Browse Tag

theological fiction

The Greatest Good to God

2

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

His Missing Materials

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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.

~

The Gospel According To James Holden

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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.

The Day The Earth Still Stood

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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.

~

The End of History, the Beginning of Hers

A lost tale reconstructed from the Byzantine chronicle of 1453

by Ádám Gerencsér

A portent of imminent defeat hung heavily in the air. This day of reckoning had been put off for generations by the forefathers of the city’s current inhabitants, in turn by diplomacy, by cunning or deceit, at times by feigned fealty and tributes, but always with an increasing sense of humiliation. The impoverished inheritors of Christendom’s Eastern capital had fought a forlorn struggle to stem the tide of their decline, as their empire aged and wilted in the shade cast by its young and powerful neighbour, the harbinger of a new prophet promising conquest and mastery over ever more chatteled infidels.

Tomorrow, the harvest. What Crusaders had sown two and a half centuries ago, the sword, nay, the scythe of Islam would finally reap. With each passing lifetime, fortresses fell, land was laid waste, fiefdoms splintered, dynasties fought over dwindling mementos of past glory. For each mistrusted ally, two loyal enemies were made and the people of the soil were crippled by soldiering and levies of taxation. The territory crumbled and contracted like a tightening noose, until nothing but a claim to titular figments stretched beyond the ramparts. Owned, perhaps, but not governed. Even Constantinopolis was a ghost of its former self, with more stones than menfolk, more bastions than arms to man them. And for the past two moons a resolute foe on all sides, wearing down what remained, preparing for the morrow’s final assault. The Occident had sent blessings but no ships to their rescue.

But now the city was awake with chants of hope and consolation. The emperor Constantine, eleventh to carry the Name, had summoned the Patriarchs, the generals of the army, the admirals of the fleet, the magistrates of the districts, the priests, monks, merchants and mendicants. And the women, huddling their children, too soft to fight, too scared to sleep, sensing despair on pale adult faces. Processions with all the paraphernalia of devotion. In the church of Holy Wisdom, Romans and Greeks saying mass together at last, clinging to prayer for reassurance. And what prayer! Supplications of a mindfulness only produced on mortality’s verge.

“I had looked into the future and did not like what I saw. I besieged Him for His permission to intervene. And now I take form.”

*****

On the ceiling of the Hagia Sophia, obscured by the scented smoke from a forest of candles, a mosaic on the right apse appeared to move. The slight alteration of form at first remained subtle and was perhaps dismissed as a mirage by the devoted who witnessed it privately. The archangel seemed to slowly spread her wings and firm her grip on the golden staff. She gently drew towards herself the orb in her left palm, which intimated familiar outlines: a walled city perched on the tip of a peninsula, folded into a narrow, lengthy bight and nestled by a great waterway.

The ceremony was interrupted by a breath of collective awe as tiny cubes of cut stone began to rain down from the arch of the apse. The winged messenger literally stepped out of the masonry and crashed to the ground, indenting the tiled floor with her knees. The impact echoed through the vaulted dome like the recoil of Ottoman siege batteries. Then silence.

She only spoke for a moment, words uttered in the Language, her voice intent and clear.

“Many of you will die tomorrow. Repent and He shall accept you into heaven. But if you live, then stand your ground and I will deliver you victory.”

Holy water still pearling on his regal armour, crying the tears of a lifetime’s uncertain faith thus vindicated, the Basileos was first to kneel before her and embrace her feet in the relief of surrender. The prelates and the congregation gazed on, numb with catharsis. Yet the angel enfolded Constantine in her arms, pulled him up and kissed his temple.

“I saw that you would die with honour, so you shall live. In His name you still rule.”

*****

They beheld her soaring on the parapet of the Mesoteichion, at the moment when ladders went up against the whole length of the wall from the Propontis to the Golden Horn and the serried ranks of warriors assailed the breaches lacerated by Turkish bombards. She ascended with wings outstretched, then plunged into the mass of bodies, helmets, pikes and lances.

“Forgive me.”

She struck with elemental force, the impact scattering a cloud of flesh and material. Battalions of men were knocked over and cast afield, or left lying shattered, semi-conscious of blood seeping from torn eardrums. A blur of blade-like feathers tore through confused lines of janissaries, spahis and topchis, leaving concentric circles of devastation in their wake.

Once the damage was sufficient to make the outcome a foregone conclusion, and the angel was confident that the resolve of the defenders was thus steeled, she shot forward across the Horn. The Sultan’s golden-red tent commanded the height of Galata hill, from whence Mehmed could observe the entire field of battle, then the city and behind it, the sea. Proper form required that he be seated, on a portable throne, or a white horse, but now he stood erect, bitterly fixated on a spectacle of the impossible. Allah had never shown himself to his worshippers and yet was saving that whore, Byzantium.

The apparition knew the power of words and left courtiers and guards unharmed as she landed with the softness of benevolent judgment. A tall seraphine shadow against the midday sun, she threw the remnant of a horse-tailed banner at the Sultan’s feet and gently laid a hand on his throat.

“You will leave Rumelia and never cross the Bosporus again.”

With the realisation of his life spared, his campaign lost and his creed made nought, the ruler whispered acquiescence. The angel released her grip and gave him a second glance before taking to the air.

“Convert. Spread the faith. You could still be of use.”

*****

After the dead had been buried, and the probing dusk was lit up by torches – not to scorch, but to illuminate – the Emperor and his Patriarchs ascended to the roof loggia of the monastic library where the messenger landed to rest. Approaching her with the shy, impassioned love of freshly adopted orphans, Constantine dispensed with thanks and addressed what mattered to them most. Was this miracle a fleeting sign? Would she disappear by the morning? Would the city have to fight another day, left to rely once again on desperate human efforts for its survival?

Yet wings folded, legs crossed and brows serene, the visitor seemed comfortable.

“I will stay, if needs be, until a hundred generations grow old.”

Over the city, death-bound yesterday, now preserved and born anew, the angel’s gaze caressed a starlit, virgin horizon of infinite potential.

“Don’t fear. Hell has no power but over the mind. It softens the virtuous and flatters the vicious. Its might relies on the meekness of good men. I will make you strong.”

As the incantations of triumphant oratories rose to the balcony of the monastery, her thoughts drifted from the present. She envisioned the building of armies and fleets, foundries and siege engines, the sending of emissaries to the realms of Christendom, a personal apparition at the Papal Council, the founding of new schools, academies and hospitals, hastening the advance of civilisation for the ennoblement of a race fashioned to her liking. A succession of souls living disciplined lives of faith and valour. A world of glorious victories, then lawful peace and pious order. And glancing further into her immortal future, she saw limitless promise: a pilgrim armada of obedient starships ploughing the depths of space, forever expanding her regency. An empire uniting all under heaven.

Leaning intently over sprawling maps of Europe, the Holy Land and the Silk Road under the insurgent light of her own Morning Star, she could not help but utter in exultation: “My kingdom come. My will be done.”

~