Fantasy Book Critic

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GUEST BLOG: Gail Z. Martin on “Playing God”

Posted by cervantor on AM00000020000000030 1, 2008

Order “The Summoner” + “The Blood King
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Reviews of “The Summoner” + “The Blood King
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s INTERVIEW with Gail Z. Martin
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s 2008 Hawthorn Moon Sneak Preview of “Dark Haven

Continuing the 2008 Hawthorn Moon Sneak Preview of Gail Z. Martin’s “Dark Haven”, the author agreed to guest blog on Fantasy Book Critic about a topic that has been interesting me for a while now—religion in speculative fiction, specifically “Playing God”:

When Robert asked me to contribute a guest blog, I gave him a couple of topic ideas, and the one he liked best was Playing God—The pluses and perils of inventing a fantasy religion and using it as a worldbuilding and character-building device. I was on three panels at ConCarolinas that danced around this same theme. So here we are.

If you’ve read The Summoner and The Blood King, you know about the Lady. The Winter Kingdoms have a dominant goddess-based religion with a sacred Lady that has four light aspects and four dark aspects. Different kingdoms—and different characters—worship differing aspects, resulting in highly divergent world views although it’s technically the same deity.

I’ve had some folks ask me why I chose to interweave the Lady into the books. It’s true that in much SF/F, religion only shows up as the bad guy. The Magisterium in The Golden Compass and the Karsites’s worship of the Sacrificed God in Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series come immediately to mind. I suspect that may be because many of the writers I’ve talked with share a common bond of having experienced toxic versions of religion growing up. SF/F tends to attract people who question the status quo, ask difficult questions and who have learned to look behind the curtain for the guy who is pretending to be the Wizard. There are a lot of flavors of religion that frown on that sort of thing—harshly. I’ve written elsewhere about my own experience with that. Been there, done that, got the scars.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to really understand world history without factoring in religion. It’s one of the major currents—along with cultural, economic, climate/health and political, to name just a few—that shape the course of history. So to take a big picture view of the Winter Kingdoms, as we begin to do in Dark Haven, I felt I had to have a framework that included religion. And with a character who is a Summoner, who stands on the line between life and death and frequently intercedes for souls as they depart, it seemed natural for me to include a religious frame of reference.

I chose to create a religion because I didn’t want to deal with the emails debating dogma about real religions. I also wanted to come at some concepts and ideas without having doctrine and dogma get in the way. So the religion of the Winter Kingdoms is not any “real” religion although it has very deep roots in a wide variety of cultures, religions and traditions.

Which brings me to the point of “playing God.” Authors and dungeon masters do that anyhow, with or without a religious component. That’s our job. You want a real struggle between free will and predestination? Try developing the story arc for a book. Regardless of how you think the real universe works, reading a book or gaming entirely based on randomness wouldn’t lead to very coherent results. It might be closer to real life than we’d like to think, but not satisfying for entertainment. (Someone once said that the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.)

For me, I think that adding the different variations in belief among characters and kingdoms makes the world more real and more complex. Think of Jonmarc Vahanian, who has been happily agnostic all these years until he ends up friends with a Summoner and starts to have experiences that shake his world view. Or Tris, who has glimpsed all of the aspects and realizes that all of the wars and problems that have happened over differing views of the Lady made no sense at all. In Dark Haven, we start to see more of the interpersonal and international problems that arise from differing views.

So how about the thornier problem of a deity that actually occasionally intervenes. Is that automatically the dreaded deus ex machina? I don’t think so. This is where the plot element of religion mirrors the real element in that it is a highly subjective experience. To a person of faith, divine intervention is frequent and subtle. Viewed without the lens of faith, those are coincidences at best and random chance at worst. Who’s right? We won’t really know for sure until it’s too late to argue about it. But it’s important to realize that every day, people of all faiths all over the world ask for divine intervention for everything from finding car keys to healing a terminal illness. It’s called prayer.

What are the rules when it comes to making up a religion? This is where authors are at a disadvantage. In the real world, religions are built layer upon layer by many generations and incorporate influences from all over the world and other belief systems. Authors have to fast-track that process and still remain believable. For me, I think there are a few essential elements. The religion has to have its own symbolism and rituals. It needs to attempt to explain the essentials of life and death. It will relate to moral codes as well as patterns of everyday life. It should help its practitioners make sense of the randomness of nature, even if its practitioners vary widely in their understanding and often disagree. The most benign elements will be horribly misconstrued by someone. It will inevitably be twisted by those who seek to use it to gain and hold power. And at the same time, it will be embraced by those who have a vision for unity. To those who stand outside, it will appear to be superstition. To those inside, it becomes the lens through which life achieves meaning. Some practitioners will take a big picture view, while others become petty legalists. Some will use it to justify their own prejudice and hatred and will cite it as permission to do great harm. Others will find in it the roots of healing and wholeness. A mess—just like real life.

I think that for it to work, the author has to “believe” in the religious framework of the book in the same sense that he/she believes in the reality of the characters and the world while writing. Absent that belief, the plot is bloodless, like moving markers around a board. Authors flirt with interesting boundaries between the real and the imaginary. But if we aren’t the first, best citizens of our imagined worlds, who will be? So the religion of a fictional world, like its characters, climate, political structure and social framework must be “real” enough to the author that he/she can make it real to the reader. Whether or not it bears any relation to the author’s real-world ideology is not relevant. That’s why they call it “fiction.”


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