Diary of a Parallel Man by David Elham

elhamd-diaryparallelmanImagine a world parallel to ours, occupying the same position in space, but existing in another dimension. It’s a familiar theme in science fiction, and it has provided scope for a wide variety of stories – the 1990s television series Sliders being a prime example. But Diary of a Parallel Man puts an interesting spin on the idea. For a start, the protagonist is not from our Earth; his home is the other one, and he longs desperately to return there. But he’s stuck in a world that is demonstrably alien to him. And it’s not that he has two heads or green skin. He looks exactly like us. The only difference between his world and ours is that in his history, way back in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve didn’t eat the apple. His world is a world without sin and death.

As a reader who is essentially atheistic in his thinking, you might think that this fictional scenario would be unappealing to me. But one doesn’t have to subscribe to Biblical literalism to appreciate the story. Of course, it is absurd that a world could exist where there is human immortality, an unending ability to reproduce, and a finite landmass. The math just doesn’t work. Nevertheless, one can regard the story as myth and still obtain a sense of what the author is attempting to communicate. And yes, this is one of those heavy stories that is all about the subtext.

David Elham is a Christian – one who is “in the world, not of it,” as the Bible says. And this tale is essentially an alien’s observations on the world. My copy of the book is personally inscribed to me with the words “For Darryl – My ‘Reality Check'”. Reality Check is a book I wrote a few years ago, where I questioned all of the conditioning of Western society. Although my worldview differs massively from Elham’s, I have to say that it was a stroke of genius for him to put his views across in the form of a novel.

The protagonist, Mahershalalhashbaz (named after one of the sons of Isaiah, if I remember my Bible studies), manages to transport himself to our Earth, where he quickly finds himself alone, alienated, penniless and homeless. Eventually, he befriends a young woman called Kirsty, who takes pity on him – and gives him the nickname Baz. Baz (and the author by extension) is shocked by the cruelty of the world. By reading the Bible, he learns what happened here, how mankind fell from a state of grace and inherited sin and death.

This explanation for why the world is full of suffering satisfies many, but not me. My metaphysical outlook is vastly different from the author’s, but is deeply rational. Sickness, disaster, predation, and the plain old competitive spirit – these are not manifestations of something that went wrong in the distant past; one thing versus another, on any fractal level of the universe, is merely the natural outworking of energy conversion. This is obviously a huge topic, so I’ll not go into depth on it right here.

The author critiques evolution at one point, in an unfortunately scoffing manner that really only shows Elham’s lack of research on the matter – a common failing among Christians. Some of Baz’s observations about people’s irrational behaviour are on point, but Baz occasionally comes out with a line that is really far-out – and I found myself wondering whether the author realises how unusual his character (and himself, by proxy) sounds. For instance, in a scene where an unbeliever cracks a joke about Jesus, making everyone laugh, Baz is so enraged that he shouts, “Is there any reason why any of you should be permitted to live?!”

At many points in the book, I wanted to pause and have a discussion with the author, because I felt I had legitimate counter-arguments to offer. Here’s one that sticks in mind. I happen to know that the author’s particular sect of Christianity forbids believers from joining the police or armed forces. Consider this exchange between Baz and co-worker Ralph:

‘… If everyone was like me, everyone in the world, there wouldn’t be any war at all. It’s only because we have these ridiculous borders drawn up that people fight over them. In my philosophy there are no such borders.’

He put his face very close to mine. ‘We don’t live in your philosophy; we live in the real world. Your paradise Earth, and,’ he indicated Clint without looking at him, ‘and his brotherhood of man do not exist. Greed and jealousy exist. War exists.’

‘But if everyone was like me, it wouldn’t.’

He gave up.

The author appears to paint his protagonist as the winner of this argument, but it doesn’t look that way to me at all. Any philosophy that refuses deal with the world as it is fails. In the real world, if there were no police, no one would have any protection from criminals. If we had no army, we would quickly be invaded by another country. It is totally hypocritical to benefit from the existence of the police and the army, while secretly condemning them for bearing arms. Pacifism only works in the author’s imagination of a perfect world which isn’t the world we have.

Diary of a Parallel Man could be called “Christian fiction,” but it is unique in that it contains very realistic swearing, blaspheming, and some very unguarded talk about life – including the topics of sex and pornography. For this I congratulate Elham. In my experience, it’s rare for a Christian to be this honest; Christian fiction tends to sugarcoat life somewhat.

Given my atheistic worldview, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. It’s an interesting twist on the alternate Earth theme, one that makes you assess the world you live in, and it has an ending that confounded my expectations in the best possible way.

One thought on “Diary of a Parallel Man by David Elham

  1. davidelham says:

    Thank you for writing this honest and thorough review. Normally, I don’t publicly reply to reviews, as doing so can sometimes look like the author is excusing or apologising for what he has written. But, in this instance, I think it necessary to clarify one or two plot points and my motives for writing the book, as people will assume your interpretation is based solely on your knowledge of my background.

    You are absolutely right about the “parallel worlds” concept – it’s a popular one for science fiction writers. I love the episode “Mirror Mirror” in the classic Star Trek series, for example, and Sliders uses the idea to great effect. But, as I’m a bit of a misanthrope, I grew tired of seeing individuals from our world get trapped in an alternate reality where it is horrid and they are desperate to return to ours. I thought it was about time someone told a story where the protagonist gets stuck here amongst us – and hates every minute of it.

    Once I had worked out the basic structure, I realised I could have the character approach the things we take for granted from a fresh vantage point and disturb the hornets’ nest that is the reader’s comfort zone.

    The name Mahershallalhashbaz is indeed the son of Old Testament prophet Isaiah, although that’s not why I chose it. I wanted a ridiculously long name that would be difficult to pronounce so that when he arrives in our world, we would shorten it and make it more English sounding (something I’ve observed when foreigners come to Britain – they get given nicknames by the ignorant and prejudiced who can’t be bothered to learn their real name). I later discovered, after I’d finished the book, that Mahershallalhashbaz in Hebrew means “He hurries to the plunder”, which, while being coincidental, is extremely apt.

    Regarding the issue of Earth being overcrowded if everyone born since the time of Adam and Eve had never died – I was aware of this when writing the book, and so theorised that if the water canopy (an ocean suspended above the atmosphere that is hinted at in the Bible in Genesis chapter one and later used to flood the Earth during Noah’s time) was still intact, the land mass would not be divided into the continents that we have in our world, the polar regions would be tropical, and the deserts would be blossoming. This may or may not enable the reader to suspend their disbelief, but it was the logic I used to explain it.

    On a separate but related note, I am willing to consider the notion that this planet Earth could be the starting point for intelligent life in the universe. So, if a physically perfect undying race of human beings living under the Old Testament God’s direct guidance and intervention were to overcrowd the Earth, he could easily “terra form” another planet, much as he did Earth in Genesis chapter one, and give humans the ability to continue across the galaxy. Of course, this is my own personal speculation. It isn’t mentioned in the Bible, nor do I employ it in Parallel Man to explain the matter of overcrowding.

    Did Baz win the argument about how the world would be instantly at peace if everyone adopted his view of carnal warfare? Firstly, I would say he is speaking from his own experience. He comes from a world where war does not exist. Secondly, he is writing in the first person, it’s his diary. When we pen a journal, we report what other people say and do, but we tend to think that our perspective is the correct one. My motive as author was to show that things are not as black and white as “believers” (be they religious or atheist) like to think. The truth is often a complex tangled mess, and I think I illustrated that succinctly in the scene. Baz might well think he won the argument, but the scene shows the situation is not as clear cut as either character believes.

    Another behavioural trait I was keen to depict was the way “believers” think they have The Truth and that opposing points of view must be wrong by definition. And again, I have observed this in both religiously inclined people and atheists. They say they are open-minded, but really they aren’t. And when strong evidence is presented that calls into question their beliefs, they turn nasty rather than re-evaluate what they believe.

    Baz believes himself to be physically, emotionally, morally and spiritually superior to everyone in our world. To him, we are sinners who have rejected The Father’s authority and deserve to be condemned. So, when a workmate cracks a joke about Jesus Christ, Baz is enraged. His anger comes from “knowing” that Jesus Christ really came to our dimension to redeem us from sin. This makes him angry in behalf of Christ – much as all seriously religious people become furious when they encounter blasphemy. It also comes from Baz’s own superiority complex.

    Throughout his time with us, Baz believes he is fundamentally different, that he is a perfect son of the Father and we are all sinners. In the penultimate diary entry, he is deeply shaken to find he is more like us than he realised.

    I wanted to write a book that left few stones unturned and that rocked the boat of complacency. It would seem I achieved my goal, since several readers have been ruffled by it. On a discussion board elsewhere, a reader said he believed me to be anti-Catholic and homophobic (even though Baz is disparaging of all organised religion and the only two characters to help in his hour of need are a Marxist and a gay man) and spoke of my “as yet undisclosed agenda”.

    My motives for writing the book were quite straight forward, actually. I had become disillusioned with some of the religious concepts that had been bred into me from boyhood and with parts of the Bible. I saw that questions about the rightness of some of God’s actions were either shunned or quickly dispensed with by the use of generalisations and sweeping statements.

    When, in 2006, notorious atheist Professor Richard Dawkins presented his TV documentary The Root of all Evil, I sat down to watch it with a genuinely open mind and heart. I was ripe for soaking up the counterarguments that I’d shied away from all my life. Unfortunately, while I found I could agree with much of what Dawkins had to say about religion’s role in world atrocities, I heard little to convince me that life had arbitrarily sprung of its own accord from dead matter, and I was angered when he employed sweeping statements like “there’s a mountain of evidence”, when much of what was presented was circumstantial at best.

    Later, when I examined his book The God Delusion, I found it to be largely an attack on the God of the Bible (particularly the God of the Old Testament) and not a convincing argument for the non-existence of an intelligent creator being per se, as though discrediting the God of the Bible equalled proof that there is no Creator. I was ready to hear out the opposition for the first time in my life, but I was left feeling as frustrated with the atheists as I was the religionists.

    I was angered when Dawkins stated that agnostics were cowards who feared the possible existence of God and so sat on the fence so as not to condemn themselves to Hell, should it prove to exist. At this point, I saw myself very much an agnostic – not out of fear, but from a feeling of confusion and a growing realisation that both sides were using the same strategies to combat those who would deny their beliefs. Both believed they had The Truth, and neither side was willing to hear out their opponents honestly and acknowledge the flaws in their own theories.

    And so, in Diary of a Parallel Man, we have someone born into a world where the truth about our origins and what is morally right and wrong is beyond question. Then, he finds himself in a world where there are many conflicting explanations and no one is certain of anything.

    In this setting, I tackled how what we believe shapes our world view and our view of other people. I pointed up the reality gap of the Bible’s God – how he is vocal and involved in that world, but silent and apparently inactive in ours. The righteous are not blessed, there are no miracles and evil goes unpunished. In Parallel Man, Baz’s spirituality is gradually eroded simply by being among us for a prolonged period, and Kirsty’s atheism is transformed by a single supernatural encounter, while the purely secular view is represented by Dr Jonathan Adams.

    This was my reality check – I got all of my confusion out onto the page. What I ended up with was a rich set of characters and a multi-layered story. I didn’t find many answers. The only truth that struck me by the end is how immature and short sighted we are as a species. We think we have it all worked out, when really we are tiny in the universe and self-absorbed. But then, I always was a bit of a misanthrope.

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