Reading Journal

What I'm reading

Thursday, September 24, 2009

His Dark Materials trilogy, by Phillip Pullman

The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass make up Pullman's fantasy trilogy. I had mixed reactions to these books. The story pulled me along and - rare for a fantasy book - at times was emotionally moving. I especially felt the scene with Iorek at the end of The Golden Compass. On the other hand, some of the plot turns were ridiculous and forced. For example: An unknown girl burst into a particle physicist's office and minutes later, was allowed to play around with her dark matter detection device. Yeah... right.

The books' reputation as atheist propaganda is certainly well-deserved. Across 1,000 pages there was not a single sympathetic character associated with religion, including God himself. Interestingly, the only organized religion in the books was the Catholic Church. I guess it made a better straw man for his propaganda.

In Pullman's stories God was not the creator. Instead he was merely the first self-aware being, who then deceived later self-aware beings into believing that he had created them. God's agents were uniformly repressive and authoritarian; there was no room for joy, love, gentleness, humility or even modern virtues like self-expression in the ominous Kingdom of Heaven. Milton's Paradise Lost portrayed Satan as the most interesting character, which is relevant because Pullman loves Paradise Lost and wrote his novels as a sort of twist on Paradise Lost. In Pullman's trilogy, the rebels are not only the most interesting characters, but they are also the heroes of the story.

And what is the power that can overturn God and his all-powerful repressive, theocratic Church? What holds the very key to the preservation of self-awareness in the universe?

Sex. Especially teen sex, but really, any sex outside marriage will do.


Across 1000 pages, I can't think of many happily married couples, and I really can't remember any marriages that involved romantic affection. But all other forms of sex get plenty of favorable press. Adulterous sex produced the heroine, a nun became an atheist (and therefore a sympathetic character) after having casual sex with a stranger, and the universe was restored to balance when the two main characters awoke to their sexuality and had intercourse.

So that part was a little stupid. On the other hand, I did like the way the hero showed a determination to make his own decisions. I agree with Pullman that people can use religion and its authority figures to passively coast through their lives without ever thinking for themselves or making hard choices. When I read the gospels, that isn't the Jesus I see and I don't think an adult should act like that.