The Expanse of James S. A. Corey

What it is: this is science-fiction of the space opera variety. So we are not talking about hard science fiction in which the science is foregrounded.

But it is science fiction. The books are set in a future in which there is a fusion drive that makes interplanetary travel possible. An overcrowded Earth has populated Mars and the asteroid belt, including some of the outer planet’s moons. So the books are set on space ships, on asteroids and moons, and from time to time on planets.

Pros: there is a lot of careful imagination going into this. Naturally, the fusion drives cannot be described, but are posited. What they add to the situation is the possibility of constant acceleration, which means thrust, which in turns means some kind of gravity (I am led to believe). This makes for constant and varying gravitation, and it is one of the most interesting things the authors (the name is a pen name for a couple of guys who collaborate on the books) take into account. The Coriolis effect of spin gravity, the nausea and disorientation, the long-term physical effects of low-gravity, the crush of high gravity, the way ships proceed with such drives, many other things are constantly brought to bear on the story, and the effect is as realistic as I’ve encountered. The dangers of space, of vacuum, the things technology and medicine have to do, the things humans maneuvering must take into account all come into play. One is never unaware of where one is, thanks to the way it is told. Let me call it compelling realism, in terms of the science.

I gush on: the distances are calculated and factored in, then you find them making biological observations that are cogent, and so on with many branches of science and many details. One of the best things they remember is to describe the smells: one is being constantly updated on how they imagine things to smell, including the main character’s thing about coffee. And then you get descriptions of food, both appealing and unappealing, descriptions of clothing, of limitations on personal hygiene in zero gravity, etc.

Besides that, there is the military factor. Obviously the authors have a background. They have thought about ballistics in space, shooting on a pressurized vessel, and whether so-called recoilless guns really don’t recoil when firing in a void. They have obviously been exposed to the kinds of people who do security, strip guns and know how to shoot and to avoid getting shot. The weird chunkiness of mind such people develop and the pathetic inobservant vulnerability of those of us who don’t are all accounted for.

They describe gunfights, space-ship fights, fistfights and more. I find the way they tell these and most things done in high detail, with enough description to make it live, to give one a vivid sense of the experience. In short, they do not take shortcuts in making the situation come alive, and that is probably one of the best things these books do. Life in space is not glamorized, but it is brought to life in a persuasive way. There is little margin for error, loads of vast empty boredom, a dependence on what is artificial in many ways, including medical, and so on.

Another of the pros is the fast paced, plot-twisting, page-turning way the story is told. You can always count on there being a mounting series of problems by page 200 that is not resolved till almost page 600, and this makes for very fast going. The 200 page lead-in is engaging, one mystery leading to another, and a new aspect of the setting explored for good measure. I don’t try to figure out what is going to happen when I read a book: I enjoy being led along. I do not figure out mysteries when I read those, and it may be that because of that I can enjoy predictable things more than other people do. I have no idea if these books are predictable, except that things will always get out of control and the outlook become bleak before it improves. There is a regular pattern, but I find the way things resolve suspenseful. I have to get up and walk around.

There are a lot of allusions in these books. The title of the second book, Caliban’s War, is entirely and allusion. They allude to Dune and to the Hitchhiker’s Guide, to Hieronymus Bosch, to Shakespeare and various other expected and unexpected things throughout. It is not usual, though the allusions are shallow and relatively lifeless. But they exist.

And the characters do have depth and interest. The story is told in the point-of-view approach which is common nowadays. You can get inside one character’s head at a time, as an author, but you cannot tell a story from an omniscient point of view. This has its advantages. One of the point-of-view characters is a liberal Methodist minister[ess]. Which is one of the curious things about this science-fiction series. There is religion, a little deeper than the allusions too, and it is far more present than one would think. What that did was show me how interesting the point-of-view approach could be for developing things. It can be used to take the reader who is sympathetic to the original prejudices through a series of developments. It could be done persuasively, and seems to me a tool with possibilities. They use it to great effect in the first book, switching points in the same situation and making the most of the changes this introduces. It also serves in this kind of space opera to scatter the reader across the wide, distant spaces effectively.

Cons: there are a lot of contemporary assumptions driving this story, assumptions which in a few years may well be quaint. The overcrowding of Earth, the need to exploit resources, law as an instrument of oppression and manipulation, but not as a good, let alone a noble thing, the legalization and constant use of drugs, uninhibited sexual mores. There are interesting criticisms of this tolerant point of view, what with the discipline the military requires, not to mention the threat to survival of living in artificial rather than natural human habitats. I do think, as with Ursula K. Le Guin, these authors are more interested in a story than in ideology, but the ideology they have is present. It is not wise. They are in some way critical, I must say, and knowing, but in no way wise.

Rousseau’s old notion that humans are basically good has been tempered. Humans basically are no longer noble, but out natural ignobility is to be accepted. There is no such thing as wisdom, so then knowledge is all. At one point you think they’re going to say impulse is all, because it crusades and is righteous. At another point you see that idealism being shot down. But they fin cynicism is problematic too, and so there is a kind of wavering-needle morality, not sure where exactly to point, but generally trying to avoid pointing unfavorably, like Aristotle’s ethics of mediocrity. They posit a UN Earth government that keeps everybody unwilling to work on welfare in giant slums, and then posit a more overachieving Mars military meritocracy which rivals the wealthier and older Earth in military might. The politics of the story are believable, but one wishes one could expect more of the politics of prudence and wisdom had been imagined to have carried through to the future. It is, I admit, hard to imagine.

And that is what is worst about these books: knowingness is all. Knowing about science, knowing about reality, knowing about human hearts. Knowledge is something, it is a good. But when there is no wisdom beyond it, no fullness, no telos, nothing ultimate or magnificent, then there is only mere knowingness, and it is too thin, for all that it is deep in facts.

But as a dream of knowingness, without greater expectations, then it is at least that much. It is a broad expanse.

The projected nine book series—the seventh comes out in December—is held together by an alien mystery that grows in the crisis of each book. Something that went from horror, to wonder, to scientific mystery looms over it all and remains unresolved. But that it is merely knowingness to the nth degree is, alas, my somewhat cynical expectation. I intend to see how the great ending comes about.

Prayer and Theology

We are to come to the Lord with our requests—among other things—but we are to come to the Lord. That is, we do not approach one whom we do not know, are not trying to know better, and who is not worthy. In fact, decency requires that we endeavor to understand him whom we approach with these requests, and reverence demands that we do it to the best of our abilities.

The result ought to be that when we approach the Lord, we not only bring our requests but also our theology. Here can be found the dynamic element in prayer. We tend to think the dynamic element in prayer is found in God. But God never changes. This is not to say that God does not hear and respond to our prayer, but it is to point out that we ought to expect prayer to be dynamic not outside of ourselves only (in a change to a circumstance or situation we have in mind). We ought to expect prayer to change us.

God never changes. This is good theology: he is immutable. How does that influence our prayers? It points out that the one who needs to change is not God. Is God ill-disposed toward us? Is the circumstance we are undergoing unforeseen? Has he run out of ideas and is he looking for some suggestions from us about what to do? God has all the options, all the power, all the wisdom and insight, and he goes so far as to understand the end of the story of which that situation is merely a part. It cannot be said of us that any of this is true.

I have often thought of God as capricious, or intolerant, ill-tempered or irrational. All these are idols and a comment on the state of my heart more than a comment on anything external, let alone anything real. These attitudes and ideas do not reflect reality, and the only thing they affect is me. When God says he is a jealous God, we ought not to think that he is such a being as is affected by the passion of jealousy, that it suddenly overtakes him influencing his behavior so that better thing that he might otherwise have done are eclipsed. This is to approach God without good theology, as if he were a mutable God, or more precisely, a passible rather than an impassible God. This kind of theology discourages prayer.

It is counterintuitive to say the opposite: God’s impassibility encourages prayer. The truth is, however, that a God who does not change is a God who is not like us, and that, after all, is a compelling reason to pray to him. What would God change toward if he were subject to change? One who is omnipotent cannot become more powerful, the only direction of change would be toward less power. Praying with the expectation that God will diminish in power is not really prayer. One who is perfectly good could only become imperfectly good, and that is not what we ought to desire. We do not want to have a God who changes. Impassibility is a part of God’s immutability. God is not affected by things, he does not change his affections, which means he does not have emotions. He does not go from a state of happiness and good-will to one of anger and ill-temper. He is not subject to passions.

Were he to be subject to passions, he could be surprised. God’s omniscience excludes divine surprise. God cannot be surprised. God cannot be informed of our situation either. He cannot be reminded of how it is for us: he knows that already. And what is more, he cannot be persuaded by us to do something less than what he has purposed. What God has purposed is perfect. It is just, it is right, it is good: it is what should be done, and it is what we should want.

And there is that dynamic element: what we want. One of the things prayer does for us is to reconcile us to our situation. It does that if we come to the Lord with adoration, acknowledging that he is impassible and good and wise and that all things are done according to the council of his will. Prayer reconciles us to our situation when we come with thanks, thanking God for not being capricious, for never making a mistake, for always doing what is best, for having foreseen not just more than we can foresee, but for having foreseen because he has foreordained all things.  Prayer reconciles us to our situation when we confess our own faults, our idolatries and evil desires. When we come to God with our requests and our theology, we may find our requests modified, but what we can be sure never will be modified is God himself. And as we draw near to him, he draws near to us, and works in our hearts, and fits us for his plans, rather than fitting himself, or his plans to us. And that is the answer to the great request.

The Qualities of the Glorified Body

Since the blessed soul, owing to its union with the first principle of all things, will be raised to the pinnacle of nobility and power, it will communicate substantial existence in the most perfect degree to the body that has been joined to it by divine action. And thus, holding the body completely under its sway, the soul will render the body subtle and spiritual. The soul will also bestow on the body a most, noble quality, namely, the radiant beauty of clarity. Further, because of the influence emanating from the soul, the body’s stability will not be subject to alteration by any cause; which means that the body will be impassible. Lastly, since the body will be wholly submissive to the soul, as a tool is to him who plies it, it will be endowed with agility. Hence the properties of the bodies belonging to the blessed will be these four: subtlety, clarity, impassibility, and agility.

This is the sense of the Apostle’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:42 ff.: In death the body “is sown in corruption, it shall rise in incorruption;” this refers to impassibility. “It is sown in dishonor, it shall rise in glory;” this refers to clarity. “It is sown in weakness, it shall rise in power,” and hence will have agility. “It is sown a natural body, it shall rise a spiritual body;” in other words, it will be endowed with subtlety.

Aquinas, Compendium Theologiae, 168.

Why There Are and Will Be Few Good Philosophers

In consequence, philosophical inquiry is hard and exhausting work. It takes intelligence of a rather rarefied kind, and work that is hard to sustain across a range of topics or over a long period of time. This is why figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and Wittgenstein are intellectual “venerables”: They exhibit sustained heroic intellectual virtues. But while serious philosophy requires analytical acuity and energy, these are not sufficient for achieving true insights. One also needs to have good sense and good judgment, an eye for the weeds, and an ability to distinguish between the significant and the trivial.

Most professional philosophers in the Anglophone academic world have highly trained analytical skills, but far fewer have cultural breadth and depth, and good sense and judgment, and fewer still are capable of sustained fruitful investigations. In face of the difficulties of the subject there are two temptations, though they represent themselves as virtuous options: to ascend to a high level of abstraction that disengages from detail and even from broader intellectual relevance, and to descend into the details of one field or another—physics, psychology, economics, medicine, or whatever else, either in a spirit of useful supplementary service, or one of subservience to these as the true sources of understanding and utility.

-John Haldane, with much more to say.

Aquinas at the End of the Day

The more I study history, the less enthusiasm I have for starting with primary texts. I think the more I learn, the more I realize how disoriented I’ve been. I learned from Plotinus that one can’t approach him without a good grasp of what is going one beforehand, which writings one will pore over his writings for a long time before one achieves that. I suppose there are authors who don’t require as many preliminaries. But most of church history is intellectual history, and those tend to require it more. So that now I don’t even want to start dealing with primary texts until I have read three introductions. At the moment I can do that. I can count on a week for reading three or four introductions.

Which is not to say I disparage reading primary texts. I have, however, witnessed a lot of milling around trying to figure out things that could have been addressed in preliminary considerations. We read the primary texts loaded with expectation that do not coincide with what was being addressed. That’s where you get the strange growth in the secondary literature of persons trying to work up enthusiasm for concerns they perceive mostly because they project them onto the primary literature.

But now I know my way around Aquinas. I’ve done at least five introductions. You know what I find about the Summae? Reading the objections and responses is tedious and only useful if you don’t understand the answer. If you just read the answer, it is not as tedious because you see the main part of what he’s getting at. If you need to go deeper, or do not understand what is going on, there are the objections and responses to them. Of course, if you have to be careful, you want to be careful. But there is a lot of Aquinas to be reading. The great thing is not, actually, to have read Aquinas, but to understand his arguments. Until you are a specialist, you will be a generalist, and there is a lot of general knowledge to master in Aquinas. The crabwise philosophy of Aristotle stretched the scope of theology enormously.