Archive for the ‘Thursday Tangents’ Category

TT: Food of the Gods

April 27, 2017

ALAN: In your novel Thirteen Orphans, we are introduced to Your Chocolatier, Albert Yu’s Chocolate Emporium. It is described so sensuously that the smell and the taste waft off the page. How much of that is wish fulfillment and how much of it is personal experience?

Chocolate Flower and Thirteen Orphans

JANE: If dreams are wish fulfillment, then that’s where Albert Yu’s shop has its origin.  One night I had a particularly vivid dream in which an elegant older lady was making her way through a very high-end shopping mall.  Her destination proved to be an exclusive chocolate store.  The dream was so vivid I could smell the aroma of cocoa, even taste the small square of chocolate – maybe one inch to a side – that the old lady ate.

That’s how I met Albert Yu and Pearl Bright – and developed a desire for a chocolate that exists only in dreams.  I’m glad I was at least able to translate the sensation into words!

ALAN: Wow! That’s a powerful dream. I wonder if Kage Baker ever dreamed like that? Her novels of The Company are a positive paean of praise for chocolate. She analyses its charms in great detail and it was in her novels that I first came across the word “theobromine” which, it turns out, is the active ingredient mainly responsible for the effect of chocolate on the human mind and body.

JANE:  Ah, see, that proves you’re not a chocoholic…  I’ve known that forever.  Here in Albuquerque, there’s even an expensive chocolate shop called Theobroma.

Do you know that “theobromine” means “food of the gods”?

ALAN: I’d not actually noticed that, but once you told me, my (very small) classical education kicked in and it made sense.

JANE: See?  Classical educations can be useful!

As names go, Theobromine is certainly an improvement over “xantheose,” the original name for this particular alkaloid.  I tried to look xantheose up on-line to see what it means, but the search engine kept redirecting me to theobromine.

Eventually, I went and checked several of my elderly print dictionaries, including the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s New Third International Dictionary.  I struck out there, too, except to learn that “xanth” is a common prefix in the names of derivatives and compounds.

(Gee, I wonder if Piers Anthony knew this?)

Anyhow, you’re a retired scientist.  Can you tell me what xantheose means – if it means anything?

ALAN: Yes I can, sort of. The -ose suffix indicates that the chemical is a sugar. You’ve probably heard of sucrose, glucose, fructose and the like, but it’s a large family of chemicals and many other sugars exist.

Xanth, as far as I can tell, comes from the Greek Xanthos meaning yellow, so xantheose is, presumably, a yellow sugar. I suspect the name might have been changed to theobromine because actually the chemical is an alkaloid rather than a sugar, though the distinction is blurred. Many alkaloids contain sugar groups in their structure…

Alkaloid names tend to have an -ine suffix attached to the plant name that the alkaloid is extracted from (strychnine, for example, is an alkaloid found in the nut of the tree Strychnos nux-vomica). Theobromine follows this naming convention (theobroma is the genus of the cacao plant) but is itself a very misleading name because the chemical does not actually contain any bromine at all – even though the element bromine is approximately the colour of chocolate.

All in all, the nomenclature of this compound is really rather a mess, whichever name you choose…

JANE: Rather like chocolate itself…  Seems appropriate somehow.

Y’know, in those same “hols,” you mentioned that you had just read Piers Anthony’s second autobiographical work How Precious Was That While.  From your comments about it, I gathered that you had read his other autobiographical work, Bio of an Ogre.  Does he ever say where he got the name “Xanth” for his Fantasy world?

Did it have anything to do with chemistry or the color yellow?

ALAN: There’s nothing about the derivation in How Precious Was That While. I can’t really comment about Bio of an Ogre because it’s been many years since I read it, and I no longer possess a copy – it was a casualty of the Great Library Purge of 2014…

But getting back to chocolate for a moment – about a 20-minute drive from where I live is Silky Oak Chocolate. They have a cafe and shop where you can buy handmade chocolates and they also have a Chocolate Museum which tells the story of 3000 years of chocolate history. They have a huge collection of chocolate paraphernalia, including a 2,500 year old Mayan Chocolate pot.

From the descriptions on their website, I suspect that their stock corresponds rather closely to Albert Yu’s stock. If you ever come here for a holiday, I promise to take you there.

JANE: (suspiciously) Just take me there or buy me a piece of chocolate?  The latter would be delightful, the other would be torture.  Wait!  Except that I’m a grown-up and can buy my own chocolate.  Really, there are wonderful advantages to being an adult.

Count me in…  Now to figure out how to manage a holiday in New Zealand.

ALAN: You’ll love it as long as the weather is on your side…

JANE: That sounds ominous.  What do you mean?

ALAN: I’ll tell you next time.

TT: Chocoholics Anonymous!

April 20, 2017

JANE: So, Alan, when I read your most recent “wot I red on my hols,” I noticed that you have recently had a birthday.

Breakfast?

ALAN: Yes – having birthdays is a bad habit I seem to have stumbled into. I get older every year, damnit!

JANE: No matter!  I’m going to wish you Happy Birthday anyhow, so there!

We once did a Tangent on birthday celebrations,

so I am sophisticated regarding the customs of your alien land.  Today I’d like to discuss something much more serious: chocolate.

In your “hols,” you stated that your birthday banquet concluded with an enormous chocolate cake.  You seem to have enjoyed it with great enthusiasm.  However, many times you have stated that you do not care for chocolate.

What I want to know is how anyone can say he is indifferent to chocolate.

ALAN: Habit, more than anything else, I think. When I was a child chocolate (and sweets in general) were still rationed – a hangover from the war. Even when they finally came off the ration, they were still comparatively expensive. So chocolate in particular was a rare luxury which I seldom, if ever, saw.

JANE: That’s actually fascinating.  Do you remember when rationing began to loosen up?

ALAN: I’m not sure when rationing finished – sometime in the early 1950s. I don’t really remember it, I was far too young. It was just one of those grown up things that I didn’t understand. But I do remember having my mum’s ration book as a toy to play with. Presumably that was after rationing was over…

I also remember eating what was probably my first ever piece of chocolate. It was made to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, so I would have eaten it in 1953 or so. I seem to recall quite enjoying it. Indeed, even today if I happen to eat a piece of chocolate I do enjoy it. But I have no great urge to seek it out and I can, quite literally, go for years without having any chocolate at all.

Indeed, I ate only one small slice of the birthday chocolate cake. Other people consumed the rest of it.

JANE: I tremble…  Although we didn’t have rationing, my parents were much more likely to supply us with fresh fruit rather than candy.  And, believe me, that wasn’t suffering.  I still remember summer-warm peaches, plums, and grapes, fresh from local farms.

Maybe because of that, even though I can – and usually do – eat chocolate on a daily basis, it still seems very special.

Other than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I don’t really know much about English chocolate.  Tell me about something uniquely British.

ALAN: A common chocolate bar of my youth was Frys Five Boys. The bar was divided into five pieces, each of which had the face of a boy moulded into the chocolate. Each boy had a different expression on his face. A little bit of googling tells me that the five faces were Desperation, Pacification, Expectation, Acclamation, and Realisation – these presumably being the steps along the way to obtaining and eating the chocolate.

JANE: That’s rather weird – especially Pacification – I really can’t see how that fits in at all.

We didn’t have candy bars with faces on them, at least that I remember.  My favorites as a child usually involved nuts or coconut, and these remain combinations I really like.  For a while, I tried Three Musketeers bars, because they were thicker than your average Hershey bar – even a Hershey with almonds – but they really were too sweet.

To this day, when Jim and I are given a box of mixed chocolates, I get the coconut pieces, he gets the creams and cordials, and we share the rest, although, in fairness, I get somewhat more of the nuts, because he’s usually still working his way through creams.

Do you prefer milk or dark chocolate?

ALAN: I’m not sure I really have a preference, since I eat it so rarely. But I think probably dark chocolate because I don’t have a very sweet tooth.

JANE: I definitely prefer dark chocolate, although I won’t turn down milk chocolate, if it’s of good quality.  Sadly, many of the standards of my childhood – like the basic Hershey’s kiss or Reeses peanut butter cup – are now made with such poor quality chocolate that you can feel the sugar grate against your teeth.  I usually avoid these.  If I’m going to have the calories, I’d like to enjoy them.

ALAN: Since you are so fond of chocolate, I’m sure you must have a store of chocolate anecdotes…

JANE: Many, but there’s one that seems especially appropriate here.  Some years ago, when I was invited to be Guest of Honor at a convention in Wisconsin, the Guest Liaison asked me if there was anything special I’d like put in my room.  She seemed disappointed when I told her my drinks of choice were water and coffee, and asked if there wasn’t a special treat I’d like.

I told her that I usually started my day with a bit of chocolate.  To my astonishment, when we arrived, she presented us with a very large tin filled with homemade chocolate truffles: her own handiwork.  They were very delicious.  I still have the tin and whenever I use it, I think with great warmth of Heidi Oliversen and her talent and kindness.

ALAN: Tins are wonderful things. Robin has an old chocolate tin sitting in the back of the pantry waiting for just the right thing to be put into it.

I think I must have a slightly naïve view of chocolate. To me, it’s always been something solid that I chew and I remember being very puzzled to read about people drinking it. Drinking chocolate? What’s that? Is it just a molten chocolate bar? Eventually I did actually come across proper drinking chocolate, but I don’t like it very much. It’s very bitter, unless you overload it with so much sugar and milk that the chocolate seems almost to be an afterthought; which rather destroys the point of it, I think.

JANE: Ah, yes…  Drinking bitter chocolate is an indigenous American tradition.  It is often mixed with spices like chile which gives it an added kick.  There was great excitement in the archeological community a few years ago when some vessels from Chaco Canyon were analyzed and chocolate residue was found.  There was much speculation as to whether it was in common use or reserved for special occasions.

The few times I’ve had drinking chocolate, I’ve found the caffeine boost almost too much.  For someone who routinely begins her day with a cup of black coffee and four chocolate covered almonds, that’s definitely saying something.

ALAN: I have a chocolate related question for you, but I suspect the answer might be complicated. How about I ask you next time?

TT: From Bokononism to Pastafarianism

April 13, 2017

JANE: We’ve been talking about religion in SF for several weeks now, tangenting off now and then into other topics as the mood takes us.

Cats Cradled

I will admit that until we had this discussion, I hadn’t realized just how much science fiction attempted to reconcile in one way or another religious or spiritual concepts and a future dominated by science.

ALAN: Yes – it’s been a bit of an eye-opener for me as well.

JANE: Courtesy of this discussion, some weeks ago I finally read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.  This novel  may be one of the most ambitious attempts to address questions of religion in a science fictional setting, given that in the novel Vonnegut creates an entire religion, complete with founding prophet, texts, and rituals.

ALAN: And he does it all in a very thin book! Other writers could take lessons from him…

The religion is Bokononism. The foundation of the faith is that everything about it is a lie. However the lies that define the faith (known as foma) are themselves harmless untruths that, if believed in and adhered to, will give peace of mind and lead to the living of a good life.

Central to the novel is the idea of a karass – a group of people who are cosmically linked. I strongly suspect that you and I belong to the same karass.

JANE: I like that idea.  It would certainly explain a friendship that thrives despite our having met only once and living on opposite sides of the globe.

Let me check.  Yes!  The key element of a karass is that the people within it are organized into teams that “do God’s will without ever discovering what they are doing.”  In Cat’s Cradle the narrator believes that the instrument of his karass (its kan-kan) is the book he is writing.  I guess in our case the kan-kan is the Thursday Tangents.

ALAN:  Quite right. Without the Tangents, we couldn’t-couldn’t.

JANE: Ouch!  Please, go on while I recover from that horrible pun!

ALAN: Any karass will always have at least one theme that defines it. This theme is a wampeter. Sometimes what appears to be a karass will prove to have no wampeter. The links between the people are superficial. Such a false karass is a granfalloon. Members of a granfalloon soon split up and go their own separate ways. Vonnegut uses Hoosiers as an example of a granfalloon. Apparently Hoosiers are people who were born in Indiana. Have you any idea where the word Hoosier comes from?

JANE: Absolutely not!   However, I will go look it up.  Before I do though, I think it’s important to stress that Vonnegut implies that granfalloons, rather than wampeters, are what most people use to define themselves.  These may be political parties, racial identities, or the like – but no matter how important these groupings may seem to be, without a wampeter, they are empty of divine purpose.

Ah, now…  To define “Hoosier.”  Hmm… This is interesting.  According to Wikipedia, even Hooisers don’t know what a Hoosier is.  I shall quote:

“Hoosier is the official demonym for a resident of the U.S. state of Indiana. The origin of the term remains a matter of debate within the state, but “Hoosier” was in general use by the 1840s, having been popularized by Richmond resident John Finley’s 1833 poem ‘The Hoosier’s Nest’”

ALAN: Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs! (That’s Yorkshire for: Gosh, that’s surprisingly interesting). Vonnegut himself was born in Indiana and so I suppose that he is therefore perfectly qualified to assert that Hooisers are a granfalloon…

JANE: Absolutely!  As you already mentioned, one of the most interesting things about Bokononism is that, unlike most religions, which claim to provide Truth, Bokononism freely admits that all its tenants are lies.

ALAN: That’s right, in Bokononism, foma are the lies that the religious structure is built upon.

We actually have our own real life foma here in New Zealand. It is the “Federation of Maori Authorities” (FOMA) which is a network of Maori business organisations dedicated to the pursuit of indigenous economic development. Which leads me to believe that this FOMA does in fact constitute a karass whose wampeter is economic growth. But if it is a lie, as all foma are lies, is it harmless? I suspect not, because the goals are real… The whole thing makes for a nice, circular irony something which Vonnegut, that most ironic of writers, would certainly have enjoyed.

JANE: But surely such a group would be a granfalloon, since clearly the goal is not to do God’s Will but mans’!

ALAN: You’re right! Gosh, I never realised that theology was such a slippery subject. Could this be a schism? Is it a heresy?

Vonnegut was so attached to the ideas of Bokononism that he later published a collection of essays which he called Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons.

JANE: We could keep going on the subject of religion and SF.  For example, I realized that I hadn’t mentioned how religion – most particularly the theme of God the Tester – grows to be an important element in some of David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels.  At one convention, I even met a self-ordained minster of that church, who held a service on the Sunday morning.

I bet you have other examples as well.

ALAN: Indeed I do. In real life (TM) Pastafarianism, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, promotes a light-hearted, satirical view of religion. Satire, of course, requires a firm basis of truth to be effective. And as with many of the literary examples that we’ve looked at, there really are serious concerns lying behind the jokes. The doctrine has distinct parallels with Bokononism.

Several countries have officially recognised the church. Ministers (Ministeroni) have been ordained and wedding celebrants appointed. The first legally recognised Pastafarian wedding in the world took place in Akaroa, New Zealand in April 2016.

JANE: Wow!  I know you and Robin have been married longer than that, otherwise I might wonder…

Now, even with our various jaunts off topic, we’ve been very serious for several weeks now.  We’re going to need to find something completely frivolous for our next Tangent.

TT: Surreal, Absurd, Still Seriously Spiritual

April 6, 2017

ALAN: When I take my dog for a walk I tend to listen to audiobooks. Recently I’ve been listening to Robert Sheckley’s Dimension of Miracles (1968). It’s a surreal and absurdist comedy which tells of the adventures of Tom Carmody, a man from Earth who wins a prize in a galactic sweepstakes.  By a nice piece of serendipity, I found that there’s one section in the novel which fits quite neatly into our discussion.

Teatime of the Sole

Carmody’s prize takes him on a journey hither and yon throughout the galaxy. Among the many people that Carmody meets in his odyssey is a being described by the prize as “…the autochthonous Melichrone who is sui generis (in spades).” The prize goes on to remark that as a race Melichrone is ubiquitous, and as an autochthone he is inimitable.

When I got back from my walk I spent some time with a dictionary and came to the conclusion that Melichrone is both omniscient and omnipresent – for all practical purposes he is a god.

JANE: I’m glad you reached for the dictionary first.  Lapsed English Professor I may be, but I would have needed a dictionary for that phrase, too!  So, what happens when Carmody meets Melichrone?

ALAN: Carmody and Melichrone have a long, complex and very funny debate on the nature of godhood during which Melichrone admits to having transformed himself into entire races that he then encouraged to make war upon each other. He introduced both sex and art to them and divided himself into male and female components so that he could procreate, indulge in perversions and burn himself at the stake. It was a lot of fun.

But Melichrone made the mistake of listening to his priests debate his nature and became filled with doubt…

JANE: Ah, even divinity can’t deal with theology.  That’s true enough.

ALAN: Sheckley seems largely forgotten these days, but without Robert Sheckley I doubt if we’d ever have had Douglas Adams. Their writing style and their obsessions are very similar, though interestingly Adams claimed not to have read any Sheckley.

JANE: And, as a writer, I can believe Douglas Adams.  As I said a while back when we were discussing the Alien Invasion trope, at the time I wrote my Smoke and Mirrors, I had not read either Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters or Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Writers do evolve ideas all on their own, no matter how much this may disappoint Literature professors, most of whom would like to trace all creativity back to a single source.

Maybe they think they’ll find God there…  Hmm…  I’m being influenced by all the theology we’ve been discussing.  Pray, go ahead and talk about Douglas Adams and religion.

ALAN: Adams described himself as a “radical atheist”.  So much so, in fact, that Richard Dawkins actually dedicated The God Delusion to Adams. But despite his own beliefs, religion continually fascinated Adams because of the way it influenced so much human behaviour. He found that supremely irrational and continually tried very hard to understand the contradiction. He pecked away at the idea in most of his books, but it is a central theme in the second of his Dirk Gently novels (The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul).

JANE: Oh!  At your recommendation, I read this.  Actually, I listened to it.  My library didn’t have a print copy, but it did have an audio version of a six episode radio drama, which I think was the original version of the story.

ALAN: No – the book dates from 1988. The radio drama didn’t happen until 2008.  There was also a rather disappointing TV series in 2010 and 2012.

JANE: Ah, my error.  My understanding, based on a Neil Gaiman introduction to one of Douglas Adams’ other books, is that Adams himself preferred writing for radio and other dramatic forms.  I believe (I don’t have the intro in front of me) that Gaiman refers to Adams as an “unhappy novelist.”

ALAN: I suspect that’s true. His first major success, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was originally a radio series. Eventually, over the course of several years, it was adapted for every other medium (it became a stage play, a novel, a TV series and a movie – not bad going, eh?). But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Adams felt most comfortable when working in radio.

JANE: I just looked at Wikipedia and found a comment that seems to support the idea that Adams, while wildly creative, was not happy writing.  It’s so great, I must quote it here:

“Adams was never a prolific writer and usually had to be forced by others to do any writing. This included being locked in a hotel suite with his editor for three weeks to ensure that So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish was completed.”

But there I go, Tangenting off again.  Would you like to talk about the book?

ALAN: The book has a mad plot, not easily summarised. But it begins when the check-in desk at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Two shoots up through the roof engulfed in a ball of orange flame. Clearly the old Norse gods are to blame. Who else would be waiting there killing time until the 15:37 flight to Oslo started to board?

JANE: Interesting.  The radio drama has a slightly different opening, beginning with Dirk Gently and his secretary.  She quits, because she’s not being paid and ends up working at the very airline desk where the fireball goes up.  Her fate becomes a key element in the story.

ALAN: The radio drama took a lot of liberties with the structure of the book. It straightened out the rather convoluted sequence of events and it introduced gadgets like mobile phones which barely existed when the book was written…

JANE: I actually wondered about the mobile phones…

ALAN: Anyway, whether it be in the book or in the radio drama, Adams comes to the conclusion that gods are created by people’s desire for them. Once a god has been worshipped by someone, that god will remain “alive” forever. It’s not a very original thought – I’ve come across it many times in many books and I’m sure that Adams had as well. But he brings his trademark wit to the idea and makes it both convincing and memorable.

JANE: I agree that Adams’ idea was not unique.  What was, however, was his idea of a holistic detective, which in itself can be looked upon as a religious or spiritual concept.  Dirk Gently runs his detective agency on the idea that, if one can find the holistic connection between various events, then one can solve any problem.  At first, it seems as if he’s merely running a scam but, by the novel’s end, it seems he may be on to something.

ALAN: And yet again, presumably by sheer coincidence, you can draw parallels between the practice of holistic detection and the Theory of Searches in Mindswap, another Robert Sheckley novel that Adams didn’t read.

JANE: Oh, boy.  Dirk Gently would definitely find this a holistic link.

Since we’re talking about influence, I wonder if Adams was influenced in his idea of a holistic detective by a very famous SF novel that includes a similar – although very differently employed – concept.  Because of my earlier tangent taking up so much space, we can’t discuss it now, but let me whisper the title in your ear.

What do you think?

ALAN: Sounds good to me! Let’s do it.

TT: Spoiler Alert

March 30, 2017

JANE: Well, Alan, we’ve come back from Milton Keynes…  Do you remember where we were before that?

ALAN: Ah, tangents. Don’t you love them?  I’m sure I had something important to say before I got sidetracked…

From Last Week’s Tangent!

Oh, yes… Gaiman’s writing pal Terry Pratchett has also dipped his toes into the murky waters of humour about religion and spirituality.

Small Gods tells of the god Om who comes back into the world and, rather to his surprise, finds himself manifested in the body of a tortoise. He has only one disciple, a boy called Brutha (which presumably is pronounced “Brother” and which also suggests “Buddha”). The book is a wonderful satire on the role of religion in politics and the practices of religious institutions.

Books such as this convince me that Pterry is not really a writer of funny books per se. In his later novels in particular, he is really writing about deeply serious subjects. It just so happens that the ways he finds to discuss those subjects are hilarious… In the words of the title of a book about his writing, Terry Pratchett is clearly guilty of literature.

JANE: I adore Small Gods.  It is both broadly humorous and deeply satirical.  What makes Small Gods work as a commentary on religion is that it does not in the least attack those who are either truly religious or truly spiritual – Brutha and some of his associates are both.  What Small Gods takes issue with are those who would use the forms of religion as an excuse for doing things (like torture) that are horrible by any measure.

Terry Pratchett doesn’t restrict his exploration of the relationship of God/gods and humanity to the Omnians.   The Rincewind books (a subset of the Discworld books, for those of you unfamiliar with Pratchett’s work) feature of host of gods who are, literally, playing dice with the universe, most particularly with the residents of the Discworld.  Rincewind is the favored playing piece of one deity in particular, and his hopes for a peaceful and boring life do not benefit from that interest.

Okay, your turn!  I see you bouncing up and down over there.

ALAN: If only in passing, I have to at least mention Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys. We’ve discussed it before so I don’t want to spend too much time on it again, but for the sake of completeness I must point out that by using Anansi, the trickster god (a common figure in many mythologies) Gaiman manages to show, humorously, that even the gods need a little anarchy in their lives if those lives are to have any meaning.

JANE: Trickster figures are far more than anarchy – in fact, many people would argue that they are less figures of anarchy than they are emblematic of righting the balance.   Anansi – like Coyote, like Prometheus, and others –  is associated with bringing fire to humanity.

ALAN: This aspect comes out quite clearly in the novel.

Spoiler Alert, since I can’t explain this without talking about plot details.

Following the death of his father Anansi, Charlie Nancy (lovely pun!) finally gets to meet his brother Spider, who has inherited all the godlike powers of their trickster father. They celebrate their meeting with rather too much wine, women and song. The next day, Charlie is far too hungover to go into the office and so Spider, magically disguised as Charlie, substitutes for him. Spider quickly discovers that Charlie’s partner has been embezzling funds from the company. But Spider cannot resist his own nature and he himself steals the affections of Rosie, Charlie’s fiancée…

The Nancy brothers are initially out-maneuvered by Charlie’s partner, which sets in motion a complex chain of events that occupy the rest of the novel. But in the end the balance is properly restored – the embezzler is turned into a stoat, Spider marries Rosie, and Charlie becomes a successful singer. Their dead father Anansi watches his two sons with approval.

JANE: And, it is implied, may have intended this result or something like it all along…

And we can’t really leave Neil Gaiman and this topic without a nod to American Gods.  I don’t want to provide a spoiler – especially since many people are rediscovering the novel because it’s being adapted for television or something – but I will say that by the end the question of what might be the new American Gods is provided with a very provocative answer.

ALAN: Of course, Gaiman and Pratchett et al were building on a well-established comic tradition. In 1907, G. K. Chesterton published The Man Who Was Thursday.

JANE: You mentioned this when we were starting this thread and I just finished reading it.  Wonderful language wrapped around an apparently absurdist plotline that, by the end, has almost too much meaning.  I very much enjoyed the book.

ALAN: Chesterton is perhaps best known for his “Father Brown” detective stories. These are not without humour, and Chesterton also sometimes uses Father Brown as a foil for theological asides which somehow manage to give an insight into the solution of the current case.

These aspects of Chesterton’s writing all come together beautifully in The Man Who Was Thursday and it is his masterpiece. The book tells of a group of anarchists, whose central council maintain their anonymity by naming themselves after the days of the week. Their leader, insofar as anarchists have leaders, is known as Sunday…

Oh, dear, it seems I must issue another spoiler alert…

JANE: Go ahead.  Let me help.  Spoiler Alert, folks!

ALAN: Thank you. It turns out that all the council members are undercover detectives, each of whom has been employed mysteriously, and assigned to defeat the very council of which they are a part! It’s all a devious plot by Sunday, of course. He has set detective against detective, with nary an anarchist in sight. What could his reasons possibly be?

A clue comes on one of the final pages of the novel when Sunday is asked if he has ever suffered. His response is “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?”, which was the question that Jesus used to challenge his disciples’ commitment to his teachings.

The novel is a Christian allegory (though rather more subtle than many). Its saving grace is that it is very, very funny and the humour has stood the test of time well.

JANE: I would argue that there are many earlier “clues” – including the fact that the group’s leader is called “Sunday” – to Sunday’s probable identity.

What I thought was even more interesting than who Sunday might be was how the numerous, often hilarious, discussions of the value of anarchy versus law or order can be seen as arguments for and against free will.  All the policemen who ostensibly are upholding order thrive in one way or another by being encouraged to take on the role of anarchists (that is, show a bit more free will), while the one true anarchist is – in a very odd way, because he can only exist with Law to act against – the only real advocate of order.

It’s not that simple, but it does provoke thought.

ALAN: Humour can do that to you. It’s a sneaky technique. For example…

JANE: No!  We must stop here.  We’ve already gone on longer than I intended and I need to get some work done.  Please make notes and save it for next time!

TT: The Omens Look Good

March 23, 2017

JANE: We’ve talked about the works of both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman at some length in the past, but I would like to note that their collaborative novel Good Omens uses humor to take a look at a very unfunny religiously-charged topic – the end of the world.  One of my favorite bits is the revised Four Horsemen (excuse me, bikers) of the Apocalypse: Death, War, Famine, and Pollution.

Which Reveals the Secret of Milton Keynes

Death and War are fairly recognizable evolutions of the classic trope, but Famine is brilliantly repurposed as a fad diet promoter – an excellent commentary on how (at least in prosperous societies) fear of starvation has changed into fear of becoming fat.  Pollution does not so much replace Plague as expand upon the classic concept in that  humanity is presented not only as suffering from illness, but also as inflicting it upon the natural world.

ALAN: The book is so very British in its tone and in its references that its worldwide popularity never ceases to amaze me. Wikipedia informs me that the American edition (which I’ve never seen) has a plethora of footnotes which, I assume, explain some of these things…

For example, almost every British child born between (roughly) 1920 and 1970 grew up reading Richmal Crompton’s William books. They describe the adventures of an eleven-year-old boy and his gang of friends. Crompton’s books are themselves very funny and remain very readable even today. Adam, the Antichrist in Good Omens, is just a thinly disguised version of Crompton’s William Brown – a delightful homage to a British institution.

JANE: I just took my copy of Good Omens off the shelf.  The American edition does contain a wealth of footnotes but, as far as I can tell from a quick skim, the majority of them are typical of the sort Pratchett used in the Discworld books: side comments, often humorous, but certainly not clarifications.

There are a few clearly put in at the request of some anxious editor, such as this one:

“Note for Americans and other aliens: Milton Keynes is a new city approximately halfway between London and Birmingham.  It was built to be modern, efficient, healthy, and, all in all, a pleasant place to live.  Many Britons find this amusing.”

I must say, I didn’t feel the footnote added anything that an intelligent reader could not have gathered from context.  In fact, I feel that it actually obscured the point by not explaining why Britons find this amusing.

ALAN: Believe it or not, this footnote is in the British edition as well. It’s not hard to find the reason why. It allows Pratchett and Gaiman to mention Milton Keynes twice – once in the body of the text and once in a footnote – thus making the joke twice as funny!

Would you like to know why Milton Keynes is funny? It’s a bit of a tangent, but the story is far too good to miss out on…

JANE: Hey, we call these Tangents for a reason.  If I’d wanted to be forced to stay on topic, I’d be using my blog to write literary essays.  Go for it!

ALAN: Milton Keynes was formally designated as a new town in 1967. Most British towns are several thousand years old and they were never properly designed. They just sort of grew hither and yon, when nobody was looking. So the idea of having a whole new town, properly designed from the ground up, was quite a thrilling one. But of course, it was designed by a committee and as a consequence the final result was more than a little dull and stultifying. Milton Keynes is not an architectural classic… It’s a beige town, bland and unimaginative, a byword for boredom. As the footnote remarks, many Britons find this amusing.

JANE: They find boring amusing or that planning leads to a boring place amusing?

ALAN: All the above, with knobs on. The town is widely perceived as a waste of a golden opportunity. Nobody will ever admit that they come from Milton Keynes. It’s too shameful.

Bill Bryson notes in one of his travel books that he once took a train to Milton Keynes, but when he got off there, he was quite unable to find Milton Keynes.

In an effort to give the place some character, the city fathers commissioned a herd of concrete cows to be built on the outskirts of the town. Nobody is quite sure why. The cows are world famous in England. People come from yards around just to see them. Sometimes the cows get vandalised (clearly that’s what they are really there for). They have been painted pink, turned into zebras, had pyjama bottoms added to them and one of the calves was once kidnapped (a ransom note was sent to the local papers). History is silent as to whether or not the ransom was paid…

JANE: Is “pyjama” really how you Brits spell “pajama”?

ALAN: Of course it is. Perhaps we should both compromise on PJ…

JANE: PJ it is.  Of course, that’s also American shorthand for “peanut butter and jelly,” but we shall trust to context.

Remind me to tell you about a similar series of art projects here in the U.S.  I can’t remember what the one with cows was called, but there was another called The Trail of Painted Ponies.  It was exceedingly popular and for good reason.

But that’s a huge Tangent.  Let me go back to Good Omens.  In leafing through my copy, I certainly didn’t find any note about the William books.  However, I don’t think this would be necessary.  Although we don’t have “William” books precisely, we do have hosts of books about groups of children, doing the sort of things that groups of children like to do.  It is not a uniquely British theme.

 ALAN: No, it’s not uniquely British. But the William books are a very British institution with a unique place in popular culture. They are known to, and loved by, almost everybody who was born during the fifty years that Richmal Crompton was writing them. I’m sure that there are American equivalents, but William is very recognisably ours.

JANE: I wonder why they didn’t name Adam “William” then?  Were there other cues that Adam was “William,” not just an Everyboy hero?  Maybe his three pals were very like William’s?

ALAN: Quite unwittingly, you’ve hit the nail right on the head. Adam and his gang correspond very closely to William and his gang.

JANE: We’ve taken a detour to Milton Keynes, and it hasn’t been in the least beige.  Still, let’s take a breather and get back to this next week.

TT: Not That Shaggy!

March 16, 2017

JANE: So, Alan, last time you mentioned that one of the many ways SF has addressed issues of religion and spirituality is through humor. Would you like to start?

ALAN: Well, let’s begin with shaggy god stories…

JANE: That’s a good idea. Err… What’s a shaggy god story?

Shaggy? No, Ziggy!

ALAN: The term was coined by Michael Moorcock when he was the editor of New Worlds. He claimed that his slush pile was always far too full of these kind of stories. After the nuclear holocaust that wiped out humanity, there were only two survivors. One was called Adam and the other was called Eve…

The expression quickly caught on (it’s a very clever one), and these days it’s generally used to describe any story that depends for its effect on a punch line that invokes some kind of biblical scenario.

JANE: Clever, definitely, since it switches the letters d-o-g around into g-o-d, but Moorcock’s definition is a bit misleading, too.  According to what I recall, a shaggy dog story is basically a bad joke that builds up to a punchline that is usually anticlimactic.

Would you consider Arthur C. Clarke’s stories “The Star” and “The Nine Billion Names of God” (which we mentioned before) to fit Moorcock’s definition of a shaggy god stories?

ALAN: Yes I would – though they are definitely not anticlimactic bad jokes. I continue to find their punch lines effective and moving and (the first time I read them) quite shocking. Which is why they were well worth publishing in the first place, of course.

JANE:  Hmm… I just went and read up on shaggy dog stories.  One article did note that meeting the audience’s expectations in an “unexpected manner” also qualifies as a shaggy dog story, so I guess the Clarke stories really would (despite being effective) qualify as shaggy god stories.

If that’s the case, then a shaggy god story is not necessarily a bad story. It’s just that most of them are – especially if you’re an editor reading more and more of them as they appear in the slush pile.

ALAN: That’s exactly right. But even the clichéd shaggy god story that Moorcock hated so much can be made to work if you try hard enough. I have an example in mind. I think it’s by Damon Knight, but I’ve not been able to track it down…

As usual, Adam and Eve are the only two survivors of the nuclear holocaust. But Adam has a problem. Eve does not take kindly to his advances and she runs away from him and hides in a women’s toilet. Since men aren’t allowed in there, clearly there is nothing that Adam can do to save the situation. She won’t come out and he can’t go in. The human race is doomed to oblivion.

JANE: Heh….  Okay.  I’m chuckling.  Maybe one of our readers can identify this one?

Leaving the shaggy god story behind, what other stories have used humor to explore religious and/or spiritual issues?

ALAN: Probably one of the best examples is by Christopher Moore. All his books never cease to make me laugh out loud on buses, much to my embarrassment and to the amusement of all the other passengers. But by far and away his best book, in my opinion, is Lamb which is subtitled: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, a subtitle that sums up the plot admirably.

Make no mistake about it, the book is hugely irreverent and potentially offensive. But irreverence is never used as a cheap substitute for wit. This is a very clever book and there are subtleties hiding behind the belly laughs. Which, to my mind, makes the jokes twice as funny!

JANE: You’ve mentioned this book before, and I’ve actually just taken a copy out of my library, because I want to read it, but I haven’t gotten there yet.  Can you give me an example of these subtleties?

ALAN: Yes I can. Biff and his friend Jesus go searching for the three wise men who attended Jesus’ birth. Jesus wants to learn how to be the Messiah, and presumably the Magi can teach him. His mind is set on high ideals, but Biff much prefers the low places of the world.

So, for example, one of the Magi teaches Jesus the way of the Tao. And while he is absorbing these rarified lessons, Biff is learning about the ways in which eight Chinese concubines can enrich his life…

Again and again, in scene after scene, Jesus and Biff contrast the sacred and the profane and slowly they each come to realise that a truly effective life cannot be lived without both of these aspects being part of it. Neither can exist without the other.

Moore clearly respects his characters. Nothing that Jesus does in the book contradicts what we know about him. And Biff is not just a shallow cynic looking for a good time. He is the anchor that holds Jesus’ humanity on to the straight and narrow. Without Biff, Jesus cannot find the words to touch people’s souls.

But mostly, it’s just a hysterically funny book.

JANE: That sounds great…  I look forward to reading the book.

ALAN: I have several other authors in mind who have used humour to further a complex discussion of religion. Shall we talk about them next time?

JANE: Absolutely…  It sound enlightening!

TT: Back Into the “Real” World

March 9, 2017

JANE: For the last few weeks, we’ve been discussing religion and SF.  While certainly there has been SF written to “debunk” religion or to examine various theological issues from the point of view of a future in which it might be possible to – for example – figure out all The Nine Billion Names of God, there has also been SF written in which religious, theological or spiritual elements are seen as being a valuable part of human nature.

Visionary Landscapes

Having settled that issue to our mutual satisfaction, there’s another I’d love to look at: What happens when religious or spiritual concepts created for a story walk out of the fictional world and into our “real” one?

ALAN: Well, the obvious elephant-in-the-room example of this is Scientology. It was the brainchild of the SF writer L. Ron Hubbard and it derived from some ideas he’d published in Astounding in the late 1940s and early 1950s. John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding, was an enthusiastic early adopter of Hubbard’s ideas, claiming that they’d cured his sinusitis!

Hubbard coined the word “Dianetics” to describe his techniques for ridding the mind of fears and psychosomatic illnesses. The fruits of his thinking were eventually published as a book in 1951. As far as I can tell, this book (Dianetics – A New Science of the Mind) has remained constantly in print ever since.

In 1954, Hubbard redefined Dianetics as a religion which he called Scientology. Dianetics, Hubbard said, focused primarily on the physical being whereas Scientology concerned itself with the spiritual.

JANE: I had no idea that Hubbard’s work went back that far.  I don’t think I heard of either Dianetics or Scientology until the 1980’s.

ALAN: I have an amusing story about Scientology. I wrote a 100 -word review of a biography of Hubbard for a local newspaper. Almost by return of post I received a HUGE parcel from the Scientologists. I have no idea how they found my address (perhaps they could give the CIA lessons). The parcel contained a lot of glossy Scientology literature and a neatly-typed 10,000-word essay pointing out all the wrong assumptions in my review and all the lies and damn lies in the biography itself. It seemed an awful lot of effort to go to for a tiny review in an obscure newspaper – but that’s Scientology for you.

I found their response amusing, but also a little scary. So perhaps that’s all we can usefully say about Scientology…

JANE: Another good example of religious/spiritual ideas crossing out of fiction into reality comes from Robert A. Heinlein’s novel 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land.  In it, Valentine Michael (“Mike”) Smith is the sole survivor of an Earth colony on Mars.  In the best traditions of feral child fiction, he is raised by the Martians.  When he returns to Earth, he carries with him the values – including religious/philosophical ones – taught to him by the Martian “Old Ones.”

These include sharing water (and the bond that creates between “water brothers,” ritual cannibalism, and, last but definitely not least, the idea of “grokking” something – a deep understanding that encompasses a complex hybrid of intellectual and emotional comprehension that is more than either alone.

In the novel, Mike goes to the fate destined for most prophets who push local customs too far, but “grok” crossed over into the “real world.”  Even today you’ll occasionally hear someone say “I grok that” in all seriousness.  On a lighter note, there’s also a tee-shirt: “I Grok Spock.”

ALAN: I grok all that now, but it took me several readings of the book to grasp fully just what was meant by the term. It’s a really useful word for a very important (though sometimes slippery) concept, so it’s hardly surprising that the word has entered the language. But I’m sure many people who use it don’t know where it comes from originally.

Hubbard and Heinlein aren’t alone in influencing the real world with their philosophical ideas. Octavia Butler’s Earthseed books, which we talked about last time, have also directly inspired three spiritual organisations – SolSeed, a celebration of life and change, Terasem (from the Greek roots tera- (earth) and sem- (seed) which uses technology in an attempt to shape God, and Earthseed itself, a humanistic religion derived from pagan traditions and filtered through Butler’s fiction. There seems to have been something quite inspirational about her thinking.

JANE: I had no idea, but I think that’s fantastic!  Let’s see, what else?  Ah, hah!

Roger Zelazny’s 1969 novel, Creatures of Light and Darkness, contained a passage that has come to be called “the agnostic’s prayer.”

 “Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.”

Having heard Roger quote it from memory, I’d say he was fond of it, but I think he’d be surprised to find it has taken on a life of its own.

ALAN: That’s marvellous. I thoroughly approve!

Another huge science fictional influence on the real world comes from the Star Wars movies. The Jedi Church has a large number of members. In the 2001 census in New Zealand, 1.5% of people declared their religion as Jedi. The statistics bureau refused to accept it as a legitimate answer though, interestingly, if they had accepted it, it would have been the second largest religion in the country.

In 2010 a man called Craig Thomas ran for the Auckland city council on a Jedi platform (I don’t know if he was elected or not), and Jedi wedding celebrants can legitimately marry couples.

Unfortunately the 2011 census was never completed because of the disastrous earthquakes in Christchurch, so we don’t know if the religion’s popularity has continued to increase.

JANE: I hope there’s a new census so we can learn if the Force is still with us.

ALAN: But nothing is so serious that it can’t be examined from a humorous angle. Science fiction has had a lot of fun with religious ideas. Let’s look at some of them next time.

TT: Evolving Spiritual Concepts

March 2, 2017

ALAN: Did you know that this is our 300th Tangent?

JANE: That’s amazing!  Even at a low average of five hundred words per Tangent, that’s something like 150,000 words, or a good sized-novel’s worth of talk.

ALAN: Actually, we average rather higher, but I’ll let you be modest.

Future Theological Quests

Future Theological Quests

This seems like a good time to remind people that I have compiled some of the Tangents into a free e-book which can be downloaded  from the “My Books” page of my website.

JANE: And while they’re at it, they can download some of your amusing collections of essays…

Now, what were we talking about?  Oh, that’s right…

I’d realized that – with the exception of  A Canticle for Lebowitz – most of the stories we had discussed took a negative view regarding how traditional religions and theological positions would cope with the challenges of the future – in particular, with encounters with aliens.

ALAN: You’re right to point that out – but it wasn’t a deliberate policy. It’s just that the examples we chose were the most obvious and famous ones.

JANE: Surely someone other than Walter Miller has taken on the challenge of incorporating traditional religion into a future history.  Obviously, that religion might change – the Catholic Church of the 21st century is not the same as the Catholic Church of the 10th century – but they are clearly related entities.

Do you have any thoughts/suggestions?

ALAN: Actually, yes I do. Whenever you think about SF ideas that might be a little controversial, the name Philip Jose Farmer always springs to mind…

He wrote several stories about Father John Carmody, a Catholic priest who has many adventures with alien religions. Probably the best is the novel Night of Light. Every seven years, the planet called Dante’s Joy is subjected to a fortnight of psychedelic radiation that rearranges reality. Most of the inhabitants choose to sleep through it. Only mystics, newcomers, and the deeply religious stay awake to experience things materializing out of thin air. Many of them will die. But their religion tells them that the good will become better, though the bad may become worse.

Carmody observes a man metamorphose into a tree. Another is chased by statues that come to life. During this time, the living god must face his successor and Father John is there to help and to reconcile the planet’s religion with his own faith.

But by the end of the story, it seems likely that the alien religion will displace his own and spread throughout the galaxy.

JANE: Now that I think of it, Clifford Simak, whose works we discussed at some length back in 2014 met this particular challenge.  Unlike those authors who feared that encounters with aliens would challenge faith, in Simak’s stories non-humans often share the desire to explore theological questions like what constitutes the soul or the existence of God.

In several of Simak’s books – A Choice of Gods and Project Pope immediately come to mind – theological questions and questing are taken up by robots.  Simak clearly views religion—or at least the spiritual impulse – as something that is key to the expanding of the self, perhaps a step in the evolution of consciousness as important as opposable thumbs or the equivalent.

ALAN: Encounters with aliens are all very well, but what about encounters with everything on Earth? In the two novels that make up Octavia Butler’s Earthseed (Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998)) we meet Lauren Olamina, the daughter of a Baptist minister. She suffers from hyperempathy – she shares the pain of every living thing that she sees. She founds a haven where she and others can build a community which they call Earthseed. The word derives from the idea that the seeds of all life on Earth can be transplanted, and will change and adapt, in many different types of situations or places. Earthseed teaches that God is change and believers can shape change, both here and elsewhere. Lauren sees Earthseed as a religion destined to take root among the stars as the Earth’s resources are used up. To that extent, it is a religion of the present and the future. It has no connection to the dead past.

JANE: That sounds fascinating.  If Earthseed is unconnected to any past faiths, what are its tenets?

ALAN: The essential truth of Earthseed is defined in the paradoxical questions and answers:

Why is the universe? To shape God.
Why is God? To shape the universe

The ideas of Earthseed are developed in a very science fictional framework where America has devolved into a society of city states who fight each other for access to the few remaining resources. The books are Octavia Butler’s masterpiece.

JANE: You are certainly far from alone in thinking so!

One thing that’s interesting in how SF authors deal with religion and/or spirituality is whether they believe the older faiths will have any value in a transformed future world.  Butler has Lauren create a new religion to suit new challenges.  Simak – especially in A Choice of Gods – shows how different “gods” will suit different life paths.

Then there’s Roger Zelazny who, in Lord of Light, showed how a very old religion – in this case, Hinduism – might become “current” again when technology makes possible such things as reincarnation which previously had to be taken as a matter of Faith.

Zelazny dealt with other myths in stories, of course, but Lord of Light may be the best example for this particular discussion, because between technology and actual changes in the nature of humanity, many of the main characters don’t simply copy the Hindu gods, they become them.

ALAN: The great grey ghost who hangs over all discussions of SF and religion is Philip K. Dick. In 1974 he answered a knock on his door to find a young woman wearing a necklace fashioned in the shape of a fish, an ancient Christian symbol. Sunlight reflecting off the necklace caused what he perceived as a pink beam of light to strike him. After experiencing a series of hallucinations for several days, he came to the understanding that the pink beam had imposed a transcendentally rational mind onto his own. Clearly it was highly intelligent. He considered that its appearance must have been a sign from God. He spent the rest of his life exploring what that might mean.

His last few novels (the Valis trilogy and the posthumously published Radio Free Albemuth) are full of deeply spiritual and theological speculations and he kept a private diary which he called his Exegesis in which he tried to rationalise his experience. Portions of the Exegesis have been published, together with commentaries by several people. They are very difficult to read – I was unable to make anything of them. The novels are more approachable and some critics consider them to be his masterpieces. I confess, I am much amused by Dick’s designation of God as a Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS).

JANE: I never knew that was what VALIS meant. Interesting!

We could probably keep coming up with new example of spirituality in SF, but I think we’ve made our point.  Science and spirituality are not mutually exclusive – at least not in the writings of many science fiction writers over a long span of time.

TT: Science, Fiction, and Spirituality

February 23, 2017

JANE: Last time you promised to tell me about the most expensive SF/Religious epic ever made…

ALAN: That’s right, I did. It was one of Arthur C. Clarke’s projects.

JANE: Really? I always think of him as a writer of hard science fiction. I didn’t know he was interested in theology enough to have a religious movie made based on one of his works.

Classic Speculation

Classic Speculation

ALAN: Clarke’s novels often have spiritual and religious themes. His most famous work is 2001 – A Space Odyssey, and he is on record as saying, during the shooting of the film, that “MGM is making the first ten-million-dollar religious movie, only they don’t know it yet”.

So there it is – 2001 was the expensive epic that I had in mind.

JANE: You’ve got me there!  I’d never heard that quote.  One of my friends was saying just the other day that she’s tired of the false dichotomy that science and spirituality will always be in opposition.  It sounds as if Clarke would have agreed with her that the two need not be perceived to be at odds.

ALAN: I’m sure he would agree. Clearly Clarke was very well aware of the spirituality that infused so many of his stories and, equally clearly, he was doing it deliberately. It seemed to be very important to him and it was a theme he returned to time and time again. He was so much more than just a hard SF writer.

JANE: I really like the idea that his work shows how Hard SF need not exclude theological speculation – that it, indeed, might encourage it.

ALAN: Another very good example of that idea would be Clarke’s famous short story “The Star”. Scientists investigating the remnants of an advanced civilization that was destroyed when its sun went supernova discover that the supernova was actually the star that heralded the birth of Jesus. The protagonist, a Jesuit, suffers a crisis of conscience. He cannot reconcile his faith with the capriciousness of a god who is willing kill so many in order to make the symbol of their passing shine in the skies above Bethlehem.

JANE: I don’t remember that one well…  I’ll need to go and re-read to see how the Jesuit resolves his crisis.

Now that I think about it, Clarke’s short story “The Nine Billion Names of God” is also theological in nature – if not based in Christian theology.  I won’t say more about it lest I provide a spoiler for a story that rests very firmly on the ending.

So, we’re on a roll now.  What other authors have successfully combined theology and SF?  Oh, of course, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Lebowitz!   Although the grocery list that becomes religious text is what everyone tends to remember, still, I think there’s more to it than some clever gimmicks.

 What do you think of it?

ALAN: It’s a stunningly brilliant post-apocalyptic novel mostly set in a Catholic monastery deep in the desert of the Southwestern United States. The story spans many thousands of years as civilization slowly rebuilds itself. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz (named after the pre-apocalypse engineer who left behind the grocery list that you mentioned) preserve what little remains of humanity’s scientific knowledge until the world is ready for it again.

I first read it in my teens and it made a huge impression on me. The total desolation in the first part of the book felt very real and the occasional unexplained peculiarity was intriguing – at one point, the protagonist might have encountered the Wandering Jew, but we never find out for certain.

Then, gradually, things began to come together. The society that arose from the rubble was sometimes bizarre to my eyes, but it made sense to the characters, which is all that matters, of course.

It’s one of the few books that I’ve returned to again and again over the years, and every time I do I think I get something more out of it. It really is that good…

Miller views religion, particularly Catholicism, as a stabilising and unifying force that helps hold things together during times of crisis, and this is brought out very clearly in the story.

JANE: And Miller is not at all wrong in viewing Catholicism in this light.  Remember, it was Catholic monks who preserved a great deal of literature during the so-called “Dark Ages,” including classics by “pagan” authors.

ALAN: That’s one of the things that makes the book resonate with me – drawing these kinds of parallels gives the story an enormous depth and makes it very convincing.

Since we’ve raised the idea of Catholicism in SF, there are two other books I’d like to discuss. A Case of Conscience (1958 – James Blish) and The Sparrow (1996 – Mary Doria Russel.)

JANE: I don’t think I’ve ever read The Sparrow and I haven’t read A Case of Conscience since college. Can you tell me more about them?

ALAN: A Case of Conscience is the story of a Jesuit who investigates an alien race. The aliens have no religion and yet they have an innate sense of morality. This is in direct conflict with Catholic doctrine. After much soul-seaching, the priest concludes that the alien planet has been constructed by Satan to demonstrate the possibilities inherent in the complete absence of God. He pronounces an exorcism and the planet is destroyed, but it remains ambiguous as to whether God intervened through the exorcism or whether human meddling with fissionable material on the planet was the cause.

The Sparrow has a similar theme. A Jesuit priest’s experiences on an alien planet cause him to question his own belief in God. When he finally manages to return to Earth, all his companions on the planet are dead and he himself is horribly mutilated. The novel is constructed of two intertwined narratives – one that tells what happened on the alien world, and one that tells of the priest’s debriefing by the Jesuits as they struggle to reconcile his faith-destroying experiences with their own beliefs.

JANE: I presume that in each case the relevant Catholic teachings are what gives the novels their depth?

ALAN: Very much so. The debate that highlights exactly how each priest came to their separate conclusions is central to both novels and it contains much food for thought. These are subtle ideas, beautifully presented. Each novel complements the other and both are brilliantly conceived, deep and thoughtful. If there is such a thing as “literature” (as opposed to just stories),then both these novels fall firmly into that category.

JANE: What’s interesting is that most of the stories you’ve mentioned, when religion meets the future, religion is seems to be the loser.  Only the Miller story is an exception.  Maybe next time we can look for stories where religion or at least spirituality have a place in the future.