26 September 2011

The Urban Fantasy Anthology

Here is a review of mine, which has recently been published in Interzone.

The Urban Fantasy Anthology
Edited by Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Lansdale
Tachyon Publications, 432 pp., $15.95 trade pb

It’s raw, it’s vibrant, it’s undeniably popular, but just what is urban fantasy? The editors of this new anthology from Tachyon attempt to define the genre by offering us twenty short stories they regard as typical. These stories have been subdivided into three categories: mythic fiction, paranormal romance and noir fantasy. By way of introduction, Peter Beagle offers a useful critical overview of the book as a whole, while Charles De Lint, Paula Guran and Joe Lansdale do the same for each of the three subdivisions.

Mythic fiction is the oldest and best established of the three types of urban fantasy. However, as Charles De Lint points out, the term was originally chosen by him and Terri Windling precisely to avoid describing what they were writing as ‘urban fantasy’. It is probably the most easily definable of the three categories. Essentially, mythic fiction refers to any story that takes traditional fantasy tropes and/or mythic elements and places them in a (sometimes loosely) contemporary setting. In this collection, the category is illustrated by stories from Emma Bull, Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, Jeffrey Ford and Peter Beagle. All the stories chosen to represent mythic fiction are excellent reads, but the Jeffrey Ford offering (‘On the Road to New Egypt’) seems rather out of place in this company: there is a surrealism about it that to my mind makes it more akin to the category described here as ‘noir fantasy’.

The term ‘paranormal romance’ immediately put me in mind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Twilight saga and Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake novels. Paula Guran’s take on the category certainly overlaps with those works, but she puts more emphasis on ‘kickassitude’ and detective-style plots than on any element of romance. The stories chosen to represent this category are by Charles de Lint (again), Kelley Armstrong, Norman Partridge, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia Briggs, Bruce McAllister, Suzy McKee Charnas and Francesca Lia Block. Again it is a strong selection of stories. My particular favourite was Patricia Briggs’s ‘Seeing Eye’, perhaps because I have a soft spot for paranormal detective stories.

Finally, Joe Lansdale introduces what in their wisdom the editors have decided to call noir fantasy. I think this is a misnomer because, to my mind, it suggests a connection with film noir and hardboiled crime fiction; it leads me to expect a cynical take on the world, a morally ambiguous (possibly darkly humorous) central character and possibly a erotic dimension that is not constrained by (or at least is in tension with) conventional attitudes. In fact, the term ‘noir fantasy’ leads me to expect precisely what Paula Guran highlighted about ‘paranormal romance’. However, for Joe Lansdale it clearly means (urban) fantasy with a strong component of horror and/or surrealism. The stories presented here as ‘noir fantasy’ are a disparate collection by Thomas Disch, Susan Palwick, Holly Black, Steven Boyett, Joe Lansdale, Tim Powers and Al Sarrantonio. They are all twisted, dark and surreal . . . but noir? Of these, I found Susan Pawlick’s ‘Gestella’ (a werewolf betrayed by her human lover) and Steven Boyett’s ‘Talking Back to the Moon’ (ex-werewolf and centaur on a road journey in a post-apocalyptic California) particularly memorable.

The sheer diversity of stories anthologized here does a good job of highlighting the breadth of contemporary urban fantasy. I am less convinced by the editors’ attempts to classify the stories. But more important is the fact that they have brought together an excellent collection of stories that showcases the best of urban fantasy writing (however you define it). Definitely a must read!

21 September 2011

Interpreting the Universe as Creation

Yet another old review of mine from Science and Christian Belief:

Interpreting the Universe as Creation: A Dialogue of Science and Religion
edited by Vincent Brümmer

As the title suggests, this volume of essays is the outcome of an international consultation on science and religion. No fewer than four of the papers are from the pens of British authors already well-known for their contributions to aspects of the dialogue.

The structure of the collection is quite simple. After two introductory chapters of a theological nature subsequent chapters are paired so that we are given a scientific and a theological contribution in the areas of cosmology, evolutionary biology, and human nature. The one departure from this pattern is the concluding chapter which explores the theological implications of the ecological crisis.

The theological introduction is provided by Vincent Brümmer who defends Wittgenstein's concept of religion as a language-game against the charge of fideism. This is developed in the following chapter by Luco van den Brom. He relates it to George Lindbeck’s cultural linguistic view of doctrine. This suggests that the doctrine of creation is part of religious map for the journey of life. Van den Brom maintains the possibility that it makes claims about the nature of reality. However, he effectively marginalizes the doctrine by treating it as a ‘footnote’ to salvation history which is retained primarily because we have no way of deriving ethical norms from scientific facts.

Personally I found the two chapters on cosmology the most interesting in the book. The first, by Chris Isham, discusses recent quantum creation theories. It stresses the highly speculative nature of these attempts to explain the origin of the universe. In its companion paper, Willem Drees explores some of the potential tensions between cosmology and theology. In particular, he focuses on cosmology’s spatialization of time and its platonizing tendencies. However, while recognizing that these are hard to reconcile with traditional Protestant theologies, he suggests that theology need not be unduly worried that we can evade such tensions by reverting to some form of Christian Platonism in which eternity is interpreted as timelessness and the universe is a mere reflection of mathematical entities existing in the mind of God.

By contrast, I found the chapters on biological themes rather disappointing. Taken as a whole they provide a useful introduction to the dialogue between science and religion in the areas of evolution, human nature and ecology. However, they simply go over ground that is already extremely well trod: we cannot answer the question ‘What is life?’; evolution is not incompatible with creation and this has implications for our understanding of God (predictably, little attention is given to whether the view of God revealed in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures has implications for our understanding of evolution); human beings cannot be distinguished from animals by any biological or psychological criteria but only on theological grounds; and, finally, we are told that this distinction is one of the roots of our ecological crisis.

No attempt has been made to integrate these papers into a consistent overview of the subject. The result is a degree of disjointedness which may irritate some readers. However, it does serve to highlight the degree of theological divergence within the debate.

20 September 2011

Christianity and Ecology

Another old review of mine from Science and Christian Belief:

Christianity and Ecology
edited by Elizabeth Breuilly and Martin Palmer
Continuum, 1992

This volume forms part of a series sponsored by the World Wide Fund for Nature with the overall aim of exploring how different world religions have viewed the natural environment and the relevance of religious beliefs for our handling of the current ecological crisis. If this volume is typical of the series as a whole, it is designed as a semi-popular presentation for the benefit of parish discussion groups and, perhaps, for use in schools.

The editors have divided the contents into four main sections tackling respectively the ecological crisis, the roots of Christian attitudes to the environment, historical case studies and practical contemporary Christian responses.

The first section consists of a single paper by Freda Rajotte (a former member of the WCC Church and Society Unit). She moves rapidly and uncritically from a summary account of the ecological crisis itself to a statement of Christian culpability which reflects the secular environmentalist consensus rather than the views of informed Christian theologians. One is left with the distinct impression that the Church, as she sees it, is a conservative institution hell-bent on maintaining the status quo over a wide variety of issues (she even implies that Christianity resisted the movement to abolish slavery!).

By contrast with the shrill and tendentious opening section, the three papers on the roots of Christian attitudes are balanced and helpful pieces of work. ‘The Bible and the Natural World’ and ‘The Influence of the Bible on Christian Belief about the Natural World’ are by Dr Ruth Page. She presents a positive view of biblical teaching in relation to the environment and also offers a counter to Rajotte’s suggestion that Western Christianity must bear much of the blame for the present crisis. The third paper is a précis of lectures given by John Zizioulas at King’s College London. Serious students of the theology of nature will want to read the original version (published in King’s Theological Review) but the editors are to be thanked for making this important material more widely available.

Turning to the historical case studies, we encounter first an excellent study of Benedictine monasticism by Sister Joan Chittister. She summarises the Benedictine ideal in terms of hard work, respect for the land, simplicity, care and stewardship and examines its implications for environmental ethics. This is followed by a study of St Francis by Father Peter Hooper of the Franciscan Study Centre in Canterbury. Hooper presents an interesting but, I suspect, anachronistic picture of Francis. He admits, but fails to explain, the consistent failure of Franciscans to live up to the ecological ideal he portrays. Could it be that there were other facets in Francis, warring with his love of nature? That was certainly true of St Bonaventure, the first great theologian of the Franciscan Order. The concluding contribution in this section claims to tackle the Protestant tradition. However, its author Martin Palmer seems to be more interested in launching a tendentious attack on Calvinism than in giving a fair account of what is, after all, an extremely diverse family of Christian traditions. He accepts Max Weber’s correlation between Calvinism and capitalism uncritically, apparently unaware of the serious questions which have been raised regarding Weber’s thesis. Calvin himself is presented as a religious fanatic who did not believe that God cared for his creation (apart from the elect)! Now it is certainly true that Calvin shares the Augustinian ambivalence towards the natural world which runs throughout Western Christianity. But Palmer’s suggestion that Calvinism was ‘a major contributor to the growth of an exploitative attitude to nature’ (p. ix) is errant nonsense. On the contrary, Calvin was the first Reformer explicitly to assert our duty of responsible stewardship with respect to the natural world.

The concluding section, like the opening, is by Freda Rajotte. In it she offers a variety of suggestions for individual Christians and churches seeking to make some kind of genuine response to the ecological crisis.
People seeking to use this book as a resource for parish or classroom discussion will be much helped by the questions which are interpolated into the text at frequent intervals. However it has two serious weaknesses: the lack of bibliography and the tendentious nature of the contributions by Rajotte and Palmer. A book which presumes to be a teaching resource should enable readers to look elsewhere for complementary (or contradictory) perspectives. And it should eschew the temptation to perpetuate ill-informed prejudices.

19 September 2011

Evolution: The Great Debate

Continuing my season of old book reviews, here is one I wrote for Science and Christian Belief:

Evolution: The Great Debate
by Vernon Blackmore and Andrew Page
Lion, 1989

Evolution has been given the Lion treatment. This very attractive large format paperback is typical of the sort of publication for which Lion is justly renowned. It is well illustrated, clearly written and additional information is set apart from the main text in coloured boxes. All in all it could have been designed to compete in the secular coffee table book market.

But that very fact immediately raises a question in my mind. Given that this is the product of a Christian publisher, what is its purpose? The title suggests that it is yet another contribution to the long-running creation–evolution debate. However, that suggestion is firmly denied by the authors (p. 7). Instead they offer to take us on a guided tour of the history of the idea of evolution.

With that in mind, let us turn to the content of the book. Three introductory chapters set the scene for Darwin, tracing the history of evolutionary speculation and associated ideas from classical Greek times to the beginning of Darwin’s career as a natural historian. Chapters 4 and 5 examine first the historical development of Darwin’s theory and then its central feature: natural selection as the driving mechanism for evolution. Chapters 6 to 8 continue the history of evolution with an account of the post-Darwinian debates (both religious and biological) to the present day. The final chapter is more philosophical in tone, examining some of the speculation which has been associated with the espousal of Darwinism.

I have little to say about the book's account of evolution as a biological theory. The authors’ material is straightforwardly written, readable and accurate. In fact it would make a good A level textbook on the subject.

However, Christian readers will expect more than that from a book published by Lion. The authors deny that the book is about the rights and wrongs of creationism and evolution. Nevertheless there is far more about the religious implications of evolution than one would expect in a secular book on the same theme.
Thus one might expect to find an objective report of the development of Christian responses to evolutionary thought. However, this is not in fact the case. The bulk of the religious material has to do with the development of creationism. Far from presenting it objectively, the authors are clearly critical of this particular response to the theory of evolution. On the other hand, recognising that their brief was not to take sides, the authors refrain from making out a convincing case for theistic evolution. That the latter is their preferred option is clear from their sympathetic account of it on p. 186f. Unfortunately they refer readers to the work of Arthur Peacocke for further information about this option. Peacocke is a highly respected writer on science and religion, but his mixture of liberal Anglicanism and process theology is unlikely to commend theistic evolution to evangelical Christians.

For a book that contains so much about the religious implications of evolution it is remarkably thin on theology. The authors tend to ask questions rather than make theological suggestions. This could be good teaching technique or it could mask a reluctance to tackle the theological issues.

The historical nature of the book also tends to obscure the theological side of the debate.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a historical account of evolution with rather more than usual about the religious dimensions of the theory this might be the book to begin with. For theology, you will have to look elsewhere.

13 September 2011

Coming soon

According to the T&T Clark blog, advance copies of the third edition of God, Humanity and the Cosmos are now available. Once again, I am responsible for the chapter on physics.

Some endorsements:

‘As the title says, God, Humanity and the Cosmos covers almost everything regarding science, Christianity and its critics. Not only is the scope of this textbook ambitious, but so is the variety of detailed issues addressed in many brief, readable sections that deserve careful study. For each topic discussed, the reader may come away with a fair and informed understanding as well as suggestions for further reading if one were to pursue that particular topic. Other wide ranging surveys of ‘religion and science’ tend to promote answers and play down the problems; this one also poses good questions with the answers, and thus doesn’t leave its challenging edge in easy apologetics. God, Humanity and the Cosmos is a rich survey as well as a great opportunity to come to greater depth in some of the most exciting intellectual discussions of our time.’ – Willem B. Drees, Leiden University, the Netherlands.

‘Distilling the expertise of a dozen key scholars in science and religion and containing significant new material, this third edition of Christopher Southgate’s now classic textbook continues to offer a comprehensive overview of what might otherwise seem a hopelessly large and shifting subject. In particular, the contributors are theologically literate and put theology back into the science and religion debate. Students I teach have found this textbook to be the most informative in its field.’ – David Grumett, University of Cambridge, UK.

‘I continue to enthusiastically recommend this fine textbook in science and religion. I have used the previous editions on several occasions in seminary and doctoral courses at the Graduate Theological Union, and found them to provide an excellent survey of the field, a very useful reference guide, and a stimulating set of perspectives from the spectrum of views of its editors. Key additions to this third edition – new chapters on the new atheism and climate change, a substantial rewrite of the evolution and biotechnology chapters, and a sizeable updating of the bibliography - make it all the more valuable as a textbook in science and religion.’ – Robert J. Russell, Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley, USA.

12 September 2011

Introducing Original Pronunciation

David Crystal has a new-ish website devoted to Original Pronunciation of the English language. Judging by what he says on the home page, its real focus is on English as it was pronounced in Shakespeare’s day. But that’s fine with me; my main interest in the site is in how it can help me to improve my pronunciation of the various Elizabethan ballads I sing.

08 September 2011

Cats, pigeons and cosmologists

When I was an undergraduate I was taught that modern cosmology was founded upon the cosmological principle. This is the assumption that the Earth does not occupy a privileged position in the universe or, more generally, there are no privileged positions in the universe. In other words, the universe will look pretty much the same wherever an observer might be located (not so much in terms of physical structures but certainly in terms of the effects of physical laws).

However, a couple of researchers at the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Beijing have recently posted a paper entitled ‘Direction Dependence of the Deceleration Parameter’ to arXiv (here). The universe is not just expanding but that expansion is accelerating. In it this paper, the authors argue (based on their analysis of Type 1 supernovae) that there is a preferred axis to that acceleration.

If it its true it certainly puts a cat among the cosmological pigeons!

07 September 2011

Moltmann: Messianic Theology in the Making

Another old review (I’ve forgotten where this one was originally published):

Moltmann: Messianic Theology in the Making
by Richard Bauckham
Marshall Pickering, 1987

In recent years Moltmann has emerged as probably the most widely read German theologian in the Anglo-Saxon world. However, until the publication of this book there was no easily accessible introduction to his work. This omission may be due in part to the strong reactions which his writings engender in his readers. One gets the impression that they tend to be either enthusiasts or antipathetic. In such a situation, the balance necessary for a good introduction is hard to come by.

For the purposes of this introduction, Dr Bauckham has restricted his attention to that part of Moltmann’s career delimited by Theology of Hope (1964), The Crucified God (1972), and The Church in the Power of the Spirit (1975). This has the dual advantage of reducing the work to manageable proportions, and creating a natural framework on which to hang this study. Thus there are chapters on each of the volumes of his trilogy. An introductory chapter on the origins and context of the theology of hope, and one which traces Moltmann’s trinitarian thinking as it developed through this period complete the introduction.

The introductory chapter shows very briefly how Moltmann’s interest in eschatology and mission can be traced back to his days as a student in Gottingen. Bauckham then turns to his dialogue with Ernst Bloch: he draws out a number of parallels between the theology of hope and the work of Bloch to show how Moltmann has been able to use categories from the Marxist philosopher to articulate his own approach to Christian eschatology. However he is at pains to point out that this was no uncritical assimilation of Marxist thought; that Bloch’s philosophy was an apt vehicle for expressing the revolutionary potential of the gospel and no more.

Having thus set the scene, chapter 2 deals with Theology of Hope itself. Each of the chapters dealing with the elements of the trilogy follows the same pattern: they begin by examining the structure and method of the works in question, this is followed by a more detailed examination of the major themes of each book. Here Bauckham singles out for closer examination, Moltmann’s understanding of revelation as promise, his insistence on the reality and significance of the resurrection, and his suggestion that history be understood as mission. In the case of chapter 2, there are also brief sections which trace Moltmann’s development in the years immediately following the publication of Theology of Hope.

The longest chapter in the book is understandably devoted to Moltmann’s most influential work, The Crucified God. In discussing its methodology, Bauckham points out the way in which Moltmann’s greater stress on the cross has radicalized rather than changed his earlier approach. He suggests that this theology of the cross may be regarded as a Christian parallel to the Frankfurt School’s critical theory. Bauckham develops this suggestion as he examines in turn the dialectic of the cross; the iconoclasm of the cross; Moltmann’s response to protest atheism; and the problem of suffering.

Chapter 4, ‘The Trinitarian History of God’, of necessity follows quite a different pattern from its neighbours. It takes the form of a synoptic view of the developments in Moltmann’s concept of God between 1964 and 1979.

The final chapter is a useful exposition of Moltmann’s ecclesiology: an aspect of his work which has been somewhat overshadowed by the debates surrounding the earlier volumes of the trilogy. While not straying beyond the self-imposed limits of Bauckham’s task, this chapter does provide a useful background for examining Moltmann’s more recent work on the doctrine of the Trinity. (My one regret is that considerations of space seem to have ruled out a similar synoptic view of the development of his understanding of creation.)

Although Bauckham numbers himself among the enthusiasts for Moltmann, he has achieved a very fair account of this period in Moltmann’s career. It is primarily concerned to present an overview rather than a critique of Moltmann’s work, but Bauckham does not shrink from reporting and commenting on some of the more serious criticisms. As an overview, and a lucidly written one at that, it will prove indispensable for students who are grappling with Moltmann’s thought for the first time. But I believe it will also be of value to people who are already familiar with Moltmann’s theology as an aid to achieving an overall picture of his work free from the false emphases of particular enthusiasms and criticisms. Indeed it appears that even those whose knowledge of Moltmann’s work is most intimate can benefit: let Moltmann himself have the last word, ‘there are also mirrors in which one recognizes oneself better than one had known oneself before. From these mirrors one learns something new about oneself and one’s theological career, and one is glad of this revelation of the hidden motives and methods in one’s thought. Richard Bauckham’s work has been this kind of mirror for me.’

06 September 2011

Ethics in an Age of Technology

Another review from Science & Christian Belief (Vol. 6, No. 2, October 1994):

Ethics in an Age of Technology: The Gifford Lectures 1989-1991
by Ian Barbour

This eagerly awaited sequel to Religion in an Age of Science possesses all the characteristics that one has come to expect of Ian Barbour’s writing. It is a lucid, comprehensive and balanced account of ethical issues as they relate to the world of modern technology.

The book is divided into three main sections: Conflicting Values, Critical Technologies and Technology and the Future.

Under the heading of Conflicting Values, Barbour explores contemporary attitudes to technology, human values (both individual and social) and environmental values. He examines the scientific, philosophical and religious arguments used to justify the competing value systems he describes. In the course of this examination, he sketches in what he takes to be a Christian perspective. Three themes emerge as particularly important for contemporary policy decisions involving technology: justice, participation and sustainability.

Turning to Critical Technologies, he offers as case studies agriculture, energy and computers. The ethical dimension of agricultural technology allows him to explore the impact of technology on traditional human communities as well as environmental questions. Energy raises questions of global justice, environmental quality and sustainability. His chapter on computers looks at their impact on working practices as well as on their effect on access to information.

In the concluding section, he addresses the unprecedented powers afforded to a few by recent technological developments. Specifically he examines the threat posed by further environmental depredations, genetic engineering and the continuing proliferation of nuclear weapons. He argues that international action is necessary to deal responsibly with each of these issues. In the penultimate chapter, he maintains that democratic control of technology is still feasible in spite of the difficulties of assessment and regulation. Finally he makes suggestions about possible new directions, assessing the appropriate technology movement and exploring the possibilities of more efficient technologies and simpler lifestyles.

There is an inevitable weakness in seeking to be comprehensive. Every one of the issues raised is worthy of an entire book in itself. It is impossible to avoid oversimplification when the attempt is made to cram such a broad subject into three hundred pages and, moreover, do it without recourse to the kind of technical jargon which would render it impenetrable to the intelligent lay person.

Then there is the question of balance. I couldn’t help feeling that he was too balanced at times. In part, this is a result of oversimplification. For example, he divides the world up into technological optimists, pessimists, and those who maintain a critical via media. But in his haste to expound the virtues of the via media, he fails to do justice to some of those he criticizes. Thus technological pessimism is caricatured in a way that completely fails to register the real point of many of the pessimists’ complaints: they are not opposed to the artefacts of technology so much as to the mindset which has produced our society; their complaint is not against technology as such but rather against the dominance of technical reason (or functional rationality) over other forms of reason.

However, his defence of a via media is not just a matter of oversimplification. In the concluding chapters, Barbour offers us a catalogue of antidemocratic tendencies within contemporary technocracy – a catalogue worthy of any technological pessimist! But he does not seem unduly worried by his own assessment. Instead he reasserts his faith in the capacity of Western democracy to overcome these tendencies. It might have been helpful to the more pessimistic and cynical of his readers if he had presented a more developed case for his faith in democracy!

Another quibble I have about the book is the way his entire lecture series was structured. Volume 1: religion and science; Volume 2: ethics and technology. It is neat but hardly does justice to the complexity of the relationships between these four subject areas. Does it perhaps also reflect the traditional Western tendency to elevate theoria above praxis?

Finally there is the question of the relationship of the Christian tradition to ethics and what, if anything, Christians might have to contribute to these debates. Barbour allows Christianity to be one of the players in the development of an appropriate ethic. However, it should be noted that his preferred form of Christianity is much attenuated.

But these are only quibbles. The book does not pretend to be the definitive statement on technological ethics. Rather, it is an extremely valuable introduction to the subject. I suspect that like several of its predecessors from the same pen, it is destined to become a standard undergraduate textbook.

05 September 2011

Link spam and dead gurus

I’ve just deleted a couple of comments that appeared on my blog overnight, partly because they were anonymous and partly because they merely consisted of links to a number of sites associated with the New Age guru Adi Da (also known as Da Free John, Bubba Free John and Da Love-Ananda). Note to would-be commenters: I don’t generally censor comments but I’m not about to let my blog become a conduit to a religious group of which Ken Wilber once commented, ‘step into his community at your own risk’.

Religion in an Age of Science

A book review originally published in Science & Christian Belief, Vol. 4, No. 2 (October 1992):

Religion in an Age of Science, The Gifford Lectures 1989-1991
by Ian Barbour
London: SCM Press

One’s expectations of this volume may well be coloured by the knowledge that the author’s earlier work, Issues in Science and Religion, became the standard introduction to the subject for an entire generation. Are we to see his Gifford Lectures as a successor or a supplement to that earlier essay?

There are clear structural similarities between this volume and the earlier one. Gone is the introductory overview of the history of the relationship between science and religion. But the remaining sections parallel those of the previous book (to the point of re using two of the section titles). However, closer examination reveals that this is far from being just a revision of the earlier volume.

Part 1 deals with ‘Religion and the Methods of Science’. Barbour examines various ways of relating science and religion; the role of models and paradigms; and certainly similarities and differences between science and religion. One peculiarity of this section is his redefinition of theology of nature to mean little more than a broad natural theology. He completely ignores the post-Barthian developments in Reformed theology which have consistently used this term precisely to distinguish their approach from that of natural theology. Also striking, given the contemporary resurgence of orthodox Christianity is the fact that he mentions revelation only in passing.

In Part 2, ‘Religion and the theories of Science’, he concentrates on the developments which have occurred since the publication of his earlier work. His clear intention to provide another broad overview of the subject places severe constraints on how much he is able to say on individual topics. The result is an inevitable sketchiness (e.g. less than two pages on the anthropic principle in spite of its significant implications for religion). At times this verges on the dismissive (e.g. his cursory treatment of many world theories in quantum physics).

This sketchiness also tends to throw his personal biases into sharp relief. For example, his treatment of the Christian doctrine of creation is strikingly one sided. He promotes the alternative reading of Genesis 1:2, omitting to mention that this is a minority view among Old Testament scholars. This allows him to speak of creation as a continuous ordering process rather than a historical beginning. Similarly creatio ex nihilo is treated as an extension of the doctrine of redemption to the natural order, and eschatology is reduced to a mythological extrapolation from redemption. Both creation and eschatology are reduced to symbolic expressions of our trust in God. This is a tendentious reading of biblical and theological scholarship which serves to bolster his preference for process thought.

Again, in the chapter on ‘Evolution and Continuing Creation’, he reads the evidence in such a way as to support process thought. He offers useful summaries of the neo-Darwinian synthesis and current debates in evolutionary theory. Then he interprets the entire tree of life in terms of a hierarchy of levels with novel forms of organization emerging at each new level of complexity. Such ideas are commonplace today, but Barbour departs from the commonplace with his account of sentience and purposiveness. He suggests ‘that unified entities at all levels should be considered as experiencing subjects, with at least rudimentary sentience, memory, and purposiveness’ (p. 173).

The final section of the book is devoted to ‘Philosophical and Theological Implications’, with chapters discussing human nature, process philosophy, and the relationship between God and nature. As regards the relationship between mind and body, he advocates the view that minds emerge from the rudimentary experience of all entities against the alternatives of dualism, materialism, and two language theories. Turning specifically to the place of religion, he dismisses purely naturalistic explanations of its evolution. This is followed by a summary of the biblical view of human nature. Barbour looks to Geoffrey Lampe for a satisfactory explanation of the role of Christ. But the resultant spirit Christology dissolves any meaningful Trinitarianism and implies a subjective approach to atonement. This has the superficial attraction of allowing its adherents to affirm the truths of other religions but it does so at the cost of eviscerating Christianity. In place of the good news that Jesus Christ has acted decisively to transform our human situation we are left with the ambivalent message that we learn from Jesus (and other great religious teachers) how we may work to become co-creators with God. It becomes clear in the remaining chapters that this attenuated Christology meets with Barbour’s approval because it coheres with process thought. He presents a simple and attractive picture of process philosophy and then moves on to outline its theological implications. After the manner of Charles Hartshorne he defends process theology by showing how much superior it is to a caricature of classical theism. Significantly he maintains throughout the book a stony silence with respect to contemporary Trinitarian thought. The latter avoids the criticisms of process thought, can maintain a positive attitude to the scientific endeavour, and yet remains true to biblical insights in a way that is not possible for the process school.

Given Barbour's undiminished clarity of style this book is likely to follow its predecessor in becoming a standard textbook. The volume is certainly to be commended as a concise and readable overview of the science and religion dialogue of the past 20 years. However, readers seeking a neutral report of this dialogue should beware of his persistent bias in favour of process thought.

03 September 2011

Children of the Serpent Gate

Sarah Ash, Children of the Serpent Gate, Book 3 of The Tears of Artamon (Bantam, 2005)

In this last act of the saga that began with Lord of Snow and Shadows, the Rossiyan Empire stands at a crucial moment in its history. Science and reason have begun to displace an older magical way of the looking at the world. But the release of the Drakhaoul, demonic (or angelic) beings who can take possession of human hosts, threatens to plunge the empire into a new dark age. Also threatening to turn the clock back is the Francian Commanderie – a military order of religious fanatics that effectively controls King Enguerrand of Francia.

In this third act of the drama, Ash continues to work with multiple points of view. By doing this she succeeds in creating a much richer narrative than would have been possible with the omniscient narrator of traditional fantasy. However, the resultant complexity does threaten to overwhelm the narrative flow at times.
Among the several viewpoint characters that Ash has used over the course of the trilogy two stood out for me in this volume: Gavril and Kiukiu. As I read through Children of the Serpent Gate I was struck by how these characters seemed to represent two complementary aspects of the narrative action. Gavril’s story takes place entirely within the physical world of Rossiya. Meanwhile Kiukiu, as befits her role as shaman, becomes the protagonist of a parallel story unfolding on a spiritual realm. While Gavril struggles with the Drakhaoul on the physical level, she is working to release the spirits of a number of children who were sacrificed to open a gate to the realm of the Drakhaoul.

Ash has commented that there are no Dark Lords in this fantasy trilogy. In my review of the previous volume, I suggested that while this might be true, the Tielen court alchemist Kaspar Linnaius seemed to be a Rasputin-like figure. However that assessment was premature. In this volume, we see another more sympathetic side of Linnaius. In contrast to the black-and-white characterization of so much contemporary fantasy, Ash has very effectively painted all her characters – even the apparent villains – in various shades of grey.

While the characterization is satisfyingly complex, there is also plenty to satisfy lovers of action: sea battles, sword fights, daring escapes, arcane encounters. Indeed, there is perhaps too much action towards the end of the novel as the various strands of the narrative come rushing together to create a climactic conclusion.

In summary, this is a very satisfying conclusion to a refreshingly different take on the fantasy trilogy. Sarah Ash is definitely a writer to keep an eye on.

02 September 2011

Prisoner of Ironsea Tower

Sarah Ash, Prisoner of Ironsea Tower, Book 2 of The Tears of Artamon (Bantam, 2005)

In Prisoner of Ironsea Tower Sarah Ash continues the story of Gavril Nagarian (an artist who unexpectedly inherits one of the Rossiyan duchies and the demonic power that goes with it) and Eugene of Tielen (who is determined to become emperor of a reunited Rossiya). At the end of Book 1, Gavril renounced the dragon demon that was source of his power. With no one to stand against him, Eugene easily extends his power over the remaining Rossiyan duchies and has Gavril imprisoned in a notorious lunatic asylum (the Ironsea Tower of the title).

The story begins quite slowly, but after a couple of chapters the pace begins to pick up. Apparently the creature that possessed Gavril was not destroyed by the exorcism that cast it out. Instead it finds a new host, incidentally saving the life and restoring the memory of Andrei Orlov – the heir of Muscobar (Tielen’s great rival), thought dead in a shipwreck during the war in the opening volume of the trilogy (Lord of Snow and Shadows). What’s more, there is more than one of these creatures and in the course of this volume we learn a great deal more about their history – enough, perhaps, to begin to sympathize with their plight. In spite of the title, Gavril does not long remain a prisoner. Eugene’s hold over his new Rossiyan Empire proves less secure than he hoped at first, driving him to seek still greater power with the aid of his court alchemist. By the end of the volume, the Rossiyan Empire is divided by civil war, two dragon demons are on the loose and a Francian fleet is on its way to invade Rossiya.

The book may be strong on action, but this has not weakened Ash’s characterization. As I pointed out in my review of Lord of Snow and Shadows, even her minor characters feel like real people. With one possible exception, there are no heroes or villains in this story – the personalities and motivations of her major characters are simply too complex for any of them to be unremittingly good or evil. The exception appears to be Caspar Linnaius, the Tielen court alchemist. Ash claims that there are no Dark Lords in her fantasy trilogy and that may well be true, but he is certainly a candidate for the role of Rasputin. His character is painted in unremittingly dark tones – scheming, manipulative, and quite lacking in moral restraint when it comes to the use of his powers.

However, it has to be said that this is very much the second book of a trilogy. It is inevitably dependent on Book 1. But whereas that volume had a satisfying ending, in the sense that major plot issues were resolved, this book ends on a cliffhanger with everything now dependent on the concluding volume, Children of the Serpent Gate. I found much to enjoy in this book, but I must admit I was irritated by its inconclusiveness (particularly by comparison with Lord of Snow and Shadows) – cliffhanger endings make me feel I am being manipulated into reading the next volume. That irritation apart, I can thoroughly recommend this to anyone who enjoyed Lord of Snow and Shadows.

01 September 2011

Lord of Snow and Shadows

Another old review of mine:

Sara Ash, Lord of Snow and Shadows, Book 1 of the Tears of Artamon (Bantam, 2004)

Sarah Ash’s new trilogy opens with the artist Gavril Andar falling hopelessly in love with Astasia, the daughter of the Duke of Muscobar. Fortuitously he discovers that he is the son and heir of the recently assassinated ruler of Azhkendir, a buffer state between Muscobar and Tielen. Naturally he hopes that this might be the answer to his romantic problems. However, the Duke of Muscobar hopes to marry Astasia off to Prince Eugene of Tielen in a bid to avoid a ruinous war. To further complicate matters, Gavril soon discovers that he has inherited more than a bleak, poverty-stricken northern state. The dynasty to which he is heir is founded upon possession of (or, rather, by) a demonic force that will gradually devour his humanity but which he must use if he is to avenge his father’s murder and defend his people against Tielen aggression.

The place names locate this novel rather too obviously in a mythical analogue of Russia. That quibble aside, Ash develops her world with loving attention to detail, building up a vivid picture of a late eighteenth century or early nineteenth century Russia without the external threat of Napoleon (we are told that Prince Eugene’s father decisively defeated Francia in a sea battle a generation earlier) but also without the internal unifying force of a czar. The result is a collection of squabbling duchies at various stages of modernization. In some senses Muscobar is the most modern with the common people beginning to resent the aristocrats who exploit them. At the other extreme, Azhkendir remains thoroughly feudal much to the discomfort of Gavril who has been brought up in decadent Smarna.

One of the strengths of Ash’s writing is her characterization. Even her minor characters feel like real people rather than stock figures. You feel that their words and actions are driven by their various personalities and situations rather than the demands of the story. As for the major characters, they are in most cases complex figures with complex personalities and motivations. Take, for example, Prince Eugene of Tielen. He could so easily have been presented as the stock villain of the novel and Ash makes no secret of his obsessive vision of a Rossiyan Empire reunited under his leadership. However, she forces us to sympathize with him by making him the viewpoint character at various points. Thus, in addition to Eugene the ruthless expansionist we get to see him as Eugene the loving father of sickly, crippled Karila. He is torn between the memory of his dead wife and the political expediency of marriage to Astasia Orlov. Perhaps most surprising is the barely suppressed homoeroticism in his feelings for his young protégé Jaromir Arkhel, the last survivor of a dynasty that once challenged Gavril’s father for the throne of Azhkendir.

Given the demonic aspect of Gavril’s inheritance, it is no surprise that the supernatural plays an important part in this novel. Ironically Gavril initially denies the existence of magic and the supernatural and only reluctantly comes to acknowledge the true nature of his inheritance. Prince Eugene has no such doubts and makes full use of the skills of his court alchemist to bolster his military advantage (for example, turning condemned criminals into werewolves to be used as a kind of commando force).

Magic of a different kind plays a crucial role in Gavril’s struggle with the demon he has inherited. As he settles into his new role as ruler of Azhkendir, he befriends the serving girl Kiukiu. Like him, she is an outsider. Although a faithful servant of the Nagarian line, she is despised because her mother had been seduced by a follower of the hated Arkhel clan. However, and again like Gavril, she has inherited something more from her father. She discovers that she is a guslyar, a ‘ghost singer’ with shamanistic powers – powers that she uses to aid Gavril.

The book is very well written and Ash brings it to as satisfying a conclusion as is possible in the first volume of a trilogy. Naturally, since it is a first volume, she has salted it with unanswered questions to pique the reader’s curiosity about what happens next. I am certainly looking forward to the next stage in the larger story.