My friend and sometime collaborator Parke Godwin once observed that when the slow cycle of evolution doomed the sabre-tooth tiger to extinction, it was not before the dying breed had wrought considerable havoc and death. In like fashion, ideas, like species, take a long time to die and in the process, great harm frequently is sustained by mankind’s collective mind, heart and spirit. This is frighteningly evident today, and not only in the violent counter-politics of various middle- and far-eastern nations, but in what one might term the ethical relativism and cynical manipulativeness of American right-wing fundamentalism.
Right here, I must point out that I have never styled myself as a political commentator. When I was a child during the Second World War, I grew to dislike newspapers because of the stories of atrocities and crimes that my father read aloud during meals. To this day, I cannot abide TV news while I’m eating, and though I began my writing career as a reporter for the national newspaper, Grit, the only sections of The New York Times I ever consult are the Sunday Magazine and the Week in Review, which my late wife Saralee used to call the “Week in Rebuke.”
So while aspects of American politics distress me, I have neither the intention nor the expertise for discussing the topic. The only reason that I have briefly alluded to it is because of a phenomenon that I personally label godniosity which I am constantly am subjected to, not only from the right wing, but all too often in mainstream social behavior.
A particularly irritating form of it that my late wife Saralee and I experienced during our early years of marriage in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, was the insistence by certain clergymen at public functions to offer up a prayer in the name of Christ or the trinity. Saralee, who still identified with her Jewish origins, felt such priests display insensitivity at best; at worst, insufferable arrogance. “Have you ever heard,” she said, “a rabbi address a mixed faith meeting with a prayer in the name of ‘the one and only true god?’ “
While I have not observed any priest do this for quite a few years, that may be because I now live in Manhattan, and of course I neither attend religious nor public events. Still, I would like to believe there is now a younger generation of clergy with improved social skills. Yet godniosity makes itself felt in many subtler ways.
Before I elaborate, a definition is in order for this self-coined term: Godniosity (noun; ME, godd; LL, iositas) = 1) The tendency to represent all and every phenomenon as a priori proof of the existence of “God” with a capital G. 2) The conviction that philosophies that either do not recognize or at least doubt the existence of “God” are evil, misguided or/and misinformed.
Godniosity comes in multiple guises, from the casually intrusive “God bless” of acquaintances and panhandlers to the World War II cliché that a writing colleague proclaimed upon learning that I am in no way involved with religion: “There are no atheists in foxholes!”
The most annoying act of godniosity foisted upon me was in a crowded New York City subway train. A wild-eyed young man stuck his face close to mine and asked, “Have you considered Jesus today?”
“No,” I replied, “but have you considered Nietzsche?” That produced a bit of laughter in the car, but to my surprise, the startled youth was eager to learn what I meant, for which I suppose he earned some intellectual points.
While I regard the question of what “I am” rude, intrusive, and presumptuous, if pressed for an answer I might volunteer the information that I am a male American, formerly a Pennsylvanian and now a Manhattanite. (A different variety of annoying question is “What sign were you born under?” but for this I have a ready answer: “Superior Radio,” for that was the name of my father’s store.)
But some folks insist on everyone having a label to wear and identify themselves by. If pressed, I will call myself an irrelevationist, the quasi-religion that I created in The Masters of Solitude and Wintermind, the science fiction novels I coauthored with Parke Godwin. Irrelevationists are a bit to the left of agnosticism; they regard deity and the consequences of the afterlife as irrelevant to the human condition. They are issues not worth talking about, for energy, in the irrelevationist view, should be conserved for solving humanity’s problems and evils, which ought to be considered a priori priorities that do not depend on faith (”ancient error hallowed by rote repetition”) or the promise of some heavenly reward.
While godniosity is usually coupled with evangelistic zeal, I have no wish or need to convert anyone to irrelevationism. Time - history - is already is doing that. As Victor Hugo once declared: “No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come.”
Hopefully his name no longer raises charges of anti-Semitism. This calumny, according to Nietzsche’s great translator-biographer Walter Kaufmann, was largely due to the mischief of the philosopher’s sister. Like Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse, Nietzsche was deeply shocked by and opposed to Teutonic nationalism.)
I continue to discover splendid reading experiences in the YA (young adult) department at Barnes & Noble. Many of you will already be familiar with the authors I have discovered, but perhaps if you do not have children and therefore confine yourself to adult SF and fantasy, do try the following authors (listed in alphabetical order) -
* Pseudonymous Bosch has produced a thoroughly quirky, very funny series of fantasy adventures, four of them to date, though the end of the story has not yet been told. Its young protagonists, Cassie and Max-Ernest, repeatedly get stuck in dangerous situations as they try to battle a sinister, long-lived society of (ready for this?) alchemists. The irresistible titles of these books, in order, are The Name of This Book Is Secret; If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late; This Book Is Not Good for You, and This Isn’t What It Looks Like. Hint: for full enjoyment, the reader should furnish her- or himself with generous supplies of chocolate (Dark! the author insists).
* Charlie Fletcher lives in Edinburgh, which goes to prove what I’ve long maintained: every horror writer should matriculate in that city (and many have). Not that Fletcher’s Stoneheart Trilogy is exclusively horror, though it is one of its elements. Stoneheart, Ironhand and Silvertongue all are set in London, though that city becomes almost unrecognizable after young George Chapman breaks off a bit of a stone gargoyle, thus precipitating an astonishing war between London’s great heroic statues and their evil counterparts. Fletcher’s trilogy is a single story in three volumes that compel consecutive reading without pause, so my advice is to purchase them all at once. By the way, the first book may properly be considered YA, but the second volume stretches the definition, and the concluding volume is high fantasy for readers of whatever age.
* Cornelia Funke is, to my mind, a writer who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as J. R. R. Tolkien. Her trilogy, Inkheart, Inkspell and Inkdeath, is a fantasy masterpiece. Its first book, which has been made into an engaging film, stands alone, but the second and third volumes are really a single sequential adventure. All are chockfull of fascinating, ingenious characters, first class heroes and villains, and a poignant - and knowledgeable - love of books that every collector will cherish. Funke has written several other excellent fantasies; two that I have read and recommend are Dragon Rider, a picaresque peopled with gnomes, brownies, humans, and, of course, dragons, and The Thief Lord, which has deservedly won awards. Set in Venice, it deals with various homeless children hiding in an abandoned movie theater, and is masterfully written. Its fantasy element comes late into the story, but it is a good one: a carousel capable of confounding time. There is a good film version of this book as well.
* Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series is by now well known, thanks to the film, The Lighting Thief, that was released last year. The movie was fairly good, but the book is ever so much better, and its four sequels are even better than the first book.