The Broken Earth Trilogy

In her brilliant short story collection, How Long Til Black Future Month, N.K. Jemisin’s lead-off story “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” riffs on Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” to devastating effect. I’m not a crier under most circumstances, just ask my wife and she’ll confirm that. But at the end of Jemisin’s story, I cried because her vision for how life could be was so beautiful. LeGuin’s story essentially asks the question: “If a society’s thriving required the exploitation and suffering of a single individual – just one – would that be worth it?” For those who can’t agree to that condition, their “only” choice is to walk away. And I use those quotes because Jemisin’s response is exactly the right one when presented with binary options: look for a third way.

I remember my hermeneutics professor in seminary encouraging us to walk that very road. It’s very rare that there are only two options, and typically when given only two options to choose from, neither is adequate. So, find a third way.

Jemisin’s third way is to stay and fight. Fight the system that demands either submission or exploitation. Neither option is good, so let’s fight for a third way. A way in which justice and mercy meet, and everyone has the chance to truly thrive. No one needs to be excluded or exploited. No one.

The Broken Earth trilogy feels like an extended meditation on the same theme. What would we do if an entire group of people is subjugated, oppressed, made into chattel, feared, controlled, and lynched for the benefit of everyone else? Does that sound like any society in the primary world? Mmhmm.

Would we buy into the system and seek our own personal thriving within it? Would we remove ourselves and live isolated from everyone else? Or would we break the intentionally flawed system and build something that works for everyone?

Unsurprisingly, most people in Jemisin’s world make the same choices that white America made throughout its sad history. Buy in wholesale, or pretend the problem doesn’t exist. But we don’t have to choose between maintaining the status quo and burning the whole thing down. We, like Jemisin’s characters, can choose instead to bring justice. That will require burning. It will also require maintaining parts of the status quo. But the end result needs to be a new thing entirely.

You see, Jemisin brilliantly places her readers inside the perspective of people within her world’s exploited group. We see how they feel when they are bred like cattle, threatened with death for simply being who and what they are, when their emotions are manipulated and twisted against them, and a whole host of terrors are inflicted upon them. And she does this by laying the groundwork in book one. She shows how the exploited participate in their own exploitation, and believe the lies that this way is truly what’s best for everyone. We see how they are taught to buy into the system as the way things “have to be.” In book two, she spells out the options and makes the sides clear. And because she recognizes that this is not a binary decision that is stuck in a duality of warring opposites, there are more than two sides. Finally, in book three she advances the story to its beautiful conclusion while narrating the history that brought us to where her story started.

Since I just mentioned the ending, let me digress for just a moment to say that Jemisin’s ending is one of the best I’ve ever read. Wrapping up a series in a satisfying way is hard. I know this, not because I’ve done it, but because I’ve read enough series to see that not every one can do it well. But the ending to The Broken Earth trilogy is so good that I reread it several times, and I teared up each time. (I know! This, from the guy who rarely cries!) Jemisin’s ending is just so fitting, so relevant, so necessary. When it comes to making the world better, “Don’t be patient. Don’t ever be. This is the way a new world begins.” (Man! Even typing those words gets me again.) Channeling Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Jemisin emphasizes that we cannot wait for a “more convenient season.” (And yes, I feel the resonance between the imagined convenient season in Dr. King’s quote and the Seasons in Jemisin’s world.)

Because of course there can’t be a more convenient season when the third way – the way of justice – requires a breaking. The old way must be broken for a just way to emerge. Would the city of Castrima be what it is without the magnitude of this Season? No. Would any see the need for roggas and stills (I’m deliberately using the in-world, offensive slang here – and you don’t need to try hard to hear the phonetic resonance between rogga and a different slur in the primary world) to work together if not for the destruction Alabaster brought about? Not a chance. But the destruction opens the door to a new world. No Fulcrums. No Guardians. Just people.

The destruction of this trilogy is not senseless. It is like rebreaking a bone so it can set properly, so real healing can take place without further pain and deformity. It is not wholesale, wanton destruction. It is targeted. Intentional. Hopeful.

The same can be said of the entire trilogy, in fact. It is targeted, intentional, and hopeful.

The exploitation built into the system of Jemisin’s world goes all the way down and all the way back. Society in the present is structured around use castes. It’s incredible. Because the earth is broken by an exploitative system, even the way humans view themselves and each other has been broken. The focus shifts from personhood to utility. And this is narrated powerfully in the story’s main character. In her story, yes, but mostly in her names. You see, she was given the name Damaya by her family, but that family feared her and didn’t know how to love. So, they gave her away to the Fulcrum where she was given the name Syenite. But at the Fulcrum she was exploited and treated like an animal that could be bred and controlled. Finally, there’s Essun, the name she chooses for herself, the name she is called by those who come to know and love her.

Going back in time, Syl Anagist used the lowest caste as literal fuel for their progress, and when they recognized that those resources would eventually be used up they began to adjust the definition of who fits in that lowest caste. Who can be used and who cannot? But they know, too, that even with an ever-adjusting and expanding lowest caste, their resources are finite, and so they need a new option. They have a chance to choose a third way, one that refuses systemic exploitation. But instead, they are unable to see that such a system is evil, even when it no longer exploits people (now, the lowest caste probably wasn’t seen as human, and in the backstory we’re given Houwha, Kelenli, Gaewha, and the others like them certainly aren’t). So, they direct their exploitative system toward the Earth itself – the very source of their life and their magic. Oh yeah, magic! Tons of it.

And it’s at this point, that Jemisin draws a line between social justice and environmental justice. It is the same culture of oppression and exploitation that treats people, plants, animals, water, land – all the things on which our lives depend – as mere things to be used. It is a system that cannot see other living beings as worthy of dignity and respect because they have lives of their own and because we all have creaturehood in common. The environmental drama is the sea in which the drama of social justice swims (forgive the sloppy metaphor). Oh, and by the way, the only people who can avoid the Seasons (unavoidable environmental catastrophes that occur about once a generation) are those who are truly in power. The Guardians alone have the luxury to retreat from the Seasons and are therefore unaffected by them. So too, the rich and powerful in our world continue to exploit and strip-mine our planet while believing they will be insulated against the consequences.

This is one of the reasons I love good fantasy. It takes reality in the primary world and makes it strange. And in so doing, it helps us see the primary world more clearly. In The Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin repositions the direction of oppression and exploitation to roggas (those who can do magic), while imagining a world where the social construct of race isn’t a thing and everyone accepts people we would place within the LGBTQ+ community. In this world, people are people, unless they can do magic. Then they’re dangerous and in need of exploitation. A narrative must be created that will convince roggas (orogenes, magic-users) that they are dangerous and must be controlled for the safety of the world. By clearly transposing the direction of fear and hatred from race and sexual identity to magic in her secondary world, Jemisin makes the parallel unmistakable. I can’t read the trilogy and miss the tragic parallel with the primary world. We have done and continue to do to people of other “races” and “sexual orientations” whey they did to their orogenes. We too are exploiting the planet so that some can experience short-term gains. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

We can make a better world, one that works for everyone. It won’t be easy, and it will be costly. But a world built on cooperation rather than exploitation is worth it.

Chiang, Julian, and the Story of Our Lives

​”Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.” Ted Chiang closes The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate with these simple yet profound words, wrapping up a nested set of time travel tales in a radically different – and radically human – way.

​This lesson is at the core of emotional and spiritual health. For the characters, it was gained through heartache and regret, making it a message for all people, in all times, regardless of faith tradition or lack thereof. We cannot move forward into the future as healthy, whole individuals unless we have looked honestly at the past, not seeking to erase it but to integrate it, owning the hurts we’ve caused and facing the hurts inflicted upon us. But we can’t stop there. We must proceed to repent (or turn from a hurtful way and toward a better one), find atonement (reconciliation, restoration, or “at-one-ment” in Richard Rohr’s wording). And both give and receive forgiveness. That is all we can do with our past, but that is enough.

​I’ve been thinking a lot about Chiang’s stories, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate and The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, for the past few months. Both stories revolve around wrongs done in the main characters’ past that have direct and dramatic impact on their present and future, and­ – to my mind at least – they have a clear connection to an idea found in Julian of Norwich, St. Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and others: that sin – or hurt in the case of these stories – is behovely or coveniens.

​These two words essentially mean that something “‘fits’, it is ‘just so’ and that there is something it fits with.”[1] Theologian Denys Turner writes that:

the understanding of the conveniens within high medieval theology was of what we might call a ‘narratival’ kind, or perhaps equally, of an ‘aesthetic’ kind. Think of it this way: the conveniens, that which is ‘behovely’, possesses not a law-like intelligibility – of that kind which one provides when explaining something against the background of the causal mechanisms and sequences which generate it, but rather that which you provide for a particular event, or kind of event, when you provide a place for it within a particular individual’s story. It is conveniens, therefore, not on account of being explained by a universal and timeless causal hypothesis, but on account of its fitting within a narrative bound by the particularities of time and place. We grasp the convenientia of an event when we grasp how it is ‘just so’ that it should happen that way, that ‘just so’ being something which we see when we have got hold of the plot which makes it just right that it should happen thus.[2]

​So, if one of the people of Tivland from The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling were to explain this concept, they would say that sin – or the hurts in our past – are mimi rather than vough. It is right in the narrative of our lives, it fits just so, and attempting to erase it would be attempting to erase part of the story of our lives (and speaking of Story of Your Life, isn’t this also the key insight about time that Louise gains from the heptapods?). The hurt fits within our narrative so that removing it, even if we could, makes our story senseless. Every piece, every person, every action taken or not taken shapes the person we become. As Turner continues to say, “[E]ven if everything in a narrative could have, logically, been otherwise, when we say of what does happen that it happened convenientius, we say, because we see, that it was just right that it should happen so, and not otherwise. It ‘fits’. There is a plot to it. Its contingency is not that of the arbitrary.”[3]

​In other words, hurt and pain fit in the plot of humanity’s story, but that does not mean things had to be this particular way. There is no element of logical necessity to sin. In this sense, reality is, by definition, conveniens because it is the story we – or the characters in Chiang’s stories – are living in.

​Julian of Norwich asks the question of why things are this way, but calls it folly: “in my folly, I had often wondered . . . why, through the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented; for then, it seemed to me, all would have been well.”[4] Julian’s folly exists in believing that only by preventing the beginning of sin could all have been well. The problem in Julian’s thinking was the belief that only in a sin-free world could all things be well instead of seeing “that in whatever world God has created, ‘all manner of thing would be well’; consequently, in a world in which there is sin, in which sin is inevitable, all can be well too, and sin’s inevitability is part of the picture, or if you like, part of that plot, of all manner of thing being well.”[5]

Turner believes that this “is the theological meaning of ‘behovely’ and of conveniens: that sin is ‘behovely’ means that sin is needed as part of the plot – or, if you like, that the plot needs sin.”[6] Clearly, there is no plot to Chiang’s stories without the hurt the characters experienced, and Chiang helps us to see that the same holds true for the story of each individual human life. He narrates stories that help us grasp the reality that our inability to change the past, as he says in the story notes for The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, isn’t necessarily a cause for sadness.

Turner proceeds to explain that in Julian’s thinking “it is only if we know that everything that happens, for good or ill, is part of the plot which God has scripted, that we can know that it is conveniens that it did happen.”[7]Even if, we cannot or do not want to say that life is following a script, that does not change the fact the life has happened in the particular way it did and no other. We will remain forever stuck in regret over the past or trapped in the malleability of our memory if we cannot honestly grapple with the past in the clear light of day.

It follows for Turner’s reading of Julian, and applies to these two stories from Chiang, that “the amount and intensity of sin in the world is exactly right, exactly as it should be, conveniens, ‘behovely’: none of it necessary, all of it freely done, and all of it part of the plot, all of it part of what was intended.”[8]

When we look at the world in this light, look at our lives, we are empowered to see along with The Truth of Fact’s narrator that “The point is not to prove you were right; the point is to admit you were wrong.” We are freed up to say – and honestly mean – “if you think I’ve been less than honest, tell me. I want to know.”

In light of all this, what else can we do with our past but repent, atone, and forgive? That’s all we can do, but it’s enough. 


Story of Your Life is available in Chiang’s collection, Stories of Your Life and Others. You can find The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling in his collection, Exhalation. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate appears in both collections.


[1] Denys Turner, “‘Sin Is Behovely’ in Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love,” Modern Theology 20, no. 3 (2004): 409.

[2] Turner, 415–16.

[3] Turner, 416.

[4]  Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Barry Windeatt (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), 74 (LT 27).

[5] Turner, “Sin Is Behovely,” 418.

[6] Turner, 418.

[7] Turner, 418.

[8] Turner, 419.

Thoughts before Super Tuesday

It seems to me, the major question facing Democrats today is two fold: Is it possible to return to the way things were before Trump, and if it is, do we even want that? It’s a big question. Things didn’t seem all that bad before Trump, so a return to those times would be better than how things are now, right?

I suppose we can’t know the answer to that unless we try, so we really need to consider the second part of the question first. Do we even want to return to pre-Trump days? Sure, Obama was president, but simply because our president was black doesn’t mean our society was somehow less racist than we see it to be today. The racism and bigotry that are now on display have been there all along, but they were just concealed a bit better before. I should clarify that I believe they were only better concealed for white folks. I doubt the black and brown-skinned among us were under any illusions about the ongoing reality of systemic racism (and sexism) in America, even if many of us white folks couldn’t (or simply chose not to) see it.

Maybe we have no choice but to return to that kind of America. Maybe our problems with racism and sexism need more decades to find healing and a new way forward. But can we find that way forward by trying to return to business as usual? Can we step boldly into a just and equitable future by rewinding the clock? Maybe. America took great strides forward under Obama’s leadership, so perhaps a President Klobuchar or Buttigieg or Biden would help the country take more of those strides, but wouldn’t a President Sanders or Warren force the issue?

We have a chance in this election to press forward into bold new territory, to set a trajectory toward the kind of future we all want to live in (where every person is treated with the dignity, respect, and love they deserve; where the earth that is our only home is honored and protected rather than stripped and exploited; where our differences inspire curiosity and wonder rather than fear and hatred). I think it’s clear from our previous election that we feel a need for drastic measures. But trying to return to some sort of mythical golden age was never going to work, and it won’t work today (regardless of whether that imagined golden age was sixty years ago or four). There’s no going back. And if we hope to heal our country of the wounds that have been festering for more than 200 years, we need to chart a different course (not a new course, certainly, because Dr. King saw this path forward many years ago) from the one we’re on.

So, who is best equipped to help that healing along?

I wish I knew for sure. But I have my suspicion and have voted accordingly.

 

Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok is certainly in my top-two Marvel movies of the past decade, and I’m pretty sure it has displaced Guardians of the Galaxy for the top spot. But why? Beware, spoilers abound . . .

  • This movie is hilarious, and I mean truly laugh out loud funny. Whether it was Thor trying to convince both Bruce Banner and the Hulk that he likes their individual personality better, or Loki celebrating Thor’s butt-whooping at the Hulk’s hands, or Korg – seriously, Taika Waititi is a genius, both as a director and as a comedian – being Korg, this movie has so many hilarious moments.
  • Yet, even in the midst of all the laughs, this movie takes major steps toward Avengers: Infinity War and addresses some serious issues.
    • Asgard’s true history is revealed as one of war-mongering and imperialism in which all the gold gilding the city is a spoil of war. Conquest was Asgard’s agenda, until Odin decided to turn over a new leaf, but even then, the Valkyrie are sacrificed without a second thought. Hela is revealed as the true heir to Odin’s throne, not just as his first-born but also as the one who most closely resembles her father’s desire for conquest and domination. This history was literally buried and forgotten, until Hela comes and tears down the falsified family portraits and rips open the crypt. She reveals the ugly truth at the heart of Asgard’s history, a truth that those in power have covered up and a history Odin has rewritten to recast his role as that of protector of the Nine Realms, rather than as their conqueror.
    • The differences between species and races are clear to the viewer, but it seems that the characters in the movie barely notice them. Korg may be a being composed of rocks, but Thor treats him like a friend from the moment they meet. There is no fear of the other as other here, and that stands in stark contrast to Hela (and previously Odin’s) desire to dominate and destroy all who are other.
    • These two issues resonate today, and they resonate powerfully. We are all living in a time in which we encouraged to fear those who are different from us, to mistrust those who are from a different country or whose skin is a different shade than our own. We live with war on the horizon – always – whether our country appears to be involved or not. There is no escaping it. These wars fuel the fire of nationalism and fear that keep us apart. But Thor: Ragnarok demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that neither of these need to be our reality. Wars can be ended and fear of the other can be turned into acceptance. Perhaps, if we saw ourselves as Terrans or Earthers rather than as Americans (or for those of us in the Church, if we saw ourselves as the linguistically, culturally, and physically diverse body of Christ before any other affiliations) we might be able to take some positive strides toward peace and reconciliation. And perhaps, we might even be equipped as Thor clearly was – or as Ender was in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead – to see non-human creatures (whether terrestrial or extra-terrestrial) as God’s children and as his good creations.
    • And if that weren’t enough, the movie’s ending sheds an uncomfortable light on the West’s unwillingness to welcome refugees. While none of those seeking asylum in the world today are virtually immortal aliens of tremendous power (would it actually make a difference if they were?), they are people who want a new home where they can put down roots and make a contribution. Perhaps some of them will change the world one day . . .
    • Any movie that can pull off addressing serious issues while making me laugh – which is just what Waititi’s previous movie, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, did with foster care – is a real winner. The way he deepens Asgard’s history, darkens it with a history of imperialism and conquest that can never truly be made right, is brilliant.
  • First Odin, and later Heimdall, assert that Asgard is not a place. It is wherever Asgard’s people are. I think we can and should say the same about the Church, but what is significant here is that even an ugly past need not define the future. If Asgard is its people, then Asgard is not its buildings or its technology or its history. Yes, it is shaped and influenced by all of those things, but it need not be defined by them. Growth and change are possible, and because of how Thor and Loki grow and change in this movie, they seem almost certain.
  • Idris Elba. Is he ever anything less than awesome?
  • And Cate Blanchett? Whether she’s Galadriel or Hela, she plays the powerful, awe-inspiring queen to perfection.

For these reasons, and others as well, I absolutely love this movie. It will be tough to knock this one out of my top spot.

Stranger Things, Season 1

When a friend asked me to pitch Stranger Things a couple days ago, the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “It’s awesome,” but since I hadn’t sat down to think about the why behind that sentiment beforehand, I couldn’t offer anything more compelling. I will try to be a little more articulate now…

So, Stranger Things season 1 is awesome (and the first episode and a half of season two have basically followed suit). It reminds me of several very different pieces of entertainment/art without being exactly like anything else I’ve ever seen.

First, it reminds me of Community at its best. My favorite Community episodes are heavy on the sci-fi and fantasy allusions (or are explicitly riffing off stories and movies I love). It also works at a metafictional level that ST pulls off to wonderful effect. For example, there’s a moment when Will’s mom (played wonderfully by Winona Ryder) suggests they go see a scary movie together, so long as it won’t give him nightmares. He says he doesn’t get scared like that anymore, and she asks him, “Not even of clowns?” Now, this seems like an explicit reference to Stephen King’s It, which only makes sense at a metafictional level because the first season of ST is set in 1983-4 and It wasn’t published until 1986. To take it a step further, ST’s Mike Wheeler is played by Finn Wolfhard who also plays a starring role in . . . you guessed it, the 2017 remake of It.

Speaking of It, one of the things the 2017 movie did exceptionally well was reinterpret King’s classic and transpose the kids’ scenes from the late 50’s to the late 80’s. The portrait of the 80’s offered in the film reminds me of ST’s delightful and nostalgic setting. The film’s focus on a group of outcast kids who love, support, encourage, fight with, and are willing to sacrifice for each other also hearkens back to King’s narrative, emphasizing the hardships of growing up and its simple pleasures.

This same focus on outcast kids who have taken on a dangerous task to save what they love also points back to the 1985 classic, The Goonies. The echoes seem to be intentional, with ST’s Barb bearing a more than passing resemblance to Stef and Sean Astin (who played Mikey) entering the ST cast for season 2.

The final film ST reminds me of is a little indie-film from 2009 called Ink. It’s not the plot or the setting that is reminiscent, it’s the upside-down. The visuals and cinematography in the upside-down, with their bluish tint, heavy darkness, and eerie contrasts are familiar and more than a little disturbing.

If all that wasn’t enough to make me love this show, this next point does the trick all on its own.

One of the unifying plot elements throughout season one (and it doesn’t let up in season 2) is the frame of Dungeons and Dragons that helps the kids make sense of what is going on around them. The first episode begins with their D&D game, the last episode ends with one – heck, one of the episode titles from season 2 references the Mind Flayer of AD&D fame! All this takes me back to the early 90’s when I encountered D&D and the related novels (without which I certainly would not have done a PhD!), which included the Dragonlance Chronicles – first published in 1984 and 85 (I might just do a little happy dance if season 2 refers to the first in this series). Had these kids been around at my schools growing up, there’s a good chance we would have hung out.

I could go on, but I won’t. If any of these film references grab your interest or if you remember D&D with fondness, then I wager you’ll love this show – in much the same way that those who grew up playing arcade games are likely to love Wreck-It Ralph. It is nostalgic, intriguing, and full of sci-fi goodness apart from the features I mentioned above, and I can’t wait to see where they go from here.

A Wizard of Earthsea

First, let me express my hearty thanks to Anton Rose (@antonjrose) for letting me raid his bookshelf so that I could finally read this masterwork of speculative fiction. Second, how did it take me so long to get around to this wonderful little book?

There are a lot of things I could write about when it comes to A Wizard of Earthsea, but I’m going to focus on just one here, and it comes from the end of the book so beware: SPOILERS AHEAD!

If you’re still with me, then let me proceed. For a large chunk of this book (and it’s less than 200 pages long, by the way), Ged is either fleeing from or pursuing a shadow, a denizen of the darkness who was allowed to enter into the real, physical world through Ged’s carelessness and arrogance. The turning point in the story is when Ged transitions from fleeing the shadow to seeking it out. In seeking out what has terrified and crippled him, that thing loses its terrible power over him. All that is well and good, but at the end of Le Guin’s tale, after Ged has finally confronted the shadow and named it with his own name (see, I told you there would be spoilers), his friend Vetch sees that

Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.

This is a powerful narration of the spiritual formation process. We are so prone to emphasizing those facets of our character and personality that make us look good, that make others respect, admire, or appreciate us. But at best that is just a snapshot of who we really are – it’s just the tip of the iceberg. At worst, it’s an outright lie, a fabrication set up to mask and disguise reality.

But wholeness – at least as far as life within the world as we know it is concerned – necessitates acknowledging, embracing, and welcoming our shadow-selves (naming our darkness with our own name and knowing that Christ died for that aspect as well as our “more presentable” side; or as Thomas H. Green, S.J. might have encouraged, we need to learn to sit among our weeds, not just within our wheat). Wholeness rests in allowing Christ to shine his light into the darkness of our souls, welcoming the Spirit into more and more of our hidden places so that they too can be seen and known and redeemed.

Le Guin has not written an allegory of the spiritual life in her little book, but the insight she narrates sheds light on the world around us, on what is true both psychologically and spiritually. And because she has narrated this reality rather than simply telling us that this is the case, the insight is more striking and resonant. We experience it through another’s perspective and we might just see how we can experience it in our own. We might see ways in which we can name our shadow-selves with our own names, and in doing so experience the love of Christ even there, where we may feel darkest and least lovable.

#Pray4ISIS

In church yesterday we were reading from the book of Acts, focusing on the martyrdom of Stephen. It’s a tragic story; heart-breaking and painful, and we turned our attention to the persecuted church, to those who–like Stephen–are being murdered for their faith in Jesus today. We prayed for them, calling out to God to help them endure in the midst of something that we in the West will honestly probably never have to experience. As we were closing I was reminded by my lovely wife of a blog post that first started germinating back when the tragedies in France were fresh and aching, but that I hesitated to post. Here it is:

What would it look like if we were to actually take Jesus at his word? What if we did what he invited us to do? And more than that, what if we did what Jesus, and Stephen after him, actually did? Specifically, what if we loved our enemies and prayed for those who persecuted us? Or, since we may not experience major persecution where we live, what if we prayed for those who persecuted our brothers and sisters, who butchered and murdered our Christian family? What if we started to fervently pray, not against ISIS and the atrocities they commit, but for the people who compose it? For it is people who make up ISIS. It is not just some faceless and malevolent network reaching out to kill and destroy. It is people. People who need to know the love of Jesus and his power to redeem. What if we prayed that the he would do that? What if we prayed for the risen and resurrected Christ to reveal himself in majesty to the people within ISIS? What if, somewhere in their network, we have future brothers and sisters in Christ that we have not met and will likely never meet in this life, but who we will meet and celebrate with in the life to come?

I have an idea of what that might look like, and we only need to turn to the pages of Acts to see it. What happened when the risen Christ introduced himself to the early church’s most hateful and violent persecutor? What happened when that man came face to face with the Jesus he scorned and despised? What happened? The world changed forever. I don’t think I’m overstating the case to say that when Saul met Jesus and became Paul, the world became a different place. It was Paul who brought the faith to the Gentiles and began the work to fulfill God’s intention for his people to be from every tribe and tongue and nation the world over.

This generation’s Saul might be actively and vehemently persecuting the church as a member of ISIS, or an agent within North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Iran. He may be out there right now doing what he believes is right, ignorant of the calling God has in store. What if we prayed that God would turn Sauls into Pauls in each of the countries that are most dangerous for Christians? What if we prayed that God would change the hearts of those who hate and despise us? What if we prayed that God would have mercy on our enemies and show his love to those who persecute us?

Perhaps the world would change again. Perhaps.

There’s only one way to find out…

Westworld

After watching the first two episodes of HBO’s new series, Westworld, a whole host of questions have come up, but two have stood out:

  • What is real?
  • What if there were no consequences?

Let me explain. The show’s premise is that Westworld is an immersive theme park where those who are wealthy enough to pay the exorbitant price of admission can do whatever they want to the robotic (but ridiculously lifelike) inhabitants of the park. This, of course, means that for many they exercise all of their baser instincts because it is a “safe” place to do so free of the consequences those activities would bring in the world outside the park.

Shoot a man in Westworld? No worries, they think. The robot dies an agonizing and believable death, but is patched up good as new for the next day. Want to sleep around? No worries, they say. No robots are getting pregnant, there’s no real chance of STDs, and it can’t really be an affair if it’s done with a robot partner. Because the interactions are with lifelike robots rather than actual humans, people’s actions within the park seem unreal to them. If there are no consequences, then nothing has really happened, right?

Wrong.

Something very real has taken place and there are consequences. What I think the show is begging viewers to consider is that these desires they’re living out in the park are real desires, and they have really acted upon them. They have really shot and killed people. They have really had affairs. Just because the people they do these things with or to aren’t human beings doesn’t mean those actions were not real actions. The lack of consequences is an illusion. Real-world moral formation is happening every time people make choices within the park, whether those choices are for good or for ill. Whether they choose to rescue the hurting or inflict pain on others. Their choices are forming them into certain kinds of people. There are no consequence free actions for our souls.

The park-goers are committing these acts with their very bodies. It’s not imaginary, not virtual reality; it is reality, even if it is one degree removed. And any acts that our bodies engage in will impact our souls, for the two are deeply intertwined. What harms one, harms the other. What benefits one, benefits the other. There’s no getting around that.

At one point, one of the characters asserts that the park does not show you who you are; it shows you who you could be. I think that’s true, but we need to go further and recognize that each time someone chooses a path toward who they could be, they take real steps toward becoming that very person. Starting from the moment they choose their hat, they have chosen what kind of formative experience they want for their body and soul. While they think they’re simply choosing what kind of fun they wish to have, they’re really choosing what kind of person they want to be when they leave the park. Their choices will extend beyond the park, despite what they, and the park, want to believe.

As I hope the show allows us to see, “These violent delights have violent ends” both inside and outside the park.

Among Others

I’ve had this particular book of Jo Walton’s (along with several others) on my to-read shelf for a long time, and I mean a loooooooong time. I grew interested in Walton’s books after following along with her obsessively detailed rereading of Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles (the first book of which, The Name of the Wind, is perhaps my favorite book of all time, though I don’t know if it can really unseat The Lord of the Rings from that position). It was brilliant. I found her writing to be insightful, thought-provoking, humorous, and thoroughly enjoyable. I figured that anyone who loved Rothfuss’s books as much—or more—than I did was well worth reading in her own right, and yet I still didn’t make it a priority to start reading any of her books. But after finding a used copy of Among Others at Barter Books a couple months ago it finally moved up my list, and boy am I happy it did.

 

This book is a joy. As Pat Rothfuss said of it, “This book is gently magical.” I like that. Gently magical. It really is a perfect description. The magic doesn’t overwhelm the narrative and it is something that always remains just beyond the understanding of those humans who attempt it. It works, but its repercussions and real-life effects are not always fully understood.

 

It is saturated with books, most of them SFF from the late 1970s and earlier, and the most influential book within the text is . . . you guessed it, The Lord of the Rings. And considering the role LotR plays within the text it should come as no surprise that the book itself manages to accomplish all the primary aims Tolkien elucidated for the genre of Fairy Story, in which this delightful book squarely resides. You see, while it’s a story of a girl in her early teens living in late 1970s Wales and England and the SFF books she loves and wrestles with, it’s also about a girl who sees and speaks with fairies and is willing to sacrifice everything to perform the magic they ask her to do—and through this magic to save the world. And yet, the whole story is told through journal entries. So the tragic event that shapes the whole narrative, and precedes the first journal entry by several months, isn’t actually explained until very near the end. While this format might turn some off, I found it captivating. Experiencing the wonder of books and the slow unfolding of magic in this girl’s life (in conjunction with all the other things you would expect in the journal of a 15 year-old girl) was like a stroll through unfamiliar country that bears striking similarities to familiar paths and places. It was a joy, which is as it should be. For the genre of Fairy Story should contain within it hints of joy that break in from beyond the walls of the world. It should bring about recovery, escape, and consolation. And it does! It most certainly does!

 

So, do yourself a favor and go read this one. It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for good reason.

The Spider’s War

There’s a good chance this will prove to the best book I read all year. It’s a truly satisfying conclusion to one of the best series I’ve yet read. Big claims, I know, so hopefully I can offer some support for them:

The characters are well-drawn and absolutely convincing. They act consistently and believably, and that means even the characters you’re rooting for aren’t always likable, and the bad guys aren’t all bad. Which leads me to Geder. He is the perfect example of this. His actions are understandable, but he never comes across sympathetically. You’re never rooting for his success even when you understand how damaged he is and how badly he longs to belong. He’s a horrible man, but his relationship with Aster is tender and sweet. It is all the things you’d hope it would be, but Geder’s tenderness and affection for his ward don’t stop him from ordering some true atrocities (all while blaming others for “forcing him to do it” of course). He’s a petty man, small minded and proud, but he isn’t Sauron . . . he isn’t a dark lord with strictly malicious purposes (not that I have any problem with heroes battling against truly epic evil mind you). He isn’t some malevolent force that has lost all that was originally good in him. No, he’s human, just like all tyrants throughout our history, and that means he is equally capable of compassion, mercy, and monstrosity. Murder, butchery, and intense rage contrast with his deep and abiding love of and respect for his father. I’m sure Hitler felt tenderly toward his nearest and dearest, but that didn’t stop him from genocide. It doesn’t stop Geder either. And so evil as represented by Geder is an Augustinian evil–it is an evil characterized not by some intense substantive force, but rather by lack. It is evil as privatio boni, the privation of the good. In this, he parallels Sauron, only on a much smaller scale. He is capable of human-level evil, rather than angelic-level evil (or dragon-level evil to put it in the terms of The Dagger and the Coin). In a world where humanity (in all its races–and we’ll talk more about that in a moment) has risen from the ashes of a dragon-apocalypse to stand on its own two feet, it’s exactly the right depiction of evil, and it’s made even more fitting in the context of war and suffering which is portrayed so dramatically. 

Moving on . . .

Every time Marcus and Yardem are on the page together, I smile. The way they speak to each other is great. Like the best of friends who have worked together, travelled together, and survived countless difficulties together they know each others’ minds so well they don’t even need to speak in full sentences. Their abrupt, punchy dialogue is both delightful and unique. Where others might be long winded, these two speak only the words that must be spoken. Why say, “Yes, it is” when “Is” communicates the same thing? Love it!

The place of medieval banking as a primary story element in this epic fantasy series is amazing! Who would have thought banking would be both fascinating and powerful? Apparently Daniel Abraham would. Of course there’s political intrigue and war, but money is the driving force in these novels and the advancements in banking are integral to the advancement of the plot and of course to the story’s conclusion. Brilliantly done!

The world-building behind this series is magnificent. The conception of the different races forged by dragons from one original stock of humanity is executed perfectly. The differences are shown in the final volumes to be intentional (both on Abraham’s part and on the dragons’) and integral to the plot. The locales are varied and exciting without being extravagant, but they match the races who populate them. It’s a fascinating thought experiment to wonder how humanity would respond if we were essentially divided into 12 very different races or breeds (think humans as we know them side-by-side with humans fashioned in the likeness of dragons, or dogs, or otters . . . they’re all human, even when they’re covered in thick furry pelts or dragon scales). Of course there’s racism and prejudice, but there’s also a shared humanity that even such physiological differences cannot change. And this element of a united (even if not always friendly or beneficent) humanity is in stark contrast to the role of humanity under the rule of the dragons . . .

And don’t even get me started on Inys . . . 

Finally, the main threads of the series are tied off as only a master storyteller can accomplish, but that doesn’t mean Abraham ties off all the threads. He has left himself room to tell other stories (or even another series) within this world that will build on what’s already happened while introducing us to new characters and locales. I really hope he does it because I’m not ready to leave this world behind. I want more of it, and that’s a testament to the work Abraham has put into making this world feel intriguing and real. But even if he doesn’t revisit this world (and he has said in the comments of a post on his blog that he currently has no intentions of doing so), he has given us a masterfully crafted tale in five parts, each one better than the one before. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.