Monthly Archives: August 2014

Dark Fantasy, Dystopia, Optimism, and Generational Shifts

villainFor some time now — although I believe (and hope) that the trend is reversing — science fiction and fantasy storytelling have trended towards darkness. Dystopia, post-apocalyptic visions, and fantasy featuring anti-heroes and non-heroes have predominated. These stories run the gamut in terms of subject matter and science fictional or fantasy elements, but all of them have something in common, and that’s the fact that no characters are to be wholly admired. That’s especially true if the character is an authority figure or someone who, in conventional thinking, is supposed to be admirable. Another common element is that pessimism is universal and optimism decried. A vision of the future must be bleak, with matters getting steadily worse, and any progress made either illusory or a temporary reprieve of the overall slide into awfulness. This is regarded as “realism” (never mind that, in view of actual history, it is completely counter-factual).

Dark fiction features no sharp moral lines. There are no good guys and either there are no bad guys or everyone is a bad guy. The best such stories have protagonists who at least have some redeeming features, but we are offered no one who could serve as a role model, no one whom we can admire without reservation, or only with the reservation that everyone has at least some flaws. There can be (and usually are) double-died villains, but the “heroes” must be no better, or only marginally better, so that the reader is inclined to say, “They’re awful, but the alternative is even worse.” This is fiction for cynics, for those who have believed in someone or something in the past, been disillusioned, and reached a determination never to get fooled again.

And in so doing, they fool themselves. But never mind that; fiction isn’t necessarily supposed to reflect the real world. But it does give us what we imagine that we want.

If I were to define “dark fiction,” I would say that it is fiction characterized by three essential characteristics:

1. Pessimism. The world inhabited by the characters in a dark story (whether fantasy or non-fantasy) is one that is bad and likely to get worse. Whatever social problems characterize it — income gaps and class differences, corrupt government, racism, environmental callousness, declining liberty, whatever — they cannot be solved and they’re going to get worse in the future, or at least never get better. The characters’ own personal problems may be solvable (although at least in part they’ll be just as intractable), but the world is plain screwed.

2. A dearth of heroes. The characters in a dark story aren’t just flawed (all good characters in any fiction have flaws), but they’re so flawed that we can’t admire them much, even when we identify with them. If the Star Wars story were rewritten as dark fantasy, Yoda and Obi-Wan would be revealed as opportunistic posers, self-seeking con artists, or self-righteous and judgmental pricks, as bad as the Emperor and Darth Vader (or at least nearly so). Dark fiction can have completely villainous and evil characters (although it need not do so and the best examples arguably don’t), but it can never have characters that the reader wants to admire, emulate, and feel confident about. Nobody wears a white hat. The protagonists are, at best, clad in gray.

3. Moral ambiguity. This may need some explanation, because moral ambiguity can take a number of forms and not all of these are properly considered “dark.” Confusion about the right action to take, or moral convictions on the part of characters that reflect poor vision and understanding or dogmatic thinking, are not in themselves “dark” qualities. The type of moral ambiguity that characterizes dark fiction is not just moral uncertainty on the part of the characters, but a situation in which there really is no clear moral difference between choices, so that characters can act on selfish and self-centered impulses without remorse, and never end up feeling good about themselves, no matter what they do.

I tend not to write dark fantasy at all, and although I have put out one dark science fiction novella (Robin), it’s not my preference. Dystopia serves a purpose in that it highlights a danger that may be arising and so gives us an opportunity to prevent it from happening, but there’s a difference between a story that says, “Watch out, we’re in danger of something bad happening if we don’t reverse course,” and one that says, “We’re just plain fucked and all we can do is survive.” There’s a difference between stories with realistic characters suffering from the usual array of human flaws, and one in which nobody is admirable at all. There’s a difference between stories in which the protagonists are faced with difficult moral choices calling for sacrifice on their part, and stories in which they are never called upon to do the right thing, because there is no right thing. I can enjoy a story like that once in a blue moon, but it will never make my favorites list. In this, I differ from some other readers, particularly those somewhat — but not too much — younger than myself.

What’s occurred to me recently is that the trend toward and away from dark fantasy may be driven by generations. Specifically, the rise in dark fantasy’s popularity is driven by Generation X, and the decline in dark fiction recently (as one can see from a perusal of the Amazon Kindle Store’s fantasy and science fiction best sellers, most of which are at this point not dark) to the maturation into their main reading years of the Millennial generation. Earlier periods in which dark fiction rose to prominence and then declined (because the current phenomenon is certainly not the first time it’s happened) were, I believe, possibly driven by the emergence of previous Reactive generations followed by Civic generations (according to the generational cycle theory presented by the late William Strauss and Neil Howe in their books GenerationsThe Fourth Turning13th Gen, and Millennials Rising).

My personal experience as an author reflects this. I’ve received my worst reviews from Xers and my best ones from Millennials. (As noted, most of my writing is distinctly non-dark.) Mostly, when I’m taken to task in a really serious way, and always when it’s in a way that annoys me, it’s because my writing is distinctly non-dark. There’s plenty of conflict, but it’s optimistic. The protagonists in my stories, at least some of them, are genuine heroes, people the reader is expected to admire and look up to. And moral choices are often clear. One person recently expressed a “sinking feeling” that the Andol (the “good guy” aliens in my Refuge series) won’t be revealed as secretly nasty and evil in future books. Now, I’m not going to give spoilers, so I won’t say whether he’s factually right about that, but I will say that if this causes a “sinking feeling,” then perhaps he’s not really in my target audience.

This sort of critique, in which I’m taken to task for writing stories that are exactly what I intended to write, infuriates me. I don’t mind legitimate criticism, and Gods know my work is not without flaws. I have written stories with too many characters that confused the reader. My dialogue, although I think it’s generally good, sometimes drifts away from believable speech into dissertations. I have trouble depicting romantic relationships that are deep and credible. I know all of this and deeply appreciate any critical help in improving all of these and other genuine problems in my writing, because that will help me to make it better — and I want to be the best I can.

But that my fiction isn’t dark fiction is not a flaw. When someone tells me that I need to write dark fiction as if that were the only kind of fiction that is any good, my answer is to simply say, “No. I won’t. I don’t want to, and I don’t have to, and that’s that.” If that means I’m writing for Millennials more than for Xers — so be it.

Now, I’m not saying that anyone who likes dark fantasy or any other dark fiction should’t read that stuff, or that people who want to write it shouldn’t be writing it. I’m against arbitrary limits on the arts — that’s the main point of this post, after all.

I’m just saying that we shouldn’t see darkness as synonymous with quality. And that consequently, the decline in the dark fantasy fad is a good thing.

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Book Review: Beastheads by Mike Reeves-McMillan

mrm-beastheads-eBookCoverGenre: Fantasy/Steampunk

Blurb: When the old shaman took Berry away from her home and family, she expected to become a shaman in turn. But after her oath shatters, she finds a new place as a Gryphon Clerk, helping negotiate a treaty with the beasthead people.
A beasthead shaman stands against her, fearing the loss of his people’s way of life and the corruption of their youth. As the Human Purity movement gains power in a nearby realm, though, the beasthead and the clerk must find a way through their differences before war destroys everything they value.

The author calls Beastheads Volume 0 in his Gryphon Clerks series. Other books in the series include Realmgolds, Hope and the Clever Man, and Hope and the Patient Man. All these stories are set in a fantasy world where human slaves rebelled against a tyrannical elvish empire in the past, and today the human nations live with the cultural and magical residue left behind by the elves. As with other stories in the series, Beastheads addresses a theme of racial bias and intolerance, as well as the tension between progress and conservatism.

A disclaimer before proceeding: I was a beta reader for Beastheads and know Mike Reeves-McMillan via social media. He also beta reads for me.

As with all of Mike’s work, Beastheads is strongly character driven. The plot grows organically from the interaction of the characters like vines twisting about one another as they emerge from the soil. In Beastheads, the twisting vines include Berry’s shamanic destiny, interrupted and sidelined into the Gryphon Clerks; Breeze and Wave, each with an animal soul merged into a human body, but different animals (wolf and seal, respectively), their love seen as odd from the outside for this reason; Rain, orphaned and struggling to survive her childhood on the gang-dominated streets; Stone, gay in a sharply homophobic world; Grass Badger, irritated and irritating cattlehead shaman who fears any and all change; in each case a note struck of difference, alienation, difficulty fitting in. The beastheads themselves, who are the result of a weird elven experiment (humans with cattle, dog, or cat heads and some characteristics from the animals) sound the same note on a larger scale.

The team of misfit Gryphon Clerks is sent to negotiate a treaty with the beastheads, and must deal with their suspicions of outsiders and, eventually, the outside world’s suspicions of them, as well as its exploitation of their weaknesses. So many harmonic notes are sounded regarding the interaction of the alien that the end result is almost symphonic, and it is this rather than any conventional plotting lines that make Beastheads the story that it is. The conflict between Berry and Grass Badger, which encompasses her failed apprenticeship as well as his resistance to anything threatening to change the beasthead way of life, is particularly poignant.

For above-average writing and superb character development, along with detailed exploration of the theme of racism and intolerance in a fantasy setting, I’ll give this book four stars. The plotting and story line could have been tighter and more gripping, hence the lack of the fifth star. Beastheads is still well worth taking a look in my opinion.

Beastheads is available from Amazon Kindle Store for $2.99.

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Christianity Versus Jesus

24252623_sEvery religion emerges from two distinct and conflicting motivations: love and power. Love (and enlightenment, from which spiritual love arises) is, in my view, the legitimate element in religion. It’s the genuinely spiritual element. In service to it, a person approaches union and communion with God/the Cosmos, and through Its influence and the revelations that this union and communion bring, love grows ever stronger and spreads to embrace ever more of creation.

But because people understand these things only dimly at best — because people want guidance from a parent figure in these matters that are so inherently confusing — because that powerful motivation combined with that poor understanding creates an opportunity for those who wish to rule — religion is also about power, and has been since the first organized religion arose at the dawn of civilization. And so the two exist side by side, intertwined like corrupted lovers, in every body of religious doctrine and teaching. In no other religion is this more dramatically displayed than it is in Christianity.

Sometimes the two motivations are commingled in the religion’s founder, as is the case in Islam for example. Muhammad began as the Prophet of God and his message was all about love. But as events unfolded, he also became a political leader, a general, a diplomat, and in effect a king, and so out of necessity had to pay attention to power as well. But that isn’t the case in Christianity, whose ostensible founder, Jesus of Nazareth, was a homeless preacher until he was condemned to death and executed. Jesus’ teachings, or at least the presentation of them in the Gospels (which are not reliable historically but at this point that matters only to historians), were all about love, and in fact highly impractical. Sell all you own and give the money to the poor? Take no thought for the future, trusting God to provide the necessities of life? Yeah, right.

Despite this, the element of power in Christian doctrine is very strong. The claim that Christianity alone possesses the truth, and that Christians will be rewarded with eternal bliss while followers of other religions or of none will spend eternity in torment, is a claim of power, not of love. It offers a reward for obedience and threatens a punishment for disobedience, and that is the essence of power. (That neither the reward nor the punishment is real matters no more than the historical accuracy of the Gospels. Rewards and punishments are effective to the extent that they are believed to be real, not to the extent they actually are.)

In fact, the essential structure of Christian doctrine and the Christian model of salvation have no support in the teachings of Jesus at all, and in some particulars are directly contradicted by those teachings. We may, therefore, speak of a conflict between Jesus and Christianity.

Let’s take a look at that structure of Christian doctrine.

The Narrative of Christian Doctrine

The essential points of Christian doctrine, greatly simplified, are as follows.

1. All human beings are condemned by God to Hell, either for Adam’s original sin, or for sins inevitably committed by the individual in life (the standard being set so high that no one can possibly meet it), or both.

2. God became human in the person of Jesus, who was God in a human body.

3. By allowing himself to be tortured and put to death, Jesus/God took the punishment on himself that he had decreed for mankind. By rising again from the grave, he proclaimed that God would no longer condemn mankind to death and Hell, but would forgive sins.

4. Each person may avail himself or herself of this benefit, this stay of execution, by devotion to the religion founded in Jesus’ name, and by sincere repentance of any sins that (inevitably) still are committed. Those who do not do this, however, are still condemned to Hell.

Other interpretations of the significance of the Crucifixion and Resurrection may be found (mostly presented by Christians who are understandably appalled by the cruelty and crudity of the traditional model of salvation), but this is the standard version, accepted as revealed truth by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and most Protestant denominations. Nuances and minor additions may be found in various churches (for example, the Roman Catholic Church insists on the importance of performing the sacraments, while Protestants usually deny the necessity of intercession by human agents and see the whole process as between the believer and god), but these four points are common to almost all versions of Christian doctrine.

The first thing to observe is that all of this flows from the motivation of power, not of love. Defenders of Christian orthodoxy say it’s about love, and to do this focus on the third point, quoting the author of the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life.” (John 3:16.) But this ostensible great act of divine love and sacrifice was necessary or even possible only because of the first point: that the same God condemned everyone to perish and suffer forever in the first place. Simply put, the sacrifice of Jesus for mankind would be an act of love, if and only if the condemnation of man to death and Hell had been decreed by someone other than God. But that, according to Christian doctrine, is not so. For that reason, the entire business becomes an assertion of power: “I condemn you to suffer forever, but I’ll make you a deal. Worship me, do what I say, and I’ll let you off the hook and throw in an eternity in paradise. What do you say?” A plea-bargaining deal offered by a prosecutor to an accused criminal is not an act of love, and neither is this.

Now let’s take a look at the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and their relation to these four points of doctrine.

Jesus’ Teachings and Christian Doctrine

On the first point, the condemnation of man to Hell for sin, we find no support or even mention in any word of Jesus quoted in the Gospels. He does mention Hell a few times, or at least that’s a possible interpretation of several parable elements, and it comes out in “And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.” (Mark 9:47.) But this translated term can be misleading. Jesus was Jewish, and was dealing with Jewish conceptions of Hell or Gehenna, not Christian ones. Certainly there is nothing in any of the Gospels that suggests Hell as a universal fate for all mankind. It isn’t even clear that Jesus was referring to either Hell or the Kingdom of Heaven as post-mortem states; in many cases what he said about the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God implied that one entered this place or state while still alive, and so the same must be true of Hell, in the context of this quote anyway.

On the second point, the divinity of Christ, the Gospels are even more clearly in the negative. Jesus is described in several passages as being neither omniscient nor omnipotent. A good example is the time he took two tries to heal a blind man, as described in Mark  8:22-26. Another example is presented by the woman with vaginal bleeding, who healed herself by touching Jesus’ robe as he walked in a crowded street, without Jesus’ knowing who had touched him (Mark 5:24-34). What’s more, Jesus implicitly denied being God in Mark 16:18 and in Luke 18:19, when he answered the person who called him “good master” with, “Why do you call me good? There is no one good, save God alone.” Clearly, the authors of the Gospels did not believe that Jesus was God incarnate and so did not try to present him as such, however great a prophet and holy man they did present in their narratives. The Gospels were probably written some time in the late first or early second century, and so obviously the doctrine of the Incarnation arose later than that. God’s son, yes — they called him that, but that was common currency for great men in the Roman world of the time (Augustus Caesar also claimed to be the son of a god), and God’s son is not necessarily or intuitively the same as God himself.

On the third point, the Gospels contain many passages in which Jesus foretold his death and resurrection, but none in which he gave them the significance that they hold in Christian doctrine. Not once is he presented as claiming that his death was a sacrifice appeasing God’s condemnation of man to Hell. In fact, he never clearly stated why he was condemned to die, and regarding the Resurrection presented it only as proof of the impermanence of death and the power of God to triumph over death. He called for repentance repeatedly and often, but in a decidedly different context than is implied in Christian doctrine.

And as the fourth point rests logically on the first three, there is no support for that in Jesus’ teachings, either. (Also, there is no indication that he ever intended his teachings to be the basis for a new religion. He was a Jew, and however unorthodox and unconventional his teachings were in the view of the defenders of Jewish orthodoxy of the time, he presented them in a Jewish context as what he considered a true interpretation of Judaism.)

In short, there is no support for, and on some key points clear denial of, Christian doctrine in the teachings of Jesus. The two are in clear conflict.

Where Did Christian Doctrine Come From?

If Christian doctrine regarding sin, Hell, and redemption didn’t come from Jesus’ teachings, where did they come from?

Christian doctrine emerged over the centuries between the time of Jesus and that of Constantine, so that by the early fourth century the essential points were in place, and the Council of Nicaea in 325 had only to iron out a few disagreements and issue official proclamations regarding them. During the same period, a structure of Church authority also emerged in the form of “bishops” who exerted theoretical authority over Christians in particular cities, with the bishops of the really important cities of the Empire (Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage, and later Constantinople) eventually being proclaimed patriarchs or archbishops. However, not all Christians recognized the bishops’ authority, and they had no way to enforce that authority as long as Christianity remained an illegal religion.

The doctrine of the Trinity, of which the concept of the divinity of Christ is a part, emerged in the second century, but was quite controversial. One may find the arguments in the writings of many of the Church fathers before 325, such as Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and Origen. All of these men, however, were of the orthodox and authoritarian division within the church, and their positions reflected this; in fact, Irenaeus is most famous for his polemic against what he regarded as heretical views, especially those of the Gnostics. Thus, they represent only one view of Christianity among the many that contended during the post-Apostolic period.

Although they held no real temporal power and were particularly endangered whenever an Emperor or a local official decided to institute an anti-Christian persecution (this happened a lot less often in the pagan Roman Empire than many Christians believe, but it did happen), the “bishops” were, naturally enough, those men who were particularly motivated by power within the Christian community. Those who were not, did not seek to become bishops. The scholars whose writings they supported were, therefore, those whose views supported them and their desire for power, which rested on an authoritarian version of Christian doctrine. This version is the one that scholars today call “proto-orthodox,” and with a few tweaks is essentially the same as the “orthodox” version which emerged from the Council of Nicaea, and which I have outlined above.

During the period when Christianity was illegal, the only way the bishops had to enforce their rule was through words and influence over people’s beliefs. They could (and sometimes did) “excommunicate” heretics from the church, but this held no more temporal significance than it does today, in contrast to the dire consequences that prevailed under the Christian Roman Empire or during the Middle Ages. Once it became allied with the state, the church could impose temporal penalties for disobedience, up to and including the torture and slaughter of “heretics” in the thousands, but in the post-Apostolic period that was impossible, and so a structure of belief that imposed non-falsifiable penalties for disobedience developed. The most important elements of Christian doctrine, from the perspective of power, are the promise of Heaven for orthodoxy and obedience, and the threat of Hell for the contrary. It is from this source — the power structure of “bishops” within the church, and their desire to rule — that Christian doctrine comes — not from the teachings of Christ.

Christian doctrine is in service to power.

The teachings of Jesus are in service to love.

The two are in sharp disagreement and conflict.

Anyone who wishes to follow the latter must, therefore, reject the former.

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