Quantum Religion: Ken Wharton's Divine Intervention
Reviewed by Lori Ann White
10 December 2001
Divine Intervention could have been a profound meditation on the eternal tension between science and religion.
Thank heaven first-time author Ken Wharton decided to have a little fun instead.
Divine Intervention does contain science aplenty, as well as religion. It combines them, in fact, in one of the niftiest explanations for God I've yet seen. Wharton has created a plausible science-based religion called Symmology, predicated on a new interpretation of quantum mechanics -- that the universe is truly time-symmetric. Another arrow of time has originated (or, from our perspective, will originate) at the Big Crunch and is shooting past us on its trek from our future toward our past, with the Big Bang as its final destination. God is the collective consciousness of beings traveling along that other arrow.
This vast intelligence is much closer to the Big Bang than we are to the Big Crunch, and thus far in advance of our abilities. We cannot interact with God directly, but only through the quantum interstices of our minds -- in prayer, or through religious visions. Such an epiphany is experienced by the Captain of the Walt Disney, Earth's first colony ship, as it travels from star to star, searching for a home, and over time the crew of the Walt Disney, chosen for their scientific abilities, logical minds, and agnostic ways, embrace the scientific religion of Symmology as revealed by their Captain.
The Walt Disney finds Mandala, and 115 Mandalan years later Symmology is the leading religion of a small but thriving colony centered in Mandala City. The Captain is revered as a Moses figure, having led his people to the promised planet. The ship's log books and the Captain's journal comprise Symmology's religious writings. What the Mandalans teach to their children as "theology" more closely resembles mathematics and physics.
At first Mandala appears to be a peaceful colony, but it doesn't take long to find trouble in paradise. Not everyone subscribes to Symmology or wants to live in the rigidly-ordered City. Thus far the dissidents -- contemptuously called Burnouts by the City-dwellers -- have been content to leave Mandala City and found their own commune-like "kingdoms." But more trouble is coming. Suitable land for colonization on Mandala is limited, and environmental pressures loom. Rising tensions between the Burnouts and the City dwellers have spurred development of weapons, formation of a militia, and pressure for a pre-emptive strike against the Burnouts from the more hawkish factions of the Mandala City government.
To make matters worse, another ship from Earth has already arrived in-system, a ship that carries enough colonists in cold sleep to crowd all the descendants of the original settlers -- City dweller and Burnout alike -- off the best land and reduce them to a powerless minority. Alexander Channing, Prime Minister of Mandala City, is spurred to drastic measures to maintain both the independence of the City and his own position as the biggest fish in the pond. It's a small pond, true, but it's the only pond in town, and he's not going to give it up without a fight.
Toss in a boy who can talk to God, and the stage is set for fireworks.
The boy is Drew Randall, a typical seven-year-old (nine in Earth years) with a healthy imagination and a modicum of mischievousness. Drew is bright, but in a realistic way -- he's not possessed of the self-aware precocity of a sitcom kid. Theology is his favorite class. No surprise, as his father, Paul, is a preacher of Symmology, respected by the City dwellers and tolerated by the Burnouts, with whom he does missionary work. Drew is also a deaf-mute, a legacy of the cosmic radiation that bombarded his ancestors on the Walt Disney. But Drew can hear and speak, courtesy of a clever microwave transceiver that feeds directly into his brain. It's his transceiver that enables him to talk to God, and, as all the various plots unfold -- City versus Earthies, City versus Burnouts, Burnouts versus Earthies -- God sees all, and God talks back.
As Drew, his father, and his mother Katrina, a biologist, are drawn further into the machinations of the different players, the action escalates, war looms, and thousands of lives are at stake. Drew -- and God -- hold the key to restoring peace to Mandala.
Divine Intervention has its share of philosophical musings on the natures of time and God, but for the most part it's a darned fun read set firmly in the action-adventure camp. It also has some loving descriptions of interesting science (Wharton is a physicist), a few puzzles to chew on along the way (what are the Burnouts up to? Is God really God?), and some engaging characters, roughly in that order of importance. For the most part, the action, the science, the puzzles, and the characters deliver.
In praising Divine Intervention, I don't want to oversell the novel. It does have some problems. I sometimes found myself wishing for a little more depth, a little more persistence in pushing ideas to the next level, on asking the next question. (On the other hand, Wharton isn't Samuel Delany -- nor does he claim to be -- and in an unashamed action-adventure story, such a failing can scarcely be called a fatal flaw. ) Several areas would have benefited from such persistence: Mandala City itself, which, except for a few interesting tidbits, always seemed like a small midwestern city; a conflict between Drew's parents that could have -- and should have -- almost torn them apart but was instead glossed over; the Burnouts, who turned out to be much more engaging characters than the stuffy old City dwellers. And Wharton's religion, Symmology, the centerpiece of the novel.
The science of Symmology is splendidly drawn. In fact, Wharton gets a wee bit repetitious about it. But the religion of Symmology is given short shrift. Wharton does ponder the question of free will, given that God has seen our future, and even comes up with a compelling reason why such a God would find it in His best interests to help us out.
Yet when told that Drew's father Paul turned to Symmology for comfort after the tragic deaths of twin daughters before Drew was born, I found myself wondering what comfort a religion like Symmology could provide. There's no promise of a "better place" for grieving parents to cling to, no talk of a purpose for senseless deaths. No guarantee that death is not the end, no assurances that our individual prayers will be answered. Unfortunately, the God of Symmology is no more prepared than we are to answer the question, "Why?" Wharton has postulated two intelligences whizzing past each other at the speed of time, but it seems to me there's still room at the top.
Does this invalidate the novel? No -- far from it. If you think it does, you're reading the wrong book. Wharton was obviously having a lot of fun with Divine Intervention and he's been kind enough to invite us along for the ride. I see no reason to turn him down. But I look forward to his second novel with the hope that he's gained enough confidence to really explore some of his nifty ideas.
Lori Ann White is a writer and martial artist currently living in the San Francisco Bay area. She has appeared in Writers of the Future, Vol. 3, Full Spectrum, Vol. II, and has work forthcoming in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. She is also personally acquainted with author Ken Wharton, and hopes her first novel turns out as well.