Monday, August 18, 2014

Review of Cenotaxis by Sean Williams

Religion is traditional subject matter of science fiction.  James Blish portrayed a Jesuit priest on an alien planet in A Case of Conscience; Frank Herbert utilized pseudo-Islam to fulfill a political agenda in Dune; Walter M. Miller presented the positive side of Christianity’s moral and epistemological role in society in A Canticle for Leibowitz; and on and on goes the list of genre works integrating commonly held beliefs into story.  Adding his name to the list in 2007 was Sean Williams.  Set at a time after the events of the first novel in the Astropolis universe Saturn Returns, Cenotaxis is a novella the author calls book 1.5 in the trilogy, and acts as a segue to the second, Earth Ascendant.

Cenotaxis is the story of Jasper, a man who believes he is God, and indeed seems omniscient.  Captured by the (new) Continuum, at the outset of the story he sits in prison and is being threatened with revealing the true source of his super-human intelligence by the Continuum’s general, Imre Bergamasc.  Jasper confident in his beliefs, he asks the aging man: "There's only one question worth answering, Imre Bergamasc: if I really am God and you have captured me, then what does that make you?".  So confident, in fact, Jasper remarks to himself after: “I can't, at this moment, tell whether he hopes to win or to lose.”  Bergamasc tasked with bringing Earth back into the fold of the Continuum to prevent the steady onslaught of the Slow Wave, the backstory of how Jasper came to be in custody unravels, and indeed, his question is answered.

Nearly every review of Cenotaxis compares Jasper’s seeming lack of temporal fixity to Billy Pilgrim’s in Slaughterhouse-Five.  I certainly have another perspective.  Jasper’s perception of time the only thing fragmented, his physical existence remains firmly tied to the ticking clock in the story’s real world.  Williams’ constructing the narrative to give Jasper’s statements a sense of legitimacy, only the presentation is in fact fragmented—past mixed with present with perceived future.  The reason Jasper’s view is disjointed is, however, where ambiguity comes into play.  Is it a result of the strange gestalt device Imre seeks?  Is it self-imposed irrationality—the strength of his beliefs skewing his perception of reality?  Or is it something else, something alien?

Regardless how the reader chooses to interpret Jasper’s clouded mind, however, one thing is certain: he truly believes he is god.  This perspective is what renders Cenotaxis more relevant than Saturn Returns.  Like Imre, we too are able to find prophets and televangelists channeling the power of religion. Their belief may be founded in something pure and simple as greed, or a more twisted sense of altruism through egoism.  In any case, such strong belief filters all knowledge of the world through a single channel, including politics, society, the Other—everything, resulting in a situation that not only isolates the believers, but puts them in a position where they need to defend against opposing apologists, polemics and perceived attacks.  In the afterword Williams writes that "cenotaxis" is a combination of the Greek ‘kenos’, meaning ‘empty’ and ‘takis’, meaning ‘order’.  The combining of these two ideas thus lends an interesting meaning to the ultimate fates of Imre and Jasper in the context of belief.

In the end, Cenotaxis is a dichotomy of perspective presented in a (mini-) space opera setting.  The novella limited to Earth, Williams’ focuses on megalomania, irrational faith, and ultimately the dark side of organized religion.  A dense read, it (thankfully) leaves the dearth of worldbuilding to Saturn Returns and spotlights the impracticalities of a laser-narrow religious agenda: the cathedral is burning, but the priest has his evening prayers to recite.  The text flitting through differing time phases, it has a strong re-read value to piece things together.  For all of the above reasons, the novella bears positive resemblance to the short fiction of Peter Watts.

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