The swell was gently lifting and lowering the boat. My breathing grew slower, falling into step with the creaking of the hull, until I could no longer tell the difference between the faint rhythmic motion of the cabin and the sensation of filling and emptying my lungs. It was like floating in darkness: every inhalation buoyed me up, slightly; every exhalation made me sink back down again.
In the bunk above me, my brother Daniel said distinctly, “Do you believe in God?”
Synopsis: Twenty thousand years ago, humans came from Earth to terraform planet Covenant. Their descendants have lost most of their knowledge and culture but reacquired technology similar to our 20th century. The population is mostly religious, believing in those humans as Angels, and in a female messianic figure called Beatrice replacing Jesus in most aspects, like faith/love/hope. But she drowned in the ocean only to rise after three days according to their belief.
Half of the people of Covenant, the “Freelanders” life in organic ships on the ocean, whereas “Firmlanders” dwell on the continents. The story follows the Freelander boy Martin’s coming-of-age from a strict believer in Beatrice starting at the age of ten over his teenage years loosing his virginity in a rather different version, up to his adult years as a scientist.
He researches the aquatic microbes original to the planet in contrast to the terraformed biome. His research is a cul-de-sac. But one day, when he’s already given up, he uncovers that religion is opium for the people in a very literal way.
As he was walking away, I called after him, “Do you believe in God?” […]
He shook his head. “As a child I did. Not anymore. It was a nice idea … but it made no sense.” He eyed me skeptically, still unsure of my motives.
I said, “Then isn’t life unbearable?”
He laughed. “Not all the time.”
Review: I’ve always been lucky with Greg Egan’s short stories so far – examples are his mind-blowing Posthuman novelette Wang’s Carpets (review), or his Hard SF novelette Glory (review). I have yet to read a novel from him, though. This is the first story I’ve read from him covering a direct discussion of science versus religion.
He uses the engaging first perspective in a bildungsroman to lead through this well-structured novella. Naming his protagonist Martin is intentionally hinting at Martin Luther who reformed the Catholic church and led to a schism, giving him a side-kick brother called Daniel, who is a Biblical prophet literally translated to “God is my judge”. The author constructs a plausible far-future setting that check’s every Hard SF readers’ longings for speculation about terraforming, gene-editing, and apocalyptic mysteries. And he confronts the reader with a reflection of our own age of Enlightenment, just not from a historical fiction point of view but a SF one. In summary, everything that I want to read.
The only negative point that I can bring up is that the setting and plot feels extremely constructed – not only with the protagonist’s name, but also with the biochemical terraforming and everything else – in order to transport the story’s morale.
I highly recommend this winner of several awards of 1998 for readers of Hard SF who don’t shy away from metaphoric reads. Checkout the online version referenced below, or read it within the recently published SF Masterworks collection “Best of Greg Egan”.