Wednesday, October 3, 2007

I have just finished reading all three books of His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. And, for the first time in recent memory, I am at a loss for what to say if only for entirely personal reasons. Don't get me wrong, this is a great set of books. Its an epoch fantasy of incredible proportions. Its well told, its characters warm and believable, it runs the gamut of emotional responses it provokes in the reader. It speaks to the reader on many, many levels.

Lyra is a little girl, illegitimately conceived of extremely powerful parents in a society that is ruled by, what turns out to be, a tyrannical Authority. That rule is carried to myriad worlds by The Church which Pullman paints as the enemy of joy in life. Lyra, her friends, her parents and ultimately her soul mate all find themselves in a battle to the death with this Authority and, if they lose, then conscienceness and intelligence will fade from all the worlds, leaving nothing that can be recognized as life. On the other side is Dust, dark matter - a semi-conscience booster of imagination and curiosity - the earmarks of intelligence. Dust is powerless, but is drawn inexorably to conscienceness, resulting in intelligence and self-will. The Authority wishes to destroy Dust, The Rebels want to save it. Lyra just wants to save her friends from pain and she and Will, a boy from another world, end up as the center around which the battle rages. And rage it does, across endless worlds and peoples. As I said, this is an epoch.

On a deeper level, Pullman is condemning the Church and by extension God. God, in the story and as modern-day humans of this world understand Him, never existed. The first intelligence engendered by Dust is The Authority and is jealous of his position. He would deny it to any others and would use his knowledge and powers to insure his dominion of all the worlds. On a personal level, I find this disturbing. Intentionally or not, Pullman replaces his non-existent God with Dust, which is intelligent and can, under very special and difficult circumstances, communicate with other intelligences. Dust is the fount from which self-knowledge flows and therefore the ability to affect the world around one. Dust becomes the life giver, the creator. This would seem to be either a paradox, or else a very indirect slam at organized religion (the opiate of the masses - type slam).

At the end, Lyra and Will are elevated to sainthood, although its not called that, by their sacrifice. The logical inconsistencies I found disturbing and hard to understand. Maybe its just a personal philosophy being threatened, or maybe I found the inconsistencies damaging to the story. In either case, I found it made it harder, for me to buy in to the story. So after all is said and done, I liked the books, but love them, I did not. I have no logical problems with secular humanism or with a belief in a higher intelligence. The problem comes in when it can't be decided which one is a basic premise to the belief system of the story. No good story can change its basic values back and forth and expect to be embraced. Its part of what readers identify with, whether they agree or not. They understand a consistent set of beliefs, but inconsistencies are confusing even when the plot is linear and easy to follow. which, by the way, this one is not.

As I said, this may be a personal thing, so don't take my word for it. Read it yourself and make up your own mind, At the end of it all, this book did do that most magical of things. It made me think.

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