Novellas & Novelettes

Zeus and His Things

“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.

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[Image: Freud. One of the scientists whose indoorsy vocation is seriously interfering with the chief god’s love-life.]

This is Part Four 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?


Part One

Part Two

Part Three

“Good idea,” said Zeus, who hadn’t been paying attention, for it was then that he first saw lucky Danae cat-walking down the city promenade. Well, she wasn’t going to be that lucky. When her papa the king discovered that Zeus was her lover he locked her up in the tower, so Danae had to receive Zeus on her lap as a golden shower from the skylight. the original Golden ShowerTM, and had to give birth to Perseus the Medusa-slayer in the world’s second most unhygienic labour-room, top spot still going to Mother Mary. But Danae didn’t know that.

“Go do it. Atom: as the beginning and the end of all Things, I appoint you head of Operation Whatever Dance. Additionally, I realise the crucial role that you, Fatty — I beg your pardon, Brain — must play in its success, so I hereby name you The Final Frontier.

“In aeons to come, men will still turn to me because, even when they’ve figured out the Whatever Dances of all the other Things, they won’t even know if their own dance is more like a waltz or a tarantella. So long, now,” concluded Zeus, commandeering a cumulonimbus on which to make a grand exit. And, down in the Argive dungeon, Zeus bestowed on Princess Danae a Hello followed by not much further waste of words.

“Nuts, I thought I was supposed to be the final frontier,” said Outer Space, who was the size of the keratin core of one of Zeus’ nose-hairs.

“Or me,” said Northwest Passage.

“Don’t worry, you will be,” said Boreas, who knew all the trade-routes. “First you’ll be the land-bridge leading men from Asia to Alaska, and south from there to colonise two continents. Then you’ll become a sea passage, but Men will find you too, so no, I’m afraid the honour of Final Frontier goes to Fatty.”

“Now,” said Fatty, “let’s figure out how we’re gonna do this. ’Coz what this means is, there must be system not only in our behaviour but in our misbehaviour. I suggest we adopt the Power Law to determine the frequency with which we Things present for observation, on a round-robin schedule, each progressively more chaos-theory step of the Whatever Dance.”

“How would that work?” said Forest. “If we act systematically, they’ll figure it out soon enough, and stop worshipping the gods. The more Whatever the Dance, the longer they’ll take—”

“And the busier they’ll be, so the fewer hours per week men will have for sacrificing to Zeus,” said Zephyrus, the Reconvention’s self-appointed Zeus spokesman. “Because they’re labbed up squinting at all our variations. Guys! Big picture, okay? Men need to stay busy enough, enough hours a day, enough centuries, to not go mad and also to not stop worshipping Zeus. We mustn’t be too Whatever.”

“But the more Whatever we are, the more centuries overall there’ll be some vestige of piety left,” rebutted Mute Pig, who’d found his voice after realising that the neural control of speech by the nerve Galen had ablated was just a theory. “Anyway they’ll discover the system, and a million systems, no matter how often we change the Dance.”

“Yeah,” said Bar of Iron, “’coz Fatty spends all his time thinking about what’s none of his business! That’s what comes of civilisation: you free Fatty from survival concerns to neurotic pursuits.”

“Hey, cut it, okay?” said Fatty. “Already I’m experiencing a surge of catecholamines preparing me for a sympathetic nervous response. Stressed? I’m stressed like a rubber-band stretched from Cerberus’s fangs, as he guards the gates of Hades, all the way to the Moon. I mean, if the Moon were a Copernican body instead of Selene slumming it up high.”

“Maybe Fatty doesn’t have to be a crucial pivot in Operation Whatever Dance,” said Atom, who was a bit of a dictator, having been given a Hitlerian moustache by the carpenter where a knot in the wood prevented his being perfectly, atomically spherical. “Maybe the idea that Fatty has to be important is just a theory.”

“No, that’s a fact,” said Boreas.

“But why?”

“’Coz Zeus said so.”

“But Zeus wasn’t on oath. He wasn’t swearing on Styx, pinching his pharynx. He just said it. He said it just to get away to get Danae.”

“Those are the two conditions!” said Zephyrus. “What Zeus says is absolute fact, and not You Better Believe My Version of the Facts ’Coz I’m the Biggest Bad-Ass Around, under two conditions: one, when he’s pinching his pharynx and swearing on the Styx; two, when he’s just saying stuff to get away and get laid. Those are the two conditions in which, for once, you may be sure that god never lies.”

Atom hmmed. “I thought it was when he’s sworn on the Styx and when the Olympians are rehearsing second-degree incest week at Mount Kithairon.”

“Whatever,” said Boreas. “Fatty is important, just as much as you are; that’s a fact. Buckle up, man. We’re gonna do this.”

And they did. Each Thing poked around and determined — with a negligible standard error of measurement — the exact mixture of Whatever and The Same Thing that suited it. Of course, some Things were a lot more experimental than others, and this was why some Things were measured and mapped and understood sooner than others.

So, Water in the aqueduct — who actually is an easy-going, habit-forming kind of gal, and had got sick of the Month of Whatever about a week after her sweetheart’s disappearance — had no problem going back to predictable behaviour, and the Laws of Water Flow were soon re-established.

In fact, Water was at risk of being too predictable, forgetting to do the Whatever Dance at all: so every once in a while Poseidon stepped in and waved a tsunami or two at whatever continent he and his hand-picked one-night-stands weren’t busy populating at the moment. So, thanks to Poseidon, Water continues to swamp theories. Chaos fluid mechanics, at the moment.

Then there was Atom and that sort of Thing, who kept careful track of theories: and just when people thought Matter had been figured out, shape-shifted to the best of his non-certified abilities, and became something else. It was a piece of cake, for Spherical-Atom dork was just as sure he was absolutely right as Subatomic-Particles dork. And, in turn, in fact, he was just as right as Quark-Atom dork.

The planets had great adventures. Whenever somebody wanted to switch galaxies, a meteor-shower was commissioned to create a diversion, and when there was no scientist staring himself saucer-eyed at that particular bit of sky, a watchman red dwarf cried, “All clear!” and the planet ushered his moving-trucks into his new orbit. And when some planet’s self-esteem plunged after centuries of chasing the one evening-star for whom his hot core had burned — Pluto for example — he decided to go on the Zone diet and stop being a damn fat planet, and become a moon, or whatever.

As for the Maenads, they just kept dancing drunk all day scissoring at their orgy, and for variety they lured shepherds and lumberjacks off the beaten track and finely julienned them. And Dionysus kept thinking he needed to discipline his women, being a god and all. But between throwing up drunk and singing drunk he never got around to it.

It was Fatty who had the hardest time, getting all stressed out over whether he was a tabula rasa as John Locke said or a little devil as the Bible said — born in original sin, ’coz, duh, that’s what it takes to make a human — or a little angel according to BDSM connoisseur and French Revolution mass murder-instigator Rousseau — or what.

Fatty lost so much sweat over his destiny to be the Last Frontier that he ought to have lost weight, too, but in fact the more he stressed the bigger he got, as per Plato’s theory of Formal Discipline that still survives, until he developed a handful of comorbid bi-axial disorders scrupulously following the necessary and sufficient diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, DSM-IV-TR. Burgeoning, in neurosis, in complexity off-the-charts: that’s how Fatty became the Last Frontier.

“So they’re getting closer to crossing that Last Frontier?” said Athena, nervous when the first SQUID became operational. SQUID sounds scary, but a Super-conducting QUantum Interference Device is just the world’s most expensive laser-printer to print pretty portraits of Fatty’s privates. “I mean the rate at which these measuring machines are growing, they could be before-and-after models for body-part enlargement ads.”

“They’re only growing in size,” said Zeus. “Bigger measuring-machines make men feel more secure. Bigger isn’t better, not that I would know. Men know nothing yet about Fatty. not even that it has more cells than the Milky Way has stars. Though to be fair I didn’t know that, either, till that day you split open my skull and jumped out fully-grown.”

“Sorry about that.”

“Did you have to be fully-armed too? Aegis and all?”

“You took my aegis. Shut up, Pa.”

“I confiscated it. Anyway: where was I?”

“Reassuring me. That I’m still goddess of wisdom, because there’s things Men still don’t know.”

“See: Fatty’s a total wreck; Men will have to squint their eyes out of socket to figure him out. And, as long as our boy Kant makes men believe that just because their eyes and brains are variable, that therefore their instruments of perceiving the outer world are variable, that therefore belief in God… These sunglasses don’t work at all,” said Zeus, chucking away a pair.

Of course Huh? SaintWho?TM was not responsible for non-functional product, as the principle of light filtration based on the theory of electromagnetic waves applies only to eyes attached to brains that don’t know it’s bull-crap. Which rendered Zeus’s warranty null and void.

So it went on. Men thought their theories were getting more precise because men were getting smarter, and Things thought the Whatever Dance was being better understood because they were getting better at it. But you and I know they’re both far from the truth. In a special 2010 issue of Nature, a multinational symposium of cutting-edge cross-disciplinary scientists asserted their consensus belief: that the Whatever Dance is a mazurka-square dance Hybrid with a lime-twist of rumba — whereas, as of the 12th Centennial Convention of the Things — it’s in fact Constipation.

Of course, there’ve been burps along the way. Prodigal son Nietzsche almost gave Fatty a stroke, for his was one of those dreaded Everything Theories that require Things to assemble and actually choreograph the next act. This was a tall order, so the night before Nietzsche began to see the Truth, medicine-god Asclepius just sneaked into Nietzsche’s bedroom, gave him a therapeutic brain ablation, and in that vacancy installed Fatty.

Right then, Fatty was such a basket-case that Nietzsche got all the little psychoses and delusions he’d been pipe-dreaming and was really happy he’d perceived with such critical clarity the laws of Will Conflict. And he wrote, and his writing made no sense, so nobody saw that he’d seen that there was nothing to see.

And men continued to worship Zeus, only they forgot his name and called him God’s nephew and All-Are and Bra-Man and such. So, Zeus was happy and once in a while he himself danced a step or two of the Whatever Dance.

So, when Freud was wondering How Men Work, Zeus sat down at the control-panel of Freud’s Id and gave him a bird’s-eye dream of the life, i.e. sexual life, of the Master of Olympus. And when Freud had written down his theory of the structure of human personality, Freud acknowledged its only drawback was there wasn’t enough sex. So he made up for it by deriving continuous oral pleasure from his pipe and dying of another theory called jaw cancer.

And when the feminists set off a flashbulb in women’s brains and made them realise the theory of Gender Equality was a fact, that was a problem. ’Coz these women got to thinking it wasn’t so hot spending a few hours every few months child-bearing, and a few months of their lives in pastimes other than child-rearing. “Ingrates!’ cried Hera, goddess of childbirth.

So, Aphrodite went to work in men’s hearts and made men realise how frumpy such pretentious women were. Then most women saw that in fact, it was a lot sexier to sacrifice — whether bulls’ brains or their own — to Zeus and his aliases, and to produce so many children that, by probability theory and the law of large numbers, some of them would surely grow into God-worshippers.

Did I say probability theory was just a theory? Who says “just a theory” means “not a fact”? You know who: creationists prefabricating an attack on evolution. And the best they’ve got is: “Evolution is just a theory.”

But the feminists’ objections were here to stay, so Zeus’s myriad mistresses began to whinge about his chauvinist attitude to sex. So Zeus put Fatty to work, and Fatty originated evolutionary psychology, which claims that the alpha male’s one-track mind is predicted by the theory of gender differences in primate mating strategy, and thus in Fatty’s hard-wiring.

But that’s a story for another day.


By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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