Bewildering Stories

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What is Gaia?

by Don Webb

1. Genres

Tala Bar’s heroine Dar and her friends have reached the end of their arduous and often mysterious journey. It began last March and has lasted through thirty issues; now it’s time to bid farewell to an old friend. In doing so, let us look back and ask: What kind of a novel is Gaia, anyway? Is it science fiction? Fantasy? A survivalist novel? Something else?

Gaia clearly qualifies as science fiction. It is set in a plausible, not too distant future where war no longer threatens but overpopulation and environmental degradation lead to — or, actually, provoke — a worldwide catastrophe. The novel’s themes of doomsday and post-apocalypse survival have been a staple of science fiction for a hundred years now, since the time of H. G. Wells. And, as Mark Koerner points out in issue 106, albeit somewhat facetiously, even Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe qualifies when read from a certain point of view.

Is Gaia then a “survivalist” novel? No, it’s very hard to see it as that. We’re not surprised that Dar and her friends are constantly tired, cold and hungry; trekking through the blasted heaths of eco-catastrophe is no walk in the park. And yet, unlike Robinson Crusoe, they never reach a point of crisis, where we need to know exactly how they manage to scrabble together a minimum of food, clothing and shelter, not to mention shoes. As the conclusion to the last chapter reminds us, the novel has other purposes than to send the characters out on shopping trips.

Might Gaia also qualify as fantasy? Perhaps, in some ways. The title itself refers to a well-known concept in secular mythology whereby Earth is pictured as having a kind of organic sentience of its own. And the environmental cataclysm is strongly suggested as being the earth’s deliberate retaliation for mistreatment. In addition, some of the characters have a strange charisma or talent. The Ancient One, a wise woman who first appears in “The Forest,” is skilled in primitive medicine and jungle lore. Lilit, who first appears in “The Range,” is suspected of being an avatar of the old wise woman, but Dar is never able to draw a firm conclusion about Lilit’s identity. Lilit also has telepathic powers and seems capable of teleportation. However, all these characteristics have long been standard in science fiction.

Do the non-human beings lend Gaia an aura of fantasy? Perhaps, but they are very few in number. Wild animals play a part in the semi-magical landscape of “The Forest,” but they remain largely offstage. One would expect at least some wild or formerly domesticated animals elsewhere, but for all practical purposes there are none, and Dar, Nim and their companions don’t expect to meet any. Flocks of crows appear now and again, but they only act as enigmatic guides to the travelers. And the telepaths at the bottom of the lake are anthropomorphic creatures in colorful cephalopod bodies.

Rather, the non-human beings and symbolic characters mythologize the four classical elements: earth (“The Forest” in general); air (the crows); water (the elusive Lorelei figure in “The River” and the aquatic beings in “The Lake”); and fire (the fire-beings of Zik’s dreams in “The Volcano”).

Do distortions of time and space push the novel toward the genre of fantasy? Possibly, but no more than in medieval romance or 19th-century Romantic fiction. There are two main instances where space and time are stretched, but they seem to serve only as scene-changing devices. Dar is aware that an inexplicable geographical shift takes place in “The Forest” and that a certain time dilation occurs as she and her comrades crawl through the tunnel, in “The Range.” She is puzzled by both, which gives the reader a kind of stage direction in interior monologue. But she doesn’t explain them; she can’t, and it’s not really important to do so.

The space and time distortions are, paradoxically, a feature of the realistic mode. The mysterious space alteration in “The Forest” allows Dar and Nim to visit an ecology and society inaccessible to their own time and place. The time change in “The Range” allows Nim’s pregnancy to advance and the seasons to shift rapidly from winter to spring. Neither distortion is integral to the plot: rather, both are careful scene-setting; they spare the reader wondering how the required transitions could have taken place within the framework of the story.

2. We’re off to meet the future...

And yet one element of fantasy remains: it occurs in chapter 1, when Dar — like L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy — is swept away on the wind. Later, in 20th-century science fiction, Dorothy’s house is replaced by spaceships and the Land of Oz by other planets, but The Wizard of Oz has become part of popular mythology precisely because it is fantasy. Dar’s equally impossible flight puts her in much the same category as Dorothy, and both novels tell stories of symbolic journeys.

Dorothy’s adventure ends in a recognition enabled by an adult authority figure, namely the Wizard. Dar’s adventure ends by coming full circle, when Dar’s sister-in-law Rima, last seen in the Prologue, is rediscovered thanks to the travelers’ curiosity and practically by accident. Disinterred, she and the other inhabitants of the Shelter join Dar and her friends in the Valley without having had to duplicate Dar’s painful wanderings. The conclusion, then, is partly one of personal discovery but more importantly an adaptation to new conditions and the founding of a “functional” —i.e. utilitarian — society.

Gaia, then, is science fiction with some elements of fantasy, but there’s more to it...

3. The larger context

Read from the viewpoint of symbolism, The Wizard of Oz is an early 20th-century socio-political allegory. In like manner, but much more roughly, Gaia can be read as an allegory of some social conditions attending the formation of the state of Israel. However, allegories tend to age. The key to The Wizard of Oz has become a historical curiosity; modern readers are interested primarily in Dorothy and her friends and secondarily in the land of Oz. Similarly, Gaia will have resonance with the general reading public as a description of a new ecological mythology.

Nonetheless, Gaia carves out a distinctive place in present-day science fiction and fantasy. It stands in stark opposition to other popular doomsday fiction, particularly that which stems from the 19th-century premillennialist religious heresy known as the “Rapture” complete with its literalistic interpretation of the battle of Armageddon borrowed from the book of Revelation. Gaia resembles modern Rapture fiction by its use of an annihilation scenario and Dar’s wind-borne flight. However, the resemblance ends there, and quite abruptly.

Both Gaia and Rapture fiction are — perhaps surprisingly — rationalistic. While they may not differ much in their mixture of rationalism and fantasy, they differ radically in purpose: Gaia is based on secular mysticism, while Rapture fiction rationalizes religious paranoia. An uninformed or gullible reading public may not realize that the Rapture doctrine is a violent, nihilistic revenge fantasy that culminates in cataclysm and — though the Rapturites currently find it impolitic to emphasize the fact — a truly final Holocaust of the Jewish people. Tala Bar must be given credit for depicting in Gaia a scenario analogous to the Rapture, one that squarely contradicts that latter-day pagan nightmare.

Indeed, the action in Gaia is invariably humane and compassionate. It revolves around three main themes: Nim comes of age; Dar, Zik and Nunez overcome survivors’ guilt; and a new society begins to form under the emerging leadership of Lilit. And the concluding chapter, “The Valley,” emphasizes that this new society is profoundly egalitarian.

The new society also has overtones of matriarchy: of all the non-human or symbolic characters in the novel, only the crows and the fire-beings are not explicitly female. The rest are: the wise woman in “The Forest”; the Lorelei figure in “The River”; the telepathic cephalopod Timma in “The Lake”; Lilit in “The Valley”; and, as Timma implies, the earth mother Gaia herself.

At the end, Lilit’s emergence seems to embody Timma’s assurance — which seemed more like a promise at the time — that all these beings are real rather than imaginary. Gaia, then, proposes a naturalistic mythology that includes all the manifestations of the earth as well as a social contract based on equality, solidarity and, in a word, motherhood. In that way, then, Gaia takes a place of honor with her sisters “Venus,” “Ya’el” and “Sibyl” in the annals of Bewildering Stories.

Copyright © 2004 by Don Webb

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