Hugo Nominee: “Article of Faith”

We weren’t keen on the last Mike Resnick story we discussed. Will this one be any better?
Lois Tilton:

Reverend Morris gets a new janitorial robot for his church, but this one is too logical; it takes the premise of religion to conclusions that the reverend is not prepared to accept.

“I wish to become a member of your church.”
“But you’re a robot!” I blurted.
“If God is the God of all things, then is He not also the God of robots?” said Jackson.

But faith is not a matter of logic, as Reverend Morris should have known.

This is a tragic tale that some readers might consider a bit sentimental, yet it asks some very apt and pointed questions about religion. I find the unanimous reaction of the congregation to the presence of a robot to be a bit extreme–or rather, a matter for which the setting has not prepared me. We see nothing of the place of robots in the society outside the church; most of the story is a dialogue between Morris and his robot.

Abigail Nussbaum:

We begin our odyssey with perennial Hugo nominee Mike Resnick. The narrator of “Article of Faith” is a priest who at the beginning of the story takes ownership of a new cleaning robot for his church, and, on a rather poorly explained lark, starts giving it religious instruction. When the robot asks to participate in church services the priest, and later his congregation, react with horror and confusion. The premise of “Article of Faith” begs comparison with a whole raft of Asimov robot shorts of a roughly similar ilk, and Resnick’s construction of the robot character–anthropomorphic, human-named, soft-spoken, deferential but insistent on puzzling out the logical inconsistencies in the narrator’s theology–is also heavily reminiscent of Asimov’s robots. Which means that on top of failing in the traditional Resnick ways–plodding prose, obvious and predictable plot, shameless and blatant manipulation–“Article of Faith” fails by falling so very short of Asimov’s standards.

Asimov was no great stylist, and his characters were paper-thin, but his robot stories had a lightness to them, an effervescent wit and gentle humor that are completely absent from Resnick’s clomping, heavy-handed immitation of him. Add to this a simplistic and borderline reactionary treatment of religion–when arranging the wedding of a pregnant parishioner, the narrator muses that “it’s not my job to judge them, only to help and comfort them,” which sounds plenty judgmental to me; when the robot questions why services are held on Sundays instead of Tuesdays, the narrator’s “first inclination was to say Force of habit, but that would negate everything I had done in my life,” which, oh God, I don’t even know where to start; then, of course, there’s the blatantly telegraphed ‘forgive them for they know not what they do’ (no, really, he uses the actual quote) ending. There’s been a discussion of Resnick’s nominated novelette “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” at Torque Control, during which there’s been some attempt to pin down just what it is that makes him such a bad writer. A lot of good suggestions have been made, but to my mind his greatest failing is and has always been the one encapsulated by “Article of Faith”–his ability to take a subject that underpins some of science fiction’s seminal works, write his own spin on it which is neither innovative nor unusual nor particularly good, and send it out into the world without a hint of embarrassment or self-awareness.

Matt Hilliard:

It wouldn’t be a Hugo ballot without a horrendous short story, and here it is. For the life of me I can’t imagine how this could have been considered award-worthy. I think there need to be more SF stories that seriously examine religion rather than merely dismiss it, but this…this gives the religious SF story a bad name.

Rich Horton:

This story has a quite familiar plot. It’s told by a minister who has a robot that cleans his church. The robot shows some curiousity about religion, and the minister tries out his sermons on the robot. Naturally, the robot decides he has a soul, and wants to discuss religion — and he sees flaws in his pastor’s arguments, too. This really is a very 50s sort of idea, and the problem is, it’s not explored in an very original way. And indeed, I found the resolution inadequately set up, and quite unsatisfying. For all that we have seen plenty of “robot gets religion” stories before (including such famous works as the SF Hall of Fame story “The Quest for Saint Aquin” by Anthony Boucher, and also Robert Silverberg’s “Good News from the Vatican”) there’s no reason that the theme couldn’t still be used for a good story. And as far as it goes Resnick’s treatment isn’t awful, just unfinished, and too routine. So while I can see the story being published and all, I am rather puzzled by the Hugo nomination.

Ian Sales:

I thought this was appalling: dated, dull, and wholly predictable. A new robot joins the staff of a small-town church and ends up wanting to worship. Cue arguments on whether robots have souls. Yawn. And who writes stories featuring these sorts of silly pulp sf robots – because, let’s face it, if the robot is a stand-in for a foreigner, i.e., not-one-of-us, then why not actually use a foreigner and give the story more impact?

Tpi:

A robot working for a priest in a small congregation gets taste of religion. Another well written, pretty typical Mike Resnick story. The allegories a more that a bit heavy-handed, and there are some major problems with logic. A robot which is supposed to be absolutely logical (as stated in the story) doesn’t find anything contradictory or illogical in the bible? And falls for religion?

Joe Blaylock:

“Article of Faith” isn’t the most deeply moving Resnick story I’ve ever read or heard. That would probably have to be “Down Memory Lane”, a 2006 Hugo nominee. Still, this story struck a nerve. I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about the Bodhisattva’s Vow to aid all sentient beings. It sounds good, but it begs the question: What is a sentient being? Despite its trivialization as a trope of popular television series, films, and Hugo Award-winning short fiction, this moral conundrum has real consequences.

For example, it’s generally considered poor form to eat ones’ neighbors. So how do you decide what you can ethically eat? One could take the Genesis 9: 2-4 approach, and say, “Anything slower than me is food. Except for a few restrictions.” If one really wants to save all sentient beings, though, this might seem awfully selfish. Do you save them by eating them? I guess that depends on what you grok their purpose to be.

Of course, deciding who and what counts as having a soul (in popular parlance) doesn’t begin nor end with deciding what to eat. It informs every facet of how we choose to relate to the rest of the world. While Resnick’s written stronger stories, I think that he indirectly (accidentally?) captured this in “Article of Faith”. The fate of the robot, the minister, and even of the town, all seem intertwined with what the people choose to accept. To me, the story felt almost like an environmental piece.

But perhaps I’m reading into it over much.

Scott D. Danielson:

Mike Resnick has a way of revealing truths about ourselves that are often uncomfortable. That they are truths and that he can present them so well in fiction is why I like his writing so much. The Kirinyaga series of stories, “The 49 Antarean Dynasties”, and “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” are three of my favorite Resnick stories. From the latest issue of Baen’s Universe, Resnick offers another story that left me shaking my head at the truth of it.

Janice Clark:

Can a robot have a soul? Is it capable of worship? Should it be allowed to worship with people? In “Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick, Reverend Edward Morris is faced with those questions when Jackson, his church cleaning and maintenance robot, begins studying religion.

It all starts innocently enough. Rev. Morris’s old maintenance robot has just been replaced by a new one, whose programming apparently makes him the ideal servant: courteous, attentive, and anxious to please. Bit by bit, Rev. Morris answers Jackson’s questions regarding religious practices, and eventually invites the robot to critique his sermons, pointing out obvious errors or logical inconsistencies. To facilitate this process, he has Jackson read the Bible. Shocked when Jackson expresses a desire to join the church, Rev. Morris tries unsuccessfully to convince Jackson that robots are soulless machines, different from humans. The pastor, a thoughtful and compassionate man, gradually comes to respect Jackson’s well-reasoned arguments:

“You can be switched off,” I pointed out. “Ask any roboticist.”
“So can you,” replied Jackson. “Ask any doctor. Or any marksman.”

There’s the meat of the story: who gets to decide who or what is acceptable to God? Unfortunately for Jackson, Rev. Morris’s parishioners are far less tolerant than their spiritual leader.

Aliette de Bodard:

In “An Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick, Reverend Edward Morris is faced with a problem: Jackson, the robot in charge of keeping the church clean, has decided that it believes in God and wants to be a member of his congregation.

Though this is well written and reads smoothly, the questions of faith and prejudice it addresses are not new (addressed, for instance, by Jack McDevitt in “Gus” or Isaac Asimov in “The Bicentennial Man”). In fact, they felt quite dated and didn’t offer a fresh enough take on the subject to be memorable.

John DeNardo:

“Article of Faith” concerns a subservient robot that works in a church and begins to question the pastor about religion. I’ve heard lots of griping about this story but I’m not exactly sure why. The worst that could be said about is that the “robot wants to be human” theme has been done numerous times before — even by Resnick himself in his wonderful story “The Big Guy” – but even that assessment depends on one’s personal reading history. As it is, Resnick’s dependable easygoing style delivers a story that doesn’t disappoint.

14 Responses to “Hugo Nominee: “Article of Faith””

  1. Ian Sales Says:

    When are the Hugo Awards going to correctly attribute this story? It first appeared in Postscripts #15 (dated Summer 2008), not Jim Baen’s Universe in October 2008.

  2. Chance Says:

    I hate you for making me read this shit.

  3. Alison Says:

    This is why I detest all talk of souls; it leads to this garbage.

  4. Niall Says:

    Chance: I deliberately didn’t say people *had* to read this one. I didn’t want to be held responsible. :-p

  5. Adam Roberts Says:

    This does seem to me a very weak piece.

  6. Nick H. Says:

    Oh, good- er, grief. This story is terrible. I only got as far as “Somehow, lunch seems pretty trivial after you’ve been thinking about God all morning” and already I felt an awful need to vomit as how dire and obvious it was. Why would anyone nominate this? Why?

  7. Abigail Says:

    I hardly think it’s fair to draw conclusions about discussions of spirituality in fiction from this story, Alison. Some very interesting and thought provoking stories have started from the question of the existence and nature of soul (though he doesn’t use that word, I think that many of Asimov’s robot stories certainly fit the bill). It seems more accurate to say that it’s Resnick’s limited, thoughtless concept of the soul, and of religion in general, that leads to this garbage.

    In fact, I’m inclined to read “Article of Faith” as an anti-religion story, though again that could have more to do with Resnick’s take on religion than any intentional criticism on his part.

  8. Alison Says:

    I won’t unpack my objection to talk of ‘souls’ here, because that would be hijacking the thread. But I do think the difference between bad stories and good is bound up with that confusion of thought.

    I’ve been cleaning the kitchen just now, and thinking about zombie books and films, and how they (in contrast) deal so interestingly with questions of sentience.

  9. Peter Hollo Says:

    When I read it in that Postcripts issue (and god knows why I bothered), I remember thinking how dated & sub-Asimov, sub-Clarke it was, so I’m not surprised it ended up on the ballot. It’ll probably be liked by unimaginative dinosaurs the world over and win by a mile.

    (I pray to be proven wrong.)
    (I don’t pray, though. I couldn’t really read it as anti- or pro-religion. It’s so colourless and rote that it’s hard to summon the energy afterwards to care. I read it hoping against hope that there’d be some surprise somewhere along the way. I mean, you hardly need to be a seasoned sf reader to know what’s coming.)

  10. Liz Says:

    The only good thing which can be said for this story is that it may be worse than the Resnick novella on the ballot but it is at least a lot shorter, so it only ate ten minutes of my life. Another story to go below No Award.

  11. Jonathan M Says:

    Ah Robot Pathos. Reminds me of that Asimov story about the robot puppy.

  12. Martin Wisse Says:

    The name “Mike Resnick” should be enough warning for anybody not to read on. Like several other perennial Hugo nominees, Resnick is a competent but no more than that middle of the road writer, safe, dull and nobody should read him who wants more than that. One of these days he will win a Hugo, if he hasn’t done so already and it’ll be solely because the voters recognise him from so many other ballots.

  13. Abigail Says:

    According to Wikipedia Resnick has been nominated 33 times and has had stories on the Hugo ballot every year since 1989 except 1999 and 2003. He’s won 5 times, most recently in 2005 with “Travels With My Cats.” And though I’d love to think that he is both nominated and wins simply because of name familiarity, the reviews quoted above clearly demonstrate that there’s a contingent of SF fandom that thinks he’s a good writer. Scary, but true.

  14. The 2009 Hugo Short Fiction Nominees « Torque Control Says:

    […] Hugo Nominee: “Article of Faith” […]


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