Beyond the Doors of Death

I’ve reviewed Robert Silverberg’s “Born with the Dead” before, so I’m going to concentrate on Broderick’s continuation of the story.

Beyond the Doors of DeathThis isn’t the first time Robert Silverberg has been involved in one of these modern projects where a contemporary practicing writer expands or continues a classic work. He expanded three stories of Isaac Asimov into novels: Nightfall (1990), The Positronic Man (1992), and The Ugly Little Boy (1992). In 1989, he wrote “In Another Country“, sequel to C. L. Moore’s “Vintage Season”. (The 1990s saw several of these pairings including ones by Gregory Benford with Arthur C. Clarke and Harry Turtledove with L. Sprague de Camp.)

As far as I know, this is the first time Silverberg gets to play the role of master with his work setting the tone and standard for an “apprentice”.

I know little about Broderick’s work except for The White Abacus which I liked — but then I would be predisposed to liking a pairing of Jacobean drama and science fiction. He seems equally at home with general literature and science fiction, and, as a futurist, conversant with some cutting edge speculations of science and technology. He’s even written what looks to be a cautious argument for the existence of psychic powers.

He also seems, based on his review of Patrick Nielsen Hayden and David Hartwell’s Twenty-First Century Science Fiction, firmly enthused about future technology and thinks science fiction exists to be a vaccine for future shock.

Review: Beyond the Doors of Death, Robert Silverberg and Damien Broderick, 2013.

Robert Silverberg’s “Born with the Dead”, written in 1974, is a justly celebrated classic of science fiction. In a near future where the dead are “rekindled” and form a separate society of their own, a man obsessively seeks to understand and know his dead wife’s new existence. An icy parable of such precisely controlled tone and so lacking in rationalizing technology or science babble that it has as much the flavor of a weird story as of science fiction.

It has been widely anthologized, and the first half of Silverberg’s introduction to this book is taken from the story’s appearance in The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume 4: Trips. The second half talks about how Damien Broderick’s sequel, “Quicken”, came to be written. Silverberg made only three alterations in his story. Apropos to updating a 40 year old story, he changed two dates from 1993 to 2033 and the name of an airline.

Broderick picks up the story of the newly dead Jorge Klein. He becomes sort of an apostle of the Dead to the world of the warms as tension mounts. The dead, rich, freakish, and seemingly true immortals are resented and feared and fetishized.

It’s when this cultural cold war goes hot, and shortly after we learn a startling truth about how the dead came to be “rekindled”, that the story starts to justify Silverberg’s description of Stapledonian. The narrative starts to jump forward in century long leaps.

Where Silverberg’s prose is smooth and lightly anchored to 1974, Broderick’s prose is spiky with specifics, contemporary political and cultural allusions, thick with, as fitting Broderick’s literary and scientific interests, technical jargon and literary and mythological references. No attempt was made by Broderick to match Silverberg’s tone or style, and his story attempts commentary on many issues, most having to do with his professional interest in the Singularity.

The denouement was a bit too clotted with mythological references and vague to ultimately satisfy me, but the journey through most of Broderick’s story was interesting and held my interest. Don’t think of Broderick’s story so much a sequel as a variation on a master work with some faltering notes but still satisfying.

Additional Thoughts and Criticisms (with Spoilers)

That’s the short, Amazon review of things. Here are more details.

Broderick’s Spiky Specifics

Silverberg gives no scene showing how the dead are revived.

Broderick gives us:

Antagonistic pleiotropy. NOTCH gene signaling. Secretory pathway organelles in vast, catalogued order. Synthetic telomeres and centromeres to help lengthen lifespan indefinitely. Code adopted from the extremophile bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans, with its fancy redundant genome and resistance to radiation damage, and clues to emulating this process with devices at the molecular scale.

Broderick’s whole story is about opening the story from the interior life and obsession of Silverberg’s protagonist Jorge Klein into the world at large and vaster vistas of time.

While the story is told mostly through Klein’s viewpoint, we do get snapshots, through social media, of the changing public perceptions of the dead: objects of sexual desire, subjects of conspiracy theories, and targets of resentment.

In the first seven chapters, Broderick shows the world reacting to the promise and strangeness of the dead. It is at the beginning of the eighth chapter where Broderick starts to earn the Stapledonian adjective Silverberg honors him with.

We meet again several of the characters of “Born with the Dead”. Each meeting develops the larger story and plots Jorge’s emotional state. Jorge hears a deathbed confession from his friend Mick Dongan (who introduced him to Sybille, the object of his obsession in the Silverberg story) that he and Sybille planned to run away together. Sybille herself dies in a an attack on one of the dead’s Cold Towns. Through it all, Jorge feels nothing, is in the midst of vastation, “Death warmed up” as Dongan, who refuses to be rekindled, says. Perhaps, ponders Jorge, feeling neither high nor low, he is content, has accepted the long “Death March toward obliteration” which is the fate of all life.

It is only when he visits his sister’s family and sees his young nephew that Jorge feels something — regret at having no child of his own.

In a meeting with his old friends, the Jijibhois, Jorge reveals the big secret of Broderick’s story: the dead are not rekindled with human knowledge. They are revived with information received from a transmission from the Andromeda nebula. The transmission also contained the knowledge for the fusion reactors the dead have grown rich selling.

Libertarianism

There is a bit of libertarianism evident in how Broderick talks about the relations between dead and warm.

Hearkening back to past attempts by the United States government to regulate encryption technology under laws designed to regulate munitions export, there is a legal fight by the U.S. government to restrict and take over the dead’s technology. It is only allowed to be used in the United States. Several deads have been captured by various governments in an attempt to learn the secret of their rekindling.

The deads have large concentrations of wealth from their patents and pay no taxes except estate taxes. (Here, I think, Broderick does a disservice to the intelligence and ingenuity of taxing authorities. I’ve spent a fair number of years involved with taxes, and I’m pretty sure this state of tax grace would not remain for long.)

When the inevitable finally happens and Jorge is seized and interrogated by the government — legally, as a nonperson he has no rights, they are incredulous when he tells them they could not crack the secrets of the alien transmission. In essence, they are told they are too stupid and hidebound to:

And tracked now not by a government, not by a consortium of politically funded academics, but by fanboy and fangirl billionaires, high-technology mavens, hundreds of millions each even after the Reset. Canny dreamers whose disciplines were, as if by magic or cosmic design, precisely fitted to unlocking the intelligible mysteries coded into the signal from Andromeda: coders and decoders, cypherpunks, cold-fusion fans, immensely rich game builders, Übergeeks, do-it-yourself connectomists looking for the tricks of enhancement and immortality that random mutations had never found.

The Catholic Church has called for the dead to “return to their true deaths”. Fatwas have been issued on the rekindled.Thinking back to his academic expertise in Nazism, Jorge begins to see another Holocaust looming with the dead as the Jews.

Visiting a newly fortified Cold Town, he mentions this to another dead which leads to the following exchange on U.S. government repression past and present:

“We country boys don’t know much about those old Krauts, Jorge, but we remember Ruby Ridge and…what was it called? Those crazy cultists the government torched to the ground?”

“David Koresh,” Klein said. “The Branch Davidians, in Texas.”

“Them too, I guess. No, those others down in Florida. Crazy as loons, but shit. Burned out the whole goddam town. Thousands of people killed, and no rekindling for them.”

“Clearwater. Yes”

The last I take to be a reference to Scientology.

But, as Jerry Pournelle has asked about libertarianism, if governments are so stupid and incompetent, why are they to be feared? Because, in the end, the warms successfully move against the dead.

Jorge doesn’t find about this immediately. He is put in biostasis at the end of his interrogation and wakes on a spaceship about a hundred years later. He encounters his nephew. And here a minor theme of the story comes to the fore in an interestingly literal and metaphorical way.

The Jewish Theme

Klein is Jewish, and Broderick casts him in an interesting role in the early part of “Quicken”: the Dead Apostle to the Warms, in other words a recapitulation of another famous Jew, Paul.

There is a theory that repression of Jews in the Middle Ages led to the high intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews. (There is even a Harry Turtledove story, “Last Favor”, that looked at this through the metaphor of aliens.) High IQ accounts for disproportionate Jewish accomplishments in many professions.

Understandably, given the resentment the smarter receive in a world where IQ is a major aid in all sorts of endeavors and a competitive advantage, Jews, after the Holocaust, were not eager to stoke that resentment and downplayed the idea they possessed, as a genetic group, high inheritable intelligence. As an example, there is the outright fraud Steven Jay Gould committed in The Mismeasure of Man when he attacked the idea of heritable intelligence. Steve Sailer has looked at the changing Jewish responses to the idea of Hollywood being an industry dominated by Jews.

The Dead in Broderick’s story are not all Jews, but they are in a similar position metaphorically. Instead of being genetically honed by social adversity, they have been improved by an alien broadcast. Both are wealthy groups and somewhat insular.

And, ultimately, both suffer pogroms. Jorge wakes up to hear his nephew telling him of the war between warm and dead. But here Broderick starts to aggressively muddle any simple equation dead=Jew.

A faction of the dead launched a pre-emptive strike against the warms: meteors flung to Earth using the dead’s fusion rockets. Religious centers are specifically targeted. (And unlike the cowardly producers of 2012, Broderick mostly definitely includes Mecca, center of the Religion of Peace, in his destruction.). The warms retaliate and most of the dead are “deaccessioned”. One of those dead, killed in the strike on Jerusalem, is Jorge’s sister and her family.

Jorge’s nephew is of a faction that doesn’t want to finish wiping out the dead. Jorge and his fellow rekindled are to be exiled on Mars.

Then we will put you in protective custody. Biostasis is a lot safer. You’ll complete your sentence. The future might revile you, but they might find some reason for retaining you.”

“No release program, then. No generous reconciliation with the warm Master Race.”

Eliezer Solomon, soldier, went to the door. His face was a cold mask.

“You are the Master Race, Jorge. You rekindled. And it looks as if you’ve met the usual fate of Masters.”

The Stapledonian Pace Picks Up

There is another leap in centuries — after Jorge has a dream where he in a Nazi concentration camp. He wonders if it’s just a residual of his old academic studies or symbolizes some guilt.

He meets the augmented descendants of the warm, and they need the help of the dead in understanding the Andromedan transmissions. Jorge’s revivers are ignorant, their speech strange, they possess strange, empowering technologies. The rekindled are revealed to be evolutionary dead ends as far as humans go, but they are still needed.

Information has been flooding in from Earth, from Mars, from all the worlds of the Solar system, a thousand years of archived history, scientific advances, reports of the endless war. Flurries of art, new modes of music invented, abandoned as hackneyed, rediscovered, bypassed, overwhelmed by newer forms, and again and again. Through it all, the continuing augmentation of the warms, while the deads are all but paralyzed by their first adopter technological lock-in. Only the grim endurance of their indifference, their intrinsic aloofness, allows the rekindled to persist, even thrive. And of course the deads hold one important distinction: they don’t die.”

Dolorososa, the dead disaffect of “Born with the Dead”, and another dead, Mi-Yun, set out with Jorge on the ship Tell Me Not, In Mournful Numbers. The name of the ship is significant. It’s a line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life“. As T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” inspired and encapsulated the themes of Silverberg’s story, Longfellow’s sums up many of the themes of Broderick’s: reject death, rejoice in life, accept the struggle and life’s sublime potential. And, appropriately, Jorge’s vastation begins to end. He comes to love Mi-Yun.

When he awakes again, before they descend to the planet where the transmissions, he has a daughter, Yael (her name meaning “the last”), created from him and Mi-Yun.

The Fermi Paradox

In this final chapter, things begin to falter. Broderick starts to inject some humor. The planet has been sculpted to look like a “Smiley Face” from orbit. Jorge’s mind wanders through the possible appearance, all taken from various science fiction works (Broderick likes his science fiction allusions).

Here Broderick confronts a problem the science fiction author has when depicting the transcendent. I think the aliens have uploaded their minds. Their race, like all alien races who discovered the secret of rekindling their dead, were torn apart by their version of wars between dead and warm. Thus, Broderick offers a solution to the Fermi Paradox. Yael is to stay behind to use her ability to bridge alien and human minds and help humans overcome the conflict which doomed all other intelligent life.

Broderick depicts this with the almost inevitable device of incantation by analogy and metaphorical handwaving. Things are a trifle obscure in the end. In particular, he lets loose a lot of mythological references in the end including the interesting observation that the Jorge and Sybille story of “Born with the Dead” parallels the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. However, I think he could have cut some of the references.

At story’s end, Yael stays “with her godparents” and Mi-Yun and Jorge, his vastation lifted, head “to waiting Ithaca”.

Broderick’s story grows on you. Originally, after the first reading, I dismissed Silverberg’s Stapledonian description. But I agree now.

The ending could have been clearer, shorter, and I don’t think it will age as well, but Broderick’s variation on a masterwork is worth a look.

The Sources of Metaphor

While both authors use literary references, the vary a lot in where they take other allusions from. Silverberg is naturalistic — ancient civilizations and extinct animals. Broderick likes myth — classic and science fictional.

 

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

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One thought on “Beyond the Doors of Death

  1. Pingback: “Sailing to Byzantium” & “Seven American Nights” | MarzAat

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