Paradise Proximus (review: The Proximian, by Dennis Phillips)

3 Aug

When I was a kid, Aslan kind of freaked me out.  I’ve always had an unaccountable sympathy for Edmund Pevensie, who did the completely logical thing when confronted by an evil witch in an alien landscape: cooperate.  And when I learned from a fervent elementary school teacher one Easter that C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is really a thinly-veiled allegory for the death and resurrection of Jesus—well, that was a revelation akin to discovering that Santa Claus was really my mom shopping at Kids R Us.  Except this was infinitely more disturbing.  I’d been expecting the Santa-Parent parallel.

And that rather digressive paragraph stems from the déjà vu I felt reading Dennis Phillips’s June 2010 novel The Proximian.

The Proximian follows the journey of Carl Sage, a young man with an intellectual capacity that “makes Einstein look like a chimp” (as one colleague so eloquently put it).  Neural pathways “re-programmed” by an extraterrestrial signal broadcast over the television at the tender age of six, Carl discovers that his 21st birthday doesn’t just mean the legal right to drink and a high-powered research job at General Astro Dynamic.  With those gifts comes the power to engage in hypersleep, a telepathic dream state with Noyes, a native of a distant planet orbiting Proximus Centauri desperate to save his dying race.

No, I don’t mean species.

Until about page 80, Dennis Phillips did an astonishing job creating a near-future world as the setting of an alien contact story shaping up to be something akin to Carl Sagan’s classic 1985 Contact—and nothing less.  With the name Carl Sage for his scientist protagonist, I was immediately put in mind of the venerable astrophysicist and science popularizer.  Phillips’s technical descriptions of a massive radio telescope on the dark side of the moon didn’t hurt either.  An author who cites Arthur C. Clarke as an inspiration was doing a solid job with smooth prose, sound science, and an intriguing storyline.  Until page 84.

Ten years after publishing his science fiction masterpiece Contact, Carl Sagan published a nonfiction book as compelling as any prose I’ve ever read—The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  A manifesto for science, rationality, and anti-mysticism, The Demon-Haunted World is truly what the back cover says it us: a “baloney-detection kit.”  Which is why, erroneously viewing Carl Sage as an Ellie Arroway avatar, I wasn’t expecting The Proximian to turn into a Christian allegory along the lines of another author with the initials C.S.

When Carl Sage goes into hypersleep at age 21, he communes with the Proximian Noyes, a man with a revelation:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… He created Adam and Eve.  He placed them in the Garden of Eden to test them, but Adam failed.  They ate the forbidden fruit…

Conventional idea.  But don’t worry—God, being prescient and all, had a back-up plan:

When he made man, he didn’t make just two of each.  He made millions and placed them all over the earth.

Noyes’s people lived on the continent known today as Antarctica (well, at least it wasn’t Atlantis).  And then came the flood.

“This is where Noah comes in?” Carl asked.

“Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.  Right you are, Buddy Boy!  Old Noah!”

“But you didn’t get on the boat, did you?”

“Nope.  We built a spaceship.”

And with the power of Faith to guide them, the Proximians-to-be found Proximus.  Now, however, they face the prospect of transformation into red-eyed devil-like monsters with gleaming teeth and slightly unpleasant personalities—when exposed to the light of the red dwarf star they orbit, naturally.  Carl’s job?  Build the spaceship Ambassador and travel the four and a half light years dividing their worlds in order to save Noyes’s “lost” brethren.

The problem I have with The Proximian isn’t the incorporation of Christianity—hey, I read C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy on my lunch breaks interning at the Ayn Rand Institute last summer—but rather the fact that a book described by the author as hard sci-fi  takes such a supernatural turn.  It seems incongruous, and my suspension of disbelief snapped at page 80.

I simply hadn’t seen it coming.

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