My Writing Roots

As I said here last week, when I started writing the book that would become The Light of Eidon, my initial intent was to keep the spiritual concepts concealed. This proved more difficult than I imagined, though mostly I didn’t realize […]
| Sep 27, 2006 | No comments |

As I said here last week, when I started writing the book that would become The Light of Eidon, my initial intent was to keep the spiritual concepts concealed. This proved more difficult than I imagined, though mostly I didn’t realize it at first. Part of that was due to my own ignorance of religious tradition and beliefs, seeing as I had grown up in an unbelieving family.

For example, I had no real intention of patterning my religious organization after the Roman Catholic church and to my way of thinking, did not. I knew very little about it for one thing, and for another was more interested in devising something that would be generally representative of religious concepts. To that end I took elements from Mormonism (about which I knew more than I did Catholicism), Buddhism, Japanese Shintoism and other things in addition to Catholicism. Alas, people who grew up in the latter faith have informed me that it is very obviously a parallel.

Some can overlook it, others react. But a few, including one friend who left that religion long ago, found the book to be profoundly beneficial in rooting out concepts she had long clung to without realizing it and now considers to be false. As a result of reading The Light of Eidon, she has come to a new understanding of her spiritual life and gained a new freedom from her past.

So I certainly don’t regret the final form the book has taken.

But that was minor compared to the struggles I began to have with the original plan to keep the real Christian elements hidden. I think what happened is that as I continued to write the book I was also growing spiritually. As I came to understand more about my own faith and what the Bible teaches about the core of Christianity, I became less and less enamored with the idea of hiding it all.  Besides, it was just plain hard to come up with a salvation equivalent in the Guardian King books that suited me — that communicated the truths of Christianity without looking overtly like it. Some sort of religious dogma had to be advanced, however, both for the Mataio, which was relatively easy, and for the Terstans, which was not. But I had no idea how to solve the problem. So for awhile I tried to write around it.

Even in that state, though, the book landed me two agents who worked in the general market science fiction and fantasy fields and an almost sale at what was then New American Library.

The first agent passed the book around to all the major houses, receiving varying degrees of positive rejections — if there is such a thing. DelRey offered to look at it again, once I cut it down to size. Others praised the writing but, “Alas, it doesn’t suit our needs at this time.”  That first agent was the one who nursed it along at NAL for over a year, until the hiring of a new assistant editor. He felt my work needed more humor and sent the book home with a rejection slip.

In the interim I found myself growing dissatisfied with my agent. Half the time I heard from her assistant not from her, so I was never sure who exactly was representing me. It didn’t help, either, that they kept getting me confused with other authors, asking me to send them copies of manuscripts I’d not written. There was no real sense that any of them really cared about my work, and in the end we were both happy to part ways.

Over the next several years I rewrote the entire book, then got a second agent, a former editor at Tor and so far as I know, not a Christian. The second agent was much more excited about what I was doing than the first had been, but she only lasted six months before abandoning agenting. That’s when I received the news that the market was saturated and I needed to write something different.

So I shelved Eidon and began Arena, an alternate world story that from the beginning was conceived as an allegory for the Christian way of life. It was in the writing of that that I really began to chafe against the boundaries I’d stipulated that no one should be able to tell my work was Christian allegory unless they really looked. But I’ll talk more about that next week.

Mist-Shrouded Mountaintop

Writers’ conferences can be strange things. They are both at once energizing and encouraging while at the same time seem to be able to suck the air from your lungs and leave you groping for the path forward. The conference […]
| Sep 26, 2006 | No comments |

Writers’ conferences can be strange things. They are both at once energizing and encouraging while at the same time seem to be able to suck the air from your lungs and leave you groping for the path forward.

The conference this year was a bit more of the encouragement and a little less mist shrouded, though it took a bit of fanning to clear away the clouds and see what was actually happening out there. So I figured I’d take the chance to share my re-cap here as well.

The conference started off with the editor and agent panels, which I think are probably the worst events for a speculative fiction writer to attend. Usually because there will be at least one flippant remark as to how sci-fi and fantasy doesn’t sell and nobody wants it. Which isn’t 100% true, but it can leave you starting off the conference feeling like a kicked dog in a rainstorm.

However I hope the SFF get together later on Thursday night helped to assuage some doused spirits as we all met, chat, commiserated, boggled at the seeming prejudice against our chosen genre, and mostly just had a rowdy time. It was a great time of fun and encouragement to push forward through the mist and boldly go where CBA (Christian Bookseller’s Association) tiptoes.

I went to Randy Ingermanson’s continuing session, which was mostly about putting together the perfect synopsis and a few other things my brain is refusing to recall… ah yes it was the structure of a novel. From high concept, one line summary to the MRUs (Motivation Reaction Units). Basically the Snowflake method.  Always a good thing to tune in on.

John Olson also taught two excellent workshops, the first was on Thrillers, though the basic principles of the session can be applied to any genre as needed. The second was on Writing science fiction and fantasy, or more appropriately, figuring out how to SELL science fiction and fantasy in the CBA market.  As he said a few times throughout the conference, “Nobody is actively looking for fantasy, but they are acquiring it.”  I would highly recommend both of these sessions to someone looking for what to buy on CD from the conference (once I know the link on where you can get those CDs I’ll be sure to post it.)

There were many other little moments at the conference that helped whisk away the early mist and help me see that I really was standing on a mountaintop and let me move on encouraged and charged to return home and know that I’m not writing in vain (even if my stories never actually get published).  But to relate them all would take far too much time and space, and I’m not sure I even understand them all yet.

But I’ll stick by my post from last week and say that the void continues to shrink. Even if some days it seems like all is covered in mist.

****UPDATE****

To order recordings of the conference click here!

The Briefest Report Of The ACFW Writers’ Conference

I just returned from Dallas, jetting into Ontario CA, after a significant delay at DWA, at 12:00 AM-ish. After bag pick-up and shuttle pick-up, I was in my car and on the way for the thirty-minute drive. When I got […]
| Sep 25, 2006 | No comments |

I just returned from Dallas, jetting into Ontario CA, after a significant delay at DWA, at 12:00 AM-ish. After bag pick-up and shuttle pick-up, I was in my car and on the way for the thirty-minute drive. When I got home, I collapsed into sleep about 1:30 AM West Coast time.

Nevertheless, I wanted to give a brief report of some positives.

First, congratulations to our own Mirtika Schultz for winning the Genesis Contest. I’d love to tell you more about her piece, but I don’t even remember the title, though it was flashed up on the big screens in the Meriott ballroom along with Mir’s picture. I do know that she’s a talented writer, as evidenced by a number of her short stories published online. Mayhap we can twist her arm into posting a sample of her story here at Spec Faith. You can leave notes for her here or visit her blog (link in the sidebar) and congratulate her there.

The second piece of news is that in the general fiction category of the Book of the Year contest, our own Bryan Davis won second place with Circles of Seven. Interestingly enough, he was beat out by another fantasy writer, Miles Owens, with Daughter of Prophecy. (For a review of DoP, see what I had to say about the book at A Christian Worldview of Fiction). Not a bad accomplishment, having fantasy books win the top two spots.

I encourage you to flood Miles and Bryan with congratulations. Bryan’s contact information is located here and Miles’s is here.

More good news. We had a wonderful Sci-Fi Fantasy authors get-together Thursday night (special thanks to Shannon McNear—see her link in the sidebar—for setting that up) with over 20 writers showing up strictly on word of mouth, since we didn’t have an official “chat” scheduled. Among those in attendance were John Olson (co-author of Oxygen, Bethany), who later taught a seminar on Sci Fi and Fantasy (with as many as fifty writers in attendance), Bryan Davis (Dragons in Our Midst), and T. L. (Tracy) Higley (Marduk’s Tablet, Barbour).

Last add, since this is turning into a longer post than I intended: Zondervan has hired a new editor, Andy Meisenheimer, who does not hide his own love of fantasy. He and some of the other younger members of the editorial community who also personally like fantasy serve as examples of one of the things I believe and have mentioned in my “Fantasy and a Christian Worldview” series: the twenty-something readers (and to a lesser extent the thirty-something readers) are hungry for SFF, and Christians are hungry for CSFF. In my opinion, this trend will only increase since a good many of these readers cut their reading teeth on Harry Potter.

Are editors actively seeking CSFF? Not yet. But I can’t help but think the trend is about to reverse.

Analysis Of ‘Hell Is The Absence Of God’ By Ted Chiang, Part 2

Today we continue to look at Ted Chiang’s amazing story “Hell is the Absence of God.”
| Sep 22, 2006 | No comments |

Today we continue to look at Ted Chiang’s amazing story “Hell is the Absence of God” and compare it with a well-known tale not unlike it—and one you may find surprising. (Read part 1 of this series.)

First, some remarks by Ted Chiang found online, to give insight into the writer:

I wasn’t raised in any religion, so I don’t have the love/hate relationship with it that many people do. When I was younger I had a vague belief in God that I’d acquired through cultural osmosis, but I’m currently an atheist. I think religion is interesting, but primarily in an abstract way. I haven’t encountered a solution to the question of innocent suffering that I find satisfactory, and perhaps that prevents me from finding religion really compelling. I wonder if I’m fortunate, in a way; there are people who are also frustrated by the problem of innocent suffering, while still feeling a strong belief in God. That seems to me to be a difficult position to be in. Which is what “Hell is the Absence of God” is all about.1

From Infinity Plus:

Whereas the universe in “Hell is the Absence of God” is not based on a discarded scientific worldview. It was never scientific, and it hasn’t been discarded. It’s a view of the world that many people have now, except that things are explicit rather than hidden. A lot of people, right now, believe that good and bad fortune are the result of supernatural intervention, and it’s often based on what you deserve.

[…]

In “Hell is the Absence of God,” one’s moral worth is definitely a factor. Specifically, there’s a relationship between the individual consciousness and some other consciousness — that being God. And that again is characteristic of fantasy, that there are forces which you treat as conscious entities, which you have to appease or make sacrifices to. You have to interact with them as though they were a person, and they respond to you as a person. Which is not how science in our world works at all. Which is why I classify that story as a fantasy rather than as science fiction.

[…]

Whereas in “Hell is the Absence of God,” there really isn’t a scientific question being investigated. The issues are more purely the domain of religion — specifically, what is our purpose in life, what kind of life are we supposed to lead, how do we get to heaven?2

I think you see where I’m headed. The inevitable question now is “Who wrote Job?” And that answer may lead to a clearer understanding of who I think is the true narrator of this story , whether the author intended it so or not. “Hell is the Absence of God” is, as far as I can see, an updated version of The Book of Job, replete with things taken away and things given, with counsel and seeking of knowledge, with a heavenly revelation, with no ultimate answer given to the hero, and with the underlying theme of the problem of suffering. In the end, love of God increases.

So, who wrote Job? And who is narrating Neil’s story? And how is he like or unlike Job? Discuss!

Next week: Part 3, where we compare and contrast and come to some sort of conclusions.

  1. A Conversation With Ted Chiang, an interview with Lou Anders, July 2002.
  2. The Absence of God, an interview with Ted Chiang by Jeremy Smith, undated article.)

    This story—as the author states categorically—is fantasy, and it is a quest fantasy. Every character is asking questions, is a seeker, and goes out at personal peril to find and grasp the object for which they quest. And they all find what they seek, if not in the exact version they sought it.

    What if this quest story had been written by someone not an atheist, but an Evangelical believer, let’s say, acclimated to the CBA type of fictional tone. Then what?

    Well, the main part of the story (most of it, that is) could easily remain intact. All those questions, all the proposed answers, are part of a long history of legitimate inquiry into the problem of suffering and of loving God in the midst of trials. The variety of characterizations (Neil, Janice, Ethan), allows for a balanced structure. All views are exposed by some passing voice (the group meeting attendants, the family members, etc). This story asks a lot of questions, and depending on your perspective, your worldview, you may latch onto one of the proposed replies or suggestions.

    I’d say a CBA story might give more time to Janice, make her an equal to Neil. Compare and contrast. Might even make Janice the star. Ethan could maintain his role as the historian, the apostle of Janice, as it were. The ending would have to change. But to that later.

    First, the vexing issue of who is telling this story.

    I have given this a lot of thought. I’ve come to my own novel interpretation (which seems like a good word for what is to follow, interpretation). I don’t think Mr. Chiang would agree, but as a reader may find things in a text not consciously intended by an author, I will feel free to be as wild in my own theorizings.

    Imagine a story about a man who feels blessed, but then has his blessing removed, and becomes perplexed in his anguish, receiving much counsel that vexes him, seeking answers in his distress, and ultimately receiving a radically attitude-changing vision of God. Whose story is that?

    It’s Neil Fisk’s story.

    And it’s Job’s.

    Compare the opening of “Hell is the Absence of God” (“This is the story of a man named Neil Fisk and how he came to love God”) with the following first line from Job:

    There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.[3. Job 1:1.

Something Else To Learn From The Secular, Part 2

Check out this post by J. Mark Bertrand, whose work I discovered not long ago (and have greatly enjoyed): Aratus is one of the poets quoted by the Apostle Paul at Mars Hill. His Phaenomena begins in the following way: […]
| Sep 21, 2006 | No comments |

Check out this post by J. Mark Bertrand, whose work I discovered not long ago (and have greatly enjoyed):

Aratus is one of the poets quoted by the Apostle Paul at Mars Hill. His Phaenomena begins in the following way:

Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring…

That last line should be familiar to readers of Acts 17. Paul, in announcing the identity of “the unknown god” to his Athenian audience, assures them that God “is actually not far from each one of us” (v. 27). He backs up this claim not with an Old Testament quote but with a line attributed to Epimenedes of Crete — “In him we live and move and have our being” — and the aforementioned line from Aratus: “For we are indeed his offspring.” The fact that Paul was familiar enough with classical pagan authors to quote lines from their poetry in support of his argument is often cited by teachers today as a mandate for cultural engagement. To speak to our culture, we have to know our culture.

But it seems to me that Paul’s behavior is even more striking than this. He doesn’t just quote a line from Aratus, he quotes Aratus on the omnipresence of Zeus. Think about that for a moment …

What Paul’s action suggests to me is simple enough. A Christian thinker should have no problem reading the work of non-Christian authors, finding the truth there, and putting it in the context of a larger truth.

After getting over my initial shock upon reading this, my first thought was that it serves as complete confirmation that believers in Christ can—and should—use media that has been associated with the world—with pagan worship, even. This argument that Christians shouldn’t do this or have any part in that because of its previous association holds even less water for me now. Science fiction is often considered the bastion of atheism, while fantasy is condemned as occultic or New Age. And yet—not only should we appropriate the genre as a way to reveal truth (“knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” and “I become all things to all people”), but there’s nothing ungodly about some of us being conversant enough in the thoroughly secular end of things to dialogue intelligently with fans who might not listen to “ordinary” Christians. (And nobody could accuse the apostle Paul of being ordinary … the man was astounding!)

Christian SF/F fans are often regarded as uber geeks. A few times recently I’ve laughingly referred to myself as a freak among freaks … y’know, Paul says we are a peculiar people, but some of us are more peculiar than others. But I’ve had a growing conviction that God made us thus for a purpose—HIS purpose—because we are uniquely suited to represent Him to a portion of society who might otherwise never think twice about what Christianity really is.

What they don’t realize is that all the wonder they long for—all the honor, and goodness, and truth, and the unanswered questions—it all lies with Him. The longings that are spoken of in their writings, are met in Him. Let us, then, hold the standard of His name up high—and not be afraid to walk among those who seem to be hostile to us, or Him.

If God is with us, who can be against us?

My Fantasy Roots

Day three of the Edenstar Blog Tour… Looking through all the books listed on that site has recalled to me my own speculative fiction roots and I thought I’d start my stint of posts here on Speculative Faith with a trip […]
| Sep 20, 2006 | No comments |

Day three of the Edenstar Blog Tour… Looking through all the books listed on that site has recalled to me my own speculative fiction roots and I thought I’d start my stint of posts here on Speculative Faith with a trip down memory lane.

My first memory is of a book of fairytales I received as a little girl. There were jewels hanging in the trees of the forest and a white stag. And there was a giant who kidnapped a maiden and kept her in his cave where he cut off her feet and locked them in a cupboard so she wouldn’t be able to escape. Of course the prince found her and they got her feet out of the cupboard, put them back on and she was delivered…

A bizarre story to remember, yes, but it has stayed with me as surely as the jewels and the white stag. I didn’t even blink at the notion of feet cut off and kept in a cupboard, then popped back on like a pair of shoes when it was time to go!  Maybe that willingness to suspend disbelief is one reason I have always loved the literature of the fantastic.  Well, I’ve loved literature of history and adventure and spying and westerns and mysteries… best not get into that. Science fiction and especially fantasy, though, have always held a special place in my heart.

As a child I don’t recall there being much to choose from.  The fairy tale book, Miss Pickerel Goes to Mars (Ellen MacGregor), A Wrinkle in Time, The Phantom Tollbooth. Does Pooh count? I’ve always loved Winnie the Pooh… I used to watch the creature feature in black and white on our old TV every Saturday afternoon. More crazy stuff to fill the well.

Then in the seventh grade, I found Andre Norton’s Judgment on Janis and I was hooked on SF for good. I read everything of hers I could find, then I read everything of Robert Heinlein’s I could find. And then I just started reading everything in the SF/F section of the library — I loved Dune (and had absolutely no idea they were doing drugs and having orgies until the third time I read it). At the same time, Star Trek came on the scene. After that ended its run, I spent some time with Westerns — Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and other historicals. I read The Hobbit in High School, followed by Lord of the Rings, but they didn’t really capture me. C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy was interesting but Perelandra was soooo boring! (Until I read it again, about ten years later as a Christian; then it was my favorite of the three).

I was married and one year out of college when I was complaining to my husband about a John Jakes book wherein the protagonists were rolling amorously about in the hay by the third page, and my husband suggested I write my own novels. I decided to take his advice.

I’d already written a western and a Star Trek ripoff novel in high school. Now, having recently become a Christian, I was gungho for Christ and decided I would write a Christian western (I was blissfully, profoundly ignorant of all things relating to publication at the time). Six months later Star Wars came out and it blew me away. The analogies that movie sparked wouldn’t let me go. I threw the western aside and began to write a science fiction adventure allegory.

But not an obvious allegory. I wanted to show just how cool the Christian life was, without all the baggage that I, having been an unbeliever for 21 years of my life, knew existed out there. I had carried so many misconceptions about it all myself, that I was eager to present something that would clear them all up. I also wanted to tell a real story, with deep and believable characters, not the cardboard figures I’d noted in other allegoriacl stories.

I think at the time the Christian market for fiction was virtually nonexistent — prairie romances, biblical historical fiction and Grace Livingston Hill were about it. I had no interest in any of that, and never even gave thought to going in that direction. The focus was always on ABA. That’s what I wanted to write for, that’s where I saw my books as being published.

Sometime not long after that, someone told me SF was evil, so I switched to fantasy (I have since changed my mind about that…). Abramm Kalladorne took shape on a long, hot dayhike in the Blue Wilderness of central Arizona and shortly thereafter I began the book that would one day become The Light of Eidon, Book One in THE LEGENDS OF THE GUARDIAN-KING.

To be continued…

Grace,
Karen Hancock

The Shrinking Void

It wasn’t much more than a few months ago when I was feeling pretty down about the future prospects of Christian speculative fiction. I felt like we were looking at a giant gnome-built wall that had set itself up in […]
| Sep 19, 2006 | No comments |

It wasn’t much more than a few months ago when I was feeling pretty down about the future prospects of Christian speculative fiction. I felt like we were looking at a giant gnome-built wall that had set itself up in the path of this genre and denied any further steps forward.

But over these last few months, with the help of the fellow writers here, the discovery of places like Edenstarbooks.com and WheretheMapEnds.com The wall seems to be on the verge of doing what gnome-built things often tend to do….self-destruct.

I’ve found my definition of speculative fiction to be broadening and discovering so many new books. And as is shown over at Claw of the Conciliator and by our own Mirtirka, that we can find Christian themed stories that have been out for years in the ABA.

So I have found encouragement that what once seemed like a great void in the world of speculative fiction is shrinking. There are still pockets where I wish more ground could be taken (space opera, adventure fantasy), but I no longer despair for seeing the day.

This weekend (Sept. 21-24) I, along with a few of our other contributors will be heading off to the American Christian Fiction Writers conference, the premier conference for fiction writers in the Christian market. In the past the sense that I have gotten from this conference is a sobering one. However times may be changing. Speculative fiction has been showing up more and more in the CBA. And this year there will even be a workshop on writing science fiction and fantasy taught by John Olson.

So perhaps this year the vibe will be a bit more encouraging and we’ll see the void shrink again. At any rate, whether you’re a reader or a writer of Speculative Fiction from a Christian worldview. Don’t despair. The future continues to look brighter.

CSFF Blog Tour—Edenstar Books and Games

To kick off September’s CSFF Blog Tour, I had the privilege of interviewing Bill Bader, who, along with his wife Cheryl, founded our featured web site, Edenstar Books and Games. RLM: Since you and Cheryl created and maintain a web […]
| Sep 18, 2006 | No comments |

To kick off September’s CSFF Blog Tour, I had the privilege of interviewing Bill Bader, who, along with his wife Cheryl, founded our featured web site, Edenstar Books and Games.

RLM: Since you and Cheryl created and maintain a web site dedicated to Christian science fiction and fantasy, I can only assume the genre holds some allure for you. What first got you interested in speculative fiction?

BB: Tough question! Probably it was my passionate interest in astronomy. Science fiction took me places that regular stories couldn’t. I liked its outlandish, weird, unconventional nature whether serious or humorous. Socially I felt like an outsider, so I may have identified with the genre because it often dealt with misfits, aliens, and other oddballs. Part of the pleasure, too, is that much of it attempts to predict scientific, social, political, and other developments. Finally, a lot of it is just plain ol’ escapist fun!

I lost interest because I saw a lot of us-and-them mentality in the local sci fi fan group (many call non-fans “mundanes,” or boring people. It’s not universal, though). I also saw antagonism towards Christians and Christianity. Again, not a lot, but enough to be exasperating. Shock for the sake of shock crept in, and that quickly wore thin.

CSFF has all the elements that drew me to sci fi originally, but doesn’t have the negatives that alienated (sorry — couldn’t resist!) me. There’s an amazing amount of well-written CSFF that keeps me busy. I feel as if I’ve rejoined a party that’s better than I’d ever hoped.

RLM: What prompted you and Cheryl to do something so time-consuming as establishing and maintaining Edenstar?

BB: We like CSFF and know that others do. Since it’s so hard to find, we consolidated the available information so we could have a kind of check list that could also generate a bit of income! But if we’d known how demanding it is, we might have thought twice. Too late now.

RLM: What do you hope or believe is possible for Christian SFF and where do you see the genre now?

BB: I hope it can continue to grow as more Christian publishers take the risks of producing something that believers might find controversial. Sci fi has always been relegated to a small niche, and CSFF is a niche within a niche. But it can express truth in ways that mainstream Christian fiction can’t. That’s one of its greatest strengths, IMHO.

Much CSFF is published by smaller houses and never reaches bookstores. Fortunately, the Internet (which sci fi never predicted) has allowed us to learn of, list, and read some amazingly good books we never would have heard of otherwise. The numbers of reviews displayed for these books show that others are finding them as well. So there’s hope for growth and influence.

RLM: I know your wife Cheryl writes fantasy. What can you tell me about her book The Maker’s Pool?

BB: The Maker’s Pool is the story of three kids who pass through a mysterious green door into the land of Mojuku, one that’s as technologically advanced as ours. However, in Mojuku’s world, Tellamond, the Fall never happened. It’s a world without sin. In fact, the people don’t even grasp the concept. The people there have a close relationship with the Maker, living hundreds of years before going to their permanent home with the Maker’s Father. However, three invaders are poised to bring corruption into Tellamond by trying to tempt the natives into violating the one Law: do not swim in the Maker’s Pool.

Mitch, his sister Tanya, and his best friend Kevin are there to alert the Mojukans of the danger heading toward them. But the three have some learning to do themselves. Obedience, humility, and faith aren’t their strengths. But unless they grow and learn, their mission will not succeed.

Subjectively, I think it’s a wonderful book that more than holds its own. I’m frustrated because I think it’s a lot better than other juvenile fiction I’ve read, and I’d love to see The Maker’s Pool get the publication and recognition I think it deserves.

Objectively, it’s well plotted and paced. The characters are plausible, especially the Maker. A Christ figure is tricky to depict, and I think Cheryl did so really well. The humor works, the cliffhangers work, and the story is thought provoking without being preachy. I look forward to more about Kevin, Mitch, Tanya, Mr. Peabody, and the Maker himself.

RLM: How do you answer the critics of fantasy who believe Christians should not involve themselves in stories with talking animals or magic or strange powers?

BB: I’d start by asking why they object. Assuming the stories don’t get into biblically forbidden areas, I don’t see a problem. Talking animals, strange powers, and other fantasy elements can attract an audience to Christian teaching in a way that’s more palatable to them. For example, Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings from a Christian point of view but never mentioned Christ. However he includes such Christian concepts as friendship, generosity, hospitality, faith, sacrifice, temptation, atonement, suffering, resurrection—and more. Again, the books teach without preaching, as if they’re a very extended series of parables. Likewise, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia included many “suspect” elements, but they do what Lewis intended, which was to plant spiritual seeds in his readers’ minds.

RLM: Thanks so much, Bill. All that’s left now is for readers to see what the other CSFF blog participants (see list below) have to say and to check out Edenstar for themselves.

Jim Black

Jackie Castle

Valerie Comer

Bryan Davis

Beth Goddard

Leathel Grody

Karen Hancock

Elliot Hanowski

Katie Hart

Sherrie Hibbs

Sharon Hinck

Jason Joyner

Tina Kulesa

Kevin Lucia

Rachel Marks

Shannon McNear

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Cheryl Russel

Mirtika Schultz

Stuart Stockton

Steve Trower

Analysis Of ‘Hell Is The Absence Of God’ By Ted Chiang, Part 1

“Hell is the Absence of God” offers an exhilaratingly plotted story with a horrifying, perplexing, brilliant, and vexing conclusion.
| Sep 15, 2006 | 1 comment |

This novelette won the Hugo and the Nebula awards. And what an exhilaratingly plotted story with a horrifying and perplexing and brilliant and vexing conclusion. It’s a complicated story told in a clean, simple prose. I’ll need at least two, maybe more sessions to go through it.

But first, the beginning:

“This is the story of a man named Neil Fisk, and how he came to love God.”

The first line is true. This is precisely that story in a nutshell. But the simplicity and traditional opening—think of how many stories you read, perhaps mythologies, perhaps children’s tales that opened in like manner, “This is the story of…”—belie the complexity within.

Yes, it is Neil’s story, but it is also to a lesser extent Janice Reilly’s story, and to the least extent of the three characters who play their part in the tale, Ethan Mead’s. The lives of all three intersect. And all three end up at the same place and doing the same thing for different reasons by the end of the story, all with different results.
I did say an exhilarating plot, no?

“Hell is the Absence of God”—henceforth HitAoG—is a fantasy. The “what if” behind it is simple: What if Hell, Heaven, Angels, and God were a reality, something factual, something you saw and experienced and that got reported on the news? What if faith was removed from the equation, because there was no longer room for doubt? What would the world be like? What would individual human reaction to the world be like?

Chiang’s answer to those interrelated “what ifs” present us with an environment where angels appear with alarming frequency, the way thunderstorms or lightning or earthquakes or tornadoes do. And when they appear, terrible and wonderful things happen. Fetuses can be deformed; the blind can see or the seeing blinded; the lame can walk or the sound made lame. Deaths or healing can result. Buildings collapse and landscapes twist. All apparitions become a mixed bag, blessings and curses.

From time to time, the ground beneath you goes transparent and you see straight down into Hell, see perhaps people you’ve known or loved or hated. Sometimes, the saved appear to the living, and they are aglow with unbounded love of God, beatific. Devotion of the salvific sort is now measured not by one’s faith, but by one’s love of God.

Now, place into this situation a man who is not devout (Neil), a woman who is very devout (Janice), and man who is neither extreme (Ethan), and add these complications:

  1. Neil’s beloved wife has been killed (horrifically lacerated by shattered glass) during an angelic visitation. This makes him really not want to love God, this God who took from Neil what he loved most. But if he wants to be reunited with his beloved, he must love God. Why? Because his wife’s soul ascended to heaven at death. Loving God is the ticket to reunion. Conundrum! He begins attending a meeting with others who were at the angelic visitation that took his wife. He conscientiously works through all the ways he might reach Heaven.
  2. Janice’s legs were taken from her in her mother’s womb and replaced by flippers during an angelic visitation. Later on, four deceased saved relatives appear to her family, and this visit convinces all that Janice’s deformity is a blessing and not a punishment. She becomes a sort of Joni Erickson Tada—a minister and encourager to those who have handicaps from birth or from visitations. During a second event, her legs are restored, fully functional. She now loses the power granted by her previous situation, but tries to keep encouraging people all the same, seeing her ministry altered, but not eliminated. However, the unhealed tend to resent the healed. She is confronted by Neil, who has a leg deformity and who thinks she is ungrateful for miracle. Neil is not the only one criticizing her. Janice has lost her sense of identity and assured purpose. She wants to give back her healing.
  3. Ethan has witnessed an apparition, but he did not receive either healing or damage. Everyone else present—save one— has understood a clear purpose in their lives for the visitation. He doesn’t. He goes in a persistent search to find out why he was where he was when he was, and this leads him to Janice, the only other person at his particular visitation who has not learned why she received the visit and its healing. He finds his purpose in helping her achieve her ultimate goal.

They all are driven by a need to fix some terrible pain or answer a question or receive illumination—and their problems all stem from the way the Heavenly intrudes on the Mundane in this fantasy story.

But who is telling this story?

The simplicity, the straightforwardness of the opening paragraph could easily fits some journalistic enterprise, such as a story for a magazine. Or perhaps it might seem like some thesis paper: Here you have the initial paragraph stating concisely the who and what, the elements to be expanded upon later. You could be reading some biographical profile in a Christian periodical, perhaps even Vanity Fair, maybe even Rolling Stones.

That is, until you get deep into the second paragraph, and read this about Neil and his leg deformity: “Most people assumed God was responsible for this.” Okay, that’s a bit odd. But this is not too far off from how some folks perceive handicaps. (But most?) We feel a bit of the slippage of perception, here, but we can’t relax ,because the next phrase puts us totally in fantasy territory: “but Neil’s mother hadn’t witnessed any visitation while carrying him…”

Okay. We’ve slipped the surly bonds of reality and off we go into the wild blue. And wild it is.

But who is telling this story?

Danged if I know.

It’s an omniscient narrator, certainly. He,1 the narrator, knows things that people don’t say. Offers motivations and thoughts. Yes, omniscient. Is it meant to be God?

Like I said, danged if I know.

But considering that this is a story where God (who never actually steps on stage, as it were) plays a huge role, it is interesting to consider. More on that later, when we head into the discussion of the shattering conclusion.

The depth of the story comes from the involved problem-solving behavior (and problem assessing prose, I might add) of all three characters, but most clearly Neil and Janice. Chiang takes what Christians believe (there is a Heaven, there is a Hell, there are angels, there are damned, there are saved, God intervenes, God blesses, God judges, the first commandment and foremost is “love God with all your heart…”) and makes it as literal as possible. Then, he puts eternally heartbreaking and brain-aching theological puzzlers into play, most obviously the problem of human suffering in light of the Judeo-Christian propositions that God is just and good.

This is a very deep tale.

But the people are also very human and needy, and so we sympathize. All of us who have loved deeply can understand Neil’s problem—he wants to be with his wife, be it on Earth, in Heaven or in Hell. His misfortune is to be the man who is incapable of loving God (by disposition, nature, circumstance), yet who must nevertheless gain Heaven.

That’s one heckuva conflict set-up, eh? Neil is a God-hating person sympathetically portrayed.

As far as Janice’s character, anyone of faith who has undergone suffering and heard the sermons on the topic or read the books on it and then seen how persons such as Joni Erickson Tada overcome in the midst o f suffering can understand what Janice is going through; if not by experience, than by the sheer logical pathwork that Chiang brilliantly sets up for Janice to do what she does.

Yes, we can find strength in our diseases and deformities and calamities, and grace, but what happens when our identity is shaken? What happens when we think we are X, and God now makes us Y? When once we could encourage people, but now we become someone who can no longer do so as before? How do we find purpose again and seek God’s will? Janice is a God-loving person sympathetically portrayed.

Ethan, though less well-drawn than Janice or Neil, is someone we can understand as well. Everyone else who experienced the visitation he witnessed found a purpose for it in their lives,except him. Therefore, he must seek it. He must know the why. Anyone who feels “left behind” or as if their life has no real meaning can relate. Ethan is an ordinary guy seeking the extraordinary and sympathetically portrayed.

And the paths of all three cross, and recross, and I as a reader can’t help but wonder if Chiang intended to imply that God is at work even at that level. I doubt it, but I’m not sure.

So, I leave you with these three people, each of them seeking something pertaining to God in a world where God is undeniable and where Hell is that place where God is not.

What will happen?

If you haven’t read the story, where do you think an atheist author is going to take Neil, Janice, and Ethan. How could it play out as a “Christian” story? Does it sound like Christian speculative fiction to you?

If you’ve read the story, how do you view the narrator? Do you sympathize with all the characters? Do you find the tone offensive (other than the ending)? Have you asked yourself the same questions about God and suffering as the characters do? And is this story Christian speculative fiction in your opinion?

I think not, despite its having some of the same elements as “Bed & Breakfast.” Tell me what you think.

Next week: Onto the Middle, fearlessly, aka Part Two.

  1. I’m using the default gender pronoun and feminist P.C.-ness be hanged

Fantasy Writing With A Christian Worldview or Beating A Dead Horse Part I

Much of what we’ve discussed at Spec Faith is whether {enter Shakespearen-themed music here} to write or not to write to the secular market, or if you prefer to the lost. And how do we do that when writing science […]
| Sep 14, 2006 | No comments |

Much of what we’ve discussed at Spec Faith is whether {enter Shakespearen-themed music here} to write or not to write to the secular market, or if you prefer to the lost. And how do we do that when writing science fiction or fantasy? If we are writing to the secular, should we portray overt Christianity, be subtle, or just write a darn good story and not quench our Christian worldview?  I hope you’re not tired of this subject because it is a conundrum for many Christian science fiction and fantasy writers and not easily forgotten or answered.

Our ultimate goal should be to write such a truly compelling story with magnificent prose that readers want to keep reading even if they cringe at anything that hints at Christianity. (Though I find it quite interesting many readers don’t even recognize the Christian elements even when it’s blatant)

Wouldn’t that be a dream come true?

There must be authors that have already reached this standard. I’m interested to hear your favorites because my TBR pile keeps growing. I’ll never catch up.

One such author that, in my opinion, has accomplished this is Stephen R. Lawhead. I found some interesting review comments regarding Christianity in his book Taliesen of the Pendragon Cycle series. This is part of only one such review.

“. . . While it seems eminently reasonable to portray Arthur’s forebears as wrestling with their conversion from Celtic pagan beliefs to Christianity (why else would they have ultimately been so obsessed with the recovery of the Holy Grail?), I believe that Lawhead fell into the trap of presenting Christianity as not only Taliesin’s choice but also his choice, the right choice and the only choice. My opinion only, of course, but I believe the novel would have been much more effective stopping at the simple portrayal of Christianity as the historical choice that Taliesin made for himself and his family! Somewhere in the final third of the novel, zealotry slipped over the top and I began to feel like Lawhead was trying to preach to me through Taliesen and, frankly, I just didn’t care for it!

The writing was so darn good, I can’t bring myself to give the novel a failing grade outright but I’m left with a disturbing feeling of ambivalence as to whether I’ll read “Merlin”, the next novel in the entire five novel series “The Pendragon Cycle”. We’ll see …

You can read Paul Weiss’s full review here .

The writing was so darn good. . .”

And that is our goal.

I did not include the first part of his review, but Mr. Weiss began raving about Taliesen despite his apparent dissatisfaction with an overt Christian message. My point is that should we write to this standard, we can write what we want—Christian themes or parallels or allegories included. If excellent writing and storytelling is always the “bottom line” in any genre and any story, then it is no less true for a Christian-themed story written to a non-Christian market. Lawhead’s books are proof of this. Any other books/authors you feel meet this standard?

On September 28th and 29th, I’ll be posting an interview with Stephen Lawhead on Favorite Pastimes historical blog. I hope you join me for that.

Oh, and I’m not sure there is actually a Part 2, but that seems to be the going trend so I’ll do my part.

Blessings!
Beth.