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by Stephen R. Lawhead
Crossway Books, 1983
Reviewed by: Elliot Hanowski
Stephen Lawhead doubtless hoped that his work of science fantasy faith-fiction, The Dream Thief, would lead his readers to prayer and repentance, and in my case at least he was completely successful. Indeed, I found myself praying fervently that the writing would improve, and there were numerous moments when I bitterly repented the fact that I had ever started the book.
Well, I should be charitable and say what's good about this story. It improves. The latter half is better than the first. So if you can drag yourself uphill for two hundred pages, there's hope. Secondly, Lawhead is a fairly good descriptive writer. I found the parts I enjoyed the best were the ones without much human interaction, introspection, or dialogue descriptions of dreams, a character wandering around by himself on Mars, depictions of a space station, and of India. The parts about India are so vivid that they make me wonder if Lawhead has spent time there.
The story itself isn't without interest outer space intrigue, lost cities, alien beings, a plot to take over the world. And it wasn't without flashes of humor. For example:
"And who can stand against God?"
Spence could think of no one offhand.
The characters can be charming I found myself drawn to the Indian genius Adjani and the alien Kyr. Unfortunately, this was at the expense of the main characters, Spence and Ari.
Some of the discussions about God were appealing. I particularly liked the Eucharistic scene which happens later in the book. I also appreciated the way the conversion sequence was fairly gradual and halting. The protagonist half-believes, then doubts, then disbelieves, then half-believes again. He receives what seem to be certain indications of Providence and then disbelieves them again the next day. This seems to me a fairly realistic depiction of human nature.
So what's wrong with this book?
Well, for one thing it's two or three hundred pages too long. Lawhead drags things out in the beginning, then advances the plot by uneven fits and starts. At some point he realizes that he's nearing his five-hundred page limit, and speeds everything much too fast, skipping over great chunks of important material near the end.
Motivation is a problem. The readers know why the characters should pursue a certain line of action, since we know more of the behind-the-scenes happenings, and because the formula demands it. The poor characters do not know these things, but Lawhead jerks them through their required paces regardless. Often someone will have an intuition or a mysterious feeling in their heart which tells them where to go or what to investigate next, or there will be a bizarre coincidence that reveals an important clue. These intuitions and coincidences usually provoke a pompous sermon on The Mysterious Promptings Of The Lord. Deus ex machina! This is poor theology (what happened to free will and secondary causes?) and worse writing.
As I've said, a few characters are interesting, but most of them are cardboard cutouts, a stereotype with a name attached. The main character is a remarkably bland and colourless man for the first two hundred pages. This is partly because Lawhead wishes to show what a life of selfish ambition does to a person, but it is pretty difficult to care about him. Even at the end, when he had grown, I found myself sympathizing more with the supervillain during one of his rare displays of personality. The villains are either snivelling cowardly bullies, or super-brains who have a plan for everything, but who have random fits of stupidity and hapless blundering to prevent them from actually winning.
The love interest is a two-dimensional blue-eyed blonde beauty, who's none too bright and who becomes your typical damsel in distress. Barring her deranged mother, who gets a bit part, she is the only female character. All of the scientists and cadets on board the ultramodern space station are male. Women are restricted to very traditional roles: "Spence half-expected the docking bay to be filled with wives and sweethearts and screaming children, all waiting eagerly for their husbands and lovers to return from their voyage. It suprised him to discover that, aside from a few girlfriends of cadets and the docking crew, the area was empty." Small wonder. What self-respecting woman would hang around guys like this?
How about the religious themes? As I've said, some of it is well done. Other parts, not so much. The theological musings can seem clumsy and preachy, and the God of this book appears to be pretty arbitrary. By the end we have a vague idea of why God would have been helping these particular people out, but in certain places Lawhead's hamhanded theologizing prompted more doubt than faith.
Though we have two important Indian characters, they both happen to be Christians, as are most of the good Indians in the story. The ignorant and wicked Indians are all Hindus. At points, Lawhead hints that some Hindu ideas may resonate with the truth about God, but then he backs away and makes a swipe at the religion: "As Spence had suspected... Hinduism was founded upon a primitive misunderstanding, a mistake of cosmic proportions." So the fact that some minor Hindu gods may have been based on space aliens sends the whole ancient religion tumbling to the ground? We Christians don't like it when crackpot theories are used to cavalierly dismiss our origins, even in fiction. I imagine Hindus feel the same way. Lawhead needn't accept Hinduism as true in whole or in part, but a more respectful handling of that faith would have been welcome.
Speaking of respectful handling, I've left one of the more bizarre things about this book till the end. The villain who gets the most screen time is a super-genius scientist. He's got a neuromuscular disorder of some kind, which leaves him skeletal and crippled. He floats around in a futuristic wheelchair which amplifies his voice and makes him sound strange. His name?
Sound familiar? Ever hear of A Brief History of Time? (July, 2006)
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