Looking into “Black Mirror”

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Netflix just announced Season 3 of the BBC show “Black Mirror“.

Billed as a ‘Twilight Zone for the social media generation’, if you missed seasons 1 and 2, you should queue them up asap. But be warned: it’s as brutal as it is brilliant. Black Mirror is a very appropriate title. There’s no “…who’s the fairest of them all?” here – you’re just as likely to be horrified as you are fascinated when you look.

A ‘fifteen minutes in the future’ kind of Sci Fi, the show’s writers have an eerie knack for standing right in the intersection of technology, cultural trends, and our primal human appetites. Whether it’s the sordid voyeurism for political scandals, clones of deceased loved ones downloaded with personality algorithms based on social media profiles, to reality shows, pornography, virtual reality, the impact of mnemonic cyber implants on relationships, what makes the show remarkable isn’t merely its excellent script, stories, or acting, but the terrible plausibility of it all.

Again, this won’t be everyone’s cuppa, but I suspect it will engage futurists, fans of William Gibson, and SF junkies out there. As a Christian, I’m both struck and dismayed by how astonishingly well it captures humanity’s capacity for creativity and innovation, as well as reflecting the deep-rooted flaws in our souls that only God, not technology, can remedy.

And as a SF writer, I confess I’m a little jealous.

Trailer for Season 3 below. Now go queue it up.

Have a good day.

 

Casting Stones and Stumbling Blocks

“A prophet gone wrong is almost always more interesting than your grandmother…”

  • Flannery O’Connor

 

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Been on the perimeter of yet another round of Believers Brick-Tag, i.e. the “Spec-fiction is a stumbling block/supernatural and,or worldly elements are a grievous offense” discussion, and I feel the need to stake out what seems incredibly obvious yet damnably elusive.

First off, let’s reiterate the distinction between theology and speculative fiction. One is the systematic study of God and religious belief, the other is – by definition  – made up stories.

Now I know atheists would say this is true of the Bible itself, but that’s a different discussion. To repeat my mantra: a novel is not a sermon. It’s one of those ‘apples and orangutans’ things, people. Similar raw material (words and ideas) but different modes, different purposes, different content.

You don’t get into an elevator for the music. You shouldn’t look for theology in a dystopian YA novel or an urban fantasy series. I know they make truth-claims and worldview statements either overtly or obliquely. EVERYTHING DOES. You must have heard the phrase ‘spit out the bones’. It’s time to exercise discernment – the same level one employs when selecting kitchen utensils to say, scramble eggs. “Put away the corkscrew and tenderizing mallet.”

If you want Christian theology, read the Bible, church history, and apologetics. Don’t get it from a Wachowski movie or a K-pop hit or a Marvel comic book or a “Left Behind” novel. That’s akin to making life-choices based on fortune cookies. Which would be bad. That some people do in fact cobble belief systems from Star Trek and Pink Floyd, then Quick-Pick their Happy Panda Lucky Numbers constitutes a severe failure in their judgment. (I suspect LSD and alcohol is a factor in such cases)

Second, let’s remember the distinctions between the artist, their art, and their audience. Souls are saved, art is not. Art is a product of a remarkable, mysterious synergy, but it is a construct nonetheless. Painting a night sky means you’ll have to break out a tube of black paint. It doesn’t mean you’re a ‘dark’ individual. Just don’t expect to sell it to folks who are partial to sunrises.

While the call to genuine character, sound thinking, and the fundamentals of Christian doctrine apply to every believer, the vocation of an artist – in this case, writer – is not that of the preacher or theologian. One employs drama, metaphor, allegory, and myth, while the other expounds on biblical spiritual truth and (hopefully) delivers an inspired rhema for a particular time, place, and congregation.

Both engage with the transcendent. Each borrows from the others toolbox. I’m not elevating one over the other- I’m simply noting they approach it from vastly different angles. See the C.S Lewis quote on Reason and Imagination. (Incidentally, doctrine is how we engage with the transcendent – not beat it into submission; directions to the doctor are not the doctor. Dreams about the doctor aren’t either.)

I happen to be a Christian who writes spec-fiction for a non-Christian audience. Part of my obligation before God is to recognize the conventions of the genre and the expectations of my readers. I have to be faithful to those dynamics too, then do the work to the best of my ability. And to echo Dorothy Sayers, work must be good work before it can be God’s work because pious trash is still trash.

Last, let’s distinguish between Realistic and Gratuitous, between being Sensitive and Pandering.

Let’s face it: “Christian gritty” is pretty tame. Many Christian fiction writers try to genuinely honor the conventions of their genres as well as strive for credibility, consistency, and realism, but we don’t come close to reality. Not really.

Not that our gold standard is Triple X Snuff Porn with a dash of Corporate Avarice and Ethnic Cleansing, but it’s worth remembering ‘worldly’ content is taken from the real world – a real world that is definitely not PG-13, that God still loves, hasn’t abandoned, and meets precisely at its shameful, broken, ugly point of need. That’s what the Cross was and Salvation is.

When writing fiction, I’m certainly not for inserting cruel, coarse, or lascivious content for shock or titillation. But realistic themes where and when they’re organic to the characters and story line? Absolutely. It’s mandatory, in fact. Anything less cheapens the work, and strikes me as inherently duplicitous and dishonoring to God.

Now that kind of content may well make some readers uncomfortable. Shock them even, to the point where the alarmist ‘stumbling block’ phrase gets volleyed about loudly and frequently.

Look, I’m all for being sensitive to someone’s weakness or struggles. I’ll refrain if I know someone has a problem. That’s basic human compassion and consideration. But I’m all done pandering to the ‘professional weaker brother’, those tedious brethren who make a habit, a career, a ministry of taking offense, then running around telling everyone. It’s deliberate immaturity, demanding everyone bend down because they refuse to grow up. We’re walking on eggshells while they stomp all over personal convictions, choices, and liberty. I’m going to make a lot of mistakes, but I’m not going to second guess myself into paralysis, mediocrity, and anemia.

Over thirty years as a believer, a majority of them in full or part time ministry of some kind, it’s my experience too many in the church prefer tidy affirmations to hard-edged hope. Christians in any walk of life or vocation have to reject the notion  that the call to be ‘in the world but not of it’ translates into a license to be ignorant or insular. The root meaning of “holiness” is not sterile separation but the notion of being set apart for a particular use. We cannot hide from ugly realities or contradictory philosophies (or worse, ridicule, reduce and sanitize them) then think we can be effective in addressing them with any meaningful offer of God’s redemption.

I’ll end with this thought from Harry Dreyfuss, actor Richard Dreyfuss’ son. (Good find, K.C.)

“If you can’t stand to listen to an idea, it does not prove that you oppose it. Refusing to show interest in a different perspective should not serve as a badge of pride in your own ideas. It actually serves the exact opposite function. It proves that you don’t even understand your own opinion. If you can’t understand the argument you disagree with, then you don’t have the right to disagree with it with any authority, nor do you really have a grasp on what your own idea means in its context.” – Harry Dreyfuss

Have a good day, and in the words of Chuck Wendig, “Go forth and art hard.”

From the glass studio

The winner of The Barrow Lover Celtic Stained Glass Giveaway sent me this picture. Apparently it was a perfect fit for one of their bathroom windows. Bit of Irish luck, that is.

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That in mind, here are some shots of recent projects. There’s a large door panel that integrated salvage from a smashed antique piece in the new one. A door panel with roses. A Cape Cod waterview. Two simple Victorian pieces for a guest bath and a Mission-style piece for a front foyer.

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Now… Back to writing about demonic possession, jihadists, Sci Fi Spec Ops teams, and crazed djinns in a shattered post-apocalyptic fantasy world.

Have a good weekend. Hope all your shopping is done.

 

Calibrating the writing process

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A couple points I need to remind myself of when things are flying everywhere and I bog down trying to cram too much in too little space/ time.

  1. I have three modes to my writing process: Strip Mining, Assembly, and Polishing. It’s all “Writing”, but they are very different from each other and require different parts of my brain.
  2. I can’t do two simultaneously. Stop trying.
  3. Accept what mode I’m in. Embrace it even. At this point, the only deadlines I have are the ones I set. They can be extended.
  4. Remember that adage about the right word versus almost the right word? Very important, that.  Word Count can be a trap. Go for time spent instead. Why? Because WC varies by mode. Strip Mining = lots. Assembly = less. Polish = even less.
  5. That said, Busy-ness is NOT Productivity. It all comes down to finished pages.
  6. It’s OK to work on more than one project at a time. The background process still run. Focusing on something else might just let them work easier.
  7. Finish the piece to the best of my ability, kick it out the door, then move on. The Learning Curve  is just that – and the only way to learn is to do the work.
  8. It’s not what I can’t do but what I can do that counts. Life is a gift not a chore. Adjust attitude accordingly.

 

Some people have greatness thrust upon them. Few have excellence thrust upon them…. They achieve it. They do not achieve it unwittingly by doing what comes naturally and they don’t stumble into it in the course of amusing themselves. All excellence involves discipline and tenacity of purpose.

We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure all your life.
John William Gardner

The Mindkiller

The power of fear

Fear will push you to avert your eyes.

Fear will make you think you have nothing to say.

It will create a buzz that makes it impossible to meditate…

or it will create a fog that makes it so you can do nothing but meditate.

Fear seduces us into losing our temper.

and fear belittles us into accepting unfairness.

Fear doesn’t like strangers, people who don’t look or act like us, and most of all, the unknown.

It causes us to carelessly make typos, or obsessively look for them.

Fear pushes us to fit in, so we won’t be noticed, but it also pushes us to rebel and to not be trustworthy, so we won’t be on the hook to produce.

It is subtle enough to trick us into thinking it isn’t pulling the strings, that it doesn’t exist, that it’s not the cause of, “I don’t feel like it.”

When in doubt, look for the fear.

*actually from Seth Godin

Thoughts on the Conventions of Genre and Faith

 

” Those French have a different word for everything.”

– Steve Martin as huffy ‘Merican tourist

 

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I’ve come to accept the fact – but not really comprehend – there are people who don’t read. Like, at all. It’s an exertion, painful on the same level as a marathon or a colonoscopy. And of those who do read as a past-time, there are some who don’t read fiction, especially speculative fiction. My brother for example sees no value in the Lord of the Rings, which to him is a bunch of short people and pretend creatures running around a make-believe land after a stupid piece of jewelry.

So… yeah.

(we are related – I checked.)

Sure you’ve got those dark suit, bowl-cut, body odor, Bible-quoters who hold any entertainment to be vain, carnal, and worldly.  “It’s all going to burn, brother.”  (real-life quote example, that)  Like the poor, they will always be with you, so leave them alone to mutter and scowl in the corner. In general though, I think fiction like poetry has lots of folk who don’t ‘get it’. Lack of or poor prior experience, too intellectually lazy, or some other reason. Other folks simply aren’t wired that way. They’re eminently practical. Fiction is just not their thing, and I’m OK with that too.

Not so for me. I remember walking into the Big Hall at GenCon 2000 and realizing I was part of a huge, weird, cool secret society. The Cult of Geek. It was as much a relief as revelation. Since then, transitioning from genre reader to genre writer, I’ve come to understand even more that Sci Fi, Fantasy, Horror… Spec-Fiction Genres are languages. They are distinctly different vocabularies from Normal; the jargon of real, day-to-day, life. In fact, I’ll go further and say Genres are separate countries, entire worlds even. Speak at length with a Hard Core Star Wars or Warhammer 40K Nerd and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Genres have evolution, histories, archetypes, symbols,  idioms, nuance…it’s incredible, and implicit to good genre-writing is a deft handling of those dynamics in manners that satisfy, even stretch and exceed the audience’s expectations. It’s hard to pull off, to be fluent, and not everyone will understand, but those that do, appreciate it. That is the mystery and magic of allegory, of parables. I think my first point here is that Discrimination – in the sense of a select audience – is perfectly OK.  Not everyone is going to enjoy, understand, or accept my work. It’s high time to stop being surprised.

The next hurdle I see is the challenge of approaching creative endeavor with an ideology, in my case a theological one. Don’t kid yourself: all art makes a statement  – overt or otherwise, religious or not –  because it springs from the mulch of the artist’s life. Having a defined worldview makes the challenge that much stranger because it either forms a strong foundation or  reduces it to propaganda. So not only does the fiction writer have to hone craft but they have to avoid capture. Sort of sculpting smoke while waltzing through a minefield. The wisps of imagination have to form an entertaining, yet credible make-believe world (a ‘lie that tells the truth’) without  shrinking or spoiling the medium.

I get that some people will scorn or be hostile to my faith. Getting your worldview shat on is part of the package. (part of Life, actually) The last thing I want though is my stories to be Terrariums for Pet Rocks: painfully, obviously contrived, tiny, artificial environments for my cherished doctrines.

So as I hammer away at my next novel, consider October’s Viable Paradise workshop, and view the recent Hugo dust-up in light of my own faith and artistic struggles, I’ve still of a mind to sink my roots deeper while growing wings. For me, it’s not an ‘Either/Or’ dilemma – it’s translation problem. God help me to learn the language and be an effective communicator.  An oracle, even.

 

 

 

Slapped by your grandmother

Ursula Le Guin laying the smack down.

Art or Profit: I have to ask myself which is the ultimate engine that drives my work? Does it need a tune-up, an overhaul, or to be re-ignited?