Part 1: Five ABA SF Stories: Are They CSF? What Can They Teach Us?

This is too long an examination to cover in one—even one LONG—post. So, we’ll see how far we go. Anyone is free to take up the discussion here and run with it. It would help if you had the stories […]
on Aug 11, 2006 · No comments

This is too long an examination to cover in one—even one LONG—post. So, we’ll see how far we go. Anyone is free to take up the discussion here and run with it. It would help if you had the stories to read, so here they are, in case these books/stories are in your or a pal’s library:

“The Traveler and the Tale” by Jane Yolen (from SISTER EMILY’S LIGHTSHIP)

“Samaritan” by Connie Willis (from FIRE WATCH)

“Hell is the Absence of God” by Ted Chiang (novelette from  STORIES OF YOUR LIFE & OTHERS) (Winner of Hugo and Nebula)  (Available at Fictionwise for a buck and change:

“Queen” by Gene Wolfe (in INNOCENTS ABOARD)

“Bed & Breakfast” by Gene Wolfe (from STRANGE TRAVELERS)

Every story I’ve chosen is intentionally NON-CBA. You won’t find the books that carry them in your Family Bookstore or in Christian Book Distributors website. These are ABA books and ABA authors. And I’ve picked writers who are highly regarded by fellow artists (and readers) as among the best that SF has to offer. All of these writers  have won the Nebula (at least once) and a bushel of other awards. The first two listed stories are science-fiction. The rest, the final three, are fantasy—all with theological/Christian  underpinnings or elements of some sort.

Let’s see. Where to start…

I’ll just take the first tale, a brief one to warm us up for analysis: “The Traveler and the Tale.”

Quick overview: The story begins in such a way that it could be a historical account: “Traveling south from Ambert you must pass the old stoney abbey of La Chaise-Dieu. It was near that abbey in 1536 that a young woman fell asleep on a dolmen and dreamed of the virgin.”

The narrator goes on to relate, briefly, what the folks thought of the peasant woman’s witness, ie, she must be lying or deluded, because she is not as good as she should be and the night was cold, which could affect the mind. Skepticism. Judgment.

Then our perspective is thrown for a loop: This is not history. This is not fantasy with a Virgin. This is science-fiction, and the “Virgin Mary” is a time-traveller, whose shiny travel aura and helmet seem heavenly illumination to the viewer. The traveler’s “merde”—a curse word—is heard as “Marie,” a self-identifier of the stranger, the peasant assumes.

Then the traveler informs us of her mission, one authorized by the Revolutionary Council,  an irrevocable mission, as she cannot return to her time 3000 years in the future. She is there to tell stories, because nothing time-travelers have done to try and improve the future—such as assassinating tyrants—has made one iota of difference to the course of events. Only stories change people and events and history. And the future.

In the traveler’s true time, frog-like aliens have enslaved humans. Now she’s come armed with fairy tales that warn of frog-like invaders—changelings—in order to inculcate a distrust and dread of frogs into the human consciousness, and to empower the hearers. Humans can defeat invading frogs. Whip them out of the world! She is aware, though, that having been viewed and thought of as a heavenly being of religious sort, this new story might change the world, too.

Would her story “bring a resurgence of piety to the land whose practical approach to religion had led to an easy accommodation with the socialism of the twentieth century, the apostacy of the twenty-first, the capitulation to Alien rites of the twenty-second?”

Then the story shifts to tell one of the fairy tales, one that in other forms actually is part of our literary cache: Dinner in the Eggshell. A changeling story.

Then the story shifts to a communiqué of victory over the aliens, but not from the Revolutionary Council, no, but from the Marian Council.

Finally, we hear from the traveler’s daughter, one who has learned and repeated her mother’s tale, who recalls her dying mother’s only comfort came from telling tales. But unlike her unbelieving maman, the daughter is devout and, while she tells the traveler’s tales, she says that, “stories do not feed a mouth, they do not salve a wound, they do not fill the soul. Only God does that. And the Mother of God. We know that surely here in our village, for did not two women just thirty years past see Mary, Mother of God, on a dolmen? Her head was crowned with stars and she named herself…One of the women who saw her was Maman.”

So we know that the traveler confirmed the Marian apparition she knew to be false—perhaps to cover her tracks, perhaps hoping it would save the future, as indeed it would. But Maman did not really believe, for what mattered until the end for her were the fairy tales—not God or the Mary she elevated accidentally to a local legend. And yet, the faith in the Mother of God would be the thing that turned it all around.

1. Is it CSF?

I think it’s SF that uses Christian elements and treats them kindly, yet treats Christianity as if it were mere fiction. In other words, the “truth” of the tale is that stories of Christianity are powerful, but they are nothing more than stories. We save ourselves, through stories. Stories save us,  not Christ. So let’s keep those powerful stories around, let’s believe them for their power and goodness and preserve them, even if they are not true.

It also explains away marian apparitions as time travel events, so there is no mystery about the apparition. Here it is. It’s explicable. It’s not divine. It’s just me, a human.

Christians are sweet, ignorant, affectionate dupes in this story. And the gospel and Virgen are myth, fairy tales of a sort.

So, while it has a lovely use Catholic elements, and while there is a showing of devout characters who pray and believe,  it is not CSF  in my view. The worldview is materialistic, not supernaturalistic.  The tone is skeptical, but not antagonistic. Christian-friendly, if you will.

We could stretch and stretch and say it was divine intervention that turned the peasant woman’s ankle, putting her in the right place and right time to preserve the world from “apostacy” and saving the future generations. But I think that’s really reading into it what’s not clearly there. It’s a nice thought, though.

2. What can we learn from it?

To subvert expectations creatively: The changes in POV in the story are sudden, without transition, and yet perfectly done.

To employ the best prose we can reach for: Yolen’s is clean and lovely and rhythmic:

“History, like a scab, calcifies over each wound and beneath it the wound of human atrocity heals. Only through stories, it seems, can we really influence the history that is to come. Told to a ready ear, repeated by a willing mouth, by that process of mouth-to-ear resuscitation we change the world.  Stories are not just recordings. They are prophecies. They are dreams. And—so it seems—we humans build the future on such dreams.”

To freely use Christian experience in creative ways: Twist expectation. A Catholic might have written a story that had a real apparition and, hoorah, it changed the world. But what would be special or speculative about it?

If you read this story, you will see that the dimensions—past, our present, the traveler’s future—are all interacting, mimicking how stories interact with people in order to change the past, present, and future. The shifts of time and perspective keep us on our toes. The ending is and is not what the original revolutionaries intended—faith in Mary has changed the world, not the frog stories alone, and not in a simplistic one-to-one correlation of “there she is, she saved the world with a miracle.”

To work style and structure to every advantage: The feel of parts of this tory— fairy tale feel and historical feel and fantastic and science-fiction atmospheres—flow as fluid as the changes in the world, or as the travelers flowing back through time, except that the stories are more fluid: they go back and forth.  The structure of the telling itself is different, and suits the tale—echoes it, in fact.

To ask what ifs, always: If a Catholic who believed in Marian apparitions as true revelations from heaven wrote this, it might be very similar, and yet allow for a real apparition. Let’s say the first one, the peasant gal, would be the time traveler. But then the traveler herself would see an apparition, and would not have an explanation for it, and perhaps be drawn to real faith. And perhaps even Mary herself came down to encourage the futuristic troops under her banner. How else could it be told, this tale, without making a myth of Christianity?

To work with our literary riches and innovate:  Take traditional elements—fairy tales, religious experiences—and employ them in tales of wonder that uphold a Christian worldview and a believer’s tone. Retell them, but don’t be predictable. Keep the truth, but don’t be ordinary.

How else would this story be classifiable as CSF according to mine or M. LaBar’s criteria?

Do you think it’s CSF from what I’ve described? Have you read it and does your opinion differ?

Next Week: Another of our listed stories goes under the Mircroscope.

What do you think?