20 March 2007

Shine on Your Larklight

Philip Reeve wrote Larklight in the voices of a Victorian brother and sister trying hard to be paragons of their culture. Art Mumby tells us: “...I was British, so must be brave.” His older sister Myrtle is more of a snob, saying: “they look terribly common. Why, they are not even human, let alone English.”

One ingredient in the siblings’ conception of being British is being Christian. When Myrtle must make noise to discourage threatening cacti, she “sang ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ and then started over again on ‘To Be a Pilgrim’.” Their home spaceship’s escape pod is equipped with “only a keg of water, a case of fortified biscuits and a copy of the Holy Bible.” Another youngster has Scripture lessons as part of his schooling in London.

Which is not to say that the children rely on Christianity for religious rituals, moral teachings, or spiritual peace. Their adherence seems to have more to do with the simple formula that [I = Christian], [Christian = Good + Right], ergo [I = Good + Right]. We could substitute “British” for “Christian,” and the formula would work just as well for the Mumbys.

Their main theological belief seems to be a monotheistic Creationism. On page 197, Art writes that Jupiter and its moons appear “as if God tried out his craftsmanship here in miniature before he set to work on the rest of our solar realm.” Later in the book Art and his companions learn that the solar system was in fact shaped by a different being, one who’s not a “he” at all. That prompts this dialogue on page 326:

“If it is you Shapers who make everything,” Mr. Munkulus asked, “what place is there for God?”

“Think, dear. . . . Who made the Universe and lit the suns? Who shaped the Shapers? For Shapers are not gods, just servants of that invisible, universal will which set the stars in motion.”
So Creationism can survive; it simply has to be pushed back in time and space.

That still leaves a challenge for Christianity, however, which Larklight doesn’t address one way or the other. And that challenge has been around at least since the Renaissance, when Europeans learned about both:
  • new continents with new peoples
  • the possibility of new planets with new peoples
The priest and philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was the clearest voice of the latter idea, inspired by notions of infinity and the Copernican model of the solar system. Bruno apparently didn’t understand the science, but he understood the philosophical implications of planets revolving around the Sun and the Sun being like other stars. In De l'Infinito Universo et Mondi (Of the Infinite Universe and Worlds), published in 1584, Bruno argued:
There are countless constellations, suns and planets; we see only the suns because they give light; the planets remain invisible, for they are small and dark. There are also numberless earths circling around their suns, no worse and no less than this globe of ours. For no reasonable mind can assume that heavenly bodies which may be far more magnificent than ours would not bear upon them creatures similar or even superior to those upon our human Earth.
Such ideas made Bruno unpopular with Europe’s religious hierarchies. He managed to be excommunicated by both Lutherans and Calvinists before the Vatican jailed him for several years and finally burned him at the stake. Although some people assume that Bruno was executed for his astronomical statements, he gave the Inquisition plenty of possible heresies to choose from.

It’s not just that Bruno’s ideas contradict a literal reading of the Bible; most modern faiths have been able to adjust to astronomical facts. Rather, his vision of many worlds with intelligent creatures casts doubt on a fundament of Christianity--that God so loved this world that he incarnated himself as a human on it. What about all those other worlds? What about those other creatures, some “even superior”?

Art and Myrtle Mumby live in the universe that Giordano Bruno imagined, visiting several populated planets and other forms of intelligent life that don’t come from any known planet at all. Larklight portrays the Victorian impetus toward anthropology, but not the Victorian effort at evangelism. Aliens creatures seem to have their own theism--four-armed Mr. Munkulus asks about God--but there’s no discussion about how Art and Myrtle’s Holy Bible applies on the worlds they visit.

Instead, the book ends up reaffirming part of the modern creed of children’s literature: Tolerance is good. (Not that I think there’s anything wrong with that.) “Just because they look a little odd,” Art has told his sister on page 68, “doesn't make them villains.” Then Myrtle falls in love with one of those villains, and Art has to learn his own lesson in toleration:
there are some sights too stomach-churning for even the bravest British boy to contemplate, and the soppy way Jack and my sister ran to cuddle and to kiss each other is one of ’em.
Larklight ends with a hint of marriage years in the future. What sort of marriage ceremony isn’t discussed.


Brooke said...

Responding to the previous discussion on Larklight:

Glad to hear you enjoyed this book, which I thought was rather delicious. Airship trends in children's literature aside, I thought it interesting that 2006 was the year that featured not one, but two novels featuring a child-of-color kept as a specimen by a society of scientific gentlemen.

(It doesn't help that I read Larklight back-to-back with Octavian Nothing.)

J. L. Bell said...

Also in 2006, Anne Ursu's Shadow Thieves included a British boy of color, though not locked up for study. Perhaps we're seeing a "Zadie Smith effect," with authors paying more attention to Britain as a multiracial society?

Brooke said...

I agree, although that doesn't quite swing Octavian Nothing for me. I think that the child-as-specimen scenario is an irrisistibly juicy exhibition/metaphor of racism in general -- as a prison, as something dehumanizing, as something that dupes even highly educated people. Plus, it makes it a little easier to justify an imprisoned character's rebellious turn to a life of crime.

J. L. Bell said...

Octavian is certainly locked up and studied as a direct result of his African maternal ancestry.

Jack Havock is locked up and studied because of his unusual immune system, on the other hand. His society's racism was why his family was off in a distant colony, vulnerable to exotic diseases. But I don't think Larklight makes a clear statement that the scientists would have treated Jack differently had he been as white as they.

In both cases, that treatment certainly makes the character more sympathetic. Neither becomes truly criminal afterwards, though: Octavian steals nothing more valuable than himself, and Larklight repeats how Jack's misdeeds have been wildly exaggerated.

It might be more interesting to see such treatment produce a truly violent criminal rather than a sympathetic scapegoat and rebel. More of a moral question for readers.