Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Edge of Reason

Yesterday I was getting some things done. I felt like the mountain of tasks that lies before me was actually decreasing, so I took the time to finish reading The Edge of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass, which is the last of the new fiction books I got as a gift for my birthday back in July.

Almost as soon as I finished the book, I heard some news that made me question the sanity of my part of the world, and it seemed to me to fit right in with the plot of this SF novel. Its subtitle is "a novel of the war between science and superstition," and the story is the opening battle in that war. The weapons of the protagonists are "science, technology, rational thought" and the weapons of their enemies are "superstition, religion and. . .magic." The main character, a police officer named Richard Oort, is armed with a sword that can destroy magical distortion and restore sanity to the world.

A mysterious character called "Kenntnis"--who turns out to have had other, more well-known names in his long association with humanity--tells Richard what is at stake: "If my side wins, mankind literally inherits the stars. If they win, gateways between universes will be fully opened again and the earth and all of her six billion inhabitants will enter a new Dark Age with all the attendant ignorance, superstition, suffering and death."

The way the author establishes verisimilitude is both exciting and exacting. The novel begins with a chase, and then proceeds to explain the extraordinary circumstances of that chase to each character, each time telling a little more of the story. By the time the story is explained to Richard's father, near the end, it doesn't seem all that fantastic anymore; just background for a rescue that should already be taking place.

The rationalist underpinnings for the fiction are announced by Kenntnis early on (page 46):
We're at a crossroad here, Richard," Kenntnis continued. "We're on the verge of sharing technology, medicine and science worldwide....But there are forces at work...who tell us that it's too much information, that there is some knowledge that man was not meant to know--the origins of the universe, for example, or genetic engineering....They can no longer argue that science is the work of the devil so they offer us bad science--global warming is natural, condoms don't prevent disease, birth control is a sin but destroying the environment through overpopulation isn't, homosexuality is a sin rather than a naturally occurring trait, creation science and intelligent design rather than evolution and Big Bang theory."

But the novel isn't preachy; it's fun. It has aliens and changelings and monsters and not only sets them at each other's strange throats but also shows them debating the nature of good and evil. The protagonist is a police officer who "still believed that the police held back the darkness" and who says "I thought the darkness was the evil living in the soul of every person....But no...there have to be monsters, too." When he confronts one of the monsters, he tells him "Kenntnis says you're evil" and the monster, a character called Grenier, replies "And I say he's evil....Now you have a dilemma. Which one of us do you believe?" Richard responds "No, you don't get off that easy. He made his case. Let me hear yours." And all Grenier can say in reply is that research into things like stem cells and super-colliders will lead to a world that is "sterile, cold logic, and utterly confining. The universe as clockwork and humans trapped without choice or free will." (I love his explanation, because it sounds like some of the oversimplified student summaries of the Enlightenment that I've read before.) A brief overview of the difference between Kenntnis and Grenier comes when Kenntnis asks Richard in exasperation
"'why couldn't you have just been an ignorant flatfoot?'
Richard allowed himself a small smile. 'And just done what I was told?'
The briefest of answering smiles touched Kenntnis' lips. 'No, that's Grenier's way.'"

I particularly like the part where Kenntnis explains that "the pattern people walk as they advance toward a fire at a book burning is an elaborate power rune. It weakens the fabric of space and time...."

Although Richard wields the sword of sanity bravely in the opening battle, the war that the novel sets up has only begun. Clearly Snodgrass has a sequel or two in the making, and I'll be watching for the next one. Because reading fiction about how insane the world is getting beats experiencing it any old day, don't you think?

Update: Snodgrass tells me (by email) that the second book should be out in April 2010, and that she's at work on a third one!


Unfocused Me said...

Sounds like fun. Adding to my "eventually" list now.

Anonymous said...

It does sound good! I am due for a new read this weekend - think I'll track it down.

Betty said...

I agree. This one sounds right up my alley! I'm hitting some used bookstores this weekend at my Alma Mater, so I'll look for it there! :-)

CSchu said...

This sounds like a lot of fun! I will have to put it on my "to read" list.

Jeanne said...

CSchu, you can borrow my copy! (Since you gave it to me without prereading for my enjoyment.)

Anonymous said...

The world made and makes no sense. I think I like Doctor Who because it suggests that somewhere long teh line there might be a hero who can fix part of it.


Jeanne said...

Lemming, I wish I could fix any part of it... Along with Dr. Who, I think you and H. should watch Elizabethtown soon. I'll find you a copy.