Archive for February, 2011

CSFF Blog Tour: The Warring Nations …

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Feb 23 2011

I liked The God-Hater. I thought I’d say that before I devoted a post to how it tripped over a peeve of mine.

The book has an important subplot revolving around corporate warfare – and that’s not a figure of speech. Myers called corporations the “warring nations of today”. I’ve seen this in science fiction before: the mega-corporation with military capabilities, imposing blockades, sending armies, taking upon itself matters of crime and punishment. It’s an old tradition of the genre.

And I never had much sympathy for it. Violence and justice as the prerogatives of anyone besides the government is a departure from thousands of years of western civilization. But in sci-fi it tends to be taken entirely for granted – as if it just follows, like the colonization of Mars.

I don’t believe the mega-corporation just follows, and I certainly don’t believe it’s already here. When, in The God-Hater, corporations conducted helicopter raids and got into machine-gun shoot-outs, it struck me as … silly. Corporations just don’t do that. It’s not in their make-up. They’re not the Mafia.

Try to picture the competition between Microsoft and Apple coming to gunfights between their employees. Can you imagine the headlines, the public reaction, the congressional hearings? Can you imagine how fast – how hard – the government would come down on them? The government hates it when people get violent, if for no other reason than that’s their job.

Granted, Travis Mackenzie’s computer program is far more valuable than Windows or the i-Phone. (But don’t be overly impressed by the idea that it could be worth more money than several nations. Wal-Mart’s annual revenues exceed the GDP of almost every nation.) Still, CEOs do not generally metamorphosize into Al Capone when facing lucrative projects. And if they did, the government would ruin them.

Myers severely stereotypes both capitalists and capitalism. It’s slander to say that all they care about is money. But even if that were so, the corporate warfare Myers paints is jarringly out of touch with reality. The “warring nations of today” are pretty much the same as the warring nations of yesterday. Just look at the Middle East.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Very Antithesis of a Mechanism [Spoilers]

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Feb 22 2011

Not wanting to build a mere clocklike mechanism, you inadvertently – in your own punctilious way – created that which was possible, logical and inevitable, that which became the very antithesis of a mechanism …”

“Please, no more!”

– Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad


Three stories.

“The universe is infinite yet bounded.” So begins the Seventh Sally, the story of how Trurl’s perfection led to no good. The great constructor-benefactor once came upon a king exiled alone on an asteroid. The king insisted that the renowned constructor restore him to his kingdom, “and his iron fingers clutched the air, as if already closing around the throats of his beloved subjects.”

Naturally Trurl rejected the request. Yet he wanted to console the king, and so he built a tiny replica of a kingdom, contained in a box. Trurl perfected it so that the great Excelsius accepted it in the stead of his throne.

Trurl returned home in triumph, and told his friend Klapaucius how he had indulged the despot and protected his erstwhile subjects at the same time. And Klapaucius rebuked him: “Don’t you see, when the imitator is perfect, so must be the imitation, and the semblance becomes the truth, the pretense a reality! Trurl, you took an untold number of creatures capable of suffering and abandoned them forever to the rule of a wicked tyrant. … Trurl, you have committed a terrible crime!”

They rushed to save Excelsius’s small subjects, only to discover that they had saved themselves.

There is also the story of Aule. Impatient for the coming of the Children of Iluvatar, Elves and Men, he made children of his own. He made the Dwarves beneath the mountains of Middle Earth. And when he finished, he heard the voice of Iluvatar: “Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou has from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more.”

And Aule, weeping, lifted up a hammer to destroy the Dwarves. But they shrank from him and begged for mercy, and again he heard Iluvatar, “Dost thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices? Else they would not have flinched from thy blow, nor from any command of thy will.”

Iluvatar had made the Dwarves the children of his adoption; he made them living beings.

Finally, there is the story of Travis and Nicholas Mackenzie. They have a world of “artificial intelligence. AI. Emotions, pattern recognition, free will, the ability to hold contradictory views … [H]uman consciousness. The whole enchilada.” It was difficult to create a digital world whose inhabitants think and act freely; preserving it may be more difficult yet.

The linchpin of The God-Hater is that a group of people managed to create beings with independent wills. The linchpin of Tolkien’s story is that only God can do that. Of course, in Bill Myers’ story the method was one Tolkien could not have imagined: computer programming. Bits and bytes, Travis calls his creations. Pixels and teraflops. But if they’re not real to him, they are very real to themselves – and each other.

My question here is not whether it is possible to make a computer program that becomes, like Adam, a living being. My question is whether that is what happened in The God-Hater. Emotionally, the book tugs strongly in that direction. But Myers never explicitly settled the question.

So let’s apply Klapaucius’ test. Remember his words to Trurl: When the imitation is perfect, the semblance becomes the truth, the pretense a reality. Travis stressed the perfection of his imitation, and his pretense of real, free beings became a reality.

Later in his argument with Trurl, Klapaucius gave an even more convincing test: “You say there’s no way of knowing whether Excelsius’ subjects groan, when beaten, purely because of the electrons hopping about inside – like wheels grinding out the mimicry of a voice – or whether they really groan, that is, because they honestly experience the pain? A pretty distinction, this! No, Trurl, a sufferer is not one who hands you his suffering, that you may touch it, weigh it, bite it like a coin; a sufferer is one who behaves like a sufferer!”

He might as well have said that a sufferer is one who suffers. And the one thing none of us can doubt, since we saw Alpha make his trip to the Killing Wall, is that they really do suffer.

Now here’s where things get dicey. When the whole thing ceases to be an elaborate computer game, role-playing God becomes a much more doubtful enterprise. Did anyone notice that when Alpha built a temple, he built it to Nicholas? And when he prayed, who was he praying to but Nicholas? In the end, these mimicries of humanity who became, by virtue of their ability to suffer and choose, really human – they have, as their God and Savior, Nicholas Mackenzie.

There’s something just not right about that.

It’s odd that Rebekah and Nicholas made such a big deal out of giving the – what can we call them, electronic humans? – the truth, because they never got close to it. The created-to-sell-soap thing isn’t even the biggest part of it. The greatest truth, the ultimate Reality, is God. Any existence blind to Him is necessarily starved.

I think this is a legitimate issue. I also think it’s beyond The God-Hater. Maybe Myers doesn’t really consider the digital world to be real. Or – and I lean toward this – maybe these questions are simply outside the scope of his book. Maybe it wasn’t mere oversight that Myers never resolved his AI beings’ relationship to the universe; then he’d have to resolve their relationship to the God of the universe. Make it clear that Alpha is a rational creature on the order of humans and angels, and you’ve jumped clear over Nicholas Mackenize’s head.

The intent of The God-Hater was to “justify God’s ways to man” by putting man in (analogically) God’s place. To transcend the man-made computer world to the world God made, to move the question to a much higher court – that may have derailed Myers’ purpose entirely. It would have made a different book, and not necessarily a better one.

Still, it would have been nice if, to Alpha and his choosing, suffering world, God could have been God.


The story of Aule and the Dwarves can be found in The Silmarillion. The Seventh Sally, or How Trurl’s Perfection Led to No Good, is in The Cyberiad. I once posted a review of it.

CSFF Blog Tour: The God-Hater

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Feb 21 2011

(Note: In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.)

People don’t like Nicholas Mackenize. And there’s no love lost, because he doesn’t like people. But he saves his real hatred for religion. He is – loudly and proudly – a God-hater.

Of all the creatures on earth, Nicholas is on friendly terms with four – a fellow professor and her young son, a dog, and his brother Travis, whose computer genius is even more impressive than his criminal record.

Suddenly – you know how life does these things to you – the old curmudgeon is asked to save the world. Not our world, mind you, but someone’s world. To be precise, it’s the digital world his brother created, a world in which he has replicated – not imitated, replicated – human consciousness. There are, as it turns out, few things to open an atheist’s eyes like trying to save a whole world gone bad.

The God-Hater is written after the style of a thriller – secrecy, guns, mysterious “agents”, even a car chase. The characters are well-drawn, particularly Travis and Nicholas. That they’re brothers makes the contrast between them all the more delicious. Myers’ best use of characters is in the digital world, where he brilliantly demonstrates the effects of different philosophies in its people. They may be digital, but they come across as very real.

I would raise a couple issues. One, the scenes that show the failure of earlier philosophies can be uncomfortably visceral. I pretty much cringed my way through the beginning of chapter 2. Secondly, the logic of certain things in the story is, at best, unexplained. For examplespoiler warning Rebekah pulls a gun to help the “big fish”. Later, she’s swimming with the little fish. No sense is made of this, and it feels awfully disjointed. I had one other, much larger issue – but that is tomorrow’s post.

In an odd way – there’s little similarity otherwise – The God-Hater reminds me of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Both portray a different sort of salvation in a different sort of world; both help us see the salvation in our own world a little better. Nicholas’ “deeper logic” reminded me of Aslan’s “deep magic” – and about captured the difference between the two worlds. The God-Hater has one high goal, and it races straight to the mark, with a few problems and a lot of nice touches.


To learn more about The God-Hater, go to:

– the book’s Amazon page;

– the author’s website;

– the author’s Facebook page;

– the other blog tour participants:

Noah Arsenault

Red Bissell

Thomas Clayton Booher

Keanan Brand

Rachel Briard

Beckie Burnham

Morgan L. Busse

Carol Bruce Collett

Valerie Comer

Karri Compton

CSFF Blog Tour

April Erwin

Amber French

Andrea Graham

Tori Greene

Katie Hart

Ryan Heart

Joleen Howell

Bruce Hennigan

Becky Jesse

Cris Jesse

Becca Johnson

Jason Joyner

Carol Keen

Emily LaVigne

Matt Mikalatos

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Mirtika

MollyBuuklvr81

John W. Otte

Sarah Sawyer

Chawna Schroeder

Andrea Schultz

Tammy Shelnut

Kathleen Smith

James Somers

Donna Swanson

Jessica Thomas

Steve Trower

Fred Warren

Dona Watson

Nicole White

Dave Wilson

Kathy Brasby

Books and Weather

Misc. | Posted by Shannon
Feb 17 2011

I had been thinking that today I could do a follow-up on last week’s post, but it turned out to be too nice a day for that. Since last week the temperature has risen a good fifty degrees, and today we’re at 72. The unseasonable warmth is very nice, unless it ends up in unseasonable tornadoes.

But the sky is still clear, cloudless blue, and I opted for a happier subject than violence in entertainment. So let’s talk about my recent book acquisitions.

On Saturday I went to a Christian used bookstore; they were having a discount sale. I bought The Restorer and The Restorer’s Son, by Sharon Hinck. They’re terrific books, and I’m glad to add them to my library.

I also bought Volume VI of the Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton. It contains The Club of Queer Trades (which I enjoyed), and The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who Was Thursday (both of which I look forward to enjoying). This edition has illustrations drawn by the author and footnotes to explain the more obscure references. (Does anyone know who Lord Kitchener is? Or what it means if a lady has the “flavour” of Bedford Park?)

I bought a CD, too – Long Line of Leavers, by Caedmon’s Call.

Last, but surely not least, the birthday present my parents pre-ordered for me finally arrived that same day:

Yes, Saturday was a good day.

Violence in the Bible and other Christian books

Religion, Writing | Posted by Shannon
Feb 11 2011

A little while ago, the discussion on the CSFF blog tour turned to the violence, or lack of it, in Donita Paul’s Dragons of the Valley. Becky LuElla Miller wrote a couple posts about violence in Christian fiction, and particularly fantasy. I’ve decided to throw in a couple thoughts of my own.

It can be tricky to set standards for violence. There are at least two issues that complicate it. For one, violence – unlike, say, crude humor – may be either moral or immoral. For an example of moral violence, let’s go to the Scriptures:

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, 2 who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. 3 So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the LORD’s anger burned against them.

4 The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the LORD’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.”

5 So Moses said to Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death those of your men who have joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor.”

6 Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman’s body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; 9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

10 The LORD said to Moses, 11 “Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. 12Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. 13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.” (Numbers 25)

This is the irony of moral violence: You save life by taking it. Phinehas killed two people, and God rewarded him with a covenant of peace. But for all that Phinehas’ act is commendable, I wouldn’t want to see it on a screen. I wouldn’t even want to read it in any more detail than the Bible already gives.

Which brings us to the other issue of presenting violence: It’s the how as much as the what. It’s not just a head count of how many people died, or a page count of how many fight scenes were narrated. What violence the characters experience, and what violence the readers experience, can be very different things.

Let’s look again at the Bible. It has a large amount of violence, but a small amount of description. It relates gruesome deaths, but with a great tendency to avoid the gruesome details. The Bible tells us that Jael drove the tent peg through Sisera’s temple, and Saul fell on his sword, and Herodias got John’s head on a platter – and leaves it at that. Apparently it was necessary that we hear about certain violent acts; apparently it was not necessary that we wade through the carnage of those acts.

Becky asked if we must all follow Donita Paul’s lead. I don’t think we have to follow her in keeping things “light”, or in avoiding battle scenes. But I think we would all do well to have a general chariness about violence. Violence is a dark thing even when it’s a good thing, and there are places we can go but shouldn’t linger. It ought to be true of violence in Christian fantasy – as it is true of violence in the Bible – that a great deal more could have been told than was told.

And it really is possible to write an awesome battle scene without pelting your readers with gory details and grisly images. There’s more value to it; there’s even more art. For proof positive of this, I send you to The Two Towers, to read the battle of Helm’s Deep.


A quick word on the CSFF blog tour: The next one begins February 21, and the book is The God-Hater, by Bill Myers. I finished it this past Sunday. Stay tuned, folks. This is going to be a fun one.

The Old Lobster Trick

Culture | Posted by Shannon
Feb 03 2011

To this day, I don’t know why they call it the lobster shift. They ought to call it the mental-illness shift, because when you work overnight long enough and sleep all day long enough, your skin gets bad and you’re always pale and you find you have two modes, depression and anxiety. Peggy Noonan, What I Saw At the Revolution

When I first started working at newspapers, in the mid-70s, the midnight to 8 am shift was called, not the “graveyard shift,” but the “lobster shift” or “lobster trick.” It was suggested that the name started because many of the staff would go drinking before work and come in “boiled,” but that seems like a stretch. William Fisher

The graveyard shift has had other, more mysterious names – dog watch, lobster trick, lobster shift. According to The Word Detective, “dog watch” dates back to the eighteenth-century, when it was used by sailors for the two-hour evening watches (4 to 6, and 6 to 8). These watches were unpopular because they made the sailor miss the usual dinnertime. In the twentieth century it became a name for the – also unpopular – night shift.

“Trick” is also a nautical term, meaning duty at the helm. The lobster trick (or shift) seems to have its roots in the newspaper industry. It was used, from the early twentieth century, for the “force which occupies the [newspaper] office in the very early morning interval after the last regular morning edition has gone to press” (the journal American Speech, 1927).

The Word Detective also traces the phrase to the newspaper industry:

The origin of “lobster shift” … has been disputed almost since it first appeared in the 1940s.  The story about newspapermen arriving for their shift as florid as lobsters is certainly possible, as is the less plausible explanation that there was so little to do on the night shift that the staff dined out on   lobster and champagne in the wee hours. But the truth, sad to say, is that “lobster” was, beginning in the 19th century, popular slang in New York City for “a fool or dupe,” probably because lobsters were considered very stupid creatures.  So “lobster shift” probably reflects the sentiment that only a fool (or an incompetent worker) would wind up working the midnight shift.

The Mavens’ Word of the Day cites Stephen Crane, writing in 1894: “Anybody could see that you, Thorpey, me boy, could make a lobster out of Holmes.” The author also wonders if the term has “its origins in American contempt for defeated British soldiers”:

It’s not as much of a stretch as you might think. The use of the term lobster to mean ‘a British soldier’ originates in the appellation that arose for the heavily armored cavalry soldiers in one of the regiments in Oliver Cromwell’s army. There’s a 1642 citation stating that the nickname was being “misapplied to soldiers,” which shows that it moved pretty quickly from referring to armored cavalry to regular soldiers, and then of course to the famously red-coated soldiers who were defeated in America’s Revolutionary War, who were still referred to as lobsters until early in the 20th century.