What is the attraction of a good war novel? That question can have many answers for many people. Some, I suppose, like to read about the movements and actions of armies, perhaps imagining themselves as great generals leading tens of thousands of Mongol warriors across the steppe – or suffering along with the poor foot soldiers at Verdun who must slog through all the mud, bullets and blood. Some, perhaps, take a vicarious thrill in killing or in surviving being killed. War has always fascinated me for two main reasons: first, because it is so horrible and insane it seems impossible that human beings should be able to wage war at all. And second, because it brings out both the absolute best and the absolute worst in us. It also reveals something very deep about the nature of reality. The more levels of strife a war novel depicts, the more it reveals.
In War In Heaven, I wanted many different conflicts to play out: Danlo vs. Hanuman; the Old Order vs. the New Order; the Old Church vs. a new psychedelic/cybernetic religion; gods vs. gods; nature vs. artificial life; the entire universe at war with itself.
Any war I would ever write about must wind up being a spiritual war, for what concerns me most is the fierce struggle we all fight inside our souls. It says this in the Bhagavad Gita:
There is a war that opens the doors of Heaven.
Glad are the heroes whose fate is to fight such a war.
Danlo, at first, can’t quite accept that he must fight the battle to become an asarya alongside the sickening violence of a real war. He should never even get near a war, he who has taken a vow of ahimsa to harm no living thing. And so when war breaks upon Neverness and the Civilized Worlds, even as it flashes like lightning deep inside the tissues of his being, he feels anything but glad.
He soon finds himself at the very center of this war to determine the fate of the universe. He returns to Neverness at a terrible time: in only a few more years, the destroying light from the exploding stars will fall upon the city and its planet, killing all life. Already, killing has come to Neverness. A bomb annihilates the hydroponic food factories; people fire lasers at each other and fight in the streets. The whole city, locked in the ice of winter, cut off from stars by fleets of battling warships, begins to starve.
I once read an account of the hard times that befell Stalingrad during its siege by the German army. No bloodier battle have human beings so far fought, for two million men, women and children died in its bomb-blasted buildings and frozen streets. Many starved there, too. Some turned to cannibalism, scavenging the bodies of the dead. The worst of these man-eaters lured people to dark apartments with the promise of food to be had, with no questions asked. They murdered the clandestine shoppers, who wound up being butchered and packaged as food themselves to be sold to others.
How this horrified me! Similar conditions, thirty thousand years in the future, horrify Danlo nearly to the point of madness. How can he keep his vow of ahimsa in the middle of such mayhem? Is it really possible, he wonders, to be completely non-violent? Can even the best of men and women be completely good – or even try to be? What does it mean to be a complete human being who says yes to all things?
I make it as hard as I possibly can for Danlo to say yes. In truth, I torture him. So do my other characters: the newest and potentially greatest of the galaxy’s gods orders warrior-poets to bind Danlo in acid wire and inject a drug called ekanna into his veins. This causes each cell of his body to burn with fire, with a hot and nearly infinite anguish. Then the warrior-poets go to work with their knives. Danlo should fall mad or die from this unbearable torment. He should cry out in despair a total and final “No!”
Instead, lost in a black and bottomless neverness, in the deepest tissues of his soul, he finds a secret light and begins to wake up.
Toward the end of my long story, as Danlo returns to the wildness of his true nature, he takes refuge in a large wood in the middle of Neverness. He builds himself a hut of snow – an igloo – in which to live. From this crude shelter, he goes forth to the war-torn city each day to try to change the universe.
And then I make it still harder for him. He rediscovers his lost love, the memory-raped Tamara who does desperate things in order to survive. He falls in love with her all over again – even as he begins to love even more fiercely Tamara’s gentle, beautiful son. No such boy should have to come into life in the middle of such a desperate and dreadful war. No one should have to starve. Danlo vows to do what he must to keep both the boy and Tamara alive.
Danlo grieves, though, because she has lost her memory of him. And so how, he wonders, can she love him as she once did? What is memory, really, he asks himself? How does memory relate to love? And how – this is another riddle he must solve – how could a loving God create a such a terrible universe that not only made full men such as Danlo suffer impossible agonies but also tortured innocent little boys?
This question haunts Hanuman li Tosh. He longs for life without injustice, suffering, disease, decrepitude and death. He longs for a life, of a different kind. He wants to create a better universe. That, he believes, is what human beings should do. He sees a chosen few of Homo Sapiensas godlike beings who are that very special part of the universe destined to shape the universe – ultimately to master and control it. And to transform it utterly.
Some gods, such as the Silicon God, go even further. They embody the worst traits of billionaires and world conquerors, gobbling up everything material around them. In their narcissism gone wild, they actually dream of absorbing the universe into themselves and becoming as God.
This desire drives the war among the gods. The intense evolutionary pressure to survive compels them to grow as big as moons and whole solar systems, and to slay each other. The Silicon God has become better at this slaying than any other. In a battle lasting only seconds, in its first phase, he has effectively destroyed Ede the God: all that remains of him is a small devotionary computer not much more powerful than one of today’s laptops. It is almost like a toy, projecting a hologram of a little man.
Ede – what is left of him – suffers because he has lost whole, huge parts of his machine brain and the programs that ran it. He feels that he has lost some essential part of himself. The worst pain, he says, is, “Not knowing if I am really I. Not knowing who I really am.”
Ede, the first human being to cark his consciousness into a computer, has a sense of being a puppet pulled by strings. He longs for the feel of flesh. He wants to be a man again.
Hanuman, of course, moves in the opposite direction: he wants to pull the strings fastened to every bit of matter in the universe.
Danlo takes another path altogether. He, too, wants to be a man – but atrue man such has never existed anywhere, in all the cosmos. He must complete his initiation into manhood and find the answer to the riddle: How do you capture a beautiful bird without killing its spirit? Only in doing this will he find the true secret of the Elder Eddas.
And so he must go deep inside himself – and far, far out into the stars – to fight his final battle. He must face himself, who he really is. Can he say yes to all things, himself above all? For he has always contained the most violent of opposites within himself: good and evil, halla and shaida, the life-giving right hand and his murderous left.
In the end, when he has gone as deep as anyone can possibly go, he understands a truth that he has always turned away from: that matter is and always will be at war with itself. Out of this fundamental strife, however, comes evolution and creation. High in the atmosphere above Neverness grows a new kind of life: the shimmering Golden Ring that might protect Danlo’s world from the radiation of the exploding stars. Life, through an eternal war with itself, through the sheer horror of living off itself in a kind of cannibalism that never ends, grows only stronger, vaster, lovelier, ever more full of beauty and splendor.
If Danlo can say yes to that – and to all the sickening tragedies of his life – he might finally realize the best part of himself. If not, he will become the absolute worst.