Friday, December 20, 2013

Let's Just Write Good Fiction, People, Not Preachy Fiction

A review of The Sign, by Raymond Khoury, 2009. I picked up this book because it looked interesting. The Sign, wow. What could it be? Aliens? Ancient prophecy? Will we get a thrill of mystery as clue after clue is revealed? No such luck. If you haven’t heard of Raymond Khoury, think Dan Brown. Similar themes, similar writing style. From chapter to itty-bitty chapter, the book jumps around the world: Antarctica – Massachusetts – Egypt – Mexico – Egypt – Antarctica. This is supposed to give the book a fast pace (“never relents,” according to the blurbs). For this reader, it went agonizingly slowly. You get a little bit of action in Massachusetts, things start to get tense, then the scene moves to Egypt. You think that perhaps in Egypt, we will find out more, but after a few pages of cinematic conversation in which nothing is revealed, we are back to Antarctica. I call the conversation cinematic because, despite an international cast of characters (Egyptian, Croatian, Czech), all of them talk exactly the same, i.e. like characters out of a Hollywood police drama. For example, here is how a Croatian monk, living in a Coptic monastery, sums up his situation to a couple of Americans: “There’s not much to tell. They contacted us. They said they were making a documentary … The abbot wasn’t keen, none of us were. … But they were coming from a very respectable network, and they were very courteous, and they kept on asking and insisting. Eventually, we accepted.” Come on, Mr. Khoury. Not a single bafflingly misused word, or just one case of awkward word order? How often does this monk speak English? And speaking of English, there is Khoury’s own. Here is how he describes a certain bad guy: “He was a ruthless and imaginative political strategist, he had a mind like a steel trap, and [an] appetite for detail. … His effectiveness was further enhanced by an easygoing, gregarious charm – one that masked the iron resolve underneath and helped when one was a dedicated polemicist ready to take on the red-button issues that were splitting the country.” (p. 122) Golly gee. How many clichés can you squeeze into two sentences? (And even getting one of them wrong? Isn’t it supposed to be “hot-button” issues?) As it turns out, the Sign (spoiler alert) is coming neither from aliens nor from supernatural forces (between which, by the way, Khoury sees no difference), but from a very covert, deniable U.S. government group that has gotten ahold of some cutting-edge technology. The Sign, which first appears over the tragically melting ice caps at both poles, was originally meant to scare people into stopping global warming. But as often happens, the bad guys have had an internal disagreement about how to use the sign. The good bad guy (let’s call him Bad Guy B) wanted to keep the sign vague and occasional, so that no one religion could claim it. This, in addition to stopping global warming, might have the desired effect of nudging people toward pantheism or at least religious relativism. But Bad Guy A (the one described above), wants to steer the sign in the direction of a specifically Christian miracle, creating a specifically fundamentalist fervor. (He does this by kidnapping and brainwashing a Mother-Theresa type to be his mouthpiece). The two bad guys’ conversation about this is revealing. Bad Guy B is principled and thinks that deliberately stirring up religious fervor “might help get rid of one evil [global warming], but you’ll be feeding one that’s just as vile. One that’ll turn our world into a living hell for any rational person.” Got that? Belief in God is not just irrational, it’s “vile.” And it leads to hell. Bad Guy A replies: “You know that was the only way to go. These people don’t read newspapers. They don’t research things on the Internet. They listen to what their preachers tell them – and they believe them. Fanatically. They don’t bother to fact-check the bullshit they hear in their megachurches. They’re happy to swallow it whole, no matter how ridiculous it is … We need these windbags. We need them to sell our message.” (page 212) All I can say is, Wow. No, I don’t mean, Wow, Khoury thinks the Internet is a reliable place to fact-check, although that might make us scratch our heads as well. Rather … Wow. Has this guy ever met even one evangelical Christian? So that was where Khoury completely lost me. But I kept reading, partly because I wanted to earn the right to write this review, and partly because I wanted to find out what happened to the two “good” guys (a former car thief, and a Czech scientist-cum-couch-potato named Jabba, the funnest character in the book). And I was well rewarded when the car thief borrowed a garbage truck and crashed it through the façade of the “stately Georgian mansion” inhabited by Bad Guy B, killing bodyguards like flies in the process. He then puts Bad Guy B in the trash compacter, but thankfully, doesn’t compact him. That would have taken the book in a completely different direction. Later, the Mother Theresa character assured me that “of course I believe in evolution. You’d have to be a blind half-wit not to.” Another character finds this attitude to be “much less dogmatic than I expected.” The funny thing is, I think that I (or the person Raymond Khoury imagines me to be) am actually part of the intended audience of this book. His idea is that all of us evangelicals believe as we do only because we’ve never been exposed to any alternative view. So, we will pick up his book because it appears to be a novel about God (or maybe Satan, given the cover art). Then, the “relentless pace” of the action will draw us in, and when we read in the characters’ mouths Khoury’s compelling logic against belief in God, organized religion, and ID, our minds will be blown open, our world will be rocked. Then, the insults will give us added motivation to convert to materialist environmentalist atheism so that we can belatedly join the group of those in the know. It’s a weird experience reading this kind of a bait-and-switch, because often it goes in the other direction, with Christian writers trying to convert unbelievers through mediocre fiction. Khoury isn’t too fond of Tim LaHaye. Would he be insulted to hear that, as far as this reader is concerned, he is the Tim LaHaye of the atheist world? Anyway, reading this book and then reflecting on my experience was certainly enough to cure me of making any such attempts. Let’s just write good fiction, people, because the preachy fiction doesn’t work on thinking believers. It might work in movies, at least for the duration of the film (I’m looking at you, Dances with Wolves), but books don’t overwhelm the senses quite so much. But I digress. If the garbage truck scene sounds like enough fun to make you plough through the anti-religion rants, then this book is for you. About the science behind the book, I don’t know. I haven’t done the Internet research to find out whether “smart dust” a real thing. If the science of the book is as well researched as the historical and religious parts, then it’s mostly made up. But it’s possible that Khoury put more time into the part that interested him more, the part he actually believes in.