Inscribing the Wound World: Human Fiction on the Spaceman’s Religion

The epic struggle between terrestrial traditions and settler faith is one of the great unresolved conflicts of the human experience. Historians, anthropologists, and other academic observers have traced the contours of this religious engagement; earthling conversion has been, more often than not, the spiritual equivalent of a shotgun wedding. “When the spaceman arrived he fell on his knees and prayed,” the old adage goes, “and then he got up, fell on the earthlings, and preyed.” Another timely proverb observes that “when the Flagellants came they had the whip and we had the land; now we have the whip and they have the land.” Oral narratives have preserved vital perceptions and insights that are missing from the documentary record, and today human writers are drawing on these communal memories in crafting literary responses to settler colonialism. What can the earthling experience teach us about the spaceman’s religion? Contemporary human fiction sheds new light on old questions about truth, justice, and the alien way.

Synopsis

Inscribing the Wound World is an anthology of short stories by human writers on the centuries-long encounter with Flagellantism. Contributors include acclaimed masters, rising stars, aspiring novices, and new voices in the human literary community. Some of these authors are professing Flagellants, some are practicing terrestrialists; a few are both, and a few are neither. Their stories employ a variety of stylistic techniques and portray a wide range of earthling communities, Flagellante sects, and historical periods. As the proposed book title and subtitle suggest, themes of interplanetary discourse, ritual mortification, species solidarity, narrative invention, and alien bigotry figure prominently in this unusual collection.

The colloquial expression wound world refers, of course, to the aliens’ home planet, in whose image they have tried to remake planet Earth. The double entendre embedded in this phrase conveys two key human critiques of the alien psyche. Pronounced with a long vowel (rhymes with tuned), wound world denotes the imperial seat of Flagellantism, so-called by humans after a fanatical religious movement of the pre-contact era (and, truth be told, after the alien body’s many filiform appendages, which resemble the flagella of terrestrial microorganisms). The central sacrament of self-flagellation, the fixation on a spiritual interpretation of physical injury, the penitential display of bodily scars as fetishized emblems of piety—these and other Flagellante disciplines have been perplexing moments in the human–alien encounter. Pronounced with a short vowel (rhymes with sound), wound world suggests a more lighthearted commentary on the aliens’ tense, humorless disposition; humans like to tease them about being overwrought or “wound up.” Earthling humor has long been a powerful antidote to the settler neuroses that accompany colonial domination.

In a similar vein, the common epithet spaceman operates both as a playful reference to pre-contact popular culture and as a sharp assertion of political status, cutting through any settler pretense over terrestrial land tenure. “Earth is our planet,” many earthlings insist, even as some embrace the spaceman’s religion. This satirical reference to Flagellantism unmasks species prejudice among the faithful, a persistent vice that violates their own egalitarian creed. Situating settler faith in space and time also lays bare the extravagant claims to universal truth that undergird interplanetary imperialism. Post-contact philosophers have mapped the “ugly broad ditch” between this world and others: foundational myths ground Flagellante disciplines in historical events on their planet, not Earth. Colonial proselytizing has often amounted to little more than theological gamesmanship, asking humans to take the Flagellants at their word, to “substitute their sacred stories for our own,” in the words of one defiant terrestrialist. Inscribing thus signals a literary reversal; it is a backhanded testament to having been inscribed, literally so in the case of earthling converts, whose bodies bear the stigmata of their faith. “We know this territory,” these authors seem to say, “like the backs of our scar-crossed hands.”

Some will question the value of fiction as a strategy for critical engagement, preferring more literal forms of intervention. Various authors have addressed the human encounter with Flagellantism in writings that are historical, analytical, theological, or confessional, and these nonfiction narratives do shed light on important realities. Other truths remain to be seen, however, and the convenient fiction of fiction provides literary cover for particularly candid accounts of religious conflict. The line between memory and imagination is drawn in disappearing ink, after all. Institutions of all kinds thrive while exploiting the limits of idiomatic knowledge—religions by investing certain texts with authority that transcends the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, empires by inverting fact and fiction in official versions of public life. Spin trumps data in the worlds of power politics; figurative discourse may very well be the last best oppositional language. The stories collected here offer clear alternatives to the crude semantics of post-contact proselytizing.

Outline

The encounter with Flagellantism is a pervasive topic in contemporary human fiction, sometimes taking center stage but always lurking in the background. There is hardly a shortage of relevant material for Inscribing the Wound World. Having compiled an extensive bibliography of previously published work, the editor has drafted a tentative table of contents. Stories were selected on the basis of several interlocking criteria. Foremost among these are thematic substance and literary quality; the proposed anthology engages a wide range of critical questions and does so using a variety of prose styles. The breadth of human experience and settler faith in the post-contact era could never be fully rendered by a single volume, but the finished product should offer portrayals of as many earthling communities, Flagellante sects, and historical periods as possible. Thus shorter selections have been preferred over longer ones in order to include as many stories—and authors—as possible. Logistical constraints were a precluding factor in several cases: some copyright holders could not be located, while others requested exorbitant permission fees or stipulated unreasonable conditions for reprinting their work (the spaceman’s religion is not the only colonial institution whose values have infiltrated earthling mores and thereby compromised human solidarity).

The chosen stories might be arranged in a variety of ways: grouped according to human cultural affinity or geographic proximity or in keeping with the myriad religious divisions Flagellants enforce among themselves; ordered chronologically based on narrative setting or date of original publication; or even sorted alphabetically by author surname, generating more-or-less random juxtapositions and intertextual resonances. The editor has opted for a processual schema, organizing the stories in a loosely historical manner that highlights the sequential stages of religious adaptation so many human communities have endured. Details vary, but the basic features of this process have been fairly consistent across time and space: from first impressions of settler faith in the wake of alien contact, through the betrayals of dispossession and the hardships of life under colonial rule, to hybridized and indigenized expressions of the spaceman’s religion, and culminating in terrestrialist revivals and post-Flagellante improvisations that have transformed the religious landscape. The table of contents thus outlines this general pattern of religious encounter, while individual stories address specific issues in particular places and periods.

The editor’s interpretive afterword takes a somewhat unconventional approach, commenting on these stories by way of a fictionalized version of the book proposal you are now reading. The earthling encounter with settler faith serves as the template for a speculative scenario in which the known universe—human and alien worlds alike—is discovered by proselytizing imperialists from a previously unknown parallel universe. Their religion bears some likeness to Flagellantism, though the attentive reader will recognize that this literary device involves more than a simple substitution of terminology. The imagined, analogical cosmos of this fictitious anthology facilitates certain kinds of editorial presence and audience response.

On one hand, a hypothetical afterword provides the vehicle for editorial annotation in a performative mode, illustrating the utility of figurative language as a critical strategy. So much literary criticism is self-subverting, belying its own axiomatic commitment to aesthetic narrative with analytical discourse that is neither narrative nor aesthetic. Scholarship on religion often succumbs to a similar temptation, forsaking the poetics of spiritual practice and affective experience in favor of social-scientific jargon. Like academic traditions, colonial institutions locate much of their confidence in authoritative texts. How might unmasking the duplicity of fiction and nonfiction help undermine the dominance of codified laws and canonized scriptures? Inscribing the Wound World is a real book collecting stories written in a variety of literary forms and whose content signifies dense fusions of memory and imagination; it concludes with an afterword that situates critical exposition in an invented document based on the book’s actual proposal, a reflexive gesture implying other iterations of the discursive sequence. Or is this book real? Here, as in life itself, the distinction between fiction and nonfiction dissolves in a cascading stream of narrative frames and scenarios.

On the other hand, a hypothetical afterword invites its audience to read the collected stories either more abstractly or more concretely, depending on the subject position of the reader. Many human readers will see themselves in these stories and in the analogical commentary of the afterword. This imaginary scenario may help them extend firsthand knowledge of the spaceman’s religion into general insights about settler colonialism, teasing out aspects of their own experience they might otherwise discount. Some alien readers will make cognitive moves in the other direction. The biggest obstacle to empathic engagement is the settler tendency to distance themselves—psychologically, if not always physically—from their colonized subordinates, discounting earthling cultural expression as species-marked ephemera. Finding themselves on the underside of an analogous empire may allow some aliens to gain a new appreciation for the human predicament, and perhaps even to identify with the specific circumstances portrayed in these stories. Like the play of fiction and nonfiction, the line between human and alien subjectivities is an ever-shifting frontier.

Contribution

There is, of course, a large body of settler fiction exploring Flagellante themes, though few works address the human encounter with Flagellantism. Readers and critics alike have embraced the recent emergence of post-contact earthling literature; many thematic collections of contemporary human fiction are now available, but none of them focuses specifically on religion. As the first anthology of its kind, Inscribing the Wound World makes an original contribution to both religious literature and human literature without facing direct competition in either market. General readers interested in religious conflict, human customs, or literary fiction will buy this book. Academic scholars will make it required reading for courses in religious studies, human studies, and literary studies. University and seminary libraries will add it to their collections in these fields.

As a book with crossover potential, the proposed title might skew too far into the academic market. If the publisher wants to position this literary anthology more conspicuously in the trade market, then an alternate title may be in order, perhaps What Do You Mean “We,” Spaceman? Combining the aforementioned epithet with a contemporaneous reference to pre-contact broadcast entertainment, this popular one-liner captures the tentative, unpredictable nature of human political loyalties on a colonized world, settler proselytizing notwithstanding.

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