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Should have had “Raven” in the title – Quantum Shadows, by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Quantum Shadows, by L.E. Modesitt Jr. (Hardcover; publisher: Tor Books; July 21, 2020; 304 pages)

L.E. Modesitt Jr. is world-famous and has written a formidable list of Science Fiction and Fantasy novels, so long that his bibliography makes up a separate Wikipedia page. He has written 11 stand-alone (not in a series) Science Fiction novels, of which the most recent are Solar Express (2015) and the latest, Quantum Shadows, released July 21, 2020. Of course, in the same period, he also produced four novels in his Imager Portfolio series, so he really is prolific. Which means that it is really surprising how deeply layered and nuanced Quantum Shadows is. It is an unusual novel, on a theme that these days is almost too sensitive to write about – religion, faith and belief. In fact, this theme in Science Fiction is quite uncommon.

A heaven for all sorts

The story is about a place called “Heaven”, in which ten religious houses function like separate countries or city-states, each guarded by a hegemony or dominant leadership. Guarding over this world is “Corvyn, the Shadow of the Raven”, a being who can take the shape of a raven, and who has seen the fall of humankind happen many times. Corvyn gives his identity as “C.O. Poe” at the start of the story, and at the end, when he has to give a personal password, it is “Nevermore”. These are all allusions to the narrative poem, The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe, which has the famous and often-quoted line: “Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”” It never ceases to amaze me how often Edgar Allan Poe found words to rhyme with “nevermore”.

Steel engraving of the “Raven” in the poem of Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven, after drawings by Gustave Doré (1832-1883). (From the Graphic Arts Collection, Special Collections, Firestone Library, Princeton University)

Here is the poem in full, but you can skip over this to get to the rest of the review at the end of it.

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
            Only this and nothing more.”

    Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
    Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
    From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
            Nameless here for evermore.

    And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
    So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
    “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
            This it is and nothing more.”

    Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
    But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
    And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
            Darkness there and nothing more.

    Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
    But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
    And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
            Merely this and nothing more.

    Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
    “Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
      Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
            ’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

    Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
            Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
    For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
    Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
            With such name as “Nevermore.”

    But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
    Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
    Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
            Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

    Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
    Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
    Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
            Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”

    But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
    Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
    Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
            Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

    This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
    This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
    On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
            She shall press, ah, nevermore!

    Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
    “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
    Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
    Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
    On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
    It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    “Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
    Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
    Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
    And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
    And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
            Shall be lifted—nevermore!

Of that entire long poem, the only verse that actually has bearing on this novel is the last one, which is a description of Corvyn:

“And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!”

The being called Corvyn

Corvyn is an entity who is old, powerful and wealthy beyond what most people can imagine. He may be a demon, or even a hegemon in disguise, but he is charming, he smiles frequently, speaks kindly and calmly, knows every religion, belief, mythology and faith that he encounters to the finest detail. He blends with people, comes and goes, travels through and delivers punishments, by using shadows. He is himself a shadow who can move through physical objects, space and time.

The story begins with Corvyn finding a blazing trident, a three-pronged spear, often associated with Poseidon, god of the sea, burned into the wall of his study. He suspects that this sign has been burned into every holy place of every religious house in the Decalivre (or “ten houses”) in Heaven. He knows that it is a challenge meant to cause an outbreak of war which will lead to another apocalyptic fall of man. He has to find out who burned the trident into the inner sanctums of all these religions, and is trying to gain control of the “Lances of Heaven”, the defence system to end all defence systems.

A fascinating constructed world

Like the purple-green landscape with the strange aerial tubes that he created in The One-eyed Man, in this novel Modesitt again creates a fascinating world with ten diverse and intriguingly contrasted societies, each with a different religion and hegemon. But the religions are re-interpretations of the religions that exist in reality. Sometimes you can recognize a word or a sign from a particular religion, and it is almost, but not quite what you’d expect.

The One-Eyed Man, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (Originally published 2013, Publisher: Tor Science Fiction, Reprint edition: July 29, 2014, 364 pp. hard cover)

For instance, the name of the hegemon of the “Saints” religion in the city called “Los Santos” is “The White One” or “Jaweau”, which sounds like “Jahweh”. And in the “Lands of Tao”, the hegemon is called “Laozi”. The real Laozi, also spelled Lao Tzu, is traditionally regarded as one of the founders of Taoism. “Jaweau” and his subordinate “Brother Paul” are the heads of the “Paulists of Marcion”. That sounds like a reference to Marcion of Sinope, a historical figure who is believed to have produced the first collection of the Epistles of Saint Paul, called Marcion’s Apostolicon, in the middle of the second century, the years 140–155.

Corvyn travels, like an ordinary human, on his e-bike, from place to place in Heaven, stopping on the way at places to eat and sleep. He is a gourmand and he appreciates good company and sensual pleasures. The descriptions of the food and wine are as detailed and evocative as the descriptions of the architecture.

Much of the book consists of descriptions of Corvyn’s travels, chapter by chapter, town by town, through the place that is “Heaven”. It lulls the reader into relaxation as each charming piece of scenery, interesting architecture, and appealing guesthouse or restaurant is revealed. The scenery looks like most people would imagine heaven to be. The sky is gorgeous, the landscapes are picture-book-pretty, everything is clean, beautiful, peaceful, enjoyable. People are polite, kind, non-aggressive, and good-looking. But as the journey progresses, a sense of impending disaster takes hold of the reader. The most terrifying and violent beings in “Heaven” turn out to be the gods, saints, prophets, angels and other powerful beings that guard over each place, where, indeed, a trident has been marked in black in each instance.

A journey to end all journeys

The closer Corvyn gets to the origin of the trident, which seems to be in Los Santos with “Jaweau”, the more his life is in danger. He survives quite imaginative acts of violence – being obliterated by a flaming angelic sword, for instance – but he realizes that the final show-down may well kill him.

Mosaics of the four archangels in St John’s Church, Boreham Road, Warminster, Wiltshire, England.

Modesitt progresses the story simply by moving Corvyn from one place to the next along a series of perfect, smooth, winding roads – like the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz – and interspersing these descriptions with the philosophical discussions that Corvyn has with the people who he meets on the way. Their reactions to his questions and his mere presence, despite his wanting to be perceived as innocuous, become increasingly aggressive. As Corvyn says:

“…great and sudden changes in any society or culture have seldom resulted in anything beneficial or any lasting good. Nor has an insistence on the acceptance of one great and fixed truth ever resulted in anything other than renewed conflict.”

Quantum Shadows, by L.E. Modesitt Jr., p. 175)

What is “Heaven”?

It does not get boring because every stop on the journey is interesting and unusual. But how could this journey end, once Corvyn has checked out all ten places? You don’t have to read all the philosophy parts about truth, free will, faith, hope, punishment, etc., but it will help you to understand the very disturbing ending.

One of the clues to unravelling the climax of the novel is the fact that “Heaven” is not an ideal world, a place of reward and pleasure on a beautiful planet. It might look that way, but those enclaves of religion exist on “a fixed point in a macro-quantum space-time geode”.

This is a mouthful, but broken down, “macro-quantum” refers to “macroscopic quantum phenomena”, which are processes that show the physical properties of atoms and subatomic particles, but viewed at macro scale, not atomic scale. The best examples of this are the processes of superfluidity and superconductivity. “Space-time” or “spacetime” means four-dimensional, the three dimensions of space, length, width and depth, plus the one dimension of time. And in science, a “GEODE” is a “Generic Object of Dark Energy”, an object that mimics a black hole in space. So this place is a super-conductive, super-fluid, four-dimensional type of black hole.

Ha! I’m 100% sure Modesitt did not intend his readers to go all persnickety on him and analyze that one little phrase to heck and gone. But it helps to know that this place is an artificial construct, something made specifically for one purpose, and an ideal space to deploy:

“…the qubit-based AI systems that that governed Heaven, operated the pearls of Heaven, and used the Eyes of Heaven, and, when necessary, the Lances of Heaven”.

Quantum Shadows, by L.E. Modesitt Jr., p. 190)

Cogito ergo quaero?

The place called “Heaven” is one of the most intriguing ideas in this multi-layered and richly detailed novel which is filled with reimagined cultural and historical details, (re)invented words and names, and new and unexpected approaches to the classic themes of faith and religion. However, the tantalizing plays on words are there for good reason and the reader cannot just relax and let it all flow by them.

For instance, early on in the novel Corvyn says to his image in a mirror, “Cogito ergo quaero.” The more common Latin phrase is “cogito ergo sum”, translated as “I think, therefore I am”. “Cogito ergo quaero” means “I think, therefore I query” – “query” meaning a request for information. But if you take that phrase and change it to “cogito ergo quaestio”, it can be translated as “I think, therefore I question“. And while Corvyn sets out to find information at the beginning of the book, questioning is what he ends up doing. He looks for information firstly, but to get answers he cleverly interrogates and traps even the churches’ own interrogators.

With absolute calm and control, Corvyn allows his suspects to admit their own guilt and then destroys them – just like an avenging angel in fact. Is he then guilty of the same violence as those whom he punishes? Will his insistence on sticking to his own convictions result in even more conflict? Does he even have the right to execute someone summarily?

Modesitt leaves that to the imagination of the reader, but does reveal that Corvyn is actually a deity (“Jaweau” calls him “Odin”), one who is far, far older than any other power or religion, who has been given his mission and the rules by which he controls “Heaven” by “the First” one –

“Not that Corvyn hadn’t found ways, over the centuries… and longer, to learn how to accomplish what he must within those parameters.”

Quantum Shadows, by L.E. Modesitt Jr., p. 296)

Therefore, why would one so old and so powerful abide within any established parameters, commandments or rules when he has to do what must be done? Food for thought indeed.

Corvyn the Raven is too intriguing for just one novel

Modesitt wrote this as a standalone novel, but I think the world he has created, with not only its own landscapes, natural laws and peoples, but with discrete religions as well, is something quite special that merits being used in another story. And Corvyn is a fascinating, multi-dimensional character. Modesitt has won me over again with his artistic vision, his ability to create novels that are, in many ways, like paintings. Does he have another book about Corvyn the Raven in the pipeline? I do hope so.

Another illustration for Poe’s The Raven by Gustave Doré  (1832–1883). Is that planet perhaps “Heaven”?

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