I’ve been reading too much fantasy lately, and after a few trilogies the religions all tend to run together. I suppose that’s only to be expected when the novels are all set on the same feudal island/peninsula with the same pseudo-Oriental neighbors, but I keep hoping for more than just n gods who are actually one god (where n ranges from 4 to 7) from the religions.
The God Box by Barry B. Longyear is kind enough not to number its deities so precisely. It also achieves what LMB has been trying to do with her fantasy - brings its gods to life and makes true believers out of damaged characters. Like Bujold, Longyear started out as a science fiction writer; The God Box was his first fantasy novel. In it, Our Hero, an unsuspecting carpet salesman, inherits a mysterious box that answers prayers. Like the gods themselves, though, the box answers in its own inscrutable way.
Our Hero soon finds himself on a Quest foretold in ancient scriptures, in which he meets bird people, skunk people, fish people, gods and giants. The biggest sign of the author’s sci-fi background is the god box’s ability to show Our Hero alternate timelines. That sort of reset button can undermine the seriousness of a story (as all Trek fans know), but despite the deep themes of prayer and trust this isn’t a serious novel. It’s short and fun, yet a far better combination of religion and fantasy than many doorstops I’ve seen.
The June Analog also has a couple of stories that stray into religious territory without quite convincing. “Time Ablaze” by Michael A. Burstein is the cover story, in which a time traveller goes back to the Lutheran community of turn-of-the-century NYC. As an adventure it works well, but I never quite got the feeling that Our Hero was dealing with a world that has since disappeared.
“Greetings from Kudesh” by J.T. Sharrah was equally effective as a story, and similarly problematic in its view into the mind of Our Heroine, the first Christian missionary to visit an alien planet. She comes off like the first interstellar Deist, which might have been interesting had that been the author’s intent. There are things a Deist might do to promulgate his religion that a Christian probably shouldn’t, and Our Heroine does one of them without any theological consideration of the problem.
It’s the differences between Christianity and Deism, between pantheism and monotheism, that make them the religions they are. I suppose if sf writers can’t make me believe their characters are real live practitioners of actual religions, then fantasy writers don’t have much of a chance of making up convincing new religions. Even The God Box was about faith qua faith, rather than a particular religion. Yet we owe our oldest stories to pantheons full of overactive imaginations - you’d think fantasy writers would get in on the act.