Tag Archives: religion

The Bookseller of Kabul, Asne Seierstad

Social anthropology which reads as well as good fiction, Seierstad’s book provides a valuable glimpse into lives which could be centuries removed from contemporary US culture.  Despite Sultan Khan’s love of books and hope for a freer Afghan culture, his idea of gender roles – and that of nearly everyone else we meet here – is medieval at best.  Women are seen as chattel, servants and baby-makers with no rights, no autonomy; virtually no ‘selves’.  This is the most heartbreaking aspect of the Khan family’s story, but far from the only one.

Poverty is another focus of Seierstad’s, as illustrated in the sub-story of a carpenter, trying to support his extended family on small wages.  That he turns to theft is condemnable but not difficult to understand or sympathize with.  One ends up taking small relief that he is at least not mutilated under Sharia law, but is the destitution of his family really any less-cruel a punishment? An apt reminder that economic opportunity is a bedrock freedom somewhere down there with freedom of speech and thought.

Literature often shines a light on our own lives, asking us to question them, and reading this book is such a case.  Are the poor and disadvantaged of our own time and place any less confined than those of early-aughts Kabul?  Are the women of that Texas religious compound, that Utah plural-marriage household, that Bronx tenement or Brooklyn Hassidic neighborhood any less limited? Well, yes, actually; though industrialized western societies have far to go, these Afghans have farther.  One can only hope that exposure to some good points of a more ‘modern’ culture will gradually erode the stultifying lid which encloses their lives.

Those thoughts were put down in 2008, when it was still marginally-possible to hope that a new US administration could salvage something out of the chaos wrought by our invasion of this battleground nation.  Transcribing them now, one is struck by the continuing tragedy that whatever progress any segments of Afghan society may have made in the ensuing dozen years of Western politico-military involvement there is as precarious as ever, what with the Taliban resurgent, a Faustian bargain for peace in the offing and pluralistic, liberal societies battling for survival around the world, even to the halls of the US Capitol bldg.   “The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance,” runs a line widely attributed to Thomas Jefferson (though the historians at Monticello deny it).  The line is true enough, but worth remembering is that the operative word there is ‘vigilance,’ not ‘war.’  And that the sentiment might even be improved by replacing that with some other intellectual posture, such as ‘objectivity’, ‘questioning’ or ‘critical thought,’ even if that would cost some of its bold, heroic ring.

(That the real-life bookseller – whose name Seierstad had obscured in hopes of protecting his family’s privacy – later rejected her portrayal and very-publicly fought the author in Norwegian court, only to lose, lends yet another layer of complexity and sadness to the entire business)

And the beat goes on.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Phillip K. Dick

Held up as a classic of sci-fi, and part of Dick’s canon, this brief dystopian cops & killers tale inspired the film Blade Runner (and its sequel), so seemed like a must-read.   Published in 1968 it was, like all of Dick’s work, more pulp than lit, which shows in the writing; sometimes clumsy,  sometimes cliché, but occasionally quite thoughtful  An example of the latter comes about 75% of the way in, as Rachael, an android whose model-line has been carefully designed to generate sexual desire in wet-blooded males (Dick’s repeated appreciations of ‘small high breasts’ and an almost boyishly-androgenous physique are curious, but apparently appeal broadly-enough to have found their way into the movie), latches on to a bounty hunter’s qualms about terminating something so potentially loveable – and begins to use them against him.

That, it turns out, points us to Dick’s real interest here. Forget the totalitarianism and environmental destruction (though those are valid themes and forward looking for 1968, if not exactly prescient).  What he’s really chewing on are our notions of identity and what makes a life worthy of value.  How artificially-intelligent must an android be before it starts to resent being viewed as an object or tool, and how human-like can it be before the continuation of its operating ‘life’ justifies the same price as a ‘real’ (i. e., organic, non-manufactured) life.  A license to kill, in this case, soon turns into a license to doubt. 

The comparisons are greatly aided by Dick’s postulation of Earth as a dying planet, from which nearly all humans have departed except those too damaged to earn a flight out.  Denigrated as a lesser caste, the lives of these radiation-damaged ‘chickenheads’ are limited, dull and dreary; hardly more rewarding or free than those of the androids they manufacture to serve the off -world elite.  The return of several renegade androids presents a threat to the few fully-functioning humans who have remained behind to keep the remnants of industry in operating order – Rick Deckard being one of them.  Poor and depressed, with a wife addicted to artificial emotions fed out of an electronic box, he seems qualified for the detective part of his task, but quickly out of his depth with the moral issues to come. 

That these humans have turned pet-ownership into a fetish and status indicator adds another twist to their prejudice.  Decker and his neighbors will scrimp and borrow to spend a fortune on almost any animal, whether real or simulated – to salve their thirst for companionship and belonging, yet they deny any hint of those same values to androids who have been manufactured in their own image.  And speaking of values, Dick gives his humans a pseudo religion, the cult of Wilbur Mercer, apparently created by their leadership to provide the lesser populace with distracting illusions of purpose and salvation – this society which creates artificial animals, artificial humans, and artificial environments on other planets has also manufactured an artificial religion, designed to specifications.  Not a stretch at all

How much humanity can you put into a machine before it deserves the same rights as its creators, and how far can we dehumanize our fellow beings before their value drops beneath that of their creations; especially when one realizes there is no big ‘C’ Creator out there to insist the two are inherently different?  Questions we may need to begin answering quite soon, the way things are going.