The quest, I believe, beats at the heart of all stories. Characters drive the best stories, and their desire for something they long to possess – money, fame, knowledge, happiness, freedom or love – drives them. Some quests involve a search for magical talismans or objects of power. Others, such as the one that sets off the events of Neverness, concentrate on some sort of Holy Grail that will bring enlightenment or save the human race. In The Wild, Danlo wi Soli Ringess, like a knight going forth alone into a dark wood, sets off to find the people responsible for blowing up the stars.
His father, Mallory, has found the Elder Eddas embedded in the human genome and perhaps in the very structure of matter itself, but almost no one has been able to make sense of this deep wisdom. No one knows how to use this Grail to restore the wasteland that the Milky Way Galaxy is becoming.
That renewal awaits the Asarya: the one who can say “yes” to the purpose of the universe in both its beautiful and terrible aspects – and thus grok it so deeply and completely that he can will it to evolve toward its natural splendor. Could Danlo the Wild, a savage at heart who has taken a vow of ahimsa to harm no living thing, really be the Asarya?
In his quest to find lost Tannahill and the Architects of humanity’s greatest religion, Danlo will face many tests. Malaclypse Redring, a warrior-poet charged with killing all gods and potential gods, pursues Danlo across the stars because he must know who Danlo really is. So must the immensely powerful Solid State Entity. This great goddess recreates a replica of Old Earth. On one of this planet’s cold beaches, she incarnates as a beautiful tigress to see if Danlo will remain true to his vow.
Creating this scene enchanted me as surely as the Entity’s earth captures Danlo. I think it might be perhaps the most lyrical and perfect passage I have ever written: an almost faultless interweaving of poetry, philosophy, science, mysticism and deep character into one shimmering cloth. It had its origin in an event that had happened to me many years before.
One night in July, in Wheaton, Illinois, there was a very bad thunderstorm. It seemed to break right over my house. Rain poured down like an ocean dropped from the sky, and the whole ceiling shook. Lightning started cracking out, almost immediately followed by deafening thunderclaps. I worried that a bolt might strike the house.
I worried about my cat, too, a big, orange tabby named Hooter, for he got trapped outside in the storm. From my bedroom window, I saw him where he had taken shelter beneath the overhang of the garage’s roof. With each crack of lightning would come a sudden flash, and I would behold him poised and quivering with an unbearable tension, as if he was gathering all his energy to spring toward the house in one mighty leap to save his life. Then the lightning’s brilliance would die and the sky would grow dark again – until another bolt tore open the night. On and on went this noise and terror and light, for many awe-making moments. Few other instances in my life had seemed so charged with purpose and meaning. I had never seen my cat, or any animal, so electrically alive. I had rarely felt the world to be so deeply and marvelously real.
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright . . . .
And so my dear cat became a deadly tiger on an alien earth, and Danlo goes on to make his quest through the forests of the night. He faces the darkness of the false. Is this manufactured earth the same as Old Earth? Is the replica of Danlo’s lost Tamara, which the Entity creates out of the elements of that earth and from Danlo’s memories, the same as the real Tamara herself? How will Danlo ever know? But he must learn how to know what is real. This should be fundamental. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita:
The unreal never is;
The real never is not.
Ernest Hemingway once advised writers to develop a built-in bullshit detector, so that they could keep their work clean of fakery and phoniness. Danlo must do something of the same. In order for him to take part in the ultimate creation, he must first learn how to master various created realities.
Virtual realities, we now call these computer-generated simulations, as if the sights, sounds and other sensa a machine feeds into our brains are virtually real. Or cyberspace or the Matrix. I often call them surrealities, or simply the cybernetic spaces, for there are many. I distinguish the mathematics of the manifold, for instance, from the electronically shared mind streams that might as well be telepathy.
In one sense – that of something really happening when a computer jiggles the neurons of our brains – they are real. And in order to find his way through these often hideously complex spaces, Danlo needs to learn the cybernetic senses: iconicity, syntaxis and gestalt. And fractality, fugue and above all fenestration. He must be able to kithe information, as a hunter out on the ice beyond Neverness drinks in the smell of the snow, the angle of the sun, the of sound the snowy owl crying out along the wind.
His greatest test comes near the end of his long journey to find the original Architects of the Cybernetic Universal Church. He needs to impress these far-future fundamentalists. Only by demonstrating that he is free of “negative programs” – sins – can he do that.
The Architects have elaborated an old religious rite into a new art form. They call it a light offering: a computer reads the workings of one’s brain, down to the firing of each neuron’s thousands of synapses. Then the computer makes a simulation of the mind, projected in a sort of Imax-like display in billions of twinkling lights. The colorful patterns of pure consciousness that the Architects’ Perfecti create often thrill many others with their beauty.
The Perfecti – or anyone else making a light offering to that evolved cybernetic being known as Ede the God – must remain conscious of such things as their devotion to Ede. They might, for instance, meditate on the perfection of the holy Algorithms, the doctrines of the church. They might meditate upon the miracle of Nikolos Daru Ede’s ascension from man into god. Above all, though, they must not turn their consciousness toward an apprehension of their own consciousness.
This means that they may not look upon the light-offerings they make for others. For if they do, the lights in the simulation of the brain’s visual cortex will flare. This will cause the neurons in the Perfecti’s real visual cortex to fire and flare. The simulation will grow brighter. So will the Perfecti’s own brain. There will come an infinite feedback: vision feeding light feeding vision until the light within grows so infinitely and impossibly bright that it devours one’s consciousness. No one but a god could look upon these interior heavenly lights and not fall mad.
Danlo, of course, being Danlo the Wild, full of fire and animajii, dares to behold the shimmering fount of his consciousness. In this, in consciousness folding back upon itself, he gains a godly power.
As Shelley wrote in his Hymn Of Apollo:
I am the eye with which the Universe
Beholds itself and knows itself divine;
All harmony, all medicine are mine,
All light of Art or Nature; to my song
Victory and praise in their own right belong.
And we are all, as Danlo learns, the left and right hands of the divine, whose fingers shape those very hands through consciousness and pure will. This discovery – it will prove to be the true Holy Grail – will prepare Danlo for the even greater tests he must face in the final book of the series, War In Heaven.