If you’ve ever read my reviews, you’ll notice that I tend to have strong opinions about books. I should put up a sign somewhere: “Not many 3-star reviews here, so be warned!” You’ll probably also have noticed that if I give a one-star review, it’s not necessarily because I absolutely despised reading every page of the book. More often than not, I give a one-star when I feel the author has betrayed a promise he gave to me.
Strong words? Maybe. But I’ve had months to think about this book after finishing it. So my review is not, as you might think, a spur-of-the-moment mad rant.
First, of all, this is a very literary sci-fi story. It’s not so much about events as it is about the effect of those events on people. Unlike some, I actually have a lot of tolerance for this kind of storytelling in genre fiction. So that’s not what I found annoying about this book.
I loved the first chapter. The writing is elegant, the characters believable, and the situation full of conflict and heart-break. I loved where I thought the book was going. And I loved how the author was creating tension subtly, but in a way that clearly seemed to suggest a turn toward the macabre and maybe even the thrilling.
But then, the book just ended. Yes, I know that literary fiction is more about the journey than the destination blah blah blah. It’s not that. It’s that the author set me up.
First of all, the entire story is encapsulated in the back cover blurb. There really is nothing more than what you read there. You know those movie trailers that show the best bits of the movie, so that when you see the movie, you’re like…meh? This is the same thing.
Even that wouldn’t be so bad. But here’s the thing. The author presents us with a completely unlikely situation: a Christian missionary (of the more liberal, bleeding heart variety) comes to a newly-discovered planet on the bill of a shady organization, and to his surprise, he finds the natives already amenable to Christianity. In fact, they thirst for his message more than he could have ever expected.
This is interesting, because it’s so unlike the history of Christian missions. So you’re automatically set up to think that something’s not right. Then, the aliens have no faces that our hero can recognize or discern, and their language is basically impossible to learn. But he seems to have little trouble in making them understand his sermons. He is often convinced that they understand exactly what he means.
That’s another set-up. We never really see into the psyche of the natives. Then, the main character is fabulously naive about his own experience of the world, as we find out (painfully) in his horrible interactions with his wife. Finally, we see more and more that although he thinks he understands the natives and their way of life, he really knows nothing at all.
Add to this a building sense of suspense in the writing style, and you’re led to expect that there will be some kind of revelation about the aliens: that they’re actually using him, or that they’re not really sincere Christians, or that the corporation that hired him has evil ulterior motives, or SOMETHING. No. Nothing happens.
By the end, I just got sick of it.
Plus, the author, though apparently the son of a minister, has a bad grasp on the believers’ mentality. As often happens in modern fiction, Christian belief is simplified to such a degree that it becomes an absurdity. The arguments about belief or lack thereof are so rudimentary that I found myself crying for a good chapter of Dostoyevsky. Honestly, if Christianity were actually like the hokey feel-good nonsense that this pastor dishes out, I’d run the other way.
That’s really the heart of the issue. Why do the aliens come to believe so completely in Christianity? I have no idea. Certainly it’s not the talents of our missionary main character. He’s so bland and annoying that the constant irritation that the other humans on the planet feel toward him is the only really authentic emotion in the book.
Ultimately, what began as a beautifully-written, character-driven story about love and loss turned into something that I wanted to throw against the wall. But I couldn’t, since I read the ebook version. Oh well.
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- Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
- The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel