(Book One of A Requiem for Homo Sapiens)
Some powerful and original stuff here. Zindell has a brain, creativity, and some knowledge to bring to a story. Also pretty wild that the SF style blockbuster has as its hero a guy sworn to non-violence: how do you give your readers their usual satisfaction of righteous biff? But (in this first book of the series anyway) to his credit Zindell sticks with it: our hero Danlo remains far more like Hesse’s Siddharta than 99% of the protagonists of anything else in this genre. It is fascinating to see how he paints non-violent innocence interacting with diabolical cruelty.
Moreover, the nature of Zindell’s universe and traversing it reminds me of A Fire Upon the Deep, as does his impressive alternate sentient species – and these are the strengths of Vinge’s clever book. For mine the most enjoyable of the relationships of The Broken God was that between Danlo and his Fravashi ‘Old Father’ philosophical teacher (echoes of John Guilgud or Yoda aside).
Like a thousand others Zindell is a massively ambitious writer – he claims superlative, era-moulding characters. However unlike most he doesn’t merely expect us to take his word for it that they really are supermen: like Orson Scott Card he actually attempts to convince us by their words and actions. Now given that Danlo is supposed to be the ultimate noble savage, precocious sage, and Buddha-like enlightened one able to really grasp every world view in the universe, it’s commendable that Zindell doesn’t utterly fail. He really does make an effort to engage with various theologies and philosophies – to the point that surely some readers will be going, “C’mon, can we at least have some light-sabres already!” The metaphysics, instead of being cursory and/or vague, have a few thousand words flung at them, not all of which are flapdoodle.
Unfortunately, however, while he comes up with some fascinating ideas for potential new cults and philosophies, and shows some understanding of present ones, his hubris in this incredibly presumptuous work is ultimately absurd and juvenile. We are expected to take Danlo utterly seriously when he basically says, “Well, science has its good points, but it really has missed ‘x’. Oh, Buddhism is pretty neat, but its basic flaw is ‘y’. Philosophy has something going for it, but what it doesn’t catch onto is ‘z’.” And so on. It really is quite staggering, however, just how popular this sort of arrogant nonsense is – and as such enormously palatable to so many readers. To be just a bit more inflammatory, if you do find yourself nodding sagely with such absurd aphorisms as, “Well, all religions are basically the same, you know,” and, “Philosophy doesn’t address where people really are as whole emotional and spiritual beings,” you should realise this is really like saying, “Well, religions are all basically the same you know (or, at least, the one I heard about was)”, or “I know I haven’t actually read any Locke, Derrida, Anselm or Aristotle, but I’m sure they were essentially mistaken.”
We laugh at, for example, the blindness some 18th century writers, so sure in their parochial views of, for example, the ‘weaker sex’, or ‘the inferior races’, and yet can be as insufferably confident that there are no blind spots in our present popular world views. The irony runs deep, for example, in many who on the one hand utterly condemn the bigoted outlook of ‘fundamentalists’ who, with untenable arrogance, claim their beliefs to be right and that of other faiths to be wrong – yet on the other hand can, without the vaguest sense of hypocrisy, then blithely dismiss believers of ALL religions. This teenaged outlook – that somehow you have some special insight that no-one else on the globe has ever managed to attain, that you alone can see a truth more clearly than anyone else – is excusable at a certain age, but hardly defensible. At some point we should wake up to the fact that it isn’t really plausible for us to claim (particularly without having even looked at most of the endless list of them) that we simply know better than Milton, Newton, Plato, Jesus, Descartes, Einstein, Keirkegaard, Moses, Confucius, Pascal, Seneca, Freud … just keep inserting names. It’s not enough for me that Danlo simply is this wild supremely gifted being, and even though he has a bit of a go, Zindell doesn’t seriously begin to contend with any of the several world views he dismisses.
Moreover, his technique of vehemently condemning organised religion is embarrassingly obvious and ridiculous. Sure, I could handle some incisive comment on the way that ritual and tradition in organised religions can often run completely against the teachings and aims of the very saints and enlightened ones that these rituals are supposed to bring the flock closer to: Jesus railed against the Pharisees knowing scripture only in order to twist it to their own ends; Confucius despaired at rituals reduced to mere clanging of bells, and would have been horrified at the mystical interpretations of some of his words intended to deflate mysticism. Zindell, in one of his many inserted lectures (we have an omnipotent narrator that not infrequently pops in to tell us what we should be thinking), does make some salient points along this line. However, rather than leaving it at some well pointed criticisms (or, perish the thought, acknowledging some decent counter-arguments), he goes on to construct a silly and venomous over the top straw man attack.
Did you catch that all the organised religions in The Broken God are run by madmen of the insane depravity to either destroy stars, introduce epic genocidal plagues, or revel in torture? Hitler? Stalin? They may not have been church leaders, but they’ve got nothing on Hanuman or the Architects. Oh, and anyone who follows these teachings is literally lobotomised to become docile and pliant!
Sure, the inside of your local church or mosque might not be entirely populated by passionate, independent geniuses, but I dare say if you popped in and got to know a few of them they might not all be the mindless sheep they’re painted as. And, again, why is it blind ignorance if some Christians say that followers of Islam are falsely indoctrinated, but OK if humanists or alternate spiritualists say all believers are mindless victims of cunning manipulation. If Zindell wrote a book painting Jews or blacks the way he’s painted members of organised religion, he’d probably be in danger of prosecution under some state’s vilification laws. But some targets are not protected, eh.
Part of me would like to read on to see how Zindell works though the conflict between Danlo and Hanuman. But another part of me found much of this tussle tiresome. Because they are both examples of supermen – able to do things that one in a million (or a millennium) could dream of – Zindell is excused from the tests you place on more realistic characters. So in their interactions we have plenty of revelations: “Then Dalno realised, “I have created him,” or claims that there is deep love and understanding between them, or that certain moments in their interplay are crucial … but we really have to take Zindell’s word for it, because these are not meant to resemble any human beings we’ll ever meet (or if they are, then the book simply is absurd). He bangs on about the psychology of their relationship quite a bit, but you’ll find more insight into character in a chapter any half decent novelist (Lodge, Tyler, Hornby, Kundera…).
A pity, Zindell has some great ideas, and I can see (particularly) why someone like Card is sympathetic and praises his writing. I relished some of the earlier parts of the book and felt pleased to have found another good writer. But the baggage imposed by the level of arrogance required to maintain the leading characters of this scenario are just too far from my own presuppositions to allow me to enjoy so much of what he offers. Maybe I should go back instead and check out Neverness.