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Religion done right

Sunday, May 24th, 2009 | Posted by Theo

Since I am a critic of the reliably inept portrayal of one of the more significant human institutions in most science fiction and fantasy, I think it’s important to point out when a genre author takes the trouble to get it right. To paraphrase what I’ve written the past, getting religion wrong is, in fact, just another form of getting the science wrong, since the way in which people assign value and order to their lives and to their social structures is well within the realm of legitimate scientific inquiry.

While one wouldn’t necessarily expect kudos in this regard to go to a series of erotic, sado-masochistic fantasy, Jacqueline Carey does an excellent job of getting the social science more right than not in Kushiel’s Dart and the subsequent volumes. Not only does she create a credible structure of religious worship based on the Blessed Elua and his angelic Companions, but more importantly, she makes that structure a significant and integral part of the romanticized European society she has created. The point, you see, is not that fiction should portray religion in a falsely positive light, but rather that characters – indeed, entire worlds – that lack any sense of religious impulse are as intrinsically and historically incredible as flying pink unicorns farting rainbows. Carey’s religion, with its sacred whores, violent celibate monks, and bondage temples, might be an offensively sexualized transmogrification of the Christian religion that far surpasses anything Dan Brown ever concocted, but it is nevertheless praiseworthy from a literary perspective because it reflects the actual human condition rather than a sterile, modern, and imaginary version of it.

The only problem with the De Angeline religion conceived by Carey is that it is not a religion with any recognizable restrictions or consequences. While “love as thou wilt” makes for an effective-sounding precept, one can’t help but notice that there are no negative consequences for those characters who refuse or are otherwise reluctant to do so. In other words, Carey doesn’t manage to quite follow through on the logic of her religion; however, in light of how superior her effort is in comparison with the genre norm, it would be churlish to lodge this failure to follow through as a serious criticism. The writer attempting to make his fantastic worlds more credible could do far worse than follow Carey’s lead in devising a coherent religious system with “real” world ramifications, however exotic – or erotic – they might be.

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