A Different Sort of Devil

The Devil has spoken to me. Appearing out of books, comics, and TV shows, he’s there wherever I look. And he has a single consistent message.

He says that he’s not such a bad guy after all.

Evil Incarnate

Most of us know the classic version of the Devil, drawn out of the theology of Abrahamic religions. He’s the ultimate embodiment of evil, a force for darkness tempting us to do wrong. His story didn’t feature much in my liberal religious upbringing, but I knew about him from the surrounding culture. He was evil personified.

This is a Devil to fit a binary universe. Good and evil are sharply differentiated and clearly defined. God and Satan represent that division and show us two different, entirely incompatible paths. A black and white world.

The Devil You Know

But now, when I’m more exposed to images of the devil than ever before, they’re very different from that old school Satan.

There’s the Lucifer of Gillen and McKelvie’s The Wicked + the Divine, one stylish god out of a dozen, more concerned with a good time than with changing humanity’s fate.

There’s Morningstar in Alliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, looking out for his followers amid a tangle of dark politics.

There’s the Lucifer of the TV show, as adapted from the comic books of the same name. The comic version is a metaphysical rebel, the small screen one a playful rogue. There are temptations and deals with the devil, but they’re using about having fun, not bringing ruin.

The Devil I hear calling out from me from these stories seems pretty reasonable. So has he completely changed?

Lost and Found

That probably depends on what you mean by “changed”.

Milton’s Paradise Lost first popularised sympathy for the Devil. His Satan was a baddy, but he was a sympathetic one. He had more reason for his actions than “this is the embodiment of badness”. Milton might have argued that what he showed was implicit in the old texts, that a more nuanced Satan was waiting to be found. True or not, it’s a theme that many others have run with.

In the modern world, many of us are uncomfortable with clear-cut truths. The horrors of two world wars, followed by the philosophical wrecking ball of postmodernism, showed us a world that isn’t divided into black and white. We see rebellion as a good thing, not a danger to society and our souls. And once the Devil starts looking like a hero, it’s not a big stretch to these modern portrayals. His interest in pleasure, defiance, and even temptation can become liberating virtues. This Devil is on our side.

All the Angels

I’m sure people are still writing stories with the old version of the fallen angel. After all, there are people who believe in old-school Old Testament Christianity. But they aren’t the mainstream anymore, and so neither is their Lucifer. A new version calls out to us from page and screen. Apparently, he’s not such a bad guy.

But then, that is what he would say, isn’t it?

Stories and Faith in Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun

From the very first page, Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun sets out its big themes of intertextuality and faith. Before we meet the protagonist, Catherine Helstone, we get an invented quote from a missionary espousing the need to spread the Christian faith in Arcadia. We’re in a story of interwoven texts, one that depicts a collision between two narratives of great power – European fairytales and Christianity. This is a book that dives deep into the playground of stories, and in doing so highlights their role in making faith possible.

But before I head down the rabbit hole (or up my own arse, depending on how you view these things), let’s start by defining some terms…

Intertextuality

Intertextuality is the exploration of the relationship between texts. In books, it usually involves a writer leaning heavily on references to other stories. In the examples I like, recognising the references adds meaning to the story. But there are times when a story becomes virtually meaningless if you don’t know what it’s referring to. Intertextuality can be powerful and exciting, but it can also become a barrier to understanding (I’m looking at you, James Joyce).

Intertextuality has always been a part of fiction. This video by the Nerdwriter explores its part in modern Hollywood, while Extra Credits’ recent introduction to Frankenstein highlights its role in classic literature.

Faith

Faith is a tricky word. It means different things to different people. Here, I’m going to be talking about religious faith – a powerful belief in a particular view of reality and the moral teachings that arise from it, a belief that does not need to be grounded in evidence, but is more often rooted in the believer’s emotions and instincts about the world.

Blurring the Lines

Under the Pendulum Sun is rich with intertextual references. Each chapter starts with a quote from a book, letter, pamphlet, or diary that exists within its world. Its style is a reference to 19th-century fiction, including the gothic fears fostered by the likes of Mary Shelley and the more grounded stories of social and emotional struggle written by Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters.

The references to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are particularly obvious, from Catherine’s encounter in the countryside with the master of her new home to the lost and damaged woman roaming the corridors of their house. It’s a nice example of intertextuality as bonus content. Having recently read Jane Eyre, I got a thrill from reading that the woman’s eyes darted with fire and from a description of the lights of the house seen from the countryside. But those parallels aren’t essential to understanding the story.

In a story about missionaries trying to spread the Christian faith, the references to the Bible are the most important. From a house named Gethsemane to the sermons and readings of the characters, Christian stories are everywhere. And of course….

Christianity is Intertextual

Christianity is based on a mass of interwoven texts. The books of the Bible, which existed separately before they were brought together in a single tome, are full of references to each other. The New Testament parables are stories within a story. If the accounts of his life are to be believed, Jesus was constantly whipping out a good story to make a moral point. It’s impossible to make sense of the Book of Revelation without referring back to preceding stories of the Jewish and early Christian communities. And our interpretations of this are built on two thousand years of people studying these books, a great mass of intertextual scholarship.

Where faith and intertextuality meet, there you find Christianity. That makes an intertextual story like this one perfect for exploring Christian faith.

Blurring the Lines

Intertextual stories blur the lines between one work and another. If you read both Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses, your reading of one will include memories of and reflections on the other. A Star Trek episode involving a holodeck Sherlock Holmes can’t exist without Conan Doyle’s stories, and someone who’s watched that episode may find images of Mr Data interrupting their reading of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The stories start to blend.

But they don’t just blur the lines between different fictions. Stories can blur the lines in our heads between what’s real and what isn’t. Stories help us to make sense of the world, and in doing so they open us up to believe in what they offer. Mr Benjamin, the fae servant in Under the Pendulum Sun, specifically says that he is looking to find his place in the Christian story. It’s a natural impulse, to want to be part of something that makes sense, and so we want to accept that perspective as real. However true they are or aren’t, religious stories blur the line between the world they present and the one we experience.

Faith is made possible through something akin to intertextuality.

Stories Versus Stories

In that sense, it might seem ironic that the fae in Under the Pendulum Sun are immune to Christianity’s charms. Like many fae in modern fantasy, they are bound by narratives. As Mr Benjamin says, “Fae are nothing but stories”.

But isn’t this itself a reflection on faith? If we already have a story, like the fae do, then it protects us from the power of other stories. No amount of reasoning will break through to the “true believer”, and neither will an alternative tale. Their faith, for better or for worse, is a story, one that is intensely powerful to them.

The characters in Ng’s book stumble through story after story. Stories about God, about themselves, even the stories they made up as children and that they now find reflected in the world of Arcadia. Their stories set their moral boundaries, as shown by Catherine’s behaviour, which shifts with the story she believes about herself. Even on the final page, it’s through reference to a story that they find a way to move on.

This is a story about stories. It’s a story about faith. And it’s a story about how deeply the two are tied.

The God of Drawers and Eyeballs – a flash fantasy story

“You never answer when I call,” Jenver said as she stormed around the room, thrusting possessions into her bag. Toothbrush, pajamas, books, everything lying in the open.

Everything except the statue of Hobal of the Many Bodies, with his broad chest, seven eyes and thirteen arms.

“It’s not like I ask much,” she continued, glaring at the statue. “But if I’m going to be your high priest, I should at least get a reply to one or two of my prayers.”

Ignoring the wardrobe full of priestly robes, she approached the old wooden chest of drawers that held her personal clothes. The top drawer handle was damp and rubbery to the touch, and she jerked back in alarm.

The handle had been replaced by an eyeball. So had the one next to it. The drawer below had gained a mouth.

Its lips parted. The wood around it rippled like flesh, making Jenver’s skin crawl.

“I am Hobal, He Who is Praised Most Highly,” the drawers announced in a voice like a stampede. “How dare you abandon me?”

For a moment, Jenver stared in awe. It was years since she had seen any sign of response from the god. Direct manifestations were almost unheard of. Maybe he loved her after all.

Then she remembered all those years of silence.

“We pray and you never answer.” She folded her arms across her chest. It had taken all of her courage to consider giving up her career, but now the decision was made, stubbornness carried her through the shock of the manifestation. “I’ve had enough.”

“Enough?” Hobal boomed. “You dare say enough to Hobal?”

Jenver took a step back. Her leg knocked against the bed.

“Unpack your bag,” Hobal commanded. “Return to my service or face the consequences.”

The bed shifted as the mattress turned into a giant tongue held up by a frame made of arms and legs. The pulsing of the tongue against her leg made Jenver want to heave. The madness of the sight made her want to curl up in the corner and hide.
If she had seen even a fraction of this power before, things would have been different.

But then, if Hobal had this power before, why was he only using it now?

“What consequences?” she asked.

“Terrible things,” Hobal replied. “Awful things.”

The tongue ran along her thigh, leaving her trousers soaked with drool.

“Is that all you can do?” she asked. “Terrible things? Because I’ve been waiting all this time for your bounty to the faithful. I’m not staying to be bullied.”

“Then what will make you stay?” the drawers asked.

“Just give me one good thing,” Jenver said. “Something to make my service worthwhile.”

The eyeballs turned to look at each other, then down at the lips.

“Um, flowers?” the Hobal drawers said. “Gifts of flowers are a good thing, are they not?”

“I organise the flower rota for your temple!” Jenver said. “I don’t need you to give me flowers.”

“Chocolates?” the god asked.

“Argh! You’re my god, not my boyfriend!”

“Gold, then?” Hobal sounded pleased with himself. “I can make you wealthy.”

“If I wanted to be wealthy I’d have become a stockbroker like dad wanted.”

Gritting her teeth, Jenver grabbed one of the eyeballs and pulled. The lips screamed. The drawer opened, revealing her socks.

“That’s it!” Hobal bellowed. “You’re not getting out of here alive.”

The doorway turned into another mouth, teeth gnashing up and down. A liquid that smelled like vomit oozed out from under the bed and started dissolving the carpet.

“Fine.” Jenver threw her socks down into the sludge. “I dedicated my life to you. If you won’t answer the prayers of your people, I might as well be dead.”

“Wait.” The eyes looked at each other again. The one she’d pulled on was bloodshot and twitching. Then they turned their gaze on her. “When you say answer, do you mean give people what they want?”

“Yes,” Jenver said. “No. Maybe. Sometimes. People ask for stupid things. But you could at least tell them why you can’t help.”

“You would stay for that?”

“I…” Jenver hesitated. It sounded so much better than what had been happening. Infinitely better than dissolving in a room full of stomach acid. But it wasn’t actually good. “You have to do what they ask for sometimes as well. You can’t always say no.”

The giant lips pursed. Then the whole chest of drawers leaned forward as if nodding.

“Very well,” Hobal said. “We have a deal.”

The tongue turned back to a mattress, the teeth to a door frame. Bile stopped oozing from under the bed, though the carpet would need replacing.

Jenver looked at the statue of Hobal.

“I’ll be keeping an eye on you,” she said.

“And I on you,” the lips replied before disappearing from the front of the drawer.

The eyes – one white and one bloodshot – stayed staring at her as she unpacked and prepared for the evening service.

* * *

 

This story came out of an exhibit I saw in a museum while on a date. Because I will take inspiration from literally anywhere, and have weird ideas about what makes a good date.

If you enjoyed this story then you can get more like it by signing up to my mailing list. You’ll get a free e-book and stories straight to your inbox every Friday.

Talking Preacher at Sci-fi Addicts

At first glance, Preacher was a blood-soaked story of brutal violence and obscenity that trampled religious taboos in the dirt. But pay attention to the graphic novel that is Preacher and you find something more. This is a richly philosophical exploration of morality, friendship, and faith, a book that delves deep into the guts of what it means to be human…

Looking for a different reflection on religion and friendship to balance the festive shmaltz? Then check out my recent article about Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s amazing comic series Preacher over at Sci-Fi Addicts.

And then go read Preacher, because it is amazing.

The Perfect God – a fantasy flash story

Picture by Kurtis Garbutt via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Kurtis Garbutt via Flickr Creative Commons

Hogan’s arms ached as he made his way up the ceremonial road to the temple. He had been ready for the fact that a pilgrimage would be arduous. Without struggle, it would be no proof of his faith. Dragging himself hundreds of miles on his wooden trolley, the stumps of his legs barely keeping him upright, had been the test of will he sought.

He had thought there might be some reprieve at the temple precinct. Instead there was a winding gravel avenue in which his wheels became constantly stuck, cherry blossom falling from the trees as he tried to force himself forwards.

Most of the other pilgrims looked away as they walked past, embarrassed at the sight of him. A few offered to help, and he tried to stay polite as he said no, this was his journey, and the priests had been clear that he had to make it for himself. In some ways, those conversations were worse, the pity on their faces reminding him of just how little he fitted in.

At last he reached the end of the path. With a final crunch of gravel, he rolled onto the smooth tiles of the temple forecourt. Too tired to drag himself up the steps to any of the roofed shrines, he sat staring at the statues, the places where the gods accepted prayers and offered miracles in return.

Looking around, a growing unease settled on him. Even here, he was alone. Every god was an image of bodily perfection, as judged by the eyes of sculptors and priests. All had two legs, two arms, two eyes. None were scarred or disfigured, none stooped or twisted.

He had heard stories of gods injured in battle or laid low by disease. Where were the signs of such suffering, never mind of gods born in different shapes, as Hogan was?

These statues were supposed to give everyone a sense of belonging, to open their hearts to the divine. Hogan felt nothing looking at them.

His arms had rested enough to move again, and so he rolled over to one of the blue-robed priests setting incense in a jar.

“Excuse me?” he said.

The priest looked down at him.

“Yes, my son?” she asked.

“Where are the other gods?” Hogan asked.

“There are no other gods,” she said with a tolerant smile.

“But I was told there were gods for everyone, from the humble fisherman to the mighty king.”

“This is true.”

“So where are the gods for people with no legs?”

She laughed, the sound like sand being ground into a wound in Hogan’s heart.

“The gods are perfect,” she said. “So are their bodies.”

“But these statues…” Hogan waved his hands and the incense smoke billowed around them, a sweet scent that made him want to cough. “How can I feel closeness to the gods through these statues when they are nothing like me?”

The priest nodded thoughtfully, and then smiled.

“There are broken statues in a clearing back there.” She pointed down the gravel road. “You could try praying to them.”

“I’m not broken!” Hogan had no energy left for patience. He was tired, aching and bitterly disappointed. He felt as if the whole world had betrayed him. “I’m not half a person. I don’t want half a statue to pray to.”

“Well really.” The priest folded here arms. “Is that the tone to bring to the holy of holies?”

Hogan gritted his teeth. She had at least been trying.

“Thank you,” he said, and set off back down the road.

*

The track leading to the clearing was made of the same thick soil from which the priests took clay for their statues. Hogan’s wheels became stuck in it, his hands filthy and slippery, but he pressed on.

At last he found the broken statues. They had been abandoned in a heap in the centre of the clearing, years of cherry blossoms rotting to a soft mulch around them. Someone had lifted a few out and set them up beneath the trees. There sat an old blind man with his young guide, as well as a woman missing half her arm. They smiled in welcome as Hogan approached.

“Imperfect gods,” the man said, running his fingers lovingly over one of the statues. “For imperfect pilgrims.”

The words snagged at Hogan’s heart. Was this really how the man thought of himself – as someone lesser than the rest? But the woman was nodding agreement. Maybe this was how they could fit in.

Hogan looked at the statues and tried to let their divine essence in, to feel the touch of faith. But there was nothing. Just a broken statue for broken people.

Trailing his fingers despondently in the clay mud, he scooped some up and rolled it idly between his hands. He had been looking at bodies all day, and almost without thinking he formed the clay into one. He gave it one leg and a whithered arm, a patch over one eye and a bent nose.

At last, something stirred in him. A feeling of recognition, and of seeing something deeper looking back at him.

He placed the figure on one of the fallen statues. The woman smiled, and as his guide described it so did the man.

“The perfect god,” Hogan said, “for perfect people.”

Together they bowed their heads in prayer, and finally Hogan felt that he belonged.

* * *

 

This story was inspired by a comment from Laura, who wondered if there were any disabled or impaired gods. It’s been wonderful to find that, even though we’ve separated, she’s still a great source of inspiration to me. Hope you enjoy this one Laura!

If you enjoyed this then you might also like By Sword, Stave or Stylus, my collection of fantasy short stories, available as an Amazon ebook.

Why is Christianity Always Catholic in Science Fiction and Fantasy?

Picture by Claudio Ungari via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Claudio Ungari via Flickr Creative Commons

Have you noticed how often Christianity equals Catholicism in science fiction and fantasy? Think about it – when was the last time the religious side of the story was represented by a Presbyterian, a Methodist or someone of Eastern Orthodox faith? But look at Daredevil – both in comics and on screen – The Sage of the ExilesThe Sparrow, or many other sf+f works – you’ll see Catholicism all over the shop.

I don’t think it’s because there are more Catholic writers than ones of other denominations in sf+f. After all, Protestantism is bigger both in the UK and the USA, the sources of most of my reading and viewing.

I don’t think it’s because Catholic beliefs are any more interesting to extrapolate from. If I was looking for a faith that does something unusual then I’d turn to the liberal Quakers, with their decisions by consensus, their evolving book of faith and their soothing/eery (depending on your perspective) silent meetings. And if I was looking for something full of angels, demons and holy warfare then I could pick pretty much any old school interpretation of any faith.

I think the reason may be that Catholicism provides a bunch of handy story-telling tools. The focus on sin and guilt creates obvious internal conflict for characters. The confessional provides an excuse for characters to say things out loud that would otherwise remain internal. The heavy use of ostentatious imagery and symbolic ritual creates striking visuals for television, comics and film – Quaker meetings are cool and all, but they usually look like a bunch of ordinary people sitting in a plain room, and much Protestantism looks like Catholicism light.

I’m not saying that the use of Catholicism in sf+f is necessarily shallow – far from it, Julian May built a whole universe around the dissident theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. But I don’t think it’s generally chosen for its depth, and the attractions it provides for story-tellers are ones most other Christian denominations can’t match. Much as I’d love to read that Quaker sf story, if I want to then I’ll have to write it myself.

The Elect – a fantasy flash story

Photo by Kevin Dooley via Flickr creative commons
Photo by Kevin Dooley via Flickr creative commons

Long before they reach town I see them coming. Bright lights trail behind them as they dance along the road, between fields recently cleared of the harvest. My breath steams the tiny panes of the manor house’s leaded window as I watch in wonder. My heart beats loudly, but sadly its rhythm does not match theirs.

“Come.” Father takes my arm. I am far too old now for him to hold my hand, almost too old to still live unmarried under his roof.

I grab my shawl and walk with him into the street. Most people are already out and waiting, mother and the rest of the temple wardens among them. But I always want to see the Elect coming first.

The ground feels rough beneath the thin soles of my dancing shoes. I hide my discomfort. Father must not know what I have planned.

The Elect are at the edge of town now. The flaming brands along the street dim in their presence, light and warmth sucked into their magic. They are human and yet more than human, these dozen holy wanderers, those who the spirits have touched and who they will save. Not all have a dancer’s build – one is plumply buxom, while another has the hard build of a life-long labourer. Yet all move with astonishing grace.

The power of the spirits flows through them. Ribbons of coloured light trail from the tips of their fingers, their toes, their tailcoats and shawls. As they dance through town they cast a net of beauty across us all. As every autumn, our town is conquered for the spirits once more.

I slip my arm out of father’s. He does not notice. Like the rest, he is caught up in the mix of awe and tension that comes from seeing people so imbued with divinity, more beautiful than we can ever be.

Cautiously at first, I slide through the crowd and out into the street. This is it.

Every year I have studied the movements of the Elect. Every day I have practised them. The desire to be one of them burns inside me. To be one of the beautiful, one of the saved. With growing confidence I follow their movements and join the dance.

There are gasps from the crowd and a cry of alarm from my father. I catch a brief glimpse of disappointment on my mother’s face. I don’t care. I am part of the dance.

Except that I am not. As I weave my way into the dance, the Elect turn their backs on me. I thought my movements perfect, yet I have somehow fallen short.

My confidence wavers and I stumble. I feel my world unravelling. What has gone wrong?

I look again at the dancers. This close I can see that holy light doesn’t just flow from their fingers, it coats their bodies, guiding their movements.

My confidence returns. The attention I paid to spiritual studies is second only to that I paid to dance. I think about the things my mother taught us on the feast days. The ways of the spirits. How to open our minds to them.

I close my eyes, relying on finely honed instincts to keep my movements true, and open up my heart. I feel the sense of something greater, something beyond me. That wordless voice that comes to me in the depths of prayer. I let it take hold of me, and when I open my eyes I can see that my dance is more perfect than ever before – not just imitating but complimenting those of the Elect. The spirits guide me, and laughter bubbles from my lips.

The very nature of their dance now turns the Elect towards me. No light pours from me yet, but in every other way I am one of them. I am part of the dance, and the dance is part of me. I am…

They turn away, and my heart shatters. The dance has me in its hold. It is performing me, not I it, and without that I would drop like a stringless puppet.

The Elect dance on, out of town, their work done and me forgotten. I whirl alone in the road, my neighbours watching me. Some turn away, embarrassed or appalled. Others laugh and point. Tears run down my face.

Then I feel a tingling in my fingertips. My eyes widen as a glow spreads from my hands. Streamers of yellow light trail behind me, short but growing.

Laughing, I dance away from town, not down the road the Elect followed but out into the fields. I will reconquer them in the name of whatever spirit has blessed me. I will follow my steps and feel my power and share my dance with whoever cares to join.

I am not of their Elect. I am one of my own.

* * *

 

If you enjoyed this story then please share it. And don’t forget, my new collection of short stories, A Mosaic of Stars, is out now on Kindle.

Botany Bound – a short historical story

Picture by Wonderlane via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Wonderlane via Flickr Creative Commons

The moment we set sail from Portsmouth was the most wretched of my life. As the anchored chains rattled and the York creaked away from her berth, I slumped surrounded by other men bound in chains, set for Botany Bay. Every one of us knew that we would never see our homes or families again.

Would it ease your mind, in hearing my tale, to know that I had done wrong? Imagine that, if it helps. But if you prefer truth then you should know that all I had sought was a fair wage, and that of all the punishments that befell my group, mine was not the worst.

Once at sea we were unchained. We ate as well as a prisoner could expect, exercised on the deck, and were checked for ailments regularly by the ship’s surgeon. A goodly Presbyterian by the name of Macleod, he cared for our souls and for our minds as well as for our bodies.

“Come, Jack,” he said to me, for I went by Jack in those days. “This is your chance, laddie. Come learn your letters better, and in doing so learn the word of the Lord.”

Stubborn youth that I was, I would have none of it. I lurked in my darkened corner, refusing to come out as a deep despair settled upon me. I lived beneath a cloud far darker than any in the sky, and beneath its weight I was barely able to lift myself from hammock of a morning.

One day I heard laughter from the deck. It was the first joyful sound I had heard in many weeks, and that small thing at last drew me out onto deck. Dr Macleod looked up as I approached the group, sat around with Bibles and commentaries, many with their lips moving as their fingers crawled across the words. At least one of them I knew from jail, and he had no letters then.

“Will you join us now, Jackie?” Macleod asked. “Bill here was sharing an old Yorkshire version of the Lord’s Prayer. ‘Tis a wee bit naughty, but I dinnae think Himself will mind.”

That day I just sat with them. The next I picked up a copy of the Psalms, and managed to read a few lines. By the end of the week I spent as much time reading as I did staring blankly across the deck, unable to bear the effort of thought.

That week lifted my spirits just enough for me to fathom the depths of my despair.

*

I crept from my bed in the middle of the night. I knew the guards’ routines by heart, having listened to their footfalls through so many sleepless hours. Picking up a length of chain I had seen by the aft mast, I wrapped it tight around my arm. If I were to leave my miseries behind then I wanted it done quick, not to drift on the ocean waiting for an end to come.

Approaching the bow, I stared down at the white ripples of waves cresting on a night black sea. I took a deep breath and prepared to jump.

“Now, Jackie.” Macleod spoke softly as he approached. “Is this world so bleak that you must leave it?”

I shook my head.

“It’s beautiful,” I said. “You showed me that. But my part in it is wretched. I can’t bear that.”

“Then dinnae make it a darker place with your death,” he said. “Open up your heart and let the world in.”

I looked at those waves dancing in the moonlight. I wished for more of that beauty, but wishing was too much when I was so far from all I held dear.

“I want to,” I whispered. “But I don’t know how.”

“Then let me help,” Macleod replied. “Me and the good word.”

A sob burst from me, heavy and ponderous as the York leaving its dock. I let the chain fall to the deck, and soon I lay beside it, sobbing while Macleod soothed me.

*

By the time we reached Botany Bay, I had a better knowledge of scripture than I ever had in my life. I dare say that I was a better man. Though the darkness was not gone, it lay less heavy upon me.

“Here.” As I prepared to disembark, Macleod pressed a copy of the Psalms into my hand. “To remember that God has saved you.”

“Not God, sir.” I passed the book back to him. “After all I’ve seen, I don’t think I can believe in him. But you saved me, you and the books.”

“To remember me, then,” Macleod said. “And to comfort you now I cannot.”

I had not smiled once in that whole journey from England. But as I set foot in Australia, Macleod’s Psalms in my hand, I felt my face light up.

 

* * *

This story was inspired by an essay by Bill Bell in a fascinating book on the history of crime and books* that I picked up in Skipton’s Oxfam shop. It seems that ships’ surgeons often taught reading and religion to the convicts being transported to Australia, contributing to a literacy rate among these men that was higher than the British average, and that probably saved the sanity of many.

And yes, we’re back to depression again, but you know what they say – write what you know.

If you enjoyed this then you might also like From a Foreign Shore, my short collection of historical and alternate history fiction, which is free today as an ebook on Amazon. From one reader’s review of the book:

‘ “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Andrew Knighton has crafted some tantalising gems in this anthology, each one a different take on that musing. He uses the short story format to give us illuminating glimpses of lost worlds and worlds that never were, and they all fire the imagination.’

 

* Bill Bell (2004), ‘Bound for Botany Bay; or, what did the nineteenth-century convict read?’ in Against the Law: Crime, Sharp Practice and the Control of Print, ed. Robin Myers, Michael Harris and Giles Mandelbrote.

Writer interview with W Lawrence

Today I have the pleasure another author interview. This time it’s with W Lawrence, writer of the science fiction novel Syncing Forward.

 

Could you please start by telling us a bit about yourself and your books.

I’m a married man with two daughters who spent most of his life moving from place to place, but now live in Pennsylvania working as a corporate investigator. I like reading, shooting, and I’m a huge game fanatic. I’m often accused of being a pessimist, although I believe that label sells me short.  I consider myself a realist who just happens to be able to see bad things coming before most people.  And given my profession, I don’t always get to see the best in people.

My first venture into writing started several years ago when I put together a game supplement for the (now unsupported) game of Epic: Armageddon.  I was recovering from a painful surgery, had some down time, and realized that as a game player I didn’t want to wait for Games Workshop to publish their next supplement rule book.  I coordinated several dozen volunteers to produce a book called Epic: Raiders.  It’s derivative intellectual property, so we could never profit from it, but we did print it at cost and it’s still available for a free download.  The artwork is wonderful, the models were well painted, and the story was written (mostly) by me.  If you aren’t a Warhammer 40,000 fan, it probably won’t resonate, but it was a fun venture regardless.

Skip ahead to 2012 and I found myself writing Syncing Forward after an odd bit of inspiration.  Framing the story into one genre has been difficult for me because it covers so many; it’s speculative fiction, it’s a bit of a thriller, a bit of a mystery, most certainly dystopian, and it’s sci-fi.  There are a lot of twists and the story will take you in directions you weren’t expecting.  Most importantly, however, is this is a love story of the family, about how far we are willing to go for our children, our parents, our spouses.  It deals with the cold truth of consequence and how we deal (or struggle) with our decisions.

The main character’s life is altered forever after he pushes a suspect for information on why equipment is being stolen from their company.  One phrase, Tell me about the rat, sets him moving forward relentlessly through time.  He is able to stake out moments with his family before he is carried forward again.  His wife grows older.  His children grow up. And he becomes a man increasingly out of place in the world.

Why did you pick that particular idea to explore in Syncing Forward?

 I had a dream the likes of which I haven’t had since I was a child.  No surreal mango fights or living in a swamp cooler with an orange pet chicken named Pepe.  This was a vivid dream, tangible, substantive.  I dreamt the plot of what is now my book, from beginning to end.  When I woke I was so inspired I roused my wife to tell her about it.  She told me, “You should turn that into a book!”  Although in retrospect I believe she was placating me so I would let her get back to sleep.

Looking back, there are some changes to the storyline, some parts I simply couldn’t make work, other parts that I couldn’t recall.  However, it’s pretty darn close.

You deal with both the positive achievements and the dark consequences of technology. Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about where it’s taking us, and what are you hoping for from technology in the next couple of decades?

I was listening to National Public Radio one day and a guest –my apologies but I don’t recall who- made the bold comment that the internet is the greatest invention since language.  While the automobile and a handful of other inventions might arguably take its place in the pole position, the fact is our world is forever changed due to its invention.  We share information, commentary, art, desires, instruction, and finance in a way that could never be predicted 30 years ago.

And yet so many people are feeling increasingly detached from their neighbors, their spouses, their world.  We make some of the vilest comments to complete strangers for one sole purpose: because we can. We text instead of talk. The internet has the dubious honor of simultaneously bringing us closer together and further apart. And this is just one technology.

We genetically modify foods with the hope of feeding more people (and making a buck), but the end result is the destruction of heirloom crops.  We build smarter machines to help our dumber kids.  We teach math with a calculator, not caring about the basics anymore. We are a world constantly propping itself upon the most recent developments, with very few people ask the question “Do we need this?”

There is a quote at the beginning of my book from Isaac Asimov: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”  I know all of this comes across as awfully hypocritical as I type this in my word processor and send it off at the speed of light to another computer.  However, I’m not suggesting we give up electricity.  I am saying that technology on every level -genetics, communication, nanotech, robotics- is evolving so rapidly that either human beings will falter or we will have to make incredible sacrifices to adapt.  Syncing Forward’s plot explores the price of our technological successes, amongst other arcs.

One technological advance I am looking forward to seeing is Mars-One being a success. Sounds crazy, but I love the pioneer aspect of sending people on a one-way mission to a different planet.

You describe yourself as a part-time Catholic, and religion plays a part in Syncing Forward. Even as an atheist I find the appearance of religion in science fiction fascinating, so I wonder, what role do you think science fiction has in debates about and within religion? And what do you think religion brings to the science fiction table?

Religion definitely has a place in sci-fi. For one, the majority of people in the world believe in some type of higher power, something that can’t be explained by science.  But religion makes for great science fiction stories too, be it Robert Heinleins’ Stranger in a Strange Land or Battlestar Galactica.

To clarify, Syncing Forward’s main character -Martin James- is a part time Catholic.  I’m a full time Christian, but I have been exposed to Catholicism enough to write the character as such.  He is a man who –like many people in the church- is bound more by tradition than faith.  He relies on prayer as a last ditch effort, becomes angry with God when his pleas are ignored.  It takes up a small portion of the book and doesn’t preach.  For non-believers, they will find Martin to be trapped by social aspects of the church that are unnecessary.  For believers, they may find the faith aspects to be lacking.  I’m fine with that though.  The purpose of the book is to tell a story, not rewrite the bible.

People frequently take the approach that science and religion are mutually exclusive topics.  I feel comfortable both sharing a faith in God and loving all the cool aspects of science.  I frequently tell my daughters that math is the language of God himself.  There are several scholars who have theorized that our entire universe is a simulation. I won’t bore people to death, but one example is Planck length (the smallest measurable length), which alludes to the fact that we live in a digital environment.  None of this is in the book, by the way, so if you think this is all nonsense you can still read the story.

You’ve worked as an interviewer/interrogator, which sounds absolutely fascinating. Could you please explain a bit about what was involved, and what if anything that experience has contributed to your writing.

I was trained by the U.S. Army Reserve as Counter-Intelligence Agent.  They used to call it a 97B, although they may have changed it since then.  There I was trained in interview and interrogation techniques.  I found myself years later working for a large corporation in their security department and that skillset has proven invaluable.  Sometimes it isn’t so fun when you are enthusiastically telling somebody about your day and you can tell they have zero interest, but so goes the hazards of reading faces.

Interviews for me are an art, and I’ve done well over 1,200 in my career – that’s more than most police detectives will ever do.  It involves setting the interview room, how to speak, how far to position yourself from your subject, what tone to use, when to shut up, when to monologue, reading body posture, facial expressions, eye movement, micro-expressions (an interesting topic by itself), even counting a pulse rate on a person’s carotid artery. There are some great books out there on the topic of lie detection if you’re interested, as well as some excellent internet sites.  Paul Ekman’s website is the best place to learn about micro-expressions.

The main character in my book is a corporate investigator. Hey, you write about what you know! Although his skills are on par with mine, the book doesn’t delve too deeply into the topic. It isn’t a detective novel.  I just give the reader the highlights.

How did you go about getting published, and why did you pick that route?

I self-published, mainly because I am lazy and impatient.  Writing Syncing Forward was a labor of love, but after two years I simply wanted the baby out of me.  The idea of writing query letters over and over was unpalatable.  My editor C.S. Lakin advised me to self-publish to maintain control of my work, so I took advantage of the technology we have (cry hypocrite here) and put it out to the world.

Last question – what have you read recently that you’ve really enjoyed, and what was so great about it?

I love non-fiction, and there is no better historical writer than Richard Zacks.  While my favorite book of his was Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, I just finished Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York. It is an opportunity to meet Teddy Roosevelt before his Presidency plus a fun look at the so-called debauchery of New York. And if you think the bickering between Republicans and Democrats is something new, read this and you will see –not similar, but- identical arguments from a hundred and twenty years ago.  Zacks is a brilliant writer and if you email him, he will respond!

Currently I am reading Steven R. Boyett’s Mortality Bridge.  So far, it is very well written and more than a little creepy. We shall see how it goes.

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Thanks to W Lawrence for the fascinating interview. You can find out more about him and his work over on his website.

Religion and character in Battlestar Galactica

From the start I loved the modern iteration of Battlestar Galactica. It was gritty and exciting, filled with passion and despair.

Somewhere along the line that went wrong. And the more I think about it, the more it highlights the centrality of character to every aspect of story telling.

You’ve got to have faith?

Religion exemplified the problem with BSG.

Psst, Starbuck, I think we might be caught in an allegory.
Psst, Starbuck, I think we might be caught in an allegory.

At the start religion played an interesting role. This was a sci-fi setting in which the characters had an old-fashioned faith. Their relationship with that faith, and how it affected their understanding of current events, gave them extra depth. I loved it.

But then faith slipped over into fact. The plot started being led by ancient prophecy and holy books. The role of religion in the show had taken a radical shift, and it was one that completely changed my understanding of the characters.

Subjectivity adds depth

When their religion was a subjective matter, a faith choice on which characters could legitimately hold differing opinions, it gave them depth. It was a layer of the world that added richness, nuance and variety to the show’s diverse collection of soldiers and refugees. It made them interesting.

Destiny removes agency

When their religion became an objective matter, driving the characters towards a pre-ordained destiny, it removed that depth and took away the characters’ agency with it.

As we saw that elements in the religion were objectively true it became harder to see belief in religion as a choice characters made. It also took away the possibility for divergent views. Now a character who didn’t agree with the religion was objectively wrong and being stupid.

Worse, the element of prophecy and destiny deprived the characters of control over their own fate. They were moving towards a pre-ordained future. The choice wasn’t theirs. They were less in control of their actions, and so less interesting.

This is why I almost always hate prophecies in fiction.

What a shame

This wasn’t everything that was good about the show at the start, or that went wrong along the way. But what it highlights is that plot or setting can change our understanding of characters, strengthening or undermining them. As both writers and readers, it’s something to look out for.

So, now that I’ve got you thinking, can you see other examples where the shape of the setting directly affects the characters in this way? Share some examples, help me think this one over.

 

Thanks to Joe Kawano for the question that inspired this post.