Thursday, 30 September 2010

Second Journey of the Magus by Ian R MacLeod

One in a taxi, two in a car...
Well, as some of you may have noticed Short Fiction Wednesday has yet to make a re-appearance. The fact is that, on reflection, I don't think I can dedicate the reading and writing time to a weekly short story post like that. It's sad, and if I was a proper writer rather than some arsehole farting out words in his spare time I'd like to do it, but I have got to prioritise things. I don't want to disengage from short fiction entirely, however, so I'm going to try and keep up with Niall Harrison's short story club over at Torque Control. I've often meant to do this, but keep forgetting (and may forget again!).

This time I've remembered, though, so here are my thoughts on The Second Journey of the Magi by Ian R MacLeod. I'll hopefully get into the chat with the knowledgeable folks there, but leave a comment here if you like!

I really like the premise of this story, the wise man returning west to see what had become of the child he had visited three decades before. It made me think of the kind of story that got written a lot in the fifties and sixties, when (it seems to me) people were struggling with the idea of spirituality and Christianity and what it all meant, stories like "Behold the Man" by Moorcock or that story in The Illustrated Man the name of which escapes me at the moment.

It's a very nicely written story, evocative and sweet. The style drew me in quickly. I was intrigued by the deserted landscape, feeding into the contrast of winter and summer, the way the land "soon withered into desert" and finally the appearance of signs of battle. Not knowing what was to come, I began wracking my brain for what had been going on in the ancient world at around this time, but obviously it could be anything and it's been a long time since high school classics for all of us, hasn't it?

I really liked the use MacLeod made of scent: the lack of smell on the battle field, and the faint waft of temple insense. The line "Word came like a sour wind after the three supposedly wise men that every male child recently born in Bethlehem had been slaughtered," was particularly effective. Later we had the suggestively foul stench of the Messiah at the temple in Jerusalem, and them in the cave, a sour stench that seemed to me to connected these bad things in a clever subtle way.

I was a little put off by the appearance of the angel, though. I had been expecting something more mundane (although the uncanny, putrefaction-free battlefield indicated something else going on), and this maybe me wonder if we weren't going to see some kind of SF premise play out, maybe a Von Daniken-style space Jesus or maybe this was some kind of far-future analog or replay of the old myths. It turns out to be not, and these are, literally, the biblical angels brought to life.

MacLeod does a good job giving the angels a creepy alien feel, but I think there's always an issue when you try and put flesh on these types of allegorical creatures. It reminded me somewhat of Lavie Tidhar's novellette An Occupation of Angels, but, well, that did something very different - and more exciting, if a little bit Vertigo Comics - with the idea.

Oh, go on then, just one!
In a way, this is an alternate history. What if Jesus said, "Go on, then, drop me from the darn temple, I'll show you!" to the devil, instead of refusing to put God to the test. It's curious that when he does this, the heavens do indeed open and angels preserve his life, as I'd always assumed that he was being tricked into killing himself on the rocks here, although biblical exegesis is not one of my stronger fields. A quick browse of wikipedia  tells me that another possible interpretation of the temptations is the Devil offering Jesus various different types of ministry he might choose to ensure he understands what his real goal is, that is to save the world through love and compassion.

So, according to this (according to wikipedia!) when he chooses to fling himself from the temple, he decides to act as a miracle worker and magician, and what we see in this story is the consequence of that. Clearly it's a Bad Thing. Everyone seems happy and all that, but our guide here, Balthazar, has questions and doubts. Besides that, the eerie battlefield is clearly not a good thing.

The subtext here seems to me to be one about people - and there are too many of them - who use Jesus as a way to manipulate others into doing their will: "That is why we Christians merrily do battle against all who oppose us, for we know that we will never have to fear death..." This Jesus has fallen into the same trap: He didn't fear jumping from the Temple because he knew God would save him. Given this confidence, the adherents of Christ feel license to go out and cause all the mayhem they wish, because God Is On Their Side. The historical paralells are obvious - the Crusaders, for example, and every dingbat politician who has used the rhetoric of divine partiality to justify slaughter since there were gods to name check.

I didn't like the ending, however. I wasn't at all certain what the final paragraph was trying to say. Clearly Balthasar wasn't happy with the situation, but then he'd never been happy with it: this final journey seemed to have merely confirmed his fears rather than offer him new or fresh insight. I wasn't certain who he intended to summon with his magic - I'm assuming Satan, but I don't know, and what was he going to say to Satan when he got him out of bed?

I got the distinct feeling (a whiff, if you like) that MacLeod did not know how to end the story. It's an ambiguous ending, and not in a good "open up your mind" way, but in a bad "pay no attention to the man behind the screen!" way. This is a big problem as, while a short story shouldn't  spell out all the consequences for us, we should have some understanding of how things will go from here - and in this story we don't.

I think it's because MacLeod just wants to give us all a jolly good talking to about Jesus - joine the queue, Ian! - instead of tell an actual story about a person in crisis. Having made his point about how all these dumb people misinterpret Jesus's message, MacLeod isn't sure what to do with the actual story. Balthasar begins doubtful and ends doubtful; there's no change, no realisation. He finds something out, but it doesn't turn him - or us - into someone else; he's just there to watch events unfold. I'd say the actual story, the actual arc is, why does Jesus fall for Satan's temptation?" We get some of that, but it's nestled too deep within the narrative of Balthasar, - in fact, I think the story finished several pages before.

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