The 1926 satirical sf novel King Goshawk and the Birds, by Irish playwright and novelist Eimar O’Duffy, is set in a future world devastated by progress. When King Goshawk, the supreme ruler among a caste of “king capitalists,” buys up all the wildflowers and songbirds, an aghast Dublin philosopher travels via the astral plane to Tír na nÓg. First the mythical Irish hero Cúchulainn, then his son Cuanduine, travel to Earth in order to combat the king capitalists. Thirty-five years before the hero of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, these well-meaning aliens discover that cultural forms and norms are the most effective barrier to social or economic revolution.
HiLobrow is pleased to serialize King Goshawk and the Birds, which has long been out of print, in its entirety. A new installment will appear each week.
Chapter 10: Why the Devil is not to be debited with all our Sins
For myself, I cannot tell whether this love impulse of Cúchulainn’s came from God or from the Devil; and you who are cocksure of the origin of all such irregular perturbations, pray tell me, was it by infernal promptings that Robert, Duke of Normandy, fell in love with Arietta, the tanner’s daughter: for, if so, you say that the Devil founded the British Empire, which is a wicked, unnatural, and traitorous opinion, and absurd withal, seeing that it cannot be abbreviated, nor thwarted in its policies, without infringement of the laws of God. On the same theme here’s a tale that I found in an ancient book of Eastern legends which I picked up for a song on a cart by the Liffey side.
You know that King David, loitering in Jerusalem while his armies were besieging the city of Rabbah, one day, when walking on the palace roof, saw Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, washing herself in an upper room of her husband’s house, and straightway fell into an amorous desire of her. Now the Devil, so far from playing pandar to the twain, well knowing what injury was to accrue to his kingdom from their union, made haste to forestall it, and, perching himself upon the King’s shoulder, spoke in his ear as follows:
“David, David, what abasement and degradation is this? What will the princes and the captains say when they learn that their King is enslaved by a woman of the people, by the wife of an Hittite?”
“I care not what they say,” replied David, thinking that it was the voice of Conscience, or Common Sense, or some such monitor that was addressing him.
“Royally answered,” said the Devil. “But what aileth David’s eye that it so gravely mislead’s the King’s affections? Is not that left leg bowed somewhat? And is not that a hairy mole I see upon her chin?” So saying he offered David a pair of magic binoculars with distortionary powers; but Love, which conquers all things, wrought upon the treacherous lenses in Bathsheba’s behalf, so that she appeared ten times more beautiful even than she was, and David’s passion blazed up afresh. Then said the Devil:
“Bethink thee, David, that by this sin thou dost contemplate thou kill’st thy soul as surely as thou would’st kill thy body by transfixing it with a sword.”
“Nay!” quoth David. “I am a fighting man, I, and have been transfixed by many swords in my time: yet here I am, alive, and fresh in love.”
“True,” said the Devil. “But by each successive yielding to carnal pleasure the soul is drugged and stupefied, weakened in its powers, and deflected from that heavenly aspiration by which alone it can rise to the after life when the body is sloughed in death.”
“And yet,” said David, “methinks now that I would count the after life well lost if I could but hold her once in my arms.”
Thus baffled, the Devil recoiled for a better leap.
“Take the wanton,” said he. “But first weigh well the cost. Did you ever hold your finger for one instant in the flame of a candle? Could you bear to hold it so for five minutes? for an hour? for a day? for a year? for ever? Yet a candle flame is like the cool spray of fountains compared with the brimstone lake of Hell, in which your sin will plunge you, body and soul. You shall be salted with fire. Every sense shall be unceasingly tormented: your eyes with the perpetual sight of the devils and the damned leaping in agony amid the flames; your ears by the clamour of infernal voices, by yells and screeches, and by a jarring cacophony as of steel-sawing, stone-grinding, and slate-scraping; your nose and taste by the odious and mephitic slime in which you will be engulfed. O the tortures and the horrors of the damned! Words fail me when I endeavour to depict them. Amend thy ways therefore, O King, amend thy ways, and turn thy desires away from this woman.”
“What a figure she has,” said King David, “and with what grace she plies the towel.”
“Wretched man!” cried the Devil. “Consider yet further. All these pains and terrors might be in some sense endurable if at some time, however remote, they were to have an end. But they are endless. The tiniest inconvenience becomes a torture if long continued; but these horrors I have described will continue unceasing for ever and ever, for ever and ever. Think upon it. Man after man shall be born, live, reproduce himself (if I may speak so plainly), and die. Generation shall succeed generation, century succeed century, and millenium millenium; and still you shall burn. The world shall perish, and the universe, and new worlds and universes have their being; and still you shall burn. For ever and ever; for ever and ever. The inexorable pendulum shall swing like that: for ever and ever; for ever and ever; for ever and ever.”
“I shall be sorry for ever and ever,” said King David, “if I let slip this chance. Did you ever in all your life see such glorious hips?”
“O insignificant mind of mortal man,” said the Devil. “It is plain you have no conception of the immensity of Eternity.”
“Doubtless it is very long,” said King David, “but not so long as a minute spent waiting for one’s beloved.”
“Shallow fool,” said the Devil. “Listen awhile, and I will endeavour to convey to you some faint intimation of the dread reality.” Here the Evil One lowered his voice a tone or two, and spoke in slower measure. “Imagine a vast ball a million times the size of this earth, of a substance a million times harder than burnished steel, hanging in the night of space. Suppose that once in every billion years a butterfly were to flutter past and just graze the ball with the tip of one of its antennae. How many billions of billions of years would it be, think you, before he should make a depression deep enough to hold a dewdrop?”
“He would rub away his antennae first,” said the King.
“Do not trifle,” said the Devil. “This is a metaphorical butterfly, and its antennae are indestructible.”
“I was never a mathematician,” said David.
“To resume,” said the Devil. “How many trillions of trillions of years must elapse before the depression should be enlarged to the size of a man’s head?”
“I cannot think,” said King David.
“And how many quatrillions of quatrillions of years before it should be as large as this palace.”
“Do not ask me,” said King David.
“After sextillions of sextillions of centuries,” said the Devil, “we will suppose that there shall have been rubbed from the globe a moiety equal in size to this land of. Palestine, with all its fields and deserts, mountains and valleys, forests and cities. Do you know what even one sextillion is?”
“I do not,” said King David.
“It is written thus,” said the Devil, and with his finger he wrote in flaming characters upon the air, as follows:
“That is a power of noughts,” said King David. “Enough to fright an astronomer. But what comes at the heel of them? Continue, I pray.”
“The butterfly shall continue,” responded the Devil grimly. “Picture him still at his task, fluttering out of the blackness of space at the end of every billionth year, flicking the ball with his antennae, and vanishing again into space like some infinitesimal comet. Picture him doing it through octillions of octillions of centuries, until at last he shall have obliterated a portion equal in bulk to this mighty earth. Behold, the scar is scarcely noticeable. After all his labours there yet remains a mass nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine times as large to be comminuted in the same fashion.”
King David whistled.
“To continue our meditation,” said the Devil. “Let us now suppose that after the lapse of inconceivable multiplications of decillions of centuries the whole steel ball, one million times the size of the earth, shall have been thus rubbed away by the antennae of the errant butterfly. Suppose that there is then offered to him another such ball a million times as large; and when by the same process he shall have annihilated that, a third one, two millions times as large, a fourth, three million times, and so on. What skillion-dillion ramplescallions of billeniums must elapse before he shall have destroyed a million of them. And all this while, mark you, the fire burns with undiminished heat, the stenches stink, the cacophony continues unabated.”
“No more! No more!” cried King David, now for the first time taking his eyes off the figure of Bathsheba, and looking full at the Devil; who appeared as an austere and lean-featured person in a black robe, with skimpy black wings at the shoulders.
“Suppose,” said the Fiend remorselessly, “that by persevering flicks of his antennae once every billion years the butterfly shall have finally wiped into nothingness a long succession of such balls, to the total number of seven billion trillion qua- trillion octillion decillion zillions ——”
“Yes,” said King David, regaining his composure somewhat.
“At the end of that period,” said the Devil in his most impressive manner, “Eternity would be only just about to begin beginning.”
“By my soul,” said King David, “if the penalty be so vast, what a very sweet bedfellow must this woman be.” And he made her so straightway.
You will find this story, unexpurgated and unabridged, in the seventh book of Apocryphus, cap. ix. Was it not foul slander afterwards to lay the whole responsibility at Satan’s door, not only for the seduction, but also for the mean and bloody deeds by which the King sought to hush it up?
RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HiLobrow’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.
READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.
REDISCOVERED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable | John Buchan’s Huntingtower
ORIGINAL FICTION: HiLobrow has serialized three novels: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic); Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda (which includes original music); and Robert Waldron’s roman à clef The School on the Fens. We also publish original stories and comics. These include: Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”