- Speculative Fiction and Faith
Speculative spaces in science fiction and fantasy texts have long been bastions of cultural commentary. From the safe distance of a foreign planet or a mythical world, contemporary issues in religion, politics, and culture can play out. Young adult speculative fiction is a rich space for these sorts of examinations, using hypotheticals and wondrous others to explore and to engage with contemporary issues.
By incorporating supernatural or predictive elements, speculative fiction rests along the spectrum of cognition and estrangement. Readers having full access to and understanding of characters and their experiences would have full cognition and would lack any of the strangeness or otherworldliness that are core components of the genre. Complete estrangement would leave readers disconnected, unable to understand or to access the text. Authors must strike a balance between cognition and estrangement by creating speculative spaces that readers can engage with and enjoy. In his paraphrase of Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction, Adam Roberts explains Suvin’s use of the terms cognition and estrangement:
“Cognition,” with its rational, logical implications, refers to that aspect of SF that prompts us to try and understand, to comprehend, the alien landscape of [End Page 194] a given SF book, film or story. “Estrangement” is a term from Brecht, more usually rendered in English-language criticism as “alienation”; in this context it refers to that element of SF that we recognize as different, that “estranges” us from the familiar and everyday.(8)
Fantasy and science fiction both hinge on this balance, this careful interweaving of the foreign and the familiar. This equilibrium requires many tools of familiarization to connect readers to a foreign space. In young adult fiction, the narrative focus on a young protagonist provides a point of access for readers, allowing them to find commonalities across cultural, social, and geographical differences.
Young adult speculative fiction sees many texts engaging with identity, particularly with the status of being an insider or an outsider to a larger system. The depiction of characters learning to embrace their uniqueness has been the trend in post-apocalyptic works such as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and its sequels or Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave, magical fantasies like J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books or Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, and imagined histories like Meaghan McIsaac’s Urgle or Lois Lowry’s The Giver. These texts focus on outcasts who are isolated or otherwise ostracized and who need to trust in themselves, to believe in their abilities and strengths in order to find community and a sense of connection. The protagonists overcome challenges and dangers to achieve their goals through their development of identity and community. The sense of belonging and the need for a larger context appears quite universal, yet some current works of young adult speculative fiction have moved a step farther, into ideas of belief.
The incorporation of personal belief draws on faith and spirituality. Protagonists need to demonstrate belief both in themselves and in a larger power in order to find resolution. The incorporation of faith is a point of individuation, as characters need to learn to understand their spirituality as separate from that of their parents. This development of self-identity is core to the young adult genre. The incorporation of faith gives not only an additional element to the plot but also another tool for these protagonists, who must use their beliefs to overcome the challenges they face.
The four books reviewed here take on the question of what it means to believe, to have faith, in powers larger than the self. These texts follow young protagonists who venture into uncomfortable worlds of faith and revelation and who come eventually to understand their part in...