Blasphemy by Mike Resnick
Blasphemy by Mike Resnick (Golden Gryphon, 2010) is, as the title suggests, preoccupied with material that may be taken as showing a certain lack of reverence for Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Judaism. So if you are sensitive on matters of religion, this is probably not the book for you. We have five short stories and two longer pieces that were originally published as free-standing novels. “Genesis: The Rejected Canon” is quite a pleasing joke, nicely paced with a good punchline. “God and Mr Slatterman” shows that some bartenders have real people skills when it comes to dealing with difficult customers who might interrupt a crap game at a tense moment just to talk metaphysics. “The Pale Thin God” is a very elegant inversion of expectation demonstrating that judging cause and effect is always a matter of perspective. “How I Wrote the New Testament, Ushered in the Renaissance, and Birdied the Seventeenth Hole at Pebble Beach” is probably the most successful of these short pieces with the true story of the Wandering Jew while “Interview With the Almighty” is less successful — it tries too hard to be amusing.
One of the old favourites when it comes to fables about typecasting is the story of the scorpion that wants to cross a river. After some negotiation, he persuades the frog to carry him with the predictable results. “Walpurgis III” is a very elegant variation on this theme, albeit with more types to make the political point clearer. Let’s start with the psychopathic personality who has refined his skill set to such a point, he can rapidly rise to leadership roles where he’s able to kill increasingly large numbers of people. Up to a certain point in society, it’s the job of police officers to catch the killers. Unfortunately, some killers rise to a point where they become untouchable. Indeed, the increasing irony is that it becomes the job of the police to protect the psychopathic leader. Then there are the politicians, i.e the thinking members of the community who were in power before the psychopath came along. They have to decide what their role should be. Finally, some politicians may decide the best course of action is to hire an assassin to dispose of the leader. This will be an individual who has supreme skills as a killer. He will not judge the task given. It will be irrelevant whether the target is considered a good or bad person. The individual is motivated by the nature of the challenge and the financial rewards. At his level, he can pick and choose which tasks to accept. The idea of penetrating a leader’s security and killing him might very well appeal to him. The result is beautifully orchestrated, switching between the assassin, the policeman and the leader as required. Although the tone is rather different, it reminded me of Wasp by Eric Frank Russell in which a one-man terrorist operation disrupts a world. Thematically, this has a world that’s on the cusp of destruction through the actions of the new leader but only a few truly understand the extent of the danger. The arrival of a single assassin has an increasingly dramatic effect on the lives of the people who live in the vicinity of the leader. Mike Resnick is very careful to strike a balance between the mechanics of the morality play, the description of this rather unique planet, and the excitement of the assassin’s progress towards achieving his goal. It’s a terrific read even though it works out in a fairly predictable way — or to put it another way, the resolution accords with the most commonly accepted principles of morality. To explain the relevance to the theme, the planet has been settled by all the different cults and groups who believe in satanism and the other sources of dark magic.
“The Branch” is playing the most interesting game of the book. Many moons ago in the late-1950s I read Messiah by Gore Vidal. It wasn’t much liked by the critics of the time. They were more inhibited by social convention in those days and the somewhat violent satire on the Christian Church was deeply unpopular. For those of you who have not read it, the primary figure is John Cave. He’s a professional embalmer and so does not consider dying to be a bad thing. When he begins to talk about this belief to the world, a new religion springs up. When he’s assassinated, the meaning of his words is taken up by theocrats who end up ruling over the USA. As an atheist, I’m more comfortable with this exclusively naturalistic approach. The notion one man’s moderately innocent words about the need to accept death might, through televangelism, become the basis of a new credo, is an interesting study in the politics of religion. With the suicide rate rising fast as his followers begin distributing the new drug Cavesway, those with access to power must decide how to react. Mike Resnick, however, muddies the waters by having his figure be a not very bright young conman who slowly comes to realise he’s literally the Messiah the Jews and other followers of the Old Testament have been waiting for. This is not, you understand, a good and inspirational person. Indeed, early on he decides he’s going to challenge a local crime boss for a share in his business. It’s only when bullets seem not to have a permanent effect on him that he and the crime boss come to recognise he’s something “special”. The virtue of the story is that it never blinks. Both the Messiah and his Nemesis behave as you would expect as they struggle to understand the implications of the young man’s arrival and how the world should react. Since one of the expectations of the Messiah is he will restore the Kingdom of Israel in Jerusalem, the current government feels somewhat under pressure when the reality of the “man” and the number of his followers become clear. The other established churches are also disconcerted because this man’s arrival tends to suggest Jesus was not quite what they thought. On balance, the first half of the story is more successful than the second. Although I think the development of the plot is not unrealistic, I feel it lacks conviction. Things happen because they must to produce the ending the author wants to achieve. This leads us away from what I suspect might be the more realistic scenarios. This is not a serious criticism. There is quite a pleasing quality to the conclusion, although I think the epilogue unnecessary.
Put all this together and Blasphemy proves to be never less than interesting at, at times, rivetingly exciting. Mike Resnick proves himself a master storyteller who can take controversial material and make it genuinely entertaining.
For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Cat on a Cold Tin Roof
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire
The Trojan Colt.