July 01, 2005

Divinity School

The godlings straggled into the classroom and lined up in order of seniority, wondering under their breaths what He was going to put them through this time. First they went through their warm-up exercises: storms, quakes, ice ages, asteroid collisions. A few quick shifts of the magnetic poles to limber up. Then the Professor went down the rows checking their last assignment: an epidemic.

“Too mild,” he shook his head, passing quickly from one to the next. “This one’s been done before, the same old buboes and fevers, the reviewers hate this kind of stuff… A disease in echinoderms? Who cares?… Let go, use bold strokes, make those symptoms colorful, find your own ‘Let there be’!”

As a break after the rigors of the critique, the Professor entertained them with stories of His exploits: universes He’d created and destroyed in a blink, rewards and punishments He’d doled out. For their amusement He stretched out His arm and in the palm of His hand appeared a little drama, two worlds fighting to the death: tiny explosions, infinitesimal wailings of despair and agony rising through a miniature atmosphere, effulgent clouds and plummeting airships and all. Every detail immaculate, down to the last weeping orphan.

“He makes it look so easy,” one student murmured to another.

“He’s because He’s been doing it forever. Maybe when we’ve been doing it that long…” A wistful, hopeful, sigh.

Then the Professor called them up individually to show their latest projects: intelligent species. One student had made a huge peaceable contemplative marine mammal: it received an A. Another had created a group intelligence in a social insect: risky and imperfectly executed, but A- for level of difficulty. A third was working on a still more ambitious scheme: collective intelligence in a virus. This student asked for, and received, an extension.

Then the slowest student in the class shambled up to the Professor’s desk and placed a diorama on it. The Professor peeked inside, wrinkled his nose, and made a displeased sound.

“I don’t understand the intention,” He chided. “This is messy work, this is ill–conceived. Original, maybe, because no one’s ever thought it worth trying before. But what can it possibly achieve? It’s got no defenses. It can’t bite, it can’t run, it doesn’t even have a protective covering, and the briefest observation tells me it’s not all that bright either. Put it on a world and this thing will go extinct in a week. I mean, primates? Treetop academies, coconut–throwing metaphysicians?“

“No -- I mean, of course Your comments are omniscient, Professor, but if You‘ll forgive me, I just wanted to try out an idea that came to me while I was -- well, actually I was in the bathroom when I got the idea.” The godling winked at her laughing classmates. “But look.” She gently slid a finger down into the diorama and began manipulating her creatures this way and that. “They’re flexible, see? They don’t do anything all that well, they’re not committed to any one thing, so they can do anything. It suddenly occurred to me -- don’t think about where they come from, think about where they’re going. Give them less to start with, and they’ll have to hurry up and do more. And don’t make them all that intelligent, either -- that costs too much. Just smart enough to survive and spread. I think I can save quite a lot on the budget with this one, Sir, and plow it back into things like -- oh, I don’t know. Hubris.“

The Professor wriggled His nose impatiently above His immense beard. The class snickered on the sidelines.

“All right, I’ll give you till next session. Show me something good by then. Otherwise -- “

“Otherwise I’ll burn it,” the student agreed, nodding eagerly to appease Him. “Absolutely. Next class. You’re so right – of course.”

The Professor dismissed the class, and outside, the godling carried her diorama tentatively under cloudy winter skies. At one point she tripped on the icy sidewalk and almost dropped the thing.

She walked over to the library steps, sat down, and took some deep breaths to try, unsuccessfully, to calm herself. “Come on, do something, you little morons,” she said, rapping the roof of the diorama, which was made of an old shoe box. “Why did I have to get that primate idea? Why am I always making the wrong choices, putting my energy into things that never work out? If I fail this course I’ll never earn my capital letters. I'll never get the chance to create anything really good.”

Inside the diorama a naked man and woman were stumbling about in a garden, testing their bodies mutely -- for they had no language yet. Then they started hitting each other. Sighing, the student set the diorama beside her on the stairs. She almost hoped someone would come by and step on it: then she would have an excuse. But no such luck. After a moment of pure blank idealess suspension -- not thinking of boys, not thinking of parents, not thinking of homesickness, not thinking of parties -- she picked up the diorama and trudged to her dorm.