A Few Highlights

So you all know about Lorehaven, right? Great.

I began writing reviews for Lorehaven about two years ago. Lorehaven reviews are most often short, no more than 150 words, and their purpose is to help you know whether the book in question is the sort of thing you would like. Whether it is the sort of thing we would like is not of great interest. The necessary brevity, together with the desired objectivity, encourages a straightforward treatment: summary, strengths, weaknesses, conclusion – and no more than two or three sentences for each.

But I’ve been reflecting on the books I have had the opportunity to read and the privilege to review. I am going to highlight just a few, those that remain most vivid in my mind after the time that has passed. A couple of these overlap with genres, or subgenres, I don’t normally favor. This demonstrates that although the disadvantage of assigned books is that you read things you would not have chosen for yourself, the advantage is that you read things you would not have chosen for yourself.

The Red Rider, by Randall Allen Dunn. I am going to state right at the beginning that this one was too strong for my tastes. Yet it was striking, and memorable even after two years. This comes, I think, from three qualities: one, its perfect meshing of the fairy tale of Red Riding Hood with the legend of werewolves; two, its dark, dreamlike atmosphere – as if it is taking place not in our world but a worse version of it; three, the almost bizarre appropriateness of its horror elements. “Little Red Riding Hood” always was ghastly, you know.

Nick Newton Is Not a Genius, by S.E.M. Ishida. This brief novel is, technically, for children, and I won’t be backward in admitting that it matches its intended readers with a certain simplicity. But it is colorful and creative and utterly charming. Even the simplicity is played into a virtue. This world of robots and whimsy would not be nearly as much as fun if we had to enter it with the deadly seriousness of adults.

Journey Into Legend, by Henry Schreiner. This one is a throwback, and not only because it contains college students who write actual letters. The narrative – presented through diaries, letters, and other documents, its fantastical element fortified with science – is reminiscent of the great Victorian-era forays into science fiction. It’s magical realism, old-school.

Launch, by Jason Joyner. Have you ever noticed that if you squint, certain biblical figures – say, Elijah or Samson – might be superheroes, only with more religion and less spandex? This novel takes that idea out for a spin and proves it to be a lot of fun. It is also strikingly successful in creating, without artificiality or strain, the youthful, contemporaneous world of its teenage protagonists.

To Ashes We Run, by Just B. Jordan. The two greatest strengths of this novel – and you should understand that by greatest strengths, I mean the things that most appealed to me personally – are the world-building and the characters. I always find special appeal in fantasy worlds that can combine genuine mythos with a realistic consideration of politics and culture. I find even more appeal in any novel that feels, and causes me to feel, the lives and personalities of its characters.

Two Streams of Thought

I am, in the abstract, in favor of fandoms. Star Wars, Star Trek, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Marvel, Disney, Pixar, and a thousand others – why not? They’re diverting and human and, on occasion, profound. In the concrete, I have adopted a few of my own and gotten uncounted hours of enjoyment out of it. But sometimes I wonder: How much do any of them matter?

I have not decided what to think about that. How I lean depends on varying factors, such as my most recent reflections and how long it has been since I was last on Facebook. I want to insist that it – your fandom, any fandom – doesn’t matter at all when I encounter those indefatigable people who cannot encounter a criticism or a joke against their fandoms without lodging a deadly-earnest objection. There are people who react to any criticism of their beloved fandoms as if someone had insulted Jesus; people who launch endless comment threads to defend them; people who can never see the point of any contrary argument, or the humor of any joke, or even just let it pass. They are indefatigable, but they are exhausting.

Worse yet are the infuriating people, the sort of people who drive celebrities from social media through their viciousness. There are fans – far too many on the Internet – who act as if the fictional objects of their passion matter more than real people. There are people who throw kindness to the wind on the feeblest provocation, but there is absurd blindness in throwing it away for the sake of fandom. And, really, how do people get the energy to care so much that someone doesn’t like what they do?

Fandoms matter a great deal less than some people think – or rather, feel. But that fact doesn’t fix the measure of their true value. When I am in a philosophical mood, or have been reading the commentary of people who are, I am more inclined to see the value of fandoms. I think there is something after all to the idea of sub-creation, that even our fictional worlds are part of our heritage as God’s image-bearers. Even the apparent superfluity of fandoms, when seen through different eyes, can be charming. Touching, even. Those things that seem least necessary are often the most human.

I am conscious, too, of the significance of stories as the expression of imagination and thought, and even of fear and aspiration. Stories are a revelation of humanity, both the good and the bad. They are also an educator of humanity, for better and for worse, and probably more is learned through stories than through school.

And fandoms are based on stories. So these two streams of thought: fandoms possess genuine significance and are annoyingly (sometimes noxiously) overvalued. Unsurprisingly, I haven’t worked out any conclusion as to how much they matter. Perhaps this is the sort of question that can’t be conclusively answered (who is to say?) and it doesn’t even matter (would it make any difference to peg the exact importance of fandoms?).

But this much we can say with scientific certainty: Regardless of exactly how much fandoms matter, it is not enough to justify a social media war.

The Arc and the Epilogue

In the beginning, Pixar made Toy Story, and it was good.

Then Pixar made Toy Story 2, and it was very good.

And Pixar made Toy Story 3, and it was good enough until the last twenty minutes, when it became very good.

And Pixar said, “Let us make sequels, for therein lies boatloads of easy money, plus we have no ideas on the drawing board except one about a ‘newt’, which is apparently a lizard that looks we assume much like other lizards, except the ones that prey on tourists in Australia.” And so Pixar made Toy Story 4.

And Toy Story 4 was …

… Good.

And this was surprising.

I had no faith when Toy Story 4 was announced. I marked it, without any particular emotion, as another sign that Pixar had sold its birthright for a mess of pottage. Nonetheless, I went to see it when it came out. Even Pixar’s mediocre efforts are solidly pleasant, and just because I know their game of nostalgia doesn’t mean I won’t play. I got more than I came for; I thoroughly enjoyed Toy Story 4. It is true, though possibly faint praise, that Toy Story 4 is easily the best Pixar movie since Inside Out.

I have two principal convictions regarding Toy Story 4, not entirely congruous or contradictory. The first is that Toy Story 4 is a genuinely good movie, more enjoyable in most ways than Toy Story 3. The movie is bright, spirited, clever. Forky, its most ingenious creation, perfectly binds existential dilemmas with sunny humor – a flash of the old Pixar brilliance. It reuses ideas from the older Toy Story films, notably the villainous unloved toy and the sinister organization of Sunnydale. Yet it reuses the ideas with such virtuosity that the earlier incarnations seem like first drafts of this final, perfected version. Toy Story 4 possesses a fleetness that even Toy Story 3 lacked.

My second conviction is that Toy Story 4 demonstrates conclusively that the arc of the Toy Story films is finished. More, it demonstrates that the films, in moving beyond Andy, have lost something central and irreplaceable. The toys spent the first three films on adventures away from Andy, but the point was always to get home to him. What united the three movies into a trilogy was a thematic idea and an emotional arc. Toy Story drew the first, straightforward line: the purpose Andy gave to his toys, and the love they returned. Toy Story 2 drew the curve: the purpose would inevitably end; the love, probably also. Toy Story 3 finished the arc: the purpose completed, the story ended.

Toy Story 4 throws nostalgic glances back at the story, but it can’t connect to it. It can’t continue the arc. A better movie than Toy Story 3 through most of its runtime, it never achieves the emotional power of that movie’s best moments. It even seems a testimony to the orbital pull of Andy’s love that in this, the first film without him, the toys drift away from each other. Toy Story 4‘s disconnection from the arc of the preceding Toy Story movies might not be a loss. But it is a lack.

If you view it in the right mood (probably a generous mood), you can take Toy Story 4 as a kind of epilogue to its predecessors. No, there won’t be another Andy for Woody. But there will be other things. Whatever view you take, the cleverness and sheer fun of Toy Story 4 are winning. I enjoyed it, and that’s all you can really expect from the theater.

Still, I have a conviction that if Pixar makes Toy Story 5, it will not be good. It’s time to let Toy Story rest in peace. Even the epilogue has been written, after all.

A Broadened Horizon

Recently I started getting into Marvel movies. (Yes, I know. Next decade I’m going to discover video streaming services. You’ll want to be around then.) I had been aware of them for years, like everyone else on the planet, and I had even been induced to watch a few. They were very close to me, the people who persuaded me to try Marvel, and so they didn’t mind that I brought my laptop to the experience. It proved an excellent diversion.

The subtle drift of all this is that I am not what marketing specialists would call “the target audience.” The whole idea of superheroes, comic books, and comic book superhero movies left me cold. I thought it all a little goofy, a little too cartoonish: the costumes, the tights, the poundingly obvious names. These prejudices – and that is what they were, because they were not based on any substantive experience with the thing itself – these prejudices deadened my interest.

Nor, in truth, did my initial viewings jump-start it. The movies were not terrible, of course, but neither were they anything I felt impelled to see. The fighting scenes, with their 84,000 punches thrown, seemed interminable and the movies altogether too long (though in fairness, most movies are these days). I thought the franchise put a premium on action over character and wittiness over profundity. I think much the same now; at least, these are the weaknesses to which the franchise trends, and some movies surrender more to them than others.

But if my estimation of the franchise’s weaknesses is the same, my estimation of its strengths has changed. I will say the movies are more enjoyable once you piece things together and your brain stops going What so much. The talent invested in them is plainly enormous, much like the budget. But what I came most to appreciate – the true inspiration of my newfound interest – was the Cap and Loki. I may be cold to the appeal of comic books, and I may be bored by explosions and CGI monsters, but I love good characters. The Cap is my favorite kind of hero. Loki is my favorite kind of villain – and my favorite kind of anti-villain, and my favorite kind of anti-hero. Once invested in the characters, I want to know the story; I want to see the movies.

A happy fact to be drawn from all this: It is possible to overcome a viewer’s (or reader’s) prejudices and even, to some extent, his natural tastes through excellency. Good for creators, because they can win unlikely admirers; good for the rest of us, because we can have our horizons broadened to new enjoyment. Snobs think that superior taste is proved by its narrowness, but some things are gained by the wider view.

It’s a limited grace. Natural tastes can only be stretched so far, and defied even less. All my enjoyment of Thor: Dark World has not translated into a twitch of interest in Captain Marvel. I will never be a Marvel enthusiast, but I am showing up.

Even if it’s mostly for Loki’s beautiful face. And the Cap’s.

One Conception From Another

The Bible makes repeated mention of magic and witches, usually in unsparing terms. We know well the scriptural opprobrium against witches; we are in danger of forgetting the scriptural idea of witches. We all have an idea of what a witch is, but the idea is almost unavoidably an amalgam. We piece it together of a thousand stories and images. The accretion of popular myth on the Christian idea of witches is thick. Let’s consider, then, popular notions of witches and their craft and how those notions correspond with biblical ideas.

Witches fly on brooms and make wicked potions in boiling cauldrons, are associated with spiders and black cats, are often ugly and generally inclined to black clothing and pointed hats.

Yes, we’ll start with the low-hanging fruit. Yes, you already know that none of this has the barest foundation in Scripture. Simply consider that of all the symbols and imagery that collect around witches, very little of it is Christian.

Witches are associated with magic; magic is associated with spells, charms, and secret knowledge.

These associations are biblical. The Bible sorts magic, sorcery, and divination into the same category, and witches, magicians, and mediums into the same species. Further, the Bible associates spells with witchcraft (eg. Isaiah 47) and magic with charms (eg. Ezekiel 13). Meanwhile, secret knowledge is both the means of magic – remember Pharoah’s magicians with their secret arts – and the aim of magic. Divination and the consultation of the dead especially pursue forbidden knowledge.

Witches are mostly female.

This is a very old and very common idea. Consider all the stories – centuries and centuries old, some of them – of female witches. Consider, too, that in the witch hunts of the late medieval and early modern West, the majority of victims were women. In the Bible, however, witchcraft is not especially associated with either sex. Infamous practitioners of witchcraft in the Bible include women like Jezebel and the Witch of Endor and men like Balaam, King Manasseh, and Simon the Sorcerer.

Witches afflict humanity with a host of seemingly “natural” maladies.

If you were to study the accusations brought during the Salem witch trials, you would see a fair example of a prevalent idea about witches: that they are the active cause of natural disasters, from human sickness to the death of livestock. There is little suggestion of this idea in Scripture. Probably the closest we come is the Egyptian magicians’ counterfeiting of the first two plagues. But these counterfeits, worked to demonstrate the power of the magicians against the power of Moses, have a very different nature than the secret, malicious attacks attributed to witches.

It may also be noted that Balak hired Balaam to curse Israel. “Perhaps then,” he said, “I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the country.” What Balak expected of the curse, however, cannot be said. It may be that he expected some sort of natural disaster. It may also be that he expected them to be made unlucky so that he could defeat them in battle.

It is not that the scriptural conception of witches is wholly disconnected from all the other conceptions that abound through stories and cultures. There are many ideas of what a witch is. The great commonality among them is power perceived to be supernatural (itself a word of variable definition). The differences can be enough to pit them against each other in fundamental opposition. What we must learn is to discern the biblical meaning of witch from all the rest.

A Vulnerable Technique

When you had to write in school, you were probably placed under certain all-encompassing bans. “Never use the first-person” is a perennial favorite among teachers. I once had a respected professor who instructed students not to use semicolons. Now, the semicolon is a perfectly legitimate punctuation mark and has been put to many venerable uses. I believe my old professor banned it because so many people were prone to use it badly it was better that no one use it at all.

Many of the “Nevers” in writing are drawn up along a similar principle: Almost nobody does it right, so nobody should do it. Adjectives are an oft-targeted victim of this kind of reasoning. Another technique vulnerable to it is flashbacks, our topic of the day. Flashbacks possess a special nature, generally inclined to be awkward. They are written like narrative, but they are not narrative. Flashbacks disrupt the story, breaking up the flow and momentum of events to reprise old news. I have seen them done well, but I have also seen them done with extraordinary badness. Not all authors appreciate the nature or the purpose of the technique.

Two rules may be applied to the use of flashbacks. First, flashbacks must be relevant. A good way to think of this is that flashbacks must be revelatory of the story and not of the characters. What ought to be revealed of your characters can be revealed through the narrative proper: through their present talk, actions, thoughts. You might have constructed an entirely fascinating backstory, but you are telling a different story. Your story is in the present. The past throws light on the present, but the present throws light on people. There is no need of flashbacks to tell us about your characters.

Once I read a sci-fi novel that made excellent use of flashbacks. Very brief chapters, sprinkled among the narrative and set apart by italics, gave snapshots of the past. But these snapshots were keys to the story. They explained the nature of the present struggle, put forward mystery, foreshadowed the final revelation of villainy. Like all good flashbacks, they were dedicated to the story.

The second rule is that flashbacks must be brief. Again, flashbacks break the flow of the story, and for that reason they must be employed sparingly. Even if the flashbacks are genuinely interesting, people will become frustrated and impatient if the story is continually interrupted for field trips to the past. Flashbacks can spice up a story, but they should never be a main ingredient. Neither are they, in prodigious measure, likely to be altogether relevant. In the rare event that a prodigious measure is necessary, it is possible that you are starting the story in the wrong place.

The things people warn you about when you write fiction can generally be done. They just have to be done carefully. Flashbacks have been used to great effect, and you should always feel free to use them yourself. Only remember that they break the narrative and so must be very relevant and always brief.

Once Upon a Future Time

Full of far off worlds and wonders close at home.

They’ll span the breadth of space and time.

The Kickstarter for Once Upon a Future Time, Vol. 2 has opened! This anthology contains eleven authors and over 400 pages of classic fairy tales retold as science fiction. Among the rest is my own “Jack and I,” a re-telling of Jack and the Beanstalk.

Drop on by to learn more and join the cause!

Art Under Negotiation

One of the purposes of this site is to explore the meeting of Christianity with culture broadly, and with art particularly, whether that meeting is synthesis, negotiation, or conflict. That exploration grows more and more relevant as our society transforms into a post-Christian culture. Still, the meeting of Christianity and art is as old as the Church Universal. It is interesting to consider how the early Christians made their own negotiations in a pre-Christian culture.

Ancient Christian art, some of it dating from the second century, is preserved in the Catacombs.1In the 1800s, when the serious scientific study of the Catacombs began, the oldest artwork was dated to the first century AD. But modern estimates place it a century later. The Catacombs, as you know, is the collective name given to a web of underground Christian cemeteries excavated around Rome when the emperors were still pagan. Christianity was, in those days, an infant religion in an old civilization. The Greeks and the Romans had brought to a high state the arts of sculpture, painting, and architecture. These arts served causes of which the Christians could not have approved: the glorification of pagan emperors and pagan gods, an endless proliferation of images and temples. Yet Christians brought those arts, as they were able, down into the Catacombs, in frescoes and paintings and sarcophagi.

It’s not surprising. Humans must have art. Humans must especially have art in their sacred places. What is more notable is that the early Christians borrowed not only Rome’s art forms but, to a limited extent, its pagan imagery. The classic image of Orpheus taming the wild animals frequently appears in the Catacombs, doubtless as a type of Christ.2W.H. Withrow, The Catacombs of Rome (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1888), 266. Other pagan representations include Ulysses and Mercury, curiously placed in the scene of Elijah’s ascension into heaven.3Withrow, 267-68. In the Early Church, Ulysses was taken as an allegory for the soul’s journey home. There is no allegorical explanation for Mercury. There is some evidence, however, of pagan images being hidden or destroyed, indicating that not all Christians of that early time were sanguine about this artistic syncretism.4Ibid.

Symbols were very common in the Catacombs, etched onto countless graves. Some, such as the fish or the Christogram, were exclusively Christian in their significance. Others, like the ship, the crown, and the palm branch, were shared with the dominant pagan culture of Rome. As Withrow comments in his book, however, the common pagan symbols of serpent and dog are largely rejected, with the former appearing only in depictions of Eve’s temptation and the latter used only as an accessory in hunting scenes.5Withrow, 298. Dogs were symbolic of fidelity in Roman culture. It is easy to understand why the serpent was rejected, and perhaps Withrow is right in his speculation that early Christians shared the Jewish conception of dogs as unclean. Whatever the reason, the pertinent fact is that Christian art did not include all Roman motifs.

The symbols of the Catacombs encapsulate the early Christian use of the art that, created by pagans, surrounded them. They added much that was new, and infused much that was old with new meaning (the laurel wreath did not mean quite the same thing to Roman pagans as it did to Roman Christians). They retained cultural symbols and even nakedly pagan imagery. And some elements of pagan art they excised entirely. (Withrow also notices the far greater modesty of human figures portrayed in the Christian Catacombs than in pagan art.6Withrow, 264.)

Art is not Christian. Art is not pagan. Art is human. Like all things human, Christianity puts it in negotiation with the divine to find its expression and meaning. As illuminated in the Catacombs, Christians have from the beginning attempted the synthesis of faith with culture: the addition, the retention, the rejection.

And if the defaced pagan images are any clue, we have always been disagreeing about it, too.

The Last Impossibility

Death is the great universal fact of life, as universal as birth. It rings down the curtain on every human play, sends everyone home in the end. We all know this; we are all overshadowed by what G.K. Chesterton called the last impossibility. It’s curious that we don’t take death more seriously than we do. Our popular culture overflows with glib platitudes, all catalogued in our books and movies.

You know the platitudes. He lives in your heart. She lives in your memory. The departed is – well, take your pick: inside you, inside all of us, around us, in the love or legacy or memory she left behind. The dead are anywhere but gone. Our culture, as manifested in popular books and movies, does not look to the blazing dawn of the first Easter, but usually it is equally unwilling to look at the cold finality and ultimate aloneness of the body in the tomb. What we end with is a popular culture that will face neither the darkness nor the light.

I would not recommend, as a curative, that every instance of death in our fiction be expanded to contain the fullness of Christian doctrine on the subject. There is certainly no reason to constantly elide the Resurrection; its riches are too rarely mined, even among Christians. But not every story has space for the doctrine or the riches, and such things are not to be forced. I wouldn’t ask that every story with death be a story about Easter. But I would like to see more books and movies get beyond the standard Hollywood cant.

It is possible to catch some rays of light, to hint at hope or even just mystery. J.R.R. Tolkien hinted at hope when Aragorn, in the face of death, offered this consolation: “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair.” Not that we need such exalted contexts as Lord of the Rings to find the hope and the mystery; they are possible everywhere. Emily Blunt’s “Where the Lost Things Go” dreams of an unknown place, maybe behind the moon, where lost things might be found. Gone, yes, the song concedes, but gone where? – and that hard question is more comforting than the glib answers.

If a story is not to have the light, I would take even a measure of darkness over artificiality. Honest sadness is better than false comfort. I’ve heard the cliches so many times that all I can think, when a book or movie trots them out again, is that nobody wants the people they love to be Inside Of Them. The greatness of love is that it gets you outside of yourself, that it brings you into contact with another soul in this huge universe. No one wants a memory, an image, an echo. It’s not the same and it’s not enough. We want a real, living person.

We don’t need courage to face the darkness. We need hope. Christ’s Resurrection teaches us that death is not to be accepted or dreaded. As we absorb that reality into our hearts, so may it be reflected in our stories. We are not to be driven to the pale ghosts that haunt our hearts for comfort, nor must we pretend that death is not hideous. For Death is an enemy, but a conquered enemy.

‘Hidden Histories’ Is Out!

Hidden Histories is out! This anthology of speculative fiction tells stories of history altered, forgotten, and misreported. Among the rest is my own short story “The Fulcrum.” In “The Fulcrum,” the military – having expended its pound of cure – turns to the ounce of prevention, and launches a time-travel operation to ensure that the war they lost never happens.

Hidden Histories is available on Amazon. For further information, drop by Goodreads or Third Flatiron Publishing.