Sunday, August 8, 2010

Numerical Religion

Wendy finally got me to read Foreigner.  This is a Sci-Fi series with 12 books in it so far and no signs of stopping so getting into the series is a bit of a commitment.  I find the author's style really quite irritating at the start but the world building is exceptionally good so I am willing to overlook the rocky beginning.  In the first book the main character is a chump.  While I don't mind characters starting out a little weak and uncertain I find that the level to which Bren does everything wrong, panics constantly and has absolutely no idea what to do really annoying.  This is particularly true because the whole book is told from his viewpoint and even by the end the reader feels out of place and clueless as to what actually happened.  However, an online review by a bunch of people who liked the series basically said that Cherryh's style is always to have a useless main character at the start and have that character rapidly improve with time.  This convinced me to give the second book a shot since Wendy liked it so much.

The second book of the series is intriguing not because of the main character but because of the way the author approaches religious commentary.  Bren grows up and becomes someone respectable, which is good, and Cherryh spends a lot of time dealing with the idea of alien religions coping with new scientific facts instead of emphasizing how terrible the hero is.  The twist is that the aliens in this case, though they are in many ways similar to humans, have very different ideas about numbers.  Their ideas about numbers are some kind of cross between astrology and religion in that they make absolutely no sense, are not agreed upon at all between various alien groups and are considered extremely important to making nearly any decision.  The aliens are forced to adapt to new ideas and technology from the more advanced humans and their number-religions are thrown all into chaos when scientific fact collides with dogma.

Cherryh has classic scientific-religious points of conflict like the world going round the sun, the size of the universe and such appear in the book as the humans and aliens scramble to avoid a war over the supremacy of one number-religion over another.  Amusingly she even has these far future humans wondering if humans in the past had problems with scientific developments conflicting with 'known' facts.  She goes so far as to talk about how the fact that the aliens are gripped by these number-religions has crippled their growth and kept them from advancing because of their constant conflict between what is obviously true and what their religions proscribe.  It is fascinating to see a really different interpretation of the problems with religion and the conflict with science because it really brings to light how hard it can be to see out of your own situation.  I suspect many/most people would read the book and think that the aliens are being foolish and naive while not even realizing how their own views fall into the same traps.

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