The Temptation of Samuel Vimes

For this week’s Monday post, another column that I did for Sci Phi Journal last year. Terry Pratchett was perhaps the most amazing writer I have ever read, who faced his own limitations and did not deny them. This column represents one of the lessons I learned from his writing.

Like so many of us, I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett earlier this year. Not so sad as I had been to learn that he suffered from the variant of Alzheimer’s disease that led to his death in the first place. What can I say of him? He was possibly the greatest fantasy author of my lifetime. He had the rare gift of being able to shift from writing comic farce to deep philosophy in the space of a paragraph. His works contained allusions to great literature, music, science, and the Bible.

If you have not read Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! then put this column down, get a copy and read it. I’ll wait. In fact, if you have read it, go read it again. You’re welcome.

At the very end of the book, after the dragon terrorizing the city has been defeated, Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, takes Captain Vimes of the City Watch up on the pinnacle of the palace[1] and offers him the world.[2] The reason Vimes struggles with depression over the state of the city is because, Vetinari says, Vimes thinks of the world as divided into good people and bad people. But in reality, “there are always and only the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.” The human race is a “rolling sea of evil,” and the only difference is the depth.

“Down there… are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. No the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they do not say no.”

The parallels with C.S. Lewis’s demon, Screwtape, complaining about his “lukewarm Casserole of Adulterers” in Hell are inescapable: “Could you find in it any trace of a fully inflamed, defiant, rebellious, insatiable lust? I couldn’t. They all tasted to me like undersexed morons who had blundered or trickled into the wrong beds in automatic response to sexy advertisements, or to make themselves feel modern or emancipated, or to reassure themselves about their virility or their ‘normalcy,’ or even because they had nothing else to do.” Like the citizens of Ankh-Morpork, they dared not say no.

Of course, even in Pratchett’s world, there are those who will stand up to the dragons. There are those with good intentions, like Vimes’s second-in-command Sgt. Colon, who try to rally the people to oppose the dragon’s order to sacrifice virgins to it by using the tactics of peaceful protest:

“It can’t burn everybody,” said Colon.”
“I’m not exactly sure I understand why not,” replies a nameless citizen. “Why can’t it burn everyone and fly off to another city?”

Pratchett realizes the truth; that there are some enemies who will not be moved by moral gestures, no matter how noble. Nevertheless, as Colon’s protestors (including Colon himself) drain away before the appearance of the dragon, one man, even in Ankh-Morpork, dares to place his life between his loved ones and the desolation of dragonfire. What happens to him is predictable, and bleak.

We are not even told his name. At the core of the scene, brilliant in its mockery of the limits to nonviolent protest, is a man whose self-sacrifice for his daughters and his fellow citizens is swallowed up in oblivion, without a further thought.

This reinforces Vetinari’s gentle pity of Vimes, the man who “put[s] together “little rafts of rules and vaguely good intentions and say this is the opposite, this will triumph in the end.” Obviously, it doesn’t triumph. It is not so much that “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” as the saying goes. It is that evil will triumph despite all that good men can do, because those good men are drowning in the sea of evil apathy that is the human race.

Against this, Vimes does not budge: “‘It’s just because people are afraid and alone…’  He paused. It sounded pretty hollow even to him… ‘They’re just people. They’re just doing what people do, sir.’” Vetinari replies, “You have to believe that, I appreciate… Otherwise existence would be a dark agony and the only hope would be that there is no life after death.”

Both Vetinari and Vimes miss the point, here. Vimes uses people’s loneliness and fear as an excuse for people’s behavior, and Vetinari tacitly accepts that this would be an excuse. In other words, that people “doing what people do” are people relieved to stay alive at the cost of everyone else they know. In Good Omens, Pratchett (with Neil Gaiman) says it another way: Adam, their protagonist, says to the Angel Metatron, “I don’t see what’s so triffic <sic> about creating people as people and then gettin’ upset ‘cos they act like people.”

Of course, this explanation flies in the face of pretty much all monotheistic theology, including Judaism and Islam, which state explicitly that people were not created as this sort of people. If the crux of any criticism depends on a straw man of the opposition, then surely we can agree it is a bad criticism. It is vital that we understand this, because the situation is in no way fictional. A horrifying factual example of people being people in this way can be found in Corrie ten Boom’s memoir of the Holocaust, The Hiding Place, when she pleads with a Dutch pastor to hide a Jewish mother and her baby:

“No. Definitely not. We could lose our lives for that Jewish child!”

Corrie’s father responds: “You say we could lose our lives for this child. I would consider that the greatest honor that could come to my family.”

If people being people results in the actions of the Dutch pastor, then I submit that being people is itself evil. What, after all, do we think of a man who is good only because he is safe and warm and fed and knows he will be tomorrow? Is that our idea of a moral person? Those who deign to do good when all is well with them? Whole schools of politics, of course, Marxism as well as fascism, are based on the idea that this is so. That essentially, we cannot expect people to be virtuous and kind until they are no longer poor; that the poor and oppressed (and their “allies”) may essentially threaten to terrorize the cosmos if it does not suit their ideas of equality and justice, and call it morality.

Though his statement sounds “hollow even to him,” Vimes does challenge Vetinari’s temptation to despair: “Do you believe all that, sir? About the endless evil and the sheer blackness?”

Vetinari: “It is the only logical conclusion.”

Vimes: “But you get out of bed every morning, sir?”

Vetinari: “Yes? What is your point?”

Vetinari:  “Oh, do go away, Vimes, there’s a good fellow.”

Vimes, battered little almost-Christ, sees the truth, though he has no answer for it either: that Vetinari’s view, true or not, cannot sustain life. And to this, Vetinari has no answer. He goes on ruling, goes on striving, an evil captain of a Flying Dutchman, sinking in a sea of evil.

Terry Pratchett expresses the problem of good and evil as clearly as any writer I have ever read. But he does not have an answer to it. He has only the temptation to despair. Against this, Vimes endures, but only with stubbornness; not with hope. The choice is between theology and despair, and I know of no third way. That I leave as an exercise for the reader.

[1] Okay, the view from his office window. Nothing’s very high in Ankh-Morpork.

[2] In the sense of showing it to him. Not in the sense of giving it to him. This is Vetinari, after all.

Screwtape’s Toast: A Retrospective, Part II

For those of you just joining us, I would encourage a reading of Part I of the Retrospective on the Toast of Screwtape, found here.

But now comes the point. Gastronomically, all this is deplorable. But I hope none of us puts gastronomy first. Is it not, in another and far more serious way, full of hope and promise?

The best use of the squabble between the Corporatist and the Activist leaders is the fact that instead of either working against us, they work primarily against each other, while the masses of humans debate about which is “better.” We, of course, do not care. The important thing is that the real leaders of humanity, the ones with real drive and moral force, will be sucked up into the endless war and co-opted. Even more advantageously for us, the ones who are actually strong in the virtue they call humility will conclude that they are in error and will eventually imitate their fellows out of pride, despair, or cowardice. The few courageous enough to follow their moral convictions will be labeled as cranks and silenced, or better, ignored.

Consider, first, the mere quantity. The quality may be wretched; but we never had souls (of a sort) in more abundance.

And then the triumph. We are tempted to say that such souls — or such residual puddles of what once was soul — are hardly worth damning. Yes, but the Enemy (for whatever inscrutable and perverse reason) thought them worth trying to save. Believe me, He did. You youngsters who have not yet been on active duty have no idea with what labour, with what delicate skill, each of these miserable creatures was finally captured.

The difficulty lay in their very smallness and flabbiness. Here were vermin so muddled in mind, so passively responsive to environment, that it was very hard to raise them to that level of clarity and deliberateness at which mortal sin becomes possible. To raise them just enough; but not that fatal millimetre of “too much.” For then, of course, all would possibly have been lost. They might have seen; they might have repented. On the other hand, if they had been raised too little, they would very possibly have qualified for Limbo, as creatures suitable neither for Heaven nor for Hell; things that, having failed to make the grade, are allowed to sink into a more or less contented subhumanity forever.

This problem is one which we have finally surmounted, through a process Screwtape only dimly, if at all, foresaw, and which is worth some discussion. We have at last succeeded in teaching vice as though it was virtue. Not through argumentation, of course, but by encouraging the most glamorous and loudest platforms to those who practice the vices, and by encouraging acceptable lying. In America, we have taught them this very well. Cowardice is now called “pacifism.” Lust and adultery are called “love” and “self-discovery.” Betrayal and disloyalty are called “honesty” and envy is called “justice.” In this way the humans cannot “see and repent” as Screwtape feared. Who can repent of a virtue? And the more they are assailed, the more fiercely they defend it, seeing themselves as martyrs to their chosen vices. And the fact that all of those can be actually virtues only determines the humans to defend them more fiercely. All we need do is to make sure that they never ask themselves WHY doing what they like should be considered virtuous.

In each individual choice of what the Enemy would call the “wrong” turning, such creatures are at first hardly, if at all, in a state of full spiritual responsibility. They do not understand either the source or the real character of the prohibitions they are breaking. Their consciousness hardly exists apart from the social atmosphere that surrounds them. And of course we have contrived that their very language should be all smudge and blur; what would be a bribe in someone else’s profession is a tip or a present in theirs.

Here Screwtape was more prescient. For as we noted, we no longer simply blur the words of their language. We hardly need to. Their own knowledge of it has been so far degraded that they can hardly use it as a tool, anymore than they can use tools. Those whose lifespans are approaching their natural end in their most powerful nation can remember a time when it was a point of pride among men and women to use tools with their hands: to make and repair things because they understood them. Such people were very hard to fool, when Screwtape wrote. But their grandchildren are a different matter. Their machines are now so complex that most of them cannot be understood, let alone repaired, by a single human. We have replaced young men spending their leisure hours working on the engines of cars with frustrated children hanging on the line to tech support. And faced with  problem they turn helpless to the “experts” to replace them. Therefore they are unused to struggle and mastery of their bodies or their minds. Which is exactly where we want them.

The job of their Tempters was first, or course, to harden these choices of the Hellward roads into a habit by steady repetition. But then (and this was all-important) to turn the habit into a principle — a principle the creature is prepared to defend. After that, all will go well. Conformity to the social environment, at first merely instinctive or even mechanical — how should a jelly not conform? — now becomes an unacknowledged creed or ideal of Togetherness or Being Like Folks. Mere ignorance of the law they break now turns into a vague theory about it — remember, they know no history — a theory expressed by calling it conventional or Puritan or bourgeois “morality.”

Again, our task is much easier now. Rather than reject morality for even the slightest of reasons, the children are now taught, and by the time they are adults believe reflexively, that morality is a wardrobe, which can be assembled and worn to suit them, depending on how it makes them feel, and that anyone who says differently is simply out to control them.

Thus gradually there comes to exist at the center of the creature a hard, tight, settled core of resolution to go on being what it is, and even to resist moods that might tend to alter it. It is a very small core; not at all reflective (they are too ignorant) nor defiant (their emotional and imaginative poverty excludes that); almost, in its own way, prim and demure; like a pebble, or a very young cancer. But it will serve our turn. Here at last is a real and deliberate, though not fully articulate, rejection of what the Enemy calls Grace.

This rejection is now automatic. Grace and sin are two concepts that they do not even understand. But they can avoid the first by doing the second in selfish abandon.

These, then, are two welcome phenomena. First, the abundance of our captures: however tasteless our fare, we are in no danger of famine. And secondly, the triumph: the skill of our Tempters has never stood higher. But the third moral, which I have not yet drawn, is the most important of all.

The sort of souls on whose despair and ruin we have — well, I won’t say feasted, but at any rate subsisted — tonight are increasing in numbers and will continue to increase. Our advices from Lower Command assure us that this is so; our directives warn us to orient all our tactics in view of this situation. The “great” sinners, those in whom vivid and genial passions have been pushed beyond the bounds and in whom an immense concentration of will has been devoted to objects which the Enemy abhors, will not disappear. But they will grow rarer. Our catches will be ever more numerous; but they will consist increasingly of trash — trash which we should once have thrown to Cerberus and the hellhounds as unfit for diabolical consumption. And there are two things I want you to understand about this: First, that however depressing it might seem, it is really a change for the better. And secondly, I would draw your attention to the means by which it has been brought about.

It is a change for the better. The great (and toothsome) sinners are made out of the very same material as those horrible phenomena the great Saints. The virtual disappearance of such material may mean insipid meals for us. But is it not utter frustration and famine for the Enemy? He did not create the humans — He did not become one of them and die among them by torture — in order to produce candidates for Limbo, “failed” humans. He wanted to make them Saints; gods; things like Himself. Is the dullness of your present fare not a very small price to pay for the delicious knowledge that His whole great experiment is petering out? But not only that. As the great sinners grow fewer, and the majority lose all individuality, the great sinners become far more effective agents for us. Every dictator or even demagogue — almost every film star or [rock star] — can now draw tens of thousands of the human sheep with him. They give themselves (what there is of them) to him; in him, to us. There may come a time when we shall have no need to bother about individual temptation at all, except for the few. Catch the bellwether, and his whole flock comes after him.

It should hardly be necessary to state that this happy state of affairs has long since been realized on Earth. By rejecting the Enemy, the humans have filled their need for Him with a desire to fling themselves at whatever leader makes them feel closest to that now-unattainable ideal. If they will not worship that which is greater than themselves, they can now be drawn to what looks greater. And we have even regained a great advantage of polytheism, the ability to fling humans at each others’ throats in the names of their little gods, all of them false.





The Cold Iron Towers: An Alternate History

This idea grew out of a thread on another author’s page, and got enough likes that I want to seriously talk about the possibility of doing it. Bear with me, because this is really thinking aloud, and there’s a LOT of room for filling in details. Jump on board in the comments if you’re into that sort of thing.

My alternate history begins in June 1942: Hitler decides that because of flooding, reports on Soviet tank strength, and the delay caused by conquering Greece, Barbarossa can wait until Summer of 1942. As a result, the European theater enters a lull. Knowing that they will not be needed in the East, Hitler orders the reinforcement of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, which succeeds in taking Tobruk, and begins pushing into Egypt. Britain is unable to reinforce due to Luftwaffe air superiority.
In December, Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, but realizing that Barbarossa is more important, Hitler does not declare war on the United States.

Josef Stalin, having had six months to prepare and reasoning that Germany is too occupied in Africa, invades German-occupied Poland over the frozen ground of winter. With sympathetic Communist partisans all over the Balkan peninsula ready to strike, Stalin’s war quickly becomes acknowledged as a war of global liberation from capitalism and fascism. Communist cells all over Europe begin guerrilla warfare. With the Wehrmacht facing defeat, Germany hastily offers Britain any number of concessions to end their war. Churchill’s price for peace is the surrender of all captured colonies and massive post-war reparations, including the evacuation of France. Germany agrees, on the condition that Britain and Germany join in creating a neutral French Republic that will be kept out of any war with Germany. Hitler also begins courting Roosevelt, emphasizing the similarities between the New Deal and Hitler’s own “economic miracle.” “American Socialist” and “British Socialist” unions begin to form. While they are decidedly minority factions and disliked by the populace as a whole, they are more popular than the Communists.

Fighting Japan on its own, Roosevelt is forced to bow to Republican pressure to end Lend-Lease to the British and Russians. Japan, for its part, joins the Soviet Union, citing “Western Imperialist perfidy” on the part of the Nazi regime. The Soviets and Japanese Army agree to divide the tottering Republic of China between them after the war, and with the fall of Berlin apparently weeks away, the Soviet Far Eastern Army is assigned to invade China from the north.

However, free to fight the Russians alone, Germany begins to stabilize its Eastern Front just short of Berlin. For most of 1942, the Soviets and the Germans fight it out in East Prussia, while the US duels Japan. As Germany recalls its troops from the Balkans, Stalin seizes Istanbul and the Dardanelles, freeing the Black Sea Fleet to raid into the Eastern Med, after which, the Soviets seize the Suez Canal. Forced into the realization that the Soviets mean what they say, the Commons reluctantly support Churchill’s call for a “Devil’s Alliance” with the Nazis in winter of 1943. The United States joins the alliance by summer with Roosevelt’s reluctant approval, and Stalin’s forces are pushed back. The Britisha and American navies force the Med and land in Greece and the Balkans, using friendly Italian bases as their jumping-off points. As the Wehrmacht advances and the Anglo-Americans liberate Soviet-conquered Norway and Finland, the horror of the gulags shock the civilized world. The tide has turned, and Moscow and Stalingrad fall before Hitler’s Tiger tanks and jet fighters and the British and American blockades. Roosevelt barely scrapes an electoral win in 1944. After the American Manhattan project results in the bombing of Hiroshima and Vladivostok, the Soviets and Japanese surrender. Stalin commits suicide before he can be tried for war crimes.

The United Nations is formed with the United States, Britain, China, Greater Germany and Italy as permanent members of the Security Council. Italy retains Libya. Britain keeps Egypt and the Suez Canal, and liberated Greece reclaims Istanbul, again renamed Constantinople. A Jewish state is proposed, but Nazi-leaning Arab governments make it clear that no such thing will be tolerated. The few Jewish refugees to escape to Palestine ask the British and Russian governments for help, and the Russian Republic agrees to accept the Jewish population in its Jewish Autonomous Oblast on the Chinese border. It achieves independence and UN recognition in 1949.

After the war, Nazi agents reveal how thoroughly the Soviets had planted spies in the Manhattan Project, naturally taking the stolen knowledge for themselves. Nazi Germany detonates its first weapon in 1947. After Hitler reneges on his promise to evacuate the Low Countries, the Western Allies and Germany nearly come to war over the “Brussels Blockade.” A state of Cold War is recognized.

A wave of fear sweeps the United States over the fear of Nazi infiltration, and fueled by the awareness of Hitler’s air and rocket superiority. Only infusions of British jet technology keep the USAF competitive, and Churchill is voted down in disgrace after Hitler annexes all the West Russian territories.

The Marshall Plan manages to revitalize the Russian Republic, Finland, Norway, France, and Britain. Hitler copies the plan for Italy and Spain. The MacArthur Constitution is approved in Japan. Without support, Mao Zedong is hunted down and killed by Chiang Kai-shek, armed by both the United States and Germany. Chiang quickly copies the German model, proclaiming the “Chinese Socialist Republic. He quickly brings Vietnam and Korea under Chinese suzerainty.” Blamed for “losing China” and the German ascendance by the Republicans, Truman is defeated by Dewey in 1948. Greater Germany demonstrates long-range missiles and orbits a satellite by 1952. The United States cannot follow suit until 1958.

The “Swastika Scare” drives many former pro-German propaganda writers and converts to Naziism underground. The HUAC investigates, and jails those who refuse to testify about others with pro-Nazi leanings. At the highest levels of society and academia, however, Naziism is often secretly admired for its scientific achievements and its promise of eugenic improvement of humankind.

Hitler dies in 1947, and is laid to rest with honor. His death triggers a quiet purge by the Army of some of the more radical Nazi elements, but a more-or-less clean succession is engineered, with “de-Hitlerization” accomplished and the release of many surviving POWs and political prisoners. Jews are allowed to identify themselves and emigrate. Only a few thousand survive. Returning to Russia, they bring stories of Nazi concentration camps, but these are not widely talked about since there is no hard proof. Many believe the stories are simply anti-Nazi propaganda. After Eugene McCarthy’s “witch-hunt” for Nazis implicates the Army, he falls from power. Only Richard Nixon, with his arrest of former Bund Leader and State Department employee Francis (Fritz) Kuhn, gets a boost.

In 1952, charismatic young politician and war-hero Joe Kennedy, Jr. challenges Dewey and wins. Elected on the twin platforms of challenging Nazi dominance in space and revitalizing the economy. The US quickly achieves dominance on the world stage as an industrial power, outstripping recovering Nazi Germany by a fair margin. However, growing Nazi sentiment in Central and South America and Africa tarnish his legacy. Although Kennedy is re-elected in 1956, the fall of Cuba in 1959 to openly-Nazi Fidel Castro shakes public confidence. The German moon-landing in 1960 seals the Democrats’ Fate, and California Governor Richard Nixon is elected President by a landslide over the much-derided candidacy of John F. Kennedy.

Pro-Nazi elements support de-colonization worldwide (against formerly British and French colonies only, naturally). Naziism is “recast” as a struggle for national identity and support of the poor throughout the world. German propaganda spins into high gear throughout this time, emphasizing the unity of the German people and the prosperity of their lower classes as they homestead through the Ostmarks of the Greater German Reich. Protests that this is only possible because of the extermination of the Russian population and the occupation of the Soviet cities is largely ignored as Greater Germany begins to challenge American economic dominance in the 1960s.

However, the Nixon years are also a period of some foreign-policy successes for the United States. Under Nixon, the United States’ Aries Program lands Grissom and Chaffee on the moon in 1965. Nixon improves relations with China by exploiting racial tensions between it and its German ally. Nixon also has success with his “Southern Strategy” of reaching out to Black Americans and using the power of the federal government to enforce their right to vote. He is criticized for abrogating States Rights and increasing racial tensions.
Also, Nixon’s insistence on opposing Naziism in Central America leads to a number of low-level wars in which American troops are dragged in. Growing hostility to “American chauvinism” grows on campus as more and more lives are lost in Guatemala and Honduras. Opposition to Naziism is increasingly questioned, and a rift opens in American life, with a counterculture that resists capitalism and American interventionism. The “Peace movement” urges the United States to leave other countries alone to work out their own destinies, and finds support on college campuses across the nation. Among some political thinkers, distinction is made between “Naziism” as a legitimate political system, and the excesses of “Hitlerism.”

That’s as far as I can take it right now.  What do you think? Bear in mind this is VERY rough and obviously open to all sorts of criticism. Let me know.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will: this is (I hope obviously) NOT a pro-Nazi world. Naziism is evil. But it is one in which Naziism is strongly PERCEIVED to be the lesser of two evils because of a different set of circumstances. I reject Naziism in all its forms as an odious and terrible political and social philosophy. But there was a time, historically, in which it was seen by many as a potential and desirable future. Many good people died to see that this future did not occur. This universe asks the question: “What if they had not fully succeeded? What if the issue had remained — in the public mind — in doubt?” If you find this horrifying, good. It IS horrifying.





The Word: Can God Make A Person Free Enough To Surprise Him?

Explanation: A bit over a year ago, I began writing a regular theology column for Sci Phi Journal called The Mote In God’s ‘I’. This is the column that launched the series, and remains my fastest sale to date (15 minutes). I am re-running it here, hoping my readers like it as well as the editor did.

The Mote In God’s “I.”

Most of the problems I’ve run into in my life, I have solved by the simple expedient of reading more science-fiction. I was too young to be an astronaut when I discovered that such an incredible profession existed, so I read Rocket Jockey by Lester del Rey. I didn’t have any friends in my middle-school years, so I read Anne McCaffrey and imagined myself a dragonrider. Somewhat more productively, I watched and read Star Trek and found myself a few like-minded friends who started tabletop gaming. Problem solved. Whenever dramatically boring people said I couldn’t use made-up worlds to solve my problems, I pointed out that a) the “real” world had no better track record at that, and b) it was working fine so far. Then I read more science-fiction and solved more problems.

One of the oldest problems in theology is that of free will versus theological determinism. If God exists, and is all-powerful and all-knowing as his followers claim, then how can his creation be possessed of free will? Won’t He know everything they are going to do beforehand? And if He does, is the future not fixed? And if fixed, in what sense do creatures have a choice?

(This essay is not going to concern itself with the debate on whether free will exists. For the sake of this essay, it exists. If you believe otherwise, go… do whatever the hell you were already going to do, I guess. I can’t stop you. More to the point, you can’t stop you. Have fun.)

On the other hand, if creatures have free will, then can God really be God? Doesn’t that mean he’s either not omnipotent, or not omniscient?

Short answer: No.


The problem is that many theological thinkers have just been willing to accept what turns out to be a false dichotomy. Calvinists, who believe in predestination, essentially say that yes, God does know everything, and are fine with that because the purpose of God is to glorify God. How God is glorified if it turns out that He Himself is the ultimate cause of evil, because no one ever had a choice not to commit it, I have never been able to figure out.

On the other side of the theological divide, we have the Arminians, who say that free will is sacred to God, so God would never interfere with it. While that certainly says a lot more for God’s character, it still doesn’t really answer how God can’t destroy free will by knowing the future.

In other words, the problem with both schools of thought is that their answers lack the imagination that provides the backbone of really solid science-fiction writing.

For the longer answer that is actually relevant I eventually formulated, I have to give credit, not, as you might think, to men like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (I’m going to assume we all know these guys were hard-core Christians, yes?) but to writers such as S.M. Stirling and Terry Pratchett. Because both of these men’s worlds really do contain the answer, if we look hard enough.

S.M. Stirling is my all-time favorite alternate-history writer. Sister Marya Sokolowska of his Draka cycle is one of my favorite religious characters in all of fiction. But it was The Peshawar Lancers that started me thinking along theological lines. In it, the “seer” Yasmini can see possible futures, enabling her to predict the results of present actions. As the novel progresses, she begins seeing all the possible futures, all the time, until it threatens to drive her mad.

Terry Pratchett, in his Discworld universe, more facetiously puts an omniscope (which can see anywhere and anywhen) under the control of the Department of Inadvisably Applied Magic. When asked to observe the future, he demurs, on the grounds that observing the future would cause all the possible futures to collapse into a single future, which, having been observed, would now be the only future.

In both of these cases, we see the same core idea: there are many futures to choose from. And while it might not be possible for a man to observe them all, as in Pratchett, or for a woman to keep them all straight, as in Stirling, it should be quite possible for God.

The solution to the problem is not that God be considered less than omniscient. It is that He be considered more omniscient than we had ever imagined. Why could God not see all possible futures, simultaneously, and then react accordingly as His creation, blessed with free will, makes choices?

There are really only two objections to this: Firstly, does this mean that God could be surprised? Maybe even thwarted? Certainly not, and science-fiction (or fantasy) again provides the answer, as any competent dungeon-master who has ever run a party through a Dungeons and Dragons campaign knows. Because the dungeon-master knows the rules. The party may do something unusual, and the die rolls may be odd, but they can’t really surprise him.  And by (in Hawking’s famous phrase) “throwing the dice where they cannot be seen,” God can certainly always create the circumstances He wants. But no being with infinite attention could ever be surprised, any more than an author of one of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books could be when a child reaches one of his endings. Yet, the child had free will.

Secondly, is it possible for God to keep knowledge from himself in this way (and you have to admit, that’s a lot more interesting than the old “can-God-make-a-rock-so-heavy-yadda-yadda-barf” question)?

Well, it’s hard to imagine why He couldn’t. His lack of knowledge doesn’t threaten Him or anyone He cannot protect. And God often speaks in “If… then” phrases in the Judeo-Christian tradition (Exodus 4 being but one example). Why would God need to use “if” when He already knew? Is He lying to his followers? That would seem more troubling than the idea that God might limit his own knowledge. By giving people free will at all, God would already have limited His own power, simply by allowing other power to exist. This objection seems petty.

There seems to be no intrinsic reason then, why free will and omniscience could not coexist, so long as we recognize the proper definition of “omniscience,” which requires, as science-fiction has always required – as religion, at  its best, has always required – that we always seek beyond the limits of the humanly and presently possible.