time_shark (time_shark) wrote,

My audio reading of Eric James Stone's "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" at StarShipSofa

Today, zany Tony Smith of Hugo Award-winning StarShipSofa posted my reading of Eric James Stone's Nebula Award-winning, Hugo Award-nominated novelette "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made." If you want a listen, click here.

When Tony first asked me to make this recording, "Leviathan" was still a Nebula finalist. I didn't actually make the recording until after Eric's story won the Nebula and thanks to illness, didn't get around to editing it until after some controversy stirred over Eric's Nebula victory.

I parse the debate this way. A few prominent writers/bloggers with connections to the genre field — all quite accomplished themselves, most of whom I might characterize as outspoken progressives — have resoundingly condemned the novelette, in some cases to the point of suggesting that its win proffers proof that the Nebula voting system is broken.

Intriguingly, on the blog sites denouncing "Leviathan," nobody tends to speak up to support it. However, it's not hard to use Google to find at least a couple bloggers, admittedly not as prominent, who are ecstatic the story won — and who are devout Christians. That the camps don't seem to have crossed swords anywhere might well speak to how fragmented sf fandom can be. (Eric Stone himself has stayed out of the debate. Smart man.)

Being the guy charged with converting this apparently controversial piece to audio, I've read the criticism with interest. Some things I'm in line with — to my taste, the introductions of both the story's main problem and the character of Dr. Merced are rather goofy and ham-handed. Were I the editor of this piece, I would have suggested finding a different approach to the debate about sexual assault in the third scene. But I'm not the editor, Stan Schmidt was, and that's how that goes.

On the other hand, I think some criticisms aimed at the story miss by miles. One thought I've actually articulated before, when Saladin Ahmed's "Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela" from Clockwork Phoenix 2 was up for the Nebula. Rather than do that work all over again, I'm just going to clip from the post I wrote then:

One of the things that appealed to me about Saladin's story — hardly the only reason I chose it, but definitely one of them — was how it handled religion. The Caliph's physicker is a good man and a devout Muslim, a genuinely pious man. And then, as one might expect in a good fantasy story, he encounters events that strain at his sanity — and when he does, he never once questions his faith; instead he hopes he has done right by his God as he acts in the way that he feels he must.

This struck me as a very sound, very realistic depiction of the role of religion in someone's life, and it was utterly refreshing.

Science fiction and fantasy tend to paint religion in the shrillest possible terms. Whether it's the Muslims who are portrayed as one-note frothing psychos or the Christians who are portrayed as one-note frothing psychos seems to depend on the author's political leanings. Certainly fuel to supply both stereotypes exists in the world, but many genre stories (and many story submissions I've read, for that matter) seem to default to "religious person = nutcase" without thinking there's any need to explain why an individual would be that way; it's just assumed.

Doing so ignores a vast swath of human experience: ranging from everyday interactions with religion that are not at all negative, to that quiet strength faith can give to someone facing extraordinary hardships: and taking those things into account can add fascinating nuances to a character when perceptively handled.

Mind you, I consider Saladin's story more successful than Eric's — of course I do, I published it! — because in Saladin's story the challenge to the protagonist's faith is more profound, as his sense of what is right leads him to pursue actions that cut against his religious teachings.

However, in "Leviathan," devout Harry Malan does question and doubt his own actions, does briefly cynically wonder what his church's motives were in sending him to this outpost. It's not a simple case of faith continually trumps all. (More on that thought below.)

I've read complaints that "Leviathan" is cliched in its unswerving religious advocacy. And yet, at least in my anecdotal perception, the overwhelming paradigm in genre fiction is to portray religion as innately evil. And, for at least some readers, myself included, that makes a devout but fairly normal, fallible protagonist a refreshing change.

I'm not trying to say this is a story I would personally vote for in an award season. But, when I read this piece, within just a page or two I knew that this was a story written by a devout Mormon about a devout Mormon — the story's ideology is right there on its sleeve. And so, I adopted an attitude I'll sum up this way: "Mr. Stone, I grant you that this work will incorporate and endorse political perspectives and cosmological beliefs that I do not share. Now then, given that, can you entertain me?" And the story did entertain me. Lois Tilton's viewpoint (expressed here, first excerpt) pretty much precisely duplicates my own.

Part of the reason for why I dug "Leviathan" has to do with what might be the single biggest misreading of the story that I've seen consistently from its critics. [I guess I should add here: SPOILER ALERT.] I read at least a few posts claiming that in the end, Dr. Merced, representing secular science, is taught a lesson by the triumph of faith and shown the error of her ways.

And ... that's not at all what happens.

At the end of the story, not only does Dr. Merced remain completely unconvinced that Malan's religion amounts to anything more than fairy tales — but the story leaves the possibility open that her interpretation of events might well be the correct one. To me, that makes the story much more interesting than one might judge at first glance.

Malan and Merced end the story as two people who have learned to respect each other, knowing they will never agree. That too is worth noting.

There are other criticisms of "Leviathan" that I think have merit, and other strengths the story has which I think would be worth highlighting, but this post has covered the ground I personally felt was most important related to this tale.

And, y'know, it ain't as if I can tell anyone else what to think. If you care to, read it or listen to it and decide for yourself.

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