Sci-Fi Writer William Shunn: The Book of Mormon Is a Lot Like Lord of the Rings
In 2003 the World Science Fiction Convention was held in Toronto, Canada. Many of the world’s leading science fiction authors appeared, but one author who couldn’t make it was William Shunn. He’s been banned from Canada since 1987.
“They gave me what’s called a departure notice,” Shunn says in Episode 176 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Which is basically a polite deportation, where Canada comes to you and says, ‘We’d really appreciate it if you left the country by, say, March 12th. OK, can you do that? Thank you. And then don’t come back.’”
This stems from an incident in which, as a young Mormon missionary, Shunn called in a fake bomb threat. He was trying to stop one of his friends, who’d decided he didn’t want to be a missionary anymore, from flying home. Shunn spent the night in jail and was given a $2,000 fine. Fortunately for him, some local Mormons helped him pay.
“They ended up giving me more money than I’d paid in the fine,” he says, “so I made a very small profit of about $150 Canadian.”
Shunn recounts the adventure in his new memoir, The Accidental Terrorist, a book he’s been working on for almost 20 years. The long delay is partly due to the September 11 attacks, which made publishers wary of his book.
“Nobody wanted a book that had ‘terrorist’ in the title,” he says. “No one wanted to kind of make a hero out of a terrorist, and I couldn’t really blame them.”
Shunn is no longer a Mormon, and for years he ran one of the web’s largest ex-Mormon sites. Though he now regards The Book of Mormon as fiction, he still admires the imaginative world it describes, a universe in which men ascend to godhood and rule over entire planets.
“This was a religion that was made for America,” he says. “Americans had this idea that there was endless frontier, and we could keep pushing out into the frontier and make our fortune, and that’s pretty much the same thing Joseph [Smith] was selling, except in a spiritual sense.”
Listen to our complete interview with William Shunn in Episode 176 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
William Shunn on science fiction:
“A lot of people in the Mormon community really thought that science fiction writing was something you shouldn’t do. My dad was one of those people. He thought that science fiction was evil somehow. I once brought home a copy of an Andre Norton novel, and I forget which novel it was, but it had to do with a character who might have been a clone. And my dad read the back of this book and said, ‘Clones are evil, son. Cloning is taking the power of God into your own hands. So you can never read science fiction again.’ Actually I did keep reading science fiction, I just snuck it into the house and was more careful about hiding it.”
William Shunn on Joseph Smith:
“I consider Joseph Smith to be the ur-science fiction writer of Mormonism. He essentially invented a whole fantasy world in The Book of Mormon—at least that’s how I look at it. And in fact he was a fan fiction writer too, because The Book of Mormon is nothing if not Bible fan fiction. If you look at The Book of Mormon as his Lord of the Rings, the rest of his theology is kind of like The Silmarillion—he went back and filled in all the history and cosmology of the universe. … I look at The Book of Mormon as Joseph Smith’s first novel, and he commits the same sin that any writer does when they’re writing their first novel. He seems to be the main protagonist through the first part of the novel. … There are all kinds of interesting parallels between Joseph’s life and The Book of Mormon, and I really think that [Nephi] is the Mary Sue in that book.”
William Shunn on Clarion:
“I went to Clarion in 1985, when I was 17. … I remember talking to my friend Bob Howe—who I’m still friends with now, 30 years later. He would ask me really challenging philosophical questions about things like homosexuality, and other things that Mormons would consider a sin but that he didn’t, and he was asking me to defend the church’s position, and I had kind of a hard time doing it. The strange thing I learned at Clarion—besides everything I learned about writing—was that the people I’d been taught in church were amoral and didn’t have a good set of philosophies, it turned out they did have really strong philosophies, and had just as much morality—if not more so—than I did, and certainly they thought about it more. And I found that really striking.”
William Shunn on Mormon science fiction:
“I was part of a big writing group in Utah County called Xenobia. … The group had been started around a class at BYU that was supposed to have been taught by Orson Scott Card but wasn’t. … They started a science fiction magazine at BYU called The Leading Edge, and science fiction has really spread there. Over the past 25 years it’s just grown and grown, to the point that there’s an annual science fiction convention at BYU called ‘Life, the Universe, and Everything.’ It’s really, really big around there. And I think Orson Scott Card, love him or hate him—and I don’t really love him anymore—he really did jump-start this whole thing and make science fiction safe for Mormons, and Mormons have really flocked to it.”