CSFF Blog Tour: Weird R Us

“I’ve been coming to Montserrat for a few years now. On one early visit I actually arrived and realized I had returned before the last time I was here! From Brother Lazarus’ point of view, we had not yet had the previous visit.” She gave a little laugh. “That was a real mind bender. In the end, I had to go away again because it was all just too weird.” – The Spirit Well, pg. 322

Last week I posted that I was thinking about why Christian speculative fiction is called weird. I also wrote that the question could be somewhat answered by The Spirit Well, and then I said I would hold that thought for the blog tour.

So here goes.

The “weird” label is not wholly imposed on Christian speculative fiction. Some in our crowd would dispute it, but some embrace it. If they embrace it as the American colonists embraced the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, that’s more than I can say.

If you were to browse through a Christian fiction section, the scattered sci-fi / fantasy novels might seem strange amidst all the historical fiction, prairie romance, and mystery novels. If you were a Christian SF fan, you might feel a little strange.

But I think there are reasons that go beyond the Christian market and Christian fiction. The “weird” label is broadly given to speculative fiction; the secular version receives it, too. I grant you, popular acclaim was awarded to fantasy such as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, and to sci-fi such as Star Wars and Star Trek. Yet …

How often, in popular culture, does the loner or the weirdo have an interest in speculative works? It’s standard for the geek to be a sci-fi fan – even of a mainstream success like Star Wars. If someone says that you’re at the Star Trek convention of life, it’s no compliment.

To give a full explanation of this is beyond my intent. The endless conspiracy theories surrounding Roswell, Area 51, and the Bermuda Triangle probably have something to do with it.

And that leads us to another reason. These strange ideas are the sort of thing you would find in speculative fiction. They’re the sort of thing you do find in speculative fiction. To this day sci-fi writers enthusiastically take up all of those conspiracy theories. When the beliefs of the tinfoil-hat crowd are fodder for your genre, maybe it is a little weird.

The Twilight Zone was weird. The premise of Metamorphosis – a guy gets transmuted into a giant cockroach – is definitely weird. Selling away your shadow or tears or laugh or voice is also on the odd side of things.

Even The Spirit Well – which isn’t weird as the genre goes – is chock-full of experiences any human would consider bizarre. If you or I ever clomped through the Stone Ages, or walked into a canyon in Arizona and found ourselves in Damascus seventy years ago, we would write home about it – unless we were worried about being brought in for examination.

What I’m getting at is this: One of the reasons speculative fiction – Christian and otherwise – is called weird is that it is weird. Not in a pejorative sense, but simply in the sense of being out of the ordinary. Whether we dream of enchanted woods or strange planets, whether it’s Elves or time-travelers or talking animals that we meet in our stories – it’s all different, all outside the bounds of the world we know. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

CSFF Blog Tour: Proceeding by Inquiry

When the Bright Empires series began with The Skin Map, I found the religious element to be scant. It grew stronger in The Bone House, a quiet but steady undercurrent throughout the novel. In The Spirit Well, religion has a stronger presence yet. This comes mainly from the Zetetic Society, a group devoted to exploring the multiverse. They are the Questors spoken of in the first book – whom I had, I confess, clean forgotten.

In one scene, the Questors Brendan and Rosemary try to persuade a young woman named Cass to join their society. Brendan declared to her, “Our aim is nothing less than achieving God’s own purpose for His creation.”

When Cass asked what purpose that would be, Rosemary responded, “Why, the objective manifestation of the supreme values of goodness, beauty, and truth, grounded in the infinite love and goodness of the Creator.”

You would think that a sentence with so many nouns would have more meaning.

A little later in the conversation, Brendan expanded on his theme: “When the universe reaches the point where more people desire the union, harmony, and fulfillment intended by the Creator, then the balance will have been tipped, so to speak, and the cosmos will proceed to the Omega Point.”

And Rosemary elaborated, “This world, this universe, transfigured – the New Heaven and the New Earth. … Human destiny lies in the mastery of the cosmos for the purpose of creating new experiences of goodness, beauty, and truth for all living things.”

I don’t really know what they’re talking about. But I know this: The Bible also speaks of a new heaven and earth – but not this universe transfigured. This universe, this world will be destroyed. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus Christ declared, “but my words will never pass away.”

Much is obscure in the Bible’s end-times teachings, but this is clear: When God makes everything new, it will not be because “more people” want it. And I at least am suspicious of any philosophy that holds that it is the destiny of humanity to create new experiences of goodness and truth for all living things.

C. S. Lewis once said that no creature is so bad as something that is going to be human and isn’t yet. And I would contend that no religion is so bad as one that is going to be Christian and isn’t yet. I wondered if the Questors’ talk was so much psuedo-Christian jabberwocky. But I can’t say that it is, and for two reasons.

One is that some of what they say is solid. The other is that I can’t understand the rest of what they say. Their language is esoteric enough to create unease, and vague enough to create confusion. It confounds understanding. Their words are lofty, up in that airy region where the line between being high-minded and being fuzzy-minded is exceedingly fine.

The heroes give other signs. Brother Lazarus, a Catholic monk, joins with them; Mina finds the “daily office” (of praying) to be meaningful; Kit is moved to offer this prayer at the death of a primeval hunter: “Creator of all that is and will be, we give you back one of your creations. His life in this world was taken from him, but we ask that you receive him into the life of the world that has no end.”

None of this makes me trust the Questors more, but it does make me trust the author more.

The Zetetic Society gives other reasons for unease. Toward the end of The Spirit Well, Cass meets a Questor named Tess. Tess derides religious dogma and revivalists, and says, “Anyone who tells you he knows the mind of God is selling something.”

She’s not bad at selling things herself. She gives Cass her first mission: searching for Cosimo Livingstone, another Questor and the man Tess almost married. This, Tess assures Cass, is why she came to the Society. “There is no such thing as coincidence.”

They often say that in the Bright Empires series, and usually it has a noble ring. But not here. In this context – You are here because we need someone to look for my old flame; nothing happens by accident! – it seems more than a little self-serving.

“Zetetic”, by the way, is a real word; it means “proceeding by inquiry; investigating”. Samuel Rowbotham founded a number of zetetic societies in America and Britain at the end of the nineteenth century. Their purpose was to promote the belief that the earth is flat.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Spirit Well

There are certain things you know. The ground is solid, death is death, yesterday is past, and tomorrow is coming. But if ever you cross the ley lines and slip into the muliverse, you may end up deciding that you never really knew anything.

In The Spirit Well, Stephen Lawhead continues the grand adventure of the multiverse. New explorers join on the trails, others slip – or slink – into the background. The villain puts in a subdued role; what little we see of him shows mostly how he got to the point of menacing all the heroes. In the present – and I use the term loosely – he mostly grouses.

There is a sense, in this novel, of watching the characters becoming. Sometimes we see how they came to be what they are; sometimes it reveals more clearly what they are now. (I always knew there was something wrong with that Douglas person.)

More rarely, we get a glimpse of what they will be. Kit Livingstone, the protagonist, finally begins to grow decisively away from who he used to be. So often the victim of events, he gets a turn at being the instigator of them. The development is welcome, and I hope Stepehen Lawhead persists in it.

The Spirit Well is shorter than the previous books, coming in at less than four hundred pages. I thought the pace was brisker, though it was never fast. All of Lawhead’s books that I have read are works of breadth rather than speed.

The religion of the series grows stronger and more specific in this book, though still not fully discernible. You would need a whole post to do justice to this point, and I plan to give it.

Ancient Egypt remains a favored historical milieu, but here it departs from strict history. I have heard of Akhenaten and his attempt to supplant polytheism in Egypt with the religion of Aten. I have not heard that it had anything to do with the Habiru who lived in the Gesen and worshiped El.

Like The Bone House, The Spirit Well backtracks to events that took place during the first book – or before it. I gave it some thought and decided that the series still makes more sense if you start at the beginning. But not much more. This, like the omniscient style Lawhead uses, is something people will like if it’s the sort of thing they like.

The Spirit Well is the third book in the Bright Empires Series. It is still, for me, a happy discovery. These are books of incredible richness, incredible fullness; there is a world in those pages you will never reach the end of. Compelling, unique, and ultimately satisfying, The Spirit Well is a journey worth the effort.

And now, curious readers, your links:

The Spirit Well on Amazon;

Stephen Lawhead’s website and Facebook page;

and always most enlightening, the blog roll:

Jim Armstrong
Julie Bihn
Red Bissell
Jennifer Bogart
Thomas Clayton Booher
Thomas Fletcher Booher
Beckie Burnham
Brenda Castro
Jeff Chapman
Karri Compton
Theresa Dunlap
Emmalyn Edwards
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Jeremy Harder
Bruce Hennigan
Timothy Hicks
Janeen Ippolito
Becca Johnson
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Emileigh Latham
Rebekah Loper
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Anna Mittower
Joan Nienhuis
Lyn Perry
Nathan Reimer
Chawna Schroeder
Rachel Starr Thomson
Robert Treskillard
Steve Trower
Dona Watson
Shane Werlinger
Phyllis Wheeler

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

Hold That Thought

In my reading at Speculative Faith and Becky Miller’s blog, I have recently come across musings over whether or not Christian speculative fiction is “weird”. This has left me pondering a slightly different question: Why is it called weird?

It occurred to me that the answer to that question can be found, in some degree, in The Spirit Well, a novel by Stephen Lawhead I recently finished. Then it occurred to me that the blog tour for The Spirit Well begins next week, and it will run three days, and if I have something to say concerning the book, I should probably say it then.

So hold that thought.

The Spirit Well is the third book of the Bright Empires series. The first book, The Skin Map, was my maiden CSFF blog tour; a year ago, we toured the second book also. (It’s titled The Bone House. Do you sense a theme?)

I’ll see you, hopefully, on the tour, to discuss The Spirit Well and other issues of weirdness in Christian speculative fiction.

Review: Truckers

It’s hard to live in somebody else’s world. Just ask Masklin. Forced to fend for a tattered remnant of nomes, nothing came easy. The whole world was too big, and the nomes were prey for everything – including rats. Sometimes Masklin got the better of a rat, and then they had meat for dinner. Other times he scavenged for nuts, or berries, or gray strips of chicken in the diner’s trash. But there was never enough.

So Masklin led the band onto a truck, and it brought them to the Store. There they met other nomes, and saw, for a time, that it can be very nice to live in somebody else’s world.

Then it all went back to form.

In Truckers, Terry Pratchett shows a unique style. It reminds me of Dr. Seuss in that it has at times a childlike simplicity, yet it is clever and appealing. Here is a bit from the first chapter: “The sky rained dismal. It rained humdrum. It rained the kind of rain that is so much wetter than normal rain, the kind of rain that comes down in big drops and splats, the kind of rain that fills the air from side to side, the kind of rain that is merely an upright sea with slots in it.”

There is a lot of humor in the book, often of the type that the characters are unconscious of. The characters themselves sometimes have a comic bent, and one of the nomes’ most striking features, as a race, is their ability to misunderstand almost anything.

Yet for that, the characters are whole people, believable and sympathetic. The finest one is Masklin; he’s a hero, but in such a quiet, humdrum way no one ever notices. Certainly he doesn’t.

The concept of nomes is fantasy, but Pratchett blended it with sci-fi – a union that, when done well, is always interesting, and Pratchett did it well. His nomes are skillfully created, in all their mixed glory, and Pratchett succeeds excellently in engaging his readers in their world.

Truckers never stopped interesting me. The action was light, but the pace didn’t feel slow. The one problem I had with the novel was the anti-religion skew in one of its elements. In this part of the story, certain nomes have a false religion, centering around Arnold Bros. (est. 1905). The idea was clever, and the execution sometimes funny. Nor can I object to the portrayal of a false religion; there have certainly been many. Yet I felt at times that Terry Pratchett was jabbing at all religion.

But it did not ultimately deter me from the book. Truckers is a wonderful novel – written with style, filled with humor, mixing fantasy and sci-fi in a bright adventure.

Review: Merry’s Christmas

When your car has just been repossessed, and you don’t know where you can scare up the rent, getting a second job is a very obvious thing to do. A second job as a Christmas coordinator is not so obvious.

Especially for Merry Hopper. Abandoned by her parents on Christmas Day, she had never experienced a real family Christmas. Nor did she ever coordinate a Christmas for anyone besides herself and her cat. When you really consider it, her only qualification for being a Christmas coordinator was that her name was Merry.

And, I suppose, that she loved Christmas.

Merry’s Christmas is a romance. Romance is not my usual genre, but I have enjoyed romance novels when they cross with other genres: historical fiction (Masquerade, by Nancy Moser) and comedy (Boo Hiss, by Rene Gutteridge). Merry’s Christmas is in the style of comedy – and a Christmas tale.

Merry’s Christmas is deeply felt, yet lighthearted; there is no real villain. The characters felt real, and even the third point in the love triangle is ultimately a person who can be understood. I would like to highlight two particular triumphs in this area: first, the nine-year-old boy, because he seems like a nine-year-old boy. It is a challenge for adults to write children, to find that level of intelligence and maturity truly appropriate. Susan Rohrer doesn’t trip on that snag.

The second, much more significant triumph is the heroine of the story, Merry. She’s a thoroughly sympathetic character: highly intuitive on an emotional level, a born nurturer, determinedly sweet – and yet there is something hardy, and almost heroic, in how happy she can be after all her troubles. Angst is prevalent in modern fiction; I appreciate the unfussy sadness of this heroine – and even more that she can pluck up her heart to be grateful and even optimistic.

Merry’s Christmas was first written as a screenplay, and you can tell. The brisk, efficient set-up puts one in mind of a movie. The style is gently omniscient, and does not – as many people say of the omniscient viewpoint – compromise closeness to the characters.

The screenplay-origin may also be seen in the chief failing of the novella: a little too much telling instead of showing. Skilled actors convey emotions and thoughts through tones of voice, expressions, body language, a glance in the right direction at the right time. Novelists, too, must give indirect but clear signals.

Merry’s Christmas is a hopeful story, as all Christmas stories ought to be. Its characters are winning, its plot simple as it aims, straight and true, for the heart. Merry’s Christmas turns on incredible changes of fortune – and that, in a Christmas-tide story, is stirringly appropriate.

I received a review copy of this novella from the author.