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|The Last Day
by Glenn Kleier
Published by Warner Books, 1997
Amazon.com: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.ca: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.co.uk: hardcover, paperback
Reviewed by: Greg Slade
A little while ago, somebody on the ChristSF mailing list raised the question of using God or Jesus as characters in fiction, and whether that is acceptable or not. My response was that such portrayals don't work for me on either the artistic or the theological level, because, however hard they try, authors simply can't capture the richness of Jesus' personality, still less the depth and power of His teachings. What I failed to think of at the time was cases where an author is deliberately attempting to "use" God or Jesus to put forward a particular agenda. The authors who use this device seem to feel that the Bible, as it stands, is insufficient, and therefore they cloak their own opinions with divine authority (at least fictionally.) By the very nature of the case, the agenda such an author wants to promote is, at best, peripheral to real Biblical teaching, and at worst, directly contrary to the Bible.
The Last Day, unfortunately, is a perfect example of the latter. Unlike most books, I have no compunctions about revealing the details of the plot, because the "surprise" ending is essential to the theological issues at stake. (If you are violently averse to plot spoilers of any kind, stop reading this review now, because the rest of it is all spoilers.)
The setup is this: an Israeli bioengineer (named Jozef) and his wife (named Anne) have a daughter (named Marie.) The daughter is grievously injured in a terrorist bombing, and although she is still alive, she is in a coma. Jozef becomes obsessed with getting his daughter back, and uses some of her cells to create embryos, which his incubates in her womb before removing them to an artificial incubator in a top secret lab, where he initiates a process of accelerated growth and programming to produce adult human beings in a few years. (Strictly speaking, the process he uses is not actually cloning, although several of the characters refer to it as such.) Of course the possibility of raising an army in the lab is not lost on the military, and they seek to take over the whole operation. Just before the nearly-grown humans are ready to be "born", a meteorite destroys the lab, and the only survivor is one of Marie's "offspring." Thus, she is "born" fully-grown, on Christmas Day, 1999. Then, she appears, right on cue, on the steps of the "Temple of the Messiah" in Bethlehem, at the crack (literally) of New Year's, 2000, in the midst of a frenzied mob of millennialists. As the world becomes more and more obsessed with her, she teaches, performs miracles, and slips away before the media can interview her. (Except that she does tell one reporter that her name is "Jeza.") Finally, she goes to a convocation of world religions convened to address the issue of whether or not she might be a real Messiah, and commands all the churches of the world to disband. The Pope issues an encyclical branding her as the antichrist, and she is killed in Jerusalem on Good Friday, and is resurrected at dawn on Easter Sunday. Once the world realises that she really was "God's only begotten daughter", the Jews and the Muslims get along in the Middle East, the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims form an alliance in Bosnia, the Protestants and Catholics make peace in Northern Ireland, and the Hutus and Tutsis are reconciled in Rwanda. All it took to make the world a peaceful place was to realise that she was serious, apparently. (I wish I was kidding.)
So, how do Jeza's teachings boil down theologically? Basically, she preaches the gospel of late twentieth-century American political correctness. Sexism is so bad that it deserves an eleventh commandment:
'Thou shall honor woman as thy equal; and thou shall cherish her in unity with thy fellow man.' (Apotheosis 25:15) (p. 402)
(In all fairness to Kleier, I should probably point out that he doesn't normally have Jeza speak in such a poor mimicry of seventeenth-century English.) To the Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, Jeza says, essentially, "You're basically the same, so why can't you get along?" She teaches that all religions are equally ways to God, but opposes organised religion, and teaches that each person must look within for their personal path to God. (The "New Age" elements of this are fairly obvious, but so is the complaint of the spiritually apathetic that they believe in God, but don't like "organised religion." That, in turn, reminds me of the quote attributed to Teresa Nielsen Hayden, "Makes me wonder what's so great about incoherent religion.")
So how do the organised religions react to this, as it were, Reformation? Several groups are specifically named, such as the Roman Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh Day Adventists. (Unfortunately for his case, Kleier confuses the teachings of the last two mentioned.) Other groups are lumped together under general terms of "millenarians" and "evangelicals" (a term of which Kleier demonstrates no real understanding), and a fictional preacher stands in for the whole wide variety of televangelists. As you might expect, the televangelist is portrayed as a money-grubber who will do anything to keep his receipts up, but it is the Catholics who come in for the biggest roasting. At one point, Jeza leads a troupe of reporters into the deepest, darkest, depths of the Vatican's top secret archives, where she tells them exactly which files to look at to reveal the deepest, darkest, most incriminating secret that the Vatican has been hiding all these years, namely that the Roman Catholic church has a pile of money. That might seem kind of anti-climactic: Kleier leads up right up to the threshold of all the Vatican conspiracy theories, and the worst he can come up with is that the Pope is loaded? But Jeza (and presumably Kleier) seems to see the only worth of any religious institution as a charitable organisation, and thus any resources which are not being used specifically for charitable purposes are a violation of that. In short, what it all boils down to is a secular view of religion: Jesus is okay as a moral teacher (at least as long as He sticks to telling people to be nice to one another, and doesn't actually condemn sins I like to commit), but any notion of Jesus as Redeemer is not on, because that implies sins from which we need to be redeemed, and that in turn implies moral absolutes, and we simply can't allow that.
And, like far too many unbelieving authors, Kleier succumbs to the temptation of dumping all religions together into one basket. He doesn't seem to have the faintest idea of how ludicrous it is to portray groups which do not see themselves as having anything in common banding together for the kind of convocation he imagines. (The general idea is probably the same as you see with people travelling in foreign countries. Thus, you might have a English speaker travelling in Russia, and when they encounter somebody who doesn't speak English, they'll try pidgin French or Spanish, not in the realistic hope that the Russian might know French or Spanish, but more on the general principle of lumping everything that "I don't understand" into the same mental box, without realising that the "things I don't understand" box is many times larger than the "things I do understand" box.)
But, since my normal practice is to criticise works on the basis of the science, how does Kleier handle the scientific issues? Well, the genetic manipulation is handled well enough to pass my filters. I don't know enough biology to spot the errors, although I suspect there are some. Still, he makes it clear that he knows that what Jozef did was not, in fact, cloning, even though he has several characters which are confused over the issue. (Given how much confusion there is over scientific issues in the general populace, that is only realistic.) However, the whole story fell down for me over the issue of the meteorite. Kleier doesn't seem to grasp just how much kinetic energy would be carried by even the relatively small mass he posits. Instead of the heavily damaged building he talks about, the actual result would be a fairly large crater. He is also quite unrealistic about the Israeli Defence Force's stubborn insistence that the destruction was caused, not by a meteorite, but by a cannon based in Jordan. Granted, a military force on hair-trigger alert might well assume attack before considering other possibilities, but any sort of analysis of the meteorite's trajectory would have to disabuse them of that notion. Nobody has yet managed to throw anything near that large a payload into orbit with a cannon, let alone reach escape velocity. Even if there were such a cannon, that kind of velocity would send the projectile right out of the Earth's orbit, rather than conveniently curving down into Israel.
And, finally, I have a quibble about an element which is actually fairly peripheral to the story, but is common to near-future thrillers which mention the American president. Even though this book was published in 1997, and set in the last days of 1999 and the first months of 2000, and thus, barring impeachment or death (in which case the sitting president would have been Al Gore), Bill Clinton would have preparing to step down at the end of his second term, Kleier creates an entirely fictional Democratic president preparing to run for a second term. There seems to be a rule that thriller writers will never, ever deal with real politicians in their stories, even when everybody knows the situation. (And, even more bizarrely, he has his incumbent president being threatened in the primaries by another, "ultra-right", democratic candidate. An "ultra-right" Democrat?) (April, 2004)
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