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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Tag: science fiction

The Hunger Games left me hungering for more … but not the way you think

It’s been quite a while since I posted here, simply because I’ve been very busy working on my Catholic science fiction novel — in fact, I’ve finished the first draft, so it was time well spent. Now, however, the draft is “resting” while I think about what I want to achieve in revision (a lot, as it happens), so I can turn my mind to other things for a while.

Hunger Games trilogyI have been doing some reading along the way — a lot of it has been
advice on how to write great fiction (which I won’t bore you with), but
some of it has been books that you might be interested in yourself. So
here’s a run-down of a few things I’ve read over the last couple of
months, and what I thought of them. The first one was Suzanne Collins’s
runaway bestseller Hunger Games
trilogy.

Since I’m working on science fiction of a futuristic sort, I’ve been concentrating on speculative fiction of various sorts, to get a feel of what sort of thing is getting read these days. So I was excited when Amazon offered the entire Hunger Games trilogy for Kindle download for just $5. I hadn’t read any of the books – and, frankly, hadn’t intended to, until I saw the movie based on the first one and thought, “That was pretty good.” I’d heard the film was a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, so I was interested in seeing how close the two were (I’ve already had my rant about what makes a good film adaptation of a novel). I found that, as far as the story itself goes, the two are remarkably similar (just one or two minor characters who get dropped in the film), but the effect of reading the novels was completely different.

The books are narrated by Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist, so the reader never gets any relief from her attitude, which is bitter and cynical. I never really understood why she was as bitter as she was, since other characters who had to endure many of the same hardships she did were much more sympathetic and likable.

I kept thinking that her love for Peeta and/or Gale might help her to overcome a measure of her bitterness – surely she would grow and mature? Instead, her creator, Suzanne Collins, kept subjecting her to more and more nightmarish tortures, making her more and more deeply damaged emotionally. After reading the entire trilogy, frankly, I was sick of Catniss and her world. By the end of the third book, other characters had moved on, literally and figuratively, but Catniss and Peeta, and even their children, remained haunted by their grim world. At a climactic moment near the end of the final novel, I realized that the whole trilogy was little more than an anti-war screed, which explains why the author insisted that Catniss could never live happily ever after – because she was the poster child of the “war is hell” message, and to suggest that the evils of war could be transcended would undercut that message.

This touches on the thing that I found most irritating and unrealistic about these novels: total lack of any kind of transcendent hope or faith. Although the stories are set in a North America of the far future, and traces of regional culture remain (the hard-scrabble coal miners of Appalachia, field gangs of virtual slaves in the deep South), none of the people of any of the districts of Panem seemed to have any kind of religious or philosophical belief that suggested there was any way to transcend the harsh conditions of their lives. It was a world utterly without hope. Leaders on both sides in the rebellion were equally cynical and corrupt. Even after the rebellion succeeded and life was moving on, there was no sense that anything was, or ever would be, better.

Theseus Slaying the Minotaur

I was hoping that, despite the disagreeable personality of the lead character, I would find that the Hunger Games would be a good book, in the sense that C. S. Lewis defined that term in An Exercise in Criticism — i.e., one that makes the reader feel “enlarged” or in someway better off for having read it. Alas, this was not the case. Instead, I felt damaged by its corrosive commentary on life. In the end, I was heartily glad to say goodbye to Catniss Everdeen and her dreary, soulless world.

I’m sorry that I found the books so toxic. On the face of it, they have a lot to offer — a modern up-dating of the ancient myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, a technically well-structure plot, some very inventive “games.” But it was like eating a feast at a chain restaurant — looks good, smells great, all your friends say you’ll love it, but too late you realize that every dish is full of chemical additives that provide no real nutrition and may actually prove indigestible.

Fortunately, I went on to read something much more satisfying, if not perhaps a lot more nutritious. I’ll tell you about that next time.

Plato, Homer, and the Saints in Outer Space

great literature cultivates wisdom and virtueIn The Republic, Plato acknowledges the power of the arts (chiefly music and literature) to shape impressionable young souls. Concerned parents today, worried about the music their children listen and the books they read (if they read at all), may appreciate why Plato has Socrates say, in his discussion of a theoretical “just city” (i.e., just society), that youngsters should not be exposed to dangerous ideas — such as Homer’s depiction of the gods as powerful, spoiled brats. In the modern era, Plato has often been accused of being against art, music, and poetry, but I’ve always thought this a gross distortion to what he is actually saying in The Republic. He acknowledges the immense power of the arts to form — or deform — the soul, and he suggests that those who are destined to be leaders should be taught to be wise. The reason he infamously forbids poets in the just city is that he wanted to present young souls with inspiring images, and he just didn’t find Homer and Hesiod to provide healthy inspiration. The imaginations of the future rulers of the just city should not be infected with the bad examples of the poets’ gods.

Since Plato found the popular literature of his day to be unwholesome for impressionable young people, he made up edifying stories of his own. In fact, each one of Plato’s great philosophical works is itself a made-up story, meant to lead the reader toward the truth. He peopled his stories with figures familiar to himself and his fellow Athenians: Socrates the great truth-seeker, and the men with whom Socrates often associated, each of whom typifies some particular point of view. Anyone who has ever read The Republic with any attention will be unlikely to forget Thrasymachus, the belligerent young man whose idea of justice was something like “might makes right”; Thrasymachus drops out of the discussion of justice pretty early on — he just doesn’t have the patience for it. But Glaukon (modeled on Plato’s own brother) hangs on Socrates’ every word, and follows the discussion closely, asking questions and advancing ideas. Socrates, who is trying to get his young interlocutors to glimpse the true nature of justice, makes up one story after another to illustrate the points he hopes they’ll grasp. Plato’s Socrates never teaches didactically; he always tries to help the others to see the truth in their mind’s eye, using both their intellect and their imagination.

For more than two thousand years, this is what “high” literature took as its task: to illustrate some truth about the human condition or the world which would impress itself on the reader’s imagination, to “form the soul,” to use Plato’s terminology. It is a sad fact that this literary project has largely been abandoned by writers today, even those with “literary” pretensions. Contemporary literature seldom makes any attempt to be edifying. Indeed, most contemporary writers would hotly deny that they have any moral obligation to the reading public, aside from being true to their own “vision.” But a diseased eye cannot have clear vision.

This may be the reason that so many parents and educators who are concerned about presenting young people with edifying stories return to the great classics, written in ages when literature, like art and music, was intended to elevate the soul, to allow it to glimpse heights where the truth dwelt — but to do so using forms familiar from daily life. In such works, the writer has taken great care to find a balance between portraying human nature as it is and showing it as it ought to be and can be.

Homer, Plato, and the Saints among the stars
Great stories of the past should continue
to shape great stories of the future.

This is one of the reasons I’ve decided to become not just a Catholic reader, reading with an eye to truth, but a Catholic writer as well. I believe that the Catholic perspective on life as it is lived and as it ought to be lived is one too seldom glimpsed in books today. Too often reality is portrayed as flat, ugly, and factual, when the Christian knows that it is complex, beautiful, and full of mystery. We need more literature that transcends the superficial facts of life in this world, to hint at truth, beauty, and goodness. For this reason, when I refer to Catholic writers I do not mean simply those who write for a Catholic audience. Instead, I mean those whose work reflects the vision of reality that I’ve just described, but who may not write for a necessarily Catholic audience. Writers who, like Flannery O’Connor, realize that the world has become blind and deaf to the mystery of life and the Creator’s imprint on his Creation.

As many readers of this blog will already know, I’m currently working on what I call a “Catholic science fiction novel.” It is intended to be “Catholic” in both senses: it has characters who are Catholic (one is even a priest) and it illustrates themes that will resonate with Catholic experience: growth in virtue, the redemptive value of suffering, and others. But it is also meant to be Catholic in the broader sense I just mentioned: to present a reality that has depth, in which superficial appearances cover metaphysical depths, in which the natural and the supernatural coexist and correspond. I hope that this vision will imprint itself on the imaginations of my readers.

dystopia word cloud
Many speculative novels
paint a bleak future.

So many futuristic science fiction novels, by Christians and agnostics alike, present a kind of nightmarish future, in which science, technology, and rigid secularism have distorted human life to such an extent that it is barely recognizable, or else an absurdly utopian future in which, by his own efforts, Man has created a paradise without poverty, disease, or even death. My story is very different; it focuses not on technology, but on people, who are not imaginary aliens but ordinary human beings, with ordinary human struggles — which just happen to take place in a distant part of our galaxy, far in our future, and sometimes using technology that we can imagine but will probably never see.

And yet, when I began to think about the shape of my story, I found that it contains remarkable parallels to ancient epics, such as Homer’s Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid. I was surprised to realize that it also parallels American history, in depicting people escaping a world in which religion is often persecuted to create a new home, in a distant land, where a new society may be built, guided by Christian principles — much as the English Pilgrims did when they came to North America. Biblical echoes can also be found in it. Why? Because my imagination, quite unconsciously, has been shaped by the great stories most familiar to me and has fashioned a tale that bears a familiar resemblance to them.

I’m sure few readers will be conscious of these allusions, any more than I was conscious of them as I began shaping my story, But perhaps my story will make an impression on the imaginations, and the souls, of my readers, similar to the way ancient epics and Holy Scripture have made an impression on my own. I’d like to think so. I’d like to believe that, like Plato, I have created a story that helps my readers glimpse some aspect of truth that had previously eluded them, or that, like Flannery O’Connor, I have drawn vividly enough for the blind to see unsuspected beauty in the ordinary struggles of life.

Taking the Faith to the Stars — and Beyond!

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I’ve recently decided to take up the challenge to write “speculative fiction” from a Catholic point of view. I’ll talk about the writing side of things over on the Sancta Futura blog, but here I’d like to talk about reading science fiction, and why it’s not a total waste of time, as many people seem to believe.

space ship under the apple tree, slobodkin

I’ve been reading things that fall under the general rubric of “speculative fiction” (the term I prefer to “science fiction”) since I was a little kid reading things like Sprockets: A Little Robot
by Alexander Key (better known for Escape from Witch Mountain) and The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree by Louis Slobodkin. Later, in high school, I was hooked on the early novels of Robert Heinlein, and all sorts of post-apocalyptic novels such as Alas, Babylon
and On the Beach, as well as the much more optimistic I lost interest is science fiction (strictly speaking) about the same time that I got interested in time-travel stories, such as those of Poul Anderson, and alternate history, such as Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South (which combines time-travel and alternate history) and S. M. Stirling’s novels of The Change, which combine alternate history, science fiction, and Arthurian legend. All of these are included in the term “speculative fiction.”

heinlein, farmer in the skyWhat is speculative fiction? Well, it is fiction that allows the writer to speculate, “what if …?” What if the Southern States had won the American Civil War (alternate history)? What if a spaceship landed in your backyard? What if you could go back in time and prevent your own parents from ever marrying (time travel)? What if all the men in the world disappeared at once, leaving only women? What if certain laws of physics quit working, so that there was no more electricity and internal combustion engines no longer worked? What if, a thousand years from now, people can pick the kind of government they want to have, just by picking which planet they live on? What if apes suddenly evolved beyond humans and became their masters? What if you were the only person in the world whose parents had not opted to enhance you genetically to be super smart and strong? What if things continue the way they are going for the next hundred years: what will the world be like?

The thing that has always fascinated me about this kind of fiction is that it allows you to take contemporary, or perennial, problems and displace them — in time, space, or cultural circumstance — in order to dislodge them from their cultural context and allow them to be seen more objectively. It’s rather like creating a computer model of a hurricane or an epidemic outbreak, allowing the problem and its implications to be studied without any risk to actual people. On the other hand, it can also be comforting to speculate that, whatever may change technologically, politically, climatically, people will still just be people: they’ll still fall in love, have babies, get bored with their jobs, want to get ahead — even if they are zipping around in George Jetson space cars, or have electronics wedded to their nervous systems, or travel across the galaxy.

miller, canticle for leibowitz

The novel that I’m planning to write is very much in this genre, covering a lot of “what ifs” that interest me, but which other writers haven’t already done to death. What if, hundreds of years from now, the human race is beginning to get bored with discovering and colonizing new planets? What if some of earth’s colonies have “dropped out” and lost contact with the rest of the human race? What if history has been forgotten? What if the Christian Church is openly tolerated but, in many places, is being covertly and brutally suppressed? What if the Church creates its own “alternate future” off the grid? What if a couple of young people travel to the far side of the galaxy to make a new life for themselves, only to discover that their “new life” has been carefully and secretly planned and prepared for them for generations? What if a handful of cultural dropouts become the key to the survival of the Church and the salvation of human culture?

They say that writers should write not what they know but what they would like to read themselves. I guess that’s what I’m doing. I just hope I will be able to find others who would like to read it, too. What about you?