Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Guest Exchange Blog

I would like to introduce you today to a new blogger, whom I am doing a blog exchange with SB Frank, Stephen, who has a new blog called Urban_Fantasy_Fan_Page. Stop by his blog and check out his reviews of some great Urban Fantasy books.

This blog uses a few books to give an interesting view on how religion plays into Urban Fantasy novels, or any fantasy novel at that. This topic could make for a very interesting discussion with fellow friends and readers just to hear different takes on it. I do have to say he has left me thinking.

Urban Fantasy, Christianity and the End of History - by SB Frank

First, let me clarify that I don’t normally go around baiting dead people, especially not transcendentalists. (Note: Except for that one time in college, when I thought I’d, you know, reached Samadhi). Also, if you don’t want to hear someone invoke the names Hegel, Marx, Hobbes, Mills and Thoreau in a blog about urban fantasy, then you should probably stop now.

By this point, you all probably think that I am reviewing Dan Brown’s latest International Best-Selling-Novel-of-All-Time-But-Only-When-We-Exclude-the-Harry-Potter-Series-Because-It-Doesn't-Count, The Lost Symbol. But if you think that, then, you would be wrong. I'm not. Besides, in The Lost Symbol, (sold out at a book store near you!), Brown takes on not the Christians but the Freemasons. Or so I’ve heard. I’ve not actually done thorough homework on it yet. Yeah.

Anyway, like I was saying, this is NOT a review of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol but a story about the role of ideas and ideologies in fantasy literature. Oh, yeah, and it’s also about the end of history (see blog title for evidence) that Marx predicted would occur when the Bolsheviks took over Spain and No Child Left Behind fixed American Education. (Note: close enough).

Like all stories (and religions), this blog article mixes truth with lies. And the more compellingly it convinces us that the lies are truth, the more powerful the story. So kudos once again to Dan Brown, a liar of great skill and talent, whose The Lost Symbol (buy now before books fly off the shelves!) is still not being reviewed in this blog.

But back to Karl Marx. Besides believing in socialism, Karl Marx also stupidly thought that wars were fought over money not ideas. (Note: This point is actually true). Marx is still famous for this theory, which is called dyspeptic materialism, or some such. He even held some famous debates with his mentor, Wolfgang Sebastian Hegel that went something like this.

Hegel (looking at a picture book of the crusades): “Idiot, clearly, war is caused by ideas. Men kill each other over religion. Ideas are the driving force behind all of human history.

Marx (grimacing at his nearly empty wallet, which was imported from some colonial province or other): “No, you dolt, wars are fought over money. Look at this wallet. I’m broke. Teachers need unions, I tell you. Mark my words, wars and history will not end until we have teachers unions.”

As one might expect from German academics, this vicious debate lasted many years. And while neither ideas nor money proved out as the sole cause of wars, the fistfights provided many hours of entertainment for the grad students who were otherwise severely oppressed. Some still speculate as to whether this is why Hobbes proposed that all nasty, brutish short people be bricked up into the Great Wall of China. Fortunately, Hobbes' frenemy, John Stuart Mills, proved that society would only progress if the government chillaxed and let people have the unrestricted right and privilege of arguing with each other – and excluding foreigners. (Lost documents - only accessibly by those proven worthy - suggest Mills won his point by citing French haute cult-yoor as evidence).

Later, all of this arguing inspired the transcendentalists to form the Unitarian Universalist church, which accepts all creeds. The transcendentalists predicted (like Marx, actually) that fundamentalist religions were on the way out and would soon be replaced by science. Science and human progress in a democratic setting would (as Mills might have predicted) end faith-based intolerances and allow us all to collectively enjoy a kumbaya moment. The end of history. [Show of hands, who thought I could pull that end-of-history thing off? Oh ye of little, um, faith].

So how does all this relate to urban fantasy? My point, if I have one, is this: World setting is of critical importance in fantasy literature. It is, in fact, the defining characteristic of speculative fiction. And this is especially true in urban fantasy.

I can almost hear the shocked rumbles as some of you shake your heads and say, 'but don’t urban fantasists get off easy because they write about our own world. How hard is that?' And yet, in a paradox (note: or possibly an ironic twist), establishing a plausible justification for the existence of the magical in our contemporary world may require an even finer craft than it does in a medieval, futuristic, or otherworldly setting.

Like it or not, religion and ideas play an enormous role in the setting of any fantasy novel. From the sweepingly complex world settings of a Robert Jordan to the tongue-in-cheek made up religions of Kurt Vonnegut (whose Cat’s Cradle has the most pleasant depiction of the end of the world ever and the cutest religion), religion and ideologies are paramount in establishing a plausible world setting, especially when the supernatural is involved.

Many world-setting-seeking urban fantasy authors fall upon the two edged sword of relying on existing religion, particularly on Christianity. Two edges? On the one edge: the powerful faith-based feelings stab deep into the psyche of many readers and can resonate, imagine a bumblebee slicing through your ear canal. I think of: A Canticle for Liebowitz. The Da Vinci Code. Most anything by Orson Scott Card. Hyperion, for you Sci-Fi fans out there. You get the idea. Plus, recall that the most convincing lies are mixed with truth. And you'll see the attractiveness of seeing how Christianity plays out in a new setting.

Recently, though, I’ve noticed the other edge of the sword, the harikiri side as it were. I’ve seen a trend among urban fantasy authors to quickly quote a few apocryphal biblical passages to justify the existence of angels and demons and to assume reader acceptance of Nephilim or giants in the land and then say, thus my world setting has the weight of Christianity behind it. In the first place, a growing percentage of this country is not Christian.

Having said that, this can work well when the world setting is not as important as the characters in the novel. For instance, after years of being put off by the title, this summer I read and thoroughly enjoyed Richelle Mead’s Georgina Kincaid series, which has four books to date, starting with Succubus Blues. Mead (who just got engaged this last weekend, by the way, so congratulations to her!)'s warm-hearted, reluctant succubus protagonist is endearing. She is compelling enough to drive us through the story. And an angel who plays poker, drinks booze, and burns down Christmas trees makes Mead's setting depart sufficiently from fundamentalist Christian teachings that we can and must take her world setting as something other than an expression of her personal religious faith. It is while not, perhaps, a richly developed world setting, (though rich enough and that's not intended as a criticism) still an enjoyable and fun setting in which her characters can have their adventures - which is what it is meant to be.
Two other series I read were more deeply rooted in Christian ideology. These included the Rogue Mage Series by Faith Hunter and the Doomsday series by Lori Handeland. Both tell the story of the end of the world in an apocalypse that runs largely as predicted by Christian teachings, albeit with fanciful elements. Handeland’s book tells the story of a psychic who is tasked to save the world from Armageddon. Still, the world setting includes enough dhampirs and other fantastic creatures that, to me, it hardly qualifies as Christian literature, though to judge by some of the reviews I’ve read that view is not unanimous. Freely admitting that I am an enthusiast more than a critic, I felt that Handeland had a deft ear for language. And while her prose was not overly flowery, it was clear and precise and at times fun. More to the pointm, she crafted an interesting story with characters who agonized over real mistakes and betrayals. And the plot drove me right through the novel. Indeed given some of the details of the plot, which I will not reveal here, I supsect that the novel may not appeal to readers with certain hard-core Christian beliefs. I will say that I enjoyed the story and intend to read the next in the series.

The Faith Hunter novels were at once more intriguing and more disturbing. And by that I mean to imply neither that Christian literature is disturbing nor that this is Christian literature. Specifically, angels have returned to earth as prophesied in the Bible. Upon arrival, they kill most everyone on earth (the wicked one would hope). Now, they (the angels) segregate themselves in enclaves and periodically come forth to kill people (or demon spawn who bubble up from Hell). They do so without any reason discernible by the protagonist.

Several reviewers thought that only Christians would appreciate this novel because the metaphysics are (admittedly) deeply Christian. Clearly, if you have no Christian background, the setting will lack the power it will have if you believe this type of apocalypse will literally happen. On the other hand, I felt the author portrayed the apocalypse with a jaundiced or critical eye and left enough doubts about the angels (were they really aliens?) that for me the setting worked quite well and was thought provoking.
So, where does that leave us? With all due respect to the transcendentalists - who were clearly a great bunch of optimistic, happy campers - they were wrong. Ideological (read: religious) conflict has arisen phoenix-like and once again assumed its place as the predominent force for violence and bloodshed in the world today. And it is natural for fantasy authors to draw upon it when building world views. Given that the readers in the market are overwhelmingly Christian or at least steeped in Christian tradition, writers will (Marx would rejoice) compete for the money by writing settings that move a Christian audience. But personally, I give this round to Hegel.


  1. I've recently started following Steve's blog as well and I really enjoyed this post. Glad you've come across it too!

    ~Natalie (Mindful Musings)

  2. Hi Natalie. Glad to see you stopped by. I enjoyed this blog of Stephens as well. It really got me to thinking on the whole idea. Very intreging.

    Thank you for stopping by!


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