Great Insightful Stories

I have been blown away by Mary Doria Russel's books in the past. I mentioned her two first books in an unrelated page as having been so good that I contacted the author to thank her for these marvelous volumes.

Their titles were Children of God and The Sparrow (Fawcett Books, 1999).  They presented harrowing tales from an interstellar/interplanetary expedition to a world with inhabitants so strange as to somehow be familiar, with treatments of one group of sentient beings on this world by another that was so horrifying that it was somehow familiar, and of civilizations on this planet so utterly incapable of doing what would be obvious and ethical that it was also somehow familiar.

As a sci-fi fan, I have been somewhat bored by the alien life forms imagined by many authors because they are either so different from us that they see us as food or slaves.  They see us as lesser beings, not fellow miracles of life, sentient life in an amazingly barren, lonely and largely lifeless universe. So they typically attack us and use us and displace us and otherwise treat us as we do our fellow sentients on this planet.

Who us?  Yes.  We use fellow sentients who pull plows and wagons and carry us and give us their eggs and mammary secretions. When they get beyond productivity we send them to a nice place where they are chopped up and sold back to us as food, hide, glue and medicines. But this is all OK because they are not nearly as sentient as we are. (As an overweight vegetarian, a non-meat eater for strictly pacifist reasons, I can say stuff like this.)

Russell takes us to another world in our galaxy, 24 light years away.  It is a giant leap for mankind.  She has us visit a civilization which seems to be working just fine. As long as everyone remembers their place, that is. The result is shocking, yet somehow familiar. Degree of sentience is the key to one's place in this world, and there is civility and seeming respect across sentience-boundaries.

Russell shows us a civilization so strange at its deepest core that at first sight it seems totally foreign. As we stay the course and live from day to day in this strange world, it becomes more and more familiar, and disturbing. Russell takes us way out of this world and essentially shows us ourselves.

Her third novel, a Thread of Grace (Random House 2005) was a totally different story, one that has the reader look upon a segment of the human race with love and appreciation for its ingenuous heroism. It is set in this world, based on history, and shows us a pocket of people in Italy during the Second World War that displays the extreme goodness that humanity is capable of. I reviewed that book here (click to go there).

Given my status as a fan of Russell's work, I snapped up her fourth book, Dreamers of the Day (Random House 2008) and loved it also, but it was very different from the other three books. Russell delivers variety! It gives insights into the historical roots of the current mess in Iraq, and suggests that generations ago English arrogance and self interest set in motion forces that led then and are still leading now to death and destruction. It is an interesting read with much to like about her main character. However, it did not hold me in thrall as her first three books did. Maybe as I get older I am harder to enthrall? Maybe.

Being Mary Doria Russell-hungry I looked to se what else she had done I was perhaps not aware of, and found that a new edition of A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. (Eos, 2006) was out: “With a new introduction by Mary Doria Russell.” So I obtained the book.

I read the few pages by Russell in which she praised Miller's language, and marveled that his foreseeing a future dominated by religion –something she found absurd in the 1960s, seemed somehow precisely on point for our day. When I read the book for a class, in the 60's, I did not like it because of its very deep pessimism, it has a very negative outlook on humanity as a race of lemmings bent on self-destruction. I was more positive about humanity back then. Actually I still am.  Belief with little supporting evidence, isn't that what faith is?

A Canticle for Liebowitz  was recently called to my attention through some discussions over the way a future human civilization may interpret signs left for them by this generation. These would be monuments and markers with words and symbols placed on radioactive waste repositories around the world, to warn future people to stay out. The person with whom I was having this discussion is the author of the book Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock that Reshaped the World, Tom Zoellner (Tantor Media 2009). The paperback edition of this book is to have an addendum about nuclear waste management and, among things, it will discuss the challenge of communicating technical information to the future.

Zoellner thought it interesting that Miller looks back from a stone-age future  in A Canticle for Liebowitz at the relics of the technological age that ended in a nuclear cataclysm. They are found here or there, and are treated as holy objects by the surviving Catholic religion.  Catholicism survives the first nuclear holocaust, and escapes a second one many generations later by sending a group of its fanatics into space to colonize another world and presumably “save” its aborigines.

Miller's pseudo-respectful treatment of this religion is wonderfully entertaining, caricaturing it mercilessly for the amusement of us irreligious types. But in 2009 the book was again distasteful to me. It again partook of this extremely negative view of humanity that I still find odious. On top of that, it now really bothers me that it ends with sending this same bad religion into space to do unto others what can no longer be done here.  There is no living being left. Makes one want to side with the more usual sci-fi aliens who are out to destroy us. Or, wait, was that an alien making those threats of an end-time conflagration, or a loving God? (Sorry, trying to be Miller-esque.)

I had given Russell, in my mind, total credit for imagining something as ludicrous as a religious expedition into the beyond to search for new worlds with new inhabitants. But now I see why she liked Miller's work so much. He planted this seed already in A Canticle for Liebowitz!

But where Russell takes that seed is totally fresh and interesting. Plus her seed-transplant is very human, intelligent, and seeks to understand his aborigines more than “save” them. So where Miller just disheartened me by sending religious zealots into space, Russell taught me new things about myself and my fellow creatures here in this world.

Russell has now walked around some of the extremes that human nature has shown itself to be capable of, in four books. Each book has been disturbing. Each book has been inspiring (even though some of that inspiration was achieved by contrast with some really evil and stupidly fanatical people). Each book has been enlightening. Each book has been entertaining. I hope she publishes again soon. When she does, I am sure it will be announced on her web site.

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