Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christopher Hitchens - God is Not Great

Let’s get this out of the way right at the beginning: the argument at the center of God is Not Great is not a subtle one or a moderate one, not something with which accords can be reached or with which peace can be made. Hitchens doesn’t set out to fire an opening salvo but to deliver a complete strike and a killing blow. In his own words, his goal is to prove that the usefulness of religion is in the past, and that its foundational books are transparent fables, and that it is a man-made imposition, and that it has been an enemy of science and inquiry, and that it has subsisted largely on lies and fears, and been the accomplice of ignorance and guilt as well as of slavery, genocide, racism, and tyranny. (p. 229)

Unsurprisingly, that grand lack of subtlety where the problems start setting in. Far, far too many of Hitchens’ arguments fall into the same trap. After fiery but rational openings, they leap farther, into wild and unsupportable overstatement, leaving their strengths and weight far behind. The first example of this the reader’s to experience is right on the cover. The volume’s title, God is Not Great, is a suitable one, exemplifying Hitchens’ desire to show the evils perpetuated by the divine. And then, those buying the book in America are treated to its ghastly subtitle: How Religion Poisons Everything, a claim so hyperbolic as to be near parody. (Those in the UK, I should point out, do get the far superior The Case Against God on the front of their book.)

Christopher Hitchens argues through specific tales and events rather than through abstractions. Many of these tales come from his personal experience, many sections and assertions open with In northern Uganda in late 2005, I sat in a center for the rehabilitation of kidnapped and enslaved children… (p. 188) or I once joined these potential adepts and acolytes (p. 195) and the like. Hitchens lived an incredibly worldly life, experiencing far more than most ever could or will. Despite that, these arguments backed by anecdote are all unable to, by themselves, carry the day.

This can be most clearly seen, I think, in the book’s second chapter, Religion Kills. The majority of its page count is devoted to an answer Hitchens gave to Dennis Prager, a religious broadcaster, when asked, if a large group of men approached him at night in a strange city, if he would feel safer were they “just coming from a prayer meeting.” (p. 18) In response, Hitchens discusses experiences that he had in – to stay within the letter ‘B’ (ibid) - Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad and why, in those situations, he felt “immediately threatened” by that “group of men […] coming from a religious observance.” (ibid) Each of those six experiences is interesting, well presented, and thought provoking.

All of that’s enough to justify Hitchens’ flippant answer – “No,” (p. 28) needless to say – to Prager’s question, and, considering the breath of Hitchens’ answer and knowledge and depending on how much the reader finds his or herself swayed by his arguments, might even be enough to somewhat justify his claiming that religion is “an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred, with members of each group talking of the other in precisely the tones of the bigot.” But to go from there to the chapter title that Religion Kills is simply silly and would require a broadening of the argument not even attempted in the chapter’s pages. It’s well proven here that religion can kill (or as he puts it at one point, faith and worship can make people behave very badly indeed. (p. 242)), but is there anyone who would even challenge such a truism?

Hitchens’ style of attack is excellent for laying to waste certain aspects of religion, for assailing sects and leaders, for showing the dangers and flaws of faith. But it proves ineffective for taking down the edifice of religion as a whole, and Hitchens even seems aware that it's ill suited to the task and unfair if used for it: I do not say that if I catch a Buddhist priest stealing all the offerings left by the simple folk at his temple, Buddhism is therefore discredited. (p. 185) But he makes that very error time and time again. The chapter There is no “Eastern” Solution, to give but one example, begins with a discrediting of a “celebrated guru” (p. 195) known as Bhagwan. Hitchens’ claim here is that these religions are centered on a distrust of and abandonment of the intellect, and he illustrates the dangers of this by showing how Bhagwan fleeces his followers and abuses them horribly. But this is no more a discrediting of all gurus than the presenting of one guru who does not steal and rape would be a validation of all of them.

This death-by-a-thousand-cuts kind of assault on religion is also one badly damaged by factual errors. When discussing religion’s insanities, Hitchens tells us that Orthodox Jews conduct congress by means of a hole in the sheet. (p. 54) That’s outright false and utterly unsubstantiated, and its presence amidst a list of other, equally appalling acts of the faithful, serves to make the reader question the whole thing. All the rest certainly sounds convincing, but, after all, if I didn’t happen to have Orthodox relatives, would I know the above falsity to be just that? Mind you, I don’t think that Hitchens has penned a volume of lies, not at all. Rather, I think that Hitchens, in his drive to stick every injustice he could find on faith, let a few inane rumors sneak right through  his critical faculties and research skills and land on page fifty-four of an otherwise fine work. Nonetheless, its presence there is a damning one that makes it just that much harder to trust every other line and example in the volume.

But let's zoom out and move away from the particulars for a moment. A problem, maybe even the problem, with this whole How Religion Poisons Everything subtitle and thesis – and a large part of the reason why such an overstated subtitle/thesis is so laughable – is the good that religion rather undeniably does in the world. This is where, in my opinion, Hitchens falls the hardest, looking out from his view of religion and, based on its so-hostile tenants, then trying to claim that just about every good thing religion’s ever done is nothing but the faithful inadvertently acting on essentially secular/humanistic principles. He acknowledges that “charity and relief work” might “appeal to tenderhearted believers,” but claims those things to be wholly consequences of “modernist and the Enlightenment.” (p. 192) But that’s absurd, seeing as charity was a fundamental part of the Christian church all the way back to Roman times.

Things get more egregious still when it comes to the poaching of individual believers and their accomplishments, particularly Martin Luther King, Jr: At no point did Dr. King […] even hint that those who injured and reviled him were to be threatened with any revenge or punishment, in this world or the next, save the consequences of their own brute selfishness and stupidity. All things that I, and I suspect most, would agree with, and perhaps, one might think, a reason for Hitchens to soften and acknowledge that some good can come from men of deep faith. Not at all, as it turns out. Instead, he, from this, concludes that King was, in no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, […] a Christian. (p. 176) It’s of course easy, Mr. Hitchens, to make the case that religion has had no good practitioners when you swoop in and claim that all goodly and godly men were not in fact godly.

So after all that criticism, I suspect my long time readers (if I’ve any left after all this and if I ever had any and if those I hypothetically do have ever thought I was particularly good at all this criticism stuff) are quite convinced I’m about to reach my conclusion, my dismissal of Hitchens’ overwrought, overstated, and too narrowly (and sometimes too unfairly) argued attack on religion. Not at all, as it turns out.

God is Not Great is a luxury car with the misfortune of having a maker convinced that it can fly and who, as a result, enters it into all sorts of competitions designed for helicopters and airplanes. This book is never going to sway a believer, prove the nonexistence of God, prove the malevolence of all believers, or disprove all the good things religion’s ever done. Truth be told, despite its own proclamations and subtitle, it’s not really designed for even attempting such a thing, and its few tries are rather weak, though admittedly quite impassioned. No, the roads this finely made automobile was meant to drive were more earthly ones, focused on the fallacies and flaws and weak humanity inherent in the practice of the religions and their leaders that it discusses.

Maybe the key part of all this is Hitchens’ prose. His might be the most fiery, caustic, dancing, biting and clawing writing that I’ve ever read, remorseless and witty, calculated to sting and cut, and fiercely intelligent. This is the kind of writing that will run roughshod over all boundaries, is near guaranteed (maybe even designed?) to cause offense, and is also prone to overshooting its mark on occasion, but the destructiveness is an integral part of its splendor: We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness. (p. 7) Countless times when reading I found myself laughing out loud, caught somewhere between the venom of the words and the ludicrousness of the actions described.

I’m tempted to go on like that for ages, but I’ll refrain. Similarly, I’ll avoid a recounting of all of Hitchens’ arguments. Such a thing might have proved interesting, but, on the points where we broadly agree, it’s no doubt better to let the author speak for himself than to rewrite his text here. Suffice to say, though, Hitchens on the warpath is a sight well worth seeing, and one that spits out immeasurable fascinating thoughts amidst its bile.

The final thing I want to discuss is Hitchens’ treatment of humanism, his alternative to religion. Taking refuge in the middle of all Hitchens’ anger are moments of joy and awe that are just as much a part of the whole, a reverence and respect for science and the natural world. Though Hitchens doesn’t outline what he thinks is needed in place of religion, he does give hints as to its character – and, of course, he defends it against religion’s counterattacks.

In the chapter An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch “Case” Against Secularism, Hitchens deals with one of the most pervasive arguments I’ve seen against atheism, namely the bringing out of its own tyrants and the discussion of the crimes of “secular and atheist regimes. (p. 229) Some of the section is given to specific and factual linkings between religion and fascism and its crimes, and it’s quite successful at a fair bit of that, but the more interesting part, for me, was the discussion of totalitarianism in general. Hitchens says that totalitarianism – as exemplified by, say, the reverence towards the communist ruling party – should not be viewed as the opposite of religion but rather as, essentially, another form of it. Towards this end, Hitchens provides a very interesting quotation from George Orwell’s The Prevention of Literature: A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. (p. 232)

It’s a very interesting and well done section, and convincing in its way, but I can’t help but feel that Hitchens is here missing, or at least slightly dodging, the point. When most people say religion, they do not mean simply fundamentalism of any sort, and saying that the proper antithesis of secularists like Hitchens is not religion but all forms of dogmatic belief seems going too far. Hitchens may – and, of course, does – favor and encourage questioning and inquiry rather than dogma, but that doesn’t change the fact that atheists as a group are not defined by this questioning but rather by their lack of belief in god. Throwing all of the uncritical atheists back to the other side and saying they’re not wanted feels too much like (to use an example pertinent to this blog’s general focus) a literature professor pulling out all the good Science Fiction stories, pointing to the (almost by definition rubbish) remainder, and saying that, see, it’s a worthless genre after all.

It’s only in the tail end of the section that Hitchens gets to what is, in my eyes, the real reason that comparisons to Hitler, Stalin, and other monsters are not a real refutation of atheism. Humanism has many crimes for which to apologize, he says. But it can apologize for them, and also correct them, in its own terms and without having to shake or challenge the basis of any unalterable system of belief. (p. 250) It’s true that Stalin and his ilk were atheists, but they are not in any way revered or held up as paragons of unalterable virtue in the way that the biblical prophets by definition are.

When all’s said and done, God is Not Great is a fascinating read that’s sure to provoke a reaction out of you. I think this is a work as dominated  by its flaws as its successes, and it’s not one that I can wholly endorse or agree with. It is, nonetheless, an interesting and impassioned one, put together by an erudite author skilled with a pen. Hitchens is absolutely brilliant with specifics, and it's well worth it for the interested, in my eyes, to read this for those delectable and wrathful examples and expositions, even if some of the overall conclusions may not be nearly as roped in as one would like.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Publication: Twitter Story on Nanoism

I wonder if anyone remembers the Twitter Stories I mentioned a few months back. But even those of you who caught that post, and read the two published pieces (one of which can still be read here), did not hear the whole story. See, there was a third piece. I wrote it at the same time as the others, sent it off, and... waited.

Well, no, that's not quite right. As it was so short, I didn't really include it on my normal story spreadsheet. In fact, I kind of forgot all about it. Which made it all the more surprising when, just a few days ago, I received an email from Nanoism telling me that they'd accepted it and, oh, by the way, were publishing it that day. Not exactly bad news. And, since I'm a firm believer in spreading such good tidings (or something like that), I figured I'd give you a link. If you've any interest, come check out my latest (very, very, very short) story here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Angel: Season One

At the close of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's third season, Angel, everyone's favorite vampire with a soul, left Sunnydale to start a new life (and, it seems, show) in Los Angeles. After drifting about and punching some vampires in an aimless, albeit satisfying fashion, he's approached by Doyle, who, with a direct line to the "powers that be," ends up being able to point Angel at those most in need of aid. Before long, Cordelia wanders back into the picture, the three of them have christened and set up Angel Investigations (We Help the Helpless), and the show's off and running.

Though both Buffy and Angel take place in the same world, and though there are a fair few overlaps, Angel differentiates itself from Buffy quickly and surely. First off, the tone here is totally different, dark, urban, and adult, rather than the high school (well, now, college) metaphors and snarky humor that make up much of Buffy. There's still humor here, of course – it's a Joss Whedon show, after all – but it's less prevalent. Less standout hilarious lines is, of course, a sad thing, but the show's atmosphere makes up for it.

The biggest difference between the two, though, is the lead character and, tied with that, their reasons for fighting. Now, each does pit an abnormally powerful individual against the forces of darkness and all that, but Buffy does so in a fashion similar to a super hero concept. She's light, they're dark, she kills them. Angel, however, is noir to the bone, and the show loves to play with the clich├ęs of the genre, right down to the broke white knight detective against the world. Central to that is the fact that Angel is not like Buffy, cast as a savior by fate. Rather, he fights because he chooses to, and, though he's multiple opportunities to step away, to join the system and gain its power or even to be happy and free, he refuses to stop.

The greatest moments of heroism and character in the show, though, come from those around Angel. For the season's first half, the stage is often stolen by Glenn Quinn's Doyle, and it's his climax in Hero that is by far the most powerful and most affecting of the show's heroic moments. Coming soon after his departure is Alexis Denisof's Wesley Wyndam-Price. Now, I know I was rather hard on Wesley in my review of Buffy's third season, where he acted as an amusing but redundant stickler for the rules, but things are a whole different ball game here, and his determination, knowledge, vulnerability, and occasional incompetence are all damn effective.

Of course, while the standard noir hero is just one man fighting impossible odds, he is also intrinsically not just any man. The very fact that he alone refuses to go along with the system serves to differentiate him, making him – whether he be Hammett's Continental Op, Chandler's Marlowe, or any other detective you care to name – something fundamentally separate from those he's fighting for. In Angel, though, our private detective is not the same as those around him save for his determination. Angel is a vampire, as much a creature of supernatural strength and unnatural night as those he slays. For the most part, the show manages to either slide by this or, when it does bring it into the spotlight, play it as a wrathful avenger, a monster kills monsters type deal along the lines of, say, Dan Wells' recent I Am Not a Serial Killer.

At times, though, things are handled far less deftly, namely in the episodes She and War Zone. Angel – who, besides being inhuman, is a rich white man who, despite resolutely failing to charge the vast majority of his clients and having no other apparent source of income, lives in spacious quarters and drives a snazzy car – approaches, in one, oppressed women and, in the other, poor black children forced into a gang to survive the vampires attacking them. Each time, those in the group, at first, and rather reasonably, doubt Angel's ability to help them. And, each time, Angel proves that he can help anyone and everyone, regardless of their problem or situation, boiling the prejudices and difficulties against the groups into handily punchable opponents. The episodes aren't awful, but they both feel oversimplified and leave Angel a white knight with armor so bright and pure that it ends up defying belief, ironically making what could have been the show's grittiest episode (War Zone) into one of its most uncomplicated and superheroesque.

Most episodes, though, fair far better, thriving on the show's darker atmosphere and more adult tone. Many, like I Fall to Pieces and I've Got You Under My Skin, are genuinely creepy, even terrifying, to an extent that I can't remember anything on Buffy being. Others, like the Ring, are simpler but no less effective, while some – such as Eternity and the absolutely stunning Somnambulist – create incredible character arcs and portrayals in just forty minutes.

All of that's not even mentioning Five by Five and Sanctuary, the season's two Faith episodes, taking place immediately after Faith flees from Buffy. These two are made entirely of the rare moments when absolutely everything comes together, humor and tension and terror and more, to make something astounding. Faith, by this point, is utterly insane and utterly deadly, and her every moment is fantastic, but it's the conflicting reactions of Angel and Wesley that make the arc. Angel, the do gooder with the past of atrocities, can let no one go, can never acknowledge that there is a point after which redemption is impossible. Wesley, meanwhile, was brought up under the harsh and specific rules of the Watchers Council, and even that's before what Faith does to him in Five by Five.

From those and other episodes, much of Angel's worldview can be seen here. For him, it's never too late to turn around and redeem oneself – but, at the same time, there's no one harder than those who choose not to. Late in the season, in Blind Date, a member of Wolfram and Hart finds himself beset by moral qualms and wonders whether he should step away from the organization. Angel, after listening to him attempt to whitewash his own actions, shows damn little sympathy:

Lindsey: [We were] dirt poor. No shoes, no toilet, six of us kids in one room. And come flu season it was down to four. I was seven when they took the house. They just came right in and took it. And my daddy's being nice, you know? Joking with the bastards while he signs the deed. So yeah, we had a choice. You got stepped on or you got to stepping. And I swore to myself that I was not gonna be the guy standing there with a stupid grin on my face while my life got dribbled out.

Angel, after pretending to fall asleep: I'm sorry, I nodded off. Did you get to the part where you're evil? (Blind Date)

The organization that Lindsey works for there, the guys in suits that make up the system that Angel and the down and out must fight, are the season's big bad, or would be if the show ever really got around to the supposed center of its plot. The majority of those fantastic one episode arcs build to nothing and, though the shadowy law firm of Wolfram and Heart recurs in the shadows and in an increasingly adversarial way, we never get a glimpse of who they are or what they're trying to do.  By the season's end, Wolfram and Heart have decided that Angel's their foe because he's interfering with their operations, but it's not possible to get even the faintest idea of just what he's interfering with or just what they'd be doing if he wasn't around.

In addition, as Wolfram and Hart's made up entirely of humans, with a security system that seems primarily made up of hope that they won't be attacked, it's difficult to see why Angel doesn't just burn the place to the ground. He's even shown to  break in with nigh no trouble multiple times, but doesn't bother to destroy his foes, because… huh. Not particularly sure on that one. Besides which, Wolfram and Hart has the same thing. Yeah, they send the occasional super powered hitman after Angel towards the season's close, but why they don't do so with, say, a dozen at once, or why they don't go after those squishy mortals who like to help Angel, is hard to say. Not to mention that their final plan – bringing back a throwaway vampire from Buffy's first season that, yeah, maybe have sired Angel but never did anything interesting or important – is not quite making me quake with terror yet.

But while Wolfram and Hart still need to be explored in far greater depth, the show's got time and seasons yet, and what's here in season one is, for the most part, fantastic. The dark, urban atmosphere that Whedon and co have here birthed is oppressive and gripping, the characters at once flawed and larger than life, the plots at once complex and satisfying. All in all, Angel seems a more than worthy spin off to Buffy.

Standouts: Five by Five, Sanctuary, Somnambulist, Blind Date, Hero

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

K.J. Parker - The Hammer

You can have justice, or you can keep the peace. Can't have both. (p. 379)

Though I can hardly call myself an expert in Parker's work, I have read The Folding Knife and the Engineer Trilogy, and the similarities between The Hammer and the latter of those two are unmistakable. Some of those are superficial, like how we've here, as we had there, a scene involving the urgent construction of some strange tool to save a man's life. But that pales compared to the rather larger similarity of a world, one filled with conflict but set in its ways, disrupted forever by a single freethinking man that fled the established order, outthought everyone else, started a factory, revolutionized the economy and technology of all those around him, had an ulterior motive, and changed everything.

Now, a similarity that gargantuan's a bit hard to overlook, but alright, fine. It was a great concept the first time, and I trust Parker as an author. Surely, she could make it work again, and surely she wouldn't shoot for the exact same payoff. Well, she didn't. But that's where the book's more serious problem lies. The Engineer Trilogy showed its hero of sorts undertaking a huge task, but that was just the beginning. Momentous as the factory was, it was the path to something much greater. Using a comparatively simple mechanism, the main character shifted the entire world and did something that, though tragic, was unmistakably incredible, grand, and all sorts of words like that. The Hammer, alas, plays out in rather the opposite fashion. Our factory builder, Gignomai met'Oc, does have an ulterior motive, but rather than being earth shaking, that motive's far, far smaller than what he seems poised to do. The novel's earthshaking rhetoric and epic build were all just smoke and mirrors. Amusingly enough, all that large scale stuff does end up happening, after our personal payoff, and it does so off screen and without any real fuss.

It's something like if you went to a great stage magician's show, and she took to the stage with a school bus behind her, and she gave a long speech about how she's going to lift the bus into the air with the power of her mind, then reshape it into a statue, or what have you. Then she takes a spoon out of her pocket, bends that, and wanders off. The spoon bending was all well and good, and might have been quite impressive in other circumstances, but it's rather hard to not feel more than a tad disappointed after all the buildup it got. Then, as you're walking to your car, the magician stops by and, in a section entitled Five Years Later, tells you that she actually did all that was promised, only she did it after the lights were out and everybody'd left. She briefly alludes to how interesting it might've been to see if only she'd let you, though, so there's that.

Why is this such a problem? After all, in her aforementioned stand alone, The Folding Knife, Parker plays out the drama of one man's life on a grand stage. What makes that not work here, though, is that, unlike in The Folding Knife, the characters are not only unsympathetic but also unreletable. Some are cold and distant, others are only presented to us in that way, but we can grow close to none of them. That's not necessarily a problem in an epic, but it certainly is in a personal story about one man's obsessions. Like Vaatzes, Gignomai interacts with people as if they're objects, as if he's a "scientist" and the world's but a culture for him to fool around with and bend to his will, life just an "experiment" for him to manipulate to his satisfaction (p. 217). That could work for a man unfeelingly shaping nations, but when his goal is a familial one, I, at least, felt little more than the vague disappointment that comes when a great power is used for some minor end.

Of course, Gignomai's not the novel's only character. He is, though, the only one with any mystery to him. Through the entire novel, I can only think of one genuinely and emotionally human moment, and it takes place very near the end, though I won't say exactly what it is to avoid spoiling the text for those who've yet to read it. That one moment struck me, added untold depths to the character who expressed it, and made me, for a few brief moments, really feel the human consequences of Gignomai's actions. If the rest of the book had been like that, it would've been heartbreaking and immeasurably more powerful. But the rest of the characters, besides Gignomai and that one other flash, are concepts given flesh and blood, walking playthings for Gignomai to shape as he chooses. Amusingly enough, many of them are even aware of this. The town's shopkeep and mayor even begins to think of himself as a "properly greedy man" (p. 300) before all that long. The explanation for this could, I suppose, be that Parker's only capable of writing obvious characters unless, as she does with Gignomai, she simply hides everything about them, but I don't think that's true. After all, though it focused on much of the same themes as The Hammer, the Engineer Trilogy had several complex and fascinating personalities, and The Folding Knife had its riveting star, Basso. Leaving that out, though, I really can't say why most of the characters here fall so flat.

The distance is reinforced by the prose, though there is still a huge amount of Parker's always stunning irreverence towards traditions, loyalty, and life itself: [He] had no idea how to kill a man with his bare hands. It turned out to be one of those things you can pick up as you go along. (p. 342)
But when you laugh – and laugh, I think, you will – you're not laughing with the characters, even if they made a joke. You're laughing at how much more than them you know, even if it's not much, and at how terrible things are and will grow, and at how deserving they are or are not for the fate that you know that's coming.

Even when Parker relates her character's thoughts directly, the prose is still distant. We come to see these people, and we come to understand them, but we never really come to sympathize with them. Midway through the text, we see that Gignomai looked up so fast he banged the top of his head on a cross-beam. He felt a strong pulse in his scalp, and something wet dribbled down over his forehead. (p. 279) We see the physical and emotional effects of the story in every detail, we know why Gignomai hit his head and what happened afterwards and that blood dribbled down, but we see all this through a lense, and the detail that's never mentioned is whether this hurt, and we're certainly never made to wince alongside him.

This is, I realize, a really negative review. I should, likely, qualify it a bit. I didn't hate The Hammer. I even enjoyed reading just about every minute of it, loved the writing, was intrigued for most of it, and finished it in two days. But the book's ending was more a whimper than a bang, and the fact that, for all its interesting aspects, it was building up to nothing, rather trashed my fond memories of most of the experience. This isn't the kind of book where you cheer for the hero, and, because there's never a tenth of the way credible opponent, it's also not the kind where you wonder for even a moment if that hero's going to win. In the end, the The Hammer's the kind of book that's experienced through a lense or a microscope, with the reader not at all a part of the action and along just to see how things turn out, and, well, they don't really turn out at all, at least not on stage in any of the ways we might've been tempted to see.