Review: The Gift of Fire and On the Head of a Pin: Two Short Novels from Crosstown to Oblivion, by Walter Mosley

>>Published: May 2012

Walter Mosley, creator of the best-selling Easy Rawlins mystery series, releases a pair of pseudo-science fiction/fantasy novellas. In The Gift of Fire, the fantasy novella in this pairing, Prometheus, the Greek titan condemned to suffer for eternity for providing mankind with the gift of knowledge (in the form of the eternal flame), thus sacrificing some of the gods’ control, is unexpectedly released from his chains. He escapes his imprisonment and makes his way… to present-day South Central Los Angeles:

He found himself upon a hilltop. To his right rolled the waves of a great ocean and to his left sprawled a mortal city with its temporary structures and its people who lived and died without suspicion of the knowledge that the partially comprehended but never knew. The smell of their smoke and feces filled his nostrils and burned his eyes. It was ever this way when gods and Titans mingled among humans. Mortals were like animals to those of the higher planes, snuffling and snorting and spraying urine to mark their domain.

Los Angeles was to Prometheus like a dung hill is to a swan—dirty and diseased, stinking of mortality—and yet these were the fallow grounds for the possibility of life.

The titan is immediately imprisoned as a suspected drug- or booze-addled homeless person (of surprising size and presence). Through his imprisonment in a mortal jail, he claims the name Foreman Prospect for himself and befriends a wino named Nosome—and through Nosome, a child, an invalid named Chief Redd, whom Prometheus heals and designates his vessel on Earth. As the knowledge and curative properties of Prometheus’s touch spread, miracles are brought into existence, minds cured—or damaged beyond repair—from trauma’s felt and inflicted. Through the vessel of Chief Redd, Prometheus is able to continue to spread knowledge, slowly gathering a cult-like swath of followers and transforming the gutters of South Central Los Angeles and the lives of those tossed in them.

On the Head of a Pin is the science fiction half of this double feature. Josh Winterland is a writer hired to document the findings of scientific research firm Jennings-Tremont Enterprises. When the completion of a project known as a Sail—a intricately woven fibre optic creation capable of accessing unforeseen energies—opens a window into what appears to be another realm, Josh is connected with a being that escapes conventional description:

I didn’t have to turn around to know that the memory he was experiencing was being represented on the screen.

I opened my eyes just in time to see Cosmo hurrying into the room.

“How did you do that?” Zintel was asking.

“It’s the Sail,” I said, exhaustion moving through my limbs. “It, it… Everything that ever happened, everyone and everything that ever lived has left an impression. This screen can connect with those impressions.”

“Like ghosts?” Zintel asked. There was no vestige of the official left. A deep experience had yanked him by the roots of his mind and he was moved.

“Yes,” I said. “I believe so.”

What the Sail has opened is a communication pathway with a conceptual multiverse (a familiar concept to physicists and comic book geeks alike). Through the collective memories of our world and an infinite number of others, Josh is witness to atrocities he can barely comprehend, and a degree of love he never thought possible. To those outside the experience looking in—government and military officials—the Sail is a potential weapon of untold power.

The pairing of these two stories is an interesting decision, one that I’m not sure works as well as the author might have intended. On the surface, they are relatively simple, interesting parables of knowledge—of the potential when faced with the prospect of omniscience, and the threats revealed when ignorance is embraced. In The Gift of Fire, the primary threats are those below the base ethical line society has drawn in the sand: murderers, rapists, and gang leaders among others. Through the touch of Prometheus, they are able to experience the full comprehensive details of the pain they’ve dealt to others, which in turn, is capable of driving these already deranged souls mad. However, in On the Head of a Pin, the threat is the control of knowledge by those seeking to keep a leash on what does and does not make it into the world at large. The two extremes of the economic/class structure are represented as being equally incapable of handling the knowledge given to them, due either to the actions they’ve already taken, or those they can only imagine will be available to them in the future. To this degree, the pairing of these narratives is certainly intriguing. Where they struggle to find cohesion, however, is strangely enough in their more direct similarities.

Religion (faith) and society (class and race): both stories deal directly with these concepts. With respect to religion, The Gift of Fire treats the coming of Prometheus as less a purveyor of knowledge and more of a direct Christ allegory, a concept made clear as Chief Redd’s influence grows and the once barely-alive child develops a following of worshippers and acolytes. Though seemingly benign in their endeavours, the President of the United States (under advisement of another Greek god in disguise) begins to see the threat of Prometheus/Redd’s growing influence. The spreading of knowledge is thus treated less like a source for ideas and action and more as a poor man’s simulacrum of total and unquestioning faith. Conversely, On the Head of a Pin uses religion to a more personal degree, detailing one man’s change of heart (with respect to race, which I’ll get to later) and how what he has seen through the science-made-magic of the Sail has convinced him to take dangerous, deadly action to keep knowledge form the hands of those who seek to take it and hide it away—the government and the military.

While both stories use religion in somewhat contrasting ways, the simplistic one-to-one of religion and knowledge is what pushes these stories apart, with respect to their potential impact. Instead of being Yin and Yang to one another, they tread all too similar ground, which in turn hurts the stories’ representations of knowledge, its power, and its purpose. This is also apparent when dealing with race and class issues in each story. Both employ such divisive concepts to further sketch a world seemingly without wisdom and in desperate need of it, but do it in such similarly hand-to-nose ways as to damage their individual and communal potential. In both stories, the power of black men is to be feared—be it by an authoritative presence in The Gift of Fire or a single misguided individual, as is the case with the zealot of On the Head of a Pin. The issue of race is tackled with claw-hammer delicacy, as the President is advised of the threat of a black man with followers, and a co-worker sees Josh (a black man) as less than human—until he is touched by “the divine”—and once more the promise of these two stories of contrasting genres approaching a similar conceit from two individual and unique perspectives is lost.

Perhaps this is a question of expectations. As I read the two stories, I found myself more intrigued by how the author presented knowledge as a fulcrum around which the details spun into their own independent directions, dependent on the genre and scope at play. But while these basic plot elements did in fact contrast (the science versus the fantasy; the homeless versus the scientists, both fighting the government), they were drawn in to one another all over again by Mosley’s inability to truly push the ideas of race, class, religion, and knowledge into far reaching corners at the opposite ends of the spectrum, which is what the differing set-ups seem to promise at the outset of each story.

Taken individually, both stories are somewhat amusing, if occasionally frustrating, takes on familiar science fiction and fantasy tropes. The Gift of Fire is certainly the stronger of the two in terms of plot and character development, though the character of Prometheus is all too quickly abandoned for the less strenuous Christ allegory. But together, laced as they are with socially pertinent themes that are simply not given their chance to develop into unique approaches to what is in the end very familiar subject matter, The Gift of Fire and On the Head of a Pin just don’t reach far enough.