Building Enigmatic Gods in Fictional Worlds – Guest Post from Kameron Hurley

Here’s something new for a new year – the first guest post on my blog. I found it a fascinating read, leaving me thoughtful about my own work as well as casting new light on the other books I’ve read which Kameron references here. By the way, if Kameron’s own ‘God’s War’ (out in the UK this week from Del Rey UK) isn’t already on your radar as a book to look out for, I recommend you follow up the links at the end of this post.

Building Enigmatic Gods in Fictional Worlds

My grandmother was a war bride, a young French Catholic woman who married an American G.I. He threatened to divorce her if their fourth child wasn’t a boy. He already had three girls, and four was just too much to bear.

He told her this while they were wheeling her into the delivery room.

My grandfather was full of ominous contradictions.

Until I was twelve years old, my grandmother watched after me and my siblings while my parents worked. My parents were too exhausted for church and didn’t care much for leisurely Bible reading, so much of my exposure to the conception of God and organized religion was framed by my grandmother’s Catholicism. I cut my teeth on bloody books labeled “Children’s Bible Stories” and was often admonished to take care of my “modesty” instead of flinging off my towel after a bath and dancing naked around the house. My memories of church are mainly of me sitting in the pews working on my coloring books, and standing up and sitting down as directed by my grandmother.

But my grandmother believed fervently and passionately in God. My grandfather dutifully sent the church $100 a month, even if it meant their family of seven sometimes went hungry. My dad and aunts and uncles seemed to be mostly motivated in their beliefs by fear – what was God thinking about them? What did he have planned? God was an unknowable being to be respected, worshipped, loved, and feared.

Belief may never have taken hold of me, but twelve years growing up in the same house as my grandfather taught me fear. It taught me caution. It taught me to step softly around great hulking powers with unknowable motives. It gave me a better understanding of my aunts’ and uncle’s love and fear of God, and how God and his unknowable motives could so thoroughly suffuse one’s life.

My grandfather was, at best, verbally and physically abusive. He worked as a nighttime security guard at a bank, so he’d sleep during the day. All us kids were warned in hushed tones “not to wake grandpa.” Sneaking past his bedroom door on our way to play down in the basement was like sneaking past a bear’s den. I’m not exaggerating when I say this – one afternoon we congregated too long outside his door at the basement door opposite his, arguing about who was going to carry some toy downstairs, and my grandfather burst out of the bedroom, enraged at being woken by our arguing. He threw my cousin down the basement stairs, and grabbed me by the hair and slammed my head into the wall. My grandmother’s response to my grandfather’s outbursts was to throw her own fit of rage, throwing dishes in the kitchen and swearing at my grandfather in French.

Needless to say, it took me many years to figure out how to have disagreements with a loved one that didn’t involve screaming, cursing and throwing things.

My grandfather was, of course, also a father and husband doing the best he could with the bad hand he’d been dealt. When I was older, I learned that much of his job during his tour of Europe in World War II was hauling and burying the bodies of thousands of people killed by the Germans in concentration camps. He grew up during the depression, and when we’d complain about not getting some cereal flavor we wanted, he would rail on about how his family once found a hurt pigeon on the beach, and instead of nurturing it back to health, had eaten it because they were starving.

What made my grandfather my grandfather was a wholly alien experience to me. He became an unpredictable monster – vacillating between affable old man teaching me to plant and nurture seedlings to reeling, rage-filled behemoth set on destroying everything he’d built.

It was my unpredictable, unknowable grandfather that became my mapped-on stand-in for God in some of the old Bible stories I’d read. Only an angry, alien all-knowing, all-seeing being would tell you to kill your own child to prove your love, then say, “Ha ha just kidding.” The contradictions, the freeing people from slavery and then forgetting about them for 40 years – all felt like the actions of a being with inhuman motives.

It’s no wonder I became fascinated with the idea of creating fantastic religions that embraced the alien motivations of an unknowable God.

We tend to personify a lot of gods, so Zeus and Vishnu and the Abrahamic God have love and anger and rage like people. They are often driven by human-like emotions, sometimes propelled by narcissism (worship me above others; worship me instead of the others).

But in setting the actual stories of these gods next to their actions, I couldn’t help but think they looked far less human than we wanted to believe. In my own reading of the fantastic, and in the religions I built, I was drawn to this idea of humans creating religions around beings we truly did not understand; beings driven by some experience or logic or existence so alien to ours that they would be forever unknowable.

Those were the fantastic deities that interested me. Much of our history has us creating mythologies to make sense of things we don’t understand – shouldn’t our fantasy societies do the same?

Tim Akers executes this idea very well in his book Heart of Veridon, where the old gods, the “Celestes” appear to be a race of figures forever caught in stasis. Temples are built around them, yet no one knows where they came from or what they are:

“There are five Celestes, or were the last time I checked. Used to be six, but the Watchman flickered and disappeared, twenty years ago. I barely remember that, my mother crying in a closet, my father drawing heavy curtains across the dining room window and burning secret, heavy candles that smelled like hot sand. My parents followed the old ways, at least in private…

The Dome of the Singer [one of the Celestes] was, at first, a practical matter. She sang, loudly. Or she used to. When I stepped into the cool dark interior of the Dome, all I heard were feet scuffing on stones and the low moan of drafts circulating through the drafty heights. She was silent, and I felt a chill….

She hovered in the air at the center of the opening in the floor, surrounded by an iron railing. Her skin was pale against her bulbous, crimson roes. Her clothes were dark red and shiny, retaining form almost like a chitinous shell. Her eyes were closed. Her lips and the tips of her fingers were blood red and smooth. Light poured off her skin like mist on the river in winter. I had forgotten how beautiful she was, hidden away in this drafty stone building. How had we forgotten this, how had the city gone on to other gods?”

I also see a number of fantasy novels fall into the “singular religion” trap, where everyone believes in the same gods then follows one or the other. This not only erases a lot of potential depth to the world, but eliminates an incredible amount of potential tension. Look at tension and conflicts between those of different faiths across the world (many of which are built on very similar tenets), and throughout history. How do those tensions play out in a fantastic setting?

Akers creates two major religions in this novel, both with very different ways of viewing life, neatly shown in prose via the protagonists’ story of a near-death experience:

“The Celestes teach nothing of an afterlife. Not like the Algorithm, with its infinite pattern, its eternal calculations and the intricacies of their metronomic prophecies. Their lives are a soulless pattern, and their deaths are as well. The holy Wrights of the Algorithm teach of an afterlife of clockwork, the hidden engines of the world swept back to reveal the calculation at the middle, the equation that is God.

I hold to old gods. Imagine my disappointment, then, when the darkness that took me after the Glory of Day shattered against the cold water of the river Reine lingered only for a while. Light came, and noise. I opened my eyes to a world of pattern, of engine. The world of the Algorithm.”

The prophets of such extraordinary religions also make for fascinating stories, as they remake their society’s conception of God (or gods), and their relationship with this higher power, in response to changing times.

Octavia Butler’s Lauren Olamina becomes the interpreter/reimagineer of the abstract, all-powerful or alien being that so many simply call “God.” In her two books, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Butler tells the story of an ordinary girl who becomes the prophet of a new religion based around acceptance of change – God is Change. She calls it Earthseed. Butler’s books follow Olamina’s compelling journey from ordinary girl navigating the violence and uncertainty of an apocalyptic world to prophet leading the rebirth of a more vital civilization, which takes a more science fictional approach to religion-building. It shows the importance of how human religions are created, led and sustained by very human people; just people, facing impossible odds, trying to frame events around the existence of a higher power, a greater pattern or purpose. Religions are, at their core, about people trying to come to grips with uncertainty.

Olamina’s religion reimagines people’s relationship with such a higher power:

“God is Change, and in the end, God does prevail. But we have something to say about the whens and the whys of that end.”

And:

“There’s comfort in realizing that everyone and everything yields to God. There’s power in knowing that God can be focused, diverted, shaped by anyone at all.”

In Olamina’s reimagined relationship with God, people are given the power to focus, divert, and shape God’s will. They are not simply pushed along by it. They are not submissive to His will.

Aside from the “one religion” trap, another thing I see many writers fall into when creating fantasy religions is to forget that people actually believe in their gods, and belief in those gods suffuses every part of their daily life. Just as my grandfather’s tempestuous emotions often ruled my days as a child – shaping and changing events based on his moods – God or the gods should play a similarly tangible role in characters’ lives.

As Akers’s hero draws on his beliefs to interpret the events after his near-death, characters will interpret the events of the world according to their own belief systems, and use those beliefs to guide their own behavior.

Saladin Ahmed does a wonderful job incorporating the beliefs of his characters into everyday life for both individuals and communities in his book, Throne of the Crescent Moon, an Arabian Nights-flavored sword and sorcery novel about an aging ghul hunter and his apprentice.

Whereas less attentive writers might have their characters only call on or remember the existence of God or gods for oaths and epithets, Ahmed ensures that the presence of God – and the absolute faith in His existence – suffuses his characters’ lives, from greetings to blessings to prayer to magic. God is never absent.

Fantastic worlds, for me, are richer when they acknowledge that the all-powerful beings that shape their characters lives – whether literal or figurative – are, for many of their protagonists and the societies they live in – as real and tangible and unknowable as our own families, our own histories, our collective pasts.

Those who lean toward the “rational” science fiction end of the spectrum must remember that it’s been shown that our yearning for belief is hard-wired into our genetic makeup. We yearn to believe in something greater and grander than ourselves – whether that’s a common purpose or a higher power. The vast majority of humanity strives to create narrative from random. People who are able to create larger narratives – those who see patterns or larger meaning in this randomness – are more likely to outlive those who don’t.

This is why fictional fantastic societies who’ve survived against all odds, or future people who’ve conquered a galaxy, will be far more believable if they’ve organized themselves around some greater purpose. We are more sated, more powerful, more focused, when driven by a belief in something outside of ourselves.

Whether your god kindly teaches your people to nurture seedlings, flings them down the stairs unexpectedly, or engages randomly in such acts, their presence should be felt, acknowledged, and mythologized. Organized religions help us come to grips with the larger world. These beliefs have a lot to say about how your characters and societies make sense of themselves, their worlds, and the ones they love.

So consider their creation carefully, and fully.

ABOUT Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley is an award-winning writer and freelance copywriter who grew up in Washington State. She is the author of the book God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such Lightspeed, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks, Kameron.

    Although not as common as it once was, I often see religion in fantasy fall into the “Crystal Dragon Jesus” trap: That is to say, a monotheism (or a monotheism in fact if not name) that is distressingly just a re-skinned version of Christianity. This often doesn’t take into account how the world around this religion is different, which would indicate differences in what people believe.

  2. pooks says:

    Great article. I have always found books that have religion woven through them to be richer and more compelling, especially when the religion is foreign or exotic to me.

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