From time to time I am asked what is good SF and fantasy that teenagers in Christian and home schools might enjoy. The following brief discussion is my answer that question. I’ve tried to point out authors and stories that are not widely known, and therefore have set aside G. K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Stephen Lawhead. So, here goes.
Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is not a Christian, but his writing is excellent, and his moral values are quite acceptable. His novel Something Wicked This Way Comes was made into a fine movie some years back. His Dandelion Wine is, in my opinion, far more enjoyable than Tom Sawyer and should be on any reading list. Finally, Fahrenheit 451 is without a doubt the best dystopian novel of the twentieth century.
Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four projects a society in which the state crushes the intellect by forbidding people to read. Not very realistic. In Fahrenheit 451 it is political correctness that leads to the outlawing of books. Bradbury’s 1953 book was far more prophetic than Orwell’s. Consider this passage from the novel: “You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, after all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun?.” Thus, “Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo? Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.” And so, “There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick . . . .”
Good stuff. Prophetic. Required reading.
James Blaylock. I’d have to say that Blaylock is B+ to Bradbury’s A, but his novels are entertaining, and Blaylock is an evangelical Christian of sorts (reads the Bible; trusts Jesus; doesn’t always go to church). Some of his novels are better for more mature readers, but Land of Dreams and The Last Coin are fine for teens, and quite enjoyable.
Tim Powers. Powers is a friend of Blaylock’s, and a practicing Christian of sorts (some kind of Antiochian brand of eastern orthodoxy, last I heard). Powers writes the same novel over and over again. His main character always winds up cut in his head, hands, and feet, and manages to save the day; but the main character is usually not all that good of a guy. For the most part, his novels are not “entertaining.” A teenager who really goes for SF and fantasy might be given Dinner At Deviant’s Palace, which contains a great deal of Biblical allegory. Point the reader to the city of Jerusalem for Los Angeles, the garden of Eden for Venice, and the sacraments for the demonic drug “blood” and the good beer that the hero drinks to combat it. This book is, however, stronger stuff than the rest of what I’m discussing here.
Manly Wade Wellman. Wellman’s stories of Silver John are wonderful. Written in mountain dialect by John himself, they tell of the adventures of John the Balladeer, with his silver-strung guitar, who banishes evil and witchcraft wherever he finds it in the mountains of Appalachia. John is an explicitly Christian hero, and in one of his tales John tells some children about the “only man who was exactly six feet tall.” Since these are fantasy novels, Silver John does employ a kind of white magic, based on a book called The Long Lost Friend, but this is always clearly an implicitly Christian technique. As a Christian electrician uses electricity, so John uses some of the techniques of white magic. Now of course, magic does not exist at all, so this is fantasy literature.
Let me provide a few lines from After Dark, to give a feel for Wellman’s (John’s) style. “It wasn’t full night yet, as I’ve said; but I thought to myself, something sort of snaky showed there, like the shadow of the log. And I made my long legs stretch themselves longer to get away from the place, quick as I could. Whatever was I there to do? Well, gentlemen, I’d been a-going through the county seat, and there were signs nailed up to tell folks about a big sing of country music, along about sundown . . . . I reckoned I’d just go and hark at it and maybe even join in with it.”
Look for John the Balladeer (all the short stories) and the following novels: The Old Gods Waken, After Dark, The Lost and the Lurking, The Hanging Stones, and The Voice of the Mountain.
Randall Garrett. Long-time SF writer underwent a conversion to Christianity toward the end of his life, the end result of many years of interest. I recommend his Lord Darcy stories. They are set in the Anglo-French Empire of the 20th century, obviously in another world. In this world, magic really works, but devout magicians are licensed by the Church and work to defend Christendom against evil magicians. Lord Darcy is a Sherlock Holmes in this world, Chief Investigator for His Royal Highness Prince Richard of Normandy, and he is ably assisted by Master Sorcerer Sean O Lochlainn, his Dr. Watson.
These are very clever stories, and quite in the tradition of Holmes and Chesterton’s Father Brown. A one-volume complete collection was published a few years ago called Lord Darcy. This included two previously published collections of stories: Murder and Magic, and Lord Darcy Investigates, and one novel: Too Many Magicians.
Gene Wolfe. Wolfe, an active and devout Christian, writes adult fantasy and SF. He has one novel for teens, however, The Devil in a Forest, set in the Middle Ages. This is an excellent novel, very well written, and should be on any reading list.
Two of Wolfe’s short stories should be included in Christian anthologies for high schoolers: “The Detective of Dreams” and “Westwind.” The former is contained in the collection Endangered Species, and the latter is found in the collection Storeys From the Old Hotel.
Cordwainer Smith. I have called attention to Smith’s work often over the years. While his stories are all clean as regards language and sexual content, most are fairly literary and probably would not be enjoyed by teens as much as by adults. I suppose, however, that if you’re going to have them read complex material like Moby Dick, you might as well let them have a go at Norstrilia or the novella, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town.” If I were making an anthology for Christian schools, I’d include “The Dead Lady” in the book.
Now let me turn to a short list of some of the best SF short stories that I would have teens read. These are not by Christian writers, but are striking and helpful in forming a good conscience.
The first is the classic “Flowers for Algernon,” by Daniel Keyes, which is widely anthologized. It is a series of diary entries by a mentally retarded man who undergoes a treatment to raise his I.Q. As this poignant story ends, the man’s I.Q. reverts to what it was before, and the careful reader will also realize that he is soon to die as a result of the experiment. Keyes expanded this story into a novel, but as a novel it is not successful. It is successful as a story to be read at one sitting. Hollywood made a movie of it called “Charly,” but again, the beauty of the story was marred by the sexual dimensions Hollywood stuffed into it, and also, there is no comparison with the written style of the story itself. The Bible tells us not to mock the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind. No one who reads “Flowers for Algernon” will ever think of feebleminded people the same way again.
Isaac Asimov’s story “The Ugly Little Boy” has a neanderthal child brought by a time machine to the present. A tough old spinster is hired to help control and teach him. The story unfolds the gradual affection between the boy and the woman, until she becomes a surrogate mother for him. That last page would jerk tears from a hard of molybdenum steel! A wonderful story, employing the cave man myth to good effect. “The Ugly Little Boy” has recently been expanded into a novel – this is called “cashing in.” I have not wasted my time reading it. The punch and beauty of this tale lies in the fact that it can be read and experienced in one sitting. To stretch it out into a novel could only ruin it.
Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life” is a horrifying reflection on human depravity. In this famous story, a child is born with godlike powers, and in the rage of birth destroys the world. All that is left is his home town floating in some kind of space. He uses his powers to force people to do what he wants. He is a bad little boy because no one could ever spank him. This story, in considerably altered form, was dramatized in the film, “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” The story is better. You will never forget it. Neither will your kids.
Gun owners may want their kids to read A.E. Van Vogt’s most famous story, “The Weapon Shop.” Put with another story, this became the equally good novel, The Weapon Shops of Isher. The theme is expressed in the slogan of the Weapons Shops: “The right to buy weapons is the right to be free.” Van Vogt writes what is called “super science fiction,” swashbuckling adventures featuring fabulous heroes who save the universe.
Well, doubtless there are more that could be mentioned. I have not said anything about the stories and novels of Christian writers Fred Saberhagen and Walter Miller, mainly because their works are either not clearly Christian or are rather more adult in their appeal (though not “adult” in sexuality).
James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared at Biblical Horizons.