Monday, April 22, 2013

Self-Sanctification in a Forgotten Sci-Fi Classic

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 14
Jerry J. Davis, Travels

Over a century ago, Émile Durkheim wrote that “Religion contains in itself from the very beginning...all the elements...which have given rise to the various manifestations of collective life.” By this Durkheim meant that religion strives first to bind a people or body of believers; God is a secondary concern, which some religions elide altogether. Modern society builds quasi-religious rituals around “secular” items like State, Flag, and National Heroes.

One important thread running through Jerry J. Davis’ underappreciated first novel asks: what happens when those secular icons become so sanctified that they become objects of worship? What happens when “the establishment” becomes so sure of its own rightness that it creates God in its own image? What recourse do ordinary citizens have when the powerful become givers of salvation and eternal life?

In a near-future dystopian world blighted by the aftereffects of war technologies, society drifts listlessly in search of purpose. Automation finds ever-increasing ways to strip work of meaning, while sex (or anyway procreation) is strictly controlled, and a fractured, I-oriented society lacks binding principles. Only the media produces meaning—though that’s hardly better, since individuals window-shop for prepackaged purpose.

If this sounds like Philip K. Dick, you’re not wrong. Dick and Davis share overlapping concerns, but where Dick’s best work concerns itself with how we define humanity individually, Davis seems more interested in how we become human together. In particular, while individuals try in distinct ways to form that most basic social unit, the family, powerful interests engineer society to ensure the masses cannot form communities, which could topple the pyramid.

Dodd Corley struggles to forget the war, but wakes with nightmares, especially when his army buddy Danny Marauder reappears. Seems Danny has joined the revolutionaries, and wants Dodd’s help overthrowing the Travels network, a hypnotic TV broadcast with unprecedented reach and influence. Trouble is, Dodd’s girlfriend Sheila now lives on his couch, addicted to Travels, gradually vanishing into its ceaseless, seductive images.

Across town, Dodd’s friend Toby watches Jesus TV all day. The corporate interests have published a syncretic portmanteau Bible, with one overwhelming creed: “Shut up and don’t make waves.” Toby is so obedient that he fails to notice his daughter is pregnant—and rather than accept the mandatory abortion, she flees to the insurgents, who would rather band together and make enough waves to overturn a damaged boat.

Though only some of Davis’ storylines involve anything we might call “faith,” the intersecting stories return to what we could easily call “religion.” This may involve the ritualized ways in which people gather to watch Travels; or the rites and observances of the state, parodied by the insurgents’ counter-rites; or the ceremonies preceding and following an egregiously self-serving Second Coming. Davis crafts a chillingly plausible vision of secular religion without God.

But unlike early civilizations, whose rites bound adherents against great unknowns like nature and death, Davis’ technological society hosts feuding religions with separate means of sanctifying arrogance and appetite. These quasi-religions bind believers as a people, but do not require them to be for the people. Religion, in this world, consists of loosely bound individuals, not a nation.

One recalls Phil Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, where the dominant religion, Mercerism, involves individual solitude. No church gatherings for Dick. Davis, by contrast, seems intensely interested in the ways people congregate, or fail to do so. God is only invited to some of these gatherings.

Historically, holy reformers come into environments where religion already exists, and demand the religion serve some higher calling; they do not invent religions cold. From Jeremiah, the Buddha, and Jesus, through Calvin and Luther, to the present, reformers demand that an already extant religion must be made to serve a purpose. This underlies Davis’ writing, in the form of his proxy character, Dodd.

Davis culminates in a conflagration that, at first glance, resembles a bloody rejection of post-faith religion. Yet examined from another angle, Davis’ paroxysmal climax, when his twining storylines collide with cataclysmic force, approaches a return to more primal religion. When the heroes band together to confront the forces enslaving the people, it reflects the sacred frenzy of Euripides’ Bacchae.

I don’t know if Davis deliberately wrote his first novel as a view of secular religion and the risks of self-sanctification. But whether he purposefully includes these themes, this novel makes a fascinating look at the rites comprising technological society. And it makes a grim warning: we face the same threats. We must be the people, together.

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