Feb 2, 2008

Dark Materials

I wasn't initially going to blog about this, but after reading Sydney's Blog about it, I decided to throw in my two yen. I recently read His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, and I have a few opinions about it. I know I'm hugely late to the party with this one, but whatever.

I'm just going to say right now that I'm going to throw in lots of spoilers.

First, a bit of background. I grew up loving and hating the Chronicles of Narnia. I loved them because they were fun, well written fantasy stories that featured strange creatures, magic, talking animals, and exploration. My favorite was probably the Voyage of the Dawn Treader- as the ship went farther out, the nature and laws of reality seemed to change, and the scenery became more fantastic and strange.

However, I also hated the series, because I didn't like being preached to. The Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe isn't really all that bad- sure, there's the big Jesus allegory, and one could argue that it's rather sexist, what with the good guy being a symbol of patriarchy (a lion) and the villain being a symbol of powerful femininity (a witch). But, on the whole, it's tame compared to the rest of the series. Later on Lewis gets his racism on with depictions of the Calormenes, stand-ins for Arabs and Muslims that he uses as enemies of Aslan later on. Their god, Tash, is depicted as tantamount to Satan. In The Last Battle, several people start saying that Tash and Aslan are the same entity. These people are depicted as either deluded, or as false prophets.

This was a major sticking point for me. My devoutly Catholic father made it a point of pride that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same god. Allah, Yaweh, I-Am-Who-Am, the Father, etc.- same thing. The Western monotheisms, he said, were more alike than different, and we should respect each other because of that. Despite my disagreements with my father, I'm still proud of his enthusiasm for religious tolerance and pluralism. So, to see such pluralism explicitly mocked in The Last Battle made me cringe more than a little.

(Then there's the whole bit about Susan- once a woman gets old enough to fuck it's out of the story for her. But, I didn't understand that bit until adulthood.)

I still love the Chronicle of Narnia, in a way. I'll doubtless read them again, and I'd doubtless read them again, even though I also sort of hate them.

But, I'm not here to rant about Lewis- I'm here to rant about Pullman. I loved His Dark Materials, and I also hated it, for reasons very akin to why I love and hate the Chronicles of Narnia. The central vexation that I have with His Dark Materials is that I hate being preached to, but I love being agreed with. Particularly in The Amber Spyglass, Pullman does both.

The first two books are fairly un-preachy, and quite good as fantasy/adventure stories. Pullman leaves the best bits implied- it's damn obvious that Dust is sin, experience, sexuality, knowledge and everything else that Eve got out of that apple. The message- that loss of innocence is a sign of growth, not a tragedy, and after we're done with the first apple we should reach for another -is left nicely shaded. In the first two books, Pullman's ideas are oblique and cleverly presented, his thesis an argument for adulthood delivered through his child protagonist.

But, in The Amber Spyglass, he abandons implication and dusts off the soapbox. One of his characters- a likable old ex-nun turned physicist- is basically his mouthpiece. The kids sit at her knee, and she regales them with all of the reasons why religion is bad. I found the moralizing to be sort of painful to read in a work of fiction, but the problem that I had with it was that I agreed with pretty much everything Pullman's defrocked scientist had to say. "Shut up and get to the plot!" said one part of my brain, "Hell yeah!" said another.

Part of my annoyance is that all of this preaching served as a sort of surrogate climax to the series. There's tons of buildup to the final battle, and when it happens it's a disappointment. There's very little in the way of drama or intensity, and I yearned to see all of the war machines, angels, bears, soldiers, and fantastical creatures that Pullman had been describing kick the shit out of each other. I wanted a dramatic final showdown with God or at least his second in command, Metatron. But the death of God is over in a blink, and the defeat of Metatron seemed bloodless and predictable, even though it did entail the noble self-sacrifice of two characters.

(Incidentally, where was Satan in all of that mess? How can you write a book about killing God that prominently features rebel angels, and not once mention the Morningstar? Maybe Pullman was a bit too squeamish to bring Anton Le Vay's buddy into it.)

Anyway, the book goes on for some time after the battle, wherein the physicist preaches on for several pages, and then two eleven year olds somehow save the world by shagging and proclaiming their love for each other. For a series that's all about how great maturity and experience are, I found Lyra and Will's expressions of affection to be somewhat naive. They did have the presence of mind to realize that they cannot, after all, be together, but nevertheless I found their "I love you"s to bee rather grating. Maybe I was just in a cynical mood at the time.

Also, eleven is a bit young, don't you think? Sixteen at the least.

I realized why I was reading The Amber Spyglass, that if I were not a nonbeliever, I would have hated it. If I were a Christian, I would have thrown it against the wall while spewing blood from my eyelids. And that's a problem that I sort of have with it- Pullman isn't going to make any converts with his work. It might jazz up the (un)faithful, but it's not going to be persuasive to the religious. That's an edge that C. S. Lewis has on him- Lewis at least wraps his Christianity in something palatable to those who disagree.

Pullman's sort of like Christopher Hitchens, actually. I find Hitchens immensely fun to read (mostly because he's batshit insane) but I don't pretend that he's going to persuade anyone who doesn't already agree with him.

But in the end, I loved His Dark Materials far more than I hated it. I'm mostly ragging on it here, but there were lots of things that kicked royal ass about the series: Armored bears, trans-dimensional travel, gyrocopters, flying machines that run on pure will, the daemons, specters, and cowboy aeronauts with bunny sidekicks. All that stuff was awesome. And, the sheer fact that someone's written a children's fantasy series championing rejection of religion makes me happy.

Perhaps someone else will improve upon Pullman's effort. Maybe, inspired by His Dark Materials, someone other writers will more properly weave secular values into their stories. Here's hoping, at some future point, for a proper nonbeliever's riposte to Narnia.


Sydney said...

I have many comments. I'll try to summarize.

1) I never made it past the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But do remember when they were showing the series on OPB? I think that's why. The books didn't have an introduction with Jim Henson. Also, my parents were not really into those books, so I was probably also encouraged to turn my attentions elsewhere.

2) Go Tom, with the religious tolerance!

3) I think that with a good editor, the final battle scene could have been more interesting and more tense. Actually, what it made me think of was Dante's Inferno. How he and Virgil are walking around a barren landscape, always pressing on, further and further into hell, and there is like a smörgåsbord of weird crap going on all around them. (haha - my spell check wouldn't recognize "smorgasbord" without the accents.) So there's a weird calm, disjointedness to the narrative as they shift their focus from one area to another.

4) Metatron is a dumb name.

5) Why couldn't he ever decide if Lyra's parents were good or bad? There were characters who were both, or who had situational ethics, but Asriel and Mrs. Coulter were like people with multiple personalities disorder: they were either good or bad in a given moment, but not particularly complex.

6) I thought Pullman's contention was that because religion is bullshit, you don't need a satan/god dichotomy because any angel with that kind of power, who interferes in the lives of men, is essentially both.

7) Yes, 11 is ridiculous. I think that Lyra was actually 12 and Will 13, but that's based on one passing comment by Mrs. Coulter (that Lyra must be passed her 12th birthday already), and that when Will is introduced, I think it's said that he's a year older. But if you have to do the math, it wasn't an important distinction.

8) Pullman has a lot of fun ideas, but in the end many of them were so poorly executed! What I wish he'd done instead is take a break after The Subtle Knife and write a series of shorter books. They wouldn't have to have been part of the main storyline, but like expanded adventures. Then he could have done justice to a lot of his cooler ideas. I mean, there's a whole spin-off to be written about whoever ends up piloting the intention machine. Then he could have ended with the final battle and what came after in a much more cohesive book.

9) What did you think of Father Gizmo (or whatever his name was) and his completely go-nowhere story line? I thought it was so weird that as he's walking around the world where the Fallen Physicist ends up and he sees the creatures using the seedpods as wheels, the first thing he thinks about them is, "Yes, I'll have to break them of that nasty habit." It begs so many questions, and I don't really care about any of them because he was not a very well constructed character.

10) The science seemed all off to me. If Dust is dark matter, then how could it be flowing out of a world without the world imploding? I admit, I don't really get dark matter, but if it's filling all the spaces between the things we know, then shouldn't its removal draw those atoms closer together?

11) Also, why could they only visit worlds that were very similar to their own? Except the Fallen Physicist's world, they're all the same but with different technology. You're telling me that there is no possible world where Latin beat out all the Germanic tongues and people in Britain speak Britannian?

12) Diamond-shaped skeletons is a dumb idea.

13) Where are their internal organs? They're mammals (or so it seems), but Pullman implies that they don't have rib cages (and out and out says they don't have spines, but a "seat" of bone), so how exactly does that work?

14) Why was there never any discussion of the implications of Will and Lyra freeing God from his glass box and thereby killing him (but he's happy about it)? Was pre-pubescent sex really more important than actually killing God, the ostensible goal of the whole stupid war??

Those are my comments, off the top of my head.

Joseph said...

Minor point. Metatron /is/ a dumb name, but Pullman didn't make it up. It's a "real", mythological angel. But you probably knew that already. Because you've watched Dogma and stuff.

Sydney said...

Actually I had totally forgotten that. :) But I stand by my previous statement. Indeed, by virtue of that fact, it may be an even stupider name than I suspected! Do you know, by chance, who came up with it? Actually, I can probably just wiki it. But take this time to guess.

Dah da dah dada dah da dah-
dah da dah da DA dadadadada...

What is "the Talmud", Alex? Also, I now know that only God can sit in Heaven. And Metatron.

If he doesn't appear in Christian texts, and I would probably have been a Christian if I hadn't been raised as nothing, do you think I can condemn myself more to hell by calling him Metatron the Moron? Or do you think atheists are subject to punishment for blasphemy under all religions for signing on with none?