What’s the Role of Magic and Religion in Deindustrial Science Fiction?

One of the key challenges in writing good deindustrial science fiction, to my mind, is how to inhabit the cultural mind of a future civilization utterly unlike our own. This isn’t always a challenge, of course, because great deindustrial science fiction doesn’t have to be set in a future civilization; it can be set in the waning days of our own, a place we inhabit now and will continue to inhabit for years to come. However, as our civilization declines and fades over the coming century or two, new civilizations will inevitable emerge out of the ruins of our own, and what those might look like and how they may understand the world is some pretty fascinating grist for the imaginative wheel.

The types of stories that can come out of such grist are exactly what I wish to publish in Into the Ruins. However, a conundrum inevitably arises: I want such stories of future cultures to be realistic in that they depict a culture with radically different views from our own, but trying to imagine what those views might be without succumbing to the frames of reference enforced by our own culture is incredibly challenging. Furthermore, imagining what kinds of technologies, religious beliefs, occult practices, cultural myths and narratives, and methods of exploring and understanding the world may be found in a future culture utterly different than our own—and what of those is realistic to the degree we can determine that—is all the more challenging.

I think of this as a catch-22. One of the rules I have for submissions is that they must be realistic based on what we know of the physical world and how it functions. This is a crucial rule, as it helps to head off many standard science fiction tropes, such as the discovery of limitless amounts of clean energy, or of continued exponential growth despite the physical limits of our planet. It’s one of the key guidelines in seeking out realistic stories of the futures that factor in and deal with the hard realities of climate change, resource and energy depletion, ecological destruction, and political and economic dysfunction.

But what of the futures that, to our current understanding of the world, sound superstitious at best, insane at worst, but that may be completely feasible within a radically different cultural frame of reference? There are inevitably myriad types of technologies that could conceivably work within our world, following the rules of physics as we understand them, and could be hugely useful—but that we would never imagine due to our culture’s particular habits of thoughts and focuses of scientific inquiry and discovery. Further, the limited scientific materialist worldview so dominant in our current culture that claims that only those things that can be measured by our current instruments of measurement are real, and that all other things are not—or are superstition, or nonsense, or the failure of rational thought—undoubtedly cuts off consideration and discovery and use of very real phenomena that is dismissed out of hand simply because it doesn’t conform to our particular cultural expectations.

Hannes Rollins wrote an essay about this, “The Ebbing Away of Understanding,” in the recent tenth issue of the magazine. He questions what the role of magic, religion, and superstition should be in deindustrial science fiction. I asked the same in the letters section of that issue, writing in part:

[Hannes Rollins] asked [me] what the policy was on magic in Into the Ruins, to which I responded that I honestly was not sure. As I am open to the idea of a mysterious, even magic universe, I do not want to eliminate it entirely. And certainly, I heartily encourage a preponderance of magic and religion in the cultures of the future written about in the magazine, as those elements will play a role in future cultures just as commonly as they have played a role in past ones. The question, then, is not so much the belief in these in future cultures, or in the portrayal of behavior and practices structured around those beliefs, but in the question of if manifestations of those beliefs in the physical world should be allowed—or if such manifestations would violate natural laws as we currently understand them.

Many people today, of course, would argue that they would, though claims of such occurrences go as far back as we have records and memory. I believe the case is not nearly so clear-cut, as just because the scientific method has so far provided no way of explaining a variety of phenomena experienced by humans throughout the world does not mean that such phenomena doesn’t exist. On the other hand, my casual readings of [John Michael] Greer, combined with my own beliefs about the world, are enough to convince me that any real-world manifestations found in the practice of magic are limited in a wide variety of ways; Harry Potter, in other words, is not an accurate guide to real world magic—nor is most any other representation of magic in popular culture.

If a practicing mage edited and published Into the Ruins, perhaps she would have an easier time grappling with this question. I, however, am not one; my interest in magic has never really passed the curiosity stage and is limited to reading what other people with actual experience actually think. So what is possible and what is not, what is realistic and what is not: that is not something I feel qualified to judge at the moment.

So again, we are left with the question of what is the appropriate place of magic in deindustrial science fiction? I have no clear answer to that question. But I believe it’s one worth grappling with.

For those of you subscribers and purchasers of the magazine who have yet to read Mr. Rollins’ essay, or my own letter, I encourage you to do so. And I ask the same question I did in the most recent issue: What do you think should be the role of magic and religion in deindustrial science fiction, and how do we navigate those complex and in many ways foreign concepts in a culture that so utterly disavows them?

I want your thoughts. I want a conversation in the letters to the editor section of the magazine, or longer response essays to my letter and Hannes’ essay. Therefore, I invite any and all readers to make their own attempts at grappling with the above question in letters to the editors or essays of any length, submitted to me at editor@intotheruins.com or via a comment on this blog post. Your thoughts may just end up in a future issue of the magazine—and may just spark a future great work of deindustrial science fiction.

Let’s hear it. And thank you.

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