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Friday, October 17, 2003

Planets of Adventure

Bless Jim Baen, who at times seems determined to reprint the entire Golden Age midlist of SF. for he has given us a good thick anthology of some of the best stories of Murray Leinster — a writer once counted among science-fiction's reliable best, but since unfairly forgotten.

I come away from Planets of Adventure (pb, Baen 2002, ISBN 0-7434-7162-8) with a renewed appreciation of something I have long known. When John W. Campbell and Robert Heinlein invented modern SF after 1938, Campbell perforce had to train a new crop of writers to produce it. Very few writers with established careers were able to meet Campbell's standards.

Murray Leinster (born Wil F. Jenkins) was one of a very few exceptions — and one of only two (with Jack Williamson) who actually managed to produce better work after Campbell than before him, rather than merely imitating previous pulp successes on a grander scale (as did, for example, the now-unreadable Edmond Hamilton and the still-enjoyable E.E. "Doc" Smith).

For this alone Leinster deserves more attention from the historians and critics of SF than he usually gets. I, personally, was ready to rediscover him because I had fond childhood memories of reading his work from the 1950s and early 1960s when it was not too difficult to find in the used bookstores of ten years later.

One of my sentimental favorites was the Med Service series, tales of a doctor making interstellar house calls to solve ingeniously constructed medical puzzles. I was delighted when Baen Books printed a Med Service omnibus a few months ago — but it is after reading Planets of Adventure that I am truly impressed with Leinster's achievement.

The first story, The Forgotten Planet is a fixup novel assembled from three novellas, published respectively in 1920, 1921, and 1953. The rest of the stories were published in the decade after 1947, the last quite coincidentally in the year I was born. In these stories we get a fine view in miniature both of SF's pre-Campbellian past and the most fertile period of the Campbellian Golden Age.

The first section of The Forgotten Planet, written in 1920, is deeply primitive. It's a dark thalamic adventure of regressed humans battling lethal fungi and giant insects in a fetid alien ecology. The only touches we can recognize as SFnal are a framing story Leinster added after the fact, in the early 1950s, which make the humands descendents of a crashed starliner — in origin, the story had been set on a far-future Earth. One feature of the original repays notice; Leinster referred to climate change via a carbon-dioxide greenhouse effect caused by burning fossil fuels. In 1920!

The end of The Forgotten Planet, as rewritten at the beginning of the 1950s, reads very differently. The stranded primitives, having struggled up on their own to barbarian status, are accidentally rediscovered by interstellar civilization. This is not merely a different story than Leinster had begun to write thirty years earlier, it is written in a profoundly different way, suffused with plucky optimism and cool efficiency. The protagonist, Burl, began the action as a a Joseph-Campbellian mythic hero; he ends it as the archetype of the John-Campbellian competent man, bestriding both his own world and that of his advanced galactic kindred with an ease that disconcerts the latter.

In the next section, The Planet Explorer, Leinster demonstrates a flawless command of the Campbellian idiom. These stories, written in 1955-56, are classic planetary-puzzle pieces of the sort that filled the pages of Astounding magazine. The protagonist solves life-threatening problems posed by conditions on alien worlds. These were intelligent stories when they were written and they're still intelligent today. One of them won a Hugo in 1956. Aside from a slight stiffness in the language, they read remarkably well.

And we're in for another surprise. The next story, Anthropological Note, dates from 1957. In it, Leinster captures perfectly the tone and style of the first post-Campbellian wave in SF, the social-science SF of the mid-to-late 1950s and pre-New-Wave 1960s. Truly this story could have been written by Fred Pohl or C.M. Kornbluth. The wry tone, the anthropologizing, and the not-so-subtle satirical edge are all there.

The story following that, Scrimshaw, is a creepy and dark little mood piece that manages to anticipate the New Wave of the mid-1960s by ten years. The rest of the anthology (Assignment on Pasik, Regulations and The Skit-Tree Planet) is mostly filler, workmanlike enough stuff from the late 1940s obviously written to pay bills. These stories are still readable, but of no special interest other than as a demonstration of consistent competence.

And there you have it. In these stories Leinster manages, with so little effort that you won't be aware of it unless you're looking, to span four eras of SF and meet all their demands with unobtrusive efficiency. I am unable to think of anyone else in the history of the field who can quite match that.

This observation is more interesting because Leinster was essentially a hack writer. Besides the SF, he churned out reams of pulp fiction -- formulaic Westerns, hard-boiled detective stories, jungle adventures — during a career that begain in 1917 and ended only with his death in 1975. It appears that the last thing he wrote was a Perry Rhodan novel which I have not read but which almost certainly stank to high heaven.

His SF, though, was not mere hack-work, or at least not usually mere hack-work. He was a genuine innovator in the form who invented the parallel-world story in 1934 and the first-contact story in 1945. It is impossible to read Leinster without sensing that to him, constructing Campbellian puzzle stories was a delight, and probably the closest approach to art for art's sake that he ever allowed himself. Certainly in Exploration Team, the story that won him the 1956 Hugo, one gets the sense that Leinster is using the story to think through some issues that are important to him — and they are not trivial issues, even today.

But for all that he helped invent some of SF's central tropes, Leinster never quite became an SF writer of the first rank. He was a solid midlist presence — the comparisons that leap to mind are his rough contemporaries James Schmitz and Ross Rocklynne. His novels tended to be uninspired; his best work (including the genre-defining First Contact and the hilarious and rather prescient A Logic Named Joe) was in short-story form.

What Murray Leinster does show us is that SF was as liberating for him as for his readers — that even a hack writer could take from SF the challenge and the invitation to be intelligent, and give back something a bit better than he might have written otherwise. I never got to ask him, but I strongly suspect that Wil F. Jenkins would be prefer to be remembered for the SF more than for anything else he wrote.

posted by Eric at 2:03 PM          

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Toxic Christianity, Round Two:

In the October 15th Best of the Web, James Taranto asks:

So let's see if we have this straight: The head of the Anglican Church is telling us that the wanton murder of thousands of innocent people [by Palestinian terrorists] is a sign of "serious moral goals," while the liberation of millions [of Iraqis] from one of the world's most vicious dictatorships is, as he has put it, "immoral and illegal."

Is this really what Christianity is all about?

Well, since you asked...yes, indeed it is.

To understand why, you first have to confront what Dr. Rowan Williams is actually doing. He is aligning himself with Islamic terrorists against individual Christians and against the liberation of Iraq from an Islamizing dictator by a predominantly Christian nation.

Now, why would the head of the second most prestigious of all Christian denominations do that? What is it in Christianity that could make him so confident in the morality of this position? What is it about the U.S.'s actions that make it so threatening?

A clue to the problem is that though the U.S. is demographically a mostly Christian nation, the effect of U.S. cultural hegemony is a secularizing one. American popular culture severs the bonds of fear and ignorance that hold people unquestioningly to their ancestral relgions. The American vision of each individual as an autonomous being who derives his rights from his humanness, from the simple fact of his capacity to assert them, is deadly antithetical to any religious tradition that vests moral authority in a transcendant God.

The Founding Fathers of the U.S. understood this antipathy full well. The pro-forma nods towards the distant god of the Deists in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Consitution failed to conceal the fact that the Founding Fathers were agnostics and atheists almost to a man. As George Washington and John Adams explained to the Knights of Malta in 1787 "The United States is in no way founded upon the Christian religion". It could not have been so founded without a fatal conflict with its aspiration to be a nation of freedom.

The Archbishop of Canterbury cannot be dismissed as a fringe figure as some are (incorrectly) wont to do of Pat Robertson. His enmity towards the U.S.'s anti-terror strategy, his willingness to line up with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden after no more than a pro-forma disclaimer of terrorist means, proceeds directly from this fundamental conflict. It is diagnostic of a deep sickness, an abiding evil in the heart of Christianity itself — the exaltation of obedience, the denial that humans can have any worth other than through the condescension of God.

Nietzsche called this one correctly. Christianity, which purports to be the religion of love, is only sporadically anything of the kind. It is primarily a religion of slavery and submission. Christian individualism, when it exists at all, is legitimized only by obedience to God. In a Christian worldview there is always someone to be obeyed, whether visible cleric or invisible Nobodaddy. You must submit; the only argument is about to whom your obedience is owed, and what humans under what circumstances may transmit the orders of God. Without that sinew of obedience the entire world-view disintegrates.

To a Christian cleric, a properly terrified and obedient Muslim is less of a threat than a person who has rejected the God of the Abrahamic faiths. The Muslim is still within the system of submission. Only a handful of symbols separate him from the Christian; the basic program is the same. Therefore, from the point of view of the operators of the religious obedience machine that is Anglicanism (or almost any other Christian denomination) Osama bin Laden is a more natural ally than any freethinker.

Am I accusing Dr. Rowan Williams of being part of a conscious totalitarian conspiracy? No; he is something far more dangerous — a leading figure in an unconscious totalitarian conspiracy, one which denies its own nature just effectively enough to fool others as well. That conspiracy encompasses every tyrant who has ever told human beings that their path to happiness lay in the exaltation of some authority, whether God or the State.

It is in this context that Dr. Williams's statement makes perfect and consistent sense. For him, better a thousand terrorist acts than even one human being waking up to discover that he need not after all fear the wrath of God.

posted by Eric at 1:47 PM          

Monday, October 13, 2003

Mohammed was a Christian?

In a recent blog entry I mentioned that Islam appears to have begun life as a mildly schismatic Christian sect. In the comments on that entry someone called for sources. Here is what I know about this:

(First, a note on my general background: I am neither a Christian nor a Moslem, and in fact consider those two religions #3 and #4 in the Most Toxic Ideologies Of All Time sweepstakes, after Communism and Naziism. I have therefore studied the history of Christianity and Islam fairly closely, basically on the know-your-enemies principle.)

There is a scholar somewhere in Germany using the alias Christoph Luxenberg. He has published a book called Die syro-aramaeische Lesart des Koran; Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Quränsprache. He uses a pseudonym because he thinks many Moslems will want to kill him when they find out about it. In this he is undoubtedly correct.

What Luxenberg has done is applied the same methods of philology and linguistics to the Qur'an that were applied to the Christian Bible beginning in the mid-19th century. I have not read the book itself as I have no German, but when I read several summaries of its conclusions I was struck by the sense they made of some odd facts I had picked up over the years. Such as the datum that there is a Christian monastery in the Sinai which received a special immunity, apparently from Mohammed himself, under terms its abbots have kept mum about for 1400 years. And the curious resemblance (you have to have read both the Qur'an and some odd Christian sources to notice, but I have) between the rhetoric of the Qur'an and that of a now-forgotten group of Christian 'heretics' called Monophysites who were particularly strong in the Syria and Arabia of Mohammed's time. And the fact that early Muslims knelt to pray towards Jerusalem, not Mecca.

You can read this scholarly review for more. Another discussion, which was written before Luxenberg but is particularly telling on the evidence that Islam did not emerge as a separate faith until well after Mohammed's death, is at this atheist site. I'll give you a summary of the high points, some of which the reviewers (though not the atheists) tiptoe around.

Islam, the Qur'an, and classical Arabic all formed in a cosmopolitan culture of Syrio-Aramaic-speaking Arabs. The religious tradition that went with that language was Christian; in fact, the very word "Qur'an" probably derived from "queryana", a Syrio-Aramaic term for a kind of Christian liturgical text. The variant spelling "qur'an" for that word is attested.

Mohammed was probably a Christian of a Nestorian or Monophysite stripe, and the Qur'an originally intended as a commentary or gloss on the Syriac recension of the Christian Bible. The surah or section of the Qur'an that Moslems believe is the oldest contains an exhortation to take the Christian Eucharist.

In fact, it is almost certain that the concept of an Islamic identity separate from Syriac Christianity did not develop in Mohammed's lifetime; there are hints that it was a political creation of the Caliphate, constructed soon after Mohammed's death by the Caliph 'Othman. Notably, he had burned all recensions of the sayings of Mohammed other than the one prepared under his control.

Many textual difficulties in the Qur'an vanish once it is realized that a lot of the words in it are fossilized Aramaic. Luxenberg wanders deep into technical philology here and you have to know a lot of details about early Semitic writing systems, including the fact that they didn't record vowels. (I know enough to smell that Luxenberg has a hell of a strong case.) But the upshot is that you can go to Syrio-Aramaic vocabularies and extract clear readings from many passages that are maddeningly obscure if you're running under the assumption that they are written in the vocabulary of later Arabic.

Remember the brief rash of news stories about "72 virgins" actually meaning "72 white grapes"? That was Luxenberg reading the Qur'an in its original Syrio-Aramaic-derived vocabulary.

Islamic scholars of the Qur'an lost the knowledge of the Qur'an's Aramaic origins shortly after 'Othman's book-burning. There are hints of it in the oldest hadith (traditional saying of Mohammed) but the hints don't make any sense until you do the philology, at which point they snap into focus and startle the crap out of you. The traditional Islamic accounts of the Qur'an's origins are are best confused, and at worst pure inventions of the Umaiyyad propaganda machine that was busily turning Mohammed's reform of Syriac Christianity into a new religion as the basis for empire

One entertaining detail I didn't discover until I did my fact-checking for this essay is that Catholic theologians have been claiming Mohammed was a renegade Nestorian, or something like, for about a thousand years. It also turns out that there are scholar-priests in odd corners of the Christian world (notably among Maronites in Lebanon) who had pieces of Luxenberg's exegesis all along, but lacked the philological training to put them together. Now it turns out they were right. Who knew?

posted by Eric at 11:10 PM