Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Speculative fiction books with Buddhist themes:
I cobbled together this list from a forum discussion saved on Reddit and Wikipedia.
Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light: (1967) Buddha (Sam) battles the Hindi pantheon in a future where humans use their technology to assume the role of gods and rulers. Lord of Light (1967) was awarded the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and nominated for a Nebula Award in the same category. Two chapters from the novel were published as novelettes in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1967.
The context of the novel – modern western characters in a Hindu-Buddhist-infused world – is reflected in the book’s opening lines:
“His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god.”
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt is more of and alt-history about a world in which western Europe and Christianity is wiped out by the Black Plague and the world is dominated by the other three world religions: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism.
Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (1989) has a buddhist AI. Hyperion is a Hugo Award-winning science fiction novel by American writer Dan Simmons. It is the first book of his Hyperion Cantos. The plot of the novel features multiple time-lines and characters. This book is succeeded by the 1990 science fiction novel The Fall of Hyperion.
The Long Earth has Buddhist themes. The book deals primarily with the journey of Joshua Valienté (a natural ‘Stepper’) and Lobsang, who claims to be a Tibetan motorcycle repairman reincarnated as an artificial intelligence. The two chart a course to learn as much as possible about the parallel worlds, travelling millions of steps away from the original Earth. They encounter evidence of other humanoid species (referred to as trolls and elves); of human settlers who learned their gifts early – including Sally Linsay, daughter of the inventor of the stepper, who joins them on their expedition; and of an extinct race of bipedal dinosaur descendants. They also encounter warning signs of a great danger, millions of worlds away from ‘our’ Earth, causing catastrophe as it moves. The book also deals with the effects of the explosion of available space on the people of Datum Earth and the new colonies and political movements that are spreading in the wake of Step Day.
Author Viktor Pelevin. All of his books have Buddhist elements, although they’re far from your typical scifi. It’s the most obvious in Buddha’s Little Finger, but The Life of Insects is a favorite.
Victor Olegovich Pelevin (Russian, born 1962) is a Russian fiction writer, the author of novels Omon Ra, Chapayev and Void and Generation P. His books are multi-layered postmodernist texts fusing elements of pop culture and esoteric philosophies while carrying conventions of the science fiction genre.
Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is very philosophical and my favorite book of all time. The story focuses on a human raised on Mars and his adaptation to, and understanding of, humans and their culture. It is set in a post-third world war United States where organized religions are politically powerful. There is a World Federation of Free Nations, including the demilitarized U.S., with a world government supported by Special Service troops.
A central element of the second half of the novel is the religious movement founded by Smith, the “Church of All Worlds”, an initiatory mystery religion blending elements of paganism and revivalism with psychic training and instruction in the Martian language. In 1968, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart (then Tim Zell) founded the Church of All Worlds, a Neopagan religious organization modeled in many ways after the fictional organization in the novel. This spiritual path included several ideas from the book, including polyamory, non-mainstream family structures, social libertarianism, water-sharing rituals, an acceptance of all religious paths by a single tradition, and the use of several terms such as “grok”, “Thou art God”, and “Never Thirst”. Though Heinlein was neither a member nor a promoter of the Church, it was formed including frequent correspondence between Zell and Heinlein, and he was a paid subscriber to their magazine Green Egg. This Church still exists as a 501(c)(3) recognized religious organization incorporated in California, with membership worldwide, and it remains an active part of the neopagan community today.
Ramez Naam’s Nexus Trilogy has Buddhist themes. The Nexus Trilogy is a cyberpunk thriller novel trilogy written by American author Ramez Naam and published between 2012-2015. The novel series follows the protagonist Kaden Lane, a scientist who works on an experimental nano-drug, Nexus, which allows the brain to be programmed and networked, connecting human minds together. As he pursues his work, he becomes entangled in government and corporate intrigue. The story takes place in the year 2040.
John Burdett, author of Bangkok 8, (born 24 July 1951) is a British crime novelist. He is the bestselling author of Bangkok 8 and its sequels, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts,The Godfather of Kathmandu, and Vulture Peak. His most recent novel in this series, The Bangkok Asset, was published on 4 August 2015. The Bangkok series and related novels are crime noir novels, not science fiction. But they are set in Buddhist cultures with Buddhist themes.
Aronofsky’s The Fountain
The Fountain is a 2006 American epic drama film that blends elements of fantasy, history, spirituality, and science fiction. It is directed by Darren Aronofsky, and stars Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. The film consists of three story lines, in which Jackman and Weisz play different sets of characters who may or may not be the same two people: a modern-day scientist and his cancer-stricken wife, a conquistador and his queen, and a space traveler in the future who hallucinates his lost love. The story lines—interwoven with use of match cuts and recurring visual motifs—reflect the themes of love and mortality.