Walking the Night Land: A Detour (Eternity)

We’re still heading down the stream of Greg Bear’s Way series looking for traces of William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. We won’t find them here, but let’s take a look around anyway.

Essay: Eternity, Greg Bear, 1988.

Cover by Ron Miller

I liked this book better than its predecessor, Eon.

For one thing, Bear summed up the nature of the Way with a concise metaphor instead of the bits and pieces of, for me, confusing superscience that were in the last novel. One character describes the Way thus:

The tunnel itself an immense tapeworm curling through the guts of the real universe, pores opening onto other universes equally real but not our own, other times real and equally real’

That character is Pavel Mirsky. He went off, down the Way with other humans at the end of Eon. Now he’s back from the end of time and, seemingly, from another universe.

Secondly, other characters from the prior novel appear, and they mostly manage to be more interesting this time.

Of the Old Native stock, as the members of the Hexamon refer to the humans that survived the nuclear war of 2015, the major returning characters are Gary Lanier, now acting as a liaison and administrator between the Hexamon’s recovery efforts – managed, of course, from Thistledown orbiting Earth – and those stuck on Earth. He’s now married to Karen.

Patricia Vasquez, the supergenius of Eon, is mostly offstage, but her granddaughter, Rhita, is a major character. Bear, however, would have been better off without the happy coda to the novel where Patricia gets returned to her family at the end in a world where Thistledown aka Stone doesn’t exist and, presumably, there will also be no nuclear war.

Among the Hexamon, Konrad Korzenowski, creator of the Way, is back and a major player. And, of course, Olmy, general fixer – military man, secret agent, and policeman – for the upper echelons of the Hexamon is back.

The third reason I liked this novel better is its skepticism, or at least consideration, of the transhuman themes of uploaded minds, body modifications, and synthetic personalities. Not only does the novel take the broad ramifications of those ideas seriously. Bear also casts a skeptical eye on that old value of political in a more coherent way than the earlier novel.

I liked the skeptical eye Bear cast – at least in seemed to me – on a couple of utopian notions that show up in sf novels: immortality and a unified humanity. “Contrast and conflict” are necessary to maintain a stable universe, Mirsky tells us in his deposition from the future. But, as the novel shows, contrast and conflict may not be necessary in the political universe of humans, but they are certainly a constant.

The story has three major arenas of conflict.

Rhita journeys from Rhodes to Alexandria, seat of Imperial intrigue, where Vasquez eventually ended up after gaining some influence with Kleopatra, ruler of that Earth’s long-lived Ptolemic Dynasty. Rhita will eventually be driven to Central Asia where the “clavicle”, the tool that opens up the Way and used by Vasquez in a futile attempt to return home at the end of Eon is.

The survivors of the Death on Earth harbor various resentments against the Hexamon after the Sundering of Thistledown from the Way and concentration on rebuilding civilization on Earth.

On the one hand, the paternalism of the Hexamon is resented. After all, the Hexamon is descended from another Earth where the survivors rebuilt civilization after their own version of a nuclear war. Why should the people of Earth not be allowed the self-reliance and independence the Hexamon’s ancestors had? It’s also a sometimes heavy-handed paternalism with campaigns of therapy to get the minds of the natives right. The Hexamon even considered releasing mind-altering biological plagues on Earth.

The natives of Earth resent the Hexamon being skimpy with longevity treatments and mental implants that allow personalities to exist after death. Not that all the natives want that. A split in the marriage of Karen and Gary has occurred. Karen has accepted Hexamon longevity treatments. Gary has not. Indeed, he does not think the culture and politics of the Old Natives is suited to such technologies. They have not had the long cultural adaptations to them that the Hexamon has. Needless to say, Gary, aging 40 years since the first novel while Karen remains youthful strained things.

In the Hexamon itself, that cultural evolution hasn’t occurred just in response to various transhuman’s technologies. The Way has shaped it as well. One faction wants to open it back up. The other thinks the Hexamon should return to its origins on Earth albeit not the exact Earth of their history.

The final conflict takes inside the head of Olmy. He has discovered a Hexamon secret. One of the alien Jart who have occupied the Way was captured over a century ago and hidden. Olmy must decide whether he wants to investigate its psychology and risk the fate of previous investigators – death or insanity – as the Jart tries to assault or suborn the mental implants of its interrogators.

Into all this, Mirsky returns with a fantastic tale from, well, beyond the end of time and the universe. His personality and memories are verified by an old surviving colleague of his. He seems human but his very story suggests otherwise.

After the events of Eon, Mirsky traveled down the Way with others and died in the last way left to immortals: “to forget one’s self and to be forgotten by others”. He relates how he entered, at the “finite but unbounded” “blister” at the end of the Way, the “egg of a new universe”. They cannot survive as material entities. They expand this blister into a new universe where they exist as god-like entities with a single will shaping worlds. But they find out that “contrast and conflict” is necessary for a stable universe and theirs is decaying rapidly. Across time (this is all rather poetic and mystic and I very well might have misunderstood it after one reading and a skimming) they hear their descendants who also aren’t really individuated but of a “more practical, hardier intelligence”. They have become the Final Mind.

Mirsky is charged with bringing a message back from the End of Time and this pocket universe. The Way must be opened again and then destroyed. The universe cannot die (or, at least, die only badly) with the tapeworm of the Worm in its guts. There is some hint, I don’t think it’s entirely clear, that the enemy Jarts serve the Final Mind that humanity has merged into.

The Jarts are revealed, in their actions, not as destroyers of humanity but archivers, preservers of worlds. Granted, this means, as happens to Rhita’s world, wiping human worlds out and preserving their individual memories and their civilizations as information packages to be given to their “final commanders”, the Final Mind.

There is as much mysticism in this novel as Eon but the confusing superscience rationalization is less. Bear may tack on a final chapter giving a happy ending to Vasquez’s existence (whether there is continuity with the woman of the prior novel or if she is just a recreation was not clear to me), but the main message is that death and conflict are necessary, seemingly of cultural and political orders.

The Hexamon destroys the Way and blows up Thistledown, seemingly committing itself to Earth. How the people of Earth will be ruled and what technology they will get from the Hexamon is unclear.

Olmy decides to go to an alien world before the Way closes up.

The novel ends with what two sentences that seem to be Bear’s metaphor for life. Mirsky and Lanier have committed themselves to some kind of mental wandering through time: “We search for points of interest, until we come to the end. And then?”.

Ultimately, though, I think Bear’s The Forge of God and Blood Music, also sharing themes of radical science and apocalyptic change, are better and more coherent novels. Bear’s plot is not entirely clear. I don’t think the physics or logic of his superscience are intelligible.

And I suspect Bear wasn’t actually going for a prescriptive statement but a normative one. Humans will have fundamental disagreements on what change to embrace, when, and to what extent.

Is there foreshadowing of how William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land is going to get worked into all this? Not much. Perhaps some manifestation of the Final Mind or its transhuman forbears will become those dark entities that haunt the Night Land, entities brought there by scientific experiments of the past.

Next post is another step down the Way.


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