Mike Resnick,
Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future
(Tor, 1986)

They say his father was a comet and his mother a cosmic wind, that he juggles planets as if they were feathers and wrestles with black holes just to work up an appetite. They say he never sleeps, and that his eyes burn brighter than a nova, and that his shout can level mountains.

Put the characters of the American frontier, both real and legendary -- Mike Fink, Paul Bunyan, Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley -- into the story of the wanderings of Odysseus, make the center of the story a quest for Robin Hood, and kick it into the far future. You are very close to Mike Resnick's Santiago.

The story takes place on the Inner Frontier, the edge of human space toward the center of the galaxy. Authority in the form of the Democracy (your basic repressive state) is not really in charge here: it is a place where the law is what you make it, where the people you meet have stories you may not want to hear, although you are wise to listen, and what you see is probably not what you're going to get.

Our doorway into this universe is the "Ballad of Santiago," an evergrowing song by a future troubador, Black Orpheus. And the cast of characters has all the color and vitality of the Wild West: we meet Giles Sans Pitié, a bounty hunter with a steel fist and a short temper; Halfpenny Terwilliger, a gambler who finds it expedient not to stay in one place too long; the Virgin Queen, a journalist named Virtue McKenzie whose virtues are more theoretical than real; Father William, who sends some souls to their just deserts a little early and uses the reward money to save the survivors; and the Songbird, Sebastian Nightingale Cain, a bounty hunter who is not fond of the name Black Orpheus gave him, whose past is as checkered as anyone else's in this raw society, and whose next target is the legendary Santiago.

There are many stories, and many characters, all of whom have a part to play in Cain's quest. And all the stories, ultimately, are about Santiago, master criminal, mass murderer, king of the smugglers, nemesis of the Democracy. But the stories don't always agree. In fact, the closer Cain comes to his goal, the more the stories change, the more they talk of a hero, a savior, a redeemer of hopes and dreams, a Robin Hood of the Inner Frontier.

Resnick has done a dazzling job of myth building using as a framework that poem that has worked its way from classical literature to network television (Star Trek, anyone?) and the title of which has come to describe an entire genre of its own. And this is truly an odyssey, not only across space, but through the mind of a man who has a goal -- clear-cut, definite, profitable and admirable -- that changes as he draws closer, and he changes as his goal does. In many ways, it calls to mind Neil Gaiman's American Gods, perhaps as a mirror image; where Gaiman took European myth and filtered it through American popular culture, Resnick took American legend and pushed it into a new dimension using a European model. In both cases the writers give us a sense of the mythic potential of our own time, our own history.

Santiago is, as it must be, episodic -- some commentators have called it "fragmented," "incoherent" or simply "confusing." I don't see it. The stories are often brief, the characters sometimes mere sketches (but very deft, highly colored sketches), the transitions abrupt. But in the context of an odyssey, this only makes sense -- it's a train ride through many landscapes, past many places that we see briefly and that leave impressions: sharp details against a blurred background that gradually build into the story of the journey.

Myth-building is something that we rarely think about: myths, after all, are old stories that don't mean much to us these days, unless we spend a lot of time in alternate universes. And then someone like Mike Resnick comes along and builds a story before our eyes, a story that is wide and deep and sometimes a little scary, and we start to understand how myths are made.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 11 December 2004

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