Despite the highly unlikely extrapolation from now to then, especially the improbably secular North Africans: a thoughtful, sometimes wrenching, noteworthy debut.
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Winner of the Locus Award for Best First Novel: In a dark future, a priest who has lost his faith battles for hope, love, and redemption in the teeming streets and souls of a vividly reimagined North Africa
Father John Alston has lost his faith but his heart remains strong. Having left behind a computerized, climate-controlled, and disease-free Europe, he administers aid to the destitute of a Borderer town in the Endless City. In the squalor of what was once North Africa, he provides spiritual comfort and basic health care, while preaching a message that he no longer believes. But the recent explosion of a deadly virus has John profoundly troubled and desperately searching for answers. Suspecting a native plant commonly used as an intoxicant, John decides to investigate further with the help of a brilliant but mysterious Borderer woman. His pursuit of the mystery will set him on a collision course with powerful political realities designed to maintain the status quo of the Third World. On a harrowing journey through a radioactive valley of death—and through his own painful history—he will confront devastating truths that will either revive his damaged soul or destroy it completely.
Despite the highly unlikely extrapolation from now to then, especially the improbably secular North Africans: a thoughtful, sometimes wrenching, noteworthy debut.
Every year at the time of the harvest carnival, the Borderers came to Hemhill. They came in trucks with darkened windows, came fast down the highway through the ruins of the old city, past the low white houses and on into the big compound at the far end of the valley. For most of the year the warehouses behind the shockwire lay silent, the avenues and huts and wide concrete spaces were empty. But the Borderers rolled back the gates and powered up the shockwire. They filled the doors and windows with light. They fixed and they tested. They set to work.
On clear autumn nights after his bath and his storybook, John would lie in bed and listen as the hum of the compound carried across the fields. When his mother's kiss and his father's smile had faded, he liked to think of the Borderers down in the valley, those faceless people working shift upon shift through to morning.
Later, on the best nights, Hal would sometimes look in, sliding the door open to check for a wakeful glint in his little brother's eyes. It was Hal, sitting at the edge of the bed with his broad figure outlined against the glimmering room, who first told John about the Borderers. He explained how the harvest—the reducing of the hoppers of jelt to fibrous bricks, winnowing the wheat, pressing the oilnuts, draining chloroethane from the tree-tappers netted in the late summer hills—created conditions that were too dirty and dangerous for machines or Europeans.
"I've seen the Borderers working," he once said to John. "And I've been in the fields and watched them go by. They're skilled in ways that we aren't, Skiddle, and they work hard to earn the money they send back to their homes in the Endless City. Don't ever believe anyone who says otherwise. Really, if it wasn't for the color of their eyes, they'd be the same as you and I "
Hal's voice rose and then faded as he leaned down to kiss John goodnight. He stood up from the bed and the door closed and his footsteps passed into silence along the landing, and gravity shifted as once again the room filled with the hum of the compound riding on the darkness down the valley. John thought of the Borderers working and of the city from which they came, of the Endless City, dark and empty as he now saw it, abandoned like the compound in the times between the harvests, yet infinitely vast. In his dreams, he wandered those soundless streets alone, was swallowed in the loneliness of black windows and untenanted doors, of turns and alleys and avenues unfolding forever into vacant squares beneath a sky without moon or stars.CHAPTER 2
The sacrificial goat, with polished hooves, horns dyed red, coat washed pearly white, was tethered to the back of a ribbon-draped truck. The crowds along Gran Vía were cheering as it passed, shaking their fists, throwing scoops of mud and dung, spitting chewed reddish wads of the local leaf, shouting words of anger and encouragement.
Father John wiped the sweat from his face and pressed the cloth until it dissolved, then rested his gloved hands back on the sash frame of the top window at the Pandera presbytery, leaning out to watch the procession pass five stories below him. Behind the goat truck came witchwomen clattering teeth and beads, a gamboling clown, skull-faced conjurmen, jostling flags. Then the firefly glitter of excited children waving chemlights. Then the women, widow-black and keening like gulls. Here and there, he recognized the faces of some of his own parishioners.
A voice behind him said: "These people aren't like us, John. Sit down, sit down. What's the point in watching them if it bothers you so? Bella will be bringing the tea up in a minute "
The procession flowed on between the houses. Colors ran like an oil-rainbowed river, red, silver, and gold from luminous fabrics; then came shimmering images from screens slung over donkeys trailing wires and powerpacks. Cartoon monsters and coupling bodies soared, half-solid, into the air. And what were the people singing? John strained his ears to catch the words accented with the guttural Magulf dialect. But even with the translat he always kept hooked to the belt of his cassock, he found the Borderers hard to understand, and the translat would be worthless now: the voices that drifted up with the seaweed smell of massed Borderer humanity ebbed and pulsed like static. The sound was formless, the yawning breath of a mouth surrounded by the clattering heartbeat of bells and drums.
He turned away from the window.
Amply seated, his feet propped on a soiled cushion, Father Felipe studied John though silver half-lidded eyes. "You've upset them," he said. "You know that, don't you? Upset them by refusing to get involved in their carnival. A lad came to the door here only the other day and asked—"
"It's not my duty to please these people."
"Ah, duty!" Felipe rumbled gently with laughter.
John pulled a chair across the gritty floor and sat down. Outside, he could still hear the rumble of the procession. "Animal sacrifice is pointless wasteful. You think I should misrepresent the Church by seeming to approve of it?"
Felipe scratched absently at a food stain on his cassock. The room was half dark already, and the tiny glowing spines that ran along the fingers of his gloves made a reddish blur. John glanced down at his own gloves, which were still veined a leafy green; he had several more hours before he'd need to pull the thread along the cuff and incinerate them.
"I'll tell you a little secret," Felipe said. "I used to join in that procession—when these legs here would let me. Wave that big censer from the back cupboard in Santa Cristina's chancelry." He chuckled at the memory. "I'm sure the children used to put some sort of drug in it."
It was no secret. The children had told John about it when they came up Santa Cristina's hill in the smoky dusk one evening as he was closing the church and asked him to bless the goat. The old priest was just playing games—or perhaps even acknowledging in a roundabout way that his precedent had put the new and younger man in a difficult position.
"Ah!" Felipe cocked his head and beamed. "Here comes tea." All John could hear was the sound of the procession drumming like rain, but Felipe had somehow got hold of an expensive ear implant to counter his deafness. He heard everything.
After a long moment, the door from the stairs creaked open and Bella backed into the room with a jingle of china.
"Bless you, my girl. Gunafana "
The presbytery maid lowered her head. She had on a thin blue housecoat stained with sweat across the back, arms, and shoulders, and long-sleeved gloves of cheap cotton. Now that winter had ended, she'd also taken to wearing the impregnated facemasks they sold down at the Alcalá souk.
"And spicecake, I see. I really don't know how you do it. Bella, my dear, you're a marvel."
"Thank you, Fatoo."
"And I suppose you'd rather be out there, eh, my child? Joining in the fun?"
"No, Fatoo. This is my work."
"Of course! You see, John—here's another one who understands duty "
John saw the attentiveness that came into Felipe's eyes as the young Borderer woman leaned to place the teatray on the low table. Every day those rheumy silver irises sparkled with sudden life as they studied the curves of her breasts.
Bella stepped quickly back. She crossed her arms. Her facemask sucked in, blew out. Framed by it and a fringe of black hair, her big chestnut eyes remained blank. Felipe liked her to wait here with them each afternoon as they took tea, but John hadn't grown used to having human servants.
"Tak," Felipe said. "You might as well get on with whatever it is you're doing, Bella."
Bella lowered her head again. "Yes, Fatoo."
Felipe watched the sway of her rump as she turned and left the room. The door closed. Her footsteps faded down the stairs as, outside, the carnival procession was now also fading, giving way to the sigh of the hot, ever-present wind. The ceiling fan ticked slowly overhead, circling shadows across Felipe's face, stirring the strands of hair that he smoothed across his bald pate.
"You're not the first one, John," he said, "to come here, to disapprove of these carnivals."
"I can imagine."
"I remember there was a blond-haired lad " Felipe knotted his hands as he searched for and failed to find a name. His fingers squealed faintly, damp with condensation and sweat. "Anyway, he thought he could change things."
"Didn't you ever want to do that?" John asked. "Change things?"
"Of course." Felipe took the teacup, blew at the steam, then propped the cup on his belly. "In my youth, I thought I could be anyone, do anything. Of course, I've lost that feeling now."
"And doesn't that bother you?"
"Of course it does. The Endless City shakes so many of our safe European conceptions. Life here is put to chance in a way that we barely understand. How many funeral rites do you think I've performed down at El Teuf? Little scraps of flesh that hardly had a chance at life gobbled up by the mouth of that big incinerator "
"Don't you get angry?"
"We're here to be the shepherds of souls, not to burn with anger. Remember what Epictetus said."
"I don't want to lose my anger. If I lose that, I'll be accepting things exactly as they are."
"And tell me, why should this world need your acceptance?" Felipe slurped his tea, clattering the cup on the saucer. "We're here for other reasons, my son. Believe me, this isn't the priest in you that's speaking—it's the man. I know, my son, that you have your doubts, your troubles. I understand that. Truly, I understand and I sympathize. But that doesn't "
John let it wash over him. They'd talked this way, oh, far too many times before in the six months he'd been here. It never got them anywhere. No matter how he tried, he couldn't engage anything in Felipe beyond this clever, weary, seen-it-all philosophizing. The old priest had spent too many years in the Endless City, lying back in the haze of the whisky and trisoma that he took to deaden the pain in his failing legs.
"John," Felipe said, crumbs trembling on his lips as he fished through his pockets for a flask to add to his tea, "this seedcake really is excellent. Lent or no Lent, you must try."
John reached to the old priest's plate and took a bite. It had the bitter, salt-sour taste of the reeking kelpbeds down at Chott from which the flour was processed. He forced himself to swallow.
After the evening service and the cleaning of the paten and the chalice, John locked the shutters over the windows of the church of Santa Cristina. Most of the glass and the original roof had been destroyed long ago by the weather and were now patched with panels and sheets. Still, even if the pillars were tidemarked with damp and the floor was crumbling to rubble, Santa Cristina had managed to survive the centuries. He'd read up on its history back in Millbrooke Seminary when he'd first heard that he was to be assigned here. Or had he read it on board the shuttle? Now he couldn't remember—any more than he could remember what the old analogue guidebook had said. Built by the Templars, sacked by the Merindes Or was it the Berbers, the Saadians, the Alouites?
He paused beside the stone crusader in the east chancel. Time had eaten away the features, the cloak, the shield. Now, noseless and age-corroded, with hollow sockets for eyes, the figure resembled a skeleton more than anything else. He touched the stone with his gloved hands, crumbling away a little more. He didn't mind the decay of the church, this statue, the looted ornaments, the smell of damp that in another hour or two would override the lingering odor of incense and the characteristic sweat-smell of his departed Borderer congregation. The church was old anyway, dying.
The sound of scuffling and scratching came from the high arches as the large black indigenous birds squabbled for nesting space outside on the roof. The votive candles and chemlights of the side chapel of the Inmaculada gave a flickering, cheery glow. It was one of the few bright spots in the rambling church: Our Lady wearing a blue dress and a quizzical smile, surrounded by an oddly Christmassy pile of tributes. Her eyes were greenish brown, like the Bellinis and Titians he had seen in Paris museums. Christ and Our Lady had faces like those he saw here on the street, with a strange gaze of brown or green or blue. Drawn towards the statue as he always was, he noticed that a blackish rime had formed in the outstretched palm of her right hand.
It was probably dried blood, like the fresh red trail he'd found leading to the church's oak door one morning last winter when there'd been snow, and a purplish internal organ that had been left dripping on the altar rail. Looking closer at the candlelit pile that surrounded Our Lady, he saw chewed baby teethers, wedding rings worn thin, cheap and treasured prosthetics. An unworkable hand. False teeth. The gleam of a glass eye. Cobwebby scraps of hair. These undying bits of the dead never accumulated the gritty dust that settled everywhere else in the Magulf: his parishioners were always picking them up, rubbing them with callused fingers and whispering Madre. He thought of Saint Paul in Athens, of the shrines and idols in that city full of unknown gods. Did they represent false images—or other pathways towards the light? Paul had been clear enough in his condemnation, but after all these centuries, after the death in the poisoned weather of half the world and with it the other great religions that had once vied with Christianity, there was still no real answer.
On a rusty stand beside the altar was a plate for offerings and prayers. As usual, it was well stocked. Each card crackled out its message as he picked it up. He could only make sense of a few on first hearing. The cards were thin and cheap—and even when his parishioners tried to speak clear European, the clotted Magulf vowels still came through.
A woman, with the sound of a baby crying in the background. "To Lady. Pray the soul of our son Josh."
Another woman. Something about the roof of her shack blowing in.
A man, in tears, too choked to say anything at all.
To get anywhere near understanding the rest, John had to take the translat from his belt and hold it close. Each time a card spoke, the translat's screen flickered and the power meter sagged before it barked out the words. The translat didn't get on well with the speech cards, but its flat, Eurospeak voice eventually echoed each message.
"Please mercy and forgiving. In the name of the gods."
"Pray now for rain, and for my friend Delo. As it was in time of the Dark King. Amen."
One card had pinned to the back of it a small plastic bag filled with titanium bolts. "For Jesus," it chirped, and the translat gave a clear but tinny echo a moment later. "Please remember."
Remember what? For whom? He gazed up at the face of Our Lady. She was smiling and sad, self-absorbed, and her carved lips always seemed to be holding back the same eternal secret. He wiped the rusty stand and then the main altar rail with a fresh dysol-impregnated cloth from the pack he always carried with him, an anointing that was part of the ritual of reassurance that took place between Borderer and European even when there were no witnesses. Then he changed gloves. Pulling at the thread and dropping the old pair to the floor, he watched them flare and dissolve, and brushed away the ash with the toe of his shoe.
He destroyed the unused wafers. Normally he would have gone through at least two of the sealed packs in an evening service, but today the congregation had been limited to a few old women, a few old men, and the babies that they'd agreed to look after while the rest of the people enjoyed the carnival. He'd had half a mind to acknowledge the fact during the service, even try—through the translat, or by testing his own stumbling command of the dialect—to crack a joke. But when he gazed down at those strange eyes, and at those warm and gnarled hands that he could never touch, the silence had closed in.
Freewheeling, his cassock flapping, he cycled down the cobbled hill from church.
Excerpted from The Great Wheel by Ian R. MacLeod. Copyright © 1997 Ian R. MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Ian R. MacLeod is the acclaimed writer of challenging and innovative speculative and fantastic fiction. His most recent novel, Wake Up and Dream, won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, while his previous works have won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and the World Fantasy Award, and have been translated into many languages. His short story “Snodgrass” was developed for television in the United Kingdom as part of the Sky Arts series Playhouse Presents. MacLeod grew up in the West Midlands region of England, studied law, and spent time working and dreaming in the civil service before moving on to teaching and house-husbandry. He lives with his wife in the riverside town of Bewdley.
Ian R. MacLeod is the acclaimed writer of challenging and innovative speculative and fantastic fiction. His most recent novel, Wake Up and Dream, won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, while his previous works have won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and the World Fantasy Award, and have been translated into many languages. His short story, “Snodgrass,” was developed for television in the United Kingdom as part of the Sky Arts series Playhouse Presents. MacLeod grew up in the West Midlands region of England, studied law, and spent time working and dreaming in the civil service before moving on to teaching and house-husbandry. He lives with his wife in the riverside town of Bewdley.
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