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Robert Silverberg

In spite of our modern pretense of cooled-out logical pragmatism and think-tank rationality, we still need myths. In fact, in a world where most of the age-old props—religion, morality, tradition, culture, family—have been knocked out from under us we may need them more urgently than ever. Denied the traditional gods and heroes and demons of the past, we instinctively endeavor to replace them with a pantheon of our own devising, rough-hewing our myths out of whatever archetypical material comes most readily to hand: JFK, Evel Knievel, Jaws, Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles, James Bond, and the Godfather.

Here Hugo- and Nebula-winner Robert Silverberg—SF’s most acidulous and elegant satirist—examines an effete future society that has forgotten the value of myth, although they are able to crank out gods and heroes to order in any desired quantity, a society that has made the possibly fatal mistake of confusing the substance with the show.

* * * * *

FOR A WHILE in those years we were calling great ones out of the past, to find out what they were like. This was in the middle twelves—12400 to 12450, say. We called up Caesar and Antony, and also Cleopatra. We got Freud and Marx and Lenin into the same room and let them talk. We summoned Winston Churchill, who was a disappointment (he lisped and drank too much), and Napoleon, who was magnificent. We raided ten millennia of history for our sport.

But after half a century of this we grew bored with our game. We were easily bored, in the middle twelves. So we started to call up the myth people, the gods and the heroes. That seemed more romantic, and this was one of Earth’s romanticist eras we lived in.

It was my turn to serve as curator of the Hall of Man, and that was where they built the machine, so I watched it going up from the start. Leor the Builder was in charge. He had made the machines that called the real people up, so this was only slightly different, no real challenge to his talents. He had to feed in another kind of data, full of archetypes and psychic currents, but the essential process of reconstruction would be the same. He never had any doubt of success.

Leor’s new machine had crystal rods and silver sides. A giant emerald was embedded in its twelve-angled lid. Tinsel streamers of radiant platinum dangled from the bony struts on which it rose.

“Mere decoration,” Leor confided to me. “I could have made a simple black box. But brutalism is out of fashion.”

The machine sprawled all over the Pavilion of Hope on the north face of the Hall of Man. It hid the lovely flicker-mosaic flooring, but at least it cast lovely reflections into the mirrored surfaces of the exhibit cases. Somewhere about 12570, Leor said he was ready to put his machine into operation.

We arranged the best possible weather. We turned the winds, deflecting the westerlies a bit and pushing all clouds far to the south. We sent up new moons to dance at night in wondrous patterns, now and again coming together to spell out Leor’s name. People came from all over Earth, thousands of them, camping in whisper-tents on the great plain that begins at the Hall of Man’s doorstep. There was real excitement then, a tension that crackled beautifully through the clear blue air.

Leor made his last adjustments. The committee of literary advisers conferred with him over the order of events, and there was some friendly bickering. We chose daytime for the first demonstration, and tinted the sky light purple for better effect. Most of us put on our youngest bodies, though there were some who said they wanted to look mature in the presence of these fabled figures out of time’s dawn.

“Whenever you wish me to begin—” Leor said.

There were speeches first. Chairman Peng gave his usual lighthearted address. The Procurator of Pluto, who was visiting us, congratulated Leor on the fertility of his inventions. Nistim, then in his third or fourth successive term as Metabolizer General, encouraged everyone present to climb to a higher level. Then the master of ceremonies pointed to me. No, I said, shaking my head, I am a very poor speaker. They replied that it was my duty, as curator of the Hall of Man, to explain what was about to unfold.

Reluctantly I came forward.

“You will see the dreams of old mankind made real today,” I said, groping for words. “The hopes of the past will walk among you, and so, I think, will the nightmares. We are offering you a view of the imaginary figures by means of whom the ancients attempted to give structure to the universe. These gods, these heroes, summed up patterns of cause and effect, and served as organizing forces around which cultures could crystallize. It is all very strange for us and it will he wonderfully interesting. Thank you.”

Leor was given the signal to begin.

“I must explain one thing,” he said. “Some of the beings you are about to see were purely imaginary, concocted by tribal poets, even as my friend has just told you. Others, though, were based on actual human beings who once walked the Earth as ordinary mortals, and who were transfigured, given more-than-human qualities, raised to the pantheon. Until they actually appear, we will not know which figures belong to which category, but I can tell you how to detect their origin once you see them. Those who were human beings before they became myths will have a slight aura, a shadow, a darkness in the air about them. This is the lingering trace of their essential humanity, which no mythmaker can erase. So I learned in my preliminary experiments. I am now ready.”

Leor disappeared into the bowels of his machine. A single pure note, high and clean, rang in the air. Suddenly, on the stage looking out to the plain, there emerged a naked man, blinking, peering around.

Leor’s voice, from within the machine, said, “This is Adam, the first of all men.”

And so the gods and the heroes came back to us on that brilliant afternoon in the middle twelves, while all the world watched in joy and fascination.

Adam walked across the stage and spoke to Chairman Peng, who solemnly saluted him and explained what was taking place. Adam’s hand was outspread over his loins. “Why am I naked?” Adam asked. “It is wrong to be naked.”

I pointed out to him that he had been naked when he first came into the world, and that we were merely showing respect for authenticity by summoning him back that way.

“But I have eaten the apple,” Adam said. “Why do you bring me back conscious of shame, and give me nothing to conceal my shame? Is this proper? Is this consistent? If you want a naked Adam, bring forth an Adam who has not yet eaten the apple. But—”

Leor’s voice broke in: “This is Eve, the mother of us all.”

Eve stepped forth, naked also, though her long silken hair hid the curve of her breasts. Unashamed, she smiled and held out a hand to Adam, who rushed to her, crying, “Cover yourself! Cover yourself!”

Surveying the thousands of onlookers, Eve said coolly, “Why should I, Adam? These people are naked too, and this must be Eden again.”

“This is not Eden,” said Adam. “This is the world of our children’s children’s children’s children.”

“I like this world,” Eve said. “Relax.”

Leor announced the arrival of Pan the Goat-footed.

Now, Adam and Eve both were surrounded by the dark aura of essential humanity. I was surprised at this, since I doubted that there had ever been a First Man and a First Woman on whom legends could be based; yet I assumed that this must be some symbolic representation of the concept of man’s evolution. But Pan, the half-human monster, also wore the aura. Had there been such a being in the real world?

I did not understand it then. But later I came to see that if there had never been a goat-footed man, there nevertheless had been men who behaved as Pan behaved, and out of them that lusty god had been created. As for the Pan who came out of Leor’s machine, he did not remain long on the stage. He plunged forward into the audience, laughing and waving his arms and kicking his cloven hooves in the air. “Great Pan lives!” he cried. “Great Pan lives!” He seized in his arms Milian, the year-wife of Divud the Archivist, and carried her away toward a grove of feather-trees.

“He does me honor,” said Milian’s year-husband Divud.

Leor continued to toil in his machine.

He brought forth Hector and Achilles, Orpheus, Perseus, Loki, and Absalom. He brought forth Medea, Cassandra, Odysseus, Oedipus. He brought forth Thoth, the Minotaur, Aeneas, Salome. He brought forth Shiva and Gilgamesh, Viracocha and Pandora, Priapus and Astarte, Diana, Diomedes, Dionysus, Deucalion. The afternoon waned and the sparkling moons sailed into the sky, and still Leor labored. He gave us Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Helen and Menelaus, Isis and Osiris. He gave us Damballa and Geudenibo and Papa Legba. He gave us Baal. He gave us Samson. He gave us Krishna. He woke Quetzalcoatl, Adonis, Holger Dansk, Kali, Ptah, Thor, Jason, Nimrod, Set.

The darkness deepened and the creatures of myth jostled and tumbled on the stage, and overflowed onto the plain. They mingled with one another, old enemies exchanging gossip, old friends clasping hands, members of the same pantheon embracing or looking warily upon their rivals. They mixed with us, too, the heroes selecting women, the monsters trying to seem less monstrous, the gods shopping for worshipers.

Perhaps we had enough. But Leor would not stop. This was his time of glory.

Out of the machine came Roland and Oliver, Rustum and Sohrab, Cain and Abel, Damon and Pythias, Orestes and Pylades, Jonathan and David. Out of the machine came St. George, St. Vitus, St. Nicholas, St. Christopher, St. Valentine, St. Jude. Out of the machine came the Furies, the Harpies, the Pleiades, the Fates, the Norns. Leor was a romantic, and he knew no moderation.

All who came forth wore the aura of humanity.

But wonders pall. The Earthfolk of the middle twelves were easily distracted and easily bored. The cornucopia of miracles was far from exhausted, but on the fringes of the audience I saw people taking to the sky and heading for home. We who were close to Leor had to remain, of course, though we were surfeited by these fantasies and baffled by their abundance.

An old white-bearded man wrapped in a heavy aura left the machine. He carried a slender metal tube. “This is Galileo,” said Leor.

“Who is he?” the Procurator of Pluto asked me, for Leor, growing weary, had ceased to describe his conjured ghosts.

I had to request the information from an output in the Hall of Man. “A latter-day god of science,” I told the Procurator, “who is credited with discovering the stars. Believed to have been an historical personage before his deification, which occurred after his martyrdom by religious conservatives.”

Now that the mood was on him, Leor summoned more of these gods of science, Newton and Einstein and Hippocrates and Copernicus and Oppenheimer and Freud. We had met some of them before, in the days when we were bringing real people out of lost time, but now they had new guises, for they had passed through the mythmakers’ hands. They bore emblems of their special functions, and they went among us offering to heal, to teach, to explain. They were nothing like the real Newton and Einstein and Freud we had seen. They stood three times the height of men, and lightnings played around their brows.

Then came a tall, bearded man with a bloodied head. “Abraham Lincoln,” said Leor.

“The ancient god of emancipation,” I told the Procurator, after some research.

Then came a handsome young man with a dazzling smile and also a bloodied head. “John Kennedy,” said Leor.

“The ancient god of youth and springtime,” I told the Procurator. “A symbol of the change of seasons, of the defeat of winter by summer.”

“That was Osiris,” said the Procurator. “Why are there two?”

“There were many more,” I said. “Baldur, Tammuz, Mithra, Attis.”

“Why did they need so many?” he asked.

Leor said, “Now I will stop.”

The gods and heroes were among us. A season of revelry began.

Medea went off with Jason, and Agamemnon was reconciled with Clytemnestra, and Theseus and the Minotaur took up lodgings together. Others preferred the company of men. I spoke a while with John Kennedy, the last of the myths to come from the machine. Like Adam, the first, he was troubled at being here.

“I was no myth,” he insisted. “I lived. I was real. I entered primaries and made speeches.”

“You became a myth,” I said. “You lived and died and in your dying you were transfigured.”

He chuckled. “Into Osiris? Into Baldur?”

“It seems appropriate.”

“To you, maybe. They stopped believing in Baldur a thousand years before I was born.”

“To me,” I said, “you and Osiris and Baldur are contemporaries. You are of the ancient world. You are thousands of years removed from us.”

“And I’m the last myth you let out of the machine?”

“You are.”

“Why? Did men stop making myths after the twentieth century?”

“You would have to ask Leor. But I think you are right: your time was the end of the age of mythmaking. After your time we could no longer believe such things as myths. We did not need myths. When we passed out of the era of troubles, we entered a kind of paradise where every one of us lived a myth of his own, and then why should we have to raise some men to great heights among us?”

He looked at me strangely. “Do you really believe that? That you live in paradise? That men have become gods?”

“Spend some time in our world,” I said, “and see for yourself.”

He went out into the world, but what his conclusions were I never knew, for I did not speak to him again. Often I encountered roving gods and heroes, though. They were everywhere. They quarreled and looted and ran amok, some of them, but we were not very upset by that, since it was how we expected archetypes out of the dawn to act. And some were gentle. I had a brief love affair with Persephone. I listened, enchanted, to the singing of Orpheus. Krishna danced for me.

Dionysus revived the lost art of making liquors, and taught us to drink and be drunk.

Loki made magics of flame for us.

Taliesin crooned incomprehensible, wondrous ballads to us.

Achilles hurled his javelin for us.

It was a season of wonder, but the wonder ebbed. The mythfolk began to bore us. There were too many of them, and they were too loud, too active, too demanding. They wanted us to love them, listen to them, bow to them, write poems about them. They asked questions—some of them, anyway—that pried into the inner workings of our world, and embarrassed us, for we scarcely knew the answers. They grew vicious, and schemed against each other, sometimes causing perils for us.

Leor had provided us with a splendid diversion. But we all agreed it was time for the myths to go home. We had had them with us for fifty years, and that was quite enough.

We rounded them up, and started to put them back into the machine. The heroes were the easiest to catch, for all their strength. We hired Loki to trick them into returning to the Hall of Man. “Mighty tasks await you there,” he told them, and they hurried thence to show their valor. Loki led them into the machine and scurried out, and Leor sent them away, Heracles, Achilles, Hector, Perseus, Cuchulainn, and the rest of that energetic breed.

After that many of the demonic ones came, and said they were as bored with us as we were with them, and went back into the machine of their free will. Thus departed Kali, Legba, Set, and many more.

Some we had to trap and take by force. Odysseus disguised himself as Breel, the secretary to Chairman Peng, and would have fooled us forever if the real Breel, returning from a holiday in Jupiter, had not exposed the hoax. And then Odysseus struggled. Loki gave us problems. Oedipus launched blazing curses when we came for him. Daedalus clung touchingly to Leor and begged, “Let me stay, brother! Let me stay!” and had to be thrust within.

Year after year the task of finding and capturing them continued, and one day we knew we had them all. The last to go was Cassandra, who had been living alone in a distant island, clad in rags.

“Why did you send for us?” she asked. “And, having sent, why do you ship us away?”

“The game is over,” I said to her. “We will turn now to other sports.”

“You should have kept us,” Cassandra said. “People who have no myths of their own would do well to borrow those of others, and not just as sport. Who will comfort your souls in the dark times ahead? Who will guide your spirits when the suffering begins? Who will explain the woe that will befall you? Woe! Woe!”

“The woes of Earth,” I said gently, “lie in Earth’s past. We need no myths.”

Cassandra smiled and stepped into the machine. And was gone.

And then the age of fire and turmoil opened, for when the myths went home, the invaders came, bursting from the sky. And our towers toppled and our moons fell. And the cold-eyed strangers went among us, doing as they wished.

And those of us who survived cried out to the old gods, the vanished heroes.

Loki, come!

Achilles, defend us!

Shiva, release us!

Heracles! Thor! Gawain!

But the gods are silent, and the heroes do not come. The machine that glittered in the Hall of Man is broken. Leor its maker is gone from this world. Jackals run through our gardens, and our masters stride in our streets, and we are made slaves. And we are alone beneath the frightful sky. And we are alone.

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