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Letters From the Flesh, Marcos Donnelly, Robert J. Sawyer Books, 2004, 191 pp.

Letters From the Flesh is an epistolary novel, which is not such a popular method for writing novels any more, but the effect is deliberate. Donnelly specifically references the letters of the Bible (in particular, the letters that make up most of the New Testament) and also the way in which emails have brought letter writing, albeit in an altered form, back to communications in modern life. It's an interesting link, even though the connection between the two is not clear at first.

Letters From the Flesh is told by two letter writers. The first is Paul of Tarsus, the famous apostle. Donnelly gives a rather heretical explanation for the Damascus road experience that changed Saul, the persecutor of Christians, to Paul, the foremost adherent of the new religion. He is acting so differently because he has become the new home of an incorporeal alien entity. Saul is still lurking somewhere inside his body, but Paul has taken over. He is an Asarkos, and suddenly has to understand the "race of sentient matter I call the fleshed ones, the Sarkate" (14). He also finds himself professing Christianity, despite the danger from the Roman authorities and, more personally, despite the disbelief of those new converts who were previously persecuted by him. First century Damascus and Antioch are presented believably, as are other famous personalities of the early church, such as the Greek doctor Luke and Thomas the Doubter.

The second letter writer is Lillian Oberland, a scientist at an institution somewhere in middle America. She is writing via email to her cousin, Mike, who has started teaching science at a nearby high school. Lillian is horrified that Mike wants to engage the creationists in his class (or at least the students in his class who are surrogates for an organized creationist effort by a local church) in a debate. From Lillian's point of view, such a debate would be worse than pointless, it would be conceding that the other side (creationism) could have a debate on equal footing. Her worst fears are confirmed when the day of the debate brings violent protest and what amounts to a break in her relationship with her cousin.

From the setup as described so far, this book could have been unbearable to read. Presenting the events of early Christianity as a form of science fiction is a trick that wore out its welcome decades ago; the debate between evolution and creationism has such an obvious answer for those on either side that all accompanying rhetoric seems pointless. Letters From the Flesh really does wade deep into the middle of both issues. Fortunately, Donnelly's prose has a light touch that grabs the reader immediately with its charm and nimble intelligence, as well as portraying character with a deft economy. What's more both storylines have an unexpected degree of suspense, as Paul tries to deal with the new situation -- it's the classic fish-out-of-water scenario that has driven so much of the best sf -- and Lillian pugnaciously throws herself into a plainly disastrous confrontation. It's definitely a "slowing down to look at the car wreck" scenario.

Donnelly walks a fairly tight line with his characterization of Lillian. She is effectively portrayed by the prose, as mentioned, but she's not always a sympathetic character. She's essentially an antiheroine, and there's a twist in her story about two-thirds of the way through the book that can put off those readers who want to identify thoroughly with the protagonist. Donnelly handles this revelation well but it does change the tone of the book.

Unfortunately, the book runs out of steam closer to the end. The clever writing carries us through the first half of the book quite easily, as we learn about the situations and see how they develop. Wrapping up these developments proves a more difficult task. The problems of a Bible-as-sf notion accumulate and spiral out of control. After a certain point, Donnelly isn't making interesting commentary on religion or science any more, he's trying to tie up loose threads. The connection between the two storylines is sudden and it seems to undercut some of the tension between Lillian and Mike and the issues that they are struggling with. I applaud the conciseness of the book but the conclusion could have used some work, perhaps expanding it to give more of a sense of reward for the investment in the characters or explaining it more fully.

Letters From the Flesh is the inaugural book for a new line of science fiction, edited by Robert J. Sawyer and published by Red Deer Press. The book itself is a handsome edition, featuring a Hubble photograph mixed with some text. Sawyer provides a brief introduction, mentioning a few examples of how religion has been treated in science fiction. He goes on to say why this book was the first to be published for his imprint:

Satiric and insightful, Letters From the Flesh is informed by encyclopedic knowledge of both science and theology. It's in the very best tradition of idea-driven science fiction, and is a perfect exemplar of the sort of literate, philosophically rich, mind-expanding books Red Deer Press and I hope to bring you under this new imprint. (8)

Letters From the Flesh is certainly an ambitious book, if not flawless; as the debut for a new imprint, it's well worth a look.

Last modified: June 1, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (

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