Thursday, July 12, 2018

"Evensong" (1967)

The stories in Dangerous Visions are sequenced by anthologist Harlan Ellison for reasons of his own. No alphabet or chronology need apply. In his introduction to Lester del Rey's story, Ellison explains the prominence is due to general honors that were being accorded del Rey at the time (notably at a science fiction convention in New York) and also that Ellison felt a sense of personal debt. Del Rey belongs to the midcentury group of science fiction writers, with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, but more importantly he was a highly influential editor as well. This shows perhaps most in his language—I'm thinking of Groff Conklin again, the editor whose taste in stories was impeccable, but even a paragraph of his writing could be stultifying. Del Rey's style is more to pile on paragraphs of action with explanations that are scant and slow to come. All whirl and splash but WTF is the meaning of it. In his afterword, del Rey argues it is more allegory than story. Fair enough. It is certainly heady concept. I hesitate to give it away but I'm going to. This is your spoiler alert (actually, something I read tipped me off to it ahead of time and helped my reading, so now I think I'm helping you). The story represents the end of a long law enforcement hunt and capture mission of ... God. Yes, God—that is, Yahweh, Jehovah, the OG Judeo-Christian deist, He Who created all in six days. That guy. He is taken down by Man, or the Usurpers as the apprehended fugitive God calls them in prelude to a perp walk. If you're going for dangerous visions, why not take on the major Western religions and let the blasphemy fly, amirite? Still, for everything that is dull and then for everything that is obvious about this story, it does pack a punch. Del Rey manages a decent biblical tone. "Come forth!" the mission leader tells God as he closes in. "The earth is a holy place and you cannot remain upon it. Our judgment is done and a place is prepared for you." The story is ultimately effective because the blasphemy is so complete. It works to the extent you're invested in anything out of the Abraham branch, which includes Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I'm not that invested. I was confirmed as a Methodist and never went back, and now think of myself as agnostic if anything. But I'm invested enough to have a sense for how deeply transgressive this story is. The only weakness, aside from the dull language, is how calculated it feels to outrage. That said, it's still a little outrageous.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison


  1. I can see non-believers getting off on various blasphemies in art. I do. There's a kind of mechanical oppression and seedy piety that turns up in 20th c. literature at times that feels stale and dated. On the other hand, religious themes and imagery in horror films, say, Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, etc, creep me out, even though I'm no true believer and have probably spent even less time in church than you. The Abrahamic religions fuel (and stifle) our imaginations even though we know it mostly 2nd and 3rd hand and really don't believe in any of it. It was in the air when growing up; customary ritual and tradition. Atheists protest this condition, right? I think it better if we try to get along w/ religion, affirming the good parts and gently discouraging the bad. Although, I'm a pretty strict separation of church and state as basic civic rights kind of person. And I hate it when they knock on my door. 'No, I'm not happy w/ everything in my life, but your God is not the solution I'm looking for. Sorry.'

  2. Del Rey wrote another novella with a similar topic -- "For I am a Jealous People." I don't want to spoil it, so let me just say the main character is an evangelical minister trying to come to terms with an alien invasion of Earth. When I was in high school, it was a particular favorite of mine.

    And now you've inspired me to find a used copy of "The Best of Lester del Rey" on Amazon. :-)