20 December 2010

Stella Maris

If you're a regular reader, you'll know that every year since 2006 I've written a Christmas story to send out to friends with our Christmas cards. A year later (so that it feels to the friends in question as if they're at least a little bit special), I archive them here and on the short stories page of my website.

(When there are enough of them, I might try to get them all published as a slim volume. I have a killer title all ready, provided nobody else uses it in the next 20 or so years.)

Past years' stories can be found here:
  • Sol Invictus (2006): A midwinter tale about a couple who receive Christmas cards from alternative universes.
  • Polarity (2007): A prose poem about polar opposites.
  • Blitzenkrieg (2008): A story about the unexplored possibilities of certain Christmas technologies.
2010's story is a cyberpunk retelling of an old Christmas classic, but you'll have to wait for December 2011 to get a chance to read it. Unless you're on my Christmas card list, obviously.

In the meantime, here's Stella Maris (2009), a story I can best describe as a revisionist Nativity.
by Philip Purser-Hallard

     I had a cold coming on.

     Not ideal for such a long journey, especially a religious pilgrimage. It wouldn’t have been appropriate to approach a newborn god sneezing and spluttering, now would it? Not altogether the etiquette on these occasions.

     No... no dear, there’s no reason why you should, when I haven’t told you yet. So be a darling and pour me a mug of wine – no, the amphora with the scarab, the other stuff’s dreadful – and I’ll do so directly.

     That’s better. Now, where was I?

* * *

     Ah, yes – leaving the Temple at Philae, doing my utmost to suppress the rebellion in my sinuses, and heading north to where our astrologers assured us a new incarnation of Horus would be born, probably. They thought it would be Horus, anyway, although it could have been Osiris. Or Ra. Or even Khepri. One of those gods who die and are reborn, anyway. The point being, for us, that he was going to be born at all.

     That’s our department, you see – pregnancy and birth and motherhood. It’s very much within the remit of the priesthood of Isis.

     I was eight, I think. Or was I nine? No older than that – a young slip of a neophyte. It was a great honour to be the High Priestess’s handmaiden, and to be accompanying her to meet this tiny prodigy.

     We travelled the length of the Nile by boat, de-barqueing at Memphis and boarding a Syrian galley bound for Palestine. All the way down the delta and out into the sea, the star was there – a bright lantern in the sky, ahead of us and to starboard. You didn’t have to be an astrologer to notice it, I promise you.

     From Jaffa we joined a party travelling overland, climbing up towards the mountains, and the capital nestling in the foothills.

     Judaea wasn’t a Roman province in those days, not in the formal sense. Instead there was a client king, who had a reputation as a bit of a tyrant. We didn’t want to attract his attention, and it’s not in the nature of the priestesses of Isis to act discreetly. So we skirted Jerusalem and headed south, for where the star burned brightest.

     ‘All this was once ours, you know,’ the High Priestess said, though probably not to me. She wasn’t one for conversation with the novices. ‘The pharaohs ruled it, fifteen dynasties ago. The people here are descended from runaway slaves. They called this town Bit-Lahmi then.’

     I don’t know why she thought it was worth making a fuss about. Every empire in the East seems to have occupied the place at one time or another, before the Romans marched in and kicked sand over everything in their usual way.

     They were enforcing some kind of local census – as Romans do – but even so most of the visitors to the town were foreigners. From Ethiopia to Arabia, Alexandria to Babylon, every civilisation with astrologers seemed to have sent its representatives to rub shoulders under the pale portentous light of that star. The first people we met were a bevy of drunken Greeks, arguing with some po-faced soothsayers over whether it was Apollo or Dionysus who’d be putting in an appearance.

     The taverns were heaving, of course, and so were the inns. While the High Priestess attempted to parley up accommodation for our seven-strong party, I got talking to a group from Benares, beyond the Indus, who were convinced our little godling would be an avatar of somebody called Shiva.

     Eventually the innkeeper, realising that our coin was better than most, evicted a wild-bearded man who looked as if he’d been trying to pay with twigs. His Latin was horrible, and I gathered only that he was a druid from the northern fringes of the world.

     Even so, the innkeeper said, he could house three of us at the most. The High Priestess insisted on keeping a handmaid, so I was permitted to stay along with the Temple’s senior midwife, whose expertise she thought it best to keep at hand. Our four companions turned wearily back for Jerusalem.

* * *

     It was a complete washout, of course – there was no newborn god. The only baby born under that star was little Yeshua, whose parents were only in town for the census. They were a nice enough couple, Yosef and Miryam, though he was quite a bit older than she was. Accommodation being so limited they’d ended up sleeping in the stables at our inn, and our midwife helped out with the birth, just because somebody had to.

     The High Priestess came down to meet him, just in case, but found to her disgruntlement that he looked entirely ordinary. ‘What kind of god has a human head?’ she grumbled.

     I had a sneezing fit then, startling poor baby Yeshua. I passed it off as hay fever from all the straw.

     The High Priestess gave him a toy to play with – a little wooden pendant of our Lady that he clutched in his tiny fist. The stable was full of shepherds for some reason, and I think she was embarrassed at being shown up in front of them.

     Because by that time the Persians had arrived, and were handing over gifts of their own.

     There were three of them – priests of that dreary dualist sect they have over there, the Zoroastrians. Their deity’s very abstract, and the idea of a god being born was more or less anathema to them. They’d assumed they were coming to pay their respects to a new king, a baby destined to become the next Darius or Alexander or Julius, and bring the rest of us under Judaean rule. They wanted to start currying favour early.

     Little Yeshua being – despite all the visible evidence – the only available candidate, they decided be must be the one, and handed over the tribute they’d brought. It was some inappropriate tat or other, I forget.

     I got talking to one of the boys who looked after their camels. I’ve always been gregarious. (Now I think about it, it’s possible I was a little older than nine.) ‘You’re late,’ I told him teasingly. Oddly enough, my cold seemed to have cleared up completely. ‘All the other astrologers have been in town for days.’

     ‘Yeah, well,’ he laughed (I think we were speaking Greek). ‘Their nibs had to go to Jerusalem first, didn’t they? They thought the king would be born there. Everyone said King Herod had sons already, but of course they knew best. I said, “Hey boss, the star’s up that way, look!” but they didn’t listen.’

     ‘They went to Herod on the way here?’ I said. ‘And told him they were looking for a successor of his, but not one of his sons? That wasn’t very wise of them.’

     The Zoroastrians had peed Herod off royally, of course, excuse my Massalian. Within the week his soldiers had orders to round up all the children in the entire region, and – well, as I said, he wasn’t a very nice man.

     You just can’t trust monotheists. What kind of zealot puts all their eggs in one basket anyway?

     By then we were heading home. The High Priestess had decided to give up, return to Philae and execute her pick of the astrologers. The midwife and I had both got rather fond of little Yeshua, though, and we didn’t like to leave him in Judaea with Herod on the rampage. So we persuaded the family to come back to Egypt with us.

* * *

     All this was a long time ago, of course. The three of them lived in Thebes for a while, but they never really settled – they were rather strait-laced, really, and I think some of our Temple’s rites made them uncomfortable. After a year or two, when Miryam was pregnant again, they moved back to Judaea and I lost track of them.

     I hear things, though. These days Alexandria’s full of disciples from some newfangled sect. Sober-faced Greeks, mostly, who talk as if a god was born in Bethlehem that night – the son of that terribly angry deity they worship in Judaea. For some reason, they don’t seem very keen on women. I’m not at all sure why – by all accounts, their prophet surrounded himself with them.

     If it was him, poor Yeshua came to a terrible end. I can’t bear to think about it.

     They don’t remember us, of course. They have some vague recollection that he spent his infancy around here, but all the credit for that goes to his father. He had a vision, they say. It would be rather too embarrassing, I expect, to admit that the family were smuggled out by devotees of a foreign fertility cult, and women at that.

     Of all the astrologers, philosophers, priests and charlatans who were in town that night, the only ones these people mention are those Zoroastrian magi. Of course, this new sect has a lot in common with their religion – they both worship a solitary ‘good’ god and reject his evil enemy – so getting the Zoroastrians’ blessing must seem like something of a coup. The mother-goddess of the Egyptian pantheon, probably not so much.

     Even so, it was us who saved their little messiah, and those three men who very nearly got him killed. Those three foolish men.

     Actually, dear, I’d be glad of another top-up.

© 2009 Philip Purser-Hallard
A thoroughly merry festival of the birth of Horus to one and all.

18 December 2010

Nazis vs The Mummy

The inexorable imminence of the Midwinter festivities means I'm fairly unlikely now to have time for blogging of substance until 2011, with one exception: I do have a Christmas story, "Stella Maris", lined up to publish here and on the website for Midwinter Day.

This means that the following is the last time this year you'll be teased about my forthcoming drabblectic epic "A Hundred Words from a Civil War":
     ‘How long did this take to build?’ Gerhardt gazes into the dark maw the sappers have exposed.
     ‘It’s pre-Resurrection,’ Kurt replies. ‘The Pharaohs woke in replicas of the tombs they had built to house them in the afterlife.’
     Two of the stormtroopers jog ahead into the passageway.
     ‘So when this Sethnakht redied, they simply sealed him in?’
     Kurt shrugs.
     ‘And now the Deputy Mayor...’
     ‘Wants him dug up again, yes. She feels that he may represent –’
     An inhuman roar emerges from the broken stone. A bandaged figure lurches forward, brandishing a limp, uniformed body.
     ‘– a threat,’ Kurt concludes.
Sethnakht was real, as it happens. Where most pharaonic dynasties traced their ancestries back to Osiris and Horus, Sethnakht's twentieth dynasty claimed Set as their divine ancestor. This may or may not provide a clue as to the cause of Deputy Mayor Parallaxia's concerns.

No Bloody Hood

Birthday present update: As well as penetrating nearly halfway into Surface Detail, I've now listened to all those Eurythmics CDs and watched all the DVDs I hadn't already seen, as well as Doctor Who series 5, which I had.

I'd love to write a detailed, considered appreciation both of that series (the best since... erm, actually, possibly ever, to my mind, thanks to the thoughtful brilliance of both showrunner and lead actor), and of season 2 of the excellent True Blood as well. I'm still hoping I might manage to in the New Year... but since Christmas has all but engulfed me in its tinselly, tentacular embrace, it's much quicker and easier laying into something rubbish.

While I'm obviously grateful to my parents for buying it for me when asked and thus expanding my collection of adaptations of the Robin Hood legend, the 2010 Robin Hood film certainly fits the bill. It's a stupid, formulaic period action-adventure achieving nothing notable or original except to ignore completely every single facet of the source material in favour of telling a completely different story about another character entirely. (OK, so there's a thirty-second sequence halfway through where "Robin" and his pals -- including, for no apparent reason, their village friar -- prevent a wagon from taking away the village's taxes in grain. They wear hoods during it. AND THAT'S IT.)

Utterly derivative though the plot is, the historical absurdity of everything in the film after about the halfway point is simply staggering. SPOILERS (highlight to read): Robin is, supposedly, the son of a stonemason who wrote a prototype Magna Carta some 40 years early and persuaded an army of barons to sign up to it before it was rejected (presumably by Henry II, although the film doesn't really go into that) and he was executed. His son -- now a yeoman archer who's discovered that he can effortlessly imitate a knight, thus bringing him into direct contact with his old man's aristocratic contacts -- ends up leading a popular uprising (again consisting mostly of barons), who blackmail the treacherous King John into apparently supporting the revived charter before they all go off to fight a completely nonexistent French invasion. Including, stupidly, Marian. Who apparently dies so Russell Crowe can do some emoting, but is fine again at the end.

The film has the occasional good idea -- Robin as a traumatised ex-crusader, Marian as a middle-aged widow -- but without exception they're good ideas first used in other adaptations, and aren't wielded with any kind of deftness or even consistency. Some commentators have claimed to find allegorical support for the cretinous US Tea Party movement in the film's presentation of unjust taxation under the Plantagenets, but I honestly think they give it credit for far more in the way of basic coherence than it achieves. Its chief political message appears to be that the French are basically evil, and you shouldn't trust Kings who have pointy black beards either.

Even as someone who actually quite liked Ridley Scott's unpopular earlier Crusade-based epic, Kingdom of Heaven, I was just appalled by this one.

03 December 2010

Rastafarians vs Conquistadors

You may have noticed that this blog has a redesigned template. I'm not sure about it, to be honest, but at least it doesn't look as if it still thinks it's 2005.

I've finally completed my list of birthday presents by getting into town and picking up Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks, his eighth (or possibly ninth) novel set in the Culture universe. It's about technological afterlives, which means I'm only four chapters in, and most of the characters seem to be dead already.

Ah well, I'm not really one to talk there. Speaking of which, I expect you'll be wanting another of these:
     The City is both Zion and Babylon.
     Zion, because it is a world in which every man can be himself, free from the chains of his first life. In the City, the Emperor Haile Selassie has ceased to deny his godhood and lives (like his contemporaries Hirohito and Philip Mountbatten) surrounded by his worshippers.
     Babylon, because of who’s in charge.
     The white man is coming for Ras Tafari. Mounted conquistadors trample the streets of Menelik District, towards the Grand Palace.
     The locals rally under the flag of the Lion of Judah, to defend the King of Kings from his oppressor.
I'm hoping it won't be too much longer before I can give you a link where you can buy Faciton Paradox: A Romance in Twelve Parts. In the meantime, here's Obverse Books again.