A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Kiln People

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Over Thanksgiving I had the opportunity to read some of my old children’s books. I started with A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle. I recall liking the series when I was young, but the first volume didn’t stand up to a re-read. It wasn’t quite as well-written as I expected, but my real problems were with the plot - or rather, the Plot. The batty old lady who couldn’t tell the children anything definite reminds me too much of an angelic Cigarette Smoking Man.

Madeleine L’Engle is part of a very sci-fi subgenre typified by C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy - fiction that mixes science with the fantastic, but a very particular fantastic. I read the Earthsea trilogy after my disappointment with L’Engle - now there was a nicely put-together world, in which the odd laws of magic meshed with the medieval setting. Fantasy, the genre, is rarely fantastic the way Alice in Wonderland or Kubla Khan are. While it works for a child’s dream or an adult’s pipe dream, the fantastic does not mix well with science fiction themes.

I’d like to blog a bit about how Christian themes seem to shade into the fantastic, not just in the Space Trilogies but in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Last Battle and the works of Charles Williams and George MacDonald, but it’s getting late. If anyone can think of an example of non-Christian fantastic sci-fi for me to compare to the Christian entries, please leave a comment with the author and title and I’ll come back to it later.

David Brin is not the sort of person from whom one expects religious themes, and during the majority of the drawn-out plot of Kiln People he leaves the soul more or less alone as he pursues his mystery plot. The novel is a rather gripping mystery at the start, but it bogs down in the middle (and a thick middle it is). The plot resolution is perhaps a bit too baroque for a proper mystery, but the real difficulty lies in the soul-centered wrap-up. Brin is a devout materialist, a point he makes clear early and often, so when he’s left standing alone at the end of the novel with his Soul Standing Wave he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it.

Describing the truly alien is the problem of sci-fi. You can get away with a hands-off approach, such as Catherine Asaro used when she never accurately described the game of quis, if the alien subject matter is new.
When your new alien realm is one traditionally pertaining to religion, however, it’s going to take a whole lot of technobabble to turn the inherent mysticism of, say, the soul, into materialism. If you just stand aside, as an author, and let silence speak for you, that science speaks Buddhist or Christian visions of the soul. It does not convey your new materialist mysticism - perhaps because materialist mysticism is an oxymoron.

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