A genre resurrected--in science fiction.
When cubism, expressionism, geometric abstraction emerged as the styles commanding serious critical attention within the art world, lowly magazine illustrators and book-jacket artists unexpectedly found themselves the guardians of representation. Once it became apparent that, thanks to the coming of sound, the Hollywood feature could no longer accommodate the art of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, the makers of scruffy little Warner Brothers cartoons saw to it that brilliant visual comedy did not die. Long after the romantic four-movement symphony had exhausted itself, film composers continued to provide audiences with the soaring emotional pleasures of the earlier form.
In recent years, I would argue, the humble medium of science fiction has spontaneously undertaken a similar sort of aesthetic salvage operation. Thanks to Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, David Brin, Christopher Priest, and a half-dozen other sophisticated SF writers, a singularly valuable fictive mode, the novel of ideas--a mode that has largely vanished from the mainstream, supplanted by poeticized autobiography and tour-de-force mimesis of the quotidian--survives and thrives along the periphery of the official culture. And to our list of philosophically inclined SF novelists we must now add the name of Tom Flynn, penciling beside it the titles of two robust and remarkable comedies, Galactic Rapture and its sequel, Nothing Sacred.
Mr. Flynn's specialty, as some of you doubtless already know, is giving his readers the conventional satisfactions of the SF genre, albeit with a postmodern twinkle in his eye, while simultaneously convening and sustaining a kind of freewheeling literary seminar on epistemology, anthropology, and, especially, the psychology of religion. It's an ambitious agenda, but on the evidence of these two efforts I would say that Flynn knows exactly what he's doing. I came away from Nothing Sacred feeling that the venerable enterprise of cross-examining the Christian consensus via fiction--a project that more or less begins with Don Quixote, proceeds through the antics of Montesquieu and Voltaire, reaches an apex when Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor imprisons Jesus Christ and ultimately finds an American voice in Mark Twain's various indictments of the Church's acquiescence to slavery and war--has a bright and shining future.
Nothing Sacred begins ten years after the demented events of Galactic Rapture, and the plot unfolds in the same milieu, a universe that is not exactly the Universe but still, unimaginably vast: the whole of known galactic space, a panoply of 42,000 worlds on which, thanks to the machinations of an off-stage intelligence called the Harvesters, various versions of Hot, to sapiens long ago took root. This is space opera--cockeyed and satiric space opera, but space opera--on a truly operatic scale, abrim with the idiom's equivalents of Valkyries in horned helmets: robots, rocketships, space battles, super weapons, technologies that fracture and refract human consciousness. The whole mad epic requires for its telling 474 pages of densely packed type, and I have it on the authority of the author's own appendices that, before the fat lady sings, thirty-five discrete worlds and seventy-one plot-essential characters have come into play--though let me hasten to add that the action is always lucid and engaging, Flynn having given us an appealing reader surrogate in the person of Gram Enoda, an Earth kid with a business plan. Enoda is a would-be "trendrider," the happy owner of a cybernetic "thought engine" that will enable him to tune in the zeitgeist and then sell his analyses to whichever commercial interests have the ready cash. (Trendriding doesn't so much allow you to become famous for five minutes as to become Andy Warhol for as long as you can stand it.) Always eager to help Nothing Sacred's readers keep track of the plot twists and the dramatis personae, Enoda not only provides the text with a breezy introduction--especially useful if you haven't read Galactic Rapture--he also prefaces about half the chapters with witty observations reminiscent of the commentary supplied by Joel and his robot friends on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 series.
It would require an essay twice this long to summarize Flynn's beguilingly Byzantine plot. Much of the action takes place on the Galactic Confetory Heavy Cruiser Forthright, which as the drama unfolds becomes a kind of spare-borne reincarnation of the ancient Athenian agora, with myriad passions, proclivities, and worldviews whirling about its decks and bays--Mormonism, neo-Catholicism, nihilism, libertarianism, solipsism, humanism, atheism, Darwinism, the Anthropic Principle--in a delirious dance of ideas. As in Galactic Rapture, much of the dramatic heat is supplied by the Tuezi, those gargantuan killer Frisbees (at least that's how I picture them) that pop unpredictably into existence throughout the Milky Way and then proceed randomly to vaporize entire planets for reasons known only to their inscrutable engineers. Before the curtain has fallen, our hero neutralizes the Tuezi menace in a fashion that I suspect most readers will find at once screamingly funny and intellectually exhilarating.
Perhaps the most delectable dimension of a novel full of delectable dimensions is the First Galactic Church of the Abyss, a kind of institutionalized nihilism spun from the writings of Eduard von Hartmann. The avatar of this bleak religion--bleak beyond the meaning of the word--bears the wonderfully baroque name Enva Corglinu, and her silken speeches, with their weirdly seductive logic and ostensible Nietzschean nerve, are perhaps even more disturbing than Flynn intended. Surely one of the most memorable characters in recent SE Enva Corglinu, "Prophetess of Nullity," is among those conceits that transport Nothing Sacred beyond mere sci-fi hijinks, the playful domain of Douglas Adams, and into the universe of genuine black humor.
My only quarrel with Flynn concerns the self-consciously futuristic diction in which much of the tale is told, a cavalcade of neologisms that includes "tridee," "vidphone," "polychair," "plasteel," "Terra.," and "Ultiversity." It's a common enough miscalculation--my own first two SF novels suffer from the same foible--but still annoying, frequently throwing the reader out of the text and into the dubious realm of Golden Age pulp. I was likewise unhappy with Flynn's decision to turn the English language's premier obscenities into "forjel" and "plorg," subsequently applying the requisite verbal algorithms, with the result that Enoda and company are always saying things like "forjel it" and "plorg on a stick." The reader soon longs for the tawdry euphony of the original expressions.
Let me close on a personal note. For reasons too complicated to articulate here, I found myself obliged to read Nothing Sacred concurrently with Philip Jenkins's latest scholarly offering from Oxford University Press, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. Up to a point, Professor Jenkins has given us a useful little book, a systematic catalogue of those instances in which humanists, feminists, liberals, and gay right activists (talk about acceptable prejudices) may have overstated the Church's alleged complicity in misogyny, homophobia, witch-hunts, unjust wars, the Nazi extermination camps, priestly sexual misconduct, and other evils. And yet it seems to me that Jenkins's argument ultimately turns on a massive category error, an obfuscating conflation of the Catholic power structure with an axiomatically innocent Catholic laity so that any spirited attack on the Church's misuses of its authority automatically becomes continuous with the mindless discourse of a racist or the loathsome fulminations of an anti-Semite (or, indeed, the genuine anti-Catholicism of Jimmy Swaggart, the Seventh-day Adventists, Bob Jones University and other defenders of the conservative-theistic worldview that the author evidently finds so congenial). To be sure, Jenkins, who is a very bright man, anticipates this objection, but in addressing it he resorts to semantic legerdemain and logical inconsistencies, completely missing the moral heart of the matter: the ruin that Catholic doctrines have manifestly wrought on thousands of actual and particular human fives in the name of a putative greater good. Even if Catholicism's left-wing critics had gotten all. their facts straight--and I'm prepared to argue that such honorable thinkers as Tony Kushner and James Carroll have their facts far straighter than The New Anti-Catholicism allows--one ends up sensing that Jenkins would still be happy to call them bigots. After all, if the Church's cardinals and bishops, no matter how knavish, are collectively the avatars of a traditionally despised minority, then we may freely impute to these clerics' antagonists the darkest imaginable motives.
Every time The New Anti-Catholicism tied a fresh knot in my stomach, Nothing Sacred came gloriously to my aid, countering Jenkins's wall-to-wall smugness with Flynn's high-flying affection for open-ended philosophical conversation. Is Nothing Sacred an embodiment of "the new anti-Catholicism"--or perhaps the new anti-Mormonism, the new anti-irrationalism, the new anti-supernaturalism, or some other presumed menace? Rather than dignifying the question with an answer, let the simply urge you to learn from my experience and lay hi a supply of Flare's books without delay, much as you might equip yourself with Pepto-Bismol, aspirin, contraceptives, red wine, Beatles albums, Woody Allen movies, or any other of life's essentials. You never know when you might need them.
Twice the winner of the World Fantasy Award, James Morrows is the author of satiric novels including Only Begotten Daughter (a sequel to the New Testament), Towing Jehovah (a Nietzschean saga of ideas), (and Blameless in Abaddon (a modern-dress retellling of the Book of Job), all car-really available in paperback editions from Harcourt.