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Castaways and Magnified Truths

Novelist Jes Drew: “Even if we can’t experience that peril ourselves, we can still enjoy it vicariously, and strive to do something bigger in our small world.”
| Nov 6, 2018 | 2 comments |

I love reading a good epic. Or, for those of you more old-fashioned folk who believe only a very long poem deserves that title, I love action stories. And what are epics but magnifying glasses on normal, every day life with all its mundane challenges and little triumphs?

Enter one of the greatest adventure stories ever told: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Like the books we define as “speculative fiction,” today, Robinson Crusoe was a compelling adventure that took its readers away from their own world and into the dramatic life of a certain man with the initials of RC.

Jes Drew

This week we feature Jes Drew and her novel Castaways. Stop by the flagship book club on Facebook to learn more about this story.

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But Robinson Crusoe was more than just an adventurer or a castaway or even a friend of Friday’s. He was something we can all relate to, whether we want to or not. He was a person running away from God. In fact, his every misadventure at sea up to the island seemed to be a call of repentance. And when he didn’t, the island was phase two to bring Robinson Crusoe into a relationship with his Maker as he learns how to survive.

Emily Rogers in my novel Castaways may not be purposefully running away from her God like Crusoe was, but, like many of us, she was inadvertently walking further into herself and into the inevitable arms of despair. Of course, being stranded on an apparently deserted island with two small children and an acquaintance (albeit a handsome one), is definitely a wake-up call.

I don’t know about you, but I need a wake-up call (both physical and spiritual) about every single day. Thankfully I’m not being thrown onto deserted island every day (or not so thankfully, if a handsome acquaintance was to be thrown there too), but I do need to remind myself of these truths. And reading epic adventures are a tried and true way to do that.

Castaways, Jes DrewIn the words of Emily Dickinson:

“Peril as a possession
‘tis good to bear,
Danger disintegrates satiety;
There’s Basis there
Begets an awe,
That searches Human Nature’s creases
As clean as Fire”

Even if we can’t experience that peril ourselves, we can still enjoy it vicariously, and strive to do something bigger in our small world. Even if that small thing is learning to surrender to God like Robinson Crusoe or find hope in Him like Emily Rogers.

Again in the words of Miss Dickinson:

 “The Gleam of an heroic act,
Such strange illumination-
The Possible’s slow fuse is literary
By the Imagination!”

So that is why I’m an epiomaniac. And that is why I am a bibliomaniac. Whether it’s a teenage superhero learning how to truly thwart evil, a trained spy realizing he’s not alone, or even a completely normal person getting thrown into an extraordinary adventure that reminds her there is a God taking care of her, I want to remind myself important truths that get shuffled under the carpet by everyday mundane life. I want to inspire myself to rise above it all, even if it’s just doing the same stuff–but to God’s glory. And, yes, I find it easiest to examine this truth while the characters are on the run, uncovering secrets, or falling in love–preferably all at the same time.

So until I can be either a superhero or a spy (or a superhero spy!… spy superhero?), I’ll just be a self-diagnosed maniac.

“Younger readers will take delight in this light, sweet tale.”
— Lorehaven Magazine

Explore more about Jes Drew’s novel:

Thanksgiving Day And Speculative Fiction

In many respects, we’re witnessing in the US the change in the Thanksgiving Day celebration from a major holiday to a minor one. The presence of Thanksgiving or harvest day celebrations seem more apt to be important to a culture if the people are in tune with the growth cycle. As our urban society has become divorced from the way food gets to our table, we seem less thankful and more inclined to take for granted the food we eat.
| Nov 5, 2018 | 5 comments |

A number of years ago, I wrote an article reflecting on how holidays and celebrations deepen the worldbuilding in speculative fiction, but today I’d like to think specifically about Thanksgiving.

I know a declared Thanksgiving Day is not a universal holiday. Canadians, for example, celebrate Thanksgiving on a different day than we do in the US, and many countries don’t have a specific Thanksgiving Day. Harvest Festivals are a different story.

Places as diverse as Australia, Egypt, Barbados, India, Korea, Portugal, Greece, and China have harvest festivals, either locally or nationally.

So what about the worlds in speculative fiction?

I can understand why dystopian and/or post-apocalyptic fantasy might not include Thanksgiving Day. Along with the death of much of civilization, celebrations such as Thanksgiving might become a think of the past.

In many respects, we’re witnessing in the US the change in the Thanksgiving Day celebration from a major holiday to a minor one. The presence of Thanksgiving or harvest day celebrations seem more apt to be important to a culture if the people are in tune with the growth cycle. As our urban society has become divorced from the way food gets to our table, we seem less thankful and more inclined to take for granted the food we eat.

As a result, Thanksgiving Day is losing its special-ness. For instance, most fast food places remain open on Thanksgiving Day, as do a good number of restaurants and grocery stores. In the past few years, “black Friday”—the day after Thanksgiving when retail stores slashed their prices to induce consumers to begin their Christmas shopping in earnest—has gone from “open at midnight” to “open on Thanksgiving Day at 6” or 5 or whenever the businesses think they can woo people out of their homes.

Add in the fact that football has become an integral part of the celebration so that it’s reduced to Food, Family, and Football, and fewer people are commemorating the holiday as a day to give thanks.

Even my church, which has a rich tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving, including decades when we held a service in the morning on Thanksgiving Day, didn’t so much as sing a single Thanksgiving hymn a few years ago or focus the sermon on what the Bible says about Thanksgiving.

All that to say, if Thanksgiving is fading before our very eyes as a major holiday, it’s understandable that worlds set in the future, especially if that future is bleak or dominated by a heavy-handed, perhaps Godless, government, would be less inclined to have a Thanksgiving or harvest day celebration.

grain-fieldOn the other hand, if these futuristic societies are a return to a more agrarian way of life or if the world of an epic fantasy has a rural setting in which people are dependent upon cultivating the soil and growing their own food, then perhaps a harvest festival would be appropriate.

In speculative literature, then, Thanksgiving can be much more than just a celebration. Whether or not a story world holds harvest festivals and how they are celebrated can define a culture and make it come alive.

Does this place recognize God as sovereign over the provision of daily food? Are there gods, with one particular god controlling fertile soil and sun and rain? Or are each of those under the purview of a different god? Must they all three be in agreement if the harvest is to be plentiful? How do the people express their thanks for what they receive?

Or is this world self-sufficient and so advanced in their technology that they can make the skies pour rain at their command? Perhaps they’ve put all food growth inside in the equivalent of gigantic greenhouses, and they have no understanding of nature being independent of humankind’s manipulation.

In such a culture, sentient beings, then, would think of themselves as gods. They might have forgotten the one true God, living with no thought other than meeting their own needs and pleasures. In their eyes, they are the highest authority, the ones in charge.

All these varied storyworlds and the peculiarities of their cultures can be established by the presence or absence of a Thanksgiving Day or harvest day celebration. Such a brief holiday, easily over looked and yet as full of potential in fiction as in real life.

I’m curious. Can you think of any stories, Christian or secular, that include a Thanksgiving celebration?

This article is a revised version of one that appeared here in November, 2014.

Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War, Part 9: Perceptual Distortions in Combat

Tunnel vision, slow-motion time, abnormal hearing, memory loss, and intrusive thoughts are just a few possible effects of combat stresses.

The last article in this series looked at exceptional human beings and their reactions to combat over the long-term in terms of their ability to manage the stresses of warfare without suffering psychological harm. This article looks at the physical effects a life or death struggle has on a person during fighting itself and next week’s article will go into long-term effects of combat on human beings. (Information below is derived from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book, On Combat. Psychological effects in general, including perceptual distortions, are summarized in an article on Lt. Col. Grossman’s website.)

Let’s observe up front that there are inherent difficulties in this kind of study. People going into battle don’t usually have heart monitors attached to them. But the available evidence from laboratory experiments shows that when the human heart rate increases from stress alone (as opposed to exercise), certain predictable effects take place:

Note a trend in this chart. A certain level of elevation of the heart rate, between 115-145 bpm, benefits everything a human being can do, except fine motor skills. (If you need to thread a needle, it’s best to be at resting heart rate.) Beyond that heart rate, human performance generally deteriorates, except for gross motor skills and movement, which are best over 160. The heart rate that supports best the activities of, say, swinging a sword with a full adrenaline power boost, generally shuts down the higher brain functions that are good at conducting strategy.

One of the effects of training is to be able to enable a warrior to act appropriately in combat by rote memory, a.k.a, “muscle memory,” which is especially necessary in physical combat, since higher brain functions tend to shut down.

Another form of training, probably more ancient that the Zen Buddhism that utilizes this approach, teaches a warrior to calm himself or herself, in particular through controlled breathing. Note that an archer needs calmness more than a front-line swordsman. And a bomb-disposal technician needs to be even calmer than an archer.

In stories, human characters who are good at fine motor skills under stress (like bomb disposal) should not be sweating with a pulse throbbing in the neck–the person good at that kind of job will strike others as being unnaturally level-headed, eerily calm, like someone with “ice water in the veins.” Being a berserker works for a swordsman. A berserker bomb disposal technician, or berserker archer–or fighter pilot–is not a realistic character.

The higher heart rate chart only tracks some of the effects combat stress can have on a human being. The following chart is from On Combat, based on a study done on police officers in kill-or-be-killed encounters:

One of the difficulties concerning this chart is it’s hard to fully match it up with the heart rate chart above. It’s not as if police officers in a shootout–or soldiers in combat–are wearing a heart monitor during action. But other studies seem to indicate most of these perceptual changes occur most often when the heart beats over 160 per minute.

Another difficulty with the chart is that not everyone experiences the same effects. I personally (Travis P) have experienced high-stress situations that include both combat and non-combat situations (non-combat including involvement in traumatic accidents). People who read my descriptions of combat will find characters having strange random thoughts in the midst of stress, or making odd, out-of-place observations. According to the chart above, only 26% of people under circumstances like ones I have experienced reported “Intrusive Distracting Thoughts” (though perhaps fewer people reported them than actually happened). An example of an “Intrusive Distracting Thought” would be if a rocket exploded less than fifty meters from where you’re standing (for me, on the other side of a concrete wall) and you feel a shock wave impact your body and know according to training you need to run to a nearby bunker, yet the thought passes through your mind, “What a pretty blue the sky is today.” That’s the last sort of thing you’d expect someone to think in the midst of a life or death situation–but such thoughts actually do occur to some people in the real world during times of extreme stress. Including me.

I personally have also experienced diminished sound, tunnel vision, automatic pilot (where you can act but cannot speak), slow motion time, and a degree of dissociation. I write what I know myself, but studying information like that in the chart above has helped me understand my own reactions are not necessarily the only ones–and are not necessarily typical.

(A crude example of stress tunnel vision–my peripheral vision I remember as more reddish…) Credit: Monderno.com.

Some of these perceptual reactions can be very adaptive. For example, slow motion time, caused by the brain increasing its processing rate, gives the ability to react to something happening much more quickly than a person normally could do. Yet often a person experiencing slow motion time is not able to make a good independent decision and will only usually be able to repeat something learned by rote in training. Lieutenant Colonel Grossman points out that a person can repeatedly train in high stress situations and learn to think and act more rationally, while still reaping the benefits of greater gross motor ability and perceptual benefits such as slow motion time. This is part of the secret of success of special forces units, according to Grossman. They train in high stress so often, they are very nearly fully functional mentally with heart rates over 160–as opposed to not having any increased heart rate at all. (Though very little change in heart rate is probably what happens for certain highly unusual individuals in combat. Though it is simply unknown if naturally elite soldiers have a different set of effects than most people.)

Let me part by pointing out that these are natural human reactions and seem to transcend culture, as best anyone is able to determine. But they are natural reactions, so a speculative fiction story could easily feature artificial manipulation of these effects. Say, designer drugs or a magical spell that let one effect, say slow-motion time, be turned on without the negative side effect of, say, being unable to speak. (Of course these drugs or spells could go horribly wrong somehow.) Clearly a cyborg does not operate by these rules at all and could be completely calm in battle. Which is in fact portrayed often enough in science fiction.

Second, these are natural human reactions. Lord of the Rings Dwarves might go straight to a high heart rate, getting gross motor benefits, while nonetheless being able to think. Elves may stay icy calm, but still be able to fight. Aliens from other worlds might have high stress reactions quite unlike humans altogether. For example, an alien race might have to fight a natural tendency to go into deep hibernation based on a common predator of theirs that would not detect them in that state (which would be far from adaptive when fighting humans).

Overall, combat stress reactions are a reality any fiction writer who portrays combat should be considering. People don’t think the same way during combat as they do during situations without stress, though those effects might be different than what you’d anticipate. This topic can provide some especially interesting story opportunities for speculative fiction writers.

Travis C here with a few illustrations of physical combat reactions. I recall a time when I ended up sinking my sailboat with family aboard. Once we were all ashore several people mentioned how calm I sounded over the marine radio: “We didn’t think anything was going wrong until you called MayDay.” Well, that’s training for you. During months at sea as a submariner we trained in simulated high-stress environments for the kinds of casualties we anticipated might occur, and when they did occur (I have many memories of fires underway and submerged), our teams tended to react appropriately with a combination of rote action while maintaining decision-making capacity.

Working through the physical reactions of characters in combat in the right level of detail can be a challenge. In a world of audio-visual stimuli, the media moguls have given us many beautiful examples of these combat reactions that convey the reality of the warrior coping with his or her natural reactions coupled with training and experience. The film director can cut to scenes of pulsing blood vessels, dilated pupils, cut the sound out or narrow the field of vision, make us experience the pounding chest and heavy breathing. We can experience those reactions through observation. As writers, our job is tougher.

We need to keep the scene moving forward toward its payoff, driving the plot and character development while keeping with a theme and narrative arc. We need to be descriptive in a way that engages and captures the reader. A battle might last hours, or days or weeks of persistent action with random lulls. How many times can we write “Her pulse pounded and vision narrowed…” before losing their attention? Your ability to use tools like metaphors and navigate the dreaded adverb will be challenged in order to show, not tell, what’s happening.

Let’s look at some popular examples of these combat reactions with some possible writing exercises to go along.

Slowing down the problem

Two movies that show (not tell) the experience of time slowing down are The Matrix and Wanted. The Matrix is likely the more familiar and introduced the world to a unique form of filmmaking and special effects as the digital avatars of the characters wove their way in acrobatic delight while firing near-infinite magazines. Once Neo came to accept his identity and figured out how to do so, he could move as fast as the Agents due to understanding the rules of the program and how to manipulate it.

Credit: YouTube: The Matrix Reloaded (Note that unlike The Matrix, real world slowed time is at a natural maximum about 1/3 speed–which isn’t fast enough to dodge bullets.)

In Wanted, James McAvoy plays an unassuming office worker who is really the son of a supernaturally-gifted assassin. His test to join the guild? Shooting the wings off flies while threatening to be shot himself. We witness his internal reaction as heightened abilities take over and he watches in slow-motion each fly’s wings beat.

Writing prompt: How can you describe a character’s reaction to internally speeding up their actions and the perception of time slowing? What language might capture a before/after moment? One possible example is a character “seeing the problem through” and having time to visualize future actions until success (i.e., Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes).

Sight and sound

Hitting the beach. Credit: D-Day Overlord.com

The use of camera lens techniques and audio muting is easy to play with in visual arts like movies, but requires a writer to describe their characters’ senses working. Travis P described examples of auditory reactions in combat; reducing outside noises to a din, or the opposite as multiple sounds overwhelm a person’s natural processing capacity. Visually we know of narrowing of vision, a possible reaction by the body to shut-out unwanted stimuli and focus a person toward the highest threat. We witnessed these techniques in Saving Private Ryan during the opening scenes as Captain Miller exits his landing craft and hits the beach. Shells going off all around, we watch the dazed vision and hear the persistent ringing as he fights for control of his body.

In movies like Dracula Untold we have examples of magic (or supernatural causes) enhancing those traits to improve a warrior’s effectiveness. Luke Evans plays Count Vlad who makes a deal with a near-immortal vampire to gain strength to defend his people. When he awakes from the transfer of power he is acutely aware of his new abilities, including hearing a spider weaving its web (an example of a distracted thought in the next section). He is able to use these abilities to his advantage, but we also witness the potential side effects of a warrior having enhanced senses (both in creating blindspots as well as his overall cost of gaining such abilities).

Writing prompt: Pick one sense, sight or sound, that your character will experience a combat-related impact to. Imagine what that change will be like on the battlefield. Cover your eyes to slits or ears and describe the difference in words. What does the lack of periphery look like? What fills the void when sound is cut out? What will penetrate that barrier?

Distracted Thoughts

Credit: wot.wikia.com Rand al’Thor

Travis P mentioned the brilliant blue sky. I’m imagining a light, folky soundtrack playing in the background as mist-formed sheep graze across pastures of blue sky and the sudden return to reality when the moment passes. We often see this reaction, either the unintentional distracted thought or the ability to remain engaged while having distracted thoughts, in an almost comic trope. The expert swordsman fighting off an adversary while looking away and having an unrelated conversation. The completely random line or thought thrown into a fight scene to add levity while showing the distracted response (OK, I’m guilty of this…)

Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series includes an interesting take on this in the form of a mental candle flame. During his initiation into the warrior role, main character Rand is taught to imagine a flame in his mind that he focuses his attention and energy into as a method establishing control of his physical and emotional reactions in high-stress environments like combat. As this practice becomes more mature he is able to engage opponents while having simultaneous and seemingly unrelated thought trains that the reader follows. Strategy, tactics, relationships: it’s all fair game. In that way the fighting scenes are broken up and we don’t have as much run-on fight sequence but we do get more character insight.

Writing prompt: What detail can you provide about your character in the form of a distracted thought? How will you deliver that detail (humor, off-handedness, weightiness, grim, sarcasm)?

These little details add up. They paint a realistic picture of your characters reacting to the stimuli of combat and their natural responses. When you choose to deviate from a human’s natural reactions, give your reader a reason to believe you. Is it due to a difference in species or race Travis P spoke of? Genetic or supernatural causes? We’ll suspend disbelief up to a point, but you should provide a plausible explanation at some point. Even if it’s the impact of unicorn horn and fairy dust.

Halloween and the Aesthetic of Evil

“Halloween is all about darkness and ugliness.” But Christians who say this confuse aesthetics with morality.
| Oct 31, 2018 | 22 comments |

A while back, Steven Wedgeworth wrote an outstanding essay  over at The Calvinist International on the origins of Halloween.1

It’s an annual must-read. The CliffsNotes version is that Halloween is not some vestige of ancient paganism or even a Christian subversion of demonic shenanigans (as a lot of Christian writers have claimed over the years). The truth is actually pretty boring. Halloween as we know it is little more than a 20th century invention designed to sell stuff.

After I posted Wedgeworth’s piece, some friends of mine raised the somewhat different objection that no matter what the origin of Halloween, it’s still “dark,” which violates 1 Corinthians 6:14-18.

“Witches, ghosts, demons, and death–” remarked one friend–“why would I want anything to do with it?”

It’s a common question, so let me take a stab at answering it.

First, “darkness” in such criticisms is ill-defined. What does it mean, exactly? I’m inclined to think from the context that my friends and many others who use the word this way mean something like “menacing,” “fearful,” or “sinister.” Perhaps their intended meaning is just “ugly.” Halloween can be ugly, certainly. I don’t know anyone who would be flattered if you told them they had a smile like a jack-o’-lantern, or a zombie-like complexion. But what’s wrong with ugliness, if used in the right way?

I know people who don’t watch or read The Lord of the Rings because it has too much “darkness” and “ugliness” in it. They don’t like the look of orcs and Nazgul, and think these baddies must have something to do with Satan. Well, they do. That’s the point! Tolkien’s story is rooted in a mytho-poetic battle between good and evil—one that makes it clear we each have varying amounts of both in us. And by placing appearances over storytelling, critics who balk at “darkness” or “ugliness” miss out on the best Christian fantasy of the 20th century, among many other wholesome, worldview-shaping works of art.

Christians who object to Halloween often confuse aesthetics with morality.

This is why I think that Christians who object to Halloween often confuse aesthetics with morality. It looks evil, therefore it actually be evil. There’s no way to redeem the spooky or the dark. Contra Frodo, they think that if it looks foul, it must really be foul, and if it looks fair, it must really be fair.

This is part of a more pervasive evangelical failure to appreciate the full scope of human experience, and the grand sweep of God’s redemptive story. I think of the New Testament’s vivid pictures of Hell as well as its rapturous portrayals of the New Jerusalem—of its hair-raising bestiary of symbolic evil as well as its awestruck glimpses at the transfigured Lord. You can see the result of this one-sided aesthetic in many churches. “Dark” imagery, such as that found in some of Christianity’s greatest works of literature, is no longer allowed, and neither is mournful or sorrowful music, which has historically played a key role in the Church’s worship and liturgical life.

The evangelical reaction against the sugar-saturated, commercialized shindig we call Halloween displays the tendency of many modern Christians (I’m going to say it—particularly moms) to mistake the aesthetic of evil for actual evil. In this way of thinking, spiderwebs and paper witches stand in as signs of moral corruption and rebellion against God. The outward tokens of the sinister, the predatory, and the ugly proclaim allegiance to the author of the fall and the father of lies.

But the Bible seems to hint at rather the opposite arrangement. While the Son of God “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him,”2 “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.”3 If the New Testament’s warnings are taken at face value, there’s more spiritual danger in the radiant smile of a false prophet than there is in all the latex werewolf masks Spirit Halloween supply can sell. The forces of the enemy present themselves as lovely, successful, happy, and holy precisely because such things are appealing. We buy products from beautiful people, after all. The homely seldom show up on billboards.

Certainly, if Satan had a physical form, it would be terrible. He is figuratively described by John as a dragon. If there is a lesson in Genesis 3, it is that moral corruption inevitably corrupts creation. All ugliness as we know it is ultimately a consequence of sin, and the damned are, as C. S. Lewis puts it in The Weight of Glory, “immortal horrors”—to themselves, no doubt, most of all.

Some may argue from this fact that Halloween still “celebrates” evil by encouraging us to revel in decorations, costumes, and entertainment that look like they were chosen by Hell’s interior designer. I don’t buy this. Aside from the change of seasons, tasty treats, and (as happens at every holiday) overindulgence in alcohol—it seems to me that what most people are actually celebrating on Halloween is fear. More precisely, they are taking pleasure in being afraid, just as people who ride roller coasters or watch suspenseful movies are doing the rest of the year. It feels good to be afraid. It triggers adrenaline and dopamine rushes. It makes you feel alive to fear for your life (even if it is only a game). It can even be kind of romantic.

Celebrating fear is a far cry from celebrating evil. Indeed, it strongly suggests that the things we fear really are dangerous, and need to be subdued or destroyed.

Celebrating fear is a far cry from celebrating evil. Indeed, it strongly suggests that the things we fear really are dangerous, and need to be subdued or destroyed. Almost all good stories trade in fear, because a plot requires a villain, and a villain not worth fearing is not worth writing or reading about. Fear is the spark that gets the engine of every epic turning, and makes us turn the pages, too, if I may be permitted to mix metaphors. Sauron is scary. Lord Voldemort is scary. Jaws, the walking dead, and the creature from the black lagoon all trigger fear. They also inspire us to root all the harder for the hero of the story. And therein, I think, lies the real value of fear, and of days like Halloween.

As with all things, the rules of prudence and good taste apply. Placing re-creations of bloody chainsaw massacres and replicas of bodies in sundry states of decay in your yard is not very charitable to your neighbors. And fixating on the spooky, without acknowledging the story of redemption which gives it meaning, is not healthy either. But it’s clear to me that in rejecting Halloween on aesthetic grounds, Christians are making a category error. Darkness is not evil. And confusing the two can do more than blind us to real spiritual danger. It can keep us from appreciating the victory of our Savior over all that we fear.

  1. This article is based on the original version at G. Shane Morris’s personal page, “Halloween and the Aesthetic of Evil,” Troubler of Israel, Patheos, Oct. 24, 2016.
  2. Isaiah 53:2.
  3. 2 Corinthians 11:14.

A Horror Newbie Discovers Dracula

This year I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time, and here’s what I thought about it.
| Oct 30, 2018 | 12 comments |

Last spring I read1 Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. You might say I read the book six months early. But in fact, I actually read the book—for the very first time—perhaps twenty years too late.

I enjoyed Dracula way more than I thought I would. Now I may finally “get” horror.

Sure, at Speculative Faith we’ve creaked open the great doors and invited several Christian horror fans into our castle to explore the genre, including novelists Mike Duran and Brian Godawa. (Also, be sure you catch novelist C. W. Briar’s excellent expose of werewolves in this month’s issue of Lorehaven Magazine.)

However, analyzing the genre is one thing. Actually reading a horror classic literally helps me develop personal appreciation for you horror fans. “Ah,” said I, having finally finished this Gothic horror tale for the first time, “so that’s why you love it.”

By no means can this horror newbie analyze the story, review this classic, or try to explain vampire lore and such. Nor would I make this article all about apologetics for the horror genre; our previous writers well cover that topic. Instead, I’d like to share a few responses I had during and after finishing my first read of Dracula.

1. I was weirdly giddy at hearing all the vampire tropes.

When I joined Jonathan Harker, rolling into Transylvania for the first time, I had this bizarre sense: that Dracula might be like one of those old genre books that you suspect doesn’t have a lot of genre in it. It’s a silly suspicion, but I had it. What if the book barely had any vampires? What if it were just some dry pseudo-historical tale, and in fact the modern vampire—cape, fangs, and all—is a modern mutation?

Again, what a silly suspicion. Once our villain himself confronts poor Mr. Harker, the genuine horror leaps out of its supposedly dry, empty coffin of history. And I found that I was weirdly happy about this. Yes, folks, here he was, Mr. The Count, dwelling in the castle in the mountains with lightning and terrified locals and everything. He had everything I expected: creepy gentility, pointy teeth, invisibility in mirrors, craving for human blood, aversion to garlic and religious symbols, and fog– and bat-based transformation powers (at minimum). He also had things I hadn’t expected, such as the ability to control creatures of the night, plus a harem of she-vampires.

However, a bonus: the overly weak notion that vampires explode in the sunlight? That’s a myth at least insofar as Dracula is concerned. Stoker’s vampires don’t do this. They simply lose their powers and become as mortal men. That’s much better.

2. I was repulsed/fascinated by the vampires’ inherent sensuality.

I’m no late-19th-century Gothic literature scholar, so I don’t know how much Stoker’s style and themes followed or diverged from expectations of the era. But I do know that even 120-plus years later, Dracula and especially his three vampire henchwomen were described as overtly sensual and sexualized.

Stoker, to be sure, shows more restraint than a modern author would, at portraying exactly what these henchwomen do and say when they confront a paralyzed Jonathan Harker. That restraint almost makes them worse. He’s fascinated by them, with lips and teeth and all, and I grew rightfully uncomfortable hearing it all. From a biblical perspective, I’m struck with many parallels. For example, see the various frightening fates that befall the victim of the adulteress in Proverbs 7: 21–23.

In our world, people are literally rejecting the gospel of Jesus Christ because he conflicts with particular sexual appetites. I think it’s time for Stoker-style vampires to make a comeback, especially with their fleshly lusts that the story shows for what they are: “dishonorable passions … contrary to nature” (Romans 1:26).

3. I found Stoker’s female characters (mostly) strong.

As a male reader, I love stories in which female characters act like, you know, human beings, with their own wills and opinions and agendas. The best stories do this so well with female characters that their readers don’t even need to write awkward calling-attention-to-it paragraphs like this one.

Not the actual Dr. Van Helsing, whom Stoker portrays as an elderly gentleman scholar who goes out of his way to respect women and men.

As for Dracula, the results are mixed. However, many things could have gone wrong with Stoker’s portrayal of the female vampires’ sensuality. He could have tried the “female sexuality is inherently bad” route, but I didn’t see that going on, especially because Dracula himself is shown as super-sensual, with a hyper-“masculinity” that masks his evil. Moreover, female leads Mina Murray (Harker’s fiancée) and her friend Lucy Westenra hold their own so well that, again, you may hardly want to bring up the stigma of the “Strong Female Character” for risk of bringing it all down.

Still, one portion of the novel made me roll my eyes a bit. It occurs later in the tale, when the gentle, elderly scholar (not beefcake action star) Dr. Van Helsing and his posse of male vampire-hunting recruits praise Mina for her most excellent and womanly virtues, and really there is no one equaled in all civilized society who has not the courage and the fortitude for such an endeavor. They’re all correct, of course. But their rhapsodies do go on, seeming to oversell Mina’s genuine strength.


4. I think I can join fans who despise ‘teen vampires.’

Dracula is so captivating and so genuinely evil a figure—with just enough empathy to provoke a finale tinged with tragedy—that I can now empathize with those fans who resent the Twilight-ification of vampire lore.

Sure, I just got here, and I won’t pretend I can “culturally appropriate” the fandom for you professional vampire fans. But I can, at least, see why you particularly loathe the watered-down “sparkling” vampire.2

5. I found Dracula’s religious elements captivating and plausible.

From what I can tell, the reason why Hellboy uses bullets made of saints’ bones, and every other vampire-killing action star has other mystical-related weaponry, is because Dr. Van Helsing uses uniquely religious elements to subdue Dracula. For example, this gentleman scholar (again, not beefcake action star) uses sacramental bread from the ceremony of Mass to keep Dracula out of his places of refuge.

Now, of course, the Irish-born Stoker likely had in the back of his mind the Catholic belief in transubstantiation. This is the belief that bread is literally transformed into Jesus’s body during the Mass. So, in this universe, the evil Dracula is literally defeated—at least in part—by elements of the literal slain body of Jesus Christ.

That works for me. At the same time, I couldn’t help but develop a little headcanon. What if, in fact, it’s the association of these elements—in some spiritual way—with Christ and one of his church’s activities that actually deterred Dracula? For example, would you have to use “consecrated” bread to ward off vampires with spiritual power? Would a page of Scripture work just as well? Or a simple cross necklace?

6. I wanted to learn more.

Here is where I invite actual horror fans to help further induct this vampire newbie.

Sure, I’ve done some research into Stoker and the older tales from which he drew to create the modern vampire template. I’ve also read fascinating articles about the Icelandic translation/remake of the novel, and the fact that Stoker believed at least some of his fictional elements were based in reality. And, of course, I’ve been made grossly aware that some people claim to be “vampires” who drink human blood.

But now I want to hear from you. When did you read Dracula? What did you think or like about it? As a biblical Christian, what did/do you think or like about it? And what pictures of sin—and the power of righteousness over sin—does the story illustrate?

  1. Technically I listened to it, courtesy a talented team of Librivox volunteers.
  2. To be consistent, we longtime professional Christian fans of horror stories may also want to add the Hotel Transylvania movies to our withering criticism. That’s because while Twilight tries to positively teen-sex up the vampire, the animated movies seem to turn this evil figure into a crazy cartoon character.

Frankenstein 200 Years Later

The initial publication of Frankenstein sold only 500 copies, but over time the story has gained in popularity and spawned movies, a TV show, comic books, a song, toys, Halloween costumes, and has essentially taken an iconic place in Western culture.
| Oct 29, 2018 | 4 comments |

Among the most influential books of fiction, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein should be included, not just because of its literary merit, but because of its prescient view of the ethics of science.

Frankenstein As Literature

In many ways Frankenstein not only gave life to a monster, but he also created the horror genre. But Shelley’s tale was a mashup of genres that would make modern day publishers giddy to give her work to the public. Writing in the era of Gothic romance, she developed a story that actually centered on science. Sort of a science fiction story.

[Science fiction author] Brian Aldiss has argued that it should be considered the first true science fiction story because, in contrast to previous stories with fantastical elements resembling those of later science fiction, the central character “makes a deliberate decision” and “turns to modern experiments in the laboratory” to achieve fantastic results. (“Frankenstein,” Wikepedia

With one amazing literary effort this young author (she was 21 when Frankenstein was published), gave birth to a work of science fiction as well as of horror, with the overtones of a Gothic romance. The initial publication sold only 500 copies, but over time the story has gained in popularity and spawned movies, a TV show, comic books, a song, toys, Halloween costumes, and has essentially taken an iconic place in Western culture.

Frankenstein As Science

Most readers would argue that there is more fiction to Frankenstein than there is science, and they’d be right . . . except for one aspect. Shelley’s book introduces the element of ethics in regard to science. Just because something can be accomplished scientifically, should it be done? How much responsibility should a scientist—in this case, Victor Frankenstein—have in connection to what his science has led to (i. e. the monster)?

Frankenstein As Inspiration

Interestingly, urban fantasy author Merrie Destefano has written a three-book series, not about Frankenstein as much as about Mary Shelley. This work of historical fiction/Gothic romance/science fiction/horror is itself a mash up in the tradition of Shelly’s original work.

Here’s the description of the first book:

Frankenstein meets Dracula in this Gothic retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic tale.

A holiday in Switzerland is supposed to lift Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s spirits. She wants to forget the past and have fun. In fact, everyone in her party is running away from one indiscretion or another—from her fiancé Percy Shelley to Lord Byron to Mary’s stepsister, Claire. But from the moment Mary arrives at Byron’s villa, she knows something is wrong. He rushes her indoors and forbids all of them to go out at night, claiming that the horrible weather has driven wild animals down from the mountains.

The only person who doesn’t seem to be running away from anything is a handsome, young Italian doctor, John Polidori. Instead, he is fervently pursuing local folk legends and a new scientific theory that claims people can be raised from the dead.

But it’s not until they all challenge one other to write ghost stories that the real danger begins. In a nightmare, Mary envisions a patchwork man animated by Galvanism and she begins writing Frankenstein. Likewise, fueled by local legends, John writes The Vampyre—one of the first vampire stories ever written.

What neither one of them knows is that they are conjuring a dark evil. Before long, all of their lives will be in danger—for neither of these characters are imaginary. Far from it.

Interested? You can read an excerpt and/or purchase the books through Amazon (maybe other venues, too). This is one story, told in three books, and all three released this summer.

I’ve heard of other books that have come out in honor of this Frankenstein 200 year anniversary, but I don’t know of any particular titles. How about you? Have you heard of any? Read any? Or perhaps written one?

Superheroes and Superpowers: A Glimpse into the Supernatural?

Affinity novelist Dianne J. Wilson explores what it means to be a superhero in our times.
| Oct 27, 2018 | No comments |

Superheroes are fascinating. Whether we’re caught up in the pages of a book, comic or glued to a screen, there is something about these flawed individuals and their powers that captivate us. Have you ever wondered why?

Superheroes in movies

One thing I love about God is the way you can find clues of spiritual truth in almost everything around us. My examples aren’t classic Marvel/DC superheroes, but hear me out.

Dianne J. Wilson

This week we feature Dianne J. Wilson and her novel Affinity in Lorehaven Book Clubs. Stop by the flagship book club on Facebook to learn more about this story.

Subscribe to Lorehaven Magazine for free! You can read the fall 2018 issue online, or download the free PDF copy.

The movie Avatar, for example; Jake Sully’s body is a broken wreck, yet in his avatar, he runs, climbs, mounts and rides a flying ikran… He is free and unlimited. Watching that movie made my heart pound because the Bible speaks of our bodies as seeds compared to the heavenly body we’ll have one day. Think acorn versus oak tree. We are currently living the acorn life without a clue what it will be like to be a fully functioning oak tree. We are Jake Sully, in our frail, fragile flesh, with bones that break and immune systems that fail. Nothing like the spiritual bodies we will have one day. Superheroes give us a glimpse into oak tree-living. (1 Corinthians 15:42-45)

Or what about the scene in The Lord of the Rings when Aragorn calls the oathbreakers to fulfil their oath and come to the aid of the king at Helm’s Deep? Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli commandeer the enemy’s ships and disembark to face a living sea of their worst nightmare. Their enemies laugh seeing the three of them on the riverbank so ridiculously outnumbered. But our boys are not alone – and the oathbreakers soon wipe the grins off the ugly orc faces. When we face the enemy, he laughs and mocks just as the orcs did. But we don’t stand alone and the One who fights for us has already disarmed the enemy and made a public spectacle of him. Watching that part of the movie gives me goosebumps. Every. Single. Time. (Colossians 2:15)

So what does all this mean for you and I? I’m not suggested we tie sheets around our necks and leap off buildings, but it is worth investigating some of the crazy stuff that happened to people in the Bible when the Holy Spirit got involved.

Superpowers in the Bible

“For what is seen is temporary, what is unseen is eternal.”

—2 Corinthians 4:18

In Acts 8, we read about Philip and the eunuch. The eunuch was reading about Jesus from writings of the prophet Isaiah. He couldn’t make sense of it, but he was curious enough to take Philip up on his offer to explain it all. After that Philip baptised him in some water and when they came up out of the water, verse 39 tells us, ‘the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again’ (emphasis mine). That sounds like a good special effect, but it really happened.

There’s the well-known story of Peter walking on water. Talk about bending the laws of physics. Jesus Himself was out on the lake for a stroll and was going to pass the boat by when Peter spotted him. Cheeky as always, Peter told Jesus to call him out of the boat so he could walk on water too. Who knows whether he was bluffing or not, but Jesus –being Jesus- held out a hand and said that one word, ‘Come.’ Peter actually did it. For a moment or two he walked on water. And then he took his eyes off Jesus, saw the waves and took his annual dip in the lake.

Paul and Silas sang some off-key worship songs in the middle of the night and all the cells in a jail rattled open. Daniel’s buddies were thrown into a furnace so hot, the heat alone should have shrivelled them before they even touched a single flame and walked out unharmed – not even smelling like smoke. I don’t know about you, but these sound like superhero stories to me. Yet they were all ordinary folk who believed what God said to them. God wrote the laws of nature, He is quite capable of ignoring them when He wants to.

Affinity, Dianne J. Wilson

“Affinity is a creative and original play on old concepts, and if you’re willing to take the ride, you’ll find it goes places.”
— Lorehaven Magazine

Spiritual gifts

On the other side of the spectrum are spiritual gifts – words of knowledge, the gift of discernment, encouragement, faith, the working of miracles and more. He can show you things about people and situations you couldn’t know by yourself. These are not natural gifts that come as part of the DNA package you inherited from your parents. They come to us supernaturally from God Himself.

That’s all very well, but can we expect God to do such wild things with us?

I believe we can. But just as superheroes are given their powers for a purpose, God will unlock things for us as we begin doing what He’s created us to do. Our collective purpose, the point of everything we do is to point people to their Creator. He is the One who made them in the first place and His heart is to heal brokenness, restore and make right all the wrongs.

Within that big purpose, we find ourselves and our uniqueness, our specific callings and gifts… our own good works that were created in advance for us to do, individuals who God hand-picked for us to shine His light to. As we recognise, step up and own those things, He will give us whatever tools, weapons and abilities we need to get the job done. Some will be natural and others will be 100% special-effect-jaw-dropping-superhero-supernatural.

I don’t know about you, but I’m up for some of that. Our world is broken and it’s going to take supernatural power straight from our Heavenly Father to rescue and redeem.

So… what’s your superhero name going to be?

“Affinity is a creative and original play on old concepts, and if you’re willing to take the ride, you’ll find it goes places.”
— Lorehaven Magazine

Explore more about Dianne J. Wilson’s novel:

Fiction Friday: Unblemished By Sara Ella

Unblemished is the first in the Unblemished Trilogy. Book 2, Unraveling, is a finalist in the 2018 Christy Awards, Young Adult category.
| Oct 26, 2018 | No comments |


by Sara Ella


Unblemished is the first in the Unblemished Trilogy. Book 2, Unraveling, is a finalist in the 2018 Christy Awards, Young Adult category.

“A breathtaking fantasy set in an extraordinary fairy-tale world, with deceptive twists and an addictively adorable cast who are illusory to the end. Just when I thought I’d figured each out, Sara Ella sent me for another ride. A wholly original story, Unblemished begins as a sweet melody and quickly becomes an anthem of the heart. And I’m singing my soul out. Fans of Once Upon a Time and Julie Kagawa, brace yourselves.” —Mary Weber, award-winning author of the Storm Siren Trilogy

Eliyana can’t bear to look at her own reflection. But what if that were only one Reflection—one world? What if another world exists where her blemish could become her strength?

Eliyana is used to the shadows. With a birthmark covering half her face, she just hopes to graduate high school unscathed. That is, until Joshua hops a fence and changes her perspective. No one, aside from her mother, has ever treated her like he does: normal. Maybe even beautiful. Because of Joshua, Eliyana finally begins to believe she could be loved.

But one night her mother doesn’t come home, and that’s when everything gets weird. Now Joshua is her new, and rather reluctant, legal Guardian. Add a hooded stalker and a Central Park battle to the mix and you’ve gone from weird to otherworldly.

Eliyana soon finds herself in a world much larger and more complicated than she’s ever known. A world enslaved by a powerful and vile man. And Eliyana holds the answer to defeating him. How can an ordinary girl, a blemished girl, become a savior when she can’t even save herself?


It can’t be true. I’ve known the news for a week, and still it hits me as if I’m finding out for the very first time.

Elizabeth Ember, Up-and-Coming Artist of the Upper West side, Dies at 34.

The bold headline on the front of the New York Times obituaries blares up at me, a black and white photo of Mom posted beneath. Was it only last month this exact photo adorned another section of the paper? Even with gray skin, her dark hair swept into a messy bun, Mom’s organic beauty radiates from the page. Why she hated being photographed, I’ll never understand. I flip the paper upside down. When I die, will my portrait grace the news?

Of course not. My face looks as if a toddler scribbled on it with a red Sharpie while I was asleep. No reporter in his right mind would put my picture in the paper. Not unless it was a Halloween edition.

Mom used to sit in the rooftop garden of our brownstone, a cup of hot Earl Grey in her hands, and gaze out over Manhattan. She adored this city for its energy and symphony of cultures. “It’s always alive, always moving,” she’d said.

Now, every consolation from a complete stranger invites a fresh wave of sobs. My chest heaves with each one, rising and falling like the steady tumult of the Hudson on a stormy day. I drive back the waves with smiles and nods and deep, controlled breaths, all for the sake of appearances. To be the hostess Mom would’ve been. The one I’ll never be.

“I’m so sorry for your loss . . .”


“She’ll be missed . . .”


“It will be better with time . . .”


“You know we’re all here for you, dear . . .”


Nothing more than empty words from phony people who can’t even look me in the eye as they give their condolences. Can I blame them? I don’t enjoy looking at me. Why should they?

My phone vibrates, dancing along the granite countertop in our—my kitchen. The screen lights up, flashing the name and selfie that hurts and comforts in one ping of mixed emotions.


My fingers curl around the orchid-colored case, squeeze. I asked him to stay away, to give me space. Time. He agreed with a solemn ot, giving me what I wanted.

If it’s what I wanted, why do I long to go next door and fall into his arms?

I close my eyes, mentally pushing away the cacophony of voices echoing around our—my home. It doesn’t work. This is all just too much.

A sea of catered dishes covers the kitchen island. Nothing offers comfort like platters of prosciutto and tartlets, right? What is this, a cocktail party? And could it be more obvious these people know nothing about me or Mm? Prosciutto? Really? Gag me. I haven’t touched meat in ten years, and I’m certainly not going to start now.

Beyond the bar, the sunroom with its large bay window, upright piano, ornate fireplace is set up as an art gallery. Mom’s recently commissioned dealer, Lincoln Cooper, took care of all the details, despite the setback his recent gallery fire caused him. How very noble of him considering he’s known us less than a month. Where did he find all these people? Do they even know who they’re mourning, or are their sympathies part of the show?

Easels display oil-pastel renderings and watercolor paintings along with a few of Mom’s charcoal sketches. Most of the pieces featured are from her Autumn collection. Lincoln’s idea of staying on theme with the current season. He negotiates prices while admirers speak overtly about the tragedy of such a talented artist dying so young.

“What better way to remember Elizabeth than to display and sell her masterpieces at the wake,” he’d said with enthusiasm. “Eclectic art is all the rage now.”

I nodded my consent, but I knew better. Lincoln Cooper couldn’t care less about paying tribute to Mom. He hardly knew her. All he cares about is his big fat commission. And considering he’s priced each painting well beyond what Mom would approve of, I don’t think he’ll have trouble getting what he wants. Sheesh. Maybe this is a cocktail party. Let him have his fun. I only want one painting for myself, along with Mom’s sketchbooks.

The essence of her surrounds me. In every brushstroke and ebony pencil rub. In the scent of canvas. In the crinkle of brown paper as Lincoln unwraps a new piece to replace one he’s just sold. My lower lip quivers, and I suck it in between my teeth. Mom would want me to be brave now, but how can I be? She’ll never again sit on our roof and paint he sun rising over Central Park. Never send me down the block to pick up a new box of pencils from Staples or sketch me while I do my homework.

At once I can’t breathe. I’m suffocating, but no one notices. I can’t be here anymore. I won’t do this. She’s not dead. She can’t be.


Not so long ago, SARA ELLA dreamed she would marry a prince (just call her Mrs. Charming) and live in a castle (aka The Plaza Hotel). Though her fairy tale didn’t quite turn out as planned, she did work for Disney–that was an enchanted moment of its own. Now she spends her days throwing living room dance parties for her two princesses and conquering realms of her own imaginings. She believes “Happily Ever After is Never Far Away” for those who put their faith in the King of kings.

First Man: An Example of Fearlessness

First Man not only shows a fascinating lunar landing, it portrays a man unlike most people. Armstrong’s character gives insight in how to portray a hero.
| Oct 25, 2018 | 1 comment |

My fellow Travis (Chapman) is going through some personal difficulties at the moment, and I am too. So for this week I’m taking a break from our Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War series to talk about a movie I watched yesterday–First Man. I think this movie shows an example of the type of fearlessness seen in warriors that T-2 wrote up in last week’s article on the nature of warfare.

First Man, for those who may not be familiar with it, is a highly realistic movie about the astronaut Neil Armstrong and the first landing on the moon. As such, while the movie is mostly straight-out confirmed biography. It strays into historical fiction at moments because nobody remembers some of the conversations it records and it also shows at least two events that for certain did not happen at all or not the way the movie portrayed them (I did a bit of after-viewing research). Which includes a moment the film gives great emotional importance on the surface of the moon (if you’ve seen the movie, I’m sure you’ll be able to guess what moment I’m referring to).

It’s not really a speculative film at all in the ordinary sense of the word, but I hope you will excuse me posting about it here. First of all, it contains moments of danger and drama, life or death issues for Armstrong–all of which actually happened, but which still are cut from the same cloth as drama you’d find in a speculative fiction plot. Second, it shows the best Hollywood portrayal of what landing on the moon was like–it really feels like the viewer is along for the ride. And the moon looks amazing in First Man–a totally alien surface, a place unlike anything anywhere on Earth. Which really stirred my longing for other worlds and places, a longing most often expressed in speculative fiction.

I’ve also got a third reason for writing about this movie, one I already revealed in my first paragraph. I think the movie shows a character portrait of the kind of fearlessness seen in warrior elites. That which characterizes a person who winds up being a hero in war–or in the case of Armstrong, in space. (I’m not mainly writing a movie review, but I’d give this film 4 out of 5 stars. FYI.)

Note though that this movie is very much focused on Armstrong personally. Not only the dangers he faced in the air and in space, but wife, his marriage, his children, and his friends. The camera angles are often close–you see a lot of Ryan Gosling’s face in this movie (and of other key actors). The film is not about NASA as a whole, even though many astronauts are portrayed. It makes only minimal efforts to explain what the space race was for or what was technically going on at any particular moment of the film. It instead provides a visceral insight into what it feels like to be physically jostled around, to hear the groans of aircraft wings, to have the sound escape the lunar module as the air flowed out. (By the way, by focusing on the visceral in Armstrong’s life, it feels totally natural for the film to focus on Armstrong stepping on the moon and to skip Buzz Aldrin planting the US flag later on.)

Gosling showing Armstrong boarding Apollo 11.

Armstrong himself probably only partially operated on the level of the visceral. He intellectually understood what was going on in a way the movie viewer would not and it seems his brain was highly engaged in solving his problems, not focused on what being there physically felt like. Though the movie actually portrays that, too, Armstrong in problem-solving mode, especially during his mission in Gemini 8, in which he saved his own life and his copilot’s life by cool thinking during a dangerous spin that he alone solved, without any guidance from Houston or anyone else.

The movie stuck to reality in portraying Neil Armstrong as stoic and cool-headed, the type of person who could make the right decision even under pressure and who had very little to say. I actually suspect that Gosling’s Armstrong is even more emotional than Armstrong actually was, yet there is no way to watch this film without seeing a portrait of a man who kept his emotions under control, who lived in his mind and intellect more than in his heart or emotions.

We could chalk up Armstrong’s fearlessness to his background and training (he actually was trained at the US Naval Academy and was a fighter pilot in the Korean War), but I felt when I watched the movie it was showing us something else. It portrayed the life of someone who would be a member of what I called “the Fearless Elite”–people who are wired differently than the majority of humans. People who are capable of feeling fear, but who are unaffected by it.

The movie also shows Armstrong not really being able to connect with his wife, with struggling to talk with his sons at a key moment. In other words, as someone who not only benefited from his emotional control, but who suffered the downside from emotional distance as well.

My fellow authors, that’s a realistic portrayal. Even if First Man overemphasized Armstrong’s lack of ability to connect emotionally (which I suspect it did), I think it was essentially correct in showing there is actually a downside to even the heroic kind of fearlessness. That is, a lack of ability to fully engage with others from the heart.

A March of Stereotypes

Taking a broad view of speculative fiction, and especially of science fiction, we may discern the march of female stereotypes.
| Oct 24, 2018 | 16 comments |

Last week, Becky Miller discussed the tendency of modern SF to stereotype women as aggressive protagonists who do what men do, only in heels. Her well-made points turned my thoughts to the treatment of women in speculative fiction. The portrayal of women has varied greatly from era to era and from author to author. It even varies from science fiction to fantasy; fantasy – built up from tales crowned with queens, fairies, and witches – possesses deeper traditions of vital female characters. Yet taking a broad view of speculative fiction, and especially of science fiction, we may discern the march of female stereotypes.

The reigning stereotype of early sci-fi was the young lady, invariably attractive, who was the love interest of the young hero, or the daughter of the old professor, or – this was not rare – both. Often, this young woman played Watson to the men’s Sherlock, asking what the audience doesn’t know. Thus the woman provided a method to resolve the eternal writer’s problem of the info-dump, and an infinitely more graceful one than having the hero and the professor tell each other what both already know. More significantly, the young woman is usually the story’s heart – the hero’s inspiration and the center of his emotion. Often enough, she is the damsel in distress, awaiting rescue. In short, early sci-fi stereotypes fit women into classic ideals of femininity, though it must be noted that this did not wholly sideline women from the action. It was not unusual for the hero’s love interest to accompany him into peril, nor unknown for her to use a weapon when the crisis demanded it.

Another, less genteel stereotype is typified by the women of the original Star Trek – the Federation servicewomen in miniskirts and the endless parade of female aliens who probably were not warm under those lights. Unlike the vaguely Victorian women of earlier sci-fi, those women were allowed to enter the story in their own right, not needing a personal relationship with a male character for admission. At the same time, their presentation – sexualized in the very teeth of common sense – objectified them in a way that the idealized women of a more old-fashioned tradition were not. This stereotype was probably most prominent between the fading of the old ideals and the dominance of the new, but it existed before then and is not extinct now.

The stereotype now ascendant is that of the action heroine, whose prowess defies old notions of feminine weakness and, at times, the laws of nature. Princess Leia is the embodiment of the new SF heroine: assertive, authoritative, confident in the use of weapons and in everything else, sarcastic and sharp-tongued to the point of being obnoxious. (If anyone disagrees with this last statement, let me just say: Get this walking carpet out of my way.) We want a heroine who can scrap with the biggest, toughest of men, and due to standards of female beauty strictly enforced in Hollywood, we are accustomed to heroines who do this while weighing just north of 100 pounds.

But despite this and other absurdities, there is nothing inherently wrong with the confident, sarcastic woman who knows how to make use of an arsenal. For that matter, there was nothing wrong with the sweetheart or daughter who is the hero’s heart. (The female military officer in a miniskirt we can do without.) The real error of this march of stereotypes is not that speculative fiction features a certain kind of woman, but that it neglects other kinds.