Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Imagine my delight at finding another Christian science fiction book at my local library. It's rare to find books like that, so finding Ice by Shane Johnson was a treat.

At least it was until I started reading it.

I didn't care for this book at all. To put it bluntly, it's an altar call wrapped in a science fiction story, one that really didn't work for me.

The premise itself is interesting: Johnson creates a counterfactual history where the Apollo program was extended to Apollo 20. On this fictional Apollo 19, two astronauts are sent to the lunar south pole, only to have the lander malfunction and strand them there. As their supplies run low, the two astronauts head out into the darkness to see what they can see. And that's when they make a discovery that could easily set the whole world on its ear.

I won't say much more than that. I will, however, explain some of my frustration with a sort of running commentary.

The initial crisis, namely the malfunctioning lander, comes pretty early in the story (hence why I said that it happens; it's not much of a spoiler). It helps kick things off, but it made me worry. Johnson engages in some heavy-handed preaching in his book and it starts when the lander's engine won't fire. One of the stranded astronauts is a Christian and the other isn't, so naturally, the Christian starts witnessing to the non-Christian. And I grew worried because I feared that the entire book would turn into one long altar call set on the moon between two doomed men. It didn't, but I'll explain why I worried about this in a little bit.

My second real frustration came when Johnson created a scene where NASA scientists conclude that the best explanation for why the engine didn't fire was because it was Lunar Module #13. Seriously. That's the explanation they come up with and there's nothing better offered. This might be Monday morning quarterbacking, but it might have satisfied me more if Johnson came up with a better reason. Maybe something broke that the astronauts can't fix. I don't know, but the mysterious break-down and nonsensical partial explanation just didn't work.

So off the astronauts go, deep into the lunar darkness, and I braced myself for more heavy handed preaching. That didn't happen, thankfully, as the two astronauts made their startling discovery (I won't say what it is in case you want to read this for yourself).

Shortly thereafter, I was able to predict what the rest of the book was going to be. And the sad thing is, I nailed it. Perfectly. I was able to predict every single last turn (except for one). And that really annoyed me.

To add to my frustration, Johnson threw in a weird time bending plot line that made absolutely no sense whatsoever. I mean, he had to do it to get some of his information across, but as I was reaidng it, I kept thinking, "No way. No way. No way." My disbelief refused to remain suspended and kept rattling in its cage.

By the time the book wrapped up (with more heavy handed preaching and some well nigh nonsensical speculation about the antedeluvial world and allegorical interpretation of some Biblical stories that came completely out of left field), I was glad I didn't spend any money on this book.

Now maybe some people will enjoy this. I didn't. While Johnson clearly knows his stuff about NASA and the Apollo program, that didn't excuse what I thought was a poorly crafted story, especially since it's clear that Johnson didn't think through who his target audience was going to be.

That's what I think a lot of Christian ficiton suffers from. When I was in the Seminary, one of the things we were told about preaching was that we should always keep our audience in mind. Who is going to hear our sermons? What are they like? How educated are they? How many will be Christian? What sort of temptations will they be going through? That sort of thing.

Johnson apparently believed that his book would be read by non-Christians, hence the lengthy preachy passages about accepting Christ and coming to faith. But really, how many non-Christians do you know who will go and pick up a Christian book out of the blue? The only reason why they would is if it was either recommended to them by a Christian friend or if the book itself generates enough buzz.

In other words, Johnson's main problem was that he was preaching to the choir. I'd be willing to bet that most of the people who pick up his book are already Christians. So the altar call business is wasted space. By and large, his audience will already know that stuff. That's part of the reason why I appreciate Christian novels that understand that their readers are already Christians and try to focus on issues and ideas that Christians might struggle with.

I seem to have gone off on a tangent here. Sorry. To sum up, not a good book. Skip it unless you're really curious.



Any non-Christian who picks up a book like that might feel they've been tricked or lied to, expecting to read a story but getting a sermon instead. No wonder some people avoid anything with the word "Christian" attached.

I have a few peeves about storytelling, and bludgeoning the audience with the Bible is one of them. Any witnessing or sermonizing should be an organic part of the story, and should never be heavy-handed. That's my opinion.

Some pieces of Christian fiction I've read would serve better as Sunday morning sermon illustrations rather than novels.

Brandon Barr said...

Good review. I agree with Keanan above...witnessing and sermonizing must be intrinisic to the characters and the story.