Monday, June 18, 2007

June Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour Day 1: Review

White American suburbia + swordfighting = really bad science fantasy.

This month’s Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour features Sharon Hinck’s novel, The Restorer. See Sharon Hinck’s blog here. My review of her novel follows:

The Restorer by Sharon Hinck. The Sword of Lyric, book 1. Navpress (Colorado Springs): 2007. 477 pages. $14.99. ISBN-13: 978-1-60006-131-8, ISBN-10: 1-60006-131-1.

According to Alberto Manguel in A History of Reading, Henry Miller claimed that James Joyce’s Ulysses is best read in the toilet. If so, then Sharon Hinck’s The Restorer is best read in the bubble bath. And with a total of 477 sluggish pages to get through, I burned the midnight aromatherapy candles to ensure you had this review on time.

The story begins with the innocuously named narrator, Susan Mitchell, who has developed a serious case of homemaker ennui, not because her family is dysfunctional or her life is in tatters, but because her family is perfect and her life is mind-numbingly dull. Different writers have suggested different cures for the housewife blues: some suggest getting a job; in his 1979 short story “Options,” John Varley suggests getting a sex change; Hinck, on the other hand, suggests vacationing in an alternate universe where everyone wears sweatpants and drinks chai tea: it’s a housemom heaven.

The alternate world Susan enters is loosely (very loosely) based on Iron Age I Palestine, and Susan’s story is loosely (very loosely) based on the story of the prophetess Deborah from Judges 4 and 5. Interestingly, whether she knows it or not, Hinck has selected for the subject of her novel one of the two passages of scripture generally considered the oldest: the two are the Song of Miriam in Exodus 15.1-19 and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5.2-31. The age and historicity of the content of these passages are disputed.

Hinck has not tried to make her fictional universe match the world of Iron Age I. The Israelites of that time, if they could be said to exist at all, were a conglomeration of Canaanite tribes with no national identity, no concept of a Bible or canon of scripture, and no concept of a coming messiah. Hinck’s alternate universe, by contrast, is a comfortably American world with a republican government, a carefully recorded Bible, and a national religion that looks suspiciously like nondenominational Evangelicalism.

To make an excessively long story as short as possible, Susan spends the first two thirds of the novel whining. She starts the book off by whining about how bored she is with her home and family, and very soon, the reader is bored with her home and family, too, for after landing in the alternate universe of Lyric, Susan spends 300 pages whining on almost every single page about how much she wants to go home. I don’t remember the Narnia kids or the Fionavar Five or even the Bone cousins being such crybabies.

As it turns out, Susan is a “Restorer.” A Restorer is meant to be roughly similar to a Judge, but a Restorer is less a tribal warlord than a knight who leads in battle and sometimes gives annoying pep talks. To help her fight the nation’s wars and to save her after innumerable stupid moves, Susan’s Restorer abilities include the capacity to heal quickly and to see and hear better than ordinary mortals. I have never seen superpowers so under-utilized: Susan uses her abilities for little more than eavesdropping and recovering from bruises. Inexplicably, her ability to fight suddenly improves in the last eighth of the novel, even though Hinck has told us repeatedly up to that point that Susan is a poor fighter. The rapid improvement gets the plot moving (finally!), but doesn’t make very good sense.

The political situation of The Restorer is reasonably developed, but nothing we haven’t seen before. The “People of the Verses” are beset on every side by a variety of mostly faceless enemies. The biggest threat comes from the nation of Hazor to the north. Here, Hinck has named her enemy nation after a city from the Bible, which in Judges 4.2 is the center of King Jabin, the antagonist of Deborah and Barak, just in case the Deborah parallels aren’t explicit enough.

As expected, the novel ends with a final battle. It’s customary for unexpected help to show up at the last moment in climactic fantasy battles, but Hinck throws no less than three deus ex machinas at us, one of which has not the faintest hint of foreshadowing (it involves the arrival of some “lost tribes”). The effect is difficult to swallow.

Hinck has attempted to construct a believable science fantasy world, but she has failed:

Hinck asks us to believe in a high-tech society without a written language. Yet in spite of the oral culture, Hinck is apparently unable to imagine good religion without a Bible, so the people of Lyric have theirs in the form of books on tape known as “Records.”

Hinck asks us to believe in green, renewable energy in the form of “magchips.” What are magchips, you ask? Solar power? Geothermal? Powerplants in the mantles of red giants linked to Earth through superstrings? No, magchips produce electricity by “magnetic attraction” (p. 287). All this time, we’ve been burning fossil fuels while the secret to limitless energy is stuck to our refrigerators.

Hinck asks us to believe that the people of this high-tech society fight with swords (and without armor). For whatever reason, swords have been a mainstay of B-class sf, but if the reader is to accept them, they had better be Vorpal Blades or lightsabers or something that can at least pretend to compete with advanced weaponry. If magnets are so important in Hinck’s world, why don’t they use Gauss rifles instead?

Hinck isn’t the first to try blending sf with swashbuckling. Frank Herbert’s Dune is an example of such a combination, but Herbert has a good excuse for it in his shields, the energy fields that deflect fast-moving objects, rendering projectile weapons useless. Hinck gives no such explanations. The nation of Hazor has remote-controlled tanks and long-range heat rays, but when they fight the final battle, they send in sword-wielding cavalry! Did they run out of tanks? Have they no gunpowder? Do they not even have bows and arrows? The worldbuilding in this book is unbelievably sloppy.

And these are just the science fiction elements. On the fantasy side of things, Hinck asks us to believe in a plastic sword that turns into the real thing for no reason whatsoever. Susan’s journey to Lyric begins when she’s rearranging her children’s toys in the attic; she picks up a plastic sword and--zap--she’s in an alternate world with a real sword in hand. Adding to this folly, Hinck tries to explain later that Susan’s transdimensional trip took place because of some advanced machinery called “portal stones” (p. 463). The science and magic are here so garbled we can’t differentiate them and consequently can’t believe in them, either. If science brought her to this alternate world, and if this alternate world runs on scientific devices, what’s with the magic sword?

The trip through an attic to another universe does parallel some great works of fantasy. George MacDonald’s Lilith comes to mind, as does Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which pays homage to MacDonald’s work. Perhaps a closer parallel is Elizabeth Winthrop’s The Castle in the Attic, which features a portal to a fantasy world in the form of a toy castle and toy knight that become real, similar to Susan’s sword. But Winthrop is careful in her worldbuilding where Hinck is slapdash, and so Winthrop’s castle and knight, which eventually grow into a whole universe, are believable where Hinck’s Lyric is only hokey.

Hinck also expects us to believe in the Rhusicans, a race of unambiguously evil people who can drive others insane simply by talking to them. Everybody seems to know the Rhusicans are evil and dangerous, yet they walk around unharassed; you could meet one at the bus stop. How can this be? Because the government is corrupt, Hinck tells us. All things considered, that’s not much of an explanation. On the whole, the Rhusicans are a cool idea, but I simply can’t believe they’re walking around everywhere, easily identifiable. I also can’t believe they have no motives. Hinck never tells us what they’re after; they’re evil for evil’s sake when they could have been much more. They could have been mental vampires who feed on human brainwaves, for example, or beings who feed on human misery like Mr. Dark in Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, but Hinck uses them only for a religious allegory: she seems to be saying that talking to non-Christians is dangerous. Is that a good message?

Almost sillier than the Rhusicans are the Kahlareans. Supposedly, the Kahlareans are master assassins, but their assassination method consists of rushing a person in the street and wrestling with him for a while before trying to stick a knife in him.

Probably the worst element of this world is also its centerpiece: the religion. The religion of Lyric has no rituals, no sacrifices, no priest class, no ritual calendar, no artwork, no shrines. All it has are the “Verses,” a set of carefully memorized scriptures, and the “Records,” a shorter set of scriptures on tape, which the characters get together to recite from time to time. Now Hinck is asking us to believe in an entire religion organized around the Wednesday night Bible study.

The people of this religion do have a single feast day, and it’s actually called “Feast.” Could a generic, made-up religion possibly sound any more generic and made up? And what do they do during Feast, you ask? Why, they gather in a big megachurch to sing praise choruses and strum guitars! If I didn’t know better, I’d think this book were a parody.

This religion is another product of shoddy worldbuilding and also appears to be the product of an Evangelical pipe dream: this is a dogmatic, creedal religion with nothing to hold it together but a memorized set of bad poems. Hinck depicts it as unified, but a religion like this in the real world would have split into dozens of different sects with dozens of different doctrines.

In an earlier, fumbling essay about what’s wrong with Christian sf and fantasy, I suggested that Christian authors should avoid depicting the Bible as a magic cure-all for life’s problems, and The Restorer exemplifies what I meant. There is no problem in the world Susan or the other characters can’t solve by either quoting scripture at it or giving a religious pep talk. Someone’s driven nuts by a Rhusican? Quote scripture. Someone’s having a bad day? Quote scripture. Government corruption is rampant? Quote scripture. Someone’s threatening to kill you? Well, for that, you’ll need to pull out the big guns and use Christian pop-psych:

“It cuts both ways, Kieran.” I still didn’t fully understand what I was saying, but the words flowed from a compassion that grew so strong, it made me ache. “You’ve made yourself believe that you don’t feel anything. Or that you only feel hate. That’s a lie. And it’s hurting you. You care about Tristan. You care about Kendra, your father, your whole village.” [p. 161]

The book has several similar trite passages, and Hinck even aggravates the problem by explaining and reiterating and explaining again as if she’s afraid the reader might somehow miss the novel’s moral and religious message. For example there’s this:

My shoulders slumped. He was right. Back home, I kept begging God to use me, to show me His purpose. But there were no answers that satisfied me. I suddenly saw how much of my service came with an “if.” I’ll support my husband if I feel loved and cherished. I’ll raise my children if I can feel fulfillment and respect. I’ll reach out to a friend if I can see results. And yes, I’ll even go through trials bravely--if I understand the purpose and value of them. Could I ever learn to walk a road that was not of my choosing, without even an explanation from God? [p. 137]

And after the final battle comes this, which I can’t help but imagine being prefaced with “And the moral of the story is”:

Warmth surged through me. He was right. The role of the Restorer wasn’t all that different from the roles I had in my own world. In both worlds I felt discouraged by my weakness and very small against the needs and battles I faced. Yet, even weak or small, I wasn’t alone. [p. 444]

Even the allegory of this universe is shaky. Hinck’s world poses theological problems she never addresses. The book makes clear that this alternate world is in need of a messiah who has not yet come, indicating that there are to be multiple incarnations. Is Jesus, then, going to shrug off one human nature and assume another? Besides this, the Verses apparently give behavioral regulations, and though we never learn much about what they are, we do learn that they’re different from those of ancient Israel. Is God, then, an arbitrary lawgiver? These difficulties never bothers Susan: serious theological thinking is not part of her inner monologue.

The Restorer is a good example of everything that’s wrong with Christian sf. As science fiction, it’s badly constructed; as religious fiction, it’s saccharine and empty. Like many similar novels, it is a religious book about a religion short on substance and lacking in the elements that make religion interesting. A non-Christian reading this would probably conclude that Christianity is a religious version of an especially vapid self-help seminar. Given the complex and intriguing history and content of Christian theology, mythology, and history, which many Christian sf authors have apparently forgotten, this is most unfortunate.

Are there honestly going to be sequels?

The Sci Fi Catholic’s Rating for The Restorer:

Myth Level: Low (some mythic elements incompetently handled)

Quality: Low (pedestrian prose made worse by conscientious attempts at meaningfulness)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (not enough content to be offensive)

And the blog tour continues:

Trish Anderson
Brandon Barr
Jim Black
Justin Boyer
Grace Bridges
Amy Browning
Jackie Castle
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
Frank Creed
Lisa Cromwell
CSFF Blog Tour
Gene Curtis
D. G. D. Davidson
Chris Deanne
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Linda Gilmore
Beth Goddard
Marcus Goodyear
Andrea Graham
Russell Griffith
Jill Hart
Katie Hart
Sherrie Hibbs
Heather R. Hunt
Becca Johnson
Jason Joyner
Dawn King
Tina Kulesa
Lost Genre Guild
Rachel Marks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Eve Nielsen
John W. Otte
John Ottinger
Robin Parrish
Cheryl Russel
Hanna Sandvig
Chawna Schroeder
Mirtika Schultz
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Jason Waguespac
Daniel I. Weaver
blog comments powered by Disqus