Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Atheism in Television

The following article is a reprint of an article I wrote for the Godswillchurch website last year. The article is no longer available through Godswill, but I found it on the Internet Archive
Several years ago, I determined to create a fiction series about an atheist private detective. As an atheist, I felt that the world needed a realistic heroic character that had no need of a religious belief system to base his or her good deeds upon. I began writing the series a decade ago, and in that time, I’ve noticed that perhaps some others had the same or a similar idea; especially in the television writing field.

Popular atheism as depicted on television.
Recently, it seems to me that television has made something of a leap forward in the portrayal of atheists, at least in the fictional realm. Numerous characters have either expressed atheistic ideas or have declared themselves to be atheists and that skepticism is a vital part of their character identity.
Granted, some have done so only in passing, Chris Colfer’s character, Kurt Hummel, on the television show Glee announced his atheism on one episode where the plot involved his father dealing with a heart attack. The issue of his disbelief was handled tactfully and respectfully by the show’s writers, and then was never mentioned again. Meanwhile, several other characters on the show frequently talk about their own Christianity or Judaism, and in a more recent episode, the Kurt character was unfortunately shown being superstitious about the color shirt his father wore at a follow-up visit to the doctor. Superstitiousness is a decidedly unskeptical characteristic.
Another series where the issue of a character’s atheism was handled matter-of-factly was the Joss Whedon space-western, Firefly. Whedon is an atheist himself, so the fact that his alter-ego, Malcolm Reynolds, is also one should not come as a surprise; however, Whedon deftly handles the topic by also introducing a minister with a questionable past, a naïve ingénue, a self-assured prostitute, and a primal wild-woman character to struggle with the ideas of morality, evil, lust and other vagaries which the religious would otherwise reasonably have to consider as pat and settled. In one memorable scene, the wild-child, River, is seen cutting up the minister’s bible to reassemble it in a way that would make it internally consistent. “Bible’s broken,” she tells him. “Doesn’t make sense.
Other current programs featuring atheist protagonists include Bones (Temperance Brennan played by Emily Deschanel,)The Good Wife (Alicia Florrick played by Julianna Margulies,) Dexter (the title character portrayed by Michael C. Hall,)The Big Bang Theory (Sheldon Cooper played by Jim Parsons,) Family Guy (Brian Griffin voiced by Seth MacFarlane,) Scrubs (Dr. Perry Cox played by John C. McGinley,) House (the title character played by Hugh Laurie,)The Cleveland Show (Cleveland Brown Jr. voiced by Mike Henry,) and one probable atheist on The Mentalist (Patrick Jane played by Simon Baker.)

The Mentalist never directly addresses Jane’s belief-system; however they frequently walk that line. A comparable program, Psych, features the identical premise, a fraudulent psychic working with the police to solve crimes. Even the theme song to that show joyfully declares “I know you know that I’m not telling the truth.” On a personal note, this plot device represents a dilemma for me. On the one hand, it’s entertaining to see the conceit that psychic talents have merit lampooned as being simple parlor tricks. On the other hand, in real life, we as skeptics know that self-declared psychics are self-serving ghouls. Do I root for the hero who is in many ways no better than an evangelist at a tent revival, or do I ignore the fictional chicanery to admire the theme of “psychics aren’t real?”
Another unfortunate issue with atheistic characters on television is that so many of them get their atheism from a lack of empathy. Bones, Dexter, Doctors House and Cox, and Sheldon Cooper are all emotionally stunted characters, and one is an outright sociopath. Also, it seems that when the writers want to humanize the characters, they often do so by resorting to having the characters temporarily question their atheistic resolve. In a recent episode of Bones, the character dealt with a traumatic event by receiving visions of the ghost of her dead mother. The Sheldon Cooper character frequently deals with shock or fear by calling out to “the God he doesn’t believe in,” as the show’s Hindu character, Raj, once put it.

Atheists in classic TV fiction.
Also, it should be noted that it’s not as if atheism as a characteristic in fiction is entirely new on television. The character of Mike Stivic played by Rob Reiner on All in the Family in the 1970s was a lapsed Catholic atheist. In the mid to late 80s, the series Moonlighting featured Cybil Shepherd in the role of Maddie Hayes, an atheist. In 1999, the teen comedy/drama Freaks and Geeks featured the atheistic character Lindsay Weir played by Linda Cardellini.  Battlestar Galactica, which ran from 2004 to 2009 featured the atheist character Billy Keikeya played by Paul Campbell. In fact, all of these characters were much better drawn, more rounded, empathetic characters than most of the atheists we see in television today. Yet they were fewer and further between.

In film, it often seems that atheistic characters are only played by real-life atheists who often create the characters for themselves to portray. Woody Allen often writes the characters he portrays as atheists. Jodie Foster portrayed the role of an atheist in the film version of Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact. Kevin Bacon played an atheist in Flatliners. Simon Pegg wrote and played an atheist in Hot Fuzz. Each of them has a spot on the list of atheist celebrities. Even Spencer Tracy, an atheist, was chosen to portray the atheistic lead, Henry Drummond, in Inherit the Wind.

In other fiction: novels, comic books, video games; we seldom come across sympathetic or heroic atheistic characters. They do exist of course, Tony Stark (Iron Man,) Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye,) Robert Langdon (The Da Vinci Code et al,) and sub-textually most of what has been written by John Updike are some notable examples. But I suspect that most of the modern fictionalized characterization of atheists as emotionally stunted intellectuals or cynical social outcasts originated in the character of Sherlock Holmes.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s groundbreaking private investigator is the archetypical forerunner of Robert Langdon, Temperance Brennan, Gregory House, Sheldon Cooper, and others in that he is emotionally stoic, quirky, smugly superior, and obsessively focused on the problem at hand. Like Tony Stark, Holden Caulfield, Henry Drummond, Malcolm Reynolds, Dexter Morgan, and others; Holmes operates from his own moral center. The rules don’t have to be apparent or understandable to others, so long as they are “internally consistent” and make sense to him.
Having been written for a mass audience during the Victorian era in British history, Sherlock Holmes was not an overt atheist. He expressed disdain for philosophy and cared little for the interpolations of social mores onto his objectives, but he never said in so many words that he rejected the concept of God or heaven. Rather, he simply ignored the topic. Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was not, himself, an atheist per se. He spoke against organized religion, but he was a believer in spiritualism. Still, he created a character who had no need for such considerations as the heliocentrist vs. geocentrist debate (A Study in Scarlet.) Holmes also quoted the bible, but never insisted on its veracity. This tradition of ignoring metaphysical questions and postulates has generally persisted in the genre Holmes spawned. With popular fictional detectives from Phillip Marlow to Sam Spade to Nero Wolfe to James Rockford, the reader/viewer is seldom ever privy to the religious views of the gumshoe. In fact, when confronted with philosophies of a religious nature, the detective character more often than not either expresses disinterest in or disdain for the religious pontifications of the holier-than-thou.
With this history in mind, and with the new openness toward non-belief as an impetus, when creating my own fictional detective series I  determined to make my detective an overt atheist, disdainful of the pontificators, distrustful of the devout, and willing to say so in so-many words. His moral foundation is unimpeachable despite his “European” attitude toward monogamy. His patience for the religious delusions of others is predicated solely on their patience for his lack of same. Yet still, he shares the same observational talent, the same obsessive single-mindedness to task, and the same abundance of quirky habits that have become staples of the genre.
The one trap of writing a fictional atheist that I wanted to avoid was making him socially awkward. To that end, I gave my character a stubborn charm that a certain type of intellectual beauty finds irresistible. He’s a lothario but not a heart breaker. He’s careful and caring about the kind of woman he courts, preferring a more worldly type over the slavishly adoring.
I also determined to create a foil in the form of an intelligent and religiously neutral woman who genuinely does not see the appeal he holds for so many. She narrates the stories, the Watson to his Holmes, with more social awkwardness on her end than his. Through her eyes we come to understand both POVs, his atheism and the theistic individuals (both good and bad) that he interacts with in his casework.
Today’s audience, one hopes, is finally primed to accept an atheistic character who simply is. In real life, theists and non-theists interact daily. Believers and non-believers work side-by-side often sharing jokes and family stories, neither one knowing or caring if the other shares their belief-system unless it somehow comes up in conversation. So why should fiction writers be afraid to create atheistic characters who simply are? After all, there was a time when the homosexual down the street was portrayed as the confirmed bachelor; gay couples never came to dinner on the Dick Van Dyke Show; none of the Brady kids ever questioned their sexuality or mentioned “that one time at camp.” Yet today, every show has a gay neighbor. Stan on American Dad has dinner with the gay couple that reads the news. Every teen-centered show from 90210 to Glee deals with the personal drama of coming out to mom and dad, some shows on an almost weekly basis. That more than almost anything has probably affected the zeitgeist leading to the almost universal acceptance of homosexuality in the upcoming generation. Hopefully fiction can do the same thing for atheism. It’s worth a shot.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Banned Books Week Top 10

It’s banned books week. With that in mind, and with no further ado, here is my personal list of my top ten favorite banned books. In no particular order...

Alice in Wonderland I loved this book for so many reasons. The poetry was fantastic. The imagery and the humor were top notch. The concept was (for it’s time) utterly unique and creative. Plus the John Tenniel illustrations were ridiculously glorious.

The Catcher in the Rye At one point in the book, the narrator sees an obscene word written on a wall at his sister’s school, and is mortified that she might see it. Ultimately he realizes that you can never protect children from seeing depravity. It’s part of life. Still, many censors tried to shield the kids in their charge from seeing this book that notes that it’s a sad fact that kids see things like this book every day.

The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck is a genius. This book should be mandatory reading in the US Congress before any discussion of immigration reform and migrancy. The book takes its title from a line in the song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which borrowed the term from the biblical book of Revelation 14:19-20. In the book, people are starving and others are destroying food in order to artificially inflate prices. Man’s inhumanity to man in pursuit of the almighty dollar is apparently something we shouldn’t be allowed to hear or read about.

Cartoon by the Center for Individual Freedom
1984 A book from the 1950s about a future society that created the word Newspeak which accurately predicted such government euphemisms as "enhanced interrogation" in lieu of the word torture. 1984 also predicted the NSA or “Big Brother” and perpetual war and bread & circuses as a means of controlling the masses.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Ironically, this book which was ahead of its time for trying to make the idea of the equality of the races palpable to the masses is frequently banned because – even though it was published at a time when the word was in common use and the people in the book who use it are being portrayed as buffoons – it contains the N word.

Catch 22 ███ book was funny, irreverent, smart, and populated by some of ██ most interesting and believable characters in history. ██ best part, considering that it would ultimately be itself so often ██ victim of censorship, is that Yosarian actually is forced to be █ censor at one point and makes █ game of it because he thinks censorship is stupid. To ██ day, because of having read Catch 22 while █ high school student, I sometimes find myself randomly playing “death to articles.”

Fahrenheit 451 Are you sensing a theme? Fahrenheit 451 is yet another book about the futility of censorship which is often the subject of censorship. In this case, the title so specifically calls that concept to mind (it’s the temperature at which paper ignites) that it was parodied as the title of a 2004 film by Michael Moore.

The DaVinci Code At the height of its popularity, this book which was written as fiction sparked a flurry of books written specifically to disprove the book’s fictional premise. Let me make that point clear. The book was fiction. The premise was fictional. Yet, religious people were so threatened by it that they wrote books and made films to discredit the book’s made up arguments.

Rights of Man Thomas Paine was driven from America by those who hated his apostasy. Which is ironic given the fact that the American Revolution, which guaranteed many of them the right to practice their religion, was predicated on the Enlightenment-centered idea that there are no divine rights of kings and that freedom to believe or disbelieve is a basic human right. This idea only gained traction thanks to Paine who made them accessible and understandable through the pamphlets he wrote championing the ideas of revolution and liberty.

Candide Anything Voltaire has a hand in is brilliant, but Candide is the crème d la crème. The book snipes at empire, at religion, at socio-economic policy, and at philosophy in equal measure. It is particularly successful at skewering the philosophical idiocy of the then very popular ideas of Joseph Leibnitz. Best of all possible worlds my ass.

Okay, that's my list. YMMV.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to cultivate my garden.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Author Interview: K.J. Bryen, Author of Lokte

K.J. Bryen lives in Oklahoma City with her loving husband, Adam. By day, she works at a news station. By night, she is a writer of young adult novels and supernatural thrillers. She loves any book that immerses her into a world she doesn't want to leave, and she hopes to be able to do that for her readers. She's also a coffee addict and a chocolate fanatic. She loves to meet new people, so hit her up on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads. You can also visit her website or blog to find out more about her books.

K.J.’s novel, Lokte, was released on September 12. K.J. describes her book thus:

Marianne Garcia is a struggling actress in New York City. With a dead career and her mother dying of cancer, she begins to lose faith in a better life.
That is, until Logan Lokte shows up.
The mysterious Logan offers her everything she has dreamed of, promising that he can not only make her a famous actress, but can stop the cancer spreading in her mother's body. All Marianne has to do is sign a contract.
Marianne doesn't believe in magic, and she has lost all faith in miracles. But why does she find herself strangely drawn to him? Who is Logan Lokte? And if she were to sign his contract . . . what would the consequences be?

In this tale of passion, murder, and deceit, Marianne's decision thrusts them both into a spiral where choices are crucial, and evil comes from within.
But they also must learn that, in life, not every door is locked.

Who are your influences?
 I've had a lot of influences on my writing, both writers and people from my everyday life. The author that has most inspired me for my supernatural thriller is Ted Dekker, who I find to be a phenomenal writer. In my day to day life, I have a lot of people who encourage and influence my writing, both friends and family. Probably the biggest influence is my husband. He bears with me through all my ideas, good and bad, and tells me his honest opinion. He also reads my original rough drafts as I am writing, and tells me what he likes and dislikes about it. I'm sometimes afraid his opinion is affected by the fact he only reads my rough drafts, not my completed novel . . . Hopefully one day I will write a novel and edit without his reading through it, so that he can read a polished version :)

When did you begin writing?
 I've been writing since I first learned to write. My first story I wrote when I was about four or five. It was drawn with marker and was mostly pictures, but ever since then I've wanted to be a writer.

How do you come up with your stories, characters, character names, POV, etc?
Honestly, it just depends. I have no idea where my stories come from. I guess from the deep reservoirs of my mind. Characters, I often base off of people I know. For example, Marianne Garcia, one of the main characters in Lokte, I would say is a reflection of myself in some ways. We both have a lot of similar traits. I also sometimes get ideas for scenes in my novels from things I see or hear; I've been inspired by songs and images.

Do you work from an outline?
Yes! If I don't at least have a basic outline of the story, my books would be terrible! I always need a plan, so that I can have the best structure for my book and don't have discrepancies.

 Tell me about your favorite scene in your novel.
Honestly, this was a very intense novel to write, and I have a lot of favorite scenes. One of my favorites I would say was the ending of the book. It was very powerful, and very emotional. You can ask my husband. I was glued to my computer the entire day, shaking the whole time

Can you tell us a little about your writing philosophy?
Not sure if I could pick just one philosophy. One thing I always try to remember when I write: while the book is for readers, it's also for you. Write your beliefs, write what you feel. That's what keeps me sane half the time.

 Have you ever tried writing in any other genres?
Yes, I will be focusing primarily on two genres, Christian Supernatural Thrillers, and Young Adult Paranormal/Horror. My next project is a young adult horror series.

Do you have any interesting writing-related anecdotes to share?

I'm honestly not sure. I will say that my husband is a music writer, and we have had lots of friendly debates on who is more intense when they're in writing mode. I still think I am :)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Introducing Thrills and Mystery

I was recently struck with inspiration in the form of an idea for a new paradigm for online publishing. What I have come up with is a project that can benefit all mystery genre writers, a website designed to promote and expand the audiences of writers of thrillers, action/adventure, and other dark tales of murder and lesser crimes. Currently in ALPHA testing, I have built a website called ThrillsandMystery.com. It is presently under construction and not yet available to the public. 

When the page is live, authors will submit stories to vie for inclusion in a five-times-a-year anthology. The process begins when a third of each submitted story is posted on a publicly accessible forum where readers can comment on the story, sort of like real-time beta readers. They might offer input on character development, pacing, clarity of theme, or anything they think will help the writer to rework the piece to make a more enticing read. Obviously, it’s up to the writer to apply or ignore reader advice. After the story-ration has been available for critique for a minimum of one month, it can move on into the voting stage. During the voting stage, a larger story-ration will be posted on a dedicated page for a particular issue of the anthology, but the last third will be held back. Readers then use that two-thirds of a story to determine whether they want to read the conclusion. If they are hooked, they vote for the story. The six to eight stories receiving the highest number of votes appear in the next issue of the anthology. 

It's a simple idea, but it is designed to usurp the traditional model where editors and publishers decide what the reading public gets to enjoy. In addition to getting the stories they want, readers also benefit by finding new writers to read. Writers benefit by potentially acquiring new fans. Stories benefit by gaining the direct insight and input of readers. The site will hopefully go live some time in October, and readers of this blog will be among the first to know. 

The anthology will be published once every ten weeks with a winter issue in early January, a spring issue, a summer issue, a fall issue and a holiday issue to follow. Since the main purpose is to help readers and indie writers to discover one another, the costs will be extremely low, and copies will be available for purchase on the site, or from all online retailers. A paper version will also be available, but at a more substantial price. Stay tuned to this site for updates and additional news.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Guest Post: Was Frankenstein a zombie, or a sci-fi cyborg? by Leah Rhyne

Today's guest post comes to us from Leah Rhyne. Leah is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Alien(s), and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes tales of horror and science fiction. Her first novel, Undead America Volume 1: Zombie Days, Campfire Nights, released in the fall of 2012, and it’s sequel, No Angels, released in the fall of 2013. The final book in the trilogy is coming in 2014. She writes for LitReactor.com, The Charleston City Paper, and for herself at www.leahrhyne.com. Leah lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets. In her barely-there spare time, she loves running and yoga. 
Her horror/sci-fi novel, JO, was released yesterday, and I will be reviewing it for my Halloween posting on this blog. Here's the blurb:
Jolene Hall is dead – sort of. She can walk, think and talk, but her heart doesn't
beat and her lungs stopped breathing ages ago. Her body’s a mosaic of jagged wounds and stapled flesh. 

Jolene Hall has a choice: turn herself in to the authorities, led by a suspiciously handsome police officer, or team up with her roommate Lucy and her boyfriend Eli to find a way to save herself. To Jo, the choice is clear. She’d like to know who turned her into a monster, and she’d like to live to see another sunrise. 
But that choice has drastic repercussions. 
On a trip deep into the snowy White Mountains, to a hidden laboratory filled with danger and cadavers, Jo and Lucy find more reanimated girls. Part body, part machine, run by batteries and electricity, these girls are killers, created by a shadowy Order with a penchant for chaos...and murder. 
To make matters worse, a photo on a wall of victims reveals Lucy is next in line to be "recruited” into this army of beautiful, walking corpses.
When Jo’s physical condition takes a turn for the irreparable, and the Order kidnaps those she loves most, she must sacrifice herself to save them all.

I began writing my novel, JO, after a dream in which a dead girl appeared in my old college dorm room, asking if I could smell how dead she really was. The dream, while mildly disturbing, was entertaining enough that an idea grew for a girl who was transformed into a semi-cyborg-monster-thing, and the how’s and why’s obsessed me for the next year and a half while I wrote and edited, wrote and edited.

Once the book was complete and I began the “how shall I publish this one” discussion in my head, I began reaching out to agents.

“Nope,” I heard back, on more than one occasion. “JO is just another zombie book, and we’re all full up on zombies.”

Well, no, I thought. Not really. She’s more like an updated, modern-day Frankenstein monster. In fact, while writing the book, the working title, thanks to a comment by a friend, was Pretty Frankenstein (which I dropped in respect to copyright laws and such).

My own clear miscommunications about my book’s intent aside, this response led me to the question: was the Frankenstein monster a zombie? Or was he more what I imagined: an old-school cyborg, running on electricity and just begging for an updated telling?

Let’s look at the evidence.

Dr. Frankenstein was a (mad) scientist with dreams of bringing a man back to life. To achieve his goal, he surgically spliced together body parts of different people who died from different causes, and (somehow) wired him up for electricity. We all know the brain was the final piece, and (somehow) that abby-normal brain was chosen instead of a normal one.

The monster lay on a table, all sewn together and awaiting a spark to wake him up. That spark came in the form of lightning – electricity. Somehow, deep inside his body, he was wired for electricity, as evidenced by the metal knobs on Boris Karloff’s neck in the 1931 movie version.

Once awake, the Frankenstein monster is hardly zombie-like. Though he grunts and groans and lumbers about, there are thought processes evident in his actions. The little girl and the flower are the best examples, but so are his anger, his rage. He’s not a mindless beast trying to eat his way through all the brains in town. No. His anger is directed at the man who created this hellish existence for him, and his fear becomes palpable when he’s chased by an angry mob.

The zombies I know of are all pretty mindless. Their focus is on one thing: food. Nowhere in the Frankenstein book or movies do we ever even see the monster eat.

I think the answer is clear: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is an early work of sci-fi that could beat even Jules Vern or Orson Wells at their own game. Robot-man runs amok is just as cool as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, at least in my opinion. The monster himself is merely a cyborg, and a sad one at that.

Those are the ideas I tried to capture in JO. I’d love to share those ideas with you, and hear back from you what you think!