‘Altered Carbon’ Looks Too Long Into the Abyss

Altered Carbon is an outstanding piece of storytelling, but does the sci-fi drama fail to heed its own warnings?
| Jul 20, 2018 | 3 comments |

Let me begin by saying: Altered Carbon is magnificent!

The story is beautifully melancholy, but for all its darkness, not without hope. It is well-told and gorgeously photographed. The visuals are stunning. The music and sound design are on-point. The characters are fully actualized in their backstories and personalities, and are wonderfully realized by the actors who play them. Allow me a bit of cliche superfluity as I say that Altered Carbon is an artistic television triumph.

So, what’s the problem?

Well, not to be generalized as a conservative prude, the problem, or the question, really, is, “what’s with all the nudity?” Indeed, one cannot look in any meaningful way at the story, the construction of the show, or its messaging without talking about the nudity.

Look, I get it: the show is about, at least in some sense, the body. It asks of the audience, what happens when our lives, lived inside these shells of ours, transcend what we know of as mortality? What happens when we can shed our flesh like a snake sheds its skin? How far can we go before we lose our souls?

To that end, the viewer is practically assaulted with nudity–but not just any nudity. The men are handsome; the women beautiful. We are treated to the visual pleasures of a world in which people are given the ability to be, or have, anything they want. It is sexual exploitation extrapolated to its logical, if far-fetched, conclusion.

Or at least, on the surface that conclusion is far-fetched. It seems to me that one of the messages of the nudity prevalent throughout Altered Carbon is that, perhaps, this exploitative attitude we revile in the Upper Class living in their high rises above the clouds isn’t actually all that far off from where we are now. It invites us to enjoy the view, and then uses that enjoyment to drive home the point that we’re already driving off the cliff, and didn’t even know it.

Altered Carbon

It’s clever, really, but given so many of the other themes present in the series, also a touch ironic. Perhaps even hypocritical (though, as with the nudity, I suppose one could be pedantic enough to suggest that even the hypocrisy is itself part of the point).

Let’s pause here for a minute, and talk about the multi-faceted moral of this story. The thematic elements of Altered Carbon seem to be one part Prometheus, three parts Nietzsche. It’s a lesson in what happens when we fly too close to the sun. It also packs the wallop of “God Is Dead,” and the one-two punch of Nietzche’s second most famous quote: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

The villains of the piece, at least the three main villains, are really the tragic heroes of their own stories. The husband and wife who wanted to truly be together forever, but who, in one character’s words, “ruined each other.” Who wanted to become gods, but became demons. The loving sister whose passion and dependency twisted until she became the very evil that brought her and her brother so close to begin with.

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster.” This is the lesson of Reileen’s story. Be watchful that you do not become that which you wish to destroy. To really drive the point home, the series even presents to us a virus which causes people to do exactly that. “The enemy was us,” says one such character, before succumbing to her wounds. Indeed, if one had to choose, from among the several themes present in the series, it is this one and, let’s face it, it ain’t subtle.

Perhaps this is why the filmmakers’ choice to expose exploitation by becoming exploiters themselves is so… disappointing. Certainly, theirs is a minor exploitation when compared to the blood- and sex-fueled indulgence of the central villains… but it is exploitation, all the same.

The point is well-made. We are becoming commodities, and we are losing our ability to feel. Gratuitous sex and violence is cauterizing an important part of who we are as a people–that place in our souls where we keep our empathy and compassion. We are losing our ability to be shocked as media and current events up the ante more and more each passing year.

Yet, with enough nudity to callous all but the most hormonal of prepubescent boys, and scene after scene of pummelling, brutal ultraviolence, one must wonder whether Altered Carbon is a part of the problem. If, perhaps, in exposing the sins of a world that more and more commonly sees others as disposable, as existing merely for its own pleasure, the series merely succeeds in adding another such sin to the world’s grievous catalogue.

And that’s too bad, really, but it does nicely illustrate the point: Stare too long into the abyss, and it looks back.

Beware, Storyteller, that when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become one.

Six Years of Realm Makers

The author reflects back on what six years of the Realm Makers conference has meant to him.
| Jul 19, 2018 | No comments |

The irony up front of this article is while it will be published Thursday morning during the Realm Makers Conference, I’m writing it before that, before going to the conference. So while this article coincides with the 6th year of RM, it can’t say anything meaningful about this year’s event. Except that it will be in St. Louis, as the first Realm Makers was. And I can also say that I’ve been to all six Realm Makers and will be at this one as well (God willing).

The first Realm Makers was a small event, but I met some amazing people there. Jeff Gerke, Brian Davis, and Kathy Tyers were only the better-known ones. I also met a lot of people I had already been working with on various projects, like Grace Bridges and Kat Heckenbach.  And of course, Becky and Scott Minor–and Ben Wolf.

Through the years I’ve met other people, so many I can’t remember now which Realm Makers I was at when I met them.  I’d start dropping names (Kerry Nietz  and E. Stephen Burnett would be at the top of any such list), but I know I will forget people whom I don’t wish to forget, so maybe it’s better I don’t launch into a massive list after all.

But there’s this weird aspect of meeting people in person at Realm Makers you know from online (which would of course apply to similar conferences as well)–some people are nicer to spend time with than you would ever imagine, some people are actually not as nice as you thought, and some people live up to what you thought was true. This experience is especially poignant at Realm Makers for me, because unlike a number of other attendees, RM is the only writer’s conference of any kind that I’ve ever attended.

Personally, by sheer coincidence, the years of the conferences have coincided with some of the worst years of my life. I imagine I was not always as easy to get along with as what I think of as being my normal, baseline self. It’s nice to be returning to that baseline, so hopefully I can more good impressions than I may have done in the past. (Though I have been making friends each year, I would not say I always acted as well as I should have. If there’s any individual reading this I’ve ever offended at a previous conference–please accept my sincere apologies.)

Professionally, Realm Makers has been a huge part of my life as an author and now a publisher. I’ve done a lot of joint writing projects and a great many of the writers I work with on anthologies and other projects I’ve met at Realm Makers. That includes Lelia Rose Foreman’s Writing Speculative Fiction books and many of the Mythic Orbits story authors, and the Medieval Mars and Victorian Venus books  and Kristin Stieffel’s Tales of the Phoenix book (in that same story universe as MM and VV). All these collaborative projects became possible at least in part as a result of going to this conference for six years in a row.

How I spend my time at the conference has shifted over the years. I’m more interested in mentoring others and hearing pitches for their works, and more interested in networking with other authors and just spending time together, than I am interested in keynote speakers or the educational content of the conference itself. Not that there’s anything wrong with that content–it’s taught me some valuable things. I’ve just found the networking and the planning of new projects to be more personally valuable to me than any content that has been taught.

Will I keep going to this conference, over and over for years to come? I don’t honestly know. I think so, but perhaps over time this will no longer be my one-and-only conference. Perhaps I may attend something with a different approach as to content or audience–or a regional conference.

But even if I also go elsewhere in the future, I’m definitely a Realm Makers alumnus. The conference has shaped my life as a writer and a publisher in a number of ways.

So thank you, Becky, Scott, and Ben. And all others, a host of you, who have contributed to this conference in a meaningful way. I really have appreciated your efforts.

For the general public reading here, what are your thoughts on the Realm Makers Conference? If you’ve attended, what are your favorite aspects? Favorite memories? If you haven’t, do you plan to in the future? Why or why not?


Can We Say …

We’re all happy to set aside debates for the sake of our chosen stories. But should we have a different standard when the debates are centered around Scripture?
| Jul 18, 2018 | 3 comments |

The Nephilim walked into history in Genesis 6:4, which runs, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” The Nephilim are mentioned once more, as the terrifying inhabitants of Canaan (in reality, the ancestors of the prodigiously-sized Anakites; whether they have any connection with such groups as the Rephaites is more than I can say).

The actual importance of the Nephilim, in theology, religion, and the arc of the Bible’s narrative, is slight; their fascination is large. Their close connection to the much-disputed “sons of God” entrenches them in controversy; their association with the outsized denizens of Canaan increases the intrigue. Their name means “fallen ones,” and Nephilim is frequently translated giants, including in such venerable translations as the King James Version, the Geneva Bible, and the Wycliffe Bible. (The Geneva Bible also provides the alternate word tyrants.) Giants, fallen ones, heroes of old, men of renown – wouldn’t you love to know more about them?

One ancient, and still popular, interpretation of the Nephilim – it appears in the Book of Enoch, written before the birth of Christ – holds that they were the children of fallen angels and human women. For obvious reasons, this interpretation is the one that prevails in Christian speculative fiction. It’s not that the writers necessarily believe it, any more than sci-fi writers necessarily believe that it’s possible to go back in time or to travel faster than the speed of light; it’s just that it’s that sort of idea. The idea is acutely uncomfortable. But ideas often are in a genre that takes, for its parents, people like Edgar Allan Poe and the Brothers Grimm.

What sets the Nephilim apart from other ideas is that they are derived from the Bible. Nobody really cares whether it’s possible to go back in time when reading (or writing) time-travel stories. Nobody ever liked Star Wars less because some scientist debunked lightsabers on the grounds that that’s not how lasers work. We’re all happy to set aside debates and, for the sake of our chosen stories, presume what we suspect to be false. But should we have a different standard when the debates are centered around Scripture?

This question goes beyond the Nephilim and, if you care to follow it, wanders into all sorts of nuance. Is it all right to write a novel where the rumor is true and the Apostle John never dies? (This, too, happens in Christian speculative fiction.) Can we say that Daniel founded a school of astrology that eventually trained the Magi, though we know in our hearts that never happened? Can we have time-travelers at the Crucifixion? Can we have the Nephilim after all? Are the answers to all these questions conditional on the details, on what we do with the premise more than what the premise is? Is it simply a matter of staying in the gray and not infringing on the black and white? (For example: We can say the Nephilim were giants or tyrants or angel-human hybrids because that argument has been going on for centuries, but we can’t say they caused the Flood because they didn’t, and if you don’t believe me, read Genesis 6 past verse 4.)

What do you think? What sort of lines have you drawn, in your reading or writing?

Imperfect Characters Inspire Us

Novelist Gillian Bronte Adams: “Imperfect characters are inspiring because they remind us of grace, modeling how to fall and rise again and how to keep on keeping on.”
| Jul 17, 2018 | 5 comments |

Chances are if you went looking for outdoorsy-reader-me as a kid, you would have found me perched in a tree limb with a book in hand. Or walking around the house with my nose in a book. Or sprawled out reading on the back of my oh-so-patient horse, an elderly fellow named Sylvester who we jokingly referred to as “the English Gentleman.”

I read and read and read and drank in heroic stories as if they were water and I was dying of thirst, and somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the characters within. The hobbits who chose to stand up. The Apprentice Pig-Keepers who dreamed of being heroes. The shieldmaidens who stood between those they loved and certain death.

At face value, the character I loved had little in common. Some were male. Some were female. Some were warriors. Some were gardeners (and body-guards). Some were computer geniuses. Some were just ordinary kids thrown into the wildest and craziest sorts of adventures.

This week we feature Gillian Bronte Adams and her novel Orphan’s Song in Lorehaven Book Clubs. Stop by the flagship book club on Facebook to learn more about this story.

Breaking: Subscribe to Lorehaven Magazine for free to download our new summer 2018 issue.

But all of them had strengths and skills all their own.

Honor. Courage. Hope. Love. Indomitable spirit. Intense Loyalty. Sacrifice.

Those were the qualities they exemplified, and so those were the qualities that I—even as a kid—knew that I wanted to have too.

Maybe my Hogwarts letter wasn’t going to show up. Maybe the next wardrobe I opened wouldn’t whisk me to a magical land with talking animals (although that didn’t stop me from trying despite the sad lack of wardrobes in my daily life—closets proved an unexciting substitution). Maybe I wouldn’t show up at summer camp and discover that I was fated to be a hero and fight monsters.

But I could try to be just as brave and fierce and courageous and hopeful in my daily life as my favorite heroes were and maybe that made me just a little bit like them.

Some days, I didn’t feel brave. Some days, I didn’t feel hopeful. Some days, I didn’t feel like sacrificing. And it wasn’t until I got older, that I realized that the same was true of my favorite characters.

Not one of them was perfect.

They were all complex characters with a blend of strengths and weaknesses that ultimately made them seem real and relatable. After all, perfect people don’t exist. So perfect characters shouldn’t either.

Take Sam Gamgee for example. Incredibly loyal. Positively adorable with his down-to-earth nature. Always ready with a sold dose of good hobbit sense. He is willing to sacrifice himself for Frodo every step of the way as he walks to Mordor (See … it can be done, Boromir!) and braves the fires of Mount Doom. This kind of friendship is something that we can all strive to imitate.

And yet, Sam’s attitude toward Gollum (reasonable or not) can be painful to read in the books and especially painful to watch in the movies. Dear, kind, loyal Sam allows his protectiveness toward Frodo to lead him to despise Gollum. He insists on calling him names like “Slinker” and “Stinker,” and it could be argued that Sam’s actions hinder any potential redemption arc for Smeagol.

And yet, I can so relate to Sam’s weaknesses even as I can admire his strength. Because in Sam’s place, I might have done the same.

Nowadays, I don’t just get to read stories about imperfect (but wonderful) characters, I get to write them too. Developing characters is one of my favorite parts of writing because it’s through characters that the connection between readers and a story truly takes place.

Orphan's Song, Gillian Bronte Adams

“A classic medieval fantasy setting populated with archetypes that somehow feel fresh and vigorous.”
Lorehaven Magazine

So when I started writing Orphan’s Song, the first book of The Songkeeper Chronicles, I knew that the characters within would not be perfect, but I hoped that they would be inspiring even in their imperfection.

So Birdie, who begins the story as an orphaned drudge at an inn before she is launched on her wild adventure and wrestles with fear and identity, inspires me to be courageous and to know who I am and whose I am.

Ky Huntyr, who has a stubborn streak as wide as a river and starts off the story as a street-wise thief dodging soldiers to stay alive, inspires me to keep pressing on. Kind of like Captain America standing up after he’s been knocked down again and again. “I could do this all day.” What I wouldn’t give to have that kind of indomitable spirit!

But he also reminds me to be willing to bend and acknowledge that maybe I’m not 100 percent right 100 percent of the time. (Crazy thought, right?)

And Amos McElhenny, the wild-haired, brash-tongued peddler, inspires me to love fiercely and be completely me, no matter how “boggswoggling” odd that might be. Because strength needn’t always be hard and love is not weakness. (But also, Amos’s mishaps remind me that maybe I shouldn’t go around calling people “beswoggled fools.” Unless they really deserve it.)

Joking aside, at the end of the day, imperfect characters are inspiring because they remind us of grace. They model for us how to fall and how to rise again and how to keep on keeping on even as they face the good and bad consequences of their choices. And as they struggle with choices—and sometimes make choices that have negative effects on themselves or on their worlds—I know that I am inspired by their struggle as much as by their victories, because I understand that struggle too.

Who are some characters that have inspired you the most over the years?

“A classic medieval fantasy setting populated with archetypes that somehow feel fresh and vigorous.”
— Lorehaven Magazine

Explore Gillian Bronte Adams’s novel Orphan’s Song in the Lorehaven Library.

Read our full review exclusively from the spring 2018 issue of Lorehaven Magazine!

Wood, Hay, And Straw

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.
| Jul 16, 2018 | 3 comments |

Please bear with me for a few minutes as I try to work something out—the following Bible passage about wood, hay, and straw:

For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. (1 Cor. 3:11-13)

Since I read these verses a few weeks ago, I can’t get them out of my head. What kinds of material am I building with? Are my works those which will last, or will they burn up in God’s testing fire? Particularly, I’m thinking of my work as a writer.

I know many Christian writers like to say that in writing well, we glorify God, no matter if our story is about Christian things, either overtly or covertly. I know many more say, as a Christian, they simply cannot help but write “from a Christian worldview,” even though they don’t set out to do so.

But I tend to think that the gold, silver, and precious stones aren’t accidental works or generic ones that anyone, even a non-Christian, could claim.

To be honest, in the context of 1 Cor. 3, I’m not sure what work Paul actually was referring to—his own as he built up the churches, or the believers’ own works. But He brings up the subject later in the letter, and this time, I don’t think there’s any doubt:

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord. (1 Cor. 15:58)

What qualifies as “work of the Lord”? Evangelism? Edification of the Church? Displaying the fruit of the Spirit?

And how much of my time is dedicated to the “work of the Lord”? These seemed like easier questions when I was teaching in a Christian school, especially with the emphasis on Biblical integration our administration stressed.

But now?

Is my work as an editor for a non-Christian writer, a “work of the Lord”? Oh, some might say, it can be. But in what way? How do I do anything more than give the best editing job I know how to do—which may, but probably won’t, give me opportunity to say anything about my faith?

The actual writing, for me, is easier, because I want to make my fiction a “work of the Lord.” I want to make it possible for readers to be stirred, to see beyond the entertainment to the greater Story. For me, that’s a labor of love.

But is it “necessary”? Is anything short of writing with intention to reveal God in some aspect of His character, wood, hay, and straw? How do we writers judge if we’re laying atop the sure foundation of Jesus Christ that which is imperishable?

Sorry I don’t have any answers to all these questions. All I have is this uncomfortable feeling that I give myself too much credit—that what I think is gold, just might be wood, hay, or straw.

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Announcement: next week we’ll once again hold our Spec Faith Summer Writing Challenge, so carve out a little time in your writing schedule and join in.

Worldbuilding and the ‘Fictional Dream’

While it’s impossible to think through every scientific implication of intergalactic space travel or magical agriculture, worldbuilders should at least pay attention to the things readers will notice—such as rudimentary physics, basic logic, and normal character psychology.
| Jul 13, 2018 | 9 comments |

As a speculative writer thinking about worldbuilding, I’m reminded of one of my favorite shows of all time: Mystery Science Theater 3000. I think it’s the same appeal that draws people to laugh at videos of people falling down—it’s funny to watch, but I also know that it could easily happen to me.

That is, I can laugh along with the Satellite of Love crew at the ineptitude of B-movie directors who can’t seem to avoid glaring plot holes, nonsensical “scientific” explanations, and even monsters with visible puppet strings—all the while knowing that I could fall into similar story-killing traps in the next scene I write.

One of the reasons we love great speculative fiction is that it immerses us in a fantastic world that feels real. And when we’re enjoying a great book, movie, or show, we no longer notice the couch we’re sitting on, the sound of the faucet dripping, or the cat walking on top of us to get our attention. We’re experiencing the story along with the characters in an almost trance-like state—what fiction theorist John Gardner describes as “the fictional dream.”

What keeps bad B-movies from being engaging are all the careless mistakes that disrupt that dream—unmotivated character actions, poorly executed dialogue, unconvincing monsters, and anything else that pulls the audience out of the moment and makes them say, “Hey, wait a minute!”

Unfortunately, these kinds of illusion-killing mistakes are also common for fantasy and science fiction writers—those who have bravely taken on the complex task of inventing a new world from scratch. While it’s impossible to think through every scientific implication of intergalactic space travel or magical agriculture, worldbuilders should at least pay attention to the things readers will notice—such as rudimentary physics, basic logic, and normal character psychology.

Here are some common worldbuilding errors that can shatter the dream experience:

Extreme environments that aren’t well thought-through

I’ll admit, being a fantasy writer has sucked some of the fun out of enjoying pop culture. For example, here’s what happened after watching the famous “Let It Go” sequence from Disney’s Frozen:

Other people: “Oh my goodness, that was fantastic! The artistry! The message! I feel so free and validated!”

Me: “OK … but what does Elsa eat in the ice palace?”

Unexplained ice magic emanating from a Norwegian princess’s hands I can accept as part of the fairy tale. But running off to a barren mountain, making a shelter out of ice, and then expecting to survive there with no access to vegetation or even canned goods? Now I’m distracted from the story.

A writer who creates a speculative world with unusual settings needs to think through physical realities, even if they’re never overtly explained. This is vital in extreme environments such as lava planets, space stations, or dystopian versions of Earth with dramatically different climates. These are all great settings in theory and can work well. But if the writer can’t explain where people grow food or where they go to the bathroom, they’ve failed worldbuilding on a basic level.

An inhospitable environment can be used in speculative fiction, of course, with a bit of creative problem solving. For example, Foundation by Isaac Asimov starts out on Trantor, the capital of the Galactic Empire, a planet that is 100% urbanized. Where can a planet of metal and asphalt grow enough food to support its population of 45 billion? Essentially it can’t. Trantor has to depend on agricultural imports from the planets they rule over. If this sounds like a precarious political arrangement, it is, and now things are getting interesting.

No societal implications for magic or technology

If you’ve created a world with a game-changing discovery or pervasive magical power, one of your first jobs is to figure out all the irritating and mundane ways people would ruin it for everyone.

For example, if a scientific lab announced that they had discovered a method for practical, affordable teleportation, here are the first two things that would happen:

#1. Someone would demonstrate it on TV/the Internet/the Hive Mind/etc. A genius in a lab coat would give an impassioned speech about how much better the world will now be, all the ways we will save on transportation energy, connect families across the globe, and so forth. It will be a crowning achievement of mankind and very inspiring.

#2. A common criminal would steal the technology, transport themselves into a bank vault, and rob thousands of people blind. Bootleg versions of teleporters would quickly hit the black market. Pandemonium would ensue as security systems are now essentially useless. No one would be safe. Panic. Chaos. The government would step in and create a stringent military state. And someone in a lab coat will lament, “This is why humanity can’t have nice things.”

The point is, you can’t introduce cheap teleportation to society and not have issues with theft and espionage and murder. You can’t give people time travel and not expect everyone to go back and steal Cleopatra’s jewelry or try to kill Hitler.

The writer has to think through likely societal implications and then either embrace the chaos, or else create logical guidelines why this wouldn’t happen. Maybe the knowledge is limited to a select few, and the creators have to guard it from falling into the wrong hands. Or maybe the power is only available to those with special ability or rare magical tools.

Vaguely motivated conflicts

Why is the Dark Nation trying to destroy all that is good and beautiful in the Happy Valley? Well, because they’re evil, that’s why! And that’s what evil people do! They hate flowers and clean water and simple folk, and they love coal dust and terror.

The problem with this common fictional scenario is that first, it’s overused, and second, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sure, there may be sadists and psychopathic individuals who enjoy evil for its own sake, but it’s unlikely that a whole people group will buy into it.

Think about it: most of us want to consider ourselves good—or at least brave or proactive or strong—and we create several layers of justification to prove to ourselves that we are not bad people. (And if we are mean, we’re only mean to people who have it coming anyway!)

For that reason, much of evil group behavior is motivated by goals that sound noble: progress; purity; heritage; revenge for a legitimate past wrong; what’s only fair. The problem surfaces when these virtues, real or imagined, take precedence over morality and ethical treatment of others. The subtler the swap is, the more people will fall for it. Fear of authority can also motivate people to go along with evil behavior or at least turn a blind eye to abuses. And once someone’s gotten in too far and realized they’ve crossed a moral line, they may be unwilling to admit it and turn back.

A villain group should have an understandable perspective—probably not enough to excuse their cruelty or war crimes, but something we can at least grasp. Maybe it’s even something we can relate to in an uncomfortable way, forcing us to re-examine our own viewpoints.

Don’t underestimate the power of a well-told story

If all of these pitfalls make worldbuilding sound too complicated, take heart: the point is not to create a world that actually could be real, but one that feels real in the context of excellent storytelling.

For example, the Harry Potter universe definitely feels very real to millions of fans across the globe. But even J.K. Rowling has let slip some inconsistencies that make you scratch your head if you think about them—such as how can the entire wizarding community function when everyone has only a fifth-grade education in mathematics, writing, and other Muggle subjects? Are there really enough jobs at the Ministry of Magic and whimsical broom shops for all those Hogwarts graduates? And why would they give the ability to time-travel to a thirteen-year-old girl but never use it again?

But you never really ask these questions during the course of the novels, because Rowling is such a good storyteller that these more technical questions never occur to you. We are fully engaged in the moment, and the dream stays intact.

A writer doesn’t have to be perfect in their worldbuilding, just careful. If the rest of the world is well-developed and the plot is compelling enough, it hides the occasional (and unavoidable) gaps. The audience stays solidly within the dream that the writer weaves, never noticing that in a few places, if you pull back the curtain, you can see the puppet-strings.

Main photo courtesy of David Marcu. Ice photo courtesy of Sergey Pesterev.


Emily Golus has been dreaming up worlds since before she could write her name. A New England transplant now living in the Deep South, Golus is fascinated by culture and the way it shapes how individuals see the world around them. Her fantasy works are filled with diverse and complex people who are unwillingly united in times of great danger.

Golus aims to write stories that engage, inspire, and reassure readers that the small choices of everyday life matter. In addition to her first two fantasy novels, Escape to Vindor (winner of the 2018 Selah Award) and its upcoming sequel, she writes about world-building and what it truly means to be a storymaker. Explore her fantasy creations at WorldofVindor.com, and read her blog at EmilyGolusBooks.com.

You can also find her on Instagram and on Facebook. In addition, you can read an introduction and excerpt to Golus’s award-winning debut novel, Escape to Vindor, posted in an earlier Spec Faith Fiction Friday article.

Why Does ‘I Can Only Imagine’ Back Away from Redemption?

Does the movie I Can Only Imagine cut redemption short by not fully portraying evil? Do other Christian stories also cheat redemption in the same way?
| Jul 12, 2018 | 16 comments |

This article’s title is intended to draw you in, but I really mean it. Why did the recent Christian film I Can Only Imagine (a few details about the movie are below) pull short of showing redemption as fully as it could have done? Does that demonstrate something is wrong with Christian audiences? Is it a shortcoming of Christian stories in general–do we see it in speculative stories as well, like in the film version of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader?

By “back away from redemption” I mean something specific. An online dictionary (Mirriam-Webster) has three main definitions of redemption. The second is about property (so we can skip it for this conversation), but the first says, “the act of making something better or more acceptable.” While the third definition is, “Christianity: the act of saving people from sin and evil.”

Note the third definition requires sin and evil. Without evil, there isn’t any real redemption from evil.

I would say that I Can Only Imagine wound up trading “the act of saving people from sin and evil” for “the act of making something better or more acceptable.” Not entirely, but to a certain degree. In other words, to a certain degree, it traded Christian redemption for a more secular kind.

This was not my first reaction to I Can Only Imagine, by the way.  Though the movie has some of the corniness typical of Christian films, I was moved by the basic story of a son separated from his father and rebuilding that relationship with him, of a father turning to God, and a song partially inspired by that relationship. Though part of the reason that story resonated with me so strongly is my father drank. My father beat me severely only once, but he was recklessly dangerous for a child to be around apart from anything he did directly (I lost a finger as a child under his supposed supervision of wood cutting). He also was often absent while my parents were married and after their divorce, years would pass by without me hearing from him.

I saw God through a variety of circumstances change my father’s life, so that he no longer is an alcoholic, no longer is absent and dangerous–who married another woman and has had another child and has been a good, responsible husband and father. These are changes I prayed for, for decades, and saw them happen. So, seeing Arthur, the father in I Can Only Imagine (played by Dennis Quaid) change also–well, at first it struck me in a powerful way.

I saw the movie a second time in Mexico with my wife’s parents (dubbed into Spanish). It was only as the church I attend decided to show the movie at a Sunday Evening service, me watching the movie for a third time, that I noticed something was wrong with the storytelling in relation to redemption.

Yes, I’m aware that I Can Only Imagine is based on true events, but even in telling a true story, the screen writer and director choose what material to include and what to omit. What they choose to include is what I’m talking about.

So the story records the subject of the story, Bart, telling people his father was monstrous. But what did the movie show in terms of his evil? It showed him burning a paper spaceship his son built. It showed some yelling (especially yelling, “you’re not good enough”), some glaring, and one swing of a plate onto Bart’s head.

Arthur, unrepentant but regretful.

In a scene in which Bart says to his father (Arthur), “Do you remember the time you beat me so bad I had to lie on my stomach?” Arthur replies, “I cried all night when I did that.” Why did the story choose to have him say that? Even if the real father said those words at that moment (which may not have happened at all), I would have omitted it at that point in the story if I were the director, in order to heighten the contrast between who Arthur used to be and the redemption that came upon him after coming to Christ.

I probably would have also shown Arthur beating his son rather than having it referred to in the story.

Now I recognize that showing a father beating his son mercilessly would have possibly ruined the family-friendly status of I Can Only Imagine. Maybe it would have to have caused the movie to have been rated R, especially if they included the kind of language that Arthur probably actually used (which ironically perhaps, I would have been more reluctant to show than a beating). And the movie would have become traumatic to people sensitive to screen violence. So…I totally get why the filmmakers chose to steer away from that kind of controversy.

But why have Arthur say, “I cried all night”?


I find a similar situation exists in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie (a movie with many problems beyond what I’m mentioning here, to be sure). In the book version of Dawn Treader, Eustace is an annoying pest. But he’s also evil–he’s a bully, eager to hurt and humiliate anyone he sees as weaker than himself. And he’s a self-centered egoist, willing to take rations from others and let them suffer in the belief he was more deserving than everyone else.  It’s a judgment of the acting and character portrayal, but I would say the film version of Eustace only managed to be annoying. Not evil.


Perhaps that was an accident. Or perhaps the director softened Eustace deliberately, to make it easier for us to accept him as a regular person later on in the film.

Because that’s how human beings tend to be, isn’t it? We find it easier to accept a person changing for the better if we see there was good there all the time, don’t we? Redemption for a certain level of sin we are OK with, but if you show a stronger version of evil, we tend to balk. That is, at least some of my fellow human beings react that way–not all of us do. (I, myself, actually don’t think I belong to the “we” in the first two sentences of this paragraph.)

Could it be we have a hard time accepting the miracle of redemption?

Could it be that Christian audiences are like Bart in I Can Only Imagine, who distrusted his father’s sudden change? Could it be we are actually more tolerant of “the act of making something better or more acceptable” than we are of “the act of saving people from sin and evil”?

I don’t actually know. But maybe.

If I were to make a recommendation, it would be that if we’re going to tell stories of redemption, we should not back away from showing those to be redeemed as in sin first, showing them as actually being evil in an unflinching way before they hit their big change. Because backing away from showing evil makes the redemption weaker.

What are your thoughts?



The Bible as Horror

Novelist Mike Duran: “At its heart, the Greatest Story Ever Told is, in part, a horror story.”
| Jul 10, 2018 | 44 comments |

One argument for the compatibility of the horror genre with a Christian worldview is the amount of horror tropes which find their genesis in Holy Writ.

At its heart, the Greatest Story Ever Told is, in part, a horror story.

This is not meant to suggest that the message of Scripture is primarily one of dread, but that the Bible contains more than enough references to terror and the horrific to, at least, call into question its classification as “family friendly” fare.

There are many instances of biblical horror—Scriptural themes, events, people and stories that could easily fall under the horror genre. Perhaps the greatest example of biblical horror is the single act that uniquely defines the Christian faith—the crucifixion of Christ.

This week we feature Mike Duran and his novel Saint Death in Lorehaven Book Clubs. Stop by the flagship book club on Facebook to learn more about this story.

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In our age, the crucifix symbol has been glamorized and sanitized; it is brandished by rock stars and imprinted upon bumper stickers and T-shirts. Nevertheless, the cross was a horror in its time, a symbol of disgrace, shame, and torture.

Many have illustrated the gruesome medical details concerning the practice of crucifixion. In The Horror of Roman Crucifixion, Stephen M. Miller frames the process like that of “butchering an animal.” Likewise, the terminology used to describe the Messiah in Scripture is arresting—He “bore our suffering,” was “punished by God,” “stricken” and “afflicted,” “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5). The apostle Paul summarized what transpired on the cross this way:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.1

Two important biblical doctrines intersect at the cross of Christ and His redemptive work. Both of these doctrines comprise what could be considered to involve horror or the grotesque: The Fall of Man and The Substitutionary Atonement. These powerful biblical doctrines are wedded at the cross.

“. . . A gritty angels-and-demons yarn with astronomical stakes.”
— Lorehaven Magazine

Man’s sinful estate and all of its subsequent fruits were judged at the cross of Christ where “him who had no sin [was made] to be sin for us.” So great was this pouring out of wrath upon the Son that He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Christ, who often claimed to be in perfect union with the Father (John 10:30), was abandoned at the cross. It is impossible for us to comprehend the anguish, suffering, and despair Jesus must have experienced. The substitutionary atonement of Christ may in fact be the most horrific concept in all of Scripture. Not only does it speak to our moral and spiritual fallenness, it places the consequences and weight of that Fall upon a sinlessly perfect God.

The themes of fallenness, sin, and judgment are axiomatic in Scripture. Not only does the Bible not shy away from showing us the sin and utter depravities of man, even the greatest of Bible heroes are not exempt from its claim. Furthermore, there are unflinching depictions of judgment upon sin in Scripture. The Flood of Noah, the plagues of Egypt, the Canaanite extermination, Sodom and Gomorrah, Ananius and Saphira, the Great White Throne judgment, the fiery return of Christ to judge the nations, and hell itself are terrible glimpses of a holy God’s divine right to wield the gavel.

Closely aligned to this is a belief in real evil and real evil beings. Relativism suggests that knowledge, truth, and morality are not absolute but exist only in relation to culture, society, or historical context. However, it is the belief in real existential evil, as opposed to something that is simply a social construct or a perceived threat, which is so important to a compelling expression of horror.

Pazuzu, the demon that possessed Regan in The Exorcist, was not just portrayed as a figment of her mother’s imagination or a socio-cultural concoction. Nor was the entity just a threat to the girl. Pazuzu was the personification of Evil, an opponent of all that was Good, True, and Holy. The demon was portrayed as real, which demanded an equally real God to evict it.

Likewise, supernatural agents such as angels, Satan, and demons are portrayed as unapologetically real in Scripture. Of course, many faiths have detailed beliefs in good and evil spirits of various sorts. Nevertheless, the Bible is foremost in describing a hierarchy of invisible beings, both good and evil, who interact with our world, serving God or resisting His aims. This worldview is an integral component of both the religious traditions of the Western world and much of the horror genre.

Similarly, evil spiritual entities are also a mainstay in contemporary horror. Whether it is an angry poltergeist, a demonic legion, or Satan himself, the basic idea of an invisible realm that impinges upon ours and wars against us, seeking manifestation or control, is uniquely tethered to the worldview of Scripture. Not only do fallen angels personify the defamation of what is holy, they are reminders of Man’s ultimate adversary.

Though relatively rare and obscured in the Old Testament, the devil and his minions make regular appearances in the New Testament. Jesus’ ministry began immediately after He was tempted by the devil in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). This is followed by numerous stories of Christ casting demons out of the sick or mad. Perhaps the most famous of these is the encounter with the Gadarene man who lived among the tombs possessed by multiple demons who called themselves Legion (Mark 5:1-17). In all of these cases, Jesus treated Satan and his demons as real beings, neither myths, local superstitions, nor purely psychological disorders.

Likewise, the New Testament writers saw the devil as a very real adversary. The apostle Paul described the Christian life as a struggle against “spiritual forces of evil” (Eph. 6:12) while the apostle Peter suggested that Christians must be ever vigilant of the devil’s schemes:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.2

Obviously, the writers of the New Testament saw the devil as a very real adversary and warned of very real consequences to spiritual sloth or immorality.

Perhaps the most horrific universal biblical archetype is that of a literal hell.

Those who emphasize Jesus’ message of love often neglect to mention that He spoke about hell more than any other single Bible figure. Though there are differing perspectives amongst believers about the exact nature of hell, i.e., annihilation or eternal conscious torment, Scripture is fairly clear about its existence and essence. For instance, in The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31-46), Jesus concludes with this pronouncement upon the wicked:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’”3

The fire is “eternal” and, apparently, some portion of the human race end up there. Explaining the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-23), Jesus said,

As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.4

Thus, the “end of the age” is portrayed as a sifting, a weeding out of evil, in which souls are thrown into a “blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Whether or not hell is actually a literal, eternal reality, the Bible is clear about several things: Hell is the worst possible end for a human being, the most horrific possible conclusion to one’s life, and something to be rigorously avoided.

While the Bible is often referred to as The Good Book, within its pages are some truly bad, disturbing, awful things—depravity, judgment, the crucifixion, angels, demons, and hell. In many ways, The Greatest Story Ever Told is a horror story.

“. . . A gritty angels-and-demons yarn with astronomical stakes.”
— Lorehaven Magazine

Explore Mike Duran’s novel Saint Death in the Lorehaven Library.

Read our full review exclusively from the spring 2018 issue of Lorehaven Magazine!

  1. 2 Corinthians 5:21.
  2. 1 Peter 5:8.
  3. Matthew 25:41.
  4. Matthew 13:40-42.

For Writers: The Spiritual Element

So whether it’s overt or subtle, there has to be reflection of something greater for a story to resonate as true. It may take the form of direct allegorical elements or a subtle symbolic thread, but in capturing some element of spiritual truth, our stories will gain impact.
| Jul 9, 2018 | 1 comment |

[“The Spiritual Element” is a reprise of a guest article by Sarah Sawyer featured here in July 2011, and which remains as pertinent and relevant today as it was then. ~ RLM]

_____X X X X X_____

I read with interest a recent conversation on the Enchanted Inkpot regarding religion in fantasy novels. Most of the participants in the discussion were not Christians, therefore their responses gave a broader view than often seen in these sorts of faith in fantasy discussions. Several points in particular were relevant to Christian writers of speculative fiction, which I’ll recap here for conversation purposes.

The article offered an even-handed portrayal of religion in fantasy novels and the reasons you may or may not want to include it.

Possible advantages:

  • Enhance richness of setting
  • Add tension to plot
  • Flesh out motivations of a character

Possible disadvantages:

  • May not be relevant to a particular story
  • May cause controversy
  • May be prevented by the author’s personal beliefs

But in the comments, things really became interesting. Several common threads cropped up:

  • People enjoy creating and reading about fictional religions (often ones that blend elements of real world faiths and mythologies)
  • Some have had negative experiences with religious expression in speculative fiction, namely with preachiness (specifically mentioned in connection with Christianity), Christian themes, or the portrayal of monotheistic religions as uniformly bad.

Despite the variety of opinions shared and the distaste of some for Christian themes, almost every commenter placed a value on faith and its inclusion in fantasy tales. Why? Because everyone believes something about the supernatural. That’s equally true of individuals in an invented fantasy world or a far-future civilization as it is of people in our own world. Neglecting the spiritual element doesn’t enhance the realism or decrease the preachiness of the story, rather it leaves out a significant component that shapes the attitudes and actions of characters in a given culture — and indeed, shapes the world itself.

In a discussion of imagination and world creation, CS Lewis aptly stated that “no merely physical strangeness or merely spatial distance will realize that idea of otherness which we are always trying to grasp in a story about voyaging through space: you must go into another dimension. To construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw on the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.”

So whether it’s overt or subtle, there has to be reflection of something greater for a story to resonate as true. It may take the form of direct allegorical elements or a subtle symbolic thread, but in capturing some element of spiritual truth, our stories will gain impact.

Yes, Christian writers face prejudice at times. There’s an interpretation (sometimes rightfully so) of Christian works as preachy, and there certainly seems to be a more favorable view toward the depiction of fictional faiths that spring from no greater reality than the mind of their inventor, fusing together bits and pieces of mythology, legend, and obscure spiritual beliefs.

Yet rather than taking this to mean any hint of our worldview should be expunged from our works, I take it as a challenge to craft something so compelling that even those that might normally be repelled by any Christian element would want to read it. To truly engage readers, we must craft the spiritual elements of our stories with as much care as plot and character.

We may end up with stories like Tolkien’s that only reveal a spiritual framework when viewed as a whole or tales like Lewis’s that contain more obvious suppositions. Either way, the faith element should dynamically connect with the story in a way that enriches setting, enhances character, and strengthens plot, a seamless fusion without which the story would fail to function. Can you imagine Middle Earth without Gandalf? Or Narnia without Aslan? The spiritual underpinnings of these books make the stories function at their highest and best…and that’s what we should all aspire to achieve.

_____X X X X X_____

Sarah Sawyer loves creating other worlds and exploring what they can reveal about our own. Her passion for story led naturally to novel writing, and her love of the imaginative to fantasy.

Sarah has served as a Carol Awards judge and a book reviewer, and she works to promote Christian speculative fiction wherever she can.

Are Talking Animals Biblical?

Wilbur, Peter Rabbit, Eeyore, Aslan—talking animals pervade children’s literature, but are they biblical?
| Jul 6, 2018 | 27 comments |

Wilbur the pig from Charlotte’s Web.

Peter Rabbit.


Bree from C. S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, and even Aslan the Great Lion himself.

Talking animals are as pervasive in children’s literature as orphans.

I know I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of my pets talking to me (You mean, you really hate that brand new toy I just bought you? You want what for dinner?) Maybe it’s a dream for all animal loving children, but for some of us the desire to read about talking animals never leaves, even when we’re adults. Am I the only one who wishes that for just one day of the year I could hear what my dog is really thinking?

This week we feature C. J. Darlington and her novel Alison Henry and the Creatures of Torone in Lorehaven Book Clubs. Stop by the flagship book club on Facebook to learn more about this story.

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But just like the debate of whether swords and sorcery should be included in novels written by Christians, some could make a case against those talking beasts. After all, God didn’t make my dog with a tongue that can speak.

Or did he?

Have you ever wondered if maybe, just maybe, animals could speak to humans before the fall of man? What if this gift of speech was lost in the same breath as our gift of living forever in these flesh and blood bodies?

Is it a crazy idea? Heresy? Or is it just plain wishful thinking? Maybe it’s all three. But there are two Biblical accounts that make me wonder.

Think about this: Eve heard a serpent speak in the Garden of Eden, but did she seem at all surprised? Did she question her sanity and ignore the crazy snake or run away and chalk it up to a little too much time in the sun? Nope. What did she do? She started a conversation with the animal as if it was an everyday occurrence.

Alison Henry and the Creatures of Torone, C. J. Darlington

“Familiar but satisfying, and female heroes lend a modern flair . . . good comfort food for people who dream of other realms.” — Lorehaven Magazine

What about Balaam? Here’s a guy who’s minding his own business, riding down the road with the top down on his donkey when all of the sudden said ride scrapes his foot against the guard rail. We all know the story, right? Mr. Balaam has a little road rage incident, grabs the nearest branch, and gets ready to take out his fury on that innocent beast of burden. So the donkey tells him off.

Does Balaam act even a little surprised the animal talks? Nope. He too begins a conversation with the beast as if it’s the most ordinary thing in the world to have a discussion about ethics with your donkey!

I know, I know. The Bible doesn’t explicitly say animals could talk before the fall, or any time for that matter. It also doesn’t tell us there are eight planets orbiting the sun. (Maybe it if did poor Pluto wouldn’t have been so disgraced.) I’m certainly not looking to create a new doctrine or hoping my pup named Shiny (that’s not a typo) will finally be able to tell me whether his name embarrasses him.

But this is why I didn’t shy away from including talking animals in my fantasy novel Alison Henry and the Creatures of Torone. In fact, one of the central themes of the book deals with the loss of communication between the creatures and the humans. Something or someone must bridge the gap. Enter Alison Henry, a normal girl from our normal world who finds herself in the land of Torone where she’s the only one who can hear the animals speak. It’s an adventure even an imaginative girl like her has a hard time grasping.

Here’s the thing. Whether God intended for animals to speak in our world or not, sometimes we just need to listen a little harder. Maybe I’ll never hear my pets verbally espouse the virtues of milk bones, but that doesn’t mean I can’t look into their eyes and see real love. Or feel it in my own heart toward them. That’s a theme that can benefit every story, don’t you think?

Oh. Did I mention that in Torone, dogs can fly? Wonder what the Bible would say about that!

“Familiar but satisfying, and female heroes lend a modern flair . . . good comfort food for people who dream of other realms.”
— Lorehaven Magazine

Explore C. J. Darlington’s novel Alison Henry and the Creatures of Torone in the Lorehaven Library.

Read our full review exclusively from the spring 2018 issue of Lorehaven Magazine!