I’m moving!

Not irl, of course (though that may happen sometime soon) but in the interwebs. I have my own self-hosted site now: www.joelaparisi.com, to which I’ve migrated all of my posts. Please be sure to follow me over there (if you haven’t already).

I’ll see you soon!

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. . . and the Legacy of Tolkien

Tolkien

Tolkien’s legacy is something of a touchy issue among fantasy writers, especially Christian fantasy writers. There are some, I daresay, who would rather he’d never been born (or at least never written). There are others, more rational, who are grateful for what he did to start the genre, but consider his influence to have become akin to his own ‘Isildur’s Bane’ – a deadly, addictive force which twists everything into its own image. And there are still others who refuse to hear a word said against him.

You notice this debate doesn’t seem to touch Tolkien’s contemporary, C.S. Lewis. The difference between these two giants of early speculative fiction is obvious: Lewis was an allegorist, while Tolkien was a historian. The fact that Tolkien’s histories were invented makes him no less a historian– in his viewpoint, narrative structure, and choice of events to relate is a sense that he is preserving for future peoples and cultures these stories of their past. Lewis, on the other hand, is writing to both entertain the reader and expound upon his faith in a non-threatening but convicting manner.

While both may be admired by secular writers, Lewis is not usually emulated. Tolkien, on the other hand, has seen derivations, emulations and re-interpretations numbering in the thousands.

It may not have been Lewis’ goal to write for a Christian audience, but that is who reads most of his work. Tolkien’s work, though informed by his faith, is far more subtle in its employment of Christian ideology and symbolism. As such, it is easier to swallow and, shall we say, more acceptable to the secular mind.

Without Tolkien, fantasy as we know it would not exist. Even the simplest of fantasy tales (sword-and-sorcery) owe much of their conception to the quest to the destroy the Ring and the re-forging of Aragorn’s sword Narsil. To blame him for being an influence on the genre is akin to blaming Edison for influencing the construction of the modern lightbulb.

Equally irrational is the idea that he somehow ‘sold out’ to the secular culture to gain their approval. The fact is, if Christians had been as fast to become fans of his excellent work and set about to create art for the imitation and enhancement of his ideas, our speculative fiction would be as far ahead of the mainstream as the mainstream is now ahead of us. (This is a pattern in the church, starting with the persecution of Copernicus and Galileo in the middle ages; but that’s a whole different blog post)

As for those who idolize Tolkien– yes, he was a great man and a great writer. But is he really worth you devoting your life to? His work was groundbreaking, and that’s the key: the ground has been broken. Now go forward with your own inventions.

To touch a final point: as I said, to blame Tolkien for his influence on the genre is irrational. But that doesn’t justify those who feel they can imitate Tolkien and thus be ‘great writers’. To quote Timothy Zahn (yes, I use and/or misquote this quote a lot) “What you actually do with the idea is the truly important thing.” Tolkien’s ideas were great, but on their own they’re just ideas. It was what he chose to do with them that made him a great writer and the father of modern fantasy.

Don’t let Tolkien’s work define you; but don’t neglect it either. Learn to be original while drawing on the influence of those who came before.

What you do with your ideas is the truly important thing.

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Derivative Fantasy. . .

DerivFantasy

A lack of originality, as I have mentioned before, is a major problem within the fantasy genre. Even the most careful of authors can find themselves imitating major writers (such as Tolkien) in their cosmology and plot design. When attempting to avoid derivative fantasy, there seem to be three approaches writers take.

First, you have the writer who will not read anything related to what he or she wishes to write, so as to maintain their ideas in an ‘uncorrupted’ state. This writer can be quite interesting to deal with, as they may even be proud of not having read the latest, most popular, or most well-written works in their chosen sub-genre.

Secondly, you have the writer who really doesn’t care what their writing is like, how derivative their plot and characters are, or what common tropes they unconsciously use. This writer will gladly (and often casually) consume anything, whether it be related to the sub-genre they have chosen or not.

Finally, you have the writer who has studied tropes and their applications, has read and re-read and re-read books in their chosen sub-genre, and is working to either subvert every trope they possibly can or to avoid the same. This writer will bore you to death with talk of their favorite and least favorite tropes, how they’re working around them, and why their approach is ‘the best way’ to write.

The first approach, though it may seem logical at first glance, is crippling to the writer. Imagine if you decided to write a children’s picture book, but had never read one. What do you think the quality of your work would be? In the same way, to attempt to write epic fantasy and yet have never read anything within the genre is to commit professional suicide. You may end up with an epic-length work, and it may even be readable, but it will certainly not be epic fantasy.

At the same time, while you may certainly have avoided direct ‘corruption’ of your ideas, what you write will still be shaped by what you have read. In this case, that shaping will be effected by everything other than that which you are attempting to create.

The second approach is problematic not only because of the way in which the writer is consuming anything and everything that suits that fancy, but the lackadaisical approach to writing itself. I can honestly say I don’t have any friends who think like this, but I do know of people whose attitude toward the craft is well summarized by the idea “I’ll just write whatever and see how it turns out.” These are not the people you will be seeing at future writing awards ceremonies, even if they do manage to get published.

The third approach is an example of overthinking. By learning ‘everything there is to know’ about the genre in which you’ll be writing, then proceeding to apply every little detail, you’ve effectively robbed yourself of the joy of writing new things, discovering new worlds, and building deep characters. Everything has become formulaic and constrained; and if you don’t already hate your writing, you will eventually.

Fortunately, I haven’t met many writers who veer to one of these extremes to the exclusion of the others (I like to think those writers got weeded out when God handed out the giftings). The balance between all of these, I think, comes when you realize you can’t escape from the influence of those who came before you; but neither should that influence become the defining facet of your work. So you go forward by learning all you can from those who came before you, but you balance all you learn with your own innovations and your unique style of writing.

Balance the impulse to derive and the impulse to create everything from scratch, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a great writer.

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The Pursuit of Perfection

Perfection has become such an ideal in our culture. It’s not usually stated outright (aside from ‘Oh, he’s the perfect guy’ or ‘She’s the perfect girl’), but the thought is that perfection is something, not just to aim for, but to actually be attained. Whether in one’s life goals, or in a significant other; in the car you drive, the house you live in, the job you hold; they have to ‘perfect.’

But what is perfection, anyway? Is it a set of ideals we arbitrarily impose? Or does an actual standard for perfection exist, somewhere out there in the universe? I think this is not the question we should be asking at the moment. I think the real question is why have we made perfection and the pursuit thereof into a god?

Because let’s face it, what’s the most important thing in a significant other? Perfection, of course. Just look at all those romantic movies and animated features touting the two characters who find their ‘perfect match!’ After all, we all know that Hollywood is the best model for real life.

Sarcasm aside, this is a very dangerous assumption. No one is perfect. No one can even come close to attaining perfection, this side of Heaven. And while we’re on the topic, why do you expect perfection from someone when you yourself are far from it? (I’m looking at you, fellow young men). This is the slippery slope of ridiculous expectations. Rather than expecting perfection from the subject of your romantic interest, why not try to be perfect for them? I promise you, a relationship formed on the basis of a mutual effort toward becoming the best help-mate you can will be far more fulfilling than a relationship formed on the basis of a flawed assumption that “He/She is perfect for me!”

Am I making sense? I hope so, because now I’ll go back to talking about what I’m supposed to be talking about: writing. Namely, the pursuit of perfection in writing. And yes, now I’m looking at all my writing friends.

Let’s talk about your latest work in progress. How’s it coming? Are you close to being finished? Have you even made any progress lately? If you haven’t, maybe it’s time to ask yourself another question:

Am I expecting too much?”

Think about that for a second. Then ask yourself why you’re writing in the first place. Is it to have fun? Is it to share your ideas, work through your struggles, pose yourself difficult questions? Or is it maybe because you just want to make money? (If that’s the case, you better find yourself a different career. We don’t make money like you’re thinking.)

If you’re in this because you love it, because you honestly can’t imagine doing anything else with your life (because this is your life) and you want to touch people with your writing… you get the idea… then are you expecting too much from yourself?

I’m not necessarily saying to lower your expectations or reduce your goals. Having a high expectation for your writing, and holding it to that, is laudable. But sometimes we creative types go too far, and when we can’t get it ‘perfect’, we give up; or worse, get stuck in the groundhog day of endless revising. I should clarify that I’m not talking about spelling and grammar here– IMO you have to get those right, no question about it– but about concerns of style, plot, characterization, etc.

How far do we have to go before we stop and realize this is absolutely bonkers? Perfect writing, perfectly written books, never touched anyone. It’s the flaws in our writing, the emotions that seep through onto the page, that character we never felt was quite ‘perfect’ but is so believable anyway; these things that connect us with our audience.

Quite honestly, if there aren’t some people who dislike your writing (or plot, or characters), then you haven’t written a ‘perfect’ book; you’ve written a perfectly saccharine book. There’s nothing to dislike about it because there’s nothing to like about it. It arouses no emotions, stimulates no thought, and asks no questions. Do you want that?

I’ve never read a ‘perfect’ story. Nor have I written one. And I hope I never do.

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Supervillain Awareness Day

Today is Supervillain Awareness Day, so I would like to take a moment and pay thanks to someone whose efforts to educate people about the dangers of supervillainy are unparalleled– my friend and fellow writer, Katie Lynn Daniels.

Katie has been chronicling the exploits of supervillain hunter Jeffry Floyd for several years now (ever since the Galactic Alliance sent him, more or less against his will, to be the ‘Defender of Earth’) and has now completed six books worth of his life and adventures, with more to follow. Floyd’s campaign against supervillainy should be an encouragement to all of us who are currently suffering from the depredations of supervillains, as well as a call to arms.

To learn more about how you can help the fight against supervillainy, do the following:

Check out supervillainoftheday.com, where you can find out about the series and read articles Floyd has written on how to deal with supervillains.

Like Supervillain of the Day on Facebook.

Follow @SupervillainOTD and @JeffryFloyd on Twitter for news and updates.

Pick up the entire series on Kindle for free, today and tomorrow only!

– – – –

Okay, that’s it for the in-universe plug. In all seriousness, Katie is a great writer who’s got a lot of potential. And seeing how the books are free right now… well, really, what do you have to lose? You may actually have a new favorite series to gain!

 

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The Case for a New Frontier

New Frontiers

I know I said I was going to wrap up my little series on writing Christian science fiction this week, but I forgot to polish the last post until too late. This was faster and easier to do, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now.

I should state that this is a controversial topic in the Christian community– at least to those who have paid it more than passing thought– and my stance on it even more so. Consider yourself warned.

Space exploration, for the larger part of the Cold War, was an essential part of the defense program here in the United States. The eventual goal was to build up such superiority in space travel and related technology that the Soviets would be unable to (among other things) build a base on the moon or rain nuclear missiles upon us from the safety of orbit. It may sound a bit ridiculous now, but these were considered legitimate fears which justified the expenditure of more than two hundred billion dollars (2007 value) for the development of spacefaring technology.

In the intervening years, spending on space exploration and researched has remained around or below 1% of the Federal budget, as opposed to the average of 2.5% during the peak ten years of the Space Race. Increasingly, private companies are entering the realm of space exploration and research as NASA continues to reduce its operating capacity and cut back on programs. Personally, I happen to think this is a good thing, but that’s not the point of this post.

The prevailing attitude among most of the Christians I know personally– again, if they have thought of it at all– is that space is not worth spending money on. “There are better things for us to do with our finances,” the argument goes.

The truth as I see it is that we’ve given over one of the largest, most fascinating, and most potential-laden fields in modern science over to the atheists and made up some comforting platitudes to cover our foolishness. This could result in part from the fact that atheistic scientists have made it their goal to make space exploration ‘their’ field. “After all,” they might say, “those Christians don’t even believe in extraterrestrial life. And that’s what space exploration is about, isn’t it?” Even worse, I’ve met some Christians who agree with them.

Let me put forth a shocking idea: Space exploration is not primarily about finding extraterrestrial life. In fact, space exploration should be about discovering how the universe works– what makes the cosmos tick– and appreciating the grandeur of God’s creation. So with that formerly comforting justification on the garbage pile, let’s move on.

What about the all poor people in the world?” is one I have heard very often. Jesus himself said: “The poor you will always have with you….” No matter what we do, there will still be disadvantaged people in the world. It’s a side effect of sin and the fall. Should we do what we can to combat poverty? Certainly. Is it the end goal of being a Christian? Not so much. Our end goal is to spread God’s word and demonstrate the truth thereof. How can we demonstrate that truth if we don’t make the effort to show the marks of God’s workmanship on the cosmos?

This brings me to the most important of our excuses: That our money should be spent fulfilling the Great Commission. On this point, I have no argument. But I would like to point out that as I just said, spreading God’s word isn’t always enough; we need to demonstrate the truth of it and his existence. And what better way to do that than by learning everything we can about the most awesome and awe-inspiring part of his creation: the universe in which we live?

These are important arguments to get out of the way before I broach what I consider to be the most important result of our involvement in space exploration and study: the expansion and maintenance of a new frontier. And yes, by that I mean planetary colonization.

Christian scientists have been at the forefront of most new frontiers in science, and this frontier should be no different. But space is not merely a scientific frontier; it is also a physical frontier. Without a frontier or frontiers, civilizations quickly grow narcissistic, stagnate, and die. Look, for example, at some historical empires. The Greeks were divided by infighting and eventually pulled back into themselves, becoming obsessed with mental disciplines. The Romans conquered the known world, then settled back to relax and celebrate. A few hundred years later, their empire had vanished. The Japanese closed themselves off from the outside world and became an anachronistic culture, stuck perpetually in the medieval ages. China had an impressive technological and scientific culture, but with the advent of religions, such as Confucianism, which focused on the past; they allowed their scientific abilities to atrophy and closed themselves off from the world. This pattern is repeated through history.

Western civilization is currently on the verge of a slow collapse. Much of the problem is, of course, the degeneration of morals and loss of our Christian roots; but there is also the loss of any notable frontier. For much of American history, we have had frontiers of one kind or another to conquer; most of them located in our backyard, so to speak.

The conquest of a frontier forces a given civilization to expend resources on new development, forces the people thereof to become more innovative, and drives commerce and creativity. Without a frontier that can capture the public’s imagination, we will become an increasingly narcissistic society; a society of consumers who do not create. Clearly, this is not in our best interest.

The increase in narcissism will not be limited to unbelievers. The Christian church is already becoming wrapped up in itself. Men build little kingdoms of their own in churches or parishes and focus on their own (often material) gain as opposed to increasing God’s kingdom. While I don’t believe opening a new frontier will cure that, by any means, it will provide an outlet for Christians who don’t want to live ‘life as usual’ any more, but want to go where no witness has gone before.

We have explored most of our world to its farthest reaches. Now the time has come to turn our attention to the rest of the universe. There is so much out there we have not seen and have yet to understand– how can we be content to sit here on our comfortable blue marble and stagnate? We should not be.

God’s creation is waiting to be witnessed and used for his glory. What will you do?

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Common Science Fiction Technologies and their Implementation

Common Technology

Part Two of my Christian Sci-Fi Writing Primer. Have you read Part One?

This is a good time to discuss common science fiction technologies and the reasons they work. Don’t worry, I’ll keep the advanced physics to a minimum.

Faster than Light Travel (FTL)

A mainstay of much sci-fi, FTL is necessary due to the extreme distances involved in space travel. Though Einstein’s general theory of relativity does not allow for FTL travel within our universe, it has come to be a mainstay of science fiction. There are several accepted (i.e. commonly used) methods of achieving FTL travel.

Hyperspatial travel is based on either the multi-dimensional or multiversal theories of existence. Essentially, hyperspatial travel is achieved by moving the spacecraft to another dimension or parallel universe where the rules of physics as we know them no longer apply. In that other plane of existence, the spacecraft can go as fast as you want.

Wormhole travel presupposes that wormholes do, in fact, form an Einstein-Rosen bridge (a link between two distant points of spacetime) and that starships can survive a trip through a wormhole. This method adds interesting limits to the range and availability of FTL travel. Unless, that is, your civilization has the ability to create artificial wormholes a la Stargate.

Warp travel is based on the idea that spacetime can be manipulated, given a large enough power source. The essence of warp theory is that if space behind a ship is expanded while the space ahead of a ship is contracted, the ship will move without actually moving. Since spacetime, not the ship, is the thing moving, the ship could theoretically surpass the speed of light.

Time Travel

Time travel is considerably more difficult to justify than FTL travel, but that doesn’t stop authors from using it. While there are two theories which could possibly yield results, both relying on the creation of closed loops in time, there don’t seem to be any well-known or commonly accepted methods for time travel. (In my opinion, if you must have time travel, the safest route is to mostly ignore the mechanism whereby it is accomplished. Provide no details, and no one can say you were wrong.)

There are two schools of thought concerning time travel: the deterministic and the quantum mechanical. The deterministic school holds that even while traveling into the past, any changes you make have already happened. In essence, history cannot be changed by interference of any kind. On the other hand, the quantum mechanical school holds that history can be changed, often drastically, by even the smallest interference in the past.

These are obviously two extremes; most time travel in fiction falls somewhere between them in terms of what can and cannot affect history.

Shields

Shields are common to most space-travel science fiction, and serve all kinds of different purposes. Most shields are essentially curtains of energy which somehow reflect or absorb or otherwise neutralize weapons fire; in addition to containing atmosphere, keeping people in cells, or holding ships together.

Our modern understanding of physics doesn’t necessarily allow for shields along the lines of the ones featured in Star Trek or Star Wars (i.e. a simple curtain of energy), but something along those lines could possibly be developed. For instance, a curtain of energy projected and maintained by a series of units along a ship’s hull (or around the perimeter of a military base) could certainly provide a measure of defense against projectile weapons. At the same time, though, unless the field were operating on the same wavelength as an energy weapon directed at it, it would not serve to protect against energy weapons. For that, you would need an energy-absorbent, energy-diffusing, or energy-reflecting mesh (often created using nanoparticles of some kind).

Focused Energy Weapons

A staple of ship-to-ship warfare in sci-fi, focused energy weapons (whether called lasers, phasers, particle beams, or what have you) are in fact feasible. Lasers capable of cutting through metal and diamond have been built in laboratories here on Earth and are employed in various commercial applications.

All lasers function by sending a beam of light through an ‘active medium’ (which restricts the wavelength of the light), then focusing it by bouncing it back and forth between two mirrors, one of which is only partially reflective. Once the beam of light gathers enough energy, it can exit the partially reflective mirror.

The most important basics to remember with lasers are that in space, they don’t make any noise; they can be pulsed or continuous (but continuous lasers tend to be more efficient in terms of energy consumption); and they do require an enormous amount of power, so be sure to provide for that in the design of your ships.

Teleportation

Another staple of science fiction is the ability to move near-instantaneously between two points. Whether this is accomplished by transforming a person’s atoms into light and then re-encoding them as matter, by creating an artificial wormhole, or any other method; it is theoretically possible. A sufficiently large energy source coupled with an transmission system of incredible accuracy is necessary to pull it off accurately, though.

 

Those are the most important and ubiquitous technologies I can think of. There are, of course, others which are more obscure and I’m sure there are some you can dream up which haven’t been used yet. In the end, like everything else, the technology becomes yours; as an integral part of your writing, you should own it.

 

Remember to come back next week for Part Three of this series: Common Spiritual Pitfalls

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