Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells might be subtitled “Mr. Barnstaple takes a holiday” as that’s a pretty good summary of the basic plot. This 1922 book is partially intended as a Utopian novel and follows the usual convention of having an average, modern human transported into a Utopian world to represent the reader as he uncovers the workings and nature of Utopia. As might be expected of Wells, he goes the extra step to give the novel a science fiction wrapper and in the process, establishes not one but several new genres of science fiction. Just as all time travel novels trace their heritage back to Well’s book, The Time Machine, all parallel universe, multiverse, para-time, cross-time, and alternate history novels descend from Men Like Gods.

Let’s get the plot out of the way first as that’s the least interesting aspect of the book. Mr. Barnstaple is a down-trodden enlightenment liberal who writes for a leftist newspaper. He’s given up hope of changing the world. He’s depressed, hates his job, is annoyed by his family. He determines a solo holiday is the only thing that will save his sanity and sets out for no where in particular in the Yellow Peril, his little two seater car. Coming around a curve in the countryside, he and two other vehicles are suddenly swept out of this world and find themselves in a strange land near the smoking wreckage of a scientific experiment gone wrong. They soon meet some inhabitants of this new world and find it’s similar to Earth but a thousand years in the future. Needing a name for the place, they decide to refer to it as, wait for it, Utopia!

As Barnstaple learns about the amazing world, he realizes it embodies all the ideals he believes in. The others in his party, being more conservative, particularly a narrow minded priest, see the world as degenerate. They make nothing of the peace, prosperity and happiness all around them. Instead they see people who don’t wear enough clothing, don’t have religion, aren’t capitalists, and offend in numerous other ways. With the exception of Barnstaple, the Earthlings soon hatch an ill-conceived plot to take some Utopians hostage, thinking they can use that as a spring board to world-domination and remake Utopia in the image of Earth. I won’t give away too much but there’s never any doubt Barnstaple will survive the goings-on and soon enough is sent back to Earth all the wiser and now with a renewed sense of hope that Earth can someday become like Utopia if we all work hard at improving things.

What sets the book apart from other Utopian novels and gives it an honored place in the annals of science fiction is the first description of the multiverse, the first hint that multiple universes could be “parallel” to and even duplicates of our own; in this case only time-shifted some thousand years. Utopia is in a universe that is essentially an alternate time line of Earth’s universe. The book also postulates that while some universes are nearly identical, others may be wildly different. It’s also the first description of a technological method of cross-timeline travel between parallel universes. As if that’s not enough, there’s a description towards the end of the Utopian’s plans to leave their planet and explore the stars using space travel technology that allows them to bypass normal spatial distances by taking a shortcut; it’s essentially an early description of hyperspace, subspace, warp drive or something along those lines. And for his last trick, Wells explains away the ability of the Earthlings to communicate with the Utopians (who obviously are unlikely to speak English) by explaining that they evolved telepathic abilities. They speak using their minds and we hear them in whatever language we naturally understand, provided we know a word that fits the concept they’re thinking to us.

Here’s the actual description of the multiverse:

Serpentine proceeded to explain that just as it would be possible for any number of practically two-dimensional universes to lie side by side, like sheets of paper, in three dimensional space, so in the many dimensional space about which the ill equipped human mind is still slowly and painfully acquiring knowledge, it is possible for an enumerable quantity of practically three dimensional universes to lie, as it were, side by side and to undergo a roughly parallel movement through time.

Travel between parallel universes is accomplished using a machine that takes a cube-shaped chunk of the universe you’re in and “rotates” it through a higher dimension, causing it to come into contact with some nearby universe. The first test of the technology works but the machine explodes killing the operators. By the end of the book, the machine is not only rebuilt but improved, made portable and, as an added bonus, can even control which Universe it connects with, conveniently allowing Barnstaple to be sent home. Interestingly, because Barnstaple arrived accidentally in a moving car and the Utopians wish to return him the same way, they set up an arrangement reminiscent of Back to the Future in which Barnstaple must drive along a segment of roadway, hitting a trip wire strung across the road, triggering the cross-time machine at precisely the right instant to transport his moving car.

Wells makes a variety of political observations about the failings of our own world including his complaints with the capitalism, Marxism, and socialism of his day. He describes an economic system in which each Utopian citizen lives a government-funded life up to the completion of a very elaborate and detailed education, after which they must choose a path in life that contributes to the world’s economy. They can choose to do anything they like, ranging from a required minimum that allows them to spend most of their life goofing off, to pursuing any career or endeavor, even acquiring wealth and using it as they choose. The Utopians lack any formal government or rulers. Much of the world operates on the “do-ocracy” principle common in hackerspaces. If you see something in the world that needs improvement, it’s up to you to do it, organize the doing of it, or pay someone to do it. At one point Crystal, a Utopian student who befriends Barnstaple, explains that society is based on The Five Principles of Liberty:

  1. Privacy – All individual personal facts are private between the citizen and the public organization to which he entrusts them, and can be used only for his convenience and with his sanction (and anonymously for statistical purposes only)
  2. Free Movement – A citizen, subject to discharge of his public obligations, may go without permission or explanation to any part of the planet.
  3. Unlimited Knowledge – All that is known, except individual personal facts about living people, is on record and easily available to everyone. Nothing may be kept from a citizen nor misrepresented to him.
  4. Lying is the Blackest Crime – Where there are lies there cannot be freedom. Facts may not be suppressed nor stated inexactly
  5. Free Discussion and Criticism – Any citizen is free to criticize and discuss anything in the whole universe provided he tells no lies either directly or indirectly. A citizen may discuss respectfully or disrespectfully, with any intent, however subversive. A citizen may express ideas in any literary or artistic form desired.

Before Barnstaple leaves, he makes one appeal to stay, speaking to a wise, old Utopian who explains that he must go back and that Earth will eventually follow the same course of history to become Utopian in its own time. He warns Barnstaple against attempting premature contact between the two universes until Earth has gotten its house in order:

What could Utopians do with the men of Earth? … You would be too numerous for us to teach … Your stupidities would get in our way, your quarrels and jealousies and traditions, your flags and religions, and all your embodied spites and suppressions, would hamper us in everything we should want to do. We should be impatient with you, unjust and overbearing. You are too like us for us to be patient with your failures … We might end by exterminating you.

Given the way their economy works, it’s fairly clear that it would fall apart pretty quickly if flooded with citizens who have the typical nature of modern humans. In the end, Men like Gods presents a Utopia that needs better humans to be workable, but at least it recognizes that, a fact that sets it above much of the Utopian literature that preceded it.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes


Jaynes’ book atop books by a few authors who were influenced by his theory.

Julian Jaynes’ book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is one of those books that just about everyone reads sooner or later. Jaynes is an example of the rare author who could write a scientific treatise that was both ground-breaking and readily readable by the general public. His book was published in 1976 and presented what has to be the most controversial theory ever in the fields of consciousness and religion. Despite the theory seeming completely outlandish at first glance, the book presents testable predictions all along the way. Many modern researchers believe Jaynes’ theory to be partially or completely wrong but there’s no question it has pushed research toward a better understanding of consciousness and religion. Daniel Dennett, who notes Jaynes was probably wrong at least about some particulars like the importance of hallucinations, still thinks his main thesis could be correct. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins commented that Jaynes theory is “either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former but I’m hedging my bets.” In addition to scientists, Jaynes’ theory also inspired two generations of science fiction authors from Philip K. Dick to Neal Stephenson (who based parts of Snow Crash on Jaynes’ theory). David Bowie acknowledges being influenced by this book during his work with Brian Eno on Low and has included the book on his list of 100 Must Read Books.

Julian Jaynes was an American psychologist interested in the origins of consciousness, which he defined roughly as what a modern cognitive scientist or philosopher would call meta-cognition – the awareness of our own thoughts or the ability to think about our own thoughts. In his early research, he specialized in animal ethology (the study of animal’s behavior, communications, and emotions). He began to focus on understanding how consciousness evolved in early humans and studied historical texts and anthropological evidence for clues. This led to his now famous theory that humans initially developed a bicameral mind and that modern consciousness was the result of a breakdown of the two parts.

Bicameral in this case is a metaphor, the word normally describes a type of government consisting of two independent houses. Jaynes came to believe that, as recently as 10,000 years ago, the human brain lacked both consciousness and the strong lateral connection via the corpus callosum that it has today. The two halves of the brain operated more independently but were able to communicate via verbal hallucinations. Humans at this time would have already evolved basic linguistic capabilities, but without the complex metaphors and self-referential aspects of modern language. People behaved in what we would describe today as a ‘zombie-like” way. They would have lacked the ability to reflect on or guide their own thoughts. In times of extreme stress or facing novel situations, the right side of their brain would communicate advice or commands to the left via auditory hallucinations that the person experienced as “hearing a voice”.

As today, humans tended to build up models in their mind of people who are important in their social interactions, parents, tribal leaders, and the like. Jaynes believed the models existed in the part of the mind generating the hallucinations and that the voices often came to be perceived as originating from these people, even if they were not present; even if they were dead. Without the ability to introspect, people simply accepted the voices at face value and assumed they represented some kind of external reality. This predictably gave rise to the earliest religious beliefs: ancestor worship, divinity of kings, belief in an afterlife. It also served as an important social organizing structure that allowed early community groups to form.

This process worked well until about the 2000 BC, when civilizations were going through a periodic collapse. At this time, the growing population was leading to more frequent interactions between disparate groups of humans, resulting in a failure of the bicameral hallucination mechanism as a method of social coordination. If everyone in your group hears the same voices in their head, things work fine. If three or four groups suddenly start living together and everyone is hearing different voices in their heads telling them conflicting things, civilization doesn’t function smoothly anymore.

The result was a gradual breakdown in the bicameral structure of the brain due to the changed environment which gave a huge advantage to individuals whose brains had more direct communication between the two sides via the corpus callosum. This allowed metaphoric language and consciousness to co-evolve, gradually leading to humans who could think about their own thoughts and had the words to describe it. This would also be the origin of the idea of free will, at least in the modern sense. Prior to this time a person did what their brain directed but without any awareness or insight into the process. So, effectively, modern consciousness is a by-product of cultural and linguistic evolution.

The bicameral breakdown leads to the gradual decline of the right brain area that generated verbal hallucinations. Everyone remembered a time when people could hear the “gods” but only a few remain who can still hear their voices. Those people are sometimes elevated to the positions of priest, shamans, oracles or they are seen as insane, eventually classed as schizophrenics.

The whole thing sounds fantastically crazy at first, right? Jaynes says as much throughout the book. But, like any good scientist, he has worked out a series of testable predictions based on the theory in a variety of fields ranging from history to human physiology. Modern researchers have continued to test his theories and, so far, many of his predictions have been dead on. For example, he predicted the existence of an area in the right hemisphere of the brain capable of generating linguistic, auditory hallucinations that is now vestigial and usually dormant. We now know the right hemisphere contains a vestigial area that corresponds to the Broca/Wernicke area in the left brain. This is the part of the left hemisphere responsible for the production of language. He further predicted this vestigial area would be active in schizophrenics who hear auditory hallucinations. Today, with fMRI scanning and other modern techniques, this has been confirmed too. And the hallucinations these patients experience are often in the form of authority figures (parents, leaders, gods) admonishing or commanding them.

Jaynes did an extensive survey of early literature starting with the earliest known writings and progressing through later more well-known documents like Homer and the early writings of the Bible. He analyzes to what extent the authors or the subjects seem to be self-aware and notes a gradual progression through history of both self-awareness and evolution of language to describe self-awareness. The writers of the biblical Old Testament or the Odyssey, for example, show no evidence at all of being self aware, in contrast to authors of the New Testament or later Greek writings. This is complicated by works that have been re-written and changed by later authors, like some books of the Bible or the Epic of Gilgamesh. In these cases, he tries to tease apart what’s original and what was added later.

He suggests that traces of bicameralism might still be found not just in schizophrenia but in many aspects of modern religion (e.g. those occasional people who still hear voices or experience “possession”) or even in the common childhood experience of having invisible friends (some children experience actual auditory hallucinations of their imaginary friends speaking to them).

Some modern researchers discount the need for the physical changes in the corpus callosum and believe the linguistic evolution of metaphor alone may be enough to bear out the changes Jaynes’ theory describes. There is now a huge body of literature surrounding the Bicameral Mind theory; lengthy articles defending or attacking aspects of it. There are also now several variant theories. Lain McGilchrist has proposed not a breakdown in a bicameral mind but a separation and reversal in the two hemispheres of the brain. Michael Gazzaniga, a pyschobiologist has done extensive experimental work in the area of hemisphere specialization and has proposed a theory similar to Jaynes’.

Jaynes is an engaging and interesting author and, whether his theory eventually proves to be crazy or profound, you’ll find the book a great read. If you have any interest in philosophy, religion, consciousness, cognition, evolution, anthropology, literature, history, or any of a dozen other topics, you’ll love the book. It makes you think about things you would never have imagined otherwise.

Shadow Show

Shadow Show

Shadow Show

Shadow Show, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle, describes itself as “All-new stories in celebration of Ray Bradbury”. I’ve been a fan of Bradbury’s fiction most of my life. Friends from my high school days may remember me sitting under the bleachers during Pep Rallies reading “R is for Rocket” or wandering the hallways with a copy of “Fahrenheit 451”. I most liked his early work; stories like Frost and Fire or The City. They blended conventional science fiction with Bradbury’s unique style which approached magical realism. I felt his later writing lost a lot by abandoning the science fiction aspect and focusing exclusively on the magical realism. In any case, I heard about this book and imagined it might contain Bradbury-like stories that recaptured the feel of his early work. Alas, this is not the case.

For the most part, the stories in the book aren’t really at all like Bradbury stories. At least, I’d never confuse any of them with the real thing. Most had supernatural or horror themes and lacked the connection to science fiction. They’re simply from authors who were, in one way or another, inspired by Bradbury. They’re not bad stories. Some are enjoyable and may appeal to Bradbury fans, if only to find out how other writers were inspired by him.

There were a few exceptions, however; stories that are intended to provoke memories of Bradbury or his stories in one way or another. The best of these, at least for me, was Children of the Bedtime Machine by Robert McCammon. This story made the book worthwhile for me and was a real celebration of Bradbury in multiple ways. First, it was a story I could imagine Bradbury writing; second, it combined science fiction with a Bradburyesque magical realism, and lastly, Bradbury’s writing actually plays a part in the story’s plot. It’s the story of a woman living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland; the result of climate change and global war. There’s little plant or animal life left, and little hope for the future. The woman’s only joy in life is a trunk full of old books that she reads to herself. During a visit to a trading post in a nearby town, she’s given a useless machine from the dead past. The combination of a Ray Bradbury book and a machine designed for insomniacs leads to a new hope for a dying world.

If you can pick up the book inexpensively, it’s worth it just for that one story. Or perhaps you’ll enjoy the other stories more than I did. Authors include Harlan Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Alice Hoffman, Kelly Link, and others.

Anathem

Anathem


Susan and I are both fans of Neal Stephenson and his books are favorites when it comes to reading aloud. We read Cryptonomicon and the entire Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World) aloud. Nearly everything Stephenson writes has the quality of being so intensely interesting that you feel compelled to keep reading. When reading one of his books to myself, I usually want to read the entire book at one siting, staying up all night in the process. That’s one of the reasons we now read them aloud, it forces us to stop because my voice usually gives out after a few chapters. And the result is that we can enjoy the book over a several weeks, with lots of interim discussion and speculation about where we think the story is going.

One of the things that make Stephenson books so fascinating is that he combines interests in a wide range of topics from history to philosophy to the latest trends in technology. Anathem is no exception and is perhaps his best book to date. The book originated in sketches made by Stephenson when collaborators on the Millennium Clock project were trying to imagine what a clock designed to last 10,000 years would look like. Stephenson thought about the sketches a few years later and they became the basis for the clock and Concent scheme described in Anathem.

The story takes place on an Earth-like planet where society is organized a bit differently than our own. Scientists and philosophers live apart from the rest of society in closed convents called Concents. The separation is due to the alleged troubles that such people caused in the distant past by constantly introducing dangerous ideas and technologies to the “saecular” world. Technology, the physical manifestation of science and philosophy, is forbidden within the Concents. The fraas and suurs within the Concent can contemplate their ideas and think all they want but they are not allowed to build or use any technology more advanced than woodworking or stone masonry. As part of this grand experiment of dividing the thinkers from the rest of society, Concents are further subdivided into a series of concentric walls. Each successive inner circle stays closed to the outside world for a longer amount of time. Fraas and suurs from one circle may choose to move further inward over time. At the outermost level, the Concent opens its doors to the saecular world once every year. The next level opens once ever 10 years, the next every 100, and the last every 1,000. These openings of the Concent to the saecular world are called Aperts. Fraas and suurs in the innermost circle may have lived their entire life in the Concent. In the saecular world outside, cities come and go, governments change, entire civilizations rise and fall. Within the wall of the Concent, life continues on unchanged except for constant learning.

The story opens in the Concent of Saunt Edhar as the young Fraa Erasmas, known as Razz to his friends, is preparing for his first Apert in a decade. He and his friends are looking forward to seeing how the world has changed in the ten years since they were presented to the Concent as children to be trained in the ways of math and science.

It becomes evident rather quickly that this will be no ordinary Apert. The saecular governments are stirred up about some incredible event, so strange and dangerous that they may have to put aside the rules separating those who live within the Concent and draw upon their vast, theoretical knowledge to save the world from destruction.

Erasmus and friends are launched upon an unexpected journey into the saecular world and must shoulder responsibilities and face threats beyond any they’ve been prepared to deal with. They are joined by higher level Mathics including a Thousander who has spent so much time in the ethereal world of theoretical physics, it’s unclear whether he’s still entirely human or if he may have learned the secrets of feared and possibly mythical early Mathics known as The Incantors.

Along the way, the story delves into the many worlds interpretation of quantuum mechanics, the metaphysics of Platonism, Penrose tiling, the relationship of religion and science, and many other fascinating and esoteric topics. All this is couched in a story-line of almost constant action that includes martial arts, political intrigue, space combat, and some old fashioned romance.

Describing much more of the plot would likely give away something you’d enjoy discovering for yourself. Unlike some Stephenson books, like those of the Baroque Cycle where things slow down from time to time and Stephenson spends half a chapter describing the skyline of historic England, Anathem kicks into high gear in chapter one and never lets up. It’s action, crazy ideas, romance, surprises, and humor all the way through. To learn a little more, you can read some further plot descriptions, check out a glossary of terms, and even listen to some music composed based on the book’s description of Mathic arts over at the official Anathem website.

The Non-statistical Man

The Non-Statistical Man

The Non-statistical Man is a collection of four short stories by Raymond F. Jones. The author is better known to some for his novel, This Island Earth, which was turned into a cheesy 1950s B movie and later lampooned on MST3K. But Jones’ real claim to fame is the title short story in this book, The Non-statistical Man, which has been called the best science fiction ever written about the human sense of intuition. Like most interesting SF books, this one is long out of print. I’d read it before, many years ago, in an anthology or old pulp. I recently happened across this copy at an estate sale and bought it so I could re-read it.

The Non-statistical Man is the story of Charles Bascomb, chief statistical analyst for a major insurance company; a man obsessed with logic and precision, a man who lives and breathes statistics, a man who endlessly ridicules his wife’s sense of intuition. His world slowly turns upside down after he discovers a series of anomalous insurance claims. Somehow a growing number of people are buying exactly the insurance they need, just in time to make a claim, and then cancelling. Convinced there is something possibly illegal and definitely strange going on, Bascomb sets out to investigate.

The trail leads to Dr. Magruder, an obvious quack who teaches self-help classes designed to develop the human sense intuition through a series of mental exercises and pills. The mental exercises are clearly nonsense and the pills turn out to be ordinary vitamins when analyzed. But somehow, where ever the doctor turns up, people begin outsmarting insurance companies. Every time Bascomb thinks he’s close to understanding the scam, logic and statistics fail him. His wife’s logic-defying intuition, however, repeatedly puts him back on the right track.

If Bascomb can’t put a stop to Magruder and his quackery, the entire insurance industry is doomed and field of statistics with it. In his desperation to preserve his world view and belief in statistics over intuition, Bascomb decides the only way to find out the doctor’s secret is to sign up for classes, take the pills, and follow the exercises. Strange doesn’t even begin to describe the events that follow.

The other stories in the book are enjoyable footnotes in SF history but don’t compare to The Non-statistical Man. The Gardener is the story of a child born with a mutation that gives him unusual mental powers. It’s notable primarily for an early use of the term Homo Superior. The term originated from Olaf Stapledon’s story Odd John in 1935.

The Moon is Death, set in a future of interplanetary travel, is the story of astronauts sent to Earth’s moon to find out why no mission there has ever returned. It reads like an early SF pulp story; you’ve got weird radiation, rapid aging, gun fights on rockets, and atomic explosions.

I found Intermission Time marginally more interesting. It involves colonists travelling to a planet with two intentionally designed societies that are experiments in solving problems that have plagued human history. Two musicians, a brother and sister, are destined for one of the colonies. John, the brother, falls in love with Lora, a woman he meets aboard the ship who’s destined for the other colony. Once a colonist commits to the voyage, they can’t back out or change plans and both colonies are sealed against contact with the other. The two lovers are faced with a series of dilemmas and choices, balancing individual relationships against the good of the species.

Lastly, I can’t help but add that this is the 1968 Belmont Future Series (B50-820) paperback edition published by Belmont Books of New York with some interesting and uncredited cover art by Ralph Brillhart done in his well-known style reminiscent of Robert M. Powers.

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb

It took thousands of years but we finally got a complete graphic novelization of the book of Genesis. And by no less than renowned artist and illustrator R. Crumb. I knew when I saw The Book of Genesis Illustrated that I’d have to get a copy. Actually, Susan got it for me at Christmas. It was as amazing as I expected and I highly recommend it. I’m not someone who normally reads graphic novels or comics, aside from the occasional Zippy the Pinhead book. But this was such a fascinating combination of forms that it’s hard not to like it.

Not surprisingly, a complete and accurate depiction Genesis is not suitable for children and the book’s front and back covers are loaded with amusing warnings: “Adult supervision recommended for minors”, “the first book of the Bible graphically depicted, NOTHING LEFT OUT!” And there really is nothing left out. As noted on the back cover it even includes “the begots”. Ironically, R. Crumb notes that it took a non-believer to create an accurate graphic implementation of the book because believers have been hesitant to illustrate the contents as written. Most alleged illustrated versions of the Bible created in the past bear little resemblance to the actual text, having been sanitized and censored into a “G rating”.

R. Crumb started out with the intent to make a graphic parody of the Adam and Eve story but as he began reading Genesis, he realized the real thing is “a text so great and so strange that it lends itself readily to graphic depictions”. He worked from a combination of the King James (for the weirdly anachronistic style of English we’re accustomed to hearing Bible characters speak) and the Robert Alter translation, which attempts to reproduce in modern English the literary elements of the Hebrew poetry. Crumb also did a fair amount of research on older Mesopotamian myths such as the Sumerian Eridu Genesis, Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, and Assyrian stories which share common story lines with the Jewish Genesis, such as the creation and flood, to help shed some light obscure plot elements.

Having grown up in a Christian family, I’ve had Genesis read to me and preached to me. I’ve read it myself in various translations from the weird and unreliable King James to more accurate modern translations. I’ve seen portions of it depicted in various Bible films. But seeing the word-for-word text illustrated is really like reading it for the first time. It gives one a whole new perspective on the stories and makes things stand our starkly which were hardly noticed before.

One example is how obvious the merged accounts of creation are; the first story in which God creates animals first, then man; the second in which God creates Man, who gets lonely, prompting God to create animals and then a woman to cheer him up. When reading the text, it’s easy to skip over things that don’t make sense or assume you’ve misread seemingly contradicting portions of the text. But actually seeing it depicted you can’t help but notice the creation story starts over again and gets retold differently. It brings to mind the Robert Graves book of Greek myths that often incorporates multiple accounts of the same story; (e.g. Heracles joined the Gods on Mount Olympus, though others say Heracles shed his mortal skin, which went down to Hades…)

One particularly unusual element is the depiction by Crumb of the serpent in the Garden of Eden as a sort of bipedal lizard-alien who looks something like a friendly Gorn. This seems weird at first because most paintings depict the serpent incorrectly as a snake but the text clearly says the curse of crawling on its belly was a punishment for tempting Eve. Prior to its punishment, it must have had some other form of locomotion, and since it talks too, why not a reptilian biped?

You’ll find surprising illustrations throughout. If you’re expecting the Cherubim to look like greeting card angels, forget it, and check out that thing that looks like a Stargate blocking re-entrance to Eden. Crumb includes chapter by chapter commentary at the back of the book with explanations of why he chose some of the depictions, based on his historical research. He also offers insight into some of the stories based on elements from the counterpart Mesopotamian stories which are more complete or from historical background information. So be warned, you may actually learn some interesting ancient history while reading.

There’s an amazing level of detail and artistry throughout and the occasional chapter or two of “begots” mentioned on the back cover are a good example. R. Crumb has rendered unique and interesting faces for every individual mentioned, which can be quite a few. It’s hard not to skip over long lists of names when reading the original text but it’s actually interesting in this version of Genesis.

I enjoyed the book tremendously and highly recommend it. If you’re a believer, there’s nothing to fear here, the subject matter is treated with respect and accuracy. If you’re not a believer, there are still plenty of weird and interesting stories worthy of any modern graphic novel. Of course, you may not find many likable protagonists in the book. Even the good guys spend a lot of their time lying, raping, stealing each others birthrights, and killing or enslaving everyone in sight. If anybody tells you the characters in modern graphic novels are bad role models, just hand them a copy of this book and show them how the ancient Hebrew super heroes behaved.