Friday, December 19, 2008

JESUS ON MARS by Philip José Farmer

Jesus on Mars is a 1979 science fiction novel by Philip José Farmer, author of the magnificent Riverworld series. The title is also the premise: An expedition from Earth lands on Mars to investigate a crashed spaceship, and discovers a large society comprised of aliens and Jews, whose ancestors were brought to Mars around the time of Christ. The leader of this group claims to be Jesus Christ, has miraculous powers, and has been with them for two thousand years. Is this Jesus real, an impostor, or the antichrist?

Farmer’s Jesus and his Martian society reject the traditionally accepted Christology – that Jesus was fully God and fully man. This Jesus is man only, an imperfect “adopted son” of God. This Jesus says he did no miracles during his life on Earth (the biblical Gospel writers made that up afterward), he died, was resurrected and appeared on Mars, where he gained his miracle-working powers. For this and other reasons, Farmer’s Jesus doesn’t ring true, nor does his society of Martian Jews. They are billed as a God-fearing, good people, but it never feels like there’s much love in them. As such, the reader is never in much danger of accepting Farmer’s Jesus as the “real” Jesus. And somewhere, Saint Paul is rolling over in his grave.

Farmer’s writing has some problems. The main character’s romance doesn’t feel natural. None of the characters are particularly well-developed, and Farmer missed a wonderful opportunity to explore his themes more deeply by not including a committed Christian in the crew. Everyone comes to faith in this Jesus rather easily – all it takes is a few tossed-around allegations that the biblical Gospels were fabricated and a circus performance by Jesus, and everybody’s on the wagon. Further problems – every female character in the entire book is specifically described as having a large bust. Busty women are well and good, but come on, Farmer. And if you want to play a Jesus on Mars drinking game, your word is “aquiline”.

Farmer does raise some valid issues as he pursues his theme of skepticism versus faith. Certainly, if Jesus appeared on Mars as he does in this novel, then yes, Christianity as we understand it would be bogus. But that isn’t really the issue – the real issue is the nature of Jesus himself, and by implication, God. The fundamental issue of who Jesus is is relevant to anyone, something that Farmer makes abundantly clear in Jesus on Mars (whether he was trying to or not).

Any way you slice it, Jesus on Mars discredits the biblical Jesus. Farmer’s Jesus, his Martian society, and the ship’s crew all endorse and/or buy into the idea that the Gospels were tampered with when they were initially written, a concept that Farmer throws out as accepted fact but offers no real evidence for.

Jesus on Mars is hardly Farmer’s finest work, as his writing and execution of the premise are both somewhat lacking. And while the novel raises some legitimate questions on faith and skepticism, Farmer doesn’t handle these weighty issues as well as he might have, or as thoroughly.