I can’t believe that I didn’t know this guy existed until he died.
He wrote dense, “baroque” science fiction, and he helped to invent the machine that makes Pringles. What’s not to love?
On a more serious note, he cared for his wife as she was deteriorating with Alzheimer’s disease. Many many people do similar things, and all of them are heroes.
No, I haven’t read his books yet, but after reading this obituary I am definitely going to look for them. I think that eating Pringles while reading them would be a fitting tribute.
Update: Since drafting this post, I have picked up The Land Across (2013) from the library. In it, an American travel writer goes to an unnamed Eastern European country to research for a book. He is met on the train by some border guards (possibly?) who confiscate his passport and then place him under house arrest for not having one. Things go downhill from there. On the plus side, there are spooks, including (possibly?) the ghost of Vlad the Impaler. What more could you ask? It’s a page turner, and Wolfe does a great job of rendering in English conversations that take place in the local language or in German. I would not call this book sci-fi (not yet anyway), but more of a thriller with supernatural elements.
The Bechdel test, a rough-and-ready way to critique a book or film from a feminist perspective, states that a story ought to have 1) at least two female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man.
One of my favorite series, The Lord of the Rings, flunks this test. (Though, I should point out that ‘Til We Have Faces does not!) And it doesn’t just flunk it a little bit. Bilbo is a bachelor. So is Frodo. So is Gandalf (more of a monk or an angel, really.) Mothers tend to be dead: Frodo’s. Eomer and Eowyn’s. Boromir and Faramir’s.
But, although they are not seen talking to each other (except the garrulous Ioreth to her kinswoman), the Lord of the Rings cycle has a number of intriguing female characters of all different classes and personalities (and even species), and each plays an important, though hidden, role. I thought it would be fun to rank them below in order of relatability. I have only included female characters that we actually get to see in action. (Smeagol’s grandmother, for instance, is not included, and neither are the Entwives.)
(Most relatable) Rosie Cotton. Rosie, daughter of Farmer Cotton, is Sam Gamgee’s love interest not only in the movie but also in the book. She is a simple, sweet young peasant girl. When Sam returns from Mordor, she first chides him for having taken so long, and then says, “If you’ve been looking after Mr. Frodo all this while, what d’you want to leave him for, as soon as things look dangerous?” Pretty frustrating for Sam, but he likes her anyway. She just has no idea what he’s been through … and, really, how could she? Sam later marries Rosie and they go on to become a founding family in the next generation of the Shire. Rosie represents the Shire itself in all the wholesomeness and normality of its farm family life. She represents everything that Frodo and Sam went to Mordor in order to save. She is an ordinary good-hearted woman who makes a wonderful wife for Sam, the ordinary hero. That is why she wins the prize for Most Relatable.
Goldberry,wife of Tom Bombadil, the “river daughter.” Goldberry is a sort of nymph, “slender as the willow-wand, clearer than the water.” She is a little less relatable than Rosie because of her great beauty, apparent immortality, and because she is a representation not of the farm but of the forest. However, her role is very similar to Rosie’s. Tom Bombadil’s house in the forest is a supernatural refuge for travelers who would otherwise be overcome by the wild otherness of the Old Forest. Goldberry plays a critical role in making this home. She maintains it, she serves food, she beautifies the home with her singing, her weaving, her wisdom, and her very presence there. Tom wanders all throughout the Old Forest, but in the end he always comes back to his home (and invites the hobbits there) because, as he says, “Goldberry is waiting.”
Eowyn. Eowyn is the brave and beautiful niece of King Theoden of Rohan. (The Rohirrim are basically Vikings on horseback.) She feels trapped by the need to stay in the house and care for her elderly uncle. When the elderly uncle revives and goes off to fight against Mordor, Eowyn really really wants to go along. What she most fears, she says, is “a cage.” She disguises herself as a man, sneaks away with the army of Rohan, and ends up killing a demonlike creature on the battlefield, nearly losing her life in the process. Eowyn is generally the first female character people remember from The Lord of the Rings. Her restlessness is something that we’ve all felt, but her Nordic style of beauty, her superior horsewomanship and swordswomanship, and, especially, her extreme bravery are not qualities that most of us possess.
Arwen. Arwen, daughter of Elrond, is Aragorn’s childhood crush. Her role in the series is mostly symbolic. She represents the Elven colony that Elrond maintains in Rivendell, and hence, the whole glorious world of the Elves that is now fading away. She is an aristocrat, a queen, an ideal of beauty, grace and virtue that is completely unattainable (for everyone, of course, except Aragorn, who is himself an ideal of virtue).
Galadriel. Galadriel, I have been told, plays the role in The Lord of the Rings that Mary plays in the Catholic faith. Everything I just said about Arwen is also true of Galadriel, except that in Galadriel’s case, she is not an ideal that we are meant even to try to attain to. Instead, we are (not to mince words) simply meant to worship. Gimli the dwarf discovers this when he enters Lothlorien (heaven on earth) expecting to find a hostile witch. On meeting Galadriel, he has a true spiritual experience and is immediately converted. After this, he carries a lock of her hair with him and is ready to fight anyone who criticizes her. Galadriel, in other words, is a sort of female God figure, a spiritual mother who dispenses wisdom to the travelers and who gives Frodo a light that saves him in the lair of Shelob (who, being a spider, did not make this list). Galadriel would have been the Least Relatable person on this list, but we have one more …
Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Ha! You didn’t think anyone could be less relatable than Galadriel? You have forgotten Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the odious relative of Bilbo and Frodo. Lobelia had always hoped somehow to legally get her hands on the comfortable ancestral hall of Bag End. She nearly inherited it when Bilbo disappeared for a year in The Hobbit. She was very annoyed when Bilbo then willed Bag End to Frodo, and made quite a nuisance of herself to Frodo by saying nasty things as only a bitter, feisty, disappointed older relative can. Before Frodo goes off on his adventure, he sells Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses, and Lobelia cannot conceal her triumph. She does redeem herself, however, by getting herself thrown in the local jail for defying a constable after Saruman takes over the Shire. When she gets out, she is met with a standing ovation and bursts into tears: “She had never been popular before.” … OK, I admit it, much of Lobelia’s bad behavior is actually very relatable if we are honest with ourselves. But she beats Galadriel because, even more than Galadriel, Lobelia is not a character that anyone would aspire to be.
Here (at Skeptic.com) is a review of Graham Hancock’s latest book, America Before.
It’s a interesting review, touching on some of the themes we’ve been talking about here on OutofBabel, such as the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis and possible lost settlements (even cities?) in Amazonia.
Of course, Hancock, being Hancock, puts those two suggestive ideas (plus a lot of other ones) together into something much bigger. He has apparently fallen off the New Age cliff entirely. According to the review, America Before is full of non sequiters, speculation, noble savage myths, and angry rants against the profession of archaeology as a whole, descending at the end of the book into the liberal use of caps and boldface type.
I have not read America Before, but my impression is that this review represents it accurately. I have two reasons. The first is that it is (believe it or not) a sympathetic review. The reviewer, Jason Colavito, knows and likes Hancock and is clearly familiar with the body of Hancock’s work.
In his early books on ancient mysteries, such as The Sign and the Seal(1992) and Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), Hancock wove a compelling narrative from sparse facts and heady speculation. These books were written as adventures in which Hancock cast himself in the role of a tweedier Indiana Jones, traveling the world in search of evidence of the impossible. Regardless of the conclusions he drew, the personal narrative of discovery created a compelling through-line that made these books engaging even for those who disagreed with the author’s ideas. But with each successive book, Hancock seemed to anticipate that his audience is increasingly people who have read his earlier work. … Since Hancock is no longer an innocent questing for truth but a self-styled advocate of “alternative archaeology,” his books have taken on the tone of jeremiads, their sense of wonder and discovery replaced with righteous indignation …
“American Atlantis,” by Jason Colavito
And that is the second reason that I find this review believable. The weaknesses that Colavito identifies in America Before are characteristic weaknesses. I recognize them from Fingerprints of the Gods, but apparently in the intervening years they have gotten worse and not better.
In other words, the writer that Colavito describes definitely sounds like the Graham Hancock I know and love … or loved when he wrote Fingerprints. Maybe not so much now. It does not surprise me either that Hancock has gone full New Age in the years since writing Fingerprints. That’s because I read one of his fiction books, called Entangled: Eater of Souls. (It was a “fiction novel.” That’s what we experts in the publishing industry call them.) Entangled had soul guides, telepathic Neanderthals, hallucinogenic drugs, and everything.
I still think (as Hancock thinks, but for different reasons) that complex human civilization is much older than commonly believed. I even have some sympathy for Hancock’s frustration with archaeological assumptions and blind spots. But I don’t think there’s any organized scholarly conspiracy at work and I have no desire to read a book that amounts to an angry rant against those archaeologists working in North and South America. Nor do I think, should we discover (or, should I say, when we discover) ever more advanced civilizations in ancient North and South America, that a New Age type of explanation will be necessary.
So, goodbye, Mr. Hancock. I really enjoyed Fingerprints of the Gods. It presented some intriguing ideas and started me down my own speculative paths. But I don’t think I’ll be reading your latest offering.
Orual is a princess, but she’s anything but spoiled. She is strikingly ugly, and her father treats his daughters with the same thoughtless cruelty with which he rules his pagan kingdom. Orual eventually learns to stand up to her father, but she’s terrified of the royal priest, who wears a bird’s head on his chest, and of the deity he serves, a spooky, faceless mother-goddess.
Orual’s younger half-sister Psyche
is kind and beautiful, and Orual adores her.
As Psyche grows older, the two girls prove to be best friends. But everything changes when Psyche is offered
as a sacrifice to the son of the mother-goddess, who lives on the haunted
mountain … and she actually seems happy about it.
We Have Faces is a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, seen from
the point of view of Psyche’s supposedly jealous and evil older sisters. Like me, you will probably pick it up because
when you see the words “an ugly princess and a beautiful princess,” you
immediately go into the book expecting to identify with the ugly one. And you do.
But see whether, by the end, you don’t identify with Psyche as well.
This book is a perfect addition to
the genre of novels that write ancient pagans sympathetically, but look at
their beliefs with a critical eye.
That’s what I try to do in my books.
Mine were inspired in part by ‘Till
We Have Faces, but they will never rise to its level.
Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (1878)
If you read the back of the book,
you will be told that it is the story of Anna, a beautiful upper-class Russian
woman (pre-Revolution) who has an extramarital affair and is eventually
destroyed by society’s judgment on her sexual freedom. Well, not quite. For one thing, Anna is destroyed by the
affair itself more than by the social condemnation. For another thing, Anna is
only half of the novel.
The other half is about Levin, a
wealthy young farmer who has a spiritual crisis and loses, then regains, the
girl he loves. His long, slow upward
trajectory is the flip side of Anna’s long, slow downward one.
The writing in this novel is
amazing (assuming that you get a good translation). The psychology is beautiful. It’s also an example of a successful
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)
This book was first published in
1678. The language, therefore, is more
modern than Shakespeare, slightly less modern than Jane Austen, but just as
elegant and succinct as either one.
It is an allegory of one man’s
spiritual journey. It is anything but
Take the incident where Giant
Despair throws Christian and Hopeful into the dungeon in Doubting Castle. He beats them, he starves them, he tells them
they will never get out. It is
Christian’s fault they are there (he led them on a shortcut across the giant’s
lands), and he immediately begins to blame himself and apologize to
Hopeful. The giant encourages the two
men to kill themselves and even provides them with a variety of means to do
so. He also shows them the skulls of
past prisoners to emphasize that their fate is sealed.
All in all, if you have ever been
through depression (your own or a loved one’s), you will recognize this as a
precise description of the effects it has upon mind and body. This giant and his wife literally sit up at
night thinking of ways to make the prisoners’ lives miserable.
When the two prisoners finally make their escape, the giant begins to chase them. But when he comes out into the sunlight, he falls into an epileptic type of fit.
The Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie (1930s through 1960s)
Hercule Poirot is the more famous
of Christie’s sleuths, but my favorite is Miss Marple. All the other characters, being British,
consistently underestimate Poirot because he a foreigner. All the younger and more worldly characters
underestimate Miss Marple because she is an old maid who has lived in a village
all her life. They think she is likely
to be naïve and narrow in her views and experience. In fact, Miss Marple has seen quite a lot of
human nature in her 60+ years of life. As
she points out, her village may look as stagnant and sleepy as a pond, but like
a pond, is it actually alive with all kinds of vicious microscopic creatures.
Miss Marple’s method of crime
detection is to rely on her knowledge of human nature. People she meets remind her of other people
that she has once known. She can
recognize the essence of their character and even make guesses about what they
will do based on these past people’s behavior.
She never makes a point directly; her method is usually to tell a little
story about someone she once knew and then surprisingly tie it to the present
situation. Her method of thinking about
crimes is a bit more intuitive than Poirot’s.
Rather than crunching data, she recognizes stories. You could say that Poirot is a plotter and
Marple a pantser. But they both get
their man in the end.
Miss Marple is also aided by her
fantastic British manners. She is an
amazingly good listener. She is
excellent at drawing people out. People
cannot lie all the time; if you let them talk long enough, eventually they will
tell you the truth.
Miss Marple might be a little old
lady, but she is dangerous to criminals.
In one book, she wraps a pink scarf around her head before she goes out
and then introduces herself to the murderer as “Nemesis.”
The opening paragraphs of the article go like this:
The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment first posited by Plutarch in Life of Theseus. It goes a little something like this: A ship goes out in a storm and is damaged. Upon returning to shore, the ship is repaired, with parts of it being replaced in the process. Again and again the ship goes out, and again it is repaired, until eventually every single component of the ship, every plank of wood, has been replaced. Is the repaired ship still the same ship that first went out into the storm? And if not, then at what point did it become a different ship? Now, say you collected every part of the ship that was discarded during repairs, and you used these parts to rebuild the ship. With the two ships side-by-side, which one would be the true Ship of Theseus? Or would it be both? Or neither?
Corey J. White, May 31, 2018, at Tor.com
The Essence of a Thing – Or Person
White then proceeds to apply this thought experiment to all sorts of situations that routinely arise in sci-fi, such as Darth Vader being “more machine than man,” teleportation, cloning, and a really scary one: a digital upload of a person’s consciousness. He uses the Ship of Theseus problem to raise questions about “the intrinsic thingness of a thing.”
Of course, questions about “the thingness of a thing” get thornier and higher stakes the more personlike the thing gets. I want to give my thoughts about a few of these questions as they apply to people. Then you can give your thoughts below.
Changes to the Body
I don’t know if this has been your experience, but when I was a kid, I tended to feel that all parts of a person’s physical appearance were very important to who they were – their “signature look,” if you will. So it was upsetting if someone who usually wore glasses took off their glasses, or if Mom got a dramatic new haircut, or if Dad shaved his mustache. Things seem so eternal when we are kids, even little details like hair length that are actually very temporal.
Then, as we get older, we learn otherwise. We find out from personal experience that we can cut off all of our hair, go through dramatic physical changes like puberty, maybe even lose a limb, and we are still exactly the same person. Our soul is something different from our body, though it expresses itself through our body. Even if about 40% of our body was gone, replaced with machine parts (as Darth Vader), we would have the same soul, and the soul would colonize the changing body and make it its own. (This can require a process, though, which might be part of the reason puberty is so difficult.)
It’s my belief that if a clone were made of you, it would turn out to be a different person who shared your genetic code. Not another self, but an identical twin. This is because every single time a baby grows, it shows up with a soul. This is part of the reason there are ethical problems with cloning. People might be tempted to treat their clones as no more than material made from their own body, when in fact they would be people with human dignity of their own.
A Digital Upload of Your Entire Consciousness
I don’t actually know whether this one is possible (and I sort of, fervently, hope not). However, the idea is one that is likely to be tried, because it is a common trope in sci-fi.
White mentions that this idea shows up in Altered Carbon, which I have never read or watched. But it is not new in sci-fi. I remember an H.P. Lovecraft short story in which some crab-like aliens remove a man’s brain and put it in a jar because that is is the only way they can take “him” with them to space. (He can still talk to them if they hook the jar up to a radio.) In C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi/horror book That Hideous Strength, an eminent scientist has his head removed and kept alive in a lab, in hopes of achieving eternal life. In both of these stories, “digitally uploading consciousness” is attempted with cruder technology, but the concept is basically the same.
The thing to note about these two examples is that they are horror stories. The attempt to separate the human mind from the body is a BAD idea, associated with death, insanity, and having your head cut off. The body “doesn’t matter” in the sense that it can be altered a great deal and you can still be you … but it does matter in the sense that part of being a human is being an embodied mind, not a mind removed from a body. The attempt to remove it seems to me like a violation of our basic nature. The sense of violation is quite strong in both of the stories I mention above.
Would it Work, Though?
It might work. I’d like to think that it wouldn’t, but there are any number of techniques that violate the human body and soul which ought not to be tried but nevertheless have been.
This idea has been explored (with a bit more ambivalence than I am here showing) in the book Six Wakes (Mur Lafferty, 2018). In this book, cloning technology has reached a level where anyone who chooses to do so can have their body cloned, their mind uploaded, and when the body clone is ready, the person’s mind complete with memories can be installed in the brand-new clone, which comes out like a healthy person in their early 20s. In other words, people who choose to do so can live practically forever. Of course, this practice opens the possibility of all kinds of abuses, all of which have been outlawed, all of which still take place, including the incredibly scary mind hacking.
Don’t worry, that’s not even a spoiler. That’s just the setup for the book.
If all of this were possible – obviously, I disapprove, but if it were possible – I would have to say that the person’s mind, even when it has been uploaded and is just being stored, is still that person. And when they “wake” in a freshly cloned body, they are the same person.
Having said that, I do think that a person would lose something of personhood if their mind were stored on a computer for a very long time, long enough that they started to forget what it’s like to have a body. I believe that the ways we think, feel, and operate in the world are tied to our bodies in important ways; that, in fact, it’s not possible to function as a human being without having some kind of body. So, if your mind were stored on a computer indefinitely, I’m not sure at what point you would stop being you, but I have a gut feeling that you would. Maybe you would be in a sort of hibernating state anyway.
Now, the really strange thing is this. Your mind can change a great, great deal, and you can still be you. This is something we have all experienced when going through puberty. And all throughout our lives, our worldview and values can change enormously and still we remain ourselves. The Apostle Paul was the same person after his Damascus Road experience … even though all of his mental furniture had been upended.
This is a great mystery.
On the other hand, there are mental changes ( Alzheimer’s is the prime example) that truly do seem to destroy the person so that they are no longer “there.” This is a terrible thing, and another great mystery.
I realize this is a huge can of worms to open at the end of an already wide-ranging article, but I couldn’t post about what makes us ourselves without at least mentioning mental changes.
To avoid the deep sense of existential angst that will no doubt come over you after reading this article, allow me to close with this poem which I memorized many years ago but have since lost the reference to:
“Thou shalt know Him when He comes/Not by any din of drums/Nor by vantage of His airs/Nor by anything He wears/Neither by His crown nor by His gown./But His presence known shall be/By the holy harmony/Which His coming makes in thee.”
Most books have a gross or horrifying part. When I was a kid, I disliked these parts. (I was an impressionable child. I had nightmares for what seemed like months after someone told me the story of how Odysseus used a heated log to poke out the cyclops’s eye.)
The ew! moments in books are sometimes all that people remember about them. I can remember a few occasions when someone would see me reading a book and say, “Ew, that’s the book where _________ happens.” And in the blank was always the most disgusting incident, which usually was just an aside and wasn’t even a major part of the plot. I guess you could say that grossness is salient.
Why Authors Include Ew! Moments
I never thought I’d include ew! moments in my own novels, but lo and behold, they have quite a few of them. It’s a matter of simple realism. My plots deal with sometimes desperate survival situations. They include death and birth (a lot of births). One of the characters is paraplegic, which comes with its own indignities. I try to handle any necessary grossness tastefully, but I don’t skip it entirely, because I don’t want to romanticize anything … not parenthood, not paralysis, not the nomadic lifestyle. Also, it is through these horrifying and humbling incidents that the characters grow. If I skipped all that, I’d be skipping the whole story.
It turns out that grossness is a part of life. We might not want to dwell on it, but we can’t completely avoid it either. And this is true for any book that aspires to being realistic.
Fantasy author Neil Gaiman titled his 2015 short story collection Trigger Warning for the following reason:
We take words, and we give them power, and we look out through other eyes, and we see, and experience, what others see. I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered, because I was not ready for them and they upset me: stories which contained helplessness, in which people were embarrassed, or mutilated, in which adults were made vulnerable and parents could be of no assistance. They troubled me … but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could. (page xiii)
Ew! Levels Are Culturally Determined
How much ew! to include in fiction is a convention that has changed over the years. One hundred fifty years ago, the standard was basically … none. Take The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I adore this book. It paints a perfect picture of the horror that results when we are enslaved to sin … whether through addiction to a substance or to some aspect of our own sin nature. (In Dr. Jekyll’s case, it’s literally both.) The horror in this book does not come from any gross-out scenes. It comes from the progressive loss of self-control and the dawning realization that you are the monster. However, I can think of one part of the story where Robert Louis Stevenson’s discretion causes some confusion. Dr. Jekyll mentions that his “pleasures” were “undignified” and that he created Hyde as a way to allow himself to indulge his pleasures without Dr. Jekyll suffering any “indignity.” As a modern reader, it’s not immediately obvious to me what this means. My guess is that Dr. Jekyll had started out frequenting music halls and had progressed to brothels. But I don’t know, because he is too dignified to tell us. Perhaps Victorian readers would immediately have known what was meant by “undignified pleasures.”
Nowadays, obviously, there are entire genres dedicated to ew!. Of course this is just as misguided as the Victorian standard. Grossness is a part of life and so must be included. But it’s not the main story.
It’s Good for Ew!
How much ew! to include in your reading is a personal decision. I can tolerate more of it now than when I was younger, and that’s as it should be. For example, it was just within the last few years that I read Stephen King’s Misery. I deliberately avoided it before because I didn’t think I could handle the horror at the time. I still think that was a good decision. The story is most famous for the scene where the rabid fan, Annie, amputates the author’s leg at the ankle. But as you might expect, the real horror in the story does not come from that scene alone, but from the increasingly complete picture we get of Annie’s mind. And the story is not only about horror. It’s about literary snobbery (really!), the creative process, the relationships readers have with books and that authors have with readers. But I doubt I could have appreciated all of those themes (or even the glimpses of Annie’s mind) if I had read it as a younger person.
Having said that, there was one scene in Misery, worse even than the amputation scene, which I skipped as soon as I realized what was coming. You gotta know your limits. You do not have any obligation to read every horrifying scene that is out there.
Yet despite that know your limits is a good rule, it has sometimes been the cringiest scenes in books that have done me the most good. Yes, even moral good. They bring home to the reader the details of what some people have to live through (such as sexual assault in Pillars of the Earth or leprosy in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever), thereby increasing empathy. For those of us fortunate enough not to have grown up suffering war, crime, or abuse, our first encounter with the reality of these things was probably through books.
Of course, some horrors are entirely fictional (vampires, zombies, aliens, portals to hell). Yet even these are telling us something that is in some sense true about the world. There really are evil spiritual powers, and they really do seek to affect human history, and sometimes it can get very bad. In the case of these fictional or metaphorical horrors, reading about them inoculates the reader against the shock of that particular thing. Hopefully we will never encounter it in exactly that form, but we are going to come up against the concept – and the power – again.
It is a wonderful thing to be able to encounter a particular horror for the first time in the context of solitary reading, where you have some space and time on your own to be shocked by it, go back and re-read it, meditate on it, and ultimately, to face that this is part of reality. And maybe to go for help.
Here is Jordan Peterson making a similar point about why you should invite Maleficent to your child’s christening:
Now, read the comments section at your own risk. It could really get away from us if people start telling their own ew! stories.
OK, that might be an exaggeration. The “endorsed” part, I mean. Not the “great.”
Andrew Klavan writes hard-boiled crime novels. Sometimes they have supernatural elements in them too. I recently discovered Klavan and have started reading through his work. Within the last week, I read Damnation Street. And it is pretty hard-boiled, let me tell you. Lots of violence, lots of language. A keen sense of human sin nature and human limitations.
The hero detective in Damnation Street, however, has a deeply buried romantic heart. And he is very intuitive in his approach to detective work. Here is a passage that describes how he operates:
[The detective, Weiss] wasn’t even sure he was trailing the right guy. It was just one of his Weissian hunches that had brought him here. And while his hunches were almost always right, he almost never trusted them. They were too vague, too unscientific. He wished he could write out the facts on a whiteboard or something and look them over and tap the pen against his chin and reach his conclusions through logic and deduction. But he never could. He just knew what he knew, so he never felt certain he knew it. (pp 77 – 78)
In fact, Weiss is trailing the right guy. And later, on page 91, we get this line:
The truth came to him in that flashing way the truth had.
That’s when he realizes he’s been wrong in certain of his assumptions about the man he was trailing.
OK, so maybe this is not endorsement of pantsing, but it’s certainly a great description of it.
Damnation Street, by Andrew Klavan, published 2006. Harcourt, Inc.
Why is it that every book about ancient mysteries has to do one of two things …
Follow a present-day character hot on the trail of The Truth, who is all the while being chased by some Shadowy Organization, such that every chapter ends in a cliffhanger?
Overturn Everything We Think We Know about … God, Christianity, and/or our identity as human beings?
And usually it does both of these at once.
The classic example is, of course, The DaVinci Code. But I have read a few others in the same genre. (What’s that you say? Why do I keep picking them up, if I dislike them so much? Well, durnit, I just love a good ancient mystery. Sometimes I can’t resist the promise that All Will Be Revealed. And it will be More Horrible Than We Can Imagine. … Garr! I fell for it again!)
So, I just finished another book in the same genre. But it is, I must say, much better done than The DaVinci Code. (Hence the title of this post.) The mystery was creepier and more ancient. The action was tense but not juvenile. The psychology was sound. The travel-writing aspect of it was terrific. Vivid physical and cultural descriptions made me feel I was really there, whether the setting was Sanliurfa, Turkey, or the Isle of Man. Also, although it does end with a supposed debunking of Genesis, I did not get the idea that this was the author’s goal. Instead, I got the idea that the author was interested in the actual … mystery.
The Genesis Secret (2009), by Tom Knox, follows the adventures of Rob Luttrell (coincidentally, a London-based journalist just like Knox), who is sent to investigate the archaeological dig at Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey. Gobekli Tepe dates to 10,000 BC, which according to received archaeological theory makes it the oldest known human structure (apart from inhabited caves). Naturally, things get spooky. Secret societies happen. Bloodshed follows.
The Shadowy Organization, in this book, is headed by a sociopath who is very, very interested in all the creative methods of human sacrifice practiced around the world by the ancients. I skipped one scene in the book, and there were others that I probably should have skipped. Even more hair-raising, because they actually happened, are the historical descriptions of what used to be done in service to various gods. (Go out and learn about Moloch, the Blood Eagle, or the Flayed Lord. Or, better yet, don’t.)
But the reason this book is appearing on this blog is that Knox explores some of the same questions we are interested in … How did the hunter-gatherers at Gobekli Tepe create this amazing stone temple complex, when they “didn’t have agriculture” and “didn’t have pottery”? He gets fairly deeply into the tale of gods intermarrying with people and producing giants, which is sketched out lightly in Genesis and is greatly expanded upon in the Book of Enoch. He also raises questions like, Where did humankind get this idea of sacrifice? Why do the strongest and most inspirational leaders also turn out to be the cruelest and most violent?
His answers are decidedly humanistic. For example, the idea of gruesome human sacrifice is linked to … belief in God. (That’s right. Not false gods.) He even credits “the ancient Israelites” for child sacrifices to Moloch … all but ignoring the fact that this was a CANAANITE custom which Israel’s God told them REPEATEDLY not to do and which He NEVER commanded.
Nevertheless, The Genesis Secret contains lots of great research that is capably handled with chilling hints, spooky moments, and a mostly satisfying, mostly slow reveal. I recommend this book if you have a strong stomach and are interested in the ancient mysteries genre. Meanwhile, the world will have to wait a little longer for novels about ancient mysteries that actually take place in the ancient, mysterious times, and that lead us closer to God instead of making Him disappear.