June 29, 2011

Artificial Intelligence - How far can Christian fiction take it?

Science fiction often includes some form or other of artificial intelligence. Usually it's just a highly advanced machine programmed to process information and make basic decisions based on that information.
But in a few cases, especially more recently, an interesting little trend pops up that I think merits attention from the Christian fiction world.
That trend is mechanical evolution. Basically it involves a machine so advanced and so highly developed that it begins to 'evolve', becoming sentient and sometimes even emotional.
Data, from Star Trek: the Next Generation, is a prime example. For those among my readers who aren't 'Trekkies': Data is an android, a one-of-a-kind machine so highly developed that he actually holds a position as an officer on board the ship Enterprise. Throughout the series, Data (and others) struggle with his identity, whether he is just a highly developed machine, or has become something more. Data even expresses his desire to become more human, though his inability to understand human emotion creates some considerable (and hilarious) difficulties.

Another example is Sonny, from Isaac Asimov's I, Robot. Unlike Data, Sonny has evolved emotions and even a sense of right and wrong. For all practical purposes he's a human made of metal.

The movie Stealth features Edi, an unmanned, autonomous fighter jet who begins acting outside the bounds of his programming. While trying to learn the reason behind this, the main characters discover that Edi has evolved emotion and self-awareness. At the end of the movie, Edi ends up sacrificing himself, flying kamikaze-style into an enemy ship to allow the human characters to escape.

I'll be honest: I am a Trekkie, and Data is definitely one of my favorite characters. And artificial intelligence does make for some intriguing stories. But in the context of fiction that is purely Christian, how far can artificial intelligence be taken? If we allow the concept of highly developed machines evolving characteristics that are strictly human in nature (sentience, emotion, etc.), are we not giving credence to the idea that evolution is possible?
Genesis 1:26&27 tell us that man is created in the image of God. Genesis 2:7 states that God breathed into man's nostrils "the breath of life, and man became a living soul". So we know that sentient life - true intelligence - comes only from the breath of God Himself.
For the record, I find it extremely humorous that the only machines to evolve human qualities in fiction are the ones that are highly developed, advanced far beyond any technology that we have today. You never see a movie about a sentient, emotional robot emerging from the wreckage of a plane crash or a tornado in a junkyard. Even in fiction, design is necessary for life. [Who would have imagined such a thing? ; ) ]

What are your thoughts on Artificial Intelligence in Christian fiction?

June 27, 2011


Webster's Definition:
- 1. a breathing in; drawing of air into the lungs 2. an inspiring, or being inspired mentally or emotionally 3. an inspiring influence; any stimulus to creative thought or action
See Also - brainstorm; creativity; flash; genius; impulse; revelation; spark; fire; vision.

My Definition:

An invitation to explore something ancient and mysterious.

When the seemingly impossible becomes a portal of possibility.

A rare glimpse into the heart of something deep and beautiful.

Beauty that leaves you breathless.

Moments that cause you to wonder if... perhaps... you have seen into another world.

When a vision leaves you knowing you can never communicate its true depth and beauty with accuracy... but you just have to try anyway.

What is your inspiration?

June 24, 2011

The... other main thing.

After Wednesday's post about my/our focus as writers, I wanted to talk a little bit more about issues that, while they may not be part of our 'main thing', are still important.
I blog for my readers as much if not more than I blog for myself. So it's important to me to know what issues and topics matter to you as 'writers of the speculative' (Sounds dramatic, doesn't it?). Are you concerned with the more technical side of writing (character development, plot and scene structure, world-building, dialogue, etc) or with the more... well--speculative side of writing? For instance, exploring new sub-genres and mixed genres, discovering new creative ideas and concepts, basically: exploring the speculative fiction world through imagination?
What is important to you? What do you enjoy reading and joining in discussions about, when it comes to speculative fiction? Can't wait to hear your thoughts!

June 22, 2011

The Main Thing

I recently saw a t-shirt that said "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing" and it got me thinking. As a Christian writer of speculative fiction, there are some 'main things', some key issues that I consider extremely important:

- Putting God first; He is the One who called me to write, and the calling must not become more important to me than the Caller Himself is. (Exodus 20:3)

- Glorifying God with my writing; crafting stories that reveal His character to readers in creative, memorable ways. (I Corinthians 10:31 & Ephesians 4:29)

- Keeping Christian fiction distinctly Christian; guarding carefully against the compromises creeping into so many areas of Christian literature today. (Philippians 4:8 & James 1:27)

- Achieving literary excellence; learning to not just tell great stories, but to do it skillfully. (Colossians 3:23)

- Promoting the speculative genres among Christian readers; showing them that fantasy and sci-fi can be used to tell a great story that honors God, just as easily as other, non-spec. genres can. (Man is created in the image of God [Genesis 1:26-27]. God possesses the greatest imagination and creativity in all the universes [Genesis 1].)

- Encouraging and helping other Christian writers who share these values. (Hebrews 3:13 & 10:25)

In my fiction writing, as well as here at the Writer's Lair, these are the goals and standards I try to attain. They are the goals and standards I hope to encourage other writers to strive for. They are the goals and standards that I pray other writers will hold me to, should I ever begin to lose sight of them. "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."
I just wanted to have them 'in print', so to speak, here at The Lair, as a reminder both to me and to others, and so that no one has to question or wonder where I stand. (Romans 1:16)

What is your 'main thing' as a writer?

June 20, 2011

Finding Ideas for Fantasy-world Cultures

Part of the joy of writing in the speculative genres is the fact that we get to build whole worlds and cultures entirely from our imaginations. In my opinion, it's probably the most fun part.
But our imaginations have to have raw materials to work with, building blocks to use as foundations for our constructions, and that's what I'm going to talk about in this post.
Most fantasy fiction is set in a world/culture that is basically European in nature. Castles, knights, dragons, enchanted swords, elves, and fairies are standard fare, finding their roots in Western European history and legend. But there are lots of other exciting, colorful, mysterious, and intriguing cultures out there, all of which have tons to offer spec.fic. writers. Personally, I've become totally hooked on studying cultures that are foreign to me and storing what I learn for use in future fiction projects. I recently took a college course on ancient Chinese history, and now I can't wait to write a fantasy culture using some of the elements I learned about. My new ApricotPie fantasy serial does have a Western European flavor, but from the Victorian era rather than the commonly-used Middle Ages. Simmering on the back burner, I have fantasy stories based on ancient Mayan and Arabian cultures.
And there are so many more that could be used. Grab yourself a history book and start asking questions. What might a fantasy culture based on the Eskimo lifestyle look like? What literary possibilities await in the medicinal magic of the Australian Aborigines? What if the builders of the cave dwellings in the American southwest weren't Indians at all? Which might an elf prefer: the precision of the Greek parthenon, or the onion-dome style of St. Petersburg?
You might choose to take the route of historical fantasy. On the other hand, you might create an entirely new world. And remember, you're not limited to using only one culture from our world for one culture from your world. Mix and match! There are plenty of questions to be asked and speculated upon there, too. That's why we call it speculative fiction, after all.
What real-world cultures are your writings based on? In what cultures do you find the most possibilities for speculative fiction?

June 17, 2011

Choosing the Right Viewpoint

It's been quite a while since I've blogged about any kind of technical topic. But, I'm still chugging along editing my WiP and I've been noticing a somewhat consistent pattern of flaws in several scenes, so I thought while I'm addressing it in my novel I might as well discuss it here at The Lair. One of the problems I'm finding repeatedly in multiple places throughout my WiP is with viewpoint.
Recently I was agonizing over the big climax/finale scene, trying desperately to figure out why it just didn't seem big enough. It didn't feel immediate. It didn't feel there. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out why.
Then it dawned on me: like most writers I know, I see my stories as 'movies in my head'. I'm the director, producer, screenwriter, choreographer, and camera crew all in one (and I occasionally jump in yelling 'Cut! Okay, let's try that again from the top...'). For the most part, it's a good thing; it enables me to see the characters' surroundings, study their interaction with other characters, and keep a handle on fast-paced action scenes.
Unfortunately, I've discovered, that same ability can cause problems with choosing the viewpoint for certain scenes.
Take my problematic finale scene, for instance: the scene revolves around an extremely significant ceremony. The building it takes place in is similar in design to a massive cathedral, with huge arched windows along one side, through which somewhat draconic supernatural creatures arrive to officiate the ceremony. The human participants of the ceremony are positioned on a dais at the front. The rest of the building is packed to capacity with onlookers.
Needless to say, there's a lot to see and take in. In my head, I see the scene from a vantage point at the back of the audience; that perspective allows me to take in the enthusiastic crowd, the huge cathedral-like building, and the dais where the ceremony is taking place. One of my characters happened to be standing towards the back of the audience, so I originally wrote the scene in her POV.
And therein was the problem. From her POV the reader got the widescreen view of the scene as a whole, but they missed the up-close-and-personal drama and intensity of what was actually happening on the dais as the ceremony progressed. My main character is on the platform making a commitment that will not only change his own life forever, but alter the history and destiny of an entire nation. But the readers didn't get to taste that for themselves because I showed them the scene from the wrong viewpoint.
So, lesson learned, I'm now re-writing the finale scene--from the right viewpoint this time. And would you believe it, it's working! The drama, the grandeur, the sheer weight of what is taking place in the scene, are coming through just fine.
Now that I understand this, hopefully I'll be able to avoid similar problems in the future. And I hope my mistakes can help all you other writers out there avoid the same pitfalls. Seeing our stories as 'movies in our heads' is a great blessing in a lot of ways; just be sure it doesn't carry over too far and cause you to write things that would work on screen but not on the page.

June 15, 2011

Know what today is?

It's the 15th!
That's right, and a new chapter of Falls the Shadow is available to read on The Lost Scribes.
Click here to read it!
Chapters 1 and 2 introduced you to the Forgotten Sector, a devastated and shattered world where even your next meal is uncertain; where kids like Libby spend their lives fighting to protect what little the Bug Wars left them; where people like Skylar Bench still dare to dream of something more than scrounging for existence in rubble-filled alleys.
Now, Chapter 3 takes you into the affluent world of the White Tiger, where hunger and poverty are never an issue; where politicians use wealth and deception to insure their status and authority; where field operatives like Galvin Maricossa are used to make certain no uprising or rebellion has a chance to take hold in the conquered city of Shandor Rei.

Don't miss this new chapter--the adventure is only beginning!

June 14, 2011

Book Review: The Dragons of Chiril

By Donita K. Paul
(Previously released as The Vanishing Sculptor)

To begin with, I’m not sure why the publisher changed the book’s title from the original, The Vanishing Sculptor. Personally I think the original title was a better fit with the story, but I have been unable to dig up any information on the reason behind the change, so I’ll refrain from passing judgment. I’m sure there’s a perfectly legitimate reason.

As for the book itself, let me just say that Donita K. Paul has once again created an exciting adventure that children and adults alike can appreciate and enjoy.

Her character development is astounding. The characters, real-to-life with faults and flaws, are nonetheless delightful, entertaining, and you find yourself loving them anyway, faults included. And as always, her story cast comprises a wide array of different races and… well, I suppose the term is ‘species’. Jayrus, a dragon-riding and somewhat aloof emerlindian; Rowser and Piefer, the bumbling joint-owners of a medicinal bug shop; disgruntled tumanhofer artist Bealomondore; the dignified and socially graceful Grand Parrot Beccaroon; and the ever-popular Wizard Fenworth; along with a host of other characters, together embark on an adventure to rescue a spontaneously disappearing sculptor and prevent the world disintegrating.

To do so they must locate and retrieve a set of three interlocking statues. The trouble is, the statues have been separated and dispersed to very distant locations, and time is running out.

The adventure and drama of the story are exciting and intense, but with well-timed comic relief throughout (with Wizard Fenworth around, you can’t avoid a little comic relief now and then). On the whole, another great read from Donita K. Paul. I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel, and I recommend this one to anyone who has read and loved the Dragonkeeper Chronicles, or just to anyone who appreciates a fun fantasy adventure.


I received this book free of charge from Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for my review. A favorable review is not required; Waterbrook is committed to gathering honest opinions about the books they publish.

June 10, 2011

Announcements, and a bit of fun for the weekend.

As usual, the Lair will be off the air for the weekend, and back on Monday. I hope everyone has a great weekend. If you need something to read, I've got a new short story published on Avenir Eclectia, and I've just started posting a new fantasy serial on ApricotPie, so be sure to check those out. And, don't forget, the fifteenth of the month is approaching, so a new chapter of Falls the Shadow will be going up at The Lost Scribes. Don't miss it!
Lastly, just for fun:
Recently, while going through a box of my late grandfather's belongings, I found a newspaper clipping with the following poem on it. As writers, all of whom wrestle with the beast we call the English language from time to time, I thought you would enjoy it.

Try and Stop Me
By Bennet Cerf
A European student, sadly confused by English spelling, submitted this poem hopefully to his professor of literature:

The wind was rough
and cold and blough;
She kept her hands inside her mough.
It chilled her through,
her nose turned blough,
and still the squall the faster flough.
And yet although,
there was no snough,
the weather was a cruel fough.
It made her cough
(please do not scough);
She coughed until her hat blew ough.

And all the writers said "Amen". : )
Have a great weekend, everybody!

June 8, 2011

Where's the family?

After Monday's post, I was still thinking about children as characters in fiction. I realized that the vast majority of the time, in order for children to be central characters in an adventure plot, their parents have to be 'disposed of' in some way or other by the author. Killing them off always works--orphans have all kinds of adventures--and sending them away on the proverbial long trip is usually sufficient to allow the kids to have some thrilling adventure.
But then it occurred to me: what has happened to the family unit in fiction? I've read books about kids having adventures without their parents around, and I've read books about parents without their kids around... but I couldn't think of a single book about a family unit--parents and children--having an adventure together.
I understand that 99.999% of the time, a story has to have a main character, one person that is focused on, and who changes and grows over the course of the story. But the cast of central characters surrounding the main character most often consists of friends, maybe a sibling here and there. Why do fictional people never have adventures with their families?
The more I think about it, the more I wonder if perhaps this is yet another manifestation of the American culture's disregard and even disdain of the traditional family unit. The political incorrectness of parent's authority could be playing a part in it too.
Having realized and thought about this, I would really like to see some fiction that casts a family unit, parents and children, together as the central characters of a story. I don't have a problem with one person, parent or kid, being the main character, but I want the main character's family to be the central characters surrounding them.
What are your thoughts on this issue? If any of you creative geniuses out there are writing fiction centered around a traditional family unit, I would love to know about it. Even if you aren't writing it yourself, if you know of any fiction centered around the family, please share it!

June 6, 2011

Children as Main Characters

I want to start off by making it clear that I have nothing against children as main characters in fiction. I love them, in fact. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Secret Garden, Princess Academy, and Emily of New Moon are some of my favorite books, and they all have children as main characters. I think that in a lot of ways, children actually make better main characters than adults do, because adults can often make things more complex. Children are more straightforward, willing to see things just as they are without making them overly complicated.
However writers, I must plead with you on one point: if you are writing a child character, please make their adventures and exploits believable!
I'm sure everyone at some point or other has seen at least an episode or two of Lassie. The show could be a textbook for writers on how not to write a child character. If I had a child who got himself into half the trouble that innocent little Timmy manages to get into, he would spend his life in his room where at least there would be no landmines, hot air balloons, dynamite, cougar dens, wild boars, uncovered wells, burning buildings, nuclear weapons, or infectious diseases. And I would probably keep an eye on him myself, instead of leaving it up to the dog.
My point is, children can have adventures too, but writers need to be careful and make sure the adventures and the roles children play in them aren't completely beyond the bounds of realism.
I'm as guilty of this as anyone--or was, in some of my early stories. My mom harasses me to this day, every time I say I've got a new story idea, about "The poor fifteen-year-old girl who dreams of going to medical school but has decided to give it up and remain at home to care for her fourteen younger siblings since her father has been called away to war and her mother has been ill since the birth of the triplets and she must single-handedly care for the 3000-acre farm." In my defense, this is a shameless exaggeration on Mom's part. There were only eight younger siblings, no triplets. And the farm was only 800 acres.
Personally, I think that when C.S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia he also wrote the textbook on how to put children into epic adventures as main characters, and do it well. I also see it as another exquisite layer of the Narnian allegory. With the exception of the cab driver and his wife in The Magician's Nephew, the only people ever to come to Narnia from our world are children. And remember what Jesus said about children and the Kingdom of Heaven?

What are your thoughts on children as main characters in fiction? Do you have any in your own writing? How do you go about putting them into extraordinary adventures believably?

June 3, 2011

When Editors are Right

Several years ago I wrote a poem that was wonderful. And we're not just talking about any run-of-the-mill kind of wonderful, here. We're talking about a very special, enduring, classical kind of wonderful. Maybe even Pulitzer Prize worthy.
I found the perfect magazine and sent them my masterpiece, then settled down patiently to await their eager acceptance. Within two weeks I had their reply.
They rejected it.
I read and re-read the letter, stunned. The editor politely informed me that my poem had delightful potential, but needed some work and a few changes to be worthy of publication. She even said that she would not mind reading it again if I made the changes she had prescribed.
But I would have none of it. I destroyed her letter, utterly incensed. The Philistine! How, how under Heaven could she even suggest that I alter such a work of genius? To change it would be criminal, desecration, and perhaps even sacrilege!
Clearly the world was not ready for my genius, so I filed the poem away to wait until a magazine came along who could appreciate it for its true worth.

A few weeks ago I was digging through the organized chaos of my writing files looking for something, and came across that poem. Smiling, I opened it for a re-read, since I hadn't even looked at it for a couple of years. Oh, that sweet first verse, that lovely imagery, the delightful storyline...
Wait a sec. Something's rotten in the state of Denmark. This thing is not nearly as good as I remember it being. What in the world happened here?! I mean sure, it has delightful potential, but it definitely needs some work and changes to be worthy of publication... ugh. And I seem to remember a certain editor saying the very same thing in a polite little 'we regret' letter all those years ago.
Alright, so we can all have a laugh at the expense of my melodramatic teenage ego. But I imagine I'm not the only one with a story along this line (I certainly hope not, anyway!).
Sure, editors are human too, and sometimes they're wrong--but not nearly as often as we writers like to think they are. The vast majority of the time they're right, we're just not objective enough to see it. You've got to pity editors in that aspect, really. They get saddled with the task of trying to show a bunch of emotionally compromised and irrational writers what we need to improve in our work, and our responses range from ignoring them completely to having rejection letter-burning parties.
Writers, we know what we're like. I think anyone willing to patiently put up with us and make such consistent efforts to help us in our craft has to be alright.
So the next time you get a letter rejecting your world-changing masterpiece... don't freak out too much. I won't deny the remote chance that the person who rejected it might be a vulgarian Visigoth--it's always possible--but they might just be a caring editor who truly wants to help you improve your skills.
They might even be right.

June 1, 2011

Post-Apocalypse... a very confused genre

A speculative genre that seems to be growing at an inordinate rate these days is the Post-Apocalyptic genre. And everyone has their own ideas of what exactly 'the Apocalypse' will be like: from movies and books like 2012, The Book of Eli, One Second After, I am Legend, Lucifer's Hammer, and The Road, everyone is bringing their own presentation of the end of the world to the table.
Of course, as with many popular buzzwords, the term 'Apocalypse' has become warped in its definition by overuse. Webster's Dictionary defines 'Apocalypse' as: 1) the last book of the New Testament; book of Revelation. 2) a prophetic disclosure; revelation.
Seems cut and dried, right? Apocalypse=the end of the world, or a revealed prophesy. Unfortunately, due to gross overuse, the 'Apocalypse' has come to refer to any huge disaster--and sometimes even not-so-huge disasters. Back in January a blizzard plowed through my area, dumping eighteen inches of snow on us. Granted, here in the Ozarks it's pretty unusual to get a snowfall that big, but still--it was only eighteen inches. And yet I heard multiple people referring to it as 'The Snow Apocalypse'. (Seriously? If a little snow constitutes the Apocalypse in your book, what are you going to do in the event of something really disastrous? But I digress.)
The Post-Apocalyptic genre brings a lot of unique elements to fiction: the possibilities for nuclear weapons, asteroids, world war, inter-planetary war, and world-wide cataclysm to name a few. Any of those elements could hold a lot of possibility for a writer willing to make it work. Unfortunately, the genre often drags a lot of very dark, dystopian elements onto the stage with it too. Human beings degenerated to the point of utter brutality, cannibalism, widespread human trafficking, and the ever-popular zombies all pop up frequently in works of Post-Apocalyptic fiction.
These issues, along with the very nature of 'Apocalyptic' fiction, can make it a tough area for Christian writers. Sure, I've heard the arguments for pursuing realism in fiction, but the point remains that as Christians we know the real Apocalypse will be when Christ raptures His church and unleashes the tribulation on the earth (and the Left Behind series has pretty much cornered, captured, skinned, and filleted that market; let's not beat that dead horse any more!).
What are your thoughts on Post-Apocalyptic fiction? Do you think it has possibilities (aside from Left Behind spinoffs) in the world of Christian fiction?