Christian Sci Fi/Fan Blog Tour—Kathy Tyers

Any new venture has its pioneers, and Kathy Tyers is one of the Christian science fiction writers I’d call a pioneer. Along with a small handful of others, she paved the way for the rest of us spec fic writers. […]
| Aug 21, 2006 | No comments |

Any new venture has its pioneers, and Kathy Tyers is one of the Christian science fiction writers I’d call a pioneer. Along with a small handful of others, she paved the way for the rest of us spec fic writers. It seems especially fitting, then, to feature her on a pioneer CSFF team blog for a pioneer promoting effort with the CSFF Blog Tour.

The thing that Tyers brings with her pioneer status is quality. From her first venture into the publishing world of fiction, she received acclaim. Then, as God directed, she brought that ability into writing for the CBA. (Read Kathy’s bio at her web site.

In an article explaining some of her thinking about the task of writing as a Christian, she said the following:

To set this lamp on a lampstand, and do it effectively, would mean to address not just the Christian market but a wider audience that is used to the general media. It would mean telling excellent, well-written stories without appearing sappy or (heaven help me) naïve, but without thickening the calluses on my own soul. I think that when we as Christian authors learn to accomplish that, we will be taken seriously and we will make a serious difference in the entertainment marketplace.

Tyers’s latest CSFF offering published in the CBA is the Firebird Trilogy (Bethany, 2004). Packaged now as one book, the trilogy was “rewritten as Kathy would have liked to write them in the first place.”

To read more about Tyers and the Firebird Trilogy, visit other blogs participating in this three-day tour:

John J. Boyer

Valerie Comer

Bryan Davis

Beth Goddard

Rebecca Grabill

Leathel Grody

Karen Hancock

Elliot Hanowski

Katie Hart

Sherrie Hibbs

Sharon Hinck

Pamela James

Jason Joyner

Tina Kulesa

Rachel Marks

Shannon McNear

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Cheryl Russel

Mirtika Schultz

Stuart Stockton

Steve Trower

“Samaritan” By Connie Willis: Is It CSF? What Can We Learn As Writers and Readers?

I hope some of you have had a chance to read the story that I’m analyzing today. Connie Willis is a supremely skilled writer of SF fiction, and I have a personal preference for her short works. Like the Yolen […]
| Aug 17, 2006 | No comments |

I hope some of you have had a chance to read the story that I’m analyzing today. Connie Willis is a supremely skilled writer of SF fiction, and I have a personal preference for her short works.

Like the Yolen story, this is science fiction. No spaceships. No aliens. But it is set in a future, speculative Earth where some religious upheaval has changed the nature of the religious social structure in our country. And, as Willis herself prefaces the tale, its inspiration comes from the story of Jacob and Esau, where Esau is red and hairy, and Jacob steals Esau’s inheritance. Postulating 1. a wild, end-time madness among future fundamentalist and Charismatic communities that turns violent and forces mainline churches to band together ecumenically for survival and 2. that humans are “kin” to the hairy, red primates who can be taught sign language communication and perhaps…more…we get “Samaritan.”

STORY OVERVIEW:

Rev. Hoyt, is asked by his kinetic female asst. pastor , Natalie Abreu, to baptize Esau, an orangutan who does janitorial duties at the church when on leave from the preserve where the nearly extinct creatures are bred and studied. When Hoyt asks Natalie how she knows the ape wishes to be baptized, she answers that Esau has observed a confirmation class and signed, “I would very much like to be God’s beloved child, too.”

In a particularly important and nicely crafted scene, Rev. Hoyt, knowing Natalie is hyper-enthusiastic, suspects she exaggerates the minimal signs Esau is capable of forming; that, in fact, the baptism is Natalie’s new pet project, so to speak. Natalie, after all, already forces Esau to sit in unatural (for him) postures, and has attempted to dress and shoe him. While interrogating Esau, the orangutan answers that, yes, he loves God. Hoyt suspects Natalie of coaching the ape. He continues to interrogate, asking Esau if he loves God. Esau makes a clumsy signing of letters…S…a…m…. Natalie says it’s Samaritan. Esau has recently learned the story of the Good Samaritan, she explains. Esau again signs: S…a…m…a..r…i…t…a…n. Observing both Natalie and Esau, Hoyt suspects that Natalie is imposing her will on the animal, and Esau is merely pleasing his human teacher.

Hoyt decides to ponder the matter, not simply dismiss it out of hand as ludicrous.

He starts closely watching Esau, who swings from the high beams, dusting the church, listening to humans below. Ladders are unsafe with the large windows, and Esau doesn’t need them to do this job. He’s built for heights and swinging.

Hoyt prepares for a sermon on humility he thinks Natalie needs to hear—a key text being Psalm 73, with this quote: “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, and my steps had well-nigh slipped. I was stupid and ignorant. I was like a beast toward thee. ” He consults with his bishop, who’s gotten wind of the rising controversy over animal baptism. Her advice: Deny it as indoctrination. But Rev. Hoyt says that any argument against baptizing Esau would apply to his congregation: “He’s lonely. He needs a strong father figure. He likes the pretty robes and candles. Instinct. Conditioning. Sexual sublimation.” Even doing it to please Natalie compares to some humans who seek to please others by acting religiously. The bishop tells Hoyt that the “hodge-podgey” Ecumenical Church can do nothing but leave it in his hands: he must decide and take the flak either way.

Hoyt talks to the guy from the animal preserve, who can only say that Esau has been very happy since he started working at the church, avoiding the neuroses that older male orangutans are prey to, and the preserve likes happy apes, because happy apes breed. Letters of complaint or support for the baptism pour in. One older congregant says she sees Esau fold his hands and bow his head during prayer time in service. Rev. Hoyt dreams of Esau as a saint. He starts to wonder what Jesus would say, would do.

Then he considers something: The other famous Samaritan. Could Esau, in signing out the word have meant not the Good Samaritan tale, but the woman at the well, the outcast. Hoyt has an epiphany wihle conversing with his bishop: “I have thought all along that the reason he wanted to be baptized was because he didn’t know that he wasn’t human. But he knows. He knows.” The bishop agrees with his assessment.

But Esau, who has been mimicking human behavior (sitting straight,), has been using a ladder ill-suited to his frame for his chores. And he has fallen. As the ape lays dying, Hoyt signs to Esau, to comfort him: “Esau God’s child.” Esau counters with the letters s…a…m… Hoyt stops him. Insists Esau is God’s child and makes the sign for “love.” Esau is too broken physically to make the sign back, though he attempts it. Hoyt decides to baptize the ape. Esau dies.

Natalie is humbled (what the sermon did not do, Esau’s death accomplishes). She realizes she was forcing him to dress and act human, and that led to his demise. Her energetic light dims with her sense of guilt. Hoyt comforts her, and he tells her, “God chooses to believe that we have souls because He loves us. I think He loved Esau, too.” With just the right compliments, he encourages her to be herself again. And Hoyt shows he himself has changed, become more flexible, by dressing differently to please her—reminiscent, in that last moment, of Esau.

Is It CSF?
“Samaritan” is a story with humor and also with some very touching moments. It’s the kind of story that makes me weep, and that is part of its effectiveness, since we are supposed to weep for Esau. But is it Christian SF?

Well, there is a worldview that believes in God, has a church setting with church rituals (baptism, confirmation) and with clergy. There is discussion of theological issues—God’s love, the prerequisites for baptism, religious outcasts, religious conflict (the liberals versus the Charies). Bible verses are used to illuminate (and direct) the theme and plot. By Angela Hunt’s briefer criteria, it pases. By Martin LaBar’s, I think it also passes.

Does it pass mine? It does.

I am not happy with some elements of it: I think that the “picking on the fundies” thing is a scosh over-the-top and unkindly. I think the last scene statement about “God chooses to believe we have souls because He loves us” is, upon the most cursory examination, a highly troublesome statement. God doesn’t have to believe. He knows. He know if we do or do not have souls. And that is one of the weakest parts of a very good, moving, fascinating story: Demoting God to one of us.

All along, the story is about raising up an outcast—another species— to a position of acceptance and being loved and honored by humans-on the chance that God loves him, too. That, while a bit wacky, is presented so kindly, that we root for Esau to be baptized, because we see evidence of love for God and true faith in this “lesser being.” Leaving it to God to decide is fine with me in this context and doesn’t offend me as it might under another less skilled presentation.

But the condescending and scornful way that Willis presents fundamentalists/charismatics is a violation of the spirit of the main part of the story.

Still, it fits with the pride vs. humility part. In the story, endtime fervor rises to such a state that fundamentalists decide to declare the Rapture already here . They go on rampage after The Beast, which is an excuse in the story to attack liberal churches. Granted, there is antipathy between liberal and funamentalists. We see them as losing grip on orthodoxy and compromising with the depravity of the culture, in part becoming non-Christian in doctrine. They see us as narrow-minded and uneducated and focused on the letter of the Bible to such an extent that we are isolationist and judgmental. Postulating an extrapolation—all out war—is one of the speculative fictional techniques. But Willis is judgmental of Charies, and becomes a victim to what she decries in the story—looking down on another group as “outsider” and “not like us.”

But that doesn’t bother me as much as that “God chooses to believe” bit, which just seems to be some loony proverb created to fit the story idea. Never mind that it’s really silly: It violates orthodoxy. God is omniscient. Belief is not part of God’s being.He knows. Knows all. Knowing excludes believing. The dialogue feels as if it was put in there to sound good, but it makes no sense. None at all. It stopped me cold and made me go, “Huh?” You tell me what the heck that means.

That’s not traditional, orthodox, apostolic, Biblical Christian doctrine. And it’s just plain BAD logic.

However, taken overall, all its parts together, I would say this fits the Mir Manifesto. We must allow latitude in speculation, because the message is about more than the then-and-that. It’s about the here and now. Yes. This is Christian SF. And it’s a well-done tale, despite my quibbles.

What Can We Learn From it?
1. To be willing to take leaps, risks, as writers and readers: I suspect a great many Christians, if told a story debated the merits of baptizing an organgutan, would assume heresy, blasphemy, and who knows what all else and refuse to read it. I say, think of the impossible situation that makes you pay attention. Go for the long steps. Take the risk. Shine a light on some key doctrine without being predictable or easy. Make the reader stretch. Stretch yourself, too.

2. Make readers feel: Even with the parts of this story that might offend me (as I’m one of Willis’ targets, the fundies) or with which I doctrinally disagree (female bishops and pastors, baptizing animals, ridicule of pretrib/premillers) , she made me care—care about a ditzy assistant pastor and a sweet orangutan. And she made me realize, by using speculative storytelling, how some people out there are made to feel by those of us who are quick to say, “No, you don’t belong here. You’re not good enough.” Samaritans continue to exist, and we must continue to say to them like Jesus did, “I have water for your thirst.”

3. Find inspiration in the Word of God: Read the key text for this story, Psalm 73, and you will see how much it influenced the plot. This story is a speculative variation on much of Psalm 73. What favorite Scripture passage can you take and re-imagine boldly and humanely and beautifully?

4. Be careful of demonizing the opposition: A weak spot in this story of tolerance and open-mindedness and love is the lack of tolerance and open-mindedness and love for “the enemy” that is the Charies (fundamentalist Charismatics). When you write your story, feel free to have enemies, but perhaps a character who gives insight to the enemy would be a good balance. Don’t lessen a story’s power by making snide, one-dimensional attacks on cultural groups you oppose. In this case, the humor aspect softened it. Humor allows for that. But if your story is serious, think twice before making the enemy just one big black wall of badness or lunacy or stupidity.

Please comment with your opinions on the story, on my analysis, on what else we can learn from it.

Feel free to answer any of the above questions? Also, does that bit of final dialogue bother you as it does me? How might it have been improved to suit the story and make sense doctrinally?

Next week: Another story comes under the Mircroscope.

Mini-reviews Of Recent Christian SF/F Titles, Part 1

Two weeks ago, I told how I’d rediscovered a few gems in current Christian SF/F … today I’ll touch on a few other titles I’ve particularly enjoyed, and why. Having already mentioned the works of Karen Hancock and Kathy Tyers, […]
| Aug 16, 2006 | No comments |

Two weeks ago, I told how I’d rediscovered a few gems in current Christian SF/F … today I’ll touch on a few other titles I’ve particularly enjoyed, and why.

Having already mentioned the works of Karen Hancock and Kathy Tyers, I’ll skip those.

Kathryn Mackel: I had the joy and wonder of meeting her in that “Thick-Skinned Critique” workshop. She offered me a recommendation to her editor at WestBow, which fell through on the basis of my story’s length, but through which the Lord worked very deeply in me. But in the course of the months leading up to all that, she asked me to read the then-unfinished first draft of Outriders. Talk about a thrill … that was right about the time I’d been assigned to Donita’s crit group, and had just begun helping crit her second fantasy. Oh, yeah, those were heady days …

I found Outriders fresh, gripping, utterly compelling—even in rough draft form where Kathy wrote things like “insert [blank] scene here” when she was in the grip of writing and couldn’t stop to research something just yet. The character of Nikki grabbed me and wouldn’t let go—and then there was the heroic Brady, and the winsome Timothy, and the heartwrenching Jasper. It is, I believe, quite an inventive twist on some old themes.

L.A. Kelly: I discovered her fantasy novel Tahn while doing market research. It’s hard to decide if it’s more historical or fantasy—there’s little in the way of the supernatural, but the setting is clearly fictional. The story starts with enough mystery to pull a reader in—with a bad-boy protagonist highly reminiscent of some of my own favorite characters. She includes a twist involving drug use that I found myself just a little envious of. The writing was smooth and effortless, her style gentle even during the more tense moments. My husband and I both were surprised at how much we enjoyed this one, given how little hype accompanied it.

Randall Ingermanson and John Olson: Oxygen. A must for fans of SF/F with faith elements. A bit off the beaten track of my own tastes, but I enjoyed the interweaving of the characters and the attention to research.

Randall Ingermanson: Transgression, Premonition, and Retribution. The first one is a time-travel, the next two the continuing adventures of Rivka and Ari. I loved the time-travel element—moderns thrown back in time. Randy portrays first-century Jerusalem in a way that no other writer ever has, and breathes life into the Jewishness of the early church. The second book is perhaps the stiffest, writing-wise (it was written right about the time Randy was perfecting his famed Snowflake method of novel crafting), but the third book is utterly beautiful and had me in tears in renewed awe over what Yeshua did for us in taking on the sins of the world. The first title is out of print, but well worth the search on half.com to find. Note of interest: Randy doesn’t go the way of the “easy converstion” in this series. ‘Nuff said.

More mini-reviews next time, unless I stumble across something more amusing and erudite.

Heresy or Poetic License

Today’s post is going to be very short. I had a root canal Monday afternoon and my mouth hurts too much to think. I want to stay with Mr. Shontz at Holy Terror for a couple more weeks. Today I […]
| Aug 16, 2006 | No comments |

Today’s post is going to be very short. I had a root canal Monday afternoon and my mouth hurts too much to think.

I want to stay with Mr. Shontz at Holy Terror for a couple more weeks. Today I want you to turn your attention to his essay Horror and Heresy: Know the Difference.

What do you all think about his take on this? After all, we are creating fiction. Do we expect our readers to take our worlds and characters as representing reality?

I want to continue in this vein next week as well. I’ll share some of my thoughts and use specific books to illustrate.

Again, I apologize for not writing much today. But I hope Mr. Shontz’s essay will trigger some deep thought and great exchange of ideas.

Book Discussion – The Light Of Eidon – Part 1

Would you believe that I’ve gone and misplaced my copy of The Light of Eidon?  Please shoot me now. But I’ll go ahead and begin this discussion from memory until I can pick up a replacement copy. Now if you […]
| Aug 15, 2006 | No comments |

Would you believe that I’ve gone and misplaced my copy of The Light of Eidon?  Please shoot me now.

But I’ll go ahead and begin this discussion from memory until I can pick up a replacement copy.

Now if you haven’t read the book yet, you may want to read these discussions with caution.  I’ll try and skip any specific spoilers, but some things are just going to naturally arise that may spoil the read for you if you want to go in totally blind.  So if you wish, go read the book and then come back and read this series later after you are done.

I know I have most likely come across sounding harsh towards CBA fantasy, and like I haven’t liked a bit of it.  But honestly most of my comments spawn from a desire to see the market expand and grow in the types stories told, not from a total disdain from what has come before.

When I first picked up The Light of Eidon (LoE) a few years ago it sparked my first return to CBA fantasy in years.  I had avoided the book for a long time due to the cover. It spoke of shiny romance and all about a woman audience to me, which isn’t surprising since that’s the main audience that CBA caters to, which is another reason I hadn’t read anything from them in years.

Eventually though I got past the cover and jumped into the actual content. And what do you know, I actually enjoyed myself.

Wipe away those shocked and smirky faces!

LoE isn’t an overly surprising tale (I think only two events in the whole story caught me off guard, one because I didn’t think CBA would let it through, the other because it was truly surprising), but it is well written. I have no issues with the general writing craft of this book. The journey that Abramm goes on, changing from a pacifist monk to a gladiator to a general, is a familiar tale, but I’ve never been put off by familiarity.

Karen Hancock made me care about the characters, and handled the action scenes well. And by the time I got to the end of the book, I never felt betrayed. I felt like I had gotten everything she had promised me from the book’s start.  And no the romance element in this book didn’t phase me either, it grew naturally and wasn’t a stand-alone plot, but was merged fully with Abramm’s character arc as well as the main plot.

Yes there were things that irked me about LoE though most of those didn’t come into full effect until the sequel, I believe.  But taken as a whole this book is a wonderful tale of one man’s struggle to overcome evil.

Next week, we’ll begin looking at the world that The Light of Eidon introduced us to.

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