Some questions dog us almost from the cradle to the threshold of the grave.
“What really happens to us when we die?” — top of the list, I’m guessing. At least we’ll all get to learn everything there is to know about that one someday.
My favorite among the competition for co-headliner is whether or not intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe.
Arthur C. Clarke — who supplied a few pivotal words that I borrow and then bastardize in Whom the Gods Would Destroy — broke the question down with brutal succinctness:
“Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
The general consensus is that we are probably not alone, but from there, all the earnestly held convictions start to diverge.
For someone like Carl Sagan, the incomprehensible vastness of the universe almost guarantees an abundance of life throughout our galaxy and beyond.
Sounds good. But others have chided Sagan for not being as picky as he should’ve been regarding the celestial mechanics necessary for a habitable world. For them, the planetary specs that make our place in the solar system so friendly to life are unusual to the point of freakishness, likely making life much more rare.
Stephen Hawking mixes optimism and pessimism in the same breath: Alien life almost certainly exists, but we should do everything we can to avoid attracting its attention, because to encounter it would surely be our ruin.
And on it goes: Hawking’s point is moot, because while aliens are out there, we’ll never see each other; the distances in between are so immense that we might as well be alone. Or they’re not merely out there, but right here, too, and have been dropping by for a long, long time.
One of the more intriguing theories, called panspermia, postulates that life is abundant throughout the universe, because life is what the universe does. Interstellar travel by advanced civilizations is incidental to the process, and unnecessary. Instead, life’s constituent compounds are continually being seeded wherever they happen to land after hitching a ride on asteroids and meteorites and comets … a kind of FedEx delivery system operating on a galactic scale. When it absolutely, positively has to be there in a billion years.
I like this.
Panspermia has its critics, of course, but that doesn’t make me like it any less. I like the randomness of it, the lack of direction and guidance for the finished products. It makes me think of dandelion fluff blown about in the wind, carried for miles, then deposited someplace that the wind doesn’t care about, and with no vested interest in the outcome. Just, “Here you go. Thrive. Or don’t.”
Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.
When it comes to terrifying, it’s a lot easier to work with the latter option.
And the great thing about being a storyteller is that something doesn’t have to be true, nor do you have to believe in it, to have a stellar time playing with it.
In coming across various reviews for various works of mine, and fielding the occasional question about it, it’s occurred to me that along the way I may have picked up a reputation for being a Screwed-Up Family Guy. Not because I come from a screwed-up family — although, to be honest, I do — but because such families seem to keep turning up in my work.
I know … armchair psychoanalysts love connecting those kinds of dots.
Most of the time, I wasn’t even aware that this had become such a recurring motif, probably because it can take so many shapes, and emerge in so many ways. Leo Tolstoy knew this. Just check his opening line to Anna Karenina: “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
All of which makes Whom the Gods Would Destroy inevitable, really. The people behind its narrator — a grad student in astronomy named Damien Phipps — may well constitute the most screwed-up family I’ve ever had the delicious displeasure of spending time with.
The earliest dandelion seed that blew along and landed in a fertile fold in my brain was the notion of a devoted mother intent on creating a very special human monster. Not as a consequence of her abuse, but as the deliberate outcome of her love, and desire to mold someone to further the strange — and ultimately otherworldly — work under the night skies that she feels she may never complete.
Before long, I realized she had a second-born, as well, and was intrigued by the idea of a family dynamic in which someone has grown up wholly excluded from the bonds that made his brother and mother as close as a diatomic molecule. Someone forced to go his own way, as far as he could, as soon as he could.
Is it any wonder that he turned to the sky?
Or, in Damien’s words:
“There was no place on Earth I could go that would seem far enough away from my family … because there was always the possibility that they could change their minds. Antipodal points on the planet would still not be far enough away. So I started thinking in terms of light years.”
But the light of the stars has a very long reach, and sometimes the gods have other ideas.
Despite all we know, or think we do, there remains something primal in us that still, in unguarded moments, sees the stars as the abode of the gods. And who knows — for all the scoffing, for the dismissing we do until something comes along to forcefully settle the issue once and for all, we may be right.
It just depends on how we define the word. And our definitions are many.
Most people seem to know the line from The Crow, but William Makepeace Thackery got there first: “Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.”
At its heart, Whom the Gods Would Destroy is about nothing so much as the devastations wrought by a crisis of faith.