In recent months I have read two classic novels which, curiously enough, deal with matters of a religious nature. I’ve decided to review them together for a number of reasons, one of which is both are part of the syllabus for my monthly reading group at Left Bank Books. Another reason for the review now is that I have finally, and not without some reluctance, seen one of the new generation of Biblical epics recently released, Noah, with Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. There are points of interest in this deeply flawed film which I will touch on after dealing with the novels.
The first novel is James Blish’s superb A Case Of Conscience, published originally in 1953 as a novelette and later expanded to novel-length and published in 1958 (the same year, coincidentally, that Pope John XXIII was elected to his chair). The questions posed by the story are simple enough even if the answers are nearly impossible: what does Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism, have to say about extraterrestrial with regards to the matter of souls? Depending on the proposed answer, what responsibilities does the Christian have toward them? And, finally, what is to be done/considered if such extraterrestrials appear to have no taint of original sin?
These questions may seem naïve today, even irrelevant (although not sufficiently so to make a newer take on the matter a more than relevant work, namely Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow), but Blish’s treatment was anything but naïve in that he bound it up with questions of very nondenominational morality and respect.
To begin with, this is a First Contact novel, even though the “contact” has been an established fact for quite some time as the story opens. That said, contact has barely begun, and that is the anchor for the drama. Because the ability of the two species, human and Lithian, to speak to each other aside, the story is sunk in the problem of cultures and their mutual incomprehension. Blish is dealing with assumptions based on a telec understanding of the universe. Because the guiding principles of his faith are telec, Father Ruiz-Sanchez grapples with whether or not to condone further interaction between his people and the Lithians. In the end, he reacts rather than deliberates and argues for quarantine, stripping the Lithians of any say in the matter and laying bare the flaw in Ruiz-Sanchez’s own stated system of ethics. Namely, if Ruiz-Sanchez is, as he claims to be, committed to a system devoted to the saving of souls, then shutting out all contact with creatures who may need saving would be fundamentally immoral. The problem for him is whether the Lithians have souls, since they appear to lack any evidence of having “fallen.” They live amicably among themselves, show no judgmentalism, solve problems by consensus without struggling against individual venality, do not appear to know what lying is, have no discernible crime, in fact exhibit none of the traits or conditions of being in a state of sin. It’s as if, rather than being morally and ethically advanced, they in fact have no need to be, since they have none of the cultural dysfunctions requiring advancing along such lines. To Ruiz-Sanchez, they are born wholly developed in a moral sense. This, of course, runs counter to his beliefs in the nature of the universe. Ruiz-Sanchez betrays, usually in subtle ways, a perverse devotion to dysfunction. For instance, Earth is portrayed as having solved many of its fundamental economic problems and has adopted (by inference) rational systems that seem to promote equity, yet Ruiz-Sanchez feels that such evidence of progress demonstrates a failure because it moves humanity further away from an assumed ideal which may have no basis in reality. In short, people are living better lives, at least materially, but are abandoning belief systems which have no use for them. Better, perhaps, that progress never have occurred so that people would need the Church and the beliefs Ruiz-Sanchez feels matter.
It is understandable that the Lithians trouble Ruiz-Sanchez. Almost everything about them is a rebuke to the way he has always believed things work. Biologically, there is a complete disconnect with the human system of nuclear families, and by extension both patriarchy and the question of inherited sin. Their very reasonableness is testimony to the fact that such a state of mind and cultural condition not only can exist but does exist. At one point, in debating with his colleagues over the issue of quarantine, he says “This has been willed where what is willed must be.” This is from Dante’s Inferno, lines 91 to 93, in which Virgil says to Charon: “Charon, bite back your spleen:/this has been willed where what is willed must be,/ and is not yours to ask what it may mean.” By this statement, Ruiz-Sanchez seeks to shut down questioning, his own surely but also his colleagues. In this, he betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Dante, but no matter. The line is taken as a divine justification. Lithia, in this view, must exist as it does because it does. I am that I am, as it were. For Ruiz-Sanchez this is also his justification for requesting the quarantine. It would be fatal in two ways for intercourse to continue. One, primarily, this Eden he thinks he has found will be eventually corrupted by interaction with humanity, for we embody the serpent, after all, which would be a form of blasphemy. Two, it might well develop that the Lithians’ ability to function as they do will turn out to be no more than an evolutionary inevitability—which would make humanity’s condition equally so. Ruiz-Sanchez already claims the exemption for humans from evolution that was dominant in theological thought prior to our present day (although not among Jesuits, making Ruiz-Sanchez a bit of a puzzle). Ruiz-Sanchez is at base terrified that the Lithians are proof that the Church got it wrong.
Ruiz-Sanchez is a puzzle, as I say, because he’s not much of a Jesuit. Possibly a Dominican. Blish seems not to have had a very solid grasp of Catholicism, but he was dealing is large symbols here and parsing the vagaries of the multiplicity of protestant sects would muddy his point, perhaps. His choice of the Society of Jesus makes a rough sense because of their history in the sciences and in exploration. What is really on display is the breakdown of intellect in the face of the personally unacceptable.
This is apparent in Ruiz-Sanchez’s choice of reading material. He’s reading Finnegan’s Wake at the beginning, a curious choice, especially for Blish as he had quite vocal problems with the kind of stream-of-conscious narrative Joyce produced in what amounts to a linguist parlor trick that strips away the pretensions of the intellect by questioning the very precepts of language itself. But it is an inspired choice in this instance. Ruiz-Sanchez is wrestling with it, trying to make moral sense of it, which is almost impossible. In this context, Finnegan’s Wake is the universe as it is, and it forces the reader to accept that whatever “sense” comes out of it is of the reader’s own making. It is a sustained refutation of a telec universe, which is anathema to Ruiz-Sanchez.
The ending of the novel is a famously achieved moral serendipity. Because Blish kept the narrative inside Ruiz-Sanchez’s head throughout, perception is everything, and that may ultimately be the point of the novel.
Which brings us to the next novel, also a First Contact work albeit one that reverses many of the tropes in Blish. Octavia Butler’s Dawn is also a story wherein aliens are first encountered and a world is destroyed. In this case, though, the aliens have found us and the world destroyed is Earth, by our own hand.
In some ways this is an anachronistic novel. Dawn was published in 1987, a few years before the Soviet Empire came apart. It is sometimes easy to forget how convinced many people were that a nuclear holocaust was going to put paid to the entire human enterprise. But no matter, Butler dealt with it as an event in the story’s past and did not dwell on its particulars. Any extinction event will do. She was not interested in judging that or examining the why of it, only in what it established for what follows.
The Oankali, one of the more fascinating and successful nonhuman creations in science fiction, found Earth devastated, with few survivors. As part of their own program of survival/colonization, they rescued these survivors, healed them where possible, and kept them aboard their immense ship for 250 years while the Earth recovered.
Lilith Iyapo is Awakened into a situation she cannot deal with, a lone human in a room dealing with aliens that terrify her with their strangeness. It transpires that they have plans for her, that part of their own program is the reseeding of worlds like Earth with recovered local species and some of their own. Humanity, she comes to understand, will be Different. She rejects this again and again, seeing it as a defilement of what it means to be human, even though, relentlessly and with inconceivable patience, the Oankali show her and teach her that it will be, in some ways, better. Certainly better for the people of Earth, but better for Lilith personally.
She is to be a leader, a teacher. She becomes part of an Oankali family. She finally accepts them for what they are, though she never fully understands them or accepts their plans, but over time she takes up the responsibilities immediately in front of her, namely to shepherd reAwakend humans and prepare them for resettlement.
Butler brilliantly folds several biblical motifs into this story. It is very much a Moses story. Lilith does become a teacher, she does lead, but she herself, at the end, is not permitted to “cross over into the promised land.” Her own people do not accept her, see her instead as a race traitor. She becomes an irredeemable outsider. This is also a Noah story. The world has been destroyed, what has been salvaged must be returned to start again, and Lilith is in some ways Noah, head of a human race given a second chance.
But it is also right out of Revelations. A new heaven and a new Earth and the handful of appointed shall inherit…
Because it is a new heaven for these people, who stubbornly reject the idea that aliens have saved them and that they are on board a ship. They reject everything Lilith tells them, their minds recoiling at the totality of the new universe. It would be a new universe for them, one which now includes aliens right there in front of them.
If there is a flaw in the novel, here it is. Butler created a masterpiece of psychology here, a study of humanity under stress, and her portraits are amazing in their precision and economy. However, none of them have any of the traits of those who would eagerly welcome the prospect of meeting aliens and living in a new milieu. And certainly there are people like that. The odds are Lilith should have found at least one or two allies who were well beyond her in acceptance. Instead, almost all the people she deals with are in this aspect profoundly mundane. This, however, is a quibble.
Strikingly, for a story so grounded and informed by religious motifs, there is no real mention of anything religious. It is significant by its absence. It is as if Butler decided “if you can’t see the symbolism yourself, spelling it out will cause you to miss all the other points in the book.” One could also read this as a tacit acceptance on the part of all these people that religion failed them and they’re done with it. Nothing has happened in a fashion they would have been raised to expect.
The Oankali have determined the cause of humanity’s epic failure. Two traits which combined disastrously, as they explain to Lilith: exceptional intelligence and a commitment to hierarchical structures. Hierarchical thinking and the cleverness to build weapons of mass destruction led inevitably to the annihilation of the human race and the poisoning of the planet. In order to survive, the Oankali tell her, this must be changed, and therefore humans will be changed. The Oankali are masters of genetic manipulation—their ship itself is a living thing—and they inform her quite clearly that this must be done. This becomes the point of greatest contention—for Lilith this is a loss of what it means to Be Human, even though clinging to that is what destroyed humanity and nearly the planet itself. Butler simply puts this out there. The Oankali explain themselves, Lilith rejects it even as she comes to accept them. Her experiences trying to teach and lead the first group of newly Awakened survivors would seem to support the Oankali position. And yet…and yet…
The question of self-determination comes into this throughout. Sensibly, Butler never actually examines it, only leaves it present as an emotional issue, while she shows the other trait within humans that is significant and necessary—adaptability. Humans always change under pressure, always have. This time the pressure seems less circumstantial and so an opportunity for people to reject the necessity of change can be placed center-stage.
In both novels we see the primacy of moral determination in the face of the unanticipated. The very nature of the universe is turned upside down and the givens of the past no longer suit. In the end, circumstance determines far more than we may allow ourselves to admit, and the narratives by which we live must change to allow us to move forward.
Which brings me to the film, Noah. When this movie came out there was a spasm of objection from certain quarters over its revisionist take on the Biblical tale. Upon seeing the film, which is in many ways a fairly silly movie, I can see where it would bother a certain mindset, but also how that mindset would blind the viewer to some of the interesting aspects of it that make it not so easily dismissed.
The Creation myth is reduced to its elements, the Fall is handled almost as a fantasy tale, and the aftermath of Cain killing Abel is the real basis of all that follows. The children of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, become caretakers of the world while the children of Cain build “a great industrial civilization” and set about conquering, killing, and polluting everything. The story is transformed into an eco-fable, one in which the punishment inflicted is in response to mines, murders, and misuses of the “gifts” of creation. The Sons of Cain are depicted as warmongering, patriarchal butchers, nascent NRA members, and proto-imperialists. while Noah and his are shown as gentle nurturers, Noah himself much in the Dr. Doolittle vein. The landscape is a stark contrast between the urban ruin of the Cainites and the meadowy greenscapes in Noah’s care.
An interesting moment occurs, among several “interesting moments,” when the King of the Cainites, Tubal-Cain (which one might feel references surgical birth control, but in fact he is mentioned in Genesis and credited as being a master metal worker), explains to Noah’s son Ham that he and his people have the same religious mythography, but they believe The Creator adandoned them, turned his back on mankind, and left them to survive and fend for themselves without his help.
Had there been more of this, the film might have achieved some kind of philosophical sophistication, but as it was Aronofsky, in spite of clever touches and good dialogue (and a stunning visual æsthetic), reduced it to a side-bar of the Lord of the Rings. All the components were there to show how the story might be relevant to the present, and yet the message was muffled in the extravagant imagery and an attempt to extract an ur-myth from the Hebrew iconography. It’s a better film than many of its critics, on both sides, credit, but it’s failures of reach make it less potent than it might have been.
One thing I found compelling is the portrayal of Noah in the course of building the ark and trying to keep his family together as a man suffering, essentially, PTSD. He becomes convinced that what the Creator wants is for all humanity to die out and he intends to kill his son’s firstborn should it turn out to be a girl. Aronofsky folds the story of Abraham and Isaac into this rather neatly and also manages to extract a better lesson—Noah cannot kill the girls (they turn out to be twins) and feels he has failed the Creator. But his daughter-in-law, played well by Emma Watson, teaches him that it had always been in his hands because why else would the Creator have chosen him to do all this if not that he, Noah, had the ability and the responsibility to decide. A rather mature lesson to take from all the slaughter grandly depicted.
All three works offer end of the world scenarios of one kind or another and all three portray moral decision-making that ultimately comes down to what humans do with what is in front of them, for their own benefit and for the benefit of others. All three place that power squarely on human shoulders and suggest, in their various ways, that solutions are never to be found outside ourselves. And even if such solutions occasionally can be found, it remains for us to do something with the consequences.