Archive for August, 2011

Book Review: “Stargazer” by Miguel Conner

Miguel Conner
2011, Aeon Byte Press
280 pages

When I was looking for a good beach read, my instincts immediately pointed me toward a novel I’d been meaning to read for a while: Miguel Conner’s vampire sci-fi dystopia, Stargazer. The tagline says it all: “The future is paradise. But not for humans.”

Let’s start with a quick look at the modern vampire. Popular fiction has done the famous bloodsucker to Final Death over the course of several decades. Everybody points to Ann Rice as the last good example of vampire fiction, but if we’re being honest with ourselves she only produced one good one: Interview with the Vampire. It had a sense of romance to it, but never forgot that vampires are basically horrible supernatural parasites. Since then, it has been a downhill slide in which vampires have become more and more romantic, less and less threatening. And now we find ourselves with the totally, er, defanged Twilight. But the Twilight vampires aren’t merely overly romanticized; worse, they are symbolic (probably not intentionally, given how self-absorbed and unreflective Stephanie Meyer comes off in interviews) of the severe emotional abuse which many women suffer through at some point in their lives. The couple of Bella and Edward are the very picture of co-dependency, and Edward (the vampire, for those unfamiliar) is obviously experienced enough to be doing it on purpose, for his own ends. (Bella has no better options on her hands, as her other love interest is the werewolf Jacob, who appears to represent physical abuse, given what is revealed about the relationships habits of werewolves.) So, vampires are still symbolic of the darkest tendencies in humanity, only our contemporaries don’t seem to notice! Stephanie Meyer and her ilk have not stripped vampires of that which makes them frightening, but have instead instilled those qualities with an ersatz romanticism; Bella loves Edward because he manipulates her feelings. Anybody who has been in an abusive relationship, or who has even looked into the dynamics of them, will tell you that this is a common psychological state to find oneself in: the abused often want to return to their abuser for any number of reasons, not least of which are the need to feel needed, fear of the abuser’s retribution, and a sense that the abuser can be “saved”.

Compare the semi-conscious mindgames of Twilight, however, with the vampires of Stargazer: predatory violence hidden behind a veneer of civilization, wanton cruelty masked by “necessity”. In Miguel Conner’s literary hellscape, humans are little more than talking livestock, cattle with culture. Vampires—who refer to themselves by the more romantic title of “Stargazers”—raise them on farms, herd them into slaughterhouses, and kill them in an industrialized fashion. The Stargazers took the land over by destruction: they unleashed military power on humanity and reworked the world so that it was only by their vampiric will and technology that humanity could survive at all. Sound familiar at all? Miguel Conner, in the grand tradition of Phillip K. Dick, uses weird horror, sci-fi, supernatural tropes not to pull us away from the world, but to point us back toward it. Conner’s “vampires” are simply the worst elements of ourselves, of humanity, of intelligence and culture. We pretend to be civilized, but we are killers. We insist that we are unique among all of creation, and yet we behave toward one another and the other creatures of this planet no better than the lowest of beasts. And yet, there is no room for pessimism. Even if everything is terrible, if we look deeply within and bring with us the full force of both intellect and intuition, we will find a rationally workable something which, if we identify ourselves with that instead of with our animal bodies and passions will save us. And if we first can save ourselves, perhaps we can help others, too. And this time, really help them—unselfishly, not merely because it aids our own survival but because the Good demands it!

The Gnostic themes in Stargazer are thick but not heavy; if you know what to look for, they’re mostly pretty obvious, although by and large they are woven into the narrative such that they don’t jar you out of the action. And there is plenty of action. As a vacation read, Stargazer works: there is enough going on all the time that even without any interest in the overt Gnostic ideas, there is still plenty of story to keep the reader hooked. In fact, I passed my copy off to my father, who has no real religious leaning at all, and he’s presently enjoying it as a great sci-fi romp! It is a rare novel which can facilitate the transfer of ideas while still flowing like a story should.

The one problem with Stargazer is a mechanical one: though Conner’s style is good, the book could have lived through another cycle or two of editing. I’d say: one cycle of editing (as there are a small handful of stylistic issues which could easily be resolved), and a follow-up copy-edit (to pick up the remaining grammatical mistakes). Even these aren’t deal-breakers, but they do sometimes grab one’s attention away from the story itself.

All in all, Stargazer is a very good novel, with plenty of action and no dearth of big ideas, but it could have used just a tad more polishing. Even with that one complaint, I recommend it whole-heartedly for Gnostics in search of their own “inspirational fiction”, as well as fans of sci-fi action and new takes on the tropes of horror. Fun, intense, and thought-provoking, it provides something no matter what you’re looking for, even a bit of romance!

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The Socio-Politics of Gnosticism

Gnosticism is not a religious movement easily politicized; anybody with a genuine understanding of the “nature of Gnosis”, whether they accept it or not, can see that Gnosticism is an enemy to temporal power in all of its forms, natural as well as supernatural. We aren’t likely to lay ourselves down for a politician or a god who makes us promises we know they cannot keep. Still, this is not an argument for isolationism or quietism. An equally important aspect of Gnosticism’s rejection of authority is its general insistence on courage in the face—or jaws—of authority. The early Christians who got branded as Gnostics by heresy-hunters (a name which we moderns have taken up proudly, but which we must remember was rarely, if ever, used by our predecessors to describe themselves) were largely no big fans of martyrdom, but understood that it was necessary to be ready to suffer and die with dignity and faith. But not only do we not want to walk into the grinding maw of suffering, but most especially we do not want others to be forced into that position.

Gnosticism is not a faith of elitism, but neither are we populists. Really, we refuse to limit ourselves to such categories, as if we had to leave behind our suffering sisters and brothers in order to accept scholarship, ideas, and personal experience. And that’s the rub: our fellow humans, our fellow life-forms generally, are suffering just by virtue of living in this world-system. And so are we, personally. Neither is the problem purely collective, nor purely individual; it cuts across such simplistic notions. And so does salvation. Fundamentalists are all about the individual, while liberals are all about the Group. Gnostics don’t see a conflict, there, but only a confusing array of artificial barriers which are designed such that to break one down another one must be erected; to get rid of racial tensions, we must substitute religious ones, to evoke a particularly successful (read: pernicious) example from American society. (This is not to say that racism doesn’t still exist, and strongly, but only to point toward one of the strategies of social integration.)

If you put a gun to my head, I would call myself a “social democrat”, but that hardly encapsulates my entire socio-political worldview. It just gives you an idea. Similarly, many Gnostics of my acquaintance identify as “libertarian”, but I would never try to argue with them as if they were simply Tea Party stooges. That would miss the point. Just like everybody else, Gnostics try to ally themselves with whichever mass movement seems to be aiming in the direction of the Good; the difference is, we also try to remind ourselves that the Good, in the Enlightenment sense, is inherently unattainable in this world. We aren’t caught by empty promises quite as often because of it. Of course, we often fall off the opposite edge into raw and bleeding pessimism, a possibility we must try to guard against by invoking the Romantic sensibility of the inherent divinity of each and every human and of humankind as a manifestation of a profound spiritual totality.

That is the crux of the Gnostic worldview in the modern world, especially as concerns politics and society: we are neither wholly of the Enlightenment, nor wholly of the Romantic, but both speak to us deeply. We are truly children of the Greeks, for we see the bare pathos of existence while trying to reason-out an ethical response to it.We lop-off the nihilistic relativism of postmodern culture with one edge of the blade while slicing through the prefab truths of absolutism with the other. We live with contradictions and seeming-paradoxes until resolution comes, always by a drop of reason, a bucket of sweat, and a downpour of Grace.

So, when we Gnostics enter into political discourse, we do so not as liberals or conservatives, not as progressives or libertarians, certainly not as Democrats or Republicans; we enter in as smiling-faced Siddharthas, as laughing Jesuses, as Strangers to the Powers of this world-system, who aren’t willing to play by those rules for the brute fact that they have been decreed. No empty iconoclasm, here; it isn’t by whim that we ignore the rules to the game of life, but because it is by those rules that we are made sinners, while freedom from them allows us the chance to be truly moral, truly good, truly loving. And that won’t mean the same thing from this moment to the next.

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