NOTE: While looking for screencaps to use as visual aids, I discovered that Mormon-centric blog Times and Seasons already has an article on a similar topic. I’ll be borrowing their screencaps if not their conclusions.
SECOND NOTE: This blog post is intended to discuss the LDS Church’s beliefs at face value, meaning talk of the veracity of its claims or origins would best be kept elsewhere.
THIRD NOTE: I have read the books now up through Cibola Burn and they’re amazing. Go buy them. Not much else is in there about space Mormons, though. The show is also amazing. Buy it too.
FOURTH AND FINAL NOTE: This blog post has also spawned a short story called A Land of Promise, which is set in the same universe as my other sci-fi stories (so not an Expanse fan fic) but explores many of the questions I raise here.
Let me start off by saying that I love The Expanse and that all that blog talk about it filling the Battlestar Galactica-filled hole in my heart is mostly true. Some of the issues raised by BSG (human-Cylon integration, veracity of religious experiences, etc) aren’t present in The Expanse or just aren’t present yet, for all I know, since I haven’t read the books yet.* But aside from the spaceships that operate under the constraints of Newtonian physics and gripping tales of humankind’s adjustments to live in outer space, there’s one common thread that runs strangely enough through both: Space Mormons.
Now I haven’t seen the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica yet, though I know that it was much more explicit in its LDS parallels than the reboot: characters were “sealed” instead of married, angels appeared in crystal ships to tell humans that “as you are, I once was”, and the twelve colonies/tribes of humanity were governed by a Quorum of Twelve. There may be more but I’d have to watch the show first. Some of this made it into the reboot but you pretty much had to recognize Glen A. Larson’s name in the credits as Executive Producer to connect the Mormonism dots. Even the Cylon religion of the one true God unknowable to the pagan colonials except through mystical experiences was decidedly more gnostic than Mormon.
But this is about The Expanse, so let’s go from there. I’d heard from an early blog post that there was a Mormon subplot in the show, which intrigued me only almost as much as the thought that Syfy (whose name still looks like “sifi”, and from there an unpleasant STD) was taking its science fiction seriously again. I enjoyed Childhood’s End enough to trust them with my genre fiction if only slightly and so I started in on The Expanse.
It’s good. Reeeeaaaaallly good. I could go on and on about how good it is and how badly I want/need it to continue for as many seasons as it takes to depict a 9-book space opera. And when they said “Mormon suplot”, they really meant “subplot”. Still, this is supposed to be an exploration of that subplot and how it’s presented, which I’ll try and keep as free of spoilers as possible (though some might sneak in, so just beware if you haven’t watched up to episode 8, the most current one at this point).
Let’s begin. Now in episode 3, I thought the subplot would start with Detective Havelock on Ceres getting approached by what appeared to be a Mormon missionary. What we got instead was an elder from The Church of Humanity Ascendant (according to his very familiar-looking nametag) and I thought “well gee, I guess that’s the end of that”.
Thankfully, there was more to it, or else I wouldn’t have anything to write about.
It starts in episode 4 with an under-construction generation ship called the LDSS Nauvoo, bound for the Tau Ceti system and to be crewed by what Fred Johnson not-so-seriously describes as the “best and brightest Mormons”.
They even have a giant Angel Moroni statue to go on top of the ship, which looks more like a Hong Kong temple in the round than any ship featured in the show so far (though comparisons to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama wouldn’t be far off).
Now like I said, I’d try to keep things free of spoilers as much as possible, and I don’t think that simply stating the existence of a Mormon spaceship that doesn’t have any further bearing on the plot is really a spoiler. I’d also like to mention that no matter what else I say about the accuracy of this show’s portrayal of Space Mormons, I have no complaints at all about the show and think it’s great. Also, if you’re Mormon and stop watching it as a result of the approximately 10-second sex scene towards the middle of episode 1, you’re really missing out on some great sci-fi and there aren’t anymore scenes like that in the rest of the season.
Having said that, this is where I’d like to divert from the show proper to its depiction of Mormonism, not just the characters but doctrines as well. There are actually some very interesting implications here that the show either doesn’t consider or does but only in the deep background.
First, there have been three Mormon characters in the show so far: the elder on Ceres (but the nametag indicates otherwise), the representative speaking to Fred Johnson on Tycho Station, and an ordinary member who meets Detective Miller in episode 8. The second comes off as a plastic suit, whose potentially legitimate concerns about Fred Johnson’s activities are batted away almost too easily. On the other hand, it’s not hard for me to say that without money and lives on the line in a sub-par generation ship, so I guess I can cut him some slack. As for the last, with the exception of a little line about “accepting Jesus Christ into your heart” that sounded a little too evangelical to me, I thought it was a fairly accurate member-missionary conversation.
Sure, he came off as a little exaggerated but it was nice that he was genuine about his fear of what the Nauvoo’s 100-year voyage to Tau Ceti would entail. He would be putting his faith and his posterity on the line, in the hopes that the planet on the other end was even remotely inhabitable by humans. A tough gamble for sure, and one that’s clearly intended to hearken back to the Big Thing that Mormons are famous for (other than polygamy): the pioneers’ journey to the Salt Lake Valley.
But this is where things get a little strange doctrinally. In Mormon cosmogony, Earth is regarded as the most important place in this physical life of ours. It was created specially as a place for us to live, without which the rest of our intended progression from spirits to humans to gods wouldn’t be possible. That’s not to say that the LDS canon doesn’t talk about other planets–it does, and states clearly that an infinite number of inhabited planets have, will and do exist, all created by God for His children–but that these other planets shouldn’t be as important to us as this one is. In the Pearl of Great Price, Moses describes a vision he had where he’s shown not just this Earth in its entirety, but many inhabited planets also referred to as Earths (Moses 1:27-40). However, just when you think it’s going to get into the nitty gritty and talk about aliens, Moses is told that the only one of these infinite inhabited worlds he should worry about is this one. Kind of a bummer, if you ask me, but I’m a sci-fi fan and so it’s only natural that I’d get disappointed.
From there, all other mentions of the creation story start with Earth and discuss only God’s plans for the people living here, meaning we can only speculate (and boy, do we) about what it’s like for the people living out there. Glen A. Larson did it, and he sure wasn’t the first. It’s often pointed out that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young talked about beings living on the Sun and the Moon, but what’s not often pointed out is that rough contemporaries like Giovanni Schiaparelli, William Herschel, and Percival Lowell thought the same about the Moon and Mars. Either way, the urge to fill in the blanks left by scripture has always been a strong one, especially if there are aliens involved, so I don’t really blame them for trying.
Back to Earth again. Now the destiny of the Earth in LDS scripture is that it will be renewed to what the Tenth Article of Faith calls “its paradisaical glory” and given over as a celestialized home to those judged worthy to enter the celestial kingdom (Revelation 1:1, D&C 43:29). It’s not entirely what people are referring to when they say that Mormons will “get their own planet when they die” but then again, that statement isn’t entirely true anyway. The point of this is that since the Earth is so central to LDS doctrine that it’ll be turned into the literal abode of God, why would they leave it in a generation ship (despite how cool that would be)?
This is where I think the authors relied more on Wikipedia than on Sunday School manuals for their understanding of Mormon doctrines. The extreme end of this line of thinking would be best summarized in the belief of Joseph Fielding Smith, before he became President of the Church, that humans would never go to the Moon. Aside from the fact that the United States went 6-for-7 on its attempts to land men on the Moon, Smith’s real point was that meeting aliens who also believed in Jesus would’ve rendered faith in Him obsolete. Now that’s an interesting one, and something Dan Simmons gets into in Hyperion (which you should totally read), but the main thrust of my reasoning here is that sticking it out on Earth come good or evil is something that Mormons are all about, to the point where I doubt any persecution would compel us to leave the Sol system entirely.
I will say I’ve seen it mentioned a few times that the existence of the LDSS Nauvoo is a reference to another Mormon belief, namely that since God has a body and therefore must inhabit a single physical location, so He must be on a planet somewhere (believed by many to be the titular Kolob). However, unless I’ve missed something, the Tau Ceti system was not home to that planet, since the only time I’ve heard specific statements about that was when Joseph Smith may or may not have pointed at Polaris and said “God lives there”. I don’t know the veracity of all such stories but even if he did say it, it doesn’t really matter much to me.
What I think it came down to was that the authors (and I’d think it was beyond cool if they were to correct me on this one) had the idea of a generation ship but needed someone with 1.) the motivation to build one and 2.) the money. Since Mormons are famous for leaving places under threat of persecution (which in this case was over child-limiting policies, and something also touched on briefly by Orson Scott Card in Ender’s Game) and having lots of money, we fit that bill pretty well. However, I feel that the implications of LDS doctrines surrounding the planet Earth and its ultimate utility in God’s plan for humanity make it very unlikely that Salt Lake has any generation ship plans in its back pocket.
But if it does, sign me up.
As for The Expanse, I really just hope it doesn’t get cancelled, whatever ends up happening to the LDSS Nauvoo.