The Perpetual Choir

“The memory was a like a bad tooth that his tongue kept wanting to probe.”

From Kevan Manwaring

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‘Fucking forest!’

Private Steven ‘Spammy’ Riggs was lost, badly lost. Discovering he had just returned to the same turning in the woods passed an hour ago, he kicked a rotting stump, sending up a spume of spores. ‘Going round in bloody circles,’ he muttered to himself. Coughing, he hawked up some phlegm to get rid of the bitter taste.

His saliva glistened on the tongue fern, summing up his feelings for the place. It was only meant to be a short-cut. As the crow flies turned out to be ‘as the diseased carrion bird splutters to its death’.

The silhouettes of the trees bled their shadows into the sky – making the forest around seem to grow, tower above him, close him in. He was losing light and he needed to find somewhere to get his head down PDQ.

Taking a deep breath, he picked a path he was sure he hadn’t gone down before and yomped on, Army issue backpack light on his shoulders compared to the full kit he was trained to carry. He just had the essentials; only what he could grab in a rush. He just needed a bit of headspace. Sort himself out.

The memory was a like a bad tooth that his tongue kept wanting to probe. What they had been ordered to do… To kids for Chrissakes! He didn’t mind the usual rough stuff. Give him a scrap and he’d be straight in there. Beating up rag-heads. Water-boarding. Any of the nasty stuff they made you do these days. It didn’t bother him. But this was going too far. He had nieces and nephews their age. He doted on them, loved seeing them when on leave, and sent them prezzies whenever he could. One day he hoped to have his own.
The screams were the worst.

Seeing it on the news wasn’t half as bad. All that old footage from the so-called ‘Tender Years Facilities’ on the Tex-Mex border – it hadn’t fazed him. But then they started building them over here after that Brexit bollocks finally went through. ‘Fortress Britain’ the new Tories were calling it, back in power after forming a coalition with the Britannia Ultra Liberation League lot. He been stationed at the Dover detainment camp – bit of a jolly by the sea-side he thought. But when he saw the way they treated the children, ripped from their parents’ arms, kept in stinking cages… Sod that for a game of soldiers. He had to get out.

Out on manoeuvres one night he did a runner.

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Riggs stopped to catch his breath. The forest felt close, the press of foliage stifling. He pulled on his t-shirt, clammy against his chest. He had been walking westwards for days, as far away as possible from those camps. He figured if he made it to Wales he would be safe. He’d heard of the bolshy communities that had held out against the hardline government, rejected their authority. Some ‘resistance towns’ had been forced to tow the line, but new ones were popping up every day like fucking mushrooms. They couldn’t squash them all, just drive the insurgents into the wild country; like Free Scotland – those canny Scots had jumped the sinking ship after the country had left Europe. Anyone with any smarts or dosh had headed north, or west. Out of sight, out of mind. That’s what he hoped to be. By his calculations Riggs figured he was close to the Welsh Borders now. Herefordshire somewhere, the dark shoulder of the Malverns on his right. By the morning he should be in the clear. But he needed to rest. He was so fucking tired.

Breathing heavily, he came to a clearing – a small dell overlooked by oak trees, their thick, twisted limbs framed by the fiery dusk. It afforded some kind of protection from the wind, and the steep sides would obscure a fire. Not perfect, but it’d do.

With relief, Riggs eased of his pack, peeling it from his back, and dumped it on the floor. He quickly unrolled his self-inflating mat, his Army bivvy bag. Then he set to getting a fire going. Soon he was sitting by it, cracking open a can of Stella and taking a deep swig. As the cool liquid hit the back of his throat, he felt the tension ease from his body.

A gentle breeze made the flames swirl. The risk of a small fire was worth it. He gazed into the dancing glow, thinking about his escape, its consequences. What his family would think when news got back to them. The Military Police would have gone to his sisters straight away. He had to protect them, not put them at risk. It broke his heart to leave them behind, to have them think he was some kind of coward. But he’d made his bed.

It was either the glasshouse or Robin of Fucking Sherwood now.

His eyelids drooped heavy and his head nodded forward.

The tinkling in the trees yanked him back for a moment – some nutters had tied things to the branches. Rags and hippy shit. Fluttering in the breeze that had whipped up with the onset of night. Some of it made a sound like one of those wind-chimes his sister had in her garden. Hypnotic. Riggs found himself falling asleep. He was just able to crawl into his bivvy before exhaustion claimed him.

The whispering trees kept watch.

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Staring eyes catching the rising flames, the children pressed in around him on all sides. Their screams pierced his skull, although they did not move their mouths. He tried to explain that he had done a runner, that he had turned his back on the cruelty, that he wasn’t one of them anymore. But the shrill screams rose higher. And whichever way he turned he could not escape. He was frozen to the spot, a fucking rabbit in the headlights.

***

Riggs awoke with a cry, sitting bolt upright as he tore the bivvy from his body. He was drenched in sweat, his heart beating a tattoo. It took him a moment to get his bearings. The fire, burnt low – embers pulsing in response to the light breeze. The heavy branches of the oak trees creaked. Alone. He was alone. The shadows danced on the surrounding slopes and branches, but nothing else.

Catching his breath, he drained the remains of the can, and cracked open another. After he took a swig, he started to calm down. He stoked the fire into life, chucking on some more wood. The light was reassuring as it pushed back the shadows.

He shook his head. Laughed. He’d had some bad dreams since Dover, but nothing like that. It had felt so real. He could have sworn the kids had been right there in the grove, surrounding him as he lay vulnerable to the elements, to any intruder. No one to watch his back. He’d have to be his own sentry duty. No point trying to get to sleep now. The nightmare had rattled him. It was hard not to feel scared – all alone, in the middle of fuck-knows-where. He’d done plenty of night manoeuvres. Camping in the middle of the arse-end of nowhere, in shit weather usually, while training. Never bothered him before. In fact, he kind of liked it. Riggs had always found the great outdoors made him feel … peaceful inside. That was the best thing about the Army life. It got him out of the dump of the city he grew up in, away from the sink estates, depressed men drinking themselves to death, the gangs and the drugs, the wife-beaters and Paki-bashers. Give him a woodland or a hillside any day. You could hear yourself think in the wild. Started to feel yourself again.

He knew heading west was the right move. The wilder it got, the safer he felt. The first few days had been tricky, sleeping in ditches, dodging the patrols, the CCTV cameras, the eyes of informers, anybody willing to grass him up for some poxy privileges – a travel pass or extra food bank vouchers.

Riggs let out a sigh. Either the beer was taking effect, or the place – or both. He had been pushing himself so hard, for so long. Finally he could stop, and let go, for a little while, at least. It was well past midnight now. The first glimmers of light could be seen in the east. In an hour or two the sun would be up. And then he should be on his way. Get some miles under his belt before the sun got too hot. If lucky, he might make the Border by midday. This time tomorrow he could be sleeping in a safe house. A sympathetic farmer perhaps, one with a sexy daughter he hoped. Good eating, and perhaps more if he played his cards right.

God, it had been too long since he had known a woman, felt a gentle touch, a soft word. Felt anything except fear or fatigue.

The offerings in the trees tinkled together pleasantly. The crack and hiss of the fire as a log shifted, reassuringly down-to-earth. The susurration of the gentle breeze through the summer canopy of the oaks created a soothing effect. It was almost like singing, a soft wave of voices washing over him, bathing him in sound. Riggs suddenly realised tears were streaming down his cheeks. What would his mates think? Fucking pufta. But the sobs racked his body, and he howled into the dying dark, split open with light.

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Riggs hummed as he hiked along. The early morning sun filtered through the wall of trees that lined the trail, no longer so sinister in the daylight. He’d had a basic breakfast of a service station pasty and a tepid bottle of milk, but even that tasted good. Something about wild camping that made you appreciate the simplest of pleasures.

He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt like singing – perhaps some booze-fuelled karaoke. But this morning he felt … lighter somehow. A good blub had done him good, though he was glad nobody had been around to see it.

He continued to hum an old pop song.

Then up ahead, his trained eye saw movement and he froze. A figure approaching. A man. Riggs melted soundlessly into the undergrowth, and there he waited.
The figure approached – an old woman, out walking her dog. Not a threat. Just a pain in the jacksy.

The collie made a beeline straight for him. Started barking at the bush. ‘Fuck off! Go on!’ he whispered, but it was no use. His cover was blown.

‘Are you alright in there?’ the old woman called. She had long hair, wild and loose, and wore a battered Barbour. Kept her stick close.

Riggs appeared from the undergrowth, pretending to do up his flies. ‘Scuse me, call of nature.’

‘Oh, apologies for Bertie here. Always poking his nose in.’

Riggs bent and fussed the dog, who after sniffing his hand, decided he was to be trusted.

‘He’s no bother, are you?’

‘Out to take the morning air?’

‘What’s that? Nah. I mean, yeah, on a hike.’

The ghost of a smile. ‘Come far.’

Riggs gave her a squint. ‘Just over the hill.’

‘Looks like you’ve had a night out.’

‘Yeah, that grove back there.’

‘Where the old oak is?’

‘Weird stuff hanging in it, yeah.’

‘That’s Whiteleaved Oak. A lot of folk think it’s a special spot. They like to leave offerings.’

Riggs shifted uncomfortably. ‘What for?’

‘Blessings. Prayers. This land needs a lot of healing. There are a lot of wounded folk out there.’

He found himself nodding.

‘Did you get a good night’s sleep?’ the old woman quizzed, a wry glint in her eyes.

Riggs shrugged. ‘Sort of. It’s a … musical kind of place, isn’t it?’

‘Ah. Yes. You could say that.’ She whistled her dog to her and set off down the track.

‘Why’s that then?’ he called after her.

She paused at the fork in the path, and turned to respond. ‘It’s meant to be the centre of the Three Perpetual Choirs of Britain. Once they sang to maintain harmony throughout the land. Perhaps it’s time they started singing again.’

And then she turned and vanished into the trees.

Riggs shook his head. Laughed. Crazy old bird. But as he hiked to the Border, he found himself singing out loud to no one in particular.

FIN


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Accompanying note

My story is, in part, a response to Holdstock’s ‘Mythago Wood’ legendarium, although this something I realised after I had written it – a way through the woods only gleaned when one emerges from the trees. Inspiration came from a wild camp at Whiteleaved Oak, on the southern tip of the Malvern Hills, on Midsummer Eve, this year. The oak grove is as I describe it in the story – the main oak is a twisted dragon of a tree, festooned with ‘clooties’: rags, ribbons, and offerings left by pagans. It is thought to be connected to the Three Perpetual Choirs of Britain. First mentioned in the Welsh Triads (a series of gnomic utterances included in Le Grand’s 1796 Fabliaux), the legend was embellished with typical relish by ‘Iolo Morgannwg’ (the self-styled Welsh ‘druid’ reconstructionist Edward Williams) in 1801, when he enthused: ‘in each of these choirs there were 2,400 saints; that is there were a hundred for every hour of the day and the night in rotation, perpetuating the praise and service of God without rest or intermission.’ Fast forward to the early Seventies and it was made ‘canon’, counter-culturally, by the equally quixotic geomancer, John Michell, who identified the three choirs (Glastonbury Abbey; Llanwit Major; and Stonehenge) and placed Whiteleaved Oak at their precise centre – an alignment he termed the ‘Great Decagon’, deploying pseudo-scientific language that would not be amiss in George Huxley’s journal: ‘three vertices of a regular decagon of majestic proportions. A fourth vertex exists at Goring-on Thames where a major pagan temple once stood at the junction of several important track ways’ (Michell, 1972). John Michell’s theory is fanciful, but evocative – a Blakean gambit that as a writer of imaginative fiction I can pounce upon without having to prove, following Atwood’s ‘ways of the jackdaw’: ‘we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests’ (Atwood, 2002: xviii); or to use a Holdstockian image, feathers and fetishes to be woven into my own horse-shrine.

When I arrived there at dusk, the sky aflame, I discovered to my disappointment beer cans in the firepit. This niggled me at first, but it provided the grit in the oyster, as my subconscious did its work, imagining who would make the effort to come to such an obscure, folkloric place only to desecrate it in such a way. This telling detail, one that no Google Earth or other vicarious research would reveal, helped to give birth to my protagonist, Riggs – a product of the ‘outer world’ as much as my inner one: a way of personifying these dark times.

I drafted it when I got home in a feverish download, writing from the guts of my visceral, experiential research. But, in hindsight, I can discern Holdstockian vestiges, for they can be gleaned in much of my writing, so inextricably have his novels grafted themselves onto the frontal lobes of my imagination when I first started reading them in the early nineties, at the same time as making my first forays into novels.

‘The Perpetual Choir’ inhabits the same ecosystem as Holdstock’s for the following reasons. Firstly, its location in the Welsh Borders. Ryhope Wood is said to be a three square mile section of ancient woodland in Herefordshire, a bus and cycle ride from Gloucester. Once a friend and I went in search of the likeliest location, finding tenuous ‘evidence’ on the ground in place names – hamlets with the suffix ‘hope’; stickle-like brooks; hollow lanes; green man pubs – as well in the wood itself, complete with a gamekeeper’s cottage, formerly situated on one corner and now engulfed by the creeping advance of the trees, which fitted the description of Oak Lodge: ‘at the edge of the Ryhope estate in Herefordshire’ (1986:16). The connections: ‘just seemed to fit in an imaginative way at the time…’ (Nanson, private email, 6 August 2018) and would probably not stand up to close scrutiny, but on the day I remember them bestowing a sense of the numinous to our walk.

Then there is the actual folklore associated with Whiteleaved Oak (and nearby Ragged Stone Hill, echoed in Holdstock’s posthumously published novella, The Ragthorn): whoever is touched by the shadow of the craggy summit will have ill luck befall them, as described in Wilfrid Gibson’s poem, ‘The Ragged Stone’ (Hart, 2000: 58):
And if the tale be true they tell about the Ragged Stone,
 I’ll not be walking with my dear next year, nor yet alone.

Coincidentally, when I took my friends there, we returned to the car-park to find their vehicle broken into, and things stolen. This kind of ‘folklore with fangs’ is very Holdstockian – there is nothing cosy or bucolic about his world, which evokes an unheimlich anti-pastoral aesthetic: the new eerie, currently in vogue in novels like The Loney (Hurley, 2015) and The Essex Serpent (Perry, 2017).

There is the tangible sense of place that pervades Holdstock’s fantasies – the ‘other’ is always close. I remember when I first read Mythago Wood, I desperately wanted Ryhope Wood to be an actual place. I knew it was fiction, but I still wanted it to be true; and, in a way, it was – for it transformed my perception of sylvan environments. Any walk in the woods offered the possibility of conjuring mythagos, and often they did, as poems, stories and paintings erupted from my subconscious.

Finally, my story echoes Mythago Wood in its depiction of post-bellum protagonists. In Holdstock’s story (the first published in the cycle), set between 1946 and 1948, Stephen Huxley, back on civvy street, returns to his Herefordshire home to convalesce from his war wounds. They he finds his elder brother, Christian, living a strange, solitary existence in the Lodge: their mother long deceased and their father mysteriously AWOL. The encroaching woodland, dramatically over-running their father’s study, seems to be a symbol of the way it inveigles itself into the minds of the brothers, who become haunted by ‘mythagos’: folkloric archetypes fashioned in a mysterious way from the interface between the wood and its human visitors. The male Huxleys’ increasingly bosky behaviour (almost certainly PTSD in Stephen’s case) could be seen as a personification of a shell-shocked country, emerging traumatised from World War Two, desperate to find new myths to live by – a wasteland in search of a Grail. In ‘The Perpetual Choir’ the trauma is current, as a result of a Brexit-divided nation and the draconian regime it enables, a neo-Fascist state echoing Trump’s America.

These factors (proximity; folklore; sense of place; the shadow of war) align to create, on my fictive plane, a ‘Great Decagon’, which quietly evokes the Holdstock project without emulating it. Although I did not set out to write a Holdstockian story, it could be seen as a piece in conversation with the mythos articulated in the sequence of novels and novellas stretching from 1981 to 2009. I posit that one of the most fertile ways to engage with this, and in doing so honour and continue Holdstock’s legacy, is via creative responses – stories, songs, poems, artwork and music that expand the possibilities of Ryhope wood (which, I suggest in a previous article, I see as a metaphor for the creative process). While avoiding pastiche, one can find new ways through the wood, ways that intersect with Holdstocks. In the way the pilot Harry Keeton survived another ‘portal’ (Clute, 1999:776), when shot down in France, there is an exciting possibility of contemporary writers finding their own Ryhope Wood.


Notes:

Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the dead: A writer on writing. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Clute, John and John Grant. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. London:Orbit, 1999.

Hart, Linda. Once They Lived in Gloucestershire. Lechlade: Green Branch Press, 2000.

Holdstock, Robert. Mythago Wood, London: Grafton Book, 1986.

Holdstock, Robert. The Ragthorn, n.p.: Infinity plus, 2015.

Hurley, A. M. The Loney. London: John Murray, 2015.

Manwaring, Kevan. Ways Through the Wood: the rogue cartographies of Robert

Holdstock’s Mythago Wood Cycle as a cognitive map for creative process in fiction,

Writing in Practice. Vol. 4. York: NAWE, 2018.

Morgannwg, Iolo, Owen Jones, William Owen Pughe, The Myvyrian Archaiology of

Wales. 3 vols. London: n.p., 1801-7.

Le Grand, M. Fabliaux or Tales, abridged from French Manuscripts of the XIIth and XIIIth

Centuries by M. Le Grand. selected and translated by G. L. Way, 1796.

Michell, John. City of Revelation: On the Proportions and Symbolic Numbers of the

Cosmic Temple. n.p.: Garnstone Press, 1972.

Perry, Sarah. The Essex Serpent. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2017.


Kevan Manwaring

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photo by Jay Ramsay

Bard, hiker and trail-runner Kevan Manwaring is the author of The Windsmith Elegy series of mythic reality novels, The Bardic Handbook, Desiring Dragons, Lost Islands, Ballad Tales, Silver Branch and others. His current projects include an eco-SF novel, Black Box (crowdfunding on Unbound) and a transapocalyptic rock’n’roll fantasy. Since 2014 he has been working on a creative writing PhD exploring fairy traditions and creative process, which has manifested in a transmedia novel, The Knowing – A Fantasy (www.thesecretcommonwealth.com). He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic and is based in Stroud, England.

Werewolves Against Cyborgs and Alex Jones

Alex Jones is making headlines this week- here is our take on it:

From Julian Langer

Alex Jones is a journalist.

Alex Jones is a Human.

Alex Jones is a conspiracy theorist.

Alex Jones is a pioneer.

Alex Jones is offensive.

Alex Jones is an explorer.

Alex Jones is fake news.

Alex Jones is animated.

Alex Jones probably has high blood pressure, which is why his heart is big.

He likes to fight (apparently).

He is Here (but not here).

He likes to eat children (he doesn’t really, but he does).

He has no life force, he’s not a real person and he doesn’t (Really) exist.

“I’m like a chimpanzee, in a tree, jumping up and down, warning other chimpanzees when I see a big cat coming through the woods… I’m the weirdo? Because I’m sitting in a tree going OOH OOH AAH AAH AAH OOH AAH AAH OOH OOH OOH AAH AAH AAH AAH AAH!?”

-Alex Jones

Comparing Alex Jones to a chimpanzee would involve insulting the entire global population of chimpanzees – all 170,000-300,000 of them [1]. And it seems to me more the case that he isn’t actually an animal, human or other, and that despite all of his protestations of being alive, an animal, a human, and of not being a machine or of being against cyborgs, he is a cyborg, feasting upon the flesh of those who adore him, upon those who hate him and upon the world whose collapse he denies.

Maybe he isn’t a cyborg. Maybe he is nothing.

According to his Wikipedia page, Alex Jones was born and raised in Texas; he claims to be part Irish, part German, part Welsh, mostly English and part indigenous American; he was a lineman in his high school football team; and his journalism career started in community college.

His career has gone from Austin Public Access TV, to Austin’s KJFK-FM radio station, to his now world famous Infowars Youtube channel and website [3]. His rise has been fuel mainly by his shouting and distinctly macho bravado – “The more he screams, the more they listen.” Manuel Roig-Franzia – in lieu of him actually having anything to say that warrants being listened to.

Last year, as his notoriety grew due to his relationship with Donald Trump and the rising right wing tendency, the question of whether or not Jones is a journalist/talk show host or if he is a performance artist became part of public discourse [4]. Jone’s current status is entirely the product of his relationship with Trump and his “historic” campaign [5]. And like how Trump is simultaneously both a politician and a performance artist, while also being absolutely nothing, Jones is simultaneously both a journalist and a performance artist, while also being absolutely nothing.

I don’t mean that these men aren’t occupying the bodies of actual living human-animals, nor that they don’t occupy roles within the narrative of History, making them Humans. But equally (and more so) they are nothing, they don’t Really exist and aren’t alive.

They are cybernetic organisms in cyberspace. Alex Jones is a cyborg.

Cyborgs are fictional or hypothetical people whose bodies are in some way mechanical [6]. Examples such as the Terminator (from Terminator) and the Borg (from Star Trek) spring to mind, as well know cyborg examples.

But Jones (and Trump) seems like a different type of cyborg to these.

Rather than the collectivist-type assimilation of the Borg and the Terminators mindless violence, Jones’s cyborgism is more like that of Adam (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Adam is a bio-mechanical demonoid, created to be part of a super soldier army for the American government. Adam is part human, part demon and part machine.

Why is Jones (and Trump) like Adam?

The classical narrative of civilisation’s myths has been Man(/God) against the wild-animal(/demonic). Now, as the technosphere/History becomes more and more self-aware, the narrative is becoming one of Man(/cyborg/God) against Cyborg(/demonic), with the wild-animal being caught between the two, which are one, ripped apart.

Jones presents himself, through cyberspace, as something Human and living-animal, while being, in many ways, Dead. And as such, within this mythology-history he embraces, he is part Human, part cyborg and part demon.

“I am the end of all life, of all magic. I’m the war between man and demon, the war that no one can win”

-Adam

Within the myths of this civilisation that has brought us to ecological collapse, both demons and cyborgs are defeated by Humans/Man/God and civilisation continues, in some form or another. This seems little more than the pathway to later ruination.

If we are going to perform any stories now, I propose that, rather than the classical narrative, our narrative be one of humans becoming-animal(/demon) against the Adamist cyborg; of Life-as-No-thingness against the Machine-as-nothingness.

“What had to remain in the collective unconscious as a monstrous hybrid of human and animal, divided between the forest and the city – the werewolf – is, therefore, in its origin the figure of the man who has been banned from the city. That such a man is defined as a wolf-man and not simply as a wolf (the expression caput lupinum has the form of a juridical statute) is decisive here. The life of the bandit, like that of the sacred man, is not a piece of animal nature without any relation to law and the city. It is, rather, a threshold of indistinction and of passage be-tween animal and man, physis and nomos, exclusion and inclusion: the life of the bandit is the life of the loup garou, the werewolf, who is precisely neither man nor beast, and who dwells paradoxically within both while belonging to neither.”

-Agamben

Alongside the becoming-feral de-Humanising of this embrace of the werewolf against the cyborg, identifying Jones’s cyborgism as a nothingness is central to this process.

That Jones is nothing is becoming increasingly obvious as his platform on Youtube becomes less and less stable [7] and as he freaks out over being mocked by a teenage liberal [8]. To maintain the appearance of Being something, you have to maintain the appearance of stability and Jones is looking unstable.

This werewolf practice is one of guerrilla ontology directed towards undermining the stability of the cyborgs, rather than attempting to defeat them head on. They will collapse upon themselves, as civilisation collapses, but we can help speed this process up. The death of the cyborgs and Human-Man will see the rise of the wild-animal-human-demon (within the myths of civilisation) of the werewolf, not as something moral or immoral, but as something full of Life and living, primal and anarchic.

Alex Jones is a cyborg.

Alex Jones is nothing.

Alex Jones deserves nothing more than our laughter.

Alex Jones doesn’t deserve your fear, because there is nothing to fear about in nothingness.


Notes

[1] About Chimps!

[2] Alex Jone’s WikiPage

[3] Alex Jones Bio

[4] CNN on Alex Jones

[5] The Invisible Empire of Alex Jones

[6] Definition of cyborg

[7] One Strike Away From a Youtube Ban

[8] Alex jones gets dunked on


Editor’s Notes:

The header image is by Sean P. Anderson from Dallas, TX, USA. He does not in any way endorse us or our work. (“This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.”)


Julian Langer

Writer of Feral Consciousness: Deconstruction of the Modern Myth and Return to the Woods, blogger at Eco-Revolt, and has been published on a number of other sites. Eco-anarchist and guerilla ontologist philosopher. Lover of woods, deer, badgers and other wild Beings. Musician and activist.


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Acts of Love And Pleasure

Short fiction from Emma Brooks


“The blessings of Aradia and Cernunnos be upon this creature of salt.”

There’s an itch on my arse. I try to wriggle, rub it without being obvious, but my hands are bound too tightly to my chest.

The smell of sandalwood and cinnamon warms the room, and the radiators click and creak. The heat only makes the itch worse.

What if it’s a spot? I should have checked.

I should have skipped that pasta yesterday too. I must have the biggest belly here.

Under the blindfold, I can see the pebbles they used to lay out the circle, and I prod one of them with my big toe.

Should I have painted my nails? Would that have looked a bit shallow?

Dave finishes his speech, and the room is silent, except for the scuffle of naked feet on the carpet, and the occasional small cough.

Stop it. You’re not supposed to be self-conscious, it’s meant to be spiritual.

There’s a clink, and a shuffle, another short speech, and it’s ready.

The circle is open.


I met Dave and Yolanda at work. They seemed a lot more exotic than your average phone monkeys, Yolanda with her dangling pentagrams and loose long hair, and Dave, who wore a rune carved from an antler around his neck, and made awkward Lovecraft jokes on Facebook. They reminded me of some of my mum’s friends, who all had perms and read tarot and tea leaves, and told people that their grandmothers had taught them how.

Dave and Yolanda introduced me to their group; Dave and Yolanda introduced me to the clearing in the woods, where you could sit on a moss-cloaked sarsen and watch the red kites glide in wheels overhead, and get that strange feeling of ease, the feeling that ordinary things might have magic of their own.


Dave takes my shoulder and I flinch. Shit. Pay attention, they’re going to think you’re a right idiot.

The cold point of a knife is pressed against my forehead. I can see his feet now, wide, with dry skin cracking on the joints, and a couple of grey hairs on each toe. He touches the knife to my throat, and down to my chest. Then my belly button. Then another spot, the place just above my bits, where the hair starts. He bends down to lay it on my feet, and I catch a glimpse of the top of his head.

He asks me the password.

“Perfect love and perfect trust.”

It’s cheesy as hell, and my voice cracks like a teenager made to read something out in a classroom.

He puts his hand on the rope and pulls me in.


The first time I realised they weren’t just hippies, born out of their time, was in the office, when I heard one of the managers complaining that they’d taken time off.

“I mean I’m here late every day,” he said, leaning into the supervisor’s cubicle behind mine, “But I can’t just make up some shit about being a jedi or a witch or whatever and get a long weekend, head office’d laugh me out of the building. But it’s alright for them, just ‘cos they’ve got away with it every year.”

“Careful though,’ the supervisor chuckled. ‘She’’ll put a curse on you.”

“Someone already has. That’s why I still work here.”

That was the first day I googled ‘Paganism.’

Not because I wanted to learn how to curse people, or a spell for a less pointless job, not because I wanted to dedicate my life to new-found deities or the powers of nature.

I just really needed a day off.


He uses another length of rope to attach my wrists to the cord around my neck. I am taken around the circle, slowly, like a goat on a lead. I worry I might trip and so keep my eyes down, focusing on the carpet, and the new set of feet I’m brought to at each quarter point, as Dave continues, in a sing-song voice,

“Take heed, watchtowers of the east”

-that must be Julie, no-one else would own nail polish that pink. I bet her boobs are still amazing even without a bra.

I’m tugged around three times, enough to feel lost when we stop. He says something else, but my head is spinning, and I can’t remember from the training which bit this is.

Gently, barely touching my skin at all, he brushes my forehead with his lips.

Oh. It’s this bit. Just stand still. He’s the high priest. It’s meant to be spiritual.

The kisses follow the same points as the knife, lower, lower towards my feet but not without a quick stop at the more intimate places first don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t laugh.

When he reaches my ankles he ties them together. He taps my shoulder and I remember I’m supposed to kneel. Dave turns to the side slightly so that I don’t end up with a face full of unmentionables, and pushes my head down until it meets the carpet.

If there was anything I didn’t want them to see, it’s too late now.

Less light sneaks under the blindfold and I feel strange, dizzy, a bit cold, wondering whose idea this was, waiting with my arse in the air like a child getting a spank.

Which is pretty much what’s happening.

“Are you,” Dave proclaims, “Willing to be purified?”


I’d had enough, one lunchtime. An elderly woman had been confused on the phone, and my supervisor had told me to press ahead with the sale anyway, despite it being pretty bloody obvious that the silly old woman didn’t even know what she was buying. There was a decent commission on that one, but it didn’t feel good.

There was a park behind the estate, where retired people walked dogs, and office workers came to eat sandwiches on the old concrete seats. I left the path, and trampled between the trees, trying not to care about the mud rising up my trouser legs.

I stopped at a friendly–looking beech, took out my little plastic tub stuffed with salad, and looked around, making sure that nobody could see as I shuffled half the salad down onto a root. I kept checking that no-one was there, feeling watched, exposed, as if any minute now somebody normal was going to walk around the corner and find me giving half my lunch to a tree.

It didn’t seem to notice. It whispered it’s silver-green leaves, unconcerned to find itself the centre of attention.

Should I say something? What if someone heard?

I stood there for a minute, failing to remember the various phrases I’d seen online, overblown poetry from rituals I didn’t have the equipment for. Instead I just stared at the tree, hoping it would know what to do.

A line of ants climbed between patches of moss, tracing their route around the trunk. Up in the branches, a pigeon rustled, and began to warble. The sun was on my face, and my mood dissolved into the spring air, as if weeds could inhale thoughts and puff them out clean.

On the way back I clung tightly to that feeling, that little green peace, and when I got to my desk I noticed, for the first time, that I had a view; I could see the tops of the beeches from the office window.


Ow, fuck-

Dave slaps me across the back again with the leather scourge, not half as gently as I expected. Isn’t the ordeal bit supposed to be metaphorical? This isn’t bloody metaphorical.

Another slap, closer to my buttocks this time.

Do I really want this? I just wanted to learn more.

I should have just bought a book.

My skin is getting sore, and I’m losing count. I’ve no idea if he’s still sticking to the forty slaps in the plan or if he’s just going for it.

Is he enjoying this? Is this the sort of thing they get up to on their own?

My back starts to tingle. After each hit, he strokes the scourge’s tips softly across it, and the heat in my skin and the dark of the blindfold and the feel of my weight on my elbows and knees all make me feel bolder, like I’ve had one glass of wine too many. My hips begin to rock in time with the beating of the scourge on my back.

It’s over almost as soon as I start to enjoy it.

Dave stops, comes back to stand in front of me, and speaks my new name, the one I’m supposed to keep secret.

The blindfold is removed. Yolanda pounds on a bongo drum, and Dave, Julie, Gareth, and Paige are all there, inside the circle of tea lights and beach pebbles, swaying to the simple beat, not a scrap of clothing in sight.

Dave holds up his horn and offers it to the gods before passing it round. I drink more than I mean to; sipping from a giant horn is harder than it looks, and I have to gulp it down to stop it ending up all over my chin.

A few more passes of the wine, and I’m pulled from side to side by the rhythm as it speeds up. My skin is still flushed. On the table are small brass statues of the horned god, his erection poking out towards the circle, and Aradia, a tacky moon-shaped mirror stuck to the back of her head like a halo.

They watch me as I dance as if the dance itself could be something to offer.

I don’t question if my dancing is good or bad or if the others think I look stupid. I’m celebrating, I don’t need their approval, I am nature, newly-named, dancing in honour of itself.

I worry about tripping on the candles and burning down Dave’s house.


In the week after my initiation I leave the office.

I walk out with a file full of numbers for clients, customers, people I know have been overcharged or talked into buying some shit they’ll never need.

It isn’t much of a resistance; no walls are being torn down, no fires lit. Nobody will lose their jobs except for me. It’s a small thing, but it’s my thing, bigger than salad, bigger than dance. I am nature, living in honour of itself.


Emma Brooks

I’m 33, living in Wiltshire, in the UK, with my husband and daughter, where we write, cook, and attempt to grow vegetables before the slugs get them. I have a blog at ironwood.blog for short fiction and heathen ramblings, inspired by magic, paganism, and folklore.


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Editorial: The Prison

THEY STAND together, shivering in the damp, dark cell. Well, most stand; some cannot–some of them are too tired, too weak, too frail, too maimed to stand. Those people huddle in corners, shunted away from the anticipation of the standing ones.

There’s little light, just a small window set into one wall, too high to peer out. A little illumination also peeks out from the crack in the door across from the large cell, the door which will open in a little while. No one’s sure when, but they think it will be soon, and those that can stand are pushed together against the bars, jostling each other, jockeying for a position closer to the door.

How long they’ve all been in there, none remember. They all came separately, found themselves imprisoned together against their will. Some have convinced themselves they did something wrong; more are certain they didn’t but the others certainly must have.

The people huddled on the ground in the corner, for instance–people in the cell think there must be something wrong with them. Some are too sick to stand, some are malformed and unable to use their legs. Some are blind, some talk loudly to unseen voices. Some have illnesses and disease, and some complain of pain no one can actually see.

But the others–why are they there? A few of them are quite healthy, have bodies obviously taken care-of, well-fed and groomed. Some seem just naturally hale, endowed with great skin, good looks, perfect bone-structure.  They don’t really look like they belong with the rest of prisoners, but they’re here, too.

Some of them also look really healthy, but different. Their skin color’s different, dark and light browns. A few of their fellow prisoners are certain they must have done something to get themselves in here, something criminal, maybe drugs or theft. Those same prisoners of course couldn’t have done anything wrong to be in here with them, though, right?

The commonalities across skin color aren’t complete, though. Some of those with white skin were obviously really poor before they came to the prison, much poorer than the really healthy looking ones. And the same with the other groups; some had more money, went to college, had ‘real’ jobs, while others never finished school, never could get a job, grew up without shoes.

There are other differences, here in this cell. Some of the people who say they are women have penises, some of the people who say they are men have vaginas. A few arguments happened over this, ending in one of those woman being killed. It reminded people a lot of the arguments that happened when a guy told another guy he was attracted to him–he ended up dead too.

Those dead people? No one knows what their names were. But that’s not so strange, because no one actually uses their own name in the cell. Instead, they go by what’s sewn on their shirt, the little patches they made to identify themselves. No one really remembers who came up with that idea, whether they’re supposed to wear them or they decided to wear them. Some wear them proudly, others not so much. Some tear them off or hide them, at least until others make them sew them back on. Everyone’s got them, some of them have several.

The only person who actually has a name is Bill.

THEY HEAR Bill coming before he’s at the door. They’ve all learned how to listen for his footsteps, to divine from the changing shadows under the outer door that he’s nearby. Everyone gets excited, and nervous. Some get aggressive, push closer to the bars, while others back away.

The handle of the outer door turns slowly, and Bill enters clumsily, weighed down with the heavy white buckets of food he’s hauling. There’s a clamour in the cell, he sets them down, shuts the door behind him, and turns to face the prisoners.

Everyone’s got an opinion about Bill. Some like him–he’s a nice guy to them, doesn’t hurt them. They made up stories about Bill. They think he might have been one of them, a prisoner from way back. Or maybe a jailer who took pity on them and makes sure they don’t starve. Others really don’t like him at all, hate him actually, suspect he might be the reason why they’re all in there in the first place.

Bill is staring at them all from the other side of the bars of the cell. They stare back. No one says anything for a little while, until Bill finally speaks. He doesn’t talk to everyone, though, just a few of them, all of them wearing the same patches. The cell’s so crowded that no one really hears what Bill says to them, but they know what happens next. There’s a sudden push, a moment of force and violence, and only the people to whom Bill was talking are close to the cell door.

Bill opens the door, passes the buckets through, says a few words, and leaves.

What follows is always messy, and long, and very contentious. Bill gave the buckets to a small group of men and women, and it’s their job to pass out the food to everyone else.

Why is it their job? No one’s really sure, but it probably has a lot to do with Bill. Some of the guardians of the food think it’s because they’re special, or not as criminal as the others. Some believe them, some don’t. A few think that it’s just Bill playing favorites. Bill looks a lot like the people who gave the food to, after all, and always gives it to them to distribute. They think he might be related to them.

There’s never quite enough food to go around to begin with, but the way it gets distributed is really unfair. Most of it immediately goes to the people in the group that got the buckets; they take a lot, more than they can eat. They can’t store the food, though–it goes bad quickly, and is already close to rotten.

Why they take extra is pretty cunning, once you think about it. Everyone’s hungry, and hungry people want food, and so they can get other people to do stuff for them in return for food. Often, this goes to people who look like them, but not always, and the stuff they have to do to get to earn the food is rather insidious.

Some women who want food have to perform sexual favors, or clean up the cell and take care of the guardians of the food. Other women have to do the same thing, but not for the original people, but the people they gave it to. The people wearing certain patches often have to work a lot harder for the food than those wearing other patches.

Really, the worst of it all goes to the people in the corner; they can’t really do the same things for food, and are almost always forgotten or even abused by the others, even the ones who have it pretty bad already.

Occasionally, people try to change the way the food is doled out. It never really works the way anyone hoped, though. Whenever people try to make things more fair by pointing out that some people with certain symbols get more than others, there are fights. People with one color of symbol tried to convince the people with another color symbol that they were being unfair; some of them agreed, but the guardians of the food didn’t. They didn’t want to lose their extra food privileges.

Other groups tried, made alliances. Some of these worked for a little while, but never for very long, because the well-fed group was really good at dividing people. Worse, so too were those other groups: some of the people who tried to make things more fair wore the same symbols as the people who got all the food, and no matter how much they showed how they fared no better, people couldn’t get past the symbols.

In fact, what began to matter more than anything were the symbols, those patches on their prison outfits. They’d all been in that cell for so long that it was the only thing they knew, the only way to understand each other, the only way to distribute food.

To fix this, some tried adding extra symbols. That didn’t work. Some tried removing their symbols so they could all be treated equally, but this made people in all the groups really angry. The patch is who you are, they’d argue. The patches matter. And some even say, the patches are all we’ve got.

Cave gateNOTHING EVER changes, really, in the cell. They eat, they shit in buckets, some starve, some die, some get beaten, some get more than they need to eat, some get to enjoy being taken care of by the other prisoners.

Occasionally, some prisoners will get an idea in their heads. Why not kill Bill and leave the prison? This is always shouted down angrily, though. Usually, no one likes the idea because Bill is the one that brings them all food–what would they do without him? How do they even know there will be food outside the prison, or even anything out there?  The people who get the food directly from Bill are the most adamant about not hurting him. They sometimes even tell Bill when another prisoner suggests leaving, or kill the person themselves.

Just as often, though, the arguments don’t even get that far. They devolve into fights about the patches. Sometimes it’s because the person suggesting escape wasn’t wearing the right patch, sometimes it’s because the people suggesting it think the whole matter of the patches is a sham. They don’t trust those people, because they don’t respect the patches. No one’s allowed to leave until we get these patches sorted, many say in return. The patches are who we are.

Meanwhile, Bill comes every day with his buckets of food, talks to the people he always talks to, hauls out the dead bodies, brings some fabric to make more patches, and leaves. His job is pretty easy, when you think about it. He even recently stopped locking the cell door. He doesn’t need to, now that the prisoners are too busy arguing about the patches.


Rhyd Wildermuth

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Rhyd’s a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He writes here and at Paganarch, or you can also read about his sex life on Fur/Sweat/Flesh, or read his near-daily “Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook. He lives nomadically, likes tea, and probably really likes you, too.


Like this piece? You will probably love our print and digital publications, including our journal A Beautiful Resistance and Christopher Scott Thompson’s new book, Pagan Anarchism! Find out more here.

Rhyd is one of the co-editors of A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred.

A Treatise On The Old Powers

By Max Oanad

If you can read this, then we have something in common. We both come from the old time, before the catabolism, an event you might remember in old terms; market values, mechanical malfunctions, magnetic poles, solar storms, tectonic plates. We both remember watching as the cosmos refused those terms, shaking them off like broken shackles, running wild. We remember realizing the time we lived in was no longer ours. We realized that the bindings we had been trained to wield now only held us back, the universe we had been disciplined and trained to wield had broken free, leaving us ill-adapted to the semiologies of survival emerging around us.

We watched our younger siblings, who never expected anything else, take to the feral cosmos with an unfearing proficiency. Using tools we often cannot perceive properly, they created a world in which we are increasingly anathema. All the while we watch dumbfounded, not old enough to have been heroes; Great Ones who shepherded whatever humans they could into this new time, but old enough so that our expectations of the old world haunt our ability to participate in this one. Like fish whose younger siblings crawl out of the water to breath the air and see the sky, we watch, unable to follow, unable to see past the surface, which for us is still the sky.

In the world we were trained for, being an adult meant knowing how to read, how to write, how to do math, how to drive a car, understanding how money worked, how time worked, how laws worked. In this world, such things would be frivolities if they were not so tedious. Not only are they useless, but they can endanger a growing mind which needs to learn other things, like how to use blood to awaken a bike and keep it alive, how to navigate an airship through the storms of lost thoughts, how to listen to the song of the stars and call water from the other three elements, how to see a horizon beast, and gain its trust. This is why we will always be outsiders, because we will never be able to do these things.Treatise pull document

No doubt you have found this document as part of your search for those old powers which had once been our birthright, powers which could once bring all of existence to heel. Understand that I once wished to do the same thing.

When I was little, people would ask me what I wanted to be. I told them I wanted to be an astronaut. Such a fun, ambitious sounding word for what they used to call “a girl”. It seems silly, antiquated and overcomplicated, now that all you need is someone who can sing the Song of Folding Distances to walk in the light of any sun you wish. Still, I can remember staring up at the sky as its meaning changed, as I realized the word astronaut would never make sense again.

I remember looking up words adults used to try to explain what was happening, applying images to names, as if the answer to saving everything lay in understanding what the adults were talking about. Eventually, the adults stopped having words for things. After that, the adults I knew were gone, and instead there was Pama Tu, a different kind of adult, the kind that I had been told not to stare at.

Somehow Pama Tu and the others like them knew how to live in this new time, and they showed us how as best they could. They taught us how to gather water from the air with screens and filter it in barrels of gravel, how to find food and how to make food more plentiful, how to hide while we waited for the last bullet to be fired, knowing that there would be no way to make more.

At some point, I understood what I had been frantically trying to stop had already happened, that the bound and subdued world which had been promised to me once I was old enough to wield it had escaped forever. What was left were so many broken pedestals in the desert, the names of which only I, and others like me, could read because our minds had already paid that terrible cost.

I had been reading for years when they discovered it made the difference between the old minds and the new, that it was almost as bad as coming to sentience inside a room full of right angles. I tried to stop reading, but the damage had been done. No strange unimaginable powers awakened within me, I could not perceive new patterns in nature, no ancient reawakened beings came to teach me their language and ways.

I can remember when many of the younger children started talking about strange animals we couldn’t see which grazed on the ruins of the old world. They would be gone for days and return with stories too strange to believe until the day they took us to gather mint, wild onions, and tubers in places that should have been only ruin and desolation. I can remember my mind straining to see beyond the lines I used to distinguish one thing from another, catching for a brief moment a glimpse of the new patterns drifting over the land and making it blossom, my younger siblings riding them like dancers on the horizon. I remember Pama Tu, standing there in bewilderment looking at me and saying “Who ever thought, back when I rode a subway to a building where I gave my life to nothing, that the world would shape up like this?”

I should have been happy, but I ran to Pama Tu and sobbed, “Why can’t I see them? Why can’t I ride them?” They comforted me as best they could, but they were as powerless as I in the face of this world and its indifferent wonders. I retreated to my books and my typewriter, hoping that words might be my power.

I quickly learned that the stagnancy of words was no longer useful in a place where things attached to other things and became something new altogether. Using the old words kept me from perceiving the chaos, a comfort that locked my mind into one state, one angle, one moment of a thing, and in doing so losing its emerging totality. In the old world, everything had already been categorized and decided in a way that the Great Ones said trapped their potential. When things freed themselves, resulting in the catabolism, when so many new things emerged, the Great Ones wanted to leave things as unsorted as they could, letting the children born to this world create the language they would use to swim in it.

As others like me, I struggled to understand the language they came up with, a language as free from rules and structures as the age which it gave meaning.

I remember rebelliously naming the place we lived the Fractured Planes/Plains, thinking it was clever that both words could be spoken at the same time. Now, the name is a joke. They will come up to me, point out at whatever comprises the landscape, and laughingly say the name that I gave it so long ago. What really gets them going is when I try to explain why it ever made sense in the first place.

Instead of giving up, I retreated even further into the written. I committed my mind to the impossible task of translating every ever-changing thing into the language of the old time. This they warily indulged, and I was often given pens, along with scavenged books and paper, the edges torn off to break the rectangles, thus mitigating the risk of invoking the baleful old powers.

One day Pama Tu, after noticing I’d been feverishly working at my writing for hours, came and sat next to me. We had discussed this kind of thing before, why I buried myself in words, my isolation, why I thought this was my only choice in the face of the unfairness of the world. But tonight something was different. Something about the way they spoke.

“I know that you don’t remember much of the old world. Even though you’ve heard the stories, you can’t know the way that words hunted us, the way that numbers waited for us at night. Our lives spent in rectangles as we worked in numbers and words. When I wasn’t thinking of words and numbers, I was dreaming of some kind of different world, and when the chance for that world came—when the catabolism happened and we were able to see beyond the rectangles that had been drawn around us—I realized that chance had arrived. I won’t pretend that I understand you, but when I see you working at this thing the way you do, I see someone who is waiting for their chance.”

They gripped my hand and looked into my eyes. “When my chance came, I was ready to dance on these new winds, but I saw you and all these other little storm seeds and I knew I had to bring you with me just to see what you would grow into. I promise you that one day your chance will come, but every chance comes with a choice about how you will shape this world. So go back to your words, just don’t forget that there is a world beyond them, a world that is worth protecting.”Treatise pull old world

I had no idea what they were talking about. All I remembered from the old world was that it had been stable, it had been safe, and it had been mine. I had no idea of the ancient and compulsive horrors which had been used to break people like Pama Tu, which could be resummoned into the world. I had a faint recollection of things like ammunition, things like laws, things like debt; things which I could never fully understand. I knew how those words were defined by other words and how they made numbers change, but I didn’t learn how those words and numbers changed the world, changed the heart –until they took Pama Tu.

We had grown up hearing stories about debt, about how the old world ran on its power to compel people to do things against their will. Like everyone, we were told never to expect to get back what we had given. To do such a thing would give us an unnatural power over the other person, that it would cause both people to think in numbers in harmful ways, making other things invisible or irrelevant.

We knew that Pama Tu, like all of the Great Ones, had debt. That was how things were before the catabolism, people had no choice about things, everything was built up so that everyone had to serve the old powers that ran on debt and spewed ammunition. Even the ones like Pama Tu, who could see them and fight against them, were still a part of them; they had debt and fired ammunition, or made it, or made things for the people who did. As Pama Tu liked to say “you either made ammunition, or you cleaned for the people who did”.

In a world where people ride the beasts of the horizon, build airships and blood bikes and hear the songs of stars on water, the stories the Great Ones told about the world before the catabolism were just stories, stories to scare us off to bed or to keep us in line. Behave, or the ways of the old world will return. Even I, who spent my time reading about these things, and had the vaguest memories of them, had trouble imagining it.

And so when we heard the rumors of men riding on strange, loud machines, men who were tracking down and hunting the Great Ones for their debt, we were not nearly as afraid or angry as we should have been. After all, such a thing seemed too distant and strange to be real. We should have known better.

They took Pama Tu when they went into the new grazing grounds. We should have stopped them, but to be fair, they didn’t believe any more than we did that the old powers would come back. They wanted to look at the sunlight on the old brick buildings just after the rain. They said that there was no sight quite like it, they wanted to see it before the beasts got to it, and really, who were we to stop them?

When the rain returned, but Pama Tu didn’t, we worried. A group of listeners went into the grazing grounds to find them, returning with nothing except a story about the bricks and broken concrete, a story of a quiet moment in the sun after the rain, a story of that moment being broken by men in heavy vehicles with chains and whips and dogs, men who barked like dogs, whose barks could still be heard alongside Pama Tu swearing and screaming for help ringing faintly in the glass of the broken windows. That is what they told me.

They sent riders to find out if others had lost Great Ones in this way, to invite them to a gathering so that we could find out what was happening and get our Great Ones back. The First People, whose knowledges went back to before the old world, whose ways of living had survived the destructive terror of the old powers even as they bore the brunt of their wrath, they also came to the gathering because their Elders had been taken.

It did not take us long to find the place where they had brought our Great Ones and the Elders of the First People. We went in the direction where the ash in the sky was coming from, we followed the waters which ran red with something that made the mouth and throat burn. The sky cried out where they were. As we moved forward under ever darkening skies and poisoned rivers, we heard the listeners tell us what had happened when the Great Ones and the Elders and their kidnappers had passed this way: where the ancient machines had stopped, where people had tried to escape and how; where they had been recaptured, and how they had been punished.

When we arrived at the place where they had taken our Great Ones and the Elders, our heads were full of the listeners’ stories. We could not mistake the sight of the place, so unmistakable, and it was almost too much to bear.

You can tell when the powers of the old world are being invoked because to do so involves using geometries that do not naturally occur on this plane. There is a shape that I can draw on a piece of paper, which to me looks like a three dimensional cube; to my younger siblings, it looks like so many surgical slices in the fabric of the universe, threatening to bind their minds.

The depiction of such a shape was terrifying enough for them, but the actual construction was something their minds, and what we people used to call sanity, was not capable of bearing. And so when we saw the place where they had taken our Great Ones and the Elders; this perfectly cubic wall, with so many smaller cubes inside, the relentlessly Euclidean geometries summoning forth the eldritch forces long dispelled from this world, imprisoning the people we loved as it leeched poison into the earth, into the sky and into waters, many of my siblings fell to the earth, gripping it desperately.

What we did not know is that the people who had taken our Great Ones were already expecting us. They sent men out to tell us that they understood why were upset, but that they had an explanation, and if some of us were to tour the place with them, we would come back and be able to explain everything to everyone else.

Of the entire horde assembled, I was the only in-between child. Even if any of my younger siblings were willing to enter that baleful plane, to walk with those who had summoned the old ways, they might not be able to see what needed to be seen, and navigate the laws of that place without becoming bound to them.

My hands shook as I stepped forward to volunteer. I had spent the better part of my life reminiscing and fantasizing about the old world. Yet there was a stark difference between my imaginings and this towering place. It was terrifyingly real, and yet I could still remember entire landscapes of such places stretching to the horizon before the catabolism. This place was nothing compared to the powers as they existed before, the powers which as a child I had not feared. I said this to myself as my knees buckled and my courage faltered in the face of this thing that threatened to devour everything I had known since I had been with Pama Tu.

Pama Tu! They were inside this place, them and others like them, so precious to us. Someone had to go in and see them, to find them, to see if they were alright, and how could they be alright in a place like this? So I stepped forward and said “I will go in with you. I will tell the others what I see.”

I almost expected someone to speak out against me, to say that I couldn’t be trusted, that I was an in-between child and so might be lured into the old ways. They would have been right. Even I didn’t know if the very power of that place, and my mind’s attunement to it, would be too powerful to resist. Instead, the ones who could muster the strength to walk over to me did.

They gathered around me, draping me with protections, some of which I could see and feel, others I could not. Some of them looked me in the eyes as they offered me voice gifts:

“May this one walk into the darkness untouched,”

“May the threads which connect this one to us remain unsevered,”

“May this one see with clarity past all illusions,”

“May this one return to us, whole as they are now.”

Feeling the power of these gifts surrounding me and coursing through me, I turned to the men, and followed them to the entrance.

The gate opened, and I turned to look back one more time at the beauty of the great horde spread across a landscape that I still could not make sense of, but which had become home. Then I followed the men across the threshold, and entered the rectangle.Pull right angles

There was nothing the hordes could give me that would have protected me from the power of that place. The moment I stepped through the gate, the charms around my neck, arms, shoulders, head and waist became so many pointless gaudy baubles, the words they had spoken became pithy sayings in the face of a relentlessly stable Truth. Nothing coursed through me. Nothing connected me to anything. Naked in a world of right angles, I was home.

I had entered reality again. For the first time since the catabolism, everything around me made sense. It took a few seconds for my mind to readjust to the old forms, as if I had been on a boat since the catabolism, and had just stepped now back onto solid ground. For the first time since the catabolism, I could point at something and name it, and be right. I could name everything I was looking at: stairs, bars, locks, crates.

They had brought back things that I had thought were lost forever—how had they found them? I stared at the screens full of numbers and the papers full of numbers as the men explained to me how all of our Great Ones had debt which they had never been able to get rid of. But now these men had found a way to help them get rid of it, because they had also found how to make ammunition. By making ammunition, our Great Ones could get rid of their debt.

Debt pullThere it was. They had awakened the power of debt. They had harnessed it and used it to compel our Great Ones in this place. Suddenly they felt less great to me. The debt hung on them like a stain, something they had tried to hide, and Pama Tu had been good at hiding it. Maybe that was why they didn’t want us to talk about it, that was why they were afraid of it, they knew that if we understood debt, we would see them for what they were. They were people who had taken and not given back. There it was, all in the numbers, in the words. You could measure their worth, the absence of their worth, the vacuum of their worth. A vacuum they could fill in this place and become whole again.

Then they took me to see the ones with debt, to watch them mixing powders, making shells and casings, filling those shells and casings with powder. I listened as the men explained how the Great Ones had lied to us all about the old world; in the old world people had things that until now we would never have, but now we had a chance to have those things again. There they were: the computers, the papers, the wires, the water that had been forced into the walls.

I looked at the ones with debt, the ones that were now workers, they were wretched. Their eyes were sad and empty as they gave the reawakened old powers what was owed. I tried to feel pity, but all I could feel was embarrassment for them. They had let themselves have debt, why should we trust them with anything? I wanted to help them, but I could feel the strength of the old powers and knew that this was just the way things were. I tried to find Pama Tu amongst them, and I may have seen them, or someone that looked like them, but everything looked different in this place.

They took me to another room, showed me more papers full of words and numbers, the ones which promised to release their workers if others agreed to work to fulfill their debts. Amidst the beeping and the clicking and the clanging, the men offered me perfectly rectangular papers which explained how many people the gathered horde needed to give the men and how many years would pass until more people would need to be brought to this place. I took the papers, feeling the power that they conferred. I held them as I was led back out to the threshold, back to the world that would never be home, the world that would never be something I could understand no matter how long I lived there. I crossed back to the horde and tried to remember that they had once been my people.

It was hard to make sense of anything. My memories of the catabolism were that it had been violent and sudden. I had not realized how gradual the transition from the old world to this one had been, until now, as my mind stepped instantly from the old reality to this one. I was unable to latch onto anything that would make everything else make sense. The landscape buckled, someone was screaming to music which made the people change colors. Worlds grew like grain and became stars on the clear water of a sun drenched ocean. Some of them were people, or animals.

I stood on that ocean. I tried to tune out the song, tried to navigate by memory, but everything had already escaped my memories, had become something else. My connection to this time had been severed. Whatever habits of mind I had used to translate this present into something I could understand had been lost when I had entered the rectangle.

I was sure they were all there, staring at me, waiting for me to tell them what I had seen, but how could I? What words would I use to describe the incomprehensible to the incomprehensible? Standing on the threshold between two worlds, neither of which I could fully translate to the other, I realized that this was what I had been waiting for. All that time keeping the words, understanding the old world—everything had been to prepare me for this moment, and yet I was not ready.

All I had was the knowledge that back inside the rectangle lay a place and a time in which I had power. My entire being wanted nothing more than to crawl back inside, to live there, to join the men as we brought the world to heel with the old powers. I would watch my siblings who had once mocked me made hollow and meaningless by toil.

This was what Pama Tu had meant about my choice, but it didn’t really feel like a choice. Her words were the words of an indebted, who would have done anything, said anything, to not pay back what she owed the old powers. I had to find a way to explain to them what needed to happen, how many people they needed to send in, for how long, and how many more people after that. I stared at the sheets of paper, feeling their power, trying to find a way to bring that power into this place, this time beyond the catabolism.

What I had forgotten was that this time and this place, and the people who belonged here, had powers all their own. They did not care whether I could perceive them or believe in them, they surrounded me like a thick inconvenience, making it hard for me to make out the words on the sheets, making it hard for me to turn what I had to say into words that could be understood by the horde.

As I stood there, trying to find the words that would make my siblings bow to the powers of the old world, I flashed on a memory, a summer day when I had taken all of the ice out of the freezer to make a snow fort. I remembered the hand on my shoulder as I stared confused at the small pile of ice slumping in the sunlight, the dawning understanding that our cunning cannot always overcome the passage of time and the changing of the seasons.

There had been rumors about what had caused the catabolism, that this was just a great cosmic season that we had not yet understood, that it had been caused by a scientist, that it had been the only way to save the world from imminent destruction. Whatever the reasons, there had been reasons, and those reasons were greater than me and my need to live in a world that I could understand, where power could be something I could hold over others as had been my destiny in the old world.

I tore the pieces of paper apart. I refused to think or speak about what the men had said inside the walls of that terrible place. Instead, I turned, I pointed at the walls, the only stable thing in my field of vision, and I screamed. I screamed because I wanted that world back, I screamed because it scared me, but I also screamed because this was my moment, and I took it against all the temptation the old powers could offer me. I could not speak against them, but I could point and scream.

Screamed Old PowersThe air came rushing at my back, and then the horde began rushing past me like leaves on the wind, and then they were like the ocean, like the tide.

I watched men behind the walls invoke their munitions.

And then I saw, with terrible, relentless clarity. I saw the skyskippers diving between their airships, my beast-riding siblings, half naked blood-bike warriors, this-plane-that-plane dancers in their shawls and scarves, and others who will not let themselves be written about, bringing everything they had against the grey rectangle.

None of the horde, despite their numbers, had ever encountered ammunition before, let alone had its flesh-destroying power used against them. I had memories of ammunition, of seeing it being used before, but nothing could prepare me for what I witnessed on that day.

Entire bands were annihilated in single explosions, the bodies of people who were once loved and touched and who had destinies transformed in a flash into something too terrible to look upon. Airships fell from the sky, skyskippers tore apart screaming.

There are many things that I saw that day that I wish I could forget, but that day is a part of me. For all of the horrible things that happened, I am glad, because I witnessed the old powers at their most baleful, I watched them unleash their brutality against my siblings threatening time and future itself, and I watched that brutality fail in the face of the new wonders.

We did not leave any of the men who had summoned the old powers alive. Their blood and skulls were given to the blood-bike riders, who bound their souls to power their bikes. The papers full of numbers were burned, ashes scattered to the winds, the computers broken down and reconfigured by circuitwrights. The airships broke their walls into piles of rubble, and my siblings let their herds trample and graze the rubble until there were no stones. When we left that place nothing remained of the men or their work, except for the memorials to our dead, and the sprouting orchard which the herd had left in their wake.

You Are pullDoubtless there are other writings and numbers which keep the debts of our Great Ones, and other writings and figures which tell how more such places could be built. I am sure that there are people out there who want to find these writings to bring back the old ways. Yet understanding such a thing would require someone to be able to read. This is why I have written this story down, because I wanted you to find it first.

If you can read this, then you are the enemy. You cannot see or know the world that that has come, and so you might be tempted to bring back the ways of the old world. Understand that we will give our last dying breath to stop you. We will give no warning, there will be no hesitating or negotiating, we will destroy you as we destroyed the others. This is your warning. The old powers cannot protect you.

This story also appears in A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are


Max Oanad

is a practicing pagan, teacher, writer and over-thinker living in Portland, Oregon, where he cultivates relationships with Celtic deities, local land spirits, and human beings.

 

Book Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge 2016 and the Apocalypse Now Reading Challenge 2016.

Method of the world’s destruction: ecological devastation, corporate greed, and a mad scientist’s bioengineered supervirus.

Oryx and Crake is the second Margaret Atwood book I have read. I am finding that I have mixed feelings about her. I think she’s a brilliant writer. Her prose is magical and her sense of character amazing. I can’t help but feel a little pride in her as a Canadian. But the critics always wax rhetoric about how wonderfully original she is. She’s not, at least not that I’ve seen yet. Obviously these people just don’t read science fiction.

Atwood’s basic scenario here is a weird mating of The Time Machine, The Stand, and Frankenstein. Professional reviewers claim that Atwood has written “an innovative apocalyptic scenario in a world that is at once changed and all-too familiar because corporations have taken us on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.” It sells books because of our secret fears of genetic engineering. However, it’s not true, and if that’s what these people think then they weren’t paying attention. Also, one professional reviewer who was quoted on the cover of the edition I read said it was “uproariously funny.” I don’t think it was funny at all, and I think that if this guy thought it was funny he’s probably one of the corporate drones that Atwood was critiquing in the book. Someone in a review also said that it was confusing because she jumps back and forth between different moments in time and changes tenses when she does; and this same reviewer had the audacity to criticize Atwood’s grammar! Her grammar was the professional quality one might expect of such a critically acclaimed writer, and the story started in media res and was told primarily in flashbacks, and if that was confusing, I think you should stick with teen fiction.

What is actually great about this book is the fact that it is a brilliantly-written Greek tragedy that ultimately results in the likely extinction of the human race; along with quite a lot of the animals that we are familiar with. There’s a lot of “for want of a nail” stuff going on here. At several points disaster could have been averted, but it isn’t because of human flaws and human mistakes, and so all hell literally breaks loose. The epicenter of many of those flaws and mistakes is the protagonist, once called Jimmy but now known as Snowman, who found himself uniquely in a position by which he could have saved the world but, like Hamlet, fails to do so because of ignorance, negligence, and his tragic flaw, which is a desperate desire to be loved or even liked by someone, largely stemming from childhood neglect, emotionally distant parents, and a very lonely childhood. I love it because so many people in real life fail to do the right thing because of that flaw, or they overlook things that probably should have triggered alarm bells.

Others have found Snowman to be really unlikable as a result of those tragic flaws, but I didn’t. I found I had a lot of sympathy for him, and I could understand why he did a lot of what he did. Jimmy’s mother reminded me of my own, who was bipolar, undiagnosed and untreated for the length of my childhood. You learn that she and Jimmy’s father were at odds over some morality issue associated with the work that Jimmy’s father did for the Corporation they both used to work for. And in this future vision, Corporations own Compounds and keep their people entirely separated from the rest of the world, which they call the “pleeblands” (which of course was actually “plebelands” at one time, one would guess), and your worth, status and wealth depend entirely on your usefulness to the Corporation. Scientists and mathematicians are valued; artists and writers are considered a waste of oxygen; unless they write advertising for the Corporation, of course. Protesting the Corporations is outlawed and demonstrations are punishable by death. In this, Atwood borrows extensively from the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction (or, if you believe her and the critics, she reinvents the wheel).

You learn also, mostly as side stories in Jimmy’s personal observations of what goes on around him growing up, that the world is in a desperate state of ecological disaster due to climate change, there are too many people and too little resources, and the work that the genetic engineering companies do is actually important, or at least some of it is, in assuring the human race’s survival; except that they create primarily what makes the CEOs of the Corporations money, rather than what is good for humanity, due to selfishness and an innate sense of their own superiority over the pleebs (the rest of the planet). In this we also see some shades of the overpopulation horrors of the 1970s, such as in Soylent Green (or Make Room! Make Room!, as the book it was based on was called.)

Quickly you learn that Snowman is looking after an artificially-created sentient race that bears some resemblance to humans, and who comes from humans, but who aren’t quite human. They’ll remind science fiction aficionados of H.G. Wells‘ Eloi. They were created by someone named Crake, who is a very important character in the novel, being the mad scientist in question, and who was once a friend of Snowman’s. Also, there was someone named Oryx in his past, a woman he quite clearly loved, who for some reason was believed by the Crakers to be the creatrix of the animals. But since they are guileless, innocent, and somewhat simple like the Eloi, their beliefs seem almost mythological or biblical. You also learn that Crake was somehow responsible for whatever killed humanity, which was clearly a plague, and if Atwood tried to tell me she never read either The Stand or I Am Legend I would call her a liar, because parts of the book were full of eerie scenes of human life stopped dead, just like Stephen King and Richard Matheson wrote about so well. The title of the book is meant to represent both sides of human nature and not just the characters.

Sounds like spoilers? Nope, not a bit, because you find out most of this stuff in the first chapter. The story is more about how it all unfolds than what happened. And in this, Atwood displays a masterful understanding of the dark side of human nature and how the light side of it can be manipulated and twisted to dark purposes. It’s an amazing story and I was reading it with page-turning alacrity because it was gripping and fascinating. Only at the very end does everything become clear.

There are many questions that should concern the modern mind. Have we already gone so far with climate change that it will inevitably destroy the human race? How far is too far to go with genetic engineering? What are we going to do when there are so many of us that we overwhelm the planet’s resources to care for us, which might already have happened? Are we doomed to destroy ourselves out of greed, neglect, indifference?

And yet there are also subtler questions of human morality and the nature of religion. The Buddha’s dilemma comes up; the Buddha abandoned his wife and child to pursue enlightenment. Did he do the right thing? Buddhism is founded on the idea that attachment is sin, but if anyone did this in modern society we would call them a nutbar or a jerk, and certainly they don’t have normal human empathy and are probably something of a sociopath. There’s a Frankenstein-like element too; the Biblical references in the story of the Crakers is quite clear. Did God mean to create us? If so, was S/He aware of the full consequences of that? Were we created imperfectly and almost by accident, to be lesser, or greater, beings than our creator(s)? Was the Creation a total accident, or some madman’s weird plan?

And there’s a subtle human dilemma too, and that is the damage created by neglecting a child and denying them real love. Snowman might have been able to recognize that Crake was a sociopath if he’d had anything resembling normal parental empathy, but he had no basis of comparison. Is Atwood subtly critiquing the fact that since our society demands that both parents work, our children are being raised by babysitters and the internet? I think perhaps she is.

I really wish I could recommend this novel to everyone, because it does what really good science fiction is supposed to do, which is to make you question the world and society we live in, in a setting that is weird enough to make us feel a little safer than confronting it directly in the present, real world. But not too safe, because some of this sounds a little far-fetched; but not enough of it. Not enough of it by far.

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Book Review: The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There have been quite a lot of reviews of this book on Goodreads, so I think I’ll make mine brief.

This was a brilliantly written book in which three novellas — one a gothic horror novella about cloning, another a dreamscape fantasy novella of an alien world, the third being an almost Kafkaesque story of totalitarian imprisonment and suffering — interconnect. This is pure literary science fiction, in which the plot is not the point, but the theme, and that theme is Colonialism, racism, and institutionalized Colonialism and racism, and the role of identity and memory.

The protagonist of the overarching story is an anthropologist named John V. Marsch, though he never once is the viewpoint character, except by proxy in the final story through scattered and deliberately disordered journal entries. He might be descended from the aboriginal race (or races) of the twin worlds of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix. It is generally accepted that there was at least one, and possibly more than one, aboriginal race of shapechangers who took on human forms when the human colonists came; and it is generally accepted that the humans wiped them out. However, Veil’s Hypothesis, which was invented by one of the incidental characters you encounter, suggests that the indigenous race forgot they were ever of another race, so they have intermingled among humans and the only real difference is that they have bright green eyes and they can’t use tools well. This is further complicated by a belief of the aboriginal peoples in a race called the Shadow People, who once used tools but don’t anymore, and who can manipulate thoughts and dreams. And they may once have been humans in an ancient first wave of colonization that has been long forgotten.

You will find none of this explained in the story, by the way. These details are gleaned from reading between the lines in the process of the existing stories to form all the pieces of the puzzle.

What it has to say about identity, memory and Colonialism is brilliant and thought-provoking. How memory is unreliable. How Colonial arrogance leads to a sociopathic lack of empathy and the cheapening of human life. How institutionalized racism creates unwarranted and irrational distrust in people. How it leads to the persecution of a class of people which is cloaked in “righteousness.” How identity depends a great deal on not only genetics and experience, but on one’s personal narrative. How truth depends greatly upon one’s point of view.

The writing is also brilliant. The language is amazing, and the clever, interweaving plot elements are mind-boggling. I will probably have to read it again just to pick up on all the subtle nuances I missed the first time around.

So why did I only give it a three rating? Well, to be blunt about it, I was not intending to read poetry; I was reading a novel. I found that Wolfe was so concerned with his theme and the unfolding puzzle that I could get invested in none of the characters and none of the plots, with the exception of the second story, which had the character acting in such a bewildering way at the end of it that I’m still not sure I know what really happened. In general the novel left me with a feeling of confusion and dissatisfaction. So, it was great writing, yes. But did I really enjoy it? I feel a little bit like the morning after from the time when I discovered alcohol-soaked parties in the SCA in my youth. I’m *told* I had a good time. My face hurts from smiling and my throat is hoarse from yelling and laughing. But if that’s true, why does my head hurt and why is there such a bad taste in my mouth?

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Book Review: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Lord of LightLord of Light by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought this book was outstanding. It was deep, thoughtful, and marvelously subversive, and like all good science fiction, it makes you think.

A bunch of people in a far future on a distant planet with some superpowers establish a society that they model consciously after Vedic civilization (it never says why or how, but there is an assumption that most of the people are Indian). For some reason (again never fully explained) the people do not start out with the levels of technology of their ancestors; somehow it has been lost. They discover the people with the superpowers and start to treat them like gods. The “gods” divide into camps. Some take the fascist view that since they can do things that others can’t, they *are* gods and worship is their due. Others (the minority) take the position that they need to help people to rediscover the technology they lost, and if they *must* be seen as gods, they will use the press to further that end and then “resign” their positions and disappear into myth. Sam, our protagonist, consciously uses the legends of the Buddha to that end.

Some have commented that they don’t understand this novel, or that it reads more like fantasy. It’s intended to be read that way, and to someone with even passing familiarity with Vedic mythology it’s brilliant. The characters who assume the roles of “gods” speak to each other and their “worshipers” with a weird mishmash of pseudo-archaic-speak that can’t possibly be anything but affected, which is downright funny. Much of their “miracles” are also due to extremely advanced technology. The technology used to justify their Ascension is extremely loosely described by design and might just as well be magic for the reader’s purposes.

The author explores many deep themes of religion. He asks us to consider the nature of what a “god” actually is. Gods get to be gods in our myths because they are immortal and they can do amazing stuff that the rest of us can’t. So at what point does that become true? I have read numerous dissertations that theorize that superheroes are modern stand-ins for Pagan deities (Superman = Sun God, Wonder Woman = Moon Goddess, Batman = God of Vengeance/Justice, etc.) If they can do things that we can’t, and they’re effectively immortal, aren’t they *actually* gods?

If not, then how do we justify our gods being gods in the first place? Perhaps the gods we are familiar with were just people who can do things that we can’t. If it’s because they’re more “enlightened” than we are, how do we know that? Maybe they’re con artists, like Sam, who says all the right things but doesn’t believe them himself, until an enlightened “follower” shows him that the words of the Buddha that he’s aping do actually have truth. And furthermore, many gods in mythology behave just like us, only they do more damage when they do stupid or mean things because of their powers. (And that’s every god ever, from Thor to Zeus to Jesus to Jehovah himself).

Is religion a good thing or a bad thing? Is it a necessary part of human development? Is it something that we “transition out of” when we grow up as a species, or is it something that we always need? Which gods are the “real” gods anyway?

Some have wondered if this book might be disrespectful to Vedic beliefs. I can see that some might find it so, and considering that when the book was written no one would have thought twice about it because it wasn’t Christianity, Judaism or Islam, that’s progress. But I don’t personally find it so. For the record (full disclosure) I am a rather devoted Wiccan Priestess who has written books and keeps a blog on the topic, and I’m sympathetic to the Vedic deities because a) Hinduism and Paganism are very similar in many ways, b) some modern Pagans worship Vedic deities, and c) many of us dabble with Buddhism as well because it also has a lot in common with contemporary Paganism. So understand that I take these deities very seriously and have the highest respect for Them. But this is no way invalidates the issues being raised by the author, who is challenging and exploring the nature and necessity of religion as a whole. Is religion something that holds us back as a species, or does it inspire us to greatness? Is faith the only thing that keeps the darkness within human nature in check, or is that only our mortality? What kind of horrors would we get up to if we weren’t limited by human frailties?

At the time Lord of Light was written, science fiction extolling the virtues of human ascension through technology were common. Zelazny, with a combination of cynicism, humour, respect and love, suggests that no matter how advanced our toys and powers become, we’ll still just be people and we’ll still act like it, for good and for ill.

I found myself contemplating those figures who were said to be divine incarnations throughout history, such as the Buddha, or Jesus, or Zoroaster or Pythagoras, and I find myself wondering if they, as Sam does in this novel, originally established their following as a protest *against* the gods and those who claimed to speak for them. The Buddha was protesting the Vedic caste system; Jesus was protesting the Pharisees. Did they intend to become objects of worship, or was that a corruption of their original message?

More than the religious issue, however, Lord of Light can be read as a powerful anti-capitalist message. What starts the conflict between Sam, the handful who join him, and the rest of the “gods,” is that a new merchant class takes over the Wheel of Karma (the technology that allows people to transfer to new bodies when they die) on behalf of the “gods,” who direct them to only permit people to reincarnate if they’re doing the things that the “gods” want them to do, which they get to make up arbitrarily. They encourage the populace to labour for them with lesser technologies than they might receive, and destroy their works whenever their civilization discovers a higher level of technology than the “gods” wish them to have (such as the printing press) by promising that those who are pleasing to the “gods” might reincarnate into better positions when they die. But the “gods” and the Lords of Karma make up the rules to suit themselves and secure their own “divine positions,” so who really gets to advance? Free thinkers are also punished by being reincarnated as apes or dogs, for example. In this I see the message we are told by the 1%; we are all just temporarily embarrassed millionaires. But who really gets to advance, and by what rules other than toeing the party line?

Not only does this story contain all of that, but the allegory is a lot like “American Gods” or “Gods Behaving Badly”, and it’s a funny and sympathetic look at the human condition. Highly recommended!

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The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two days and one hundred years ago, women first achieved the right to vote in Canada. This was in the Manitoba provincial election; the federal government followed two years later. So it is perhaps fitting that the day before is the day I finally chose to start reading “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’ve been a feminist and a science fiction fan since childhood, so many people have recommended this book to me over the years. The year it was published, 1986, I was eleven. I think someone first recommended it to me in 1991, when I was protesting the Gulf War. I always meant to read it. It was “on my list,” especially as a Canadian. Margaret Atwood is considered to be one of the most significant Canadian writers and “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a feminist icon.

I was not inspired to read it because of the centennial of women’s suffrage in Canada. I was finally inspired to read it because I am doing some science fiction related reading challenges; one to read new-to-me female authors, and the other to read LGBTQ related speculative fiction. “The Handmaid’s Tale” was both on a list of award-winning speculative fiction by female authors, and a list of award-winning LGBTQ speculative fiction. You can find those lists at https://www.worldswithoutend.com/list… and https://www.worldswithoutend.com/list… respectively. Because I’m intending to read a lot of books this year, it was convenient for me that this book, which I meant to read someday anyway, was on both lists.

Let’s just establish, right off the bat, that I think this is an absolutely stunning book. I am glad I waited so long, because I don’t think I would have been mature enough to understand a lot of it until this point in my life. And I have mixed feelings about it. It’s frustrating and disturbing. Atwood has made some statements about it that make me angry. Some of the things critics have said about it make me want to beat my head against a wall. It can be difficult to follow if you’re not used to the style, because it is written in a flow-of-consciousness perspective that changes back and forth between present and past tense. Some have criticized her for this but I’m sure it was deliberate. The epilogue of the book, a fictional history lecture, says that the story was found recorded over some secular music cassette tapes from the 1980s, usually after a few minutes of music have played. So when you read it, picture a woman about forty, maybe forty-five, telling a story in a tired voice that is sometimes deliberately neutral, sometimes choking back tears and other times choking back rage. Listen to her talk; don’t read it expecting standard writing conventions. Perhaps, if you’ve ever heard a woman telling her tale in an interview for the Shoah project, picture her voice sounding like that.

So, yes. Mixed feelings. On the other hand, I chewed through this book in two and a half very busy days, abandoning all my other reading projects after leafing through the first ten pages. I was riveted to the edge of my seat. Would the protagonist live? Would she die? The whole novel was like holding my breath, waiting for what comes next. If Atwood intended us to feel this way — waiting in desperate anxiety — because that was what the protagonist’s life was like, then she succeeded admirably. The suspense was downright torturous. Also, the message . . . the message . . . How subversive. How frightening. What a fantastic wake-up call in so many different ways, and not just in how it pertains to women.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” takes place in an alternate history in which declining birth rates in the mid-eighties, attributed to toxic chemicals, pollution, radiation and other ecological disasters, along with AIDS and a virulent strain of syphilis that caused infertility in most men exposed to it, fell to frightening levels. Women’s independence, the use of birth control, lesbianism and homosexuality, were seen as exacerbating this (and perhaps they did). People reacted with fear, as they often do in such situations, and a religious Christian fundamentalist cult rose to power, toppled the United States government, shot the President and most of the Congress, and formed the Republic of Gilead. They used a symbol and a militant ideology never seen before. And suddenly the lives of women drastically changed.

Because all money had become electronic and there was no paper money, they started by freezing the bank accounts of anyone with an F attached to it rather than an M, and they forced people to fire all women from their jobs. Women were denied the right to own property. Men and women who were in second marriages or extramarital relationships, or anyone who was gay or lesbian, were declared unpersons. Their children were taken from them because they were considered to be “unfit parents,” and women so classified with viable ovaries were forced through reeducation camps, with cattle prod wielding “Aunts,” to become Handmaidens; that is, broodmares to the rich and powerful. Women of the right status and religious background were assigned in arranged marriages as Wives to significant and powerful men; women who were no longer fertile but weren’t “undesirable” were assigned to be “Marthas” (maids,) “incorrigible” women were taken out of official existence to become “Jezebels” (sex slaves,) and those who were too old to do anything else or beyond “reformation” (accomplished through a combination of brainwashing and torture) were sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste and radiation until they died. All of them were assigned different modes of dress to signify their role. Jezebels never went out in public and never left the brothels they’d been assigned to; Handmaids could only go out in pairs so that they could spy on each other and only to do specifically assigned tasks, wearing a red habit with winged wimples described as “blinders” so they couldn’t see out of the sides. All “vanities” such as immodest dress and makeup were banished and women were forbidden even the right to read. Conversely, men were denied the right to marry until they had proven themselves to the people in power, and were forbidden sex or even masturbation until that time also.

Lots to be discussed here. First of all, critics of the novel have tisked at how unlikely they feel this is to happen in the glorious United States of America. Except that I’ve seen many disturbing echoes of Atwood’s predictions in our society right now. How so many things are blamed on Islamic terrorism. How gradually freedoms and rights and privacy have been eroded in the name of “safety” and “security.” How we are gradually being railroaded into giving up paper money. The anti-abortionists, the censors in Britain. The backlash against LGBTQ rights; the “bathroom” laws. The systematic discrediting of feminism and of Planned Parenthood. Encouraging intolerance as a religious “right.” I won’t lie; you guys to the South of us are beginning to scare the shit out of me.

Some critics have said that they just don’t see all of this happening this quickly. But it has, and it is happening right now. The state of women in the Middle East, two generations ago, was comparable to that of women anywhere else in the world at that time. When the Soviet Union broke up much of Eastern Europe erupted into a seething hotbed of “ethnic cleansing.” In a mere five years in the late 1930s Germany transformed from a modern 20th century country to a totalitarian regime which is still causing shockwaves in our world culture. And in the Islamic State, right now, women are being given to jihadis as brides or sex slaves. I think of American “purity balls” and I shudder.

The story is set in what used to be Boston, Massachusetts, and the choice was made to emphasize the United States’ history of Puritanism. The corporate media and the religious right have been building up our political climate for something like this since at least 1991. I am not a doomsayer; I don’t believe in end-of-the-world prophecies; but I am a student of history and if you don’t recognize the parallels and it doesn’t concern you, you’re being willfully blind.

In order for such a regime to exist, you must create a hierarchy of haves and have nots, and so Atwood establishes that hierarchy in vivid detail. The Unwomen of the Colonies were the bottom of the food chain, deprived even of a right to life and health. The Jezebels at least had the privilege of that; though of course they were deprived of the right to liberty and personhood and were required to service the men who came to them. The Handmaidens came next, who at least could live and go out in public, though of course they, too, were required to do what was commanded of them, perform sexually for men, and had severe restrictions on their behaviour, their speech, and even were denied the right to a name; being called “Of-” plus the first name of the Commander they belonged to. The Handmaiden of the tale was called “Offred”; we never learn her real name. The Marthas were not required to spread their legs on command but were menial servants. The Wives had to obey their husbands but otherwise were the mistresses of the household. Aunts held an in-between place in which they are given extra privileges; what those were weren’t defined, but they earned their extra privileges by disciplining the Handmaidens, as some Jewish people earned extra privileges in the death camps by disciplining their fellow Jews. And above all of them, the young men, who at least had the right to read and go where they wished; then the Guardians, who were the foot soldiers; then the Commanders who were effectively above the law; until they weren’t.

One cannot help but consider the issues of intersectionality of our own time. Our corporate masters give lip service to religious fundamentalism to whitewash their activities and control the populace through “moral instruction.” They tell women not to complain about the inequalities they are handed, because they could be transgendered. They tell white people in poverty not to complain because they could be black and thus subject to being shot in the street, even for being a twelve-year-old with a toy gun in an open carry state. That’s how they control us. And we really need to stop allowing it, because the elite, whoever they are, will keep pushing until we force them not to. This, ultimately, is the message behind “The Handmaid’s Tale”; the sad reminder that we must band together, and view an assault on the rights of any one of us as an assault on the right of all of us. Otherwise, who will be there to help when they come for you?

Atwood sometimes receives anti-feminist criticism because her male characters are two-dimensional (true) and because even Offred’s former husband Luke was suspect. When women were denied the right to own property, hold jobs and have money, he put his arms around her and said, “You know I’ll always take care of you.”

Perhaps he didn’t react the way we thought he should have. We might think that Luke should have immediately said, “Okay, let’s run for the border.” But lots of Jews stayed in Germany because they just couldn’t believe that what was happening was actually happening. No one would go that far . . . would they?

I also believe that Atwood’s purpose in having Luke react in this way was to point out how complicated gender dynamics are. Let’s be frank; in many ways, modern feminism is a brand new thing. For centuries men have owned all the property (actually, I believe property rights created the patriarchy) and all of their identity has been wrapped up in their net worth and how well they can take care of their families. Feminism, especially social feminism, challenges that. It causes us to question what it is that makes one a man. Even now, women will rarely marry a man who makes less money than she does, and if she chooses to, people keep telling her to ditch the bum. If we had true gender equality, what difference would it make?

I have said little about the writing in the wake of the politics and the message. On one hand, I must compliment Atwood on her brilliant, liquid prose. Every word chosen is there for a reason; every symbol means something (for instance, the Handmaidens wear red, which of course hearkens back to red light districts, the Scarlet Letter, and also menstrual blood; red in Western culture is the colour of sexuality and fertility, as well as of anger, passion, and blood). It’s truly a pleasure to read such a good writer.

On the other hand . . .

You may be a bit surprised, after my glowing explanation of the message and the politics, when I say that really, Atwood’s story isn’t all that original. Dystopian societies meant to highlight challenging modern political issues are nothing new in science fiction. Nothing new at all. “1984” should come immediately to mind. Remember, Big Brother is always watching (and keylogging your internet usage).

Which is why it makes me gnash my teeth in fury that Atwood had the audacity to claim that this story wasn’t science fiction. She actually said (in an interview included in the back of the edition I read) that “Science fiction is filled with Martians and space travel to other planets, and things like that.” But she was nominated for a Nebula and she won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I shake my head in dismay. I’m sure Ms. Atwood knows perfectly well that what she’s talking about is only one sub-genre of science fiction, known as “space opera.” Let’s face it, the real reason she said that is that she was afraid that they would take away her magical “literary writer” card if she lowered herself to writing mere “genre fiction.” And why isn’t “literary” considered a genre? Snobbery and nonsense. Ursula K. LeGuin, easily her equal in this craft, responded to that “but isn’t this science fiction?” question with bold statements that she could see no reason why genre fiction should be considered less “literary.”

Science fiction fans get so tired of this. I am reminded of how everyone, including James Cameron, was soooo convinced that “Avatar” was so original, when basically he wrote “Dances With Wolves” with special effects and I’ve seen even his variation of it as least twice in popular sci-fi novels written in the 90s or earlier. I suppose if you’ve never read science fiction this might look original, but literary critics have a lot of gall claiming that it is if they sneer at my beloved “genre fiction.”

However, Brian Aldiss argued in his book “Billion Year Spree” that reading science fiction is generally a lot different from reading other forms of fiction. When someone is described as looking up at the green sun, we assume the sun is green, not that this is a metaphor for something else, and that it will be explained later. One thing that is clear is that Atwood is not writing to science fiction audiences. And that might be a good thing. I referred it to my mother, who has never understood my love of science fiction, in the hopes that it will help to bridge the gap.

And thus I, as many others have, found the epilogue annoying at best, and wish that Atwood had simply let the book end when it did. First of all, it didn’t wrap up any of the things that were left up in the air. Some things we will never know for sure. Second, I don’t feel it added anything at all that I didn’t already know. I did not feel that the nature of the Gilead Regime or who, exactly, some of the characters were required any further explanation than was already given. Fictional lectures to give perspective to science fiction stories have been tropes since Robert Lewis Stevenson first delved there in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

That epilogue has also annoyed feminist critics. But maybe that was the point. The (male) professor giving the lecture on “The Handmaid’s Tale” pooh-pooh’s Offred’s style and level of education. He remarks that it’s clear that Offred was an educated woman (“as educated as anyone can be in 20th century America”,) which the class chuckles at, and then he goes on to say that since she was so educated, how much more valuable this document would have been if there had been some information about the nature and structure of the powers-that-be in Gilead, if she had included dates, wars, important commanders, that kind of thing.

I say that maybe this was the point, however, because in the first place, it points out how quick we are to sneer at our ancestors, and how much more advanced we always believe ourselves to be, even when we’re not; and perhaps she was also critiquing how our white privilege and militant Anglo culture is always so much concerned with who is important rather than the suffering and experience of ordinary people. Is this a commentary on the way we teach academic history?

Despite my quibbles and its flaws, however, this suspenseful, subversive, emotional and beautifully-written novel is perhaps more relevant in our time than ever before. Everyone should read it at least once, and sit with the things that it forces us to think about. I am inspired once again to band together, defend the rights of the underdog, and seek out the company of other women.

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