Science Fiction by C. S. Lewis

What do you think that Science Fiction should do?  Should it give you a flavour of strange worlds, warn you of possible futures or be a fantastic setting for exciting and risky adventures? Is it about the future on earth, about space travel to distant planets or about completely ‘other’ civilisations and ways of existence? Dune, Star Trek or Hunger Games?

I used to read a lot of Science Fiction, when I was a teenager. There aren’t many that I can remember now, but the ‘Cosmic Trilogy’ by C. S. Lewis has stayed in my memory:  the images, the plots, the characters but most of all the overwhelming, coherent and glorious beauty of the worlds that he imagined.

The books are Christian in theme. They are about temptation, the rise of evil, the misuse of power, and in places they rise to awe-filled, numinous spirituality. However, I’m not going to give a full review of the three books. Instead I will talk about the images that have stayed with me for many many years, ever since I first read them. So, there are some plot spoilers!

Perelandra:  this is the second in the trilogy but the first one I read. Venus: the colours, the scents, the turbulent floating islands on wild and dangerous seas, the bubble trees, the innocence.  And then the creepy ‘Un-man’ with his long metallic nails, his cruelty, and the ominous battle of minds between him and the piebald man. The moment when the hero sees a terrifying, nauseating insect-like creature as it really is – simply another animal, different to him but not a horror.

Out of the Silent Planet:  the first in the trilogy. Traditional sci-fi:  men visit Mars and find strange creatures, other civilisations, canyons and mountains, clouds made of stone like gigantic pink cauliflowers. The tall feathery sorns, the gentle hrossi, the frog-like but creative pfifltriggi and the battle between the good man and the evil invaders with guns who are there to exploit and kill.

That Hideous Strength: the final one. Set on earth, and staring a decapitated but alive criminal’s head, Mr Bultitude the bear, Merlin, a wife called Jane (irritatingly, she is intelligent but is idle – a 1950s housewife, but you have to remember when it was written) and a foolish young man who is seduced into joining an ‘inner circle’ at a college and drawn into a very dark and demonic plot. This book is my favourite. The funny but at the same time disturbing scene at the meal when the gift of speech is withdrawn and sentences are corrupted into babel. The young man who realises, when lured by the crooked and perverse, that there is such a thing as straightness, as normality, as truth. The robing of the women at the end: the hint that there is, perhaps, somewhere, for us, the court dress that is made for each one of us, which is ours alone, made to show our glory.

Read ‘Perelandra’ if you love beauty.  Read ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ if you love adventure. Read ‘That Hideous Strength’ if you love the battle between good and evil.

perelandra2

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How many people have you killed?

At the last count I have murdered at least 19 people. By the end of the year I hope to have got rid of a few more.  In addition I have countenanced – even encouraged – imprisonment, torture, rape, and an infinite living entombment for a young girl. This is the author as a serial killer…

Of course, that is one of the problems with writing fantasy. There will be battles, conflict, death. It might be that this shows an unhealthy and morbid obsession with violence. However, at least I’m not as bad as Game of Thrones. According to the internet the body count for Season 6 is 540.  Five hundred and forty! I can’t believe they are all named characters. No-one can possibly think of that many names….

But at least the deaths in my fiction are meaningful.  They are necessary to the plot and are either well-deserved, or some good comes out of them. Worse, by a million miles, are the deaths in real-life that are meaningless. The father with cancer that is missed by a doctor, the cyclist run over, the child dying because of some trivial household accident. These are harder to deal with.

Even worse is to realise that I cause some of these meaningless deaths. When I reduce my donations to Oxfam someone will die. When I decide to buy a new dress rather than a mosquito net someone will die. When I ignore the ActionAid ‘click-bait’ on facebook someone will die. When I eat steak every month someone will die. I cause death – for real – by the consequences of my actions, and by money spent or not spent.  So I am a killer… As we all are. All we can do is think about what we give and spend, try to help more people than we hurt, and pray to be forgiven.

And I’ll finish with a quote, though I’m not sure where it came from: “Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly. And leave the rest to God.”

cathy as serial killer

 

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St. Paul: maligned but marvellous

Review of ‘Paul:  A Biography’ by Tom Wright.

This is not strictly Christian Fiction, since it is a biography. But the book is so good, I want to tell everyone about it!

Paul, it seems to me, gets a bad press. Pernickety people focus on single verses, taken out of context and don’t see the whole man. He wrote the first statement of complete equality in all – all! – world literature: Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

When we work for justice, when we get free education, a free health service, when we aim for equality of opportunity, when charities fight for help for the poor and disadvantaged:  that is Paul’s legacy to us. A legacy of an immense love.

This biography is a fascinating and emotional read of the life of a complex, unique and amazing man. Don’t be put off by the severity of the cover image! Or the cost or number of pages. Hopefully a paperback version will come out soon.

It gives moving and honest insights into Paul: what drove him, what his legacy is, why he succeeded, where his faith and energy came from. It made me admire and love Paul. I had already read, many times, his letters and Acts, and Philippians – with its constant refrain of ‘joy’ – is one of my favourite books in the Bible.  But this book expanded my knowledge and my desire to read more.

It’s worth a second reading. I read it quickly, but I will read in again in depth, looking at the relevant Acts chapters and letters in parallel, to take it in.

Paul

 

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A rose by any other name: what to call your characters

Here’s an interesting thing: accordion to experts, it is easy to insert a musical instrument unnoticed into a sentence.

What’s this got to do with names?  Especially choosing the names for your characters? The connection is about how people read.  A study showed that people can easily read a setnnece even with long compilcated words that are misplet, provided that the start and end letters are the same, and that the word is an anagram.  As this sentence proves.

A similar thing happens with character names. Readers frequently note the first letter of the character’s name, and that is what they look for and register.

Hence, my first rule of naming a character:-

Rule one: As far as possible, ensure all your character’s names start with a different letter. For example:  in ‘Angels and Men’ by Catherine Fox her protagonist is called Mara, who befriends two key characters, May and Maddy. Within a page I was confused, and by two pages Maddy and May were indistinguishable. My mother told me of a novel with two key characters called Stella and Sheila. She found it very irritating – until there was a plot twist when the name ‘Sheila’ on a legal document was changed, with a few strokes of a pen, to ‘Stella’, which made it excusable. However, rule one still – mostly – stands.  And don’t even think about using the same name unless you are Hilary Mantel writing Wolf Hall.

Below are my rules for invented names for fantasy and science.

Rule two:  don’t have puns or hidden meanings. Someone else has already blogged about how annoying it is to have a heroine called Bella Swan. I had a hero that I wanted to call Fienar – basing it on the Norse Einar, meaning one who fights alone. This seemed to fit. But it was strongly objected too, by the awesome Beck Hemsley (creator of the original plot), on the basis that it sounded like a ‘made up hero’s name’ and hence was a bit too obvious.

Rule three:  have some sort of consistency. Think of the backstory, of the races involved, and aim for characters from the same race/country to have the same sort of feel in their names.  Don’t have Yorvund in the same family as Ming and Felicipe. Lord of the Rings is the prime example of how to get consistent names.

Rule four: a good trick is to make names a little bit familiar by changing one or two letters of common names e.g. in Game of Thrones:  Eddard, Joffrey, Petyr, Jaime.

And finally, the most important and also the hardest rule:-

Rule five:  make sure your character’s name fits them. Don’t have a hero called Fred. Don’t have a beautiful woman called Belle, unless you are Terry Prachett creating an anti-heroine called Adora Belle Dearheart.  Don’t have a bossy woman called Felicity, or a strong man called Percy.

Be aware that people may laugh at your name. I had a character called Persulta. I’d already broken rule two:  her name was a combination of ‘pursuit’ and ‘sultana’. My writing buddy said ‘it sounds like a nasty disease or something – I’ve got a terrible persulta on my pudenda’ and burst into laughter. I changed the name fairly rapidly. In ‘Bored of the Rings’ Bilbo becomes Dildo, Aragon becomes Arrowroot and Eowyn is Earache!

However, don’t take these rules too seriously.  And finally, did you spot the musical instrument? If not – accordion!

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Angels and Passion from Catherine Fox

Two excellent British Christian novels from Catherine Fox.

Angels and Men – moving, dramatic, heart-burningly sad at times. Sparky characters, witty dialogue. Despite the title, there are few angels and it certainly isn’t a slushy, ‘everyone prays and gets converted’ novel, but is far more complex, insightful and serious. The protagonist, Mara, is a deeply conflicted woman, trying to overcome the hurts of her past, including losing her twin sister to a twisted Christian cult. At university, studying ‘Women and Religious Fanaticism’ and trying to avoid connections in order to protect herself from further pain, she is forced into the world, into friendship, and into real life. The novel is about her learning that relationships are worth the risk.

The Benefits of Passion – hugely funny. Its ‘novel within a novel’ format is clever and you get two brilliant stories for the price of one. Annie Brown is at a college in a northern university town and training for the priesthood, while battling the conflict between her libido, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the college, the flaws and frustrations of her fellow students, and her own doubts about herself. She starts to write a ‘rather warm’ novel, but her passionate nature will not be that easily supressed. Then she meets Will, nicknamed ‘Dr Sex’… This sounds rather ‘Mills and Boon’ but, believe me, it isn’t. Clever, witty, and happy.

Catherine Fox writes vivid characters, with complex and intriguing plots. They are definitely not ‘frothy’ reads:  the books are long, deep, complex and thoughtful; with a Christian ethos and worldview.  Both are set in a northern university town, recognisable as Durham, with a strong sense of place.  Read them if you like novels set in the here and now about real people with real problems, if you like Joanne Trollope (but Catherine Fox is much better, imo!), A. S. Byatt, Kate Atkinson’s early novels, Pam Rhodes, Maeve Binchy.

I also highly recommend her autobiography, ‘Fight the Good Fight – from Vicar’s Wife to Killing Machine’ – the title says it all. Great stuff!

catherine fox

 

 

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Love in the time of the crucifixion: Pilate’s Daughter by Fiona Veitch Smith

This is an accomplished historical novel, set in 28AD onwards, which concentrates on the secondary characters in the gospels:  Herod, Pilate, Jairus,  Barabbas, Malchus,  but mainly on Pilate’s wife, and her (fictional) daughter. It is a moving, dramatic love story with lots of narrow escapes, adventure and romance, and with atmospheric descriptions of life in Jerusalem, Caesarea, Tiberias. The novel has a strong sense of being well-researched and accurate, it also has a major twist that I didn’t see coming at all – well done, Fiona!

There aren’t many (that I know of) historical novels covering the crucifixion, although there are many reconstructions and discussions and books about it. One of my favourite non-fiction books is ‘Who Moved the Stone’ by Frank Morison, and Fiona’s novel seemed to go well with that. I wonder if she’d read that book too? Probably!

In summary, I enjoyed reading the novel, it was an easy and well-written read, and I recommend it especially if you love historical novels, if you want to get the feel of life in Israel and Jerusalem, if you’d like to get a different angle on the gospel accounts and if you’d like a bit more background to what happened during the last year or so of Jesus Christ’s life, and what might have happened to some of the people involved.

Fiona Veitch Smith is the author of a series of crime novels set in 1920s London called ‘Poppy Denby Investigates’ – read them too if you like mystery and detective novels.

 

pilates daughter

 A small discussion on the side…

The only part that I didn’t enjoy, that troubled me, was a section about Pilate’s wife’s devotion to the cult of Mithras. I didn’t know that Mithras was (reputedly) born of a virgin, that his followers were baptised, that they ate bread and wine as symbols of his body and blood, that he was known as the light of the world, that he was born on the 25th December. It made me think – did the gospel writers and Saint Paul take elements of Mithraism and add them to the story of Jesus? But further thought made me realise that they were proclaiming an executed God, a boundless love, a free forgiveness and an empty tomb, and that they gave their lives for that belief. Why should they have added something that they knew to be a lie? And there are also huge differences between Mithras and Jesus Christ. Mithraism (and other myths about dying and resurrected gods) is, perhaps, one of the ‘good dreams’ that C. S Lewis talks about in Mere Christianity. But the question remains: why the similarity?  I don’t know.  A challenging subject for discussion, and sadly one that the author was not able to cover. But then, why did she include this section?

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Fountain pen, biro, typewriter or computer?

Quick survey:  Do you write with a fountain pen, a biro, a typewriter or directly into a computer?  Or do you use slate and slate pencil, stone and chisel, paint and papyrus, pencil and paper?

Moleskine notebooks or 50p exercise books from Asda?

And which do you think is best?

Some people think that the physical act of writing onto paper improves the quality of their prose. Others find that the words flow so fast (when they are in the creative zone) that touch-typing is the only way to get them down. One writer I know carries a cheap exercise book around – the advantage is that it rolls up small, can fit into a jacket pocket, and so he can take it with him anywhere and write whenever he has inspiration or the time. Someone else uses those little index cards, in their pocket or bag, to jot things down. I’ve had lots of brilliant lines or superb ideas that have been lost for want of something to write them down. Memory just isn’t that reliable! Especially when you wake at 3am, think of something, and are sure you’ll remember it in the morning.

As part of a personal drive to reduce my use of plastic, I’ve reverted to a fountain pen – sometimes. Of course, I still use plastic (those little torpedo-shaped refills) but now I feel virtuous as well as inspired when I write, even if it’s drivel.

Awe-inspiring to think that the greats; Austen, Bronte, Dickens, Richardson, Trollop; wrote directly onto paper and if they had to change something, everything had to be re-written by hand. And then copied out ‘fair’ before posting to a publisher.

One of the saddest writing story I know is that of Jilly Cooper whose hand-written (presumably, or typed) manuscript for ‘Riders’ was left on a bus and lost. It was ten years before she could bear to start rewriting it. No backups to Google Drive or Dropbox in those days.

 

 

 

 

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