Walking the Night Land: City at the End of Time

The walk through the Night Land continues.

Essay: City at the End of Time, Greg Bear, 2008.514XS9dObkL

It isn’t just Greg Bear saying in interviews that this novel was both a homage to William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land and Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars or critics guessing that. Hodgson shows up right on page 398, and Bear subsumes the man and his novel into his own creation:

’Like a battlefield,’ said Glaucous. ‘I walked the trenches around Ypres, almost a hundred years ago, looking for a particular gent – a fine strapping fellow and a poet. He dreamed, so I was led to believe, of a place he called the Last Redoubt. He’d written a book before shipping out, detailing his dreams . . . But the war had already blown him to bits. Lean years for hunters, during wartime.’

Glaucous is one such hunter, or, to be exact, he’s a “chancer”, sort of a man who can unconsciously manipulate probabilities to help hunters like Whitlow find “shifters” and “dreamers”.

They’ve both been alive for hundreds, maybe thousands of years and in the employ of the Chalk Princess, the bleacher of history, stories, texts, and ultimately cause and effect. Glaucous and Whitlow’s immediate quarries are three possessors of “summing stones”: Ginny, Jack, and Daniel. All three have the ability to “jaunt” (a hat tip to Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination) from timeline to timeline.

In describing their stories, Bear comes perilously close to violating C. S. Lewis’ injunction about having odds things happening to odd people is oddity too much. Still, Glaucous and Bidewell, another long-lived character, and the rather psychopathic Daniel are the most interesting characters in the novel.

The novel seems to be set in a world very close, but not identical, to ours. Jorge Luis Borges, for instance, is not known here though Borges’ and Kurt Lasswitz’s idea of a library of all knowledge and nonsense, a Library of Babel, is a plot motif. Bear also managed to coincidentally depict a depressed Seattle just about the time the Great Recession hit.

It’s a complicated novel full of nested stories and flitting from the far future of “Fourteen Zeroes” to the present day of a mere “Ten Zeroes”.

To be sure, a lot of Hodgson’s The Night Land does show up here.

There is the City at the End of Time, Kalpa, last refuge of traditionally biological humans (even if they have been brought back into existence again by a program of the noötic Eidolions) at the end of the End of Time. It is Bear’s version of the Last Redoubt.

Like the Last Redoubt, Kalpa is besieged by the forces of chaos, the Typhon, about its borders. Outside the City at the End of Time, humans exist who have been altered by contact with the Typhon, a parallel to Hodgson’s abhumans.

There is even a sister settlement to Kalpa, Nataraja, that, like the Lesser Redoubt, is composed of those who rebelled against humanity’s main settlement.

However, Bear reverses Hodgson’s plot of X rescuing Naani and bringing her back to the Last Redoubt. The action here concludes in Nataraja.

Bear also retains the elements of lovers mirrored in various eras of history with the linkages of Tiadba-Ginny and Jebrassy-Jack across the times of “ten zeroes” and “fourteen zeroes”. Bear also retains Hodgson’s theme of the importance of love. His version of Hodgson’s the House of Love is, at novel’send, “love, sufficient to rekindle time and make paradise”.

The use of Clarke’s The City and the Stars is that this story partially takes place far in the future in a city after man has dispersed to the stars and now has retreated to a single city.

There is also a version of Clarke’s Mad Mind in the Typhon.

The novel’s plot involves the closure of the “adamantine walls of Alpha and Omega”, the rolling up of the skeins of history’s multiple timelines from the end of time.

Bear justifies this with the multiple-worlds hypothesis of quantum mechanics along with the idea that it enables spontaneous generation of matter. Once matter is created, it has to have always existed and is entangled with all the matter it interacts with, “that connectedness – must be established after the fact”.

All the many histories of the multiple timelines have to be reconciled at times end, reconciled by a force or being called Mnemosyne. But Mnemosyne has a dark sister, Kali, the Chalk Princess who eliminates contradictions by eliminating world-lines. Shifters, with their summing stones that retain knowledge of history seemingly can flit from timeline to timeline, sometimes. (Many times the shifters do this when they are threatened, when they feel their timeline is about to be snipped, a frayed thread in the entangled multiple timelines.) Daniel is a unique shifter, the “black shepherd” necessary for the rebirth of the cosmos, who singularly doesn’t dream and is sought by the Chalk Princess for a special purpose.

To the idea of quantum mechanics, Bear adds the metaphor of stories, texts, like the geological record, maintaining a record of the past. Bidewell collects books looking for minute and significant variations in the texts. Exactly, how he draws significance from this I don’t understand. Perhaps they are records of timelines that don’t exist anymore. When apocalyptic chaos descends on Seattle at story’s end, libraries act as sort of a stabilizing force. The three women who help out Bidewell are given personal, written biographies by Bidewell to shield them from the chaos. There is a library in the Kalpas that Jebrassy and Tiadba find and is sort of another Library of Babel, a collection of all knowledge and all nonsense.

Reading a text acts as an act of stabilization and creation it seems, yet there is a curious story referenced. A spider in a medieval monastery who, though unthinking, can add to a story with the tracings of its ink-stained legs across a page. It seems to represent the random element of creation as does the contents of the human mind and the dice Tiadba consults.

I don’t think this all coheres though the book is richer, on pondering over it before writing this post, than I first thought. I also found the novel boring in some parts, particularly many of the Kalpa sections.

The novel ends with a story/text metaphor central to Western Civilization: “In the beginning, was the Word.” Bear, towards the end, also adds elements of Hinduism. We hear of Brahma’s sleep, and I can’t tell if he is supposed to be a creative force like Mnemosyne or not. Certainly, Kali seems like the Chalk Princess.

Ultimately, this book kind of descends into near techno-mysticism at the end rather like Bear’s Eternity which I’ll be looking at later in this series. There’s also an ailurophiliac element in the climax too that seemed too whimsical and out of nowhere.

I will note that this is the third time (the fourth if you count Bear’s “Hardfought”) Bear has done this plot of history ending, and I’ll be looking at those earlier examples too. One is his “Judgment Engine”, and he uses Hodgson’s novel even more directly in “The Way of All Ghosts”. I think that is a more successful homage than this work.

Even though I liked some elements of this story, it ultimately had too many mysteries whose solutions are oblique or non-existent, and it dragged in parts enough that, if you’re not interested in a Hodgson homage, I can’t recommend it.

Next up, we’ll be looking at Andy W. Robertson’s second Night Lands anthology.


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