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.