This has been in my head for a while. What better time than the first day of the New Year to write it?
Christian science fiction for the most part, well, sucks. There’s some good writers out there, and I’m pleased to be able to call a few as acquaintances and friends. There’s plenty of likable novels out there, and some fine ones. But I really don’t think fans of Christian speculative fiction can argue that science fiction as a genre reaches even Christian fantasy, let alone secular science fiction, in quality or breadth despite some good individual books. I don’t intend this manifesto to diagnose why this is the case.
Why? Because we have endless people diagnosing problems already, but very few practical ideas for action to redress this. This is the sin of our culture: we know the problem, but we do not inspire others to take action to fix it. It is because the act of diagnosis for many in itself is its own reward: being able to discern problems puts you above others, and recognizing them shows your intelligence. It’s easy to be a perceptive critic of what’s wrong than to suggest what is right. What I intend to do is to try and put forwards a positive manifesto of how to make Christian SF a bigger force in our culture. Ideas that will make SF novels stronger, more vital, and better, while pointing out pitfalls to avoid.
I fully admit my presumption in claiming to be an expert. But someone has to start talking about this, and if this manifesto gets shot down or amended completely, that’s better than all of us whistling innocently as we wonder why all the Christian market seems able to produce is vaguely cozy fantasies and bad soft SF reminiscent of Anne McCaffrey.
There will be two parts. One will be “thou shalts,” things we must do, and the second “thou shalt nots,” things we either do and must not, or avoid.
Christian SF should:
…be speculative. I can’t emphasize how vital this is. Above all, CSF lacks this primary quality.
By speculative, I mean look at and focus on ideas. What ifs. Too often, CSF uses science fiction themes in the same manner as movies or television does; as exotic backdrops to tell stories which could be told in any other genre. Instead of the missionary in the jungles of Africa, we slap him on a planet orbiting Tau Ceti. Instead of a conversion story about a gunslinger in a western town, we make him a laser-slinging bounty hunter in 2056 earth. This is fine, but it is not where SF excels.
SF excels when we use situations to discuss ideas in the frame of human experience. What would a Christian do if he was born into a culture where changing your biological sex was as easy as putting on a pair of pants? How would the faith adapt to such a radical, posthuman future? What do we really mean when we say God is outside time and space? Could that mean that if we went back in the past, we would be greeted by a Moses who is Christian? Could God work backwards in time as well as forwards? But we never see ideas like this in CSF, except as background color to traditional action, adventure, or external conflict tales. The good guy is psychic not because we want to explore how the model of Christian faith works when we can read each others minds, but because science is safer to our sensibilities and we need him to be telepathic for emotional intimacy.
We really need to be speculative. By thinking on ideas and looking at them through our faith as believers in Christ, we have an awesome power to express truth for an outlook unlike nearly anyone.
…be positive. I’ve fallen into this trap myself. What’s one of the most common things you’ll see in a CSF book? A dystopian future.
I’m not saying this is bad, but Christians in fiction tend to focus so much on the bad at times that we create a depressing mental atmosphere where future is almost always a precursor to apocalypse or destruction. Where technology is always used to oppress, and where we seem to fight duels against evolution or other harmful psychological belief systems as lonely, dark knights.
While these books can be good, and often needed, it seems increasingly our expression of Christianity in them is dominated against what we fight against rather than what we fight for. While I don’t agree entirely with Rebecca Eula Miller’s stance on edgy fiction in her post here, she makes an incredibly strong point about the reality of hope in Christian fiction, and the need about a positive worldview. Of fiction that expresses joy, hope, and wonder. Even if our fiction focuses on the realities of life, we have something many secularists don’t have: hope in Jesus Christ.
…be cross-cultural and reach beyond our Christian subculture.
I’ll be blunt. How many black men are the protagonists of a CSF book? Or even that, a secular one? How many Hispanic? Where I live, there’s a church I used to go to as a child. One day, I walked up to where it was out of nostalgia, and was very surprised to see something. Right next to the old church building was a newer, larger one. The sign on it read that it was a church for Chinese Christians, and it existed side-by-side with the old one.
There’s a lot of stereotyping about Christians in the US today. The image of a slightly stodgy, white evangelical class seems to be the norm, but Christianity in practice is filled with incredible diversity. It’s a belief system that can bring together men and women of every race under the same Savior, and we each bring separate gifts to the body of Christ. We also deal with different struggles.
We also really need to reach out beyond the culture Christians exist in. By this I mean it’s not just race, but cultural ideas that persist and subtly limit our outlook. A reflexive anti-intellectualism is one. We’ve been beaten around so much by the secular intellgentsia that we’ve been conditioned to view them as the enemy, and not just them either. Even the positive values they can express become suspect. There’s also a profound distrust of media as a vehicle to transmit culture primarily, and as something to be enjoyed secondly if that. I don’t mean to put an exhaustive list of Christian cultural tropes here, but they exist, and identifying them and reaching beyond is vital to avoid a form of mental constriction which has little to do with the gospel as opposed to a reflexive defense mechanism.
…be willing to transform the culture than be another addendum to it.
I love the Christian small presses like Marcher Lord and Splashdown books. I love how they take risks and publish wonderful fiction that really does raise the bar for our genre. I love all the self-pub guys who go out and use that to take risks and tackle subjects not many others are willing to take chances on. They are slowly giving us hope for our genre, and I wish I had found out they existed earlier.
But the end of this needs to be transformative. We can’t simply be a lifestyle option. This doesn’t mean all of us should be racing out and trying to win the Nebula Awards, or hit the NY Times best seller list. But we should look for a day where a Christian can go into the Christian section of a bookstore, and be able to find science fiction without any stigma of reading it, and with the expectation that not only gentle soft-sf can be found for encouragement, but bold, challenging works that make you think can be found, too. If we don’t, I fear that we will see the market degrade over time.
Christian SF should not:
…be overly afraid of or antagonistic towards science. When I read bad secular SF, I wince when the villain is a religious fundamentalist. But when we write Christian SF where the villain is almost always some scientist who goes on about natural selection, we can be just as bad. There’s a big danger in that legitimate criticism about scientism-science as a belief system over an intellectual method-mutates into a hostility about science itself.
Scientism is a mistake precisely because it tries to use science to bolster philosophical belief systems it can’t support. To say science can only measure or be concerned with material things is not an ironclad proof that only material things exist, and we do a service when we remind people that the advantages of the scientific method in helping us to discover knowledge come from the precise use of limits and language. Scientism abuses those both more subtly, and with more ill effect, than even things like young-earth creationism or denialism.
But our argument is only with this. Science itself is not hostile to the Christian faith, nor even is the spirit of free inquiry. Christianity is unique among religions in that we come to God using our reason as well as our faith, and even skepticism is seen as natural. We are the religion that gave the world the phrase “Doubting Thomas,” and a Peter who denied knowing Christ three times. Both of them came away fulfilled with the knowledge of the risen Christ.
It’s hard or impossible to have CSF as a genre exist without dealing with this. We cannot be anti-science except to our own peril.
…be timid. At some point, what we write will offend people. Many of whom are our own brothers and sisters in the faith. The flip side of being speculative is people not liking our speculations. Whether its our Christianity in fiction and the complaints are from secular readers, or whether its an idea about the future which may step on our fellow believer’s toes, it will happen.
What we can’t do is be timid, or apologetic. If we ask hard questions, we should not apologize for doing so. We shouldn’t feel we exist on the sufferance of the greater Christian culture, and that if we prod just a little too hard, ruin will come. If it does, then we are ruined for asking about the truth. Even so, Lord.
…fetishize secular works. There are things only Christian SF writers can say. Our faith is not inferior to unbelief, and for all the craft of many secular novels, they contain worlds and ideas that are often contrary to the gospel. We must be realistic and be aware of these, and not seek to be blinded by craft over content.
This is not an endorsement of low quality. But at some point, we need to say that Christian SF is important, not just SF in general. There is something in how Christians alone view the world and the future that is valuable in its own right, and not as an inferior copy of secular works. If craft has been lacking, it must be addressed, but for the Christian, there may always be something that the world cannot provide, even in a well-made novel.
…ignore quality in work. I believe we are at an experimental stage in Christian SF. A lot of people are trying to work with it as a genre and quality often is lacking. But this is a waypoint to a mature genre with good quality, not a terminal point. What we do now is learn, and publish even with mistakes in order to become better at our craft and grow.
We must never lose sight of this.
There’s going to be a day when the secular world will blink, and suddenly realize that Christians are making nuanced, well-crafted SF that challenges the best of the secular market while being unique in its own right. It will not be something that is vaguely religious in a “safe” way, but be an alternative view compelling and troubling..
To do this, we must always be craft conscious. We must strive to be the best we can in word and in skill, and even more so, we must encourage each other to excel. This may be in honestly reviewing books, or commenting on trends, or in writing and polishing novels. We need to be hard, but in love, in a way to always help people who do take up the risk of writing CSF to grow. We can love books for potential or effort, but that is only one step along the journey. A bad beginning can lead to a good end at times.
This is my manifesto. I intend to put my money where my mouth is, and write along these lines. I may not succeed, but with this at least I hope to spark discussion on a subject which seems far too quiet. Your thoughts?