The science fiction of no God

“Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won’t come in.”
– Alan Alda

We all make them. We all run into them/get run over by them. Common ones I have dealt with:

1. I’m male, an artist, so I must be gay. (my wife is always amused at this one)
2. I’m physically disabled so I must be mentally challenged. (One potential client saw me walking with my cane and asked if I was capable of doing her job. I replied it was fortunate you don’t cut glass with your feet. Fact is, one of the reasons I started using a cane in public was the tediousness of people talking to me like I was a three-year-old about to have a seizure.)
3. I’m a Christian, so I must be willfully uneducated, uncultured and hostile toward science, literature, etc. (After all, only stupid, poor hicks believe in God.)
4. I’m pushing 50, been saved longer than ten years, so I must be like Statler and Waldorf, a religious ‘old wineskin’ hindering ‘real’ revival.
5. Because I have a Pentecostal Christian background, I’m a hop, skip and a jump away from prancing about in my undies like King David waving a prayer banner whilst frothing in tongues. (See #2)

*Ahem*

To clarify, it was Iain M. Banks‘ passing and his last novel “The Hydrogen Sonata” that prompted this post. The above have been simmering for a bit – Guess I needed to get them out.

It’s just that the ‘H.S.’ typifies science fiction’s traditional assumptions toward religion, spirituality and faith. And it got me thinking.

Before I go any further, I’m not disparaging Mr. Banks. Far from it. The man was an absurdly brilliant and prolific writer. Would to God I could write half as much half as well. I agree with Neil Gaiman who said ‘his bad books were good while his good ones were astonishing.’ His Culture series novels are sprawling space-operas filled with Red Giant-sized ideas, story-arcs measured in parsecs, tragedy in gigadeaths. If you’re a sci-fi fan, you owe it to yourself to read at least one of his books. “Consider Phlebas”, “The Player of Games”, or “Against a Dark Background” are all good starting points. His work is at once an inspiration, a challenge and a rebuke, all in the best possible way.

Mr. Banks’ assumption was common to the genre: that technology renders religion and faith spurious. That humankind will mature beyond the need for an Imaginary Friend/Sky Bully, and develop the ultimate, prosperous, tolerant, secular-humanist utopia under the new omniscient, omnipotent, and ubiquitous gods of Artificial Intelligence. That thought was the foundation for every novel, a common thread, implicit or expressed.

I couldn’t help but note Mr. Banks didn’t so much discard God as replace him. With all the disdain for religion, future fictional people still require a guiding hand. The A.I.s are as much protagonists as the deities of Greek Mythology. Indeed, they play much the same role in his plots.

I’ve heard it said we’d ‘need to invent God even if there wasn’t one’ for ethical, moral, transcendent philosophical purposes alone. This isn’t so much an essay on apologetics but a question of how realistic is a fictional future without people who believe in God? Odd that as a Christian, I’m accused of wishful thinking and unreasonable fantasy. For the record, nearly half the characters in Shift Tense profess some form of religion, be it genuine, misguided, or manipulative. It’s not simply my preference – it made sense that in depicting the future, people would still be made of the same stuff.

Despite centuries of predictions, the sheer number of religious people is telling. God is far from dead. If a writer’s job is to construct a credible fictional universe, how plausible is it to discard religious faith? In the context of an unknown future/exploring an unimaginably vast universe, is it reasonable to think people will leave God behind?

If anything, I suspect religion will be cherished, will be preserved even more for inspiration, guidance, comfort, certainty, rationalization… Just like today.

RED FLAGS Excerpt

Heard from my editor: Part One is finished. Waiting on the cover, then it’s off to Amazon/Creatspace. Til then, here’s a taste:

***

PART ONE: RED FLAGS

“Mars is not an aesthetic God.”
Confederate Commander John Brown Gordon, at Shiloh.

CHAPTER ONE – Mini Puka Boy
Somewhere on the Gulf of Aden.

Abdi was sure he was dying.

His head was dizzy, loose on his neck like a door with one hinge. His stomach clenched with every wave, every jump and roll the boat made. He had nothing left to throw up. He felt empty, crumpled as a paper sack. Surely the angel Azra’il stood ready to escort his soul above the skies.

Thirteen years old, he couldn’t remember ever feeling this bad before.

It had started the second day out at sea. He had spewed hardbread and goat over the rail, and after that, he couldn’t keep anything down. The older soldiers, all SPLM men, had laughed, dubbing him Mini Puka Boy. Now, they sang out the name whenever he came near and wouldn’t let him sleep in the bunks below. Instead, they shoved him toward the ‘puke nest’; a makeshift tent on the bow made from an old tarp and big coils of greasy rope. There, they said, he could vomit over the side whenever he wanted.

Veteran pirates, the older fighters were full of advice, telling him it would pass on the fourth day, that he must stare at the sky not the ocean, claiming that smoking jaad or chewing khat would make him hungry, make the sea-sickness stop.

But nothing helped. The shakes, the weakness, only grew worse the farther out into the Gulf they went. Three days later, all he could do was lay on the deck like a limp rag.

Last night, one of the SPLM men, the one with the dirty pink rubber hand, brought a bowl of mishaari and spooned the corn mush into his mouth. Abdi managed five bites before it went all over his boots. Pink Hand gave up in disgust, and the older soldiers had cackled even louder. Abdi didn’t even have the strength to get mad. He simply curled up and bit his lip when he wanted to moan.

He has felt better briefly, earlier that morning. He’d woken from the metal stock of his old AK-47 digging in his ribs. Shifting, groping in the dark, his fingers had found a half-filled tin cup beside him. One of the younger boys must have brought it sometime in the night. The water smelled dusty, but Abdi sipped its coolness and kept it down.

The world had been silent save the low wind and the soft lapping of waves. He had actually managed to stand for a minute or two, steadying himself on the rails at the very front of the boat.

The Gulf had spread out around him like a great dark field while the stars shone like hard, bright sparks; a thousand thousands of them spilled across the dome of heaven. Wobbly, stretched thin, Abdi had nevertheless sensed something vast in that moment. Perhaps that was what the Hand of Allah felt like.

He must have fallen back asleep, because the sun was high when he opened his eyes again, and the water tasted like boiled sweat. His gut was in knots once more, so he lay there under the tattered blue tarp and tried to muster up hatred for the captain of this torture voyage.

His cousin Ghedi had lied to get him on board. Abdi was sure of that now.

Ghedi had found him at Dhubbato with their grandmother. Like most other members of the Isaaq clan, the massive UN refugee camp was the last safe place in Somaliland. Teeming, filthy, filled with crime and poverty though it was, at least the Hangash, General Dhul-Fiqaar’s secret police, or roving units of elite Duub Cas, the Red Beret Regiment, couldn’t come and slaughter them at night. Not with so many Peacekeepers watching.

Abdi’s cousin was shahiba, a gang-banger, and Ghedi ran with a crew of other Somali teenager boys, all of them orphans, angry, and Isaaq. A year ago, they had gotten their hands on some old army rifles and started calling themselves the “Harimacad”, the Cheetah militia. Soon after, they had disappeared into the bush to join Professor Hamid and his rebel Somaliland People’s Liberation Movement.

Then, all these months later, Ghedi had barged into their tent as if he’d only been gone a day. Mouthing big talk, he claimed he was no longer a shahiba; the Professor had made him a very important man. A captain. Abdi was suspicious, but Ghedi wore tiger-striped fatigues and had two gold pins on his shirt collar. And he flashed a huge wad of Euros. That was very different.

His cousin boasted he and his militia had been ordered to go on a secret mission for the SPLM. But he needed more men. Was Abdi interested? Ghedi promised a handful of bills and an AK-47 if he came. A real gun, a man’s gun, all for a quick boat ride, he had said.

Abdi hesitated. Then Ghedi had pulled out a nice red shirt. Almost new. It could be Abdi’s right then as a bonus.

That clinched the deal.

Abdi looked down at his new shirt now, all foul and puke-stained. Ghedi had bedeviled him. If he’d known the truth about being a budhcad badeed, he would have grabbed that shirt, kicked his cousin in the stones, and run as fast as he could. Now it was too late.

His cousin had only promised those things because this was his first time pirating and he wanted to impress the SPLM men by bringing his own fighters along. Lying wacaal.

Abdi was going to tell their grandmother about this swindle the second they got back to shore. May Allah bring that day quickly. The thought of their grandmother beating Ghedi with her old belt strap like she used to raised a smile on his cracked lips.

A sudden wind shook his little tent and he peered out across the deck of the pirate ship.

It was one of four that had been towed out to the deep water by a much bigger boat. An old twelve meter, Italian fishing boat whose name was long-buried under layers of paint, the nets and winches had been replaced with battered Dushka 12.7 heavy machine guns. The motors were new and strong however, and Abdi had heard them growling in the back. Originally meant for fifteen men, almost two dozen were packed in for this trip: thirteen SPLM veterans and ten of Ghedi’s Cheetah militia.

Twenty-three fighters, five days, the hot sun, endless slapping waves, the stink of diesel, bodies, and vomit… this was misery. The Dhubbato camp was better.
Waiting made everything worse. Abdi couldn’t understand why they didn’t just attack one of the big cargo ships right now. The SPLM men said there were dozens of them passing through the Strait of Hormuz every hour. Pick one, fire the engines, and converge on the massive target like jackals on a buffalo. Problem solved.
Unless the Russian or Indians had a frigate nearby, all a pirate had to do was circle a few times, fire off a RPG, then go aboard. The men said the shipping companies paid most ransoms within a week. The trick was not to ask for too much. The executives figured pay-offs were cheaper than delaying the cargo. That way, no one suffered.

Abdi couldn’t have agreed more. Even getting shot at was better than getting bounced around and roasted like peanuts.

But no. Ghedi insisted his mission had come from SPLM Headquarters, from Professor Hamid himself even. They would wait, starving, vomiting, baking, until a certain ship came by. The Mashona Breeze. No other would do. Ghedi even had a laptop that sent him messages and pictures from planes high in the sky.
Abdi doubted the commander of the entire rebel army was emailing orders to his cousin, but he was pretty sure the dozen fighters had come along to make sure Ghedi carried them out to the letter.

The boat jumped. Abdi swallowed sourness at the back of his throat. No more after this. insha’ Allah, he prayed. Please. Only dry land from now on.
Abdi shut his eyes and let his head roll with the Gulf’s motion. He had dozed off when a burst of rifle fire stuttered loud and close. He sat up, heart in his throat.

Ghedi stood on deck, rifle in hand.

“It is time,” he shouted. “Commanders send the signal to me. The ship is close. We must go, go now.”

Ghedi ripped another burst into the sky for effect. “Crazy fast. Quick. Quick,” he screamed. “The revolution needs us and we will not be late.”

Abdi heard ammo belts clinking, the clatter of weapons being chambered. Brown, shaved heads scurried to pull the anchor. The motors throbbed deep and low.

Thank Allah, Abdi thought, and sank back. Then he saw Ghedi staggering towards him.

Abdi tried to stand, but a wave hit. He fell back, tangled in his frayed blue tarp. He flailed, swept it aside and looked up. A shadow was there; his cousin standing over him, red eyes and little captain gold badges shining. The fat muzzle of Ghedi’s AK-107 was pointing down at his chest.

“As Captain Boss, I order every badass gangsta have his finger on the trigger.” A grin, filled with stained, crooked teeth. “A dog that refuses a bone is not alive. Are you alive, little soldier?”

Abdi nodded.

Ghedi jerked his gun up, fired into the air. Abdi flinched. His cousin laughed.

“We are the fierce lions of the sea,” he screamed. “We will bring this Mashona Breeze down. Strike a blow for the people of Somaliland.”

The motors roared from the back and as the boat swung north, bucking in the waves, Abdi’s stomach knotted tighter with each passing second.

Two emails today


The first from someone in Portugal who wanted to let me know he really enjoyed Running Black and was looking forward to Shift Tense. The wonders of the internet and ebooks. The second from an agent I queried six months ago. Six months for a rejection. I’m not sniveled, really. It’s just no wonder indie-publishing is on the rise.

Mr. Todoroff,

It is with kind thanks that we respond to your submission to Kimberley Cameron & Associates Literary Agency. We apologize for the long delay in our response–the number of submissions we received in 2012 far surpassed our capacity to review and respond. We thank you for your patience as we work to amend this. Please be assured that we have carefully considered your project. Unfortunately, we don’t feel the manuscript is right for us at this time.

Because we receive more than two hundred submissions per week, it is necessary to be extremely selective on a very subjective basis. We wish you the best of luck. There are numerous excellent agents that might be the right fit for your manuscript. Don’t give up!

Sincerely,
xyz…..

Red Flags in June

SHIFT_TENSE_final_rgb_flatten_6x9inches_with_bleeds
Quick Announcement that SHIFT TENSE Part OneRed Flags will be available sometime in June. The manuscript is at the editor and Michal Oracz is working on the first of three new covers, one for each installment. He should have the first completed soon. So if all goes according to plan, the full novel will be released in both trade paperback and ebook at the end of the year.

I’ll post the cover art as soon as I get it.

Thanks.

To Serialize or not to…

Serialize. That is my question.

Several thoughts:

1. I’m a Part-Time Writer
Full-time glass work commands a majority of my creative effort, on top of which comes family, friends, ministry obligations and Life’s usual responsibilities. I strive to write on a consistent basis. I’m part of a local critique group, a member of the Cape Cod Writer’s Center. I’ve got the obligatory notebooks in the car, in the workshop, on the bed stand to catch those random flashes, but fiction is more a pressure-relief valve than a job, and lately carving out time to get my head in a sci-fi space has been increasingly tough.

Serialization spreads out the obligation in manageable increments.

2. SHIFT TENSE isn’t complete yet
I know the second book is the hardest to write. People tell me I’m fussing with it too much. But the fact remains I’m still not happy with the novel’s end. I’m battering my head against the wall tying up the loose ends here. however, the first two thirds of the current manuscript are solid with all the major plot-lines firmly in place.

Serialization give me more time to work out in intelligent climax worthy of the story.

3. Serialization seems a better fit for e-books and the current spec-fiction market
See the earlier post on ‘Wool’ as an example. Serialized stories sell, hopefully build audience anticipation, and generally raise story/writer profile with frequent, compact, releases. With little additional expense/effort, I could release Shift Tense part 1 and 2 over the course of the next six months, release part 3 in the Fall, and have the full novel out at Christmas.

Serialization allows readers to sample the story and grants them the option to continue or cease with minimal cost.

4. Serialization kicks “Shift Tense” out of the house
I already feel like a schmuck, failing to keep my initial deadline. When I finished “Running Black” back in late 2010, I was positive my writing career would rocket into the stratosphere. (BRAAAAAAP! Wrong. Guess again, Pat.) Little did I know about the realities of self-pubbing, marketing, the writing process, juggling competing commitments, etc, etc. I still don’t know a whole lot but now I know more.

Serialization allows me to get the story out there to the readers who have been/are gracious enough to continue to buy my books.

Oddly enough, an early version of ‘Running Black’ was serialized in monthly chapters on Matakishi’s Tea House, a gaming hobby site run by an excellent fellow in the U.K. He formatted the text, added images, and generally made it look much better than it was. It wasn’t until a substantial chunk of it had spooled into the aether that I started hammering out the full-length novel. I have plot arcs and characters for several other novels in different genres clamoring from scraps of paper and Word docs, but I’ve been ignoring them, restrained – right or wrong – by the weight of obligation. I understand the brute reality of ‘work’ in art and creativity. This isn’t all bunnies, hugs and muffins, but I’d like to get back to the challenge and adventure of story telling – the joy of it – rather than treating my time at the keyboard as another chore, fencing with guilt because I missed a deadline.

In the end, if a serialization experiment fails, I can chalk it up to experience and move on. At the moment, the option is under serious consideration and I’m trying to figure out the logistics of such a move.

Any thoughts or experience here?

Thanks.

Little patches of “Wool”?

“Wool” has me and plenty of other self-pubbed writers itching to know if serialized stories are the way to go.

Four-minute clip on AOL:

http://on.aol.com/video/is-wool-the-next-hunger-games–517693672

Several fascinating things: first is his long-term success as a self-published author. Second was S & S’s concession on the digital rights. I know they’re going to push the print copy hard to get a return on their investment, but seeing as most of Mr. Howey’s money was made from e-copies, that’s A LOT of money they’re waving goodbye to.

Lastly, I picked up the Omnibus a couple months ago, and while the story is solid enough, it’s nothing brilliant or original. I’m happy for the guy, glad he’s rewarded for writing what he enjoys. I mean, at the end of the day, what do I know, right? I’m not fielding big money Big House offers.

I know the story and writing needs to be decent (or sometimes not) but this rags-to-riches tale has me wondering if serialized, uncomplicated thrillers are the way to go.

Like on TV.

Faith to Blame

Imam: Because you do not believe in God does not mean God does not believe in – .
Riddick: Think someone could spend half their life in a slam with a horse bit in their mouth and not believe? Think he could start out in some liquor store trash bin with an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and not believe? Got it all wrong, holy man. I absolutely believe in God… And I absolutely hate the fucker.
Riddick in ‘Pitch Black’

Actually, my first memory of God-blame in Spec Fiction was decades ago in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever. The Riddick quote is there only for pith’s sake. (And that I’m an otherwise fan)

There’s a long, tired tradition of characters crowing against the Creator from the moral high-ground of their personal indignation over injustice, suffering and horror. I stumbled across another just last night, in fact.

My issue wasn’t so much it’s presence, (like I said, it’s a common-enough trope) but that it was so blatantly disingenuous. The novel’s mythology/theology centered around the unspecified but nonetheless ‘strict’ worship of a Goddess, with a stereotypical cruel, hypocritical clergy manipulating a naive, devout flock. Then prior to a dramatic confrontation, our rugged hero launched into a soliloquy castigating God (male deity) as a lunatic Creator consenting to horrific exploitation in his name, somehow directly responsible for a personal tragedy, and who’s generally complicit in all suffering and anguish.

Wait… what?

Look, I get Theodicy and the ancient question of the existence of evil. People with intimate experiences, people who have confronted evil ask a profound and valid question. My heart can’t handle the everyday tragedies paraded on the news, let alone those that never make the top of the hour. My concerns here is with characters who otherwise ignore, despise, and disobey “God”, mock faith and devotion, yet throw Him up against the wall with impassioned fervency the instant tragedy strikes. They obviously ‘believe’, (why rage against a non-existent entity?) but God is their whipping boy, their scapegoat, an ironic justification for atheism.

Perhaps I’m being hyper-sensitive. Or getting snarky over inconsistent plot and characterization. What do I expect from a cheap, easy read by a non-believing author? Maybe I need to lighten up.

My problem is the gymnastics of self-justification. Flaccid logic posing as intellectually rigorous integrity, meaninglessness touted as profundity. I’m weary of the double-standard that approves certain ‘definite worldview statements’ yet denounces orthodox devotion as superstition. I’m tired of empty victories over straw men. I’m tired of faith enough to blame accompanied by recalcitrant conceit that won’t own it’s own decisions.

All the more reason to keep faith and Christianity explicit in my own work.

My studies in Speculative philosophy, metaphysics, and science are all summed up in the image of a mouse called man running in and out of every hole in the Cosmos hunting for the Absolute Cheese.– Benjamin DeCasseres