December 26, 2019

In One Sentence: The Deathbird by Harlan Ellison

One sentence review: A beautiful and complex metafictional parable that rewrites the myths of Adam and Eve, and lures the reader into swapping the roles of Devil and God.

In 1974 The Deathbird won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette and Locus Award for Best Short Story. Here are some quotes from this short story:

But he was patient. Perhaps the most patient of all his people.

Thousands of years later, when he saw how it was destined to go, when there was no doubt left how it would end, he understood that was the reason he had been chosen to stay behind.

But it did not help the loneliness.


It was like an old man. Seamed, ancient, dirt caked in striated lines, autumnal, lonely; black and desolate, piled strength upon strength. It would -not give in to gravity and pressure and death. It struggled for the sky. Ferociously alone, it was the only feature that broke the desolate line of the horizon.


The Great Coiled One–whose rings were loops of wisdom acquired through centuries of gentleness and perception and immersed meditations that had brought forth lovely designs for many worlds–he who was the holiest of Dira’s race, honored Dira by coming to him, rather than commanding Dira to appear.

We have only one gift to leave them, he said. Wisdom. This mad one will come, and he will lie to them, and he will tell them: created he them. And we will be gone, and there will be nothing between them and this mad one but you. Only you can give them the wisdom to defeat him in their own good time. Then the Great Coiled One stroked the skin of Dira with ritual affection, and Dira was deeply moved and could not reply. Then he was left alone.

The mad one came, and interposed himself, and Dira gave them wisdom, and time passed. His name became other than Dira, it became Snake, and the new name was despised: but Dira could see the Great Coiled One had been correct in his readings. So Dira made his selection.


The man was not Jesus of Nazareth. He may have been Simon. Not Genghis Khan, but perhaps a foot soldier in his horde. Not Aristotle, but possibly one who sat and listened to Socrates in the agora. Neither the shambler who discovered the wheel nor the link who first ceased painting himself blue and applied the colors to the walls of the cave. But one near them, somewhere near at hand. The man was not Richard Coeur-de-Lion, Rembrandt, Richelieu, Rasputin, Robert Fulton or the Mahdi. Just a man. With the spark.


And the sickness raged on unchecked. Nations crumbled, the oceans boiled and then grew cold and filmed over with scorn, the air became thick with dust and killing vapors, flesh ran like oil, the skies grew dark, the sun blurred and became dull. The Earth moaned.

The plants suffered and consumed themselves, beasts became crippled and went mad, trees burst into flame and from their ashes rose glass shapes that shattered in the wind. The Earth was dying; a long, slow, painful death.

December 26, 2019


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