Friday, January 27, 2017

Review of The Four Legendary Kingdoms by Matthew Reilly

Summary (language alert) – Let's get straight to the point: It is shit.

It is shit because Matthew Reilly's writing can be matched by any 15 year old with semi-competent sub-editors, and the world-view and 'true history' of the world in the book truly suck. It's Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code with an Australian accent and stick diagrams.

Firstly, the writing. For a taste, see the quotes below. I know its the prerogative of a fiction-writer to write fiction. Fiction is not necessarily 'true', but good fiction is necessarily truthful. For example, a good thriller thrills because it carries a sense of real risk or uncertainty; in other words, it is truthful to the concepts of risk and uncertainty, without which its thrill is emasculated.

The Four Legendary Kingdoms falls at this first hurdle. Its a thriller that bores (I read it over the course of three interminable evenings). The plot comprises the hero, Jack, undertaking a series of mortal-combat challenges. He prevails (of course) by doing the unexpected ('… Jack did something else that no-one would have expected' Page 339, in case you didn't get it), which is remarkable because these challenges had been meticulously planned by a supposedly intelligent cabal of privileged insiders in a secret, expertly furnished arena. I wish he'd done something truly unexpected by getting himself killed.

As a literary work, the highlight for me was finding that the word 'tautology' had been used correctly. However, it could have been inserted by a sub-editor in his or her desperation to alleviate the tedium of having to fix up this drivel.

Reilly's most annoying tick is his habit of explaining, rather then describing. His inability to furnish adequate text for his explanations is manifest in the number of stick-diagrams dispersed through the text. His feeble attempts to establish credibility rest on passing references to 'real' people (General Sir Peter Cosgrove, for example), but they are nothing but sops to a click-bait generation of social-media trolls.

Worse still, Reilly needs an interpreter to explain the whole thing, and so we get to meet Mae, Jack's mother and supposedly brilliant history teacher. Of course, she 'knows' everything, dogmatically and omnisciently. Her explanations are never allowed to be questioned or challenged, which seems to be to be about as remote from a real engagement with history as you can get. Surely, the veracity of one's opinion is strengthened if one allows for some self-doubt, but this kind of truthfulness never troubles the characters in the book.

Which brings me to my second point; the history. For reasons that escape me entirely, there are people in the world who insist in believing Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which Reilly ransacks in this book, and which was based on the equally risible The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent. There's nothing new here, but when you look at it historically, there's actually nothing at all.

Allow me to illustrate by example, to give you an idea of the scale of the pretensions of Reilly, Brown, Baigent et al. Let us say, for example, that I knew the real reason for the construction of the Gabba cricket ground was to communicate with aliens in a remote universe. My reason – because it looks like a giant radio dish from the air (and it does). I am unshakeable in this belief, despite everything that the stadium builders and operators have said, despite the experiences of the thousands of people who have passed through the gates to watch cricket there, despite the cricketers who have actually performed on the pitch, despite all the marketing and messaging put forward on behalf of the venue through multiple media outlets. No. I believe what I believe because the Gabba stadium is symbolic of (looks like a) giant radio dish, and because that is true, everything else is a conspiracy.

That's the problem with basing your knowledge on symbols, or rather your interpretation of them. You can make them say anything you like. Surely, a reasonable attitude would be to ask the owners of these symbols what they mean to them. If, for instance, you have the slightest interest in understanding the symbolism of the Catholic Church, you would do well to ask a knowledgeable Catholic what they mean. Reilly, Brown and Baigent simply don't bother with these inconveniences (see second quote below), and plough a trench through all considered research with their myopic dogmatism.

This vacuous symbolism most obviously triumphs over all attempts at authenticity in its treatment of the historical Jesus Christ (see first quote below). In this religiously illiterate age, it might surprise many readers to find that there is reliable documented evidence of eye witness accounts of the life of Jesus. Surely, these should be the prime source of material for anyone wishing to understand what Jesus said about himself, even if he or she has no intention of agreeing with him. The New Testament (the last fifth of the modern Bible) was not written, as Dan Brown seems to think, after Leonardo Da Vinci's painting of the Last Supper (1495-1489), but about 1400 years' earlier, a few decades after Jesus' death. Even so, Brown seems to think that the Christian Gospel was informed by the symbolism in the painting, not the other way around, which gives him, and Reilly like him, licence to do whatever they like with it.

So, despite, the Gospel's insistence that the life of Jesus was an unveiling of God to the world, Reilly, Brown and Baigent insist that it was more about establishing a blood-line that would preserve a secret wisdom passed down from super-human patriarchs. In other words, Reilly, Brown and Baigent have re-badged paganism as Christianity, and Christianity as paganism.

This might appear to be theological nit-picking, but I believe there is no such thing as an impractical theology. The pagan world-view profoundly informs the plot of The Four Legendary Kingdoms, and not just in the indiscriminate references to pagan myth. C S Lewis, author of the Narnia tales and devout Christian apologist, used pagan characters all the time, but he did so to illustrate Christian teaching. You could convincingly argue that he was following the example of much of the Old Testament. No, its not the characters and myths that bothers me. Its the morality of paganism that's shit.

So, here's how the scenario in the Four Legendary Kingdoms plays out. We have fights to the death to prove the worthiness of the victor, and the killing of non-combatants as hostages. The whole thing is justified because planet earth is about to get swatted by a giant swastika of a galaxy, and a few token human sacrifices need to be made. The only people to know about this is a privileged uber-elite whose sole purpose in life is the preservation of its own privileges and uber-elite-ness. In winning his challenges (and killing a number of also-rans in the process), the hero, Jack, proves his worthiness, saves the world (again), and gets his friends out of jail (enough of them to set up another sequel in this dreary series). He also gets to kill a number of bad guys who are bad because, you know, they are bad. That obviously makes him a good guy, and justifies his violence. You could say Jack is an unwilling combatant, being forced to fight by the prospect of his friends and family being burned alive in a landslide of boiling mud. The fact that all the other combatants' friends and family suffer this fate as a consequence of his actions is entirely incidental. It is all the more remarkable because some of these idiots had actually volunteered to be there.

Contrast this with the (documented) teaching of Christ. The one who leaves the 99 sheep to rescue the one and in so doing ensures that no-one is lost. The one who surrendered his privileges, and abandoned his legitimate claims to self preservation, to sacrifice Himself for the unworthy, and in so doing, set the prime example of how we should consider our fellow human beings. The (pre da Vinci Code) King James translation of, probably, the first recorded Christian text in history, puts it poetically like this

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Despite the machinations of Reilly, Brown, Baigent, and a host of lazy, incompetent and belligerent supporters, Christianity and paganism remain poles apart in mutual opposition to each other. Readers would do well to understand why this is so, and how this is so, but The Four Legendary Kingdoms flatters to deceive.

In conclusion, Matthew Reilly's The Four Legendary Kingdoms has its place in literature in the same way that pus has its place in a boil. If I may take the liberty of restating it; it is shit.

A Secret History II – The True History of the World
Page 127 etc. 
Capitals and italics per the original text
Conversation between three characters; Stretch and Pooh-Bear (nick-names for body guards) and Mae (supposedly, a sharp-minded historian and mother of the hero, Jack).

'Who is God?' Stretch said doubtfully. 'Are you talking about the Muslim god, Allah? Egyptian gods? The Christian God who supposedly sent his only son to earth to be crucified and then rise from the dead? You do realise that Jack once found the tomb of Jesus Christ in a Roman salt mine with the body still in it.' 
Mae nodded. 'I'm talking about all of them. And, yes I am also aware that Jesus the Nazarene was very much a man even if a sizeable portion of mankind has made him into a god. Why do you think this has happened?' 
Stretch shrugged. 'He preached a popular philosophy. Peace, equality, be nice to others. He fed his followers with loaves and fishes. Healed the sick. And what we learned in 2008, he was also a member of a very ancient royal line ---' 
 'That's right,' Mae said quickly. 'He healed the sick and he was a member of an ancient royal line. Imagine you're living in the Roman province of Judea and a guy comes out of nowhere with advanced medical knowledge and starts healing the sick? It'd cause a sensation. Christ's royal lineage made him an even greater sensation and his fame spread. 
'It is my contention that a handful of royal lines have been privy to advanced superancient learning handed down to them by a mysterious civilisation from the distant past. This wisdom has given them a knowledge-advantage over the general population and allowed them to appear, so to speak, god-like. 
'Did you know that every single ancient civilisation mentions being visited by a white-skinned bearded man – it's always a man, he is always white and he always has a beard – who bestows on them advance wisdom and who often heals the sick? 
'The Egyptians, the Maya, the Cambodians, all of them were visited by such an individual. The Egyptians called him Virata, The Mayans, called him Viracocha. The Cambodians, Vicaya. Soudn consistent?' 
'I mean, if you're a simple society and someone comes to you and shows you how to build giant pyramids, predict solar eclipses, plant sustainable agriculture, and miraculously heals your ill, you'd think he was a god, wouldn't you?' 
'Sure,' Pooh Bear said. 
'My postulation,' Mae said, 'is that our gods of old – from Zeus to Poseidon, to Anubis and Isis – were all royal beneficiaries of the superancient civilisation that build the Machine. They were all members of a few high families who exist today as the four legendary kingdoms. The question of who or what God is inextricably linked to the four kingdoms that rule our world from the shadows.'

Page 145
Exchange between Lily (Jack's step-daughter) and Cardinal Ricardo Mandoza (Catholic Cardinal)

'Young madam, it is an honour of honours to meet the Oracle of Siwa!' he exclaimed, taking Lily's hand and bowing low. 
Of course he was honoured, Lily thought. She had known for some time that the Catholic Church was the modern incarnation of an ancient Egyptian sun-cult, the Cult of Ammon-Ra. From their priestly garments featuring blazing suns to the many obelisks decorating Rome and the Vatican, everything about the Church was devoted to the worship of the sun. For a Cardinal to meet someone directly descended from ancient Royalty would indeed be an honour.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Toast to Evie on the Occasion of her 21st Birthday Party

Just over 21 years’ ago when Janna and I were choosing your name, we came up against the Teachers’ Curse. Every suitable name we could think of had already been assigned to a child. And not just any child, but the worst child in the worst class in the worst school in the entire universe. We couldn’t use any these names without the risk of bestowing some of that child’s qualities on to you.

Our deliberations might have gone on interminably, had it not been for the approach of a rather pressing deadline. We decided on Evangeline Sophia; Evangeline, meaning bringer of good news, and Sophia meaning Holy Wisdom.

Well, you can choose the name, but you can’t choose the child.

Fortunately, it has been our joy to see you live up to your name. You have brought good news to us, and our whole family, and it has been a wonderful privilege to have you grow up with us.

Shortly after you were born, we moved from the UK to Hong Kong. This is where I stalked you around the flat with a microphone as you learned to talk. All these years later, I used these recordings to assemble the EviePhon, and I invite you all to have a go. It’s not embarassing in the slightest, but you will get the full range of Evie.

You have a strong sense of fair play. We saw this early on when you insisted that noboby, no matter how big they were, no matter if they came from Europe, China or the Planet Krypton, would jump the queue at the slide in the playground at Kowloon Park.

We came to Australia and you went through Camp Hill State School, Somerville House and UQ. My fondest memories of those early days were of walking you to school. One morning, soon after we had watched the BBC documentary “The Legend of Big Al” (it was a reconstruction of the life of the titular Allosaurus) you asked me if Big Al went to heaven when he died. I didn’t know what to say then. I’m still thinking about it.

Much later, when helping you with your homework, I found how perceptive you were. Your essay on how the romantic composers, Claude Debussey and Eric Satie helped define the French National Identity in the pre-war years was particularly fascinating – and you were only Grade 7 at the time. (Sorry, I might have my timelines a little confused there).

With a few notable exceptions involving household chores, you have applied yourself to whatever has been given to you, whether it was study, music, drawing, or working in hospitalilty and retail.

However, it is not just about what you have achieved, its who you are as a person. You have been consistently fair and good to the people around you, especially your friends and family, to which all the people gathered here this evening, testify. Janna and I just hope we have given you the best in ourselves, so it is definitely not your father’s skill in cooking, or your mother’s skill in spreadsheets. (Though, if you had the choice, I suggest you’d be better off with Janna’s spreadsheets than my cooking.)

Now we get to the part where I’m supposed to dispense with some sage, fatherly advice. It’s a testament to your character that I’m quite lost for words. I don’t think I can tell you much that you don’t already know. If you can judge a person by the decisions he or she makes, then one of the highest compliments I can pay you is to say that you are good at making good decisions. Generally. You might still need some coaching in some areas, but you already know this.

What I will say to you, though, is that God is closer to you than you know, and that’s a good thing. If you’re like me, it will take you a lifetime to work out what that means, but it is worth it.

I don’t know, and nobody knows, what the next 21 years’ will bring you. They will probably bring you

Agonising anxiety
Bottomless boredom
Curious coincidences
Delightful diversions
Ineffible elation
Feindish frustrations
Great gastronomies
Heart-racing highs
Insufficient income
Jovial Jacobs’ jokes
Knowledgeable knaves
Luminous leitmotifs
Many misadventures
Nattering nannies
Odious obligations and ostentatious orations
Preposterous ponderings
Querulous queues
A rudimentary roof of your own
Sublime stupidity
Tepid tea
Uxorious unions
A very-expensive violin
Whacky weather
Xenophobic xylophones
Yonder yearnings yelling each year from your yokel-made yoghurt ...

... and finally, a zany zoo with zebra, zebu and zucchini at the zenith of your zone.

Knowing the person you have grown up to become, I am confident that, whatever these years bring you, you will bring to these years your own good news and Holy Wisdom.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Evangeline Sophia. We love you very, very much. Happy Birthday!