Category Archives: speculative fiction

Magical Realism in a Nutshell

One nut remained in Gabriel’s sack. He sank under the spare boughs of the desert willow and wished for water. Although clouds accumulated over the mesas, they didn’t draw rain, and they passed over the landscape as ghosts do. This was the land of ghosts, he knew, of dried-up old men such as himself.

“Oh, Ana, Ana,” he choked out from the back of his dry and swollen throat.

He fell asleep grasping his brown nut sack—his last source of sustenance. He fell asleep to the sound of cicadas whining. When he woke, he heard crickets chirring. Evening had fallen on him, and its weight was slight compared to the day.

He had one more nut and no water in sight. He folded over the top of the sack, upended it, and out tumbled the nut. In his pocket, he searched for his Leatherman, and then prised at the edges of the nutshell with the knife blade.

“Ay, nuezita! You are all that I have. Do you hear me, my son? Do you hear my voice, hijo de la santa? Hijo mio, perdido en la boca? Ay, Miguel, Miguelito. You are del diablo, but your mother is a saint.”

The nutshell separated, and the two halves fell into his leathery palm. With the last ray of sun lighting on Gabriel’s open hand, Jesus gazed at him. En realidad, Jesus didn’t actually look at Gabriel, but he looked downward, instead, as though ashamed of his own status, his figure furled in a whorl of walnut.

“Jesus de la nuez!”

Gabriel gaped at the image, and his sore eyes replaced Christ’s face with that of his son, which then transformed into the face of his son’s mother, who had locked herself away in her abuilita’s home when she’d learned her only child had gone the way of las drogas.

“But it wasn’t his fault, Ana! He couldn’t help the darkness in his soul.”

Gabriel wept bitter tears. He enclosed Jesus in his hands and rubbed his palms together, but the nutmeat wouldn’t fall loose. With an air of disowning it all, he dropped the two shell halves into the sack from whence they’d fallen. He folded up his Leatherman and slid it back in his pocket.

The night was a yawning shadow, and Gabriel was nearly swallowed in it, when Ana enshrouded him—a scudding ghost cloud low to the earth—and she pulled him to his feet. She set his feet back on the road, and he stepped, one foot in front of the other, and he followed her disappearing veil, around curves and along the serpentine path.

“Ana, Ana!” he called. “La culpa es mia!”

She disappeared, and then reappeared before a broken picket fence. She swung open the gate. Even though Gabriel hesitated to enter, she gave him no choice. She beckoned him through the gate and up the stone path to the front door, where he knocked with the weight of his heavy head.

From inside, he heard a scuffle, the low growl of a beast. The door opened an inch, and Gabriel swayed an inch with it.

“Gabriel?”

Gabriel swayed farther forward and fell into a set of soft arms. “Ana, is that you?”

“Soy yo. How did you walk so far like this? You must come inside and rest.”

The woman guided him to a couch. “How did you walk so far with your cataracts? How long has it been since you visited the eye doctor?”

“You guided me,” he said. “I can still see through your eyes.”

“Nonsense,” she said.

“But Ana, did you know as you guided me that I came only to bring you terrible news?”

She squeezed his hand with her soft fingers.

“Our son Miguel is dead from las drogas. Bastards. Bastards who killed him. It wasn’t his fault. It was theirs, and it was mine because I was a terrible father.”

“No,” Ana said, her voice husky with sorrow. “Miguel’s not dead. He’s come to live with me. He lives here, in his old room. He sleeps with his childhood dreams.”

“No,” said Gabriel. “I saw him in the morgue. He died on Sunday.”

“That’s when he came to live with me,” Ana said. “All is right, Gabriel, and just as it used to be.”

Gabriel lurched upward from the couch. “But I haven’t forgiven Miguel’s dealers in the city. I’ll never forgive them.”

“Where are you going, my love?”

“I have to go back to fight.”

“But the storm is coming. You can’t go now. And Miguel lives here—he’s come to live with you, too. He wants you to stay.”

“Miguel never wanted me around. I have to go. I have to fight.”

“No, no more!”

But Gabriel’s ears were as thick as his corneas. He tripped toward the door and lunged out into the night air. With a rush, the wind slapped him broad across his face, and the rain poured down with a crack of thunder. He raised his open mouth to the sky and let the rain fall in.

“The rain has finally come, and all in vain,” he said.

And he rooted around in the brown sack for the two split nut halves. He picked the meat free of the shell, and he popped it in his mouth. This was consecration. This was forgiveness. This was nourishment for the fight.

“Goodbye, Ana. Give Miguel my love. There is hope, always hope for the future!”

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MapWriter 7.0 Error Log: a love story in III acts

Act I

A week ago, I didn’t intend to buy my Life Map. But here I stood outside The Cartographia, clutching a gift certificate in my new Christmas mittens. Mom gave me the mittens—Granddad the gift certificate.

“You used to be the brainy one,” he gasped on Christmas morning, oxygen tube snaking from his nose. “It’s time you took a definite path. Buy your map, Claire.”

By Christmas evening, he was dead. And I was torn up. Brainy or not, my job history was appalling. What was more, I didn’t care. I would’ve taken a man to marry over a mindful pursuit any day. Maybe the map could help me find a man.

But that was a problem, wasn’t it? Life Maps didn’t foretell the future. They predicted the best possible courses based on databases of information limited to exterior facts: social and intelligence quotients, family histories and genealogies, personal histories.

My personal history was lacking, especially in the realm of love. I was a blip on any map. And I was cold, inside and out. The snow that had melted to slush in the sun yesterday had frozen over during the night. I reached for the shop door, but a man hurrying up behind me grabbed the handle instead. Love dunce that I was, I didn’t move quickly enough for his chivalry, and the door smacked me in the nose.

“Um, after you,” he said—no apology.

I obeyed, but with my hand over my nose.

The Cartographia shop had modular stations for programming maps on older or newer systems. My certificate entitled me to MapWriter 7.0, not the latest, but still expensive. I’d called my order in ahead of time and, presumably, my map was ready. But life rarely worked smoothly for me, and I suspected a wait.

“Claire Chevalier,” I told the salesman. “I called earlier.”

“7.0? We’re having trouble programming those. If you’re willing to wait a few minutes, we’ll get it set up for you.”

Of course—it was as I’d predicted. I stepped aside for the less-than-chivalrous stranger, and the salesman gave him the same runaround—the 7.0 maps were causing trouble. I glanced at the stranger, and he fidgeted nervously with his order slip. I felt badly for him, with his stiff posture that began in his torso and ended at his feet, stuck in a pair of yellow, pointed Duranguense boots.

I braved a look at his face, which was tense, but still pleasant. He winked at me, or I might have imagined it. Maybe he had a random eye twitch.

“Miss Chevalier?” The salesman said. “Your map is ready. You’ll need to read the disclaimer and sign the waiver form, and then you’re as good as gold.”

I was as good as gold. I’d see about that, wouldn’t I? I signed the paperwork and, with my new map folded up in its sleek carrying case, I smiled at the vaquero before exiting the store.

Act II

Alone in my duplex, I was still good as gold. I unwound my winter gear, turned up the wall heater to sixty-five, and measured out a shot from my Christmas bottle of Jack Daniels. I thanked my cousin Jean for the whiskey—my aunt Shelby for the sausage-cheese gift basket.

Feast in hand, I sank to a comfortable position on the carpet. Gently, I unfolded the map and watched the pathways appear. As with most maps created from the 7.0 model, mine bore three lines: an inclined path, a middle path and a lower one, the last being the path of least resistance. The inclined one was risky and difficult, but worth it if you were the type who enjoyed skydiving.

With a mustard-free finger, I traced all three paths, marked by major life events. Because it was interactive, the events in between the majors would appear as I took steps toward them. Only the middle path gave me a possibility of marriage and children. My finger hovered over the family icon, and my insides clenched in longing. I traced the path back to its beginning and pressed the red X at the gate. That was the path I wanted.

Immediately, a sign glowed at me: JOB INTERVIEW 9:30 TOMORROW AT STARK & SONS PUBLISHING GROUP. Thank you, Granddad! But why did the map choose an interview in publishing? I had a degree in Marketing and no experience in publishing, or marketing, for that matter. At my first internship with an ad agency, I lost my boss three accounts due to my truth in advertising campaign: This toilet paper wipes your behind as well as the other leading brands offering two-ply quality! Antibacterial fibers! No need to waste thirty seconds of your life washing your hands! Or: This toothpaste has the same list of ingredients as the other fifty brands on the shelf! Studies show that adults who brush their teeth frequently have more dates with other adults who brush their teeth frequently!

What in my history would prompt such an interview? I imagined my style of book write-up for the prairie romances Stark’s published: East meets West when King Solomon unwinds Mary from the Prairie’s Braids. Solomon Braves the Prairie has 10% less romance and 80% more prairie than other books of its stature. Somehow, I didn’t think I was cut out for publishing. Along the edges of the map, I highlighted my statistical information in search of answers.

What a confusing mess. The map seemed to think I’d held numerous positions in publishing. At the bottom right corner, I ran my finger over the basics—my age (31), my degree (Marketing), and my name (Sebastian Cortez). Sebastian Cortez? The store had sold me a man’s map. Even with my bad luck, how could I have predicted such an error?

I should have immediately called Cartographia to explain the mix-up, but with his career in publishing and potential for family, Sebastian’s life was too enticing. Even if I couldn’t produce a family in the same way as Señor Cortez, the map would eventually discover my femininity. Why wouldn’t it?

Act III

The next morning dawned bright, sunlight sparkling on muddy snow patches. I rode the downtown bus to Stark & Sons, and I wasn’t nervous. Instead, I was cynical. Chances were that I wouldn’t get the job because I was Claire, after all, or because Sebastian Cortez wasn’t meant to have it, either.

Once in the posh lobby, I informed the receptionist I had an interview.

“Name?” she asked.

I shoved aside my doubts. Sebastian was a perfectly acceptable girl’s name. “Sebastian Cortez.”

“Oh. You’ll find his office on the second floor. Good luck.”

During the short elevator ride, I tried to work through this new mystery. Sebastian Cortez already worked here. Maybe Sebastian had an interview for a promotion. That was it—and, obviously, I was a fool. But the elevator stopped, and the doors slid open, and I was faced with yet another receptionist.

“May I help you?”

“I have an interview with Sebastian Cortez.”

Behind me, a door opened in a rush and smacked me on the head. I swiveled around, and there he stood—the vaquero with the Duranguense boots. Of course, he was Sebastian Cortez. I had his map, and he had mine.

“Excuse me,” he said to me, and then to his secretary, “Adele, did you call upstairs to see if they’re ready for my interview? Didn’t I tell you it was a great idea to buy my map?”

Adele slowly tapped at her keyboard, as though unperturbed by Sebastian’s excitement. “Did the map actually say you had an interview with Mr. Stark? Because Mr. Stark’s secretary insists you don’t.”

Sebastian’s nervous but pleasant face fell into a scowl. “It said, job interview 9:30 tomorrow at Stark & Sons Publishing Group. What other interview would I have here? I’m telling you, it’s my turn for a promotion.”

Adele cocked her head in my direction, an unsubtle attempt to refocus his attention on me. Finally, he looked at me, his brow creased in confusion.

“She has an interview with you.” Adele leafed through her desktop calendar. “What did you say your name was?”

“Claire Chevalier,” I said.

Sebastian snapped his fingers. “The map store. I saw you at the store, didn’t I?”

“Yes, I think so.” How could I forget those canary yellow boots?

“Well,” he said, and he looked me up and down, a thoughtful expression softening the lines around his mouth. “I guess you’d better come in if you’re supposed to have an interview.”

I smiled at him, relieved that he managed not to smack me with the door again. When I sat down opposite him, I knew there was no error. We looked at each other, ready to begin.

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The Weight of Brightness

This morning, a call came through to remind me of my appointment at the ophthalmologist’s office. If I had recently made a doctor’s appointment, it was beyond my awareness.

“I’m busy this afternoon,” I told the receptionist, which was true. I meant to spend the afternoon at the library.


“This isn’t the kind of appointment that can be rescheduled,” she said, her voice snappish.

I stared at the remains of breakfast: eggs, hollowed grapefruit shells, an ounce of coffee. I watched the sun slice the clouds and beam pale winter light on the table. My vision blurred, and a headache stole up my neck, where it settled at the base of my skull.

I agreed to keep the appointment—I don’t know why. My vision was perfect, despite my head cold that gave me double sight—two phones, two coffee cups, and ten fingers on one hand.

I laid my head on my arms and fell asleep while considering my latest thesis statement: “This paper is meant to wake you up.” My eyes snapped open and slid closed again. No, that wasn’t it. It was much more complex than that, having to do with mitochondrial disarray and . . .

Later, I locked up my apartment and commanded myself to drive to the library. But I didn’t. Instead, my car coasted across the bridge and carried me into downtown, where I took a left on Broadway and entered a parking garage on the same block as the ophthalmologist’s office, which I’d never visited before, but there it was with a bright yellow eye and monocle painted on the window. As I passed the window to reach the door, I observed that the eye was a 3-D prism, painted in such a way that the pupil appeared to follow my movements—otherwise known as the phenomenon of the observer observed.

Inside, I sank into a chair and opened an outdated issue of Sky and Telescope. I was intent on reading an article on red dwarfs, but the receptionist informed me the doctor was waiting. I glanced at my watch, which I had precisely set by my cell phone. I was ten minutes early.

Magazine in hand, I followed the receptionist’s directions to enter the first room at right. A man in a doctoral lab coat sat on a standard stool while he studied the contents of a file. Surely, he didn’t have a file on me yet.

His face was like an old friend’s, though. The wiry blond curls that sprang from his head, the domed forehead and beaked nose—his familiarity niggled at me in that knowing and not knowing way. He raised his face and smiled, revealing two rows of square, horsey teeth. He was my high school history teacher, or the man’s doppelgänger. What an odd retirement job.

“Mr. Montpierre?”

“Call me Dr. Randall,” he said. “Put the magazine down and have a seat, please.”

“All right, but I don’t know what I’m doing here. I have 20-20 vision.”

“Says here you’re nearsighted.”

“You must have the wrong file.”

“No, I don’t think so. Why don’t you rest your forehead and look through this eyepiece, tell me what you see?” He pressed my head to the machine.

Wonder of wonders, I clearly saw an eye chart. I read off the rows of letters until he told me to stop. Then another chart appeared. I read off the first line, which contained black arrows moving in various directions, so I read them off as if I were a navigator: southeast, northwest, true north. The next row was composed of figures that might have been Egyptian hieroglyphs. My stomach churned in the same sick way it used to when I hadn’t studied properly for his history exams.

“It’s an Egyptian equation,” I guessed. “A math problem. Those birds represent numbers.” The figures disappeared. I raised my head and allowed my eyes to refocus. “See? I have perfect vision. All’s clear.”

He looked at me and shook his head sadly, as if I’d betrayed his faith in me.

“Didn’t I pass the test?”

He slid a pair of hideously unattractive bifocals from his coat pocket. “Try these,” he said.

“But I don’t need them.”

“Just try.”

He slipped them, a perfect fit, over my ears and rested them on my nose. The room snapped into focus. How had I not noticed the world was fuzzy before? And dark—the world was once dark, and now the air glowed as if touched everywhere by sizzling photons. I jumped from the chair and witnessed everything—every crag in his face, every looped fiber of the reddish-brown carpet, every spot on the ceiling. There were approximately 10,000 spots for every 4×4 ceiling tile. If I subtracted the light panels, there were . . .

Who cared? I had a world to explore. I left the examination room, wandered past the receptionist’s desk, and opened the door to the outside world, where the light flooded my new sight. I heard babbling behind me, but my ears were as dim as ever. Instead, the light sang to me, along with the world in every particular.

I heard yelling, but I didn’t listen, couldn’t make out the words anyway. I wandered up the hills and valleys of the sidewalk, following the edges of brightness until the sheer weight of it landed on my skin, and I collapsed.
I collapsed under the weight of brightness, the sheer bliss of it blindingly cold.

I pulled off the glasses, and the world dimmed and swooshed with noise, gagged me with the odor of mud and grass. I lay on the riverbank—on the verge.

I slid the glasses back on, sat up on the wet grass and stared at the water because it lapped with complexity, much more than being awake, much more than mitochondrial disarray.

Only one thought dulled my pleasure at such minute beauty: I wouldn’t reach the library this afternoon, and perhaps never again. It would take me too long to get there.

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The Farthest Horizon of Civil Rights: Female Sea Monkeys Routinely Sexually Accosted by Time-Traveling Males

It’s a wonderful world indeed! I’ll bet that while you ate your nice dinner of peas and mashed potatoes and contemplated the possibility of time travel in a choose-your-own adventure novel, you had no idea what went on in the underwater world of sea monkeys. Yes, time travel is now possible–for sea monkeys. For years, humanity has contemplated the beauty and what-if questions of transporting through time. We could change the past and better the future; we could make all things right! Or wrong if we happen to be a super-villain with time travel technology. But have you ever wondered what happens to those Left Behind?

If you’re a female sea monkey, you have no choice but to stay up nights contemplating what will happen to you when the latest army of male sea monkeys returns home from “battle”. When they return, these males are driven by no other instinct but to propagate themselves, and they will commit any crime to get a mate, including sexual assault. One wonders what these sea monkeys witnessed in their travels. Some day, programs may be available for returning time-travel sea monkeys. But, meanwhile, we must consider the most immediate plight: that of the female sea-monkey.

What will the sea monkey do in order to produce offspring? According to this Wired article, Time-Traveling Male Sea Monkeys Make Bad Mates, the health of a female sea monkey is meaningless to a returning male, and he will use a variety of weapons to make certain she produces offspring for him, even to her detriment. He will go so far as to inject her with toxins that suppress her libido, in order that she mate with nobody but him.

And, folks, this behavior of sea monkeys has been going on for a long time, right under the noses of our children, who have encouraged the violent sexual assault without realizing it when they fell prey to deceptive ads like the one shown above. The necessity for action has come! Sea monkeys are in danger. We are in danger. Our children are in danger. As time travel becomes a nearer reality for us–as we learn from the methods of the sea monkeys–we approach a moral crossroads, and we must decide now what direction we will take. Time travel isn’t the sweet, erotic game we learned of in Time Traveler’s Wife. It isn’t the melancholic yearnings of a young man, whose early demise came about because he accidentally killed his grandfather.

As Duncan Geere, author of the groundbreaking article linked above, so deftly put it, “But either way, be warned: Sex with time travelers appears to be far more dangerous than anyone had previously realized.”

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The Importance of What-If Questions in Christian Fiction

Nobody can agree on the purpose of Christian fiction. I suspect this is just as true in the arena of the speculative. But I’ll hazard a guess that most speculative authors are asking “what if” questions, meant to ponder the meaning of life, science, philosophy, and humanity’s place in the universe.

When applying these questions to a Christian model, heated debates inevitably ensue. I don’t know the reason for it, but Christians often insist that the answers to these questions are black and white and, furthermore, many Christian writers tell tales as if they already know the answers to these what-ifs. Therefore, how dare an author ask them in the first place and, conversely, how dare a reader venture down those shaky roads of what-if questions that don’t have obvious or clear answers. But maybe, just maybe, those what-if questions are just as important for the Christian message as having all the answers.

For the purpose of my venture into the speculative, I’d like to go all the way back to the British 18th C Gothic. I’m going to quote from two classic works from this time period, Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Gothic literature was an English creation. They created it at the height of the Enlightenment, at the pinnacle of philosophical and scientific thought, and during a turbulent period of history. They used the Gothic as a means of imaginative escape into a world where anything was possible, and, what is more, they used it as a means of balance. They balanced virtue with vice, sublimity with beauty, and, ultimately, science and rational thought with the supernatural, just as current speculative fiction balances the terror of the unknown with reality.

Consider this quote from one of the heroes at the end of Romance: “‘Call [my thoughts on the afterlife] not the illusions of a visionary brain,’ proceeded La Luc: ‘I trust in their reality. Of this I am certain, that whether they are illusions or not, a faith in them ought to be cherished for the comfort it brings to the heart, and reverenced for the dignity it imparts to the mind. Such feelings make a happy and an important part of our belief in future existence: they give energy to virtue, and stability to principle’” (275).

Although La Luc is speaking about his dead wife and his faith in an afterlife, there is a secondary meaning that emerges, here, at the conclusion to the novel. Radcliffe is telling her readers that the incredible events of her story, the depth of evil, and the hints of the supernatural, are not necessarily illusions. Believing that the world is evil also leads to a belief in goodness, which becomes a kind of imaginative faith. This faith leads to happiness, but more than that, it energizes those most important Christian notions of virtue and principle.

Even Jane Austen, in her novel that mocked Radcliffe’s, Northanger Abbey, has her heroine, Catherine, concede that Radcliffe’s type of evil isn’t tolerated in England–and yet, even though there are no purely evil villains, no vampires or monsters, nor any thoroughly pure heroines walking around in “‘[Henry to Catherine] a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such footing;’” even so, Catherine responds this way: “among the English, [Catherine] believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad” (Austen, 157-8).

Perhaps the depth of depravity in Radcliffe’s novels could never have occurred in a rational country–although I would beg to differ with Henry on that one–but evil does exist in the world. Allowing the mind to imagine clearer, stronger notions of these opposites can motivate a person to act more virtuously. That is part of Catherine’s point and, by extension, Austen’s. In imagining horrible scenarios, Catherine may have got her facts wrong, but she didn’t get them wrong in principle. Her imagination helped her understand the true character of her imagined villain. 

The what-if questions of speculative fiction bring balance to Christian fiction because they force us to step out of reality in order to understand it better.

Gothic fiction may not be the beginning of the speculative genre, although Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often considered the first true science fiction novel, but it is integral to understanding the purpose behind Christian supernatural fiction.

But I have one BIG question: why is this genre** not popular in the Christian market? Are we frightened of the questions? Are we afraid the answers won’t line up with our preconceived notions of God and his interactions with mankind?

**Editing to say that I used the term “genre” last night when I was tired. I really meant “spec fic”, which is an umbrella term that encompasses multiple genres–Gothic being one of them.

p.s. I quoted from these editions:
Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey 1818.  Longman Cultural Edition 2005.  Ed. Marilyn Gaull.

Radcliffe, Ann.  The Romance of the Forest 1791.  Oxford University Press 1999.  Ed. Chloe Chard.

p.p.s. painting by Salvator Rosa

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