[Edit: Check out this post for a couple other “speculative fiction” books in the Christian market]
Again I have been given a free book– this time it is an electronic preprint of the new novel in the Firebird series by Kathy Tyers. The new book is called Wind and Shadow— but I have been too busy to read that one yet, so I will be talking a bit about the reissue of her trilogy, which is out now in one annotated volume.
Who is Kathy and why am I reviewing some random CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) novel? Well let me tell you.
Kathy Tyers is better known for her two Star Wars novels, Truce at Bakura (one of my favorites) and Balance Point (I haven’t read that one). Before Truce she had published a few young adult sci-fi novels with Bantam Spectra, particularly her first and second books, Firebird and Fusion Fire. Her novel Shivering World (by far the best, but impossible to find in the original version now) was nominated for the Nebula Award. I met Kathy at the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference and got to chat with her a bit about her Star Wars novel (only Truce back then) and Princess Leia’s difficulty forgiving her father. I was maybe 19 or 20 years old and pretty excited to meet her. She bought me a rootbeer. I felt pretty darn cool. 🙂
I have a decent number of friends whom I’ve met through the Mt Hermon conference, so I have quite a few connections in the Christian publishing industry, and will probably comment on some of their work as I go. That said… I am not much of a fan of the Christian (more specifically Evangelical) publishing industry, so I will not have unadulterated praise for many of them. Oh well. I think it is a pretty fascinating niche market, and worth spilling some digital ink over (especially since so few others have, at least from the academic side of things). I do want to say that I am enjoying rereading these books, and my critical comments are aimed at understanding, describing, explaining, etc, NOT at tearing someone down or trying to prevent people from reading these books.
OK–back to Firebird. Kathy’s two Firebird books were rewritten for the CBA (Evangelical Market) in the late 1990s, shortly after I met her. Science Fiction has always been a hard sell in the Christian market– it’s like selling niche fiction within an already niche market– so a lot of sci-fi fans in the industry were pretty excited to see a mainstream author trying to “break in” (heck, less than a decade ago some evangelicals were boycotting Harry Potter, and those are some pretty darn Christian books). There have been a few other attempts over the last 1-2 decades (I’m not counting Stephen Lawhead’s work, which is a bit of an exception), including science-thrillers by my friend John Olson (his old website seems to be down though–he may be dropping it) and a fantasy series by my friend Sharon Hinck (I got to read an early draft of the first book). A decade later Marcher Lord Press has been trying to give Christian speculative fiction a kick in the pants again. I will reiterate that I am not such a fan of this niche-within-a-niche market (but that chip on my shoulder is for another day, maybe), and I don’t think many outside the Evangelical community will thoroughly enjoy these, but again, there is some interesting stuff to say about this little community of texts.
OK, now I’m really going to get back to Firebird. I’ve reread the first two books in the new Annotated Firebird— it’s been close to a decade since I read them last, I think. I’d never finished the third book Crown of Fire (written along with the two rewrites), and will get to that soon. Kathy’s career began in the 1980s, and I feel like she fits the classic “80s Space Opera” writer very well. That may sound like an insult–I don’t mean it to be so, and I believe by the 80s “Space Opera” was a term embraced by authors, rather than thrown around in a derogatory sense by the critics. The over all flavor and world-building reminds me a bit of Lois MacMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan books–a more limited Interstellar community (a portion of a spiral arm, rather than a whole galaxy–slightly more realistic than the casual 200,000 light-year jaunts of the Star Wars universe), an intense focus on one or two particular characters and their development (however grand and cosmic the background story might be), maybe a whiff of the “post-human” but nothing like you get in fiction on the Singularity, a softening of “military sci-fi” (which has really come into its own the last 2 decades) with romance and the aforementioned character development, a reaction to hard sci-fi with, again, the emphasis on character, and a reaction to New Wave sci-fi with an emphasis on (again!) character in contrast to ideas, and easy-to-follow story in contrast to the avant-garde experimentation of people like Delany.
That said– apart from Shivering World (which is TOP NOTCH late 80s/early 90s sci-fi in the original version), I prefer Bujold as a writer and a thinker, and I’m actually a big fan of the more experimental material of the New Wave. I’ve been rereading some of Samuel Delany’s work lately, and I love it–but if a writer’s group, or the writer mentors you find at Mt Hermon, were to look at “Empire Star” or Babel-17 and render a verdict, they would find them incoherent, unreadable, etc. At least, I’m pretty sure they would. I suppose you should take my comments with a grain of salt– I’m a “professional” when it comes to literature (even if I focus on Medieval material), so I’m accustomed to working hard at my texts, while others might prefer an easier ride.
By and large, I admit I’m not totally happy with Kathy’s rewrites of these books for the Christian market. In particular I remember the first time I opened the rewrite of Shivering World. The story is still pretty close to the original, but I remember feeling disoriented in just the first paragraph. I opened up my copy of the original version (misplaced at the moment, alas), and saw that the phrasing had been changed around pretty drastically in several places. This was actually an interesting epiphany for me–I realized then that the genre of science fiction had a rhythm and phrasing all its own. The new version sounded like typical CBA prose–a prairie romance in space. Well, nothing necessarily wrong with that– but my ear is trained to speculative fiction, not Christian fiction (which is maybe part of the reason I have trouble with the latter). Apart from that, I just find any attempts to insert the traditional evangelical material (who God is, what it is to be a Christian, etc) into a narrative to be pretty darn clumsy. Doing this in science fiction, like Kathy does, allows for a certain amount of “defamiliarization” ,which is good (the evangelical community could use more of that), but every non-Tolkien or Lewis attempt that I have seen to create a science-fiction or fantasy version of the Gospel has ended up feeling like a distasteful bit of triumphalism or propaganda. This fits with the general (not universal) evangelical state of ignorance re: one’s own historical situatedness. The sort of attitude that says “Just preach the Word, pastor, I don’t want no fancy learnin'”, without acknowledging the fact that any text, by virtue of being a text, necessarily requires interpretation–and the further the remove from the original context, the greater the gap between the semantics of the reader’s world and the semantics of the “original” world of the text. The Evangelical re-imaginings of the Gospel and/or the Hebrew Scriptures by Christian speculative fiction authors tend to reinforce Evangelical ignorance by giving the illusion of a strange and exotic version of God’s work, while actually churning out the party-line , even down to the buzz-words of contemporary Evangelicism.
But let me back up and say that Kathy is not one of the worst offenders, and she does have some occasional bits where the strangeness of this foreign culture, or its prehistory, sneaks up to surprise us– like in Firebird’s reliving of a memory of sacrifice for sins from an earlier point in the history of her husband’s people. This brings us up against the “Odd”, to use a term that has come up in some archeological reading I’ve been doing. The “Odd” meaning that which doesn’t fit our way of understanding the world, that which marks the target culture out as “alien” in some way, which blows open our assumptions about a unified, fixed semantic world that everyone lives in. That said… this particular instance also simply gives us a standard Evangelical take on sacrifice as a prefiguration of Christ. Not to do away with that bit of theology, but the representation we find here is very much the Evangelical imagining of what it would be like, what someone would think, and even projects our particular sense of our relationships to pets and animals onto this moment which, in all honesty, should feel a lot “Odder” (and through its Oddness, expand and/or rupture our own semantic world).
Other issues I had with the first two books:
- Like the sacrifice example above, these books partake in the usual Evangelical appropriation of Jewishness as a preliminary to Christianity–the Jews are the exotic Others whom we place in our past to give us a feeling of authenticity. Well, I’m all for Christians digging into the Jewish roots of their religion (after all, the first Christians were Jews, and Christ was understood as the Jewish Messiah), but I think it goes a bit far when you take the Hebrew Language, turn it (almost directly) into the language of your pre-Messianic science-fictional people group (who look pretty darn Anglo and Evangelical in everything from appearance to worldview), capitalizing on Hebrew as exotic (or Ancient, Primordial) in order to give an other-worldly/authentic feel to a group which is ostensibly different from you, but which actually serves to affirm your own cultural group. OK, maybe that all sounds hyper-critical, and I will note that I don’t think Kathy has an evil agenda in any of this– but I think it is worth pointing out as part of the implicit semantics of the novel and its real-world context.
- Minorities– I don’t think there are any. This is a White universe, even if that “universe” is confined to one part of the galaxy. Well, maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I’m pretty sure it was all Anglo-Celtic-Scandinavian, including the culture which was representing the pre-Messianic “Jewish” culture. This is a standard problem with sci-fi, so it isn’t a specific critique for Kathy– but it is worth pointing out. If writers in the predominantly “white” genre of sci-fi keep presenting a vision of the future which only has 1) white people, and 2) weird aliens, then whether or not they are conscious of this in their representation of that future, aren’t they actually looking back to a Colonial vision of the world, when White People were People and any one else was a Savage semi-bestial Other? I apologize if the world described is actually pretty diverse– please point it out if I missed that. [edit: Looking over this again, I maybe should admit that my own imagination could be to blame–hypothetically at least, leaving non-white people “unmarked” can itself be a good inversion of the usual tendency to mark every ethnicity except “white.” I say this without having reread the books with an eye to this though–just wanted to modify my analysis of our treatment of ethnicity generally.]
- Sex. Well, it’s non-existent here, but in a way actually very present. Just displaced onto the “psychic” realm. Firebird marries into the culture of the Sentinels, genengineered telepaths (also the people of promise in this universe–read “Anglo-Evangelical pseudo-Jews” [sorry, that was snarky…]). This telepathy is in several places very closely aligned with the sexual experience, as Firebird is told just how powerful the experience of intimacy with a Sentinel can be (one woman says, basically, “You won’t be able to say no to him”). For the most part this is just a fantastic extrapolation of the Evangelical view of sex–it is a spiritual union which ties a couple together in a very real way. Well, Berkeley or not I’m pretty conservative in my own personal sexuality, and I find this a fascinating way for a Christian author to explore sexuality in a milieu which otherwise can’t handle explicit talk about sex and sexuality. Though at times it also feels like it is just a way for a prudish culture to titillate itself with all the usual steamy bits of trashy Romance novels (well, I’m using my imagination here– haven’t read any. Really!!!) without the guilt associated with that sort of voyeurism– and given the clear association of telepathy with sex throughout these books, I have to say that the forced telepathic interrogation of Firebird by her future husband Brennen at the start of the first book seems pretty darn disturbing (a mental rape by which Brennen also establishes his perfect connaturality with Firebird–like a personality/compatibility test but absolutely accurate b/c mind-to-mind). But OK, that said (and I think these are all legit criticisms), for the most part it is a fantasy about perfect emotional and mental intimacy with someone, and I think that is fairly nice, thank you very much. Maybe a bit overdone sometimes… but oh well.
The cover–look, I’m just NOT a fan of this new trend in sci-fi, fantasy and para-normal trash-romance of putting photos of models on their covers (not to call Kathy’s books trash-romance–but it seems like the publisher is emulating that genre). Feels like you’re marketing a soap-opera, not a book, and especially not a sci-fi book (even the cheesy figure paintings on the covers of pulp paperbacks were better). The Christian market goes a bit worse and apparently just dredges the internet for stock photos of models. They don’t even LOOK like people, they look like models! And would Firebird really go into battle with her eyebrows plucked and a load of red lipstick on? OK, sorry, I know I’m being a bit unreasonable here. I’m more a fan than academic at this point. Oh well. You know, I also can’t stand make-up or earrings, so I’m obviously eccentric anyway, and you shouldn’t feel too bad disregarding this part of my post, at least… [I recently saw another cover online for one of the novels which was MUCH better imho–but can’t seem to find it anymore. Painted in a reserved style (not your typical cheesy cover) w/ Firebird in a very reasonable get-up, shorter hair I think, and generally looking like a competent, real person, not a cardboard stock heroine image. At least, I think it was for this series… but alas, can’t find it any more.]
I think that is all I will cover (for now…) I hope the criticisms don’t discourage people from picking it up– though again, I am not sure non-Evangelical readers would enjoy this very much. I also want to emphasize that I think Kathy Tyers is a wonderful person, and should she ever read this, I hope she won’t take the criticisms personally. I enjoy her books very much. 🙂 I may primarily work in ancient literature, but whether ancient or modern, I am used to shooting off my mouth about these sorts of things. If Evangelical lit. tends to ignore its own historical situatedness, well, this post is a bit of a step towards placing Ev. Lit. in its socio-historical context.
And I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing the new book–hopefully I’ll post on that soon! It is coming a decade later, and after a huge amount of change in Kathy’s life, including a graduate degree and a thesis for Regent college involving Space Opera (I think– I’ll see if I can dig up more info on what she wrote on). I am really interested in seeing where her writing is now, and revisiting the Firebird universe.
: I should have remembered to mention one of the more intriguing aspects of Kathy’s books–the use of bio-/gene-engineering as Novum and her exploration of the morality of biological experimentation, certainly a timely issue, whatever side of the debate you stand on. The issue is conflated with inter-generational conflict to a large degree, and is most thoroughly explored in her book Shivering World. I wrote a paper on this topic in her novels as well as Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot back when I was an undergrad–I don’t think I have the paper any more, but I think it is definitely worth revisiting. Maybe it will be a future blog post… or maybe it will be a full paper. Hey, even a Norse Mythologist can write about sci-fi, right?