Just so you know where I’m coming from, I like talking about gods, but I get tired of hearing about the Christian variant. Which means I thought “The Second Journey of the Magus,” by Ian MacLeod treads familiar ground.
We meet the Magi Balthasar on the road. He’s an atheist now and fears being executed for heresy when he returns to Persia. He thinks back to his dead companions, Melchior and Gaspar. He thinks how strange it was for a god to manifest himself that way. He thinks — I don’t care. It’s a Christmas story. If this hadn’t been Installment Five in this year’s Torque Control short story club, I wouldn’t have tried again. But the other stories have been worthwhile, so I plodded along with Balthasar. Then it became an Easter story, no it’s an Apocalypse story. That was weird enough to get me interested. Balthasar’s journey turns out to be vivid and thought-provoking.
Now I don’t have much more to say about it without discussing the ending, so I must reveal some spoilers.
In this story, Jesus gave in to the devil’s temptation to fling himself from the tower, and God has reached into the world and placed the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. And it’s kind of scary. The city of Jerusalem is paved in gold and peopled by smiling, singing maniacs who wield flaming swords and feast on the flesh of hypnotized animals.
Balthasar meets Jesus the Christos and they have an interesting conversation. Jesus says he could have died so men like Balthasar would be saved. And our modern world would arise in its wonders and deadliness. I like his description of it, but it all sounds pointless either way. In the story’s Kingdom of Heaven, people seem happy, but brainwashed. In our world, we live amid amazing things, but suffer. You can’t win.
So Balthasar leaves, full of doubt. He has seen the face of God and still he doubts. Just what certainty was he looking for? Whatever change he is capable of appears to have happened a long time ago, when he decided he was an atheist. And since Jesus didn’t die, that implies Balthasar won’t be saved. Does he even want to be “saved”? All I could make out was that he seems to want to change what happened in his world. Anyway, he just happens to stumble into a cave where he can work some magic. So he still believes in magic. But if he has decided that the One True God is Jesus, by whose or what power is he calling on? I don’t get it.
Whatever this story is trying to say feels like it needs to come out in capital letters. Maybe this is an Easter story after all: Jesus Had to Die to Save Your Soul. Or maybe it’s: You Really Don’t Want the Kingdom of Heaven to Arrive on Earth. Or maybe it’s a counterfactual to prove that: God Must Allow Evil to Exist Because He Gave Us Our Free Will to Fulfill Our Potential. Or something.
Having made it to the end of the story, have I changed my mind? Well, it got me thinking, which is good, and there’s some fantastic imagery, which is very good, but it’s so deathly serious about everything, which is not at all good. Plus the huge lump of taking the Gospels as alternate historical truth really sticks in my craw. No, I’m still not too crazy about it.