Neverness by David Zindell

In the beginning was a word. Neverness, Jorge Luis Borges had said, is a word unlike any other in any language. It is a powerful word, a poem in itself, but also a dreadful word full of hopelessness, sadness and despair. Eternity does not begin to capture its meaning, not even in the sense of a negative eternity or an impossibility that continues forever. The poets, Borges had implied, had not captured the word’s meaning, either, for no one had used it. But it should be used, because along with its terrible aspect, it happens to be very beautiful.

I knew that I had to use it. I began thinking about it all the time. A phrase blossomed in my mind like a fireflower in the middle of a snowfield: How is it possible that the impossible might not only be possible but inevitable? What was the most impossible thing in all the universe?

That seemed to be myself. How had the supposedly soulless elements of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, iron, and all the others, forged in the heart of a star ages ago, come together in the form of a man who looked up at the stars and marveled at their existence – and who looked inside to marvel at his own soul? That seemed utterly impossible. It seemed that the universe shouldn’t exist at all, that instead of a bright infinity full of shimmering stars there should only be a black, eternal, unending neverness.

The same universe paradoxically also seemed inevitable. I did, myself – despite the trillion-trillion-gazillion-to-one shot that I should have come into consciousness and being. Homo Sapiens, although only a quirk of evolution on our wandering earth, seemed inevitable as well. We had design, if only the necessary consequences of the fundamental laws of physics. We had purpose. We had a destiny. Anyone, I thought, searching down through the impossibly bright caverns inside the human soul had to sense what that destiny must be.

We also, in our DNA, carried not only the record of a billion years of evolution, but the seed of a billion years of new transcendences yet to come. As the child is the father of the man, so are we the progenitors of men – and women – who will be more than human. But why was it always so hard to evolve?

Our evolution, from the grassy veld of primeval Africa to the cold, painted caverns of Lascaux to the hot, hot, brilliant nuclear blast near Alamogordo in the Journey of Death Desert, had brought us to beginning of godhood – and to the brink of extinction as well. In our wars and in the industries of our mad, marvelous, doomed civilization, we had nearly made a wasteland of the earth.

T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, The Wasteland, had moved me the first time I read it. As source material, Eliot had called upon Jessie L. Weston’sFrom Ritual To Romance, which discusses the legend of the Holy Grail. In that legend, the sexually maimed Fisher King rules over a land that has become parched and sterile. Only a hero who understands the true meaning of the Grail can heal the king and restore that wasted land to life. The medieval romances featuring King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Launcelot, Galahad, Perceval and all the other knights of Camelot often concerned a quest for the Grail.
One day, while reading The Wasteland yet again, I froze cold as ice upon reading these lines:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought that death had undone so many.

And it suddenly came to me: Unreal City – impossible place . . . Neverness. Neverness wasn’t just a word that I had fallen in love with; it was, or should be, the name of a city. What kind of city? A cold city, a city of snow and ice mists, a city of the stars. A city at the center of a vast, stellar civilization slowly declining into a spiritual wasteland. But Neverness would also be a city where the impossible might somehow become possible – in other words, a magical city where men and women sought the Holy Grail of the deepest kind of understanding and gods were born.

And so from the seed of a single word, implanted in some very fertile soil, my first novel germinated and grew. I had as yet no characters, no plot. And then, upon considering all those Arthurian romances, I suddenly had both. I would tell my own romance set far, far in the future. It would be a family drama, in the way of the King Arthur stories – even as the whole human race is one large family, which has co-created our million-year, fantastic story.

Names came to me. King Arthur would be Leopold Soli, the Lord Pilot of the Order of Mystic Mathematicians and Other Seekers of the Ineffable Flame. His wife, Justine, would stand in for Queen Guinevere. The sorceress Morgan le Fay became Moira, who would bear a bastard son named Kuella. He was to be my treacherous and evil Mordred. His friend, Bardo, would be a big and blustering man whom I thought of as Sir Gawain. They would be pilots, too. Another pilot, named Lionel, would serve as Justine’s adulterous lover, just as Launcelot had with Queen Guinevere. Their forbidden affair would ultimately lead to a war, which would destroy the Order, and perhaps Neverness as well.

And so the seed became a tree which began branching outward in a hundred directions, growing with the full force of its own life. Some branches became stunted or even died: Lionel never really worked as a character, and I wound up writing him out of the book. Kuella, though, a cold man who burned with secret passions, a brilliant mathematical man for whom “the best sensation was no sensation,” began to fascinate me. I changed his name to Mallory Ringess. And rather than tell my novel from Soli’s (King Arthur’s) point of view, I decided that Neverness was really Mallory’s story.

It is a story, of course, for the quest of the Holy Grail. I call that the Elder Eddas. This great Secret of Life – the knowledge of the gods who have preceded human beings – lies bound in the oldest DNA of Homo Sapiens. The Order calls a great quest to find the Elder Eddas. Its pilots, including Soli, Justine, Mallory and Bardo, sail off in their lightships to the stars even as knights might once have journeyed into castles and dark woods. They fight wars. Using the shining swords of their mathematics, no less the splendor of their souls, they pierce the darkness of human ignorance to behold the very mind of God.

In the beginning was a word, and in the very end was that same word, too. Neverness, as I discovered in the writing of it, was my personal quest to apprehend the always-ineffable meaning of neverness. How is it possible that the impossible will not only become possible but inevitable? What does it mean to be a human being? What can our purpose be? What destiny could we have other than in becoming as gods?

Or . . . God. For in the end, Neverness is one vast romance between men and women and God. We, who are Homo Sapiens, must eternally woo the divine. In the impossibility of this eternal becoming that continues forever, we suffer all that is most terrible in life. And yet at the same time, paradoxically, in its inevitability we find all that is most beautiful and the true splendor of our brilliant, bloody kind.

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