Saturday, June 30, 2007

Kung Fu Night! Once Upon a Time in China



One of the best kung fu films I've seen yet.

Once Upon a Time in China, starring Jet Li, Yuen Biao, and Rosamund Kwan. Directed, and produced by Tsui Hark. Written by Tsui Hark, Yeun Kai-chi, Leung Yiu-Ming, and Tang Pik-Yin. American release by Columbia Tristar Home Video. Runtime 134 minutes. Rated R for violence.

See other reviews here.

One of the great appeals of kung fu is its rawness. Images which would be merely sadistic or silly in isolation can, when combined with decent story-telling, be supremely powerful. The kung fu films that don't make it to wide release in the U.S. are probably the best; they have a low-budget grittiness that adds to their power, a power that flashier, slicker films like The Matrix and Hero, much as I love them, can't capture.

Once Upon a Time in China is one of those movies that's sometimes hard to watch. The violence starts out relatively mild, but by the end of the film, the wire-fu is brutal and bloody as well as inventive, yet it is watchable because, unlike many kung fu films, this one has a real plot. It involves the legendary hero Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li), who is both a medical doctor and teacher at a kung fu school at the end of the nineteenth century, when China is getting cut up by Western imperialists. In particular, the Americans are a problem, for they are trying to seduce Chinese to America, claiming they can strike it rich in the California gold rush, but really the Americans are planning to enslave them.

At the same time, a young man named Foon is trying without success to cut it as an actor. Foon knows some kung fu, and that brings him up against a Chinese street gang trying to extort the theater for protection money. Meanwhile, another kung fu master named Yim has fallen on hard times, reduced to doing kung fu in the street for money; he wants a confrotation with Wong to restore his status as a legendary fighter.

In there somewhere, a relative of Wong's (named Aunt 13 in the subtitles) has returned from the West dressed in Western clothes and practicing Western ways, and Wong has to protect her. Eventually, Foon and Yim both get mixed up with the street gang, which also enlists the help of the Americans to get revenge on Wong by kidnapping Aunt 13 and sending her to America as a prostitute. At the end of the movie, Wong must kick some serious butt, particularly Yim's, to rescue Aunt 13. But Wong also has to deal with the local authorities, who are unhappy with him because he runs an illegal local militia.

Whew. These kung fu movies ought to come with pamphlets to help us keep the subplots straight. Can I get some Cliff's Notes over here?

Religion plays a larger part in this film than in any other kung fu movie I've seen to date. A Jesuit priest has a large role in the film's first half. He first appears with a group of fellow missionaries and neophytes, walking down a street and singing, "Hallelujah, hallelujah" (amusingly, that's the only word of their song) and trying to out-sing some Chinese playing traditional instruments. Later, after Wong sees a Chinese man trying to hoodwink his countrymen into shipping off to the U.S., the same priest tries to tell Wong about Jesus. At that point in the film, Wong is understandably upset with all things Western; having caught the leader of the street gang for extorting businesses but unable to get a witness to testify against him, Wong says to the priest in frustration, "I caught a criminal today. Will Jesus be my witness?" Later, the film presents an ironic twist on this: the same priest sees members of the street gang setting Wong's kung fu school on fire, and he is brave enough to testify against them. Eventually, members of the gang shoot him for it, along with several innocent bystanders.

Langdon Gilkey, who spent World War II in a concentration camp in China, comments in Shantung Compound that the missionaries were the only Westerners in China who were not trying to exploit the Chinese. He further suggests that Western treatment of the Chinese would have been a lot worse if the missionaries were not there to mitigate it somewhat. Once Upon a Time in China makes a similar depiction; all the white people in the film are unilaterally gun-happy and evil except the Jesuit missionary, who has a generally positive role.

Some imagery in the movie will remind Christian viewers of biblical stories. In particular, when Foon and Yim agree to help the street gang, the gang offers them a large box full of silver coins. Foon, who had earlier betrayed Wong, has a crisis of conscience, picks up the silver, and hurls it at the gang, reminiscent of Judas casting the thirty coins into the temple. One of the film's several arch-villains is an American ambassador named Jackson; Wong kills him at the end by flicking a musket ball out of his fingers and into Jackson's forehead, David-and-Goliath-style. Wong's role in the movie is quasi-messianic, so the images may be intentional.

The movie asks definite questions but never gives definite answers. After he and Wong have an impressive fight involving lots of ladders in a warehouse, Yim dies from numerous gunshots (gun-happy Americans again) and says to Wong, "We can't fight guns with kung fu," and he seems to be correct. Early in the film, the suggestion is made that China must westernize or die; Aunt 13 offers Wong a Western suit, but he refuses to wear it, yet at the end of the film, he appears wearing a suit. What exactly is this movie saying about China's relationship to the West? Will Wong's defiance continue, or is that last scene a form of acquiescence?

All things considered, this movie manages plenty of thoughtfulness, nuance, comprehensibility, and good writing for a kung fu film, not to mention excellent choreography and cinematography that make the fight scenes a lot of fun to watch.

The Sci Fi Catholic's rating for Once Upon a Time in China:

Myth Level: High (legendary hero, messianic elements, wire-fu)

Quality: High (good story, good action, some humor, good cinematography)

Religion/Ethics: High (positive but not simple-minded representation of Christianity)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Thoughts on Fan Fiction

I've been having an e-mail conversation with a certain Aragem (I'll write you back soon, Aragem), and the conversation turned to the topic of fan fiction. Aragem gave me permission to post his comments, so I am doing so here. I find them interesting, and they convey information I didn't know.

My own opinion on fan fiction is simple. I see it as a natural extension, one impossible to get rid of, of our love for storytelling. Good stories make us want to tell more stories about the characters we care about. Of course, copyright law, at least as I understand it, doesn't accomodate this; and of course, I also believe in keeping the law. Aragem suggests that Japan has already found a solution to this dilemma:

Now here is my opinion on fanfiction, fanart, and AMVs (anime music
videos). To me, it is free advertising for the creator's work and
merchandise. Plus, it's a great way for creators and people who created
the fanon to see how much people love their comics, shows, and work. I
understand if someone is claiming it as their own and is making money off of it
that it would violate copyright law, but at most times every fic writer is
careful to give ownership to the creators and claim ONLY the characters they
created for the fic or art.

AMVs have recently taken a hit
from copyright law, but ONLY from the music companies, not from anime. In
Japan they actually encourage them. Especially doujinshi, an unauthorized
comic based off a canon comic that takes the characters and continues or expands
the story. Most anime makers encourage this because they see it as a fan
showing their love of the series and others see it as drawing in more business
from people unfamiliar with the work.

And this is true in my
case. There are several animes I didn't know existed or I wasn't
interested in until I saw some nice artwork on the net with the characters
that it drew me to learn more about them and ended with me actually buying the
dvd set for them. The creators got money from my pocket because somebody
took her own time to draw a picture of the characters for free. It was a
poster that advertised their work.

There was even an AMV that drew
me because it was playing a song that I liked, but I saw the characters and the
situation and I got curious, looked at some fansites, and I am purchasing the
anime now as I can find the dvds. There are even music artists I knew
nothing about until I saw an AMV with an anime I liked of whose I bought a
cd.

When I hear of the music company giving online sites a
hard time, I think to myself, "They are shooting themselves in the foot."
They are losing money instead of making it and are hurting the fans by
disallowing them from showing their love. It's like a mother pushing a
child away for trying to hug her.

Yes, there are irresponsible
people on the net who would ruin the fun for everyone, but there are many
responsible people. Imagine if every writer, anime creator, comic artist,
and music star chose not to allow fans to create fansites of their work on the
internet? It would be a very boring net and how would anybody learn
anything about shows or music or art? Imagine how little you knew before
you got access to the internet. Me, I can remember when I first got the
internet when I was 11 and it changed my life. Honestly, I spent it
looking at Gargoyles fansites till 2:00 in the morning that Summer.

And yes, just about every site has advertisements. But there
is a Vin Disel fansite, called the VinXeperince, that has a link to Amazon.com
so you could buy some of the movies he was in. To me, if that isn't
helpful to the actor or producers of the movies, what is?

Seibertron.com has links to sites that sell Transformer toys and
EVEN puts out alerts when a comic is in stores, or there is a sale at Toys R Us,
Walmart, or Target and even when a certain toy hits these stores. Is this
site hurting Hasbro's business?

I think the Copyright laws
should be tweaked or changes a little to allow fans to show their love and even
make some money for the businesses.

Well, that's my opinion
and you can post it if you want, but I'm sure it's the same as a lot of other
people's.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

News from the Field

So, here I am somewhere in Nevada working thirteen hour days to complete an archaeological survey, and when we get back to the motel each night, the first thing I want to do is walk three blocks to the nearest casino to use their wireless internet. No really.

So...what have we got for you today?

Since Asian films get occasional nods around here, you might take a look at No Blasters's review of Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance.

John C. Wright is at it again, questioning the hype over Philip Pullman's novels.

Speaking of which, here's an extremely funny condensed version of Pullman's trilogy from Asking the Wrong Questions, and I must say it's a pretty good summary. (Language warning on the comment section of that one.)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Update: The Feed

I've added some HTML to the blog that now enables automatic feed detectors to see the feed at FeedBurner, though for some reason, when I click on it in Internet Explorer, it shows the raw XHTML rather than the normal cleaned-up FeedBurner page. Things are under construction, in other words.

A Response to Mir

Recently, Mir left a comment on a previous post that requires a more extensive reply than I can comfortably give in the comments section. Since it's been my idea lately to have Sunday posts focus more on religion than sf, now seems a good time to attempt an answer. If life were a comic book, Mir and I would probably be arch-enemies. I'm a formerly Evangelical Catholic, she's a formerly Catholic Evangelical, and we both love science fiction and fantasy. Fortunately, life isn't a comic book.

The Church, big C, is singular. Christ's body. And I believe that the basis for being part of Christ's body is the simple gospel--"believeth on him has eternal life."

Already at the start of the discussion we have arrived at the central dilemma. What exactly makes this the simple gospel, and why have we decided the gospel is simple? If I wished, I could pick a favorite verse from the New Testament and hold it up as the essence of the gospel, but I have no good reason for doing that. (I'm rather fond of 1 Timothy 2.15 on that score and could probably make a very strange religion out of it.)

The verse Mir has quoted, John 3.16, has a particular context. The book was written in, by, and for a Christian community. The ones who have believed to which the book refers are those who are members of that community. This verse must not be read in isolation, but must be read in the light of other passages such as John 8.31, John 15.1-6, John 6.54, John 3.5, and the rest of John. The author or authors of John would not have expected anyone who believed to be able to continue in the life of Christ apart from the Church.

And then we get to the next problem. Believe in who, exactly? Jesus, presumably, but which Jesus? The Jesus of the Gnostics? Of the Arians? Of the Talmud? Of the Muslims? Of the Ascended Masters? If believing in Jesus is to have any real meaning, it must include believing definite things about Jesus, and that brings us around immediately to the very things Mir, if I understand her correctly, is trying to avoid: absolutist doctrinal statements and sectarian adherence requirements. She lists a number of titles for Christ, all of which are orthodox, but none of which give any certain statement about who or what Jesus is. An Arian could happily recite all of them.

I believe that all who truly turn to God and believe the gospel of Christ are part of the body, no matter what outward manifestation of it there is, or what church they call home.

This is an expression of the Denominational Theory of the Church. This concept did not come into existence until after the Reformation. It is essentially an excuse or explanation for rampant Protestant schism. The theory falls apart for a few reasons. First, it is hindered by the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura: the Denominational Theory is not to be found in the Bible. Second, it implies either that multiple truth claims can be simultaneously true or that truth claims are unimportant. The first option defies logic, and the second option, if true, would mean we shouldn't be having this discussion.

There are secondary doctrines that do not touch the core.

Every Protestant is forced by the lack of a Magisterium to decide for himself what is essential and what is not. If I decided, for example, that the Incarnation were a "secondary" doctrine, I would claim, as many Protestants do claim, that Jesus was an ordinary though especially wise man, and that silly beliefs like the Incarnation or Resurrection do not touch on the "core" of his teachings. The problem here is that there is no sure way to determine what that "core" is except by private preference. Issues that I consider core, and which the Church has always considered core, and which conservative Protestants consider core include doctrines like the nature of justification, a matter on which the various Protestant sects, even among the Evangelicals, are sharply divided. If only secondary doctrines are subjects of disagreement between Evangelicals, as some Evangelical leaders suggest and as Mir seems to suggest, then they are in effect saying that justification is unimportant. If this were true, that would be the death of Christianity, since it has always hung on the statement that we need to be saved and the subject of how we are to be saved.

But the Church is the one faith, and the one baptism (which is the Spirit baptism that seals, imo, but even if it is the water baptism of witness, then so be it).

"Water baptism of witness" sounds like a Baptist concept, though it may exist in other sects as well. It is the belief that baptism is a ritual with no inward effect. This is quite contrary to scripture, and it bemuses me that Christians who claim to derive all their doctrines from scripture would hold to it. Scripture describes baptism in three ways: as rebirth, as washing, and as a participation in Christ's death and resurrection. It is by its nature an initiation rite that makes a person a Christian, and so a group of first-century Semites would have seen it. Jesus refers to baptism as being born "again" or "from above," and depicts water as an inherent part of the rite (John 3.5-7). Titus 3.5 calls baptism a "washing of regeneration." Romans 6.4 says, "Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death." And 1 Peter 3.20-21 compares baptism to the ark of Noah, and says plainly, "baptism doth also now save us." The view that the outward act and its effects can be wholly separated is, as far as I know, original to John Calvin, and it stems from his theology, not from scripture.

I believe that whether Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist, etc, if the person looks upon Christ the Savior and says, "I am a sinner. Forgive me. You are Lord," and this is absolutely the cry of their heart and soul, and they follow, then they are His and are of the Body.

Respect for ancestors is a part of natural law, and it is embodied in the Ten Commandments as, "Honor thy father and thy mother." You should give greater honor to your spiritual ancestors. The Reformed Fathers did not risk their lives and divide the Church so you could say that sectarian affiliation and doctrine are unimportant. The reason there are Anglicans, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Methodists is because certain people were bold enough to say that truth is important, that it is not to be found here, and so we must make a new sect where it can be found. If you really believed what you are saying, you would still be Catholic because you are in essence saying that nothing over which Christians have divided is important enough to actually lead to division. Luther did not believe people could be saved in the Catholic Church because of Catholic doctrine. He said plainly that his doctrine of sola fide was that on which the Church stands or falls. And his doctrine as he taught it is rarely found among the Anglicans, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Methodists.

I do not see priests in the N.T.

Too often when Catholics and Protestants argue over this issue, they argue about whether or not Christian ministers should be called priests rather than about the nature of the Christian ministry. I don't care if you call them priests. You may call them elders, presbyters, overseers, pastors, or cupcakes for all I care. The issue is whether or not their ministry includes certain God-given permissions not granted to others and whether or not this ministry is passed by laying on of hands. As for the laying on of hands, the New Testament could hardly be clearer: Acts 6.6, 1 Timothy 4.14 and 5.22, and 2 Timothy 1.6 all depict laying on of hands as a means of ritual power transference. This has roots in the Old Testament, particularly Numbers 27.23. This means a person without this laying on of hands, if he carried out the ministry of one on whom hands had been laid, would be acting invalidly. This is what we mean by apostolic succession.

I do not see adoration of Mary.

Neither do I. You're probably aware that adoration is a term for worship reserved to God. A better word here is veneration. Marian devotion was fully developed by the fourth century, and the chivalrous if not exactly doctrinal Christan viewpoint that women are more than mere mortals is traceable all the way back to the writing of The Shepherd of Hermas somewhere toward the end of the first century.

The question of Marian veneration is a non-issue, a distraction. The real issue is veneration of and prayer to saints in general. The Catholic view is that of Christ, that God is God not of the dead but of the living, and therefore Christians who have "fallen asleep" are still part of the body, able to pray on our behalf just as we pray on each other's behalf on Earth. As for offering these saints veneration, this is similar to the practice of offering veneration to certain people because of the offices they hold. We play "Hail to the Chief" when the president arrives because his office demands a certain amount of respect. Similarly, those Christians who have already run the race and claimed the prize deserve respect for having done so; and they did so only by grace, so veneration offered to them is a form of adoration offered to God.

Why is the Virgin Mary offered particularly enthusiastic veneration? Because her office is particularly unique and unusual. We have no other report of a virgin birth in scripture, and certainly no other report of a birth of Christ. The Virgin Mary was offered a particularly special grace and was able to participate in God's redemptive plan in a particularly special way. In so doing, she fulfilled the mythic motif of the cosmic virgin all-mother and became an inherent part of the entry into real space-time of the mythic round.

But now I'm getting into my own signature weirdness and had better move back into standard apologetics: at any rate, when we die and rise with Christ in baptism, we are moved into Christ's body, his family, his Church. We can call him husband and brother. Since he is our brother, we share his mother, as he tells us in John 19.27, "Here is your mother." I invite readers in particular to compare Luke 1.39-45 with 2 Samuel 6.9-16; Luke is comparing the Virgin Mary to the Ark of the Covenant, something I had to accept even as a Protestant when it was shown to me. The Ark received special attention and veneration not because gold-plated boxes deserve praise and respect, but because this particular gold-plated box carried the presence of God. Although women do inherently deserve praise and respect (carrying, as they do, both the imago dei and our offspring), the Virgin Mary carried the presence of God like an Ark of the New Covenant and so deserves special attention, not because she needs it, but because we do.

Beyond that, I can only say that Marian devotion draws people. The myths suggest a mother figure, preferably a virgin, is supposed to figure in all of this somewhere. Many non-Catholic Christians have found the rosary compelling, including me. Before I was Catholic, I made a particular and specific request for which I prayed a rosary. I cannot give details, but my prayer was immediately, particularly, and specifically answered. If God were trying to tell me that Marian devotion is a waste of time, he pulled a real boner.

I do not see confessionals.

Nor should you. Confession in the early Church was made in front of the whole congregation with the bishop present. So that the sacrament could be received more often, private confession came into practice. Irish monks invented the confessional to make the practice of frequent private confession easier. The East does not have confessionals, and though they strongly encourage confession before receiving communion, it's a more difficult process and so weekly communion is still not a regular practice there, though a number of Eastern saints encouraged it a few even came up with creative ways of making weekly confession a possibility.

Even some much-respected Protestant leaders have acknowledged that the confessional has great psychological and even spiritual benefits, though they do not acknowledge its supernatural aspects. Martin Luther insisted that the Christian should be willing to run a hundred miles to go to confession, but the practice has dropped out of Lutheranism, probably, I think, because Luther did not regard this important practice as a sacrament.

Jesus tells his apostles in John 20.23 that they have the authority to forgive and retain sin. He does not tell them how to forgive or retain it or how often it ought to be forgiven or retained or which sins ought to be forgiven and which retained. That is a matter the Church worked out with the aid of the Holy Spirit until it arrived at the current practices, which include secret confession and face-to-face confession in the West and confession in front of the iconostasis in the East. For myself, I have normally gone to face-to-face confession because I believed secret confession would hinder the priest's ability to council me after I had made my confession. When I went to secret confession once with a priest I had never met, I learned I was wrong. At any rate, I have experienced nothing in the confessional besides blessings and benefits.

I do not see rosaries.

Strange Bible if you did. I don't see guitars and praise choruses either, but that doesn't mean using such things is wrong. Over the course of the life of the Church, its members have developed a vast body of meditation methods, spiritual writings, prayers, devotions, hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs. Ours would be a peculiar and peculiarly dry religion if they hadn't. The rosary is a devotion that grew up and developed over time until it reached its current standard form. It is a prayer and meditation. The only elements of it that a Protestant could possibly find objectionable have already been addressed. I do not understand why the rosary ever becomes a subject in debate.

Those who are called may sit in the pews of different places, but the core, the core of what changes the heart and gives new birth to the spirit, that is found in every denomination with a sound central doctrine.

And there's the rub. Who defines "sound central doctrine"? The Arians were great Bible-users. They often knew scripture better than their orthodox opponents, and that is partly why they were so widespread and influential for so long, yet I doubt if you would say they had a sound central doctrine, for they believed Jesus was a lesser divine being of different substance from the Father. And why shouldn't they, if we have only scripture to go on? The proclamation of the Nicean Council is not plain in scripture. You believe it only because the Reformers never bothered to attack it.

The Creed is a sound central doctrine.

Which creed are we talking about? The Nicean Creed is not in your Bible. Nor is the Apostles' Creed. These are absolutist statements made by a Church who felt she had the right to make absolutist and binding statements about doctrine.

Father, Son, Spirit--virgin birth, atoning death, victorious resurrection, life through the Spirit, a judgement and resurrection to come, hope in the holy and eternal kingdom to come.

Excellent, but tell me, the Father, Son, and Spirit--is this the Trinity or a single person with three roles or three different gods? All three answers have been explored in the development of Christian doctrine, and the holders of each had their reasons that they could call biblical. You hold to the Trinitarian doctrine only because the Catholic Church told you to, not because you and every other Protestant is a brilliant scriptural scholar and mystic able to discern the Truth for himself.

I know I have brothers and sisters in churches across the globe. We may give ourselves adjectives--Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical--but what matters is CHRISTIAN.

There has been an interesting evolution in Protestant thought. In its early days, you had to follow the right teachings to be saved. After that, the Denominational Theory of the Church came into being, and now we have moved into a new phase where there is no Church at all.

I told a retired Baptist pastor, who I still regard as one of the kindest and godliest men I have known, that I was on the road to Catholicism. He told me that in his youth he had gone through a crisis similar to the one that brought me to the Catholic Church. He wondered, with all the schisms, divisions, and different denominations with different doctrines, where exactly the true Church lay. He came to a conclusion I can quote exactly: "There is no Church. There are only Christians." Though this is the only reasonable Protestant answer to Protestant schizmation, it is directly contrary to the teaching of the Bible. It contains, I think, a note of despair.

It casts believers out of the community and into the void where they have nothing but their Bible and their intuitions. It's all well and good to reply that the Church is an invisible communion, but if this is so, the Church means nothing. An invisible communion cannot discipline errant members nor settle doctrinal dispute, and it cannot be a witness to the world.

And it won't work, for if the Church is only an invisible communion, it requires each of us to decide for himself exactly what the core of Christianity is. I know I am unequipped to do that. I know it because I have observed others who have tried to state the core of Christianity, and I have observed them stating different and contrary things.

Many Evangelicals I have spoken to make the real issue not one of orthodoxy but of personal freedom, as if the Reformation were begun and Europe consumed in thirty years of mercenary ravagings in order to win Christians the right to skip church on Sunday if they feel like it. But I have found real freedom in the Catholic Church. Orthodoxy is a playground, not a prison house. I am at last really free to interpret scripture for myself (the sacred freedom of Evangelicals) because I know the Church has already wrestled with the key issues and made her decisions. I no longer have to fight with myself over how the atonement is applied to the Christian, or over whether Calvin or Arminius had a better doctrine of justification. These issues are now for me non-issues, and with a foundation of sound doctrine in place and intact, I can get onto the business of other things, such as exploring how Christ fufills the dreams of mythology. Were I still Protestant, I would be stuck on the basic issues, never able to move on from them, because I would have only my own fallible interpretation and a host of other, mutually contradictory fallible interpretations to go on. As Hebrews says, let us move onto maturity, "not laying again the foundation" (6.1). This is possible only if the foundation is firm, and it can be firm only if it is known.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Kung Fu Night! Legend of the Red Dragon



Did I just watch a kung fu rip-off of House of Wax?

Legend of the Red Dragon, written and directed by Wong Jing. Starring Jet Li, Yau Shuk Ching, Danie Ip, and Tse Miu. Running time 83 minutes. Rated R for violence.

As the film opens, Hung Hei-Kwun (Jet Li) has returned home to find his entire village killed by the corrupt imperial dynasty. His best friend shows up, but as it turns out, this friend has turned traitor. After a brutal wire-fu battle, Kwun leaves said friend stabbed in the gut and seriously burned. Kwun takes his young son and trains him in gravity-defying martial arts. They end up as bodyguards for a comedic wealthy man who's in the process of being robbed blind by his fiancée and her mother, who are actually con artists. On top of that, the evil government has burned the Shaolin temple in order to find five boys with a treasure map tattooed on their backs. On top of that, Kwun's old friend is back; he's been healed by a witch, though he's still horribly burned and goopy; he's now invincible, drives around in a funky armored car, and can tear people in half with his metal hands. On top of that, there's a creepy Shaolin master who dips people in molten wax for no reason whatsoever, and on top of that, there's a lot of eye-popping, impressively inventive wire-fu combined with plenty of corny humor, altogether making a movie that's nearly incomprehensible but nonetheless tons of fun. (And in case you were wondering, the evil mutilated guy does indeed fall in the vat of wax at the end.)

Buried in the midst of the typically crazy, revenge-centered plot is that weird House of Wax stuff. Are they trying to pay homage or just steal ideas? House of Wax, in case you didn't know, features Vincent Price as a horribly burned wax sculptor who can no longer sculpt because of the damage to his hands. Nevertheless, he can still swing around on house roofs at night in order to kidnap people and dip them in wax for his museum, and he can even punch out multiple opponents in a grand battle royale. So, Legend of the Red Dragon has a burn victim, a vat of molten wax, and people dipped in wax--I don't think this is a coincidence.

If you want to attempt watching this, just make sure, as with most historical fantasy kung fu movies, that your brain is switched firmly to the off position. Don't try to figure it out because it probably doesn't make sense anyway. The action is good, and the cinematography and editing, considering the low budget, are smooth and keep the acrobatic, physics-defying stunts easy to follow. Now if only the script were so easy.

Speaking of the script, I wonder if the weird, anachronistic dialogue is present in the original or is only in the English dubbing. Lines like "Bring it on, you sons of b***es" and "I'm going to make sure that bastard is done for" don't sound to me very, you know, nineteenth centuryish. Or Chinese.

There isn't a lot of religion or philosophy in this. We get the message that corrupt governments who heartlessly kill their own people are bad, but no duh. There's some chivalrous honor code stuff in here, but it's one of those rough and tough honor codes, and sometimes it's presented with irony or scary intensity. "Remember, there's nothing more important than family," Kwun tells his son shortly before skewering his own brother. At the movie's beginning, he offers his infant son opportunity to join him in his fight against the government or die on the spot. Nice. After that, we have a total of six young boys constantly engaging in kung fu fights against seriously nasty villains. I'm going to give this points off for child endangerment.

From what I've seen, Jet Li's movie personas are three in number. He plays the cute, likable, innocent, bumbling, callow youth who happens to be a kung fu master. He plays the (*snicker*) street-wise hip-hop gagsta who happens to be a kung fu master. Or masta. Or something. And lastly, he plays Jet Li trying very hard to be a creepy deadpan guy who happens to be a kung fu master. He's playing the latter in this movie, as is the young boy playing his son. They are hilarious.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Legend of the Red Dragon:

Myth Level: High (wire-fu, historical fantasy setting, wire-fu, revenge story, wire-fu)

Quality: Medium-High (can I say it's high quality if I can't understand it?)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (chivalrous honor code coupled with child endangerment and some potentially disturbing violent images)

Friday, June 22, 2007

June Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour: A Reflection

Thus ends another month's Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour. Thanks to everyone who came to the blog, read the posts, and commented. Thanks also to all my fellow tour participants.

This blog is sort of the black sheep of the tour, as you may have been able to tell. I can't exactly claim that I cultivate that image intentionally. This is a fan site, not an author site, and generally speaking it's geared toward publications in what might be called the "mainstream" of sf and fantasy, but I'm much interested in seeing more Christian voices in the science fiction and fantasy market, and have an interest in the work being published in Christian sf/fantasy, which is independent of the "mainstream."

When I opted to review The Restorer, I made a decision to review it in the same way I review other novels, though I planned to give it a little extra care and attention. Some of the responses to my review have led me to reconsider the way I write negative reviews.

Reviewers are not the same as critics. Critics are people with degrees who actually know what they're talking about, and though they're opinionated, they can make extensive comparisons and analyses of literature and film. Reviewers, by contrast, are people whose job it is to summarize a book or movie and then tell you if it's worth your time. Sometimes reviewers put in a little extra effort above and beyond that. Reviews with that extra effort are my goal for this blog.

It is customary for negative reviews of books and movies to involve some amount of humor and sarcasm. I have taken this for granted, and have written my reviews accordingly. Because I thought The Restorer was a bad novel, I gave it the usual treatment, nor do I believe it would have been honest to give a positive or neutral review to a book that I thought made so many mistakes; that would have been to shirk my job as a reviewer. But nobody pays me to do this and nobody asks me to do this, so my position becomes precarious: every reviewer is like that jerk who wants to tell you his opinion about everything, but in my case, that jerk's opinion is entirely unsolicited. [I just reread this sentence and realized it could be misunderstood; the hypothetical "jerk" here is me because I'm the one who's giving unpaid and unsolicited opinions. This does not refer to people who comment on this blog: I encourage comments of any opinion.]

For that reason, some commenters who characterized my review as overly harsh have led me to reconsider the voice I adopt when writing negative reviews. I haven't decided yet how I will write them in the future, but I do not wish to come across as angry or mean-spirited, though I also don't wish to soft-soap the opinions that, solicited or not, I sit down here to write.

Though the majority of the posts do not go through an extensive editing process, the review for The Restorer did. I tried to soften my words as much as I thought was reasonable, but I may not have succeeded. It's a precarious balance to strike, and this month's tour has given me food for thought. I suspect some tour members or visitors left this blog with a bad taste in their mouths, and that's no good. We are, after all, talking about fiction here, not world peace or ending poverty. The discussion ought to be fun, and no one should take it too seriously, including me.

Science fiction has been characterized by different authors as a "ghetto," which they differentiate from the rest of the world of fiction. A few years ago, in an interview with Locus, Terry Pratchett suggested that the walls of the ghetto were crumbling. He characterized sf as a wrecked spaceship that people were scavenging for parts. He mentioned two authors by name who are not characterized as sf writers, but who nonetheless write science fiction: Michael Crighton and Margaret Atwood. In particular, he had harsh words for Atwood because of her novel Oryx and Crake. I have read this book and consider Pratchett's assessment correct: it is unoriginal, retreading ground that sf authors have already tread almost to exhaustion. But Atwood and her critics don't know that because they don't read the "ghetto" sf. So instead of writing original fiction, Atwood is reinventing the wheel.

Now that Christians have begun their own niche market of Christian sf separate from the "ghetto," I fear they are doing the same thing. The Restorer demonstrates only a rudimentary understanding of fantasy. Laudatory quotes in the front promise originality and plot twists, but the story is conventional and free of surprises, taking place in a world that is underdeveloped. I don't think the laudatory quotes are intentionally misleading; I think they are from people who are unfamiliar with fantasy literature. Perhaps it is not necessary for Christian sf writers to join the "ghetto." To say that may be too elitist. But Christian sf writers must be familiar with the ghetto's contents or I fear they will never interest readers other than themselves, and they certainly won't write the quality books they could have written. As a result, a sharp divide may form between religious and non-religious sf: the two will simply ignore each other, something I don't want to see happen because it would put me out of an unpaid and unsolicited job.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

June Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour Day 3



If you blog tour it, they will come.

Post is early today because I’ll be in the field all day tomorrow. By the time I have a chance to post again, the blog tour will be pretty much over.

This month’s Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour features Sharon Hinck’s novel, The Restorer. See Sharon Hinck’s blog here.
Yesterday, I discussed Hinck’s use of the female warrior motif. Today, I indulge myself by hanging a brief essay from a few sentences in the novel. I promise it will be very brief.

At the end of The Restorer, on page 447, the protagonist, Susan, looks back on an earlier worship experience in Lyric’s temple (called a “tower”) and wonders, “Would I ever again feel the presence of the One in such a tangible way as I had on the Feast day?” (p. 447).

The society of Lyric is meant to be similar to that of Israel before Christ. Hinck is writing this as an Evangelical. Here she seems to be indicating that the tangible presence of God, “God with us,” is something belonging primarily to the past: Israel had it in the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, and the Temple, but the modern church has no such place where the presence of God can be found continually in a “tangible way.”

In The Restorer, the focus of religion is entirely on scripture, with the exception of the worship service in the tower, which includes a vague mystical experience (the one Susan refers to in the quote above). Through it all, the book conveys, perhaps unintentionally, a strong dissatisfaction with Evangelicalism and a sense that something important is missing, but the book never offers a solution to this problem.

The presence of God belongs to the past, Hinck is telling us. Such is the nature of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. God revealed himself in the past, but no longer, for the revelations are all written down. In its most extreme Calvinistic forms, the Holy Spirit is in Protestantism effectively muzzled; his role in the believer’s life is reduced almost entirely to that of a memory aid, calling to the believer’s mind scripture passages the believer has read. Otherwise, the Holy Spirit is unable to speak.

And so in this kind of Protestant thought, the New Covenant with the Church, at least after the apostolic age, is in some ways a lesser covenant than the Old, during which canon was a fuzzy concept if it even existed, and during which scripture was being actively written.

Similarly, I’ve had a few Catholic friends who have attended Protestant worship services. While they agreed the worship was nice, they also added that something was missing. That something was the “tangible” presence of God, which can be found in a Catholic Church in the Eucharist. A former Evangelical myself, I can identify with this sentiment.

Susan is leaving the Old Testament Temple from before the Messiah and going to a Protestant church after the Messiah and, ironically, feels she is losing something. And it’s no surprise, for something is indeed missing in a Protestant church. Israel was not meant to survive without the presence of God in the tabernacle or temple, and the Church is not meant to survive with the presence of God in the “tabernacle,” which is what we call the box where the Eucharist is reserved.

To my mind, this is one of the greatest problem affecting Christian sf and fantasy. The Christianity of many of these novels is a Christianity missing something, a Christianity that has been artificially truncated by repetitious schism and self-emptying. A Church moving forward with God as a body, aided by Scripture, Tradition, liturgy, the Magisterium, the Holy Spirit, and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist has been replaced with a loose collection of individuals figuring it out for themselves with their Bibles. The weakness of this kind of religion becomes obvious when it is translated into story form. And that is why the religion of The Restorer and The Restorer itself are missing something. Until they recover the rich history of their religion, Evangelicals will have a difficult time writing good religious fiction.

Real men love blog tours:

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
Kait
Karen
Dawn King
Tina Kulesa
Lost Genre Guild
Rachel Marks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Eve Nielsen
John W. Otte
John Ottinger
Robin Parrish
Rachelle
Cheryl Russel
Hanna Sandvig
Chawna Schroeder
Mirtika Schultz
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Jason Waguespac
Daniel I. Weaver

June Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour Day 2



The blog tour of (female) champions.

This month’s Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour features Sharon Hinck’s novel, The Restorer. See Sharon Hinck’s blog here.

Yesterday, I reviewed Hinck’s novel. Today we’ll discuss its central conceit, the Woman Warrior.

The Restorer, as previously discussed, is loosely based on the story of the judge, prophetess, and warrior Deborah from Judges 4 and 5. In Hinck’s alternate universe, the soldiers, forming something like a looseknit formal militia, are known as “guardians.” Female guardians are common in Hinck’s world, which tends to mask the uniqueness of Deborah’s role and that of Hinck’s protagonist.

Though women riding into battle were not a mainstay of ancient oriental warfare, the story of Deborah and her counterpart Jael have a thematic relationship with the stories of other women in the Old Testament:

After Barak and Deborah ride to war and rout the forces of Hazor, the Hazorite captain Sisera flees to the tent of Jael, who he expects to be an ally. After he’s asleep, she drives a tent peg through his skull (Judges 4.17-21).

A woman throws a millstone off a wall and cracks the skull of Abimelech in Judges 9.53.

Isaiah 51.9-10 is a hymn to the arm of the Lord. Dr. Seth L. Sanders, who used this passage in a lecture he delivered at the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations about three years ago, discussed this passage and its connection with the Combat Myth. With Dr. Sanders’s emendations, the NRSV version of the verses would read as follows:


Awake, awake, put on strength,
O arm of the Lord!
Awake, as in days of old,
the generations of long ago!
Are you not she who cut Rahab in pieces,
who pierced the dragon?
Are you not she who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep;
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to cross over?

The address is to a feminine figure because arms in Hebrew are feminine, but Dr. Sanders suggests the poem is an invocation to Deborah.

Then of course there’s Judith, the Old Testament’s greatest wise woman except for Woman Wisdom Herself. With her wiles and the help of God, Judith slices off the head of Holofernes, chief of Nebuchadnezzar’s Assyrian army in Judith 14.6-9. The story of Judith is pure fiction; even if it contains an historical kernel as some have suggested, that historical kernel is irrelevant to the final product. Judith brings together recognizable names from Israel’s historic enemies and has them band together as one to make war against the people of God in a romanticized geographical setting where they are defeated by a wise woman whose name simply means “Jewess.” The Book of Judith is therefore the premier example of fantasy writing in the Bible.

In Christian thought and iconography, these Old Testament women who bash heads and take names are types of the Virgin Mary. In particular, Judith’s fictional story and general name lend to typological reading. Some versions of the Latin Vulgate and subsequently the Douay-Rheims Bible (mis)translate Genesis 3.15 as, “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” The footnote of the Douay-Rheims admits this may not be the best rendering, but also advises that it doesn’t matter much, “for it is by her seed, Jesus Christ, that the woman crushes the serpent’s head.” For this reason, many of our icons feature images of Mary treading on a serpent.

This “happy misreading" or superreading or whatever you wish to call it is similar to several other Old Testament passages that have gone through a creative interpretive process. This particular one places the Virgin Mary at the end of the line of women who fight evil by attacking its head and ties the stories both to the Fall and to the Redemption, so that Jael, the unnamed woman on the wall, and Judith form a thread connecting the first and second Eves.

Considering that she is drinking at the font of biblical woman warriors, it is curious that Hinck uses no head-knocking imagery in The Restorer. The protagonist Susan never encounters her opposite number during the last battle with the Hazorites and so has no opportunity to cut his head off (or pull some wire-fu moves, which I was waiting for through the whole book). Indeed, the Hazorites have no personalities at all; they are a faceless swarm.

I would like to give a list of great woman warriors from fantasy, but they are so numerous that any list would necessarily be incomplete. Besides, John C. Wright, the admirable sf writer who recently became a Christian, has already posted a litany of swordmistresses at his blog. I find a few of Wright’s posts to be in poor taste, including this one, but, well, it’s a homage to swordmistresses. I would only add to the list my own all-time favorite female swordfighter, Thorn Harvestar from Jeff Smith’s Bone. No, on second thought, Thorn’s got close competition in Nalyn from Neotopia. Oh, I do have to warn that the links here include images of women in what might be considered immoderate clothing. Call me a prude, but, much as I appreciate attractive women, I find posting images of them on the Internet a little voyeuristic.

The point I’m getting around to is this: some Christians may think the sword-wielding warrior woman is a character born either of an overactive teenage male imagination or of a feminist fantasy. Au contraire. The sword-wielding woman is an important Christian image, especially if she knocks in some heads. (Thorn Harvestar mostly managed to get her own head knocked in, so I think she’s slipped a notch below Nalyn.)

But now I’ll end this brief homage to head-bashers with a paraphrase of that greatest of head-bashers, the warrior poet ‘Antara ibn Shaddād, subject of the Romance of ‘Antar and author of one of the legendary Bedouin Hanging Odes that, embroidered in gold on Egyptian silk, waved over the shrine of Mecca:

My sword is the greatest cure of headaches, head colds, and all diseases of the head!
It cures the sickness by removing the problem in its entirety!

The blog tour that just won’t stop:

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
Kait
Karen
Dawn King
Tina Kulesa
Lost Genre Guild
Rachel Marks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Eve Nielsen
John W. Otte
John Ottinger
Robin Parrish
Rachelle
Cheryl Russel
Hanna Sandvig
Chawna Schroeder
Mirtika Schultz
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Jason Waguespac
Daniel I. Weaver

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

My apologies for not posting in quite a while. Recently I have finished reading what I think to be one of the twentieth century's most important books, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury does an excellent job of depicting what happens to a society when knowledge is suppressed, books censored, and libraries no longer exist.

Quick review of the plot:
The book is set at some point in the future. Guy Montag is a fireman who burns books and begins to wonder what is in the books he is burning. Thus begins his downfall. The story unfolds with Mr. Montag's meeting with Clarrisse who begins to open a world for Mr. Montag he never knew possible.

Analysis:
At the end of the book Bradbury quite elequently gives a dialogue on the main points in his work and why he wrote the book in the manner that he wrote it. Let's talk literary theories for just a moment. Bradbury most definately comes from a New Criticism perspective, the idea that it is what is in the text that counts. He states, at the end of the book, a number of things he would have changed had he allowed himself to re-write the book. However, he also says that in re-writing the book it would be a totally new book, and would have to be titled differently. Bradbury takes to task various different minorities for their criticism of his books in that he is too far in one direction or the other. In essence he states in his appendices that he is an author who wrote about something he cared about and if those minority groups want their points of view represented, then perhaps they should write their own book. This book is a fairly quick read, but extremely important. It's hard to believe it has come so far from it's meager beginnings as dime novel.

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
Kait
Karen
Dawn King
Tina Kulesa
Lost Genre Guild
Rachel Marks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Eve Nielsen
John W. Otte
John Ottinger
Robin Parrish
Rachelle
Cheryl Russel
Hanna Sandvig
Chawna Schroeder
Mirtika Schultz
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Jason Waguespac
Daniel I. Weaver