Review: Ad Limina, by Cyril Jones-Kellett

Cyril Jones-Kellett’s Catholic science fiction novel, Ad Limina, shows us where our own world might be headed and raises questions about cultural trends of our own day.

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I promised a review of Cyril Jones-Kellett’s Ad Limina: a Novella of Catholics in Space, and I’ve written and posted it over on my science fiction blog [blog no longer available, 2021. See below for the review]. What I’d like to mention here relates to the “Catholic” aspect of it, something I allude to briefly in the full review:

Original cover of Ad Limina

While the story is, on the face of it, a grand adventure, another way to read it is (and details in the story suggest that this is how the author hopes we will read it) as a spiritual trial, from which the soul in question emerges purified and hardened against the wiles of the Enemy. Bishop Mark Gastelum’s spiritual journey takes him into the wilderness where he is tempted in many ways; at the end, having endured these temptations without succumbing, he is spiritually mature and ready to take on greater challenges.

Modern novels don’t always have a “hero.” In fact, one of the hallmarks of the novel—the thing that distinguishes it from earlier narrative forms, such as the epic and the romance—is the fact that the protagonist is usually an ordinary person dealing with ordinary human problems (i.e., not an superhuman person who literally wrestles gods, for instance, as Achilles does in The Iliad). However, as I’ve mentioned before, the Christian writer—at least when he is writing as a Christian—will naturally tend to create a Christ-like protagonist, Christ being the greatest hero of all. This works very well in the modern novel, because Christian heroism is not showy and vainglorious as the pagan epic heroes were. In becoming man, the almighty, infinite God had to squash himself down into a very lowly form, and then proceeded to live a very lowly life and even allowed himself to be killed in the most ignominious fashion, like criminal scum. So it is perfectly possible, and even fitting, for a modern novel to have a protagonist who is also a Christian hero.

Bishop Mark Gastelum, the protagonist of Ad Limina, is a small man in his own estimation—this means not only that he exhibits a decorous Christian humility (as we might wish every bishop to do), but also that he underestimates what God will require of him. The journey he undertakes in the novel serves to enlarge him and his view of things, and also to expand his understanding of what it means to represent Christ to a troubled world. Like the Lord he imitates and serves, the bishop is sent away from his cozy world, out into the wilderness of space where he will be tempted and tried in many ways. Like Christ, he learns firsthand that religious authorities do not always conform to the will of the God whom they putatively serve—in fact, the good bishop’s life will even be endangered by some of them.

We can sympathize with the temptations to which Bishop Gastelum falls prey.

One of the interesting things about this novel is that most of the temptations that our futuristic bishop feels are those that present themselves to many Catholics today: the temptation to create a “Catholic ghetto,” for instance, in which we withdraw from, and ignore, the troubles of the larger world. Also, the temptation to convince ourselves that some of the more ambiguous lures of modern life really won’t hurt us if we enter into them cautiously or partake of them moderately. And, most especially, the temptation to believe that we can be true Christians while avoiding the real cost of discipleship.

Even if you don’t care for science fiction, I recommend that you read Ad Limina. It is a “good” book, in the sense that C. S. Lewis used that term in An Experiment in Criticism, when he proposed that using this that we call “good”  those books that allow the reader to find something new with each reading and re-reading, to which the reader returns time and again; a story that provokes reflection, and rewards reflection with discovery, which in turn causes delight.

I’ve read Ad Limina a couple of times now and enjoyed it even more the second time, probably because on the second reading I recognized the parallel (mentioned above) between Bishop Gastelum’s trials and those of Christ. I believe the novel is, as the best science fiction always is, a “philosophical” story, in the sense that Aristotle used that term: it invites us to learn something about the truth of our human condition, by projecting ourselves into the persona of the protagonist. On both these grounds, then, I heartily recommend this book to my readers.

UPDATE 2021

When I went to verify the hyperlinks in this post, I discovered that Amazon (the platform on which Cy Kellett’s book was published) has two separate listings for the same book, the original listing from 2013 (which does not show the book available for purchase) and another one from 2016, which has live buy-links for both paperback and Kindle versions. As far as I can tell, these are the same edition. Unfortunately, the reader review that I wrote is attached to the 2013 version’s sales page, so few prospective buyers will get to see it. As a result, rather than confuse people by linking to my review on the defunct sale page, I’m reprinting it here below for anyone interested. Here’s my Amazon review of Ad Limina:

A Catholic Science Fiction Novel that Satisfies on Both Counts

Although this book is called a novella, that’s not because Ad Limina is particularly short—there was a time not so long ago when 220 pages would have been considered a goodish length for a novel, and this book certainly manages to cover quite a bit of ground in those pages. It moves fairly lightly through potentially heavy subjects. In this case, I think that is a good thing, and serves the author’s purpose well, that purpose being to take the reader through a series of views of the likely future, should certain present-day trends continue unchecked through the next century or two, in order to see their likely consequences. Jones-Kellett manages to do this in a remarkably light-handed way, yet without making light of his subjects.

The book tells the story of Mark Gastelum, the first native-born bishop of Mars, as he makes his first trip to Earth to make his compulsory ad limina visit to the Pope. The bishop has put off the visit for years. He has a rather parochial view of things: Doesn’t he have plenty to accomplish in his diocese? Why should he have to spend years of his life travelling to Rome, just for a brief interview with the Pope? Aren’t there better uses of his time?

When the word finally comes from the Holy See that he must procrastinate no longer, the bishop accedes and books passage for Earth. One can imagine Bishop Gastelum as the twenty-second (or perhaps twenty-third) century equivalent of a Midwestern American bishop of the mid-nineteenth century: Rome is very distant, travel is slow and difficult, and the goings-on of the Pope and his curia seem to have little to do with the very real and constant challenges of managing a frontier diocese. But what is a bishop to do? When Rome commands, one must obey.

As is so often the case, the journey justifies the trip. The bishop (and the reader who tags along with him) learns a lot about the wider world that puts his own situation into context. In fact, simply travelling across Mars to reach the town from which he will take flight is a learning experience for the bishop, who has never visited many of the settlements of his home planet, at least not those that lie outside the geographical limits of his diocese. Before he has even left Mars, Gastelum has already taken the longest trip of his life. He is forced to depart from a distant city, because the main space port, which is more conveniently located, serves only officially sanctioned and registered liners that don’t serve those on the no fly list: “Mormons, Fascists, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, nationalists, neo-moralists, Australians, and so on.”

This is the first intimation that the religious marginalization going on in our own day will be taken to a logical conclusion in this futuristic tale. At every step of his journey (which I won’t detail here, lest I spoil the fun of reading it for yourself), our mild-mannered, wide-eyed young bishop gets a liberal education in the real circumstances of the world of his own day. Let it suffice to say that the bishop’s perfunctory ad limina visit winds up taking him on a grand adventure that gallops through almost every part of the settled solar system of his day. The adventure allows the story to touch on a variety of topics, including inter alia neo-fascism, transhumanism, and recreational drug use, while the protagonist’s relatively naïve view allows the novelist to show us the logical outcomes of various present-day currents without a lot of sermonizing, a feat he achieves very deftly.

Creating a Catholic science fiction novel is a tricky thing. It would be all too easy to produce a literary chimera—a repulsive mash-up that satisfies neither Catholics nor seasoned readers of science fiction. As a Catholic novel, Ad Limina succeeds very well, and there is certainly plenty here to satisfy an avid reader of science fiction.

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