The October/November 2008 double issue of Asimov's opens and closes with a pair of excellent novellas. At the top is Nancy Kress's "The Erdmann Nexus," which concerns the emergence of a gestalt consciousness in a nursing home. As the first experiences of this group mind begin to crop up, there are an understandably vast variety of interpretations. The title character, Henry Erdmann, is a 90something physicist whose scientific skepticism makes it difficult for him to accept what's happening. Others in the assisted-living facility have their own interpretations. Among them is Gina Martinelli, a conservative Christian who sees the glimpses of collectivity as a sign of the imminent Second Coming. Contrasted with Gina is Erin Bass, a new-agey mystic who interprets the experiences through the lens of Eastern mysticism (or at least a Westernized version thereof):
"What we see in this world is just maya, the illusion of permanence when in fact, all reality is in constant flux and change. What's happening here is beyond the world of intellectual concepts and distinctions. We're getting glimpses of the mutable nature of reality, the genuine undifferentiated 'suchness' that usually only comes with nirvana. The glimpses are imperfect, but for some reason our collective karma has afforded them to us."
[If you feel you need a spoiler warning, consider yourself warned—but the strength of Kress's story is more style than surprise.] In the story's final pages, our third-person omnipotent grants us some glimpses inside several characters' minds as they are given the choice to join the group mind or continue their . For Erin Bass, the experience is defined within the terms of her spirituality. It is "satori... oneness with all reality." Similarly, a nameless woman in Shanghai interprets the experience of joining the transcendent mind as "the gods entering her soul." What, then, does Gina Martinelli experience? Unlike Bass, she does not see the experience through the lens of her faith. She experiences transcendence, but does not see Jesus there. She concludes: "If Christ was not there, then this wasn't Heaven. It was a trick of the Cunning One, of Satan who knows a million disguises and sends his demons to mislead the faithful." She rejects the group mind, opting to wait for the Second Coming outside of the collective intelligence.
What does this say about faith and religious experience? If two non-Christian characters are allowed to interpret their experiences in the vocabulary of their faith, why isn't the Christian character allowed the same leeway? My guess is that Kress's intention was to show that non-Western religions have provided a vocabulary that is better suited to describing transcendent experiences than Christianity has. But that simply isn't true—from Pseudo-Dionysius to Meister Eckhart to Philip K. Dick, Christianity is chock full of mysticism that would allow for the kind of collective experience this story describes to be described quite well. Of course, Gina is presented as having a particularly narrow kind of faith. Perhaps I'm splitting hairs here—after all, I complain about the close-mindedness of conservative Christianity pretty frequently, and ignorance of the history of mysticism is certainly part of that close-mindedness. But even I will allow that conservative Christians have their own strands of mysticism, as the growing popularity of Pentecostalism shows. I would expect that even as stereotypical a Bible-thumper as Gina Martinelli would be able to see her faith reflected in the totality of all existence. To describe a transcendent experience with culturally-specific terms—"satori," "the gods"—and to refuse to allow a character from a different faith-tradition to have the same kind of culturally-specific interpretation strikes me as a double-standard. It's a quibble, really: Martinelli is a pretty minor character, and Kress's story is characteristically good. Nevertheless, that kind of detail does tends to rankle.
At the close of this issue of Asimov's is Robert Reed's similarly-epic novella "Truth." Most of the story takes place in an underground prison containing a mysterious convict. Ramiro is a terrorist, arrested after crossing the Canadian border with a sizable lump of uranium, who seems to come from over a century in the future. Ramiro is introduced as a Muslim—the second page of the story makes references to his "five daily prayers, the salat"—but his story is far more complicated than one might assume. The story details his captors' respect for him, and the wealth of information with which that respect is rewarded. (Of course, the end of the story makes that a bit more complicated, too.) There are no easy answers in "Truth;" it's a story that shows that the world doesn't necessarily fit into the categories we devise to describe it. But unlike Gina Martinelli in "The Erdmann Nexus," Reed's characters are able to question their presuppositions by the story's end.
On top of those great novellas, this issue has a nice SF mystery from usually-a-fantasy-author Brandon Sanderson, a brief parable about the curse of wealth from Leslie What, and a wonderfully elegiac tale of societal collapse from Ian R. MacLeod, all beneath a wonderfully retro cover from Virgil Finlay. (These days not enough magazine covers show fairies riding giant insects shooting at planes, I say.) I'm always surprised to see how low the circulation numbers for Asimov's are, given the always-high quality of the stories they publish... so go buy a copy, ok?