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Writing update: Reviews

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Good Boy, Achilles!

Good Boy, Achilles!Good Boy, Achilles! by Eddie Ellis

Darwinian evolution did something to theology. Suddenly it became much less straightforward to see humanity as the center of the created order. Man was not the apex of creation but rather a species that happened to have had a series of successful random adaptations. More importantly, perhaps, nature red in tooth and claw put to the question the idea of humans as somehow mediating between God and the world in a chain of being where the higher animals were below us (and in our care) and the angels above.

On the other hand, it’s still pretty clear that humans play a role in the natural order, perhaps even a central role—even when seen in a purely materialistic context. We tilt the world toward change through our actions or inactions. (Climate change offers just one example of this.) More than broad ecological effects though, we have physically transformed certain species through the millennia-long experiments of domestication. Even if the rest of the animal kingdom could care less about humans, we in a very real way have some kind of role or responsibility to discharge vis a vis our dogs and cats, cattle, horses, and fowl. All these species are to some extent our own creation and have helped make human society possible. Dogs, for instance, have in some contexts and with a great deal of truth been claimed as our greatest and most enduring invention.

But which way does this responsibility go? Could it in some respects be reciprocal?

Theologically, you could respond to the idea of a unique relationship between humans and at least certain portions of the natural world (domesticated species, for instance) in a couple ways, specifically in light of humanity’s painfully evident inability to properly steward and protect these creatures (as well as ourselves). Classically, this fact is referred to in Christian theology as the Fall or as humanity’s fallen nature.

You could take the stance that this brokenness extends to the rest of the physical world as well as to humanity itself (St. Paul’s expression about the entire creation groaning). A theological view of animals in this case might hold that whatever redemption they have or need is mediated through mankind. C. S. Lewis comments on this somewhere when he responds to a question about animals in heaven by saying something like it is the role of humanity to mediate between God and nature and restore creation—that whatever kind of relationship animals might have with a Creator, it is through their relationship with man.

If that seems to anthropocentric, another theological tact might be that the rest of the world is still pure and unspoiled and that it was only man that went wrong, that this taint doesn’t extend beyond humans. Lewis again provides an example of something like this in his Space Trilogy, where only the planet Earth (the “silent planet”) has been occupied by the Enemy, and the creatures and animals on other planets in the solar system live in harmony with each other and their creator. A theological view of this might claim that animals still have an unobstructed relationship with God and that the responsibility of care might run the other direction— that they might be charged with helping to deliver us.

Now if all this seems like a lot of theological throat-clearing for a review of a slim book about puppies written for kids, I would point out that the author of said book has a Master’s in theology and PhD in religious studies, as well as a clear theological message to communicate in his writing. In the fictional universe Ellis creates (centered around a boy named Jeremy who lives on a farm with his parents and their dog Ginger, who has just given birth to a litter of puppies), it is the dogs who still have a clear point of contact and communion with their Creator and who are charged with the care and stewarding of their humans. Humans are muddled. Not only do they not smell and hear as well as their canine caretakers, they don’t have the inborn instincts and understanding that dogs are born with in Ellis’s book. The puppies and their mother know the voice of God and even occasionally interact with His messengers, but it’s not apparent whether this ability extends to the other animals on the farm or the wild animals (primarily raccoons) that occasionally make a nuisance of themselves.

That last line was not offered facetiously, as this would have been an interesting wrinkle to explore in the work. If dogs are innately “good”, does this extend to other animals that classically represent domestication and companionship? And are wild animals (like wolves, for instance) distinguished by their inability to hear or heed the voice of the Maker? Questions like these, and the potential conflicts that might arise, would have been interesting things to explore in a work that otherwise is a very straightforward tale about a boy who wants a puppy.

Ellis is writing for children, so he keeps the narrative focused and simple. Jeremy wants one of the puppies, named Thunder, for his own, though his parents have explained that they’re giving away all the puppies because they cannot afford them. Jeremy’s universe is as tight and tidy as the narrative itself: a halcyon farm where his dad takes him fishing and his mom makes cornbread and engages in the occasional snowball fight, a world complete with faithful family friends, church, and a cozy barn with a litter of puppies. We don’t see any conflict or fracturing of this idyllic scene; all Jeremy can see is a puppy that his parents have denied him.

Tension builds throughout the book as one by one the other puppies are taken away and Thunder learns what it means to care for and protect his human, from whom he ultimately receives his true name. Ellis’s voice and descriptive prose is solid, as you would expect from someone accustomed to academic writing. His tone is never dry or awkward, and he spins out the warm, domestic scenes with ease. The book slides along toward its inevitable conclusion until a final departure in which Jeremy, with very little warning, takes matters into his own hands with all the simple and unfathomable logic of a child. It is in this final crisis that Thunder (in what feels like a riff on a classic Lassie episode) proves himself to be Jeremy’s dog and saves both the boy and their future together. (Strangely, for all the attention that Ellis pays throughout the novel in passing along wisdom about God, patience, and obedience through the parents to the son, there is no final discussion or consequence related to Jeremy’s final, reckless gambit.)

It’s difficult for me to offer a perspective on how this book would read for a young child except to say this: I think kids like complexity. I think they can handle a lot more ambiguity than we normally give them credit for. Good Boy, Achilles seems to harken back to a time when children’s book were much more straightforward and black and white: a boy and his dog, obedience and trust. But even a book like that needs some wrinkles. In the straightforward world that Ellis creates, I kept finding myself looking for the complexities, perhaps some along the lines of what I outlined above. In some respects this book might fit a niche similar to Charlotte’s Web, but Charlotte’s Web had a cast including not only a pig and a spider but also geese, a rat, and entire barnyard ensemble. Ginger’s puppies have ended up in a variety of homes by the end of the story. If Ellis follows their various adventures, I hope we learn more about what it means to serve and follow (or question) the Wounded One (the dogs’ name for Christ) in other, varied setting with a broader cast of characters.

Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My love for science fiction was born on the beaches of Lake Michigan. As a kid we would get a cabin on the long white beaches of the lake’s eastern coast, and my dad always had a thick paperback in hand to read while me and my sister played in the sand. I can remember one book in particular just by its cover: Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime. I would stare at those covers and wonder at what sort of things must lurk between the covers. If I had to trace my love for science fiction to one point, that would be it: wondering at the covers of the books my dad read at the beach.

It’s a tradition I’ve continued, and one I appreciate even more now that I’m a father: taking a good paperback along to read on the shores of Lake Michigan. If you’re going to fill long days, you need a good page-turner that’s consistently compelling without requiring too much processing power. Last year the perfect beach book was The Martian. This year, because I was taken with the first few episodes of The Expanse on Syfy, it was Leviathan Wakes, the first novel of the series upon which the television show is based. And like last summer, it turned out to be the perfect choice.

James S.A. Corey is the author, but the name is actually a front for a creative team of two, one of which is George “Game of Thrones” Martin’s assistant. I haven’t read any of the Game of Thrones books (or seen the series), so I can’t say whether Leviathan Wakes brings some of the scale of Martin’s sensibilities of politics and peril into a scifi milieu, though there is certainly a good portion of both in the mix.

The authors themselves explain their goal of the novel as to situate in a specific science fiction landscape: they wanted it to function as a bridge between far-future and near-future scifi, between fiction that explores our first steps into the solar system and those that already assume humanity’s place on a much larger galactic stage.

Call this then a mid-future science fiction epic. Humans have colonized the solar system and splintered into three distinct groups: Earth/Luna, Mars, and the Belters. Corey does a good job painting the cultures and sensibilities of each group (though Earth takes a more minor role here than it does in the television series), and the considerations of humanity would develop both biologically and sociologically in the asteroid belt and outer moons of the solar system is handled deftly, adding to characterization and tensions rather than distracting from the overall plot.

Political tensions are already high between the three groups, and when a water carrier bound to the asteroid belt from Saturn’s rings is destroyed by what appears to be a Martian warship, the entire solar system tips toward war. The threat and eventual unfolding of this war is the background for the major mystery that plays out, and though the conflict is not as Machiavellian as portrayed on the TV series, the scope and implications of the war– what all out-conflict would mean in regions already as marginal and inhospitable as the outer solar system and the threat of even the simplest weapons rained down a gravity well on the inner planets– effectively keep tensions ramping up throughout the novel.

But the work isn’t a political war story. It’s more straightforward and gripping than that. It’s a mystery, and one the resolution of which has implications much wider than the solar system alone. It starts with a single missing person, and the narrative spirals out from there, following two characters with chapters alternating between their perspectives even when their trajectories eventually intertwine. Holden, the executive officer of the destroyed ice frigate, believes the solar system should know exactly what’s happening, even as that knowledge pushes political factions towards war. His character pairs well against the other main character, Miller, the world-weary detective on Ceres whose missing person case goes deeper than he could have imagined. Both soon find themselves, along with the remnant of Holden’s crew, alone in a solar system at war, trying to stop a resurrected alien threat.

Like I said, it was an ideal beach book, and I tore through it in a matter of days. The action flagged in only a few places, and there were enough major twists– and some surprisingly dark ones, as when the heroes learn the true nature of the threat they face when it’s unleashed on an inhabited asteroid– that the reveals felt significant. The characters were likable and well-rounded, and their varied idealisms or lack thereof played against each other well. My only complaint was that the support cast felt in comparison pretty one-dimensional. As competent and even badass (for lack of a better term) as Holden’s female counterpart, Naomi, and Miller’s missing girl turned out to be, both women characters in the novel felt like little more than the inspiration needed to motivate and support the heroic guy characters. In this respect, it felt a bit embarrassingly like a novel for men written by men.

Besides that wrinkle, Leviathan Wakes reminded me to a surprising extent of my own novel– surprising because I had never read anything by Corey when I wrote First Fleet. Both books have an underlying edge of horror, and both treat the science in the story accurately without being overwhelmed by detail. Both start with missing ships (though mine starts with an entire derelict fleet). I wouldn’t say this if it wasn’t true, but similarities in feel, scope, and even tone can allow me to tell people now that if they liked The Expanse, they should probably check out my work. And if they liked Leviathan Wakes but want something in that vein with strong female protagonists, they should definitely check out my work.

It might even be good on the beach.