Friday, September 2, 2011

The Chaplain's Assistant

Short Story by Brad R. Torgersen

The Mantes, or Mantises have been wiping out humanity, but a small human colony remains, walled off and isolated, on a world they control. A Mantis Professor comes to study them one day. In particular he's interested in religion, god, and spirits. Both the other species they've wiped out have believed in gods, and the atheistic Mantes worry they are lacking some kind of perception other species might possess. The assistant in charge of the nondenominational chapel sees this as an opportunity for leverage, maybe this professor can help keep humanity from being exterminated.

I'm a bit torn about this story. I liked the ending, in essence, but it seems artificial, calculated to burn just enough red shirts for some dramatic flair, but not so many as to make the ending bittersweet instead of happy. Frankly, the protagonist has no agency for the events of the back third of the story, just sort of riding along, watching things happen, so the happy ending feels cheap, and weird to ignore all the deaths. Also, my impression would be that the Mantes should be more capable exterminators, given how easy it is, and not prone to drawing things out for dramatic tension. It feels like Torgersen realized that the solution as written was too quick and easy for the narrator, but he fixed it with some meaningless, unmourned deaths and two pages of drama that seem pointless once you're aware of the facts.

Second, I'm torn about how Torgersen handled the delicate dance of Talking About Religion. On one hand, he deserves some props, he didn't spend the story preaching like I was expecting after the first page, and he didn't present one religion as right and the others as wrong. He was delicate, and this should be appreciated. BUT. He didn't really say anything about it, just enough to raise all our hackles in worry, not enough to actually make a point.

Between the mantes, the narrator, and the two other species, it seems the only atheists are killing machines and everyone else acknowledges that they need God in their lives, in one flavor or another. I don't think Torgersen means to offend anyone, he is very delicate, but it's the sort of stealthy, accidental prejudice. Like when the only black guy in a movie is a criminal, or the only woman happens to need a man to rescue her. It isn't deliberate, hell it wouldn't even be offensive if they weren't the ONLY character with that minority trait, but that almost makes it more offensive, like the writers can't imagine black people not stealing, or atheists not murdering or women who don't exist for Prince Charming to rescue. I'd have liked some acknowledgment that atheists actually exist among humans, not just homicidal aliens.

Also, he may have vaguely offended some muslims, by making them out to be the only occasionally intolerant religion. He says some muslims are intolerant, not all of them, but it's hard to miss that all the christians are more tolerant than those muslims. Once again, I don't think it was meant to offend, but it leaves a weird/bad taste in my mouth.

Anyway, I'm not the political correctness police. The writing was decent, and actually funny in places, which was nice. I'd have liked something more interesting to come out of the philosophical/religious debate, and maybe a less artificially dramatic ending, and a more reasonable way to spice things up action-wise. But not a bad story, just not a great one.

2.5 praying mantes out of 5.

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