The Eternity Artifact
Here there be dragons… and plot spoilers! Proceed at your own risk. :)
I’m struggling through getting final papers written, and my brain needed a break… so I did a quick review of L. E. Modesitt, Jr.’s The Eternity Artifact to clear my head. Whew! I needed that. Now, back to work! ;)
I’m sure most of us have had, at some point in our lives, the unpleasant and frustrating experience of trying to talk to someone so passionately devoted to their religious beliefs that they approach — or have gleefully pounced upon — zealotry. Don’t you hate it when you’re trying to reason with them, but they already know it all so they don’t even bother listening to you? Don’t you want to just shake them sometimes when they’re so dismissively, bigotedly sure they are the reasonable ones, dealing only with clear facts — and you’re obviously just deluding yourself if you don’t agree with them? Isn’t it annoying when you try to explain a complex concept to them, and they patronizingly brush you off as delusional, as effectively lying to yourself — because it’s really just simple black and white: you’re wrong and they’re right?
Isn’t it frustrating when the cult-like fanatics… are the atheists themselves?
I did not really enjoy The Eternity Artifact
Religion is roundly derided in the story as being utterly sans rationality, in fact, and as invariably limiting. I was not impressed with this assertion, considering it was quite clear the author was conflating the organized religions — which often do limit human horizons — with any spiritual thought at all. That’s just not accurate, and you’d think a true scientist would admit that and want to do more research. I believe Modesitt sums up his credo here, however: “The body should serve the mind, not the reverse” (237). I found myself feeling sorry for him, that his thinking was so limited. Apparently it has not occurred to him that mind and body might not be separate — let alone that hierarchy of any stripe isn’t truly necessary to live a good and rewarding life.
I find it sad, in fact, how stringently ‘official science’ shies away from spirituality — to the point that they refuse to recognize its importance and very real effect on life. How many people are aware of Barbara McClintock’s ground-breaking studies of gene transposition in maize? She viewed her plants through a spiritual perspective, even as she performed marvelously precise science. Her results were conceptually complex and not immediately understood by her peers, though, such that in the 1940s and ’50s people did not believe she could possibly be right. However, later studies in the 1960s and ’70s repeatedly demonstrated her correctness, to the point that in 1983 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine — over thirty years after she initially described her discoveries.
McClintock is an excellent example of a careful and accurate scientist who was also quite spiritual — but you won’t find any mention of her beliefs in most of the scientific journals describing her or her work. I wasn’t aware of it myself until I read parts of Evelyn Fox Keller’s amazing book A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock in one of my recent classes. It left me wondering: just how many other people throughout society — not just scientists — have been forced to hide the enriching effects their personal spirituality has on their life, so they don’t lose their reputations in their various fields? If we absolutely refuse to even look at the possibility that spirituality may matter… then how is that narrow-mindedness not a form of bigotry? How can we truly call ourselves rational beings, if we’re afraid to calmly and honestly examine spirituality?
There was one other part of the book I did not care for, mostly because I could not follow the logic. A character in the story is revealed to be an intelligence agent — no surprise there — who has cleverly used the story’s macguffin to maneuver the religious cultures into a spot where they are overwhelmingly defeated in battle — and while their space fleet is off being destroyed, their home planet is also laid waste by another, secular culture.
Admittedly, this also was not much of a surprise, nor do I think it was supposed to be… but I was completely confused by the “heroic” protagonists’ reaction to this man’s cleverness. True, he’d slightly risked the ship and the lives of all those upon it, and according to the two angry protagonists he’d made the macguffin inaccessible to humankind… but the macguffin was supposedly accessible only for a year; had been carefully explored for three months of that year; and was ultimately discovered to be utterly useless to humans anyway, as the tech in question was based upon different universal constants.
Consequently the intelligence agent only sped up the time table a bit on the macguffin, while at the same time pretty much shattering the very cultures our studlier-than-thou professor spends so much time deriding — and in the process the agent doubtless saved the lives of thousands, maybe millions of people who now would not have to go to war to stop the religious cultures. So… why were the two protagonists so upset that their lives were risked? Did they want the formerly-impending war to drag on for decades instead? Did they really think sitting around and snarking about the religious cultures was better than actually doing something about it? Surely they didn’t think they should get to determine who lives and who dies — were they really foolish enough to think they were the center of the universe like that?!
On the other hand, both my housemates read the book as well, and while they did not find it entrancing, they did have very different reactions to mine. As I gave them my perspective on the book — in particular my unhappiness with the weak characters — one stated with repeated bewilderment that he didn’t get that at all from the story. The other simply nodded and agreed it was not that interesting a book, but clearly we’d all read it for different reasons — and, unsurprisingly, gotten very different results.
So if you’re still waffling, I suggest you read it and make your own decisions… and then let me know what you thought! :)