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CRITICAL MASS: Book Critiques by Russell A. Potter

2050: Gods of Little Earth
by Joseph Zornado
Speculative Fiction Press

See Russell Potter's Index Page


The history of fictions which imagine the end of this world, and the beginning of another, is a long and variegated one. In some, the Earth goes out with a bang, in others with a whimper ? but nearly all of the time, some small fragment of humanity survives somehow. After all, the story of a cold and empty globe without a single human inhabitant would be as bleak and empty as the world itself. Sometimes, these fictions have focused on the political perils which might inexorably drag humanity backward into a global totalitarian state; among these one may count 1984 and Brave New World. At other times, and ecological disaster ? climate change, or the death of all plant life, forms the final blow, a scenario popular with 1970?s-era science-fiction films such as Soylent Green or Silent Running.

In still others, a nuclear war, with clouds of deadly radiation and a subsequent "Nuclear Winter," are the fin-du-jour; who can forget the final scenes of On The Beach, in which the usually cheery Fred Astaire is reduced to committing suicide in his garage?

Joseph Zornado?s novel 2050: Gods of Little Earth, may in fact be the very first novel to blend almost all of these elements into a single unified scenario, one which is as stark as it is vividly believable. Announced as the first volume of a trilogy, it paints a mythic landscape as vast as that of Earthsea or Middle Earth ? to the latter of which, indeed, its "Little Earth" bears a number of resemblances besides the sound of the name. Its reluctant hero may remind some of Bilbo, though instead of a wise wizard he has only the counsel of a young girl whose sanity and motives are questionable; his journey, like Bilbo?s, involves the crossing of a mountain pass and a trail through a vast and unusually dense forest. Yet the ?gods? we meet here are of quite a different sort; unlike Tolkien?s warring avatars of good and evil, these gods are asymmetrical and ambiguous, with uncertain powers, motives, and histories. This first volume has the task of introducing us to them, by means of a quest of sorts involving its distinctly unheroic protagonist, Vilb Solenthay.

The most vividly-drawn sections of this book, for this reader, are the introductory chapters where we first meet Vilb, a middle-aged hermit who lives on the edge of an utterly desiccated desert, one where the human thirst for water ? and for blood ? mingle and compete. Such water as can be found is carried about in ?skins? ? human skins ? and, given the dearth of crops or other animal food, cannibalism has become common practice.

Such water as can be found is carried about in ?skins? ? human skins ? and, given the dearth of crops or other animal food, cannibalism has become common practice.

As a gen, a sort of holy man, Vilb has sworn not to indulge ? and yet by so doing, as he knows, he has lowered his own odds of survival. We learn, through his internal monologues, of some of the ?gods? whom he seems to serve ? in particular, oaths are sworn to ?Simon,? and the aid of ?The Martha? is earnestly invoked. Still other fragments of Vilb?s world arrive in its language; a garment known as the srapi is universally worn; there are Mesons who seem to be a caste of priests, and most crucially, the reath hutch, a small folded satchel of tools shaped like tiny bones, which Vilb has inherited without the knowledge of their use. The sense of a long mythological epoch preceding the one Vilb finds himself in is reinforced by chapter-headers which quote The Book of M, a treatise which we gather recounts the story of Simon, said to be the greatest of the gods, one whose body, like that of Osiris, seems to have been scattered over the land ? only without an Isis to gather it up.

At the commencement of the story, Vilb is about to set forth on a pilgrimage, one that he has long postponed. Drawn by the scent of human flesh to his own temptation in the wilderness, instead of a corpse, he finds a young girl, Prav, who has been cast out of her community and left to die. Although she has been badly beaten and her tongue cut out, Prav heals quickly ? too quickly! ? under Vilb?s care, even re-growing the lost tongue. She is as keen on the pilgrimage as Vilb, but somehow we sense that she is no simple pilgrim, nor no young girl either; "I am the destruction of M," she cries, and without quite knowing what this means, we believe her.

SaTheir long-delayed pilgrimage, indeed, is reminiscent of another of Tolkien?s works, "Leaf by Niggle". Like Niggle, Vilb carries on with all kinds of actions and rituals with only the dimmest notion of what he?s doing, or what their ultimate purpose may be; he, too, seems to be haunted by a sense of guilt for something he can scarcely remember doing. Against his character, Prav is a breath of fresh air, laughing and teasing and prodding Vilb into breaking the bonds of his old habits and fears.

Along the way, we learn a few more things about "Little Earth"; it is surrounded by a "Girdling Sea," and divided into tribal domains, many of them perilous. The way of the Pilgrims leads them across the Spire Massif, out of the lands of the Ubernaki (Vilb?s tribe) and into an area prowled by the cannibalistic AkiGazi.

Along the way, they join another, larger group of pilgrims, led by a "Quarter-Meson" named Oneira (those who know their Greek will recognize that this means ?Dream?). There is strong mutual suspicion, and it's only after considerable dissent, and the departure of one group of pilgrims, that Vilb, Prav, Oneira and a few others finally ascend the ancient stair past the twin peaks of the Spire Massif.

So far the story is gripping, and Zornado does a remarkable job of plunging us headfirst into a verichly-imagined world. Of course, we recognize it as Antarctica ? but clearly something has happened; there is neither water nor ice, and snow exists only in Vilb?s half-remembered dream- visions.

This land, we slowly realize, is what it is because of something that humans did a thousand years earlier, in the fateful year of 2050.

An encounter with a roadblock of stones erected by the AkiGazi leads Vilb, with Prav?s guidance, to use the "Power of M" to shatter the boulders; somehow the tiny bone-like instruments inside the reath hutch hold the key. It?s here that we see the first hints that, though what happens seems inexplicable to Vilb, Prav and those who truly understand the gods know that this force is something more, something from our time. This land, we slowly realize, is what it is because of something that humans did a thousand years earlier, in the fateful year of 2050.

But what? This unexpected blend of science and mythology piques the reader?s interest, but may leave some readers a bit confused: what kind of world is this? What rules apply?

Matters get trickier when the pilgrims reach a green area, and enter an unexpectedly massive and dense forest. The presence of so much vegetation in an otherwise arid land alters our sense of landscape, and the plot thickens further when a seemingly mythological creature, an immense demigod of a figure whose skin and form seem as though made of marble, greets them and leads them on deeper into the forest.

Here, as Prav foretells, we meet the first of our gods, Quadros Prang. Prang seems to have had something to do with the decay of life in Little Earth, and may indeed be behind the newfound boldness of the cannibalistic tribes. Before meeting him, Vilb and Prav pass through an almost mystical garden; the description of what green grass, fruit-trees, and water mean to a man who has lived all his life in a desert is especially rich, even moving:

Before his eyes could adjust to the shadow his hands and nose led him forward. He plucked the first fruit he felt from the vine that found his hand. He pulled hard, brought it to his nose, and inhaled. A swoon came over him, and he laughed and devoured whatever it was in its entirety, rind and flesh, seed and stem. Tears flowed freely down his face, and he laughed and cried in rapturous joy.

Just after this scene, though, we learn that all this may only be a sort of hallucination provided by Prang to deceive his visitors. Vilb and his party, weary once more, ascend through a sort of enormous polar Xanadu, finding Prang?s throne room inside the topmost dome of its highest tower.

This God, however, is little more than a bag of bones ? literally and figuratively ? and his power, though great, seems a good deal less than divine. Although he takes Vilb?s reath hutch from him, and has it on his throne, Prav somehow musters the power to steal it back, although shortly after she gives it to Vilb, they are separated when their guide leads them onto an enormous underground complex and Prav, for reasons not quite clear, must stay behind. Here, we step off the face of the mythological world, and into that of science fiction; Vilb and Oneira travel by "mag-rail" through a scientific complex that includes mysterious rings, chambers, and rooms, along with the aforementioned ?bosonic pile.? It?s a strange transition, one which forces the reader to once again learn the outline and language of an unfamiliar landscape. Finally, we emerge with Vilb into a strange and half-deserted city, within which a secret passage from a tiny shop leads through still further tunnels to the first god worthy of the name ? the "Martha." The description, again, is a powerful one; apparently the gods, though they have lived a very long time, have not in the end been able to avoid decay:

She sat before them wearing the red cassock of her followers, its cowl tossed back. A red weave she had wrapped around her neck and head as if to hold it together, so fragile, so ancient her body appeared to be. Her face was the emaciated visage of the dead, a milky marble skull covered in a flesh that contracted around the bone and became one with it . . . her left eye was a clouded tumescence with a wandering, sea-blown iris mesmerizing in its own right. It moved as if in search of some suitable subject upon which to fall, while the other eye was no eye at all. It was all socket, the hollow lined with silver and encrusted with flecks of illuminated emerald gems.

The vision is a haunting one, and along with Vilb we cherish the hope that here, in the presence of the Martha, the mystery of the gods will be at least partly solved. Which indeed it is, but by a sort of ex machina moment which, though it satisfies one?s curiosity, is very different in tone from the rest of the novel.

After seeing the Martha, Vilb and Oneira are taken to the nearby chamber of Azo, who though far from the greatest of the ancients, is at least the kindest. His chamber encompasses an illuminated text within a text; over its walls, he tells Vilb, he has written a sort of memoir that recounts the events leading up to 2050.

The tale is full of monumental histories, but it is told in the kind of broad, omniscient strokes more suitable to a synopsis than a full-fledged narrative; what we end up with is a sort of Cliff?s Notes on the end of the old world, jammed with a great deal of scientific jargon that?s never fully unpacked. VenQuell signatures? ?Deconstructing the CancelCloseEdit Filegenetic material down to its sub-atomic activity?? It?s as if a passage from the Silmarillion were suddenly interpolated in a chapter of The Lord of the Rings.

Here, though, it is not the arcane nomenclature of the mythical past, but a slew of technical terminology, amidst which we learn of a series of ominous developments: nanotechnology gone mad, with billions of tiny engines released in a failing attempt to control the climate; a growing war between the haves (the "Consortium") and the have-nots (the "Third Wave"), and a small group of scheming scientists, headed by the ominiously-named Leventhal in his scientific fortress in Chicago, who are searching for immortality. It's a brilliant vision, but in this section, the language weighs it down. Fortunately, folded in with this heavy-handed recursus, there is another, far more compelling When finished, click Save or Cancel below.account of the same period, told from the first-person point of view of "the Martha" ? whose name, we now learn, is Martha Simons ? that of the last few years of the old world and the first of the new.

She arrives in the shadow of her ineffectual but ambitious husband, himself in the thrall of Leventhal; somehow the tortured death of their son Simon has become the potential source of just the sort of genetic and somatic material Leventhal needs. Simon seems to have died a horrible death at the hands of Consortium agents, yet the anguish of his death has somehow imprinted him with the much-sought 'Q factor' that turns out to be vital to immortality. In the midst of a brave new world in which people are arrested for not taking their drugs, where a 'high-speed' mag-rail takes weeks to reach Chicago from New York, such a diabolical bargain seems to be the best on offer.

Simon seems to have died a horrible death at the hands of Consortium agents, yet the anguish of his death has somehow imprinted him with the much-sought 'Q factor' that turns out to be vital to immortality.

Martha doesn't really understand, or wish to know, what exactly her husband or Leventhal are up to, though she dimly realizes it may involve the cloning of a replica of her dead son ? but she at least knows her own maternal anguish, her own emotional landscape, which is more than one can say for most of the other figures - all male - who do the Consortium's will.

Her voice is a compelling one, and forms a kind of Ariadne?s thread by which readers can find their way through the labyrinth to the third, and most gripping section of the book.

Vilb and Oneira, of course, are imagined to be reading these same texts on the walls of Azo's chamber, although what such inhabitants of a primitive world with tools of bone and skin could make of these histories is hard to imagine. It might have been better if Azo, through some power of his own, could give them the direct experience of these events, which is what's hinted at in the Martha Simons sections.

It?s one of those moments when the Vulcan mind-meld, or the Pensieve, might have come in handy. Nevertheless, as the story of Martha finally links up with the rest of the history of Little Earth, we feel a satisfying sense that we are finally beginning to understand the origins of the present conflict, and have at least a partial answer to the book?s back-cover question, "Who are the Gods?"

Like many such "last men," Leventhal isn?t interested in saving humanity ? his massive mainframes long ago predicted the defeat of the Consortium and the destruction of Chicago ? he just wants to save himself and a few select beings...

These Gods, it's now clear, were originally members of a select group of scientists and polymaths gathered together by Leventhal in his laboratories deep inside fortress Chicago. Like many such "last men," Leventhal isn?t interested in saving humanity ? his massive mainframes long ago predicted the defeat of the Consortium and the destruction of Chicago ? he just wants to save himself and a few select beings, who are to escape to the Strangelovean bunker Leventhal has constructed under the bedrock of Antarctica.

The geography of this plan strikes a resonant chord; not since John Calvin Batchelor?s The People?s Republic of Antarctica (1983) has a South-polar Apocalypse been so grippingly drawn. Both novels play with the notion of Ant-ARK-tica as the site for a new gathering together of Earth?s creatures, the planet?s last hope for survival in an age of political and military chaos.

Yet unlike Batchelor?s chaotic vision, where the seas around the southern continent are jammed with the makeshift boats and rafts of refugees, Zornado?s southernmost extreme is far more ambitious and complex, though more sparsely populated. In his vision, an enormous, continent-wide facility ? a vast expenditure given the Earth?s dwindling resources ? has been constructed, including an underground world of great ring-shaped tunnels which serve as particle accelerators of some kind, a "bosonic pile" which seems to represent a vast source of quantum energy, and a well-provisioned command center for the lucky few destined to run it.

The power of the system is immense, and extends to controlling all the Earth?s millions of nanobots, as well as warming, terraforming, and illuminating an entire continent. When the last group of scientists, excluding the few leaders, is killed, there is nothing to stop the self-ordained "gods" from taking their eternity to tinker with this apparatus, and remake the world to their liking. Or there would have been, had not conflict, as it inevitably does, arisen.

Leventhal, for reasons that must wait until a later volume, remains behind in Chicago, although he retains the power to periodically invade and manipulate Vilb?s consciousness. The leaders of the Consortium, the nominal chiefs of this brave new world, remain in hibernation somewhere under the Swiss Alps, and as far as Leventhal is concerned, they can rot there.

The scientists who have come to undertake the great work ? Quadros Prang, Master Qir, and Sumio Azawo ? flee Chicago for "Erebus Station" in Antarctuca, where they are joined by Martha Simons and her son, the replicated but damaged Simon. At first they are distrustful of one another, but when Simon awakens and seizes power over the entire Antarctic establishment, they briefly join forces to defeat him.

Thus, though Simon is the greatest of the Gods, he is also a kind of shadow, a departed deity much like Christ in both his suffering and his innocence. Finally, with their chief rival out of the way, the remaining Gods are free to manipulate Little Earth as they see fit, but their continuing rivalries and resentments turn it into a world of warring tribes and disastrous climate variations, in which ultimately even the great ?Arclight,? established to light and warm the new lands, has begun to fail.

It would be unfair to ruin the reader?s interest by telling much more of the main story ? one must experience it firsthand. When it emerges that the reath hutch, far from being simply a collection of tiny bone instruments, is actually a collection of tiny bones, and that Vilb, though he has never known it, is in fact the genetic replica of one of the ancients himself, it becomes instantly clear that his destiny is far greater, and far more central to this final Ragnarok of the antipodes than he, or the reader could have anticipated.

In the great tradition of the unwilling, and unwitting hero, Vilb is surely the equal of Bilbo or Frodo ? and yet he is a strangely new sort of figure, one whose ultimate purpose and stature remain uncertain even at the novel?s end.

The final chapters race along at great speed, with shocking twists and turns that will have the reader breaking out in a (cold) sweat. There is an almost filmic sensibility to the final scenes, in which we finally obtain a fully panoramic view of Little Earth, just as Vilb is transformed by a force so powerful that even as he draws from it, he can scarcely grasp its meaning.

The novel ends on a dramatic, suspenseful moment which makes one yearn for the appearance of the second volume, even as it brings Vilb?s initial quest to a satisfying conclusion. Having now learned who the Gods are, we remain anxious for the future ? and the past ? of this uncannily strange, yet strangely familiar little Earth.

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