Fernando Paiva – God's Obituary
Controlling the creation is easy. Difficult is controlling the creator
Fernando Paiva's story God's Obituary (trans. Brent Alan James) is written as an obituary from an undetermined year, though it is at least the late 2060s. In it God or, more accurately, English scientist Allan J. Winchmaster, is eulogised, his achievements and subsequent fall chronicled with the refreshing lack of obvious judgement often found in very good, very ironic, newspapers.
Winchmaster was the first “genetic architect”, a term invented by himself to describe his work. In short, he creates life. In long:
Winchmaster's first creation, dubbed “the pipe rat,” consisted of a type of rat capable of entering the long pipes of industrial complexes and subsisting on the most varied residual matter. The research was funded by Petroleum United. The pipe rats had suction cups on their feet, which allowed them to scale the insides of incredibly long pipes, as well as skin capable of resisting high temperatures. What's more, they were anaerobic: they did not require oxygen to breathe.
As can be imagined, governments and corporations flock to such a creation (the above, “pipe rate”, was funded by a petroleum company). Other scientists, too, and soon a bourgeoning industry is created. Religious organisations of all stripes find the notion of creating life by anyone other than God to be reprehensible:
The scientist himself, known for being a fervent atheist, even had the word God printed on his business card.
The story continues. “God”, as Winchmaster becomes known to all but the most uncharitable of people (so: the religious groups), fears that his new strand of science will be used for ill, and creates the following rules:
he published [an article] in which he listed what he called the “Basic Principles Toward Responsible Genetic Architecture.” It was, in effect, a series of rules so that future creations of genetic architects would not create worldwide ecological disequilibrium or some other such catastrophe. The first rule is the principle of infertility or of nonmultiplication: every being designed by genetic architecture should be sterile to avoid its reproduction and the loss of control. The second principle is that of controlled intelligence: it is forbidden to create beings that have an intelligence close to that of Homo sapiens. The third and final principle is that of eternal captivity: every being created by genetic architecture should be under the permanent observation of its owners.
Young brilliants flock to the new industry and, finding themselves in possession of towering grants and dubious requirements, create all manner of life, from the functional to the aesthetic, to, inevitably, the military. God's basic principles notwithstanding, the use and abuse of these creations continues across the globe, with various mistakes and “mistakes” being blamed as the cause of famine, drought, economic disaster, massacres.
The obituary ends with God broken, unhappy, travelling from place to place with a price on his head, and finally, deceased. Hints are laid to suggest that “Thor”, God's third and final child, is a creation of genetic architecture and not a real person. Rumours abound that Thor is a new type of human, created specifically to downplay the negatives inherent in the human condition, and to increase capacity for empathy and kindness. The obituary refrains from speculating one way or another.
And this, in the end, is the story's genius. Paiva presents a fascinating concept which is not entirely outside the realm of possibility (at least, if we consider the realm to be in the 2060s), and then – casts no judgement. Instead, he lets the obituary speak for itself, chronicling in dispassionate, pleasantly ironic commentary the ups and downs of the man who changed the world for – the better? The worse? It's unclear, which is how it should be.
The story's focus instead relies on its explication of man's folly when presented with new technology designed to improve life instead of hurt it. It's an age old condition – show a caveman a knife with which to carve his food, and inevitably someone will be stabbed in anger. The idea of creating life based on specific criteria and to meet specific concerns is, however, several orders of magnitude above the simple knife. Would a human be trustworthy with such power? God's Obituary argues no. Given the course of history up to the present day, it's hard to disagree with Paiva's conclusion.
But, again – Paiva's obituary refrains from overtly pointing fingers. Instead, the story shown is the rise and fall of a man with ideals too large for this world. The newspaper-reportage style of the story means that we never really get under the skin of the character, but nonetheless “God” as presented is a sympathetic figure. The obituary closes, quite cleverly, on the following:
God's dying wish was to change the nature of Man, and, in this way, improve life on the planet. The son of God was contacted by this newspaper, but preferred not to be interviewed.
Read into it what you will.
God's Obituary by Fernando Paiva is a short story from Words Without Borders' January 2012 edition, Apocalypse issue. All of the work reviewed is freely available online.
Other stories from the Words Without Borders January 2012 edition, Apocalypse issue include:
---Xerxenesky, Antônio - Seizing Cervantes
---Adamek, André-Marcel - The Ark
---Elíasson, Gyrðir - House No. 451
---Villoro, Juan - Holding Pattern
---Mrożek, Sławomir - Ketchup
Words Without Borders review series:
---May 2011: Writing From Afghanistan
---January 2011: The Work Force
---October 2010: Beyond Borges: Argentina Now
---August 2010: Writing From Hungary
Index of short stories under review