The God Painter by Jessica Pegis. Stone Table Books (October 2021). 294 pages. $29.

The God Painter is a captivating work of science fiction that takes place in the year 2035. This genre is a form of speculative writing with established literary conventions, but what makes this novel particularly unique is the spiritual perspective from which Pegis writes. In the opening chapters, we learn that human beings are rescued from a lethal solar flare by seven mysterious “beings” who transport them across the universe to the planet Ansar, which is uninhabited. It’s not certain whether these are spiritual beings or perhaps some form of extraterrestrial life, but it’s precisely this vagueness which opens the reader’s mind to consider different possibilities beside the usual options (especially aliens). Earth’s major cities are recreated by a rescued humanity who begin to rebuild society, as well as themselves. 

It’s a tidy conclusion that comes early on in the book, a happy ending that is earned too easily and arrives without struggle or conflict. But this is when the story really begins, i.e. at the end of a cataclysmic event. The identity of the mysterious beings who rescued the humans remains in question as the plot unfolds, and their seemingly altruistic intervention on their behalf raises questions about the true nature of their agenda. As a result, the atmosphere is pervaded by restlessness, curiosity, and even a touch of the uncanny. Naturally, the characters wonder if their new reality is everything it appears to be. The storyline of The God Painter begins in the aftermath of destruction, and this allows Pegis to conduct her powerful, slow-burning examination of multiple social, political, and philosophical questions as her characters literally reinvent their world. 

The God Painter is filled with a subtle suspense that is still very compelling. It’s an intriguing creative gesture which keeps the reader invested in the events of the novel while allowing them space to ponder the profound realities the characters must now confront as they (re)build human civilization. This is especially true of Leo, a theology professor and Vatican consultant. Leo’s discussions supply the text with the most obvious spiritual content, and while his way of thinking might seem antiquated—or even out of place within the novel’s futuristic setting—his character is a particular manifestation of the larger, more abstract themes of mystery and spirituality that are the book’s foundation. It is a brilliant and inventive work of spiritual imagination which envisions science, technology, and religion coexisting within the same existential landscape. These are subjects our culture largely (and somewhat uncritically I think) assumes are mutually exclusive. Pegis shows how they all participate in the same quest to understand and organize reality, or connect the human experience to a higher mystery. 

I remember reading an interview with Margaret Atwood in the Atlantic where she discusses the popularity of science fiction in the postmodern era. For her, reading science fiction allows our imaginations to retain a sense of wholeness that is no longer possible for theology because of all the historicizing that the bible underwent during modernity. In a way, The God Painter reclaims that space of imaginative wholeness for spirituality/theological thinking which once belonged to it. Beyond these generic considerations, the novel grapples with some of the most pressing issues we face in our culture: social justice, human sexuality, the ever-expanding influence of technology, to name a few.

Early on in the novel, we see Leo wrestle with the reality of intersexuality, and how it is supposedly at odds with the Genesis story of creation in which God creates one man and one woman, each with distinct sexual anatomy. One of the more fascinating aspects of the novel (which adds that element of suspense I mentioned earlier) is how all the “old” divisions concerning gender, privilege, and power from the characters’ earthly lives return unexpectedly and threaten to upend their newfound social stability. Conspiracy theories appear occasionally as well, and while I was reading I noticed how this book is very much a mirror for our own times. We haven’t left Earth for another planet, but we’re certainly in the middle of many profound cultural transitions; in many ways, then, The God Painter functions as an allegory for how humans grapple with the return of the past as they seek to build an alternate future.

This novel is undoubtedly about survival, particularly what that really means. Biological survival is brought to the fore in the solar flare catastrophe (which definitely felt like a nod to the real ecological threats facing our world thanks to climate change). But what happens after that? Is that all there is to the matter of surviving? I think the novel’s answer to this question is no. For me, the core of the story is a testament to the importance not only of spirituality but also the inevitability of the eternal, that feeling of standing outside time as we search for meaning in a universe that can change drastically and indefinitely, without warning. This sense of the eternal nature of existence pulses through every page. The characters look for signs of the sacred in a brave new world which feels strange and unfamiliar, a future they must co-construct from the remnants of their former lives and selves. 

There’s a powerful exchange in Chapter 14 where Joy talks about the presence of beauty in the ordinary. “I think we still long for beauty we cannot see,” she explains. “And we know this because we sometimes catch a glimpse of it. Anyone who has ever been in love knows how it colors one’s surroundings, how the plainest diner becomes paradise when one shares a table with the loved one.” Even in this period of rebuilding from the ground up, the new inhabitants of Ansar are drawn to the supposedly “higher” human experiences like love and beauty. In the conventional wisdom of classical psychology, these pursuits are usually reserved for after basic survival needs have been met. But if the world’s spiritual traditions have any one value in common, it’s love. “If we love more, maybe we could see better,” Joy states. In the end, The God Painter shows us that love and beauty are as important to our species’s survival as breathing. 

Purchase The God Painter here.

Visit The God Painter website here.

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