Vampire aliens from... heaven?
March 31, 2005 7:23 PM   Subscribe

I've recently gotten very interested the science-fiction/horror-with-a-religious-tint genre. Can you think of any good books that could fit that description?

The genre I'm referring to includes Sagan's Contact, Russell's The Sparrow, Hellblazer and the film Constantine. Hell, even The Excorsist. The darker the better. Heavy philosophical content, postmodernism, unhappy endings, gritty "space where good and evil meet" stuff. I hope I've described this well enough.

If you recommend the Left Behind series I will track you down and slap you.
posted by honeydew to Media & Arts (46 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Just to clarify, are both science fiction and horror meant to have a religious topic?

Don't forget the sequel to The Sparrow, Children of God, which is a far, far different book. I can't count the number of times people haven't believed me when I explain that, despite the sci-fi setting, Mary Doria Russell's books are important popular explorations of faith.

Anyway, are you looking for dark, wrenching work with religious protagonists or plot points, or are you looking for philosophical works of popular fiction that are dark because of the questions involved? I'll keep thinking.
posted by socratic at 7:31 PM on March 31, 2005

I'm leaning more toward the dark fiction with religious plot points. But I'm so at a loss on how to find these kinds of books that either (or anything else that might fit the vague description) would be fantastic.
posted by honeydew at 7:40 PM on March 31, 2005

If you've read Russell's The Sparrow, check out Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. Also pretty religious and philosophical [albeit much more pessimistic.] Though I loosely group it with The Sparrow as a "monks in space" book, the vast majority of the story takes place on Earth. It follows the history of an abbey [home of the Ancient Order of Leibowitz] throughout a thousand years or so. The story begins in a Dark Age, a few hundred years after a nuclear holocaust; the A.O.L. was founded to preserve knowledge [members are "bookleggers" and memorizers.] Ultimately, the story follows the slow rebirth of civilization as it heads right back to the place it was before the nuclear holocaust [that is, the brink of nuclear war.]

I didn't find Children of God to be quite as good as its predecessor, perhaps partly because of the cartoonish Mafia characters/plot bits and the fact that many of the characters aren't quite as firmly sketched out as the ones in The Sparrow are. A lot of people seem to disagree with me, though. You might want to read Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose as well; the plot is something of a medieval mystery story but there's a fair amount of religion involved as well. Anyways, I'd be eager to find more dark religious sci fi/fiction too...
posted by ubersturm at 7:48 PM on March 31, 2005

I "second" ubersturm's suggestion of Walter Miller's A Canticle for Lebowitz.
posted by ericb at 7:54 PM on March 31, 2005

There are some lists floating around the internet that you might find useful: the If You Like This, Then You'll Like That page on theology, Religious Science Fiction Books and Links, Religion in Literature, etc.

Of books I've personally read, off the top of my head I can recommend a few. A Canticle For Liebowitz, set in the days after an apocalyptic nuclear war, manages to be both dark and amusing at the same time. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale describes a future in which the religious right has full sway. Oryx and Crake is less overtly religious but is undeniably dark, and quite good. Ted Chiang's collection of short stories (Stories of Your Life and Others) touches on many intense philosophical and religious themes.

On preview, ubersturm beat me to A Canticle for Leibowitz, so count me as a third fan.
posted by Aster at 8:08 PM on March 31, 2005 [1 favorite]

The Speaker trilogy by Orson Scott Card.
posted by abcde at 8:15 PM on March 31, 2005

I am a fan of a little known, extremely dark, book by Richard Russo called Ship of Fools. Everyone either hates it or adores it. I am among the latter.
posted by vacapinta at 8:18 PM on March 31, 2005

In Card's "Ender" books I'd just skip straight to the middle book in the trilogy, Speaker for the Dead and not read any of the rest of 'em, if you're looking for explorations of faith.
posted by kindall at 8:28 PM on March 31, 2005

You might look at C.S. Lewis's Space trilogy--Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength. Or they may be a little too much towards the "left behind" side of the spectrum.
posted by Jeanne at 8:29 PM on March 31, 2005

Well, it's not deeply philisophical, but Stephen King's The Stand has a strong religious plot.
posted by sbutler at 8:37 PM on March 31, 2005

I also 4th or 5th (whatever) The Sparrow and Children of God. Very unique writing and fantastic literature. On my top 10 of all time fav. SF books.

How about Dan Simmons' hyperion series. Kind of religious overtones, end of the world stuff.

This might get booed, but I also enjoyed immensely Stephen King's "The Stand".
posted by Dag Maggot at 8:45 PM on March 31, 2005

You don't really need to read OotSP or Perelandra to read That Hideous Strength. It's good, but a tetch ham-handed about the, well, satire is the wrong word.

Blish's Black Easter doesn't suck. I've not read his A Case of Conscience but AFAIK it comes recommended.

It's not religious, but there's a strongly-held atheist ideology, a charactered tortured by his past and trying to do better, and other themes that you might find more in religion, and it's dark: Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks. Also you get to meet the Rapid Offensive Unit Xenophobe (though I think it's been demilitarized). There's also a clash of beliefs, and a clash of good vs. evil (from both sides!) in his Consider Phlebas, which comes before UoW and is, likewise, dark. Also, it's religious fundamentalist alien tripods vs. a horde of space commies.

Some of Ted Chiang's stories, collected in Stories of Your Life and Others, deal with religious themes in non-chipper ways, in particular "72 Letters" and "Hell is the Absence of God." Also "Tower of Babel" in a different way.

I've not read them, but from what I hear of Pullman's "His Dark Materials" young-adult series starting with, IIRC, The Amber Spyglass, they might suit you.

If you read the Speaker / Ender Wiggins books, in the name of all that is holy DO NOT continue on to read Children of the Mind. W. T. F. Orson?! Stop with Speaker for the Dead. Xenocide isn't terrible but I wouldn't recommend it, and it opens the taps of awfulness that CotM soaks in.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:47 PM on March 31, 2005

Second the Banks recommendations. Also second the warnings regarding Card's later Ender books. Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, and Ender's Shadow are all good, but things started going downhill with Xenocide and just aren't worth it.

The "His Dark Materials" series actually begins with The Golden Compass. It's a good read.
posted by Aster at 8:55 PM on March 31, 2005

Also, I don't know why no one has mentioned the Dune series yet. Very heavy on the philosophical content. The fourth book, God Emperor of Dune is among my favorites.
posted by sbutler at 9:02 PM on March 31, 2005

Hawksmoor has no "aliens and time travel" SF content. However, its mindset is I believe what you're looking for.
posted by Leon at 9:07 PM on March 31, 2005

This may be a bit off the mark, but when I read your question, I thought first of Donnerjack, which is (sort of) by Zelazny. I remember liking it, but as some reviews say, the posthumous portions really stick out.

Also try Philip K. Dick's Eye in the Sky, which is quick, funny, and naturally, very, very Dick.
posted by ulotrichous at 9:10 PM on March 31, 2005

You might want to try The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. Link to a brief synopsis. I don't know how dark it is overall, but there is a strong religious overtone and I found it quite a poignant story that tore me up quite a bit. More tragic than dark, but an excellent book nonetheless.
posted by Cyrie at 9:30 PM on March 31, 2005

Altho I'm a great fan of CSLewis's Space trilogy mentioned by Jeanne, there's another Inkling that I'd suggest first for religious fiction/fantasy: Charles Williams. Descent into Hell is especially memorable...and quite harrowing. But not very post-modern, being from the 1930s. Williams is in a category all his own, AFAIC.
Possibly off target, but I'd also include "Last and First Men" and StarMaker by Olaf Stapleton...good summaries at the Amazon page for these; they're collected together in a Dover book. Off because they're not specifically religious, but definitely philosophic: Galactic histories might be their category...also from the 1930s...sorry!
...and have you tried Ann Rice? She's an amazing rethinker of major mythic threads, and certainly dark.
posted by dpcoffin at 9:37 PM on March 31, 2005

If you haven't read Childhood's End by Clarke it's a pretty good match for your request. You might also like some of Sean Stewart's books such as Resurrection Man and Night Watch. These have the religious aspect and can be emotionally taxing but aren't exactly horror.

I just finished reading Charlie Stross' The Atrocity Archives, which was great; not exactly religious in tone, but Lovecraft meets Le Carré. Vast dark intelligences and many-angled bureaucracies.

I second most of the suggestions above, although my reaction to The Sparrow was mostly "eh". Not bad or anything but most of its themes I think I'd read better treatments of elsewhere.
posted by hattifattener at 10:23 PM on March 31, 2005

To return (briefly) to M.D. Russell's two books, The Sparrow and Children of God, I've tried to explain to my sister that those books, while sold in the SF section, are more properly pure religious fiction, and would be appropriate reading for undergrad theology and philosophy students in addition to the casual reader. Why? Because the SF context is incidental. Her book are about the darkness of the soul, and the only bleak, untamed wilderness she can write in is space; the rest of the world is simply too well known to make the ripped-from-reality storyline plausible.

Anyway, yes, Dune is a fascinating series, but in more of a sociological sense. Herbert's exploration of the evolution of culture over a massive timeline is much more interesting than his thoughts on religion (or, indeed, the depth of his storylines, which are rich and broad but not particularly deep).

The Rama series touch on religion (especially in the third book), and they have rather significant religious elements. Hell, I'm fairly new to SF books, and I've been absolutely startled at just how many of the hard sci-fi authors write explicitly about the conflict between science and faith (often with an unexpectedly favorable view of faith) and Meaning. But that's not really what you're talking about is it?

Ben Bova's books (like Saturn) look at a near-future conflict between science and fundamentalist religion, but they're more a reflection of modern social trends than deep explorations of the soul.

What about the Narnia books?
posted by socratic at 10:37 PM on March 31, 2005

Kalki, by Gore Vidal, is a religious SF doomsday book, but not christianity- it's more about hinduism.
posted by dhruva at 10:46 PM on March 31, 2005


Towing Jehovah
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 10:56 PM on March 31, 2005

Don't know if you've read any Anne Rice, but you might take a look at Memnoch the Devel. It's a later book from the Vampire Chronicles. I don't remember if it stands on its own, but I think it probably would.
posted by willnot at 10:59 PM on March 31, 2005

Here's another couple of suggestions, perhaps equally off target, but they came to mind--one never knows, eh?

Thomas Covenant series; Stephen Donaldson
Canopus in Argos series; Doris Lessing
posted by dpcoffin at 11:05 PM on March 31, 2005

Another Dan Simmons to consider is Song of Kali.

I would also recommend both Riddley Walker (it's not directly what you're asking about but is very much about belief) and Pilgermann, by Russell Hoban.

One of Iain Banks's "real" novels, Whit, is about a cult figure.
posted by caitlinb at 11:09 PM on March 31, 2005

I'll second Connie Willis' Doomsday Book. Though her writing has a lot of comic elements, I found it to be a pretty dark book overall. If you're going to mention Philip K Dick, I think VALIS might be worth checking out. Octavia Butler explores the creation of a new religion/philosophy ["Earthseed"] in her books Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, which certainly qualify as dark sci-fi.

You may find C.S. Lewis' stuff to be a little too... overt. I'm not quite sure that that's the right way to put it - after all, several of the books above are very openly about religion. Perhaps it's the fact that C.S. Lewis took fantasy and sci-fi and used them to make very blatant allegories [Narnia and the Space trilogy]. Reading the Space Trilogy made me feel like I was being preached at, rather than exploring complex moral issues. Admittedly, I read them a long time ago, and perhaps I'm not giving them the credit they deserve. [Card gets equally hamhanded on both religious and social issues in a lot of his stuff. I kept on wanting Children of the Mind to be as good as Speaker for the Dead and Ender's Game, and it kept failing me.]
posted by ubersturm at 11:31 PM on March 31, 2005

Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles are really quite good, in spite of the movies. Memnock the Devil will stand on its own, sort-of, but is also more enjoyable if you read the whole series.

Another, older work: Morris West's "The Clowns of God". Vatican mystery with heavy religious philosophy. West was a great author with a background as a real spy. He's probably best known for "Shoes of the Fisherman", which was made into a movie. But Clowns is his best and strangest.
posted by Goofyy at 11:33 PM on March 31, 2005

I think you might enjoy the work of Freda Warrington and Storm Constantine. Try Stalking Tender Prey.

These aren't "something jumps out on you" horror, they're a genre known as "Dark Fantasy" with elements of fantasy, horror, religion, sex all mixed together.
posted by krisjohn at 11:59 PM on March 31, 2005

If you've read Hellblazer, you're probably aware of the Sandman. Omni-religious, and not strictly focused on the Judeo-Christian end of things. Seasons of Mist is probably has the most religious bent (Lucifer gives up hell) and it's an easy jumping in point.

I give a massively resounding second to VALIS, as well as Dick's Divine Invasion.

Moebius and Jodorowski did a graphic novel called Madwoman of the Sacred Heart...although out of print, it's worth hunting down.

Some of C. S. Lewis' "non-genre" religious novels often made me feel like I was reading sci-fi, Divine Invasion primary among them.
posted by samh23 at 12:23 AM on April 1, 2005

Some people didn't like the movie "Event Horizon" because it crossed sci-fi with horror with a religious tint, but maybe it would be more up your alley. Not an intellectual movie. More a supernatural-horror-but-set-in-space movie.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:44 AM on April 1, 2005

Just to stress: pretty much everything Dick has ever written.
posted by ori at 12:44 AM on April 1, 2005

The Rama series touch on religion (especially in the third book)


The Rama books, except for the original Rendezvous, drop into an abyss of Lovecraftian excrescent horror. Being crushed by a shoggoth or devoured by Nyarlathotep pales in comparison to the mind-eating power of Gentry Lee, destroyer of souls.

These are not books for reading. These are books for laying down and avoiding. Should you wish to burn the books to keep others from accidentally reading them, be sure to stand far upwind and wear a respirator. For more information about what to do if you accidentally happen across a copy of one of these books, or, God forbid, have one inflicted on you, consult this thread from rec.arts.sf.written.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:19 AM on April 1, 2005

Numerous Stanlislaw Lem books, including sections from "A Perfect Vacuum" and "The Star Diaries". The latter contains a section that comes closest to expressing my personal feelings on a supreme deity (among other things, that a God who demands worship is by definition not worth worshipping).
posted by Gortuk at 4:29 AM on April 1, 2005

I second Hyperion by Dan Simmons, as it has elements of both horror and SF (but IMO is beyond typical genre fiction). Canticle for Liebowitz is also a major touchstone in SF, although not very horror-y. Also second that Gentry Lee is eye-poison.

The works of Gene Wolfe are right up there in the world of religious SF. His writing style isn't easy. Especially in the Book of the New Sun (a tetralogy), his grammatical constructions are especially elaborate, and his vocabulary incredibly obscure (but amazingly, all real English). Regardless, I think it's a very rewarding read.

Sheri Tepper has written some religious-themed SF--"Grass" was one of them, I think.
posted by adamrice at 6:52 AM on April 1, 2005

I would reccommend Card's Speaker for the Dead as well as Xenocide. The latter has a great OCD character interpreting it in religious terms. And I absolutely also reccommend Dune, and I have also read the next two, which I enjoyed. Herbert's writing does annoy me, it is not very subtle, neither is Card's, however those books are all great.
posted by scazza at 7:29 AM on April 1, 2005

Oh jeez, The Land of Rice and Salt! "How might human history be different if 14th-century Europe was utterly wiped out by plague, and Islamic and Buddhist societies emerged as the world's dominant religious and political forces?"
posted by scazza at 7:35 AM on April 1, 2005

In addition to Philip K. Dick's VALIS and The Divine Invasion also check out The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, the sequel of sorts to the former two. Or Radio Free Albemuth. All the same story, really.

Not a book, but it sounds like you'd really enjoy HBO's Carnivale, which is a very literary TV series that fulfills each and every criterion you listed. Horror with a heavy religious tint, extremely dark, lots of philosophical content, quite postmodern, unhappy endings abound, and not knowing who's good or who's evil or where the boundary between the two lies is pretty much the show's mission statement. Just takes awhile to get involved in it. With the second (and probably final) season complete, it's a nice self-contained story you can slip into at your leisure.
posted by jbrjake at 8:47 AM on April 1, 2005

Try The Forge of God, by Greg Bear -- dark, grim SF, with a touch of religion as well. (It's sort of like Contact's evil twin.) Its sequel, Anvil of Stars, isn't quite as dark, but is still a worthy read.

Gregory Benford's "Galactic Center" series is in a similar vein, but it is (IMHO) ultimately less satisfying.
posted by Zonker at 9:22 AM on April 1, 2005

The Prophecy trilogy staring Christopher Walken are decent flicks with good vs. evil themes and very much religion based.

Sorry if this is out of place since they're movies, but you did mention a couple movies in your question. Any books I thought of were already mentioned.
posted by deborah at 9:29 AM on April 1, 2005

A great book no one has mentioned yet that is in a similar category (not so much horror, but definielty some gruesome topics) is American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I haven't read a lot of his work, but he does seem to be in the vein of literature you're looking for.
posted by gus at 9:36 AM on April 1, 2005

Second Nomination for "The Forge of God."

Also - the entire dual-novel per volume Night's Dawn trilogy (actually six books) by Peter F. Hamilton is chock full of issues regarding religion and dark issues like possession, Satanists, and a metric ton of quantum cosmology.
posted by TeamBilly at 10:41 AM on April 1, 2005

"Job: A comedy of justice" by Robert Heinlein.

It's sci-fi, not horror, but it tackles some major Christian themes. Whether it's a dark ending or not really depends on how the book challenges your beliefs. this novel permanently changed the way I looked at Christianity (for the better, I think), but my mother thought it was a heretical book with a horrible, terrifying ending, because the story undercut everything she believed in.

I second the Octavia Butler books.
posted by luneray at 12:28 PM on April 1, 2005

'Altered Carbon' by Richard Morgan is a great read with a twist on death that would make a buddhist blush and frown.
posted by alteredcarbon at 5:14 PM on April 1, 2005

Yes to Gene Wolfe. The only thing of his I was not impressed by was The Devil in a Forest. Find his Soldier of the Mist and its sequel. They're awesome.

I agree with ROU_xenophobe's assessment of Card's Ender series, except I'm even less fond of SftD and Xenocide. Forget the later ones.

On the other hand, I didn't hate the Rama books as much as ROU does. Not memorable, but not awful.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:27 PM on April 1, 2005

Thanks, everyone! I love American Gods, Dune, and Ender's Game, and thus I'm very excited about checking out the rest.

Um, except the King recs. Call me picky.
posted by honeydew at 11:28 PM on April 1, 2005

I'm surprised no one's mentioned Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven yet. It's got a little bit of everything you're looking for.

I'd second the Gene Wolfe recommendation and also the Philip Pullman (miscalled 'young adult', above.)

And if there's anything left of Gentry Lee's mangled corpse when the above posters are finished with it, drop-ship it to me - I have further desecration in mind.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:36 AM on April 2, 2005

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