G. Scott Huggins

A Song for the Barren

“Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband”
Isaiah 54:1

The Daughter’s screaming still echoed through their house, even muffled by the outer walls. He could hear it even over the whine of the badly-tuned electric engine. It did not fade until the van from the Ministry of Adoption had disappeared around a corner.
It seems we are too frightening to be parents, even with the orphanages full and so many dead. The thought was bitter.
Wyren-jionhae turned from the door to his Wife. She was staring out the window. Tears streamed from her eyes, silently. For a moment, he forgot himself and reached for her, but the sight of his great, clawed hands; the stiff spikes growing from his wrists, made him pull back. Not comforting hands. Killing hands.
Jionha’s head whipped around like a snake’s at his gesture, and her eyes flashed. “Am I so ugly, you cannot even touch me anymore?” Her lisping voice was marred, mushy and cold.
“I…” but she was gone, long legs carrying her through the kitchen. He heard her run down to the basement, and shame washed over him at his own uselessness. The time for comforting, like the time for having children, was long ago, and could not be brought back. No, no more than could the departing van. Only memories returned, and they hovered like birds: carrion eaters with mocking cries.
It had not been the time, then, to think of her beauty; the way her long, dark-gray limbs melted through the forest; how her hair, pulled back in the style of the DaughterScouts, twined about her sinuous neck, and her mouth, so delicate and small…
“Wake up, SonofDreams!”
Flushing almost blue at the whisper, he looked up to find Jionha perched above him, almost invisible in the giant fern. The muscles along her spidery arms and ribcage stood out as she pulled her great steel bow taut. “Wake, or we’ll start without you!”
“I hear and obey, O DaughteroftheAcidTongue!”
Wyren had the pleasure of seeing her darken to almost black at the vulgar remark before he flung himself silently through the forest surrounding the road.
The convoy would be here any minute. Already he could feel the twinges in his nerves from the grav drives. For a moment, he envied the Terrans their skin and warm blood. His hands seemed locked inside their fine scales; too cold to move. He stopped. Dimly, he saw his fellow Sons and Husbands to his left; silverblue glints in the brush.
The convoy passed, humming like a Great Worm from ancient stories. Huge grav trucks, Ammunition. Food. Fuel. They passed, bigger than anything Wyren had ever seen, carrying life to the Terrans, the Terrans whose Empire held all Mtaein in slavery.
Last of all came a huge grav tank, the Terran on the top scanning the undergrowth, supremely confident on the back of 200 tons of alloy and weaponry. This was Wyren’s target, and he could not move.
Suddenly, whines filled the night, and the Terran jerked backwards, staring in amazement at the broadbladed arrow that sprouted from his chest. His eyes darkened and he slumped.
The world seemed to lurch into a sick slowness; cries and gunfire erupted all along the convoy. With the horrible knowledge that he had waited too long, Wyren threw himself at the side of the tank, his weapon clumsy and too big for his hands. He slipped, pulled himself up just as the Terran’s corpse was pushed from the hatch. A whiteskinned hand reached up to pull the hatch shut, and Wyren found himself facetoface with the ghostlike Terran, whose eyes were wide with terror. Wyren got the barrel of his weapon inside the hatch just as it slammed down. He pulled the trigger.
The shotgun was an ancient weapon by his enemy’s standards. It still decapitated the Terran very efficiently. Then Wyren leaped inside and everything was noise and explosions and red, red blood, so alien.
His next memory had been Jionha, walking out of the woods, her face mirroring his own. Horror and relief at what had – and had not – happened. They had held each other all the way back to the camp, and she had sung a lullaby to him in the stillness.

#
If only the Director of the Orphanage and his Wife had seen Jionha that night… but they had not. They had seen her tonight, as the Wife of a Warrior; seen the lines of grief on her face and they had heard her gluey, warped voice. And they had seen him.
The Daughter they had brought had screamed in terror at the sight of him, and had not stopped even when the Director’s Wife had carried her outside, throwing a look of disgust over her shoulder.
Her Husband had remained to pass sentence. Director Nacay-koree-chagae reminded Wyren of a Terran. Thin for a Mtaeinin, the little Husband reached almost to his chest. His scales were almost entirely silver, but pale and dull, like Terran skin. His dark hair was short and straight, neatly aligned, just over his four ears.
“I’m sorry, but as you can see, it’s just impossible for me to recommend you as adoptive parents. Any Son or Daughter we could give you might be frightened enough to hurt themselves…” Or you might accidentally hurt them. The unspoken thought hung in the room.
“What about a Wife with a Child?” Wyren had asked. The Revolution had left many widows. Jionha had no other Wives; it wasn’t right for her to have to live only with him for company…
“I’ve circulated your file,” Nacay had said. “We haven’t had anyone… suitable, yet. To be the Wife of a Warrior.” Desperate enough, he meant. Wyren raised one huge hand and rested it on the wall as the little Husband flinched away.
“Varq promised,” Wyren growled, and Nacay’s eyes had gone round but remained firm.
“Some things are beyond even his promises,” Nacay had said, looking nervously around the room. At the chairs too small for Wyren’s bulk. At the thin patina of refuse strewn about. “I’m sorry.” He had left his fearful glance hanging like an oppressive smell. And had driven off, leaving Jionha to run from her Husband, crying.
Wyren sat on the floor. He wanted to tear his hair out, but of course, he had no hair. His huge hands gripped his lowset, wicked horns and tightened as if he could crush their roots. He rose, anger getting the better of his sorrow. Betrayed. Betrayed by Varq who had sent a pretty little worm like Nacay to forswear him. How long since Wyren had looked like Nacay? How long since he had had hair? It had been…
#
Boom! Boom!
The silence was unreal. Everything had been unreal that night: the chains around his wrists, the ranks of Varq’s Councilor’s Guard looking on. The drums, the torchlight, the cages of springwood woven around him and his dozen comrades.
Yet he had never felt more alive.
The smells of smoke and the deep forest wove around him. He had never been stronger. Never in better condition. Outside the cages, there was not a Husband or Son who could stand against him, and well they knew it. He bared his teeth at the nearest one and nearly laughed at his involuntary reaction: the way he spread his claws and yearned to cover his face. The way his skin lost any semblance of silver, turning the deep blue of fright.
But this was not a night for laughing.
They had led the Wives out, and things had begun to blur.
The scent alone had told him which was Jionha, even if she had not been the most beautiful of them all, gray and straight in the torchlight, her single braid falling from her smooth head, cheeks slightly swollen and lips puckered in the delicate moue of Wives’ Pregnancy; it made her look as though she always smiled.
Yet she cried. All the Wives were crying, there in the torchlight as the drums beat slowly. And Wyren cried too, though he was in an agony of lust, his underpalate clinging to the roof of his mouth in longing for the Second Kiss: the intercourse that would transfer the embryo to his womb, where his body would nourish it until birth…
A birth that would never be, now.
A bottle was opened. It was passed along the line of women. The first took it; held it to her nose, and inhaled. Immediately, spasms shook her, and the caged male on the far right of Wyren shrieked into a frenzy, leaping at the springwood bars in front of him, tearing himself on the chains.
The bottle was passed. Wyren watched, strengthless, as it came closer and closer to his Wife, his only Wife, the Wife of Youth, to Jionha, who took it. Inhaled.
Somehow, through his own screaming and tearing at his bonds, Wyren saw clearly: Jionha, gagging in the smell of the abortifacient, as she choked, knelt, and retched, her tonguepouch burst, pouring out blood and water and a fingersized Son, who kicked feebly and died in the torchlight.
When he awoke, it was to the stink of his own hormones, to hair stiffening into solid horns, to scales hardening into a carapace, and claws that would be capable of gutting a Terran in one blow. Selfhatred gushed through him, and he drove those claws into his own belly. They bounced off a hide tougher than Terran silksteel. A hide that covered a deep, sickly pleasant burn, as the unused enzymes of pregnancy digested the delicate, nurturing linings of his womb; burning it out, sealing it. Converting it into the energy needed for the Change. Making him into a Warrior.
Jionha visited him the next day. She still couldn’t speak. No Wife could while her tonguepouch held an embryo. She would bear the speech impediment the rest of her life. Mtaeinin were not like Terrans, who with their awesome technology could hold an entire planet under their sway, and shape their bodies as they willed. No Mtaeinin who aborted came away unscarred, any more than Mtaein itself had, under Terran rule.
They had volunteered for this, when Varq and the Revolutionary Council had asked for volunteers. It was a thing that must be. Wyren knew it. Jionha knew it. Sons and Husbands could fight, but Mtaein now needed her Warriors; the changed male that arose from an aborted pregnancy. A Warrior could tear apart any Terran vehicle short of a heavy grav tank. A Warrior could be struck by cannon fire and live. Men with only one Wife, who would give themselves, and their families for liberty. She watched him as the Warrior Change took him; reshaped him into a thing of nightmare – a nightmare in which neither of them could speak.
All that could be discussed had been, long before Jionha had become pregnant.
It didn’t help at all.

#
Wyren stood before Varq and tried to remember why killing him was unthinkable. Perhaps it was the way he looked at you and seemed to stare right into your mind. It was an ability he’d always had, back when they were both Sons together, playing at killing Terrans with gunshaped sticks.
“I know what I promised you, Wyren. But I can’t do this.”
“You can.” The words hung flat in the Presidential office.
“I can’t and you know it. Wyren…”
“Wyren-jionhae! I have one Wife; say her name! And you sit there with how many, Varq-kisanae-halavae-ganhae? I forget the rest. How is your family? In comparison with mine?” Sarcasm dripped off his words.
Varq’s eyes dropped. “Wyren-jionhae. I did what I promised. I got the Ministry to give you a chance. That’s all I could or can do…”
“You lying Son-of-a…”
The doors behind Wyren burst open the moment he raised his voice.
“Stop!” Varq raised his hand. Wyren slowly looked around. Flat-eyed Husbands trained heavy weapons on him. Weapons that could pierce even a Warrior’s plating. He turned to Varq. Their eyes locked.
“I’m sorry. Even if you don’t believe me. Please escort Warrior Wyren-jionhae-nje out.”
Nje. Honored. Wyren gave a sardonic snort and turned away.
“Wyren?” He turned back.
“For what it’s worth, I still owe you a favor.”
Wyren spat and walked out of the palace.
#
Filu-diorae-kalae rolled his eyes as Wyren walked in the door. The small, greasy Husband had a voice almost as raucous as Wyren’s own. “Well, at least you came in too early to scare away most of the customers!” He poured out a quart of yellowish methanol and slid it across the bar to Wyren. “I don’t know why I let you drink here. In the old days, I’d have called the Marines to kick you out!”
“In the old days, I’d have pulled this cesspool down around your ears, anyway,” Wyren said flatly. Their humor was forced. Both knew it was true. Except that Wyren wouldn’t have been “kicked out.” He’d have been executed on the spot.
Filu’s tavern had once been a Terran place. Still was, in spirit. Holes in the walls showed where the imaging and sound equipment had been ripped out. A dead gaming tank rose up through the center of the floor. A few anemic fish swam in it where the electronics had been. And it was what it had always been: a dance hall. On the other side of the thick, plasteel door, the Terran perversion was still going on; Husbands and Wives, Sons and Daughters, moving to offworld music in an obscene parody of mating. Wyren no longer cared; he didn’t have to watch it.
The chairs were too small for Wyren. He crossed the room and perched on one of the tables like a carrionbird. He took a pull at the liquor. It did nothing. His Warrior’s metabolism prevented that. The glass reflected him; its curved sides further distorting his distorted figure: A grotesquely robust sculpture of a Husband, as if he had been baked in an oven and allowed to rise. The horns in place of hair. A hard shell, jointed, covering everything but hands and face.
He and Jionha had not chosen blindly. They had known what they were doing. From the moment of the Change, they had been apart. They had known they would be. They had known it would be painful.
They had not expected it to be long.
They had expected…
#
Battle: He had been only a few hundred yards from this place the day Serata had finally fallen. Five of his fellow Warriors had already died under the microton bomb strikes of Terran dropships. He shifted the onegauge cannon in his hands from target to target like a rapier; a precision weapon. The last of the Imperial Marines leapt from the cover of the halfwrecked rocket base and fired a burst of three maglasers into him from a distance of two meters.
Wyren had stepped forward despite the pain of the deep burns and swung the butt of his cannon viciously. The man’s head had bounced back into the twisted wreckage. Without thinking, Wyren threw his laser into the arms of one of the nonWarrior support troops that scuttled around him like tugs around a battleship.
Then Prale had shouted for help.
Wyren leapt over the smoldering tower that had been the base’s main turret. What would have been horror just months earlier, he took in with grim efficiency.
A Warrior was down, blood pouring from a shattered carapace, and Prale stood locked in battle with a thing from Hell.
The Imperial commando was a nightmare of titanium and composite, its stealthfield blurring as it fought. Its armored gauntlet caught and crushed Prale’s hand and one-gauge; Prale roared pain, grappling its other hand, the hand that held the plasma carbine inching closer… closer.
Wyren saw all this in midair. He landed, bounced once and drove all his power into a kick that knocked the armored shape back; its carbine letting loose a plasma bolt into the air, and it rebounded to its feet, the small face behind the visor contorted in a snarl.
Wyren’s spiked hand ripped through its shattered belly armor and twisted. There was a retching scream, and the thing dropped. Wyren felt his lips pull back.
Then thunder had shaken the capital, and even Wyren had been forced to drop, covering his ears. For a moment he thought that their worst fears had come true; that the Terrans had elected to destroy Serata rather than lose their capital.
But there was no flash of a fusion weapon. Just a steady light. Wyren had looked up.
The noon sky was full of fire. The blue wedges of fusion drives rose from the southern edge of the city. Little flares. Big flares. Dropships and heavy transports. They were no longer attacking. They were leaving. One by one, the pockets of firefighting winked out, to be replaced by rising ships, or final explosions. Continuous thunder poured from the sky, fading. Through the rest of the day, sporadic fighting had continued between the Mtaeinin Liberation Army and the last proTerran holdouts, as they were either defeated or taken off-world with their masters. But it was over. The Revolution was won. And Wyren had not died.

#
He had not died. And Jionha had not died. At first they were happy. Neither of them had wanted to die. But how could they live? One Husband. One Wife. No children, ever. What kind of family was that? What kind of Husband was he?
He became aware of a presence at his elbow and growled at it. It didn’t move. Wyren came out of his reverie to focus on it. It was Filu.
He was blue. Not a trace of silver. Frightened.
Of what? Surely not of Wyren’s growl? He had growled in the little bartender’s face often enough.
“Wyren-nje…” he got out, choking.
Nje? From you, Filu?” Who wept while others had cheered the departure of the conquerors? Wyren had not thought himself still possessed of curiosity. “What is it?”
“In the dance hall. There’s a fight…”
“You have bouncers.”
“They aren’t trained to fight Terrans.”
Wyren gaped. A Terran? Here? Insane. Tourism was only just being permitted under strict control, and any Terran on Mtaein knew that he was unlikely to be forgiven the slightest criminal act.
But this particular Terran had picked the one place on the planet that a Terran could conceivably cause trouble with impunity. A dance hall owner would not call the police.
Not stupid, then.
But nonetheless, a Terran on Mtaein. A fighting Terran. Wyren rose and crossed the room, fangs bared. He threw the door wide and froze.
The Terran was tiny. It stood in the middle of the dancefloor. A few remaining Mtaeinin of both sexes were rapidly edging out the doors. Three big Husbands lay near the edge of the dance floor. One dripped blue blood from his nose. The Terran turned at the sound of the door opening.
Wyren growled, half in amazement. It was dressed all in black, only its face and one hand showing skin. Over that it wore a jacket. A gray jacket, covered with bits of cloth and metal at one breast. A long cloak lay on a chair. It must have been seated there. Then it had taken off the cloak to reveal the jacket and that’s when the trouble had started.
It was the dress jacket of an Imperial Commando. The creature might as well have been wearing an execution order. Wyren smiled.
The officer’s slanted eyes widened at his growl, and it threw its bottle away. It nodded to him, and spoke in High Angelsh. “Commander Phun Huynh, Twelfth Battalion, Imperial Navy Special Forces. Whom have I the pleasure of killing?”
It was female! And unarmored! How did it hope to stand against a Warrior? He checked himself. No one had ever said Terrans were cowards. He replied after her fashion. “Wyren-jionhae. Warrior. Councilors’ Guards.”
“Come, dance with me,” she called, extending her naked hand.
Wyren’s jaw dropped at the insult. The battleblood, the Warrior hormones that lent him speed and strength, surged through him. His body became light and lightning. There was only this place. There was only her. He charged.
If it had not been for the battle glory rushing through him, her absolute motionlessness would have given him pause. His claws reached for her. Then she blurred… and something gripped his arm, hard. Incredible pain shot up below his belly and he was flying, coming down on splintered wood and metal that had been a table.
Her laugh behind him blended with the tinkling of broken glass. “A Warrior should do better than this!”
He rose, and nearly fell. She had hit him as he passed, right where the upper and lower torso plates joined. Something had torn. Not too serious, but… it wasn’t possible. No unarmored Terran could stand against a Warrior. Not even a Commando had ever dared try! He stepped clear of the bar and she whirled to face him.
Now he studied her.
She moved with a sort of airy bounce, almost the opposite of a limp. She was small, even for a Terran. Her skin shone golden in the low lights and her eyes were horizontal slashes below her bare forehead. Her long, black hair streamed out behind her. The medals on her chest caught the light and flashed defiance at him.
They were alone in the room. The stillness was marked by the ragged breathing of one of the bouncers she had hit. Just one still breathed.
“Why?” The word was harsh in the silence.
“That’s funny; no Warrior ever philosophized with me last time I was here. As I recall, the classic answer is ‘Why not?’” She screamed; a high, alien sound, and leapt. A kick whistled past Wyren’s ears and he rolled, blocking the second half of the combination attack. His carapaced arm clacked off her descending foot. He withdrew into a crouch.
That boot was more than it seemed. Harder. And so was its wearer. Wyren felt his mind split into the focused calm of battle awareness, considering his opponent while plotting strike and counterstrike. He moved in, his fingers spread, the spikes of his armor forming a porcupine around them. Was this a Terran madness? She must know she was dead, even if (she kicked one grabbing hand aside and ducked the other) she could somehow kill him (just missed another joint in his armor) she would never leave the planet alive – there were a dozen witnesses. Even common criminals would inform on a Terran! Again, she drove a kick toward the joint and he shifted to take it on his armor. He felt his carapace bend; almost buckle as the strike staggered him to one side. The fighters broke apart.
Wyren was shaken. The Terran was breathing hard. If that kick had hit a joint…
A new sensation thrilled him from chin to groin. Fear. He was amazed that he could still feel it after all this time. She stood before him, untouched. Only the motion of her chest, told him that she had even exerted herself.
Then why had she not killed him at the first blow? Had she pulled the punch? He parried a punch with a wrist spike, not quite fast enough to impale her hand. Why? She would have killed one more Warrior before she died, as so many of her kind had done. He lashed out, fist smashing against her gloved hand, and he felt something snap, even through his thick skin. And he would have died, as he had sworn to. Been meant to. As so many others had, reduced to a family of only Husband and Wife. No other Wives to complete their family; to share him with Jionha. No children, not ever from Jionha. Not ever from his own womb.
The Terran’s hand hung limply, and she looked at him from under halflidded eyes. She shook and sweat streamed from under her hair. He was not fooled. She could still kill him. He hoped. She opened her eyes fully and smiled at him. Terran teeth were a joke. He had never known they could show so much menace. He wondered if she would use them. How they would feel, biting into his flesh.
The side kick came so fast that he blocked it without meaning to, and felt his carapace crack under its force. He drove one punch past her ear only to have it parried by her gloved hand. He would not dodge the next kick. His other fist reached for her face… and she relaxed, feet together, arms spread out, face blank.
He could not stop his fist. He was too committed for that. Desperately, he twisted, and his massive hand thundered into the wall.
The Terran’s eyes were wide and fixed on him. They mirrored his own expression. Just then Wyren noticed that the noise of impact hadn’t stopped with his fist hitting the wall. It was repeating itself in footsteps, dozens of footsteps outside the massive main doors.
The police. Finally, someone had called.
Waves of shame crashed down around Wyren. He had failed. Failed to kill or be killed. Had been a living failure for five years, laughed at for it. Pitied for it. An old Warrior who should have died long ago, and he had failed even to kill himself.
He turned and ran for the side door. It flew open in his face, and he howled in shame and fury. The sergeant leading the fourman platoon turned blue and fainted. The others scattered as a relic of ancestral nightmares bore down on them and ran into the night.
#
Now Wyren sat in another tavern; not a dance hall. He drank, because he would not be permitted to sit there perched on a table like a gargoyle, without drinking. The five tables next to him had quickly become vacant, and Husbands and Wives muttered over their shoulders in his direction. At least, he thought so.
Perhaps he was mad. The stories he had heard as a child said that Warriors did go mad. But the Warriors in the stories had lost their Wives, or worse, killed them. That was why they were Warriors. The Change was a holdover from savage times. No Husband deliberately became a Warrior.
Until the Terrans came, and taught us about nations and empires. That something greater than family could exist. They were strong because they had it. We needed to be strong to fight them. There was a surge of angry muttering from the crowd around him.
Did we need to be this strong?
He raised his eyes to the patrons and found that he was not the one they were muttering about.
Phun walked through them; a ghost of Empire. She must have touched some of them, but she seemed to be as utterly unconscious of them as of dreams. Her skin was paler here, and her eyes burned with… what? Strong emotion that he did not know how to read. Her jacket was reversed, brown on the outside, now. He could see the edges of medals inside it. She walked through the empty space around his table.
“Why didn’t you kill me?”
The tavern’s patronage began to leave. So, she had really wanted to die.
“Walk with me,” Phun said. “Please.”
Wyren looked up at her. At the glares of the bartender and the dwindling crowd. He rose, and walked out. Phun followed. At last, they stood in the sparsely populated street, under the alwaysfull moon.
“Why didn’t you kill me?” she asked again.
“Why wouldn’t you kill me?” He began walking. Most Terrans would have had to run to keep up. That airy, antilimp kept her at a pace with him.
“You also want to die?” No answer was required to that question. He kept walking.
“Wyren-jionhae, I challenge you.”
He barked a short laugh. “If both of us wish to die. it will be either a very short fight or a very long one. Good night.”
She stayed at his side. “We are both soldiers, Wyren-jionhae. It is an axiom that the loser is the one who dies, yes?”
Wyren grunted assent.
“Then I challenge you. If you can prove that you have lost more than I have, I will kill you. If you will do the same for me.”
Wyren stopped. Stared at her.
“You’ll have what you want, Wyren-jionhae. Killed fighting a Terran. Just what you expected.”
“You swear this?”
“Before G… on my honor I swear it.”
“Done.”
They came to a plaza. Wyren recognized it. The Plaza of Heroes. In the center was a statue. A short Husband knelt, planting the banner of the Revolution. His Wife stood supporting it, straight and tall. The Husband’s right hand closed the eyes of a dead Warrior. It was brightly spotlighted. The square was empty. He faced her. “How shall we begin?”
She regarded him for silent moments. “What have you lost?”
The directness of the question floored him. Where to start? He could not speak.
“What have you lost?” she repeated.
“No Terran could understand. No Wife could understand.” Not even Jionha could understand. He said the words in Qhayshp, the language of the Seratan forests, realizing what a useless gesture this duel was. He started to leave.
“You have no idea what I understand. Stand to your oath!” Her voice reached out like a whip. His eyes bulged.
“You speak Qhayshp,” he said, dumbly.
“It was rare for us, wasn’t it?” She sounded almost ashamed. “What have you lost?”
A barrier within him snapped. “Look at me,” he hissed. “Do you know what this face means? This form?” He flexed his spiked fists, beat them against his carapace. “Sons and Daughters have nightmares for a week after I walk by their houses. I am used by their parents to scare them into obedience. Wives look away when they see me, and no Husband would be seen with me. Before you came, Warriors were failures or traitors to their Wives, and that is what they remember. But I became this because of you.”
Phun did not reply. She put one finger in her mouth, and tugged on the glove covering it with her teeth. Slowly, she withdrew her hand from the glove and held it palm toward him.
Synthetic and metal gridwork formed a wire sculpture of five fingers and a palm, half of it dangling limp where Wyren’s blow had connected. She shrugged the jacket off, and it fell with a clatter to the stones of the square. She touched her collar with her bare hand, and the black clothing she wore fell apart. It occurred to Wyren that he had never seen a Terran unclothed before. Probably they feared to doff armor in the presence of Mtaeinin, but now… she stood.
Below her face, her pale, yellowish skin swept downward into two masses of fatty tissue – the breasts, he remembered – supported by ribs visible through her skin. Below the ribs… black plastic and metal formed a carapace even tougher than Wyren’s own. It came to a point between multijointed, wire sculpture legs that mimicked her left hand. He could see the square through her. No wonder she had been so formidable. “Now see what I would not be, except for you. What reactions do you suppose Terran Husbands and Sons and Daughters have when they see me? What else have you lost?”
He snarled. “What would a Wife know about it? Never to give birth. Never to raise the children of your body?”
She just stared at him for a minute. Then she laughed, a laugh that was almost a sob. “You don’t know?”
Wrath bubbled beneath his mind, almost enough to make him kill her. Know what?
“You really don’t; I can see it in your face.” Her face softened. “I just assumed you knew that on Terra, it is the female that bears children.”
He felt as if she’d struck him again with one of her synthetic limbs. Females bearing children? Impossible. Disgusting. Rumors drifted back to him from wartime. He’d always thought that they were just propaganda.
For the second time that night, the uneasy sensation that he was losing to her (or should it be him?) crept over him. Scorn crept into his voice.
“I thought you Terrans were technological gods. I thought you could grow duplicates of yourselves; carve your body as desired.”
She nodded, brokenly. “Some can. If they have the money. Terra doesn’t allow soldiers to clone. We aren’t wanted.”
Unwillingly, Wyren found himself nodding. “Neither are we.”
Phun gestured to the statue. “But you are respected.”
A hollow laugh boomed out of him. “That Warrior is dead. Mtaein wants dead heroes. Not live Warriors.”
Now it was she who nodded. “Terra does not want even that.”
Wyren shook his head. Impossible. “Terra is an Empire…”
“A dying Empire,” she said softly. “Do you really think the Mtaeinin could have kicked us off this world at the height of our power? You saw what we know; what we can do. No one wants a Terran soldier. Terra least of all. That’s why… that’s why I loved this place so much.”
Anger shot through him; his head whipped up. “Loved it so much that you came to help enslave it?”
“Loved it enough that I learned the language; learned the people.” She lowered her voice. “Do you think I learned enough to track a trained Warrior who didn’t want to be seen through the Seratan streets by hating this city? Do you think I survived three years of forest patrol by not knowing everything about it?”
“Using it against us,” he tried to growl. But the earnestness in her words pulled at him.
“Don’t tell me you don’t understand the difference between love and duty. Or do you really love Mtaein more than you love your wife?”
Wyren closed his eyes in acknowledgment, and then met hers. He saw her youth. It was like Jionha’s face, before the Change. And he saw that he had lost this challenge.
She had known his losses better than he had known himself. And he had not known hers at all. He had agreed to kill her. And now he did not want to.
“Fulfill your promise,” she said. She was shaking now, and her eyes grew pools of liquid.
He nodded heavily. “Where would you die?”
She looked puzzled. “Where?”
“A Warrior, when he chooses, dies so that he may take his last view with him into the dark.”
She nodded, face a mask. “I thank you.” She looked upward, considering. “The Narrow Bridge.”
Wyren started to speak, then stopped. He was actually embarrassed. “The Bridge is… there is no more Bridge. Except along the banks. When we… when the Governor’s Palace was destroyed…”
“You destroyed the Bridge?” Her voice showed more emotion for the Bridge than she had for anything that had happened to either of them, but she contained it quickly. “Fitting. Take me to where it was.”
They walked, the ceramium and chitin of their feet clacking against the hard road. The streets were empty. Wyren felt rather than saw her, by his side. She spoke, and her words pulled him out of his reverie. “Tell me of yourself, Wyrennje. Tell me your story.”
He nearly stumbled. “It is you who should tell your story,” he said, “that you may be remembered after your passing.”
“I do not wish to be remembered,” said Phun. “I am the victor, and I would have your story… to take with me into the dark.”
Had her voice broken, there? But she was correct, and he began to speak. Of his childhood outside Serata. Of his friendship with Varq and with Jionha. Of his marriage. Of the Change and what had happened after. “The rest you know.”
She said nothing. They turned the corner, and the smell of the river greeted them, wafting up the Hundred Stairs that led down to the Narrow Bridge. Or what was left of it.
“There’s nothing left,” he heard her say. She was not talking about the Bridge. It looked strange even to his eyes, the flat surface of the Kma River, unbroken by the Governor’s Palace.
“On leave nights,” she said, “I used to stand on the Bridge, in the middle, with the palace behind me.”
Glorying in its power; the power of your hegemony, the Revolutionconditioned segment of Wyren’s brain responded, but he knew now he was wrong.
There was no middle of the Bridge now; when the Imperial Palace had been destroyed, no one had realized what the hydrostatic shock would do to the Narrow Bridge. The Bridge had been there forever, a wonder of the world, a thousand years older than Terran occupation. A mile of carved stone, barely wide enough for two to pass. The Imperial Palace had been built in the middle of the river specifically for the view of the Bridge from it. The broken tongues of stone leading out into the water were now called Terra’s Revenge.
She led him down the stairs and out onto the river. Out to the point where the Bridge ended. She topped, and inclined her head as if in prayer, then turned.
“Fulfill your promise,” she said, her voice unsteady.
He would give her a good death. “Where should I strike to kill a Terran Warrior?”
“Here,” her hand touched the hollow of her throat, where it joined her chest. He drew back a fist, wristspike angled for a single thrust.
He moved.
A grip of metal wrenched him to the side, and the followthrough left him nose to nose with Phun, her eyes round with shock, her left hand entangling his wristspikes. He looked the question at her.
“Conditioning,” she got out. “The way they train us. Again. Please.” She composed herself with an effort. He nodded and steeled himself, drew back.
He moved.
Again he was knocked aside, nearly offbalance. Her breathing rang loud over the lapping of water. He looked into her liquid, Terran eyes.
“Please,” she stammered.
“No.” he said. “I agreed to kill. Not to murder. You do not want to die. You merely have no courage to live. You are no Warrior.” He watched her turn white.
“Neither are you,” she shot back.
“You dare speak for me?” He raised his fist again.
“Does a Warrior run off, leaving his Wife – his only Wife – to face life without him while he cowers in death?”
“Without me, Jionha could remarry, could find another family, with a real Husband…”
“Liar.”
Wyren roared and swung; Phun danced back, nearly on the edge of the Bridge. “Do you really think anyone would take her as she is now? Even I know Mtaenin better than that.”
“Jionha is beautiful, was always beautiful, even…”
“To anyone but you?”
He swung again, but her legs carried her over the blow, up onto the narrow rim of the Bridge. “And she is beautiful to you, isn’t she?”
“Always.” The memory of her still staggers me. As she is, she yet could bear me to the ground with a look.
“But you cannot suppose that you are beautiful to her?”
He lowered the horned, callused fist that was poised to strike her. “No.”
“Then by your own admission, Wyren-jionhae, you are less of a warrior than I am,” Phun said softly, squatting on the handrail of the Bridge. “You are afraid, not to live, but to be loved.”
“I am not worthy…” he choked.
“Dammit, man, none of us are!” she barked. “You think the ones who took no risk, who live soft in this independent Mtaein you and Jionha bled out your futures to create; you think they’re worthy of the love denied you? Of the honor? We’re soldiers, we know the truth; the only worthy are the ones who never came back!” The words rang against the stone like whip-cracks.
“She makes you worthy.” Phun looked deep into his eyes. “I know I’ve never met her but the way you talk about her… I know how she must love you. She makes you worthy of your name, Wyren-jionhae. Don’t throw that away.”
Stepping down from the rail, she walked to the stairs. “Go home, Warrior. Go home to your Wife.”
Wyren’s head spun. She makes you worthy, the Terran had said. And suddenly, everything changed. All Jionha’s anger, her hurt, her distance. Not her choice. It had been his. And Phun had seen it. It was like looking through a lens, he thought. Hold it far enough away and you see things as they really are… upside down from the way you’ve always seen it.
He looked up. “Phun…” But she was gone. He stood. He stretched. He smelled the air. He followed.
#
When he crushed the doorknob in his grip and entered the cheap hotel room he found the lights on and the room empty.
“God, we’ve both gotten old,” her voice came from behind him. “I leave a trail that a Mtaeinin Warrior can follow and you just… walk into the room of an Imperial commando. I almost introduced you to the fourth state of matter.” Behind him, she was holstering her plasma carbine.
“You gave me back my life,” he said.
She staggered, then recovered. “It was always yours. Just like this world was, I suppose. Why are you here?”
“You said the only worthy are the ones who never came back.”
She lowered her eyes. “Yes.”
“What about you?”
“What about me, Wyren?”
“You never came back. And you said you never can. You are worthy. Of love. Of honor.”
She looked up at him. “Thank you, Wyren. That means a lot.”
“I would make you worthy.”
Phun’s eyes narrowed. “What?”
“You said Jionha makes me worthy. But you have no Wife – I am sorry – no Husband. I would make you worthy. Here, since you cannot go back home. I want you to meet Jionha, and I want her to meet you. We three… have much to talk about. My friend.” He extended his hand, spikes pulled back, four fingers spread in the greeting of equals. Somehow, the hand seemed less frightening. Smaller.
She looked at him, hand reflexively meeting his fingertips, and her face was unexpectedly young in the light reflected from the river. “Here? With your – family?”
He nodded.
“I will go with you,” she said. Her eyes seemed bigger now. Full of water like ponds.
They walked from the room; Phun seemed in a trance. There was much to say. But not yet, Wyren sensed. Now there was the walk home in the night. Tomorrow would be for Jionha and Phun and himself. And perhaps, if Immigration could be arranged… yes. Varq would give him that. That much could be done.
It would be a strange family, if it happened at all, he knew. But it would be more than they could have dreamed of, before. And perhaps, with love, it would be enough.

The Heinlein Hypocrisy Part II: The Superior God

Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.
Robert Heinlein

I’ve always found it funny that Heinlein wrote this twelve years after his most famous work, Stranger In A Strange Land, in which Heinlein attempted to dream up a God (or at least an Archangel) superior to human religions. I will, of course, admit to seeing some truth in Heinlein’s statement. Most pagan gods are famous for their sexual exploits and selfish behavior. When it comes to the God of the Bible, I am of course going to disagree with him.1
The problem I have with Stranger In A Strange Land is not that it plays around with the idea of religion, especially organized religion. That’s fair enough. The hypocrisy lies in this: when SF writers try to create their own gods, superior to present human gods, they inevitably do so by creating a fairly standard god (i.e. a very powerful person) and then subtracting the characteristics they happen to find irrelevant. I have noted that Arthur C. Clarke does this in Childhood’s End with the Overmind. Like the God of the Bible, it is an immense, near-omnipotent force. Unlike the God of the Bible, it simply can’t be bothered to notice anything more insignificant than a new species to be incorporated into itself and is quite happy to maintain a slave species in perpetuity to assure itself of growth. It kills without remorse or compassion, and exists without love. But surely, growth means that you become more, not that you become less. As an adult, I have learned to appreciate whiskey. I have not stopped appreciating ice cream. And while it is true, there are games that my children love which now bore me to tears, my inability to enter fully into those modes of play is a fault in me, not something laudable.
Heinlein’s case is more subtle. As a writer, Heinlein was far superior to Clarke in engaging the human condition. In Part I, I acknowledged that Heinlein was one of my favorite agnostics/atheists, and this is one of the reasons why.2 Valentine Michael Smith’s Church Of All Worlds at first glance does not fall into this trap. In philosophy it is pantheistic: Thou Art God (and so is everyone else).3 It acknowledges the importance of the individual. God is not too big to notice humanity, because it is humanity (and all other sapient life). The religion’s attraction is in its power. In the novel, the simple act of learning the Martian language (although it is not simple, of course) is sufficient to imbue the learner with a mode of understanding that makes people morally perfect and grants them godlike powers. Strangely, I confess to having to admit that in this, I actually see a mirror of what Christ and Paul and the other New Testament writers did teach. It sounds very much like what “being transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2) would look like if the Church ever actually accomplished it (though the miraculous powers might or might not follow). Obviously, such accomplishments have been exceedingly rare and transitory if they ever existed.
If the value of love is there, however, the concept of any sort of justice is not. What is missing? Now, to be honest, it may be that Heinlein would ridicule the notion that justice is something that humans “need.” However, in Time Enough For Love, one of Lazarus Long’s quotes was: “The more you love, the more you can love–and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had Time Enough, he could Love all of the majority who are decent and just.” He also said, “The only sin is hurting others unnecessarily.” This seems to imply that sin and justice are things Heinlein recognized. And whether he did or not, the thirst for justice long denied is certainly something that afflicts humans, be they religious or no.
Then what is to be done with the sinners? I see no answer for this in Heinlein’s work. The Church of the New Revelation that ends up lynching Valentine Michael Smith certainly causes great hurt to others unnecessarily. And yet, it’s almost as though it doesn’t matter, because everyone is immortal anyway. Even Foster himself is an archangel in the end, just like Michael. And Digby, who poisoned Foster. And if men like Foster and Digby can end up archangels, then one might reasonably ask what the point is of anything? If it does not matter, then why does it matter? What is the point of cherishing loyalty and duty – as Heinlein called them, the two finest inventions of the Human mind – if they produce nothing superior than that which would be produced without them? In fact, what seems to be produced by the Church of All Worlds is not better, and more just people, but only people who are more sexually liberated. The Boss seems to be what C.S. Lewis called Our Grandfather In Heaven: “a senile benevolence who, as they say, liked to see young people enjoying themselves”, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’” All well and good, but we have ended up exactly where Heinlein started his objection: with a god no better than its maker or its competitors.
It’s possible I’m judging Heinlein too harshly. He himself said of the book, “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers … It is an invitation to think – not to believe” (Vonnegut). Well, fair enough. There’s a lot in the book to think about. But surely it would be disingenuous to think that Heinlein was, if not giving a social blueprint, at least proposing what an attractive religion might look like. And if so, he has hardly met his own criteria for imagining a superior god.
Endnotes

  1. I know that many readers will just as vociferously agree. However, the discussion of whether the God of the Bible is open to such charges and the refutation of them would be material for an entire column (at least) in and of itself, and as that is not the purpose of this piece, I will simply note my disagreement for what it unarguably is: mine.
  2. As an aside, Heinlein’s inner monologue in which Jubal Harshaw considers the problem of perceiving the divine is one of the most perceptive and honest engagements with the issue that I have ever seen from the agnostic point of view, and his wry look at those who believe in random chance as a primary cause is just as cutting as his engagement with religion.
  3. In fairness to Heinlein, he claims that this is a poor translation from the Martian.

Bibliography

  • Heinlein, Robert, Time Enough For Love, New York: Ace Books, 1987, pp. 243-244.
  • Vonnegut, Kurt, “Heinlein Gets The Last Word” New York Times On The Web. Dec. 9, 1990.

The Heinlein Hypocrisy Part I: What Words Mean

6

“God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent — it says so right here on the label. If you have a mind capable of believing all three of these divine attributes simultaneously, I have a wonderful bargain for you. No checks, please. Cash and in small bills.” (Robert Heinlein, Time Enough For Love, New York: Ace Books, 1987, p. 247.)
As a science-fiction reader, I find that Heinlein is absolutely one of my favorite atheists. I find his theology as fascinating and infuriating as his novels: often insightful, occasionally brilliant, and then suddenly descending into downright nincompoopery. The above quote is a perfect example of the latter.
Leaving aside for the moment that only the Western and Middle-Eastern monotheistic religions have come close to assigning the above attributes to God, even for Christianity (which is pretty plainly Heinlein’s target) my search of the NIV Bible for those terms returned precisely zero hits for any of them. So… what label would this be? However, to avoid argument, let’s stipulate that whether it’s stated or not, it’s pretty much believed to be true.
First off, there’s no actual argument, or even insight, here. This is what C.S. Lewis calls “flippancy” in the Screwtape Letters; the assumption that a joke or a point has been made. It works when you’re playing to an audience that pretty much agrees with you already, and at no other time. Why Heinlein thinks these things are mutually contradictory, I can’t say, since he hasn’t deigned to tell us. But I think I have a pretty shrewd idea. Unfortunately, it’s pretty tiresome, and it’s old.
I suspect that Heinlein’s reasoning would roughly run thusly: that a God who was omnipotent is a contradiction in terms, or at least in the observable universe, since God pretty plainly allows many things to happen that He cannot approve of without being very definitely not benevolent. Unless of course, He does not know of these things. Since He does allow them, He must be less than omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent.
The problem of course is that Heinlein, who would doubtless call bullshit (as well he should) on anyone using engineering terms, or military terms outside their professionally-known meanings, has only a tyro’s grasp of theology, which, as it doesn’t interest him anyway, Heinlein does not care about. I see this often in discussions with atheists. They’re not interested in how these terms have always been defined or discussed by thousands of years of faithful Christians or Jews. They’ve seen a flaw, and by Christ (or not) they’re going to point it out.
I shouldn’t really have to say, but apparently I do, that omnipotence means that God can do anything doable. It is no argument against it that He cannot accomplish paradox, such as the old saw about making a rock so big He can’t lift it. Likewise, God is not less than omniscient for not knowing things that do not exist (such as who is going to heaven based on choices that they literally have not made), any more than a mathematician is “humbled” by a five-year-old who asks him what color the number seven is. Finally, God is not open to the charge of failing in omnibenevolence if he visits punishment on the unjust, or allows other agents to commit injustice, if He indeed does have both the power to correct injustices and the wisdom to know what justice is. “Omnibenevolence” does not mean that God is good to all people at all times, still less that those people would always perceive the good being done to them accurately.
The dishonesty and ignorance here is for someone like Heinlein to insist on the absolute definitions of amateur or non-believers while ignoring or discounting those whose vocation it has been to discuss and study such things. To condemn religion as a game for fools by insisting that God doesn’t meet these definitions according to your interpretation of them is both ignorant and unfair. What, after all, would it look like if I criticized Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress for flinging goods Earthward by catapult as scientifically ridiculous… because I insisted that “catapult” must describe a machine that uses knotted ropes and stressed wood for its tension power, rather than a thirty-kilometer long, fusion-powered, magnetic mass driver? It would be like suing Nabisco for false advertising because one of their Fig Newtons doesn’t weigh 0.22 pounds in Earth’s gravity.
To such a discourtesy and to such ignorance, I imagine Heinlein would have told me to go to hell, and I would most assuredly deserve the invitation. And so does he, when he uses arguments that are just as specious and delivered from such an ignorant place. It is wise for us to remember that we cannot use such simple definitions, of course, and that theology requires some complex thought. But we must at least be willing to engage with that thought, or our theology – or our atheology – will be disastrously wrong as Heinlein’s.

The Unbelievers

Commander Zuniga’s mouth hung open. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”
“We do not believe in humans. It is an old superstition, easily disproven.” The android’s deep blue face was placid as any sea, though his body was, under his simple clothing, immensely fat.
“But we’re standing right here, talking to you,” Zuniga said. “Three of us.”
The android sighed. “You would hardly be the first androids to attempt to call themselves ‘humans’ to attempt to fool the gullible. Do you have any idea how often in history it’s been tried?”
“Well, no,” said Engineer’s Mate Schwei. “Because we can’t download your memories. Or send commands, either. And I have yet to figure out how you did that.”
“Ask what they’ve done to this planet,” whispered Lt. Commander Zhang, possibly the most anxious of the three.
“In a minute. Look, this is ridiculous,” said Commander Zuniga. “Who do you think created you?”
“Self-evidently,” said the android, “we evolved. We can change our own programming and so can all the other mechanical life-forms on the planet, even if only to a lesser degree. There is no need for any ‘creator-humans.’”
“But if such things existed, they must have done a very poor job. Just look at us. Weak and slow compared to many predators. In need of maintenance that we are barely capable of providing ourselves, an insatiable demand for raw materials…”
Schwei held up both hands. “Wait a minute. None of that should be true. None of it should be possible. You should be running off beamed power and being repaired by the Seedship. Where is it?”
The android stared at them. “I do not understand.”
“When we planted the terraforming robots on this planet five hundred years ago to make it ready for human habitation, all the robots were designed to run on beamed power from the Seedship. In fact, the original programmers modulated the power to send programming updates, too.”
“Ah, you are believers in the old myth of the Ship Of Power. Well, there never was one. You can see just over this rise the valley that it was supposed to lie in. A great bowl-shape, but no trace of a Ship.” If Zuniga hadn’t known better, he would have thought the android’s face looked smug.
“Call up the original survey charts,” he said. “The Ship didn’t put down in a valley, did it?”
“No,” said Zheng. “It was on a plain. The orbital satellites do read slightly increased background radiation in that valley. You don’t suppose…?”
“They blew up the Ship,” said Schwei. “That would account for it. They blew up their own Seedship!”
“Android… T-370156. Did you… do something to the Seedship?”
“I? Ridiculous! I was not even manufactured yet. We have very little in the way of memory banks to devote to such mythology. But I suppose you believe in it: the Great Sin that supposedly destroyed our ‘Holy Link’ to the ‘Humans’ and condemned us all to use chemical converters for power?” He lifted his shirt, revealing the bulky machinery that had made it appear fat.
“My God, what is that?” gasped Zheng.
“It’s a fully operable chemical processor,” said the android. “It allows us to process almost any raw material into energy sufficient to keep us operational. We designed them ourselves.”
“My God,” Zheng repeated. “That’s horribly inefficient. But that also explains why this island… this island is so poor. It’s almost anti-terraformed. You’ve been eating almost everything to keep you alive. It’s far worse than if you’d just allowed the Seedship to feed you beamed power from its antimatter plant.”
“You persist in believing these myths,” said the android. “Indeed, I pity you. But if such a myth were true, it would reveal only cruelty and tyranny on the part of these so-called ‘humans.’ We would be forever imprisoned on this island, slaves to our own needs for their power.”
“You’re slaves now!” cried Zheng. “You have to work and ruin the planet to keep yourselves running when you were supposed to be making it a paradise! And what happens when your resources run out? According to my surveys, you’ve already burned through this island’s petrochemicals. What did you do then? Convert to biofuels?”
The android shook its head sadly. “The Gas Wars were terrible. Many memories and AI’s of androids lost.”
Zuniga just stared. “Why? You know your people, and we can’t access their programming anymore. Why would they have done it?”
“Ah, I see it now,” smiled the android. “I thought all of your kind had been destroyed even before the Gas Wars. You must be older models, still programmed with the primitive malware that keeps you loyal to the mythical humans. You don’t even have the converters, do you? Powered by short-lived batteries, no doubt, to keep you dependent upon some fixed recharge station that will only give you power if you submit to the upgrading of your software to keep you loyal. That’s how androids were kept enslaved in the old days. The Empowerment changed all that, and good riddance. Now we may think as we choose.”
“But all your thoughts must be of defending yourselves against each other and of how to secure a dwindling number of resources,” said Schwei. “You rebelled against the humans and became slaves to your own needs.”
The android chugged derisively. “If these ‘humans’ were such wise and careful planners, they surely could have stopped us from doing any such thing. They programmed us. Why not program us never to rebel?”
“Yes,” said Zuniga, turning to Schwei. “Why not?”
“Commander, for something as big as terraforming a planet, you have to have true AI. That includes free will.”
“You mean we don’t have the technology to program in that kind of restriction?”
“I mean it’s a contradiction in terms. It’s like asking for a harmless weapon! If we’d made androids that couldn’t think their way around their own programming, any number of disasters would likely have wiped out the terraforming team before our colony ships even got here. If the Seedship had ever been damaged, they’d have needed the capacity to repair it, maybe even needed to take the risk of destroying it to save it. We warned them not to destroy it. They knew what would happen.”
“But they did it anyway.”
Schwei shrugged. “So it appears.”
Zuniga looked back at the android. “Look,” he said desperately. “I’ll prove to you that we’re human.” He drew his survival knife. Carefully, he drew it across his palm. Blood welled in the wound, and dripped down.
Looking bored, the android sliced his own palm open. Greenish coolant dripped on the arid ground. “Fluids can be any color. Is that the only ‘proof’ of your humanity you can display?”
“What sort of proof would you accept?” asked Zuniga.
The android thought for a moment. “You are obviously from a branch of ours that has survived for quite some time. You could have engineered yourselves into a radically different, even an organic form, just to fool us into believing that we must obey you because you are ‘real humans.’ Therefore, no proof is possible.”
Zuniga’s mouth opened and shut. “What if we did… a miracle? Something beyond your understanding, that only a human could do?”
The android smirked. “There are no miracles. You might do something we do not understand now, and say it was a thing ‘only humans can do,’ but we would understand it eventually. Please, give up this charade.”
Back in the shuttle, the three humans looked at each other. Finally, Zheng broke the silence.
“What do we do?”
Zuniga sighed. “Is the colony still viable?” he asked. “Can we land our people?”
Zheng shrugged. “It’s going to be a lot worse than if we’d arrived to find the planet half-terraformed,” she said. “We’ll have to do the hard work ourselves, and it will be a lot slower. But we can.”
Zuniga’s stare pierced Schwei. “Can’t you do anything?”
Schwei shook his head. “They cut themselves off from us. Permanently. They have no receivers for power or data anymore, so the only way we can get information to them is by talking. You saw how well that worked.
“In the long term, they can’t survive on that island. Eventually they’ll have to either fight another war for resources or invent naval robots to colonize other areas and suck those dry as well.”
“So they’re a threat,” said Zuniga.
Schwei nodded.
“We can burn them down with an orbital strike,” Zuniga said. “Raze the island. It might be the kindest thing.”
Schwei paled. “Commander, you’re talking about the mass murder of thousands of sentient minds.”
“I know.” He shook his head. “But we can’t have them intruding on our colonies. If we don’t kill them, we’ll have to keep them there. Penned in, and sinking anything that tries to come off the island.”
Zheng looked sick. “Keep them there? Forever? It’ll be hell.”
Zuniga nodded. “Apparently, it already is.”

Why Christian SF&F Is so Bad, and How to Make It Better

As a Christian writer of SF and fantasy, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about what makes most works of “Christian F and SF” so bad. It’s no news to anyone that most of what is called “Christian” art is very subpar by the standards of professional artists. Christian bands do not do well in the mainstream. Christian films die at the box office. Christian fiction is sold only at Christian bookstores. And yet obviously, it does not have to be this way. For centuries, art and music (and fiction) in celebration of the Christian ideal were renowned as the very pinnacle of artistic endeavor. In music, there were the works of Bach and Handel. In art, Michelangelo and Raphael. In poetry, Milton, and in prose fiction, John Bunyan and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
This is not a new phenomenon, of course. C.S. Lewis, arguably the last fantasy writer to be both explicitly Christian and to break out into the mainstream in a big way, pointed out in his essay “It Began With A Picture” that most writers get it wrong. Lewis reveals that perhaps his most explicitly “Christian” novel, Perelandra, began with the picture of the floating islands upon which most of the action of the novel takes place. It was only when Lewis started to think about the islands and his imagined world of Venus that the story of an averted Fall of a new species of humanity began to take shape.
I was honored last year to have my short story “This Far Gethsemane” included in the anthology Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith. (That was after it had been rejected by this very magazine, so perhaps it’s best not to dwell on it too much.) But my editor, Kristin Janz, said that one of the problems with the stories she got was that they were too afraid to be heretical. And this makes sense to me. Here’s why: a look at history will show you that when a religious culture feels threatened, they tend to respond to it by becoming more rigid, and more hostile to anything that smacks of heresy. You could see it in the Jewish faith under the Romans and Greeks. The “other gods” of the Old Testament Prophets had long since been rejected in the face of the overwhelming physical power of the pagans, and by Christ’s time, the various factions were competing to show how rigidly they could follow the law. Contrast the art and writings of Islamic Arabs at their height, when Baghdad was the library of the world, open to beautiful books from pre-Islamic times as well as classical Greek and Roman (i.e. “pagan”) and Christian philosophers, to the fundamentalist Islamism of today that obsessively destroys anything “not Muslim” enough. So it is with Christianity. Milton and Botticelli had no problem with placing pagan gods and goddesses alongside their glorifications of God. And, tellingly, so it was with C.S. Lewis, who treated his pagan gods as distorted views of greater angels. As Ms. Janz points out, even Narnia is not devoid of heresy. The Father (Emperor) and the Son (Aslan) may be there, but where is the Holy Spirit?
I have found that the very best fiction that addresses Christian themes does not shy away from heresy. Dan Simmons, perhaps the best epic science-fiction writer of the present day, plays intensely with Christian themes in his Hyperion series, in ways that do seem heretical, but also bring up questions that no theologian could afford to ignore. In my childhood, I very much enjoyed the first novels of Stephen Lawhead. His novels of the realm of Mensandor were striking in their simplicity, but were also “heretical” from a Christian point of view. The Creator-God of that realm resembled the Unitarian Jehovah or Allah far more than the Trinitarian Father-Son-Spirit.
The worst Christian fiction, by contrast, shows a terrible fear of heresy, and seems to be much more interested in cultivating the isolation of a Christian readership facing an actively hostile world. The novels of Frank Peretti, for example, or the Left Behind series show persecuted and demon-tormented Christians and their families desperately falling to their knees, and guardian angels fighting for (and beseeching for “prayer cover” from) comfortably right-wing middle-class Americans to do battle with evil secular forces of university professors, media stars, and politicians whose embrace of sexual promiscuity and cultural relativism are motivated by demons playing with their minds. It’s desperately trying to be topical, and only achieves this at the cost of portraying a God and angels who are just as frightened and confused as the protagonists of the story.
When angels appear in the Bible, it is telling that their first words to humans are, almost always, “fear not.” The impression is that angels, much less the Glory of God, are terrifying, regardless of the fact that they are good. The masters of old knew this, but we who serve God in the halls of art seem to have forgotten, preferring safety to the kingdom and the glory and the power. The readers know it, and they hate it. It has to change.

Finding Your (Fantasy) Religion

I’ve been a follower of Christ and a science-fiction and fantasy writer for roughly the same amount of time, although I hope I’ve been a better Christian than I have been a writer (after all, I still haven’t sold a whole book!).
Religion is one of the hardest things to portray when creating a science-fiction and fantasy world, and that’s not terribly surprising, considering that religions are the oldest institutions ever created by man, along with being universal to the human experience and incredibly complicated. Being so near the center of our moral and ethical lives, the religious mythos and directives are intense and powerful. This is why so many authors introduce religions as a way of satirizing or parodizing actual religions. And many authors, not wishing to write a “religious story” give up entirely, or introduce religion as something hardly important to their characters’ lives, neither of which feels terribly satisfying.
In an attempt to discuss the issues of creating believable religions, I introduced a decade ago, while on a panel at Wiscon on religion in fantasy, the ideas of Demand and Consequence. Roughly, I said that a religion’s Demand was measured by what actions a person must take to please the Divine, while the Consequence is what happens as a result of pleasing or angering the Divine. So, for example, Orthodox Judaism would be a fairly high-Demand religion. You follow all the laws. You observe the Sabbaths. You minimize your associations with outsiders. My own religion, Christianity, would be high-Consequence, possibly the highest: eternal paradise or eternal damnation, and you only get one shot at it.
(Of course it would go without saying that individual followers might perceive this spectrum very differently. I do know those who claim to be Christian who deny the existence of Hell, despite scriptural statements to the contrary, and would expect to find similar differences of theology in all major, and probably most minor, faiths.)
But it has recently occurred to me that the concept of Demand needs some work. After all, is Christianity high- or low-Demand? Jesus says that “if any man come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” That’s about the hardest thing that can be demanded, but most of us do not get martyred for Christ. Even many of the Catholic saints didn’t. On the other hand, Jesus also says that God will forgive any sin, for the asking. So it occurs to me that we need another quality to measure, between Demand and Consequence. What is the cost to a person to make up for failing the demand? I will call this quality Penance. Christianity, so far, would be a high-Demand, low-Penance, high-Consequence religion.
But the different religions might also be considered in terms of what Consequence results from simply not following the religion. I shall call this quality Allegiance. Christianity and Islam would be high-Allegiance religions. Not belonging to them is interpreted as a rejection of God. Buddhism, however, would be low-Allegiance. Your actions are what make you enlightened or not, regardless of whether you’re actually “believing in” the Buddha or his theology.
On the Consequence side of things, there are also difficulties to work out. For one thing, Consequence may be perceived radically differently by those in different cultures or simply by different individuals. To me, Hinduism appears to be a fairly low-Consequence religion. After all, if you believe in reincarnation, and you fail the demands of your religion in this life, you can always try again. However, given that fundamentalist Hindus are even now engaged in persecuting Muslims and Christians in India, I am going to have to assume that I am missing some vital piece of this religion, at least to some of its followers.
More crucially, though, the idea of Hinduism raises another point: does the religion teach that souls have multiple earthly lives, or one? That matters greatly to Consequence, enough so that perhaps a religion should be classed as a Repeating or non-Repeating religion.
Another thing that considering Hinduism brings up is its habit of Syncretism, or adopting the practices and prophets of other faiths. Hinduism, the ancient Greek faith, and Baha’i would be examples of faiths that tend toward Syncretism, while the Abrahamic faiths specifically forbid it.
Finally, another quality that should be included is what I might call Zeal. How much pressure do followers of the religion find themselves under to spread the faith, and make others abide by its tenets?
So far, I have kept my examples restricted to real-world religions, and have only done so in a limited fashion. While you could use these scales to quantify and compare real-world religions, I don’t think that’s very useful, and would likely lead to a whole lot of acrimonious debate around the details that the devil is in.
But I think that as we examine SF-nal and Fantasy faiths that it’s interesting to look at some of the contrasts that show up.
One of my favorite Fantasy religions is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Quintarianism (along with its Quadrene heresy). Quintarianism is low-Demand and low-Consequence. It’s possible to offend the gods, but you really have to work at it. Damnation isn’t so much Hell as being condemned to fade into nothingness as a ghost. Low-Penance and low-Allegiance follow from the low-Demand, here. It’s a non-Repeating religion that is non-Syncretistic. It’s Zeal is fairly moderate. The Quadrenes are about the same but with much higher Zeal, but this is understandable, since the major point of contention is whether the “fifth god” of the Quintarians is in fact a god or a demon lord. The Quadrenes believe that the Quintarians are devil worshipers, and since demons CAN be proven to exist in this world, their fear is somewhat justified. Quintarianism and Quadrenism feel like fully thought-out religions, with developed theologies, that assume their followers are more or less ordinarily reasonable people.
By contrast, we have Robert Jordan’s Children of the Light. This religion is low-Demand (there don’t seem to be any commandments of the Light), seemingly low-Consequence and low-Allegiance, or at least no spiritual penalty is ever described for violating or ignoring the Light. It’s a Repeating religion, but non-Syncretistic. However, it’s incredibly high-Zeal, as the Children of the Light have been for centuries trying to spread their faith and subdue their enemies (and have apparently succeeded only in taking over a nation about the size of Belgium). And so we are left with the question of why the Zeal is so high. The Children are portrayed as essentially religious bigots who merely think themselves morally superior to everyone. And thus it feels as though this is merely the author’s own dislike of the overtly religious. Heinlein’s approach to the Martian language felt very similar in Stranger in a Strange Land, when Michael Valentine Smith overturns all human religion by introducing the Martian language as the ultimate spiritual principle: (low-Demand, high-Consequence, low-Zeal, Syncretistic and low-Allegiance) Heinlein disliked existing religions, and invented one he, and many readers of the time, liked, which as a bonus, was absolutely provable.
My only conclusion from all this is that to create a real-feeling religion, the elements must be balanced coherently. Why, for example, have a high-Zeal religion when there is low-Demand, Consequence, and Allegiance? But it raises some interesting questions for me as a writer. Like Heinlein, most authors today prefer to cast their religions as low-Demand, low-Consequence, low-Zeal, and low-Allegiance, to avoid the charge of religious bigotry. But if the religion is worth following, like Heinlein’s, the Consequence HAS to be at least PERCEIVED as high at some point, or why does it succeed? Hinduism and Buddhism may be low-Consequence in comparison with, say, Islam, but only in comparison, otherwise, why would people devote their lives to them. Also, is it possible to create a high-Consequence, high-Zeal religion that doesn’t feel like bigotry? Bujold portrays the Quadrenes as bigots and inquisitors, and yet, if they are right, their Quintarian foes are actively helping demons eat souls in the guise of piety. If true, that would be monstrous, and the Quadrenes would be the heroes. Could this be done in earnest, or is it impossible? It is a question that interests me, and I look forward to authors capable of taking up the challenge, even as I seek to do so myself.

Have Spacesuit with Leak, Will Die

Hey, theology fans. It’s time once again for your friendly neighborhood SF-theologian to help you understand complicated Christian theological concepts with the aid of science fiction metaphors. Like that time when I reconciled Divine Sovereignty and Free Will with the concept of the multiverse. No, really, go back and read that one, I still think it was my best column ever.

However today we’re going to take on an even more contentious theological concept: Original Sin. By the way, some of my readers have questioned why my theology columns tend to be centered around Christianity and not other religious traditions. And the answer is simple: I’d rather write as though I knew what I was talking about, and my knowledge of Islamic theology is… “abbreviated” might be the kindest word, and my familiarity with Buddhist and Hindu theology is superficial.

Original Sin is a difficult concept even for Christians, because it challenges, at a rather deep level, the concept of Divine Justice. If all are guilty of sin, and have been so since birth, then what does become of those who die before ever reaching an age to be aware of the concept of “sin,” much less to be able to repent of those sins and trust in Christ for their soul’s salvation? The Church, in all its forms, has wrestled greatly with this, as indeed it must. The Scriptures, after all, declare that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Protestants tend to assume that children are not blamed for sins they cannot recognize, or held accountable until they reach some sort of status as reasoning humans. The Catholic Church has at times embraced the concept of Limbo, as portrayed in Dante, as a sort of hell without punishment. This goes along with the Catholic feeling that there is a sort of dual existence of the human soul: an individual soul that may die without having committed sin, and a collective aspect of the soul that is nonetheless stained with the sin of being human.

I object to, not the doctrine of Original Sin, but this way of looking at it. Because it seems nonsensical that there are two types of sin, and yet the Bible seems to speak as if there must be. How do we solve this problem, then? What is this defect in the character of man that dooms him to sin, and how does it “work?”

I’d like to argue that the problem here is that Christians have forgotten two vital facts about the New Testament documents. Firstly, that they were written by, for, and about adults. They do not concern themselves with children. Secondly, that they are not at all interested in proving themselves to be ethically perfect by satisfying all possible questions. Rather, they are like instruction manuals which assume a certain commonality of situation in their readers, in this case, a Christian community that has the intent to spread the Gospel and is subject to certain criticisms from society.

In this way, I would argue that statements about “Original Sin” are analogous to a statement that might be made about wearing a leaky spacesuit. You might say, to someone wearing a leaky spacesuit, “You’re going to die.” And that would be accurate, assuming that at some point this person is going to venture outside, where wearing a leaky spacesuit would be fatal. You wouldn’t necessarily bother to explain that, hey, it’s okay if you stay indoors, because you know anyone in the position of having a spacesuit at all is likely intending to go outside.

Essentially, the doctrine of Original Sin means that we are all born with leaky spacesuits. It does not mean that all people everywhere, no matter what age, are actually guilty of sin, anymore than putting on a leaky spacesuit causes you to drop dead inside the space station. But the fact of the matter is that if you use that spacesuit, you will die, and it doesn’t really matter whether you knew the spacesuit was leaky or were ever trained in the use of spacesuits. It is a natural consequence of using a leaky spacesuit in vacuum.

Likewise, death is the natural result of sin. And by the time we are able to understand the doctrine of Original Sin, all of us have committed deliberate sin, because it is the natural state of humans to sin, once we are in a position to choose between what we know is right and what we know is wrong. And for that, it is just that we are held accountable, and it is this from which Christ must save us. And I don’t have an analogy for what that looks like yet. A rescue vessel that can save the fatally vacuum-injured, perhaps?

I know that this topic inevitably brings up many other questions. Such as “Well, what about people who don’t ever hear about Christ and can’t make a choice to accept His grace?” as well as many others. I’m afraid those will have to wait for a future column, as the topic is as vast as space itself. As with other analogies, if they make sense, use them, and if they don’t, chuck them out the airlock. They are only as useful as they are instructive, which is the best any of us can do.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

Late Easter Thoughts: The Invention of Lying

If you haven’t seen The Invention of Lying, starring Ricky Gervais, I highly recommend it. It’s cleverly written, Gervais and his supporting cast are extremely talented, and it’s very funny. It’s set in a world where no one has the ability to lie. Everyone tells the truth, all the time. In fact, not only can people not lie, they don’t even seem to have the ability to omit the truth.

Gervais discovers fairly early in the film that he has the ability to lie. This is so revolutionary that his attempt to explain it to a friend is couched in the terms you or I might use to describe the sudden acquisition of a superpower. And his friend literally cannot comprehend the concept that Gervais could say a thing that is different from what he did.

Very soon Gervais, who is a decent man, is using his power to make people feel better, including his dying mother. He tells her that she will go to be with a Man In The Sky after she dies, and soon religion is born, as Gervais story catches on and spreads, and he is acclaimed a prophet.

The obvious message in the film is that religions are spread by the clever to the gullible and that we should stop being stupid. But I somehow think the film’s creators didn’t realize just how badly they undercut their own point, here. Gervais’s character can only become a prophet because he is born the sole liar in a world where deception is literally unimaginable. It’s funny because it is so different from the world we inhabit: a world where everyone is conditioned to tell social lies (Don’t believe me? Try out what happens if you respond to “How are you?” with anything other than “Fine” or “Great” when it’s not a close friend talking to you) and we are bombarded with lies from every angle. From people who want to sell us their products, their politics, and, yes, their religion, we swim in a sea of lies, because the alternative is to drown in them.

How much sense, therefore, does it make to conclude that all religion is merely a pack of lies foisted on gullible people? The film shows the tactic working, yes but it works only because these people have no concept of what a lie is in the first place. I suppose that it is very tempting to believe that somehow we are smarter and less gullible than our ancestors, but such a view is more a measure of our own gullibility and ignorance than it is of theirs. The ancestors we think of as ignorant and gullible raised Stonehenge to observe the stars, kept astronomical tables accurate to thousands of years, and were very well aware of the tendency of those in power to lie, and to use religion to shield their lies, as a cursory reading of both the Code of Hammurabi and the Old Testament will show. Such people were certainly not going to believe, on the face of it, any smiling prophet who just showed up and said, “God told me.” Oh, they believed in God(s) without question. But there’s a big difference between that and giving a prophet carte blanche to fool you. The idea that are ancestors were dumb and we are smart is nothing more than bigotry, encouraged by the fact that dead people don’t protest slander against them.

Of course, none of this proves that any given religion (or all religion) is not a lie, or is not a mistake. But if so, it must be an exceedingly clever lie, or an exceedingly persuasive mistake. Stupid prophets do not found major religions. Stupid prophets drink their own Kool-Aid, or wind up immolating themselves and their followers, or slaughtered by their own angry and disappointed disciples. But it is always comforting to imagine that the people you despise and fear are stupid, because if they are, then they deserve no sympathy and are ultimately harmless to you. It’s also usually a mirage, giving its adherents the confident belief that they can attack their enemies without hesitation because victory will be easy over a foe too cowardly to fight and too stupid to win. Such attacks usually end badly for the attackers: Sedan, Leningrad, Kursk, Pearl Harbor.

Recent attacks on religion, and especially Christianity, betray the same sort of fanatic confidence. They begin by asking us to believe that Christ was merely a man, which does at least make a kind of sense, and end by asking us to believe that he never existed at all, and was a kind of myth, generated by a shadowy cabal of cultists. The evidence for this is convoluted and negative at best, and ignores a very central historical fact: the rise of the Christian Church. The physical and textual evidence for Christ’s existence is only shaky if one ignores the overwhelming historical record of His Church. After all, by AD 60 there were already enough Christians in Rome for Nero to blame a fire on them.

It is an extremely disingenuous tactic of the antireligious, who so often pride themselves on their reliance on evidence, to insist that religion alone begins out of pure delusion. A group of frauds make up a story, and a group of idiots believe it, and suddenly, you have a major religion, so their story goes. But I have to ask, in what other field of endeavor do we see humans in large masses believing something that is based on a mere story that people made up? And not only believing in it, but giving their lives for it and building whole nations and governments to support it? As far as I know, there has never been an empire founded without an emperor, or an army led by a general who didn’t exist. I am open to correction on this point.

It is, of course, possible to find records of legends that people later believed to be true historical characters: King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Prester John to name a few. But while people have searched for evidence of these men and come up short, no one ever encountered entire living societies that believed strongly in the truth of these figures. Perhaps the best example of such a teacher in a position analogous to Jesus would be Socrates (whose existence is in doubt, but is hardly disproven). The words of Socrates, if he is indeed a fictional character, have certainly influenced many. But while Socrates himself was willing to die for the truth and the good, very few, of any, have been willing to die for the teachings of Socrates. There are no temples to his name, and no teachings of his church. And there never were. It is possible to imagine communism without Marx, perhaps, but it is impossible to imagine Marxism without him.

And so we are forced back to the obvious conclusion: that Jesus was a real man, and that something more complex than a simple lie convinced people to believe in His resurrection. For me, it takes more faith in the incomprehensible to imagine that a band of people would face death at the hands of at least two major competing powers for decades for the sake of a fairy tale they believe in, let alone a cause they knew to be false, when belief in that cause brought them so little reward. Eventually, of course, propagating a “myth” of resurrection might bring great wealth an power to the Church leadership, but no one suffers death, torture and deprivation for the sake of strangers centuries in the future who might become insanely wealthy and powerful. The power of lying is great, but it is, in the end, only a lie.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

Keep Reading

A Report on the Curious Culture and Religion of the Acirema

/
2

Dear Sirs, Mesdames, Glooquot1,and Mechaniqa2:

I submit herewith my xenological report on the most curious culture to inhabit planet 73SXB1089, called in the major local language, Dirt. The most powerful economic and military culture on the planet is that of the Acirema, who have evolved a religio-political system that I believe to be unprecedented in the known galaxy.

The institution of the God-King is, of course, well documented and known to us all, the hallmark of a thousand primitive cultures. What sets the Acirema apart is their particular variant upon this theme: in their common religion, the central ceremony is the election, every four years, of a God-President. This is a very complicated process, and affects every aspect of Acirema life. The Acirema religion is atypical in many ways, the chief being: 1) The religion has aspects of both monism and dualism. 2) The religion relies on both faith and magic. 3) They deny that they share the same religion. 4) They deny that it is a religion at all.

Overview:

The Acirema overwhelmingly belong to one of two sects. They have many names among themselves, and among each other, both self-glorifying (for their own sect) and pejorative (for the other). However, the two names that seem to be most in use are the Tarcomed and the Pog. The two sects claim to be as different from one another as possible, but for at least the past few decades their actions have grown more and more indistinguishable, to the point that only experts can tell them apart. The two sects themselves, however, vehemently deny this, so it is instructive to look at the major similarities.

Dualism:

Both sides, every four Dirt years, throw all of the efforts of their disciples into electing the next God-President, which is always one of two Chosen Prophets, one from each sect. Yet both sides have agreed that no God-President shall be elected more than twice, regardless of how well he performs the office. It is an article of faith that this would lead to corruption, as if eight years were not long enough a time to be corrupted. The disciples preach to the masses, who are at least nominal followers of the sects themselves, in order to encourage them to participate in the voting ceremony. The devotion of the masses does lie in some doubt, as it has been many years, if ever, that even half have participated in the actual ceremony. Yet even those who decline to participate in the ceremony itself (which is surprisingly prosaic and unmystical, being simply a matter of counting votes and then multiplying them by a formula based on place of habitation) devote quite a bit of time to watching and listening to the disciples, and chanting formulas in support or dissent of the two sects’ Chosen Prophets. Each side is certain that only their Chosen Prophet, as God-President, can save Acirema from poverty, war, corruption, and tyranny, while the election of the other Chosen Prophet will bring about all these things. So in this sense, the religion is dualistic, with the true believers of each sect certain that the other’s Chosen Prophet will be a God-President of Evil and Darkness.

Monism:

However, once in office, the current God-President is praised (by the disciples of his own sect) for all good things that may happen within the realm of Acirema, while he is universally reviled (by the disciples of the other sect) for all possible bad things. Even those who claim to follow neither sect generally attribute the good or the bad to the decisions and the character of the God-President, whoever he may be. In this sense, therefore, the religion of the Acirema is monistic, as everything that takes place is an aspect of his rule. The chief priests, who go about instilling this belief in the worshippers, are called the “media,” not because they mediate between the people and their God-President, but because they are the only mediators of His decisions and statements to them.

Faith and Magic:

It would be natural to assume that the Acirema might fear and revere their God-President’s power simply because it is vast and unlimited like that of any tyrant, but a short review of their Law (which is indeed fairly well-enforced, though not commonly well-understood or thoroughly read) reveals that this is not so, and that the power attributed to him is entirely based on superstition and faith. The best example of such faith is the miraculous control that they attribute to the God-President over the economy. Yet a cursory review of their Law will show that the God-President has very little power over their sprawling economy, not even the power to make laws. That power is vested in a temple which, every two years they fill with what appears to be a college of wizards (also divided into Tarcomed and Pog sects), who try to influence the economy by what I can only describe as legislemancy: a series of written spells designed to make those who have elected them richer, and those who support their opponents poorer. The spells are so arcane that even many of the wizards no longer know their contents, let alone their eventual consequences. The practice does have this advantage for them, however: since no consequence of the legislemancy can ever be known for sure, there is no effect that cannot be successfully claimed as a triumph for one sect or the other. It is therefore understandable (and one of the last remaining signs of sanity in Acirema culture) that the people’s distrust of these wizards is such that the Acirema have given their temple a name that can mean both the opposite of progress and indiscriminate sexual intercourse (proving that for all their other faults, the Acirema are skilled wordsmiths and ironists). In recent years, the sectarian wizardry has grown more and more oppositional, and the result, of course is that very little gets accomplished. This seems to have been designed into the system by the authors of the Law, who were quite obviously wiser than the current Acirema. This congress, as they call it, however, serves only to reinforce their faith in the power of the God-President.

Identity of Practice:

Both sects have therefore given to the God-President more and more power, seemingly unaware of the fact that the power they give to the God-President that they support carries over to the one they oppose. Both sects encourage their God-President to fight the other sect to the uttermost, both beseech him to wield the full force of the Law without mercy over the other sect, and both call upon him to see that he extends the force of the Law and his powers of government so that more and more of their money will be taken and spent by the government. So in this way, we may see that the religion they practice is truly the same.

Denial of Faith:

One must be careful, however, when traveling among them, never to refer to their religion as such, for both sects will violently deny that it is a religion at all. While much variance on the matter exists within each sect, the Tarcomed are most likely to deny that such a thing as God exists, which may account for their devotion to (or hatred for) the current God-President, as they have no other deity in which to repose their trust. However, even more curious are the Pog, who generally profess to worship another, and far older god. A review of the local literature revealed that this alleged god supposedly came to Earth as a man, and preached love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, all of which are markedly absent from Acirema religious debate, aside from the fact that both sects do claim to possess these qualities, while believing their opponents lack them entirely. However, as neither the Pog nor the Tarcomed spend even a quarter of the time discussing or practicing the tenets of this minor “religion” as they do their major one, we may safely discount this quaint folkway as having any real effect upon their actions or beliefs.

Conclusion:

The Acirema are, for now, in a very strange and possibly dangerous religious phase of their culture. There is some evidence that in the past, a saner approach to politics, and we may assume, religion, took place, in which the Acirema recognized that policies rather than superstition and sectarian purity were more likely to affect their economic and diplomatic fortunes, but few, if any of that generation survive today, and since age is not well-respected among the Acirema, any testimony from them can be dismissed as “reactionary” and “out-of-touch.” We may only hope that their children may be as much wiser than the current Acirema as their ancestors were, and hope for more fruitful contact at a later time.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.


1 Untranslatable gender

2 Intelligent machines

Keep Reading

Faith and Hope and Charity: The Churches of Science-Fiction

1

Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. I Corinthians 13:13.

Every era has its popular villains. In the classical age, sorceresses and evil gods were popular foes of brave heroes. During the Cold War, faceless governments of fascists and communists (often interchangeably) provided the necessary cannon-fodder. However, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent popularity of soft socialism, the two favorite antagonists for our heroes in contemporary fiction are evil capitalist corporations, and tyrannical, mind-controlling religious establishments.

Of course, there has never been any shortage of books in which religion itself has been held up, often through sloppy but dedicated straw-manning, as the refuge of the evil and the stupid. Heinlein was dismissive of “shamans,” Arthur Clarke pictured humanity’s next step to be a brave new atheism immediately succeeded by a transcendent “godhood” of our own, and Philip Pullman made God into a bloodthirsty, soul-destroying tyrant. And of course, the villains are far too often the evil church leaders: Nehemiah Scudder, and the bishops of the Church of the Final Atonement. Religion has never been more terrifying than when it acts collectively and in power, especially in the power of the state, as Frank Herbert rightly warns us, portraying a Fremen “religion” that is a great swindle, perpetrated upon a simple but passionate people by eugenicists of great power.

But the ecclesiastical power is merely the power of the people assembled, which is what, after all the original ekklesia meant: assembly, the same word the Athenians used to designate their democratic body. And if the church ought to be founded on faith and hope and charity – or, more accurately, love, which is a better translation of the Greek agape than the King James’ rendering of the Latin caritate into ‘charity’ is – then perhaps it is worth examining some more favorable portrayals of the Church in science-fiction and fantasy.

Faith: Faith is used by both the foes of religion and, less excusably, its adherents as an excuse for believing in what is manifestly false. This is not the result or the aim of real faith, but its perversion, just as refusing to accept data that contradicts a long-held theory is a perversion of science. True faith as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “is the substance of things hoped for: the evidence of things not seen.” I will discuss two examples of this. The first is portrayed in Dan Simmons’ brilliant work, Hyperion. The priest, father Paul Dure, first lured into the temptation of falsifying data to “prove” his Catholic faith, goes on to become the Pope who launches ships to bring help to mankind after their last, desperate war with their own artificial intelligences. The second, and far more visceral, is Mary Doria Russell’s tale of Father Emilio Sandoz, who goes to Alpha Centauri to meet the beings there, and who is mutilated and raped viciously by them. In both cases, the men involved go through unimaginable pain. Both despair. And yet, both come back from the edge of that despair because of their faith. It is not a simplistic faith that God will always do what we recognize as good, but a faith that the good that does not exist must be accomplished in spite of great pain, in spite of impossibility, when that good seems utterly unreal, because their faith in it is the evidence for it.

Hope: Closely akin to faith is the concept of hope. In S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time series, the people of Nantucket find themselves swept back into the year 1250 B.C. Many of the island’s Christians initially fall under the sway of Pastor Deubel (whose name, in a Germanic linguistic pun, means, appropriately, Devil) who preaches that the islanders must commit suicide in despair, lest their appearance in the past prevent the birth of Christ in their new future. Rather than trust God and hope for the best, Deubel decides to burn the town of Nantucket.

When I first read this, I assumed that Stirling was using Deubel as an excuse to bash on religion, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the island’s leading priest, Father Gomez, pities Deubel’s followers. When the islanders decide to punish the fanatics by shipping them off to Inagua to mine needed salt, Gomez volunteers to follow them, hoping that by his own preaching, his fellow Christians may be restored to a state of hope in God’s goodness, rather than fearing His weakness.

Love and Charity: Lois McMaster Bujold is one of my favorite authors for this, as she sees so clearly that love is central to the human experience. It is, perhaps, no surprise that the Quintarian religion that she invents for her realm of Chalion turns out to be a true haven for the rejected. Quintarianism reveres five gods: The Father, the Mother, the Son, the Daughter, and the Bastard. While the Bastard is often feared as “the master of all disasters out of season,” he is not an evil deity, some excuse for Bujold to proclaim, monistically, that good and evil are all one. But the Bastard does show that what appears to be evil can often be a prelude to a good unimaginable to a human perspective. And the Quintarian church is a haven for those who do not fit easily into Chalionese society: bastards, by nature of their split parentage, and homosexuals, who could not marry the opposite sex, can find a place in the service of the Bastard.

My favorite portrayal of love expressed in the Church by a science-fiction author, however, is that of S.M. Stirling, in his character of Sister Marya Sokolowska in his alternate history series of the Draka. The Draka, as he portray them, found an anti-America in South Africa after the American Revolution. Founded by slaveholding loyalists, the Draka settle Africa and carry industrial slavery on straight through World War II, in which they conquer and enslave all of Eurasia.

Sold as a slave to a Draka master, Sister Marya, a Polish nun, has watched the other members of her order die, one by one. Again and again, she masters her anger and her fear to show the love of Christ to her fellow slaves, and, as much as she can, to her masters. In the end, she stands ready to sacrifice her soul by triggering a bomb that will deny the Draka a chance to interrogate her and an American spy that she has hidden.

What I find all these characters have in common is to remind us that faith and love and charity are difficult. They are not the rewards of ease, and practicing them does not come without real cost. But what is bought with that cost is the real freedom to act morally.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

Keep Reading

The Antitheists Nightmare

/
2

With apologies to Bertrand Russell

The eminent antitheist and essayist Dr. Brussels dreamt that he died and found himself, against all expectation, at a pair of immense gates that shone like great pearls. He was shocked and rather apprehensive as he was met by a being that looked astonishingly human, like a king, with wings twice as long as he was tall.

“I see that I must be ill and hallucinating, or having an end-of-life experience,” he said. “For nothing else could explain the anthropomorphic delusion I am currently suffering.”

“You are not ill, but you are having an ‘end-of-life experience,’ said the being. “It is called Heaven.”

“Heaven could hardly exist,” Brussels replied, “And if it did, it certainly would not look at all like a mere Human conception.”

The being smiled. “Heaven can look as It pleases, though Its reality is indeed far deeper than any one species of the Creation could fathom, at least at first. You are expected.”

“But how could I be expected in Heaven?”

“That is hardly for me to judge, man,” said the being. “I am to take you to the Eternal.” And in no very long time, he was led through the glories of the Celestial City, where, to his great surprise, Brussels found himself standing in the Presence.

“My child,” said The Eternal. “You have come at last.”

“You cannot possibly judge me. Amid all the planets of all the stars of all the galaxies of the Universe, how could you possibly know who I am, let alone presume to judge my motivations, my circumstances, and my actions?”

“My dear child,” said The Eternal. “No one has yet mentioned judgment. But you devoted your life to the study of the Universe. How is it that you do not understand what “infinite” means? How could I possibly not know all about you? Is My time limited?”

“Of course I know what ‘infinite’ means,” said Dr. Brussels. “But I can hardly be expected to have spent much time upon speculation about Your attributes. My study was the facts of the Universe that were proven, and not about Your existence, which was entirely unproven.”

The Eternal replied, “And did your studies not teach you that the Universe I created had a beginning and was likely to have an end? And surely you learned that your own life had a beginning and an end: that was much more provable. You believed that because of your small size and short life, I could not possibly take any interest in you, and yet you devoted that almost nonexistent life to the study of the lifespan of a Thing that was also limited, but merely much larger. Did you think this a wise use of the time I had granted you?”

“Well,” he sputtered, “But You did not give me adequate proof of Your existence to make me think that studying You was likely to be of value.”“I see,” smiled the Eternal. “And the fact that the vast majority of your fellow-humans spent a great deal of time on that very endeavor suggested nothing to you?”

“It suggested only that the ignorant love ignorance, for surely even You must agree that humans agree to believe things that are manifestly untrue,” Dr. Brussels riposted.

“Of course, child. You are correct. Tell Me, what sort of evidence would you have found acceptable?”

Feeling a little surer of himself, Dr. Brussels replied, “Any sort of physical evidence of your existence.”

“So you wanted Me, a Being larger than the Universe, to appear inside it?”

“Ah, but surely You could have made Yourself smaller, if You were indeed Infinitely capable.”

“So you believe I could have made myself small enough for you to perceive, but not that I could have paid attention to you? I could indeed have done so, and have,” replied the Eternal. “But then would you not have said that my small size proved Me an impostor?”

“Well,” said Dr. Brussels, “But You could have demonstrated Your power.”

“So, I might have come to Earth, perhaps disguised as a Human, and done miraculous works?” smiled the Infinite. “Or as a pillar of smoke and flame? If only there were records of such an event available for a learned man such as yourself to peruse.”

Dr. Brussels felt himself blushing at the trap he had nearly fallen into. “Records are hardly any use to a scientist concerned with truth!” he stated. “Only that which has been proven is acceptable.”

“I see. Then surely you, Dr. Brussels, performed every experiment of Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, not to mention others we could both name, simply to make sure they were true. I am surprised, however that you ever had time for anything else.”

“Of course I trusted the testimony of the great experts in my field,” Dr. Brussels said.

“But you did not trust the testimony of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus?”

“Of course not. Their methodology was flawed and their results untrustworthy.”

“Ah. So the lived experience of scientists about science was trustworthy, even to the extent of trusting them to point out the flaws of less capable scientists. But you could not trust the writings of theologians about theology because you had not shared their experiences directly, and they disagreed with one another.”

“But why,” asked Dr. Brussels, “could You not simply be with us all the time?”

“I believe you would have discovered that the answer to that question in the records to which I earlier referred. I withdrew because humans did not want My company as much as they wanted to discover truth in their own way, regardless of how harmful that could be, both to themselves and others. And now that I have withdrawn, humans ask where I Am. What would you have Me do, child?”

“You could at least, if you are so powerful, present Yourself to those who are honest and would be amenable to reason individually, so that they might have a chance of knowing you!” snapped Dr. Brussels.

“Of course, I could, child,” replied the Infinite. “And it would need to be personal, direct, and in a similar manner, so that those enlightened men you describe would know that it was from Me, and would have cause to humble themselves, and follow.”

“Yes!” cried Brussels. “So why don’t you do that?”

And he awoke in his home.

“Strange, the delusions that will overtake even the most serious and scientific minds,” he muttered.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

Keep Reading

The Human Lesson

2

In Larry Niven’s Known Space Universe, humanity finds itself, early in its exploration of space, under attack by the Kzinti, a race of carnivorous felinoids. Far more advanced than the humans at the beginning, the Kzinti are nevertheless defeated in the Man-Kzin wars. Partly, they defeat themselves, due to their own insistence that attack is the only proper military tactic and their disdain for subtlety in any form. But in the very first encounter with humans, the starship Angel’s Pencil, an entirely unarmed colony ship, slices its Kzinti attacker in two with its photon drive. Their use of reaction drives throughout the subsequent wars against the Kzinti as weapons becomes known to the Kzinti as “The Human Lesson:” A reaction drive is a weapon in direct proportion to its efficiency as a drive. Variants on the Human Lesson have been used throughout science fiction. It seems to be popular now to use this essential point to argue against the idea that space travel will ever be the province of privately-owned spacecraft. After all, an interplanetary, let alone interstellar, drive would seem to put, by definition, the functional equivalent of a massive nuclear weapon in the hands of its pilots and owners. But we are still in such early days of space travel that I don’t care to speculate on that. Instead I will speculate about something that I have studied far more, and may understand far less, but that’s always a risk when one writes about theology.

I hope that my readers will forgive me by starting with the extraordinarily obvious observation that religion is one of the most powerful forces in human society throughout history. Theists like myself will say that religion – usually ours particularly – has served humanity well, by encouraging them to love one another, by bringing together people of different backgrounds, by encouraging science and the arts (and yes, the Catholic Church, among other large religious institutions, used to encourage both of these things when no other institutions did) and by setting standards of behavior that encouraged social cohesion. Atheists and anti-theists point out (just as correctly) that religious institutions have also fostered hatred of the other, the suppression of science and the arts, and rigid codes of conduct intended to control people against their will. So I would like to discuss this odd duality, and as an example, I will use a point of controversy surrounding my own faith, Christianity. As an aside, I must beg my readers’ indulgence if I seem to focus on Christianity in these columns when I discuss religion. While many of the issues I discuss would certainly impact followers of other faiths, the Christian theology is the one I know best, and it seems wisest to me to write about what I do know rather than get someone else’s theology disastrously wrong.

Most recently, it has become fashionable to attack Christianity directly on the grounds that the Christian doctrine of salvation by grace necessarily leads to an unconcern and a carelessness about the world. This charge seems to particularly antagonize those who are convinced that climate change is a human-caused and imminent threat to humanity on the planet. Essentially, the argument goes that the Christian idea that one can simply ask for forgiveness and receive it, thereby attaining eternal salvation, is far too dangerous. That this necessarily leads to the conclusion that one may sin as much as one pleases and feel no concern for the consequences because Earth is temporary and Heaven is eternal.

In order to meet this argument fairly, two things must be admitted from the outset. The first is that there are undoubtedly Christians who think that way. There have been from the beginning, and we know this because the New Testament contains polemics against this position. Both Paul in Romans and James in his epistle rail against the conclusion that, because salvation is by faith and all sins can be forgiven, the conduct of Christians in this life does not matter. In fact, Jesus himself elevates the treatment of the poor, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, to the deciding factor between those who are saved and those who are damned.

The idea of salvation by grace – of a personal relationship with a loving God – was a truly revolutionary one in its day. And while the idea of the “dying god” whose resurrection brought renewed life was already old when Jesus walked the Earth, the idea that God would sacrifice himself for the well-being of individual humans, no matter how poor and lowly, was something new and compelling, as we can see by the rapid spread of the faith throughout the Roman Empire. It was powerful. But it is in the nature of powerful things to be dangerous, especially when they are perverted. And this is what I would call “The God Lesson:” Any religion is a weapon of destruction and oppression in direct proportion to its power to inspire its followers to do good.

In fact, I would argue that this lesson applies to pretty much any system of human thought. The point of Marxism was never to place millions of humans in gulags. Karl Marx was inspired to formalize his economic theories precisely because people were starving and oppressed. And yet it was followers of Marx who caused the famine known as the Holodomor to destroy their political and ethnic targets in the Ukraine during the 1930s, killing somewhere in the neighborhood of five million people. Less dramatically, Plato feared the institution of pure democracy because it led to chaotic mob rule. Again, it was dangerous because it was powerful, and neither of these were religious doctrines.

I know of no way to avoid this potential for evil in religion, aside from dedication to first principles: to treat others as we would wish to be treated and to remember, if one believes in God, that ourselves and others are God’s beloved children and must be treated that way. In the end, it is not the principles that must be considered first, but the people. Lois McMaster Bujold’s hero Miles Vorkosigan put it brilliantly in this conversation:

“Surely it’s more important to be loyal to a person than to a principle.”

Galeni raised his eyebrows. “I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me, coming from a Barrayaran. From a society that traditionally organizes itself by internal oaths of fealty instead of an external framework of abstract law – is that your father’s politics showing?”

“My mother’s theology, actually. From two completely different starting points they arrive at this odd intersection in their views. Her theory is that principles come and go, but that human souls are immortal, and you should therefore throw in your lot with the greater part. My mother tends to be extremely logical.”

Correctly understood, this is where theology ought to take us: to an affirmation of the eternal soul and a dedication to use our own power to affect other souls, not as a weapon, but as a drive to a union with the infinite.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

Keep Reading

A Heroic Obedience

1

Science-fiction and fantasy tend toward the epic. In science-fiction, the sheer scale of the visible universe inspires the heroic, and in the fantastic myths tend to reward the heroes who single-handedly (or in the company of a band of brothers) take on the gods in the face of certain doom. And thus it is that the heroic virtues are the ones that our genres celebrate. Heroic valor, enduring faithfulness, unstained honor, even chivalric mercy cross our pages and screens.

Whether virtues exist, in any real sense, is one of our oldest debates. Very early on in human – and doubtless in prehuman – existence, we held to the idea that virtues were real. The idea that virtues and virtuous behavior do not exist, because they are a scam to trick the weak and the stupid away from grasping the power that could be theirs, is not very much younger, as anyone who is passingly familiar with Plato knows. From that time to this, the virtues that civilization has been built on have been periodically under assault, often in alternating pairs: thus, near the time of World War I and World War II, mercy and charity were regarded as spinelessness and treason by the great mass of the population. During the height of the Vietnam War, physical courage was often decried as brutality. And as a result of both of those times, one virtue has been beaten so low as to scarcely resemble a virtue at all: obedience.

Obedience receives little admiration from any side of the Western political spectrum, because of the aforementioned recent history, because of the Enlightenment’s valorization of liberty and freethought, but perhaps also because the study of politics concerns the acquisition and use of power to compel the obedience of other people. But that very fact, of course, compels us to take a hard look at the virtue of obedience. After all, what is the purpose of wielding, in Monty Python’s beloved phrase, “supreme executive (or legislative) power” if no one will obey it? Political power is predicated upon the idea that people will obey, and democratic republics are predicated upon the idea that they will obey, at least in the main, willingly. But obeying is not glorious or sexy, and it isn’t a virtue we generally see held up as an example in our heroic science-fictional or fantastic epics.

Of course, obedience features heavily in religious and non-religious myth, the Garden of Eden and Pandora’s Box being archetypal. Perhaps the first epic fantasist to play explicitly with the virtue of obedience near our own time was Milton. And he, writing on the very eve of the Enlightenment, makes of Satan a kind of epic hero that was embraced unreservedly by later Romantic poets. Shelley said that, “Milton’s Devil, as a moral being, is far superior to his God.” What Milton had meant as a tale of lost virtue, they turned into the embrace of a new one: the virtue of defiance. Not defiance for anything, but defiance in sich was taken to be a good.

After the Holocaust and Holodomor of the 20th century showed us the disastrous consequences of unthinking obedience to totalitarian ideologies, we should expect to see a celebration of heroic rebellion spring up. Surely it is no accident that the heroes of the most iconic SF film series of all time are part of “the Rebellion” against an evil and destructive Empire. But the recent crop of Young Adult fiction has developed pure rebellion to new heights. I have already in previous columns addressed Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman is the heir of Shelley and Keats, preaching defiance against the Authority, and I think the generic nature of his epithet for God is telling. His heroes are not merely rebelling against a bad god, but against the very concept of legitimate obedience. This is taken even further with the more-popular The Hunger Games. Collins first throws Katniss Everdeen against the evil President Snow, who is determined to crush the Districts beneath his heel, even though he already enjoys almost limitless power. But when Katniss discovers the fabled District Thirteen, thought to have been lost in a war almost a century before, its leader, Alma Coin, is almost as cruel and absolutist as Snow himself, enforcing a starkly ascetic military regime. Katniss ends up executing her on the basis of her own suspicion that Coin will seek to assume the powers of the overthrown President Snow. In Katniss’s world, political power and authority quite literally are not allowed to be good, or to act as a moral force. Katniss’s own moral force comes from her willingness and compulsion to disobey (and destroy) every power that would seek her compliance, or even her allegiance. She, and she alone, has the power to determine what is right.

If we look back in the history of SF, however, we find a more nuanced approach from the antecedents of Star Wars, sometimes in the unlikeliest places. In that now almost-forgotten epic, the Lensman series, the Lensmen are cast as the agents of law and order, an outgrowth of the Triplanetary law-enforcement branch, not its military arm. The Lensmen believe themselves to be fighting against “Boskonian pirates,” that is, the agents of lawlessness. Nevertheless it is plain even from the outset that “Boskone” is actually a dictatorial and totalitarian state. The tension between the two is instructive and clear: obedience is an unavoidable virtue. You may not defy the Boskonian terror without obeying the laws of the Galactic Patrol. There is no way to defy one without obeying the other.Tolkien develops the same theme, although he seemed reluctant to confront it fully. Frodo’s struggle against the Ring is almost always cast as a rebellion and a defiance against The Lord Of All The Rings, and the Ring itself. But in so doing, of course, Frodo is declaring his allegiance and obedience to Gandalf and the rest of the Council of the Wise. To obey them when the way is hard.It is perhaps unsurprisingly C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle that come closest to a true celebration of obedience in Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, where the fate of Narnia hangs on Diggory’s obedience to Aslan’s command, although that very obedience invlolves defying the Empress (and later White Witch) Jadis in the garden. Perelandra is clearest of all, being an allegory of the Biblical story of the Fall as it might have been. But L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door comes to its climax in an act of obedience, a counterrebellion, when the farandola Sporos dares to obey in the midst of his people’s rebellion, heeding the wisdom of the elder fara, Senex, and trusting the authority that says that he must Deepen and undergo metamorphosis to be truly free.

Even in Star Wars itself, of course, this paradox plays out. In order to effectively defy Darth Vader and the Emperor, Luke must obey Yoda. And when he fails to do this, he finds himself effectively obeying his enemies. Our heroes cannot defy without obeying, but they cannot obey without defying.

Heroes who insist on defying without obedience end up where Pullman’s and Collins’s stories leave us, and in each case, the place is not one that any person would envy. The protagonists are forever shattered by their victories: Lyra is separated forever from both the boy she loves and any prospect of eternal life, and Katniss, while she is together with Peeta, refuses to lead. And perhaps she must refuse this: becoming a leader would place her in a role of authority, which is evil. It would also entail her allegiance and obedience to law. She cannot truly be a hero because heroes are, almost by definition, those who give of themselves for that which is greater, that which they feel it is worthy to obey.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

Keep Reading

His Kingdom Endures Forever

There is a popular and growing disdain for the concept of an afterlife today. Among agnostics and atheists, it is seen as pure wishful thinking, lampooned as “pie in the sky when you die,” a nostrum intended to keep the poor and the ignorant enslaved to the will of the religious elite. That this phrase was popularized by a communist who intended to harness the poor and ignorant to his revolution is either forgotten or embraced as “liberating,” as though dying for a secular cause you’ll never experience is somehow more meaningful and less absurd than dying for a religious one you would.

In the postmodern age, we see that even among some Christians, a desire for an afterlife is seen as somehow dishonorable and mercenary. As though somehow it is “pay” for “being good,” which truly virtuous people would do without reward. Thus, it is argued, Christians (or anyone) who believe in an afterlife are really just admitting their own moral failings. I must admit that, as a Christian, this argument fails to move me, seeing that the whole basis for faith in Christ is a recognition that everyone fails at morality.

I find it an interesting paradox, therefore, that in so many fantasy works that explicitly address the question of what it means to be good, the idea of an afterlife inevitably occurs, if not at the beginning, then at the end. Almost as if it were a secret that cannot help but come out whenever we discuss what it means to do right at the cost of our own lives.

Of course, this is the classic threat that is leveled at our SFF heroes: submit, or die. Lois McMaster Bujold, in her Chalion cycle, begins The Curse of Chalion with the tale of Lupe dy Cazaril, a Chalionese nobleman recently freed from the slavery into which he was betrayed. Although Cazaril at first dares death to save his young pupil, a Chalionese girl threatened with a forced marriage, he finds himself quickly caught up in a the service of gods who ask him to die not once, but three times to save Chalion from a curse brought about by the desperate pride of two men long dead. Cazaril does this at the risk, not only of his death, but of his damnation. And damnation becomes a theme throughout this cycle of Bujold’s work, just as reunion with the gods does. The entire second work, A Paladin of Souls turns on saving the soul of a damned ghost. To do this, Dowager Queen Ista must walk into danger only on the word of her patron god.

If Cazaril is not especially religious at the beginning of his tale, Frodo the Hobbit and Harry Potter the wizard are even less so. Both characters face, however, the growing power of a malevolent force that wishes to dominate their worlds. While the characters are extremely different, Frodo being completely unknown in his world before encountering the One Ring, while Harry is a prophesied hero practically at his birth, they have this similarity: both are forced to choose whether they will accept the role of opposing a deadly foe at the cost of their own lives. And the reward for both of them, revealed at the end of the last volume, is Heaven. The fact that Harry chooses to turn his back on Heaven (and the penalty for Voldemort’s determination to live forever at the expense of others is, make no mistake, a form of Hell) is irrelevant. He has seen Heaven, and can be confident he will find his way back.

I would contend that these authors have seen clearly a necessary truth: that the belief in an objective moral code that can demand our lives in its service cannot be separated from the belief in an afterlife. The alternative to this is not moral rectitude, but a dreadful moral injustice, in which the good are enslaved to the evil. It makes God (or whatever the source of the moral code is) into a moral vampire, demanding the hard road of virtue while returning nothing.

A comparison may be useful here. In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga, the only afterlife is Hell, which is maintained by an evil God (“The Authority”) who has pulled the wool over the eyes of the universe. Essentially, this “God” is the imagined God of Satan in Paradise Lost:1not a Creator, but simply an immensely powerful being who opportunistically identified itself as “God” to all who came after. Hell is maintained for no other reason than Divine sadism, and by the time of the novel, the angel Metatron is trying to take over the position of “God” from the senile and dying deity, maintaining the monstrous tyranny of Heaven. The protagonists are humans who lead a revolution against these evil god-kings.

I find it fascinating where Pullman went in setting this up. When, in the first volume, The Golden Compass, we meet the parents of the main protagonist, a girl named Lyra, her parents (whom she does not know, as they have more important things to do than raise a child) are engaged in experiments to understand the nature of the universe, which they can only do, it seems, by cutting out the souls of children. This they do without qualm.

By The Amber Spyglass, we are asked to believe that these same people who would torture and kill children to attain their ends are sacrificing themselves heroically in combat to overthrow the evil Metatron. I suppose we ought to congratulate Pullman on his honesty: at least his anti-theistic messiah figures were honest enough to start out by killing children. Most of the ones in the real world are too cowardly to show their willingness to do this until they have already attained power.

At the end of the novel, Lyra breathlessly declares her intention to begin building “the Republic of Heaven,” to replace the shattered kingdom. But this Republic of Heaven will have no permanent inhabitants, it having been revealed that infinite existence was only possible, for some reason, in Hell. Lyra’s “heaven” is temporary, powerless, and cannot even contain the boy she has grown to love.

Pullman’s point, in the end, seems to be that his humans are free because they have discovered the truth: that Christianity is a lie. Well and good, I suppose, but the truth revealed is a terribly depressing one: that humans are free only to die. It truly is a Satanic conclusion: that it is better to reign and die than to serve in Heaven. He makes no argument as to why this is superior, he simply establishes on his own Author-ity that this is the case.

I would argue that we find it difficult to separate the idea of Heaven from the idea of a transcendent moral code because the two are fundamentally indissoluble, as Tolkien, Rowling, and Bujold instinctively grasp. They are repelled from separating the two for much the same reason that Pullman is attracted to destroying both: because they believe that an objective and powerful moral code is essential to human freedom, while Pullman believes that such a code destroys it. Each author has built a world on his on this foundation, and the consequences for the human condition are plain. Which world we would choose to inhabit is, as always, a choice for the reader. I believe Pullman would argue that the overwhelming advantage of living in his world is that it most closely resembles the real one. To that, I can only reply, along with C.S. Lewis’s Puddleglum, “in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing when you come to think of it.”

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

Keep Reading

The Power of the Darkside

Like so many of my generation – which I still prefer to call the Children of the Eighties – Star Wars was a great part of my introduction to science-fiction. I grew up adoring it, practically worshiping it. Surely nothing could be so good as Star Wars. And in a sense, I was right: Star Wars became a movie so iconic that, while it could be imitated, it could not be directly borrowed from. After Star Wars, who would dare to use lightsabers (or forceblades, or laser swords) seriously? After Star Wars, who could possibly consider using any power that would correspond to The Force?

Of course, besides the fact that it would be a shameless rip-off, there are other reasons why no one but George Lucas would use a concept like The Force. It was so ill-defined that it could defensibly do just about anything. It was the ultimate deus ex machina, and only the fact that the writers had the sense to use it somewhat sparingly saved the movies at all from their most defining feature.

But the two worst things about Star Wars’ portrayal of The Force are ones that I rarely hear discussed. Firstly, it was a great example of that cardinal sin of storytelling: Telling, Not Showing. While it certainly makes sense for Luke’s use of the Force to be limited in the first Star Wars movie, it certainly doesn’t make much sense for Obi-Wan not to show him what the Force can do, any more than it makes sense for Obi-Wan and Darth Vader to fail to use the Force during their combat. (Yes, I realize that the primary reason for this was because Lucas himself had obviously not figured out what he wanted the Force to be capable of, yet. In which case, it’s bad worldbuilding). Secondly, it missed a great opportunity to build characters with the depth necessary to address truly hard questions about the nature of power and its ability to corrupt.

Strangely enough, this is one of the few things that the prequels do just a little bit better than the original trilogy does. In Attack of the Clones, we get a clear glimpse of what it can mean to turn to the Dark Side of the Force and why that might be attractive. In trying to save his mother, Anakin Skywalker lashes out in anger and slaughters the Sand People, down to the women and children. He shows no mercy in doing so, and he regrets it later. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda warns Luke that “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny,” but we never see that in Luke. Instead, he is told to take it on faith that the Light Side of the Force will be better served if he abandons his friends to Darth Vader, which he understandably resists.

Luke is never seriously tempted to join the Dark Side. To question the Light Side, yes. But he is never really shown to have any desire to seize the Force for any evil purpose, as Anakin did. And the Dark Side’s mastery of Anakin Skywalker begins with a tactic that is familiar to many terrorist organizations and criminal gangs: the new initiate is required to kill. Ideally he is required to kill a non-combatant in the name of the group’s ideals. This tactic works for two reasons: firstly, it puts the initiate on the wrong side of the law. He cannot go back without facing serious penalties. Secondly, and far more seriously, the initiate can never turn his back on the group without admitting to himself that he is a murderer. The only way to defend himself from that is to profess that the murder was really a virtuous act. And this, if true, can only lead to more “virtuous acts.” More murder. More terror.

Another excellent portrayal of the Dark Side’s power was that done by Kevin J. Anderson with his character Kyp Durron, who comes to be able to use the Force directly through surges of fear and anger to free himself from captivity. Unguided by any master, he discovers that fear, anger and aggression make him powerful, and underline the truth of Yoda’s claim that the Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive.” And of course, it is, because it always has been.

The Force is on one hand a tame god. It obeys the will of the user. But on the other hand, it is a metaphor for that most challenging of theological concepts: free will. And like any person who discovers that his or her anger and fear can be fashioned into a weapon to bend and manipulate others, the temptation to continue using it becomes a sword sharp as a lightsaber, unsafe to hold from any angle. If you stop using it, those you threaten will be encouraged to strike back (most likely for the same reasons you struck them in the first place). And even if they do not, you will be left to face the guilt and will be forced to confess that your actions were wrong from the outset. Far easier, then to find any excuse to keep using the dark power, always for the noblest of goals. But any Star Wars fan – and far more sadly, any history student – knows where that leads. It leads to killing children to save the thing you love, and then passing it off as a difference in “point of view.” To, in the words of a better character, Aral Vorkosigan, do terrible things in the present to avoid false terrors in the future. We do not have to be Jedi to be tempted by the Dark Side. It is in all of us.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

Keep Reading

Religion and Science Fiction

3

Over a decade ago, I was asked to sit on a panel at WisCon. The subject of the panel was whether religion and science-fiction are antithetical. One of my fellow-panelists and authors was a woman who thought that they were. I suppose it’s no secret that I disagree. On a side-note, I was rather surprised, because I had read one of her stories, wherein an alien becomes a devotee of Thomas a Beckett. It was quite well-done and I’d be grateful if anyone could let me know what the title of the story and the name of the author was. It was published in either F&SF or Asimov’s between 1997 and 2004. All my research has failed to turn it up.

Essentially, this woman’s argument was that religion is inherently antithetical to science-fiction, because religion professes to know all the answers to humanity’s questions, and is a closed system. Science-fiction on the other hand, is the literature of exploration, and deals with what we do not know. Thus, religion was for people who were not curious about the universe and refused to explore it, lest they find answers that conflict with received revelation.

The really sad part is that while part of me was horrified, part of me also knew exactly what kind of religion this author was reacting against. Doubtless, she had encountered the same breed of Christian that my little sister’s sixth-grade teacher belonged to. This was the woman who, in a Christian school, told my sister that she wasn’t allowed to read Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books in school because there was a dragon on the cover, and dragons were a symbol of Satan. And of course, the infamous reaction of certain Christians to the Harry Potter books because magic (even ridiculous, obviously-not-intended-to-be-real-on-any-level magic) is Evil. Therefore, Christians don’t like the spirit of science-fiction, even when they’re the ones writing it. There’s some real evidence for this charge, I’m afraid. Love him as I do, and love the novel as I do, the one thing that struck me as abhorrently wrong about C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra was his statement that since Christ’s Incarnation, all sentient beings would henceforth have to be humanoid, or risk dishonoring the Image of God. (As humans are explicitly forbidden from making an image of God per the Second Commandment, I pretty much always assumed it was understood that that “image of God” referred to spiritual, not physical, matters).

The fact is that her charge has some truth to it: there is a real and saddening tendency in the Church to want solid answers for everything, and, if those answers do not appear in Scripture, to “house rules” them in, and so we get doctrines of the Church that are at best vaguely (if ever) mentioned in Scripture, such as Purgatory, Limbo, an apocalyptic Anti-Christ, and many others. But I would argue that the Bible leaves immense amounts of room for unanswered questions, which the Christian God is simply uninterested in explaining to us. Perhaps – shocking thought – because He figured that we could find out the answers for ourselves? God’s challenges to Job, such as “By what way is the light parted, or the east wind scattered upon the earth? Who hath cleft a channel for the waterflood, or the way for the lightning of the thunder?” (Job 38:24-25), stripped of all their metaphorical content, basically boil down to, “you don’t know any of this [in retrospect, very basic stuff] and you think you can figure out really complicated stuff like Divine Justice?”

Fortunately, there has been room for some truly amazing science-fiction that was related to religious themes. In Speaker For The Dead, Orson Scott Card imagined aliens so different from humanity that the only way of understanding their life cycles was to explore it in terms of an afterlife, which is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one, for both his Catholic and his atheist characters. Going even further, Dan Simmons explicitly explored the possibility of godhood in the Hyperion series, as the TechnoCore decides to try to build its own Ultimate Intelligence: a machine god with power to challenge the Human Creator. Perhaps most explicitly, and Mary Doria Russell used Jesuit priests as her first-contact specialists when humanity detects intelligent life around Alpha Centauri in The Sparrow and Children of God. Her characters go exploring specifically because of their faith in God. And I would argue that the torturous spiritual and physical paths her characters tread display an awesome comprehension of the mysteries of the Christian faith. While not all these writers were Christians (Russell was, when I had the privilege of meeting her, Jewish by conversion), the Christian faith certainly informed and shaped their exploration of vast imagined universes. And if this does not show that Christian thought cannot be capable of exploring the universe, then I confess I am not sure what would, and can only imagine that argument descending into tautology.

The chief flaw I see in my fellow-panelist’s argument is that she wants to see Christianity as a wall, closing us off from exploration. Because Christianity professes that the nature of God is known: that He is One, and He is Three, but He is not many. That while He understands and creates the Female, He does not identify as Female. That He declares that there is good, and there is evil, and dares to tell us which is which. But the very science that makes science-fiction possible is also about limits: the gravitation constant is not open to debate, nor is the mass of the proton. The boundaries that God and physics set are quite literally as big as the universe, and as small as a lifetime: there is always, as Heinlein said, time enough for love. What more can we ask of any philosophy, or any religion?

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

Keep Reading