Thursday, May 5, 2011

Theology in speculative fiction

[An earlier version of the discussion of Carey and Chan as examples of Taoism in SF was previously posted elsewhere.]

I once asked a friendly wizard to summarise the difference between Buddhism and Taoism. He responded with this story:
The Tale of the Three Vinegar Tasters
Three sages (a Confucian, a Buddhist and a Daoist) walk into a bar. There in the middle of the floor is a big cauldron. Sage 1 steps forward, says I'll handle this and takes a sip. "Ewww! It's sour!" quoth he and recoils from it.

Sage No.2 steps forward, has a taste and says yes. "It's bitter. But then, life itself is bitter, so it all fits really."

Sage No.3 has a taste and says "Hmmmmm. Probably REALLY good with fish and chips."
Which made me laugh, but is also very Taoist, for it gave one much to ponder on very succinctly.

Taoism turns up in various speculative fictions: notably Barry Hughart’s delightful novels of Master Li (who has a slight flaw in his character) and Number Ten Ox. Two speculative fiction authors who incorporate Taoism in their stories in a rather more positive form than does Hughart (who presents the Buddhist-originated Taoist-as-self-seeking-alchemists view) are the urban fantasies of Kylie Chan and Naamah's Kiss by Jacqueline Carey.

Descendants of Angels
Jacqueline Carey is much the better, and more profound, writer. I know that some of my friends who tried the first book in her D'Angeline stories, Kushiel's Dart, were put off by the heroine of the first trilogy, Phedre's, concern for her own beauty and the dark eroticism but, if that does not bother you (or you can get past it), you are taken along in grand stories full of striking characters and a vividly imagined world.

One of the things that most struck me about Carey's D'Angeline stories was her theological insight: her ability to get into how different theological premises lead to very different consequences, including social consequences. The D'Angelines—descended from angels who came to Earth out of love of Elua, the earth-born child of the blood of the crucified Yeshua ben Yosef—are all about beauty and eroticism. To them, rape is heresy but willing eroticism is to be celebrated. They are polytheists for whom sex and gender are part of the divine: not monotheists for whom sex and gender are inherently deeply problematic because sex is not part of the divine and gender is tied up in the absolutely trumping authority of a God conceived as masculine (which thereby associates masculinity with authority and femininity with the lack of it).

Carey is true to her stories. So the heroine of the first trilogy, Phedre, is a courtesan (hence her attractiveness matters deeply to how she makes a living) and an anguissette, someone who can take pleasure from pain. In a sense, she is formed to be a courtesan, and of a very specific sort. Phedre is as she is, in a very particular culture. Just as the hero of the second trilogy, her adopted son of royal and traitorous blood, Imriel, starts off as whiny adolescent because that is what he is, where he is coming from. But he ends up somewhere well beyond that. (And, to be fair, he had some fairly horrible boyhood experiences.)

Phedre’s trilogy does not only explore the implications for human actions of our cosmological assumptions, to use the language Deepak Lal invokes to analyse culture, but also a world where theology really is history, really is grappling with part of how things are. In the last book of Phedre’s trilogy, Kushiel’s Avatar, what had seemed an interesting backdrop for the stories becomes a fundamental driver of the narrative as the aspirations of even the most cunning mortal characters become the flotsam of the plans of gods. Carey explores what serving a divinity that genuinely hungered for destruction would be like. Yet, even here, Carey gift for making even her villains understandable – which makes them all the more memorable and effective as characters – can make a monster a person yet still be a monster: they are made comprehensible, they are not thereby justified or vindicated.

Showing that the theological insight about monotheism and polytheism is not a one-off, Carey explains the difference between Taoism and Buddhism rather well in Naamah's Kiss, the first book of her third D’Angline trilogy. Our heroine, Moirin—part D'Angeline, part Old Folk of Alba (Britain)—becomes the student of Master Lo Feng, a Daoist sage from far Ch'in. In the course of their travels, the men of the party she is in, including Master Lo Feng, disguise themselves as Buddhist monks. So he introduces them to the teachings of the Enlightened One. There and elsewhere in the story, Carey shows she gets the difference rather well.

[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer.]

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