Good Fantasy Makes Good Philosophy

Over spring break, during some of the time I should have spent on my senior essay, I was reading books by Robin McKinley.  I’ve read and liked a number of her books, so I was tracking down and reading the ones I’d missed.  Some were good, some were so-so, none were as good as Spindle’s End and only Chalice was terrible.

Plenty of authors have trouble with exposition, dropping long, clunky bits of backstory into the plot or forcing characters to spend time explaining things they both know to each other for the benefit of the reader (often referred to as an “As You Know, Bob“).  McKinley didn’t make this mistake in Chalice, she went one better: she neglected to include the background information at all.

Without any sense of the constraints the characters were under, I couldn’t feel invested in the plot.  The main character was able to do some kinds of magic, but I never was able to figure out how difficult or surprising some of her spells were or what the limits of her ability were.  So, as the climax of the book approached, I couldn’t experience it as a challenge, since there was nothing I knew she would have to surmount.

Good fantasy and science fiction (and historical fiction, too) need to set clear expectations of the rules the characters are constrained by, or all plot tension is lost.  That doesn’t mean that I need to know every detail of their world, but I need a grasp of the relevant obstacles.

I’m not bringing all this up because I’m planning to expand the focus of this blog to scifi and fantasy lit crit (although one glance at my bookshelf would suggest it’s my real bailiwick), but because I think the failure’s of Chalice are a good illustration of a point I tried (unsuccessfully) to make in my answer to one of Michael Egnor’s eight questions for atheists: Why is there regularity in nature?

Egnor imagined that regularity and coherence implied a Divine Lawgiver who kept causality running.  I still think that any world without some kind of reasonably accessible rulebook would be so inhospitable to human life and thought as to be impossible (or at least implausible enough to look like a specific case of the Anthropic Principle).  Most arguments about miracles assume that aberration from the natural order is the condition which requires a purposeful agent, and that seems much more plausible than Egnor’s take.  (And don’t forget that the necessity of preserving causation, at least most of the time, gives Christians a reasonable out on some problems of theodicy).

I can’t live or act in a lawless world — a world where I can’t make reasonable estimates about cause and effect.  It’s ridiculous for Christians to assume that atheists think we live in such a world or that we believe this is the logically necessary fate of people without God.  It’s bad writing and bad philosophy.  To be honest, if your beliefs point to this conclusion, it’s probably time to look into metaphysical backsliding.  And a different novel to boot.

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About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."