Stephen Lawhead’s "Empyrion" and the goal of Christian sci-fi

What better way to learn what sci-fi can accomplish than to take a look at a masterfully rendered epic tale? I’m going to talk about Lawhead’s “Empyrion” – a 900-page tome that may well seem daunting at first glance.

In the early eighties, Lawhead brought us “Dream Thief” – a sci-fi epic showing the incredible revelation that yes, there is life on Mars, and they are Christians! As preposterous as this sounds, he made it believable by sneaking up on us through heart-tugging beauty and nobility. It made perfect sense, the way he told it.

The similarities between Dream Thief and Empyrion are obvious, although Empyrion is actually made up of two books: “The Search for Fierra” and “The Siege of Dome”. However, all the copies I’ve ever seen have had both volumes combined. And the story jumps right from one to the other without a pause, so I speak of it as a single entity. Anyway, Empyrion is also about the discovery of godly saints on a far-off planet, but is much more subtle than Dream Thief.

The saga of the planet Empyrion begins on Earth in the twenty-third century, when interplanetary colonies have begun to spring up. Our hero Orion Treet is called upon by the Cynetics Corporation to report on their secret project in the star system Epsilon Eridani, eleven light years from Earth – made possible by a black hole warping space and cutting travel time to just a few weeks. The first colonists had arrived there five years previously. But when Treet and his companions arrive at the atmospheric dome, they come face to face with a society that is thousands of years old and millions strong. Yes, you guessed it – the black hole warped time as well, and threw our travellers into the distant future of the Cynetics colony, which lost contact with the mother planet at the very beginning.

Enter Dome – the vast, gloomy city sealed under glass for fear of the supposedly unhealthy atmosphere. An independently developed society, highly organised into social “Hages” with uniforms and functions, and hostile to the outsiders. The people, oppressed and fearful, live in bondage to an evil deity and power-grasping, small-minded men.

The depth of the society Lawhead has created is quite stunning. He has invented new words, as the English language has obviously developed further in such a long time. Wearing garments called yoses and living in kraam blocks, the Dome-dwellers fight for stent (prestige) and advance through the levels as they can while trying to please the Hage Directors. Cynetics has become a deity, albeit unreachable, and aging technology has become magic to the simple. And as anyone who has read Lawhead’s other works will know, he does not draw back from describing the awful cruelty of the godless.

In time, Treet comes to hear of the Fieri – a people group that split off from Dome in ages past and went to seek their freedom under the open sky. The creation of just one society was not enough – as the travellers leave to search for the other city, they discover a world so breathtakingly and painfully beautiful that it is scarcely possible to do it justice in a little review like this. You can smell the clear air and feel the power of the huge white sun-star as its rays probe the thin atmosphere, which Treet and his friends learn to breathe while crossing the huge desert between Dome and Fierra.

If Dome is a hell-hole, showing what degenerate mankind is capable of, then Fierra is a society so delightful that we believe the travellers to be in Paradise. Wisdom and kindness rule in the gently glowing city, under the eye of a benevolent deity with many names. Sickness is eradicated, fish can speak, big cats lounge in lush courtyards, and money is an unheard-of concept when there is plenty for all.

The tale is highly spiritual, though never overtly Christian, and we follow the Earthlings as they find peace with themselves and each other. Beholding Fierra is like taking a deep breath of sweet air, or a long draught of freshest water. The God of the Fieri makes himself known in subtle ways and is so intrinsically good that the Christians among us are left in no doubt at all: This is my God, too. When Dome threatens Fierra with a nuclear holocaust, it is this God’s urging within Treet that moves him to act, ultimately saving both societies although losses are incurred.

The beauty Lawhead describes has caused my heart to ache in longing to see it for myself, to know this God. And then I am reminded of the Bible verse in second Timothy four verse eight: "Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day-- and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing." (NIV) What will Heaven really be like? Perhaps it will indeed have similarities with Fierra. Although no direct mention is made of the God of the Bible or of Jesus or of atonement, we can see the change that comes over Treet after his encounter with the deity, and he realises he is no longer alone – someone else is sharing his awareness, supporting him with love and acceptance, and teaching him what he needs to know in a situation becoming more dangerous by the minute.

This, then, has become my own goal in writing Christian sci-fi: To create something so beautiful that it pulls the reader in and changes him somehow, letting him imbibe of the great longing all men feel for their Creator – through the standard novel-writing kitset of characters, landscapes and plots. Simple enough? But not so easy as we would like. In the words of a Fieri teacher, Lawhead gives a bite of wisdom:

"Talent is commendable, for it makes the discipline easier to endure, and the dedication comes more naturally. But talent alone isn't the answer. Talent is raw; it is a beast, wild and untamed. Talent must be mastered; it must be trained so that it can be used with wisdom and purpose. It must be pruned like a tree so it will bear only the best fruit."

Although the characters in this scene are talking about dance artistry, I think it is true for us writers as well! If we follow this advice, perhaps we, too, will be able to aim at fiction's highest goal: to touch people with the heart of God. If we will hone our talent responsibly, then we can give our very best to this noble task. Whether we create whimsical fantasy worlds or sci-fi futures, I am convinced God can speak through it, if we will let him


Stephen Lawhead

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Empyrion: more reviews


vbtenery said...


Wonderful article. Makes me want to read Lawhead novels. Good job!


Andrea Graham said...

Amen, Amen, Grace

Daniel I Weaver said...

Well put, Grace. Lawhead has always been one of my favorite writers and I love your presentation here. It certainly creates the desire to read this particular tome.

Myra said...

Hi Grace. I did read this book a few years ago. Now I want to read it all over again. Thank you for your vivid description and review. I will read it next time with new understanding.
Myra (Auckland, New Zealand)