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Monday, November 26, 2007

The Time Traveler's Wife

Recommended: The Time Traveler's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)

Before my latest foray into the romance genre, perhaps the closest I'd come to reading a romance novel was when I read The Time Traveler's Wife. I don't write this because it had the trappings of a romance novel, because it doesn't. Rather, I write it because it's a love story.

Henry DeTamble time travels inadvertently. He has no control over when he travels, or to where or when he will appear, or for how long he will stay. However, his travels have a pattern to them. They tend to focus around key events and people in his life. Therefore, it's no surprise that Henry often time travels to see his wife, Clare Abshire. These travels include points in Clare's life, including her childhood, before Henry's and her original meeting in "normal" time. The story jumps around, but progresses naturally, and we get to experience their twisted and crazy love story on a time frame that reaches from their childhoods into middle and old age.

Clare and Henry are easy to like, people you want to see happy. Their story is set close to the present, and seasoned with pop culture references that will surely date it, but these references add a distinct flavor. Though the time-traveling premise is sci-fi, the book uses it to explore issues that most sci-fi books do not, including those relating to marriage and fatherhood.

The book affected me. I read it three years ago, while visiting my wife's family for Christmas in San Francisco. I distinctly remember my visit to Alcatraz the day after I finished the book. I wandered off from the family, and as I explored the island, my mind kept jumping back and forth between envisioning life in the prison, and this story. I found hidden places that the rest of the tourists did not bother to find, beautiful places on the island that the guided tour missed. The Time Traveler's Wife got me thinking big thoughts on that little stroll, thoughts on causality, inevitability, and on how time changes each of us. I could expand on these themes here, but I'll let the book do it instead.

The Time Traveler's Wife is a worthy read. It visits a much-toured concept of sci-fi, that of time travel, but it takes us to some of those hidden places that we might have missed if we'd stuck to the usual route with the rest of the tourists.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Anti-Christianity in The Golden Compass?

Let's start this right off with a spoiler warning. I'm assuming you've read the book, and am discussing it freely. Do not read further if you don't like spoilers! (However, I'm not discussing the plot, per se; just the background and perhaps some of the philosophy of the story.)

The coming release of the movie has led to a certain... aggravation on the part of certain Christian groups, notably the Catholic League ("Film sells atheism to kids") and the American Family Association. (For other entertaining manifestos, check out amazon.com. Folks, let's try to keep the reader reviews to less than, say, 2000 words, hmm?)

So what makes His Dark Materials anti-Christian? Well, uh... nothing. But it's quite easy to see what could be upsetting to some Christians. The series features (this is just off the top of my head):

- a dogmatic and immoral church
- no true God (the being considered God is in fact an angel)
- a war on the kingdom of heaven (on the putative "God")
- Eve's choice offers salvation, not sin
- no heavenly afterlife (interestingly, there is a hell)
- gay angels
- underage sex (see: Eve's choice and salvation)

So what? Newsflash! It's fiction!

I think the Catholic League and the AFA might want to review that little detail. A discreet trip to the bookstore should do the trick; they could check out where the book is filed. Under non-fiction? Nope? Not there? Oh, right, fiction.

It's true I read the series as a criticism of the Catholic Church (though some have sugested the target is the Anglican Church). For example, the Magisterium grants indulgences to a priestly assassin. Surely no one is going to be indignant about a criticism of indulgences? Rather we might feel Mr. Pullman is a wee bit behind the times. Will someone be offended by a criticism of dogmatism (in the perjorative sense)? I think not. At worst one might bristle at the suggestion that one's church is overly dogmatic, but that particular criticism--whether fair or not--is hardly anti-Catholic, much less anti-Christian. (Gee, I've never encountered criticisms of dogmatism in literature before.)

So basically, the real problem is that the fictional premise of this series conflicts with Christian belief. That makes the series no more or less anti-Christian than any other fictional work not based in Christianity. The Odyssey? Anti-Christian. Watership Down? Magic, a rabbit-god... it's anti-Christian! In fact, take any fantasy story: non-Christian gods, a completely non-Christian worldview -- oop, yep, must be anti-Christian!

This kind of illogic is utter lunacy. Mr. Pullman may or may not be anti-Christian; from what I've read, he is at least not Christian. Even if he is anti-Christian, I somehow think the entire Christian community could actually cope. But His Dark Materials is not anti-Christian. It's a story, folks. And frankly, it's a story that's steeped in Christian tradition (the Bible, Paradise Lost, gnosticism).

Even if it weren't a story--let's say Mr. Pullman wrote a book and said, "Here are all the things I believe about the world." These would be dramatically competing truth claims (at least to Christians; non-Christians might find it to be nitpicking). Would they be anti-Christian? No, they would be "not Christian" beliefs.

So what is it that draws out the "woe-are-we-Christians" crowd? Now that isn't too hard to figure out. Popularity brings with it the opportunity to manufacture controversy. It's about getting attention. Harry Potter: corrupts youth (how dare we teach our children about good and evil!). Come on. Nobody sane thinks Harry Potter can teach anyone witchcraft. It got to be a popular series, so it was time for the attention-seekers to jump on the bandwagon.

Let's take another movie coming out at the same time: The Seeker (about which I have nothing, but nothing, good to say), which is based on Susan Cooper's marvelous story, The Dark Is Rising. On the surface, it's a Christmas story, good-vs-evil, magic, coming-of-age, and so on. But it's pagan through and through. Holly branches, Yule logs, midwinter solstice - all important elements of the story, and all important elements of pagan ritual. At one point in the story, a priest starts gibbering madly about Satan assaulting his church. The Old Ones (some of whom have been alive several thousand years) look at each other and shake their heads. This is most definitely not a Christian story, but as for controversy, nary a peep. Why? Because His Dark Materials is likely going to be more popular, and because His Dark Materials draws on many elements of Christianity; it's easier to manufacture the controversy.

In the end it's clear to me that Bill Donahue (Catholic League) just wants the publicity. Why else could he oppose the movie, when he even admits any controversial aspects have been removed? "The Catholic League wants Christians to boycott this movie precisely because it knows that the film is bait for the books: unsuspecting parents who take their children to see the movie may be impelled to buy the three books as a Christmas present." That dastardly Philip Pullman, who wants to sell books!

Gimme a break. If you don't like it, don't read it; don't watch it. And please, get over it already.

Post-script

Other links of interest: Hanlon's Razor, Denialism Blog.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Golden Compass

Recommended: The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman)

It took me a while to decide that I wanted to "formally" recommend this book. It's a lovely story, but it can't be read alone, and I found the sequels (The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) to be somewhat disappointing. No surprise, of course: Rule Number One always applies. So I wavered back and forth, but in the end, I remembered my primary criterion for making a recommendation: that it be a story which I would feel I was poorer for not having read.

Certainly I would feel poorer for not having read this book. The charming and impudent Lyra, the devoted armoured bear Iorek Byrnison, and the steady aeronaut Lee Scoresby--these are characters without any comparison in literature. It's a delight to read this story, and the feelings between Iorek, Lee, and Lyra are an almost palpable warmth. For these characters alone I urge you to read this story.

Lyra Belacqua is, frankly, a misbehaving little imp. Her guardian, the chill Lord Asriel, leaves her to the poor tutelage of the scholars of Jordan College, while he conducts experiments into the nature of the Dust (newly-discovered rays that seem to be attracted to adult consciousness). Naturally, Lyra cannot be held in such a small confine, and in time she and her familiar leave the musty crypts of the College, to head for the far and mysterious North, under the shimmering aurora borealis.

With that I must leave you to read the story yourself, though... perhaps I can give you a little bit more. Everyone has a familiar, called a daemon. The familiars of children can change shape at will, but as they age, the familiars take on a shape that reflects their personality. (Lord Asriel's: a snow leopard.) Bears, though, have no familiars. The bears of the North make their own armour from meteoric iron, an armour that reflects their self in much the way a familiar does for people. The armoured bears (panserbjorne) have incredible dexterity, and their cunning claws can work metal more forcefully and more delicately than any smith. Above all else, though, an armoured bear is constant: fierce, loyal, and unable to be deceived.

And then, my friends, really is all I have to say about the story itself! Note that The Golden Compass is the North American name; in the UK, this novel is called Northern Lights.

Lastly, with the advent of the movie, there has been some modest controversy regarding an alleged anti-Christian perspective in His Dark Materials. I'm afraid that will be a post for another day - another day soon, I hope!.