The Cassandra

The allure of being able to see the future is a primeval attraction for all humans. As tomorrow races at us at the rate of one second per second, carrying unknown benefits and dangers, surprises and grim confirmations, we are apt to think, If only I could have a clear vision of what’s ahead! I could plan, anticipate, prepare–and maybe even get rich! But two things are generally ignored in such daydreams. The pitfalls and traps stemming from too much knowledge, and the immense philosophical question that a fixed future raises of predestination versus free will.

Science fiction, fantasy and horror, however, have devoted a huge amount of thought and dramatization to precognition and clairvoyance – usually finding such powers to be a Faustian bargain at best. But even before the birth of modern literary forms, global cultures offered many instances of foreknowledge, usually in the form of mystical or religious prophecy. The sayings of the Delphic Oracle were fraught with pros and cons. The Book of Revelation charted the ultimate future. And sages such as Nostradamus issued hit-or-miss predictions whose vagueness encouraged different interpretations. Many of these prophecies were intimately dependent on pre-modern concepts of the structure and nature of time itself.

A transitional instance situated between old-school prophecies and modern foreknowledge might be attributed to Shakespeare– arguably the interstitial “inventor of the human” in Harold Bloom’s terms–and his fortune-telling witches in Macbeth. Little good did their supernatural foretelling do our murderous protagonist.

But with the rationalization and quantification of time that Isaac Newton developed, people began to get a sense of the future as a real territory, or an actual far-off place from which missives might occasionally reach backwards to us. (Twentieth-century physics of course brought a major reworking of the notion of time, about which more in a minute.) The whole notion of writing “science fiction” about future landscapes is based on a sort of precognition – the idea that we could reach out and envision logically what was to come: scientific prophecies.

Max Beerbohm’s 1916 story “Enoch Soames” was a memorable early attempt to demonstrate that knowing the future was not always a good thing. The title character, an aspiring writer, learns of an encyclopedia entry from the future that labels him “a third-rate poet who believed himself a great genius.” Robert Heinlein’s very first story, “Life-Line,” posits a technology that supplies one’s death date with one-hundred-percent accuracy. Society threatens to fall apart under too much knowledge. In 1944’s film It Happened Tomorrow, Dick Powell, reporter, finds his life plunged into creative chaos when he receives a copy of tomorrow’s newspaper. A TV show, Early Edition (1996-2000), capitalized on the same trope.

No one did more to tease out and unfurl the implications of precognition in the 1950s and 1960s than Philip K. Dick. The notion of being trapped in web of predestination obviously intrigued him, as did the figure of the wisdom-cursed but hapless “precog” individual, and the theme found one of its most striking occurences in his “Minority Report,” later famously filmed. Dick’s depiction of incongruent or overlapping futures was a reflection of the new sense of a multiverse and branching timelines that emerged from quantum physics. From a singular future set in stone, we moved to a sense of contingent tomorrows whose reification could be influenced by what we did today.

The next fellow to exhibit some of the same eerie concept of “clairvoyance as damnation” was Frank Herbert in the 1960s, who gave his hero of Dune, Paul Atreides, burdensome prophetic abilities via a drug called “mélange. Robert Silverberg’s The Stochastic Man (1975) also portrayed its farseeing protagonist as a damned soul.   The precog hero of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone fares little better. In 1980 came Gregory Benford’s masterpiece, Timescape, which brilliantly codified all the elements of deliberate communication from the future to the past.

Building on this foundation of classic literature, newer tales have rung fresh changes on the matter of precognition–although such stories always exist in the shadow of tales involving actual time-travel, a trope which has the advantage of providing more physical excitement and adventure as characters bop around personally among different eras. In Marvel comics continuity, the mini-series Civil War II revolved around a mutant named Ulysses whose visions of the future triggered massive outcomes. Last year Charles Soule gave us Oracle Year, in which a single man’s sudden possession of specific, accurate predictions wreaks social havoc. And now comes The Cassandra, from Sharma Shields.

Like Maria Dahvana Headley’s recent The Mere Wife, The Cassandra very fruitfully transposes a resonant myth from deep antiquity into a modern setting, limning both differences and similarities between the eras. Unlike Headley, however, Shields does not intend to follow the myth point by point, using parallels and correspondences. She is more concerned with showing us vividly and shatteringly that a new avatar of Cassandra would suffer the same fate as her predecessor, mutatis mutandis.

We receive this tale via the first-person narration of Mildred Groves, the Cassandra figure. (She shares her surname with the historical figure Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, the man in charge of the Manhattan Project.) Shields’ creation of Mildred’s voice is crafty, monumental, arresting and essential to the success of the book. As we get to know her, Mildred reveals herself as a living paradox: naive yet wise; passionate yet cold; mundane yet occult; ambitious yet hesitant; sensual yet arid. Shields’ triumph lies in believably uniting all these opposites in one bigger-than-life yet utterly graspable and inhabitable figure.

The year is 1944. Young adult Mildred has been stifled for some time as the caretaker to her domineering, abusive mother. (Sister Martha, married with kids and living at some distance, is no help.) Part of this burden is of Mildred’s own making, for she attempted to kill her mother once, leaving mother alive but debilitated. (No legal consequences befell this unprovable assault.) But finally Mildred has had enough of all familial duties. Hearing that a secret government project in Hanford, Washington, is hiring, she ditches Mom and takes her secretarial skills there, looking to start her mature life.

Immediately she meets pivotal people who will configure the flow of her new existence. Beth, who becomes her best friend, and a kind of platonic love interest. Kathy, a cynical, irreverent sounding-board. Her boss, Dr. Hall. And most consequentially, two eligible bachelors: Gordon, a scary Robert Mitchum type, and the inglorious “Tom Cat,” who is gentle and considerate but somehow less appealing than Gordon. Roughly half of the narrative emerges out of Mildred’s daily interactions with this cast of characters over the next two years–frustrating and rewarding, horrifying and compassionate. One is reminded of John Crowley’s Four Freedoms, set during the same period and likewise concerned with misfits and outcasts in a wartime milieu.

But the other half of the book–and the two parts are intricately interwoven and interdependent–concerns Mildred’s gift or curse (an ancestral legacy). She has accurate visions of future events. And, since she is now at Hanford, where the plutonium for the newly perfected atomic bombs is being made, all her visions start to center on the horrific consequences of her job. They plague her, send her on dangerous sleep-walking forays, alienate her from her peers, and, in the chapter titled “Jump,” lead into a hallucinogenic vision quest.

The vision collected me from where I slept on the cot, hooking into my shoulders with her harpy’s talons and dragging me first across the room of gently snoring women, pushing against the barracks door, and then over the chipped gravel sand of the desert so that the skin on the tops of my toes tore and bled. The vision had been gathering strength for some time. I didn’t fight her. I was relieved she was here. She’d plucked out the eyes of the guards so that they couldn’t see me. They laughed and joked together over a flask of beer, unaware that their eyes had been replaced with chewed-up mulberries. Their sight was useless now; otherwise they would have cried out, pulled me free of the harpy’s hooks, returned me to the barracks, and scolded me in tones of incredulity. But mulberry eyes, sweet and dumb, see nothing. The vision croaked and opened up her wings and we flew the short distance to the bluff overlooking the river.

Mildred both hates and loves her visions. They scare her, yet define her–make her feel both isolated yet special. But her inability to blend or merge her powers into her carnal, mortal life will prove her downfall. Ultimately, she will be betrayed by the cosmic forces and suffer immensely, mainly through an act of Faulknerian sexual brutality.

While focused rightly and essentially on Mildred’s individual story, Shields of course manages to bring in larger concerns. Militarism, feminism, racial prejudices, conformity versus eccentricity, filial responsibilities, civilization versus barbarism, intellectualism versus soulfulness–Mildred’s plight intersects all these larger themes. Once in a while points are hammered home a little too bluntly. The very first chapter, in which the man interviewing Mildred for her job is made to represent the worst of toxic masculinity without much basis in his behavior, might seem a little offputtingly hamhanded.   But the book swiftly drops such preachiness for more subtle portraiture, and even villains receive their share of insight.

In the end, Mildred is her own worst enemy, unable to escape her heritage of visionary truth-telling. Society cannot benefit from her unique talents, in part due to her own lack of necessary empathy.

The ringing in my ears, my sweating brow: I knew what would happen. What always happened when I foretold the future, the annoyance, the rejection, the loneliness I would feel in the aftermath. I would be left alone, to withdraw into the monster of myself… I hated the shoulders of the control room’s men, hunkered over their tasks, waiting diligently for the right moment to press whatever button or rotate whatever lever they needed in order to punish and dominate. Machines, all of them, I thought. Thoughtless. What did they care about what they made? I saw what was emerging from the concrete womb of this place. It was peril itself, a sorcerer that mutated sand into green glass.

The Cassandra joins such New Gothic classics as Patrick McGrath’s Spider as a showcase for those inhabitants of society’s fringes, men and women who possess vital sacred knowledge we need to hear, but which they cannot convey.