Review: His Dark Materials, or, When Sermon Supplant Story

This is reprint of a review from 2007, edited of some excess. 

Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass, hits back at critics who accuse him of peddling candy-coated atheism. “I am a story teller,” he said. “If I wanted to send a message I would have written a sermon.”

It is to laugh. Poor man. Poor, poor man. Is this not exactly what he has written?

Someone name for me a book that is more obviously a bit of preaching that simply abandoned its story line more blatantly?

Even Ayn Rand’s ATLAS SHRUGGED actually had an ending that grows out of its beginning. John Galt’s radio speech was long, but the book did not end in the middle of that speech.

The first rule of story telling is what playwright Anton Chekov called the Gunrack Rule: If you show a gun in a gunrack on the wall in Act One, someone has to be shot by Act Three. It is the same rule every child learns in kindergarten, every merchant learns when generating customer good will. Abide by your contracts. Keep your promises.

Plots and characters and themes make promises. Prophecies in epic fantasy stories are blatant promises. When you are told that there is a prophecy that one and only one knife can kill Almighty God, and that one little boy is the one to do it, it breaks a promise to have God turn out to be a drooling cripple who dies by falling out of bed.

Character development makes a promise. If you start your series with a selfish little girl who tells lies, the climax of her character arc must be when she either gets a come-uppance for being a liar, or when she reforms and starts telling the truth. If you give her a magic instrument that only she can read called an Alethiometer, a truth measurer, it breaks a promise to have simply nothing at all come of this.

If your character’s mother is a mad scientist who experiments on children, the promised character arc is to have her reform and redeem herself. There is a scene where Mrs. Coulter nurses her wounded daughter back to health, but nothing is reformed. Mom then seduces Lamech, who apparently is who the real god God is supposed to be, the tyrant of heaven, and tumbles into the Abyss with him, killing him and herself. This happens offstage, without her daughter becoming aware of it.

The plot promised us that the republic of heaven would overthrow the heavenly kingdom. This magnificently blasphemous idea should have been something like Ancient Rome among the clouds, Senators draped in constellations and crowned with glory, with newly-immortal men voting on issues of heaven and hell, debating the destinies of stars and nations, weighing issues of fate and incarnation and reincarnation, meting out rewards and punishments for the quick and the dead, and ending with Jehovah hanged for a tyrant or sent to the Guillotine, while Cain and Ixion and Prometheus and Sisyphus, and all the dead drowned by the Deluge of Noah or the wars of Joshua, stand around hooting the throwing fruit. Instead the tyrant dies by falling out of bed. We were promised a Milton-level war resulting in a New Heaven and a New Earth, the deaths of gods, the overthrow of universes! That would have been cool.

Instead, we get a girl kissing her boyfriend (and maybe being love-harpooned by him–Mr. Pullman is understandably coy about displaying statutory rape) and then she is sadly parted (because why? You can kill God, but you cannot figure out how to build a Stargate? You overthrow the Cosmic Order, but you cannot get Corwin of Amber to redrew the Pattern for you and rewrite the laws of nature?)

And the end result is that she goes to school.

Stay in school, kids! Hate God! That is my message!

Thanks, Pullman.

Oh, and the climax is where the main character commits euthanasia on a bunch of ghosts, intellectual beings whose torment is that they are bored. Gosh, boredom is a bad thing, I guess, but I would not want someone to pull a Dr. Kevorkian on me for it. And the ghosts are happy, not because they get reincarnated– that would smack too much of religion for our Mr. Pullman’s tastes– they get recycled.

Joy of joys! Wonder of wonders! I know a lot of people who believe in recycling, but this is the first time I’ve come across characters willing to die for it.

Too bad she did not keep the ghost of Socrates or Shakespeare around, just for historians to question, or the dead grandfather I never got the chance in life to talk to, and tell him how I loved him. Somehow, pure oblivion is supposed to be better than a disembodied life, even for Buddhists and Neoplatonists and Gnostics, whose only goal in life is to escape from material desires.

There are infinite universes in the Pullman background. Not one of them had a technology, or a magic spell, to put the ghosts to sleep until a way could be found to re-embody them? Even Gilbert Gosseyn had that technology, and he was just a man, not a god-killer.

You see, the problem with the message method of storytelling is that you have to stop the story to preach the message.

The STORY here required that God be an evil Tyrant, as evil  (at least) as Sauron the Great, as cunning as Fu Manchu, as mad as Emperor Nero. The story required an all-powerful Goliath to be fought and overthrown by the bravery of a boy with a knife.

The MESSAGE required that the Christian God be depicted, not merely as a tyrant, but as a false and shallow and idiotic creature: the Wizard of Oz, nothing more than a puppet-head and a loud voice controlled by a scared little carnival man behind the curtain.

So the story required that the god-killer be at least as impressive as Milton’s Lucifer, who, no matter his flaws, certainly has the dramatic stature and the majesty to attempt deicide. Jack the Giant-killer is an impressive character precisely because Giants are big and impressive. But the message requires that God be not merely unimpressive, but despicable: he cannot be an honorable foe, or even a strong one.

Mr. Pullman started with a story, a Paradise Lost version where Lucifer was the good guy facing impossible odds by defying an unconquerable god; but he ended with a message, where there are no odds because there is no god, merely a drooling idiot. So all plot logic flies out the window: the drooling idiot cannot be and could not be responsible for Original Sin or the  Flood of Noah, or the Spanish Inquisition, or whatever crimes God should have been accused of, because he cannot do anything, any more than the puppet head of the Wizard of Oz.

The STORY required that Asrael be guilty of terrible experiments on children, but that his crimes be necessary in order to discover the secret of the dust and undo the evils done by the Christian God, which have to be much greater than any merely human crime.

But the MESSAGE required that the human condition be merely materialistic, and that there could be no God, and therefore no crimes.

A good story would have shown all the innocent people from Ethiopia, Australia and China tormented in the fires of hell, merely for the whimsical violation of the Christian rule that they are sons of Adam not baptized by a messiah of whom they never could have heard.

The writer would only need to show us one ghost, dead of sudden disease as a child one hour before his baptism, being crushed forever between  the red-hot plates of a coffin of heated iron spikes, while crying for his mommy, in order to arouse the proper indignation.

The crimes of God have to be, for such a story, cosmic crimes. Jehovah has to be shown as a being powerful enough to stop the wheel of reincarnation, which otherwise would have eventually saved all living spirits through many lives of learning and growing, in order to establish an arbitrary paradise and an arbitrary hell.

The story of that crime ends when Christianity is overthrown, and the reincarnation cycle which will one day save all people from all suffering is reinstated. (Not to spoil the surprise ending, but this is not so far from the idea that Ursula K. LeGuin handled with such artistic adroitness in THE OTHER WIND, a sequel to her “Earthsea” trilogy.)

But the message cannot be Taoist or Buddhist or even New Age Spiritualism. Mr. Pullman’s message is atheist. He cannot have a reincarnation be shown as a better alternative to hellfire, because he does not believe in reincarnation any more than he believes in hellfire.

In order for his message to prosper, materialism has to be the order of the day. All the ghosts of the lordly dead, the honored ancestors to whom the pagan shrines are adorned, also have to be false. The ghosts in a Pullman fantasy world have to be bored, and dissolving back into matter has to be the only ecologically sound proposition. It is a boring and undramatic resolution, unconvincing to the point of idiocy, but it is the only one his message would allow.

The message did not allow Mr. Pullman even to list crimes of which the Christian God was accused. If there was a scene where this was done, I missed it. If Jehovah in the story had killed a child or kicked a bunny, I as the reader would have relished the scene of an overdue vengeance being visited on him: the Vengeance of Prometheus for the injustices of Heaven!

But there was no vengeance, no Prometheus, and no crimes. Asrael, at the first, is supposed to be a Promethean character, dabbling Where Man Was Not Meant to Go, and discovering the secrets of the universe. The secret he was supposed to discover is that the universe is run by a mad God who has to be destroyed: it is the ultimate in paranoid conspiracy thriller concepts.

But only at first, because Mr. Pullman was telling a story at first. By the third book, AMBER SPYGLASS, when Mr. Pullman has forsworn story telling to preach his message, instead of a mad God, we have a conclave of clerics who send out an assassin to kill the girl, for no reason that is ever made clear.

It is not as if killing the ghosts or cleaning up the dust actually did anything to the clerics: I do not see why they are not in the same position of power at the end of the tale as at the start. The message cannot accuse God of atrocities because the message is that there is no God.

The message is not that God is evil: that would be a Satanist message. The message is that God is Not, or that Thou Art God. That is the atheist message.

What are the characters in this book fighting for?

Not for love, I take it: no couple ends up together, not even (I kid you not) the sodomite angels Baruch and Balthamos. When the Dust settles, the demons seem to be in charge of the universe, and they order all the inter-dimensional windows to be closed, except the window allowing the ghosts in the land of the dead to choose oblivion.

For freedom? There is no one in chains at the beginning of the book who is freed at the end.

For truth, justice, the American way? Again, there is nothing in the books to lend any drama to any of these concepts. Lyra is a liar (hence her name) but no lies are overthrown, no truth is revealed during the plot; Asrael is the Lucifer figure who ends up sacrificing himself, if not like Christ, at least like a man throwing himself on a hand-grenade, to push Metatron into the Pit of Non-Hell, where their ghosts will fall for all eternity; perhaps the American way was supposed to be their cause, as Americans prefer Republics to Monarchies, but the only political institution the “Republic of Heaven” turns out to support is the University. Huhn? Next to the basilica, the university is the quintessential Christian institution and invention. I assume we are not talking about Trinity College or Saint Mary’s.

Was anyone fighting for the ugly wheeled elephants? These creatures were allegedly innocent, but seemed pointless and repugnant on every level. Where they being threatened by the Church in some way?

Was the Church trying to horde the Dust in a fashion that harmed someone, somewhere? Pullman is not clear on this point, or maybe I missed it.

The book does not seem to be “for” anything, merely against Christians in general and the Catholic Church in particular.

The problem is that the atheist message is boring and undramatic: life’s a mechanical process and then you die. Now, as you believe one thing or another, you might take this message to be fact or faction, but, true or false, it is always a false fiction, by which I mean an undramatic one.

In fiction, we can come across a dungeon full of disembodied ghosts. In Christian fiction, the solution is to send them to their judgment (think of the movie GHOST for a literal judgment, when dark shadows or bright lights come for you. A figurative last judgment might be  the final scene in LORD OF THE RINGS; Frodo’s journey on the ship is symbolically a journey to heaven); in New Age or Buddhist fiction, the solution is to send them on to their next reincarnation, or to halt the wheel of reincarnation and send them to nirvana (think of the movie WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, or even the ending to the television movie version of the MAHABHARATA).

But in atheist fiction, the only solution is to say that there are no ghosts. In atheist science fiction, the solution proposed by STAR TREK or any number of SCOOBY-DOO episodes is perfectly dramatically satisfying: any being pretending to be supernatural is a fraud, a computer you can destroy with a phaser, or Mr. McGready from the Haunted Museum wearing a rubber mask. In epic fantasy, where there actually are supernatural wonders, the ghosts cannot be frauds, so they have to be mistakes, and be aborted. Watching the dead commit suicide so that they are more dead (deader?) is boring. Where is the drama?

I suppose if you are so shallow you think an Orgasm is the only sacred thing in the universe, gee, I guess being bodiless is an unimaginable horror to you. But no one could be that shallow, could he be?

Oh, wait. It turns out that the mysterious Dust that is needed for the life-force of the universe is nothing more or less than sexual liberation. Orgasm stuff. The only point and purpose of religion is to suppress the almighty Orgasm, and the only thing that can throw the universe out of its cosmic balance is chastity and marriage.

Maybe I read that part of the book wrong, because I was skipping pages and giggling with boredom about then. Someone clear me up on this point, please. Better yet, don’t clear it up. Leave me with my illusions. I am not willing or able to believe Mr. Pullman, or anyone older than a very lonely and slightly perverted fifteen-year-old, believes something so blatantly stupid.

I would not have minded the preaching (I was an atheist when I read these books) if the story had not been dropped. The Subtle Knife is never used for its foretold purpose. Lyra’s role as the new Eve or the the ex-nun’s role as the new Serpent is never resolved. The battle with the Authority is never set up, and also never resolved — if Pullman meant for us to believe that killing one officer in a hierarchy would stop the whole Church from doing whatever it is doing (and what WAS it doing? — we are never told), then he is making an assumption the readers are given no reason to follow. World War Two did not end the moment FDR or Yamamoto died.

All this would be forgivable if Mr. Pullman were a bad writer. He is not. he is a very good writer: this means he knows better. One of the most chilling and unearthly scenes I have ever read in any book ever, one of the most striking scenes, is the one where the ex-nun scientist runs a test on the intergalactic Dark Matter and finds it has a hidden intelligence: the dark matter communicates with her. Who are you? she asks. Angels, they answer.

Then they reveal what kind of angels. The exiles. The free angels. The one driven out of paradise. The angels of the darkness. Fallen angels.

The scene was great. Imagine something like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, and slowly decrypting the coded message from the distant aliens, only to discover that you are talking to a demon that is standing behind you in the dark and empty room where you are hunched over your computer.

Of course, the whole point and emotional power of this scene is fumbled not long after, when it is discovered that the fallen angels are the good guys, or, rather, that there are no good guys.

Nothing I have ever read, not by Heinlein and not by Ayn Rand has been more blatant in dropping the story-telling, and devoting its pages to preaching a message.

The writer was drunk on sermonizing. If this plotline was a motorist, it would have been arrested for driving while intoxicated, if it had not perished in the horrible drunk accident where it went headlong over the cliff of the author’s preachy message, tumbled down the rocky hillside, crashed, and burned.