Where Do You Find Your Speculative Fiction?

This post is really my effort to understand the state of speculative Christian fiction as it stands today. Any thoughts you care to share would be greatly appreciated.
| Jun 18, 2018 | 11 comments |

Last week when I invited commenters to list Christian books in the speculative genre that they would add to the number I had mentioned, we received a grand total of . . . one. One. So I started wondering, are we still reading? Are we reading Christian fiction? Are we reading general fiction? Are we reading independently published books or those published by small presses?

If the latter, all the more important that we tell each other about the good books we’ve found. Traditional publishing has a number of ways of getting the word out about the books they put out. Small presses and individual authors have less resources and fewer options.

And the truth is, with the number of books available now, there really is no way to read them all. I’m a member of a Facebook group for speculative authors (actually more than one, but in this case, I’m thinking of one in particular), and I’ll be frank: though I know many of those authors, there really is no way I can read all their books. I’ve bought some, but the number I can actually read is not large. Still, I would expect some of those names to appear on a list of good books you’d recommend to others.

That wasn’t the case.

I understand some people simply prefer books put out by the general market. I’ve bought some of those, too. I mean, I totally get why people love Brandon Sanderson. His writing is fresh, intriguing, innovative.

I also understand that there are a lot of speculative story options on TV or movies, including Netflix. From horror to fantasy to science fiction, and all of the permutations of those genres, it seems like some venue is showing the stories that land in the speculative fiction lover’s wheelhouse.

But I have to come back to the Christian part of the equation. Some 15 years ago, I insisted that there was a market for Christian speculative fiction, if we would only produce it. Now I’m starting to wonder. Was I wrong? Did we Christian speculative fiction writers miss the window of opportunity? Or are people actually reading but not writing reviews, not telling others about the best books? Or have our writing skills not caught up to our storytelling skills, so that “best books” are elusive?

I wish I had some definitive answers here. But I’m honestly at a loss to know why, when prompted to share with others the books we love, we don’t have Christian speculative fiction titles to pass along. So I guess, this post is really my effort to understand the state of speculative Christian fiction as it stands today. Any thoughts you care to share would be greatly appreciated.

Plus, if you could help me out by participating in this poll, I’d really appreciate it.

Blood and Guts

I’ve enjoy plenty of creepy and ghoulish tales, and I know that everyone has different tolerances and sensitivities. But when I see some of the descriptions and covers of these insanely brutal stories and films, they can look positively nauseous.
| Jun 15, 2018 | 2 comments |

Let’s be honest about something: we all have questionable tastes. Whether it’s music, movies, food, or fashion, something that we enjoy would make most people turn up their noses. I’ll use myself as an example. I absolutely love Michael Bay movies. I also have a soft spot for rapcore and nu metal. My fashion sense, if it could be called that, is stuck squarely in the 1990s. And I’m old enough now that I don’t care at all.

Let me be honest about something else: as a creative person, I am connected with many other creative types on social media. Yet hardly a day goes by when I don’t come across something that makes me think, “Ugh! How can you like that?” This thought often enters my mind when I see something related to the extreme side of the horror genre, such as torture porn, splatterpunk, cannibal horror, etc.

I’m not dissing the horror genre as a whole. I’ve enjoyed plenty of creepy and ghoulish tales, and I know that everyone has different tolerances and sensitivities. But when I see some of the descriptions and covers of these insanely brutal stories and films, they can look positively nauseous. I haven’t read any books that would be considered “splatter” but I would say that American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis contains several passages that dive headlong into the gruesome pool (and make the movie look tame by comparison).

Now you might be saying, “Well Mark, look at the books you’ve written.” Yes, my books often contain quite a bit of graphic content. My first trilogy, set in a world where Satanism has replaced Christianity, contains numerous scenes of theatrical and eye-popping violence. I will contend that my medieval plague epic, Nikolai the Penitent, is one of the most graphic Christian fiction books in recent decades. My imagination has always been excited by fictionalized violence, which is also why I am drawn to action movies and heavy metal music. So even though I am shocked by how some people can be entertained by the horrors of torture porn and splatter stories, I can empathize at least on some level.

But something’s been changing within me recently. I’ve become more diligent in my walk with the Lord, spending more time in His word and prayer and trying to be more intentional about witnessing. And as I am trying to align my heart and my mind with God’s, I find myself less drawn to these forms of entertainment. I still enjoy a cheesy action movie and I still headbang to a solid metal riff, but I feel disturbed if the violence is sadistic or the lyrics are aggressive. I’ve never been an angry person so horror movies and metal music were never a means of escape or mental catharsis for me, but the power and aggression were captivating.

Not so much these days. This is also reflected in my own writing. Many of you know that I’m taking some time off from writing as “Mark Carver” in order to write contemporary Christian Western books under a pen name. It was only meant to be just a short break to let my imagination recharge, but when I look back at some of my old books, I don’t know if I can write like that again. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not ashamed of anything that I’ve written. Yes, I have some shocking material, but it is all firmly under the banner of Christian fiction, even if some people don’t see how that’s possible. However, I won’t deny that a part of me took perverse delight in writing those horrific scenes, just like many people get a kick out of a particularly “cool” kill in a movie, or how others enjoy watching helpless victims get fictitiously but realistically tortured on screen or in a book.

So does this mean I’m getting soft? Legalistic? Boring? No. As I said, I’m proud of my books, even if they are a little messed up. I’ve just noticed a direct correlation between my walk with God and my entertainment and creative inclinations, and this is why I can look at people who revel in stomach-churning horror and see that what they need is prayer. This is also why books that are both Christian and horrifying are still necessary because they can be a way to reach out to unbelievers who otherwise wouldn’t pick up a Christian book. But if you are a believer, I would encourage you to pray about what entertainment you enjoy. Listen to your conscience, because that is the voice of the Holy Spirit within you.

Personally, I’ve started enjoying bluegrass and Southern gospel along with my heavy metal. Want to fight about it?

The Car-Universe Without A Motor, part 9: Boltzmann Brain Matrix

The multiverse + anthropic principle blows itself up. It doesn’t give us the universe we see, because starting with randomness leads to Bolztmann brains, to a self-generated Matrix.

This post talks about Boltzmann brains, which are an interesting, self-generating version of the Matrix. Which also throw a wrench in a number of common ideas about a random, self-generating universe.

Before we return to Boltzmann brains, let me mention the analogy of a car going uphill or downhill that launched this series. Said analogy rather breaks down when we start talking multiverses as I did in the last post–which at best would be something like the entire track for the car to travel reproducing itself a near-infinite number of times until a car by random forces alone had enough momentum to go up all hills in its path by inertia alone (even if that had it doing the equivalent of moving faster than the speed of sound).

Since talking about the multiverse isn’t very helpful in that analogy, I departed from it and talked about the multiverse on its own. Note that it was important to talk about the multiverse, because that plus the anthropic principle mentioned last week are how most cosmologists argue that it’s not significant that the origin of the universe as they discuss it calls for very extremely improbable events. So what if it does–they in effect say–multiverse means random forces have had enough shots to randomly create all that is (even if the universe is unbelievably improbable) + anthropic principle means of course we live in a universe where things just happened to work out–otherwise we would not know about it.

Though I actually talked about only one version of the multiverse. Many different types have been proposed, as I explained in one of my personal blog articles from 2012 that you can check out of you’d like to know more. What I didn’t talk about in my blog post was the basic shortcoming of all theories of self-generating universes, including all multiverse concepts–the Boltzmann brain.

Ludwig Boltzmann, Austrian physicist, did not actually invent the so-called “brain” named after him. What he did do in 1896 was attempt to advance what was in effect his own version of the anthropic principle. He argued from classical physics (quantum mechanics had not been discovered yet) that if we can imagine atoms moving randomly in some kind of free state like a gas, given all eternity to do so, eventually they could combine to create a whole universe like the one we see, out of that gas. It would be a random event, a mind-boggling improbable random event, but (Boltzmann reasoned) it didn’t matter if the event was wildly improbable, because only after it already happened would people have brains to notice it happened. Or to repeat how the Wikipedia article linked above says it, “The Universe is observed to be in a highly improbable non-equilibrium state because only when such states randomly occur can brains exist to be aware of the Universe.”

This might sound convincing or at least like an idea worth proposing at first glance, but it wasn’t long before somebody noticed (I haven’t been able to find out who the first person to notice this was) that actually, if you imagine random events creating the universe out of nothing, what is simpler: That an entire universe, including billions of brains, would be formed randomly out of nothing? Or that a single brain would be formed out of nothing? And then, what if that single brain simply imagines that it sees the rest of all that exists?

That’s what a Boltzmann brain is–it’s an idea that if we are talking about a hugely improbable multiverse that rolls the dice over and over and over until it gets it right so life can exist, that it’s actually much more likely random action would create a single brain that imagines a universe than a universe that generates billions of brains. 

Note that the idea that any one of us could be a Boltzmann brain right now is strikingly similar to the idea behind the Matrix, though even more extreme. In the Matrix movies, at least some people were real and aware the Matrix is fake. If you are a Boltzmann brain, you will never be able to leave the Matrix of your own strange imagination–you will never be able to confirm or deny that anyone else actually exists.

Cosmologists generally hate the idea of Boltzmann brains and they should. First, to suppose we’re in a Boltzmann brain invalidates science. What’s the point in studying a universe if all that exists in it is imaginary?

Second, this idea acts like a logical proof to show that random self-generation of many, many universes until you get the right one is inherently self-defeating. Unless such a universe is “natural” as I’ve defined it elsewhere in this series, that is, unless (in my analogy) the car rolls downhill from the start without any special fine-tuning or highly improbable randomness along the way, then it’s far more likely that we’re in a Boltzmann brain matrix than any universe we can perceive actually exists.

Multiverse + anthropic principle blows itself up. It doesn’t work, and Boltzmann brains show why.

An idea that does work is starting with one admittedly inexplicable Creator, who put a universe in order and then later put humans in that universe. The universe and therefore science are real because the God of the Bible created the universe separate from both himself and our imaginations. It really exists and so do we. It’s worth studying. Science makes sense if you start with God.

But if you start with immense randomness, unless you can show initial conditions can “naturally” make a universe (which cannot be shown to be true as of now, not even close), you don’t get a universe that can be studied scientifically. You get Boltzmann brains.

Welcome to the Matrix, atheist friends. That’s where your presumptions actually lead–to the destruction of science. To an irrational universe. (Which of course means something is wrong with your presumptions.)

Next time we’ll return to the subject of the universe being unnatural to make the case presented in this series stronger. But for now, what are your thoughts on this topic?

 

 

 

Creating Literature that Leaps the Spiritual Divide

Sci-fi novelist Gray Rinehart: “What does it take to cross the spiritual divide effectively in a literary or artistic work?”
| Jun 12, 2018 | No comments |

The conventional wisdom is that authors shouldn’t read reviews of their own work.

If the reviews are good, they can inflate already outsized egos, and if the reviews are bad, well–egos don’t always just deflate. A hot-air-balloon-sized ego, pierced by a bad review, might slowly settle into a mass of hard-to-wrangle canvas, but a smaller, more fragile ego might burst into shreds that are impossible to reassemble.

Nevertheless, some of us are drawn to reviews like moths to flame. If we’re lucky, the flame is a gentle candle and we just get singed if we get too close. If we’re unlucky, it’s a napalm-spewing flamethrower and we get terribly burned.

This week we feature Gray Rinehart and his novel Walking on the Sea of Clouds in Lorehaven Book Clubs. Stop by the flagship book club on Facebook to learn more about this story.

Sometimes we just get confused, as I was at two contrasting reviews of my novel, Walking on the Sea of Clouds.

First, an Amazon reviewer gave the novel three stars and noted that it was a “good story” with strong character development but was “a bit bible-preachy [sic] for [their] tastes in hard science fiction.”

Then the first issue of Lorehaven included a brief, positive review that warned those seeking discernment that the story “only briefly referenced Christianity.”

Same story. Bible-preachy. Only briefly referenced Christianity.

I think this illustrates the fact that every reader brings their own experiences, attitudes, and expectations to the stories they read. Orson Scott Card told us in his writing workshop that whatever we’ve written is not the story, because the real story is in the reader’s head–and what’s in your head when you read a story is different from what’s in another person’s head when they read the same story. You might agree on some points, but you’ll disagree on others, and that’s okay.Walking on the Sea of Clouds, Gray Rinehart

In the case of my novel, someone who was not used to reading about believers and faith in the context of hard science fiction was put off by it. I have no way to know whether that person is a believer who was just surprised or a nonbeliever who was repulsed, and that really doesn’t matter. Their reading of the text is just as valid as anyone else’s–including the Lorehaven reviewer who might have been looking for more overt Christian themes.

Was that person disappointed not to find them, or just surprised? I have no way of knowing, and again it hardly matters because however they read the story was the right way, for them.

Same story. Different readers. Different results.

It reminds me of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, about the message of the cross seeming foolish to the lost, but representing the very power of God to those of us who believe (1 Corinthians 1:18). Same message. Different audience. Vastly different results.

Even within the body of believers, though, we can differ in our interpretations of Scripture. How much more should we expect to differ in reading science fiction and fantasy stories?

What does it take to cross the spiritual divide effectively in a literary or artistic work? Is it foolish even to try? I hope not, because in this age of growing doubt and disbelief I believe that Christian ideals, values, and themes still have a place in literature and art, whether science fiction, fantasy, or more mundane creations. And not just Christian principles, but Christian characters belong in fantastical stories, even in technology-heavy hard science fiction, just as surely as Christian people belong in every profession.

Unfortunately, sometimes the Christian characters in these stories end up being caricatures more than characters, reflecting the authors’ preconceptions rather than being portrayed as individuals, as people. I’ve found this to be true in stories by believers and nonbelievers alike, and it was something I tried to avoid.

That is, I tried to cross the spiritual divide by including Christian characters where they’re not always found and by representing them as individual people with their own virtues and flaws and even with different attitudes toward and expressions of faith. Some talk about it, some hide it, some deny it. Some ignore it, some sneer at it, some question it. That seemed realistic to me, and above all I tried to make the story seem realistic. And maybe those two contrasting reviews–too much Bible to some people, not that much to others–show that I struck the right balance after all.

“This novel’s style is literary, its pacing episodic, its science hard as a vacuum.”
— Lorehaven Magazine

Explore Gray Rinehart’s novel
Walking on the Sea of Clouds
in the Lorehaven Library
.

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

The Myth That Will Not Die

Good speculative novels, written from a Christian perspective, by Christians, or about Christians, are out there. The myth that Christian fiction is like a soiled diaper, that it is only for elderly ladies, is simply a myth.
| Jun 11, 2018 | 3 comments |

To be honest, I have to admit that the myth of which I’m speaking once upon a time was more than a myth. In other words, there was truth involved in the claim. It was not a myth someone merely fabricated.

I’m having yet another discussion about Christian fiction, this one with someone in a speculative Facebook group. The original post was innocent enough—the group member asked what genre besides romance was most popular in Christian fiction. Not content to research the question or to give an opinion, one commenter took a direct shot at Christian fiction in general by responding that what was popular was “anything non realistic that old ladies like to read.” He shortly following that comment up with “Christian Fiction stinks like an old ladies Depends all around.”

I’m not sure what this guy’s issue with old ladies is, but what was worse than these comments, as far as I’m concerned, is that he later said he’d stopped reading Christian fiction.

My question is simple: if you don’t read Christian fiction, how do you know it stinks?

I feel like I’ve been an apologist for Christian fiction for lo these many years. Once it was in its infancy and it did need to improve. When the writing showed notable growth, the complaints still came: it was too unrealistic.

This Facebook commenter made that same accusation. The characters in Christian fiction “don’t sin” according to him. Which I think is laughable. I didn’t take the time to give him an exhaustive list of sins that protagonists in Christian fiction face, but I did use Patrick Carr’s A Cast of Stones as an example to refute that notion. After all, in that book the main character starts out as the town drunk.

Of course I’m not saying that every book which falls under the Christian fiction umbrella is realistic and well-written. Another commenter said that 90% of Christian fiction is poor, but 90% of general fiction is poor, too. That’s a valid point, I think. The proportion of good Christian fiction may not exceed that of general fiction, but neither is it non-existent.

I guess that’s why I think sites like Spec Faith and Lorehaven (especially the latter) are important. They serve as a filter so that readers can not only know what books are out there in the speculative genre, but what books actually are worth reading.

We need to know what people think. We need to know how to compare books with the greats and with the general market fare. We need to know the strengths and the weaknesses.

There are a couple ways we can evaluate books. One is to pay attention to what books are winning awards. There are a plethora of awards available to Christian fiction, some like the Realm Award, attached to a conference. The Oregon Christian Writers’ Conference awards both published and unpublished works in a number of categories. So does the Blue Ridge conference, the Florida conference, and of course the ACFW conference. Then there is the ECPA (publishers association) award known as the Christy Award.

Books that win one of these awards have been vetted by judges who know something about writing. Some have gone through several levels of judging. Chances are, these books are a cut above the rest. As an example, I’ll mention the young adult novel that Spec Faith featured last Friday, Escape to Vindor by Emily Golus. What the introduction does not mention is that this novel won one of Blue Ridge awards called a Selah:

YA Fiction

Escape to Vindor by Emily Golus
Taberah Press
Mary Beth Dahl & Vie Herlocker, Editors

Another way to find the best books is by paying attention to reviews. Amazon is helpful, but this is where Lorehaven comes in as such a valuable tool. The site is still new and has only just put out the first copy of the review magazine, so there is lots of reason to expect growth. It will undoubtedly become a go-to place for those looking for the best speculative novels to read.

And good speculative novels, written from a Christian perspective, by Christians, or about Christians, are out there. Besides being an insult to old ladies, who by implication are accused of having no discernment, no ability to recognize good literature,the myth that Christian fiction is like a soiled diaper, that it is only for elderly ladies, is simply not true. It’s insulting to the hundreds of writers and editors who work hard to improve the quality of both indie and traditionally published novels. We simply cannot let that false notion persist. It needs to be refuted whenever it pops up.

Stand for truth! Stop the myth that Christian fiction is worthless if you want good novels.

As it turns out, I was not alone in my support of Christian fiction. A number of others added names they thought the commenter should read. What authors or titles would you put on that list?

Fiction Friday – Escape To Vindor By Emily Golus

For as long as she can remember, Megan Bradshaw has imagined herself as the heroine of Vindor, her own secret world populated with mermaids, centaurs, samurai and more. When school pressures and an upcoming move make life unbearable, Megan wishes she could escape to Vindor for real. And then she does.

Escape To Vindor

by Emily Golus

INTRODUCTION—ESCAPE TO VINDOR

Young Adult fantasy.

For as long as she can remember, Megan Bradshaw has imagined herself as the heroine of Vindor, her own secret world populated with mermaids, centaurs, samurai and more. When school pressures and an upcoming move make life unbearable, Megan wishes she could escape to Vindor for real.

And then she does. Megan finds herself trapped in a real-life Vindor, containing flesh-and-blood versions of her imaginary characters. But dreaming about being a hero and actually fighting monsters are two very different things—especially when the Shadow, the frightening creature now tearing Vindor apart, is one Megan doesn’t remember putting there.

Playing the role of her alter-ego Selena, Megan embarks on a dangerous journey, accompanied by a know-it-all centaur and a goblin she’s not sure she can trust. Will the Shadow destroy her before she can find a way to save her world?

ESCAPE TO VINDOR — EXCERPT

From Chapter 1
The Riddle

“Who’s there?”

The gray fog swallowed the words. Wispy tendrils of mist swirled around the horses and riders, muffling the clink of chain mail and the thud of hooves against soft soil. The fog pressed up against faces and necks, cold and clammy, like fingers ready to strangle.

The broad-shouldered officer at the front of the group removed his helmet. His ebony brow wrinkled as he surveyed the misty shadows. “Is anyone here?” he asked again.

No sound.

“It’s just buildings.” He turned his nickering horse to face the small group of mounted soldiers. “No sign of life—the village is abandoned.”

“No, Captain Okoro,” came a girl’s voice behind them. She stepped out in front of the party, the mist curling around her long white gown and straight red-brown hair. A pendant with an enormous purple jewel hung from her neck, and a silver circlet rested on her forehead. The girl closed her eyes for a moment, listening. She turned to the men on the war horses. “She’s out there.”

“Are you sure, Guardian Selena?” asked the broad-shouldered Captain Okoro. “The report wasn’t clear if—”

“Did that building just move?” a soldier interrupted.

The party turned toward a great shadowy structure. Something wasn’t quite right about its shape.

“I think it’s just—” Okoro began.

At once the structure sprouted wings. With a shriek, it leapt into the air.

–X X X–

from Chapter 2
Crossing Worlds

Around eleven o’clock Megan navigated through the crowded lunchroom to the table in the far corner as she always did. But as she passed the drinking fountain, her skin prickled as though she were being watched. Not just watched, but seriously stared at.

Sh turned around and found herself looking right at the table where Shari Wilson and most of the other girls from her homeroom sat. Shari stopped mid-whisper to Christy and glared at Megan.

You have a problem, Bradshaw?”

Megan felt herself turning red. “N-no.” She made a swift about-face and hurried toward her table.

Shari and the rest of the popular girls had let Megan hang out with them at the beginning of the school year. But once they got to know her, it became clear she was no longer welcome at their lunch table.

Megan couldn’t blame them. Why would they want to hang out with mousy, quiet Megan? Shari was thin and gorgeous, while Megan wore loose shirts to hide her flat chest and chubby middle. Shari’s posse flounced into school each morning like they’d stepped out of an issue of Seventeen, while Megan still couldn’t manage her impossibly thick red-brown hair, which usually hung loose with little bits flipping out in random directions.

And even if she did get her act together, Megan would alwqays look so different, thanks to her Scottish mother’s reddish hair and freckles combined with her Japanese father’s tan skin and dark eyes—the only lasting traces he’d left in her life.

Megan set down her tray at her usual table and sat quietly, resigning herself to a rectangular slice of sausage pizza.

The prickling feeling returned. The skin on the back of her neck almost stung now, but this time Megan resisted the urge to turn around.

“Ice,” said a voice behind her.

Megan nearly jumped out of the plastic seat.

Her friend Audrey Lloyd clunked down her Return of the Jedi lunch box with a triumphant flourish. “The answer to your riddle. It’s ice.”

“Oh, yeah.” Megan tried to sound calm and normal, put the prickling feeling remaind. “You guessed it.”

“Are you two still going on with that riddle contest?” Megan’s next-door neighbor Kiara sat across the table as usual.

“Yep, and I’m on a roll.” Audrey grinned as she unwrapped her bologna sandwich. “How about the one I gave you?”

Megan reached into her pocket and pulled out the folded piece of paper. She opened it and glanced at the first two lines written in Audrey’s favorite sparkly blue ink:

It moves the stars and worlds unknown,
Soft as rain and firm as stone
. . .

“I have no idea what this means,” Megan said. “And I’ve thought about it a lot—I’m pretty sure I’ve memorized it.”

She didn’t mention the fact that it had inspired that morning’s adventure in Vindor—the world which, of course, Megan’s friends knew nothing about. Megan was pretty sure even Audrey would find the fact that Megan had invented her own fantasy world complete with geography, cultures, and politics to be a bit too weird. She didn’t want to scare away the few friends she had.

–X X X–

AUTHOR BIO—EMILY GOLUS

Emily Golus has been dreaming up worlds since before she could write her name. Her childhood drawings featured mysterious mermaids and well-dressed mice on grand adventures.

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. She is passionate about helping teens better understand their value in this great big world, and helping young storytellers find their voice.

Golus has worked as a professional web writer and marketer for more than a decade and enjoys helping adult writers leverage the power of the Internet to spread their ideas.

She lives in Taylors, South Carolina, with her rock-climbing husband and a cat named T.S. Eliot, who walks over her keyboard at the worst possible moments. When she isn’t writing, you can find her cooking up soup, tending her blueberry garden, or exploring the forests of the Carolinas.

Learn more about her writing and speaking at her website.

The Car-Universe Without A Motor, part 8: Multiverse

The multiverse, though fodder for great speculative fiction stories, is based on a desire to explain wild improbabilities seen in the formation of the universe that should lead a person to realize there must be a Creator.
| Jun 7, 2018 | 2 comments |

The multiverse may be the biggest topic of discussion possible, since it covers every imaginable possible reality and ones never imagined up to now. Though the topic of God may be bigger, depending on a person’s view of God. (Though I’ll strive to give just one chewable bite of multiverse for today. 🙂 )

We arrived here at this topic because we mentioned last time that the force of dark energy is far, far less than quantum mechanics predicts that it should be. By the way, I made an error last week in that I said the difference between measured and predicted concerning dark energy is on the order of 10 to the 20th power. I wrote out all the zeros–but I should have said 10 to the 120th power (10^120)–so please add one hundred more zeros to the figure I used last week, OK? 🙂

The existence of a massive amount of potential energy in vacuum on the quantum level (according to quantum mechanics as currently understood) suggests to scientists that what’s happening with dark energy is that quantum forces must be manifesting energy at both positive and negative levels, which nearly but not completely cancel each other out. Since there is no known means to explain how these quantum forces would engage in such a precise dance that lets some of the energy come through while most self-obliterates,  some scientists pull out the concept of the “multiverse” to explain it.

The reasoning goes something like this: Believing that the universe could be deliberately fine-tuned between opposing forces in a way that strongly implies the universe is not a random, unintentional event–that position is ruled out, looked down on, seen as crazy talk. No, according to the modern scientific bias/paradigm, the universe should not show any “fine tuning” and any apparent fine tuning is something to explain away.

So, they imagine that there is a massive number of universes, even though there is no direct evidence they exist, even greater in number than 10^120. One figure linked to String Theory has 10^500 possible configurations of the multiverse and imagines that each one actually exists somewhere. So, in just one out of the colossal horde of possible universes, we happen to be living in the one where vacuum energy nearly balances out to explain the dark energy that’s believed to exist. (By the way, to get a grasp on how big these numbers are, please note that there are “only” around 10^83 atoms estimated in the entire observable universe.)

This “lucky winner” universe would not only explain the supposedly observed dark energy as coming from one universe that happened to randomly work out, it would also explain how the constants of particle physics (in the Standard Model) are what they are. They also are lucky winners. (These constants were discussed in part 4 of this series).

How did our universe in this multiverse get so lucky? I mean, this is much luckier than winning the lottery, which “only” requires 1 chance in 10^8 (1 in 1,000,000) or so.

Well, the “luck” comes via the anthropic principle (technically the “weak anthropic principle”) that means that a universe which didn’t have the right setup for life would never have generated intelligent beings like you and I in the first place, who are capable of knowing how unusual the universe is. Likewise, all the versions of reality that are  totally hostile to life may exist, but they don’t have any intelligent beings living inside them to notice that they do exist. Or how messed up they are.

Note that there is more than one concept of a multiverse–this post is only discussing one such idea. Please also note that some scientists dislike the idea of a multiverse, since there is no direct evidence for it. And there are also those not keen on using the anthropic principle to explain away the improbabilities evident in the universe forming itself (they hope to find new physics to explain the improbabilities instead).

But for many cosmologists, multiverse + anthropic principle = an answer to the wild improbabilities required to generate the universe that we observe. In a later post in this series I’ll show how this mindset creates serious problems with believing in a real, physical universe. But for now, let the reader of this post be aware of how the idea of the multivese and the anthropic principle are often used together.

Perhaps instead of complaining that the concept of a God with a purpose and a plan is inherently simpler (in my opinion) than the idea of a near-infinite array of random multiverses, I should be thankful. As a writer of speculative fiction, the concept of a multiverse provides copious opportunities to create new stories.

The Wood Between The Words (Credit: ElectricalBee)

To name only a few examples of the multiverse in Speculative Fiction, C.S. Lewis wrote his “wood between the words” of multiverses even before the idea became widely accepted among theoretical physicists. Various Star Trek series had episodes from an alternate universe where instead of building the Federation, humanity built an empire and the 2009 Star Trek movie rebooted the movie series with stories entirely different from those before, due to the use of multiverse ideas. Stephen King likewise waded into the vast array of universes imagined to exist with his Dark Tower books and other stories like The Mist.  And the recent Netflix program Stranger Things explores the idea of creatures from an alternate universe (The Upside Down) crossing over into our own.

Mr. Clarke explains the multiverse in Stranger Things.

While multiverse ideas are quite a lot of fun, I would say if there really are multiple universes, instead of the multiverse making all that we know of come about for essentially random reasons, each alternate universe would have to be as much created by God as the one we inhabit.

But what are your thoughts on this topic?

Do you think the multiverse is likely? Do you believe scientists should avoid talking about it–that this is more philosophy than science?

What is your favorite multiverse or alternate world speculative fiction story?

A Christian Twist

Christianity itself introduces different elements into fiction.
| Jun 6, 2018 | 1 comment |

Christian speculative fiction, as a whole, has evolved along distinct lines from secular speculative fiction, acquiring its own hallmarks and characteristics. There are many reasons for this, too many to explore or even list; different cultural pressures, different audience demands, even the division between Christian and regular literature (did it exist a hundred years ago?) all played their parts. Another cause, and the one I want to focus on today, is that Christianity itself – so much the intellectual and cultural background of these works – introduces different elements into fiction. The handling of these elements may or may not accord with Christian thought and biblical exegesis, but the source of the material is beyond doubt. Here, then, are a few of these elements:

Angels/demons. Many different cultures and religions harbor ideas of angels and demons, and then there are free-floating, popular notions – for example, the belief (unattached to any actual religion) that people die and become angels. What Christianity provides, then, is not the general idea of angels but a specific idea of who and what they are. The two greatest representations of angels and demons in modern Christian fiction are Peretti’s This Present Darkness and Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. There have been many others, all containing variations of their own. But one great commonality cuts across all Christian portrayals of demons and angels: They are always dedicated to the service of either Heaven or Hell; never do they act as free agents. In Christian SF, angels never exist without God and rarely exist without the devil. Christian doctrine on angels is so established, and so developed, that it encourages the use of angels in Christian SF – far more prodigious than in secular SF.

The Nephilim. The Nephilim appear only briefly in the Bible, but long enough to stir up all kinds of controversy. Various interpretations of what they were have been put forward, some quite tame. Naturally, the wild interpretations have gotten a foothold in Christian SF. Half-demon supermen are rich material for fantastic novels, and this is obvious even if you are one of those Christians who are just driven crazy by the whole phenomenon. Nephilim stories are unusually bound to our own world and history, especially to (borrowing a phrase) the days of Noah and the days of the Son of Man. The incubus is made in a similar mold, but it inhabits a different milieu than the Nephilim and lacks the absolute identification with angels and the Bible.

The End Times. To speak of the End Times as the end of the world is accurate but desperately incomplete. The language of the End Times, both revolutionary and catastrophic, makes it clear that it will be the end of the world, the universe, and the current cosmic order. So when Christians use the term End Times, they aren’t whistling Dixie. The End Times have become an established niche in Christian fiction, inspired by the stormy visions of Revelation and driven by Christian enthusiasm (periodically intense, never entirely dormant) for the subject. Left Behind carries the field, but C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle entered it more than sixty years ago, and newer books carry on the charge.

Here There Be Creatures: Mythology and the Sense of Wonder

Rotovegas author Grace Bridges: “New Zealanders feel a strong sense of identity with our unique culture, and I wanted to convey that in my Earthcore series.”
| Jun 5, 2018 | 2 comments |

I’ve watched with fascination as readers have grown more interested in literature set in places you wouldn’t always expect–such as my own country, New Zealand.

I am so glad that this has become accepted, even popular.

But it wasn’t always the case.

This week we feature Grace Bridges and her novel Earthcore Book 1: Rotovegas in Lorehaven Book Clubs. Stop by the flagship book club on Facebook to learn more about this story.

I even set my first series in Ireland because back when I first started writing it. There was a feeling that setting this series in New Zealand would be too “far-fetched.” This idea has persisted in the literary world for too long. I have even heard of writers asked to revamp their entire story to set it in the USA rather than New Zealand, and it nearly made me cry.

Fortunately, popular stories like the Lord of the Rings movies have helped boost interest in New Zealand, and there is a greater general acceptance of “World Literature” as its own genre.

New Zealanders feel a strong sense of identity with our unique culture, and I wanted to convey that in my Earthcore series.

The fantasy genre is already full of tales from other mythologies. Think of Thor and Loki, or Nessie, or Zeus and the rest of the Greek pantheon, all the way to tales of mermaids, leprechauns, dragons, Bigfoot, and the jackalopes and chupacabra of America. All of these have their own cultural origin, but most have become so widespread that it’s sometimes easy to forget where they came from—and with their familiarity has come acceptance by a wide variety of believers.

Our mythology is relatively little known outside New Zealand, so I have introduced it here for the urban fantasy reader.

Enter the taniwha! Pronounced “TA-nee-fa”, this is one of the creatures in Māori lore. It’s often represented as a dragon, though it can be a bird, animal, or sea creature as well. The main difference from regular dragons is that the taniwha is invisible. It can be understood as a sort of guardian, most often described in connection with a place or people that it watches over, and the word taniwha is also used for a tribal chieftain. So they are very rooted in a sense of place, often having attachments to springs and rivers and mountains.

In my Earthcore stories, I expanded this a tiny bit to allow the taniwha to give supernatural powers to people when they are exposed to certain springs, or sometimes just from breathing the mineral-laden air near a geothermal fissure.

Of course, this was the perfect excuse for me to write about one of my favourite places: Rotorua.1 My dad was born there and I’ve spent a lot of family holidays there over the years, so I feel a solid connection.

Plus, Rotorua is one of the most geothermally active places in the country. You can’t go very far in Rotorua without running across steam rising from someone’s backyard or even from the drains in the street, or boiling ponds in the city park. Anyone planning some digging in Rotorua needs to be kind of careful. The north end of town abuts the volcanic crater lake with its Sulphur Bay and beaches where you can dig down to hot seepage in the grey pumice sand. At the south end is the thermal arena of Whakarewarewa Village, where houses are dotted among the blubbering mud pools and regularly-performing geysers. Yeah, gotta watch where you walk.

All these things feature in my stories, not as mere settings but as sources of supernatural gifts. As a friend once observed, the place was just begging for a superhero story to be set there.

Because my stories are set in the present day, I can describe the city and its sensory peculiarities just as I’ve experienced them, so that reading can give you the next best thing to an actual visit. Of course, I’ve never seen a taniwha, nor do I really expect to, but it’s fun to imagine, isn’t it?

Some Christians may be uncomfortable reading about mythological creatures. But I don’t believe there is anything to fear from stories about dragons, or Bigfoot, or mermaids, or taniwha. Let’s free our imaginations to soar or stomp or swim with legendary beings, and through them, to experience a fresh sense of wonder at the world around us.

“Bridges’s sense of place is lovingly grounded, and the style flows like water.”
— Lorehaven Magazine

Explore Grace Bridges’s novel Earthcore Book 1: Rotovegas in the Lorehaven Library.

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

  1. This is pronounced “Roe-toe-rue-ah,” and you should roll those Rs just once!

Realism And Twenty-first Century Storytelling—A Reprise

I think there’s something else not particularly real in twenty-first century stories, no matter how real the computer generated characters might appear. We could chalk this up to “that’s just movies” if it weren’t for the fact that screen writing is beginning to dominate the way we write novels, too.
| Jun 4, 2018 | 4 comments |

I’ve been watching the five different Star Trek shows on TV. I hadn’t remembered the storytelling in each being particularly different from one another—except for the original which felt void of realism, even artificial at times. I mean, the women wore those ridiculous miniskirts and nearly every episode had the crew shaken and falling. Not to mention that the poor red shirts were doomed to destruction and that Captain Kirk, in all likelihood, would win some female’s heart before the end of each episode.

What I’ve found by watching the shows night after night is that the storytelling mirrors the storytelling of movies. Some of the earlier shows actually seem a little slow. There’s more dialogue and not as many things blowing up, not as many people falling to phaser blasts. But in the last show, Enterprise, the story line is less thoughtful and more violent. More action packed, too. Though some critics might say there’s more realism, I think that’s debatable.

Storytelling has changed.

We often talk about the need for realism in fiction, particularly in Christian fiction, but when we cite the movies we love, there’s little that is true to reality beyond the externals.

Of course, the externals are important. Who would want to replace the computer enhanced Aslan for an actor dressed in a lion costume? We want our Aslan to appear on the screen as real.

The desire and push for realism in our stories has given impetus to those who believe Christian fiction should include sex, profanity, and vulgarity. After all, those are real.

But where is spiritual realism?

I think there’s something else not particularly real in twenty-first century stories, no matter how real the computer generated characters might appear. We could chalk this up to “that’s just movies” if it weren’t for the fact that screen writing is beginning to dominate the way we write novels, too.

I’ll characterize this unrealistic phenomenon as too much conflict. The Lord Of The Rings illustrates the point.

Some time ago I watched the last part of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers on TV shortly after re-reading the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. The main thing I noticed was conflict in the movie where none existed in the book.

For example, in Tolkien’s original once Gandalf had freed Theodin, the king of Rohan, from the influence of Wormtongue, he quickly became his adviser. Théoden did what Gandalf told him to do: trusted Éomer as his new right hand, sent the women and children away to a place of protection (not Helms Deep), prepared his army to march on Isengard, sent out word to gather troops to support Gondor against Mordor. In the film version, however, Théoden fought Gandalf at every turn. He was nearly as depressed and suicidal as Denethor the Gondor steward.

There was also enhanced conflict between Arwen and her father Elrond about her staying in Middle Earth for Aragon. She finally decided to leave–an incident that did not happen in the book.

Uruk-hai_statueAnother “it did not happen in the book” example also involved Aragon. On the way to Helms Deep (rather than to Isengard, as the book had it), the people of Rohan were attacked by Uruk-hai and Wargs. In the battle, Aragon was dragged over a cliff and fell to the river. His companions presumed him to be dead.

Then, too, Treebeard and the Ents decided they would not help in the war against Saruman. Merry and Pipin tried to talk him into it, but he refused, only promising to take them out of the forest at whatever point they wished. On the way, they came to a place where Saruman’s forces had destroyed the trees, and the Ents then arose and fought. The motivation in the book is the same, but the conflict between the hobbits and the Ents never existed.

In the segments concerning Frodo, there were more of these manufactured conflicts. Frodo and Sam argued about the effect the ring had and about their disparate treatment of Gollum. Then too, Faramir insisted on taking Sam, Frodo, and Gollum to Gondor with the intent to use the ring (which they spoke of openly in front of all Faramir’s men) in the battle against Mordor. When they reached Osgiliath, they were attacked by one of the Nazgul. Under the influence of its presence, Frodo acted as if he’d been possessed and nearly put on the ring. Faithful Sam tackled him to stop him and they wrestled, with Frodo pulling his sword on Sam. None of this happened in the book.

As I thought about these differences, it seems to me that the movie was faithfully following the dictates of writing instructors who tell writers to make life hard for their characters and when it’s as bad as it can get, make it worse.

But is that reality?

Do friends always turn against one another? Does the hero always fall to his apparent death? Do the once mighty always succumb to discouragement and despair? Does doubt and fear always push loved ones to leave?

The answer is, no.

Tolkien got it right in his version of The Lord of the Rings—he told a realistic story. Borimir succumbed to the power of the ring, but Faramir did not. Denethor became suicidal, but Théoden did not. Gandalf fell to his apparent death, but Aragon did not.

In showing the strength of Faramir, the healing of Théoden, the prowess of Aragon, Tolkien enhanced Borimir’s failure, Denethor’s selfish choice, and Gandalf’s sacrifice. In other words, by not taking every character to the brink before leading them back, he magnified each case in which a character was taken to the brink.

If all characters are victims of disaster, I suggest readers or viewers stop caring and start looking for the “out.” Will the character die and come back? Have a narrow escape? Have a death that only looks like death? In truth, all the arguing and betrayal and refusal becomes . . . predictable and boring and unrealistic. Soon the characters seem more like caricatures because none acts with nobility or courage or hope. All display their flawed selves with so little inner struggle. And this, we’ve come to believe, is realistic.

Perhaps this twenty-first century version of realism is another way in which we are not addressing spiritual issues realistically. We are, after all, made in God’s image. We have within us a moral sense of right and wrong. We also have a sin nature. In essence, we are divided at our core.

We experience the truth of Romans 7 day in and day out, doing the thing we hate and neglecting the thing we know we should do. We struggle in the inner person. But Romans 8 follows, too. We revel in the freedom from the law of sin and death, we experience God’s sovereign purpose to work all things for our good, we enjoy His nothing-can-separate-us love. In short, reality is a mixed bag along the journey. It’s not all bad until the miraculously impossible reversal.

In story writing, I believe in conflict, I really do, though I believe in tension more. I wonder if twenty-first century authors aren’t needlessly creating artificial, big-bang conflict when inner-struggle tension, more true to life, actually would make for a better story. Tolkien’s work convinces me that more external conflict isn’t particularly realistic nor is it always the best.

The greater part of this post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in January 2013.