An Exaltation of Stars is a one-off anthology from 1973 by Terry Carr, one of the best and most in-demand editors of the 1970s. Carr had proven himself editing the long-running Universe, New Worlds of Fantasy, and Best Science Fiction of the Year series, and here took up an interesting challenge in a niche sub-genre of SF: science fiction of the religious transcendental experience variety. It’s something I associate with the ’60s and ’70s, trying to reach a higher plane of enlightenment and all that, but what Carr uses as an example is Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End—though I’d think most of his works, case in point The City and the Stars, would fit the bill—along with Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Moorcock’s Behold The Man, and Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.
The three authors he tapped to write novellas were some of the most notable established voices from the early 1970s. Robert Silverberg’s “first period” lasted from around 1966 to 1974, where just about everything he wrote was solid gold (and the parts that weren’t gold were close enough, very good and thought-provoking works). Roger Zelazny burst out of the gate with classics like …And Call Me Conrad, Lord of Light, and the Amber series, a relative newcomer but one of the most influential voices in SF at the time. Edgar Pangborn wrote several important novels including Davy, one of a series of “Tales of a Darkening World” that melded history, religion, and philosophical questions in a post-apocalyptic America. Pangborn penned several shorts in that series for Carr anthologies in the ’70s, including the one in this volume.
The Feast of Saint Dionysus – Robert Silverberg
Three astronauts embarked on the first manned expedition to Mars, but only John Oxenshuer came back alive. Wracked with survivor’s guilt, he divorces his wife and wanders into the California desert to be alone, the desolate terrain a stand-in for the barren surface of Mars. Out there, he runs into some hippies who take him to their strange city hidden out in the desert; the inhabitants are a cult who worship Christ in the guise of Dionysus (yes, really). Initially skeptical—for good reason, with the Manson family at the forefront of his mind—he becomes a part of the cult’s/city’s society, drawn back into human society (or a type thereof), a peaceful commune who worship through drinking, reveling, wrestling, and sex, preparing for the titular feast of Saint Dionysus.
As the novella nears its conclusion, reality, vision, and redemptive hope blur; you’re never sure what is real and what isn’t. I’m not sure reality or dream matters much to John, since either way they lead him to a transcendent realization that redeems and pacifies his guilt,. The set-up I found bizarre—the strange cult city out in the desert for one, or the obtuse complexity built around John’s love with his ex, the wife of his best friend, said friend being one of his dead crewmates. That said, the plot fits the transcendental-religious theme, and is perhaps the one story in the volume that tackles that element head-on. It could be quite a moving tale to the right reader, while others may read more into the subtle hints that not all is right here, and still others may get caught up in how odd it all is. I have mixed feelings about the story; it may not be gold, but it’s a solid story from Silverberg’s prime years, and some elements of the tale work very well. Others don’t, thus the mixed feelings.
Later reprinted as the title story of the collection The Feast of Saint Dionysus, as well as Cults of Horror (odd choice) and Beyond the Safe Zone.
‘Kjwalll’kje’k’koothaïlll’kje’k – Roger Zelazny
Let’s just call this story ‘K, ok, and start by introducing our nameless protagonist with destroyed his official identity and now lives off-the-grid (some call him Nemo; Zelazny wrote two other stories featuring him). He drifts through life without anything to give him an identity like credit cards or a residence, though he has a contact who runs a detective agency who has occasional jobs for him. Such as his newest murder case, at a Florida facility researching dolphins and dolphin intelligence. Two divers were killed by an undersea predator, savaged and bitten to death, and the dolphins are the prime suspect. Never mind that, as a local artist argues, dolphins attack with their beaks as a bludgeon and not with their teeth. Nemo digs for the truth, and finds that there’s something more here going on than just dolphins and murder—a hotbed of smuggling and, perchance, psychic powers.
This one threw me for a loop; I wasn’t expecting a murder-mystery, much less one with telepathy and dolphins. The core of the story is the murder-mystery investigation that Nemo goes through, scoping out the facility, talking to the researchers about dolphins, re-tracing the murder victims’ last steps, and talking some more about dolphins. The transcendental element is very muted; most of it is from some characters’ discussing the implications of dolphin religion or beliefs, occurs very late in the story, and felt too underdeveloped and tacked-on to be thought-provoking (which I’m sure was the intent). And as much as I enjoy Zelazny, I’m afraid to say this one didn’t do much for me; it’s by far the weak leg in the collection, both as a story and as it relates to the collection’s theme. A competent story, but I think one best received by die-hard Zelazny fans and dolphin lovers.
Later reprinted in the collection of Nemo stories My Name is Legion.
My Brother Leopold – Edgar Pangborn
One of Pangborn’s tales of a darkening world, set in the dark ages of a post-apocalypse New England of warring city-states and strict religious authority. The story of one Leopold Graz, a would-be prophet and Christ-analogue who underwent an amnesiac rebirth to become Brother Francis, led by an unseen Companion, and fascinated by a clay figurine-icon, a man on one side and a woman on the other. Leopold attempts to avert—or at least illuminate—a war, causing him to become a martyr to his cause. The story is told in the epistolary style, consisting of four documents: his unlucky brother’s memoir, his court trial transcript, and the inevitable sanitization by the church which both canonizes him and subverts his message of creating a peaceful City of Light on earth.
And still I persist in wondering whether folly must always be our nemesis.
A fascinating piece. Pangborn had a habit of grappling with religious themes and Christian allegories with his repentant dark future, a dominant church sure that the apocalypse, the mutations, and the misery is God’s punishment for some past sin. Leopold as Brother Francis argues for peace and tolerance, but the church argues that one’s lot in life is to accept your suffering—a gentle messiah confronted by the pessimistic status quo. The last story of his I read (“The World is a Sphere”) was a clear allegory for Galileo, while this one is more a general allegory for a Christ-figure’s martyrdom being subverted for Church gain. As such, it’s not a terribly original plotline, but it’s a vivid theme, and the depth to Pangborn’s darkening world still fascinates me. Did I mention it’s a kind of pastoral post-apocalypse, or that I may be slightly biased in favor of apocalyptic stories?
“My Brother Leopold” placed 12th on a Locus poll the following year; it can be found in the collection of darkening world tales Still I Persist in Wondering.
The Bottom Line
At times, I got the feeling these three authors looked at Carr’s request, shrugged, and soldiered on as best they could without really understanding what he was asking for. (Going by his introduction, I’m not entirely sure myself, so I don’t blame them in the slightest if that was the case—I first thought the stars Carr was exalting were Silverberg, Zelazny, and Pangborn, only later seeing the “transcendental adventures” header.) All three stories have some depth, and are thought-provoking, but not all succeed as stories. The thing I’ve found with collections is that reactions tend to be mixed—not every story will appeal to every reader—which can be problematic when the book only collects three stories. All three were reprinted in other collections, which may be a better way to track them down if only one sounds appealing to you. Otherwise, I think An Exaltation of Stars will appeal most to 1970s/New Wave completists, and readers looking to examine that odd niche theme of science fiction dealing with religion.
Silverberg’s was both bizarre and contemplative, a look at loss and redemption in a unique way. I’m not sure all of it works for me—the city of hippies out in the desert belies suspension of disbelief, and then you see the bizarre hymns they sing—it’s a very hit-or-miss story, but it was perhaps the most evocative story in the collection. I had high expectations for Zelazny’s tale and found it lacking, a competent but unexceptional murder-mystery with a little telepathy and a lot of philosophizing about dolphin religion. Pangborn’s I’d rate as the best in the collection, but I freely admit that may be due to my preference for the pastoral post-apocalypse setting he’s constructed. The story he wrote is more about the life of a new messiah who’s undergone a religious transformation, told from multiple perspectives as his legacy is established. It doesn’t do anything unexpected, but is very good at what it does.