Stranger than Science Fiction

...or, How in the world did the creator of Roger Rabbit and the Archbishop of Newark end up collaborating on a sci-fi novel together?

BH: Archbishop Myers, you said sci-fi isn’t typically open to the transcendent, but there is this other element too. It’s a genre that has attracted people with some pretty strong stances on religion. C.S. Lewis wrote in that genre to explain some of his understanding of Christianity, and atheists like Carl Sagan have used it to advance sort of the opposite views. Then of course you have your L. Ron Hubbards of the world. So what is it about sci-fi that attracts that sort of exploration at times?

AJM: Well you can create almost any kind of world and explore the implications of that type of world, and that’s part of the excitement.

GW: This is too deep for me! I’m the guy with the talking rabbit. But I would go back to philosophy. I don’t think there’s another way in fiction where you can explore concepts like religion in a deep and entertaining way. Science fiction writers can entertain, find a market, and still say something about religion that they want to explore.

BH: Gary, you were raised Lutheran?

GW: Sure. There was a time I investigated becoming a Lutheran minister. John sang in the choir at the Catholic church when we were young, and every Sunday I’d go there and listen to him. And one day, our minister came and said to my mother ‘I’ve heard Gary’s been going over to the Catholic Church every Sunday, and if he keeps going, he’s no longer welcome in the Lutheran church.’ And my mother—God bless her—she said she couldn’t tell me not to go hear my best friend sing in the Catholic choir. She told me I had to make the decision, and I stopped going to the Lutheran church. I decided if that’s the way formal religion wanted to treat me, then I didn’t want much to do with formal religion. But I still consider myself a very religious guy. All of my writing has that Midwestern, religious and moral underpinning to it. I still believe in God, and in going to a better place after death if you live according to the 10 commandments. I have the same kind of principles they used to teach me in church and, even though I don’t go to church anymore, I still believe in the same things I learned then.

BH: Archbishop Myers, you have a doctorate in canon law, and you’ve written and published before. But titles like “Church Finances: Responsibility and Consultative Structures in the Revised Code” aren’t exactly the stuff of fanboy sci-fi websites. People get to see a different side of you with this.

AJM: If you went down my written works, you’d find a lot of very technical matters having to do with the life of the Church. For me, it’s been fun to have people discover this other side of me. We have 3 seminaries here in the archdiocese of Newark, I visit each one about twice a semester. And since the men found out I’ve collaborated with Gary, they always want to talk about the science fiction book and what else I like. It gets them past seeing me as the chief pastor in the archdiocese, or an authority figure, and they realize that priests—including archbishops—have a much broader, richer life than they imagined, and I think that helps with their own vocation discernment.

BH: So do you ever wish there were more bishops out there pursuing their other interests? Like you say, it’s easy to just see somebody as a distant authority figure.

“We didn’t want to write an explicitly religious book, but one that incorporated some religious themes and ideas that people expect and encounter in everyday life.”

AJM: Well, nobody likes being put in a cubbyhole, and sometimes people do that to those in public religious roles. But in my homilies and talks and visits with people, they find out I have a broad spectrum of interests: I like to read history, mystery novels, different things, including science fiction. And I enjoy talking about that with people. One of my nieces subjected me to a whole season of Lost, and she was astonished that Uncle John would enjoy this sort of thing with her.

BH: At points, religious language does poke through the novel. There’s a ship called the “Big Devil,” some of the characters pray when they’re under pressure, and there are chapter titles like “Eye for an Eye” and “Escape from Purgatory.” But obviously as you say, it’s not overtly Christian or religious. How did you try to incorporate those values without making the book explicitly religious?

AJM: We didn’t want to write an explicitly religious book, but one that incorporated some religious themes and ideas that people expect and encounter in everyday life. That’s what people would’ve done in the 50s, and that’s what we’ve done here.

GW: It’s no more or less religion than you’d encounter in everyday life.

BH: What would you say is the moral message of the book?

AJM: From my own point of view, it would be that some kind of faith is a foundation for people, and that there are greater powers that urge and lead us on, just as they did Gil Terry, one of the interesting characters of the book.

GW: I think it would be that basic humanity hasn’t changed much. People who do right eventually win out, and those who do wrong don’t. That’s the way it is in the future, that’s the way it is now—or should be.

BH: The conclusion of the book has that classic open-ended feel to it. Does that mean there’s a sequel in the works?

AJM: Never say never!

GW: Never say never is right. We had a lot of fun doing this, probably the most fun I’ve had writing a book in my life. And yeah, it would be fun to re-visit it. I’m working right now on two novels and a movie, but sure, you never say never. We set it up with the cliffhanger not for a sequel, but because that’s the way books of our era ended that way. They always left you wanting more.

BH: The last question is for His Excellency. Archbishop Myers, if you stick with this as a sort of second avocation, do you think they’ll have to open an office in the Vatican that gives imprimaturs for sci-fi novels?

AJM: (Laughing) Well, I’ll leave that to Brother Guy at the Vatican Observatory.

GW: You know, when we started this, I asked John, “Are you gonna write this under your own name? Is anybody gonna call you to task for this?” And John said “We’ll find out!” He never once was worried about what people were going to think about this, and that was pretty courageous on his part.