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Asimov's Science Fiction, August 1998

Asimov's SF, August 1998
Asimov's SF
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A review by David Soyka

Asimov's contemplates the existence of God in its August issue, and the revelations it arrives at are hardly comforting.

"Oceanic," the excellent lead story by Greg Egan, chronicles the loss of faith on a planet in which the original human settlers have over time become deified as "The Angels," with a female goddess called Beatrice fulfilling roughly the same role as Jesus in Christianity. As you could judge by the title, this is a watery world divided into two cultures: Freelanders, those who live on the water, and Firmlanders, earth-bound dwellers. The narrator, Martin (the name of a Christian saint and Protestant reformer Martin Luther, whose namesake's struggle in the 1960s civil rights movement to "let my people go" ended in assassination), is a Freelander converted to the Deep Church by his brother, Daniel (Biblical seer who proclaimed a just and righteous God). The initiation rite is a sort of baptism in which Martin is weighted down and plunged into the ocean; his brother, thinking he knows exactly how long Martin can hold his breath, waits until literally Martin's last gasp before hauling him up. On the verge of losing consciousness, Martin experiences an epiphany in which he is consumed by Beatrice's love, gaining a sense of peace and purpose that is far too overwhelming seemingly to be attributed to something as simple as hallucinations caused by an oxygen starved brain.

There is, however, a secular biological explanation that Martin inadvertently uncovers in his own otherwise esoteric university studies. Even before his discovery, Martin's experiences as a cultural outsider (a Freelander living among Firmlanders) in an academic setting of skeptical colleagues, coupled with the perceptions gained by growing older and enduring the death of a loved one, have led him to modify his youthful convictions, but while still retaining a core of unassailable faith. Martin's first and only sexual experience also leads to disappointment. Egan describes a sexual union that leads to a reversal of reproductive organs, an apt metaphor for the various conflicts inherent in the dualities not only of gender identity, but sex and love, unforgiving righteousness and cultural relativism. Moreover, sexual references are often used as analogues to describe religious rapture, e.g., the Biblical Song of Solomon or the mystical visions of Margery Kempe. Thus, the way in which Martin loses his virginity without gaining love foreshadows an even greater loss.

At first glance, James Patrick Kelly's take on the God question seems to provide a more hopeful answer. His depiction of an otherwise exceptionally mundane psychological experiment that ends up with verifiable evidence proving the existence of God and an afterlife has the characteristics of a classic Twilight Zone episode. However, I think that by titling the story as the monograph of the experiment's resulting scientific paper -- "Bierhorst, R.G. Seera, B.L., and Jennifer R.P., 'Proof of the Existence of God and an Afterlife,' Journal of Experimental Psychology, Volume 95, Spring 2007, Pages 32-36" -- Kelly is being much more clever. Consider the ramifications that actual proof of the existence of God is buried some thirty pages within a specialized scientific journal that is hardly likely to be widely read.

In "Totally Camelot," Esther M. Friesner contrasts the eloquence of legends with the vacuousness of common attitudes by placing contemporary language in the mouths of Arthurian characters. The legend that Arthur will one day return to bring peace and prosperity is, of course, a Christian metaphor for the Messiah, and Friesner seems to be saying that today's intellectual shallowness and self-centeredness makes this unlikely. Perhaps I'm reading too much in this, and maybe she's only trying to be funny. For me, though, the device wears thin pretty quickly, and even at only four pages the story seems too long to make its point. Besides, writers such as Donald Barthelme and Thomas Berger have done this before, and, to my taste, more effectively.

Stephen Baxter's "Dante Dreams" is more ambitiously successful in imagining a time when the Catholic Church has managed to reconcile faith and science to the point where it conducts its own laboratory research into the nature of God. In a sort of reversal of the Inquistion, UN sentience cop Philmus investigates the Vatican's virtual resurrection of a Jesuit scientist-priest to discover why she committed a gruesome suicide "as if she was determined to leave not the slightest remnant of her physical or spiritual presence." The late Eva Himmelfarb had created a virtual reality of Dante's Divine Comedy in hopes of uncovering God's ineffability. She succeeds, but, somewhat like Martin in "Oceania," her newfound knowledge proves unbearable.

I'm not quite sure what to make of Robert Reed's "Savior." This is a story about a man acclaimed as a hero for repelling an alien invasion who is about to be subjected to a public investigation calling into question his methods. Just as he is about to take an "honorable" way out to avoid disgrace, his grandson persuades him to persevere. While the references to a misunderstood leader about to be "crucified" are obvious, I don't quite get the point. Neither am I certain whether the failing is mine or the author's.

In "Ancestral Voices" Gardner Dozois and Martin Swanwick take on the time-honored SF/horror theme of an alien menace attacking isolated humans and still manage to add some suspenseful twists. The protagonist is forced to make a God-like decision that requires her to suffer for her sacrifice so that others can benefit. (Note: there is a warning about potentially disturbing violence in this story which I think is probably overcautious -- there's hardly anything that I would construe as graphically violent content, although the deaths of certain characters may be unsettling.) In a non-fictional vein, Robert Silverberg mines similar territory in recounting his experience as a young frog hunter to find sources for his adolescent scientific experiments. Although it strikes me as something hastily written to satisfy deadline pressures, it nonetheless provides interesting, if superficial, commentary about how even our seemingly inconsequential unwitting actions may have ramifications in the larger scheme of things.

As for the larger scheme of SF postulations about humanity's relationship with divinity, this issue is a worthy revelation.

Gardner Dozois & Michael Swanwick Ancestral Voices
Esther M. Friesner Totally Camelot
Stephen Baxter Dante Dreams
Robert Reed Savior
James Patrick Kelly Bierhorst, R.G., Seera, B.L., and Jannifer, R.P. "Proof of the Existence of God and an Afterlife." Journal of Experimental Psychology. Volume 95, Spring, 2007, Pages 32-36
W. Gregory Stewart Black Hole, Black Hole
Bruce Boston The Veracity of Imagination
Robert Silverberg Reflections: Crimes of My Youth
James Patrick Kelly On the Net
Paul Di Filippo On Books
Erwin S. Strauss The SF Conventional Calendar

Copyright © 1998 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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