Friday, 24 February 2017

Alexandria, by Gregory Ness - 5 Stars

Just as there are there are several ways of writing historical fiction (an Elis Peters procedural to Nigel Tranter and the scion’s footsteps squelching in the marshes of destiny), there are also several ways of portraying a significant name from history, such as Agrippa. No one likes to admit it but a lot of what the public remembers about such magnificent people comes from popular culture and, notably, Carry on Cleo didn’t do Agrippa any justice with the punchline “Agrippa? You’d better watch it mate. I know a few holds myself.” That’s a painful way to write off the leading character of this series of books, then portrayed as a fat, bearded man and the butt of a cheap 1970s gag but if he’d lived one and a half thousand years later he could have led the Renaissance; a professional architect and simultaneously a professional statesman, a professional general and also a professional admiral (alongside Mark Anthony he defeated Brutus and Cassius at Philippi to avenge Caesar’s assassination, subsequently defeated Mark Anthony in the classical world’s most pivotal sea battle at Actium, set the siege of Alexandria), he supported Octavian to achieve his destiny and become Emperor Augustus (which gave us August), turned Rome from a fire-trap in wood to an organised iconic wonder in marble, oversaw the creation of building public infrastructure for all (roads, grain stores, ornamental parks, public baths, commissioned public art, sewage removal and aqueducts to channel free water from hills miles away), helped to design and then acted as architectural overseer for the building of the Pantheon (one of the most famous buildings in classical architecture), was a grandparent of Nero (oops) and Caligula (not his fault really, how did that goat get in here?) and was strangely interested in flowers, seeds and gardening. He was also a contrary person who loved Egypt and then as a result of his interest turned the floodplain of the Nile into Rome’s grain basket, free food for Romans but impoverishing the Egyptians. What is he to us now? This Roman, a floating name, lost in time, significance forgotten to most but, in truth, a headline in the lexicon of astounding high-achievers now ironically viewed and judged by our fatuous and vacuous society, which celebrates and lionizes people who do next to nothing. Simply then, when someone asks “What did the Romans ever do for us?”, tell them to look up one word: Agrippa.

Sorry for the spoilers. I’ll try not to give too much away. Now imagine, if you will, that we in the modern world had a direct route into the mind and experiences of this person. The premise of this novel (and Antioch, before it) is that we are fumbling our way towards doing exactly that and by 2025 an experiment makes the breakthrough. From the deep end of history, a young initiate Agrippa enacts a mystical Egyptian bonding ceremony sanctioned by the goddess Isis to join his immortal soul to an educated Egyptian girl through a paired sequence of lifetimes. There’s also a priestess in this bonding, playing gooseberry. Gladius-like, at the sharp and extending edge of modern times, the search for new energy, dark energy, has opened another portal to tap into the same layer of universal unknown not accessed since the high-life of ancient Egyptian mysticism. Without magic now, without the characters dissolving the barriers of reality with an ethnobotanical hallucinogenic illusion, without striding into the picture and reporting on themselves like Hunter S. Thompson, an immersive holographic experience will soon allow them to interact as passive observers to the lives of ghostly dream forms, real people who pushed their emotional mark into the pliable fabric of reality. Can we access and pry into real past lives with strange energy and a VR headset? Who cares, when it’s such a gorgeous multi-layered idea for a book?

With the bond of immortality entwining them, Agrippa and Samia resurface through the ages into new lives, in new places and behind new faces, a bit like a couple of Doctor Whos but they don’t get to see their own full story except through dream state flashbacks or tingly impressions. We see their lives and motivations vicariously, coming to understand them at a level absent from the history books, their everyday incentives as “Let’s eat some of that grilled lamb from Caesar’s chef” sounds a huge improvement on the Taco Bell or KFC dilemmas of other people’s Friday nights. Then, impossibly, one character is confronted by a dream vision that speaks to him directly, in a kind of reassuring yet CREEPY post traumatic therapy, working through subconscious issues retained from an event in his previous life. Shudder. I think I’d prefer a clean slate but how would I feel if something my current body wasn’t involved in came back to apply to me? Would multiple lifetimes of guilt being laid on you be worth multiple lifetimes of fascinating experiences or would you choose to put a cap on both? Would they weigh on your personality anyway? What a thought.

If the remote viewing technology became mainstream in the future, as it would, picture a situation where you can’t escape exposure, even by dying and taking your memories with you. What if your future self was a different sex and fell into an impossible voyeuristic love affair with yourself after attending moments you’d rather forget which should have remained forever private? Will they have a sense of decorum est? No, I don’t think so. Every new entertainment technology is led by a quest for improved sensation and although you might be keen to watch the scene with King Henry at court with the sucking pig, they’ll be bookmarking the moment when you got caught sucking (Enough). Death and locks on bedroom doors are there for a reason methinks.

As we’re discussing the subject, the bonding scene in this story is sexually charged but that is realistic given the context of ancient Egyptian practice. When straight-laced British archaeologists discovered Egyptian tombs with murals depicting rude appendages and ceremonies (look up the lotus drugging ceremony), the prissy Victorian prudes got their chisels out and edited them. That is absolutely true: comparatively modern people, uncomfortable with sexuality, habitually vandalised tomb murals that showed real scenes that the Egyptians really did, scenes from their religious practices and beliefs, because the western viewers of that time couldn’t bear the thought of their women fainting. Rome was little different to Egypt in this. Have you seen Pompeii? Those murals only survived because they were buried. Saturnalia really happened, accept it, so the part of the story portraying how these ceremonies were conducted is perfectly fair. Scorpions sting, you can’t change that, and Egyptians did ingest the blue lotus (in this case the dream fish) and then fooled around. What would you do to be blessed by Isis and get ahead in the afterlife? It’s a glittering prize little different to the celestial deals that fresher dates from other colleges make to get a dining ticket for a May Ball at Trinity.

Back to the celestial: Beneath the gaze of Sirius, aligned through the stone a shaft of a pyramid, we hear that the ancients had seemingly impossible knowledge of the spectral change of a star’s approach and retreat, not only, but also recording the presence of its second star without a telescope, orbiting darkly, the symbolic binary stars of Isis which we hear turned red ten thousand years before Caesar’s time to symbolise twelve thousand years of decline… so my maths says, by 2025, the age of decline is almost done. Whoop, whoop! What does that mean? If all empires go up, who goes down? The sticky ceremony is successful, livid fire flashes in the ancient temple, suddenly everything looks green and our understanding of time recedes as the room again seems brand new.

Underneath clumps of wooden debris and dust they see a faint, yet stunning, pattern in the floor. “It’s the top deck of a very large and strange ship” – Approaching not only through the floor but through time itself, drifting from this world to the next. I didn’t see that coming. Agrippa runs into a likeness of himself carved in stone thousands of years before, showing the remote viewing works from both the past and the future, which is quite creepy as well unless it’s a coincidence and you happen to look like Anubis. Possibilities open. The Hall of Records. The Temple of Thoth. Original wisdom from the early gods. Great. This is the stuff National Geographic film crews dream of, not forgetting the confined spaces and dungeons and dragons feel to the shrine and underground rooms, the torch light and the suspicious and menacing statuary. “That’s an amazing image. Let’s spoil it with an ad break and then re-use the same footage four minutes later.”

Representing Roman society, where what colour you were didn’t matter and you were valued for what you could do, Agrippa swears to make the world a better place (good idea) and to start by building a temple (silly idea), to be followed by all those aqueducts, roads, agricultural reforms and stone buildings (he could do all that) and the scenes roll by with a few characters in a room but you know it’s building up to where they’ll fling open the wide bronze doors at some point to reveal the full Cecil B. Demille bit with a crowd of thirty thousand Romans where the people who are no use to society will be playing dodge the lions (eat the Kardashians), but that’s me dreaming of a book yet to come.

The sensations though, the pictures of dust and colour where every decoration is made by hand, there’s the rare smell of lotus blossom oil in the bedroom and a palace graced with plants and flowers. Can we skinny dip in the finest bath Agrippa’s ever seen, with tepid, clear water, which must look like heaven after a year on the road? Cleopatra too, always processing, the drums beat as the barge sails through the current of the coursing, muddy Nile. Elsewhere, an army of thousands marches through Armenia and the roads swim with spies. I like this stuff. There’s a sense of geographical movement, of a professional background awareness by the characters about changes on an immense scale. Agrippa always selected the right side to fight on, clever boy, so I can absolutely imagine this awareness and judgement ticking along in the background. One slip and you’re on the wrong team, the wrong side of a movement and probably pitched over the side of a ship.
Then there’s the rest of the book, the half set in the modern age, with off-line meetings convened in a church stuffed with bones as a consortium of industries want to invest in the experiments but who do they represent? Are their donations to the historic Charles University turning the institution’s allegiance away from science and back to its see-no, hear-no, think-no, medieval past? Is this funding interest really a takeover approach by manipulative oligarchs with a plan to stop the research or to make crowds dance to their subconscious tune? Normally, you’d ignore them but in a time when the persecution of scientists has become mainstream, not quite the terror of revolutionary France but creating an edgy background, choosing your friends and spotting your enemies increasingly becomes an issue of survival, just like the politics of Rome. Could this happen? Would we burn the books again and actively hinder discovery? With electronic storage, preventing what’s been revealed already shouldn’t be possible but the threat to new knowledge and its priesthood of scientists is made apparent here, a seductive attraction for a fraction of the public who might prefer to slide into a simpler past and enjoy comfortable ignorance. So much less to worry about, until you get cancer. Selecting this state for yourself is fine but imposing it on others is pretty dark. Finding things out is perhaps what we’re here for, just a thought. Unlearning what we know is like trying to make the food to waste cycle run the other way.

I feel drawn, above all of the rest, the ibises and chariots, meta-materials and research conspiracies, exotic perfumes, head-dresses and treachery to this: The shining fantasy of tracking down and entering the original temple of Thoth, the earliest record of learning. You surely can’t burn green stone tablets, whether they came from above or not, so they must have survived to this day, somewhere out there, wrapped in the moving sands and with dehydrated poisoned priests flaking away into dust at the door. What a thought. I really like this series and the way the author weaves it around like sugar between two sticks in time. Is the message of the series that we should respect enlightenment and discovery or is it that we should honour our amazing yet less-informed past? Is it about places lost in time and the spirit of place, the undeniable genius loci of Alexandria and Prague? Perhaps, a radical suggestion, it’s really about the main man.

Agrippa? He knew a few holds himself.

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