Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: “He Left” or How About That War Then? R.M. Meluch’s Jerusalem Fire

Last time, I was a little unflattering about Meluch’s most recent series, the Tour of the Merrimack. So I thought I’d leave my brief casting-of-the-eye over her work with a book I can be mostly heartfelt and enthusiastic about: 1985’s Jerusalem Fire.

Jerusalem Fire. It’s odd and imperfect and some of its opinions, where it touches—briefly but emotively—on the Jewish and Arabic population of far-future Jerusalem, make me twitch. But as an examination of character, of the price exacted by war on two different men, it is an excellent novel, and interesting science fiction.

(I also think it falls under the heading of planetary opera, because it has some very interesting, culturally speaking, aliens. But I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.)

The Na’id, a human empire, rule the stars, or most of them. A section of humanity who’ve decided that in order to eradicate bias based on race or religion, they will force everyone to assimilate to the Na’id creed, and to interbreed in order to diffuse differences in phenotype. (Science says: I HAZ BIN MISINTERPRETED, but belief-systems have never actually needed to be amenable to logic in order to continue propagation. Moving on….)

This has worked out just about as peacefully as you’d expect.

The novel opens with Alihahd, whose nom-de-guerre means “He left,” running from the Na’id. A pacifist, he opposes the Na’id by helping people flee from them. When his vessel is destroyed, he and his quasi-rescuer, Harrison Hall—whose cold curiosity, self-interest, and focus on revenge forms a foil to Alihahd’s discomfort with responsibility and violence, and his passive desire to end his life—end up on the planet of Iry, where they become the guests of the Itiri warrior-priests, a race of aliens who have been no more than legend to most humans for thousands of years. But humans aren’t legends to the Itiri, who’ve gone out into the wider universe in secret on occasion, and brought home strays.

One of those strays is Jinin-Ben-Tairre, a human youth become Itiri warrior-priest, who carries with him immense hatred of the Na’id, immense drive to survive, and a sublimated desire for revenge that finally finds expression when the Itiri, in the end, cast him out.

Both Hall and Jinin-Ben-Tairre are, in a sense, Alihahd’s mirror-images: Jinin-Ben-Tairre more so, since, as we learn more about what made Alihahd the deeply damaged yet still imposing man he is, we learn that some of the same things shaped the human boy the warrior-priest used to be.

The “Jerusalem Fire” of the title refers to the city of Jerusalem on Earth, symbol of resistance to the Na’id. The city whose fall broke Alihahd, although not in precisely the ways one might expect. The city whose role as a symbol of the enduring nature of human perseverance and of the futility of killing other humans in order to end strife forms the central image of this novel. There are many ways to read that image—though I do think that it shows a certain lack of imagination, to suggest that several thousand years on from the twentieth century no other creed will have joined Jews, Christians, and Muslims in claiming Jerusalem as a central site for to their revelation—and it’s certainly a powerful one.

For a science fiction novel, Jerusalem Fire is very low-key, quiet and concerned with interiority, with the examination of character. Unusual in its quietude, it is, I think, also unusually successful at it, rarely ranging into the moralistic or the downright peculiar.

It does have flaws, of course. Its structure is odd, and its emotional conclusion uncertain, and I no longer find it normal to read a book with such a complete focus on the internal lives of its men and none at all on women. (Except in one extraordinarily squicky moment: I’ve reached the conclusion that Meluch is immensely bad at characterising female sexuality.)

It’s more than worth one’s time—and holds up surprisingly well for a SF novel that’s older than I am. Anyone else who’s read it have opinions to share?

Next week, we’ll take a look at Laura E. Reeve’s Peacekeeper, et sequelae.


Liz Bourke wrote this particular column some weeks past, while a caffeinated insomniac. Everyone has weeks like that, right?

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