First let me say that I recommend Too Like The Lightning and Seven Surrenders to all of you quite fervently; they are the best sci-fi books I have read in ages. John says they are weirder than Miéville, though I’m not sure about that. Less weird than Clute’s Appleseed, anyway (what isn’t?). Second, I am going to talk about both books, though not indifferently, because they are more like the continuation of a single book than most originals and sequels. Third, I am about to reveal what I consider the antepenultimate spoiler for Seven Surrenders. That is, there are two, yet more shocking revelations/events that follow this one—and to be absolutely fair the main point I discuss was quite clearly stated in Too Like The Lightning, but in a way difficult to credit. There are many other spoilers too though, so, if you don’t like spoilers you will hate this and you should not read it.
SPOILERS FOLLOW GEE WHIZ THAT’S AN UNDERSTATEMENT, BELLE WARING.
The culture which sets in motion the events of both Too Like The Lightning and Seven Surrenders is stipulatively that of the Enlightenment. Narrator/main character Mycroft Canner says as much at the start of Too Like The Lightning,
…you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the way it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described.
Mycroft Canner is wrong about a lot of things. Wrong enough, perhaps, to destroy the world. About other things he tells only half the truth, or a third, or less. In this he is wrong.
Superficially speaking, there are many adherents of Enlightenment figures walking around, or at the least many who have them as namesakes. For example, Voltaire is both considered “The Patriarch” and has one Voltaire Seldon, a member of the Utopian Hive, named after him. And a sub-culture devoted to the…“underbelly” of Enlightenment (as Madame D’Arouet puts it)…figure of de Sade births half the change that promises to transform Palmer’s intricately constructed world of Hives and nation-strats and bash’es. (These are large voluntary associations of like-minded people; partial rule over physical spaces that were once nation-states; and little communes, respectively.) But in truth at least half, and potentially all, of the transformative power comes not from the Enlightenment, but from an intrusion into the material world of the mystical, something more along the lines of neo-Platonism or Pythagoreanism. (Or, perhaps even more directly, a visit from the Old and New Testaments. But an analysis of this would require both the penultimate and ultimate spoilers.) Why? J.E.D.D. Mason and Bridger. That is to say, Jehovah Epicurus Donatien D’Arouet Mason and Asclepios, as the latter is dubbed by the former.
Jehovah is God of a sort, as suits him. Bridger possesses the miraculous power to transform any substance into anything else just by touching it and willing the result. This extends even to labelling rolled up paper as resurrection potion and then transforming it into a glass tube of sparkling liquid that will truly bring the dead to life! His more frequently practiced miracle of giving life to dolls is less impressive, in a way, but suited to his childish nature. He may be a bridge between Jehovah and “the God of This Universe,” as our monotheistic God is known to Jehovah and his remarkably few disciples.
Jehovah is not a god in the way Zeus is a god. He is the God of an entire universe—just not this universe. He reveals himself to our timid hero Thomas Carlyle in Seven Surrenders with almost the words that come to Moses from the burning bush, rendered ‘I am That I am’ in the KJV and regarded by many Talmudic scholars as a source for the tetragrammaton YHWH, of which Jehovah’s name is an adaptation. He says first simply “I Am” and then “…that I Am What I say.” It would be an understatement to call this odd (this young man’s being God), but these are odd books, ones in which all the leaders of the world share a common spy (?) in the person of a reviled criminal (?!), and in which the possibility of resurrecting every human who has ever died, and creating new Earths to house them, is more or less ignored for hundreds of pages to focus on efforts to ferret out mysteries that are, of necessity, less momentous.
Mycroft flatly tells us the truth about Jehovah in Too Like The Lightning. However, it seems ambiguous in context—perhaps Jehovah is just focussed on the inward universe of his mind? And similarly, that Mycroft is calling Jehovah capital-H Him can be dismissed as yet another of his absurd linguistic excurses. He abandons the ‘they’ of his own age in favour of the ‘he’s’ and ‘she’s’ of the 18th century, and then promptly starts labelling people in accordance with the stereotypical gender he thinks they exemplify the most, except when the plot demands that someone’s biological sex be known, in which case he just switches again! Compared with these dizzying gyrations, and granting that we know Jehovah Mason is his liege Lord in some sense, the following passage is not as obvious as it seems in retrospect.
There was nothing in between among the toys [in the cabinet of distractions which has served him from infancy], no dress-up dolls or electronic games, just the tools an infant needs to master coordination, then straight to Plato. He had a book in his hand now, but was not reading it, His mind and vacant senses lost instead in the governance of His distant universe.
This is the sole mention of Plato in this novel, although the Enlightenment education of most of our characters is meant to include mastery of the classics as a matter of course. This is truest for those raised, like Jehovah, in the…D’Arouet bash’ if I may term it so; his sister Heloïse describes hers as follows in Too Like The Lightning: “They offered for my education music, geometry, mathematics, natural philosophy, the historians, poets orators, Latin, Greek, French…” I like to think Jehovah is currently (not) reading the Timaeus, in an effort to discover what motivates the God of our universe. Jehovah struggles with the problem of evil in a way that is unique. We struggle with it as victims, as peasants that may seek to indict an unjust lord, as resentful creatures who judge our creator wanting. Jehovah alone can judge the God of this universe as a Peer who has done something incomprehensible and perhaps terrible.
Carlyle smiled. “You’re not alone there. Everyone asks questions. Why am I here? Why is there Evil in the world?’….
“Not as I do,” Jehovah answered slowly…. “Before I met this universe I was complete, neither wanting not imagining anything beyond Myself. Here, watching humans, I have learned what it means to have equals, to speak with another, debate, learn, grow. Now that I learn of that I need it” [and from just prior to this first quote] “I do not dislike [the God of This Universe], rather I do not understand. I need to find Him. I need Him to answer why he made His Universe so full of barriers, and ignorance, and limited perspectives, which make His creations suffer and see evil in His plan.” [Seven Surrenders]
In Jehovah’s universe there is no time, no suffering, no ignorance, only perfect unity, continuous understanding, everything knowing and being known. His universe is the Pleroma or ‘fullness’ of (some) Gnostic thinking, a perfect completeness. (In other versions the Pleroma is the initial cascade of emanations from the godhead that creates the material and spiritual world.)
“In My own universe I am all, complete and sufficient, the First and Final Cause, perfect in Myself….My universe does not have time,” the foreign God replied. I find it cruel, like distance and misunderstanding. I do not understand why This Universe’s God would make such things. Space. Time.” [Seven Surrenders]
Jehovah feels instinctively that the God of This Universe has access to an unchanging realm like His own (otherwise the problem of evil would have nothing in it to puzzle him.) So why has He created a world like this?
In the Timaeus the problem is one of substandard materials for the creator to work with. The dialogue first draws a distinction between those things which exist always and remain always themselves, and those thing that come into being and pass away. [Tim. 27e-28a] Timaeus takes it to be obvious that the “Demiurge” looks to these ideal unchanging things as a model [29a], as an ordinary craftsman has an ideal in mind when making anything. (Interestingly he calls the possibility that the Creator had his eye fixed on anything other than the eternal ‘unspeakable’ or ‘impious’ [29a], just as Jehovah does in his speech to Carlyle “’…it is impius to feel anything less than absolute gratitude for the absolute gift of having been created.’”). But what does the Demiurge have to work with? “When he took charge of everything that could be seen it was not at rest but all tossing in discordant motion”—for this reason he could only make things as good as was possible with the deficiency that presented itself. [30a] The Demiurge of the Timaeus doesn’t will things into being out of nothingness, he imposes form on them, brings them closer to perfection.
Jehovah himself is baffled by his inability to make things happen by his will alone. He can see as an infant that his powers are limited but increasing, but can’t see why they should increase only to the limit of a grown human’s power. Jehovah has formidable powers of observation that make it seem to others as if he can read minds, but he lacks that sense as he lacks the infinitude of others he is accustomed to. “‘I know the word telepathy. It would be a precious sense, making the mind’s words visible, and world of words will-shaped. With telepathy I would be a sense less blind. No, I have no such sense.’” [Seven Surrenders] He expresses envy of the set-sets and their additional senses by asking an ordinary person in their presence: “’These bodies have so few senses. How can you be content with less than all?’” [Too Like The Lightning]
The set-sets are human computers of a sort, raised from birth hooked up to wires and electrodes that allow them to perceive mathematical spaces better than physical ones. Their parents sell them into this system, something none of them seem to resent; others dubbed Nurturists wish to rescue them and invade the set-set bash’es to tear the infants from their mechanized bassinets, something the set-sets universally loathe. (The selling of children is not fully explored in the novel—are all the people doing it Blacklaw Hiveless, that is, people who have renounced both the responsibilities and the protections of ordinary law, and who do not belong to any Hive? I wonder because surely Hive rules forbid this? The one instance we learn of, the sale of the perfect, genetically engineered golden twins Ganymede and Danaë, is one where the seller is, indeed, Blacklaw Hiveless. Well, perhaps Ganymede sells himself, but no matter.)
Crucially, Jehovah’s question to our set-set Eureka—they of the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’ of which we learn the most—is “’Are both this home’s set-sets Pythagorean?’ ‘You mean Cartesian,’ Cato corrected. He did not, but would not contradict.” The set-sets are Cartesian insofar as that is the name for the sort of set-sets they are and the type of analysis they perform, but what Jehovah wants to know is, do they believe that numbers are real, realer than the sun the Eureka found pale and disappointing when she emerged from the darkness of her computerized creche and saw it at last? Do they believe numbers are imbued with mystical qualities? Does Jehovah hope to find someone who will believe in Him, or at least in the fact that there is another realm truer than this one? Because most of those nearest him have an impossibly peculiar attitude, as he tells Carlyle, “’Most of my fathers tell themselves it does not matter whether I am a God or not, so long as I do my duty by their Hives.’” How could it not matter, one wonders?
Though he cannot will things into being, what Jehovah does have is permanent access to his own universe in all its splendid perfection. He is often described as statue-like, his body just a vessel for this fullness, he exerting minimum physical effort at all times. Christ is sometimes described like this in the New Testament: “For in him dwelleth all the fulness [pleroma in the Greek version] of the Godhead bodily.” Colossians 2:9. Such descriptions were cited by Gnostic thinkers as evidence for the correctness of their views on Christ, and by heretical Monophytists for their view that Christ has only one nature, the divine, and is in no way human. (A consideration of Jehovah’s actions throughout the book would seem to lead almost inevitably to a heresy of this kind.)
There is a character in the novels who can bring things about by will alone: Bridger. “”Idea to actuality,’ Jehovah supplied. ‘By Will.’” [Seven Surrenders] He takes imperfect representations of real things—dolls—and grants them actuality, liveness, interiority. In a cave carved out of the detritus of the 21st century he collects these pallid versions of animals and humans, saved from the trash-heaps, arranges them painstakingly into tableaux, and then selectively brings them to life. His actions may seem in some ways opposed to those of the Timaeus’ Demiurge. He brings motion to stillness rather than vice-versa. However, the Demiurge sees things that are not “at rest” (hēsuchiē in Greek) but instead in motion; hēsuchiē has a technical meaning in Pythagorean thought (at least according to a sarcastic dialogue by Lucian, but plausibly) and is not dead inertness but the perfect stillness of the eternity in which the soul dwelt before coming to the filth of this world—what one remember when one seems to learn (Lucian Vitarum Auctio sec. 3). Bridger is pushing things up one notch on the Great Chain of Being, as it were, taking toys out of the cave and bringing them up to the sunlit flower trench to become something more than reflections. He can cause mere images to have bodily needs. Indeed he is capable of rendering entirely imaginary people real, though he fears to do it. His powers are terrifying; while baby Jehovah combines total understanding with a frustrating inability to exercise his will in any way other than the determined shaking of a rattle, young Bridger dreams that he is drowning and turns his bed in the cave to water in which he is truly doused. Bridger is dangerous to touch, but he touches the world.
Bridger’s problems with his creations may stem from some property of the things he transforms. He accidentally creates something they call “Sadcat” when he attempts to “heal a maimed cat by wrapping it in the plush fleece of an uninjured toy cat, but the healthy creature his miracle created had no sign of the personality of the original…a new creature inhabiting the stolen body of the old, while the original, vanished, unmade.” [Seven Surrenders] Or it may be that his own not-yet-mature understanding leaves his creations wanting at times. The green toy soldiers he brings to life have difficulty putting away their animus against the yellow one, Stander-Y. One can imagine either that this is a material issue and the fundamentally green and yellow natures of the dolls continue to express themselves. Or perhaps this is a childish hangover from Bridger’s time spent arraying them against each other, plastic rifles raised in eternal, frozen enmity? Bridger himself feels it is he who is at fault for these failures, that he is a Demiurge without any access to the realm of unchanging ideas, who cannot help but create imperfect things (some Gnostic thinking goes so far as to cast the creator of this mere world as malevolent). “‘I’m not God!’ Bridger screamed. “I don’t know what They’re doing! I don’t know what I’m supposed to do!’” [Seven Surrenders] On the other hand, we know that he can make creatures who know things he himself does not. An animated Sniper doll knows a fact about Mycroft important only to Mycroft and the real Sniper: that there is a spot on his body unscarred by his violent (still young!) life.
I dove full speed from the door to the cover of the nearest doll. No shot. Then, when I thought I was in cover, a bullet proved me wrong, grazing a pad of fat behind my left kidney. Sniper. It knew I would know the spot, clean skin till now, framed by the scars left from the explosion and those from where Seine Mardi shot me. Time and again, when Sniper and I rested from sparring and the athlete listened bright-eyed to the stories I could tell of every scar, its fingers would tickle that spot, as if marking out a patch of brick to add its own stroke to the graffiti.
The soldiers’ grim understanding of war and the Major’s mastery of tactics may belong here also, but these could, conceivably, be things absorbed by Bridger over time from Mycroft and from Apollo’s Iliad, the soldiers changing as he touches them time and again to renew the spell (the need for this last, too, a childish need outgrown, according to Mycroft).
In this way Jehovah and Bridger are like two incomplete halves of a whole. Bridger has only to will something to have it be real, but seems (to himself?) to lack the knowledge that would be required to will things properly, and will the right ends. He fears the exercise of his faulty but untrammelled will could lead to disaster. By contrast Jehovah has permanent mental access to the perfect, unchanging realm the Timaeus’ Demiurge uses as a paradigm to apply his will to what he encounters, but lacks the ability to manifest any of this as anything but impotent will. He makes the most he can of the capacities of the human body—more than others are willing to credit is possible—but this is thin gruel to a God.
Insofar as any of the characters react to Bridger or Jehovah with anything but awe and the conviction that Bridger, particularly, is—as he insists—the most important person in the world, they are making terrible mistakes. Unreliable narrator Mycroft Canner could be said to react rightly to both in many ways, even as he screws up royally in others (he chooses Jehovah over Bridger, quite inexplicably). But there is a fundamental incompatibility of scale between even a world of political intrigue so large and intricate as the one Palmer delineates and actual God, or genuine Miracles. Heloïse first conceives a passion for Jehovah so violent she mistakes it for romantic love. But she comes to see his true nature and makes the only rational choice: monastic devotion.
The ways of my Lord are mysterious. At first He answered nothing [after learning she was rejecting the fiancé Madame D’Arouet has arranged for her in light of her love for Him], and neither my newfound father nor madame nor any in the house could understand His actions as He sequestered Himself in His library, where none but the most trusted servants were permitted to intrude. I, in my despair, slipped into a sleep so close to death that my nurses thought me a dozen times lost, but I was saved when mon seigneur Jehovah emerged from His isolation and…presented me with a Commonplace Book compiled by His own hand, every page filled with quotations of the wisest ancients and most refined of commentators, interspersed with pieces of His own divine Wisdom, explaining in a hundred voices that happiest and harshest Rule, all but abandoned in this selfish age: the monastic calling.
We must accept there is something divine about Jehovah in person, or we would say she should more rightly think him mad.
“Dominic, Mycroft and Heloïse, they speak of you as if you were a god.”…. “I Am.” They are words Carlyle thought he was prepared for, not just in textbooks but in the wild like this. His training should have sorted the statement like any other, identified its proper label: Calvinist, Hindu, megalomanic…. But this was different. Jehovah’s “I Am,” subtly yet absolutely different, for such was the conviction with which He said it that Carlyle believed Him.
Carlyle abandons his arid Deism for a true belief in God after seeing Bridger’s Miracles, and this is also right. But does he really? After God has demonstrated his existence to you personally you might, as Carlyle does, wonder why you are worthy, but do you continue to care about being an informant or a traitor or a foundling? Perhaps it’s only human to do so. Still, to the extent that the characters clustered around Jehovah continue to imagine themselves Enlightenment figures they are behaving incomprehensibly. And truth be told it is more the case that they are wearing 18th century clothing than that they care about Voltaire, and the romantic snares they are catching one another in are more suited to Dumas. Revenge! Secret noble parentage! Schemes which rebound on the schemer! (And where is Kant?) All these crucial figures clustered around Jehovah should have become devoteés of the mystical, but they just carry on with their scheming as usual. By contrast, everyone who sees the Miracles Bridger can perform knows at once that they are Miracles, capital M, full stop. (Thisbe’s behaviour at times undermines my point here, I grant.)
But this—the fact that Bridger is demonstrable and demonstrative in a way that Jehovah of necessity cannot be in our universe—raises one final problem. What if Jehovah is only mad? What if there is only one half of godhood among our cast of characters, and the mysteries of the true godhead are reserved to the God of Our Universe, if such there be? Bridger qua character in the book seems to imply Jehovah as his counterpart, as I outlined above. But this irresistible force of narrative logic meets an unmovable rock in the person of Madame D’Arouet.
“I did not plan this [the chain of events leading to the world teetering on the verge of some cataclysm].” Her voice was lovely, giddy, as if elated by the catharsis of confession. “I simply resurrected the weapons by which it was done. I made Danaë the sort of woman a man would burn the world for. I made Merrion Kraye and Andō and my Ganymede the sort of men who would betray each other, and nurse vengeance for decades, and not just them. Ancelet, and Spain, and even you had jealous days in your youth, remember Cornel? And you in the inner circle are hardly my only clients. I have dozens of girls and boys, each with dozens of suitors who have been seducing, betraying, dueling and stalking each other for fifty years. The losers are banished from my house and, finding they can no longer take satisfaction elsewhere, channel their appetites into grudges against those who still enjoy my favour, and high offices. There are so many hundreds of talented young things like Kraye out there who, thanks to my children, have no goal in this world beyond revenge on some rival I exalted over them.
Her children. Jehovah is one of those children, her natural child (Heloïse also, though ambiguously.) We know that Madame has access to genetic manipulation which she uses to create the semblances of Greek gods. We know that early set-set training, interrupted but still having measurable effects, exists. We know that there are pills which can erase memories, and that there is witchery of a kind. What are the odds that the child of a woman who schemes to make all the world her own would just happen to be God in addition to being the carefully contrived heir of almost all the world’s powers, rather than being the product of some combination of all these extant arts? The members of her inner circle are exposed to Jehovah constantly, but they do not believe in Him—-for this is what it means to say it doesn’t matter whether he is a God or not. As Carlyle says in response to this “‘If it were true…it would be the most important fact in the history of science, as well as the history of religion and everything else.’” What if they are right, and Mycroft, Heloïse and Carlyle wrong? I am personally inclined to say no to this idea, but John proposed it to me very forcefully, enough to induce some doubt, arguably the perpetual state of all believers…