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Project Pope

[Project Pope] Project Pope
by Clifford D. Simak
Published by Ballantine Books, 1981
313 pages
Amazon.com: hardcover/paperback
Amazon.co.uk: paperback
Recommended by: Greg Slade

The time is three thousand years in the future. At the edge of the Galaxy, on a planet called End of Nothing, a community of robots is working on a project to create the perfect religion. On Earth, they have been refused as communicants in the Catholic Church, because it is presumed that they have no souls. Therefore, they have sought an out-of-the-way place where they can develop their own religion, based on Christianity, but incorporating truths from all over the universe. For a thousands years, they have been trying to build a truly infallible Pope: a computer which has had all the data they can gather fed into it, so that it can provide the final, true, answers to the questions of life. The process might take a million years to complete, but the robots are patient. With proper maintenance, they should be around to get the answers they seek. Everything seems to be progressing nicely, until one of the agents sent out to gather information to be fed into the Pope stumbles across a place where the streets are paved with gold, white towers ascend into the skies, and heavenly music and angels fill the air. The community is rife with rumours and strife. Could it be that she has found Heaven? And if she has, are people, whether robot, human, or alien, ready to face Heaven?

In the grand tradition of science fiction, Simak has come up with a tale filled with great ideas and memorable images. Robots wearing Cardinal's habits, an all-wise yet dithering Pope, monsters lurking in the woods, church mice, a terror weapon, a miracle... all this and (maybe) Heaven, too.

However, in the end, this book simply doesn't satisfy. For one thing, the story betrays no real understanding of Christianity in general or Catholicism in particular, either as they are now, or as they might be in the future. The book repeatedly uses the word "Christian" when talking about specifically Catholic institutions. There is no demonstration of any understanding that there may be Christians who are not Catholic. There is some muddle-headedness about just what, exactly constitutes Christianity, as when the Pope asks two humans: "Do you happen to be Christians?" and one of them answers:

That is a question we have discussed among ourselves... We are not certain exactly what we are. The two of us happen to have Christian roots. Which is no more than to say that our culture is not Jewish or Moslem or any of the many faiths developed by mankind. (pp. 231, 232)

In other words, the religion described isn't Catholicism, or any other kind of Christianity, but something like Hollywood's notion of Christianity: lots of trappings, but no understanding of the substance, or even any understanding that there is a substance.

Then, too, just like much "golden age" science fiction, this book is filled with characters who, when it comes down to it, don't have that much character. They seem to exist mainly to move the plot (such as it is) along, and spend a lot of time discussing things with one another. This "talking head" style doesn't make for good literature, but it is (mostly) forgivable when the characters are used to discuss some grand idea. Unfortunately, Simak never does get around to discussing any grand ideas. Rather, he almost seems to shy away from them. When the Pope finally gets around to asking, "Then what about this matter of faith?" (p. 233) I was so frustrated that I was ready to ask, "Yeah? What about it? When are you going to ask any of the big questions?" Instead of discussing whether or not there is a God, and if so, what God is like (or, if there are many gods, what separates a god from any other kind of being), the book keeps dribbling off into matters which boil down to how to divide up the research budget.

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