Timothy Scott Bennett’s novel, All of the Above, was published in August 2011. If you’ve been paying attention, you recognize the author’s name: Bennett and his partner, Sally Erickson, put out the superb documentary film, What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire. I reviewed the film briefly about four years ago.
On to Bennett’s debut novel, which is the first of three or four (depending on his future mood). Actually, I strongly suspect it’s the first of one, unless he hurries. And that’s too bad, because after 469 pages this reader was left wanting more.
The book is science fiction in the manner of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. That is, All of the Above makes us comfortable because it focuses on a future most readers will find implausible. Ensconced in an unlikely setting, we allow our guards to drop as we follow the page-turning story. As with Vonnegut, though, our laughter comes in self defense.
In All of the Above, Bennett quickly develops characters we care about, as well as a few we love to hate. His excellent pace and appropriate use of foreshadowing kept me from putting the book down. I’m very busy here at the mud hut with an overwhelming assortment of tasks, and I read the book in three days.
I will not spoil the story, which couldn’t be more timely. The publisher’s website drops a few hints, including this teaser: “Bennett now uses fiction to continue the conversation he began in his documentary regarding the social, psychological, and spiritual implications of our global human predicament. The story offers an inspiring and challenging view of the news of the day.”
A few passages from the book are exemplary of the inspiration and challenge posed by All of the Above:
In this physical plane, Mrs. President, it’s the soil and water and forests and sky and plants and animals upon which our very lives ultimately depend. The structures of civilization cannot exist without those things. And yet we live inside of those structure — houses, offices, stores, factories, cars, roads, subdivisions, cities, whatever — and those structures keep most of us almost totally disconnected from the real world that serves as their foundation. So you might begin to see the benefit of just sitting for a while with the notion that not only is this culture not in touch with reality, but that this insanity lives inside of you.
If the quote above sounds like it’s delivered by a fire-and-brimstone preacher, bear in mind that it’s preceded with this line: “As Obie spoke, his voice grew louder, and his eyes glinted, like a televangelist reaching the high point of his sermon.”
I’d say what we lost is our sense of the sacred nature of creation …. There are indigenous folk and spiritual peoples, and again not just humans, who have stayed the course, so to speak. And certainly there are mystics in our midst who have managed the same. But for the most part, the people of the dominant worldwide culture, even if they worship some version of “God in heaven,” operate in what they experience to be a mechanistic and dispirited world, a bleak landscape of so-called “resources,” with no epic story, no truly-satisfying meaning or purpose, and no felt connection to the larger Universe.
I agree with Edward O. Wilson (in his excellent 1998 book, Consilience) that a mechanistic worldview, described by physicists and evolutionary biologists, actually can — and for me at least, does — lead to an epic story with satisfying meanings and purposes, not to mention a felt connection to the larger Universe. And I also agree with Bennett’s broader point: Wilson and me aside, very few people have a meaning, purpose, or felt connection of any kind, much less one inspired by, and connected to, the universe we occupy.
Of course it’s that bad. It’s worse than that bad. You don’t need to ask me. Check your own heart. It’s the biggest shared secret of our time. Go up to any American on the street and mention how we’re destroying the planet and the vast majority of them will say, “Oh, I know ….”
This book doesn’t merely preach, though, and it’s certainly not preaching to the choir. Even when it’s preaching, it’s not preachy in a burdensome manner. All of the Above, like What a Way to Go, provides a brutally accurate portrayal of the dire straits in which we’ve immersed ourselves. And then, just when most artists would give in to the hopelessness of it all, this novel does what the film did: It offers a way out.
In the end, the book echoes the film. It offers a way out that depends on us, individually and collectively, finding the way in. Into our hearts and souls and feeble little brains. Into our inner selves. Into our consciousness. And, of course, into our communities.
And those communities aren’t just human: They’re plant and animal communities, too, and entire ecosystems with which we share an isolated rock in an expanse as broad as the consciousness of our entire species. Will it be sufficient?
I’m not ready to give up. Reading the book provides the kind of tonic I need to weather the storm. I strongly recommend this superb novel.