The Islamic framing in Donald Moffitt's science fiction series The Mechanical Sky.

Author:Olsson, Susanne
Position:Critical essay


This article concerns science fiction (SF) motives connected to Islam, which are not that common. That some religious traditions, however, may be regarded as SF, or vice versa, has been noted by the scholar of religion James F. McGrath (2011): "We need not look very far in order to encounter a point of intersection [between religion and SF], where on the one hand science fiction takes on religious overtones, and where on the other hand religion takes on an aura of science fiction" (2). (1)

The aim of this article is to read the SF series The Mechanical Sky, consisting of two books, Crescent in the Sky (1989) and A Gathering of Stars (1990), written by Donald Moffitt (b. 1931), and analyze it from the perspective of the study of religions and particularly Islamic Studies. The article will contextualize the series in the historical situation when it was written in order to comment on the Islamic framing of the series, rather than reading the text at face value. Another related main aim of the article concerns the methodological problems that such an analysis of the Islamic framing may entail. The article calls for the need to reflect seriously on interpretative perspectives when a scholar in the study of religions enters the field of SF, which has its own definitional problems and genre-specific traits that must be taken into consideration.

Defining SF

Defining SF seems to be a favourite pastime of many SF practitioners and a defining characteristic of the field. There is no universal, agreed-on definition of SF, and this article will not attempt to establish a definition either. However, the discussion in this section will be of relevance in the analytical part that follows.

David Seed, professor of American literature, notes the hybrid nature of SF works. He argues that it may be problematic to call SF a genre, and states that calling it a mode or field with subgenres and different genres intersecting may be more helpful (Seed 2011,1-2, 127). Another aspect of SF literature is that there has long existed a kind of "master narrative" in SF, with certain rules that affect how a work of SF is perceived and that most likely influence how SF authors work as well. In the popular encyclopedia The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which contains many articles by practitioners, the conflict over definition and scope of SF appears in several articles, illustrating an internal debate about the "true" nature of SF. (2) The article "Genre SF" illustrates how SF works that ignore the "protocols" have been regarded as a form of treason--an attitude that seems to remain. The article also illustrates the ongoing conflict concerning definitions of SF (3):

To work variations on these protocols is clever (and indeed required); but to abandon them is to leave home. For many years, leaving home in this fashion ... was considered a form of treason; for some writers and readers, this attitude remains. Similarly, works of fiction which use sf themes in seeming ignorance or contempt of the protocols--often works from so-called Mainstream Writers of SF--frequently go unread by those immersed in genre sf; and, if they are read, tend to be treated as invasive and alien ... and incompetent. This snobbery ... is perhaps unfortunate as a general rule, though in many particular instances it is fully justified. (Nicholls and Clute 2011)

Some SF themes are negatively referred to by many as "space operas," which includes stories containing spaceships and aliens, for example ET or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but also folk-stories, such as narratives of abductions. (4) Space operas include the subcategory "shaggy God stories." In these cases, the literature utilizes apparent Biblical motives, such as Adam and Eve in fact having been aliens. (5) These stories, however, illustrate that religious themes have been used by SF authors in many instances.

There is no one agreed on definition of SF, but the science motif is a central part of most definitions, which may seem to contradict metaphysical themes as "legitimate" parts of SF, according to the "master narrative." This attitude is reflected in the article "Religion" in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

Familiar Definitions of SF imply that there is nothing more alien to its concerns than religion. However, many of the roots of Proto SF are embedded in traditions of speculative fiction closely associated with the religious imagination, and contemporary sf recovered a strong interest in certain mystical and transcendental themes and images when it moved beyond the Taboos imposed by the Pulp magazines. Modern sf frequently confronts age-old speculative issues associated with Metaphysics and theology--partly because science itself has abandoned them. Speculative fiction always tends to go beyond the merely empirical matters with which pragmatic scientists concern themselves; perhaps something called "science" fiction ought not to include metaphysical fiction, but the genre as constituted obviously does. (Stableford and Langford 2013b)

There also seems to be an unwillingness to define SF among academic scholars, apparent in, for example, McGrath's (2011) edited volume Religion and Science Fiction, where he avoids defining both "religion" and "SF." However, in the introduction, he compares the two and provides us with some similarities in the themes that both SF and religion deal with: the place of human beings in the universe, good versus evil, and humanity's future, for example (McGrath 2011, 2).

Most substantive definitions of SF have normatively tried to establish what SF "is," or should be, and they have focused on science as a main aspect of the field, which illustrates an internal debate concerning what is true SF and not. In the article "Definitions of SF" in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, several examples are given since the 1930s, when the term SF came into general use. The article emphasizes that SF has developed from the merging of various genres and that it is, and ought to be, a fluid concept, a view that is also adopted by, for example, David Seed, as mentioned:

There is really no good reason to expect that a workable definition of sf will ever be established. None has been, so far. In practice, there is much consensus about what sf looks like in its centre; it is only at the fringes that most of the fights take place. And it is still not possible to describe sf as a homogeneous form of writing. Sf is arguably not a genre in the strict sense at all--and why should it be? Historically, it grew from the merging of many distinct genres, from utopias to space adventures. Instinctively, however, we may feel that, if sf ever loses its sense of the fluidity of the future and the excitement of our scientific attempts to understand our Universe--in short, as more conservative fans would put it with enthusiasm though conceptual vagueness, its Sense of Wonder-- then it may no longer be worth fighting over. If things fall apart and the centre cannot hold, mere structural fabulation may be loosed upon the world! (Stableford, Clute, and Nicholls 2012)

Contemporary scholars within the study of religions deal with a similar discussion on the concept "religion," even though the issue of what is the right or wrong religious interpretation or practice is not a question dealt with, as these are seen as confessional insider issues. A renowned anthropologist, Talal Asad (2006), has written concerning the contemporary definitional situation, and his views are generally agreed on among scholars in the field: "My argument is that there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes" (29). Comparing this discussion to that about SF, the various definitions of SF, what it is, or should be, show how definitions of SF, too, are historically situated. To understand the history behind the definitions of SF, or their context, however, may help us understand and interpret the works published within the field of SF, as will become clear in the following discussion.

Another aspect is that definitions of SF are mainly based on a Western frame of reference, and often a North American one. The article "Genre SF" in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction refers to this. It mentions The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1988), edited by James E. Gunn, professor emeritus of English and himselfan SF author, as an example of an unwillingness

to accord genuine sf status to work written outside the protocols and outside North America. The question as to whether or not international non-genre-based sf is true sf has, moreover, become inflamed and politicized; and to discuss non-genre sf in an encyclopedia of sf has at times been regarded by some critics, especially in the USA, as a radical ideological decision. (Nicholls and Clute 2011)

Perhaps this last comment is an explanation to the perceived lack of Muslim SF authors. The following will show, however, that there are many SF authors outside North America, and an increasing number are in fact Muslim.

Islamic SF and SF about Islam

When Islam or Muslims are mentioned in SF written by non-Muslims, it may be that the authors are elaborating on a civilizational criticism. (6) In some cases, I would argue, the literature may be seen as reflecting an anxiety or fear of Islam and Muslims. Related to this, I would like to draw on the works of political scientist Victor Wallis (2006), who speaks about a certain "framing" in SF literature, which to a large extent functions as decorative. (7) A SF story often includes trips in space and/or time, and there are a number of fantastic technical opportunities and equipment to use. Simultaneously, there is a story going on that often focuses on a fight between good and evil. SF, in Wallis's opinion, may contribute to imaginary states...

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