WORLD Magazine interview
For their June 29, 2013 books issue, WORLD Magazine interviewed me about the release of my novel, Quintessence. Only a condensed version of the interview appeared in the magazine, but they gave me permission to reprint the entire interview here. It was conducted by writer and book reviewer John Ottinger, a thoughtful interviewer whose questions were great fun to answer. (Besides writing for WORLD, he also runs a great science fiction and fantasy book review website.)
First of all, tell us a little about yourself? What’s your background? And what got you into writing and science fiction?
I grew up reading voraciously, with a love both for science and for stories. The science fiction and fantasy books I loved most, however, were sometimes a source of disagreement in my Christian home, either because of their magical and fantastical nature, or because of science that seemed to conflict with the Bible. Thinking through these issues has become significant to the kind of fiction I write.
Is writing your primary career or do you balance another with it? Either way, when, where and how do you write?
As a rule, engineers are not known for the writing (or spelling!) skills, but I work as an engineer for Lockheed Martin, a job that makes use of both my creativity and love of invention and provides well for my family. At home, I have seven children under the age of 13, so I’m quite busy there, too. The only reason I have time to write is because I love it too much to quit; I write early in the morning, late at night, or in whatever corners of the day I can find a few minutes to spare.
You wrote a series of posts explaining how a Christian can write science fiction which I think derailed into a worthwhile apologetic on the relationship of Christianity and science. Could you return to that original question and explain more deeply how a Bible-believing Christian can write in a genre so commonly antithetical in its views toward Christianity?
Martin Luther famously said, “Why should the devil have all the best tunes?” I think the same applies to stories. The Reformation introduced to us the idea of vocation: that all honorable professions and places in life belong to God, and to do them well is to do God’s work. To be a Christian welder or mailman or stay-at-home mom is no less godly than to be a preacher or missionary, because all of those roles were created by God. There is no such thing as a “secular” profession; all work belongs to Him.
Why, then, should we surrender science fiction to unbelievers? Science is the study of what God has created. What we call the laws of nature are simply a description of how God sustains the universe. Storytelling, too, was invented by God. Most of the Bible is filled with stories (both those that really happened, as well as the parables Jesus told). Why? Wouldn’t a simple list of rules and a concise doctrinal summary have served us better? Instead, God chose to teach us about life and faith and worship through stories, because there are things stories can communicate more powerfully than an essay or treatise. Stories give us the patterns by which we interpret our own lives; they give us joy and grief and accomplishment and loss and the tension of hard choices. They help us not just to know God’s truth academically, but to feel and experience and internalize it. To write science fiction, therefore, is a valuable work, a piece of what it means to be made in the image of God.
One of the things I am interested in knowing is how Christians have reacted to your novels? Secularists?
Overall, the reaction to my novels has been very positive, and I’ve had some great reviews. Secular critics have certainly picked up on my Christian worldview, however, with mixed reactions. The Kirkus reviewer called Quintessence “impressive and often brilliant,” but also noted the “flaw” which he called “Walton’s willingness to ascribe all the messy and inconvenient but unavoidable details of the world’s structure to the will of God.” It’s unusual in our day for fiction to take the religious views of its characters seriously, and that aspect of the story has been noted by most critics, Christian and otherwise.
What makes for a well-told story?
A well-told story tells the truth, even if the events it describes never happened. It’s popular among novelists to describe their profession as “telling lies for a living,” but I disagree with that characterization. There’s a difference between a novel that is true and one that is false. A true novel shows people and societies the way they really are. It gives insight into what makes people tick, even if the “humans” are fantasy creatures or aliens from another planet. A true novel gives the reader the valuable skill of putting his mind in someone else’s life story and understanding the choices they make.
A false novel tells lies. For instance, a novel in which a woman aborts her child and then goes on to live her life, free of feelings of guilt or responsibility, never thinking of the child she killed, happy in her freedom and independence, would be a lie. What would make it a lie isn’t that abortion is wrong, but that people don’t really act that way. It would be a story to preach a message (i.e. that abortion is right) instead of one that shows life as it truly is. A story like this might attract readers, not because it is well-told, but because it tells them lies they want to hear. On the other hand, a novel in which a woman aborts her child, and then deals with years of guilt and heartache as a result, would be a true story, even if the author was pro-choice and the character never came to the conclusion that abortion was wrong.
Of course, there are many other elements that go into a well-told story, not least of which is a skill at storytelling, which is a craft that takes practice and hard work. Ultimately, though, a well-told story resonates because we recognize that humanity and life really works that way.
Character is often the hardest thing to write for many authors. What do you do to make your characters so vibrant? What aims do you have in mind as you develop them?
The characters we care about are those who care deeply themselves. Characters who are driven, even obsessed, who aren’t satisfied with the way things are. These characters drive the action of a story, and we invest in them, and want them to succeed. We also recognize in them something that’s true about ourselves: that we aren’t satisfied with the way the world is either. The world is broken, and our role in it is damaged. Life is a battle against things that aren’t as they should be. When we see a character engaging in that fight with all their strength and passion, we love them, whether we agree with them or not, and no matter what their personal flaws.
Why did you choose to publish through secular channels rather than the Christian publishing houses?
I don’t think of myself as a writer of Christian fiction. I’m a Christian who writes fiction, and that’s a different thing. Christian fiction is soaked in Christian culture, and tends to confirm to Christian readers what they already know and believe. That’s not what I read for, and it’s not why I write. When I read a book, I want it to expand my understanding of the world, to introduce ideas I’ve never thought of before, and to force me both to discern what is false and incorporate what is true into my understanding of life. I’m not interested in being restricted to a narrow focus of cultural expectations. That’s not what fiction is supposed to be, and it’s certainly not what science fiction is all about. I would rather sharpen my ideas against the reactions of the larger world than have them comfortably approved by a small set of people who agreed with me in the first place.
What sort of influence does your local church have on your writing?
I attend Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Tenth is a big place, not just in terms of number of members, but in terms of vision. It’s a multi-cultural congregation with a great outreach to international students and an awareness of what challenges Christians face in other parts of the world. We have taken field trips to mosques and temples and gudwaras, and once even had a Muslim imam teach an adult Sunday school class… not because we think other religions are true, but because we are confident in the power of the gospel, and recognize that the only way to engage with other people is to listen seriously to what they believe, not just to give them pat answers to questions they’re not asking. This fits well with my views on writing: that although one’s understanding of life is radically different as a Christian, one’s experience of life in its uncertainties, surprises, losses, and changes is much the same no matter who you are.
Tenth also has a high regard for literature and the arts. This summer, I will be teaching a Sunday school class on science fiction, as part of a series on reading literature as Christians.
Were you surprised when Tor picked up Quintessence, a novel that is certainly pro-Christianity, especially given the fate of Christopher Sinclair?
Not really… at least not for that reason. Quintessence has a lot to say about science and religion, but it doesn’t preach. The characters struggle. They doubt. They wrestle with discoveries that seem to conflict with what they believe. That’s something anyone can relate to, regardless of their religion or background.
Some Christian authors feel the need to present Christianity as if there are no difficulties, no confusion, no questions that are hard to answer. But characters who think they have nothing to learn aren’t very likeable, and readers can’t empathize. If Christians are honest, then no matter how much doctrine we know, there’s a lot about life that is baffling and hard to deal with.
What sort of research did you do for Quintessence?
Quintessence takes place in the sixteenth century, which was a remarkable time. It was the age of exploration, when European sailors were taking dangerous voyages to discover new lands and people, as well as the very beginning of the modern era of science, when an experimental approach to discovering truth was just starting to challenge the reliance on authority and superstition. Copernicus died in this century, and Galileo was born. For a fantasy novel exploring the conflict between scientific and religious modes of thought, it was the perfect time period to write about.
I read a lot of books about that time period, of course, but even more importantly, I read biographies of early scientists. Scientists today find it easy to divorce their studies from their implications on philosophy and religion, but for early scientists, those questions were intertwined. They asked questions like, Where in the body does the soul reside? Does communion cause the bread and wine to change in a measurable way? If the Earth isn’t the center of the universe, what does that mean about the importance of man? The philosophical ideas they wrestled with were fascinating, and I tried to capture the sense of them in the book.
Christianity plays a large role in Quintessence, what fears or concerns did you have when including a real, living religion rather than a made-up one? Why do you think most science fiction avoids the inclusion of religion – or includes it only to make it villainous?
I did consider setting Quintessence in a completely invented world, with fictional countries and events and religions. Ultimately, though, I thought the real history was much more nuanced and compelling. The risk, of course, was that people would be offended by the way I’ve portrayed their religion or philosophical ideals. The benefit is that readers can grapple directly with the same ideas as the characters and think about how they would answer the same questions.
Religion is largely avoided in modern science fiction and fantasy because it’s avoided in our modern lives. In medieval times, religion was central to both private and public life, but today, we try to draw a line and keep religion on the far side of it. As a result, even fantasies based in medieval settings often leave religion out of the picture entirely. Where religion does appear, it follows the modern stereotype of the benighted religious zealot attacking an enlightened modern thinker. This is a direct result of our culture’s ideals imprinting on our fiction, and I hope Quintessence will help challenge some of those cultural clichés.
I’ve tried to portray both religious and scientific thought fairly, because I can personally identify both with a perspective that takes religion seriously, and one that acknowledges the compelling logic of a scientific approach. Although it’s ultimately an adventure story, not an essay, I hope Quintessence will help challenge the genre to treat religious beliefs in a more realistic and honest fashion.
In the novel, you strike a close balance between action and philosophy. At times the novel includes discussion of ontology, theology, and various other –ology’s. Most writers try to avoid including deep thinking in as explicit a form as you do. Why did you not shade, allegorize or imply these philosophical concepts? In other words, why include such discussions in an action novel?
I would contend that the philosophical debates are actually part of the action. In a novel, it’s not the car chases and explosions keep us reading. In fact, car chases and explosions on their own can be surprisingly boring. What keeps us on the edge of our seats is when a character we care about stands to lose something of central importance to him, and we’re not sure if he’ll lose it or not. All the car chases in the world won’t grab our attention, unless the thing getting away in the car is of desperate significance to a character we love.
Quintessence has classic adventure story elements: treasure that turns into rocks and sand; a daughter’s life threatened by an invisible creature; secret experiments that, if discovered, could mean burning for witchcraft; mutiny and torture; a sea monster that tries to drag a ship into the ocean and kill everyone aboard. But the faith and beliefs of my characters are just as valuable to them as their physical safety, and just as crucial to their choices and relationships. As someone who struggled for years to reconcile my Christian beliefs with my love of science, I know how personal and significant such debates can be. When those beliefs are threatened, the characters are threatened, and everything that happens in the plot–the choices they make, the paths they choose, the loyalties they honor or betray–will stand or fall on the basis of how those beliefs are resolved. As a result, the philosophical debates are not academic window-dressing, but central to the story, and many readers have reported to me that those discussions are some of their favorite parts.
You won the Philip K. Dick award for best paperback science fiction in 2009. What was your reaction to the win?
I was thrilled, of course. It was a complete surprise, since I was a new author no one had ever heard of. In many ways, it was a return to what the award was meant to accomplish in the first place: a way to honor and draw attention to authors with a small audience, publishing only in paperback. The award has opened a lot of doors for me in the publishing world, and I’m grateful to the judges who read the hundreds of novels published that year and pulled mine out of the pile.
What advice do you have for those Christian writers and readers of science fiction who feel that their religion either dismisses or denigrates their favorite genre?
Reading is meant to expand the mind. It is of little benefit if all we read are books that confirm things we already believe and fail to challenge our thinking. Some Christians seem afraid to read books that disagree with them. There are plenty of these in my genre. The fantasy books of Philip Pullman, for instance, are overtly atheistic. (Pullman goes so far as to say that the snake in the Garden of Eden was the hero of the Genesis story, and that Adam and Eve’s choice to reject God in favor of freedom and the pursuit of knowledge was a good and right one.) I came to the perspective that my faith wasn’t worth very much if I had to avoid reading intelligent attacks on it. We should read with discernment, but we should read. Does the science fiction and fantasy genre contain many ideas contrary to Christianity? Certainly. But it’s also a genre of literature that trades in profound issues like human origins, the nature of truth, the certainty of death, and existence beyond our physical bodies. As Christian writers, we shouldn’t abandon this rich genre to the secular world. Instead, we should make our voices heard.
What novels or stories would you recommend to Christians wanting to read science fiction?
My own, of course! But after that, I would recommend some of the great books of the genre, those that give us insights into humanity and life while grappling with big issues, regardless of whether the author is a Christian. Some of Orson Scott Card’s books top my list in this regard, such as Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein. Kirinyaga, by Mike Resnick. Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. None of these authors are Christians, and the worldviews evident in their books are not Christian, but they understand people, and they tell true stories. Stories are not great for what they teach us, but for how they make us contemplate things we never thought of before. Stories widen our view of the world.
Have you ever considered writing a fantasy? (Quintessence blurs the distinctions a bit, but is still primarily a science fiction.)
I don’t draw a very hard line between fantasy and science fiction, and as you say Quintessence is a little of each. Fantasy and science fiction both deal with the speculative, with alternate realities, with worlds that never existed. So yes, I’ve considered writing a fantasy (I even have some notes written down for one), though my love of science means that even my fantasies will likely have some kind of scientific element to them.
What are you working on now?
I have a few projects going. First, I’m working on a sequel to Quintessence, which is nearly finished. I’ve also recently completed a quantum physics murder mystery called Superposition, and I’ve been outlining a sequel to that. Superposition is a wild ride in which multiple possible outcomes for a character’s choices can continue to exist at the same time. It deals with themes of free will, the nature of the mind and intelligence, and the degree to which the paths of our lives are chosen for us vs. choosing them for ourselves.
How can Christians pray for you, your family and your work?
Since writing these books is part of how I can afford to send my children to Christian school, they can certainly pray that the books are successful! But I would also be glad for prayer for my own testimony in the science fiction community, a community that does not typically think highly of religion, and in which I hope to have an influential voice.