If Philip K. Dick’s “Dr. Futurity” is about an alien land where incestuous eugenics are the norm and an intrusive white man will change everything – so is William Golding’s novella, “The Scorpion God.”
Golding is once again in the “strange” mode of “The Inheritors,” describing an ancient culture through its own disorienting perceptions, except that instead of Neanderthals, “The Scorpion God” takes a look at the behavior of Pre-Pharaonic Egyptians… and the unexpected rise of what may be the first Pharaoh, triumphant over the old order.
Great House is God and Father to his people; upon his eventual passing from the Now into Eternal Life, all his children will gladly accompany him in mass suicide; after all, he makes the Nile rise and holds the sky up every day, so they owe him servitude in the Land of the Dead. Great House is counseled by The Head Man (enforcer of ancient dogmas) and amused by The Liar (a free-thinking pale man who has arrived from northern lands and tells unbelievable tales about rivers of water that turn white and hard as stone.)
Meanwhile, Great House’s young son hates the idea of having to hold up the sky and direct the Nile’s floods (it’s not easy being God!) He also doesn’t want to marry his sister, Pretty Flower. This mystifies the Head Man: what kind of deviant sicko doesn’t fancy his own sister? Who does the kid want to have sex with, people who aren’t even relatives? GROSS!
Golding makes too much of a point of making unnecessary “wink wink” asides like I just did above. We get that incest is the norm, so we don’t need anyone vocalizing that. The modern irony intrudes upon Golding’s carefully wrought aesthetic. That’s not too bad; what’s worse is when historical authenticity is marred by abrupt, careless Anglicisms. When the Great House is interrupted at a game of proto-checkers, he snarls: “Do you MIND?” Elsewhere, the Head Man sighs: “Well. Oh dear. Well, well, well. Tut, tut. Bless me!” It takes you right out of Egypt. That same Head Man later offers a monologue of such eloquent psychological introspection that it’s like reading Henry James on a papyrus.
While not overly bound by Egyptological research, “The Scorpion God” hints at the rise of the real “Scorpion King,” whose Proto-Dynastic reign can boast of both early hieroglyphs and the oldest evidence of wine-making paraphernalia. (Writing and alcoholism developed at the same time in world history. What a coincidence.)
RATING : GOOD ENOUGH