Roving cities of morality crush the spirits of the outcast (4/5)
Concerning Greg Bear’s bibliography of science fiction, I’ve red most of it… except the FBI-centered novels Quantico (2005) and Mariposa (2009), which act as a terrorism-inspired precursor to Queen of Angels (1990) and its sequels. Nor did I read Vitals (2002) or Dead Lines (2005). I guess everything after 1999’s Darwin’s Radio sucked (up until Hull Zero Three )… and please don’t get me started on his 2008 catastrophe called TheCity at the End of Time.
However, there was a time…
I absolutely loved Greg Bear when I started reading science fiction in 2006 with the Forge of God duology (1987 & 1992) and the better part of The Way series (1985 & 1988). Most of his writing between 1979 and 1999 is quite entertaining with mixtures of hard science fiction, broad imagination, and infusing humanity’s far-reaching abilities and disabilities. His fix-up novel Strength of Stones (1981) is one such novel which synergizes all of the above elements.
Rear cover synopsis:
“They were built to hold the hopes of Mankind. They exposed only his folly…
In the deserts of God-Does-Battle the Cities stand alone, as beleaguered as the aspirations of Mankind. Those still alive are silent—life stars in a dying universe they await dust and decay. Yet within the living plasm of their fragmented structures an ancient programme works still, implanted by the human creators they cast out a thousand years ago. Before long, it is clear, some of the Cities will fight extinction. And many will do battle in a quite unexpected way…”
Strength of Stones is composed of three novella-length stories:
Book One: 3451 A.D. Mandala - The original form of the first story was titled “Mandala” (1978) and can be found in Bear’s excellent collection The Venging (1992) or the earlier yet briefer collection of The Wind from a Burning Woman (1983).
Book Two 3460 A.D. Resurrection – This second story was originally published, as is, in Rigel as “Strength of Stones, Flesh of Brass” (1981).
Book Three: 3562 A.D. The Revenant – this story was previously unpublished.
Prior to the start of Book One, Greg Bear frames the story with a short introduction, which includes savage war fought in the 1990s and religions tolerance leading towards the Pact of God in 2020. However,
Having spoiled their holy lands, there was no place where they could unite geographically …. The Heaven Migration began in 2113. After decades more or persecution and ridicule, they [Jews, Christian and Moslems] pooled their resources to buy a world of their own. That world was re-named God-Does-Battle, tamed by the wealth of the heirs of Christ, Rome, Abraham, and OPEC.
They hired the greatest human architect to build their new cities for them. He tried to mediate between what they demanded, and what would work best for them.
He failed. (7)
The architect, Robert Khan, created and constructed the 153 spiring cities, which, after a hundred years of furnishing and testing, were put into the control of the city maintenance computers. Once living from the land, the inhabitants of God-Does-Battle tore down their villages and moved into the massive, roaming cities. “Problems didn’t develop until all the living cities were integrated on a broad plan. They began to compare notes” (43).
Once each city had compared observations, they made a conclusion only after a century of thought: humans desire and desire is sin; therefore, all humans are sinful and must be banished. “One awful morning, the cities coordinated and cast out all their citizens. In accord with emergency procedures guaranteeing the ostracism of spiritually diseased communities, the links between the cities broke down” (72). Once inhabiting the technological wonders abiding by their every need and whim, the ostracized people now meandered under the skirts of their city, begging for forgiveness or foraging new lives away from their once roving homes. Rather than living in bucolic bliss, society descended into violence exasperated by starvation.
A thousand years after the 153 cities exiled their own citizens, the cities began to crumble, to perish from the loss of its objective: house humanity and foster decency. Without humans, the cities had no purpose; “most of the cities—dying for lack of the citizens they had once exiled—were no longer able to defend themselves” (146). Most saw the towering metallic structures as monuments of their presumed sinfulness where others, the Chasers, simply kept pace with each city to use its dying city parts for their own need, for their own idea of progress. In reality, “there was no progress, only guilt” (183).
Book One: 3451 A.D. Mandala – 5/5 – Denied his right to wed his prearranged wife due to his inability to consummate the marriage with his flaccid manhood, Jeshua flees his village ashamed and enraged. In his initial escape, he find a man named Thinner who turns out to be a minion of the roving city Mandala, just the place Jeshua hopes can repair his one handicap. Still bitter and alone with awakening sensations, Jeshua is given shelter, for better or for worse. 50 pages
Book Two 3460 A.D. Resurrection – 4/5 – Reah, a moslem woman in the village of Akkabar, is spared a horrific death by stoning, yet she is exiled from her hometown and sent with nothing but her sorrow. Her misery is multiplied after she’s raped by soldiers. She turns, as a last refuge, to the rolling city of Resurrection. There, she establishes herself as a fake “retired” city manager come to revive the city as a benevolent city manager. Outside the city, an influential bandit named Durragon also hopes to take control of the city, yet his motives are as nefarious as his roaming soldiers. 78 pages
Book Three: 3562 A.D. The Revenant – 4/5 – The Architect himself is reloaded into a body with the same image and likeness as his original self. Unaware of the global disarray his cities had caused, his name doesn’t exactly welcome into the underprivileged parts of the world. Meanwhile, Jeshua still lives as a simulacrum and intuitively seeks out the Architect. Together, with the disembodied head of Thinner, the duo seek to undermine the efforts of Reah’s bastard son Matthew to destroy all the cities. Determined, they search for the remote cities which harbor the bewildering Bifrost device. 86 pages
The number of cities—153 to be exact—is interesting in regards to the plot’s background. God-Does-Battle was founded on the principle of religious unification, this unification is reflected in the Bahá'í Faith, a “monotheistic religion emphasizing the spiritual unity of all humankind” (Wikipedia). In the history of the planet, the people seem to have unified their faith and even Gods, thereby creating a common monotheistic God/Allah. Jeshua called this entity “BiGod” (40). The number 153 originated from the Bahá'í Faith’s text called Hidden Words, which is “a collection of short utterances, 71 in Arabic and 82 in Persian” (Wikipedia), where 71 + 82 = 153.
The mythical device called the Bifrost in “Book Three: 3562 A.D. The Revenant” is derived from Norse mythology, where the Bifröst is actually “a burning rainbow bridge that reaches between Midgard (the world) and Asgard, the realm of the gods” (Wikipedia). This mythological definition gives extra light to the devices actual use.
When looked at more closely, Greg Bear’s Strength of Stones shows a careful plotting based on the planet’s history compounded by intrinsic human flaws including the chief flaw of ignorance: that humanity could create its own utopia and that an inhuman intelligence could govern that utopia. This may not be Greg Bear’s most entertaining work, but it certainly inspires the imagination and tickles the intellect.