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Novellas & Novelettes

Zeus and His Things: Part 1/4

“Zeus and His Things” is a humorous speculative novelette inspired by (a) my decades-long love of Greek mythology, and (b) the question: What if things don’t really behave systematically, as we expect them to? This novelette published in four parts in Bewildering Stories Volumes 911 & 912 is a lighthearted engagement with the philosophy of science.

Image: Zeus, whose Convention of All Things is a bow to theorists’ sanity everywhere.

This is Part One of a novelette published in four parts by Bewildering Stories. Parts One and Two were published in Issue 911; parts Three and Four in Issue 912. I am republishing it here over the course of this week. “Zeus and His Things” is a humorous speculative story inspired by (a) my decades-long love of Greek mythology, and (b) the question: What if things don’t really behave systematically, as we expect them to?

***

So far, the truth-seekers had kept to themselves. The problem began when one old man got excited.

Zeus was striding up Mt. Aetna, minding his own business. He was still upset over the Io affair. He had just been getting Io warmed up with a rosy-cheeked, buxom young princess when along came the old ball-and-chain. Already twice that week Hera had caught Zeus in flagrante delicto. And it was only Monday.

So, when Hera walked in on his newest session of afternoon delight, Zeus snapped his fingers, Io the maiden became Io the cow, and Hera suspected that Zeus had added bestiality to his list of conjugal virtues.

“What’re you doing with that cow?” demanded Hera.

“She’s a present for you, my love. I’m just checking her shanks for moral soundness.”

That’s how the cow became Hera’s sacred animal, and that’s why Zeus was preoccupied and had to look twice. Peering between two storm-clouds that had materialised in sympathy with the god’s gloom, he saw clearly now: a sagging old man streaking through the streets of Athens.

“Good grief!” he exclaimed, manhandling the storm-clouds to blindfold himself, for Zeus liked youth and beauty, and he liked them on the outside.

“D’you know anything about it?” he asked Athena at dinner.

“Oh yes, don’t you know, father,” said Athena, who kept up-to-date on the achievements of Greeks, whether homebodies or expatriates, “Archimedes has made a very important discovery. He was so excited he ran out just as he was, shouting ‘Hurray.’”

“Just as he was? He was making this discovery in the… er, nude, as it were?”

“It had something to do with his bathtub,” said Athena, with a goddess’s thoroughbred contempt for details. “Poor chap, I hear he’d been quite spending his days there. I’m glad he’s found whatever it was he wanted: really I was beginning to fear he’d fuse with his bathtub and become a walrus.”

“My dear,” said Zeus, “it’s disgraceful. Just last century there was another of your old men covering the beach with child’s scribbles.”

“Father, d’you mean Euclid? Don’t you know the important contributions he made to science?” Oh, like she did. “Really, as king of all men you might take the trouble to learn a thing or two about ’em.”

“My dear, I know one thing, and that is sufficient.” He paused, glancing across the dinner table at Hera, who was scolding Hephaestus for being a crybaby about Ares’ cuckolding him with Aphrodite. All three were their children: awkward.

Really, it was all Hera’s fault; it was she who’d tied sublime Aphrodite and pug-face Hephaestus into the Gordian knot of matrimony. Now Hera was asking Hephaestus what he’d expected, marrying out of his league. Hera’s always whingeing, Zeus reflected. Women: there’s no pleasing ’em.

Hera was goddess of women, marriage, and childbirth. “Well, I favour a lot of women and, technically, I’m married to Hera, and my women bear many children who grow up as god-worshippers, doing us all glory; so I don’t see the fuss.”

Sinking his voice, Zeus continued: “Daughter Athena, I know one thing about men: their women. And that is sufficient. But that’s not the point. Whatever I may or may not know as of this moment, it’s quite indecent, old men getting excited about science and such. Your pupils must learn to control themselves. You must put a stop to it.

“I will” — he suggested, when Athena protested — “have these bathtub discoveries made when the men are a little younger. Streaking? I tell you, he was already a walrus. A walrus after a hard winter. A slinky made of skinfolds.”

As Athena soon self-deployed on the battlefields of Troy as the Greeks’ secret weapon, Zeus had to handle the affair himself. The problem of the dorky truth-seekers was getting worse. No longer could the ruler of all step outside, just for a little stroll, to see men bow down before him in in terror and/or adoration. He never had figured out which he preferred; he liked not knowing. From Athens, the germ had spread: everywhere men had gone mad on Theories. They made up theories about everything.

Theories about what were man’s sacred duties: Zeus was seriously mad when Athena — who knew someone who liked to pretend he’d read Aristotle — told him that not once had that wry old rascal mentioned libation and hecatomb as the first duty of the family, nor their enforcement as the first duty of the state. For what had the gods created man, if not to have wine poured into the soil (with chanting), and animal-flesh burned up to the sky (with chanting)?

It was bad enough that the rascal Prometheus had taken the punies’ side and taught men to offer, for the god’s share, not the flesh but the fat-and-bones prettily wrapped. Now this old Lycian altogether omitted god-worship from the list of man’s duties!

Then came theories about war, which Athena joined Ares in booing. The mighty echoes of said boos carried far and, happening to be at the right resonant frequency, shattered the heads off all the Persians’ spears in the crux of the Battle of Marathon, giving the Greeks the victory. The Greeks’ iron had tiny impurities that saved their spears from vibrating and shattering, but Herodotus, a bard playing at historian, patriotically put down the victory to the Greeks’ phalanxing skills.

Theories about love-making. When Zeus heard that men’s theory-fervour had penetrated even into this domain, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

It was time. Zeus announced a General Assembly of All Things. One fine autumn day, Hermes the winged-sandalled flew out from Olympus.

Next month, all Things assembled at Mt. Olympus’s pinkie-toe. Wondering, trembling, what was amiss. Well, some of them trembled. Brown Leaf trembled so much that he was afraid that Zeus the omni-capricious would knock him right off Autumn Tree. He kept throwing dirty looks at the autumn wind, Zephyrus, who was blowing mightily upon him. “Could you blow,” said Brown Leaf, “on some other leaf for a bit?” Zephyrus merely shrugged and whistled, “You’re the last leaf, man. I gotta blow. You gotta go.”

At last, mighty Zeus appeared before the Things. In a temper, for Hera had just stalked and nagged and tantrummed him out of another choice morsel of female flesh, and his anger was displaced by psychodynamic theory from Hera onto the less-threatening Things. Sitting down on Wayside Seat, he thundered: “So here you all are! You’ve dared to show your faces. Who the hell gave you permission to have men do experiments on you, and make theories about you, and streak excited through the streets at midday, jiggling loose flesh and giving me gooseflesh? That’s what I want to know.”

Brown Leaf thought Zeus might’ve spared the emphatic italic on the “I,” for when Zeus wanted something, it had better be forthcoming or else. Then he was afraid that Zeus the all-seeing had seen his thought and trembled so badly he wet his pants, at which Wayside Stone Seat under Autumn Tree looked daggers up at Brown Leaf.

Of course, as the Things hadn’t wanted to be the subjects of experiments or theories or suchlike ungodly occupations, and couldn’t have helped it if they’d tried, they didn’t know what to say; but they had better say something, so they poured out their shocking stories of what men had been doing to them.

First, Forest told the assembly of the quacks who’d come ravaging her for medicinal herbs. “They came with lenses and jars, peering and discoursing, twisted names skedaddling off their tongues. Sure, I could’ve told them the real name of all these ‘medicinal herbs’ was Placebolis placebo but, you see, they were so psyched! So I let ’em have their game.

“But then they began tearing out my plants with a preference for the ugly and nauseating, on the theory of No Pain No Gain. Which is a misquotation of old Benjy-boy Franko, not that he’s been born yet. It was no pains no gains. Pains! Not pain. Now I know what pains Demeter took with her hairstyles: a different style for each hour of the year, all these plants that look so different, all these variants of Placebolis placebo.”

“How is Demeter doing?”

“The usual. She’s spent the last six months fussing over Persephone, down in Hades with her wedded lord. Persephone’s happy down there now, but Demeter still plays the bereaved parent. So your daughter got kidnapped and forced to marry the underworld chappie. Tragic, I get it. But it’s been twenty millennia, and you’re still deserting your crops and your farmers six months every year! Anyhow: those quacks who came plundering my herbs, I got worried lest their selective deforestation lead to Extinction, i.e. Demeter’s Gonna Lose It Again and Go Rampaging, Tearing Her Hair Out in Clumps. You know she’s just waiting for a chance.

“If only the quacks had asked me what herb was good for what illness, I would’ve given ’em sustainable yields of the nicer-tasting herbs. I mean, a placebo might as well taste good. But no! They follow their own little theories in preparing their Panacea: Especially Effective for Headaches and IncontinenceTM.”

“Did it work?” said Zeus. “Is it true that phytochemicals have differential effects on human functioning?”

“What d’you think? It’s just a theory. Corollary 26, Annex I of Man’s Illusion of Control. Though I must say, these quacks had one good quality: the true scientist’s indifference to being proved wrong. They stuffed their patients full of the panacea du jour, cheerfully accepted the patients’ deaths, and just moved on to the next theory, the next panacea.”

“But how did the patients die, if plant chemicals have no effect?”

“Did I mention these medicines taste like char-broiled pigeon-snot? At the first taste, the patients’ souls, crying, ‘Ai, ai!’ jumped out of their mouths and steeple-chased to Hades.”

Next, Mute Pig crept under Zeus’s leg, into the shadow of Zeus’s little toe, which extended only about a mile beyond Mute Pig: for Zeus had, of course, not appeared at General Assembly in his true form. For to see Zeus in his true glory would instantly incinerate all men. And Things, too.

Zeus’s PR guy had warned him strictly against a repeat of Semele. Hera had got wind of his thing with Semele, so that sneaky sister-wife shapeshifted into a Euboean maiden and visited Semele, wormed into the princess’s confidence, congratulated her on Zeus’s attentions, and exclaimed: “If I were sleeping with the king of gods, I’d want to see him in his true glory! If he loved you, he wouldn’t refuse a tiny favour like that.”

So, at their next date, Semele demanded to see Zeus in his true form. Zeus protested, Semele scolded, Zeus explained, Semele wept. Zeus had no choice: shedding his disguise, he unleashed his true glory. Semele was instantly incinerated. From the ad hoc barbecue Zeus snatched her foetus, planting it into his own thigh, his best analogue to a uterus. It worked, too: the foetus hadn’t been due another ten weeks but, the very next evening, Zeus’s super-incubator thigh gave birth to baby Dionysus, horns and all. That was good and all, but Zeus didn’t want any more ad hoc barbecues; he liked his meat rare. So it was in disguise he showed up at General Assembly: just twenty miles tall.

Mute Pig wanted to nudge Zeus but, having no hands, he contented himself with nibbling Zeus. Having got Zeus’s attention, he did some Morse code, which Atom kindly translated. “Why that poor pig, Dread Lord, he was as whole as you or me when along comes a mountebank Roman, Galen he styles himself, smug as you please, and snips off a nerve in Pig’s throat. Experimental ablation, he calls it. To find out what a Thing does, remove the thing. Such logic, I tell you!

“Then he pinches Pig’s nether-end, and — voilà ! — Pig wants to squeak, but not a sound emerges. So then, says Galen, his theory is correct: the nerve of the larynx was necessary for speech production. Woah man, I’m impressed.”

All Things heaved a sigh in sympathy with the Mute-ilated Pig, and then Atom, before their attention could drift, beat his breast — don’t ask me how — and coaxed his tear-glands and said, “Alas, my misfortune is no less. Why, last week there I was, a spanking block of wood in a carpenter’s shop, waiting for a god-fearing labourer to come along and get the carpenter to saw me up and plane me down and chisel me off into a nice little table for family dinner.

“But who comes along? That geek Democritus, and tells the carpenter oh, to make just a nice little sphere out of me, to represent the Atom, for a model for his demos! So here I am, sitting gathering dust on Democritus’ shelf: a useless piece of junk, a model of an Atom. Cruelly cheated out of that purpose for which you, Dread Lord, in your wisdom made all Things: to be useful to men.”

“Nonsense.” Zeus rapped Atom’s knuckles. “You’ve mixed me up with that Levantine man they call god’s nephew-in-law, or will, when he’s born. He’ll tell you he made you to serve man. I made Things for me to walk about in.”

Zeus paused, scratching his head: he wasn’t at all sure the nephew-in-law hadn’t been born yet. Immortals don’t hang calendars over the kitchen table. I really need to get around more, and not just with women, thought Zeus, shifting on Wayside Seat.

“Now what, exactly, did you say it was, again,” said he, turning to Bar of Iron, “that the old fellow in the bathtub discovered?”

* * *

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

2 replies on “Zeus and His Things: Part 1/4”

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