The Deep is written in a spare style that packs a considerable punch. The struggle between the Blacks and the Reds is based to a degree on the Wars of the Roses: the Blacks are the House of Lancaster, Little Black is Henry VI, his Queen is Margaret; the Reds are the House of York, Red Senlin is Richard Plantagenet, Sennred is Richard III, Red Senlin’s Son should be Edward IV, but instead seems to be modeled on Edward II. So the correspondences exist, but they are not too close, and they’re seemingly just a starting point. Crowley is not intent on telling the story of the Wars of the Roses, he has his own story to tell.
Unlike Stableford’s adaptation of Homer, in which like most heroic fantasy, the heroes are heroic, if flawed, and their greatness as fighting men is made much of, Crowley’s adaptation of English history stresses his characters’ overwhelming selfishness and deceitfulness. Redhand and his wife are the only ones with any sense of decency or nobility. Throughout the book we are given a feeling of cyclical inevitability, that the struggle being waged is one that has gone on forever and is destined never to change. The Grays are the holders of Learning, and are uncovering an image that depicts a senseless round of brutality, one king succeeding another in unending succession:
“Crowned men with red tears running from their eyes held hands as children’s cutouts do, but each twisted in a different attitude, of joy or pain he couldn’t tell, for of course they all smiled with teeth. Behind and around them, gripping them like lovers, were black figures, obscure, demons or ghosts. Each crown had burning within it a fire, and the grinning black things tore tongue and organs from this king and with them fed the fire burning in the crown of that one, tore that one’s body to feed the fire burning in this one’s crown, and so on around, demon and king, like a tortured circle dance.”
Into this world comes the Visitor. He arrives damaged, with no clear idea of what his mission is. During the course of the novel he learns the history of this land and uncovers the reason he was sent. The world was created by a God-like entity only identified as the brother of Leviathan. He found men who worshipped him and he brought them to this world and gave them what he thought they wanted most. Apparently they wanted immortality, and what he gave them was not exactly that; what he gave them was changelessness. They exist in a world that is maintained in such fashion that nothing ever changes: there is never any progress, and the population never grows. This is done by sending visitors from time to time to lead the world into mayhem, death and destruction in order to keep the population down. However, this time the Visitor departs without fulfilling this purpose and Nod, who was with the Visitor when he learned the truth, has recorded what he learned, and at the end it looks like the world, which up till now has existed outside of time, is going to break out of the deadly circle it has been in.
This is a subtle and well-crafted novel. Crowley manages, by virtue of the very sparseness of his prose, to convey a certain amount of empathy with even his most unlikable characters. Most of them die simple, unglamorous deaths, which serve to underline the chaos of battle and the needlessness of human suffering.
The Fifth Head of Cerberus
Like so much of Gene Wolfe’s writing, this book is a puzzle in which the author uses ambiguity to make the reader question everything he thinks he knows about the world of the book as he is reading it. It is set in a colonial environment; on the surface, the difference between the dominant colonial culture and the subservient aboriginal culture seems to be clear cut. However, the author very craftily undermines the dichotomies of colonizer / colonized, civilized / primitive, advanced / retarded, human / bestial, teacher / pupil, parent / child and doctor / patient (not to mention father / son).
The colonial context would appear to signal that this is a political work, but I feel Wolfe is primarily interested in this context as a way of exploring philosophical concerns, namely the nature of identity and what it means to be human. In the first part, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” the concept of cloning is used to ask the question: what is an individual? Are Number 5, his father and Mr. Million all the same person? The anthropologist John V. Marsch, who makes an appearance, seems to think so, although all three behave differently. The second part, “”A Story,” by John V. Marsch” is a retelling of an aboriginal myth which has been passed down orally for two centuries. In this story natural clones (identical twins) are separated at birth and raised in different cultures. The story shows the efforts they make to distinguish themselves. This story was apparently written by John V. Marsch, after he had been replaced by an aboriginal (Victor Trenchard) and must have been part of the package the officer examines in the third part, “V. R. T.”. “V. R. T.” asks the question, who is human? Is it the original human John V. Marsch, or the aboriginal shape-shifter who takes his place? The replacement is in many ways more humane than the original. Also, he is certainly a better anthropologist. He is able to ground himself in the culture of the prison and communicate with other inmates, things the original, as depicted, would have been highly unlikely to accomplish. The irony is that it is this most human of all the characters in the book that is incarcerated and cut off from human society.
Much of Wolfe’s work is written in the first person, and Wolfe’s first person narrators are always unreliable. This not only adds a level of ambiguity, it’s an accurate reflection of the way people are. In the first person narratives of our lives that we all construct, none of us are reliable. Or perhaps I should say we are all reliably unreliable. Also, Wolfe never says anything about his characters directly. This is very different from the way Stableford in Dies Irae was constantly putting the narrative on hold so he could tell the reader about his characters. When reading Wolfe the reader must always look for subtle hints and be prepared to draw conclusions on the basis of what has been left out. This and Wolfe’s haunting use of language are two of the main factors that distinguish him from other writers. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is an excellent illustration of his great skill and accomplished story-telling. He manages to comment on meaningful subjects while creating real characters who do and say interesting things, and at the same time the three parts of the book intertwine to tell a coherent story. Not an easy stunt to pull off.
This is a series of three books: The Days of Glory, In the Kingdom of the Beasts and Day of Wrath. The Days of Glory retells the story of the Iliad and In the Kingdom of the Beasts retells Books V – XII of the Odyssey. Day of Wrath is pure Stableford. Actually, although the events and characters are based on Homer’s epics, Stableford is intent on telling his own story.
Here is a partial list of the main characters I can match with Homeric characters:
It is remarkable how this ancient epic has been constantly retold and reinterpreted throughout history. Perhaps the Book of Genesis is the only narrative with an equal claim to being the foundation myth of our culture. Its characters and events have been used time and again in the service of almost every artistic aim imaginable. In Stableford’s hands, the events make up, more than anything else, a strong and thrilling adventure. Stableford tells a story of the clash between two types of civilization. One is founded on stability – life is above all safe, but some find it stagnant. The other is built on individualism – on the danger that can result from the friction between individualists -- and is constantly on the edge of destruction. One character (Darkscar – there is no Homeric analogue) has traveled back in time in order to shape a galaxy that suits him better than the one he was born into. This forces the galaxy to react and protect itself by creating various temporal and spatial distortions. The philosophical underpinnings of all this are a bit jejune and the discussion of them tends to veer into the kind of sophomoric ‘cosmic significance’ so common to much inferior SF. (Although there is an interesting discussion in the second book about sentience, which draws a distinction between life and thought and proposes that intelligence, mind, etc. are essentially matters of communication. This appealed to the side of me that takes an interest in cognitive psychology). However, Stableford is much better in the many very violent scenes of battle and death, with limbs being severed and faces burned away and so forth. The action hardly ever flags; Stableford manages not to let metaphysical enlightenment get in the way of an exciting, wild ride.
These books can be recommended for their language, which does not rise to any great heights, but which is constantly literate and lucid -- more than most authors today can manage. Occasionally one gets the feeling that as Stableford was writing he was pushing his speed limit, metaphorically, and there are passages that could benefit from careful revision, but overall the trilogy is well organized, coherent and a good deal of fun.
This novel, like A Fine and Private Place (q.v.), features two interlaced love stories.The story of Li̒r and the Unicorn parallels that of Michael and Laura, while that of Schmendrick and Molly Grue parallels that of Rebeck and Klapper.The unicorn punctures Lír’s pretensions and he grows as a result, which is similar to Michael.Also, their love is destined to be impossible and it must come to an end.It may be a bit of a stretch to call Schmendrick and Molly’s relationship a love story, perhaps a friendship story would be closer, but I think the feeling of love is definitely there (and the love story between Rebeck and Klapper is more of a friendship also).Just as in the earlier novel, in this one the woman takes a childish man and helps him realize his potential.Beagle seems to offer a few hints that the books are meant to be seen in parallel (such as the fact that both have fourteen chapters).
The writing in this book is much more assured and flows more freely.Also, I like very much the poems and songs, some of which are actually quite good.For example:
Who has choices need not choose.
We must, who have none.
We can love but what we lose –
What is gone is gone.
Also, a number of the metaphors and similes are quite striking.The story is a classic fairy tale, with a unicorn (of course), a bold prince who performs heroic quests and has a wicked king for a father, a beautiful maiden who must be rescued, a wizard, etc., and Beagle frequently points out to the reader that it is a fairy tale and possesses all the standard fairy tale tropes by references to Robin Hood and the like (even going so far as to mention Francis James Child, the well known collector of English ballads).He pulls off the difficult trick of telling a fairy tale while at the same time winking at the reader without seeming coy or ironical.
Also worth noting in this connection are the many Shakespearian tags.In fact, it might almost be a prequel to King Lear, since Prince Lír becomes king in the end, and the difficulties children can present their father is one of the themes of the work (notice the inhabitants of Hagsgate who are afraid to bear children since they will bring about an end to their prosperity).
My favorite scene in the novel is the Midnight Carnival, with its echoes of The Circus of Dr. Lao.I especially like the creepy harpy.The whole novel is something of a tour de force: well drawn characters, a plot that surprises while being just right, and good writing.
By the way, Schmendrick does not mention why he chooses the name Amalthea for the young woman the unicorn is turned into.Amalthea was the goat that nursed the infant Zeus.While still a child, Zeus broke off one of Amalthea’s horns and this became the cornucopia, so in addition to being the last unicorn, Amalthea was also the first.