The Celestine Prophecy, James Redfield

Warner, 1993, 246 pages, C$21.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-51862-X

Most of my reviews focus on science-fiction, thrillers and truly odd non-fiction. Henceforth, it’s a rarity (outside science-fiction conventions, of course) when I can actually discuss books with other live people. Not so with James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy, which has spent some unbelievable time on bestseller lists and seems to have been read by a similarly unbelievable number of people. At the office, about a third of my colleagues seemed to have read the book; a higher proportion still knew enough about it to snicker scornfully.

I’ll be honest enough to admit that I’m often deeply suspicious of anything that becomes too popular. Yes, I’m an elitist. But an elitist who goes to enough used book sales to be willing to give a chance to anything cheap enough. And so that’s how I ended up with a nice hardcover copy of The Celestine Prophecy (thirty-third printing!) in my to-read stack.

From the dust jacket, it’s easy to see why the book would inspire both such sales and such scorn. Some mumbo-jumbo about ancient insights, a spiritual culture, universal truths wrapped in contemporary pseudo-scientific vocabulary and the promise of life-shattering revelations. “A book that comes along once in a lifetime to change lives forever” soberly writes the Warner Books copywriter. Whew!

No being a big fan of new-age yadda-yadda, I was prepared for the worst. What I ended up reading in an hour or so wasn’t all that bad.

First, let’s state the evidence: Yes, this is feel-good new-age “personal enlightement” literature. It may be masquerading as a (poor) thriller, but the nature of the “insights”, the progression of the litany and the promises of a richer, more fulfilling life are familiar enough.

But new-age literature is actually more complicated to write than its detractors will allow, given how it has to blend pop-psychology, motivational training and a fair bit of self-hypnosis. Redfield’s stoke of genius was to transpose his dry list of nine insights in a first-person thriller framework. Besides deliberately blurring the lines between reality and fiction, The Celestine Prophecy is kind enough to allow even sceptical readers like me to be swept along (somewhat) by the narrative flow of a story with just enough guns, sex and explosions to make it interesting.

Now, let’s be truthful and admit that as thriller fiction, The Celestine Prophecy is trash. That’s obvious from the very first few pages, as the author gives himself a “get out of jail free” card in the form of a “nothing happens by accident” First Insight. Whee! Free opportunities to use convenient coincidences over and over and over and over again! The hand of the author in manipulating his characters is obvious though the novel, as the narrator meets one useful character after another and is thrown in a series of suspiciously convenient adventures. Hilarious logical howlers abound, from stupid character names (with no regard to ethnicity) to smack-obvious foreshadowing that allow any alert reader to predict the next chapter’s big insight. The fantasy elements are poorly integrated (Woo! Love-driven auras!), but I’m not about to review The Celestine Prophecy as fantasy, because otherwise we’ll be here until morning without much to account for.

But you know what? It’s hard for me to be too harsh at a book that cost next to nothing to buy and took barely an hour to read. Fantasy auras aside, the “insights” of the book at the type of harmless things sold far more seriously by Psychology PhDs elsewhere in the self-help section. Heck, it wouldn’t take much to link The Celestine Prophecy to the trans-humanist movement, complete with the final rapture/singularity. And that, for some reason, just warms up my geek heart. Good, bad, just throw The Celestine Prophecy in the “interesting; won’t take too much of your time; fun to argue about” pile. At least it’ll give you something to talk about at the next science-fiction convention… or even at the office.

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