Jumping into the Christian Speculative Fiction Discussion


I’ve been blogging about Christian science fiction and fantasy for four years now—that and a few other topics. 😉 Early on I gave an apologetics, of sorts—why Christians should be writing fantasy. Later I explored why the Evangelical Christian Publishing Association (ECPA) side of the book industry seemed hesitant to jump on the fantasy bandwagon that gripped the rest of … well, pretty much, The World.

Consequently, when friend and soon-to-be published author, Mike Duran, broached the subject on his blog, (“Why ‘Supernatural Fiction’ is Under-Represented in Christian Bookstores”) I didn’t jump into the discussion with both feet, (OK, I made one tiny little comment. You didn’t think I’d remain completely silent on the subject, did you? 😛 ) After all, I’ve said my piece, over and over and over.

Well, the discussion is escalating. First Mike posted a similar article, “Why is ‘Speculative Fiction’ Under-represented in Christian Bookstores?” at Novel Journey. His comments got picked up and discussed at the blog i09 in an article entitled “Christian readers demand more science fiction books. Why won’t Christian publishers listen?” Then blogger J. Mark Miller joined the discussion in a post today: “Christian Speculative Fiction?”

In reading the various posts and comments, a couple things jump out at me.

  • Many of the people who voice opinion about the health of Christian Speculative Fiction apparently haven’t read much of it. The fact that they don’t know how much ECPA houses have branched out is evidence of that. I won’t take time to make a list—though that would be a worthy project for another post. For now, note that ECPA houses Tyndale, Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, Bethany, WaterBrook, Harvest House, Crossway, AMG, and Strang all have speculative titles coming out this year—and most have multiple titles.

    Suffice it to say, comments about a lack of science in any Christian science fiction show an ignorance of books like Austin Boyd’s Mars Hills trilogy and Karen Hancock’s Enclave. Lumping all speculative in with supernatural shows an unawareness of books like Sharon Hinck’s The Sword of Lyric series and Jeffrey Overstreet’s Auralia’s Thread series. And belittling the quality of the writing shows unfamiliarity with authors such as George Bryan Polivka and Tom Pawlik and Tosca Lee and Athol Dickson. (Yes, the last two aren’t exclusively speculative fiction writers, but their speculative titles shouldn’t be ignored, either).

  • The idea that Christians don’t want to read speculative fiction is archaic. In a post four years ago, I quoted from a Barna Group of Ventura California study that surveyed teenagers from thirteen to eighteen over a three year period. The findings indicated that 77% of this group identified as church-going and 78% identifying themselves as born-again Christians had seen or read at least one Harry Potter book or movie.

    Since the survey started in 2002, that means those eighteen year olds would now be twenty-six. Are we to believe that in these ensuing eight years those who read or viewed a Harry Potter fantasy now are closed to the genre?

    And what about those of us who grew up on the Star Wars movies? I don’t have stats, but I know in my circle of Christian friends, the majority saw all six. Do we have one standard for movies and another for books? I don’t think so.

  • Then why don’t publishers report better sales for speculative fiction? Why are insiders continually repeating the mantra that Christians won’t buy speculative fiction?

    First of all, Christians do buy speculative titles. As a number of commenters noted, some of the best selling Christian fiction (beyond Lewis and Tolkien—and the fact that those authors still sell well only adds to this point) was speculative. Frank Peretti opened the door to Christian fiction beyond prairie romance. Ted Dekker mixes speculative with thriller, but his more speculative titles such as the Circle Trilogy have better Amazon rankings than some of his more recent works. And anyone remember the Left Behind phenomenon?

    For some reason, these best-selling authors don’t count. I don’t know why. Some say Dekker could sell anything, so readers don’t like him for his speculative titles—they just like him. And Left Behind was … something no one understands.

    In other words, there are reasons not to throw in these authors’ numbers with other speculative writers.

    But here’s the thing, not all readers enjoy all speculative fiction. I don’t. I have a strong preference for fantasy, and not for dark fantasy, not for science fiction, not for supernatural. But how is a reader who enjoys a particular kind of speculative fiction to find the books they want to read?

    Not even Christian book stores consistently do a good job of stocking speculative titles. In one local Christian book store, I had to order a Karen Hancock book, despite the fact that she had won three consecutive Christy Awards.

    Could it be that we can still improve when it comes to telling readers about Christian speculative fiction? Of course, we might then be in danger of adding to the impression that we are merely a vocal group. 😉

    In my opinion, two things have moved Christian speculative fiction forward. One, ECPA houses are getting more and more titles into general market stores. Granted, they are still shelved in the Christian fiction section, but Christians who don’t go to CBA stores will be more apt to peruse works at Target or Borders, even when they’re in the “special section.”

    Two, Bryan Davis has marketed tirelessly and sold his fiction well. So did Donita Paul. The industry insiders, then, concluded that YA fantasy would sell and a host of titles have cropped up. Some writers for adults even added fantasy for middle grade and YA—notably Ted Dekker and Robert Liparulo.

    I say it’s time to end this false idea that Christian speculative fiction doesn’t sell, has only a small niche audience, isn’t well written, won’t be tolerated by Christians. Let me end with this quote from one of my previous fantasy rants:

    Last point, and perhaps the most important. If selling is most affected by word of mouth—and most people who hang around long enough in this business seem to agree it is—isn’t it reasonable to conclude that those with the most influence have the biggest affect when they say something? In other words, don’t editors [or agents], when they say sci fi and fantasy don’t sell well, actually create the negative buzz that insures the truth of those statements?

    I don’t know if I’m saying this clearly. What I’m thinking is this: The people who are most in a position to know things, by saying “We don’t think this sells well,” create the very buzz that causes the genre not to sell well. Because certainly editors have a bigger platform than some wanna-be blogger who rants about how Christian publishers are missing the fantasy train. 😉

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    Changes in the CSFF On-line Community


    My apologies for the week of blog-lite. I’ve been under the weather, but expect to return to the regular schedule and “normal” content next week.

    One of the major sources for on-line Christian science fiction and fantasy over the past half-dozen years has been The Sword Review which morphed into Mindflights when it merged with Dragons, Knights, and Angels (commonly referred to as DKA) in 2008. The virtual magazine was backed by a small press, Double-Edged Publishing (DEP), as was Haruah, Fear and Trembling, TeenAge, and Ray Gun Revival.

    A recent report indicates that DEP administration will be changing hands as founders Cameron Walker and Bill Snodgrass step aside to pursue other interests. The new administrators reportedly plan to focus on the book side of the small press while cutting ties with the on-line magazines.

    Fear and Trembling has announced that the May issue will be their last. Ray Gun Revival will produce two more issues under the DEP umbrella, then reconstitute itself (rising like the Phoenix from ashes) and continue in the fall as a non-paying on-line publication. No word yet about the future of Mindflights, TeenAge, or Haruah, but one thing seems certain—they will not continue as they have been.

    I have to admit, with the anticipated increase in readers obtaining fiction digitally rather than through hard copies, I’m surprised at this change. Maybe the change is no different than breaking up Ma Bell—all these satellite entities will continue on in a smaller form with the better and more popular ones rising to full strength in the future. At any rate, you may wish to take a farewell look at the magazines in these closing months of operation under DEP. Because one thing appears certain—change is afoot.

    Contests, Contests, Contests


    The voting for the first ever Readers’ Choice – Clive Staples Award for Christian Speculative Fiction is over. All that’s left is the counting. Meanwhile, two other contests are still underway. One is the November CSFF Top Tour Blogger Award I’ve mentioned already.

    The other is a contest run by Jeff Gerke and Marcher Lord Press to select a book that will be published in the Spring 2010 Marcher Lord Press line.

    I received a press release announcing this contest and calling for entries some time ago. The problem is, I never got word that the actual voting had started. Come to find out, the first two phases of the contest are over. Happily, however, anyone can still participate in phases three and four.

    The contest was structured to be a kind of American Idol of Christian speculative fiction, with the winner receiving a publishing contract from Marcher Lord Press. Well, actually there are two contests. It is the “Main Contest” that will bring the winner a contract. The other, the “Premise Contest,” will earn the winner an invitation to submit a complete manuscript to Marcher Lord Press.

    In Phase One of the Main Contest, voters were presented with the title, subgenre, word count, premise, backcover blurb, and synopsis of 36 entries. Each voter was required to vote for at least three entries. After the votes were in, 18 entries advanced to Phase Two.

    At this juncture, potential voters could download the first 500 words of each novel. Voters were instructed to choose between 3 and 6 entries based primarily on whether or not they would want to keep reading the book or perhaps buy it. In many respects this reminds me of the Miss Snark’s First Victim’s Secret Agent contest except the entries receiving the most votes were the ones to advance (rather than a Secret Agent making the determination).

    Voting in Phase Two ended Monday. The entries that are advancing to Phase Three, in alphabetical order, are

    • Altar
    • Chase the Shadows
    • H2O
    • The Last Apostle
    • The Sending
    • The Sword of the Patron
    • This Side of Eden
    • Vinnie’s Diner

    Apparently there will be a poll once Phase Three goes live. I couldn’t find the information just now, but I read that this phase will be based on a number of pages (found it—first thirty pages) with three finalists being chosen. Phase Four will be sixty pages, I believe, with the winner being the selection with the most votes.

    Sounds like fun. I wish I would have known when the contest part actually started. I also wish the instructions were clearer. I found it hard to uncover the information I needed to become a participant. At the Marcher Lord Press site, there’s only a small announcement about the contest, with a link, in the upper right hand corner of the home page, under Latest News.

    First, it’s helpful to know that the contest is called Marcher Lord Select. Second, the contest is being conducted at the WhereTheMapEnds forums, called The Anomaly , which is where the link in the announcement takes you. This is the part I found off-putting. I expected to go to a site telling me about the contest but found myself at a forum with threads that did not refer to “Contest.” Third, participation requires registration in the forum, a simple, five minute procedure.

    I still haven’t found the polls, but I’m guessing the phase one and two polls were taken down once the deadline passed. In the next few days I’ll look for a Sub-Board called Phase 3—Main Contest (I don’t have time to participate in that and in the Premise Contest).

    At any rate, Jeff is trying to decide if there will be a two or three week period before the next vote. I’m guessing he soon will post the link to the download that allows access to the Phase Three entries. I went ahead and downloaded the Phase Two selections and will read the winning entries so I’ll be ready when Phase Three goes live.

    Why not jump in and participate? Contests are fun!

    The Need for Christian Worldview SF/Fantasy


    I’ve mentioned this in passing a time or two, but recently the point has come home more forcefully. Speculative fiction is hugely popular in the culture, but for the most part, since there has been little Christian science fiction or fantasy published, the genre is driven by those with an opposing worldview.

    But what makes this particularly different from suspense or mystery or literary fiction, movies, or television? After all, CSI isn’t Christian, and neither was Murder, She Wrote. Mysteries have a long history, with few surfacing as Christian, and no one seems to think this is a serious problem. So why would it be for SF/fantasy?

    Simply put, because of the required tropes. In a mystery, a crime is committed and someone has to solve it. Justice triumphs. There is little leeway. In science fiction and, more so in fantasy, good clashes with evil. Good wins out. But, and here’s the central issue, what is “good”?

    Spec Faith blogger Stephen Burnett wrote in his post yesterday about the British sci-fi television series Doctor Who. From what he says, I thought of the Star Trek: Next Generation or Voyager or Deep Space Nine or even Enterprise. All those showed essentially a fight between good and evil, but good was defined as sentient life that is willing to do no harm to other sentient life. Those wonderful shows primarily said night in and night out, Can’t we all just get along? No matter the sexual orientation or the cultural practices—unless said practices harm others.

    I called them “wonderful” because they built these captivating worlds and populated them with interesting people, but I also think the programs reinforced a solid humanist worldview. Certainly, for a Christian aware of this, the shows were informative, providing a basis for understanding our culture. And yet, there was that “reinforcing” aspect.

    In some ways, this is the question, Does art reflect culture or influence it? I suggest the answer is, Yes.

    Which brings us back to the issue of the need for a Christian worldview in SF/fantasy. While humanists have been defining good and evil for some time, now atheists are beginning to do the same. And New Age writers, Buddhists, Mormons …

    Once, even in works by a-religious authors, a good/evil struggle nevertheless mirrored Truth. But with writers shaping good after their own image or in the image of their favorite idolatrous religion, good has been turned on its head.

    I was reminded of this just last Wednesday when I saw the Spiderwick Chronicles at our local dollar theater (which charges $1.50 😉 ). In that movie there is a clearly defined evil, but good? Not so easy to spot. The closest representation of supernatural good was actually more concerned with self-preservation than with anything else, even becoming an antagonist at one point to those trying to defeat the evil.

    And who was fighting evil? Humans. So, the real good vs. evil struggle was humans vs. supernatural evil, with supernatural good sort of neutral—sometimes aiding and sometimes hindering.

    God? Not present.

    Is this the Truth we think art should reflect … or the influence on society we would like to see prevail?

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