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

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?

The Grim Fall notes

WHO CAN YOU TRUST WHEN THE GODS BETRAY YOU?

Tagline for my next novel right there.

Eshu International and Clar1ty Wars are going to stew on the back burner for a while. The Grim Fall is the project that’s banging inside me demanding to be let out.

So the initial outline is complete and I’m 15K into the first draft. To explain, The Grim Fall is a post-apocalyptic quest story set in a desolate, shattered fantasy world. The Gods managed to murder each other in their final cosmic battle before they could destroy all creation, allowing for a post to this particular Apocalypse.

My goal is Lord of the Rings meets The Road. To chain High Fantasy to a cement truck and drag it through Chernobyl for a while. I’m busting with ideas on what that looks like, and what fantasy world survivors would morph into to survive in such a place.

Worldview-wise, it’s my examination into/dramatization of people’s reactions to religion’s disappointments, failures, even treacheries. (Kinda the ultimate betrayal if the ultimate thing you trust throws you under the bus.) Like the tag line asks, who can you trust when your own gods let you down? Do you trust anyone or anything ever again? Can you find authentic faith in the ruins of a scorned, broken world?

On a practical note, while letting my imagination run, I’ve had to constantly rein in The Grim Fall because the story wants to escape into the bad lands and mutate in magical irradiated solitude into something rabid and monstrous. Methinks this is gonna be one huge novel, or maybe even a three-parter. I’ll know more as I write more, so that’s a decision for later. In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away. I plan on contacting my cover artist soon. I need some visuals to prop up the increasing page count. I’ll post excerpts as I can.

Thanks for stopping by and have a great apocalypse-free day.

Shift Complete + Free Excerpts

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The shift to Shift Tense is complete: all three novellas are now compiled in a single volume. Thanks to everyone for their support and encouragement.

Apologies to you print book lovers; at present, my status as a writer combined with the reader demographic for spec-fiction doesn’t make it worth the extra ISBN, effort, and cost to do POD. If anything, it gives you late-adopters another reason to buy an IPad or Kindle.

Speaking of which…part one of both Running Black and Shift Tense are available in PDF here on the site. Scroll down past the Amazon links on the right sidebar, then click on the Incursion and/or Red Flags covers. Free stuff to give you a taste of the novels and my take on Biblical perspective spec-fiction. (notice I didn’t use the phrase ‘Christian fiction’) Hope you enjoy.

Next up: Clar1ty Wars, book 2: Under Strange Stars