Friday, June 24, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novelette - "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" by Eric James Stone (Analog, September 2010)

This is another sort of old-fashioned space opera story. We even get exposition describing simple elements of the world from a first person narrator, which most authors seem to bend over backwards to avoid these days. I’m fine with this; I’ve always found being forced to puzzle out the ground rules more distracting than the illogic of a person describing what should be a familiar environment.

Harry Malan leads a branch of the Church of Latter Day Saints on the sun. Most of his congregation is made up of “swales,” alien beings that live in stars and build star gates between them. Malan has conflicts with local scientists studying the swales, especially Juanita Merced, whom he also happens to have a crush on. He comes into conflict with the swale elders when the mores of the church begin to conflict with swale culture. The story raises some interesting ethical issues, and it presents a simple but fun space opera world, something that I feel has been missing of late.

This is clearly from Malan’s perspective, and Stone is also LDS, but I (decidedly not a Mormon) usually found the presentation balanced. A lot of the reaction from other reviewers whose blogs I follow has been intensely negative. I think you could view this story as a manipulative justification of missionary work. As a historian, I’ve done a great deal of work on the Franciscan missions of California and the Protestant mission in Hawai’i, and both cases are fraught with violence, sexual repression, and appalling death rates. I’d be one of the last people to defend missionary work as a general principle, but I do think the story gets more complex when you bring it up to the present. In the modern world, there are clear points of conflict between universal humanist values and respect for cultural diversity. Religion, of course, complicates these conflicts, and in this story, so does the fact that the other culture is non-human. All of this makes for a fascinating read. What’s really missing here, and what undermines the metaphor to a large extent, are the power dynamics that are usually present in missionary work. Malan is often in danger from powerful alien beings. Historically, missionaries were also often in danger, and many were killed, but missionaries were almost always backed by some sort of imperial power, and disproportionately violent retribution often followed martyrdom. It's almost always been more dangerous to be the object of missionary work than to be a missionary. If Stone really wanted to explore these dynamics, his swales should have been more vulnerable.

Still, I really enjoyed this story. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and it’s not shooting for a PEN/Faulkner award, it just presents an interesting concept in a simple, entertaining way. I see why some people were offended, but I did think it had a lot more nuance and evenhandedness than, say, Speaker for the Dead (which makes me a little bit angrier every time I think about it).

Grade: B+

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