Reality is actually changing. The borders are shifting between what can be imagined and what can be materialized. The Twilight Patrol series works as a guide through the inner realms of the imagination back to the material world. Here’s a guide for the guide, summarizing its major themes, for those who are disinclined to deal with the whole seven-issue, thousand-page epic.
Many spoilers follow.
Set in an alternate history World War I, the series features the efforts of a group of pilots and spies (The Twilight Patrol) as they fight against of a group of sorcerers known as the Mysteriarchs of the Abyss. The Mysteriarchs exploit the Great War as a source for their magic, which is powered by destruction of beautiful things. Like modern multi-national corporations, the sorcerers are working both sides of the conflict.
Captain Hollister is an orphan who became one of the most feared aces of the Great War, a patriot ever alert for trouble. And trouble has found Congrieve, in spades, in the form of Cassiopeia Peyotrovna Lampreyv, the deposed queen of a hidden Carpathian kingdom. She is gifted with superb skills for handling planes and men — but a rare form of hemophilia turned the whites of her eyes to blood red and left her with a constant need for transfusions. The queen has beguiled Congrieve to join her fight against the Mysteriarchs of the Abyss. Congrieve and the queen are accompanied by a number of others, conceptually understood to be the Twilight Patrol, but never named as such within the narrative. Congrieve’s closest friend, Captain Orville Wootin is a mad genius, brilliant airman, spymaster, poet and philosopher, who never fails to deliver the goods — except when he’s out of his mind. Peyotr Lampreyv — Cassiopeia’s fourteen-year-old son, is afflicted by the same genetic disorder as his mother. Chaim Ben-Zimra — The queen’s private physician, a rabbi, a cabbalist, and mystic is gifted with a preternatural understanding of the dark forces threatening our mortal realm.
In the opening novel, Orville Wootin warns Hollister Congrieve that the Central Powers have started using a mysterious new weapon that has devastating capabilities. Congrieve tries to convince General Bainbride to halt an imminent attack against a major German stronghold, but Bainbride refuses. The attack goes forward. The Germans loose hordes of carnivorous flies upon the Allies. A slaughter ensues.
The Central Powers, now nearly invincible, march across Europe, then invade America.
Written in a style full of rampant excess, it calls to mind visionary poetry—or literary punk-rock played at eardrum shattering volume. Reminiscent of Norvell Page’s Spider, we get white hot emotions of extraordinary characters pushed to point of breaking, omnipresent unfolding disasters, and tongue in cheek dark humor. The prose is so beyond purple, it will make your teeth glow in the dark. Some might say it is too full of literary pretensions to appeal to lovers of pure escapism, and it is too pulpish to appeal to lovers of high literature. But that is part of its purpose. Reminiscent of Lester Dent’s Doc Savage, we get world spanning adventures and exotic locales mingled with screwball comedy. Reminiscent of Clarke Ashton Smith, C.L. Moore, and Robert E. Howard, we get dense poetry/prose combining pulse pounding adventure with Lovecraftian horror. We get Operator Number Five’s military horror and alternate history, G-8’s surrealistic and Dada sensibilities— all this in a brew that also anticipates– years before their time– Tolkien, Borges, Calvino, Ballard, Pynchon, Robbins, and Boroughs (William, not Edgar Rice).
The series is billed as a mythology of truth, which tersely sums up the way its structure is built with self-contradictory elements. It sounds like an oxymoron, or a disclaimer of truth as reality, and it is both– oxymoronically disclaiming its own disclaimer. Myths are narratives that are understood to be untrue once you attach the label, but they are also understood as serving to illuminate an important kind of truth that is not literal. The narrative is a guide. The Twilight Patrol sets out to show how reality is changing in contemporary America, but it is changing in ways that have been well understood since ancient times. What is now is nothing new. It argues that the truth is intermingled with untruth, an alloy of paradox and contradiction that is the nature of human experience. The work itself manifests this principle—it being a recreated 1935 pulp magazine series that might be a fraud.
The ideas here are not new, but no one has explored them in the context of a pulp adventure before. So, why the pulps? The Twilight Patrol strives to create a new and uniquely American mythology, with a distinctly American bent toward spirituality, as embodied in the First Amendment, an embrace of both religion and secularity, and the contradictory tensions between them. There’s a simple premise here— that scientific problems can’t be answered with spiritual solutions and vice versa, which isn’t rocket science, so to speak, but science and spirituality blend with one another in complicated ways at their outer most edges, both being sandwiched between mysteries and matters beyond human comprehension.
To create this new mythology, the series mines American hero pulp magazines of the Great Depression, recognizing the way they form a kind cultural subconscious bedrock in the American psyche, an excavation undertaken in much the same spirit J.R.R. Tolkien mined Nordic mythology for Lord of the Rings, and James Joyce mined Homer for Ulysses.
In Twilight Patrol #1, we enter a bar that symbolically represents a pulp magazine:
“The tavern’s front door shimmered with lurid colors. Some form of dye had been mixed into multiple layers of varnish, tainting the whorls and grains of the old wood so as to suggest half formed images, like fragments of a vanishing dream. Each slick coat contained a different crisis, a different repaired wound. The door was too large for its frame, and it crumbled around the edges.
Inside, smoke rendered the room colorless, but the room didn’t have the rank staleness of consumed tobacco. The rich smell of antique carpentry filled the air. Pen and ink and scratchboard drawings of planes and pilots hung on the walls, along with solicitations written on fragile scraps of paper and peeling, tattered posters offering to reveal hidden secrets for a small price.”
The truth is mixed with untruth. Our only certainty is the ever-vanishing present moment, but each individual moment is too richly infused with dense information, far too much to be fully apprehended. Each moment is sandwiched between unrealities: a vanished past and an unformed future. We are caught in a babble of conflicting remembrances and conjectures about what might yet be. That’s the reality of it, but you can’t grasp the reality until you grasp the unreality, which is why it is better to dive into the books, which work upon the readers like dreams or drugs. The rational mind rebels against the notion of lies as being true, so even though it is true, and not, the paradox is best understood in the context of fiction.
The series opens with an invocation—a vision of the material world turning into immaterial ideas:
“Fading traceries of dogfights spread across the sky, a monument to the transitory. The smoky remnants of men and planes were smeared upon the wind like ephemeral runes of an Animist prayer: loops and half-circles, crosshatchings of tracer bullets, and thick spirals corkscrewing down to the ground.”
Animism is invoked here not just as the worship of the spirit, but also in the sense that Animism is a theology based on the worship of the moment—the experience of being in the present as a kind of sacred awareness. The opening passage plays upon the format of pulp magazines themselves, which were viewed as disposable entertainments, something to be read and then tossed out, noteworthy for being not worthy, glorious in their impermanence. These fading towers of smoke, comprised of consumed imagery from World War I, assume a different guise at the end of the series, in the form of a reconstructed Tower of Babel, reaching into the sky, real, but not real. Chasing the unreachable perfect apex of Babel is further foreshadowed in the beginning: “The distant cannons tossed their percussive rainbows, sending shells arching across the air to land in a shower of golden fire.” The promise of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is recast as exploding artillery shells.
A vision follows that might or might not be real, an icon of the series itself: “It looked like a plane, or a craft of strange make… Its mounted engines by themselves seemed too heavy to be borne aloft, to say nothing of its load of naked participants, who hung on chains or cranked bicycle pedals connected to a rotor of unknowable purpose. Propellers spun at opposing corners, so that one would expect the craft to spin out of control or pull itself apart. Instead, it proceeded forward with stately momentum.”
Weird and disorienting eccentricities permeate The Twilight Patrol books, which are supposed to be 85 years old; yet they are fraught with passages that sound not entirely unlike New Age mysticism, which is to say, not entirely understandable on first reading, but if you persist, you might intuit (or, if you slog through the tougher passages that devolve into hallucinogenic poetry, you might imagine you intuit) the essential message.
This sort of hocus-pocus was not uncommon back in that age, sandwiched between two world wars. All manner of quirky spirituality used to lie hidden within the newsstands of the Depression era. Unfettered by pretenses of respectability that repressed their glossier counterparts, the pulps were hotbeds of metaphysical insurrection. You can see flagrant heterodoxy in the ads of Frank A. Robinson, the man they called the pulp prophet, who profited on his claims of actually talking to God, or in the ads of the Rosicrucians who merchandized spirituality that wasn’t a religion; or in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, who channeled the experience of Gnostic revelation to depict a spiritual experience of science as existential terror, or in the writings of Robert E. Howard, who spun Darwinism into a heroic theology, red in tooth and claw.
The second and third installments, Maggot Czar of the Everglades and Pawnbrokers of Eternal Blight, round a trilogy centered around the menace of flesh-eating flies. The battleground shifts from Europe to America, with most of the action taking place in Florida. These two books capture both the brooding terrors of Southern Gothic literature, as well as the flavor of traditional Floridian culture, with its deep roots in tourist targeted kitsch.
These installments draw upon the hallowed pulp convention of heroes who are masters of disguise, here done with shapeshifters impersonating other characters, including other shapeshifters, so the reader is continually challenged to know who is who, and ponder the ways in which mere labels, appearances and naming, affects the nature of identity. The Twilight Patrol is swept up in a plot to bring nightmares, hallucinations, and madness to those foolhardy enough to attempt to follow it.
One of the shapeshifters is the child of Thamiel, sort of a demon of Hebraic legend. Thamiel represents the principle which attacks the unified grandeur of the universe. It undoes unity. It separates things that should be joined. This child of a demon changed shape so often, it lost sight of its singular nature, and assumed the form of twins. It serves as a personification of the illusion of duality, and also as a metaphor for an America that is tearing itself apart over partisan political conflicts, and tearing itself apart over the conflict between science and spirituality.
The challenge of sorting between surface identity and actual reality assumes another guise in the following confrontation from Maggot Czar of the Everglades:
O’Deal reached below the table and extracted a bottle. There was a label on bottle with a single image. A skull and crossbones.
“You like magic, kid. I’m going to teach you a magic trick.
“Take a good look at the label on this bottle. Tell me what you think it means.”
“It is poison.”
“That label could mean all kinds of things. Maybe the bottle is full tiny bones. Maybe me and my pals here killed a bunch of babies so we’d have bones small enough to fill a bottle.”
Peyotr shuddered. The message was coming across quite clearly now. He could put his own label on O’Deal and the other Americans.
The Corporal continued, “Or maybe it means the bottle is full of a strong brew. Some might drink from the bottle and die. But others might drink and feel mighty fine.”
“I wouldn’t drink it.”
“Then you’ll never really know what is inside the bottle. You won’t drink it because you have a belief. On account of a label. You don’t even know who put that label on, or why he did it. You have a belief but you haven’t actually experienced the contents of that bottle. And that’s the way you’ve been treating the world, boy. You think you know… but you don’t. Until you actually drink it, it is just a caboodle of possibilities.”
“I still wouldn’t drink it.”
O’Deal puckered his lips until they drew into a reddened button.
“Makes sense. You’re a sensible lad. You go on living. You stay alive. You haven’t found out the truth, but it doesn’t affect your survival. You stay alive because you believe a label some stranger pasted on a bottle. That’s the way evolution works. It doesn’t need truth. Survival isn’t connected to knowing what is really there.”
“Sometimes it is.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Like now. Here’s the tricky part…”
O’Deal drew a long-barreled Colt from his holster. He pressed the muzzle to Peyotr’s temple. “If you don’t take a drink, I’m going to splatter your brains against that wall.”
To be sure, the way we label things affects our perception of them, and often works effects that alter reality—but within limits. This is what political correctness is about, and why it alternately evokes passionate defense and ridicule.
Consider this passage from Twilight Patrol #6:
“The truth is a strange kind of animal. You think you can disguise it, or tame it, or force it to obey your commands. You can try to hide it from yourself to hide it from others. But you can’t alter its basic nature. You can take a tiger and paint over its stripes, marking it white with black spots, like a cow. You can put horns on its head and cover its claws with hoof-shaped mittens. You can hang a sign round its neck that says ‘cow’. But God help you if you try to milk it.”
In the fourth installment, Dragon God Over the Western Front, we return to the European theater of war. Out of the night explodes an engine of unimaginable fury, powered by the drive to accumulate and hoard for the mere sake of possession– a force that draws its strength from the perpetual motion of irreconcilable imperatives engaged in timeless opposition; a beast that should be a myth, but thrives on the nightmares that well out of the unconscious when the unconscious is untethered from myth. The Mysteriarchs of the Abyss have shackled and enslaved the primordial evil that has guarded their hideous treasure troves for eons. This force, this beast, this evil proves to be a two headed dragon so vast and immense, its separate heads forgot they shared a single body.
The back-up short story in this issue, Zohar of the Jungle, is an homage to H. Rider Haggard’s brand of pulp exoticism, as well as an encapsulation of the theology and mysticism that underlies the entire series, climaxing with an existential parable:
“There was once a young woman so beautiful and so intelligent she could have her choice of any man in the village. She sought the counsel of the village seer, a prophet and wise man. He told her to marry Solomon.
“And so she did. But after the wedding, she found Solomon lazy. He could not hold a steady job. He was not particularly smart or wise, but he concealed his lack of intelligence by speaking indirectly and by affecting an easy, glib manner, and by outright lying. He constantly criticized his wife. He was not a handsome man, and his unkempt appearance made him even less attractive. And he was not much of a lover, and could not father children. But still, the beautiful young woman would not leave him.
“‘Why did she not leave him? The answer was thus. She felt the need to discover why the village seer, a prophet and wise man had selected Solomon. That mystery challenged her daily, it distressed her– and yet it forged her, and her marriage gave her a force of will that allowed her to endure many other tribulations and woes and unavoidable afflictions, and the pondering of the question sharpened her mind for the solving of many other problems.
“But maybe it had been bad advice from a man as ill prepared to be a seer as Solomon had been to be a husband.
“And by now, you are thinking that I am that village seer.’”
The fifth installment, The City Annihilator, is a creation myth. The action takes place inside a primal super-atom of information bits, where being and nothingness, ones and zeroes, churn together and the components of human consciousness assume the illusion of seven beautiful cities. Time is not passing, for we are in a frozen instant just before creation. It is like the experience of time within the book itself, with Depression era ads and pulp magazine features conflating past, present, and future, summed up in the name of the name of the magazine’s original publisher, PastModern Pulplications, and in the following metaphysical query from an editorial: “How is that we are able to accurately and uncannily predict the future? Well, it is a sort of a con. It is an artistic trick– but what is Art, if not another form of Magic? If we told you that our information comes from the actual future, you wouldn’t believe us, any more than you’d believe us if we told you that the person you think you are, reading this in 1935, doesn’t exist.”
In the City of Magic, where the buildings are made of spells written on paper and set aflame, reality is shaped by mere expectation, and what you think is what will be. Aces duel with bullets and beliefs, each hoping to shape the thoughts of their opponents. The perspectives of killers and victims cascade into one another in a mad whirl of literary illusions. In this sequence, character point of view is used the way M.C. Escher used vanishing points and parallel lines. The point of view shifts from those of the fictitious characters to the mind of the creator, meaning the author, viewing the relation of the fictitious characters to their creator and the relation of the author to his creator, be it a random universe or a pervading external consciousness, be it one that is supremely aware or the product of a churning information, bits transitioning in variations of ones and zeroes, struggling to understand what this churn might possibly be. The sequence contains palindrome verses of poetry, yanging yining yining yanging into self-consuming loops as the self vanishes into the universe and the universe vanishes into the self. I think one of the things that really throws the above picture out of stability is, ironically, the vertical stabilizer on the tail of the triplane, which cuts a hole in the background. The vertical stabilizer catches the eye and sinks what should otherwise be part of the midground. The whole is even weirder because of that hole, with its value that matches the fuselage, which stands out just fine on its own until you follow the connection and get lost in the hole. I wish I could say I planned it that way, but part of art is knowing when you hold onto your accidents.
This theme is echoed again in the climax of Twilight Patrol #4, when a two headed Dragon feeds upon itself:
“The two heads furiously attacked the common torso, biting and swallowing increasingly larger portions. Its nervous system was so huge, its connections so obscure and sluggish, it was doubtful that each head could feel the pain it was inflicting upon the other. The more it ate, the more it hungered. The action of the twin heads, coordinated in mirror image attitudes, wound the creature into a cyclonic spiral. Its writhing coils struck the ground and spun. Feasting on its own magnificent blood and meat, ingesting its own power, the creature whirled faster and faster, screwing itself into the earth.
The creature’s vast wounds now revealed its complex series of organs—repeating sets of hearts and lungs, bowels that looped in and out of stomachs, a maze of digestive organs in which waste and sustenance flowed in both directions, each becoming the other. The infernos that sprang from its mouths had their beginnings in the intestines, plainly visible now, glowing like the innards of a firefly while spilling out from under the skeletal ribbing.
The coils were intertwining into pulsating double helix, a vision of the staff of Mercury stretching all the way to Olympus. The way the beast was shuddering and spilling fluids, the way its dorsal shafts and stiffened columns stabbed into wet openings, the way the whole of its great length was caught up in patterns of orgiastic thrust and dive, impalement and retreat, it looked as if the creature were mating– though it was feeding. The act of consumption was being energized and refreshed by the fabulous properties of the creature’s own blood, which somehow was replenishing the dying muscles as they were being drained and traumatized, even as the rest of it was being torn apart and digested.”
This plays off the notion that consciousness might be the result of information caught in loops of creation and destruction, continually mixing and transforming. In this process, the information generates and destroys information about information. The impulse to destroy being part of the impulse to preserve, and the data caught between these countervailing tensions struggles to understand itself. Information trying to preserve itself and understand itself. Everyone one of us can see these forces turbulently swirling in our personal thoughts. Perhaps all of reality churns in the same way.
As truth blends with untruth to form meaningful experience, so science must be blended with mysticism and spirituality to reach the same end. The dragon reaching to heaven in a double helix echoes the recreated Tower of Babel at the end of the series. There is also an invocation of the staff of Mercury, the Caduceus, which brings us to Twilight Patrol #6, where an excessive use of science becomes the villain. This issue also serves as a meditation on the modern healthcare industry, where I worked most of my life, another invocation of the self. All fiction contains elements of autobiography, and vice versa.
During the course of writing Twilight Patrol Book 6, I found that I was continually encountering remarkable coincidences involving Mercury, in all manifestations, the god, the element, and the symbol—even engraved on the dime of the depression era which was the price of a pulp magazine.
Mercury, the guardian of boundaries, lords over remarkable coincidences. And part of the worship of the god Mercury involves looking for signs and significance when coincidences present. Is it a coincidence that I’m also a Gemini married to a Gemini, the astral sign ruled by Mercury.
Twilight Patrol #6 is about the healthcare industry and it is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Flu global pandemic, the plague that killed more people than World War I. The healthcare industry, where I worked all my life, is of course commonly represented by the Caduceus, the staff of Mercury. One would expect to see the Rod of Aesculapius, the God of healing, with its single serpent and wingless pole. But the healthcare industry seemed to have perpetuated the same negligent error as the U.S. Army Medical Department in 1902, when they adopted as their emblem the decorous staff of Mercury, the amoral god of commerce and thieves. Mercury was not exactly the God of lies, but rather he was the god of trickery and communication. The profile on the so-called Mercury head dime wasn’t even supposed to be Mercury. It was supposed to be youthful “Liberty” and the model wasn’t a man, but rather the wife of the poet Wallace Stevens. But everyone immediately recognized the spirit depicted on the coin. Talk about trickery in communication.
At the conclusion of Twilight Patrol #6, we learn the secret of floating hermetic islands where Ttii flourishes, a plant that is used to make the world’s most perfect painkiller. The following passage summarizes the shifts between science and magic that recur throughout history:
“The artifacts that I found reveal the passage of many cycles concerning the enterprises here—periods of thriving and stagnation, descent into insanity, and then out of the insanity, out of the ramblings and disordered dreams would come reorientation, rebirth, and renewal. The original settlers of the hermetic isles began by treating lepers. In later centuries, the isles gained fame for the treatment of syphilis, due to the abundance of mercury. And so too, there was a natural abundance of arsenic. There was science here, and medicine, but also alchemy and all manner of quackery throughout the ages.
“During some of these stages, the healing that took place here was actual, and during some of the other periods, the reputation for healing persisted even though the healing was not real. That quackery might prevail and the reputation for healing might remain undiminished was probably because there was genuine healing, but this healing was wrought by the famed placebo effect.
“Through the liberal use of the Ttii plants, it did not matter whether the healing here was actual or not. The medicine that was practiced here flourished, then languished, and sometimes it flourished because of its merits, and sometimes it flourished through eloquence and commerce and mere repute… The cycles have been continuous. And their pattern has been very clear in its repetitions, and the periods of healing and flourishing have been growing shorter and shorter, and the periods of chaos and stagnation have been growing longer and longer.
“The dream is as important and real as the waking, and the two are intertwined and must be balanced. For that is the nature of health, as every physician knows, the balance of complex systems that seem to be opposing in nature, but are part of an ongoing process of continual adjustment, all the disparate parts that seem unstable combining to glorious unity. But the isles have undergone excesses of both, periods of science and dream, of spirit and flesh. The essential and necessary balance is askew. The problem has been from the excesses. As the great scholar and physician Moses Maimonides proclaimed, never do anything to excess.”
“Even moderation?” queried the Queen disdainfully.
“There are many aspects of the hermetic isles that make them seem dream-like and unreal, but there is a physical cause for the dream, and there is a very real reason for the sense of unreality that abides here. And this reason has naught to do with the imbibing of quantities of Ttii. There is a very real, very concrete and physical reason. For the islands have ever contained a great treasure trove of elemental mercury, for that is the physical reality, the assertion of the concreteness of the world that is inescapable. The heavy metal that is deadly poison. The islands are weighted down with mercury even as they float. It bubbles within.
“In ancient China and Tibet, mercury was long believed to have healing and life prolonging properties, though its actual nature does the opposite. And so, the ancients were drawn here by mistake and misunderstanding. The shimmering silvery mists that pass through solid objects are weightless tiny beads floating upon the air, passing through solids as mercury passes.
“And even now, we are still feeling the symptoms of these poisoned isles, the random sensations of formication—not copulation, but the feeling of invisible bugs creeping across the skin, and the building of blood pressure and the quickening of the heart rate, the subtle trembling of nerves, and especially my Queen, the lability of emotions.
“The Ttii plants themselves were infused with mercury, and that was surely part of their psychic effect. The floating hermetic islands contained a great treasure trove, but also a poisonous infusion. The monks who lived here were all mad. Not from Ttii, but from mercury. The isles are uninhabitable. “The spirit of the god Mercury informs these isles, the guider of souls to the underworld, the carrier of the dreams of Morpheus from the valley of Somnus to slumbering humanity, the keeper of boundaries…”
“The god of lies.”
“Not exactly. The god of communication. But also, the god of trickery.”
The final novel, Builders of the New Babel, provides a perfect resolution for all of the maddening crosscurrents, paradoxes, and self-contradicting and self-reaffirming themes explored throughout the series. But this perfect resolution doesn’t work unless you accept my promise here as the truth, and let it become a self-fulfilling prophesy. An exercise of faith, if you will. Or a con, a marketing trick. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Consider this exchange between Orville Wootin and Dr. Ben-Zimra:
“Do not blame me for taking these extreme measures. In order to prepare you to face the Tower, I had to bring you before me in the manner in which I did. For the Tower, itself, is a ruse of the same essential nature as mesmerism. The Tower is a trick of the same ilk, but on a vastly grander scale, and using infinitely more intricate contrivances.”
The news came as kind of relief, even though Wootin was still furious. It pleased Wootin to think of the Tower as a trick, something that logic and science could explain. And it was strangely comforting to believe he’d fallen for an old burlesque stage act. That explanation was far less taxing than reordering his view of the cosmos. It always felt better to be right than to be wrong, even after he changed his opinions several times, and even after he had been one or the other or both in the past. “O.K. I’ll buy it. If it was a trick, it was a hell of a trick. So how was it done?”
“And indeed, it is no wonder, for all of human experience is to some degree hypnotic in nature, and all of what we call real but a series of triggers. As it is so, when you read a book, and markings on a piece of paper make you begin to hallucinate, and you hear voices and see images, a reality ordained by a distant author.”
“So, the Tower isn’t real? It’s just a trick?”
“Because its nature is that of a trick does not mean that it lacks for reality, for tricks are real.”
“Yeah, you’re a tricky one.”
Like the vision of the impossible plane in the opening pages, the Tower of Babel becomes an icon of the series itself, grasping for perfect understanding, mocking the way it devolves in nightmarish miscommunication. It might represent the universe itself. It might represent the internet—or more broadly—the vast pile of information that is being gathered and stored on interconnected devices, all the personal in impersonal data in a state of flux, sorted and resorted in a wide variety of ways and exploited to various and nefarious ends.
The Tower represents the utopia of a perfectly ordered techno-culture in which every individual behaves in a socially mandated manner because everyone is constantly monitored. It is like the old adage about the best traffic control device being a cop in the rearview mirror. Every action and every conversation has been made part of a permanent record. It is materialized version of the old ideal method for controlling behavior— back when the present monitoring and recording function had been conducted in ethereal fashion under the auspices of a divine creator who would dole out appropriate punishments or rewards.
The Tower also stands as an icon of the individual psyche as well. There is a babble within each of us, misunderstood subconscious impulses, inherited instinctual responses, and imperceivable social drives and dictates, all of them teetering between chaos and order while striving to ascend through level after level of consciousness to reach a perfect understanding and communion with the universe.
In the concluding book of the series, the chief Archon is dying and the Mysteriarchs of the Abyss must find a new leader. According to the protocols of the order, to gain the office, one must slay the current ruler. Vast powers of sorcery are transferred at the time of death, along with executive powers. With many contenders for the post, the contest turns into a blood bath, until only two remain.
Rooke Howard, the architect of the newly rising Tower of Babel, faces off against Count Alexander Bulousov, husband of Queen Cassiopeia and father of Peyotr. Rooke Howard plans to use the Tower as a source of occult energy, while the Count intends to achieve the same end by destroying it, following the orthodoxies of the order.
Rooke Howard manages to slay the chief Archon, vesting herself with all of his occult powers, so that she will have nearly supreme and absolute control, once the tower is completed, and its occult energies are added to those she has just obtained. Since the Tower is an icon of the series itself, she can control it as the architect, a surrogate for the author, who controls her universe.
Here she confronts Bulousov as new herald of the magic of love, which she hopes to use to transform the nature of the order:
She flirted with disaster. “Dearest Alexander, I offer you love. Love is my strongest magic—the strongest of all magics when wielded to a good end. I love you, Alexander. That is not a word I use lightly. I have faith that love will abide no matter what falls between us. You are so splendid, my dear. Even at my advanced age, I’m not immune to your many charms. I will forgive you anything. Even… even… my murder. What good is love if it cannot survive the ultimate trial?”
“How very generous. How seductive. This business of being forgiven by my victims, I find it quaint. I’m not entirely immune to your charms, either. Forgive me if I don’t use the word ‘love’, for I’ve ceased to associate it with fondness.”
“Don’t mistake my unconditional love for unconditional license. Or weakness. I am yet determined to see the Order transformed. If my death is to play a part in your taking control, then you must—I repeat—you must use your control to achieve the end I intend.”
Peyotr forces a truce between Rooke Howard and Count Bulousov, insisting that they reconcile their differences and divide and divide supreme occult power and authority between themselves, so that the two would hold each other’s worse impulses in check to ultimately reform the order. Reluctantly, they agree.
But in the course of pretending to seal this reconciliation, the Count slays the architect. With this act, he ascends to the throne of the Mysteriarchs of the Abyss. At this point, he demands that his son murder him. In truth, he never wanted the position or power for himself, but rather his son. He is hopelessly corrupt and he knows it. Rooke Howard, in her own way, was just as corrupt. He knows that the only way to truly reform the order is to bequeath it to Peyotr.
The Count has done everything possible to make his son despise him, slaying his mother and all of his closest comrades. Still, Peyotr cannot bring himself to raise his hand against his father.
However, Orville Wootin managed to survive, and he doesn’t hesitate to kill the Count.
And so we come to the conclusion—a final confrontation between Peyotr and Wootin that takes place many years after the death of the Count, when Peyotr is fully grown. Peyotr says to Wootin:
The Tower was what it was, whatever that might be. It was also what it would be and what it wasn’t and what it never would become.
But it had reached such magnificent heights, and it endures so far beyond ordinary sight, no one can actually tell that it hasn’t been finished. And so, I was able to exploit it.
There’s a curious aspect to this construction. It demands so much effort, you must either engage it, or you are forced to turn away. And if you contemplate it long enough and hard enough, it alters your perception of everything else. But that could be the result of any prolonged effort involving concentration—even when you concentrate on nonsense. Even when you concentrate on nothing. I took over the Order using a bluff. Pretending to have complete power, though I did not, and somehow, the pretense was enough. Rather like one of Ben-Zimra’s jokes.
You know what Ben-Zimra said to me just before he died? He said, “And my death shall be as a lesson unto you, a lesson on the importance of forgiveness, for without forgiveness there can be no truth between people. We are all creatures of error and mistakes, deceits perpetrated upon ourselves and others. The meaning and purpose of all your mistakes will not become apparent until the very end. And that is where we are. The end. I am about to die so that you will know when it means to forgive—for the sake of the world. For the sake of the future. Unless you learn to forgive, there will be no way to reveal the essential truth. There will be no way to unite that which has been sundered.”
Mr. Wootin, you possess the other portion of the power and knowledge, the portion I pretended to have.
Really, I am not going to kill you. Ben-Zimra forgave my father, even my father, and he died to teach me a lesson about forgiveness so that I could forgive you.
Now we can talk. We need to talk. There is so much to be done, and I can’t do it alone.
I’m ready to listen.