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A Few Comments on “On a Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli

I really dread it when science fiction writers delve into religious topics. I just wince when one of Isaac Asimov’s rationalistic know-it-alls, for example, condescendingly explains to a ditzy romantic interest that Jezebel wasn’t necessarily such a bad person. You know how Southerners get accused of still fighting the Civil War? Some people act like they’re still arguing at the Scopes Monkey trial. And Ender’s Game was such a great book… but who on earth encouraged Orson Scott Card to make some kind of parochial Catholicism be such a central part of its sequel? (That Hugo Award winning novel right there is all the proof you need that the Hugo Awards are broken!) Dude… I came back because you delivered the exploding space ships. What do you think you’re doing?!

In a similar vein, I nearly aborted my reading of the Honor Harrington series because by the second book, I was positive that the Graysons were just being brought in to function as whipping boys. Using these sorts of people as a punching bag goes back at least to, what? “A Study in Scarlet”? Perfectly legitimate, sure. I’m just tired of it. Of course, Weber had quite a bit more in mind for those characters than the same old same old, but still.

That brings us to this passage from Lou Antonelli’s Hugo nominated work from this year:

Although most people went along with being “volunteered”, after the suggestion was made I agreed willingly. I was single and so nobody else had to suffer with me; I thought it would be worthwhile experience for a young Methodist minister.
I commed the base Commander.   “A quick question,” I asked.   “Was Joe McDonald the first human die on Ymilas?”
“Why yes, he was. Why do you ask?”
“He’s here in my quarters.  He’s become his own Helpful Ancestor.”
The Commander cursed, then asked “What do we do now?”
“I don’ know about ‘we’,” I said, “but I have some counseling to do, and then I call Dergec.”

Now… I don’t have anything against the writer and I don’t think there’s really anything wrong with this story. And I realize that I’m maybe coming from left field with this one. But I gotta say… too many people write about religion in science fiction when they know basically nothing about it. And the people doing it often don’t know that they don’t know. The worst stuff is by the people that have no inkling that a lot of their assumptions about life, nature, and man constitute a de facto religion when they think they quite beyond such things.

The problem with this particular passage, though… I guess it’s twofold, really:

  1. I don’t think I can tell you that I’ve ever really met a Methodist that successfully gave me the impression that he actually believed in life after death, that heaven was real, that the devil was the prince of this world, that Jesus was real person, and/or that the stuff in the bible actual corresponds to history and reality in any significant way. They’re mostly just nice people that are a touch sentimental about some old stories.
  2. I’ve never seen anyone involved in any kind of church type counseling see some kind of problem, roll up their sleeves, and say something to the effect of, “yeah boy! I’m gonna do some counseling. Woo-hoo!”

These people– and this is harsh– they’re really some kind of combination of a bureaucrat, a community organizer, and a psychoanalyst. They might have their own veneer of religion-themed jargon depending on their sect… but really…. they’re just ordinary folks mostly. If they were to encounter some kind of actual supernatural type phenomenon, they would be just as gobsmacked as, say, Ebenezer Scrooge when he encountered Jacob Marley’s ghost. But this isn’t some kind of morality play. And there are aliens involved. And there’s some kind of sciencey explanation setting up the premise. So my objection to how “realistic” this feels is entirely subjective and maybe not even fair.

But then there’s this:

I turned in the same direction as Dergec.  “Are you okay with this, friend?  You ready to go home?”
There was a pause, and then Dergec said “He is fearful, but ready.”  He paused and continued.  “Joseph said he wants you to know he appreciates your kindness, but he knows nothing awaits him.  He learned the true nature of the pilgrimage from the Helpful Ancestors.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
“He says it is good, he realizes there is nothing left for him here, and he would rather be nothing than a ghost on a strange world,” said Dergec.  “He said the others have given him courage.  He hopes his immortal soul has already reached your heaven.”
“I know it has, Joe,” I said, my voice cracking a bit.  “I have faith in that, that’s my job. To have faith.”

Eh, what does that even mean? Does this character have any concept of what he’s saying? I mean… George Michael had faith, what does this guy have?

And back to these real life chaplain types serving doing a job in the context of an extremely diverse range of religions. Maybe the closest to that that many of us might have come in contact with that is a “campus minister” at a college or university. Can you imagine that sort of person saying something like this… and really thinking that it means something? Again, I don’t have some kind of huge beef with this author or this story. But something just seems off to me here. Oh, no… it’s not as bad as, say, depicting rednecks that drink gin. I just feel there’s something more that could be done with this.

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25 responses to “A Few Comments on “On a Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli

  1. Cirsova April 23, 2015 at 8:56 am

    Even though I really liked this one, I felt that for a story so centered on religion and spirituality, the theological exposition was rather thin. Also, the chaplains I’ve known are both very devout – one to the point of saintliness -, but neither of them are Methodists, so I don’t know. Is the half-assed faith of Methodists a trope or something I didn’t know about?

    I think I like this one for its future potential as a first chapter of a novella that explores how the incident affects the chaplain’s faith, the chaplain’s search for his own theological answers, and the possibility that the Aliens are not all-knowing mystics, but have been assumed to be such because of humanity projecting noble mystic savage myths from earth onto their culture. As such, it’s sitting at number 2 on my list, but that says more about the field, I think, than the story itself.

    • jeffro April 23, 2015 at 9:15 am

      To answer that, I’ll tell you a story.

      I once went to a funeral. It was a Unitarian minister speaking… and it was his own son that had died. The son was college aged or so… had been a strapping young man, too. It was an accident of some kind, utterly tragic. And honestly, I wouldn’t wish this upon my worst enemy… no matter how much we disagreed.

      But the guy was speaking… and he was clearly devastated. I didn’t know either of them personally and I was devastated right with them out of sympathy. This was terrible. The guy was knocked flat, and as funerals tend to be, he had a whole room full of people that wouldn’t normally set foot in a church. But he still had that part to play, right?

      So he’s trying to deliver this sermon type thing, but he’s pretty well speechless for the most part. And he looks at the congregation and he says… that right then… it actually would have been of some help to him if he actually believed in life after death. Or even something like it. Not so much because it was true… but just as a comfort.

      And I marveled.

      Methodists as a whole are maybe not quite as far along as this guy. But I think they’ve been working on getting there rather diligently.

      • Cirsova April 23, 2015 at 9:33 am

        Wow, that’s kind of bad. I don’t know how prevalent the Unitarian church on its own is these days or what it’s like, but the branch that joined with the Universalists is its own kind of bizarre. Not quite UFO religion bizarre, but close. UU these days is like a bunch of atheists and agnostics get together and do churchy stuff because even though they don’t believe in god or religion, they miss going to sunday school and church picnics. There’s a UU church near where I live, and they play host to all sorts of “free-thinker” meet-ups, bring in indian gurus and have drum circles. UUs allow for atheists to be pastors, which is kind of bizarre to me. Reminds me of Neil deGrasse Tyson on Cosmos telling us what an incredibly spiritual thing it is to realize that we’re nothing and there’s nothing.

  2. Cambias April 23, 2015 at 9:11 am

    I can only agree that SF writers have a terrible time writing about religion. It is always baffling to me that people who are willing to research the niceties of orbital dynamics or linguistic evolution can’t be bothered to spend ten minutes looking up something in the online Catholic Encyclopedia. I’m an unbeliever myself but I can usually tell when someone is doing it wrong.

    It’s almost as if not knowing anything but what they’ve seen on Bill Maher or whatever is a point of pride. As if the whole topic of Christianity is so beyond the pale that even trying to get it right is somehow a badge of shame.

  3. Author Lou Antonelli April 23, 2015 at 10:45 am

    Thanks for the feedback, I actually enjoy it when people take the time to read a story and point out what they see as flaws.

    Perhaps in the South the ministers are more evangelical than in other parts of the county. I purposely avoided using a Catholic priest, since I was raised a catholic,or a Baptist preacher, since I became a Southern Baptist when I married a native Texan. I was trying to break my own boundaries.

    On the subject of faith, my thought was that, in the face of the emergency, the chaplain realized HE might not know what faith is. But he muddles through. There is the assumption in the story he is the only chaplain at the base.

    On the way he tackles the problem, I realize I am pretty much projecting the way I attack problems – fast and head on.

    Again, I appreciate you taking the time. These comments will help me in the future.

    Lou Antonelli

    • jeffro April 23, 2015 at 10:57 am

      Thanks for dropping by! And by the way… enjoy your stay in Virginia– I hope our particular brand of Southern hospitality lives up to its hype. (I’d being heading to Ravencon myself were it not for the fact that I scheduled a D&D game for this Saturday…!)

    • Cirsova April 23, 2015 at 11:21 am

      I really think that this story would work out if you ended up fleshing it out into a full-length novel/novella. The concept and setting are interesting, but could really use some development that the short format isn’t particularly conducive to. It feels like first chapter, y’know? Seeing as he’s a “young” Methodist Minister, this incident and his time with Dergec come across as very much the beginning of a spiritual journey rather than a definitive moment at which he changes his conclusions; the question is posed here, but certainly not answered (at least not a satisfying way).

      So, uh, yeah, my suggestion is you revisit this story in long-form. I feel it has a lot of untapped potential.

  4. Robert Eaglestone April 23, 2015 at 10:59 am

    Jeff, your next post should be on the exceptions to your rule:

    (1) A Canticle for Leibowitz.
    (2) The Cyclan and the Brotherhood from the Dumarest series.

    Second, Jeff, if you lived in the South, you’d know that the Methodists there are more like Baptists in the not-South. And granted, the Methodists in the not-South are more like Unitarians anywhere.

    • jeffro April 23, 2015 at 11:01 am

      My generalizations are surely out of whack. After all, I’m so close to the Mason Dixon line now, I might as well be in Antietam or Gettysburg. You can’t even get cheese flavored instant grits here. How about that?!

    • Robert Eaglestone April 23, 2015 at 11:01 am

      Oooh, and (3) the church as represented by _The Mote in God’s Eye_ and _King David’s Space Ship_, by Niven and Pournelle.

  5. Author Lou Antonelli April 23, 2015 at 11:00 am

    I really enjoy the food when I’m here. Texas has a number of positives. The weather and food are not two of them!

    • electricscribbles April 23, 2015 at 3:57 pm

      As a Texan I really think you do Texas a disservice with that remark (just kidding)! Serioulsy though, what’s not to like about Texas cuisine? All 3 major food groups are represented in Texas cuisine. There’s your Chili, your BBQ, and your TexMex!

      I’m a native Texan but live in Oklahoma…imagine my angst.

  6. electricscribbles April 23, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    Jeffro said: “I don’t think I can tell you that I’ve ever really met a Methodist that successfully gave me the impression that he actually believed in life after death, that heaven was real, that the devil was the prince of this world, that Jesus was real person, and/or that the stuff in the bible actual corresponds to history and reality in any significant way. They’re mostly just nice people that are a touch sentimental about some old stories.”

    I think that comment is a disservice to Methodists, speaking as one I can assure you that I do believe and have Faith in Christ and my religion. I’m not just sentimental about some old stories as you put it. I have yet to meet a Methodist who’d I’d categorize that way. As a matter of fact, Methodists don’t generally just talk about their faith but try and live it as well, which is why you have the impression that they are mostly just nice people.

    Anyway, enjoyed your review.

    • jeffro April 23, 2015 at 1:26 pm

      You know, I have no problem with my impression being wrong. But if an author does invoke Methodists in a story, I would like him to capture their distinctives, their tells, and their foibles.

      Of course, you can guess that any Methodist that could be insulted by what I’ve written here is actually one that I would tend respect more, so I seem to have constructed an inverse Xanatos Gambit!

      • electricscribbles April 23, 2015 at 4:00 pm

        inverse…so that means…I win!? I wasn’t so much insulted as compelled to correct an error, as I see it anyway.

      • Rob April 24, 2015 at 7:28 am

        Well, having lived in both Texas AND Arizona, I have seen both extremes of Methodism represented faithfully.

  7. Jason April 24, 2015 at 6:14 am

    As the editor who bought the story, I obviously liked it. I thought Lou treated the topic in an interesting and novel fashion. If you are looking for more theologically tinged science fiction you might find Domo by Josh Young from Issue #1 interesting along with Ideal Machine by John C. Wright in issue #1. There is also God Eaters by Josh Young in Issue #5 (due out shortly) and Take Up Your Cross by Anthony Marchetta from Issue #4.

    I’d like to think that the stories I pick that touch on theological topics treat them respectfully even if in a somewhat hetrodox fashion. As an orthodox Christian myself (Protestant Anglican specifically) i’d like to think I don’t go too wrong there.

    If you are interested in maybe reviewing one of the issues shoot me a line.

    • jeffro April 24, 2015 at 8:26 am

      Thank your for the kind offer. I’m fairly certain that I would at some point like to pick up an issue and then (at the very least) “skim until hooked.” Hopefully it is clear that this post is an extremely off the cuff and largely personal reaction– not anything like a formal review.

      • Jason April 25, 2015 at 7:27 am

        Yeah I got that. If you like respectful theologically themed SF though, the magazine has more than a couple of them so far. So I just thought’d I mention it.

    • malcolmthecynic July 7, 2015 at 3:57 pm

      Hello! I read this review because I stumbled on the blog and noticed the link to “On A Spiritual Plain”…and then Jason commented here.

      I’m the author of “Take Up Your Cross”. I thought it turned out well, all though when I looked back I realized that I made one massive historical error…I’ll leave all of you to puzzle it out. In my defense, Jason missed it as well!

      Anyway, I thoroughly recommend Michael Flynn’s “Eifelheim”, which is a work of genius. And watch out for the anthology “God, Robot” coming soon as well, edited by me.

      • jeffro July 7, 2015 at 5:41 pm

        That sounds like an interesting premise for an anthology. My one idea for a post on that theme came to me after reading the extended Robot/Foundation series where Asimov ultimately engineered a God-like being into his setting. It was almost as bad as Clarke having an alien God-thing step into history in order to give evolution the necessary guidance it needed to create man.

      • malcolmthecynic July 7, 2015 at 8:44 pm

        The premise comes straight from this post by John C. Wright: http://www.scifiwright.com/2014/03/asimovs-three-laws-reduced-to-two/

        It is a theological “I, Robot” made up of ten stories by six different authors (two have two stories), all using the two laws as part of their conceit. Like its namesake, it is connected by a frame story, a detective interviewing the man who compiled the stories. It’s more like a collaborative novel.

        Obviously I’m biased, but I was blown away by the quality of the stories. I think readers will like it a lot, especially when they see the authors involved in the project.

        “Soon”, by the way, means “it’s finished, but I’m not sure when it’ll actually be published.” We’ll see – I think Castalia is going to take a look.

      • malcolmthecynic July 7, 2015 at 8:50 pm

        By the way – perhaps it was because I wasn’t jaded by too much Asimov yet, but I actually enjoyed the Jezebel scene, which I thought also had character relevance in regards to Jessie and marked out Elijah as the sort of guy who would look at things from different angles.

        Asimov was never great at characters, or dialogue, or style, but the man knew plot and structure like nobody’s business. As far as structure goes it’s a nice piece of entertaining exposition, keeping the reader’s interest while subtly establishing character.

  8. Pingback: BOOK REVIEW: “Beyond the Mist” by Ben Zwycky – castaliahouse.com

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