Eleanor

I recently finished Jason Gurley’s originally self-published novel Eleanor and was generally unimpressed. I found it predictable and unconvincing, but as I’ve thought more about it I keep coming back to one particular area that left me wanting, and unsurprisingly it is theologically related. Spoilers follow so if you’ve been hoping to pick this one up, proceed with caution or just turn back now.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

The climax of the story comes with the revelation that Eleanor’s twin sister Esme (who died in a car accident at the age of six) and her unborn uncle still exist in some sort of Limbo between life and death, waiting—as in most traditional ghost stories—for a wrong to be put right. This wrong turns out to be the suicide of Eleanor’s grandmother and namesake (we’ll call her Eleanor I) while pregnant. Now, the means for setting things right involves rewinding time itself and helping Eleanor I choose to continue living, and this was the element I found most unconvincing. I don’t mind stories that mess with time; they can be quite entertaining. But in Eleanor there’s no explanation for how Esme and Patrick knew that such a thing was possible. They never saw any other being like themselves in this Limbo and so how could they discover it could be done? No one did it before them. There’s no one there to tell them how. There’s no one to demonstrate the principles or even explain the laws so they know how to break or bend them. Maybe I just missed the convincing explanation for how they knew or learned this, but Gurley lost me there.

They explain to Eleanor that if they rewind time the emotional damage her mother, Agnes, has suffered due to the pain of losing one of her daughters will still exist, but it will be without foundation. There will be no diagnosing why she feels the way she does because the accident will never have occurred and she will never have lost a daughter, so there may not be any good means for Agnes to know healing or restoration. When they ask Eleanor if she’s willing to go through with it anyway of course she agrees. Why wouldn’t she? They ask if she wants to improve her family’s life without any real consequence for her except needing to relive her whole life (minus the tragic accident). To be perfectly fair, it’s possible they don’t know how far back time will need to be rewound in order to set things right, so the lack of any real risk for Eleanor could make sense in that light, and this is precisely where the story leaves me wanting.

The stakes simply aren’t high enough because it seems to me that Gurley asks the wrong question. He makes the mistake of assuming Eleanor and Esme are necessary beings rather than contingent ones. They don’t have to exist unlike Eleanor I and Agnes whose narratives will pick up from the tragic moment that so shaped this family. If time is rewound, Agnes will then have her whole life to live, and that life will be radically different because Eleanor I will still be alive, will never have committed suicide, will not have left all the emotional wreckage in her wake, and will then be able to offer a different kind of presence and attention to Agnes. Basically, the story neglects to discuss the butterfly effect and for a story revolving around changing the past to leave this out is a serious shortcoming.

With all the changes that would take place, effectively making Agnes a completely different person in the new timeline, would Agnes still have married Paul? Would they have even met? Even if they did, how likely is it that the exact combination of sperm and egg would combine to form Eleanor and Esme?

So it seems to me the right question, the high stakes question that would have transformed this book’s ending significantly, would have been, “Eleanor, are you willing to risk your very existence for the chance to give your mom a happy life? If you do this, you may never actually come to exist. Is her happiness worth the risk? In light of how she’s blamed you for your sister’s death, hating and shunning you for the past eight years—the most formative years of your childhood—is her healing, health, and happiness worth it?” In short, “Do you love her enough to risk so much?”

Now that is interesting question. That makes her choice to move forward truly courageous. That makes her a self-sacrificial hero like Frodo who saved the Shire but not for himself. Frodo’s was a true act of love and heroism, of sacrifice and generosity. His decision cost something, and its price was high. Turning Eleanor’s choice into one like Frodo’s transforms her character into someone completely different. It turns her into someone who is willing to lay down her life for her enemy, who truly loves one who hates her—it turns her into someone who lives and loves as Jesus did.

The Magic of Reading

My older son has been reading for nearly a year now. I just saw the entry in his school reading journal from January 20th of last year. It’s remarkable how far he has come in the past year–from not being able to read beyond making the sounds of each letter to plowing through his early reader books. I’m so proud of him!

But this isn’t an entry just to brag about my boy; no, it’s about the vistas that open up to us in reading. He’s on the cusp of those vistas now. He can’t quite see the grand sights, but we occasionally get glimpses. Whether it’s laughing at Kipper and Biff (who came up with these names?!?) or eagerly turning pages to find out how Zeb escapes the stormtroopers, he’s beginning to see the joys that await us through reading. 

I’ve been enjoying reading for so long that I can hardly remember what it was like before, but I used to hate reading. Hated it! I just wanted to play with my G.I. Joes or go out and play baseball. None of this reading nonsense! But then I found fantasy novels in seventh grade and just like that, I was hooked. It was quite a turnaround. From despising reading to staying up far past my bedtime just to see how Drizzt and Wulfgar would make it out in one piece.

I’m looking forward to when he gets there–when stories capture his heart and mind, because I can see it happening every now and then. When that day comes I hope he’ll want me to read Lewis and Tolkien to him, Harry Potter and Roald Dahl, but when it comes down to it, I’ll read anything he wants so we can enjoy it together. 

It’ll be fun when it happens, but for now I’ll help him along with his early readers, knowing they are preparing him for a lifetime of laughter, excitement, joy, and transformation. Their simple words are casting a spell that will stengthen with age, unlocking the doors of imagined worlds and beckoning us in, inviting us to see worlds both wondrous and strange. 

Those days are coming. And I can hardly wait.

City of Blades

This is Bennett’s follow-up to last year’s City of Stairs, a story of espionage and warfare in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. What sets these books apart from so many others is the apocalypse happened due to the death of the Divinities, gods who ruled over reality, shaping and warping it to their desires. City of Blades follows one of its predecessor’s heroes, General Turyin Mulaghesh, on a covert operation into the heart of the Continent’s violent past.

At turns funny, heart-breaking, violent, and suspenseful Bennett has crafted a worthy successor to City of Stairs. The world remains a lived-in, well-realized subcreation with its own believable history and technological progression, that is, in some ways, still reeling from the Battle of Bulikov. Fans will be glad to know that Sigrud graces these pages with all the strength we have come to know him for, but he is given a more nuanced portrayal that fleshes out his character beyond that of the quiet, intelligent thug we know and love. Turyin is foul-mouthed as ever, combining utter competency with an unswerving allegiance to the truth and to those she believes it is her duty to serve. Her back story is both terrible and wonderful as we see how she became the strong, admirable woman she is in these stories.

Though I have never served in the military, and I don’t know that Bennett has either, it seems to me that he has captured the essence of warfare brilliantly—the act of killing as muscle-memory, the detachment necessary to maintain any semblance of sanity, the duty and service that can make death and destruction matter, and the deep belief that there has to be a better way. To continue along this path of slaughter and mayhem is unacceptable in a world that aspires to civility and freedom, but at the same time it is the sad reality of a world where cultures and values are in constant conflict, where it is not just lives that are at stake, but afterlives as well.

I love that this story takes divinity seriously. Bennett has imagined a world where gods are very real and by being gods, their power is nearly unlimited. They seem to be as petty and greedy as the pantheons of ancient mythologies, but with more power. While having human characteristics like the Greek gods did, the Divinities better approximate the realities inherent in the idea of divinity. Unlimited power balanced with the responsibility of freely entered contracts (it reminds me of the Biblical idea of covenant—with some obvious differences of course—in that both parties make an agreement and while humanity can only do its best to abide by the terms the divinity cannot help but abide by them because it is not in the nature of divinity to do otherwise). And that is one of the ways in which Bennett takes divinity seriously. In the Bible, humanity cannot stick to its end of the deal. We are fallen and frail and cannot help but break faith. But God knows this, and rather than cancelling the agreement he takes up both ends to ensure it is kept. If humanity cannot hold fast to the terms, then God will become man and hold fast for them.

There is no One God in the Divine Cities, and the gods there are bear little resemblance to the God of the Bible. But they do bear some. They provide little glimmers of God’s true character hidden behind fiction and invention. And the human characters offer other glimmers from different angles. We can follow those glimmers if we choose, follow them outside the pages of City of Blades, follow them to their source. And when we do we’ll see the face of the God who walked this earth, but not like the Divinities. He walked as a servant, a teacher, a prophet, a sacrifice. He came not to rule or dominate, but to heal and redeem. In him we see the fullness of deity as it really is. And it is beautiful.

Anselm’s Proslogion

Come now, insignificant man, fly for a moment from your affairs, escape for a little while from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside now your weighty cares and leave your wearisome toils. Abandon yourself for a little to God and rest for a  little in Him. Enter into the inner chamber of your soul, shut out everything save God and what can be of help in your quest for Him and having locked the door seek Him out [Matt. 6:6]. Speak now, my whole heart, speak now to God: ‘I seek Your countenance, O Lord, Your countenance I seek’ [Ps. 26:8].

There’s a lot to like in reading Anselm’s Proslogion, but the bit I’ve quoted above is probably my favorite.

Anselm is preparing to wade into some difficult questions about the nature of God and how we are to know Him, but before he does, he invites us to stop along with him and attend to God. To not just ask the questions of himself, but of God Himself. He will not idly speculate (why should he?) when the One he longs to know, and know more truly, is available to question. He invites us to ask these questions of God in a place where our hearts and minds will be capable of hearing the answers.

Anselm is following in Augustine’s footsteps here, doing theology as prayer–as conversation with God, the beginning and end of all things. And this is why the two men were canonized! Their lives were marked by the fragrance of Christ obtained through close and thriving association–communion even–with him. Their lives were changed by the God they longed to see and to know. You see, their theological endeavors weren’t just out of a desire for information or to explore the world and how it worked. Their theology was done out of a desire to know God, and in him to know all else. Theology for them was both prayer to God and a seeing of all things in light of their necessary relationship with God, their source and creator.

How could that kind of theological study not leave them changed?

The House of My Soul

The house of my soul is too small for you to enter: make it more spacious by your coming. It lies in ruins: rebuild it. Confessions I.vi

I’ve been preparing to teach tomorrow on Augustine’s Confessions and there is a lot we could cover in our class session: there’s the conflict with the Manichees, there’s Augustine’s gradual realization that evil is nothing but the privation of the good and the related ideas of vice as a counterfeit good and the nature of sin as disordered desire, in short there’s all the things people always talk about in relation to Augustine–and for good reason. Those are major ideas that are worth diving into and thinking deeply about. Those are ideas worth wrestling with and probing. But the idea that my heart and mind have returned to over and over again is the passage I began with.

It is a prayer. And it is, perhaps, one of the most foundational prayers our hearts can make when we encounter God as he is: “My soul is too small for you. My life is too broken for you. My sin is too rampant for you. So Lord God, would you who are the ultimate Truth and Good enlarge my soul, heal my brokenness, and make me holy.” Augustine knows that this is a work only God can do, not that we don’t have a part to play in it, but it is not our work. To think that we can do it by our own efforts is “putrid pride!” and further sin which “maliciously damages our own souls.” But when we turn to God and invite him to work in the same way Augustine did, God graciously responds and moves toward us in kindness and mercy. The heartfelt prayer of Augustine is one God delights to answer for it is asking him to do in us what he is already in the business of doing: redeeming us and making us new.

The Three-Body Problem

There was much about Liu Cixin’s award winning The Three Body Problem, a hard science fiction (or perhaps we can call it SCIENCE fiction) novel, that was interesting. And I do mean much, but in the interest of brevity, I’m only going to focus on a few pieces, particularly since they integrate well with my specific interests.

I think this novel’s awareness of spiritual things is fascinating, though it paints those spiritual things in scientific colors. The driving force throughout the novel is a minority of the human race who has become convinced that humanity cannot solve its own problems and needs help from outside. This minority is a growing population that is working to pave the way for the alien invasion that will either utterly wipe out humanity or if not that then at least bring their advanced technology (which must make them more morally upright than we are) to set the Earth’s civilizations to right. Liu nails this truth of the human race. We can’t fix our problems on our own. We have ruined the world we live on and done irreparable harm to millions–perhaps billions–of people throughout our history, and so we do need help from the outside. But you want to know something crazy? The help already came. And though it came from the outside, it did so by becoming one of us and taking on all the messiness of a human body, all the dependence of flesh and blood, and redeeming it all.

In Liu’s postscript to the novel he writes,

The appearance of extraterrestrial intelligence will force humanity to confront an Other. Before then, humanity as a whole will never have had an external counterpart. The appearance of the Other, or mere knowledge of its existence, will impact our civilization in unpredictable ways.

Wow! Liu nails it again. An external Other, one who is distinctly not human, cannot help but change human civilization irrevocably. But where Liu is looking for an alien other to accomplish this encounter, the reality is that this world was fashioned by an Other who has been actively working throughout the ages of human history to accomplish a particular plan. Though the world was made through him and he has made his reality plain for all to see, the world no longer acknowledges his existence, and as one of this Other’s most ardent disciples notes, we have no excuse. And this Other? He’s the very same one who came in from the outside to take on humanity and by dying to put sin and Death to death. And by rising to new life, he brings us with him.

This quest for an external other is, I think, a deep-seated recognition that we were made for encounter with a Divine Other. In the depths of our souls we know we’re not alone in this universe (or in this multiverse if you prefer), but because we’ve taken God out of the equation we’re looking beyond the walls of the world for someone who is, in reality, near enough to hear our quietest whispers. We can continue to look beyond our solar system for an intelligent other–and we may just find it–but we don’t have to. The Other for whom and through whom and to whom we were made is waiting for us to call out to him, even if we cannot muster strength or breath enough to speak. He is ever near. And as another of his disciples once said, our souls are restless til they find their rest in him.

So let us all find rest in the One who is truly other, but also truly one of us.

His name is Jesus.

Skin and An Ember in the Ashes

Okay, so this won’t be a proper book review, but is more of a meditation on two books with similar audiences, similar blurbs, but very different impacts on this particular reader. Both Skin by Ilka Tampke and An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir were compared to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire though, I suppose, in all fairness the comparison is actually to the HBO adaptation of his books. The comparison is fitting for both books, but for very different reasons.

For Skin it comes down to sex. Plain and simple. There is a lot of sex in Tampke’s book, and none of it presents sex in a good light. It is animalistic and bestial with nothing setting human sex apart from animal sex–she seems to make the mistake that Tolkien witnessed in the 1930s and described in one of the endnotes of his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’: when it comes to sex in Tampke’s novel, humans are presented not only as animals–which is scientifically correct–but as only animals. There’s nothing good or beautiful about sex in her portrayal. It’s just acting on animal instincts. There’s a lot more about her book that makes me uncomfortable, and it mirrors Martin’s work in those ways too, but it is in the presentation of sex that she follows Martin most closely, and that is the biggest shortcoming of Skin.

If we turn our attention to Tahir’s novel, we get a world that is absolutely brutal. Her main characters suffer some truly horrendous things, and also do some truly horrendous things, and so it is the violence in her world that is most strongly reminiscent of Martin’s Westeros. But what she does with violence is what sets her apart. Like in Martin’s work, no character (except of course the two PoV characters–this is YA fiction after all) is truly safe, and the peril makes the danger real. Tahir’s characters are painted in varying shades of grey, so that even the ‘good guys’ can’t be trusted and the ‘bad guys’ have truly redeeming qualities. With that said, though their morals and personal choices reveal them as decidedly grey, the characters (even the side characters) are drawn with enough color and flavor that their peril and suffering become truly powerful events, not just for the characters who know them but the reader vicariously experiencing all this. There is one scene in particular that hit me like a punch in the kidneys. It left me aching for the characters and the trauma they had experienced, which is just as it should be. Tahir doesn’t shy away from violence, but neither does she revel in it. She shows, so very clearly, that violence has consequences, and those consequences are psychological and spiritual just as much as they are physical. Violence may be the only adequate pathway at times, but that doesn’t mean it should be or can be chosen lightly, and it certainly doesn’t remove the consequences of violent actions. In fact, you might say that it is one, just one, past violent action that is the driving force behind the entire plot, and it’s not the surface conflict that is introduced on page one. This novel introduces a world with depth and history, just like Martin’s, but there is still room for hope–and even indications that the hoped for end will become reality one day.

Comparing fantasy books to A Song of Ice and Fire is all the rage right now, because for the first time in a long time, that comparison may draw in readers who wouldn’t have considered themselves interested in fantasy before picking up Martin’s books or watching HBO’s adaptation. And in both cases, the comparison will not wholly disappoint readers. One of them will appease readers seeking titillation, but the other is reminiscent of the best parts of Martin’s epic, and in those particular ways it may even surpass them.

Why There’s No Such Thing as Christian Grimdark

First, a special thanks to Josh Castleman for pointing me to the interview with Steven Erikson I’ll be thinking through in this post. Before you click on that link, know there’s some colorful language sprinkled throughout. Just so you know…

So in the linked interview, Steven Erikson, author of The Malazan Book of the Fallen and other novels, defines the current trend in fantasy literature which many have called Grimdark. Erikson’s take on Grimdark differs from many others in that he doesn’t focus on the “grittiness” of the stories or the often rampant violence they contain. No. Erikson looks deeper, saying: “As a writer I can’t help but look at another author’s work of fiction from a perspective of what, how and why. What is being said, how is it being said, and finally, why is it being said.”

It’s the why that stands out to me and to Erikson, and it is the why that answers the question in this post’s title. So why is Grimdark gritty, visceral, and hopeless? Because it’s taking its cues from the ethosphere–Erikson’s term for the ethos of the culture surrounding you–of both authors and readers, and sadly enough that ethosphere is a Nihilistic one. Many experience this world as a hopeless one, devoid of compassion, justice, mercy, and love where there is no chance for redemption or reconciliation. In short, they recognize that this world is broken, but they don’t see any hope for its healing.

And that is why there cannot be, by definition, Christian Grimdark. If we write from within, and we leave something of our souls on the page when we do, as Christians we cannot leave our stories as hopeless ones because we do not believe that is the way this world will end. If we are, as Erikson says, “driving towards authenticity” our stories must contain something of that hope we carry. That’s not to say that every story must end hopefully, or with all the pieces put back together, but there must be room for it. We must as readers be able to see how redemption is possible, even if it’s only hinted at beyond the story’s end. Because this world is broken and many days and weeks end in the darkness and brokenness of despair, but that’s not where the story ends. This world will be redeemed and made whole once more.

So go ahead and tell the dark and gritty story you have to tell, let it pour out into the secondary world you’ve invented, but if you want to be authentic in your writing, make sure there’s room in all the grit for faith, hope, and love–in short, for redemption. Because that is the foundational reality the primary world is built upon.

All I’ll say about this year’s Hugo nominations

There’s a great big tide of Internet hullaballoo over this year’s Hugo Award finalists. If you neither know what the Hugos are nor have any idea what I’m talking about, you can probably just skip this entry.

Anyway, lots of people are suggesting how to vote and giving good reasons for those opinions, others are encouraging their readers to vote their conscience (which is a remarkably practical suggestion). I will only weigh in on this by referring to my reviews of the pieces the Puppies pushed through onto last year’s ballot:

The Exchange Officers

Opera Vita Aeterna

Let me offer one simple suggestion: maybe their stories haven’t won, not because of some conspiracy within the Sci-Fi/Fantasy community, but because they’re not good enough to win. Just throwing that out there.