The Gods Themselves

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov is quite literally a sandwich with indifferent white wonderbread on the outside and the most incredibly delicious gourmet filling on the inside. By this I mean that it is a three part book where the first part is middling and last part is ordinary (and that in the cricketing sense of the word, at times), but the central story is utterly brilliant. The overall result was enough to win both the Hugo (1973) and Nebula (1972) Awards for Best Novel.

The title comes from a quote by Friedrich Schiller from his play The Maid of Orleans: Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain. The quotation also serves as titles to each part, with the first part called ‘Against Stupidity … ‘, the second part ‘… The Gods Themselves …’ and the third part ‘… Contend in Vain?’

Part One tells the story of the alien-assisted discovery of the holy grail of physics and engineering – a cheap, clean and limitless source of energy. Extracting this energy does, however, have certain long-term consequences that could lead to the eventual destruction of earth as the sun goes nova aeons too early. As the authorities on Earth refuse to put an end to this new source of energy, a scientist tries to communicate with the aliens who helped to create the process, only to discover that they too suffer from similar issues of political and scientific inertia. In other words, stupidity also rules in that parallel universe.

Part Two takes place entirely in the parallel universe. Subtly and skilfully, Asimov describes alien physiology, psychology, science and culture. Nor does he simply create a race of vaguely hominid creatures. The comparison to humanity is done with a deft touch, focusing on aspects of the human psyche rather than the appearance of the human body. The aliens possess three genders: the Rational, who excels at logic and scientific reasoning; the Emotional, whose main characteristics are intuition and empathy; and the Parental, whose primary concern is bearing and raising children to continue the species. Those of the Rational and Parental genders are referred to as ‘he’ and those of the Emotional gender are called ‘she’. A full set of Rational, Emotional and Parental (or left, mid and right) form a triad which can procreate via a merging of their semi-substantial bodies (the particularly diaphanous Emotional acts as a kind of bridge or energy catalyst to facilitate the meld). So yes, not merely aliens, but alien sex too.

To reveal too much would be to spoil the story, but I’ll just share this quote as an example of how easily Asimov gives us information about something we could never imagine, far less visualise:

She had to eat, of course, but she liked it much better in the evening when there was very little food, but everything was a dim, deep red, and she was alone. Of course, she described it as colder and more wistful than it was when she talked to the others in order to watch them grow hard-edged as they imagined the chill – or as hard-edged as young Emotionals could. After a while, they would whisper about her and laugh at her – and leave her alone.

The small sun was at the horizon now, with the secret ruddiness that she alone was there to see. She spread herself out laterally and thickened dorso-ventrally, absorbing the traces of thin warmth. She munched at it idly, savoring the slightly sour, substanceless taste of the long wave lengths. (She had never met another Emotional who would admit to liking it. But she could never explain that she associated it with freedom; freedom from the others, when she could be alone.)

The portrayal of a female character (alien or human) with such depth and complexity who is central rather than peripheral to the plot is a rarity for the science fiction of that time. Another difference is the writing of alien sex as something natural, sacred and transformative rather than mere pornography for adolescent geeks. There is also the depiction of the culture and society of scientific research, struggling in both universes with questions of ethics and the pure search for knowledge, familiar in its failings among both humans and aliens. Finally, the science underlying the story is consistent and believable even though it is completely fictional.

It is said that Asimov considered this his best book. It is easy to see why.

The third part … well it all works out in the end, but by then you don’t really care because the best part of the book is already over.

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Beauty

Winner of the 1992 Locus Best Fantasy Novel Award, Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper is at times a hard book to read.  It is about creating and beauty, and the responsibility we have to both.  It contains angels, time travel, dystopian sci-fi, Faery and fairy tales.  In fact, its scope is incredibly ambitious. It also has dark and disturbing portions which emphasise that fairy tales are not always written for children, and they can give macabre warnings about unpleasant realities.

One memorable section describes the main character’s descent to hell. There she encounters an author whose work had been based on nothing but violence and horror.  He is being tortured according to the stories he wrote.  This is what she tells him:

The Dark Lord cannot create.  Faery cannot create.  The angels cannot create.  Only God, and man.  I told Barry this…

‘The Dark Lord cannot create,’ I told him again. ‘You have created everything here. You and the others.  He has only borrowed it from you.’

‘It was only a story,’ he cried. ‘Only a story!’

‘To those who read it, it was real,’ I told him. ‘They lived it, while they read it.  Perhaps afterward, they lived it.  Some believed it.  Perhaps one of those who did believe it picked up a weapon and did to someone else what you did to a character.  Or tried.  There was enough belief to give it a reality. Otherwise you would not be here.’

He won’t believe that.  He has stopped talking to me.

There is some irony in Tepper’s use of the same style of horror she decries in order to illustrate her point. However, it may be argued that it works precisely because it is purposeful rather than gratuitous.  There are stories with no happy ending, stories of war and hatred and ugliness, and they too must be told because they have something to tell the reader about why peace and love and beauty are so important to create and preserve. There are also books about overcoming, and triumphing, whether that means standing bravely against the wall to take the bullet, or escaping to fight another day.  But books that do nothing more than excite the emotions are like a drug; they stimulate without nourishing.

Readers should take care which emotions they choose to stimulate, and writers should be wary about why and how they show their nightmares to the world lest they disseminate rather than exorcise their demons.

The Knife and the Naked Chalk

On the theme of the perils of acquiring divine status while yet a mortal, I most like Rudyard Kipling’s story ‘The Knife and the Naked Chalk’. It forms a chapter in Rewards and Fairies, the sequel to Puck of Pook’s Hill. These two books are allegedly children’s literature, but I found them hard to read as a child, which only proves that two child protagonists do not a children’s book make. The stories are fascinating and occasionally even magical, but there is no way to get around the premise: that Puck, the last of the People of the Hills (fairies) in England, likes to spend his summers teaching the minutiae of English history to young Dan and Una. Granted, his method of instruction is unique. The people themselves speak their tales, from a masked and incognito Queen Elizabeth I to the clearly fictional Buyer of the Knife. However, it was dry going for me to read about people and places that were no longer on the West Indian secondary school history curriculum. I only appreciated the stories when I grew older and had learned more of the context.

The story of the Buyer of the Knife was poignant and easily accessible. Set in prehistoric times, it tells of a man whose people raise sheep on the Naked Chalk (the Downs) and defend their flocks from wolves armed only with flint for their hammers, spears and arrowheads.  In the forests of the Weald, there are a people who have learned to make iron knives, and he decides to go to them to discuss trade:

‘Their Priestess said, “For whose sake have you come?” I answered, “The sheep are the people. If The Beast kills our sheep, our people die. So I come for a Magic Knife to kill The Beast.”‘

Of course there is a price over and above the wool, milk and meat they are willing to trade, as the Priestess tells him:

‘She said, “The God says that if you have come for the sake of your people you will give him your right eye to be put out; but if you have come for any other reason you will not give it. This proof is between you and the God. We ourselves are sorry.”‘

In spite of preferring death, he allows her to put out his eye with her own knife and thus wins for himself the first of the Magic Knives and the right to open trade between their peoples. With their sharp, new blades, the sheepherders easily drive off the wolves. Ignoring the Priestess’s obvious interest in him, the Buyer of the Knife then looks to settle down peacefully at home and start a family. Not so.

‘Even then I did not understand, till I saw that – that no man stepped on my shadow; and I knew that they thought me to be a God, like the God Tyr, who gave his right hand to conquer a Great Beast.’

Everyone treats him differently, distantly, with awe and fear, including his Maiden, who eventually asks leave to marry another man. Desolate and lonely, his only comfort is his mother, who told him before he went to the Weald and tells him again, ‘Whether you live or die, or are made different, I am your Mother.’:

‘I said at last, ‘What is to be done to the people who say that I am Tyr?”

‘She said. “He who has done a God-like thing must bear himself like a God. I see no way out of it…. In time it will grow easy. In time perhaps you will not lay it down for any maiden anywhere. Be wise – be very wise, my son, for nothing is left you except the words, and the songs, and the worship of a God.”‘

‘Oh poor God!’ said Puck. ‘But these are not altogether bad things.’

‘I know they are not; but I would sell them all – all – all for one small child of my own, smearing himself with the ashes of our own house-fire.’

It is the story of a hero’s journey, but instead of the expected ending where he marries the maiden and they live happily ever after, he discovers that he has sacrificed more than his eye; he has sacrificed his human life and gained an unanticipated, unwanted and bittersweet immortality.

Till We Have Faces

C. S. Lewis considered this the best book he had ever written.  I agree.  When I first read Till We Have Faces, it took me it till the wee hours of the morning to finish but I could not put the book down, and I cried and didn’t feel the least ashamed for doing so.  I cannot understand why this book is so hard to find, why it does not stay in print as do so many of Lewis’s more popular but less worthy works.

There are several reasons that this book is a favourite of mine.  First of all, I can’t find Lewis in it at all.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Narnia and Screwtape and all the rest, but an air of English male priggishness and conservatism faintly flavours those otherwise excellent stories in a manner that makes them feel slightly alien and inimical to me.  Other works, like The Great Divorce, feel more universal, but still lean heavily on English example and milieu.  Till We Have Faces is a very un-English, almost un-Western book, where the male perspective plays only a supporting role.  When I read it, I do not sense Lewis, I only hear Orual.

Another reason to like this book is Orual.  She is ugly in a world where beauty is a woman’s chief wealth, and because of this she has to fight for everything.  She even tries to fight the gods.  She is the angry, unattractive, bitter image of the human self even as her beloved sister Psyche is the mirror aspect of peace, beauty and love.  In many ways, they are the same person, because of their deep love for and attachment to each other, because of their parallel lives, because of their identical fates.  Lewis does extremely well with the characters of Orual and Psyche, demonstrating a phenomenal growth in maturity and understanding of women that I had not thought possible after seeing his weak, pathetic female stereotypes in the early work The Space Trilogy (a series of books which many love but I cannot recommend).

Hear Orual expressing her fear of rejection:

A terrible sheer thought, huge as a cliff, towered up before me, infinitely likely to be true.  No man will love you, though you gave your life for him, unless you have a pretty face.  So (might it not be?), the gods will not love you (however you try to pleasure them, and whatever you suffer) unless you have that beauty of soul.  In either race, for the love of men or the love of a god, the winners and losers are marked out from birth.  We bring our ugliness, in both kinds, with us into the world, with it our destiny.  How bitter this was, every ill-favoured woman will know.  We have all had our dream of some other land, some other world, some other way of giving the prizes which would bring us in as the conquerors; leave the smooth, rounded limbs, and the little pink and white faces, and the hair like burnished gold, far behind; their day ended, and ours come.  But how if it’s not so at all?  How if we were made to be dregs and refuse everywhere and everyway?

This is all the more poignant when one considers that in this story Psyche’s beauty hardly made her ‘a winner’ in the conventional sense.  It made the masses adore her until at last they hated her (as often happens to celebrity) and sacrificed her to a god’s desire (or to a goddess’s jealousy, according to another view).  It seems that neither the ugly nor the beautiful can win, for to be envied by gods and men is a perilous thing.
 
The chief reason that I love this book is its theme.  The story shows how the masks that we wear and the voices we assume hide our real faces and our true voices even from ourselves.  If you would stand before the gods, you must stand naked in your own skin speaking with your own voice the truth of what you have done and why.  This experience alone will represent a form of purgatory to all of us, who live constantly with self-deception.

Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, ‘Child, to say the very thing you mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that is the whole art and joy of words.’  A glib saying.  When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words.  I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer.  Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean?  How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

For this story is the myth of Cupid and Psyche retold, a story of a woman who marries a god, but is never allowed to see his face, who is tricked by her jealous sister(s) into thinking that he must be a monster, who lights the lamp to glimpse his face while he is sleeping, who then discovers that the perfection of divine beauty does not reassure, it terrifies even as it ravishes. Such beauty is indeed Truth, because it is pure Reality, and that is terror to those of us who fear the look of our own (beautiful!) faces behind the masks we wear.

Cyrano de Bergerac

I have been with folk tales and myths for too long, and you will start to think that is the only thing I read.  I assure you that is not the case, and for proof I present one of my favourite plays in any language, Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand.

Written two years before the turn of the century (from 19th to 20th, that is), Cyrano is presented as a homage to a past age, even for his time the epitome of a dying breed of chevaliers.  The historical Cyrano, on which this character is loosely based, lived in early 1600s, just around the time that Miyamoto Musashi made his transition from samurai to sage and wrote The Book of Five Rings.

The fictional Cyrano is a samurai type of hero.  At one time he literally quotes poetry while he dispatching an opponent with his rapier, like a man wielding a haiku and a katana with simultaneous ease.  He cares nothing for money, everything for honour.  You have to admire a man who responds to a nobleman’s sneer about his lack of gloves by remarking that in truth he only has one left from a very old pair, having left the other glove in someone’s face (for those who don’t know, or have forgotten, the way to challenge someone to a duel in those simpler times was to smack them in the face with a glove).  And yet, though he possesses such courage, such conviction, such panache, he is unable to tell the woman he loves how he feels about her.  Instead, he helps her get the man that she does love by giving Christian, a handsome but thick-headed young cadet, the right words to woo her by.

The central theme of the play and all subsequent plays and movies derived from it (for example, Roxanne and The Truth about Cats and Dogs) is that external beauty and internal worth will always be in competition, and that the former is more likely to win though we may root for the latter.  However, there is a line in the play that belies this simplistic analysis.  There is no doubt that Christian is a good sort, courageous, dependable and honourable.  However, he is severely deficient when it comes to eloquence.  When he at last discovers that Roxane no longer loves him merely because he is handsome but because of the beautiful words that he writes, and that Cyrano loves Roxane, he is indignant and insists that Roxane should be told, that it is unfair for him to stand in the way of Cyrano’s happiness just because he has the good looks and Cyrano doesn’t.  Then Cyrano returns that it would be just as unfair for him to stand in the way of Christian’s happiness simply because he has the gift of expressing what Christian perhaps feels but is incapable of saying.  Suddenly, Christian no longer looks like the more fortunate man.  If he has an advantage in his physical beauty, he certainly has a disadvantage in his intellectual deficiencies, and while both beauty and intelligence in one person would be perfect, Roxane is more likely to desire the soul than the shell.  Sometimes the superficially beautiful are not to be envied, but pitied, for they too can say with Christian, ‘I want to be loved for myself, or not at all’ (… je veux être aimé moi-même, ou pas de tout!).

Cyrano de Bergerac is not only about love, but about friendship, and the code of honour between two men who love the same woman.  In fact, it is more about honour than it is about love, for honour requires sacrifice of the self’s desires to the greater benefit of the beloved friend, country, or sweetheart.  It says something that Cyrano is able to carry the cross of sacrifice not like a burden of victimhood unchosen, but as a soldier who chooses battle with honour and pride.  There is no happy ending, at least not in the Hollywood sense, but the dénouement is somehow bittersweet, as if there could have been no other way for it to unfold without fully celebrating the beautiful soul that was Cyrano’s.

It’s all about the panache.

The Bridge of Birds

She wasn’t even pretty. Lotus Cloud was pure peasant, with big feet, short thick legs, large square hands, and a plain flat face. She stopped short and examined me with her head cocked at an angle, and she looked for all the world like a country girl who was trying to decide whether or not to buy a pet at a fair. I could almost hear her think, Yes, I’ll take this cute thing home with me. And then she grinned.

I cannot describe that grin. It was as though all the hope and joy and love and laughter that there was in the whole world had gathered into a fist that reached out and belted me in the heart, and the next thing I knew I was on my knees with my arms wrapped around her legs and my head pressed against her thighs.

“My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not to be confused with the eminent author of The Classic of Tea, and everyone calls me Number Ten Ox,” I moaned.

She laughed softly, and her fingers played with my hair.

“I shall call you Boopsie,” she said.

This uncommon love is at the centre of The Bridge of Birds, a book that also combines mystery, fantasy, history, comedy, tragedy and mythology into a rich feast delivered with a light touch that won the author Barry Hughart the World Fantasy Award in 1985.  

Like The Nightingale, this book took life from the author’s love of the history and mythology of a country not his own.  It is loosely based on the Chinese myth that is the foundation of their equivalent of Valentine’s Day, a day on which birds build a bridge across the heavens to bring together two lovers, one mortal, one divine.  The main thread of the plot, however, concerns the quest of Number Ten Ox to find a cure for the children of his village who are slowly dying from an accidental poisoning.  The manner of the storytelling, however, is pure ‘once upon a time’, with both holy fool and trickster present in the forms of the young, pure-hearted simpleton, Number Ten Ox, and the ancient sage with ‘a slight flaw in his character’, Master Li.  

The classic combination of brawn and brains also gives the story a cinematic quality.  It is a ‘buddy movie’ written down, with fights, harrowing crises, narrow escapes and lots of running away at high-speed.  The action is so vividly described that a reader could almost be fooled, years later, into remembering it as seen it outright rather than imagined.

Above all, the story is about love in its many forms, and it is able to express something of that universal quality precisely because it takes the reader away from what is superficially familiar in order to emphasise what is fundamentally known.  It is a very clever book, but never pretentiously so.  I laughed.  I cried.  I think I may even have cheered at the ending.  

Best sampled with a bowl of popcorn and a box of tissues.

Birds of Heaven

I have found some of my most enjoyable reads in small, slender books rather than thick doorstoppers (authors and publishers, please take note).  I read quickly, mainly by skipping the non-essentials, and nowhere is this made more clear to me than when I am faced with a book where every word counts.

Birds of Heaven is not so much a book as it is a small collection of Ben Okri’s writings; half consists of an essay titled ‘Beyond Words’, and the other half is mostly snippets from a larger work titled ‘The Joys of Storytelling’.  Both were first aired in 1993 in Cambridge, one at Trinity College Chapel, and the other at the Cambridge Union.  Together, they express the paradox of how words hinder and how they transcend, how they obscure and how they illuminate.  It is reminiscent of the balance of brushstroke and space, note and rest, knowing when to speak and when to be silent:

Stories are as ubiquitous as water or air, and as essential.  There is not a single person who is not touched by the silent presence of stories.

and:

The transparency of excellent stories: words dissolve words, and only things stand in their place.

In bad stories words cancel themselves out, and nothing is left.  The words return to their source; they desert the page; only meaningless marks are left behind.

Those lines are from ‘The Joys of Storytelling’, but they are echoed in the first essay, ‘Beyond Words’:

At best our cry for meaning, for serenity, is answered by a greater silence, the silence that makes us seek higher reconciliation.

To Okri, words do matter, and that is why writers and speakers must attend to how they use them and what they use them for.  The silence that follows the words may be pregnant with the meaning and meaningfulness that leads to creation, or it may merely mark the end of  ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ (Shakespeare, Macbeth).

One wonders if Okri’s thought has influenced politicians, for he also says:

Great leaders understand the power of the stories they project to their people.  They understand that stories can change an age, turn an era around.

and:

Great leaders tell their nations fictions that alter their perceptions….  Even bad leaders know the power of negative stories.

and finally:

Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves.  If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies.  If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.

It seems a tall order.  Could we claim that ordinary stories, bedtime stories, clan stories, all feed into some overarching narrative which becomes the story of a nation, a people?  We could.  Why is it that when a country becomes independent of a foreign power, the government pays close attention to those institutions that are caretakers of history, culture and arts?  Does history not record the story of how we once lived; does culture not depict the story of how we live now; do the arts not declare the story (either utopian or dystopian) of how we could live?  Words matter.  Stories matter, both the fictional and non-fictional.  They create us as much as we create them, and so we should be careful.

(Authors and publishers, please take note.)