Tuesday, 24 April 2012

James Blish: Black Easter and The Day After Judgement

On first reading James Blish’s Black Easter, I wondered why the white magicians impose an observer on their opponent, the black magician, Theron Ware, when the Covenant that obliges Ware to accept an observer under his roof also prevents the white magicians from acting on the intelligence gained.1 Why not observe remotely, thus learning less but, presumably, retaining the ability to act on what they learn? The sequel, The Day After Judgement, clarifies that the magical Covenant is a truce that prohibits any active opposition to Ware.1

However, knowing that Ware’s client, Baines, will commission something “monstrous” (it turns out to be the simultaneous release from Hell of many major demons), the monks hope that, if the commission backfires not just on Ware but on the world, then they will be able to help him to abort it.2 Like national governments that are politically opposed but economically interdependent, the magical schools are morally opposed but supernaturally interdependent.

Napoleonic soldiers blockaded Britain wearing British boots; Ware conjures demons while heeding his opponent’s advice on how to limit the effects of the conjurations. Despite this advice, the magicians experience the supernatural equivalent of an economic crisis, an ecological catastrophe or a nuclear meltdown, i. e., the uncontrollable consequences of their own actions. Releasing so many demons initiates Armageddon, which the demons win.

The Covenant is a special instance of the theological Problem of Evil: if God can prevent evil, why doesn’t he? In C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra, interplanetary angels could have physically prevented a demonically possessed scientist from travelling to Venus to tempt the new Eve but they were ordered not to intervene.3 The struggle had to be moral before it was allowed to become physical. The newly created Mother had to be tempted, and possibly fall, before anyone fought her tempter. The Covenant allows temptation but not irresistable temptation.

Lewis’ answer to the Problem of Evil is, first, that the creator gambles because free will is risky but preferable to automatism. For my reply to this, see here. Briefly, beings physically capable but morally incapable of evil acts would be good creations and not automata. Secondly, Lewis argues that the creator can derive a greater good from an apparent setback - I would say a synthesis from an antithesis but Lewis, the former philosophical idealist, was anti-Hegelian. Lewis’ fictitious demon Screwtape calls Hegel “…another indispensible propagandist on our side.”4 The first mentioned was Rousseau.

Blish argues that evil, unrestrained by rules, inevitably wins but, with no rules left to break, ceases to be what it is and becomes its opposite. Satan becomes God. Ware had explained evil’s dependence on good to Baines:

“It is folly to think that the triumph of evil could ever be a winning side, in the sense of anyone’s gaining anything by it. Without good to oppose it, evil is simply meaningless.”5

  before Satan expressed it:

“…Good is independent, but the bad
“Cannot alone survive; the evil Deed
“Doth need the Holie Light to lend it Sense
“And apprehension…”6

To lie is to pretend to tell the truth. If there were no concept or expectation of truth-telling, then any attempted deception would be meaningless and impossible. If everyone always disobeyed, then there would be no concept or expectation of obedience and therefore no possibility of disobedience. If everyone always broke the law, then there would be no laws. If everyone took his neighbours’ belongings and successfully bribed any policemen sent to arrest him, then there would be no property or law enforcement. A completely truthful, obedient, law-abiding community is (not immediately probable but) logically possible whereas a completely untruthful, disobedient, lawless community would not be a community.

It follows that goodness can exist independently whereas evil is merely an aberration from goodness. This dependence of evil on good is not, as David Ketterer suggests, the interdependence of good and evil.7

The argument in The Day After Judgement seems abstract because it is applied to fictitious supernatural beings. However, the argument becomes plausible when applied to historical human beings. In human societies, governments impose laws whereas criminals or bandits break them. However, if lawlessness increases until government breaks down, then a bandit leader who becomes a local warlord imposes law and order within his territory and may be at least as just as the government that he has replaced. He may become the judge and legislator of an independent province. The most powerful warlord might also become a national leader, with new outlaws to oppose him.

Anyone who conquers the world thereby assumes responsibility for maintaining world order. If the world conqueror finds that he dislikes this responsibility and wants to regain the freedom of extralegal irresponsibility, then he is a human equivalent of Satan at the end of The Day After Judgement. Not wanting the divine role, Satan offers it to Man.

When Man becomes God, will Satan return to evil? I suggest that the opportunity for reflection might lead him instead to contemplative neutrality. Like Neil Gaiman’s Lucifer, he may tire of presiding over pointless anguish.8

  1. James Blish, Black Easter and The Day After Judgement (London: Arrow Books, 1981).
  2. ibid, p. 30.
  3. C. S. Lewis, Perelandra in Lewis, The Cosmic Trilogy (London: Pan Books, 1990), pp. 145-348.
  4. C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Proposes A Toast And Other Pieces (London: Fontana Books, 1965), p. 17.
  5. Blish, op. cit., p. 148.
  6. ibid, p. 206.
  7. David Ketterer, Imprisoned In A Tesseract: the life and work of James Blish (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1987), p. 307.
  8. Neil Gaiman, The Sandman: Seasons Of Mists (London: Titan Books, 1992), Episode 2, p. 14.

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