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Hallo again to all.

Pleasure reading is something that we do not infrequently. Our walls are lined with many books of serious matters and reference material, but there is (at least) one bookshelf that is almost entirely devoted to books that one might be tempted to take less seriously. Or at least, that one might read for a lark after a stressful day at work. Anglican authors certainly do appear in this category—the Narnia books put in an appearance as do the works of L'Engle. Indeed, there is a significant Anglican presence on the fantasy and 'children's' portion of our shelves—if not by direct authorship, then by theme. We suppose this is only natural as the themes of fantasy fit themselves to telling the admittedly fantastic story of the Gospel, and the conventions of the genre fit well into a traditionally English framework. (For example, several key scenes in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising involve interactions with the local vicar.)a sci-fi/fantasy bookshelf

Our recent attention to our science fiction shelf, which has less Anglican representation than does fantasy (the 'Space Trilogy' of C.S. Lewis is probably not his best work), led us to reflect on this fact. In particular, we have been finishing the science fiction works of Iain Banks, the author of the 'Culture' series of novels that follow the (mis)adventures, spread over centuries, of a post-human, post-scarcity society known as the Culture. It presents a mostly optimistic view of the future (or rather of reality in general, since Earth is a side note and the 'humans' of the novels are from a wide variety of different races), though with notes that one might feel unsettling. The Culture is directed and managed, insofar as an apparently anarcho-democratic-socialist post-scarcity society is ever 'managed', by hyper-intelligent AIs called Minds, which also direct the Culture's ships and habitats. This sounds not more than a bit menacing. But in a beautiful example of Banks' combining potentially dark undertones with light jokes, the ships tend to give themselves names that are whimsical, sarcastic or both—an ambassadorial frigate named Of Course I Still Love You or the ironically named Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall.

Coming after the cyberpunk era of the 80s, the series presented a mostly utopian view of the future, not without its savageries and problems, but certainly not the glum futures of Philip K. Dick novels*. As we have pondered this series recently, we admit that we have not come up with a good reason why Anglicans took so to fantasy writing and not as much to science fiction. Certainly, the outlook of much sci-fi does not leave room for God, though the best always leaves room for something numinous, born out of a simple admission that we do not and cannot know everything. It is also more fun to have a few mysteries.

We were instead struck by what the sci-fi we are enjoying in the moment has in common with, say, the Narnia series or A Wrinkle in Time (arguably as much science fiction as fantasy): They all present worlds where human beings, though utterly imperfect, can always try to do better†.

In the end, we find that message not so totally different from the Gospel. As Anglicans and Christians, we have a particular argument about Jesus and his role in redeeming human nature, but the message he makes clear throughout the Gospels is partially this: though imperfect, though needing God's help, you can do better. Especially in Luke, followed as it is by the command to love one's enemies, the lesser known account of the Beatitudes, with four blessings and four woes ('Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation'), takes this form to its logical conclusion. We suspect this is part of what makes a compelling narrative, be it fantasy, sci-fi, or the Gospel itself: acknowledging that the world is far from perfect, but offering a way to do better.

All of this leads to a question: what works of popular reading have been useful to you our readers, as you seek a bit of solace from the daily grind of life? Do write and let us know.

See you again next week.

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24 June 2018

*Who, incidentally, was an Episcopalian and may well undercut our point about the congruence between our favorite sci-fi and Anglican fantasy authors. Nevertheless . . .
†Or posthumans. Excession is an Iain Banks novel largely about the Minds making a complete botch job of a situation.

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