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God's Fires
Patricia Anthony
Ace Books, 371 pages

God's Fires
Patricia Anthony
Patricia Anthony spent the 1970s travelling as an English professor with her then-husband and two children, and working at universities in Brazil and Portugal. Divorced in 1978, she settled in Dallas. There, she worked at The Dallas Morning News for 14 years while trying to get published and also taught creative writing at Southern Methodist University for three years. Her books include the non-SF book Flanders, along with Cold Allies (1993), Brother Termite (1993), Conscience of the Beagle (1993), Happy Policeman (1994), Cradle of Splendor (1996), God's Fires (1997) and Eating Memory (1997).   Titanic director James Cameron has optioned her second book, Brother Termite, as a possible feature film.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Eating Memories
SF Site Review: Flanders

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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Beginning with Frankenstein, science fiction has been inextricably tied to theology. Mary Shelley's great novel ruminates not only on the results of scientific discovery devoid of moral constraint, but a God seemingly unconcerned with his Creation. Nearly two centuries later, the many descendants of Shelley's monster have pondered how technology can make humankind tragically god-like. The onset of the Atomic Era, in particular, provided fertile ground for this SF trope, with the prospect of space travel offering possible redemption from scientific omnipotence tainted by human folly. This same period also resulted in the birth of quasi-religious sects that sprang out of the SF community -- from L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology to the UFO conspiracy theorists to Charlie Manson modeling his murderous delusions on Mars Valentine and his followers in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. Although cyberpunk is often thought of as a reaction to the anti/pro technology dipole of much post-WWII SF, treating technology neither as threat nor as salvation, but just a given reality, the religious experience remains with the melding of human and machine intelligence to achieve higher consciousness.

In God's Fire, Patricia Anthony presents a monster of a different sort, but perhaps one that is more intimately part of us all. She is not concerned with technology, but rather human frailties and presumptions, particularly as they are embodied in institutional ignorance, in facing up to the "unknowability" of the universe. In this case, the institution is the Church of 15th century (specifically that peculiar organization known as the Inquisition) and how it deals, or rather fails to deal, with "shipwrecked" aliens.

Father Manoel Pessoa is a doubting Jesuit, a Father Inquisitor assigned to investigate heresy in a circuit of villages in Portugal which he has managed to protect from most of the nasty irrationalities of the Spanish Inquisition. Until, that is, stories of "fallen angels" copulating with maidens attract the attention of Monsignor Inquisitor-General Gomes, whose dangerous combination of religious zealousness and personal rapaciousness demands making an example of heretics regardless of the rules of evidence. Complicating the sham of the investigation is the presence of Portugal's weak and retarded King Alfonso, whose "conversations" with what he can only believe to be God in the grounded alien spaceship lead him to profess such heretical beliefs as that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Alfonso, by the way, is a bona fide historical figure, though Anthony says in an afterward that she probably portrayed him more sympathetically than he deserved. Equally important, though it's played off-stage, is the bid for power by Alfonso's brother Pedro, and his subsequent quixotic efforts to forestall the Inquisition's power in Portugal. Indeed, Don Quixote is a subtle subtext of this novel in which well-meaning interventions to forestall crimes of the ignorant lead to the very disastrous consequences they were trying to prevent.

What's interesting here is that Anthony could have written a straight historical novel (though I don't know if that would have garnered a larger readership than something marketed as SF). Indeed, at first glance the presence of the aliens is almost incidental. The story could have been written without them, or at least without introducing them as corporeal beings who interact with the human characters.

But it would have been a far less powerful story.

The aliens are a blank presence. Not only are they incommunicative (not that the humans make much of an effort to communicate, either), but they seem curiously indifferent to their treatment as prisoners -- indeed, it's uncertain if they even feel captive, or that they feel anything at all. They become, instead, a means by which the various parties in this morality play reflect their own passions and intellect. The reader, particularly the SF reader, knows all about aliens from other worlds. But for Father Pessoa and the unfortunate villagers who encounter the aliens, they can be nothing else but angels, while for the Inquisition they can be nothing else than the embodiment of the anti-Christ. And for those who don't fall on one side or the other on the question of divinity, consider this hilarious scene in which a pair of secular Portuguese Inquisitors come up with a scenario to explain the aliens as the product of a Spanish conspiracy:

"'...If [the aliens] are not supernatural. What?'
'Animals. Lord knows there are enough strange animals in Africa, in Brazil, in the Spanish New World.'
'Ah, of course... A Spanish plot. They find the strange animals in some new New World colony, see that they are very like human and they drop them where? Precisely where they know the King [Alfonso] to be.'
'...How did they drop them?'
'...Catapulted.'
'Ah, good! Yes. Well, then, all decided. A Spanish plot.'"
Of course, there's really no attempt by any of the parties to figure out what the unknowable is, other than in the framework of their own pre-misconceptions. Of such things have the tragedies of human civilization been written and, as the Russian invasion of Chechnya attests, to give just the latest example, continues to be written.

It is also brilliantly written by Patricia Anthony, with characters whose flaws make them all the more tragically believable as representative of the oftentimes unfortunate course of human events. With a hint that somehow something positive can still emerge phoenix-like from the dying cinders of human stupidity. Where Shelley's monster is the misshapen product of arrogant technology, Anthony's monster is the more frightful in that it lies within our own intellectual limitations and prejudices.

Highly recommended.

Copyright © 1999 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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