Altered Carbon, Common Humanity

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Binged ‘Altered Carbon’ this weekend, Netflix’ latest and reportedly most expensive series to date. ($6-7 million per episode? whoa) A 10-part cyberpunk/noir piece based on Richard K. Morgan’s book of the same name, it’s a bloody, sensual, cynical look at the future. Designer clone bodies, digitized consciousness, virtual imprisonment and torture, galaxy-spanning Spec Ops/Secret Police, obscene wealth disparity, functional immortality… the future’s so dark, you gotta wear NODs.

A solid Sci Fi show with a gritty story and great effects, but if ‘Altered Carbon’ says anything about the future, it’s that science is really secondary; humanity’s progress is not and never will be linked to technology. The bottom line is we never advance beyond our morality. Period.

In fact push it as far as you want, technology remains just another function of old-fashioned human cruelty, conceit, greed, lust, and rage. Dub, sample, and remix – it’s still the same old song all over again. Hide behind chrome and smart glass and mirror-shades, dress it up in gene-spliced, supermodel customized sexiness with neurachem lethality, package it in alien alloys and complex algorithms, our depravity still shows.

When the end credits rolled on episode 10, I was brought full circle back to 2009 and the fundamental conviction I had when I decided to try and write a SF novel as a Christian: only a spiritual ethic that upholds life as sacred can restrain humanity from becoming inhumane. Lose the preciousness of life and you open the door to contempt and cruelty; commodify people and you end up committing atrocities.

That’s not to say I want my fiction to be sermonizing. No, I aim for entertainment, escapism, and action. Most of my stories have loads of firepower and a high body count. But I want to build the work on a solid foundation. I want substance, themes, meaning in there as well.

Despite the cool visuals, wicked action scenes, and great acting, I was disappointed when Altered Carbon was over. Not that it had ended but at the sordid sameness of it all. It was almost a relief. What was meant to be action-packed cyberpunk coolness and world-weary wisdom was just so uninspired, so sad.

There was a smack upside the head afterwards too: a call to confront the question of faith in spec-fiction once again. To respect the conventions of genre, the demands of the medium, and the expectations of the audience  and aim for quality, and yet somehow portray spiritual realities organically in the plot, characters and fictional world.

Guess I’d better start praying about that again, eh?

Thanks and have a great day.

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BTW, that first novel, RUNNING BLACK, and the sequel SHIFT TENSE are available at Amazon. HERE and HERE

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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.”

St. Clive sez “Back off!”

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Something to help faith-based spec-fiction writers duck those spitballs from Baptisney-land:

“For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”

― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Guest Post Dave Alderman

First in a series of Guest Posts for 2016. First up, the founder of the Crossover Alliance, a small press specializing in gritty Christian fiction.  I asked him to address the viability of faith-based fiction and its ability to impact secular, non/other-believing  readers. Here are his thoughts.

 

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It was only a few years ago that I decided to write a short story for NaNoWriMo entitled Black Earth. It was supposed to take a look at the universe of my Expired Reality series long before humans colonized another planet in the universe, back when the Earth was busy being destroyed by a vile alien force. Little did I know at the time that I was penning the basis for a four-book series that would determine the course of my writing – and even my career.

When I wrote the first book of the series, I realized the thing that made it unique was that it was science fiction, it was Christian fiction, and it was filled with real-world content. The first chapter contains a rape scene, and from there the book dives into areas that still are not acceptable in the fiction that the main Christian publishing houses put out. It was at that point that a new genre was born: edgy Christian speculative fiction. The birth of the genre eventually turned into the birth of the publishing company that I currently run: The Crossover Alliance. We specialize in this special type of fiction.

But publishing – even writing – this type of fiction is not without its hurdles. Besides having to overcome the stigma attached to Christian fiction, there are many who believe edgy Christian fiction is simply Christian fiction rife with F-bombs, sexual scenes, and gratuitous violence – essentially a PG-13 or Rated R Christian movie.

I would argue against that point. As much as I am a writer, I am also a reader. And I’ve read un-compelling fiction on both sides of the fence – Christian and non. I’ve read secular fiction that tried to stay sanitized and ‘safe’, and ended up being drab and unconvincing. I’ve read Christian fiction that tried to mask itself as fantasy, and ‘trick’ readers in the end by plugging Jesus Christ and salvation at the end of a very boring, very clique story.

When I wrote the first book in my Black Earth series, the rape scene found in my first chapter came naturally. My character, Cynthia Ruin, is considered the school whore because she bases her status on who she sleeps with. It isn’t until she is raped the night of her high school graduation that she begins questioning her actions. Her rape needed to happen, and the way I described it – from her point of view, drugged – couldn’t have had the same impact if I had just said that she was carried around a corner and then ended the chapter.

There’s a strange habit that Christian writers have adapted over the years where they believe their fiction has to be clean, pressed, and folded before it can be presented to the rest of the world. Or are they actually just trying to present it to other Christians? Maybe that’s the problem. Who are we writing for? Does that question really even matter? If we’re writing to Christians or non-Christians, don’t we all struggle with the same things? The only difference is that Christians have accepted salvation – well, supposed to have accepted salvation. So if it doesn’t matter to whom we are writing, does it matter why we are writing? If we’re trying to write to a dark world to show them the light of Jesus, wouldn’t it make sense to set the light of Jesus against a dark world within our stories?

This isn’t to say there isn’t an audience for straight up, Rated-G Christian fiction. But I don’t believe that type of Christian fiction is necessarily aimed at trying to show the light of Jesus to a dark world. I think those stories are meant to be sanitized fiction for a Christian-reading audience because the Christian-reading audience doesn’t want to read secular content. The problem with that is that we’re not reaching a non-Christian world. But that’s why the ‘why’ of what we write is important to figure out.

I think any good writer who involves themselves in this unique genre isn’t trying to be edgy just to be edgy. We’re trying to write authentic fiction that shows the world – the people in this world and the sins in this world – for what they truly are and how the light can both reveal the darkness and in the end chase it away. What is edgy anyway? Is it some foul language, some lewd scenes, some blood splatters? I think it’s simply content that pushes the real world into our writing, filling it with real issues: slavery, depression, mayhem, chaos, anger, promiscuity, lust. Good versus evil. Gray versus grey. There’s an undercurrent of tension that tugs at the reader’s heart and mind, that nudges and sometimes pushes them out of their comfort zone. It forces them to ask the hard question: Would you sacrifice ten for ten thousand? It forces the reader to face their own demons, the demons that live with them day to day. And then once the reader is brought to a place where they can no longer deny the darkness, the evil, then they are shown the light of the world, the salvation that is made available to everyone.

How do we know what is good unless we have seen or experienced what is evil? I think that’s what it boils down to. We shine the spotlight on the dark deeds to expose them for what they are. And that, my friends, is a scary way to write. It’s a scary way to read. But it’s the realest Christian fiction you will ever experience in your life.

 

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IMPORTANT LINKS

Website / Blog – http://www.davidnalderman.com
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/davidnalderman
Twitter – https://twitter.com/DavidNAlderman
Crossover Website – http://www.thecrossoveralliance.com

 

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Be sure to check out the latest Crossover Alliance Short Story Anthology. It’s out and available at Amazon. Check it out here.

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