Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Book Review: By Schism Rent Asunder

Okay, so I just finished By Schism Rent Asunder by David Weber. It's the sequel to Off Armageddon Reef, and it's a swords-and-pistols / sci-fi tale. Weber's a great world-builder, and I doubt I can add much to the more mainstream reviews of this book on most counts.

I will say this, though. I never realized until this particular effort of Weber's that he falls into the hyper-literate Robert Jordan school of authors. I don't know if he considers himself in that vein or not, but he definitely fits there. He's a consummate world-builder and has no trouble whatsoever creating and maintaining distance between the stances of his various characters. He's extremely wordy, though, using vignettes of minor characters talking while doing mundane tasks where he could have easily inserted the same information in other, less weighty ways. And we get far too many peeks into the minds of his main characters. I don't know about anyone else, but sometimes I like to work out what others are thinking on my own. Having it spelled out for me takes some of the fun out of reading for me. Not to mention the fact that so many internal dialogues dilutes the message, assuming he has one.

That being said, the story isn't bad. Set far in the future, humanity has been nearly exterminated by a hostile alien race. A relatively small (not to mention secret) colony was set up to keep the race alive. For some reason, the colonists all had their minds wiped, and a fake religion was ginned up to keep them in line. There was a conflict between some of the colony administrators, all of which were in the know and most of whom were styling themselves as Archangels of God, and an entire continent was turned into blasted island wreckage. Fast-forward almost a thousand years and the rebel administrators last, best hope wakes from a millenial slumber. Nimue Alban is a robot with the personality of a long-dead junior officer of the human space navy. She was there because she was rich, and was thus the only one available with a robot body that could be used for the purpose.

She takes a look around the muscle, water and wind powered world she's inherited and decides to set the world straight on humanity's origins by taking on the morally corrupt, technology-hating church the administrators had devised. Why technology-hating? Well, that's what attracted the evil aliens in the first place. Makes sense, right?

The rest of the story is a political/military fiction story set in the days of wind and wave. The only concession to its sci-fi roots is Nimue (who changes her name to Merlin Athrawes, and isn't that just a knee-slapper?) and her high tech toys. Her robot body gives her superhuman abilities, her fabrication unit gives her high-tech gadgets and her AI computer helper monitors essentially the entire planet for intelligence-gathering purposes. Despite all that, there's very little sci in the fi, if you know what I mean.

So, up to this point, not bad, right? I mean, it's a little wordy, a little lengthy, but it's still a well-crafted story set in an immersive world. But, I have a gripe with this book, and possibly this series.

The robot's got religion, folks!

That's right. The copied personality of a millenium-dead human believes in God. In a big way. The entire planet she lives on has had a patently false religion fousted off on them, but that's okay, because "faith in God" is still a good thing. Not one single person in on the big secret questions the existance of deity once. Not once! In fact, the bulk of people in on the fact that the planet's only religion is a giant lie fabricated for the purposes of controlling the masses are themselves members of that religious order. So, what's their first concern?

Not the truth, that's for damned sure. At several points in the book, the so-called "Church of Langhorne" is called the most monstrous lie in human history, but every time someone else is let in on the secret, the first thing they do is reconfirm their belief in God, even if the religion they've been taught their whole lives is a lie. Nimue/Merlin thinks on several occasions in the book about a time after the truth is revealed, so she does indeed plan on exposing the lie at some point. But she then goes on to say that God wouldn't condemn someone for being taught wrongly, but believing in good faith (so to speak, I'm paraphrasing there).

Apparently, future religions are lot more laid back than current-day ones, at least where the fine points of doctrine are concerned.

Every time this little dilemma came up while reading this book, I kept asking myself this: what religion is she going to use to replace the Church of Langhorne? Because a religion is nothing but a set of teachings and traditions. It's certainly not evidence-based, so what criteria is she going to use replace the Safeholdian religion? Is Islam appropriate? Maybe Southern Baptist teachings? Whatever version of human religion she chooses, it's still going to be her, or at least her cronies, choice. I just don't see being able to reintroduce the breadth of human religion to a world, so what gets left out?

I have a nice, simple answer. All of them. But in reading this newest of David Weber's works, I doubt he'll agree with me. And that's a shame.

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"Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul..." -- Mark Twain

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Fire does not wait for the sun to be hot,

Nor the wind for the moon, to be cool.

-- the Zenrin Kushu