Monday, May 23, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Gather, Darkness!

Serialized in the May, June, and July 1943 issues of Astounding Science Fiction, Fritz Leiber's "Gather, Darkness!" might well be called the antithesis of Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz were it not for the fact that it appeared more than a decade earlier. Like Miller's novel, "Gather, Darkness!" takes place several centuries after a nuclear holocaust, with learning and scholarship preserved by a powerful religious institution. Unlike Miller's Catholic Church, Leiber's Hierarchy is thoroughly venal and corrupt and uses its stranglehold on knowledge to rule tyrannically over the post-apocalyptic world. Indeed, the religion of "the Great God" seems largely to be a sham, a useful lie created by scientists to bring order in the aftermath of civilization's downfall. Consequently, it's strongly implied that all the story's instances of "magic" or "miracles" are in fact the result of advanced technology utilized by the Hierarchy in order to gull the common folk into uncritical acceptance of its claims to a divine mandate.

The protagonist of "Gather, Darkness!" is Armon Jarles, a young priest, who's begun to have doubts about the Hierarchy's claims.
Brother Jarles, priest of the First and Outermost Circle, novice in the Hierarchy, swallowed hard against his churning anger; bent every effort to make his face a mask—not only to the commoners, for that was something every member of the Hierarchy was taught to do, but to his brother priests as well.

Any priest who hated the Hierarchy as he did during these frightening spasms of rage must be mad.

But priests could not go mad—at least, not without the Hierarchy knowing of it, as it knew of everything else.

A misfit then? But a priest was fitted to his job with infinite precision and foresight, the very outlines of his personality measured as if with an atomic probe. A priest could not hate his work.

No, he must be mad. And the Hierarchy must be concealing the fact from him for its own inscrutable purposes.

Or else—everything to the contrary—he was right.
The conflict within the young priest quickly comes to a head when he witnesses an older priest, Brother Chulian, first attempt to force a young woman (who also happens to be an old love of Jarles) to serve in the Sanctuary against her will and then, when she obstinately refuses this honor, accuses her of being a witch. Casting off his robes of office, including the high-tech "halo" that illuminated his head, Jarles addresses the people of the Hierarchy's capital city.
“Commoners of Megatheopolis!”

That checked the beginnings of a panicky flight. Eyes turned to stare at him stupidly. They had not yet begun to comprehend what had happened. But when a priest spoke, one listened.

“You have been taught that ignorance is good. I tell you it is evil!

“You have been taught that to think is evil. I tell you it is good!

“You have been told that it is your destiny to toil night and day, until your backs ache to breaking and your hands blister under the calluses. I tell you it is the destiny of all men to look for easier ways!

“You have let the priests rule your lives. I tell you that you must rule yourselves!

“You believe that the priests have supernatural powers. I tell you they have no powers you could not wield yourselves!

“You believe that the priests are chosen to serve the Great God and transmit his commands. But—if there is a god anywhere—each one of you, in his ignorant heart, knows more of him than the mightiest archpriest.

“You have been told that the Great God rules the universe—earth and sky. I tell you the Great God is a fake!”
With those words, Brother Jarles becomes a heretic and a wanted man. He flees Megatheopolis, with the knowledge of the Hierarchy, falls in with a rebel movement known as "the Witchcraft," just as the priests had hoped. Though the Witchcraft opposes the Hierarchy and espouses many views with which Jarles can agree, he also sees that, at base, their main point of disagreement with the servants of the Great God is that they are the world's tyrants and not the Witchcraft itself. Just like the Hierarchy, the Witchcraft uses technology to trick and deceive and their beliefs are little more than a mask for their lust for power.

I have to admit that I don't quite know how I feel about "Gather, Darkness!" On the one hand, the story seems to be a solid, if somewhat clichéd, critique of the dangers inherent in any powerful organization, particularly one composed of individuals who believe themselves to "know better" than the average person. On the other hand, much of it comes off as rather shallow, even puerile, especially its facile portrayal of religion and religious faith. But, even at his worst, Leiber is a terrific stylist, whose dialog is engaging and whose wit enjoyable. Both are in evidence in "Gather, Darkness!" as is a fast-paced plot that never once wastes time with useless exposition or indulgent world-building. It's a quick read and a fun one. Whether it's more than that each reader must decide for himself.

2 comments:

  1. A quote from Fritz Leiber himself~Consider the age in which we live. It wants magicians…. A scientist tells people the truth. When times are good—that is, when the truth offers no threat—people don't mind.… A magician, on the other hand, tells people what they wish were true—that perpetual motion works, that cancer can be cured by colored lights, that a psychosis is no worse than a head cold, that they'll live forever. In good times magicians are laughed at. They're a luxury of the spoiled wealthy few. But in bad times people sell their souls for magic cures and buy perpetual-motion machines to power their war rockets
    He really was one of a kind. This is one of my favorites by him. Thanks for reminding me of it.

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  2. "Unlike Miller's Catholic Church, Leiber's Hierarchy is thoroughly venal and corrupt and uses its stranglehold on knowledge to rule tyrannically over the post-apocalyptic world. Indeed, the religion of "the Great God" seems largely to be a sham, a useful lie created...to bring order in the aftermath of civilization's downfall." - Actually it seems to be an Allusion to the Catholic Church's role in the Post Roman Empire period.

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