Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I first read Greg Bear’s superb short story Petra some twenty years ago in the Bruce Sterling edited anthology Mirrorshades - as good an overview of 80’s cyberpunk as you could ever wish to own. At first glance, Petra might seem an unlikely choice for inclusion in such a collection, and certainly appeared somewhat out of place among the gritty, steel and chrome futures imagined by many of the other authors (or in the case of Sterling and Shiner’s Mozart in Mirrorshades, a gritty, steel and chrome past). Nonetheless, Petra was and remains my favourite story from that particular anthology and its themes – natural disaster, evolution by other means and the cruelty of the Established Order – remain as intriguing now as they did then.

Briefly, the story concerns an unnamed narrator – an “ugly, beaked, half-winged thing,”- who is one of the inhabitants of a vast cathedral (possibly Notre Dame, giving the story another level in an already densely leveled narrative) in the years following the great disaster known as Mortdieu, triggered by nothing less than the death of God.

The very rules of reality themselves have been revoked, dreams and nightmares can easily become flesh, and the stone statues of the Cathedral (gargoyles as well as saints) have come to life, mating with human beings to produce stone and flesh creatures.

“When every delusion became as real as solid matter. Blinding pain, flaming blood, bones breaking, flesh powdering, steel flowing like liquid, the sky raining amber. Crowds in the shifting streets, gathering at intersections, not knowing what to do, trapped by their own ignorance… With the first faint suspicion that they had all gone mad, the first crack in their all-too-weak reserves of will, they projected their nightmares. Prodigal crows perched atop the trees that had once been buildings. Pigs ran through the streets on their hind legs, pavement rushing to become soil behind them. The forest prevailed over most of the city.”

Ruled over by the tyrannical Bishop, the cathedral has become one of the last enclaves of civilisation – and one that is ripe for revolution – where strict rules segregate human from stone (and flesh and stone) leading to stagnation and decay.

The first cracks begin to appear in the regime when the Bishop’s, Constantia, daughter falls in love with Corvus, a young man of stone and flesh, leading the story’s narrator to stumble upon the fabled Stone Christ, the one creature capable of creating order out of chaos.

“The figure was several ages at once. As I blinked, it became a man of about thirty, well formed, with a high forehead and elegant hands, pale as ice.”

Except that this Christ is a tired, washed out creature, barely able to sustain his own life, never mind bring salvation to a disordered world; another way needs to be found, a way that is illuminated by the revenant of St Paul and the copper giant Apostle Thomas.

Blending science and philosophy with dazzling imagination and deeply poetic writing. Petra is a breathtaking piece of science fiction (or science fantasy if you prefer) that uses theology as an exact science and creates all-too human characters from its flesh and stone protagonists.

As the Apostle Thomas says: “We have long bathed in God's milk, in His rules and creativity. Maybe Mortdieu is really a sign that we have been weaned.”

Amen, brother.

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