Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Book Hungry
December 2007

Confessor by Terry Goodkind
Tor Books, 2007, Hardcover, 608 pp, $29.95

So I'll admit to a bit of bias right from the start: the Sword of Truth series was among the first big-book fantasies I ever read, and Goodkind's love of the beauty and nobility and sacredness of human life strongly affected me in my formative reading years. (I'm tired of the artsy "anti-hero" of these oh-so-sophisticatedly-juvenile days -- I want a hero who is good, who shows us how to be grown-up.) Nevertheless, I'm hoping that my nostalgic fondness for the characters won't get in the way of my usual blisteringly ruthless (yet maddeningly ambivalent) criticism, so here goes:

Richard has been separated from Kahlan, his One True Love, and is alone in a dark world of magic and war. Kahlan, in turn, has lost her memories of everything she holds dear in an amnesia-producing "Chainfire" event, which also affects the memories of all her closest friends and even prevents her from being seen. When they're suddenly reunited after being taken prisoner by the evil Jagang, who is poised to sweep his vast Army of the Order into the peaceful parts of the world, Richard is the only one who remembers their past, the only one who can see her. Forced into playing Ja' La, the brutally violent sport of Life and Death among the prisoners and soldiers of Jagang's endless army, Richard clings to the slightest of hopes, until Nicci, his enemy-turned-friend, is also captured by the Order and sets off a big ol' avalanche of events leading to the immense war that has been building throughout the entire series. Friends, this is good ol' Mythic stuff: the dance with death to preserve life, the power of truth, Order versus Chaos -- y'know, the kind of thing big fantasies do best.

(At this point, I'll warn everyone that it'll be impossible to review this thing in any meaningful way without some spoilers and preachifyin' on my end, so if you're incapable of enjoying a book if you know how it finishes or you're annoyed with relatively personal reviews, you should maybe come back to this page later and see how it matches up to your perspective. Myself, I think the journey is the important thing, since if a story ends at all, it'll be either Good, Bad, or Somewhere In-Between, but hey, I'm a cliche-ridden goon. Besides, for all the babbling about the philosophical mumbo-jumbo underlying the story that I'm about to do, the book is mostly a big ol' action-adventure romance.)

To start with the shallow surface stuff, I'll say right here that Goodkind's writing itself can occasionally be a little awkward -- but he quite often turns fine phrases: "As the nightmare started, she dreamed of other things," was a favorite of mine. Anyway, the people who criticize him because he doesn't write as poetically as a Gene Wolfe miss the powerful content of his work in favor of mere style. And he's not particularly polished -- the book is downright juvie in places -- but his actual ideas are interesting, and I'm tired of people getting elitisty and imposing rules about how flowery sentences have to be before they're considered "good art." They're just being bullies and no one in the real world cares. In fact, Goodkind juggles a complex plot easily, and twists and turns and threads from the entire series are picked up, expanded, and fulfilled (and though things do seem to move relatively slowly at first, it's necessary set-up for when all hell breaks loose in the war of the second half). He summarizes past adventures just enough for the new reader to get by, without intruding on the exploits of the previous books -- a few of which I, for one, have never read.

We're quickly caught up, and caught up in the story: because their memories of Kahlan have been taken away, all of Richard's friends such as Cara (a reformed torturer) and Zedd (Richard's grandfather and First Wizard) are rather similar to religious believers, their belief in his stories of the woman he loved springing from a deep trust in him, despite his "impossible" claims. Kahlan and Richard, usually at the forefront, are both a little lost in the shuffle for a good portion of the book; the story belongs more to the little community they've formed around them of good people who've been affected by the power of their relationship. Of course, all characters in literature are at least partially defined by their relationships with others, but Richard is defined to an unusual degree by the reactions he provokes. Goodkind's renaissance-man brand of heroes are similar to his own personality -- he seems to have a similarly relentless determination, and I was always impressed that he built his own house, paints, and makes instruments. Though people tend to assume that Goodkind's confidence is actually arrogance, I think he writes a good fantasy precisely because he's not wasting our time with the world-building nonsense us geeks take too seriously. He cares about the characters and their beliefs, things we don't take seriously enough.

His writing, in fact, functions as a sort of philosophy by stealth: heroic speeches that could only sound natural in fantasy. Richard is as a god; not the paradoxical Nicene-creed neoplatonic one, but rather the physical hero-god of oceania who walks among the people and inspires the humble wilted goodness in them to bloom into little societies of goodwill to stand against their enemies. Relentlessly determined, he crystallizes the cause for his followers, not in a skeevy, manipulative, user-type way, but rather a fatherly, brotherly, loverly way. Though Nicci and Kahlan both despair of winning free of the overwhelming darkness surrounding them, their relationship with Richard gives them the strength to go on. These people want him to be proud of them, because they can feel that he is good. ("Feel" in this case being the sum of their experiences translated into chemical, emotional form, as the book makes sure to point out -- not necessarily correct, but an accurate mirror of one's beliefs anyway.)

And with that, we're on to the embedded social commentary: I don't know if Goodkind intended it, but when Richard brilliantly provokes and in fact creates a frenzied war between two factions within the camp of the Order, the parallel I drew was to today's absolutely insane political division, with extremists separating into two mutually-exclusive "teams", both just itching for an excuse to go to war, ripe for a subversive man to set them up to annihilate each other. While I suspect that Goodkind definitely has strong opinions on the morality of, for instance, our present war, he couches his criticisms in subtle-enough storytelling that I don't believe he's trying to get a dig in at any particular viewpoint; it would be a mistake, then, to condemn him as being the message-boy for any given political party -- yes, despite the Randian rants characters are constantly indulging in page after page, regardless of whether or not they'd be allowed such uninterrupted pontification in reality. I've heard people sneer about how "obviously" Goodkind is inserting a hidden political/philosophical agenda into his art, and while I wouldn't be surprised if it is in fact the case, at the moment I can't bring myself to say I've seen enough evidence to pass a judgement one way or the other. Mostly, he's just kinda talky.

Hey, I'm kinda talky. Doesn't bother me when other people are too.

What is apparent in his art is a great respect for the sovereignty of our beliefs, a right to life, and the idea that living your own life is sacred; reason, in his worldview, is the only master you should follow. Now, in noting that these elements are obviously apparent, I'm not for a moment saying that Goodkind is attempting to convert people to his publicly-proclaimed Objectivism; rather, because the things he cares about and therefore the things he writes about are influenced by a worldview that is so foundationally non-platonic, it's jarring to anyone whose ideas are not predicated on such a foundation, making philosophical and moral differences stand out more than they would with someone with a more harmonious ideological structure. Either way, it's true that for all that it's a complicated moral universe (don't get me wrong, Goodkind is easily among the more complex storytellers, since he admits right from the start that his fictions are about choices and character) his good guys all manage to get in more than a few grand speeches about how they're the ones with the truth, and everyone else is just willfully ignoring it in favor of "theological" constructs. This seems to me to be just another fanaticism, one that denies its own fundamentalism, assuming, as all believers do, that they're the ones seeing reality clearly. Everyone does this, of course; it's built into the biology of our species. The difference is that some of us are at least aware of it and try to compensate for it.

Still, the line is blurry: I imagine that some religious groups might take the Order to be stereotypical stand-ins for extremist faith, but I'm not sure that's his point, since it's just as easy to substitute any authoritarian hierarchical social structure, theistic or atheistic in the Order's place. The commentary on faith: if it has to be militarily enforced, then there is no possibility of it being voluntarily true. It's similar to the controversy surrounding Pullman's "Authority" in his Dark Materials books, but in the end, in Goodkind's books at least, the religion is not the distinguishing trait, and I'm persuaded that Goodkind is being fair to both sides. He's simply describing the way humans function throughout history, so of course we're going to see parallels in current events. Jagang, for instance, reveals the hypocrisy of one individual telling others that their individuality is unimportant, while simultaneously relentlessly pursuing his own own individual need to rule.

There really are beliefs (and resulting actions that spring from those beliefs) similar to the Order that are unacceptable to free society -- but of course it leads to the grimly ironic oxymoron of the necessity of destroying one group's ideas in the name of "freethinking" and "tolerance". Still, I'm more than a little tired of the whole "here is an entire army composed of utterly like-minded individuals, mindless zombies of jingoistic propaganda" that too many fantasies, including this one, at times, indulge in -- though he later makes it a little more subtle by having Richard befriend one of the soldiers. C'mon, people, no army is entirely "good" or "evil", though their overall philosophy and battles might be. Individuals within them, sure -- though I'd argue that the evil is far less common than mere misinterpretation. The author also leans perhaps a little too hard against socialism of any kind -- though perhaps I lean a little too favorably on the communitarian side for him, so I suppose we're even. What I think we might both be missing is the balance; where is the balance between community and individuality? We're social creatures, baboons, but still alone in our heads. Regardless, I could be totally wrong in reading all this into the story, and Goodkind might say that he obviously meant this character to stand for a real-life equivalent in a clever little allegory -- but in that case, it means that his unconscious mind is the more compelling to us readers; it's what we're really feeding off of, despite rather than because of his conscious plans.

Goodkind also has maddening moments of keeping crucial bits of information known to the characters from the reader; it happened in the first book with the nature of Kahlan's power, it happens in this last when Richard figures out all the rules to the last spell. It doesn't build suspense, it builds murderous wrath! In any case, I'm still sorting out the morally complicated climax -- I can't tell if Goodkind is making a statement about all faith or merely misused faith. If the former, he doesn't take into account the "reasoned" causes for immense death and destruction, assuming as he does that "reason" (as if it is something inherently incompatible with faith) is by definition incapable of producing monsters of misunderstanding. If the latter, he fails to distinguish between the two to a comprehensible degree. To me, it seems that both faith and reason can lead to immense destruction, simply because it's possible for malicious users to twist both stories into justification for slaughter. If you tell a good-enough causal story that accounts for a sufficient amount of evidence, something that is convincingly internally-consistent, you can justify killing pretty much anyone. The real question is: of the two vast generalities, which, if either, does a better job of getting people to kill less and live more peacefully, and the prospects for the kind of vast reproducible experimentation it would take to "prove" one or the other to be "better" on an empirical scale (completely ignoring the fact that science cannot measure morality) are horrifying, especially since the whole concept of "better" or "worse" prescriptive judgements seem to me to be out of the purview and boundaries of strict rationalism anyway. Looking at history, it seems to me that both have been successful at curbing humanity's darkest desires, and both have been the justification for atrocities, though of course by necessity religion has had a longer history of both the pacifistic and violent elements. The question of which is more successful is merely a matter of adding up which side "caused" more or less death whenever our species goes extinct.

(Cheery, right?)

Goodkind's solution in the story, in which Richard creates a whole new alternate magicless world to which the Order is banished, is very high and mighty sounding, but at root, it's merely a really complex justification for "us against them" tribalism. I don't fault him for that alone -- at some point, a choice has to be made, and the place where Goodkind draws the line is a good one, seeking as he does to use reason as a guide. But he does deny that reason is at all compatible with faith, which is contrary to the evidence I've personally witnessed of faithful people being just as intellectually rigorous as the best of the empiricists. He makes a big deal out of the distinction between blind hatred and violent but righteous justice, but the result is the same if you stand outside both groups and observe the fact of two communities of human beings killing each other for the stories they believe. I happen to believe that Richard's side, the side that embraces reason and life, is the correct side -- I just also happen to believe that people of faith, though I'm not one of them, are quite capable of embracing the same, and it's as common to turn "reason" into just as fanatically zealous a religion as any faith. Actually, this makes me admire the story more, as I think about it. He does, after all, have good spirits that guide Richard and his young friend Rachel, that they believe in as facts, not metaphors -- is this mere tokenism, or the attempt to recognize the ambiguity of the situation?

It's frustrating: Richard makes a big deal out of how bad someone is for enforcing their beliefs on him, but then goes out and enforces his own beliefs on them. It's not that I disagree with that choice, since I think his beliefs really are superior, it's that he'd deny that he's doing the same thing! It helps that Richard is conveniently able to, with the help of magic, get rid of the Order without (immediately) killing them, and he does note that the true "revenge" will be to live a life full of love, laughter and joy. Even more powerful is when some of Richard's own group goes with the Order into the new world to help build it up, which is where I can't decide what Goodkind is saying, leaving me still a little uneasy with the philosophy. But hey, at least he's honest enough to admit that it's about morality and philosophy in the first place.

In the end, it's a really good story, and good precisely because it's as ambiguous as real life. What Goodkind is getting to the heart of is intent: we can never be sure of our own motives, but with the help of magic, we're able to cut through the language of self-justification and only those who truly wield power with true compassion are able to use the Sword of Truth. This is what allows me, finally, to live with the book and take it as a powerfully life-affirming, inspiring, and ultimately peaceful tale that goes to great lengths to avoid glamorizing the horrors of war. With magic, we are finally able to prove motive, to clarify it and have a pH litmus test to measure and document it, something we don't (yet?) have in the real world, and I can live with my vague unease. I take this book as a revelation of the artist's soul, as a tale about how myths are made and formed on a basis of reality. The new world Richard creates has a chance for redemption, and he pulls off the balancing act of strength without hate, so I applaud Goodkind for resisting the lazy moral relativism so prevalent in today's literature. He has a philosophical clarity, and isn't afraid to show it. Where I might take issue with is where he draws the lines between willful ignorance and sincere but misguided/misinformed/misunderstood belief. Despite my quibbles, though, I have to commend Goodkind, who, well-aware of the normative effect art has on culture and the real-world effects it has on people, tells grand stories of life and death while showing people trying their best.

This is your life, as Richard says. Go out and live it.

The Solitudes by John Crowley
Overlook Press, 2007, Softcover, 427 pp, $15.95

Originally published as Aegypt way back in, what, '87, this classic is finally finally finally back in print.

Pierce Moffett has always felt like an outsider, like he doesn't belong in his own time and place. Disillusioned with life, he searches for meaning in piles of books, in ancient history. What he discovers, hidden in the interstices of all our reconstructions of the past, is that the world is not as it once was. There is a secret place, a land made of ideas, that is just waiting to be discovered again in the margins.

This book is a spiraling story about stories, a nautilus shell of meaning, layers and layers of causes and effects, a swirling maelstrom of ideas endlessly churning. Pierce's aching soaks through everything, a melancholy endless yearning to make it all matter, just make things matter. In his study of science and history and religion, he discovers that all our lives are only given meaning by attaching causal stories to them, and despite the fundamentalist scientists and religious leaders who'd tell you otherwise, the stories are all fictions.

Out and in again, closer and closer to the truth, finding frames within frames, Pierce delves farther and farther into the past, into the made-up lands that were nevertheless as real to our ancestors as our world is to us. There's a history of the world for every one of us, the billions of us all in our communal Solitude. The book is divided into sections exploring the intimacies of Pierce's psychology, his relationships with family and friends, but they're also huge metaphors for stories, just as the internal stories are metaphors for the characters, in Escheresque fractals of meaning, repetitions of small journeys within the larger. The mythical heroes Pierce meets are just the regular people we see on the street, funny and folksy and charming and ordinary but also touching on deep strangeness.

It's a book about truth: where does the fiction begin and the reality leave off, and is there a true distinction between them? Our stories fit together well-enough for most people to live full happy lives, until new information comes along that doesn't fit, it doesn't fit together, and so we must revise our stories to make things make sense again, until they're once more shaken with new data, a forever-cycle of death and rebirth and the dreams inbetween.

Crowley transfers to us a warm feeling of kinship with the people of the past to whom ideas and worldviews mattered. Because they weren't so different from us, no, not so very different. A great bearhug of affection for the people who, like us, care about perspectives and conceptions, and who, like us, were mostly wrong in the end, though correct enough at the time to get through their lives with a meaning still intact.

Because the thing that's amazing is the idea that a new world is coming into being, always a new age, a new story -- and yet how many times has it played out that way, yet another renaissance?

This story deserves to be in your memory, and this new edition is a perfect way to get it there.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Ballantine Books, 2004, Softcover, 421 pp, $14.95

This is an old book, but I can't help it if I didn't read it when it was first published back when I was in middle school -- there was gym to contend with! and girls! -- and then my friendly neighborhood bookstore displayed it prominently enough that I mistook it for a new release and by the time I thought to check the publication date I was halfway through the thing and already enthralled and I loved the characters and I couldn't bear not to share it with y'all, and, and, and...

Well, the comment on one of those little 'employee recommendations' cards noted that the book is in the same vein as Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz and our esteemed host's own Xenocide, which is right on the mark. Science fiction is uniquely suited among all the genres of literature for dealing with speculative theology -- freed from important premises, we're allowed to be truly open-minded and accepting of new theological ideas because we're not burdened with the responsibility of converting to a particular sect. (Not that understanding and acceptance of the reality of the ideas necessarily confers automatic approval, but at least we're able to hear theologically-challenging ideas before we ultimately judge them to be incorrect or at least not-completely-accurate)

Emilio Sandoz is the brilliantly multilingual Jesuit priest helping a close-knit team of researchers make first contact with an alien species. The book is split into two alternating timelines; one tracks the discovery of the aliens -- we find 'em after overhearing some of their "music" -- and the process by which the contact team is formed and starts the exploration to the alien world. The other deals with the aftermath of a gruesome tragedy of culture-clash that takes place after that contact is made. (Thankfully, this is an un-skimmable book; both storylines are enormously compelling, because Russell is really writing a detailed history about people committed to doing a work together, banding into communities and contributing their part. She has a poet's eye for the telling details in the intimacies of shared working and living, enmeshed within the framework of a scientific survey, and every sentence is there for a reason.)

In the 'future' bits of storyline, Emilio is being questioned by his superiors (and his friends, family, and enemies) about the exact causes of the horrific circumstances he was found in: they believe him to be a monster, a whore, a murderer, and the cause of a terrible genocide on the alien world. For a variety of reasons, though, he won't talk, making us readers late for work because we were up so late reading until the last five pages, where everything is at last revealed. Now, this book almost commits the same sin as Goodkind's, and usually I get annoyed with stories in which a character knows something important but is somehow able to keep this knowledge from the reader -- the circumlocutions needed to pull the effect off are just so eye-rollingly tiresome. In this one, however, it is not arbitrary authorial conceit withholding information, and it actually works rather well. Russell keeps our expectations wobbling, allowing us to appreciate the chronically ironic contrast between characters' past and future personalities, to see the results of well-intentioned actions turn out badly in the end, letting our assumptions trick us into guessing at the easy explanation for why things happened instead of waiting for the real -- and much more subtle -- reasons. The idea seems to be: "Don't be so quick to judge, you historical-revisionist putz!" In the end, we do see why we need to have the original revelations be immediately juxtaposed with Emilio's final confession, so if the structure annoys you, stay strong and stick with it.

Because this, friends, is anthropological sci-fi of the best kind, a delicate, delicate web of good intentions wound between the blurry demarcation lines of work and social lives, cultures alien and familiar. The human's mission is both pragmatically scientific and optimistically eschatological (an oxymoron?) at heart, combined into an overriding ideal that they're all striving for, regardless of conscious ideology. The story shows the effects of trials of religion on believers and non-believers alike. Different motivations are compared and contrasted between the humans: one wants to go because she'll be free of her past on Earth, the other because God wills it, another for the science, another for the music. Same mission, different justifications; a study in group dynamics. Helping all these heavy themes along, of course, is the fact that the dialogue is so human and wonderfully funny, which I truly appreciate. Russell can be hilarious and grave in practically the same sentence, which is exactly as I like it in exactly the right places, diffusing tense points without ever getting silly.

On top of which, the science is absolutely rock-solid where it can be, and in the psuedo-sciences of anthropology and sociology it's as good as it gets. It's obvious that Russell was once a teacher, and her extrapolations are intensely intriguing. Further, there's an interesting mix of interpretations of the evidence the scientists and theologians gather, and Russell is fluent in all their languages -- the religious describe their transcendent experiences with psalmic eloquence, the more scientific-minded use their specialized jargony language to describe just as beautifully the function of alien forms, the brilliantly-evolved aestheticism of it all. She twists religion and science and music and art and biology and everything else into each other in a tremendously satisfying all-encompassing way, blending mechanical and purposive causation, giving equal time to all viewpoints, not hiding the persuasive power of any viewpoint, and succeeding in being all the more dangerous because of the moral ambiguity.

Politically, the book is refreshingly fair, or at least attempts fairness with enough sincerity to earn my respect: the Liberals make fun of the Conservatives and vice versa, which is just like the real world I live in -- and yet they're able to respect and love each other despite their ideological differences, which is decidedly not like the world I live in, but is nevertheless, I think, a great ideal to at least pretend to strive towards. Even among the aliens, a mature sense of fairplay is present. Oh, there were a few tiny moments when we first meet the aliens called Runa where I thought Russell would collapse into the ethnocentric anthropologist's patronizing "love" of a more primitive society; y'know, the usual "we're showing these noble savages concepts that they can barely comprehend, and their tiny little minds will just explode from the sheer strangeness of our new magics!" despite how the "miracles" of the modern age aren't particularly amazing -- or is everyone who doesn't have the slightest idea of how an internal combustion engine works awed or frightened by a pickup truck? Sure, they've been brought up in a society in which those things are common and have been for generations, but really now, it's not such a huge deal. Luckily, she subverts this later and shows how unremarkable the humans are when they trek into an alien city.

And she writes some wonderfully alien thought-patterns. The comparison that immediately came to my mind was that much like the shifting narration in Engh's Arslan, Russell shows a host of concerns not only between different humans and humans/aliens, but also between different alien species. Ideas are 'scented' and 'trailed' and 'captured', as she speculates about the shared evolutionary paths in a predator-prey relationship. The sheer violence of a highly-evolved culture based on a predatory animal when they defend their society, their genetic inheritance, their social structure based on the fundamental inequality of the prey species subjugated to them, is terrifying yet understandable. The predator-species, the Jana'ata, even indulge in the festeringly beautiful rot of a kind of poetry of rationalization that takes horror and makes it seem like art. Which might explain part of what I think Russell is trying for: the idea that you can love someone truly but still hate what they do, that no matter how well-intentioned you are, no matter how intelligent and high-cultured you are, miscommunication can still happen. Being able to truly understand someone's behaviour, being able to see their point of view and clearly explain their motivation in precise rhetoric does not immediately mean that you believe they were justified in whatever evil acts they might commit -- it means you're capable of seeing how they justified it to themselves, that's all. (And I, for one, rather liked that there was concept among the Runa about how people don't get upset or angry at miscommunication, they get sad. I don't care if Russell possibly put it in as negative satire, because I'm all for it! Their society is set up not for petty revenge but rather for personal responsibility -- and yes, I know, the conscious decision to show anger can be used to wake people up to the fact that their behavior is socially unacceptable -- I just can't help feeling like there must be a better way! Call me an idealist as if it's a bad thing, I care not.)

Just as fascinating as the aliens, though, are the humans; with her anthropologist's eye for miniature societies, Russell is able to document the way that people change each other subtly, one of the hardest tricks to pull in all of fiction. It's all in the little stuff: one explorer, attempting to be respectful of the various relationships on the mission, starts calling everyone by their last names and the rest follow suit -- but Russell is able to pile enough on so convincingly that it all feels real. Late in the book, there's an absolutely heartbreaking wedding that infuses the beauty and humor of a great many cultures, both human and alien, and math language, racial and species identity, and science and poetry in a glorious jumble. She's careful to allow such moments of clear peace and happiness, because they give meaning to the eventual horror surrounding them. The intimacy of a tiny band of humans when they lose some of their own is just as touching; the way the characters grieve and comfort each other was a perfect model to follow in real life. A friend we've come to love tells Emilio that "No one sleeps alone tonight", and I cried. Russell's communities are heartbreakingly good. Emilio's priestly sacrifice of common human intimacy is heartrending, but ultimately ennobling, and the characters create a tribe of unrelated people who are nevertheless as loving and committed to each other and the work they do together as the ideal of the good family can be.

Highlighting the transitory nature of their family, however, is the fact that when Sandoz returns, he finds that the scientific papers they transmitted back to Earth were never published, though they were all he had, the only things that made the team's sacrifices meaningful in the end. There's an interesting parallel between the childless existence of some of the aliens and the life of a celibate priest; denied actual physical reproduction, they transform their evolutionarily meaningless lives into ones filled with great purpose, a sort of intellectual progeny that might outlast them and provide the community with at least the products of their minds, if not their actual genes.

And all the betrayals, all the miscommunication, it all builds to an utterly harrowing, tragic, horrible, wonderful, eucatastrophe of a climax, in which God is called to the stand to answer for the sick ironies he's built into Emilio's life. Staggeringly, almost debilitatingly complex moral dilemmas, in which the justifications for faith are constructed with such intricate care that we almost believe them to be incapable of breach, which are then smashed apart to dust and ashes, only to be reborn again, until they're destroyed once more to be reincarnated even stronger, an endless cycle of questioning and despair followed by the apprehension of meaning. The hard truth: despite the unrelenting horror of his life, Sanchez is, in fact, still searching for meaning, and yes, this means that the bad stuff was all part of God's plan as well (despite the hugs'n'puppies version of religion accepted in warm'n'fuzzy circles), for the possibility of evil means the possibility for good as well. The existence of nightmarish pain is part of the reason a person as strong as Emilio can exist; the dangers lie in thinking that mere coincidence is part of a grand scheme, in finding meanings where there are none, or being unable to adapt to new information when it is revealed. Russell is able, in the final denouement, to be philosophical without being didactic.

"Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your father knowing it."

"But the sparrow still falls."

And because language is who Emilio is, his redemption must come, can only come, through a spoken confession, a story. When we finish his story, we're left breathless, and exhausted -- but fulfilled. And, I think, like Emilio, just a little bit healed.

* * *

Not to get all mushy or nothin', but this is my last regular column, and I wanted to give a big ol' thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Card and all the editors for having me, as well as the inimitable Kathleen Bellamy for putting up with my perpetual tardiness and generally helping to make this the best job I've ever held. Thanks for the ride, guys.

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