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.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

10 Responses to Speculative Fiction by and for Christians

  1. thinkpoint says:

    The Exasperating Enigma of Existence

    http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2009/01/26/the-exasperating-enigma-of-existence/

    Like

  2. mgkizzia says:

    Doug (and Nathan)
    The short answer is I am not a fan of MFAs to begin with. Writers just need to write. I would suspect, however, that it would be difficult not to be drawn over time in one direction or the other depending on the program: so either God has no part in this or God would not allow it. I can only speak for myself, but I find both propositions equally difficult to accept. I see nothing where God has no part and I can imagine nothing that God may not allow. (Nathan: Go ahead and lean on the Left Behind crew and remind your people that in the end times the dead will rise and demons will be let loose and there is no telling what might be possible under those conditions). Sadly, it appears to me that in this culture we are in a coin flip position with heads and tails unmixable. It is very difficult to flip a coin and get it to land on the edge.
    Michael

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  3. Doug Geivett says:

    Nathan,

    I’m not so sure there isn’t the possibility of writing a story framed by the Christian worldview that features the undead as “paranormal paramours” (my clunky phrase). A competent production of this sort would probably be a huge hit. I’ll talk this over with my daughter, who writes fiction and has thought more about this sort of thing.

    -Doug

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  4. Nathan H. says:

    Doug,

    Maybe not the best scenario, but a conversation that was had in the offices very recently.

    The big buzz in publishing right now is Paranormal Romances…(i.e. Twilight, and all the spin offs). So the question around the break table was, could a Christian Novel carry these elements? The majority opinion was, No. Because vampires don’t exist, and God would not allow them to if they did. the idea of “the undead” or the like seems to be argued more along theological lines rather than just telling a really cool story.

    Nathan

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  5. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Nathan,

    Thanks for this “insider’s perspective.” Publishers have a constituency to tend to. Christian book publishers are naturally interested in publishing what they can sell to their constituency. This probably accounts for much of the slowness in coming round to fresh ideas for fiction.

    Can you say a little more about the “God wouldn’t let that happen” objection to some submissions of manuscripts. Could you give an example, preferably fictional, of this sort of thing?

    -Doug

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  6. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi mgkizzia,

    You’re right. Christian authors whose ambitions run in this direction have to reckon with these challenges. Really they are challenges Christians face in most vocations. But the writer, and the writer of this sort of fiction, in unique and possibly greater ways.

    MFA programs have a mixed reputation. To teach at the university level in the field, you have to take a path of that sort. But to be a writer, it’s not necessary. Some few have a first-class reputation. You probably know which ones they are.

    You might look into writing programs that exist for the Christian author facing the challenges you mention. Some may be through a Christian university department; others are independent.

    What are your thoughts about how to deal with these challenges?

    Like

  7. Nathan H. says:

    I like to write, but I won’t put myself in the author category at the moment.

    I work in the sales/marketing side of a large Christian publisher. Many times I see manuscripts submitted that are shot down because of the tenet “God wouldn’t let that happen”. It is very frustrating. I think that speculative, fantasy, sci/fi, and some paranormal should be utilized more because it is a good device to talk about bigger questions. Example…do vampires exist? Of course not…but in a fantasy novel, it allows for a good adventure which will capture a reader, and allow a writer to play with the fantastic to explore an idea.

    The paradox is that most if not all Christian writers and publishers love Tolkien…but if his manuscript came in today, it would not be published by them.

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  8. mgkizzia says:

    I am trying to write this sort of fiction, exactly, and I am sure there are others. but I would suggest that there are two grave difficulties. First, our colleges and universities (MFA programs) which have produced and will produce most of our writers are strongly secular if not anti-Christian in their teaching. It is like talking about Hollywood, though I suppose most people already know this. Second, there are no ready markets. There is a stable, if small ready market for overtly Christian material and a large worldly SF/F market where editors would likely see a modern Lewis or Charles Williams or others as a real risk. There is nothing in between.

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  9. Doug Geivett says:

    I agree, Nathan. Are you an author?

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  10. Nathan H. says:

    I’ve never understood why more authors don’t venture into these waters without having to feel like they have to defend themselves. I think there is plenty of room to run in these genres and still maintain your worldview…even as simply as having fun spinning a good tale.

    Like

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