Heroes from Lost Boys Press is out now! Woooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
You can and should purchase this brand-new anthology of glorious retellings directly from the publisher by clicking here – you’ll find paperback and hardback editions, and a lot of really cool merchandise (including, to my astonishment, a T-shirt with a quote from my story or a magnet/sticker with my signature on). You can of course also find e-versions of the book in places that sell e-versions, such as the ever-present Amazon here (UK), or here (US). I know some of the other writers, and I’ve heard great things about the rest, so I don’t doubt it’ll be a spectacular read.
I thought that while I was here chatting about Heroes (oh, and I actually did go and chat about it as part of Don’t Make It Weird Podcast’s live launch event, which you can watch here), it might be fun to get a little self-indulgent and do a bit of, like, discussion of my own story. I figure it might give those who aren’t familiar with the original epic a bit more context, and perhaps shine some light on where things converge and diverge. Spoilers to follow, naturally, but oh well!
So the prompt for Heroes was to create a retelling of a myth, legend, folktale, etc – if it’s in the public domain, it’s fair game. My copy hasn’t arrived just yet, but I know we have some Greek stuff in there, an Irish story, some classic British myths, a little Norse, and then there’s me with the Sumerian. I picked the Epic of Gilgamesh to retell, partly because I really like it, partly because I hoped nobody else would (and thus I’d have a better chance of getting in), and partly because I think it’s a story with a few broad beats but a lot of wiggle room on the specifics.
So let’s go through ‘Immortal Kingdom’ and see what we find, shall we?
We kick off with Enkidu, who lives in a place that does its best to function without technology. The rest of the world, which is a futuristic mess, calls his people ‘Luds’ – short for ‘Luddites’, and I think I might have accidentally stolen that from the TV show Upload (but only realised when the second season came out after this story was already done!). Enkidu has a dim view of technology in general, not helped by the fact that most of the people who come to his homeland seem to just be dickheads, but there is at least a little bit of hope here: machines are responsible for protecting the Luds from the harsh environment, so it’s not all bad. What they have to give in return is probably more than it ought to be, of course.
Anyway, Enkidu in the original epic begins as this kind of wild animal man, totally uncultured and unfamiliar with the world. Some translations, at least, suggest that the gods don’t even consider him human at first, but then a priestess-slash-prostitute seduces him, as a result of which he becomes intelligent. This gives him the power of thought and speech and all that, but it also separates him from the natural world he was part of: once he becomes human, he’s no longer quite as pure as he was before. Animals run from him; he’s kind of forcibly moved from one world to another. Then he heads over to Gilgamesh’s kingdom, Uruk, where he intends to fight Gilgamesh for reasons I don’t totally remember. They battle until they’re both nearly dead, at which point they decide they like each other’s strength and decide to be best mates.
The ‘Immortal Kingdom’ version of events comes in a slightly different order. Enkidu hears that Gilgamesh plans to destroy his home, so he goes to find Gilgamesh. Turns out it was a misunderstanding: Gilgamesh is a great and powerful ruler in an online game, not in real life. Enkidu doesn’t quite get this and challenges Gilgamesh to a game, which ends up being chess. (If I ever expand this story into a longer thing, which I think there’s definitely space to do, I think I have to spend some more time on future chess, which is here a brief note that chess in Gilgamesh’s world is a brutal combat sport played on jet rollerblades.) Unlike the original, in which both men fight honourably to a draw, Gilgamesh handily beats Enkidu by cheating.
This is maybe one of the smaller tweaks from the original story, but I think it puts Gilgamesh’s character in a different light. The original was already a hero by the time he met Enkidu; this version takes shortcuts, doesn’t care about honour, and barely even thinks twice about deceiving and taking advantage of Enkidu. I hope the effect is that it gives him somewhere to grow over the story, giving him a bit of an arc rather than having him already at the height of his heroism.
Meeting Enkidu, though, who does care about honour and fairness and doing things the right way, is a bit of a turning point for our Gil, who’s probably never really come across someone who wouldn’t take the easy path over the proper one. He decides perhaps a bit too quickly to offer a place to stay, but the word limit meant I sometimes had to move a bit quicker than might’ve been ideal!
So the next thing that happens is that Gilgamesh introduces Enkidu (accidentally) to pornography, which doesn’t give him the power of intelligence but does have the effect of making him feel totally separated from his old world. I wanted to bring out a couple of extra things here that aren’t present in the original epic (because it predates them!): one is that I see Enkidu as very similar to John from Brave New World, whom you might remember as the ‘savage’ who gets so disillusioned with the wonderful utopian world that he hangs himself; the other is that I think this idea that simply knowing (or experiencing) something can entail irreversible corruption is pretty wank. It’s a bit original-sin-ish; Gilgamesh in IK says that Enkidu’s reasoning reminds him of a religion called ‘originalism’, which I guess is just me not wanting to specifically name any real beliefs. But I was thinking of those that put emphasis on the notion that we simply can’t escape being sinners purely by virtue of existing.
Around this bit of the story we also meet UTNAPI, an AI whose name stands for something Gilgamesh can’t remember. This is because I have no idea what it stands for. Utnapishtim is the Mesopotamian equivalent of Noah in the Bible, and appears in the Epic as an immortal ancestor of Gilgamesh. Here, though, he’s a kind of all-purpose assistant, sort of like a Siri/Alexa with access to a 3D printer. More on him later.
Gilgamesh divulges to Enkidu that he wants to be immortal, which is something the original Gilgamesh doesn’t get hung up on until much later in the Epic. I think this was another attempt on my part to condense things and perhaps create a bit more of a consistent thread to follow, since I didn’t have space in this retelling to go off and do a few disparate adventures before getting to the final themes. Enkidu and Gilgamesh discuss a little bit what ‘immortality’ would actually mean; Gil thinks uploading his consciousness (I guess Upload was way more on my mind that I realised) so he can exist as a disembodied thing would be fine, but Enkidu doesn’t think that sounds like living.
Enkidu’s own goals are a bit more humble, maybe: he wants to secure a future for his people where they don’t have to worry about how hard it is to exist in this ravaged world.
Luckily, Gilgamesh has an idea that might solve both of their issues: there’s a facility where Things are made, and maybe some of those Things could make him immortal and/or help Enkidu’s folks. This is probably the biggest ask I make of the reader: I would’ve loved to have had space to do this less jarringly, but I basically just have to say ‘look, I need them to go on a quest and all I have time to explain right now is that there are McGuffins that would be perfect for all their needs’! One of the things in the facility is ‘the Seed’, a rumoured immortality-maker; this is a little nod to the fact that G & E’s destination in the Epic is the ‘Cedar Forest’. (Seed, Cedar, geddit?)
Gilgamesh asks his followers for some help – that is, people who watch his livestreams and gaming sessions. There’s more to dive into on the idea of Gilgamesh as a streamer with viewers or fans or whatever; we’ll get there. Anyway, they help him find the location of this place, and our heroes are off on their journey. Hurrah!
On the way, Gilgamesh comes to realise that maybe trying right is more important than winning, so he comes clean to Enkidu about cheating. He sees Enkidu as kind of pure and unruined compared to everything else in his dystopian world; it’s only meeting someone from outside that world that made him realise how messed up it is. And then they kiss.
There’s a lot of discussion out there about Gilgamesh and Enkidu as queer-coded in the original Epic, but I wanted to bring that element out more explicitly. So I did. That’s all I have to say about that!
In the Epic, G & E battle Humbaba, the guardian of the Cedar Forest. Here they face off against the Humble Barber, who is a giant robot and also a boss from a video game Gilgamesh has played. I don’t think I executed this whole bit brilliantly – I was set on how cool the idea was that Humbaba would be a deadly robot and that it would be appropriate if it were a real boss fight in Gilgamesh’s game-influenced worldview. I think I could’ve probably laid better groundwork for this to happen, since it does sort of come out of nowhere and doesn’t get explained or explored. Oh, well!
The Humble Barber is defeated, but not without assistance. This seems a good time to talk about perhaps one of the biggest elements of the original Epic that didn’t make it into ‘Immortal Kingdom’ (at least, not in the same form): gods.
The gods play a pretty big part in the Epic, as they do in a lot of myths and legends from around the world. Some of them help our heroes, some oppose them, and some are just sort of there. I didn’t think actual gods would’ve fit into this version of the story, but I do think they’re sort of present: as Gilgamesh’s stream viewers.
In the Epic, the sun god Shamash helps in the battle against Humbaba; in ‘Immortal Kingdom’, one of Gilgamesh’s followers is able to intervene by disabling part of the protective sky layer that prevents the sun from scorching the earth. There’s also a brief allusion to the goddess Ishtar in the form of a message Gilgamesh receives that doesn’t seem happy with him; in the original, Gilgamesh rejecting Ishtar’s advances is a pretty key moment as it sets in motion the events leading to Enkidu’s death.
So what am I trying to say here? Am I making a point about celebrity, especially Internet fame? Maybe. I don’t think I have any particular point to make or side to argue for, but I do think it’s kind of interesting. Streamers (or other content creators) and their followers have a kind of reciprocal god-like relationship: there’s obviously the reverence that flows from fan to celebrity, but the person at the top has to also worship their audience to some degree. They depend on their fans continuing to want to support them, lest they be abandoned or even smotened. (I know it’s ‘smote’, but that never looks right to me. Always wanna say ‘smited’. Compromised on this occasion.) Anyhoo, the fact that we can now communicate with, influence the lives of, do great good or harm to, etc etc, people all around the world is kind of bizarre when you start thinking about it. We’re all gods and we’re all prophets and we’re all heathens.
Following the battle with the Humble Barber, Enkidu and Gilgamesh find… not a whole lot of useful stuff. There is an energy sword purely for the cool factor, so that’s something, but they have to hot-foot it out of the place pretty quickly when alarms start going off and another robotic guardian appears. This all happens pretty quickly; I’m blaming the word limit again.
Anyway, this is a robotic version of the Bull of Heaven, which Ishtar’s father Anu sends in the Epic to attack G & E as payback for Gil not wanting to bang Ishtar (which, to be fair, was because she’d been kind of not chill to her previous lovers, so she’s sort of proving his point here). In the Epic, our heroes kill the Bull, but because it was a really awesome bull or something, it’s decreed by the gods that one of the two of them must die to balance the scales. They pick Enkidu, who from that point on just gets sick until he dies.
The IK version of events sees Enkidu wounded by the bullbot before killing it; Gilgamesh thinks his wounds should be OK, but Enkidu’s condition worsens until they realise why he isn’t recovering: the food in Gilgamesh’s futuristic world is all synthesised and requires people to have had supplementary shots to help them properly digest it. Enkidu hasn’t had these, so his body can’t get nutrients from the food. As it turns out, Enkidu in a very physical sense could never properly belong to the same world as Gilgamesh.
Before Enkidu dies, he gives a brief speech that is very heavily inspired by Herman Hesse’s book Steppenwolf. I guess I see this version of Enkidu as a melting pot of original Enkidu, Brave New World‘s John, Harry Haller, and probably a few other characters too, ones who fundamentally don’t feel they belong in the world in which they find themselves. That’s always been very relatable to me.
At this point in the Epic, Gilgamesh is distraught and becomes terrified of the prospect of his own death. Similar kind of vibes in ‘Immortal Kingdom’, I guess, except that he was already big on the not-wanting-to-die thing. There are a few tablets of the Epic following Enkidu’s death, in which Gilgamesh goes on a lengthy adventure to find his immortal ancestor Utnapishtim. I would’ve loved to have had space to retell some of those moments here, but this part becomes hugely condensed for IK: Gilgamesh’s voyage to the physical location of UTNAPI only takes a page or so. On the way, though, he starts playing a different game, one about creating rather than destroying. Importantly, he does it for its own sake rather than for fame or whatever.
Utnapishtim in the Epic tells Gilgamesh that immortality is a foolish and futile thing to seek and that it’s not even that great anyway, but Gil is so set on it that Utnapishtim ends up setting him a couple of impossible challenges to show him that he can’t attain it. This, naturally, makes him pretty bummed out, but when he returns to his home of Uruk he sees how majestic it is and how powerfully it will last, remaining even when he doesn’t. Something similar goes on in IK: UTNAPI explains that death is what gives context and meaning to life, and tells Gil that any method of achieving eternal life would probably not be much of a life anyway. (UTNAPI itself can’t die, but neither is it really alive in the first place.) Gilgamesh takes a bit of convincing, but accepts eventually that his works can outlive him – that those who are gone can continue to live on through how others remember them. (This is a theme I stuffed into Each Little Universe too. Humanist or whatever, innit?)
‘Immortality’, says UTNAPI, ‘does not only mean continuing to exist in the way you do now.’ Gilgamesh’s creations in the new game strike a chord with new fans, creating new connections that affirm him in the world – this is a much more meaningful thing to seek, I think, than when he earlier says that the simple number of followers he has feels like an important goal in itself. (Although, arguably, he had a kind of immortality already just from that – he just didn’t realise it at the time.)
And he’s not done there: so that Enkidu’s wishes can live on too, he persuades UTNAPI (not sure how, tbh) to provide enough important materials to Enkidu’s people that they’ll be able to live safely for generations to come. This, I think, is Gilgamesh’s final immortality in ‘Immortal Kingdom’: he becomes a symbolic life-giver to people who will always keep alive the memory of that benefactor who did them such a kindness. Original Epic Gilgamesh doesn’t have an equivalent moment other than when he tries to commend Enkidu to a good afterlife, but since this version has them more explicitly in love I thought this Gilgamesh should have a big moment of doing something to keep Enkidu’s memory alive too. So the two of them get to live on together, which is a nice thought.
I think this sort of selflessness is what we should be shooting for in our lives, although perhaps not on the scale of donating machinery to a small country. Every time we do some small kindness to someone else, we affect their life and make it different than it would’ve been without us. The chain of things that happen from there will always have us in as a link, and that way I think we truly to continue to exist, just not in the way we do right now.
THE END, I GUESS
Didn’t mean to go on that long, to be honest, but I enjoyed doing it. So, uh… go buy Heroes now, OK?