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Galactic Rapture by Tom Flynn
(Prometheus, $19.95, 500 pages, trade paperback; January 2000.)

The reason why there are so many technological civilizations in the Galaxy, and why they're all human, is this:

Long, long ago an enigmatic supercivilization called the cover scanHarvesters went through the Galaxy. They came across the planet Earth, which happened to have proto-human beings at the top of the evolutionary chain. For purposes of their own the Harvesters took a sampling of proto-humans, food animals, plants, etc., from the Earth and used them to seed every other plausibly inhabitable planet in the Galaxy. The Harvesters then disappeared, presumably travelling on to repeat a similar act in the next galaxy along the line; however, a relic of their quondam presence might be the occasional, unpredictable appearance out of some alternate dimension of one of the Tuezi, vast and invulnerable death machines which, upon their popping into our reality, immediately proceed to devastate the nearest planetary system.

On all of the planets they seeded the Harvesters, for inscrutable reasons, programmed a minor sensory deficit into the population -- the inability to see certain tricks of the light, for example.

All except one: Earth. The humans from Earth have the complete range of senses; all other folk have one minor sensory deficiency or another coded into their genes by the Harvesters, the particular deficiency being specific to each planet. Another point of oddity about Earth humans is that some of them are white; the standard colour of the members of the Galactic Confetory is black.

Earth has been only recently discovered by the Confetory, and in the normal way, despite its unique status as the homeworld for all humanity, would have been placed under Enclave -- that is, quarantined off from any outside interference because as yet far too socially backward. However, the complete sensory complement of the savages from Earth makes them ideally qualified to be Spectators -- undercover operators who, loaded with bio-implants and transmitters galore, can move incognito among the barbarians of Enclave planets, broadcasting the full range of their experiences of sex, blood, torment, misery and mayhem for the titillation of the trillions of subscribers, Galaxy-wide, to the entertainment medium known as the senso.

Interdependent with the senso is Earth's other major export: religion. None of the other cultures in the Galaxy has been so foolish or illogical as to invent gods and god-worship, and the novelty of the notion has spread like a sort of senso-driven wildfire throughout the Confetory.

Top dog today -- this is the middle of the 24th century -- among the organized Earth religions is the Universal Catholic Church, with its headquarters on the planet appropriately named Vatican. Various revisions have been made to dogma over the years. At the trivial level, pederasty has been proclaimed not to be a breach of celibacy, and priests are encouraged to practice it. (Interestingly, this book was written through the decade of the 1990s, according to the author's note, and thus before the current cluster of pederasty scandals that's rocking the Catholic Church in the USA.) Even more significant is the doctrine of Serial Incarnation, which has it that Christ was not incarnated by God on just a unique occasion but has been or will be made incarnate once on each populated world in the Galaxy.

Mathematician Fram Galbior is a Galaxy-wide hero because he was able to calculate the exact time and position of each new appearance of a Tuezi; these otherwise indestructible death machines have a fleetingly short moment of vulnerability just as they first appear, so their threat can be nullified by having armed warships waiting in space for them when they arrive and blasting them as soon as they do. Now Galbior has performed a new set of calculations which apparently predict the next planet upon which Christ will incarnate and the approximate time (within a few decades) of that incarnation.

Galbior's calculations indicate that the next emergence of Christ will be on Jaremi Four, and may indeed have already happened.

This is somewhat horrifying news for all concerned. Jaremi Four was a backward planet to begin with -- even more primitive than Earth -- but a Tuezi attack some decades ago has shot it back a good distance towards the Stone Age. Life is nasty, brutal and short there as countless local chieftains war upon each other, perpetrating the most revolting barbarities upon all around them. Even before the Tuezi attack, Jaremi Four had been one of the quarantined Enclave worlds; since the devastation there can be no question of the Enclave status being lifted -- not for many generations yet.

However, although Confetory members may not interfere with the social evolution of Enclave worlds, this does not mean they may not land on and move around covertly on such worlds, just so long as the locals are never aware of the Galactic civilization or indeed even the existence of life outside their own planet. So Jaremi Four has long been infiltrated by Spectators, busily broadcasting all the thrills and spills of barbarism to their senso audience.

One such Spectator, Ruth Griszam, has been observing events of no particular note. One day, however, she meets Arn Parek, a conman superabundantly charged with charisma. He has discovered -- more accurately, has independently invented -- religion, and the way in which the mentally or emotionally inadequate (which on Jaremi Four means just about everybody, oppressors and oppressed alike) find that it fills a gaping hole in their psyche. With the aid of a few basic mentalist (conjuring) tricks, Parek is making a good living as a sort of peripatetic avatar of the sky gods, enjoying worship, viands and wenches in one community until they grow weary of his easy-going parasitism, at which point he swiftly moves on to the next. And so on.

By chance, Griszam records Parek in action, "converting" the two murderous barbarians, Ulf and Chagrin, who have been her companions this past little while. She assumes her broadcast of his tricksterism will be regarded as mere fun by the audience, but to her astonishment the trillions of senso addicts instantly become devoted Parek fans, being converted by him as easily -- albeit at a remove -- as the primitives Ulf and Chagrin. Even when Parek connives at the murder of his old friend Dultav, who has become her lover, Griszam realizes that there is potentially a big journalistic story here.

She's not the only one. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has been fairly dormant for a long while, but entrepreneurial evangelist Alrue Latier recognizes in Parekism a chance to revitalize Mormonism with himself at the helm -- and, more pertinently, how this situation can be manipulated such as to increase yet further the torrent of monetary "offerings" sent in to his own near-perpetual senso show by the credulous. Using the latest technology, Latier secretly violates Enclave in order to present himself to Parek as one of the sky-gods, to enable Parek to perform miracles and so on (according to Arthur C. Clarke's famous principle that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic). The savages didn't need much convincing before, but, now that Parek can do some really spectacular miracles and can predict future events, they're falling over themselves to follow him.

But Latier is not alone among the Galactics in recognizing the potential of the situation and violating Enclave. Orgena Greder, owner and tyrant of the planet Khoren Four, wants a spectacular and public end to the ministry of Parek so that she may promote the claims of her own psychopathic protege to be the newly incarnated Christ; the presence on a planet of a godhead does wonders for interstellar trade, and Khoren Four could sorely use the revenue. Accordingly, Greder presents herself to Ulf, Parek's bloodthirstily military sidekick, as another and better sky-god, so that Ulf, while outwardly the loyalest of disciples, is in fact secretly plotting Parek's downfall and his own triumph as conqueror of all Jaremi Four in a series of ever-increasingly bloody, massacre-strewn campaigns.

The Catholic Church, in two minds as to whether or not it would be to its own advantage if Parek were the Christ, cannot leave this alone, and so breaches Enclave even more comprehensively than anyone else...

Believe it or not, all of the above is really little more than the starting premise for the plot! For we have in Galactic Rapture not only an extremely long book (large pages, narrow margins and eye-strainingly small type mean that you could at least double the page-count given at the head of this review for an estimate of the novel's length) but an extremely complex one -- and, for that matter, an extremely good one.

There is obviously plenty of material here from which to construct a fairly standard space opera trilogy. (I am convinced that Galactic Rapture was intended as a trilogy but that the publisher decided to cram its three parts all into a single volume. This would explain the minuscule type, which makes this most engrossingly readable of books in practice very hard to read.)

But space opera is not Flynn's purpose. Instead, he offers a very, very, very deep and biting dark satire of not just the imbecilities of organized religion but also human frailties and vices in general. Quite frequently the bracingly refreshing bleakness of his satiric vision is illuminated by extremely funny jokes, so that on one page you can be nauseated by the fastidiously detailed scenes of carnage and torment yet on the next page find yourself laughing out loud. Yet the overall sense is that there is very little to laugh about in the human condition, and that the blame for this being so cannot be laid at the feet of some creator god. We ourselves have quite deliberately, through action or inaction, created such misery, using our religions as only one of several tools in the construction of it. Furthermore, unless we change our ways, if unrestricted we are capable of spreading the same folly and affliction far beyond the confines of our own home world.

Agree with it or not, Flynn is presenting us with, through his satire, some extremely fundamental questions about ourselves and the axioms of our social structures, questions which we normally do our best to evade. To take just a single example, it is generally assumed by atheists that the beliefs of others are sacrosanct: that it is a fundamental right of every human being to believe in the religion of his or her choice; that religion is a personal matter, not to be tampered with by others. (Ironically, of course, the religios who maintain this most stoutly are also those who zealously massacre the principle at every step in their sometimes violent attempts to forcibly convert others to their own scheme of faith.) By the end of reading Galactic Rapture, having seen plausibly exemplified the damage that religion can do -- and on a massively widespread scale -- one has to face what has become an inescapable question: Is that tolerant principle in fact a viable one? Will toleration of religious nonsense -- and the question is unaffected by the actual existence or otherwise of a deity or deities -- spell the doom of the human species?

Such a question is represented symbolically in Flynn's satire. To continue with our current example, if we regard Jaremi Four as analogous to an individual (or to that individual's worldview), then its decreed status as an Enclave world -- whose inhabitants must not be tampered with by outsiders -- can be seen as analogous to the principle of toleration expressed above. Whatever widespread brutalities and unbelievable human sufferings are perpetrated on Jaremi Four, the Galactics will not intervene; whatever garbage true believers cram into the minds of their children, we will not intervene to save those children from the destruction of their own and others' lives through the indoctrinated hatreds, fallacies and bigotries. Those who choose to turn their backs on the fruits of human knowledge are all, in effect, Enclave worlds; while the rest of us, without really questioning why we do so, observe the principle of Enclave as if it were itself some kind of ineffable religious statute.

Leaving considerations of satire aside for a moment, on a purely sciencefictional basis the principle of Enclave -- obviously under a huge diversity of names -- is a notion very frequently encountered throughout the genre. It's a very plausible idea, that advanced civilizations will hide themselves from less advanced ones until the latter reach a certain level of sophistication for fear of causing the destruction of a culture; each civilization must follow its own natural course of evolution independently until it is ready to do otherwise in case it is culturally or even physically -- as in the case of the now extinct indigenous Tasmanians here on Earth -- annihilated by contact with more advanced ones.

I must confess that I've always accepted this premise in sf without thinking about it: one has only to glance at the sorry history of the Native American after the arrival of the Europeans to realize that such quarantining is A Good Thing. Yet Flynn actually presents a very strong argument for the opposite: it is in the nature of life itself, and hence human cultures, to encounter the different -- whether that be a volcanic eruption or another civilization. Contact between two cultures is destructive of the less advanced one only if the more advanced one lets it or makes it be so -- in effect, only if the approach of the more advanced culture is one of military or social conquest.

There are far too many riches within Galactic Rapture for me to even begin to list them here -- for that you must go and fight with the small print to enjoy them for yourself. (The small print obviously often defeated the Prometheus proofreader as well; and nobody involved has worked out that "aurora" is a singular, not a plural, noun.) The struggle is eminently well worth it. Equip yourself with a magnifying glass if need be. Whether or not you agree with all of Flynn's answers or with his general theme, he presents questions that we as a single-planet culture really need to face rather than forever dodge. And he does so within the context of a satire that, for all its bitter darkness, is also riotously entertaining.

Endlessly thought-provoking. Tremendous fun. Conceptually challenging. Moving. Impassioned. Richly written. Deliciously imaginative. Willing to speak the unspeakable. Unafraid to accept and explore new ideas. Say, remember when we all thought this was what speculative fiction was all about? Well, Galactic Rapture is all of that and more. Viewed from any perspective, it's an extremely important book; science fiction is lucky to have it.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 20 July 2002