09 December 2007

The Amber Spyglass

I just finished the third book of Philip Pullman's trilogy. Overall, it was very good. It did seem like the plot was somewhat disjointed and choppy in a few places, however. And a few of the resolutions don't quite make sense to me. Still, it was mostly a satisfying conclusion.

Oh, and despite all the hooplah, I did not get the sense that this was an "atheistic" book, whatever THAT might mean. I could see a reasonable argument for a Gnostic interpretation, a panentheistic interpretation, a metaphorical representation of a corrupt church hierarchy that must be overcome, even animistic, but not atheistic. Pullman has been quoted as saying he wants to "kill God" in the minds of children who read the book. Okay, he might kill one particular view of God, but, really, he's got another built right into the plot. He probably wouldn't describe that Something as a god, but any mystic surely would.

WARNING: Lots and lots of spoilers below. Read at your own risk.

I find the parallels to LeGuin's Earthsea cycle intriguing. In both sagas, the realm of the dead needed to be laid open, to free the dead to be part of the universe again. This fits with my wondering what the point of creating souls, only to lock them away in some nonphysical realm for most of their existence, is. If souls are created from something, then that something would be continually lost from the universe. Every time someone died, their essence swept away, never to be seen again. It makes no sense. If there is something like a soul, that preserves memories and experiences, it makes much more sense for it to remain in this world in some form. At least some Native Americans think that souls are made and decay just as bodies do. Again, that makes more sense than just sucking the soul out of the physical universe forever.

The fascination with matter that can comprehend itself is also interesting. That is the source of Dust in the universe, but with comprehension comes free-thought, and with free-thought comes rebellion, and the authoritarian religious regime throughout all the worlds can't be having with THAT. In some sense, Pullman has turned this into a new, more worthy form of the Divine. It's beautiful, not to mention ironic. Oh, and while there is a quest to kill the god of the church, the ones on that quest don't succeed. The old god does die, but from an act of kindness rather than of malice, and seems rather relieved. The old god's henchman doesn't go so easily.

Which takes me to Lyra's parents. Neither one of them has been particularly likeable in any of the books. I sort of wonder about the movie, since I get the impression that they've made Asriel, at least, a bit friendlier. In the books, he's downright nasty. Sure, he cares for his daughter, but only out of a sense of duty. Same with Mrs. Coulter. Mrs. Coulter shows some signs of actual feeling in this book, which surprises her most of all. Asriel...still comes across as a stiff-necked jackass who can only think of his own agenda. He does show interest in Lyra...when it becomes clear that she's the real key to winning his own battle. And, yes, I tried to think of a milder description for him...and failed.

Some reviewers have made much of the "implied sex" in the third book, variously screeching about how wrong it is to have any sort of sex, implied or not, or that, if it's going to be there, it should be described in explicit detail and not hidden. Actually, I thought it was quite tastefully done, and perfectly appropriate to the ages likely to be reading the book. If they want more detail, most of them know where to find it. In contrast, however, I thought the battle descriptions were overdone. The best was the description of walking through the aftermath of a battle; that had just the right amount of detail. Most others had more than I thought was necessary. Still, it's better than the complete dearth of detail in at least one of the Narnia books, which went something like: "There was a battle. Such and such died, but the good guys prevailed."

Now, a lot was happening in this book, to the point that it was slow-going in a few places. It was all interesting and well-written, but it dragged on and on and on to get all the players into the final positions. There wouldn't be an easy way to fix this, however, without fundamentally changing the structure of the plot. And it was never fully explained why the actions of two not-quite-adults suddenly fixed things, stopped the Dust from draining out of the universe. Yeah, great, they're in love. Why them, and no other couple? Still, it was a mostly satisfying conclusion to the series.

No comments: