Through Uncanny Valley

“But in general, take my advice, when you meet anything that is going to be Human and isn’t yet, or used to be Human once and isn’t now, or ought to be Human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.”

― C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I should say, in fairness, that every type of story opens windows on human nature. I hope I can add with accuracy, if not objectivity, that speculative fiction holds a special ability to highlight certain of humanity’s psychological quirks. It highlights, for example, the psychological quirk that humans are unnerved by things that ought to be human and don’t quite make it, both pretend-humans and ex-humans.

The horror genre makes the most hay of this phenomenon, what with zombies and vampires and ghosts – all ex-humans, in one way or another. It would be appropriate, given the season, to focus on horror and its almost epic exploitation, and thus illumination, of humanity’s dread of the almost-human. But I won’t, because I have never really liked any ghost story since A Christmas Carol, and I hate zombies beyond my power of expression, and although the memories will someday mercifully fade, vampires inevitably call up Twilight.

Other forms of speculative fiction make milder appeals to the same uneasiness. C.S. Lewis wove it into the White Witch. Folk lore and fairy tales, the progenitors of modern speculative fiction, have their own examples (including ghosts, of course, but I’m still not going to talk about them). Among the most compelling examples is that of the hollow women: beautiful and smiling, but their backs are hollow. At their worst, they are malevolent seductresses, and pitiless even when they are harmless. Changelings, both infant and adult, are in their own way even more sinister: The cold, creeping feeling of a stranger who should be human can’t match the horror of a loved one who isn’t.

Science fiction has made its own variation of the theme. The (in)famous Pod People are only a refitted version of changelings, replicas all the more chilling for their precision. Sci-fi has accumulated standbys and tropes for things that are, in Lewis’ words, going to be human and aren’t yet: aliens that sham humanity, human bodies hijacked by parasites, robots that are human at the first glance and not at the second.

Robots merit particular attention because here science caught up with fiction. Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, theorized nearly fifty years ago that robots, approaching human likeness but not quite reaching it, would fall into the uncanny valley. In the uncanny valley, both too much and not enough like humans, robots provoke unease and revulsion. Mori speculated that our “eerie sensation” is an instinct that protects us from the proximal dangers of corpses and members of different species. Some think it may be triggered by the dissonance between the human and inhuman mingled together.

Whether dissonance, survival instinct, or a deeper, more mysterious instinct, the phenomenon is real. There is a queasy line between us and not-us, between human and once-human. We felt it in our stories long before scientists labeled it.

A Notable Lack

A notable lack in speculative fiction, and one that cuts across the divide between Christian and secular, is that of genuine, fully-realized religion. There may be religious belief and religious feeling; in Christian speculative fiction, there usually is. There may be scraps of religion – vague expressions of faith, a benevolent priest, a fanatic, a cross or a stray invocation of the gods. But genuine religion – religion that possesses a structure, doctrines, holidays, customs, stories and rules, and all the physical artifacts from temples to jewelry? That is rare.

This lack is hardly crippling. Great speculative fiction may exist without practical religion and even be deeply spiritual. Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia exhibit little of religion as it is practiced in actual life and possess spiritual depths rarely matched. Complete religion isn’t necessary. But its scarcity in our novels is a loss.

You may ask, Why Snoopy? And I answer: The other images Google gave me were too ugly.

To gain an idea of the loss, let us consider Halloween, because ’tis the season. There are surely people in this great nation whose favorite holiday is Halloween, and I frankly worry about these people. At best, it’s a half-holiday. There is a version of Halloween for children, and a version for adults, but no version for everyone. As a popular holiday, it makes no pretense of religion or meaning; it has no songs and most Halloween stories could be told without Halloween and probably would be.

And out of even this poor half-holiday you could dig a tale that teaches us who we are. The origin of Halloween is taken to be Samhain, the Celtic holiday that marked the journey of the dead into the otherworld. Ghosts were near on Samhain, too near for anyone’s comfort. The inhuman, both demons and fairies, were also believed to be abroad with power, perhaps because the journey from this world to the next suggested a general weakening of boundaries. A spiritual anarchy hangs about the whole day, and to the extent that there was real belief there must have been real fear.

The Catholic Church later established All Saints Day and All Souls Day, days that commemorate the dead without fear of the dead, or horror of death. It’s long been said – very plausibly, though I admit I all-saints-daydon’t know on what evidence – that the Catholic Church did this to replace Samhain. And Samhain did fade away, leaving only vestiges of customs and superstition where powerful belief once ruled. Yet All Saints Day and All Souls Day never replaced it. These are just days on the church calendar, occasionally observed but never celebrated.

Much can be gleaned from the history of Halloween – the revolution of a civilization changing from one religion to another, humanity’s elemental horror of the dead who do not stay properly dead, the dread of the inhuman, the evolution and mixing of beliefs and practices. It is strange that, although many people believe the saints are happy in heaven and few think ghosts travel on Halloween, Halloween has so much greater a presence than All Saints Day. An empty holiday with concrete practices has more power than a holy day with abstract joy, and we see how instinctively humanity demands, and perhaps even needs, physical expression of spiritual things.

What can be illustrated through a holiday – from the history of a civilization to religious beliefs to fundamental human nature – is extraordinary. Holidays, and all the expressions of a whole and genuine religion, offer a wide and rich opportunity to speculative fiction authors. I don’t demand that they take it, but – well, would you consider it?

Realm Makers

With Realm Makers come and gone more than two weeks ago, the initial Internet buzz has begun to subside. Already most bloggers who want to throw in their two cents have done so.

So here am I, late to the party.

I first heard about the Realm Makers conference in May, through Speculative Faith. They said it would be a conference for writers and readers – mainly writers – of Christian speculative fiction. Also, it would be on a university campus in St. Louis – only a couple hundred miles from my town. I was sold.

Two of my sisters went with me – Meghan, who does a lot of script-writing over at Myristica Studios, and Keenan, who was up for an adventure in St. Louis.

Now, St. Louis is a bona fide big city; it has a card and everything. You start feeling it thirty miles out on the interstate. By the time you get near, the highway is fluxing between four and five and six lanes, to accommodate the multitude of drivers getting off and on the multitude of exits. It doesn’t necessarily help that the obvious natives flash across the lanes with great purpose and even greater speed. Meghan, who was driving, said it reminded her of Alice in Wonderland: “People come and go so quickly here.”

Getting off into St. Louis from the interstate required a handful of highway changes, all in fairly short order. We worried about getting lost in the city’s web of highways, but we didn’t.

We got lost on the campus. Later we got lost on the elevator. But we worked that out, and the next morning we went to the J. C. Penny conference center for Realm Makers’ opening.

Realm Makers is the first conference of any order I have attended, and I didn’t know that eighty people is really good for a Christian speculative fiction conference until Jeff Gerke said so. Jeff Gerke gave the opening and closing speeches of the conference – entertaining and informative, both of them. L.B. Graham delivered an interesting speech about worldview in fiction, and Bryan Davis taught a very good session about the hero’s journey. (He does these things a lot, and you can tell.)

Kathy Tyers was a premier highlight of the conference; it was fun to hear about her writing career, Star Wars and otherwise, and it was encouraging to hear how Jesus is a part of her story. Also, she seemed like such a nice, sweet person; it was enough to make you want to buy her books.

The audience was very appreciative of her. But the audience was appreciative generally. There was a lot of applause, a lot of laughing and joking, and a sense of camaraderie. (Particularly when the word weird came up. Make of that what you will.) The people at the conference – speakers and otherwise – reminded me of what Woody said when he was trying, in Toy Story 3, to convince the toys that being in the attic wasn’t so bad: “And those guys from the Christmas decorations box. They’re fun, right?”

The last event of the conference was a multi-author book signing, in which I obtained autographs from Bryan Davis, Kathy Tyers, Robert Treskilliard, and Jeff Gerke. That was fun.

I have no thoughts to offer here about where Realm Makers will go from here, or where it ought to go. I’ll content myself with the observation that it was good as far as it did go, and I’m glad I attended.

So are Meghan and Keenan, by the way.

Review: Heroes Proved

What will the world be like in twenty years? A mess, you’ll say. But will it be as big a mess as having a nuclear ayatollah in Tehran, a Caliph ruling Jerusalem, and a Mafia-style president in the Oval Office?

Heroes Proved is Oliver North’s fourth military thriller. I began it directly after reading a dystopian novel called Swipe, and I soon came to feel I had gone from one dystopian novel to another. If a team of conservatives were to construct their perfect nightmare, it would look much like the America, and world, of Heroes Proved.

This book cuts across many genres: Primarily an action novel, but also a techno-thriller with a dystopian slant and social commentary. A religious element is peppered, plain and unashamed, throughout the narrative. Alongside it, there is a thick strand of political intrigue. The president, though often appearing, is never named; in Oliver North’s books, the president is mentioned frequently, but never by name.

But the president in Mission Compromised who loathed the military, pulled out of Somalia, and ran a chronically disorganized White House was a lot like Bill Clinton. The president in Assassins who was as punctual as a Marine, known for his time in the gym, who had a Defense secretary named Dan and a political advisor named Carl Rose – well, that wasn’t hard to figure out.

In Heroes Proved, the “Madam President” whose husband was president before her, who was often rude or demeaning to staff, with a subordinate named Vic Foster who suffered an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head – she is … Hillary Clinton, in an alternative universe.

Much of the interest and even fun of Heroes Proved is in tracing the connections to real life. The book may be properly labeled speculative. It is always asking, “What if, in the future …” What if America repressed free speech in the name of tolerance and fairness? What if Iran goes nuclear? What if a new Caliphate is established?

All these projections of current events are interesting. Noticing that Larry Walsh, the Madam President’s corrupt counsel, was also the name of the special prosecutor in the Iran-contra scandal is merely fun.

Considered on its proficiency as a novel, Heroes Proved would be marked a few demerits. The dialogue is not always entirely believable. The prose, although cleanly written and efficient to its purpose, has little beauty. (But then, does anyone read military thrillers for literary beauty?) The hero’s journey is started but never properly finished.

Even so, Heroes Proved is an exciting book and, what’s more, a fascinating one. It engages the heart as well as the head, and it does show us heroes proved.

Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In a drear future – or, we may say, a drear past that never was – democracy in England died. England sank into a dull despotism. Its army and police almost vanished; its King was chosen out of alphabetical lists. “No one cared how: no one cared who. He was merely a universal secretary.”

In a system like this, anybody could become King. And anybody did.

Auberon Quin “had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses. … When he entered a room of strangers they mistook him for a small boy, and wanted to take him on their knees, until he spoke, when they perceived that a boy would have been more intelligent.”

For a joke, Auberon Quin instituted the Charter of the Cities, making each municipality of London a sovereign city. Each city had its own guard, its assigned colors and heraldry. Each had a Lord High Provost, who could not put a letter in a mail-box without five heralds proclaiming the fact with trumpets.

This was the King’s joke on his modern, businesslike subordinates. He enjoyed it and they did not. After ten years, the farce was interrupted by a lunatic, who took the whole thing as seriously as life itself.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill was written by G. K. Chesterton and published in 1904. The novel begins in 1984, and it takes two time leaps so that it ends in 2014. This is enough to qualify The Napoleon of Notting Hill as speculative fiction, though its author never heard of the term.

Like all Chesterton novels, this is written in omniscient style; the narrator is practically a character, and that character is G. K. Chesterton. The narrator of Napoleon remarks: “Now, there is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it a thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.”

So the narration of Chesteron’s novels carries the same style and opinions as his apologetics.

Indeed, the fiction of G. K. Chesterton always revolves around the same things his nonfiction does. Many of Chesterton’s ideas can be seen in the pages of this book – on what makes men go mad, on the value and almost mysticism of ordinary things, and why it is better to “go clad in gold and scarlet” than in black frock-coats. But the idea that shapes the whole story is that of patriotism.

Adam Wayne was a lunatic because he was a patriot. He took Notting Hill seriously. Auberon had made the cities in mockery; he compelled them into mediavel glory for the pleasure of making his serious officials look like fools. He thought Notting Hill ridiculous, like the rest of it. The officials thought poor, small Notting Hill perhaps even more ridiculous than the rest of it. Adam Wayne thought it sacred enough to die for.

This was singularly foolish to his fellow provosts, but also singularly inconvenient. They had strictly commercial – and highly profitable – uses for Notting Hill. A Lord High Provost who could not be bought – who resisted their seizure of his city to the point of violence – that was more than they had ever dealt with.

Through the struggle for Notting Hill, the question is brought to fore: Is it rational to be a patriot? Is it sane to dress in gold and scarlet for glory, or to dress in black for dignity?

The Napoleon of Notting Hill overflows with humor and depth. The characters are large as life and enjoyable, though they seem sometimes to be embodiments of different philosophies as much as people. The plot is very good – quick, unexpected, lively. “Two Voices” – the novel’s closing chapter, and its climax – is a masterpiece, the full meaning of the story bursting forth in an evocative and fascinating scene. And Chesterton not only considers the worth and meaning of patriotism, but gives voice to its heart, ringing in the words of Adam Wayne: “I have a city. Let it stand or fall.”