Mythos & Logos In Urbis Morpheos

by stephenpalmersf

Around the middle of the 2000’s I went through a phase of writing novels where the characters were individuals but also representatives of cultural or social archetypes. In retrospect, it was a slightly flawed phase of my writing life, and I look back on it with mixed feelings.

Two novels were published of this type: The Rat & The Serpent (initially as ‘Bryn Llewellyn,’ because my editor wanted the book to seem like a debut) in 2006, and in 2010 Urbis Morpheos. This latter book was written and re-written over a lengthy period of time, and is sometimes quoted as representative of my work. I think it is representative of my mid-period work, but not generally. Chris Pak in his Foundation review described it as “a failed experiment,” and I think there is an element of truth to that description. (I recently found the original files of the two-volume novel, and I am pondering the wisdom of re-editing them for possible publication in the novel’s original form.)


Urbis Morpheos, 2010

Urbis Morpheos is a far-future novel of environmental themes. I conceived it as a work set so far into the future virtually nothing of our present Earth survives, a place of strange and beautiful horrors, of a manufacturing ecosystem and of the remains of a natural, or Gaian ecosystem. But it isn’t only a novel of two competing ecosystems, it also depicts the opposition of mythos and logos – myth and the word.

Mythos and logos before the Enlightenment were perceived as complimentary spheres. It is only latterly that the meaning and importance of mythos has been diminished, to the great advantage of logos, of pure rationalism, and of science and technology under the thrall of capitalism. In Urbis Morpheos the power and meaning of mythos is restored to a place which it could occupy in human life:

Activated in the mouth, the chemical complexes held within the body of the mushroom would have their most profound effect on the brain. Psolilai popped it on her tongue. Bitter, but not inedible. Hoss approached, opened his mouth and began keening, a sound that started like a thin wail, but became thicker as new voices were added to create a complex, almost musical sound. Psolilai took a few steps back. She chewed for as long as she could before swallowing. The eerie sound was having some effect on her, making her receptive to the meditative thoughts emerging within her mind. Then the land around her seemed to come into focus as fragments of the knowledge represented by the mushrooms clicked into place; she knew where she was. Hoss wandered off… Psolilai said, “That was music, wasn’t it?” Gularvhen nodded. “Hoss has six voiceboxes, hence his bulging neck. These enable him to create polyphonic music when the occasion demands.” “But why?” Gularvhen held up the stalk of the mushroom he had eaten. “This fungus contained a vast suite of chemical complexes relating to different types of knowledge. To a certain degree, Hoss can select for specific types, maximising the efficacy of the mushroom.” Psolilai frowned. “That implies he understands what is going on.”

In this scene, the ability of Hoss to provide the ritual aspect of myth is described. The word myth we use today to mean something untrue, but its original meaning suggested ‘something at once timeless but with a single origin’ – something that spoke of an inner human truth in fact. In pre-literate societies mythos was a vital component of meaning, and this original use of myth always had a ritual component. In Urbis Morpheos, logos however has no such component:

Amargoidara stood up and walked to a plinth, pulling the cloth off it to reveal a scarlet globe a yard across – one of the three Analytical Tendencies that formed the foundation of the triple split haven. His voice hissed from behind the mask, which showed an angry face. “This Analytical Tendency tells us how to live in our world. It is a specialised wreality, assembling historical knowledge then giving us advice.” The frown on the mask grew deeper. “It is not to be ignored. No other source of knowledge is superior since it accumulates human knowledge. But this Analytical Tendency, and the other two, have been ignored by one person.” Psolilai let her expression remain neutral, as yet unsure of the purpose of the session. Best not to let them know what she was thinking.

Sad face [Amargoidara’s mask]. “It is always unfortunate when our moral sources are ignored, and, worse, when an alternative theory is put forward.”

For Amargoidara, word equals rule. He lives in a harsh environment of abstract rationality, which has no ritual component.

The notion that a myth is a general cultural meaning which has a possible origin in a unique past event can be baffling. One of the purposes of a myth was to convey the meaning of such events or experiences, in a way that guaranteed their general applicability. Myths were guides. The myth of the Garden Of Eden for instance has a particular meaning, one stretching right back into Palaeolithic times, yet archaeologists waste a lot of effort trying to find the actual one; their strictly chronological view of history leads inexorably back to a supposed original occurrence of an event. There may have been such an event, but that in times past was not the point. Mythology was a variety of contemplation of the human condition. Myths were a form of understanding of the human mind, when true understanding was negligible yet the world shone numinous with vivid experiences.

This notion of a particular origin can be seen when Psolilai questions the pool wreality about the origin of the Constructor:

“The Constructor. It is too old to find an origin, implying fabrication during the final phase of the rise of the manufacturing ecosystem, when evolutionary pressure caused individual species of artificial life to lose their utility. In appearance it is a gold disk, diameter five inches, half an inch thick, engraved with designs that dance before the viewer. Unknown purpose, possible intergalactic origin.”

While these subsequent words convey the omni-temporal nature of the artefact:

After a pause the wreality said, “The Constructor is a device for the direction of the innumerable processes that constitute the manufacturing ecosystem, from the indeterminacy of the quantum level to the ebb and flow of the aeons. Its makers are unknown. No subtlety is lost to it, no flight of sticky cloud nor rush of nano swarm, no clunking metal machine nor even any wreality. It sees all and can move all.”

Whether or not the Constructor and its partner artefact the Transmuter are real is not the point (though they are real). What matters is how they might be used, and how that relates human beings to their environment – manufacturing with the Constructor or recycling with the Transmuter. This is one of the grand oppositions presented in the novel.

The majority of myths we know about are rooted in death – the ultimate baffling experience. There is strong evidence that by the time of the Neanderthals human beings were aware of themselves as unique conscious individuals, but aware also that they died at the end of their lives. An explanation was required for this, one which soothed their minds but also told them what to do in the circumstances. In Urbis Morpheos I substituted death-of-environment for death-of-person, but the mode is exactly the same. The preferred method of acquisition of knowledge – imbibing fungi – has its own sacred place and culture: the Church of the Parasol Cap or the Boletus Shrine.

Psolilai was shocked. The irreligious were rare. The majority might hold sacred neither the Church of the Parasol Cap nor the Shrine of Boletus, but they all trod the unstated path of Analytical Tendency. Earlier he had claimed to be a shaman: surely he was a shaman of something?

Of course, the lore of Analytical Tendency has been usurped by logos in my future world. Psolilai describes above the standard plebeian position, which is adherence to tradition – a path well trod through human history…

The fungal ecology was a global form available to all human beings regardless of background, the knowledge it represented inviolate.

In Urbis Morpheos, the ritual of myth and the wisdom it represents has been reified into the fungal ecology. It is a vast, natural mythology. When Karakushna and Psolilai try to locate an ancient wreality, they use a suitably ancient technique – the ritual of the fishing rod:

In reply Karakushna extended the rod so that it was twice as long as before, then took a fibre disk from her pocket, attached it, and from it paid out a length of line, tying to the end a white wire. “That wire is a piece of new cable I plucked from a shoreside wreality after I saw you come in. It attracts, you see? The wrealities all want to join up.” Psolilai nodded, then shivered. “Always wanting linkage,” she murmured. Karakushna cast the bait out into the Pool, then sat on the seat, legs crossed. “Now we wait,” said Psolilai, sitting beside her.

Merely to grasp the words of the wreality is to miss the point of mythos. The re-enactment of a myth is always accompanied by a ritual. As author Karen Armstrong noted, myth without its ritual is like reading an opera libretto without hearing the music.

But it is not only the natural world which is experienced in this way by the human beings of Urbis Morpheos. I wanted to utilise a large range of artificial beings, from sentient beings all the way down to morphic motorcycles. The agens – conscious artificial creatures – enact an apparently inexplicable “attack”:

The agen balloon closed, so that she was able to see crystal whiskers on the faces of some [agens], above others swarms of luminous flies attracted to their oily fragrance. These were typical agens, then. She stared, never having been so close. “What do they want?” Gularvhen asked himself. Kirishnaghar’s fear became brittle anger. “They will attack us. We must get away before it is too late. Crouch down, do not let them know you are interested in them.” Psolilai knelt down, but peeped over the edge of the basket. There was a flash, a snap just after, then a spray of liquid over her. “Are you hurt?” Gularvhen asked, leaping to her side. Psolilai felt nothing. “It is just water,” she said. Kirishnaghar flattened himself against the opposite side of the basket. “Make sure,” he said. “Check any non-natural clothes.” Psolilai congratulated herself on wearing no artificial fabrics, but then she saw Gularvhen’s face change. “What?” she said. “Your ear-rings.” In two moments they were off and lying in one hand. They were silver and silicon. Before her eyes they expanded, became factories like froth creating tiny insect devices that flashed red as they flew away on some unknowable migration of the manufacturing ecosystem. Ten seconds, and her jewelry was gone. “Nanofluid,” Kirishnaghar said. “Not water.” Gularvhen jumped upright, glancing across at the agens. “But they are already moving away,” he said. Psolilai also looked out, then sank to the base of the basket. The attack, it seemed, was over. “They went for me,” she said. “Are they really going away?” “Yes,” Gularvhen replied. “But to make so brief an attack is pointless. Doubtless they will return.”

Gularvhen here is rather out of his depth, unaware as are all the occupants of the “attacked” balloon that the agens, suffused in mythos, are enacting a ritual. It later transpires that their actions are not pointless, but are in fact an observance dictated by the Constructor.

Myth is a guide to extreme situations. It aids human beings through the traumas of life, which can happen at random, though in prehistoric times such an idea would have been inconceivable.

Gularvhen stirred his long limbs, swirled the fluid in the can and poured it into two mugs, one of which he handed Psolilai. An odour arose from the brew redolent of spring spaces, of dew, of morning. Tugging at her memories, fleeting glimpses pale green, of nature. Hoss began to create music: drifting chords, rich, reedy, almost too heavy in timbre. She drank.  Knowledge arrived in her brain, half remembered dream, images returning; deja-vu. Return to her mental landscape. She realised that the fungal ecology, from yeasts and moulds, through morels and truffles, to mushrooms, toadstools and boletus, to all the larger, more frightening growths that swamped dead vegetation, were aspects of Gaia, a global system of memory and inspiration, a repository, yet also a rock, and a hint of the soil that rock would become. The understanding of process receded. Cold, damp face, tired body. The bitter taste of mushroom tea on the back of her tongue. The music faded into sighing breeze. She bit her lip. She had acquired this wisdom already. Hoss moved his head so that one pale eye was fixed upon her.

It is an undercurrent of the novel that Hoss is not all he appears to be. Later, it transpires that he is made of fungal material; and thus, alongside the metafungi, the reified mythology has its own system of myths:

“Do you not comprehend? Mushrooms are part of Gaia, dispensing Gaia’s wisdom. They comprise a natural ecology across the planet. But these mushrooms we found growing upon fungi of a different species. Logic suggests they should provide knowledge of the knowledge system itself… Why should they appear at this time? There lies a mystery. But perhaps they have simply come here to greet us.”

But even the great peripatetic mycologist Gularvhen struggles to interpret this particular manifestation…

I agree with those who describe Urbis Morpheos as challenging, but I didn’t want to write a straightforward novel; that didn’t interest me at all. I wanted it to be wreathed in layers of mystery, enigma and myth. Like a lot of my work, not everything in Urbis Morpheos is apparent on first reading. The SF novels that have stayed with me over the years have been those into which I’ve had to put a lot to get the maximum out. In some of my work, especially Urbis Morpheos, that maxim applies.

PS Urbis Morpheos demo