Does Diversity in Fantasy Publishing Reflect God’s Kingdom or Identity Politics?

Is forced diversity in secular publishing really the same as biblical diversity?
| Dec 11, 2018 | 35 comments |

Christian film and fiction has often been charged with being “preachy,” “heavy-handed,” and “message-driven.” As a result, many Christian creatives have pursued a more nuanced approach, seeking to embed a biblical worldview or spiritual themes organically into their stories, rather than through explicit didactic moralizing.

Nevertheless, a move is afoot in the arts that renders such nuance rather pointless. In fact, the open embrace of agenda-driven fiction and politically correct themes is now fairly common in mainstream publishing.

The challenges of award-winners

An article appeared recently in Speculative Faith entitled Growing Diversity in Fantasy Genres Gives Us Hints of Eternity. The author’s (Daniel Whyte IV) intent was to celebrate diversity in speculative fiction publishing and hail its biblical import. Yet he (perhaps inadvertently) also highlights the sticky ideological and political agenda behind this push and why Christian fans of the genre should be leery of it. Whyte writes,

… like much of the world, science fiction and fantasy are growing up, growing wiser, and embracing the stories of traditionally marginalized people groups. Some might say science fiction and fantasy (SFF) are ahead of the curve.

The ever-widening tent of modern science fiction and fantasy was evidenced at this year’s Hugo Awards, where female writers and artists swept the prize in all major categories.

N. K. Jemisin, the African-American author of the Broken Earth series, had already made history in 2016 by becoming the first black writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel. This year she made history again by becoming the first person ever to take the top prize three years in a row.

Many of the other winners were also reflective of the growing diversity in SFF publishing …

In recent years, the Hugo awards have become an octagon of ideological in-fighting. While some fans view the industry’s push towards diversity as stoking discrimination, creating an undeserving bias toward books containing (or written by) people of color, females, and the gender-fluid, others have seen this disparity as necessary recompense to balance the scales of a previously white straight male dominated industry.

At one time, the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) genre was seen as cutting-edge regarding technology, civilizations, and theoretical sciences. Now, however, that prescient creativity has translated into acknowledging “traditionally marginalized people groups” and affirming a host of exotic sexual proclivities.

For example, one commenter on the original post at Spec-Faith noted that Jemisin:

… is a fantastic writer, but I stopped reading her book the Fifth Season because it felt like it was shoving LGBTQ, sexual immorality, and racial agendas down my throat.

This is not a surprise, and that observation is not uncommon. Jemisin is an outspoken progressive whose stories contain queer characters (even queer gods), are critical of Western culture, and employ the language of critical race and intersectional theory. However, the author’s “racial agenda” did not prevent her from being “the first person ever to [win a Hugo] three years in a row.” The painfully obvious question is whether the awards were merited or reparative.

Biblical diversity

So is the “diversity agenda” really about “growing up,” or is there an ideological component that makes the movement less than virtuous? Even more importantly for Christians, are the Hugo awards, the sweeping wins of female creatives, the emphasis on multicultural inclusion, and N. K. Jemisin’s trifecta really a good example of biblical diversity?

Apparently, Whyte thinks so. He continues:

… the embrace of diversity in speculative genres ought to remind us that, one day, people of every nation, ethnicity, and language will live, work, and love together in the New Heaven and New Earth.

… The arc of the universe bends toward diversity. It bends toward a re-imagined Eden where the things that have divided for so long—the differences of race, gender, ethnicity, culture, and economic standing—become the elements God uses to paint a new mosaic. In this mosaic, the beauty comes not just from unity despite our differences, but unity made more glorious because it embraces our differences.

Indeed, ethnic and cultural diversity is a reflection of God’s creativity. Redeemed humanity will not be segmented according to melanin levels, language, or income. But in the same way that biblical “love” is qualitatively different than romantic, emotive, or carnal love, biblical “diversity” is different than its worldly equivalent.

Whereas the Gospel is aimed at all people groups, the Church is unified around a single Person and theme. The Apostle Paul wrote:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.1

Rather than highlighting our differences, Scripture emphasizes our similarities. God has “made from one blood every nation of men” (Acts 17:26 NKJV). Humanity is unified in its sin, fallenness, and hunger for the eternal. The redeemed are unified by their Savior, his Spirit, the truth, and a mission. Again, Paul notes:

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.2

The Body of Christ is indeed a “mosaic.” This tapestry, however, is not the result of quota conversions. Ethnic diversity is the result of preaching the Gospel and making disciples, not its aim. Of course, as individuals we are to check ourselves for sin, seek out those on the margins, not flaunt our privilege or be bound by our cultural boxes.

Is forced diversity really biblical diversity?

Nevertheless, forced diversity is not biblical diversity. In fact, it leads to endless bean-counting, ledger-balancing, and otherwise sleazy scale-tipping.

Which is why SFF’s diversity agenda has become so tedious.

For example, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was recently accused of being racist in his depiction of orcs:

… a US sci-fi writer has blasted JRR Tolkien for his portrayal of orcs in the Lord of the Rings. He claimed they were simply misunderstood, comparing them to today’s migrants and refugees…

“It’s hard to miss the repeated notion in Tolkien that some races are just worse than others, or that some peoples are just worse than others,” [Science fiction and fantasy author Andy Duncan] told Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, a podcast run by Wired magazine.

Make no mistake, when diversity becomes the Rosetta Stone of literary theory, such conclusions are inevitable. Through the lens of identity politics, orcs become marginalized, misunderstood, Middle-Earthers while the King of Rohan and his ilk (all old white men) are seen as props for privileged, hetero-normative, racists. Unfortunately, such over-correction is fraught with danger. I mean, is the playing field really leveled by making white men bad guys and their imperialistic over-reach the norm? Is real diversity achieved through a false balance?

Sadly, such overreach is now the norm in SFF fandom.

Take Mythcreants, a site devoted to spec-fic fans and writers, which has compiled checklists to help authors recognize numerous unconscious isms. Articles like Five Signs Your Story is Racist, Five Signs Your Story is Transphobic, Six Signs Your Story is Queerphobic, and Five Signs Your Story is Sexist, assume that latent social sins inflict the white majority and that the mission of the SFF creative is to purge the wrongthink from our ranks and right those societal wrongs through our fiction. Sensitivity readers, as they are called, are now regularly employed by publishers to ensure that people of color and the marginalized are “correctly” portrayed by authors of other ethnicities, gender, or ability. Another off-shoot of the diversity trend are challenges like Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year. This typically includes reading only females, the multi-gendered, and people of color.

Apparently, being woke demands a lot of penance.

Still, the question remains: Is forced diversity really biblical diversity? In his article The Danger of Manufactured Pre-Determined Diversity, David Fitch rightly notes the downside to churches that force diversity:

There is a danger of a manufactured pre-determined flattened diversity that is often shaped by the bland vision of American democracy.

…I have noticed (at times) a manufactured diversity in large churches in majority white suburban wealthy communities. Here people of different ethnicities and social backgrounds are hired to be visible and lead from up front. Is this a good thing? Sometimes this can work for some good. Sometimes, I’m afraid it is manufactured and is not the diversity we seek. Kingdom diversity is a culture of renewal worked out on the ground in real relationships. [Which is why] I tend to discourage such attempts at manufacturing diversity.

I’m afraid that the type of diversity advocated by many in in the SFF community is “manufactured diversity.” While quota hires and awards may result in visibility for some perceived marginalized peoples, it inevitably leads to further discrimination and rigs the system against merit-based achievements.

Whyte is correct to note that diversity is a hallmark of God’s Kingdom. However, God does not build that diversity through quota conversions. Ethnic diversity is the result of preaching the Gospel and making disciples, not its aim. The main criteria for inclusion into God’s family is not demographic, but spiritual—an open, willing heart. The Christian SFF fan should be less concerned with demographic equity and perpetuating message-driven propaganda and more concerned with genuine inclusion. Nevertheless, the push for diversity in SFF ranks appears more like identity politics than it does anything resembling the Kingdom.

  1. Galatians 3:28 (ESV).
  2. 1 Corinthians 12:13 (NIV).

Christmas: What The World Doesn’t Know

How have we Christians failed to tell the world the truth about Jesus during Christmas? No, He is not a cute newborn or a religious version of Santa Claus. He is the image of the invisible God. In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells.
| Dec 10, 2018 | 2 comments |

A number of years ago during the week of Christmas there was a late-night police action in my neighborhood—an unruly party, perhaps, or some sort of illegal drug or gang activity or possibly individuals succumbing to anger and venting in a display of domestic violence. A few years later an ambulance (with accompanying EMT and fire truck) pulled up across the street in front of my neighbors’ house.

Ah, it’s Christmas.

We celebrate Jesus, good news to the world, because He brings peace on earth, He gives joy to all mankind. Yet so obviously, many people do not have peace or joy and do not understand the promise of Christmas.

How have we Christians failed to tell the world the truth about Jesus? No, He is not a cute newborn or a religious version of Santa Claus. He is the image of the invisible God. In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells.

So what? Jesus isn’t here now.

He Himself answered this form of rejection when He was talking with His disciples—first, He came to show the Father, but also by going away, He made it possible, in a manner of speaking, for the Holy Spirit to take His place.

In Old Testament times Israel had God in their midst. They had prophets who told them what God said and priests who would make sacrifice on their behalf.

In the New Testament the disciples had Jesus with them—talking, teaching, living, performing miracles.

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son (Hebrews 1:1-2a)

But now, in the “Church age” we who are part of the family of God, each one, have God in us. Consequently I enjoy the fellowship of God—His presence, His counsel, His conviction, comfort, truth, assurance. He holds my hand and to Him I cling. He is with me when I pass through the waters, when rivers overflow. He is the One in whom I will boast—not in wisdom, riches, or might.

Jesus coming in the flesh made this relationship with God possible. That’s why it’s important to celebrate Christmas. It’s the single-most pivotal event in history. Some may think Easter holds that place, but Easter is actually an extension of Christmas, the culmination of it.

nativityJesus, born of Mary, was God’s first step onto earth in the skin of Man. It was the beginning, the realization of the promise, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us.” Everything that night of Jesus’s birth was a shout—the great, glorious plan of redemption, worked out before the foundations of the world, was unfolding. It was being revealed to us who, through Him, would become believers in God.

Christmas is the ultimate Reveal! It’s the greatest ah-ha moment since time began.

But so many people look past it or don’t get it. Perhaps too many have relied on slogans, as true as they may be—put Christ back in Christmas; say, Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays; wisemen still seek Him; Jesus is the reason for the season.

Perhaps we’ve allowed the birth events to dominate the meaning of Christmas. As important as was the virgin birth, the angelic announcement to the shepherds, the coming of the magi, the real “magic” of Christmas is this “first step” in God’s plan to rescue His creation. It’s begun. And praise God that it is so!

Maybe even, go tell it on a mountain. Or in a story.

– – – – –

This article, apart from a few minor editorial changes, is a reprint of one that first posted in December 2012.

Growing Diversity in Fantasy Genres Gives Us Hints of Eternity

Science fiction and fantasy are growing up and embracing the stories of traditionally marginalized people groups.
| Dec 7, 2018 | 29 comments |

By definition, science fiction and fantasy are unique among literary genres because of the presence of a wide range of diverse characters and people groups.

Certainly, many groups are fictional (as far as we know), such as Vulcans, Calormenes, and sentient droids.

Certainly, many portrayals, such as that of female characters and Native Americans, have been fetishized and over-troped.

But, like much of the world, science fiction and fantasy are growing up, growing wiser, and embracing the stories of traditionally marginalized people groups. Some might say science fiction and fantasy (SFF) are ahead of the curve.

The ever-widening tent of modern science fiction and fantasy was evidenced at this year’s Hugo Awards, where female writers and artists swept the prize in all major categories.

N. K. Jemisin, the African-American author of the Broken Earth series, had already made history in 2016 by becoming the first black writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel. This year she made history again by becoming the first person ever to take the top prize three years in a row.

Many of the other winners were also reflective of the growing diversity in SFF publishing:

  • Rebecca Roanhorse won Best Short Story for Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience.
  • Suzanne Palmer’s The Secret Life of Bots won Best Novelette.
  • Martha Wells won Best Novella for All Systems Red.
  • The late Ursula K. Le Guin won Best Related Work for her book of essays, No Time to Spare.

We could go on.

This trend—although I hope it’s more than a trend—makes sense, especially since, in my opinion (and in the opinion of V.E. Schwab), the best speculative stories grow from trees planted with seeds from the real world.

It’s often uncomfortable talking about the marginalization experienced by women and various races and ethnic groups. There still is (and probably always will be) a small but loud strain of individuals who don’t like black actresses playing traditionally white comic book characters on TV, or the growing recognition that women writers and people of color are receiving in SFF publishing, or minority characters being introduced to Star Wars.

But the embrace of diversity in speculative genres ought to remind us that, one day, people of every nation, ethnicity, and language will live, work, and love together in the New Heaven and New Earth. John, the apostle and end times seer, wrote:

“I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”1

The arc of the universe bends toward diversity. It bends toward a re-imagined Eden where the things that have divided for so long—the differences of race, gender, ethnicity, culture, and economic standing—become the elements God uses to paint a new mosaic. In this mosaic, the beauty comes not just from unity despite our differences, but unity made more glorious because it embraces our differences. To paraphrase from Helen Lee’s article at Christ and Pop Culture, God is the ultimate diversity activist.

Jesus’s example shows us that we should cheer the growing diversity in SFF genres. Although he came to bring the good news of the kingdom first to the Jews, he often went out of his way to minister to those who were marginalized. He took time out to hear from Greeks who were seen as outsiders (John 12: 20–22). He ministered to the hated, half-breed Samaritans (John 4: 1–42), and, in one of his most famous stories, he made a Samaritan the main character and the hero.

Jesus grabbed people who stood on the margins of His society—tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, the lepers, the African—and thrust them into the main narrative of the Great Story of God’s Love. You belong here, he told them. There is room for you.

And then, he told his disciples, and us, to do the same. The glorious climax of every people, every nation, every tongue gathered around the throne at the end of time only comes about because the plot can be summed up in the Great Commission where Jesus commands us to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28: 16–20).

We have a hand in the making of God’s diverse kingdom—in Heaven and here on Earth. And we should rejoice when any arena, like modern science fiction and fantasy publishing, moves closer to that divine ideal.

  1. Revelation 7:9.

Speculative Fiction Writers Guide to War, part 13: Training for High-End Capabilities

The high-end capabilities of advanced military systems can be vastly different from what they achieve at the low-end. Highly advanced weapons systems, whether technical or magical, require specialized training.

Travis P here. In contrast to the layout of other weeks, I’m going to first introduce and later illustrate a post initiated by my fellow Travis (Chapman). In this post, he focuses on the training for “high-end capabilities,” which is the term used for highly expensive weapons systems that constitute the most advanced means of fighting that modern nations have. Note that even though the terminology of high-end capabilities has a very 21st Century feel to it, the concept can be applied to speculative stories that mirror the legendary past as well as those set in highly technological futures.

Note also that the type of training this post explores is highly technical. Instead of focusing on training warriors to endure the hardships of up close combat, this kind of training requires mastering the highly advanced weapons systems of high-end capabilities. Whatever those high-end capabilities may be.

Travis C here. I’d like to introduce a few terms of art. In a modern parlance, high-end warfighting is becoming a buzz term to describe warfighting that is peer-against-peer utilizing advanced technology and tactics. In their time, World War I and II both demonstrated high-end warfighting concepts: incorporation of air combat power, battles for naval supremacy using submarines, convoys, battleships, and aircraft carriers, long-range bombing and artillery strikes, communications advances, etc. Not that we didn’t have those things prior to the world wars, but we saw them institutionalized into military structures and a very deliberate application of those powers by the nations involved against rival military forces and to achieve military ends.

WW2 USS Enterprise’s final voyage. Credit: CNN.com

A military capability is intuitive: a capability to conduct a certain kind or set of activities for any number of purposes. My personal background is in submarines, which represent a range of capabilities. We can conduct anti-shipping, anti-surface warfare, submarine-on-submarine warfare, launch missiles ashore, sit off the coast and collect intelligence, transfer goods clandestinely, and create a great deal of uncertainty for a nation. Some of those capabilities are clearly for military purposes (launching torpedoes). Some, however, also serve political purposes (deterrence: we may or may not have a submarine operating in the vicinity of a nation, causing them to consider whether to put a fleet to sea). They also showcase a nation’s military strength as a capital asset.

A “capital asset” (we could use other terms, but this one will suffice) is something a nation would have to invest a significant amount of resources into acquiring but demonstrates that nation’s capacity and resolve to have that asset and the potential to utilize it. Let’s consider a non-military example that gets us closer to our science fiction purpose: the United States’ space shuttle program. It cost a lot of money to design, build, and operate our shuttles. It takes a lot of engineering and science research and development, worker training, intellectual know-how, political resolve and budgeting, good management, and material resources to get a space shuttle. Once you get a shuttle, it takes highly-skilled, highly-capable and adaptable, best-of-the-best operators to execute the missions we desired the shuttle for. Not everyone can have a space shuttle. The same is true for capital assets in the military. Not every nation can operate submarines, or long-range bombers, or missiles, or fighter jets, or close-combat-supporting helicopters, or satellite networks.

Flying Nazgul. Credit: Figwit via councilofeldrond.com

Clearly many capabilities we know from the world of science fiction will fall into the category of a capital asset. Spacecraft, space stations, and the propulsion systems that power them will likely be a unique class of capability. Think also of those near-future capabilities we know are just over the horizon: artificial intelligence, machine learning, near-instantaneous information availability and communication/connectedness. In the realm of fantasy, many applications of magic might be considered this way. Truly, Gandalf and Saruman represented unique capabilities within their respective forces, and the Ringwraiths represent a whole set of capabilities for Mordor. The oliphants at Pelenor Fields and rock-dropping griffins of King Edmund’s Narnian army may also fall under that heading.  

While the training of a warrior for close combat will involve physical conditioning, weapons proficiency, and preparation for the psychological and physiological impacts of the battlefield, the operators of these high-end capabilities require something different. While all members of the military receive a basic level of training, those services supporting high-end capabilities will divert the practitioners of those communities into specialized training schools and follow that up with routine integrated training to ensure all the pieces work together.

Let’s again use some examples close to home: Sailors and Airmen. All members of the U.S. military go through some form of basic training, learning the institutions of their respective service, military courtesies, and by and large spending a great amount of effort in breaking down individualism and growing a team-oriented attitude among recruits. This will have important consequences later.

The majority of Sailors and Airmen who enter service do so knowing the field of work they will participate in. After basic training they will depart for a series of training activities to learn those specialized skills. It might be many months before they are ready to join an operating platform or unit and begin to apply those skills as an apprentice-level practitioner. You would expect an aircraft maintainer, nuclear power plant operator, missilier, combat system technician and operator, etc., so need to learn the basics of the systems before they head to a vessel or aircraft squadron that will deploy.

US Air Force missileers in training. Credit: AF.mil

Once basic and specialized training is complete they will report to an operating unit where they will apply those skills in a graded manner, maturing from apprentice operators under the guidance of more senior and experienced folks and gaining real-world expertise. It’s here that integration occurs, since the numerous specialties come together to form a single operating unit. A warship is not only the sum of its parts (propulsion plant, sensors, weapon systems, living quarters for the crew, etc.), but the true impact of that platform is in the synergy of a well-trained, trusting, and focused crew. The same can be said for a squadron of aircraft, a cadre of missileers, the crew of a submarine, or any other capital asset that requires multiple skills to effectively operate.

Lastly, those capital assets must be exercised in simulated environments to ensure the crews know what to do, when to do it, and ensure that routines become second nature so that actions occur without fail in times of confusion and duress like combat. During the period leading up to a deployment, and with some degree of regularity at all times, teams will practice routines and drill themselves on the breadth of their capabilities. Emergency action drills, equipment and system casualty drills, battle stations, launch procedures, and simulated wargames to test the ability of the team to execute their missions in the midst of anticipated challenges will ensure operators are ready for as many expected situations as possible. More importantly, it prepares them for the unknown things that might happen by building a level of readiness and preparedness that will be adaptable to circumstances that arise.

That might seem like a ironic combination, but high-end warfighting is based on a balance between rote mechanical routines that reduce the operator’s need to think (don’t think, just act) with a demand for creativity, adaptability, and ingenuity to bring those skills to bear depending on the situation.

Travis P again. I hope readers are grasping the impact of what Travis C said and how that affects speculative fiction stories. We may tend to think of the military capacities of a nation as being even–but in fact the difference between the minimum technology a nation may have and its most advanced weapons can be extreme.

Egyptian-style chariot. Credit: Joe Alblas © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.

These contrasts have always existed–for example, in the world of the Hebrew Scriptures, the chariot was the most elite and highly technical weapon of its era. Israelites, who especially at first fought mostly with untrained levies of troops, could not afford to create a permanent warrior caste or to pay professional warriors with the skills to operate chariots. Nor did they have the specialized skills involved in building chariots. So it wasn’t until after the time of David the King that the Israelites had any chariots at all, and they never had many in relation to other nations.

Soviet Union Typhoon submarine. Credit: Wikipedia

But the larger a nation is and the more technologically developed its world is, the bigger the potential difference is between high-end capacities and the minimum abilities to fight that a nation has. The Soviet Union had poorly trained draftees it could barely manage to house and feed at the low end of its abilities and also ballistic nuclear submarines worth the equivalent of billions of US dollars on the high end. A united world in a futuristic science fiction universe could mostly be at a medieval level of technology–but might be able to pool enough resources as a planet to buy a starship or two and might manage (with the help of more advanced races) to provide the training required to run it or them. And that one or two starship(s) might easily have more military capacity than all of the rest of the world combined.

Credit: starwars.com

The classic example of a high-end capability in familiar speculative fiction would be the Death Star. While Tie Fighters and Imperial Star Destroyers require plenty of specialized training, the Death Star by itself exceeded the capacity of the entire Rebel fleet (even though it was vulnerable to them due to an accidentally-on-purpose flaw as seen in Rogue One). Some of the uniforms a moviegoer will see on the Death Star are nowhere else in Star Wars–clearly these were specialists trained to operate the Death Star and the Death Star alone. Operating the Death Star obviously would require a great deal of highly technical training that would have very little in common with the battle hardening required of elite warriors that our previous posts have discussed. Yet the Death Star far exceeds the destructive capacity of all the elite hereditary warriors of that story universe combined, the Jedi Knights (not even working together could all the Jedi blow up a planet).

Death Star crew at work. Credit: Flickriver.com

Writers of epic fantasy, don’t think this article doesn’t apply to you! When we start talking about magical capabilities, clearly the training of an elf or wizard that requires thousands of years to master represents high-end capabilities that are in a way every bit as advanced as those found in a technological society. Though wizards are generally portrayed as being more generalized than technologically advanced warriors, there’s no particular reason wizards couldn’t be portrayed as highly specialized instead.

UK Ministry of Magic Logo (Harry Potter).
Credit: http://harrypotter.wikia.com

Harry Potter represents an interesting case. Magic is clearly an integral part of the wizarding world and training of wizards is expected. Students actually learn basic skills in schools (Defense Against the Dark Arts) and a class of specialized warrior-constables exists in the Aurors. Do we see that level of sophistication when the war opens up in the last few books? Or is it every wizard for himself or herself?

Jaeger “Striker Eureka.” Credit: scifi.stackexchange.com

Another example of high-end capabilities and the training used to support them can be found in Pacific Rim with the Jaegers. Clearly these are complex devices (even if not wholly realistic), requiring significant investment and lots of support structure. Even though the storyline focused on characters who were their pilots, these were obviously not the only personnel required to develop Jaegers.

Naussicaä and the Valley of the Wind poster by Yoshiyuki Takani

We also see some crossovers into the realm of steampunk-ish worlds. Mortal Engines, David Webers’ Off Armageddon Reef (a low-tech world featuring an advanced navy and a cybernetic protagonist), Studio Ghibli’s Naussicaä and the Valley of the Wind (featuring a few high-end weapons), etc.

What are your thoughts on the topic of military high-end capabilities and the training required to support them?

 

The Saving Mystery

This is the cardinal rule for writers who wish to tread into the next world: Leave the mystery.
| Dec 5, 2018 | 2 comments |

Last time I came by this way, I talked about Coco’s demoralizing portrait of the afterlife and how it casts a pall over the movie. Today, I want to move that discussion to a more general question of how the afterlife ought to be portrayed in fiction. My concern is not the gate to heaven or the road to hell, the broad and the narrow way; I am thinking of the much slighter question of what glimpses should be given of the afterlife, including the secondhand glimpses that come through ghosts or other denizens of the spiritual world.

The first thing to say is that we don’t really know what the next world looks like (which complicates creating glimpses of it!). We know what truly matters – eternal good or eternal bad, reward or punishment, God or the devil. Yet these abstractions are not translated into the concrete, except in the visions of Revelation. To what extent the fire and harps and gold are symbols of final destiny, or actual components of it, is a point of theological debate. Even the literal interpretation would leave us mostly with images of the New Jerusalem, which is not quite synonymous with Heaven. By any interpretation, the next world is mostly unknown – and unimaginable.

And fiction rushes in where theologians would fear to tread. It is easier for storytellers, you know: No portrait of the afterlife can truly be the way it is, but such literal truth is not their game anyway. Writers take two different avenues to spinning out visions of the afterlife. The first is that of symbolism; the concrete pictures represent abstract truths. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis painted Hell as a city of empty streets sprawling out for thousands of miles in order to express the idea that the willful self-isolation of sin is consummated in Hell. Twilight Zone’s “Nothing in the Dark” personifies Death as a handsome young man to convey the idea that death is not a monster in the dark. In works like these, the presentation of the unknowable is true in the only way it can be – as a symbol.

Not all writers have such elevated aims. Those interested in a good story, and not transcendent spiritual truths, take the second avenue. Putting aside the quest to tell the truth about the next life, some writers take happy license to invent whatever is most expedient to plot twists, world-building, or thrills. Coco is an unusually elaborate example of this. Ghost stories provide a broad array of more simple instances. Consider the popular trope of ghosts who linger to finish some item of business, or say goodbye, or even to simply realize that they’re dead. The tellers of such stories don’t necessarily believe that dead people remain on earth seeking closure. In fact, I would wager that most of them don’t, and some don’t believe in the immortality of the soul at all. There is no actual attempt, in many stories of the afterlife, to express any truth of whatever lies on the other side of death.

Yet there is, implicit in most of these stories, a sense of journey and a sense of mystery. We don’t know where the ghosts are going when they are finally ready to leave, but they are going somewhere; we don’t know what happens when the twilight over the city of empty streets ends, or where Death is leading the old woman. Many stories affect to peer through the great veil of death, but few pretend to tear it down. We are ignorant even in our stories, and in that ignorance is mystery, and in that mystery is hope.

That is the mistake that Coco makes: It doesn’t have the saving sense of mystery, the sense of journey that could have redeemed the dreariness of the Land of the Dead. This, then, is the cardinal rule for writers who wish to tread into the next world: Leave the mystery. Never pretend to tell all.

Lorehaven’s Winter 2018 Issue Will Be Home for Christmas

Lorehaven Magazine’s fourth issue will hit cyber-stands weeks before Christmas.
| Dec 4, 2018 | No comments |

‘Tis the season to update you about our spinoff publication, Lorehaven Magazine.

We’re now three issues into this free, quarterly resource. Lorehaven finds truth in fantastic stories, thanks to creative and useful book reviews, great articles for Christian geeks and parents, and in-depth explorations of story truths and themes.

Anyone can subscribe for free. Each season you get a new magazine to download free (as a PDF). Or, as of the fall 2018 issue, you can read each article on the site.

Now, it’s beginning to look a lot like our winter 2018 issue.

Edits are wrapping this week,1 and Lorehaven Magazine’s fourth issue will hit cyber-stands weeks before Christmas.

EDIT: the issue released Dec. 12! Download your PDF copy, or read it online, with a free subscription.

That’s plenty of time to discover what Christian fantasy books our review team2 loved, and see which of these tales your family and friends might enjoy finding in the mail or under the tree this holiday season.

We’ll keep those book titles secret for now. But why not sneak over to the tree, pick up the wrapped box, and shake it a bit, just to guess at what’s inside?

Novelist Thomas Locke (courtesy Thomas Locke)

Cover story: ‘I Came to Faith, and Two Weeks Later I Started Writing’

For this story, I interviewed Thomas Locke from his home in Oxford, England. Locke has spent decades crafting fantasy and science fiction for Christian and general markets. What a fantastic conversation! We explored his testimony of faith and creative excellence. Locke also shared much about where he sees Christian creative fantasy is going (spoiler: into frontiers beyond the church stores of yesteryear).

Featured review: Enclave

Of course, we got our hands on Thomas Locke’s new novel, Enclave (Nov. 2018). We’ll have the full review exclusively in the magazine. Here on SpecFaith, watch for more behind-the-scenes trivia from Locke about the secret themes of Enclave.

Captain’s Log

This month, I discovered I haven’t been associating Christmas first with biblical images such as Nativity scenes, shepherds, and stars. …

So what images reach my imagination first? Read more of my biblical rationalizations on page 3 of the magazine.

Fanservants: Are We ‘Introverted’ Toward God?

Paeter Frandsen

Paeter Frandsen, Fanservants columnist, Lorehaven Magazine

To this day, I’m still unsure if I’m an “introvert.” Probably 55 percent of the time I feel like one, so Paeter Frandsen’s challenge for Christian geeks gently convicted me. In a very good way. I love how Paeter speaks as “one of us,” with a fanman’s enthusiasm yet a pastoral soul. Here’s how he starts his article:

I wonder if we as Christian geeks are sometimes more comfortable with God as an idea than as a person.

Granted, God is so unfathomable in so many ways that it’s easy for us to slip into thinking of him more conceptually than personally. But it can also easily become our preference to keep him at a distance. …

Fanservants: The Biblical Source of Super-Strength

Marian Jacobs

Marian Jacobs, Fanservants columnist, Lorehaven Magazine

Shortly before Lorehaven’s spring 2018 issue released, we recruited Marian Jacobs. She had written this fantastic article about fantasy for parents here on SpecFaith. Since then, she has articulated her hands-on ideas in Lorehaven. Also, my wife and I have since met her, and her husband Timothy, and their three super children.

Are superheroes real?

Our children would love to think so. …

Idolatry is never a good thing, but is there a way to teach our children to enjoy superheroes in a healthy, biblical way? …

Support from storytellers

Amidst this great content, the winter 2018 issue is overflowing with advertisements. These come from publishers and authors with stories you’ll love to explore.

They don’t pop up, buzz with viruses, or blare seventeen tips for XYZ and what happened next left them speechless. They don’t sneak dubious tracking cookies into your browser—the kind that fetch pseudo-relevant ads for that toothpaste whose name you casually mentioned yesterday within earshot of your phone.

Nope. We’ve only carefully chosen ads of specific interest to the Christian fantasy fan.3

Meanwhile, back at SpecFaith …

Lorehaven Magazine, fall 2018 issueAfter each Lorehaven issue releases, we approach authors whose books we’ve reviewed. We invite them to spend a week or so at the Lorehaven Book Clubs group on Facebook.4 We also invite these authors to pitch a guest article here at SpecFaith. Lately we’ve spotted these star creatives:

2019 and beyond

Finally, we ask you to put several requests on your prayer-wish list for next year. Please pray for:

  • Even better and more beautiful books to review in new issues.
  • Amazing authors whose tales we can share with new fans.
  • Ways to take Lorehaven into churches, classes, cons, and beyond.
  • Divine protection from temptation, false teaching, and other ills.
  • Our hard-working staff, their families, and all their creative works!
  • Us to meet this unspoken need for great stories among Christians.

Finally, pray Lorehaven will even help to resurrect all Christian-made stories—not just in churches or niche stores, but in the hearts of Jesus’s people.

  1. Shout-out to the Lorehaven editorial team, including editor Elijah David, review chief Austin Gunderson, and layout designer Jane Hammer.
  2. Shout-out also to our fantastical review team, which as of the winter 2018 issue includes Avily Jerome, Elizabeth Kaiser, Shannon McDermott, Audie Thacker, and Phyllis Wheeler.
  3. Aspiring Lorehaven advertisers, start here. You’ll reach ads manager Zac Totah, who’s also been a prolific writer right here on SpecFaith.
  4. Another shout-out goes to novelist Steve Rzasa, Lorehaven’s book clubs coordinator, for his worldbuilding efforts here!

Truth Or Reality In Fantasy

We are drawn to the truth, to the clear explanation that there is a good ruler, a right way, a guardian-king, and we can side with him.

Recently I read an article at Tor.com, “The World is a Weird, Dark Place — Fantasy Helps Us Make Sense of It,” by Jonathan Robb, that sparked my thinking about truth and reality in fantasy. In the article Robb praised the works of George R. R. Martin, first by giving his own history with fantasy. He was introduced at a young age to C. S. Lewis and the world of Narnia, then went on to J. R. R. Tolkien and other established fantasy writers. The thread he saw which these books all shared was their good versus evil trope.

However, as he grew older, he realized that the world around him did not fall into the neat camps of good and evil. “Good people” could let someone down and “evil people” could do heroic things.

As shades of grey entered my real world, my fantasy worlds started to suffer for it. I continued to digest authors of similar ilk to Eddings—David Gemmell, Raymond E. Feist, and Robert Jordan—those writers who adhered to the familiar rules of fantasy. In their universes there was always a dark lord, or dark army, to pit oneself against. It was pretty clear—the heroes usually just needed to attack the evil-looking creatures of the night attempting to kill the innocent villages in order to win the day.

But this no longer squared with what I was exposed to in the real world. Those identifiable attributes that marked someone as Good or Evil simply didn’t hold up. No one could live up to the title of hero—so that either meant there were no heroes, or it was far more complicated than I’d been led to believe.

Along came George R. R. Martin and his world in Game of Thrones that seemed to reflect the Tor writer’s own understanding of the world: good and evil aren’t actually cut and dried.

Fantasy has always helped me understand the world, from the metaphors it employs, to the parallels with our own world, to the thoughtful exploration of its themes—one of the most important being the struggle between good and evil. . . I’m thankful, too, to the worlds of George R.R. Martin for helping me understand the profound depths and messiness of the same concepts, and that being a hero or a villain is never that straightforward—a realization that’s surprisingly reassuring, in the end.

Writers often hear instruction that characters in fiction, even the villains, need some redeeming qualities, because reality shows us there aren’t characters of pure evil or pure good.

Even in Christian fiction, the cry seems to be for fiction that reflects reality, even when the story is supernatural or science fiction or fantasy. The reality factor is the idea that the story reflects the world as we know it in some way. And certainly what we know is something of an odd mixture of good and evil, as Jonathan Robb noted in his article. There are no Mordors run by evil-eye rulers that hold the world under its control by making war on Gondor There are no Rangers who roam the world to fight for the right and protect the hapless hobbits who are clueless of the conflict raging around them.

Or are there?

In truth, the fantasies that show the fight between good and evil are less apt to depict reality as we see it, and more apt to depict truth as we know it from Scripture—the truth of the spiritual world.

From this perspective, George R. R. Martin may be writing the reality we are familiar with, but is he neglecting the truth that defines the world? Why does this matter?

For one thing, fantasy readers—Jonathan Robb included—resonate with the truth that there is good and evil and that there is a war between these opposing factors. Young readers may not know or care that the “black and white” of the world they are seeing represents a world inside their hearts, and a war raging in the spiritual realm. They just know they “get it,” that they want to be on the side of the good, that they understand what’s at stake for the world if the evil should win.

I believe that’s no less than the eternity God has set in our hearts or as others have phrased it, the God-shaped vacuum in each of us. We are drawn to the truth, to the clear explanation that there is a good ruler, a right way, a guardian-king, and we can side with him.

But writing fantasy and supernatural that cares more about reality than truth, changes the paradigm and brings up a series of questions. Does fantasy always reflect the spiritual world? Should supernatural suspense always reflect the truth presented in the Bible? How does an emphasis on reality affect our view of the truth?

For instance I read a book this past year in which a character found a portal into hell which she entered to bring a character she didn’t think belonged there back to this world, even at the risk of being trapped there herself. Was there truth in this story? Was there even reality? Or was this simply a story about pretend people in pretend places doing pretend things?

If the latter, has that type of fiction lost a grip on both reality and on truth?

I find it interesting that in a world in which most people believe humans are good, the books (and TV programs) that have become so popular are the ones that show good people doing rotten things or evil people doing noble deeds. Instead of ascribing to the Bible’s explanation, that we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God, however, we simply excuse or dismiss or blame others for the evil that we see in all of us. We like the anti-hero because he gets the job done. We chastise the good guy for his failure—he should have stayed the course, but in the end, he let us down. Not because he’s evil. Clearly he wasn’t or we would not have believed him to be a good guy at first.

In short, the lines have become blurred between evil and good, and the public seems to like it so.

How are Christians to respond? Some people would suggest that we should stop consuming fantasy and supernatural fiction. Some say fiction is nothing but entertainment and a discussion about reality and truth has no place when talking about any type of speculative fiction. Others might conclude that Christians have an opportunity to make a statement by our viewing or reading habits and by our writing, to hold the line for truth: actual good and actual evil exist.

In the great fantasies, truth and reality merge. Perhaps today we have learned to settle for one or the other instead of looking for stories, or writing stories, that accomplish both.

My Hero Academia: True Heroics in a Quirky World

My Hero Academia doesn’t just pit heroes versus villains, but seriously explores the nature of true heroism.
Audie Thacker | Nov 30, 2018 | 10 comments |

It’s a bit strange that the main character in a blockbuster anime series is a freckle-faced boy with curly green hair who cries a lot. Strange, yes, and yet My Hero Academia is simply one of the more compelling stories around today.

My Hero Academia is set in the present day, but with one difference from the real world: quirks. At the time the story begins, 80 percent of the world’s population has some form of quirk, something like a genetic mutation that makes them different from the formerly normal, quirkless people, giving them special abilities or changing them physically.

Midoriya Izuku, a young boy not yet in high school, is one of that decreasing number of people born quirkless. This has been a major obstacle in the way of his dream of becoming a superhero like his idol, All Might, Japan’s number one hero. But when All Might sees Midoriya’s heroic heart in action, despite Midoriya being quirkless, he tells the boy a secret; All Might himself was born quirkless, but was given a special quirk, one that can be passed along from one person to another, and All Might has decided that Midoriya will be the person to whom All Might will pass the quirk.

Midoriya enrolls in UA, Japan’s most prestigious high school designed to train heroes and those who support them. But school life for heroes in training isn’t just about hitting the books. Midoriya and his classmates are not just tested by school events, but also in serious ways in the real world as they learn more and more about what being a true hero really means.

My Hero Academia: season 1

The story of the fight

I’ll sometimes find a story, usually a movie, with lots of action and conflict but that still feels flat. There may be lots of gunfire, chase scenes, aliens shooting lasers, people about to fall to their deaths, and so on. But as a viewer, none of this seems to matter.

Maybe I’m being unfair, but it’s rather as if the conflicts are inserted into the story simply because that’s what the formula calls for.

My Hero Academia is a story with no shortage of fight scenes. But one thing the author does well, and which is well translated into the anime, is that almost every fight serves to develop some or all of the characters involved.

For example, one significant battle early in the series occurs during the UA Sports Festival, a match between Midoriya and his classmate Todoroki. The story focuses on Todoroki, a boy whose powerful quirk combines the quirks of both his parents. But he grew up in a family shattered by his father’s bitterness and ambitions, so he has decided to not use the part of his quirk he inherited from his father. His internal conflict plays a big part in his fight with Midoriya, and the match reveals a lot about both characters.

What is a hero?

So far, My Hero Academia has focused on the question: What is a hero?

Midoriya sees All Might as the ideal to follow. All Might is a hero who saves people while always wearing a smile, and who inspires hope in those he helps and in everyone who sees him. But at UA, Midoriya has met other heroes with very different personalities. Teese include Eraserhead, his class’s teacher, who is brooding and sometimes sarcastic, but who will fight his hardest when he thinks his students are in danger; Endeavor, an angry and sullen man whose ambitions have left his family a wreck; and the Wild Wild Pussycats, a group that focuses on rescuing people who get in trouble in the forest.

Although the series focuses mainly on battles–either between students or between heroes and criminals–it also emphasizes the less glamorous but still important aspect of rescuing people after disasters, and treats those rescue heroes respectfully.

But this world of heroes also has its questionable side. Since heroism is a career, heroes have to think about how to make a living being a hero. So their society places a lot of stress on popularity polls and public perception. To some extent, this theme stays constant in the series, but it becomes the biggest source of conflict in the brief but intense arc involving Hero Killer Stain.

Stain wages a one-man crusade to clean up hero society. His views can be summed up in his own words from episode 28:

“Hero is a title given only to those who have accomplished great deeds. There are too many … too many who act like heroes but are really money-worshippers.”

My Hero Academia: Hero Killer StainStain targets heroes he considers to be unworthy of the name. When Midoriya and a couple of his classmates face off against Stain, the conflict is as much about questions of how heroes should act as it is the physical combat.

The only real hero

Hero-worship is something that is common, but is also very much a problem. There’s an old Christian rock classic, Steve Taylor’s Hero, that does well in telling us the problem:

Heroes died when the squealers bought ’em off
Died when the dealers got ’em off
Welcome to the “in it for the money as an idol” show
When they ain’t as big as life
When they ditch their second wife
Where’s the boy to go?1

There are things we can say about Christ that, while they may be true, they can be said in ways that make them shallow and vacuous. To say that “Jesus is my hero” is one of those things. It is true, but left to itself it’s just trite, an empty phrase that appears spiritual but says nothing, and can be about as silly as Sonseed singing “Jesus is a Friend of Mine.”

It’s only if a person takes that phrase, and fills it in with the reasons why it is true, that the phrase becomes more than a bit of thoughtless nonsense.

We were in serious trouble, we were dead in our sins, we were enemies of God, we were hopeless, and we were unable to do anything to help ourselves. We had broken every command God had given to us, we had sinned time and time again.

At the right time, God the Father sent Jesus, God the Son, into the world, born of a virgin. Jesus lived his life perfectly, sinlessly keeping all of God’s laws. His death was the atoning sacrifice for our sins, a sacrificial death he died even when we were still sinners. What we could not do for ourselves, make ourselves clean from our sins and save ourselves from the just judgment of Hell, Christ has done of us and offers to us freely, as a gift.

This is how we can take the triteness out of the phrase, “Jesus is my hero,” and see the great and serious aspects of it. Jesus is our Savior, he is our Lord, he is our salvation, he is our redeemer and rescuer. In the grand story of the world’s history, a story that paints in blindingly bold colors the realities of original sin and man’s fallenness, Jesus is the only hero.

Conclusion

Although My Hero Academia does at times slip in some not-so-good stuff, like occasional fanservice, this story has turned out to be an excellent series. The story showcases a good mix of humor and light moments, while also able to bring sufficient weight when the story calls for it. The manga is well ahead of the anime series, and since the anime is on a bit of a pause for a few months to prepare for the next season, it’s likely the anime will continue for quite a while longer. I’ll give it a very strong recommendation.

  1. Lyrics from the website Sock Heaven.

Speculative Fiction Writers Guide to War, part 12: Military Training Types

The military training of hereditary warrior castes, barbarians, paid professional soldiers, draftees, militias, and levies have varied. Use these types of training in your stories–or use knowledge of them to stand tropes on their head.

Travis P here. Our last post on this topic looked at the military training for the very best warriors in both fiction in reality–and please note when we say “best” we mean the most capable, especially able to fight no matter the circumstances, and the most able to resist the psychological pressures of war that cause soldiers to fail to perform when they need to do so. (“Best” in this context is definitely not directly equivalent to “most moral.”)

It’s never been true that every warrior has been elite–historically, a great many nations have lacked the time, money, or knowledge to train any soldier to the highest possible level. And among those nations able to train elite troops, it simply hasn’t been normal to train every last warrior to the highest level. Even the Romans, who hold the record of any historic civilization in terms of the percentage of its population it put in arms, who also adopted a great deal of standardized training in an attempt to make every member of its legions elite relative to other militaries of its time, had its Praetorian Guard. Even the Romans had elite troops who were better than all the rest.

Further posts will build from our base of discussing training to talk about how nations form and supply armies, and how the “supply side” of producing warriors affects how a nation, or a demi-human race, or even an alien species fights battles. We will also talk about types of warriors by weapon and the battle formations they use in more detail, as well as differences between land-centric military forces and those oriented toward naval, aerial, and other domain combat. But for now, let’s stick with observations about types of warriors based on their training. I’d say there are 3 different kinds of warriors by training type with a couple of subtypes each (speaking as generally as I can):

A. Cultural Warriors: Everything they know about fighting they learn from infancy.

Hereditary Warriors. Credit: Travis Perry

  1. Hereditary warrior castes–paid (professional) cultural warriors: Formal military training is passed down from father to son or is arranged by paid professionals or skilled slaves. Note that unlike barbarians, these warriors require other social classes/castes in their same society to provide them with food and material goods. Samurai, medieval knights, and Spartans were all hereditary warriors–though the Spartans have the distinction of requiring every free male to be a hereditary warrior (Spartan helots–slaves–provided labor to grow the food and produce the goods Spartans needed to survive). Note that being a hereditary warrior has often been tied to land ownership in the historic past. A certain parcel of land sufficient to supply the food and equipment needs of the warriors was under the stewardship and control of the same warriors (payment was rarely in currency). A special type of warrior caste were various slave warriors, like the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire. These slaves would be raised from childhood to fight, but would lack the status in their society that samurai or medieval knights were privileged with (and would not control the land used to meet their supply needs).

    Barbarian warriors. Credit: Travis Perry

  2. Barbarians (or tribal)–unpaid (non-professional) cultural warriors: Nobody in the society receives any formal military training per se, but everyone lives in a harsh environment, where survival is difficult. Everyday life constitutes a type of training–whereas samurai and knights went hunting largely to practice weapon skills that are useful in combat, barbarians hunt to stay alive. And while Spartans and Starship Troopers might spend time in a wilderness area to pass survival skills training, barbarians live in harsh areas every day. Barbarians do engage in various contests of strength and types of play combat with one another, but their training lacks scientific principles of formal study. Think of the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, our cultural representation of the sea-going Danes and Vikings of Scandinavia, and many Germanic tribes of the Roman era.

B. Paid Professionals: Fighting is a profession they learn and improve after joining the military. They serve for a pre-designated period of time and are usually paid in currency.

Roman volunteer professional soldiers. Credit: about-history.com

  1. Volunteer professionals who may or may not see military service as a lifelong career: Formal military training is usually involved and generally happens in adulthood or late teen years. Training is generally well-designed, so paid professional soldiers are usually quite capable–though in fact the quality of these soldiers vary greatly from nation to nation, with poor nations generally unable to give any but a tiny minority of their force quality training. The Roman Empire is well-known for employing this technique, using tax revenues to pay the salaries of its legionnaires. (Note that at one time, roughly 1/8th of all men in the Roman Empire were in the military–which is the highest percentage of paid professional warriors of any historic society). Starship Troopers also portrays a volunteer military made of paid professionals, though they were motivated more by patriotism than pay. Voluntary professionals exist across a spectrum of motivations ranging from pure altruism/patriotism with little concern for rewards all the way to the base mercenary fighting, voluntarily, for pay with no care for the specific cause.
  2. Conscripts (draftees): Like volunteer professionals, conscripts

    US Army draftees at Fort Dix during the 1960s. (Photo by Leif Skoogfors/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

    usually receive formal training after joining the military, even though they don’t volunteer. At times conscript training has been very basic, but at other times is identical to the training the volunteers get. Conscripts are forced to serve spend time in the military as paid professionals for a limited period of time, often 1-2 years, but sometimes more (or less even). Conscripts have always been known to be less motivated and generally less well-trained that paid volunteer professional soldiers. But at the very least, all of them receive some formal training.

C. Part-time Soldiers: Generally only enter active service during a war or national crisis. May or may not be paid.

US Colonial Militia Reenactors. Credit: US National Parks Service

  1. Militias/Reserves: Militias at times have usually consisted of volunteers, but at times have consisted of every able-bodied person who can fight (usually men). Militias/Reserves may not receive any formal military training, though usually they do receive some, but their training is generally less thorough than full-time professionals, who essentially are paid to prepare themselves for war. Militia units at times have consisted of aged veterans or other persons disqualified from service in a professional military due to age or disability. Called up during emergencies or war, militia or reserve members usually are paid while they are serving.
  2. Medieval (and other) Levies: Levies were required to fight by obligation, such as duties to a medieval lord, and usually fought only for the duration of a war or for a fixed period each year, and generally served without pay (though their food and other sustenance might be supplied during wartime). They usually received informal military training that was usually not very good or no training at all. (But on occasion levies were quite well-trained.) Often were responsible for supplying their own weapons.

    Medieval warriors at the Battle of Crecy, including hereditary knights, levies of bowmen, and mercenary crossbowmen. Public domain image by Jean Froissart.

Note some of the differences in the types of training these soldiers undergo relate to issues that themselves don’t directly relate to training. It’s tough to have a paid professional force in a society in which wealth is tied to land ownership or ownership of other property and taxes over goods and services are not the primary source of government funding. While medieval societies at times were able to hire professional warriors (usually mercenaries hired for short-term needs), the organization of the society made it easier to have the warriors occupy a permanent class, where participation in warfare was expected of them from childhood to death. And of course, barbarians, like the Mongolians Genghis Khan united under his command, did not have a wide base of social classes to support warriors–instead, every Mongolian knew at least a little about war.

If we ask where the Klingons of Star Trek fall in this set of warriors, they share the most traits in common with A2. For them, war is part of their culture, something they celebrate full-time, and is not reserved only for one social class. However, from time to time Star Trek introduces a Klingon who is not a full-time warrior, such as ones who are scientists or lawyers (yet these Klingons still have a warlike mentality). So in some ways, their warriors do form a caste. So Klingons falls somewhere between A1 and A2.

In contrast, the values of individual determination that the Federation cherishes causes it to be a B1 society. But note that the Cardassians of Star Trek have a very pro-military society, yet those who serve are still volunteers who become paid professionals–so their training is type B1, just like the Federation, even though their society is much more militaristic.

Note that ancient Israel mostly fought with levies, especially at first (C2). But the kings of Israel (and Judah) eventually became a permanent warrior caste (A1)–though at times, these kings hired mercenaries from outside Israel (B1). Many other societies have also had complex mixes of warriors the way ancient Israel did.

Societies have layers of ways they drill warriors that relate not just to training philosophies, but stem from their economics and their cultural attitudes about warfare.

Travis C here with some considerations for authors as you map out your story world as well as some illustrations for this topic. Westerners in the 20th and 21st century are familiar with the concept of paid professional soldiers as our modern militaries have evolved into stable organizations. Many of us come from nations where service is a respected profession, with sufficient tax structures and national desire to have standing military forces, and the cultural expectations of how our armies are organized, trained, and utilized have become stable. Soldiering is both art and science, with significant effort spent to ensure a robust, capable, versatile force exists to defend national interests and respond in times of crisis (through use of force and other non-combative means too).

The ingredients to get here were not always present and authors need to evaluate the credibility of their worldbuilding in that light. It’s not that well-trained forces can’t exist in levied/conscript environments, but it would be an exceptional case and in need of justification to make such a story plausible. Let’s look at two examples from the current media, in two very different genres, that highlight some of these challenges.

The Last Kingdom portraying battle. Photo credit: www.gq.com

I don’t know about you, but I’m excited for season 3 of The Last Kingdom as it gets ready to launch. The series follows a Saxon-turned-Dane-turned-back-to-Saxon man, Uhtred, as England comes into being as a unified nation in the late 800’s. King Alfred the Great sits on the throne, not without controversy and with plenty of enemies. We witness the friction between Uhtred trying to reclaim his Saxon birthright while honoring his Danish upbringing and King Alfred trying to unite a fractured people whilst dealing with an invading force of Danes.

Season 1 shows us the complex arrangement of nobles, King, and arrayed foes. Alfred desires to unite the kingdoms of England through his own kingship in Wessex. A man who studies history and thinks logically, he organizes Wessex into individual burhs under the leadership of an ealdorman (earl) who is charged with martial obligations to Alfred. On command, each earlman is required to produce a fyrd, or levy, of soldiers to defend against invading forces. The ealdormen are also responsible for the repair of fortresses, bridges, and other military service. If any refuse, they must pay the king a tax and, for landowners, forfeiture of their lands.

King Alfred must contend with the men like Odda the Elder (a real-life person) who controls the largest fyrd in Wessex and must be convinced to assemble his men against the Danish foe while his younger son desires to reach a peace with the same Danes. In order for the fyrd to assemble, political maneuvering and mutual alignment of interests are needed.

The fyrd itself has limited training and is clearly not ready to engage in combat with the barbarian culture of the sea-going Danes (something like the A1/A2 culture Travis P described earlier). Uhtred’s unique knowledge of Danish tactics and strategy come into the story as he trains the Wessex soldiers to use similar practices against their foes. We see the ealdormen resist him, but ultimately the value of this dedicated training is seen in future Wessex victories on the battlefield.

Author Bernard Cornwell and the television producers do an excellent job of mixing fact and fiction to show us the consequences of a fledgling nation trying to organize military forces against a compelling foe and dealing with limited resources. The distinction between Danish culture, warrior traditions and preparedness, is in stark contrast to the Anglo-Saxon people and the beginnings of feudal society.

Fast forward to the future and interstellar travel via the Skip Drive and we have the setting for John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. I picked this example because of the unique take on how an army is formed and trained. Instead of the typical young recruit getting drawn into the military and trained from an early age, the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) are drawn only from the elderly. Those age 65 have DNA samples drawn and sign away two years of their lives to serve in the CDF in exchange for the opportunity to enjoy a life homesteading on one of our colonized planets. Why? Because the CDF needs people who have gained decades of experience to transfer into genetically-engineered, combat-enhanced bodies to fight against the aliens who also desire the same resources we are seeking on those colonized planets.

Image credit: Amazon.com

Scalzi was nominated for a Hugo Award for Old Man’s War and received praise for upending some of the genre’s tropes when it comes to military fiction in a sci-fi setting. In speculative fiction we have the ability to create environments that take what we know, like our historical understanding of how armies are formed and trained, and potentially rearrange the pieces to logically fit into our stories with reasonable justification. In fantasy settings, it may be common for only the youngest magic-users to enter military service due to their strength, stamina, and freshness. Maybe it’s the opposite, where only the seasoned thaumaturge is valued since they have a long list of experiences. In a futuristic setting with different resources and societal demands, maybe patriotism and good pay aren’t enough to ensure a steady supply of soldiers and other motivations need to be considered.

The range of possibilities is endless. Military functions will always exist when things are not right and something needs to be done about it, regardless of the cause of that set of circumstances. Characters may be motivated by self-determination, national conscious, a hive mind, a bag of silver, or a desire for the adventure just outside the door. In any case, the author needs to evaluate how to best align their entry into service with the degree and types of training they receive.

The Lesser of Two Evils?

Evil cannot defeat evil; it can only replace it.
| Nov 28, 2018 | 8 comments |

I’ve pretty much sworn off seeing comic book movies in theaters anymore (though I will rent them on DVD). However, my wife uncharacteristically insisted that we go see the new Venom movie, her sole reason being that it was a box office hit in her home country of China and she was curious to see what all the hubbub was about. I was hesitant at first because the reviews were hardly stellar, but I’m a big Tom Hardy fan so I decided to give it a shot.

Image copyright Sony Pictures

Overall, I’m glad I did. Tom Hardy’s performance was very entertaining, and I found it refreshing that his character wasn’t the typical bullied-in-school-and-then-gets-a-superpower-and-becomes-awesome trope. The movie isn’t anything spectacular but it made for a fun afternoon. Below are some minor spoilers so if you haven’t yet seen Venom and plan to soon, please read no further.

Venom did a great job of making a villainous character as sympathetic as possible while making it crystal clear that it is still a villain. In most superhero films, the central character has a mission – a disaster to avert or a bad guy to defeat. In Venom, Tom Hardy spends most of his time trying to work out an equilibrium with the monstrous entity that has taken over his body. Destruction ensues, good guys get killed, heads get bitten off, and Tom Hardy wants nothing more than to be rid of this “parasite” as he calls it. He doesn’t go crazy or become drunk with power and “cross over to the Dark Side.” He tries to convince Venom to tread as lightly as possible, with mixed results. Only in the last half hour does another adversary show up, a stronger alien called Riot (these creatures must get their names from punk rock bands). Riot wants to bring back a horde of hungry critters and consume the Earth, while Venom, who is admittedly a “loser” on its home planet, realizes that it can be a big shot on our planet, but that means that the human race must survive in order for it to be at the top of food chain. Thus, Venom’s and Riot’s interests clash and the battle for the human race ensues, though the motives for each side are dubious.

I’m reminded of a quote from The Chronicles of Riddick, spoken by Dame Judy Dench’s character: In normal times, evil would be fought with good. But in times like these, well, it should be fought by another kind of evil.” Hollywood likes pitting two evils against each other, and the “good guy” is the one with the quantifiably less evil motives. In the case of Venom and Riot, Venom just wants to eat people here and there (and only “bad guys” as Tom Hardy insists at the end of the film) while Riot wants to eat everyone. Thus, we are supposed to cheer for Venom. The lesser of two evils is the hero and the greater is the villain, because every conflict has to have a hero and a villain.

Does this notion translate into real life? Occasionally, though with hardly the same dramatic flair. During World War II, the New York Mafia took control of the ports in the interest of “national security,” though this arrangement greatly increased their illicit profits. Was national security protected? Perhaps, though it would hard to argue that the Mafia’s involvement was a good thing. There are numerous examples in history when an oppressed people or country turned to an outlaw tyrant to save them from their current tyrant, and things just go from bad to worse.

That’s the thing about evil: it’s always evil. And evil is ultimately selfish, hateful, and cruel. Evil cannot defeat evil; it can only replace it. Rom. 12:21 tells us to overcome evil with good. Nowhere in Scripture does evil supplant evil with good results. When confronted with a great evil, we should not cheer for another opposing yet still evil force, even if the promised results sound appealing. We should know that in the end, Venom is still the villain.