Speculative Fiction by and for Christians


Twitter led me to a blog called My Friend Amy, where there’s an interesting take on speculative fiction in today’s “Faith ‘n Fiction Saturdays” category. The post addresses several questions:

  1. What is speculative fiction?
  2. What is “Christian speculative fiction”?
  3. What are the standards for high quality Christian speculative fiction?

This short post got me thinking about these and related questions. The result is a longer post sketching some of my thoughts about the general topic.

What Is Speculative about ‘Speculative Fiction’?

My Friend Amy quotes Wikipedia for an answer to this question:

Speculative fiction is a fiction genre speculating about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally overlaps one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history. (Click here for the complete Wikipedia entry for “Speculative fiction.)

The term is of relatively recent vintage. It doesn’t appear in any of the three handbooks I consult for such things:

  • Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 4th edition published in 1996. A new edition was published in 2008, and no doubt includes novel entries (no pun intended).
  • The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 2nd edition published in 1984. This edition was updated in 2002. Of the three books listed here, this is the best value—very affordable and reliable, with excellent coverage of authors, titles, literary movements, historical periods, terms and phrases.
  • Kathleen Morner and Ralph Rausch, From Absurd to Zeitgeist: The Compact Guide to Literary Terms (1997). I believe this book is out of print, but I see that (at the time of this post) one copy is in stock at Powell’s Books.

I once read an essay on speculative fiction that developed a convincing account of the form. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the author or where I came across the item. But I do remember thinking then that “speculative fiction” is an apt label for fiction that explores counterfactuals—ways things might have been but weren’t, or ways things might yet be but won’t. [FN: For more about counterfactuals at this website, “Run Lola Run—A Discussion Guide.”]

The interesting examples of counterfactuals are worlds very close to this, the actual world. “What if, instead of X happening at time t, something else that could easily have happened, Y, had happened at t? How would things have turned out then?” (One serious philosophical problem with speculation of this sort is that the sequel to any counterfactual at time t—the succession of events following Y, for example—may itself vary in numerous counterfactual ways. There may be many ways things might have turned out if Y had happened rather than X at t. And it’s puzzling to think that there is just one way things would have turned out in such a counterfactual setup. But I digress.)

The better fictional depictions of counterexamples would be at least minimally ‘literary.’ And they would explore themes of enduring human interest.

Could a Christian author write speculative fiction? Of course. The author at My Friend Amy’s blog alludes to several. The most obvious examples are ones that are most obviously ‘Christian.’ They broadcast a Christian message so overtly that it cannot be missed. For example, as noted in the blog post over at My Friend Amy, much Christian fiction depicts battles in the spirit world between angels and demons and the role of intercessory prayer by humans caught in the conflict. This kind of speculative fiction will appeal mostly to Christian readers, and then only to a certain kind of Christian reader. They don’t appeal to My Friend Amy for example. [FN: Some Christians, you may be surprised to hear, would argue that many such specimens of fiction are not properly Christian.]

C. S. Lewis and Others

It is interesting to me that C. S. Lewis is not mentioned. In addition to his cherished Narnia series of fantasy novels, Lewis wrote a very sophisticated series of three novels in what might be called the category of ‘space fiction.’ These are Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Lewis wrote with subtlty and grace. It’s well-known that he wrote from a Christian worldview. But these novels do not ‘preach.’

Lewis also wrote The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. These must surely count as paradigm cases of ‘speculative fiction.’ Next time you read them, consider this question: “What sort of ‘what-if’ question is Lewis endeavoring to answer in this book?”

I think that’s the question to put to any book if you want to be sure it counts as ‘speculative fiction.’ This opens the way for ostensive definition of the term. That is, it facilitates understanding of the term ‘speculative fiction’ by pointing to clear cases of it. Two examples that come immediately to mind are Shikasta, by Doris Lessing (1979), and The Children of Men, by P. D. James (1992).

It’s interesting to consider these examples in connection with questions raised by My Friend Amy. My view is that speculative fiction is a particularly congenial form for writing from a distinctive worldview, be it Christian or otherwise. It is congenial in part because it permits experimentation with the implications of a worldview without wearing that worldview on its sleeve. Doris Lessing and P. D. James both write with religious sensibilities—Lessing with the perspective of Sufism, James with a Christian worldview. [FN: Lessing was once offered the honorific title of “Dame” by Queen  of England. Lessing declined the honor. James was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991.] The guiding perspective in each case, though often discernible, is subtly layered into the narrative. This is akin to what the great authors Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene accomplished in their more ‘realist fiction.’ [FN: See for example, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, and The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene.]

For many readers of this post, the film adaptation of The Children of Men will be better known than the book. While watching the first few scenes, I thought about how this darkly apocalyptic film might render the religious component of the human condition when humanity is faced with extinction. My guess was that it would represent society as completely secular, and that any portrayal of religious people would characterize them as the kind who stand on street corners warning passersby of imminent divine judgment, in a tone that betrays their conviction that ‘none who hear will convert, and it’s just as well anyway, since they deserve to go to hell.’ That pretty much is how religion was ‘treated’ in the film.

That last statement needs qualification. What I should say is that religion, imagined under the conditions described in the film, is presented a certain way. This may be a commentary on how religion is manifest in the world today. But it’s pretty striking that no one I would call a ‘serious believer’ shows up in the movie. I imagine they don’t exist, or, if they do, they are marginally significant to the storyline. But then what would account for their nonexistence? Or what would explain their insignificance to the unfolding story? It is precisely the apocalyptic character of the story that makes their absence conspicuous. And that is interesting.

So a film or a novel may have something to say about religion even when it makes no direct reference to anything explicitly religious.

Vampires

The Amy post also asks whether fiction featuring vampires might be a venue for developing Christian themes. I’ve thought about this myself. That would be an excellent question for Anne Rice, the bestselling author of vampire fiction, and an adult convert to Christianity. Books in her newer series based on the gospel narratives has not been quite as successful as Interview with the Vampire. They are, to be sure, friendly presentations of the life and influence of Jesus. I suspect they have generated a new set of fans.

Susan Howatch

Another contemporary author known for her Christian worldview is Susan Howatch. Also a bestselling author (and British), Howatch composes stories with a realist cast. They take place in our world, you might say. See, for example, her acclaimed series beginning with the novel Glittering Images. One of her best is The High Flyer, which can be recommended to any reader with a taste for literary fiction set in the contemporary context.

* * *

A blog permits the expression of random thoughts during idle moments. I’ve exploited that opportunity here. As often happens, the flood of thoughts swelled to the point of necessary expression because of a bit of reading. This time I happened to be reading another blogger who reads.

Thank you, Amy my friend—whoever you are.

Related Posts by Doug Geivett:

Teach Yourself Epistemology


Epistemology is the branch of philosophy devoted especially to study of the concepts of knowledge and justified belief. The name for this discipline, epistemology, comes from the Greek word episteme, signifying “knowledge.” This is why epistemology is sometimes called “the theory of knowledge.” Unfortunately, this designation leads to a truncated view of a complex subject matter ranging over a wide variety of issues having to do with the status of belief.

The study of epistemology is notoriously difficult. It is also difficult to teach. Most university professors in the Anglo-American analytic tradition present the subject as a series of problem-solving ventures. The most persistent theories addressing these problems are presented and compared. Sometimes the teacher favors a general approach in epistemology and gives special attention to explaining and defending that approach and spelling out its implications.

One of the great problems of epistemology is how to think about the subject matter. This is the most fundamental problem for the enterprise of epistemology (which I distinguish from the enterprise of knowing and responsible believing). And yet this problem is often passed over, not only in the classroom, but by epistemologists in their own systematic work.

In my view, this places the student at risk. The student new to epistemology is liable to learn epistemology second-hand, taking as given the various problems and their proposed solutions, arranged in whatever order suits the professor or textbook writer. One very common approach is to begin with the threat of skepticism, which hangs as an ominous spectre over the whole enterprise—and is perhaps never completely exorcised.

A proper approach to “doing epistemology” would have to be delineated with great care and in more space than I have here. But there is a sense in which the self-educated have an advantage when coming to this subject matter. They are more likely to embark upon the enterprise of epistemology with that sense of wonder that is characteristically Aristotelian. In this case, the wonder is that we are capable of knowing so many things in such diverse areas of investigation, and that we move confidently through the world believing much that we do not know or would claim to know.

Still, the student needs a guide to such a complex subject. And while no text can serve in place of careful reflection on aspects of knowing and believing as they present themselves, there are a few very good books to guide the student and prompt examination of long-standing issues in epistemology.

In my own teaching, I have favored three books on the subject:

These books complement each other nicely. The book by Robert Audi will require a tutor for most who are new to the subject. It is rich and comprehensive, and, most important, very sensible about the topics it addresses. Better than any other book I know of, this book presents the subject in a natural order that is conducive to proper progress through to thorny issues it addresses.

To anchor a course in epistemology, I’ve found that the books by Feldman and Bon Jour complement each other neatly. They are concise and readable surveys of major topics. Laurence Bon Jour adopts a method of presentation that he explains clearly at the outset. While I think the method he adopts is unfortunate, it does give readers a sense of the rootedness of trends in contemporary epistemology in the influential work of the great 17th-century philosopher René Descartes. Of special value is Bon Jour’s treatment of the contest between foundationalists and coherentists in epistemology. A convert from coherentism to foundationalism, Bon Jour excels in his exposition of this debate; yet he is also realistic about the persistent philosophical challenges raised by foundationalism.

Richard Feldman demonstrates the exacting technique of analytic philosophy in a way that is accessible and interesting to newcomers. His book is a pleasure to recommend for that reason alone. But it is strong in many other respects. Feldman selects only the most fundamental issues in epistemology, and his book is a natural choice for someone with my anti-skeptical predilections for foundationalism and internalism in epistemology. His juxtaposition of evidentialism on the one hand and internalism and externalism on the other hand is initially puzzling. The presentation of evidentialism is a model of exposition at the introductory level.

Neither Feldman nor Bon Jour does justice to the problems associated with sensory perception. This large area of study in epistemology is set aside by Feldman, perhaps in the interests of conserving space. I think the decision to postpone consideration of the theory of perception can be defended. Feldman simply ignores the topic. Bon Jour, on the other hand, takes pains to explore the theory of perception. He defends a position called indirect or representative realism. As a direct realist, I believe this is a mistake. The presentation is well-organized and focused. And, in my judgment, Bon Jour’s development and defense of indirect realism creates opportunities to indicate significant problems for his position, which is part of any thorough defense of direct realism.

Several other books make useful companions to the ones I’ve recommended above:

The student also needs a collection, or anthology, of readings in epistemology. The best anthologies include selections from influential thinkers going back to Plato, as well as seminal essays by more recent philosophers. Among the best are:

Epistemology, like all professional philosophy, is “trendy.” The serious student of the discipline must understand these trends, even at the risk of being misled about their importance or being distracted from the real business of epistemology. The books I’ve described and recommended here contribute greatly to that task.

Postscript

While I strongly recommend the books by Rober Audi, Richard Feldman, and Laurence Bon Jour as places to begin the systematic study of contemporary analytic epistemology, several other introductory texts make excellent ancillary reading:

A Plan for the Study of Epistemology

  1. Read the three introductory texts recommended at the beginning, by Robert Audi, Richard Feldman, and Bon Jour. Sketch a plan to read them simultaneously, following the topical sequence in Audi.
  2. Read a sample of classic and contemporary essays from one of the anthologies listed above. Read according to interest and accessibility and note those authors who are mentioned in Audi, Feldman, and Bon Jour. Follow the order of coverage by topic in your reading of Audi and the others.
  3. Use Jonathan Dancy’s Companion to Epistemology as a quick reference on sundry topics in epistemology.
  4. Consult the other companion volumes for more detail and discussion.
  5. Survey several other introductions listed in the Postscript above. Especially deserving of careful study are Chisholm, Lehrer, and Pollock.
  6. Begin reading on topics of special interest to you, in books and essays that focus especially on those topics.
  7. Think about issues in meta-epistemology, or the study of the proper study of epistemology. On this topic I especially recommend Chisholm, Theory of Knowledge (already listed) and his essay on “The Problem of the Criterion,” George Chatalian, Epistemology and Skepticism: An Enquiry into the Nature of Epistemology, and P. Coffey, Epistemology, or the Theory of Knowledge (1917).
  8. For a realist approach to epistemology, I suggest reading seminal essays by the so-called “New Realists” in 20-century American philosophy.

Paperless Sounds Good and Is Almost Possible


Fujitsu ScanSnap S510

Fujitsu ScanSnap S510

For about a year now I’ve been using a remarkable tool for paperless research, writing, record storage and dog grooming (well, maybe not dog grooming). It’s the Fujitsu ScanSnap S510. And I like it for lots of reasons that may strike a chord with you.

  • It’s compact, with a footprint of 5.5″ x 11.5″ and a height of about 7″, until the feeder tray is opened (at which point it grows about 4 inches taller).
  • It plugs into the USB port on my laptop (or USB hub connected to my laptop), allowing all scans to slip easily into electronic nirvana.
  • It feeds standard-size documents and scans both sides on one pass. This is not a flatbed scanner. You load the document into it the same way you do with a FAX machine. A multi-page document can be loaded all at once and scanned as a single file.
  • The software that comes with the S510 allows me to save my scanned files as PDF documents.
  • It plays nicely with Apple.
  • It replaces my FAX machine because I can now scan any document, save it as a PDF (or other) file, and send it as an attachment by email. So it saves space in my office by performing multiple functions and replacing other single-function devices.

I’ve used the ScanSnap S510 to:

  • return documents with my signature;
  • retain copies of receipts and other documents for tax purposes;
  • save typed manuscripts and student papers that include detailed comments I’ve written in margins;
  • store photocopied material on my computer;
  • prepare for writing and research to do while traveling;
  • streamline paper files (and piles).

Signed Documents

Because my work involves payment for speaking engagements and author consulting, I often have to complete and sign documents that are then filed with the IRS by the individual or agency paying for the service. The forms can be sent to me for my signature, then signed, scanned and returned to the sender. The sender has what he needs for his records, and I have a copy in my electronic files.

Copies of all writing contracts can now be kept on my laptop. This is helpful when I need to refer to these documents to recall terms of publication years after a book or article has been published.

Tax Returns

Now I can scan all paperwork needed to complete my tax return each year: receipts, IRS forms, templates used by my tax accountant, even copies of all past returns.

My setup for 2009 begins with a folder on my computer labeled “2009 Taxes.” This folder is subdivided with folders for different kinds of deductible expenses. Individual receipts are scanned, labeled, and filed into these folders. When it’s time to prepare my return for 2009, I just pull everything from these virtual folders. (My tax accountant tells me that most docs that would be needed for an audit can be submitted to the IRS electronically. If they’re stored that way from the outset, it’s ready to go—just in case.)

Marked Manuscripts and Student Papers

I often read manuscripts for other writers and write comments in the margins. Sometimes this is at the request of a publisher. Other times it’s for the author. With the ScanSnap S510 feed scanner, I can keep copies of anything that might be useful to me later. I feel more comfortable writing detailed comments knowing that the ideas I share are permanently captured for future reference.

I find this also works well when marking papers for students. For smaller classes I have more time for more detailed evaluation. I can scan papers that I load up with comments. That way, I have a permanent record of the basis for any grade I assign, and whatever remarks I’ve made in the margins that might be useful in my teaching and other work. Sometimes I scan only select pages.

No More Photocopies

While I haven’t completely eliminated photocopies, I have streamlined my files with electronic versions of photocopied material using the scanner. This makes it easier to find the material when I need it, and have it close to hand rather than at the bottom of some pile or in a file cabinet. When scanning a document, I can assign key words to facilitate searches for that document on my computer. (This is important when scanning and filing handwritten documents.)

Research and Writing on the Road

I’ve found a number of ways to minimize the ordeal of traveling while keeping up with my research and writing. One is to carry fewer books. With my Kindle I can carry a whole library within the compass of a single slender and light-weight volume. My iPhone 3G is equipped to do internet research and gives me access to several specialized applications for the iPhone that help with productivity. With the ScanSnap 510 I’m able to scan papers and documents needed to carry on my research while on the road. Rather than pack a hard copy of some journal article I plan to study, I can now scan the article into my laptop. This takes no more than a few seconds.

From Piling to Filing

The sheer volume of papers I manage for speaking and writing projects can be overwhelming. Paper files are large and unwieldy. With this scanner I can quickly get stacks of paper off my desk (and floor) and into a codifed electronic form. I find that this step of scanning material I may want for future reference helps me winnow the chaff and store only what is truly worthwhile.

For effective winnowing, I often ask myself, “If I trash this item, and I need it later, will I be able to get my hands on it without actually having it take up space in my own files?” It’s amazing how often the answer is yes. (And I usually know the answer sooner than it would take me to utter the question out loud.) I can always create a note for abandoned items using utility software for this purpose. Or I can scan a handwritten note about items I’m tossing, and keep the note where I’ll find it later if needed. The note will lead me to the original material.

Clearing the Decks

One of the best uses of the S510 I’ve found is to scan all of my handwritten pages of “To Do” lists and miscellaneous—and yes, random—ideas. My habit of writing things down quickly leads to piles of handwritten notes. Some pages are dedicated to special topics or projects. Others are simply lists of things to do. And some are a hodge-podge of unrelated items that have fallen onto the page in a meandering stream of consciousness. Over time they pile up. And knowing where to file them has always been a conundrum. Not anymore. The least I can do is get them off my desk and into an electronic format, filed away in a folder of dated items of that sort. I may never return to them, but I know where they are. So this is now something I do periodically when the stack obstructs my vision.

Note: This hack works well in combination with writing, research, productivity, and database software I use: Things, Scrivener, MacJournal, and OmniOutliner. PDF documents can be dropped into files created with these applications. That goes for PDF documents produced using the ScanSnap S510.

Things 1 Icon

Scrivener

Scrivener

MacJournal

MacJournal

OmniOutliner

OmniOutliner

Share your ideas about how you streamline productivity, or leave a brief review of the tools I’ve mentioned in this post.

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