Picture of Merlin and Nimue by Aubrey Beardsley.
Saturday, April 10, 2010


Off Armageddon Reef

The picture above is Aubrey Beardsley’s Merlin and Nimue. What’s this got to do with a sci-fi book? Well, Weber has written a book that features a female character name Nimue Alban. Right away we recognize Nimue as a name that connects with Arthurian legend. She is the Lady of the Lake who imprisons Merlin. Alban we recognize as being connected to St. Alban, the a martyr from Roman Britain. Alba also connects, according to the OED, with Albion, or Britain. So we need to keep the matter of Britain firmly in mind as we read.

Earth in the 24th century is under attack by an alien race known as the Gbaba. As the war progresses humans are on the losing side, and it is decided to colonize another planet with the surviving remnants of the human race, and to maintain a low level of technology, the protection by obscurity motif. Nimue’s personality is uploaded into a PICA, an android, so that she will survive even if her physical body is destroyed.

The original plan is for the colonists to remain hidden until such time as they are sufficiently advanced to defeat the Gbaba. This plan, however, is not followed, and a leader named Langhorne succeeds in taking over. His idea is to maintain that low level of technology, basically the medieval level, forever. To that end he fashions a new religion, The Church of God Awaiting, and brainwashes the colonists, who are in suspended animation, into believing his religion.

Langhorne destroys any dissenters, and the planet Safehold enters an 800 year period of social stasis. NImue is asleep in a cave under the Mountains of Light, echoing again the Arthurian theme of imprisonment, but with a twist. When Nimue awakes she surveys the planet, and discovers one kingdom, Charis, that is somewhat more adventurous, intellectual and commercially, than other societies. She assumes a masculine gender, and presents herself as a man, Merlin Athrawes. So Nimue becomes Merlin, and in a sense he was imprisoned in that cave as well.

Weber is into serious sociological and anthropological thought here. Merlin, while an apparent man, is actually a woman inside a man’s body, something which is frequently asserted by transgendered people. At one point she is with a group of men, and experiences arousal, which is demonstrated with a masculine reflex. Since she is an android, she can dampen her response.

Weber raises the question as to whether she has a soul. I don’t know if the RCC has an official or even unofficial position on this, so I’m going to take refuge in the Turing test. If an entity exhibits all the traits of a human being, intellect, emotion, sense, and so on, then it is human. So I think it probably has a soul. As to when it’s infused, God only knows.

Weber is also on the ground explored by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, as well as R. H. Tawney in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. There are critics of Max Weber who assert that capitalism existed prior to Protestantism. That’s probably true. What Weber does, and I think this is valid is show the connection between religious belief and economic behavior. Neither the human person nor society is a fragmented thing, it is an organic whole so that it is impossible, without mental and emotional difficulty to act as only a lawyer, only a doctor, only a teacher, without also acting as a husband, son, lover, Catholic, Muslim, Jew, straight, gay, lesbian. When you tinker with a society’s religion, the effects can be felt in economics, in war, in politics, and in other areas that appear to have no relation to religion. Conversely, tinkering with another area, such as education, can have an effect on religion. Societies and people are not flower arrangements that can have ferns substituted for baby’s breath, or tulips instead of calla lillies, but organic wholes. Both David and Max recognize this.

Merlin, as we’ll now call the former Nimue, recognizes the effect that gradual change will have on Charis, and proceeds to introduce change gradually.

Among the changes introduced are Arabic numerals and the abacus in place of Roman numerals. This minor technological change reduces the cost and effort involved in bookkeeping, but it also allows for more complex calculations. So although it doesn’t appear to portend any effect on the religion of Safehold, it actually holds much destructive promise.

Oswald Spengler, in the first volume of The Decline of the West, has written about the meaning of number in society. According to Spengler each culture has a different view of number and of mathematics. The Greeks, if I recall Spengler correctly, were terrified of the idea of infinity, and backed away from the notion of infinite series, Our Western culture, however, handles the concept with deftness.

Spengler, like Max Weber, sees civilization as an organic whole. Off Armageddon Reef begins the exploration of the topic of cultural change and integration.

In one passage Merlin ruminates upon the Church of God Awaiting, and the Christian church that he grew up in. He realizes that he is the last Christian, and also the last Jew, the last Muslim, the last Buddhist. So apparently Weber intends for him to be in some sense responsible for the restoration of the earthly religions.

We’re dealing here with a science fiction novel by a writer who, according to his Wikipedia entry, is a lay Methodist preacher, so he’s not concerned with presenting a Catholic viewpoint. The Catholic Church believes in the Apostolic succession, and it insists that the chain from Jesus and the Apostles is unbroken. That’s at least one reason why it does not consider Anglican orders to be valid. Now Weber’s not concerned, for the reasons stated, to show how this plays out, but it is an interesting bit of theological speculation.

Weber based his Honor Harrington novels on the Napoleonic wars, particularly as portrayed in the Hornblower noves. Honor Harrington stands in for Horatio Hornblower. The problems of naval warfare of that era, particularly communication over relatively large distances parallel the problems that will be encountered in space warfare. This means that Weber’s naval battles are similar to his space battles.

The novel follows the structure of the later Honorverse novels with much discussion of politics and strategy, and ending with one or two climactic battles. Some may find this to be talky, but if you enjoy a good political discussion, one modeled along the lines of The Republic, rather than the McLaughlin group, then you might not find it too objectionable.

Next up, I’ll be returning to the St. John’s reading list and doing Leibniz, followed by Hume and Kant.