Omega review: Author's response
Jack McDevitt and I have had a good e-mail exchange over this review, ever since he discovered it. (One of the realities online critics learn to deal with is the message in the inbox that follows a withering pan.) Here are some salient excerpts from our discussion, where he explains views I thought my readers deserved to hear, and with some of my comments that further explain where I objected to the novel. (Note: I've spliced several e-mails together in the following.) Though my opinion of the novel stands, I appreciate Jack's explanations and exchange of ideas. Contains many humongous spoilers, naturally.
[McDevitt] Dear Thomas,
[Wagner] Heh. Well, of course, critics do express our views in our columns, and often quite forcefully. Omega, in a sense, hit me where I live, in that my principal pet peeve at the moment is the spreading wave of anti-science fanaticism running through America today, whether it's the president hawking "intelligent design" or Tom Cruise railing against psychiatry. Even old James Hogan seems to have joined the pseudoscience camp. When such ideas pop up in an SF novel (especially in a novel by someone whom I know, having read some of his previous works, isn't an anti-science hysteric) it pushes a very strong personal button for me.
[McDevitt] I noticed. I'm currently working on a fifth Academy novel. In a sideshow sequence, the viewpoint character, Gregory MacAllister, hires a lawyer to defend a middle-aged man who has attacked a preacher for the religious indoctrination he suffered as a child. His defense is that he suffered psychological damage from all the talk about hellfire, and consequently isn't responsible. The issue raised is whether such treatment constitutes child abuse. But I suspect they're going to lose the case.
In fact you and I have the same view on this business. But people do need something to believe in. You mentioned reason. Or possibly western style democracy. Or whatever. Including a greater power. The danger comes, it seems to me, not from the belief itself (religiously-minded people, e.g., live longer), but from the organization, or from the insistence that a given belief is correct and checkmates everybody else's.
[Wagner] True, but in a sense I think that when religious ideologies are involved, this is hard to avoid. Setting aside the little old lady from Pasadena-type religious folks, who'd never dream of imposing their beliefs on anyone else, what is at the core of two of the big three monotheistic religions of the world (Christianity and Islam) is the notion that that belief is correct and all others are wrong. Moreover, that all non-adherents to that religion are infidels and sinners, worthy of damnation for not believing. Regardless of whatever tolerant attitude an individual believer might have, the insistence that a given belief is right and checkmates all others usually is a core tenet of the belief, and can't be separated out.
[McDevitt] Sometimes it's nice to have a mythology. I've made the comment somewhere in one of these books that truth is overrated. That's not to be taken literally, of course. But there is something to it. I would like to be able to believe that, when I attend a friend's funeral, he is now in the arms of a Lykonda. I'd also argue, by the way, that the Lykonda experience in Omega wouldn't hurt anybody. Plutarch insists everybody in Athens heard about the visitations by Athena. If that's true, the Hellenes seem to have gotten by without damage.
I've seen the Hogan book. [Kicking the Sacred Cow] Read some of it and was surprised. We live in the South. Whenever the local churches try to close down the high school reading list, the teachers usually recruit me to help. It used to be Salinger. Now it's witchcraft and Harry Potter. The last time out for me was the summer of 2001 when some local folks were counting obscenities in Salinger. A few weeks after a couple of tumultuous school board meetings, the crazies hit the Towers, and one letter writer in the local paper claimed it was an angry God reacting to people like me who didn't care what our children read.
[Wagner] What I found distasteful was the viewpoint expressed — which in my interpretation was that knowledge is inferior to faith and reason inferior to belief especially in a crisis — regardless of whether they are your views or the characters'.
[McDevitt] The viewpoint was that we save the Goompahs and not worry about the philosophy. One of the characters was a philosopher with apparently religious underpinnings, so naturally he would react the way he did. Tor prayed for help in the darkest moments of Chindi. I can't bring myself to believe the appearance of a gentle Lykonda, helping out in a crisis, is in any way promoting religion. But it's a disparate view, and I can understand you might not agree.
[Wagner] See, the way it came across to me was not so much that it was promoting religion per se, but that it was confusing the Goompahs (who, while a rationalist species, are still primitives) as to what constitutes reality. They were presented with a hologram of Lykonda. Not knowing what a hologram was, they assumed the manifestation was real. Lykonda's existence is to them now a matter of empirically verified fact. When Whit (I think it was) glibly brushes this off by saying "No one who wasn't there will believe it," I think he's being terribly naive. The event will not enter the species' mythology, it will enter their actual history, and later generation of Goompah children will be educated about the event in a way that presents it as factual, and, for all their "think for yourself" posters, Goompah teachers will be able to provide sufficient corroborating evidence that even the Goompah's most critically thinking students will be obliged to accept it. A falsehood, however well-intentioned, becomes fact.
[McDevitt] Digger and the others tried reason with Macao. It failed.
[Wagner] Yes but why, when you had gone to such lengths to depict the Goompahs as a rationalist species? Maybe the answer lies in the mystery of the zhoka, but that wasn't really resolved. The Goompahs certainly seemed to me to be smart enough to have understood what the cloud really was had it been explained to them in the right way.
[McDevitt] But who would explain it? Even Macao was jittery in the presence of Digger. And there was no time for trying to figure out a way to get the message across. Okay. I admit I set it up that way, because I couldn't allow an easy solution. I'll also confess I liked the idea of bringing in the goddess to help things along. I love the image of Athena, standing bloody and with her clothes torn, telling the Athenians she has stood with their children. I couldn't resist lifting it. (You got me there.)
[Wagner] Well, I suppose you could have explained it, as omniscient narrator and all, though I can understand wanting to leave some elements of mystery. But to me it came across as a major plot element that didn't get resolved for the reader. The Goompahs are terrified of the sight of humans. Intriguing setup. Initially it is thought this is just because the humans are aliens and no Goompahs have ever seen one. Then the zhoka are revealed, creatures who look very human whom the Goompahs fear. very interesting idea now. This explains the extreme fear. So now the plot complication becomes: How do we convince the Goompahs we're not zhoka so we can save their lives?
I can think of a couple of alternate solutions. One of the lectures the human characters could have eavesdropped upon earlier in the book could have been about the zhoka, explaining at least in a very basic sense what they were and what the Goompahs' bad experience with them was. This scene in fact could have come before the humans' discovery that the zhoka resembled humans. So what starts out first as a "Hmm, interesting lecture" reaction turns into a "holy cow, no wonder they're scared of us, look at the zhoka!" reaction when they do make the discovery.
Now at this point, the story could still have involved spinning a cock and bull story, I suppose, for the Goompahs' benefit, but it wouldn't have been such a colossal one as to give the Goompahs the impression their principal deity was a flesh and blood being. When Digger tried to contact Macao, he could have told her something like, "We know of the zhoka [because they eavesdropped on the lecture, of course], and they are our enemies too." He could have even remained completely unrevealed to Macao, using the necklace as a way to communicate (instead of its just being a little spycam). And he could have told her that the thing in the sky had been sent by the zhoka to destroy the Goompahs once and for all, so Macao must tell everyone to head for the hills. "I must use this necklace to talk to you, because if the zhoka knew I was here they would kill me. Do you know about the zhoka your people have seen on the roads? They are the ones sent here to spy on you [keep having the other crew make deliberate surprise public appearances to whip up panic], so you must trust me, get everyone out of the towns before the zhoka's cloud arrives!"
Maybe the above is kind of lame. But I just give the example as a way of suggesting that there could have been a direction to take the story in that didn't involve an abrupt "Let's play God" ending. Using the Goompahs' fear of the zhoka as a way of saving the Goompahs might have been a nicely ironic way to resolve a plot element that, as it stands, isn't really resolved.
[McDevitt] You write with such passion that, whatever the review said, I couldn't stand by and have you think I was just another ID whacko. I wanted you to know that your conclusions, at least as they involved what I was trying to do, were not valid.
[Wagner] I did revise some passages in the review that might lead people to think I thought that about you personally. My disappointment with the book's ending stands, I fear, but I appreciate your explaining your position.
[McDevitt] I was up working a large chunk of the night, and doing the exchange with you, Thomas, helped me get through it. Thank you. And thanks for your response.
[Wagner] And thanks for discussing the book with me in such a good-sport way.