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Then and Now, AKA She Who Walked Away From CSF… and What Would Bring Her Back

Change looks to be good. That small vision the CBA had when it came to SF is now irrelevant to me, the reader; but it cheers me to see more fantasy (even if it’s mostly YA) flying off their presses.
| Feb 14, 2014 | 40 comments |

MirtikaStep back with me to 2006 and 2007:

I was the Friday Femme here on Speculative Faith, a site I helped to found. Oh, that was a fun year, 2006. Lots of us who had met online through blogs or through chatting it up on the ACFW forum on the subject of Christian Speculative Fiction (CSF), we who were aching to see the CBA address our reader wants and needs, we who were writing CSF and seeking to define it more clearly, we who were passionate about the SF genre. Yeah, a great sort of simmering summer gave birth to this website. Our little group also got the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour going. Those two years blazed: I was editing and writing with fire in my soul. I won the SF category in the ACFW’s Genesis Contest. I was blogging furiously on matters of reading SF, writing SF, loving SF, SF art, SF poetry. I edited CSF at the defunct DRAGONS, KNIGHTS & ANGELS webzine, then at MINDFLIGHTS, another CSF-friendly webzine. Oh, and I won two short story contests, one poetry contest, and I had a Rhysling nominated poem, too.

Then, I walked away.

I stopped writing. I stopped reading CSF, pretty much, except for what I was editing. Naturally, there were some exceptions, but not many.

What happened? Specifically, what happened to me as a reader?  And I would ask: has this happened to you as well? Did you self-exile from CSF? Were you disappointed by the offerings from the CBA?

Part of my disenchantment came from realizing that the CBA continued to be pretty hostile to most SF, and many agents outright stated they’d not consider clients who wrote CSF. (And yes, I know the term CBA is archaic, but I continue to use it to mean the Christian publishing establishment, as separate from the ABA.)

firebird coverThe rest of my disillusionment—most, to be honest—was born from a fundamental realization: I was not enjoying, was not even finishing, most of the books we were promoting, blogging about, and supporting. Those CSF books coming out from CBA publishers bored me. Minority characters were nearly non-existent, as if the church were devoid of any but the white and the Western. The emphasis on YA books left me out quite often. Some novels/series were fun—FIREBIRD, THE BIRTHRIGHT PROJECT, RESTORER, to name three. And some others were quite good reads, but I felt the wonder was mostly lacking. Sometimes, I’d find a skilled writer telling a tale of wonder with a Biblical heart was pretty much an outcast to the CBA because of A or B. Example: 2007’s  WIND FOLLOWER by Carole McDonnell. Inspired in part by some Old Testament familial conflicts, it includes rape and marital conjugal situations. Yeah, that goes over well with the CBA. Never mind Tamar and never mind Solomon and his harem.

So, that was it. Boredom. Didn’t find the quality up-to-snuff when I compared it to what I was reading in the ABA.

I was not alone. I found that out later, though.

This week I asked some simple questions and some readers of CSF answered. Here are snippets of their responses to me on this subject:

“Up until just a couple of years ago (maybe 2010?) I had pretty much given up on Christian speculative fiction. Christian fiction had lost my trust.

It is only recently that it’s starting to gain it back. And not because of anything I’ve seen in the CBA. It’s because of solid storytellers like Mike Duran, Ashley Bazer, Kat Heckenbach, Jill Domschot and Robynn Tolbert. Even some of the more overtly Christian stories, like ones by Kevin Newsome and Ellen C. Maze, I really enjoyed.

The Christian fiction establishment (CBA) isn’t changing enough to really impress me.”

~

“What I’ve noticed is that it’s taken authors publishing outside the CBA to get stuff out there that I enjoy reading. The “spec fic” being published within the CBA feels too much like standard CBA fiction, but with swords and dragons!

I have very little hope that the CBA will embrace real spec-fic. Not the kind that appeals to true geeks. But I also don’t think sending it all to the secular market will work either. I, personally, think a new field needs to emerge. A truly Christian Spec-Fic market all its own. A place where faith meets weird, and authors have the freedom to explore both Christianity in an overt way and to write the kinds of stories real sf/f geeks want to read.”

~

“I grew very dissatisfied with Christian spec fic long ago. I like that I don’t have to wade through a bunch of junk with Christian sf – such as language, world views that I find distasteful (or worse), but I don’t like that so many stories felt like thinly disguised preaching. Yeah, yeah – same ol’ record, I know.

What I’d like to see is just a good story, written by someone with a worldview that doesn’t glorify things that well, shouldn’t be glorified (the story can contain them but there’s a difference between being real and glorifying garbage – and I think you know what I mean by that). No preaching, just a doggoned good story.

And perhaps they’re out there. But I haven’t read any CBA in years, so I don’t know what’s out there right now. I only know what turned me off to buying CBA SF.”

~

The recent publication of Patrick Carr’s The Staff and the Sword series gives me hope that good epic fantasy is making a comeback. I also enjoy reading Mike Duran. He doesn’t shy away from the dark and difficult. I hope this trend continues. Reading about perfect people gets boring. Reading about heroes who have faith, yet fail, gives me hope that I might yet find something heroic within myself.

~

Regarding Christian Spec fic, I think that many novels fall into the typical “end times prophecy” formula, or the “bible story fantasy allegory,” which is boring and repetitive. I’d rather more creative and original dystopian and sci-fi stories. More stories on how Christians would cope living in dystopian society or on another planet – the choices they would make. I have a really hard time with Christian spec fic, as I’m not into angels, and I am sick of the imitations of the Left Behind books. I just don’t read much of it anymore. Sorry to be so negative, but there it is!

~

I’ve noticed the development of a lot of Christian spec fic indie presses. It’s opened a whole new world of “cafes” with their own brands of gourmet coffee–some offering a better cup than others.

My personal favorite is Splashdown. I like Grace’s sense of whimsy, but nothing too light and frothy—hints of rich darkness, too. That is something I’ve noticed with a lot of Christian spec fic. Even the dark stories don’t feel as tortured to me as they might. Dark, but palatable—as though the authors have cleansed souls or something (imagine that). It’s not even the content I’m talking about. I don’t need clean content. It’s the spirit of the work. I loved P.A. Baines. I want to know where his second book is. I have loved Kevin Newsome and, of course, Kat Heckenbach, though YA isn’t my personal favorite.

~

I think the best thing about Christian spec-fic is that it’s moving away from being message-driven.  Before I started reading it, I’d been told that too often it was often Christians vs. The World (the Scientist, The Whatever). Now, the plots are more complex as are the characters and situations. Christianity is, in many cases, simply a defining aspect of the character, much like in secular fantasy, the hero might follow a made-up god or goddess and it’s part of who that person is.

~

Back to Me: These sentiments mirror my own.

Look, I read SF above all for that sense of wonder. Sometimes, I’m after mental stimulation. Sometimes, I’m after some really cool social or religious or psychological or supernatural ideas working themselves out in a skillfully crafted story. I like weird. I like unexpected. I don’t expect a theology lesson in my SF, unless it’s passed on organically, beautifully, even surprisingly. I like pretty, writerly writing. I cannot bear to wade through clunky or lackluster prose. I’ve read SF since the ‘70s. Know what that means? That old hat ideas presented with just as old a chapeau of execution do not work for me. I get bored. Fast.

So, I left. Pretty quietly.

Then the publishing revolution happened while I was gone. I kept one eye on part of it–Marcher Lord Press. I kept the other eye on the other part, one that was even more interesting: the Amazon behemoth’s platform for independent publishers. I kept a hand in judging contests until 2010 or so, and one of the entries was polished and snappy and good. I thought, “This will see print.” And it has.  By a CBA publisher. And readers like it.

Change looks to be good. That small vision the CBA had when it came to SF is now irrelevant to me, the reader; but it cheers me to see more fantasy (even if it’s mostly YA) flying off their presses.

Yes, things are hotting up all over.

I’m excited to see what will be produced sans gatekeepers. Will we finally see our new Nebula-level Christian storytellers set free from CBA constrictions as they self-publish and give us the delights and wonders we have been waiting for–dazzling stories written with unique voices that aren’t afraid to push boundaries while maintaining a Christian heart and spirit? Our next generation of Gene Wolfes and Connie Willises and R.A. Laffertys and Dean Koontzes?

Yes, I think we just might. There’s no one to say NO now.  Writers can’t be stopped at the gate anymore. And if the talent is there, self-published or small-press published, we have to make sure to seek it. Someone will find it and tell us, be it on Twitter or Facebook or Goodreads or other emerging places.  Be it HERE, on this site, in enthusiastic reviews. We should look for them. We should tell each other when they show up. Pass the good word. The reader is now the caller at the gate.

This is not 2006. I am heartened. The revolution we wanted to see in the CBA will happen, is happening, just not where we imagined it must happen. We can’t be snobs who think only legacy publishers have the goods.

These are exciting times for readers (and writers) of Christian Speculative Fiction. I think we can come back now, with hope. We don’t have to be exiles. Keep your eyes open. Tell me when you spot something that will rock my world.  Comment with your recommendations and tell me WHY I should read it, WHY it’s fresh, and WHY it’s as good as anything in the ABA. Don’t just post links or books names. Gimme a reason. Tell me why you’re passionate.

I’m listening. Again.

After all, it’s St. Valentine’s Day. A good day to rekindle love, even for a subgenre.

~~~

Finding-Angel-coverFor those interested, here are AMAZON LINKS to books/authors mentioned or recommended by those who responded to my questions:

http://www.amazon.com/Mike-Duran/e/B0041XH5R8/

http://www.amazon.com/Keven-Newsome/e/B00539FFXK/

http://www.amazon.com/Kat-Heckenbach/e/B0042QM3YO/

http://www.amazon.com/Robynn-Tolbert/e/B007YQ9Q9O/

http://www.amazon.com/Ashley-Hodges-Bazer/e/B0091ZNAGQ/

http://www.amazon.com/Jill-Domschot/e/B00COADHAO/

http://www.amazon.com/Ellen-C-Maze/e/B002YWH2TY/

www.amazon.com/Patrick-W.-Carr/e/B00B6CP650/

http://www.amazon.com/P.A.-Baines/e/B004FUEAPC/

http://www.amazon.com/Carole-McDonnell/e/B0034Q3BWG/

http://www.splashdownbooks.com/

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R. L. Copple
Member

Well put, Mir. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.
 

Kessie Carroll
Member

I don’t read much science fiction, but I love fantasy. Have you happened across Rebecca Minor’s Windrider books? A grouchy, snarky elf captain get his own dragon, but only at the behest of a prophetess who is a spoof of preachy Christian characters. She’s overbearing and stuck up and both of them are totally endearing. Not to mention the rest of the cast! Her prequel series, starting with Curse Bearer, is almost as good and I mostly recommend it because Culduin is awesome. And hot.
So yeah, that’s my fan geekery for the day.
 

Austin Gunderson
Member

“I read SF above all for that sense of wonder … I like unexpected. I don’t expect a theology lesson in my SF, unless it’s passed on organically, beautifully, even surprisingly. I like pretty, writerly writing. I cannot bear to wade through clunky or lackluster prose.”

Amen.  Delight isn’t a fringe benefit of reading — it’s the crux of the pursuit.  If I read a story because it’s “good for me,” then that story has utterly failed.  Fiction is an art, a song of syntax, a delicate dance of diction, not a three-point sermon.  Nor still is it a formula to get readers interested in a sermon.  If a story’s to pierce my heart then it must first germinate in the writer’s heart.  Its language must be emotional, not merely mental.  I must feel it.  And no one can tell me to experience an emotion; it’ll happen organically or not at all.

It’s brainbreaking work to craft a story that transfers one’s emotions into another’s heart.  And any writer of fiction who isn’t ready to break his brain for that end needs to reevaluate his priorities.

Literaturelady
Guest
Literaturelady

Great post!  I also look for well-written, wondrous fantasy stories–and finding one is like hitting an oasis in the desert.  You might like the Auralia Thread by Jeffrey Overstreet.  The story is set in a world where jealousy has stifled wonder and creativity, where acclaim and false praise has become a higher goal than creating beauty and finding truth.  The characters, seeing a glimpse of their world’s beauty and truth long declared illegal, wrestle with doubt and questions, make mistakes, and make sacrifices.  I love Prince Cal-Raven–he’s bold and passionate, wanting to do the right thing, but sometimes doing it the wrong way.  I’ve never read a story where beauty and creativity are glorified like they are in the Auralia Thread.
 
In addition to Christian SF, I would love to see the genre of Christian Fiction become more well-written, tackling hard questions and sticking characters between a rock and a hard place.  Out of 28 Christian Fiction books I’ve read (and three others I skimmed), only nine were powerful, only nine dealt with hard questions, and made me excited again about the Christian faith.  (These rare books were the Life of Faith Millie Keith series [eight books] and The Last Sin Eater by Francine Rivers, if you were curious.)  That’s so sad, because we Christians have the most powerful, most joyful message in the world, and so many writers squash it in attempt to proclaim it.
 
Blessings,
Literaturelady

Austin Gunderson
Member

Literaturelady, I submit that you (and all the rest of y’all reading this comment right now — yes, you) should consider writing some book reviews for SpecFaith. Your opinions as a reader are, by definition, valid and important. And the Christian spec-fic community really needs to propel its cream to the top. We must promote the change we wish to see. And for that, there’s no better venue than SpecFaith! 😉

Literaturelady
Guest
Literaturelady

You know, I did consider it a while ago, but I didn’t have much time (or rather, I had higher priorities).  But I will consider it again! 

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Please do. We’re expanding to cover novels/films/shows/games/etc. not in the SpecFaith Library — e.g., Christian perspectives on not-specifically-Christian stuff.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

I hate to sound like a broken record, but I guess the old idea that people need to see a thing seven times before they’ll buy might apply. Mir, you asked for books. Here’s my short list of the most current:

Dystopian – Jill Williamson’s Safe Lands series (Captives and Outcasts are out). Well written. Deals with the concept of “being in the world” and shows one character’s struggle with lust and addiction–along with other themes. The story is the thing. It’s not perfect, but it’s entertaining from the first page as a group of villagers are captured to be used as surrogates and sperm donors to keep the civilization of the Safe Lands alive.

Arthurian legend – Robert Treskillard’s Merlin Spiral series (Merlin’s Blade and Merlin’s Shadow are out). Imaginative use of myth–fresh take on who Merlin is. Gripping story involving a Satanic rock, druids, supernatural sight (good and evil), human sacrifice, political intrigue, betrayal, and a determination to keep the infant Arthur alive.

Epic fantasy – Patrick Carr’s The Staff & Sword series (A Cast of Stones, The Hero’s Lot, and A Draw of Kings are all out). Quests, political intrigue, betrayal, love, heroism, sacrifice–the story is well-told, the characters captivating, the themes oblique.

Fairytale fantasy – Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s Tales of Goldstone Wood series (there are six out, I think, my favorite being Dragonwitch, with Snowflower second–I haven’t read the most recent yet.) Talk about inventive! This fantasy world verges on Alice’s Wonderland at times. Fairies, magic, a demon hoard, evil dragons, a dragonwitch, dogs of death, but there is also love, and sacrifice, and courage, and hope.

Contemporary supernatural – Shannon Dittemore’s Angel Eyes series (all three are out – Angel Eyes, Broken Wings, Dark Halo). Strong on character and relationship; a beautiful story about the seen and the unseen colliding, complete with love and fear and sacrifice.

I could go on–R. J. Larson’s fantasy trilogy Prophet, Judge, King; Jill Williamson’s Mission League series, Stephen Lawhead’s Bright Empires series, John Otte’s newly released Numb. In fact, I think the entire list of last year’s Clive Staples Award nominees–33 books in all–might be a good place to start. I haven’t read them all, but obviously the readers who nominated them thought they were high quality.

Becky

Julie D
Guest

Just as a note, I love Stengl’s work, and am fairly sure you were referring to Starflower, as she hasn’t written anything called Snowflower.

Phyllis Wheeler
Guest

Mir, I was very interested to read your history. I think there are many Christian readers out there who don’t know there are now some really terrific books they should check out, written from a Christian worldview, speculative and otherwise. Not sure how to get their attention.

Becky
Guest

As I read this post (amid the nodding and amen-ing) I realized I can’t remember the last time I read a Christian SF book. They used to make up the majority of my bookshelf, but now I have to dig to find one. Like you said, they all bored me after a while. This post gives me hope that all may not be lost. I look forward to checking out some of the books mentioned here.
Also, I am currently embarking on my personal solution for the Christian SF drought: if I don’t see anything I like, I write it!

merechristian
Member
merechristian

I agree with a lot of what you say, Mirta. The only part that I don’t is the question about Western versus other culture and so forth. I love anime and so forth, but when I watch or read stuff, the gender/race/so on is not anything I really pay attention to. I pride myself that when I watch an anime with subtitles that I get so immersed into the medium that I stop noticing I am reading something, and I don’t notice that the actors (for live action shows) are Japanese.

By the by, I have been getting into Super Sentai and Kamen Rider recently, and those are the live-action shows I referred to.

Then again, perhaps I’m a hypocrite, because I freely admit I seek out and enjoy Japanese stuff over other (including American) stuff.

I must say that one thing that particularly gets me, Mirta, is how some of these books and so on in the CSF were boring at times. There are more than you think that are good, but they are sometimes like (to quote Aladdin) “diamonds in the rough”.

Things are getting better though.

Teddi Deppner
Guest

I’m excited about the changes in the publishing industry. Glad for the changes in the Christian publishing world, too, but those wheels do seem to turn more slowly and within boundaries that are still too limited for my tastes.
Another thing that is greatly encouraging: online communities like this one. Christians who enjoy speculative fiction, gathering together and stirring each other up in our passion for the genre and its ability to ignite our sense of wonder. God is expansive and marvelous and worthy of our efforts to walk in His footsteps as creators. May many Christian authors take up the torch and hold high the light of creative expression in such a way that God’s glory shines forth!
My reading time has been limited for the past 10 years, as I’ve been raising small children and they take a lot of time and attention. But I’ve found myself with more time lately and do hope to dive into the world of speculative fiction again — especially that written by authors with worldviews similar to mine. I’ll be sure to pass those things along as I find them!

Kessie Carroll
Member

We need more Christian writers like N.D.Wilson, who make it totally awesome to be a Christian. Check out this quote from Empire of Bones:
 
“To love is to be selfless. To be selfless is to be fearless. To be fearless is to strip your enemies of their greatest weapon. Even if they break our bodies and drain our blood, we are unvanquished. Our goal was never to live; our goal is to love. It is the goal of all truly noble men and women. Give all that can be given. Give even your life itself.”

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I’ve argued and felt the same. But the only way this ever will be solved is if fans actually read, talk about, and buy Christian spec fic. And for some people who are tempted to go the ABA route, swallow it and publish explicit Christian fic.  A lot of talk on this is wishing that other people would make something for other people to buy.
 
I’d also highlight something called the Tebow effect, where we only care about the most lauded and hottest Christian thing. Who CARES what Neil Gaiman thinks? When did we desire to become respected by the world anyways? Who cares about the Nebulas? Yes, good fiction is great, and we always try our hardest and appreciate quality in the arts, but a lot of this is that at heart we want to be accepted and lauded by the world. 
 
I think this is more a subject for a rant though, and I’ll stop here.