Onyx Press (Salt Lake City), 1996.
I've hesitated to offer my thoughts on this book because I simply didn'tcare for it, and I generally don't believe in giving bad reviews. Readingtastes are so subjective that reviews at either extreme can usually bediscounted as either the serendipity of the ideal reader or the collisionof incompatible aesthics. In either case, the review becomes an emotionalresponse, not an intellectual one, so the value of the review becomessuspect.
Nevertheless, I think it is worthwhile to know why individual readers do ordon't like a particular book, so I offer my thoughts here with thedisclaimer that I have very strong feelings about the book -- most of thembad. This book frustrates me deeply for reasons that I will try toarticulate here.===== + ===== + ===== + ===== + ===== + =====
Jerry Johnston had the following to say in his capsule comment onEphraim's Seed in the Deseret News (the entire text of the commentappears here).
& & & & From novelist Richard Paul Evans to the Osmond family, LDS artists have always felt comfortable with popular culture. In literature, that means a lot of Mormons write "genre" fiction: Westerns, romances, mysteries, science fiction.
& & & & In "Ephraim's Seed," Pam Blackwell has apparently gone for a hat-trick; three genres in one. The cover calls the book "a psycho-spiritual millennial thriller." There's also some literary heavy lifting going on as well -- epigrams for each chapter from the likes of W.B. Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, Milton, and Shakespeare.
& & & & Who says you can't have it all?
At the risk of sounding catty, Pam Blackwell can't have it all. InEphraim's Seed she has produced a book that failed to meet its ownpromises. From the cover quote attributed to the Deseret News (but thatappears to have been quoted by the Deseret News from the author's own pressrelease), to the unattributed blurbs on the back cover (".& .& . so intense itmakes the end of Joyce's Ulysses read like a repair manual for an airconditioning unit!"), to the epigrams mentioned by Jerry Johnston in hiscapsule, Ephraim's Seed makes promises to the reader that the text didn'tkeep.
The story centers around Ben and Peg Taylor and their odyssey in a nearfuture America where an oppressive international government (the UWEN) hasconquered most of the world (including the United States and Europe), hasoutlawed Mormonism, and has instituted a series of strict economic policiesand interstate borders patrolled by attack helicopters with orders to shootto kill. Ben and Peg have been married for only four years -- each marriedfor the second time -- and Ben is a recent convert after a childhood as aninactive Jew and an adulthood looking for god.
We follow Ben and Peg as they are forced to flee Salt Lake City (to escapea UWEN crackdown on the Mormon black market) to find refuge at the southernUtah ranch (Pah Tempe) of a non-Mormon friend and his Mormon wife. As theywait out an attempt by Interpol to secure the Utah border, other Mormonsbegin to gather at the ranch as well. Eventually, Ben comes in contact withtwo apostles hiding from the authorities and is called to translate platesheld by the Dalai Lamas for over three thousand years.
Through a series of adventures, including the kidnapping of Ben's children(from his first wife, now dead) from abusive grandparents in California, toBen's introduction to transcendental meditation by a Tibetan monk, to armedconflicts with Interpol-armed criminals sent to eliminate them, we followthe residents of Pah Tempe as they come to grips with the startling realitythat the last days have arrived and they are seeing the signs of theapocalypse. Each of them finds their faith tested in personally uniqueways, and all find that they have a role in building the New Jerusalem inpreparation for the Second Coming.
The book attempts to do a great many things, and succeeds to varyingdegrees in each of those attempts.
A Mormon Apocalyptic Folklore Primer
First, the book does raise a lot of questions of specific interest toMormons. It takes a look at the events that have been prophesied for thelast days and attempts to make them real. Characters struggle with theevents, questioning whether they are fulfillment of prophecy or just hardtimes. Some see the events as proof of their faith, others see theirfriends changing from ordinary people to borderline religious fanatics forapparently irrational reasons. There's a woman facing the choice of herhusband versus her religion and the real need to leave one behind. The bookraises a lot of intriguing questions and offerd some interestingpossibilities. There are many gifts of the spirit in evidence, includingvisions, premonitions, and translation of ancient texts.
In this sense the book was successful. Two weeks after finishing the book,I find myself thinking about many of the issues raised, and I find that myown ideas of the last days and what will happen have been stimulated andchallenged. But the frustrations I experienced in dealing with the text andthe story were so great that I can't help but wonder if I could not havebeen as equally challenged by a bullet list of Mormon assumptions andpossible alternatives.
In fact, that thought underscores one of my major issues with the book. Itread like a thickened outline, a paint-by-numbers plot that was so focusedon the grand idea of the events leading to the coming Millenium that itforgot to tell a story about real people. In this sense, I admit that mycriticisms may be unfair -- I find stories about ideas to be less satisfyingthan stories about characters, and this story was very much about an idea.And even then, the book was filled with pages of irrelevant detail thatdistracted from the primary narrative goal.
It's characters were simplistic and flat, with people filling roles morethan functioning as real people. The author is a psychology professor andclinician, and that background came through in how the characters wereportrayed. Every character seemed hyphenated, which is to say that they hadnot just a name, but a type, as well. There's Ben-Converted-Jew andGrace-Prophetess-Earth-Mother. There's Sangay-Guru-Prophet and BishopOlsen-Father-Figure. It seemed as though every character was workingthrough a deep-seated issue from their childhood, usually related to a coldor uncaring father or a fear of death. In the end, fulfilling their typeseemed more important than being real people, and the problems they facedcould have been shifted to nearly any other character without a loss ofpoignancy.
Politics Meets Religion
Second, the book makes some assumptions and offers some political commentsthat I so violently disagree with that it became nearly impossible for meto treat the book seriously. The world situation is straight out of analarmist, right-wing political tract, with the New World Order and theinternational conspiracy coming to power and imposing despotic rule on theworld. It was almost funny with its cartoonish bad guys sitting in roomstrying to think of ways to hurt Mormons -- not individuals, but the culturein general.
This is one of the areas I have a hard time commenting on. Politics is oneof the quickest ways to start an argument among friends (after religion),and one's opinions on the matter are so personal as to be useless in areview of fiction. And the politics of this book are almost perfectlyopposed to my own.
Where the issue really gets difficult is when it's mixed in withapocalyptic prophecy and issues of religion. To me the book is tying thealarmist right-wing political theory directly to apocalyptic doctrine, andthat assumption angered me throughout.
There is a fairly common cultural assumption among Mormons that the lastdays will look a lot like the last days of Nauvoo, with raging mobs out tomurder innocent Mormons, the Church leadership in hiding from corruptofficials, and a government that is either indifferent or openlyantagonistic to our plight. That's simply the way the last days will be, sothe best you can do is prepare for it. This belief has led some to stockweapons and ammunition with their food storage and to mistrust anygovernment outside the Church. Not my flavor of apocalyptic politics, butnot as uncommon as one might think.
Ephraim's Seed offers this prototypical Mormon nightmare as reality. TheChurch has been outlawed, government-armed thugs are sent after politicaldissidents, and wiretaps and armed state borders are simply a fact of life.Personal liberty is a thing of the past.
Which raises a problem. If this vision of the future really is common tothe Mormon culture, then it theoretically needs no further explanationbecause the intended audience already accepts it as real. But I don'tbelieve that Mormon culture is quite that homogeneous in politicalapproach, and I don't think you can simply offer that future with noexplanation. One of the genres that Ephraim's Seed claims (albeitpassively) is that of science fiction, and one of the basic rules ofscience fiction is that things happen for reasons -- with the reasons offeredas part of the plot development. Ephraim's Seed failed to offer reasonsfor this extraordinary future, and as such fails as even basic sciencefiction.
It's one thing to offer unexplained miracles; it's another thing altogetherto offer implausible futures where people and governments do things thatmake no sense. What purpose is served in patrolling the borders of thestate of Utah? What purpose is served in shipping all of America's wheat toEurope so that Americans are left without basic staples? What purpose isthere in outlawing a single, relatively small religion?
This book's assumptions seem to work by this logic:
- In the future, the hearts of men will wax cold and evil will rule theworld.
- If good people do good for its own sake, then evil people must doevil for its own sake, revelling in personally harmful actions simplybecause they're evil.
- Therefore, no explanations are needed for this extraordinary futurebecause everyone knows that that's just what evil people do.
I don't have a problem with the first assertion, but the second and thirdreally bother me. Apparently outlawing Mormonism needs no explanation,because it's clearly an evil act and evil has no explanation.
Why expend military effort to patrol state borders in a conqueredcountry -- especially when you're at war with China and need all militarystrength to win the war? Because it's despotic, and that's what despots do.
It's almost Lovecraftian in the sense that the motives of evil areincomprehensible.
(My personal belief is that evil people do what they do for personalgain -- be it in the form of power, money, or pleasure. What makes them evilis that they place their acquisition of gain above the welfare of humanbeings; the life of a person is worth less than the Air Jordans on theirfeet. Their reasons may be alien, but the reasons do exist and they comedown to personal gain. I don't recall ever seeing an evil savior whosacrifices himself so that evil may live; the nature of the thing simplydoesn't support true self-sacrifice. Evil people don't do things that arepersonally harmful just because the act is evil; they do it to getsomething they want. There is always a selfish motivation.)
These assumptions bother me for several reasons. If the justification forfailing to offer reasons is that "everyone in my audience already believesin that future" then the author has narrowed the intended audience of thebook to those who espouse a specific political theory. I guess there'snothing wrong with that, but it limits the effectiveness of the book andbegs whether it would have been better served if labelled as a politicaltract.
If the assumption is that all Mormons believe that way, then I think theauthor just plain missed the boat. There is little actual doctrine on whatwill happen in the last days -- especially in terms of politics -- though thereis a tremendous amount of speculation. The casual assumption that thisparticular speculation requires no explanation is a critical error incraft. If given a reason, I can choose to agree or disagree; when given noreasons, it becomes an assumption of general knowledge or acceptance thatsimply isn't justified.
I don't claim that the vision offered in Ephraim's Seed isn't valid; Ijust argue that it isn't internally justified, thus coming up short asfiction.
Writing and Craft
Third, I found the book to suffer in basic issues of craft, both by theauthor and by the publisher. This was not a well-written book, sentence bysentence or scene by scene. Odd turns of phrase and bizarre non-sequitersleft me scratching my head fairly regularly. Character motivations wereerratic and sometimes just plain incomprehensible.
An example .& .& .
Early in the book, Ben and Peg flee to Pah Tempe, a ranch in southern Utahowned by their friends Alex and Moira. Ben and Peg are escaping theinternational government and have made it clear that their lives are indanger and no one is to be trusted. On their first night at Pah Tempe, Benis so mentally exhausted that he hallucinates while sitting in a hot springbehind the house. At this point Alex is called to the front gate to dealwith two carloads of strange men who have come to the gate asking afterBen, claiming to be friends of his from Salt Lake. Alex and Moira aretrying to decide what to do.
& & & & "I can't imagine anyone making up such a story, and I can't ask Ben. He'sout of it at the moment. Talking to Beethoven."
& & & & "Excuse me?" Moira asked.
& & & & Alex waved his hand to dismiss the remark. "I'll tell you later. Let themin. What the hay!" [sic] Noah's ark, he thought as he walked up to thegate, opened it and gestured to the cars to move forward. Moira told methis would happen when we bought the place. He shook his head. A friendonce said Moira was his talisman. More like a tiger that I've got by thetail, Alex laughed to himself. Who was it used to sing that song? BuckOwens? He couldn't remember. What the song did bring up was a memory of theSan Fernando pool hall his father used to take him to -- the acrid smell ofbeer and smoke, his father's eyes, mean, demanding that he not blow thisshot in doubles -- he had twenty bucks riding on it. Alex could see the othermen's faces too. Cold. They were unsympathetic to the slight, sensitiveten-year-old boy who just wanted time with his father. (35)
No reasons are offered as to why Alex would let perfect strangers into theranch when Ben has made it clear that evil men are after him. With a shrugand a "What the hay!" Alex puts his own family and his friends' lives atstake. It turns out that they really are friends of Ben's, but Alex'sreaction just didn't make any sense in context, and the writing was at bestneutral. The transformations in that last paragraph were just plainbizarre. And the book is replete with these sorts of phrases.
This is also a poorly typeset book, with numerous typos, bad line endings,poor-quality duplication, repeated text, missing punctuation, straightquotes, and inconsistent type justification. Physical issues like this havenothing to do with the quality of the text, but they made an alreadydifficult reading experience even harder for me.===== + ===== + ===== + ===== + =====
Ephraim's Seed offered some interesting ideas and represents an ambitiousattempt to collect Mormon apocalyptic folklore into a single narrative. Butthe story it tells is internally unjustified, with flat characters doingodd things for unspecified reasons. There is a nice sense of tension asmultiple plot threads converge to the climax, but it took far too long forthose threads to be established, and my confusion about basic character andplot motivations had already turned me off before the tension could becomemeaningful.
This is a prime example of a good idea hurt by poor craft, plotting, andconsideration of audience. And that's part of what made it a particularlyfrustrating reading experience. The basic subject matter is interesting tome, but the implementation repeatedly disappointed. For all of that, Icould still have come away feeling good if there had been any sense ofjustification for the incomprehensible actions of peoples and governments.
There is nothing that says that the storyteller has to give the bad guysequal space. But if you give them no motivations at all, you make itimpossible for me to accept their actions as anything but authorialcaprice. In the end, this story failed to offer a realistic conflict, onlya cartoonish fight against faceless evil told in the terms of psychologyand Mormon religion. But Mormons believe in evil with a specific face andmotivation, and that mismatch was just one more problem in a long list.
A lack of basic research and poor writing finished off this book for me. Itsucceeds neither as science fiction nor as Mormon morality tale. I have noexperience with political thrillers, but the incomprehensible acts of thevarious governments makes me suspect that it falls short in that categoryas well.
This is the first in a four-book series. Perhaps the next installments of"The Millenial Series" will improve in quality, but this first volume fallsshort of the lofty aspirations it has set for itself and fails to live upto the repeated promises made in its own introduction and cover blurbs.
Scott Parkin email@example.com
© 1997 Scott Parkin