Glimpses

Worlds Without End: Speculative Fiction and the Mormon Writer


April 2009


by Luisa Perkins


When I was in my early teens, I religiously read a periodical called Omni.  Aimed at the armchair scientist, it featured both high-quality short stories and interesting non-fiction articles.  One day, as I read a particularly compelling story, awareness dawned: its author was surely a Mormon.  There was no overt statement of faith or didactic theme, just a few subtle turns of phrase that I recognized even then as being peculiar to my culture. 

At the time, I had no idea that there were any LDS writers working in the realm of speculative fiction; I was inspired and energized.  I also took careful note of the writer’s name so that I could look for further work of his.  Even his name sounded Mormon: the writer was Orson Scott Card.  I’ve been following his speculative fiction career ever since.




What is speculative fiction?  Rebecca Weybright, editor of the webzine Noctober, has an answer, but hastens to add it may not be the answer; speculative fiction aficionados have widely divergent views as to what constitutes the canon.  She writes,


“All fiction is to some degree concerned with speculation–asking the question ‘What if.’ What if a headstrong Southern belle fell in love with a man completely wrong for her? What if a crazy man decided to chase a white whale around the oceans of the world?


Speculative fiction, however, asks the ‘What if?’ question in both broader and more specific ways. The main branches of speculative fiction are science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and there are many fabulous little hybrids and sub-genres of those three.


To be very simplistic, science fiction goes beyond the boundaries of the known, real world through (you guessed it) science; fantasy does so through magic or other paranormal means; and horror does so by expanding the role of fear.”




Today, Orson Scott Card is probably the best-known writer of speculative fiction, but he was hardly the first.  That honor goes to Nephi Anderson (photograph at left, below), whose novel Added Upon was first published in 1898, just three years after The Time Machine, H.G. Wells’s ground-breaking book.  Added Upon was continuously in print until 2005; its effect on LDS culture has been enormous.  Download it at Project Gutenberg, and you’ll instantly see the influence it had on iconic Mormon pop culture works like Saturday’s Warrior and My Turn on Earth.


Though her writing career began a half-century after Anderson’s, Zenna Henderson was also a pioneer on many fronts.  Her short stories concerning “The People,” a race of humanoid aliens stranded on Earth, were wildly popular in the 1950s and ‘60s.  She was one of the first successful female science fiction writers, and virtually the only one writing at that time who didn’t resort to a male-sounding pseudonym in order to find publishing success.  Most science fiction of the time was highly rationalist and pragmatic; Henderson broke a taboo with her openly religious and spiritually sensitive People. 


Orson Scott Card specifically cites Henderson as an influence on his work.  Creator of the enormously successful “Ender” series, Card is the only writer who has won both the Hugo and the Nebula (speculative fiction’s two most prestigious awards) in consecutive years.  He teaches both at the university level and at writing “boot camps”; he is also the Publisher and Executive Editor of the online magazine Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show.

Nearly contemporary with Card is Dave Wolverton, who writes science fiction under his own name and fantasy under the pseudonym David Farland.  Wolverton first gained fame as the winner of the popular and high-paying annual “Writers of the Future” contest; he later went on to become a judge for that contest as well as the editor of its anthology series.  He has enjoyed significant critical and commercial success.  Graduates of his novel-writing workshops include Brandon Sanderson, Brandon Mull, and John Brown. 


These three are prominent among the current generation of published LDS science fiction and fantasy writers.  Others are Jessica Day George, Obert Skye, J. Scott Savage, James Dashner, and Newbery Honoree Shannon Hale, all of whom write primarily for the ever-hungry middle grade and young adult markets.  Then, of course, there’s the publishing phenomenon known as Stephenie Meyer, who sold over 22 million copies of her science fiction novel The Host and her young adult vampire series ("Twilight") last year.


Wolverton muses on what accounts for the fact that there are so many outstanding young writers in the speculative fiction field today as opposed to other literary genres.  In an interview with me via email, he writes, 

“I've often wondered that, and I can think of a dozen answers.  Scott Card and others have pointed out that LDS people believe in life on other worlds, and that in itself may allow us to be more open to science fiction.


But there are other factors.  For example, as missionaries we have a lot of experience in dealing with alien cultures.  Many of us go out to foreign lands when we're young.  Time and time again, I see young LDS writers dealing with alien cultures in their work and getting their first publications this way.  Indeed, as Mormons, we are an alien culture to the rest of the world, so it gives us an interesting perspective to draw from.”


Weybright offered me a complementary explanation in a recent interview.  “LDS theology is pretty wacky when considered from an outsider’s point of view,” she says.  “Joseph Smith’s visions alone sound like they could be from a fantasy novel.  Mormons are open to a lot of input from beyond the rational world; it makes sense that they would be drawn to literature that is willing to explore beyond the here and now.”


Wolverton agrees, citing his own experience as an example.  “I began writing scientific nonfiction when I was a teenager, but I didn't really begin reading speculative fiction until after I had written a couple of books (one on mammalogy and one on the development of nuclear weaponry).  Suddenly I found a field of literature that catered to my sense of wonder, my love for learning strange and interesting facts.  From an early age, I've been fascinated by how strange and unique our world is. Time and again, I try to express that in my fiction.”


Do Mormon writers try to express anything else?  Specifically, do they feel a burden to spread the message of their faith through the medium of their writing?  That was certainly Nephi Anderson’s goal, but the writer’s objective seems to have changed significantly in the century since his work first became popular, according to Weybright. She says, “The good writers aren’t preaching; they’re just trying to tell the best story they can.” 


Wolverton expands on the point.  “I think that my LDS worldview comes out most strongly in my themes.  I don't consciously let it shape my fiction in most instances, or at least I don't start a novel with the idea that ‘I'm going to talk about fake love versus real love in this series.’  But your beliefs come out in your work.  You really can't help it, and I'm not interested in hiding it, so very often I will get this moment of epiphany when I read a scripture and I'll think, ‘Aha, this is what I've been trying to say in my latest book!’”


Further Reading


In the thirty years since I first ‘discovered’ Orson Scott Card, I’ve read a lot of speculative fiction.  In my opinion, the LDS writers I’ve mentioned here rank among the best in the entire field.  To a reader curious to explore the strange new worlds created by Mormon writers, I would recommend the following as a start:


Nephi Anderson, Added Upon

Zenna Henderson, Ingathering: The Complete People Stories

Orson Scott Card, the “Ender” series, the “Alvin Maker” series, The Folk of the Fringe, and the short fiction collection Maps in a Mirror

Dave Wolverton, On My Way to Paradise

David Farland, The Golden Queen and the “Runelords” series

Brandon Sanderson, Elantris and the “Mistborn” series

John Brown, Servant of a Dark God


Young Adult and Middle Grade

Shannon Hale, Princess Academy and The Goose Girl

Dave Wolverton, the “Ravenspell” series

James Dashner, “The 13th Reality” series

Jessica Day George, Dragon Slippers and Princess of the Midnight Ball

J. Scott Savage, the “Farworld” series

Brandon Mull, the “Fablehaven” series

Obert Skye, the “Leven Thumps” series

Stephenie Meyer, the “Twilight” series and The Host


An exhaustive and frequently updated list of LDS speculative fiction can be found at http://www.mormonsf.org/.


Luisa Perkins is the author of the YA novel Shannon's Mirror and a contributor to the essay collection Silent Notes Taken. Her short story "Dodmen and the Holophusikon" was recently produced as a podcast on the StreamPod.org, and her story "Truck Stop" appears in the March issue of Noctober. (Click on the above links to listen to "Dodmen..." or read "Truck Stop.") Her cookbook Cumfortably Yum is forthcoming in April. She lives in the Hudson Highlands with her husband and their six children.