Authors: Norman Spinrad
Tags: #Science Fiction
When I was a youth, musical acts made casual theater out of dancing with the Devil, and satanic images were even used to sell breakfast cereal and
dog food. Only a few mad cultists took Satan seriously as an object of worship, and even the Church was mealymouthed about the literal reality of his presence in the world.
Now, of course, though the community of believers in a redemptive God of Love has dwindled even from what it was in that evil age, Satan has become a serious conversation stopper.
Given the state of our dying planet, and given that we ourselves bear the responsibility for this sin so awesome its name cannot be pronounced, evidence of the presence of God can only be found in the believing heart, while the obtrusive presence of Satan in the world is a bit much for even the unbelieving to deny.
Or at any rate the invocation of Satan in the rejection of “Transcorporial Immortality” by a Catholic priest whose well-known conflict with several Popes on such matters has technically made a violation of his order of public silence on the subject enough to close it definitively.
We were then able to proceed to practical terminal matters. I had no intention of expiring in a hospital, and at least in these matters, medical science has evolved in a humane manner, and I was given an electronic override of my pain centers. Euthanetics were not mentioned, but a pile of them were left on the desk when the good doctor excused himself to the water closet.
This was in Rome, a city about which my feelings
are at best mixed. It is the Holy City, after all, the millennial capital of the Church, the spiritual center of what I have made my world. How could a believing Catholic wish to spend his last days anywhere else?
In truth, all too easily enough. In fact, I must confess to the sin of detesting the place.
The ruins of Imperial Roman megalomania still dominate the city, dwarfing all that has succeeded, so that successive generations of ruined glory seem to nest inside them like a set of Russian
dolls, huge and hollow outward and backward, smaller and smaller as you approach the present, so that the Rome of today seems like a series of tawdry little warrens built into the feet of moldy pharaonic hubris.
Then too, when I first saw Rome, the city was still unsuccessfully coping with the forced loss of its beloved cars and scooters, the mad traffic that had long made it a nightmare for pedestrians, but had given the city its sharp-edged frenetic beat.
Now that music is gone, along with half of the city’s inhabitants, and it has acquired a final set of ruins, these of the blocks of ancient abandoned tenements that once teemed with the city’s brawling, squalling life. Today, bleaching stone and crumbling stucco groan under the searing Greenhouse sun, the fabled fountains are dry, and what desiccated vegetation remains, lingers, like myself, on the edge of final expiration.
The Romans, constrained to a feeble tram system, bicycles, and their own two feet, have degenerated to primeval villagers, huddling in their own neighborhoods, developing endlessly subdivided chauvinisms, suspicious of outsiders, while yet sourly rapacious for their share of what remains of the moribund tourist trade.
True, St. Peter’s still anchors the navel of the world to Rome. But if the sight of its dome seen from tawdry afar inspires thoughts of the eternal nature of the Church, the contrast between the City of God and the thanatologic urban landscape made by man inspires only dire meditations on our terminally fallen state. Here, in a city so long concerned with the consequences of Adam’s original sin, the weight of our second and apparently terminal fall presses upon the soul with a great stone hand.
I did not wish to spend my dying days in such environs, and indeed I had chosen Grunberg for my final retreat long years since, a village high up in the Tyrol where there are still alpine valleys that seem to have escaped the climatic catastrophe. The land remains verdant well into May, the air appears crystalline, and the temperature no more than balmy for most of the year.
The pristine purity of these pocket ecospheres is of course illusory. In point of fact, the ultraviolet count is brutal up there on even a winter’s day, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere deviates not
from the catastrophic global norm. The quaint little villages are deserted between June and October, the remaining inhabitants having become migratory, fleeing down from the summer sun as once the mountain goats and deer descended before the lost winter snows.
It was April now, once deemed the cruelest of months, and by the time I reached my destination, the alpine villagers would already be making their annual retreat. From a fleshly viewpoint, it would be folly to pass my remaining months high up there in the ultraviolet glare. But then the ultimate somatic damage had already been done, further DNA damage held no terror for one who was already expiring from a long lifetime’s exposure.
And from a spiritual viewpoint, there was much to be said for going to meet my Maker high up in these lonely mountains, exposed to the consequences of the Sin We Do Not Name, to spend my final hours in contemplative surrender to divine justice, to die with the winter grasses under the pitiless glory of the deadly summer sun.
The trip up into the Tyrol was fully as arduous as any such final pilgrimage should be and then some. A railine took me up into the Italian foothills in a few short uncomfortable days, but from there on in, it was horsecarriages groaning along up the ill-paved remains of old autostradas and autobahns where once hordes of petrol-burning touring cars
had roared and blared at mighty speeds. At length, even the carriage services gave out, and the last week of my journey was spent on the back of a spavined old mule, plodding against the bemused flow of villagers descending to the relative safety of the lowlands.
By the time I had reached Grunberg, the town was all but deserted, and I was able to rent a sturdy old modernized chalet for a relative song.
Once it had been a farmhouse—the ruins of a barn were still in subtle evidence—then a small ski resort, the pylons of whose lift still marched up the browning slope of the meadow toward the naked alpine crag that towered above it. After the snow’s final melting, it had apparently become the retreat of some rich eccentric. The wooden building had been enclosed in a geodesic dome against solar assault. In the end, its panes had succumbed to the ultraviolet, and subsequent inhabitants had knocked them out, or simply not bothered to mend time’s wear and tear, though fragments of blued plastic still clung here and there to the skeletal remains.
But the chalet’s machineries were still powered by efficient solar collectors, and they included a capacious cold pantry, running waterworks both hot and cold, and a highly sophisticated autochef running Italian, German, French, and Chinese expert system software. Though the place was far too large for my needs, it would care for my creature comforts
to the end, leaving me free to pursue my final inward and upward journey.
At first, I gave thought and effort to attempting a final memoir, but all I really did was open and close a profusion of working files, until I finally gave up and wiped all copies of such embarrassing gibberish from memory.
In truth, I had said all I had to say long before, and much of that still lay under papal edict; why labor to produce some egoistic final testament whose voice would also be silenced?
Often I have been asked why I have allowed so much of my writing to go unpublished in obedience to papal writ with which I have been so manifestly at odds. I have no answer that follows any logic other than that of faith. Long ago, I made my vows and became a priest, and while expedience may have often enough caused me to regret them, surrender to such impulses is precisely what those vows were designed to prevent.
All I have ever been was a Catholic priest attempting to understand God’s will and serve His Church to the best of that understanding without committing Lucifer’s sin of intellectual pride. Mayhap some of those who have graced the Seat of Peter have been no more saintly than I, and I would dissemble if I denied that no few of them were my intellectual inferiors, but the Church itself is more than the sum of its human parts. Even the papal succession is God’s way of working His way
with the imperfect clay of men. If we deny that, then what is the Church but a fraud?
Of course, in the eyes of most of the world the Church is indeed a fraud. If God sacrificed His only begotten Son to redeem us from our sins, then why have we not been saved? If it was a just and omnipotent God who entrusted the Earth to our stewardship, then why did He not intervene before we slew it?
To invoke the satanic answer is to provoke the sardonic secular response—“We have met the Devil, and he is Us.”
True, all too true, from a certain perspective. It was Man who failed his stewardship and crucified the biosphere upon an inverted cross of fossilized sulfur and brimstone. And it is Man, unable to escape the species consequences of what he has done, who seeks to escape from Judgment by hiding in the soulless software of a “transcorporeal successor.”
Who can deny that this is satanic behavior? Yet to deem ourselves the perfect satanic masters of the dark forces that move through us is more satanic still. For it denies what the Church still promises—redemption and salvation, if not for our planet, or yet our durance upon it, then for the light within even the most benighted of spirits at the end of life and time.
If we cannot believe in such salvation, then what are we? If I do not believe that the Author
of such salvation is at work behind the imperfections of His Church, then I am no true priest. If I leave the discipline of the Church to follow my own imperfect conscience, then do I not in the end deprive the Church of my contribution as I deny myself its grace?
These are the thoughts that fill the mind of a dying old priest with nothing to do but feebly pace a withering meadow under the Greenhouse sun attempting to reconcile himself to the terminal future, or sit beneath the ghostly cathedral of a skeletal dome brooding upon the theological conflicts of the past.
I was born into the even-then-dwindling community of believers, to a family of dairy farmers still trying to survive in the Massif Central of France, and when my parents were finally forced to move down into Claremont-Ferrand to seek work, I found myself in a dismal urban landscape from which the seminary seemed a blissful escape. As a young priest, I was sent to the Amazon Blight, where I witnessed firsthand the futility of luring the fallen to the churchyard with bags of grain so as to preach salvation to their deaf ears.
The reports I sent back were the first of my writings to be sealed by the Church, but they brought me to the attention of a like-minded Cardinal, who advanced my career into the Church’s intellectual hierarchy, which I occasionally represented before the media.
This was shortly before Roberto I issued his bull granting continuity of spirit to single successor clones, and I was one of those whose arguments were to lose out to the infallibility of the Pope.
“Where will it end?” I demanded before cameras and microphones. “If a single copy of personality software contains the immortal soul of its fleshly template, then how can it be said to be absent from a second copy, or the third, or the thousandth? In truth, they must all be mere expert system simulations. For the soul, being indivisible, cannot be duplicated and, being immortal, cannot be captured in an impermanent physical matrix.”
“Could you give us the sound bite version, Father?”
“The soul cannot be transplanted from one body to the next like another cloned organ. Your successor clone is mere meatware programmed to model your consciousness. Your consciousness no longer exists, and your soul is already before the Throne of Judgment.”
“In words of one syllable, Father De Leone?”
“You’re dead, the clone is a satanic golem, your soul is in the hands of God, and there’s nothing whatever that science will ever be able to do about it.”
Well, when Roberto I issued his bull to the contrary soon thereafter, my days as a public spokesman for the Church were at an end, and my career as
an opposition theologian had, like it or not, already begun.
I must admit that at first I missed the klieg lights and chafed against my vows. But while the Church presents a monolithic facade, dissident factions are permitted, indeed even encouraged, to exist within its internal intellectual discourse, so long as such intellectual laundry is not displayed on the public clothesline, and I soon enough adapted, in the end with a sense of relief, to a lifelong role as a minority viewpoint within the mind of the Church.
Not that I did not wish to see my viewpoint prevail, not that I have not watched in dismay as the mind of the Church proceeded to grant communion to uniclones, to sleaze along toward questioning the immateriality of the soul itself.
As for papal infallibility, one must take it in a corporate sense. The Church requires that in the manifest absence of direct divine intervention,
must be infallible in order to render just such deep spiritual disputes resolvable, so why not the Pope? Formerly infallible papal decisions have always been infallibly altered when God vouchsafed that such was required for the evolution of His Church.
But up there in the mountains, the meaning of it all, like my life, began to slip away, honing itself down to some final epiphany. Day after day, I would venture forth into the lethal white light, and
every day I seemed closer to some elusive divine grace. I was ready to meet my Maker, indeed, I had become eager for it, for the Final Revelation of His Countenance to sweep me away.
But God, as it turned out, had a final mission for me to perform.
One clear twilit evening when the sun was disappearing behind the mountain crag and I was returning to the chalet, a far-off thunder crackled through the alpine stillness, a strange thunder, staccato yet continuous, that quickly resolved itself into a monstrous dragonfly drone that grew louder and louder, more and more mechanical, until all at once a demonic apparition popped up over the far ridge line.