What if, suddenly, you found you could not only read minds but change them? What if the eponymous hero of the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh was real, was two-thirds god, was immortal, and — from sheer boredom — had divided his powers of mind with you just so he could have a really good war between the eastern and western hemispheres?
What if you and your brother, both young students, went along on a wild drunken graduation party that spanned a dozen galaxies and were left behind on some primitive no-account planet as a joke. What if, as extremely long-lived energy beings, it was millions of years before anyone remembered and came back for you? What if — from sheer boredom — you’d illegally tampered with the minds of the primitive indigenous apes?
This Sci-Fi Saturday: two authors, two tales, two books each.
One nice thing about older fiction — the older the better, but I’m still talking 20th century — is that book publishers hadn’t begun insisting their authors crank out as many pages per book as possible.
There is a basic equation involved: a book, regardless of size, requires a fixed amount to publish. In fact, thick books really cost very little more to publish and distribute than thin books. While there is a little more paper and a little more weight, these do not extend the costs significantly.
But people won’t pay as much for a thin book as a thick book, so thick books have thick price tags. And once again you pay for appearances.
My favorite mystery-slash-detective author (hands down) is Robert B. Parker whose first Spenser book, The Godwulf Manuscript, came out in 1973. It tells a wonderful story in 188 pages. His 31st Spenser book, Bad Business (2004) is 321 pages.
Yet Parker continued to be a fairly spare and sparse writer throughout his career — others really bought into the bloat (yeah, lookin’ at you, Martin)!
I digress. (And if I start complaining about the new larger paperback format that doesn’t match the others in my large collection and doesn’t even fit on my paperback shelves, I’ll never get to the meat of the post.)
Over Thanksgiving I re-read some books from my SF collection, and I enjoyed them so much I wanted to record them here. This isn’t a book review so much as a diary entry (and watch out for spoilers if you care about that sort of thing).
Without further ado, the works in question are: Parke Godwin‘s Waiting for the Galactic Bus (1988) + The Snake Oil Wars (1989) and Brenda W. Clough‘s How Like a God (1997) + Doors of Death and Life (2000).
While these books are fairly recent, the authors were spare in their storytelling (Godwin especially, delightfully so). In both cases, the entire two-volume tale weighs in around the 400-page mark (Godwin less, Clough more — the decade between them possibly accounting for the increase).
Most interestingly, both tales involve gods. Small “g” gods. Arguably not gods at all, but what are perceived as gods (at the same time, both tales seem to affirm the idea, albeit not the actuality, of a big “g” God).
Let me touch on the Clough books first, since it’s the Godwin books that delighted me most and inspired this post. The bonus was reading a second pair of books that also got into (small “g”) gods.
Ordinary suburban husband and father Rob Lewis suddenly discovers he can read and change minds. In a period of days his ability grows to a point of unconscious power over those around him. His unvoiced whim is their command.
Terrified of the danger to his wife and kids, Rob flees and ends up living a comfortable homeless life isolated from society (his comfort comes from being able to satisfy any need that occurs to him). Then he meets Dr. Edwin Barbarossa, a devout Christian and microbiologist with whom he decides to share his secret. Together the two try to explore Rob’s strange power.
Events lead them to central Asia where they seek and find the actual Gilgamesh of legend: an insane, angry immortal with dreams of global domination and war. He gave Rob half his mind power (but not his immortality) hoping for an equal with whom he can play global war.
Rob (barely) defeats Gilgamesh and takes the other half of Gilgamesh’s power as well as his immortality. Rob keeps the mental power, but gives Edwin the immortality (Gilgamesh had wounded Edwin fatally, so this was necessary to save his friend’s life).
Rob and Edwin were also working on masking Rob’s power so it didn’t “leak” out and affect reality. The first book ends with them returning home from Asia. Rob — after being absent for a year — hopes to return to his normal married life.
The second book involves Edwin’s relation with his immortality and a villain who discovers it and wants it for himself. Rob is forced to use his powers to rescue his friend and deal with the villain.
A central theme involves the idea of coercion even in the name of good. At one point, Rob sits outside a local prison and changes the minds of the inmates to make them law-abiding. He later agonizes over that action.
Rob initially tells his wife, and she pushes him to help her advance at work. An action Rob decides was a Bad Idea. He ends up altering the minds of his wife and co-workers so they forget. In particular he causes his wife to forget about his power. This is a key event that drives him from his home in fear.
A minor sub-theme (as the books were written by a woman, we men might wanna pay attention here) is that one thing women want most from their mates is honesty and trust. Rob’s marriage nearly explodes from the mere appearance of the lack of it.
The Parke books are hard to describe.
Author Jo Walton wrote of the first that it, “is one of the candidates for weirdest book in the world… This is not a book that even nods to realism. Indeed, it’s a book that I doubt realism would recognise if it passed it by in the street… But there are other virtues, and it has those — it’s charming and funny and genuinely original, it fits together like a sliding block puzzle and it’s light and dark at the same time… If you like books that are beautifully written, and funny, and not like anything else, and if you don’t mind blasphemy, you might really enjoy this.”
I quote the entire thing because it’s so on the nail. One pleasure of these two books is the style and sheer quality of the writing. They’re worth reading for that alone.
The first book follows two brothers, Barion and Coyul, who are members of a highly advanced, extremely long-lived “electron cycle” (as opposed to carbon cycle) life form. They’re left stranded on ancient Earth as a joke.
Bored, facing millions of years until their drunken friends even remember where they left them, the brothers tinker with the pre-sentient minds of the primitive apes. Barion gives them self-awareness — resulting in mind-numbing terror for a beast not quite ready for it. Coyul gives them the gift of laughter (absurdity) to lighten the darkness and allow the creature to escape its mental paralysis.
In doing this the brothers commit a high crime by the standards of their race (who believe that minds must be evolved enough to forget the primitive darkness before they step to sentience). The brothers, in raising awareness too soon, create “spiritually schizophrenic” minds due to tension between intellect and emotion.
It turns out that the energy pattern of carbon-based minds persists permanently after physical death. As these minds, all seeking something to do, begin to accumulate, the brother are forced to create zones for them to inhabit.
These turn out to be what we think of as heaven and hell. Barion’s highly organized realm is the former; Coyul’s disorganized free-for-all party is the latter. The brothers call their realms Topside and Below Stairs.
Essentially, whatever your mind conceived the afterlife to be, that’s what you’ll get. No matter how much the brothers try to explain the real situation, people persist in what they believe. Very few can accept the facts.
[“One who did was a young Nazarene named Yeshua who had problems of his own in what people thought he was and expected of him.” Given that he looked like — and was — a Jewish Arab, most Christians who met him utterly rejected him immediately.]
Part of the fun of the books is that the cast includes everyone who ever lived, and Godwin’s cast is peppered with famous figures. John Wilkes Booth is a primary character in the first book, for instance. (Gold Star to anyone who figures out who “Jake” the taxi driver is before the reveal.)
The first book involves the brothers’ efforts to prevent Charity Stovall (a passionately religious woman) from marrying bitter, violent fascist Roy Stride. The brothers fear the off-spring has the potential to be more charismatic and destructive than Hitler.
The book ends with the brothers’ rescue and trial. Barion is condemned to a barren inescapable world to serve a sentence. His brother, Coyul, is returned to Earth to attempt to repair the damage they wrought.
The second book (subtitled Scheherazade Ginsberg Strikes Again) concerns a trial held in “heaven” to determine whether Coyul is really the Devil trying to trick them into non-belief. The problem is that Fundamentalist Christians refuse to accept his explanation of reality (which would free them to have any existence they desired rather than the heaven of their own conception).
The trial involves an attempt to determine the truth of Coyul’s assertions about reality. Both lawyers are prominent figures from history, and — again — gold stars to those who figure it out before the reveal.
[I got “Jake” early, but it took a lot of clues before I figured out Coyul’s lawyer (at least I did get it before it was made really obvious). I never got the prosecutor for sure, but I think I know who it is. Think Monty Python and what no one expects.]
Of the two, the Godwin books are far the richer and more intellectually intriguing. There is also that Godwin has a unique writing style that can be a little bit of a challenge.
I love that! I love a challenge. I love an author that keeps me on my toes and a little off-balance.
I’ve also never seen an author make such interesting use of the colon. (“Threw him one: he caught it alright but just gave it back…”) He makes good use of the semi-colon, which I applaud (I’m trying to “bring back the semi-colon”), but it was the use of the colon that stood out.
This has run long — it was probably a mistake to try to talk about both sets of books — but it is what it is. I’ll leave you with a some choice quotes from Galactic Bus and Snake Oil Wars.
Barion to Coyul about humans circa 1970s: “Cash-register heart and a fairy-tale mentality,” he fumed… “Savage, sentimental and moralistic.”
Barion and Augustine (yes, the saint) after the latter learns the facts of “Heaven” and his “God.” Augustine laments: “Madness or low comedy. Shall we not then run wanton in the street? Why not? What remains?”
“A great deal remains you relentless man,” Barion said. “That I did build into that splendid mind I gave you. Though it’s very like building a magnificent car for someone who obstinately refuses to learn to drive.”
Barion continues, “You and your agonized ilk made it into heaven and hell, I didn’t. The question was never fall and redemption but simply where and how high you can reach.”
Coyul to Charity regarding her potentially dangerous off-spring by Roy: “What Roy did with shadows Below Stairs, his son — the seething product of his ignorance and your inevitable frustration — could very well perpetrate here in a country susceptible to charismatic charlatans as a dog to fleas.” (I love that last bit!)
During the trial of the two brothers by their peers:
The Nazarene, Yeshua, on the stand during Coyul’s trial in “heaven” responding to the prosecutor about his search for “God”:
“As a man, yes. I thought I was right. As a spirit, I’m still waiting. Man will always wait and always believe. Faith is alive, faith is life. Faith is a passionate singer, a lark at morning, a nightingale under the moon. Man’s need for God is as urgent as his need for a woman.” Now the smile was indeed bitter. “A sweaty, living fact that Saul and Augustine, Jerome and Tertullian were ever uncomfortable with, that need for relief in flesh as well as spirit. They wanted to choke that life out of faith. They’re doing it in America today when they proclaim that God speaks through this fool or that televised zealot and no one else. You’ve mentioned heresy in this trial. I was a heretic, Mr. Helm. What else should they do but nail me to a cross for it?”
The defense lawyer “Mr. Speed” speaking with prosecuting lawyer “Peter Helm” about the testimony quoted above:
“Yeshua shook you, didn’t he?”
“Even if he were that martyred mortal and Christianity the ill-fitting garment made from misunderstanding, yet it was made and covered us. He admitted that. I would rather believe a lie of faith than the reality of this Void. If Yeshua spoke the truth, so did I. Without faith in what we cannot see or explain, there is no religion, only mutable ethic.”
From the closing argument of defense lawyer “Speed”:
“Two sides of an irreducible argument are put before you. Can Man live by rationale alone? Not without hungering for in Infinite, a God he can conceive but not encompass. What men can imagine, they will carve. Can he live by faith alone? Not without throwing blinders over his common sense and leading it like a frightened horse through the fire of reality, a threat in every ray of light that pierces the cover.”