‘Not Every God’: Theosis and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Symposium: Mormonism and SF


‘Not Every God’: Theosis and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Conor Hilton

Ye shall not surely die; For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
—King James Version, Genesis 3:4-5

Within Mormonism, the serpent’s promise that “ye shall be as gods” is taken as the truth within the broader lie of the serpent’s words. Once partaken of the fruit, humankind will die; but, once partaken of the fruit, humankind will be set on a path of exaltation to become as God—a grand narrative arc of theosis. While theosis is a tenet of Mormon belief, only the bare bones of that belief are sketched out in Mormon teachings, and nowhere in Mormon scripture is there a narrative of the process or experience of theosis. One such narrative is found well outside the faith in N. K. Jemisin’s debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. While Jemisin is not a Mormon, nor does her novel feature Mormon characters, nor do I intend for my claims here to be suggestive of reflecting her views of Mormonism, whatever they may be, I argue that it illuminates a shared imagination of what it might mean for Mormonism to make gods, while simultaneously complicating ideas about what theosis requires by embodying the process in the character of Yeine. Theosis in both Mormonism and Jemisin’s work explores ideas of the self, time, and kin, and these three areas will guide my analysis.  

My use of Mormonism as an interpretive framework draws on Peter Coviello’s Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism. Coviello’s project is in part “a story about the dynamism and violence, but also the wild beauty and extravagant imaginative power, of nineteenth-century Mormonism” (4). Coviello uses Mormonism to access something else, to shed light on other conversations, and does so in enlightening ways. What I hope to do is slightly different. I hope to use some of the “wild beauty and extravagant imaginative power” that Coviello sees in Mormonism to illuminate elements of Jemisin’s work, and to use Jemisin’s text to flesh out the realities and possibilities of that imaginative power. In other words, I use the theological mechanics of Mormonism’s anthropology, cosmology, and soteriology to converse with Jemisin’s worldbuilding, especially through the protagonist Yeine, and to better understand the imaginative conceptualization of theosis in both Jemisin’s literary work and Mormonism’s collective imagination. 

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms demonstrates the complexity of time and chronology as they are tied to theosis, exploring through narrative time what it might mean for an individual to become a god. Jemisin’s debut novel tells the story of Yeine Darr, summoned to the city of Sky by her grandfather Dekarta, who rules the world as the head of the Arameri family. Yeine is immediately embroiled in intrigue surrounding the death of her mother and the plots of some of the gods and other Arameri. Yeine is surprisingly named as heir to the throne and must survive the machinations of relatives and the gods, while learning some shocking revelations about herself. Jemisin’s work seems to largely ground Yeine in time, unlike the traditional Christian God, who exists outside of time, but akin to the God of Mormonism, who resides in time similar to humanity. The text opens with Yeine, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, engaging in some self-reflection: “I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore. I must try to remember” (1). This opening demonstrates that while the reader moves through the novel, Yeine, our narrator, is reflecting back on what has happened. Until well into the novel, it is unclear what Yeine is describing here. Eventually Yeine discovers that she carries with her the soul of Enefa, one of the three original gods, alongside Itempas and Nahadoth, and that this is the result of a plot by some of the captive gods to overthrow the power of Itempas and regain their freedom. This opening reflects the transformation that Yeine undergoes toward the end of the novel, when she is transformed from a mortal into a god, undergoing theosis—a transformation made possible only because of her mortality. 

For Yeine, theosis evokes doing and action, contrasted with a common Mormon aphorism about theosis, which focuses on becoming. Yeine’s opening line echoes a Mormon couplet about theosis, from Lorenzo Snow, one of the early prophets of Mormonism: “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.” Where Snow draws a connection between humanity and God, Yeine is drawing a distinction between her mortal self and her present divinity. Yet, when Yeine actually undergoes the process of becoming a god, she seems to see much more of her past in the present than this initial articulation suggests. Yeine does “not know” who she is and she “must try to remember;” theosis then leads to a sense of confusion and loss of a sense of self, which must be recovered through memory. The couplet from Snow, on the other hand, focuses on becoming, presenting a linear, straightforward line of development from humanity to God, similar to statements that could be made about moving from childhood to adulthood. This shared sense of godhood being reached severely complicates traditional Christian ideas of God’s atemporality but complements nicely Mormon teachings about God’s transtemporality–essentially that God exists in time, even if that relationship to time is somewhat different than humanity’s (Faulconer 60-1). Unbeknownst to the reader of Jemisin’s text, Yeine is already a god by the time the novel begins, narrating events that led to her apotheosis. The reader is aware of the distance between Yeine’s position and the novel’s events but does not fully know what has transpired until they finish reading. This resonates with Mormon teachings about God, who exists within time rather than outside of it, and became God at some earlier point in the history of the universe, but was not always God. Sam Brown in Joseph Smith’s Translation: The Words and Worlds of Early Mormonism notes that Joseph Smith “was resisting one type of temporal homogeneity—the linear flattening of modern time—with a radically distinct homogeneity—the entire accessibility of all time… He wanted to be able to fully inhabit the past and allow the past to inhabit the present” (65). This collapse of time is a part of the project of Mormon theosis, seeking to bring all time together, and is echoed in the collapse of time in the novel, where past, present, and future are present all at once. 

Yeine’s godhood depends on her unique, physical, once-mortal being. This connection echoes Mormon teachings, while complicating Mormonism’s assertions about the ontological sameness of God and humanity. In a dramatic ceremony towards the end of the novel, Yeine is killed. This is the beginning of her becoming a god. She talks with Enefa, returns to her body, and responds to a shocked Dekarta (her grandfather, who has just played a part in orchestrating the ceremony that led to her death): “‘Not every god,’ I said because I was still me after all, I leaned down to smile in his face. ‘Just me’” (377). Here, Yeine draws attention, twice, to the fact that she is still herself. Both in her inner dialogue, noting that “I was still me after all” and then in the final jab to Dekarta “‘Just me.’” This complicates Yeine’s opening assertion that she is “not as I once was” (1). Yeine struggles over the ending of the novel to reconcile herself to her new godhood and to figure out whether she is someone new or the same person that she has been throughout the text. She wrestles with the violence and trauma that bring about her divinity, calling into question who she is and what role her body plays in this new divine self. Yeine asserts that she “was still me after all,” while previously saying that “I am not as I once was.” Yeine then retains some coherent sense of self as she changes. Yeine is no longer a mortal, but is now god, yet still Yeine. 

The question of the self is central to the possibility of theosis within Mormonism, wherein the individual can become god, importantly retaining or reclaiming their physical body to do so. Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founding prophet, taught that:

God Himself who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a Man like unto one of yourselves—that is the great secret! If the veil were rent today and the great God that holds this world in its sphere and the planets in their orbit and who upholds all things by His power—if you were to see Him today, you would see Him in all the person, image, fashion, and very form of a man, like yourselves. (235)

The Mormon God is embodied and experiences pleasure and pain, just as people do. Coviello dramatizes the relationship this way: “They are themselves embryonic gods, defined in the grain of their flesh by the possibility of an expansion, via the channels of an engaged carnality, into eternality and godliness itself” (5). Coviello links this to polygyny (which we’ll return to later), but a key point here is that within Mormon thought, the potential for godhood and theosis is tied to the flesh (only those who receive a body on Earth are able to be exalted, should they live accordingly). 

Embodiment is central to Yeine’s journey to godhood as well. As Yeine begins to exercise some of her newfound power, she is hit with a revelation: “Suddenly I understood. It was my flesh, and my power, too. I was what mortal life had made me, what Enefa had made me, but all that was in the past. From henceforth I could be whomever I wanted.” (382). Importantly, Yeine, as a god, is embodied: she realizes, “It was my flesh” (382), and the fleshiness of the god Yeine is central to the reality and power that she possesses. Briefly in the novel Yeine is dead and disembodied, but she must return to the flesh, to her body, to claim the divinity that awaits her. Mormon scripture states that “the spirit and the body are the soul of man” (D&C 88:15). Within Mormonism there is a particular idea that spirit and body are fused together to make the soul. This fusion is central to theosis, where the material, physical body is indeed seen as part of the very purpose of mortality (Translation 111). Yeine’s statement that her new divine self “was what mortal life had made [her],” draws attention to the ways that her self is shaped by her experiences. Life has shaped Yeine into a god; she is not the actor becoming a god. Choice is removed from Yeine and put on others—mortal life and Enefa. Jemisin’s narrative of theosis suggests that the self is constantly in flux, that Yeine may still be Yeine, but that she is also shaped by her mortal life, transformed. The shaping then allows Yeine to “be whomever I wanted.” It is only once she is made a god that she feels truly free to “be.” This sharply contrasts with the ontological sameness of God and humanity within Mormonism and the becoming of Snow’s couplet. Brown, in describing God and humankind, argues that “True enough, they were all born into the species Ahman, but their developmental stages differed radically” (Translation 107). Here, Brown charts out an ontological category of being—which he calls Ahman, drawing on some of Joseph Smith’s teachings—that contains both humanity and God. This infuses humanity with the possibility of godhood from the beginning.

The embodiment of Jemisin’s gods is inextricably tied to pleasure, particularly carnal pleasures, much as Coviello draws our attention to in the case of Mormonism. As Yeine is dealing out justice to Itempas for the suffering he has caused, she kisses him “and filled that kiss with all the promise I could muster. But some of the surprise that passed between us was mine, for his mouth was soft despite its hard lines. Underneath that I could taste hot spices and warm ocean breezes; he made my mouth water and my whole body ache” (388). This is a very physical, pleasurable, embodied description of the experience. As Yeine becomes a god her pleasure and senses seem to be heightened (this is also illustrated in her earlier sexual encounters with Nahadoth), emphasizing the fleshiness and embodied nature of Jemisin’s gods. The physical pleasure here is a part of being divine, of being embodied, very much in line with Coviello’s reading of Mormon theosis. As Coviello says of Joseph Smith, “His is a point, that is, about the divinity of the flesh” (59). The fleshiness of God for Mormonism is the point—it illustrates the divinity of carnal, fleshy pleasures. Coviello continues arguing that “The flesh, the material body, vouchsafes to us the divinity of humankind. It is the vehicle not of corruption but exaltation” (68). As expressed here, that pleasure of the flesh is central to theosis, not a hindrance. Coviello’s account likely strikes some Mormon readers as counter-intuitive, but Jemisin’s narrative of theosis leans into the connection between embodiment and pleasure. Yeine is a god with passion, transformed by physical experience, fleshy and embodied. 

Theosis, in both Mormonism and Jemisin, requires connection and communion—ritualized in Mormonism initially in polygamy and manifested in Yeine’s polyamorous relationship with Nahadoth and Itempas, her romantic and sexual connection to both of them is intertwined with their own romantic and sexual relationship. Jemisin’s work de-ritualizes and firmly queers the communion at the root of theosis, offering an alternative to Mormonism’s patriarchal polygamy. Coviello argues that “Mormonism is, at its core, a radical theory of embodied life… I will argue, plural marriage is at the defining center of Smith’s vision of exaltation” (55). Sam Brown argues for something similar, though articulated slightly differently, saying, “A persistently embodied God, the imitation Christi, and human preexistence pointed toward a state the Latter-day Saints called ‘exaltation.’ . . . The Saints would rise, through the relationships they created and sealed, to a status beyond their wildest imaginings, a state scholars often call apotheosis or deification” (265). In both of these arguments, exaltation or theosis is tied to relationships and sociality, though a sociality structured largely by patriarchal relationships. Both Brown and Coviello point out the inherent plurality and sociality that is tied to becoming a god within Mormonism, which finds queer expression in the sociality between Yeine, Nahadoth, and Itempas. The three are all lovers, intertwined with one another, in a complicated polyamorous relationship–Yeine loves Nahadoth and Itempas, Itempas and Nahadoth are lovers, both of whom share some romantic and/or sexual feelings for Yeine.  

Yeine’s communion is found in the polyamorous connection with Nahadoth and Itempas, queering the communion necessary for Mormon theosis. Over and over again, once Yeine achieves godhood, we are reminded of the connections between her, Nahadoth, and Itempas. This spills over from the kiss that Yeine and Itempas share and manifests in a variety of ways. Yeine, in talking about what to do with Itempas, says that “Yet killing him was also impossible. Out of Three had the universe been made. Without all Three, it would all end” (386). Yeine, Itempas, and Nahadoth are all three necessary for the universe to exist. They are bound together in the creation of the Universe and in its continued existence. Itempas, Nahadoth, and Enefa were all lovers and that same pattern is teased with Yeine’s replacement of Enefa as the third member, though that collective communion and sociality is found for Yeine only after she becomes a god (though she has had romantic and sexual encounters with Nahadoth throughout the novel). 

Yeine’s divinity is also marked by her lingering connection to Enefa, which made her apotheosis possible in the first place. In a somewhat ambiguous moment, Yeine says that “it surprises me to admit it, but I shall miss you, Enefa. My soul is not used to solitude. Then again, I will never be truly alone, thanks to you” (394). Enefa’s soul has left and Yeine is no longer living with two souls inside her, so this assertion that she will not “be truly alone” suggests that she will be bound to both Nahadoth and Itempas, the three of them all together in some way, even when they are not in the same physical location. Or perhaps, Yeine here refers to how she shared a soul with Enefa and will have those memories to reflect on for the future. To further the necessity of connection and relationships to godhood, Yeine notices that both Itempas and Nahadoth have “a great and terrible loneliness within” them, that the separation that all three of them have experienced has created “something unwholesome” at their core (380), rendering them lacking. Their collective love and bond is here figured as necessary to their health as gods, in much the same way that relationships are central to theosis within Mormonism. Jemisin’s account of theosis expands the possibilities of sociality that Mormonism, especially contemporary Mormonism, forecloses. Jemisin’s theosis depends on a queer, de-ritualized sociality, opening up possibilities for more radical and liberatory readings of Mormon theosis. 

    Through Jemisin’s narrative exploring the relationship of chronology, the unity of self, the pleasures of embodiment, and the necessity of sociality, she explodes the possibilities of Mormon theosis, giving flesh to the bare bones of the theology that Joseph Smith sketched out. Mormon theosis as an interpretive framework, in turn, allows us to think through what is happening with Yeine as she becomes a god, giving some language and a framework to analyze the narrative elements that may otherwise escape notice. With Yeine, Jemisin offers a possible model of what exaltation could look like. The embodied possibilities offered by Yeine transgress some of the norms surrounding theosis within Mormonism, productively opening up the image of God, while remaining surprisingly faithful to many of the key pieces of what it means for someone to become a (Mormon) God.

NOTES

[1] Soteriology is the study of religious doctrines of salvation.

[2] While Snow’s couplet refers to ‘man’, it is likely more reflective of current Mormon theology to use humanity, though the theological conversation is complicated depending on how you read a few key texts, such as Doctrine & Covenants 76, Doctrine and Covenants 132, and the endowment ceremony in LDS temples. My reading of these and other sources suggests that present-day Mormons would likely say ‘humanity’ over ‘man’, so that’s the usage I’ll follow.

[3] I am drawing on Blaire Ostler’s framework of “Queer Polygamy” for my use of queer throughout this section. Ostler notes that “Polygamy is inherently queer according to contemporary monogamous marital expectations. It is, by western standards, a deviation from the norm…The use of the word queer in Queer Polygamy is to signify a more thoughtful and thorough interpretation of polygamy which would be inclusive of such diversity and that many of its manifestations would be rightly considered queer” (82). Ostler is not asserting that historical Mormon polygyny is ‘queer’, but rather offering a way of recontextualizing Mormon theology of polygyny, and implicitly theosis, that is queer in its expansive reach and encompassing of relationships that deviate from a western norm of monogamy. I see Jemisin’s novel as exploring some of these possibilities in the polyamorous relationship(s) between Yeine, Nahadoth, and Itempas, where all are lovers of each other in a variety of forms.


WORKS CITED

Brown, Samuel Morris. In Heaven as It Is On Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death. Oxford UP, 2012. 

—. Joseph Smith’s Translation: The Words and Worlds of Early Mormonism. Oxford UP, 2020.

Coviello, Peter. Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism. U of Chicago P, 2019. 

Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013. 

Faulconer, James E. Thinking Otherwise: Theological Explorations of Joseph Smith’s Revelations. BYU Maxwell Institute, 2020. 

Holy Bible. King James Version. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.

Jemisin, N.K. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Orbit Books, 2010. 

Ostler, Blaire. Queer Mormon Theology: An Introduction. BCC Press, 2021. Smith, Joseph. The Essential Joseph Smith. Signature Books, 1995, http://signaturebookslibrary.org/essential-joseph-smith/.

Conor Hilton is a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa, studying the postsecular, utopianism, and speculative fiction, primarily in the long nineteenth century of British literature.


Sex, Attachment, and the Quest for a Universalist Ethic in Mormonism and Star Wars


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Symposium: Mormonism and SF


Sex, Attachment, and the Quest for a Universalist Ethic in Mormonism and Star Wars

Ian McLaughlin

Introduction

Post-Lucas Star Wars media has continually sought some way around or through the prequel Jedi (Golding 8). Where the original trilogy merely outlined the contours of a nearly vanished religion, the prequels, set during an era of Jedi power, put meat on the bones. While these Jedi still claim to fight for an impartial good, their claim is seemingly undercut by their strict allegiance to the Republic; they were now portrayed as arrogant adjuncts of political power, not rebels or wandering monks. Their tenet of chastity, while arguably implicit in the first trilogy, was drawn out, its oppressiveness dwelt on at length. While Lucasfilm sought to marginalize the prequels entirely in the early days of the Disney acquisition, more recent projects have begun to engage with—and even rewrite—the rich but fraught prequel text, often in ways critical or dismissive of the Jedi Code (Golding 8-10, 194-5; Asher-Perrin). As several announced and in-development projects, such as the High Republic series (prequels to the prequels) and Ahsoka (a live-action television series focusing on Anakin’s former apprentice), deal directly with the Jedi Order, the debate over the Jedi and their controversial doctrine of non-attachment promises to continue for years to come.

This paper argues that the prequels do not condemn their version of the Jedi Code. All the Jedi beliefs and practices in the prequels, from their doctrine of non-attachment to their political entanglements, are structured around meeting the demands of the light side of the Force. In the Star Wars mythos, the Force is an “energy field created by all living things” (A New Hope 34:43-45) and therefore, those who claim to serve it must put aside local commitments and prejudices to protect “all” living things. This is even more true for Force-users who choose to take on a political role as counselors of the Republic, the representative body of all intelligent life. In the prequels’ telling, it is Anakin’s refusal to abide by this universalist ethic, along with the hypocrisy of Jedi leadership in its administration, rather than that ethic itself, that brings about the Republic’s downfall. When the Jedi Code is seen in this light—as a declaration of war against particularity, an attempt to combat the self-serving corruption associated with power—its cohesion as a religious system, as well as its shortcomings, comes into better view.

In fact, the Jedi Code can be helpfully illuminated—in both its appeal and pitfalls, its logic and contradictions—by analogy to another radical and sometimes troubling religious system. Early Mormonism (1830-1844), like the Jedi Order, was designed to build a people of bigger, more encompassing ethical commitments than the familial structures around them allowed for. Mormonism’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith, built a radically communitarian faith by demanding sacrifices from his followers and by offering new spiritual rituals to bind the community together into a single network of the saved (Brown 203-47). Polygyny (alternately referred to as polygamy, plural marriage, or “The Principle”), Smith’s most controversial doctrine, fulfilled both purposes at once: participation required the sacrifice of social propriety, preexisting beliefs about monogamy, and the health of existing marriage relationships (and, for single women, any hope for future monogamous pairings) while offering new rituals of “sealing” that multiplied kinship ties, subsuming family units into the religious community (Brown 239-43). Where the Jedi prohibited attachments, Smith sacralized them.

Unlike the Jedi Order, the Mormon Church has not collapsed: however, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest successor organization to Smith’s Church, did retreat from more extreme attempts to turn the marriage relationships towards communitarian ends. From the beginning, Smith’s position as sole messenger of the divine will entailed unequal power dynamics in his own marriage proposals and in his invitations to subordinate male leaders to take additional wives (see Bushman 120-1, 151, 437). It also brought into question his claims to share in his followers’ anguish and sacrifice, since he was the one who introduced The Principle and could effectively dictate the terms by which it was practiced (Bushman 437-9). Ultimately, Smith’s insistence on practicing polygyny drove away some of his closest followers and led to his death at the hands of an angry mob. In a similar way, the extremity of the Jedi Code, and the arrogance of those who administered it, drove away adherents of that Order. In both cases, defections brought near-fatal harm to the organizations.

Understanding the similarities between the Jedi Code and the early Mormon Church—in both belief and practice—helps us understand something of the challenge the prequels pose to current and future Star Wars writers and fans. While the prequel Jedi might not have alighted on the perfect implementation of their ideals, and while Smith almost certainly did not, both took seriously the responsibility to escape the constraints of human (or alien) partiality, as each thought the Force/God demanded. As much as some Star Wars writers seem ready to leave the prequel Jedi behind (Golding 194-5) and/or write attachment into the Jedi code (“The Legacy” 22:32-22:54), Anakin’s fall from grace, the product of his persistent self-centeredness and inability to abandon attachment (in short, his refusal to abide by the Code), invites a more complicated appraisal of the Jedi project.

The Shaping Power of the Universalist Ideal

Near the beginning of Anakin’s guardianship of Padme in Attack of the Clones, he explains Jedi philosophy to her. Over a meal in a spaceship cafeteria, Padme observes that it must be hard to live under the strictures of the Order. Anakin agrees, citing his inability to visit loved ones (presumably an allusion to his mother). “Are you allowed to love?” Padme retorts. “I thought that was forbidden for a Jedi.” Anakin smiles out of the corner of his mouth. “Attachment is forbidden. … Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is central to a Jedi’s life. So, you might say … we are encouraged to love” (Clones 35:06-35:46).

This is the most direct rationale for Jedi policy that the trilogy offers. Usefully, Anakin frames the prohibited behavior (attachment) in terms of the positive value from which it would detract (compassion/unconditional love). The most likely meaning of “unconditional” in this context is not that of continuing to love someone despite their transgressions but something more like “universal” or “impartial”: there is no precondition of mutuality or particularity before a Jedi will love or serve. The implication of Anakin’s account is that specific attachments are forbidden because they interfere with a Jedi’s more important (central) attachment to the universe at large. In a conversation with Palpatine, Anakin elaborates on Sith ideology, the mirror of the Jedi Code, explicitly linking selfishness and passion (which in both the original and prequel trilogies is the gateway to the Dark Side): “The Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inwards—only about themselves” (Revenge 45:43-45:48).

Even the Jedi’s role as political adjuncts of the Republic fits within the project of impartiality. Because the Force is universal and material—“an energy field created by all living things” (A New Hope 34:43-45) regardless of their moral dessert or the particular will of a divine being—the Jedi must seek the Good of the whole universe. Unlike the Israelites, whom the Old Testament designates God’s chosen people, the Jedi are not justified qua protagonists (see Wright 27-32). In the absence of a personal god who picks favorites, in Star Wars, the Force requires its servants to weigh the interests of all life forms and civilizations equally. The Republic is the only political formation that can plausibly claim to embody the interests of all sentient life, and, therefore, the Force—unlike the Empire, it represents, rather than simply rules, the galaxy. The Republic is as an ideal vehicle for channeling Jedi energies, endowing them with authority and resources through which they can act as “keepers of the peace” (Clones 4:48-4:51) or “guardians of peace and justice” (A New Hope 33:58-34:01). The opening sequence of the trilogy highlights the Jedi role as ambassadors and mediators (The Phantom Menace, 0:00-4:24). The mutually productive relationship between Republic and Jedi only begins to go awry at the end of Attack of the Clones, as the Order allows itself to be co-opted as generals and abandons negotiation with dissenting groups.

Unlike the Jedi, Joseph Smith did not deliberately structure his religious system to root out attachment, but he did seek to disrupt or overpower particularist attachments where they interfered with his radical, all-encompassing communitarian vision. Smith cultivated loyalty to the “Zion” community both by demanding sacrifice and by introducing new rituals that bound the Church together. Of the first tactic, he taught, “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation” (Smith 6:7). In its early days, Mormonism was a religion that required a lot of sacrifice. Converts from across the United States, Canada, and England were commanded to pull up roots and “gather”: first to Ohio, then Missouri, then Illinois. Men were called upon to leave their families and serve missions in far-flung places or to assume time-intensive leadership positions (Bushman 254-6). But Smith gave as well as took away, introducing an extensive liturgy of community-building rituals to his followers. Members had their lineage traced to a tribe of Israel in “patriarchal blessings”; baptisms for the dead connected the body of Saints throughout time (Brown 213-8). All this helped forged what Samuel Brown terms Smith’s “Great Chain of Belonging.” The ideal Mormon society was not a collection of isolated nuclear families but a single network of the saved (223-8).

Polygyny functioned on both levels—as a terrible sacrifice that built faith and as a welding link that forged new ties across the community. Smith probably felt called to “restore” Old Testament polygyny in 1831, but due to opposition to his early attempts to implement what he called “The Principle,” he only began to practice it in earnest in the last three years of his life (1841-1844) (Bushman 437). In that time, he married somewhere around 33 women, ranging between 14 and 58 years in age (Compton 1, 3-6). He attempted to keep the practice secret from the world and from most of the Church, but he revealed it to his closest male associates and asked many of them to take on plural wives as well (Van Wagoner 50-55). Due to the secretive and contentious nature of early Mormon polygyny, the sources for it are few and contradictory. While some observers have seen little more to it than sexual predation, others have found in the emerging practice tantalizing hints of a broader theology of community and covenant. For purposes of this paper, I rely primarily on Samuel Morris Brown’s framework from In Heaven As It is On Earth (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011), supplemented by Richard Bushman’s classic biography of Smith, Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005). Brown situates polygyny within the context of Smith’s other community-building rituals and his theology of adoption and community. Bushman also emphasizes the communitarian valence of polygyny and speculates that the traditionally posited motives of sex and reproduction were less important to Smith (“He did not lust for women so much as he lusted for kin” [440]). Readers may consult Fawn M. Brodie’s Smith biography No Man Knows My History (New York: Knopf, 1945) or Peter Coviello’s Make Yourselves Gods (Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2019) for framings more attuned to polygyny’s undeniably sexual aspects.

While it should be noted that women and girls bore the brunt of the cost for Smith’s social experiment—they were the objects that spread familial ties throughout the community (Coviello 94; Van Wagoner 89-101)—the sacrifices required of men also played a role. Men as well as women recounted experiencing extreme psychological and spiritual distress as they considered Smith’s new doctrine. Members of both sexes sacrificed the health of existing marriage relationships, pre-existing beliefs about monogamy, and their social standing in embracing the practice (Van Wagoner 41-49, 89; Bushman 439-41). The universality of sacrifice gave polygyny its power to radically retool the private nature of the marital relationship and turn towards communitarian ends.

Both the self-sacrificial and community-building aspects of polygyny are on display in cases—of which there are about a dozen—where Smith asked women who were already civilly married to marry him in religious ritual. One of these women, Zina Diantha Huntington, accepted the call with her husband Jacob’s acquiescence. He remained faithful to the church, but never stopped pining for Zina. For her part, Zina later told the New York World that polygyny had exposed marital love as a “false sentiment” (qtd. in Brown 243). Similar to Anakin’s formulation of the Jedi Code—eschewing individual ties to preserve universal commitments—faithful Mormons sacrificed particularist ties in order to build loyalty to the cause of Zion. The difference is, where the Jedi avoided attachment, Smith appropriated it. Rather than encouraging celibacy, he subordinated coupling to the cause of Christ. As Brown says: double marriages like Zina’s “served as a strong reminder that marriage was not primarily to protect exclusive pairings but to create a heavenly network of belonging” (243). In crafting his vision of holy community, Smith was influenced by a trend within American Protestantism away from a “theocratic” conception of heaven (oriented around the worship of God) to a “domestic” heaven where God’s followers would continue to associate as a community (205-8). He was also influenced by the idea that unbelievers are spiritually “adopted” when they join the community of God: he expanded the concept in far more literal directions, introducing ritual after ritual to link Saints to each other and even to the 12 tribes of Israel (208-220). Ultimately, his rituals and the Jedi Code served a similar role, placing adherents in an ethically neutral position by creating loyalty to an abstraction—the universal love demanded by God/The Force. As Smith once wrote to his apostles, “a man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone but ranges through the world, anxious to bless the whole human family” (qtd. in Brown 240).

“Failed, I have”: Power and Its Abuses

Ultimately, both approaches to reining in the power of particularist attachment failed. The Jedi, and the Republic they served, collapsed. While there were compounding factors—Anakin’s disobedience, Palpatine’s power—the films are clear that the Order, by dint of its arrogance, was complicit in its own destruction. The demise of polygyny is a more complicated story. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest successor group to Joseph Smith’s organization, gradually abandoned the practice between 1890 and 1906 under intense pressure from the U.S. government (Van Wagoner 153-63; see also Quinn). However, polygyny as a tool for breaking down romantic attachments—and thus building universal community—failed much earlier, as male leaders reframed the practice as a means of expanding individual patriarchal households. While this framing was latent in Smith’s original revelations and teachings, it did not always predominate in his lifetime (Brown 227, 246). The two systems broke down in similar ways: by driving away adherents with their extreme ethical demands and cultivating self-righteousness and spiritual blindness among the faithful. the faithful.

The Jedi Order failed Anakin because their interpretation of the Code led them to be emotionally unavailable for the turbulent adolescent. Obi-Wan generally kept himself aloof, trying to model the duty-driven, attachment-free style with which his Padawan struggled. In Attack of the Clones, a key driver of Anakin’s courtship of Padme is his master’s refusal to give him the validation and approval he craves (28:14-29:16). By the time of Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine has come to fill this void. Compare Anakin’s relative equanimity in the face of Palpatine’s request to spy on the Jedi Council with his fury at Obi-Wan’s mirror-image request that he spy on Palpatine for the Council. “But that’s treason!” Anakin exclaims, listing his objections in seemingly ascending order of importance, pausing as he gets more honest: “You’re asking me to do something against the Jedi Code. Against the Republic. Against a mentor … and a friend” (38:52-40:15). For Anakin, the abstract goods of the Code and the Republic fall below personal relationships. That Palpatine is spared a similar outburst (see 35:55-36:43) suggests that Obi-Wan is not a mentor or a friend—or at least, far less of either one than the Chancellor. Certainly, Mace Windu, who constantly expresses mistrust of Anakin, is no friend of his (1:08:09-41). The only other prominent member of the Council in the series, Master Yoda, does at least show intermittent compassion for the Chosen One. When Anakin’s mother dies on Tatooine, Yoda feels it all the way from Coruscant: “Young Skywalker is in pain, terrible pain” he tells Windu (Clones 1:21:02-38). However, when Anakin comes to him for advice about his nightmares of losing Padme, Yoda’s ideological rigidity prevents him from saying anything that might be useful to a person who’s strayed as far from the Code as Anakin has. “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose,” he offers lamely (Revenge 33:21-34:40).

Just as the Jedi went too far in depriving Anakin of normal friendships within the Jedi Order, Smith’s insistence on polygyny strained his community—already built on ritual and sacrifice—to the breaking point. In the face of intermittent opposition from his first wife, Emma, Smith frequently went around her back to marry other women (Bushman 490-9); in 1843, he dictated a revelation promising God would “destroy” her if she continued to resist (Doctrine and Covenants 132:54). In the same document, Smith warned that all members to whom polygyny was revealed must “abide the law … or be damned” (132:6) and revealed the so-called “Law of Sarah,” which taught that husbands should first seek their first wife’s consent before practicing polygyny—but were free to proceed without consent should their wife refuse (132:61-65; Van Wagoner 83-4). Ultimately, Smith’s refusal to give up polygyny broke the Church apart. By 1844, many members had left the Church over the new doctrine, including some of Smith’s closest advisors (Van Wagoner 31-33); some of them founded a newspaper, The Nauvoo Expositor, to draw attention to the still-clandestine practice (Bushman 539). Smith’s order as Mayor to destroy the paper’s press was one of the largest contributing factors to his imprisonment and assassination (539-46; Van Wagoner 63-71). After his death, the Church split up. Emma refused to follow the largest faction West and her son eventually led a “Reorganized” branch of Mormonism that denied Smith had ever taken additional wives (Van Wagoner 73-7).

Despite his general insistence on polygyny, Smith often demonstrated leniency in face of reluctance or opposition. Belying the harsh rhetoric of his revelation, he rarely issued reprisals when someone refused to accept the doctrine’s divine provenance (Bushman 491). He generally asked participants—prospective wives, their family members, and male leaders—to receive their own spiritual witness. While he promised them great blessings if they complied, he did not punish them if they did not (Bushman 439, 491-3). Several Church members later told versions of the same story: that Smith had asked for their his wives and that they, after a day or three of mental anguish, acquiesced; but, at the last moment, Smith claimed that the proposal was an Abrahamic test of faith and he did not require the claimant’s wife after all (Van Wagoner 41-3). In these stories, told decades after the fact by members advancing a faith-promoting narrative, Smith is portrayed as though he had planned for the interactions to play out that way all along. It seems quite possible that he did not, given that he did marry ten already-married women—that, rather, in these cases, he relented from his original intention after beholding the haggard and distraught state of his friends.

There are signs of similar tactful fudging in the prequels. When Obi-Wan tells Yoda he cannot kill Anakin (“He is like a brother to me”), Yoda responds, not with a lecture on attachment or a command that Obi-Wan “let go of everything [he] fear[s] to lose,” but with a clever reframing of the task. Anakin is already dead, he says. “The boy you trained, gone he is, consumed by Darth Vader” (Revenge 1:37:47-1:38:18). When it comes down to it, Yoda fears that Obi-Wan cannot straightforwardly live by the Code they have both been inculcating in Anakin all along (and, indeed, Obi-Wan subsequently fails to dispatch his former apprentice). Perhaps similar tacit allowances could have been granted to Anakin if he had confessed his love for Padme or his fears for Shmi.

In addition to driving initiates out, leaders in both systems became arrogant and self-centered, falling short of the potential for radical selflessness in their systems (see Coviello 93; Brown 227). Polygyny became more about aggrandizing clannish patriarchal households than merging all saints into a single Household of God. Far from asking top leaders to surrender their one and only spouse, leaders now in the Utah period of polygyny (1847-1906) married many spouses and never gave up any. Through their inflated progeny, they expanded their personal postmortal “kingdoms” until these were supposedly among “the largest” in heaven (Brown 227). While there were some features of Joseph Smith’s original revelation on (and practice of) plural marriage that facilitated this result, perhaps even made it inevitable, a fulsome discussion of the evolution of polygyny over time is beyond the scope of this paper (for further information, see Danes; Ulrich; and Van Wagoner). As polygyny became a more established aspect of Mormon practice and identity, and as the Church left the Midwest and isolated itself from American society in the Mountain West, men were now spared much of the sacrifice of social standing and the wrenching surrender of prior beliefs about monogamy (Van Wagoner 92-93, discussing how plural marriage came to be seen as a “model lifestyle” among Mormons in Utah). Plural marriages continued to adversely impact the health and intensity of individual spousal relationships, however (91-94).

The Jedi became arrogant sitting in their palatial temple towering over the capital city of Coruscant. In one noteworthy instance, their librarian tells Obi-Wan that a planet he has inquired about cannot exist because “If it’s not in our archives, it doesn’t exist” (Clones 34:31-34). The larger example is the Jedi’s inability to perceive events around them–namely, Palpatine’s identity as a Sith (Revenge 1:01:25-54) or the creation of the Clone Army (on the latter, see Clones 57:28-58:55). In a further demonstration of arrogance, they deflect responsibility, blaming the Dark Side for clouding their judgment (4:25-5:08).

Although the Jedi fell short of their high ideals, their behavior is at fault, not the ideals themselves. This is brought home by the implicit foil between the rest of the Jedi and Anakin. Anakin’s short-sighted approach to life is consistently highlighted: in scenario after scenario, he is unable to put the abstract Good over whatever good is immediately in front of him. While on a mission to save the Chancellor, he nearly pulls away to rescue a couple of random Republic fighter pilots; Obi-Wan keeps him on task. To save Obi-Wan on Geonosis, he betrays his mandate to keep Padme safe. On Geonosis, he almost abandons his pursuit of Dooku to tend to an injured Padme; Obi-Wan has to scream “Come to your senses!” at him (Clones 2:03:52-4:06). Finally, to keep Padme safe from his own nightmares, he betrays the Republic and the Jedi. For all the Jedi Order’s flaws, it is Anakin’s failure to abide by the principles of the Code, rather than the Code itself, that precipitates his downfall.

Coda: “Into exile, I must go”

As the Star Wars franchise expands, its new custodians continue to grapple with the complex legacy of the prequel Jedi. Dave Filoni, one of the lead creatives behind the seven-season TV show The Clone Wars (a midquel meant to fill the gap between Episodes II and III) and The Mandalorian (a spin-off set after Return of the Jedi) recently offered a negative interpretation of the Jedi Code. In his reading, Qui-Gon Jinn, a vaguely unorthodox figure in The Phantom Menace, understood something the Jedi Council did not: “Jedi are supposed to actually care and love and that that’s not a bad thing. The rest of the Jedi are so detached and become so political that they’ve really lost their way” (“The Legacy” 22:41-22:45). Charles Soule, author of a novel in the new “High Republic” project (a prequel to the prequels), offered a more nuanced interpretation: “It’s very easy for a Jedi to love … it’s just you have to love without being controlling and love without being afraid of losing somebody” (Soule). Now that Star Wars has lost a “sovereign (re-)writer” in the person of George Lucas and Disney has so far failed to establish the canonicity of its own contributions to the myth, the texts Lucas left behind have taken on new authority, becoming subject to constant reinterpretation as the franchise seeks a way forward (Canavan 277-81).

As the debate over the prequels rages on, this paper offers a couple of fresh considerations. First, impartiality is a key ethical commitment of the light side of the Force. Wildly divergent systems might be thought up to achieve this goal—as varying as polygyny and sexual abstinence—but universalism is the Star Wars ideal. Contrary to Filoni, the prequel Jedi Order does not teach that loving and caring are bad things. It teaches that attachment to specific individuals interferes with the impartial decision-making required of those who serve the Force. In the real world, the rightness or even acceptability of Smith’s ethical experimentation is a subjective question; the literary text of the prequels, however, clearly does not condemn the Jedi Order. For all its flaws, the Order remains on the light side of the Force throughout the series; impulsive, duty-averse, attachment-prone Anakin does not. So long as humans/humanoid aliens—trapped in time and space and sometimes fond of romantic pair-bonding—seek to place themselves in the same ethical position of a disembodied Force or an all-powerful God, strange systems of bodily discipline and sacrifice will crop up to achieve that goal.

No system is immune to abuses of power and corruption. Those at the top will carve out exceptions for themselves and their friends that they refuse to extend to underlings. Some abuses are more objectionable than others (involving teenaged girls in polygyny, for example, or children in the Jedi Order). But so long as a religious system involves certainty in the correctness of one’s convictions and an organizational hierarchy with no internal or external checks, there will always be the possibility for arrogance and abuse. The prequel Jedi had the right ideals; but having the right ideals, even in a space opera, is not the same as being righteous.


WORKS CITED

Asher-Perrin, Emma. “The Mandalorian Gets an Unexpected Bounty in Chapter Thirteen, ‘The Jedi.’” Tor.com. 27 Nov. 2020. 

Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Knopf, 2005.

Brodie, Fawn M. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith. New York: Knopf, 1945.

Brown, Samuel Morris. In Heaven As It Is On Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.

Canavan, Gerry. “Fandom Edits: Rogue One and the New Star Wars.” Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, edited by Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018, pp. 277–288.

Compton, Todd. In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Coviello, Peter. Make Yourselves Gods: Mormonism and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism. Chicago: Univ. or Illinois Press, 2019.

Danes, Kathryn M. More Wives than One: The Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910. Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2001.

The Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.

Golding, Daniel. Star Wars after Lucas: A Critical Guide to the Future of the Galaxy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Lucas, George, dir. A New Hope. 20th Century Fox, 1977.

—–. Attack of the Clones. 20th Century Fox, 2002.

—–. The Phantom Menace. 20th Century Fox, 1999.

—–. Revenge of the Sith. 20th Century Fox, 2005.

Quinn, D. Michael. “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904,” Dialogue 18.1 (Spring 1985): 9–105.

Soule, Charles. “Light of the Jedi author Charles Soule can finally talk about Light of the Jedi.” Polygon, 12 Jan. 2021. www.polygon.com/star-wars/2021/1/12/22221112/light-of-the-jedi-spoilers-author-charles-soule-interview.

Smith, Joseph. Lectures on Faith. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1985.

“The Legacy.” Disney Gallery / Star Wars: The Mandalorian, season 1, episode 2, Disney Plus, 2020.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870. New York: Knopf, 2017.

Van Wagoner, Richard S. Mormon Polygamy: A History. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1989.Wright, N.T. Paul: A Biography. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2018.

Ian McLaughlin is a second-year student at Brigham Young University Law School. Before selling out, he presented academic papers on Mormonism and evolution at the Mormon History Association and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture, and on Irish political culture at a session of the Eighteenth-Century Ireland Society in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Ian is a playwright and novelist, with aspirations of writing the Great Mormon Novel.


“Mormons” in Leviathan Wakes: Applying the Church/Sect Typology


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Symposium: Mormonism and SF


“Mormons” in Leviathan Wakes: Applying the Church/Sect Typology

Rebekah Call

Popular perception of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has changed over the last two hundred years. The portrayal of Mormons in science fiction can serve as a window to understanding outside conceptualizations of the church in real life. This essay examines popular social perceptions of the church through the lens of the book Leviathan Wakes, the first volume in the Expanse book series by James S. A. Corey. In doing so, it utilizes a religious studies approach, with sociologist Max Weber’s church-sect continuum as a framework (which classifies different types of religious groups) as seen elsewhere in Armand Mauss’s work, The Angel and the Beehive. I argue that the portrayal of “Mormons” in Leviathan Wakes illustrates the fact that in some ways, the Mormon movement functions both as a church and as a sect in popular imagination. Some of these imaginative features include segregation from the larger society through a pioneering exodus to a new frontier, family values that differ from the norm, [1] and administrative and economic structures capable of supporting the creation of a new nation (or world, in the case of The Expanse). Through this examination of science fiction, one can see that elements of Latter-day Saint history continue to reverberate through the popular perception of Mormons. 

In his book The Angel and the Beehive, Armand Mauss builds on Max Weber’s church-sect typology, which set the groundwork for decades of sociological research regarding the development of Christian religious movements. The church-sect typology describes a continuum, at one extreme end of which are “churches”—large-scale institutions that exist in little or no tension with the outside society. On the opposite extreme of the spectrum are “sects.” These are small, often splinter groups, that exist in a state of high tension with the outside society. As such, sects are often viewed as threatening and can evoke negative reactions in the larger society around them. While tension with society is a key element of identity building in a sect, if the level of tension becomes too extreme, the sect must assimilate into the larger society to survive. As a movement assimilates and becomes more mainstream, it tends to gain more recruits, become institutionalized, and can eventually swing to the other side of the continuum. In short, a sect can eventually develop into a church, existing in little or no tension with the mainstream society.

Using this typology as his backdrop, Armand Mauss argues that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints underwent periods of assimilation (e.g., following the 1890 abolishment of polygamy) followed by periods of retrenchment (e.g., during the ERA movement). In assimilating, the movement grew, gained many converts, and became better known in American society. However, the periods of retrenchment preserved the strong sense of identity held by members of the church by retaining (or even building) tension with mainstream society. Thus, Mauss illustrates how the Latter-day Saint movement has encompassed the benefits of becoming a “church” while simultaneously retaining many of the traits of a sect (Mauss x-xi, 198-199). This essay explores how popular perceptions of the “Mormons”—as represented in The Expanse—reflect Mauss’s evaluation of the LDS movement. 

Science fiction provides a unique window for looking at the contemporary cultural view of Latter-day Saints—it is an alternate reality, built on semi-truths, that requires enough resonance with the real world to feel authentic. In the case of The Expanse, it is a potential future that presumably builds on a past that is largely the same as that which we know. Therefore, Corey, the author of The Expanse, is projecting his own imagination of how society as he understands it might develop in a space age. [2] Thus we can analyze elements of how Corey views members of the movement now through his treatment of Mormons in Leviathan Wakes. In building his Mormons of the future, Corey heavily draws upon the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as more modern history, to create an image of a people that feels recognizable in his alternate reality. In order to achieve this narrative feat, Corey pulls from the exact elements that might be used to classify the movement as a sect—the areas in which Mormondom had (or has) tension with the outside society. Although Corey does not expend many words on the group of people, what little he does write is telling, and allows the reader to flesh out the group in their imagination through analogy to Latter-day Saints in our present reality.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began serious assimilation into American society during the events surrounding Utah’s acquisition of statehood in 1896. The road to statehood proved to be a battleground, owing to the perceived threat that the church posed to American society more broadly. There were three main ways in which the church threatened the notion of “Americanness” and in which the church had to compromise in order to be considered “American.” These were polygyny (sexual and familial norms), communal living (financial structure), and theocratic government (political structure) (Alexander 4, 307-308; Flake 20-22, 61-62). These three elements were threatening enough that many nineteenth-century Americans could not coexist with the Saints. The ideological friction only escalated with time, to the point that for its own survival, the church essentially abandoned these three elements. They abolished the practice of polygyny in 1890 (Flake 30), liquidated the majority of their communal holdings (Alexander 6, 182), and embraced the American democratic political structure through the process of Utah’s 1896 acquisition of statehood (Alexander 35-36). In short, the church assimilated into American society politically, financially, and socially/sexually. Corey leans on two of these assimilation techniques (sexual/familial norms and financial structure) in constructing his narrative, and it can be argued that the presence of the third (political) is at least implied. Moreover, as I will demonstrate, Corey’s depiction resonates with current as well as historical church activity. Throughout the entire narrative, he employs the pioneer heritage of the Saints as a framework for his depiction. 

The first mention of Mormons in Leviathan Wakes comes early, in the second paragraph of the book: “One moon of Uranus sported five thousand, the farthest outpost of human civilization, at least until the Mormons finished their generation ship and headed for the stars and freedom from procreation restrictions” (ch. 1). With a single sentence, Corey establishes a group preparing for a massive migration into an unexplored frontier. They are motivated by continuing pushback on religious procreative norms, to the point that the community has chosen to leave the dominant social order altogether rather than make concessions to it. This narrative echoes the history of the church’s early Mormon migration to Utah and also their alternative family and sexual norms. These included the practice of polygyny, which was cited as a means of bringing more children onto the Earth, thereby keeping God’s commandment in the Garden of Eden to “multiply and replenish the earth” (Doctrine and Covenants 132.63). Decades after abandoning polygyny, the church’s stances on contraception and abortion appear to have continued to reflect this concern with multiplying and replenishing. This idea remains current in the church today, as evidenced by this statement in the 1995 touchstone document, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World:” “We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force” (Hinckley, et al.). So far as we know, the Mormons in Leviathan Wakes do not practice polygyny (which ironically would have fit well with the multi-person relationships depicted in the books). [3] But they do manifest serious concerns regarding governmental birth control measures and family size control, reflecting the church’s historical anxiety regarding the Edenic edict. While the idea of polygyny eventually led to violence in nineteenth-century America (Mason 63), in The Expanse, the alternative family ideal merely marks the community as eccentric but harmless. This image harmonizes well with the idea of a church that has managed to maintain some of the social tension expected of a sect, while still existing to an extent within the mainstream. In Leviathan Wakes, reproductive ideals clearly separate the Mormons from the larger society. This very separation is one of the factors that marks the movement as a sect. 

The depiction of Mormons in Leviathan Wakes also aligns well with the church’s current relationship toward family and sexual norms. There are several areas in which the church has run counter-culturally with regards to family and sexual ideals. Many of these have coincided with church political action. The church has consistently engaged in political discussion surrounding family structure, gender roles, and sexual norms, beginning with its extensive lobbying for women’s suffrage (Madsen 129-130, 348-351) and promotion of polygyny (Flake 43-44; Gordon 18-19, 202-203). In more recent years, the church aggressively lobbied against the ERA in the 1970s (Mauss 117-118; Bradley-Evans Introduction, Appendix 5) and against marriage equality, especially in the early twenty-first century (Prince; see also McKinley and Johnson). The church’s attitude toward sexual behavior differs from that of the national norm to the extent that if a player on a Brigham Young University sports team engages in sexual relations outside of marriage, he or she will face disciplinary action from the school. This discipline almost always includes a loss of playing privileges for at least one athletic season and may even result in being expelled from the university. These proceedings historically have attracted media attention, perhaps due to their contrast with national attitudes toward sexuality (Ioselevich). 

While Leviathan Wakes does not overtly discuss Mormon political efforts to gain reproductive freedom, it does presume the confidence to form a new political (potentially theocratic) system. Granted, we can’t know all of the details of Mormon history in this alternate universe, but their space exodus conveys a sense of disempowerment in Mormon life—the inability to live by their beliefs in the face of larger political powers. This disempowerment reflects the early history of the movement, especially the migration of Latter-day Saints from Ohio, to Missouri, to Illinois, and finally to Utah. Moreover, it is entirely possible that while unmentioned, the movement in the book had attempted to find other alternatives to their solution through political recourse. This is not a foreign idea to any who are familiar with the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as discussed above. 

Moving beyond family and political norms, while the Mormons in Leviathan Wakes clearly do not see eye-to-eye with the majority of the population of the solar system, they are a large enough group to have the labor force and the finances necessary to carry out their plan. When The Expanse’s main characters first see the starship Nauvoo, they comment: “‘Ballsy bastards. No guarantee there’s even a planet worth a damn on the other end of that hundred-year trip.’ ‘They seem pretty sure,’ Holden replied. ‘And you don’t make the money to build a ship like that by being stupid. I, for one, wish them nothing but luck’” (Corey ch. 17). Leviathan Wakes does not present the church’s wealth as being necessarily negative. But it is not surprising that church finances make it into the depiction of Mormons. Throughout its history, the church’s financial state has garnered attention. In the early days of the church, the communal nature of ownership led to immense church holdings, which mainstream Americans found to be a threat to the capitalist-protestant work and financial ethic. Under the Edmunds-Tucker Act, this led to the government seizure of most communally held church assets (Alexander 4-6) and culminated with the disincorporation of communal holdings in the 1890s (Alexander 6, 182). During this time, the church began to strongly emphasize the payment of tithes and offerings. Today, all members in good standing donate ten percent of their income as tithing to the church, and many donate even more in other offerings. This practice paved the way for the church to become financially solvent in the early twentieth century (Alexander 4-6). Church finances continued to be a source of curiosity and conjecture, particularly once the church stopped publicly releasing its financial reports in 1959 (Walch). In 1996, Time Magazine speculated the church’s holdings to be at least $30 billion (Van Biema 51, 54), which the church denied as an over-exaggeration (Hinckley). Thus, while the church’s exact financial status was (and is) unknown, society viewed the church as being exceptionally well off, [4] much as the Mormons are depicted in Leviathan Wakes. Granted, perhaps Mormon membership in Leviathan Wakes has diminished, and the church is merely enjoying the leftovers of more popular and prosperous days. However, even if such were the case, having the ability to construct the most massive starship to date would seem to indicate that at one point, the organization either had sufficient membership to amass enormous financial holdings, or else had a small membership of the extremely wealthy. This would signify that at least for a time, the movement could have been classified as a church, since sects are generally small in membership and tend to attract members of lower socio-economic status; growth in numbers or in wealth characterize movement towards a church (Koehrsen 320-321). 

The final way in which Corey capitalizes on Mormon separation from society is the way in which he describes the starship Nauvoo. He utilizes temple-centric imagery, reflecting an understanding of the importance of the temple in LDS doctrine. Shortly before commandeering the starcraft, one of the main characters muses: 

The structure echoed the greatest cathedrals of Earth and Mars, rising up through empty air and giving both thrust-gravity stability and glory to God. It was still metal bones and woven agricultural substrate, but Miller could see where it was all heading. A generation ship was a statement of overarching ambition and utter faith. The Mormons had known that. They’d embraced it. They’d constructed a ship that was prayer and piety and celebration all at the same time. The Nauvoo would be the greatest temple mankind had ever built. It would shepherd its crew through the uncrossable gulfs of interstellar space, humanity’s best hope of reaching the stars. Or it would have been, if not for him. (Corey ch. 46) 

This passage does more than merely depict a people devoted to their faith. In a sense, the temple-starship imagery serves as a focal point for the key ways in which the Mormons of Leviathan Wakes continue to function as a sect. They maintain tension with society and retain a distinct identity from the rest of the solar system through constructing an ideological and, eventually, physical separation from the world around them. Their willingness to leave human civilization—to migrate to a different planet—in order to maintain their familial ideals is directly embodied in their starship. Moreover, their temple-craft demonstrates both financial power sufficient to achieve their commitment and a confidence in their ability to create a new Mormon empire. 

Temple building has been a continuous and central part of Latter-day Saint devotion. Joseph Smith first articulated the vision of building a temple in 1832, less than three years after the church’s initial organization (Doctrine and Covenants 88.119). The construction of temples initially required significant sacrifice on the part of the Saints. However, in more recent decades, the church has hired professional construction companies to undertake the building of a staggering number of temples: as of May 2021, there are 252 temples worldwide, including those announced or under construction (Temple List). Similar to their function in Leviathan Wakes, temples are not merely monuments to the financial status of the church. They are considered to be a physical and ideological separation from the rest of the world. Temples physically separate Latter-day Saints from the world due to their entry requirements: any who enter must be current members of the church in good standing. Temples also serve as an ideological separation from the rest of the world. They are a place where Saints encounter the divine and where families transcend time: according to Latter-day Saint doctrine, temple rituals overcome death’s power to separate spouses, parents, and children from each other. Thus, Corey’s choice of temple imagery completes his construction of an authentically “Mormon” people—a people who, much like in our current reality, function both in a large-scale, institutional church, while still maintaining the strong sense of identity and the tension with the outside society that characterize sects. 

My analysis in this article focuses solely on the Mormons as depicted in Leviathan Wakes. However, the Mormon starship Nauvoo—which is commandeered, renamed Behemoth, converted into the Medina Station, and is never returned to the Mormons—continues to play a significant part in the later books as a colossal battleship and then bridgepoint to new worlds. This development presents opportunity for further investigation, perhaps regarding the nature of Latter-day Saints’ pacifism and militancy, their response to confiscation of property, or even their reaction to anti-Mormon sentiment, and whether members of the church (or the church as a whole) are viewed as standing up for themselves, or whether they can simply be trodden upon without repercussion. History provides examples of a spectrum of Latter-day Saint responses. Moreover, the seizure of the temple-ship may play upon anxieties regarding the desecration of the sacred and the danger of the government encroaching upon separate, holy space. The confiscation of the ship also invites an analysis of ways in which Mormon beliefs have fed into outside groups’ political agendas. Such questions are beyond the scope of this article, but they underscore the ways in which Corey’s authentic depiction of the Mormons and the Nauvoo provides rich fodder for discussion.James S. A. Corey’s treatment of the Mormons in Leviathan Wakes depicts a people who are large enough to be considered a “church” by Weberian standards. This is based on their implied political confidence and on their financial ability to build the mammoth starship Nauvoo. Such financial ability suggests a relatively large member base at some point, due to the practice of gathering tithing from church members. This in turn points to a movement that is mainstream enough to attract and retain converts. However, the Mormons’ counter-cultural family ideals and intense level of piety indicate a movement that still maintains a level of tension with the outside society, which is an important part of maintaining identity as a group. Thus, much as in Mauss’s assessment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in real life, the Mormons in Leviathan Wakes function simultaneously as both a sect and a church. Corey’s astute characterizations of family values, financial stability, and temple imagery draw from accurate representations of Latter-day Saints and allow him to generate an authentic portrayal of a potential alternate reality.

NOTES

[1] The norm varies by context. For example, in nineteenth-century America, strict monogamy was the norm, which the church challenged through polygamy. This contrasts with The Expanse, in which multi-person relationships are the norm, but having numerous children in a single family unit is not the norm.

[2] James S. A. Corey is a pseudonym for two male authors. I use he/him pronouns to refer to the authorial unit.

[3] Editor’s Note: The “alternative” family arrangements depicted in The Expanse are democratic and gender-equal (and often gender-fluid), and are thus quite different from patriarchal polygyny.

[3] This perception was not necessarily incorrect. A former employee of Ensign Peak (the church’s financial firm) leaked the financial reports of the church in 2020, prompting some to decry the ethics of maintaining secrecy around what some might consider to be an obscene amount of money ($100 billion). Discussion also centered around the usage of largely donated funds, with some calling for a revocation of the church’s tax-free status. See: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-mormon-church-amassed-100-billion-it-was-the-best-kept-secret-in-the-investment-world-11581138011Leviathan Wakes (2011) predates the 2020 leaks and steers away from any discussion on financial ethics. It focuses precisely on the repercussions of that wealth for the storyline, namely that the church is using its enormous wealth to promote Mormon family values.


WORKS CITED

Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1890-1930. University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Bradley-Evans, Martha. Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and Equal Rights. Signature Books, 2005.

Corey, James S. A. Leviathan Wakes. Kindle ed., Orbit Books, 2011.

Flake, Kathleen. The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle. University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Gordon, Sarah Barringer. The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America. University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Hardy, B. Carmon. Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage. University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Hinckley, Gordon B. “Latter-Day Saints in Very Deed.” Ensign, Nov. 1997, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1997/11/latter-day-saints-in-very-deed?lang=eng. Accessed 30 April 2021. 

Hinckley, Gordon B., and et al. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Ensign, Nov. 1995, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1995/10/the-family-a-proclamation-to-the-world?lang=eng.

Ioselevich, Dmitriy. “BYU Kicks Brandon Davis Off Team for Having Sex: Has Honor Code Gone Too Far?” Bleacherreport.com, 3 Mar. 2011, https://bleacherreport.com/articles/625327-byu-kicks-brandon-davis-off-team-for-having-sex-has-honor-code-gone-too-far. Accessed 30 Apr. 2021.

Koehrsen, Jens. “When Sects Become Middle Class: Impression Management among Middle-Class Pentecostals in Argentina.” Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review, vol. 78, no. 3, 2017, 318-39.

Madsen, Carol Cornwall. Emmeline B. Wells: An Intimate History. The University of Utah Press, 2017.

Mason, Patrick Q. Mormonism and Violence: The Battles of Zion. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Mauss, Armand L. The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation. University of Illinois Press, 1994.

McKinley, Jesse, and Kirk Johnson. “Mormons Tipped Scale in Ban on Gay Marriage.” The New York Times, 14 Nov. 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/15/us/politics/15marriage.html.

Prince, Gregory A. Gay Rights and the Mormon Church: Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences. University of Utah Press, 2019.

“Temple List.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1997/11/latter-day-saints-in-very-deed?lang=eng. Accessed 30 Apr. 2021.

The Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.

Van Biema, David. “Kingdom Come.” Time Magazine, vol. 150, no. 5, Aug. 4, 1997. https://time.com/vault/issue/1997-08-04/page/51/ Accessed 15 May 2021.

Walch, Tad. “Church Finances: Presiding Bishopric Offers Look Inside Financial Operations of Growing Faith.” Deseret News, 4 Feb. 2020, https://www.deseret.com/faith/2020/2/14/21133740/mormon-church-finances-billions-presiding-bishopric-ensign-peak-tithing-donations-byu-real-estate.

Weber, Max. The Sociology of Religion. Methuen, 1963.Yorgason, Ethan R. Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region. University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Rebekah Call is a PhD Candidate in Religious Studies—Critical Comparative Scripture at Claremont Graduate University. Her primary area of emphasis is Hebrew Bible with a secondary emphasis in Mormon Studies.


The Most Mormon Magic System: How Brandon Sanderson Turned Agency into Fantasy


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Symposium: Mormonism and SF


The Most Mormon Magic System: How Brandon Sanderson Turned Agency into Fantasy

Liz Busby

As a prominently religious author, Brandon Sanderson has been frequently asked about how his beliefs influence his work. In a podcast recorded in 2010 for the online magazine Mormon Artist, he stated how LDS thought makes its way into his epic fantasy novels: 

I don’t go into my work actively making any aspect of it LDS, [. . . but] if you look at who I am, and what my mythology is [. . .]—using that in the definitional sense of it, not looking at it as mythology is untrue—what my mythology is, what my belief in how things work is, influences what I do when I write [. . . ]. And so I end up making these fantasy worlds that do have some core underlying LDS-style mythology. (Sanderson et al.)

This idea that religious beliefs can be re-embodied into a fantasy novel evokes the concept of mythopoeic literature, popularized by C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. In mythopoeic literature, the author creates a new set of myths, which “influence the spiritual, moral, and/or creative lives of the characters” and “also inspire the reader to examine the importance of mythology in his or her own spiritual, moral, and creative development” (“About the Society”). For example, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia reinvented Christian mythology in a secondary world. He described his writing process this way: “Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen” (Schakel 37).

In writing classes and interviews, Sanderson consciously rejects comparisons between his writings and Lewis’s in favor of Tolkien. Sanderson says, “I’m not setting out to be like C.S. Lewis and write parables of belief. I’m trying more what Tolkien did in that I tell story and setting first, and let theme and meaning take care of itself” (“Barnes and Noble Book Club Q&A”). From Sanderson’s perspective, Tolkien represents the author who lets meaning naturally develop from their work whereas Lewis picks a specific meaning he wants to convey and then constructs the story to bring that point across. 

However, this comparison overly simplifies the mythopoeic nature of Lewis’s work and minimizes the strong roots that Sanderson’s own work has in LDS theology. While some of Lewis’s fictional works are strict allegories with a clear message (for example. Pilgrim’s Regress and The Great Divorce), the Chronicles of Narnia are not. Though three of the volumes contain biblical retellings (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe tells the story of the crucifixion and resurrection; The Magician’s Nephew, the creation and fall; and The Last Battle, the second coming and final judgment), the remaining four volumes do not have a strict correspondence. Instead, these novels set out to explore concepts important to Christian life by telling a story in which these principles are important. 

For example, one possible interpretation of The Silver Chair is as an examination of “the complicated relationship between personal freedom and the need for obedience” (Schakel 71). In the beginning of the book, Aslan gives Jill four signs to follow, “which become what the words of the law were for Israel: a source of guidance and direction” (Schakel 72). From there, the plot is driven by the following (and misinterpreting) of the signs, analogous to mortals trying to understand God’s will and mostly getting it completely backwards. It is however not a direct retelling of any story in the Old or New Testaments, nor does it have a clear didactic message on how humans might better interpret God’s will. The most explicitly Christian scene in The Silver Chair occurs near the end of the novel when the Green Lady attempts to convince Puddleglum, Jill, and Eustace that the overworld was something they imagined, and Puddleglum presents a sort of “Pascal’s wager” of reasoning for his belief regardless of reality. He says, “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—…in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. . . . I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia” (Lewis, The Silver Chair 190). Though there are strong Christian themes, The Silver Chair and the remaining Narnia books don’t simply retell an existing narrative with new window dressing, but rather explore ideas important to Lewis’s personal mythology of faith in a more wholistic way.

In the following examination of the mythology and magic system of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, I argue that its nature appears similar to Lewis’s work in books like The Silver Chair, exploring concerns and perspectives unique to the Mormon faith of its author.

Roshar and Restorationism

The Stormlight Archive is an epic fantasy series set on the planet Roshar, home to giant crustaceans and violent hurricanes. Long ago, the evil Voidbringers were sealed away by ten heroic demigods known as the Heralds and their armies of magic-wielding Knights Radiant. Thousands of years later, much about the ancient conflict has been mythologized or forgotten, but there are signs that the ancient enemy will soon be returning. As Roshar enters a golden-age of magic-assisted technology, the ancient powers of the Knights Radiant are once again manifesting in unlikely people, including Kaladin Stormblessed, a young slave traumatized by his experiences as a soldier, and Shallan Davar, a bright young scholar with a dark past. Dalinar Kholin, a noble from the warlike Alethi nation, begins seeing visions that purport to be from the Almighty, claiming that the enemies of humanity will soon return. Three gods watch over the planet and the plot: Cultivation and Honor, who are aligned with the human characters, and Odium, who is aligned with the coming enemy. The series follows these and other characters in a story of not only global, but metaphysical, proportions, as they strive to uncover the truth about the past and master themselves in the present in order to fight for the future of the planet. Only four volumes out of a projected ten have been published at the time of this writing.

This Mormon mindset of recovering power through unearthing lost knowledge and receiving divine authority is reflected in most of Sanderson’s works; the Stormlight Archive is no exception. One of the foundational principles of the Mormon restoration movement was the idea that the true sacraments, or ordinances, of the primitive Christian church had been lost over the centuries, along with the proper authority to perform them. Terryl Givens writes:

[Joseph] Smith believed that in his day neither the proper ordinances nor the authority to perform them was to be found on earth. […] Restoring this loss of priesthood authority, and consequently of the proper forms of “true order” and “true worship,” was the great project Saints understood as the purpose of Smith’s ministry. (Givens 28)

These ordinances were seen as critical to the process of human salvation and reconciliation with God. Joseph Smith taught that the problems with his contemporary Christianity could not be corrected by a reformation; the church required a new establishment of authority and power directly from a divine source.

The state of the dominant church in Stormlight, the Vorin church, reflects the same sort of decay and corruption that Smith saw in the religious atmosphere of his day. Shallan’s studies with her mentor Jasnah reveal that the Vorin church has an authority problem: “the church of this era was suspicious of the Knights Radiant… Yet it relied upon the authority granted Vorinism by the Heralds” (Sanderson, Words of Radiance 65). In other words, the current Vorin religion believed that the Knights Radiant had once betrayed mankind, and so it sought to distance itself from them while maintaining the connection to the Heralds. In order to downplay the importance of the Radiants, church scholars “modified copies of ancient texts… aligning history to match Hierocratic dogma” (Words of Radiance 65). Parallels can be seen to the Protestant reformation as viewed through a Mormon lens: by distancing themselves from the Catholic church, reformers had lost claim to the priesthood foundation of the Catholic church, leaving the church without a divine mandate. This loss of authority and its accompanying rituals situates the plot of the Stormlight Archive in a similar authority crisis to the one felt by Joseph Smith and his followers.

Mormonism’s restorationist impulse is embodied throughout the series in the character of Dalinar Kholin. In the final chapter of the first book, The Way of Kings, Dalinar receives a vision in which a god-like being called Honor instructs him to restore the Knights Radiant, specifically by restoring their ordinances and rituals: “Speak again the ancient oaths and return to men the Shards they once bore. . . . The Knights Radiant must stand again” (Sanderson, The Way of Kings 997). Importantly, the reestablishment of the Radiants does not come through the Vorin church but directly from the divine forces that made the original oaths with men, the spren who are fragments of divine power. Jasanah explains to Shallan that “spren are . . .power . . . shattered power. Power given thought by the perceptions of men. Honor, Cultivation, and . . . and another. Fragments broken off” (Words of Radiance 308-09). Direct bonds with spren allow the Knights Radiant to access ancient powers without reference to the current incarnation of the Vorin church. This parallels the Mormon belief that Joseph Smith established a church through a new direct revelation from God, rather than by reforming existing Christian sects. This restoration of the Radiants is as central to the plot of the Stormlight Archive as the restoration narrative is to Mormon doctrine.

Honor and Covenants

As the Knights Radiant are restored throughout the series, we see that the oaths made by the Knights Radiant reflect a similar structure to the “covenant path” in the LDS church. In this practice, a person progresses toward salvation by a series of covenants with God, at each point making more serious promises and receiving knowledge and blessings in return. The first of these covenants is baptism at age eight, regarded as the “age of accountability” (Doctrine and Covenants 68.27), followed by the temple initiatory and endowment ceremonies in early adulthood, and finally the sealing ordinance when married. Each covenant brings greater promises of spiritual guidance for the individual and greater condemnation if the associated obligations are broken.

This linked progression of greater promises and greater power is mirrored by the five oaths of each order of the Knights Radiant. Each oath consists of a promise of right action or intention and is followed by an increase in the character’s magical abilities. The first oath of each order is the same, a baptism-like covenant entering into the path of a Radiant: “Life before death, strength before weakness, journey before destination” (Sanderson, The Way of Kings 831). These words express a willingness to focus on the process of living rightly rather than a specific result. Each radiant oath beyond the first takes the form of a principle or belief that will guide their actions: “I will protect those who cannot protect themselves” (926); “I will remember those who have been forgotten” (Words of Radiance 704); “I swear to seek justice, to let it guide me” (Oathbringer 882). The LDS temple endowment similarly focuses on covenanting to live by principles—in particular obedience, sacrifice, the law of the gospel, chastity, and consecration (General Handbook, sec 27.2). The order of the Lightweavers is the exception, with a different oath structure that will be addressed below.

Making the magic system dependent on character’s devotion to principles results in a plot that turns largely on when those morals are challenged, just as you would expect from a mythopoeic novel. Once a Radiant has sworn an oath, they are accompanied by a spren, who is the embodiment of their principles and the source of their power. Kaladin, a member of the order of the Windrunners (devoted to the concept of protection), is bonded to an honorspren named Syl. In Words of Radiance, Kaladin attempts to justify his continued participation in an assassination plot against the king by twisting his oath of protection, claiming that removing the king would be protecting the kingdom: “some people—like a festering finger or a leg shattered beyond repair—just needed to be removed” (751). Syl recognizes that his real motivations lie in class resentment and a desire for revenge against the king for sending a cruel nobleman to oversee his village. As a result of Kaladin’s lack of integrity, she begins to lose her sapience. Eventually her bond with him is broken, and Kaladin loses the ability to draw on Stormlight to fuel his magic. When he finally admits his error—“‘If I protect… only the people I like, it means that I don’t care about doing what is right.’ If he did that, he only cared about what was convenient for himself. That wasn’t protecting. That was selfishness” (1014)—and acts to protect King Elhokar from the assassins, only then is Syl able to return and Kaladin able to swear the next oath.

This plotline also reflects Mormon beliefs about priesthood power. The Doctrine and Covenants, a book of early church revelations and part of the Mormon scriptural canon, proclaims that “the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness… When we undertake to cover our sins . . . behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” (Doctrine and Covenants 121.36-37). According to this scripture, no outside authority needs to condemn a person who abuses their spiritual power: as soon as that person acts unrighteously, their authority and power disappear. This injunction becomes quite literal in the Stormlight Archive, as Syl withdraws from Kaladin when he fails to act according to his oaths.

Cultivation and Agency

This magic-morality link leads to a widely recognized problem in Christianity, one strongly portrayed in Oathbringer, the third novel: the problem of sin. Though human beings might have a sincere desire when making covenants, no person is able to consistently do all the things they know are right. Spren figure much more prominently in the plot of Oathbringer, and their common refrain when they meet human characters is that they are oath-breakers. “There is not a man alive who has not broken an oath, Dalinar Kholin,” remarks the Stormfather, the largest of the spren of Honor (Sanderson, Oathbringer 408). Another spren says, “You are not to be blamed. Betraying oaths is simply your nature, as a human” (944). And yet people continue to optimistically make oaths. When the Stormfather accuses Dalinar’s betrothed, Navani, “You have broken oaths before,” she replies, “All people have… We’re frail and foolish. This one I will not break. I vow it” (62). All the humans break oaths, and yet the characters continue to swear these oaths with the absolute confidence that they will obey them.

Sanderson’s solution to this problem showcases a Mormon version of the personal efficacy of Christ’s atonement, portrayed through Dalinar’s plotline in Oathbringer. In this book, readers discover that the upright general, earnest to a fault, who they have grown to love for the first two novels, was once a bloodthirsty warlord. Flashbacks show his crimes escalating until Dalinar burns an entire city to the ground with all its residents, accidentally murdering his peace-loving wife, Evi, in the process. Broken by the realization of his own sins, Dalinar descends into drink before finally seeking out the Nightwatcher, a spren rumored to grant wishes. When he finds her, he wishes for “forgiveness,” which stumps the barely sentient spren, and so Cultivation, the second god of Roshar, arrives. She offers him not absolution, but a temporary erasure of his guilt and memories of his wife: “I will not give you the aptitude, or the strength, nor will I take from you your compulsions. But I will give you… a pruning. A careful excision to let you grow” (Oathbringer 1078). His knowledge of his guilt will later return, but Cultivation’s gift lifts Dalinar’s burden and puts him in a position where he can make choices to grow out of the person who made those sins and into someone who can more clearly comply with Honor’s oaths.

In this way, Cultivation is a force for agency and self-determination, an important principle in the Mormon understanding of the purpose of mortality, which is making choices to “prune” undesirable traits and encourage positive ones in order to become as God would have us be. As Terryl Givens puts it, “in LDS thought, only conformity to law can sanctify us, because only conformity to law creates the causal conditions under which our character is transformed in accordance with our choices” (Givens 239). The importance of humanity’s agency is also a major theme in The Book of Mormon, particularly in a sermon from the prophet Lehi where he teaches, “because that they [humanity] are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day” (The Book of Mormon 2 Nephi 2.26). Lehi is saying that because Christ’s atonement has taken away the immediate condemnation for sin, humanity is now free to make choices for good or evil, facing judgment only at the end of their story rather than throughout it. This is very similar to the way that Sanderson asks his readers to judge Dalinar by his final character, rather than the mistakes he has made along the way.

This emphasis on personal responsibility and agency continues to be a major theme in the fourth book in the series, Rhythm of War. Several of the characters in this book are limited by their circumstances: Kaladin suffers with crushing depression and PTSD, Venli struggles with her prejudice against the humans who enslaved her people, and Shallan uses her multiple personalities to hide the truth from herself about her past sins. In spite of these limitations, each must accept responsibility for their actions to move the plot forward. Shallan, in particular, is an interesting case. The oaths of her order of Knights, the Lightweavers, are made not by committing to follow a principle but by admitting an uncomfortable truth about themselves. Over the course of the previous three books, Shallan’s inability to accept her traumatic past has fragmented her personality into three personas, Shallan, Veil, and Radiant. To progress and reintegrate herself, Shallan must admit that she has broken her previous oaths, killing her first spren. When she is finally able to recover this suppressed memory and admit to her guilt (“I killed my spren. My wonderful, beautiful, kindly spren. I broke my oaths, and I killed her” [Rhythm of War 1017]), Veil becomes a part of Shallan once again, reminding her “that escape wasn’t strength,” but her mistakes and difficult circumstances would help her to grow stronger (Rhythm of War 1017). In this way, her journey mirrors Dalinar’s: she must accept responsibility for her sins and change because of them.

Odium and Satan

This growth through responsibility is opposed by an enemy, both on Roshar and in LDS thought, who seeks to deny human agency by removing accountability. Odium, the third god on Roshar, is the god of divine hatred and strong emotions. In the dramatic ending of Oathbringer, Odium tries to turn Dalinar against humanity, inviting him to give into his war-filled past and become his champion of destruction and retribution. When tempted, Dalinar draws strength by reclaiming all of the guilt Cultivation took from him, as well as the growth that sprang from it. “You cannot have my pain,” he cries to Odium (1132). Odium attempts to absolve Dalinar of his sins by blaming his circumstances—“I was there, influencing you”—but Dalinar insists on claiming accountability for his actions: “I did kill the people of Rathalas… You might have been there, but I made the choice. I decided!” (1134). Odium serves as a tempter to Dalinar not by tempting him to evil, but by tempting him to absolve himself of responsibility for that evil. This type of temptation echoes the Mormon doctrine that Satan’s fall from grace was that he “sought to destroy the agency of man” (Pearl of Great Price Moses 4.3). The LDS version of Satan invites people not just to do evil, but to refuse responsibility for their actions, just as Odium does throughout the Stormlight Archive.

Superficially, Odium’s solution for Dalinar seems similar to Cultivation’s—both desire to remove the burden of guilt for his sins—but with one critical difference, which reflects a Mormon perspective on Christ’s grace. Cultivation’s plan requires that Dalinar grow into someone who can keep his oaths, who can behave ethically despite past mistakes, whereas Odium wants to excuse Dalinar’s actions without any requirement of change. The LDS view of Christ’s saving power emphasizes the importance of personal change as a result of divine forgiveness. Givens states that “salvation itself in Mormon doctrine is not a gift that God can bestow or a reward that humans can earn or merit. . . . Salvation is a natural consequence of compliance with law . . . which eventual compliance is made possible by the gift of Christ’s atonement” (238). From a Mormon perspective, Christ’s grace exists not to simply wash away all mistakes, but to lighten humanity’s burden of guilt while individuals continue to progress towards perfect righteousness. In other words, it is an atonement that, like Cultivation’s gift to Dalinar, exists to enable personal agency rather than to release humanity from accountability.

Clearly, Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive does not just incidentally parallel many aspects of the Mormon theory of salvation; rather, the series is largely about these concerns. The corruption of the Vorin church and the need for restoration rather than reformation portray a uniquely Mormon conception of the world, expressed through the person of Dalinar Kholin. The gods of the planet, Honor and Cultivation, reflect the pillars of the LDS conception of salvation, covenants and agency, and the plot advances as the characters deal with these concerns. Odium, the divine antagonist of the series, acts similarly to the Mormon version of Satan, taking away responsibility and agency, while characters are redeemed when they instead take responsibility for their faults and move past them. The Stormlight Archive is intrinsically about Mormonism in the same way that The Silver Chair is about Christianity: not by parable but by creating a new mythology with the same underlying worldview. Sanderson has taken elements that are familiar to Mormons and turned them into a magic system that conveys this perspective perhaps more effectively than any missionary text. In this way, his stories fulfill CS Lewis’s perspective about the function of myths: “The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity’” (Lewis, On Stories 196–97).


WORKS CITED

“About the Society.” The Mythopoeic Society, http://www.mythsoc.org/about.htm. Accessed 4 May 2021.

“Barnes and Noble Book Club Q&A.” Arcanum, 8 July 2009, https://wob.coppermind.net/events/202-barnes-and-noble-book-club-qa/#e4514.

Doctrine and Covenants. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.

General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Ebook, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/general-handbook/title-page?lang=eng. Accessed 22 Apr. 2021.

Givens, Terryl L. Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Lewis, C. S. On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature. Reissue edition, HarperOne, 2017.

—–. The Silver Chair. Illustrated edition, HarperCollins, 2009.

Pearl of Great Price. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.

Sanderson, Brandon. Oathbringer. Tor Books, 2017.

—–. Rhythm of War. Tor Books, 2020.

—–. The Way of Kings. First edition, Tor Books, 2010.

—–. Words of Radiance. Tor Books, 2014.

—–. “Writing Excuses.” Mormon Artist, 2010, https://mormonartist.net/issues/issue-13/writing-excuses/.

Schakel, Peter J. The Way Into Narnia: A Reader’s Guide. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005.The Book of Mormon. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.

Liz Busby graduated from Brigham Young University with a BA in English and a minor in chemistry. A lifelong reader of science fiction and fantasy, in 2020 she wrote a five-part series on the history of Mormons and speculative fiction for the Association for Mormon Letters blog. She writes creative non-fiction about her experiences as a mother of four, as well as dabbling in speculative fiction.


The Translation of a Mormon Alien in “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made”


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Symposium: Mormonism and SF


The Translation of a Mormon Alien in “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made”

Dale J. Pratt

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would like to believe their religion would remain vibrant even if their wait for Christ’s Second Coming were prolonged many centuries into the future. SF writers ranging from Robert A. Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land; “The Menace from Earth”) to the duo called “James S. A. Corey” (the Expanse series) make reference to future Mormons who as a people  have maintained faith in the Book of Mormon, temple-building, missionary work, and general cultural status as a “peculiar people” (King James Version 1 Pet. 2.9). Eric James Stone’s Nebula-winning novelette, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” (2010; hereafter, “That Leviathan”), depicts how Harry Malan, president of the tiny Sol branch of the LDS Church, serves Neuter Kimball, an alien convert to the faith many centuries from now. Although the setting of the story––a human-built space station near the center of the Sun––presupposes currently inconceivable leaps in human technological capabilities, Harry’s thoughts and conduct are easily recognizable as those of a believably “faithful Mormon protagonist in a high-tech future,” the creation of which was one of Stone’s motivations for writing the story (Stone, “Mentioning Mormons”). The greater triumph of “That Leviathan,” though, is that it produces a believable portrayal of a faithful Mormon alien, the solcetacean (“swale”) Neuter Kimball, without explicitly teasing out all of the changes in Mormon theology and practice that would be necessary to accommodate such dramatic otherness. The story takes for granted this momentous evolution; it details neither LDS translation and policy-making, nor missionary efforts, nor swale conversions. Instead, it sketches out how mutual bonds of belief and community unite Mormon humans and already-converted Mormon swales. In the “now” of the story, difficulties in translating interspecies cultural expectations and beliefs fade in the light of mutual understanding arrived at through scriptural storytelling. When the flawed-yet-earnest Harry stumbles into an epic confrontation with an alien “god,” he struggles to translate his strong moral certainty into terms intelligible to non-believing human scientists and aliens alike. Ultimately, Christ’s famous dictum, “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (King James Version John 15.13), conveys Harry’s motives and meaning: “He [Christ] was willing to die for the least of us, while you [Leviathan] are willing to kill the leas–” (“That Leviathan” 26). In its matter-of-fact acceptance of successful translation, “That Leviathan” celebrates resilience and flexibility in Mormon theology and religious practice, pitting acts of faith, personal revelation, and the fellowship of the saints against programmatic doctrinal rigidity, incomprehension, and hyperawareness of otherness. 

Mormonism is replete with translation and translation theory. Founder Joseph Smith claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates shown to him by the angel Moroni. Within the book itself, we find accounts of prophets translating records from other plates and stones, peoples whose language “has become corrupted” (Book of Mormon, Omni 1.17-20), and an account of a group who maintained their language in the aftermath of Babel. Joseph Smith also reworked portions of the KJV Bible in a process the Church calls “translation” (Matthews, 763-69). When Old Testament prophet Enoch and the people of the city of Zion, as well as Elijah and figures from the Book of Mormon, are taken up into heaven and become immortal, they are called “translated beings” (McConkie 1485-86). The traditional rite-of-passage for faithful LDS young women and men  (the eighteen-month to two-year missionary experience) frequently entails learning foreign languages on the fly as they attempt to teach and people from disparate cultures and traditions. Even the monthly testimony meetings have members struggling, very often with cliched language, to translate their deepest spiritual feelings into words.

The brevity and straightforward plot of “That Leviathan” understate its broad conception of Mormonism. Harry Malan’s congregation includes six humans and forty-six solcetaceans––gigantic plasma beings that live within stars. When Harry learns (through an awkward confessional interview with Neuter Kimball) that smaller swales are often forced to participate in non-consensual sex, he sets out to inform swale “authorities” (7; 16-17), heedless of human warnings about respect for swale culture and Neuter Kimball’s explanation that there is no swale law against such behavior. Accompanied by Neuter Kimball and Dr. Juanita Merced (a “solcetologist” working at the station), Harry meets Leviathan, the ancient, original swale who believes herself to be a god. Neuter Kimball worries the encounter parallels the Book of Mormon confrontation between the prophet Abinadi and the wicked King Noah, which ends with Abinadi’s martyrdom. Harry suggests that no, better to ponder another Book of Mormon story, that of Ammon who successfully converts the Lamanite King Lamoni. The proud Leviathan, offended by Harry’s impudent attempt at ethical debate and his intimation that there are greater things in the universe than Leviathan, rebuffs him and condemns Neuter Kimball to death. When Harry and Juanita desperately attempt to rescue their friend, Leviathan becomes curious and questions Neuter Kimball about why aliens would sacrifice themselves for a swale. Neuter Kimball transmits the Bible and the Book of Mormon to Leviathan (swales have the capacity to “read” entire texts instantaneously) (29-30). Finally understanding, Leviathan pardons Neuter Kimball and decrees that Mormon swales are not to be forced into sexual activity. Mirroring Neuter Kimball’s scripture-laden conversations with Harry, Leviathan instructs Harry to remember what King Agrippa said to Paul. Harry explains the biblical reference to Juanita: Agrippa, sitting in judgment over Paul, declares “almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28); Leviathan citing the passage conveys to Harry her acceptance of Harry’s request and also her understanding about the role of scriptures in Mormonism’s view of Christianity.

Throughout the text, understanding does not depend on the semantic charge of specific words, each encased in layers of untranslatable nuance. Rather, overt allusions to scriptural stories function as a verbal shorthand that bypasses normal translation; Harry, Neuter Kimball, and finally Leviathan communicate and reach understanding by merely mentioning each story as an analogue to their current situations. Just as the phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” imparts a tremendous amount of information both to Captain Picard when his universal translator proves inadequate, and to fans who know and love the “Darmok” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, [1] scriptural allusions in “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” (including the title itself) facilitate mutual true understanding between the characters and also communicate the authentic “Mormon-ness” of the tale. 

The story also illuminates contemporary Mormonism’s sometimes equivocal efforts to overcome semantic incommensurabilities between its discourse and that of traditional Christianity. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints believe themselves to be Christians, but their version of who God is, what God is like, and how God should be worshiped differs immensely from traditional Protestant and Catholic theology and practice. Should they be accepted by the broader religious community as Christian, or shunned (or embraced) as something else? The current institutional unease with the term “Mormon” and how it underscores differences with traditional Christianity (Jarvis 941-42; see Nelson, “The Correct Name of the Church” and “The Name of the Church”) must be balanced against the notion, canonized in LDS scripture, that the church founded by Joseph Smith is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased” (Doctrine and Covenants 1: 30). Mormonism’s raison d’être is its difference from mainstream Christianty, but it proclaims that its difference consists in the greater authenticity of its Christianity. Mormonism purports to be “more Christian” than Christianity.

Michael Collings argues that Mormonism cannot be represented well in SF, because the extrapolation and speculation about the future so fundamental to SF often becomes subordinated to doctrinal exposition of a revelatory religion (116). Science fiction (or indeed any fiction) about Mormonism must deal with the inherent strangeness of Mormonism. Despite twentieth-century Mormonism’s quixotic attempt to become a mainstream Christian denomination, Mormonism has dwelt on the frontiers of acceptability since its founding. Its claims of ongoing revelation to prophetic leaders, new canonical scriptures, required temple ordinances for salvation, teachings about polygyny (at least for a time), and its millenarianism constitute doctrinal strangeness from other Christian denominations. Its (now disavowed) proscription of priesthood ordination for Black males and its continued conservative sexual and gender politics cast Mormonism against mainstream advances toward racial and gender equality. Loving acceptance of LGBTQ+ members in the LDS Church, although a stated goal, seems to be a vague, unrealized dream. Here, then, lies a suitable test for Collings’s argument that the cognitive estrangement of an SF story representing future Mormonism is bested by the estrangement accompanying Mormonism in general. If the story can depict future Mormonism without being specifically about future Mormonism, then the wonders of cognitive estrangement and extrapolation engendered by good SF become possible. The trick would be to make “future Mormonism” recognizable as Mormonism to contemporary readers (both members and nonmembers of the LDS church), without trudging through a preachy “info dump” or recitation specifying evolutionary changes in doctrine and practice. “That Leviathan” shows it is possible to translate Mormon practice and discourse to science fiction’s literary page; Harry Malan is convincing as a futuristic (human) Mormon, and even an alien Mormon, a figure embodying multiple degrees of otherness, becomes intelligible.

In Stone’s future, Mormons are still a fringe group; Mormon swales doubly so (or even triply so, because they are queer). The story elicits myriad unanswered questions about how Mormon theology and practice have been translated and expanded to make the swales “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (King James Version Eph. 2.19). For instance, for swales to be considered official members of the LDS Church, references in scripture and Church policy would have to be retranslated to expand their meaning. When “Adam fell that men might be,” did the effects of the Fall include the swales and the strange new worlds they inhabit? The continuation of that verse—“and men are, that they might have joy” (Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 2.25)—can be taken to include “women,” but does the verse also contain promise for swales? How are swales redeemed through the Atonement of Christ? Are male swales ordained to the priesthood, given that no laying on of hands by those in authority is possible? [2] Are swales, who have three sexes (male, female, and neuter), separated by gender categories during Priesthood and Relief Society meetings, the way human Mormons are (see note 6 below)? What about temple endowments, the covenants required for salvation that currently are administered only in physical LDS temples which swales could never visit? And what of sins that only swales can commit, because of their environment or physiology? [3] Somehow, in the Mormonism of “That Leviathan,” these questions have been answered or made irrelevant. The multifarious queerness of faithful Mormon swales does not in any way isolate them from other Mormons. It presents obvious challenges to Harry as he seeks to serve Neuter Kimball as a member of an exotic, mostly inscrutable alien culture, but not because Harry or his Mormonism of the future is xenophobic or homophobic. 

Readers such as Abigail Nussbaum, David Moles and others who have been harshly critical of this story would likely dispute this charitable reading and want explicit answers to the aforementioned questions about how swales fit into (contemporary) Mormonism. David Moles, for instance, fumes about the Nebula awarded to a story that “put[s] forward no fantasy, unless the fantasy that the world is an uncomplicated place populated chiefly by straw men and contrived examples is a fantasy” (Moles, Blog post). Abigail Nussbaum concurs and adds: “The premise of proselytizing to aliens raises a lot of questions, but Stone is more interested in giving definitive answers, ones that shut down all objections to missionary work, among humans and aliens alike” (“The 2011 Hugo Awards”). These critiques share unhappiness with “dodgy politics” in contemporary Mormonism (Nussbuam’s phrasing); “That Leviathan” was published in the wake of the LDS Church’s 2008 campaign in support of California Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage in the state. But they also share an unwillingness to admit that the story is not about proselytizing aliens nor how future Mormonism came to be. [4] Nussbaum claims that Stone sets up a thought-experiment carefully tailored to avoid dealing with the problematic issues of Christian evangelizing so that he can say “under these conditions, it’s totally OK to impose Christian values on aliens” (“The 2011 Hugo Awards”). Without mentioning any sort of Prime Directive, Nussbaum seems to project an idealized model of interspecies contact in which cultural exchanges between groups are limited to science and technology, and perhaps art. Anything religious, though, somehow smacks of colonialism or economic exploitation. 

Stone recognizes the delicacy of the evangelized aliens and broaches the topic from the start: upon their first meeting, Juanita orders Harry to “stop interfering with my studies…” because “you’re teaching them human myths that have no application for their society” (3). Later, we learn that before becoming a member of the Church, Neuter Kimball had gone by the name Pemberly; Juanita does not seem upset that her swale friend had “read” and enjoyed Pride and Prejudice (another swale had transmitted it to them). The objectionable “Christian value” that Harry seeks to impose on swale culture is a prohibition against rape, supposedly a concept that swales do not recognize. Several of the “solcetologists” studying the swales denounce Harry’s attempt to protect the lesser swales from sexual assault; Harry protests: “You scientists who study the swales have strict rules about interfering with swale culture, and you try to avoid offending them. To me that smacks of condescension––you presume that swale culture is weak and cannot withstand any outside influence” (15). While Harry’s headstrong approach to the solving the problem––inform “the authorities” and have them prohibit the behavior––assumes that swale culture follows a human paradigm, his desire to change swale sexual conduct is well-meaning and analogous to contemporary Western abhorrence of voluntary female genital cutting. [5] Moles’s and Nussbaum’s objections to the story are mostly about perceived preachiness and the pervasive silence about the differences between contemporary and futuristic Mormonism. However, the story must not be read as an allegorical heuristic towards achieving open-mindedness in future Mormonism. Instead, that open-mindedness is a given, as a representation of the community all Mormons want to enjoy, despite their differences.

The story’s unwillingness to document the almost infinite evolutionary steps from contemporary Mormonism to its own version of LDS theology mirrors the utopian ideals inherent in Mormonism, but also those of an important strain of SF. Mormon theology includes numerous latter-day missions for the Church: spreading the restored Gospel throughout the Earth, recovering and cataloguing the genealogy of the entire human family, performing baptisms and temple ordinances for all who ever lived, and in general preparing the world for the Second Coming of Christ. Faithful Mormons believe that through faith, energetic discipleship, and continuing revelation (to leaders of the Church but also to individuals), the path towards completing these projects will become increasingly clear. Yet, questions abound. What of the Neanderthals? Does “world” mean “entire cosmos”? Are artificial intelligences, androids, aliens and other members of the posthuman panoply children of God and hence eligible for salvation? Answers to these speculative questions, should their practical need arise, will come through revelation and protracted wrestling with details and with recalcitrant members and leaders. Much SF never deals with the nuts and bolts of achieving the transition from contemporary problems to future ideals. For example, Star Trek: The Next Generation depicts Captain Picard debating the finer points of the ethics of the Prime Directive on numerous occasions, yet it does not detail (at least, on screen) the struggles required for disparate alien civilizations to unite behind the doctrine. The utopian ideals (or the dystopian nightmares) of such SF provide the backdrop for the tale; the achievement of the ideal is a different (and untold) story. “That Leviathan” requires readers to consider if star-dwelling plasma space whales really are more plausible than an LDS Church that accepts them as members. It remains to be seen whether the LDS Church will negotiate its multifarious contemporary struggles, but if the Church can make room for Neuter Kimball, perhaps it holds a place for women with priesthood callings, Black apostles and prophets, and LGBT+ members in loving relationships. 

Neuter Kimball’s choice of their name underscores how far the LDS Church has evolved. Harry believes that the alien took the name from “a 20th-Century prophet of the Church” (5)––i.e., Spencer W. Kimball, remembered chiefly for his revelation ending the racist ban against Black men holding the priesthood. Following the story’s logic, it seems likely that the alien once known as Pemberly has “read” a transmitted copy of Kimball’s influential The Miracle of Forgiveness. The book contains several chapters sternly specifying numerous “diabolical crimes of sexual impurity” (61), including “The Sin Next to Murder” (sex outside marriage) and “Crime Against Nature” (homosexuality). Concerning the victim of rape, although President Kimball teaches that “there is no condemnation where there is no voluntary participation,” he also declares, in a case of victim-blaming, that “once given or taken or stolen [chastity] can never be regained” and that “it is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without struggle” (195; emphasis mine). For President Kimball, chastity equals virtue. At the start of “That Leviathan,” Harry speaks in church on forgiveness, and the following hour’s Sunday school lesson addresses chastity. [6] The next day, Neuter Kimball tries to confess to sexual sin: “a female merged her reproductive patterns with mine” (6) (note that the Neuter Kimball does not transmit “rape”). The conversation illustrates many of the pitfalls of translation: capturing emotional tone, addressing cultural and ceremonial norms, expressing nuances (in this case, distinguishing varieties of sexual behavior), and false assumptions of shared understanding or worldviews. More importantly, Harry summarizes Mormon thinking about swale sexual sin: “In applying the law of chastity to the swales, Church doctrine said that reproductive activity was to be engaged in only among swales married to each other, and only permitted marriages of three swales, one of each sex” (6). This bald declaration of how swales should behave would probably make Moles, Nussbaum, and many other critics of Mormonism gnash their teeth, but the most interesting feature of Neuter Kimball’s confessional interview is Harry’s reaction: he insists that the alien has not sinned, because they were raped. There is no hint of victim-blaming, no intimation that Neuter Kimball is any less virtuous than before. Quandaries may have arisen in the past from the reconfiguration of human theology and religious practices to accommodate alien members, but in the “now” of the story, Harry has no doubt. Whatever the imperfections in today’s LDS leadership, in Stone’s future Mormonism, a young, inexperienced branch president is willing without hesitation to sacrifice his life for a queer member of the Church. Harry acts the way today’s LDS Church leaders ought to act, were they successfully and completely  translating Christ’s Gospel into their practices. 

In a sense, Neuter Kimball’s behavior can be read as “translating” Mormonism into the language(s) of the swales. They chose to become a member of the Church because “I do not want her [Leviathan] as my god” (18). They stand prepared to die for their faith: “I will have faith in God and go with you” (18). Their faith precedes the miracle of Leviathan’s mercy (which is ultimately rooted in the native curiosity all swales exhibit), and facilitates communication with her about Mormonism’s sacred texts. Humans, too, learn a lot about swales because of Neuter Kimball’s faith; Juanita’s adventure with Harry and Neuter Kimball gives her an unparalleled perspective on swale behavior. On a broader level, as a faithful Mormon alien, Neuter Kimball makes futuristic Mormonism mean more than some random odd detail in a futuristic story otherwise unconcerned with the religion. When Harry welcomes his congregation with “My Dear Brothers and Sisters . . . and Neuters,” the episode opens wide the themes of translation and religion far beyond the silly wink at the possibility of “alienating” one-third of the swales (2). Instead, it trumpets the power of future Mormonism’s successful embrace of the queer aliens. 

Queerness itself lays bare the high stakes of translation. A queer person approaches the question of their identity (for themselves and for others) through language. They perform their identity through myriad discursive transactions in fields dominated by patriarchal or otherwise ideological discourses. The offensive question “what are you?”––meant to underscore otherness––announces the perils of communicating identity through always-already imperfect language. A queer person’s translations of their internal experiences as an individual (human) being into language simultaneously constitute their identity, liberate them from the bonds of heteronormativity, and alienate them from their past selves and from many of the persons that surround them. But they also can spark changes in attitudes and behavior in their interlocutors. In a strange yet evocative way, a queer person’s journey through contemporary discourse resembles those of young LDS missionaries struggling to articulate in a foreign language the spiritual witness they wish to share. Incomprehension, rejection, persecution, indifference, and sometimes––how rare a possession––understanding and acceptance. Part of the childhood’s end of the LDS Church will come when these queer journeys are made intelligible.

“That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” is a story about the acceptance of queerness that neither denies problems currently faced by Mormonism, nor translates or projects contemporary Mormonism’s gender and sexuality difficulties into the future. Rather, it shows that future Mormonism, miraculously, has left those issues in the past; “for with God, nothing shall be impossible” (King James Version Luke 1: 37). The story posits that understanding is based not on semantic content of specific words, but on the nuanced meaning of stories. In his diatribe against “That Leviathan,” David Moles admits that “whatever our political and religious differences have been,” most of the Mormons he has known are “good-hearted, level-headed people whose unassuming natures often concealed a wry humor and a wealth of well-observed stories” (Blog post). Moles is correct that Mormons, individually and collectively, have a wealth of stories to tell. Today’s LDS children sing Primary songs about Nephi, the army of Helaman, Book of Mormon stories, and about pioneer children who sang as they walked and walked across the Great Plains. Although Moles may never recognize it, Stone created Neuter Kimball, a faithful Mormon alien, to be just such a “good-hearted, level-headed” person of faith. Stone’s futuristic Mormonism is intelligible and compelling, in the same way that stories from different cultures in the distant past can speak to Mormons of today. Someday, perhaps, a real-life extraterrestrial analogue to Neuter Kimball will be translated and immortalized in Mormon story and song, and take its place alongside the scriptural stories of Moses and Pharoah, Abinadi before King Noah, Paul and Agrippa, Joseph Smith in Carthage Jail, and Job before God. Until then, the story of Harry and Neuter Kimball’s audience with Leviathan can represent faith and hope that the meaningfulness of Mormonism can be translated into future, even alien, contexts.

NOTES

[1] Star Trek’s universal translator almost unfailingly translates the languages of alien races into standard English (and also from English to the alien language). In the “Darmok” episode, however, Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise learns a different way to communicate with a new alien race when he is forced by those aliens to confront a monster alongside the alien commander. Their shared experience unlocks for Picard the language of the aliens, who, instead of using subject-verb-object sentences, communicate by making references to mythological or historical episodes.

[2] “We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof” (Articles of Faith 1: 5; emphasis mine).

[3] As Father Peregrine, Ray Bradbury’s missionary to the Martians, reminds us: “if there are new senses on Mars, you must admit the possibility of unrecognizable sin [on Mars]” (113).

[4] When Einstein asks what the universe would look like if one were traveling at the speed of light, the proper response is not: “no one will ever travel the speed of light.” Stone is no Einstein, but the proper response to his story cannot be merely to denigrate it and insist that Mormonism could never, for any reason, become the Mormonism depicted in “That Leviathan.”

[5] Even the adoption of the term “female genital cutting” over “female genital mutilation” displays the thorny problems involved in debating cultural relativism, traditional cultural or religious practices, human rights and ethical imperatives. For a detailed discussion of FGC and cultural relativism, see Cassman.

[6] At the time the story was written, LDS Sunday meetings consisted of a seventy-minute “Sacrament” meeting (substituted on the first Sunday of each month with “Fast and Testimony” meeting) involving the entire congregation. During the following Sunday School hour, adult members attended “Gospel Doctrine” or occasional specialized classes, youth attended classes according to their year in school, and children under twelve attended Primary (which lasted two hours). During the third hour, adult and youth members separated according to gender: adult males attending “Priesthood” and adult females attending “Relief Society” with the youth attending “Young Men” or “Young Women.” Smaller congregations adapt the schedule as best fits their needs (i.e., it makes no sense to separate two or three young people into different Sunday School classes). In 2019, the schedule was shortened to a two-hour block, with Sacrament meeting occurring every week, followed by Sunday School or Priesthood/Relief Society on alternate Sundays (Primary continues on a weekly basis, although it has been shortened to less than one hour each week). In “That Leviathan,” Harry mentions only Sacrament meeting and Sunday School, which could imply that the tiny branch holds both meetings for the entire congregation, dispensing with Priesthood/Relief Society meetings because of the meager makeup of the branch. More likely, and more importantly, the omission of references to Priesthood/Relief Society meetings allows the story to avoid the issue of which meetings the three different genders of swales attend. I recognize that some critics believe this deafening silence controverts the story. However, I find that the story’s silence on this and other gender matters reflects a more upbeat spin on the possibility of Mormonism evolving and adapting to the future.


WORKS CITED

The Articles of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Pearl of Great Price. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2013, pp. 60-61.

Bradbury, Ray. “The Fir Balloons.” The Illustrated Man. Simon and Schuster, 2012, pp. 112-35.

Cassman, Rachelle. “Fighting to Make the Cut: Female Genital Cutting Studied within the Context of Cultural Relativism. Northwestern International Journal of Human Rights 6.1 (Fall 2007): 128-54.

Collings, Michael R. “Refracted Visions and Future Worlds: Mormonism and Science Fiction.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought vol. 21, no. 3, 1984, pp.106-16.

“Darmok.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, created by Gene Roddenberry, directed by Winrich Kolbe, written by Phillip LaZebnik and Joe Menosky, season 5, episode 2, 1991.

The Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Containing Revelations Given to Joseph Smith, the Prophet, with Some Additions by His Successors in the Presidency of the Church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2013.

Jarvis, Donald K. “Mormons, Mormonism.” Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Macmillan, 1992. 941-42.

Kimball, Spencer W. The Miracle of Forgiveness. Bookcraft, 1969.

Matthews, Robert J. “Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST).” Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Macmillan, 1992. 763-69.

McConkie, Mark L. “Translated Beings.” Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Macmillan, 1992. 1485-86.

Moles, David. Blog post. Chrononaut. 7 Jun. 2011, https://chrononaut.org/2011/06/. Accessed 1 May 2021.

Nelson, Russell M. “The Correct Name of the Church.” Sunday General Conference Address, 7 Oct. 2018. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2018/10?lang=eng. Accessed 6 July 2021.

–––. “The Name of the Church.” Official Statement, 16 Aug. 2018, mormonnewsroom.org. Accessed 6 July 2021.

Nussbaum, Abigail. “The 2011 Hugo Awards: The Novelette Shortlist.” Asking the Wrong Questions, 27 May 2011, http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/2011/05/2011-hugo-awards-novelette-shortlist.html. Accessed 1 May 2021.

Stone, Eric James. “Mentioning Mormons in science fiction.” The Dawning of a Brighter Day: Twenty-First Century Mormon Literature, 16 May 2012, http://associationmormonletters.org/blog/2012/05/mentioning-mormons-in-science-fiction/. Accessed 1 May 2021.–––. “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made.” CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2014. Originally published in Analog Science Fiction & Fact, September 2010.

Dale J. Pratt (PhD, Cornell, 1995) is Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses ranging from Introduction to Hispanic Literature to graduate seminars on Don Quixote, Unamuno, Galdós, Comparative  Science Fiction, and Literature and Science. He studies Spanish realism, protohumans and posthumans, and the Spanish Golden Age. His publications include Signs of Science: Literature, Science and Spanish Modernity Since 1868 (2001), as well as articles in Anales galdosianos, Chasqui, Gestos,Revista de estudios hispánicos, Bulletin of the Comediantes, Cervantes, Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, Ometeca, Hélice: Reflexiones Críticas sobre Ficción Especulativa, and Alambique: revista académica de ciencia ficción y fantasía, and numerous book chapters in edited collections.


Soulful Theatre: Mormon Theology of the Body in the Science Fiction Plays of Orson Scott Card


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Symposium: Mormonism and SF


Soulful Theatre: Mormon Theology of the Body in the Science Fiction Plays of Orson Scott Card

Kristin Perkins

There are many moving parts to this essay—which is only fitting since it is performance analysis, and I am deeply invested in the theological and utopian implications of body, space, and time: moving parts that constitute the essential characteristics of theatre. This is an essay, then, about moving parts as much as it is an essay with moving parts. Since there are several threads I’m attempting to weave, or at least braid, I think it’s worth naming them as clearly as possible. This essay examines how theatre (Posing as People directed by Orson Scott Card, specifically) mediates and stages Mormon theologies of the body in the genre of science fiction. In these plays about time travel and body swapping, my understanding of Mormon doctrine of the soul and the import of the body helps parse meaning from the text. These doctrines, in turn, are illuminated in the reflection of science fiction’s speculative mirror. 

Theatre is not merely the site for this exploration but a form uniquely equipped to explore the significations of the body in theology and science fiction. Theatre often posits or implies a future using what Jill Dolan calls utopian performatives that have spiritual dimensions, but these performatives remain grounded in materiality and located in the embodied practice of the stage. Theatre is thus a productive site to analyze the convergence of the metaphysical and physical in the Mormon doctrine of the soul. I’ll return later to Posing as People, the collection of plays based on Card’s short stories, but first, I want to build out a theoretical framework as the scaffold to my case study.

Doctrine and Covenants 88 is a wide-ranging compilation of revelations Joseph Smith taught while at Kirtland, Ohio, from 1882-83. In it, Smith makes a distinction between “spirit” and “soul” (elsewhere used interchangeably), saying, “And the spirit and the body are the soul of man. And the resurrection from the dead is the redemption of the soul” (88.15-16). This doctrine, that the soul is the unification of both the animating spirit and physical body, is fundamental to Latter-day Saint doctrine and the Mormon worldview. It is evidenced repeatedly from adherence to the Word of Wisdom, Mormonism’s strict health code, to belief in the literal embodiment of God. The LDS church eventually codified this doctrine in correlated educational materials. This concept of “soul” effectively collapses the metaphysical dimensions of the spirit into the physical realm of the body, placing divine import on materialism in general and the human body in particular. 

Further Mormonism’s belief in apotheosis, the potential divinization of exalted humans, is contingent on human resurrection into “perfected” bodies. [1] God has a body, and so too, humans must reinhabit bodies after death to become like God. The doctrine of divine embodiment is almost science-fictional in its orientation towards a future utopia in heaven. How Mormons inhabit their bodies on Earth becomes rehearsal for their own divine embodiment. 

In Utopia in Performance, Jill Dolan makes an impassioned case for the necessity and relevance of theatre as a space of utopian performatives, a medium to envision and rehearse better futures and new subjectivities. She acknowledges a religious, or at least spiritual, dimension to her project, partly by way of addressing her critics, going so far as to use religious language — calling theatre a “temple of communion” and referring to the messianic quality of performance as a “deferred moment of transformation toward a better future” (135-6). Central to Dolan’s argument is the imbrication of this idealism and the body since “utopian performatives let us embody conditions of which we can otherwise only dream” (168). For Dolan, theatre is a uniquely capable tool for utopianism because it grounds idealism and civic transformations in embodied practice. Again using religious terminology, she writes, “Theatre can be a secular temple of social and spiritual union not with a mystified, mythologized higher power, but with the more prosaic, earthbound, yearning, ethical subjects” (137). In her good-natured attempt to defend her work from the critique that it is marked by religious-oriented sentimentality, Dolan emphasizes the importance of the “earthbound” and embodied nature of theatre in the pursuit of a spiritual union—this materiality is key to understanding the spiritual affect of theatre.

Dolan’s framework—the enmeshment of embodied performance and spiritual union—combined with the Mormon theology of the soul is one way to understand how theatre forms have functioned in Mormon cultural and religious life. Megan Sanborn Jones has argued that Mormon Pageants, large-cast spectacles performed outdoors around the United States, used embodied performance practices to invoke spiritual affect for both performers and audiences in their re-creation of the past (13). In the most sacred of Mormon rituals enacted in the temple, theatrical forms have been used for decades, with actors embodying characters to re-perform a speculative mytho-history and rehearse entrance into heaven. All temple participants, officiants or not, embody certain performative acts meant to help envision a future divine embodiment and elicit spiritual affect. Theatre thus becomes a site where the collapse of the metaphysical and the physical, the spirit and the body, the sacred and the profane is realized in Mormon traditions. In the formulation found in Doctrine and Covenants 88, we could say theatre is a soulful space where body and spirit become unified in salvific performance believed to be both effective (accomplishing ritual goals) and affective (invoking emotional responses that confirm religious truths).

Leaving to the side the speculative nature of the Latter-day Saint Temple itself, I’ll move to how this “soulful” theatre can function within the genre of science fiction by turning to a science-fictional case study. Posing as People, directed by Orson Scott Card, premiered in September 2004 at the Whitefire Theatre in Los Angeles. It was a collection of three plays adapted from short stories Card wrote early in his career. All three plays, “Clap Hands and Sing,” adapted by Scott Brick, “Lifeloop,” adapted by Aaron Johnston, and “A Sepulchre of Song,” adapted by Emily Janice Card, are faithful adaptations of Card’s work and were edited by Card himself. They include some added details, but the only major difference in the plot beats and characters are practical—adding theatrical devices to stage internal thought or commentary. The short stories, and thus the plays, like so much of Card’s science fiction work, contain Mormon themes, significantly themes around the theology of the body and the perfecting of the spirit and the body towards a unified soul using science fiction tropes. Yet while the adaptations remain faithful in terms of plot and character, the essential shift from the disembodied page to the embodied medium of the stage highlights and gives depth and texture to key themes of corporeality in the stories. 

Card is a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by far the largest denomination of the religious and cultural category of “Mormon.” Card himself has embraced the term “Mormon writer,” sometimes including Mormon characters in his oeuvre, though he remains agnostic as to Mormonism’s impact on his work, suggesting that, while his moral convictions inform his storytelling, “my theology and institutional membership have no place in [my work]” (Moser 33). That said, Card has acknowledged the essential autobiographical nature of any writing, admitting that Mormonism impacts him and condoning scholars like Michael R. Collings and Alma Jean Porschet who have excavated Mormon themes in Card’s work. As Collings says, many of Card’s symbolic references “only resonate fully in conjunction with an awareness of LDS teachings” (Collings 58). Drawing on this tradition but working with an unexamined subject, I uncover how Mormon theology of the soul plays out in two of the three plays in Posing as People, not as the key to the text but as a lens to elucidate one thematic dimension of Card’s work

“Clap Hands and Sing,” the first play presented in Posing as People and written by Card’s friend and fellow Mormon Scott Brick, is adapted from the short story of the same name. In “Clap Hands and Sing,” Charlie, played by Stefan Rudnicki, is the aging CEO of a company that pioneered the time-travel device known as THIEF, Temporal Hermeneutic Insertion into the Everwhen Field, which transports a consciousness into another body to live out a past day. Near death, Charlie remembers Rachel Carpenter (Emily Janice Card), a girl he used to know but never expressed his feelings for. Despite it being illegal to use THIEF in a way that might change the present, Charlie’s consciousness travels back in time to his younger body (Scott Brick) where he has one night together with Rachel. Remorseful that he may have ruined her life, Charlie is despondent when he returns to the present until his computer system, an AI named Jock, reveals that the young Rachel in the memory was also inhabited by her older consciousness. Right before Rachel died, she requested to inhabit her younger body and relive the same day with Charlie. Thus, both Charlie and Rachel were older consciousnesses inhabiting their younger selves, for as Jock says, “There are some things in this world so pure we cannot ruin them, despite our best intentions. Or our worst” (51).

As a writer deeply concerned with morality, “Clap Hands and Sing” is essentially about a pitiless and greedy man’s redemption, but corporeality mediates the redemption arc as the mature consciousness returns to the young body. Reinhabiting one’s own young body is an echo of Mormon beliefs in the final resurrection in which all spirits, retaining experience and wisdom, will be returned to a perfected body. This unification forms the “redemption of the soul” found in scripture. Both Charlie and Rachel, at the end of their respective lives, are returned with their matured consciousnesses to their young bodies. Using masculine language, Charlie says to himself in the mirror after his consciousness has traveled back in time, “And just like that, you’re young again, Charlie. Flex those muscles. Touch the toes you haven’t touched in forty years. . . . It’s all there Charlie. Your virility, your passion, your hunger” (39). 

Theology of the body features beyond the mechanics of time travel reflecting resurrection in the short play. More interestingly, the younger, more perfect body acts as the mediator of redemption. In Mormon theology of the soul, human embodiment is endowed with a moral dimension—the body has a “positive valence in the moral order of the cosmos” (Hoyt and Petrey 539).  Before the time travel, Charlie is self-absorbed, describing himself as both “cruel” and “lustful.” His choice to visit Rachel is an entirely selfish one, but when his consciousness returns twelve hours later, he is immediately remorseful, crying to Jock about his fear that he ruined Rachel’s life. It is not merely his meeting with Rachel that changes Charlie, but the mediation of his youthful, beautiful, virile body given the moral dimension of the perfect body in Mormon thought and emphasized in Mormon culture. [2]

Before Charlie even encounters Rachel for the second time, he behaves differently — an innocent demeanor and good-natured intent despite the play being clear that the consciousness is the same between the two scenes. This is made explicit in a moment when Rachel and Young Charlie are walking. The older Charlie, represented by a different actor, asks his younger self why he is nervous and responds saying, “Just a guess here . . . you are not a virgin, but this body does not know that. This body is alert because it hasn’t yet formed the habits of meaningless passion that you know far too well” (44).  Embedded in this internal musing is the notion that the younger body has a moral dimension and an ontology unto itself despite the implantation of the older and amoral (not to mention, sexually-experienced) consciousness. The body, not the mind, forms habits and the body that reacts to stimuli without conscious control. For Charlie, the time travel becomes not just a way of inhabiting the younger self and seeing Rachel again, but an essential mediation in his moral arc with his more youthful body possessing moral guidance in its fleshy materiality. 

The production choices concerning casting, and thus the presented bodies, drive this point home. Stooped and shuffling, Rudnicki plays Charlie in the opening scene with a grumbling callousness. His interpretation of the character is far from sympathetic, but his scene-partner, the android named Jock played by Scott Brick, serves and cajoles Charlie with good humor and kindness. Even if the audience assumes this is a programmed AI personality, Jock is likable in a way Charlie is not. When it comes time for Charlie to enter the body of his younger self, Rudnicki stands to the side of the stage, and Brick, still as Jock, lies down in the bed. When Brick “wakes” from his sleep he is Young Charlie. This is more than just a fluke born of the little necessities that so often drive double casting in small productions. For one thing, there are many bit parts in “Clap Hands and Sing” that could have been more easily double-cast as Young Charlie. For another, this casting is written into the stage directions, specifying for future productions that these characters are designed to be played by one actor. 

The characters ghost onto each other while Rudnicki as Charlie is free to stand alongside his younger body, observing it. This highly theatrical technique allows for positive associations to accumulate in Brick as Jock and Young Charlie, highlighting the moral dimensions of this individual body. It also clarifies the mediation that happens to Charlie by splitting his character into two parts so that there can be a functional teacher (Brick) of moral affect and embodiment to the embittered man (Rudnicki), completing his character arc in the final scene. And while it makes sense in the plot, it also aligns with Mormon cultural expectations for the morally good character to be young and handsome since youth and beauty are strongly associated with morality and divine corporeality. It is thus the medium of theatre that reveals and concretizes the theologies of the body at play in a time travel and body swapping play.

“A Sepulchre of Songs” was adapted for the stage by Card’s daughter Emily Janice Card, who also stars in it. It is the story of Elaine (Emily Janice Card) as told through the perspective of her unnamed therapist (Kirby Heyborne), named in the script simply “Therapist.”  After a gasoline explosion, Elaine, a teenager at the time of the play, is orphaned and left without her arms or legs, confined to a rest home for her life. Despite this event, she is gregarious, funny, and universally loved by the employees in the rest home. The rest home assigns a therapist to her after she talks about her numerous imaginary friends, including a pig made out of ice and a violent young boy. As she describes it, she knows that these friends aren’t real, but they help her occupy her mind and express her emotions. Relieved, the Therapist nonetheless continues to visit Elaine, mostly just enjoying her company and eventually falling in love with her despite a significant age gap. Elaine begins to talk about a new imaginary friend, Anansa, a spaceship that has contacted her to recruit her into becoming a spaceship, insisting that Elaine is “ just the right size” for it (131). At the end of the play, Anansa and Elaine have “traded places”—Elaine steering a ship through the stars and Anansa having a human body, although without arms and legs. The Therapist, who confesses his love to Elaine/Anansa, is the only one who knows this secret, and the ending leaves ambiguous whether Elaine is delusional. 

Even just in summary, the importance of the human body, the mutability of the body, and the perfectibility of the body are all clear themes in “A Sepulchre of Songs.” Given that body morphology occurs bi-directionally, with Anansa and Elaine “swapping bodies,” it’s worth looking at both instances of change. I don’t take at face value the character’s claim that she has, indeed, traded places with a spaceship. The short story is less ambivalent than the play in this regard—Anansa reads the therapist’s thoughts more than once, implying she is an alien being—but the play intentionally leaves it ambiguous. Ultimately, analyzing the body morphology and its relationship to the soul is less about claiming it “really” happens in the story’s world and more about its representational significance for the characters in the story. As Card says in his afterword to the short story, “Elaine chooses to leave her present life—no matter how you interpret the story” (203). 

The move Anansa makes from being a spaceship to an embodied teenager reflects the Mormon doctrine of the three estates; a conceit Card has used in numerous works, as Collings points out about Speaker for the Dead (58). The three estates represent the pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal existence. According to Mormonism, all current humans chose in pre-existence to have a body and come to Earth. In Mormon scripture, the forces of good and evil battled in pre-mortality, with good triumphing and gaining the right to come to Earth and be embodied. This is yet another Mormon tradition that imbues the body with a moral dimension. According to Joseph Smith, embodiment is the central reason for mortal existence. As he taught, “We came to this earth that we might have a body and present it pure before God in the Celestial Kingdom. The great principle of happiness consists in having a body” (Ehat and Cooke 60). Anansa’s choice to leave her spaceship for a mortal body, even an “imperfect” one without arms and legs, reflects these theological commitments of embodiment. 

Elaine’s choice, too, holds resonance in Mormon teaching, and in particular, aligns with Mormon transhumanism. A sub-disciplinary field that has been gaining popularity recently, Mormon transhumanists argue that transhumanism is synchronous with Mormon theology and doctrine. As the group contends, “Mormonism and Transhumanism advocate remarkably similar views of human nature and potential: material beings organized according to natural laws, rapidly advancing knowledge and power, imminent fundamental changes to anatomy and environment, and eventual transcendence of present limitations” (Mormon Transhumanist Association). As Elaine leaves her bedridden body to become a spaceship, she changes her fundamental anatomy and present limitations in the pursuit of bodily autonomy. Despite it being clear that Elaine is, in fact, becoming a spaceship, the language used to describe her transformation is distinctly human. As Anansa says of Elaine after Elaine inhabits the ship, “she sang and danced and swung her arms. . . . She wouldn’t trade her new arms and legs for anything. They were so new” (144). With the help of technology, Elaine achieves body perfectibility, sailing through the cosmos. 

It’s worth pausing to critique the ableist language Mormons often employ to talk about the deification of the human body in the uniting of the soul. The implication in Mormon theology is that divine corporeality for all of humanity will consist of eliminating disability to align all bodies with a normative understanding of what a “healthy” or “whole” body looks like. Disability scholar Mandi Eatough has noted that, culturally, “Many are quick to tell disabled folks that ‘in Heaven you’ll be whole again’ or that ‘when you die you’ll be healed’. This relies on the idea that ressurected [sic] bodies fit into an able-bodied ideal of perfection/fitness” (@mandieatough). At the end of the play, the Therapist, in one of his narrations, says that he would “like to be God” (147).  He then imagines being God for a moment, describing Anansa/Elaine wheeled toward him and saying, “I give her a left hand and then a right hand, and she waves to me. I put a pair of sturdy legs on her, and I see her running toward me. . . . And then, one by one, I take them all away ” (148). For his patient-turned-lover, the Therapist imagines a body made perfect through alignment with the standard body, presumably the body “made in God’s image” as Mormons believe. Still, Elaine’s transformation into the spaceship can provide a counterpoint and a narrative that emphasizes the Mormon doctrines of bodily mutability, agency, and perfectibility through engaging in transhumanist thought. 

As in “Clap Hands and Sing,” the genre forms of science fiction take on added meaning when presented in embodied practice. The presence of the body in space re-emphasizes themes, as well as leads the audience to visualize (and perhaps model) the divine body through a highly theatrical technique signaling that parts of the body are “gone” without ever fully obscuring them. At the beginning of the play, on stage and in full view of the audience, Emily Janice Card dons long white gloves that cover from her fingertips to her shoulders and then steps to the hospital bed. As she enters the bed, her legs seem to “disappear,” but the theatrical technique, again done in front of the audience, is apparent. The hospital bed she lies in for most of the play has holes where she can insert her legs to give the appearance of not having any. 

The white gloves and the design of the bed together are meant to give the impression that she is missing both arms and legs, but rather than trying to ignore the realities of Card’s body, as the actress representing Elaine/Anansa, the play stages the disappearance of her arms and legs, reminding the audience continually of Elaine’s body’s potential for limbs, and thus the potential for “perfection”—or “wholeness” in the Mormon understanding of the word “perfect.” The limbs are, after all, right there, just “hidden” for the legibility of the story. As Card said in his afterward, “theatrical effects are not limited by realism the way movies are” (149), allowing for theatrical devices that actually stage and continually point toward the potentiality of the body. Indeed, in the final moments of the play, while the therapist describes playing God and giving Elaine/Anansa her limbs back, Emily Janice Card stands and has the white gloves removed by two other actors, staging the “perfecting” (or “making whole”) of her body for the audience, in a gesture of utopian performativity—a gesture only available in the theatre where the artistic medium is the body itself. 

To return to the notion of “soulful” theatre as a way of drawing in Dolan’s utopian performatives in conversation with the Mormon doctrine of soul equaling body and spirit, it is interesting to note that “Clap Hands and Sing” focuses on the healing of the spirit, Charlie’s moral goodness, through the mediation of the body, while “Sepulchre of Songs” focuses on the healing of the body through the mediation of the spirit, depicted through Elaine’s bright and hopeful personality. In both plays, the unification of the perfect body to the moral spirit points toward a utopian future of divine corporeality. Posing as People gestures toward utopian futures in its redemption of the characters and through the Mormon overlay. Through the plays themselves are not consistently effective, occasionally slipping into sentimentality, ableism, and sexism, they offer a productive site to explore the “soulful” theatre as a convergence of embodied practice with spiritual significations.Early in the essay, I cited a range of theatrical expressions in Mormon culture and ordinances, but many of the main expressions of Mormon theatre traditions are rapidly disappearing as the church moves to broaden its appeal to mainline Christians. Mormon pageants were discontinued in the last year, and the “live” temple ceremonies performed in the Salt Lake City Temple with embodied actors playing mytho-historical characters are also ending amid some protest. For many Mormons, these are disappointing or frustrating changes as Mormonism loses a rich historical art tradition that is, if not wholly unique to the Church, notably distinct. If it’s true, as I contend here, that theatrical forms are uniquely equipped to signify Mormon theological emphasis on the body, these changes represent more than a loss of a sacred art tradition—they are a loss of the marriage of form to doctrine to illuminate the significations of the body. The intervention of a pair of sci-fi plays might seem an odd place to hunt for resonances of divine corporeality, but in this context, these independent theatre productions might well become the only place to see these theologies of the body in embodied practice. Are these utopian performatives? Not exactly, at least not as Dolan explains the concept in her work, since these plays are not necessarily always successful in evoking the affect Dolan describes, but they do generatively point toward the future in their discourse on the body and toward the utopian promises of the unified soul. Posing as People not only finds resonance in Mormon theological tradition in its storytelling, but its theatrical form re-emphasizes these commitments to the human body and its divinity.

NOTES

[1] I’ll note that there are layers of ableism in how this discourse is formed that I will address in my case study.

[2] Mormon culture emphasizes attractiveness as a sign of morality in a host of ways. Two salient examples are descriptions of the “Mormon glow” — a term used to describe how people can recognize Mormons based of physical characteristics that are defined in various ways but include clear skin and bright smiles and are linked to inner goodness— and Arnold Friberg’s depictions of attractive/righteous and ugly/evil characters in the Book of Mormon as exemplifying “muscular Mormonism” through depictions of fit bodies (Kimball 564).


WORKS CITED

@mandieatough. “Many are quick to tell disabled folks that ‘in Heaven you’ll be whole again’ or that ‘when you die you’ll be healed’. This relies on the idea that resurrected bodies fit into an able-bodied ideal of perfection/fitness.” Twitter, 12 Apr. 2020, 12:11 p.m., https://twitter.com/mandieatough/status/1249369593807847426.

Card, Orson Scott. Posing as People: Three Stories, Three Plays. Subterranean Press, 2004. 

Collings, Michael R. In the Image of God: Theme, Characterization, and Landscape in the Fiction of Orson Scott Card. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1990.

Dolan, Jill. Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater. University of Michigan Press, 2010.

Ehat, Andrew F., and Cooke, Lyndon W. The Words of Joseph Smith. Bookcraft, 1980. 

Kimball, Richard. “Muscular Mormonism.” The International Journal of the History of Sport, vol. 25, no. 5, Mar. 2008, pp. 549-578, DOI: 10.1080/09523360701875533.

Moser, Cliff. “Interview with Orson Scott Card.” Science Fiction Review, Aug. 1979, pp. 32-5.

Petrey, Taylor G., and Amy Hoyt, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Mormonism and Gender. Routledge, 2020.

Sanborn Jones, Megan. Contemporary Mormon Pageantry: Seeking After the Dead. University of Michigan Press, 2018. 

Kristin Perkins is an independent scholar and interdisciplinary artist. She has published scholarship in Ecumenica, Theatre Topics, Borrowers and Lenders, and AWE. As a playwright, Kristin’s work has been performed through Microburst Theatre Festival, Ouch! Theatre, and the V-Project in Utah and Texas, and she recently wrote and performed a solo show about Mormonism and the Tower of Babel for the Sunstone Conference. She has had poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction published in literary journals, including Degenerates: Voices for Peace, Peculiar, and Inscape. In 2019, she graduated with her M.A. in Performance as Public Practice from the University of Texas at Austin, where she wrote her thesis on the representations of LGBTQ+ Mormons in theatre. She is also an alumna of Brigham Young University, where she graduated magna cum laude with University Honors and majored in Theatre Arts Studies with a minor in Women’s Studies.


Re-visioning an American Angel: Mythopoesis in The Tales of Alvin Maker


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Symposium: Mormonism and SF


Re-visioning an American Angel: Mythopoesis in The Tales of Alvin Maker

Paul Williams

Since first appearing on bookshelves, Orson Scott Card’s Tales of Alvin Maker series (1987–2003) has stood out as one of the most accomplished works of Mormon mythopoetic literature. The books portray a fantastical alternate history of nineteenth-century America and focus on the titular Alvin Miller, who parallels Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter “the Church” or “LDS”), and many of the most impressive scenes reimagine crucial episodes from Mormon history and lore within the context of an epic fantasy story. Nevertheless, Card’s vision exceeds anything we might term devotional or evangelistic. Rather, Card takes advantage of the fact that “the cultural work that [speculative fiction] performs is aptly suited to a religion in which the sacred and the banal intermingle so indiscriminately” (Givens 321). This intermingling provides Card with the supernatural qualities of fantasy, but outside the strictures of Church doctrine and hierarchy. This article will examine the Shining Man scene from the first two books of the series—Seventh Son (1987) and Red Prophet (1988)—which reimagines the 1823 visitation of the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith. The scene is a potent example of how Card attempts to rationalize and reorient Mormonism as a religious system that exceeds the Church as an institution. Specifically, Card removes the Church and even God from the narrative, and so breaks up the monologic discourse of authority granted from a higher power. Instead, Card portrays Mormon doctrine as the natural product of universal laws acting upon everyday life. This article aims to demonstrate how Card uses a blend of the fantasy and alternate history genres to transform sacred narrative from a monologic tautology into a dialogic and indeterminate narrative about individuals.

When I describe sacred narrative as monologic discourse, I refer to the way institution-based belief is received from a hegemonic source. When Church history is taught from the pulpit, it is monologically defined within the greater context of the Church’s narrative. Devotional literature tends to be monologic by asserting a pre-determined structure and meaning into which characters and events are situated in order to affirm belief, often without actually questioning the merits of those claims. I take my notion of dialogic literature from Mikhail Bakhtin, who proposes that some texts pit different worldviews and beliefs against each other within the framework of story to see how those beliefs challenge and reshape each other. Such a dialogic text must be populated by “free people, capable of standing alongside their creator, capable of not agreeing with him and even of rebelling against him” (Bakhtin, 6, emphasis in original). In a 1985 essay, Card describes his own work in similar terms, claiming his stories require the reader to “accept a causal system that makes every human being completely responsible for his own actions” (“SF and Religion” 13). Such character autonomy is only possible if Card is willing to reject the impulse to allegory, meaning that even when he directly channels episodes from Mormon lore, the substance of the event must be natural to the character. Therefore, Card removes sources of monologic knowledge—specifically God and the Church—and finds new, non-religious ways of recreating Mormon myth and history. 

Thanks to Card’s profile as a practicing member of the Church and the ease with which certain scenes related to Mormon lore, some readers assumed the series would align with and reverence Church history, thinly veiling the official narrative behind a glamor of epic fantasy. Early reviewers of the series pointed to the Shining Man and other scenes to justify their expectations, such as Sandra Ballif Straubhaar, who anticipated that the series would culminate in a reenactment of the First Vision, the event in which Joseph Smith claimed that God the Father and Jesus Christ first appeared to him (172). It is more accurate to say that Card complicates his characters and storyworld by negotiating between both religious and secular history, and in this, he defuses the impulse toward allegory balancing the two.

Instead, Card uses the alternate history mode of fantasy to create a complex storyworld that references national and religious history while openly revising both. Alternate history has the ability to liberate historical actors and events from the determinacy of the historical record, leaving them “saturated with unspent potential” and infused with “the vitality of the permanently unfinished” (Gallagher 13). Similarly, alternate history can liberate characters and ideas from the strict confines of religious narrative. Entering into a counterfactual context, characters and settings from history may freely operate as they (or, at least, the author) see fit. In the case of Alvin Maker, the alternate-history storyworld reflects our world’s nineteenth century, except Great Britain still controls many of its American colonies, some historical actors are recognizable but noticeably changed from their canonical versions, and the folk magic believed to exist actually, demonstrably, works. Such a world can contain the miraculous claims of a Mormon worldview while the new context enables Card to rethink Mormon beliefs in a world without the Church itself to dictate doctrine and meaning.

When analyzing mythopoeic literature it is important to consider how the core narrative changes in the process of adaptation. According to Brian Attebery, it matters less that we identify a relationship between a myth and a fantasy novel because what we should pay attention to is what the new fantasy says through its invocation and reshaping of that myth within its new context (3). Authorial choices of what is kept and repurposed versus what is excised and replaced serve as cultural negotiations, speaking without cultural authority and therefore free to interrogate established, sanctioned belief (21). For Card, speculative fiction becomes a laboratory wherein he can test out the logical extensions of his theology. In books with explicitly Mormon characters—Saints (1984), Folk on the Fringe (1989), and Lost Boys (1992)—he explores the contours of devotion within the Church as a community made up of ordinary people who believe in an extraordinary cosmos. The Alvin Maker books offer Card a chance to explore the inverse, imagining a world without Mormonism as a formal entity but wherein the storyworld is theologically charged. Card does not believe he (or any author) can keep his most deeply held moral and spiritual convictions from influencing his work (“SF and Religion” 12), but by excising the Church from the storyworld, he forces himself to rethink Mormon doctrine so that it arises naturally from the story and its underpinning metaphysics. In this way, Card reorients the goal of spirituality away from devotion to the institutional Church and toward a “self-conformity with laws that are intrinsically transformative” (Givens 39). In LDS scripture we read how “that which is governed by law is also…perfected and sanctified by the same” (Doctrine and Covenants 88.34). In Alvin Maker, cosmology and commandments from a religious source are transmogrified into the highest expressions of natural law in place of the arbitrary demands of a divine Providence guiding the universe.

The Shining Man scenes are a useful example for how Card overtly draws upon Mormon lore to rethink the story of Mormonism in a rational context, retaining the mythic power of the tale but redirecting its thematic resonance. According to Smith’s account, in 1820 he wanted to know which Christian denomination to join, went into the woods to pray for guidance, and experienced a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ, who told him not to join any then-existent church. Three years later, while praying at his bedside on September 21, 1823, he noticed a light in the room and beheld a figure radiating light, clothed in a white robe. The personage identified himself as Moroni, an angel sent from God to inform Smith of his prophetic calling, and that Smith would obtain a record of ancient scripture buried nearby, which he would translate through a divine gift (“Joseph Smith—History” 1.30-35). The scene emphasizes Smith’s role as the first prophet in a new prophet-led epoch, similar to Moses’ mission to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land. It is structured pedagogically, with Moroni declaring a message directly from God, and appearing three times throughout the night to deliver the same message each time. This story, sanctioned as scripture by the Church, is one of its most iconic and is received as archetypal for how God commences His divine work through prophets. As scripture it is monologic: Moroni’s message is not to be questioned, and Joseph passively receives it. By expunging the Church from the storyworld, Card must find a new narrative purpose for the scene. In so doing he deconstructs the monologic discourse into a dialogic event, with two characters who are each transformed within their respective narrative threads.

Card replaces the seventeen-year-old Joseph Smith with seven-year-old Alvin Miller, and the angel Moroni is replaced by a Native American named Lolla-Wossiky, the series’ alternate-historical version of Lalawethika, [1] also named Tenskwatawa. The scene is told twice, first from Alvin’s perspective in Seventh Son, in which the events are more sudden and mysterious, and Alvin refers to Lolla-Wossiky as the Shining Man. [2] The second version, in Red Prophet, makes Lolla-Wossiky the focalizing character and provides greater insight into his motives and the magical underpinnings of the storyworld. In terms of narrative, Moroni functions as a plot device through which God calls Smith to found the Church. By removing God and angels from the story, Card creates a fantasy world that can symbolically reflect sacred narrative but operates on the human level, with both characters dynamic actors within their individual stories, neither subservient to the other.

To achieve optimal resonance with Smith’s account, Card efficiently mimics the staging of Moroni’s visit. Lying in his bed, Alvin soon realizes that “There was a man standing at the foot of his bed, a man shining as if he was made of sunlight. The light in the room was coming from his skin, from his chest where his shirt was tore open, from his face, and from his hands. And in one of those hands, a knife, a sharp and steel knife” (SS 60). Alert readers will notice the narrator drawing attention to the parallels with Smith’s account of Moroni’s visitation: “His hands were naked, and his arms also, a little above the wrist; so, also, were his feet naked, as were his legs, a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe, as it was open, so that I could see into his bosom” (JS—H 1.31). The Shining Man’s knife is the most significant difference from the scriptural version, and it is used to cut his own arm and activate his own magic to grant Alvin visions to teach him about his powers as a Maker. This redirects the supernatural qualities of the story away from divine origins and reinforces the fact that Card is reimagining myth on a mortal plane.

Other important echoes reinforce the connection between the scenes while also illuminating important narrative differences. Smith says he was praying for forgiveness because, “I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been” (JS-H 1.28). Moroni’s visit signals God’s benevolence and His willingness to operate through an imperfect—but self-aware—human prophet. In contrast, the Shining Man comes to rebuke Alvin for misusing his powers, specifically when he conscripts a swarm of cockroaches to invade his sisters’ bedroom as petty revenge for having teased Alvin. The girls are terrorized, the roaches massacred, and Alvin revels in his vengeance. The first of the visions shown to Alvin reenacts the roaches’ dying thoughts. Previously, Alvin’s bedroom had provided a space of predictable order and safety, thanks to a social contract between Alvin and the roaches. After Alvin manipulates the roaches, he and his bedroom are deemed “worse than death—there the world had gone crazy, it was a place where anything could happen, where nothing could be trusted, where nothing was certain. A terrible place. The worst place” (SS 62). Whereas Moroni comes to Smith in response to repentance and then to call Smith to his prophetic role, the Shining Man comes to teach Alvin the magnitude of his powers and the importance of wielding them responsibly, with no specific goal or purpose beyond that.

The linear progression of discourse between the characters is central to how Card reworks Mormon myth into a dynamic exchange rather than monologic instruction. Moroni visits Smith three times throughout the night, each time offering roughly the same instruction with slight variations, making it more cyclical. Because Alvin is not called to uncover ancient scripture, establish a church, or become a prophet, Card must find a way to retain the three visits while redirecting the mythic energy back into the story and its themes. The first visit shocks Alvin into contrition and he swears to never use his magic again. The Shining Man realizes that Alvin has learned the wrong lesson, and so the second vision comes as a corrective, first showing a Native American hunter killing a dear, but doing so with reverence and for the purpose of maintaining life rather than for selfish sport; “Alvin knew that in this vision there wasn’t no sin at all, because dying and killing, they were both just a part of life” (63). The vision then changes to show Alvin himself on a mountain “pressing his hands against a stone, and the stone melted like butter under his hands, came out in just the shape he wanted…and rolled away, a perfect ball, a perfect sphere, growing and growing until it was a whole world” (63-64). This imagery, which evokes Biblical prophecy (see Daniel 2:35&45), teaches Alvin that being a Maker “wasn’t a terrible power, it was a glorious one, if he only knew how to use it” (SS 64). When the Shining Man appears for the third time, he does not offer Alvin any instruction, but waits until Alvin attempts to use his powers to try healing the Shining Man’s eye that was shot out of him in his youth. Although Alvin fails to create a new eye, we learn later that it has healed a different trauma. The dynamic and mutual exchange of instruction and healing invigorates the scene, resulting naturally from the characters’ own personalities and desires, reworking the mythic energy of Smith’s account to empower both characters to progress independently in their own stories.

Not only is the scene dialogic by making it a mutual exchange between human characters, but they dialogue within themselves. Being only human, each character has a limited knowledge about Alvin’s powers and the broader body of magic in the series, and the exchange honors that fact; Lolla-Wossiky shares visions rather than dictate prescriptive rules to Alvin, who must then interpret and internalize the lessons he learns subjectively on his own. Certainty of the laws that govern Making remain elusive, and Alvin struggles to apply these lessons throughout the series, frequently reflecting and testing how he understands each principle.    Finally, because there are two iterations of the Shining Man scene across two novels, the versions become dialogic with each other. The Seventh Son version resembles the Joseph Smith account but with important differences. The Red Prophet version, told from Lolla-Wossiky’s perspective, is far more disruptive to a devotional reading of the series. Through Lolla-Wossiky, we learn that the magic of the series functions as a connection between humans and the Earth as a whole. Before meeting Alvin, Lolla-Wossiky is beset by “the black noise,” a buzzing mental and spiritual fog that has afflicted him for years and hampers his connection to the land. In a moment of fleeting clarity, he beholds a vision that he interprets as an invitation to seek out his dream beast, a spiritual guide, which he hopes can undo the black noise. Eventually, he comes upon Alvin, and he wonders whether Alvin (who appears to him as a shining figure, prefiguring Lolla-Wossiky’s later appearance to Alvin) might be his dream beast. When he witnesses the incident with the roaches, he realizes that he has insight and knowledge that can guide Alvin, declaring “I didn’t come here to find my own dream beast, but to be the dream beast for this boy” (RP 90). Both turn out to be true, as Lolla-Wossiky’s interventions awaken Alvin to a more responsible sense of his powers, and Alvin, attempting to restore Lolla-Wossiky’s ruined eye, does heal him of the black noise.

The second iteration of the scene connects Alvin’s story to a larger world, with characters who operate independent of one another. Teaching Alvin is Lolla-Wossiky’s own choice, and it is not the end of his story. Freed from the black noise, he goes off on his own and has an epiphany in which he beholds himself as a spiritual leader to his people and takes the name Tenskwa-Tawa (RP 97). It is unfortunate that Card connects this epiphany (a revision of how the historical Lalawethika became Tenskwatawa, a spiritual leader amongst the Shawnee people) to a white settler healing Lolla-Wossiky of the oppressive buzzing noise. Though Card seems respectful of his indigenous characters by retaining as much of their original stories as his storyworld can sustain, his project does subsume the history and culture of North American indigenous people into the history of white settlers and Mormon lore. Nevertheless, while the novel mainly follows Alvin, Tenskwa-Tawa remains a significant character with his own storyline. Like his historical analog, he establishes Prophetstown [sic], a community for Native Americans where William Henry Harrison leads a military expedition intent on massacre. The story culminates in Tenskwa-Tawa using the power of the land to curse their assailants and declare a line of demarcation, forbidding white settlers from pursuing him and his people west.

It is tempting to read the Tales of Alvin Maker series as a hagiographic allegory in which Card extols his faith and its founder, even without the Church expressly manifest. Instead, readers should recognize how Card complicates his allusions by overlaying the alternate history and fantasy genres. That Card successfully reimagines important scenes from religious narrative without the Church or scriptural canon suggests that his own version of Mormon theology is not merely a cluster of commandments and dictates blindly received from Church leaders. Instead, Card portrays Mormonism as a dynamic belief system that negotiates theological and historical narratives in an effort to identify the natural laws that encompass and direct mortal and divine lives. Doctrines and commandments stem from a universe operating by its own rational (though metaphysical) logic. For Card, at least, Mormon cosmology and spirituality become inevitable and natural, even without heavenly administration or ecclesiastical direction.

NOTES

[1] The historical Lalawethika was a Shawnee spiritual leader and the brother of Tecumseh. At one time known as the town drunk, he had an experience in which he claimed he had communed with an entity he identified as the Master of Breath. Thereafter, he promoted cooperation among the Native American tribes and rejected the encroachment of Euro-American settlers.

[2] For an analysis of the problematic aspects of Card, a white author, incorporating Native American personalities and magic into his series, see Wereonika Łaskiewicz’s “(Dis)empowerment of Native Americans in Orson Scott Card’s The Tales of Alvin Maker” (Ilha do Desterro 74.1, p. 307-326).


WORKS CITED

Attebery, Brian. Stories About Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth. Oxford UP, 2014.

Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhaĭlovich. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson. U of Minnesota P, 1993. 

Card, Orson Scott. Red Prophet. Tor, 1988.

——. Seventh Son. Tor, 1987.

——. “SF and Religion.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 18, no. 2, 1985, pp. 11-3.

Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.

Gallagher, Catherine. Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction. U of Chicago P, 2018.

Givens, Terryl L. People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture. Oxford UP, 2007.

“Joseph Smith—History.” The Pearl of Great Price. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.

Straubhaar, Sandra Ballif. “Joseph in an Alternate Universe: Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 21, no. 4, 1988, pp. 171–173. 

Paul Williams received his M.A. in English from Idaho State University in spring 2018. He has published original scholarship and several book reviews. A former high school English teacher, he is now pursuing his Ph.D. at ISU, writing his dissertation on alternate histories and fantasy fiction. He served as Editorial Assistant for the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts from 2018-2020.


Gods and Monsters in Latter-day Saint Reconciliation Stories


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Symposium: Mormonism and SF


Gods and Monsters in Latter-day Saint Reconciliation Stories

Alan Manning and Nicole Amare

Introduction

Reconciliation stories portray a main character (or groups of characters) in conflict with another character/group. Conflict is resolved usually by (1) new perceptions or compromises that unite both sides, or (2) one side’s victory and the other side’s surrender. Such reconciliation stories are typically associated with politics, class division, or religious themes (Thomas 1). Familiar mainstream examples of reconciliation stories include: The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock the Jew is defeated by a radical reading of his own contract; King Lear, wherein Lear finally realizes that Cordelia did love him far more than her lying sisters; and Pride and Prejudice, in which Elizabeth realizes her first impressions of Darcy were wrong.

Reconciliation stories commonly evoke allegories of Christian theology. Characters “sin” by their actions and “fall.” Ultimately, they must seek forgiveness and redemption in an arc that parallels the general notion of Christian grace and redemption: 

The comedies and tragedies tend to handle forgiveness with a certain moral, even theological, clarity, since, however secular or pessimistic the context may be, the assumptions of a Christian Weltanschauung color the action and dialogue, even if, as in Lear, they may have to compete with more agnostic or nihilistic attitudes. When characters in these dramas experience reconciliation, wrongs are acknowledged, reparation, if possible, is implied, and healing takes place in an ethos of deepened consciousness. (Forker 289)

We find that works created by Latter-day Saint writers not always, but very commonly, employ a third pattern of reconciliation, distinct from the more common narrative tropes of compromise or surrender. This third reconciliation pattern appears only rarely in stories generally, but it emerges more often when writers have deliberately integrated “Mormon” tropes or references into their material. Notable examples include the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series (Moore and Eick’s revision of the Glen Larson original) and The Expanse series (Corey; see also Pierce).

This third, less-common story pattern portrays reconciliation with a distinctly alien “other,” wherein protagonists form an alien/human hybrid community separate from either of the two original communities. Fantasy and science fiction (hereafter F&SF) provides the ideal venue for authors writing in the Latter-day-Saint tradition to develop this theme. Latter-day Saint Christianity, in all its forms, is neither Protestant nor Catholic, nor is it a compromise between them. It is essentially a third, distinct mode of Christianity, in which religious authority derives neither from scripture nor from papal authority. Differences between Latter-day Saint and Protestant/Catholic beliefs ultimately translate into a distinct conception of what Christian reconciliation fundamentally is, and thus opens up a distinct mode of allegorical storytelling to represent that reconciliation. A rough overall sketch of this third-way reconciliation plot is diagrammed in Figure 1.

Our article will briefly review the essential nature of the third-way plot device as found in the works of Orson Scott Card, Stephenie Meyer, Brandon Sanderson, and Glen Larson, which leads us to the next question: just how common is this plot device among other Latter-day Saint authors?  To address this question, we examined the novels of other Latter-day Saint authors with which we had no prior acquaintance, to see whether, and at what rate, the third-way reconciliation motif also showed up as a plot device in stories by these other authors: James Dashner, author of the Maze Runner series; Brandon Mull, author of the Fablehaven series; Lisa Mangum, author of the Hourglass Door series; Ally Condie, author of the Matched series; and Shannon Hale, author of the Books of Bayern series.

This analysis can improve our understanding of the history of Latter-day Saint motifs in F&SF and their influence on the wider genres they represent. This understanding may also provide us with additional insights to address a longstanding question: what is it, exactly, about Latter-day Saint theology/culture that drives a particularly strong interest in F&SF themes among both Latter-day Saint readers and writers (Morris; Neugebauer; Winston)?

Third-way Reconciliation: An Overview

In life as in fiction, we often find ourselves stuck with difficult choices, unsatisfactory compromise on one hand, or the brute-force defeat of one side by the other. To have better choices requires some kind of novelty, an invention, an alternative vision, and this is the very stuff of F&SF. Stories in these genres are (or can be) more than a simple-minded escape from reality. Rather, this invention of third ways and higher ways is essentially the substance of real technical and moral progress.

Arguably, effective F&SF by any skilled writer will always invoke the possibility of progress through transcendence of current limitations.  Whether authors intend it or not, situations in F&SF stories serve to model problems in the actual world: dystopian worlds and futures to be avoided, or hypothetical worlds and futures where solutions to real problems can be explored and vicariously experienced. What is distinctive about F&SF by Latter-day Saint authors (and more common in F&SF influenced by Latter-day Saint motifs) is not the idea of transcendence per se, because this idea is inherent in the F&SF as a whole.  Rather, we suggest that this common idea of transcendence rather more frequently manifests itself in work by Latter-day Saint authors as a specific strategy of narrative conflict and resolution, where conflict between two community is reconciled by a third community. 

A typical third-way story, in the Latter-day Saint mode, features two or more communities in mortal conflict and protagonists caught in between. More often than not, it also includes a protagonist in dangerous love with a literal or figurative monster from the other side: humans against alien bugs with Ender caught between (Card), humans against vampires with Bella caught between (Meyer), humans against killer robots with Baltar and Six between (Moore & Eick), human agents of Preservation against god-like forces of Ruin with Vin, Elend, and Sazed between (Sanderson).

Individuals or groups in conflict are, of course, a staple of F&SF, as well as fiction generally, and indeed in all of actual history. What is much more typical in fictional endings (and accepted narratives about historical events) is that one group simply defeats and subsumes the other group. The rebels win, the oppressive government is overthrown, the enemy is defeated, etc. (as is evident in classic Star Wars or The Hunger Games trilogy). Alternatively, each group adjusts its perception of the other, and they merge (Shrek, The Sixth Sense). Humans alter their perception of ogres and ogres alter their perceptions of both humans and themselves. A boy tormented by visions of the dead finally realizes that the dead just want his help. The warring parties negotiate, misunderstanding is resolved, and peace is restored. Either way, the two conflicted groups, as thesis and antithesis, now become a synthesis in the usual Hegelian sense (Lost and Found 1).

Prominent Latter-day Saint writers usually do something very different to resolve their groups in conflict. One side does not crush the other, but neither do both sides realize it was all just a misunderstanding. There is no epiphany and no compromise that allows both groups to merge in happy or unhappy synthesis. Rather, in third-way reconciliation, some plain human(s) and some being(s) from the opposing side usually join forces and create a third group or way of being, a resolution of conflict which is always emphatically not a merged compromise of the two sides nor the abject surrender of one side to the other (Figure 1).

Brandon Sanderson’s first Mistborn trilogy nicely exemplifies the general difference between the merged synthesis of two groups and the transcendence of a third way. The Mistborn series puts the conflict in terms of cosmic forces. Preservation vs. Ruin are the forces operating through most of the story. The Lord Ruler of the first book specifically embodies a failed synthesis of the two forces; the consuming forces of Ruin threaten to destroy the whole world, and the Lord Ruler does keep Ruin in check with the powers of Preservation, but the result is centuries of stagnation and a tyrannical oppressive government. The Lord Ruler also partly preserves but partly ruins the whole ecosystem of the world: it’s hotter, plants are brown instead of green, and volcanic ash falls constantly everywhere. That miserable synthesis is opposed by the heroes of the story, who defeat the Lord Ruler but, in doing so, accidentally release Ruin from its prison. Final victory over Ruin can only happen when the heroes (Vin, Elend, and Sazed primarily) find a way to transcend the original conflict between Preservation and Ruin. Both sides are encompassed by Creation, a higher pattern that allows “Harmony” between otherwise irreconcilable forces of Preservation and Ruin. [1] Creation contains both sides and yet is a third thing more powerful than either side of the original fight. To create, something has to be put together that endures (preservation), but the pre-existing building blocks must also be moved out of their original places (ruining the original situation).

Hegelian synthesis may be represented as the overlap between two circles or boxes (Figure 2), but such synthesis often produces an absurdity—something that is unsustainable, logically impossible, or self-contradictory (McGowan 19; Peirce 492). For example, a society  can’t be both preserved and ruined at the same time unless, for instance, because the so-called preservation is actually ruin in the form of stagnation. In philosophical terms, the situation calls for what C.S. Peirce describes as evolutionary Thirdness, rather than a two-sided synthesis of one idea and its negation (104). We can diagram this Thirdness as a third, larger circle/box, drawn around the first two, smaller regions. That bigger circle/box contains and unifies all the sets, but it is more than either of the enclosed sets. Peirce’s model of an evolved, third solution better captures the logic behind the general plot strategy of many successful examples of Latter-day Saint F&SF:

CONFLICT: Story conflict emerges from a clash of beings from two communities; one tends to be distinctly alien/other, and one tends to be more generically mainstream or human. Formix vs. Ender, Edward vs. Bella, Cylon vs. Human, The Lord Ruler and his minion nobles including Elend (Preservation/Ruin) vs. Vin and other ordinary Humans (the “skaa”). 

PROTAGONISTS: Initially, a mainstream (usually human) character is identified as the sympathetic focus, but a member of the alien/other community is eventually portrayed sympathetically and usually becomes a “love interest” of the human protagonist, or at least a close companion. [2]

ANTAGONISTS: The love interest/companion  and the antagonist tend to be the same, either the exact same being, or at the very least, the love interest comes from the same alien/other community that threatens the protagonist.

RESOLUTION: Some individuals from the two clashing communities solve their problems by forming a third, new organization distinct from either of the original groups. The new, third group in one way or another plans to reproduce their mode of being: Ender vows to help the Formix queen hatch her eggs somewhere, Edward and Bella produce their hybrid who apparently will have more hybrid children with the werewolf Jacob. Likewise, in the Battlestar Galactica universe created in the second iteration of the series, the whole current population of Earth is descended from both humans and Cylons, the narrative equivalents of Adam and Eve.

The Adam/Eve story told from a Latter-day Saint perspective is likewise a story of third-way reconciliation between Gods and humans. Adam and Eve’s ultimate goal is not a simple surrender to God and return to paradise (a failed synthesis), but they must rather go on to become Gods themselves, beyond the realm of both ordinary humans and their Creator-God. [3]

Further Examples of Third-way Reconciliation

We examined F&SF stories by five other Latter-day Saint authors in a second round of study. Four of those five also developed this same contrast between failed synthesis and third-way transcendence. We’ll discuss these stories in general terms, to avoid spoilers for anyone still planning to read any of these.

Maze Runners

The story begins as author James Dashner’s protagonists, the teenage “Gladers,” awaken without their memories inside a giant maze world. The maze world is populated by killer cyborg “Grievers” that harass Gladers on a daily basis. Both the maze world and Grievers were obviously constructed by unseen, God-like technocrats. Their motives are unknown, but they clearly intend to impose extreme hardships on the Gladers. 

Glader survivors escape the first-book maze only to discover the larger world outside is just another, larger hellscape, full of disease, more danger, and more death. There the Gladers meet other ordinary people trying to survive in that world, and they also meet the God-like technocrats (World-In-Catastrophe: Killzone-Experiment-Dept.) in nominal control of everything that happens. The Gladers are invited to (re)join WICKED, but most Gladers find the deal they are being offered untenable. This is the failed synthesis (Figure 3). Instead, the Gladers strike out on their own, and eventually, with the help of sympathetic WICKED insiders (essentially the love interests from the alien/other community), the surviving Gladers find a way to escape to safety, presumably to begin a new race of humans free from the more-or-less constant threat of death.

Dragon Watchers

Brandon Mull’s YA series Fablehaven (followed by the Dragonwatch stories) describes its world(s) in somewhat gentler tones, but here again, gifted teenagers are put in more or less constant peril. These are a sister and brother, Kendra and Seth Sorenson, about 13 and 12 years old when the series begins. Kendra and Seth visit their grandparents’ farm for the summer, which is surrounded by an enormous, wooded preserve. The youths are told to stay out of the woods (they don’t), to not drink unpasteurized milk straight from the farm’s cows (they do), to stay in their beds and keep their windows closed during Midsummer’s Eve (they don’t), and more. Each time they disobey, Kendra and Seth suffer consequences but also gain knowledge about the magical forest surrounding the farm (Fablehaven), which turns out to be one of several magically walled and guarded preserves/prisons for magical creatures. The inmate fairies, witches, demons, and dragons are sometimes friendly but quite often treacherous and/or murderous if given a chance. Kendra and Seth find themselves pulled into the situation shown in Figure 4.

The temptation/fall motifs of Fablehaven include the usual “Mormon” twist. The Temptation/Fall of Adam/Eve is viewed by traditional Christianity as an unmitigated tragedy. It is different in the Restored-Gospel telling, as in Fablehaven, where Kendra and Seth gain, through each transgressive act, a bit more knowledge and a bit more magical ability themselves–knowledge and abilities that make them more effective in assisting their grandparents and the other preserve keepers, who constitute the third community in this version of the reconciliation plot. This third community restores and maintains reconciliation by keeping assorted magical creatures contained and the human and magical worlds safely separated.

In most of the series, the Sorensons’ primary antagonists belong to the Society of the Evening Star, which constitutes the failed synthesis in this version of the third-way reconciliation plot, as shown in Figure 4. The Society includes magical beings who have infiltrated the human world and who intend to overthrow the existing Preserves, unleash hoards of demons, and (by mixing worlds) destroy both magical and ordinary versions of the world.

Hourglass Doors

Lisa Mangum’s YA time-travel trilogy begins with The Hourglass Door, followed by The Golden Spiral, and concludes with The Forgotten Locket. The story parallels in some obvious ways the initial setup of the Twilight series. A high school girl (Abby, like Bella) is intrigued by a mysterious fellow student (Dante, like Edward) who seems to be keeping some dangerous secrets. Here again we find Temptation/Fall tropes with the usual Restored-Gospel twist. Abby (like Bella) opens the figurative Pandora’s Box of secrets kept by Dante (like Edward) and endangers her life as a result, but she also gains knowledge and abilities in the process that allow her to assist and ultimately save her true love. Abby (like Bella before her) is pulled into the dynamic shown in Figure 5.

Dante (like Edward before him) attempts a failed synthesis between the present-day high-school world of Abby and his secret background as a time-traveling fugitive. It’s worth noting that Twilight’s vampire Cullens were mostly time-travelers too, by virtue of having been (un)alive for a century or more. Dante and Edward both create an unstable, unsustainable situation by coming from an older time/way of life but trying to pass as ordinary high school students in the present day.

Besides the obvious Twilight comparisons, there’s also a deep connection between the Hourglass Door series dynamic and that of the Fablehaven series. In both storylines, the antagonists from the magical/time-traveling side are attempting to dissolve protective boundaries between their world and the ordinary human world. In both storylines, human protagonists have to abandon the safety of their ordinary world and enter a transcendent state where they have the power to keep the two conflicting realms separate and safe.

Dystopian Matches

Ally Condie’s YA dystopian-romance trilogy begins with Matched, followed by Crossed, and concludes with Reached. The essential dynamic is shown in Figure 6.

Main protagonist Cassia is initially a happy, obedient seventeen-year-old girl within the tightly controlled Society. Cassia works as a junior “sorter” for the Society. She’s been “matched” by the Society to Xander, a popular and (seemingly) equally obedient boy, but then she becomes aware of a system-glitch in the Matching program, and clues suggest that her “true” match is a problematic boy from the “Aberration” class of social pariahs named Ky. Cassia and Ky eventually meet, and sure enough, there’s chemistry between them. Together, they embark on quiet acts of disobedience that prefigure the Rising, a movement of stealth rebellion in later books. The early story also prefigures the major, failed synthesis and final transcendence later in the series. The unauthorized couple are found out by Society officials, and both are sent to rehabilitation/death camps. But they eventually find the effective third-way path to true freedom and love.

It’s worth noting that Condie’s Matched series shares a number of structural and thematic similarities with Sanderson’s Mistborn series. Condie’s Official Society echoes Sanderson’s various forces of Preservation. The Aberration pariahs are likewise perceived as agents of “Ruin” by the Society that have to be kept in check, and the ultimate solution in both storylines involves the third-way powers of Creativity that ultimately reconcile conflicting processes of Preservation and Destruction.

Reconciliation by Straight Synthesis

Shannon Hale‘s Books of Bayern stories prove to be the exceptions among all the Latter-day Saint authors we surveyed in this round of study; Hale’s stories consistently used two-way synthesis strategies to resolve conflict, as is more typical in F&SF by writers from mainstream secular backgrounds. That is, Hale’s protagonists either defeat their enemies by superior tactics, or they manage to resolve their misunderstandings by negotiation, or they balance conflicting magical forces. No transcendent third way, no third magical force, and no third, outside community ever proves necessary. This by no means should be taken as a criticism of Hale’s work. Her stories are interesting and satisfying, and they generally sell. We only note that her plotting strategies do not (by themselves) identify her as a “typical” Latter-day Saint author.

In The Goose Girl, for example, the protagonist Ani uses her nature-speaking abilities (talking to animals and controlling the air) to outmaneuver, defeat, and/or negotiate with her enemies who rely on their people-speaking abilities (social savvy and political charisma). Also, the forest people, Ani’s allies, are initially outcasts in Bayern society, but are finally understood and accepted as equal citizens as a by-product of Ani’s victory, as shown schematically in Figure 7. All Bayern books we examined (Emma Burning, River Secrets, and Forest Born), as well as Princess Academy, follow this pattern, creating conflict between two opposing magical forces and/or two opposing political groups, then resolving the conflicts as main characters find ways to balance both the forces and the opposing communities, by victory, by negotiation, or both.

The reasons for Hale‘s more mainstream approach to reconciliation go beyond the scope of this article, but the most straightforward explanation would be that her first Bayern story, The Goose Girl, is based on a traditional folktale that achieves reconciliation in the traditional ways, through total victory over an enemy and/or unifying perception/compromise.

Conclusion

The essential transcendent impulse in all F&SF may best explain why so many Latter-day Saints are drawn to these genres, because of their lived experience as members of a third community of Christians distinct from Catholic and Protestant traditions.  This lived experience translates into a specific plot device among Latter-day Saint writers, common but not universal, where a third community heals divisions between two other communities. This third-way plot device is neither better or worse than the more common reconciliation strategies of victory or shared perception, but it does model the transcendent impulse of F&SF in a distinct way. Mainstream F&SF by non-LDS authors only rarely use that third-way device, but the idea of transcendence is always implicit in the F&SF impulse to model alternate realities in which we may find novel solutions to real problems of this world. 

To summarize, we propose here that the essential impulse all F&SF stories is not to escape reality but rather to help make our shared reality perpetually a bit better than it was before, by the process of transcendent and novel creation. We therefore discount the common suggestion that Latter-day Saint readers and authors are particularly drawn to F&SF stories because “those crazy Mormons” are already detached from reality, or because Latter-day Saints are already alienated from mainstream culture, like the magical creatures and aliens of F&SF.  

Rather, the believing community of Latter-day Saints perceive themselves and their belief systems as the eventual solution to current world problems, as healers-in-training for the world’s current divisions, offering what is essentially a third way between, for instance, progressive and conservative thinking, between warring religious sects, or between blind faith and equally blind skepticism.  This self-perception tends to manifest in a plot device where a third community solves problems between two other, otherwise irreconcilable sides. Whether this self-perception is correct or not is irrelevant to our larger point which is that all F&SF tends to operate this mode, with or without the third-way plot device, to warn about apocalyptic or dystopian futures and to try out creative new solutions to real-world problems in the realm of imagination.


NOTES

[1] To many Mistborn Trilogy readers, Harmony may seem like a simple synthesis, a straight compromise allowing Preservation and Ruin to merge, rather than a third-way reconciliation. However, the harmony metaphor personified by Sazed is precise in its representation of a third way. Two tones interact in a harmonic chord NOT by simply splitting the difference between the different tone frequencies: The basic note A (220 cycles per second) + C (262 cycles per second) is NOT 241 cycles per second (262 + 200/2); rather, the separate tones interact by the laws resonance to create a distinct harmonic waveform more complex than the component tone waves. Harmony is NOT the same as balance. SPOILER ALERT: In the final resolution of the Mistborn trilogy, Vin dies because she wields the remaining Preservation power against Ruin and those two can only destroy each other: failed synthesis. When Sazed recognizes that he instead of Vin is the Hero of Ages, and when he becomes Harmony, he transcends the conflict by putting both Preservation and Ruin inside a larger system which is manifest in the process of creation, a cyclical pattern (like the literal harmony of sound) that includes both Preservation and Ruin, but also novelty, all in a recursive cycle: Sazed recreates the world broken by the Lord Ruler’s failed balance between Preservation and Ruin; Sazed recreates the world in order to save it, so he NEITHER preserves what what was nor does he destroy what was: it is a third way.

[2] We use the term “love interest” precisely in most cases, but rather loosely in some cases. We find that literal romance between two characters, one from each side of a conflict, is typical in our sample of Latter-day Saint F&SF: Bella and Edward (Twilight), Vin and Elend (Mistborn), Baltar and Six (Battlestar Galactica), Abby and Dante (Hourglass Doors), Cassie and Ky (Matched).  However, in some cases the love is genuine but not literally romantic between two key characters. Ender loves the Formix Queen but they are of different species. Kendra and Seth are too young for romance in the Fablehaven series but they do have various magical allies throughout the series.

[3] Latter-day Saint theology splits from Catholic and Protestant theology most distinctly in its conception of God: the Father, Son, and Spirit form a council of three distinct beings, each with human form, rather than one universe-spanning and unembodied force with distinct manifestations as Father, Son, and Spirit. The Latter-day Saints also believe that humans have the capacity to become Gods, as taught by Church founder Joseph Smith:

“What kind of a being is God?” he asked. Human beings needed to know, he argued, because “if men do not comprehend the character of God they do not comprehend themselves.” In that phrase, the Prophet collapsed the gulf that centuries of confusion had created between God and humanity. Human nature was at its core divine. God “was once as one of us” and “all the spirits that God ever sent into the world” were likewise “susceptible of enlargement.” Joseph Smith preached that long before the world was formed, God found “himself in the midst” of these beings and “saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself” and be “exalted” with Him. (Gospel Topics Essays)

WORKS CITED

Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. Tor, 1985.

Condie, Ally. Matched (Trilogy). Dutton, 2010-2013.

Corey, James S.A. (psuedonym of Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck). The Expanse (Series). Orbit, 2011-2021.

Dashner, James. The Maze Runner (Series). Delacorte, 2009-2011.

Forker, Charles. “The State of the Soul and the Soul of the State: Reconciliation in the Two Parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV.” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, vol. 4, 289-313, 2007.

Gospel Topics Essays. “Becoming Like God.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/becoming-like-god. Accessed 11 July 2021.

Hale, Shannon. The Books of Bayern (Series). Bloomsbury, 2003-2009.

Larson, Glen A. Battlestar Galactica (TV Series). ABC. 1978-1979.

Lost and Found. “Synthesis in LeGuin: The Left Hand of Hegel.” WordPress, 2016. https://nobodyunderstandslostandfound.wordpress.com/tag/hegel/. Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.

Mangum, Lisa. The Hourglass Door (Trilogy). Shadow Mountain, 2009-2011.

Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight (Series). Little, Brown, 2005-2008.

McGowan, Todd. “Hegel and the Impossibility of the Future in Science Fiction Cinema.” Film-Philosophy, vol. 13, no. 1, 2009.

Moore, Ronald D. and Eick, David. Battlestar Galactica (TV series). Sci-Fi Channel, 2004-2009.

Morris, Katherine and Dalton-Woodbury, Kathleen. “Is It Something in the Water?: Why Mormons Write Fantasy and Science Fiction.” Mormon Artist, Dec. 2010. https://mormonartist.net/articles/is-it-something-in-the-water/. Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.

Mull, Brandon. Fablehaven (Series). Shadow Mountain, 2006-2010.

Neugebauer, Cimaron. “Why Do Mormons Love Star Wars and Science Fiction So Much?” KUTV News, 21 Dec. 2015. https://kutv.com/news/local/why-do-mormons-really-love-star-wars-and-science-fiction-so-much Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.

Peirce, Charles S., Collected Papers, vol. 1. Harvard UP, 1931.

Pierce, Scott D., “A planet of their own? Mormons’ spaceship finally comes in — on TV,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 6 Apr. 2017. https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=5036228&itype=CMSID. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.

Sanderson, Brandon. Mistborn (Trilogy). Tor, 2006-2008.

Thomas, Charles, Jr., Rhetoric of Reconciliation: Implications from Bonhoeffer’s Work for a Communicative Praxis of Reconciliation Grounded in Christian Narrative. Dissertation Abstracts International, 2011.Winston, Kimberly. “Mormons in Space: Sci-fi or no lie?” The Oakland Press, 7 Aug. 2017. https://www.theoaklandpress.com/lifestyles/mormons-in-space-sci-fi-or-no-lie/article_59c7ceb5-789a-5121-b17c-c48e398d0bcb.html.  Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.

Alan Manning is a professor of linguistics at Brigham Young University. He specializes in information design, text analysis, and editing.  He is coauthor, with Nicole Amare, of A Unified Theory of Information Design: Visuals, Text, and Ethics (Taylor & Francis, 2017).


Nicole Amare is a Professor of English at the University of South Alabama. She specializes in professional communication and rhetoric and composition, with interests in gender studies and late American literature.


Information Science in Latter-day Saint Theology


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Symposium: Mormonism and SF


Information Science in Latter-day Saint Theology

Carl Grafe

“A man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge,” said Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Nauvoo, Illinois, 1842 (History of the Church 4.588). Nauvoo, which had been a swamp when the Latter-day Saints first arrived, soon became a large city, rivaling the population of Chicago at the time (Black 91-93). In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith instituted the use of local “recorders” to observe and document baptisms performed for members’ deceased ancestors, and he detailed how these records were to be collected and maintained (Doctrine and Covenants 128.1-5). This early exercise in record management eventually led to the creation of the Church-owned nonprofit FamilySearch, which currently adds over 1 million new genealogical records every day (“FamilySearch Hits 8 Billion Searchable Names in Historical Records” 2020). This is but one example of how a foundational emphasis on information acquisition and transmission has continued in the Church, and many early Church doctrines can accordingly be described using modern principles of information science. This essay explores several of these principles, from the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom (DIKW) pyramid to Friedman’s Fundamental Theorem of Biomedical Informatics to Reason’s Swiss Cheese Model to Shannon Entropy, and how they may help explain Latter-day Saints’ active involvement in science fiction.

Information science is a field of study devoted to “the effective communication of information and information objects, particularly knowledge records, among humans in the context of social, organizational, and individual need for and use of information” (Saracevic 2009). In a 1996 interview for the American news program 60 Minutes, then-Church president Gordon B. Hinckley faced the following comment by reporter Mike Wallace: “There are those who say that Mormonism began as a cult.” Hinckley responded that rather than being reclusive and ascetic, members of the Church can be found “in business institutions, high in educational circles, in politics, in government, in whatever.” The cult question is typical of the many perpetually controversial topics associated with the Church, including the teaching that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to a fourteen-year-old farm boy in New York state in 1820, the practice of polygamy in the Church until 1890, the ban on Black people holding the priesthood until 1978, the stringent health, financial, and social requirements of membership, and many other topics (Gospel Topics Essays 2021). Given all of this potentially faith-defying religious baggage, one might ask how the Church has continued to grow year-over-year, almost without exception, since it was first established in 1830, while counting prominent scientists, politicians, artists, and leaders of industry among its members. One possible answer has to do with the Church’s teachings about information accrual and ascertainment—in particular, that God can directly provide reliable information to individuals through prayer (“Praying to Our Heavenly Father” 2011). Hinckley implies that members of the Church are just ordinary people who happen to believe some extraordinary things, but in order for that juxtaposition to persist for so long, Latter-day Saints have had to learn how to effectively balance information they obtain from faith-based activities like prayer with information they obtain from more conventional sources.

In 2010, Charles Friedman formulated his Fundamental Theorem of Biomedical Informatics as follows: “A person working in partnership with an information source is ‘better’ than the same person unassisted” (Friedman 169-170). The image from Friedman’s paper frequently associated with this concept can be roughly summarized as: person + computer > person. If we consider the Latter-day Saint conception of God as an information source, Friedman’s concept has been embodied in the Church since the First Vision in 1820, when Joseph Smith reported that God directed him to join none of the churches on the Earth at that time (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith—History 1.17). Latter-day Saints view God as a reliable source of current information that may supersede knowledge they obtain from other sources. Thus a Latter-day Saint may treat a perceived answer from God with the same or greater heft as the observations they make in their professional work or other day-to-day activities.

Joseph Smith taught that knowledge might be considered nondenominational:

I stated that the most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day Saints … are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time. (History of the Church 5.215)

According to Shannon’s law of entropy in information science (Shannon 379-423), every piece of potential information inherently has uncertainty associated with it, and the more unlikely that information is, the more uncertainty there is. But once information is obtained and identified, the uncertainty is reduced. Thus, in a universe that originated and is populated by highly unlikely chance occurrences, the amount of knowable information must of necessity be low. But in the Latter-day Saint conception of a universe created and maintained by an all-knowing God, where future events occur with perfect certainty, Shannon’s law would dictate that all information is inherently knowable.

Indirectly, Jeremy Brett explored the concept of an all-encompassing information source in SFRA Review vol. 50, pointing out how the “trope of the limitless library or archive” in science fiction often fails to offer more than a cursory overview of how the information in these resources is curated (Brett 2020). Modern religions often adopt a similarly ambiguous view of God as a source of knowledge, enabling fictional archives such as Asimov’s Encyclopedia Galactica to fill a similar or even superior role to a deity, perhaps presenting a conceptual threat to religious faith in some readers. But Latter-day Saints make the mechanisms and documentation of information obtained from God topics of special study (e.g., the Come Follow Me program, a weekly curriculum for Latter-day Saints, has devoted much of its 2021 course of study to the process of seeking and receiving revelation). This is a topic of great personal importance to Latter-day Saints that is seldom visited in fiction. It may follow then, that rather than conflicting with their religious faith, the often underdeveloped archives in fiction may instead inspire Latter-day Saint writers to do a more thorough treatment of such resources, based in part on their detailed understanding of what they believe to be the ultimate source of knowledge in the real world. The Mind Game computer program in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game may be a pertinent example. Rather than a mere plot device to provide information to the characters, the program is almost a character in itself, interacting intimately with the other characters, analyzing them as individuals, and using its seemingly unlimited knowledge to push them—often brutally—to their absolute limits. Rather than as replacements for God, such information sources may instead serve as opportunities for Latter-day Saint writers to explore godlike attributes. 

At the same time, this belief in a source of unlimited knowledge might also encourage suspension of disbelief. Michael Collings pointedly argued that Latter-day Saints’ belief in revelation prevents the “cognitive estrangement” necessary to appreciate science fiction (Collings 116). But Latter-day Saint theology conflicts with this generalization. While Latter-day Saints believe that all knowledge is available, they simultaneously recognize the limitations of mortal humanity. In the Book of Mormon, a statement of Jesus Christ to the ancient inhabitants of America shortly after his resurrection rephrased his New Testament quotation from “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (King James Version, Matthew 5.48) to “Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect” (Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi 12.48, emphasis added), suggesting that his claimed perfection was attained only after his mortal life had concluded. Thus Latter-day Saints believe that godlike attributes such as omniscience are not routinely available to humans during their mortal lives. With this understanding comes an increased reliance on the omniscience of God. This is especially true when teachings purportedly from God run contrary to public opinion. Rather than trusting in the wisdom of humanity in aggregate, Latter-day Saints turn to scriptures that teach that, despite our limited perspective, God is just (see Doctrine and Covenants 127.3), and that “man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend” (Book of Mormon, Mosiah 4.9). They have to constantly pivot between the worldly information and requirements of daily living and the often completely incompatible tenets of their faith, ever trusting that the omniscience in the latter will eventually compensate for the dissonance of the former. This certainly requires a high level of cognitive estrangement—consistently applied over a lifetime. Thus Latter-day Saints, well-practiced in setting aside inconvenient contradictions, might—contrary to Collings’ contention—be expected to have an increase in ability to accept speculative elements in fiction, rather than a deficit. It is little wonder then that Latter-day Saints might be overrepresented in a field like science fiction (Winston 2017), where suspension of disbelief is among the principal requirements.

In keeping with this conception of God as a source of knowledge that can enhance one’s own capacity, Latter-day Saints have long embraced the practice of incremental knowledge accretion. From the Book of Mormon:

For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. (Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 28.30)

Not only does this passage relate to the Church’s emphasis on accruing knowledge through continuing education, but it also suggests an underlying hierarchy of knowledge. A fundamental concept in information science is the DIKW pyramid, wherein data is converted into information, knowledge, and wisdom by adding additional structure and context to each stratum. For example, in information technology this might be accomplished by assigning tags and definitions to convert raw binary data into structured information, conducting statistical analyses to convert the structured information into actionable knowledge, and accruing experience over time to convert that collected digital knowledge into more nuanced practical wisdom.

Furthermore, this conception of higher levels of actionable knowledge that are only available to humanity through divine impartment aligns with James Reason’s Swiss Cheese Model of accident causation (Reason 475-484). This model postulates that disasters occur due to individual human actions that are “necessary but singly insufficient to achieve the catastrophic outcome.” In the model, higher levels of intervention (represented by the additional slices of overlaid Swiss cheese) are necessary to prevent disasters from happening (i.e., by covering the holes in the lower layers). Once one accepts the possibility of divine consequences for individual actions as taught in the Church, higher orders of intervention become necessary in avoiding individual disaster. Thus for Latter-day Saints (and many other Christians), the need for divinely revealed teachings, an organizational structure or church of believers, and a messianic Savior are all accepted as necessary and natural scaffolds for preserving individual salvation. Rather than tools of cultish oppression, these additional protective layers of “cheese” might be viewed as evidence of responsible divine governance.

It already makes a certain sense that adherents of a religion      whose teachings support alternate sources of knowledge and the suspension of disbelief as detailed above might be predisposed to reading science fiction. And it logically follows that if members of that religion were overrepresented among readers of science fiction, then the subset of those readers that choose to write science fiction would be overrepresented as well. But the drive to create science fiction may run deeper than a mere increased interest in the genre. The detailed creation of secondary worlds (or speculative elements of our own world) is a recurrent component of Latter-day Saint theology. Whether in the world of pre-Columbian meso-American Christianity as described in the Book of Mormon or the multi-system cosmology of heaven described in the Church’s Doctrine and Covenants, detailed accounts of largely unsubstantiated alternate civilizations are among the first things taught to children and new converts. It seems reasonable that as Latter-day Saints mature they might try their own hand at such creations.

Latter-day Saint science fiction authors venture deep into the realms of creation and innovation, but they are often constrained by the self-imposition of order and structure on the created worlds—though some may consider these constraints to be what make their creations so compelling. Such constraints may be exemplified by Brandon Sanderson’s Laws of Magic (Sanderson 2011) and Orson Scott Card’s foundational How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (Card 1990), where universal rules are stated as indispensable even in something as inherently unregulatable as speculative fiction. This emphasis on structure illuminates the importance of rules and order in the Latter-day Saint understanding of worldbuilding. If a perfect repository of knowledge exists in a certain universe, then it stands to reason that every element of the universe may be perfectly understood in the full context of the physical laws, constants, and relationships that govern that universe. Exercises in building theorems to define these laws are certainly found in the fields of science, but the freedom to build these theorems at scale and without the constraints of mortal real-world limitations is certainly greater in science fiction.

Another aspect of Latter-day Saint theology has to do with the scientific method itself. Members of the Church have been commanded to “study it out in your mind” first before seeking revelation (Doctrine and Covenants 9.8), and one prophet in the Book of Mormon taught:

But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me. (Alma 32.27-28)

A major problem with this type of “experiment” is that it is based on feelings, and thus inherently subjective. Without a concrete way to measure feelings of swelling or enlargement or enlightenment, it is impossible to scientifically verify such observations at a population level, regardless of the study design. But if we were to suspend that initial reason to disbelieve, we might consider that such lack of second-hand verification could be a feature of the doctrine, rather than an invalidator. Latter-day Saints believe that mortal life is a test, and that we—as God’s spirit children—have been sent to Earth to see if we will follow his commandments (“The Purpose of Earth Life” 2000). Much like a math student who has to write out a mathematical proof by hand on an exam, Latter-day Saints believe we each have to do the work and obtain the “proof” for ourselves. On an individual basis, this process is quite true to a traditional implementation of the scientific method, where “careful, systematic observations of high quality” are used to formulate and test hypotheses (Voit 1-3). The quality of the observations cannot be verified by secondary observers, but from the Latter-day Saint perspective, that just means they have to do the experiment themselves and verify the quality firsthand.

At the very end of the Book of Mormon, there is a related teaching from a prophet named Moroni, speaking to people who would later read his words:

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10.4-5)

This isn’t truth that is intended only for descendants of early Church members, or only for Americans, or only for any other limited demographic or grouping of people. The implication is that anyone can repeat the experiment and receive the same information as anyone else from this purportedly absolute repository of knowledge. Indeed, Latter-day Saint theology is very much founded on this principle that individual observations can lead to generalizable knowledge. This foundational devotion to the core of the scientific method continues to underlie everything that is taught in the Church, and it shouldn’t be surprising that Latter-day Saints, with their belief that salvation depends on the attainment of such knowledge, would seek to make their experiments as widely replicable as possible, whether that be through science fiction or any other available means.


WORKS CITED

Black, Susan Easton. “How Large Was the Population of Nauvoo?” BYU Studies Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 2, 1995, pp. 91-3, https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/byusq/vol35/iss2/7.

The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.

Brett, Jeremy. “The Struggle over Information Curation in Fran Wilde’s The Fire Opal Mechanism.” SFRA Review, vol. 50, nos. 2-3, 2020, https://sfrareview.org/2020/09/04/50-2-a1brett/

Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. Tor Books, 1985.

—–. How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. Tor Books. 1990.

Collings, Michael R. “Refracted Visions and Future Worlds: Mormonism and Science Fiction,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 107-16, 1984.

Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families: Doctrine and Covenants 2021. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2021, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/come-follow-me-for-individuals-and-families-doctrine-and-covenants-2021/title?lang=eng.

Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.

“FamilySearch Hits 8 Billion Searchable Names in Historical Records”. FamilySearch News Releases. September 24, 2020, https://media.familysearch.org/familysearch-hits-8-billion-searchable-names-in-historical-records/.

Friedman, Charles P. “A ‘Fundamental Theorem’ of Biomedical Informatics.” Journal of the American Medical Information Association, vol. 16, no. 2, Mar-Apr 2009, pp. 169–70, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2649317/.

Gospel Topics Essays. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Accessed July 10, 2021. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays?lang=eng.

Hinckley, Gordon B. “This Thing Was Not Done in a Corner.” Ensign, November 1996, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1996/10/this-thing-was-not-done-in-a-corner?lang=eng

History of the Church. “History of the Church” (manuscript), The Joseph Smith Papers, book C-1, p. 1316, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-c-1-2-november-1838-31-july-1842/490

History of the Church. “History of the Church” (manuscript), The Joseph Smith Papers, book D-1, p. 1433, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-d-1-1-august-1842-1-july-1843/76

The Pearl of Great Price. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.

“Praying to Our Heavenly Father.” Gospel Principles. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2011, https://abn.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-principles/chapter-8-praying-to-our-heavenly-father?lang=eng.

“The Purpose of Earth Life.” Doctrines of the Gospel. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2000, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/doctrines-of-the-gospel/chapter-10?lang=eng.

Reason, James. “The Contribution of Latent Human Failures to the Breakdown of Complex Systems.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, vol. 327, no. 1241, Apr. 12, 1990, pp. 475–84.

Rowley, Jennifer. “The Wisdom Hierarchy: Representations of the DIKW Hierarchy.” Journal of Information and Communication Science, vol. 33, iss. 2, pp. 163–180, 2007, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0165551506070706.

Sanderson, Brandon. “Sanderson’s Laws of Magic.” Stormlight Archive Wiki, 2011, https://stormlightarchive.fandom.com/wiki/Sanderson%27s_Laws_of_Magic.

Saracevic, Tefko. “Information science.” In M. J. Bates (Ed.), Encyclopedia of library and information sciences (3rd ed.), New York: Taylor and Francis, 2009, pp. 2570-2585.

Shannon, Claude E. (July 1948). “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Bell System Technical Journal, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 379-423, http://people.math.harvard.edu/~ctm/home/text/others/shannon/entropy/entropy.pdf.

Voit, Eberhard O. “Perspective: Dimensions of the scientific method.” PLoS Comput Biol. 2019 Sep, vol. 15, no. 9, p. e1007279, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6742218/.Winston, Kimberly. “Mormons in space: Sci-fi or no lie?” Religion News Service, July 2017, https://religionnews.com/2017/07/26/mormons-in-space-sci-fi-or-no-lie/

Carl Grafe is a data analyst in the Department of Data and Analysis Services and an adjunct instructor in the Department of Mathematics at Brigham Young University-Idaho, which serves approximately 50,000 students in Idaho and around the world. He received his doctoral degree in biomedical informatics from the University of Utah School of Medicine with an emphasis in public health informatics. His research has been published in Population Health Management, the American Journal of Infection Control, Computational and Mathematical Methods in Medicine, and elsewhere. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of his employer or other affiliations.


Building on the Vision: Mormon “Humanism” in Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Symposium: Mormonism and SF


Building on the Vision: Mormon “Humanism” in Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)

James H. Thrall

Ronald D. Moore, developer and co-executive producer of the 2004–2009 Battlestar Galactica remake, has said he was not inclined to expand the strong Mormon themes in Glen A. Larson’s original 1978 series (BSG 1978), given his lack of familiarity with Mormonism (Leventry). [1] Even so, the framework of Larson’s Mormon vision undergirds the later series’ premise and execution, especially through the continued centrality of religion. Elements of the new drama, furthermore, suggest parallels to Mormon beliefs that can have particular resonance for Latter-day Saints. By viewing the series through a Mormon lens, the epic conflict between polytheistic humans and monotheistic Cylons can illuminate Mormon principles of theodicy, free agency, and spiritual evolution. In addition, as boundaries between humans and Cylons blur, the initially central question of “What does it mean to be human?” gives way to the more urgent question, “What does it mean to be humane?” Similarly, the distinguishing issue of religious identity, “What do we believe?” is preempted by religion’s more foundational concern, “How shall we live?” The resulting narrative can be seen to illustrate Mormonism’s distinctive form of religiously framed “humanism,” with its assumptions of infinite human potential. 

Other than the controversial move of turning the cocky, cigar-smoking male fighter pilot Starbuck into a cocky, cigar-smoking woman, the most significant innovations by Moore and co-executive producer David Eick in recasting BSG 1978 were to make Cylons the creation of humans (rather than the unexplained legacy of an alien race), and to give them the ability to appear as humans. As Cylon Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer) puts it, Cylons are “the children of humanity; that makes them our parents, in a sense” (“Bastille Day”). This becomes especially true when, in the process of their further evolution, Cylons model themselves on their creators (“No Exit”). In addition to the original metallic Centurions and Raiders (organic/mechanical flying fighting ships that are Cylons in their own right), the most disturbing iterations are seven numbered android models (there had been eight, but one was destroyed), and an unnumbered group called the Final Five, who developed the others. Following a SF trope dating back at least to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and including such prime examples as Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the associated Blade Runner franchise, the “human-likeness” of Cylons poses vexing pragmatic challenges to the real humans’ self-preservation, and even more vexing existential challenges to assumptions about what it means to be a “real” human. As recently as Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2021 Klara and the Sun, SF has explored the unsettling potential for androids to “pass” as, or—generating a different anxiety—to surpass humans. Though technically machines, Cylon androids are, as D’Anna Biers/Number Three (Lucy Lawless) observes, remarkably similar to humans physically, at least in how they bleed (“Exodus I”). Furthermore, as the lascivious scientist Gaius Baltar (James Callis) experiences in his pleasure with various versions of Number Six, in other important ways they also function like humans. In their ability to be endlessly cloned and resurrected, Cylons might even be considered improved humans. At the same time, until the conception of Hera, a human-Cylon baby born to Karl “Helo” Agathon (Tahmoh Penikett) and Sharon “Athena” Valerii/Number Eight (Grace Park), and of a Cylon-Cylon baby by Colonel Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), one of the Final Five, and Caprica Six that is miscarried, they lack the human ability to reproduce biologically.

As humanity’s absolute “other” draws uncomfortably close, at least in appearance, the most intriguing aspect of Cylon “humanness” is their acquisition of religion. Religion for humans was always a subtext of the original series: Larson’s narrative of space fugitives drew directly on his LDS background (Ford) in ways that color the later series as well. Both series, for example, have a Council or Quorum of Twelve governing twelve human colonies, as in the Mormon Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (Nelson). Their use of the name Kobol for humanity’s mother-world reworks Kolob, Mormonism’s name for the star nearest God’s dwelling place (Pearl of Great Price, Abraham 3.2-3). Even the idea of a remnant of humans fleeing near-genocide to follow a lost tribe to Earth echoes the Book of Mormon, in which descendants of Israel’s Tribe of Joseph make their way to America after escaping Jerusalem’s imminent destruction (Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 2.1-4; 5.14; 17-18). Moore made his Cylons monotheists to contrast with the humans’ polytheism, based loosely on the Greek/Roman pantheon (Leventry). Although the monotheistic/polytheistic divide adds another point of conflict, the development of Cylon spirituality itself contributes to the erosion of distinctions between human and non-human that so disconcerts the colonials. The Galactica’s crew, for example, assert that they are fighting “toasters,” not people, and, in a nod to Blade Runner, derisively call android models “skin jobs.” The Cylons, meanwhile, decry “toaster” as a racial epithet, and, in an echo of Frankenstein’s monster (see Thrall, “What the Frak, Frankenstein!”), assert that they, in fact, possess souls. Some Cylon models express little or no interest in religion, it is true. Though at times adopting the role of clergy, John Cavil/Number One (Dean Stockwell) rejects the idea of Cylon souls (“The Ties That Bind”), and advocates what might be called an “andro-ology” (rather than a theology) that denies God any active influence at all (“Lay Down Your Burdens I and II”). But in an echo of other SF explorations of religious robots (e.g., Isaac Asimov’s “Reason”), even Cavil’s ability to parse such questions represents the achievement of spiritually self-aware artificial intelligence predicted by such futurists as Ray Kurzweil (153). 

In a further examination of SF tropes, Cylons and humans share in the fraught role of “God-like” creators of other beings. Just as the humans on the twelve colony planets created Centurions as a slave race that eventually rebelled, humanoid Cylons from Kobol who settled as the Thirteenth Colony on a planet they called Earth created their own mechanical slaves, who likewise rebelled (“No Exit”). This process of successively generating races is reinforced with the series’ conclusion, which indicates that humans and Cylons, in combination with indigenous tribes they discover on the planet that is our Earth, are together the progenitors of contemporary humanity (“Daybreak II”). Thus, perhaps none of the “human-like” creatures in the series are exactly human in the way audiences assumed. This fluidity in what constitutes a “human” is extended by the existence of human-appearing cyborg Hybrids able to control Cylon basestars, and by the presence of “Messengers,” also referred to as “angels,” who appear in the forms of individual humans and Cylons, who are capable of having sex (as Messenger Number Six does with Baltar), and seem to be eternal (“Exodus II”). Although it is not stipulated that they were formerly embodied, that possibility is suggested by the indeterminate nature of Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), who, in her mysterious reappearance after her death (“Maelstrom,” “Sometimes a Great Notion”) and her final “winking out” disappearance in the series’ conclusion (“Daybreak II”), might be a Messenger. Her sometime guide/sometime sparring partner, Leoben Conoy/Number Two (Callum Keith Rennie), at least points to a progression in her state when he notes how she has changed after her return from death: she is an “angel,” he says, whose “journey can finally begin” (“The Road Less Traveled”). Starbuck herself distinguishes her former physical state from her current possibly spiritual condition, referring to her post-death body as “just this alien thing” (“The Ties That Bind”).

The variety and shifting states of characters who at least appear as some form of human invite comparisons to the LDS concept of “infinite and divine human potential” that is based on founder Joseph Smith’s claim that “God and humanity were essentially members of the same species” (Mason 160, 159). While the LDS church has no official position on Darwinian “organic evolution,” which it considers a matter of scientific study and not revelation (Evenson), the “innovative notion of theosis or deification in which humans are on a path of eternal spiritual progression” provides a dramatic form of spiritual evolution, explains Patrick Q. Mason in What Is Mormonism? (159; see also Adams, Ricks). In a “premortal” state, the spirit children of the Heavenly Father, an embodied, yet all-powerful being, and the Heavenly Mother, who is divine but not worshiped as the Father is, prepare for life as embodied humans on Earth (Gospel Topics: Premortality, God the Father, Mother in Heaven). During “mortality” or the “second estate,” embodied spirits have “opportunities to grow and develop in ways that were not possible in . . . premortal life” (Gospel Topics: Mortality). After death and entry into “postmortality,” humans return to a spirit state to await final resurrection and reunion with their physical bodies (Gospel Topics: Postmortality). With Mormonism’s near-universalism when it comes to salvation, there is a level of heaven available to all except Satan and his angels (Mason 165). The “celestial kingdom,” or highest tier, is where “God and Jesus reside, families are united for eternity, and eternal progression toward godhood is possible.” The “ultimate goal” for Mormons, therefore, Mason states, “is not merely salvation but rather exaltation—that is, becoming gods themselves, though never supplanting God the Father” (160). This possibility of becoming divinities invites claims that Mormons are “not monotheists,” Mason adds. “[S]trictly speaking, this is true as Mormons not only acknowledge the existence of innumerable gods in the cosmos but also insist that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, all of whom they worship as members of the Godhead, are three separate persons” (163). Given the centrality of God the Father, it would be a step too far to call Mormons polytheists, he argues; rather, they entertain a complex intermingling of monotheistic and polytheistic ideas.

BSG 1978’s two-part episode “War of the Gods” evokes this doctrine of spiritual progression directly when technologically advanced, angel-like creatures called Seraphs restore the human pilot Apollo (Richard Hatch) to life after he sacrifices himself to protect a fellow pilot, Sheba (Anne Lockhart), from the Satanic figure Iblis (Patrick Macnee). Brought aboard the Seraphs’ Ship of Lights, Apollo, Sheba, and Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) find they are, like the Seraphs, clothed in white. The Seraphs explain that they chose to help the humans in general and Apollo specifically because “as you are now, we once were; as we are now, you may become,” a paraphrase of the claim by Lorenzo Snow, Mormonism’s fifth president, “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become” (Mason 159, Ford 86). The Seraphs also explain that they are interested in those, like Apollo, “who have the courage to grow beyond the limitations of the flesh.” The later series is not so explicit as to quote a Mormon president, yet Starbuck’s post-death return to Galactica in a gleaming white Viper fighter seems a nod to the earlier resurrection scene. 

Mormons may find more extensive resonance with the principle of spiritual progress in the series’ attention to the closely allied matter of “free agency” (Mason 166), a core contributor to the humanistic flavor of LDS theology. By “humanism” I mean both the broadly inclusive term for preoccupation with human reason, actions, and motives, and the more specific reference to Renaissance endorsement of the dignity and potential of human earthly existence (“Humanism”). Although it might seem odd to associate Mormonism with the often secular concerns of humanism, LDS theology elevates human free will in its approach to theodicy, or the challenge of reconciling the idea of a good and omnipotent God with the existence of evil. Rather than assume that Original Sin imparted by the fall of Adam and Eve explains human participation in evil, the doctrine that “all humans—excepting young children and the mentally impaired—are accountable for their own actions, according to their capacities and the degree of their moral instruction” is as foundational for Mormon thought “as predestination was to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Calvinism,” explains Mason (166). Although other branches of Christianity endorse moral living, Mormonism stands apart in the degree to which it assumes a human role in bringing about good or evil by properly or improperly exercising moral agency (Ford 84–86, Mason 124, Warner). Calling human agency “existential” for Mormons, and “inherent in their very being,” Mason observes that the interplay of theosis and “free agency” places extraordinary emphasis on the responsibility to advance spiritually. “Most substantially, it makes humans active co-participants with Christ in their own salvation and exaltation” (167). 

A choice by pre-mortal spirits to either follow God and Christ, or Lucifer (Satan), who rebelled and “sought to destroy the agency of man,” gives human agency cosmic significance (Mason 124; Pearl of Great Price, Moses 4:3). Notably, in BSG 1978, when the humans of the fleet are tempted to accept Iblis as their leader, the enticement he offers is freedom from moral responsibility (“War of the Gods I & II”). While again not presenting such an explicit reference, the later series consistently foregrounds struggles of conscience and decision-making for both colonialists and Cylons. As the Renaissance rejected medieval assumptions that inherent human sinfulness was inescapably limiting (“Humanism”), so the series matches its deep study of human and Cylon imperfection with attention to the potential for achieving some fundamental decency, if not transcendence, through active choice. A major plot point, in which a Cylon faction decides to join forces with the humans, is propelled by another faction’s choice to remove Raiders’ ability for independent thought, and leads to granting free will to Centurions (“Six of One”). The division of Cylon factions itself presents the kind of crossroads experienced by Mormonism’s pre-mortal spirits, especially since the malevolence of Cavil, leader of the group lobotomizing Raiders, has a Satanic flavor. Other episodes repeatedly return to the question of choosing correctly among difficult alternatives, and of taking responsibility for choices made. In one tightly wound juxtaposition early in the series, shots of Colonial President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) protecting the fleet by destroying a nuclear-laden ship that may or may not be carrying 1,300 humans are interspersed with shots of Baltar evading responsibility for having betrayed all of humankind when he gave Caprica Six access to the humans’ defense mainframes (“33”). At a later critical moment, Roslin presents choices by Galactica’s crew and passengers to join or resist a treasonous coup in stark terms: “Who do you want to be? Who do you want to be?” (“Blood on the Scales”). This focus on personal responsibility thus joins the question of “what is a human?” with the broader religious question of “how shall a human live?” or, more specifically, “how shall a human live humanely?”

Although the answers to that last question are as diverse as the circumstances in which characters must consider it, Moore’s series favors gestures of mutual support and solidarity in particular. From the opening miniseries, calls of then-Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos) for the humans to hold together in the face of the Cylon onslaught are punctuated with the colonials’ version of a unified Amen, “So say we all” (“Miniseries”). The strongest statement of what the audience is invited to value in human/Cylon behavior comes, however, when such ties are extended, even tentatively, across lines of division. Besides the romantic linking of Number Six and Baltar, the mutual love of Athena and Helo overcomes Cylon infertility with the production of Hera. The promise of this new horizon of hybridity, as well as her attachment to Baltar, pushes Caprica Six to question whether a God of love would mandate genocide, and to use her status as a hero of the cause to urge her Cylon colleagues toward détente with the humans (“Downloaded”). Starbuck displays her hatred of all things Cylon by torturing Leoben when he is her prisoner (“Flesh and Bone”), and repeatedly murdering him when she is his (“The Occupation”). Even so, she is moved to pray to her gods on behalf of his soul, and her incorrect belief that they have produced a daughter together momentarily offsets her antipathy (“Precipice”). Significantly, in her later mystical revisit of her past at the point of her death, it is an apparent Messenger in the form of Leoben who serves as her guide (“Maelstrom”). These connections are often accomplished in spite of religious identifications, as what is presented as the right thing to do is what is most caring of others, with the caveat, repeatedly asserted by Roslin, that “right” must be balanced with “smart” (“No Exit”). It is right, for example, to see the imprisoned Athena as worthy of trust and respect, as Adama does eventually, and wrong to torture Gina Inviere, another Number Six clone, as Admiral Helena Caine (Michelle Forbes) and the Pegasus crew do (“Pegasus,” “Resurrection I”). It is wrong for Tory Foster (Rekha Sharma), one of the Final Five, to murder Calandra “Cally” Tyrol (Nicki Clyne), even if Tory thinks it is smart because Cally had discovered the Five’s identities (“The Ties That Bind”). It is seemingly right, but not smart for Galen Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) to help the “Boomer” version of Number Eight escape captivity, because it leads to Hera’s kidnapping (“Someone to Watch Over Me”). Finally, it is clearly right in general for Cylons and humans to overcome their mutual hatred to join forces for their shared survival. Resurrected among other Cylons on Caprica, Boomer distills this distinction between religious belief and something more basic when she waves a photograph of her Galactica crewmates at Caprica Six and shouts: “Do you think I care about your God? . . . This is love. These people loved me” (“Downloaded”).

In a manner reminiscent of Mormonism’s acceptance of some element of “both/and” in their approach to single or multiple Gods, even the division between monotheism and polytheism weakens by the series’ end. Small moments along the way point to fluidity in the concepts, as when a Colonialist oracle gives D’Anna a message from her Cylon God (“Exodus I”), or when Roslin and another cancer patient discuss whether it makes sense to identify that God as Cylon (“Faith”). In part because of Baltar’s preaching to his cult of mostly female followers, a number of humans “switch sides” to worship one God rather than many. Later, united in their loss even as they engage in different rituals, monotheists, polytheists and Baltar’s followers come together in an ecumenical service of mourning after a deadly breach of Galactica’s hull (“Islanded in a Stream of Stars”). The specifics of religious difference thus fade, replaced by a sense that, whatever the individual level of perception, “something more” is providing support for human-like creatures responding to the call to be better. As Baltar asserts in a final confrontation with atheist Cavil, “There’s another force at work here. . . . We’ve all experienced it. Everyone in this room has witnessed events that they can’t fathom, let alone explain away by rational means” (“Daybreak II”). In the face of that experience, limiting language becomes meaningless: “Whether we want to call that God or Gods or some sublime inspiration or a divine force that we can’t know or understand, it doesn’t matter.” What does matter is the responsibility to exercise agency in ways that set aside the destructive power of conflict: “Good and evil, we created those. You want to break the cycle? Break the cycle of birth? Death? Rebirth? Destruction? Escape? Death? Well, that’s in our hands, in our hands only.” 

Given the series’ richly developed religious backdrop, which includes references to reincarnation as in Buddhism or Hinduism, to circular history that echoes Aztec cosmology, and to the quasi-religion of the Zodiac, among others, a Mormon reading of these themes of human potential and agency is, of course, only one possibility. Even elements of the series particularly recognizable to Latter-day Saints, such as Roslin’s vision of being greeted by her deceased family members in heaven (“Faith”), or the presence of guiding Messengers similar to the angel Moroni who led founder Joseph Smith to the Book of Mormon (Hardy), may connect with other religious traditions as well. As different viewers “see” the series in different ways, however, perhaps all might respond to the proffered pattern of a better way for “other” to relate to “other.” To repurpose President Snow’s maxim, perhaps the upward striving to live humanely, which leads at least to a more fully realized humanity, if not divinity, is the best work of whatever might be called “religion,” Mormon or otherwise. That may add an element of hope to what might otherwise be despair in the oracular assertion: “All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again” (“The Hand of God”).

NOTES

[1] Portions of this article draw from James H. Thrall, “The Religions of Battlestar Galactica: Making Human, Making Other,” When Genres Collide: Selected Essays from the 17th Annual Meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association, edited by Thomas J. Morrissey and Oscar De Los Santos, Fine Tooth, 2007, 141-9.


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James H. Thrall is the Knight Distinguished Associate Professor for the Study of Religion and Culture at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He studies religion primarily as a social phenomenon, especially as communicated through cultural products of literature, film, and other media. He has a particular research interest in science fiction, and has published articles on works of William Gibson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Amitav Ghosh, Octavia Butler, Kurt Vonnegut, Dan Simmons, and Philip K. Dick, as well as on the Battlestar Galactica and Caprica series. He contributed a chapter on “The Authority of Sacred Texts in Science Fiction” for the Routledge Companion to Religion and Literature and is currently working on a textbook for courses on science fiction and religion.