Friday, January 27, 2006

This started out as a book review, but somewhere along the line went horribly awry.

I finished reading "His Dark Materials" last night. Late last night; it's one of those great and gripping books that keeps you up way too long trying to finish just one more chapter. Reading it was one of the most pleasant feelings I've had in a while; while I won't claim his prose is superior to Stephenson, Pullman's words have an airy grace that make the work accessible without limiting its depth.

And it is deep. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was finally moved to start reading after an intriguing profile in The New Yorker that talked about the series' complex approach towards religion and life itself. I wasn't prepared for what I got, though. Pullman starts you off in interesting territory, and by the third book he's pulled you into a a whole other level of thinking about things. This isn't a discussion or an exploration, it's a polemic, and to be honest it left me feeling slightly uncomfortable while I was left praising it.

I think I'm going to institute a new process for writing about creative works. I'm not really interested in "reviewing" something; if I want to write about it, I want to talk about what it made me think and how it made me feel, so don't expect me to be exhaustive or anything. I think I'll break things into three sections: a short emotional reaction (liked/disliked) for people who might be interested in recommendations but like going into things with a minimum of surprises. Then a section called "Mini Spoilers" that lets me talk a bit about the overall plot and the characters in the work; I'll try not to give away anything that wouldn't appear in a movie trailer or a book review. Finally a section called "Mega Spoilers" that lets me talk about the ending and surprising revelations; only read this if you've already finished the work, or don't care about learning what happens.

Before I dive in: if you're interested in this series, you'll probably want to check out all three books at once from the library, or buy the set (under $15 for the paperbacks from Amazon). They're quick reads and each book doesn't end with a cliffhanger, it ends in the middle of an action.

On, then, with the
Mini Spoilers

The thing I'm thinking about most now is Pullman's attitude towards religion. It's negative, to put it mildly. In the primary world the Church is called the Magisterium; in this timeline, John Calvin became Pope and moved the Vatican to Geneva. The Church is much stronger in this world, and as a result more negative; science hasn't advanced as far, governments are ineffective, and people fear the Church. In other worlds where religion isn't as strong, life is almost invariably better. More on this later.

The whole multiple-worlds angle was done very well. You get a few hints of it in the first novel, and it's the entire concern of the second and third ones. I found myself thinking back to the second book of the Wheel of Time series and thinking how much better this was; Jordan sort of tossed out this huge revelation about how incredibly complex the universe was, then probably realized how it diminished the importance of what was happening in Randland and never talked about it again (well, at least not in the next eight or so books that I read). Where Jordan's a fantasy author who picked up a few ideas from quantum mechanics, Pullman feels like a theorist who chooses to express his ideas in fantasy. There's one revelation towards the end that feels a little contrived, but for the most part everything about the multiple worlds makes sense and has an appealing coherent order.

For once, I like the American title of something more than the British one. What they call "The Northern Lights" is known here as "The Golden Compass." Not that their title is bad, but ours fits much nicer with the next two books, "The Subtle Knife" and "The Amber Spyglass." And the Northern Lights, while a powerful plot point and image in the first book, vanish along with Lyra, never mentioned again (I think); but the Golden Compass is important throughout, and provides what I think is the best grace note of the ending.

As an aside, I wonder whether Pullman was deliberately thinking of Lyra's penchant for falsehood when he named her Lyra. It sems a bit cheeky for him, but who knows.

The action scenes were amazingly well done. Sometimes I feel like, since I've started watching movies, books just can't convey quite the same kinetic feeling. Here, though, every battle and duel really grips you, and there's a sequence of a few chapters towards the very end that were nearly breathtaking.

Would I give this book to my children? No, but the reasons why will need to wait.

Aw, heck with it. Throwing caution to the wind, let's hit the
Mega Spoilers

Based on the information in the New Yorker, I was prepared for a sacrilegious work. The Church is evil, it does bad things, it opposes science, etc. etc. To be honest, this doesn't really bother me that much. As a Protestant, I tend to be automatically leery of institutional church authority. Individual churches can do wonderful things, but they are made up of flawed sinners, and when you combine them into a large hierarchal organization that sin doesn't go away. There's a lot I admire about the Catholic church, but I'm not offended when people question their actions. The faults of any church show our own failings, not God's. So I was ready to see priests play the villains.

No, what surprised me was that the books aren't just sacrilegious, they're downright blasphemous. The Church does the work of a specific being, God, generally referred to here as The Authority. And The Authority isn't nice at all. Throughout history, he has oppressed people, enslaving them with words, building up structures to hem them in, denying them joy or creativity. The amazing audacious campaign providing the backdrop for the trilogy is nothing less than an attempt to overthrow God, a second Rebellion in which fallen angels and natural beings will use their strength and technology to kill The Authority and create a new order.

That order is a dream, The Republic of Heaven. I just love the sound of that even while I deny its possiblity: The Republic of Heaven. It's the idea that paradise is possible, and that it comes from ourselves and not from above; that you can build a society based on love and kindness and creativity instead of obedience and violence and fear. In the Republic, there will be no Authority, but neither will there be anarchy, because each person will act for the betterment of themselves and society.

So, yeah. While I'm certainly a liberally minded person I found myself going "WHOA!" when I realized just where they were going with this. And it isn't a postmodern existential struggle either, with two equally good or bad sides locked in combat (though at times it feels like that). By the end of the story Pullman has decisively come down on the side of the rebels, and you are meant to cheer when the old order passes away. This is completely consistent with Pullman's overall philosophy, though. During the third book one of the characters says:
I thought physics could be done to the glory of God, till I saw there wasn't any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all.
This isn't completely accurate - God does exist and may be trying to kill her - but the underlying message is clear. Science is infinitely superior to superstition, and things that hinder our pursuit of it should be cast off.

One thing I most appreciated about this trilogy was that it knew what it wanted to say. Unlike a lot of other very good fantasy, which are great yarns that might have an interesting allusion or two, Pullman sets out with a thesis. It probably boils down to something like, "Knowledge and creativity are the most valuable human traits, and you should fight anyone who tries to keep you from exercising them. Pleasure is good and natural, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Goals and outcomes are far more important than procedures and rules; lying is fine if it serves a good purpose."

Some of the greatest heroes in this trilogy are scholars, researchers, explorers and scientists. With Pullman coming down so strongly on the virtue of rationality and empiricism, it's really interesting that he chose to write a fantasy novel. He doesn't make any apologies for it, either... there really are angels and ghosts and harpies and more, perhaps not "supernatural" in this universe by the fact of their existence, but then again neither is God. One regularly sweet touch is the way residents of Lyra's world have daemons, sort of like their conscience or soul in animal form. I doubt Pullman actually believes any of these things exist, so why include them in his book? Probably for the same reason Lyra constantly fabricates; because they make the story more compelling, and it's more important we hear his story than here the truth. Or, as Mary might say, it is a make-like.

So, no, I don't think I'd leave these books lying around for my kids. I definitely won't forbid them or anything, but I would prefer they wait until they're older, just because I remember how easily persuaded I was as a kid and how long it can take you to unwrap your mind from a particularly good book you read when you were young. At heart, while I think Pullman wrote a great story and makes a very powerful argument, I just don't agree with him. Part of this is based on faith - I have a different idea of what God is like than he does (actually, I think he's an atheist), and we'll never see eye to eye on that. Secondly, though, I think he takes the easy route in portraying the Church as fundamentally anti-intellectual and anti-pleasure. It's certainly acquired that reputation, and has done so based on very real actions in the past, but at its best the church is neither of those things.

Some of the greatest scientific minds of all time have been deeply religious, including Isaac Newton who is specifically referenced by Pullman. A Christian shouldn't look at something strange and think, "Nope, don't need to think about that - God did it!" He or she should think, "Wow, that's cool. I wonder how God makes it work?" We believe God created everything around us, including the natural laws, and finding out those natural laws just allows us to greater appreciate His handiwork.

Even outside of science, religious people have consistently made their marks. Even atheist philosophers will generally admit that Thomas Aquinas may be the greatest philosopher of the West; operating from a deeply Christian perspective, he identified principles and models that are still used nearly a millennium later. My personal favorite philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, used a framwork solidly rooted in Biblican stories and essentially invented existentialism a century before Sartre. And of course many of our finest musicians, authors, and poets have been men of faith. (Obviously this also holds true for other religions, I'm citing Christian examples because that's what I'm most used to.)

I guess what I'm saying is, I feel like just because some modern American Christians feel threatened by the discoveries of secular science, that does not at all mean that Christianity is inherently anti-science. I felt dumb writing that sentence because to me it's self-evident, but after a week reading these books I feel like it needs to be said. Faith can be a liberating, joyful and energizing framework from which to engage the world, and atheism can be a cold and dogmatic way to shut yourself away from it. We all use different perspectives to explore the universe, and some people's inability to use theirs properly does not mean that the perspective itself is invalid.

The criticism of Christianity being anti-pleasure is certainly more understandable. Outside of the Gnostic tradition, mainstream Christianity has generally held that our bodies are holy vessels and need to be treated according to certain rules. Still, this criticism feels overblown to me. I'm not a theologian, but I think these prohibitions are all about curbing your appetite: don't get drunk, don't be a glutton, don't fool around with someone who isn't your spouse. Yeah, it might feel more fun to do all three things, but after a year of indulgence you might begin to wish you hadn't started. The message is one of moderation, not prohibition. Have a glass of wine, just don't polish off the Wild Turkey in one sitting. Enjoy your Thanksgiving meal, but don't eat a turkey every day. And, yes, you're allowed to have sex, but not with everyone you think is cute. Some Christian aesthetes eschew these things, and more power to them; for the rest of us, though, we take a little of each when the opportunity comes, and I'd argue that in the long run our total pleasure is greater than those who greedily take as much of everything that they can.

For anyone else who's read the books, I'm confused and a little disturbed by the scene with Will and Lyra near the end of the book. Confused because I just don't get how what they did affects the Dust. I mean, people fall in love all the time, so what's so special about them? I know Lyra had that prophecy, but I was expecting some more thorough explanation about WHY their contact reversed the flow. Secondly, they didn't go all the way, right? I read that bit about them "laying together," and I THINK it just means what it says, but part of me went, "Eeek, he could have phrased that better." I mean, they're still just twelve years old, right? I know people used to get married that young but it just feels kind of messed up here.

The rest of the ending, though, was excellent. The revelation of their futures was incredibly bittersweet without being melodramatic; he couldn't have pulled that off if he hadn't done such a wonderful job creating these characters. And I loved, loved, loved the way that scholarship becomes the goal at the end of the books. As a lifelong learner I know the joys to be found in acquiring new skills and learning new things, and to me the thought of Will and Lyra doing the same carries an implicit "happy ever after." The alethiometer in particular was a great bit, how what she once read through intuition she will now master through study. I started programming by the seat of my pants when I was 10 years old, I had a ton of fun doing it and felt I was advanced for my age. But the sum total of everything I did as a child pales in comparison to what I've learned to do in college and beyond. What I did before was cool because I had no teachers and had to feel my own way; what I do now is good because I've learned from the collective body of the greatest programmers on Earth and can apply their wisdom to my own problems. Pullman's great legacy is the suggestion that an inborn gift is nice, but a learned skill is even better. Now that's a message I'd love every child to hear.

No comments:

Post a Comment