Join Our June 11 Livestream On How Authors Can Escape the ‘Writing for Writers’ Echo Chamber

This Thursday, June 11, E. Stephen Burnett on the Realm Makers livestream explores how authors can reach new readers (not just other writers).
on Jun 9, 2020 · 3 comments

For whatever growth God has granted Speculative Faith, and now the Lorehaven project, we might attribute this one manmade reason:

We have chosen to focus on fans, not writers.

Beyond the ‘writicism’

Back in 2013, I codified this renewed focus in the article The Forgotten Reader. In this article, I recalled:

Seven years ago I attended my first writers’ conference. That was a heady experience:

Wow here are other writers just like me who like writing about actual science fiction and things like that and best of all from a Christian perspective so where do I sign up and will you listen to my very naïve science-fiction novel proposal please with a minimum of laughing?

It bore fruit. That’s how I made real- and aspiring-author friends. I joined Speculative Faith. That site grew. Other sites, networks, independent publishers, and even some traditional Christian publishers’ slow acceptance of some fantasy, also grew. That’s fantastic. And it’s likely true that any growth here may be better than none.

But this can reach a plateau. Many websites and writers neglect the main reason they should grow. They turn into what I’ll call Writers Who Write about Writing for Writers Who also Write about Writing. Writers end up practicing writicism.

No, I’m not saying this is sin. I’m saying it’s limiting. It’s shooting ourselves in the foot.

We’re doing the same thing we’d do if we decided: Hey, let’s try not to reach out to regular readers.

Focus on the fan-ily

Some years ago, this focus on fans, not writers focus became more of a guiding policy here at SpecFaith.

At least, this was certainly my hope as the writer who helped reboot the site in 2010.1

For example:

  • We began encouraging guest writers to focus on universal story ideas, not writing tips and tricks.
  • We all but banned professional industry-talk about agents, editing, publishing, and such-like.
  • For my part, I became near-legalistic about SpecFaith writers’ phrases like “as writers, we …”
  • (In such legalisms, I became a nonfiction Editor, and I have no regrets.)
Lorehaven, spring 2020

Lorehaven magazine is 100 percent fan-focused: finding the best of Christian fantasy.

How did this fan-focus help SpecFaith and later, Lorehaven?

This decision to focus on fans, not writers, probably brought short-term loss but long-term gains.

By “short-term loss,” I mean that for a large segment of dedicated writers who spend a lot of time on websites, they may have felt SpecFaith became less practically useful to them.2 As we became more fan-focused, you couldn’t come here expecting to learn about verb tenses and protagonist arcs. For proposal formatting and agent-seeking, you’d have to look elsewhere (such as the fine folks at Realm Makers!).

But by “long-term gains,” I mean that our audience has certainly grown thanks to our emphasis on fans.

  • We still talk about stories in-depth, but from a place of mainly receiving them, not just making them.
  • Generally (for my part) I think we try to avoid authorly jargon. Disregard protagonists; acquire heroes.
  • We put far more time into cultivating the Lorehaven library and especially the reviews section.

Break out of the echo chamber

On this I’ve much more to say. However, I’d also love to hear your thoughts as fans, authors, and anyone in between.

Therefore, I invite you to join us this Thursday, June 11, for a special livestream event at Realm Makers on Crowdcast.

What and why: When writers only write for other writers about writing, we ignore readers! Join this quest to overcome “writicism” in our marketing so our stories can find more fans.

Where: Realm Makers on Crowdcast

When: Thursday, June 11 at 8 p.m. (7 Central)

How: Sign up for your place in line here. You can get notifications when the event goes live, and for future Realm Makers livestream events. Crowdcast watchers can interact in chat, answer the poll question, and pose their own questions. (The video will also be mirrored at the Realm Makers page on Facebook, but without the interactive options.)

Meanwhile: Hear how top authors address ‘PG-13’-rated story content

To be sure, we share plenty of fantastic behind-the-scenes content across the Lorehaven star system.

The latest such craft-building delight just dropped today at the Fantastical Truth podcast. In our latest episode, you can hear how authors Terry Brooks, Brent Weeks, Robert Liparulo, C. W. Briar, and myself explore that constant challenge of “PG-13”-rated (or worse) content in fiction. That’s courtesy of our friends and allies at Realm Makers, who provided the panel recording from last year’s Realm Makers conference.

Get the full show notes, or listen below to the complete episode 19.

  1. I make these mild disclaimers about the reader (not writer) focus because SpecFaith has volunteer writers who choose their own topics. Apart from light touches for headlines and social media shares, we have no editorial structure for regular writers. Heavier edits are reserved for reader-submitted reviews and guest articles. Lorehaven magazine also has a set editorial structure. By the way, this is partly why we don’t have an open submissions policy for Lorehaven magazine articles and reviews.
  2. I base this on general observation about trends, and no specific feedback.

Stories That Twist A Genre: Paranormia Complex

Take Paul Regnier’s latest book, Paranormia Complex, for instance. This recent release is the second in a two-book series that I would label, inadequately, supernatural suspense, with a twist of humor.
on Jun 8, 2020 · 2 comments

One thing self-publishing has accomplished, I think, is giving an opportunity for stories that twist a genre to find the readers who might love it. Back in the day when traditional publishing was the sole means for a book to see the light of day, agents and editors would often ask a writer, “Where do you see this book being shelved in a bookstore?” And bookstores, of course, had sections labeled Sci Fi/Fantasy, sometimes Horror, Romance, Historical, Adventure, and even Christian fiction (where books published by an Evangelical Christian Publishing Association member were shelved, regardless of the specific genre within the umbrella of Christian publishing).

Of course, books that are self-published still encounter the need to categorize their books, if they want to sell them on a site like Amazon. But when a book twists a genre, the author is the decision maker when it comes to labeling a book.

Take Paul Regnier’s latest book, Paranormia Complex, for instance. This recent release is the second in a two-book series that I would label, inadequately, supernatural suspense, with a twist of humor.

Regnier, however, chose to put the book in these categories on Amazon:
Christian Fantasy (Books)
Christian Fantasy (Kindle Store)
Religious Science Fiction & Fantasy (Kindle Store)

I’m guessing those particular categories give the book the best exposure. Then, as potential readers click over to the book description, they discover what kind of fantasy we’re talking about. Not epic fantasy or sword & sorcerer. Definitely Christian, but not in the usual sense (in which someone who isn’t a Christian comes to faith in Jesus). Here’s the back cover copy:

When demonic forces attack his city, can a lone comic bookstore employee stand against them?

Graphic novelist Chris Loury uncovers a supernatural threat to his community. As a result, he and his girlfriend Amber end up in the crosshairs of spiritual warfare. Finchelus, his quirky angelic guardian, promises aid, but his sporadic appearances offer little assurance. After the last supernatural encounter nearly took his life, Chris is reluctant to dance with the devil a second time.

Things escalate quickly when a hooded figure with red eyes and superhuman strength stalks Chris. As he survives one attack after another, the dark spirits grow stronger. When they launch deadly attacks on his friends and land Chris in the hospital, he fears this supernatural battle is beyond him.

Can Chris save his girlfriend, his city, and his own life from the gathering demonic storm?

Only the allusion of a “quirky” angelic guardian gives a suggestion of the humor contained in the book, but by looking at the reviews, a potential buyer can quickly see that humor is a significant part of the booK:
“. . . humor that paired nicely with the darker over tones and gravity of the spiritual side to the novel . . .”
“. . . it does carry on the same themes, character dynamics, and humor which made the original Paranormia so enjoyable and refreshing in the genre of supernatural Christian fiction. ..”
“. . . a supernatural tail [tale] of angels and demons with a sense of humor. . .” [I think the reviewer is saying the book has a sense of humor, not the demons.]
“Great humor. Good characters. The author is not afraid to address the supernatural world, from a Christian perspective. . .”

This last reviewer titled his comments, “Funny but serious” and that pretty much sums it up.

The point is, The Paranormia books, including this latest, Paranormia Complex, are unique. Would they have found a home with a traditional publisher? I suppose that’s always a possibility. I mean “mash ups” went through a period of popularity, so perhaps this combining of genres would have managed to find some traditional publisher’s list.

But since self-publishing has come into its own, there’s no worry about finding some house that believes in the books enough to take a risk. Instead, the author simply needs to write a good book—the book of his own imagining—and then put it out there for readers to find.

Clearly a growing number of readers are finding Regnier’s work. Here’s some of what one reviewer wrote:

While I loved the first book, this one somehow just surpassed it in every way. The stakes seemed higher. The dangers were deadlier. There was a lot more action. And, I have to admit, I liked the fact that Chris wasn’t on this perilous adventure all by himself this time. With his relationship with Amber, he had a partner in the spiritual warfare taking place in Long Beach, California, and I think that relationship truly helped the story.

In the end, readers always get the last say, but now what the traditional publisher thinks readers will like can be superseded by what the author and what the actual readers think they will like.

This paradigm allows for genre twists and things like humor in a supernatural suspense. I’m pretty sure readers who love the Paranormia books are glad there was a sure-fire way for the book to find its way into print.

Free (Not) Original Storyworld Ideas, Part 7: Mine the Public Domain (Worlds of Weinbaum)

So maybe you’re interested in a free story idea that ISN’T original–there’s some great opportunities in the public domain. Example, Worlds of Weinbaum…
on Jun 4, 2020 · 38 comments

I titled this series “Free Original Storyworld Ideas” but this time out I’m going to recommend taking a serious look at story worlds that most definitely are not original. Take old public domain works and make them your own by altering them!

Like the post of GameLit I did two weeks ago, this week’s post happily coincides with a book I’ve published (“coincides” because I didn’t plan this in advance). The book is Worlds of Weinbaum, which I’ll discuss later down. But first let’s discuss the pubic domain and how to mine it for stories.

Do you realize that not only is Frankenstein and Alice in Wonderland all of Jules Verne’s works in the public domain, but a lot of early science fiction, fantasy, and horror significantly later than these works is in the public domain? For example, all of the Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum is in the public domain (the books, not the movie). At least some of H.P. Lovecraft’s works are also in the public domain as well as works by H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, Barsoom/John Carter). And many others. Lots of very influential works.

How to Make a Public Domain Work Your Own–Possibilities

So wait a minute–you might be thinking–I could take the exact words of Frankenstein and make the monster into an alien instead of a mad scientist experiment, and the derivative work would be my own work as far as copyright law is concerned? With the caveat that I’m not an expert in copyright law (though I have done some research), yep, that’s what I’m saying. Take War of the Worlds and put the story in an alternate Earth in which the Confederacy won the Civil War and you can could copy the exact words of H.G. Wells if you wanted to, the exact dialog and even the same characters, but change it so the aliens are invading your Atlanta instead of London, and the resulting original work will be yours, free to copyright. Yes, that’s how it really works.

War of the Worlds movie from 2005. Hollywood LOVES mining the public domain… (Paramount Pictures)

Maybe you noticed that I mentioned above that all of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books are now in the public domain but the movie isn’t? (And all of his are, though other authors also wrote Wizard of Oz books after him that may or may not be in the public domain.) But how could it be that the movie Wizard of Oz is not in the public domain? Well, the movie makers had legal permission to adapt the story to the screen. Their adaptation included some story changes that rendered their work an original work (plus being in a new medium). So its copyright is different than that of the Oz books. And isn’t due to expire until 2034.

As long as you followed details of Oz in accordance with the book version but not the movie version, then you would be working from a public domain work. Which means you could alter it at will and also copyright the alteration you made. So in the movie, Dorothy had ruby slippers, but in the book, they were silver slippers. So if you do Oz, as long as the slippers you write about are silver and not ruby, you aren’t violating a copyright on that particular detail. And as long as your details follow the book version of Oz, you are working from a public domain work–and you can change the details yourself and copyright the resulting changed work. Unless of course the details you alter copy the work someone else already did based on the original public domain work (so Oz you can copy, but Wicked or Oz the Great and Powerful you cannot freely copy).

The original Wonderful Wizard of Oz cover.

So how do you proceed to get a copyright for yourself based on a public domain work?

First Step: Understand a Few Basics on Copyright Law

The most basic thing to understand is that for reasons that a bit complicated to explain in detail (follow this link for the details), in the United States there were some significant changes in copyright law during the 20th Century and so the rules are different depending on what year a work was published. As of 1 January 1978, the United States adopted a copyright law that parallels the laws most other countries have–that is, a work is assumed to be under copyright unless it is specified that it is not copyrighted. And the copyright lasts as long as the original author lives, plus 70 years.

That rule is significant to pay attention to if you want to claim the rights to a work in other countries, because a number of other countries apply this life of author plus 7o to works prior to 1978 (for example, Germany). But if you are only concerned about US copyright, the 1978 rule isn’t immediately significant for you. Even if an author died on January 2nd, 1978 (after the new law went into effect) his or her works won’t enter the public domain until 2048.

For the years 1977 and earlier, the USA required people wanting a copyright to prove they had a copyright and if they didn’t do that, their works are in the public domain. They had to register the book to establish it was copyrighted. Copyrights were for 28 years but could be extended one time. The original length of extension was another 28 years, but the US Congress changed it (eventually) to 67 years. For a maximum amount of copyright protection of 95 years. The Congress also made the change that books (and other copyrights) between 1964 and 1977 were automatically extended. Books 1963 and earlier were not automatically extended–and I’ve read one estimate that about 90 percent of books prior to 1963 did not have their copyright extended…and if not, they are in the public domain.

Second Step, Apply Four Important Copyright Rules to Determine if a Work is in the Public Domain

  1. The 95 year rule: This is the easiest one. Because the maximum amount of time a work can have copyright protection in the USA is 95 years, any work older than 95 years is automatically in the public domain. Because they wait until an entire year has passed in calculating this, what this means is every work as of 2020 that was published in 1924 or earlier is in the public domain. On January 1st, 2021, 1925 will enter the public domain. And in 2022, 1926; 2023, 1927, etc.
  2. The 1925 through 1977 filing rule: If a work was published between 1925 and 1977, according to US law, that work is only copyrighted if the publisher specifically applied for a copyright and filed the correct paperwork. So if you want to know if a work was properly copyrighted, you will be able to find it on the US Copyright office website. If it is not on that site, it was not copyrighted (but be sure to do a thorough search).
  3. The 1925 through 1963 renewal rule: Even if a work was in fact copyrighted prior to this time, if a work’s copyright was filed between 1925 and 1963 and the publisher or author did not renew the copyright, the copyright expired and the work is in the public domain now. The majority of these works are in the public domain because most book copyrights were not renewed. But this is rather a danger zone that requires some research to be sure.
  4. The death of author plus 70 year rule (for international copyright): Recall that the 95 year rule and the rest of these are United States rules–but internationally, the rules are different. So if you’d like your book taken-from-the-public-domain-and-copyrighted-with-your-changes to be legally recognized worldwide, you also need to pay attention to the date of the death of the author, in addition to the date of the publication of the work. For example, Princess of Mars was published by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912 and was in the public domain some time ago in the USA. But Burroughs died in 1950, plus 70 years means his works will just enter the public domain in Germany at the end of this year…which means as of right now, a copyright of a work you would perform on any of Edgar Rice Boroughs would not be legally recognized in Germany–but next year will be good to go. (As of the date of the publication of this article in 2020, all works of authors who died in 1949 and earlier are in the public domain by this rule.)
  5. This last numbered point isn’t one of the rules, but it can be a sort of “easy” button for determining if something is in the public domain. Project Gutenberg maintains copies of various books and stories that happen to be in the public domain. You can always search there for your public domain work, knowing the Gutenberg people did the work for you…and you can even download a free copy of the book from them.

    2013’s OZ The Great and Powerful movie. Do not copy anything in this movie that wasn’t in the original Oz books!
    Image copyright by Disney.

Third Step, Be Aware of Already-Existing Derived Copyrighted Works and Don’t Copy Them

I already said this above, but to be extra clear, if someone else made a derived work from a public domain work, you cannot copy what they did. Oz you can use, but Oz the Great and Powerful or Wicked you can not. (By the way though–don’t these movies, Oz the Great and Powerful and Wicked, show the potential of changing a public domain work?)

Fourth Step, Create your Work and the Copyright is Yours

The question came up as I was doing some preparation for this week’s post is there’s a certain percentage you have to change a public domain work for it to be your own. Nope. There isn’t as far as I could find out. But the less you change, the easier it would be for someone to take what you did, change a few things, then say they were going off of the original public domain work, just like you did. But change a little or a lot, once you have deliberately altered a copyrighted work, the derived work is yours and you are the presumed copyright holder according to US law as it’s functioned since 1978. (Making your alterations known is a good idea from what I understand of the legalities but I don’t think is required by anyone.)

So if you like classic sci fi, fantasy, and horror tales and are eager to make them your own, some of what you really love may be in the public domain. If it is, you can make it your own copyrighted material, quite literally. Which does lead to talking about Worlds of Weinbaum.

Worlds of Weinbaum as an Example of Public Domain Mining

Cover art by Mary Campagna Findley. Copyright by Bear Publications.

In my podcast this week I talked to Heather Elliot and Cindy Koepp (here’s a link to the podcast of the three of us talking) about Worlds of Weinbaum (link is to the Bear Publications website for WoW), including me mentioning the reasons why we picked short stories by Stanley G. Weinbaum as the public domain “ore” we wanted to mine. Part of the reason was because I was already familiar with his stories. Weinbaum was considered one of the greatest science fiction writers of his era.

By the way, Weinbaum wrote in the early 30s and his works were copyrighted but not renewed. He also died in the 30s of lung cancer. So by both US and European standards, his works are in the public domain. (Heather Elliot simply looked them up on Project Gutenberg and found them.)

I really enjoyed the fact that Weinbaum’s stories, which were based on imagining that many planets of the Solar System could be inhabited and were teeming with alien life, including intelligent alien life, had an early-2oth Century feel to them. Like the polar expeditions of that time, privately funded, or expeditions to tropical jungle regions. Or the feel of the pioneering days of aircraft, in which bold people privately took big risks in hopes of making history. Or making a living.

Weinbaum is credited with creating the first realistic alien character, who was neither a monster nor a human-being-in-another-form. His story A Martian Odyssey is the oldest short story that’s memorialized in the Science Fiction hall of fame.

Our Changes to Weinbaum

This back cover art used for Worlds of Weibaum was from a sci fi magazine from the 1950s, copyright never renewed…in the public domain…

The changes Heather, Cindy, and I made were mainly a science update to what Weinbaum imagined. The science of his day was all wrong about what the Solar System was like, but what he thought might be possible actually is more realistic for planets around another star. So that’s how we imagined the stories, being around another star.

So we imagined hypothetical aliens lifted humans who would have perished in various disasters near the end of the 1800s  and early 1900s (such as the Gavelston hurricane) and lifted them to another world without making themselves directly known. These new humans reconstructed nations and cultures that in some strong ways paralleled the 1930s that Weinbaum knew…though that parallel didn’t happen until the 20th and 21st Centuries Weinbaum wrote about as his imaginary future.

In a new star system, one redder and more compact, Weinbaum’s vision of the future of private space travel and exploration shifted from impossible to “perhaps out there somewhere this could be.” We kept much of the original stories and their dialogue, but shifted things so not all the characters were European or white American, while also blunting some of the misogynist-ish and atheistic moments of the tales and mildly adding more emphasis to some of the Biblical references Weinbaum already had made.

Weinbaum’s tales are fun and energetic and wildly imaginative. They also, by the way, frequently include love interests and resourceful female characters who make major decisions–though they also get scared and seek male help at times (nope, we didn’t edit that out).

One feature of our changes is we decided the humans inhabiting these new worlds would name them for the Solar System they knew, but flip their Greek and Latin names–so Mars and Venus, which were Latin words, we changed to Ares and Aphrodite. But for Uranus, which came from Greek, we adopted Latin word “Caelus.”

The Worlds of New Sol.

All distances of travel, references to seasons, references to past history, references to Earth animals, some character names, and some other elements we already mentioned we changed. But overall, the stories are very similar to Weinbaum’s tales as he first wrote them. With his zest and flair and fun, but more realistic and balanced. And now copyrighted, this version, by Bear Publications.


So if you were to mine the public domain for story ideas, what would interest you? H.P. Lovecraft? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Lewis Carroll? Mary Shelley? Edgar Rice Burroughs? L. Frank Baum? H.G. Wells? Someone else?

There’s a good chance that certain stories you admire might actually be in the public domain. All the authors I just named are either wholly or partially in the public domain.

So what are your thoughts on this topic?

Redundant Redundancies

Like Orwell’s animals, some redundancies are more equal than others.
on Jun 3, 2020 · 3 comments

Today’s topic is redundant phrases. We have all had it drilled into us that redundancy is bad and clean, effective communication excises the pointless. We also have ingrained into us our civilization’s stock of well-worn and oft-used expressions, which did not undergo a strict vetting by licensed grammarians and therefore contains redundancies. Like Orwell’s animals, some of these redundancies are more equal than others.

Some of them have no excuse except that they have been worn into our brains. We use them without thinking, but we should stop. You should not use the phrase a pair of twins because that is, you know, how twins work. It’s not necessary to state that some famous person has written an autobiography of her life, because she scarcely could have written an autobiography of anyone else’s life. A biography of his life is likewise unnecessary but more forgivable. All moments are brief, and all summaries should be. A warning that isn’t advanced isn’t. Cooperate together is repetitive because one cannot cooperate alone. The phrases added bonus and free gift are simply not acceptable.

Cease and desist and null and void are admittedly redundant. But they are also lawerly – and not in the greasy way of commercials for local personal-injury law firms but in the magisterial way of Oliver Wendell Holmes. There is something almost soothing in their official lilt. And cease, desist, null and void are all excellent words that we find too little opportunity to use in casual conversation. So we are not going to fuss about these phrases. We are also inclined to give a pass to twelve noon and twelve midnight. True, noon or midnight alone would be sufficient. Yet these phrases have rather a nice ring. We also note, if anyone needs a more objective rationale, that noon and midnight qualify twelve, which needs qualification. But mostly we note that you can easily imagine twelve noon and twelve midnight being spoken with a British accent.

Perhaps the most redundant of all redundancies is that famous assertion I saw it with my own eyes. Judged only by redundancy, this expression would not only be taken out but, afterwards, shot. Yet I wouldn’t give it up. The elaboration with my own eyes is pure emphasis, a verbal exclamation point. For the same reason, I am soft on completely annihilated. Annihilation is total destruction and cannot be more complete than it already is. But I think that, as decimate lost its old precision of ten percent, annihilated is losing its precision of one hundred percent. A little emphasis on its totality may not be wrong.

Some repetitive phrases are merely bad habits. Others have been elevated almost to the level of philosophy while remaining, still, bad habits. Remember that all experience is lived experience. That’s what makes it experience: you lived it. There is no need to clarify that your or anyone else’s experience is lived – unless, of course, you are writing a paper and up against a word count. Similarly, every religion is a system of belief with established ceremonies and practices, and an institutional hierarchy to go along with it. No religion got to where it is without organization, and it is pointless to toss around organized religion. There is no other kind.

There is considerable objectivity in which phrases are redundant. There is considerable subjectivity in which redundant phrases are acceptable. So tell me which you rate as more equal, and which you rate as less. But please, don’t tell me you want to keep added bonus.

Free Original Storyworld Ideas, Part 6: Nanites in Space Weapons and Aliens

Nanites could easily be part of any science fiction future and probably should be featured in stories much more than they are. Here’s some cool ideas that relate to nanites–even a few for fantasy writers!
on May 28, 2020 · 8 comments
This article draws from two previous posts from my personal blog that discussed nanites. The purpose of talking about nanites here isn’t just about the nanites per se, but also to illustrate how thinking about “Hard Science Fiction” notions can inspire unconventional story worlds. While it’s true that many readers of speculative fiction are more impressed with characters in settings that resonate with things familiar to us with a bit of a twist, which in a futuristic setting will probably veer them in the direction of space opera, the real world has dramatically changed many times because of advances in technology. And likely will change dramatically again (God willing our society continues to exist…). Thinking about nanites and how they are likely to affect the space travel, space combat, and aliens is just one means to create a story setting unlike what most science fiction (or speculative fiction) is doing.

This post is mostly science-fiction related, but if you bear with me, I’ll make a fantasy application.

What’s a nanite, anyway?

According to Wikipedia (, the word “nanite” is just one of several words used to describe very small machines.  Research is underway to create such machines, continually making operating devices smaller and smaller.

Of course, as of now, nanites right now are nowhere near as small as they can be in theory.  In theory and in the realm of science fiction, a fully-functioning machine could be so small as to be tinier than the smallest bacterium.  And these tiny machines could be designed to reproduce themselves automatically, which over time would allow enough of them to form to accomplish almost any purpose.

Nanites envisioned.

Spacefaring nanites

A machine that small would be an ideal candidate for interstellar space travel from a realistic or “hard science fiction” perspective. Why?

Because the most straightforward approach to travel to other stars is to simply go through space as fast as possible, the closer to the speed of light, the better.  Light in a vacuum moves at around 186,000 miles per second, roughly 6 trillion miles a year.  Even so the closest star system is over four years away at such a speed.  So any velocity significantly short of light speed involves waiting a long time to get anywhere.

To science fiction fans, there’s nothing new in what I just said.  But by means of numerous stories featuring starships routinely cruising up to light speed or going into hyperdrive/warp drive or warp gates/wormholes, fans may have been lulled into thinking that getting a spaceship up to the speed of light is relatively easy, given the right energy source.  It actually isn’t. (Nor are warp drives or wormholes easy–both require a type of matter that has never been shown to exist, something with negative mass, which would be very strange and probably isn’t real.)

A realistic design to get a spacecraft up to 92% the speed of light, the theoretical Project Valkyrie (, would involve a craft weighing only 100 tons, far smaller than the starship Enterprise.  Even so, the estimated amount of antimatter required to get this craft up to speed, just one time, is another 100 tons!  So half the weight of the craft would be antimatter fuel…and antimatter happens to be the single most expensive substance humans can manufacture (  Making 100 tons of it is completely beyond even the most outlandish of human plans (science fiction writers get to skip this messy detail and simply assume we’ve already got a pile of antimatter somehow).

On the other hand, a nanite, being so small, is much easier to get up to light speed.  In fact we’ve got particle accelerators right now that move ions of heavy elements like gold up to speeds approaching that of light (

Nanite space explorers

So we can imagine perhaps in the not-too distant future, someone could assemble a particle accelerator designed to hurl nanites out to the unknown reaches of interstellar space fast enough to arrive at other stars in a matter of years instead of centuries.  Once there, the nanites in theory could use magnetic fields to slow down and land somewhere around another star. There they could reproduce from elements they find wherever they land and eventually assemble themselves into a larger machine, one that could perhaps beam back pictures to us of the new worlds they’re exploring.

Even if a futuristic civilization had warp drive or hyperdrive or star gates or whatever, putting a particle accelerator out in space and shooting forth tiny machines at near-light speed would be much cheaper in terms of energy costs in relation to a realistic Starship Enterprise that it would seem every advanced civilization would use nanites or very small probes in this way. At least with stars nearby them, sending out hordes of tiny machines in all directions seems a really good idea. It would be an excellent way to explore the stellar neighborhood.

Nanite space weapons

Here’s a problem with my thought of exploration–isn’t it true, historically speaking, that harnessing forces to destroy is easier than wending the forces of nature to build?  It’s easier use fuel and air to make a bomb than it is to make a jet engine; it’s easier to split the atom to destroy Hiroshima than it is to build an atomic power plant.

If we could accelerate nanites to other worlds to build probes, it would be even easier to send them on a mission to destroy, to consume all life they encounter, to seek out compounds from living bodies to reproduce swarms of new nanites.  This idea has the potential to change a lot of science fiction.  Having trouble with the Klingons?  Simply fire some flesh-eating nanites at their home world…

Independence Day, the movie that features massive alien spaceships cruising through our atmosphere and blasting us with energy beams, would have it all wrong.  The aliens would instead land on the planet with tiny particles too small for us to detect.  These nano invaders would reproduce and reproduce, eating life on a small scale at first.  Before they were even visible to the naked eye there would be billions of them, able to continue killing if even one of them survived any attempt to destroy them with radiation or chemicals.  Our military would be useless, our medicines inadequate.  Before long, all of mankind would be enveloped in a continually self-replicating tide of tiny devouring machines…

Note that even if you don’t want to see the future like this, even if you prefer starships in classic fleet battles in deep space instead, nanite weapons would still make a lot of sense as a supplement to starships. Starships could shoot nanites at one another and thus would have to incorporate anti-nanite defenses. Or even fire microprobes from an accelerator when it came time to explore unknown areas unsafe for the ship. Or there could be a “mine field” of nanites, floating freely in space, looking like ordinary dust particles, until they affixed themselves to the hull of the ship (as I mentioned in a previous post on Speculative Faith about space weapons)…or nanites could even provide stealthy means of communication or conveying information. Or as spying devices!

Nanite anti-nanite defense

Imagine that nanites become such a part of future warfare that it becomes standard to get a nanite “vaccination” of helpful nanites, whose job is to repel any hostile nanites who might invade your body. Such nanites could have many other benefits. They could enhance healing and clear out harmful plaques in the arteries and brain. They could perhaps undo aging, at least in part. They could assist your assimilation into the Borg Collective (OH WAIT THAT’S NOT A BENEFIT 🙂 )

Anyway, my idea of what’s funny aside, it could be that for many reasons, having nanites throughout your body is an ordinary thing in some highly advanced futuristic society. Maybe they’d even eliminate bacteria and viruses, making people free of communicable diseases. Though that might cause another problem.

Nanite-infested aliens

Inspired by the history of Europeans coming to the New World carrying bacteria to which the native inhabitants had little to no immunity, I thought: “What if aliens visiting Earth carried their own sort of infection or infestation, to which we humans had no immunity?” Sort of a War of the Worlds scenario in reverse…

That sort of thing has already been done, aliens carrying virulent disease(s) humans don’t carry. But what if the infestation were of nanites–what if nanites become a standard part of healthcare for any advanced technological species, for reasons I’ve already suggested? (Just as mask-wearing and hand washing and social distancing have recently become important to modern life.)

To the degree that nanites are literally crawling all over (and inside) the bodies of high-tech aliens–or perhaps time travelers from Earth’s distant future. What if these nanites potentially posed a risk to the human race?

It could be of course that nanites would be programmed in such a way as not to harm us, but what if the standard way nanites were kept from invading another creature’s body would be by your own nanites?

When hypothetical aliens of this type contact one another, the nanites on a particular alien’s body intended to be there would always outnumber those that would accidentally cross over from contact with someone else. The ones designed to be on a particular body could have a swarm and hive mentality–effectively collaborating to defend the host and keep any outside nanites from making any trouble.

But for us human beings, our immune systems are not designed to fight machines. We would have no immunity at all. Casual contact–a handshake, such as in the Star Trek movie “First Contact,” would at first seem to have no ill effect at all. But eventually, perhaps in a few days, Dr. Cochrane would find the skin on his hand begins to sluff off…and his arm begins to swell…in a week, the pain is unbearable and is all over his body. In ten days, he is dead…but everyone he touched and everyone who touched him in the meantime is infested by tiny robots that reproduce wherever they are and which attack whatever does not mach their original host. Leaving everyone totally defenseless…

Nice guy alien nanites versus alien invaders

Actually, nice guy aliens who meet us on purpose would either find a way to shut down their own nanites or would refrain from touching us if they were nanite-infested. But what about alien invaders? Will Smith in Independence Day punches an alien in the face…what if he found that within hours his knuckles began to blister…and per the original story, the virtually impossible uploading-of-a-virus-on-a-completely-unknown-computer-system still works, the shields go down, the aliens get blown up. But pilots first, in droves, then every person they know, then probably the entire human race, find themselves dissolved bit by bit by tiny little machines that don’t scrub out or bleach out well enough, that radiation can’t entirely eliminate, and which aren’t even intended to be a weapon. War of the Worlds, in reverse.

Accidental nanite infestation

The most interesting for this kind of story might be an accidental encounter. Say a crash landing on our planet. Or an alien space vessel sends a mayday and nearby humans (who’ve never encountered aliens before) fly a spaceship or starship over to help. Neither the humans nor the aliens would know what the disastrous results to humanity will be. The humans because they don’t know the aliens carry nanites–and the aliens because they don’t realize we humans don’t…

But our heroes, of course, will figure out way to shut down the nanites. Perhaps with help from the future–or from “nice guy” aliens.

Nanites for fantasy fans

So what’s all this to a fan of fantasy? You aren’t interested in starships and eating metal and all that crap. For you, if it isn’t magical, it’s no fun–okay, first off you and I are clearly different, right? But anyway, I do have something for you.

Let’s say a fantasy world is inhabited by tiny creatures. Say microscopic pixies. Imagine a fantasy world in which the microscopic pixies are tamed (through the proper use of magic, of course) and are swarming over a wizard’s body like nanites over aliens. Or are used as weapons, mines, spies, and are sent out in vast numbers. Etc. The same ideas as written here, or similar, but with a fantasy twist (such as the nanite/pixies have a will of their own…)


Nanite types: Copyright Linden Stirk

There are of course plenty of science fiction stories that feature nanites, most famously probably Star Trek has them as part of what makes the Borg Collective who they are. But really in the Star Trek universe everyone should have and use nanites, Federation, Klingons, Romulans, etc. They’re such a relatively inexpensive solution to many problems.

They’re cheaper to launch into space than full-sized explorers, making them better offensive weapons and explorers. They could also be part of stationary defenses, spy gear, commo gear, and healthcare. They could become so standard that futuristic humans or aliens would be unable to imagine a species without them–which could prove disastrous for the human race. Or other species.

So what are your thoughts on this topic? Do you have favorite stories featuring nanites? Is any one aspect of the way nanites could be used more interesting to you than the rest–if so, what would that be? Any other comments?

(By the way, my podcast for this week talks about the same subject but in other words: )

DC Fans’ #ReleaseTheSnyderCut Movement Won Because of Fan Dedication

Fans of Zack Snyder’s Justice League will get their wish in 2021, yet what does this #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement mean for Christian fans?
on May 26, 2020 · 4 comments

By now my friends, enemies, and anyone in between know that I’m a big supporter of DC fans’ #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement.

Since November 2017, these fans have called for producers to release director Zack Snyder’s original filmed super-epic Justice League.

Last Wednesday, May 20, we got our wish.

#ReleaseTheSnyderCut: a timeline

  1. Badfan v Superman, article series, July 2015
  2. Why Are Batman and Superman Fighting?, March 10, 2016
  3. ‘Batman v Superman’: Justice Dawns in a World Gone Meta, March 31, 2016
  4. Badfan V Superman: Top Ten Movie Myths, Part 1, March 31, 2016
  5. Batman v Superman: An Exquisite Superhero Theodicy, March 28, 2016
  6. Badfan v Superman: Top Ten Movie Myths, Part 2, April 1, 2016
  7. ‘Batman v Superman’ v Wonder Woman?, June 22, 2017
  8. ‘Justice League’ Unites Its Heroes to Save an Erratic, Uneven World, Nov. 22, 2o17
  9. Why We Want Warner Brothers to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut of ‘Justice League’, Nov. 12, 2019
  10. How Does #ReleaseTheSnyderCut Reveal Fandom’s Grace and Idolatry?, Jan. 14, 2020

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

First, director Zack Snyder and his producer/wife Deborah Snyder, along with Henry “Superman” Cavill and specially chosen fans, announced the plans on a livestream. Soon after, The Hollywood Reporter released the details and backstory:

HBO Max will debut the project in 2021 — possibly in a four-hour director’s cut or in six TV-style “chapters” — as the helmer gets the gang back together with the original postproduction crew to score, cut and finish visual effects. . . .

“It will be an entirely new thing, and, especially talking to those who have seen the released movie, a new experience apart from that movie,” Snyder tells The Hollywood Reporter, noting that, to this day, he has not watched the version released in theaters.

“You probably saw one-fourth of what I did,” the director notes, basing his judgment on what has been shared with him of Whedon’s version.

Now, of course, we have to talk about this on the podcast:

What this means for Christian fans

But we’re not just geeking out over superheroes, Snyder, or even such an unprecedented victory by fans.

(Trust me, though, I love writing these words. For other fans and myself, this is a beautifully crazy victory to enjoy.)

Rather, we’re exploring how this fan movement can actually help Christian fans in at least three big ways:

  • The “inevitable” isn’t actually inevitable, and real heroes can resist these boasts.
  • It’s okay to look crazy, and in fact even fandom “craziness” is great practice for Christians!
  • We need to reject the “binary rating” system for movies a la Rotten Tomatoes.

Get the complete show notes here, along with plenty of quotes from my own three years’ worth of writing on this fandom project.

Want to share your thoughts to be read on future podcast episodes?

  1. Did you have strong feelings about DC’s Snyder-directed films?
  2. Did you call any of these films objectively “good” or “bad”?
  3. How do personal experiences and expectations shape our preferences?
  4. Are you curious to see the now-inevitable 2021 release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League?

Free Original Storyworld Ideas, Part 5: GameLit (and Animal Eye)

The relatively new genre of GameLit shows some exciting opportunities for Christian writers of speculative fiction. Cindy Koepp’s new release, Animal Eye, is especially promising…
on May 21, 2020 · 20 comments

This post is going to do double–maybe triple–duty. Instead of offering up a specific story idea I’ve had that hasn’t been written, I’m gonna talk about a relatively new genre that readers of Speculative Faith might want to explore. And mention I’m publishing a story in this genre, GameLit, the novel Animal Eye, the latest from my friend Cindy Koepp.

But instead of me telling you, I’ve asked Cindy to tell you herself. She writes:

What is GameLit?

Cindy Koepp’s latest author pic.

GameLit is a relatively new genre of the speculative fiction realm that started in about 2012 in Russia (as a narrower subcategory of GameLit: LitRPG). The earliest novels in English were actually translated from Russian, but the genre is quickly growing in the English-speaking world. It involves telling a story from within a game universe. The main characters are playing a game, so the story tracks their progress through the quests, usually but not necessarily set in video games. They advance through levels and improve skills. The most recent Jumanji movies are examples of GameLit.

GameLit has a variety of subcategories ranging from statistic-heavy LitRPG or GameLit Crunchy to almost numerically deprived GameLit Lite. They can be science fiction, fantasy, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, or any other setting you could put a game in. The key is to tell the tale from within the game as a player who is actually playing. If related to a video game, as most GameLit stories are, there probably will be some aspect of Artificial Intelligence or advanced Virtual Reality that would relate to a broad definition of Cyberpunk (though maybe the story would only touch on that a bit).

Why GameLit?

Although you can find examples of tales that would be considered GameLit some time ago, the genre is coming into its own now (as seen in this website). The reader base is large and growing, and they’re looking for good books.

Transformation if the first of a popular series in Russia, translated into English. The kind of book that helped launch the GameLit genre. Copyright: Valery Starsky. (not a clean read)

That audience is dedicated to the genre. The audience is largely (but not nearly exclusively) young men who enjoy playing and reading about role-playing games, both the tabletop version with dice and character sheets and the computer versions with online quests and scenarios.  Some stories are quite racy (for example, “Harem” is a subgenre of GameLit), profanity is common, and many are violent.

Not to worry, ladies. This is not a boys-only club. The number of gals writing in the genre is increasing and by no means is all content in GameLit stereotypical hormone-driven-male stuff.

You might even think of this as a mission field. Gaming has long gotten the evil eye from some Christian groups because some of the games focus heavily on magic systems deemed occultic. If you do it right, your tale can bring Christ to folks who have had a lot of bad experiences with Christians who were quick to condemn.

Another reason to consider entering the GameLit genre is to play the games again. There was a time when I was an avid gamer, both tabletop and computer-based RPGs. Unfortunately, a recurring wrist injury and the time constraints of my adult obligations meant that I had to trim back my hobbies. I do love writing, so gaming was the one that had to go. Writing GameLit, I get to play the games again through the story world I create.

Why Not GameLit?

As you might expect, writing GameLit isn’t for everyone.

That dedicated reader base I mentioned? They can be very vocal in their support of certain authors and in their disdain for others. As with any genre, there are a handful of kerfluffles that revolve around a couple specific authors and tensions run high. Even if you do it well, you’ll have some readers who love you, and some who don’t, and neither group is shy about expressing their feelings. This isn’t a genre for the faint of heart.

If you’re not a gamer or if you haven’t been a gamer previously, getting the flow of the story and tropes figured out is going to be tough. The genre has its own lingo like “aggro,” “buffs,” and “debuffs.” If you don’t know the lingo, you’re going to sound inauthentic. Shoehorning game mechanics into a non-game story is going to be obvious to the more seasoned readers. They appear to have little patience for that.

If you’re the sort of writer who must include overt Christian references, you’ll get significant pushback. More than other genres I’ve written in, putting your faith in the open will get you more sneers than cheers. For fewer headaches and greater effectiveness, make the faith a less intrusive part of the story with a real game world effect.

Some Tips to Get Started

So, how would you go about writing one of these?

First, research the genre. I’ve given you a general overview, but do go check out some of the published works. I’m rather partial to my own, of course, but there is a lot of it out there. This will give you a familiarity with the genre and some of its unique quirks. It’s not simply speculative fiction with a game overlay.

Second, build your world. Even if you’re a consummate pantser, you’re going to need to figure out the parameters of your game. I suppose you could “wing it” on the game mechanics, but I think you run a bigger risk of it sounding like speculative fiction with the game mechanics glued on in the end.

Once you know what GameLit is like and you have your game mechanics figured out, it becomes a writing project much like other writing projects. Write your draft, revise it until your red pen runs out of ink, get feedback, revise some more, then chase down your favorite route to publication. The caveat to that is that your feedback should come from someone who knows GameLit. It really is its own peculiar duck.

Examples of GameLit from My Writing include Animal Eye, “Feeling Swamped” in the Rise and Rescue Vol 1 Anthology, “Up a Tree” in the Rise and Rescue Vol 2 Protect and Recover Anthology, “Siren” in the Warrior’s Tribute Anthology, “Seeking What’s Lost” in the Mythic Orbits Vol 2 Anthology, and “The Fall of the Invincible Man” from the Avatars of Web Surfer Anthology.

Back to Travis:

Hopefully it hasn’t been confusing to switch from me to Cindy and back. But there’s a reason why I’m doing so. My interest in Animal Eye isn’t necessarily the same as what Cindy sees in her story and as I’m talking to readers of Speculative Faith about it here, my interest is secondarily in Animal Eye itself (even though I’m the book’s publisher). Mainly I want to talk about how an original idea can open up a market that not many Christians are writing in.

By the way, Animal Eye is a GameLit adventure. In Animal Eye, Khin May and Jake are playtesters checking out the conversion of a popular kids’ game to an adult version. Khin May becomes Ahva, a feisty crow who belongs to Osse, an archer and herbalist. Jake plays Nagheed, a Nethanyan mountain shepherd, who belongs to Baron Rafayel Dorcas. They experience the Virtual Reality game as the characters and learn how to do things the animals can do. Ahva can fly and mimic almost any sound with practice, and Nagheed can track targets by their scent and run fast enough to keep pace with a horse. As the game progresses through a variety of quests, they advance their skills while learning the unusual history of the world. They and their humans gather resources to stop a priestess bent on creating laughing maniacal killers to fulfill an old grudge to destroy all civilizations but her own.

What interests me though is that the convention for video games is for players (in the fiction game of GameLit) to be humans or maybe demi-humans or intelligent aliens. Such players may have animals that help them, especially in medieval or ancient world settings. But in Animal Eye, the situation is flipped. Humans, who are important to the story for sure, are NPC (Non-Player Characters) played by an advanced AI to the point where they seem as real as the PC (Player Character) protagonists. But in the imaginary game of Animal Eye, a human player would always play an animal, never a human being or demi-human.

Animals Stars to Open a Gateway

While some GameLit stories I’ve searched for do feature animal protagonists or important animal characters, none so far has featured a game starring animal players, as far as I know. So by means of adopting an original story setting in a genre which has a negligible Christian author presence, Cindy has created a tale which may (God willing) be of interest to hard-core fans of a new genre and serve as a gateway to get them interested in tales which are not necessarily stereotypical stuff, which do not revel in sex, profanity, and violence, with no acknowledgement in any way of God.

This is the cover of the Animal Eye ebook. Artwork by Mary Campagna Findley.

Cindy’s story also does feature a disguised version of faith in God, though it’s by no means the center of the tale. But there’s an opportunity there to draw people into a different way to look at the world than what GameLit is normally doing. A Gateway to get people thinking about God, or a as “mission field” as Cindy said.

Warning: Gateways Open Both Ways

Of course by opening a connection to a genre with only a small amount of kid-friendly content, a genre generally hostile to Christianity (as Cindy reports it), there’s always the danger that connecting an innovative story to that world will not only provide a gateway for people hostile to Christ to get introduced to Christian thinking, it could on the other hand cause inquisitive young Christians to start out reading wholesome works like Cindy’s and follow the genre into slime. Yes, that’s a possible outcome–we should acknowledge that possibility and guard against it. In particular Christian parents should be aware that GameLit contains some very negative stuff and young people should be appropriately warned. Discernment is, of course, key.


The main purpose of this post is not to say “Go buy a copy of Animal Eye.” (Though of course, you can…here’s a link to the Kindle version of Animal Eye…) But rather to talk about an opportunity to reach readers in the GameLit genre and to give an example of how Cindy is doing it. As a means to explore the power of innovative story settings.

Though in fact, if any aspiring writers reading this would be interested in writing a story that’s similar to Animal Eye or would like to work with Cindy and I contributing to a sequel story that’s part of her game-featuring-animals story setting (though not with her same characters), we might be interested in that, too. Contact us.

Readers of this post, have you read any GameLit? What are your thoughts and impressions? How about stories with animal protagonists? There’s no shortage of such stories–what are your particular favorites?

The Enduring Legacy of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I never tire of spending time in a story in which skilled agents are “holding the line between the world and the much weirder world.”
on May 20, 2020 · 3 comments

It’s almost a miracle that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is returning for a seventh season on May 27. A little over a year after The Avengers brought together “Earth’s mightiest heroes” in 2012, cementing the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that had begun in 2008, this little show began as an attempt to give fans a low-level look at the more mundane goings-on in the vaunted world the movies had established.

Even though the show debuted to much fanfare, its ratings and viewership have declined consistently over the six seasons it has been on the air. It pains me to point this out because the best way I can describe Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is to say that the show is home for me. The world of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a place in which I am comfortable existing. It is a place I enjoy returning to again and again despite ever-present threats and danger. In that sense, it is on a level with the Narnia books, the Lord of the Rings movies, and the Dark Knight Trilogy—at least in my head. I never tire of spending time in a story in which skilled agents are “holding the line between the world and the much weirder world.”

I think that I am not alone. Despite steadily declining viewership numbers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a fiercely loyal following which has placed it in the top 0.03 percent of TV shows based on fan interaction with the show’s brand online—making it more popular than any of Marvel’s Netflix shows and most of DC’s television offerings. Despite its perceived disadvantages—inconsistent tie-ins to the larger MCU and never landing an appearance with any of the Avengers on air—Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the little show that could. And, as its storyline finally draws to a close (at least for now), I’ve been thinking about its enduring legacy and why the show persists.

It began with a resurrected man

He first turns up in 2008’s Iron Man as the earnest and slightly annoying “Phil Coulson, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” As he spends a few months helping Nick Fury investigate extra-normal phenomena and slowly enticing prospects to join an elite team, Coulson becomes a key player in the Avengers Initiative. That is until he is unceremoniously assassinated by Loki who stabs him through the heart with his Scepter. Director Fury is shaken by Coulson’s demise, but he attempts to use the humble agent’s death to motivate the would-be Avengers who are still struggling to work through interpersonal differences in the face of the Chitauri invasion.

It’s supposed to be the end. Phil Coulson isn’t a hero. He doesn’t have superpowers or regenerative abilities. He is mortal. Human. And humans don’t get to come back. In the grand scheme of the MCU, humans aren’t as valuable as gods, iron men, and super soldiers. Coulson was just another S.H.I.E.L.D. agent struck down in the line of duty. Until he wasn’t.

In his appearances leading up to The Avengers, fans began to feel a special connection with Coulson. He was an everyman in a world of danger and the extraordinary men and women who faced those dangers. He was a man of the people, a man for the people. And when he died, seemingly blinked out of the MCU forever, those people demanded his return.

The “Coulson Lives” fan movement began three days after The Avengers hit theaters. Fans posted #CoulsonLives banners at locations around the globe and promoted the message at comic book conventions throughout the summer. The people’s voice was heard and Marvel announced six months later that Agent Coulson would return in the upcoming Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The “sub-creators” at Marvel reached into the storytelling hat and pulled out a resurrection. Not a cheap sleight-of-hand or rewriting of cinematic history to make us believe that Coulson’s death was somehow faked or otherwise less-than-real. A real, genuine resurrection. Phil Coulson was actually dead. We find out in Season 1 that his doctored S.H.I.E.L.D. file says his heart stopped for eight seconds. However, his doctor later reveals that he was actually dead for several days and Nick Fury “moved heaven and earth” to bring him back.

It is in the resurrection of Phil Coulson that Marvel’s storytelling reaches the level of what Tolkien describes as “Primary Art.” In his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” the beloved creator of Lord of the Rings writes of the Resurrection—of Christ in particular, but of resurrection in all created stories: “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true… To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”

Phil Coulson coming back from the dead brought immense joy to the Marvel fandom—an experience which Tolkien says touches something deep inside those who participate in such stories:

The peculiar quality of “joy” in successful Fantasy can be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist).1 But in the “eucatastrophe” [a great disaster reversed] we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium [good news] in the real world.

With the resurrection of Phil Coulson, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. touches a nerve that flows deeply through humanity. But this nerve-touching does not end with Coulson. It is a theme throughout the series. Time and time again, things and people that were dead or thought dead are brought back to life. In the first season, Skye is put on life support after being shot twice in the stomach, and only medicine derived from an alien life-form stitches her broken organs back together. S.H.I.E.L.D. itself is turned inside out, perishing in chaos and bloodshed, and Coulson is tasked with re-forging the organization from the ashes of Hydra. Perhaps the most visible expression of resurrection in the series is the process of Terrigenesis, where unsuspecting individuals are caked in grave-like cocoons and reborn with extraordinary powers.

The series is a living answer to a statement many have uttered at some time: “Things would be all right if so-and-so were here.” It allows us to temporarily inhabit a world in which we would all like to abide forever—a world where there is the possibility of no more death, or at least a world where death can work backwards.

Not just a team, but a family

I’m writing this right after re-watching the thirteenth episode of Season 1. (My plan is to re-watch the entire series before the final season premieres, but I don’t think I’ll make it.) I’ve just seen Skye, orphan-turned-hacker-turned-SHIELD-agent-in-training, bleed out alone in the basement of a mansion in Italy. By the time her team finds her, she has no pulse and is no longer breathing. Even though I know Skye recovers and thrives as an agent for six-plus seasons following this episode, I’m crying.

I’m crying not just because Skye is dying, but because Jemma and Fitz are lost in the face of losing someone they’d come to love. Even the normally stoic Agent May and the steely Grant Ward are on the verge of emotional breakdown; though they easily deal out death, they are useless when Death comes for one of their own. And then there’s Coulson. He’s dead-set on one thing: saving Skye’s life. And he goes to great lengths to do it—disobeying direct orders from S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ, authorizing his team to hack secret files, putting down agents who get in his way, and risking his own life beneath a crumbling mountain.

When a member of his team is in danger or their life is threatened, Coulson becomes blind to everything else. “If Coulson thinks there’s a chance in a million to save Skye,” May tells Ward, “—to save any of us—he’d take it. People like us, we need people like him.”

Coulson’s group of agents isn’t just a team. They’re a family. Their intense loyalty and sacrificial love for each other—their commitment to saving one another again and again and again—their belief that no one they care about is expendable just for the sake of the mission—their readiness to carry each other if need be—reminds me of the Fellowship that came together to take the Ring to Mount Doom.

And, for this S.H.I.E.L.D. team, it is not just the strong who sacrifice. When Jemma realizes that the alien disease she’s contracted and has been unable to find a cure for will kill her and everyone she comes in contact with, she throws herself out of the plane to keep her team—her family—safe. When Ward realizes that S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ has no plans to rescue him and the inexperienced Fitz from hostile territory on a secret mission, he demands that Fitz leave to ensure his safety. But Fitz refuses, insisting that he has to make sure Ward stays safe as well.

This S.H.I.E.L.D. family reminds me of a band of thirteen “friends” who spent three years living together, serving together, grieving together, sacrificing together, and celebrating together (John 15:15). Despite being tasked with protecting the world from dangers unknown, they live by the creed: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

Marvel’s messiah

Messianic figures litter film, literature, and ancient myth. In Tolkien’s epic alone, Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo take on this mantle. At the end of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne willingly takes the crimes of others on his own shoulders in order to keep the Joker from “winning” so the faith of the people of Gotham might be rewarded. And there is always Aslan, the son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea; he is not safe, but he is good.

In the modern myth that is the MCU, there are several who might fit the profile for messiahship. There’s Thor, a literal god who can strike with lightning from the sky. There’s Iron Man who, it could be argued, is the de facto leader of the Avengers in the absence of Nick Fury. There’s Captain America, a decent, stand-up guy who also, in a sense, came back from the dead. I’d even put in a plug for Captain Marvel. But none of these are worthy.

When it comes to messiahship, Phil Coulson fits the bill more than any other character. Not just because he literally rose from the dead, but because he embodies more than any other the qualities of the Messiah of the True Myth: humility, compassion, sacrifice. Coulson has no superpowers. He cannot match May or Ward in hand-to-hand combat. He doesn’t brag. He gets his hands dirty alongside his team. Coulson is not someone you would think of as a leader, much less a messiah.

If there is one word I’d use to describe Coulson, it would be “shepherd.” He genuinely cares for each member of his team on a deep, personal level. They are not just agents; they are his brothers and sisters, and some are his children. He counsels them, comforts them, and cheers them on. He’s tough on them when he has to be. He drives them to be better, and they want to be better because of him—because they know he will risk his life to protect them. Time and time again, Coulson acts as the shepherd spoken of in Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:4-6):

What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

When his little lambs go astray, whether deliberately or by the machinations of others, Coulson does not hesitate to go after them. “I know the value of a thousand men, but I also know my men and what they’re worth,” he tells Victoria Hand after she sends Ward and Fitz into the field without an exit strategy. Phil Coulson, Marvel’s messiah, is “a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium [good news] in the real world.”

Perhaps we don’t deserve a show like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D—a show that doesn’t rely on cheap suspense, trash humor, and tawdry romantic entanglements to keep our interest. Perhaps it’s for the best that none of the big-league Marvel characters made appearances on the show and that the creators carved out a corner of the MCU to call their own. I know people who have seen all of the Marvel movies, but have not watched Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. They are missing out. But that is why I’m glad the show reflects Primary Art. It is flush with whispers of the True Myth. And, as such, its legacy will endure.

  1. And, I might add, enough for the audience beholding the art.

Lorehaven Updates: New Podcast Episode ‘Goes Viral,’ Event Reboots, More Reviews!

We have a whole slew of updates about Lorehaven, this website, Realm Makers, and other events!
on May 19, 2020 · 1 comment

Did we release that Randy Ingermanson bonus just one week ago on Lorehaven’s podcast Fantastical Truth? Why yes. Yes, we did. Now just one week later, we have a whole slew of updates about Lorehaven, website upgrades, Realm Makers, and other events that go beyond our next Fantastical Truth.

1. Our new podcast episode ‘goes viral’: is humanity a virus?

At Fantastical Truth, my cohost and chief engineer Zackary Russell pitched this episode. Such a great discussion ensued.

Here’s a clip from the show notes:

“The earth is healing; we are the virus.” Not long ago, that slogan itself went viral. Some made fun of it. A few took it seriously.

But under the slogan lies this faint suspicion: maybe humanity is bad somehow. Something is wrong with us. We don’t belong here.

How do Christians engage with this idea in our nonfiction and in fiction?

2. You may have seen some changes around here.

If our webmaster (hallo) did his job, this Speculative Faith blog and all of is now a bit easier on the eyes.

That’s mostly because of a few cosmetic changes.

Among these is the better alignment (in desktop view) of article content, so it doesn’t crash to the page’s right side.

Lorehaven, spring 20203. More reviews are arriving at Lorehaven.

We’ve done the math. Lorehaven magazine (free subscription here) has now released over 120 reviews since 2018.

That’s 120+ reviews of the best Christian fantasy: Christian-made, published, fantastical novels, anywhere we find them.

Last week, we began sharing those reviews with everyone.

You can find them with the newly restored ? REVIEWS tab at the top of this website.

Some new reviews will continue to be available only to free subscribers. However, with this many reviews—and especially now that we’re having advance reviews of new books!—we want to share them all where more readers can see them.

For the next few months, we will release one review a day!

For example, for this fantasy series conclusion that releases today:

The Story Hunter

Or this extended review of a space-opera classic:


Or this extended review from the alternate universe when we actually did get to Mars by now:


Even better, book reviews automatically link to the complete book information. And vice-versa.

This will help readers even better in their quest to find their next favorite story. Of course, that will benefit authors too.

Learn more about the Lorehaven project by exploring the author resources page. That’s where you can learn how to get your book listed on the site, how to request a review, and how to sponsor an ad or longer review.

4. Events are slowly resuming, one way or another.

No doubt you’ve heard the Realm Makers conference for Christian fantasy writers is going virtual this year.

( has also gotten an even more significant upgrade for this year’s event, and it looks fantastic.)

This means:

  • Registration is cheaper (those who’ve already paid have options to share with others or direct it for next year’s event).
  • Virtual attendees will still be able to mingle, video-chat, text-chat, network, watch presentations, and share their stories.
  • More people can attend the event, including those who would not have been able to reach New Jersey even before the pandemic.

Get all this info and more direct from the source at

For my part, of course Lorehaven will represent. I’ve been entrusted with some mentoring slots. And I may even pitch a fiction work or two.

However, I’m also planning to join the Florida Parent Educators Association conference.

That live, in-person homeschool conference now been rescheduled for July. There with the Realm Makers Bookstore (Lord willing!), I’ll speak on the theme of popular culture, what it’s for, and how Christian parents can train their kids to engage these stories and songs.

Next for live events: Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference, in November? Again, Lord willing!

May our Creator indeed move to ensure these events can happen in these new dates, and with rational health and safety for all involved.

More updates shall be posted here as events warrant.



E. Stephen Burnett, signature

From The Writers’ Tool Box: Writing With Tension

Fiction needs genuine and credible struggles.
on May 18, 2020 · 5 comments
· Series:

Some years ago, in an article about creating tension in fiction, I quoted agent and writing instructor Donald Maass on the subject:

Without a doubt the most common flaw I see in manuscripts from beginners and midcareer novelists alike is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest. High tension equals high interest. The ratio is mathematic, the result positive, so why do so many writers believe they can ignore the equation? (Writing the Breakout Novel, p. 174)

Saying every page needs tension is one thing. Actually pulling it off is another.

I suggest tension is something writers should aim for but not worry about until the editing process. When a first draft is complete, it remains first, not last. Honestly, I’m a little shocked when I hear some self-publishing authors talking about their third edit, as if they have really outdone themselves by going over their manuscript so often.

In truth, a traditionally published author faces multiple editing / proofreading facets of the publishing process after they turn their completed manuscript in to the publisher. Why should self-published works do less? In other words, I advocate multiple edits or revisions, much of which an author can do as part of a self-editing process. Proof reading might be something worth handing over to someone else, because no matter how carefully we look over our work, we can still miss errors we will see as soon as the book is in print.

But back to tension.

How do we know if our book has the requisite “tension on every page”? This may seem simplistic, but I suggest looking for tension. In other words, do an entire edit with one thing in mind: is there tension in this scene?

Note, I said “scene.” I find searching for tension on every page of a manuscript rather hard. It’s hard to stay in the story and ask yourself if there’s tension because, well, you are no longer in the story, so how do you know?

Instead, by looking at scenes instead of pages, evaluating the level of tension is much easier.

What’s a scene? One writing instructor likens novel scenes to scenes in a play. Of course novels have the advantage of also showing a character’s internal reactions to the actions and speech taking place on stage. The unit—both the action, dialogue, and internal discourse—together make up a scene.

You can think of a scene ending when the curtain would come down, or when the stage crew comes out to put in new scenery or new props. You can think of a scene as the end of one group of interacting with each other or the end of one day or the end of a particular activity or effort to accomplish something.

And believe me, looking for scenes—as its corollary, writing in scenes—becomes easier the more an author does it.

But here’s the secret in self-editing for tension: after identifying a scene, the author must judge whether or not there was tension.

Tension does not always mean conflict. Certainly when conflict occurs, there should be tension. But there are other ways of creating tension. For example, there can be romantic tension in which a character feels, well, romantic, and wants to move forward but may choose for his own reason (maybe he’s engaged to someone else), to refrain. (In this case, the tension is less because of the romance and more because of the struggle he has with his two desires.)

Basically tension comes from any type of struggle. Sometimes the struggle is external and those seem easy to identify. But they need to be genuine struggles. Too many superhero movies lack tension because there is no question about the outcome. The superhero will come out on top because, you know, superpower. That’s why superhero authors often create supervillains to confront the heroes—they want to make the struggle credible. They want to open the possibility in the viewer’s mind that the hero might lose. They want their story to have tension.

Fiction needs genuine and credible struggles.

Another type of conflict that creates tension is not against evil but against better. Characters may struggle knowing whether they should do Good Thing A or Good Thing B. An example would be the character who must decide whether to save the drowning boy or to call 9-1-1 to report the gunman taking a hostage. Both are needed, but he can’t do both at the same time. What should he do? Is there a third option?

Struggles don’t have to be this dramatic, but they do have to matter. What a character needs to decide should hold consequences. If the result of Decision A is . . . life goes on, and the result of Decision B is . . . life gets better, there really is no tension when the character “struggles” to decide. He’s be pretty clueless if he didn’t choose the path that leads to better. So the results are pretty obvious, and therefore the tension is pretty low.

All that to say, writers need to evaluate their own scenes based on whether there is tension, high or low. Varying the level of tension is not bad at all, but a consistent story with scene after scene of low tension simply won’t hold a reader’s interest.

I’ve created a simple chart in which I write a short scene description, identify what the character wants, and then rate the tension on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being highest.

Another thing that helps me: ask if I’m interested or bored with the scene. If I’m bored, the reader likely will be too.

And this: if I don’t know where the scene ends and starts, the story may be rambling (and this lack of direction often displaces tension).

In the end, when I complete the chart, I have a picture of what I believe to be true about the level of tension in my novel, so I can easily see which sections need more work.

It’s not full-proof. We are evaluating our own work, after all, so we can wink at the parts that have low tension without realizing we are. But taking this close look and asking questions about the tension level will most likely help us eliminate the worst, lowest points of tension, and the book is bound to be better for it.