My latest “just for fun” reading, after Cornelius Van Dam’s book on the Urim and Thummim, was an equally clean book, a sci-fi novel, The Disappeared by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, the first book in her Retrieval Artist series. Orson Scott Card’s endorsement on the cover caught my eye – very glad I read it. Well constructed and thought-out for the most part.
This interesting novel gave me two thoughts that I’d like to share today: (1) Clean fiction is still possible! and (2) great care must be exercised when dealing with cultural practices from other cultural groups that we may find offensive or even contrary to the Gospel.
The Disappeared is about a future when humans interact with multiple alien cultures. In this lawyer-filled future, legal agreements between the various alien species allow alien justice to be meted out to humans when they commit transgressions on alien worlds or against aliens. Depending on the offended species, grotesque killings, enslavement, or kidnapping of the human offender’s children may occur to repay humans for crimes they may not have known they were committing. Petty mistakes or innocent actions made in ignorance may be viewed as horrific crimes by the aliens, and the law leaves the guilty parties no recourse but to accept the punishment in order to keep the peace between the world. No recourse but escape, disappearing with the help of a “disappearance agency” to start a new life somewhere else under a carefully constructed new identity. Unfortunately, some of the people paying the top disappearance agency for its help are being betrayed and turned over to the aliens who are after them. A detective, Miles Flint, runs into the aftershocks of several related cases of betrayal, begins piecing things together, exposes the crooked company and takes on the unjust law in his own renegade way. Fun novel but filled with some huge gaps, like how do these disappearance agencies avoid the wrath of the aliens?
One thing that impressed me right away with this novel, though, was the fact that the writer could communicate and convey stress, fear, pain, shock, and other emotions, without the puerile crutch of foul language. She could maintain interest without off-color jokes or licentious scenes. I appreciate her high standards in this book, and wish more writers (LDS writers included) would realize that there is no need for abundant profanity and lewdness. Just my two cents.
The conflict between cultures reminded me of the challenges we face as the Gospel goes to all the earth, including peoples who have practices we may find appalling or sometimes contrary to Gospel principles. We must help new converts give up some cultural practices when the conflict is irreconcilable, but also be understanding and patient as new converts grow in understanding.
My time working with one foreign agrarian culture in the past raised many such issues. In some cultures, it is acceptable for a young teenage girl to marry a much older man, such as a 13-year-old marrying a 20-year-old. And in the culture I have in mind, the norm is to live together for a short time. Such practices are contrary to modern Church policies, and underage marriage may result in serious legal trouble in the US. What is viewed as acceptable in one culture or in one time is a horrific crime elsewhere, or elsewhen.
I have long harbored regret over how I handled a teenage marriage case among a group of immigrants years ago. I can’t go into details, but there was a time when I raised my voice and was stern with a man when I probably should have been patient, gentle, and more respectful. LDS training for Church leaders teaches us to be adamant and proactive in dealing with and helping to prevent child abuse, but I may have briefly overreacted. Only a small amount, but I may have gone past a tipping point and scared someone into coverup mode. I’m not sure how much I could have changed in the long run, but it’s possible that one frightened father might have found a different way to lead his family other than leaving the Church if I had been more understanding of the complex cultural currents at play. Maybe there would be fewer religious “disappeareds.”
I don’t mean that we should ever weaken the strong policies the Church has on sexual morality, respect for the law, and preventing child abuse, but it’s good to remember that things that may shock us may seem normal and acceptable to others, who may need gentle teaching and training more than they need to be scared with a fire-and-brimestone lecture and warnings about US law.
Strange that a sci-fi book would bring back those painful memories.