Walking the Night Land: “The Way of All Ghosts”

At last we’re at the point where Greg Bear’s Way/Thistledown series intersects with William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land.

Essay: Beyond the Farthest Suns: The Complete Short Fiction of Greg Bear, Volume Three, ed. Greg Bear, 2016.

Cover by Mauricio Díaz

 Without further delay let’s look at that point, the story “The Way of All Ghosts” from 1999.

Contrary to what I was expecting, William Hope Hodgson does not show up as a “ghost” (like Edgar Allan Poe did in Eternity) in this, the last published story in Bear’s Way series though.

Bear makes no secret of the story’s link to Hodgson. It’s dedicated to Hodgson. Bear’s introductory notes talk about Hodgson and The Night Land.

As with Eternity, I am not entirely sure I understood this story. Perhaps my brain has rotted. Perhaps I’m out of practice reading hard science fiction. Perhaps I’m just no longer tuned in to Bear’s literary frequency.

Well, here’s what I think is a brief, incomplete synopsis. (I’m not doing an in-depth series on Bear, after all, but The Night Land.)

As in Legacy, an illegal gateway has been opened off the Way about 50 years ago. This time, the culprit was one Deidre Enoch who left the Way along with about a 120 followers. The Hexamon has sent expeditions into this “lesion” where

the boundaries of physics have collapsed. Time and causality have new meanings. Heaven and Hell have been married,

before. But now it fears what will happen if the Jarts, the alien menace threatening the way, enter the lesion.

Olmy, the Hexamon troubleshooter who is in every Way novel, is sent into it with two apprentice gate-openers and a woman, Gena Plass, who lived in the world of that lesion as part of Enoch’s group. To prevent its use by the Jarts, the lesion must be sealed off for good.

Before they depart, Olmy hears that members of the three previous expeditions dispatched to the lesions have returned – or, at least, some version of them. These are the “ghosts” of the title, and the Hexamon destroyed them. They threaten, we are told, “everything we call real”. Plass remembers people in her group that do not exist in official records.

Once inside the lesion, what residents even call the Night Land, we learn the universe accessed by Enoch has become turbulent. Rather, as in Hodgson’s depiction of forces and entities outside of Earth coming to Earth as the result of scientific experimentation in the future, Enoch’s gate has created a conflict in the physical law between “Way physics and the universe Enoch accessed”. The “hyper-order” of the lesion that Enoch hoped to tap has, instead, bred monsters about its border with the Way. These monsters and altered humans and living mountains that churn out of Bear’s Night Land deliberately echo Hodgson.

Just as the far future humans of Hodgson’s novel have retreated to the Last Redoubt, so have the survivors of Enoch’s expedition.

In some ways, you can see the plot that unfolds as a dry run for Bear’s other use of Hodgson’s novel, City at the End of Time.

Both have the idea of events in the future, changes to “world-lines”, perpetuating backwards in time to create “ghosts”, alternate versions of people. Sometimes, those waves of changes move back in time eliminate all references to people in records and wipe them from others’ memory. A line from the story, “The tragedy of uncontrolled order is that the past is revised – and revisited – as easily as the future” could stand in for a description of one of the concepts behind that novel too.

Gena Plass is haunted by one such ghost, that of her husband who accompanied her with Enoch. She even believes that visions of her husband – or some version of him – have been seen by her ancestors on her own “world-line”. Plass says ghosts let you “remember the future” or some alternate of it. She also notes no other known intelligent species has myths about ghosts. This implies that’s because no other species has visited the Night Land and had versions of its explorers propagate back in time.

There is a secular version of original sin which drives Enoch and also thematically links this story to another, earlier Bear story, “Judgment Engine” from 1993.

She believes human corruption is not the problem with humanity but something deeper and more basic: the

laws of our universe are inadequate. Incomplete. That there is a way to become better human beings.

In essence, Enoch is the ultimate progressive. She’s no mere reformer of society. She’s a would-be reformer of the understrata of the universe. She wants to transform the laws of nature. Enoch wants to be rid of a natural order built on competition and death, a place where those are not the building blocks of change and evolution and intelligence.

Plass and Olmy discuss the implications of the order Enoch seeks. He says order is supposed to be simple and peaceful and not full of torture and coercion and distortion. Plass, a self-described Christian, responds that heaven has no change and no death. But it’s not as attractive an idea as humans think:

No good thing lasts forever. . . . Now imagine a force that demands that something last forever, yet become even more the essence of what it was – a force that will accept nothing less than compliance, but can’t communicate.

The lesion has tapped into a place where universal physical constants can be changed, “a tight little knot of incredible density” where a “Final Mind” possible.

Evil can be a manifestation of order, argues Plass. The Final Mind of Bear’s Night Land orders the universe Enoch has accessed. If it is an intelligence, it merely rearranges pre-existing creation and elaborates on it.

Never freshened by the new, at its core, Order without death, art without critic or renewal, the final mind of a universe where only riches exist, only joy is possible, never knowing disappointment.

It is another statement of the series theme on the necessity of death, conflict, and decay to bring renew the physical and political worlds. You can also see this as Bear’s version of Hodgson’s House of Silence. Silence is a quality, after all, that is ordered if sterile.

A theme of Bear’s Thistledown series is how political conflicts still emerge in the much richer and more advanced human cultures of the future. At one point, Olmy wonders if there is something in Thistledown culture that breeds complacent followers eager to follow charismatic leaders like those who use the Way to set up renegade settlements like in this story and Legacy.

We again see, as in all the Thistledown stories except “The Wind from a Burning Woman”, Bear treating the whole matter of gates and gate openers like magic with little explanation and some handwaving offered. The plot is complicated, but, as I mentioned there are similarities to City at the End of Time. In both, there are characters who are nexuses that draw the world-lines of universes about them. Enoch is such a person and unaffected by the Final Mind, sometimes known as the “allthing” which wrings changes on the world-lines of “a thousand infinitesimally different universes”.

The Final Mind is thought, at first, as a force subsuming “all events, all lives, all thought” and will bloom at the end of time. It is the interaction of all time, space, and matter. But what Enoch seems to have found is a mind that never learns, only rearranges. Not a mind at all in other words. Enoch mentions that the Jarts met the “allthing” too. Somehow they have their own version of the Night Land and gave it to the Final Mind, and it will eventually merge with the one of humanity.

Again, as with City at the End of Time, we seem to have a story of cosmic death and rebirth.

At the climax, Olmy is able to see, in small arcs of his vision, the different fates of the twin gate openers. He realizes the allthing represents no separation of mind and matter, “observed and observer” and is changeless. Olmy’s mission succeeds, the energy and order to give birth to a universe of life is born out of pain, one domain feeding on another. Here it seems that our world cosmos will cannibalize the Night Land.

While I found it confusing – like some earlier Way stories, Bear’s homage to Hodgson is worthy and serves his own themes surprisingly well. It’s a worthy use of Hodgson’s imagery and setting to explore Bear’s own ideas. However, Bear’s tale is, of course, not primarily of love (though there is that with Plass and the ghost of her husband) or of heroic and stoic opposition to inevitable doom. Bear’s Night Land changes and serves a regenerative purpose ultimately.

While better than City at the End of Time, I didn’t find it as enjoyable and effective a use of Hodgson as Brantley’s The House of Silence.

As I’ve mentioned before, Bear’s “Judgment Engine” deals with some of the same themes as “The Way of All Ghosts” and City at the End of Time. It takes place at the far end of time, mere hours before the final death of the universe. It is a story of uploaded minds, sometimes fused into group minds, “libraries”, that hope to pass from the end of our universe’s “deathsound” to the quantum foam of the next.

The story starts out narrated by a “We”, one such group mind, and then we hear from an “I”, the Engine of the title. He is the uploaded mind of Vasily Gerazimov, a Russian from “twelve billion two hundred and seventy-nine million years” ago that “We” has resurrected. It is hoped that he can understand the actions of another group mind, rebels fouling the Endtime Work.

Consciousness finds, in the libraries, “an intimacy deeper than sex”. But all those minds are human minds. No other intelligences were found. Sometimes a mind will “individuate” and leave the group mind for a holiday. This individuation process sometimes spreads to become the “dangerous atavism” of the singular consciousness.

Other old atavisms show up. Libraries wage war on each other, feel rage “cold and precise and long-lived, terrible in its persuasiveness, dreadful in its consequences”. In short, the old human ways of competition, “victory through survival, evolution and reproduction” show up again. It is established as proven that “error and pain and destruction are essential to any change” — what the allthing of “The Way of All Ghosts” doesn’t realize.

Eventually these minds come to a horrible realization, the Proof – there is “no ultimate ethical advancement in the universe”. This is rather like the “original sin” Enoch hoped to evade by leaving the Way in “The Way of All Ghosts” or that the Lenkists hoped to discover on Lamarckia.

But the old hopes die hard, and the Berkus is a rebel force that opposes the Endtime Work. It’s led, not coincidentally, by Vasily’s old wife, Elisaveta.

The We think they can end this standoff by negotiation or understanding. It wants to wrap up the Endtime Work, which seems to be some sort of archiving of everything rather like the Jarts of the Way series working for their Descendant Command.

The Berkus is engaged on a planet in a riot of creation much like the allthing. It thinks the “Proof is a cultural aberration”, a flaw that needs to be taken out of the next universe. (Rather similar to Enoch’s attempt to create such a world.) The Berkus rejects the proof and the idea of an “indifferent and randomly hostile” universe.

Vasily argues there can be no heaven with a just god. “Perfect justice and beauty and evolution and change are incompatible.” Intelligent minds, human minds, are doomed to error and evolve accordingly. Vasily talks with Elisaveta, learns of her dissatisfaction with him and the complete death of their children (not even existing as uploaded minds). We learn most of the Libraries committed suicide a hundred million years ago rather than send their corrupt nature into a new universe. Elisaveta argues all the minds are doomed to die.

We learned that the young Vasily dreamed of an “eternal college” where learning could be done at leisure, where change was evil. Elisaveta found it stifling. She invites Vasily, as the Judgment Engine, to let his mind be taken (needless to say we’re dealing with such levels of superscience that it isn’t explained in detail and not much better than magic) into the new universe.

He initially rejects the idea then says yes. But it seems too late. His resurrectors shut his mind down so he doesn’t have to experience the Endtime. The narration shifts back to “We” who says there are worse things than oblivion. Perhaps it means loneliness.

The story is more interesting as showing themes that show up in other Bear stories than on its own merits.

And, while I’m here, I’ll look at the rest of the stories in the collection.

The Fall of the House of Escher” has the feel of a far future story. In its world, humanity seems to have gone into the box, wired itself together (literal wires of fiber optics). No need to have real experiences, which can be painful, when you can have virtual ones. Why have kids when you can have the less messy story of having kids? “Interior infinities” of the self can be explored as opposed to the outside world.

This demand is personified and met by King Nerve and his minions Cant, Shant, Dont, Musnt. Bear rightly predicts that such technology would fragment the world of arts so that artists are rare and serve specific niches with no overlap. This story is sort of a rumination on what popularity does to an artist, and the masses of this world are most fond of one Roderick Escher.

Escher wants to die as does his sister. But King Nerve isn’t going to allow that unless his replacement is found. So the narrator, an old friend of Escher’s and a magician, is revived from storage, and he dazzles the world with his illusions which he carefully ask the embodied minions of King Nerve’s will, to duplicate, which they can’t. Bear sees where the trends of social media and the internet are taking us: a

this new world was composed not of gods, but of rude, ill-bred children who had never faced responsibility or consequence, and whose lives were all secrecy, all privilege, conducted behind thick and impersonal walls.

Three stories, “The Venging”, “Perihesperon”, and “Hardfought” are, according to Bear’s introductory notes, set in the same universe as his Beyond Heaven’s River and Strength of Stones.

I’ve already looked at “Hardfought”.

The Venging” is from 1973 when black hole stories were popular. A vengeful alien, Kamon, is resentful his race doesn’t have access to immortality treatments like humans and angry that Disjohn Fairchild has built a space station around a black hole which violates the religious taboo’s of Kamon’s race, the Aighors. After some diplomatic scheming involving the various sentient races of this universe, Kamon goes after the spaceship of the rich and powerful Anna Sigrid-Nestor since she’s renounced her diplomatic immunity and is protecting Fairchild. Bear makes his intragalactic society based on trading information interesting, but, while I’m sure the technical details are right, the conclusion around that black hole (which, of course, makes use of its peculiar properities) is a bit hard to follow.

Following the lead of his idol, Arthur C. Clarke, Bear seems to like to mix mysticism with science and here the Aighor notion of the Thrina, sort of an afterlife inside a black hole, seems confirmed. And this is also another Bear tale of time loops and cosmic cycles.

Bear’s notes are amusing in their discussion of how parts of this story may have found its way into the film The Black Hole.

Anna Sigrid Nestor returns, sort of, at the end of her long life, in “Perihesperon”. This is a downer of a story. It starts out with a cliché right out of 1920s and early 1930s sf: a starship holed by a meteorite. Karen, a young girl aboard the ship, is the only survivor. Improbably, Cammis Alista, who has his own small starship, was nearby to rescue her. The problem is that Alista picked up a lethal dose of radiation and is going to be dead soon. Before he dies, Alista sets the ship on an automated course through a section of space. He talks with Alista about Anna Sigrid Nestor. He was her last consort before she died, and he relates her final days. She ruminated about how life is not its length but what is done with it to reach our potential. Yet Nestor also relates how she didn’t pay any attention to Earth’s sun, which she was born under, the last time she saw it. Now she feels the need for its warmth. She wants to sing more and love again. So Nestor seems to long for longer life before she dies, in effect renouncing her earlier philosophy if not actions.

MDIO Ecosystems Increase Knowledge of DNA Languages (2215 C.E.)” is one of those sf stories presented as an article or essay from the future. Bear says it uses ideas he developed in detail in Darwin’s Radio, Vitals, and Darwin’s Children (none of which I’ve read). Massive Deep Ice Objects (MDIOs) have ecosystems which encode a great deal of information in their RNA. They can also use organisms with DNA to replicate. In effect, they are a sort of intelligence.

Besides the introductory notes for each story, there are a couple of non-fiction pieces of interest.

On Losing the Taint of Being a Cannibal” talks about how odd the sf writer who “dabbles” in fantasy is considered. Bear says his early works were fantasy, and he loves fantasy, some of his best work is fantasy. But he sees, from the perspective of 1993, snobbery hardening between the sf and fantasy camps in the last ten years.

Characters Great and Small in SF: ‘Sisters’” argues, and I’m in agreement, that sf’s richness comes from acknowledging there are larger entities in life than human individuals: sociology, psychology, technology, history, and the natural world. These must be taken into account when creating characters and considering their motives. Cultures, nations, species, all of humanity can be a character – James Gunn’s idea of “race fiction” though Bear doesn’t mention that. Therefore, a good sf writer, Bear argues, must move between “the internal world, the social world, and the external world” when describing and creating a character. Both human action and larger forces can move a story.

All in all, this is a moderately enjoyable collection and, of course, required reading for Bear fans.

But it is with some relief that I now leave Bear and his superscience behind because, in the next post, we’re going to see where Hodgson and Edmond “World Wrecker” Hamilton meet.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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