Monday, 23 September 2013

The Quest for St Aquin by Anthony Boucher

I think I read this as a kid
First published in New Tales of Space and Time, 1951, Pocket Books (ed. Raymond J Healy).

The religious SF story is a strange but persistent sub-genre. Off the top of my head I can think of 'The Nine Billion Names of God' by Arthur C Clarke (featured in the current volume!), A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr, 'Behold the Man' by Michael Moorcock, the Hyperion Cantos of Dan Simmons and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russel. You could argue that Dune fits in this category, too, and Philip K Dick and Ray Bradbury were both quite fond of the theme, in one way or another,

These types of stories directly address one of the key questions that Amis identifies as being at the heart of classic SF: how do we live in a Godless universe? I suppose an obvious answer is, 'keep believing because nothing’s really changed.'

But with the march of technology, religion needs to adapt and this is the story that asks, ‘could your iPad be a saint?’

This story is set in a world where religion has been driven underground by an aggressive atheist government, the Technarcy. In this story, the church exists on the fringes of an society that brutally represses any religion.

I suppose it’s a bit like those biblical epics that were so popular in the 50s – Quo Vadis, The Robe, The Ten Commandments. In those stories the religious heroes are always an oppressed minority struggling to worship God in the face of vicious oppression. What does this say about America in the 50s? Possibly it was an echo of the Holocaust in WW2, a massive empathic outpouring of religious agony. It’s still quite a powerful myth in America, where right wing pundits sell the lie of a Christianity in retreat.

Our hero is Thomas, a follower of the Pope, who’s a scuzzy old guy hanging out in the back of a sleazy tavern somewhere. He’s charged by his pontiff to go on a quest to find the uncorrupted body saint, rumoured to be interred some where in the radioactive desert of a future devastated Earth, dodging the anit-religious forces as he does so.

But this story isn’t really about that. Instead, it’s a robot story in the classic Asimovian mode. The robotic donkey – or ‘robass’ – that accompanies Thomas on his quest even refers directly to the Asimov story Reason:
‘I have heard of one robot on an isolated space station who worshipped a God of robots and would not believe that any man had created him.’
It’s a messier story than one of Asimov’s, without his singleness of purpose. On the one hand this gives a richer story, but on the other the point of all gets a bit obscured by some messianic histrionics. In the end it raises the same question that Mary Shelley first raised in Frankenstein: is the created being a creature of God, like man? Or is it just a soulless thing?

Themes: God, robots, post-apocalypse, religious oppression, messianic priests

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