, to open up understanding to Mormonism and to critique sexual and gender norms within and intersecting with the religious-cultural identity of Mormon. Authors have analyzed the Mormon themes in the series (Riess; Bowman ch. 8), approached Meyer’s depiction of love, gender, sexuality, and the family in relation to Mormonism (Silver; Pyrhönen), looked at how Meyer’s novels might be postfeminist and representative of a certain form of masculinity (Mukherjea), and have related Meyer’s work to the heteronormative (Budruweit). The emphasis on gender, especially as it relates to Mormonism’s seeming emphasis on a conservative binary gender (see “The Family”), is a fascinating and engaging place for Mormonism and sf to generate new conversations and develop improved hermeneutics.

Besides Card and Meyer, little work has been done on other Latter-day Saint authors. Popular and contemporary websites and publications have reviewed or assessed the work of authors, while academic journals have not published articles using Mormon sf authors as a way to engage in broader conversation in sf studies or literary studies. Shannon Hale, for example, has received numerous reviews in various journals (Altiveros, Blasingame, Crandall, Gallo, Pelotte, Whitman); however, her work is only mentioned in passing in broader case studies (Collins, and DiCicco and Taylor-Greathouse), with little or no work done on her texts or how they relate to children’s literature and literary history. To use another contemporary best-selling example, Brandon Sanderson’s work, an ever-growing corpus of texts that bridge the perceived sf divide between science fiction and fantasy, has mostly been centered in conversations created on fan websites and conventions. A search for Sanderson in JSTOR reveals only one article (Strand) that uses Sanderson’s three laws of magic, while a search on Tor.com reveals 1,151 results (which include fan conversations and engaging critical analysis of his work). That search shows that scholarly work has remained relatively silent on Sanderson’s work, even though community conversations have been robust; however, in recent years, Sanderson has been discussed at various conferences in paper presentations, including at conferences for SFRA and IAFA. The examples of Hale and Sanderson show that, although the academic conversation seems aware of their writing, no scholar has delved into analyzing their work through the machinations of scholarship and peer-review.

The Possibilities of Mormonism and SF

The intersection of Mormonism and sf, as I hope this introductory essay and the essays contained in the following collection show, is brimming with possibility. The first and second sections show that Mormon studies is currently dealing with and has long dealt with some of the questions that have also preoccupied sf scholars, like the genre of sf (what is sf? who gets to define it? who is in the sf community and who is out?), which can be correlated and assessed with some of the questions Mormon scholars ask about the genre of Mormon literature (what is Mormon literature? who gets to define it? who is in the Mormon community and who is out?). Interesting intersections could occur, for example, if one were to look at Austin’s argument, cited earlier, that only good Latter-day Saints can write Mormon literary criticism well. One can easily look at the recent history of what it means to be a good or righteous Latter-day Saint in good standing (a standing that has changed over the years as different commandments have been accepted and rejected), [3] and for example, relate that to current sf and fandom studies that look at what it means to be part of a community of fans that also have an overarching discourse of academic, critical, and supportive literature.

Other formulations can be seen when one takes Mormonism, as Harrell and Austin claim, as a literary theory, or at the very least a literary lens akin to Jewish, Muslim, or Christian studies (Harrell 19–35; Austin 134–6). For example, in the edited collection that follows, the reader will find that Latter-day Saint sf literature can be used to discuss topics like mythpoetic literature, narrative structure, theosis, information science, and the history of the sf canon. Indeed, it is my attestation that Mormon literature should be discussed more in sf scholarship. After all, if Mormonism is the quintessential American religion, as Bloom and Coviello claim, then should it not also be used when discussing, at least, some forms of American sf? Unlike Collings and others, I do not believe Mormon studies and sf literature and studies are antithetical; I argue that the two can be interwoven into a tapestry that is able to forward our conversations towards a more productive and insightful future—one that brings together religion, sf, and the communities, marginalized or not, that find themselves bound up in this galaxy of thought.

NOTES

[1] The Latter-day Saint movement is also known as the Restorationist movement because many American churches at the time believed they were restoring Christianity to its original teachings and organizations that Jesus Christ had in the New Testament. Within Mormonism, it is believed that Joseph Smith “restored” the original teachings, priesthood authority, and church organization that Jesus Christ had during his life.

[2] Throughout this essay, I use sf to connote the broader study of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. I keep the term science fiction in Collings’ and the Staubhaars’ works without the use of sic because it was the term they used. I believe, as with any technical definition, Collings and the Staubhaars were using science fiction to lean toward more outer-space science fictional works rather than the broader fantasy and speculative fiction elements I use in my own paper.

[3] The most recent example of this change on Mormon identity formation is the current Latter-day Saint church president emphasizing the full name of the church over the Mormon nickname and expressing that Mormons should refer to themselves as Latter-day Saints rather than Mormons (Nelson).


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Currently a Harvard Frank Knox Memorial Traveling Fellow (2021-2022), Adam McLain holds a master of theological studies from Harvard Divinity School and bachelor of arts in English from Brigham Young University.


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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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