Reviews: “Belief or Nonbelief” and “Pallas”

Two of my reviews have just Gone Live on Amazon, my “email” informs me, so I will stick them here as well so that they are in more places, and my fame can spread more quickly.

Belief or Nonbelief, by Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (non-ebook version)Belief or Nonbelief
Two out of Five Stars

This is billed as a spirited exchange between a believer and a non-believer, but really it’s much less than that. Eco is a barely-lapsed Catholic intellectual, and as he says himself the basic structure of his thinking is still very much based in Catholicism.

Except for the final brief pair of chapters, the book consists of Eco asking Martini to talk about the Church’s answer to something, and Martini answering with the Catholic party line.

And because this is the Father of Semiotics and a Catholic Cardinal, the language is full of fifty-thousand-dollar words and content-free metaphors. Here is Eco, for instance, perhaps imitating one of those online Random Postmodern Text Generators:

“Christianity invented History, and it is in fact a modern incarnation of the Antichrist that denounces History as a disease. It’s possible that secular historicism has understood history as infinitely perfectible — so that tomorrow we improve upon today, always and without reservation, and so that in the course of the same history God reconstitutes himself and in a manner of speaking educates and enriches himself. But the entire secular world is not of the ideological view that through history we understand how to look at the regression and folly of history itself.”

Say what? Secular historicism has understood that God educates himself? You don’t say!

And when Eco asks how the Church knows when human life begins, Martini’s answer is that it’s at the moment of conception, because that is when there is a new being with a face. Which must be a metaphor for something (since a fertilized egg is way to small to have a face), but we’re left to guess for ourselves exactly what it’s supposed to be a metaphor for.

In the final exchange, Martini finally asks a question of Eco rather than vice-versa. The question itself is nothing impressive, just the usual “how do atheists justify their morality without an invisible friend in the sky to do it for them?”; but Eco’s answer is solid and almost clearly stated. There’s nothing all that special, he points out, about basing your morality on a deity (believers are just as prone to immorality as anyone else), and our own desire to be treated well and our natural tendency to empathy make a fine alternative.

So anyway. Most of the book is throwaway concepts couched in needlessly elaborate prose, but at least it’s short. The last chapter is worth a read.

Pallas, by L. Neil SmithPallas
Three out of Five Stars

This is a good solid yarn; strong and smart good guys you can root for, nasty evil bad guys to boo, interesting SF ideas, rockets and personal helicopters, a hooker with a heart of gold, old ladies packing heat, and all sorts of fun stuff.

Like so many stories with political intent, it completely cheats on the political message. No one in the socialist polity is good, no one in the capitalist one is bad. The capitalist society doesn’t need to tax anyone because it doesn’t need police or real courts, because everyone in the society is basically an angel (for some reason the society doesn’t even need fire stations; this is noted in passing but never explained).

Showing that your favorite politico-economic system would work for a society of angels is not a very big challenge!

The one nod that Smith makes toward reality is that when the entire world (asteroid) is threatened by a natural phenomenon, the “freeloader problem” arises, and it’s not clear how the rather expensive solution is going to get paid for without something icky like taxes. But the solution is just that Our Hero pays for the whole thing himself, and the problem is solved.

This isn’t realistic, though; if Our Hero had any actual competitors, the resulting extra costs he bears would put him at a disadvantage to them, and he would go out of business. Fortunately for the story, he has no actual competitors, because he is the only person to realize that in a society where everyone wants to be armed and guns are expensive to import, it might make sense to open a (wait for it) gun factory. Ooooh!

(The real Freeloader Problem here, which Smith ignores entirely as far as I can tell, is the environment envelope around the asteroid, which requires constant maintenance by guys with rockets and space-suits. Who pays for all that, exactly?)

Definitely a fun read. Just don’t try to use it as a guide to public policy in the real world.


2 Comments to “Reviews: “Belief or Nonbelief” and “Pallas””

  1. I think it’s hard for any book to talk meaningfully about alternate political systems. To many assumptions have to be broken. Certainly Ursula K LeGuin gives it a good go with Anarchy and The Dispossessed. I especially like how she makes it clear that there is no magic and it’s really all societal norms anyway. I just finished reading Freehold by Williamson and it sounds very much like the one dimensionality of Pallas. Those spunky capitalists show up the stupid, clueless socialists. And hey, it’s o.k. if those wacky capitalists all have (literally) nuclear weapons. And if you don’t work? Well, then you die. But hey, we’re all rich so it’s o.k. The author makes the same fatal mistakes our own society makes. He assumes caveat emptor works. But it doesn’t. No one can ever know enough to meaningful make decisions on even a tiny percentage of the things we have to do to survive in a modern society. So most people just become victims not beneficiaries. The author also assumes that punishment deters crime (hum… if that were true Texas would be crime free). On that basis who needs any kind of protection so long as the bad guys eventually get punished? Who cares if they destroyed your environment, killed your family, etc. They won’t do that if they are going to get punished, right? Thankfully his world has very few people who take ridiculous risks, are psychopaths or are just generally nuts. Here in the real world… anyway.

    • It’s certainly a common failing of political, and especially political- utopian, books. And thanks for the reminder that Leguin does a more realistic job ; it’s been too long since I read anything by her…


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