02 June 2012

Catholics vs. Atheists; no contest

Science Fiction | Kay Kenyon

Spoiler warning: Much of the plot is leaked here, but not all.

Maximum Ice is not about ice. A generation ship returns to Earth, not having found any habitable planets, and running out of children, due to radiation damage. The crew hopes to resettle, after ten thousand years, but finds the planet girdled by a giant quasi-crystal called Ice. But it's not ice.

The crew maintains purpose by re-stuffing Ship Mother Zoya Kundara into cryo-statis after she's been around for a few weeks. She maintains the memory of what they are (gypsies, persecuted on Earth for being immune to a lethal pandemic, and getting the world's only generation ship in compensation, a case fought by Zoya the linguist), and resurfaces whenever they need. The Captain, Anatolly, is being challenged by his first mate, Janos. Janos then allies with the people on the ground, called the Sisters of Clarity, who are atheists, but maintain the trappings of Catholic nuns. These include black robes, separation of the sexes (and suppression of the Brothers), arbitrary rules in the dormitories, diminution of self, petty punishments, unquestioning obedience to The Faith, and low-hitting politics. That they pretend to be Sisters of any type is felt to be abominable by the ship's Catholic priest, an AI programmed by the third Vatican to keep the generations on the strait and narrow (yes, I know how to spell straight). The one who do the questioning are the believers in God and the Pope (long dead); the scientific Sisters keep trying whatever they tried and failed at for all these centuries, because they don't like trying anything new, they just keep flailing at their holey purpose. Urgh.

Now the evil atheists make common cause with zombie cannibals created by Ice in its pursuit of longevity for the last of the evil scientists who created it. (The good scientists died of despair after creating Ice to save the world from dark matter, which sucked out 'information' in a weird across-space action-at-a-distance vacuuming for some unstated but implied purpose. Having brought apocalypse to the world, it benignly moves on to other parts of the galaxy to do more feeding on 'information'.)

For 10,000 years, scattered preserves of throwback people dug into decayed cities to find electronics and raw material, most of which found its way into the baby-slaver Sisters' greedy little hands. Treasures of wooden carving, they piously say, are 'volunteer labour', yeah, right. The Sisters now barter these babies to the crew of the ship to induce them to mutiny against their (elected and no longer popular, likely to lose the next election, but till then absolute ruler by divine right) Captain.

In the end, all those godless villains get their comeuppance, and the pure strain of Catholicism wins against all evil, Ice repents and everyone is saved.

It's not that the book is written badly; it's got beautiful writing. Sample pretty prose: Darkness engulfed him, and his body filled with tears. When the hot, salty water got as high as his eyes, tears spilled out.

But what are a perfectly empathetic set of characters get ruined for me by this relentless, if written with a light touch, all-pervading religiosity, in which the attributes of scientific discovery are appropriated by the unwavering believers, and the attributes of blind religion are ascribed to philosophers. Evil scientists and even more evil atheists are abusers of males, cruel, and, in case you didn't hate them enough by now, torturers and cannibals to boot. The Good Catholics, on the other hand, maintain steadfast and invariant love of the Catholic Church and all its practices for ten thousand years and so vanquish all, finding natural allies in the preserves where otherwise good people are gratuitously stupid or callous and sell surplus children, but all is well because they teach the kid who is the great hope of humankind that she must believe in God, which she does, all the while designing robots that cutely run into the public and destroy things. And the Ship Mother gets blissfully sacrificed on a daily (or monthly) basis, and wholly sacrificed in the end of the book, so that everyone else can be saved, and she is so unquestioningly happy to do so. And the whole cast thinks this is the normal and sensible thing to do.

Urgh. Even the mandatory 'happy ending' didn't cheer me up. What could have been a thoughtful examination of flawed people turned out into casting a bunch of cranks as the wonders of the world and all others as evil, some more and some less.

Nope, not going to pick up Kay Kenyon again.

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