Letters from the Flesh

by Marcos Donnelly
ISBN: 0889953023

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Letters from the Flesh
by Ian Daffern

Letters from the Flesh is an intriguing science fiction novel that attempts to capture, in the form of two quite different sets of epistles, the basic divides of science and religion. Along the way it touches on the nature of souls, creation science versus evolution, incest and bodiless aliens, all the while playing homage to the form of C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. While all this is very ambitious, Donnelly may have tried to reach too far.
In Screwtape, a more senior devil advises his nephew, Wormwood, on the best ways to tempt his charge, a recently converted Christian. It's a tongue-in-cheek, backwards series of instructions, but in its observations of the human character, particularly our less palatable parts, it is cuttingly clear and concise.
The first set of Letters from the Flesh uses a similar philosophical framework, this time in instructional emails from Dr. Lillian, a university-based biologist, to her younger, less accomplished public school biology teacher cousin Michael. The good doctor offers advice to her cousin on how to deal with a contingent of fundamentalist Christian kids who resist being taught the concepts of evolution. Michael does not listen to her suggestions, and becomes embroiled in ideological politics. Dr. Lillian, however, knows the ins and outs of "Fundies" and offers to help him out of his creationist fix. But unlike Screwtape, the letters are not mere observations but describe a series of actions taken by the correspondents, which involve them quite intimately in the story.
It was a marvel to me that creationism still exists to the extent that it's shown in this novel. The writer skillfully illustrates the devilish twists in the logic or illogic of those defending the literal seven-day birth of the world. This made the book also quite timely, with the rise of Christian Fundamentalism in American and, ultimately, global politics. These insights did not prevent the novel from becoming too complicated for its own good.
Interwoven with the modern narrative is a second set of writings from the burgeoning days of Christianity, when it was just one more offshoot of Judaism hiding in the shadows of the Roman Empire. Into this time comes a member of the Asarkos, a race of bodiless aliens who exist as frequencies of energy. While transmitting through our galaxy, the alien finds itself accidentally forced to Earth. There it is incarnated in the body of one of the most famous epistolary writers of all time, Paul, formerly Saul, the author of more than half of the New Testament of the Bible. This fantastic origin fits in with what is actually known of Saul, a former non-believer who quite literally "saw the light" of conversion in a dazzling flash, and woke up a changed man.
Thus our letters come from the recollections of the born-again "Paul", who is found by a group of Christians and taken in by them. Being formerly a bodiless alien, Paul has no trouble believing in the possibility of a risen Christ, and begins to help his new friends, while at the same time attempting to discover the reasons behind his fleshly confinement.
Using an homage to Lewis's narrative as a means of presenting a modern-day moral and philosophical argument is both a bold and intriguing move. Unlike Lewis's narrators, however, the pen pals are revealed to be more than pals, and this is problematic. Our Doctor protagonist is gradually shown to have had a taboo relationship with her cousin and counterpart. Consequently, things become, how should we say, stickier. The narrative breaks away from its previous instructional tone, showing the narrator vulnerable to human passions as much as anyone else. The cousins' socially taboo relationship is painted as being antithetical to the moral compact of the fundamentalists, but it has no other obvious purpose. It becomes one more thread in an already complex knot increasingly difficult to untie.
It is also at this point that the narrative of Paul the Bodiless starts to intrude in subtle ways on the present, further complicating matters. While these intrusions occasionally work to reassert some of the cool rationalism and restore the authority of Dr. Lillian for the reader, it is too little, too late.
I was quite charmed by the sensitivity and simplicity of this newly incarnated alien Paul. I'm willing to go out on the sci-fi limb for the sake of a story. Why couldn't Saul of the New Testament have been inhabited by a free-floating alien intelligence? His reflections on the curious pleasures of the flesh, and his quest to find his own people in the dying days of the Roman Empire were both revealing and compelling.
There was some strength to be found in the juxtaposition of these two very different sets of epistles-one by email, one written two-thousand years ago on secret scrolls; one by corporeal beings arguing over the existence of the world of spiritual believers, the other by a spirit learning about the corporeal world. While at times the juxtaposition definitely worked, at other times it proved too confusing and messy.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us