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.)
The 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.