Sunday 27 April 2014

The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump by Harry Turtledove

It's been a long time since I read any of Turtledove's work and this one (along with a few others) has been sitting in my reading pile for years. A reorganisation of the large pile into several neat stacks (thereby allowing me to enjoy the illusion of progress) happened to bring this book to the top of one stack, so I finally picked it up in the hope of enjoying some light entertainment. I was not disappointed.

David Fisher works for the Californian branch of the Environmental Perfection Agency in a very different world: one in which magic, sorcery, demons, gods and other manifestations of the Other Side are thriving on This Side, and deliver many of the services that technology does for us. For instance, travel is by magic carpet, and telephones and the ethernet work by using cloned imps transmitting information between themselves. Fisher's job involves making sure that none of these manifestations cause trouble by getting out of hand or reacting with each other.

His work is mostly routine until he is given the task of checking out a local toxic spell dump – where the nasty residues of magic are securely stored – to follow up reports of leakages from the dump affecting the local population. What he discovers sparks off a major investigation that gradually spreads to include native American gods, and threatens the very existence of the Judeo-Christian Western Civilisation.

There is a lot of humour in the tale, mostly resulting from the juxtaposition of the familiar with the strange, and it is liberally spiced with puns of all kinds; for instance jinnetic engineering and virtuous reality. The Department of Defense is based in the Pentagram, the CIA really does employ spooks, a spellchecker is something entirely different and there's a groan-inducing joke about the San Andreas Fault.

Although published in 1993, the book first struck me as reading very much like a fantasy spoof from the 1960s, except for the sexual activity between Fisher and his girlfriend that wouldn't have featured then. Later in the story, as Fisher desperately tries to keep on top of his growing list of things to do while being constantly diverted from the task he thinks is most important, I was reminded of the humour of Connie Willis. This kind of story won't be to everyone's taste, but I enjoyed it.

I started Equations of Life by Simon Morden, the first of a favourably reviewed series set in a decidedly different, future London, but I didn't get very far, and gave up after three attempts. The setting is dystopian, the principal character unsympathetic, and the plot rather grim, none of which appeals to me. I have too many other things to read…


dlw said...

I'm not a great Turtledove fan, but I liked this book a *lot*. And on re-reading it, it became apparent he'd done a lot more background world-building than I'd initially realized.

It wasn't until a later read that I started thinking about the "djinnetic engineering" subthread, which I'd initially thought of as a throwaway. I've brought it up in religious discussions, where it usually elicits great consternation.

Anthony G Williams said...

Really? What is it that causes such consternation?

dlw said...

Turtledove's book is based on Old Testament Judaism, in a setting where much of what we think of as "religion" is repeatable science. God can be detected, though He doesn't have much to say. Demons, djinn, and angels manifest. There is a proven afterlife. Souls can be detected and manipulated.

With the "djinnetic engineering" in the book, a soul can not only be manipulated, but pieces can be snipped off, joined together, and inserted into another living human. In this case, children who were born without souls. The soulless don't make it to the afterlife; their death is final. The question raised in the book is, now that the donors of those soul parts are "incomplete", can they still be admitted to Heaven, or will they remain in Purgatory? And the people with the Frankensteined souls; will they make it to Heaven, or will they be stuck in between too?

The example question I use is usually along the line of, "You just found out that your child was born without a soul. They're never going to make it to the afterlife with the rest of the family. Do you let your child die the final death, or do you take the risk, along with other donors, that all of you may be found unfit? And would clipping off part of your soul be considered only mutilation, or, since it might affect your afterlife, would it be a form of suicide, which is a prohibited action?

Donating a kidney or bone marrow is one thing; facing Purgatory or possibly eternal damnation would be something else entirely.

Turtledove actually mentioned the dilemma, but didn't explore further down that path, probably since it wasn't relevant to the plot line. But, *within the context of the story,* it's a very interesting ethical problem.

The characters in the book have a sort of laisseze-faire Judaism. They don't have faith in the Christian sense, since their worldview is demonstrably real.

It seems a lot of people are happy with faith, but the idea of practical real-world interaction with their diety etc. makes them uncomfortable. It's sort of like the Terry Pratchett quote, "Seeing, contrary to popular wisdom, isn't believing. It's where belief stops, because it isn't needed any more."

Anthony G Williams said...

That's an interesting take on it...I do wonder what Turtledove actually intended!