posted by Karen Burnham at Sunday 5 June 2011 @ 2:00 am GMT
This week we have for consideration another Nebula winner, a novelette, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone. This is a rare story from Analog making the awards rounds this year. We’ll start with a round-up of reviewer reactions.
Lois Tilton, Locus Online:
The narrator, Harry Malan, is the new President of the small Mormon congregation on Sol Central Station, which includes a number of the vast plasma solcetaceans, also known as swales. His ministry is not appreciated by the scientists who have come to the station to study the swales and regard it as interference with an alien race. Malan is aware that human moral strictures may not apply directly to a race of beings with, for example, three sexes, but he perseveres, upheld by his faith. Then, by accident, he manages to both interest and offend the largest and oldest of the swales, Leviathan, regarded by them as their creator, which she possibly is. Leviathan is not pleased that minor members of her race would prefer an alien god to herself.
My heart sank on reading the first two pages of this one, in which a virago scientist – a sexy one – harangues Malan on the sins of interference. But matters improved quickly, as the characters proved to be reasonable and well-rounded human beings, despite their conflicting viewpoints, who even managed to work together. And the sincere faith of Harry Malan managed to make me sympathize with his religious mission, which is a very hard sale indeed.
Jessica, On a Pale Star:
Have you ever read a story that you can objectively say “this is well written, has an approach I haven’t seen before, and I should like it,” and yet you don’t connect to it?
This is how I feel about this novelette. I ought to like it. It’s smart. Well-written. The protagonist is interesting. But I don’t connect. I suspect it’s because of the religious overtones; the main character, Harry, is the leader of a non-Earth based branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. One of my personal foibles is that I tend to get tetchy any time I feel like I’m being preached at, and Harry’s faith approaches that line, at least for me. It doesn’t help that I flat-out disagree with Harry’s approach, though to a point I can understand it. I sympathize much more with the other human we see in the story, a scientist named Jaunita.
Having said that, though, I can appreciate Stone’s writing, and his treatment of how an Earth-based faith could intersect with other, non-terrestrial beings (especially when at least one of those beings apparently predates all other life in the solar system). “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” is an interesting read. Eric James Stone has made it available online for free here. Whether or not you have my hang-ups regarding established religion and/or reading deeply religious characters, this Nebula-nominated work is well worth your time.
The single most up-my-alley story of the last year has been nominated for a Nebula Award: Eric James Stone’s “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made,” published in the September 2010 issue of Analog. [...]
Stone’s story is chock full of scriptural allusions to the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Book of Mormon– some stated plainly, others less so. Most intriguing for me is the Job-like confrontation at the story’s end between the finite Malan and the all-but-infinite Leviathan. The idea that limited, contingent, mortal beings can have some influence and importance in the infinite, eternal eyes of the deity is, arguably, the core of all human religion. Stone’s story presents this concept in the context of a speculative ethical puzzle, and is quite entertaining to boot. Its Nebula nomination is well earned.
Abigail Nussbaum, Asking the Wrong Questions:
Nebula winner Eric James Stone’s “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” is a story that seems of a piece with stories like Michael A. Burstein’s “Sanctuary” (Nebula nominee, best novella, 2006) and Mike Resnick’s “Article of Faith” (Hugo nominee, best short story, 2009). Like them, it’s a story told from the point of view of a religious officiant in the future (in Burstein and Stone’s stories, on a space station) who must decide what to do when an alien (or in Resnick’s case, a robot) becomes a member of their church, and how to reconcile alien culture, human incomprehension of that culture, and religious edicts. Another point of similarity between the three pieces is that they are all very, very bad, their indifferent prose and cardboard-thin characters outshone only by their dodgy politics. [...]
What’s wrong with “Leviathan” isn’t just that it’s badly written and that all its characters seem to have been created either to spout talking points (the titular Leviathan just happens to say something that echoes the book of Job) or act as straw men (the anthropologist who, against her better judgment, ends up helping the narrator, and along the way lobs softballs at him and acts like a stereotype of a disdainful atheist; interestingly, the one good point she makes–pointing out that the only reason the Mormon swales care that they’re being raped is that their new religion has taught them to view sex as a sin–is completely ignored by both the narrator and the story). Worse than these is the fact that it’s not a story so much as a thought experiment that posits a situation in which none of the negative associations of Christian missionary work are applicable–the swales are aliens so there’s no issue of racism or colonialism; they appear to have no culture or religion of their own for Christianity to destroy; they’re technologically powerful so the role of missionaries in enabling slavery and economic exploitation is negated; the swales’ leader is cruel and inconsiderate of her followers, some of whom want a change, so the missionaries aren’t barging into a situation where they’re not wanted–in order to lead to the conclusion that, under these conditions, it’s totally OK to impose Christian values on aliens. This is a little like the way that creators of war movies have been gravitating towards the alien invasion premise (Skyline, Battle: Los Angeles, the upcoming Falling Skies) as a way of getting around the fact that it’s no longer acceptable to use the Russians or the Chinese as faceless hordes of evil invaders, or the way that the creators of Avatar tell the utterly familiar story of a white man who not only saves the Native Americans but is better at being Native American than actual Native Americans, but insist that they’re not being racist because the story is set on another planet and among aliens. Except worse, because the creators of those works are trying to have a bit of fun without thinking too much about politics, whereas politics is really all that “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Has Made” is about. The premise of proselytizing to aliens raises a lot of questions, but Stone is more interested in giving definitive answers, ones that shut down all objections to missionary work, among humans and aliens alike.
So far it seems that reactions to the story align fairly closely with the readers’ sympathy to the underlying religious message. What did you think?