Two fictional peeks beyond life: Passages and Cloud Drops,
two books read just for the fun of it, not for enlightenment.
Passage is the second book I have read by Connie Willis (Bantam Books, New York, 2001). I had previously read her Doomsday Book and very much liked it. Doomsday Book was about time-traveling, with a rather well-researched view into a small English village at the time of the black death and its incredible devastation. A lot about death, nothing about what lies beyond.
Passage is nothing like the Doomsday Book, it has its protagonists peering beyond death and coming to some unsettling conclusions about what lies beyond.
At a local Borders book-signing I told Nicholas Ifkovits that Willis’ Passage was what his Cloud Drops (Counter Force Press, Mesa, Colorado, 2004) sounded like, as he was sketchily explaining its plot to me. He explained enough to cause me to buy the book and read it.
Cloud Drops has little in common with Willis’ Passages, but was great fun to read. It features an imagined afterlife. One that Ifkovits told me did not please fundamentalists of any religious stripe. I can see why, the book is hilarious, yet thoughtful, and mixes all the world’s major religions and their iconic figures into one rather non-religious (in my opinion) mix in the afterlife.
The afterlife sounds like great fun, with sex, and functional polygyny, with group-sex ecstasy of such depth and magnitude that it makes mortal sex seem like just a pleasant tickle. What a fun afterlife to look forward to! In comparison, Willis’ afterlife beyond the Passage she describes is not one I want to be part of.
Cloud Drops and Passages do have one thing in common: they both make light of true-believers and make them look bad in terms of their ethics and even their morality. I found that somewhat satisfying. Cloud Drops does impose a belief system on its readers, of course, and Passages assumes there is a scientific, rational explanation for life: so death is the end of life, period. Of course if that was the case there would be nothing to the book, so there is this recurring glimmer of something surviving beyond life after all, and what it is remains unclear even at the very end, but it is not totally void of hope. At the end it hints at some fun, but in no way does it have the appeal of the exuberant afterlife of Cloud Drops.
Cloud Drops does not define God, but explains God's motive and modus operandi, while Passages never does acknowledge such a concept as God as credible.
Ifkovits must be telling us something of his own beliefs in Cloud Drops when he has a character explain the relationship of good, evil, God and humans. God is self-limited in terms of the intervention that could be engaged in to spare humans from evil, but his servants are always there to “save” believers (those who in their hearts believe and want to do and be good even if they aren’t always good) at the moment of their release from life. Page 69 explains the separation between the saved and unsaved lies in belief in God, any God. Religions have no exclusive claim on truth or on defining God.
Those who do evil and do not believe are lost after death and roam around the earth and nearby space, scared, terrified, until they undergo a second death that vaporizes them, then they cease to exist. Seems more humane than eternal torment, actually.
This sort of theology reminded me of some teaching by the second leader of the Mormons, Brigham Young, who said there was no hell except inside us if we fail to live up to our potential, and those who chose evil knowingly and desired it would eventually be recycled, undergo a ‘second death,’ and cease to exist.
Going back to Ifkovits, given his afterlife system and its polyandry or polygyny, his heaven seems quite heavenly. Because there are more women in the ‘good’ and ‘believer’ categories, hence more women in heaven, the usual relationship is in the polygynous category, but relationships come and go, it is all spontaneous and voluntary. Brigham Young’s heaven also had polygyny, but with permanent relationships, men always in charge, and with spirit-offspring as the intended outcome of heavenly sex. It is serious business. Sounds like a continuation of this life as idealized in Mormon 19th century internal propaganda. As above, so below? Hope not.
So, these two books gave me some enjoyment in my spare time for a week or so each. If you are looking for similar enjoyment, go forth and borrow (libraries may have one or both), or purchase!
___________________P.S. Added late November 2008
Ifkovits’ description of sex in the after-life bothered me because I thought I had run into that concept somewhere before. I thought perhaps it was in Swedenborg’s visions of the afterlife, but then I looked into my own web site and saw that it was in a Sylvia Browne book that I had reviewed some years ago!
Now do not get the idea that I am accusing either Ifkovits or Browne of plagiarism of any sort. Ifkovits' book circulated as a manuscript for years before it was published, and it was first published before Browne's book. It is likely that neither author knew of the others' work at the time they both conceived of a heavenly version of sex.
In fact, I had conceived of something very much like it when I was a pre-teen youngster not yet believing what I heard about the physical, adult ways of sex (ooh, gross!). At that time of innocence I felt a very strong tug inside me when near one girl I wanted to be with, Eefje van Dijk. The fact that she lived on my street put me in a state of grace at times, knowing she could suddenly appear, especially if I just happened to be loitering near her house long enough.
It did not happen often, but those times when my existence was acknowledged briefly by her actually making eye contact were devastatingly pleasurable. Eye contact plus the slightest glimmer of a smile, real or imagined, was enough to put me in an altered state. An extremely pleasurable state. Mysterious.
I was sure no one else felt like this. Heaven is what it was. My secret is what it was. If I told her she would run away, I was sure.
But sometimes I would imagine the two of us together, in some sort of innocent yet intimate contact. It was what Dante must have felt for his Beatrice who only smiled directly at him once in his and her physical lives, but loved him after her life was over and brought him into the Holy Presence.
My recollections of that pleasurable, pre-pubertous sensation when imagining intimate contact with this girl was very much like Ifkovits and Sylvia Browne described heavenly sexual encounters.
The Sylvia Browne book I am referring to is Life on the Other Side. A Psychic's Tour of the Afterlife, (by Sylvia Browne with Lindsay Harrison, Dutton, New York, 2000) [click here to read my review in a larger context].
Here is how I used her discussion of after-life sex in the above-linked page:
But for those lamenting the eternal loss of the sex act, she encourages (page 134): "The good news is: we engage in another form of intimacy there that far exceeds the sexual act in its intensity. It has nothing to do with lust or hormones and everything to do with the singularly amazing act of fully experiencing another being. It's neither called nor thought of as sex on The Other Side. Instead, it's descriptively called 'merging.' Merging is the act of two souls literally blending together, physically, spiritually, and emotionally, to a state of utter mutual bliss." She goes on to explain that this is not an exclusive act, but a way for two people to share their knowledge as well as self in "a blinding flash of perfect harmony." Elsewhere she explains that it is the technique used to conduct historical research, (see page 105) which could explain the general enthusiasm for, and joy in, learning! As Browne observes on page 179, "And believe it or not, one of our greatest sources of fun is studying."
So Browne suggests sex encounters in the afterlife are like study dates! I never had a study date like she is describing, but now see that I missed the boat by never asking Eefje if I could help her with her homework in fourth grade. I am looking forward to becoming an eternal student!
I enjoyed my readings of Ifkovits, and also Willis and Browne. I consider all three fiction, which will seem very rude to Browne fans and followers until they realize this elevates her writings to the same classification I use for the world's sacred books.
So here is my summary judgement:
The Ifkovits book is fun and positive.
The Willis book is thought-provoking and negative.
The Browne book is positive, but not fun, although I managed to read another Browne book just a week later that was both informative and fun, for me.
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