by Brad Nelson 11/12/13
Orson Scott Card is apparently a quite devout Mormon. And yet he’s very scientific- and logical-minded. It’s an interesting mix. And he’s not afraid at all to mix it up with various concepts including, in the case of The Memory of Earth, God being an array of orbiting man-made satellites.
The gist of the book is that millions of years ago, man nearly blew himself up on Earth through a war. The survivors (and there were some) got together and decided that mankind needed to give Earth a rest and a chance to heal itself. In the meantime, they would go out into space and colonize another planet. But they would first make sure that man never again attained the ability to blow himself up, hence the “Oversoul” was created (man creates a god of sorts) as the array of satellites orbiting man’s new home world is called. But this fact was long ago hidden. Mankind doesn’t now know that the “Oversoul” is a machine. What the “Oversoul” does is to prevent man from becoming too dangerous to his own survival via basically selectively squelching certain thoughts, such as ones that would lead to creating advanced weaponry or technology. But humans aren’t quite living in the Stone Age because of this. It’s sort of a mix of, say, a Middle Ages lifestyle combined with bits and pieces of high technology, for the Oversoul does allow them to invent some things that are useful for peaceful purposes.
And this oversight by the Oversoul has allowed humans to exist (but not necessarily in peace) for millions of years. The Oversoul doesn’t try to squelch all violent thought or actions. Wanna rape someone? No problem. The Oversoul doesn’t try to stop that, even though it could. Want to make small-scale war on your neighbors? No problem, but you’ll never be able to invent airplanes, tanks, or even wagons with wheels to allow transporting your troops long distance with ease. Thus, although there are armed conflicts, and there is rape and murder, these never rise to the level of civilization-wrecking. It’s a hackneyed explanation by Orson Scott Card for why this Oversoul, if it has the power, doesn’t also stop rape and murder. But so are many religious explanations regarding God. Neither explanation is particularly convincing (at least to me). But you have to come up with some reason for why God (or the Oversoul) allows such horrible stuff to happen.
But there’s just one problem. The Oversoul is starting to lose its grip on humanity. Something is going wrong. And that’s where a couple heroes in our story come in. They’ve been charged with the Oversoul with fixing things.
One thing of interest about this somewhat primitive society is that it is one in which the women have most of the power. The explanation for how this is maintained is somewhat sketchy. The women choose the men they want to marry and renew marriage contracts at their own discretion. The women own the property while the men, at best, gain their power through the women. This is an interesting role reversal, but is not particularly central to the plot. But it is an interesting concept and the kind of concept that makes sci-fi fun.
Another very odd thing is that there is a class of women who basically sleep in the streets and are often filthy and naked. And they are regularly raped and abused by men. But the offspring of these children are considered profits of the Oversoul.
Overall, The Memory of Earth is a rather spiritual book. I suppose that makes sense since I’ve read that he fashioned this 5-book series loosely after the Book of Mormon. Yes, I eye-roll at that, but most religious stories contain great timeless themes and are often good literature unto themselves. Whether one is talking about the writings of Orson Scott Card in this series, or the writings of C.S. Lewis in his Narnia series (based loosely on a Christian theme), a good story is a good story and The Memory of Earth has some good elements to it.
I say this is a spiritual story because mankind’s own story is driven by the thoughts in his own head. And whether those thoughts stem from the unconscious, from tunneling quantum particles, from unknown powers or forces (including Star Trekian red matter), or from God FM himself, it is inherent to the human life to gain insight and guidance from sources other than our own blathering ceaseless ego-consciousness. I’m convinced that some atheist types have become so estranged from anything they view as “spooky” that they lose a good part of their humanity and become that sad and shallow animal that pretends at being always logical and reasonable in every thought and action. Life does not really give us that option.
Whether we call it religion or intuition, there are sources of insight and information that bubble up from within (perhaps without) and that work and that are powerful influences over us but are not completely reasonable, predictable, and rational in the strictly atheistic sense of things. Life is inherently a poem, a song. No amount of “reason” had anything to do with what Mozart wrote, although cause and effect are always in play.
And who’s to say God couldn’t be a machine? Not Orson Scott Card. The “Oversoul” in this book is the god they all pray to. And this god, we learn, really exists and has real power over people and affects their lives in profound ways – ways they aren’t usually aware of. Theologically, thematically, and science-fictionally, this is interesting stuff. I wonder how many would read this and be totally put off by it because of knee-jerk hatred of anything even remotely spiritual?
Imagine going around and hearing thoughts from god inside your own head and heart that gave you direction to your life. It’s actually a pleasing thought and thus it is no wonder that some are so attracted to the Fatherland figure of an Obama taking care of all your worries and filling your gas tank. Well, whether god is above in Heaven or drumming up discontent on the streets with ACORN, the concept of inspiration does not bother me one whit. I love playing what-if. It’s the main pleasure of sci-fi. What if humans blew up Earth several million years ago and the survivors decided “never again” and so moved to another planet while Earth healed itself and genetically engineered humans so that they could be receptive to the mechanical “Oversoul” god that they would place in orbit around this new planet? The point of the Oversoul is to keep humans from killing themselves off until they can return to the home planet of Earth. So this Oversoul, much like Marxist-socialist healthcare nuts who want to stamp out sodas and hamburgers “for our own good,” selectively squelches the thoughts of humanity in such a way that humans never invent weapons of mass destruction.
But God is still pretty much a libertarian. He allows rape, murder, stealing, and small-scale crime and wars. But nothing big enough to threaten the survival of humans. And this strategy has worked for something like, I think, over 40 millions years – long past the projected and planned mechanical lifespan of the Oversoul who has been weakened considerably by the passage of time. The Oversoul must get humans to selectively breed so that some are much more sensitive to hearing the “thoughts” of the Oversoul than is normal, to sort of compensate for its growing weakness.
What’s interesting is that even though the two main characters (who are both very much in touch with the Oversoul) know that the Oversoul is just a machine, it doesn’t diminish their reverence or willingness to go on a holy mission for It. I suppose this is more than understandable considering that they are receiving some amazing thoughts and feelings via their contact (in their heads mostly) with the Oversoul. And, after all, they are playing like Nancy Pelosi and are out to save their world.
Well, I think it’s going to take about 3 books until they do that, if they do that. Apparently the first three books take place on the Oversoul planet and consists of this group of Chosen Ones (and that’s what they are, they are like the tribe of Israel or…of course….of Joseph Smith’s extended cult family) journeying across the desert to some waiting (and presumably hidden) spaceships which they can then use to blast off to Earth. Anyway, I just ordered the second book, “The Call of Earth,” for $4.00 including shipping from Amazon.com. Can’t beat that price, and the first book was good enough to get at least slightly hooked. And, who knows? Maybe after I’ve read all five books which are loosely based on the Book of Mormon, I won’t just slam the door in the faces of those wandering and annoying Missionaries. It could affect me. I could be drawn into Mormonism.
But that would be too incredible even for sci-fi. But I think most people are familiar with Nafai’s journey. (Nafai is the main character and the one, outside the female prophets, most in touch with the will of the Oversoul.) We all relate to each other, and probably the world itself, with feelings and emotion. Emotion is inherent, somehow, to the very fabric of the universe. Feelings. Thoughts. Awareness. Whether it is the feeling of artistic inspiration, the feeling of god within, or the feeling of clarity and peace that comes from meditation or yoga, we’re all somewhat like (quite literally, really) vessels for the various thoughts, feelings, and emotions that sweep through us.
And our orientation to ourselves (our will or intentions) and the rest of the universe (often random influences) directly affects our experience of this. And yet even then, the whole system itself is wonderfully, strangely, and often terrifyingly willy-nilly. We can pray or meditate with no assurance that anything pleasing or useful will come from it. But in the world of The Memory of Earth, things are more certain. At times, Nafai has only to ask and be silent, and he will get a message. He’ll know what to do. At times we humans get the same feeling. And willy-nilly intersects again because sometimes the things we do are grandly good under our inspirations, and sometimes we fly airplanes into buildings. But I don’t think we can but help be emotionally oriented to the universe, which I think in its most basic definition would be of religion stripped of all dogma.
Overall, this was a very readable book. I highly recommend it.