Learning From The Secular—Part 3

One fantasy that influenced me was the Richard Adams novel Watership Down, a story of a group of rabbits. Not your cutesy, animated rabbits wearing human clothes and walking upright. Real rabbits, except they are intelligent, have the use of […]

One fantasy that influenced me was the Richard Adams novel Watership Down, a story of a group of rabbits. Not your cutesy, animated rabbits wearing human clothes and walking upright. Real rabbits, except they are intelligent, have the use of language, and create a society.

The thing about this book that has stuck with me over the years was how completely I bought into this world. When I had to put the book down, I almost felt startled to find myself some place other than a rabbit warren.

How did Adams pull that off? How did he make this place feel so real?

One factor, I think, was his development of much more than place. He created a culture. Wikipedia mentions the following:

the author has gone so far as to construct a culture for his rabbits, including a language (Lapine), proverbs, poetry and mythology. More than one chapter consists of pieces of rabbit lore.

That list only brushes the surface, but you get the idea. Watership Down takes on life because of the history and the religion, the laughter and love, the myths and songs, the deaths and the failures, yes, also the struggles and victories.

And this leads to another factor that drew me in. The characters, though they were rabbits, had the feeling of reality because of their actions. Here’s the introduction of Fiver, as quoted by Philip Martin in The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature:

His companion seemed less at ease. He was small, with wide, staring eyes and a way of raising and turning his head which suggested not so much caution as a kind of ceaseless, nervous tension. His nose moved continually, and when a bumblebee flew humming to a thistle bloom behind him, he jumped and spun around with a start that sent two nearby rabbits scurrying for holes before the nearest, a buck with black-tipped ears, recognized him and returned to feeding. “Oh, it’s only Fiver,” said the black-tipped rabbit, “jumping at bluebottles again.”

Smallish, skittish Fiver, not well respected by most, soon becomes a savior of sorts because of his abilities that transcend the physical. Without meaning to, because the character engaged me, I followed him down the rabbit hole and into his world full of interesting details—things like the best nesting places and rabbit hierarchy.

It’s a rich world, first and foremost because it is “peopled” with rich characters that fit into a larger sphere—a historied sphere that adds significance to the story.

A number of Christian novels create this kind of depth, most notably Karen Hancock’s Guardian-King series. Kathy Tyers, subject of next week’s CSFF Blog Tour, has accomplished the same in her SF Firebird trilogy.

That kind of attention to character and to detail that gives such a strong sense of place sort of brings to mind a rather popular fantasy school that shall remain nameless.

Part 1: Five ABA SF Stories: Are They CSF? What Can They Teach Us?

This is too long an examination to cover in one—even one LONG—post. So, we’ll see how far we go. Anyone is free to take up the discussion here and run with it. It would help if you had the stories […]
| Aug 11, 2006 | No comments |

This is too long an examination to cover in one—even one LONG—post. So, we’ll see how far we go. Anyone is free to take up the discussion here and run with it. It would help if you had the stories to read, so here they are, in case these books/stories are in your or a pal’s library:

“The Traveler and the Tale” by Jane Yolen (from SISTER EMILY’S LIGHTSHIP)

“Samaritan” by Connie Willis (from FIRE WATCH)

“Hell is the Absence of God” by Ted Chiang (novelette from  STORIES OF YOUR LIFE & OTHERS) (Winner of Hugo and Nebula)  (Available at Fictionwise for a buck and change: http://www.fictionwise.com/ebooks/Ebook4145.htm)

“Queen” by Gene Wolfe (in INNOCENTS ABOARD)

“Bed & Breakfast” by Gene Wolfe (from STRANGE TRAVELERS)

Every story I’ve chosen is intentionally NON-CBA. You won’t find the books that carry them in your Family Bookstore or in Christian Book Distributors website. These are ABA books and ABA authors. And I’ve picked writers who are highly regarded by fellow artists (and readers) as among the best that SF has to offer. All of these writers  have won the Nebula (at least once) and a bushel of other awards. The first two listed stories are science-fiction. The rest, the final three, are fantasy—all with theological/Christian  underpinnings or elements of some sort.

Let’s see. Where to start…

I’ll just take the first tale, a brief one to warm us up for analysis: “The Traveler and the Tale.”

Quick overview: The story begins in such a way that it could be a historical account: “Traveling south from Ambert you must pass the old stoney abbey of La Chaise-Dieu. It was near that abbey in 1536 that a young woman fell asleep on a dolmen and dreamed of the virgin.”

The narrator goes on to relate, briefly, what the folks thought of the peasant woman’s witness, ie, she must be lying or deluded, because she is not as good as she should be and the night was cold, which could affect the mind. Skepticism. Judgment.

Then our perspective is thrown for a loop: This is not history. This is not fantasy with a Virgin. This is science-fiction, and the “Virgin Mary” is a time-traveller, whose shiny travel aura and helmet seem heavenly illumination to the viewer. The traveler’s “merde”—a curse word—is heard as “Marie,” a self-identifier of the stranger, the peasant assumes.

Then the traveler informs us of her mission, one authorized by the Revolutionary Council,  an irrevocable mission, as she cannot return to her time 3000 years in the future. She is there to tell stories, because nothing time-travelers have done to try and improve the future—such as assassinating tyrants—has made one iota of difference to the course of events. Only stories change people and events and history. And the future.

In the traveler’s true time, frog-like aliens have enslaved humans. Now she’s come armed with fairy tales that warn of frog-like invaders—changelings—in order to inculcate a distrust and dread of frogs into the human consciousness, and to empower the hearers. Humans can defeat invading frogs. Whip them out of the world! She is aware, though, that having been viewed and thought of as a heavenly being of religious sort, this new story might change the world, too.

Would her story “bring a resurgence of piety to the land whose practical approach to religion had led to an easy accommodation with the socialism of the twentieth century, the apostacy of the twenty-first, the capitulation to Alien rites of the twenty-second?”

Then the story shifts to tell one of the fairy tales, one that in other forms actually is part of our literary cache: Dinner in the Eggshell. A changeling story.

Then the story shifts to a communiqué of victory over the aliens, but not from the Revolutionary Council, no, but from the Marian Council.

Finally, we hear from the traveler’s daughter, one who has learned and repeated her mother’s tale, who recalls her dying mother’s only comfort came from telling tales. But unlike her unbelieving maman, the daughter is devout and, while she tells the traveler’s tales, she says that, “stories do not feed a mouth, they do not salve a wound, they do not fill the soul. Only God does that. And the Mother of God. We know that surely here in our village, for did not two women just thirty years past see Mary, Mother of God, on a dolmen? Her head was crowned with stars and she named herself…One of the women who saw her was Maman.”

So we know that the traveler confirmed the Marian apparition she knew to be false—perhaps to cover her tracks, perhaps hoping it would save the future, as indeed it would. But Maman did not really believe, for what mattered until the end for her were the fairy tales—not God or the Mary she elevated accidentally to a local legend. And yet, the faith in the Mother of God would be the thing that turned it all around.

1. Is it CSF?

I think it’s SF that uses Christian elements and treats them kindly, yet treats Christianity as if it were mere fiction. In other words, the “truth” of the tale is that stories of Christianity are powerful, but they are nothing more than stories. We save ourselves, through stories. Stories save us,  not Christ. So let’s keep those powerful stories around, let’s believe them for their power and goodness and preserve them, even if they are not true.

It also explains away marian apparitions as time travel events, so there is no mystery about the apparition. Here it is. It’s explicable. It’s not divine. It’s just me, a human.

Christians are sweet, ignorant, affectionate dupes in this story. And the gospel and Virgen are myth, fairy tales of a sort.

So, while it has a lovely use Catholic elements, and while there is a showing of devout characters who pray and believe,  it is not CSF  in my view. The worldview is materialistic, not supernaturalistic.  The tone is skeptical, but not antagonistic. Christian-friendly, if you will.

We could stretch and stretch and say it was divine intervention that turned the peasant woman’s ankle, putting her in the right place and right time to preserve the world from “apostacy” and saving the future generations. But I think that’s really reading into it what’s not clearly there. It’s a nice thought, though.

2. What can we learn from it?

To subvert expectations creatively: The changes in POV in the story are sudden, without transition, and yet perfectly done.

To employ the best prose we can reach for: Yolen’s is clean and lovely and rhythmic:

“History, like a scab, calcifies over each wound and beneath it the wound of human atrocity heals. Only through stories, it seems, can we really influence the history that is to come. Told to a ready ear, repeated by a willing mouth, by that process of mouth-to-ear resuscitation we change the world.  Stories are not just recordings. They are prophecies. They are dreams. And—so it seems—we humans build the future on such dreams.”

To freely use Christian experience in creative ways: Twist expectation. A Catholic might have written a story that had a real apparition and, hoorah, it changed the world. But what would be special or speculative about it?

If you read this story, you will see that the dimensions—past, our present, the traveler’s future—are all interacting, mimicking how stories interact with people in order to change the past, present, and future. The shifts of time and perspective keep us on our toes. The ending is and is not what the original revolutionaries intended—faith in Mary has changed the world, not the frog stories alone, and not in a simplistic one-to-one correlation of “there she is, she saved the world with a miracle.”

To work style and structure to every advantage: The feel of parts of this tory— fairy tale feel and historical feel and fantastic and science-fiction atmospheres—flow as fluid as the changes in the world, or as the travelers flowing back through time, except that the stories are more fluid: they go back and forth.  The structure of the telling itself is different, and suits the tale—echoes it, in fact.

To ask what ifs, always: If a Catholic who believed in Marian apparitions as true revelations from heaven wrote this, it might be very similar, and yet allow for a real apparition. Let’s say the first one, the peasant gal, would be the time traveler. But then the traveler herself would see an apparition, and would not have an explanation for it, and perhaps be drawn to real faith. And perhaps even Mary herself came down to encourage the futuristic troops under her banner. How else could it be told, this tale, without making a myth of Christianity?

To work with our literary riches and innovate:  Take traditional elements—fairy tales, religious experiences—and employ them in tales of wonder that uphold a Christian worldview and a believer’s tone. Retell them, but don’t be predictable. Keep the truth, but don’t be ordinary.

How else would this story be classifiable as CSF according to mine or M. LaBar’s criteria?

Do you think it’s CSF from what I’ve described? Have you read it and does your opinion differ?

Next Week: Another of our listed stories goes under the Mircroscope.

Wicked Wednesday

Today I want to direct your attention to a website called Holy Terror. As you could expect from the name, it’s a site dedicated to Christian Horror/Terror. Last week I mentioned briefly the essay The Bible and the Horror Genre […]
| Aug 9, 2006 | No comments |

Today I want to direct your attention to a website called Holy Terror. As you could expect from the name, it’s a site dedicated to Christian Horror/Terror.

Last week I mentioned briefly the essay The Bible and the Horror Genre by William Shontz. I want to talk about some of his points a little more and maybe get your opinions on what he has to say.

Mir, you’ll be happy to know he makes lists. J

Shontz uses the first half of the essay to talk about specific Bible passages that contain elements of horror: 1Kings 22:38; 2Kings 9:33-37; and Micah 3:1-3. He mentions others, but I think you can get the point from these.

He uses the second half of the essay to discuss his list of what we learn “from the Scriptures’ literary use of the macabre.”

  1. “Graphic violent horror must have value.” He points out that the value “lies in its calculated infrequency.” He postulates that when a story is relentlessly violent it actually becomes boring and the brain stops paying attention to the violence.
  2. “Make sure the details count.” To illustrate this point, Shontz uses Mark’s account of the demon possessed man in the tombs of Garasenses. Shontz points out something I had never considered. That is the image of the demons living in the swine would have been particularly repulsive to the Jews. Then, to picture 2000 of them drowning in the sea would certainly qualify as horrifying.
  3. “ ‘Terror’ can be complete in and of itself.” Meaning there is a difference between terror and horror. “…sometimes it’s enough to give the reader or viewer a solid case of the creeps without the bogeyman jumping out of the closet at the end of the scene.”
  4. “The horror need not match your worldview.” He points out that many Christians with leanings toward horror fiction stick to demon possession as the vehicle for the horror rather than using vampires, ghosts, etc. because the later are not mentioned in the Bible.

I can agree with number 1. I don’t like graphic violence for the sake of violence. Sound strange coming from a writer and reader of ‘dark’ fiction? It’s not all Friday the Thirteenth.

Number two makes sense too. As writers we must make every word, every scene count. In speculative fiction where descriptions are so important to the story, the way we weave world building in with character building, plot and action is, I think, even more important than it is in other genres.

I agree with number three as well. A little sustained spookiness can be even more effective than outright, heart thumping, brain melting fear. Think M Night Shamalan.

Number four is where I have to pause and think. If what we write doesn’t match our worldview as Christians, can it still be called Christian fiction? (I know, that’s the 64,000 question.)

So what do you think? Does horror have a place in Christian fiction? Would you read a story about vampires? What about a vampire who accepts Jesus as the Messiah? Sound nuts? I know someone who’s written that story. I’ve read it and it’s good.

What about a zombie hunter? What about ghosts and goblins? Do you see a place for such on your bookselves? Or the shelves of your local LifeWay?

I hope so. I think we have a lot to learn from the dark side of Christian speculative fiction.

Romance In SF/F

Beth has asked me to fill in for her for a while, so I’ve decided to shift gears a bit and do the tour of “favorite CBA SF/F moments” for a later post. Some time back, I conducted an informal […]
| Aug 9, 2006 | No comments |

Beth has asked me to fill in for her for a while, so I’ve decided to shift gears a bit and do the tour of “favorite CBA SF/F moments” for a later post.

Some time back, I conducted an informal survey on two of my email lists on whether long-time fans read “Christian” SF/F and why or why not. I eventually posted a summary of the results at my personal blog, now listed under the May archives. (“What the Fans Want, parts 1 and 2, May 18-19, 2006)

The resulting conversation on the Christian Fandom list sparked a separate discussion about romance within science fiction. It was an entertaining one—as usual, I wanted to take part but was far too busy to do so—and in my opinion, it’s well worth the time to check out the whole discussion at the Christian Fandom archives, starting on April 5. In fact, I’d recommend anyone who wants to write—or dare I say, publish—“real” SF/F for the CBA to read it.

But I’ll attempt a summary of the portion where romance was being discussed, although to do it justice, I think one would have to examine the attitudes toward the romance genre in general. And it’s important to distinguish between true romance and “erotica”—the former focuses on the process of the romantic relationship between a man and a woman, while the latter focuses mainly on sexual encounters, with a great deal of detail given to the mechanics of the act. (A new subgenre, romantica, tries to blend the two.)

True romance, then, is mostly about the attraction and emotional bond between a couple, whether or not it includes the physical consummation thereof. It’s really no wonder, then, that those who object most strenuously to “science fiction masquerading as romance” (and there’s plenty of sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal romance out there) are often those who don’t have the benefit of a satisfying romantic relationship in real life, for whatever reason. I say that with the utmost compassion and understanding, having been there myself. Even a mild romantic subplot can at best be considered annoying fluff, irrelevant to one’s own life, or at worst a too-painful reminder of a love lost or never won at all.

Yet, interestingly enough, one of the men who complained most about romance within SF/F highly praised one author in particular, Lois McMaster Bujold, whose stories have very strong romantic elements. Which only strengthens my opinion that a romantic plot of subplot is not nearly as obtrusive if it’s well done. I personally would rather read a story with no romance at all than one in which a relationship is portrayed unrealistically, or merely a device for either male or female fantasies—the buff, ruggedly handsome but sensitive and romantic hero for the feminine readers, or the curvaceous bimbo type (or Amazon Barbie) for male readers. Fiction for men is just as replete with extramarital sexual encounters as fiction for women—but it’s the romances for women that get lambasted as “trashy,” even though modern westerns, suspense, and spy novels, including good old James Bond, contain lots of commitment-free steam.

But again—sexual encounters do not equal romance, and I would contend that those who are satisfied with reading about sex without relationship are most likely those who don’t have the blessing of a happy romance of their own. Conversely, those who do, often find the most enjoyment in a well-done romantic plot or subplot. I observed that those who spoke up strenuously in favor of romance within SF/F were women with strong marriages. Furthermore, men who I presume are reasonably happy in their marriages as well have often said that they didn’t mind the romance, or even—gasp!—enjoyed it because of the stability in their own life.

It was also pointed out that some of the debate over romance-or-not is partially due to gender differences. Women tend to be more relationally-oriented, while men are more logic- and action-oriented. (I’m not sure where politics and intrigue falls into that—for much of my early life I found them deadly boring, and only as I’ve come back to my writing have I realized how crucial an understanding of politics is to an understanding of history and worldbuilding. Ick. The things we do for our stories.) In general, then, women most often are the ones who like stories that cover all the minutiae of romance, while men prefer a story where romance is treated more matter-of-factly, an almost incidental but intrinsic part of life that flows naturally with the rest of the story rather than interrupting it.

Really, as in many other things, it’s a matter of individual taste. And rather reminds me of how some view the spiritual elements of a story, come to think of it. What one might view as intrusive or preachy, another finds a natural part of the story—and it may depend upon how a person views their own relationship with God. Is it something that’s a vital, necessary part of everyday life, or compartmentalized into a particular day of the week? Is it something that person finds it easy to share with others, or is it intensely private?

Not every story is going to appeal to every reader, in the area of spirituality—and not every one will appeal to all in the matter of romance, either. But it’s interesting hearing the views of those along both ends of the spectrum in the matter.

What Makes Christian Speculative Fiction “Christian”, Anyway?

I like lists. I will attempt to answer the question posed in the title by offering several lists, two from a couple of smart folks and the rest by me. (Whether you think I’m smart, I’ll leave to the reader.) […]
| Aug 8, 2006 | No comments |

I like lists. I will attempt to answer the question posed in the title by offering several lists, two from a couple of smart folks and the rest by me. (Whether you think I’m smart, I’ll leave to the reader.)

I will not define fiction, as I think that insults your intelligence.

Speculative refers to works of science fiction, fantasy, allegory, horror, magical realism, and other newfangled terms I tend not to keep track of. In general, it refers to that which is not “realistic” fiction. The world is not as we know it and the characters may not be human, or on earth. You may be used to some of the familiar tropes (elements, motifs, symbols) of the genre:

1. Fantasy tropes: elves, swords, sorcery, quests, castles, fairies, gnomes, goblins, talking trees, witches, wizards, mermaids, magic doorways to another world, magic books, etc.

2. Science Fiction tropes: spaceships, hyperdrives, parallel universes, alien invasions, warring colonies of earth, plagues, dangerous new planets, suspended animation for long journeys, translating devices, etc.

3. Horror tropes: haunted houses, vampires, werewolves, mad scientists, zombies, ghosts, demon possession, pyschic powers, etc.

In other words, “You’re not in Kansas, anymore.” Or rather, you are in Kansas, but it’s 2399 and they train space engineers at the university there; or it’s a Kansas with a wizard as governor; or it’s a Kansas where the scarecrows in the fields are all coming to life and killing off the farmers en masse.

Now to the Christian part, which is more controversial than any definition that’s come before: What makes speculative fiction CHRISTIAN?

I’ll start with two lists of what makes a novel CHRISTIAN:

Martin LaBar of Sun and Shield blog makes this list in his post called “What Must Be Christian About A Christian Novel” of elements one might expect to find (not all must be present):

  1. A Christ figure
  2. solid Christian doctrine
  3. monotheistic prayer/worship to and of a divine Being
  4. expressing a relationship with the God of Christianity as Lord
  5. consciousness of supernatural guidance, of providence
  6. explicit rejection of evil personified or evil actions (even realization of evil in oneself that needs to battled)

(Please read the comments section and Mr. LaBar’s excellent post for clarification of these points. I’ve added one of the elements I’d originally mistakenly left out)

Angela Hunt, prolific Christian author, has her own list in her post, “What Does Evangelical Fiction Require?”:

  1. story should illustrate some aspect of the Christian faith
  2. Should avoid obscenity and profanity
  3. Should offer hope
  4. should have good craft elements

(Again, pleaes read Ms. Hunt’s post for clarification of her position.)

Now, my longer list of what Mirtika’s parameters are for a novel to be termed CHRISTIAN SPECULATIVE FICTION:

  1. I do not believe it requires a Christ figure to conquer all evil in the story.
  2. I do believe it requires a consciousness of sin/wickedness in beings and the need for a savior, whether or not the savior appears in the actual tale. This need not be the main premise or plot drive, but it should be there.
  3. I do not believe that people should be goody-goody.
  4. I do believe there must be an awareness of “a good” that one judges by/strives to attain.
  5. I do not believe all the good or most of the likable characters need to display habits of spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship, study of sacred teachings, etc.
  6. I do believe one or more important characters should exhibit some form of recognizable spiritual disciplines that derive from their faith, even if morphed to fit the constructed SF world.
  7. I believe it should offer hope.
  8. I do not believe that it must be chipper and relentlessly optimistic in tone. Many suffer lives of endless struggle and torment, and it may not get better with time. However, there must be a sense that suffering, though normal, is not the only thing to look forward to. That there is something else, something beyond. Ecclesiastes is a dark book, a pessimistic one, that ultimately offers some hope. That might be a good guideline for those of us attracted to the darker corners of human experience.
  9. There does not need to be a Yahweh/Jesus/Trinity/Holy Spirit by name.
  10. There does need to be a Supreme Being of some recognizable Judeo-Christian sort that one or more key characters honor and/or wrestle with, and there needs to be an indication that the Being is active with the individual, even if invisible, or especially if tangible.
  11. I do not believe you have to have the irredeemably Satanic Big Bad (although I love Big Bads.)
  12. I do believe there has to be an idea of a power of evil, however morphed, and that the evil is not a friend to the believing characters. Believer characters should seek to avoid evil, and should seek to repent of it when they fall into it, even if reluctantly and after much struggle and/or debate.
  13. I do not believe a conversion is a necesasry focal story element.
  14. I do believe that a conversion (of a major or secondary character) is valid element and a powerful one, if done properly, and should not be dismissed as overdone. A Christian worldview is really big on “salvation,” after all.
  15. I do not believe that the presence obscenity of profanity make a work non-Christian, anymore than the presence of an act of theft or murder or rape makes a work non-Christian. It may merely make the work more realistic, as humans routinely do and say obscene and profane things—just as they murder and rape.
  16. I do believe that a writer should try to adjust to the guidelines of the publishing house they target (if they target specific houses), and tone down obscenity and profanity if that is all that impedes the work from publication. One should not be slaves to a prudish element in the audience, but one should not dismiss the sensitive readers out of hand. Make sure the objectionable elements are absolutely necessary for your vision of the work. Christians are accountable to one another in a way non-believers are not.
  17. I do believe that use of specific Christian doctrine is valid.
  18. I do not believe that one must have one-to-one correlations of doctrine. Whatever Christian doctrines are highlighted, however, must fit the world or the time (future or past) and the milieu of the novel. Terms used should not be anachronistic or hokey or trite. If you make up fresh worlds, then you need to make up fresh religious phrases that ring honest and true for that world.
  19. I do not believe that Christian Speculative Fiction must be the duller, less innovative stepchild of General Speculative Fiction.
  20. I do believe Christian speculative fiction writers should strive for writing no less good and ideally much, much better than that in non-Christian fiction—to the best of our might, as unto the Lord—and should be creating novel structures and language and build dazzling worlds that aren’t regurgitations of Tolkien or Lewis, however genius those men were. This means we all have to work harder, incuding editors, to not put what is just “okay” out there cause it’s got Christian imagery that CBA readers may like. We have to be better than okay.

So, there you have it. I believe that if a novel is to be termed fiction that is Christian—speculative or otherwise—then, yes, it must reflect Christian “truth.” It must deal with some aspect of the Christian faith: sin and repentance, regeneration, faith in acts of daily devotional living, spiritual warfare, conversion, religious community, overcoming besetting sins, spiritual disciplines, apostasy, the problem of evil, divine judgment, divine intervention, life-after-death, etc.

If it’s a novel about family conflict in a mutated tribe on a far-flung colony, and ideas relative to the spiritual aspects of mutation and of honoring parents don’t enter into it, it’s just speculative fiction—science-fiction. It’s not Christian speculative fiction. If it’s a novel about a thieving, gluttonous Starbucks employee who is abducted to a co-existing alternate society inside the espresso machine, a world replete with Arabica Wizards and Foam Fairies; yet it doesn’t deal with the sins of theft and gluttony as SINS, it’s not Christian fiction. If it doesn’t include, perhaps, seeking divine strength in fighting the evil Lord Latte who’s eating up all the Foam Fairies and planning to take over the souls of the cappuccino drinkers on earth, then it’s likely just fantasy—it’s not Christian fantasy.

There are differing levels of overtness within that circle I’ve drawn, and I’ve been so specific that it may seem narrower than intended, but there it is.

I would add that I appreciate what I call “Christian-friendly” Speculative Fiction. This is spec-fic that has Christian echoes and moral fiber and understands good and evil. It might be written by a Christian or a non-Christian, but it’s not devoid of a tone or theme or of characterizations that we’d recognize as compatible with Christianity’s worldview.

Stuart defines CSF as spec-fic with a Christian worldview. Perhaps my list is a way on expanding on “Christian worldview.”

Do let me know if you think the list is off or on target. And if you disagree, tell me specifically what makes a work of speculative fiction CHRISTIAN, in your opinion.

ADDENDUM: Straight science fiction stories that are based in a real-world/extrapolated-future would, logically, allow for natural, traditional Christian terms and language and doctrine, although one would need to make changes and allowances in slang/idiom/catch-phrases for a future society.

NEXT FRIDAY: A look at a couple of excellent ABA SF stories, and how they fit the above criteria—or not—and how they can teach CBA-targeting SF writers a thing or two

Learning From The Secular—Part 2

I began this discussion last week with a look at an article by Stephen Donaldson entitled Epic Fantasy in the Modern World. In this article, Donaldson defines fantasy as the external dramatization of the internal. That succinct definition resonated with […]

I began this discussion last week with a look at an article by Stephen Donaldson entitled Epic Fantasy in the Modern World.

In this article, Donaldson defines fantasy as the external dramatization of the internal. That succinct definition resonated with me, though I understand that not every story, not every writer, creates the same kind of fantasy. An interesting topic for another time might be to compare types of fantasy. For now, I will accept Donaldson’s definition with an eye toward what else we might learn from his aims in writing.

Donaldson wrote this article by way of explaining the huge popularity of his novels. He believed that fantasy offered something in contrast to the rest of contemporary literature. Certainly not escapism.

he said that what makes great art great is that it “projects the artist’s ultimate passion against the void.”

If we can see “the void” as that which makes “man. . . a futile passion” – or that which makes human passions futile – then we can easily see why modern fantasy is so popular. Contemporary fantasy writers don’t take a mainstream attitude toward the void. The exception, of course, is the “horror short story.” In the horror short story, human beings are always swallowed by the void. And in that sense the horror short story is an example of mainstream fiction, despite the use of supernatural metaphors. Like mainstream fiction, the horror short story expresses, “The nightmare world, alienation and nausea, the quest for identity, and the comic dooms- day vision. . . .”

In all the rest of modern fantasy, however, the movement is away from futility. The approach of modern fantasy is to externalize, to personify, to embody the void in order to confront it directly. The characters in fantasy novels actually meet their worst fears; they actually face the things that demean them; they actually walk into the dark. And they find answers.

Since contemporary fiction today is more and more guided by postmodern thought, is what Donaldson said still valid?

I think even more so. In the face of a world that no longer believes answers are possible, fantasy offers an answer to “the void.” Fantasy offers hope. How much more so can Christian fantasy offer hope!

But I have to come back to the point of last week’s post. I believe CSFF writing has a tendency to write the Everyman story rather than painting one particular person who faces the internal void and finds his answer.

The truth is, the answer for character A is Christ and the answer for character B is Christ and the answer for character C is Christ.

However, my experience leads me to believe that Christ does not deal with each person exactly the same way. He touched the leper, then spoke and the man was healed, but the person with the withered hand just had to hold his hand out and it was restored. For one blind man, Jesus made a clay and put it on his eyes, but not for others.

The challenge for CSFF writers, then, I believe, is to write Christ as the unique answer for the void of this particular character in this particular story. In so doing, I believe the allegorical elements will stop feeling redundant and will take on the fresh excitement of new birth.

Beck

Peeling Back The Veil

Run for the hills! It’s Tuesday again! Grab some snacks, this will be a long one. Thanks to everybody who commented on my stories last week (and for those of you lurkers who looked at them).  There were quite a […]
| Aug 8, 2006 | No comments |

Run for the hills! It’s Tuesday again! Grab some snacks, this will be a long one.

Thanks to everybody who commented on my stories last week (and for those of you lurkers who looked at them).  There were quite a few interesting comments.

First off, the main reason these two stories were ever written was for the sole purpose of fleshing out two key events from the pasts of the main characters, and thus written from the perspective of my own knowledge of the worlds and events. Which is terribly unfair to readers, but such is the fact, and is also why you’ll likely never see these stories published anywhere “real”.

For instance, The Fang is set early in Rathe’s training for the Imperial army, on the tail end of a survival course in which he had to evade capture for a set piece of time.  A wider setting that is at best vaguely alluded to. He’s also the lowest in hatch status from his Sire’s final clutch of eggs, and has been facing an upward struggle, trying to break free from the social constraints placed upon him.  Information that would no doubt help understand him deeper in the short story, but unnecessary to be actually explained for my original needs.

Another thing to keep in mind is I really am a plot-oriented writer. I tell tales of characters reacting to the events they find themselves in. I do my best to make my characters full (though I’ll admit these two stories are likely poor examples due to the nature of their creation).  However plot is where I believe my strength lies.

On to looking at last week’s responses:

Sally wrote:
[Christian fiction] is specifically about a sacrifice made by a sinless God for a sinful people.

That is a very interesting, and very narrow, definition. I’d say that most of what I’ve read of today’s CBA fiction would fall outside the category if sorted by that definition, though perhaps not most of CBA Fantasy (or at least one of the books in the series).

Personally I’d define it more along the lines of a story written by a Christian that affirms the tenets of Christianity.

Rebecca LuElla Miller wrote:

I saw some parallels, though I kept doubting myself since you had seemed opposed to symbolism, and allegory in particular.

Not necessarily opposed to allegory or symbolism in principle, just wanting to see more avenues explored.  Though I suppose any time you mix Christianity and an alien or fantasy civilization somebody is going to call it allegorical or symbolism.

Here’s the key to translating religion within this mythos: If a character is referring to something that looks to be a direct parallel with Christianity in dialogue or thought, then most likely it is exactly that.  Within this mythos, for very specific reasons, you will find the core tenets of Christianity as we know it exactly the same on each world, as well as very similar historic happenings, such as the setting apart of a nation through which the Savior will come. You will even find world-specific “Christianese” and very similar New Testament style language since all these stories take place after the time of the incarnation.

Is this allegory or symbolism? According to dictionary.com Allegory is:

  • The representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or  pictorial form.
  • A story, picture, or play employing such representation. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick are allegories.
  • A symbolic representation: The blindfolded figure with scales is an allegory of justice.

What I’m doing isn’t the representation of abstract ideas, but rather a translation of them into a fictitious culture and history.

Mir wrote:
A WHOLE BUNCH! Which I’m not going to quote at this point.

I have to say Mir, you’re a good example of my thought process that symbolism can easily be 2% author and 98% reader (I’m not saying this is always the case).  The only symbolism in these stories that was intentional was those expressed by the characters themselves in dialogue (internal or external) such as the “only one true guide for this pilgrimage, only one path” line.

Everything else was written solely as description of the world and events with no deeper meaning intended.  Though, admittedly, Forms of Destiny involved a religious ritual so there would be much more symbolism involved there.  Though when I write intentional symbolism it is always directly tied into the character’s viewpoint and is reflective of the symbols they see (or that’s how I intend it).

Also you might see the first story as less hammering because it is told completely from the viewpoint of a non-believer, going about a totally non-religious task and having an encounter on that. While Forms of Destiny is a story about a believer going about a religious task, naturally will be more obvious. It would be like trying to write a subtle church service.  Plus it had a direct moment of divine intervention right at the end, through the appearance of the angelic messenger.

You were right though, both of these are set-up pieces.

On the flip side Mir also wrote:
As far as the surprise I look ahead for, I am/was hoping as I read that the Jerkrenak has battled to SAVE the hatchling (not to kill it), and that the so-called loyal warrior was the one eating the hatchling. That would be a nice twist to expectation of the protagonist. There is enough dialogue clue to allow for that.

Now see this IS the type of thing I try to do in my writing, which I do in a grander scale (and probably a more obvious way) in Starfire, the novel that the short story The Fang is a set-up for. I don’t come right out and tell you who the good guys and the bad guys are. I leave that up to the actions and dialogue of the characters in relation to each other and the events.

I’m not writing solely to give answers as much as to spark thought over the questions (not all of which will be picked up on by every reader). I’ll play on expectations and twist assumptions as best I can to continue to get you to think and question and wonder.  And perhaps to go seeking the questions yourself.

However, the more you know about the world, how it works, and it’s history, the clearer everything will become.  And perhaps that is my own little conceit and weak spot.  None of my tales ever truly stand alone, at least not the ones I’m passionate about. They are all part of a grander scheme, and larger world that no one story can totally encompass.

Ok this post has gone on long enough.  I’ll answer any more questions in the comments section.

And remember next week I start looking at real books, starting with Light of Eidon.

Discovering The Current Wave Of Christian SF/F

My apologies for being late today. I had a rather severe outbreak of real life this morning. Wow, such cool discussion going on around here! But where was I? Oh, yes, the current wave of Christian SF/F … I’ve told […]
| Aug 3, 2006 | No comments |

My apologies for being late today. I had a rather severe outbreak of real life this morning.

Wow, such cool discussion going on around here! But where was I? Oh, yes, the current wave of Christian SF/F …

I’ve told elsewhere (and many times) how I came back to writing fiction, specifically this genre, going on four years ago now. It was in the process of trying to find out what was current in the market that I discovered two authors who remain my favorites: Karen Hancock and Kathy Tyers.

Karen was one of those classic Christian bookstore finds: I’d never heard of her before, but the book caught my eye. Cool cover design. I picked it up—intriguing back cover blurb, and the opening page or so actually pulled me in. I really couldn’t afford to buy a brand-new trade paperback, though, and I put the book back on the shelf and walked away. But it called to me—so before we left the store, I had a fresh copy of Arena in my hands.

I liked this book—a lot. And when The Light of Eidon came out, I snapped it up, too, and was thoroughly hooked.

In the meantime, I asked one of my online friends to help me think of Christian titles I could compare my own story and writing to, and she mentioned Kathy Tyers’ Firebird. Huh? I’d never heard of that one—and by the time I did some nosing around and found some reviews so I could see what sort of story this was, the third book of the series was already out of print. But thanks to the marvel of eBay and half.com, I located all three titles (Firebird, Fusion Fire, and Crown of Fire). Didn’t take much of the first book before I was a confirmed fan of this author, as well. (I don’t have reviews written of these—Greg Slade did that before me.)

Cool note of interest: Kathy and Karen were actually critique partners before either of them were published. So if you’ve discovered one and really enjoy, you might find you like the other as well. And Kathy’s Firebird series was recently re-released in one volume, which, if you stay tuned to the upcoming August Christian SF/F blog tour, you’ll have a crack at winning a copy.

Many people hold up these two as the new “gold standard” of current Christian SF/F, and with good reason. But I’ve found several other current writers in the genre that are well worth checking out: Kathryn Mackel (Outriders), L.A. Kelly (), Miles Owens (Daughter of Prophecy), the team of Randy Ingermanson and John Olson (Oxygen) who have both moved on to solo writing. (Please check out the authors’ links at the sidebar.) No, I don’t mention all that I’ve enjoyed over the past couple of years—like Donita Paul’s DragonKeeper series. I bought DragonSpell—on purpose this time—just before the birth of my last child, and read it while on bedrest afterwards. It was the thrill of my year to be assigned to her critique group just a few weeks later. (Well, where writing was concerned; I have to say that the birth of that little one superseded it overall. LOL)

As a reader, I’ve found something to enjoy if not love in every Christian SF/F title I’ve found over the past. I’ve definitely had my nitpicks, and admittedly part of the joy is personally knowing many of the writers whose books I’m reading—but I believe it’s a growing genre, and getting better, despite recent rumors to the contrary.

Next time, I’ll look at some of my favorite moments in Christian SF/F.

Going Bump In The Night

What is horror fiction? Genreflecting defines it this way: “A horror text is one that contains a monster, whether it be supernatural, human, or a metaphor for psychological torment.” Anthony Fonseca and June Pulliam, Hooked on Horror Wikipedia says this: […]
| Aug 2, 2006 | No comments |

What is horror fiction?

Genreflecting defines it this way: “A horror text is one that contains a monster, whether it be supernatural, human, or a metaphor for psychological torment.” Anthony Fonseca and June Pulliam, Hooked on Horror Wikipedia says this: Horror fiction is, broadly, fiction in any medium intended to scare, unsettle, or horrify the reader. Historically, the cause of the horror experience has often been the intrusion of an evil, or occasionally misunderstood, supernatural element into everyday human experience. Wikipedia goes on to say horror often overlaps with fantasy and science fiction.

There are even subgenres of horror from ghost stories to demonic possession to splatterpunk. (I don’t read splatterpunk, so don’t worry about me going there.)

My personal definition of horror literature concentrates mostly on the unsettling aspects. For example Psycho is considered a masterful suspense movie by most. To me it borders on horror first because of the shower scene. I saw the movie on TV as an adult and I could not close the shower curtain for two months. I realize I’m pushing here, but I felt quite unsettled and downright scared. Then Norman Bates dressed up like Mama and I was done.

The question I think is more important for this discussion is “Why should anyone even consider horror fiction a valid genre for a Christian?” Now I do have to stop and say here I don’t buy ‘scaring’ someone into salvation with stories of hell and brimstone and eternally smelling like rotten eggs. You might scare them to the alter, but the transaction taking place there is based on Grace, Mercy, and Love.

But, the Bible includes some horrific scenes. The Bible and the Horror Genre outlines some of these. God can use horror to teach us, to turn us away from sin, to bring us closer to Him. I think God would not have included the story of the dogs licking up King Ahab’s blood if it didn’t serve a purpose. And it’s certainly a scene right out of good horror.

I have a discussion in every Christian writing group I’ve ever participated in.

Goes like this: “Who’s your favorite writer?” asks the unsuspecting writer person.

“Stephen King,” I say.

“I don’t know how you can read that crap,” unsuspecting writer person replies, usually clutching chest. “Have you ever read anything by King?” I already know this answer.

“Of course not. I just don’t think a good Christian should read that stuff.” Unsuspecting writer person turns to walk away.

“I’m not a good Christian, just a forgiven one,” I say under my breath. I don’t want to be rude.

One thing I love about King’s stories, especially the ones from the past 17-18 years is that the ‘good’ guy usually wins. He’s beat up, sometimes lost everything, but he wins. His hope is restored. He overcomes the darkness.

Try the last few paragraphs of King’s book Desperation:

David took the blue pass. “Of course. First John, chapter four, verse eight. ‘God is love.’”

She looked at him for a long time. “Is he, David? Is he love?”

“Oh, yes,” David said. He folded the pass along its crease. “I guess he’s sort of …everything.” Horror can show the triumph of the human spirit. Digging into our deep, dark, moldy places can allow us to see Grace, can give us Hope.

Next week I want to talk about a couple of sites and writers specific to Christian Horror.

Of Forms and Fangs

It’s Tuesday again! Don’t worry my actual post won’t be as long as last week’s, but there is a bit of extracurricular reading. Now I ended last week saying that I will be going over some of the books I […]
| Aug 1, 2006 | No comments |

It’s Tuesday again! Don’t worry my actual post won’t be as long as last week’s, but there is a bit of extracurricular reading.

Now I ended last week saying that I will be going over some of the books I have read, and discussing their use of spirituality and world building and such. But before I do that, I think it is only fair to let others have a go at my own writing.

I’m not saying I’m as good as any published author, but I also want to make it clear that I’m not going to throw out critiques and thoughts while being safely ensconced in my unpublished status. If that makes any sense. Plus, there is hope that through seeing samples of my own writing you will get a better understanding of my own views and comments.

So here are two short stories written recently. Both take place within the same mythology.

First up is The Fang. This short story is a prequel of sorts to my novel Starfire, relating the tale of how the main character comes across a certain object that plays a role in the book.
Read it here >>

Second is Forms of Destiny. This short story is an exploration of a character that is planned to show up in a future novel.
Read it here >>

So if you feel up to it read through these stories and comment on them here.

Some questions to help get the juices flowing:

Would you call these stories “Christian Fiction”? Why/Why not?

Do these stories beat you over the head with their message? What is the message/theme? Is there one?

Feel free to throw in any other comments about these stories that come to mind. (Don’t worry I have very thick Saurian skin.)

Next week I’ll discuss the comments from this and give a deeper look into the mythology from where these stories spring, and how that effects how I express Christian faith within the stories.

The week after that I’ll start my book examinations with the Christy Winning: Light of Eidon.