Sunday, February 28, 2010

Dark World: How Firm a Foundation?

(The story begins here.)

[Since it's been a while, you might want another look at the previous chapter.]

The Better Angel Foundation was a complex of buildings as labyrinthine in its way as the approach to Dvorak Manor. Dr. Fleming negotiated the maze just as swiftly this time, and he soon pulled the car up beside a long, one-story structure. He smiled at his companions: Darren’s interest switched from the doctor to the destination, and Lassiter finally emerged from his nap.

“This is where Dr. Newman actually works. If we had tried one of the more obvious buildings we would have been passed from functionary to functionary for hours, but a little-used man door should…”

Darren switched his attention from the building to the doctor’s face, then adjusted his own gaze accordingly. A man had seemingly just emerged from the wall itself a little way off.

“Even with his sense of hearing,” Dr. Fleming muttered, “I’d have to shout to attract his attention at this distance, and he appears to be in a hurry as usual anyway. Pity. I’d have liked his opinion as well.”

“He wasn’t that far off,” Lassiter remarked.

Dr. Fleming chuckled. “He’s a giant, but so well proportioned you have to see him alongside someone normal to realize it. No doubt he just stopped in to check on some of the patients before heading off for some remote and exotic trouble spot. Who knows? If Better Angel fails, perhaps he can help me clear this up.”

Lassiter grunted quietly, and they left their machine for a sidewalk. Dr. Fleming led the way to an inconspicuous door in the wall and pushed briskly into a small reception area guarded by an efficient-looking brunette. She looked up in mingled surprise and annoyance, only to change to a professional smile.

“Dr. Fleming! Dr. Newman will be most gratified at your visit. Shall I call him for you?”

The doctor nodded, and she pushed a button and announced his arrival. A door slid open at the far side of the room, and a booming voice bade them enter. Darren found himself wondering which form the wizard would take in meeting the party: ball of fire? Beautiful woman? He dispelled the thought brusquely, then realized that the décor was green, after all.

No wizard awaited them beyond the doorway. It was a giant. Darren remembered his friend’s description of the strange bronze figure they had seen moments before: this too was a remarkably well-proportioned entity, yet the size was still obvious and probably would be at any range. Though he hadn’t seen the other man up close, he felt that the normalcy there was normal: the result of natural processes carefully managed. This proportioning seemed unnatural in nature if not in form, yet like John before the angel Darren felt the urge to fall down in worship. Unlike the apostle, he resisted successfully, and a quick glance around suggested that they had each been tried and released.

Setting his jaw defiantly, Darren looked up into the face of Dr. Adam Newman.

Next: Peccatum Adae

The House with the Twisting Passage: a Free Audiobook Review

That's right: so far as I can tell, there isn't a free e-text available this time; The House with the Twisting Passage is the only free version. The reader, Xenutia, has a good voice and style for this sort of thing.

The book itself is hard to categorize. It's technically a children's story, though I'm not sure I'd try it on a modern child, for reasons I'll explain. And it has a curious structure. Essentially, there is a framing story about Jenny, a nine-year-old whose parents have gone to India for a few years. Jenny is being traded between two aunts, the interesting one being a caretaker for a mansion. This mansion of course has a twisting passage with a lot of disused rooms, and Jenny makes up residents for them all. She even makes up a personality to go with a portrait of a little girl, Miss Clare, whose doll she finds and adopts. She briefly encounters the real Miss Clare, to her great dismay, but continues her game.

Then she goes to stay with the other aunt for a couple months, and when she returns, the mansion is being used as a rest home for people almost exactly like the ones she had imagined. They tell her stories, which is the interior of the frame and a completely mixed bag. Many of the stories are anecdotes or vignettes, and they aren't of great interest. Others aren't bad, but even they, in my opinion, could be told more effectively. Let's go by chapter:

08 - Miss Primrose's Story: An old lady tells about her putatively magical adventures with her nephew Jerry. The problem for me is that the woman affirms magic in telling the tales, but it's fairly clear that there's no magic involved. I admit that sort of thing bothers me.

09 - Black Jack's Story: This is rather longer than most, about a sailor's accidental cloak-and-dagger adventure. Could be told more effectively, but quite good enough as is.

10 - Uncle Nodding: reminiscences about running a store.

11 - Miss Ruby's Story: A dressmaker is hired to make one good dress and one bad one.

12 - Tarramina's Tale: an anecdote that is supposed to be spooky but (IMO) doesn't make it.

13 - Peter Bollin's Tale: A doctor tries to help a boy back to the straight and narrow. Not bad, but a little too anecdotal: it could be better told.

14 - The Rhymes of Mr Dennis: some good, some not so good. Generally worth it.

15 - The February Lady's Story: about her two fat cats. Generally good, but sounds like a chat over tea--which is essentially what it's supposed to be.

16 - Jenny Meets the Littlest One: Bollins redux and rhymes about a little boy's adventures as a floor mat and with a mischievous postman. Rather good.

17 - Old Mrs Bunch's Tale: The adventures of a hall mirror. A good story, though I think the perspective may be too adult for children.

18 - Nanny Remembers: This is actually part of the frame story, about Miss Clare as a wilful child with an abusive father. In the context of the surrounding stories, it seemed especially heart-rending, but without it, the frame doesn't work.

19 - Phil the Fiddler's Story: A fairy tale about a witch, some dwarves, and a little girl with a terrible choice to make.

Most of the stories are okay, but they would probably seem too slow for a modern kid's jaded tastes. You could technically ignore any of them but Chapter 18, and I'd suggest running through all of them before trying them on a child. The target age levels just seem to vary too much for me.

Anyway, after all this, we resume the frame story, with Jenny being sent to the other aunt again and fearing the changes she might find on her return. But even changes may change, and some are for the better.

Overall, I liked the story, the frame more than the interior anecdotes. I would strongly advise listening to it before trying it on children, however. It might work to run the "younger" sections, such as the poems, past younger children and eventually get to the other sections as the children grow.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Talents, Incorporated: A Free Book review

Talents, Incorporated (available here as a free audiobook) by Murray Leinster opens with a planet, Kandar, preparing to be conquered: burning sensitive documents, trying to get people out of the area who would be tortured to death by the conquerors, that sort of thing. The Kandarian fleet is going to meet the incoming Mekinese armada and be destroyed.

Then a space yacht pops in, run by a stout gentleman named Morgan and his daughter Gwenlyn, who own Talents, Incorporated--a company that specializes in providing information and services that anyone else would consider impossible. They are there to enable Kandar to defeat the Mekinese Empire. They'll do so largely by providing advance information and the basis for technological advances, almost always accompanied by the phrase, "That's Talents, Incorporated information. You can depend on it!"

The Talents of Talents, Incorporated are normal people with some peculiarity--lightning calculation, lie detection, and so forth. Some are psionic or divinatory, which I admit I don't care for: there is a dowser, for example. However, the story focuses more on Captain Bors, Morgan, and Gwenlyn, and the annoying bits are largely forgetable.

What does Morgan want? Not money, evidently, and while he does collect medals, that seems too small a motive for overthrowing a stellar empire. You eventually find out what his angle is, but not before Captain Bors of the Kandarian Navy discovers how bothersome it is to destroy an armada that was supposed to destroy you. Sometimes the only solution, as Bron Hoddan discovered in The Pirates of Ersatz, is piracy.

While I didn't care for this quite as much as for The Pirates of Ersatz, it has a quirky charm of its own that I found irresistible. You'll enjoy it, too.

That's Talents, Incorporated information. You can depend on it!

Talents, Incorporated:

Free Gutenberg e-text

Free audiobook

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pirates of Ersatz: a Free Book review

The Pirates of Ersatz (available here as a free audiobook) by Murray Leinster, is the story of Bron Hoddan, who intends "in order (a) to achieve splendid things as an electronic engineer, (b) to grow satisfactorily rich, (c) to marry a delightful girl, and (d) end his life a great man."

It doesn't help that his family is a bunch of space pirates. It also doesn't help that Walden, the most civilized planet in the galaxy, doesn't really want an electrical engineer with new ideas, no matter how useful. So he soon finds himself locked away for improving some local equipment (or creating a death ray, depending on who you believe). Perhaps he should try the other end of the scale--a planet like Darth, run by rival warlords with relatively primitive technology. Warlords like Don Loris ("who was prince of this and baron of that and so on"), who has a scheme to take over the planet. He also has a beautiful, willful, and...well, maybe occasionally homicidal daughter named Fani.

As Bron goes from pickle to bigger pickle to Death Dill, he begins to respect the advice and wisdom of his grandfather, and he also keeps finding that people's preconceptions lock them into failure. Will he somehow overcome his own and avoid the same fate?

This story has a number of great quotes:

"It's no use!" it was the custom of his grandfather to say. "There's not a bit o' use in having brains! All they do is get you into trouble! A lucky idiot's ten times better off than a brainy man with a jinx on him! A smart man starts thinkin', and he thinks himself into a jail cell if his luck is bad, and good luck's wasted on him because it ain't reasonable and he don't believe in it when it happens! It's taken me a lifetime to keep my brains from ruinin' me! No, sir! I hope none o' my descendants inherit my brains! I pity 'em if they do!"

"Government, in the local or planetary sense of the word, is an organization for the suppression of adventure. Taxes are, in part, the insurance premiums one pays for protection against the unpredictable." (That kind of reasoning should sound familiar these days!)

The economics presented here is nonsense--so's a lot of the story, really--but it's a good yarn and extremely fun. I'll definitely come back to it later--probably several times.

Once again, that's The Pirates of Ersatz:

Free Gutenberg e-text

Free audiobook

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Uttermost Farthing: a Free Book review

The Uttermost Farthing (free audiobook here) by R. Austin Freeman is not a Dr. Thorndyke novel; quite the opposite. It's more nearly what you might get if Thorndyke turned vigilante.

A word of warning: this story is somewhat ghoulish. It isn't particularly graphic, but the concept is rather gross. I won't explain it: just read the first chapter, and you'll know basically what's going on. If it grosses you out, drop the whole idea.

You may ask why I stuck it out. Well, there is a certain grim fascination to the idea, in part because Humphrey Challoner is so different from Thorndyke in some ways.

In any case, this is the setup:

Years before the story opens, Challoner is a happily married man. He's also an anatomist with a small private museum specializing in skeletal remains, especially of animals with deformities. His hobby turns out to have more staying power than his marriage, however, when a burglar decides to arrest Mrs. Challoner's vital functions with a bullet.

As they say in the action-hero genre, Big Mistake.

Even stunned by his sudden change of marital status, Challoner is a lot smarter than the cops. He notices that the murderer left behind finger prints (this was the late 1800s, before the cops were as fixated with latent prints as they were in The Red Thumb Mark). There's also a bit of hair--and not ordinary hair; it's ringed hair, unusual enough to help identify the culprit even without the finger prints. Armed with this evidence, the best physique and training money can buy, and a heapin' helpin' of vigilante spirit, Challoner's going to remove some bad guys from the gene pool.

Did I mention that this is before the story opens? Well, let's open the story, already.

As the story begins, Humphrey Challoner is an old man on the way out. He likes his doctor, a guy named Wharton, who is more like Jervis than Thorndyke. Challoner has shown Dr. Wharton around the private museum at times. He tells the doctor about his personal tragedy and bequeaths the place--especially the museum--to the doctor, including a unique collection no one else even knows exists. Dr. Wharton also gets a secret stash of notes detailing the provenance of all the more interesting specimens. The bulk of the story is Wharton's edited version of those notes.

It should be clear that Challoner's new hobby doesn't bear imitating, though he does set things up (generally) so that he's acting in self defense. Still, the story has points of interest as Dr. Wharton mulls over the moral and philosophical issues. The main mystery here, however, is why no one has made a major movie out of this so far.

The Eye of Osiris: a Free Book review

The Eye of Osiris (free audiobook here) by R. Austin Freeman is the second Dr. Thorndyke novel. In some respects, it's the better story--it's certainly the better mystery, because the solution won't be as obvious to a modern reader. However, it's also more ideologically motivated than The Red Thumb Mark: Freeman was not a Christian--he considered Christianity an outmoded relic--and there's a strong element of paganism in this story that wasn't nearly as noticeable in the first one.

Anyway--as the story opens, Dr. John Thorndyke is lecturing on the legal and medical problems of determining when (or if) someone has died. (This can affect inheritance if the order of two deaths is unknown.) He mentions a recent incident in which a man, John Bellingham, disappeared mysteriously, noting that it's likely to become a legal muddle. Then we flash forward a few years, and he was right.

One of the medical students at the lecture was Paul Berkeley, our narrator. He's substituting for another doctor when he encounters John Bellingham's brother, Godfrey, and niece, Ruth, both reduced to penury, which didn't pay well back then. And it's all because of perhaps the stupidest will in history.

Why stupid? The man who disappeared bequeathed £5,000 to his cousin and the rest of the estate to his brother. However, he stipulated that his remains be deposited in a proper spot in one of a few specific parishes. Since he has disappeared, it could be difficult to carry this out: they neither know where his body is nor whether he's done using it. But if the body is not so disposed of, the cousin gets the whole estate.

The cousin is trying to have the idiot testator declared dead, which would pretty much give him the estate. And suddenly bits of skeleton start showing up in places on or near the missing man's property...

The story is also rather droll in places. For example, at the hearing to determine whether to declare the missing man dead, a lawyer mentions the disappearance, "the most remarkable feature of that disappearance being, perhaps, its suddenness and completeness." The judge retorts, "It would, perhaps, have been even more remarkable if the testator had disappeared gradually and incompletely."

To conclude: the theological aspects are annoying, but otherwise this is a very entertaining and (dare I say it?) educational mystery. Recommended with some reservations.

The Red Thumb Mark: a Free Book review

The Red Thumb Mark (free audiobook here) by R. Austin Freeman is the first Dr. Thorndyke novel. Dr. Thorndyke was a medical doctor turned lawyer, and effectively a pioneer in forensic science: he usually played the part of an expert witness, leaving the regular lawyering to an associate.

The Red Thumb Mark is interesting enough, despite the fact that a modern reader will not only know the culprit's identity almost immediately but also (generally) how it was done. In fact, at various points, something that would have been practically unimaginable to the readers of 1907 will be obvious to us, which shows how fleeting high-tech gimmickry is. You're more likely to be mystified at some of the antiquated features, such as the way the typewriters worked more than a century ago.

Anyway--a small fortune in diamonds has been taken from a safe, which was clearly unlocked rather than burgled, and an obliging clue left in the safe seems to resolve the mystery immediately: a thumbprint in blood that conveniently points to an otherwise virtuous man. From the standpoint of detection, the main item of interest is how Thorndyke will thwart the evil plot.

There's also the small matter of several attempts on Thorndyke's life, some rather ingenious, especially for the time. And the way visits with prisoners were conducted. Thorndyke gives a strong indictment of the criminal justice system of the time, and not all the problems have been addressed even yet.

This also marks the debut of Dr. Christopher Jervis, Thorndyke's Watson who chronicles many of his adventures. Like Watson, Jervis is the second banana who acts as the romantic lead; like Holmes, Thorndyke is evidently above such things. So there is a love story here as well, and a fairly good one at that.

In sum, it's an engaging read that can teach you a lot about the period--and perhaps a bit about forensic science as well.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Once on a Time: a Free Book review

A. A. Milne of Winnie-the-Pooh fame, also wrote a fantasy for adults ("adult fantasy" in the proper, not the creepy sense). It's called Once on a Time, and it's available free through both Gutenberg (e-text) and LibriVox (audiobook).

The Wikipedia article referenced above (and here, too, of course) is fairly complete, giving enough information without spoilers. As my summary, I'll just say that this is an unconventional book about some conventional fantasy tropes--magic rings, fairy wishes, seven-league boots, cloaks of invisibility, and so forth. It's rather modern in some ways: there is no true villain or villainess. The King of Barodia surely isn't a bad guy--no worse than the King of Euralia, anyway--and the Countess Belvane is mostly just vain and self-indulgent. She's manipulative, but mainly she's a kind of practical joker who enjoys acclaim and schemes to get money simply so she can make a big deal of giving it away. (That should sound familiar to anyone who follows politics.)

Is it fun? Generally, yes. It's not in the same class as Winnie-the-Pooh, but it's a fairly good read. I don't think children would get it: it's a bit too self-aware and bent on parody for them. Is it funny? In places. The initial matter of the seven-league boots and the Euralian response is quite droll, as are the accidental encounter between the two kings as they try to spy on each other. The curse on Prince Udo is amusing in concept, though I thought it was treated a little too clinically.

So I would recommend this story for modern fantasy readers who want to kill a few hours. If you like The Princess Bride, which is very similar, you'll probably enjoy Once on a Time.

[Addendum: I just realized I need to explain why Once on a Time is like The Princess Bride. Simply put, both are Ruritanian romances (stories set in fictional countries) with fantasy elements, both have a love story (or two) and court intrigues, and both are supposedly based on a fictitious pre-existing work (by Roger Scurvilegs for OoaT and S. Morgenstern for TPB). As to differences, Once on a Time is significantly less violent and lacks a true villain.]

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sciolism, Scientism, and Theology

So what does it matter if people go off half-cocked? We've been making decisions based on incomplete and faulty information since the Garden of Eden, which I guess helps answer the question. But now, in addition to mere ignorance parading as knowledge, we add the tendency toward a falsely scientific view of life.

I noticed some time ago that in Christian circles (especially Fundamentalist Protestant ones, but you can easily find it elsewhere) there was a tendency to reduce everything to a formula. Most of the supposedly non-fiction books in a Christian bookstore have a formula for success, effective prayer, weight loss, or whatever else. Even theologically we tend toward formulas, though that's been around for centuries.

It's curious that the Bible is low on formulas. About the closest you get is in the Law, and even it isn't truly formulaic. But the formula mindset can be found quite easily: it's the attempt to reduce God and our interactions with him to scripts. Push the right buttons, and you get what you want.

It should be obvious that this is magic: an attempt to manipulate God into doing our will. But there's more to it than that--something even more damnable. Not only is it an attempt to get our own way and assert our will over God's, it also implies rejecting grace.

Earning your own salvation is thoroughly formula-based: do the right works, and you are saved. From the standpoint of scientism, earning your salvation is a good idea, because there's a clear cause-effect relationship. Good deeds eventually outweigh bad ones, so you just keep going until you're saved.

But what of grace? Grace is a miracle: it upsets the cause-effect chain, saying that bad deeds may simply be forgiven, and without our somehow earning that forgiveness. Is it any wonder that when Creation Science writers wander into theology they tend to reduce it to simplistic formulas?

They also like to sanitize messy people: Noah didn't mean to get drunk; in the antediluvian world, grape juice didn't ferment. They have quite a long presentation with the sole point of getting Noah off the hook. But why? Why not just admit that he was yet another sinner and goofed up? (For that matter, why make drinking wine a sin? It isn't one in the Bible.)

The annoyingly obvious answer is that they don't really believe in grace. They believe in excuses, even far-fetched ones, to avoid admitting that God used and blessed a sinner. Admitting it would violate the tidy cause-effect sequence and acknowledge a miracle—which the Creation Science people are no more eager to do than atheists.

God does miracles; get over it. And salvation is a walk, not a formula.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Scientific Sciolism

Oh, look it up.

I talked about syncretism last time, and I don't think anyone can deny that at least in the West, having "science" on one's side pretty much guarantees intellectual respectability and superiority. This is why most of the global warming debate hinges on who is actually scientific, the believers or deniers, and why some people think they must have a scientific basis for accepting Genesis. Not having a scientific basis for one's views is intellectually untenable.

But together with this deification of "science" (often misunderstood and incorrectly identified) we have normal human sciolism: the tendency to think we know it all (or at least enough to pontificate) based on only a shallow acquaintance with a topic. So in the global warming debate we see people on both sides who are merely parroting arguments and putative facts they agree with but probably don't understand. I was amazed and impressed a while back when a columnist for a local newspaper admitted that he hadn't done enough research on the topic to have a worthwhile opinion--and he also claimed that such research would amount to setting aside a few years to master the topic. Reading a few blogs and newspaper articles isn't enough.

Years ago, there was a man named Immanuel Velikovsky who tried to explain various historical and legendary events (including some from the Exodus) by invoking a kind of celestial pinball game in which the earth got nailed a few times. Back in the sixties and seventies there was a noticeable Velikovskyist contingent in the Creation Science ranks, because he believed in catastrophism and was ostracized from mainline scientific circles, much like the Creation Science crowd itself.

But the interesting point is that Velikovsky was a psychiatrist, not a physicist, astronomer, biologist, or archeologist: he was pontificating well outside his field of competence, and doing so quite convincingly. An astronomer and a biologist read Worlds in Collision and came to opposite conclusions: the astronomer thought the astronomy was nonsense but the biochemistry brilliant, while the biologist laughed at the biochemistry but found the astronomy impressive.

Sciolism times three: an author who was out of his depth yet persuasive, and two men who were safe from the hoax in their respective areas of expertise but gullible elsewhere. If you've ever read Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, you get the impression that there were few pseudoscientific scams of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that did not snooker at least one of the Huxleys--a very intelligent and well-educated group. But they, too, were willing to gamble on their sometimes shallow knowledge--and sometimes they lost.

The relevant moral here involves a point I've made before concerning what I call "scientific apologetics": we read a book (or several) making a number of scientific claims we haven't the background to appraise intelligently and feel that we understand more about the topic than those who do have the requisite background.

This is why I largely ignore the putative science of Creation Science: I don't have the background required to assess it. In the same way, evolution is a sprawling concern, touching a number of different fields. I strongly doubt anyone knows enough about it to understand it and assess it, pro or con. I certainly don't. I can, however, comment on the philosophical and theological implications of Creation Science, just as I can spot an evolutionist with a scientific background going outside his field to pontificate on theology or philosophy.

Avoid sciolists lest you become one yourself.

I'll conclude this series next time with a post about how sciolism and scientism combine to corrupt popular theology.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Science, Faith, and Syncretism

Syncretism means mixing belief systems. In the Old Testament we read of people worshipping both God and Baal, for example. These days we do much the same thing, only the other "god" is usually Money, Popularity, Respectability, or something like that. The idea I mentioned last time, that there must be a scientific explanation to support Genesis, is such a case. Unless God jumps through the hoop of our personal expectations, we just won't believe in him.

So there!

I still don't see why Creation is any different from the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection, neither of which gets the imprimatur of science. If God wants to commit a miracle now and then, we can either rely on him to be telling the truth or rely on our amazing fallen minds to find an alternative explanation. This is the major reason I consider Creation Science dangerous on theological grounds: since the goal is to find a cause-and-effect sequence to explain miracles, it tends to deny or minimize miracles on the one hand and support a mechanistic view of God on the other.

Case in point: the Flood. In order to explain where all the water came from, proponents of Creation Science usually conjure up a vapor canopy nowhere attested in scripture and have the earth's crust upthrust, downthrust, and sidewaysthrust without ever generating a really good dance step. I, on the other hand, just figure that if God wants enough water to flood the whole planet, he can just call it into existence. It's called a miracle, and no, I can't make a science out of it.

So what if the science happens to be right anyway--what if God used a vapor canopy without mentioning it? Occam's razor, friend: the vapor-canopy explanation is complex; a miracle is simple. Nor is that always true: quite often positing a miracle is a needless complication. Just not here.

This need for an acceptable mechanism leads in worse directions, though. For example, it is Law-oriented rather than Grace-oriented. Earning your salvation by good works is simple cause and effect; it's a kind of science. Accepting salvation by faith that has been granted by grace is miraculous thinking: it's simply not good cause and effect, because it doesn't provide a good way to manipulate God.

C. S. Lewis talked about this in The Abolition Of Man: science and magic tend to be different ways of gaining power over nature (and thus God) by reducing it to rules you can manipulate. This is the reason the Creation Science crowd doesn't like miracles (beyond the fact they aren't acceptable to the scientific establishment): miracles confer no manipulative power. We can't use them to get what we want; we can't make them happen whenever we feel like it.

That's also why I don't really care about the scientific claims of Creation Science: if they were presented with proper rigor, I couldn't understand them, much less judge their validity, but if they are presented in a looser, more popular style, even a scientist in relevant field couldn't assess the data. So I stick with the theological ramifications--a topic friends and enemies both seem to ignore.

Next up: sciolism.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Science, Faith, and Miracles

I'm currently involved in yet another vigorous exchange of views with a friend who apparently has no choice other than Creation Science on the one hand and loss of faith on the other. Creation Science, he says, allows him to disbelieve evolution and thus to believe Genesis.

I admit I don't get it myself.

We agree that evolution and Genesis don't get on well together. I've seen attempts to harmonize them, and those attempts amount to wishful thinking. They also usually involve effectively dismissing those parts of Genesis that seem inconvenient.

But I disagree that cobbling together a "science" is the only way to "save" Genesis. Bear in mind that science is a system of generalizations about what usually happens and why. And consider that science (indeed, the humbler Everyday Experience) tells us that virgins don't get pregnant without changing their status and that dead people don't get better after a few days in a tomb.

In other words, if we must have a scientific alternative (Creation Science) to evolution, we must have a scientific alternative (Virgin Birth Science) to conception and another (Resurrection Science) to postmortem decay. For without such alternatives, we must follow science rather than scripture, apparently, and these doctrines will be lost.

But science is about what usually happens--pretty much always, in fact. And the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection were one-time events, though to be sure the latter presages a much more widespread repeat. In other words, they were miracles, and because miracles are abnormal, they can't be generalized into science.

So what about Creation? Does the opening of Genesis happen a lot? Not so far as we can tell. It's characterized by God speaking and things happening. In other words, it's a miracle. But that means it can't be made into a science.

And that should be okay. The alternative is to say that there are no miracles, which is not something a Christian can agree with. But it suggests a syncretism--a mixture of proper belief with outside views--that is common and troubling. I'll hit that next, all going well.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Knyght Ther Was

A Knyght Ther Was (also available as an audiobook) is a novella by Robert F. Young. I was already familiar with Young from his novel Eridahn, which I liked and which has the distinction of being one of the few sci-fi novels my mother considers worthwhile.

Like Eridahn, A Knyght Ther Was is a time-travel story with all the twists and turns I at least look for in that sub-genre. After all, why bother travelling through time if you can't mess with your past self on occasion?

Anyway... A Knyght Ther Was features a time thief named Tom Mallory who is going to use another Malory's work to find a suitable point in time to rip off the Holy Grail. He's going to impersonate Sir Galahad, the last guy to deal with the Grail before it was taken up to Heaven--it seems like a reasonable point to take it forward in time instead.

Then the unforeseen problems arise.

The oddity is, I did not think I would like the story. I thought Young would get cute with the Grail, and the tone is initially quite cynical. There were also several plot wrinkles I thought I could predict, and I was right about some of them. I saw the Lancelot twist coming immediately, for example. Others were both surprising and satisfying, especially Mallory's unexpected encounter just after his moment of triumph: it works out exactly as it should. It was at that moment that I knew I would consider the story a classic if he didn't mess it up.

And he didn't! There was a remaining matter he could have completely blown--I thought he would, really; it's another place where he surprised me, because I was sure I knew what he was up to: the mystery of Rowena.

The major surprise was that despite the cynical opening, this takes place in an essentially Christian universe. The two really honest and admirable characters are Christians, and they talk about God in a way that's generally right. And that's all the more peculiar because so far as I know, Young wasn't a Christian himself. (That's not to say I would be surprised if he was.) And I have to admit that this is more Christian than some supposedly "Christian" fiction I've encountered.

It's a short piece, just over two hours as an audiobook, and I'm sure you'll keep coming back to it. Let's have that info again:

A Knyght Ther Was
Powered by WebRing.