Poll of a Billion Monkeys

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

God's Demon

Allele - God's Demon

(This review and briefing contains spoilers. Caveat Emptor.)

Last week I started an absolutely fascinating book (as far as fiction goes) called God's Demon. It is by the artist Wayne Barlowe, and I wanted to read it for three reasons. First, I am familiar with Barlowe's impressive and unusual artistry, secondly because I wanted to see what kind of writer he would make of himself. And finally because I had read an interview with the man in a magazine about the book and it had intrigued me. I can't remember which magazine exactly but I think it was Realms of Fantasy.

I knew the book was coming out from the interview but had forgotten about it in the interval, and so when I happened upon it by accident in the library I got a copy immediately.

As far as Barlowe's skills as a writer go they are impressive enough, at times even very good, though he has obvious weaknesses as well. Nevertheless for a first book (and to my knowledge this is his first real book of fictional literature) the work is quite solid, especially for a work produced by a graphic artist. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those modern fellas who think artists should be artists only, or scientists scientists only, or priests priests only, or cops a cop only, or soldiers only soldiers, or bakers only bakers, or Geeks only geeks, for that matter. As a matter of fact I'm as far from that ideal as is humanly possible. My personal philosophy of life, and especially of being a free citizen of the United States, is that men and women ought to be as Renaissance and varied in their capabilities as possible, achieving as much as possible in as wide a set of (either related or disparate) fields of activity as possible, and going as far as talent, drive, motivation, skill, and training will take them.

But I also know that up until recently it was common for people to think in career and professional terms, even in terms of themselves, as specialists. That it was common among large groups of people, and still is among many, to think of themselves by "classification," niche, group, or for lack of a better term, clan or tribal association. And to think and respond to the world in this fashion in every conceivable way - professionally, by social group, by religion, and even by personality and persona. Much of our educational system has been geared to this feudalistic paradigm, you choose a specialty, a technical derivation of expertise and applied effort, then you follow "a career path," rather than setting out to "achieve great things." It used to be that great men and women in this nation set out to "achieve great and important things," and too often nowadays they set out to become mere professionals, or at best a minor league expertiste (similar in fashion and capability and influence to the modern “artiste”). There is nothing wrong with being either a professional or an expert, but contrary to modern opinion (and that’s all it really is, a commonly held Weltanschauung of mere current fashion) there is nothing so inherently great or impressive or grand about it that any particular person need limit themselves to becoming a professional or expert at some tiny or obscure field of pursuit, or even to a single field of pursuit with far wider applications and implications. Men should be limited only by their imaginations in the range of their enterprises, and if drive and will and capability are sufficient to their cause, not limited even by their own imaginations. Barlowe is an artist, and in my opinion a good one, but he needn't stop there, nor need any man conclude his attainments to any one field of accomplishment. Modern society may be in love with the idea of the expert and the technocrat, but no society ever became great, or remained long great based upon the accomplishments of men toiling away at small and obscure things and/or based upon the idea that men pursue some singular profession to the exclusion of everything else they might accomplish. Men do not become great by narrow and petty avenues of pursuit, and societies do not become great by encouraging narrowness of interests.

So I was glad to see Barlowe step outside his own normal venues of accomplishment and attempt a book of literature. But, aside from Barlowe being a good writer (he is not great, yet, but this is an early attempt, much practice will make him much better, and he is already a good writer and can on occasion turn a brilliant and even poetic phrase, and that’s already a fine achievement considering much that passes as fiction and literature nowadays), two things really fascinated me about the book. The first was the fact that Sargatanas (this name is an acronym I suspect) is an excellent example of the very Renaissance Ideal I was speaking about. He is extremely able and capable in a number of fields, administrative, as a military commander, as a source of inspiration to his people, as an organizer and politician, as a builder, and as a scholar. He is in many ways the proto-typical Renaissance Man (or in this case, Demon, or Angel). The second thing that fascinated me about the book was the fact of Sargatanas’ plan as he rules in hell.

Sargatanas decides to rebel against hell as Lucifer had rebelled against Heaven. But not just against Lucifer, whom Sargatanas early realizes was drastically wrong in both his assumptions and his actions, but against the very order of Hell itself. He plans to rebel against hell, overthrow of it what can be overthrown, and to take with him what demons and human souls he can and try to return to Heaven and achieve redemption, and reconciliation with God and his brother angels. (I have not read the entire book yet, and I am very dubious of his plan as he initially envisions it, or the fact of his being able to "earn his way back into heaven," but nevertheless the very idea is enormous and tremendous and fascinating, and certainly worth the effort from nearly any point of view. And it is after all only a book of fiction. It doesn’t have to be a workable plan; it merely has to be an inspiring and heroic one.) Interestingly enough the idea of Barlowe's novel roughly corresponds to a novella that I am writing, at least in general ideology and theme (though it differs greatly in details). In my novella Christ, near the end of the Millennial Rule decides that he will, against God's explicit commands, enter hell on a mission to free Judas Iscariot, and return him to himself as one of the Apostles. (It's only a fictional story folks; retain your emails and potential outrage for more important matters.) So I was very glad to see Barlowe address the idea of hell's rule being breakable, and beatable, in his work.

One of the truly amazing, brilliant, and ironic things Barlowe has Sargatanas do is to (re)create a chapel and shrine to God and Heaven (which they call the Above) in an underground area directly beneath his own palace in the city he founds on the river Acheron in hell. To reach heaven, or at least a sort of recreated version of it, Sargatanas goes to the underearth of hell to build his shrine. The implications are obvious and well reflect Milton's "the mind is it's own place, and in itself can make Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." (My favorite line from Paradise Lost. You can tell both Milton, and Dante, two of my favorite poets, heavily influenced Barlowe.) But one thing about the quote above from Paradise Lost is that you cannot turn the phrase in English so that Heaven is the subject of either part of the quote. For if you “make a Heaven of Hell” then Hell is the real subject, and heaven is the adjective, and if you "make a Hell of Heaven," then by the very nature of that, you have spoilt Heaven (when perfection is spoilt it is by definition no longer perfection), and therefore Heaven becomes Hell and Hell once again becomes the true subject of the phrase. There is no way in English to render Heaven from Hell so that Heaven becomes the true subject of intent, it can only remain an object of remembrance (see the point of the Eucharist here, and the Passover Seder, words and words alone are wholly, and holy, insufficient to the task). So ever since I first read that phrase in Milton I have been personally seeking an alche-linguistic formula by which the phrase could be reversed, and Hell could be rendered and reshaped in language to become Heaven once again. That Heaven would become the point and subject of Hell. But I never found a real and working solution to Milton’s equation. Heaven, at least in language, does not infiltrate Hell as Hell infiltrates Heaven, even though in my opinion Heaven should be the far better skilled at the subtle arts of craft, and cunning, and clever infiltration. Though maybe that is more a fault of human language and lack of vision, than a truism of Divine provenance. Yet when I read what Barlowe had done, having his Demon physically reshape the underground of Hell into a Chapel of Heaven a sort of chill ran up my spine. And even though it was not a formulaic solution resolved in an equation of language, strictly speaking, it was nevertheless a brilliant literary solution, and if I had read the book for no other reason, I think, and I credit it with having at least in part solved my Miltonian dilemma. And I think it is the most high literary moment in the book, and a very high one for any literary work. One I will not forget, and a solution to that paradox I thank Barlowe for having presented. (And I have long years pondered this arduous riddle, but now I know and see the solution - “The mind is it’s own place, and in itself can break Hell, when Heaven enters in it.”)

He also makes brilliant use of some of the secondary characters such as Lilith, Beelzebub, and Hani, the seemingly hapless soul who desires his freedom from the tyranny of hell. I do not intend to spoil the overall plot or the eventual outcome of the war against Hell so I will end my review here, but all in all, I am much enjoying this work of fiction and can highly recommend this book. Get and read it.

You'll be sorry as hell if you don't.

By the way, you can see Barlowe’s impressive artistry at these sites:

Wayne Barlowe

God's Demon


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