The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin by Walter Mosley
Once again, I’m obliged to remind the readers of these reviews that I’m an atheist. This disclosure will allow you an opportunity to judge the fairness of the opinions offered. It’s a curious coincidence that I should just have seen the film titled Prometheus, and then pick up this latest offering from Walter Mosley. The book is the first in a series of twinned novellas to form a series titled Crosstown to Oblivion. These are The Beginnings of the End making up Fragments of Six Shattered Worlds. The first two stories are titled The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin (Tor, 2012) and are presented in tête-bêche form. This is somewhat unusual from a mainstream publishing house in hardback. For once, it’s good to see Tor-Forge following Subterranean Press in promoting this different format for novellas.
Although I’m a major fan of Walter Mosley, having read all but a few of the titles to date, I wish he would stay away from these literary forays into science fiction or fantasy, depending on how you classify these books. He’s unbeatable when he deals with strong men surviving on the mean streets of whichever city he picks. Even the slightly nonstandard efforts like The Man in the Basement manage to overcome their tendency to pretentious preachiness and produce an interesting insight into race relations or whatever the theme he’s chosen for the particular book. But when we come to books like Blue Light, it’s as if he forgets the need to keep his creativity and imagination working along the mainstream tracks. This is a blurring of the borders between metaphor, fable and science fiction. Blue radiance falling as if the tears from God creates sixteen new beings who dispute whether life or death should prevail.
The Gift of Fire treads the same path except, this time, Prometheus gets tired of the eagle snacking on his liver and crosses over into modern LA where he uplifts a long-term drunk close to death and then sacrifices his mortal existence for a early teenage boy who’s been paralysed and confined to bed for most of his life. This parallels the fate of Lester Foote in Blue Light. Lester is a black man who played the white man’s game and climbed the PhD ladder. Except when he got to the top, he found he still commanded no respect. This provoked him into a suicide attempt and then his redemption as an acolyte of one of the Blues. In The Gift of Fire, Nosome Blane has fallen to the bottom of the heap, but Prometheus endows him with a blue essence that converts him into a disciple. Chief Reddy becomes the prophet to bring the second fire down to Earth. Unfortunately, before Prometheus has worked out the local conditions, he also empowers Luther Unty who becomes the embodiment of evil. In every equation, there must be balance.
Although this novella is more pantheistic than explicitly Christian, Walter Mosley is intent on advocating that we aspire to build a kind of spiritual community in which all differences are swept aside in achieving a oneness. The overall problem with this is the tendency for the author to launch into sermons filled with rather abstract ideas of how we should live our lives. This is not to say the underlying story is without power. It actually demonstrates how a single messianic figure can become a threat to the security of the state and trigger an aggressive response in self-defence. But, to be honest, the conscious parallelism with the story of Jesus, even down to Chief Reddy’s death and resurrection, is not what I feel is appropriate in a story which starts off in the myth of Prometheus, followed by the classical Gods re-emerging and interfering in Earth’s politics. Either you run this in a semi-realistic way to show Prometheus wrestling with the problem of how to transmit the new message to the Earth as he now finds it, all the while fending off the Olympian Gods who want to chain him back to the rock, or you have some unspecified force lift up a disabled young man and make him into a prophet who may later be acknowledged as the Messiah. Conflating the two mythologies produces a singularly unsatisfying outcome.
The second novella is called On the Head of a Pin — a reference to the limit on the number of angels you can balance in a single place. There’s no direct connection between the two stories except this is more explicitly a science fiction story about a scientific development that unexpectedly links into a dimension where the spirits or souls of all life, past and future, can be observed and, in one special case, more directly connected. Yet the theme is the same. This time Joshua, our principal protagonist, is a man who has fallen emotionally. His stable relationship disintegrates and, by chance, he’s recruited to document the development of this device. As is required, he’s an African American and the victim of racial discrimination by Pinkus, a coworker. When the project reaches the testing stage, Joshua is one of two people to be able to interact with the device. In due course, he contacts Thalla, an advanced form of artificial human in the future, and they become soul mates. She tells him what will happen in the future and begins to teach him how to use this unexpected technological breakthrough. The other man able to get a response from the device is, as you would expect, the bigoted Pinkus who conjures up visions of violent sexual abuse. We then get into the familiar debate about whether this device should be turned over to the military for their evaluation and possible exploitation. The resolution of this militarisation theme is not very original and the point at which the novella stops is the usual holding pattern of Joshua waiting for the real action to begin.
Again all this is an excuse for Walter Mosley to push some of his pet ideas on the extent we can take responsibility for our actions. We exclude children from liability for their actions because we deem them incapable of understanding the difference between right and wrong. Yet when we grow in experience and become old enough to be considered adults, we are often not held accountable even though many of the things we say and do can injure others. If you look back at history, it’s also possible to excuse early civilisations for the cruelty they inflicted on others. In terms of moral development, humans were still like children and had not grown enough to take responsibility. Yet, if we apply this across time, at what point would we deem ourselves accountable for what we have become. Through this new device, Joshua can see into the souls of others. No-one can ever lie to him. But knowing whether someone is good or evil is not the same as having the right or power to correct those who fall on the side of evil.
Both novellas suffer from the same facile moralism. Walter Mosely is promoting the view that coming together across all divides, the art of compromise no matter how repugnant that may be, is the path to enlightenment. Neither story is successful, whether as no doubt well-intentioned moralising or as science fiction/fantasy. Together they extend the boredom by repetition of the same ideas in a different fictional vehicle. I read Walter Mosley because he has a rare writing talent and I enjoy observing him at work. I just wish he would reserve this talent for what he’s actually very good at which is the thoughtful PI/thriller genre.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.