Review: Cloud Atlas

I’m reviewing the movie here, not the book it was based on. I actually tried reading the book, but I have a hard time reading dialect, and both book and film half quite a bit of it. Hence, I settled for the movie.

I was quite taken with the trailer when I saw it over the summer and was really looking forward to this. It promised to be a little deeper in the intellectual waters than most American films. And yeah, I’d say it was deeper all right. It ended up being one of those films I was going to have to see more than once to really know what I thought about it. Alas, I didn’t get the chance to do so before it promptly vanished from the theaters, so that will have to wait until it comes out on disc.

First of all, I have to say it is a visually beautiful film. The settings (both real and virtual) are gorgeous, and the cinematography is stunning. It’s a testament to how seamless effects can be in a film that’s not really billed as a special effects bonanza. Things that are quite unreal simply looked real.

Second, the movie hops around quite a bit, but I think it does so to its benefit. It’s really six tales interleaved with each other, but they are all separated by time, anywhere from fifty to three hundred years. And yet, there were connections between most of the tales, some subtle, some not. Some of the connections were about cause and effect, while others were more tangential. I would say they were actually all connected, but there was one link going forward that I could not spot in my memory of the film.

And third, the cast was a fabulous collection of A-list actors, with each of them playing multiple roles that were often quite different. It was only when the credits rolled did I realize just how many roles they each played. I expect this film to win various technical awards for its costumes and make-up.

So, all of that is the blah-blah-blah that movie reviewers go on about when describing some high-concept art film, but it never really tells us what the film is about.

So, what is this one about?

It’s kind of hard to say, but to sum it up, I would say it’s about the terrible things we humans do to one another as well as how individuals face that. Some of them fold under. Some stand up and fight. And others make good their escape. And these six tales examine many of humanity’s real and imagined sins ranging from historic slavery all the way forward to post-apocalyptic barbarism. And I would say it did a good job at it.

So, in short, the six tales are about the following – and no, these aren’t really much in the way of spoilers:

  • the American institution of black slavery
  • the treatment of homosexuals in historic “polite society”
  • the abuse of corporate power against citizens
  • the shutting away of our elders
  • the denial of basic rights to artificial life forms
  • the barbaric struggles of a post-apocalyptic world

There was also a hint of reincarnation, cycles of life, and other non-Judeo-Christian views. The preview actually made me expect much more of this than I saw in the film itself. What it had was actually pretty vague and open to interpretation. On exiting, I overheard an elderly couple discussing the film, with one asking, “So, was Tom Hanks supposed to be Christ?” I never would have made that leap myself, but it does show that different people will see different things in the film.

So, if you missed it in the theater, definitely give it a look when it comes out for purchase or rental. I know I’m going to be buying it on Blu-Ray, just to get another look at it.

Religion in Science Fiction

Wow, just putting “religion” and “science” in the same sentence seems enough to ignite a firestorm of controversy, but I’ve been thinking lately about the presence (or lack) of religion in science fiction. Religion fares pretty well in fantasy, with the gods often showing up to speak up for themselves, but religion has not fared nearly as well in science fiction.

Much of this is because of the ongoing culture war between science and religion here in America. Proponents of science don’t want to see religion in their science fiction because, after all, it’s SCIENCE fiction, not religious fiction. Also, it’s the future, and I know some proponents of science who assume that in the future, these primitive notions of deities and sacred energies will have been put behind us. Meanwhile, I know a number of religious folks who attribute all manner of evil and malevolence to scientists. Of course, many of them attribute similar attributes to science fiction, so I don’t imagine they’re all that surprised or upset at the rarity of religion within it.

Personally, I don’t have much patience for either side in this particular culture war. I consider myself both a person of faith and a scientist. I see their proper roles in largely non-intersecting spheres of my intellectual life, and I find worldviews that must sacrifice one to promote the other to be close-minded and often point to poor uses of science and/or religion. But that’s not what this particular essay is about.

Instead, I want to talk about the role religions can play in our sci-fi. Rather than assume that such primitive notions will fade with the advancement of technology, I’m going to assume that human nature will remain largely unchanged. (Or at the very least, it’s easier to have sympathetic characters whose human nature has not changed much from ours.) And from the old campfires to modern cathedrals, humans seem to be wired for some kind of supernatural belief. Whether that’s a quirk of evolution or the fingerprints of the divine I leave as an exercise to the reader. But I think that if there are still humans in a thousand years, there will still be believers.

But what will they believe?

Well, I think it’s pretty easy to argue that most of the major religions today will still be around. If nothing else, they’ve already proven their staying power. A faith might be dwindling in one part of the world only to be finding new strength in another. Notably, while Christianity may be faltering in Europe, it is surging in Africa. Also, while I’ve heard some predict the doom of Islam given the violent schisms in that faith, I suspect that it will survive as well as Christianity made it past Luther and Henry VIII. (And yes, I’m watching The Tudors again.)

But you can still have some fun with them. In my upcoming book, Beneath the Sky, I slipped in a little reference to the “Third Reformation” of the Christian church. Third? Whatever happened to the second? This one is somewhat farcical, but I have read of the Reformed Church of Elvis. Reformed, eh? I guess after the great sequin scandal of 2188, something had to be done.

There could also be some entirely new religions, and in the creative arts, that’s a great canvas to spread out on. It could be a new branch of an existing religion, maybe Rama’s Soldiers. Or you could mix and match elements from current or old religions, maybe bringing Mayan beliefs forward to the disenchanted descendants of Mesoamerica.

You can also return to less codified religious beliefs, such as animism or the worship of physical elements such as the sun or sea. You might think these restricted to primitives, but I can imagine them being employed in more advanced philosophies. Animism could be an ethical argument in favor of veganism or at the very least for the better treatment and respect for meat animals. Sun worship, or for that matter ocean worship, tree worship, or whatever, could signify a deeper connection to and respect for the natural world. In this kind of system, the sun need not become the personified Ra to be worshipped. Rather, believers need only develop rituals and practices to express their appreciation for the friendly star and the universe that placed it there.

You can even invent a few things out of whole cloth, like a philosopher who starts a new movement. In my Hudson Confederacy universe, I’ve made oblique references to a Master Shiana and his epic tome “The Path of Fury”. I haven’t figured them out yet, but so far, they don’t look like folks you want to cross. I suspect it’s going to be some kind of machismic refutation of elements of Confusionism or some other reasonably sane or ethical belief system.

But whatever it is that they happen to believe, it’s what they do that makes for interesting stories. Certainly, not every story with religion in it needs to be a holy war, but at the very least, I like to see characters with religious beliefs and see how those beliefs affect their actions. For example, consider a murderer and his punishment. Will the disciple of Master Shiana be vengeful? Will the devout Catholic urge forgiveness? Or will the animist say that it is time to release his spirit back into the Great River?

While it can be fun to steep yourself into one particular monoculture and play with all its little permutations, it’s the intersection between these beliefs that I find most interesting. I already said that not every story has to be a holy war, but to be clear, not every story CAN be a holy war. Muslims will walk past St. Nike’s cathedral on Ganymede. Buddhists will book passage with the Jewish interstellar captain. And yes, even the Martian Reformed Baptist will buy his new regolith concrete mixer from the hedonistic neo-Mayan. He just won’t go swimming with him.

Now, before I go off and leave the impression that religion is entirely absent from SF, I want to toss a few places I’ve seen it:

  • Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai universe had a religious movement called “The Friendlies”. I never got a good feel for their beliefs, and all too often they were mostly presented as trouble-makers.
  • Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow was about a first contact mission between aliens and… the Jesuits.
  • Babylon 5 delved into a number of different religious systems, complete with discussions of souls, reverence for the Book of G’Quon, and even notions of sin and forgiveness.
  • Sharon Shinn’s Samaria series is an excellent mix of religion and science fiction, though the SF elements do not become readily apparent until later in the series. I’m currently working my way through book 4 of 5, so NO SPOILERS!!!
  • And the more recent Battlestar Galactica reboot dealt with some serious pantheistic-monotheistic friction. (But again, my wife has not yet seen them all, so NO SPOILERS!)

Any others that you’ve enjoyed? Any that you’ve detested?

And finally, a little plug. I will be releasing my first novel very soon, hopefully by the end of this week. It deals with a group of neo-Calvinists heading off to found their own colony, but something happens along the way. Stay tuned through the week to find out just what that is.

Review: Alleluia Files, by Sharon Shinn

I recently read this one in paperback, and it was a delight. It is book three of what I think is now a five-book series, but I don’t know if it’s complete at five or heading towards six or more.

This series is an odd mix of SF and Fantasy. The land of Samaria is ruled by mortal angels, who invoke the power of the god Jovah through song. But lest you think he’s just a figment of the collective imagination, Jovah regularly demonstrates his power through the weather, grain and medicine falling from the sky, and even the occasional wrathful thunderbolt to strike down the wicked. He’s as real as the angels that fly from their mountain-top holds.

But is He really quite what He seems?

That’s the mystery that’s been slowly unraveling over the first three books of the series, but it’s not just philosophers sitting down over coffee to debate the nature of God. There’s action, intrigue, conspiracy, and romance. Actually, quite a bit of romance.

Mind you, I wouldn’t be caught dead reading a Harlequin, but I’ve been known to get a little squishy in the realm of the romantic, and these romances are pretty good. However, I will say that one of them here tripped over one of my cliché alarms, but it didn’t hit it hard. I’d say which cliché, but that would be a spoiler.

All in all, I enjoyed it, but I confess I did not like it as much as the first two. It wasn’t as gripping as I found the first two, and frankly the stakes didn’t seem as high. Also, there was something of a big reveal late in the book that seemed pretty obvious to me from the get-go, so I spent a certain amount of the book waiting with decreasing patience for the characters to put it together.

So, I’d definitely recommend the series, but I’m hoping the next two pick it up a bit.