Fri Jan 15 2021 12:43 Situation Normal Author Commentary #4: The Fictional Religions: The theme of Situation Normal is what happens when you let a narrative drive your life, and religious belief is the O.G. of letting a narrative drive your life. There's one religion mentioned in "Four Kinds of Cargo" (Cametreanism) which I wanted to flesh out in Situation Normal. Having created one, I wanted to make more, so that it wouldn't look like Cametreanism represented my opinion of religion in general. As with alien species, I wanted to create a diversity of alien religions, and I wanted each religion to have some crossover appeal beyond its species of origin, so you wouldn't just have "the uhaltihaxl religion", "the rre religion" (or 'rreligion'), etc.
Babylon 5 has a fictional religion called Foundationism which is an in-universe attempt to refactor all human religions and find the good bits that they have in common. This was an inspiration to me because it jibed with my 21st-century experience of religion. Other SF religions, notably Bajoran mysticism, seem more premodern.
I have a suspicion that JMS thinks Foundationism is the way to go in real life ("he's written a document that covers the history and principles of Foundationism, but has to date been debating whether to release it or not, partly for fear of being 'elroned'"), so I want to make it clear that Jalir, Hasithenk, and Cametreanism are completely made up, with no spiritual value beyond what you can get from Buddhism, Stoicism, or Star Trek fandom.
A touchy-feely religion based on a specific long-ago incident, the Two Epiphanies, which is dramatized in the book and which completely changed the rre species' concept of itself. I have just a couple things to say about Jalir. First, the touchy-feely part was designed to counterprogram the stereotype of the rre as killer parasites, just as pain debt counterprograms the opposite stereotype about uhaltihaxl. Second, the Two Epiphanies scene was written to be super disturbing, to set up a mystery as to why a dying human (Spaceman Heiss) would find satisfaction in having that as his last rites.
At the end of the book, in another death scene, the mystery is resolved, and you see how a story based on rre biology provides comfort to a dying humanoid. But I suspect a lot of people won't see a mystery here at all. They'll figure out the message of the Two Epiphanies during Heiss's death scene. It doesn't seem that big a leap to me. I'm interested in hearing what you think.
Hasithenk is paranoid Stoicism, the shifty-eyed worship of Murphy's Law. It posits that the universe is indifferent to the point of hostility and the best you can do is roll with the punches. It's a good religion for a species like the uhaltihaxl who get pushed around a lot.
As the uhaltihaxl become less pushed-around, Hasithenk is dying out rather than spinning off a 'prosperity gospel' variant. Because of this, Churryhoof is the only faithful Hasithenk practitioner we see in Situation Normal—as a military officer she has an ongoing relationship with Murphy's Law. The story she tells Dr. Sempestwinku in Chapter 26 is, I imagine, the kind of story people share in church.
Myrus's dad seems like an Easter-and-Christmas type worshipper, which explains why Myrus knows the terminology but doesn't believe. Den is so hostile to Hasithenk ("a children's story") that she relishes using it as a way to manipulate Gearu. There's also Kol, whose 'belief' is more of a suspicion, but who shows that Hasithenk has some cross-species appeal.
We see little glimpses of the day-to-day experience of Hasithenk—the interminable church meetings, the mysterious engraving plates in the scriptures—which are taken directly from my experience growing up in the LDS church. The iconography of Providence comes more from Catholicism, her ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ mimicking Christ's posture on the cross. And Thrux is inspired by the Shrike from Dan Simmons's Hyperion books—specifically Hyperion. The sequels go into too much detail about the Shrike's hit points and special attacks for my taste; it's much cooler as a mysterious "it sees you and you're dead" thing.
Thrux is the focus of the Weird Thing in a book that otherwise plays by normal science fiction rules, analogous to what happens in Constellation Games when (rot13 spoiler) Nevry naq Wraal xvff. Churryhoof's religious Moment of Awesome here is my little tribute to the very best part of Star Trek V.
Just a palate cleanser before we get to Cametreanism. Becky Twice grew up going to a social-justice multicultural Baptist church, and I made none of that up, but I made sure to mention an Uhaltihaxl Jesus in the Echo Park Baptist Fellowship's array of Jesus iconography, to show that human religions also have appeal beyond their species of origin. (Echo Park is near where I grew up, BTW —I learned to swim at the Echo Park Pool.)
The inaccurate depiction of Jesus we see in Becky's Evidence trip is because Starbottle doesn't really understand any of the religions he's weaponizing. That Evidence works on Jeong, though, so apparently accuracy is not super important.
In "Four Kinds of Cargo", Cametreanism is presented as a generic oppressive, no-fun religion. We hear a couple fragments: "Cametreans are isolationists," "space travel is a sin". These puritans control Quennet, and Terequale Bitty made a deal with them because it was the only way she could get off-planet and into a life of space adventure.
At the same time, Terequale Bitty's attitude doesn't seem unusual. The quenny in "Four Kinds of Cargo'' love space adventure stories. They devour Extension Navy, even though it's shoddily produced propaganda designed to delegitimize whatever rumors you might have heard of the universe outside Quennet.
My idea for Situation Normal was to tie these two threads together by making Cametreanism a religion derived from a science-fiction fandom. Space travel is a sin because the Cametre stories show space as an environment degraded by our presence. Cametreans are isolationists because any contact with the outside universe makes it clear that the Cametre stories are completely made-up.
The Cametreans are right about one thing—they are characters in a science fiction novel—but they're wrong about which novel. When the abbot is arguing with Tellpesh-Tia he's so confident that he's going to show up again at the end of the book, and nope!
I don't think it's disrespectful to say that there are deep similarities between a fandom and a religion based on a holy text. Even if you do think it's disrespectful, it's by no means an original observation—Futurama had a religion explicitly based on Star Trek. The concept resonates with me, I think, because of my Mormon background.
Mormons have some sacred books that include quite a few... continuity errors. When a certain type of person learns about the continuity errors, they feel they have no choice but to leave the church. And Mormonism teaches kids to seek out the truth and hold to it no matter what, making it all the more likely you will grow up to be the type of person who has to step away after discovering the truth.
Compare this to actual Star Trek, which is full of inaccuracies and continuity errors, and it's not a big deal—it's fun!—because everyone knows this stuff is fiction, and with rare exceptions, the inaccuracies don't affect the moral core of the show. Someone who models their life on "what would Captain Picard do?" (not a terrible idea) is treating Picard as a moral yardstick, not an infallible guide.
In "Four Kinds of Cargo" we glimpsed a theocratic strain of Cametreanism that's brittle against continuity errors. We don't see much of the Bronze Age Bastards, but they're a weird militant offshoot devoted to destroying things that aren't "canon". In the monastery on Arzil, we see a strain which treats the religion more as a fandom. This is not only more humane and closer to the original author's intent (insofar as any of this was intentional), it also gives you a more accurate approach to the holy texts.
When Ethiret ran the Arzil monastery, he did wacky stuff like hosting movie nights and expanding the definition of canon. Quennet found out what he was doing and sent over a quenny abbot to deploy the iron fist of orthodoxy and put a stop to all that. But like James T. Kirk, Qued Ethiret can't be constrained by orthodoxy of any kind. His whole schtick is coming up with "fucked-up, impractical plans" that work when they shouldn't. That's canon, folks!
And the abbot recognizes this! He can't imagine a plan to get the Navy grunts off Arzil, but he knows Ethiret can. And he really hates that a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the religion means creating and tolerating playful unorthodoxy.
The idea of putting things "in sync"—taking real events and slotting them into the continuity of the Cametre stories—is a satirical exaggeration of the real-world process by which we compartmentalize our knowledge to resolve cognitive dissonance. This is most explicit when Ethiret talks about his two sets of memories, and there's a little Easter egg for LDS folks in there, where Ethiret mentions putting a forbidden thought on a shelf.
Syncweed, the drug that gives you some conscious control over your own cognitive dissonance, is an essential precursor to Evidence, the drug that rewrites your brain by guiding you through a hallucination. We see versions of syncweed that work on quenny, corestin, and humans, which implies that Starbottle's epilogue vision of neutral Evidence is a real possibility.
Syncweed and the process of putting events in sync are where my idea of Aquadale Selmar as a PKD-like figure shows through the strongest. Specifically it's reminiscent of the use of Can-D and the Perky Pat layouts in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.
Postscript: Mystery solved!
In an earlier essay I mentioned a book called Twister that I read when I was a kid and couldn't find any trace of online. As it happens, I just started reading Vonda McIntyre's Starfarers, and she mentions that book in the intro! How fortuititous! The book is Twistor, by John Cramer, which explains why I remember it being called Twister but couldn't find any trace of it online.
I've ordered a copy of Twistor, so pretty soon we'll see how accurate are my recollections of l33t h4x0rs and alternate universes.
Next Tuesday comes what I expect is the one you've been waiting for: deleted scenes! We've got 'em in abundance. You'll meet Crinoline White and Admiral Norton, antithrill to Hiroko's un-venture, and see Becky successfully set up her marketing consultancy. See you then!