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The Scholar of Moab - Steven L. Peck This novel is undeniably imaginative and like nothing you've ever read before. It's taking me a while to get my head around it. It's quite puzzling, but I think I'm starting to see what it's about.

The reason I love Steven Peck's writing (what I've read of it) is that he engages with and illuminates some really big, really deep ideas. This novel is funny, also touching, confusing, and intellectually engaging. It's had me puzzling over it for days after finishing it.

I think it's deliberately meant to be rather undefinable, but if there is one theme that runs throughout it's the nature of truth, of belief, of understanding the world. How do we do that? What constitutes truth? Is it established by science? By majority rule? By personal testimony and spiritual witness, as in Mormonism?

First of all, there's Dora who's been kidnapped by aliens. Nobody believes her but Hyrum, and possibly the reader. The redactor doesn't seem so sure. (But one and maybe both of the two conjoined twins, the two-headed cowboy -- another quite memorable character, seem to be convinced before the end.)

Then there are the twins, who are two heads who share a body. In addition to William and Edward, the two heads, there's a third person they call Maurice, a neural mass, who decides which twin gets control of the legs, and who in one case is almost certain to have noticed or understood something that neither twin did. One twin is gay and the other is straight. One is a believer and the other is an atheist. They have the same genes and the same experiences, except for one is on the left and one is on the right. How can the nature of the whole universe be so different for one than the other?

There's Hyrum himself, who believes in God but acts in very duplicitous ways. He's good and bad inextricably. We like him but see him for a total con man and someone untrustworthy. His scholarship is not much use in overcoming his profound ignorance about the world. Yet he's quite canny in many ways. He figured out how to rid himself of a tiresome coworker, for instance, and played on the fears and beliefs of the townspeople very cleverly.

There's Mormonism, a religion the author and I share, which establishes truth by revelation and the testimony of the spirit in a unique manner. That's being made fun of, but in an affectionate way by someone who gets it.

There's science, another religion/body of belief the author and I share, which establishes truth in its own way. The bumblebee experiments make fun of science, also in an affectionate way, and yes, by someone who gets it. Far too many researchers do exactly as Hyrum did and build their own assumptions into the experiment itself, then use the experiment to prove their assumptions in a way that's actually completely circular.

In the end we have no idea what actually truly happened. Who was the redactor? I kept thinking it was Hyrum himself, but then why would he need the witness of the twins to tell him about a scene at which he himself was present? And why would he give away his own secret to Adam, his affair with Dora which he didn't even record in his journal? And how could he interview Sandra at the end without her recognizing him? The redactor must be a friend of all the actors, though -- someone well-known. Yet there's just nobody for him to be. (Edit: see spoiler in the comments for my new theory on that.)

Neither are there any corpses recovered for Hyrum, the baby, or Dora from their various mishaps in which they're presumed dead, that occur at different times. Did they run off together? That seemingly would have happened decades earlier, if that were the plan. Was Dora really psychotic? Were the aliens real? Did the trickster Hyrum fool Dora into believing her baby was kidnapped by aliens to get out of the consequences of his illicit affair? It's hard to believe he was evil enough to kill his own baby, though. I can think of a dozen different theories, but none of them really fit or ring true to me.

As a tangent, I once read a paper by Steven Peck, the author, about an episode he had of psychosis caused by a bacterium that got into his brain during a field trip to somewhere exotic and tropical. It was a terrible episode, and he nearly died, but was saved by a doctor recognizing the organism and giving him the right IV antibiotic. His description of what it feels like to be psychotic from the inside, coming from someone who is now well, is fascinating. As a scientist he was particularly interested in how absolutely sure he was at the time that his delusions were real. There was no hint of doubt possible for him in that state. So that brings up the question of how do we know what we know is real? What is the nature of truth? That philosophical and scientific question seems to me to be the main idea behind this novel.

I've noticed that the people who are real scientists, like Peck and Richard Feynman, and so on, they always seem to have this playful and imaginative thing going on about reality. They are willing to entertain dozens of wild hypotheses that might sound completely nuts to non-scientists.

Other people, those who have learned about science but are not great scientists themselves, they all seem to be firmly sure of everything. They will argue you down and insist they know all kinds of things. They're very sure of all sorts of stuff we think we do know. They have no interest, really, in all we don't know.

But reality itself is far more capricious than that. Take quantum electrodynamics, for instance. Nobody can explain it in a way that makes sense because it doesn't make sense. It just is true. It fits experimental data to 15 decimal places, and nobody can get their head around it or understand how it can actually be that way.

So maybe having no idea what actually happens or happened is pretty definitive of all our human experience, in which we believe all kinds of impossible and mutually-inconsistent things for reasons we don't understand, that mostly evaporate on very close observation. What is truth? Perhaps, as Ursula K. Le Guin says, it's mainly a matter of the imagination.