The Cross and The Cosmos Issue 12 - Swords and Plowshares

Review of the short-story "Swords and Plowshares" by Johanan Rakkav, in Issue 12 of The Cross and the Cosmos, scheduled to be published July 1, 2012

The upcoming 12th issue of The Cross and the Cosmos begins by compressing all of the sweet bits of epic space opera in “Swords and Plowshares” by Johanan Rakkav. The story is fun and fast-paced, but it also stands on a great depth of worldbuilding, complete with lots of Biblical allusions and maybe even political themes. Unfortunately, the story's structural awkwardness made it confusing for me on my first read, and I fear its strong points might be inaccessible to some readers. According the the author's blog, the story is related to an earlier story published in Issue 11 (April 2012), but I've been away from the ezine for a while and have not read that issue.

The plot follows a princess from a planet with a pacifist government as she helps a different, non-pacifist race prepare for war. I can't say I completely understand the explanation of why she does this, or for that matter, why most of the events in the plot happen. Apparently, the non-pacifist race contacted the pacifist king and offered to let his daughter help them “test” their new military technology. This makes little sense to me, but it evidently is not supposed to be a big deal; the plot quickly moves on.

Saying that the plot “follows” the princess seems a little generous. The protagonist does not seem all that important overall, and the story is not narrated from her point-of-view, although the omniscient POV does reveal her direct thoughts at times. Perhaps the scope of the story and the worldbuilding required omniscient POV, but the structure left me confused as to what the protagonist knew ahead of time and what she is discovering as the plot progresses.

The main supporting character is much deeper than the protagonist, even though the external portrayal of the dialog is about the same. The character, who has the Tolkienesque title of “the Undying Singer,” is deeply connected to the storyworld's mythopoeia, and there seems to be a specific analogy to Christ. Although not the protagonist, the story is based in the mystery of this character's background and abilities.

Mysterious though he may be, the mythopoeia runs deeper than the Undying Singer. True to the well-known space opera universes of fandom, the worldbuilding incorporates numerous races, only some of which are human-like. The story-universe, called the Metacosmos both internally and externally, treats the concept of different races more carefully and seriously than does Star Trek (in my experience with that franchise). The races of the Metacosmos have different purposes in creation and different ultimate destinies. As in Tolkien, the race representing humanity as we know it is a stranger and a pilgrim in the universe; the human destiny lies beyond, while the fairy-tale races share in the essence of creation. The more important races of the Metacosmos directly copy the standard fantasy races – elves, dwarves, and half-elves. The setting also borrows from Tolkien the enmity of one race desiring another race's destiny, but here Man is the race that is envied by the others. This is an interesting role reversal. If I recall from my recent reading of Tolkien's essay “On Fairy Stories” (from a book I returned to the library and therefore can't quote), Tolkien said the Elves' fairy-stories about Man would reveal their wonder at the mystery of Death.

The people of the Metacosmos know their Creator as the “Hooded Man,” a strange and unique-sounding term. The fantasy allusions, the metaphysical and spiritual portrayal of the universe, and the monolithic references to deity remind me of Babylon 5, even though that show's portrayal is more pantheistic. There are lots of Hebraisms, both in language and symbolism. Along with the authoritarian-but-benevolent government and the limitless, optimistic spirit of the story, the Hebrew terms make me wonder if the setting is the far future, after Jesus has returned to Earth and both Earth and the Heavens have been made new.

The story would have been better if the author had been able to show that, for instance, the race formally known as the “Gammadi” are like fantasy dwarves without explicitly saying so in the omniscient narrative. Even though there would be no other way to express so much worldbuilding and backstory in so short a narrative, the infodumps of direct explanation make the story fragmented and hard to follow. The information about the races and their destinies is irrelevant to the immediate events of the plot, or at least to climax. There is one moment of backstory that really shines – a secondary and otherwise unimportant character tells the protagonist about her unique destiny, which has profound ramifications in regard to the nature of the races and their relationships to each other. I have the sense that this moment is the true heart of the story, even though it has no apparent bearing on what happens at the end.

“Swords and Plowshares” may not be very successful as a short story, but it did succeed in making me excited about the author's story world. I hope the Metacosmos will one day be given the opportunity to reveal its own wonders and secrets as they naturally come to the scene of whatever epic events the author has in mind.


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