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".

1 comment:

  1. I just read today about Cory Doctorow's new short story podcast on Boing Boing too.

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