Excerpt from “The Chaplain’s Assistant”

Today’s excerpt is from my short story “The Chaplain’s Assistant.” This story first appeared in the September 2011 issue of Analog magazine, and is currently available in my collection of award-nominated and award-winning science fiction: Lights in the Deep. “The Chaplain’s Assistant” also forms the backbone (in concert with its sequel, the Hugo award nominated novella “The Chaplain’s Legacy”) for my forthcoming novel, The Chaplain’s War, from Baen Books.

• • •

I was putting fresh oil into clay lamps at the altar when the mantis glided into my foyer. The creature stopped for a moment, his antennae dancing in the air, sensing the few parishioners who sat on my roughly-hewn stone pews. I hadn’t seen a mantis in a long time—the aliens didn’t bother with humans much, now that we were shut safely behind their Wall. Like all the rest of his kind, this mantis’s lower thorax was submerged into the biomechanical “saddle” of his floating mobility disc. Only, this one’s disc didn’t appear to have any apertures for weapons—a true rarity on Purgatory.

Every human head in the building turned towards the visitor, each set of human eyes smoldering with a familiar, tired hate.

“I would speak to the Holy Man,” said the mantis through the speaker box on its disc. Its fearsome, segmented beak had not moved. The disc and all the machines within it were controlled directly by the alien’s brain.

When nobody got up to leave, the mantis began floating up my chapel’s central aisle, the mantis’s disc making a gentle humming sound. “Alone,” said the visitor, his vocoded voice approximating a commanding human tone.

Heads and eyes turned to me. I looked at the mantis, considered my options, then bowed to my flock, who reluctantly began to leave—each worshipper collecting handfuls of beads, crosses, stars, serviceman’s bibles, and various other religious items. They exited without saying a word. What else could they do? The mantes ruled Purgatory as surely as Lucifer ruled Hell.

I waited at the altar.

“You are the religious officer?” said the mantis.

“The Chaplain is dead. I am—was—his assistant.”

“We must speak, you and I.”

Again, I noted the mantis’s lack of armament.

“What can I do for you?” I said.

“I wish to understand this entity you call God.”

I stared at the alien, not quite sure if I should take him seriously.

“To understand God,” I said slowly, “is a skill that requires ongoing mastery.”

“Which is why the other humans come here, to this structure. To learn from you.”

I blushed slightly. In the year since I’d built the chapel—some two years after our failed invasion and subsequent capture—I’d not given so much as a single sermon. Preaching wasn’t my thing. I built the chapel because the Chaplain told me to before he died, and because it seemed obvious that many humans on Purgatory—men and women who had landed here, fought, been stranded and eventually imprisoned—needed it. With the fleets from Sol departed, and our homes many thousands of light-years away, there wasn’t much left for some of us to turn to—except Him.

“I don’t teach,” I said, measuring my words against the quiet fear in my heart, “but I do provide a space for those who come to listen.”
“You are being deliberately cryptic,” the mantis accused.

“I mean no offense,” I continued, hating the servile tinge in my own voice as I spoke to the beast, “it’s just that I was never trained as an instructor of worship. Like I said when you asked, I am only the assistant.”

“Then what do the humans here listen to, precisely?”

“The spirit,” I said.

The mantis’s beak yawned wide, its serrated tractor teeth vibrating with visible annoyance. I stared into that mouth of death—remembering how many troops had been slaughtered in jaws like those—and felt myself go cold. The Chaplain had often called the mantes soulless. At the time—before the landing—I’d thought he was speaking metaphorically. But looking at the monster in front of me I remembered the Chaplain’s declaration, and found it apt.

“Spirit,” said the mantis. “Twice before has my kind encountered this perplexing concept.”

“Oh?” I said.

“Two other sapients, one of them avian and the other amphibian.”

Other aliens . . . besides the mantes? “And what could they tell you about God?”

“Gods,” my visitor corrected me. “We destroyed both species before we could collect much data on their beliefs.”

“Destroyed,” I said, hoping the alien’s ears couldn’t detect the shaking dread in my voice.

“Yes. Hundreds of your years ago, during the Great Nest’s Third Expansion into the galaxy. We thought ourselves alone, then. We had no experience with alternative intelligence. The homeworld of the avians and the homeworld of the amphibians were pleasing to the Patriarchal Quorum, so those worlds were annexed, cleansed of competitive life forms, and have since become major population centers for my people.”

I took in this information as best as I could, unsure if any human ears had ever heard anything like it. I thought of the Military Intelligence guys—all dead—who would have given their years’ pay to gain the kind of information I had just gained, standing here in the drafty, ramshackle confines of my makeshift church.

I experienced a sudden leap of intuition.

“You’re not a soldier,” I said.

The mantis’s beak snapped shut.

“Certainly not.”

“What are you then, a scientist?”

The mantis seemed to contemplate this word—however it had translated for the alien’s mind—and he waved a spiked forelimb in my direction.

“The best human term is professor. I research and I teach.”

“I see,” I said, suddenly fascinated to be meeting the first mantis I’d ever seen who was not, explicitly, trained to kill. “So you’re here to research human religion.”

“Not just human religion,” said the mantis, hovering closer. “I want to know about this . . . this spirit that you speak of. Is it God?”

“I guess so, but also kind of not. The spirit is . . . what you feel inside you when you know God is paying attention.”

It was a clumsy explanation, one the Chaplain would have—no doubt—chastised me for. I’d never been much good at putting these kinds of concepts into words that helped me understand, much less helped other people understand too. And trying to explain God and the spirit to this insect felt a lot like explaining the beauty of orchestral music to a lawnmower.

The professor’s two serrated forelimbs stroked the front of his disc thoughtfully.

“What do the mantes believe?” I asked.

The professor’s forelimbs froze. “Nothing,” he said.


“We detect neither a spirit nor a God,” said the professor, who made a second jaw-gaped show of annoyance. “The avians and the amphibians, they each built palaces to their Gods. Whole continents and oceans mobilized in warfare, to determine which God was superior. Before we came and wiped them all out, down to the last chick and tadpole. Now, their flying Gods and their swimming Gods are recorded in the Quorum Archive, and I am left to wander here—to this desert of a planet—to quiz you, who are not even trained to give me the answers I seek.”

The professor’s body language showed that his annoyance verged on anger, and I felt myself pressing my calves and the backs of my thighs into the altar, ready for the lightning blow that would sever a carotid or split my stomach open. I’d seen so many die that way, their attackers reveling in the carnage. However technologically advanced the mantes were, they still retained a degree of predatory-hindbrain joy while engaged in combat.
Noticing my alarm, the professor floated backwards half a meter.

“Forgive me,” said the alien. “I came here today seeking answers from what I had hoped would be a somewhat reliable source. It is not your fault that the eldest of the Quorum destroy things before they can learn from them. My time with you is finite, and I am impatient to learn as much as possible before the end.”
“You have to leave . . . ?” I said, half-questioning.

The professor didn’t say anything for several seconds, letting the silence speak for him. My shoulders and back caved, if only a little.
“How many of the rest of us will die?” I asked, swallowing hard.

“All,” said the professor.

“All?” I said, at once sure of the answer, but still needing to ask again anyway.

“Yes, all,” said the professor. “When I got word that the Quorum had ordered this colony cleansed of competitive life forms—prior to the dispatching of the Fourth Expansion towards your other worlds—I knew that I had a very narrow window. I must study this faith that inhabits you humans. Before it is too late.”

“We’re no threat to you now,” I heard myself say with hollow shock, “all of us on Purgatory, we’ve all been disarmed and you’ve made it plain that we can’t hurt you. The Wall sees to that.”

“I will return tomorrow, to study your other visitors in their worship,” said the alien as his disc spun on its vertical axis, and he began to hover towards the exit.

“We’re not a threat—!”

But my shouting was for naught. The professor was gone.

• • •

You can read the rest of this story in the pages of:


13 thoughts on “Excerpt from “The Chaplain’s Assistant”

  1. Interesting . . . it occurs to me that, much like Mal, the survivors might not so much seek solace in the idea of a god as to question if there was, indeed, a god.

    I presume much from such a s small excerpt, but given that the fundamentals alluded to are those of western religions, one would have to start questioning one’s teaching when confronted with not only alien, but superior species. It kind of flies in the face of the universe being created for humans to do with as they will.

    That said, the premise is interesting, and I’ll keep the book in mind (my current reading stack has grown to the point that I’m not adding to it until I get it back down to a more manageable size).

  2. Just to give you an idea, I’m working on the November 2007 issue of Analog (so I will eventually hit your story). Now that I am retired, I hope to make short work of all the issues, as well as catch up with a number of books I bought and have yet to read.

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  4. @ disperser

    I agree the premise is interesting, and so is the argument you bring up, but I can’t sympathise with what I -think- is your conclusion, if you’re arguing that they’d lose faith and become atheists. (If you just meant they would have to re-examine and modify certain beliefs they held, then of course.)

    That’s the sort of thing that appeals to a Joss Whedon level of atheism (I assume you’re referring to ‘Firefly’), but it’s fairly ludicrous in any realistic story, because religion is historically been the source of comfort in these kinds of situations exactly as described. Oppression has the effect of strengthening religious unity, not destroying it.

    And I imagine that anyone who succumbed to despair, would be the sort to lie around in the street and die off. So… natural selection of the faithful?

    Christians ran into precisely these kinds of questions when discovering new continents and lands, and arguing about the possibility of people in the antipodes. There was an explorer, can’t remember which one, who was even writing in his journal about the theological ramifications of the ‘alien peoples’ he was encountering who never heard the word of Christ, and it sounded much the same.

    I don’t get the sense that the edifice of Christianity was in any sense damaged by it.

    I personally would be astonished to discover any atheist or even non-angelic/demonic superior species (I assume you were discounting angels and demons as superior alien races) in the universe, but Catholics and most Christians are typically much more open about it than I am, and have pondered the question and wrote sci-fi about it for ages.

    If we took Whedon seriously, we’d have to believe that Mal thought Christian (presumably Catholic) doctrine was really that God saves people if they’re pretty. And if your buddies ever ditch you in a war, it’s God’s fault.
    I highly doubt any Christian of conviction (let alone role-models) would behave the way Whedon’s Christians do.

    I still love ‘Firefly’ though.

  5. @Mudz

    Mentioning Mal was an illustrative example of a type of person who believes so hard that disillusionment makes them re-evaluate everything. In the same show, Book is hinted at having come face to face with similar things, only he turned toward fate.

    Switching to the real world, I’m not sure the examples you give of Christians explorers is applicable to the fiction above. Christians explorers were encountering different “races’, but not true aliens. Their “aliens” still had two eyes, ears, were bipedal, had two distinct sexes, and other than color and culture were essentially the same as themselves. The impetus for calling them “aliens” came from convenience – not having to recognize them as god’s creatures allowed for the plundering of resources, near genocides, and all manner of un-christian acts.

    That argument is also suspicious because it’s not as if Europeans had not previously encountered other “races” (Africa, India, China, etc). Apparently they had little issue with all of them since they opened up trade routes.

    Where religion played a role was to inculcate them with the idea that they were superior to these other races, that their culture was superior, that their beliefs were superior (hence the missionaries and forceful conversion-or-die tactics, hence slavery, hence many awful things).

    Turn that around, and have something truly alien appear – intelligent bugs (or other non-human sentient creature), and I don’t know how a christian (or muslim, or any other religion using books that tells them the world was created for them, and that they are special) can continue to value the teaching as anything other than abstract fables with a sometime decent message.

    Now, having questioned all my life, I admit that I cannot envision what the faithful believer might do. Cognizant dissonance is a real phenomenon, and rationalization is easily observed, so I don’t doubt some believers would find ways to square their fate with contrary evidence (we’ve had what, a few thousand years of it?).

    And atheism is not the only response . . . many eastern religions and philosophies offer viable alternatives to the western believer.

    All I’m saying is that it takes a special kind of fanaticism to square this level of contradictory evidence. Then again, from my point of view, even the casual believer appears severely impaired when it comes to evaluating the tenets they supposedly live by.

    As for drawing strength from religion in times of oppression, I don’t think it’s a universal response. Some say “screw this” and take matters into their own hands, realizing they can only rely on themselves.

    You see this most often in survivors who went through something awful, and often with soldiers – the bond that is formed goes beyond loyalty to a country, ideal, or religion . . . it is a bond between the people themselves based on shared experiences.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to denigrate the book. Fiction requires the acceptance of the underlying premise, so if I can accept elves, vampires, sentient robots, FTL travel, I can certainly accept this premise. My comment reflected the first thing that popped into my head.

  6. Book was also a pretty terrible Christian. A Christian who spends the whole show mocking his own faith for laughs, and thinks the Bible isn’t supposed to make sense but instead just represents a nebulous concept of an arbitrary object of devotion, kind of makes the character redundant. I never saw any sincere devotion or Christianity beyond some cute references to carpentry.

    I’m not giving you a hard time about it, but I just felt it has to be said why I tend to watch Whedon shows with a heavy dose of eyebrow-raising when he wants to talk about Christianity and faith, (and this whole “oh I scraped my knee, THEREISNOGOD” cliche). It always tends to be weak sentimental and mystical stuff that doesn’t mean anything other than ‘there is no rational basis for my religious beliefs. I’m totally just guessing.’

    I think Whedon ripped “Book” off the “Preacher Man” from a japanime called Trigun. But Preacher Man was actually into his own faith, and uttered prayers and gave his POV with complete sincerity even when humourous. And he was highly protagonistic, which made him an appealing character from the start (his character morality then took a nose-dive at some point, but he still managed to be interesting).
    Book is kind of laughable as a Christian, let alone a priest. He represents a kind of concentrated liberal straw-Christian, who Whedon thinks is only interesting to the extent he makes fun of his beliefs, or is forced to abandon them either for guidance or comfort.

    I bring up angels and demons, because Christians have always believed in utterly alien and superior beings. And that in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, we *have* been visited by aliens before, and wrote about it.

    And we all grew up with sci-fi. Whether we believe in aliens or not, the concept itself is as natural as missionary work, not particularly threatening to our conceptions. Even I, who smugly asserts there are no other populated worlds in this cosmos (I mean, what’s the point?), would happily change my tune if we find some, and just join ranks with the Christians who did expect it.

    It doesn’t actually contradict native Christian beliefs. There is no scripture that says “There Are No Alien Races.” It may contradict preconceptions some Christians (like myself) have, but the response to that would be to form new conceptions, none of which would require leaving Christianity.

    Even the dudes in the Middle Ages apparently amused themselves by carving all kinds of hideous monsters and alien creatures, and have some of the creepiest ‘beyond the veil’ stories and beliefs, so it’s not like the emotions involved are new either. I haven’t read ‘Eifelheim’ yet, but I understand it’s the basic premise that to the medieval mind, one might be easily rationalised in terms of the other. Which is quite an interesting premise.

    That argument is also suspicious because it’s not as if Europeans had not previously encountered other “races” (Africa, India, China, etc). Apparently they had little issue with all of them since they opened up trade routes.

    Well, yes, that’s kind of the point. It’s not a new thing. *We* may not think of them as aliens *now*, but they were certainly strange and foreign at one point, and had entirely antethetical belief systems, and even had superior levels of civilisation at several points.

    Discovering distant lands with peoples never before contacted, and therefore unable to have recieved the word of Christ as generations lived and died, are immensely relevant. Because the theology is exactly the same problem that theologians would discuss in a First Contact situation. It was never an existential world-shattering crisis of faith. Christians are quite willing to suspend preconceptions when adjusting to new occurrences, especially when we’ve had centuries to think it out in advance.

    It’s a common mistake to assume certain unbreakable conceptions onto Christians, as if there’s never been a Reformation, protestantism, or religious controversy.

    Being able to say to themselves that they ‘weren’t God’s creatures’ means that they were perfectly able to justify to themselves non-creatures-of-God. So if this is what you believe to be typical, then the expectation is that upon meeting alien atheists, Christians would assume they are, what, intellectual animals? The response is therefore *not* a loss of faith, but a lack of empathy.

    Of course, I’m just assuming your argument for convenience. I’ve never studied colonialism in general to any degree that’d be interesting.

    How they *look* doesn’t really matter. We share space on the planet with an immense variety of life, and the indigenous peoples discovered were themselves were in fact much different looking than the white discoverers in their mind. When the white man came to my country, half of my ancestors thought they were ghosts.

    If we discover aliens, and they’re reeeally ugly, I doubt that’ll be considered important. I’m sure the first thing that would happen is the Pope will go “don’t judge them yet, you cads! They could be our angelic brotherly good-friends in disguise!” We wouldn’t want to be called racist or anything.

    Look, let me put it this way. An example that’ll clear up how this can work, on the emotional level.

    If Christianity goes out into space, and discovers a superior or any, alien race that claims to be atheist, here’s a bunch of obvious interpretations a religious man could make, ranging from valid caricature to what I consider reasonable.

    A) The aliens are demons, and lying in order to test our conviction. (Appeals to you, no?)
    B) They’re some kind of soulless robo-race that a careless angel or God left behind (and running), which falls outside of theological jurisdiction.
    C) They’re an alien race subject to their own personal destiny with God.
    D) They’re an alien race that failed their personal destiny, and have been abandoned.
    E) The aliens are ignorant, and need to be converted.

    I would handily bet that Christians would eventually settle on E, Missionary Work. Aliens would be the new heathen.
    But none of the options would in any sense destabilise Christian faith, although it may alter its temperament for the time being.

    Faith is the element of trust. If Christians are overwhelmed by terror and oppression, and they gather together and pray for deliverance, endurance, or mercy to the only being who had the absolute and undeniable power to get them out of such a terrible situation, the one who led the Jews out of Egypt and made a mighty nation out of one man, and conquered the world with 12.

    “As for drawing strength from religion in times of oppression, I don’t think it’s a universal response. Some say “screw this” and take matters into their own hands, realizing they can only rely on themselves. “

    I’m absolutely certain that’s the case. People have free – even iron – will, not everyone has to react the same way. I’m sure an atheist could reside in the hope that a rescue operation will be mounted, or a super-weapon developed, or that they can mount a resistance, or something along those lines. And I’m sure he would quite naturally form unity with others based on common humanity, which makes perfect sense. It’s pretty much the exact same dynamic at work. Comfort in familiarity in the face of the unfamiliar, perhaps.

    Where Christians are concerned, it may not be a *universal* response, but it is the typical *overall* response. Gives us a chance to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, y’know?

    But there’s no reason for a Christian to become less Christian, when it can be observed that historically it has the opposite effect. In such a situation, hope would be probably more important than skepticism, or rather, they would rationalise the situation as best they could according to their favoured understanding. For Christians, we’d draw strength from examples of Roman persecution, being thrown to lions and burned to death into metal statues, crufixion, that sort of thing. Christians have a broad narrative of long-suffering ‘as the prophets did’ which prepares us to emotionally cope with almost any kind of hazard, whether we are the minority or the majority, weak or strong, rational or mystical. Which is not to say that non-Christians cannot also cope, but that there’s really no kind of situation, aliens or not, that would pose a problem to the essential nature of Christian faith, which really is not that bothered if people or peoples all live on earth, or other planets too.

    Christian faith can survive all manner of modification and remain Christian, as countless denominations will attest.

    So I’d say I’m assuming here, that while everyone wouldn’t necessarily all convert to Christianity in such a situation, there’s really no strong reason that Christians wouldn’t stay Christian under those circumstances. I would expect Christian unity to intensify, and even drawing skeptics to the hope, but there’s plenty of plausible room to work with.

    But the popular notion that Christian reaction to suffering or shock would or should typically be ‘ohno, life is terrible, just like the Bible said it could be. Let’s abandon all our most fundamental and cherished beliefs which give us hope of ultimate justice and salvation.’ People just don’t act like that on any level, unless the beliefs weren’t cherished in the first place. I think that atheists simply like to fantasise about ‘shock events’, where Christians are suddenly face-to-face with a reality that turns their provincial little world upside-down, in the same way some Christians might amuse themselves with the thought of God showing up to a Dawkins seminar.
    But if such a thing can be speculated, alien contact would not be such an event.

    So yeah, it’s entirely valid to speculate any range of options for how an atheist might react, but all I know is that for Christians to respond to yet another case of oppression and fear with -atheism-, or anything but marathon praying, stalwart matyrdom, and such-like, would be atypical, and I frankly would find it unbelievable. It just doesn’t resonate with me on an intellectual or emotional level, and it’s just… trite, if not insulting.

    So, again, don’t take me wrong. I don’t wanna jump all over you or anything, but I’ve kind of developed a bit of a bone with Whedon’s writing. I too, just wanted to say it for the sake of it being on my mind. That’s what the internet was invented for.

    At worst, we can simply disagree for the time being, and read an interesting story.

  7. Hmm . . . I already mentioned Firefly was an illustrative example, but since I did bring it up . . .

    Book: it’s a character, but in that it is a representation of what I have observed, so saying he’s a “pretty terrible christian” smacks to me of the “not a true scotsman” fallacy. To my observation christians are not a monolithic entity; last I checked they are varied individuals, and claiming one christian is a better than another depends on a lot of factors, and usually a biased perspective.

    Reaction to conflicting evidence: lets agree that generalizing how christians would react in the face of evidence contrary to their teachings is based mostly out of personal experience, and that it is also based on the particular sect.

    That said, my assumption is anchored on two facts:

    One is the countless discussions I had with religious people (not just christians). The overwhelming majority of christians who engage me in discussions rely heavily on the bible for “how things are” and for justifying their interpretation of both their religion and their personal view of what god is. It could very well be that when faced with evidence contrary to what they have been taught they will just rationalize it away. Young Earth creationists are a good example, but even middle-of-the road believers find excuses or outright dismiss contradictions, contrary evidence, and even what would otherwise be common sense (although, to a person, they have no trouble seeing and agreeing about the same problems in other religions and religious texts). The point I am making here is that a rational person who truly believes the universe was created for humans, and that we have been given dominion over it, will have to do some serious rationalization ahead of them when if and when evidence to the contrary comes to pass, regardless if it is a benign or hostile. The worst of the scenarios is the other race has similar ideas of divine entitlement. If so, war, destruction, slaughter, etc. all justified by said beliefs.

    But back to the point; I’ll grant you that some (really hard core) will just “believe stronger”. When I ask christians what it would take for them to reconsider their beliefs, they can’t even imagine the possibility of it (meaning ‘nothing’).

    Number two is discussions with many, many ex-believers, and the reaction they had when they come face to face with the realization (sometimes sudden, sometimes gradual) that what they have been taught is not representative of the world around them. There is a very good reason why most religions (christians included) discourage reading or listening to anything contrary to the teachings. Most religions, including many of the 2,000 christian sects, are very insular; they are not interested in discussions, learning, sharing of conflicting ideas.

    I am very comfortable stating that what believers are taught and what theologians study are two entirely different things. The hierarchy of all religions “water down” what is preached, selectively choosing the simple message they pass on to their flock (wouldn’t want to confuse the poor tykes). And here I am not just postulating. I grew up in Italy, and my uncle was a priest all his life. That’s all he ever wanted to be, and was a Monsignor when he passed away a few years ago. That familiarity with what otherwise was an authority figure (and other authority figures as I was present at many dinners with other priests) no doubt was an influence in my very early departure from being a believer (around 8 years of age), although not the primary influence. What it did do was give me a number of different perspectives. One was the way my uncle was viewed by the parishioners. Two was the contrasting fact that he and the other priests were just like other people, with faults, fears, etc.; they did not have any special magic to draw on. Three I saw the stark contrast between the formality of the mass and the everyday running of the church. That formality was designed for one purpose only (that I could see), to lend credibility to the message, to drive home the idea people were dealing with something more than just a guy in a colorful frock. (note, I’m not trying to disrespect my uncle. He was a person of faith who believed in the good of what he was doing, did not buy into the politics of the church, and was a friend and mentor to the people of the three parishes he ended up with.)

    Anyway, I did not mean to digress . . . I don’t have to rely on my experiences to extrapolate what happens to many people when faced with a serious challenge to their beliefs (worth reading, but of course believers dismiss them as ‘lost sheep’ – to this day my mother believes I will someday ‘return’). I, you, and the author can read first hand accounts. Do they all turn atheists? No. New Age beliefs have exploded, I think, in part to fill the void in people who begin to see through the smoke and mirrors. Others take what they like, discard the rest, and form new belief systems.

    And yes, some will anchor even more strongly, even desperately, to the what they (want to) believe.

    But one thing I want to make clear, lest it comes up again . . . Whedon’s is not a hero of mine, his works do not represent or reflect my views, and the only reason I mentioned the characters was as examples of a general behavior, a point of what might be a common reference. I know full well that, just like all fables, like the bible, qur’an, torah, vedas, et. al., the people and events mentioned within are larger than life, but simple, representations meant to convey ideas, not facts.

    And yes, we’ll continue to disagree because we have differing life experiences.

  8. Hey Brad,

    Hope all’s well. This remains one of my favorites by you, and I look forward to seeing the finished story in novel form when it hits the shelves this fall. One of these days I’ll make it to another Worldcon. Meantime, I’ll focus on getting some good writing done.

    Any idea what the next book will be?



  9. Alex, sorry for the tardy reply. For Fall 2014 I have Racers of the Night debuting at the end of this week, then The Chaplain’s War debuting in October, and then the collaboration with Larry Niven (Red Tide) in November. Meanwhile I am trying to get another new novel done (for Baen’s eyes) which I hope to have ready to send soon. It’s an alien first contact space adventure with megastructures, the kernel of which I ran by Toni late last year, and which she liked; so hopefully when the finished product crosses her desk, she says yes.

  10. @disperser

    I happened to trawl back across here and I suppose I can pop in another reply, why not.

    I want to be courteous and not afflict Torgerson with too extensive a religious debate on his thread, but if it gets all flaily and pink-faced, he can always stomp on it. (I picked up ‘Lights in the Deep’ by the way, Torg, and I thoroughly enjoyed the heck out of all the stories. I found the characters were pretty great (and I was convinced), the arc of the Chaplain’s Assistant was thoroughly involving, and the stories were often quite moving. Good job, man.)

    (Since my internet just came back on recently, expect a doozy of a post. Take your time, disperser.)

    Book: it’s a character, but in that it is a representation of what I have observed, so saying he’s a “pretty terrible christian” smacks to me of the “not a true scotsman” fallacy. To my observation christians are not a monolithic entity; last I checked they are varied individuals, and claiming one christian is a better than another depends on a lot of factors, and usually a biased perspective.

    I was being pretty forgiving in my attitude towards Book. The guy just isn’t a Christian in any meaningful way. Just because he’s called a Christian doesn’t make him one, certainly not reflective of the average Christian or Christian priest. For one thing, he’s fictional. So it’s pretty safe to say that his non-existent monastic order of bushy-hairs isn’t a True Christian.

    Look, if you have an ideal of what a Christian *is*, people are going to be either nearer or further from the mark. Would you say that Jesus was no better a Christian than anyone else? This is something I particularly dislike to hear, because it’s essentially a mini-communism, where no-one is motivated to better themselves, because they can’t ever benefit from any improvement. Exercise doesn’t make you fitter, education doesn’t make you smarter, moral training doesn’t make you better. It’s trying to institualise a victory without effort, or turn effort into pre-destinated failure. It’s elevating sloth into a moral virtue in itself.

    Uh, yes I supposed you call call it a biased perspective, it’s kind of a meaningless qualifier. Kind of like if I think murderers are bad people, I’m biased because I believe in law and justice and the value of human life. It doesn’t add anything to the discussion other than to reaffirm our possession of individual intellect.

    And I believe the point I was quite strongly making is that Christians aren’t a monolithic entity by natural law (the institution of the Catholic Church could be considered monolithic, but that’s one of their sell points). We are individuals and we have individual point of views. So when I say ‘Book is a terrible Christian’ I am expressing my personal point of view, which I can back up with arguments, making a judgment upon how Book evolved out of Joss Whedon’s personal views. The fact that Whedon is an atheist, should grant me, an actual Christian, some consideration on the matter of whether a Christian character is credible or not. Just swap me out for ‘feminists on feminist characters’ or ‘scientists on scientist characters’ for an easy analogy.

    If I say ‘that’s no true scotsman’, and I’m pointing to an Oriental, I’m probably right. Just calling it a fallacy doesn’t make it so. I don’t believe that pithy phrases have magical power in themselves to alter the terms of the debate.

    Book’s primary quote in the movie is;” I don’t care what you believe, just believe in something.” That’s the silliest thing for any Christian, let alone a priest to say (and right after establishing his last moral act in life was to do something ‘not very Christian’). So he’d be cool if Mal was a Satanist? Just because belief is cool and magical, but doesn’t have to be anything specific like Jesus, God, the resurrection, moral behaviour? His Christianity was made entirely irrelevant by that quote. That’s what makes him No True Christian. He’s just a weird sci-fi wish-product, and he’s not very credible.

    The eastern mystical take keeps cropping up in a lot of ‘idealisations’ of theology in stories by liberals, who want their religion to be at best, ineffectual, or ‘God wants you to do whatever it is you already want to do’ rather than ‘changed the world and re-ordered the cosmos as we knew it’ and ‘God has rules’ kind.

    As I said, he represents an atheist fantasy about Christians and ‘how Christians should be’ (as un-Christian as possible, oddly), rather than a meaningful, and actually believable Christian character.

    You find it believable because that’s a concept you’ve developed about Christians. Perfect logical. Which is why I understand it in an atheist story. I just don’t sympathise with it, because it goes against my experience of other Christians.

    And Mal, too. I was being nice about it, but the whole conceit is absolutely terrible. It’s not that he ‘lost faith because his values were challenged’, it’s that he lost faith after they *weren’t challenged at all*. *Nothing* happened in that scene that would have gone against anything he believed in. It made no logical sense. That’s what I don’t like about the scene. There are people, fictional and real, that have a crisis of faith for much better justification than ‘people can be killed by bullets? This goes against EVERYTHING THE BIBLE TAUGHT ME’.
    A pious daughter dying of terminal illness, for example, would have been something we can sympathise with.

    We can all understand loss of faith (whether personally experienced or not), because we’re all people, a range of iterations of the same humanity. The Apostle Paul said to ‘support those weak in faith’. But not all reasons are believable.

    One is the countless discussions I had with religious people (not just christians).

    I can answer this kind of anecdote by simply stating the converse. Obviously we both think the other side are a bunch of delusional dudes, or we’d be one of them, or at least, not *against* them.

    I’ve had countless discussions with proud atheists who will weave, dodge, ignoring obvious truths and wave off logical arguments as ‘reality playing tricks’, ‘religious talk’ and ‘the universe isn’t what it looks like’ etc, and misrepresent the issue endlessly. You know why? Because they’re human, and humans are imperfect and do things like that, because they believe in things, and those things can be more important to them than other things like intellectual rigor or ethics.

    I find, in my personal view, that materialist evolutionists tend (only tend) to be the most close-minded people I know, simply because they *cannot* change their views on even these small factors without being forced to accept some sort of supernatural element, which goes directly against their *core* belief about the universe. Whereas these things such as evolution, 6 days, 6000 years, Big Bang, what-have-you, are merely matters of *tangential* belief to Christians.

    Does that anecdote bother you? I expect it would. So anecdotes aren’t really all that great in debates. We might as well be saying ‘I think you guys are crazy and wrong’.

    Yes, there are Christians who suscribe to different schools of thought. I’m a YEC (used to be OEC). Others are OEC. Others are theistic evolutionists. Etc. It’s all based on what we think its most reasonable, given the information and premises we have to work with. Not everything is equal, but our emotional constitutions tend to occupy a range, rather than discrete states, and most of us aren’t that different in our basic psychologies.

    Yes, people try to rationalise things (improvement over ‘mystify things’ right?). That’s basically what I was saying. My comment wasn’t about whether Christians are *right*, but how we *behave*.

    (Obviously I think we are right, to differing degrees of education)

    I, you, and the author can read first hand accounts. Do they all turn atheists? No. New Age beliefs have exploded, I think, in part to fill the void in people who begin to see through the smoke and mirrors. Others take what they like, discard the rest, and form new belief systems.

    It’s a matter of historical fact that it just doesn’t really happen. It’s not ‘some people have higher resistance than others’, it just that it’s entirely irrelevant in that sense. Being persecuted doesn’t make you question your Christian beliefs, it makes you go ‘I’m like the prophets, woo! Can you see me, God? Can you see what I did? Totally nailed it!’ Christians spend their entire lives thinking and preparing for that kind of scenario. For most of us, it’s the equivalent of a good ‘ol patriotic war story. We get pumped up to do our bit for the cause.

    I would characterise with it with the pithy phrase ‘if you don’t believe in God, you’ll believe in anything’, but yes I otherwise agree with the sentiment. I don’t *approve* of it. It’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about with characters like Book, who just shopping cart their theology out of what Whedon thinks is cute, with the usual trick of just making up bible scriptures, because that’s just something that happens and people wouldn’t light their torches and throw pitch-forks if that happened, or maybe they just don’t keep records anymore.

    Herbert gets away with it because Dune is awesome.

    But one thing I want to make clear, lest it comes up again . . . Whedon’s is not a hero of mine, his works do not represent or reflect my views, and the only reason I mentioned the characters was as examples of a general behavior, a point of what might be a common reference. I know full well that, just like all fables, like the bible, qur’an, torah, vedas, et. al., the people and events mentioned within are larger than life, but simple, representations meant to convey ideas, not facts.

    Oh no, I don’t assume Whedon is an auto worship object for atheists (just nerds). I don’t care about that. He’s only significant for iterating a primary atheist sentiment that was reflective of the culture he subscribes to.

    For example, the last sentence you wrote, just wrote off every single significiant religious text as just ‘it’s not trying to tell the truth, it’s just trying to tell cool stories to expand your minds’, that’s a sentiment that crops up a lot, but I can tell you, that it has no sympathy with me. I mean, what’s your proof? Any hard, empirical evidence to support the assertion that the genealogies, and (I’ll be honest, sometimes pretty tedious) histories in the Bible were just over-excited accountants who thought future generations would be amazed by their mind-boggling itineraries and census polls they just made up out of philosophical principle?

    I don’t think all religions are correct. I think there was a lot of bullshit mythologising in such situations for awesomeness, trying to make President-Pharoah-King-God look cool. Same thing still happens, more or less. I don’t think that makes *every single historical narrative* automatically false. You have to make judgments about the things you can or cannot believe, and attempt to discern between true and false through inquiry and analysis.
    I also don’t think all scientific, philosophical or social theories that ever existed are correct. I don’t think all integers accurately represent the speed of light. That’s not really an earth-shattering position though, is it?

    When the last time you seriously questioned there were over 7 billion people alive on the earth? Have you met over 7 billion people, or did you just make a holistic assumption based on human behaviour on a societal behaviour to the effect of ‘I would have heard something if there wasn’t’?

    There’s not much to gain from bland dismissal of all religions, theories, and constants, because they include things you’re disenchanted with. There’s even less even you affect a rationalist position, where the issue is primarily emotional, and generally relayed in the form of anecdotes. I Was Blind, But Now I See. Generally.

    Yes, priests are human. See, that’s an emotional issue. I never had a priest. There were old Christians and young Christians, that was about it.

    What you’re talking about is simply a matter of authority figures and trust. That’s a natural human condition. Finding out that the people you hero-worshipped are actually people; whether priests, fathers, or athletes, is just something kids get over. I don’t think it means what you think it means. I don’t know a single person who thinks priests have magical powers, beyond a good relationship with God. They’re expected to be wiser, simply because they’re teachers, and it’s their job. It’s the same way many people feel about scientists, who they feel they can rely on for dependable answers about the world.

    There is a very good reason why most religions (christians included) discourage reading or listening to anything contrary to the teachings.

    Well, sure, theoretically. Do you want them teaching creationism in schools, for example? How about prayer and Christian doctrine? Marksmanship? Marxism? Or astrology and magic? Because we probably agree on at least two of those.

    I would discourage my kids from reading books telling them they should kill themselves to preserve the environment. That’s just… life, dude. If you think your kids or students are too young, or naive, to be reading say ‘Mein Kampf’, ‘The Geneology of Morals’ or ‘Jews: Why We Should Hate Them, The Filthy Bastards’, you tell them, ‘don’t read that stuff, it’ll mess you up’
    At the same time, these books are perfectly available, and yeah, Christians who are interested, or scholars, will research them, and laymen won’t care. Kind of like science.

    Heck, we put restrictions on our *movies*. It makes sense we warn people about dangerous philosophies and religions, especially ones with provably devastating influence. (Though ironically, Christians went to great effort to transcribe and record all others cultures and religions they came into contact for, precisely to gain a better understanding, a better context of their own beliefs.)

    There’s no perfect Soviet program that will adequately and omnipresently pre-empt all potentially negative factors of everything in life ever.

    I would have no idea what the disconnect between what people are learning in church, and people who study would be, since I have no idea who you’re talking about. If you want to say ‘oh, those Catholics are damn, dirty hypocrites’ then how does that separate you from the average Protestant? You think I never said the same things? That I didn’t go ‘oh, those Catholics hate people learning things! That’s why they spent so much time writing enormous texts of theology and philosophy, and teaching grammar, mathematics and logic in the universities they invented!’ Yet I’m Christian. We’ve been doing this quite happily with or without atheists for a long time.

    We have to try and get context on people we don’t agree with, or else we’re just licensing our disdain on hatred on the basis of our disdain and hatred alone. *Why* did the Catholics not want their pupils reading the Bible by themselves? Did it make sense from their perspective? Is it still that way today? What is the relevance to my argument?

    That’s what I find innately silly about it. None of any of the religious controversies that’s ever happened, has required a full-blown atheist-out. Inter-denominational intellectual war has been popular since before Christ.
    So the cosy way we have tv/book characters that say ‘oh, I used to be *Exactly Christian*, but then I suddenly got *Illuminated into Atheism* by exceptional intelligence or going Neo in the Matrix. Just Like You, Certain Percent of Viewers’, and select a random justifying trope from your usual suspects that funnily enough, hardly ever (if at all) seems to happen in real life.

    I’m okay that this appeals to atheists, and appears a lot in their fantasies. Of course it would (I like stories about holy knights driving back an army of devils with a shiny cross (because that shit is cool)), but it often segues into common misrepresentations of Christians as liberals, atheists, whoever, of the pulpit variety, like to see us. Again, this doesn’t actually *bother me* that much (more a matter of acclimatisation than anything I guess), any more than it bothers me there are people who believe in horoscopes and Karma.

    But I’m still going to tell people it’s dumb.

  11. @Mudz

    I was not sure as I read this if it was purposeful dishonesty, or merely ignorance that fueled the words. The intent seemed one of honest discussion, even as the arguments made use of a number of fallacies and purposeful misdirections.

    Then I read the last line, and it settled the argument for me; dishonest ignorance. For the record, in this day and age I think that is the only ignorance possible.

    I saved the conversation, and I am going to have fun with it since it provides an excellent example of my vary arguments, as well as a teaching opportunity . . .

    . . . but not here as this is primarily a post about the book.

    I offer my apologies to Mr. Torgensen for my off-hand comment resulting in the hijacking of the conversation away from it. My part in it ends now.

  12. Hah!

    That was worth the wait.

    Honestly, you’re just going to tell me I said something awful and ignorant without actually specifying what it was?

    What made you think the discussion was the point? I was just offering an honest opinion as I felt moved to, you were perfectly free to agree/disagree, or conclude, as you have, the discussion at any point. I had no cosmic goal in mind. This isn’t an Official Debate of any kind.

    Dude, I *rely* on my fellow man to tell me when I’m being an ass, and actually explain why. Pointing fingers doesn’t mean anything.

    And no we didn’t hijack anything. I spaced out my replies very deliberately to make sure I did not interfere with any other posts, or impose too greatly on Torgerson’s grace.

    So what? I can’t just have an opinion that something is dumb, and genuinely *enjoy* talking about something as trivial as a TV show? It’s fun to talk about, so why shouldn’t I?

    Is it bad to have opinions? Because I’m kind of partial to them.

  13. Hang on a tick! Did you just *steal* the conversation and run away with it to a secret castle where I can’t follow?

    Dude, that’s the douchiest thing ever. You’re going to empty chair me? Hah! That’s honestly hilarious.

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