Jesuits in Science Fiction

Are all priests in science fiction Jesuits? Frankly, I don’t know. Very few priests appear in science fiction. The first encounter I ever had with an SF Jesuit was in James Blish’s A Case of Conscience published in 1958 as a novel after publication of the first part in 1953 as a novella. The Jesuit, Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, wrestles with a dilemma about the nature of a newly discovered planet whose peaceful existence is contrasted with the violent Earth society. It’s a crisis of faith that is ultimately resolved in an ambiguous way, leaving readers to make their own interpretation.

Mary Doria Russell used Jesuits as protagonists in two novels, The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God. Father Emilio Sandoz is the only survivor of an expedition to the planet Rakhat in the Alpha Centauri system financed and crewed by the Jesuits. He believes he has found a culture of peace and beauty, only to learn that almost the opposite is true. His faith is nearly extinguished in the aftermath of the expedition. Both if Russell’s novels rely heavily on the experience of the Jesuit North American Martyrs, although the commentary I have read did not mention that. In a way, they are a metaphor for the European colonization of North America and the moral issues involved. These Jesuit characters in SF novels are further discussed in Jesuits in Space with plot summaries.

Stanislaw Lem, a Polish SF writer, used a Dominican priest, Father R. P. Arago, as the conscience of the crew of a starship that destroys an alien civilization in its unrelenting attempts to force the aliens to communicate. The dominance of the Jesuit motif for SF priests even led one web site to describe Fr. Arago as a Jesuit. In another favorite of mine, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Brother Francis, a member of an unspecified order, is a main character. He is not a Jesuit but he lives in the far future where current religious orders have disappeared.

So, why Jesuits? I have a bit of experience, having been a Jesuit novice for a time. I suspect it is because the Jesuits have focused from their inception on deploying secular knowledge in service to Christianity. They have a well-deserved reputation as extremely well educated men and have collateral strengths in linguistics and missionary work. These make them a good fit for science fiction, with its stress on science and knowledge and the need for language in first contact situations. Some Jesuits themselves are  scientists and they can interact with science and scientists on an equal intellectual footing. Since all good stories rely on strongly presented conflict, Jesuits can either be good protagonists or good antagonists.

I hope that soon another fictional Jesuit, Ignatius Xavier Ryan, SJ, will take his place among these characters. Terraformed Earth – New Millennium, my work in progress anti-dystopian novel is set a millennium from now where Earth’s environment is safe but humanity is endangered. I hope to publish it in 2022.

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