Thursday, May 26, 2011

James Blish's "Doctor Mirabilis": Book Review

Along with Helen Waddell's "Peter Abelard," this novel recreates the struggle for individual conscience against clerical conformity marvelously and movingly. It is not easy; more difficult than Waddell if as ambitious as the previous [Amazon US] reviewer's nod to "The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco in its intellectual range and intricate themes. As a "trained medievalist" myself I found Blish's research impressively integrated into his evocation of the times when Roger Bacon fought the political and ecclesiastical powers to advance experimental science, and the need for the forces of reason to assert themselves, however hesitantly due to the lack of scientific progress, during the thirteenth century. [Blish was renowned for science fiction eminence, but this 1971 novel deserves its place in his pantheon. I like the pulp paperback subtitle!]

As Blish tells in his preface, he captures the syntax and flavor of Middle English in passages where characters would have reverted to it rather than the French of court and diplomat, or the Latin of friars and scholars. The earlier chapters can take, therefore, a while to sink in as you adjust your mind to a different dialect, a different mode of expression. But this then allows you deeper immersion into the mentalities of the characters, often taken from real life chronicles, in an era where friars and inquisitors, kings and barons, heirs and bishops, all contended for the prizes that Church and State contended to control.

Blish expands the little we may know of Bacon's personal story and mixes in the ideas of his era. He captures what Paris and Oxford must have felt like as the universities grew larger and less tolerant. This makes a nice companion with Waddell for the scene since Abelard, and with Eco for the twist on the controversies that while shelved under philosophy or theology now back then drew partisans and protesters to take sides as vehemently as would Marxists or neo-cons in our own time.

Roger outwits his temporal masters, and he learns how to practice disguise. He inquires into alchemy and takes on Thomistic doctrines in the name of greater fidelity to innovation, even as he must rein in his own tendencies under an Order and Papacy who fear schism and heresy, as well it seems as any independence of thought. You find yourself eager to see who wins the Parisian disputation of Roger with Albertus Magnus, you watch as the chained mastiff at a decaying castle snarls as Roger talks with a forlorn noblewoman, you witness the interrogation of radicals by those in charge. You enter the prison cell where dissident friars seeking the apocalyptic reforms and Holy Poverty are jailed, and you are there, somehow, at this dogged English Franciscan's last moments.

For all its challenges, this book proved a valuable testimony to Blish's ability to make us care about the plight of an inquirer whose name now, if barely recalled, is shrouded in magic and hearsay. Blish separates what may well have happened, and he brings us as close to the what-if reality as we can come. Highly recommended for the undaunted reader willing to rise up to a level demanding attention and rewarding concentration. (Posted to Amazon US without brackets, 7-11-10)

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