Saturday, September 20, 2014

Good News From the Vatican, by Robert Silverberg

"Science Fiction is the internal (intracultural) literary form taken by syncretism in the west. It adopts as it's subject matter that occult area where science in decay, elaborately decorated with technology, overlaps the second religiousness."  So said the late, great James Blish.

The religious aspect of SF owes as much to the act of reading SF, as from the imagery associated with it. You can look at SF in two ways, none of which is exclusive of one another: it is both intensely visual, and at its best, encourages contemplation on everything under the sun. That it can achieve this from within the confines of a short story as well as a novel bears testimony to its often densely fabular nature, where anything that does not directly address the theme of the story in it's barest, most essential form is left out. This might also be why SF has often falsely been classified as children's literature.

Then there are stories, like this one, which are overtly about the intersection of religion and technology. But unlike SF protagonists in tales such as A Case of Conscience, The Quest for St. Aquin or The Way of Cross and Dragon, Silverberg's isn't actively involved in the proceedings. Nor is the treatment didactic, or fabular. He posits a future where a robot is in the running for the position of a Pope. This has caused quite an uproar throughout the world, among both humans and robots alike. But the story is told not by someone in the know, but by a man sitting outside at a cafe with his colourful group of friends, some of whom are of a religious bent of mind, some who aren't, and speculating, through the course of a conversation, on the outcome. His tone is enthusiastic, and the times he does find it all very funny, and has a good laugh at the expense of the hysteria spreading across the globe at the possibility of a robot Pope. However, one senses an interest in Catholicism in what he says, and how he says it, implying that perhaps the incursion of science into something this sacrosanct can only be a good thing for a change, especially if it gets people who are otherwise oblivious to such matters interested.

In a medium such as SF, this is a very interesting approach, especially since more often than not,  protagonists go and do things, and don't just sit around talking about what may happen. (Note to self: Tom Shippey's distinction could be relevant in this regard, on how SF has no heroes). In this, it is very similar to Gene Wolfe's How the Whip Came Back, which also uses a conversation to slowly unveil what seems to be going on, and Ballard's Billenium, which uses a seemingly ineffectual protagonist to make a statement regarding a larger whole.

The ending to the story, where the Pope rises above the crowds and flies away into the air, hovering above them, is quietly sublime.

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