The Big Idea: Melinda Snodgrass

One day Melinda Snodgrass started wondering about aircars and why we don’t have them yet. Most people would stop there, with maybe a brief side thought about themselves puttering around in the sky like George Jetson. Snodgrass, however, kept going with that thought and ended up with a book: The Edge of Reason, which is not about aircars at all, but is instead, as editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden described it to me:

A contemporary metaphysical thriller about the secret battle between the forces of rationality and the Old Ones From Beyond Time, the latter of whom are using superstition and religion as the means by which to knock over the barriers that prevent them from breaking through and eating our brains.

Which is, you know, quite a leap from George Jetson and his aircar. How did Snodgrass get from the one to the other? Well, questions like this are exactly why The Big Idea exists at all. So here is Melinda Snodgrass to share her line of reasoning.

MELINDA SNODGRASS

I can pinpoint the exact moment, and indeed the exact place, where I got the idea for The Edge of Reason. It was New Year’s Eve, 1999, at around 5:00 pm in the afternoon. I was sitting in the bar at El Pinto with a number of other New Mexico writers including Steve Gould, Laura Mixon-Gould and Walter Jon Williams. Between sips of margarita and munching on chips dipped in chili con queso we watched the television broadcasting the millennial celebrations from around the world. (Yes, I know, it wasn’t really the millennium, but it was being billed that way.)

Suddenly I said to the group, “It’s the dawn of the twenty-first century. Where’s my aircar? Where’s my Moon base?”

From an off-handed remark we began a discussion of why, at the beginning of a new century, were people putting more credence in crystal power, guardian angels, spirit guides, Tarot cards, and psychic readings than in chemistry, physics, astronomy and biology?

We ran through the usual suspects — the Religious Right, Americans’ distrust of intellectuals, globalization and the fear of a big bad world and other cultures we can’t control — and came to no good answer. But I kept pondering the issue and I suddenly thought: What if there were creatures that wanted to keep us ignorant and afraid? That raised two more questions — why would they do it, and how would they do it?

The why I decided upon was that there were creatures in other multiverses who fed on powerful emotions. Since hate, fear, grief, and pain are a lot easier to engender than love and joy they set out to encourage us in our worst tendencies. They became our dark myths and our gods.

The how was also fairly straightforward. We kill with great abandon in defense of of our gods, and our absolute certainty that ours is the only true god. Add to that our tribalism that has led us to distrust and kill the other, and I had the broad concepts of the book.

I’d just spent fifteen years in Hollywood so I cast it as a pitch — this book is about the struggle between science and rationality and religion and superstition. (Actually my terrific editor, Patrick Nielsen-Hayden had the best high concept pitch — “This is the Left Behind series for rational people.”) But high concepts don’t get a book written. I needed characters to dramatize the conflict.

I’ve always loved the Prometheus/Lucifer myths of the demi-god punished for giving humans the gift of knowledge. That gave me my Obi-Wan Kenobi/Gandalf figure, but now I needed a hero.

The protagonist turned out to be trickier than I expected. In my first try, the leading man was a psychologist who had a patient tormented by these creatures. I wrote several chapters, and ran them through my workshop, but it wasn’t really working. Finally, I fell back on Hollywood and looked at the kinds of shows that are always on television — cops, doctors, and lawyers.

I used to be a lawyer and I pretty much hate lawyers so I set that aside. I had tried it with a doctor and that didn’t work. Which left me with a cop. I started writing, and it just clicked.

It’s difficult, when you’re tackling hot button issues like religion, to avoid writing a polemic. I hope I succeeded. I tried very hard to personalize these questions to the characters. But larger issues do intrude. When three of the ten candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination said they didn’t believe in evolution, when school boards try to force the teaching of “creation science” and allow students to opt out of astronomy classes when the Big Bang is discussed, we’ve got a problem.

Doubt is the key. The ability to question assumptions and conclusions is what enables us to advance. If we can embrace that, and turn away from celebrating ignorance, I think, (as my Prometheus character would say), we can have the stars. At least in my universe we’ll win this fight, and I’ll get to have my Moon base.

A very large excerpt of The Edge of Reason is available for you to download as a pdf file here. The linked page also includes an early version of a script for Star Trek: The Next Generation, on which Snodgrass served as a story editor. Read Melinda Snodgrass’ blog here.

25 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Melinda Snodgrass

  1. Melinda, hi there!

    This is a totally terrific idea.

    Haven’t seen as plausible an explanation for these horrid phenomena since Woody Allen’s EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, wherein this decent intelligent liberal New York City family has a son who suddenly becomes a right-wing Republican. Turns out it was just a (fortunately operable) brain tumor.

    Anyway, must rush out and buy THE EDGE OF REASON this week.

    Loving it in advance,

    Bob

  2. America distrusts intellectuals?!!!

    Damn, I guess that explains all the liberals with pitchforks and flaming torches standing around outside my house. Uh-oh.

  3. Arghhh! Damn you Scalzi! I really didn’t need yet another hardcover on my “must read this very minute” list.

    /me heads over to amazon…

  4. I saw a copy of this at the bookstore earlier today and wasn’t interested. After reading this, I’m still not interested. I will, however, be interested if anyone can explain to me why this isn’t simply The God Delusion: The Novel.

  5. (Disclaimer: I believe in a deity, which (at least somewhat for reasons of familiarity) I associate with the Christian religion with which I was raised. I do not, however, tend to believe in supernaturalistic explanations for events; the naturalistic explanation tends to seem more likely.)

    I just finished reading the excerpt provided on Ms. Snodgrass’s site, and while I agree with PNH that this book is “the Left Behind” for someone, I’m not convinced it’s “the Left Behind for rational people”.

    Though I haven’t personally read the Left Behind books, I’ve been following the excellent dissections over at slacktivist’s site, and the overwhelming impression I walk away with is that Left Behind serves mainly as a means for a certain sort of Christian to say “Ha ha, I was right all along, and now you will pay for doubting me.” And so, in the first chapter, we’re treated not only to a description of the Rapture, but also but also a literal deus ex machina — God destroying missiles and warplanes to save Israel from a nuclear attack. LaHaye and Jenkins actually believe this will happen. But they also believe that in the “End Times”, people will turn away from God, so this deus ex machina is ignored. By everyone in the world. This would not happen in reality; this could not happen and be ignored by humanity. But the authors cannot permit anything to run against their doctrine, so they trudge onwards with implausibility after implausibility, ending with the appearance of someone named Jesus, but whose description runs more along the lines of Mr. Clean.

    So, in this “Left Behind for rational people”, what’s the first thing we encounter? A physicist in his lab, discovering the Higgs boson, perhaps? A social studies teacher preparing civics lesson plans for his middle school students? What about a father teaching his child about the many varieties of belief in the world and the importance of reasonable doubt and critical analysis? In fact, the first thing we get is a witch, being pursued by other magic users. We learn, in due course, that the deities we’ve worshiped all these years are preparing to return to Earth. Only thing is, God is evil.

    This is rationalism?

    The novel as a story is pretty well written — in that regard, it’s nothing like Left Behind — but as an “I told you so”, I find it to be as lacking as the Left Behind series. Whether the message is “God is coming back to get us before we die, and then you lot all get to suffer”, or “God is evil, so let’s fight for science”, a fictional universe isn’t much evidence for your argument. I’m actually not sure it’s possible to write a “Left Behind for rational people”, and I’m hoping it isn’t, since the premise seems fundamentally incompatible with reason. But if you want to try, start with the world we live in. That way you have at least a small chance of convincing others of the virtues of rationalism.

  6. “Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalising animal.”

    Stillandall, sounds like a great read. Congratulations, you will have ruined my finances *again*, since now I’ll just have to get my hands on the M.S. ms.

  7. Ms. Snodgrass,

    First, I just added your new book to my Amazon cart (awaiting my “stimulus” check”.

    Second, didn’t Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” cover some of this theme? I found it utterly delightful and a stirring defense of reason against un-reason. It should be compulsory reading in every high school. Can you imagine the uproar?

    Good luck with the new book.

    Rick York

  8. The concept of the singularity is essentially Left Behind for rational people.

    Oh, and we do have flying cars. You lot just can’t be trusted not to crash them.

  9. John Carpenter’s movie IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (highly recommended!) is based on a similar premise — monsters from Beyond which need us to believe in them to make them real (i.e. cross over into our reality).

    In the movie, it’s a best-selling horror writer (sort of a cross between Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft) whose books cause people to believe in the monsters… and the more people believe, the more reality changes into the monstrous horror.

    So wait a minute.. are you saying the Creationist Museum is a front for Cthulhu??

  10. “So wait a minute.. are you saying the Creationist Museum is a front for Cthulhu??”

    Yes. She’s saying the Creationist Museum is a front for Cthulhu.

  11. I’m still trying to work through jumping from crystals and the tarot to the Religious Right. In my experience, they’re pretty much mutually exclusive, but I’m open to hearing how the conversation went.

  12. To be honest, I yawn at many books that attempt to tackle the supposed dichotomy of reason and faith. That is not to say that some people do not hold this conflict to be true (because, there obviously are) but that the thinking behind 99% of it sucks. Hard.

    I applaud the author when she says that she does not wish to write a polemic. Bully for her. The problem is that she automatically associates religion with superstition. Well, that (to my mind) seems to skip the whole foundational claims of religion. In other words, I do not think the author “gets religion”.

  13. “…There was a whisper of sound from the altar.”

    damnitdamnitdamnit

    “Your Order with Amazon.com…Delivery estimate: May 19, 2008”

    DAMNITDAMNITDAMNIT

  14. I am reading the *.pdf file and thus far, I am thoroughly entertained. However, as an aside, the following made me laugh out loud.

    “He had learned to live with the stares, the whispers, the
    come-ons. Now he was standing next to a woman who matched his extraordinary looks. And I wonder if it’s been as much of a burden to her as it has been for me?”

    Poor man, all good looking and s***. Having gone from being an ugly (or at least plain) child to a fairly decent-looking adult, let me tell you that pretty is way better than ugly as far as being a “burden.” Women flirting with you and being extra nice to you, kicks THE ASS of the alternative.

    Maybe thats just me.

    /Not a supermodel, just got better glasses and the braces came off
    //Got compared to “McDreamy” once tho.

  15. @Cassie They’re all supernatural belief systems. And irrational in the sense that they require you to believe things for which there is no objective data. To an outsider they all look very much alike. New Agers have their crystals and incantations and christians have their crosses and prayers. Both to unprovable beings that can’t be detected by any objective means that we have and both physical objects that are said to have supernatural powers. How are they so very different?

    @Paul Barnes Where do you draw the line? I suspect you would classify most of the religions practiced by most people for most of history as superstition. So given that current religions have no provable objective data to back up their claims what’s the difference? They’re all irrational, in the sense that you can’t apply logic and reason to them, belief systems. So what’s to “get”?

  16. SNG,

    Actually, I disagree that you cannot apply logic or reason to belief systems. I do not consider religion to be irrational at all, however, that does not discount that certain religions or religious expressions are irrational or a-rational.

    Speaking of specific religious claims, Christianity does state that there are objective facts about it, like the death and resurrection of Jesus actually did occur. I mean, I think that that claim is certainly objective, if true. However, you do get into the murky ground as to the actuality of the event, but I do think that is another discussion.

    The problem, as I see it, is the underlying philosophy, world view, or ideology that one presupposes. It is in these metaphysical suppositions that seem to be least understood in the popular discussions of religion, but which cut right to the heart of the matter.

    All I can say is that reading a serious thinker of religious thought is much, much different than someone like Dawkins or Hitchens. Hell, even detractors of religion like Nietzsche understood the religious foundations of modern science, which he held in contempt. Man, ole Nietzsche is fun though…

  17. Everything about Christianity in particular and all other religions in general go back to the existence of a supernatural supreme being or beings. Which at least in the case of all three monotheistic traditions is, by definition, unknowable by objective human means. This isn’t quite as absolute in the Eastern traditions but is still mostly true. Nobody, religious or not, argues that the resurrection was a natural event. The claim is that it was facilitated by the power of a supernatural supreme being that can’t be measured or observed by any natural means. That places everything about it well outside of the realm of logic and reason.

    If you accept the existence of that particular supernatural being then the resurrection as a historical event follows very neatly. If you reject that starting point then it neatly follows that it never happened. Any argument supporting faith as an objective thing has to address the existence of the supreme being as an observable and quantifiable thing. Otherwise it remains firmly in the realm of the subjective.

    Just as with the resurrection all of your other “metaphysical suppositions” flow from a belief in this unprovable supernatural being.

    I don’t see anything that tradition brings to the party that can’t be replaced with other philosophies, world views, or ideologies that start with observable and measurable concepts as opposed to an invisible friend in the sky. Sure there may be some religious roots. Mostly cause the catholic church, in effect, ruled most of Europe for so many years. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t replace it with something better. The simple concepts of autonomy and respect for persons replace everything religion brings to the table from a societal point of view.

    So while I agree with you that religion has played important and sometimes beneficial roles in history I don’t really see the need for or justification for it in today’s world. To quote 1 Corinthians 13 “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” As a species the time has come for us to put away our childish things. We should always keep the literature and art there’s a lot of good stuff in there. But holding on to that very childish belief in the supernatural is a childish thing and very harmful.

  18. Interesting about our difference between natural and actual. Within the Christian tradition, the claim of Jesus’ resurrection is seen as to have actually happened. In other words, some people saw Jesus die, then saw him alive again. Seems pretty objective and verifiable to me. At least, if it happened in our presence, it would be.

    And I think that is precisely my point: people think that this whole episode really, truly happened, just like how I am typing this.

    However, you have really only asserted that “observable and measurable concepts” conflicts with a belief in a deity (in the most condescending tones, I might add). The Christian claim is that the works of God ARE observable, sometimes subtly, sometimes more obvious.

    Finally, I am of the opinion that even if I do not experience something, that it cannot be objectively real. For example, I have never seen China, I have never observed its existence for myself, but I certainly believe that it exists. Granted, the subjectiveness of what I think it is and what it really is, a dialectic as it were, is present, but I do not doubt that the nation-state of China exists.

  19. sng,

    while I feel your anti-religion views are both interesting and coherent, and agree that religion played beneficiary roles in history, I would also like to point out some ways that religion might play an important role in today’s world.

    1. It may increase the awareness of life’s vulnerabilities and promote better care to it, thus improving the quality of life. Christianity is usually attributed with high standards of medical ethics. The weak, the ailing, the dying often have limited if no voice in the conditions surrounding their passing, terms to follow in times of their state of bounded rationality, fashions of care, and so on. If nothing else, in respecting the wills of individuals in the states that are close to them -everyone, and their loved ones, all die once- religion may play a role and provide a coherent basis for it.

    2. The established human right component of religious doctrine (again, esp. of Christianity) may work as peacemaking factor for some. I know how the reconcilatory factor of religion could be seen as subdued or even easily mocked these days, but a potentially useful part is still is. A religion teaches all humans have inherent dignity, and teaches to “do unto your brother as you’d like to be done” With the sense of authority religion holds through different cultures, it may be more effective way to communicate it to different persons, better than an appeal to common courtesy, which is left to the contingencies of the discernment of an individual.

    3. Finally, religions are deeply embedded part of cultures and are inseparable and vital part of different cultures, as they are and have been historically. In this way, as part of culture, they play the role of inspiring individuals to development, of their inner lives and personality.

  20. Interesting that you should mention dignity. Sure all those things sound great and high minded. For an example of what they end up looking like in practice I’d suggest you read the following. Sure religion may have had some benefits and been important in the past. But why are we still clinging to it like a favorite security blanket after all these years? We, as a species, would do well to grow up and put away our childish things.

    http://www.tnr.com/story_print.html?id=d8731cf4-e87b-4d88-b7e7-f5059cd0bfbd

  21. sng, that is of course an excellent quote you’ve appropriated. But you should keep in mind that many things we like in childhood, we also like as adults; not everything from childhood is a childish thing.

    For my own part, I think we’d do well to heed C. S. Lewis’s words on the subject: “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

    Perhaps you might want to consider finding an argument a little more well developed than “You still believe in the sky genie? Grow up!”

  22. Jon,

    In this particular case we have no objective evidence for this supernatural being. We have a large number of people who believe in said being behaving like the bad Christian from Mere Christianity on a wide social and political scale. To include trying to force their belief on others both by political and violent means. And, to my way of thinking, it’s not bringing anything to the table on the good side that can’t be replaced with modern objective science and philosophy. Religion, I’m happy to grant, has helped us get to where we are now. It was a very useful childish thing. But now it’s doing more harm than good. And thus needs to be discarded.

    Behaving well because of the promise of some reward or the threat of some punishment is a very childish way to approach the world. Well adjusted adults behave well and treat others well because it’s the right thing to do. Does any really sane and rational adult need more than “Be excellent to each other” to guide them? And if they’re not sane and rational maybe we should be solving the root problem instead of patching it over with a supernatural belief system.

    So we have a situation where a lot of harm is being done because of continued belief in this supernatural being and there’s no real unique good coming from it. Or, to be more exact, no real unique good that can’t be trivially replaced. So, really, why keep it around? To my way of thinking the cost/benefit analysis just doesn’t work. There’s a huge downside and no real upside.

    So what is it that you think religion brings to the party?

  23. What evidence do you have that this “religion-caused harm” will vanish if religion vanishes? In my experience, people don’t usually be dicks to each other because of religion or any other reason. They want to be dicks to each other, so they do so, and they turn to religion or something else to justify it.

    Your argument is approximately as sound as Bill O’Reilly’s was when he claimed that atheism was immoral because Stalin and Pol Pot were atheists and committed monstrous crimes.

  24. The entire “debate” over evolution would be done, it would get rid of the vast majority of people who oppose various things like therapeutic cloning and stem cell research, no more children would die because their parents thought they could pray them healthy. it would marginalize anti-abortion people, it would eliminate at least one major sticking point in the middle east. To be fair at least some of these effects would take a generation or two to be fully felt but it would start us down that road. And that just off the top of my head.

    So again. What upsides does religion bring?

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