The author comments on Eternity Road
Years ago, at a Wesleyan luncheon given by T. C. Dunham, I acquired a ghost.
The luncheon was for students in the M.A.L.S. summer program. It was held at Dunham's house, which was quite pleasant, with polished wood paneling, book-lined walls, and a large glass doorway leading onto a sunlit patio. Dunham and one or two other instructors were standing in a crowd of students near the glass door, munching sandwiches and sipping Cokes, talking about Renaissance Italy, and how exhilarating the search for the classical world must have been. Monasteries were yielding up dusty copies of Cicero's letters, old libraries were finding Lucretius and Seneca in their stacks. Xenophon reappeared from Constantinople; Plato came from Athens to engage and eventually defeat Aristotle. And the brilliance and color of pagan civilization, repressed so long it had been forgotten, re-emerged at the doors of St. Peter's.
Dunham was a superb instructor. He was energetic, congenial, involved. It was obvious he had a passion for Homer and Aeschylus and the rest of the Aegean crowd. But what was significant, as it always is with our best teachers, was his ability to transmit not only knowledge, but passion. What a marvelous experience it must have been, he was saying, to have been part of the great search. To have spread sail and headed to sea looking for Odysseus. Well, I'm getting a little overwrought here. But there was a genuine enthusiasm. In Alexandrian fashion, we mourned the cold twentieth-century reality that there were no more classical scrolls to find.
Which brings us to the ghost.
Somebody had a story: a scholar of the period was returning from extensive travels around the Mediterranean with a cache of works previously believed lost. It occurred to me that this scholar would have fit in nicely with my luncheon companions. He was of course ecstatic with his success and anxious to get home to show his friends what he'd recovered. But as they neared the coast of Italy a storm blew up and the ship went down. The manuscripts were lost. (Another version had it that they were simply washed overboard. Not that it matters.)
How could one begin to imagine the agony that must have overwhelmed the scholar? We paused sympathetically to consider the catastrophe. What had happened afterward to him? No one knew. What, we wondered, had been in the package? Lost epics of Homer? Tacitus V-XII? One of Sophocles' missing plays? Commentaries on the Peloponnesian War by Pericles?
The image of the devastated scholar stuck. I took it to class next day and thought about him while we talked about the flow of the Iliad. And eventually I brought him home to Pennsylvania. He became a distraction, not unlike a tune you can't stop humming.
Eventually I started writing science fiction. And the scholar began showing up in various guises in my work. I discovered, for example, an inclination to write about things that have become lost.
One of my earliest stories, "Cryptic," described a new administration taking over an observatory that had once been used in a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program. The protagonist discovers evidence that, twenty years before, the search had been successful, but the results hidden. Why?
A Talent for War recounts an expedition by an interstellar vessel that finds a legendary warship, thought destroyed in battle two centuries earlier, abandoned and orbiting a far world. In The Engines of God, an entire race of advanced ET's has managed to get lost.
I tried to exorcise the tendency. "The Fort Moxie Branch," a 1988 story, describes a library run by a superhuman agency whose sole purpose is to retrieve valuable works that might otherwise be dropped overboard, so to speak. They had, for example, Shakespeare's Nisus and Euryalus, eliminated from the canon because of its homosexual content; Thomas Wolfe's God and Country; and Conan Doyle's "Adventure of the Jazail Bullet."
Recently I did a story for Shawna McCarthy's Realms of Fantasy in which three burglars stumble onto a cache of items that appear to be relics from, among other places, Olympus. But none of this seemed to settle for the unfortunate scholar. So I've made one more effort, with Eternity Road.
A particularly virulent plague has decimated early 21st-century civilization. A thousand years later a few city-states appear along the Mississippi. The rest of the world, its extent and history, is virtually lost. There remain only vast crumbling roads, scarcely recognizable as highways because of their enormous dimensions; and dead cities with towers so tall they can't be climbed in a day. Artifacts from the age of the Roadmakers seem to be proof against time and are still used as combs, jewelry, and decorative items. But the ruins are restless, as if an ancient magic still inhabits them.
You ask about the connection with the scholar?
The legend is that some outlived the plague by hiding in a remote fortress which they later stocked with the science, history, and literature of their era. Is it really out there? Something strange happened to the first expedition to go in search of the place, something so odd that the lone survivor denied they had succeeded at all. Yet evidence exists that he has lied.
I'm happy to report that Eternity Road has a scholar, a ship, and an ocean primed to receive some masterpieces. This time I expect to quiet the ghost from Dunham's luncheon.
By the way I think it's a novel that would have made T.C. happy.
First appeared in Wesleyan, Winter, 1996