Saturday, October 31, 2015

Book Review: How Dante Can Save Your Life by Rod Dreher

This is the book I was hoping someone would write about the effect of Dante on a person's life (or, most precisely, a person's mid-life) today. What's interesting is that Dreher's circumstances are very different from mine, and yet his main conclusion is the same. It's like this: At the end of Purgatorio, Dante sees a vision of history that prepares him for the ascent to Paradise. At the time, another poet, Statius, is there as well, but Dante only mentions him in passing, implying that Statius didn't see Beatrice in his vision, but that he saw something else, something personal that would only make sense to Statius. In the same way, I see different things from Dreher, but at the end, the different things I see serve the exact same function of healing and restoration. Near the end, I increasingly dogeared the book, thinking "this is me."

The biggest flaw in the book may be a result of its own success. Throughout the first half of the book it's not clear exactly why Dreher's crisis is such a big deal. In the second half, it becomes more clear what the precise conflict is, and yes, it is a big deal. Maybe the redemption Dreher experiences is so complete that he can't quite remember the cutting nature of the hurt in the first part?

Although How Dante Can Save Your Life is written to a reader who has not read Dante yet, reading it post-Commedia I still found it very useful to see which passages resonated with Dreher. My hope is that there would be a genre of "Dante books" in which people write about how Dante helped them. I'd read that.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Book Review: Lock In by John Scalzi

I read this one because it was recommended to be the closest thing to Crichton. It's not Crichton -- in many ways it's better.

The premise is what technothrillers rise and fall on, and this premise is a good one, pretty complicated to explain but it becomes clear soon enough. I wish other novelists would learn from Scalzi that you should just jump into your world and set the stage as quickly as you can rather than withholding information to build the suspense. Scalzi has surprises in store, but they are good surprises that come after his world is fully realized, and they take you to places you didn't think of that, after the surprise wears off, are logical enough that you kick yourself a bit for not thinking of it. In other words, good surprises.

The plot's not quite as well-paced as Crichton, because the urgency seems slow to unfold and a lot of action seems to happen all at once. Also, the scope feels smaller and isn't as audacious as Crichton, but the social and political implications are better thought out than anything Crichton's worlds ever concoct. It's deeper sci-fi (although I do doubt that some of the technology is actually possible), and if anything the book's too short. I feel like Scalzi can set another few stories in this world and still be far from plumbing its depths.

This book also isn't as funny or as touching as Scalzi's Redshirts, and it has a sort of oral history appended to the end, which I'm wondering if it would have been better up front or in chunks spread throughout (which is what I think Crichton would have done). But it's as snappy and solid as they come, and it does what it should, which is plenty.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Book Review: Dante's Paradise Translated by Dorothy Sayers

How do you review a book that describes the indescribable? All I can say is that I reserve 5-star reviews for books that change my life. This gets a 5-star review.

To elaborate, Paradise not always easy, but it's actually easier than Inferno, that most famous member of the trilogy. There's less politics and what's there is more comprehensible. It also focuses on describing beauty rather than torment. Dante's theological questions and issues still resonate today. Maybe these books shouldn't be read till mid-life, as Dante implies in the very first lines of Inferno, and maybe they shouldn't be read unless you have theological interests. Well, I'm that old, and those describe my interests.

Sometimes there are convoluted or what I think are incorrect passages. Dante himself describes changing his mind on points both theological and scientific, so I can imagine him changing his mind again. This isn't a description of Heaven, but a description of Heaven as seen through Dante's eyes and interpreted by his words. Those are two different things, and if you put the author in the center, as both the medievals and postmodernists would, then you see there's little point in arguing with him about theology. The bigger importance is the human experience living in a fallen universe. Dante is reluctant to speak out against the people he speaks out against, but he is encouraged to write by what he sees. It's his vocation. In the end, Dante isn't a self-righteous prig. Dante struggles with himself in all the ways that any artist or author who's trying to represent reality struggles. But he found a way through, with Beatrice (and Virgil, Lucy, and Bernard) as his Beatrice, and the Divine Comedy as his path.

In the end, I was surprised by the cumulative effect of this journey. Even though the translation takes a step down after Canto XX (Sayers' last canto) and the commentary isn't quite up to her standards, the later cantos have the best images and scenes for me. The superposition of images is paramount, and it's important that you descend through Hell and climb Mount Purgatory before you get to the final cantos. But once I did, they had me in tears just like an indescribably beautiful and sad piece of music -- such as Craig Courtney's "Sanctus."

The last three major images, the point of light, the river of light, and the rose of saints, are striking. After climbing through spheres which turn ever faster until they reach the Primum Mobile, which is set in the unmoving Empyrean realm of God's pure light, Dante sees another image of the powers of the universe in which, rather than an infinitely large Empyrean, God is revealed as an infinitely small, still point of piercing light, surrounded by spheres of angelic powers. It seems so perfect to say that God is both at once.

Maybe this isn't the time for you to read all three books. It wouldn't have been a decade ago when I read Inferno. But if you work on creating things, and if you like the big questions, and if you love the good you see around you but struggle with the hate, and especially if you're halfway through life -- try making it through the Divine Comedy, with the assurance that, for me, the higher I climbed the deeper it got.

Monday, October 12, 2015

"Streams in the Martian Desert" Posted at the BioLogos Blog

I wrote a response to NASA's recent press conference about water on the surface of Mars, and the resulting public shrug from most commentators. It also has a paragraph about a recent scientific finding that highlights the unique nature of Earth's geology. Here is the article, enjoy!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Book Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Now this is different. It's sci-fi, but it's more about faith than science, and "faith-fi" won't attract any readers, so I guess we have to call it sci-fi. The story concerns a Christian missionary sent to minister to a tribe of native creatures on a distant planet. The planet is different enough to be intriguing, but it doesn't really hold together on a scientific level. Yet it does hold together (mostly) on a faith level.

There's some unevenness to the pacing and the way the narrative is presented. Information is withheld in the beginning. which ended up annoying me rather than creating suspense. In one case we don't know crucial information because the narrator doesn't remember his introductory tour of the facilities, which is almost a textbook use of amnesia to keep the reader going. There's enough going on that those sections could be streamlined considerably. The first half of the book drags in places and the reveals of what makes the biology of this planet different are placed toward the end of the book (if they come at all). And yet on a scientific level there must be some fascinating convergences that the author isn't interested in. The main biological divergence that sets up the drama is interesting and its consequences are pretty well thought out, but I doubt it could actually happen to such an extreme.

Normally this would frustrate me to no end, but in exchange for the lack of science we get a deep psychological study of faith, isolation, marriage, and the stresses of a mission, even in success. As someone who traveled to a distant land myself recently, much of the feeling of being so far from home is captured expertly by Faber. A few moments of faith don't ring true, which lead me to conclude that the author is writing about faith from the outside. If anything, that makes me like the book more and tend to overlook its overlookings. The main characters should have deeper spiritual resources than they are shown to have when crisis hits, and they should also have more vacillation and variation in their faith in the good times. They should doubt more; the internal life of a Christian is never quite so even and shiny. They also should depend more on the person of Jesus rather than the Bible stories in general, especially if the narrator has memorized Matthew as the book implies. The internal lives of the characters are not quite nuanced enough, but they come close enough to make the characters live and to remind me of my own time in the field.

By the end of the book, a subtle but thought-provoking contrast emerges between science and faith that centers around issues of safety and God's providence with shades of color and angles that I don't normally see outside of the typical great Christian authors. The way the story is left unfinished in terms of faith feels right, while the ways it's left unfinished in terms of science feels more wrong to me. But it's not really about the science -- so I can't help but consider this book a success and hope that more authors explore these questions and these kinds of characters. I know how I've reacted given my own surprising parallels to this story, so I'd like to know how others who don't share that history or faith react as well. But as for me and my brain, this strange little book did contain some new things, and some solid old ones as well.