Problem: When attempting to think one's way out of the wet paper bag of religion, unless you're hopelessly devout (in which case you'll stay in the bag), any given exit will be seen as an attack on the bag itself, and thus, against anyone who is religious.
Thus, we glimpse the terrible beauty of religion. Unbelievers, surrounded by the thoughtless undead (the intellectually complacent, e.g., believers), come to realize that the very act of thinking critically about a particular religion is interpreted as a form of discrimination. Of course, this has everything to do with the weakness of religious thought, which appears to be devoid of logic and reason; its rhetorical power, however, lies in its delivery of a comforting disconnection from the true mystery of the universe. Believers subscribe to a convenient origin story that absolves them from learning; it shields them from the fear associated with an uncaring, disinterested universe. Religion nullifies the sublime fact that no one currently alive will ever have all the answers, and it tells them "You know enough. There is no need to learn anything more." And that is all religious folk really want: an answer to everything, gift-wrapped, with ribbons held aloft by soothing cherubim. And so the believer is caught in an unwavering dance, maintaining a position of diametric opposition from the unbeliever. It's an easy maneuver. Where religion is moral, critical thought is not. Where religion is divine, and thus, infallible, reason and logic are unimportant and ignored (in that order). No debate. No discussion. Religion simply doesn't handle criticism very well. It's a black and white system, with no tolerance for shades of gray.
So given this abrasive societal fabric (and minus the problematic debate on how to tell if someone can actually think critically or not, wherein unbelievers leverage something called evidence to make a point, and believers reject evidence altogether), how could anyone hope to write a science fiction novel that views religion with an adverse eye? At least not without instantly being dismissed as either pointless by those gifted with an ability to think critically (unbelievers), or condemned by those who lack such an ability (believers)?
That was the question that drove the construction of The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism. There are so many layers:
Onion PeelingsOn, off. One, zero. Odd, even. Binary. And in the end, the idea that mystery trumps any expression of itself. Words are inadequate. So the problem of writing a science fiction novel that deals with the evolution of religion became even greater. Ultimately, the safety net of structure became my refuge; structure is one of the great conceits of religious thought: that all of this has happened before, and will happen again, like a vast machine, chained to repetition. We are born in one state of spiritual alignment, and must spend our lives attempting to alter it, to save or better ourselves in the hereafter.
The Universe is the Practical Joke of the General at the Expense of the Particular, quoth FRATER PERDURABO, and laughed.
But those disciples nearest to him wept, seeing the Universal Sorrow.
Those next to them laughed, seeing the Universal Joke.
Below these certain disciples wept.
Then certain laughed.
Others next wept.
Others next laughed.
Next others wept.
Next others laughed.
Last came those that wept because they could not see the Joke, and those that laughed lest they should be thought not to see the Joke, and thought it safe to act like FRATER PERDURABO.
But though FRATER PERDURABO laughed openly, He also at the same time wept secretly; and in Himself He neither laughed nor wept. Nor did He mean what He said.
- The Book of Lies, Aleister Crowley
On the largest scale, The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism has many machines - cranes, if you will - and on those cranes are hung gods, like lights in a tree. Modern readers, or perhaps literary critics who can't get enough Aristotle, view the use of a deus ex machina ("god from a machine") with suspicion, even derision. I can see why. Such a device - the sudden appearance of an unlikely character or event that resolves a bad situation - can instantly dissipate the nebulous contract between reader and author, rendering the author as unreliable or untrustworthy. I have to admit, however, that a deus ex machina is great fun. And at least when writing about the foibles of religious thought, perfectly necessary and indispensable. The most important aspect of it all, however, is the machine itself. The crane. Simon Shadow, the main protagonist, moves through his tale as if fated to do so, despite his freedom. The United Galactic Marines Corps, orbiting the planet Reetar, exerts power over those below it, including Simon, literally and indirectly, accidentally and with hidden purpose. On the far side of the planet, the Children of Chearkin (a group of pious refugees suffering from an anachronistic hangover caused by their long transit to Reetar in hibernation), wander the desert, desperately seeking a fabled city of scripture. That they triumphantly reach the colony the moment it's destroyed has everything to do with the tension between fate (theological determinism) and free will.
Ultimately, The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism is about three distinct story threads unknowingly colliding; miraculous resolutions come to pass, but even greater problems manifest with gods and machines. In the end, nothing changes; lives are nothing more than programmed outcomes, and that's just how a majority of religions want it to be. Believers know what's to come; disbelievers do not. Why can't the former accept the latter? That's the question at the very heart of The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism. As far as I can tell, there's no answer, at least as long as religion plays such a monumental role in the lives of organisms on this planet. There was hope that people could laugh openly at these characters and situations, but at the same time perceive the innate sadness of it all. But like Crowley's onion, each successive layer (e.g., viewpoint) counteracts the next. Belief. Disbelief. Belief. So what do we find when we reach the core? I'm still not sure there is one. In fact, finding the center isn't important at all. The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism suggests our best option is to simply jettison the onion. Dump it in the airlock and move on as a species. As George Carlin would say: "I can dream, can't I?" And if I have to use a couple dozen deus ex machina moments to do so, that's no more (and a lot less) than religion has done for the past two thousand years.