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The Parafaith War

[The Parafaith War] The Parafaith War
by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Published by St. Martins Press, 1996
Amazon.com: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.ca: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.co.uk: hardcover, paperback
Suggested by: Greg Slade

This book is touted as dealing with the relationship between science and religion, but it doesn't really deal with either terribly well. The setting is an interstellar war between the EcoTech Coalition, an apparently atheistic, technologically-based society, and the Revenants, a highly aggressive, fundamentalist society supposedly based upon at least two more religious developments as world-changing as Christianity and Islam, yet which – insofar as it is portrayed in any detail at all – seems to be more like a caricature of a sort of corporate merger between Islam and Mormonism, with a little Southern Baptist thrown into the mix. The Coalition fare little better than the Revenants do: for all their stress on technology, they seem to be losing the arms race, as their tech seems to be more than 20 years behind that of the Revenants, and they are slowly losing the war, in part, as Modesitt points out, because the Revenants have a huge advantage in terms of the number of planets they occupy and total population base, and in part because, even though they have a way to turn people (such as Trystin Desoll, the protagonist) into super-soldiers, they're just not all that good at waging war. (Several fairly obvious ways to turn the tide occurred to me, but if they occurred to Modesitt, he certainly didn't allow them to occur to the Coalition.)

I value science fiction, in large part, because it is the literature of imagination. However, for all the ideas which Modesitt throws out, this book ultimately failed for me because of a lack of imagination. For one thing, the Coalition seem to exist largely as people to be opposed to the nasty Revenants. There was no real development of any sort of philosophical basis for valuing the ecology or technology, and there was no real exploration of why a bunch of religious fanatics manage to trump a society based on technology when it comes to weapons. For that matter, for all the expectation that the Coalition would be on the side of goodness, niceness, and liberty, when seen close up, Coalition society is shown to be so racist that people are killed by mobs for having the wrong hair colour. In short, there was no reason to feel that it would be a bad thing for them to lose the war, beyond the fact that the story is being told exclusively from their side.

And that is the other side of the coin. Revenant society is shown to be completely dominated by a single religion, but there is no detail shown to the basis of the religion beyond, "kill everybody who disagrees." I shouldn't need to point out that this is the worst kind of caricature of any existing religion. Even the most fundamentalist of groups have something of which they want to convince the rest of us, even if they're not very good at doing the convincing, but the Revenants are portrayed as bent on exterminating all unbelievers to make room for their own expansion1, and, if that's not bad enough, they're polluting and overpopulating their worlds as well. (Although, oddly enough, the Revenants seem to be shown as very nice people when Desoll deals with them as individuals.) Several times, Desoll is put in a situation to learn more details about the Revenant's religion, but invariably he tunes out. (And thus, so does the reader.) If Modesitt ever worked out that religion in any sort of realistic way, he certainly doesn't let it show. Far from being the examination of the relationship between science and religion, this work comes across as dismissing religion as irrational and irrelevant without bothering to examine it for what it is. In the end, there seems to be a grudging admission that religion can be useful as a form of social control, like Marx's "opiate of the people", but certainly there is no real coming to grips with it. Desoll repeatedly refuses, even in his imagination, to put himself in the shoes of somebody who believes differently than he does. And, at the end of the book, even though the course of the war has been changed, nobody, least of all Desoll, has really learned anything meaningful about the other side.

That's not to say that there is no worth to the book. Modesitt does take us to several different planets and several different war fronts, as Desoll rises through the ranks. He scatters several interesting technological and sociological ideas through the story, and there is a certain satisfaction in seeing Desoll succeed on ability alone, but there are some inherent contradictions in the story, and that central frustration of bringing the reader to the bring of an important question and then refusing to deal with it (somewhat reminiscent of the climactic scene in Time Bandits,come to think of it) lessened my reading pleasure a good deal.

1. For those tempted to argue that the wars in the former Yugoslavia seemed to be about different religious groups slaughtering one another without mercy, I would retort that the media oversimplified to the point of untruth in portraying the conflicts as being about religion. Essentially, religion was used as a shorthand to refer to a whole set of cultural and political assumptions and allegiances.

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