Exploring Religion vs Science in Fantasy

A few weeks ago, I explored the 4 general plot trajectories for magic in fantasy novels. These ranged from magic as an accepted part of society to worlds in which the user of magic or the wielder of some former of special ability is seen as a pariah. My exploration also included the world in which the age of magic is dying (think Lord of the Rings or Arthurian Legends). As I’ve thought more about it, I find myself wondering, why is it that magic can’t exist or is not accepted by others in most of these scenarios? Why is it one or the other? So, this week, I thought I would explore these ideas a bit more deeply.

In fiction, readers are often presented with a duality. Fact vs. fiction. Life vs. death. Nature vs nurture. Some more advanced storytellers are able to remove themselves from these either/or scenarios and offer you a new perspective. When you can do this as a writer, you know you’ve advanced to the next plane, maybe even author nirvana…

The role of the duality is very common in the real world, though, and as humans, we like to categorize things in a neat fashion, so the duality concept works and is definitely not a negative in fiction. If you think back to the Victorian era, specifically in the era when science was just beginning to be a burgeoning field, you had the very real-world duality of religion (heart) vs science, a time when the acceptance of science was growing, but not everyone was “all in.” A lot was changing at the time. This period is also when people started to marry for love, so you have this interesting appearance of thought focused on the heart, humanity and compassion and then also the camps focused on the advent of scientific inquiry. There’s even a real novel written by Wilkie Collins at the time called by a very similar name: Heart and Science (excellent novel by the way).

Very similar to the concept of heart vs science is what is perhaps one of the most common formations of a duality you can find: the exploration of science vs. faith. Science vs. faith gets complicated really quickly in fantasy because science could be juxtaposed against magic (an often faith-based practice and seen as the “old” world), but also magic can be juxtaposed against another form of religion that spurns the use of magic for one reason or another. Why does faith automatically negate science? Does science disprove faith? And what’s more, why does one form of religion negate the religious nature of magic? I think in these questions also lies the answer to my initial questions. Just like the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, you can go round and round and round about religion/faith/heart and science. These questions show exactly why these concepts make such good fodder for writing, particularly fantasy.

So, what inspired these thoughts? Well, a beautiful new book by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner that just published this month titled The Other Side of the Sky. It’s a little bit of sci-fi mixed with fantasy. There’s magic, tech and more. You don’t often find a story featuring high-end tech co-mingled with magic. The two almost automatically cancel each other out, right? Not exactly, or so we learn from Kaufman and Spooner. The exploration of this in TOSOTS as the plot moves along is very interesting. More traditionally, you might see a steampunk world that crosses over and connects with the a fey world or magic/witchcraft in some way (think the Parasole Protectorate series by Gail Carriger). But, many of us consider the concept of steampunk to be primitive and thus it fits with our understanding of magic as primitive, antiquated or even arcane. But shiny wrist communicators and lasers juxtaposed with herb lore and fate? Well, now you have a whole new ball game.

When science and magic meet, your characters are faced with a question that humanity has faced since the advent of science and at many periods throughout history where science and religion (or religion vs religion) faced off and were at odds with one another (due to the perspectives of those involved in the skirmish or conversation). When science and magic, or old religion and new, meet in fiction, then, you have the sparks that can quickly lead to a conflagration, a fire that brings a new depth of meaning and routes for exploration of the world you have created as you bring your characters to life on the page.