On Friday and Saturday, I attended Boskone 44, the 44th annual convention of the New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA). This was not one of those conventions filled with people dressed up like Star Trek characters — NESFA conventions tend to focus on books, and the people who attend tend to love readings and writing, and you’re more likely to hear about decoding and deconstructionism than about Klingons. Herewith my notes from some of the panel discussion I attended:
Religion in Fantasy
Authors Judith Berman, Debra Doyle, Walter H. Hunt, and Jane Yolen began by discussing the question, “Is it too simplistic to say that C. S. Lewis’s and J. R. R. Tolkein’s fantasy promotes Christianity, while Philip Pullman’s subverts it?” The panel questioned whether Tolkien’s books can even be considered Christian. Jane Yolen, who is Jewish, summed it up when she asked, “Tell me what’s Christian about them.” The overall arc of the story is perhaps more reminiscent of Norse mythology.
As for Philip Pullman, the panel could not agree on what religious viewpoint he might have, if any. Only half joking, Judith Berman said, “Maybe he’s a crypto-Swendenborgian.” All four authors agreed that C. S. Lewis used more non-Christian elements (fauns, talking animals, etc.), than explicitly Christian elements. Berman, who first read Lewis’s “Narnia” books at age 13, talked about the “anger” she felt when she first realized that the books were supposed to be Christian apology in disguise. Debra Doyle, however, said that her 4th-grade self was fascinated to realize that an author could use such allegory in a book — it was the first time she had gotten an allegory in a book.
The best remark of the hour came from Jane Yolen. Yolen brought up the fact that as a Jew, she has written Christmas books. She said that when she was on a book tour, a child once said to her, “I thought you were Jewish. How could you write Christmas books?” To which Yolen replied: “Well, I’ve written murder mysteries, too.”
What Can’t You Read?
The question behind this panel discussion was simple: what classic books do you feel you should read, but every time you sit down to read them, you’re gravely disappointed? Fred Lerner, a librarian and bibliographer, admitted that for years he was unable to get through Joyce’s Ulysses. Patrick Nielsen-Hayden, who’s an editor at Tor Books and who said that he cultivates a short attention span to get through slush piles, remarked of the best-selling book Dune, “I can’t get more than three chapters into it before my brain turns to concrete.” (Personally, that’s the way I feel about Ulysses.)
Nielsen-Hayden also asserted that “reading is like a trance state, neurologically, physically, mentally,” and that anything that an author does to break that trance state can make a book unreadable for a particular reader. Then Lerner took the discussion off into a fascinating tangent on decoding — a reader has to be sufficiently adept at decoding in order to get into a trance state. Lerner quoted critic and author Samuel Delaney, who has said that reading science fiction requires a very specific subset of decoding skills. The panelists speculated that those who enjoy reading science fiction have to be introduced to the genre by their early teens to become adept at that subset of decoding skills. (This prompts me to speculate that this phenomenon might apply to other genres of writing.)
The Religious Life of Techies
…where “techies” are those who work in some high technology field, e.g., computer science. A couple of bon mots during this panel discussion from Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit who is also an astronomer employed by the Vatican:
A techie working in Silicon Valley supposedly said to Consolmagno, “You know, with religion, you’re not selling truth, you’re selling tech support.”
When asked by a member of the audience how he could reconcile his work in astronomy with having to accept the creation story in Genesis, Consolmagno replied that taking Genesis literally was a “Protestant heresy.” To which another member of the audience added, “These people say that God is omnipotent and all-powerful — except when it comes to knowing how to use allegory and metaphor.”