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.

It’s Sarah Shaeffer Day!

Growing up, my dad was always my baseball coach. Until I entered high school, he was my only coach (aside from the occasional All-Star team), but this isn’t a story about my dad. You see one day, I don’t remember why, my dad couldn’t make it to baseball practice and so my mom stepped in to lead it. It’s possible she only stepped in for a portion of it, I don’t remember much about that practice, except for one scene that stands out in my mind.

It was batting practice and my mom, as the stand-in coach, was pitching. I was batting. She threw me a pitch. I hit the pitch. And scorched a screaming line-drive right back at her, drilling her in the thigh. Obviously I felt horrible. I mean, I had just whacked a baseball off the leg of the woman who played Monopoly with me when I was sick; the woman who knew my favorite property on the board was (for some inexplicable reason) Pennsylvania Rail Road; the woman who let me miscount so I could land on it, even though she and I both knew full well that I was miscounting intentionally.

I hope I ran out to check on her and felt completely wretched, but I don’t really recollect anything other than the quick 2 seconds of the pitch being thrown and the result. Though maybe that’s not quite true. I do seem to remember my mom soldiering on and finishing batting practice. And whether that part really happened or not, I most certainly believe that it did, because that’s the kind of thing my mom would do.

You know why? Because my mom is awesome. 100%, without reservation, without caveat, awesome. And you know something else? Today’s her birthday.

So, happy birthday to the woman who has blessed me, taken care of me, stood up for me, and loved me all the days of my life. I love you too and I hope the rest of Sarah Shaeffer Day is an absolute joy.

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.