Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review - Seven Wings and the Bleeding Twin Flowers by T.K. Francisco

Short review: I'm not sure the world is waiting for a good Christian post-apocalyptic science-fiction time-travel story, but if it is, it is still waiting.

God commands the Wings
Go one hundred years ahead
And MacGuffin hunt

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: This book presents a dilemma for me. The author seems reasonably nice, and is definitely earnest. She was nice enough to send me a review copy of her book, which she is obviously proud of and put a lot of work into. The problem is, that the end result is a really awful book.

And it is a book that is bad on just about every level. The story is a Christian post-apocalyptic science fiction time-traveling tale about seven (actually five) time travelers sent by God one hundred years into the future to stop the anti-Christ that rises to power in the present. Why they have to go into the future to do this isn't really explained, the characters just get prophetic dreams and a bunch of heavy-handed signs that tell them they have to do this, and like good Christian soldiers they put their heads down and obey. And while the basic framework of the story is merely bland, what makes the book an unreadable mess is the laughably bad science in the science fiction, the wooden and almost interchangeable characters, the mustache twirling villains, and the almost clockwork occurrences of deus ex machina events to get the heroes out of the predicaments they find themselves in. Throw in some really weak puzzles to be solved, random out of left field superpowers, and a Xanatos plot that doesn't make any sense at all, and you have a book that fails on almost every level possible. Even the writing is mediocre at best, as the author indulges in a steady stream of Tom Swiftly style flourishes and a didactic delivery style.

The most obvious, and egregious, problem with the book is that it tries to be a science fiction book, but the author clearly has difficulty with basic science.

"This guy theorized that time traveling at the speed of light, which as we know to be 372,000 miles per second, makes each second the equivalent of one year in time. Astronauts have traveled hundredths of a second into the future by moving around the Earth in the same direction as its rotation. The opposite is true when traveling backwards in time."

This sort of passage is littered throughout the book. And it is both meaningless technobabble and laughably wrong. The one concrete fact in the passage - the speed of light - is simply wrong. And not wrong by a little bit. The speed of light in a vacuum is actually 186,282 miles per second, a fact that is easily Googled. But neither the author, nor the editor, nor anyone in the author's writing group bothered to take the ten seconds needed to fact check this. Further, the language belies the author's attitude towards how science is done: "This guy" is supposedly a physicist named Francis Kirkland "theorized" a whole pile of things about time travel. And it is clear in the book that by "theorized", the author means "made a wild-ass guess" because she never talks about anything that has been done to test any of Kirkland's guesses, or any data that he relied upon when making these guesses. He apparently just sat up one day and thought "time traveling at the speed of light makes a second equal to a year!" for no real apparent reason. Later, when talking about time paradoxes, the author has the same character say that physicists have yet to "posit" answers to these questions. Apparently the author thinks that the phrase "posit answers" means "come up with a definite conclusions about something", as opposed to the actual meaning which is "put forward" or "propose", because physicists (and generations of science fiction authors) certainly have proposed answers to time travel paradoxes.

"Astronauts have recently recorded what they believe to be the seventh wormhole or black hole in outer space. According to their observations, each one of Earth's seven continents has one of the seven wormholes located directly above it. In summary, each wormhole will allow you to travel in time to a particular region or continent."

I must admit, that reading passages like this made my brain hurt. The author has previously indicated that she in fact knows that the Earth rotates. So one has to wonder how each of the continents (which all rotate with the Earth) has a black hole directly above it. Are the black holes in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth? If so, this would place them about 42,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, which is basically right on top of us. One has to wonder how we have managed to somehow not detect black holes that close to Earth. I suppose the black holes could be in highly elliptical geosynchronous orbits, but then they would vary between 1,000 kilometers and 70,000 kilometers from the Earth, and once again, would be close enough that our not having already detected them would be ridiculously implausible. Further, when our breathless informer continues "in summary", one has to wonder "in summary of what?", because they haven't given any information that would need to be summarized. Perhaps she meant to say "in conclusion", but the leap from "there are black holes orbiting the Earth" to "you can time travel to those continents" is a huge leap with no foundation at all. The author doesn't even think it necessary to provide us with any kind of groundwork for why this would be so, we are just told "there are wormholes above the continents, therefore, time travel to them".

"Kirkland believes that he and his colleagues may need to look deeper into numerology, the study of numbers, for possible answers in relation to time travel. I don't need to point out that it may not be coincidental that there are seven wormholes, seven continents, seven main planets in the zodiac, seven wonders of the world, seven colors in a rainbow, seven seas on Earth, seven thrones, seven churches, seven seals, and the list goes on and on."

And this is where you realize that Francisco not only didn't bother to check some basic facts before writing her book, but simply doesn't understand how science works at all. It seems that she thinks that science is some sort of magic process where you feed in random thoughts on one end and get technological devices on the other. Of course, the whole list of "sevens" is a fairly ridiculous list - Antipater chose his famous seven wonders not because they were magically significant, but rather because they were sights that tourists would want to see: In short, the "wonders" were basically nothing more than a tourism guide. And not only that, the seven wonders were not uniform from list to list (even Antipater's list changed at least once). There are seven continents because the Greeks differentiated between Europe and Asia, a sensible distinction based upon their knowledge of the world, but one that makes little sense when you know the true nature of the Eurasian land mass. The "seven seas" is such a flexible concept that there have been a myriad of different lists with literally dozens of different bodies of water listed on them. Pretty much all of the sets of "sevens" listed are meaningless nonsense, in many cases the list of "seven" isn't even a list with a set roster of items on it. Most of all, numerology is just hokum. It isn't the "study of numbers", it is an attempt to ascribe magical meaning to random coincidences. No physicist looking for answers to the problem of time travel would suggest looking at groups of "sevens" because some sailors in the middle ages thought that the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Arabian, Black, Caspian, and Red Seas, plus the Persian Gulf were important bodies of water.

The truly depressing thing about this is that all of the quotes thus far have been drawn from pages twenty-two and twenty-three  of the book. The ridiculous science, however, pervades the book. A nuclear weapon is destroyed by a lunar installation that "draws solar gases" and focuses them into a solar beam, causing one to wonder how one gets solar gases - which can only be found in the solar atmosphere - on the moon. A nuclear explosion knocks the Earth off its axis somehow, which somehow causes the average temperature of the Earth to go up so much that the heat rises to 115 degrees in Michigan in September. Left unexplained is how a change in the axial tilt of the Earth would cause a worldwide rise in temperatures. Later an asteroid three miles across falls into the Atlantic Ocean, causing "mountain high tsunamis". Left unexplained is how a three mile wide asteroid that crosses the Earth's orbit went undetected before. Later, when the heroes of the book reach the future, they are informed that there are hybrid mutations that run rampant over the Earth as a result of genetic changes made by injecting genetic material into test subjects, which is a method that simply wouldn't work. And so on. Time and again, ridiculous events take place based on facts and processes that are not just speculative, but are simply contrary to known science.

For example, late in the book, after all the volcanoes on the Earth simultaneously erupt at once, the ash expelled makes normal methods of communication technology useless, so the heroes try to set up a communications laser to link to NASA's satellite network. But their laser isn't powerful enough, they decide they have to get "more laser power" to make it work. And so they set out get gather more lasers. At first, one wonders exactly where they are getting more lasers in rural Michigan, and how this will help. But later the when they are looking for that last little boost of "laser power", one of the characters remembers a cache of key chain laser pointers that he had stashed away. And at this point the reader realizes that the author thinks that one makes a more powerful laser by taking a bunch of tiny lasers and pointing them in the same direction  or something. Not only that, one realizes that the author didn't even bother to do enough research to find out that key chain "laser" pointers aren't actually lasers at all. In many ways, it seems like the author had a series of buzzwords - genetic engineering, solar beams, lasers, and so on that she felt she had to include to make it a "science fiction" novel, but wasn't willing to do the research necessary to understand how these elements worked.

The truly sad thing about the ridiculous science fiction that is in the book is that it wasn't really needed because the story is riddled with out and out fantasy. At first the fantasy elements consist of prophetic dreams and signs, but before too long the story includes visits from guardian angels and the acquisition of divinely provided super powers. It is when the five members of the "Seven Dreams" crew reach the ice-covered future (and acquire the final two members of their cadre) that the reader starts to wonder why the author bothered to include the pseudo-science about how time travel works, or anything else that transpired before. After they pick up some hover craft with futuristic "camouflage paint", the heroes wander about looking for MacGuffins, getting their bacon saved by guardian angels, and gaining the ability to shoot laser beams from their eyes, change reality with their imaginations, teleport from place to place, see the future, and other magical superpowers. Guardian angels carry messages back in time to warn the relatives the heroes left in the past about evil doers, which makes all of the efforts to manufacture and preserve a functioning time machine seem kind of pointless. More to the point, it makes pretty much everything the characters in the book do seem pointless if they are going to get saved at every turn by a deus ex machina.

And so the book pretty quickly falls into a fairly predictable and unexciting pattern. Each chapter opens up with a couple of verses of poetry that describe what will happen in the chapter. Then a character has a prophetic dream that describes what will happen in the chapter. Guided by the prophetic dream, the characters head off to find the next MacGuffin, an exercise that seems pointless, as all these MacGuffins do is tell the heroes where to find the next MacGuffin in a kind of cosmic scavenger hunt. On the way the heroes get themselves into trouble whereupon a guardian angel shows up and magics the trouble away. Finally, the guardian angel bestows magical powers on one of the members of the team. The "Seven Dreams" are color coded, having been given special badges before they set out to time travel, and their powers are supposed to have some sort of mystical connection to their color. Adding this to numerology, there seems to be no New Age woo that Francisco won't incorporate into her book. The color coding doesn't make much difference other than to allow the reader to keep track of the otherwise mostly indistinguishable characters by their particular color coded superpower. The individual "Seven Dreams" really don't matter much anyway, since they don't do much themselves other than following the directions given to them in prophetic dreams and then getting saved by angels.

Which highlights a problem that I have found in most Christian fantasy fiction I have read: The characters don't really do much of anything for themselves. In a book like Janette Oke's Love Comes Softly, which is more or less realistic fiction, the characters, although guided by their faith, operate in a fictional reality in which God's plan for them is not clear. But when God is sending prophetic visions and intervening directly into the story - to the extent that the hand of God literally reaches down from the heavens with a quill to write "I will prevail against all evil!" - then the characters aren't characters so much as they are chess pieces being moved about a cosmic chess board in which the game is rigged for God's side. This may seem theologically pleasing for certain evangelical brands of Christians, but it makes for a dull story. After all, if God is telling the heroes what to do and sending them direct assistance, a feeling of inevitability takes over the story. While we expect that usually a protagonist in a book will succeed, the dramatic tension in the story derives in large part from the possibility that they might fail. But when a deus ex machina isn't just a dramatic final turn of events, but rather a regular occurrence, failure becomes a non-factor, and the story becomes a dull process of following characters about as they do preordained tasks that they are preordained to succeed at. For example, the back cover blurb of the book says "[b]ut thanks to the forethought of their eccentric grandpa, the Stravos family has a chance of surviving this catastrophic disaster . . ." But their chance of surviving is not because of their grandpa's forethought, but rather because he had been bombarded with prophetic dreams for a decade and a half prior to the start of the book. Grandpa didn't do anything but follow instructions.

But this is more or less natural when one realizes that despite the extensive Stravos family tree near the opening of the book, the characters are mostly an undifferentiated mass with no individual identities. The characters who stay in the "present" quickly divide up into "grandpa", "the guy from NASA", "the other men", "the women", and "the children". The characters who travel to the future are mostly interchangeable except for their divine super powers, and quickly become little more than "the girl with laser eyes", "the guy who can read minds and control thoughts", "the guy who can teleport", and "the guy who can see the future". As an aside, I note that one does have to pause and wonder why any other members of the "Seven Dreams" are needed when one character is bestowed the ability to change reality with his imagination, a power that seems to encompass all the other Dreams' super powers and more. Any character who is a nonbeliever (and therefore might be an interesting counterpoint to the firmly devout main characters) is quickly shown to be a fool, and either immediately converts or gets killed. And why wouldn't they in the face of God hammering them over the head and shoulders with events too obvious to be called by the subtle name of "signs"? There is also a fair undercurrent of sexism in the book - while the men go out and get stuff done, the women stay home and take care of the children, cook for the menfolk, and tend the underground garden in the bunker. There is a plucky young heroine on the "Seven Dreams" team, but before the end of the book she is teamed up with an obvious future husband. Perhaps to cover up this lack of character development, the book is replete with Tom Swiftly's, the characters rarely "say" anything. Instead, they "intone", "report", "exclaim", "shout", or otherwise deliver their lines using a thousand different synonyms for "said".

One has to wonder sometimes if Christian fiction writers think their readers are dumb, because they seem to feel the need to spell everything out, just to make sure the reader doesn't miss it. To make sure the reader knows that the protagonists are properly devout, she makes sure to tell you early that they listen to Christian rock stations. The characters consult God (or are "in dialogue with God") over every decision, large or small. When grandpa is leading the family in prayers at a picnic they hold during the apocalypse, he pointedly invites anyone who has doubts to shed them and pray for guidance, a passage presented in bold text just in case the reader didn't understand that this is an important moment. Even the puzzles the characters face as they wander pointlessly about the snowbound Michigan landscape are obvious. Each MacGuffin is supposed to be something of a mystery, but the "mysteries" are as mundane as the characters getting a vision that they have to find something that says "WOLLOH PMAC" on it, and then when they find it and see its reflection they realize that they are meant to go to Camp Hollow. Apparently writing things backwards is enough to confound the devout.

I suppose this sort of dimness on the part of the heroes is okay, because the villain, former U.S. Vice-President turned World Dictator Victor Shesh has a plan so convoluted and nonsensical that having God send his chosen representatives on a pointless scavenger hunt seems brilliant in comparison. We learn that Shesh and Iranian intelligence operatives conspired to have an Iranian bomb destroy the Dome of the Rock, so everyone would get mad at the United States and attack with nuclear weapons, prompting a global catastrophe that would cause the leaders of the seven most powerful nations in the world to convene at a meeting in FEMA's secure site in Michigan. Because of the ongoing disasters, all of the leaders have to be transported to the meeting by the black helicopter squads, and as soon as they start the meeting, Iranian intelligence agents who had infiltrated the black helicopter squads break in and kill all the world leaders except for Shesh. And this plan makes sense because it is obviously easier to do all this rather than wait for these same people to meet in their regular annual meeting of the G7 and kill them there. Pardon me while I roll my eyes. Once in power, Shesh's plans don't make much more sense, because he rounds up all the scientists in the world and has them inject genetic material into people and various animals seemingly at random in an effort to create a way to make him immortal. And along the way, create a collection of hybrid monsters to serve him. But they serve him because he has microchips implanted into their heads, allowing him to exercise mind control, so one wonders why he need wolf-man hybrids, bat-man hybrids, fly-mosquito hybrids, and the completely pointless bat-mouse hybrids, as well as a further plethora of other agglutinated creates to serve him rather than just implanting microchips into the heads of ordinary people. The various mutated monsters are supposed to be the result of immortality experimentation, but it seems odd that one would come up with a mosquito-fly creature as a result (even leaving aside the idea that injecting genetic material into creatures would work at all). But the most baffling part of this plan of Shesh's is that in the end it is revealed that Shesh is actually Satan, which makes you wonder why he needed some sort of immortality serum at all. Not only is this part of Shesh/Satan's villainous plotting convoluted and nonsensical, it seems completely pointless as well.

And I haven't even gotten to the subplot involving the hemophilia of the male protagonists, and the genetically engineered flower that will cure both their bleeding disorder and all cancer, a subplot that doesn't make any more sense than anything else in the story. Or the strange "Afterward" that isn't actually an afterward, but is actually a plot summary of the book. Needless to say, Seven Wings and the Bleeding Twin Flowers is a mess. While the idea of a post-apocalyptic Christian science fiction story might have some promise, the bad science, the bad science fiction, the heavy handed divine intervention, the stilted and wooden characters, the completely bizarre nature of the antagonist's plots, and the convoluted, albeit divinely ordained, path the heroes follow to try to foil him, make the book simply excruciating to read.

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