Here are the first two completely captivating Tales of the Polity: the novelette The Inconvenient God and the short novel Lagoonfire. Their author, Francesca Forrest, suggests there will be more stories in her interview with the Little Red Reviewer. And I hope to see them soon. Forrest has a uniquely fascinating imagination that blends charming story-telling, thoroughly quirky characters and serious ideas in ways I haven’t encountered before.
From the moment we meet Decommissioner Thirty-Seven, wearing somewhat self-consciously her black velvet official robe with silver bells adorning the hem, we know we’re in a strange and interesting world. In many ways it seems similar to our own but it is infused by present and former deities. Most of them have been decommissioned into life as mortals but many persist because they are revered by so many devoted followers.
Apparently, a sufficient number of worshipers can not only maintain a deity in immortal life but even elevate a mortal to godhood. There is a plan by the ruling Polity to replace all divinities eventually with Abstractions, like Abundance, Engineering, Human Development and Justice, but this is being implemented gradually to give time for the old pattern of worship and reverence to die out. And that happens slowly because, after all, people want to worship a named god they can relate to, not an abstraction.
In The Inconvenient God, Decommissioner Thirty-Seven of the Ministry of Divinities arrives at the ancient Nando University to perform the ceremony that will strip a god named Ohin, a kind of down-and-out Bacchus, of divine status. He seems to be worshiped by only a few revelers and trouble-makers who litter his small enclosed shrine with broken bottles, old underwear and used condoms. (Those are signs of respect, mind you.) He is to be replaced by the Abstraction of Mischief.
But trouble arises when Ohin appears during the ceremony and brings it to a halt with surprising strength and anger. Thirty-Seven has to pause and regroup, perhaps call for help from the Ministry. But instead of doing that, she decides to investigate and reveals a mystery surrounding Ohin and the motivation of the Nando University authorities.
I can’t say any more than that without spoiling this short work, but apart from the nominal mystery of the plot, the story unfolds with probing questions about language, worship, the place of gods in this world and sacrifice. That’s all wrapped up in a wonderfully inventive narrative that demands to be read in one sitting.
Lagoonfire, a short novel, probes much more deeply into this world and Thirty-Seven’s own story. At its heart is an ancient love between the ex-god of warm ocean waves of the rainy season, named Laloran-morna, and his beloved “Goblet,” a mysterious divinity no one seems to have heard of. It seems the old haunts of the divine lovers have been destroyed by industrial development, yet Thirty-Seven uncovers evidence of Goblet’s existence that is sure to shake the established order.
Any effort to tamper with the site of development draws the attention of Captain Lotuk of Civil Order, an ominous police force of Orwellian dimensions that threatens Thirty-Seven and anyone else they identify as a trouble-maker. Step outside the strict lines of the law, and disappear into a grim prison.
This world may be permeated by government control as much as by divinity, but the tone is more compassionate than most portrayals of our future societies. And we see it through the curious mind of Thirty-Seven. She is drawn to the spiritual forces suffusing this world, even though her job is to strip them out.
Laloran-morna, who is dying in his mortal old age, is a regular companion to other retired gods. They give Thirty-Seven, whom they call Sweeting (a name that makes her feel part of the family) some clues about Goblet. The first relates to something called lagoonfire. “Back in our day, the lagoon and estuaries used to glow with it at this time of year. Put your hand in it, walk through it, you’ll glow too. Glow, but not burn.” It’s at this time of year that Laloran-morna disappears for a day or two. What’s he doing at these special times?
Thirty-Seven or Sweeting can’t resist trying to unravel this mystery, partly, we sense, because she is drawn so strongly toward the divine undercurrents of the modern world. She meets a scholar named Ateni who is researching the gods of Sweet Harbor, the site being destroyed by the new development, and they share a fascination with occasionally visible forces:
And then the sun returned in full force, drawing mist up from the ground all around us and from our sodden clothes. It was clammy and uncomfortable—but also unearthly, beautiful. I turned slowly, letting my arms pass through the glowing streamers. So soon they would fade away, but in that moment, it was like being among celestial beings, clothed in light. I caught sight of Ateni’s face, lips parted, eyes shining.Lagoonfire, Kindle edition, page 26
Francesca Forrest fills her world with beauty even as it is being reconstructed to serve a more utilitarian humanity, or at least ruling Polity, devoted to functional values and bleak abstractions. Her vision reminds me a bit of Shakespearean romances like The Tempest or The Winter’s Tale. Bad things may happen but there is always a kinder force waiting to transmute anger, death and decay into something beautiful, even transcendent.