Sunday, December 15, 2013

Merlin's Shadow, December 2013 CSFF Blog Tour

Merlin’s Shadow, Book II in the Merlin’s Spiral Series
Blink, 2013
by Robert Treskillard

[December 2013, Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour]

Merlin’s Shadow continues the tale that began in Merlin’s Blade. It recounts the flight of Merlin and a small band pledged to the safety of young Arthur, the rightful heir to the throne of the high king of Briton. Vortigern, a battle chief and grandson of the former high king Vitalinus Gloui, kills Uther, the father of Arthur and high king of Briton. Vortigern, coveting the throne, seeks to destroy all who might challenge his claim. His chief concern is to destroy the child Arthur and those who would protect him. Hence, devoted to Arthur’s protection, Merlin, Natalenya, Colvarth, and Garth steal him away from Vortigern’s evil plans.

Colvarth is a former druid converted to Christianity and once bard of King Uther. Garth is a mischievous orphan who also has some seafaring experience. Natalenya has agreed to marry Merlin, her love. Merlin, horribly scarred in countenance and recently healed from blindness has become aware of his hideous appearance and shrinks back from Natalenya to spare her from his repulsive looks. Natalenya does not care about the scars and is confused and hurt by Merlin’s apparent change of heart. To make matters worse, she has become ill. Her condition worsens as boils gradually cover her body.

Caygek joins the party early on to flee Vortigern, though his loyalties are to himself alone. He is a fili druid, which is a sect of druids who do not offer human sacrifices. As the journey unfolds, the band encounters dangers left and right. There are internal struggles as well as Caygek, suspicious of Christians, is not overly concerned for the safety of Author.

Concurrently, there is the plotting of Morganthu to destroy Merlin and Arthur. Morganthu is an arch Druid, a magician and practitioner of human sacrifice. He uses the magic of an orb to bring about dangerous conditions that threaten to destroy Merlin’s party. Ganieda, the half-sister of Merlin and granddaughter of Morganthu also possesses latent magical abilities and likewise seeks the death of the fleeing band. She is enticed by the Voice which promises her riches and the restoration of her mother who died of an infection caused, in Ganieda’s mind, by Merlin.

The greatest appeal of Merlin’s Shadow is the continual movement between hope and despair in which there are moments so dark one wonders how it could get worse. The story dwells at length on their capture by Picts and the ensuing horrendous treatment at their hand. At one point, they escape and it looks like they will make it free, but they fail and their lot becomes ever grimmer. After a long period of abject drudgery, their condition improves in an unexpected twist which resolves into a sense of well-being for both captor and captive. But this breaks down and and the enduring band is carried forward through yet another unexpected but credible turn.

The tale is precisely the kind one would expect for a saga of this type. It leaves no mistake about who the true God is and the significance of the blood of Christ.  The writing is suitable for a young readership who should enjoy it, especially if the Arthurian genre is what they are looking for. 

Other reviews of Merlin's Shadow for the December 2013 CSFF Blog Tour are here.

Robert Treskillard's Blog

Thanks to Blink for kindly providing a copy of Merlin’s Shadow for review on the December, 2013 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Question of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Within a Biblical World-View

The SETI Institute (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence; SETI rhymes with Betty) is an intriguing idea. It is based on the notion that the mathematical probability of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the universe is high enough that such a search is justified. The question of whether we have the technology to discover such life is another matter. As it stands now, our technology allows us only to detect that life (if it exists) through the reception of radio waves:

Within the limits of our existing technology, any practical search for distant intelligent life must necessarily be a search for some manifestation of a distant technology. In each of its last four decadal reviews, the National Research Council has emphasized the relevance and importance of searching for evidence of the electromagnetic signature of distant civilizations. -- SETI Institute

The Drake Equation, developed by Frank Drake, which he presented in 1961, serves as a benchmark formula to estimate the number of likely intelligent civilizations that might be out there. For those who are mathematically inclined the equation is in this footnote.[1]

File:Frank Drake - edit.jpg

Having written Broca’s Brain in 1974, Carl Sagan would have been aware of the equation, and I assume his remarks in that book about the calculated figure are based on it:

File:Carl Sagan Planetary Society.JPG
When we do the arithmetic, the sorts of numbers we come up with are, characteristically, around a million technical civilizations [in our galaxy]. A million civilizations is a breathtakingly large number, and it is exhilarating to imagine the diversity, lifestyles, and commerce of those million worlds. But the Milky Way Galaxy contains some 250 billion stars, and even with a million civilizations, less than one star in 200,000 would have a planet inhabited by an advanced civilization. -- Broca’s Brain, p 315.

As a Christian, I am intrigued by the notion of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Not dog-like or chimpanzee-like intelligence, but the kind that one would find in a civilization that has language and technology. Sagan and SETI contemplate the existence of such civilizations based on an evolutionary world-view:

How many planets exists that might support life? Indeed, what is required for life to exist? How does life start? How does it evolve, and what fabulous creatures can evolution produce? How often do intelligent creatures appear in the giant tapestry of life? It is exactly these questions that are being addressed by the scientists of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe.

The estimated appearance of such life is grounded in an evolutionary colored formula of probability that by necessity must ignore the real Origin of Life, i.e., the very first moment that anything existed in which life could supposedly evolve. The probability is exactly zero seeing that the Origin we are talking about here is the coming into existence of something out of nothing, which, logically and naturally speaking, is impossible. So the Drake Equation and Sagan’s estimates assume the existence of something already there. They also assume that life arises, evolves, and reaches a point in which it becomes self-aware, intelligent, and technologically savvy.

Setting aside the question of whether it is legitimate to ignore such a profound and basic matter as the Origin of Life, and whether the evolutionary qualifications of the formula are sound, the idea of probability is striking. From a Christian world-view, probability is something that is built into the nature of things. The probability of flipping a coin with the predicted result of tails coming up one hundred times in a row is the same as any other pattern for a hundred flips. It is a mathematical phenomenon and mathematics are as much the creation of God as anything else. I suspect that the probability of tails showing up a hundred times in a row just one time over a million tries could be determined. Likewise, over ten million, or a hundred million, or two-hundred million. In each case, the probability would be higher than before. If we consider these probabilities Biblically, they are there because God built them into the creation. To refine the point, they are there for a purpose, for God does not do anything that does not have a purpose to accomplish all his holy will (Eph 1:11) and to bring glory to him in the end (John 11:4; 1 Cor 10:31; 2 Cor 1:20).

There is absolutely nothing in the Bible that speaks of or even hints that there are extra-terrestrials out there. One far-fetched interpretation, which I heard once, involved the parable of the lost sheep. It took the ninety-nine sheep to represent this world and the one sheep that was lost to represent another world. It is loaded with problems of internal consistency not to mention complete ignorance of the textual and theological context of the parable.

If I were to look for a hint that God might have extra-terrestrials in mind, I would look to what the Scriptures say about the eschatological future, which is little in comparison to what it says of the pre-eschatological present. The fact that saints shall reign with Christ (2 Tim 2:12; Rev 22:5) might imply a cosmic reign that will take place in galaxies throughout the universe. Imagine having a whole galaxy to rule! For arguments sake, let’s assume that our reign will involve galactic oversight. Would the intelligent beings in our galaxy be new with the new creation (2 Peter 3:10-13)? That is, does their existence depend on the renewal of the creation? If so, they do not exist now. We know that they would be righteous and holy servants of God since no sin will exist then. However, looking to the future does not help us with the present except to say that if they might exist then (because God deems it to be good), they might exist now (for the same reason).

If we just look at the way God does things in terms of probability, it is a legitimate question to ask how probable it is that God has created other intelligent civilizations out there. I think the answer would have to be that it is probable. Perhaps, highly probable. If the Drake Equation with all of its added evolutionary baggage finds it probable for one star in two-hundred thousand in our galaxy alone to be suitable for life (meaning life as we know it on our planet), what are the odds if we take that baggage away?

Assuming an unencumbered Drake’s Equation has merit and validity, we are faced with an even bigger question. The creation in its present state is groaning under the curse of Adam’s sin and is awaiting the day of redemption – the revelation of the saints in glory (Rom 8:18-22). Assuming there are intelligent civilizations out there, they are civilizations that exist in a cursed universe. The bigger question is this, Are they God-lovers or God-haters? If they have been made in God’s image as we are, they would be under a divinely stipulated set of commandments as the human race is. Presumably those commandments are similar to our ten commandments. Idolatry, murder, lying, cheating, coveting and such would definitely be off the table because they are inherently contrary to the nature of God. The Sabbath? Perhaps not a requirement but something like it. Have the extra-terrestrials kept those commandments or broken them? If they have kept them, what is it like for unfallen image-bearers to live in a cursed creation? If they have broken them, what hope do they have for redemption?

All of this is speculative. These are not the kinds of questions that theologians are occupied with (thankfully). But they are the kind that Christian writers of speculative fiction are. They open up a wealth of fiction opportunities, because they are questions that reside within a legitimate Biblical world-view. And because of that, such speculative fiction can bring out profound truths about God and his redemptive purposes in Christ.

[1] N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L
N = The number of civilizations in The Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable.
R* =The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.
fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.
ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.
fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.
fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.
fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.
L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Dialogue Attributions: Stephen King, J K Rowling, and My Two Cents

"I'm convinced fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one's own pleasure, that fear may be mild--timidity is the word I've used here. If, however, one is working under deadline--a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample--that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn't need the feather; the magic was in him."
-- Stephen King, On Writing, p 127.

Interestingly, J. K. Rowling is well known for adverbial dialogue attributions and has been criticized for it. But that didn't keep King from including the first three Harry Potter novels on his list of 'best books I've read over the last three or four years" [1996-2000].

I don't think dialogue attribution is always the nasty varmint it's made out to be. The only ones that really care about them, because they have to, are editors, contest judges, and teachers.

To be clear, however, I've never seen anything like these in Rowling's writing:

"Give it up, Boswell," he spat menacingly.
"Don't leave me," she begged grovelingly.
"I see the light!" he erupted joyously.
Makes you cringe doesn't it. By God's grace, they will never appear in my writing. Nor anything close to them. Yet, I think one might get away with them. It depends on the readership. Juvenile readers may think they're cool. Pulp fiction readers wouldn't flinch at all, I don't think. But we Christian writers are writing elegantly, aren't we, and this falls a mile below elegance. These are worse case examples, yet they make a vivid point about how low one could go to add that extra little touch that Stephen King warns against.
Here is how I think these might be acceptable:
(1) "Give it up, Boswell," he said darkly.
(2) "Don't leave me," she pleaded, tears emerging.
(3) "I see the light!" he bellowed.
The purist would say for (1) that if the context sets the mood well enough, the adverb 'darkly' is unnecessary. That has never been true for me. As dark and somber and tense the setting might be I don't get the same feel without the adverb as with it.
Admittedly, for (2), an adverb is not used; rather an adverbial phrase which assumes that tears have not started to flow but are anticipated. Caution though; if there is no anticipation of tears, the tag would feel out of place.
For (3), the purist would have to relent that something stronger than the word 'said' is necessary; but he would certainly be right in insisting that adding an adverb would be just plain wrong. This attribution is forceful enough on its own; an adverb would be redundant and cumbersome.