Rapture without Rancor?
By Cheryl Morgan
I first heard about John Shirley’s new novel, The Other End, when he read an extract from it at one of Terry Bisson’s SF in SF readings. The whole idea of the book, of reclaiming the End Times from the Fundamentalists, sounded fascinating. It also sounded a very brave thing to attempt. So I wanted to make sure that I got a copy of this book.
Now when I say "brave," I don’t mean brave in the sense of not being scared of any reaction from the Fundies. Let’s face it, that’s a risk any author takes these days. No, I meant intellectually brave, in that what Shirley has set out to do is quite challenging. There were two major difficulties that I could foresee. The first was avoiding creating yet another revenge fantasy. After all, that’s what the whole End Times thing is about: it is a revenge fantasy in which "people we like" get rewarded and "people we don’t like" suffer horribly for all eternity. There’s no point in reclaiming the End Times if all you are going to do is be just as petty as the original. The other problem is that in setting out your own program for the salvation of mankind you have to show that your own morality is somehow superior to that of the version you want to replace. Neither of those things is, in my view, easy to achieve.
Shirley starts out simply and honestly with Jim Swift, a reporter for the Sacramento Bee, chasing up a story about illegal immigration. He’s at an RV park in Fresno that he believes is being used by a criminal gang to house large numbers of immigrants brought in from Cambodia whilst buyers are found for them. Swift know that he won’t be able to get the police to act without firm evidence — evidence he can only get by breaking into the compound at the probable risk of his life. He opts to take the risk, and is just about to lose his bet when he is saved by, well, something mysterious.
Swift soon finds out, via his oddball friend, Ed Gallivant, that such mysterious interventions are happening all over the world. Perhaps it is aliens, perhaps it is angels, who knows? The only thing that is certain is that "bad people" all over the world are finally being brought to book. Be they criminal gangs or pedophiles in the US, militias in Africa raiding villages for child recruits, Muslims murdering their daughters in "honor killings" or whatever, someone has decided it is time that there was a little justice in the world.
From this it should be obvious that Shirley is getting around defining his rules of morality by providing examples. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Simple rules like "Thou shalt not do X" tend to work far better in a computer program than as a means of running a society. Attempts to impose absolute rules of morality tend to result in fundamentalism, which is, after all, what Shirley is railing against. Besides, the idea of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" has been espoused by adherents of many world religions, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism (and probably quite a few others). If the readers agree that Shirley’s bad people are doing bad things (i.e. things they would not like done to them) then he’ll have broad agreement that his morality is workable.
The difficulty with such an approach is that you have to avoid contentious cases. If you have examples where only a fraction of your readers agree that the bad person is actually bad then you start to lose support. Mostly Shirley has neatly stepped around this, but there is one example that may upset people. Jim Swift is a divorced father. His wife, Linda, kicked him out for having too many affairs. She’s now being difficult about letting him have access to his daughter, Erin. As it turns out, Swift genuinely cares about Erin whereas Linda, a recent convert to a fundamentalist cult, puts obedience to her church leaders ahead of her daughter’s best interests. Most non-fundamentalists would agree that this makes Jim a "better person" than Linda, but I can see hard-line feminists arguing that Shirley has set the situation up in such a way as to imply that women who make it difficult for ex-husbands to see their children are all bad, regardless of their reasons. I make no comment on Shirley’s intentions — I’m just observing that issues of morality are not always clear cut, and if you argue by example you can end up having to provide way more examples than you would want in order to make your case.
One thing that Shirley does make very clear is that morality is a matter of actions rather than theory. Those who put systems of rules ahead of assessment of individual situations come off badly in Shirley’s universe. That generally means fundamentalists, but it can also mean political revolutionaries of all shades. I should also add that, unlike the popular image of the Californian, Shirley does not elevate "niceness" above all else. He might think that it is better that humans should not kill and eat other animals, but he doesn’t think that carnivores should be exterminated because they are murderers, or that paradise should be free of all dangers.
I should note in passing that Shirley adopts a Gnostic cosmology in the book. If you are going to have intervention by aliens/angels than it is entirely reasonable for mankind to ask what God has been up to all these millennia. Why did He/She/It let things get so badly out of control? The Gnostic answer (simplistic version thereof) is that the being worshipped by most religious people is in fact not God at all, but a malicious demigod who has usurped the role of the Almighty. Ialdabaoth, the name used by Shirley for his bad godling, is a character out of Gnostic mythology.
So far so good, but what about the Rapture itself? Who gets saved and who does not? Because he hasn’t set down any hard and fast rules for who is good and who is not, Shirley cannot simply divide the world into believers and unbelievers. However, he deftly manages to achieve the same effect (and what follows is probably a spoiler, but it is something I think I need to talk about).
The logic behind the Rapture is basically one of choice. Those who choose to adopt the belief system of the fundamentalist group in question will be Saved, those who do not will suffer Eternal Torment. Note that there is no concept of redemption through good deeds here. Mankind is fundamentally sinful, and can be redeemed only through belief (a theory that conveniently allows believers to do all sorts of unpleasant things to others without jeopardizing their own salvation).
Shirley also allows mankind a choice, but it is a rather more informed choice. The aliens/angels/whatever have arrived and are beginning to put the world to rights. But that isn’t enough. Those who wish to be Saved have to put their trust in these strange beings and agree to be part of the new world that they are creating. The trick here is that Shirley’s emissaries of God have been given a chance to prove themselves. They have done Good Works. Given the choice between believing in beings that have proven themselves by their actions, or believing in a cult that bases its beliefs in a holy book that contains some highly dubious pronouncements alongside the good ones, which would you chose? But if the choice was simply between the supposed emissaries of God and life as normal, would you trust these paranormal beings? I mean, given all that has been said and done in the name of "God" down the millennia?
At which point I shall leave you to read the book. I’ll just wrap up by saying that I think, given the very obvious difficulties, Shirley has a done a very creditable job. However, given the choice between being Left Behind and dying horribly, or taking a risk on supposed supernatural beings, let’s just say that I’m not convinced.