Category Archives: gods

Books about or featuring gods.

Review 196: And Another Thing

And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer

If you pay close attention, Colfer tells you exactly what you can expect from this book right at the beginning, using a well-chosen quote from Douglas Adams: “The storm had now definitely abated, and what thunder there was now grumbled over more distant hills, like a man saying ‘And another thing…’ twenty minutes after admitting he’d lost the argument.” (So Long and Thanks for All the Fish)

As Adams well knew, the phrase “And another thing…” is superfluous. It is said by the person who just can’t let things go. It’s a sullen, resentful phrase that doesn’t add anything to the discussion that came before. In other words, Colfer is telling us, this book didn’t need to happen and you probably don’t need to read it. Which is very kind of him, I think, warning us in advance that way. But still, after a long time where I refused to give in, I finally, well, gave in and read the book.

Vogon Sociology is considered a fallback major in most schools.

It’s not as bad as I expected it to be, certainly, but it lives up to its title. If you haven’t read it, you don’t really need to. It doesn’t add very much to the overall mythos of the Hitchhiker’s Guide universe, or to its characters, and while it has some entertaining moments in it, a few places where I genuinely laughed out loud, and some interesting explorations of Vogon sociology, if you give it a miss then you’re probably not missing a whole lot.

If you’ll recall, at the end of Mostly Harmless, the fifth book in the trilogy, the Earth – all of the Earths – were destroyed by the Vogons once and for all. The galactic conspiracy of psychiatrists had won, with the omnipresent Guide Mark Two as their weapon of choice, and the whole business about the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything was finally at an end. With the exception of Zaphod Beeblebrox, all of the main characters were vaporized, much to Arthur Dent’s own relief. If ever there was a conclusive ending to a series, that would be it, although allegedly Adams had a couple of ways in his back pocket to bring everyone back, should he need to do so.

Alas, Adams left us far too soon. In 2008, however, it was announced that there would indeed be a sixth book, penned by Eoin Colfer, of the hugely popular Artemis Fowl books. Fans across the world were both excited and apprehensive to see what would be done with the characters we had grown to love over so many years.

To his credit, Colfer wrote a very funny book. I was laughing by the first page, and he really did a fine job of capturing the tone and cadence of the Guide entries and the way that Adams would narrate the story. His depictions of some characters – especially Zaphod and Random – were spot-on, and you could see a lot of elements in the book that were nods to some of Adams’ favorite themes.

If this is how your book begins, you really need to live up to it…

In essence, what happens is this: Our Heroes are introduced to us in a stasis hallucination, held between ticks of the clock by the Guide Mark Two as the planet-destroying beams of the Grebulons descend towards Earth. They are rescued by the Heart of Gold and Zaphod Beeblebrox, who has detached his left head and is using it as the ship’s computer. Unfortunately, Ford causes Left Brain to freeze up, so they need to be rescued again – this time by one of the most popular bit players in the series, Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, an immortal being who has decided to spend eternity insulting everyone in the universe in alphabetical order. Wowbagger reluctantly takes them aboard, and in doing so insults Zaphod to the point where Zaphod promises to find a way to kill him, a proposition that Wowbagger has no problem with. Zaphod’s weapon of choice? A down-on-his-luck thunder god who’s been slumming it around Asgard.

Meanwhile, there is a planet of human refugees that is undergoing some rather entertaining class warfare, and the solution to this is, apparently, to find just the right kind of god to run the place. And even more meanwhile, a young Vogon is having second thoughts about his Vogonity and whether or not it’s okay to destroy inhabited planets just because there is a work order on hand that says they should.

I want to criticize the book for being directionless and unfocused, but let’s be fair – that describes the first book as well. Given its genesis as a radio drama, Adams never really had a grand plan for what would happen in the beginning of the series, and wrote in an episodic fashion that had (as far as I could tell) no real end point in mind. The difference, however, is that while those books had no real direction to them, they were charged with a kind of chaotic energy that made you want to keep reading just to find out what happens next. Arthur Dent, our avatar in this universe, never got a chance to rest or even change out of his dressing-gown, and so we were dragged along with him. It was exciting and confusing and weird in all the right ways, and we didn’t mind not knowing where we were going because the trip to get there really was just that much fun.

To be fair, though, Arthur NEVER wanted to be involved…

In this book, however, Arthur really doesn’t want to be involved. He’s had an imaginary lifetime of living in peace and quiet, and seems to have outgrown the antics of Ford and Zaphod. He’s the reasonable adult in this book, and not all that much fun anymore. As I read, I was disappointed that Colfer didn’t seem to have captured Arthur’s character very well, but perhaps I was wrong – Arthur didn’t belong in this story, and he wanted nothing more than to not be in it anymore. And it showed.

Another telling moment comes near the end of the book. The narrative takes a moment to remind us that, “There is no such thing as a happy ending.” And a few lines later, it quotes a certain pole-sitting philosopher who says, “There is no such thing as an ending, or a beginning, for that matter, everything is middle.” That certainly is true of life, and you can imagine it being true of the lives of fictional characters. Louis and Rick will walk off the tarmac in Casablanca and go on to do other things, perhaps help the resistance fight the Nazis. The lives of Luke and Han and Leia have been extended far beyond their original showing on film, thanks to the Extended Universe of Star Wars. Scout Finch and her brother Jem will grow up and have children of their own; the rabbits at Watership Down will live and breed and die; Guy Montag will help rebuild the intellectual society that he was originally trying to destroy…

We know that these worlds have lives beyond the last page, no matter how thoroughly they’re destroyed at the end. There’s always going to be some thread hanging loose that can be picked up and used to continue the story beyond where it left off.

But that doesn’t mean that we should.

I applaud Colfer for taking on the project, knowing that it is better for the series to be continued by someone who knew it and loved it and who was influenced by it, rather than by someone who couldn’t show it all the love it deserves. As I said, I laughed while I read this book, a lot more than I expected to. But as the title implies, this feels like an attempt to continue a story that has been finished for a long time. Rather than breathe new life into the Hitchhiker’s franchise, it simply reminds us all the more sharply of what we once had and will never have again.

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“I do not hate myself. In many ways, I am not altogether too bad.”
– Constant Mown (Vogon)

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Filed under adventure, aliens, Douglas Adams, Eoin Colfer, gods, humor, robots, science fiction, UFOs, war

Review 175: The Last Continent

The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

Quick – what do you know about Australia?

I reckon if you live in Australia, you probably know quite a lot. If you’ve known someone from Australia or perhaps have visited there, you might know a few things. If your experience is limited to a few “Crocodile Dundee” movies and the Crocodile Hunter, then you could probably stand to know a little more. No matter what your level of Australiana is, though, you probably know at least enough to get a lot of enjoyment out of this book, Terry Pratchett’s homage to the strangest continent on Earth.

Now keep in mind, Pratchett does state quite clearly that this is not a book about Australia. “It’s about somewhere entirely different which happens to be, here and there, a bit… Australian.” So that’s okay then.

This adorable little thing? IT WILL END YOU.

Really, this is Pratchett’s homage to Australia, a country that he clearly likes a lot. In reality, Australia is a pretty strange place. It’s a giant island, most of which is barren desert. It’s been disconnected from the other continents for so long that evolution has given us species unlike any others on Earth. Pretty much anything that you come across, from the lowliest spider to the cutest jellyfish to the weirdest platypus, is deadly. The country is a tribute to Nature, both in its beauty and its danger, and really deserves more attention than it gets.

In one memorable scene, Death asks his Library for a complete list of dangerous animals on the continent known as XXXX, aka Fourecks. He is immediately buried under books, including Dangerous Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians, Birds, Fish, Jellyfish, Insects, Spiders, Crustaceans, Grasses, Trees, Mosses and Lichens of Terror Incognita, volume 29c, part three. A slight exaggeration? Perhaps. He then asks for a complete list of species that are not deadly, and gets a small leaflet on which is written, “Some of the sheep.”

This book isn’t about Death, though, as much fun as that may be. This is about the worst wizard on the Disc. The classic inadvertent hero, who had seen so much of the world but only as a blur while he ran from danger. The hero who truly just wants to be left alone, perhaps with a potato – Rincewind.

What you most need to know about Rincewind is that he absolutely does not want to be a hero. He craves a boring life, one in which the most he has to worry about is whether to have his potatoes baked, mashed, or deep fried. He does not want to be chased by mad highwaymen, put in prison for sheep theft, or required to completely change the climate of an entire continent. He doesn’t want to time travel, be guided by strange, otherworldly kangaroos or fall in with a troupe of suspiciously masculine female performers. He just wants peace and quiet.

This? This is an Australian rain forest.

The universe, of course, has other ideas. And so it is up to Rincewind to once again save the day. The continent of Fourecks has never seen rain – in fact, they think the very idea of water that falls from the sky is ludicrous. But there are legends of what they call The Wet – the day when water will be found on the surface of the ground, rather than hundreds of feet below it. And while they don’t know how it will happen exactly, they do know it will happen. Lucky for Rincewind, the universe has chosen him to make sure that it does.

I really can’t list all of the Australia references because there are just too many. From drop bears to Vegemite, Mad Max to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, they’re pretty much all there.

This book is, like so many other Discworld, books, a lot of fun to read. One of the more interesting sections in the book is one that’s not strictly necessary. Exploring a strange window in the University which, for some reason, leads to a beach, the Wizards of the Unseen University find themselves marooned thousands of miles away and thousands of years back in time. On this weird little island, they meet one of the most unusual gods on the Disc – the god of evolution.

And sometimes even gods get bored.

This god isn’t interested in the normal godly things – lolling about and being worshiped, occasionally smiting a few followers here and there. As Pratchett puts it, “It is a general test of the omnipotence of a god that they can see the fall of a tiny bird. But only one god makes notes, and a few adjustments, so that next time it can fall further and faster.” This god of evolution is devoted to making life forms better, often one at a time, and lives on a strange little island where there’s only one of everything, but everything yearns to be useful. With him, the wizards are able to explore evolution and natural selection and figure out why sex is just so darn useful.

I say that this section isn’t strictly necessary because it just isn’t. It’s certainly interesting, and I suppose the god’s island is a nice echo of the real Australia, where evolution has had a long time to tinker and come up with some really weird stuff, but in terms of the story, it’s not all that important a plot point. In fact, the wizards in general don’t contribute much to the story other than to make it longer and funnier. Their exploration of evolution and Rincewind’s unwilling quest to bring rain to the barren land of Fourecks are almost wholly unrelated to each other, up until the very end.

I can’t see how a group like this would ever cause trouble.

This isn’t to say that they’re unwelcome – I love watching the wizards explore the world. The combination of personalities whenever all the wizards get together is one that offers endless hours of reading fun, and I think that without them, the book would have been less enjoyable. They’re just not essential to the plot, is all, and if that kind of thing is important to you, then you might not enjoy this book so much.

Me, I love science and I love Discworld. While the actual Science of Discworld series was kind of dry and boring in the end, I love it when Pratchett explores real-world science through the eyes of his Discworld characters. By looking at science from another perspective, he is able to make it perhaps a little more understandable to people who otherwise might write science off as “too hard.”

This book is a trip through time and space and Australia. It’s a long, strange trip, to be sure, but an entertaining one.

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“It’s not many times in your life you get the chance to die of hunger on some bleak continent some thousands of years before you’re born. We should make the most of it.”
– The Dean
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Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
The Last Continent on Wikipedia
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Review 127: The God Engines

The God Engines by John Scalzi

There is not, to my knowledge, a whole lot of theological science fiction. Madeleine L’Engle’s books may qualify, but to be honest, it’s been years since I read them so I don’t know. The Golden Compass books, too, but they struck me more as fantasy, seeing as how there were no spaceships. My only successful foray into National Novel Writing Month produced some theological sci-fi, but it was questionable at best and is still fermenting on my hard drive somewhere.

In any case, that is what John Scalzi has given us, and if you’re a regular reader of his blog and his other books then you may find this one to be a little… off. You see, like many accomplished writers, Scalzi has a Voice, a way of writing that is immediately identifiable as his own, and which a lot of his fans have gotten used to. There’s no single thing I can point to that really illustrates what this is, but trust me – it’s there. A certain whip-quick sarcasm, a way of looking at old questions from a new angle and the ability to cut through the requisite fuzzy thinking that seems so endemic to the human race.

Not quite like this... but kind of.

In this book, he tries on a new voice, something that sounds kind of like his, but at the same time like he’s trying on something new. It’s as if Jonathan Coulton started doing Manowar cover songs. It’s not bad, it’s just something that takes a little getting used to.

Captain Ean Tephe is the commander of a great starship, the Righteous, one of the many ships in the fleet controlled by the Bishopry Militant. He and the other captains in the fleet are charged with carrying out missions for the Bishopry in the name of their God, a being of immense power who uses the faith of millions to rule them. Their Lord is a powerful and active god, one who brooks no dissent from His followers and who will suffer no challengers to His dominion. Long ago, the Lord battled countless other, smaller gods, and won, chaining them to his will and turning them into the engines of the great starships that carry His people out into the universe.

Some gods are less tractable than others. (art by Evolvana on DeviantArt)

The god that powers the Righteous, however, is not cooperating. Some ships’ gods are quiet and obedient, others chatty, some cowed into good behavior by fear. The god on this ship is defiant, despite the prayers of priests and acolytes, and the horrible whip that the captain wields to compel obedience. This god soon reveals itself to be part of a greater plan, one which enfolds both Tephe and his crew and reveals a truth about their God that is enough to drive men mad. It is a test of faith for the men aboard the Righteous, and if they should fail, their lives will end in short order.

It’s a very cool concept, really, one which I haven’t seen done before. Scalzi has powered a civilization by faith, quite literally, in a God that not only exists, but it quite active in the lives of His worshipers. His high priests exert complete control over a population that rightfully fears for their souls, and manage to channel the God’s power into various science-like applications. Through the use of amulets called Talents, the God facilitates communication over great distances, compels obedience, and opens gateways. He has a civilian population whose faith nourishes Him, and a military arm that travels the galaxy spreading His word and destroying His enemies. And it all makes sense.

As cool as the idea is, though, the book itself felt like a rough sketch rather than a fleshed-out novel. It’s quite short, as novels go, and we are introduced to a lot of concepts and characters in a fairly brief amount of time. The Bishopry Militant, for example, sounds like a great place to see intrigue and double-dealing, lies upon lies that somehow manage to get things done, and we do see a bit of that when Captain Tephe gets a secret mission to a new world. Scalzi showed us in The Last Colony that he can handle this kind of multi-layered politicking, and I think it would be even better in a place like this. Add to that the Rookery, a kind of church-sanctioned brothel/therapy center aboard the ships, where the women who work there have nearly as much power and influence as the Bishopry itself. What would happen if these two institutions came into conflict, and what weapons would they wield?

This god has some opinions he'd like to share.

The chained gods, too, are a wonderful chance to explore a lot of ethical questions. They are undoubtedly sentient beings of great power, enslaved by a God that is stronger than they. Is this kind of slavery justified? Would it be possible for a ship to work with its god-engine, rather than compelling it with whips and prayers. What do these gods know, and how reliable are they? The god powering the Righteous seems to know a lot about how this universe works, including some terrifying tales about the God that Tephe follows, but how much of what it says can be trusted?

And what are the powers and limitations of a faith-powered science? Much in the way that engineers and scientists in our world manipulate a few basic laws of nature to achieve amazing things, what could be done in a world where prayers have power and where a high priest’s whim can decide the outcome of an entire mission? How do you creatively solve problems in a reality like this one, where they deal in belief and faith, rather than wavelengths and mass?

So yeah, there was a lot that I wanted from this book once I figured out what Scalzi was doing with it. After a great opening line (and a third line that just left me confused), the learning curve was a little steep. Once you figure it out, though, the possibilities seem endless. Unfortunately, the book itself ends rather sooner than it should.

The less said about this album, the better.

It’s not my favorite book by Scalzi, not by a long run, but since he’s said he’s going to lay off the Old Man’s War universe for a while, I should be thankful that he is willing to experiment and try new things. As many music lovers know, it’s sometimes very hard to accept that an artist you love wants to try to do things that are new and different, rather than keep doing the things that made you love them in the first place. I remember when U2 put out Achtung Baby and my friends who fell in love with The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum were almost personally offended. Zooropa, of course, was not to be mentioned aloud in their presence.

That kind of experimentation and risk-taking, however, is ultimately what helps an artist grow. You may not like what comes of such experimentation, but that’s tough – it’s not about you.

I don’t know if Scalzi will return to this universe or not, but I hope he does. If he does, I hope he lingers longer than he did in The God Engines, and brings forth another wonderful and complex universe.

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“Faith is not for what comes after this life. Faith is for this life alone.”
– A God, The God Engines
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John Scalzi on Wikipedia
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The God Engines on Amazon.com
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Filed under gods, good and evil, John Scalzi, morality, religion, science fiction, sins, space travel, theocracy, theology, totalitarianism, war

Review 122: Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

When I started in on this book, I knew there were certain things I could expect from Neil Gaiman – insight, clever twists on literary assumptions, a good perspective on the nature of our reality. And, I must say, he delivered in full. This story draws from some of the most ancient of human tales and reflects on the most ancient of human needs – the need to have a story of one’s own. It’s a book about purpose and destiny, and other very deep subjects.

Yes - this man is hilarious.

What I didn’t expect was to spend most of the book laughing out loud and disturbing the people around me.

Seriously, there were some times when the other teachers in the staff room would stop whatever conversation they were having because they’d been interrupted by my cackling. Or the staff would come over and ask what was so funny, and I’d try to explain – which doesn’t really work when you’re trying to cross languages and literary traditions. People in Japan don’t really laugh out loud at their books, and can’t quite understand why I do. But I laugh. I snicker, I giggle, I cackle, and I never expected that from Neil Gaiman.

The book was, needless to say, wonderful. While by no means a sequel to Gaiman’s previous bestseller American Gods, it inhabits the same universe. This is a world where the gods exist – they’ve been called into existence by us and, in turn, shape our lives.

The book follows the unfortunately nicknamed Fat Charlie, whose life has been ruined by his father’s death across the Atlantic. This wasn’t the first time his father had ruined his life – it had happened many times before in many terrible ways. For Fat Charlie, however, dying in the middle of a karaoke hall just seems to be a final slap in Fat Charlie’s face.

Fat Charlie isn’t his real name, of course – his real name is Charlie Nancy, which isn’t much better. Fat Charlie is only a nickname given to him by his father. He tried to shake it in his life, asking people to call him Charlie or Charles or Chaz, and he wasn’t even fat – just a little soft around the edges. But his father gave names that stuck like gum to the underside of a school desk, and no matter where he went, Charlie Nancy inevitably became Fat Charlie.

You would think this would raise eyebrows in the delivery room....

The reason for this phenomenon, of course, is that Fat Charlie’s father is a god. He is Anansi, the Spider, a trickster god who managed to steal all the stories from Tiger back when humanity was young, and who managed to trick, deceive, swindle and humiliate nearly every other god and spirit there ever was. He was good at it, and there was nothing he wanted that he couldn’t get.

Fat Charlie was, in very many ways, a disappointment. Where his father was debonair, Fat Charlie was a klutz. Where his father could command the respect of men and women, Fat Charlie was a doormat. Where his father was the embodiment of confidence, Fat Charlie was a crumbly mess. I suppose it’s normal, really, being the child of a god, and not really his fault, even if he didn’t know it until his father was dead.

He didn’t know about his brother, either. His brother is Spider, a young man who is so cool that he can convince an entire L.A. party that they can walk on water. He can do real magic, step in and out of the world with ease, and carries his own bedroom with him. When Spider comes into the picture, everything goes horribly, horribly wrong. Think The Odd Couple, except that Oscar Madison has divine powers and absolutely no sense of consequence.

The story is a lot more than two brothers who don’t know how to get along. It’s a story – about stories. In the stories of Anansi and Tiger that are laced throughout the book, we learn that once, long ago, all stories were Tiger’s stories, and they were stories of fear and blood and hunger. When Anansi took them, the stories became about cleverness and trickery and resourcefulness. So in a way, the victory of Anansi over Tiger is the story of humankind’s emergence from barbarism.

Speaking of someone whose story has been re-written over and over. Anansi would like Spidey, though....

It’s about personal stories as well, and that’s a theme that’s far more important to us as individuals. We are the stories we tell about ourselves. Fat Charlie didn’t need to be the tightly-wrapped ball of embarrassment that he was. But that’s who he told himself he was, and, so, that’s who he became. Once he starts to accept his heritage and his responsibility to his family, once he starts to re-tell his own story, he changes himself. The same is true for Spider – he’s written his own story as a rake and a charmer, but he finds that that story is lacking. It’s a story that needs some editing, and he’s better off for it.

This is a funny, funny book that reminds me in places of Dave Barry, though that might be a side effect of the Florida settings. There’s also a few footnote jokes, so I suspect that Neil has been hanging out with Terry Pratchett recently. Despite the laugh-out-loud general tone of the book, there’s a lot of Meaning to be found as well – the meaning of story and song, of family, and why you should always be nice to spiders. And birds. Definitely be nice to birds.

The ultimate message of the book, though, is that you can always re-write your story. The weak little spider can become a conquering hero, and the fearsome tiger can be a timid coward. No story is set forever. So if you don’t like the way your story is turning out, get out your red pen and start editing. Anansi would approve.

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“People respond to the stories. They tell them themselves. The stories spread, and as people tell them, the stories change the tellers.”
Anansi, Anansi Boys

Neil Gaiman on Wikipedia
Anansi Boys on Wikipedia
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Filed under brothers, childhood, coming of age, death, family, fantasy, fathers, gods, humor, identity, Neil Gaiman, quest, sons, spiders, story

Review 104: The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Remember – go and take the listener survey! The gods command you!)

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

This is the second of the Dirk Gently books – and the final one – and is no easier to explain than the first. But I’ll try.

Ah, just like college.... (photo by Gene Han)

In this story, Dirk is contracted to meet a client one morning at 6 AM, and play bodyguard. The time is vital. The client has made it a point that Dirk absolutely, positively has to be there by six, and he’s willing to pay handsomely for it. So when Dirk wakes up at 11 AM, he suspects that he’s screwed up royally.

His suspicions are confirmed when he arrives at the home of his client, who is sitting quite comfortably in an armchair while his head is rotating slowly on a nearby turntable. The only clues to his grisly demise are his ravings about a green, scythe-wielding monster and a mysterious packet of papers, written in a language that Dirk cannot begin to understand. But he does know their shape – they’re a bill. But for what services, and rendered by whom? So now Dirk has to figure out who, or what, did this to his client and why.

But there’s more to this story (isn’t there always?) An American woman, Kate Schechter, is one of the survivors of the explosion of an airline ticket counter, something that everyone who knows about explosions is calling an “act of god.” But which god would do such a thing, and why? Lucky for her, Kate is about to find out, and she’s also about to find out why gods aren’t quite all they’re cracked up to be.

This, of course, does not happen in the book. I needed a picture of Thor that wasn't the super-hero.... (art by Boris Vallejo)

There aren’t a lot of greater themes in this book – it’s an adventure, of sorts, but as far as overarching messages go, it’s pretty thin other than watch out for eagles and be nice to homeless people. It’s entertainment as only Douglas Adams can deliver it. There is some thought given to gods, however, which is a topic I always enjoy. In Small Gods, Terry Pratchett asks where gods come from, and what sustains them. In American Gods, Neil Gaiman asked the question of what happened to gods who were brought to America by their believers. Adams asks what happens to gods once we don’t actually need them anymore.

We made them, after all, and most of the time we made them immortal. We needed gods to be bigger than we, stronger than we, and generally everything we weren’t. And then we went around infusing them with humanity – with jealousy, courage, rage and fear. When we were done with them, we let them go. But that didn’t mean they went away. An immortal is an immortal, and without work to do or followers to deal with, what is a god to do? In the case of Odin, the father of gods and the ruler of the Norse pantheon, the solution is very simple. What’s more, it keeps him pampered and cared for, which is all he ever really wanted.

While I love Hitchhiker’s Guide first and foremost among Adams’ works, I really wish he could have lived to write more Dirk Gently books. The character is a person of reprehensible ethics and somewhat tarnished morals, but you can’t help but love him. Lurking refrigerators, coffee-thievery and all, you find yourself wishing that you could hang out with Dirk, while at the same time knowing that he’d probably invite you out for lunch and somehow make you pay for the meal. He’s a bad person, but an excellent detective – and a great character.

So pick this one up and give it a read. It’s fast, it’s fun – you won’t regret it.

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“Nobleness was one word for making a fuss about the trivial inevitabilities of life, but there were others.”
Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul on Wikipedia
Douglas Adams on Wikipedia
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Review 66: Life of Pi


Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Every time I go back to the US to visit friends and family, I always make a visit to a bookstore or two. I can buy books here in Japan, but the prices are high and the selection isn’t nearly as good, so a trip to our local mega-bookstore is like a visit to Mecca for me.

The last time I was home, my father let me wander for a while, and then he came up and handed me this book. He was picking up copies for a few other people as well, but he gave me this and said, “I think you’d really like it.”

He was right.

It’s one of those books that you feel compelled to share with others once you’ve finished. It’s one of those books where people see you reading it and say, “I read that – it’s really good, isn’t it?” It’s one of those books which, the author promises, will make you believe in God. A pretty tall order, but there you go. And in a roundabout way, it makes good on its promise. But we’ll get to that….

It’s a story of layers, as the best stories often are. On one layer, it’s the tale of young Piscine Molitor Patel, an Indian boy with an insatiable curiosity about everything. The son of a zookeeper, Piscine – who re-christens himself Pi in order to clear up misunderstandings of his given name – develops a great interest in the world around him, especially religion. His part of India is home to people of all faiths, and he finds himself moving between Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, despite the protests of holy men of all three faiths.

He grows up in this world, between animals and gods, until his family decides to escape India’s political turmoil by moving to Canada. They sell what animals they can, keep the ones they must, board everything onto a freighter and head off for a trip around the world, destined for a new life.

Until the ship sinks.

Pi finds himself the only human survivor of the ship’s sinking, alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Alone except for the zebra. And the hyena. And the orangutan. And, of course, the tiger. Can’t forget the tiger.

Pi’s mini-zoo diminishes quickly, of course. There’s only so long such a diverse group of creatures can abide each other’s company in such terrible circumstances, so in time it comes down to two: Pi and the tiger, who had the unusual name of Richard Parker. You would think that there would be no winner in this contest – a diminished teenage boy against a full-grown tiger, with limited resources and a very stressful environment. But Pi is the son of a zookeeper, one whose job is to know how to control animals that don’t want to be controlled. Pi’s ability to survive in these circumstances would, by itself, be a fascinating story.

But the story is not just about Pi and the tiger. Not really. It’s also about our relationship with the world, with the universe, with God. It’s about who we are when everything we ever loved is stripped away from us. And it’s about how we can survive in even the most extraordinary circumstances. Pi does survive, and his survival makes sense, within the world of the story. Would he be able to do it out here in Real Life (TM)? I have no idea. But as you read, there is no point where you think, “The author is cheating,” and allowing his main character to survive when he really shouldn’t have.

The overriding theme of the book, however, is stories. The book itself is set up as a memoir, told by Patel to the author. It’s the story of a story, and it is a story which the author says will make you believe in God. And in a way, it does. But not in the way you think.

It’s kind of a modified version of Pascal’s Wager – the idea that it is better to believe in God than not to believe. Pascal’s idea is simple. If you disbelieve in God, and you’re right, then you’ll just wink out of existence when you die. No harm, no foul. But if you disbelieve and you’re wrong, then you end up suffering eternal damnation. Whereas if you believe in God and you’re wrong, again, no harm, no foul.

There are criticisms, and fair ones, of this philosophy, but I think this book offers a more reasonable alternative. You should believe in God because believing in God is the better story. Martel suggests (through Pi) that there is no mystery in facts and reason, no magic and no wonder. That the unrepentant atheist whose last thoughts are, “I believe I am losing brain function” lacks the imagination of the unrepentant atheist who has a deathbed conversion. In other words, by sticking only to what can be known and proven, one misses the better story.

I don’t necessarily agree with this. I think it’s an interesting point of view, and as long as one can remain aware that belief is not truth, I think I can let it go, but I don’t believe that the world of fact and reason is without brilliant stories. Look at the story of life on earth – a three and a half billion year epic of survival, death and rebirth. Look at the story of a lowly paperclip – born in the heart of an exploding star, and representing five thousand years of human progress towards extelligence. There are great stories, astounding stories out there in the world that don’t need to be believed because they are true. There is evidence for them, and their veracity can be proven.

But Martel’s isn’t about what is provably true.

Pi offers a choice: given two possible explanations for something, with no evidence to support either one, which explanation would you choose? The answer is, whichever explanation makes for the better story. Pi’s adventure is an example of that. As readers, we choose to believe Pi’s story, because it’s fascinating. We don’t sit there and think, “This is bull. A teenage boy taming a tiger? Puh-leeze.” We believe the story, while at the same time knowing that it is not, technically, “true.”

So it is with God. We believe in God, regardless of whether God is “true,” because it’s a more interesting story. And Pi’s adherence to three mutually exclusive religions suggests that the God of Pi isn’t to be found in a book or a church, in the words of a priest or a holy man. The God of Pi is everywhere, and doesn’t care if we believe or not. But we should believe, Pi suggests. Because that’s the better story.

The best books leave us thinking, and burrow into our brains to give us something to chew on for a while. So it is with this book. My rational part and my romantic part argue over the meaning of this story, and whether or not Pi’s conclusion is valid. Sometimes I agree, and sometimes I don’t. That’s just how it is. But one thing I can say with certainty is that this is a very good book. And you should read it.

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“To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
-Pi Patel, Life of Pi
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Yann Martel on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Amazon.com

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Filed under death, fiction, gods, memoir, story, survival, Yann Martel

Review 23: American Gods


American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I remember waiting a long time for this book. Neil documented the process of writing it on his blog, so every few days I would get a little glimpse at what he was doing – and it drove me nuts. Living in Japan, I can never be sure when my favorite entertainment will make it over here. Movies and books can take months to get from the US to Japan, and while I’m waiting not-so-patiently, all my friends at home have just devoured it and are in the process of raving about how awesome it is. Oh, sure, the hyper-sellers like Harry Potter might have a worldwide release, but Neil wasn’t exactly a mainstream superstar when this was written.

So yes, one of my main memories associated with this book is frustration. Fortunately, when I picked up the book during a trip home back in 2001, my frustration was erased and replaced with profound satisfaction.

American Gods was one of Gaiman’s first full-length novels, though I may be wrong about that. It was not, of course, his debut – he had made his name a household word in fantasy-reading households by penning the epic comic book series Sandman, in which he proved that he was able to marry huge metaphysical themes to personal narrative. He could make the dissolution of worlds pale beside a broken heart and make you believe that even the simplest of life had vast meaning.

In other words, this man has some serious writing chops.

As the title implies, in this book Gaiman takes on the gods, and asks a very interesting – and important – question: what happened to the gods that came to America? I’m talking about the Old Gods, the gods that had been living in the hearts and minds of people for thousands of years. Leprechauns and dryads, three-in-one forces of fate and representations of the seasons. Easter and Odin, Bast and Anubis, gods of once-great nations and unknown villages. As their people came to America over the millennia, they brought their gods with them.

But as the people stayed in America, they changed. They grew. And the gods discovered that America is not a good place for them.

Now the old gods are small and unworshipped, save by a few tiny, dwindling pockets of their old culture. What’s more, new gods are rising, gods of media and internet, highway and television and government. And, as has been said in countless westerns and cowboy movies, there isn’t room for all of them. There will be a reckoning, and a man named Shadow is in the middle of it.

Shadow is a convict, nearly at the end of his time in prison. He wants nothing more than to get out of prison and rejoin his wife. He gets one of those wishes when he is released early. Unfortunately, he is released early to attend his wife’s funeral.

Without friends or family, Shadow is aimless and alone. It is in this condition that he meets the enigmatic Wednesday, a man who seems to know Shadow and his situation, far better than any stranger should. He offers Shadow a job – to assist Wednesday when he needs it, protect him if he has to, and sit a vigil for him if he dies. With nothing to lose, Shadow accepts the deal. In so doing, he finds himself facing a war of gods that he never knew existed.

It’s a great story, on many levels. In one sense, it’s a love letter to America. Shadow’s journey takes him through small towns that have yet to be subsumed into the ever-devouring maw of the modern American monoculture – from roadside attractions to tiny motels to strange lakeside communities, the unacknowledged weirdness of America is put on display here for all to see. As is its history, in the form of flashbacks to the journeys that people made from their homelands to this land, voluntary or not. The book reminds us that there is a complexity to not only American history, but also to American culture, which gets lost in the ubiquity of McDonald’s and Starbucks.

The metaphysical angle of this book is also something to give you pause. It asks the questions about what gods are, how they’re born and how they die. Most importantly – how they flourish or wither, and why. It is said over and over again that America is a bad place for gods, although it’s not clearly explained why. Perhaps something to do with its geography – a vast, variable landscape that’s too big for small tribal gods to get a hold of. Perhaps it’s the people, brought from all over the world, who can’t help but wonder what other cultures can offer them. Perhaps it’s just the nature of its people – always moving, independently-minded. The old gods, who were gods of small nations and regions, simply didn’t have the power or flexibility to stay on.

Which really makes us wonder, how did capital-g God manage to get a foothold? As one of the characters notes, Jesus has done really well over here. Perhaps because the God of Abraham can be all things to all people – a god of vengeance and justice, a god of mercy and love, a creator, a destroyer, a personal friend or a distant observer. There is something to be said for non-specialization, I suppose….

This book is a journey, and it’s a long and complicated one at that. But it’s enjoyable and personal. Gaiman writes with great empathy, so that the reader may even understand the gods themselves, as reduced and attenuated as they may have become. Though Shadow is not exactly the protagonist of the story – he spends most of the book doing what he is told to do, only taking initiative on his own towards the end, he is observant. Through his eyes, we learn more about America. Its triumphs, its flaws and its potential all become a little bit clearer, and upon finishing the book, those of us from that strange, turbulent land can perhaps appreciate it a bit more.

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“This is the only country in the world that worries about what it is.”
– Wednesday, American Gods
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Neil Gaiman on Wikipedia
Neil Gaiman’s homepage
American Gods on Wikipedia
American Gods on Amazon.com
Neil Gaiman on Twitter

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Filed under death, fantasy, gods, murder, Neil Gaiman, religion, The United States