Category Archives: afterlife

Books about the possibility of life after death.

Review 151: Ghost Story

Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

Hell’s Bells count: 27

In the acknowledgment section of the book, where Butcher very kindly thanks all the people who helped it come into existence, he clarifies something very important: the end of the last book, Changes, was not a cliffhanger. Absolutely not, no matter that it really, really looked like one, smelled like one and felt like one. After all, in that last scene, Dresden is on a boat, and then shot through the chest by a sniper of some sort. He drops into the cold waters of the lake and sinks and, as far as we know, dies.

Noooo! You've gone too far, Harry!!

In order for it to be a cliffhanger, then, Butcher would have to reveal at the beginning of this book how Dresden got out of such a terrible situation. Maybe he could call on some last reserve of magic or be saved by merpeople or something, but the strictures of the cliffhanger would demand that Dresden, once the next book began, not be dead but saved by some unexpected, yet still believable, means.

So, yes, Butcher is right – it’s not a cliffhanger. Dresden is, indeed, dead. He did not escape, he was not rescued. He is dead.

Now in most series (comic books excluded, of course), the death of the main character would be something of an impediment to continuing the series. But The Dresden Files is not most series, and Harry Dresden is not most main characters. He has done too much and is far too important to be allowed to do a silly little thing like die. Harry Dresden is necessary to a great number of plans and schemes by a great number of people. What’s more, his death wasn’t exactly fair, insofar as such a thing is possible.

And so he is brought back by the Powers That Be in order to balance the scales and set things right, which is ultimately what Harry Dresden has been doing all along. He’s to go back to Chicago and find his murderer, lest terrible things happen to those he loves.

Fortunately, while there are meddling kids, Harry wins them over, and the giant ridiculous dog is on his side.

The catch, of course, is that he has to come back as a ghost. This is a problem for many reasons, not the least of which is that doing a murder investigation is substantially easier when you have, well, substance. It’s hard to punch someone in the face when your fists just go right through them. So Dresden first has to figure out how to make himself known to the living world, in addition to coming to grips with his limitations as an untethered spiritual entity. Once he’s figured that part out, he has to not only solve his own murder, but keep a body-hopping necromancer from becoming indescribably powerful, save the only man who knows how to deal with being a ghost, try to redeem a bunch of street kids who are under the influence of a minor sorcerer, and figure out what to do with the real mess he made when he died.

You see, Harry’s death, and the events that led up to it, created a power vacuum – not only in Chicago, but all over the world. With the destruction of the Red Court of vampires, the magical rulers of the world are fighting tooth and nail over land and resources, and what has mostly resulted from that is bloodshed. Forces all over the world are converging on Red Court territory, each one determined to claim what they can.

This was the very first Google Image result for "Ragged Lady." The book is forever changed for me...

In Chicago, the news of Harry Dresden’s death invited all sorts of new power players into the city, who were previously smart enough to stay out. Harry never truly understood the reputation he had until he sees what his friends have to do to match it and keep the city safe. Now that the Great and Powerful Harry Dresden is out of the picture, a newer and more terrible protector has emerged to keep away those who would do the city and its inhabitants harm. The Ragged Lady is all that stands in the way of the Chicago that Harry knew being overrun.

Mix in the Faerie, a new group called the Formor, the mob, and a few representatives of the afterlife, and you have a confusing and volatile situation. Which is pretty much where Harry Dresden is most at home.

As with the other Dresden Files books, this is a lot of fun to read, mainly because it looks at Harry and his friends from a new point of view – the outside. In the six months that he’s been “away,” the people he loves have had to go on without him, and even in that short time they have become different. They have had to make choices that they wouldn’t have made while he was there, and they certainly don’t interact with him the same way they once did. Harry has to re-learn who these people are, with the understanding that his decisions did not change their lives for the better.

Then again, showy violence can be pretty cool sometimes. (Art by Dan Dos Santos)

In addition, we learn more about Harry’s past and what made him the way he is, and we finally see him start to think about whether being the person he is is really a good thing all the time. He excels in showy violence, hitting first and asking questions later, without taking a more nuanced view of the situation. Well, now he can’t hit, at least not in the ways that he’s used to. He has to look at his old ways in a new light and figure out how to get what he wants through other means.

Really, if you’ve read this far in the series, you’ll enjoy this one. Butcher continues to do a good job in giving us what we want, while at the same time showing us things that are truly unexpected. There are some wonderful moments in the book, a few exposition-heavy moments while Harry is filled in on the situation, and a good mystery to be solved. Enjoy.

——

Death should be a learning experience, after all, or what’s the point?
– Leanansidhe, Ghost Story

The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
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Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
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Filed under afterlife, death, detective fiction, Dresden Files, fairies, fantasy, ghosts, Jim Butcher, murder, mystery, quest, wizardry

Review 137: The Last Watch

The Last Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review is acceptable to the forces of Light. – The Night Watch

This review is acceptable to the forces of Darkness. – The Day Watch

When I finished The Twilight Watch a couple of years ago, I thought that was it. Night, Day, Twilight, done. But when I announced that I would be doing the Night Watch trilogy as my end-of-month podcast, I got several emails from listeners who were quick to correct me. The series is not a trilogy, they said, but rather a tetralogy (okay, no one actually used this term). There is a fourth book out there, and I had no idea it existed!

Also thanks to modern technology, I can recycle images! Everybody wins!

Thanks to modern technology, I was able to get the final (as far as I know) book, The Last Watch on my Kindle and get myself up to speed.

Much like the previous volumes, this one is divided into three novellas, which all tie together into a greater plot. In the first, we are once again introduced to Anton Gorodetsky, an agent of the Moscow Night Watch. Due to the events of the last book, Anton is now a Higher Other, having been elevated by the use of the fuaran a mystical book that can create or raise Others. His abilities are far beyond most, and that makes his responsibilities that much greater.

He is assigned by his boss, Gesar, to investigate a mysterious killing in Edinburgh, Scotland. A young man, the son of a Russian magnate, has been murdered, and it looks for all the world like a vampire – a Dark Other – has done the deed. The pact between the Dark and the Light expressly forbids such actions, and the violation of treaty could lead to terrible consequences for all.

You'd think a Scottish vampire wouldn't be so hard to find....

Problem is, the Day Watch has no idea who or what killed the young man, and they’re just as hot to find the killer as Anton is. And of course, the clues don’t add up. The method of the murder doesn’t fit the M.O. of your standard vampire, and the place where the murder occurred – a horror funhouse in the middle of the city – has its own mysterious properties as well. Anton knows he’s on the right track, though, when someone tries to kill him, and he ends up fighting his way through the Twilight to get his answers. What he finds, however, is evidence that the mythical Merlin had left something in Edinburgh for safekeeping. Something truly terrible, no matter whose hands it fell into.

In the second story, Anton is sent out to Uzbekistan to find one of the greatest Others who had ever lived, a man by the name of Rustam. Almost a legend among Others, Rustam is probably the only one who can come even close to figuring out what Merlin hid, and why. But he won’t be easy to find. Anton not only has to deal with the Watches of Samarkand – which are far less efficient and well-staffed as others in Europe – but there’s still someone out to kill him. This time, though, they’re using ensorcelled humans to do the job, something that is also expressly forbidden.

It soon becomes clear that there is a small conspiracy of very powerful Others – one Dark, one Light, and an Inquisitor, who serves neither – who are trying to recover the artifact that Merlin left behind. Their reasons are unknown, but they’re willing to destroy anyone who poses a threat to them. Including, of course, Anton.

It is in the third story where the whole plan finally comes together. That three-person conspiracy is determined to get their hands on Merlin’s power, to collapse the Twilight and fundamentally change the world. If they have to kidnap Anton and threaten Moscow with a nuclear warhead to do it, then so be it. Their ends are, in their minds, wholly justified. It is up to Anton and his allies to avert this tragedy and see to it that the power they seek is never wielded by anyone ever again.

As with the other books, the great supernatural action hides a greater exploration of the fundamental differences between right and wrong, good and evil. As terrible as the Last Watch are, they are doing what they believe to be right, and even Anton can come to understand their motives at one point. But they way they go about it, through dark magic and darker murder, doesn’t nearly justify their aim. And so we see that evil done in the pursuit of good merely produces more evil.

Or how you define "Eeeeeevil."

Depending, of course, on how you define “evil.”

What’s more, there’s quite a bit of metafiction in this book. It’s clear that Lukyanenko is a fan of fantasy – he references Tolkien and Pratchett, just to name a couple of great authors. But he also knows the tropes of fantasy that have survived for so long, and makes sure his characters know them as well. When words are written on the walls, when people go in search of a great object of power or an unwinnable quest, chances are that one of the characters has read something like it in a fantasy book.

Go ahead. Write a 5,000 page epic fantasy about these guys.

At one point, when talking about how there are Others who would like to rule the world, the Inquisitor Edgar notes that it’s what people really want. It’s why fantasy is so much more popular than science fiction, he claims, because everyone dreams of being the magician or wielding the magic sword. It all makes sense, in a way that science fiction doesn’t. Anton, of course, doesn’t buy this, noting that most people who live in a Medieval Thaumocracy would be just like the peasants of long ago – poor, dirty, and dead by forty. So even in a world where magic is very real and very important, the characters know the difference between fantasy and reality in a way that we can relate to. I just find that fascinating.

It’s good fun, and a nice way to close out a very imaginative series. It’s exciting and heartbreaking and funny – with a nice hat-tip to the Night Watch movie thrown in near the beginning. What’s more, it’s a well-built magical system and society that allows for a great variety of stories and characters. Honestly, I would love to see Lukyanenko expand on this universe, or even open it up for others to play in.

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“There is very much in the world that is bad. But usually the attempt to defeat evil engenders more evil. I advise you to do good; that is the only way to win the victory!”
– Rustam, The Last Watch
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The Last Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Last Watch on Amazon.com

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Filed under afterlife, apocalypse, death, detective fiction, fantasy, ghosts, good and evil, morality, Russia, Sergei Lukyanenko, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizardry, world-crossing

Review 117: I Will Fear No Evil

I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein

One of the things I enjoy about Heinlein is that he likes to play with Big Ideas. While he did dip into the well of action and adventure, especially for his juvenile stories, he treated his readers like they were only slightly intellectually inferior to him, and so explored concepts that required a lot of heavy thinking. The need for war, the inevitability of messiahs, revolution, life, death, immortality – he’s not afraid to look at some of the greatest philosophical topics that reside in the human heart, and this book is no exception.

Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is a very old, very sick, very rich man. He built himself up from nothing and rose to financial prominence in what is a little more than a regular human lifetime. Smith had it all – a rich and exciting life, complete financial security, good friends and good memories in a world that had, frankly, gone to hell. He had very nearly everything a person would want to have.

Photo by openDemocracy

What he didn’t have was time. He lived in daily pain, kept alive by only two things: an ever-increasing number of machines and a plan to release himself from the geriatric horror his life had become. He knew that this plan would probably fail. He knew that he was facing death no matter what happened. He knew that it was crazy, and not necessarily crazy enough to work. But it was all that stood between him and suicide.

That plan was, in theory, very simple: transplant his healthy brain into the body of a healthy young person. By doing so, he would gain a whole extra lifetime to enjoy the fruits of his first lifetime’s labor. Not being a monster, he was prepared to do this in a legal and ethical fashion. With his legal, medical, and judicial contacts, he made arrangements with a medical advocacy group to get the body of a healthy young person who died due to some massive brain trauma. And – and this is important – who consented to having their body used for medical experimentation. Everything would be above-board, legally sound and ethically certain. All Smith had to do was stay alive until a body became available.

Now just put the two of them together... IF YOU DARE!

When it did, however, he was in for a double surprise. Not only was the healthy, youthful body that of a female, it was that of his healthy, youthful, beautiful secretary, Eunice Branca. Eunice had been murdered, but her body was in excellent condition. She had the right blood type, and had consented to have her body used for Smith’s experiment. The one doctor in the world who could perform the surgery was brought in to perform it, and against all odds, it worked. Johann Sebastian Bach Smith was reborn as Joan Eunice Smith, and her new life began.

But she was not alone.

By some means, Eunice’s mind survived to live with Joan, and tutor her in all the ways of being a woman. Joan dove happily into her new life, exploring her new femininity and sexuality as best she could.

In that sense, this whole book is an exploration of sexual identity. Here we have a man who is now a woman, even though that was never his intention. He soon finds himself thinking like a woman, though, bringing up the question of whether gender is determined by a person’s mind, or by the body it inhabits. If you put a male mind into a female body, with the vastly different hormones and sensory inputs, will that male mind start to act like a female? And even if it does, should it?

Smith makes a decision to, with Eunice’s help, be the best woman he can be, mostly because he feels that is what is expected of him. After a lifetime of conforming to male societal roles, Smith wholeheartedly embraces the female ones, up to and including seducing his best friend of many decades. Gender identity in this book is a tangled mess of biology and intention, and it looks at being female from a distinctly male point of view.

It was a different time....

Which brings me to my first problem with this book: the casual misogyny. I know it’s a pretty loaded word to throw around, and it’s not entirely accurate, but it was the one that kept coming to my mind. While Heinlein is certainly capable of creating strong and independent female characters, and emphasizes over and over again that both Eunice and Joan are actively choosing the lives they lead, those lives are almost entirely dependent on and revolve around men. One of Smith’s first actions when he goes from Johann to Joan is to latch on to a man – her old friend Jake Saloman. She views her identity as a woman as incomplete without a man to base it on, and spends most of the book trying to figure out who she is in relation to men – Jake, her security guards, Eunice’s widower, and more. She repeatedly mentions how helpless she is without a Big Strong Man in her life, and all of this culminates in what is possibly one of the most misogynist moments I have ever read in sci-fi: a spanking scene.

And not a sexy one, either. In a moment of adolescent pique that Jake won’t sleep with her when she wants him to, Joan throws a fit, disrupting their dinner plans. Jake proceeds to throw her over his knee and give her a spanking because, and I’m quoting here, “You were being difficult… and it is the only thing I know of which will do a woman any good when a man can’t do for her what she needs.” Joan accepts the spanking meekly, not only thanking Jake for his spanking, but also claiming that she had her first orgasm while he did it.

Wow. That’s nearly as bad as the other major female character, Winnie, who talks about a gang rape experience with what can almost be imagined as fondness.

Oddly enough, this is not my biggest problem with the book. I mean, it was written in the late ’60s, and it reflects the thinking of that era. For all his progressive beliefs, Heinlein was still a man of his time, and it really shows here. Legend [1] has it that he was really sick when he wrote this book, and that may have had something to do with the fact that no matter how many complex hot-button issues he touches (gender roles, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, overpopulation, government overreach), the fact remains that there is no story in this book.

This picture contains more conflict than this book

Let me explain. A story needs conflict. It needs not only a protagonist that is trying to achieve something, but obstacles that impede that achievement. There were so many potential goals and obstacles to be explored in this story – a man’s brain in a woman’s body – but Heinlein manages to artfully dodge all of them. The story of Smith’s inner struggle to resolve the gender he grew up with with the gender he now possesses would have been fascinating. But it didn’t happen. Smith pretty much accepts the change right away, with few if any reservations. Even so, he could have struggled with how to live as a woman – should he adopt the identity that a patriarchal society would confer upon him as a woman, or forge his own as a uniquely gendered person who has gone from the privileged to the unprivileged sex? Unfortunately, the conflict doesn’t even occur to Joan. She decided to be the best woman she can be, constantly asking others what that entails, rather than asking herself.

Or how about the concept of Identity itself? Smith is an old brain in a new body, so is he legally the same person he was before the surgery? That would be an amazing story as he tries to prove that Johann has become Joan, and that even though Eunice’s body is still walking around, she’s actually dead. But no – Smith has some powerful legal friends with ironclad arguments, and the legal proceedings are pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Or how about rejection by society? Regular transgendered people have a hard enough time getting society to accept the modification of the body they were born with – what about when someone takes on an entirely new body? Joan could have struggled to get her friends and family to accept who she has become, to stand before the world with her head held high. But no…. She has enough money that she doesn’t really need society’s approval, none of her friends have any trouble with what she’s become, and even Eunice’s widower has only a moment of uncontrollable emotion before accepting that his wife is dead, but still walking around. And he might get to sleep with her again.

Imagine this in your head ALL the TIME.

One last one – the soul. Joan hears Eunice’s voice in her head, but it’s unclear whether it is really Eunice or if it’s just Joan’s imagination. What’s more, they never fight. They never have a serious disagreement and have to resolve their differences so that they can continue to occupy the same skull. Eunice and Joan live together like wisecracking sisters and never have to deal with the problem of living with someone you can’t get rid of, even if you’re not sure if they’re real.

In other words, there’s no there there. It’s a long, talky, philosophical exploration of some fascinating topics, but as a novel, it’s incredibly dull. You keep waiting for the blow-up, for the accident, for the Big Problem that Joan and Jake have to struggle to overcome, and it never arrives. Everything works out either through money or force of will or Heinlein’s trademark Sheer Damn Reasonableness. Between that and the constant thought of, “He did not just say that,” I found this book rather stressful to plow through. It offers up a lot of big ideas to think on, raises some very important questions, and Heinlein’s gift for dialogue makes some fun conversations, but I think I would have liked it more if it had been completely different.

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“Sir, if you want to give me a fat lip, I’ll hold still, smile happily, and take it. Oh, Jake darling, it’s going to be such fun to be married to you!”
“I think so too, you dizzy bitch.”
– Joan and Jake, I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein
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[1] Wikipedia

Robert Heinlein on Wikipedia
I Will Fear No Evil on Wikipedia
I Will Fear No Evil on Amazon.com
The Heinlein Society

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Filed under afterlife, bad, death, existentialism, friendship, gender, gender roles, ghosts, homosexuality, identity, Robert Heinlein, romance, science fiction, sexuality

Review 110: Johnny the Homicidal Manic & SQUEE!

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors by Jhonen Vasquez

I’m putting these two together, because they really do form one larger piece – the craft of an artistic mastermind. Although perhaps “mastermind” isn’t the best word to use here. What do you call the person that they lock up when they’re about fifteen because they keep saying things to their teachers like, “The human body has ten thousand miles of blood vessels in it and I can feel my hate for you coursing through every one?” Or the guy who buys a dog, takes care of it, feeds it, loves it, and then one day realizes that the dog has been spying on him for the CIA for years and buries it in his backyard? Or the angry hobo who lurches up to your car as you wait at the stop light, a bucket of dirty, grey water in one hand and a rotten squeegee in the other and proceeds to molest himself with it, afterwards demanding that you gave him change, quote, “For the show.”

You thought I was kidding about the dog....

That kind of guy. What would you call him?

Whatever it is, welcome to the world of Jhonen Vasquez. Strap yourself in.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is the story of Johnny C., known to his very few friends simply as Nny. Nny is rail-thin, yet something of a fashion plate, and lives in a broken-down house with two evil Styrofoam doughboys, a dead bunny nailed to a wall, and a gateway to a creature of infinite evil somewhere in one of the many basements of the house.

In his free time, Johnny kills people in horrible and graphically interesting ways.

Not because he’s a bad person, necessarily. He does have the wall to feed, after all – a wall that has to be continually painted with fresh blood, lest the Evil come out of it. But he is, by his own admission, “quite horrendously insane.” He murders for many reasons, the Evil Wall aside. He murders the people who feel superior to others (while at the same time feeling that he is superior to them). The kills the smug and the self-possessed, the materialistic and the bored, the lowbrows and the posers and the jerks who seem to infest every corner of his world. And while he does kill with great glee and abandon, he occasionally takes the time to wonder if what he’s doing is worth it. If murder is all that his life has become. If maybe it would be better off to just end it all and kill himself.

Fortunately – or not – he has The Doughboys to keep him company. Two Styrofoam figures, painted by Nny, which talk to him constantly. One urges him to live and kill to his heart’s content. The other presses him to commit suicide and leave this world behind. Whichever wins will be freed from his plastic prison and reunited with his evil master. As a balance to them is Nailbunny, which is pretty much just what it sounds like – a bunny rabbit that Johnny bought from the pet store and then one day nailed to the wall. Nailbunny (or at least its floating head) is the voice of reason in Johnny’s life, urging him to be suspicious of the Doughboys and all they want. Despite his nihilistic view of the world, Johnny discovers that he does indeed have a purpose in life. Just not a very good one.

Yes, Nny, show us "wacky"

Johnny is, naturally, hard to sympathize with. Part of that comes from his almost cavalier attitude towards killing, but more than that, he’s rather adolescent in his view of the world and how it works. Like so many teenagers, he has yet to grow a buffer between himself and the world, and cannot differentiate malicious acts from merely thoughtless ones. He feels every barb and every sting like hooks in his flesh, and the only way he is able to deal with it is through murderous rage. Reading it as an adult who remembers his teen years, I can certainly see where Johnny is coming from, but at the same time I wish he’d just grow up and learn to live in the world like the rest of us.

Which is a statement for which Johnny would no doubt gleefully murder me.

One of the major themes of these comics is conformity and humanity’s need to follow each other into the abyss. Hypocritical characters dressed in all the latest fashions snub people who are slaves to public opinion. One of the worst offenders, a recurring character named Anne Gwish, embodies the modern Goth poser who shuns everyone while despairing that no one talks to her. Johnny’s world is filled with these people and they all need killing. Even people who don’t deserve death might end up falling to Johnny. In one of my favorite stories, “Goblins,” a man who was chosen at random is strapped to a truly terrible machine, and faces his impending death with enviable conviction.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac reads like an extended teenage revenge fantasy, if a highly philosophical and entertaining one. Eventually you figure out that, as Vasquez himself says, “He’s not a loser, he’s simply lost.”

No. Don't do it. Life is too... oh, go ahead.

Themes of identity and social connection continue in the book SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors. Young Squee (whose real name is Todd) is Johnny’s neighbor and is featured in the very first JtHM story. Squee is a pitiful child, with parents who resent his very existence and a school that is constantly trying to crush the spirit out of him. Squee lives a life of unending terror as he’s beset by nightmares, aliens, his cannibalistic grandfather, openly hateful parents, and a world that never seems to make sense. It is his young burden to have to live in a world created by Jhonen Vasquez.

Somehow, though, little Squee manages. Manages to get himself locked into an insane asylum, yes, but manages nonetheless.

The second half of the book features Vasquez’s filler strips – one or two-page stories of pain, heartbreak and horror. Poor Wobbly-Headed Bob tries to convince the rest of the world to accept that he’s smarter than they are, and can’t understand why they want to kill him. True Tales of Human Drama are just that – dramatic, probably human and god I hope they’re not true. Happy Noodle Boy is a free-form anarchistic story, allegedly drawn by Johnny himself, and I can never manage to finish one. My favorite filler strips are the Meanwhile…. strips, one of which features two elementary-school crossing guard children enacting the final battle between two entities of pure evil. Another depicts a first date gone horribly, horribly awry as a case of gastrointestinal distress engenders one of the best attempts to save face I’ve ever seen. A horrible, lying vampire, the revenge of the pinatas, and a case of childhood attachment issues gone horribly wrong, these are some of my favorite works in the whole series.

Good old Ludwig van B. Perfect for any occasion - even mass murder.

The work of Jhonen Vasquez certainly isn’t for everyone. Even his famous animated program, Invader Zim, is a little weirder than most people are willing to accept for a children’s show. It rewards patient reading and careful attention to the artwork. Which, I might add, is distinctive and disturbing and wonderful. Vasquez has created a style that’s cartoonish and yet horrible, in which childlike glee can be rendered next to heart-stopping horror, and we can perfectly believe that they exist in the same world.

It’s strange, horrible and funny all at the same time. If you’re interested in something out of the ordinary, I can definitely recommend this.

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“I suggest you seek some alternate source of sympathy, Nny. You tried to kill that girl. She liked you, and you tried to kill her. That was impolite.”
– Nailbunny, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Wikipedia
Squee! on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez’s website
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Amazon.com
SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors on Amazon.com

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Filed under afterlife, childhood, comic books, death, demons, existentialism, good and evil, graphic novel, horror, humor, Jhonen Vasquez, madness, morality, murder, philosophy, sins

Review 105: Reaper Man

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

So. What are your thoughts on death?

Or rather, Death?

It’s a weird thing, death. I mean, you’re here one minute and then you’re… not. And while we all know intellectually that we’re going to die, there’s something in us that refuses to believe that the essential Person that we are could possibly cease to exist. We have personalities, unique aggregations of memory and experience and inborn preferences that all display themselves as a Person, as far as we know unique in all the world. Each human being is an entity that will never be seen again in this universe, and as far as we know, the cessation of life brings that entity to an end, reducing the person we knew to a mere insentiate object.

Is it any wonder we come up with stories for what happens… y’know, after?

Just about very culture that’s ever been has come up with some form of afterlife, be it an eternal feast for heroes, a paradise in which we can bask in God’s glory, a place of exquisite pain and torment, or a ticket back to Earth for another go ’round. There is no way of knowing if any of those are actually what happens to us when we die. At least not until we actually do it. So since we cannot know, we make stuff up, if only to make the whole thing easier to bear.

What often goes with that other world is someone to take us over. A ferryman or a guide, someone who knows the territory and knows where we need to go in what is very likely a rather confusing time. It’s another piece of comfort – knowing that there’s Someone out there who knows where we need to go and what we need to do.

Grim indeed.... (photo by provia_17)

Which brings us to Death.

 

He’s been portrayed many ways over the years – my favorite is the Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series – a sort of older sister who’s known you all your life and loves you anyway. If she shows up for me when I die, I think I’ll be okay.

I would be just as happy with Pratchett’s Death, even though he is the more traditional robes-scythe-and-skeleton type. Fans of Discworld love Death, which I imagine was somewhat baffling for Pratchett early on. In the first few books, Death was a bit character – he showed up a couple of times to collect the recently deceased, and that was it. But his scenes were so memorable and so good that they sometimes stuck out above the rest of the book. He speaks entirely in capital letters, which lends him a voice that is probably reminiscent of James Earl Jones. He’s aloof, but not uncaring, and seems to take a rather curious interest in humanity. He likes cats, has a house off on the edge of nowhere, and rides a great white steed named Binky. Death has become, in short, an interesting person.

And it seems that’s a problem.

The Universe, you see, is a finely tuned instrument, one which needs monitoring and, occasionally, adjusting. There are… let’s call them Auditors, who make sure that reality stays real – no odd deviations or anomolies such as, for example, anthropomorphic personifications of natural forces. In all honesty, they would eliminate all life if they could, but that is, as yet, beyond their capabilities. So they settle for telling Death that it’s time for him to retire. He gets a little hourglass all his own, and time to kill until the new Death comes into being.

Heya Tom, it's Bob - from the office down the hall... (photo by Scott Beale)

In the interim, this time between Deaths, a new problem arises: nothing is dying. Or, to be more specific, things are dying, but the vital energies that empowered everything, from cabbages to clergymen, aren’t being taken away. Without a Death to handle this very vital – so to speak – function, the life energy is looking for a place to go, an outlet. As a result, things that shouldn’t be alive are up and moving around. In some cases this means objects running along of their own accord, and in others it means that the dead simply have nowhere to go.

Such is the case with the wizard Windle Poons. After 130 years at the Unseen University, he was rather looking forward to a nice rest and then a bit of reincarnation as a woman in a far more liberal society. What he got instead was nothingness. Given that option, he went back to his body and became Undead, much to the consternation of the rest of the UU faculty. Unfortunately for them, they have bigger things to worry about – the buildup of life force is having a rather larger and more dangerous effect on the city of Ankh-Morpork itself. The lack of a Death may well doom the city in a manner that will be horribly familiar to many of Pratchett’s readers.

And where is Death in all this, or at least the person who used to be Death? He has found a small farm below the famous Ramtop Mountains. An old maid, Miss Flitworth, needs a hand and Death needs a way to spend his time – something he’s never had to worry about before. He takes the alias Bill Door and starts to learn what it means to be alive, despite the short time he has left.

"What can the harvest hope for if not the care of the reaper man?" (art by Andrew Mar)

The book, as you might imagine, is all about being alive. What makes life special and precious and ultimately worth living. Windle Poons let life go past while he grew old behind the university walls, and it is only in death that he finds out all that fun he’d missed. Bill Door learns that it is the fragility of life, and its most certain end, which ultimately gives it meaning. In the middle, we see that everything that can live yearns to do so, from the mayflies to the great Counting Pines to cities to ideas.

 

While the book gives no answers to what may happen after death (the Discworld books rarely do), it does give us another way to look at life. And that, ultimately, is the goal of any great story.

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“Huh! Priests! They’re all the same. Always telling you that you’re going to live again after you’re dead, but you just try it and see the look on their faces!”
Reg Shoe, Reaper Man

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Review 58: Sum – Forty Tales from the Afterlives


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

So. What happens after we die?

I’ll wait.

Is it a Heaven of clouds and harps and angels? A Hell full of fire and brimstone and horrible torture? Do you get to come back again and live a new life, perhaps building on the mistakes of your previous one? Yeah, I guess that’s all well and good. I mean, the classics never go out of style, right? Perhaps some pearly gates with Morgan Freeman hanging out nearby, or an place of endless torment where David Warner is ready to turn you into a cockroach. Variations on an old and well-worn theme.

But how about an afterlife where you get to live with every possible version of yourself? You know the “many worlds” theory of the universe, right? For every choice you make, a new universe is born, and in that universe there lives a different you. Perhaps one who made better choices, perhaps worse. Well, after you die, you get to hang out with them all! Including, unfortunately, all the yous who made much, much better decisions than you did.

Or perhaps you get the afterlife where you re-live your entire life, but with all moments of the same quality grouped together. So that means you get to spend thirty years sleeping, or two hundred days taking a shower. Doesn’t sound too bad, except for the eighteen months you spend waiting in line, or the five months you spend on the toilet, or the 27 hours of intense pain.

Maybe you discover that there is no afterlife for us, just as there is no afterlife for a computer chip. We’ve all been components in a great computer, wherein every nod of your head, every word, every blink is merely a signal sent to other processing units (AKA people). Of course, the programmers don’t know why we’ve thrived as we have – they didn’t make us to be sentient, and still don’t realize it’s happened. But our world is the greatest of the computer worlds they’ve built.

There are forty other afterlives in this book, all described in two or three pages. Each one is an attempt to break free of the traditional sense of what the afterlife “should” be, and shows a great deal of creativity.

What’s fun is reading this and understanding that any one of them could be true. Just as true as the traditional heavens and hells we’ve been building for the last few millennia. After all, why couldn’t we have an afterlife where we’re given the opportunity to come back – but with one change of our own choosing? Or another where we get to choose the form of our next life, but are betrayed by our inability then to remember why we had chosen it? Just because they don’t have the weight of a Church’s doctrine or thousands of years of philosophy doesn’t make them wrong.

Because, after all, we don’t know. We can’t know. We may think we know, or believe we know, but that really doesn’t mean anything. Hell, I came up with my own afterlife scheme that sounded pretty good to me, but does that make it true? Nope. The one big constraint that seems to apply to all afterlives is that no one ever gets to tell the living how it worked out. Why this should be is unknown to me, but that just puts me in league with every philosopher who ever lived. Not bad company.

But since all afterlives could be true, it can be argued that none of them are. And if you can’t know what will happen to your soul after death, and how to ensure that your eternity is a pleasant one, then perhaps you should stop worrying about it. The nature and requirements of your afterlife are totally out of your control.

The same cannot be said for your life. That is something that you have knowledge of and control over. So appreciate that little fact and go do something with it.

Go ahead and entertain speculation about life after death. Let your imagination go wild. But don’t for a moment think that you know what will come when you breathe your last. Because it probably won’t be anything you ever expected.

Or maybe it will. Who am I to say?

In any case, this is a fun little (and I do mean little) book, suitable for reading in one sitting or in forty tiny bites of time. And who knows, maybe it’ll spur you on to thoughts of your own afterlife. If you have one, I’d love to hear it.

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“Among all the creatures of creation, the gods favor us: we are the only ones who can empathize with their problems.”
– David Eagleman, Sum
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