I cannot resist. Here is my last question to all defenders and apologists for Mr. Pullman's rollickingly bad third novel in his started-well-but-crashed-and-burned trilogy.
Why, oh, why in a book about the virtues of not listening to authority and not taking anything on faith, did everyone in the book, and I mean everyone, believe whatever a dusty pocketwatch told them to do?
Not a single character ever asked for independent confirmation of the pronouncements of the oracle of the Golden Compass.
The alethiometer, you see, was sensitive to 'The Dust' which was the self-reflective nature of matter when it starts to become self-aware. The oldest and more powerful of the self-aware vortices of Dust, is, oddly enough, God Almighty, who is portrayed as a senile husk. So, if the Dust is all-wise, why is the God who arose from the Dust all-stupid? If, on the other hand, the Dust is a natural but unintelligent spirit force, why should anyone listen to it or follow its advice? If, on the gripping hand, the Dust is a self-aware being, or stream of beings, how do we know it did not go senile at about the same time God Almighty did, or earlier?
Oh, I get it, I get it. Yes, I know, the alethiometer is actually just a symbol or a metaphor for the Power of Reason, or the Power of Matter, or the Power of Believing in Yourself or whatever power it is that Mr. Pullman thinks is the touchstone to determine true from false. His faith in the power of whatever-it-is is touching. We skeptics are more skeptical. We skeptics reason that reason, like all things possessed of qualities and properties, has utilities it can perform and those it cannot. No one does a syllogism to deduce whether a woman is beautiful, for example. No one can reason in the absence of evidence, for another example.
We skeptics would have had someone give the old pocketwatch-of-materialism a few simple James Randi style tests to make sure it was working. Matter suffers entropy, you know. Sad if Lyra found out in some later scene that a slipped disk or a lose cog made the symbol arm overshoot by twelve degrees each time the dust-o-meter was measuring the truth of things. Hate to get all my positive and negative signs reversed, you know, and have it turn out the God was Good and the Fallen Angels were lying about all that stuff.
Patient readers will no doubt be relieved that I mean to make this my final post on this matter, but I hope kindly readers might excuse an old curmudgeon who is drawn into a controversy something by mischance.
When I sat down to write what was basically a written-for-humor-value criticism of Mr. Pullman, the preachiest author I know, for saying he was a storyteller and not a preacher, I did not realize what a reaction this would cause. Some people, including some people whose opinions I respect (but also including some orcish-tongued babbling dunderheads), take the book very seriously, and challenged my statements about it. Most of that challenge was based on a mere misreading of what I said, which was, as I mentioned, written for humor value rather than clarity
I did not think anyone would object to the idea that Pullman was preaching a message instead of telling a story. Indeed, more than half the counterarguments I got in reply said that I must be benighted because I did not get the profound message Pullman was preaching. What looked to me like bad storytelling was in truth (so I was told) Mr. Pullman's subtle way to saying real life is hard and nothing works out with the neatness of a storybook. Funny how all the events in his storybook work out so neatly to make that point!
The counterarguments were saying, in effect, that story telling had to go by the wayside for a "new type" of story telling. What was this "new type" of story telling? Preaching a message rather than telling a story. Funny how none of his defenders noticed they had just contradicted Mr. Pullman's public statement.
Other counterarguments were better constructed. I had not recalled the events in the third book AMBER SPYGLASS correctly. My faulty memory had automatically filled in motives where there were none and plot points where there were none. People have been kind enough to describe to me scenes in the book I've forgotten, and to make clear certain messages the author put in that I had ignored.
Upon revisiting the issue, and thinking back over the books, I found that AMBER SPYGLASS was much worse than I remembered, much more chaotically written, much more sentimental and pointless and ugly, and much more ... well ... stupid (a hard word, I know, but there is no other that will do).
The scenes I had forgotten I had forgotten for good reason: memory works by association, which is why it is easier to remember a sonnet than a string of meaningless alphanumeric symbols of the same length as a sonnet. Scenes that meant nothing and did nothing are easy to forget.
The messages, aside from the blatant anti-god message (which I liked when I first read it; I was an atheist myself back then) I had tried to ignore because they got in the way of enjoying the story. and the messages were easy to ignore, because they are so bland, and so insipid and so unimaginative. But now I realize there is no story, only the messages.
And what messages! The world view involved is so sickeningly-sweet, so cloying and pious, yet so innocuous, that only a bleeding heart could love it. It is sentimentality in the very worst sense of the word.
We Christians tend to forget the banal and boring nature of real evil. Not every devil can be a sharp dresser like a Nazi, or a magnetic writer like a Nietzsche. Some of them are just drab.
What was the message in AMBER SPYGLASS? By my count, they were (1) Question Authority (2) Sex is a good thing (3) Be nice to people in small ways (4) Tell stories (5) Stay in school (6) Hate God. Of these, only the last one is likely to spark any controversy worth thinking about.
How did the author chose to put across this message? Answer: he did not. He simply did not. Let us count the ways:
(1) Question authority? The author did not have an authority that forbade anyone from questioning anything on stage, that later turned out to be a good question with an answer that improved anyone's life or solved any problem. Asriel is in trouble for investigating the Dust, but the book never quite makes clear what the Dust is anyway, and Asriel does not improve his own life or anyone else's by finding anything out about the Dust. As I recall, he dies by falling into a pit after his ex-wife pushes an archangel into it. The only thing that came of Asriel's investigation into the Dust was that he murdered a child to open a gate into another world. Once he got there, nothing in particular happens. For a good example of this message, told correctly, see THE MACHINE STOPS by E.M. Foster or see THE LOTTERY by Shirley Jackson.
(2) Make love, not war! I have to assume Mr. Pullman is not preaching in favor of married sex with one woman to whom one is faithful for life. That is a Christian message, and we Christians are Grendel, right? So it must be illicit sex he is on about. This is only a guess, since his trilogy is just as unclear on this as on everything. I suppose the author just thinks we will take on faith the idea that sex outside of marriage is the source and summit of human aspirations. Is he preaching against Puritans? Well, Catholics don't like Puritans either, so take a number and stand in line.
In any case, no one in the book has a sexual encounter improve or change his life. Are Lyra and Will underage lovers at the end of the book, or just good friends? The author coyly does not say. But either option makes no sense. If they are lovers, the sexual awakening did not do anything for them. It did not improve their lives: they are condemned to eternal separation. Lyra is not the Beatrice for Will's Dante. She is not even the Queen Gwen for his Lancelot. The coupling (if it took place) did not mean anything and nothing comes of it, not even a baby. If they are just good friends, then the message is contradicted. For a good example of this message, told correctly, see ATLAS SHRUGGED or THE FOUNTAINHEAD, or read a poem by Byron, Keats, or one of the Romantics.
Again, a reader tells me it is not sex per se that is good, but the maturity that sex represents. Under this interpretation, the Evil Church was trying to keep everyone from maturing, and Mary the Lapsed Nun was the tempter trying to get Lyra to grow up. The only problem with this interpretation is that it makes sheer nonsense of an already muddled plot. Growth as a physical process of maturing is natural and inevitable, not something a protagonist can seek out or an antagonist can try to prevent, not in any story outside of Peter Pan, at least. You don't have to talk a child into suffering puberty. Growth as a spiritual process is never mentioned, and, in any case, makes no difference to the plot: it is not as if Senile God had lived, or Metratron, or Mrs. Coulter, then our young Lyra would have been propelled one inch toward or away from spiritual growth or moral or mental maturity: if anything, it is the innocence of Lyra is the Noble Savage. (an oddly Victorian value, that) that has magical properties.
(3) No one in the book is nice to anyone in any small ways. Lyra is a liar. Will is a murderer. I cannot recall a single line, not even a word, spoken in kindness to any other character. I guess they like their spiritual pets. The only act of large-scale kindness in the book is on the part of Mrs. Coulter, who turns apostate to the Evil Church in order to nurse her ungrateful daughter back to life, and who also falls into a pit during an archangelicide. For a good example of this message, told correctly, see LEAF BY NIGGLE, THE GREAT DIVORCE, or even THE MAHABHARATA.
(4) Telling stories! Not much to see here either. Lyra tells some stories to the harpies in hell, so maybe something was supposed to happen here. But hell is emptied out and all those spirits die or something, so I am not sure what the point is. For a good example of this message, told correctly, see BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, which is a potent and ringing endorsement of the power of the imagination to overcome grief and loss. There is an achingly good short story by Orson Scott Card on this same theme, the power of story telling, but I cannot remember its name.
(5) Stay in school! Since the main character is never in a position where book-learning did her a bit of good, and since I assume all the printing presses on her world are controlled by the imprimatur of the Evil Church, this would seem to run counter to that whole Question Authority theme, unless your teachers are not authorities in their subjects. (But in that case, why stay in school?) For a good example of this message, told correctly, see just about any coming-of-age story you can think of, including, shockingly enough, STARSHIP TROOPERS--young Mister Rico, unlike Lyra, actually gets whipped into shape in boot camp (no pun intended) and he comes out a better man in the end, due and only due to his education.
(6) Hating God. For a good example of this message, told correctly, see ATLAS SHRUGGED or read the first three books of Milton's PARADISE LOST, whose antagonist, Lucifer, has a much stronger and clearer reason, a non-wimpy reason, for denying and defying God than anything any mushy-headed Pullmanite character can mouth. (We Christians do blasphemy better than you atheists ever will.) Or, if you prefer, read GATHER DARKNESS by Fritz Leiber for a description of what a real hard-assed theocracy bent on cowing the people though enforced ignorance would be like.
Is Mr. Pullman preaching against organized religion? Well, Protestants don't like organized religion either, especially American Protestants. So take a number and stand in line.
Atheists have many perfectly sound arguments they can make against organized religion, and Protestants have also. To avoid those arguments and talk instead in a mushy-headed way about the beautiful oneness with the universe that comes when you commit euthanasia on the weak and helpless is simply vile.
One reader I know said that the description of the slobbery and wretched creature that once was God Almighty in this book reminded him of Gollum. Instead of killing the thing out of pity, as in OLD YELLER, and instead of smiting the dying god out of righteous indignation, for hate's sake, as in MOBY DICK, and instead of sparing the thing out of pity and not killing him at all, as indeed, Gandalf counsels Frodo to do for Gollum, our author hits upon the perfect plot device to squeeze every iota of non-drama and non-meaning out what could have been an interesting scene. Will kills God by mistake while trying to help Him. So there is neither pity nor justice in the death: it is just a dumb mistake, a flourish of contempt by the author for his characters, and, I must assume, his audience.
As with what later happens with the ghosts Lyra kills, God sighs and looks pleased.
Why the sigh and the smile? Just one more pro-death moment brought to you by the culture wars! I can understand a rational and manly atheism that looks at the abyss of death and does not flinch, reconciled to an evil that no one can avoid. I can understand a religion that promises some farther shore beyond the abyss.
What I cannot understand is a sentimental and mystical atheism that looks at the abyss of death and calls it good or desirable.
Many non-Christians (and some Christians) recoil from the doctrine of Eternal Damnation as an utter abrogation of justice. They ask why any finite crime could be punished with infinite pains? The question is a good one, and deserves a better answer than I can provide in this space: but I will say that divine wisdom may have concluded that a painless oblivion is more unfair, since apparently many more people desire it, yearning for a black lack of nothingness in which to quench their guilt and their hatred toward life, than I could have imagined.
So I suppose the final message is a pro-death message. That, I cannot advise you to seek out a better, because it is a type of literature I delicately avoid, as I wish, now, in hindsight, I had avoided AMBER SPYGLASS.