Lorehaven Magazine Preview: Explore the Eternal Magic of Christmas

Magic and memories of Christmas make me long for New Earth.
| Dec 18, 2018 | No comments |

This month, I discovered I haven’t been associating Christmas first with biblical images such as Nativity scenes, shepherds, and stars.

Much of the time, the holiday makes me imagine the time after Jesus returns.

I found myself daydreaming about the eternal era after Jesus has brought Heaven to New Earth. (I believe New Earth will be this selfsame, physical planet, which is judged by fire, then lasts forever under King Jesus. See Revelation 21: 1–5, Isaiah 65: 17–25; Romans 8.)

Today’s article is a free preview from my Captain’s Log feature in the new winter 2018 issue of Lorehaven Magazine.

Subscribe for free and download the winter 2018 issue today!

From many of the creatives at Speculative Faith, Lorehaven serves Christian fans by finding biblical truth in fantastic stories.

To be sure, imagination of Jesus’s past or future arrivals must be based on biblical truth. Put that right, and the best fantastical images and emotions will follow.

Most of my imaginings aren’t based on specific texts, but biblical speculation.

I think of warm, divinely built mansions snuggled among cold snows.

I imagine family from across generations reunited to celebrate that ancient Advent.

I dream of all the best parts of Christmas—the joy, wonder, and pure anticipation—all redeemed for eternity. And in this dream, there’s no room for any idolatrous abuses of Christmas gifts. No more greed, materialism, covetousness, or stress.

Instead this sinless earth is filled with our Lord’s knowledge as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9). Or as the third verse of my favorite carol “Joy to the World” says:

“No more let sins and sorrows grow / Nor thorns infest the ground / He comes to make his blessings flow / Far as the curse is found …”

Isaac Watts’s song isn’t actually about Jesus’s birth, but his second coming to our (literal) Earth. Scriptural prophecies often similarly conflate the Messiah’s first and second arrivals. So does the original New Testament phrase “Maranatha.”

Of course, for many of us, the Christmas season isn’t only about joy and wonder. This time can also carry memories of suffering, separation, and death. All the cold darkness that bleak midwinter represents. The winter Jesus came to end forever.

In this era between his arrivals, we can grieve and celebrate. We rejoice in his first coming, and groan as we await his second coming and the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23).

Merry Christmas—and maranatha!

Speculative Or True?

I suppose a good number of other passages in the Bible also read like speculative literature, but the Christmas story seems to have compacted a number of speculative tropes. There are several angelic visitations, for example. Joseph had a conversation with an angel, and so did Mary. But before them was Zacharias, John the Baptist’s dad, and his encounter with the angel of God in the temple. Most dramatic, and perhaps most well know, was the visitation of the shepherds, first by a single angel, then by “a multitude of the heavenly host.”
| Dec 17, 2018 | 2 comments |


It’s Christmas, or nearly so, and naturally my focus turns to the Christmas story. The true, Biblical story. I understand that many people in the world look at the accounts recorded in Luke 1 and 2 and Matthew 1 and 2 as myth. And with good reason. Those passages read like speculative fiction.

I suppose a good number of other passages in the Bible also read like speculative literature, but the Christmas story seems to have compacted a number of speculative tropes. There are several angelic visitations, for example. Joseph had a conversation with an angel, and so did Mary. But before them was Zacharias, John the Baptist’s dad, and his encounter with the angel of God in the temple. Most dramatic, and perhaps most well know, was the visitation of the shepherds, first by a single angel, then by “a multitude of the heavenly host.”

Dreams come into play in the Christmas story as well. Joseph’s encounter with the angel was apparently in a dream, but there was a second dream that apparently saved Jesus’s life. When the wisemen snubbed Herod and didn’t return to Jerusalem to tell him where the Christ child was, he sent a military force to kill all the babies, two years old and younger, in the environs of Bethlehem. Jesus would have been swept up in that infanticide, but for Joseph’s dream that he should take his little family and escape to Egypt.

Speaking of wisemen, their part in the Christmas story is also mysteriously speculative. Wisemen is probably a more palatable term than magicians in this day and age, but they were magi—people schooled in reading the heavens as if the story of humankind has been written in the stars. Hence, afar off in their eastern home, they looked into the night sky and saw a star that told them a king was born in Judea.

Again, undoubtedly by way of erasing some of mysterious from the story, songs and paintings and retellings portray this star as particularly bright. But nowhere in Scripture is such an idea presented. In fact, if the star had been bright, it seems likely that many more people, not just the magi, would have found Jesus.

But there’s more amazing things about this star. First, the wisemen didn’t follow it to Jerusalem where they encountered King Herod. They simply saw the star and proceeded to the most logical place where a king would be born—the seat of power of that country. But not finding him there, they left and the star appeared again. Just appeared. One night it wasn’t there, the next it was. And this time it moved at a perceptible rate so they could follow it. And then it stopped. Right over the house where, by this time, Jesus was.

Mysterious? Magical? Miraculous? Whatever you want to call it, it has the ring of speculative fiction.

But that’s not the half of it. Remember those wisemen? When they, in bafflement, prodded King Herod about the newborn king they expected to find in his palace, he turned to the chief priests and scribes who in turn went to Scripture. They quoted to Herod a version of Micah 5:2.

But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.”

Prophecy, then, also played a part in the Christmas story. Specifically the angel who appeared to the nameless shepherds predicted where they could find the Christ Child—in Bethlehem—and under what conditions they’d find him—wrapped in cloths and lying in a feeding trough. As odd as it sounded, those men acted on what they’d been told and went to Bethlehem where they found Jesus just as the angel had said.

Of course, the bulk of prophecy connected to the Christmas story comes from the Old Testament, not the least of which is Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.

Virgin. A woman who had not had sex. And she was pregnant.

Of course Zacharias’s wife Elizabeth was barren and she was also pregnant—with John the Baptist, as it turned out.

This impossible pregnancy was the announcement the angel had given Zacharias in the temple—the announcement he didn’t really believe. Consequently the angel gave him a sign, too, to convince him this birth was a miraculous movement of God. Zacharias would not be able to speak until John was born.

Sure enough, when he came out of the temple, he was unable to tell anyone about the message he had received from the angel. But nine months later, when he wrote that his newborn son’s name was John, his tongue was loosed and he could speak again.

A barren woman, pregnant. A virgin, pregnant. A healthy man, mute. These physical impossibilities were perhaps the greatest elements that seemed speculative in the entire story. But there were neighbors and family members and town gossips who witnessed each one.

Undoubtedly a number of people thought Mary was simply a sinner who had engaged in premarital sex, possibly with Joseph, but perhaps with some mysterious lover they didn’t know about. So they could explain away the impossibility of Jesus’s conception by their own imagination and suspicions.

But what were they to do about Elizabeth? Or Zacharias? How many years had they lived as a childless couple? Long enough to provoke his own doubt. And there was no hiding Zacharias’s inability to speak. As the priest he was to come out of the temple and bless the people. But he couldn’t do it. His public incapacity to speak was not something he could hide. Nor was the immediate restoration of his speech.

wonderful-words-of-life-119318-mThere’s more: Simeon, speaking prophecy over baby Jesus when his parents brought Him to be circumcised. John the Baptist, yet unnamed, jumping in his mother’s womb at the sound of the just-pregnant Mary’s voice. Elizabeth, blessing Mary because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord,” though apparently Mary had yet to tell Elizabeth about the angel and his message.

Yep, speculative fiction, for sure. Except for one key point which has to do with God and His nature. The angel said it to Mary:

For nothing will be impossible with God. (Luke 1:37)

If nothing is impossible with God, then all the mysterious, “magical,” miraculous events were His doing, and they really happened. The Christmas story might read like speculative fiction, but it is far better because it is true.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas!

This post is an edited version of an article published here in December, 2016.

Valiant Explores Destiny versus Free Will

In Merrie Destefano’s new novel Valiant, free will and destiny work hand in hand.
| Dec 14, 2018 | 2 comments |

I’ve always loved classic science fiction, where in the midst of a terrifying adventure, the author reveals an eye-opening, breathtaking theme. Philip K. Dick is one of my favorite authors, so I may have fallen in love with Minority Report, which was based on one of his short stories. I was spellbound while watching that movie, which so eloquently dealt with an almost impossible-to-understand concept—that free will and destiny can both exist.

That movie and The Adjustment Bureau (also based on a Philip K. Dick story) both influenced and inspired me when I was writing Valiant. I wanted to build a world and write a story that had all the chills and thrills of classic science fiction—from time travel to an invasion of horrible aliens to an end-of-the-world scenario—and I wanted to include that very delicate balancing act between free will and predestination.

I confess, this was a difficult subject to convey and the fact that theologians have argued about this for centuries did not make it easier. Arminianism (free will) and Calvanism (predestination) both have biblical scriptures that prove their point. (I know I over-simplified both of those doctrines.) I happen to be one of those people who believes that both of these concepts are true and that they coexist, so this was the approach that I took while writing Valiant.

Excerpt from Valiant, Merrie DestefanoIn the book, these concepts are shown most clearly in the way the Xua (the invading aliens) use time travel to their advantage. The good aliens (Aerithin and his rebels) are trying to save the human race from extinction; the bad aliens (let’s call them the Military Xua) want to take over Earth, claim it for themselves, and kill any human who gets in their way. Although their motive is not explained in book one, it will be revealed in book two and, trust me, the Military Xua have a creepy motive.

Since the Xua are adept at time travel, they know this: Some events can not be changed, no matter how hard anyone tries. These events are called cascading events. Think of a row of dominoes, all lined up and standing. If you push the first domino over, all the others will fall down too. But you must set that first domino in motion. That’s how cascading events work—they are the predestined events that set all subsequent events in motion. They cannot be changed or prevented, no matter how many times someone travels through time and tries.

One cascading event mentioned in Valiant is the launch of the rocket ship Valiant, which is bound for Titan. Unfortunately, that’s where humans will first encounter the Xua and it’s all downhill for us after that. Since no one, human or Xua, can stop the Valiant from launching, the Rebel Xua have taken a different tactic.

They continually try to save Sara, the main character in the book, because they know she will then, in turn, try to save her younger brother, Gabe. Why must she save him? That’s not explained until the end of the book and won’t be completely explained or shown until book two. But suffice to say, Gabe is a key element in accomplishing the goal of the Rebel Xua—that of saving Earth.

Isn’t that how destiny seems to work?

It must happen, it will happen, but we don’t always know why or how. It’s like an act of faith. Sara doesn’t know why she has to save her brother, but she doesn’t need to—she loves him and therefore she will do anything to keep him alive.

On top of that, somehow, saving her little brother will save the world. Sara doesn’t understand how it works or if it’s destiny for her to succeed. She only wants to make sure that Gabe survives to see tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that.

Free: Valiant prequel short story

Available as a free digital download to Merrie Destefano newsletter subscribers.

Taken, my free novella sequel to Valiant, is told from Gabe’s point of view and it reveals even more of how free will and destiny work in this world. When traveling through the Corridor of Time, Gabe sees that some of the hallways and doors are collapsing and disappearing. He realizes that these were paths that led into possible futures—but those futures are no longer possible.

So, some possible futures have a time limit. Certain things need to be done in a certain amount of time or the outcome you were hoping for will no longer be available.

Let’s just say that in the Valiant series, there’s a cosmic ticking clock working in the background. All of the Rebel Xua know that they only have a certain amount of time to save Earth. If they fail to accomplish this in the allotted amount of time, it’s game over for every lifeform on our planet.

In Valiant, free will and destiny work hand in hand. But the greatest element in the entire equation is love, and this is shown in the relationship between Sara and her brother. Both of these characters will do anything to protect and save the other. That story element is based on 1 Corinthians 13:13. But that’s another article for another day.

Taken, Merrie Destefano

I have Jumpstart, a free short story prequel to Valiant available as a free digital download to anyone who subscribes to my newsletter.

You can subscribe to my newsletter here.

Also, for anyone who has purchased, read, or reviewed Valiant, I have a free novella giveaway, Taken.

You can find out more about that giveaway and read an excerpt here.

The Individuality of Diversity

As we deliberately include writers that fall into superficial categories of diversity, let’s bear in mind that real diversity is individual.
| Dec 13, 2018 | 27 comments |

Recent posts to Speculative Faith by Daniel Whyte IV and Mike Duran have addressed the topic of diversity among fiction writers in general and Christian fiction writers in particular. This post I’m going to offer my own thoughts on the topic of diversity, which I believe are different from both Mr. Whyte and Mr. Duran. My ideas of course are my own and do not reflect any official position of Speculative Faith.

While serving with the US Army in Djibouti, Africa in 2012, I remember meeting the Ethiopian liaison officer to the US military command there (Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa or CJTF-HOA). I don’t remember the Colonel’s name, but I do remember noticing something distinctive about him. He was missing half of his right index finger, just like I am. His story of how he lost the finger was very similar, too. He was helping to cut wood for the winter (the Ethiopian highlands get cold enough to need it) when he was a small boy and a relative accidentally cut off his finger. He was five and I was seven and his cousin chopped his finger off and for me it was my sister. But both our stories spoke of hard childhoods in rural poverty–a poverty that made he and I more alike in that regard than I am with the majority of any ethnic group from the United States, no matter what their race is.

Foreign liaison officers at CJTF-HOA. Credit: United States Africa Command.

Likewise I’ve sat across the table from Afghans from remote areas of Farah province. While they and I were different in numerous ways (in many specific ways my life had more in common with the Ethiopian officer), most especially in our religion, these tough ethnic Pashtuns lived lives mostly without electricity, without running water, with “outdoor plumbing,” with their main energy for work provided by animal power. I too lived a portion of my life in a similar way. We usually had electricity (but it failed often) but as I child I passed extensive periods without indoor plumbing and living on a farm in which animal power was the primary way to get things done. Again, this is something about myself that showed more in common with foreigners than with most of my fellow US citizens, no matter what ethic group they come from (though rural Mexicans and Central Americans often have similar experiences to mine).

By the way, I found the Afghans were living rougher lives that most Africans, overall. Mostly because wartime pressures are worse in Afghanistan than most (but not all) of Africa–but note most Afghans are classified as (believe it or not) “white.” And they are desperately poor as a nation, overall. Though in fact, experiences vary in Afghanistan–some Afghans have lived relatively cushy lives, especially those who grow up in the families of urban professionals. Yes, even Afghanistan has urban professionals. And yes, even a nation that is essentially made up of one race can have sharp ethnic splits and class divisions.

For those of you who might be familiar with the history of Afghanistan, you might find it noteworthy that the East-Asian-looking Hazara of Afghanistan’s central Hindu Kush mountains have been picked on by most of the other groups in Afghanistan. You might be tempted to call that racial discrimination. But there’s a group in Afghanistan called the Aimaqs that are every bit as East-Asian-looking that are not especially discriminated against. Why not? Because they are Sunni Muslims like the majority of Afghans–while the Hazara are Shia Muslims. Surprise, racial discrimination is not really a worldwide thing–sure, it exists in many different countries, but in places removed from Western culture ethnicity (marked by language) usually matters more. As does religion. Actually, this is true in Western cultures, too. Though the modern conversation about discrimination based on race seems to miss that.

How do you suppose Afghans are treated that move to the United States? Maybe OK if nobody knows where they are from. But their accents and attendance at mosques tend to set them off–and from what I hear, they tend to get a little extra loving tender care from the TSA when they fly. Probably far more than those of you reading this receive. From what I’ve heard, that’s true even if they worked as translators for US troops and put their lives on the line shoulder to shoulder with us. And what race are they? Usually “white.”

Any intense focus on race I see as an ideological virus. It’s first of all a moronic notion–the idea that all of everyone from Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia have something in common making them essentially alike, just like everyone from sub-Saharan Africa supposedly has something that makes them alike, just as all Native Americans were supposedly alike and all East Asians alike. Nonsense. Individual differences are much bigger, much more important that real racial differences. Even benchmarks a racial theorist might think are reliable such as Africans having darker skin than Europeans isn’t always true–some Africans have relatively light skin (and not because of being so-called “mixed race”). While some Europeans are quite swarthy.

History mostly doesn’t reflect even Europeans fully believing this hokum–the English thought they were inherently different from the Irish, the French from the Germans, the Italians from the Greeks, etc, etc. It was only colonialism and a relatively-late desire to justify colonialism that caused the latter half of the 19th Century to become the heyday of racial theory, where people for the first time actually proposed that all Europeans have something in common and really meant it.

By the way, yes, these racial theorists did a great deal of harm to society. True. Yes, some of their idiotic ideas linger and even have a small effect in the direction of being self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, by believing that race was real and really matters, they created institutions that enforced racial divisions, especially in regard to African Americans, but also against other ethnicities at various times. But it’s never actually been true that all white people are alike. Nor all blacks not all Latinos nor all Asians or Native Americans or nor all whatever.

It is not a sign of actual diversity to represent two people who grow up in the same middle class suburb of a major American city, speak only English, attend the same quality schools, but one of the two has dark brown skin and is called “black” and the other has light pink skin and is called “white.” While the two people no doubt have different experiences to a degree, these differences are essentially pretty small. Both have about as much chance of success in life. I’m not quoting stats here, but it’s true. Neither of these people will face prejudice so crippling that they cannot get ahead in life in the United States.

However, if you are a black person who grows up in a neighborhood with high crime and terrible schools, you are at a significant disadvantage to both white and black “I grew up in a middle class suburb” person. The real issue is not race–it’s place. It’s more what the schools are like and unemployment and the substance abuse situation where you live than anything else (many but not all of America’s reservations are especially terrible places in that regard). This type of depressed ethnic neighborhoods was to a large degree caused by historic racism–and a person coming from a situation of dire urban poverty really does have a different perspective on life than a middle-class person. But it’s a situation that is only influenced a small amount by current racism. There are many very successful people from all ethnic groups in the United States. And not every black person is actually from the “hood”–not even close!

My use of “small amount” to refer to the influence of current racism may offend some people, and I’m sorry, but I think that’s fair. I say that from the perspective of having spent significant time in foreign countries and having observed how divisions can line up in foreign non-racial patterns, ones that still produce haves and have-nots, advantaged people and disadvantaged. Without racism being a significant factor.

You wanna talk real diversity without making a bunch of presumptions about race? How about someone being different from most other people by missing fingers? 🙂 Losing a finger in an accident changes your perspective on life, I’m telling you–people chopping vegetables on a cooking show probably generates winces in me that ten-fingered folk do not feel. Yet if we were to create a panel of people who are missing fingers, to include both the Ethiopian Colonel I referenced earlier and myself would not represent diversity simply because he’s from Africa and I’m from North America. We both lost the same finger in the same way, making us essentially the same in the context of missing fingers…losing a thumb in a different way, now that would be an example of diversity in that context.

It may seem that I’m rambling here but I hope I’m doing so with a purpose. If you have a panel of writers, all of whom only speak English, all went to similar universities, all doubt the existence of God, and all have similar writing style, is that really a diverse panel if fifty percent or better are women and there are plenty of blacks, Latinos, and Asians? In relation to the subject of writing, diversity should actually center around different writing style, different themes, and different underlying convictions that under-gird what people write. Do people from different ethnic groups (as in racially based ones) automatically have vastly different perspectives from one another in all cases which will mean their writing is totally different? I would say, “no.” In particular in regard to modern ideas about sexuality as expressed in writing, it seems to me there is a high degree of uniformity among modern winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards. Pretty much all are libertine–and that reflects in their writing.

Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not against deliberate efforts to include people of differing superficial groups, including people belonging to various categories hatched up by 19th Century racial theorists. Though that’s just to make people feel welcome–the racial categories themselves are essentially meaningless. People are not their race–race is not destiny–that was a lie hatched up by self-serving racists. They never succeeded in making it wholly true, even though they tried. And it certainly isn’t true now. And thinking that race is somehow deeply significant is perversely very Western-centric and United States-focused–my experience meeting Africans, Central Americans, Middle Easterners, and Afghans has led me to believe that America’s perspective on race doesn’t reflect the whole world.

So if we as Christian writers wish to be welcoming to people different from ourselves, does it make sense to celebrate human diversity based on outward appearance or other superficial criteria? Sure, there’s no downside in doing so as long as we don’t think we just solved the world’s problems by mixing people from different groups. It’s kind to let people know they will not be excluded based on superficial criteria–but to imagine there is something actually different about writing or writers based on such superficial things–c’mon now. Real diversity is diversity of ideas, of character, of experiences–and nothing about race or other similar superficial criteria determine that in advance.

Each individual is in fact an island to himself or herself in most ways. Like me and my Ethiopian Colonel, every single person has the chance to meet someone of another race who because of individual experiences is more like them than anyone else in the world. Ethnicity is not destiny. Individual differences matter more than ethnic groups.

And the Church that Jesus built, while it should be welcoming for all who will repent and enter it–while churches absolutely are diverse in race, ethnicity, and gender, it all started with twelve Jewish men. You’d be making a big mistake to think those twelve men were not a diverse group–they were diverse in profession, education, and personality. For example, the disciples included a zealot, a group who swore to kill the Romans, yet also a former tax collector, who had collaborated with them. That’s a more significant diversity than if one of them had been born in Africa and one had been born in Europe but both believed the same things and spoke the same language.

Diversity in fact is most importantly reflected in inner traits and experiences. Real diversity is individual. As we deliberately include writers that fall into different superficial categories (as we should do), let’s not forget that. Let’s also seek diversity of experiences, styles, and beliefs.

Seeing Red

It’s not the concept of a manned Martian mission, or even a Martian colony, that I push back against. It’s the idea that things would somehow be better if we could just get off this crowded, polluted rock called Earth.
| Dec 12, 2018 | 5 comments |

Mars is back in the news in recent weeks. NASA’s InSight lander has been snapping hi-res selfies and delighting the world with stunning views of the Martian landscape. Well, as stunning as a wasteland of red rocks under a dusty red sky can be. Still, it’s pretty amazing that a robot assembled here on Earth is now scooting along on another planet more than 33 million miles away and beaming back photos that are clearer than the pictures I take of my kids.

Image copyright NASA

As with any Martian mission, speculation and curiosity are in abundance. Will this mission detect surface water? Will we finally find signs of life? Will we bring Matt Damon home? I noticed that Amazon Prime released the Tim Burton goof-fest Mars Attacks to coincide with the excitement. In that movie, Pierce Brosnan’s scientist character tells Sarah Jessica Parker’s ditzy journalist that the reason we hadn’t yet detected Martian life is because their civilization developed beneath the surface. With the InSight lander expected to drill a full five meters into the red dirt, who knows what wonders we will uncover?

Along with the scientific hoopla that accompanies all interplanetary missions, especially those to our red neighbor, the general public becomes enamored with the possibility of manned Mars missions looming on the not-so-distant horizon. When Silicon Valley demigods like Elon Musk turn their attention to Mars, it’s hard not to get carried away on a wave not unlike the one that swept pioneering wagon trains westward. A bright and vibrant future awaits those brave enough to take the leap into the unknown and forge a new world out of the cold rocks of a hostile planet.

The only problem is, we’re a long way for anything like this happening in any form or fashion. I’m quite cynical about space travel, considering how little progress we’ve made over the last 50 years after man first walked on the moon. I place a lot of the blame on Hollywood for making space travel seem a lot easier than it really is (along with hand-to-hand combat, shooting guns, surviving an apocalypse, and finding true love). Getting a human into geostationary orbit is a massive undertaking; sending one to Mars and keeping them alive is literally astronomical. Of course, with enough brains and resources, history has shown that the impossible can become possible, and I would only be moderately surprised to see a manned mission to Mars in my lifetime.

It’s not the concept of a manned Martian mission, or even a Martian colony, that I push back against. It’s the idea that things would somehow be better if we could just get off this crowded, polluted rock called Earth. How many times in history have people ventured out into unknown lands in search of a better life? There is hardly a patch of unexplored land in our world today, and what do we find in every one of these previously unknown places? Greed, lies, jealousy, laziness, corruption; every vice that afflicts the human condition. What makes anyone think that a colony on the moon or Mars or Europa would be any different?

The problem is sin. No matter where a human goes, there goes sin along with them. And no matter what humans try to do or build or conquer, it is all in vain unless their endeavors are blessed by God (Ps. 127:1). Sure, going to Mars might solve problems like overpopulation for the select few that journey there, but that isn’t the real problem, is it? Pollution, waste, pillaging of resources, etc. are merely symptoms of the evil nature that resides in the heart of every person that has ever lived. Unless God reaches into that heart and restores it through His divine favor and grace, there is no hope for us, no matter how far into the stars we go.

Does Diversity in Fantasy Publishing Reflect God’s Kingdom or Identity Politics?

Is forced diversity in secular publishing really the same as biblical diversity?
| Dec 11, 2018 | 30 comments |

Christian film and fiction has often been charged with being “preachy,” “heavy-handed,” and “message-driven.” As a result, many Christian creatives have pursued a more nuanced approach, seeking to embed a biblical worldview or spiritual themes organically into their stories, rather than through explicit didactic moralizing.

Nevertheless, a move is afoot in the arts that renders such nuance rather pointless. In fact, the open embrace of agenda-driven fiction and politically correct themes is now fairly common in mainstream publishing.

The challenges of award-winners

An article appeared recently in Speculative Faith entitled Growing Diversity in Fantasy Genres Gives Us Hints of Eternity. The author’s (Daniel Whyte IV) intent was to celebrate diversity in speculative fiction publishing and hail its biblical import. Yet he (perhaps inadvertently) also highlights the sticky ideological and political agenda behind this push and why Christian fans of the genre should be leery of it. Whyte writes,

… like much of the world, science fiction and fantasy are growing up, growing wiser, and embracing the stories of traditionally marginalized people groups. Some might say science fiction and fantasy (SFF) are ahead of the curve.

The ever-widening tent of modern science fiction and fantasy was evidenced at this year’s Hugo Awards, where female writers and artists swept the prize in all major categories.

N. K. Jemisin, the African-American author of the Broken Earth series, had already made history in 2016 by becoming the first black writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel. This year she made history again by becoming the first person ever to take the top prize three years in a row.

Many of the other winners were also reflective of the growing diversity in SFF publishing …

In recent years, the Hugo awards have become an octagon of ideological in-fighting. While some fans view the industry’s push towards diversity as stoking discrimination, creating an undeserving bias toward books containing (or written by) people of color, females, and the gender-fluid, others have seen this disparity as necessary recompense to balance the scales of a previously white straight male dominated industry.

At one time, the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) genre was seen as cutting-edge regarding technology, civilizations, and theoretical sciences. Now, however, that prescient creativity has translated into acknowledging “traditionally marginalized people groups” and affirming a host of exotic sexual proclivities.

For example, one commenter on the original post at Spec-Faith noted that Jemisin:

… is a fantastic writer, but I stopped reading her book the Fifth Season because it felt like it was shoving LGBTQ, sexual immorality, and racial agendas down my throat.

This is not a surprise, and that observation is not uncommon. Jemisin is an outspoken progressive whose stories contain queer characters (even queer gods), are critical of Western culture, and employ the language of critical race and intersectional theory. However, the author’s “racial agenda” did not prevent her from being “the first person ever to [win a Hugo] three years in a row.” The painfully obvious question is whether the awards were merited or reparative.

Biblical diversity

So is the “diversity agenda” really about “growing up,” or is there an ideological component that makes the movement less than virtuous? Even more importantly for Christians, are the Hugo awards, the sweeping wins of female creatives, the emphasis on multicultural inclusion, and N. K. Jemisin’s trifecta really a good example of biblical diversity?

Apparently, Whyte thinks so. He continues:

… the embrace of diversity in speculative genres ought to remind us that, one day, people of every nation, ethnicity, and language will live, work, and love together in the New Heaven and New Earth.

… The arc of the universe bends toward diversity. It bends toward a re-imagined Eden where the things that have divided for so long—the differences of race, gender, ethnicity, culture, and economic standing—become the elements God uses to paint a new mosaic. In this mosaic, the beauty comes not just from unity despite our differences, but unity made more glorious because it embraces our differences.

Indeed, ethnic and cultural diversity is a reflection of God’s creativity. Redeemed humanity will not be segmented according to melanin levels, language, or income. But in the same way that biblical “love” is qualitatively different than romantic, emotive, or carnal love, biblical “diversity” is different than its worldly equivalent.

Whereas the Gospel is aimed at all people groups, the Church is unified around a single Person and theme. The Apostle Paul wrote:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.1

Rather than highlighting our differences, Scripture emphasizes our similarities. God has “made from one blood every nation of men” (Acts 17:26 NKJV). Humanity is unified in its sin, fallenness, and hunger for the eternal. The redeemed are unified by their Savior, his Spirit, the truth, and a mission. Again, Paul notes:

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.2

The Body of Christ is indeed a “mosaic.” This tapestry, however, is not the result of quota conversions. Ethnic diversity is the result of preaching the Gospel and making disciples, not its aim. Of course, as individuals we are to check ourselves for sin, seek out those on the margins, not flaunt our privilege or be bound by our cultural boxes.

Is forced diversity really biblical diversity?

Nevertheless, forced diversity is not biblical diversity. In fact, it leads to endless bean-counting, ledger-balancing, and otherwise sleazy scale-tipping.

Which is why SFF’s diversity agenda has become so tedious.

For example, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was recently accused of being racist in his depiction of orcs:

… a US sci-fi writer has blasted JRR Tolkien for his portrayal of orcs in the Lord of the Rings. He claimed they were simply misunderstood, comparing them to today’s migrants and refugees…

“It’s hard to miss the repeated notion in Tolkien that some races are just worse than others, or that some peoples are just worse than others,” [Science fiction and fantasy author Andy Duncan] told Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, a podcast run by Wired magazine.

Make no mistake, when diversity becomes the Rosetta Stone of literary theory, such conclusions are inevitable. Through the lens of identity politics, orcs become marginalized, misunderstood, Middle-Earthers while the King of Rohan and his ilk (all old white men) are seen as props for privileged, hetero-normative, racists. Unfortunately, such over-correction is fraught with danger. I mean, is the playing field really leveled by making white men bad guys and their imperialistic over-reach the norm? Is real diversity achieved through a false balance?

Sadly, such overreach is now the norm in SFF fandom.

Take Mythcreants, a site devoted to spec-fic fans and writers, which has compiled checklists to help authors recognize numerous unconscious isms. Articles like Five Signs Your Story is Racist, Five Signs Your Story is Transphobic, Six Signs Your Story is Queerphobic, and Five Signs Your Story is Sexist, assume that latent social sins inflict the white majority and that the mission of the SFF creative is to purge the wrongthink from our ranks and right those societal wrongs through our fiction. Sensitivity readers, as they are called, are now regularly employed by publishers to ensure that people of color and the marginalized are “correctly” portrayed by authors of other ethnicities, gender, or ability. Another off-shoot of the diversity trend are challenges like Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year. This typically includes reading only females, the multi-gendered, and people of color.

Apparently, being woke demands a lot of penance.

Still, the question remains: Is forced diversity really biblical diversity? In his article The Danger of Manufactured Pre-Determined Diversity, David Fitch rightly notes the downside to churches that force diversity:

There is a danger of a manufactured pre-determined flattened diversity that is often shaped by the bland vision of American democracy.

…I have noticed (at times) a manufactured diversity in large churches in majority white suburban wealthy communities. Here people of different ethnicities and social backgrounds are hired to be visible and lead from up front. Is this a good thing? Sometimes this can work for some good. Sometimes, I’m afraid it is manufactured and is not the diversity we seek. Kingdom diversity is a culture of renewal worked out on the ground in real relationships. [Which is why] I tend to discourage such attempts at manufacturing diversity.

I’m afraid that the type of diversity advocated by many in in the SFF community is “manufactured diversity.” While quota hires and awards may result in visibility for some perceived marginalized peoples, it inevitably leads to further discrimination and rigs the system against merit-based achievements.

Whyte is correct to note that diversity is a hallmark of God’s Kingdom. However, God does not build that diversity through quota conversions. Ethnic diversity is the result of preaching the Gospel and making disciples, not its aim. The main criteria for inclusion into God’s family is not demographic, but spiritual—an open, willing heart. The Christian SFF fan should be less concerned with demographic equity and perpetuating message-driven propaganda and more concerned with genuine inclusion. Nevertheless, the push for diversity in SFF ranks appears more like identity politics than it does anything resembling the Kingdom.

  1. Galatians 3:28 (ESV).
  2. 1 Corinthians 12:13 (NIV).

Christmas: What The World Doesn’t Know

How have we Christians failed to tell the world the truth about Jesus during Christmas? No, He is not a cute newborn or a religious version of Santa Claus. He is the image of the invisible God. In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells.
| Dec 10, 2018 | 2 comments |

A number of years ago during the week of Christmas there was a late-night police action in my neighborhood—an unruly party, perhaps, or some sort of illegal drug or gang activity or possibly individuals succumbing to anger and venting in a display of domestic violence. A few years later an ambulance (with accompanying EMT and fire truck) pulled up across the street in front of my neighbors’ house.

Ah, it’s Christmas.

We celebrate Jesus, good news to the world, because He brings peace on earth, He gives joy to all mankind. Yet so obviously, many people do not have peace or joy and do not understand the promise of Christmas.

How have we Christians failed to tell the world the truth about Jesus? No, He is not a cute newborn or a religious version of Santa Claus. He is the image of the invisible God. In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells.

So what? Jesus isn’t here now.

He Himself answered this form of rejection when He was talking with His disciples—first, He came to show the Father, but also by going away, He made it possible, in a manner of speaking, for the Holy Spirit to take His place.

In Old Testament times Israel had God in their midst. They had prophets who told them what God said and priests who would make sacrifice on their behalf.

In the New Testament the disciples had Jesus with them—talking, teaching, living, performing miracles.

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son (Hebrews 1:1-2a)

But now, in the “Church age” we who are part of the family of God, each one, have God in us. Consequently I enjoy the fellowship of God—His presence, His counsel, His conviction, comfort, truth, assurance. He holds my hand and to Him I cling. He is with me when I pass through the waters, when rivers overflow. He is the One in whom I will boast—not in wisdom, riches, or might.

Jesus coming in the flesh made this relationship with God possible. That’s why it’s important to celebrate Christmas. It’s the single-most pivotal event in history. Some may think Easter holds that place, but Easter is actually an extension of Christmas, the culmination of it.

nativityJesus, born of Mary, was God’s first step onto earth in the skin of Man. It was the beginning, the realization of the promise, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us.” Everything that night of Jesus’s birth was a shout—the great, glorious plan of redemption, worked out before the foundations of the world, was unfolding. It was being revealed to us who, through Him, would become believers in God.

Christmas is the ultimate Reveal! It’s the greatest ah-ha moment since time began.

But so many people look past it or don’t get it. Perhaps too many have relied on slogans, as true as they may be—put Christ back in Christmas; say, Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays; wisemen still seek Him; Jesus is the reason for the season.

Perhaps we’ve allowed the birth events to dominate the meaning of Christmas. As important as was the virgin birth, the angelic announcement to the shepherds, the coming of the magi, the real “magic” of Christmas is this “first step” in God’s plan to rescue His creation. It’s begun. And praise God that it is so!

Maybe even, go tell it on a mountain. Or in a story.

– – – – –

This article, apart from a few minor editorial changes, is a reprint of one that first posted in December 2012.

Growing Diversity in Fantasy Genres Gives Us Hints of Eternity

Science fiction and fantasy are growing up and embracing the stories of traditionally marginalized people groups.
| Dec 7, 2018 | 29 comments |

By definition, science fiction and fantasy are unique among literary genres because of the presence of a wide range of diverse characters and people groups.

Certainly, many groups are fictional (as far as we know), such as Vulcans, Calormenes, and sentient droids.

Certainly, many portrayals, such as that of female characters and Native Americans, have been fetishized and over-troped.

But, like much of the world, science fiction and fantasy are growing up, growing wiser, and embracing the stories of traditionally marginalized people groups. Some might say science fiction and fantasy (SFF) are ahead of the curve.

The ever-widening tent of modern science fiction and fantasy was evidenced at this year’s Hugo Awards, where female writers and artists swept the prize in all major categories.

N. K. Jemisin, the African-American author of the Broken Earth series, had already made history in 2016 by becoming the first black writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel. This year she made history again by becoming the first person ever to take the top prize three years in a row.

Many of the other winners were also reflective of the growing diversity in SFF publishing:

  • Rebecca Roanhorse won Best Short Story for Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience.
  • Suzanne Palmer’s The Secret Life of Bots won Best Novelette.
  • Martha Wells won Best Novella for All Systems Red.
  • The late Ursula K. Le Guin won Best Related Work for her book of essays, No Time to Spare.

We could go on.

This trend—although I hope it’s more than a trend—makes sense, especially since, in my opinion (and in the opinion of V.E. Schwab), the best speculative stories grow from trees planted with seeds from the real world.

It’s often uncomfortable talking about the marginalization experienced by women and various races and ethnic groups. There still is (and probably always will be) a small but loud strain of individuals who don’t like black actresses playing traditionally white comic book characters on TV, or the growing recognition that women writers and people of color are receiving in SFF publishing, or minority characters being introduced to Star Wars.

But the embrace of diversity in speculative genres ought to remind us that, one day, people of every nation, ethnicity, and language will live, work, and love together in the New Heaven and New Earth. John, the apostle and end times seer, wrote:

“I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”1

The arc of the universe bends toward diversity. It bends toward a re-imagined Eden where the things that have divided for so long—the differences of race, gender, ethnicity, culture, and economic standing—become the elements God uses to paint a new mosaic. In this mosaic, the beauty comes not just from unity despite our differences, but unity made more glorious because it embraces our differences. To paraphrase from Helen Lee’s article at Christ and Pop Culture, God is the ultimate diversity activist.

Jesus’s example shows us that we should cheer the growing diversity in SFF genres. Although he came to bring the good news of the kingdom first to the Jews, he often went out of his way to minister to those who were marginalized. He took time out to hear from Greeks who were seen as outsiders (John 12: 20–22). He ministered to the hated, half-breed Samaritans (John 4: 1–42), and, in one of his most famous stories, he made a Samaritan the main character and the hero.

Jesus grabbed people who stood on the margins of His society—tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, the lepers, the African—and thrust them into the main narrative of the Great Story of God’s Love. You belong here, he told them. There is room for you.

And then, he told his disciples, and us, to do the same. The glorious climax of every people, every nation, every tongue gathered around the throne at the end of time only comes about because the plot can be summed up in the Great Commission where Jesus commands us to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28: 16–20).

We have a hand in the making of God’s diverse kingdom—in Heaven and here on Earth. And we should rejoice when any arena, like modern science fiction and fantasy publishing, moves closer to that divine ideal.

  1. Revelation 7:9.

Speculative Fiction Writers Guide to War, part 13: Training for High-End Capabilities

The high-end capabilities of advanced military systems can be vastly different from what they achieve at the low-end. Highly advanced weapons systems, whether technical or magical, require specialized training.

Travis P here. In contrast to the layout of other weeks, I’m going to first introduce and later illustrate a post initiated by my fellow Travis (Chapman). In this post, he focuses on the training for “high-end capabilities,” which is the term used for highly expensive weapons systems that constitute the most advanced means of fighting that modern nations have. Note that even though the terminology of high-end capabilities has a very 21st Century feel to it, the concept can be applied to speculative stories that mirror the legendary past as well as those set in highly technological futures.

Note also that the type of training this post explores is highly technical. Instead of focusing on training warriors to endure the hardships of up close combat, this kind of training requires mastering the highly advanced weapons systems of high-end capabilities. Whatever those high-end capabilities may be.

Travis C here. I’d like to introduce a few terms of art. In a modern parlance, high-end warfighting is becoming a buzz term to describe warfighting that is peer-against-peer utilizing advanced technology and tactics. In their time, World War I and II both demonstrated high-end warfighting concepts: incorporation of air combat power, battles for naval supremacy using submarines, convoys, battleships, and aircraft carriers, long-range bombing and artillery strikes, communications advances, etc. Not that we didn’t have those things prior to the world wars, but we saw them institutionalized into military structures and a very deliberate application of those powers by the nations involved against rival military forces and to achieve military ends.

WW2 USS Enterprise’s final voyage. Credit: CNN.com

A military capability is intuitive: a capability to conduct a certain kind or set of activities for any number of purposes. My personal background is in submarines, which represent a range of capabilities. We can conduct anti-shipping, anti-surface warfare, submarine-on-submarine warfare, launch missiles ashore, sit off the coast and collect intelligence, transfer goods clandestinely, and create a great deal of uncertainty for a nation. Some of those capabilities are clearly for military purposes (launching torpedoes). Some, however, also serve political purposes (deterrence: we may or may not have a submarine operating in the vicinity of a nation, causing them to consider whether to put a fleet to sea). They also showcase a nation’s military strength as a capital asset.

A “capital asset” (we could use other terms, but this one will suffice) is something a nation would have to invest a significant amount of resources into acquiring but demonstrates that nation’s capacity and resolve to have that asset and the potential to utilize it. Let’s consider a non-military example that gets us closer to our science fiction purpose: the United States’ space shuttle program. It cost a lot of money to design, build, and operate our shuttles. It takes a lot of engineering and science research and development, worker training, intellectual know-how, political resolve and budgeting, good management, and material resources to get a space shuttle. Once you get a shuttle, it takes highly-skilled, highly-capable and adaptable, best-of-the-best operators to execute the missions we desired the shuttle for. Not everyone can have a space shuttle. The same is true for capital assets in the military. Not every nation can operate submarines, or long-range bombers, or missiles, or fighter jets, or close-combat-supporting helicopters, or satellite networks.

Flying Nazgul. Credit: Figwit via councilofeldrond.com

Clearly many capabilities we know from the world of science fiction will fall into the category of a capital asset. Spacecraft, space stations, and the propulsion systems that power them will likely be a unique class of capability. Think also of those near-future capabilities we know are just over the horizon: artificial intelligence, machine learning, near-instantaneous information availability and communication/connectedness. In the realm of fantasy, many applications of magic might be considered this way. Truly, Gandalf and Saruman represented unique capabilities within their respective forces, and the Ringwraiths represent a whole set of capabilities for Mordor. The oliphants at Pelenor Fields and rock-dropping griffins of King Edmund’s Narnian army may also fall under that heading.  

While the training of a warrior for close combat will involve physical conditioning, weapons proficiency, and preparation for the psychological and physiological impacts of the battlefield, the operators of these high-end capabilities require something different. While all members of the military receive a basic level of training, those services supporting high-end capabilities will divert the practitioners of those communities into specialized training schools and follow that up with routine integrated training to ensure all the pieces work together.

Let’s again use some examples close to home: Sailors and Airmen. All members of the U.S. military go through some form of basic training, learning the institutions of their respective service, military courtesies, and by and large spending a great amount of effort in breaking down individualism and growing a team-oriented attitude among recruits. This will have important consequences later.

The majority of Sailors and Airmen who enter service do so knowing the field of work they will participate in. After basic training they will depart for a series of training activities to learn those specialized skills. It might be many months before they are ready to join an operating platform or unit and begin to apply those skills as an apprentice-level practitioner. You would expect an aircraft maintainer, nuclear power plant operator, missilier, combat system technician and operator, etc., so need to learn the basics of the systems before they head to a vessel or aircraft squadron that will deploy.

US Air Force missileers in training. Credit: AF.mil

Once basic and specialized training is complete they will report to an operating unit where they will apply those skills in a graded manner, maturing from apprentice operators under the guidance of more senior and experienced folks and gaining real-world expertise. It’s here that integration occurs, since the numerous specialties come together to form a single operating unit. A warship is not only the sum of its parts (propulsion plant, sensors, weapon systems, living quarters for the crew, etc.), but the true impact of that platform is in the synergy of a well-trained, trusting, and focused crew. The same can be said for a squadron of aircraft, a cadre of missileers, the crew of a submarine, or any other capital asset that requires multiple skills to effectively operate.

Lastly, those capital assets must be exercised in simulated environments to ensure the crews know what to do, when to do it, and ensure that routines become second nature so that actions occur without fail in times of confusion and duress like combat. During the period leading up to a deployment, and with some degree of regularity at all times, teams will practice routines and drill themselves on the breadth of their capabilities. Emergency action drills, equipment and system casualty drills, battle stations, launch procedures, and simulated wargames to test the ability of the team to execute their missions in the midst of anticipated challenges will ensure operators are ready for as many expected situations as possible. More importantly, it prepares them for the unknown things that might happen by building a level of readiness and preparedness that will be adaptable to circumstances that arise.

That might seem like a ironic combination, but high-end warfighting is based on a balance between rote mechanical routines that reduce the operator’s need to think (don’t think, just act) with a demand for creativity, adaptability, and ingenuity to bring those skills to bear depending on the situation.

Travis P again. I hope readers are grasping the impact of what Travis C said and how that affects speculative fiction stories. We may tend to think of the military capacities of a nation as being even–but in fact the difference between the minimum technology a nation may have and its most advanced weapons can be extreme.

Egyptian-style chariot. Credit: Joe Alblas © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.

These contrasts have always existed–for example, in the world of the Hebrew Scriptures, the chariot was the most elite and highly technical weapon of its era. Israelites, who especially at first fought mostly with untrained levies of troops, could not afford to create a permanent warrior caste or to pay professional warriors with the skills to operate chariots. Nor did they have the specialized skills involved in building chariots. So it wasn’t until after the time of David the King that the Israelites had any chariots at all, and they never had many in relation to other nations.

Soviet Union Typhoon submarine. Credit: Wikipedia

But the larger a nation is and the more technologically developed its world is, the bigger the potential difference is between high-end capacities and the minimum abilities to fight that a nation has. The Soviet Union had poorly trained draftees it could barely manage to house and feed at the low end of its abilities and also ballistic nuclear submarines worth the equivalent of billions of US dollars on the high end. A united world in a futuristic science fiction universe could mostly be at a medieval level of technology–but might be able to pool enough resources as a planet to buy a starship or two and might manage (with the help of more advanced races) to provide the training required to run it or them. And that one or two starship(s) might easily have more military capacity than all of the rest of the world combined.

Credit: starwars.com

The classic example of a high-end capability in familiar speculative fiction would be the Death Star. While Tie Fighters and Imperial Star Destroyers require plenty of specialized training, the Death Star by itself exceeded the capacity of the entire Rebel fleet (even though it was vulnerable to them due to an accidentally-on-purpose flaw as seen in Rogue One). Some of the uniforms a moviegoer will see on the Death Star are nowhere else in Star Wars–clearly these were specialists trained to operate the Death Star and the Death Star alone. Operating the Death Star obviously would require a great deal of highly technical training that would have very little in common with the battle hardening required of elite warriors that our previous posts have discussed. Yet the Death Star far exceeds the destructive capacity of all the elite hereditary warriors of that story universe combined, the Jedi Knights (not even working together could all the Jedi blow up a planet).

Death Star crew at work. Credit: Flickriver.com

Writers of epic fantasy, don’t think this article doesn’t apply to you! When we start talking about magical capabilities, clearly the training of an elf or wizard that requires thousands of years to master represents high-end capabilities that are in a way every bit as advanced as those found in a technological society. Though wizards are generally portrayed as being more generalized than technologically advanced warriors, there’s no particular reason wizards couldn’t be portrayed as highly specialized instead.

UK Ministry of Magic Logo (Harry Potter).
Credit: http://harrypotter.wikia.com

Harry Potter represents an interesting case. Magic is clearly an integral part of the wizarding world and training of wizards is expected. Students actually learn basic skills in schools (Defense Against the Dark Arts) and a class of specialized warrior-constables exists in the Aurors. Do we see that level of sophistication when the war opens up in the last few books? Or is it every wizard for himself or herself?

Jaeger “Striker Eureka.” Credit: scifi.stackexchange.com

Another example of high-end capabilities and the training used to support them can be found in Pacific Rim with the Jaegers. Clearly these are complex devices (even if not wholly realistic), requiring significant investment and lots of support structure. Even though the storyline focused on characters who were their pilots, these were obviously not the only personnel required to develop Jaegers.

Naussicaä and the Valley of the Wind poster by Yoshiyuki Takani

We also see some crossovers into the realm of steampunk-ish worlds. Mortal Engines, David Webers’ Off Armageddon Reef (a low-tech world featuring an advanced navy and a cybernetic protagonist), Studio Ghibli’s Naussicaä and the Valley of the Wind (featuring a few high-end weapons), etc.

What are your thoughts on the topic of military high-end capabilities and the training required to support them?


The Saving Mystery

This is the cardinal rule for writers who wish to tread into the next world: Leave the mystery.
| Dec 5, 2018 | 2 comments |

Last time I came by this way, I talked about Coco’s demoralizing portrait of the afterlife and how it casts a pall over the movie. Today, I want to move that discussion to a more general question of how the afterlife ought to be portrayed in fiction. My concern is not the gate to heaven or the road to hell, the broad and the narrow way; I am thinking of the much slighter question of what glimpses should be given of the afterlife, including the secondhand glimpses that come through ghosts or other denizens of the spiritual world.

The first thing to say is that we don’t really know what the next world looks like (which complicates creating glimpses of it!). We know what truly matters – eternal good or eternal bad, reward or punishment, God or the devil. Yet these abstractions are not translated into the concrete, except in the visions of Revelation. To what extent the fire and harps and gold are symbols of final destiny, or actual components of it, is a point of theological debate. Even the literal interpretation would leave us mostly with images of the New Jerusalem, which is not quite synonymous with Heaven. By any interpretation, the next world is mostly unknown – and unimaginable.

And fiction rushes in where theologians would fear to tread. It is easier for storytellers, you know: No portrait of the afterlife can truly be the way it is, but such literal truth is not their game anyway. Writers take two different avenues to spinning out visions of the afterlife. The first is that of symbolism; the concrete pictures represent abstract truths. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis painted Hell as a city of empty streets sprawling out for thousands of miles in order to express the idea that the willful self-isolation of sin is consummated in Hell. Twilight Zone’s “Nothing in the Dark” personifies Death as a handsome young man to convey the idea that death is not a monster in the dark. In works like these, the presentation of the unknowable is true in the only way it can be – as a symbol.

Not all writers have such elevated aims. Those interested in a good story, and not transcendent spiritual truths, take the second avenue. Putting aside the quest to tell the truth about the next life, some writers take happy license to invent whatever is most expedient to plot twists, world-building, or thrills. Coco is an unusually elaborate example of this. Ghost stories provide a broad array of more simple instances. Consider the popular trope of ghosts who linger to finish some item of business, or say goodbye, or even to simply realize that they’re dead. The tellers of such stories don’t necessarily believe that dead people remain on earth seeking closure. In fact, I would wager that most of them don’t, and some don’t believe in the immortality of the soul at all. There is no actual attempt, in many stories of the afterlife, to express any truth of whatever lies on the other side of death.

Yet there is, implicit in most of these stories, a sense of journey and a sense of mystery. We don’t know where the ghosts are going when they are finally ready to leave, but they are going somewhere; we don’t know what happens when the twilight over the city of empty streets ends, or where Death is leading the old woman. Many stories affect to peer through the great veil of death, but few pretend to tear it down. We are ignorant even in our stories, and in that ignorance is mystery, and in that mystery is hope.

That is the mistake that Coco makes: It doesn’t have the saving sense of mystery, the sense of journey that could have redeemed the dreariness of the Land of the Dead. This, then, is the cardinal rule for writers who wish to tread into the next world: Leave the mystery. Never pretend to tell all.