Sunday, February 21, 2010

Intelligent Design, edited by Denise Little

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy
Originally published in STRANGE HORIZONS, December 22, 2009

When I heard about the premise of Denise Little's anthology Intelligent Design, I looked forward to head-spinning fusions of religious and scientific thinking powered by the latest in chaoplexity and cosmology (a good recent example of which is Charles Stross's "A Snowball's Chance," recently reprinted in his collection Wireless); philosophic odysseys of the kind that Robert Sheckley routinely offered in the prime of his career back in the '50s and '60s (epitomized for me by his underappreciated Dimension of Miracles) or Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series; and the satirical savaging of the Creationist rationalizations given a patina of credibility by the mainstream press's conveniently selective application of the "equal time" principle.

There is a bit of satire here, but nothing with the teeth of, for instance, John Shirley's 2007 novel The Other End; the humor and critique tend toward milder stuff. As Little's introduction explains, the anthology is concerned with the borderland between science and religion "that requires using our senses, and the evidence, and everything science can teach us, to explore the nature, or lack thereof, of the divine" (pp. 3-4). Consistent with this thrust virtually all of the stories take at least the possibility of the "intelligent design" thesis as a starting point, with varying levels of credulity, though none exactly embrace the belief systems of those picturing Adam and Eve sharing the Garden of Eden with dinosaurs.

In their approaches these stories range from fairly hard science fiction to magic-dusted fantasy. The tone likewise varies, from feather-light to medium dark, though even the tales depicting disaster tend toward the ironic and the humorous. It should be conceded, however, that a good many ideas are repeated by different authors: the exploration of the possibility that the universe as we know it may be just an experiment conducted (or a work of art created) by a higher intelligence than our own, one with few compunctions about cruelly doing away with its creations; that such an intelligence may not necessarily be a deity as conventionally construed, let alone a Judeo-Christian one; that the working of the divine hand in nature may offer models for technological research and development; that some other species may carry the torch of sentience after humanity's passing; and the likening of the role of contingency in evolution to familiar games of chance.

Many of the set-ups are also repeated, including the situating of the story's revelations in an apocalyptic context, and their organization around debates between thinkers from the scientific and religious sides of the aisle regarding some new development. Even more specifically, two of the eleven authors make an infringement by outsiders on the territory of a people indigenous to the Amazon rainforest central to their plots. This is all the more conspicuous given the number of overlooked possibilities, even within the somewhat limiting parameters of the editorial direction. Apart from the stories by Jean Rabe and Laura Resnick, all the pieces in Intelligent Design are set in the present or near future. Given that, on the one hand, this debate is a century and a half old, and that on the other, more exotic futures allow for many possible explorations of such cosmic issues, a few of the stories might have profitably used historical or far-future settings. (Indeed, a piece of steampunk seems an especially obvious course given the subgenre's recent ubiquity, as does an encounter with an extraterrestrial species, or a time travel tale—or any number of other things.)

Not surprisingly, not every story works. Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "The Year of the Rat"—a light comedy about a family of intellectuals who get caught up in the debate, perhaps too light—falls flat, in spite of the characters kicking around a couple of interesting ideas, diminished by its failure to develop those ideas in dramatically engaging ways. The note of reconciliation on which the story closes also left me unsatisfied. (That Rusch's piece is the first a reader going through the volume front to back encounters is also problematic.)

Jean Rabe's "Int Des 101," set in a Planet of the Apes-style universe in which a chimp studying interior design at Auburn University ends up taking an "intelligent design" course by accident, exposing her to a controversy identical to that of our own times (complete with much wrangling over a book titled Of Pandas and People), offers an interesting premise but fails to live up to the promise of its premise in never delivering a satisfactory punch line. Instead there's just the irony of apes doing very familiar things, an idea that comes across as far less fresh and incisive than in Pierre Boulle's handling of it, or for that matter, the 1968 film version (in which the debate over evolution was a plot point).

Dean Wesley Smith's "Luck Be a Lady," which features an original pantheon of gods and lesser deities swept up in the crisis that follows when "Lady Luck" goes missing, literally and figuratively (forcing a relatively junior supernatural being, the "superhero" Poker Boy, to lead his friends into action), is a better developed bit of whimsy, but is marred in places by prose that is too often choppy, repetitive or flat. (Lady Luck "is what you would imagine Lady Luck to be. Short but powerful, brown hair pulled back, with brown eyes that see through everything" (p. 223), Poker Boy tells us at one point, offering this description as if it were perfectly intuitive—perhaps a result of Smith trying too hard to capture the voice of an inarticulate narrator.) Some may also be put off by the rather abstract connection of the tale with the anthology's theme. It is also hurt by its similarity to the brisker, smoother and wittier tale immediately preceding it, Janny Wurts's "The Vaunting," in which evolution's quirks are a card game among an ecumenical collection of higher beings.

Nonetheless, several pieces actually do work quite well. Brendan DuBois' "God, No Matter How You Spell It," in which a Defense Department functionary visits a lab where scientists are working on making smarter dogs as the world's population is ravaged by a new superflu that may become an extinction-level event, is one such, effectively combining storytelling with its central idea. Peter Oruillian's treatment of the anthology's thematic issue in "Guilt by Association" (in which a scientist and pastor in Scotland argue what may be the evolutionary role of guilt) is especially clever. And the book's closing tale, Laura Resnick's "Project: Creation," a reworking of the Book of Genesis in an extended riff on the universe coming out of the lab of the overbearing "Professor Yahweh" and his assistants, is suitably entertaining.

Additionally, some of the repetition makes for interesting juxtapositions, with (the stories by Smith and Wurts apart) editor Little generally doing a good job with the ordering of the stories in this regard. DuBois' story plays nicely off of Sarah A. Hoyt's "Created He Them," in which a family and its feline pets go on the road as an unexplained cataclysm strikes the world. The following-up of Jody Lynn Nye's "Made Manifest" by Michael Hiebert's "The Signature of God," works particularly well. In both stories, scientists try to capitalize on a discovery in the natural world that could serve as the basis for a revolutionary new technology, but in quite different ways and with different results. (Treading similar ground is Bill McCay's "The Final Report on the Eden Project," in which representatives of the United Nations, United States and People's Republic of China visiting a development project in the Amazon rainforest unwittingly end up representing humanity in a test of its ethical development.)

The better pieces and more insightful arrangements make the book worth a look from those interested in a science fictional take on the titular issue. However, the whole is rather uneven, and in light of what other writers have done with similar subject matter in the past, I found Intelligent Design something of a missed opportunity.

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