Tag Archives: fantasy

Writing Life (for now)

DSCF7136 copy

I snapped the picture above a couple years ago in Brescia, Italy. I was there teaching some astronomy lessons at a portable planetarium in a local school, part of a teaching exchange program that had taken me and Christine to Rome, Assisi, Gorizia, and ultimately Venice. I didn’t do much writing while I was there, but I occasionally find an image or photo that I captured on the trip that seems to fit with what I’ve been writing lately. This lane of Roman stones in Brescia, softened by green, was part of a tour we were given of the ancient corners of the city by our host. People have paced that lane for centuries, but on that particular afternoon we saw no one.

My writing lately has focused on keeping up with fiction reviews and research. For a while I was doing a good job (probably a pathologically good job) of posting a review of every book I read on this blog. It was fun. It helped me keep the books I had read straight in my head, helped me to enter into conversations with the authors and the concepts they were engaging. I hope to do that here again, but it got to be less fun. It started to feel like an obligation. Also, I started publishing my reviews elsewhere. (If you’re interested, my latest review appeared at Grimdark Magazine not long ago and I have others forthcoming in Mythic Magazine and at Black Gate.) So, things have been quiet here for a while.

As far as research goes, I have a few grants that I’ve been working on, one of which I hope will be bearing fruit shortly (and perhaps sending me back down certain cobbled lanes). My forthcoming work of nonfiction, Making Stars Physical: John Herschel’s Astronomy, is at the presses now (in some kind of possibly literal sense) with University of Pittsburgh Press. We’re looking at a Spring/Summer 2018 release. I just saw copy on the book for their spring catalogue, complete with lovely blurbs from colleagues, so that was encouraging.

In fiction, I can’t stay away from Diogenes Shell and his floating house. There have been three installments in his saga to date, with a fourth, “The Wind’s Departure,” out today in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If you have a minute, take a look at it. Diogenes tries to keep his promises, confronts the god, and returns home– after a fashion.

Promises, I have come to understand, are the aureate chains that tether a wizard’s life, the margins that hem and structure his magic. We live by the promises we make, just as we draw power from the promises the world keeps with itself.
-Diogenes Shell, in “The Wind’s Departure”

Check it out, stay in touch, and as always– let me know what you think.

Shimmer 2015

cwyu3qbxeaiil6g-jpg-large Shimmer 2015 edited by E. Catherine Tobler

My rating: nine out of ten badgers

Shimmer is a magazine that publishes stories that might eat you alive. Some of them almost certainly will. Once a year, the editors put together a lovely physical collection of all the stories that have appeared in the online magazine, and as a contributor this year I was lucky enough to find Shimmer 2015 in my mailbox a few weeks ago. I waded in, knowing something about what Shimmer produces and happy to read more of it. Be warned though: if you’re looking for some light snacks, some fluffy fiction to help pass the time, this is not it.

These stories are real. They’re written with passion and razorblades. They have dark hearts, and they bleed. They might make you bleed as well.

The stories in this collection were a reminder to me that any time I think I have a handle on this writing thing, I need to go back to school, to shut up for a little while so I can have my heart torn out and handed back to me on a plate by other writers who are much sharper, smarter, and more alive than I am. Seriously, after reading these stories, I feel like my own are consistently written in crayon—or at best, smudgy pastels. (To be fair though, I’m quite proud of my piece that appears in this collection and feel it holds up pretty well, but that’s an exception.)

Shimmer is one of those rare markets that has a firm handle on exactly the sort of writing it wants to publish: science fiction and fantasy, ostensibly, but tending toward speculative fiction on the urban or dark end of the spectrum, with an iridescence that shades toward black. More than this tone though, a common thread in these stories is that they’re build not only on great ideas that would find a home on the pages of any fantasy or science fiction magazine but around characters that are alive in cultures or contexts outside your own tidy existence and that these characters and their perspectives bring a passion to their tales often missing from other more mainstream venues.

The opener for the volume, Malon Edwards’ “The Half Dark Promise,” provides an excellent example of this and a taste of what’s to come throughout the collection. On its surface, this story is about a girl with certain powers facing off against a monster in the dark, but it is clothed in the reality of a Haitian immigrant on the streets of Chicago. The language, the thoughts, the blood that flows through the story is that of Otherness and reality despite the fantasy premise. A similar example from early on in the collection is Alexis A. Hunter’s “Be Not Unequally Yoked,” which again takes a straightforward fantasy trope—the tale of a changling—but puts it in the context of an Amish coming-out story, Otherness turned on its head twice and shaken up a bit and again made real through its characters.

There are a few stories in the collection that could be considered more straightforward fantasy, but even these are done with a rich quality of content and tone, making them stand out in any collection. Of these, my favorites included “Of Blood and Brine” by Megan E. O’Keefe, in which O’Keefe creates an incredibly foreign but plausible world based on names and scents in a matter of pages. Another favorite because of the way it plays with nineteenth-century history of astronomy is “The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars” by Kali Wallace (and I hope Wallace tells us more about the Southern Star elsewhere).

Again though, what the stories in Shimmer 2015 do best is to take compelling ideas and clothe them in something more, a twist or a perspective that makes them land like a punch to the gut. “Monsters in Space,” for instance, by Angela Ambroz, is a piece about the naïveté of love against the politics of mining oil on the moons of Saturn. Likewise, “You Can Do it Again,” by Michael Ian Bell, is a gritty story of time travel that’s also about poverty, drugs, and the pain of a lost brother. “Good Girls,” by Isabel Yap, one of the most beautifully jarring works in the collection, is a monster story that’s also about friendship and girlhood and what it means to try to be a good when you are by definition one of the most frightening creatures imaginable.

I could go on: these are stories that are more than good. They illustrate what strong story-telling looks like today: taking fantastic or gorgeous ideas (like the idea of an illness that gradually turns you into a city in “Rustle of Pages” by Cassandra Khaw) and using it to hit you with the things you need to be thinking about (in this case, mortality and aging gracefully and love in the twilight of life). Then there are those that just push in the knife and twist it, like the absolutely eviscerating “Come My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale,” by Sunny Moraine, which takes the line from The Princess Bride song and pushes it to its darkest, most troubling conclusions—a story that literally eats you when everything bright in the world is gone.

I have a student who wants to be a writer, a young woman with a lot of passion who wants to put some of these into stories. I think I’m going to pass along my copy of Shimmer 2015 to her, because it’s a great example of the hardest thing about writing great fiction: you can’t just have good ideas and you can’t simply present those ideas in a compelling manner. More than this, especially today, you have to bring a voice and a passion—a perspective, usually in the person of one of your characters—to this whole endeavor that makes it come alive. Sure, some stories might survive on the merits of their ideas alone, but as Shimmer shows, the stories that come to life and grab you by the throat are the ones in which the characters carry you outside yourself with their own perspective, so you can see the world and all its incredibly, iridescent darkness and beauty, through their eyes.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you followed Potter through all the years of his Hogswarts residency and found the idea of a secret magical history of England compelling but were not quite carried away by the novels themselves because they were books for kids featuring a tedious, angsty protagonist, then Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell might be the actual history of magic in England for grown-ups that you’ve been looking for. It also helps if you have some experience reading period pieces like Austin’s novels, but none of that is to say you should consider this something like Jane Austin meets Harry Potter.

What Susanna Clarke has done instead in this massive and layered tome is two independent things, both which would have been impressive on their own. Firstly, she creates a believable history of magic in England, stretching from the Middle Ages and complete with footnotes to imaginary (but believable) sources, historical figures, and anecdotes. Secondly, she uses this history as a backdrop for the novel’s actual narrative, the story of the rebirth of magic in England in the early 1800s. But even more impressively, she does these two things simultaneously. The history is woven into the story, and the story is intimately related to the history.

Clarke gives the old England you believed in as a kid (and probably the England many Americans still believe in): fairy princes, sorcerer-kings, and enchantments. But we only get glimpses of this landscape through snatches of histories or accounts of old books given in passing. When the novel opens, all of this has faded away. England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars is a place where gentlemanly societies of magicians practice “theoretical magic” (discussing the history and nature of magic but not working any actual magic). This begins to change when the two magicians of the book’s title arise independently and set about to restore “practical magic” to England, primarily by putting it to service defending the nation against Napoleon.

The characters and setting are expertly constructed, and much of the novel’s effectiveness comes through the rivalry and friendship of the two primary magicians. Strange is young, ambitious, impulsive, and comes to the practice of magic almost by accident. Norrell is overly cautious, introverted, plodding, and arrived at his power by years of careful reading and study. The central conflict of the novel arises over their different approaches to magic: Norrell wants to reinvent or formalize magic as a scientific discipline and rid it of any traces of wild, fairy magic. Strange, on the other hand, is comfortable dabbling in the less controllable aspects of magic. He uses dark magic when necessary on the battlefield beside Lord Wellington, for instance, and he eventually pursues the essence of madness itself in an effort to summon a fairy servant.

These aspects of magic horrify and disgust Norrell. The irony though is that in order to begin his own path to power, Norrell entered into a bargain with a fairy to raise a young woman from the dead. This single lapse comes to haunt Norrell’s entire career. Eventually Norrell’s attempts to deny or cover this up and to keep Strange from embarking along a similar path lead to his ultimate rift with Strange. At the same time, the door this act opened for a malicious fairy to begin working mischief in England must ultimately be closed, at great cost to both magicians. (As an aside, the way Clarke handles the absolutely alien, whimsical, and chilling nature of fairies in this book is another one of its strengths.)

It would be difficult to summarize the entire, immense work, which begins with Norrell’s attempts to make magic respectable and useful to the government and then the actions of Norrell and Strange and their magic in the Napoleonic Wars. In the background of everything though is the looming question of the history of the Raven King, a boy-king who walked out of the lands of Fairie in the Middle Ages, established a kingdom in northern England, and ruled it for three hundred years before departing and taking a good portion of English magic with him. As the results of their own actions, inactions, and misunderstandings grow, Strange and Norrell come to realize they will need to summon help from this wellspring of English magic itself.

Clarke’s book is intimidating in its size. The particular copy I was reading was a paperback advance reading copy that weighed in at exactly 777 pages. This wasn’t the first time I had attempted to get through it. On this attempt though I had a crutch of sorts (in addition to some time in bed with an illness): the recent BBC miniseries. Watching the six-episode miniseries as I read through the book spurred me along and added a layer of engagement and I tried to figure out what had been done differently in the television adaptation and picked out specific speeches or passages pulled out of the book verbatim.

The main problem of the book is its sheer volume. The plot meanders, and though many of these meanders are pleasant and interesting (even the pages-long footnotes from the history of English magic) about midway through the novel things start to get a bit old. There are dozens of characters, and Clarke can’t introduce one without giving several pages of background history of who they are and where they come from. This lends a thickness and verisimilitude to the work, which again is one of its strengths, but it also becomes at points a bit of a slog. That said, all the various plots are tied together nicely in the novel’s climax, but getting there was helped along by being able to stop every couple hundred pages and sit down and watch the next installment of the television version.

Clarke’s tone in the novel is wry. There were parts where I laughed out loud because she captures so perfectly the stuffiness of Norrell and the British ministers and has them interact in ways that seem incredibly droll and believable. Stylistically, her strongest juxtapositions are between the philosophies of Norrell and Strange. Norrell represents a kind of “scientific magic,” perfectly sanitized and reasonable. Strange, on the other hand, discovers the pathways behind mirrors and tries to learn to read the Raven King’s language, which we learn is like barren trees written on a winter sky. He represents the poetry and wonder of magic. It is this tension—between reason and wonder—that is the central engine at the novel’s core, sputtering and coughing and rifted but ultimately renewed, like magic itself.

Tangents

TangentsTangents by Greg Bear

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s one simple instruction for the person who imagines she might want to be a writer: read. Marilynn Robinson said it. Steven King said it. I’m saying it too. Are there other careers like that? Probably. Do you want to be a famous composer? Listen. Do you want to be a painter? Learn to see. Do you want to be a writer? Read.

This means it’s going to be important what books are on your shelves, particularly what books are on your “to read” shelf. I know some writers collect books impulsively, simply for the love of books, and they live in wonderful houses bricked up with shelves of books they have no intention of ever reading or that they imagine they one day might get around to reading. There is a certain freedom of genius there. I’m far too rigid for something like that though. The books on my diminutive “to read” shelf I have every intention of (some day) reading. Otherwise why would they be sitting there?

It’s not a very big shelf. (My house isn’t big enough—or at least lacks the shelving—for the other sort of approach.) Which means that when I wander into a huge annual used book sale in the basement of the public library of my home town and can come home with a large bag of books for something like three dollars total, I have to be very careful. I pick. I chose. I collect a large pile of titles that catch my eye, and then I whittle it down to half that.

What do I want to read that might conceivably help me improve my craft? Someone who had donated to this particular book sale had a collection of book club editions of important science fiction authors—most interestingly, anthologies of short stories, including several authors I’ve been meaning to explore: Phillip Jose Farmer, Samuel Delany, Fritz Leiber. And this one, a slim volume of eight or nine of Greg Bear’s short fiction.

I was ill when I was reading most of it, recovering from a stomach flu. I’m glad I had already gotten through the first part of the work when the bug hit, otherwise reading the first story in the volume, “Blood Music,” might have hit too close to home: a scientist engineers super-intelligent microbes based on his own cellular structure, and then introduces him into his bloodstream. What happens when a human becomes host to trillions of intelligent beings, when he becomes a galaxy unto himself? What if the galaxy were alive, and we were spreading to fill it, learning to communicate with it? What would it mean when it was time to start colonizing others? I saw glimmers of some of the darker bits of Leviathan’s Wake and its proto-molecule here.

But Bear can also do quite excellent literary fantasy, as the second work—a novella, really—in the volume shows. I had an interesting experience sitting in my yard (this was also before the stomach bug), distracted, trying to read, when one of my older sons stopped in his bike riding abruptly to ask me about the book. What’s it about? It’s a book of stories. About what? And I remember doing the exact same thing to my dad when I was a kid and he was reading some random scifi anthology and then being fascinated with the ideas that unfolded in each summary he gave. But I wonder now how distracted he was in the telling and how many details he had to gloss over, as I did explaining “Sleepside Story,” which is about a young man who has to go live in a witch’s house.

Bear here has created a gritty, magical precursor to Mieville’s New Crobuzon in which a boy is traded as a servant into a haunted, enchanted brothel. The details and dreamlike quality of the story are in wonderful contrast to the exacting concepts of Bear’s hard science fiction (though the language remains sharp in this piece as well—focusing on certain surreal details with almost scientific exactitude). Even more haunting than the setting though are the ideas of what it means to be a prostitute, even a very good one, and what kind of love might it take to free someone of the bonds of the past.

Each piece in this collection is excellent, with the most famous being Bear’s award-winning short story about an Alan Turing-like character who fled Britain secretly instead of undergoing hormone treatment for his homosexuality and his unlikely friendship with a young boy who can see in the fourth dimension. I had read this story before, but this time (and maybe because I was ill and running on very little sleep) I wept like a baby when I finished it.

If I was more thoughtful I’d end this review by tying it back to the beginning and noting some of the things that Bear teaches about the craft of writing through this collection. I’d talk maybe about the way he plays with hard science in his piece on a surprisingly inhabited Mars, “A Martian Ricorso,” or the terrifying implications of quantum mechanics in “Schrodinger’s Plague” or something about the way he creates characters who feel true to life even in Hell in “Dead Run” or in the near-future “Sisters.” But that would be too much work, and beside the point if the point is simply to be absorbing good fiction. Because in this respect, Bear’s short stories are an ideal place to begin.

Threads: A Neoverse Anthology

Threads: A NeoVerse Anthology, Volume 1Threads: A NeoVerse Anthology, Volume 1 by Aaron Safronoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Neoglyphic is in the business of creating new ways to tell stories. It’s a transformation a long time in coming, the creation of media that unites story-telling, music, graphics and interactivity. Perhaps it’s been underway for years in the video-game industry, but it hasn’t yet carried over into electronic reading platforms. What I mean is this: prose itself is reaching the place where it can be transformed, for better or for worse. Publications are looking for submissions that blur the line between creator and audience, that find creative ways to use the now-fluid electronic medium to make stories more interactive. Again, some video games have been doing this very well for years, but they remain a specific platform and niche. Neoglyphic, it seems, is working to bring this transformation to story-telling itself, to transform how readers (not just players) engage with text.

To do that though, they have to position themselves as purveyors of story. They have to assemble writers and narratives, and they have to show that quality story-telling—with all the editing, advocating, and disseminating it entails—is part of what they do and what they do well. To this end, Threads: A Neoverse Anthology was born. Neoglyphic cast the net out for stories, and the anthology was their wide and varied catch.

What they caught was a school of strange fish, some frightening, some lovely, all of sleek and flickering hues, all from different depths and of different shapes and sizes. The stories in this volume, in other words, are of a huge variety. They range widely in polish and style and run the gamut from literary realism to psychological horror, from golden age scifi to technological thriller and on to lighthearted fantasy. (Full disclosure, this anthology includes my contribution, “Gold, Vine, and a Name,” which I will not be discussing below.)

Many of the stories feel like pieces of larger works (and the editor explains that this is indeed the case for some of the stories—that they are stand-alone chapters from novels, for example). This increases the feel (whether intended or not) that the work is meant to function as a patchwork showcase of sorts, of a collection of resources Neoglyphic can draw on in their quest to take storytelling in new and different directions. Whether this turns out to be the case remains to be seen, but there’s the sense here of launching, of piloting some new projects to see where they might go or how they might develop.

The anthology was organized around a contest, and the first three stories appearing in the collection are ranked in prize order. After that, the stories are alphabetical. This may have been to ensure the rest of them were treated equally, but it meant there wasn’t editorial freedom for structuring the flow of the anthology by giving the order of stories some organizational structure. What the book lacks in unified flow though, it more than makes up for in the artwork Neoglyphic created to accompany each story and tie them together. Each story has an introductory illustration by the same artist, and the cover (recreated as a full two-page spread at the conclusion of the volume) brings elements of each tale together in a dynamic mishmash that makes the collection of narratives leap off the page.

Some of the stories in this collection were especially striking on a first read. For example, Chuck Regan’s “Dysphoria” (the third-place winner) presented a grippingly horrific vision of a near-future alternate reality awash in chemicals. When most of the world has forgone a physical existence for a virtual one, a market has arisen to create and produce new psycho-chemical experiences. But who’s actually in control: the emotive artists creating them or the corporations selling them? “Say When” by Pamela Bobowicz and “Hotel Marietta” by Sabrina Clare were other stand-outs, literary pieces that look at issues of loss and how families (biological or adoptive) come together to cope. There’s a certain level of the saccharine in some of the works of the anthology, but these two do an excellent job of treating issue of the heart with earnestness and skill.

There’s great fantasy here as well: “Vanni’s Choice” by David A. Elsensohn and “Stormsong” by Tessa Hatheway, for instance, are solid and satisfying. In the first, we follow a thief breaking into the magical fortress of an enemy sorcerer and the choice she must make once she realizes the nature of what she’s been hired to steal. Elsensohn did such a great job building a world and a character in a manner of pages I wanted to follow Vanni directly to her next heist. Likewise, Hatheway’s “Stormsong” is a straightforwardly haunting tale of hubris and deep water.

“A Knight, A Wizard, and Bee— Plus Some Pigs,” by K. G. McAbee, is another fantasy piece in this volume that stuck out. The plot is straightforward—a knight arrives to slay a powerful wizard—but the tone and style is in the tradition of Terry Pratchett, and the humor makes it come to life. Like Vanni, I want to follow Bee and her new master across a few more pages. If a goal of the anthology was to generate readers for new adventures, McAbee and Elsensohn succeeded.

There were several good pieces in the anthology, but there was one that stood out above the rest. (No, I’m not talking about my contribution.) This was Katie Lattari’s “No Protections, Only Powers,” which the author admits in the introduction was written as an attempt to channel Stephen King. A young girl dabbles in some harmless witchcraft and makes a new friend along the way. In the background though, there are much darker things afoot. What makes this story so devastating is the way Lattari balances the details of suburban life and the shadowed view of a surly teenager but then makes those shadows hide genuinely frightening details that only become clear later on. Things are left unsaid or only alluded to, and the story becomes exponentially more chilling by its conclusion. Lattari has stepped into something deep in this one.

Where some anthologies have an overriding theme that ties the contributions together, this one has rather an overriding purpose: to tell and celebrate stories. It gives the work something of a patchwork feel, but it also means that whatever your tastes, if you have an appetite for short stories you’ll certainly find something in here to satisfy.

A Story about Gene Wolfe (and me)

This is the story about how Gene Wolfe saved my life. The summer before eighth grade, a summer that is now almost twenty years past, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. What followed was a long chemotherapy protocol that involved lots of complications and secondary infections, spinal taps, blood transfusions, and extended hospital stays. Not the way you plan to spend a good portion of junior high school.

In the midst of this I retreated ever more into books, primarily fantasy and science fiction. I had always been a big reader, but being sick gave me an additional excuse to lose myself in secondary worlds. I was particularly fond of long, multi-volume epics like Shannara and the Wheel of Time. Eventually I heard (maybe through the Science Fiction Book Club?) of this author called Gene Wolfe who also had a few multi-volume epics. I asked my mom if she could go to Borders and try to find some of his stuff.

At that particular time, the only books she could find were the two pocket Tor paperbacks of Calde of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun. So I was dropped directly into the middle of the Whorl, with Silk captured and Auk stumbling around in midnight tunnels beneath the city. It didn’t matter. I was instantly enthralled. There was something about the characters themselves: Quetzal, Inca, Auk, Chenille, and of course especially Silk. Suddenly every other fantasy novel I was reading seemed childish.

The character of Silk and his relationship with the Outsider resonated with a Christian pre-teen who felt very much on the outside of everything at the moment. I moved directly from the second half of the Long Sun to the omnibus edition of the New Sun (the SFBC edition that had all four volumes in one) and read it through twice in a row. I hadn’t experienced literature like this before, and I was reading Severian’s meandering travels in the midst of some pretty heavy medication. I remember reading chapters and then going back when my mind was clearer and wondering how much I missed or how much I was simply too ill to have captured entirely. I started keeping a notebook— my first— of words, clues, and gorgeous phrases I wanted to capture.

When the first two volumes of the Long Sun were released as a combined trade paperback, I was thrilled. I think they were the first book I ever ordered online, and I don’t know if I’ve ever waited to read a novel with such anticipation. And then there was the Christmas where Gene started it all over again, and I received On Blue’s Waters as a gift. I forced myself to read it slowly, bit by bit, buying time before the rest of the Whorl books were released.

I don’t know if these books literally kept me alive during my encounter with leukemia (and subsequent secondary malignancy of Hodgkin’s lymphoma). But I know they were very bright spots in an otherwise very dark time.

And then I discovered Wolfe’s short fiction, and I realized what I wanted to do with my life. Sure, I’d still need to get a career and do something that would earn a living, but I realized the thing I’d measure myself by. I had always wanted to be a writer, but Wolfe’s stories brought this into focus. They showed me what it meant to tell a story that had beauty and depth. They gave me something to emulate and something for which to aim.

I started writing.

I haven’t really stopped. The cancers went into remission, and I finished high school and left for college. The writing endured, always being worked on in the margins of my time as much as possible. College became graduate school, and the writing intensified. I began a correspondence with Gene and what had been imitation and emulation became to a certain (small) extent a mentored process. Finally, after graduate school (round one), the constant stream of rejections turned into a few acceptances. Then a few more.

Now, with almost twenty short stories published and one novel I’m still a very, very long way from the output or the quality of the Wolfean corpus. And whether I achieve anything like his depth and his beauty remains to be seen, though I no longer attempt to emulate him quite as sharply as I used to. So it was rewarding to read a review of my first collection of short stories that said things like this:

“There’s a richness of the imagination here, a calmly-measured pace, a solidity. . . . There’s a vivid quality to his writing, and an underlying ability to evoke wonderment at the worlds or tableaux pictured within these pages. There are echoes, too, of a Golden-Age- anything-is-possible kind of sensibility to many of these stories. . . . Case has produced a collection in which almost every story reads like a fable, the moral of which is a secret the reader may hope to discover before the end. There’s an easy acceptance of the fantastical, a hint of the impossible.”

And then of my novel: “The world-building in First Fleet is truly top-notch . . . rich and complex. ”

Sound familiar?

So I owe Gene’s writings a lot, almost as much as I owe Gene for writing them. I’ve come a long way from a hospital bed and meeting Patera Silk for the first time. But I’m still writing, still trying to infuse wonder and awe into what I do.

Mysterion

Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian FaithMysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith by Donald S. Crankshaw

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was interviewing for a place in the graduate program for the history and philosophy of science at Notre Dame, there was a dinner attended by prospective students and a few professors. We had all gone through the interviews and met several of the faculty, and one of the senior professors at the meal that night asked if we had any remaining questions. I had one: I wanted to know about the relationship between the program and the university’s Catholic identity. “What does it mean,” I asked, “that this program is at a Catholic school?”

The professor seemed to appreciate the question. He paused for a minute, and then he gave what I thought was a great response. He said something like, “It means that we take religion seriously. It means we don’t discount it as a significant factor in history.” It did not mean that everyone I took a class from would be a Catholic or a Christian, and it did not mean that Christianity would be the dominant theme in every (or even very many) lecture. (Though it did mean there would be a crucifix hiding somewhere in every room.) But I appreciated his answer, and I thought it largely accurate.

Mysterion is a new anthology of science fiction and fantasy (featuring one of my stories) that takes a similar approach to Christianity. It is not a collection of stories by Christian authors, nor is it a collection of what I would consider “Christian fiction” (fiction written from a Christian perspective with the intention of inspiring or instructing or converting).

Rather, Mysterion is a collection of stories that take religion seriously as a feature of the world in which the fiction lives. The editors, as they explain in their introduction, recognize that Christianity is a big, messy, dynamic, fruitful thing, and one that, as the title of the anthology suggests, still harbors a multitude of mysteries. Rather than tidy, systematic modes of thought or practice, this anthology suggests (and I think the editors were trying to show) that Christianity—as a living, ancient tradition—can be a starting point for good fiction, and likewise good fiction can be an effective lens for examining and even questioning such a tradition.

If the common thread in each of these stories is some form of serious engagement with Christianity, this still leaves for an incredibly broad sweep of approaches, from the brutal (James Beamon’s “A Lack of Charity”) and the grim (Mike Baretta’s “The Physics of Faith”) to the straightforwardly inspirational (Laurel Amberdine’s “Ascension”) or the subtly powerful and historical grounded (Sarah Ellen Rogers’ “Horologium”). The pieces in here represent everything from hard science fiction to humorous fantasy to surrealist and (I’m excluding my own, though you can read a nice review of it here) are for the most part strong and stirring, asking deep questions and sounding some interesting depths.

Whether or not your own background or perspective is informed by the Christian faith, if you’re a fan of the likes of Lewis and Tolkien, some of these themes will be familiar. If you’ve ventured in the deeper waters of Swanwick, Wolfe, or Lafferty, you may have a few additional signposts for this voyage. But the stories stand on their own, regardless of the context of faith. None of them need a grounding in Christianity to work, in other words. For these stories, with the exception of one or two, the faith angle is not the only angle.

The anthology is lovely as a book as well. The volume is solid, weighty, and impeccably edited. I didn’t catch a single typo on my read-through. There’s a helpful short bio for each author in case you’re interested in searching out more of their work, as well as a thoughtful introduction by the editors. The cover art doesn’t seem to correlate with any specific story but rather with an overall aspect of the theme: narrow is the doorway and rough is the path that leads Elsewhere. (Look closely at the rune on the top of that doorway.)

I won’t go through each of the stories, as that would obviously spoil some of the fun of diving into them yourself, but I will offer some highlights. The volume opens with a strong piece by Daniel Southwell entitled “The Monastic,” about a religious hermit on an island in the midst of Lake Superior and of some of the ancient things that still linger there. “Forlorn,” by Bret Carter is a great ghost story with a unique telling that builds toward a satisfying twist.

“Golgotha” by David Tallerman, along with “This Far Gethsemane” by G. Scott Huggins, may have been my two favorite pieces in the volume. “Golgotha” tells the story of an earnest missionary’s encounter with a pagan deity who is more than witchcraft and rumors. It is told in the language of the day with a voice of a sympathetic narrator who provides a balance between the puritanical rigidity of the missionary and the stark reality of what he encounters. And it asks an interesting question about the cost of proselytizing, about what things are lost and what are gained with Christianity and civilization, but from a perspective other than simple post-colonialism. Rather, what if it’s the old god himself asking these questions?

“This Far Gethsemane” reminded me the most of any story in this volume of golden-age science fiction with the trope of introducing a new species and then using it to explore interesting questions about our own. In this case, the trope is pulled off expertly as Huggins tells the story of a human grad student horrified to find that missionaries have already arrived at the planet where she is doing her studies and moreover that some of the local lifeforms have accepted this religion. Even worse, some of them are willing to take the tenants of Christianity to their logical conclusion, even when it flies in the face of their own biology.

There were several good pieces here, and I could easily add to this list F. R. Michaels’ whimsically disturbing “Cutio,” Rachael K. Jones’ haunting “St. Roomba’s Gospel” (a reprint of a story first published in Diabolical Plots), Joanna Michal Hoyt’s timely historical piece “Cracked Reflections” and two I’ve already mentioned, the grimly apocalyptic (and effective) “The Physics of Faith” by Mike Barretta, which would have left a dusty taste in the mouth of one finishing the volume if it weren’t the lovely “Horologium” by Sarah Ellen Rodgers, which was an excellent piece to finish on, leaving one pondering the mystical and historical roots of devotion as well as its costs.

Mysterion is a collection of stories that take Christianity seriously, and as such explores the implications (and not simply the positive implications) of the faith. Whether or not that aspect of the anthology is compelling to you, the stories succeed in showcasing a variety of voices and offering a satisfying read. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, one for your local library, one for your pastor, and one for all your friends.