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Catholics & Science Fiction | An Interview with Sandra Miesel | March 9, 2005
Miesel is the co-author of the best selling The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code
Since 1983, she has written hundreds of articles
for the Catholic press, chiefly on history, art, and hagiography. She
regularly appears in Crisis magazine and is a columnist for the
diocesan paper of Norwich, Connecticut. Sandra has spoken at religious
and academic conferences, appeared on EWTN, and given numerous radio interviews.
Outside the Catholic sphere, she has also written, analyzed, and edited
fiction. She holds masters degrees in biochemistry and medieval
history from the University of Illinois. Sandra and her husband John have
raised three children.
IgnatiusInsight.com recently spoke at length with Sandra about the world
and literature of science fiction and fantasy.
IgnatiusInsight.com: When did you first start reading science fiction
and fantasy (SF & F) and what attracted you to it? What were some
of the first SF & F books that you read? Which authors did you gravitate
Sandra Miesel: Before I get into that, lets define our terms.
In theory, science fiction is not supposed to contradict known scientific
facts while fantasy uses premises contrary to fact. In practice, these
distinctions are rather fudgy. Time travel and faster than light travel
are impossible as far as science knows, yet theyre conventional
devices in science fiction. Angels should belong to fantasy, yet as Catholics
we believe them to be real.
It really comes down to what label a publisher uses to market a given
work of fiction. Both SF & F can take place in the past, present,
or future or alternate versions of same, on Earth or on other worlds.
Together SF & F compose the highly flexible literary category of speculative
My first exposure to science fiction came around 1950 from radio broadcasts
of the show Dimension X which dramatized classics of the genre.
My father read the magazine Astounding but I didnt at that
time. The first real SF novel I read was A Case of Conscience by
James Blish, which incidentally has a Jesuit scientist as its hero. It
was 1953 and I was eleven years old. But Id already been heavily
exposed to fairy tales, myths, and legends from the time I could read.
Andrew Langs Blue Fairy Book and an old British edition of
The Book of Knowledge were seminal influences on my childhood.
So I found into the landmark compilations, The Astounding Science Fiction
Anthology and Adventures in Time & Space in junior high
school, Ray Bradburys Martian Chronicles in high school,
and Walter Millers Canticle for Leibowitz in college. In
graduate school I met my husband John who already had a large collection
of SF paperbacks. We liked Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, Philip K. Dick,
Jack Vance, read the various SF & F magazines, and discovered Tolkien.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How did you go about starting to write F&SF?
What was your involvement in the SF & F world? Which SF & F books
and authors, in your opinion, will stand the test of time?
Miesel: When we got out of school in 1966, I had a letter to the editor
published in IF magazine (the same publication where Id read my
first novel). People started writing me, sending me amateur magazines
about SF called fanzines, and telling me about conventions.
In those days, fans and pros mingled freely and fandom was a distinct
subculture of people with "broad mental horizons." So I wrote lit crit
for fanzinesmuch like the papers I used to do in grad schooland
also personal essays and humor. (I was nominated for the Hugo Award as
"Best Fanwriter" three times.) The pros liked what I wrote about them,
which led to getting assignments to write a lot of Introductions and Afterwords
and reference articles, two chapbooks, and even a few academic papers.
One editor that I worked with, Jim Baen, invited me to write a novel and
then to help him put together reprints. Ive edited about a dozen
collections of stories by Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson (Im
the worlds greatest expert on those two authors) and co-edited two
anthologies with David Drake. Im still editing a line of Andre Norton
reprints for Baen Books. I also sold six short stories.
I remained active in fandom while my pro career
was unfolding, attending maybe eighty conventions. (The convention scene
is different now and I dont recommend it.) I won prizes for my costumes
and art, the later leading to a spot on the official NASA Artists
team at the Apollo-Soyuz launch in 1975. (For the record, my art is embroidery.)
I had also gone to the last Moon shot in 1972 on credentials from the
newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
Because of friendships with the field, Ive had books dedicated to
me and characters based on me. Kelly Freas used me as a model for some
cover paintings. I helped other writers with their research, particularly
Gordy Dickson, whom I worked with for twenty-five years.
Will there be books and readers in our future? As to what will last if
there are, works that were written even sixty or seventy years ago can
still be read now with pleasure and I expect theyll go on doing
For examples of what SF writers themselves think "classic," track down
the SFWA Hall of Fame anthologies or the SFWA Grand Master
anthologies. The reprinted Andre Norton novels that I mentioned above
are from the 50s and 60s, but new readers still enjoy them
because of their good basic storytelling. For specific books, the works
of J.R.R. Tolkien and maybe C.S. Lewiss Narnia series will
be read for generations but those are special cases.
Two good bets within our genre would be The Martian Chronicles
(1950) by Ray Bradbury and A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) by Walter
M. Miller, which have both already shown great staying power. What complicates
the picture (besides technological innovation and shifts in popular taste)
is the SF & F fields own transformation after Star Wars
(1977) from a niche market to a huge, conglomerate-owned, bestseller-driven
genre where half the books published are media spinoffs. Its harder
for the reader to find whats genuinely good and harder for the writer
to be genuinely original.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Were there many other Catholics involved in the SF
& F world at that time? In general, what was the attitude of Catholics
you knew towards SF & F? How has that changed?
Miesel: During the time of my heaviest involvement, Catholic writers
included: Anthony Boucher, Murray Leinster, Daniel Galouye, R.A. Lafferty,
Fred Saberhagen, Gene Wolfe, James White, Russell Kirk, Julian May, Jo
Clayton, Mark Rogers, Patricia Wrede, Kathie Koja, and Tim Powers. (Im
sure Im missing some people.)
Walter Miller had left the Church before I came on the scene and John
Bellairs sometime during. Prodom and fandom had plenty of lapsed Catholics,
of course. I suspectbut have no way of knowingthat the newer
pros are less likely to be Christians. Neo-Paganism is conspicuous and
the unbelievers are less polite than they used to be. (I should mention
that my career in the Catholic press started from my knowledge of Neo-Paganism
gleaned in the world of SF & F.)
My Catholic friends outside the field were indifferent to SF & F.
But a surprising number of SF & F readers show up in the Catholic
| Read Part 2
of this interview with Sandra Miesel.
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