Dispatches from the Word Mines: A Field of Millet: Faith and (Alien) Gods in Science Fiction by Rebecca Buchanan

Dispatches from the Word Mines is an irregular blog series about literature and writing from the perspective of writers themselves. This entry comes to us from Rebecca Buchanan, editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She has been published in a wide variety of venues, with most of her work featuring Gods, Goddesses, spirits, witches, and the occasional nereid. In this dispatch, she discusses polytheism in the context of science fiction. Many thanks, Rebecca!

To consider the Earth as the only populated world in infinite space is as absurd as to assert that in an entire field of millet, only one grain will grow. -- Metrodorus of Chios, 4th century BCE

*I*

Kepler-186f is famous in scientific circles. In 2014, it was the first confirmed Earth-sized planet to orbit its star within the habitable zone; of the many extraterrestrial objects which have been discovered since the birth of modern astronomy, it is the most likely to support life as we know it. Someday, it may even support human life.

I wonder who the Gods are who live there? And what will they think of us if/when we arrive?

For most scientists and many science fiction fans, I am sure those are very odd questions. Actually, they are questions which probably would not even occur to most scientists and sf fans. Atmospheric composition? Sure. Flora and fauna, and their usefulness to humanity? Yes. Weather cycles and the availability of water? Obviously.

But then, I am Pagan, a polytheist. So, for me, right up there with can I drink the water? is how do I honor the Mountain God? and how do I establish a relationship with the River Spirit? and do the Wind Gods even want us here? and also, can I bring the Gods whom I love with me to this new world?

These are questions that I ask in my own writing, but I rarely encounter them in mainstream science fiction. Religious themes are common enough in contemporary science fiction;1 see, for example, CS Lewis’ On the Silent Planet, Ray Bradbury’s “The Man,” Walter M Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Clifford D Simek’s A Choice of Gods, Harlan Ellison’s The Deathbird, Robert Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land, “The Way of Cross and Dragon” by George RR Martin, Pastwatch by Orson Scott Card, and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, among others. While these stories run the gamut from devout to satirical to antitheistic, they do have one thing in common: they all approach matters of faith, religion, and the divine from a Western, monotheistic perspective. That is their default setting. It is rare to find a mainstream Western science fiction tale which deals with non-monotheistic spirituality in a respectful manner.2

In all fairness, Pagan publishing is a thriving niche industry, and Pagan authors have taken advantage of that to release some science fiction short stories, novels, and anthologies. Consider, for example, the works of Gerri Leen, Jolene Dawe, and CS MacCath, A Stirring in the Bones by Jennifer Lyn Parsons, The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk, KA Laity’s Owl Stretching, Star’s Reach by John Michael Greer, and the anthology The Shining Cities, which I edited for Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

For me as a polytheist, though, as a lover of mythology and of science fiction, this dearth of Pagan sf is incredibly frustrating. And I know that I am not alone in my frustration. The only way we are going to read the stories we want is to write them. We have to create our own: our own fictional universes filled with Gods and alien Goddesses and space pirates and planetary oracles and asteroid temples and spirits dancing on solar winds.

Wanna help?

*II*

Firstly, a definition. For me, Pagan science fiction deals with imaginary -- but plausible and logically constructed -- worlds in which the implications and consequences of cultural, environmental, and scientific change and innovation are explored using polytheistic ethical/mythical/historical frames of reference. So, for example, how might a devotee of Nemesis understand environmental collapse? How might a priest of Mani react to setting foot on the Moon for the first time? How will Wiccan theology and rites change if a colony is established on a planet with no fauna, only flora? What if a group of Kemetics end up on a jungle planet with indigenous, sentient life; how will they interact with the natives, and the native Gods?

Of course, there is also the reverse to consider. What if insectoid aliens who practiced animism arrived on Earth? How might they (mis)understand humanity’s many spiritual traditions? What if a reptilian race of religious fanatics invaded our world? Or maybe our first visitors are alien slugs who had no previous concept of religion at all.

Science fiction is a genre incredibly rich in potential; there are dozens of subgenres, any of which might be interpreted through a Pagan lens. Among my own works, for example, is an alternate future history in which the descendants of Marcus Antonius and Kleopatra VII rule a far-flung interstellar empire (“Alexander’s Heart”); a tale in which a physician-devotee of Apollo struggles to end a pandemic (“The Blue Bird and the Raven”); the story of a terraforming gone terribly wrong (“New Spring”); a story of followers of Sekhmet trying to save an alien felinoid race (“Hysthaany”); and a near-future story in which environmental and political collapse have inspired a devotee of Demeter to secretly harvest heritage “Seeds.”3

Now: what to write? That is entirely up to you, bearing a few guidelines in mind. Be respectful (insulting anyone’s Gods or rites is a bad idea). Do your research (e.g., make sure you know the difference between Inanna and Ishtar). Be original (please, please, please do not redo Star Wars with knights of Tyr substituted for the Jedi). Find inspiration all around you (e.g., pay attention, because you never know what fragment of a news story or an overheard conversation will turn into a story about Brigantia).

Next: how to write? Keep the above guidelines in mind. I also suggest prayer. Check in with Deities to whom you are particularly devoted, and the Deities of your tradition who oversee writing and poetry and the arts. Tell them what you are working on, and why, and make an offering appropriate to your tradition. In my case, I meditate semi-regularly, and I keep shrines to Hermes and the Charites on my main altar, and a shrine to Apollo on a secondary altar.

I have also found that listening to Pagan-friendly music is incredibly helpful. I find it difficult to write in silence; my brain starts to wander. I need noise, but not distraction. Music by artists such as aesma daeva, Eluveitie, Epica, Faun, Garmarna, Hagalaz Runedance, Heather Alexander, Heidi Berry, Nebelhexe, SJ Tucker, and others creates the right polytheist-supportive mood.

Next: when to write? All the time. Everywhere. Working a full-time “real” job leaves me with only a few hours a week to fully immerse myself in my writing; and, sometimes, I’m just too damn tired. So, I keep a small notepad tucked into my binder and jot down story ideas as they come. If I have my nook handy, I tap a few quick words into the memo app. Depending on how well-developed the idea is, I then either write more detailed notes in my story journal, or bang out an outline on the computer, or just sit down and write write write until I can’t see straight anymore.

Am I frustrated by my lack of pure writing time? Heck, yeah. When I am not writing, I am thinking about writing or about books or about cover art or about that w.i.p. I need to finish or about the plot hole in that outline that needs to be fixed or about how I would have done the final volume of such-and-such a series differently than the author or … well, you get the idea.

My advice to other writers? The frustration is good, to a point. It drives us to take advantage of what time we do have. But don’t berate yourself, don’t chastise and hate yourself for not being a “dedicated enough” writer. Do what you can, when you can.

Finally: where to publish? While Pagan publishing may be thriving, it is still niche. There are only a few companies and publications in the field; for example, Asphodel Press, BBI Media, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Llewellyn, Moon Books, O Books, and Spero Publishing. Depending on the nature of your manuscript, one of these publishers may be interested (but always, always, always read the contract carefully, and don’t sign anything that isn’t perfectly clear). There are also lots and lots of speculative fiction markets out there, ranging from mainstream print publishers to magazines to blogs; they may not recognize Psf when they see it, but they will recognize a good story when they see it (hopefully). My own first professional sale was the short story “How Kpodo and Lishan Met, and the Adventure They Had After” which ran in the speculative fiction zine, Luna Station Quarterly. My first explicitly-Pagan short story sale was “A Witch Among Wolves” to the fantasy zine, New Realm. Don’t knock the spec fiction market; it can be a great networking tool and a great way to get your name and work out there.

If you haven’t already done so, check out Duotrope. This site is ridiculously helpful, with listings for thousands of journals, magazines, websites, and publishers, and they can be sorted by genre, submission length, pay scale, and more. Subscribe to the newsletter, which includes upcoming deadlines and themes for publications. Maybe someone out there is looking for Martian stories; why not send in a tale about Romans building a temple to Mars on Mars? Or maybe a what if? anthology is looking for submissions; ever wonder what would have happened if Boudicca had freed the British Isles from Rome?4

You also have one other option: self-publishing through CreateSpace, Lulu.com, Draft2Digital, or Smashwords. It is a lot of work, but it is not difficult. It takes dedication and serious attention to detail (no, you cannot rely just on spellcheck; you need to know the difference between “lightning” and “lightening”) and marketing savvy. But it is relatively affordable, and you have complete control of the creative and publishing processes, and you get all the profits. For a niche market like Psf, this is an option to seriously consider.

*III*

Back to Metrodorus. Bear in mind that he lived in the fourth century before the common era, almost twenty-five hundred years ago. Ancient peoples were not stupid; hello, agriculture and written language. People way back then were already wondering about alien suns and alien worlds and the strange alien life which might/must live there.

People back then were polytheists. Pagan.

It’s time that we picked up where they left off. We owe it to our ancestors, our descendants, and our Gods.

  • 1. See the excellent entry on religion in science fiction on The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
  • 2. One of those rare exceptions: Katherine MacLean’s “Unhuman Sacrifice” published in Astounding in 1958.
  • 3. See the full list of my publications here.
  • 4. I’m already writing that Romans-on-Mars story, but anyone who wants it can have the Boudicca story.