Category Archives: religion

Black in Latin America

With a little break in the school year, I finally sat down and watched all of Henry Louis Gates’ Black in Latin America PBS series this weekend. There are four 50-minute episodes, and each is worth your time. Luckily, they are all free to view on show’s website.

There are quite a few aha moments to be had in the series. For instance, I had no idea that Haiti occupied the Dominican Republic for 22 years in the mid-19th century (episode 1)—an event that really began the shaping of Dominicans’ conception of “blackness,” as well as their feelings towards Haitians. I also learned about the racially charged character Negro Mama (episode 4)—a bumbling blackface thief played by comedian Jorge Benavides on Peruvian TV.

There is also quite a bit in the series about food, which meant that I was constantly hungry while watching it. At one point, Gates is having a discussion with a Mexican historian about fufu (episode 4), which is a popular savory dish in the Caribbean that has its roots in the cuisine of West Africa. Their discussion made me think of an entertaining episode of Internets Celebrities from a couple of weeks back about mofongo (just another word for the same dish) in Corona, Queens, NYC.

Gates himself seems most taken with the country of Brazil (episode 3), which has over 75 million people of African descent and was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. Personally, I was  most interested in the complicated path of racial identity in Cuba (episode 2). But I got a ton out of each and every episode. Check it out!

#31: The Sirens of Titan (1959) by Kurt Vonnegut

“I guess somebody up there likes me.”—Malachi Constant

“As far as I’m concerned, the Universe is a junk yard, with everything in it overpriced. I am through poking around in the junk heaps, looking for bargains. Every so-called bargain has been connected by fine wires to a dynamite bouquet.”—Malachi Constant

“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody.”—Beatrice Rumfoord

The Sirens of Titan takes place between World War II and the Third Great Depression, during a time when “inward space had not yet been explored” and the famously wealthy Malachi Constant might be the luckiest person in the world. Also famously rich at this time is Winston Rumfoord, who, along with his dog Kazak, is stuck in a chrono-synclastic infundibulum–what Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) described as a meeting point of contradicting truths, a place where those truths can exist simultaneously. Being stuck there causes Rumfoord and Kazak to materialize on Earth every fifty-nine days predictably. It also affords Rumfoord the ability to see into the past, present, and future simultaneously–a skill that he both abuses and uses for good on occasion.

Rumfoord is a complex man. He has a relatively loveless marriage with his wife Beatrice–particularly so since his chrono-synclastic infundibulum problem came about–and his best friend is an intelligent machine named Salo from the planet Tralfamadore, who is stuck on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, waiting for a replacement part for his broken down space vessel. Rumfoord is deceitful, charismatic, honest, caring, and vengeful. But you don’t really find out when he’s been which until the end of the novel. Huzzah!

TSOT begins with Rumfoord inviting Malachi Constant to visit him during one of his materializations. At the meeting, Rumfoord prophesizes that Constant will marry Rumfoord’s wife Beatrice, have a son with her named Chrono, and will live on the planet Mars. Both Beatrice, who learns of the prophecies herself, and Constant try to do everything possible to make these things not come true. This, of course, only brings them to fruition.

In the second section of the narrative, we follow a dimwitted private named “Unk” in the Martian Army. Unk, like most of the soldiers in the army, is controlled by a small antenna implanted in his head, which makes even the drumbeat of a military march infectiously demanding of action.

Rented a tent, a tent, a tent;
Rented a tent, a tent, a tent.
Rented a tent!
Rented a tent!
Rented a, rented a tent.

These antennas are key to the Martian design for war with Earth. But not for Unk. Someone has other plans for him. It turns out that Unk is to be an important figure in a new, but quickly growing religion on Earth called “The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.” This religion also has much to do with Malachi Constant and Winston Rumfoord.

While only Vonnegut’s second novel, TSOT establishes several themes and characteristics of Vonnegut’s writing: his informal style, his quippy narration, and his overwhelmingly sad love of humanity. But TSOT particularly wrestles with the concept of free will, from Unk’s antenna to Rumfoord’s foresight to the mission Salo was executing for Tralfamadore when he was stranded on Titan. Since Rumfoord can see into the future and the past, can he change it? When he reveals the future to others, can they change it? More importantly, does any of it really matter? I mean, would knowing that life is predetermined stop you from living it? But what if that predetermination is actually controlled by someone? Well, so it goes.

As long as there are young people, Vonnegut’s writing will never go out of print. So it is with The Sirens of Titan.

PS Rest in Peace, Mr. Vonnegut. You will always be one of my favorite writers.

#30: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

“But there was in that time a man whose name was Leibowitz, who, in his youth like the holy Augustine, had loved the wisdom of the world more than the wisdom of God. But now seeing that great knowledge, while good, had not saved the world, he turned in penance to the Lord.”

“If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it.”

Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is basically three interconnected novellas that jump six hundred years in time between each story. The constants between the three are a Catholic monastic order called the Albertian Order of St. Leibowitz (well, sort of–Leibowitz isn’t actually canonized until the end of section one), a “Wandering Jew” character, the theme of cyclical history, and the tension between church and state. ACFL is Miller’s only novel…again, sort of. He did work for years on a sequel to ACFL called Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, but he committed suicide before finishing it. That book is in publication, however, because Terry Bisson completed the novel for him. I still haven’t read it. Anyone else?

The philosophical undercurrent of ACFL is that there are cyclical patterns in human society. The novel begins six hundred years after a massive nuclear war, which is referred to as the “Flame Deluge.” Human society has returned to a period akin to the early Middle Ages. Most knowledge has been lost or forgotten, in part because of a violent rebellion against learning and the learned in the period of “Simplification” that followed near nuclear annihilation. Scientists were lynched, books were burned, and the Catholic Church became a refuge to those persecuted. One of those refugees was an engineer named I.E. Leibowitz, a Jewish scientist who converted to the religion after the “Flame Deluge.” Leibowitz went on to start his own order, named in part for Albertus Magnus, a 13th-century saint associated with science. Leibowitz’s Order took to smuggling books (“booklegging”) and hiding them in the desert. Others in the Order put books to memory (a la Fahrenheit 451) or copied them. Leibowitz himself was martyred for the cause. And now six hundred years later, books are still being copied and knowledge is still being preserved by this Order at an abbey located in the desert. Among these monastics is a sympathetic, if not all that bright, character named Brother Francis Gerard of Utah, who unwittingly discovers the cache of a lifetime…a store of Leibowitz’s writings, as well as mechanical blueprints, in a fallout shelter revealed to him by a Jewish pilgrim (perhaps Leibowitz himself?). A lengthy period of authentification follows, and Francis finds himself a key player in the safety of the documents.

Six hundred years later, in section two, a Renaissance period is unfolding, and the Order is still a major center of knowledge. But now the secular world has turned to the Order for its holdings. In particular, a well-connected scholar named Thon Taddeo comes to the Leibowitz abbey to examine the documents Brother Francis found and discern their wealth. This situation does not come without its tension and repercussions for scientific and societal advancement.

And finally, after another six hundred years has passed, section three takes place in a time when the world has advanced to the point of interstellar travel, and off-Earth colonies have been formed. But a Cold War is in place, and the tension between humanity’s two superpowers, the Asian Coalition and the Atlantic Confederacy, is beginning to escalate. The Church begins to make plans for the worst-case scenario by assembling a team of capable believers, clergy, and monastics that will take a microfilm copy of “the Memorabilia” (the collection of writings and documents from St. Francis’ find) safely off planet.

While clearly a positive portrayal of the Catholic Church (and it’s unusual for sf literature from this time being positive about religion at all), there are few moments of outright apologism in the book. Though perhaps the most blatant comes in the third section when the Abbot of the Leibowitz abbey physically advances the belief that euthanasia for nuclear fallout victims is abominable. And as for myself, I find the suggestion that the Catholic Church is a vessel of scientific knowledge–whether in the future or the real past of the Middle Ages and Western Renaissance–more complex than Miller portrays in this novel. Nonetheless, this is one of the great books of speculative fiction–I believe this is the fourth time I’ve read it–and it deserves to be read by everyone. Everyone! So get to it.

Should be in print for a long, long time to come.

PS There’s a couple of good guides to the Latin found in the book. Here’s one.

#26: A Case of Conscience (1958) by James Blish

“‘Animals have no souls,’ said Descartes, throwing a cat out the window to prove, if not his point, at least his faith in it.”

I’ve tended to think of James Blish (1921-1975) as a Star Trek hack most of my life. I knew he was a smart guy; I knew that his “Okie” series and A Case of Conscience were well respected. Hell, I’m even a Star Trek fan. But, without reading any of his work except a couple of short stories, I had no respect for him. Then David Pringle’s list made me sit down with one of his novels.

ACoC is divided into two parts. Generally, the first is considered the better of the two halves, and I will agree that it is the stronger narrative. But the second half has its merits too. I suppose it is much like the other great sf novel about Catholicism: A Canticle for Leibowitz (# 30 on the list). That book also has mismatching narrative limbs.

The first half of ACoC focuses on Jesuit priest and scientist Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez. RS is one of the more interesting characters I’ve ever read. While Blish is critical of religion, he’s evenhanded with the good Father. RS is part of a four-man team of scientists on a planet called Lithia. They’ve been sent there to determine whether the planet would make a good way station–balancing out the needs and wants of both Earthlings and the Lithians themselves. The native inhabitants are quite interesting. They’re twelve-feet-tall reptiles that resemble a dinosaur with a kangaroo pouch (in the case of the females). They’re intelligent and industrious, and they live in a harmonious society with no crime, war, or religion. And that last point is the real bugger.

When it comes down to the vote on Lithia’s future, the four men couldn’t be further apart. One believes Lithia to be an absolute cultural gem that should be kept open and in active dialogue with Earth. Another feels that it should be turned into an armory and weapons-making factory. A third is indecisive and almost apathetic about the responsibility of his decision. And then there’s Ruiz-Sanchez. RS has had the deepest contact with the culture up to this point. He’s thoroughly studied the environment of Lithia. He’s mastered the language. And he’s made friends with a Lithian named Chtexa. But RS can’t wrap his mind around the idea of a society without god, particularly a rational, well-functioning one. He decides that the planet itself, as well as its inhabitants, must be the creation of the Devil. And while this suggests a Manichean heresy (strict theology purports the Devil has no creative abilities such as God has), he accepts it as the only possibility and votes for the planet to be permanently quarantined. Before he leaves, however, Chtexa gives him a present: a fertilized Lithian egg.

The second half of the novel follows the disastrous earthly development of Egtverchi, Chtexa’s son. Egtverchi is neither fish nor fowl on Earth–a problem most twelve-foot, sentient reptiles face. He’s also quite paranoid about war, which is a theme running throughout the novel. As I mentioned before, Cleaver (one of the scientists on Lithia) has the hawkish idea to develop munitions on Lithia, all for the armament against an enemy that doesn’t exist. Most of society lives in underground, shelter communities because of some sort of nuclear fallout. And there is a growing dissatisfaction on the part of the have-nots of society. Egtverchi does his best to fan the flames of tension. While this section of the novel meanders at times, it’s worth waiting out the anti-Hollywood ending. There are also some small gems of social criticism along the way, such as the concept of “planned obsolescence”: a series of built-in flaws that every product contains, in order to insure that it has an ephemeral existence that propels the public’s consuming habits. Or, a party ride that shuttles passengers through a series of hallucinogenic scenes, ending with a trip through the furnace doors of Belsen, only to be blasted with “mind-cleansing oxygen” on the other side. What fun!

#18: The Long Tomorrow (1955) by Leigh Brackett

“No city, no town, no community of more than one thousand people or two hundred buildings to the square mile shall be built or permitted to exist anywhere in the United States of America.”–13th Amendment of the US Constitution

“There’s never been an act done since the beginning, from a kid stealing candy to a dictator committing suicide, that the person doing it didn’t think he was fully justified. That’s a mental trick called rationalizing, and it’s done the human race more harm than anything else you can name.”

“There are those who think that life has nothing left to chance. A host of holy horrors to direct our aimless dance.”–Rush, “Free Will

Two generations in the past, an all-out nuclear war ruined the cities of the world and led to the question of whether technology and scientific knowledge are worthwhile pursuits. The new ruling class of America, the agrarian New Mennonites, said no. Machines, electric power, atomic energy all come from the same source–evil. The New Mennonites enacted the 13th Amendment, a de facto ban on cities and progress. Civilization now stands still in the middle of a wheat field.

Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) is best known for her career as a Hollywood screenwriter. Among other works, she penned, at least in part, two great Raymond Chandler adaptations: The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. And she also cowrote a little sci-fi picture known as The Empire Strikes Back. Many of her novels and short stories were seen as pulp, which isn’t accurate, at least in the case of The Long Tomorrow, a novel that is decidedly literary.
The narrative follows two young New Mennonite boys, cousins Esau and Len Colter. They live a small community called Piper’s Run. But they long for more. They desire a place where ideas are freely exchanged and machines aid human civilization. The main catalyst for these desires is the boys’ grandmother, who tearfully recalls her childhood days when planes filled the air, cars and busses crowded the streets, and folks had leisure and luxury. After witnessing the horrific stoning of an outsider thought to be from the mythical “Bartorstown” (perhaps the last city) and coming to realize the limits of New Mennonite living, the boys set off to find this last refuge of human progress.

However, Bartorstown may not exist. Or it may not be what they think it is. If it’s out there, it’s somehow connected to a traveling trader named Mr. Hostetter. And the journey contains many obstacles: lust, jealousy, ignorance, and fanaticism. The West, for instance, has wandering bands of New Ishmaelites, a group that renounces all possessions and who frequently and randomly rise up violently against the followers of the flesh (i.e., everyone who isn’t a New Ishmaelite) when called by God in a moment of religious ecstasy. And in the end, the boys must decide which is more frightening, the monster closely regarded in its cage or the monster pushed to the fringe of society and ignored. And just what is this monster anyway?

#2: Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart

“Generations come and go, but the earth abides forever.” –Ecclesiastes 1:4

Stewart (1895-1980) was a literature professor at the University of California, and he’s thought to have used the real-life case of Ishi (“man”), the last surviving member of an American Indian tribe who surfaced in California in the early 20th century, as inspiration for the main character in Earth Abides, Isherwood “Ish” Williams. Ish is a graduate student in geography who’s out in the hinterlands when a terrible viral plague washes out most of the human population. When he comes to find what’s happened, he looks at the incident in almost Malthusian terms and decides to become the documenter of the natural world sans humanity. Later, he becomes the leader of a new community called The Tribe, along with his lover/partner Em (who is clearly, though not explicitly said by Stewart, black–how amazing is that for a 1949 science-fiction novel?). The rest of the novel sees Ish’s frustration in trying to instill culture and creative thought (i.e., what he calls “civilization”) in a group that’ll have none of it–food and supplies are too easy to get from the stores, and who needs book learning when there’s no human society outside the small group? In the end, we see the real direction of humanity after civilization fails, and you’ll have to find out for yourself what that is.

This is truly a lost classic. Once a book taught in high school and college English classes, try finding ten people who’ve even heard of it now. And that’s a shame because it’s fantastic. The post-apocalyptic subgenre, along with dystopian literature, has been the backbone of sf writing during large periods of its history. This particular member of that subgenre is unique. No biker gangs warring over gasoline or large insects prowling the Arizona desert or apes ruling over humans in slavery. Stewart instead ponders the effects humans have on the natural world, and he takes a refreshingly pragmatic view on how easily/difficultly the leftover humans would survive if 99.9% of us kicked it tomorrow.

Sexism? Maybe. There’s certainly a 1940s separate spheres, division of labor thing going on, but Em and several other of the women in The Tribe are strong. However, the men make the decisions and do all the dangerous stuff. I give it a little slack because of the time in which it was written. Racism? Hell no. While there is a questionable scene with some “Negroes” in Arkansas, the white man Ish thinks the black woman Em is the cat’s pajamas, and he chooses her to be his lover/mate not because of her race but because she’s strong, tender, and intelligent. Anti-religion? Well…I’m going to cowardly claim ignorance on that one. How would someone with a MA in Comparative Religion know anything about that?

The book came back into print earlier this year, so read it for yourself already.