Karen Hancock's debut novel Arena is another SF offering from Christian publisher Bethany House, following 2001's facile and derivative Oxygen. Hancock is a pretty imaginative writer whose story is an SFnal take on Pilgrim's Progress with a smidgen of Paradise Lost.
The premise isn't bad, even if it is simplistic in a Hollywood high-concept kind of way, but the book is ham-fisted as a religious allegory. It's a shame that I have to come down so hard on books like this, but I have yet to see a work of contemporary Christian entertainment that has any real appeal for a secular audience. As proficient as it might be — and there are plenty of things to admire about Arena — this kind of entertainment is mostly designed to make the faithful feel good about themselves. And the message-mongering that comes with the territory is often so lacking in subtlety that we unbelievers can get downright sardonic. In the end, what I found interesting about Arena was to observe the way Hancock was dramatizing the age-old "test of faith" motif, and what this revealed about how she, as a very devout Christian (her acknowledgments page thanks both Jesus and God individually, though the Holy Ghost is snubbed), views the world. Is modern Christianity really this rooted in fear?
Arena begins poorly but improves as it goes. Our heroine, Callie Hayes, turns up at this research facility one day to earn a few bucks volunteering for some psychological experiments. Callie's doubts about whether she wants to go through with it aren't helped by the wild-eyed weirdo in the waiting room who tells her the research staff are all aliens. But dang it all if he isn't right! Just as Callie has decided to blow the whole thing off, she finds she isn't allowed to leave. All at once she is mysteriously teleported to a bleak and forbidding landscape known as the Arena, with only a small pack of supplies and a manual (representing the Bible, natch) at her disposal.
That Bible — er, excuse me, manual — is of course at the core of this novel's theme: the dangers of not following Life's Little Instruction Book. The Bi — uh, manual tells Callie that she is to head directly for the nearest Gate and at no time is she to stray from the "white path." In good old literalist fashion, there is indeed a white path winding its way through the strange empty landscape. Off in the distance there are frightening beasts and man-eating plants waiting to grab poor Callie, but as long as she stays on the straight and narrow, they can't get her. But does she stray? Of course she does. Silly girl, she ends up taking a "sucker path" (that looks white but is actually pink) when she comes to a fork in the road and chooses not the path that leads upward (because she's scared of heights, which represents her unwillingness to take the leap of faith, you see) but the easier-looking path that leads down.
Callie soon meets up with a ragged-looking man named Pierce who stuns her by claiming he's been in the Arena for five years. Pierce is part of a ragtag band of travelers heading towards the Inner Realm, where the real Gate that leads out is said to be. At first Callie is worried that Pierce and his gang might be some of the "distractions" that the manual warns her against. But after hearing from so many of them their tales of woe and futility in trying to follow the rules and find their way out, Callie falls in with their band. They head towards the Inner Realm, which is ringed by massive cliffs. You end up with a metaphor migraine as you read of how so many people have tried to find their own way up those cliffs and failed. There are so many choices...will Callie make the right one?
Allegories are most successful when they aren't slapping you across the face. Arena, despite Hancock's skill in establishing an eerie and foreboding atmosphere, is so transparent and obvious that it comes off at times like a creative writing assignment. Hancock is more than competent at staging a scene, but with a few exceptions the emotional content usually resorts to the melodramatic. Characters respresenting temptation — even sexual temptation, though, this being a Christian novel, sexual feelings lead to guilt — and doubt throw Callie into confusion. (Indeed, there's a frankness about sex and violence in the book that might disconcert many in Hancock's target audience.)
On the praiseworthy side, Hancock has done a good job of giving the Arena landscape an effectively nightmarish character in the best scenes. Hancock is no Milton, but it works pretty well and at times really seems like the kind of place you'd see in a bad dream. And a few of Hancock's characterizations are sufficiently well fleshed out to make you bite your tongue in frustration at how good a novelist she could be if only she'd step out from behind the pulpit. Pierce is an intriguingly enigmatic fellow whom Hancock reveals slowly, layer by layer. We learn that he was once held captive by the fearsome, mutant-like Trogs who wander Arena's wilderness (and who, of course, represent complete capitulation to sin). Pierce's experience still torments him, largely because as frightening as it was, part of it holds a monstrous attraction. Pierce, as a character, does a far more dramatically effective job of conveying the theme of being spiritually adrift than any of Hancock's banal visual metaphors of cliffs, chasms, and white paved roads.
Ultimately, the novel falls back upon an unsurprisingly simplistic solution: the way out of Arena isn't really a big puzzle requiring great ingenuity after all. It simply involves asking the Benefactor — aka You-Know-Who — for help. (God pops up late in the book as a character called Elhanu.) That's Callie's real choice in the book: just ask God, and all of life's trevails magically waft away. The idea that you really don't need to worry about anything in life because your Invisible Friend will take care of you is one that I continue to find amazing people take seriously. But if you're inclined to think of life as a bleak, nightmarish wasteland where frightening monsters lurk behind every turn, waiting to pounce, then I suppose such a philosophy, wrong-headed and shallow as it is, would be appealing.
Arena is put together with enough talent that it cannot be dismissed like some feeble apologist tract, but your enjoyment of it will firmly rest upon whether or not you buy Christianity's assumptions. I left Arena thinking about Hancock's depiction of a test of faith by aliens, reminded of a conversation I recently had with one of my godless friends. We've all heard Arthur C. Clarke's famous maxim that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." If humanity encountered an alien being of vast, incomprehensible powers beyond our imagining, wouldn't such an alien be indistinguishable from a god (or God)? What would be the difference between a god and an incredibly advanced alien, other than how someone chooses to feel about him?