The Rich Man and Lazarus

Over at Parchment and Pen, Michael Patton wonders why some people believe and others don’t. He hews pretty close to the standard Christian answer that people know there’s a God but don’t admit it because they don’t want to admit to God’s authority (actually, it’s educated Christians who know there isn’t really a God but don’t admit to it).

Moses and the Prophets

I was interested in his discussion of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which the Rich Man ignores Lazarus, the beggar at his gate. The Rich Man ends up in Hell, while Lazarus ends up in Heaven. The Rich Man wants Lazarus to visit his brothers and warn them, but Abraham (who’s in charge of Heaven and Hell in this story, in a sort of Jewish version of St Peter’s role, I suppose) tells the Rich Man that “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Patton says this illustrates that “we have a much bigger problem than the lack of evidence”.

Well, maybe we do, but we certainly do have the problem of lack of evidence, and the Abraham of the parable is either irrational or encouraging the Rich Man’s brothers to be so. People rising from the dead is strong evidence in a way that merely writing books is not, because many worldviews have books which advocate them and they can’t all be right, and because the fact that your opponents write books isn’t very surprising to a whole load of views. Resurrections, on the other hand, are very surprising to views which don’t predict them.

This, then, is how you should pray

I was listening to the Christian philosopher Tim Mawson on a podcast recently. He thinks atheists should pray to God to reveal himself, which seems fair enough: I’d like to try it if I can think of what would be a fair positive and negative result. Any ideas?

Pre-commitment

Crucially, Mawson agrees beforehand that a negative result is evidence against Christianity, which makes him more rational than Abraham. As I mentioned previously, I’ve been following Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fun bit of creative writing which explores what would’ve happened if Harry Potter had been educated in science and rationality before the Hogwarts people turned up. Mawson’s attitude is a bit like the alternate Harry Potter getting everyone to agree on the significance of possible outcomes before doing an experiment at the beginning of this chapter of the story.

Edited: Speaking of Hell, there ended up being a lively discussion on Hell on one of my previous posts, which you might also be interested in.

Book: The Magicians by Lev Grossman: Harry Potter and the postgraduate ennui

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is Harry Potter meets Narnia meets Brideshead Revisited meets Douglas Coupland.

The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, starts off as a maladjusted geek who’s in love with his best friend’s girlfriend. He escapes into the Fillory books, which describe the adventures of a family of English schoolchildren in a magical land filled with talking animals. After his interviewer for a place at Princeton drops dead, he’s invited to join Brakebills, an elite magical college.

Brakebills is Hogwarts, but with more grit. Without the magic, Hogwarts is an English boarding school. The nearest mundane equivalent to Brakebills is a small Oxbridge college. Undergrads drink and screw, as undergrads do; everyone knows everyone’s business; new arrivals end up reeling from the shock of being given work which taxes them and of being surrounded by people as intelligent as them, if not more so. It turns out that magic isn’t about learning the secrets of the universe, or waving a wand and uttering some cod Latin and having everything just work: it’s more like learning Basque while juggling. So far, so very familar.

The Brakebills section is enjoyable: Quentin grows up a bit, acquires some comrades, chooses to face a trial, and overcomes it. But on graduating, he and his friends are lost. Not just in the come down after the party, or the come down after an intense intellectual effort (recall Philip Swallow in Changing Places, who saw the run up to his final exams as the high point of his intellectual career), but because as magicians they’ve become the idle rich, people who can have anything they want, if only they knew what that was. Only Quentin’s much more sensible girlfriend, Alice, seems to be able to cope with the existential problems of being a wizard. The rest of them need a story to be in, and don’t have one.

Many people in that situation end up finding a religion and writing their lives as fan-fiction. The magicians go one better, and find their way into a story by finding their way into NarniaFillory. Will this finally give their lives some meaning? I won’t spoil the ending by telling you.

Grossman’s borrowings from other works are done knowingly: the Brakebills students are as media-savvy as any teenagers, so of course they make jokes about Quidditch; the Fillory section reads like someone’s report of a dungeon crawl (albeit a particularly well-written one), so the magicians arm themselves with spells they name Magic Missile and Fireball after their D&D counterparts. But Grossman’s not merely mugging for the camera, writing a modern Bored of the Rings. He wants to jar us by combining a modern novel with a children’s fantasy setting, and he succeeds. Watching the magicians stumble through Fillory is like hearing someone swear in a cathedral.

Grossman can write, and supplies us with wit as well as grit. I read the book in one sitting, after which the sound of birds outside the window reminded me that sleep might be a good idea. Abigail Nussbaum (whose review you should read, although be warned it gives away more of the plot than I have) wishes that Grossman had the courage of his convictions. I like the relentlessly grim SF novel as much as anyone, but I find it hard to fault Grossman for giving his protagonist a second chance. I enjoyed it in any case. Recommended.

Books: Silk, Cyanide, Atrocities and Potter

I’ve recently finished reading Between Silk and Cyanide, The Atrocity Archives and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Between Silk and Cyanide is Leo Marks’s memoir of his time working as a code-maker for the Special Operations Executive during World War II. SOE agents were parachuted into occupied countries with the job of organising the resistance to the German occupation and of carrying out assassinations, sabotage and the like, “setting Europe ablaze”, in Churchill’s words. The agents communicated with Britain using enciphered messages sent in Morse code on their portable radio sets.

The ciphers used by SOE were keyed by words chosen from poems memorised by the agents. Marks instituted the use of original compositions, to prevent the enemy cryptographers from deducing which poem was in use and hence breaking all future messages. The book is peppered with his poems, including The Life That I Have. Eventually, Marks instituted the move to random keys printed on silk (so that keys which had been used could be cut away and burned), which, while they still keyed a weak transposition cipher, gave the agents some more security. He also independently invented a way of using one time pads to encipher text.

Marks narrates a story of brave men and women let down, in some cases fatally, by incompetence, bureaucracy and infighting among those who notionally had a common aim. His description of his struggles to improve the security of agents’ message is by turns funny and tragic, with passages which might have been taken from Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall alongside brief but nonetheless horrifying descriptions of the atrocities perpetrated by the Gestapo. Between Silk and Cyanide is a fascinating and moving book.

Charles Stross’s The Atrocity Archives deals with a fictional successor to SOE, an organisation known as “The Laundry”. Stross draws his inspiration from the idea of a Platonic universe where mathematical reasoning can change reality (familiar to readers of Greg Egan) or break your brain (as in David Langford’s short story, Blit). In a stroke of genius, Stross combines this with the horror trope of “things Man was not meant to know” to create a universe in which Cthulhu lurks in the folds of the Mandlebrot set. National governments know about this, but it’s all hushed up, of course. The Laundry is Her Majesty’s Government’s thin grey line of civil servants, who keep the rest of us safe from unspeakable horrors who want to eat our brains. From there we get the book’s other influence, the spy novels of people like Len Deighton and John le Carre, where, as in Marks’s factual story, infighting and petty malice mean the people on your side can be worse than the enemy itself.

The book contains The Atrocity Archive, as well as the follow-up short story The Concrete Jungle (link to the full text) and an essay by Stross on the links between Cold War spy fiction and horror. The Atrocity Archive itself is darker than The Concrete Jungle, being closer to A Colder War, Stross’s earlier work along similar lines. There are some some nasty set-pieces among the geek references and spycraft. The story takes its time introducing the world before anything much happens, but when things get going it’s gripping stuff.

The Concrete Jungle is more of a romp from the start, where the truly sinister is absent, and instead we get a spy action story combined with Dilbert in a universe where magic works, a world in which Bond might check out a Hand of Glory from Q while worrying about whether he’s filled in his TPS report. Stross has done his research, from the code-word compartments on secret documents to the name Dansey House for the Laundry’s HQ.

I enjoyed both stories. A follow-up, The Jennifer Morgue, is out soon, so I’m looking forward to that.

Medium-sized Potter spoilers coming up…

<lj-cut text=”Cut for spoilers”>I’m not a huge Potter fan, but I think the books are fun. The final book was a good read, wrapping things up nicely. As the darkness deepens, Rowling continues the theme that the people we think are the gods in our youth are actually morally ambiguous (I’m sure I’m supposed to say bildungsroman at some point, so that’s that out of the way). The middle of the book bogged down a bit with mopey New-Age-Traveller Potter camping out in the woods (hope he cleaned up after himself, bloody crusties (ETA: offensive slang term corrected to right one for New Age Travellers), but things bucked up after a while. Some of the major character deaths seemed a bit perfunctory, but the ones we did see were quite affecting.

The epilogue has attracted some criticism, but if you read this excellent bit of fanfiction you might wonder whether Rowling has been very clever after all (or you might think that tkp is pretty bright herself).

Rowling has created a series which has held its interest over seven books, got kids reading again, and deservedly made her richer than God. Hats off to the author.

Rocks fall. Everyone dies.

In their latest spasm of incompetence in the on-going Strikethrough 2007 drama, LiveJournal’s admins have clarified that they were just kidding about that all that free speech and community stuff for long enough to get the last batch of permanent accounts sold.

Countdown to Harry Potter spoilers being posted in that thread: in 10… 9… 8…

ETA: Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies. Youtube and Google win again. I think I slightly prefer Harry Potter and the Brokeback Goblet, myself. Both spoiler free.

ObPotter

This post doesn’t contain spoilers, and I’ll warn if I link to one which does.

scribb1e bought the new Harry Potter book, and I read it after she’d finished with it. I didn’t particularly enjoy the last one, which I thought was very long and which we both thought was confusing in places (I couldn’t honestly say I felt I could imagine what the interior of the Ministry of Magic was like, for example). I did like this one. I’m still not quite sure what the fuss is about, but it was enjoyable, well written and more coherent than the last book.

I’d already been spoiled for the book’s biggest surprise by the countless trolls on LJ with their marvelous flashing icons. It’s my own fault for reading Encyclopedia Dramatica (WARNING: Not Safe For Anything), I suppose: I’m a sucker for sarcastic toilet humour. I liked the mock spoilers broin posted in andrewducker‘s journal.

Apparently, some of the people who’ve been writing fanfiction about which characters will get it on have been disappointed. kenboy gives the fanficcers some helpful suggestions (contains spoilers). The people over at Fandom Wank have helpfully collated the very best of Half Blood Prince drama (even more spoilers). It’s all good.

Update: mistful posts some thoughtful comments (spoilerific) on the book.