Buddhism in Nexus: Wired Religiously, Wired Perfectly

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https://tesseracts18.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/e992a-nexus.jpgFuturist Ramez Naam’s first science fiction novel, Nexus, garnered a review last year that spoke to the Buddhism intertwined into the plot.  The novel ostensibly is about future human enhancement:

A few decades into the future, a drug/biotechnology called Nexus is making its way through the underground. When ingested, it creates a temporary computer network in your brain — which allows you to be “programmed” with anything from emotions to information about what songs are playing at the club where you’re dancing. The government has outlawed Nexus, just as it outlaws any form of “emerging” technology for human enhancement that could be a threat.

But what intrigues the reviewer is the Buddhist aspects.

What I found most interesting about the novel, however, wasn’t the post-human technology or the neurocomputing interfaces. It was Naam’s use of Buddhism as a form of biotechnology. When Kaden gets to Thailand, he discovers that Buddhist leaders and monks have been secretly hacking Nexus themselves — not with computers, but using the power of meditation. Because of their spiritual training, they’ve figured out how to use the technology to rewire their own minds and generate incredible collective meditation experiences. There is actually a scientific basis for this idea, as neuroscientists have discovered that meditation actually does affect the neuroanatomy of people’s brains.

The addition of Buddhism as a kind of socio-scientific force makes Nexus more than your average futuristic techno-thriller. It’s a smart thought experiment about how a single technology might be used by different cultures and political groups in radically different ways. Ultimately, the book is about why no single group — whether national or scientific — should be allowed to control a technology that could ultimately change humanity for the better. We can never predict exactly how a life-altering technology will be used, and erasing it before people have a chance to tinker with it is more destructive than any of the possible ill effects it might generate.

What we here at Tesseracts enjoy is the interplay of religion and science fiction, of course, but also that human brains wired for religion could actually be an asset, and not a drawback to human existence.  That Buddhists might have a leg up on this technology makes me wonder what other religions might have to offer when it comes to future human enhancement.  Buddhists may offer meditative strengths.  In what science fiction future could Pentecostals or Muslims have a future edge in human society?  Pantheists?  Wiccans?

For the original article on the Buddhist aspects of Nexus, follow this link.

Was Arjun of the Mahabharata gay, and would that matter?

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Found this great, thoughtful post on The Hindu’s Scrapbook about the notion that Arjun, a main character of the Mahabharata, might have been gay.  I thought it was appropriate to share on this blog because a) it shows how people of a faith might struggle with concepts that change that faith, b) that the speaker him/herself doesn’t believe that the changing of a character’s sexual identity has any change on the message of the faith itself, and that c) sexual identity within any religion is a touchy subject.  Concepts of Jesus being gay have aroused a lot of negativity, so why not concepts of Arjun being gay as well?  We are jarred by identity issues in deeply held beliefs or histories.

As writers we often find the flashpoints, the struggles within today’s faith, make some of the best places to write from.  While the post below–and it’s only an excerpt–does not touch on science fiction or fantasy, we can still empathize with the writer as s/he regards someone else suggesting a “re-interpretation” that has modern impacts, and modern opportunities for believers, and this struggle, perhaps, with being inclusive.

Science fiction and fantasy is going through its own bout of inclusiveness and gender identity struggles.  More and more characters, thank you, are being introduced that are not necessarily just the binary of male/female, or straight.  In comics, in games, in science fiction and fantasy, characters are becoming more representative of the full spectrum of identity–and as they do, we are uncovering more and more PAST characters, authors, historical figures who may also fall differently on this spectrum.  This may feel jarring, but for those who are finally finding representatives through history, or through literature, it can be so welcoming and encouraging.  To Northstar, Dumbledore, Batwoman, Alexander the Great, Willa Cather, Uncle Walt, James Baldwin, David and Jonathan, the Roman Centurion and his servant, and more and more, I’ll say that a few representatives are enough for me.  I don’t need the world to become gay.  I just need to be able to see them out there in the world.  Thank you for those interpretations which leave things more open and fluid in religion as well. I never want to take away someone’s true identity and give them mine, but thinking about possibilities when the door is already open allows for empathy for those who might not share the identity, and modeling for those who do.

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Homosexuality and Hinduism from A Hindu’s Scrapbook.

I haven’t really talked about many Hindu Concepts on this blog, but I was very upset after hearing this. Now just to be clear, I am a college student, and I just read up on Hinduism on my spare time. I am not an expert by any means, but that does not mean I am not knowlegable.

So yesterday, my boyfriend was telling me about a guest speaker he heard at HSC (Hindu Student Council) camp. He mentioned that the speaker talked about some people interpreting some characters in the Mahabharata as gay. He then told me that many people at the camp thought that it was very disrespectful that this idea was even being thought of and talked about. I could not find the thesis online (although I am sure it available somewhere, if someone can direct m I would love to read it), I have a feeling the character whose sexuality is in question is Arjun. (My boyfriend could not recall the name of the character.)

I just sat there and wondered, why? Why would this interpretation be disrespectful?

Again, I could not find the thesis, but being an academic thesis I would assume this person did extensive research (I am told psychoanalysis and reading in-between the lines…). I am also assuming that they do not say that Arjun (or who ever this character is) did not complete all the actions mentioned in the Mahabharata. So the question is, do these people find it disrespectful just because this person (as well as others) believes he was homosexual?

Now this is the part where I get confused. How is a homosexual character disrespectful? Even though there are many different sects in Hinduism, the one uniting principle, I thought, was Dharma. Duty. There are many different duties a person may have, one to him or herself, to their family, society, etc. Some of these duties are more important than others. Did Arjun not complete his duties in the Mahabharata to his best ability? Does a homosexual man or women not complete their duties? They have jobs and families. It is not like their homosexuality gets in the way of that….

For the rest of the post, please follow this link. 

 

For a discussion of Arjun/Arjuna as the first Transgendered Warrior, follow this link.

Bajorans and the Evolving Trek View of Faith

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Kai WinnI have to admire Star Trek for the way they evolved on matters of faith, by showing the complexity and the cultural aspects of faith, and how religion impacted society, at least in one series.

Star Trek hasn’t always been like this. Faith and Religion seem to be the target of early Gene Roddenberry design. In TOS and STNG, faith and spirituality were often shown to be merely a way to manipulate the masses (hello, Karl Marx). Both Kirk and Picard showed the natives that their gods were machines (“The Return of the Archons”) and (“The World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”), usually, or fickle higher powers prone to jealousy (“Who Mourns for Adonis”, and “The Apple” come to mind from TOS), or merely keeping people young and stupid for the whim of the gods (STNG “Who Watches the Watchers?” ) or (VOY: “The Caretaker”). Worse was when a believer realized that his/her faith was empty (VOY: “This Mortal Coil”, or VOY: “Emanations”).

In STNG, Q also represented the gods at their most amoral and irresponsible. A whole slew of gods that were bored but fascinated with humans (HUMANS are the object of everyone’s curiosity… what, no god wanted to explore Betazoid culture? ) What a scary concept for a higher power.

But Deep Space Nine seemed to want to explore religion and faith a bit more deeply. True, the requisite aliens were present in the Wormhole next to Bajor, but Roddenberry wasn’t beyond saying that gods could be higher forms of life that we don’t understand. Certainly I agree.  My concept of God is that he is a much higher form of life—which would be classified as an “alien”, yes, but still God. But unlike Q, the gods of Bajor, the Prophets, care for the people of Bajor. They are higher life inside the wormhole and emotionally attached to a humanoid species.

Bajorans themselves are almost all religious, having to deal with the reality of gods who live in the wormhole. The gods intervene in history; they send little Orbs that light up and give you prophecies, and Bajoran faith has completely mixed with politics in a way that is eerily similar and yet very different than American culture today. The US may not have preachers as politicians, but they have politicians who think they are preachers, and who create laws as if God himself were speaking to them. At least Bajor is up front: it’s the Pope in charge of the world, thank you very much.

I can give DS9 a lot of stones for making this faith and religion complex.

What I think is useful for our purposes here at Tess 18: Wrestling with Gods are the following ideas, I humbly submit to you for your thoughts:

Read the rest of this entry

Faith in Film: Why Science Fiction Movies Abound With Religious Themes

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Interesting Post in the Deseret News National about Faith in Science Fiction movies we thought might be food for thought here.

 

In “Man of Steel,” the most recent Superman film, when Superman’s parents send their son away from their dying planet to save his life, his mom worries he will not be accepted on Earth because he is an alien to the planet.

“He will be an outcast. They’ll kill him,” his mother says.

“How? He’ll be a god to them,” says his father, Jor-El, who believes Superman will be an ideal Earth’s inhabitants will strive to reach.

Some might see Christian symbolism in this scene, but it’s not the only religious reference in the film. “Man of Steel,” which some call a “soft” science-fiction film (along with other superhero movies), is replete with religious allusions. And superhero films do not have a monopoly on religious metaphors. In fact, religious and spiritual themes are woven into the plots of many popular science fiction films, TV shows and novels.

“We have so many TV shows and movies where you see the same type of archetypal characters, plots and problems that you would see in religion (and) in religious texts,” says Barna Donovan, who teaches classes about the relationship between science fiction and religion at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, N.J.

Science and Religion Converge

The strong ties between science fiction and religion may seem odd; after all, some religious fundamentalists and a number of atheists constantly pit science and religion against each other.

But Dr. James McGrath, who teaches in the Religion and Philosophy Department at Butler University in Indianapolis, Ind., says a convergence between the two is natural.

“Humans have wondered about our place in the universe even before we had modern science to help provide some answers about the physical form and nature of that universe. We’ve envisaged our cosmos as full of powerful beings who come from the sky, and select human beings as having rare opportunities to travel up there,” says McGrath, adding that science-fiction authors today can explore questions that religions throughout history have attempted to answer.

Arthur Doweyko, a scientist and award-winning author of sci-fi short stories, agrees that science fiction allows authors to explore humanity’s pressing questions about existence.

“In creating a world, a civilization, at any time and place, the author necessarily needs to consider the manner in which the people of that time and place have dealt with the question of existence,” says Doweyko. “Without that view expressed either directly or cleverly insinuated through the story, the characters will lack the moral and ethical motivation for their actions.”

Read more at http://national.deseretnews.com/article/1246/Faith-in-film-Why-science-fiction-movies-abound-with-religious-themes.html#cP5M86EDBVyzgDYy.99

The article goes on to ask questions about why authors use religious metaphor and why we like it.  One of the most interesting concepts is something I think that makes fiction much more powerful than nonfiction.

“‘Like music, fiction can worm its way past prejudice, bias and dogmatism and cut straight to a reader’s intellect, heart and soul,” Bohnhoff says, adding that she uses science fiction to help readers examine a subject (such as race or religion) in a different way.”

Take a read of the article and let us know if you agree with the author—why do YOU think so many religious allusions find their way into science fiction stories, especially popular movies?  The author, Kandra Polatis, comes up with some interesting ideas, and so do those she interviews, for why we want to read about faith, or why religious themes seem to find their ways into our favorite stories.

The strong ties between science fiction and religion may seem odd; after all, some religious fundamentalists and a number of atheists constantly pit science and religion against each other.

But Dr. James McGrath, who teaches in the Religion and Philosophy Department at Butler University in Indianapolis, Ind., says a convergence between the two is natural.

“Humans have wondered about our place in the universe even before we had modern science to help provide some answers about the physical form and nature of that universe. We’ve envisaged our cosmos as full of powerful beings who come from the sky, and select human beings as having rare opportunities to travel up there,” says McGrath, adding that science-fiction authors today can explore questions that religions throughout history have attempted to answer.

Arthur Doweyko, a scientist and award-winning author of sci-fi short stories, agrees that science fiction allows authors to explore humanity’s pressing questions about existence.

“In creating a world, a civilization, at any time and place, the author necessarily needs to consider the manner in which the people of that time and place have dealt with the question of existence,” says Doweyko. “Without that view expressed either directly or cleverly insinuated through the story, the characters will lack the moral and ethical motivation for their actions.”
Read more at http://national.deseretnews.com/article/1246/Faith-in-film-Why-science-fiction-movies-abound-with-religious-themes.html#cP5M86EDBVyzgDYy.99

In “Man of Steel,” the most recent Superman film, when Superman’s parents send their son away from their dying planet to save his life, his mom worries he will not be accepted on Earth because he is an alien to the planet.

“He will be an outcast. They’ll kill him,” his mother says.

“How? He’ll be a god to them,” says his father, Jor-El, who believes Superman will be an ideal Earth’s inhabitants will strive to reach.

Some might see Christian symbolism in this scene, but it’s not the only religious reference in the film. “Man of Steel,” which some call a “soft” science-fiction film (along with other superhero movies), is replete with religious allusions. And superhero films do not have a monopoly on religious metaphors. In fact, religious and spiritual themes are woven into the plots of many popular science fiction films, TV shows and novels.

“We have so many TV shows and movies where you see the same type of archetypal characters, plots and problems that you would see in religion (and) in religious texts,” says Barna Donovan, who teaches classes about the relationship between science fiction and religion at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, N.J.

Science and religion converge

The strong ties between science fiction and religion may seem odd; after all, some religious fundamentalists and a number of atheists constantly pit science and religion against each other.

But Dr. James McGrath, who teaches in the Religion and Philosophy Department at Butler University in Indianapolis, Ind., says a convergence between the two is natural.

“Humans have wondered about our place in the universe even before we had modern science to help provide some answers about the physical form and nature of that universe. We’ve envisaged our cosmos as full of powerful beings who come from the sky, and select human beings as having rare opportunities to travel up there,” says McGrath, adding that science-fiction authors today can explore questions that religions throughout history have attempted to answer.

Arthur Doweyko, a scientist and award-winning author of sci-fi short stories, agrees that science fiction allows authors to explore humanity’s pressing questions about existence.

“In creating a world, a civilization, at any time and place, the author necessarily needs to consider the manner in which the people of that time and place have dealt with the question of existence,” says Doweyko. “Without that view expressed either directly or cleverly insinuated through the story, the characters will lack the moral and ethical motivation for their actions.”

Religious metaphors in sci-fi

Religious concepts are commonly portrayed figuratively in science fiction, explained Doweyko. He said religious ideologies in the long-running series “Star Trek” coincided with an earthly belief system.
Read more at http://national.deseretnews.com/article/1246/Faith-in-film-Why-science-fiction-movies-abound-with-religious-themes.html#cP5M86EDBVyzgDYy.99

 

Announcing Contributing Authors for Tesseracts 18: Wrestling With Gods

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Very proud to announce the contributing authors to an anthology that was a blast to put together.  Liana and I are very proud to have these authors and their stories and poems as part of Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods.

The official Press Release from Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing is below.  We hope you will be as excited as we are!

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

“Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods” edited by Liana K and Jerome Stueart
Faith in Science Fiction and Fantasy Anthology
ISBN: 978-1-77053-068-3 (Trade Paperback 5.5″ X 8.5″)
E-BOOK: e-ISBN: 978-1-77053-069-0 To be released April, 2015

Authors announced for the latest volume of the prestigious Canadian speculative fiction anthology series.

(Calgary, Alberta) EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing is pleased to announce the names of the contributing authors for the forthcoming edition of the prestigious Tesseract series.

“Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods” will include works by: Robert J. Sawyer, Matthew Hughes, Alyxandra Harvey, Halli Lilburn, Derwin Mak, J.M. Frey, Steve Stanton, Megan Fennell, Jen Laface and Andrew Czarnietzki, S. L. Nickerson, John Park, Janet K. Nicolson, Suzanne M. McNabb, Allan Weiss, Savithri Machiraju, Carla Richards, Mary-Jean Harris, James Bambury, Mary Pletsch, David Jón Fuller, and Jennifer Rahn, Erling Friis-Baastad, David Fraser, John Bell, David Clink and Tony Pi -27 of the biggest names and brightest rising stars in Canadian science-fiction and fantasy.

This latest volume of the Tesseracts series contains tales of creative and religious diversity – a trending topic in books and movies. The stories and poems draw from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Agnosticism, Atheism, Humanism and the beliefs of Indigenous Canadians, (as well as actually creating faiths and religions of other worlds).

“Any anthology that starts with a story called ‘Mecha-Jesus’ is clearly not a traditional look at religion” says EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publisher, Brian Hades. “This robotic savior is joined by the Hindu god Ganesh trying to break into Bollywood, the Sun God Ra discovering Coronation Street, a priest on Mars, a vampire in residential schools, and a woman with a secret under her hijab. ‘Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods’ definitely contains many surprises!”

As in past versions of the Tesseract series, the editors are handpicked by the publisher. “Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods” is edited by widely-published sci-fi/fantasy author and writing teacher Jerome Stueart — who is a gay Baptist from the Yukon Territory — and “perfect heathen” media personality Liana Kerzner — who is best known as Liana K.

“Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods” is a lively, thoughtful interfaith/interpath anthology of creative and religious diversity – with a speculative fiction and fantasy twist!

ABOUT THE TESSERACTS SERIES:

The first Tesseracts anthology was edited by Judith Merril. Since its publication in 1985, 299 authors/editors/translators and guests have contributed 502 pieces of Canadian speculative fiction, fantasy and horror for this series. Some of Canada’s best known speculative fiction writers have been published within the pages of these volumes – including Margaret Atwood, William Gibson, Robert J. Sawyer, and Spider Robinson (to name a few). Tesseracts Eighteen is the forthcoming volume in the series. The entire series includes Tesseracts One through Eighteen, plus Tesseracts Q, which features translations of works by some of Canada’s top francophone writers of science fiction and fantasy.

“Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods” will be released by EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing in Apil 2015

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“Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods” edited by Liana K and Jerome Stueart
ISBN: 978-1-77053-068-3 (Trade Paperback 5.5″ X 8.5″)
E-BOOK: e-ISBN: 978-1-77053-069-0
http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess18/t18-catalog.html

For interview opportunities please contact:
Janice Shoults, EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing
http://www.edgewebsite.com
403.254.0160

Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with— Space–an update

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We’re very excited to announce that we are just double-checking for space limitations in order to pack as many stories as we can into the anthology.  You should be hearing from us this week.  We thank you all for your patience.  I have to say that reading your stories and poems has been a profound pleasure.  Liana and I are attempting to craft the best anthology of faith-infused Canadian science fiction and fantasy we can made up of stories and poems that touched us, and that we feel, will touch you.  As it stands, the anthology seems evenly divided between men and women, between Canadian regions, between science fiction and fantasy, between dark and light, between faiths, between real and imagined faiths even–and the theme, by stories we’ve accepted so far, has been cleverly played, surprising us again and again.  I think as editors you have an idea of what your anthology might look like after you make the call, what it might address, what kind of reading experience you might be looking for.  I can honestly say this is better than I ever imagined.

Please bear with us this week as we finalize the table of contents. Those of you who submitted, you will be hearing from us through emails, so watch for Tesseracts18 emails.  And keep watching this space as we talk more about faith in fantasy and science fiction and about Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods.

Thank you, Jerome and Liana, editors.

An Update on the Anthology

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The response to the anthology call for submissions was fantastic and we are reading stories, making very hard decisions, and creating what we hope is a strong anthology out of the good stories you’ve given us.  Please bear with us as we make our final selections this month.  We should report those decisions first week of March.  We appreciate your patience.

Thank you, the Editors.

Alert! Tesseracts 18 Deadline approaching

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Dinosaurs-Noahs-ArkJust to let you know the exact deadline of Tesseracts 18: Midnight, Dec 31, PST, the corner of New Year’s Day.

I remember submitting to Tesseracts before and wondering–now when IS the exact last moment?–and so I wanted you to know that all of Canada gets till Midnight of the last day of the year.  (Vancouver says, YAY! Whitehorse says YAY!) I think I’ll watch the Pirates of the Caribbean marathon to keep awake till 3am.

How this works:  it’s a dropbox, and at 12:01am on Jan 1st PST, Liana and I will download whatever is in that box and we will never come back to that box again.  It’s just a deposit spot. What’s in the box is in the mix!

I say this because I had a wonderful, albeit frustrating and learning moment, with Claude LaLumiere when he was editor of Open Season.  I am the KING of procrastinators!  Of making it just under the door!  If you tell me you want it by Saturday at 1pm, by golly, it will not be to you any earlier than that.  🙂  So I’m with you.  And yet, I think I sent my manuscript in around 12:30. Claude thanked me kindly but did not let me submit it.  It was after the deadline.  Maybe it was only 12:10…..  ten minutes!  He could have had the greatest story in the world, I thought!  But noooooo!  Ten minutes was too late.  I probably felt self-righteously angry for a few weeks—I can see myself muttering in a very Scrooge-like way, “Ten minutes, what would have been the trouble? Ten minutes…”— anyway, I was a goofball and I learned.  Claude was right (Claude is often right, not always, but very very often).  So please understand that if your manuscript comes in at 12:02 PST, I will never ever see it.  Neither will Liana.  It will be orphaned.

So, amazing writers, submit now and soon!  You have approximately 3 and a half days!  Have Faith!

Depicting the Divine in Epic Fantasy from Tor.com

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From Brian Stavely comes a thoughtful post on depicting the divine in Fantasy over on Tor.com.  We’ve included a short beginning here, but read the whole thing at this link to the whole article. Essentially Stavely counts off the ways one can describe a god in epic fantasy fiction–and there are five options.  If I may be so bold, I think there are at least three more ways to depict a god in epic fantasy, and I offer them up humbly:

Option 6: Use other people’s understanding of the god as description.  They might not all be alike, but the confluence, the overlap of them, will give a mosaic feel to your god.  It will also create character development for the characters who have seen/or believe in this god, as we tend to see what we desire in our gods.  A god’s description in the mouth of one character as a “god of vengeance” is a very different character than someone who calls him “a god of protection.”  May be same god.

Option 7: Use tales of the deeds of a god to describe him or her.  Actually what a god does says more about him than his/her description.  And again, people have tales. If you can gather up the tales of a god, you can capture a character description that readers can fill in as they go.  Then if and when the god shows up in your text, it may already have a pretty firm description in the mind of the reader, based on what it has done in the world.  God is rarely described in the Bible, but his deeds let you know exactly what kind of God he is.

Option 8: Every culture uses Art to talk about its gods.  Can you pull together images of the divine from a culture’s art?  That will help form a picture in a reader’s mind through the cultural depictions of the gods, telling you a hell of a lot about the culture, as well as the god.  Michaelangelo’s God touching Adam who seems curly headed and benevolent, and other depictions of God as a fiery, anger-filled rage monster.

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Depicting the Divine in Epic Fantasy: Brian Stavely

 

There’s a striking moment near the end of the twenty-first canto of Dante’s Inferno, one that almost all readers tend to remember, when the demon Barbariccia “avea del cul fatto trombetta.” It’s hard to put it delicately: he turns his ass into a trumpet. Not the kind of thing you expect out of a writer recording the steps his salvation, but the image stays with you.

Likewise, readers of the Divine Comedy remember Ugolino, who, for the sin of eating his sons, is forever frozen to his neck in ice, gnawing on the brains of Archbishop Ruggieri. In fact, Dante has no trouble at all depicting sinners in the various postures of their suffering, and for seven centuries readers have kept turning the pages. Corporal violence sells. Electronic Arts even has an eponymously titled video game in which Dante looks less like a poet and more like a Muay Thai Knight Templar. The EA people are no fools—they understand that there’s a ready market for brain eating and ass trumpets.

When it comes to the celestial realm of heaven, however, Dante runs into trouble.

READ MORE HERE.

Thanks, Brian and Tor.com!!

Hopefully these suggestions help YOU when writing about Faith in your Fantasy or Science Fiction.  Let us know what you think.

Only the Insane Believed There Were No Gods: Ed Greenwood Speaks of Religion and Belief in Forgotten Realms

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As you are world-building, how integral to your design should a culture’s religion or faith be?  How do you craft fantasy world religions? In our first interview of the Tesseracts 18 blog, co-editor Liana K asks ED GREENWOOD to chat with us about how he integrated religion—and whether or not one could call it “faith”— in the shared world he created, Forgotten Realms.

 

edgreenwoodED GREENWOOD is an amiable, bearded Canadian writer, game designer, and librarian best known as the creator of The Forgotten Realms® fantasy world. He sold his first fiction at age six, and has since published more than 200 books that have sold millions of copies worldwide in over two dozen languages, and won dozens of writing and gaming awards. Ed has judged the World Fantasy Awards and the Sunburst Awards, hosted radio shows, acted onstage, explored caves, jousted, and been Santa Claus (but not all on the same day). His upcoming books include The Herald from Wizards of the Coast, and The Iron Assassin, a steampunk novel from Tor Books.

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TESS 18: At what stage in the development of Forgotten Realms did the pantheon of gods begin to take shape?  Did you create it in a deliberate, organized way, or did it grow as you told more and more stories?

A: Both (that is, it grew for a tiny bit at the outset, story by story, then I sat down and organized everything, then it went along for some years until I adopted the D&D® game for use in the Realms (1978), and then got redeveloped in light of the game needs. The story of how I redeveloped the pantheon is told in issue #54 of DRAGON Magazine (or “The Dragon,” as it was back then). So I began with my story needs for deities (I needed good, bad, and neutral, plus portfolios; that is, a god of the forest, a god of storms, a god of war, and so on) and later added game needs (I needed a balanced pantheon of deities representing all of the D&D® game alignments of the time “equally,” so greater gods, lesser gods, and demigods of every alignment flavour). I needed alliances and enmities among the gods, and I needed TOO MANY gods in the setting for every game player to memorize everything about them, to encourage roleplaying (and not metagaming based in what players had memorized).

So some gods spent years of real time more or less as placeholders, and developed as I went along (the Forgotten Realms® began in 1966, when I was six years old, well before the D&D® game first appeared in 1973, as a setting for my fantasy stories). Some of the non-human pantheon gods were developed after the Realms was a published game setting, and other designers introduced new gods (Cyric) and killed off existing ones (notably during the Time of Troubles).

TESS 18: Did the gods come first, or were their Chosen your focus?  ie: did you come up with Elminster first, then create Mystra?

 A: Mortal characters first, always, then the flavor of the world determined the nature/“character” of individual gods of the various portfolios (i.e. magic was all pervasive in the Realms, so Mystra was, too). For game reasons I needed clerics/priests of every god, but from the start every mortal in all of the Realms “believed in” ALL of the gods. They might primarily venerate one, especially if they were clergy or paladins, but only the insane believed there were no gods, or that there was only one god and all others were false. (I tell real-world players who are strong in their faith that all of the deities are aspects of one true deity that mortals cannot perceive, if that makes the Realms more comfortable for them.)

Although many players seem to prefer having one god for their character, in the Realms all intelligent beings believe in all the gods, and pray to many. For instance, Larendrelle the Jeweler will pray and make offerings to Waukeen for mercantile prosperity and Tymora for good luck often, but if she must make a sea voyage, she’ll pray to Umberlee the sea goddess, Talos the god of storms, Shaundakul the god of wayfarers, and so on.

In my original Realms, only Mystra had Chosen who had any of her divine power (the “silver fire”). All other Chosen were mortals given one or two limited powers (like the ability to fly, or become invisible, or blast things, all for short periods/limited “shots”) in order to fulfill a task important to the god endowing them with those powers. When other designers and fiction writers started working in the Realms, they decided to make full-fledged “Chosen” of every deity (something I regard as something of an unfortunate “arms race”). Mystra’s Chosen were severely limited by the deity in what they were allowed to do; in the hands of other writers, other Chosen became superhero-like brawlers. (Not necessarily inferior to my original concept of the Realms, just different.)

TESS 18: How deeply did you study the religions of our world to create your pantheons?  From which traditions beyond Tolkien did you draw?

A: I read voraciously from a very early age, devouring EVERYTHING in my father’s den, from highly technical radar physics manuals to cheesy pulp adventure yarns. It all became grist for my mill. Modern fantasy is rooted in Tolkien, but Lin Carter was republishing all of the elder fantasy classics at the time (Lord Dunsany, William Morris, Beckford, et al) and Howard, Seabury Quinn, Lovecraft, Harold Lamb, Talbot Mundy, and Edgar Rice Burroughs were all being republished, too, not to mention being pastiched by younger writers. I read it all. I have also worked in public libraries from a young age to date, and dipped in to everything. Philosophy and comparative religion were party of my university studies, and I’d already waded through both, not to mention many books on folklore, fairy tales, apocrypha, and the like, in my father’s endless library.

The Realms actually began as a setting for fantasy short stories starring the wheezing, fat old Mirt the Moneylender, a character rooted in Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Guy Gilpatrick’s Glencannon, and Poul Anderson’s Nicholas van Rijn; I was inspired to do such episodic stories by reading Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Mouser tales in FANTASTIC magazine, not Tolkien. Reading The Lord of the Rings inspired me to create a vast and deeply detailed world in which adventures mattered (changed things within the world), so I knew “the Sword Coast” (which I was developing story by story, as Mirt fled one port city a step ahead of rivals or the authorities and journeyed to the next one, destined to do such flits all over again) was part of a larger world I would detail in time. Forty-eight years later, I’m still hard at work on exploring and detailing the Realms.

 

TESS 18:  A centerpiece of Forgotten Realms Dungeons and Dragons is that male and female characters are equal in skills.  How do the balances of power among the gods and goddess you created support that?

 A: Although my own preferred approach to divine beings is to keep them as mysterious as possible, with cryptic altar utterances and “dream visions” and manifestations (apparitions visible to all that can involve vocal utterances and the movement or even appearance and disappearance of items, e.g. offerings “fade away” from an altar and an item is left in their place), many D&D® gamers want to fight the gods, become gods, and treat the gods very much as the Greeks regarded theirs in “classical” times: super-humans, with exaggerated human emotions, foibles, and behaviors. As designer after designer handled the gods of the Realms in this way, I found it vital to emphasize aspects of the gods I wanted to see reflected in the setting: that sex, crying, and judgment by achievement and ideas rather than gender are all more open in the Realms than in, say, modern-day real-world North America. Certain designers have, consciously or subconsciously, killed off strong female characters in positions of power and replaced them with male ones; I often work to counter that with my own substitutions. What’s become most clear to me is that nothing, the gods in particular, should be or seem frozen and unchanging; everything should be dynamic and evershifting, with marriages, alliances, the rearing of progeny, and the like occurring all the time among the gods. So I have worked to have dynamic female deities “on the move” in the movers-and-shakers sense, rather than relegating them to nurturing mother roles (aside from Chauntea and Eldath, who ARE nurturing mothers). So we have Sune and Sharess and Loviatar and Red Knight and Eilistraee and and Tymora and Sêlune and Shar very much expressing (varying aspects of) femininity, and being very “active” goddesses. I set things up so that the female deities are vital to the pantheon and are always in the thick of things, so they just can’t be ignored or easily or casually sidelined.

 

TESS 18: Since the gods and goddesses of Toril directly interact with humans, do you consider belief to still be a part of the religions of Forgotten Realms?

 A: Certainly. However, there’s a difference between “belief” and “faith.” Faith is what we need in real-world situations where the gods and goddesses don’t personally appear in front of us and do things; we have to believe in them without direct empirical evidence, and that’s “faith.”

Belief in a deity is dead easy when deities walk among us (or we hear amid the “current clack” of passing news and rumors of their deeds, manifestations, and decrees, daily), but belief is more than just accepting that something divine exists. It’s believing in the ethos and aims of a deity, that living one’s mortal life as the deity prefers (or making the right moral choices when balancing between the various desires of different deities in the Realms, because every mortal believes in all of them, but chooses their own path through life, in an endless drifting closer to or farther from this or that deity) is desirable and “right.”

Unthinking obedience, or obedience out of abject fear, may well exist for some individuals in the Realms, but in fictional protagonists and Player Characters (and major NPCs) in the game, I want life to be that endless series of moral choices – – just as, ideally, real lives are lived. So there’s belief in causes, greater goods/benefits, moral codes and decisions that are “right” (and I want fiction and game experiences to focus on them), not mere belief in the existence of a god.

TESS 18: The worship of a dead god whose power still has influence is pretty complex from a theological perspective.  In Forgotten Realms, the Dead Three are directly associated with evil.  What does it say about a character when they worship a dead god?

A: From the outset, I postulated that the divine strength of a deity (their “blasting power,” if you will) is directly linked to the amount of influence they have in the mortal world. In other words, the more worshippers you as a god have, and what you have those worshippers do (and therefore how fully and in what manner you exploit your divine portfolio as god of war or god of cheese or whatever), determines your strength.

This makes mortals, mortal worship and belief (and here I mean belief as in how utterly loyal mortals will be to you; how much they trust you) vitally important to all deities; it forces them to interact with mortals rather than aloofly ignoring them.

Moreover, gods may be killed, but they are never really dead as long as at least one mortal worships them (and a murmured prayer or even an oath, and a “sign to ward off evil” when entering the ruins of a temple to a dead god, are all worship; it doesn’t require organized clergy with lots of temples and offerings and a detailed creed).

As longtime game designer Jeff Grubb once put it, “In the Realms, death is not necessarily a career-ender; it’s more often a career-changer.”

Moreover, when gods “go down,” other deities may step in, overtly or in the guise of the dead god, to continue to provide spells to priests of the dead god and give them guidance – – so as to gain influence in the mortal world by controlling the clergy and devout faithful of the dead god (in the same way that a real-world general commands their army but may hire mercenaries to acquire greater battlefield strength). Most of the human dead gods are associated with evil (Moander as well as the Dead Three), but not all, and in truth the history of deities in the Realms is a continual flux of interloper gods arriving from other settings, gods rising and falling in power and redefining their portfolios, dying and coming back, and so on. Some of the gods (Jergal, Lathander/Aumanator) are meant to be mysterious in their actions, so mortals (even priests who directly serve these deities) argue heatedly about why the god did thus and so, and “what they’re up to.” So a character worshipping a dead god might be a nihilist, but not necessarily. One could view them as having the strongest faith of all, because they believe the god will “return to life and power,” even if not in their own lifetime, and are willing to support them.

For me, as the creator of, and most active long-term designer in, the Realms, it’s all about providing the maximum number of moral choices for players and their characters.

 

TESS 18: What is the importance to you of strong factions of defined good, evil, and neutrality in fiction?

A: The presence of active factions or power groups or cabals, and the shifting relationships and conflicts between them, are among the most useful tools a storyteller (either a fiction writer or a game designer) can have at their disposal. If the purpose at hand is to tell a moral tale, identifying those factions strongly with good, evil, or neutrality is useful. If you want to smash evil, it’s very satisfying to have EVIL, bold and big and clearly labeled, for you to battle. In real-life and in most long-term roleplaying game campaign play, shades of gray to everything are more useful and more desirable, allowing more complex moral choices, and exploration of the eternal dilemmas (“Do the ends justify the means?” and “What is one life worth, balanced against X?” and “Is it better to be more efficient/brutal/trampling of liberties but achieve a goal faster?”or “Go slowly and gently and with more regard for liberties, but waste X much more because we were slow, and end up achieving the goal far more slowly or even impartially?” [debates we see in the real world regarding everything from global warming/greenhouse gases, smoking, and seat belt use]).

So the importance of factions of defined good and evil and neutrality, to me, depends on what I’m trying to achieve in a particular fiction project. Tolkien had no overt religion (no temples or priesthoods), but had a titanic clash between clearly-defined good and evil, and more close-up and personal examinations of technology and despoiling versus the good local rural life, in the Shire – – and how participating in those clashes (the Ring bearers, how Merry and Pippin were changed by “going off to foreign parts and fighting”) changes the participants.

Most of the time, my needs and preferences are for shades of gray for everyone, so we can see how power corrupts, and see villains who believe they are doing right, not just villains who twirl their mustaches and glory in the evil they’re consciously doing.

 

TESS 18: Apotheosis can and does happen in Toril.  How do you think the ability to become a god affects a fictional society?

A: It certainly gives Type-A individuals an overarching career path. :}

The important point for me, when creating the Realms and in maintaining it since, was to base everything in personal achievement, NOT predestiny. Otherwise, heroism and moral choice go out the window, and mortals become pawns following a script, not individuals responsible for their own actions and choices.

The foundation of any belief system is hope. That’s what underlies buying lottery tickets and season tickets to perennially losing sports franchises (hello, Maple Leaf fans) and, yes, religion. One way to foster hope is to believe in just rewards in an afterlife. Another is to cleave to the notion that one day Deity X will deliver us to the promised land, or fix Y, or cleanse Z. Yet another is “knowing” that some mortals rise to the ranks of godhood, “make it,” if you will. That on rare occasions, the lottery can be won, and the downtrodden who grumble about how they’d fix things if they just had the chance, get that chance. And that the gods have at least “one of us” among them, and therefore must understand us (and so are worthy of our worship). That underlying knowledge can’t help but have a profound effect on society. Trust in the gods is increased, powerful mortals do things to try to leave a legacy, and individuals lay down their lives for causes, their family or tribe or a dream, and so on. (Which in turn allows me to write about more magnificent moments of character sacrifice and noble actions.)

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Join us as we continue the discussion about Religion and Belief in Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms below.