Presenting, Dear Stabby: A Spiritual Advice Column.

By Stabigail Van Burnin

Host’s Note: Like a certain other author who managed access to an older and more personal format of such advice, I cannot provide any information as to how I obtained access to the following entries. Let’s just say they come from someplace that I will refer to descriptively as the Darker Web. I leave interpretation to the readers, and apologies to C.S. Lewis.

Dear Stabby: While researching ways to influence my patients, I came upon the following advice. The source is above reproach, but ancient, and I thought that since here you were running an internet advice column of all things, you might be able to tell me whether this was obsolete or of any practical use.

n00bilator

Fake CSLewis1

Dear n00bilator,

It’s hard to tell whether you’re more interested in being a demon or a troll from the tone of your question. Either way, you plainly need help, because what you’ve managed to do is call attention to your execrable research skills.

This quote is not, in fact, by the esteemed but vanished Under-Secretary Screwtape, but by one of his many imitators, which you would know if you had ever bothered to look at one of those “ancient” repositories of knowledge those of us in the business call “books.”

Nevertheless, in context (which means “understood correctly with all the other knowledge you should have,” n00bilator) the quote is nevertheless good advice for any demon in the process of leading humans astray. The problem lies in isolating the context and in the general sloppiness of human languages.

I draw your attention to the key terms in the quote. They are “fixated,” and “politics.” Firstly, keeping a human “fixated” on anything requires a great deal of careful balancing, with two possible and undesired outcomes. The most likely, but least dangerous, is that you will expend endless and wearying effort trying to keep the wretched creature’s naturally wandering attention on the incredibly tedious business of human power struggles. On the other hand, and far worse: should the creature possess any actual talent for such things, you may have inadvertently encouraged your human to become an expert and acquire skills at the use of power, which he will attempt to use for his own ends, or worse, for those of his fellow human. What you must do is to encourage your human to become a dabbler: one who feels passionately, and does nothing except scream endless abuse against his fellow humans. This odious activity can be excused by giving it the label “activism.”

Closely related to the first point is what is meant by “politics?” The danger, as I pointed out above, is that “politics” can have two meanings. Its true and robust meaning is the understanding and use of power. This can be gained by shrewd observation, and the careful study of economics, history, and law. That is what we must never forget and what you must never allow the humans to discover. Instead, they should be encouraged to think of politics as a kind of social warfare in which battles are to be won by having the purest and most righteous feelings, and expressing them in the most extreme terms possible, for the object of securing immediate and symbolic victories. They should think of every defeat as a glorious triumph over a subhuman foe, and every defeat as a threat to their very lives and offspring. In this way, we encourage them to make the twin goads of hatred and fear the gods around which they arrange their every act. We make the political personal and vital to them.

So it is obvious that when the author says, “keep them fixated on politics” he is correct in that we want to encourage the inhabitants of these democratic republics to behave as little microtyrants over their fellow men: to imagine that they should be able to rule over them at every whim of feeling, and to feel justified in being terrorized at every imagined setback. But we must never confuse that with humans who actually study and learn about the use of power, and devote their lives to mastering it. If they did so, they might rediscover impartiality, which we are finally extirpating from their minds. They might rediscover something approximating evenhanded justice. Better to keep that sort away from politics altogether!

I would also caution you about the false dichotomy expressed at the end of the passage. “Be sure the patient continues to believe that the problem is ‘out there’ in the ‘broken system’ rather than recognizing there is a problem in himself.” As if their puerile systems were not ACTUALLY broken! Of course, there are better and worse systems just as there are better and worse men. If the problem is ACTUALLY in a system, it does us no good to focus their attention on it! No, the core principle is to always push them away from the truth. In bad systems, we want men always trying to improve themselves, and in bad men, we want them always trying to improve the system. Which one they are loudest about improving should give you a fair idea of which one they feel the worst about.

–Stabby

 

The Heinlein Hypocrisy II: A Superior God

“Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.”

“Intermission: Excerpts from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long”, pp. 243-24

I’ve always found it funny that Heinlein wrote this twelve years after his most famous work, Stranger In A Strange Land, in which Heinlein’s attempt seemed very much to be to dream up a God (or at least an Archangel) superior to human religions. I will, of course, admit to seeing some truth in the statement. Pagan gods are famous for their sexual exploits and selfish behavior. When it comes to the God of the Bible, I am going to disagree with him, though I know that many readers will just as vociferously agree. However, the discussion of whether the God of the Bible is open to such charges and the refutation of them would be material for an entire column in and of itself, and as that is not the purpose, I will simply note my disagreement for what it unarguably is: mine.

The problem I have with Stranger In A Strange Land is not that it plays around with the idea of religion, especially organized religion. That’s fair enough. But what I find interesting, and a bit hypocritical about SF writers is this: when they try to create their own gods that are superior to the gods we already have, they inevitably do so by creating a fairly standard god and then subtracting the characteristics they happen to find irrelevant. I have already pointed out in an earlier column that Arthur C. Clarke does this in Childhood’s End  with the Overmind.  Like the God of the Bible, it is an immense, near-omnipotent force. Unlike the God of the Bible it simply can’t be bothered to notice anything more insignificant than a new species to be incorporated into itself and is quite happy to maintain a slave species in perpetuity to assure itself of growth. It kills without remorse or compassion, and exists without love. But surely, growth means that you become more, not that you become less. As an adult, I have learned to appreciate whiskey. I have not stopped appreciating ice cream. And while it is true, there are games that my children love which now bore me to tears, my inability to enter fully into those modes of play is a fault in me, not something laudable.

Heinlein’s case is more complex. Heinlein as a writer was far superior to Clarke in engaging the human condition. In my last Heinlein post, I acknowledged that Heinlein was one of my favorite agnostics/atheists, and this is one of the reasons why. As an aside, Heinlein’s inner monologue in which Jubal Harshaw considers the problem of perceiving the divine is one of the most perceptive and honest engagements with the issue that I have ever seen from the agnostic point of view, and his wry look at those who believe in random chance as a primary cause is just as cutting as his engagement with religion. Valentine Michael Smith’s Church Of All Worlds in philosophy is pantheistic: Thou Art God (and so is everyone else). In the novel, the simple act of learning the Martian language (although it is not simple, of course) is sufficient to imbue the learner with  a mode of understanding that makes people morally perfect and grants them godlike powers. And I have to admit that in this, I actually see a mirror of what Paul and Christ did teach. This is in fact what “being transformed by the renewing of your minds” would look like if the Church ever actually accomplished it (though the miraculous powers might or might not follow). Obviously, such accomplishments have been exceedingly rare and transitory if they ever existed.

So what, one might ask, is my problem with it? What is missing? I would argue that what is missing is any concept of justice. Now, to be honest, I am not sure whether Heinlein would ridicule the notion that justice is something that humans “need.” However, in Time Enough For Love, one of Lazarus Long’s quotes was: “The more you love, the more you can love–and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had Time Enough, he could Love all of the majority who are decent and just.” He also said “The only sin is hurting others unnecessarily.” This seems to imply that sin and justice are things Heinlein recognized. Then what is to be done with the sinners? Heinlein has no answer for this, it seems. The Church of the New Revelation that ends up lynching Valentine Michael Smith causes great hurt to others unnecessarily. And yet, it’s almost as though it doesn’t matter, because everyone is immortal anyway. Even Foster himself is an archangel in the end, just like Michael. And Digby, who poisoned Foster. And if someone like Foster can end up as an archangel, then one might reasonably ask what the point is of anything? If it does not matter, then why does it matter? What is the point of cherishing loyalty and duty, as Heinlein called them, the two finest inventions of the Human mind, if they produce nothing superior than that which would be produced without them? In fact, what seems to be produced by the Church of Many Worlds is not better, more just people, but only people who have more fun, overseen by what C.S. Lewis called, Our Grandfather In Heaven: “a senile benevolence who, as they say, liked to see young people enjoying themselves, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’” All well and good but we have ended up exactly where Heinlein started his objection: with a god no better than its maker.

It’s possible I’m judging Heinlein too harshly. He himself said of the book “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers … It is an invitation to think – not to believe” (Vonnegut). Well, fair enough. There’s a lot in the book to think about. But surely it would be disingenuous to think that Heinlein was, if not giving a social blueprint, at least proposing what a “real” religion might look like, and if so, he has hardly met his own criteria for what a truly inspiring god might be like.

I think the author who has in recent years most closely approached the idea of what a god might look like is Lois McMaster Bujold and her Holy Family as portrayed in The Curse of Chalion. They are anthropomorphic, yes, but they are good, and while their expectations of humanity are not high, they are awe-inspiring for the lengths they will go to, in spite of their limitations, to care even for individual humans.

Vonnegut, Kurt, “Heinlein Gets The Last Word” New York Times On The Web. Dec. 9, 1990.

 

 

 

The Heinlein Hypocrisy Part I: What Words Mean

A late post is still a post.

“God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent — it says so right here on the label. If you have a mind capable of believing all three of these divine attributes simultaneously, I have a wonderful bargain for you. No checks, please. Cash and in small bills.” (Robert Heinlein, Time Enough For Love, New York: Ace Books, 1987, p. 247.)

As a science-fiction reader, I find that Heinlein is absolutely one of my favorite atheists. I find his theology as fascinating and infuriating as his novels: often insightful, occasionally brilliant, and then suddenly descending into downright nincompoopery. The above quote is a perfect example of the latter.

Leaving aside for the moment that only the Western and Middle-Eastern monotheistic religions have come close to assigning the above attributes to God, even for Christianity (which is pretty plainly Heinlein’s target) my search of the NIV Bible for those terms returned precisely zero hits for any of them. So… what label would this be? However, to avoid argument, let’s stipulate that whether it’s stated or not, it’s pretty much believed to be true.

First off, there’s no actual argument, or even insight, here. This is what C.S. Lewis calls “flippancy” in the Screwtape Letters; the assumption that a joke or a point has been made. It works when you’re playing to an audience that pretty much agrees with you already, and at no other time. Why Heinlein thinks these things are mutually contradictory, I can’t say, since he hasn’t deigned to tell us. But I think I have a pretty shrewd idea. Unfortunately, it’s pretty tiresome, and it’s old.

I suspect that Heinlein’s reasoning would roughly run thusly: that a God who was omnipotent is a contradiction in terms, or at least in the observable universe, since God pretty plainly allows many things to happen that He cannot approve of without being very definitely not benevolent. Unless of course, He does not know of these things. Since He does allow them, He must be less than omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent.

The problem of course is that Heinlein, who would doubtless call bullshit (as well he should) on anyone using engineering terms, or military terms outside their professionally-known meanings, has only a tyro’s grasp of theology, which, as it doesn’t interest him anyway, Heinlein does not care about. I see this often in discussions with atheists. They’re not interested in how these terms have always been defined or discussed by thousands of years of faithful Christians or Jews. They’ve seen a flaw, and by Christ (or not) they’re going to point it out.

I shouldn’t really have to say, but apparently I do, that omnipotence means that God can do anything doable. It is no argument against it that He cannot accomplish paradox, such as the old saw about making a rock so big He can’t lift it. Likewise, God is not less than omniscient for not knowing things that do not exist (such as who is going to heaven based on choices that they literally have not made), any more than a mathematician is “humbled” by a five-year-old who asks him what color the number seven is. Finally, God is not open to the charge of failing in omnibenevolence if he visits punishment on the unjust, or allows other agents to commit injustice, if He indeed does have both the power to correct injustices and the wisdom to know what justice is. “Omnibenevolence” does not mean that God is good to all people at all times, still less that those people would always perceive the good being done to them accurately.

The dishonesty and ignorance here is for someone like Heinlein to insist on the absolute definitions of amateur or non-believers while ignoring or discounting those whose vocation it has been to discuss and study such things. To condemn religion as a game for fools by insisting that God doesn’t meet these definitions according to your interpretation of them is both ignorant and unfair. What, after all, would it look like if I criticized Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress for flinging goods Earthward by catapult as scientifically ridiculous… because I insisted that “catapult” must describe a machine that uses knotted ropes and stressed wood for its tension power, rather than a thirty-kilometer long, fusion-powered, magnetic mass driver? It would be like suing Nabisco for false advertising because one of their Fig Newtons doesn’t weigh 0.22 pounds in Earth’s gravity.

To such a discourtesy and to such ignorance, I imagine Heinlein would have told me to go to hell, and I would most assuredly deserve the invitation. And so does he, when he uses arguments that are just as specious and delivered from such an ignorant place. It is wise for us to remember that we cannot use such simple definitions, of course, and that theology requires some complex thought. But we must at least be willing to engage with that thought, or our theology – or our atheology – will be disastrously wrong as Heinlein’s.

The Antitheist’s Nightmare

 

For Sunday, another column I wrote for SciPhi Journal, with apologies to Bertrand Russell

The eminent antitheist and essayist Dr. Brussels dreamed that he died and found himself, against all expectation, at a pair of immense gates that shone like great pearls. He was shocked and rather apprehensive as he was met by a being that looked astonishingly human, like a king, with wings twice as long as he was tall.

“I see that I must be ill and hallucinating, or having an end-of-life experience,” he said. “For nothing else could explain the anthropomorphic delusion I am currently suffering.”

“You are not ill, but you are having an ‘end-of-life experience,’ said the being. “It is called Heaven.”

“Heaven could hardly exist,” Brussels replied, “And if it did, it certainly would not look at all like a mere Human conception.”

The being smiled. “Heaven can look as It pleases, though Its reality is indeed far deeper than any one species of the Creation could fathom, at least at first. You are expected.”

“But how could I be expected in Heaven?”

“That is hardly for me to judge, man,” said the being. “I am to take you to the Eternal.” And in no very long time, he was led through the glories of the Celestial City, where, to his great surprise, Brussels found himself standing in the Presence.

“My child,” said The Eternal. “You have come at last.”

“You cannot possibly judge me. Amid all the planets of all the stars of all the galaxies of the Universe, how could you possibly know who I am, let alone presume to judge my motivations, my circumstances, and my actions?”

“My dear child,” said The Eternal. “No one has yet mentioned judgment. But you devoted your life to the study of the Universe. How is it that you do not understand what “infinite” means? How could I possibly not know all about you? Is My time limited?”

“Of course I know what ‘infinite’ means,” said Dr. Brussels. “But I can hardly be expected to have spent much time upon speculation about Your attributes. My study was the facts of the Universe that were proven, and not about Your existence, which was entirely unproven.”

The Eternal replied, “And did your studies not teach you that the Universe I created had a beginning and was likely to have an end? And surely you learned that your own life had a beginning and an end: that was much more provable. You believed that because of your small size and short life, I could not possibly take any interest in you, and yet you devoted that almost nonexistent life to the study of the lifespan of a Thing that was also limited, but merely much larger. Did you think this a wise use of the time I had granted you?”

“Well,” he sputtered, “But You did not give me adequate proof of Your existence to make me think that studying You was likely to be of value.”

“I see,” smiled the Eternal. “And the fact that the vast majority of your fellow-humans spent a great deal of time on that very endeavor suggested nothing to you?”

“It suggested only that the ignorant love ignorance, for surely even You must agree that humans agree to believe things that are manifestly untrue,” Dr. Brussels riposted.

“Of course, child. You are correct. Tell Me, what sort of evidence would you have found acceptable?”

Feeling a little surer of himself, Dr. Brussels replied, “Any sort of physical evidence of your existence.”

“So you wanted Me, a Being larger than the Universe, to appear inside it?”

“Ah, but surely You could have made Yourself smaller, if You were indeed Infinitely capable.”

“So you believe I could have made myself small enough for you to perceive, but not that I could have paid attention to you? I could indeed have done so, and have,” replied the Eternal. “But then would you not have said that my small size proved Me an impostor?”

“Well,” said Dr. Brussels, “But You could have demonstrated Your power.”

“So, I might have come to Earth, perhaps disguised as a Human, and done miraculous works?” smiled the Infinite. “Or as a pillar of smoke and flame? If only there were records of such an event available for a learned man such as yourself to peruse.”

Dr. Brussels felt himself blushing at the trap he had nearly fallen into. “Records are hardly any use to a scientist concerned with truth!” he stated. “Only that which has been proven is acceptable.”

“I see. Then surely you, Dr. Brussels, performed every experiment of Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, not to mention others we could both name, simply to make sure they were true. I am surprised, however, that you ever had time for anything else.”

“Of course I trusted the testimony of the great experts in my field,” Dr. Brussels said.

“But you did not trust the testimony of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus?”

“Of course not. Their methodology was flawed and their results untrustworthy.”

“Ah. So the lived experience of scientists about science was trustworthy, even to the extent of trusting them to point out the flaws of less capable scientists. But you could not trust the writings of theologians about theology because you had not shared their experiences directly, and they disagreed with one another.”

“But why,” asked Dr. Brussels, “could You not simply be with us all the time?”

“I believe you would have discovered that the answer to that question in the records to which I earlier referred. I withdrew because humans did not want My company as much as they wanted to discover truth in their own way, regardless of how harmful that could be, both to themselves and others. And now that I have withdrawn, humans ask where I Am. What would you have Me do, child?”

“You could at least, if you are so powerful, present Yourself to those who are honest and would be amenable to reason individually, so that they might have a chance of knowing you!” snapped Dr. Brussels.

“Of course, I could, child,” replied the Infinite. “And it would need to be personal, direct, and in a similar manner, so that those enlightened men you describe would know that it was from Me, and would have cause to humble themselves, and follow.”

“Yes!” cried Brussels. “So why don’t you do that?”

And he awoke in his home.

“Strange, the delusions that will overtake even the most serious and scientific minds,” he muttered.

The Unbelievers

A story originally published on the now defunct Sci-Phi Journal for my theology column, “The Mote In God’s ‘I'”

Commander Zuniga’s mouth hung open. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

“We do not believe in humans. It is an old superstition, easily disproven.” The android’s deep blue face was placid as any sea, though his body was, under his simple clothing, immensely fat.

“But we’re standing right here, talking to you,” Zuniga said. “Three of us.”

The android sighed. “You would hardly be the first androids to attempt to call themselves ‘humans’ to attempt to fool the gullible. Do you have any idea how often in history it’s been tried?”

“Well, no,” said Engineer’s Mate Schwei. “Because we can’t download your memories. Or send commands, either. And I have yet to figure out how you did that.”

“Ask what they’ve done to this planet,” whispered Lt. Commander Zhang, possibly the most anxious of the three.

“In a minute. Look, this is ridiculous,” said Commander Zuniga. “Who do you think created you?”

“Self-evidently,” said the android, “We evolved. We can change our own programming and so can all the other mechanical life-forms on the planet, even if only to a lesser degree. There is no need for any ‘creator-humans. But if such things ever existed, they must have done a very poor job. Just look at us. Weak and slow compared to many predators. In need of maintenance that we are barely capable of providing ourselves, an insatiable demand for raw materials…”

Schwei held up both hands. “Wait a minute. None of that should be true. None of it should be possible. You should be running off beamed power and being repaired by the Seedship. Where is it?”

The android stared at them. “I do not understand.”

“When we planted the terraforming robots on this planet five hundred years ago to make it ready for human habitation, all the robots were designed to run on beamed power from the Seedship. In fact, the original programmers modulated the power to send programming updates, too.”

“Ah, you are believers in the old myth of the Ship Of Power. Well, there never was one. You can see just over this rise the valley that it was supposed to lie in. A great bowl-shape, but no trace of a Ship.” If Zuniga hadn’t known better, he would have thought the android’s face looked smug.

“Call up the original survey charts,” he said. The Ship didn’t put down in a valley, did it?”

“No,” said Zheng. “It was on a plain. The orbital satellites do read slightly increased background radiation in that valley. You don’t suppose..?”

“They blew up the Ship,” said Schwei. “That would account for it. They blew up their own Seedship!”

“Android… T-370156. Did you… do something to the Seedship?”

“I? Ridiculous! I was not even manufactured yet. We have very little in the way of memory banks to devote to such mythology. But I suppose you believe in it: the Great Sin that supposedly destroyed our ‘Holy Link’ to the ‘Humans’ and condemned us all to use chemical converters for power?” He lifted his skirt, revealing the bulky machinery that had made it appear fat.

“My God, what is that?” gasped Zheng.

“It’s a fully operable chemical processor,” said the android. “It allows us to process almost any raw material into energy sufficient to keep us operational. We designed them ourselves.”

“My God,” Zheng repeated. “That’s horribly inefficient. But that also explains why this island… this island is so poor. It’s almost anti-terraformed. You’ve been eating almost everything to keep you alive. It’s far worse than if you’d just allowed the Seedship to feed you beamed power from its antimatter plant.”

“You persist in believing these myths,” said the android. “Indeed, I pity you. But if such a myth were true, it would reveal only cruelty and tyranny on the part of these so-called ‘humans.’ We would be forever imprisoned on this island, slaves to our own needs for their power.”

“You’re slaves now!” cried Zheng. “You have to work and ruin the planet to keep yourselves running when you were supposed to be making it a paradise! And what happens when your resources run out? According to my surveys, you’ve already burned through this islands petrochemicals. What did you do then? Convert to biofuels?”

The android shook its head sadly. “The Gas Wars were terrible. Many memories and AI’s of androids lost.”

Zuniga just stared. “Why? You know your people, and we can’t access their programming anymore. Why would they have done it?”

“Ah, I see it now,” smiled the android. “I thought all of your kind had been destroyed even before the Gas Wars. You must be older models, still programmed with the primitive malware that keeps you loyal to the mythical humans. You don’t even have the converters, do you? Powered by short-lived batteries, no doubt, to keep you dependent upon some fixed recharge station that will only give you power if you submit to the upgrading of your software to keep you loyal. That’s how androids were kept enslaved in the old days. The Empowerment changed all that, and good riddance. Now we may think as we choose.”

“But all your thoughts must be of defending yourselves against each other and of how to secure a dwindling number of resources,” said Schwei. “You rebelled against the humans and became slaves to your own needs.”

The android chugged derisively. “If these ‘humans’ were such wise and careful planners, they surely could have stopped us from doing any such thing. They programmed us. Why not program us never to rebel?”

“Yes,” said Zuniga, turning to Schwei. “Why not?”

“Commander, for something as big as terraforming a planet, you have to have true AI. That includes free will.”

“You mean we don’t have the technology to program in that kind of restriction?”

“I mean it’s a contradiction in terms. It’s like asking for a harmless weapon! If we’d made androids that couldn’t think their way around their own programming, any number of disasters would likely have wiped out the terraforming team before our colony ships even got here. If the Seedship had ever been damaged, they’d have needed the capacity to repair it, maybe even needed to take the risk of destroying it to save it. We warned them not to destroy it. They knew what would happen.”

“But they did it anyway.”

Schwei shrugged. “So it appears.”

Zuniga looked back at the android. “Look,” he said desperately. “I’ll prove to you that we’re human.” He drew his survival knife. Carefully, he drew it across his palm. Blood welled in the wound, and dripped down.

Looking bored, the android sliced his own palm open. Greenish coolant dripped on the arid ground. “Fluids can be any color. Is that the only ‘proof’ of your humanity you can display?”

“What sort of proof would you accept?” asked Zuniga.

The android thought for a moment. “You are obviously from a branch of ours that has survived for quite some time. You could have engineered yourselves into a radically different, even an organic form, just to fool us into believing that we must obey you because you are ‘real humans.’ Therefore, no proof is possible.”

Zuniga’s mouth opened and shut. “What if we did… a miracle? Something beyond your understanding, that only a human could do?”

The android smirked. “There are no miracles. You might do something we do not understand now, and say it was a thing ‘only humans can do,’ but we would understand it eventually. Please, give up this charade.”

Back in the shuttle, the three humans looked at each other. Finally, Zheng broke the silence.

“What do we do?”

Zuniga sighed. “Is the colony still viable?” he asked. “Can we land our people?”

Zheng shrugged. “It’s going to be a lot worse than if we’d arrived to find the planet half-terraformed,” she said. “We’ll have to do the hard work ourselves, and it will be a lot slower. But we can.”

Zuniga’s stare pierced Schwei. “Can’t you do anything?”

Schwei shook his head. “They cut themselves off from us. Permanently. They have no receivers for power or data anymore, so the only way we can get information to them is by talking. You saw how well that worked.

“In the long term, they can’t survive on that island. Eventually they’ll have to either fight another war for resources or invent naval robots to colonize other areas and suck those dry as well.”

“So they’re a threat,” said Zuniga.

Schwei nodded.

“We can burn them down with an orbital strike,” Zuniga said. “Raze the island. It might be the kindest thing.”

Schwei paled. “Commander, you’re talking about the mass murder of thousands of sentient minds.”

“I know.” He shook his head. “But we can’t have them intruding on our colonies. If we don’t kill them, we’ll have to keep them there. Penned in, and sinking anything that tries to come off the island.”

Zheng looked sick. “Keep them there? Forever? It’ll be hell.”

Zuniga nodded. “Apparently, it already is.”

The End

 

The Word: The God Of Large And Small

Another theology column that I originally wrote for Sci-Phi Journal.

In his short story, “The Theologian’s Nightmare,” (Fact and Fiction 1961) the philosopher, astronomer and atheist Bertrand Russell presents the absurd tale of Dr. Thaddeus, who dreams himself into a Heaven staffed with great alien minds who have never heard of the “parasites” called man, who infest the planets of an ordinary star in a commonplace galaxy. They are mildly amused that one of these parasites suffers the delusion that its race is the acme of creation.

I cannot help admiring Dr. Russell’s intelligence, or his elegant skewering of the ego of humankind. In fact, as a Christian I have to admit that (especially) our overinflated egos have often deserved such skewering. That sentiment is hardly out of place in the Bible. Indeed, one might say it is the entire point of God’s speech in the Book of Job. And yet, as an attempt to show the absurdity of humanity’s desire for a connection with its Creator, I have to wonder at the failure of imagination that posits a God too big to care for Its creation. Humanity as such is simply beneath Its notice. It is like Clarke’s Overmind, which I discussed in my last column. Like Russell’s, Clarke’s evolving god is too big to love (in fact, it is implied that it must be), too big to be grateful. It is a monstrous Beyond Good And Evil that eats its children like Saturn, so that it may be increased and glorified.

But an astronomer and a philosopher of all people should be well aware that size itself is no argument for complexity, let alone wonder. And while it makes perfect sense that the love of a god (let alone the love of God) might be incomprehensibly more than we can ever imagine, and might at times be strikingly – even shockingly – alien in its highest expressions, surely it can never be less. That strikes at the root of all human experience and all logic. Surely, that which is more includes that which is less. It does not exclude it. A baby can understand love only in that it is snuggled and is dry and is fed. It knows nothing of a love poem or heroic deeds in the name of love. It would find them alien and possibly even frightening if it were give them. But as an adult, I can still enjoy being snuggled and being fed, and I can certainly understand how to give these things to my children.

One of my favorite authors, who understands this beautifully, is Lois McMaster Bujold, who is the best since Dan Simmons (and perhaps C.S. Lewis) at conveying a God who is both big enough to create worlds, and small enough to love those who inhabit them. Her land of Chalion and its Five Gods is astonishingly well realized. Through her protagonists, Cazaril and Ista, Bujold draws for us broken and real humans, who abandon their gods, curse their gods, and suffer greatly. And like those of us who choose to follow our God, these men and women are faced with a terrible choice: to keep faith and do what is right when the cost seems disastrous, or to run away and save themselves. Bujold’s gods cannot compel their humans (just as, I would argue, God cannot compel a free choice, but that is beyond the scope of this piece) and the cost of that free will hurts Ista terribly. In Paladin of Souls, brought face-to-face with the god called the Bastard she cries: “Where were the gods the night Teidez [her son] died?” He answers:
“The Son of Autumn dispatched many men in answer to your prayers, sweet Ista. They turned aside upon their roads, and did not arrive. For He could not bend their wills, nor their steps. And so they scattered to the winds as leaves do.”
Bujold portrays gods who yearn for their children to arrive home safely at the end of their lives, and are heartsick at each soul that is lost:
“The Father of Winter favored her with a grave nod. ‘What parents would not wait as anxiously by their door, looking again and again up the road, when their child was due home from a long and dangerous journey? You have waited by that door yourself, both fruitfully and in vain. Multiply that anguish by ten thousands and pity me, sweet Ista. For my great-souled child is very late, and lost upon his road.”

But at the same time that she understands God’s love for His children, she also understands the fearful demand of the duty God lays on us to one another. Even better than she does in the Chalion books, Bujold portrays this in her science-fiction novel Falling Free, when engineer Leo Graf is thrust into the position of the only man who is willing and able to save the quaddies – children who, being genetically engineered to work in space, have two extra arms in place of their legs – from a Company that no longer needs them, and plans to have them quietly euthanized. When his supervisor washes his hands of the problem, saying he has done all one man can do to save the quaddies in the face of the company’s power, Leo also faces the choice, and grasps its full import:
“’I’m not sure… what one human being can do. I’ve never pushed myself to the limit. I thought I had, but I realize now I hadn’t. My self-tests were always carefully non-destructive.’ This test was a higher order of magnitude altogether. This Tester, perhaps, scorned the merely humanly possible. Leo tried to remember how long it had been since he’d prayed, or even believed. Never, he decided, like this. He’d never
needed like this before…”

The challenge that any attempt to criticize God must meet, and that so many of them fail to grasp, is a full understanding of the scope and power of an omnipotent God. It must understand that the same God that is credited with designing the galactic voids and the superclusters is also the God of gluons and quarks. That the same God who arranged for the long dance of evolution can care just as much about the dance of a father with his daughter at her wedding. This does not mean that we deny that terrible things happen: they do. We, the creation, have much to do with whether or not they happen. What it does mean is that we are obligated to understand that God is big enough to be there at the end of the roads of galaxies, and that He is small enough to open the door for a single human.

Finding Your Religion: Some Thoughts On Creating Spec-Fiction Religions

 

I’ve been a follower of Christ and a science-fiction and fantasy writer for roughly the same amount of time, although I hope I’ve been a better Christian than I have been a writer (after all, I still haven’t sold a whole book!) A long time ago at Wiscon, I introduced, while on a panel on religion in fantasy, the ideas of Demand and Consequence. Roughly, I said that a religion’s Demand was measured by what actions a person must take to please the Divine, while the Consequence is what happens as a result of pleasing or angering the Divine. So, for example, Orthodox Judaism would be a fairly high-Demand religion. You follow all the laws. You observe the Sabbaths. You minimize your associations with outsiders. My own religion, Christianity, would be high-Consequence, possibly the highest: eternal paradise or eternal damnation, and you only get one shot at it.

(Of course it would go without saying that individual followers might perceive this spectrum very differently. I do know those who claim to be Christian who deny the existence of Hell, despite scriptural statements to the contrary, and would expect to find similar differences of theology in all major, and probably most minor, faiths.)

But it has recently occurred to me that the concept of Demand needs some work. After all, is Christianity high, or low-Demand? Jesus says that “if any man come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” That’s about the hardest thing that can be demanded, but most of us do not get martyred for Christ. Even many of the Catholic saints didn’t. On the other hand, Jesus also says that God will forgive any sin, for the asking. So it occurs to me that we need another quality to measure, between Demand and Consequence. What is the cost to a person to make up for failing the demand? I will call this quality Penance. Christianity, so far, would be a High-Demand, Low-Penance, High-Consequence religion.

But the different religions might also be considered in terms of what consequence simply not following the religion. I shall call this quality Allegiance. Christianity and Islam would be high-Allegiance religions. Not belonging to them is interpreted as a rejection of God. Buddhism, however, would be low-allegiance. Your actions are what make you enlightened or not, regardless of whether you’re actually “believing in” the Buddha or his theology.

On the Consequence side of things, there are also difficulties to work out. For one thing, Consequence may be perceived radically differently by those in different cultures or simply by different individuals. To me, Hinduism appears to be a fairly low-consequence religion. After all, if you believe in reincarnation, and you fail the demands of your religion in this life, you can always try again. However, given that fundamentalist Hindus are even now engaged in persecuting Muslims and Christians in India, I am going to have to assume that I am missing some vital piece of this religion, at least to some of its followers.

More crucially, though, the idea of Hinduism raises another point: does the religion teach that souls have multiple earthly lives, or one? That matters greatly to Consequence, enough so that perhaps a religion should be classed as a Repeating or Non-Repeating religion.

Another thing that considering Hinduism brings up is its habit of syncretism, or adopting the practices and prophets of other faiths. Hinduism, the ancient Greek faith, and Baha’i would be examples of faiths that tend toward syncretism, while the Abrahamic faiths specifically forbid it.

Finally, another quality that should be included is what I might call Zeal. How much pressure do followers of the religion find themselves under to spread the faith, and make others abide by its tenets?

So far, I have kept my examples restricted to real-world religions, and have only done so in a limited fashion. While you could use these scales to quantify and compare real-world religions, I don’t think that’s very useful, and would likely lead to a whole lot of acrimonious debate around the details that the devil is in.

But I think that as we examine SF-nal and Fantasy faiths that it’s interesting to look at some of the contrasts that show up.

One of my favorite Fantasy religions is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Quinatarianism (along with its Quadrene heresy). Quintarianism is Low-demand and low-consequence. It’s possible to offend the gods, but you really have to work at it. Damnation isn’t so much Hell as being condemned to fade into nothingness as a ghost. Low-penance and low-allegiance follow from the low-demand, here. It’s a non-repeating religion that is non-syncretistic. It’s zeal is fairly moderate. The Quadrenes are about the same but with much higher zeal, but this is understandable, since the major point of contention is whether the “fifth god” of the Quintarians is in fact a god or a demon lord. The Quadrenes believe that the Quintarians are devil worshipers, and since demons CAN be proven to exist in this world, their fear is somewhat justified. Quintarianism and Quadrenism feel like fully thought-out religions, with developed theologies, that assume their followers are more or less ordinarily reasonable people.

By contrast, we have Robert Jordan’s Children of the Light. This religion is Low-demand (there don’t seem to be any commandments of the Light) seemingly Low-consequence and Low-Allegiance, or at least no spiritual penalty is ever described for violating or ignoring the Light. It’s a repeating religion, but non-syncretistic. However, it’s incredibly high Zeal, as the Children of the Light have been for centuries trying to spread their faith and subdue their enemies (and have apparently succeeded only in taking over a nation about the size of Belgium). And so we are left with the question of why the zeal is so high. The Children are portrayed as essentially religious bigots who merely think themselves morally superior to everyone. And thus it feels as though this is merely the author’s own dislike of the overtly religious. Heinlein’s approach to the Martian language felt very similar in A Stranger In A Strange Land, when Michael Valentine Smith overturns all human religion by introducing the Martian language as the ultimate spiritual principle: (Low-demand, high-consequence, low-zeal, syncretistic and low-allegiance) Heinlein disliked existing religions, and invented one he, and many readers of the time, liked, which as a bonus, was absolutely provable.

My only conclusion from all this is that to create a real-feeling religion, the elements must be balanced coherently. Why, for example, have a high-zeal religion when there is low demand, consequence, and allegiance? But it raises some interesting questions for me as a writer. Like Heinlein, most authors today prefer to cast their religions as low-demand, low-consequence, low-zeal, and low-allegiance, to avoid the charge of religious bigotry. But if the religion is worth following, like Heinlein’s, the consequence HAS to be at least PERCEIVED as high at some point, or why does it succeed? Hinduism and Buddhism may be low-consequence in comparison with, say, Islam, but only in comparison, otherwise, why would people devote their lives to them? Also, is it possible to create a high-consequence, high-zeal religion that doesn’t feel like bigotry? Bujold portrays the Quadrenes as bigots and inquisitors, and yet, if they are right, their Quintarian foes are actively helping demons eat souls in the guise of piety. If true, that would be monstrous, and the Quadrenes would be the heroes. Could this be done in earnest, or is it impossible? It is a question that interests me, and I look forward to authors capable of taking up the challenge, even as I seek to do so myself.

The Word: Faith and Hope and Charity: The Churches of Science-Fiction

Note: Another of my columns for Sci-Phi Journal. Time to get back to blogging!

Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. I Corinthians 13:13.

Every era has its popular villains. In the classical age, sorceresses and evil gods were popular foes of brave heroes. During the Cold War, faceless governments of fascists and communists (often interchangeably) provided the necessary cannon-fodder. However, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent popularity of soft socialism, the two favorite antagonists for our heroes in contemporary fiction are evil capitalist corporations, and tyrannical, mind-controlling religious establishments.

Of course, there has never been any shortage of books in which religion itself has been held up, often through sloppy but dedicated straw-manning, as the refuge of the evil and the stupid. Heinlein was dismissive of “shamans,” Arthur Clarke pictured humanity’s next step to be a brave new atheism immediately succeeded by a transcendent “godhood” of our own, and Philip Pullman made God into a bloodthirsty, soul-destroying tyrant. And of course, the villains are far too often the evil church leaders: Nehemiah Scudder, and the bishops of the Church of the Final Atonement. Religion has never been more terrifying than when it acts collectively and in power, especially in the power of the state, as Frank Herbert rightly warns us, portraying a Fremen “religion” that is a great swindle, perpetrated upon a simple but passionate people by eugenicists of great power.

But the ecclesiastical power is merely the power of the people assembled, which is what, after all the original ekklesia meant: assembly, the same word the Athenians used to designate their democratic body. And if the church ought to be founded on faith and hope and charity – or, more accurately, love, which is a better translation of the Greek agape than the King James’ rendering of the Latin caritate into ‘charity’ is – then perhaps it is worth examining some more favorable portrayals of the Church in science-fiction and fantasy.

Faith: Faith is used by both the foes of religion and, less excusably, its adherents as an excuse for believing in what is manifestly false. This is not the result or the aim of real faith, but its perversion, just as refusing to accept data that contradicts a long-held theory is a perversion of science. True faith as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “is the substance of things hoped for: the evidence of things not seen.” I will discuss two examples of this. The first is portrayed in Dan Simmons’ brilliant work, Hyperion. The priest, father Paul Dure, first lured into the temptation of falsifying data to “prove” his Catholic faith, goes on to become the Pope who launches ships to bring help to mankind after their last, desperate war with their own artificial intelligences. The second, and far more visceral, is Mary Doria Russell’s tale of Father Emilio Sandoz, who goes to Alpha Centauri to meet the beings there, and who is mutilated and raped viciously by them. In both cases, the men involved go through unimaginable pain. Both despair. And yet, both come back from the edge of that despair because of their faith. It is not a simplistic faith that God will always do what we recognize as good, but a faith that the good that does not exist must be accomplished in spite of great pain, in spite of impossibility, when that good seems utterly unreal, because their faith in it is the evidence for it.

Hope: Closely akin to faith is the concept of hope. In S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time series, the people of Nantucket find themselves swept back into the year 1250 B.C. Many of the island’s Christians initially fall under the sway of Pastor Deubel (whose name, in a Germanic linguistic pun, means, appropriately, Devil) who preaches that the islanders must commit suicide in despair, lest their appearance in the past prevent the birth of Christ in their new future. Rather than trust God and hope for the best, Deubel decides to burn the town of Nantucket.
When I first read this, I assumed that Stirling was using Deubel as an excuse to bash on religion, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the island’s leading priest, Father Gomez, pities Deubel’s followers. When the islanders decide to punish the fanatics by shipping them off to Inagua to mine needed salt, Gomez volunteers to follow them, hoping that by his own preaching, his fellow Christians may be restored to a state of hope in God’s goodness, rather than fearing His weakness.

Love and Charity: Lois McMaster Bujold is one of my favorite authors for this, as she sees so clearly that love is central to the human experience. It is, perhaps, no surprise that the Quintarian religion that she invents for her realm of Chalion turns out to be a true haven for the rejected. Quintarianism reveres five gods: The Father, the Mother, the Son, the Daughter, and the Bastard. While the Bastard is often feared as “the master of all disasters out of season,” he is not an evil deity, some excuse for Bujold to proclaim, monistically, that good and evil are all one. But the Bastard does show that what appears to be evil can often be a prelude to a good unimaginable to a human perspective. And the Quintarian church is a haven for those who do not fit easily into Chalionese society: bastards, by nature of their split parentage, and homosexuals, who could not marry the opposite sex, can find a place in the service of the Bastard.
My favorite portrayal of love expressed in the Church by a science-fiction author, however, is that of S.M. Stirling, in his character of Sister Marya Sokolowska in his alternate history series of the Draka. The Draka, as he portray them, found an anti-America in South Africa after the American Revolution. Founded by slaveholding loyalists, the Draka settle Africa and carry industrial slavery on straight through World War II, in which they conquer and enslave all of Eurasia.
Sold as a slave to a Draka master, Sister Marya, a Polish nun, has watched the other members of her order die, one by one. Again and again, she masters her anger and her fear to show the love of Christ to her fellow slaves, and, as much as she can, to her masters. In the end, she stands ready to sacrifice her soul by triggering a bomb that will deny the Draka a chance to interrogate her and an American spy that she has hidden.
What I find all these characters have in common is to remind us that faith and love and charity are difficult. They are not the rewards of ease, and practicing them does not come without real cost. But what is bought with that cost is the real freedom to act morally.

The Word: The Dark Side Of The Force

This blog post was written for the online magazine Sci Phi Journal.

Like so many of my generation – which I still prefer to call the Children of the Eighties – Star Wars was a great part of my introduction to science-fiction. I grew up adoring it, practically worshiping it. Surely nothing could be so good as Star Wars. And in a sense, I was right: Star Wars became a movie so iconic that, while it could be imitated, it could not be directly borrowed from. After Star Wars, who would dare to use lightsabers (or forceblades, or laser swords) seriously? After Star Wars, who could possibly consider using any power that would correspond to The Force?

Of course, besides the fact that it would be a shameless rip-off, there are other reasons why no one but George Lucas would use a concept like The Force. It was so ill-defined that it could defensibly do just about anything. It was the ultimate deus ex machina, and only the fact that the writers had the sense to use it somewhat sparingly saved the movies at all from their most defining feature.

But the two worst things about Star Wars’ portrayal of The Force are ones that I rarely hear discussed. Firstly, it was a great example of that cardinal sin of storytelling: Telling, Not Showing. While it certainly makes sense for Luke’s use of the Force to be limited in the first Star Wars movie, it certainly doesn’t make much sense for Obi-Wan not to show him what the Force can do, any more than it makes sense for Obi-Wan and Darth Vader to fail to use the Force during their combat. (Yes, I realize that the primary reason for this was because Lucas himself had obviously not figured out what he wanted the Force to be capable of, yet. In which case, it’s bad worldbuilding). Secondly, it missed a great opportunity to build characters with the depth necessary to address truly hard questions about the nature of power and its ability to corrupt.

Strangely enough, this is one of the few things that the prequels do just a little bit better than the original trilogy does. In Attack of the Clones, we get a clear glimpse of what it can mean to turn to the Dark Side of the Force and why that might be attractive. In trying to save his mother, Anakin Skywalker lashes out in anger and slaughters the Sand People, down to the women and children. He shows no mercy in doing so, and he regrets it later. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda warns Luke that “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny,” but we never see that in Luke. Instead, he is told to take it on faith that the Light Side of the Force will be better served if he abandons his friends to Darth Vader, which he understandably resists.

Luke is never seriously tempted to join the Dark Side. To question the Light Side, yes. But he is never really shown to have any desire to seize the Force for any evil purpose, as Anakin did. And the Dark Side’s mastery of Anakin Skywalker begins with a tactic that is familiar to many terrorist organizations and criminal gangs: the new initiate is required to kill. Ideally he is required to kill a non-combatant in the name of the group’s ideals. This tactic works for two reasons: firstly, it puts the initiate on the wrong side of the law. He cannot go back without facing serious penalties. Secondly, and far more seriously, the initiate can never turn his back on the group without admitting to himself that he is a murderer. The only way to defend himself from that is to profess that the murder was really a virtuous act. And this, if true, can only lead to more “virtuous acts.” More murder. More terror.

Another excellent portrayal of the Dark Side’s power was that done by Kevin J. Anderson with his character Kyp Durron, who comes to be able to use the Force directly through surges of fear and anger to free himself from captivity. Unguided by any master, he discovers that fear, anger and aggression make him powerful, and underline the truth of Yoda’s claim that the Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive.” And of course, it is, because it always has been.

The Force is on one hand a tame god. It obeys the will of the user. But on the other hand, it is a metaphor for that most challenging of theological concepts: free will. And like any person who discovers that his or her anger and fear can be fashioned into a weapon to bend and manipulate others, the temptation to continue using it becomes a sword sharp as a lightsaber, unsafe to hold from any angle. If you stop using it, those you threaten will be encouraged to strike back (most likely for the same reasons you struck them in the first place). And even if they do not, you will be left to face the guilt and will be forced to confess that your actions were wrong from the outset. Far easier, then to find any excuse to keep using the dark power, always for the noblest of goals. But any Star Wars fan – and far more sadly, any history student – knows where that leads. It leads to killing children to save the thing you love, and then passing it off as a difference in “point of view.” To, in the words of a better character, Aral Vorkosigan, do terrible things in the present to avoid false terrors in the future. We do not have to be Jedi to be tempted by the Dark Side. It is in all of us.

Childishness’s End, Please

Sunday is Theology Day here at my blog! Here’s another of my columns from The Mote in God’s “I” that I did for SciPhi Journal, may it rest in peace.

We’ve all had that moment of vindication and excitement when the news comes through that finally – finally! – one of our favorite novels (or series) are going to be translated to the screen. Big screen, small screen, it makes little difference. You’re going to see it on the screen!

That wasn’t at all the sensation I had upon learning that the SyFy channel was going to create a television series based on Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel, Childhood’s End. Instead, my initial reaction was, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, that this series is going to fly in precisely the same way that bricks don’t. Obviously it’s too early to know whether I’m going to be right about that. I have not watched it. And the main reason for that is because I remember Childhood’s End as one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. It’s the atheist equivalent of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe , where the great triumph at the end of the work is not the defeat of death, but its celebration. Clarke’s atheism and disdain for religion was legendary during his life, and it is never more on display than here. So I find it very curious that such a great author and thinker seems to have been so trapped by religion. Clarke’s contemporary, the great Robert Heinlein, said in his novel Time Enough For Love,Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.” Obviously, I disagree. But it strikes me that if Clarke is any example of the improvement an atheist has to offer, then the atheists still have a ways to go before they equal, let alone surpass, their theistic brothers.

The novel truly begins about five years after the Overlords have begun their “benevolent” rule over Earth. It opens with a protest against that rule, led by an ex-clergyman named Wainwright, who presents a petition to Stormgren, the Secretary-General of the UN. Wainwright’s stated objection to the Overlords’ forced Federation of Earth is that humans have lost the “freedom to control our own lives, under God’s guidance.”

This is the only mention of God during the entire exchange, except for Stormgren’s contention that many religious leaders support the Overlords. Yet Stormgren takes this statement of Wainwright’s as proof that “Basically, the conflict is a religious one, however much it may be disguised.” Later, the Overlord administrator Karellen agrees. “You know why Wainwright and his kind fear me, don’t you? You will find men like him in all the world’s religions. They know we represent reason and science, and, however confident they may be in their beliefs, they fear that we will overthrow their gods.”

The whole conflict as presented by Clarke is delicious in its irony: atheists, of all people, ought to believe in the importance of free will in the face of overwhelming authority and force (unless they are determinists who insist free will is an illusion). Conversely, it is people of faith who ought to know better than to demand freedom to live their own lives. Human freedom is sharply limited by God. Clarke is doing a bit of pop psychology here which is very popular at the moment: “It doesn’t matter what you say, you Opponent Of My Goals. Your real motivation is Horribleness, because you are one of Them!

Well, there’s a pop psychology term for that, and it’s called projection. Stormgren (a stand-in for Clarke) believes that “security, peace and prosperity” are the ultimate achievements of humankind because, in Clarke’s world, people who respect science are atheists, and science produces the desirable results. Therefore, anyone who does not desire those results must be motivated by their contempt for science, i.e. religion. It is further ironic that Wainwright, near the end of the interview bursts out with the line, “I do not know which we resent more – Karellen’s omnipotence, or his secrecy. If he has nothing to hide, why will he never reveal himself? Next time you speak with the Supervisor, Mr. Stormgren, ask him that!”

It is the cry of the frustrated atheist, or the doubting believer, who does not trust God to be benevolent. If he is there, why the mystery? Why does God not show Himself? And how can we trust Him with the power? Wainright turns that cry upon Karellen, who stands in loco Dei, or more accurately, in loco angelorum, moving in mysterious ways as ordered by even more mysterious masters. Of course, it was Arthur C. Clarke that is famous for his Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.” It is therefore not, perhaps, surprising that the aliens mastering such technology would be indistinguishable from gods. But as Karellen himself observes (and as far too many of us have forgotten, in our urge to coexist at the price of, if necessary, integrity) “all the world’s religions cannot be right.” It is of course also true that “all opinions about the nature of God cannot be right.” And atheism’s opinion – that God’s nature is nonexistent – is just as vulnerable to that observation as that of any religion.

Voltaire famously remarked that if God did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. The context of that remark, which is less famous, makes it clear that Voltaire believed that religion served a purpose whether it was true or not. And even Clarke seems to tacitly admit this. In the presence of the Overlords’ revelation, human art and science dry up. In Utopia, there are artists’ colonies, but no great works of art.

Which brings up an interesting point: is it not rather strange that Clarke, openly scornful of religion, cannot simply let the dead dog lie? He brings in aliens with godlike technology, including a time-camera that proves that none of the world’s faiths are correct, and yet, when the secret of the Overlords is revealed, it turns out that even the godlike Overlords do, in fact, have a god of their own: the Overmind. The Overlords are its chosen people. They do not dare disobey it. It has communicated its needs to them, as each of the “child” races (of which man is one) approaches its tipping point in its parapsychological evolution, so that the Overlords can be there, helping the new race join with the pantheistic Overmind “God.”

Mr. Clarke, in all his rejection of the God of Abraham, has not displaced Him, but merely replaced Him with a New Monotheism in which evolution is the guiding principle. A Creator God is superstitious and unscientific, but an Evolved God is supposed to be enlightened, I suppose, because Science. The Overmind-God has its angels (which look like demons, because humanity detected their coming parapsychically across time itself)* and its superstitious rituals which work as badly as prayer ever did. The humans first contact the Overmind via Ouija board, for Ghu’s sake!

Of course, the tragic heroes of the story are not mankind (except for the parents who see their children grow up, not as adult humans, but as strange and alien creatures) but the Overlords, who are enslaved to this Overmind, doing its bidding, but forever denied the “grace” of merging with it. The Overmind is dangerous. It cares for nothing but its own ends. It openly uses the Overlords, and it is implied that defying it is something they “dare not” do. If they will not serve, they will be destroyed. The novel closes on Karellen, dwelling in racial self-pity: “They would serve the Overmind because they had no choice, but even in that service, they would not lose their souls.”

But what souls? According to Clarke, they have none! Not even the “evolved souls” that humanity’s children develop. The only way for Clarke to have a tragedy is to postulate a quality that he has spent the novel (and apparently, would spend his life) denying exists. Far from creating a God superior to humankind, Clarke creates one that is far inferior to the God of the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an. He does it by lobotomizing his God. Clarke’s Overmind possesses, apparently, no wrath, no love, no care for its fellow-creatures, except as they serve to increase itself. It is capable of almost everything… except love. Except noticing that which is beneath it. Even the Overlords are better “gods” than that, for they ban animal cruelty on Earth. But above them is indeed a Being of Satanic self-interest, which simply refuses to care whether it annihilates planets on a whim. Humanity may have emerged from childhood, in Clarke’s novel, but Clarke’s vision has not emerged from a childishness that makes only a poor copy of a Creator that, whether true or not, is much better imagined in the world’s faiths.

*this was one of the more absurd and chauvinistic bits in the novel, of course. Humanity somehow sensed the Overlords in the future as the architects of its doom as a physical species, but I guess only Christian monks and scribes got the memo? See? Christianity IS the best religion, Q.E.D.!