Seeking transcendence, or going beyond the boundaries of self, is a fundamentally human quest. The journey may be interpreted as the relationship between human and divine, but it may also be described as the connection between the ordinary and the ideal, the imperfect self and a perfected self, the limited human consciousness and the universal mind. This theme has fascinated me for years, so much so that it formed the core of my PhD thesis.
These books show the perils and joys of a life lived beyond the boundaries of self, a life that finds the divine in the human, and the human in the divine. Suffering is usually involved, but also ecstasy … and sometimes the end of the world.
Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis
Set in an ancient civilization where religion can be more powerful than kings, this story is the Cupid and Psyche myth retold from the point of view of Orual. She is an ugly princess, and Psyche is her beautiful half sister who is first worshipped by her people then beloved by a god so beautiful (or bestial) that mortal eyes cannot look upon him. Orual’s jealousy and love leads Psyche to betray her divine lover and be cast out in exile. Having lost her sister, Orual returns to her kingdom, learns to use the power of a mask, and gradually becomes a warrior and ruler of her people. Also bound to the god of love, she completes the same tasks imposed on Psyche, and discovers in the end what is needed for the human to meet the divine face to face.
The Gods Themselves, by Isaac Asimov
I am recommending only the second part of this very variable book about the search for a safe, long-lasting source of energy by scientists in two different universes. Dua, who lives in the para-universe, is an unusual female of her species with unconventional desires and two conventional male spouses, Odeen, and Tritt. Reproduction for this threesome can go two ways. It may result in the birth of a Rational like Odeen, an Emotional like Dua, or a Parental like Tritt. But, eventually, the ecstasy of sex causes a permanent fusion of the three into one consciousness and a new being. Dua, Odeen and Tritt must figure out for themselves what they are and who they will become—and they must do it soon, while trying to communicate with scientists from our universe before they accidentally blow up our sun.
Beauty, by Sheri S. Tepper
Beauty, the daughter of a human Duke and a fairy queen, goes from a magical fourteenth century to a future dystopian world’s-ending and back again. She travels from the mortal world to realms beyond time, the fading lands of Faery, and hell. Amid the tangle of time travel she grows up fast and grows old even faster. She births generations of fairy tales retold … and there is often no happy ever after. She has been both blessed and cursed by Carabosse, her aunt and fairy godmother, and it is her fate to witness and endure many horrors. But Carabosse proves to be on the side of the angels and her plan for Beauty is ambitious. She has planted everything that matters within Beauty to make her the heroine who will save the beauty of the world from those who try to destroy it.
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
Father Emilio Sandoz is a much-admired and beloved Jesuit priest—a man so inspired and inspiring, he seems “like he fell in love with God.” His Puerto Rican heritage is rooted in both the new world and the old, and when he joins a discovery mission to a new planet, his presence hints at first that the mistakes of the Columbian Exchange will be avoided. But the mission fails and he returns to Earth, a broken and disgraced sole survivor. The account of the mission and the story of his recovery unfold in tandem as he seeks to find meaning out of pain and sense from a tragic misinterpretation of his vow to love and serve.
Glory’s Teeth, by Tessa Gratton
Fenris Wolf appears as a small human girl named Glory in an alternate USA (United States of Asgard) where the gods are real and walk among mortals. This passionate prose-poem of a book tells of her legendary yet fraught relationships with Baldur, the god she is destined to devour; Tyr, the god who binds her; and the nameless, ceaseless hunger within her that will not be satisfied until the end of the world. The contemporary framing of the story both grounds and illuminates Glory’s struggle to come to terms with her identity, her loves, and her fate.
Karen Lord is the award-winning, Barbadian author of Redemption in Indigo, The Best of All Possible Worlds and The Galaxy Game, and editor of the anthology New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean. She is a writer for the serialised fiction Tremontaine Season 3.