On ‘The Overstory.’

On ‘The Overstory.’

We delude ourselves into thinking that the pace of life has increased in recent years.  National news is made by the minute as politicians announce their plans via live-televised pronouncement or mass-audience short text message.  Office workers carry powerful computers into their bedrooms, continuing to work until moments before sleep.

But our frenzy doesn’t match the actual pace of the world.  There’s a universe of our own creation zipping by far faster than the reaction time of any organism that relies on voltage waves propagating along its ion channels.  Fortunes are made by shortening the length of fiberoptic cable between supercomputer clusters and the stock exchange, improving response times by fractions of a second.  “Practice makes perfect,” and one reason the new chess and Go algorithms are so much better than human players is that they’ve played lifetimes of games against themselves since their creation.

640px-IFA_2010_Internationale_Funkausstellung_Berlin_18We can frantically press buttons or swipe our fingers across touch screens, but humans will never keep up with the speed of the algorithms that recommend our entertainment, curate our news, eavesdrop on our conversations, guess at our sexual predilections, condemn us to prison

And then there’s the world.  The living things that have been inhabiting our planet for billions of years – the integrated ecosystems they create, the climates they shape.  The natural world continues to march at the same stately pace as ever.  Trees siphon carbon from the air as they grasp for the sun, then fall and rot and cause the Earth itself to grow.  A single tree might live for hundreds or thousands of years.  The forests in which they are enmeshed might develop a personality over millions.

Trees do not have a neural network.  But neither do neurons.  When simple components band together and communicate, the result can be striking.  And, as our own brains clearly show, conscious.  The bees clustering beneath a branch do not seem particularly clever by most of our metrics, but the hive as a whole responds intelligently to external pressures.  Although each individual has no idea what the others are doing, they function as a unit.

Your neurons probably don’t understand what they’re doing.  But they communicate to the others, and that wide network of communication is enough.

Root_of_a_TreeTrees talk.  Their roots intertwine – they send chemical communiques through symbiotic networks of fungal mycelia akin to telephones.

Trees talk slowly, by our standards.  But we’ve already proven to ourselves that intelligence could operate over many orders of temporal magnitude – silicon-based AI is much speedier than the chemical communiques sent from neuron to neuron within our own brains.  If a forest thought on a timescale of days, months, or years, would we humans even notice?  Our concerns were bound up in the minute by minute exigencies of hunting for food, finding mates, and trying not to be mauled by lions.  Now, they’re bound up in the exigencies of making money.  Selecting which TV show to stream.  Scoping the latest developments of a congressional race that will determine whether two more years pass without the slightest attempt made to avoid global famine.

In The Overstory, Richard Powers tries to frame this timescale conflict such that we Homo sapiens might finally understand.  Early on, he presents a summary of his own book; fractal-like, this single paragraph encapsulates the entire 500 pages (or rather, thousands of years) of heartbreak.

image (2)He still binges on old-school reading.  At night, he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter.  Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks.  Domed cities like giant terrariums.  Histories that split and bifurcate into countless parallel quantum worlds.  There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it.  When he finds it at last, it stays with him forever, although he’ll never be able to find it again, in any database.  Aliens land on Earth.  They’re little runts, as alien races go.  But they metabolize like there’s no tomorrow.  They zip around like swarms of gnats, too fast to see – so fast that Earth seconds seem to them like years.  To them, humans are nothing but sculptures of immobile meat.  The foreigners try to communicate, but there’s no reply.  Finding no signs of intelligent life, they tuck into the frozen statues and start curing them like so much jerky, for the long ride home.

Several times while reading The Overstory, I felt a flush of shame at the thought of how much I personally consume.  Which means, obviously, that Powers was doing his work well – I should feel ashamed.    We are alive, brilliantly beautifully alive, here on a magnificent, temperate planet.  But most of us spend too little time feeling awe and too much feeling want.  “What if there was more?” repeated so often that we’ve approached a clear precipice of forever having less.

In Fruitful Labor, Mike Madison (whose every word – including the rueful realization that young people today can’t reasonably expect to follow in his footsteps – seems to come from a place of earned wisdom and integrity, a distinct contrast from Thoreau’s Walden, in my opinion) asks us to:

image (3)Consider the case of a foolish youth who, at age 21, inherits a fortune that he spends so recklessly that, by the age of 30, the fortune is dissipated and he finds himself destitute.  This is more or less the situation of the human species.  We have inherited great wealth in several forms: historic solar energy, either recent sunlight stored as biomass, or ancient sunlight stored as fossil fuels; the great diversity of plants and animals, organized into robust ecosystems; ancient aquifers; and the earth’s soil, which is the basis for all terrestrial life.  We might mention a fifth form of inherited wealth – antibiotics, that magic against many diseases – which we are rendering ineffective through misuse.  Of these forms of wealth that we are spending so recklessly, fossil fuels are primary, because it is their energy that drives the destruction of the other assets.

What we have purchased with the expenditure of this inheritance is an increase in the human population of the planet far above what the carrying capacity would be without the use of fossil fuels.  This level of population cannot be sustained, and so must decline.  The decline could be gradual and relatively painless, as we see in Japan, where the death rate slightly exceeds the birth rate.  Or the decline could be sudden and catastrophic, with unimaginable grief and misery.

In this context, the value of increased energy efficiency is that it delays the inevitable reckoning; that is, it buys us time.  We could use this time wisely, to decrease our populations in the Japanese style, and to conserve our soil, water, and biological resources.  A slower pace of climate change could allow biological and ecological adaptations.  At the same time we could develop and enhance our uses of geothermal, nuclear, and solar energies, and change our habits to be less materialistic.  A darker option is to use the advantages of increased energy efficiency to increase the human population even further, ensuring increasing planetary poverty and an even more grievous demise.  History does not inspire optimism; nonetheless, the ethical imperative remains to farm as efficiently as one is able.

The tragic side of this situation is not so much the fate of the humans; we are a flawed species unable to make good use of the wisdom available to us, and we have earned our unhappy destiny by our foolishness.  It is the other species on the planet, whose destinies are tied to ours, that suffer a tragic outcome.

Any individual among us could protest that “It’s not my fault!”  The Koch brothers did not invent the internal combustion engine – for all their efforts to confine us to a track toward destitution and demise, they didn’t set us off in that direction.  And it’s not as though contemporary humans are unique in reshaping our environment into an inhospitable place, pushing ourselves toward extinction.

Heck, you could argue that trees brought this upon themselves.  Plants caused climate change long before there was a glimmer of a chance that animals like us might ever exist.  The atmosphere of the Earth was like a gas chamber, stifling hot and full of carbon dioxide.  But then plants grew and filled the air with oxygen.  Animals could evolve … leading one day to our own species, which now kills most types of plants to clear space for a select few monocultures.

As Homo sapiens spread across the globe, we rapidly caused the extinction of nearly all mega-fauna on every continent we reached.  On Easter Island, humans caused their own demise by killing every tree – in Collapse, Jared Diamond writes that our species’ inability to notice long-term, gradual change made the environmental devastation possible (indeed, the same phenomenon explains why people aren’t as upset as they should be about climate change today):

image (4)We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. 

Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site.  Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. 

Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago.  Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important.  At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance.  That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. 

No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

512px-Richard_Powers_(author)Throughout The Overstory, Powers summarizes research demonstrating all the ways that a forest is different from – more than – a collection of trees.  It’s like comparing a functioning brain with neuronal cells grown in a petri dish.  But we have cut down nearly all our world’s forests.  We can console ourselves that we still allow some trees to grow – timber crops to ensure that we’ll still have lumber for all those homes we’re building – but we’re close to losing forests without ever knowing quite what they are.

Powers is furious, and wants for you to change your life.

You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit.  “How do we convince people that we’re right?”

The newest Cascadian [a group of environmentalists-cum-ecoterrorists / freedom fighters] takes the bait.  “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind.  The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

On Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad.’

On Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad.’

Whenever one of her students finished, my graduate school advisor took everyone out to dinner and paid for the meal.  These were expensive meals, too – between San Francisco’s culinary culture and Silicon Valley’s sudden money, many restaurants near Stanford turned very pricey.

I wouldn’t eat.  I’d order a glass of water, no more.  If it were lunchtime, I’d say that I planned to go running early in the afternoon.  If it were dinner, I’d murmur that K & I had eaten already.  My advisor would frown, but after the first few times this happened, she stopped arguing.  She probably thought I was anorexic, or deranged.

Nope.  But I’d read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.  In his words:

gift_us_newGift exchange must … be refused when there is a real threat in the connections that it offers.  In ancient tales the hero who must pass through hell is warned that charity is dangerous in the underworld; if he wishes to return to the land of the living, he should lend a hand to no one, nor accept the food offered by the dead.

Gifts from evil people must also be refused lest we be bound to evil.  In folk tales the hero is well advised to refuse the food and drink offered him by a witch.

We often refuse relationship, either from the simple desire to remain unentangled, or because we sense that the proffered connection is tainted, dangerous, or frankly evil.  And when we refuse relationship, we must refuse gift exchange as well.

If I’d nibbled an eight dollar plate of french fries, I probably wouldn’t have been trapped in California.  But it wasn’t worth the risk.  That was a world with which I hoped to maintain no ties.

urThe stakes for Cora, the hero of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, are higher.  I was miserable during graduate school, but Whitehead writes of a world in which innocent people are routinely tortured and murdered in all variety of grotesque, horrifying manner.

When Cora stumbles to the road after trekking for days through a secret subterranean tunnel, she sees several wagons trundling westward.  The first two wagons are driven by white men – she ignores the first, and, when pressed by the second, turns down his offer to help.

The third wagon was commanded by an older negro man.

You hungry?” the man asked.  He was from the south, from his voice.

I’m very hungry,” Cora said.

Despite her hunger, Cora could not accept aid from the whites.  Although her escape was facilitated by several white people (most of whom were then tortured and murdered for having aided her), she cannot trust strangers with pallid skin.

Indeed, a minor character, another survivor of the final massacre that Cora fled, gives a pithy summary of this distrust in her old age:

She lived on Long Island then, after roaming all over the country, in a small house with a Shinnecock sailor who doted on her to excess. She’d spent time in Louisiana and Virginia, where her father opened colored institutes of learning, and California.  A spell in Oklahoma … The conflict in Europe was terrible and violent, she told her sailor, but she took exception to the name.  The Great War had always been between the white and the black.  It always would be.

Several pages earlier, Whitehead proffers a speech from a character highly regarded for his intellectualism; this speech delineates the sides in this war:

Our ancestors came from all over the African continent.  It’s quite large. … They had different ways of subsistence, different customs, spoke a hundred different languages.  And that great mixture was brought to America in the holds of slave ships. … We are craftsmen and midwives and preachers and peddlers. … The word we.  We are not one people but many different people.  How can one person speak for this great, beautiful race – which is not one race but many, with a million desires and hopes and wishes for ourselves and our children?

For we are Africans in America.  Something new in the history of the world, without models for what we will become.

Color must suffice.  It has brought us to this night, this discussion, and it will take us into the future.  All I truly know is that we rise and fall as one, one colored family living next door to one white family.  We may not know the way through the forest, but we can pick each other up when we fall, and we will arrive together.”

The world in Whitehead’s novel is stark and brutal.  What’s worse, the most horrific elements of the story are real.

colson_whitehead_2014The Underground Railroad is a blend of historical fiction and Man-in-the-High-Castle-esque sci-fi.  The novel is set in a world that resembles the 1800s United States, but it is not our world.  Underground tunnels crisscross the country, secretly built by a coterie of technologically-advanced, presumably African-American citizens (when asked of the provenance of the tunnels, a character gnomically replies “Who builds anything in this country?”).  And a century’s worth of racial injustice has been condensed into the several years that Cora spends fleeing the torturers who claimed to own her.

Personally, I felt that this speculative re-imagining of America weakened the story.  By picking and choosing various injustices throughout history and shifting them into the past, Whitehead creates the illusion that these sins all pre-dated the Civil War.  After all, the passage about the “Great War” quoted above implies that Whitehead’s world experienced a similar abolition of slavery toward the turn of the century, else how could “colored institutes of learning” be opened in the south?

But the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, as with many of the abuses documented in Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, is so chilling because it transpired long after the Civil War – the syphilis study did not officially end until the 1970s.

And Whitehead imagines a region that has outlawed the presence of any human with too much melanin in his or her skin (perhaps even European immigrants living here stayed indoors, or routinely smeared themselves with thick swaths of titanium dioxide, lest they be mobbed & murdered for a tan).  But, within the context of a sci-fi alternate history, readers might believe that the violent enforcement of a “whites only” district ended long before it did in this country.

bloodattherootThese abuses were ongoing a mere thirty years ago.  From Carol Anderson’s New York Times review of Patrick Phillips’ Blood at the Root:

A few years later, in 1987, the civil rights legend Hosea Williams … took marchers … into Forsyth County [outside Atlanta].  It wasn’t a fair fight.  Men, women, children and Klansmen, proudly waving the Confederate flag and a noose, overwhelmed law enforcement and hurled stones, debris, and epithets as they surged at the nonviolent protesters.  “Keep Forsyth white!” scraped through the air like fingernails on a chalkboard.  The only thing that finally broke Forsyth County open was the pressure of Atlanta’s sprawl and the onslaught of economic development.

Especially at this moment in history, when millions of young black men are ensnared in our nation’s incarceration crisis, when dozens have recently been murdered by the law enforcement officers sworn to protect them, it feels strange to condense horrors into a small sliver of long-ago time.  Slavery itself in many ways continued into the 1940s, as documented in Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name.  If you read the Thirteenth Amendment, you’ll find that slavery is still constitutionally legal even today, as long as a mockery of justice is enacted first.  In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander documents how egregiously unfair these mockeries of justice often are in the present-day United States.

Some of the violence in Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is thankfully confined to the past.  The unpunished multi-day torture-cum-murder of re-captured fugitives, for instance.  And the Underground Railroad itself is an idea firmly rooted in the pre-Civil-War United States.

But I worry that, by linking these ideas to more recent examples of injustice, Whitehead’s novel won’t draw this violence into the present, but rather make contemporary injustice seem long past.  After all, we humans are adept at forgetting the suffering we cause.  After the slave catcher in Whitehead’s novel asks Cora whether she feels bad about having killed a boy during her escape, the slaver summarizes,

Of course not – it’s nothing.  Better weep for one of those burned cornfields, or this steer swimming in our soup.”

 

On ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and whether or not it’s sci-fi.

On ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and whether or not it’s sci-fi.

The bookshelves at the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project are chaotic.  Not everyone who volunteers there is a big reader, so sometimes people don’t know where a book might belong.  But the bigger problem is with books themselves.  Most — especially the good ones — are about more than one thing.

The shelves have vague categories to make it easier to find a book that’ll be enjoyed by, say, a prisoner who wants to read about Norse mythology, or about classic cars, or about gardening, etc.  But many books could reasonably fit in several different places.  I always use the rule of thumb, “Where would I look for this if I was filling a package for somebody who’d love it?”, but, even then, somebody else’s brain might leap to different ideas after reading the exact same inmate’s letter.

Last week, for instance, a few of us spent a minute arguing about Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.  Not a real argument, mind you, just the kind of friendly debate that people use to distract themselves from feeling sad about the fact that they’re filling a package for a 32-year-old dude who’s been in jail since he turned 19 for possession of small amounts of cocaine.  A little levity helps sometimes.

13219367264_4a6e46e010_b
Image by wplynn on Flickr.

So, Cat’s Cradle?  I say “literary fiction.”  Second choice, “classics.”  But another well-read volunteer said, “sci fi.”  She forwarded the evidence of “ice-9,” a special type of water crystal that could destroy the world.

The book is definitely speculative.  You don’t need to worry that someone will drop a small seed crystal of ice-9 into the ocean and cause everyone to freeze.  But it’s very mildly speculative, I’d say.  Less so that the imaginary drugs in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for instance, or the elevators in Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, or even the packing density of folded paper in Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age.  All of those, to my knowledge, are very rarely considered to be science fiction.

Not only does Cat’s Cradle seem to be less speculative than any of those, but it also features some of my favorite writing about how the general populace interacts with scientific findings.  Consider this passage from early in the book, where the narrator has gone to investigate a famous recently-deceased scientist.

“He was supposed to be our commencement speaker,” said Sandra.

          “Who was?” I asked.

          “Dr. Hoenikker–the old man.”

          “What did he say?”

          “He didn’t show up.”

          “So you didn’t get a commencement address?”

          “Oh, we got one.  Dr. Breed, the one you’re gonna see tomorrow, he showed up, all out of breath, and he gave some kind of talk.”

          “What did he say?”

          “He said he hoped a lot of us would have careers in science,” she said.  She didn’t see anything funny in that.  She was remembering a lesson that had impressed her.  She was repeating it gropingly, dutifully.  “He said, the trouble with the world was…”

          She had to stop and think.

          “The trouble with the world was,” she continued hesitatingly, “that people were still superstitious instead of scientific.  He was if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was.”

          “He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life someday,” the bartender put in.  He scratched his head and frowned.  “Didn’t I read in the paper the other day where they’d finally found out what it was?”

          “I missed that,” I murmured.

          “I saw that,” said Sandra.  “About two days ago.”

          “That’s right,” said the bartender.

          “What is the secret of life?” I asked.

          “I forget,” said Sandra.

          “Protein,” the bartender declared.  “They found out something about protein.”

          “Yeah,” said Sandra, “that’s it.”

Vonnegut beautifully captures the way science is often treated in the popular press.  Exceedingly important, graced with insight about the secret of life… and yet still the purvey of weirdos.  Other people.  For the masses, it’s enough to read that scientists have discovered something or other, forget the details, and carry on with their lives.

I mean, I do this too.  I read an article that there might be another planet in our solar system — five or so other astronomical objects have peculiar orbits, suggesting that they’ve been influenced by a heavy, perhaps planet-sized, object — nodded, murmured “That’s nice,” but didn’t feel a thing.

Or there was — and this is even closer to the “secret of life” gag in Vonnegut’s passage — the time when I read that astronomers had tallied the Doppler shifts for many distant objects and decided that our universe will not be collapsing in on itself. The current best guess for how the universe will end is that expanding space will push everything apart faster and faster until emptiness abounds. The universe will be dark, every particle lonely and cold.

I read about all that, thought, “Whoa, that’s heavy,” and drew a comic strip. That’s all, though. Unveiled secrets of the universe didn’t change how I live my life.

dave55

So, the science behind ice-9?  It’s pretty standard thermodynamics.  When water freezes, there are several different configurations it might solidify into, and each of these has a slightly different stability.  Vonnegut’s ice-9 is a hypothetical configuration that is very stable but difficult to form.

6842477087_91f0866575_b
Image by wplynn on Flickr.

Describing this to math and numbers people — to scientists — is pretty easy.  I’d draw a graph that shows a deep valley hidden by a mountain.  I’d say “this is the energy level diagram for ice-9, and even though water would be happiest in its lowest-energy state, it can’t get there because it’d pass through such a high-energy transition state.”  If you were a scientist, you’d nod sagely — “yes yes, we learned all this as undergraduates.”  If you’re not, I can only assume that your eyes would glaze over with boredom.

So here’s an analogy instead: qwerty computer keyboards are ridiculous.  They were designed to make people type slowly.  A world in which everyone used an efficient keyboard layout would be better.  But the process of changing everything would be aggravating.  Having to remember two different layouts — because the computers at the public library would presumably still have qwerty keyboards long after you’d upgraded your rig at home — would make our fingers slow and sloppy.

Or those early white settlers traveling westward through America.  If they could reach California, they’d be living easy.  The weather’s nice, the soil fertile.  But there were dangerous mountains in the way.  While crossing those mountains (my information here comes solely from the Oregon Trail computer game), people were dropping left & right (and having naughty words engraved on their tombstones) from dysentery.

Vonnegut proposed, though, that a seed crystal of ice-9 would lower the energy barrier of that transition state.  This is a pretty common phenomenon, actually.  Ice-9 works the same way as mad cow disease.  Prions are a protein configuration more stable than the functional form but difficult to reach.  Once a small amount of the protein assumes that new configuration, though, it can catalyze the mis-folding of all the rest in your brain.

Just like the suddenly-solid oceans at the end of Cat’s Cradle, prions freeze up the brain.  Then the brain stops working.  Then you’re all done being alive.

Prion_subdomain-colored_sec_structure.png
A human prion protein.

Just you, though.  Ice-9 killed everybody.  So, sure, Cat’s Cradle is sci-fi-esque.  But quite realistic.  Plus — and I suppose this is the biggest reason why I wouldn’t call it science fiction — Vonnegut wastes little time explaining how his speculations work.  You can believe him or not — yes, his ideas are reasonable, but he feels no imperative to prove that to you.  Instead he introduces the mild speculation as a way to investigate how people behave.

Vonnegut winks at his readers.  At the beginning of the book his character dutifully recites that if everyone studied science more, the world’s troubles would be over.  But Vonnegut himself glosses over the science of his world, instead lavishly describing the philosophies that arose in response to the discovery of ice-9.

I think the dude’s priorities are in the right place.  I mean, look at our society.  We’re spending huge amounts of money investigating rare childhood diseases, or the routine maladies of age… but we spend a pittance on childhood nutrition, which would benefit people far more.  Our society’s biggest problems are philosophical.  We don’t help those children: they earned their fate by choosing to be born poor.

On redemption and Christianity in The Book of Strange New Things.

9780553418842So, I read a couple reviews that didn’t like Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.  The problem was, in the reviewers’ eyes, that the novel as science fiction was bland (e.g. this piece from NPR).  And I’ll admit, I wasn’t having fun for most of the time I spent reading it.  But at the end of the book, Faber pulled a trick that really altered the way I viewed his work, and I haven’t seen any other reviews that engage with this idea.  I do wish that more of the book was spent on this concept, and that there was less of the tepid sci-fi odyssey and orthological tomfoolery and emailed monologues, but so it goes.  There really is a beautiful idea nestled in his story.

To me, the most interesting facet of The Book of Strange New Things was the way it explored the question, is the possibility of redemption necessary for Christianity to work?  And Faber explores the idea of redemption on many levels: physiological, personal, societal, ecological.  It’s that breadth of engagement with the concept of redemption that made the work for me.  Like, yes, the protagonist is an ex-junkie preacher.  He was bad, turned his life around, found Jesus, is Christian.  Which is fine, but I have Dostoyevsky for that; if Faber offered only that same narrative dressed up in tinfoil on a far-off planet where the water makes you piss green, well, I’d pass.  Why not re-read Crime and Punishment instead?

But I really like that Faber took the idea of redemption further.  There’s a scene in the book where his protagonist is bitten by a wild animal, at which point the natives of that planet give him up for dead.  He assumes the animal is poisonous, that there’ll be no healing from the wound.  But then he gets better.  And it turns out that the alien species lacks wound healing of any kind.  If they become injured, they die.  And that may underlie their fascination with Christianity: in the Bible, physiological redemption isn’t just a metaphor for personal redemption.  Physical healing is made possible through the love of God.  The most important miracles are instances of Jesus as medical doctor.

This point is really underscored by the protagonist’s earlier efforts to translate the Bible into something the aliens would better understand.  He spent a long time thinking about the idea of sheep and shepherds, which aren’t present on their world, and of oceans and fish and fishers of men, likewise absent, but never realized that any reference to Jesus’s doctoring would seem magical to them.  When their bodies are hurt, there is no redemption.

And Faber explored ecological and societal situations that would seem to have no possibility for redemption.  The earth of Faber’s novel has passed an ecological tipping point and is spiraling from one natural disaster to another; messages from the earthbound wife make clear that the planet won’t be habitable for long, and (in another shopworn sci-fi touch, the sort of thing that would make me dislike the book if I were engaging with it as science fiction and not as religious meditation) the reason a human colony was established on the alien world is to serve as refuge for a small population of humans that will be saved.

Society also seems to have descended into irreparable chaos.  The world has become violent and cruel, so much so that the protagonist’s wife finally writes to let him know that she is doomed; he should never return to Earth.  She’ll try to join a band of survivalists and scrape out a meager existence during what little time remains.

He decides to return.  To attempt to find her.  He’ll try for redemption where no redemption seems possible.  And the book ends.

Honestly, it’s not a simple message.  Because there’s a contrast; Christianity is hinted to be a poor fit for people who can’t heal, and yet the protagonist returns to a doomed world.  Which you could perhaps interpret as Faber trying to convey that small-scale personal and physical redemption are more important than anything that happens in society, but I don’t think that’s it.  The message I took away was that Christianity would not work in situations where healing was not a possibility, whether that healing means turning your life around, getting better after an injury, the climate restabilizing under habitable conditions, but that, akin to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, a Christian should be unable to accept the idea that healing isn’t possible.

That’s why, after I’d finished the book, I revised my opinion of it.  I think the ending makes a very interesting theological point, and makes it in a way that really did require an alien species to address.  Although…

Many types of injuries that aren’t problematic now used to be fatal.  Bacterial infection would set in, spread through a body, and kill a person.  That’s why amputation was so common; for much of human history, there was no other way to stop infections.

Then antibiotics were discovered.  Antibiotics are like magic.  They are Jesus’s miracles in pill form.  You get sick, you should die, you swallow one pill a day for a few weeks, you are healed.  You live.  Praise the saviors.

But antibiotics are getting worse.  Or, more specifically, we are putting selective pressure on bacteria to evade or degrade those magical molecules.  The idea of feeding subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics to huge numbers of densely-housed animals, year in and year out, seems insane to me.  Honestly, that’s a set-up not so dissimilar from what you might employ in a purposeful gain-of-function directed evolution experiment.  That is, if you wanted to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria, that’s something you might do.

And if antibiotic resistance arises in one line of bacteria, it’s unlikely to remain isolated to that population for long.  Horizontal gene transfer, including from one species to another, is very common amongst bacteria.

The point being that we are bringing ourselvesintentionally, it would seem like — closer and closer to a post-antibiotic era.  The magic in those pills might soon be gone.  And we’ll be much worse-off than we were pre-antibiotics; the world is different now, including much higher population densities in urban areas.  Quite likely, bacterial infections will spread more voraciously than they did in the pre-antibiotic era.

To me, that increases the resonance of Faber’s work.  Those aliens, groping ineffectually through Christianity because, once harmed, they can not heal?  They could be our future selves.