Short Story Club: "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made"

This week we have for consideration another Nebula winner, a novelette, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone. This is a rare story from Analog making the awards rounds this year. We’ll start with a round-up of reviewer reactions.

Lois Tilton, Locus Online:

The narrator, Harry Malan, is the new President of the small Mormon congregation on Sol Central Station, which includes a number of the vast plasma solcetaceans, also known as swales. His ministry is not appreciated by the scientists who have come to the station to study the swales and regard it as interference with an alien race. Malan is aware that human moral strictures may not apply directly to a race of beings with, for example, three sexes, but he perseveres, upheld by his faith. Then, by accident, he manages to both interest and offend the largest and oldest of the swales, Leviathan, regarded by them as their creator, which she possibly is. Leviathan is not pleased that minor members of her race would prefer an alien god to herself.

My heart sank on reading the first two pages of this one, in which a virago scientist – a sexy one – harangues Malan on the sins of interference. But matters improved quickly, as the characters proved to be reasonable and well-rounded human beings, despite their conflicting viewpoints, who even managed to work together. And the sincere faith of Harry Malan managed to make me sympathize with his religious mission, which is a very hard sale indeed.

Jessica, On a Pale Star:

Have you ever read a story that you can objectively say “this is well written, has an approach I haven’t seen before, and I should like it,” and yet you don’t connect to it?

This is how I feel about this novelette. I ought to like it. It’s smart. Well-written. The protagonist is interesting. But I don’t connect. I suspect it’s because of the religious overtones; the main character, Harry, is the leader of a non-Earth based branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. One of my personal foibles is that I tend to get tetchy any time I feel like I’m being preached at, and Harry’s faith approaches that line, at least for me. It doesn’t help that I flat-out disagree with Harry’s approach, though to a point I can understand it. I sympathize much more with the other human we see in the story, a scientist named Jaunita.

Having said that, though, I can appreciate Stone’s writing, and his treatment of how an Earth-based faith could intersect with other, non-terrestrial beings (especially when at least one of those beings apparently predates all other life in the solar system). “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” is an interesting read. Eric James Stone has made it available online for free here. Whether or not you have my hang-ups regarding established religion and/or reading deeply religious characters, this Nebula-nominated work is well worth your time.

SF Gospel:

The single most up-my-alley story of the last year has been nominated for a Nebula Award: Eric James Stone’s “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made,” published in the September 2010 issue of Analog. […]

Stone’s story is chock full of scriptural allusions to the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Book of Mormon– some stated plainly, others less so. Most intriguing for me is the Job-like confrontation at the story’s end between the finite Malan and the all-but-infinite Leviathan. The idea that limited, contingent, mortal beings can have some influence and importance in the infinite, eternal eyes of the deity is, arguably, the core of all human religion. Stone’s story presents this concept in the context of a speculative ethical puzzle, and is quite entertaining to boot. Its Nebula nomination is well earned.

Abigail Nussbaum, Asking the Wrong Questions:

Nebula winner Eric James Stone’s “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” is a story that seems of a piece with stories like Michael A. Burstein’s “Sanctuary” (Nebula nominee, best novella, 2006) and Mike Resnick’s “Article of Faith” (Hugo nominee, best short story, 2009). Like them, it’s a story told from the point of view of a religious officiant in the future (in Burstein and Stone’s stories, on a space station) who must decide what to do when an alien (or in Resnick’s case, a robot) becomes a member of their church, and how to reconcile alien culture, human incomprehension of that culture, and religious edicts. Another point of similarity between the three pieces is that they are all very, very bad, their indifferent prose and cardboard-thin characters outshone only by their dodgy politics. […]

What’s wrong with “Leviathan” isn’t just that it’s badly written and that all its characters seem to have been created either to spout talking points (the titular Leviathan just happens to say something that echoes the book of Job) or act as straw men (the anthropologist who, against her better judgment, ends up helping the narrator, and along the way lobs softballs at him and acts like a stereotype of a disdainful atheist; interestingly, the one good point she makes–pointing out that the only reason the Mormon swales care that they’re being raped is that their new religion has taught them to view sex as a sin–is completely ignored by both the narrator and the story). Worse than these is the fact that it’s not a story so much as a thought experiment that posits a situation in which none of the negative associations of Christian missionary work are applicable–the swales are aliens so there’s no issue of racism or colonialism; they appear to have no culture or religion of their own for Christianity to destroy; they’re technologically powerful so the role of missionaries in enabling slavery and economic exploitation is negated; the swales’ leader is cruel and inconsiderate of her followers, some of whom want a change, so the missionaries aren’t barging into a situation where they’re not wanted–in order to lead to the conclusion that, under these conditions, it’s totally OK to impose Christian values on aliens. This is a little like the way that creators of war movies have been gravitating towards the alien invasion premise (Skyline, Battle: Los Angeles, the upcoming Falling Skies) as a way of getting around the fact that it’s no longer acceptable to use the Russians or the Chinese as faceless hordes of evil invaders, or the way that the creators of Avatar tell the utterly familiar story of a white man who not only saves the Native Americans but is better at being Native American than actual Native Americans, but insist that they’re not being racist because the story is set on another planet and among aliens. Except worse, because the creators of those works are trying to have a bit of fun without thinking too much about politics, whereas politics is really all that “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Has Made” is about. The premise of proselytizing to aliens raises a lot of questions, but Stone is more interested in giving definitive answers, ones that shut down all objections to missionary work, among humans and aliens alike.

So far it seems that reactions to the story align fairly closely with the readers’ sympathy to the underlying religious message. What did you think?

18 thoughts on “Short Story Club: "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made"

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  • June 5, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    That seems a bit unfair to Mormons, Karen. Presumably there are a few of them who aren’t illiterate morons and would therefore hold this story in as much contempt as any other person with an interest in literature. (People with an interest in literature obviously being a category that doesn’t include the SFWA.)

  • June 5, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    I think that Martin is being too harsh on all counts. Karen qualifies her statement based on the reactions she has collected, and is not stating that all religious folk would blindly love this story. I’m not sure where the cheap shot at the SFWA comes from, but it seems peripheral to this discussion. Note my use of the word “seems” which Karen also used, to denote a positioned perspective that is subjective and may not be the only interpretation around.

    As to the story, I think the latter part of Abigail Nussbaum’s analysis jibes with my own thoughts on this story. It is a “missionization can work!” tale that is not interested in the complexities of that idea and works to demonstrate that with a thinly-disguised philosophical dialogue cloaked an SFNal tropes. There are a few points where I thought there could be more dissection of the implications, but those moments are used instead to reinforce the idea that missionization is right and good, and that questioning it or interfering with it is bad. Dr. Merced exists not as a character, but as an object to forward the plot and provide opportunities for the clear protagonist to pontificate on the merits of religion. I’d be very curious to hear from people who nominated the story why they chose to do so, given most of the responses I’ve seen to this story and my own reaction to it.

  • June 5, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    The cheat shot at the SFWA comes from the fact they think this was the best science fiction or fantasy novelette published last year.

  • June 6, 2011 at 1:16 am

    This novelette is terrifyingly bad. Just awful. – JeffV

  • June 6, 2011 at 3:05 am

    I guess the critical facilities got turned off by some readers when religion became involved.

    The story blatantly ends with a secular, atheist reading possible when Merced says there’s “no evidence God comes through”. Merced has to agree to the sacrifice so, if you want to read saving Kimball as noble, Merced helps. As for Merced’s argument about sex not being thought as sin until the Mormons came along, Stone didn’t even have to have his character make that argument, so I think it’s rather irrelevant it’s unanswered. Stone isn’t stacking the deck with hack didacticism.

    As for seeing this as some sort of apology for colonization (European colonization though it seems forgotten that many a culture practiced colonialism and not just Europeans) and its handmaiden Christianity, I don’t see that. Where is the economic exploitation? Swales are the technologically advanced race. (Not to mention that, when it comes to European colonization and Christian missionaries, there are two sides to the historical ledger of drawbacks and benefits — something their critics almost never acknowledge.)

    Bad judgement on the part of SFWA? Maybe, but then why make such a big deal about any award given by the organization — even when the work awarded is valued by you?

    I liked the missionary aspect of the novel — even though I’m an atheist.

    I liked the story ok but to my mind the big problem is the psychology of the aliens. First, it’s too convenient that they have the notion of pleasurable sex. And, even worse, Leviathan, as the god creator does an unconvincing switch from regarding Kimball as a created being she owes nothing to to being impressed by a human notion of altruism.

    The fundamental argument of the story, beyond religion, is that altruism would be a universal of sentient life. I don’t buy that.

    And, I would like to have had more done with the history of the swales.

  • June 6, 2011 at 8:08 am

    The fact an atheist reading possible is neither here nor there. Saying an atheist reading is possible is just saying that the story is consistent with reality. The problem is that these supposedly alien beings are actually human and, more than that, Mormons. This is ludicrous and you say so yourself. This destroys the story.

    Since it becomes clear from the beginning that there is no story, what is left for the reader? Achingly bad prose, a view of women from the Fifties (actually, not even the real Fifties, just the SF Fifties), thinly veiled autobiographical fantasy, facile theological arguments and proselytising for Mormonism. I don’t know how you can read Stone’s treatment of religion without thinking it is hack didacticism.

    As for colonisation, I suggest you re-read Abigail’s comments since they address the point you make.

  • June 6, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    I’ll point out that I’m a rock-ribbed atheist with a strong allergy to religion of any kind, and the first pages of this story had me convinced it was going to be awful. Yet by the end, it had won me over. I think there must be something to it.

    But Nebula-worthy? No.

  • June 6, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    @Lois: My reaction to the story seems to be the inverse of yours. I’m not an atheist, and I’m not averse to finding religion in my SF, (although I have high standards for theological discourse that this story can’t reach by leaping). I could like a story in this setting, and I might be able to like a story with these characters (okay, probably only with similar ones), but I don’t like this story for reasons of narrative structure. This kind of narrative voice (brisk, consciously charming, a bit dense, and a tad snarky first-person male) and a narrative line this linear seem to me best served by a very briskly paced plot that slams into an active crisis, ending with a resolution that pulls very strongly on the sense-of-wonder available in the setting. “Leviathan” doesn’t have enough of those benefits. The crisis involves people sitting in a box talking about whether they’re in the kind of story where they die or the kind of story where they don’t. The lights go out. They conclude that they’re in the kind of story where they die. They live past that moment. And what produced that wonderful reversal? God provided, or not. It comes down to (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) “Deus ex machina!” (wink, wink), which reduces the whole set-up to the front end of a shaggy dog story. And if there’s one thing I hate more than a shaggy dog story, it’s a deus ex machina ending. Goody! Two-for-one.

    I don’t agree with you about this story, but I very much appreciate your nuanced and articulate response to it.

  • June 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    It seems overly simple to suggest that “the critical facilities got turned off by some readers when religion became involved”, not when “readers” have assessed the previous stories we’ve discussed with the same level of criticism. It also seems overly simple to suggest that a story of religious advocacy must be one that points toward the existence of a supreme being or beings. I’d call this a story of religious advocacy because it (wait for it) advocates religion: the basic message is, religion is a good thing because it encourages moral questioning and acts of altruism in a way that science and relativism do not.

    The problem is that everything in the story is over-obviously and uninterestingly stacked to suggest that message: the swales are, as both Randy and Martin seem to agree, essentially human–in their language, sense of self, and ability to conceive of altruism and other concepts like sin and morality. Yet as Abigail points out, they had apparently developed none of their own culture surrounding these concepts. The human future of the story, meanwhile, has left behind religious violence (and also caller ID–maybe the two are related?); and the LDS church is implied to be the only religion forward-thinking and open-minded enough to try to convert the swales. Certainly they’re more open-minded than the scientists in the story, who cruelly mock our hero Harry’s religious precepts. Indeed it’s no surprise that Dr. Merced rejects Harry, as he realizes that “she cared more about swales than about people.” Clearly if she cared about people more, she’d go out with Harry. (Instead she’s written out of any future role with him–friend, sympathetic coworker, etc.–because they won’t ever date, and I guess that’s all she’s good for.) Fortunately, Harry is strong in his faith and rejects acting on his desire for her body–contrasting with the swales behavior, and illustrating the benefits of religion for human and swales everywhere.

  • June 7, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    Moles does not mention the fact that the membership of SFWA seems constitutionally incapable of making the choice for NO AWARD. I believe it has only happened once, when the org was young.

  • June 7, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    So how many members of the SFWA vote for the Nebulas? And how many of them voted for this story? I can’t see any stats on the internet.

    Finally, are any of the people who did vote for the story prepared to admit they did so?

  • June 7, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    I agree with others here that the story is weak. Rather than adding to the excoriation of Stone’s story, and at the risk of derailing the topic, I would like to celebrate the major role that the theme of religion plays in science fiction. The tension between the worldviews of science and religion has been and will continue to be endlessly fruitful in generating story ideas for science fiction writers.

    C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra trilogy (1938 through 1945) embraces the transition from 19th Century planetary romance to Lewis’s own brand of religious allegory. In The Great Divorce (1945) Lewis leaves allegory behind and tackles his religious concerns directly using the tools science fiction.

    A Jesuit priest confronts evil on an alien planet in both A Case of Conscience (1958) by James Blish and The Sparrow (1996) by Mary Doria Russell .

    Perhaps the gold standard against which other such science fiction novels of the 20th Century are compared is A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) by Walter M. Miller, Jr., which describes 600 hundred years of cyclic human history through the lens of religion.

    For tyrannical state religion dystopias, see Gather, Darkness! (1950) by Fritz Leiber, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood, and Raising the Stone (1990) by Sheri S. Tepper.

    While I admire the novels of James Morrow, such as Only Begotten Daughter (1990), Towing Jehovah (1994) and The Last Witchfinder (2006), I appreciate his short fiction even more. See his collection Bible Stories for Adults (1996).

    Many of Michael Bishop’s works of short fiction deal intelligently with religion. See especially his collections Close Encounters with the Deity (1986) and At the City Limits of Fate (1996).

    “The Book of Martha” (2003) by Octavia Butler, a conversation between a writer and God, is surprising and not to be missed. It was published at the SciFiction website and collected in Year’s Best Fantasy 4 edited by Hartwell and Cramer.

    I’d be interested in the recommendations of others.

  • June 7, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    There is taste, and there is taste, but I do not think this was the best novelette published last year. I had different problems with it (I don’t have allergies to LDS themes — and please don’t construe that to mean that I think that those who have problems with the story do…) which were grounded in its writing in several places and the logical leaps in the plot, character reversals, etc. Still: sentient, star-hopping space whales; energy shield tech which allows human vessels to dive below the surface of the sun; … These were interesting, fun ideas, and the core of what was good about the story.

    On a meta/math/nonsense note: A glance at the Nebula voting rules shows that the final vote is a winner take all, unranked vote: pick one of these 5-6 stories. This is precisely the voting system you would expect to produce a mediocre winner with strong hot/cold reactions, while 3 or 4 more potentially outstanding stories split the remaining votes.

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  • June 9, 2011 at 8:12 am

    A delayed response to Martin’s question of 6/7 – it appears that fewer than 20% of the membership recommend on the preliminary ballot or vote on the final ballot. It’s possible for a very small number (even single digets) of recs to put a work on the final ballot.

  • June 15, 2011 at 5:55 am

    Could SF just hurry up and die already, saving us all any further embarrassment?


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