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ex libris reviews

1 January 2002

In olden times, there were men who spent weeks dreaming up gags to play on their friends, but they're dead now, and the people they played their jokes on are okay with that.
Garrison Keillor


In This Issue:
Five Years and Counting

This issue makes the beginning of the sixth year for the web page we know now as ex libris reviews. It's been renamed once, been redesigned several times, and moved from my ISP's domain to our own wjduquette.com domain; but its popularity has increased steadily but surely throughout that time. My thanks to all of our regular readers!

I finally went out to see The Fellowship of the Ring the other day, and my considered opinion is that, taken on average, it's adequate. The condensations and new scenes were reasonable, given the challenges between telling a story visually versus on paper; the casting choices were usually not too bad (I was especially pleased with Bilbo and Sam); and visually it was stunning. My chief complaint is that they violated Duquette's First Law of Turning a Novel into a Movie: you may tell the story differently, but you mustn't tell a different story. In particular, you mustn't mess with the characters' motivations or personalities. They violated this in a number of places, especially with regard to Aragorn and Boromir.

But I have to admit, it all looked beautiful.

-- Will Duquette

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

Dragonfly in Amber
Drums of Autumn
By Diana Gabaldon

Rarely do I read a romance novel and it's been years since I read an actual series in the genre so when I picked up this series and started into them it was a bit of a change. Change can be a good thing and for the first couple I enjoyed reading these books. Claire Randall, a newly discharged RAF nurse and her husband, Jack, have been separated by the war for years. On a second honeymoon in Scotland meant to reestablish their relationship Claire mistakenly wanders thru a cleft in time located in an ancient stone circle. She awakes to find herself 200 years, roughly, in the past in the midst of the Jacobite uprising with a British accent and, by the standards of the time, very little on by way of clothing. She is captured by a band of Scots, taken to a castle and treated with respect and hospitality tho not allowed her freedom. They suspect her as a British spy at best and some kind of witch at worst. She meets Jamie Fraser, a tall, devastatingly handsome, redheaded Scot. For reasons which I won't go into because that would be giving away too much of the novel, she is forced into marriage with Jamie. After gloriously consummating the marriage, Claire realizes she loves Jamie as well as Jack and cant decide between the two. I am, of course, horribly simplifying the entire series but after the initial premise is outlined and all the main characters are introduced, the books consist largely of Jamie fighting with the British, Jamie fighting with his uncles or Jamie and Claire tumbling in the sack with pretty graphic descriptions of all of them provided. The magical element comes back in every time Gabaldon needs something to move the plot along. Claire's origins in the 20th century and her puzzlement with the 18th century provided a great deal of the tension of the novels. I did enjoy the first couple of them. By the third they were becoming tedious and I have to admit I never finished the fourth. Yes, Jamie is devastatingly handsome and, yes, the descriptions of their conjugal relations are romantically,if graphically, described, but, gosh, don't they ever do anything but fight or...well, you know. By the third book I was finding the dialog silly and the writing tedious and by the fourth one I was laughing in all the wrong places. When she named the commander of one of the British warships Patrick O'Brian, I was done and put the book back on the shelf. My apologies to all the Gabaldon fans.

Our Mutual Friend
By Charles Dickens

In some ways, this novel is a murder mystery. The plot revolves around the murder of John Harmon as he is returning to London to claim his large inheritance by marrying the woman his nasty but dead father required in his final will. His death has ramifications for all sorts of people. There is the woman who was expecting to marry wealth and finds herself instead still poor and now wearing black. There is Old Harmon's loyal employee in the business, Noddy Boffin, who finds himself unexpectedly wealthy without really wanting it. There is the scavenger who picks the body out of the Thames and falls under suspicion of murder. And there is the lawyer who handles the will and falls, unfortunatley, in love with a woman below his station in society. Dickens takes the single plot line and weaves subplots around it while creating an incredible cast of characters that are both comic and pathetic at the same time. It's melodrama to a degree that we don't much see anymore in books written for adults. This book, though, is much more subtle than his early works and the satire is more general than in others he's written. It's also, I think, his most masterfully written and plotted. Every time I read a novel by Dickens I am amazed at the vitality of his imagination but when I reread this particular one, I see the incredible genius behind it as well. It is a book to be read slowly, however. You can't breeze through it if you wish to enjoy it but with a little time it is a complete joy to read.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Far Side of the World
By Patrick O'Brian

Each month I'm reading and reviewing one book from O'Brian's justly acclaimed Aubrey/Maturin series. This is the tenth in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April 2001 issue.

When I first started reading and reviewing the Aubrey/Maturin series last April, I tried to write about the themes of each book; that is, to explain what O'Brian was getting at. In recent months, though, I've simply been giving a short plot description. I'd begun to feel bad about that, until I realized that the later Aubrey/Maturin books weren't written to explore themes; they are tales, well-told, and written for their own sake. Themes will naturally arise in the reader's mind, but O'Brian, I believe, has simply been getting on with the story.

The current volume takes H.M.S. Surprise and its crew into the Pacific, there to hunt an American ship which is in turn preying on British whalers. Whaling was a major industry during this era--of all sailors, the crew of British whaling ships alone could not be pressed into the Royal Navy. On the way, a murderous love-triangle develops between the ship's gunner, a senior master's mate, and the gunner's wife, and Aubrey and Maturin are taken captive by a crew of militantly feminist Polynesian women.

There's considerable suspense in this volume, and a suspiciously high number of last minute rescues; I'm afraid it doesn't hang together as well as some of the others. But my criticism is the result of prolonged reflection only; I certainly didn't notice during the reading.

Next month: The Reverse of the Medal

Queens Play
By Dorothy Dunnett

Each month for the next few months I'll be reading and reviewing one book from Dunnett's Lymond series of historical novels. This is the first in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the December issue.

The political situation in Britain is tense and unstable. King Edward of England and Mary Queen of Scots are both children, and the countries are ruled by squabbling regents. Mary has been shipped off to France, there to be betrothed to the Dauphin and raised in relative safety. But Mary of Guise, the dowager queen of Scotland, is convinced that her daughter's life is in danger. She has reason behind her; the Guise family is powerful in France, and has made many enemies--enemies who would prefer not to see a Guise daughter as Queen of France.

Mary of Guise asks Francis Crawford of Lymond, vindicated in the previous novel, to take service with her and come to France. He agrees to the second half, but not the first; he will come on his own terms, under an assumed name. Implicitly stated and implicitly accepted is Lymond's role as the young Queen's protector.

As with The Game of Kings, Lymond talks much but usually says little; and as with The Game of Kings, things are seldom what they seem. The plots are devious, the politics byzantine, and the prose, as always, rich and tasty. I don't always have enough patience (or mental capacity) to read Dunnett; but it's nearly always worth doing.

Shards of Honor
The Warrior's Apprentice
The Vor Game
Ethan of Athos
The Borders of Infinity
Brothers in Arms
Mirror Dance
By Lois McMaster Bujold

Last month I read and reviewed the two most recent novels in Bujold's "Miles Vorkosigan" series; this month, being short on new books to read (Jane always makes me stop buying books during December), I decided to do something I'd never done: read the entire series in chronological order. The reason I'd never read them that way is simply that Bujold didn't write them that way. I'd read each of them as they were published, and re-read individual books as the whim took me, and there were a couple that I'd never re-read at all.

The first thing that struck me is how well all of the stories hang together, given the haphazard order in which they were written. The second thing is how good Bujold's early books are (in a word, outstanding), and how much better her later books are (in a word, well,...).

The first two books in the list, Shards of Honor and Barrayar concern Miles Vorkosigan's parents, Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith. (The two books have since been republished in a single omnibus edition entitled Cordelia's Honor.) Cordelia is the captain of a Betan survey ship exploring what they believe to be a newly discovered planet; Aral is the commander of the Barrayaran garrison which is secretly based there in preparation for the invasion of Escobar, one hop away in the wormhole nexus.

An aside: in Bujold's universe, star systems are linked by "wormholes"; jump ships capable of passing through these wormholes are the only efficient way to travel from one system to another. Needless to say, galactic politics in Bujold's books are dominated by the geometry of the wormhole nexus.

Barrayar has no good galactic reputation after its bloody conquest of the planet Komarr; and Aral, the admiral in command of the invasion, is widely known as the "Butcher of Komarr". Cordelia's home, Beta Colony, is a progressive, liberal, high-tech society, pretty well opposed to everything Barrayar is seen to stand for. Beta is neither militaristic nor expansionist--but is well able to care for itself.

Cordelia's landing party is massacred by a Barrayaran patrol; as part of the attack, Aral is shot and left for dead by one of his own men as the first step in a mutiny instigated by Aral's senior "political officer". Cordelia orders her ship to run to Beta with the news, leaving Cordelia alone on the planet with the Butcher of Komarr.

But things are always more complicated than they seem, as Cordelia discovers. Aral's sobriquet was earned when the political officer assigned to his flagship ordered the slaughter of 200 high-placed Komarran prisoners, against Aral's explicit orders. Aral subsequently killed the political officer with his own hands, but the damage to his reputation was already done. More than that--Barrayar's invasion of Komarr was not unprovoked.

Barrayar was originally settled by slower-than-light colony ships; after the initial landfall, the planet spent hundreds of years in the Time of Isolation, a period which ended only after jumpship technology was developed. But Barrayar sits in a cul-de-sac in the wormhole nexus; its only neighbor is Komarr. And shortly after the Time of Isolation ended, the Cetagandan Empire bribed Komarr to give them free passage for an invasion of Barrayar. The Barrayarans spent the next twenty years driving out the Cetagandans...and shortly after they succeeded, turned their attention to Komarr. Only by controlling Komarr and its prime location in the wormhole nexus could Barrayar secure her own safety.

Cordelia naturally finds all of this somewhat self-serving; but suspicion turns to belief as the pair make their way cross-country to Barrayar's downside base. Shards of Honor goes on from their, in ways I won't describe; but by the end, Cordelia (now a war hero) discovers that she no longer fits in on Beta Colony, and she escapes to Barrayar, their to wed Aral.

Barrayar continues Cordelia's story, and lays the groundwork for the rest of the series. Old Emperor Ezar of Barrayar is dying; his son, the unstable Pring Serg, died in the invasion of Escobar in the previous book. His grandson, Prince Gregor, is a small boy. Ezar appoints Aral Vorkosigan to be Regent. But Aral has, arguably, a better claim to the throne than Gregor does; many on Barrayar believe that he will attempt to take it. On man in particular, Count Vordarian, plays on this fear to make his own violent bid to be Emperor. He opens his campaign by attempting to assassinate Aral Vorkosigan with a deadly nerve gas. The attack fails, but not without dire consequences for Aral and Cordelia's unborn son--the soon to be born Miles Vorkosigan.

These two books necessarily stand apart from the later books, all of which take place a generation later, but they are delightfully rich.

Miles Vorkosigan is a man with an extremely tough row to hoe. As the result of his exposure to nerve gas in utero, Mile's bones are extremely brittle. He stands a twisted 4'9" tall, and can break a leg merely by tripping. As the son of an admiral and grandson of a great general, and as a member of the highest rank of Barrayar's hereditary military caste, his physical limitations are heart-wrenching. But he's got an additional problem.

During the long years of Barrayar's isolation from the rest of the galaxy, life was a primitive, low-tech struggle against a hostile environment. Mankind's existence on the planet was at stake, and genetic defects were not tolerated. After the Cetagandan invasion, with its nuclear weapons and ensuing mutations, fear and hatred of mutants became even more pronounced. Miles' problems are not genetic--his children will not inherit them--but to all appearances he is a mutant.

Miles' strongest drive is the desire to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his father and grandfather--and he must do this in defiance not only of his own weak body, but of the prejudices of centuries.

The Warrior's Apprentice is the first book specifically about Miles. Having failed the entrance physical for the Imperial Service Academy, the necessary prelude to the military life that is all his desire, he goes to spend some time with his grandmother on Beta Colony. Accompanying him are his bodyguard, the mildly psychotic but unswervingly loyal Sergeant Bothari, and Bothari's daughter Elena. And there on Beta begins one of the most amazing tiger rides I've ever encountered.

In a flash of altruism (read the book), Miles acquires the title to a star freighter, along with its pilot. To pay the mortgage on the freighter, it becomes necessary to find and transport a cargo. The only cargo valuable enough is going to a war zone. And so it goes, until ultimately, improvising like made, Miles finds himself in command of his very own fleet of space mercenaries. (The whole thing is preposterous, but each step somehow makes sense.) In command of his own fleet--in direct contravention of Imperial Law.

The book is an incredibly joyride.

The tale continues in The Vor Game. Having acquired more real command experience than anyone else his age, Miles is granted entrance to the Imperial Service Academy. After his graduation, he is ultimately assigned to Imperial Security and sent out as a spear-carrier on a mission to the Hegen Hub, a major crossroads in the wormhole nexus. There he learns of an incipient Cetagandan invasion. His only choice is to disobey his immediate superior, and take matters into his own hands, making use of the mercenary fleet he won in the previous book. There's only one problem. He gained control of the Dendarii Free Mercenaris because it was the only way to survive in a very bad situation; he had never intended to keep them. And in the mean time, the original admiral has regained command....

Miles is successful, of course, and ultimately works a deal with Emperor Gregor and Simon Illyan, head of Imperial Security. Miles will work directly for Illyan as Lieutenant Vorkosigan of ImpSec; but his long term assignment will be his undercover role as Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries. After all, Barrayar can use a military force that isn't obviously Barrayaran.

This decision sets the course for Miles' life for the next decade, as he grows further and further into the role of Admiral Naismith; and as his real identity, Lord Vorkisigan of Barrayar, grows ever more dull. As Naismith he can function at peak efficiency, subject almost to no one, and accomplish great things...as Lord Vorkosigan he is almost unknown, just the twisted mutant son of a famous father.

These two tales are also available in the omnibus edition Young Miles.

Cetaganda is something of a digression. The Empress of Cetaganda has died; as Barrayar is currently at peace with Cetaganda, Miles and his cousin, Ivan Vorpatril, are sent as Imperial emissaries to attend the funeral. I won't say too much about it, as the events of this book have little bearing on the series as a whole; suffice it to say that it's one of the few times during this phase of his life that Miles is able to shine as himself, and that it's just as good as the rest.

Ethan of Athos is also a digression; it is Bujold's third novel, written after Shards of Honor and The Warrior's Apprentice. As the previous two had not sold yet, Bujold was relunctant to write a third along the same lines; at the same time, she liked the universe she'd created, and wanted to use it. So she took Elli Quinn, a minor character in The Warrior's Apprentice, and gave her a book of her own. It's well-written and fun, but again, as it doesn't affect the main flow of the series I won't discuss it further here.

The Borders of Infinity is not a novel; it's a sparse (and inessential) framing story around three novellas, all of which are worth reading. "The Mountains of Mourning" concerns a murder investigation Miles undertakes for his father just before the events of The Vor Game; it's a short piece, but in some ways is the key to the rest of the series. "Labyrinth" gives us our first glimpse of the planet of Jackson's Whole, where anything you can imagine (even if you'd rather not) is for sale; the title story concerns Mile's most daring exploit to date, the rescue of ten-thousand prisoners from a Cetagandan POW camp.

All of these stories are important to the series as a whole, and are being included where chronologically appropriate in the omnibus editions; Young Miles includes "The Mountains of Mourning", and the recent (if absurdly named) Miles, Mystery, and Mayhem includes "Labyrinth" along with Cetaganda and Ethan of Athos.

The action kicks into high gear again with Brothers in Arms, which finds Miles and the Dendarii fleet right here on Old Earth for repairs. The Cetagandans are out to kill Admiral Naismith for his role in the prison camp escape, so Admiral Naismith disappears by vanishing into the Barrayaran Embassy and reemerging as Lieutenant Vorkosigan. This presents a new problem; as Naismith and Vorkosigan have never before been seen in the same locale, no one has ever had reason to notice that they look alike.

And there's a new problem. A group of Komorran radicals has had Miles cloned by a firm on Jackson's Whole; the clone has been trained to replace Miles Vorkosigan and assassinate a variety of people on Barrayar. Dealing with the clone would be an easy matter, but by Betan law any such clone is legally Miles' little brother--and Miles' mother is Betan.

Mirror Dance picks up a couple of years later, when Miles' clone-brother hatches a clever plan. The clone, now called Mark, was raised in a clone-creche on Jackson's Whole. The other clones in the creche were being raised as spare parts (and sometimes as entire new bodies) for their wealthy progenitors. His plan? Impersonate Admiral Naismith, and use the Dendarii Mercenaries to raid the creche and free the clones. It's a laudable idea, but while Mark might look like Miles he doesn't have one-tenth of Miles' battle-experience. The raid fails, and Miles has to go rescue his brother. And that's only the beginning.

And finally, Memory. As the result of injuries suffered during Mirror Dance, Miles is compelled to abandon his role as Admiral Naismith and return to Barrayar, there to be...himself. But he has been Naismith for most of his adult life; he doesn't know who Lord Miles Vorkosigan is anymore. He descends into a blue funk, and only comes out of it when it's reported that his old boss, ImpSec Chief Simon Illyan, is seriously ill. The brain implant that gives Illyan his eidetic memory is malfunctioning...but is it due to natural causes, or is it sabotage? The former is lamentable; the latter is tantamount to treason against the Emperor. Hence the book is not only a fascinating look at Miles as his life changes forever, but also a nifty murder mystery as well.

Fortune's Stroke
Destiny's Shield
By David Drake and Eric Flint

These two books continue the saga of General Belisarius on its smashing, preposterous, profane course. They were as enjoyable as their two predecessors. Apparently there's a fifth book out, but I've not seen it. See last month's issue for more.

Guns, Germs, and Steel
By Jared Diamond

Diamond's book is a fascinating, serious attempt to answer the question of why Western Europe (and its colonies) has dominated world affairs for the last several centuries? For example, why was it the Spanish who discovered and conquered large swathes of the New World, rather than the Aztecs who conquered Spain? Why did the British become dominant in Australia, displacing the native people? Why were the Great Powers able to partition Africa in the closing decades of the 19th century?

The proximate cause is easy to see: societies which have, in the title's words, guns, germs, and steel, will dominate societies which don't. So the real question is, why did some cultures acquire technology before others?

This question has been asked many times, and usually (and fallaciously) answered in racial terms. Diamond spends the first part of the book demolishing a variety of such explanations, and then goes on to make his case. The reason, in his view, is largely geographic--what kinds of domesticable plants and animals are naturally available in each region, and how easily can crops and ideas spread out from their point of origin. Looked at this way, his conclusions are striking. Domesticable plants and animals were common in Eurasia, and the continent's vast east/west extent meant that domesticated crops could be easily spread to other areas. The Americas have many fewer domesticable plants, and only one domesticable large animal (the llama); and the relatively modest east/west spread meant that those plants which were domesticated couldn't spread very far. For example: the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru, only 700 miles apart, had no knowledge of each other, due to the difficult terrain and climate change between them; medieval Europe received silk from China, thousands of miles away.

Diamond has a tendency to repeat himself, making the book rather longer than it needs to be; but if you've ever wondered "How come nobody rides zebras?" you should take a look at it.

The Golden Compass
The Subtle Knife
The Amber Spyglass
By Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman made quite a splash in the young adult fiction world with this trilogy, collectively titled His Dark Materials. The books won awards, garnered scads of positive reviews, and even found their way from the young adult shelves to the science fiction/fantasy section. He's being compared with J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis; one reviewer called His Dark Materials the last great fantasy of the 20th century. I read the first two books in 1998; the third didn't come out in mass market paperback until just recently.

The trilogy has a strong theological message; as theology is something I take seriously, many of my reflections on this book are along those lines. I'm aware that others might not share my concerns in this area; those who do can find them at the end of this issue.

Theology aside, Pullman remains an inventive and engaging story teller; in particular I found the first two books as enthralling this time around as I did the first time. The third book is more problematic. I thought it jumped about in a jerky way, and there were a number of plot details that seemed contrived. A more serious problem is intellectual. It's clear in the first two books that he has an axe to grind, but it's only in third that we get a good look at it--and to my mind he can go on grinding that axe for a quite a while longer without getting it to take an edge. Still, The Amber Spyglass does provide a satisfactory conclusion; I don't feel like I wasted my time.

By Seamus Heaney

This is the same translation of the classic Anglo-Saxon poem that Deb English reviewed last November. I was given it last Christmas, and only just now got around to taking it down and reading it; I usually find pages and pages of verse to be extremely tedious. But everyone was saying how it was one of Tolkien's major influences (which it certainly was), and so prior to seeing the new "Lord of the Rings" movie I took it down and gave it a try.

I don't have much to add to Deb's review, except to say that I enjoyed reading it rather more than I expected. It was a bit of push to get through it, but only a little bit. I give much of the credit for that to the translator, Seamus Heaney; his translation flows very nicely, keeping those pages turning and turning.

The Immaculate Deception
By Iain Pears

This is the latest in Pears' series of "Art History" mysteries involving dealer Jonathon Argyll and his beloved, Flavia di Stefano of the Italian Art Theft Squad. In general I've liked this series, but I wouldn't recommend starting with this particular book. It's fun, but it's more about the continuing characters than anything else, and depends heavily on the earlier books in the series. Do a search on "Pears" to find the reviews of the others.

A Prairie Home Companion Pretty Good Joke Book
By Garrison Keillor

I got my teenaged nephew a copy of this book for Christmas, and he rather liked it; and since I hadn't had the opportunity to read through it before I gave it to him, I had to buy my own copy. And the fact is, it really is a Pretty Good Joke Book. There's a fair selection of (carefully labelled) tasteless and mildly offcolor jokes, so I wouldn't give it to, say, a nine-year-old--but for a teenaged boy, it's just about perfect.

Philip Pullman, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien

Spoiler Warning: the following essay assumes that the reader has already read His Dark Materials. I won't be writing about the plot in any great detail, but I may reveal surprises.

Since the publication of Philip Pullman's recent trilogy His Dark Materials, I've frequently seen him ranked with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as one of the premier fantasists of the 20th century. This begs the question of whether Tolkien and Lewis indeed stand at the pinnacle, or whether they are simply the authors best known to those otherwise unfamiliar with the field; and if the latter, the further question of whether Pullman ranks with them in fame only, or also in skill. My answer: Tolkien is certainly at or near the top; as a fantasist, Lewis is somewhat lower down (though very near to my heart); I'd put Pullman somewhat above Lewis, although certainly below such worthies as Steven Brust and Terry Pratchett.

But leave that aside; there is another way in which Tolkien, Lewis, and Pullman are related, and that is their concern with theology and religion.

Tolkien was a staunch Roman Catholic; his version of the creation of the world, as told in The Silmarillion, is roughly in accord with orthodox Christian doctrine. Religion plays a deceptively small part in The Lord of the Rings, indeed a surprisingly small part considering the ubiquity of religion in human cultures. Tolkien explained this by saying that the Creator had not yet revealed himself* to his creatures (remember that Tolkien's world is intended to lie in our extremely remote past). One might mistakenly assume from The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien wasn't interested in religion...but one would be wrong. His initial motivation in writing his legends of the Elder Days, the stories and poems that became The Silmarillion, was to create a new mythology for England.

Lewis was, as all the world knows, an adult convert to Christianity (specifically to Anglicanism); and his Christian faith informed and suffused all of his later writings. Lewis is one of the few writers I know whose life and work were all of a piece. What Lewis thought, he thought after considerably contemplation, discussion, and outright argument; if he could be persuaded that a thing was true, he accepted that thing and all of its consequences, including those he might not like. And once he had determined that a thing was true, he held on to it through all the storms and crises of life, until and unless he found that he had been logically mistaken. Consequently, one constantly encounters the same ideas through all his popular books, whether fiction or non-fiction.

The most famous of these are, of course, The Chronicles of Narnia, and it is with these that I fancy Philip Pullman's recent books are most often compared. Many of Lewis' books were frankly apologetic in nature, or (as in the case of The Screwtape Letters) addressed to a specifically Christian audience; the Narnia books, although rooted in Lewis' Christian faith, have no such axe to grind. They resulted in part from Lewis' interest in the theoretical possibility of other worlds, distinct from our own cosmos yet still created by the One God, and in the ways in which the Creator might manifest himself in those worlds. Beyond that, Lewis' interest was in creating engaging and enjoyable tales.

I know comparatively little about Philip Pullman or his views, beyond what I've gleaned from the three books of His Dark Materials. These, unlike the Narnia books (which Pullman has been quoted as calling "poisonous"), do have a polemical end in view: in a nutshell, Religion is Bad. More specifically, the necessary effect of organized religion is to stultify and cripple societies and individuals. Individuals should renounce religion and, recognizing that there is no life after death, strive for the best they can in this life. Pullman is, in a sense, the Anti-Lewis.

By the time I finished The Subtle Knife, the second volume of Pullman's trilogy, the direction of his attack was clear. The Church of Lyra Belacqua's world is an all-encompassing institution, meddling with every aspect of day-to-day life. Representatives of the Church are two-faced hypocrites who mutilate children, severing them from their souls, in the name of preserving them from sin, and who reject advances in physics on the grounds of heresy. All wisdom and innovation has come to mankind thanks not to the efforts of God the Creator but rather to the efforts of the angels who rebelled against him--Satan as Prometheus. The Creator, through his Church, wants mankind to be stolid, unquestioning cattle.

The direction of Pullman's attack is clear by the end of his second book; the nature of his attack becomes clear in the third. But first I'd like to comment on the charges he's brought so far.

The Church of Lyra Belacqua's world is, of course, an exageration; I suspect that it is Pullman's vision of what the Church would be were it given free rein. But let's take it at face value, for it does reflect reality in many ways.

It is certainly true that the Christian Church has acted to stifle creativity and scientific progress; witness the Roman Catholic church's treatment of Galileo. Note also that even the Roman Catholic church regards the whole affair as a mistake. Consider also men like Isaac Newton, whose scholarly and scientific work grew out of their religious beliefs and their confidence that God would not create a world inexplicable. Consider also writers like Tolkien and also Dorothy L. Sayers, devout Christians, who believed that the primary way in which men and women were created, in the famous phrase, "in the image of God," is their innate drive to create.

It is certainly true that the Christian Church burned Jews, witches, heretics, and (at times) members of other Christian denominations; it is equally true that such burnings were motivated as much by greed and political maneuvering as they were by religious zeal. Remember that the Inquisition executed no one on its own; all torturing and executions were carried out by the local secular authorities. And remember also that in most cases if a person were convicted of heresy and burned, their property was usually forfeit--and not to the Inquisition, or even to the church in general, but to those same local secular authorities.

The argument usually goes that far too much evil has been done in the name of Christ for Christianity to be true--or, if it is true, to be acceptable to decent human beings. Presumably, then, without the influence of the Church people would have behaved better. Is this in fact what we see? I'd say not--compare the records of human rights abuses in the former Soviet bloc with those of the still largely Christian United States. One might also argue that if Christianity were true, Christians should be demonstrably more moral than other people, rather than less. But what does Christianity actually teach?

Christianity actually teaches that everyone sins, that sin can be conquered only with God's help, and that Jesus died (and was resurrected) that our sins might be forgiven--not they might be prevented. Christians are expected to grow in holiness over time, but redemption lies in Christ's gift of forgiveness, not in our personal holiness. (This is not to say that all Christians will admit to personal sinfulness--but Spiritual Pride is the chief of the cardinal sins.) So Christianity would predict that even if the Church were made up only of stalwart Christians, you'd still find sin among them. And common sense would predict that, so long as the Church has any political power, unscrupulous men and women would find a way to make use of it, just as they do with any other source of political power.

As an aside, this is why I'm in favor of separation of church and state: having political power has usually been Really Bad for the Church. I much prefer the America of today, where only those who believe attend church, to that of, say, fifty years ago, where church attendance was culturally mandated.

So the argument that the Church has done awful things highlights human sinfulness, but does nothing to prove that Christianity is false.

Now, when I began The Golden Compass I was completely unaware of Pullman's anti-religion bias. By the end of The Subtle Knife it was clear where he was going, and I had begun to get worried. Pullman is clearly one sharp cookie, and his approach so far was both subtle and sophisticated. I was expecting him to move into high gear for the final book. And so, when The Amber Spyglass finally came out in paperback I bought it immediately but was hesitant to read it. I was expecting a serious sophisticated attack on my faith. Do understand: I wasn't worried about the attack being successful. But no one enjoys being told that he is an evil idiot, especially at novel length.

It turns out that I needn't have worried. Unable to disprove the existence of the transcendant Creator, Pullman raises up a ludicrous strawman that I was completely unable to take seriously. In his world, angels are natural beings based completely in the material order. They fly in real air, they need nourishment, they grow old and die, and they can be injured by normal weapons. They have virtually nothing in common with the angels of medieval theology except the wings--and even in medieval times, the wings were never intended to be anything more than symbolic. The Authority (as the characters refer to God) is simply one of the oldest and strongest angels; his claim to be the creator is based solely on a lie. There is an afterlife, but it's a dark hell of tedium that applies to everyone, good or bad, more like the Hades of Greek myth than anything Christianity has ever espoused; and the grand act by Lyra and Will is to allow the shades of the dead to escape into a sort of materialist's nirvana by returning their atoms to the living world.

In such a world, no one with integrity could support the so-called creator or desire life-after-death. In other words, Pullman squanders the marvelous efforts he made in the first two books by defining his world such that his conclusions cannot help but be true. He makes no attempt to actually disprove Christianity or any other religion, resorting instead to a series of ad hominem attacks and non sequiters. The chief of these comes toward the end when Dr. Malone, a former nun, explains how she left both her religious order and her faith behind her--she fell in love, and decided that the feeling of being in love was worth more than the feeling of being religious. To put it bluntly, she decided that if her religion didn't allow her to enjoy being in love, she'd prefer to junk her religion. This is not only disingenuous, it's dishonest; Christianity is not anti-sex, it's simply in favor of keeping one's vows.

So what do we have here? An anti-religious screed disguised as a young-adult adventure trilogy, proving nothing and designed solely to make those who wish to reject the faith of their childhood feel better about their decision. Oh, and to be an enjoyable read for such as don't care about such things, I'll give him that.

To be honest, I'm really disappointed. I'd thought that Pullman was aiming higher than that.

* Yes, I know using the male pronoun brands me a rank conservative...but either "herself" or "itself" would be jarring, and "him or herself" would communicate an uncertainty which I do not feel about a being for whom gender is largely irrelevant.

Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.

Home : Ex Libris : 1 January 2002
Copyright © 2002, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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