Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Atheist Storytelling and the Sublime

Over the winter break, I read.  First, my first full novel on my new Kindle.  Then, the excellent new book by the former pastor of my church, followed by a second novel on Kindle.   Although only one of the books approached spirituality intentionally, I got some spiritual food out of all of my reading.

It's an observer effect, perhaps, representative of the universe I inhabit.   The waveform of almost any narrative I encounter collapses into some rumination on faith and meaning.   Both of the other novels I read were hard sci-fi, a favorite genre, in which the imaginings of the author are shaped by projections of future realities that are grounded in actual science.  The second of the books was an interesting rumination on the meaning of human identity in a world where the capacity to store a full neural map and transfer it to another body.  What does self mean if divorced from a single body?  Altered Carbon...a fusion of hard sci fi and pulp-noire...was well written and crafted, but ended up being a bit too sexual and ultra-violent for my tastes.

But the first was The Hydrogen Sonata, the latest novel by one of my longstanding favorite sci fi authors: Ian M. Banks.  My physicist father-in-law introduced me to him years ago, and it's been a good acquaintance.  His hard-sci-fi is delightful hoo-hah space opera goodness, all rooted in a pan-galactic society called the Culture.  He tells ripping good yarns that include both finely wrought characters and impossibly vast scopes, set firmly into the kind of plausible universe that doesn't make physicists cringe.   In that storytelling, Banks is a consistent critic of religion, as faith within the boundaries of the Culture is consistently represented as the realm of the manipulative, the weak-witted and the primitive.

But hey...a good story is a good story.  I can cut him some slack.

And yet, with all of his critiques, there's a peculiar religiosity within his books.  That goes beyond the machina ex machina endings that he's very fond of, as some astoundingly advanced species/entity suddenly brandishes a heretofore unanticipated Clarke's Third Law technology to plot-resolving effect.

Banks also integrates the concept of transcendence into his novels, as societies and individuals of particularly advanced tech or knowledge abandon our time and space for a realm of being called "The Sublime," in which the limitations of four-dimensional reality are removed.  "Subliming" was a concept explored at great length in this latest novel...and as that concept was explored, it felt more like reading the meditations of a mystic or a lama.  It was all mystery and paradox, described in terms that were more the stuff of faith.

Perhaps, just as any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from religion.