A trope I especially detest

Sometimes you read a book review that is critical of a particular book you’d looked forward to, and the criticism points toward things that don’t really matter to you or that can be actual positives (This book is so sloooow).

And then there are the times you read a book review that nails down a particular trope that you simply detest. While any detailed, thoughtful book review can be helpful, this particular kind of review is probably the *most* helpful.

So, this morning, Sherwood Smith posted comments about Hardinge’s THE LIE TREE on Goodreads, in which she said, among other things:

Faith is a young teen fiercely interested in the natural sciences, an interest she shares with her famous father, who is also an Anglican minister. When I saw that, I hailed it with inner relief, thinking that finally here would be a book that wrestles with the changing of a paradigm, without going down the usual over-simplification trail by making religious faith and scientific endeavor mutually exclusive. With, of course, the religious characters being narrow-minded, clinging to ignorance, and petty, if not downright eeevil.

Nope, it turned out that Hardinge was trotting down that well-worn path.

… and I metaphorically threw the book across the room and dropped it from the To Read — Urgent pile to the Maybe Someday, Maybe Never pile.

Well, even Patricia McKillip wrote one book I detested. I presume I can still happily anticipate the two other Hardinge books I have on my TBR pile.


If you know of any SFF (or other) novels where Christian characters, particularly in a historical setting, are shown as sincere but not “narrow- minded, clinging to ignorance, and petty, if not downright eeevil,” please drop them in the comments.

I’ll start:

1. Just one of the five Spanish friars in SILVER ON THE ROAD is shown as a thoroughly negative character. Although they are minor characters, two are specifically developed in positive ways. If Gilman had followed the tired narrow-minded-bigot trope for all the friars, I would have dropped the novel to at most four out of five, maybe seven and a half out of ten. That’s how much I loathe this particular extraordinary common trope, which imo is not only lazy but smug and self-righteous.

Here’s another:

2. In THE BEACON AT ALEXANDRIA, Gillian Bradshaw uses narrow-minded, petty Christian monks as a plot driver — but she also introduces Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, who is a fantastic character. Obviously he is a very sincere believer, but he is definitely anything but narrow-minded or petty. Bradshaw does a wonderful, wonderful job handling religious characters and religious conflict in this book.

Other examples, please! Major gold star if you can name one where religious faith and scientific endeavor are NOT shown as mutually exclusive.

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9 thoughts on “A trope I especially detest”

  1. Mike Flynn’s EIFELHEIM is historical SF about an alien ship crashing in Germany in the mid-1300s, told from the viewpoint of a highly-educated (scholastic) clergyman. It goes pretty deeply into medieval philosophy, which makes the scientific discussions with the Krenken difficult. Warning: it is, ultimately, a tragedy.

    A much more cheerful (and action-packed) account of medieval First Contact is Poul Anderson’s marvelous THE HIGH CRUSADE, where religion is a subsidiary theme at best.

  2. I was about to suggest Eifelheim but Craig beat me to it. So consider it seconded. It’s told in two strands one modern, one medieval. The medieval is rather better and more interesting than the other. Flynn knows his medieval thinking.

    Brad Torgersen’s The Chaplain’s War is an SF war story (humans against aliens) told from the POV of the Chaplain’s Assistant. Who isn’t sure he believes but got assigned the post. Believers are treated respectfully and human belief is pivotal. Both my husband and I liked it a great deal and that doesn’t happen often.

    I know I read something else not that long ago where I was shocked to find Christians (under another name) treated with respect, but I cannot dredge it out of memory.

    Ryk Spoor’s Paradigms Lost (a fixup novel that started as short stories) doesn’t have a lot of overt Christians but treats all believers respectfully and does have a minor character of a Catholic priest who got vampired but resists feeding. Vampires in that one are a twisted mockery of something else, of which only one survives. Kind of like Ents and trolls.

    (cough) Rachel Neumeier’s Black Dog stories. :-)

    Tim Powers treats Christian belief respectfully. I was especially struck by it in Declare .

    What’s the McKillip you didn’t like?

  3. Elaine, it was Solstice Wood. I hated the way she reinterpreted everything in Winter Rose, which is a book I liked a lot.

    Thanks for your suggestions! I kind of forgot about Black Dog, which is funny! I’ll have to add The Chaplain’s War to my wishlist so I remember to take a look at it sometime.

    Eifelheim, hmm. I’m reading a book with a really grim setting right now . . . three really grim settings, I guess . . . but I’m almost sure it’s not a tragedy. Still, I might try Eifelheim eventually.

  4. I don’t care much for Solstice Wood either. That and the one illustrated by Brian Froud are my least liked McKillips.

    Eifelheim… well, it’s 1348ish and history tells you what was starting. And the aliens need nutrients…. but there was a bit of light at the end due to the modern thread. It’s a sad story but the good kind of sad, not grimdark and hopeless.

  5. Madeleine L’Engle is the biggie that leaps to mind for me. Meg’s parents are Nobel laureates, but also religious, and both science and religion are continuing themes in many of her books.

    The Sparrow has scientists getting along with jesuits. While their blind faith leads them to their doom, it’s not anti-religion, I think.

    I read a book a while back that, while it wasn’t religious, did turn out to portray all scientists as evil villains trying to destroy the natural order of things, which is just as annoying.

  6. I really hate that trope as well, and it’s everywhere. One book that I recall that worked particularly well at avoiding it was the Night Angel trilogy by Brent Weeks. Not to spoil too much, but there’s a secondary character who has a lot of horrible things happen to him, but maintains his faith. And he’s portrayed as a man of honesty and integrity (which in their city is a real accomplishment). I actually think the book is stronger because the main character himself never converts.

    Also in the third book there’s a particularly interesting contrast between a believer who chooses not to follow his god’s command and sinks into total depravity, and a nonbeliever who cries out to that same god in desperation, obeys what he hears, and finds salvation (though he, too, doesn’t convert). So it’s very friendly to people of faith, even though some really grim things happen throughout the course of the books.

  7. Let’s see.

    Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book treats the historical Christian figures with respect. Particularly the priest

    Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos also.

  8. I think C Dale Brittain does a good job in all of her books, but especially in her Royal Wizard of Yurt series, which has the Royal Wizard and the Royal Chaplain becoming best friends even though in that fantasy world the two groups are traditionally rivals for influence with the nobility. Over the course of the series the chaplain provides a lot of important support. The wizard is the main character so maybe magic has more ‘screen time’ but it’s definitely a case of both magic and faith having important contributions and really complementing each other depending on whatever question or problem the characters are facing.

    Brittain is a medieval historian, so presumably she draws on her knowledge of medieval Catholicism when creating the religious beliefs of her characters (not that I would be able to tell the difference). Another of her books (Count Scar) seems to be set a couple decades after a version of the Albigensian Crusade (with magic) and has characters with religious beliefs vaguely resembling medieval Catholics and Cathars. The Cathars are the bad guys but it seems a fairly respectful villainy if that makes any sense. At least they’re not narrow-minded, clinging to ignorance or petty.

  9. There’s a oldish one, Naomi Kritzer’s first which flips the usual trope in that the Catholic analog is the persecuted old belief and the pagan is the dominant persecuter. Fires of the Faithful. i haven’t reread it in years but remember liking it and the sequel a great deal. Then Kritzer fell off my radar.

    We also have the C. Dale Brittan books around and enjoyed them, but I haven’t looked at them in years.

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