Framing How Speculative Fiction Can Be Cognitively Valuable For Understanding Religion

This is part of a series of posts about the value of speculative fiction in understanding religion.

So far I’ve painted a rather dim picture concerning the cognitive value of speculative fiction. But being a speculative fiction writer myself, that’s best considered rising action, putting the protagonist—my argument—in a difficult situation just so that all can be saved in the end. Indeed, the situation is rather different when it comes to the cognitive value of speculative fiction insofar as it helps us understand religion.

An Important Function of Religious Studies

An important function of religious studies—perhaps the most important function—is helping us understand the coherency of worldviews and practices that at first seem strange or repellant to us. Consider varying attitudes toward the Buddha: To most Buddhists in Europe and the United States he was a man, but many Buddhists in East Asia and Tibet take him to be a god at least in terms of how he functions in popular piety. To many Theravada Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, he was a man dozens of feet tall (people were much larger in his day). To some Hindus, he was an avatar of Vishnu. To many Pure Land Buddhists, he was just a forerunner of Amitabha, the buddha who is actually able to help us progress toward enlightenment. To some Zen Buddhists, he should be murdered.

Or consider the diversity of early Christian views of Jesus, including Ebionites who believed Jesus, while the Messiah, was not divine; Marcionites, who believed Jesus was a god but a different god than the god of Jewish tradition; some Gnostic and Monophysite groups that believed Jesus was wholly divine and only appeared to be human. We even find traditions that seem like speculative fiction today: Jesus was a dragon tamer as a child or the suggestion that he was the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

It’s easy to dismiss these views as silly, superstitious, heretical, and the like because of our personal beliefs. Indeed, while these attitudes are by no means universal, it’s not difficult to find examples in inter-religious dialog between Hindus and Muslims in India, between Protestants and Catholics, between non-religious and religious persons, etc. But of course, virtually every tradition and sect that arose in history was sincerely practiced by real and decent people with goals and struggles that we can identify with. Our task in studying religion is to understand these people, their communities, and their texts no matter any disagreements we have with them.

A Task for Realistic Fiction?

On the surface, this seems to be a task best suited to realistic fiction. As we’ve discussed, a plausible locus of cognitive value in realistic fiction is its ability to portray the experience of people in situations we ourselves haven’t lived. Conversely, depictions of religions in major works of fantasy are often not faithful to the tradition(s) on which the work is based. Even when we have strong reason to believe that the author is deeply familiar with the tradition, we have to have a similar background in order to discern when the author is drawing on their sources faithfully and when they are adapting their world for narrative or for commercial reasons. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death draws deeply on indigenous African religion, but it’s hard to determine which of the protagonist magical powers actually populate the worldview of real African people and which she invented. S. A. Chakraborthy’s City of Brass and its sequels are wonderful additions to the tradition of storytelling established in the One Thousand and One Nights, but we should take care before drawing any conclusions about Islam, Zoroastrianism, or other traditions from her books. Realistic literature authors aren’t allowed to build their world contrary to our expectations of what reality is, but speculative writers are.

On the other hand, worldviews of many religious practitioners—especially worldviews sharply different from our own—are not those we consider “realistic.” The worlds of many of the world’s religions are populated by djinn, demons, ancient aliens, ancestral spirits or kami, and prophets of the Lord. They’re a conceptual space where prayers are answered and baptismal water regenerates the soul, a space where one has a tree or a leopard as a brother, where curses can kill, where a cavern actually is a portal to another world. This content strays well into the realm of the fantasy genre, so realistic fiction is also hampered when it comes to portraying religious worldviews. Speculative content must always be limited by the character’s perspective; it can’t be unleashed to populate the wider world of the text and thereby increase reader immersion.

So the difficulty when considering the cognitive value of speculative fiction is that the mere presence of a speculative world inspired by a religious tradition or its constituent cultures doesn’t, all by itself, establish the work as cognitively valuable. But if we insist upon the work being wholly in the real world as we understand it, then we’ve dispensed with its being speculative fiction. There needs to be something about how speculative content is deployed in the story that serves to deepen our understanding.

Considering “The Paper Menagerie”

I’m going to demonstrate how this can be the case by way of extended example, that of Ken Liu’s Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award-winning story, “The Paper Menagerie” (Warning: Spoilers Ahead). “The Paper Menagerie” is the story of Jack, the son of a Connecticut man and a mail order bride bought from a firm in Hong Kong. As a young child, Jack bonds deeply with his mother. Their bond is strengthened by his mother’s ability to breathe life into origami animals, most notably a paper tiger named Laohu.

On account of being bullied for his mixed race and growing up within suburban America, Jack rejects his Chinese heritage and disengages from his mother. He stashes the paper menagerie she made for him in a box in the attic and focuses upon achieving middle class American goals, like getting a well-paying job. While dying from breast cancer, his mother asks him to take out the menagerie on Qingming, the Chinese Ancestor’s Day or Tomb-Sweeping Day. On Qingming, life is temporarily restored to Laohu, who turns out to also be a letter from his mother that tells her life story. The story climaxes in her claim: “You know what the Chinese think is the saddest feeling in the world? It’s for a child to finally grow the desire to take care of his parents, only to realize that they were long gone” (192).

Religious outsiders may approach Chinese religious practice believing, tacitly or overtly, that Chinese reverence for their ancestors and spirits is silly, heretical, unscientific, atheistic, Communistic, or superstitious. These attitudes are not productive in understanding Chinese tradition because they impede understanding the tradition as its actually regarded by its practitioners. So the story is cognitively valuable if it, at least temporarily, relieves us of these attitudes so that we can more thoroughly appreciate the tradition on its own terms. Three ways that the speculative element of the story achieves this are: it endows Jack’s mother with greater agency and humanity; it inspires a feeling of wonder, an emotion that is key to the religious experience of many; it depoliticizes the story, allowing us to consider the real world from a more neutral space. In a later post, I will later discuss how these three roles of the speculative element operate.  

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