Friday, August 13, 2004

Discussion on Review of Table of the Lord by Ono Ekeh

My novel Table of the Lord was reviewed by Georges T. Dodds at the SF Site. I've also had the novel reviewed by Gwyneth Saunders of the Maryland Independent, the local paper in Southern Maryland. I post her review on my website at, I don't think it is available online.

Most if not everyone I've heard from enjoyed the book. I had friends assure me that they couldn't put it down and pretty much had to read from cover to cover. Saunder's review was very positive, but Dodds' was scathing. I think he had some issues and I've decided to respond to the review.

Let's get it out in the open: here I am an atheist reviewing a work of fiction written by a fervent if perhaps somewhat radical Roman Catholic on the subject of the future of the Catholic church itself. However, my mother's family were Catholic and my wife has studied Anglican (i.e. Episcopalian) theology at the university level, so I'm not entirely in the dark about Christianity. Nonetheless, for purposes of this review, I will leave the theological issues to those whom they may interest, and try to concentrate on the writing and plotting.

This was my first clue that there was going to be a problem. Whenever anyone says, "I'm an atheist" there is bound to be bias. I've never been opposed to bias, I simple feel that it should be acknowledged. I will say that when I first read the review, it was clear that Mr Dodds was quite simply offended by the overt Christianity of the novel.

The lack of detail in the description of the Fenaarq's seeming pre-contact mixture of polytheism and caste system, makes it difficult to understand the mystical and theological "logic" of their choosing the Christ figure over that of other equally peace-advocating religions/philosophies such as Buddhism or Bahá'í, amongst others.. . . Another point that is rather hard to swallow, is that the Fenaarq essentially ignore all non-Christians; only in the image of Jesus can they assuage their spiritual needs. This leaves out a fair chunk of the Earth's population, which apparently are simply irrelevant."

This novel is of a new and hopefully emerging genre of Christian and Catholic science fiction. In regular science fiction, assumptions are made about world view, beliefs, etc. In this case, the overriding assumption is, what if what we believe as Catholics is true, then how does that impact a world of the future? I think the role of Christian science-fiction is to change the assumptions and explore them. It is a valid point to ask why I didn't consider other faiths. But here again, if the assumption here is that Christianity is true, then that implies belief in its pre-emminence as a religion. It is simply an assumption. If I read a novel in which someone assumed Islam was the "truest religion, I may disagree but I doubt that I'd be offended.

The other mistake Mr Dodds makes on this religion issue is that he seems to see all the religions in an objective light and if then the aliens in my novel are a certain way, why won't they chose a religion that may reflect more their beliefs. But religion is less about a perfect fit and more about searching and finding truth. There is no logic to why one believes that Christianity is true or to why these aliens would be attracted to it, but it can happen and in this novel it does happen.

The other criticism he has is that the aliens are basically aliens in human suits, because they exhibit the same range of emotions that humans do. That is a valid point, but then again, i think he misses the point. If one is going to write sci fi that features alien thoughts and lifestyles, as humans, we have no other paradigm than ourselves to use to create alien fictional figures. If you want to get hard core, you can choose to explore a different life form and push it as far as you want to scientifically. On the other hand, if your aim is to explore, yet entertain, then humanizing aliens is standard forte-if you look at the Star Treks, Star Wars (now, hardcorers may balk at calling these true sci-fi), aliens are humanized all the time. It's the way we relate to them to make it interesting.

The other issue about humanizing aliens is a more philosophical one. For instance if we accept that there are aliens, that they have technological expertise to get to earth, then we can assume certain things: 1-that they have some for of community, which implies that they can communicate, 2--they are rational beings. Philosophically then, we can press the issue of communication and rationality and argue that whereever you see these characteristics, you'll find certain things. For instance, to communicate rationally, there has to be language, to have language, then you have to have rational beings who are able to articulate different levels of consciouness and their relationships. So as you press on philosophically, there is then a lot you can say that we as humans possess that rational aliens would possess.

Another angle to all this is that for those who believe in christianity, thus believe in angels, demons, spirits, and the Godhead, we have a paradigm for rationality and community that extends simply beyond our human experience and we can mine that paradigm. For instance, if God is effective expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures by humanizing tendencies of human authors,then it validates using human paradigms (anthropomorphism) to explore the rationality and other characteristics of other possible beings.

The aliens in my novel share a lot with humans, and there's much they don't share. There's much about them I don't say because I find it isn't my style to burden the story with that detail. For instance, at the end of the book, you'd be hard pressed to give a visual of the aliens based on the book, but I think though, you would feel like you knew them when you were done. It is the same with the human characters. I prefer to let the imagination fill in the blanks and so I barely describe most characters physically. I feel that if it doesn't contribute to the story, then what's the point? What I find is that most people who read it forget about attributes like, race, height, weight, accent, and absorb the characters as is and fill in the blanks.

When it comes to the evolution of the Catholic church under their manipulation, while some changes seem reasonably predictable, the manner in which such changes are presented gives one the impression that it is, in part, the author's wish list for the Catholic church: more centralized power in the papacy; the rise of a economically and ecclesiastically powerful Africa, particularly in the author's ancestral homeland; the discomfiture of an increasingly secular Europe. There's even a secretive Catholic commando task force, the Blue Core, a sort of sect within the Catholic church, with ideological parallels to Opus Dei, and the capacity to enforce, if benevolently and without loss of life, the churches mandates. Another point that is rather hard to swallow, is that the Fenaarq essentially ignore all non-Christians; only in the image of Jesus can they assuage their spiritual needs. This leaves out a fair chunk of the Earth's population, which apparently are simply irrelevant.

Mr Dodds then talks about the "author's wish list for the Catholic Church" as guiding the development of the plot in regard to the Catholic Church. Here again is a case where while Mr. Dodds is an expert in many things, the Catholic church is not his forte and a statement like that makes it all so glaringly clear. I am a liberal Catholic by most accounts, a strong centralized papacy is not on my personal wishlist. If that happens in the novel that simply is a fictional development that work for the story.

He also speaks of a secretive Catholic commando task force with ideological parallels to Opus Dei. I am not ideological friends with Opus Dei, but this whole thing about OD is simply overblown. Opus Dei are regular people! I've eaten and watched TV at an Opus Dei house, I have know many Opus Dei people. They are very conservative, but that's it. The task force he refers to has no parallels with Opus Dei, I stop at that lest I give anything away. I do want you to buy the novel. I suppose the whole Da Vinci Code deal has gotten people suspicious of Opus Dei. I haven't read the book, but from what I understand there is an Opus Dei "monk" in the book. Anyone who knows anything about the Catholic Church would laugh at that. There is no such thing as an Opus Dei monk. It is interesting because the Jesuits have much more of an intriguing history of covert and secretive manipulation. Anyway, I think the Opus Dei reference is off base.

He also speaks of the rise of Africa and the relegation of a secular Europe in the novel as predictable and part of my wish list. Much of the novel takes place 100-200 years from now. Is it unreasonable to surmise that given Europe's problems, with birthrate, social security payments, and other socio-economic policies, that Europe may be in decline a hundred years from now? I don't think so. As for Africa, I will unabashedly claim that as top of my wishlist. If Africa can get back on track after the hundreds of years of plundering, it will become an economic powerhouse. As for Catholicism and Christianity, it is a fact that the developing world has and will become the center of the Christian faith in the next century.

Mr. Dodds calls the book "fairly entertaining" but "a veiled propagandist position paper than any sort of a science-fiction novel." Again, this has to do with a lack of understanding of the philosophical issues regarding sci fi issues and lack of appreciation for the theological questions of sci fi. It is hard to see what I'm advocating if it is propaganda for the Christian faith. Anyone who understand Christianity and Catholicism would see that. The positions taken are simply assumed and not argued for. There are some philosophical and theological arguments in the book and a position is taken, but they are the positions of the characters and nothing more. I think Mr. Dodds' review reflects more his comfort level with religion and perhaps Catholic Christianity than anything else. I read and watch sci fi that dismisses Christianity all the time and I may not agree with it, but I don't think I let that necessarily color how I view the product. In this case, I suppose the issue of religion is front and center and I think the novel is best served by a reviewer who appreciates the theological and philosophical issues that arise with the possibility of alien existence.


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