Beckett's Dark Eden, a recently released dark, somewhat new-weirdy science fiction dystopia was beautiful, thought-provoking, powerful, intelligent, and wonderful.  So, as I said at the end of that review, I came back to Chris Beckett for more; and more, at the moment, means The Holy Machine. This is another novel in the same mode, whilst at the same time being different; hitting the notes of Gibsonian cyberpunk and Tanith Lee's Silver Metal Lover; The Holy Machine is a romance novel, a science fiction novel, and most of all, a meditation on humanity, the soul, and religion, and a powerful one at that.

The Holy Machine, like Dark Eden, has a plot in which a doctrinaire society - Illyria, whose doctrine is Reason, in a world where religious extremism has taken over everywhere else - eats itself from the inside out, evolving and changing; and following, in the first person, a character, in this case George, who finds himself limited by the society.  The thing about Illyria is that it is so single-mindedly scientific, and this is where the philosophical aspects of The Holy Machine starts to come in; discussion about the importance, or even vitality, of faith and religion to society (an explicit discussion of this happens towards the novel's end), what belief and faith actually are (especially with regard to faith in reason), and most central of all, the nature of the soul.  In common with Silver Metal Lover, the main point of comparison for this novel, Beckett has his protagonist fall in love with a sophisticated machine designed for pleasure, and that machine develop self-awareness; there are significant differences, not least in how Beckett handles that development and the nature of the intelligence (fantastically, by the way) but also in the scale of The Holy Machine: no one is changed by George's actions other than George, really, and he never sets out to make changes.  The plot is simple and well-written, with enough of an emotional punch and viscerally powerful descriptions of the darker moments in the story (and the semi-dehumanisation undergone by George during one sequence) to balance out the incredibly intricate and thoughtful speculations and keep the story moving.

The characters of The Holy Machine are also excellent.  George isn't the typical Campbellian emotionless superman, nor Asimov and Clarke's areligious scientist who needs nothing more than science; George has a yearning for more, beautifully and powerfully portrayed especially in his inability to articulate it, lacking a vocabulary to do so, and his unwillingness to let go of his rationality when he finds it.  George is a damaged, interesting character, thoughtfully portrayed, and incredibly human; his motivations are honest, his feelings universally understandable, his trials and tribulations complex but ones we can empathise with, and even when we think his decisions abhorrent, we can understand from where he is coming.  Similarly his mother, Ruth, who has withdrawn increasingly into SenSpace, essentially a full-sensory VR; having escaped from religious fanaticism and persecution to Illyria, she wants safety from the mob and the religious, and increasingly withdraws seeking it; her changing attitude is powerfully portrayed, and whilst we sympathise less with her - in part because unlike George we only ever see her through George's eyes or in the third person - it isn't as strong a connection as with George, but it's strong enough to let events over the course of the novel have real impact.

Like Dark Eden, The Holy Machine is not an easy, simple or uncomplicated book.  At the same time, Beckett hasn't given us here a series of meditations on philosophical issues or allowed the story to become subordinated to the intellectual side; instead, The Holy Machine has both work in a symbiotic relationship, and without either, this would be a much poorer book, and that would be a great loss to us all.  This is one of the most thoughtful and intelligent novels I have read in a very long time, and I can't recommend The Holy Machine enough.
Russell's sequel to The Sparrow is an unfortunate one.  Not because it doesn't pack an emotional punch - it does; and not because the characterisation isn't once more brilliant - it is; but because it feels contrived.  The Sparrow is so perfect and whole unto itself, Children of God feels like a coda that shouldn't have been added; and this feeling continues throughout the work.

Russell's characters are, as aforementioned, still very strong.  They're cut from similar molds to those used in The Sparrow, those who don't cut across both novels, although we learn much more about Jana'ata other than Supaari (who is, as is repeatedly made clear, not the norm) through a variety of Jana'ata viewpoints (in a similar way to that in which we had multiple Runa viewpoints in The Sparrow).  The characterisation is strong and shot through with both empathy and humour, to give a wide, strong cast; Sofia's role in the novel is played well, if striking the reader as a little contrived, and the characters of the second mission are a brilliant contrast to the first.  Whilst once again all Jesuits, they seem to have very different ideals and ideas, and this plays out across the novel in a rather interesting way; thus, Children of God has a second-contact narrative that opens up possibilities again in a way similar to that which The Sparrow did.

The plot is the problem; Russell is relying, here, on a number of events which are strongly implied to have taken place in one way in The Sparrow taking place a different way in order to open Children of God.  From the start, then, we feel like the rug has been pulled out from under us, and the author has lied to us; since we aren't being asked to deal with unreliable narrators, this is an almost insurmountable problem.  The contrivances continue throughout the novel - things are terribly convenient, time and again, with little or no regard for what could realistically happen, and Children of God just blithely ignores these for reasons of pathos or plot.  That the whole novel builds up to dramatic reconciliation and emotional highs is icing on the cake: The Sparrow was brilliant, in no small part, for its darkness and ambiguity, but Children of God is a kick in the teeth in that regard, with a much clearer, more simple message.

All in all, then, The Sparrow is an undeniably fantastic book.  Children of God is not the sequel it deserved, by any means; Russell fell down on the job, here, in my opinion.  A real shame of a novel.
I seem to be on a bit of a religious SF kick lately, along with my women-in-the-genre kick, although the former is less pronounced.  The Sparrow is definitely and defiantly religious science fiction, and incredibly good at that; a tragedy, but with closure, it is a fantastically written character-study as well as plot-based tale.  The novel is set with two timelines, one in the present of the novel presented as an enquiry into the events of the other timeline, the past; the interspersing of these events, and the (vague, ill-defined) knowledge of the horror the only character common to both, Sandoz, underwent in the earlier timeline, lends a certain inevitability and tragedy to the end of the novel, and a certain power to it as well.

The characters here are incedible; Russell has, in each timeline, a small ensemble cast, albeit focused on Sandoz, and uses them well, creating a large number of real people, including aliens.  In the "present", the cast are all priests, but from different backgrounds, with different understandings of God, and different approaches to Sandoz; they are in conflict, and this brings their characters out wonderfully, with not a single one of them actually evil (Voelker becomes much more sympathetic as the novel draws to its close, and we are lent insight into his mind); the others - Vince, John, and Brother Ed - are all similarly ambiguous and flawed, with some brilliant writing behind them.  In the earlier timeline, we have some brilliant romantic plotlines, which are dealt with... incredibly powerfully; the relationships between the characters - Anne and George, married for years; Jimmy, Sandoz and Sofia, in their love-triangle; Marc, Alan, and D.W., with their own emotions and feelings - allow us, once more fantastic insight into their characters.  The way we see the aliens is a real mark of the brilliance of The Sparrow: Russell doesn't make them human, but does force us to understand them, in their inhumanity.  It is a brilliant stylistic trick.  Finally, Sandoz, the character around whom the novel revolves, is so different in the two timelines, as to be nearly two separate characters; Russell's writing here is beyond anything I have seen before, because whilst the emotional level is so different - uplifted, faithful, joyful in the earlier, broken, depressed, horrified and damaged in the latter - but there is continuity, and Russell's empathy for Sandoz' character is horrifying and powerful.

The plot is almost second-string to the characterwork in the novel, because the characters are so powerful and effective; and yet the plot does have existence beyond the total impact on Sandoz.  Rather akin to Moffett's plot in Pennterra, but with a wider coverage, The Sparrow covers the story of the discovery of the first signs of extra-terrestrial life (music), through Jesuit plans to learn about it, to the practice of those plans.  That we know from the start of the novel that only Sandoz survived, and survived a broken man, means that the novel is known to be a tragedy; that Russell won't tell us what kind of tragedy, or what happened to break him so much, at the outset is only because she's holding it in reserve for a plot that is as uplifting at one moment as it is painful in another, a plot that really will break down the emotional walls.  The Sparrow does this brilliantly, with a slow-burning plot with a number of themes and little action; it's more about the process and the emotion than anything else, and yet it draws one along powerfully, because we care about the characters.

In the end, I can hardly recommend The Sparrow highly enough; the characters are so brilliant, and the plot so well-done in its support of the characters, that this is a real modern masterpiece, and deserves to have its name shouted from the rooftops. A fantastic, powerful and painful novel.

Pennterra, as the name might suggest (compare Pennsylvania), is a Quaker novel bridging the gap between Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet and Traviss’ City of Pearl; sitting between the two, it takes the best of each – Lewis’ religion, Traviss’ ecology – and adds her own unique elements (Quakerism, for a start) into the mix.

This is clearly a book that preceded Red Mars; the understanding of terraforming is treated very differently than Robinson allows for. Here, the hrossa – a term taken from Lewis, as Moffett acknowledges – actively require that terraforming not be done; in contrast to Traviss’ reasoning, however, it is because of an empathetic link with the whole ecology of the planet (Avatar’s Pandora, anyone?). The plot revolves around a group of Quaker settlers who have, instinctively (in line with the actions of William Penn), respected the hrossa demands and another group of settlers, the Sixers, who arrive later and do not accept the strictures. Over the course of the novel, we learn why the colonisation is necessary – Earth is overcrowded and imploding, presumably apocalyptically – and we see the Quakers struggle to balance their imperative to respect the hrossa with the necessity of saving humanity. That so little happens in the plot, in the strict action-and-adventure terms, marks this novel apart from City of Pearl; like Lewis, it is more a novel of discovery and exploration of Pennterra than anything else, and the plot allows this without too much exposition, and with powerful steadiness. Whilst the science is weaker than nonexistent in much of the biology, Moffett does an excellent job in Pennterra of creating a believable and interesting ecology and world that has certain demands on humanity, and on then exploring the implications of that.

The characters are also strong; two need pulling out for close consideration – George, the elder of the Quakers, and Danny, his son. Both are excellent characters, seen by others as paragons whilst knowing their disquiet but masking or ignoring it; and both are truly torn between species-loyalty and love of the hrossa. A large part of the novel is about their relationship with each other, as father and son, and how the hrossa, and Danny’s exposure to them from a young age, impact on that; and the development of their characters is hugely significant in the development of the plot, as well as being excellently done in its own right. This is not to suggest that the other characters are weak, simply less explored and less central; the strong female characters are a definite high point of the novel (Katy and Maggie especially), and the whole cast are well-drawn, effective figures in their own right, and don’t simply orbit around or interact solely with George and Danny.

All in all, then, Moffett’s Pennterra is a fantastic, interesting and thoughtful novel, strongly underpinned by religious sensitivity and the author’s Quakerism, and without the horrific crises-spaced-by-exposition that genre fiction occasionally falls prey to. An excellent read.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a late-1950s novel that is about an apocalypse that never was, and a world that will not be; it's also about a world that could be, and a religion that is - Catholicism.  That it is a dated novel is unquestionable, and yet it is a novel that will never date (at least, while Catholicism and history survive); it is a novel, and also a theological exploration and Catholic apologetic.  Miller's is a story of contradiction, and a fantastic one at that.

The centre of A Canticle... is the Catholic theology at its hard, as lived by three sets of characters, in three different times, further from the apocalypse-that-wasn't of the 1960s.  Each of the three major ones we follow is a member of the Order of Leibowitz, a saint who preserved knowledge against the nuclear Armageddon and the backlash against knowledge that Miller predicted would follow it; the order is accepted to different degrees, and has a different purpose in each time - the first, it is a hold-out against barbarism; in the second, it is a repository and explorer of knowledge, sharing what it knows, whilst actively educating against the barbarism; and the third, it's preparing for the repetition of history - Miller's concept of humanity is Fallen, and pessimistic, but at same time sort of hopeful (a contrast that he himself highlights).  The characters are well-drawn and deeply human; in each section they're very different - the first is leavened by humour, the second by the humour of others, and the third, theological ideas are well and truly foregrounded and discussed in an accessible way, through the characters.

The plot of the novel follows the Order's attempts to preserve human knowledge and human history, and in this, it's a powerful story; the use of cyclical human history - barbarism, knowledge-gathering and Enlightenment, Fall, with the appropriate theological comparisons and weighting - is played really well against timeless faith in the Lord; the ideas that Miller brings into the plot are some of the largest Big Ideas in fiction.  The fact that the plot is relatively stripped down and very personal, with one character popping up in every section (Benjamin or Lazarus), drives the story home; and Miller's ability to use that stripped down plot, playing itself out over generations, with implications teased out and elements ignored or left to die off over the centuries between sections, is fantastic.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a fantastic novel, then, and Walter M. Miller's exploration of Catholicism and human nature deserves its place in the canon of science fiction; an amazing achievement, and a poignant, characterful story.
Kéthani is a profoundly philosophical and, on my reading of it, theological novel; Eric Brown’s collection of short stories (linked, in similar fashion to something like Asimoz’s I, Robot, by common characters and themes) is profoundly transformative in outlook and concept, and at least in my reading of it, profoundly religious.
 
The characters of Brown’s collection-cum-novel are profoundly and deeply human, in a very strong sense of the term; it’s clear that this is his concern, the impact of the arrival of the Kéthani and their promise upon people. That this is so human-centred as science fiction sets up some interesting elements; it allows Brown to explore a variety of different responses, of different personalities, and indeed different kinds of stories; but at root it comes down to the characters and their profound responses, and profound optimism, at the changes wrought by the Kéthani.
 
The plot revolves around the changes, over time, brought about amongst a small group of British men (with one or two exceptions – Sam and Mrs Emmett especially, both very strong, well-written characters) in a series of episodes, the short stories from which (with bridging-passages) the novel is made up of. Actually, Brown manages to make the stories flow very well; the police procedural/locked room mystery fits with the romances and the stories of love betrayed really rather well, because of the sense pervading each that it is the humanity of the characters that is at issue.
 
I think that what I said at the start, about the profoundly religious character of the novel, holds very strongly true. Kéthani is a novel about the human spirit and character, but it’s also a novel about eternity and the human response to it; it’s a novel about the human response to knowledge of something immeasurably greater than each individual person. It’s interesting, in the light of that interpretation, to note the parallels between the Kéthani and God in the novel; well-done certainly, and of mixed subtlety, but it works well.
 
All in all, Kéthani is a book about religion for both the non-religious and the religious, intensely humanist (in the older sense of the word), and very much science fiction. Eric Brown’s work, based on this, is absolutely fantastic, and I shall have to look into more of it!

There are two basic categories for the impetuses that drove me towards my Damascene moment – a misnomer, given the slow (we’re talking 20-odd years here; it’s probably something I’ve been building to my entire life so far) and painstaking (intellectual curiosity leading to a great deal of reading, not all of it as lucid as the final book in the chain) nature of the chain; also not Damascene in that it occurred, in its full form, some time after the moment when I felt God (though that was certainly a not-unimportant moment in the process). All in all, then, I think my conversion story is probably a more typical one than the dramatic (dramatised?) stories of some kinds of born-again preachers, who one day see the light and convert; to their Pauls, I am more of a Constantine – slowly converted, and never taking one experience as absolute evidence.

The first, perhaps most important, impetus to conversion is one that’s hard to pin down, but has been there for longest; it’s that element that has been there from the start, since my earliest memories.  My maternal grandparents (that is, my grandfather and his wife; my grandmother died before I was born) are deeply religious, and used, when they visited, to take me to Church.  Similarly, I attended Quaker services with some friends; and all the services seemed to have something – even the Quaker ones, with their informality, lack of ceremony, and so on – that was there, a deeper presence and meaning.  I could feel it as an outsider, and part of me always just wanted to pretend to believe – perhaps part of me did believe, then – in order to be a part of the deeper presence, to understand the deeper meaning.

That drive to understand it, combined with an upbringing in a very much humanist household in a humanist community, led to a certain position on religion: outside, looking in, with scant regard for believers.  It sounds harsh, and indeed looking back on the past it made me occasionally harsh; but that I had friends – one Muslim, one non-denominational (non-doctrinal, non-traditional) Christian – willing to discuss these issues led to an increasingly sharp, hardened and well-honed position of atheism (though at times, in a rather devil’s-advocate manner, I took the position of my Jewish heritage against Judaism’s younger Abrahamic siblings; perhaps a wish to fit in through belief, perhaps evidence of a need for a faith).  That lasted a long time – I’d created, carved out, a role for myself, which I inhabited perfectly; the cynical, unbelieving, indeed anti-believing, passionate disputer.  It did not help that every logical argument for the existence of God was hopelessly flawed (the cosmological, perhaps, was the least wrong, though hardly without problems); to use a phrase that came to me much later (or rather, a full explanation did) a leap to faith was required.

We now move towards my adult life, and a rather faster-moving series of events; so far, the timescale of our narrative has been years – each section dealing with a number of them, slowly building the contradictory positions of the rational atheist and the emotional deist – the next part all takes place in the space of around 3 years and begins with the collapse of the dichotomy into a more straightforward deist.  Why this happened I cannot say; certainly some experiences in that time – which I will discuss below – gave me a sense of the numinous, a taste (though not a complete one) of the divine.  Perhaps the emotional element simply overrode the rational one for a while; in preceding years I had been drawn to any system of “theology” described to me by someone with a clear faith in it, but this changed over 2008/09 to become a more fully deistic idea, unconvinced of the truth of these theologies.  In a LiveJournal post, written in February 2008, I said that “rationally I know I lean toward atheism, but emotionally I lean towards deism” and over the course of the next few years, this remained the case; indeed, up until December 2010 I would have called myself a deist – and if pressed, I still might.

What, then, happened to change that position of dichotomous atheist/deist to a more simple deistic position? I think first and foremost, one must understand that specific experiences do affect one’s rationality; that is, each event which I felt as a “divine experience”, whilst part of me wrote it off as simply a transcendent experience of beauty, another part thought of as an important event, something more effecting than that, and incorporated it, over time building up towards a conversion experience.  Furthermore, it has been said before that an experience is utterly subjective; what I take from an event may be very different from what another person takes from the same event, and this is even truer of transcendent feelings, which are intensely personal.  I think it bears repetition in this context given that I will be discussing a small number of specific events that bear significance to me, albeit not necessarily to anyone else.

The first such, I suppose, is a concert by a group named Celtic Woman, performing in Boston, MA.  I saw them with a pair of very good friends and a person I consider to be a twin of my soul; Josh and Brit, and Anne, respectively.  I’d heard most of the songs performed before, as much of it was material on their recorded albums, but certain songs I hadn’t; however, hearing them performed live – especially You Raise Me Up, The Sky and the Dawn and the Sun and The Call – moved me in a very different way.  I didn’t discuss this with any of them at the time, and when I wrote about the concert I didn’t mention it; but on seeing them again – with Anne and Brit, in Richmond, VA – those same songs moved me (whilst Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears moved me in an entirely different way…).  That experience was a sort of taste of “the power and the glory”, to coin a phrase; an important moment, but not a religious experience – though that I didn’t see it as such may be more to do with me than the experience itself: as Lucy says in the film of Prince Caspian, in reply to being asked by Peter why he didn’t see Aslan, “Maybe you weren’t looking”.

This also coincided with starting to experience, rather than just being told, how some of my Christian friends live their lives – notably, at this point, Anne.  Later, David, Scott (a theology student), and my girlfriend Heather have fulfilled the same role of living as a Christian, but in the first instance it was Anne, during the time I stayed with her in Pittsburgh, who really brought home to me what Christian living was.  She went to Mass, lived as a Catholic, and prayed; she didn’t try and bring me into this – as a non-Christian, I did not look down on or disdain her practices, but didn’t involve myself either, and she didn’t try and convert me – but simply practiced her beliefs in front of me.  That’s actually profoundly moving, if you’ve ever experienced something like that; and later, when I met Scott, something similar occurred – and something else, but we’ll come to that in its own time.

The effect of seeing this – of seeing Anne, David, Scott and Heather practicing their beliefs in their everyday lives – is actually more important than I can really say, to me.  It made me realise how important God is to them, and how central the reality and actuality of the Trinity is; how important Christ’s sacrifice is to them personally, rather than to them communally as Christians (albeit of different Churches).  Seeing that cross-denominational importance, feeling it at one remove, is so affecting that it’s hard to overstate the effect it has on one, and the dampening effect it has on any temptation to ridicule religion as simply a part of being in a community.

The next element that needs to be discussed is a renewal of the intellectual side of faith and Christianity.  I have, at the moment, a couple of books waiting to be read purporting to try and convert the reader to Christianity (or at least theism), but the most effective books at doing so were actually Dawkins’ God Delusion and C. S. Lewis’ text about what Christianity is, rather than why one should believe it – Mere Christianity.  More useful than either of those – though Lewis’ plain language and simple speech, with all its moral flaws, has something of the evocation about it – has been talking to Scott about theological issues.  The ability to talk to someone I consider intelligent and actually look up to – not just respect, but see as something of a role model in some (indeed, many) ways – about theological issues and concerns I have is an incredibly powerful privilege; it has brought me to faith, on a logical level (not, to my mind, an oxymoron) in a way nothing else has.  That he can discuss and dissect the issues I bring to him and give clear, precise and educated answers – and will admit where he can’t, or be patient and spend time to explain and help me where I don’t understand those answers – is incredibly important to me, and I want to thank him here.

Finally, there are two experiences that need to be discussed. Both revolve, to a degree, around Heather; though one is more of a long-term thing, whilst the other is a snap event, the closest I have ever come to a Damascene moment.  First, I need to give the background; I have been in other relationships, but never with someone with the intensity of Heather; nor I have ever been in a relationship with someone with that passion and fire, and that extends to her religious beliefs as much as everything else.  I’ve also never been in a relationship where I have felt like I don’t measure up – and can’t – to the standards I believe my partner deserves, but where I know I’m loved anyway; and finally, I have never been in a relationship where everything is altered by it – not just the way I feel about Heather, or about things when I’m with Heather, but everything, universally, when I’m with her or away from her, simply by the fact of being in a relationship with her.  From reading Lewis, this seems to parallel, pretty closely, the ideal of faith in the Christian God; perhaps that is why falling in love with Heather – a deep, powerful, passionate love, of a kind similar to that involved in Christianity – has made me see clearly the possibility of loving, and having faith in, that Christian God which she believes in.

The other experience is one I had with Heather, and – I believe – it was a moment of communication with God.  I’m going to break, once more, into event-narrative here, simply for ease of communication; and then afterwards I’ll explain.  Heather and I were in York Minster on a beautiful summer’s afternoon in August, together, simply holding hands; the Minster is an Anglican Church, not particularly low or high, but old and with an air of reverence about it.  It’s not a new Church to me, I’ve visited many times before, but it remains beautiful and with the ability to impress; but this time, I sat with Heather for a moment of quiet contemplation.  However, during this moment of contemplation, I felt something; or rather, I became aware of feeling some things.  First was that I was a part of something much, much larger than myself; second, that this thing was not something I was part of so much as something I could be a part of, and with; and third, a feeling of contentment at this knowledge, and a powerful feeling of utter peace.  I believed at the time this was god touching me, in a deistic sense; I believe now that it was God, in the Christian sense – a religious experience, given that – if nothing else by loving Heather – I was now looking.

So what took me from the semi-Damascene moment of communion (in the non-liturgical sense) to faith in the Christian God?  I suppose the largest element is time; unlike Saul, I wasn’t going to give up my beliefs for a momentary sensation (it wasn’t exactly God manifesting in front of me with a sign saying believe); but rather, I was moving towards belief anyway, slowly, and the moment in the Minster simply provided both extra impetus and a reminder of that movement.  Thus on the return to St. Andrews, a few books on Christianity – The Four Loves, Mere Christianity, and The Case for God being the main ones – as well as talking more and more to Scott about theological issues (sorry, my friend – you were being used, without knowing it, as a confessor, almost!).  The development was slow, culminating in a moment when I finished reading Mere Christianity on a train from St Andrews to Manchester for the Christmas holiday, when I knew that what Lewis said was true (mostly; his misogyny and heterosexism are not just distasteful but, to me, utterly wrong).  Perhaps, then, there was that Damascene moment after all… not on the road to Damascus with an angel appearing, but on the train to Manchester, reading C. S. Lewis
.


There are some more reflections, personal addenda, that could perhaps be added to this, but I think I'll do that at a later date; it's more about my personal beliefs and interpretations of Christianity and Christian doctrine, so not wholly relevant to this.

 

The story of Karl Glogauer is an interesting one, tying together Jungian psychology, Moorcock's revolutionary tendencies, an inevitabilist view of history and the mythology surrounding the man known as Jesus.  Moorcock's exploration of psychology, time travel, and mythology centres on a simple question: if you went back in time to 30AD, and found Jesus was a drooling idiot... what would you do?  The answer that Glogauer comes to is simultaneously the height of cowardice and the height of bravery.

Moorcock's plot, therefore, is multifaceted; the opening up of Glogauer's past and what brought him to travel back in time to the early first century, and what happens to him in that time period.  The two coincide in that understanding his past and his thought processes is essential to understanding what he does; Moorcock's explanation of one individual's mental processes is fascinating, though perhaps more disjointed than necessary (even if Glogauer is a typical neurotic Jew... the last part being a plot-necessity, in fairness).  Of course, we know all about one plot; indeed, it's one of the most famous stories in the Western world, indeed possibly the most famous.  The other is rather more particular, and whilst sex-obsessed it also covers a series of discussions in which Moorcock manages to elucidate a philosophy and psychology with hints of Jung, among others; detailed and academic, it works rather well as a contrast to the first-century "present" of the novel.

Glogauer's character is the real purpose of the novel, his choices forming the crux and nexus of it, the centre of the whole thing; everything he does is analysed in terms of his past and the tales of the Gospels, giving the three very different interpretations equal weight, until the reader isn't sure what to believe about him.  Moorcock's ability to keep the story fresh and interesting despite the reader full-well knowing how it will end is incredible, and that's one of the real strengths of the novel: even in the face of a disjointed and at times truly terrible writing style, Moorcock keeps things compelling.

It's not a perfect book, of course - as I said, the writing style is disjointed and hard to follow, at times throwing things in that are straight-up cod psychology; and it's a little annoying in the neurotic self-analysing Jungian semi-agnostic Jew as a central character, something that's been a trope for far too long.  It's also a little annoying in the politics of Pilate, which really don't work as compared with the history; Moorcock should have done a little more research there, though that might be the nitpick of an ancient historian.

All in all, thought-provoking, and interesting, but perhaps not enjoyable or good in the traditional sense of the term, this novel has more Philip K. Dick about it than I'm used to in Moorcock's work... and that's not altogether a good, or bad, thing.

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