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The Golden Compass and Atheism
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A story on CNN asks, "Is Golden Compass selling atheism to kids?"

Now I made it halfway through the second book before giving up on the trilogy, and based on my experience, I'd be more worried about whether The Golden Compass sells bad storytelling to kids. I'm not sure whether to be surprised by the near-universal praise I've heard for the book. It may be a case of rousing endorsement for any speculative fiction 1) Aimed primarily at a younger audience, that is 2) Openly critical of religion.

According to the story, Pullman describes himself as both an atheist and agnostic. Okay. Well, I suppose I found it strange that a book critical of religion would necessarily be chock full of all sorts of other supernaturalism, like witches flying on broomsticks, spells, potions and whatnot. It seemed like an odd mix. I guess I want my criticism of religion mixed in with a strong dose of naturalism.

But more importantly, I just didn't think what I read was very good. I thought Lyra's character seemed to be all over the place, alternating between spunky and brash to almost completely passive. The plot is kludgy and bizarre, and most of the time seems to be resolved by absurd deus ex machina. The one memorable exception was the bit where Lyra tricks the current bear king into fighting the exiled bear...that was pretty good.

But the titular devices are the best example of the poor quality of the plotting. The golden compass is a magical device that let's its user know anything in the universe (kind of like Wikipedia, only without having to pay for the internet), as long as they know how to operate it. Lyra simply has a knack for using it, not necessarily through hard work...she just picks it up on her own. And she can know anything. That's just a little too powerful a MacGuffin for me.

So I didn't really feel any tension build in the story because I felt like I didn't have any good grounding in the way the universe worked. And at other times, adults just happen to swoop out of the sky to save the day. I guess my problem with it was that it felt so arbitrary. And I just can't get into a story where in the next scene the author can just switch the rules and pull something out of his ass to keep things going.

Anyway, I'll go see the film...I actually expect it to be better than the book, under the assumption that Hollywood would try to make it more accessible to a general audience. But if I were a fundamentalist, I wouldn't worry about the atheism. Supposedly they've watered it down anyway, hoping to stick more to the theme in the sequels if this one is successful. Hm, right.

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