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theological fiction

Ragnarok

by Alessandro Benedetti

The gathering was as strange as you could imagine.

Osiris, the oldest of them all (just technically, since it is not easy to assign an age to immortal beings), was sitting at one edge of the immense table. He coughed a couple of times and declared the meeting open:

“Gentlemen, for the first time since a couple of million years we have all gathered, looking for a solution to our problem; now, in my opinion our best option would be a compromise. Despite our differences, we and the Cygnus divinities are in the same boat and share the same troubles. Remember what has happened on our own Earth — every time a new religion flourished, several other gods were progressively abandoned and very nearly starved to death. I say we cannot take this risk again and should rather strike a bargain with our extrasolar colleagues; after all, there are enough potential believers for everyone! Yes, Ares, do you want to say something?”

“Indeed, I do”, roared Ares, enraged like the god of war he was. “I say there can be no agreement between us, the true gods of an ancient planet, and those charlatans, those upstarts… No conciliation is possible; no agreement should be reached, and no quarter shall be given. Gentlemen, I say there is only one way: war!”

A loud scream echoed his words and filled the majestic hall, as all the gods ever worshipped, by whatever culture in any age on Earth, were angrily shouting and clamouring for —metaphorical— blood.

It must be said that most of them would appear to their believers as anthropomorphic as a wave function, had there been some Earthmen around: very unlikely, however, over the surface of an asteroid just created from nothing, thousands of light years away from our planet.

Every divinity, then, Greeks and Romans, Thor and the Asgardians, the Indian Trimurti with all the minor gods, even Allah and Jahaveh were crying with all the breath they had, or rather signalling through sudden changes of millions of volts in their energy spectra, a single word: WAR.

In such a pandemonium, Buddha quietly sat, whereas most of the Sumerian gods were shaking their heads and Quetzalcoatl tried calming his colleagues by reminding them of the possibility of death by entropy for the whole Universe, alas to no avail…

His was only a faint voice in a sea of cursing, so that there was no need to vote in order to take a decision.    

It had all started about a century before, when the first human beings had escaped from the cage of the solar system.

Granted, it had not been easy: three of them had not awaken from the dreamless sleep of hibernation and were now forever orbiting outside the Kuyper belt. The long sleep had taken its toll on the rest of them, but they had reached the outskirts of the Cygnus constellation.

And what they found they could not believe: an extremely evolved species, alien even to the mere concept of violence and survival of the strongest, was anxious to meet them, exchange ideas, collaborate and peacefully share the known universe.

An exchange of technology, notions, opinions and, more importantly, people quickly followed, and inevitably missionaries opened the way for the numerous beliefs of Cygnus to Earth and vice versa, not unlike St Brandan landing in Ireland or Bodhidharma reaching Japan.

Right in the middle of this idyllic scenario — or maybe precisely because of it: no one likes to be supplanted by a foreign upstart—, the ancient Earth gods took offense at their counterparts on Cygnus.

After the failure of the peace meeting, therefore, war was declared and the gauntlet thrown down on their extra-terrestrial rivals, challenging them to a most singular battle.

The battlefield was a planetoid, entirely devoid of life and placed inside a huge static field completely opaque to every type of radiation or matter: nothing, not even a neutrino, was permitted through. Nothing, that is, apart from a narrow wavelength, through which a video and audio signal was transmitted, amplified and broadcasted so that billions of people on both worlds could watch the final battle and support their respective divinities.

And what they did see, they would remember for a long time: the terrestrial army, nearly at full strength —only Buddha and a few others were missing, having decided to seek refuge in a different continuum— and reinforced by Satan with thousands of his devils, facing countless foreign divinities.

Just an instant of absolute silence, then they threw themselves into the fray, launching at each other tons of radioactive matter and streams of neutrinos, striking again and again with X-rays, heavy particles, all the arsenal available to creatures as almighty as them, which means pretty much every possible form of energy.

On Earth and in the Cygnus constellation both populations saw giants lifting supermassive rocks, throwing thunderbolts, fighting to the death without mercy: they witnessed the fall of Odin and Venus, Satan and Vishnu together with hundreds of others.

And when it was all ended, over the killing field covered by dying gods, the magnetic fields weaker and weaker, the wavelength shifting more and more to the red, Allah and Osiris accepted the surrender of the alien gods.

They screamed in triumph, their fists raised, their bodies soiled with blood, or rather burned tons of hydrogen in massive flares which irradiated in the gamma portion of the spectrum.

But their justified enthusiasm did not last much longer, as they saw the static field compressing quicker and quicker and at the same time their energy vanishing, the temperature dropping down to absolute zero, the electrons collapsing in on the nuclei: the stars were agonising, the fields were fading away, entropy was running wild…

“Somebody betrayed us”, Osiris tried to say, “but who… and why…”, but he could not finish.

Many light years away, an Earthman and a Cygnus creature watched the needle of an instrument going down and down until zero, then they smiled and shook hands: Ragnarok, the twilight of gods, was complete.

~

Bio:

Alessandro Benedetti is an Italian physicist, in love with science and enamored with letters, happily married with two kids. Having grown up on a steady diet of Dick and Bradbury, he works at the European Commission and couldn’t be happier.

Angels In Contemporary Media: An Orthodox Analysis

by Luis Marujo

The subject of angels has always fascinated mankind.

In its more conventional understanding, that of angels as messengers of God (or gods), it is present in a vast number of cultures and different faiths of the past.

The concept of angels as is understood today – spiritual being, ordered to perform certain tasks in both the physical and the spiritual word, a guardian assigned to each person – started in Judaism, the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, some 4000 years ago.

The Torah (a part of the Jewish Holy Book, the Tanach) known to Christians as the Pentateuch, the 5 books written by Moses, refers to beings that bring special messages from God and calls them mal’ak elohim – messengers of God – or mal’ak YHWH, messenger of the Lord.

The prophet Daniel is the first biblical figure to start shedding a little light on the matter, by naming two of those spiritual beings that he saw in his apocalyptic visions: Gabriel, the primary messenger of God, and Michael, the holy warrior of the Lord.

The term ‘Angel’ does not refer to the nature of this entity (spiritual) but to its occupation, that of messenger. The term comes from the Greek word ‘aggelos’, which means messenger or to deliver a message.

In Hebrew the suffix ‘EL’ refers to God, hence each angel is named in reference to his relation to the divine: Gabriel meaning “God is my strength” and Michael meaning “Who is like God,” describing the battle cry uttered by this archangel when war erupted in Heaven between the angels that stayed faithful to God and those who rebelled against Him.

Raphael is later mentioned in the Book of Tobit, one of the books of the Bible, identifying himself and also making the revelation that he is one of the 7 angels that are in the presence of God.

A fourth angel is named in the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, and is given the name Uriel. It is not mentioned in the Bible.

All angels are ranked in a hierarchy. The Jewish faith announces 10 ranks, while the Christian faith only recognizes 9.

Finally, the Kabbalah, a set of Jewish esoteric teachings, gives free rein to the description of angels at length and it is from here that the present supernatural concept of angels as spiritual guides that anyone can connect to originated from.

Having taken root in people’s spirituality, the subject quickly spread to the various branches of human creative skills: crafts, music, literature, and in all possible expression of arts, TV shows and movies.

It is a recurrent theme in various genres of literature, with Sci-Fi\Fantasy being the most significant, and has also a predominant place in the imaginary world of comic books.

Here things become more interesting. In these specific intellectual expressions of man’s imagination, angelic holiness is a non-existent faculty. As is common where human genius is at work, the boundaries between angels and demons (corrupted and fallen angels) are virtually deleted and fused: angels and demons act in a similar manner. In fact, in movies or books where they are depicted, Gabriel or Michael perform most unholy actions, to the extent of torturing or killing human beings in order to accomplish their goals. They act with arrogance, malice, pettiness and sometimes even hatred. Such of course is not the nature of the angelic host but rather that of their fallen brothers, the demons, which, by rebelling against God, lost all their grace and holiness, by their deliberate choice of opposing the Creator, and revel only in hatred, fury and violence.

Let us single out an illustrative example. The Prophecy, probably the most iconic movie about such celestial affairs, follows the premise of a war between angels in order to protect the survival of the human race on earth. Here, Gabriel rips the heart of another angel, has his own heart ripped by Lucifer, and in general violence amongst them is not minced but executed swiftly.

In the movie and its sequels an array of strange faculties are given to angels that defy the knowledge of angelic capabilities known in orthodoxy, such as being able to resurrect and command the dead, to impart a disembodied soul in a living human being, to destitute another angel of his spiritual nature and turn him into a normal human. Literary license at its best… The possibilities of different stories, faculties and powers that angels may be endowed with in such scripts is near infinite, being only confined by human imagination.

What we know of the angelic nature is that it is unchangeable. After the great test which all the angelic host was subjected to, that of following God’s command or rebel against it, the angels’ choice is never to be changed again. That was an informed decision: for when an angel decides, his choice is permanent. He has perfect knowledge of the consequences of his choice, and therefore he cannot have regret over it nor will he ever pursue a different path from the one he chose. It is irrevocable and it will be everlasting. Hence, an angel will always keep his angelic and holy nature, if he chose to abide by God’s law and will never behave in opposition to it, which means he cannot corrupt his nature and become a demon after his choice has been made. To have angels behave in an unholy manner is just an impossibility!

Much could still be said about the behaviour of these spiritual beings as they are depicted in the multitude of stories present in the visual arts, but if one has to summarise in a single phrase, it comes to this: angels behave too much in a human manner. Their actions, passions, reactions, thoughts, reasoning, machinations and demeanour entirely resemble that of man. In fact, except for the prowess and powers assigned to them, across the spectrum of movies, TV shows, books and comics, angels seem to differ in no way from men in all but their capabilities.

There is a likely reason for this: Man needs to humanize what is superior to him and hence justify his own fallen nature. By depriving angelic nature of its holiness and bestow upon it human traits, he conveys the message that there is no need to pursue what is holy, no sacrifice needed for the betterment of self nor to strive for a behaviour that conforms to divine law. After all, if angels can fall, how could man do better?

~

Bio:

Some people write books – Luis makes them! Check out his work at marujitobooks.

Misogynist

by Gustavo Bondoni

The misogynist is in hell. His personal hell is a small, square chamber with surgical looking white walls. He is ranting.

“They’re all witches. Worthless sacks, only good for screwing and for making babies. I’m not even sure we should ever have let them move from the bedchamber to the kitchen.”

After each pronouncement, a spray of acid from tiny jets in the walls dissolves his skin, burning it away like the wax figures in bad horror movies. It is a terribly painful experience, and unbeknownst to him, the pain is enhanced by processes controlled by unseen minions.

After the devastation, his skin heals itself. This is even more painful than the burning. 

It has been going on for years, and will do so for eternity.

But he cannot stop the pronouncements. A voice that only he can hear provokes him every moment of every day. Only he can hear it because there’s a sound-carrying tube that emits its sound only into his room.

We can follow the tube. It is not a long way. It goes into the adjacent room. There is a woman in the room, and she is also speaking.

“Men are useless in society. All we need is a stock of frozen semen, and we can get rid of the whole stupid beer-drinking, war-starting gender. The goddess will see to it.”

There is a spray of acid and her skin dissolves.

The tube, you see, is a two-way tube, and sound goes both ways.

Hell may be unpleasant, but it is efficient.

~

Bio:

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over two hundred stories published in fourteen countries, in seven languages. His latest book is Ice Station: Death (2019). He has also published three science fiction novels: Incursion (2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Off the Beaten Path (2019) Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest. His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.

On The Vastness Of Space And The Paucity Of Inhabited Worlds

by David Barber

St Augustine, a disciple of St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan in the years around 380AD, sat at the feet of that eminent Father alongside the unknown author of the Codex Alexandria. We may surmise this from the following facts.

As Augustine tells in Book IV of the Confessions, “When he [Ambrose] was reading, his eyes ran over the page and though his heart perceived the sense, his lips were silent.” The sight of a man reading for himself and not for others hints at books becoming their own justification. The Alexandria codex is fragmentary, but bears a dedication praising the learned Ambrose, and it too mentions this silent readership, tacita lectoris.

We know that a complete copy of the work, subsequently titled On The Vastness Of Space And The Paucity Of Inhabited Worlds, was made for the library of the Bishop of Antioch in the opening years of the fifth century, since it is described in the catalogue of books demanded by Theodosius II.

That new Emperor at Constantinople, already forced to accept the division of the Roman empire into East and West and unwilling to risk the fragile unity of the Church, cast suspicious eyes upon the See of Antioch, where the heresy of Arianism had only latterly been extinguished.

The copyist describes the work as containing the most perfect proof of the existence of God, and a lemma which insisted that the divine law, or necessitas, by which God made our world the laws of physics, as we might say – must allow the plurality of worlds, since to argue otherwise imposes limitations upon God.

In addition, crowded into the margin in another hand is the observation: concludes the absence of other inhabited worlds – which must follow if the proof is true.

About the nature of this vanished proof we can only speculate. It should not surprise us that merely human arguments about the existence of God do not resist scrutiny. The lesser may not contain the greater. Yet tellingly, no proof before has demanded that humankind be unique. Perhaps some ideas are fathered only once.

In the centuries since Ambrose, Augustine and the author of the lost Codex, we have indeed found a plurality of worlds, and our servants, the silicon descendants of our own minds, have visited some of them. 

And though we have listened carefully, it seems we are alone. As far as we can tell – and these days that is very far indeed – except for the miracle of ourselves, the universe is silent. Science has determined these facts but does not offer an explanation. It may be that others see no need to read aloud; or perhaps it is an infinite theatre with a solitary actor and no audience. In the sonorous Latin of that unknown hand, the most perfect proof of the existence of God demands there be a multitude of worlds, but perhaps the God who was proved to exist had no choice but to leave them vacant. Regretfully, it may be true that the worlds of creation echo to no voices but our own.

~

Bio:

David Barber lives in the UK. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, New Myths and Asimov’s. (He framed the cheque.) His ambition is to write.

Visitations From God Leave Us As Confused As Ever

by Nicholas Sheppard

Tales of divine visits to Earth have been around since Gilgamesh was a boy, but the recent upsurge in alleged visitations would be remarkable even by the standards of Homer. First we had the tale of Joseph Salamander, who says that God spoke to him from a burning bush while hiking near Sydney, Australia. Then we had Bartholomew Erephus claiming that God had spoken to him from a cloud later the same week, followed by Erina Holsworthy’s claim that God had entered one of her children’s dolls. A torrent of other claims may be found on social media.

Many of the videos that you’ll find are surely hoaxes; it’s not hard to set a bush on fire and insert a suitably resonant voiceover. Other claimants may be the victims of mental illnesses or drug use. But even the more credible witnesses leave a lot of questions as to what really happened.

Mr. Salamander says that God asked him to work towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting biodiversity; but who until now has heard of God needing to prove His environmental credentials? Mr. Erephus says that God instructed him to gather a harem of fertile young women so as to go forth and multiply, as it were; but though Mr. Erephus insists that God is concerned about low fertility rates contributing to the ageing of the population in developed countries, others (including Mr. Erephus’ wife) have seen this claim as rather self-serving. Others have pointed out that God’s instructions to Mr. Salamander and Mr. Erephus seem at cross-purposes. Ms. Holsworthy says that her doll alerted her to the plight of persons displaced by war and famine across the world, but it is not clear what she is to do about this from her middle-class home in Charleston, West Virginia. Others have said that God warned them of the evils of alcohol or other drugs, or appointed them to stand up for the rights of particular ethnic groups or socioeconomic strata, or asked them to establish societies based on principles laid down by philosophers ranging from Plato to Marx.

Numerous explanations have been advanced for both the apparent frequency of these visitations as well as the bewildering array of advice that God is supposed to have given. Maybe the end really is nigh, some say, and God is making a last-ditch bid for the moral improvement of humanity. Some have explained the inconsistent nature of the instructions as individualised advice intended only for the ears of those visited; others have suggested that there might be several gods vying for our attention. For those less inclined to accept divine explanations, there’s the suggestion that a team of hoaxers is creating ‘deepfakes’ on a scale never before seen, or that we might be under assault from alien ‘influencers’ attempting to extend their audience to Earth. Or maybe the whole thing is just mass hysteria brought on by too much social media.

Rene Jacquillard, a professor of history at the Université de Montréal and noted sceptic, has suggested that the only way to resolve the mess would be to ‘catch God at it’. He has accordingly proposed a series of traps through which gods, hoaxers and/or aliens might be gotten hold of and made to perform under laboratory conditions. Sara al-Zubair, a professor of comparative religion at the University of Damascus, has proposed that the new sayings of God be collected into a kind of Extra Testament from which religious scholars around the world can distil a text suited to the needs of anyone seeking spiritual guidance. In the meantime, citizen-prophets can also contribute their experiences to on-line site Wiki-Testament. Critics point out that compiling the sayings of God into a book (or, presumably, web site) has been far from an unqualified success in bringing agreement to previous generations of religious thinkers. Perhaps there’s nothing to do but embrace the diversity and richness of God’s will. If God wants to tell Mr. Salamander to protect the environment while telling Mr. Erephus to populate it, so be it, He’s not telling anyone to do anything that many of us wouldn’t do anyway. What would be really surprising, after all these thousands of years? God calling a meeting to set out His plan in plain common-sense terms that everyone can agree on.

~

Bio:

N P Sheppard is an academic and software engineer based in Wollongong, Australia. He has published academic research in information security, short fiction in AntipodeanSF, and non-fiction in Aurealis and Cockatrice.

No Vacancy

by Ádám Gerencsér

My child, I apologize for the blinding light. By now, you have probably understood that the truck swerving into your lane failed to come to a halt and you did not survive the impact.

Be advised that a million other souls around the world are hearing a similar message at this moment. You rightly expect a tunnel of light to lead you to our side. Today, however, I’m afraid that you cannot be accepted and must return to the living. In fact, no-one will be accepted until further notice, so it is imperative that you pay attention and mark my words.

You see, heaven was established with a clear purpose: housing the spirits of the faithful departed, along with those of benevolent unbelievers. The billions of entities who were its original inhabitants formed an ecosystem: the hierarchy of angels. The kingdom reposed in a state of serene equilibrium, waiting with eager patience for its first arrivals, while on the blue planet the primordial soup spewed forth algae, bacteria, dinosaurs, trees and marsupials, all of which did not possess a receptive soul. That gift was imparted to a couple of primates who had shown promise by overcoming their own limitations and reaching for the fruit of knowledge. Many of their descendants failed, but some lived a life pleasing to the Maker – and as they departed, we began to receive them. Hunters and gatherers from communities attuned to the natural order of things had no difficulty fitting in here.

Then, gradually, your kind took to evolution with increasing zest. We were not too concerned by the newcomers from tribes that worshipped the sun, or despotic fiefdoms ruled by warlords. Once we had presented them with ’alpha males’, higher angels they could respect and whose commands they would follow, they slotted right in. But then alphabets cropped up and written discourses began to spread – we were aghast at receiving scholars, pharisees and scribes! Things first threatened to get out of hand when arrivals began to trickle in from the Greek city states. The celestial spheres were no longer immutable and the abodes of the dead were echoing with the chatter of varied languages debating history, philosophy, ethics, even metaphysics – before long, a pluralism of views became the new norm in the outer cloud rings.

Mankind’s ideas mutated at an accelerating pace, while with each passing generation more and more of you were born and died. Countless bloody wars filled our entrance halls with the ghosts of massacred innocents from all corners of the world. Our hierarchy became untenable, the very orderliness of the afterlife teetered on the brink as the emergence of new angels failed to keep up with the breakneck population growth among the deceased. The renaissance was bad enough, but the second wave of so-called enlightenment in your 19th century practically overwhelmed the administrative capacities of the angelic host, which had hitherto acted as the immune system of the heavenly realm. With the wide spread of literacy, free-thinkers started arriving in unprecedented numbers, and it was no longer possible to smoothly integrate them as their revolutionary discourse had infected the ethereal fabric woven during bygone, calmer ages.

The breaking point came today. Of the million or so newcomers expected, one was bound to tip the balance and human souls would outnumber angels for the first time in the kingdom’s history. With a view to ensuring the sustainable operation of heaven, no further arrivals will be admitted before the Maker guides us to find a solution. Until that happens, all deaths are suspended indefinitely. No accidents, illnesses or acts of crime will be permitted to result in mortal casualties – the physical forces of the universe shall be instructed to conspire for the preservation of human life under all circumstances. Please note, however, that births do not fall within our jurisdiction and will continue unabated. Therefore, go back now and tell all who would listen: your kind has certain arrangements to make…

~

Stairway to Heaven

by Carlton Herzog

EXCERPT FROM THE 2230 VATICAN CONFERENCE ON THE EXISTENCE OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE PRESENTED BY CARDINAL GIACOMO BONANOTA, CHIEF ASTRONOMER, VATICAN OBSERVATORY, ROME

From antiquity to the present, we have debated whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe. In a seemingly unrelated vein, we have also wondered what happens to us when we die. Is death the end, or is it merely a jumping off point to a deeper, more nuanced and granular reality, of which we are only dimly aware? To be sure, I as a man of faith never saw the intimate connection between extraterrestrial intelligence and the soul. That, my friends, has changed.

We all remember the story of Giordano Bruno who championed the Principle of Plenitude. To wit, the cosmos is bursting with an abundance of intelligent life and correlatively, souls. And he believed that those souls were not confined to creatures such as we are or others like us but invested the very planets, stars, meteors and the universe itself. Sadly, we had a hand in his being burned at the stake for heresy, a stain that will never be fully wiped away. Today, I take a small step toward atonement by submitting for your approval that Bruno was correct on both points. I make that bold claim not as a matter of faith or as a regurgitation of official church doctrine. Rather it stands on the ground of irrefutable scientific evidence.

Until recently nobody knew for sure whether there was a soul or not, and if there were what happened to it once it left the body. A paranormal researcher, named Jake Cody, theorized that the physical body acts like a matrix or womb around which the soul forms and grows.  It’s composed of elementary particles that have a lot in common with neutrinos–very low mass and the ability to pass though ordinary matter undetected. When the body dies, the soulons decouple. Cody believed soulons to be the source of apparitions, hauntings and poltergeists.

He built a device–what he called a psy-scope–to detect the wandering souls. When Cody trained his scope at locations supposedly infected with ghosts and specters, he didn’t have any luck. One day it hit him that if souls were indeed massless, they would not be tethered by gravity. So, he aimed his scope skyward. But it wasn’t until he aligned the detectors along Earth’s magnetic field that he struck pay-dirt. Sure enough, he caught sight of souls moving in great looping arcs toward the poles and then breaking free into a vast migration.

But there was an unexpected twist: the number of souls exceeded the daily mortality rate by a factor of ten. From that finding, Cody postulated that a lot of animals we think don’t have souls–dogs, apes, whales, dolphins, octopi, even cows and chickens–do, albeit more primitive versions of our own. That got him to thinking his psyscope could be used to detect life outside our solar system by finding soul streams leaving exo-planets. In theory, he believed that he could re-trace a line of streaming souls back to their planetary source, thus pinpointing where to focus a search for life.  Cody also believed that just as we can identify spectral emissions in light as corresponding to certain elements, he could do the same with psychic spectra to identify intelligence.

Theory in hand, Cody approached the neutrino hunters on the Galileo array and asked if he could repurpose one of their detectors as a psy-scope to pursue his research. They agreed, and the data they’ve received confirms Cody’s theory.

Nobody likes to hear they have been demoted. In this case, Cody’s theory means that we were no better than animals or extraterrestrials when it comes to being admitted to an afterlife, an afterlife automatically bestowed by the laws of nature. And while Cody’s theory seems to rule out Heaven’s pearly gates, it raises many a question. For one, why are the souls drawn to the black hole at the center of our galaxy? At this distance, black hole gravity would have no more effect on them than it does on us. Clearly, some other force is at work, one that might be purposeful. And while a black hole would crush ordinary matter, it might serve as a conduit to an elsewhere or an else-when for massless particles, such as soulons.

The images show that our galactic black hole is nested inside a spherical halo of souls. Around its accretion disc there exists a coextensive rotating ring of souls–with its own internal velocities, bifurcations and currents–that plunges radially into the black hole.

Cody believes that the entire contraption forms an over-mind–a dense supermassive guiding intelligence. A galactic hive-mind, if you will.

The question then is whether in addition to the cosmos, there is a psymos, a psychic universe with a life and purpose of its own, such that our physical universe is nothing more than the caterpillar’s chrysalis, and in time, we and the physical universe we inhabit will pass away into something transcendent.

Cody wants to contact these over-minds. Although his empirical data is sound, I am skeptical of its utility beyond the realm of pure scientific understanding. Even if everything he contends is true, I doubt that the corporeal and the psi could have a common language.

Questions such as what role, if any, did the over-minds play in the formation of the universe? Do they know the fate of the universe, and are they in control of it? Do they remember their earthly existence, and if so in what detail and with what, if any, emotion?

I submit that the difference between the living and the dead is like that between a caterpillar and a butterfly. Same creature, but their approach to life and concomitant needs are radically different. I see a hand in the front row. Bishop Charles, my old friend from London, how might I elucidate these matters for your learned self?

“First, I want to thank you for an excellent presentation. My question speaks to the matter of what constitutes such a mind. If it be not driven by neurons and neurotransmitters, is bereft of grey and white matter, as well as all the other cranial components that house and drive human consciousness how then can you say these soulons have minds at all. Perhaps they are just the mindless remnants of consciousness shed by the brain the way a snake sheds its skin.”

I’m glad you asked that question. I’m sure you are familiar with Sir Robert Penrose’s work of some two centuries ago. He showed that consciousness was merely the surface condition, the foam if you will, on very deep waters that sounded in the quantum realm. Our physical reality, if I may repeat myself, is simply a womb for that energy to coalesce into something far more complicated and enduring than our tiny, fragile minds can imagine.  In that regard, I quote the great thinker J.S. Haldane who famously said, the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

More to your point, I am proposing, as indeed is Mr. Cody, that a soul possesses a different form of consciousness, one not tied to the needs and limitations of the body, one that can travel across vast galactic distances and see things we can only imagine, and draws power, purpose and structure from a hidden quantum reality we may never fully know. Cardinal Enright, you have a question?

“More like an observation. I would venture to say that a soul would remember every aspect of its life here on earth. That would be consistent with conservation of energy laws, since consciousness is at root an organized configuration of informational energies. But I don’t think a soul would miss its earthly life. Perhaps, because emotion would persist into the afterlife only in the vestigial sense. Or because the soul would know that death is merely a transitional phase toward something more enduring. And I suspect its sense of time would be much different.”

Thank you, Cardinal Enright. Thank you all for your kind attention. I’m about out of time, so let me wrap this presentation up.

Whether you concur with Cody and myself, or you hew to a more doctrinal view of the afterlife, I think we can all agree that we are all related to the infinite, even though we cannot with microscopic precision lay out the contours of that relationship, beyond a few particulars. I submit that is what it is to be human. How that came about, or why, is perplexing to be sure. But it gives us a needed humility and perspective in the fact of vast, cosmic grandeur as we trudge the road of unfathomable destiny. We are not the center of creation. Something else, some call it God, is—a something whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

~

Bio

Carlton Herzog served as a flight dispatcher in the USAF. He later graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University. He also graduated from Rutgers Law School, where he served as the Rutgers Law Review Articles Editor. He currently works for the federal government.

Angel Snow

by Elena Sichrovsky

The first angel on the tree was a gift, albeit an accidental one. Part of the choir ascending after the birth of God’s Son, she was but one of many when her wings happened to be struck by the crown of lightning that descended to rapture the Heavenly hosts.  Falling between the eaves of sky and down to the earth, she landed on the tip of an evergreen and her back was stabbed through by the point of the branch.  From her splintered spine blood trickled down, white like snow, every droplet frozen in the unforgiving winter and whispering away in a flutter, delicate flecks dusting the pine needles and spreading to the uneven ground below.

The last vestige of her dying aurora illuminated the tree, haloing it in a glow that drew the worship of men, women, and children everywhere. They gathered round that day to bow before the pierced corpse and offer their worship to a God who had imparted the gift of one of His own, no doubt to bestow blessing on their coming year.

From that day forth, to honor the reverence of His followers, God deigned for such a sacrifice to be sent down to the people of that hallowed ground every Christmas. But so that Heaven’s own would not be taken for granted, He passed on instructions to the priest of the village, rules that must be adhered to in order to earn the yearly angel.

Each year, in the last month, twelve angels will be sent down, children of Heaven who hide among the forest for the children of men to hunt them down. Twelve descend, but only eleven will return to their Father. One child is destined to be caught and impaled upon the tree. It is an annual game of disguise and hunt, and only the human skilled enough to detect the unearthly beings will be worthy of obtaining the celestial prize.

The blade used to kill the child of Heaven must be purified, made of gold refined and dipped in sacred water to slice through the unearthly skin of the child’s throat. The angel must be embalmed in robes of linen, diamonds crystalizing her godly light. Her eyelids must not be closed, for her sightless gaze should remain open to face the glory of Christmas Eve. On that holiest of days, when she is hoisted on the shoulders of the strong and carried to her final resting place, all will behold her and the purity therein.

She will be lifted up to the iron spike which has been fixed atop the tree. Over the years the brittle black metal has become crusted white from centuries of blood spilled, of angel’s bone and marrow split by the sharp needle. When her body is speared to the crown of the evergreen she will stand tall, her head bound by gold ribbon to gaze up at the light and framed by her lifeless wings, their frozen feathers flapping in the winter cold.

And all will gather by the light of candle flame to watch her bleed out. Her blood, righteous from God’s touch and unspoiled in the innocence of her youth, will flow forth, as snowflakes that waft through the branches, dusting the wide-eyed children dancing around the tree in angel snow.

~

Bio

Elena Sichrovsky is an Austrian citizen currently living in Shanghai, China. She’s a student there at the Shanghai University of Engineering Science and also a member of The Shanghai Writing Workshop. Her short stories and poetry seek to portray the beautiful and terrifying, and she is currently working on finishing her first novel.

The Greatest Good to God

by Andy Dibble

How much is the suffering of an insect worth, writhing on the ground, flapping one wing, the other plucked by a child?  Is not the cruel pleasure of the child worth incomparably more?  Kill a thousand insects.  Ten thousand.  Their assembled suffering is as nothing.  And why do we say this?  Because an insect has so little capacity to suffer, let alone experience joy.

As different as the insect and the child are, so is the child to Me.  The gulf yawns wider in fact.  Think of yourself as a snarky bacterium.  Do you consider how many innocent streptococcoi you slaughter when you bleach your toilet seat?  Should you?  Of course not.  They feel essentially nothing.

I know.  I’m God.

I know the degree to which you–everyone one of you–suffers.  But My suffering and joy is more, stupendously more.  For all your imagination and amphetamines, you cannot begin to understand the barest perturbation in My well-being.  For all My skill as Teacher, I cannot begin to teach you.

So whose welfare should I attend to, Mine or yours?

Mine, of course.

#

However sovereign I am, outside Me is this moral law: The greatest happiness to the greatest number.  Utilitarianism.  But My duty is not to better the condition of many.  Recall the cruel child.  She owes the insect nothing, or near enough.  Utilitarianism really amounts to a simpler formula, Create all the happiness you are able to create.  And that is served by serving Myself.

#

Even the seraphim are like fireflies next to My Sun.  And what are you, clay of Adam, alongside them?  Beneath Me are the myriad choirs of angels, the denizens of the pure abodes, unseen sheiks, the yellow emperors, the apsaras and asuras.  And only then humanity.

Even I must prioritize.  Remember your place, snarky bacterium!

#

Only My pity for lower existence gives Me pause.  Pity loves fairness.  But if fairness is the rule, the lowliest, the most numerous should prosper: abandon sanitation so that vermin and insect swarm.  Should I really make higher existence worse off for their sake?

But I do not pity the cockroach like I pity the grieving mother, the orphan, or victim of calamity.  So, on occasion, I intervene.  Not for their sake but to squash pity.

Now pity is a greedy master.  Give it a little and we whir down spirals of remorse: Why can’t I do more?  I know why.  Because I am yoked to utilitarianism.  I must serve Me.

So normally, I distract Myself: dazzle the Hebrews as a pillar of fire, march them on righteous conquest, incarnate and wreak havoc in their holy city, bask in their worship.

You think it petty.  But it works best.

#

Sometimes humanity creates something worthwhile: A certain seventeen syllables penned by Basho then translated into Russian.  The curve of a Buddha statue’s lip carelessly destroyed by the Huns.  Panini’s grammar misquoted by Patanjali.  Beethoven’s tenth symphony.  The Argentine that lived the twentieth century and never once experienced hate.

But what is Starry Night alongside the splendor of exploding universes too violent for life?  My majesty contains these might-have-beens.  They astound Me more than any triumph on a pale blue dot.

#

My first attempt was stodgy Michael.  He was lofty enough that I could help him for his own sake, not just for Mine.  But he only wanted to serve Me, be My silver sword, My strong right arm.  Serving his interests was only a roundabout way of serving Mine.

So I tried again with Lucifer.  He loved Me, but only because he saw himself in Me.  His vanity was luminous, consuming, a million billion suns with a sucking hole inside.  Like a super-massive galaxy, his self-love warped reality.

But he was still a prima donna.  He thought himself entitled to more of My attention than the utilitarian calculus allowed.  So I sighed and saw him off.

I created.  I tried again.

#

Creation is an experiment.  Maybe evolution, across all the teaming universe, will rear a people whose welfare means more than My own.  If it could rear gods, a race near enough to Me, there would be others I could help for their own sake.

I watch evolution tinker.  I nudge it along.  The giraffe stands without passing out.  The human eye sees a million colors.  The rabbit eats its own poo to thrive.

None are almost gods.  But all have My image.  My genius and My wit.

#

I became human to broaden My horizons.  For I had never experienced relief.  How could I?  From the stance of eternity, I always know when ill will turn out well.  I do not know forgetfulness or gratitude or need.  As I am, I know the warmth of a body only exteriorly.

Though I can imagine what it is like to be a man, I do not know what it is like for a man to be a man.

So I became man.

#

So now you understand how all worldly suffering is justified, how it is necessary.  That tough nut, theodicy, admits of a solution.  In Me nearly everything has its end and goal, and that goal is My greater glory and pleasure.

But of all possible worlds, every conceivable sequence of events, I chose this very one.  To serve the utilitarian law, I chose this creation and you in it.  In some way you–even your failed marriage, your stillborn child, your self-serving prayers and spotty church attendance–increase My happiness more than any of the panoply of merely possible people I could have thrown into existence. 

Be gladdened by this.

~

Bio:

Andy Dibble is a former academic and Sanskritist turned healthcare IT consultant. He has supported the electronic medical record of large healthcare systems in six countries. His fiction is forthcoming in Writers of the Future. (andydibble.com)

Byzantine Theology in Alternate History: Not Such a Serious Matter?

by Pascal Lemaire

Byzantium is not the primary reference that comes to mind when thinking about science-fiction, but its influence can be seen in the works of many authors : Asimov’s oft-mentioned use of the life of Belisarius as a source of inspiration for Foundation and Empire is the best known example. But it is in the alternate history subgenre of science fiction that Byzantium seems, logically, most present : since the 1930’s a number of authors have written novels and short stories hovering between historical fiction and science fiction set in different periods of the Byzantine era.

The choice of the Eastern Roman Empire as setting combined with the genre’s expectations of a degree of verisimilitude mean that authors have had to deal with a number of issues including the strongly religious nature of this culture and in particular its innumerable theological debates of which the fight against Arianism, Monophysitism or iconoclasm are the most famous. Looking at four authors from the 30’s to the first decade of the 21st century allows us to examine how the treatment of such issues evolved in this particular genre.

Lyon Sprague de Camp’s genre defining novel Lest Darkness Fall, first published in 1939, is a well-known alternate history which, while not the first of the genre, did a lot to popularize it in science-fiction circles. 

The main character of the story, a modern archaeologist named Martin Padway, finds himself in Rome in 535, a few months before the reconquest of Italy by Byzantine forces. He soon sets out to prevent the collapse of civilization and the loss of culture and science by averting the so-called Dark Ages.

Inspired by three fundamental texts, namely Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Robert Graves’ 1938 Belisarius, De Camp has his character focus his efforts on political and technological developments but has to confront the cultural realities of this age, including of course religion.

Already in chapter two a tavern features a sign “religious arguments not allowed” over its counter. A bit further in the story, in another tavern, an argument develops on the various heresies of the time with a man complaining about Arians, Monophysites and Nestorians not being persecuted, which in his eye is a persecution to his good “Catholicism” : it isn’t long before the tavern is thrown into chaos and violence.

In this scene the various religious arguments are not completely developed, as characters interrupt each other before anyone can complete the exposé of his position and the main character only looks for escape for he is “no religious man and had no desire to be whittled up in the cause of the single, dual or any other nature of Christ” : there is undoubtedly a comic effect in the scene that sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Overall the depiction of religion throughout the novel is mild, but not very sympathetic : the arrival of a priest to attempt healing the main character is not welcome, nor are a Jewish magician’s attempts to cure the illness.

Similarly we later see the main character use a mix of corruption and blackmailing against a bishop after a priest threatens Padway with accusations of sorcery. At other time religion is also used as an excuse not to marry a woman.

Religion is thus if not completely mocked, at least rejected or manipulated : it is shown as a source of strife or the recourse of or against the under-educated and the superstitious. This is of course not surprising given the authors that inspired this work, nor would it be unique.

Next in our study is Robert Silverberg’s time travel novel Up the Line, published in 1969, which takes place largely in medieval Constantinople. An author of Jewish origins with a background in comparative literature, Silverberg does not seem to have had any specific relationship with Byzantium prior to that story, although he had published a number of non-fiction books on archaeology and history, including one on the Crusades in 1965.

In Up the Line, we follow the training and then troubles of an aimless looser called Jud Elliott who becomes quite by chance a time-travelling tour guide. Beside the formal rules of the job, Jud learns, thanks to his jaded elders, how to fully enjoy the periods he travels to, discovering how to chat with emperors, delight in various luxuries and, more importantly, the comfort of many women.

In this story, however, Byzantium is but a background, the reality of the time never impacting the story in any meaningful way. The time-travelling tourists and their guide simply go through the past and do not really interact with it, and even those of them who live in the past interact in such a way that their presence leaves no trace.

The theological debates of the time are almost never mentioned, the iconoclast period being the exception and then not so much for the theological aspect as for the added difficulty it places on the character trying to use a painting to look for a missing tourist at a moment when paintings are seen as icons that need be destroyed.

Likewise there is no exploitation of issues such as the condition of Jews in the past, and the explanations the tour guide provides of the various events his travellers witness rarely covers religious matters.

In fact the tourists are often using religion as a disguise : the suits they wear during the black plague tour are seen as religious garb while they also pass for pilgrims in order to gain better access to the walls of Constantinople during a battle.

This novel is clearly more influenced by the general discourses on sexuality that follows the summer of love than by any attempt at historical authenticity : the main character is a tour guide that shows scenes of the past as one would bring someone to the movies, and indeed this experience of history seems flat and lacking in comparison with Sprague de Camp’s story that follows someone deeply immersed into the past. Even the women of this bygone era, such as Empress Theodora, to whom Jud is “intimately” introduced, are nothing but cardboard figures that disappear once they had served their narrative purpose.

This absence of religion in Silverberg’s novel is also somewhat surprising given that the theme of religion often appeared in his books : do we need to see this absence in a novel set into a deeply religious era visited by characters coming from a seemingly a-religious era as a comment in and of itself ?

While Silverberg’s text is a bit of an apax, isolated in is apparent lack of engagement with religion in a Byzantine context, others texts such as Poul Anderson’s time travel story There Will be Time, published in 1972, are more in line with what one would expect to find.

Set at the time of the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders, it features for instance a character saying “From my viewpoint, the Byzantines were as superstitious as a horse”, setting it in a trend which sees the ultra-religious Byzantine culture being used to criticize, more or less openly, established religion.

This is not really surprising given that Anderson was very much influenced by Lest Darkness Fall, going so far as writing in 1956 an “anti-Lest Darkness Fall” in his short story The man who came early.

Our next text brings us to the mid 80’s with seven short stories later assembled under the title Agent of Byzantium, by author Harry Turtledove. The stories take place in a truly uchronic 13th-century world where the prophet of Islam became a Catholic saint instead. In this timeline, religion assumes a more significant role, if only because the point of divergence between our history and the one in this universe is of a largely religious nature. The absence of Islam mean not only that a number of historical and theological developments would not take place, but also that the world’s geopolitics are rather different from our own.

Turtledove, who did a PhD in Byzantine history after reading Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, undertakes a much more in-depth depiction of the world in which his character Basileus Argyros evolves, something we can also see in later novels including the time travel story Household gods or his historical fiction Justinian about Byzantine emperor Justinian II.

Religion is omnipresent in his character’s life as well as in the geopolitical complexity of the world built by the author. The character often thinks of the life of saints, especially his patron St Muamat, and engages in theological debates with other characters, also of other faiths such as a nomadic shaman and Persian spies.

Theological debates also form an integral part of the plot : the recipe for gunpowder is thus linked to the trinity of God and we see the Persians attempt to use theology to create strife in the Empire thanks to the introduction of printing, which is then used against them by Basileus Argyrios to win theological arguments among the general population.

One of the stories deals with iconoclasm and shows how Argyros intervenes in the official reaction against the new heretical doctrine, giving both intellectual input to the theological debate and using new technologies to spread the word of the resolution of the debate and thus turn public opinion against the heretics.

The place of religion in this story is thus very different from the one in Up the Line. Turtledove employs his expert knowledge of the period to deliver a much richer environment and integrate the topic of religion into the heart of the story without using it for jokes or making disparaging comments on it in the way Sprague de Camp did in Lest Darkness Fall.

Last but not least, the 6 stories of Aelric written by Richard Blake (2008-2013), starting with Conspiracies of Rome, take place in the early 7th century, some 40 years after the time of Belisarius and Justinian, and include both science fiction and Lovecraftian elements. The main character is Aelric, a young Angle forced into a religious conversion against his will who then becomes an important part of the Byzantine imperial administration.

Very cynical about religion, the character organizes false miracles to survive until unforeseen events catapult him into the world of high politics of the empire. Atheist if not pagan, interested in Epicurist philosophy and scientific experiments, to Aelric religion is a tool to be used or fought against, or a way to escape the dangers of the laic world : most of the books are described as being his memoirs written from the safety of a monastery in Britain, when the character is an elderly man hunted by his past.

A typical book demonstrating the use of religion by the author is The Blood of Alexandria, first published in 2010. Sent to Coptic Egypt in order to implement a new land use reform, Aelric is soon thwarted in his attempt by the use of theological arguments against his legislation.

Further on priests and bishops are shown to be duplicitous and to use theology mainly to manipulate the crowds for their own interests of the day while monks are described as either petty, stupid or cunning and aggressive, similar to the monks of the movie “Agora”, which was released a year earlier.

But the author also goes further and actually ridicules religion when another major character turns up in Egypt to look for a most surprising relic with which he hopes to restore the morale of the recently crushed Byzantine army, for the bishop of Jerusalem refuses to lend him fragments of the Holy Cross : General Priscus is looking for, quote : “the first pisspot of Christ” which is deemed a most potent relic, for it was in contact with Christ at a time when his dual nature was not yet perfectly balanced as it was at the time of crucifixion but rather more divine because his human nature had not yet grown…

As Aelric says, such an interpretation would make the Monophysite doctrine mostly correct had Christ died a baby and the Nestorian doctrine mostly correct had Christ died aged older than 33.

This mocking of religion is rather representative of the overall provocative tone of the main character throughout the series and in line with the author’s background as a well-known libertarian.

Each of the texts we studied approach the topic from a different angle that corresponds to a subgenre of alternate history : the so-called “stranded in time” trope, the time-travel story, the canonical alternate history and the secret history. However, the strand of alternate history authors choose to employ does not necessarily influence their depiction of Byzantium. Rather, those stories demonstrate the personalities of their authors and their attitudes to religion.

As Race MoChride recently pointed out, “it is notable how infrequently religion appears as a major theme in the personal lives of famous science fiction authors and how many, including those for whom religion is a major theme in their work, are themselves either atheists or practitioners of idiosyncratic or unorganized alternative spiritualities”.

The index for Lyon Sprague de Camp’s autobiography has no entry for “religion”. Friend with known atheists and sceptics such as Asimov and Heinlein, with whom he spent a lot of time before, during and after the Second World War, and a rationalist looking for facts rather than faith, the attitude seen in Lest Darkness Fall is not really surprising, especially when coupled with the large influence of atheist Robert Grave’s Belissarius on de Camp’s novel.

Silverberg, born and raised in a Jewish environment, had a different kind of engagement with religious matters as shown by his bibliography, and often in rather innovative ways such as in the 1971 short story Good news from the Vatican.

But as already mentioned, the apparent absence of religion from Up the Line might in fact be his manner of critiquing it. The characters initially come from a post-religious or a-religious time period, which is in itself a prophecy on the death of God, but the fact they do not make any comment on Byzantine religiosity, as if there was nothing to see, seems also telling.

Our third author Harry Turtledove is, according to an interview he gave in 1998 to Jeremy Bloom, of the Jewish faith although “not particularly active”. Yet his writings do not usually afford much room to religion, and one could say that Agent of Byzantium is probably one of his novels where the religious content plays a significant role. One may also note that his Byzantine history PhD dissertation was about continuity and change in internal secular affairs in the later Roman Empire.

Yet the deep knowledge of the period acquired during his research meant he was able to use religious elements in ways much more interesting than Sprague de Camp or Richard Blake.

This last author, the only British writer in our list, is in fact Sean Gabb, a British libertarian who published a number of articles on topics such as blasphemy laws (which he most strongly opposed) and expressed strong views on religions in various medias while publishing his fiction under a pseudonym.

It is thus no surprise to see the main character of his novels describe, in a markedly ahistorical way, Orthodox thought as “nonsensical” while defending science and epicurean atomic philosophy. Gabb’s position of radical liberalism, economical as much as philosophical, lead him to defend the right of religious people to express their opinion while also practicing his right to issue forth speeches or texts that may ridicule them or their beliefs.

The tradition to use Byzantium in alternate history is thus an interesting case of a atheism-inspired tradition spanning more than sixty years of science-fiction in the shadows of Robert Graves’ Belissarius and the present paper is only the beginning of an inquiry into its true significance, highlighting the need for further research.

Topics such as the relationship between technology and religion in those stories are probably also a good way to further investigate the subject, especially in relation to other scholarship on religion and science fiction. Another potentially fruitful avenue of inquiry might be a review of alternate history published on the web, in order to determine the extent to which the atheist tradition discussed above pervades fan fiction and self-published literature.

~

Fictional works mentioned :
Anderson, Poul, The Man who came early, 1956
Anderson, Poul, There will be time, 1972
Blake, Richard, Conspiracies of Rome, 2008
Blake, Richard, Terrors of Constantinople, 2009
Blake, Richard, The Blood of Alexandria, 2010
Blake, Richard, The Sword of Damascus, 2011
Blake, Richard, The Ghosts of Athens, 2012
Blake, Richard, The Curse of Babylon, 2013
Grave, Robert, Belisarius, 1938
Silverberg, Robert, Up The Line, 1969
Silverberg, Robert, Good News from the Vatican, 1971
Sprague de Camp, Lyon, Lest Darkness Fall, 1939
Turtledove, Harry, Agent of Byzantium, 1994
Turtledove, Harry, Justinian, 1998
Turtledove, Harry, Household Gods, 1999

~

Bio:

With formal training in both Ancient History and ICT, and a job in the later domain, Pascal Lemaire studies how the ancient world meets modern literature, especially in the SF and Fantasy genres, with a secondary interest in how literature plays with History, especially in uchronia and techno-thrillers. https://independent.academia.edu/PascalLemaire

New Worlds, Old Worlds

by Mina

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away… I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole and found an intriguing series of “shorts” directed by Tomasz Bagiński called “Legendy Polskie” (“Polish Legends” – this is the translation used by the director himself, since you could also translate “legends” as “fables” or “(fairy) tales”), which transplants old Polish tales into a sci-fi/fantasy context. They have decent English subtitles and the images are of good quality. I loved them but that is not reason enough to wax lyrical: I am writing about them because, in my opinion, good sci-phi is not really about other worlds, it is about this one. In this case, the films are unapologetically set in a Slavic-Polish universe. They are also a good example of the archetypes found in our collective unconscious and what a friend of mine called “folk theology”.

Before going any further, for those that have not watched these shorts (yet!), here is a summary of the five tales. The first “Smok” (“Dragon”) takes a local legend about a dragon terrorising the city of Krakow. In the original, the king offers his daughter in marriage to whoever rids him of the troublesome dragon. A poor shoemaker tricks the dragon into eating a sheep filled with sulphur, which makes it so thirsty it drinks from the Vistula river until it explodes. The clever guy gets the passive princess – the usual stereotypical solution, which is not particularly interesting in itself. In Bagiński’s version, the focus is more on the David and Goliath premise behind it. This is a much richer trope in the collective unconscious – the little guy beating the giant with nothing but intelligence.

In the modernised version, the hero is a computer nerd and science geek; the princess is a sporty, spunky girl the hero has a crush on; the dragon is a sexual predator with a spaceship. This short is the one most influenced by US teenage culture, social media and computer games. The dragon is a mercenary, feared but also idolised on social media (the film seamlessly incorporates his media presence on Facebook, Twitter, etc. – he even has a signature song – and fake news clips). When the heroine is captured by the dragon in his ship, the hero cannot hope to win in face-to-face combat, so he fights back by creating a cross between a high-tech K9 and a female android (as well as the nod to Doctor Who, there is another to the manga “Ghost in the Shell” in the background of one scene). His bedroom is full of the gadgets he has created, but he steers the android using an ordinary mobile telephone. On the surface, it is all very formulaic: good wins against evil, guy gets girl. Under the surface, you could argue that it’s a great plaidoyer for hard work and brains being more important than muscles and arrogance, a critique of the power of social media and fake news and a comment on political corruption. Particularly in Poland today, this is all much easier to say in a parallel universe.

Going in chronological order, we then move on to chapters one and two of the same tale: “Twardowsky” (incidentally, a chapter three is on the way as a full-length movie). The original legend is a Faustian pact with the devil, so it is an ideal example of folk theology or urban legends. The black, if not subtle, humour is very apparent in Bagiński’s take on this age-old story. He has us reluctantly rooting for the foul-mouthed, sexist and arrogant (anti)hero (reminiscent of the heroes of the wonderfully outdated “Seksmisja”). Part one shows Twardowsky’s confrontation with the female demon Lucy on the moon and his escape by stealing her ship. The plot itself is very simple but behind it is an adoption of the sci-fi genre into Polish culture, with the US tropes being replaced by Polish ones: the successful Polish millionaire on the cover of Newsweek (although the fact that he got there through a deal with the devil makes this particularly subversive); the first man living on the moon is Polish (in the original, Twardowsky does flee to the moon) and he is living in a sleek moon station; the soundtrack is full of Polish golden oldies and the hero is played by a Polish actor who is to the Poles what Depardieu is to the French (Robert Więckiewicz). My favourite line is Lucy commenting that the holy water the hero initially tries to poison her with cannot work because the bishop who blessed it is already in hell. In today’s ultra-conservative Catholic Poland, it is a daring joke.

Part two shows Twardowsky outwitting hell again. It is full of very imaginative details about hell and its inner workings. The ship the hero has stolen is powered by sin and he gets stuck in the rings around Saturn because it runs out of fuel. He tries to power it by swearing and is about to attempt masturbation when he is interrupted by a conference call with the demon Boruta (in Polish mythology, he corrupted noblemen). Hell is painted just like a large corporation with many ranks of demon and a bureaucracy underpinned by a massive computer system. We even see Boruta’s assistant, Rokita, sorting out a computer bug for his boss (and he demonstrates Smok’s soul being downloaded into hell, a nice detail). This of course leads to Boruta being careless with his password, which allows Twardowsky to use it to hack into hell’s mainframe from his demonic ship. Our hero is able to power the ship by committing suicide, but he also interrupts and reverses the download of his soul to hell, thus escaping into outer space. The happy ending is mitigated by showing us the demon Lucy clinging to the outside of the ship, letting us know that there will be another battle to come, and the fact that Twardowsky is fleeing again when all he really wants to do is to return to earth. A coda at the end shows Rokita trying to explain to Boruta that Twardowsky’s hacking led to the wholesale collapse of hell’s mainframe and to many complications.

All of this cheerful irreverence towards religion may not seem like much but it is very risqué if you take into account the political and cultural climate in Poland right now. It is not the first and will not be the last sci-phi film to critique religion and society. Another underlying message can be found in the lyrics to the song at the end of part one. Being human means not knowing what happens next in life (the people you have not yet met, the moments you have not yet lived, croons the song) and this is what Twardowsky lost when he sold his soul. He does not just get his soul back at the end of part two, he gets back the uncertain future he lost (and thereby, hope); just like Poland got back an uncertain future at the end of the Communist regime. Freedom is painful and comes with no guarantees (hell may still catch our hero; Poland still has a lot of problems).

The last two shorts show the escape of two Slavic demonic beings from hell as a result of the complete rebooting of the computer system – a basilisk and a witch. “Operacja Bazyliszek” (“Operation Basilisk”) begins with a flash-forward to the hero trying to save the “princess” (a female soldier) from a “giant chicken” (the basilisk, with its deliciously creepy voice), then goes back to two policemen on a fishing trip somewhere near Warsaw. This short really enjoys turning the whole fairy-tale trope on its head and it is the funniest in my opinion (although it is perhaps more superficial). Unlike Twardowsky, the hero Boguś (short for Bogusław, pronounced Bogusz) is a completely lovable if crass “typical” Polish male. He has premonitions and he saves the day with his mobile phone and his “Slavic anger”, that indomitable Polish spirit. I do not think you could go as far as accusing the film of rampant nationalism, but it is full of blatant national pride. Boguś’ hard-drinking uncle also helps, although more by accident than design. He is a wonderfully comic element with his terrible puns, but it also feels as if the director is taking the stereotype of the “drunken, macho Slav” and lending it more depth and weight than usual.

“Jaga” (“Witch”) shows the battle between a very powerful witch who has just escaped hell and the demonic military swat team sent to collect her. It is my least favourite episode, as it is built on a trope that is over-used in sci-fi/fantasy films: the slo-mo fight reminiscent of a computer game with one against many, underscored by the music. Jaga is, however, a strong female character and not a passive princess or repulsive crone (the main female stereotypes in fairy tales). Boruta freezes time to ostensibly persuade Jaga to come back to hell but actually to help her escape. Jaga goes on to wreak chaos on the humans that have polluted the air and ravaged the land of her world and killed her sacred trees. Boruta hopes to become king of the chaos that ensues when humans lose comfort and order. However, Jaga’s actions lead to the escape of a very powerful demon Perun (god of thunder and lightning in Slavic mythology), so Boruta will have competition in his plans for world domination. Jaga is not portrayed as good or bad, simply as dangerously single-minded in her defence of Gaia. Boruta comments that she was only in hell until she chose to leave it, again stressing the silent strength of this female figure.

The shorts are all produced by Allegro (the biggest online e-commerce platform in Poland) and their site for these films offers free extra material. All the music can be downloaded for free, there is an interview with the demon Boruta in text and audio form and there are some wonderful videos to go with the music. For example, the song “Aleja Gwiazd” (“Star Road”) shows how a demon (Lucy) is born; “Jaskółka Uwięziona” (“Trapped Swallow”) shows us Jaga being tortured and escaping from hell, as well as Boruta’s fascination with her; “Kocham Wolność” (“I love freedom”) shows us the mundane lives of demons. It is a great use of cross-media platforms, which feels appropriate for sci-fi/fantasy shorts. However, although the music videos can be enjoyed without knowing a word of Polish, the other extras are only available in Polish, which does make most of the content “hermetic” to the non-Polish speaker (to quote THEfirstNEWS, a Polish internet magazine which publishes in English).

The director Bagiński studied originally to become an architect and began in computer-aided animation, and these origins are clear in how important the aesthetic aspect is to him. He is also very rooted in his Polish culture – his first animated short “Katedra” (“The Cathedral”) won many awards: it is based on a short story by a Polish author Jacek Dukaj and the images are inspired by the paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński. The mix of imagination and social critique are already present in this early work – are we seeing a man sacrificed to a construct or gaining immortality? Bagiński is now working on a series for Netflix “The Witcher”, based on the works of the Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski. In an interview with THEfirstNEWS, however, Bagiński states that his favourite project is still “Polish Legends”, “a collection of reinvented Polish narratives”.

In an internet article on the entertainment blog (rozrywka.blog) of Spider’s Web (a Polish technology and lifestyle blog), Bagiński discusses in depth what he means by “narratives”. For him, they exist at all levels of life and in all domains. In business, companies rise and fall based on their “stories” (which seem to equal well-placed lies in some cases). In politics, parties that have a coherent, simple story or narrative do well (which can equal propaganda). A story is much more than entertainment, it is when we suspend disbelief and let ourselves be carried by the narrative. In the same interview, he is asked why he has been involved in so many projects focused on Polish culture. He answers simply that, when his career took off the ground, he decided to stay in Poland and it felt natural to use the “cultural instrument given to me by my native country”. And not just use it, but reflect and comment on it in a world context. It is his biggest influence, along with US action movies from the 1980s.

The visuals in these shorts are stunning and it must not be forgotten that they have brought Allegro a lot of money, despite being made available for free. Allegro itself considers “Polish Legends” to be a marriage of culture and marketing. Not surprisingly, the films have won awards for branded content, brand awareness and positioning, and online videos. They are an attractive package aimed at a generation that has grown up with the internet and media platforms. Moreover, they are a shining example of Polish creativity and innovation. But beyond their glittering surface, they have a deeper resonance lent to them by their use of stories and ideas taken from the collective unconscious and folk theology, skilfully harnessed by Bagiński. These films may postulate future or alternative worlds, peopled with demons and other fantastical creatures, but what they do best is tell us a lot about the Polish psyche.

~

Bio:

Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s “The Day of the Triffids” at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She has published “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

A Reflection on the Achievement of Gene Wolfe, with Gregorian Chant Echoing Offstage

by Blackstone Crow

“Robert, I think he’s lost his mind.”

“He has eyes, Marie, and you don’t.”

“What do you mean by that? And why do you keep looking out that window?”

Quite slowly, the man turned to face us. For a moment he looked at Agia and me, then he turned away. His expression was the one I have seen our clients wear when Master Gurloes showed them the instruments to be used in their anacrisis.

Like that? It’s a haunting scene, one from a weighty tome of haunting scenes, capped as a lyric with a couplet by that edgy comment about the countenance of those wretches who see the “instruments” whom the “Master Gurloes” – the reader at this stage of the novel knows Gurloes to be a Master Torturer of the Guild of Torturers – reveals to his “clients” about to suffer their “anacrisis”, a term from the Ancient Greeks referring to the torture used when, in a law case having interrogation and inquiry, torture was applied.

And lift a tip of an interior ear to that “You have eyes, but you do not see” echo from the Gospels. But it is cast in a semi-pagan way, too, that line, cast as it is with the very modern, “I think he’s lost his mind” coupled with it in a dynamic and very conjugal way. Something is askew here, a mismatch, hints of the Christian Faith and instruments of torture. Or maybe not? One could easily picture this scene in the sunny background of the High Middle Ages, in an office of some Star Chamber court. But in fact, it takes place on a far-future Earth almost (not quite, there are hints!) unrecognizable.

This vignette is taken from page 190 of volume 1 of my Fantasy Masterwork edition of the late Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun multi-tome epic. All four volumes, on every page, have scenes word-woven on such a level. Ursula K. Le Guin said of Wolfe that: “He is our Melville” – maybe so, but he strikes me as more an Old Testament author (whom Melville himself hoped to “channel”, perhaps?). Wolfe strikes me as a Master Chronicler of the Guild of Haunting Unsettlements, or he would do so if the Prophet Ezekiel had ventured into essaying a Science-Fiction novel. Wolfe haunts; he unsettles. One just doesn’t “read” such an author. Does one “read” Shakespeare? One spends a lifetime carrying Shakespeare about, and one does that with Wolfe. It is a gift very few writers achieve at all, and fewer still on a sustained level. Besides the Avon Bard himself and Wolfe, I can name two others: Tolkien and Homer.

Gene Wolfe died on April 14 of 2019 at the age of 87. Having survived both polio and the Korean War, he became an engineer – and if you have a taste for Pringle potato chips, Wolfe helped create the machine that forms them. His wife Rosemary, born the same year as Wolfe, died in 2013 after long illness, including Alzheimer’s. Wolfe has a quote about her recorded in The New Yorker in 2015 that, “There was a time when she did not remember my name or that we were married, but she still remembered that she loved me.” After a long life as a melancholy observer of Earth’s all-too human scene, I have to say that is a poignant line; indeed, there have been few such loves.

With this essay, I stand here before the Assembly of Readers as Wolfe’s Advocate. He deserves to be read, whether a particular writing of his is Science-Fiction or whether it is Fantasy. Wolfe deserves to be read because all of us deserve the mystery he conjures. Justice is giving something its due, and Science-Fiction itself is due the gift of seeing reality as something that can act on us as much as we think we can act on it. Sci-Fi – the art, relying as it does on building imaginative narrative architecture based on the empirical sciences – more than deserves mystery: it needs it desperately, for all Creation needs a return to the sense of mystery – and of course in the heart of mystery resides beauty. Or terror. Yet beauty is allusive, non-capturable – and in that peculiar oubliette in the Mansion of Meaning, Wolfe is THE master “mystery” writer, “mystery” in the Catholic Sacramental sense. Wolfe himself was a Catholic, a convert who initially studied the Faith to marry his beloved Rosemary, and much speculation orbits that question as to what extent his religion influenced his writings. Wolfe himself averred that it did. As he converted in the 1950s, before the controversial changes in the Church, he thus experienced an older, more transcendental theology than those whose Catholic experience dates from the 1960s or later.

Do a writer’s personal religious beliefs color his oeuvre? Enlarge it? Or restrict it? It’s a common enough question when discussing where authors cultivate their ideas, and how they wrestle with the concepts they create, yet Science-Fiction (nor most of the rest of Modernity) often doesn’t have the “religious gene” that way; at best, reality is matter to manipulate and we’re Descartes’ Ghosts in the Machine – pure matter ourselves, yet oddly “haunted”. The natural world in which we live in our technological bubble is not considered that type of mystery, not a Mysterium requiring awe and contemplation but a material reality needing exploitation for profit. Though an author of more than 25 novels and twice that many short stories, no reader of his can believe Wolfe wrote with much of an eye for profit. His fiction is not “pop” fiction, written to sell high volume, though Fantasy is a huge seller in general, compared to “literary” works.

Wolfe’s fiction is instead a wondering, a cosmos-wide pondering on whether it is reality that is a player in the game, whether it can exploit us, or transform us, as in his Fifth Head of Cerberus, a three-novel combo asking the question of whether the long-settled human colonists of a planet haven’t actually been replaced by the aliens native to the place. Who does the haunting? (Or is it more like possession?) The humans who have replaced the natives or the natives, haunted by what happened to the humans they have altered themselves to pantomime? In the Fifth Head, Wolfe also asks whether a machine can hold a human’s mind, and whether a clone can continue the life of its original, whether prostitution offers a greater freedom and whether suffering is…. Well, one doesn’t just “read” Wolfe, one interacts with Wolfe, and one does so sacramentally, for as the Catholic Sacraments are physical channels of invisible, divine grace; in Wolfe’s art, his characters experience the worlds he creates as believers experience the drama of divine life in such a sacramental metaphysic.

Alien that is, of course, to our present world, and it is fitting an author of Science-Fiction engages in it; but that raises another reason for Wolfe to be read: he’s work. He takes effort. As suggested here, his form of storytelling is quite different from the norm. And he can be more work than Tolkien, more than Homer, for he has an anti-Mysterium world to work against. And that’s Sacramental too. From his unsettling reflections on who we are and contemplation of what we might be, even if unbeknownst to ourselves, to his wonderful, exquisite prose and his penchant for creating words – one often finds oneself looking up a word only to realize Wolfe has made it up – in all of that, Gene Wolfe is a transcendent author, or perhaps, suggested by the unsettling questions raised in The Fifth Head of Cerberus, he is Ezekiel come again; an ancient phantasmagoric, a prophet of the supernatural imperiously striking itself through the natural world, an extraordinary visionary who sees a higher reality our world in itself can only dully reflect – perhaps the prophet has indeed replaced the potato chip machine maker.

Read Gene Wolfe, and you’ll wander in these wonders, and over time, bit by bit – perhaps – garner that most elusive of graces: wisdom.

~

Blackstone Crow blogs at corvinescatholiccorner.blogspot.com

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His Missing Materials

by G. Scott Huggins

Detail of The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flanders, 1562)

I was asked to speak recently as part of a panel at a convention on the anti-Narnia trilogy committed by Philip Pullman called His Dark Materials. The books are, like the Chronicles of Narnia targeted toward the youth audience. I’ll say in passing that I find it absolutely stunning that I heard volumes of advice from churchgoing folk on the merits vs. the evils of reading Harry Potter books, which pretty much align with Judaeo-Christian moral teachings, if anything. Yet never once did I hear a peep about these three books, which in effect openly declare war on the Christian faith. In the series, the only afterlife is Hell, which is maintained by an evil God (“The Authority”) who has pulled the wool over the eyes of the universe. Essentially, this “God” is the imagined God of Satan in Paradise Lost: not a Creator, but simply an immensely old and powerful being who assumed the title of “God” in order to rule all who came after. The Authority maintains Hell for no other reason than Divine sadism, and by the time of the novel, the angel Metatron is trying to take over the position of “God” from the senile and dying deity, maintaining the monstrous tyranny of Heaven. The protagonists are humans who lead a revolution against these evil god-kings to establish “The Republic Of Heaven.”

So, I told those running the panel that as a practicing Christian, I would have some fairly sharp criticisms to direct toward the books’ portrayal of Christianity, which as questions of fairness go is about on a par with Tim LaHaye’s portrayal of atheism in the Left Behind series. And if this was a fan panel extolling the books’ virtues then I would probably not be the person they wanted. They agreed. And in some sense I am disappointed, because I was rather hoping they might want to foster a sharp debate on the issue, but I get it: people are fans of things, and they don’t always want to be told why they shouldn’t be.

Now, I don’t expect with this essay to dissuade anyone who loves these books: there are many out there who regard war upon the Christian faith as a good and necessary thing, and if you think that weaning children away from it is a moral triumph, then I imagine that you will indeed like these books. I disagree, of course, and I imagine that no one who is a fan cares. But what I find truly interesting is this: So often, when I speak with atheists, they boast of having read the Bible. They believe they know it better than Christians do, and it is often stated – and more often implied – that if Christians would actually read the whole thing, including the morally challenging bits, then they would stop being Christians. Perhaps especially in light of that, I would encourage people who are familiar with Pullman’s story to consider all the things this triumphant war on God had to leave out in order to be prosecuted to its successful conclusion.

Christ

The most glaring omission from the entire series is the story of Christ. The Authority portrayed in the books is explicitly Christian in character. The Catholic Church is still a frightening world power in the first book. Can you imagine a Catholic Church without Christ? And yet, the story of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection is entirely absent. The story of Enoch from Genesis and of Lucifer’s Fall are pretty much central to the storyline. But the defining act of Christianity is completely ignored. And the only conclusion that I can possibly come to is that it had to be ignored for the tale of an evil God to make the slightest bit of sense. Because the charge that God is an evil puppetmaster that just loves to torment people by holding them to an impossible standard and then punishing them when they fail really falls apart if that same God has sacrificed himself or his child to reunite humanity with Himself. But I have to confess that I don’t see why the whole story of Christ wasn’t revealed as a complete fabrication to lure gullible humanity into worshipping the Authority. If the whole thing had been revealed as propaganda, then that would effectively have made the Authority just that much more ruthless: the promise of Divine Grace revealed as a lie. But I think the problem here is that Pullman has either a) simply failed to understand that the story of Christ is central to the Christian faith, or b) doesn’t care that it is, and is confident that his readers will have too little religious education to call him on it.

Heaven

For reasons that are never fully explained, humans can be kept alive indefinitely in the torment of Hell – Lyra and Will free the damned souls in the third book – but cannot be kept alive in Heaven. This despite the fact that we know that Enoch somehow won enough favor from the Authority to be turned into the archangel Metatron. Baruch also somehow became an angel, with an extremely long life, but when Will reasonably asks how, Baruch demurs to say. So humans can be transformed into – if not eternal beings (because even God dies of old age) – at least incredibly long-lived and powerful ones in a condition free from torment. Yet this apparently cannot happen anymore. All the souls freed from Hell simply dissolve into nothingness. In fact, the nothingness, which is described as a mystical but unconscious joining with the life of the Universe, is portrayed as superior to becoming an angel, because angels seem to envy humans the pleasures of the flesh. Even though angels can lust after and mate with human women. So angels are apparently incels.

And again, one wonders how we are supposed to take this? Because it seems to me that Pullman leaves himself with a rather terrible end to his own story. Lyra speaks breathlessly of creating “The Republic of Heaven,” at the end of the series, but no one seems ever to wonder whether the Authority’s apparently unique power of human apeotheosis could ever be duplicated, even though all the Authority’s power seem to have come from his superior experience. And if the Authority dies in the end, then surely the other angels will as well. Followed by humanity and all other life. The Republic of Heaven, in the end, will come to nothing.

Satan

Funnily enough, Lucifer, who is regarded as a hero by Lyra’s parents, never shows up in the story except by reference. He is cast as the archetypal liberator of the universe from the tyranny of the Authority, but is apparently lost forever in the mists of time. Of course one might well think that Satan is the proper hero for two parents who abandon their child, refuse to acknowledge her to her face, and literally cut the soul from her friend’s body in order to unlock the secrets of the universe. Apparently, like every revolutionary tyrant in human history, the ends justify the means for them. As long as they were on the “right side,” fighting against God, they get to wear the mantle of virtue. Like Satan himself, their recorded crimes are to be washed away because… the Author(ity?) says so.

So in the end, it seems to me that Pullman has managed to demonstrate (since “proof” is far too strong a word to use in connection with any work of fiction) just two things.

Firstly, he has demonstrated that a Christianity with no Jesus Christ, no hope of heaven, and no real sin to oppose, is a monstrous tyranny. I would, I suppose have to agree. I wonder if Pullman might next favor us with a dystopia in which he concludes that a republic with no representation, no elections, and no limits on power is a terribly abusive form of government? Surely we must then conclude that republics are oppressive, yes?

Secondly, he has demonstrated that he is, within his scope as a fiction writer, perfectly willing to indulge in the same abuses of power that he mocks the Authority for abusing: he will allow no grace to those he has designated as evil, he will offer no hope of salvation to anyone. Near the end of the third book, Mary Malone says that good and evil are names for what we do, not what we are. Good actions help people and bad actions hurt them. However, Pullman seems to have taken that to a fearful extreme: what determines whether an action helps or harms has nothing to do with people actually hurt or actually harmed. Rather, the proof of an action’s good or evil has much less to do with actual harm caused than upon whether they were done under the correct flag. So long as the Authority was destroyed, all of Lyra’s parents’ cruelty and lies were good things.

The Authority is Dead.

Long Live the Author.

~

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The Gospel According To James Holden

by G. Scott Huggins

Warning: this column includes extensive spoilers for The Expanse, Season 3.

Sometimes I’m astonished by the spiritual lessons to be found in places where they are not intended. It’s almost as if there are unavoidable truths that Someone is forcing us to face. I came across the latest of these while watching The Expanse.

Image by Alex Antropov

By season 3 of The Expanse, which is, if you hadn’t noticed, a wonderful show, humanity and the central protagonist, James Holden, are in serious trouble. An alien-engineered protomolecule, whose discovery nearly wiped out all life on Earth, has shaped itself into a giant ring. Ships that pass through the Ring find themselves inside a pocket universe, controlled by a station-like artifact at its center. Due to a number of events, the exploration fleets of Earth, Mars, and the Belt all become trapped there by a technology far beyond their understanding. Unable to leave the pocket universe or communicate with the alien station, the humans try to force their way free by detonating a small ship’s fusion drive.

The result is that the station begins charging itself with enough power to potentially wipe out the solar system, leaving the humans just hours to act. The Belter commander, Klaes Ashford, prepares to fire his ship’s communications laser at the Ring. If successful, he will destroy the Ring and doom all of the fleet trapped inside to death. If he is unsuccessful, he will likely ensure the doom of all of humanity.

 But there is another possibility: James Holden turns out to be the only person who can communicate with the alien artifact. Why this is, he doesn’t know. In fact, he can’t even prove that he can do it, because the way the artifact chooses to communicate with him is by speaking to him through the image of a dead man: Detective Miller, who was killed by the protomolecule and possibly absorbed within it. To everyone else, Holden appears to be holding conversations with thin air, if they witness it at all. The artifact refuses to speak to anyone else, but it does tell Holden that the only way to save humanity is for the trapped fleet to turn off their fusion reactors, leaving themselves utterly vulnerable to whatever might occur next.

So, to sum up, James Holden has special knowledge of how to save humanity, and he can’t prove that any of this knowledge is valid. He even questions it himself, and asks the Miller-construct some very pointed questions about his past, because he has to make sure that the man he trusted, who sacrificed himself to be consumed by the protomolecule, is still there and worth his continued trust. He has to rely on faith, and then get others to believe in his message.

Meanwhile, Ashford, also a man who is, to give him credit, trying to save the Earth – in fact, arguably more heroically than Holden is, because Ashford’s attempt will absolutely doom him along with every other human trapped in the pocket universe – has a solution that can at least be conceived of as partly rational, and which does not rely on any special knowledge at all: destroy the Ring, and we cut the alien artifact off from its ability to destroy humanity. Of course, this approach also does require a fair amount of faith, though this is disguised. It requires faith that a) the laser will actually be effective in attacking the Ring, that b) the artifact is really dedicated to destroying humanity, and c) that the laser attack will not be the thing that triggers the aforesaid destruction of humanity.

I have to admit that the whole thing is a stunning allegory for the position of Christians (and some other theists, but I’m going to speak from my own position here) in the world and their atheist opponents: as Christians, we believe that there was a man, Jesus of Nazareth – who was fully a man, but also God – who could speak with the words of God because he had been with God (John 1). He told the truth about God to a small group of his disciples, and the truth was about how to save humanity. And to most of the world, this seemed to be utter foolishness (I Cor. 1:25)

Of course, that really is the rub in matters of faith. James Holden is either right to trust the message he has received from the Miller-construct, or he is wrong. But let’s look at the consequences if he is wrong. If he’s wrong, there’s no way to save the humans trapped in this bubble universe. If he’s wrong there may be a way to save humanity – but only if Klaes Ashford is right that the Behemoth’s comms laser can sever and destroy the Ring. Given that the Ring is made of a substance that manipulates gravity, inertia, and made a hyperspace portal by transmuting chunks of Venus, I would not rate that probability as high. But if Holden is wrong his message is worse than useless. It’s disguising insanity as hope.

On the other hand, if Holden is right, what then? If Holden is right to trust the message he has received, then everyone can be saved, both the humans in the bubble universe and those in the Solar System. If Holden is right, then he is the savior of humankind. 

The parallel just leaps out, doesn’t it? And further, it’s not especially fair that there is only one way for humanity to be saved. It’s not as though Holden can provide any proof that he is correct, nor can Ashford either verify or disprove Holden’s claims, which is very frustrating for both of them. Holden even says to the apparition of Miller, “So it’s a magic trick?” Miller’s response is telling: “So is your whole damn reality, kid.” In the end, Miller is right. We know nothing that we cannot perceive through the magic of our senses, which is analyzed by a brain we are only beginning to understand.

One of the most common objections I get to the gospel of Christ is that it’s not fair, and it’s not properly Godly. Some readers are likely thinking that here is where my analogy breaks down: God is supposed to be omnipotent. The aliens of The Expanse, though powerful, are not. Why doesn’t God prove He exists? Why not just tell everyone, in words they can understand and that are incontrovertible, what salvation is?

But if someone like Holden can doubt the clear evidence of his senses, then it’s not such a stretch to think that the Ashfords of the world would, as well. If Ashford were to receive such a visitation from Miller or from someone else he knew, Ashford might well consider such a visitation to be a mere trick. If we take Scripture at all seriously, then it suggests that such a manifestation would solve nothing. God supposedly took the Israelites out of slavery and appeared to them in pillars of smoke and fire while destroying their enemies and feeding them daily by miracle. And still they worshipped golden calves. However, it’s hardly necessary to take Scripture seriously to encounter this tendency. When you consider how many people refuse to believe that the Earth is round, that vaccines are good, and that terrorists actually flew airliners into the World Trade Center, it’s hardly a stretch to think that God might win fewer converts than we might imagine by showing Himself.

 Many of my friends who are atheists harp on the fact that matters of faith cannot be proven, and if they cannot be proven, then they are under no obligation to believe in them. And so far as that goes, they are correct: there is no intellectual obligation to believe what cannot be proven. What this ignores is a very simple truth: we are not in a laboratory. Life is not an intellectual construct.

The circumstance we actually find ourselves living, dying, trusting and doubting in, is much the same as that which confronts Holden and those around him: we have no proof that will tell us what to believe and how to act. We have no time to acquire that proof. Like them, we cannot do nothing: our lack of action will have very serious and deadly consequences! A crisis is building in all of our lives. For the characters of The Expanse, it is the station’s imminent action. For us – every one of us – it is the knowledge of our impending deaths. We must choose to either believe the message of the one who claims to know, or to trust, like Klaes Ashford, that humanity’s desperate schemes to circumvent mortality will eventually save someone – though almost certainly not us, if we’re alive to read this – despite the massive evidence to the contrary. The quest for the fountain of youth and the elixir of life is at least as old as religion, as Gilgamesh’s tale will bear out.

So what choice do we make? In these circumstances, what choice should we make. It’s not about who should be right, who has the most scientific evidence, or who is smartest. In the end, all those things go away. And the only thing left is what is true? Who do you trust to tell you what is true? And how will you act on that trust?

I have no idea what the beliefs of James S.A. Corey or the writers of the screenplays of The Expanse are. But the message is clear.

Trust saves.

~

Falling Angels

by Adam Breckenridge

Glorious in flame the angels fell, tails stretching heavenwards, the thudding shockwaves of their impacts shattering all within distance of their cataclysmic song. But none ran from the angelic comets, even standing their place as the maudlin blue light of an angel’s body streaked their way towards the ground they stood. This was hallowed death, godly combustion, and all who died in collision with the angels became worshipped as angels themselves, their ashes revered by the wretched survivors.

Churches formed in the hollows of the craters, shrines built to the few charred remains of angel and martyr they plucked from the fallow earth. In such desperate times as these, martyr’s ashes and angel’s dust were as fine a ground for faith as anything one could hope for. That wars broke out between rival craters is no cause for shock, nor is it cause for anger. What else do these wretched souls, who have at times been starved into devouring loved ones, have to live for but death? Let them choose death on their own terms. For many of them, dying in a meaningless battle is the closest meaning will ever come to entering their lives. They raise their swords to the fiery affirmation of the tumbling angels overhead, who cast their deathly light on the battlefield, and give thanks for what little snatches of glory they’ve been granted as they rush to die upon each other’s swords.

And ever and ever the angels continue to fall, their dying light illuminating the earth in place of the sun, bombarding all who watch them with their blackening rays.

~

Bio

Adam Breckenridge is an Overseas Traveling Faculty member of the University of Maryland University College, where he teaches writing, film and literature classes to US soldiers stationed overseas.  He is currently based in Tokyo.  His recent fiction has appeared in Vision Magazine, New Reader Magazine and The Final Summons anthology from NESW Press.

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The Day The Earth Still Stood

by G. Scott Huggins

Every now and then, I see things so differently from other people, I wonder if I’ve gone insane. Can I really, I wonder, be that wrong?

The Day The Earth Stood Still has got to be one of the most famous science-fiction films of all time. Klaatu and his robot, Gort, come to Earth, and Klaatu is almost instantly shot and wounded. Escaping from custody, he encounters various humans until, upon trying to return to his ship, he is shot again and mortally wounded. But Gort is able to revive him long enough to give his speech, which I will reproduce here:

“I am leaving soon and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The Universe grows smaller every day — and the threat of aggression by any group — anywhere — can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all — or no one is secure… This does not mean giving up any freedom except the freedom to act irresponsibly… We… have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets — and for the complete elimination of aggression… The test of any such higher authority, of course, is the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots — Their function is to patrol the planets… and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression we have given them absolute power over us. At the first sign of violence they act automatically against the aggressor. And the penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is that we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war… We do not pretend to have achieved perfection — but we do have a system — and it works. I came here to give you the facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet — but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace. Or pursue your present course — and face obliteration. We will be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”

And when I finish reading this, all I can think is, Klaatu’s supposed to be the hero of this film? I mean, he’s even hailed, in many interpretations, as a Christ-figure, giving his life for the sinners of Earth. Consider what he is saying: it boils down to, “Trust and submit to us, or die.” Now the fact that the message costs Klaatu his life does lend some moral teeth to his argument, but the essentials of Klaatu’s policy is pretty much the same as then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s policy of massive retaliation in the 1950s: at the first sign of an attack, the United States will reduce your nation to ashes. Does anybody remember how grateful the rest of the world was for that policy? Does anyone remember how the Soviet Union immediately stopped all acts of military aggression? Neither do I. Neither does Hungary, to take a case in point.

How is Klaatu a Christ-figure, here? I mean, I have met atheists who would claim that Christ was no better: “Believe in the name of Christ and thou shalt be saved.” Corollary: And if you don’t you’ll be damned. However, if what Christ says is true, He at least has the excuse of literally being God. Klaatu has neither deity nor perfection to offer. He “has a system.” Great. The United States had a system, too. Generally, it’s been vilified as being paternalistic, overbearing, and inconsistently enforced. Possibly better than the system the Soviets had where they conquered you if they thought it was in their best interests and called it liberation. Klaatu – who looks human enough to walk our streets undetected – has given us no reason to think any differently of his robotic supernuclear deterrent. Yet when it comes from him, it’s somehow profound.

It is curious in the extreme to me, that I do not recall having heard anyone other than myself level this criticism at the film. It reminds me of that appalling novel Childhood’s End, which I have discussed before in this publication. We humans prove ourselves capable of imagining thousands of rich worlds in our science fiction: Why is it that when we turn that imagination on our own problems, we are so quick to replace the thing we hate with an obscurely different version of it, and then imagine we would love it?

Arthur C. Clarke threads a polemic against the ridiculousness of religion throughout Childhood’s End, and in the end it turns out that the human race’s children are effectively taken up by an Overmind indistinguishable from God except for its utter lack of love for humanity. The human race is guided to this point by Its vaguely caring angels/demons. But this we are supposed to call evolution and science. Now in The Day The Earth Stood Still, the nuclear tensions of the Cold War and American nuclear hegemony (remember that this was 1951) are to be replaced by the threat of summary destruction from beyond our solar system – and we are supposed to call that peace and justice. Yet far from altering the way that problems are solved, it seems that Klaatu’s solution is not even revolutionary, and still less divine. On the day after the Earth stands still, the Earth still stands under the sword of Damocles, only now in the hands of those who need not live on the same planet as those they threaten to destroy.

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