A question came up on Facebook on Thursday morning. The director of one of the writing pages I follow (Marcher Lord Press) asked a question about why Christians write speculative fiction. For the uninitiated, speculative fiction is a broad category for science fiction and fantasy. It’s fiction that explores the imagination, the impossible, the fantastic side of storytelling.
He was looking for a simple statement, a one-sentence statement, that encapsulated the purpose behind why a Christ-follower would write a story with dragons, monsters, spaceships, aliens, etc. I wanted to answer or at least put in my two cents, but I wanted to think about it first. Why do I write speculative fiction?
Other than the fact that it’s cool and fun and exciting? My generic answer is usually that it’s the way I’m wired. My brain is attracted by complexity. Otherwise, it gets bored. So when I’m writing a story, I tend to make it complicated, and complicated stories lend themselves to the speculative genre. You can write a complicated story set in the real world, but you have to know a lot about real topics. And I’m not that smart (or maybe I’m not patient enough to learn). I know a little about a lot of things, but I don’t really know enough about the real world to write the kind of book that I would truly enjoy.
The only book I’ve ever written set in the real world is The Mountain Requires Blood, which isn’t so much focused on the world but on the character, Jamie Logan. If I write a book set in the real world, I focus on character because character is complicated.
My mom was a fan of the original Star Trek series. She watched it when it aired in the 1960s. The Kirk-Spock-McCoy dynamic has always been one of my favorite subjects of study, but I grew up with Captain Picard and Commander Riker and Data and Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I remember being excited when we got to stay up “late” to watch it.
I also grew up with Disney movies. The Little Mermaid. Beauty and the Beast. Aladdin. We watched the VHS of Robin Hood over and over and over again when my brother and I had chicken pox.
I also grew up with the Bible. And here’s where I think the problem begins for a lot of Christians. Like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, they think that raising kids with fantasy and science fiction and the Bible is confusing, because fantasy and science fiction aren’t real and the Bible is.
I’ve known quite a few people in Christian circles who have this idea that science fiction and fantasy is bad. And then I’ve met quite a few Christians who believe that fantasy is acceptable as long as it was written as allegory (like C.S. Lewis) or was written by a believer (J.R.R. Tolkien), but if it doesn’t meet those two criteria, it’s not good. By that same token, I’ve also met some Christians who believe that fiction itself is bad; they believe that Christians should only read non-fiction. So it really just depends on the individual.
I’m not in a position to say anyone is wrong. If you aren’t comfortable with science fiction or fantasy or fiction in general, that’s between you and God. But likewise you don’t have the authority to tell anyone else that they are wrong for enjoying it. Not as long as Christ tells stories too.
Granted, He didn’t tell stories with spaceships and monsters or with walking, talking fox-people for that matter. But He told stories about truth. And all truth belongs to God, no matter where you find it. You can find truth in pop culture. You can find truth everywhere. The world is full of truth. The world is also full of lies. The truth you find belongs to God. It was His before anyone else tried to claim it. God is the ultimate victim of plagiarism, just like Jesus is the ultimate victim of identity theft.
So why speculative fiction? What is the point? Why write it when I could write something else that “ordinary” people would enjoy? Why speculative fiction?
Maybe it’s rude to answer a question with another question, but I’m a journalist. It’s habit.
Traditionally, science fiction and fantasy has been written with the purpose of communicating unpopular truth. I think about books like 1984, which presented the dangers of socialism. I think about books like I, Robot which dealt with issues of individuality and equality. Even in more recent years, books like The Hunger Games have dealt with the concept behind the desensitization of our culture to violence. Even the original Star Trek series from the 1960s dealt with all sorts of social issues like racism, war, and human rights.
Regardless of genre, all stories are symbolic of our lives, but without the cushion of fantasy, those stories can be so personal that the shock takes away from the message. Speculative fiction is “the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.” It’s the softening of the hard edges of truth that makes it easier to swallow.
I have to point out a scene in the Avengers movie—that brilliant moment when Captain America is getting ready to jump out of a plane in pursuit of Thor, Loki, and Iron Man. Natasha warns him not to go because, after all, he’s just a man and Thor and Loki are “basically gods.” Captain America’s response is classic: “There’s only one God, ma’am. And I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that.”
If you watch the commentary on that scene, director Joss Whedon points out something interesting. Some people apparently questioned him on that. Why? Well, Joss Whedon is an atheist, and people were wondering why he would put that in the movie if he didn’t believe in God. Whedon’s answer is wonderful too, from the perspective of a writer. He basically explains that he is an atheist, but Captain America isn’t.
Even if it’s a truth that people don’t want to accept, they will accept it because a character does. They will accept it because it’s part of the story. That is true in every genre of fiction but even more so in speculative fiction. A mainstream novel that tries to handle issues like abortion or homosexuality would be too controversial in the secular arena or it would only be read by people of like opinions, but couch those same topics in a spec fiction novel, and they become part of the story and not necessarily a treatise on whether it’s right or wrong, no matter how you portray it.
Think about the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel, when he confronted King David about his adulterous affair with Bathsheba as well as the murder of her husband. Nathan didn’t walk up to David and tell him that he had sinned. He didn’t tell him that God was displeased. He didn’t tell him that he needed to repent and get himself right. No. Nathan told him a story, David figured it out for himself, and he turned back to God.
It’s truth with imagination. It’s humble confrontation without pointing fingers. The impossible becomes possible, the unknowable becomes known, and the distant and far off future becomes tomorrow. The world doesn’t have enough hope for today as it is, so it’s our job to paint them a picture of what the world could look like if we get back to what matters.