Thursday, 26 November 2009

"The Legend of St. Ignatz" and "Article of Faith"

I listened to two more fantastic science fiction short stories the other day. I chose them because they sounded like they would address religious themes, and was pleasantly surprised to find that both stories have priests as protagonists (and hence, are relevant to my honours thesis).

Samantha Henderson, "The Legend of Saint Ignatz the Provider"

A brilliantly written, and darkly amusing, short story. The narrative which follows Ignatz - a corrupt, alcoholic priest - is broken up by excerpts from the "legend" which becomes of his life after he is beatified. Neither the priest nor the Church come off particularly well in this story, since both are corrupt and greedy, with little concern for others. The story seemed a little unbalanced, because there was no positive representation of the clergy - the priest and his contacts higher-up are very disagreeable. However, a couple of peripheral characters, who we know to be Christian, are presented positively, and greatly dislike the behaviour of the drunken priest.

I believe the primary goal of the story is humor and irony, rather than a serious commentary on the Church (though Church corruption and perhaps the process of beatification are criticised). The story is also funny because Henderson is, according to her website, a church office coordinator. Didn't see that one coming.

Click for full text (via Ideomancer) or audio (via Escape Pod).

Mike Resnick, "Article of Faith"

This story, nominated for a Hugo award in 2009, tells of a robot, hired to clean a small church, who comes to believe in God after discussing Christianity with the priest, listening to his sermons, and reading the Bible. The story is told from the perspective of the church's priest, who is very happy to talk to the robot and pleased at his interest in God - until the priest angrily declares that the robot cannot be a member of his parish because he has no soul. When the robot attends the church service regardless, the congregation is outraged. After talking with the robot, the priest encourages the congregation to consider allowing him to join them, since he expresses a genuine desire to worship God. The intolerance of the parishioners, however, leads them to kill the robot, whereupon the priest resigns and becomes a carpenter.

I found the sudden introduction of anti-robot sentiment to be unprecedented and unusual, since there is no indication of it before the priest's angry outburst at the robot - before which point he is eager to share his faith with him. The story is also awkwardly heavy with allusions to the robot being a Christ-like martyr for his faith. Most interesting to me is how the (science-fictional) dilemma the priest finds himself in causes him to renounce his calling and leave the church. He comes to realise that the church is inherently intolerant - indeed, they are violently so - and this revelation changes him. While he doesn't seem to fully renounce his faith and disbelieve in God, he certainly ceases his devout religiosity. In this respect, I found the story to be rather anti-religious, since all the church-goers are portrayed as violent and intolerant cold-blooded killers.

Click for full text (via Jim Baen's Universe) or audio (via Escape Pod).

I've started reading James Blish's A Case of Conscience, which is great so far. I'm just trying to find the time to read some more! Also, it's been a while since I've read any Gene Wolfe, which I realised today when I was discussing The Book of the New Sun with a coworker at the library (who I convinced to read it, and who absolutely adores the book so far). Perhaps I should gobble down some more Wolfe short stories...

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Elizabeth Bear's Dust

Just finished reading Dust by Elizabeth Bear. It was overall a quite enjoyable book, though I did not find myself particularly attached to any of the characters, not even the protagonists, Perceval and Rien, who perhaps weren't as well developed as they could have been. Nevertheless, the story was interesting, and the world that Bear created is immense and creative - I look forward to seeing it explored more in the rest of the series (Dust is the first book in a planned trilogy).

The story begins with Perceval, an Exalt from Engine, being taken into captivity by Ariane of Rule, who mercilessly amputates Perceval's wings in order to humiliate her. Rien, a servant in Rule, is given the responsibility of caring for Perceval while she is in prison. It is soon revealed to Rien that Perceval is her half-sister, and Rien orchestrates their escape from Rule, thereby saving Perceval from certain death at the hands of the war-mongering Ariane. The two escape and begin their adventure through the intergenerational spaceship known as Jacob's Ladder.

Elsewhere on the massive spacecraft, powerful artificial intelligences, calling themselves "angels", battle for control over Jacob's Ladder. The most powerful of these, Jacob Dust, has an obsession with Perceval. Unlike Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun (with which Dust bears a great many similarities), where the ship's AIs are called "gods" because they created a pantheistic religion aboard the ship in order that they be worshipped and obeyed, the reasons behind Bear's AIs being referred to as "Angels" and "Gods" is never clear.

We do, however, discover that Jacob's Ladder was launched as a project of forced evolution - the one paragraph blurb of Dust's sequel, Chill, indicates that the project was orchestrated by a religious cult - though this is not particularly clear in Dust itself, where the mixture of evolutionary science and Judeo-Christian religion is awkward and for the most part unexplained. Furthermore, it is often unclear whether the religious symbolism (e.g. the name "Jacob's Ladder" itself, and the desire to attain "divinity" through forced evolution) is intended literally or metaphorically. To further confuse matters, of the 29 chapter epigraphs (!!), three are from the "New Evolutionist Bible" (apparently a translation of the Christian Bible which actually appears in the book itself) and one is from the "New Evolutionist Funeral Service". So far as I can tell (through much googling), these are entirely fictional creations of Bear. The builders of the Jacob's Ladder, we surmise, must be these "New Evolutionists". Hopefully this will be developed more in-depth in the next two books.

The only other gripe I have is that the ending seemed to come out of nowhere [spoilers ahoy]. When Rien eats the plumb, containing one of the AIs in virus form, she alters the virus and transmits the code to Perceval, and through Perceval's connection with Dust, manages to re-write Dust's programming and free Perceval from his clutches. Upon essentially merging herself with Dust and the virus, Rein's physical body and mecha suit suddenly disintigrate (turn to dust - how poetic, if scientifically implausible), and a new super-powerful AI is born. What I fail to comprehend is how Rien, who until a few days earlier had spent her entire life as a servant, was suddenly able to re-write what must have been the incredibly complex programming of the virus and then re-write the programming of Dust and all other AI in Jacob's Ladder in a matter of seconds. It seemed that Bear was pulling a rabbit out of a hat with this out of nowhere ending (much like the sword out of the hat resolution in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). I had seen no indication that Rien possessed the amazing abilities that she displayed at the end in her defeat / reprogramming of Dust.

Nevertheless, the story was quite intriguing, and enjoyable to read. Bear's writing can be lucid and poetic, though this isn't maintained throughout, and some things, such as the hermaphrodite sex scene and the recurring theme of incest, just made me cringe. Perhaps that makes me intolerant and closed minded, but I couldn't bring myself to get celebrate a romance between half-sisters. I did, however, find the blend of science fiction and fantasy to be fascinating - I love writing that blends these genres (as Wolfe does), and Bear does this very well. The interplay between science and religion in the story had me wanting to read more. I'll have to read the sequel, Chill, when it is released next year.

More info on Dust and Bear's other writing can be found at her website here. Now, to start reading James Blish's A Case of Conscience...

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Podcasts; "Come All Ye Faithful" by Robert J. Sawyer

After listening to StarShipSofa, I decided to scour the internet and find what other sf audio podcasts were out there. Lo and behold, I discovered Escape Pod, and its fantasy-centred sibling PodCastle. (The same team also does a horror podcast, Pseudopod, but horror isn't really my gig).

Episode 220 of Escape Pod has a narration of Robert J. Sawyer's "Come All Ye Faithful", a fascinating sf story which deals with religion. With the protagonist and narrator being a priest, the story was of particular interest to me due to my upcoming honours thesis on priests as protagonists in sf. The story follows the only Catholic priest on Mars as he sets off from the colony of Bradbury (fantastic choice of name by the way) to investigate an apparent sighting of the Virgin Mary elsewhere on the red planet. Arriving at the location of the apparent sighting (made by a popular televangelist via telescope from Earth), the priest looks around and finds nothing but sand. Reporting back to the Vatican, however, the priest fabricates a fanciful story about a miraculous encounter with the Virgin, thereby corroborating the televangelist's vision. As a result of the priest's lie, many Catholics pilgrimage to Mars and stay there permanently. We are led to pity these poor religious fools, who base their lives upon lies - fabrications made to reinforce their faith.

I was thoroughly enjoying the story up to the point where the priest fabricated his story - a turn which I found very bizarre, primarily because it did not seem to be in keeping with the priest's character. The priest is not only a devout Catholic, but also a scientist - an expert astronomer. He is intelligent, friendly, and, for most of the story anyway, quite likable. Needless to say, his fabrication is a gross violation of scientific method. It also seems incomprehensible to me why someone who genuinely believes in miraculous visions, as the priest claims he does, would feel the need to fabricate one, and lie so openly about it. The logical conclusion is that the priest must, then, be insincere in his faith - living a lie he does not truly believe. Were his faith to be genuine, he would surely have believed that the Catholic religion could stand up on its own, without the need to fabricate such miracles - though perhaps this was the point. When he makes up his story, he seems to be reluctantly accepting a necessary part of his job - as though it were a longstanding tradition for Catholic priests to corroborate false miracles. In this respect, Catholicism is presented as a faith predicated on lies - a religion which relies upon fabrications to keep on going.

Although the Mars scientists and colonists are, for the most part, presented as bigots, their condescension on the priest and his religion turn out to be well founded. Far from breaking down traditional barriers between "science" and "religion" (or "rationality" and "faith"), the story ends up reinforcing this irritating and all too common stereotype. The idea of a truly devout priest who is also an intelligent scientist seems to be too much for Sawyer to handle, so he presents the priest as being full of contradictions. The priest cannot be both faithful and scientific, rational and spiritual, so he must compromise on one (or both) of these things.

Overall, religion (Catholicism specifically) does not come off well in this story. The priest is a duplicitous liar who feels it is necessary to fabricate miracles in order to maintain his religion. The irritating televangelist (who just made me cringe) is thrown in just to make religion even less likable - not that the story needed any help in this respect. All the story serves to do, in the end, is reinforce the false dichotomy between "rationality" ("truth") and "faith" ("lies"). Nevertheless, it as an interesting read (or listen), and would be worth checking out, even if only for the fantastic jokes, such as the simile to "farting in an airlock" and the priest's mock-relief that he isn't "preaching to the converted".

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Free Will and Determinism in The Book of the New Sun

I recently finished re-reading Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer, paying particular attention to religious, spiritual, and philosophical themes and discussions. And there is certainly no shortage of such material. One of the central themes, which grows in importance as the series progresses, is the question of free will and determinism. Specifically, to what extent is Severian "in control" of what transpires in the narrative? How much of what he does has already been determined by forces greater than himself? And what role does God play the events?

The opening line of the book – "It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future" (p. 9) – signals that some kind of "destiny" or "fate" is at work in Severian's life. His future is set. We are forced to ask who, or what, has set his future.

There are implications of divine providence throughout The Book of the New Sun, with constant reference to the Pancreator / Increate (God / Holy Spirit) being sovereign over all things. However, we are never given any conclusive evidence of this one way or the other.

Later in the book, we find that highly advanced alien creatures (cacogens, Hierodules, giant sea creatures, etc) have been interfering in Severian's life from very early on – perhaps before he was even born. Severian's manipulation by Agia and Agilus throughout The Shadow of the Torturer may serve as a parallel for his manipulation by powerful alien forces throughout the entire story.

The free will / determinism problem is further complicated by the introduction of time travel – especially Severian's ability to step into the "corridors of time" and go into the past, thereby altering the future. At the end of The Citadel of the Autarch, Severian speculates that he was not the first Severian, and that there have been many Severians before him who have gone into the past and changed the future (his life). We find in The Urth of the New Sun that these alterations to Severian and his life were all for the purpose of having him pass the test necessary to bring the New Sun (which previous incarnations of him had failed). Perhaps Severian, through time travel, has taken his own free will away?

Another way in which determinism works its way into the story is through Severian being driven by his own desires – yearnings that he is not fully in control of. Severian discusses this in one of my favourite passages from The Shadow of the Torturer, which comes as he discusses the difficult exegesis of the tale of Ymar:
The difficulty lies in learning that we ourselves encompass forces equally great. We say, "I will," and "I will not," and imagine ourselves (though we obey the orders of some prosaic person every day) our own masters, when the truth is that our masters are sleeping. One wakes within us and we are ridden like beasts, though the rider is but some hitherto unguessed part of ourselves. (p. 159)
Severian, it seems, regards his actions as predetermined by his inner desires, which "wake" and "ride" him. These desires appear to be beyond his control. This sounds like a fatalism which sees the human being as entirely determined by their biology and their experiences – nature and nurture.

Whichever of these be the case, we are given ample evidence of the determinism at work in the narrative. With implications that events have been set by biological and cultural determinism, time travel paradoxes, manipulation by more powerful beings, or divine providence, Severian never seems to be fully in control of his actions, or the events in which he is involved. But then again, who is? 

Quotations are taken from: Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer, in The Book of the New Sun – Volume 1: Shadow and Claw, Fantasy Masterworks edition (London: Gollancz, 2000).