Some notes on writing and early comparisons

I’ve reorganized the chapters in the book draft several times, and what’s clear is that the raw material needs a lot of work to smooth it into viable chapters. (This isn’t unexpected – the intention of this blog was to be first-draft, quickly written entries, not polished pieces.)

Some of that writing is a matter of “connective tissue” – explaining how one entry fits next to another, explaining the reasoning behind stuffing Butler and Ellison into the same chapter. Some of it is revising writer-based prose into reader-based prose – stating my assumptions, explaining my logical leaps.

But some of it is deeper content, and that takes a lot more work. So I’m going to poke at a few of these ideas here, since thinking out loud is what this blog is for.

For example: In my last entry, I hinted that I was thinking about Lewis and Pullman as pedagogical fantasy. Both of them are aimed at teaching impressionable readers – convincing them to see things in a certain light, opening their minds to new possibilities, giving them suggestions for how to view the world.

In contrast, L’Engle and Pratchett are a lot less didactic – they’re more atmospheric. But I think they’re more effective teachers than Lewis and Pullman.

In order to make that case, I need to:

· Explain how Narnia can be seen as a way of teaching or influencing readers (despite my own misgivings about how books do and don’t influence)

· Explain how Narnia does that broadly and specifically –

o Characters that you sympathize with and come to love

o Easily overturning straw man or simplistic arguments from evil or foolish characters

· Explain how Pullman is doing something similar with HDM

o Partly as a direct response to Narnia

o Maybe even compare some of the more obviously-theological moments from each book?

§ I’m thinking of the Dwarves in The Last Battle and the Underworld in HDM.

§ Maybe Jadis from The Silver Chair, “there never was a sun,” or Emeth the Calormene; contrast Mary Malone’s how-I-left-the-Church narrative.

· Talk about why both of them fail (for me)

o Both have trouble maintaining the consistency of the world compared to the emphasis on the theology

o Both have more luck when they move to the positive, meaningful moments than the villains

· Then I’ll need to pivot: This doesn’t mean that SF can’t be influential, or that it can’t serve a teaching purpose.

o Pratchett is something of an agnostic’s instructor;

o Willis is a Christian instructor –

o What makes them different?

§ Both push the admirable-characters as role models without making them purely awesome all the time; we’re not expected to like and approve of what they do at each point (cf. Granny Weatherwax especially)

§ Both also leave room for doubt and argument and difference, and make their dissenters thoughtful and sympathetic

· The Bromeliad trilogy does this well – use examples here

§ And both also acknowledge the less-admirable parts of their own positions

o So while it’s clear that they have a strong position and strong preference for one religious belief over another, it never comes across as didactic or uneasy.

§ Except a couple of places, and it’s jarring when it does – at least to me.

· I could also point out two authors that are also very religious, but that don’t make it clear enough

o E.g. L’Engle and Tolkien, where the Christianity is present but in the background – perhaps too far in the background

o Is there a comparable secular / agnostic author? Gotta think about that.

· So the main difference may be twofold:

o Does the story engage with religious ideas?

o Does it do so in a complex way, with characters who are more than single perspectives?

§ Side note – complexity may mean that absolutes (such as God or Good) never get portrayed. If I were calling for a flawed Aslan, for example, that wouldn’t make any sense.

…As you can see here, I’m drifting into writer-based prose. Those last bullets make sense to me as a shorthand for the ideas I have in mind, but need to be spelled out and explained rather than left as references. It’s a start, though, and I may be working a bit more on these bits and pieces in the weeks to come.

Getting back to it

Well, that was longer than a month, and the manuscript’s not done yet. It’s been, um. A little wild here.  I left my job from health concerns and career changes, I’ve started another website (and a blog on it), and holidays had their usual hit.

I have a big list of “stuff to write about” – connective tissue, revising the chapters, etc. But I’m not entirely sure I want to add new material. There’s plenty to work with. And I’m not giving up, even if I’ve been away from the writing for a while. I want this done. I want it a thing I’ve completed.  (Of course, my issue comes from the tension between “done is beautiful” and “just throw it together” – I often freeze because I’m worried about perfection, or rush something substandard out the door.)

But enough self-analysis. Here are a set of things I want to write about in the coming months.

  • Leckie’s Ancillary series and the pervasive yet background nature of religion there
  • Octavia Butler and the election and resisting
  • Where Pullman might be going with the next Dark Materials series – I gotta get over my frustration with that series. It wasn’t what I wanted it to be; that doesn’t make it bad.
  • Contrasting the pedagogical approach of both Lewis and Pullman (who are kind of teaching religion / teaching atheism) with the more vague spirituality of L’Engle and the different kind of overt religiosity of Willis
  • Really getting into the comparison between Sanderson and Bujold’s human-divine relationships – what they have in common, what’s different; why that difference matters; human ambition for divinity, human need for relationship

Escape and hope and fear and why it matters

Why does this matter? Why does any of this matter at all? Especially now, when things feel really bleak?

I’m not sure it does. If you threw all of this against the grand scheme of things, this matters about as much as kicking a rock into the ocean. But I do it anyway, as a small kindness to myself, and as a small voice about the power of imagination.

When we imagine these other worlds (as writers), and when we inhabit and explore and reimagine them (as readers and fans), we are giving power to our fancies and letting our minds explore alternative ways of being.

We use it to state our fears about the world- to spell out how terrible it could be, how the worst could come to pass in apocalyptic fiction. Or to put shape to a fear of religious fanaticism, or a fear of apathy. We explore worlds where the worst things we imagine about religion are true, where our fears about god/s are made real. And in so many of those fictions, there are still ways to hope. Still small kindnesses. In many, there’s a rejection of the idea that says only the individual, the merciless, the cruel survive.

We use it to state our fears about god/s: that they are present but malevolent, that they condone and even use human suffering, that they are false faces for manipulative beings or human selfishness, that they are absent entirely and the world is nothing but empty chaos.

We use fiction to try out alternatives and see if they have more potential for hope or more risk of despair. Would a female deity change things? What about different ways of interacting with the gods? Or religions that have objective proof of divinity? Would humanity be better than we are now, would we be crueler or kinder or pretty much the same?

And we use it to state our hopes. Sometimes this is a hope that humanity will peacefully evolve beyond the need for religion (not a hope I share, but definitely present in many SF works). Or hope that god/s are loving and concerned about us at the most personal level, even if they can’t act directly. Or hope that all shall be well and all shall be well. Or hope that different religions can find a way to coexist, even when they contradict each other.

We read to escape. We fly away from where we are now, into worlds where it is better or worse or just different. And when we return, what has changed? If nothing else, time has passed, and we have had a few minutes, a few hours, where the pressures and worries of today have been briefly swapped for another.

At times that swap is rich with possibility, inspiring us to prevent the worst or strive for the best or challenge the current in the name of an alternative. We can look up from the book, moved and ready to act, or look back on it days later as a reminder of good and bad.

At other times, the only thing that matters is the momentary anesthesia of being elsewhere. It gives ease to someone otherwise terrified, wrestling with society or exhaustion or their own biochemistry.

So yes, this still matters. It matters to me because it feeds my heart. It matters because it lets us give shape to fears and often imagine defeating them; because it lets us try out hopes and alternatives and struggle with what the outcomes might be. It matters because the escape is as valuable as the return.

Bromeliads and wonder and pause

Terry Pratchett, The Bromeliad Trilogy (Truckers, Diggers, Wings). HarperCollins, 1990.

50-word plot summary: Nomes live in the corners of our world. A group of them escape from wilderness into a department store that’s going to be demolished, then steal and drive a truck to safety. When safety isn’t safe, one group ends up on an airplane heading to Florida and another group commandeers an excavator. Hilarity, dogma, chaos, and crises of faith ensue.

A lot to cover here. Like in Small Gods, Pratchett does a lot of exploring what it means to believe, to be steadfast, to have certainty (and/or faith). It’s somehow kinder than Small Gods while still skewering a lot of religion.

I’m planning several posts for this book/ these books. First is the plot summary and cataloging all the places where “religion” makes an appearance – particularly in Truckers, with the grand church of Arnold Bros (est.1904).

I’ll want another post that catalogues the believers; the old Abbot, the new abbot Gurder, and the fanatic Nisodemus all need a turn. But so do the characters who have less obvious religious ties: the main character Masklin, the prime supporting character Grimma, and the techthinker Dorcas. They’re not “religious” but they make me think of Susan, and Hex, and the subjunctive pragmatic. I also want to spend time on a monologue Gurder has where he talks about how hard it is to even try to be religious – because you keep being wrong, all the time.

Once again there’s some parallels to theories of religion in how Pratchett talks about religious ideas  (again, it’s Freud and Berger), so that’s worth a post. And another post where I compare Vorbis and Nisodemus and Teatime (and maybe the boogeyman).

Finally, some meta business. I’m starting to realize that writing the blog and prepping the manuscript may be mutually exclusive goals. At least, when put alongside goals like “stay sane at work” “raise kids” “maintain relationships” and “do some self-care.” So I’m going to take longer breaks from the blogging – maybe even a full month – and get the manuscript out the door.

There’s always the possibility that once paused, it won’t restart. I am going to trust that won’t happen, and take steps to keep writing – either online or off.  I’m also going to use The Bromeliad Trilogy to “park on the downhill slope;” I like these books and want to write about them, so it’ll be something I’m eager to get back to. Wish me luck…

Thinking ahead

Pulling some thoughts together about The Bromeliad Trilogy while I try to wangle a few other things going on in life. I am finding this book / set of books to be much kinder than Small Gods, without being gentle on fanaticism or the foolishness of faith either. I wonder if there’s a way to name what Pratchett’s perspective is, if I can pull it all into one coherent frame. Though I think I’ll need to reread Nation to be sure – IIRC that was sharper and angrier.


In other news, I’m planning on entries on the following, once I’ve reread / rebrowsed them:

Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality – especially the last two. For some reason these seemed simultaneously new and dated even as I read them.

Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass. Probably not her later ones; Grass was the clearest and smoothest of her works, at least in my memories.

Ursula Vernon’s Digger. I’ve read maybe half of it, and not in a coherent order.

Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, maybe. I think I might have said all I needed to say when I wrote about American Gods. I’ll probably have a lot more to say about Sandman.

Gayle Greeno’s The Ghatti’s Tale; I keep getting eagerly into a chapter and then life happens.


Faucet-dripping post

– I’m discovering yet again that the worry about saying something in the right way is preventing me from saying anything. Sometimes that’s a useful skill, but more often it prevents me from writing, first for one day, then for two, three, and then it’s been way too long so why bother writing. Which is why I’m making today’s post into a “five things make a post” rather than a coherent entry. The whole point of the blog is to keep me writing and thinking about religion and sf, so if I clam up that’s not worth anything.

Posts like this are the equivalent of leaving your faucet dripping during a deep freeze; it doesn’t produce much that’s useful, but it does keep the channel open and avoids frozen pipes and you know what, this metaphor is going to get out of control.

– There’s a conference at Columbia University for grad students, focused on religion and SF. I’m full of so many feelings about this! I don’t know if I have a place there, but why not? I will at least contact them and see if I can do a panel (I’m not a grad student, so I can’t present). It hits a bundle of my anxiety knots, but if I can make the mental shift to “a thing I do because I love it” rather than “what if they think I’m silly” then I’ll be able to make it work.

– The book is coming so slowly. I have a really, really rough draft, but I keep adding and changing it. It’s still very much writer-focused rather than reader-focused. Who is it aimed at, I wonder. I write the posts because they’re part of my thoughts, so the blog is really aimed at me; but the book should be aimed at a different audience. Who? Interested fans? Quasi-academics? People entirely unfamiliar with the field? If I make it for interested fans, I should really beef up the “why it matters” section – that’s the part that has the clearest contribution to new discussions. If it’s for quasi-academics, I need to make my analysis more rigorous.

– Right now, the first few chapters are organized by type of universe, and the last few chapters are one or two authors. So you have fictional religions and godless week with their own chapters, and then Pullman and Lewis and Bujold get into a fight, and then I’m going to stick Gaiman and Sanderson together, and at the rate I’m going I probably ought to give Pratchett his own chapter. Plus there’s one about suffering and divinity and consent.

– This break-the-logjam has worked; I’m now eager to work on the book. If I dropped down to once-weekly posts of 750 words, then put the rest of the writing time to the book, it might move faster. Or maybe I’ll use the posts to draft the analysis portions of each chapter.

– In any case, I think later this week I’ll post on Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality – it’s been decades since I read them, but they made an impression. Plus I still have a date with the Bromeliad trilogy. Onward.

Hogfather, last words

Those last words are going to be “I’m going to need a bigger blogpost.” For one, I’m going to need to reread the Bromeliad Trilogy more closely, and I can’t seem to find my copy of Nation. But I think there’s something emerging out of Pratchett’s consistent engagement with religion and belief. I just need to make sure I can bring solid quotes to bear.

A couple of comparisons to other works that I’ve mentioned in this blog…

Discworld is a place where atheism is effectively impossible. You can choose to believe the gods are idiots or amoral bullies or just kind of silly, but saying they don’t exist is kind of like saying there’s no such thing as ceilings. This means the religious landscape is not unlike some of the D&D iterations.

It’s also like the landscape of American Gods. The gods aren’t necessarily kind or good, certainly not transcendent.  Pratchet-Gaiman comparisons are natural, thanks to Good Omens, so I’ll just keep running with this.

Both Pratchett and Gaiman point to the power of narrative and story as something almost godlike, without the messiness of actual religions (or actual people worshiping within them).Eventually I’ll talk about how the Endless (especially Dream, Prince of Stories) function in Gaiman’s Sandman as more and less than gods, and how that lines up with the weird disenchantment of American Gods.  It’s not personified, it’s not personal- story doesn’t care for its characters, only that the story is told. (Cf. the power of fairy tale tropes in Witches Abroad.)

It doesn’t make sense to believe in “story” or “narrative”; those categories are too broad and too empty. Which narrative? Happy ones or horror ones? Just universes or the good and the bad suffer alike? We all know people whose narratives of who they really are doesn’t match the facts (quite often we are those people), so the presence of a story itself isn’t inherently true, or positive, or kind.

But it does make sense to believe in other things, and to have a strong belief in them – a belief strong enough to make them real, socially real. Maybe not in fairies, but in kindness, or karma, or human interconnection, or nations.

I wonder how much Pratchett was influenced by theories of religion, or by theories of fiction. Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice makes a case for the importance of fiction that isn’t too far of a stretch from all this: that “fancy,” or fictitious imaginings, can help us develop empathy and/or sympathy, as well as strengthen our public citizenship.

I’m trying to pull together overall thoughts on this, and I’m getting stuck again. Maybe next I need to catalog Pratchett’s believers, scattered through his books, because it seems like there’s a clear relationship between Vorbis’s fanaticism and Teatimes’ destructive anti-fictionism. I might also need to bring in the believers in the other “big lies” – nations, or justice, for example. Pratchett has a lot to say about unquestioning belief, but I also don’t think he expects everyone to be skeptical-pragmatic Susan at all times.



Hogfather and choosing belief

So Death’s position in Hogfather seems closer to a social constructionist and / or narrativist approach to religion. By learning to believe the little lies, we are capable of believing the big ones; or, put another way, by performing the small actions that maintain a cosmology / religion, we maintain and legitimate society as an objective reality.

But as I said last time, that doesn’t quite account for the idea of choosing to believe, something that originally gave Berger a lot of difficulty. Voluntarily choosing a religion, or in Hogfather, choosing to believe in a superstition, should naturally weaken it – because it implies that you could have chosen otherwise.

(For a competing view of religion, there’s rational choice theory, which goes in the opposite direction and stresses personal voluntary choice way way more. It has its own problems…kind of a lot, in my view, and it tends to be overly economic in mindset.)

So what actually happens in Hogfather? I’ll list a few examples to tinker with:

  • Banjo Lilywhite believes, but it’s the belief of an arrested development. Banjo is one of the thugs hired by Mister Teatime to help take down the Hogfather. He’s all muscle and not much else. He has the mind of a child, and simply accepts things as true. It’s even hard to say that he believes things so much as he simply knows them once told. In effect, Banjo stands in for childlike belief – unquestioning, unshakeable, direct, and responsive to authority.  Pratchett doesn’t write him as capable of a nuanced choice to believe.
  • Susan doesn’t exactly choose to believe in the Hogfather. Instead she chooses to act – to save his life, to fight off the Auditors, to track down his nigh-murderer. Belief sort of follows from those actions; not mountain-moving belief but assurance. To me, this makes Susan a kind of intellectual pragmatist. She knows too much for easy, unquestioning belief; she questions authority all the time, not with a casual rebellion but with careful incision. But she also acts, and sometimes simply acting as if you believe can have the same effects.
  • HEX, the supercomputer of the University, is ordered to believe in the Hogfather by Death. This works – so in a way, it’s possible. But it’s also because you can order a computer in a way you can’t order a human being. (Even with all of HEX’s unconventionalities, it still is essentially programmable.) The first action Hex takes is to write a letter to the Hogfather requesting a teddy bear – and it is clear that in order to believe there must be a request. Belief isn’t just a simple statement of allegiance, then, it’s almost a contract.

More examples next time…

Hogfather, round 4 – umbrellas and narratives

Last time I talked a little about Berger’s “sacred canopy” – the cosmology that helps people make sense of the randomness of the universe, that legitimates social institutions, and that is maintained through all sorts of actions, rituals, creeds, and authorities. As Berger initially phrased it, this sacred canopy has to be both coherent and free from challenge in order to be robust enough. If there are alternate ways of thinking about authority, or if there are obvious contradictions, then the cosmology can’t do nearly as good a job of legitimating society.

So voluntarism – choosing a religion – is something of a threat to the sacred canopy, because it implies that you could choose otherwise. Pluralism is a threat, because it implies there are other options. And contradictions have to be carefully managed or explained, because they’ll raise doubts in the mind of believers.

Berger  stated that the sacred canopy was being fragmented in modern life, turned into a set of little sacred umbrellas, none unifying and none able to provide strong justification and legitimation. Whether this is a good thing or bad depends…

…but another way of thinking of it is to talk about narratives instead of cosmologies. A cosmology has to be strongly coherent, internally consistent, and (maybe) dominant over all other options. But there are other theories of religion that talk about the human need for narratives–

(see where this is circling back around to Hogfather?)

–and which point out that narratives come in all different strengths, coherency, and implications. Large-scale meta-narratives can help us make sense of capital-T Time: eternal recurrence, or perhaps a finite journey from creation to judgment. Meta-narratives about human nature can hold ideas about gender, or character, or redemption, and they can be expressed in smaller narratives (like the garden of Eden, or the prodigal son).

We also hold narratives about our own lives: this is the story of how I came back home after sowing my wild oats, this is the story of how I left for the big city and never looked back, this is the story of how I found my love, this is the story of how I survived.

These narratives serve similar purposes as a cosmology. They help preserve us from the sheer flood of events that can seem endlessly chaotic; they place sense on senselessness. They also legitimate our behavior and our decisions (“You knew I was like that when you picked me up,” “She can’t help it, she’s damaged,” “I’m an adventurous person, so of course I’ll say yes!”). And, as the examples show, they’re not inherently good or evil just by virtue of being narratives.

And without them we struggle to make sense of life. I’ll look up my citations for this another time, but IIRC several psychologists and scholars have talked about narrative as key to human identity.

Most of all, we can hold multiple narratives that conflict without having constant cognitive dissonance. So we can believe in a just world and life not’s fair, simultaneously.

Hm. I’ve wandered again. Back to Hogfather specifically soon.

Hogfather round 3, maintaining reality

Last time, I finished by suggesting that Death’s perspective on belief might be closer to social constructionism than to the Freudian-ish position (i.e., that religion is a childish delusion that must be outgrown). After a weekend of thinking about it, I’m not sure the fit works as well anymore – but it’s still worth bringing up.

Here’s the issue. The “social construction of reality” developed by Berger and Luckmann suggests that society is both an objective and a subjective reality, and that it’s constantly being constructed and maintained – both by major actions of institutions, and through the habitual everyday activities of conversation, custom, and, well, habit.

Thus, things like love or law or gender do have an objective reality in their institutionalized forms; the systems, customs, and practices that make those things real. The institutionalized forms are also what make socially constructed things powerful – e.g., you can recognize that race is socially constructed and still see that race has a powerful effect on how someone is treated.

But they’re also subjective; you wouldn’t be able to find a love-particle or a really real eternally true gender if you dissected the world. (Thus the similarity to Death’s speech.) And society isn’t fixed, either. It’s constantly being re-created and reestablished with every generation. So it’s fragile – it can be changed, it can be shattered.

Creating and maintaining this kind of fragile agreed-on reality requires a lot of work. Berger went on to describe religion as a central part of this work in The Sacred Canopy. (Also, if you want a good summary of The Social Construction of Reality, Berger’s first chapter in The Sacred Canopy is pretty close to a restatement of the whole book.)

Religion legitimates social order, he says, by tying it to a cosmology – a way the universe is and always has been. Religious acts make certain structures reasonable, even natural, definitely god-given. Like, say, the sovereignty of man over woman, or of some of Noah’s children over others. Or the need for strict laws to curb innate tendencies to evil.

So far, it’s not too far away from the Hogfather speech (and I’m damn sure Pratchett had encountered these ideas long before he wrote the book). But here’s where the difficulty arises. One of Berger’s core ideas is that a strong cosmology is unable to tolerate doubt or alternate views. This is why dominant religions persecute heresies, for example. To doubt the cosmology is to doubt whether a religion has any power to legitimate society…and to cause, in some way, a fracturing of the social reality.

So religious pluralism is kind of an oxymoron: where there is religious difference, real disagreement over the nature of the universe and the legitimacy of society, then there is either conflict or there is secularization. Pluralism – to see that someone else believes something completely different – invites disenchantment.

Incidentally, this is also one of the places where Berger’s been criticized, and it’s where he has since changed his mind. I’m offering the older version because it’s still dominant in many places, but this shouldn’t be mistaken for current thought.

But it doesn’t quite work for Hogfather, either. Because Susan is choosing to believe – and that makes no sense in these early versions of social constructionism. To choose to believe is to entertain the possibility of not believing, and therefore to doubt – and thus to be a lukewarm believer at best.

Next post I’ll try to reconcile this with the idea of coming to believe the little lies so that you can believe the big ones.

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