by Timothy Lane 6/29/14
Steve White argues that modern Western civilization (such as it is today) stems from the successful defense of Greece against Persia in 490 BC and the following decade (I would add Israel and Judah, with the confrontation between King David and the prophet Nathan being a key illustration of why). In particular, had Athens lost at Marathon, none of the rest could ever have happened.
Sunset of the Gods is a time-travel story, in which a group of researchers under a government office that tries to prevent disasters (such as attempts to change recorded history, which never works) goes back to the summer of 490 BC to view the battle and check out various historical controversies about the battle (one of which remains unresolved at the end). The party’s leader, Jason Thanou, had led a previous expedition to witness the Santorini explosion, only to run headlong into the origin of much of Greek (and Middle Eastern) mythology (a story told in the previous book, Blood of the Heroes).
It turns out that the myths aren’t quite dead yet. The stranded aliens who became the Olympian gods are still around, and there are some surprise intruders from a previous group, the Transhumanists, who had sought to use genetic manipulation to create a Nietzschean utopia. So Jason, and his assistant Alexandre Mondrago, have a difficult task. They have to deal with the Transhumanists (who killed one of their researchers and kidnapped the other) and return with the information (and they aren’t returning for another month; these trips are carefully scheduled), while still acting as friendly foreigners (masquerading as anti-Persian refugees from Macedon). In the end, this will include fighting in defense of Athens.
It’s important; as Jason observes at the end of the battle, “And as a result of all the sickening butchery on this plain, Western civilization would live, to one day give humankind – for the first time – an economic system that allowed for at least the possibility of prosperity, a legal system that allowed for at least the possibility of justice, and a governmental system that allowed for at least the possibility of individual liberty . . . including the liberty of free scientific inquiry that would lead to the stars.” And because of the Transhumanist intrusion, they actual have a double duty, since their Nietzschean vision treats ordinary humans as primitives unworthy of any sort of ethical treatment (as their kidnap victim will learn rather painfully).
To be sure, Jason is also aware of just how flawed the Athenian democracy can be. At one point he explains to Alexandre the eventual fate of Miltiades (the Athenian leader at Marathon) and Themistocles (their greatest statesman, who masterminded the victory of 480-479 BC) at the hands of those they had saved. Alexandre wonders why Athens is worth saving, to which Jason points out that Athenian democracy is still a child. Of course, nearly a century later the democracy would cut its own throat by executing its victorious commanders after the near-miraculous victory at Arginusae, and shortly after Socrates would be served up hemlock. This is why the Founding Fathers were so skeptical of pure democracy. But overall Jason’s point is well taken.
They accomplish their mission and solve all the questions except that they never learn whether or not the great runner Pheidippides really fell dead after running the original Marathon (in full armor because he didn’t have time to take it off) and informing the people remaining in Athens of the victory. (He does get to encounter the runner on the way back from Sparta when he encounters Pan – in actuality a pitiful mutant created by the Transhumanists as a slave.)
But there are still problems; one member is still in Transhumanist hands (and would probably be a great source of information if recovered), and Jason had promised to help Pan if he would help them. The result is a special mission, violating all the usual rules, to deal with the problem. (Anyone who wants to find out how it works out will have to read the book.)
White does a fine job here of portraying what Athenian society might have been like, and even more so what hoplite combat at Marathon might have been like. (Hint: It involves a lot of exertion and a lot of blood.) But the important point is his explanation of why this matters: Why Western civilization (for all that it has degenerated so badly) was worth bringing into existence, and why the Transhumanist goals were genuinely monstrous despite initially sounding so persuasive to the one member.
Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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