Eta Cancri review

Please welcome Xewleer to Superversive SF, he is a new reviewer and you can expect a lot more from him. His review is cross posted from his blog millennialking.wordpress.com

Spoilers! It’s a great book, and worth reading.


I just finished Eta Cancri by Russell May. It was, surprisingly for an author who was not on my radar before, an excellent read chock full of delicious theology. It was a treat, to be sure. The characters are living and breathing with distinct personalities. The descriptions are on point. The science is a good medium-hard, with just the right amount of give for philosophical and theological conversations the teeth they need to grow. Ah… that more stories which pride themselves on science and philosophy would take this route!

The book switches through various characters’ POV. My personal favorites were Ed and June, along with the AI Archie. Each one has a solid voice and drive that breathes life into this book more than could be expected. Indeed, books that switch perspective live and die on this sword. I could tell that the POV shifted through the author’s choices in word play, character focus and other hints almost instantly.

The conceit of the story, which involves demonic possession, bacteria and genetic modification, was well done and quite unique to this author from my experiences. Though I have experimented and read up on demonic possession and stories about it, this is the first time I’ve seen it used in such a broad and interesting way. Nothing triggered any sort of violation of the suspension of disbelief. It holds up the story incredibly well. This is dreadfully important in this genre as Russell did it. If the suspension of Disbelief is violated, then the entire book will fall over itself and the threads that he depends on to carry the story forward logically will be lost, unable to be gained back.

Though there is no part of the story I groaned at the reading of, I did feel fatigue about halfway through on chapter 3 or 4 (?). The story before and after focuses on multiple characters, the evil of the Demon Legion, the science, philosophy and theology mix and POV shifts. This middle bit has nothing that really sticks out too hard. The story sticks to Pierce the techno-everyman and doesn’t shift too much. There’s just too much dialogue and not enough cool stuff to give us a rest between theological questions. Not that I was exhausted by the questions, I just wish the heady brew was cut a little with soda. Even a bit where Ed deals with his crazy and preps for the ship coming in, or June sees something which heightens our horror at the actions of Legion would do much for the pacing and general interest. I’ll point out that Ed has no reason to not succumb or struggle with Legion’s influence and a decent POV could have been written comparing and contrasting his belief in Dame Fortune and the belief in God, which is touched upon later but not to my satisfaction.

I’ll point out that, theologically, what we call Dame Fortune is the Will of God. That the saved man has free will is not something I debate or question. I question how much Dame Fortune impugns it. (I use Dame Fortune as a conceit from the story. Mentally, I use the term ‘Fate’) Does a belief in Fortune change how free will operates as we continue in Christian Free Will or Willfulness Against God? I think that there might have been an excellent few points to be made there between Ed and Father Justinian, more than was done in story. Though, there is a sequel in the cliff hanger, and I will be purchasing it as soon as it comes out.

I also wanted a little more debate on the nature on Transhumanism. I am not fond of it, as I believe that the body has the critical mass to keep the soul ‘Human’ and that, at a certain point, the ‘I as I’ that is ‘You as you are’ becomes warped into something that could be described as ‘ME’ 2.0. Also, what is morality to someone who is neither permanent or baseline human? (Though those points are touched on) June seemingly has no contrast in character, but rather is June personality as June soul is June without much debate despite much lycanthropy. Various ideas are presented with authority, but I don’t feel it is earned. The matrons producing ubermenschen in the asteroid belts are not properly repudiated in a manner that I call an argument. Rather, it is just presented as wrong. I dig, but I’m really hoping for a similar thing to Ed in the sequel.

I’ve not gone into the plot because it’s quite simple. A colony goes dark and a ragtag group of cyborgs, everymen and mercenaries go to figure it out and cleanse with fire whatever’s in there. Just about right, really. You don’t need fancy pants intrigue for stuff like this. Most of the characters are moral, upright and probably one of the best portrayals of Christians I’ve seen in Science Fiction. I’m sorry John C. Wright, but sort of randomly turning Mickey the Witch into the Space Pope of the Seventh Humans because of his wife without a redemption scene just doesn’t compare to baptism after flamebroiling demonic abominations with improvised explosives created by a literal Biblical evil. But it’s different scopes. That scene doesn’t compare to the Cathedral of Luna in the 4th book of Count to Eschaton. Ahhhh it’s perhaps differences in scale. But I’d be very interested in talking with Russel May some time to break down what he believes and what his reasoning is.

I wanted MORE, if you could believe it. I find that I have a hard time reading philosophy directly, so I have a better time consuming it if its regurgitated through literature, especially when the author provides examples within the story to provide a more definite framework for the reader to investigate. It really does wonders for the most artistically inclined philosophers, who may not be able to as readily read the great works directly. Of course, this assumes the reader is able to properly manage things that are presented vs. their origin points. Counter and counter-counter is appreciated through the characters of Archie, Father Justinian and even Legion. Legion’s absolute Nihilism is well presented without the usual tropes in plain evidence. There’s always a fresh horror from him. His unfetteredness and nihilism make an excellent baseline for the ‘evil’ of the universe. Nihilism is a hell of a drug, kids, and leads to madness.

I also think the book is missing a carnival scene. But then again, I’m a sucker for them. I also wanted more crazy bomb stuff fight scene flip outs from Michaud and Lars, but ah.

The combat scenes are fresh, well done. The weapons properly treated with excellent extensions of characterization through them. The creativity that Russell displays drives the story forward with brazen steps. Lar’s and the rest of the characters’ spirituality treated so delicately as to be art. Ah! There are few flaws and many boons to reading this book!

Overall this book is mos defs a purchase soft-cover, maybe hard-cover kinda book. Sadly, there are only kindle copies available at this time. It is worth a read! It is SUPERVERSIVE. I hope with fervent prayer that we are coming to an era where the dominant voice in Sci-Fi is Christianity! If Russell May joins the luminaries of the Superversives, Castalia House and others, shall not the glory of God be expanded in this genre of atheists, science worshippers and deviants?  DEUS VULT!

Xewleer

I, even I, drink ink like wine.

Review: Writing Down the Dragon

Tom Simon’s “Writing Down the Dragon” is an excellent resource of essays, musings and research on Tolkien.

 

This body of essays covers a wide variety of elements that go into Lord of the Rings and related works. There are essays on Tolkien’s love of language, and linguistic feats involved in his works and characters. There is also a great deal of serious and deep thought on the nature of good and evil in these works. My personal favorite was the in-depth thought into the morality of Elves, Orcs and even Dragons.
Tom goes into an analysis of the morality of Elves, where they are superior beings, representing beauty and an unfallen state. He also goes into a detailed account of how they have changed from other Elves, the Elves and Fair Folk of myths before, and how innovate a chance Tolkien made. Both sorts of Elves, Tolkien’s, and the original myths, still shine most of the faerie folk of later literature, all too often lacking in depth are anything of the otherworldliness of the older Elves.

 

Orcs pose a significant moral question: can they be good? Since Morgoth who made the Orcs cannot create, only twist and warp that which is, Tom gives serious consideration to the morality of these accursed beings. His gives a serious study on neurology and psychopathy, and postulates that the Orcs may be the result to turn a whole people into psychopaths.

 

Dragons come off not so much as having morality, but being definitive of mental concepts. Smaug, for example, IS greed, and nothing more. Personally, I thought there was a great deal of pride and wrath there as well, and the corrupt old worm seemed to actually relish having someone to talk to (before he ate him, naturally). There is a great piece about the pet dragons of popular literature, and how likely the master/pet relationship would be reversed in any realistic telling. Examining the Asiatic dragons, he integrates myth and the philosophy of the far east to create a very believable nightmare scenario of a dragon empire.
Carefully thought out, deeply researched, and entertaining to read, this is an excellent addition for the Tolkien lover.

The Princess and the Goblin/ Curdie

(Originally posted at the Castalia House Blog)Princess-and-curdie

Part One Part Two

The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel The Princess and Curdie are quite different from the previous two books I’ve reviewed, in that they have strong characters and relatively well-crafted, engaging plots. They still have their weaknesses, and writers like Lewis, Chesterton and Tolkein far surpassed MacDonald in these aspects of writing, but these two books are a marked improvement. In some ways, they pair up like “The Golden Key” and Phantastes, in that the first book has children as the protagonists and a more child-friendly plot, and the second has adults (or near-adults) as the protagonists and many more mature themes and greater drama. The difference, of course is that in this case rather than merely exhibiting various parallels, the second is a genuine sequel to the first, and the protagonists are the same, only having grown up.

The worldbuilding in these two latter books is far more solid and consistent than in the former two. In “The Golden Key” and Phantastes, there is a normal human world in contact with a separate and a weird fairy world.

In The Princess and the Goblin, the goblins (also referred to as gnomes, kobolds or cobs) are former humanlike creatures who after harsh treatment by the human king in ages past retreated underground and have lived there ever since, over the generations becoming increasingly grotesque as well as cunning and bitter towards the humans and the king’s descendants in particular. The titular Princess Irene is the eight-year-old daughter of the current king, who due to her mother’s ill health had her moved from the palace to a large half-castle, half-farmhouse halfway up a mountain. He is frequently away from her on kingly business across his very large kingdom and a careful watch is kept on her to prevent the goblins from reaching her, so much so that in all her life she has never seen the night sky.

One day she manages to sneak away from her nurse into a distant corner of the half-castle, climbs its tower and discovers a mysterious magical grandmother figure, who reveals she is the princess’s great-great grandmother, and also named Irene, since the Princess was named after her. She is hundreds of years old and lives on pigeon’s eggs. No-one else in the house knows she is there (and as it turns out later, no-one else can see or hear her apart from the king).

A day or two later, the Princess and her nurse are out on a walk, but through the princess’ pleadings to go just a little further, they find themselves in the open after sundown, eventually hounded on many sides by goblins. They are rescued by the twelve-year-old son of a miner, Curdie, who shoos the goblins away with a rhyming song. (Being unable to sing themselves, they are repelled by the sound of singing, especially songs involving novel rhyming).

The goblins are somewhat comic villains, but they do present a genuine threat and are quite thoroughly fleshed out. They have relatively clearly laid out anatomical differences from humans that gives them different weak spots from human bodies, some of their perspectives flow directly from their anatomy, environment and day/night cycle, there is even a scandalous rumour among them about the anatomical results of interbreeding between goblins and humans, this aspect of the story feels almost science fictional.

Curdie and his father are often working down in the mines, occasionally working past sundown on the surface, at which time the goblins can be heard working on their own diggings, being nocturnal creatures One night, Curdie is down in the mines by himself and finds that the shaft he has been digging is right next to one of the goblins’ workings, so much so that he is able to overhear the conversation of a goblin family, in which they mention their anatomical weakness, as well as part of the diabolical plans they have for the humans. Curdie opens a small hole from his workings to theirs, and follows the family to a meeting with the Goblin king, where it is clear that the backup plan they have should their first plan fail, is to flood the mine that he and his father have been working. He tells his parents about the goblin plan and they start thinking about ways to foil it.

Several days later, Curdie goes out on various explorations of the goblin tunnels, trying to find out what their more immediate plan is, and on one of these missions he is captured by the goblin queen. Then comes one of the parts of the book for which it is famous, where the princess Irene comes and rescues Curdie instead of the other way around. This she does by following a magical thread given to her by her great great grandmother that only she can detect, which not only leads her directly to Curdie’s location but also shows her the way out. After leading Curdie to safety, she tries to introduce him to her grandmother, but he can’t see her or any of the beautiful furnishings of her room, and gets angry with the princess for making a fool out of him. I’m pretty sure this scenes inspired Lucy’s interactions with Aslan (and her siblings disbelieving her) in Prince Caspian.

There’s a lot more to the story, which ends with the Goblins’ plans being foiled and Curdie choosing the honest life of a miner over being made a member of the royal court, with both himself and the princess still being children. It’s an enjoyable and satisfying read, and fun for children.

The Princess and Curdie picks up a few years later, when both Curdie and Princess Irene are well into their teenage years. The princess left with the king and over the years Curdie has given in to cynicism. His hardened shell is broken through when he is teaching himself to use a bow and arrow and shoots down a pigeon, which as its life fades gives him a look that reminds him of the princess.

Distraught, he considers that perhaps this is one of the great-great grandmother’s pigeons and he seeks her out and finds her. She treats the pigeon, begins to teach him and gives him a test of obedience and wisdom. He passes the test and she invites him back to her tower, where she purifies Curdie’s hands in her magical fire and sends him on a mission to the king’s court. Curdie’s hands now have the power to tell whether someone is on a downward spiral towards becoming a beast, or are honest and good (this turns out to make some aspects of the story a little too easy and less satisfying).

He sets out on his journey, and reaches the capital, finding it full of arrogance and corruption, with many of the palace staff conspiring against the king, keeping him sick and confused through some sort of drugged (or perhaps poisoned) wine and trying to get him to sign a document that would abdicate all power to them. Curdie discovers the plot and together with the princess and the few loyal palace staff tries to rescue the king and salvage his kingdom, assisted by all manner of weird and wonderful creatures.

There are a great deal more little inspirational asides and poetical flourishes in the second book than the first, though not nearly as many as in Phantastes. There are a lot of fun things in this book, together with some aspects that don’t work quite as well, and an ending that is surprisingly downbeat. After saving the kingdom and eventually becoming king and queen as you would expect, they have no children of their own and leave no legacy behind. After they pass away, selfish and shortsighted kings take over and the kingdom eventually utterly destroys itself, disappearing from all human memory. It is an odd choice, perhaps MacDonald wanted to make sure that there would be no demand for more sequels, or perhaps he wanted to parallel the story of the last good king of Judah before the exile, who knows.

Anyway, I think the pair of them are worth a read, I might try reading them to my kids in the near future, and I have grown to appreciate some of Lewis’ admiration for the man and his work. When the rush of writing commitments has calmed, I’ll probably seek out some more of his work to try out.

I hope this little series of reviews has been as eye-opening to you all as it has been for me to explore this little corner of literature, which has proven to be a lot bigger on the inside than it appeared from the outside.

Phantastes by George MacDonald

(Originally posted at the Castalia House Blog)

PhantastesEverything I said last week about “The Golden Key” applies in spades to Phantastes. Though there is a tenuous common narrative thread through the book and continuity is kept, this book overall reads more like a stream of consciousness sketch show, but where the object of each sketch is not comedy, but to inspire awe. I’ll start with a little compare and contrast between the two.

Like in “The Golden Key”, in Phantastes the viewpoint character is a human that travels into fairyland from the human world, is warned about dangers and has many weird and wonderful experiences.

In “The Golden Key”, the protagonists are children who lived just beyond the borders of fairyland in full view of it, constantly aware of its existence, and they enter fairyland simply by walking out of the door (or climbing out of the window and walking there.

In Phantastes, the protagonist Anodos is an adult from the normal human world (a man from Scotland having just turned 21) totally unaware of the existence of fairyland. A little while after meeting a tiny magical creature that appears form his late father’s old secretary desk, he finds a path into fairyland through the designs of his bedroom furnishings turning into the things those designs represent: his washbasin turns into a spring that feeds a clear stream across his bedroom floor, his carpet which he himself designed to look like a field of daisies turns into an actual one, the carved ivy designs on his dressing table become real ivy etc. It seems not unreasonable to me that this inspired some of C.S. Lewis’ gateways into Narnia, such as the painting in the Dawn Treader coming to life.

In “The Golden Key”, the children carefully obey the instructions and heed the warnings they are given, and so the reader never really fears for their safety.

In Phantastes, Anodos basically ignores every warning given to him (about travelling in the forest at night, about an evil seductive beauty, about opening a certain door), a couple of times making me want to reach into the book and slap him. Ignoring these warnings gets him into serious trouble and facing some genuinely scary enemies (a vindictive ash tree that stalks him through the night, a hollow shape changer, an ogre etc.) The self-inflicted problem that sticks with him the longest is his evil shadow that plagues him with cynical eyes so that the magical things in fairyland appear mundane and worthless.

Anodos meets all sorts of creatures and people: beautiful women of one sort or another including a living marble statue that he falls in love with and rescues from its entombing alabaster through the power of song, a maternal figure, a young girl with a mystical globe, Sir Percival of Arthurian legend, a pair of princes who teach him how to fashion armour and together they take on three giants, there are also miniature fey creatures, walking trees, and brutal cultists.

He ventures through all sorts of places: through field and forest, river and sea, cottage and boat, a long and narrowing misty tunnel, a prison tower, a watch tower and a fairy palace with all manner of wondrous rooms and furnishings. In all of these places he meets fantastical creatures, makes fascinating discoveries or faces genuine dangers.

One of the fun things about this work is all the ways you can see it inspired other writers. Here are a few examples:

This little passage about the cynical shadow shows how it inspired the dwarves who proudly disbelieved in the wonders of Aslan’s Country in the Last Battle.

 But the most dreadful thing of all was, that I now began to feel something like satisfaction in the presence of the shadow. I began to be rather vain of my attendant, saying to myself, “In a land like this, with so many illusions everywhere, I need his aid to disenchant the things around me. He does away with all appearances, and shows me things in their true colour and form. And I am not one to be fooled with the vanities of the common crowd. I will not see beauty where there is none. I will dare to behold things as they are. And if I live in a waste instead of a paradise, I will live knowing where I live.”

And this description of a forest I think inspired the wood between the worlds in the Magician’s Nephew:

 But even here I was struck with the utter stillness. No bird sang. No insect hummed. Not a living creature crossed my way. Yet somehow the whole environment seemed only asleep, and to wear even in sleep an air of expectation. The trees seemed all to have an expression of conscious mystery, as if they said to themselves, “we could, an’ if we would.”

Scattered throughout the book are little asides, beautiful thoughts and insights, for example:

 Why are all reflections lovelier than what we call the reality?—not so grand or so strong, it may be, but always lovelier? Fair as is the gliding sloop on the shining sea, the wavering, trembling, unresting sail below is fairer still. Yea, the reflecting ocean itself, reflected in the mirror, has a wondrousness about its waters that somewhat vanishes when I turn towards itself. All mirrors are magic mirrors. The commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn to the glass.

This is the sort of thing that G.K. Chesterton would later become famous for, blending his own stunning insights into his tales even more expertly; perhaps it is no stretch to imagine that he got the idea from reading MacDonald?

There are many more, and I’m sure those who are more widely read than I will see even more connections than I did.

C.S. Lewis once said that a certain quality of the story, a wondrous purity, a ‘bright shadow’ that the whole of Anodos’ adventure was infused with, he later recognised to be holiness. Not just the connotation of purity and goodness, but also the word’s original meaning of something being set apart for a higher purpose, otherworldly and different, yet reflected in the world around us.

As I have noted, the story is meandering, with a plot that is really a series of loosely connected short tales and scenes that perhaps both reflects the chaotic, enchanting, otherworldy and glorious nature of fairyland as well as MacDonald’s admitted shortcomings as a writer. The character growth of Anodos on my first reading also seems a little haphazard, while the supporting cast also lack character depth. The ending also felt a little sudden, though maybe it wouldn’t on a second reading.

Other writers took inspiration from his astounding worlds and combined it with compelling characters and well-crafted plots to produce some of the greatest literature of the early twentieth century. It is as if MacDonald mined a seam containing brilliant undiscovered jewels and presented them to the world, then others came afterwards to expertly cut and set those gems into exquisite jewellery. In the process those later artists became more beloved and popular than the one on whose shoulders they stood.

Even if it turns out that his particular style is not to your liking, MacDonald’s contribution to the world of literature is one that we should all be grateful for, and the above metaphor will become even more apt as we look next week at The Princess and The Goblin together with its sequel The Princess and Curdie.

The Golden Key by George MacDonald

(This was originally posted over at the Castalia house blog)

George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish poet, author and Christian minister. His fantasy novels made him a household name in his day, but he is now far less well known than the writers he inspired and influenced, despite their numerous and enthusiastic praise of his pioneering work. Those writers include Ursula K Leguin, Lewis Carrol, G.K. Chesterton, W.H. Auden, Mark Twain, Madeleine L’Engle and he was a childhood favourite of Tolkien, though as an adult Tolkien did not view MacDonald’s work so favourably. Perhaps his most enthusiastic and vocal fan, and the author through which I and many others have rediscovered MacDonald is C.S. Lewis, who not only publically declared MacDonald to be his master, and made him his guide through heaven in The Great Divorce, but also put together a collection of his sayings, entitled George MacDonald: An Anthology. So what is it about MacDonald and his work that made him so influential, and yet so forgotten now (apart from the usual generation gap)? I won’t be providing any detailed analysis, merely giving my own impressions as a fan of Lewis and Chesterton trying to slowly catch up with the classical education he missed out on as a boy.

I will start with his one of his most famous short fairy tales, “The Golden Key” first published in 1867, then next time I’ll look at the novel that is widely credited with launching the fantasy genre, Phantastes (1858) then return one more time for one of his later works, The Princess and The Goblin (1872) and its sequel The Princess and Curdie (1875). Don’t expect me to compare these works with other stories of his, these will be all I have sampled so far. Feel free to suggest other works to look at later when I have some more reading time available (an increasingly valuable resource nowadays), but this series will be limited to these three instalments.

“The Golden Key” is quite unlike modern books (at least the ones I have read), one small quotation may help to sum up the kind of adventure it takes you on:

“But in Fairyland it is quite different. Things that look real in this country look very thin indeed in Fairyland, while some of the things that here cannot stand still for a moment, will not move there.”

This is what reading “The Golden Key” was like for me, and I expect many others; there is little in the way of narrative tension or character depth and it has a rambling, dreamlike plot (which is most likely why Tolkien grew to dislike his work as an adult). It is more a series of moments of wonder and purity that stay with you long after having put the book down, images and concepts that spark your imagination and gently transform you, such as fish that gracefully swim through the air and happily sacrifice themselves to grant their eaters the power to understand the creatures of the forest. After doing so the fish is rewarded by being transformed into an aeranth, a small angelic creature. Then there is wading knee-deep through layers of magnificent shadows that fall from somewhere high up in the sky; meeting ancient figures – the more ancient, the more youthful their appearance and behaviour seem to us; time flowing at very different rates; magnificent glimpses of a much wider world whose beauties cannot be fully put into words.

The story follows two children, who are given the nicknames Mossy and Tangle (we never discover their real names), who find their way into the forest of Fairyland for different reasons, Mossy chases the end of a rainbow in search of the titular golden key that his great-aunt told him about, eventually finding it, while Tangle runs from a home in which she is neglected, to escape the tricks of some mischievous fairies.

They are guided individually by the air fish to the house of a beautiful woman that calls herself Grandmother, who has lived for thousands of years, but doesn’t have time to grow old. Mossy asks her where the lock is that the golden key opens, she doesn’t know and so sends them to the Old Man of the Sea to find the answer. On the way they pass through the layers of shadows and become determined to find the land from where the shadows fall.

To describe the rest of the plot would be to spoil it, it is a relatively short work and available online for free in various places via project Gutenberg, among others. Though this story is definitely aimed at children, it has many beautiful concepts for adults to mull over and enjoy and a wonderfully uplifting ending – I am glad to have read it and expanded my horizons a little, and in my opinion it makes for a very good introduction to MacDonald’s work (at least the amount I have read, if you like this, you’ll most likely like his other work). Give it a read and refresh your mind.

Next week I’ll be looking at Phantastes, discussing the influences I could see on the authors I know and giving some of my own thoughts as to why he fell out of favour.

Nethereal

Nethereal mixes science-fiction, fantasy and horror in unexpected ways. Space running ether ships battle with magically worked devices, the mystical Guild controls the space lanes with otherworldly wheels and compasses, and necromancers meddle in the boundaries of life and death in horrid ways.

The tale focuses on a pirate crew fighting to free the worlds from the oppressive grip of the Guild. The captain is half-breed last of his kind, wiped out by the Guild, and commands the last of his people’s ships. Their navigator is a beautiful rogue Guilds-woman, who seems to have an inhuman heritage, and is followed by a hell-hound that hovers in the darkness. Their fighting-man is a scarred mercenary of endless campaigns with iron determination. Together they are pursued by an obsessive Guild-warden who will stop at no atrocity to kill them, and finally wipe out the last of the race the Guild warred with.

All of that is just in the beginning. Later they will tangle with necromancers, forbidden magics and technologies, cross the boundary into Hell itself, and face legendary beings of sanity-stretching scale.

http://www.amazon.com/Nethereal-Soul-Cycle-Book-1-ebook/dp/B00ZBDOHKU/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1454015010&sr=1-1&keywords=nethereal

Superversive Blog: Guest Post — Where Religion and Fantasy Meet

This essay began as a post on John C. Wright’s blog. I mentioned that I’d love to post something on this subject for the Superversive Blog. And, here it is!

dore hell 5

Theologic License

by Matthew Schmidt.

An apologia before I begin. Being Christian, and more particularly Catholic, I am writing this from the perspective of a writer considering Catholic theology while writing. However, I believe the same issue will occur to anyone who is attempting to write but also is concerned about their theological accuracy, whatever their theology may be.

The problem of mixing speculative fiction with actual religion has existed since the first time Og told a ghost story around the cave’s fire, and, having returned to hunting the next day, wondered what ghosts meant for the Great Spirit. Whatever Og’s conclusion was has been lost to time, but we see it again more recently (relatively speaking) in The Divine Comedy. In the depths of Hell, Dante comes across Odysseus, who is eternally punished for attempting to reach Purgatory by the sole effort of humans. What exactly the presence of Odysseus implied for the panoply of feuding Greek divinities of the Iliad and the Odyssey, in the further reality of the True Divine, is not considered.

But while Og needed only entertain his tribesmen for a few minutes, and Dante used Odysseus as a symbol of the inadequacy of mortal powers, the modern speculative fiction author does not get off so easily.
The questions for the fantasy author have plagued the genre since Tolkien. They arrive like rubberneckers at the world’s construction site, incessantly pestering the author. If there is a fictional pantheon, are those gods “real?” Are they angelic like the Valar of Valinor, or noble beings like the Overcyns of Skai? Or are they mere frauds as Tash—a safe choice, but then Tash actually appears at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia and the issues are immediately raised. Add magic and ethical issues enter immediately, and whole essays have been written on the topic (see the excellent one by Tom Simon.)

The science fiction author can only avoid the same questions with sufficiently hard science and sufficient planning ahead. (Be sure to put three or so bishops on your generation ship to avoid issues of apostolic succession.) Reach for any other ingredient—time travel, artificial intelligence, or worse yet, extraterrestrial life—and now you have some irritating theological question, one that will devour your creative energies like a black hole.

And avoiding that singularity is the key. In my experience as a writer, attempting to write any kind of speculative fiction while staying behind every jot and tittle of established theology is futile. Fear of writing heretical ideas will do more damage to your writing than actually writing something theologically inaccurate.

After all, by the very definition of fiction, we write of things which God did not do. For Divine Wisdom did not see fit to make Mars habitable to life, allow steam to be able to power giant battle mechs, give information the ability to travel faster than light, or open doors to adjacent dimensions on a convenient schedule. Even “literary” fiction cannot escape this, as whenever it invents an character or happening that does not exist, it tells of an option that the Creator did not take. This leaves only fiction which describes events exactly as they happened, i.e. nonfiction.

But suppose you are willing to stretch the bounds of theology. Should you create a new theology to encompass your alterations? It depends. I’ve found that attempting to construct a sound theology for an idea before using it, unless this is actually relevant to the story, is also pointless, and also hamstringing. There was no point in Lewis breaking off onto a discourse on what Tash actually was in the middle of The Last Battle. At the same time, had he never considered what Jesus would be like in a world like Narnia, we would never have Aslan.

But let us return to Dante for a moment. The Divine Comedy is inaccurate in multiple ways, even setting aside the unexplained existence of various figures of Greek myth. The Catholic Church does not teach anyone specific is in Hell, let alone their location and specific punishment, and Dante must have been well aware of this. But the point of the Inferno is not to map judgments to sinners, or a soapbox for Dante to place his adversaries in eternal damnation. The Inferno depicts the soul of the unjust, and whatever liberties it takes to do this are to show poetic truths, not theological ones. Odyesseus is placed where he is to show the inadequacy of natural powers to reach the supernatural.

But could Dante had succeeded if he had stayed within the boundaries of theology? No. There was no one more suited to attempt Purgatory than Odysseus, and fail. Had Dante even invented another figure, that figure would require his own odyssey, which, to have the same power, would require yet more theological inaccuracies to create dangers against which mortal strength could prevail. Only then could this new Odysseus fail against the supernatural.

In that sense, even the Odyssey must contain poetic truths, no matter its pantheon. So, too, can we bring a great many works into the realm of the holy things.

But how far can we stretch this?

I will now take an example from the world of videogames. Of all the games I have ever played, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor: Overclocked is by far the most blasphemous. Aside from the game-enforced necessity of summoning demons (in the post-apocalyptic Tokyo of the game’s dark plot), and the consequentialism which drenches every “choice”, its greatest offense against sound theology is its “God.” The theology of “God” (as identified by the direct use of the Divine Name) is bizarre and contradictory, both shown as an omnipotent Judeo-Christian Deity and also only a most powerful being that overpowered the previous most powerful being. Said “God” is as if from the Old Testament filtered through a pagan lens: no mercy for sins, no remorse over doing evil to do good, and no ability to raise the dead. (Not even the Messiah can raise the dead, one character says to another in one scene.)

But even despite that theology, and the extreme liberties which the game takes with biblical stories, even then there is a kind of poetic truth that would have been lost with a more accurate theology. Only if resorting to the use of demons, and only if demons are powerful, can it speak of the desire of power and its abuse. Only with the pagan need to justify blood with blood can it offer the choices it does, which sacrifice a few for the many. And only if God would create a paradise on Earth through violence would there be any reason against joining Him, and only if God could possibly be defeated would there by any reason for attempting to oppose Him. By a bad theology, it makes that final real choice: paradise of ruthless order, or hellscape of freedom. And even with all its darkness, at the very end of one of the last battles comes one of the most moving scenes I have ever seen in a game, a true eucatastrophy.

Do I recommend anyone go as far as DSO? No. I think there are ways to tell a similar story with much less darkness, and far less blasphemy. But such a different story would only be able to tell different truths. Yet, while different, possibly better.

And that is my final advice. What matters not is if a work fiction bends the truth. What matters is the truth it tells. A story can be utterly, and knowingly, inaccurate, yet still show a beauty it could not otherwise. Or, I believe, a story can stay within the boundaries of theology, and show nothing but evil. (For even demons believe there is a God.) And that is determined not by studying theology, or ignoring it, but hearing the call of Beauty in the wild.

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