Backyard Rocket

Through the power of relativity, a million-year picnic may pass in an hour.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


I found it interesting that though one of the themes of the novel seemed to be the infinite scope of the universe, only individual planets or systems have a "windward" to look to. Just a thought.
I've never read a Banks novel before, and though his style of the nearly disconnected narratives was disconcerting at first, I decided I enjoyed it. It was interesting and gave better scope to the species and cultures Banks portrayed, as well as throwing the plot through some interesting developments without spelling them out explicitly.
On par with our theme of "sufficiently advanced technology" there was a lot to explore. There were multiple formats the issue took, from the soulkeepers and devised heavens to virtual reality experiences. It also raises questions like, "If my culture becomes so advanced that we no longer really die but merely live a pleasant existence of virtual reality adventures and meddle in other slightly less-advanced worlds' affairs in our spare time, could some of those worlds potentially get angry and try to destroy us in some horrific manner?" If technology did advance so far, what would people do? Would we all just throw ourselves into reckless adventures and lava rafting, even though it's no longer reckless? Advanced technology could bring with it some frightening behavior, and boredom.


Setting out to explore the unknown.
The domination of one class by another.
An authoritarian state.
How we justify our actions.
Religion, and its uses.
The concept of the self.
The male/female divide.
What it is to be human.
The right of creation.
The importance of symbols.
Coping with the actions we can't justify.
The threat of what is different.
The need for what is different.
The urge to destroy what is different.
The urge to understand what is different.
The meaning of faith.
The clash of cultures.
The power of forgiveness.
The search for meaning.

These are all themes we've explored this semester, in the readings and in the movies. Universal, general themes that tie our own experiences to the fantastic worlds presented, that allow us to relate to what we read and watch on a very basic level. Allow me to do it all at once.

Abroham looked with terror at the body of his son-construct Izak. He had followed the instructions of the Book to the letter; he had opened the case and removed Izak's nanochips, installed them in himself and waited for the clarity that was supposed to arise. All he felt was revulsion for the human female who had given him the Book, promising that it would restore both he and Izak to their fullest capabilities if they would obey its words. Wildly, he cast his transceiver in every direction, but there was no response from his child; no soul had left the body to be with God, as the woman had promised.
Abroham came to a decision. He summoned his servants, small mammalian creatures with nanochips embedded in their minds which enabled him to control them via his transceiver. After they polished his chassis, he made his way to the jump-pod he kept in a storage shed. He set the coordinates for the site the woman claimed to have made her camp at, in the midst of a forest that Abroham had never even seen. Upon arrival, he eschewed subtlety and tore his way through the trees, intent on finding her as quickly as possible.
Before long, the noise he was making attracted her. She emerged from a copse clad only in white robes, beaming at him.
"Hello, Abroham." Ruth said. "How is Izak?"
"Dead, woman." responded the bereaved father-maker. "He did not rise again, as you claimed. He was not spared." His servos whirred, the better to express his rage, but she did not seem to understand.
"Abroham, I think you misunderstood me." she intoned. "Izak is not to rise in this life, but in the next, and live forever! What you did is the cornerstone of my people's culture, the beginning of the awakening, the glorious covenant-"
"Silence, woman! My son-construct is gone. Who, now, will repair my couplings when I am failing? Who will tend my electric sheep once I have crashed?"
For once, Ruth appeared confused. "Where I come from, Abroham, the government endorses this practice. In my homeland, it is necessary that we give up the firstborn son, as a symbol of our belief and faith."
Abroham ejected oil in derision. "Izak was not born, woman. I designed and built him, to be the perfect replacement for me. We are not a people of faith. Our government does not require any shows of belief. We are a people of what is here and what is real."
Ruth smiled. "God is real, Abroham. God appreciates your sacrifice, even if your government does not. And perhaps such a government is not the right one for you, if it does not even respect what you give up for it?"
Abroham's diodes flashed with suspicion. "Was this sacrifice for your God, or for my government?"
Again, Ruth's mysterious, knowing smile. "For me, they are the same. If it is not so for you, then I suggest you consider a change of government."
Abroham set himself down, heavily. He suddenly felt very obsolete. "I still don't understand, woman. Why did you make me do this? Why have I scrapped my son?" He turned his transceiver to stare at her, and was surprised to see that she had placed her hand on his chassis.
"What you are, and what I am, and what Izak was, Abroham," she said, "these are all a part of the same great thing. Izak has merely rejoined it a bit earlier. And now you will prosper, under the guidance of God."
Abroham shook his head, using a gesture he had seen her use when disagreeing with him. "You misunderstand, woman. You misunderstand what making him cost me. Following you and your God has doomed my model. I just want to know why it works for you, but not for me. Why does your God save your children, but not mine?"
It was now Ruth's turn to shake her head. "Our children die as well, but we have more, and we prosper. As shall you, Abroham!"
Abroham felt his servos shutting down in despair. "No, Ruth, no! We do not have others! We are dependent on one, and I have made a terrible mistake."
Ruth pressed herself against his body, sending his temperature controls momentarily active as they sought to protect her from his internal heat. "God will forgive you, Abroham. He loves you, and you have shown that you love him. God will forgive you, as I do. Now you must forgive yourself."
"I have scrapped my son-construct, then taken parts of him into me. I will not forgive myself."
"You must."
"I cannot."


Well, especially considering the lengths of my last posts, I'll try to keep this one very short. The hour has little to do with it, I swear. To that end, I'll eschew talking about the actual plot and focus on Banks' general style. (And I'll just add that I love post-scarcity economies. And I thought a Replicator where you could order "Tea. Earl Gray. Hot." was good...)

To me, the novel felt like a series of fascinating vignettes, almost completely self-contained little stories that with a serious amount of cleverness coalesce into a really fun story. The opening event reminded me of a dinner party in a mid-'70s Woody Allen movie - high praise, indeed.

Banks keeps hitting on some pretty heavy stuff in this vignette format - especially the veracity of experiences in a world where virtual reality is so ubiquitous and lifespans are virtually infinite.
~With one of these silvery things and an implant people here probably never have to actually remember the name of a single other person.
~I wonder if they ever forget their own. (p. 188)

Bam. And then it's gone, and we're back in what we can only term to be the "real world." Same thing with the "what is edible?" question near the beginning. I don't have an exact direction where I'm going with this; rather, I just really enjoy Banks' stylistic treatment of these great little existential questions that go to the core of one's being. Thank god Jack Burden wasn't around. (Eh, I lie. All the King's Men is one of my favorite books, but Idealism? Come on.)

Perhaps in the end, these vignettes end up being more Ingmar Bergman, one of Woody's idols, than Woody himself. There's just something in the whole thing that conjures images of playing chess with Death and delivering long monologues at right-angles to the camera.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Turtles of the Rebellion

Several people posted about Sofia’s role in the revolution. The consensus seems to be that the revolution would still have occurred without her, but that it may not have reached the same scale, or that it may have gone differently. If we’re referring to another member of the original crew taking her place in being the leader of the rebellion, then the full development of the revolution is possible, though her ability to learn just about anything and her affinity for technology certainly were indispensable to the Runa. However, if we’re talking about her having died as we thought at the end of the first book, leaving no one to help lead the rebellion, I’m not sure how far it would have gone. The Runa who go with her into the forest at first seem content to let the conflict blow over and return to their homes, but her continued insistence that they should fight against their oppressors convinces them to propagate the movement. I think that if Sofia had died, the rebellion would have died shortly thereafter.

Also, every time we talk about multiple turtles on fence posts, for some reason, in my head, it turns into multiple turtles on one fence post. So, for your viewing pleasure:

Sunday, April 27, 2008

We Are Star Stuff

[Response to "Carl Sagan's Religion" - I will dispense with a traditional introduction, considering this post already borders on 3,000 words.]

I realize that declaring religion and science as monolithic concepts is false and somewhat unsatisfying. I will use the term “science” to generally mean the “hard sciences” that deal in empiricism and skepticism, which base themselves on the scientific method. For religion, I generally mean those institutions based on the faith that there is a higher power that created the universe and at some point influenced humans to have faith in it. Because I am most familiar with these, my statements will mainly involve those religions which believe that the word of their God is contained in the various books of the Bible, though my arguments are not confined to the Abrahamic religions.

This essay’s purpose is twofold: first, I will directly examine PTJ’s claim of “Carl Sagan’s religion;” second, I will examine the validity of the “live and let live” sentiment in terms of the intersection of science and religion. I need not directly address PTJ’s statement, “A coincidence's status as a miracle is neither provable nor disprovable. It's not a scientific claim.” Instead, I will end up addressing it as a natural consequence of the course of my argument.

[I am, of course, not without my own influences. I have never been religious, though for a long time I thought that I was with the majority. Back in elementary school, I knew many people who went to church, but none of them seemed to actually believe in God; rather, they seemed to believe that church was a waste of a beautiful Sunday and something their parents made them go to. (I’ve been to eight religious services in my life: my christening, a Catholic mass in the “Screaming Children’s Room” with my grandmother (I wasn’t screaming, for the record), two Presbyterian services in Pittsburgh, a bar and a bat mitzvah, and two Passover seders.) My ordered thought on this topic, then, comes a bit more recently and draws its influences from Carl Sagan, by way of Douglas Adams, running it by his longtime friend Richard Dawkins (who, no matter what I may think of his methods, aligns with my argument at the moment), passing it to Arthur C. Clarke. Pity only Dawkins and I are alive, probably the least agreeable of the five.]

Santa Claus is Coming
Do you believe that an omnipotent being not only created the universe, but that it continues to manage the events on a thoroughly ordinary blue-green planet in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the galaxy, causing genuinely inexplicable events to occur? Let me rephrase: Do you believe that a large man in a red suit flying a sleigh powered by reindeer visits the individual residences of millions of children in a single night?

I know it’s a cheap shot. But they are both explanations for what seem to be inexplicable events. To a child not familiar with the laws of physics, the Santa Claus myth is plausible. What other explanation could there possibly be for those toys that show up than a fat man who comes down a chimney?

Of course, the nature of Santa Claus is completely falsifiable, or is it? Of course, a single fat man could not and is not responsible for those toys getting there. But the toys appear nevertheless. Is it indeed possible that Santa Claus is a god who influences parents to buy toys for their children? Should universities have a Santa Claus studies chair in their religion departments?

We worry about children who, after a certain age, do not reject the Santa Claus myth. But why? Does it matter if people continue to believe in Santa Claus? What possible harm could come from it?

Carl Sagan’s Religion
Carl Sagan was indeed an eloquent and outspoken proponent of science and skepticism. He was also an outspoken opponent of pseudoscience and illogic. His life’s work was teaching science to the masses. Cosmos was the most watched public television series in US broadcasting history and the accompanying book is one of the most popular non-fiction books ever written. It would be safe to say that his life’s work was at least partially successful.

One of the arguments commonly posed against Sagan’s was that the pursuit of science is emotionally unfulfilling. His specific answer to that was, as PTJ rightly points out, that the knowledge (Latin: scientia) of the universe is itself a fulfilling endeavor. It is important to note that in all of his writings that I have encountered, he carefully divorces his sentiments from his empirical work. (He was always careful to do the same thing when addressing things like SETI and the Drake Equation.)

Is this indeed Carl Sagan’s religion, as PTJ contends? Certainly, the wonder is evident in Sagan’s eyes when you watch Cosmos. His exuberance is evident in his writing. We are, he was fond of saying, “star stuff contemplating star stuff.” So this is certainly Sagan’s answer to the religious argument that science is unfulfilling. But is it religion?

Without trying to sound too semantic, Webster will be my guide for a moment. Religious is defined as “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.” [Emphasis mine] On the surface, PTJ’s contention cannot be discounted because deity is not the only possible path to religiosity. “Faithful devotion,” though – let’s dig deeper.

Faith has a more complex definition. “2(1): belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2): complete trust; 3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially: a system of religious beliefs” If we take the third definition and remove the “especially,” we still cannot remove Sagan’s statement from the realm of religion. It strikes me, though, that all these definitions hinge on the word “belief.” Let’s dig deeper still.

This gets even messier. Believe is defined as follows: “1 a: to have a firm religious faith b: to accept as true, genuine, or real.” We’ve still gone nowhere. The definition of belief, though, is somewhat more enlightening. An excerpt from the synonyms section: “belief may or may not imply certitude in the believer . faith almost always implies certitude even where there is no evidence or proof .”

Here we are. To (over)simplify, belief allows for doubt whereas faith does not. Carl Sagan had many beliefs. He never contended that they are facts. In his “manifesto for clear thought,” The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan ends many sections with the words, “But I might be wrong.” His point is that knowledge is asymptotic; that we cannot know “the truth,” but that we can get pretty damn close (Sagan 28). By and large, though, religion deals in absolutes. “Birth control is against the will of God.” Says who? “God.” Prove it. “I’m a manifestation of God and I said so, QED.” One must take it on faith that birth control is against the will of God, and that the real reason behind the statement isn’t more something like, if you don’t allow your flock to use birth control, you will bolster your numbers. (In practice, this is called Irish Catholicism.) Of course, I still can’t prove that God isn’t against birth control, but I can draw upon strong evidence to indicate that the terrestrial origins of such a stance are much more rooted in realpolitik than divinity.

Sagan’s statements about the nature of the universe can indeed be considered “religious” by a loose but accurate definite of the word. They are indeed a set of beliefs surrounding an ultimate truth; however, they are markedly different from conventional religion because they do not proclaim to know or have a monopoly on the truth. Where traditional religions are conservative in that they are loath to consider new evidence that would suggest their fallibility, Sagan’s view of the universe is progressive, inviting new ideas about the nature of nature. If we are to call Sagan’s beliefs his religion, as we may do, we must include the caveat that those beliefs are nothing like the religions that we know.

Sagan uses Newton as his example (Sagan 33). For three hundred years or so, scientists believed Newtonian physics explained the universe. Then Albert Einstein came along and showed that Newton was only an estimation of the actual mechanisms of physics. Indeed, Newton’s physics works very well for conditions that we see in everyday life and is used to model those situations. I defy anyone to find a single scientist, though, who still believes that Newtonian physics is more accurate or explanatory than Einstein. (I know that this is a horrible oversimplification of classical mechanics as well as relativity and quantum theory as classical mechanics is still a usable model for "normal" conditions, but I believe that the point stands.) It is hard to imagine a mainstream religion that so easily rejects something at the core of its “belief” system that is proved to be false and indeed not only rejects its former belief center but also actively looks to poke holes in its new one. (Again, this is an oversimplification, but I mean more than “questioning one’s faith.”)

What’s the harm, though? Why not let religions do their own thing? Why do I go out of my way to contrast skepticism and religion? Why can I not just let the two coexist? Indeed, the question returns: what possible harm could come of it?

The Jews Are the Chosen People
Genesis 17:13 reads, “He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.” Judaism and Islam particularly take this message to heart; circumcision rates approach 100% in Jews and Muslims. There is strong evidence that circumcision significantly reduces one’s risk of contracting HIV. Therefore, God has chosen those religions to survive AIDS at a greater rate. (The Christian Church technically banned circumcision in 1442 as a matter of politics, but the pope is part of the voice of God, so that God seems to have forsaken them in 1442.) Thus, they will inherit the Earth when everyone else dies. Further, we should do nothing to help the uncircumcised fools because they are not God’s chosen people. Further, if medical science finds a vaccine against HIV, it should only be administered to the chosen ones. If it was given to everyone, it would be a violation of God’s will. I smell a smiting.

But is it coincidence? Is there, in fact, no connection between the passage in Genesis and AIDS? (And if there is a connection, couldn’t God have mentioned it as confirmation of His existence? I mean, how cool would that be, anyway? “Just get used to it now because you’ll thank Me later when you guys survive AIDS better.”) To paraphrase Machiavelli, I cannot answer, but I can tell you which is safer. The stance that it is happenstance allows for less genocide. Indeed, as PTJ wrote, “‘because God wanted it that way’ is always an appropriate -- if scientifically unrevealing -- answer to any question about how or why something happened.” The potential dangers with accepting the “because God wanted it that way” answer are too numerous to even attempt to itemize.

The Collision of Religion and Science
Science (at least scientific empiricism) does not specifically seek to be at odds with religion. Indeed, if religion confined itself to a certain kind of agnosticism and did not make statements about the nature of the world, there would be no conflict. However, when religion makes claims on the empirical world, they enter the world of science and are subject to its scrutiny.

I do not have room here to cite even a tiny fraction of the number of times when religion has intruded into the observable world. I do not need to mention the number of times where it has ended in disaster. Let’s leave it at Galileo.

What’s the problem with believing in heliocentrism? It can hardly affect one’s day to day life. Most of us never need to understand the nature of gravity or eclipses or earthquakes. They happen and we react. So what’s the danger?

The danger is credulity. If people do not hold all of their beliefs up to the light of skepticism and test them, then they are in danger of being led astray by the first Jim Jones who walks by. It means that people who use the Hamitic hypothesis can Rwanda things up. We can, of course, prove that all Homo sapiens are virtually identical, but we can never disprove that God intended for the Tutsis to rule over the Hutus. Conveniently, this absolves the individuals committing genocide from responsibility because it is God’s will. I cannot tell you which is right, but I can tell you which is safer.

If we treat religious claims with skepticism, we may question whether or not there ever was a Ham. (We could figure out whether there was a Great Flood. If no, then no Noah and thus no Ham.) Religion must be held up to skepticism because not doing so will eventually result in disaster. If we do not put all of our beliefs up to the light, we risk falling into total darkness. (Sorry Carl, but you picked too good an image for me not to steal.)

This is a separate issue from that of Ultimate Significance. Even if there is a creator of the universe, there is no credible evidence that the creator cares about us, or indeed is still watching at all. Empirical evidence leads me to believe that religions were created for a very practical reason: to explain the unexplainable. (Churches frequently invoke God for practical purposes. Take, for example, priests’ chastity. If priests do not have heirs, they cannot pass their land on to anyone except the church.) Explaining the mechanisms by which the world functions is now the domain of science. Imbuing events with some separate meaning is not my concern; my concern is not even directly that of Christian Scientists refusing medical treatment. My concern is that Christian Scientists who refuse medical treatment are turning their back on reality. If they shy away from reality in one area, what is to say that they will not in others? Science and religion are indeed at war, not over the domain of ultimate significance, but over the observable universe. “Live and let live” is simply not possible when two irreconcilable viewpoints are directed at the same domain.

What is Ultimate Significance?
I’ve used the term “ultimate significance” many times. PTJ asked how one can, without ultimate significance, answer Camus’ question about suicide. As someone who does not believe in any order to the events of the universe beyond that which is observable, I can answer that question. It is fallacious to assume that human beings need to find some meaning beyond the observable world. With no evidence that there is life beyond that which we experience in our physical forms, this is quite literally all that anyone has, but it is not unfulfilling. It is not, as PTJ put it, “mundane” (perhaps “quotidian” would be a less emotionally charged word). Am I, or was Sagan, injecting ultimate significance into the study of the world? If there is no end beyond this life, if indeed our deaths are the end of our existence, then the work we do in our lifetimes is literally our ultimate – final, fundamental – work. (Dave Barry has what I find to be a more realistic version of Camus’ points: “A sense of humor is a measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this knowledge.” So perhaps Camus should have listed his profession and religion as “Humorist.”)

This is what I see as Carl Sagan’s point. Indeed, there is significance in what we do here. By all indications, there was no part of our existence before our [conception/birth/brain activity/mirror test/latest Supreme Court ruling], and there will be no part of our existence after our deaths. Just as our planet is “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” we ourselves occupy only a tiny corner of the universe (Sagan, Pale Blue Dot). But it is all that we will ever know. Is this a religious claim? It certainly has the imagery of wonder. That is Carl Sagan’s message. One can experience wonder while confining oneself to the empirical universe. Further, this path to wonder does not require Ultimate Significance because skepticism admits uncertainty, which I am hard-pressed to reconcile which such an absolute concept as Ultimate Significance. Is it all significant beyond our bodies and beyond our mote of dust? Who knows and who cares? We’ll find out when we’re dead but for the moment, we’re here. Have I made a leap of faith, or have I used the instruments of empiricism to give me a working hypothesis?

I close with a quote from Carl Sagan, who set this whole thing off. It is infused with the concept of Significance, though I still question whether or not it is ultimate. Though he uses the language of wonder, his statement is remarkably grounded in the observable world. Sagan knew the importance of the "Blue Marble" photo from Apollo 17 in capturing the world's imagination about everyone's home planet, and made sure that Voyager 1 turned around and took the famous "Pale Blue Dot" image.

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Doubt is good."

What if I showed you twenty pictures of twenty turtles on twenty fence posts? Pretty unlikely, right? So unlikely, in fact, that it would lead you to the conclusion that this could not have happened by chance. And if I told you that I had proof than no person had put the turtles on the fence posts? Further, that no visible outside influence had put the turtles there, but that they were there nevertheless? Wouldn't that make you consider the possibility that a "higher power" had put the turtles there?

But then, what if I showed you a wider picture of the entire scene? Turns out, a construction company had left thousands of fence posts standing next to each other in the middle of a turtle farm. And even better, they had thrown them into a depression in the ground, so the tops of the posts were barely an inch off the ground. Of course, you couldn't tell any of this in the first picture I showed you, but you made the series of assumptions that led you to believe that no natural event could have put so many turtles on so many fence posts.

The title of my post is a quote from Russell's readers' guide. According to Russell, "the moral of the story is to be suspicious of your own certainty. Doubt is good." I'll believe her because I believe in author's intent, no matter how poorly the author wrote the damn book. What was the first thing that Sandoz was really certain about? When did the Jesuit value of patience go out the window? Turtles on fence posts. This is God's work. "Everything we thought we understood - that was what we were most wrong about," Sandoz says. And Sandoz thought beyond anything else that God had put him on Rakhat. So he was most wrong about that.

This is why Mike's post struck me as weird. He seemed to still be going off the assumption that Sandoz was a Catholic saint and that God did, indeed, bring him back full circle to achieve some order of inner peace. (Mike, please correct me if I've misrepresented your argument.) This goes back to one of the reason I can't stand this book. The "doubt is good" answer came from Felipe Reyes at the end of The Sparrow. It completed the statement of the novel. It completed the literary journey of Emilio Sandoz perfectly. As I wrote in my response to Mike's post, I do not care about Emilio Sandoz as a person because he is not a person. I care about the literary creation that is Emilio Sandoz. This character had a complete statement written around it in The Sparrow. Children of God is not only useless, but so poorly written as to harm the story itself.

A word on my hatred of the book. All of the other books that I've really not enjoyed this semester, I've forgiven after our class discussion. In class, we were able to really delve deep into those texts and pull out the ton of stuff that actually lies down there. For our discussion of this novel, however, I never felt like we were able to dig deep into it because there was nothing there. The only times where we did, the concepts were so far abstracted from the actual meat of Children of God that they could have been brought up while discussing The Sparrow and we wouldn't have had any less to talk about.

My criticism of Children of God comes primarily from a literary standpoint, though I realize that the syllabus says that the class "is not primarily a literature class." However, I contend that the writing is so poor, beat-you-over-the-head direct, and thin that nothing in the novel merits discussion beyond that of The Sparrow. There is simply no content in the book. Further, by demystifying the aliens, Russell harms The Sparrow. The only good thing that came out of Children of God is realizing that Supaari and Sandoz simply had the galaxy's funniest case of mistaken double entendre. But is that really worth the rest of the book? Well, it was hilarious, but no. Russell could have made that into one of those weird short stories that's all from an alien's point of view - something like an x-rated version of all those Twilight Zone episodes where you think they're all on Earth, but it turns out that they're headed toward Earth.

My French realist literature class had a debate the other day about Emile Zola's Germinal, a politically charged novel. The question Professor Loesberg posed to us was, are novels with explicit theses inherently or automatically bad novels? I used science fiction as an example of novels that many times have some sort of explicit thesis but are not automatically bad. The class (rightly, in my opinion) decided that no, having an explicit thesis does not automatically ruin a novel. Writing a shitty novel ruins a novel. Mary Doria Russell wrote The Sparrow and Children of God with virtually the same thesis, and it's pretty explicit, though much more so in the latter. The former is a good novel; the latter is atrocious. The writing is so bad and so thin that the novel is without any form content, or at least without content that even comes close to or stretches beyond that of The Sparrow. Russell's lack of willingness to let sleeping dogs lie leaves us with a statement that is much weaker than that of The Sparrow, even though the final message is meant to be virtually identical.

I agree with Andrew that this novel had so many Mary Sue/wish fulfillment moments that it almost felt like fan fiction and not the work of the original novelist. It's a shadow of its original self. Perhaps Marx was right, as I quoted in my Todorov post. The first novel as tragedy, the second as farce.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Children of Some god or Another

I think it's much more fair to compare a sequel to its predecessor than our heartless comparison of movie adaptations to the novels they're based on. With that disclaimer, I'll begin with my The Sparrow/Children of God comparison.
Though it was interesting for Emilio's tale to be "wrapped up," it was not satisfying in the same sense that The Sparrow was. Where the plot of The Sparrow served to explore religion and morality, Children of God was a heavy-handed continuation of something that may have been better left unresolved. It was fitting in The Sparrow for awful things to continue pecking at the very core of Sandoz's beliefs, as that was what Russell was exploring, but in Children of God she merely used the same mechanism, without any real purpose behind why.
As for the entire Revolution was far too easy. Just like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress having Mike in the background, controlling communications, strategy, security, weather satellites and horoscopes, there was never a question of whether the Runa would be successful. They had Sofia and her iPhone hiding in the forest to arrange everything against the Jana'ata. I enjoyed the idea of said revolution because it had just cause and provocation, as I would have had the various Meso-Americans risen up against the oppressive Cortes instead of their bleak fate, but the solve-all method Russell used to orchestrate the revolution was too easy. (I'm not volunteering to develop something better...but I did expect more after The Sparrow.)
Nico and Isaac were both interesting charactre additions. Carlo could have been interesting, but after he failed to really add anything to the plot other than Emilio-snatching and telling Emilio he was going to add something to the plot...he just became deadweight. None of the other new crew members seemed to develop either (the only thing Sean Fein was good for was his name and the accompanying joke), and even John Candotti wasn't very insightful or forgiving or optimistic or humourous.
Upon reading the ending of Children of God, I kind of just wondered where any of it had come from and if it had really gone anywhere. As I mentioned before, the idea behind the revolution was interesting. The reservation idea was cute. Sending Emilio back to Earth, again, seemed useless to me in his overall redemption process, and I was just left wondering if he had made his peace with his religious beliefs, as I assumed was the goal of the novel.