Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Does there exist such a thing as atheist literature? Other than just the legions of novels in which God is not relevant and hence is not mentioned?
As soon as I heard about Pullman's critically-acclaimed trilogy His Dark Materials -- and heard it billed as a series of atheist fantasy novels -- I was intrigued as to what an atheist fantasy novel might be like, so I immediately went out and got myself copies of the three books and read them.
Boy was I surprised!
This trilogy makes it hit home to me that atheism really is the absence of religion -- not some sort of homogeneous belief system -- since it was essentially the opposite of what I expected.
Just guessing off the top of my head, I would have predicted that a typical atheist fantasy would follow the lines of the "Wizard of Oz," in which the characters think that there is some sort of magic going on until they discover the little man behind the curtain.
This story's premise is that the supernatural legends of the Bible are essentially based on fact, but that in the Great War in Heaven, it turns out that Lucifer and company were the good guys and the only reason we think otherwise is because history is written by the victors.
This idea is kind of interesting theologically. If God is all-powerful, should we just take his word for it that he's all good? After all, a lot of people believe that the God who orders ruthless genocide in the Old Testament is the same God who inspired Matthew to write "By their fruits ye shall know them." (Matthew 7:20). I can almost picture believers arriving in the afterlife and having God point out these two parts of the Bible and say, "Look, I spelled it out right here in black and white. And you still believed me that I was the good guy? Hello???"
Aside from that point, if you kind of squint and look sideways at Pullman's premise, he gives a bit of a nod to science and skepticism by positing a sci-fi explanation for magical mysticism involving sentient dark matter. But even so, his magical, mystical universe -- in which shamanistic magic works, consulting the I-Ching yields concrete, factual information, and people's ghosts live on in the underworld when they die -- seems to me like the antithesis of the type of universe I would attach to word "atheist" to.
His treatment of Christian believers is not terribly nuanced -- they're the bad guys, and all either crazed fanatics or cynical power-mongers. Interestingly, he's willing to portray innocent, sincere belief on the part of adherents to tribal religions. Why not? In Pullman's universe, the supernatural powers of such religions actually work, so it's pretty rational.
Theology aside, however, Pullman has written an exciting adventure. Pullman creates a rich array of forces that are alternately competing and forming complex alliances.
It's hard to avoid comparing this series to the Harry Potter series since both focus on a kid raised as an orphan, living in a tradition-steeped British school, and destined by prophecy to perform some crucial act.
Some of the main differences are the following:
Harry's adventures are a little more linear than the adventures of Pullman's principal character Lyra. By that, I mean that while Lyra is the center of the action, she is surrounded by a network of other players whose adventures are vital to the story. The Harry Potter series follows more of the superhero/battling champions model in which essentially all of the important actions are performed by Harry and a small band of characters closely surrounding him.
The situation and motivations of the surrounding players are very well developed in Pullman's series. I particularly liked the scene in the first book of the trilogy in which the gypsy leader has gathered all of the gypsy clans together to convince them to follow him into battle. As he takes questions from the floor, people raise all of the different objections that one would realistically expect his people to be worried about, and he persuades them by taking their concerns seriously and arguing his position in an honest and reasonable manner. It's kind of a surprising scene for a gen-Xer like me -- totally unaccustomed to the idea that a politician might be capable of uttering anything other than snow and spin. It's not unusual in sci-fi/fantasy to have an archetypical "good king" character, but it is unusual to see him roll up his sleeves and get into the nitty-gritty of logistics, and -- what's more -- actually answer to his people directly regarding his decisions.
Another difference is that Pullman not only raises his questions and mysteries little by little, he also answers them little by little, unlike Rowling who tends to set up mysetries gradually in her Harry Potter series and then answer them all at once. I kind of liked Pullman's subtler approach on this -- for a couple of the middle novels in Rowling's series, I was sorely tempted to just skip the climactic battle part and just go straight to the end bit where Dumbledore explains everything.
One weakness to Pullman's series compared to Rowling's however is that Pullman gives his characters essentially no down-time. It's nonstop action, adventure, voyages, battles, and immediate threatening danger. Depending on your tastes, you might see this as a strength. However, I feel it limits the range of characterization possible, i.e. Pullman's characters are defined in terms of their bravery, loyalty, prowess in battle, and almost nothing else. It also means that the novels are deadly serious from start to finish with essentially no humor to vary the mood.
Even so, Pullman does a good job of developing the affectionate relationship between his two main characters Will and Lyra. Still, I feel like the fact that the development of their relationship took place in the context of an incredible nonstop adventure is part of the reason why (possible spoiler warning) it wouldn't have made sense for the author to allow Will and Lyra to live together happily ever after.
After spending the entire getting-to-know-you phase of their relationship rescuing and being rescued from mortal enemies and battling alongside armored bears, could they seriously move on to a life of just doing mundane couple things? Could they sit around and watch a movie together on T.V.? Or fight over who's wasting too much time on the Internet? Or have her pick up some new socks and underwear for him when she goes out shopping? Of course not -- that would be absurd! They battled alongside armored bears together for heaven's sake!
The one last point I found a little confusing was Pullman's treatment of sexuality. If I read the books correctly, it would appear that a big part of the premise is that the dark matter is something of a personification of sexuality and that -- even though the church sees it as evil "original sin" -- in reality it's good and not bad.
I say "it would appear" here because none of this is really stated directly. That's the confusing part. It seems to be something of a mixed message along the lines of "sexuality is not bad, however it is so taboo that it cannot even be mentioned directly and can only be referenced in cryptic circumlocutions."
I assume that the author is trying to keep it clean because it is intended for teens, however, there are a lot of sci-fi/fantasy novels for teens on the market that are a lot more explicit than this, so if he's not capable of talking about sexuality frankly, I kind of wonder why he made it such an important theme in his trilogy.
By my reading, I'm fairly confident that the reader is meant to understand that Will and Lyra have sex in the end, even though it is far from being stated directly. One thing that is really 100% clear, however, is that there is no way they could possibly have had any contraception. Now I know you're saying "Chanson, that is so like you to ruin a tender, romantic moment by worrying about such crude and mundane logistics!" And it's true that it really is a very tender and romantic scene. However, that very attitude of "Let's not mess this up by embarrassing ourselves by openly discussing what we're doing," is exactly the attitude that gets a lot of young people into serious trouble.
I also found it a little sad that Lyra's passage into womanhood is signaled by a new sense of modesty instead of continuing to be comfortable with her body, but I guess that's probably realistic.
All in all, I would say this trilogy is definitely worth reading if you like exciting, nonstop adventure and don't mind a premise where the Christians are the bad guys. But if you're planning to give it to your teenagers, maybe supplement with a Judy Blume book or something to fill in the blanks.
Published in the Utah Valley Monitor April 07, 2006.