“The Night Sessions” by Ken MacLeod – Reading the British Science Fiction Association Awards – 2008

I continue to search for ways to expand my sci-fi/fantasy reading, and decided that alongside my Hugo Award list I’d start reading the winners of the British Science Fiction Association Award. I’m not reading them in any particular order, just as whatever strikes my fancy.

The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

I cannot adequately describe how much I adored this book. It basically has everything that I love mashed into one fantastic plot. There are robots/AI, there is a murder mystery in a sci-fi setting, there are deep explorations of faith and religion, alongside questions of church/state relations. MacLeod demonstrates surprising insight and understanding of creationist movements as well, such that I, with my background as a young earth creationist (now a theistic evolutionist/evolutionary creationist, depending on which terminology you prefer), was totally engrossed from the get-go. MacLeod wrote a book with some insanely niche interest focus to it, but that niche happens to be basically me, and 100% me. And I could not put this down.

The plot is fantastic. It is engrossing. It starts off with a murder of a priest, and this is a problem because Earth has had some massive religious wars (The Faith Wars, of which it seems 9/11 was just the beginning) that has led to some radically different ways of dealing with religion generally in different countries. Where we are in this book, Edinburgh, Scotland, the way it is dealt with is by keeping intense separation of church and state, such that people’s religious backgrounds aren’t really even allowed to be referenced in official government inquiries (which leads to some awkward discussions about people’s titles and what they mean as our detective hero and AI bot pal go about their investigation).

We follow Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson as he investigates these murders. He’s a deep character, with antipathy towards religion–especially fundamentalism–while also carrying his own shame from how he helped brutally suppress religion during the Faith Wars. It is this latter aspect that truly adds to the complexity of character as well as the complexity of the plot. Some may see the premise of this book and dismiss it as an anti-religious propaganda piece. Others might actually see the premise and go the other way. But what MacLeod does here is balances these two extremes of anti- and pro-religion and shows how it is ideology, the type of ideology that matters. When religion is bent to extremism that leads to violence, that is a terrible thing. But the violence of the Nation State is itself a damaging, harmful thing. The complexity is woven throughout the fabric of a plot that is never compromised for the sake of an agenda.

There is so much happening in this book, and MacLeod shows immense talent for both breadth and depth of intensely important topics. The book ultimately plays out as a condemnation of fundamentalism of any sort–whether religious or not–and does so in ways that are intensely, deeply human despite sometimes playing out through AI controlled robots. Throughout the work there are questions related to creationism, church-state relations, and the deep psychological harm that can be done by violent acts–even ones that one believes were justified. The Night Sessions is a superb work that stands as one of my all-time favorites. I very highly recommend it.



J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Read along as I read every Hugo Award winner and nominee! Sci-fi/fantasy is the name of the game.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!


Vintage Sci-Fi Month: “Past Master” by R.A. Lafferty

January is Vintage Sci-Fi Month and I’m hoping to feature a number of looks at vintage sci-fi I’m reading for the month to spur some discussion and hear your thoughts! Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty

I’ve never read a work by Lafferty before this one, though he was recommended to me time and again. One of the foibles of loving books so much is that you sometimes think you know better than other people do about what you may enjoy. My apologies to all who recommended Lafferty–I should have dived in the first time his name came up!  I was absolutely blown away by Past Master. I wish I’d read it earlier.

This novel is dense. Though it’s short, I could hardly believe it only weighed in around 190 pages when I looked it up online. The book took me as long to read as most 400+ page novels do, largely because I found myself so drawn into the premise, prose, and symbolism found throughout. There’s no question here that Lafferty has steeped this book in layers upon layers of meaning, to the point that unpacking it all would take quite a bit of study. Whether it’s the play upon “Evita” (Lilith? Eve? Someone else?), the way Lafferty interconnects discussions of Utopia with questions about the soul, or how dreams play out in faster-than-light travel, there are so many rabbit trails one could follow in this novel that reading it sometimes felt like work at times. But the work was enjoyable–like the work where you don’t want to stop. You’re loving it, and you’re good at it, and it’s got to be done!

There are whole scenes in this novel that had me re-reading them in order to try to pick up on more strands of meaning. One scene has Thomas More… wait, what? Yes, I forgot to mention that Thomas More–the one who wrote Utopia and was executed for not recognizing the annulment of King Henry’s marriage–is one of the main characters in the book. Let’s step back. The plot has Thomas More get fetched from his own time before his death to help rescue a future Utopia, but the inhabitants of the future Utopia apparently don’t realize that More’s Utopia was more a biting satire in Lafferty’s vision than it was a goal for a future society. Anyway, there’s a scene where Thomas More is confronted by a beautiful woman who tries to seduce him, apparently wanting to seduce a Saint, and More and her get in a lengthy conversation about the meaning of her name, Evita, and whether she is like Eve, the mother of life, or a Lilith-like seductress and wicked person, largely based upon her name. Twists and turns come fast and hard in the conversation, and it is a delight–especially for me as someone who knows a decent amount of church history and has studied Greek/Hebrew (only the basics!). Scenes like that, though, are found throughout the book.

There’s no question that Lafferty is offering the book as his own form of social commentary. Is a utopia with all needs met worth selling souls for? What is the church to become or do in such a society? What might Thomas More think of applying his thought to a real world situation? Mis-applying it? Is Lafferty really just making one extended commentary and pushback on Vatican II, as the introduction to the version I read briefly suggested? These questions warred in my consciousness while I read the book, though they never took away the enjoyment I had throughout, they simply added to it. Lafferty’s prose style is also great. As I said, it’s dense, but it also manages to be lyrical at times and full of wonder throughout.

Past Master is one of those novels that you read and realize it’s going to stick with you for a long time. I am so happy I finally got around to reading it, and I recommend it highly to you, fellow sci-fi/fantasy lovers! Heck, even if you don’t really care about sci-fi/fantasy, it’s a great read and occasional exploration of religious/science themes and more. Go read it!


J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!


Donald R. Prothero’s “The Story of Life in 25 Fossils” and the evidence for evolution

Credit: Wikimedia Commons- H. Raab (User: Vesta)

I come from a background that was young earth creationist and have gone on a very lengthy journey that went from young earth creationist to theistic evolutionist to old earth creationist (a long time) to tentative endorsement of Intelligent Design and back to theistic evolution/evolutionary creation. In other words, I’ve thought about this a lot. I have several shelves dedicated to books on the topic, and have cycled my share of them through the shelf as well, updating to the latest or most interesting ones as I discovered them. I’m very thankful that I had friends who, despite being creationists themselves, spoke kindly to me as I began to explore this issue and were able to help me out of my crisis of faith when I became convinced geological history could not be contained in 6-10,000 years. So yes, I remain a Christian, and yes, I am convinced of the truth of evolution. One question I get asked about this “Why? Why believe that evolution is true?” I present here one of the several reasons I changed my mind. I write this with the caveat that I am not an expert in this field and am presenting the evidence as well as I can.

Interpreting Fossil Evidence

One of the most famous photographs of a fossil is that of archaeopteryx. Its strange shape captures the eye. The way its neck is twisted in death. The pronounced, clawed “fingers” coming from wings. Wings? Yes, there they are, writ plain in stone: feathers on this clearly dinosuar-looking specimen. Now, some will immediately scoff. After all, haven’t some scientists said that archaeopteryx is not a transitional form between birds and dinosaurs? Yes, so far as I can tell, some have said that. But what such a reaction does not account for is that what this means is that some scientists are saying that archaeopteryx cannot be established as the ancestor of living birds today. That does not mean that it is not a transitional form. Indeed, looking at such a fossil, one can’t help but see it as a pretty powerful example of a bird-dinosaur. I use this example because it illustrates a few of the errors I myself fell into. The first is overconfidence. It was pretty remarkable for me to think that just because I read that some scientists disagree with one interpretation of the significance of a fossil, I could reject the significance of it altogether. Second, it shows the kind of whack-a-mole strategy I and others use(d) to interact with evidence for evolution. Rather than viewing the evidence as a totality, it was much easier to dissect individual pieces and try to poke holes in specific, single strands of evidence. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it illustrates the error of thinking that if a series of steps A through Z cannot be known to the extent that every letter is put in exacting order, the series itself is rejected. That is, not being able to say with certainty whether D came before or after E along that chain of evidences does not entail that there is no chain. It simply means we may have uncertainty regarding specific steps along the chain.

Specific Fossil Evidence

Enter Prothero, and others. Donald R. Prothero’s book, The Story of Life in 25 Fossils is a powerful, accessible account of how 25 famous fossils illustrate the truth of evolution throughout life’s history. Each of the 25 stories of fossils, their discoveries, and how they can be shown to be in a web of life is fascinating. Here, I’d like to highlight a few that I think serve to illustrate the powerful evidence for evolution.


Yeah, that’s right. I’m going back to the one I already mentioned. Why? Because Archaeopteryx is really just the first of the many, many examples we have of feathered fossils that help illustrate the steps along the way from dinosaur to bird. It would be one thing if that famous bird-reptile were all we had to go on, but the fact is that there are many, many other fossils that have been discovered. Archaeopteryx is just the most famous. But when you start to put these fossils alongside each toher, and line them up with a skeleton of a modern pigeon, for example, you can observe the clear anatomical features that each illustrates. It’s not just feathers, but the elongated fingers of the archaeopteryx and the way they appear to be just a longer version of those same features on dinosaurs like orintholestes. But these are not the only examples, Sinosauropteryx is another example of a feathered dinosaur that exhibits features that would later be found on birds. Yutyrannus has direct evidence of feathers, but also has indirect evidence for a tongue like that of modern birds. The stunning images of preserved Confuciusornis can’t help but call to mind crows and other bids, despite it still having dinosaur-like forelimbs. The more and more fossils are found, and modern technology can analyze their feathers and compare them to modern birds, demonstrating several stages to get to the feathers birds use to fly in the skies of our own time.

Indeed, looking at modern birds, one sees the scales on their feet. Look at the talons of raptors today, and one can see the evidence of transition on their feet, the scales that cover them and their shape, and then look at fossilized dinosaur skin or the way theropod dinosaur feet are shaped. I once wrote this off as God using a good design multiple times, but that again illustrates the error of trying to explain individual features rather than looking at a holistic picture. Looking at the whole, and observing the many fossils that have been found since the famous archaeopteryx, one cannot help but see the evidence for a series of life forms that transitioned from dinosaur to bird.


Some of the most striking evidence for evolution requires a literal digging (har har). This kind of evidence isn’t flashy; it isn’t the kind of fossil photograph you’ll see on the news, but it is significant, convincing evidence nonetheless. Think about the turtle. It’s not that exciting, but there are a lot of (slow-)moving parts that have to get pieced together to make the turtle work. A retractable neck, a shell for protection, a way to eat–these are just some of them. But how did turtles get a shell? It’s the kind of absurdist story creationists put forward to try to discredit evolution. One day, a reptile of some sort lays an egg, and out pops a creature with a shell! Impossible! Yes, of course it is. But that doesn’t mean a number of gradual steps could not have gotten from shell-less creature to one with a shell. And that is the kind of evidence we do have.

Odontochelys is not going to win beauty pageants. It looks like roadkill in fossil form, and artist depictions don’t make it look that much better. But when you look at the bone structure you can see it there as plain as day: a prototype shell, but one that only covers the bottom of the creature. It is something like a halfway point to the turtle. Prothero notes that the creature provides the answer to the question “How could turtles have evolved from no shell to a full shell?” (148). The way this happened, scientists think, is through the expansion of ribs on the back of the proto-turtle into a shell to protect from predators. Odontochelys essentially shows this in process and mostly settled the debate over where the shell came from. Indeed, tying it together with Eunotosaurus, one can see the same back ribs in transition at an earlier stage. Another fascinating feature of Odo (sorry, had to sneak a Star Trek reference in somewhere) is that it has teeth in the beak still, showing both features of a turtle (beak) and earlier creatures (teeth). It truly is a remarkable discovery because it appears to be a real transitional halfway point between earlier reptiles and turtles. Just think about it abstractly. Strip away the knee-jerk reaction to try to explain away fossils and really look at it. It would be hard to ask for a better transitional fossil.


The evolution of whales from walking relatives is one that I fought against intellectually for a while. It just seemed like an absurdist story: life emerged from the water, dominated the land, and then decides to crawl back into the oceans? Ridiculous! I spent quite a while looking over creationist literature on this and laughing about the silliness of evolutionary explanations. Then, I decided to read “the other side” because I wanted to write about it myself. I was astonished. The pictures of a walking mammal gradually lengthening a snout, shifting to flippers, elongating the tail, etc. weren’t just conjured out of nothing. They were based on actual fossil evidence scientists have found. And that fossil evidence shows significant evidence for the lineage of whales over time.

Ambulocetus is special because it shows the increase in size from the earlier specimens, the long toothy snout similar to early whales, ears more suited to being in the water, long fingers and toes that possibly had webbing, and a spine that was able to undulate up and down similar to some whales (275-277). These features place it fairly well between earlier walking creatures and later swimming creatures. It shows features of both, and is a kind of halfway point between the walking mammals earlier and the later whales. Discoveries like Rodhocetus helped solidify that evidence, showing the elongation of the snout that continued towards what whales had/have as well as a tail that was better suited to helping steer in the water. It is just the kind of step-by-step process that is often challenged to be presented in creationist literature, but it has been found! Again, I doubted this sequence very much, in part because I was assured by some creationist literature that such a sequence was purely speculative (with the implication that the fossils didn’t exist) and in part because it just seemed kind of silly (creatures emerged from the water only to return?). But the fossil evidence is quite strong on this lineage and it’s astonishing to see creatures like Gaviocetus that continue the trend. Creationist literature disparages the fossil evidence due to some aspects of it being inference, but the fossils that have been found demonstrate the features in a convincing line of change from walking to swimming. It’s a fascinating look at the evidence for evolution.

Now What?

Okay, so I affirm evolution and I have presented some evidence I think is convincing. But why am I a Christian still? There are many, many answers for that and they’d largely center around theological reasons, but speaking specifically on this issue, the fact is that from before evolution was ever a theory through its earliest genesis in intellectual circles and beyond, Christians have struggled with and debated the topic. It is just false to think no Christians immediately embraced evolution, as many did and saw it as evidence for God’s sustaining providence in all things. George Frederick Wright (1838-1921) is one who noted this synergy and argued against those who charged him with affirming deism, for example. Christianity and evolution are not enemies. Each has evidence to support it and reasons to believe it, and together they form a powerful way of understanding the world.

“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight- A prophet for then and now

[H]e is the lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins. –Frederick Douglass (quoted on p. 361)

Frederick Douglass is one of the most important thinkers in the history of the United States. David W. Blight’s fantastic biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom shows the man in a way I hadn’t met him before, despite reading one of his three (!) autobiographies. I write in this post that he is a prophet for then and now because much of what Douglass had to say can still apply to today. His philosophical insight, his way of speaking, and his life’s devotion to a cause are things we can think on and emulate to this day.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, took help where he could, taught himself to read and write, and escaped from slavery. He became one of the most traveled people of his century, a prolific speaker, writer, abolitionist, and philosopher. Blight uses the term “prophet” in the way that highlights Douglass’s words to moral persuasion, just as so many of the Old Testament prophets did. And Douglass was a deeply Christian man who saw two faiths that were incompatible co-existing in the United States: the religion of slaveholding and the religion of Christ.

Douglass existed in a place where few others did. A former slave, he told firsthand accounts of the brutality of that horrific system and its injustice. Working with white abolitionists, he favored more radical views and even, at times, the perfectionism of some aspects of the abolitionist movement, while also moderating some of his positions depending upon the crowd to which he spoke. An insightful, lucid thinker, he called injustice to account and pointed out the true hypocrisy of people calling themselves Christians while perpetrating awful deeds. One example of the clarity of thought he provided united with his “radical” persuasions about antislavery can be found in his philosophical argument about the morality of the slaveholder and slave: “The morality of a free society can have no application to slave society. Slaveholders have made it almost impossible for the slave to commit any crime, known either to the laws of God or to the laws of man. If he steals, he takes his own; if he kills his master, he imitates only the heroes of the revolution” (quoted on page 57). This kind of sharp logic is revolutionary and world-changing, and many saw it as such.

Douglass’s life would be impossible to summarize here. Blight’s biography is one of those which goes for a fairly comprehensive look at the life of its subject. A few notes along the way: Douglass reacted to and changed his view on some things over time. His bootstrap-type thinking for African Americans was moderated in later years as he saw how inequality could be enforced through Jim Crow laws and the like. He married a white woman after his first wife died, causing no small amount of controversy and showing his–and Helen Pitts’s–commitment to the equality of all people regardless of skin color. He leveled vicious attacks on slaveholders and their cruelty but later in life moderated some of these claims, perhaps in order to try to assist with the reunification of a country he saw as died and resurrected after the Civil War. There is no shortage of rich detail to his life. Blight points out how Douglass was, as any would be, prone to shaping his personal narrative to fit current needs. He was also one who enjoyed the spotlight and did not wish to cede it to other rising stars, though he did help mentor many African Americans and was generous with his often overestimated wealth.

Though Blight does little reflection on Douglass’s application to our day, the parallels could be drawn out. For one, racism continues to exist to this day. Organizations that are white nationalist, KKK, and the like continue to exist. Less overt racism continues in supposed color-blind laws that are unequally applied. Moreover, the co-existence of true faith–the faith in Christ–with radical heresy and anti-Christian beliefs continues to this day in movements like the Prosperity Gospel. Any Christianity which tears people down rather than freeing them with grace, which divides rather than unites (as in Galatians 3:28) is a Christianity without Christ. Let us allow Douglass to continue to be our prophet of freedom and listen to his words today.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is a truly monumental work on the life of a monumental human being. Douglass is a name that every American ought to be familiar with. He was a prophet of our country and one whose words should continue to stir us to fight inequality on every level. Biographies that truly shake and shape the reader are few and far between, but this is one that did so for me.


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“Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal” by Aviva Chomsky- immigration, legal status, and personhood

Immigration is an extremely messy issue. Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, “law and order” has been a cover for making the “other” unwanted and “illegal.” Every human being has basic human rights. Those do not need to be earned. Aviva Chomsky’s book, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal provides both historical background to how immigration came to be viewed in such a negative light as it now is as well as arguments for the basic human rights and dignity of all.

Chomsky provides historical data to understand how immigration became illegal. This is extremely valuable and important because too often, people just say that their ancestors came to the United States the “right way” and make the assumption the process was similar to what it is today. However, there was very little regulation of immigration whatsoever until racial bias began to lead to quotas for people coming in. The Chinese were some of the earliest people targeted, as exceptions and quotas were made to prevent Chinese from becoming citizens. Mexicans were, historically, another national group that was seen either as non-immigrants (not because they were here illegally–no laws governed such migration until relatively recently–but because it was simply taken as a given Mexicans would not stay in the United States) or as a group to be suppressed in its immigration status. Nationality was used to allow for colorblind laws that would simply restrict immigration on one’s nation. As Chomsky writes, “Once status is inscribed in the law, this becomes an automatic justification for inequality: ‘it’s the law!'” (25). The movement to national exclusion of immigrants allowed racist policies to be enshrined in law. After all, countries are not races. Once race could no longer be allowed to deny citizenship, “nationality stood in for it, and citizens of countries like China lost their right to immigrate” (35).

Laws had to be made in order to restrict immigration. Chomsky notes the inequality of movement of people: a United States citizen can, generally, get their passport and unlock travel to virtually any country in the world. Some travel may require a visa with an extra fee, but there aren’t many total restrictions on travel. Contrast this with attempting to enter the United States: here, we have laws that restrict people of other nationalities from entering our country. Similarly, though Chomsky’s book was written before the current administration under President Trump, there have been arguments for and actions banning travel to the United States purely based upon one’s religion. Such restrictions are social, legal constructs that allow the definition of human beings to be tied to national or religious affiliation. Feasibly, this could be expanded almost indefinitely. Thus, immigration law is not an unchanging, immutable thing but rather something that has changed and continues to change. It is mistaken simply to write off the “other” as illegal or even as “other” purely based on laws that have not even been in effect for more than a few decades.

Chomsky delves into the questions related to undocumented status and alleged eligibility for various benefits (it is almost certainly more complex than any reader may think). Then, she moves into undocumented status and working. What is of interest is that labor laws that target undocumented immigrants has, in several cases, led to economic hardship. The exploitation of undocumented laborers helps drive the standard of living citizens of the United States have become used to. One example is in agriculture. “Farm work is so marginal, strenuous, and low paid, that if workers achieve legal status, they quickly move to other sectors… True, for many Mexicans… low-wage, temporary, migrant labor in the United States offers a viable or even hopeful alternative to poverty at home. But this merely means that the US agricultural system depends upon the existence of a lot of extremely poor people in Mexico” (127-128). Furthermore, by making migrant workers “illegal,” this allows citizens of the United States to benefit from their low-cost labor while also not having to provide them with any benefits in turn. “Although the current system benefits many people in the United States, we must also recognize its fundamental injustice and think seriously about how it works and what steps could make it more just. If immigrants are being exploited by the current system, and if undocumentedness is one of the concepts that sustains inequality and unjust treatment, then we need to question undocumentedness itself” (150).

The impact of immigration laws and changing ideals about documentation has tremendous impact on families as well, dividing families and forcing cruelty upon some of the people in the greatest need. The laws that exist in our present situation have come from both Republicans and Democrats, so neither party can claim a high moral ground when it comes to immigration reform. However, such reform is needed, and Chomsky provides several suggestions. Comprehensive reform is a difficult goal to aim for, but Chomsky suggests we ought to instead perhaps question the very basis for immigration law to begin with. A longer quote helps illustrate her points:

[W]e have become accustomed to the notion that controlling the border is a basic prerequisite for security, safety, and sovereignty… The entire immigration apparatus is based on the presumption that we know where people belong and we need to legislate their mobility.
It’s also based on some unquestioned assumptions about countries. It is not OK for a public park… to discriminate regarding who is allowed to enter its space. But it’s OK for a country to do that… US immigration laws do just that: discriminate, on the basis of nationality, regarding who is allowed to be where.
If we really want to address the problem of undocumentedness, or so-called “illegal” immgiration, we need to look more in depth at why the United States made some immigration illegal to begin with… It’s just the latest stage in a centuries-long process of legislated inequality, a process both global and domestic. (205-206)

That is, we need to question the very basis for the need for such strong immigration laws rather than accept public assumptions about them. Reform includes a reformation of our minds and thoughts: a questioning of assumptions and looking at facts instead. Since immigration does contribute to our economy in numerous ways (some of which Chomsky documents), we ought to question why there is such a push to restrict it. “In the most immediate terms, we as a society created illegal immigration by making immigration illegal” (208). Is such a move actually something that is necessary? If so, why? These questions need to be answered not by knee-jerk reactions or platitudes such as “a nation without borders is no nation.” After all, nations may still have borders while allowing for immigration. The United States managed to do so all the way until 1882 when immigration laws targeted Chinese people!

Undocumented is a book that is worth reading no matter your political persuasion. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have offered a holistic view of personhood that allows us to adequately view the rights of all humans as equal. This is something we ought to address. Particularly for Christians, there is no question that all people are equal and deserving of our protection. Chomsky has provided historical perspective and even a way forward in thinking on this complex issue.


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“The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas- Reading the Classics

I have decided to mix in some classics with my constant reading of sci-fi/fantasy, philosophy, theology, and biographies. In order to pick which classics to read, I have largely crowdsourced recommendations of which classic literature they have enjoyed, combining this with lists of major classic works. So yeah, pretty subjective, but we can deal. As I read through the classics, there will be SPOILERS, because I want to actually talk about them. Maybe it will encourage you to read them, or, if you have read them already, you can join in a deeper discussion of these great works. Feel free to recommend your favorites, as well.

The Count of Monte Cristo

Several friends had recently talked about finishing this book and how much they enjoyed it. I also recalled seeing the recent-ish movie several years ago (though, having finished the book, I threw it on hold at the library, so I’ll be watching it again!). Also, there’s a delicious sandwich that I at least assume got its name from this book, which makes it even better. But other than these fleeting glimpses, I knew pretty much nothing about Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo going in. The memory of the movie had faded, and I just recalled there was some guy who wanted revenge. Yeah, there’s a lot more to the novel than that.

The Count of Monte Cristo is, on the surface level, a novel of vindication and revenge. It’s an adventure that spans more than a thousand pages. Yet it remains a page-turner that demands to be devoured in sitting after sitting. But on the deeper level, it is a fantastically Christian look at the world and God’s action therein.

The set up for the plot involves the man who would be the count getting set up by several who wish him ill for various reasons. But throughout even that section, “Providence” is constantly in view. Providence is historically one way people talked about divine activity in the world, so the reader is led to see Dumas’s viewpoint as having a divine hand in many acts. And, indeed, as our lead character begins his quest for vindication and vengeance, bringing blessings and curses upon those who helped or hindered him, we as readers cannot help but associate his actions with those of God. We want the Count to succeed in his quest for revenge; it is so well planned, and he has become a man of almost limitless poise and focus. It is not until the count has one part of his vengeance go “too far” that he starts to have second thoughts.

These second thoughts translate into an awareness that our Count’s activity is not just the hand of God acting. Though we as readers have been rooting for him throughout, it becomes clearer that the assumptions we’ve made about how the story is going are wrong. It’s as though Dumas played into our expectations, allowing us to think that, perhaps, here is the kind of “divine vending machine” that we so often wish to turn God into. Here, in at least this story, God is working in the way that we want, dispensing a kind of hard justice on wrongdoing and giving great benefit to those who deserve it. But our Count realizes that this is not, in fact, what is happening. His own actions have been, well, his own. Has he been aided by God? Yes, in the sense that his endeavors could not have all succeeded without some acts of Providence. But he has presumed too much. Like Job in the Bible, he has questioned God; nay, he has gone farther and turned himself into the hand of God, dishing out vengeance and blessing as he wished. And his actions have led to a great wrong with the death of innocents.

So Dumas asks us to take ourselves back out of the shoes of the Count, to stop assuming that we know what is supposed to happen. Instead, he has lured us into this complacency, thinking we know how things ought to be, when instead we should be approaching the acts of God with fear and trembling, carefully avoiding the notion that we can make God act in the ways we desire. Hidden in plain sight within this apparent adventure novel, we have a serious theological commentary that forces us to re-examine who God is and how God acts. How often we make God into what we want, thinking we can control God! Yet here we see how foolish that is, and how we must once again evaluate the assumptions we have made.

So apart from this deep theological discussion, is there a good book? Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. The novel is so well written. I found it un-put-down-able. It’s a true page turner even at its doorstop-like heft. The story is full of beautiful description and overflowing with heart and depth.

There is far more that I could say about The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s such a phenomenal achievement. It definitely stands among my favorite works of all time, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to you, dear readers.


J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!


Movie Review: “Ben Hur” (2016 version)

ben-hur-2016Let’s get this out of the way: this is not the same “Ben Hur” as was found in the wonderful version acted by Charlton Heston. In many key plot points and even some of the shared ideas, this is a different movie. I am reviewing this as a massive fan of the book (which I read annually) and the 1959 film. I went in with fairly low expectations, particularly regarding the poor early reviews. There will be some SPOILERS in the review that follows.

The plot summary that follows reveals some of the key changes from the previous film(s) and the book:

The basics of the plot are that Ben Hur is a Jewish prince whose adopted brother is a Roman, Messala. Messala goes to become a Roman soldier while Judah Ben Hur remains back in Jerusalem. When Messala returns, he wants Judah to help him track down zealot dissidents. Judah refuses, and when one of the dissidents attacks the new Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, Messala takes the whole Hur family into custody, sending Judah to the galleys as a slave. Judah escapes after a battle at sea and with the help of Sheik Ilderim, challenges Messala at a chariot race. He defeats his rival, disabling Messala for life. However, when he sees Jesus crucified and hears him call out forgiveness, Judah realizes his error and returns to Messala to ask for, give, and receive forgiveness. The two reunite and continue to live as brothers going forward.

Again, these are the plot basics and I don’t even touch there on the wonderful character of Esther or some of the other sub plots that occur in the film. For those familiar with the other versions, some of these plot points will be surprising. For me as a viewer, it was refreshing to see them not stick 100% to previously told versions. Some of these changes were for the better. Frankly, to show Messala and Judah reunite as brothers (though the adoptive brother spin was a bit much) at the end shows the forgiveness that is so central to the novel in a much better way.

However, some of the other changes were more difficult to swallow. For example, excising the story of Judah saving a Roman consul wasn’t necessarily a bad thing–it helps keep the pace going. But it also meant that there was little explanation for just how Judah became such a good chariot racer. Yes, he knew about horses before, but it is clear from the portrayal of conversations with Ilderim that he is a novice at chariot racing. How, then, does he suddenly defeat some of the best in the whole region of Judea? The film answers the question through tutelage from Ilderim, but it could have much more tidily and believably answered it by having Judah and Messala race chariots at the beginning of the film where they are portrayed racing on horseback. If he already knew about racing chariots, it would be much more believable. Small details like this are the main complaints I have with the plot. Overall, I think it did a great job capturing the spirit of the novel.

One of the other complaints with the film is the extensive use of CGI in some key scenes. Yes, the naval combat in the 1959 version has some dated elements, but it was awe inspiring to behold. Here, we have what is clearly an extended use of computer graphics rather than the epic way it has been filmed before. The chariot race was still pretty magnificent, but taking out the menacing teeth on Messala’s chariot and, again, using CGI to help flip the chariots around more cheapened it slightly. It was good; but not as good as the earlier version.

I liked that Esther had such a prominent role throughout the film, acting as a woman of faith and integrity throughout. Moreover, they showed women in the garden when Jesus was arrested, which almost certainly was the case given the number of female followers Jesus had. I also, as mentioned, enjoyed the strengthening of the Messala-Judah relationship. It helped show the them of forgiveness in a much more intentional way than was otherwise the case.

Frankly, it is this last aspect that I enjoyed most about the film- the wise use of various scenes to strengthen the worldview themes of the story in ways that didn’t bog down the film. It was so well-paced that I never felt bored or that something could have or should have been much shorter.

Overall, is it as good as the version with Charlton Heston? No. In my opinion, nothing could be that good. It’s my favorite movie ever. Is it worth seeing? Absolutely. It has enough differences to make it interesting, and it is done so smartly that it warrants repeated viewings. As I said I went in with low expectations, and those were lowered by early reviews. However, I enjoyed it quite a bit and felt it was a worthy reimagining of the story. I recommend it highly.

The Good

+Uses many actors I haven’t seen anywhere else
+Wonderful themes poignantly told
+Very well-paced
+Capably retells the tale in a fresh way
+Good portrayal of women

The Bad

-Little explanation for how Ben Hur became so good at a chariot race
-Longtime fans of other versions may be disappointed by key omissions
-Over-reliance on CGI for some of the more epic scenes


J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Religious Pluralism- A case study from “Ben Hur” by Lew Wallace– The post introducing this entire series on “Ben Hur.” It has links to all the posts in the series.

Ben Hur- The Great Christian Epic– I look at the 1959 epic film from a worldview perspective. How does the movie reflect the deeply Christian worldview of the book?


All Rights Reserved. Use of any elements of this post subject to approval by the author.

One Sentence Book Review: “Unashamed” by Lecrae Moore

Unashamed by Lecrae Moore


Lecrae had a hard life, but makes fulfilling, worldview-rich rap music now.


One Sentence Book Reviews- Read more one sentence book reviews here. I’ve decided to do one for every book I read, which is a lot. I got started on 5/14/16 so this list will grow from there.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!


Book Review: “We the Underpeople” by Cordwainer Smith

wtu-smith“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” It’s a maxim that I hammered into my own head for quite a while. Yet, as an author (Eric Flint) said at a convention I was at some time ago, “People don’t buy books based on the covers, but they do look at them based on the cover.” I bought We the Underpeople because the cover of the next collection of Cordwainer Smith’s writings looked so interesting to me I figured I had to have them both. (The cover has a dragon eating a space ship! What could go wrong!?)

I finally got around to reading the first collection, which has a bunch of Smith’s short stories as well as the novel Norstrilia in it. I gotta say it blew me away. The introduction certainly set me up with high expectations–this unknown author with a pseudonym that made it even harder to determine blew up the science fiction scene when one of his stories was published in a sci-fi magazine some time ago.

Well, the stories blew me away too. Here is a collection of stories unified around a central timeline that has breadth and scope that is sometimes hard to comprehend. As a reader, you’re thrown into a world with a huge amount of terminology, names, and histories that are unknown and mostly used unapologetically until you figure out what they mean. It’s a bit like reading Dune the first time (how’s that for a recommendation?). The world Smith created spans thousands and thousands of years, and the stories take you across a portion of that time.

Humanity has sought to eliminate sorrow and hardship, but in doing so have created the “Underpeople”–human-like creations made from synthesis with animals. These underpeople basically serve as slaves for the “real people.” Thus, there are some elements of social justice found throughout the stories. There is also a strong sense of dystopia as the way hardship is eliminated is through brainwashing, reconditioning, and the radical loss of human freedom. There are also elements of religion found scattered throughout, with subtle references to Christianity melded into a kind of retelling of Joan of Arc, among other stories. One central theme in the novel that is included in this collection, Norstrilia, is the theme of forgiveness and the power that it can bring in one’s life.

All of these elements are set to an amazing lyrical style of writing which weaves poems and songs and even descriptions of artwork into the stories in meaningful ways. Smith’s writing style makes the words seem to flow from the page in a rhythm, even when it is written into paragraph form. Smith’s background in psychological warfare (I’m not making this up, folks) also comes through in a number of–sometimes disturbing–ways.

We the Underpeople is an absolutely incredible read that I would recommend to any and all fans of science fiction. The epic scope, beautiful style, and wonderful stories contained herein are well, well worth the price of entry. I’m pleased to say I’ve discovered a master writer I didn’t even know about. Thanks for putting a dragon on the cover of the second book, Baen books! Time to read the next collection.

The Good

+Lyrical, poetical style of writing
+Wonderfully rich world with sense of vastness
+Complex, intricately detailed plots
+Stunning scope

The Bad

-Not enough character development in some of the stories

Grade: A “A surprising, inventive collection of thought-provoking science fiction.”


J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!


Book Review: “Oxygen” by John Olson and Randy Ingermanson

Oxygen-oiOxygen by John Olson and Randy Ingermanson is a novel of an attempt by NASA in the near future [originally published in 2001 and set in 2012-2014 it is easy enough to imagine it being in the near future still] attempt to make it to Mars. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

The story is intense from the beginning to the end. A mission to Mars is something that would be stressful no matter what, but the characters set the stage for the suspense early on. The story basically goes from the recruitment of Valkerie [not Valkyrie] for the mission through trying to ensure budget cuts don’t sink it, to launch, some major and nearly catastrophic accidents, and finally to landing on the surface of Mars.

All throughout there is an undertone of intensity built up from suspicious of terrorism, sabotage, and more. The book as a whole is intensely character driven, with much of the action taking place alongside lengthy conversations and internal dialogue. However, this never seems to slow the story down or impact the pacing in a negative fashion. The dramatic interactions of the crew members and others is always interesting to read and it all feels intensely “human.” There is something that is just thoroughly real about these characters Olson and Ingermanson have created that makes them entirely believable.

The journey of the characters is also worth pursuing as they go from trust to suspicion after an apparent bomb turns the trip to Mars into a race against the loss of oxygen. The way this develops over time is, again, completely believable because of the way the characters have been developed so well. Then, as they pull together towards the end, it is again completely in character. I can’t emphasize enough how much these characters feel like “real” people.

There is also plenty of neat near-future science fiction in there too, from what it would be like to try to get funding for NASA to get to Mars–including the politics and media circuses–to the accounts of action surrounding the launch and traveling of the rocket and ship.

Alongside all of this there are some quiet undertones of faith and the intersections of Christianity and science. Some people picket the training ground of the Mars mission, arguing that the whole thing was just an attempt to “prove evolution.” The main characters–particularly Bob and Valkerie, have their own perspectives. Bob, a Roman Catholic, takes evolution largely in stride. Valkerie, a “born again” Christian, has struggled quite a bit in her Christian walk. Too often, she argues, people portrayed science as the bane of religion and viewed her training as a scientist with deep skepticism. She almost lost her faith due to this, but was carried through by a deep relational experience with God.

The way the authors–each with PhDs in science (Olson = biochemistry and Ingermanson in theoretical physics)–portray these brief but insightful discussions is deeply appreciated. I’m not sure if it is reflective of their own experience, but it certainly is a reflection of mine, and I’m not even a scientist! My own faith has been called into question–and even called apostasy!–simply for not adhering to certain perspectives on creation. Would that more Christians would find themselves called to insightful, genuine dialogue on this topic, like the characters of this book, rather than compelled to shout each other down! For those who’d like to read more on this topic, please check out my other site’s page on the Origins Debate.

Overall, Oxygen is a simply fantastic read, all-around. I enjoyed it immensely and recommend it highly to my readers.

The Good

+Strong characters
+Suspense is constant throughout the novel
+Feels incredibly “human”
+Real sense of mystery
+Interesting insight into science and faith issues

The Bad

-Some questions about how it treats men and women

The Verdict

Grade: “A fantastic character-driven thrill ride to Mars.”


Overall, Oxygen reminds me quite a bit of a Ben Bova novel (a very positive association) with less discussion of the science/universe and more character development. I enjoyed it enormously.


J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” in which I discuss many topics in theology and philosophy, including the science/faith debate. I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

The Source

John Olson and Randy Ingermanson, Oxygen (Colorado Springs, CO: Marcher Lord [Now Enclave] Press, 2011), second edition.