Three Parts Dead

March 24, 2015

With philosophical and theological intrigue, a critique of late capitalism, and a badass female protagonist, Max Gladstone’s debut is unlike any fantasy novel I’ve ever read, and in all the right ways.

Max Gladstone’s debut Three Parts Dead is smart modern fantasy which deftly blends theology and economics to ask: what if gods were corporations and prayers were contracts? What if, like our wizards of Wall Street, they sliced and bundled prayers into collateralized faith obligations, complex instruments from which the gods extract ever greater value and power. What if, as we saw in 2008, it all came crashing down? What happens when a god declares bankruptcy…

In Gladstone’s world of Three Parts Dead, divine miracles and human sorcery follow the same cosmic mechanism, called “Craft”. For ages, the gods had a monopoly on such power, transforming the small prayers and devotions of their followers into miracles. But as humans grew more deft at manipulating Craft, they began to challenge the gods, culminating in the God Wars in which the most powerful craftsmen overthrew the gods and took their places, or at least tried to. It’s a canny allegory for the last three centuries, during which human science and industry have effectively banished religion from the corridors of power. (Clearly no one at the Department of Defense or writing economic policy has asked “What Would Jesus Do?” in a long while.)

In human hands, Craft is primarily a tool of business and bureaucracy. It’s used to enforce contracts and loans (imagine if interest payments simply disappeared from one’s purse), and to protect the power of entrenched interests (or “concerns”). It’s telling that when mankind overthrows the gods and designs its own religion, it looks an awful lot like modern capitalism. One wonders the extent to which capitalism is the dominant religion in much of the world today—its article of faith the justice of markets, its offerings made in the form of consumption. Craft is, in effect, boring. This typical passages from the protagonist’s Craft textbook is a far cry from the poetry of “Double, double, toil and trouble”:

In conflicts of deothaumaturgical interest, equity proceeds according to a paradigm originally formalized in the seventeenth century…

But one thing I really like about Gladstone’s version of magic is how Craft obeys rules. Unlike in Middle Earth or Harry Potter, you can’t just say some magic words and make things happen. It’s much more like science. Take for example how craftsmen engineered this book retrieval system:

When Tara had requested books from the collection, the young man at the reference desk scrawled the titles on a slip of palimpsest with a quill pen and inserted the slip into a pneumatic slot. Minutes later, a wooden wall panel swung open soundlessly and a book-laden cart rolled out of the darkness, bearing her order. A small glass and silver tank welded to the cart’s underside played host to the guiding rat brain. By a trick of Craft, the brain thought it was still a rat, seeking always a trace of food that happened to be one room over, one level up, just around the next turn of the shelf. When Tara claimed her books, the rat brain received its illusory reward and wheeled off in search of the next morsel.

The History of the Gods

The God Wars were not world wars, and the gods still reign in some older, more traditional parts of Gladstone’s world. Historically, they’ve exist in symbiotic relationship with their human devotees.

So, too, with gods. Gods live and reproduce much like humans, and, like humans, their higher functions (language, pact-making, careful exercise of power, sentience) developed quite recently on the timescale of eons. In the unrecorded mists of prehistory, when mankind prowled the savannah and the swamps, their gods hunted with them, little more than shadows on a cave wall, the gleam in a hunter’s eye, a mammoth’s death roar, primitive as the men they ruled. As men grew in size, complexity, and might, the gods grew with them.

Gods, however, made deals. It was the essence of their power. They accepted a tribe’s sacrifice and in turn protected its hunters from wolves and wild beasts. They received the devotion of their people, and gave back grace. A successful god arranged to receive more than he returned to the world. Thus your power and your people grew together, slowly, from family to tribe, from tribe to city, from city to nation, and so on to infinity.

In this sense, they are like multinational corporations—specifically banks, considering the following:

Nice strategy, but slow. Theologians centuries back had developed a faster method. One god gave of his power to another, or to a group of worshipers, on a promise of repayment in kind, and of more soulstuff than had been initially lent. Gods grew knit to gods, pantheons to pantheons, expecting, and indeed requiring, their services to be returned. Power flowed, and divine might increased beyond measure. There were risks, though. If a goddess owed more than she could support, she might die as easily as a human who shed too much blood.

Put simply:

What you think of as your god is a manifold of power and information and relationships, deals and bargains and compromises congealed over millennia.

In Sum

While I was most fascinated by Gladstone’s vision of Craft and the changing relationship between mankind and its gods, Three Parts Dead is also just a great story. Gladstone keeps the pace moving, which is a remarkable feat considering he concurrently has to explain a brand new universe to his readers. And while he can write a heart-pounding action scene, I enjoyed his sense of humor. When asked how Denovo, a nefarious old craftsman, can look so handsome, one character responds:

“He drinks the life of those who come too close to him. Steals their youth. Also,” she said after a pause, “he moisturizes.”

And I’ll end with a favorite retort from Tara, a capable apprentice craftswoman and the book’s protagonist, upon being lectured about convenient fictions:

“A convenient fiction is a model used to approximate the behavior of a system. Like engines. Often, a mechanic doesn’t need to worry about compression chambers and heat exchange. He only needs to know that the engine transforms fuel into mechanical force. That description of an engine as a box that turns fuel to movement is a convenient fiction.”

“I’ve never heard that example before,” Tara admitted.

“What example do you use?”