The Book of Strange New Things
Importantly, I am a Christian.
Also, this is a complicated book and my reactions are complicated, so I may not always be completely coherent….
A company called USIC has established a base – a colony in all but name – on a habitable planet they’ve called Oasis. It already has a sentient species living there. Peter, a Christian minister, gets the job to go and evangelise to these aliens. How is there even a question about whether this is science fiction?
The novel has a straightforward structure, with one intriguing aspect: the ‘title’ of each chapter is the last line, or sentence, of the chapter. This is… weird, and adds some remarkable suspense, and it means each chapter feels circular; it ends up where it began. I’m not sure whether this will turn out to have some greater significance than I currently perceive over the course of the novel.
Now, spoilers… Continue reading →
The Sparrow: a tale of religion and aliens
This book was recommended to me I think when I was lamenting the lack of religion in modern SF on Galactic Suburbia, and then also somewhat at random by my school librarian. Who then proceeded to buy it for school… but put it on my desk before putting it on the shelf. Truly I am looked after.
The premise behind it is one that, once stated, makes an enormous amount of sense when you consider the history of colonisation and exploration from a European perspective. Which group of people have, historically, often been the first into new, uncharted-by-white-folks areas? That would be the Jesuits. Of course. So, in 2019 when a signal is received from another planet, it is the Jesuits who finance and send the first interplanetary mission. As the history of Earth’s colonisation would also suggest, it is not an easy mission, and fraught with all sorts of difficulties – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
The narrative follows two timelines: one from the time of the discovery of the radio signal, and the subsequent preparations to go to the new planet; the other, some 40 years later, with the one returnee being… interviewed… by his Jesuit brethren about what happened there. This is a difficult process for a variety of reasons: some pertaining to the priest (Emilio) himself, some to the interviewers, and others to the way the situation has been handled and reported. This second timeline is the most difficult to read, obviously, but in turn it has a big impact on the way in which the first has to be read. In the first, Emilio is not the man he has become in the second, so reading the two congruently gives the reader quite a sense of dissonance – which of course makes sense and adds to the experience of understanding just how this man changed, and why.
Did I mention it’s not an easy book to read?
Most of the characters are compelling, and usually in a good way. Emilio is probably the most enigmatic of them, right from the start. The rest of the crew who head off to the alien planet are more accessible, to a greater or lesser degree; most of the Jesuit investigators likewise, although we get to know them to a much lesser extent. There is a nice variety of character – different religious backgrounds being the greatest and most important example of diversity, given the book’s premise. I found most of the characters intensely believable, too, with one exception – and that exception I can’t really talk about without giving spoilers. Suffice to say, I hope, that I didn’t find that this took away from the book in the slightest.
In some ways this book can be seen as a meditation on the impact of European contact and colonisation on the rest of the world in the so-called Age of Discovery. Interestingly, and intriguingly, it looks at the impact on both the subject and the colonisers, which is I think something often missing from the literature (Heart of Darkness being an obvious parallel here). Connected to this, and really really interestingly from my perspective, is the fact that the impact of such an experience – right from the discovery of aliens to contact and the end result of that – on religious people is also front and centre. And taken seriously, and described in ways that I, as a Christian, found quite profound and… accessible, I guess. (The author discusses her own religiosity in an afterword, saying that she was a lapsed Catholic until she had children, at which point she started thinking about religion again and converted to Judaism.) I appreciated this attempt to grapple with what I think are incredibly important issues, and that are often overlooked in the genre.
There is a sequel, apparently, and I’m not sure what I think about that; it stands so starkly and brilliantly by itself that I would be reluctant to add to the ‘afterwards’. That said, this book is so beautifully written that I’m a bit in love with Russell’s prose and I think I could read every other bit of fiction that she’s put out there, so I guess I’ll be reading the sequel.
Twelfth Planet Press has started doing some novella doubles, which I really like. It’s a clever idea, not least since the idea of just buying a novella – or a novelette – sometimes feels like a bit of a waste of time, depending on how much it is and who the author is. But with two novella, back to back, you feel like you’re getting a better deal.
TPP is not original in this idea, of course, and does not claim to be. Ace Books did doubles years ago and, I discovered recently, so did Tor. I discovered this because, in browsing Better World Books I found a double of Joanna Russ (whose work I’ve been meaning to read more of) with James Tiptree Jr (ditto)! How awesome is that! And, of course, the idea of the great feminist critic and author matched with Tiptree, the revelation of whom as Alice Sheldon totally rocked the sf world and who is now remembered through an award honouring gender exploration and disruption – well, it’s just perfect. It would only have been made more awesome if the double had been published before Tiptree was revealed as Sheldon, but alas that was not the case.
Tiptree’s story is “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (glaringly announced as a Hugo and Nebula Award Winner on the front). I could tell you what story it really reminded me of, but then I’d totally spoil it for you. At any rate, three astronauts are on a solar mission and when they come back around to the Earth side, things are… different. Houston doesn’t answer, but someone else does. This story does what my favourite stories do: with an awesome sf story, its focus is on the people – their reactions, their attitudes, their problems. The astronauts are appropriately different from one another such that a range of reactions can be explored, but they don’t feel like ciphers; Tiptree deftly sets them up as individuals. I believe this story first came out when Tiptree’s true identity was unknown; all I can say is, Seriously? Did people think that he was an awesome feminist man? Or did they just not see the feminism?
Russ’ story is totally different. Called “Souls” (and glaringly announced as a Hugo Winner), I was quite dubious about it, reading the cover quote: “The Vikings thought the pickings would be easy – but the Abbess was more than she seemed!” Urgh; tacky. Anyway, I was interested to see where Russ could take a medieval-ish story, and hey – I’m a bit of sucker for Vikings stories, usually to see how bad they are. This one is told from the point of view of a young boy who follows the Abbess, Radegunde around, and who is consequently on hand when a bunch of Vikings come marauding. I had hoped that the story was going to be set on Lindisfarne, having been there last year, but it wasn’t identified as such. Again, I shan’t give away any of the story; suffice it to say that it was definitely worth reading. Again, it’s a fascinating study of humanity, and the variety of reactions that people can have in difficult situations. For me, one of the really interesting aspects was the religion. I’m guessing Russ is an atheist, and she said some things that made me a trifle uncomfortable, but said some really insightful things at the same time – about Christianity in general, and about its status in the historical context. (I also really, really liked that the narrator was hoping that the Vikings would have horns on their helmets, and then notes that Vikings never actually did that.)
This double? Totally worth it. And there a number of others listed in the cover… I wonder how book stores categorise these: under which author?
So you think we have religious tolerance?
Ha! If you’re a Christian, we are increasingly being stamped on. I say this after seeing a piece on a woman who worked for BA who got sent on unpaid leave for refusing to remove a small cross on a necklace. I still uphold that this is because Christianity is associated with white, male, colonialism (because everyone forgets that it started in the Middle East, not in England), all of which are naturally ‘bad’. Of course, Muslims and Sikhs and other religions are also being subject to intolerance; it’s just a bit more remarkable, and also less reported, that Christians face any at all.
I think about the only people who don’t get active persecution in the West are atheists and agnostics. I guess they too suffer a bit in countries that are as a whole more overtly religious… and yes, I guess I am thinking here mostly of Muslim countries, since those are the ones we here about. I wonder how an atheist gets on in India? or Mexico?
Christians and history
This is a short piece I wrote a while ago in response to a friend of mine asking me what the point of studying history was, as Christians (her questions are included; she was asking from the point of view of being pasionate about both).
Great Sermon Illustrations I have known
This is going to be a constantly-updated entry, as I come across humorous sermon illustrations. Most of these, I would bet, will be from Rob Miller (UniChurch minister) or Richard Condie (SJ’s vicar). It was inspired by last night’s, which was…
God // Renovation Rescue: he moves in and remakes what he find (Rob).
Stay tuned for more insights.