My audio reading of Eric James Stone’s “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” available at StarShipSofa

/ Tuesday, June 21st, 2011 / 7 Comments »

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.

7 Comments

  1. Nick Mamatas says:

    Actually, I’d say that you utterly misinterpreted the story and its ending. We do know that the narratior’s worldview is the correct one because his actions, fueled by his religious beliefs (and career as a high-school debate team member) allow him to be both the moral and practical center of the story. The scientist’s secular relativism is cast as objectively pro-rape; only religious absolutists are actually anti-rape and can do anything about it, and all they need is pure moral suasion. The existence of God is “left open” sure, but I’ve yet to see anyone claim, “This story sucks because God’s in it.”

    I’ve seen plenty of people whip up that strawman in order to defend a deeply shitty story that would be deeply shitty were it not religious in theme at all, of course.

    • Mike Allen says:

      You know, I was going to be disappointed if a dissenting opinion or two didn’t turn up here. Thanks, Nick. I appreciate your thoughts.

  2. Jake says:

    I’d say that the protagonist being the center of the story doesn’t even require the interpretation that Nick prescribes to it. The title removes any of the ambiguity as to whether Leviathan is a god or not and squarely supports the worldview of the protagonist, and to underscore this point, the story ends with a biblical passage which makes it even more clear.

    Now, that said, what I find interesting is that, tossing out the title and the concluding biblical passage, I’m in complete disagreement with Nick. In the realm of speculative fiction, exploring the concept of moral relativism is a time-honored tradition. And within that tradition, more often than not, the thematic jumping off point is toward the relativistic position and away from the absolutist one, which is the opposite of what Nick is arguing. Phil Dick’s entire oeuvre was about having us re-think our absolutist position as to “what is human.”

    Taking Stone’s piece at face value, we are presented with god-like creatures we can’t hope to understand. The concept of rape has no bearing here, as it is completely alien (in all its connotations) to the entities being observed. Ostensibly, the “absolutist” in an SF piece is fighting an uphill battle, and that’s the case here. You can go back to the fifties or even earlier to find similar stories, where an alien race is embracing something morally reprehensible that “it” feels has no bearing at all on the morals of the absolutist white blonde male explorer. Hell, Deejah Thoris was nude, shocking early 20th century readers for its moral repugnance even as it was “normal” to her. The new wave went to this well often, with the lesson that “people are different, and we can accept that” certainly relevant to the times.

    One of the interesting things about the text in this story is that I don’t see the cards stacked in favor of the absolutist that Nick sees. In fact, his argument appears distinctly circular: “The moral relativist sees the actions of the aliens as relative. Ergo, their worldview is inherently repulsive and the protagonist wins the day.” Well, no, Nick. That kind of critical interpretation flies in the face of Moorcock era Interzone, Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, and SF as a whole after the new wave.

    Unfortunately, I think the author realized that he had written an ultimately ambiguous story in terms of moral relativism and the nature of god. The result was that he cheated and gave the readers a shove toward his worldview with the title and the concluding piece of scripture. But take those two pieces out, and I find this story hardly “deeply shitty.”

    Was this my choice for the Novella award? No, it was not. Was I disturbed it was nominated? Not really. I probably wouldn’t have nominated it, but its nomination didn’t give me hives like it did Nick. Let me put it this way, there were other stories I was much more shocked about being nominated than this one.

  3. Jake says:

    By the way, Mike, I should add that your reading of the ending, which I think is entirely legitimate, is undercut 100% by the title and concluding bible passage. As I mention above, it felt to me like Stone finished his story, realized that someone could walk away with a reading like yours, and added a title and biblical passage that screamed, “No! That’s not what it means. They are not god. They are less than god!”

    Also, mea culpa for the above, I mentioned Novella, and I obviously meant Novelette.

    • Mike Allen says:

      Thanks, Jake!

      For the record, I don’t think those things undercut my reading. I start out assuming that the story is written by a true believer for true believers. Seen from that perspective, the concession/assertion the story makes that another perfectly legitimate explanation exists looms pretty big.

  4. Jake says:

    Ah, Mike. That could be my educational background coming in then. I went to Kenyon College, where the “new criticism” of the mid-twentieth century was founded, with its hallmark being you assess the text on its own merits, outside of author intent and other such things. By the time I graduated, this view was softened quite a bit, but it was still a strong grounding in the English department.

    It’s funny, I was actually thinking of biases earlier today in regards to this story. No one can critically review a story without bringing their own background to play, and I am both an atheist and an SF reader who cut his teeth on the transition of fifties era SF into the new wave. Both of these worldviews put a huge burden of proof on the absolutist or religious. With that in mind, I find it very easy for me to read Stone’s story and walk away thinking that it was quite good in its ambiguity toward the understanding of alien culture and the religion of the protagonist. In my mind the burden of proof wasn’t remotely met for it to have a absolutist moral or religious statement. My reading could be vastly different from someone who embraces some religion and isn’t as steeped in the boundary-breaking taboos of sixties era SF.

  5. Trent says:

    I’m a year late (I just read it myself), but Jake’s thoughts mirror mine except for his claim for the title and passage indicating something definite. About a third of the way through, the narrator actually associates God’s voice in the book of Job (concerning Leviathans) as sounding remarkably similar to the swale god. So even here is ambiguity.

    Interesting discussion, Mike. Thanks.

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