You get a phone call. Your best friend, who you haven't seen in a while, is coming over for dinner. She shows up on your doorstep with a "ta-da!" in her voice and a grin that reaches all the way up to her hairline. She asks you if you like her new haircut. Oh, shit. You don't hate it, exactly, but you can feel the saliva in your mouth turning to sand as you contemplate your answer.
My mouth feels like the Sahara right now.
Robert J. Sawyer is one of the Dragon Page's best friends. Besides the fact that he writes ridiculously good science fiction, he has been generous with his time and has given us several great interviews and plugs. Which is why I'm trying to rehydrate my parched lips as I type. I'm giving the first title from his new line of books a thumbs down.
Letters From the Flesh, by Marcos Donnelly tells two stories that are interlaced every other chapter. Every odd chapter reaches back two thousand years to tell "the true Hollywood story" of the conversion of Saul, the bane of the early Christian church, into Paul of Tarsus, Christ's most passionate and most prolific disciple. Every even chapter tells of the modern day conversion of a high school teacher from a man of scientific reason to a man of religious extremism, from the point of view of his cousin Dr. Lillian Uberland, PhD. The two stories are essentially separate until they merge in the final chapter.
The most unusual aspect of the book is that both stories are told in a Screwtape Letters fashion. For those of you who have not read C. S. Lewis' classic, the Screwtape Letters recounts the tale of a young demon, Wormwood, who is given his first human soul to corrupt; and, having some difficulty, he solicits advice from his older uncle, Screwtape. The entire novel is told in the form of letters from Screwtape to his nephew. Wormwood's letters are never shown. In Letters From the Flesh, Paul of Tarsus' story is told in the form of epistles from Paul to those of "[his] kind, the No-Flesh Asarkos." The modern day tale is told in the form of emails from Dr. Lillian Uberland to her wayward cousin.
The Good: What I like the most about Letters From the Flesh is that the two stories, while told in the same letter format, differ in many ways. Though it doesn't sound like it, the story of the conversion of Saul into Paul is definitely a science fiction story. The story of the high school teacher, on the other hand, is a fiction story about science. While one tale is of aliens and wave frequencies and telepathic communication with people's souls, the other discusses Newton's Second Law, entropy, and the scientific method. The book has a very yin-yang feel to it as you switch from one story to the next. This keeps the book interesting, and is a natural way to create suspense, as the story will switch just as things are getting good.
And, come on, a Biblical story with aliens in it? How cool is that?
The Bad: With all the good things to say about this book, and there are quite a few, it still didn't work for me. And it almost all has to do with Dr. Lillian Uberland, the point of view character for the modern day story.
Early in the story, I got a vibe from Dr. Uberland that can only be described as "icky." I didn't like her. I liked many of the points she brought up about the different mindsets that exist between people of science and people of faith. I liked the specific points of debate she brought up when discussing evolution vs. creationism. But, as I kept reading her "emails," I liked her less and less on a personal level. Something was definitely wrong with this woman.
Then, about two-thirds of the way into the book, in a drunken, confessional email, I found out what that something was, and I almost put the book away. "Hell, no! They did not just go there!" I said. And if I didn't, I should have.
I was quite pissed with the turn the book took. "It's a good thing Michael pays me as much as he does," I thought. I gritted my teeth, pressed on, and made it to the end. To be fair, a plot twist did come later that addressed the whole issue, and actually turned it a bit on its head, but for me it was "too little, too late". I couldn't shake the skuzzy feeling.
And not only did I have issues with the fair Dr. Lillian, but the entire point of the book seemed to be that religion's greatest gift to mankind is that it leads to a near suicidal despair for its followers, which the aliens of the book were able to use to mutual advantage. As neat and twisted as the idea is, I'm not sure I can buy it.
So there you have it. Nothing "Ugly" to finish off the review.
One thing I have yet to get used to is writing a review that goes against what most other people are saying. I don't mind so much when I like something everyone else hates, I just figure everyone else is stupid. It's another thing when I can't stand a book that others are raving about. Even though it feels awkward, I just have to accept the truth about situations like this. I'm still right, just ask me.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Letters From the Flesh by Marcos Donnelly
Published by: Robert J. Sawyer Books; April 2004
Genre: Science Fiction