Maps in a Mirror, page 92
And how can I help but hate them?
Which is why I request again my retirement from the corporation. I will accept half retirement, if that is necessary. I’ll accept no retirement, in fact, if the record can only stay clear. I will not accept a retirement that lists me as mentally incompetent. I will not accept a retirement that forces me to live anywhere but on Ylymyn Island.
I know that it is forbidden, but these are unusual circumstances. I will certainly be accepted there; I will acquit myself with dignity; I wish only to live out my life with people who understand honor perhaps better than any others I have known of.
It is absurd, I know. You will deny my request, I know, as you have a hundred times before. But I hoped that if you knew my story, knew as best I could tell it the whys behind my determination to leave the corporation, that perhaps you would understand why I have not been able to forget that Pru told me, “Now you are Ice, too; and now your soul shall be set free in the Sky.” It is not the hope of a life after death—I have no such hope. It is the hope that at my death honorable men will go to some trouble to bid me farewell.
Indeed, it is no hope at all, but rather a certainty. I, like every modern man, have clung since childhood to a code, to a law that struggled to give a purpose to life. All the laws are rational; all achieve a purpose.
But on Ylymyn, where the laws were irrational and the purposes meaningless, I found another thing, the thing behind the law, the thing that is itself worth clinging to regardless of the law, the thing that takes even mad laws and makes them holy. And by all that’s holy, let me go back and cling to it again.
This story began with an essay I started writing once, about how real life has no borders and boundaries, no frame surrounding it the way that paintings do, no beginnings and ends like stories. It occurred to me that artists who tried to get rid of those frames and boundaries and beginnings and endings were making a foolish mistake. First of all, it can’t be done—any work of an individual human being will have boundaries, both in time and in space, and any attempt to evade that is pure deception. Second, it shouldn’t be done, because the very reason why human beings hunger so for art—especially for storytelling—is because art, with its beginnings and endings, provides an overlay of order on the chaos of life. Life never means anything, not clearly enough to count on it, but art always means something. Its very edges declare that this is inside the boundary and everything else is out.
The essay never got written. Instead, I wandered off into the idea that human life does in fact have one very simple but natural frame: birth and death. So while the mass of human life, taken together, cannot be separated into simple cause-and-effect chains that can be unambiguously interpreted, the life of a mortal being always has definable limits. And after a person has died, then it might, just might, be possible to go about discovering what actually happened within the frame of those two moments, birth and death, and what all those years between might mean.
This speculation would give rise, in the long run, to my concept of a speaker for the dead. In the short run, though, it gave rise to “Mortal Gods,” for if it is death that provides the limit that allows life to be comprehended, that allows us to assign meaning to life, then what would this mean to sentient creatures who could not die? All our gods seem to be immortal—but wouldn’t immortals search for mortal gods?
When Kristine and I moved our family from the Great American West (i.e., the part of the country where trees only grow if you water them) to the Great American East (i.e., the part of the country where trees grow everywhere you haven’t paved or mowed recently), one of the biggest cultural shocks was religious television. There just isn’t that much of it out west, especially in Mormon country, where our video style is at once slicker and more sedate. So when I saw TV preachers for the first time, especially TV faith healers like Ernest Ainglee, I watched them for hours in horrified fascination.
Of course I knew that the faith healing business was rife with fakery and fraud. But what struck me most powerfully was the deep and desperate faith of those who came, day after day, week after week, to be healed. I wanted to write a story about one of those believers. I also wanted to write about somebody who really had the power to heal, and how he would get along with the fakes. When I realized they were the same story, I was able to write “Saving Grace.”
That was in South Bend, Indiana, in 1982. I wrote it. I mailed it out. Nobody bought it.
Yet I knew it was a good story. I had read it aloud at a couple of conventions and the audience response told me that it worked, absolutely. So why didn’t it sell?
I think part of the problem was that the story was too sympathetic to religion—it wasn’t light and satirical enough, and the main characters seemed to be, after a fashion, believers. I don’t think the sci-fi markets in those days were ready for that. Also, TV charismatics hadn’t yet taken as much prominence in the public eye as they would half a decade later, when every cable system seemed to have a bunch of religious stations, and when the antics of that immortal love triangle of Jim and Tammy and Jessica, and of voyeur extraordinaire Jimmy Swaggart, made these guys household names.
Whatever the reason, I couldn’t sell the story. Until, years later, a nice guy and talented writer and editor named Alan Rodgers told me that Twilight Zone magazine was spinning off a horror digest called Night Cry, and did I have anything he might publish? I never wrote horror—at least not in the normal conception of the term—but I did have a contemporary fantasy called “Saving Grace.” I told him something about it, and he said, Sure, send it along.
I pulled the story out, thinking to do some major revisions. Instead I found that it needed only some minor changes to be up to speed; Alan bought it by return mail. The result was that “Saving Grace” did finally reach an audience—though I dare say that people buying Night Cry had to be more than a little surprised at what this story turned out to be!
“EYE FOR EYE”
This story began in my ancient Datsun B-210, a hideously rusted out blue coupe that I had bought from a friend who had pretty well used it up on the salt-covered roads in Lafayette, Indiana, while he got his doctorate at Purdue. The car vibrated so much that after a trip of more than fifty miles I ended up trembling for hours. But it served me well for many years, on trips to Texas, Michigan, Florida, and points in between. I couldn’t bear to sell it—I finally gave it away.
All this has nothing to do “Eye for Eye.” I just miss the old car.
I was driving to a convention in Roanoke, Virginia, with my good friend and fellow writer, Gregg Keizer. He had been a student of mine in an evening class I taught at the University of Utah in the late 70s. The class was on writing science fiction, but Gregg never learned anything from me—he already knew how before he got there. I once was so sure that a story of his would sell that I bet him that if it didn’t sell within a year I’d run naked through Orson Spencer Hall (the building where the class was held). It took more than a year. I reneged on the bet. But Gregg was very nice about it. And the story did sell soon after. Anyway, when I moved to Greensboro to be senior editor at Compute! Books, and we needed to hire another assistant editor, I thought of Gregg, called him up, and asked him if he wanted to apply. He did. He got the job and did brilliantly. He also long outlasted me, ending up as editor of Compute! Magazine five years after I walked away from the place.
This has nothing to do with “Eye for Eye,” either. But Gregg is living in Shreveport, Louisiana, these days, and I miss him, too.
Anyway, Gregg and I were on our way to Roanoke, and just for the fun of it we decided to come up with some story ideas. Actually, I think I was saying some damfool thing about how a real writer could come up with a story idea anytime he felt like it, and make it work, too. So my ego was invested in this, just a little bit. The story idea I came up with was, what if a person discovered he had the ability to cause cancer in other
That was my story—finding out that you had killed people without meaning to. When I actually got down to writing it, of course, I raised the stakes by making it so my hero had killed the people closest to him; I also made him a pretty decent guy. The rest of the story came out of my speculations on how such an ability might arise. I had read a little bit about this doctor in Scandinavia who was trying to promote the body’s ability to heal itself by adjusting the electromagnetic field that surrounds living organisms, so I used that to give the story a pseudoscientific veneer.
Because I had thought of the story on the way to Roanoke, and because I first publicly discussed the idea at that convention, I tipped my hat to the folks there by setting part of the story in their town, which has an extraordinarily beautiful setting in the mountains of western Virginia. The rest of the story arose from that setting. What if the gift arose from a bunch of serious inbreeding in a remote mountain community? And how would good mountain people interpret it if they found all their enemies just naturally dying of cancer? They’d know it had to be either God or the devil doing it, and, given a choice, they’d be bound to settle on God. I decided that they’d consider themselves to be a chosen people, which is why they only bred with each other—but since each generation would have a few kids with more and more intense power to disturb other people’s magnetic fields, being their parents would be downright dangerous. So of course, like legendary cuckoos, they’d put them in somebody else’s home to raise, only coming to claim them when they’d found out about their powers and had learned to control them.
Add a group of unbelievers who split off from the group, and you’ve got “Eye for Eye.”
I sent the story around when I first wrote it, even though it didn’t really feel finished. Everybody rejected it, partly because it was too long; but the nicest letter came from Stan Schmidt at Analog, who suggested that he might buy it if the scientific justification were beefed up.
Years later I ran across a copy of the story, with Stan’s letter. I had forgotten that it even existed. Looking through it, I decided the idea had some merit, and rewrote it from beginning to end. This time the structure worked better, because I set it up as a first-person account as the boy tried to persuade the unbelievers not to kill him. And, because he had asked for revisions, I sent it to Stan. Alas, he still didn’t like it; but by this time, Gardner Dozois was editing Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, so I asked Stan to send it down the hall to Gardner. Gardner bought it at once and published it. To my surprise, “Eye for Eye” won both the Hugo and, in translation, the Japanese science fiction award as well.
“ST. AMY’S TALE”
Fred Saberhagen had let it be known in Locus and elsewhere that he was editing an anthology called A Spadeful of Spacetime, which would consist of stories that involved archaeology but did not involve time travel. He wanted stories that connected with the past the way science did it, not using the magic trick of a time machine.
I thought about this for quite a while. I loved archaeology—I had begun college as an archaeology major. But how could a story be science fiction about exploring the past without using time travel? I came up with a couple of ideas, but the one that interested me most was the idea of anti-archaeologists—people going around erasing the evidence of the past. Maybe there had been many high civilizations on Earth in the million-year history of modern man, but each one ended with blood and horror—and with the invention of a machine that could break down human artifacts and return them to their original, natural materials. The machine itself is a pretty hokey idea that doesn’t bear close examination, but the human motivations behind the complete destruction of the past are both believable and interesting.
Why, though, did it take a religious bent? In a way, that was a natural turn of the idea, because any idea that can cause such systematic transformation of human life has to end up being religious in character—much the way Communism absolutely functioned as a religion during its first ascendancy in Eastern Europe and the Far East. But there was another influence as well. I was working with some of the great old English writers in graduate school at the time, and Chaucer and Spenser were favorites of mine. I was playing with some of the forms they had used—I started a “Pedant’s Calendar” after Spenser’s “Shepherds’ Calendar,” and my epic “Prentice Alvin and the No-Good Plow” contained deliberate echoes of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Likewise, I had toyed with the idea of doing a story cycle about pilgrims on their way to a shrine, in imitation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. That idea went nowhere, but somewhere in the process of planning out this story the title “St. Amy’s Tale” came to me. From there, it was an easy matter to introduce a religious overtone, a feeling of holiness and sacrifice to the whole series of events. I thought it made the story far richer and truer to itself.
This is the story that readers over the years have found most disturbing and unpleasant. My critics have come up with all kinds of reasons to hate it—including, absurdly enough, a feminist reading of the story in which it was deduced that I “relished” the scene in which a breast is cut off. (One wonders about the mind of someone who thinks that writers “relish” all the scenes they write. Poor bloody-handed Shakespeare!) But once I thought of the idea, it was one of the most inevitable stories I ever told—and one of the most powerful and true.
The origin of the idea was simple. It owed a bit to Damon Knight’s classic story that became the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man.” The idea of aliens who eat human beings is as old as sci-fi. But what about a story in which a human being persuades the invaders not to kill their victims, but rather to harvest them limb by limb? Would that person be a savior or a torturer? In my mind this idea was linked with the Jews in death camps who were forced into service as body-handlers, fully aware of the slaughter of their own people and, while not directly killing anybody, cooperating with the killers by cleaning up after them. And yet, when you look at it another way, there was something noble in their helpless labor, for as they fed the bodies into the furnace, weren’t they performing for the dead those last rituals that are usually performed by family? And wasn’t it better that it was done by fellow Jews, fellow prisoners, who mourned their deaths, than to have it done by sneering members of the master race? It’s an area of unbearable moral ambiguity—and that’s what I strove for in “Kingsmeat.”
I think it’s interesting that when Gene Wolfe set out to create a Christ-figure in his Book of the New Sun, he also made his protagonist begin as an apprentice torturer, so that the one who suffered and died to save others is depicted as one who also inflicts suffering; it is a way to explicitly make the Christ-figure take upon himself, in all innocence, the darkest sins of the world. I didn’t plan that out consciously, but I saw it clearly in Wolfe’s work and then, by extension, found the same thing happening in mine. That’s about the only resemblance between Wolfe’s seminal work and my little tale—but I’m glad for any resemblances to the great ones that I can get!
This story began with a simple enough idea—a challenge, really. Could I write a story that made something as despised and disdained as human excrement seem holy? To accomplish it, I needed to have a point-of-view character who would represent the American reader’s habitual disgust for human feces, and then bring him bit by bit to accept another culture’s view, until at last he, too, felt that the “meaningless” mission of bringing intestinal scrapings to a particular shrine was worth dying for. Though at the time I wrote this story I would not have stated it so clearly, I was already caught up with the idea that it is story and ritual that give meaning to our actions.
At the time, Ben Bova was buying all the short fiction I wrote. But this story was too long for Omni, where Ben was fiction editor, and besides, I wanted to see if I could place a story in one of the prestigious annual a
Then, to my dismay, the volume that “Holy” appeared in virtually disappeared. It fell into the cracks between two contracts. The following volume of New Dimensions appeared in paperback before the hardcover edition of the volume I was in appeared, so that my story was in a book that appeared to be outdated—a year old—the moment it appeared. Worse, it never had a paperback edition at all. The stories in that volume were never reviewed. To my knowledge, only a few people in the world ever knew that this story even existed. Its appearance in this volume is, in effect, its first real publication.
None of this, though, was Robert Silverberg’s fault—and I thank him again for taking my story seriously at a time when I was being dismissed as an “Analog writer” by the literary vigilantes of science fiction. But then, Silverberg has never been one to judge somebody else’s work by its reputation, when he has the opportunity to judge it on its own merits. May his tribe increase.
THE HIDDEN STORIES
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Other author's books:
- Ender's GameSpeaker for the DeadEnder's ShadowSeventh Son: The Tales of Alvin Maker, Volume IChildren of the MindShadow of the GiantEmpireFirst Meetings in Ender's Universe
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