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Why Bill Maher and Mark Steyn are (Mostly) Wrong about Stan Lee and Superhero Fantasy

Why did two pundits condemn superhero stories because they’re not “sophisticated literature”?
| Nov 20, 2018 | 6 comments |

Here’s a rare display of unity. Progressivist pundit Bill Maher and conservative pundit Mark Steyn both scowled at fans of superheroes and the late Stan Lee.

Of course, they’re both wrong. But not only for the reasons many superhero fans offer.

Let’s take a quick look at what these men said. Note that I will take them at their word. Sure, maybe they’re both trying to be provocative. But I know a little about Maher—and far more about Steyn—to know that they’re fairly principled chaps. They’ll say what’s truly on their mind. Both seem to genuinely support the First Amendment right to free speech, even if their own “side” balks at them.

First, from progressivist Bill Maher, at his own Nov. 17 blog:

America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess. … We’re using our smarts on stupid stuff. I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.1

Next, from conservative Mark Steyn, also at his own Nov. 17 blog:

So we have [superhero] movies about nothing. You can discern subplot if you wish, but in the end what 99 per cent of moviegoers notice is the stuff that’s not sub-: He has webbing shooting out of his fingers! He can shrink to the seize of an ant! … A world of superheroes leads remorselessly to a world without heroes.2

Both pundits have drastically different philosophical backgrounds. But they came to the same conclusion. They claim comic books and superhero movies may be harmless, but are ultimately immature and pointless. They say audiences should not waste so much time on these fantasies. And they say it’s pointless for grown-ups to waste so much time trying to justify these stories’ philosophical “subtext.”3

They’re not so much talking about Lee or other creators, but about you and me.

Also, they’re not so much talking about simply superheroes or “comic books” (itself a potentially dated label to refer to these stories). They’re talking about fantasy.

Where Maher and Steyn are (mostly) right

Some fans really are immature about superheroes and other fantasy. We’ve known these fans. Sometimes we’ve been these fans. That’s because the biblical Christian understands that humans like to sin-twist any good gift. Some fans treasure fantasy worlds so much that they leave their heart there (Matt. 6:21), with little time for family or career, to say nothing of living our lives centered on the gift-Giver.

Also, in this age, institutional family breakdown has gone amok. We ought to be aware that fictional families—superheroes and otherwise—can become idolatrous substitutes. Even our knowledge about the intricacies of franchises can give fans a false sense of productivity. We may even feel we have greater “stewardship” over the fantasy worlds instead of the real world.

Steyn, who spends more time sharing Lee’s backstory, is also right to question whether Lee has previously taken credit for other artists’ work (such as Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby). These are long-debated issues among superhero fans.4 Steyn also demonstrates acute knowledge of superhero stories, right down to the simple details such as correct quoting and attribution of film quotes as well as correctly spelling hero titles. (He even hyphenates and capitalizes the name Spider-Man.)5

Where Maher and Steyn are (mostly) wrong

1. Fantasy and superhero stories are not automatically immature or ‘childish.’

Image relayed from TheologyGaming.com (original source unlisted). As Zachary Oliver notes, the apostle Paul is talking about immature use of spiritual gifts, not the enjoyment of recreation that some people merely claim is “childish.”

Maher is laughably wrong when he makes the hackneyed claim that comic books are immature, stupid, and unimportant. Just because a story features a superhero or other fantastical hero/element, or follows a “graphic novel” format of dialogue accompanying illustrations, doesn’t mean the story is beneath mature adults.

To claim otherwise is plain, ornery, subjective highbrow-ism.

It’s ignorant of how popular stories develop, or last for centuries and become classic. Here you can fetch your standard points about how William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens created stories in the popular media of their day. Only later did everyone get together and decide their works were classified as classic.

Maher also seems ignorant of the best purpose of fantasy. These stories are not meant to show “reality” as we see it. Instead, they show reality as it is—our eternal reality that is epic and miraculous, and not limited to our daily chores and “grown-up” cliques and squabbling and dullness.

Here we’re again compelled to quote the childlike-yet-mature C. S. Lewis:

Critics who treat “adult” as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

2. Fantasy and superhero stories are not worthless solely because they’re not ‘sophisticated literature.’ Christians shouldn’t give an inch to this notion.

Marvel's "Jessica Jones" miniseries on Netflix

No worries, hero fans: if the story is made into a gritty crime drama on Netflix, that makes it “sophisticated.”

Maher and Steyn both mock the idea of adults who have “pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature” (Maher’s words). Both pundits offer casual arguments that don’t engage with definitions or expectations of “literature,” either “sophisticated” or otherwise. They draw basic correlations and assume their joke is made: that all serious grown-ups, ipso facto, just know it’s just silly to suggest we can find all these metaphors in superhero stories. We all know it’s silly to write theses with titles like “Otherness and Heterodoxy in the Silver Surfer.”

Well, we can agree that it’s silly to base our fantasy defenses on metaphor-probing and thesis-writing. Some fantasy defenders may try this approach. For example, some Christian writers who seek Christ-figures, or more likely, “gospel themes” in their “engaging popular culture”–style articles (which get spoofed by The Babylon Bee).

However, these kinds of defensive fans accidentally give away the comic-book store to fantasy critics. How? By surrendering to the critics’ first principle that “the only worthwhile culture is Sophisticated Literature.” But this is not just untrue even based on the secular reasoning that “many classical texts began life as popular culture.” Christians have even greater reasons. We can insist on the fact that God made humans to make stories in many different ways. That means stories made for classic concert halls are no less valuable than stories told around campfires by nomadic tribes. Or stories shared over social networks. Or stories made by thousands of organized artists motivated by profit motive and mass distributed by TV, theaters, or websites.

3. Fantasy and superhero stories inspire good works, such as real-world heroism. But even if they didn’t, Christians can support them as part of godly rest and recreation.

Steyn is also wrong when he suggests fictional superheroes detract from real heroism. Of course, they can in some cases. But this overwrought claim simply doesn’t match our reality. Real heroes—such as emergency workers, but also charity providers—are often superhero fans. Some even cite the heroics of Superman, the X-Men, and Spider-Man as motives for entering hero-type jobs in the first place.6

Still, even this response can give away the store.

Either of these pundits assumes, without argument, that “if the story doesn’t motivate you to some serious work then it’s useless.” Alas, this is the same kind of mechanistic, “mind of metal and wheels” notion that many older Christians have made about fantasy. (And for which Christian fantasy fans must strive to forgive them.) Such notions would make sense if God did not promise his redeemed people an eternal Sabbath, which we can anticipate in today’s times of rest and recreation. But God did give us this promise. So let’s reject fool nonsense about how stories only ought to make us do work (or ministry), as opposed to “useless” things like rest, recreation, or human relationships.

This means that fantasy and superhero stories have a “point” simply by existing, and fantastically reflecting the human struggles with real life as well as good and evil.

Christians don’t need to condemn or justify fantastical stories by claiming they are/aren’t classic literature, or do/don’t support real heroism, or do/don’t actually reflect real-life cultural issues. That’s all surface-level stuff. Just as we explored last week, for Christians, the highest purpose of these stories isn’t to make us into heroes or else morally profitable ministry/social advocates. Their highest purpose is to reflect to us, however dimly, the real Hero whom we worship.

If you don’t get that purpose, it doesn’t matter if you’re a conservative like Steyn or a progressivist like Maher. One way or another, you will drift into secondary and pragmatic justifications against or for fantasy. Even otherwise biblical Christians, who suspect the highest purpose of stories is to teach morals or merely entertain us, will fall into this trap. But especially at this time of year, when we try to list the many ways God has provided for us, let’s not reject God’s gift of fantasy stories—or the people who made them like Stan Lee and his co-creators. Let’s instead thank God for these gifts.

  1. Bill Maher, “Adulting,” Real Time with Bill Maher Blog, Nov. 17, 2018.
  2. Mark Steyn, “Whatever Happened to Non-Super Heroes?”, Steyn Online, Nov. 17, 2018.
  3. Of course, them’s fighting words. See our articles, about subtext and all the rest of it, in the Badfan v Superman series from 2015 to 2016.
  4. See also: publishers ignoring Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and the de-crediting of Batman co-creator Bill Finger. Only starting in 2015 did Warner Brothers begin crediting Finger for his creation of the Gotham detective’s famed tropes.
  5. Unfortunately, other conservative pundits are not so respectful of fantasy genres, and thus utterly disqualify themselves from offering legitimate criticism here. In summer 2012, Rush Limbaugh insisted that The Dark Knight Rises film villain Bane simply must have been based on a then–current political foe called Bain Capital. Limbaugh insisted the creators had planned this, which would have required a sense of prediction more preposterously miraculous than The Joker’s. Of course, Bane the villain originally appeared in a Batman story published in 1993.
  6. One might as well guffaw at science fiction with all its silly stories about spaceships. Ha ha, such escapist nonsense, such the notion that computers can play music in response to voice commands. Doesn’t this distract from real-life innovation? Ridiculous. Sci-fi imagination in fact inspires such innovation. Many inventors cite stories from Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation as inspiration for mobile phones, tablet devices, and digital music.

Does Narnia “Rewrite” Christianity?

When something like Schnelbach’s article comes out, especially from a reputable fantasy source such as Tor, I suspect a number of readers have digested this idea that misrepresents Lewis’s views. Many may have even embraced it, so I think it’s imperative to take a stand against such an understanding that undermines a man known for his Christian worldview. And for his many fiction and non-fiction books that deal with Christianity.
| Nov 19, 2018 | 5 comments |

Interestingly Christianity recently came into the spotlight of a major fantasy outlet, and not necessarily in a good way, but let me explain.

This week we celebrate Thanksgiving here in the US. Also occurring this week is the 55-year anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s death, although the western world does not set aside the day as a holiday. In many respects, the two days converge for me. I am thankful for C. S. Lewis and specifically for his fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia, not only because the stories are compelling, not only because they pried open the door of fantasy for me, but because they showed me that I wanted to write fantasy too and they showed me the way I wanted to write, incorporating God’s truth into story in a natural way.

While I love Narnia, I’m not unaware that some people, both critics and fans, see Lewis as taking a left turn away from orthodox Christianity in these stories. The latest writer to take that position is Leah Schnelbach in an article in Tor.com entitled “Moral Kombat: How Narnia and Harry Potter Wrestle with Death and Rewrite Christianity.” It’s a lengthy analysis comparing and contrasting two of the most influential fantasy works of the last sixty years.

Schnelbach explains the “rewriting Christianity” concept this way:

When the series culminates in The Last Battle, it’s revealed that faith in Narnia/Aslan has allowed all the “Friends of Narnia” to return (and that Susan’s lack of such faith left her on Earth), and that all “good” followers of Tash get to come along to a Heaven that is sort of a deluxe Narnia: “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash… if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.”

In this way Lewis creates a stand-in messiah, twines the quasi-Jesus story around the core of his fantasy series, and riffs respectfully on Christian theology. He takes the somewhat liberal (and controversial, in some theological circles) Inclusivist stance that good works can get people into paradise apart from their conscious faith in his specific savior figure.

As it happens, E. Stephen Burnett addressed this criticism of Lewis’s theology some years ago in a short series entitled Refuting ‘universalist’ slanders of C.S. Lewis He builds a strong case that Lewis’s fantasies are not to be feared as heretical or “rewrites” of Christianity. In the second article in his series, Stephen specifically addressed the scene from The Last Battle that Schnelbach referenced.

Whether reading Lewis’s nonfiction or his fiction, we must stay mindful of the whole picture, following the genre’s rules.

This applies when answering this common accusation about Lewis’s beliefs: Lewis believed universalism, because in The Last Battle, a pagan character goes to heaven. (emphases in the original)

Someone schooled in Lewis’s understanding of how to write fantasy knows that he did not intend to write a “stand-in Messiah” in the way that Schnelbach understands it. He was not writing allegory. Rather, he termed his approach to fantasy as “supposal.” Lewis implied that he came to his stories by asking, How would Christ look and act and live in this imagined world? Meaning, that He most definitely would not be the same in a world with talking animals as He is in our real world.

The stone table, for instance, is not a cross, and Aslan didn’t stay in a tomb for three days and nights. Is Lewis heretically claiming that what the Bible said about Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is wrong? Clearly not. He was relating the truth of salvation by supposing what it might look like in a pretend world. This most certainly is not the same as “rewriting Christianity.”

When something like Schnelbach’s article comes out, especially from a reputable fantasy source such as Tor, I suspect a number of readers have digested this idea that misrepresents Lewis’s views. Many may have even embraced it, so I think it’s imperative to take a stand against such an understanding that undermines a man known for his Christian worldview. And for his many fiction and non-fiction books that deal with Christianity.

If we Christians who read and love speculative literature don’t stand up for one of the greats in our genre, who will?

No, Lewis was not perfect. Everything he wrote or believed doesn’t completely agree with my understanding of the Bible. But he was not undermining Christianity with his fantasy.

In part he was working out his thoughts and beliefs in every book, as every writer does. And like all other writers, his ideas did not remain static. After his wife died, his understanding of suffering did deepen, for instance.

But in his fantasy Lewis never intended to write a theological treatise. Consequently, reading the stories as if they express his views about God and heaven and salvation in our real world is not accurate. Yes, Lewis believed in God who created the world, who saved the world, who made a way for those who believed to go “further up and further in.”

The specifics, the ways in which the world of Narnia differs from Christianity, are more obviously explained by the fact that Lewis was not writing allegory.

On one hand, secularists criticize Lewis for writing Christianity into his books (and in this case, for writing his own version of Christianity), but on the other hand too many Christians criticize him for not writing enough Christianity into his fantasies.

It sounds very much like the plight of many Christian speculative stories—they are either too Christian or not Christian enough.

Time to take a stand and let the world know, Lewis was writing a Christian message but he was not replicating Christianity in his fantasies. I suggest after saying this, we rinse and repeat because every time this false idea surfaces, it needs to encounter the truth.

The Hidden Message of Salvation

The salvation story of Christ is deeply buried in many epic fantasy classics, such as the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.
| Nov 16, 2018 | 1 comment |

When most people hear about epic fantasy, they think about long-forgotten worlds that existed in the distant past, ruled by magic and dark traditions.

This concept is reinforced by many modern television series and movies, such as The Game of Thrones. In my opinion, it is quite sad that this genre of fiction has gone down such a dark and cruel path. However, as a Christian and a fan of epic fantasy, I dug a little deeper into this genre. The pioneers of this fascinating genre of fiction, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, were practicing Christians. And the salvation story of Christ is deeply buried in the fantastical worlds envisioned by both of these authors. Please allow me to point out a few comparisons.

This week we feature Aviya Carmen and her novel The White Forest. Stop by the flagship book club on Facebook to learn more about this story.

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1. The struggle of good and evil

The book of Genesis does not state exactly when Satan fell from his glorious state and became the devil who prowls on the earth. Still, it’s clear that ever since Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they were set at enmity with the serpent (Satan). Thus the struggle between good and evil took center stage in humanity. This same struggle has continued for thousands of years, and it is still as real in our time as it has ever been. And this is the central theme of both The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia series.

 2. Heroes who fight to save the world.

We always find warriors and fighters in fantasy stories. They rise up for the sake of goodness, and ultimately become heroes who save the world from the dominion of darkness.

In The Chronicles of Narnia, the four Pevensie children fight alongside Aslan and saved the world of Narnia from the rule of the White Witch. In the heavenly realms, the army of God’s angels led by Michael is diligently fending off the demonic forces of Satan (Revelation 12: 7–10). In the book of Ephesians, Paul urges the people to put on the full armor of God, so that they may be able to withstand the attacks of Satan in the present evil age with the power of God (Ephesians 6: 10-18). Of course, Jesus Christ is the ultimate hero of the Christian faith.

3. Creatures from unseen realms.

Dragons, elves, hobgoblins, mermaids, sirens, demons, and many other mythical creatures all make regular appearances in epic fantasy stories.

Many of these creatures come from folklore and ancient myths, and have been recorded in every known culture. Although modern science views all “unseen” creatures as non-existent, science fails to explain many supernatural phenomena. It is no coincidence that the Bible speaks explicitly about angels and demons throughout both the Old and New testaments. Jesus clearly drove out demons, which plagued people with various forms of sickness.

4. Dark evil forces who oppose the light.

In The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, there are evil antagonists who are strong enough to overthrow the peace of the world for a short time. Until the true king returns and reclaims his kingdom. Isn’t that the case with our world right now? We’re currently under the rule of Satan, awaiting the return of our savior, Jesus, to reclaim his kingdom.

5. A king who ultimately reigns in peace.

The climax of the story is often the last battle fought between the true king and the evil forces who have overtaken his kingdom. Of course, he overthrows the forces of evil and reigns once again in righteousness and peace. This is not only the hope of the Christian faith, but also a recurring theme in many epic fantasy stories.

In the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan banishes all evil and returns to rule Narnia in peace. Even some Disney movies have adapted this type of ending, such as The Lion King. As Christians, we have the great promise from God himself that he will make all things right again one day and send Jesus to rule over His kingdom on earth. What a great day of rejoicing it shall be!

What better way is there for children and adults to learn morals through exciting adventures in fantastical worlds! After all, the Preacher arranged many Proverbs to teach the people, and Jesus told many stories in parables. Perhaps, even in dark stories like the Game of Thrones, there is a moral to be learned. Which could very well be this: when men try to live apart from God’s law, there is only chaos and disorder and every form of evil under the sun. Mankind is in desperate need of a savior!

Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War, part 11: Training a Spartan, Samurai, or Starship Trooper

The elite training of warriors as different as Spartans, Samurai, and Starship Troopers show many features in common. These features drill warriors to prepare them to face the harsh realities of combat.

Travis P here. In part 7 of this series we discussed those combatants who are naturally elite in a way most warriors are not (in not suffering harmful effects of combat stress). Spartans, in spite of battlefield courage that implies they are natural-born warriors, were in fact the product of superior training, training that in essence was designed, as much as was humanly possible, to overcome the psychological difficulties a human being experiences in combat. Note that this kind of highly-trained fighting professional is a different sort of fighter than found in warrior cultures who emphasized battlefield rage. This type of elite training was not just a characteristic of Spartans, it was also true of a number of other renowned warriors from times past, such as Samurai. And in spite of the fact that elite troops in our own era tend to recruit those with unusual natural talent for war (intentionally or not), elite training is the primary factor that explains the amazing skills of elite troops of our own era and the imagined future warriors like those in Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

Samurai: Colorized public domain image of real samurai

Let’s start with Samurai. Their training varied greatly according to social class and time period, but they generally began at the age of 5. Poorer warriors were instructed in the samurai art of bushido by family members, while wealthier families enrolled their sons in special schools. All samurai training emphasized the calmness of mind required for archery and for a period they practiced archery on living dogs running for their lives (this practice was eventually abandoned as too cruel). It also included a great emphasis on horsemanship, swordsmanship, and heavy armor training–including, due to Japan’s many rivers and coastal areas, how to swim in armor. They also emphasized unarmed fighting that developed into many modern forms of Japanese martial arts. In addition, they engaged in acts of physical endurance and resistance to pain, such as standing naked in a snowbank.

Note some of the key features of this kind of training were shared by other professional warrior cultures of ancient and Medieval times, such as the traditional training of European knights. Ancient training methods understood that someone raised into warfare from childhood would adopt the methods of fighting as second nature. They emphasized a person deliberately calming self, facing bloodshed, and enduring pain, all with the purpose of muting natural psychological reactions to these conditions that humans normally experience.

 

Ancient pottery image of Greek warriors, from: http://spartareconsidered.blogspot.com/2011/09/physical-appearance-of-spartans.html

Spartan training shared these features with the Samurai, but did so more systematically. Their training began at age 7, later than Samurai training, but it exceeded them in difficulty, in standardization, in requirements for group training, and in total commitment. Like samurai and other professional warriors of the past, Spartans trained in unarmed combat to include boxing and wrestling, but considered gymnastics and the ability to dance important warrior skills as well. A Spartan warrior would train continuously until age 18, when he would be considered an adult and be expected to marry. At age 20 he would allowed to attempt to join the army–he would only be accepted after being examined and considered fully qualified. Spartans in the army lived together in barracks and continually trained for warfare (an actual war was considered something of a vacation), only visiting their homes on occasion (which were run by the women of the family), serving from ages 20 to 60. Warriors older than 60 returned home, but still maintained the equivalent of “reserve status,” where they could be called upon in the event of a national emergency.

In Starship Troopers, elite warriors were not raised as such from childhood, just as is true in modern militaries. I will let Travis C tell you more about what the society of the story was like below as he uses Heinlein’s novel to illustrate our point, but note troopers lived normal lives until reaching adulthood. In Starship Troopers (the novel contains more of these details than the movie), recruits were subject to vigorous psychological testing (which the story presumes would be accurate) that assigns new troops exactly to those specialties they are most suited to perform–which would clearly put naturally elite troops in front-line combat positions. Recruits were also trained according notions of psychology that include some indirect reinforcement of positive behavior with rewards–but mostly centered on the use of corporal punishment as negative reinforcement. Soldiers could voluntarily leave service at any time, though if they were due punishment, they would need to be flogged first. But by recruiting from those people who most wanted to service, they had few troopers actually decide to leave the service–however, their system included the strictest form of elimination of incompetent soldiers. The novel featured live-fire training and harsh survival exercises that could prove fatal to those troops not performing actions as they’d been trained to do them.

All of these warriors, bot the real and the fictional, not only trained the body, they also trained the mind. Which is probably more important than the specific weapons skills they acquired. Their training shared a number of factors in common to a greater or lesser extent, factors that allowed them to overcome the psychological stresses of combat. Beyond what I’ve already stated, below are some other training features they shared in common:

1. They exposed warriors to the reality of death to such a degree, they would get used to it. Spartans training was so tough that those undergoing it faced the real risk of death. At a phase of their training they famously had to steal food to survive–or starve. Samurai and other ancient and Medieval fighters in training accompanied warriors onto the battlefield, exposing young men to combat violence early on. Hunting was also part of training, because the calmness required in stalking an animal and the ability to kill it relates to the use of weapons against other human beings. In Starship Troopers, life-or-death survival and combat exercises were a normal part of the training cycle.

2. They mentally prepared for death. Samurai philosophy was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism and they believed in life after death, though they did not emphasize it quite so much as Medieval knights. However, they strove to maintain a state of mind where they continually recognized that death could come in the next minute. Spartans did believe in an afterlife, but it seems they placed a greater emphasis on duty to the city and their unit as the reason to be prepared to die, if necessary. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers put no emphasis on life after death at all, but like Spartans, they were continually drilled that they had a duty to humanity, a duty that might call on them to sacrifice their lives at any time.

3. They employed as realistic and as difficult training as they could. From actually being out on the battlefield to the best mock-ups they could make of training dummies, all of these warrior societies trained hard not only in their weapons techniques, but they routinely would go without food, without comfort, deliberately expose themselves to pain, and would face physical and mental exhaustion, pushing themselves as close to the breaking point as they could go. Their ability to face and overcome pain was an important part of their training regimen. They would also build up their physical strength in systematic exercises to improve not only their physical, but their mental performance. Facing and overcoming tough circumstances in training made the rigors of the battlefield less challenging. Training until actions are second nature or “muscle memory” also ensures they can be performed when the mind is pushed beyond its normal capabilities.

4. They emphasized the value of the group over the individual and benefited from “collective courage.” This was especially true of the Spartans and to a somewhat lesser degree was the case in Starship Troopers. One of the psychological realities that makes it easier for a human being to perform any difficult act is when other people are doing it at the same time. Spartans trained continually to act as a unit, to think as a unit, to sleep together in barracks to do everything together, for the purpose of them acting as a unified group in a time of crisis. Even though this was less true for samurai–far less true, because they like knights believed in individual honor–warriors of feudal Japan did feel a sense of obligation to their fellow warriors and believed it was a dishonor to let them down. They also swore oaths of loyalty to superiors and while there are plenty of examples in history of warriors breaking their oaths, it was considered shameful to do so and was not what warriors normally did.

5. They were systematically taught to stay calm and maintain a level head. Unlike the movie “The 300,” Spartans admired saying little and keeping their emotions solidly in control. Samurai employed meditation and their focus as Zen Buddhists to maintain calm and control their emotions, though they’d release battle shouts in a controlled way, as happens in modern martial arts. Of these three sets of warriors, Starship Troopers probably placed the least emphasis on emotional self-control, but what we think of as military order and discipline emphasized keeping a level head and was actually the normal way for them to fight.

6. They maintained a personal code that justified them in taking lives under specific circumstances. Killing another human being normally causes psychological trauma to the humans doing the killing as noted in previous posts. But when someone strongly believes that an opponent represents an inherent threat, that the other person deserves to die, the natural trauma involved in killing is easier to overcome. And an assurance that a warrior has that he is living up to a high code of conduct also assuages his conscience. This sort of assurance in the personal righteousness of the warrior was especially key in the training of samurai (and also knights). Spartan training also had an ethical component, but its ethics emphasized supporting the city and other warriors over a code that each fighter could apply to himself individually. Starship Troopers employed a code something like that of the Spartans, which enthusiastically supported war and killing as if it were great fun, as long as it was in defense of the human race. (And as Travis C notes below, their sense of values also included systematic deadening of empathy towards the enemy.)

7. They systematically studied the nature of warfare and carefully employed their thinking minds to the art of winning battles. Actually the Roman legionaries were the greatest ancient masters of this last point, even though I did not pick them as one of the examples above. But this was also true of Spartans and samurai and is found in Starship Trooper training. Warriors of Feudal Japan were expected to be literate and to know and understand pertinent written works of strategy. Spartans were also trained to read and write, even if they did not love literacy and innovation the way their Athenian rivals did. And all the actions in Starship Troopers were directed by those recruits who had be pre-selected as those best able to devise and execute masterful battlefield strategy.

It’s important to note that historic warriors who maintained calmness in the heat of battle (who had faced enough death and suffering during hard training to do that), who fought together as unit, who believed themselves morally superior to their opponents, and who employed their clear, level heads to the use of the best strategy and tactics available, routinely defeated warrior societies who emphasized battle cries and berzerker frenzy. Calm, scientific warriors win, almost every time.

Note the Klingons of Star Trek share a few of these features I’ve mentioned above–they are portrayed as training hard, having a strong belief in the afterlife, and as facing death with equanimity. But they are not shown to stay cool and level-headed, to use sharp unemotional minds to employ clever strategies while fighting. Though in defense of the idea of Klingons, perhaps it is not necessary for them as an alien species to maintain tight emotional control in order to be able to keep thinking clearly. Though in fact, the best explanation for them is that Klingons were not written with a realistic understanding of war in mind. And it happens to be true that they have been written with features that in reality are competition with one another to a large degree. (Or maybe…that’s why the Federation keeps beating them…)

Note though that even these warriors who were trained to an unbelievably high degree sometimes broke under the stresses of combat–even Spartans on occasion surrendered. But those warrior societies that go the furthest to train into men the ability to successfully stand at places like Thermopylae, who can face death without surrendering or breaking ranks even in the midst of enormous psychological pressure, these societies have certain features in common–if the characters involved are human or nearly so. Portray them in stories accordingly.

Credit: Rocketpunk Manifesto

Travis C here with a great illustration for the week, suggested by Travis P. We’re visiting one of my alma mater’s most prolific and controversial graduates, Robert Heinlein and his Hugo Award winning Starship Troopers. You are likely more familiar with the 1997 satirical movie rendition of the story, but for our purposes that will do. The book is excellent and an interesting thought-provoking read, no matter if you share his beliefs or not. (I’m smiling because there’s a huge Heinlein poster in one of our English department rooms next to where I teach).

For those unfamiliar with Starship Trooper’s backstory, there is a war going one between a Federation made up of earth’s former democracies and an alien arachnid race from the planet Klendathu, affectionately known as “the Bugs”. As society evolved in the aftermath of a global war, certain rights of participation in the government are reserved for those who have completed Federal service, typically in a branch of the military. While free speech and assembly remain protected for all, certain government jobs, elected positions, and the right to vote are only for those who have served (hence the controversy created by Heinlein’s work). Enter our main character, Juan “Johnny” Rico, the son of two non-serving, affluent members of society who do not want their son to participate in the military. When Johnny enlists for service he is ostracized but resolute in his path, encouraged by his former infantry-serving history teacher Jean Rasczyk (in the movie played by a very gritty Michael Ironside).

We get to experience Johnny’s training alongside fellow grunts of the Mobile Infantry. We experience his efforts to put aside personal desires for the good of the team. We watch him and his peers going through simulated combat training in full kit with modified weaponry (and painful consequences) to prepare them for the realities of the battlefield. We experience the frosty personality of Drill Sergeant Zim as he breaks the recruits down in order to instill a new set of values and operating frameworks within them.

Sadly, Johnny also experiences the painful loss of a comrade in the midst of training due to his own leadership failure. He learns the challenge of decision-making in the midst of combat and the consequences, intended or otherwise, of failure.

Throughout the movie (and book, though maybe not as over-the-top displayed) is the dehumanizing of the enemy and subsequent conditioning of the soldier to kill without hesitation, by rote memorization, with all the lethality one is capable of, for the greater cause. The only good bug is a dead bug, and “the noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and war’s desolation.” Starship Troopers shows an environment that prepares soldiers to take life (arachnid life, at least) for a noble cause and with full moral authority.

Lastly, we see the efforts of the support organization like military intelligence to learn as much as possible about Bug culture and tactics. This information is used to better prepare the military to fight and win. A warrior culture is always learning and perfecting its craft, and the members of Mobile Infantry are no different. Any opportunity to exploit the enemy and achieve victory is explored and pursued.

Like Travis P, I can point to my personal experiences through two forms of high-intensity training (USNA’s Plebe Summer as both participant and trainer, and much later in a combat pre-deployment program for combat environments) and confirm many of the principles we’ve discussed. Individual success is certainly praised, but never at the expense of team success. If the team fails, everyone fails. While many view components of basic training as a form of brainwashing, a good training program does not preclude individual initiative, daring, and independent thinking. It just puts those things in a framework of teamwork in support of larger purposes, often through sacrificial actions and attitudes.

Can you train a person to achieve different results? Certainly, but also expect there to be consequences. A program based on a “Winner Takes All” attitude will produce warriors who know nothing other than internal competition with one another, and one would expect team efforts to fall apart or be extremely challenging. Similarly, a training program that reinforced self-sacrifice for others as the ultimate virtue may experience higher-than-average death rates as soldiers put themselves into high-risk situations to save others, maybe even against common sense.

How do we show all of this as writers? Heinlein and many others dedicate significant time to showing these experiences through the eyes of the characters undergoing them. It might be in the form of character flashbacks or reminiscing. It may be tangential to the actual story and witnessed through other observations from the society and culture, even if not explicitly explored. For example, maybe a family is discussing messages from a son/daughter or sister/brother who is going through training and out of the picture but still connected via their words? Lots of possibilities. It’s also very common in modern military settings for troops to discuss basic training experiences while conducting more advanced training scenarios, offering another possibility to explore the formative experiences of a warrior in the context of a more mature, experienced character.

The Nature of the Beast

How does the idea of monsters fit into the Christian walk?
| Nov 14, 2018 | No comments |

The fourth short story anthology from The Crossover Alliance released this past Halloween. I don’t have a story in it but several of my friends do, and one look at the cover tells you this collection is intense. The theme is “Monsters,” but as the cover image indicates, monsters often come from within. So how does the idea of monsters fit into the Christian walk?

Everyone has their own concept of monsters, but they generally have common characteristics: large, grotesque, vicious, wild, hungry, predatorial, and scary. Movies like Monsters, Inc. capitalized on these characteristics with humorous intentions, but even a cartoon acknowledges that monsters terrify us. It’s not the same fear that snakes or spiders inspire, because those creatures are much smaller than humans but are creepy and crawly and slithery and darty. Monsters aren’t usually associated with speed or stealth (the xenomorph in Alien is a notable exception). The source of their terror is their hulking size and giant claws and dripping fangs.

Animals with monstrous qualities exist today (lions, tigers, sharks, squid), in pre-history (dinosaurs), and mythology (Hydra, Cyclops, dragons, Godzilla, Cthulhu, etc.). TV and movies allow us to watch city-flattening behemoths wreak havoc from the comforts of our living rooms, but for the longest time, stories about monsters were passed down over village campfires, and people believed they were true. Man’s footprint was much smaller before the Industrial Age and the mountains, the forest, and the seas sheltered terrifying creatures that would gobble up any reckless villager at a moment’s notice. As technology advanced, we discovered what monsters were indeed real and which were fantasy, and our weaponry gave us the upper hand. Now we get the popcorn ready for Shark Week and watch Chris Pratt turn into the Raptor Whisperer.

As Nature’s monsters have diminished, there is still one realm which we have not conquered: that which is inside ourselves. Monsters like addiction and rage and psychopathy still wreak havoc in human hearts and decimate families, relationships, careers, and futures. It would be folly to speculate on whether these monsters are getting worse today compared to ages past, but with more people on the planet, the opportunities for monsters to arise has undeniably grown. Like the monsters of lore, these inner demons are massive, ugly, and destructive. We often feel powerless as we watch these monsters destroy the things we love.

Yet despite the hopelessness we may feel, we are children of a God who is bigger than any monster, real or imagined. Contemporary Christian kitsch often portrays God as our pal, walking along the beach with us. While this is true, He is also the Creator of galaxies and the Smiter of stars. He knows every iota of our being and there is no monster within us that is too strong for Him to defeat. Now, He may not show up with a blazing sword and slay the dragon in dramatic fashion. Perhaps He will allow the monster to roam free within us for a while to strengthen our faith or teach us a lesson. But as His children, we are promised that all things will work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28) and that through Him, we are more than conquerors (Rom. 8:37). We may walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but we need not fear any evil, for He is with us (Ps. 23:4). We may feel that the monsters we face are too much for us, and we are right. But they are not too much for God. The only weapon we need to do battle is faith.

Christian Fantasy Fans: What’s Your Highest Purpose?

Christian fantasy fans have a much greater purpose than merely doing ministry for others.
| Nov 13, 2018 | 34 comments |

Not long ago, I found myself having more debates over the topic of fantasy and magic in fiction. Now that I’ve done this a majority of my life, I detect this pattern:

  1. I share something, usually an article or thought, about the topic. (Such as Deuteronomy 18 Witchcraft: What It Is and Isn’t, or the fall 2018 Lorehaven Magazine issue’s Roundtable feature about fictional magic.)
  2. Someone else responds with a (usually respectful) objection.
  3. The respondent says things like, “We should be holy,” or “Magic is all about the occult,” or “Pagans say XYZ so we should pay special attention to them.”
  4. I say back, “I already responded to those things here, here, and here.1 What’s your response to my existing response? Otherwise we’ll just go in circles.”
  5. The person repeats the same previously answered notions they said before.
  6. We keep going in (non-magical) circles.

To avoid these circles, I try to point to the topic’s real center of gravity—that weighty center that the whole discussion ends up orbiting but never actually lands upon.

I ask this question:

Q. Whenever we talk about fiction, fantasy, and fictional magic, what is the Christian’s chief purpose, or core identity?

And yet, frustratingly, I often get replies like this:

Well, as writers, we …

Too many impressionable children need to …

Christian writers in their stories must teach about …

Such responses so easily, even gaily skip past such a crucial, pivotal theme for the Christian’s very purpose in life. It’s like someone is trying to communicate an entire textbook worth of ideas when I’m not even convinced he can draw the alphabet.

I realize this is the internet, and we all fancy ourselves writers because we can put together anything we like and find instant publication and instant audience.

But writer is not the Christian’s chief purpose. It is not the Christian’s core identity.

Here’s the problem with assuming our purpose or identity is first writer or leader:

1. This assumption casts ourselves as big darn heroes.

Often I wonder if some Christians, who are either in “the ministry” proper, or subconsciously suspect they should be, can’t help think of themselves first as big darn heroes. Maybe we assume—so far back in our hearts that even reading the assumption aloud looks bizarre—that we’re qualified heroes who can “save” all those Impressionable People from bad stories and art. Yet we don’t even stop to question if we’ve figured out this whole story/fiction/culture thing in the first place.

We “think globally” without acting locally—starting with ourselves.

We want to change the cultural “world,” but we haven’t even changed a diaper.2

2. This assumption speaks only about other people.

There’s a kind of well-meaning Christian “unselfishness” that focuses on helping, teaching, or otherwise leading our human neighbors, while skipping a huge primary purpose for the Christian. In other words, that big-darn-hero may sincerely want to help all those weak folks out there. They proceed as if they have just mastered the basics of the faith, so that they are already strong and wise enough to spend the rest of our lives simply helping The Weak (like impressionable children).

But if we don’t constantly, consciously review and focus upon our highest purpose, as taught and always assumed in the Scripture, we’ll end up worshiping ourselves. Instead of serving our neighbors for God’s sake, we will slowly begin to crave the social approval, ministry platform, or influential roles that can feed our quiet idols.

I haven’t even gotten very far up this “enjoying stories biblically” ministry ladder. But already I feel these temptations from every side. So I can imagine what it’s like for someone who does ministry full-time, writing books and speaking at conferences.

3. This assumption can make God a means to other ends.

Here we come to my first and primary answer to this central question:

Q. Whenever we talk about fiction, fantasy, and fictional magic, what is the Christian’s chief purpose, or core identity?

My answer is this, based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s question 1:3

A. The Christian’s chief purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. This means my core identity can be summarized in one word: God-worshiper.

Not author. Not writer. Not creator. Not ministry leader. Not parent, discerner, teacher, preacher, pastor, defender, or holy internet Bible pulpit word blog-running guardian of the sacred orthodoxy against all true doctrine compromisers both foreign and domestic.

Even in our language, even in our passing comments, if we skip directly to all those other callings (which have secondary importance!), we’ll be vulnerable. We’ll be left open to assaults from our own flesh—it’s always looking for some chance to twist good gifts into self-worship—and we’ll make God-worship a means to other ends.

Here someone, starting with myself, might quietly or loudly object: “Well, sure our main purpose is to worship God in all we do. We know that. But as writers, we—”

No. Stop.

We’re not all writers. We’re not all big-darn-heroes. We’re not, first and foremost, the saviors of this fiction genre or or this church or this human culture. Especially if we are asked directly, we must think and speak first of ourselves as God-worshipers.

This must be a reflex. Someone whacks your knee. What are you? “God-worshiper.”

Someone pricks your skin. What’s your highest purpose? You bleed, “God-worshiper.”

Only then can we begin to reform any of the flippancy, sinful twisting, or made-up traditions on which we’ve based our view of culture, stories, and fictional magic.

Only then can we quit trying to “save” others and recall we ourselves need a Savior.

Only then can we stop trying to be big-darn-heroes and clear way for the real Hero.

  1. For instance, I would say (1) Yes, of course we should be holy, and that’s why I claim that some mature Christians don’t actually sin (any more than usual) while enjoying fictional magic in stories; (2) Reading about fictional magic (or even real-life pagan practice of the occult!) does not equal personal idolatrous practice of the occult, according to texts like Deut. 18 and Gal. 5: 19–21, and it’s improper reading of Scripture and reality to claim these are the same; (3) Sure, I’m interested in what pagans say, but any pagans’ self-association with particular mythologies, holidays, or anything else doesn’t rule my life.
  2. I paraphrase this quote from author/pastor Kevin DeYoung, who is quoted in Counterfeit Gospels (2011): “Our generation is prone to radicalism without follow-through. We want to change the world and we have never changed a diaper.”
  3. “Q: What is the chief end of man? A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” (Source.)

Veterans Day: Mayhem And Its Meaning, A Reprise

While stories in the general market are not intentionally reflecting this spiritual reality, they nonetheless reveal the truth that the world is not as it should be, that there are forces of evil, seemingly insurmountable at times, against which forces of good must strive. Mayhem in speculative fiction also shows that the struggle isn’t just external. Mankind struggles against that part of ourselves that seems bewitched or entrapped or bound to a chair.
| Nov 12, 2018 | 2 comments |

Today, in the US we are celebrating a holiday which actually took place yesterday: Veterans Day. As so often happens, if the holiday falls on a Sunday, we extend the celebration to a Monday as a national holiday that gives a number of workers paid time off. I want to post something to honor our veterans. No matter what their service or what the duration, these military veterans, their families, and their friends, have sacrificed for the rest of us.

Interestingly, speculative fiction frequently involves conflict, which in turn can create veterans. If in doubt, read the current Spec Faith series by Travis Perry and Travis Chapman entitled “Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War.”

At the same time, as the anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s death approaches (November 23), I want to cast some light on him and his influence. Remarkably, in our archives is an article which, at least in part, accomplishes both goals. Here, then is “Mayhem And Its Meaning.”

____*****____

Much speculative literature, Christian or otherwise, is marked by mayhem—a violent disruption to life and/or to society. Often mayhem shows up in the form of an actual battle.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit ends in the dramatic Battle of Five Armies, for example, when old animosities between dwarfs and men are subsumed in the conflict against the army of goblins and Wargs. George Lucas’s Star Wars IV: A New Hope is set in a universe suffering mayhem because of the civil war between the Federation and the Rebels. Similarly, Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis takes place in the middle of a conflict between the Old Narnians and the Telmarines who have taken control.

Other stories with grand battles that come to mind include The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by Lewis, The Black Cauldron and The High King by Lloyd Alexander, Return of the Guardian King by Karen Hancock, From Darkness Won by Jill Williamson, The Door Within trilogy by Wayne Thomas Batson, Daughter of Light by Morgan Busse, and Patrick Carr’s A Draw of Kings, third in his The Staff and The Sword trilogy.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy might be the benchmark for grand battles, notably in the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and the Battle of Bywater in The Return of the King.

Not all mayhem is the direct result of an actual battle. Much occurs as a result of the threat of battle or from the efforts to escape a superior force. Certainly Book 1 of Fellowship of the Ring makes the most of the disruption of Frodo’s life and plans by the arrival of the Black Riders and their subsequent efforts to hunt Frodo down. The ultimate confrontation takes place following a skirmish on Weathertop as the wounded Frodo escapes on the elfen horse and reaches the Ford of Bruinen, barely avoiding the ambush of the nine Black Riders.

Another similar near miss took place in episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation as the crew of the Enterprise sought to evade the Borg. Then too, in The Hobbit Bilbo discovers the One Ring in the goblins’ tunnels as he tries to avoid capture. He must then escape Gollum as well.

Not all mayhem comes from attempted or actuated assault. Some is the result of corrupting influence. In The Two Towers Wormtongue, for instance, nearly handed the men of Rohan over to Saruman because of his poisonous council to King Théoden. Saruman himself turned traitor and held Gandalf captive, preventing him from meeting Frodo when he’d promised. In Lewis’s The Last Battle, Shift duped Puzzle into pretending to be Aslan, throwing Narnia into confusion. In The Silver Chair an enchantress held the true prince captive by a spell that made him forget who he was.

Some of the most powerful and effective mayhem results in defeat of the forces of good, at least for a time. The White Witch killed Aslan on the stone table, Gandalf fell to his death in the Mines of Moria, Captain Picard in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is captured by the Borg and turned into one of them, and the orcs kill Boromir in the opening of The Two Towers. Shannon Dittemore’s Angel Eyes, a contemporary Christian supernatural young adult novel released in 2012, shows the mayhem of evil appearing to win against forces of good when main character Brielle’s best friend is murdered.

Why does mayhem play such an important role in speculative fiction? The clearest and best explanation is that these stories reveal the great struggle of the world—the struggle between the rebel Satan and God. All of creation is aligning with one or the other. The skirmishes, the battles, the sacrifices in speculative fiction are echoes of God’s great triumph over sin and death and His yet-to-take-place final judgment over those who stand against Him.

While stories in the general market are not intentionally reflecting this spiritual reality, they nonetheless reveal the truth that the world is not as it should be, that there are forces of evil, seemingly insurmountable at times, against which forces of good must strive.

Mayhem in speculative fiction also shows that the struggle isn’t just external. Mankind struggles against that part of ourselves that seems bewitched or entrapped or bound to a chair.

It also shows that the conflict has consequences. If left unchecked, evil spreads, but even when it is resisted, people die and the world changes. Still, hope infuses most speculative fiction, and ultimately Lewis showed it best when his characters didn’t leave Narnia but went further up and further in.

What are your favorite battles in speculative fiction? What other purpose might they serve besides showing the ultimate battle between spiritual forces?

Minus a few additions, this post first appeared here at Spec Faith in September 2012.

____*****____

To any veterans who might be reading: thank you from the bottom of my heart for the sacrifice you made and the service you gave. Blessings.

Fiction Friday: The Crescent Stone By Matt Mikalatos

Madeline Oliver has never wanted for anything, but now she would give anything just to breathe. Jason Wu skates through life on jokes, but when a tragedy leaves him guilt-stricken, he promises to tell only the truth, no matter the price. When a mysterious stranger named Hanali appears to Madeline and offers to heal her in exchange for one year of service to his people, Madeline and Jason are swept into a strange land where they don’t know the rules and where their decisions carry consequences that reach farther than they could ever guess.

The Crescent Stone

The Sunlit Lands Book 1

by Matt Mikalatos

INTRODUCTION—The Crescent Stone

“For Narnia fans who enjoy heavy snark, this is a must-read.” —Kirkus Reviews

A girl with a deadly lung disease . . .
A boy with a tragic past . . .
A land where the sun never sets but darkness still creeps in . . .

Madeline Oliver has never wanted for anything, but now she would give anything just to breathe. Jason Wu skates through life on jokes, but when a tragedy leaves him guilt-stricken, he promises to tell only the truth, no matter the price. When a mysterious stranger named Hanali appears to Madeline and offers to heal her in exchange for one year of service to his people, Madeline and Jason are swept into a strange land where they don’t know the rules and where their decisions carry consequences that reach farther than they could ever guess.

THE CRESCENT STONE — EXCERPT

1

THE GARDEN LADY

The king’s gardener spoke the secret language of all growing things. She knew the songs of the morning flowers and spoke the poems of the weeks. She spent long afternoons in conversation with the trees. From “the Triumph of the Peasant King,” A Scrim Legend

The bench stood twenty feet away. Such a short distance. Such an impossible one. Madeline clung to the trellis of ivy that bordered her mother’s garden path as she tried to force air into her ruined lungs. Every gasp felt like pushing sludge through broken glass.

It was late morning on a Sunday, and she’d taken her inhaler an hour before—a quick, sharp breath of cold that disappeared much too quickly. She should have been in bed, flat on her back—not sitting, not standing, much less walking. But if the doctors were to be believed, it was one of the last spring Sundays she would ever see. Her chest and back hurt from the coughing.

The sunlight caressed her face. She couldn’t stand at the trellis forever, and the return path to the house was longer. A few steps set off the coughing again. She pushed her fist hard into her ribs. She had dislocated them coughing three days ago, and they still didn’t feel right. Three steps brought her to the maple tree which crowded the path. Her vision dimmed, and her knees softened. She slid down the trunk, and when the coughing fit passed she dropped her head against the rough bark.

A hummingbird spun into the air beside her, its shining green body hanging to the right of her face. It chirped three times, then zipped to her left, its small, dark eyes studying her before disappearing toward the pineapple sage. The citrusy fragrance of the roses hung heavy across this part of the path. She took little half breaths, and it felt close to natural. The bees hummed as they visited the flowers. A squirrel hung off a sunflower by its hind lets, plucking seeds out of the wide circle of the flower’s face with its forepaws. This garden never quite seemed to follow the seasons . . . sunflowers blooming in spring instead of summer, roses year-round, frogs singing in the evenings no matter the weather. It was an oasis of near-magic in their suburban lot. Madeline used to build fairy houses along the “shore” of the fountain when she was a kind, using bark, leaves, and flowers to make tiny homes for make-believe friends.

Her mother never cared for those little homes. She had planned the garden, a full acre of wandering paths, stone bridges, and small fountains. It was eclectic and a bit overgrown in places. Mr. García had done the planting and did the upkeep, too. Mom liked it a bit unkempt, and he worked to give it the impression of slight wildness. It didn’t look manicured, but there weren’t weeks, either. The fairy houses, Mom had said, looked like someone had forgotten to clean up after doing yard work.

Everything in its place, Mom always said.

Then again, Mom also wanted her house to “look lived in.” That meant strange habits like telling their housekeeper, Sofía that she couldn’t immediately put an abandoned glass in the dishwasher. Once Madeline had come home and smelled fresh cookies, only to discover it was an air freshener her mother had bought from a Realtor. “To make it smell like home,” Mom had said, seemingly oblivious to the reality that she was, indeed, home, and that actually baking cookies would have been simpler.

A few more steps, Madeline decided, but halfway to the bench a racking army of coughs marched across her chest. She touched her lips, then wiped the blood in the grass. With her eyes closed and the little half breaths coming again, she counted to twelve. When the jagged feeling in her chest passed, she lay flat and watched the clouds drifting in some high, distant wind. Air moved so easily for everyone but her.

It may have been a mistake, sneaking into the garden without telling anyone, with no way to call for help. She had chosen the perfect moment. Mom and Sofía had gone upstairs, something about washing the curtains. Dad was at the golf course, or work, or both. Her phone sat inside, turned off. The constant texts from Darius were making her feel guilty, but she had made a decision, and it was final. He couldn’t waste his life waiting for her. There wasn’t a cure. He needed to live his life. She needed to live what remained of hers.

AUTHOR BIO—MATT MIKALATOS

Whether it’s writing fantasy and science fiction novels, or writing spiritual books (yes, Christian spiritual books), I am passionate about creating books which are entertaining and change the lives of my readers for the better.

My most recent books are The Crescent Stone (a fantasy novel which anyone will love), Good News for a Change (a book for Christians about how to talk about your faith without being a jerk), and Sky Lantern (a spiritual memoir about one of the weirdest, most beautiful things that has happened to my family). I’ve had articles or stories with Today.com, Time Magazine, Relevant Magazine, Nature, and Daily Science Fiction, among others.

I’m on staff with a non-profit (twenty years!) that works to help people live fuller, more balanced lives. I live in the Portland, Oregon, area with my family.

You may learn more about Matt and his writing at his website.

Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War, part 10: The Aftermath of Combat

In the aftermath of combat, post-traumatic stress creates changes in a warrior.

Travis P here. The picture I’ve included above is by Tom Lea, an artist who traveled with US Marines in the Pacific during World War II (this particular painting is called “The Two Thousand Yard Stare”). The image captures better than words ever can one of the effects combat has, a particular example of what the aftermath of combat can be.

I first meant this post to talk about long-term after the fact effects of combat, how it changes the warrior who fights in battle permanently. But I’ve found the actual information on this topic more elusive than I believed it was. So I’m going to broaden the topic a bit to talk about the effects of combat after the fact in general, not just long-term.

Let’s start with the “thousand yard stare.” I read one source that suggested that eyes staring unfocused in the distance is adaptive for survival, because by not focusing on any particular thing, the peripheral vision expands, so any potentially dangerous motion is easily detected. I mention this source more to illustrate that many of the actual realities of why human beings do what they do under various circumstances is in fact still at least partially a matter of speculation. And sometimes a whole lot more than “partially” speculative.

Unlike the source I just quoted, I think it’s more normal to see the thousand yard stare as a product of information overload to the brain. Normal eye movement, normal inquisitive engagement of the environment ceases, because the brain has seen enough and engaged enough. It may be true a person in that state defaults to a form of vision designed to pick up motion, but the primary reason for such a reaction is sensory and emotional overload.

Such a state of staring is usually temporary, as are all the effects of what is now commonly called a “Combat Stress Reaction.” In addition to the stare, troops coming off hard fighting often share the following traits:

Slowing of reaction time
Slowness of thought
Difficulty prioritizing tasks
Difficulty initiating routine tasks           
Preoccupation with minor issues and familiar tasks
Indecision and lack of concentration
Loss of initiative with fatigue
Exhaustion
Headaches
Back pains
Inability to relax
Shaking and tremors
Sweating
Nausea and vomiting
Loss of appetite
Abdominal distress
Frequency of urination           
Urinary incontinence
Heart palpitations
Hyperventilation
Dizziness
Insomnia
Nightmares
Restless sleep
Excessive sleep
Excessive startle
Hyper-vigilance
Heightened sense of threat           
Anxiety
Irritability
Depression
Substance abuse
Loss of adaptability
Attempted suicides
Disruptive behavior
Mistrust of others
Confusion
Extreme feeling of losing control

Obviously not everyone experiences all of these traits. In fact, a number of these reactions cannot be experienced together because they are opposites, e.g. excessive sleep versus insomnia. For most people exposed to combat, a have a number of these reactions (but not all of them) are normal. And for most warriors, the bulk of these effects fade after a few days. The experience of US Military medicine in WWII indicated that a person was in fact more likely to fully recover from “battle fatigue” if after only a short break he returned to his unit and continued to engage in combat. Why this is true is a matter of speculation, but it may be the case that someone who disengages from combat stress can see himself as a permanent failure if not allowed to return to duty with the rest of the “normal” soldiers.

Acute or short-term combat reactions are fairly well understood. Most people experience them at a level that will hamper their ability to continue fighting if under enough combat stress–that amounts to something like 96% to 98% of all combat soldiers if under continuous contact with the enemy for an extended period (6 weeks or more). This figure comes with a very small group of exceptions, as previously noted in the previous post, The Fearless Elite, who show no observable reaction to combat, even of the sort that causes most warriors to become psychological casualties. Yet a reaction to combat stress can exist at a level which affects a warrior without fully paralyzing him or her and is in fact common.

The list of affects above starts to morph into longer-term effects when it lists depression, substance abuse, loss of adaptability, attempted suicides, disruptive behavior, and mistrust of others. These particular traits can become long-term conditions. And acute reactions, from nightmares, to depression, hyper-vigilance, heart palpitations, and more, can occur in someone who has been long removed from combat if something occurs that triggers the memories of warfare. A mild example would be how for a long while after returning from Iraq (where I was subjected to rocket attacks for an extended period), I would “excessively startle” at loud banging noises from firecrackers to slamming doors.

Other reactions include a sense that life outside of combat is ridiculously trivial, which is understandable when dealing with life and death in war versus dealing with running errands in regular life. In addition, a person who has experienced extremes of emotion on the battlefield often shows signs of emotions being fused in ordinary life. So a person can rapidly become angry or experience other rapid shifts of emotion. I found myself experiencing some of the sense that ordinary life doesn’t matter much, as well as quicker-than-normal anger.

My reactions, such as they were, faded in me over a period of several years. They do in fact fade for most people, but for many, never very much. True stories of veterans who suffer from nightmares, or who can not be safely awakened unexpectedly in the middle of the night, or who always sit in the corners of restaurants to keep an eye on an entire room due to hyper-vigilance are extremely common.

Note that modern warfare is different from ancient or medieval in the fact it can put stress on a person day and night for extended periods of time. Usually, in the past, warfare was only fought during daylight hours. Yet even though ancient times record less of people being disabled by psychological stresses, the type of stresses that became greatly evident for the first time during World War I, there still exists evidence that combat stress was a “thing,” even in the distant past. Travis C is going to share how both the Iliad and the Odyssey show elements of how war changes warriors, not just in modern interpretations of those texts, but also in the way these accounts were first composed.

II Samuel 20:12 likewise records how people passing by reacted to an Israelite named Amasa who had been disemboweled and left to die along a road (by Joab). The sight stopped them in their tracks to the degree that Amasa had to be pulled off the road and covered with a cloth for people to keep moving. In other words, even in times where people saw more bloodshed than we do, the sight of a disemboweled man painfully wallowing in his own blood wasn’t something people could ignore. They were clearly affected by it, almost certainly horrified.

And historical accounts of medieval behavior, in which knights seem to show very little emotional control, also function as examples. That is, the knights seem to have demonstrated signs of the kind of emotional swings experienced by someone exposed to traumatic stress. Please note that these stresses are not limited to combat–people can experience this from other kinds of trauma, especially when they are exposed to it as children. Please also note that many children in the medieval world were exposed to violent trauma that would have impacted them strongly–and this would also be common in many worlds of epic fantasy.

This situation is a bit like the fact that nearly everyone in Medieval Europe had at least some scarring from smallpox–yet since everyone had it, they simply considered that condition normal. Having eliminated smallpox from the world, today we see such scarring on people as unusual. Likewise, in modern societies that have eliminated much of the gruesomeness of childhood that was common in the past, we see post-traumatic stress reactions as abnormal. Our ancestors took far less notice of people acting in a way we’d associate with post-traumatic stress–most likely because it used to be far more common.

What exactly is the connection between acute combat reactions and long-term post traumatic stress is difficult to say in a broadly meaningful way. Some people have a greater tendency to suffer from long-term problems than others, though why isn’t clear. Note though that a person is not necessarily disabled by continuing to have (a) post-traumatic reaction(s). People can have sudden unexpected reactions to certain smells or sounds or other stimuli that remind them of their combat stress without being paralyzed by such reactions. People can suffer from black moods and have suicidal thoughts and overcome such conditions, especially with help from others who have gone through the same sorts of things. In fact, it’s important for veterans to realize such reactions are to a degree, normal. And that talking to one another, or at times to professionals, about their experiences is healthy and good.

One factor that seems to relate to how soldiers react to combat over the long-term stems from whether people are able to justify their actions in combat to themselves. A person who looks back and feels he acted morally and correctly does much better in dealing with post-traumatic stress than those who look at back at their own behavior and see it as reprehensible. Note the sense of “morality” I’m referencing does not necessarily mean a person is good–a knight judging his actions from a  warped view of Christianity may have felt morally justified in killing defenseless Muslims and Jews (say when Jerusalem was taken in the First Crusade)–that doesn’t mean he actually was justified in a broader moral sense. But the ability to feel justified has always helped warriors deal with the aftermath of combat. Those who cannot justify their actions to themselves have a harder time.

Let me emphasize there is a difference between having post-traumatic stress or a post-traumatic stress reaction and having PTSD–Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The disorder occurs when veterans are disabled by their experiences, when their lives are interrupted significantly.  A person can have a certain amount of permanent effects from combat–it is normal in fact to have some–while still functioning in life in a normal way. Or mostly normal…

Stories that include combat should at least consider these realities for both human and non-human characters.

Travis C here with some illustrative resources for writers of combat. As Travis P notes, we’re talking about two broad categories of combat impact: physiological and psychological responses in the midst of action or shortly afterwards (often labeled as combat stress response), and the responses that last after a warrior withdraws from combat and returns to “normal” living. I was at a training session for the Coming Home Dialogues  which uses the humanities as a means for veterans to process their war experiences and during a poetry-writing exercise one veteran wrote the following conclusion to a poem about “things every soldier should know”:

You don’t come home.

Sounds harsh, but the message was beautiful. The “you” that began a deployment or mission isn’t the same as the one coming back, and while many effects will pass with time, the experience is etched there and for many the effects do not always pass.

Instead of analyzing the popular media which often captures the physiological responses to some degree (movies can do well as focusing on bodily responses, for instance) and may use story narrative to expose a warrior’s psychological reactions, I’d like to very briefly introduce two resources that helped me work through my own challenges by unpacking two fantasy works of literature: Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Jonathan Shay is a psychologist and counselor of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Two of his popular works are Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America. Each work analyzes the main character of The Iliad and Odyssey respectively and posits that Homer is writing about warrior issues of moral injury and betrayal (Achilles) and the psychological impact of returning home from war (Odysseus). For writers looking to hone their ability to write about warrior culture I can’t recommend each book highly enough.

Credit: www.warnerbros.com/troy

Let’s begin with Achilles. The Greeks have been fighting the Trojans for some time, and Achilles represents the noble, honorable Greek warrior fighting for a just cause. He and his Myrmidon are spectacular in battle, winning many engagements and bringing honor and encouragement to the Greek forces. Then Agamemnon, the king of the Greeks (though not Achilles’ ruler), decides to take back part of Achilles’ rightful war spoils for himself. The movie Troy attempts to capture this moment but fails to fully reveal the cultural and personal affront this is to Achilles. He is enraged at the dishonorable actions of his leadership and is wounded in a moral way: the Greeks no longer serve someone who holds the ethical high ground. In fact, maybe they never did. After losing his brother Patroclus, Achilles goes into a berserk rage as his worldview of rightness and honor comes spiraling down, ultimately leading to his death.

Gavin Hamilton, Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus
www.nationalgalleries.org

The Iliad shows us the warrior’s response to several specific traumas of battle. The death of a close comrade. Wrongful substitution (i.e., survivors guilt). Revenge through a berserk state of mind. The impact of dishonoring the enemy and having the enemy dishonor your own. The destruction of trust in the social and moral order the warrior exists in. A betrayal of what’s right.

The Odyssey represents another interesting case study for writers. If Achilles represents the honorable warrior operating from a worldview of moral rightness, Odysseus represents a different worldview. He is cunning and wily. It is Odysseus who suggests the use of the Trojan horse as a means of breaking through the Trojan forces and winning the war from the inside. Sneak inside, open the gates, kill as many as possible, and the Trojans will break. Prey upon their religious beliefs and lie to them. Odysseus inappropriately takes Achilles’ armor when it should have gone to Ajax. Not exactly honorable conduct.

Once the war is ended the remainder of the Greek forces sail for home after ten long years of sustained combat. Odysseus, King of Ithaca, tries to bring his men home but fails. After ten more long years he washes ashore and becomes a guest of the King of Phaecia. Among the civilian court, trapped in riches and focused on trivial things, Odysseus’ identity is learned and he recounts his tale of wayward misadventures that have cost him his entire army (none of the Ithacans come home except Odysseus).

Shay unpacks the Odyssey in much richer detail than we can do justice to here, but consider the tales of cyclops, sirens, Scylla and other monsters as a metaphor for a returning warrior’s internal challenges to coming home:

  • A success warrior’s repertoire of skills looks a lot like a criminal’s. Cunning, critical thinking, adaptability, focus on a task, control of fear, control of violence, capacity to respond skillfully and instantly to danger, disregard for fixed rules if it endangers the mission. Odysseus’ men raid the island of Ismarus and find their warrior training has prepared them for a career as thieves.
  • Odysseus’ crew tempt the island of the cyclops for only one apparent reason: to see what would happen. They knew danger lay there, but wanted to see what would happen if they prodded the beast. Returning warriors often find regular life boring and will find ways to create dangerous situations and thrill-seeking even in the midst of peace.
  • Odysseus encounters his friend Ajax in the Underworld, and finds within himself “a lack of moral pain, guilt, self-reproach, and self-criticism.” Warriors must wrestle with returning home and often suffer from internal agreements they’ve made, including a relentless search for the truth, an acceptance that anyone close to them will be harmed, and that the losses they suffered are irretrievable. In Shay’s words, “The lone wolf feels at home nowhere.”

    Columbia University:
    Odysseus and the Sirens, red figure stamnos vase, c. 480-460 BC

  • It’s often forgotten that the sirens weren’t calling out to the ships’ crews in a sensually seductive manner; they were calling out seductive truths that Odysseus heard nowhere else. They called out selective truths, but truth nonetheless. A warrior will often find themselves on a search for the truth (Why were we really there? What was our true impact? Did ____’s death really matter?) and that struggle may persist for a lifetime.
  • To be frank, Odysseus has problems with women. Relationships are challenging to begin with, but combine that with extended time away from one another, limited communications, and the added stress of homecoming expectations and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.

These are but a few examples from each of Homer’s works that describe the challenges a warrior faces when returning home. We recognize the risk of physical injury to the warrior on the field, and can paint a picture of maimed and broken soldiers back in society. The mental tax, the psychological impact of warfare, may not be as well appreciated. We recognize the impacts through secondary effects of the aftermath of combat: the veteran who can’t relate well to others, the warrior who never lets go the memory of a fallen comrade, the pent up anger and frustration if the system has failed them. Good writing will attempt to capture those impacts and show our readers the holistic story of the warrior’s combat experience.

Lastly, as we’ve pointed out before, these are realities for human combatants. Shifting our view to different races or species, the impacts may be different. How a culture processes the aftermath of combat might play a pivotal role in your story. Maybe there are genetic or physiological differences that make a character work different. The contrast to what is recognized as a human condition will be that much more important.

A Fatal Flaw in Pixar’s ‘Coco’

Despite its strengths and its appeal, “Coco” is undermined by the vision it presents of the afterlife.
| Nov 7, 2018 | 5 comments |

Amid all the sequels Pixar has been rattling off the assembly line, last year’s Coco comes as something of a relief: original and visually brilliant, funny and tender in the good old Pixar way. Disney can’t handle two living parents; Pixar can handle a whole clan, in the capable, work-roughened hands of a fiery matriarch. Despite its strengths and its appeal, Coco is undermined by the vision it presents of the afterlife.

The vision unfolds along with the story. Our first glimpse is a gorgeous cityscape made of color and lights – the Land of the Dead, shimmering beyond the mortal world. The unearthly appearance of the Land of the Dead is quickly juxtaposed by the bureaucratic procedures that surround entering and leaving it. The dead themselves hustle about on humdrum activities – working, traveling, eating and drinking, going to talent shows and arguing with customer service. They do much what they did in life, only they do it without skin. On some level, this is a pleasing incongruity; on another, it is a letdown. Why go to all the trouble to die if life just goes on the same?

It is revealed that death resembles life in still another way: You are going to die, this time the final death. All these skeletons will die of being forgotten. As they and their stories pass out of the memories of the living, they will be afflicted with spasms of weakness and pain before they finally collapse into dust. Some people will be kept alive in the Land of the Dead for years upon years, as long as their stories are still told among the living. Others must have a very short stay. Here we begin to sight the marrow-deep injustice of the vision, but it comes clear only later.

The villain in the Land of the Dead lives in luxury – gratis, we are told, of his admirers, who heap him with gifts on the Day of the Dead. And we see the old murderer in his celebrity and wealth, and think of the poor forgotten skeleton shivering into the final death, and we know …

There is no justice in the end. None at all. Your career, bred in the abuse of others, may be halted in life, but you will just resume it in death. Sell your soul to get this world and the next will be thrown in, too. Meanwhile, the unwanted, the unloved, the outcast and the forgotten – they are forever the losers. All the inequities of this life are transferred into the next. Indeed, new inequities are created by the fact that the dead can visit the living only through the possession and display of a material object. This opens, too, avenues of revenge, ways that the living can spite the dead and be sure they will know it.

Think of it: Even after you die, they can still get you.

All of this would be bearable if we could imagine that the Land of the Dead was only a stopping-place on the way to some other destination. The movie throws a bone in this direction, one skeleton shrugging that no one knows what happens after the final death. But the fact that they call it final hints at what they think. The story’s happy ending – Now you get to live as a skeleton in the Land of the Dead indefinitely! Pop the champagne! – makes it clear that no one has a better end in mind.

Coco presents an appalling vision of the afterlife. It would be easier to take if the movie knew it was appalling, but it doesn’t. Coco’s dreary afterlife drags down the whole story with a faint sense of depression, a subtle distaste. It’s well enough to imagine that the Land of the Dead is, but to imagine that it is all there is – that is the fatal flaw.