Stories

The Incursus, by Asimov-NN#71

“The Incursus, by Asimov-NN#71” appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Big Echo.

This story was written in Saigon one afternoon when I asked myself what an AI would think about the Turing test, and when I’d just finished reading Stanislaw Lem’s wonderful A Perfect Vacuum, a collection of reviews for nonexistent books. I think Lem’s an underappreciated giant, and one of these days I’m going to sit down and read every one of his books that’s available in English.

As for the subject of the story: personally, I don’t think the Turing test is particularly useful as a metric for anything: sociopaths regularly (if temporarily) fool lots of people into thinking they’re neurotypical human beings, without the benefit of superhuman intelligence, after all. How much more effectively could an AI—especially one with a lot of fundamentally human building blocks in its makeup—do so?

But I started to wonder whether an AIs insights might go beyond that. Long, long ago, a friend of mine remarked that in his view, human beings don’t just anthropomorphize animals, but also do so with fellow human beings. What he meant was that we have a lot of fantasies and illusions about human nature that we take for granted, and which blind us to the less-comforting realities of human nature. History ensures that what we see as horrifying crimes—like those featured in news broadcasts daily, these days—wouldn’t surprise us so much if we didn’t have those illusions in place.

Perhaps the biggest illusions human beings seem to entertain are about themselves. Susan Blackmore, Thomas Metzinger, and Bruce Hood have interestingly argued that even the first-person, interiorized exprience of a unified self is essentially illusory: the GUI for a much more fragmentary collection of neurological processes that switch on and off constantly, and change slowly over time (or, in the case of brain injuries, quite suddenly).

So what if an AI decided to disabuse us of the illusions that are hardwired into our very brains?

“ἱερὸς γάμος” [Hieros Gamos]

Alix Branwyn

“ἱερὸς γάμος” [Hieros Gamos] was published in Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis, which was edited by Scott R. Jones and published in May 2016 by Martian Migraine Press.

It’s basically the origin story for the leader of a cult worshipping an unnamed entity from some forgotten corner of the Cthulhu Mythos, one residing at the site of the temple of the old cult of Eleusis. (Because, yes, the original Eleusis cult actually worshipped it.)


Believe it or not, this story was inspired by my studies of Ezra Pound’s massive poem titled The Cantos, which contains many references to the occult; among them, the fixation Pound had on the erotic-esoteric dimensions of pagan ritual, magic, and religion was most striking, particularly his interest in the Mysteries of Eleusis.

Little is really known about the rituals performed by initiates and hierophants in the Eleusinian mystery cult, though it seems to have been an important one—one of the last great pagan cults, really—and likely involved some kind of component related to the concept of hieros gamos, or “sacred marriage” with an overtly and integral sexual dimension that may have been represented or enacted in the rites themselves. Among the goddesses who may have been invoked at Eleusis are Aphrodite (who was, after all, a goddess of beauty and love, but also linked to the harvest) and Persephone, whose rape by Hades and abduction into the underworld (and her annual return, bringing spring to the world) seem to have been Pound’s favorite contender for the Eleusinian rites.

Bandyopadhyay is well-versed in the annals of English crackpottery—mainly because he was the beneficiary of my studies of Pound’s encounters with crackpots. Péladan, Blavatsky, the Manicheans… all of this was stuff floating around in the circles within which Ezra Pound (and Yeats, and to some degree Eliot) moved in the first couple of decades of the 20th century: such crackpottery was, as scholar Leon Surette demonstrates in his text The Birth of Modernism (which I discussed here), pretty common among literary types.

But imagine for a moment that the crackpots had it right… and that the gods described by their American contemporary, H.P. Lovecraft, were the true personae of the gods we know by Greco-Roman names today. What, then, would the “sacred marriage” of hieros gamos—the sexual union of the divine and the human—look like? And what would it take to survive such an encounter?

This story is an attempt to answer that question.

The Spurned Bride’s Tears, Centuries Old, in the Rain

lontar-5-cvf-sm“The Spurned Bride’s Tears, Centuries Old, in the Rain” appeared in issue 5 of Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, a wonderful publication out of Singapore.

During the winter of 2010, I spent approximately two months in Indonesia (with much of that time spent in Depok, an exurb of Jakarta), where my then-girlfriend—now my wife—was studying Bahasa Indonesia, the official national language of the country. Indonesia’s not an easy place to be, at times: Jakarta’s traffic is pure insanity, and I got the worsst food poisoning of my life there. But the place had a powerful effect on me: rereading the story at some remove, I find Depok rushing back into my mind with vivid, overwhelming immediacy.

One interesting thing about Jakarta is that, despite the nation’s official semi-secularity, and the overwhelming popularity of Islam there, the’re a certain amount of Hindu cultural material that still is very visible in Jakarta (let alone over in Bali, where Hinduism is still commonly practiced). Hinduism in Indonesia (as in much of Southeast Asia) predates the arrival of the now-dominant religions of Islam (in Indonesia) and Buddhism (in much of the rest of Southeast Asia) by a significant margin. Angkor Wat depicts scenes from Hindu, not Buddhist, religious narrative. The Ramakian of Thailand is a localized remix of the Ramayana. It got me thinking about Hindu cosmology underlying modern Indonesian religious practices and identities: what if the Indian model of the afterlife—reincarnation for as long as people need to work out their karmic and dharmic balance—were correct, despite the majority of Indonesians adhering to a different model of the afterlife today?

Which brings me to the other major inspiration for this story: when I was a high-schooler, the Peter Brook version of The Mahabharata (adapted to a six-hour film, from its earlier stage incarnation) aired on PBS, and I fell in love with almost all of the major characters in this story featured in it. (I have a lengthy post about the film queued up for sometime soon, but till then, I wholeheartedly recommend the film on its own merits, but also as a profound statement of what preoccupied the whole Western world back in the late 80s and early 90s. Brook’s treatment of the original is controversial—or it was at the time—but for me it was a doorway into this vast, important Indian narrative, and it still matters profoundly to me.)

I have to admit that, despite having picked up the (heavily-abridged) Kamala Subramaniam translation more than a decade ago, I haven’t read through the imposingly massive hardback yet… I like to think I’ve been saving it for a rainy month, but the truth is that it’s just a daunting text! Still, the story of Amba and Bhisma, like so many others, has hung around in my head ever since. I couldn’t find anything about Amba on Youtube, but this scene portrays the death of Bhisma, which also appears—rather differently—in my story:

Here’s a more emotional version of the scene, though I can’t understand what’s being said:

The Hindu influence on Southeast Asia—even in places that are now predominantly Muslim, Buddhist, or otherwise—is unmistakeable: you can see it in old temples, in the surviving fascinating with the Ramayana, in the artwork of the region, and more. In downtown Jakarta, I was surprised to see a massive statue of Arjuna astride his chariot, a famous scene from the Bhagavad Gita section of the Mahabharata.

Arjuna Wijaya chariot statue and fountain in Central Jakarta. Photo by Gunawan Kartapranata used under a Creative Commons license. Click image for more information.

Arjuna Wijaya chariot statue and fountain in Central Jakarta. Photo by Gunawan Kartapranata used under a Creative Commons license. Click image for more information.

Later I read about Indonesia’s past, suffused (like so much of Southeast Asia) with narratives and gods of India, and tumbled around very hard by its vault into postcolonial modernity, I couldn’t help but feel the contrast between ancient Indonesia and the country’s present-day conditions—its crazy traffic, its guitar-playing-buskers on minibuses, its wealthy Chinese subpopulation (and the tensions between that subpopulation and native Indonesians, especially in Java), as well as the everpresent remnants of the traditional culture (such as the wayang kulit puppets available all over the place), and the massive shopping malls—and I started to wonder how a past and a present so alien to one another, and so centered on different philosophical and religious cosmologies, could be contrasted in a single story.

It’s worth noting, for those who are unfamiliar with the Mahabharata, that the gender/sex Srikandi (that’s the Indonesian name for the character called Shikandhi in the Sanksrit original) varies from version to version: sometimes Amba’s reincarnated form is as a male, sometimes as a female, sometimes as a eunuch, and sometimes it’s something even more unusual. In the Indonesian version of the story, Srikandi is a female reincarnation of Amba, though apparently in some versions she becomes male by one or another means, temporarily (and, if I remember right, eventually ends up female and a wife to Arjuna). I suspect that someone out there would be offended by the idea that Bhisma’s relationship with Shikhandi could end up keeping Bhisma stuck in the cycle of death and rebirth, but it seems reasonable to me.

In any case, those are the kinds of questions that underlie “The Bride’s Tears, Centuries Old, in the Rain.”

The Return of Sarnath

The“The Return of Sarnath” was published in the original anthology Cthulhu Fhtagn! Weird Tales Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Ross Lockhart and published by Word Horde on 15 August 2015.

(It’s available at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or at the website of the publisher, Word Horde.)

As with “Of Melei, of Ulthar”—a story to which this one is inextricably linked—this story is set in a version of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands setting, albeit one that is far in the future of the Lovecraft wrote about. Specifically, the setting is a future Dreamlands that has changed and progressed, as any world would, over such a long stretch of historical time that the Dreamlands we know from Lovecraft’s work are essentially ancient history.

Perhaps because they seem to be inherently removed from the politics of his world, and a place of high fantasy adventure (albeit always tinged with the grim and the gloomy, and with more than a hint of Cthulhu’s shadow), I find Lovecraft’s Dreamlands to be the least revisited of all Lovecraft’s milieu, at least by recent Lovecraftian writers. (The only author who comes to mind is Brian Lumley, and his Dreamlands books… well, they weren’t for me.)

But the setting—and its potential for development—fascinates me. How does that looming shadow of Cthulhu and his fellows change the place over aeons of time? How do the denizens of the Dreamlands regard their own world (which, for them, is just the everyday “real world,” and not a “Dreamlands” at all), and how does the link between their world and our world change over time and in different circumstances? Do doorways become rarer over time, or more plentiful, and how and why do the changes relate to the shifting fortunes of humanity on Earth?

Obviously, the story is most directly a nod to Lovecraft’s “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” (which I agree with Lovecraft wasn’t his best work, but for which I still have a soft spot) but there’s plenty of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” in the eco-horror of my future-Earth, and I see my future-Dreamlands here as more like the Mediterranean during the Renaissance—that is, more “complete” than Middle-Earth or Dunsany’s Pegana—in the presence and interplay of colonial powers, plagues, technological and political upheavals, slavery and revolts off in the distance… oh, and of course, it answers (in a Mythos-compatible way) the question of just who the denizens of that ancient, unnamed city beside Sarnath were. Also, Cthulhu’s long-prophesied rising from the depths of the ever-rising ocean makes sense as a metaphor for climate change, if you ask me.

Perhaps there’s a whole book’s worth of stories worth telling in this version of the Dreamlands.Who knows? I have a few other stories set in this Dreamlands on hand, but we’ll see how long it takes them to see print. (This tale, it’s worth noting, was finished in 2012, but it took until 2015 for a suitable market to crop up soliciting submissions.)