Fantasy: January 2009 Archives

As I was responding to this comment from Neil, I realized that I was getting into a bunch of issues that I don't think I've ever discussed comprehensively on this blog before, and I thought it might as well be its own post. Neil raises some questions about Christians reading (and presumably watching) science fiction and fantasy, questions that are more general (and more legitimate) than the common complaint about magic in fantasy. He wonders whether certain writers or stories (he has in mind a series by Stephen Donaldson that I'm not familiar with) can be dangerous in leaving behind what he calls an amoral residue. There's also the worry that spending time in fictional worlds is escaping from reality and might even be an addiction. It also might be a waste of time when there are more important things to do. He suggests that God might speak through such literature, but hasn't God spoken much more clearly in other ways already, so why should we need this kind of thing?

I think there can be a number of different healthy motivations for a Christian to read or watch science fiction or fantasy, many of them no different from the motivations for any other kind of fiction. One is simply entertainment. The idea that entertainment is just escape from reality seems wrong to me. I know people who think of it that way, but I don't think that's what they're actually doing when they see themselves as escaping. They might be distracting themselves from things they don't want to think about, but the things they're thinking about, while fictional, are based on reality in some way, or they couldn't think about them. It's just a rearrangement of real things, and those are good things that God created. It's also an engagement with the process of creation, an ability that I think God has given to us as part of being made in his image. The use of the imagination develops abilities God wants us to develop. Thinking about fictional worlds is one way to develop intellectual virtue. It's also simply good to enjoy good storytelling and to appreciate people using their God-given abilities to produce something enjoyable.

There are also moral themes in literature, and fiction of any kind helps us evaluate our lives in many ways. If the story in question only motivates moral evaluation of fictional cases, and those cases could never come up in real life, then at least it allows us to practice our ethical thinking in hard and strange cases, which is still a good skill to develop, because we will confront new situations that require such skills, especially as technology develops and social relations become further changed from what we see as the norm. But many ethical issues in fiction, even in fantasy and science fiction, are also going to come up in real life. Sometimes the author wants to make certain moral points, and sometimes we need to develop the ability to think for ourselves about those questions and not just accept what the author wants us to take away from it. But that's not a reason not to read or watch it except in cases where someone has a problem doing that. Maybe in Neil's case the Donaldson series was like that, and for all I know it might have that effect on me too (I know little about the series in question, so I have no idea). It's certainly worth being vigilant about how things affect you, but that's true of any fiction, and it's true of a lot of things besides fiction. It's true of observing how your friends live, and Paul tells us not to isolate ourselves from those who aren't Christians, even if he also says that Christians ought to live differently from the world.

I like fantasy and science fiction in particular because they help illustrate philosophical questions in ways that real life sometimes can't. One way to show that a sophisticated hedonism is wrong is to point out that with Harry Potter's invisibility cloak or Sauron's ring you could get away with almost anything you want, and it would still be wrong to do so. A sophisticated hedonism says it's only wrong to do certain things because it's against your self-interest (given that people will be mad at you for doing it and want to stop you and punish you). But these cases show that the real reason it's wrong isn't because it's against your self-interest, because you can achieve the self-interested goal in such cases, and it's still wrong. Scenarios like the Matrix or science fiction or fantasy worlds with very different social relations raise interesting questions about the moral principles that we assume as fundamental, because they lead us to wonder if they would apply in a very different situation. If I spent ten minutes coming up with a list, I could probably name off at least a dozen examples from science fiction and fantasy that I use regularly in my philosophy classes to illustrate points that are a lot harder to make clear or vivid without the aid of such examples.

So you don't need to think of fiction as revelation in any important sense to think that it provides an occasion for something that can be productive. It's bad if it distracts from more important things, as is true of any kind of enjoyable activity. At the same time, a little rest and relaxation, especially if it engages aspects of our thinking that we don't otherwise use, is part of being productive in the long run. So there has to be a balance, but I think this kind of imaginative fiction can contribute a lot of good toward our moral development and to our lives as well-rounded human beings, even if there are also risks and dangers, as there are with most pursuits in life.

Fantasy Recommendations

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We usually listen to audiobooks while we're driving. We've gone through the whole Harry Potter series (after reading them in hard copy). We've also tried out some new authors. We didn't like Ursula LeGuin's first Earthsea book very much, but we did like Terry Goodkind's first Sword of Truth book (something I can't say about the new TV adaptation Legend of the Seeker, which doesn't have much of anything to do with the book besides the character names and a few very general characteristics taken from the original storyline but modified enough to remove the most interesting aspects). Sam has long been a fan of Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, and we listened to one of those also (after having read a bunch). I'm not as impressed with her writing, but I like the world she's created, which is one of the things I like about fantasy and science fiction in general.

One of the problems we keep running into is that we listen to something and then can't continue on because our library doesn't have an audio version of the next volume in the series. They don't have the second Goodkind book or the next McCaffrey one after Moreta, where we left off. We also are re-reading Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, and the library had book 6, so we've been listening to that, but they only have a few more, and they're much later in the series. We could always listen to books we've read or ones one of us has read. I'm thinking Lloyd Alexander might be good (new to Sam). There is always Tolkien or Lewis if we want to go through those again. Our library system has Stephen Lawhead's first few volumes in the Arthur/Pendragon series. I tried reading the first one when it came out but didn't get very far, and maybe having an audio version would make it easier to get through it.

But I'm wondering if anyone has further recommendations of authors to try who would be similar to what we've liked. I don't like Stephen Donaldson. I thought his white gold series was awful. Besides what I've mentioned, we both really like Terry Brooks. I've thought about Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, Raymond Feist, Fred Saberhagen, Katherine Kerr, and David Eddings, but their respective first volumes aren't in the library system. They do have some of the Dune series, including the first one, but I'm somewhat hesitant about that unless Sam decides to push it. Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber is available, but I don't know much about that other than seeing his name mentioned a lot in scifi/fantasy contexts.

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