John C. Wright’s criticism of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy hinges not on the books’ atheist message (Wright was an atheist himself when he first read, and found serious defects in, the series), but on the sloppy and arbitrary handling of their plot.
“This book should have been an atheist book,” Wright laments. “I mean a properly, openly, honestly, hardcore really atheist book.” Such a book would have depicted a rationalist materialist underdog faced with the impossible task of overthrowing an all-powerful God whose tyrannies are established clearly and early. But instead of a compelling drama like Paradise Lost, Pullman’s apparently ungovernable urge to mock his theological opponents results in satire more like L. Frank Baum’s titular Wizard. The mixture proves tonally and thematically dissonant.
Further undermining the dramatic tension are a slew of such basic technical errors that Wright expresses bafflement at how a pro of Pullman’s stature could have committed them. The plot turns on a series of unfired Chekhov’s Guns and forgotten buckets.
The weapon prophesied to slay immortal God is never used for its stated purpose. A last-minute deus ex machina arbitrarily ruins two characters’ chances of a happy ending.
Warnings against the dangers of putting message before story have been stirring up fandom lately. His Dark Materials stands as an example of how ignoring such sound advice places a story’s plot in grave peril of death from loss of dramatic tension.