Novel * Stephen King * All Things Serve The Beam * 2004
The last three volumes of The Dark Tower series are of a whole. They tell one, last continuous tale which details the endgame concerning the quest for the Tower. Wolves of the Calla brings our ka-tet to the edge of End Word, and the final volume concludes the quest in one way or another. Meanwhile, this is very much a middle book. Song of Susannah is connective tissue that helps ensure that books five and seven aren’t each two thousand pages long. As such, the novel begins with the uncertainty left from the end of Wolves of the Calla and ends with an even more urgent uncertainty of its own. The great narrative is drawing to a close, and the only thing at stake is the spectrum of all possible realities. Basically, if you’ve come this far, you’re going to finish this thing. It would be madness not to. Because of that fact, this is going to do it for the spoiler-free section. From here on out, things get weird.
There are a couple of things I would like to discuss which have to do with the notions of magic and technology in a world – and a universe – that is in decline. That is, after all, the crux of the series. However, before I get to that we should probably address the big old elephant chilling in the living room: Stephen King is in his own book, and that’s pretty fuckin weird. And polarizing, I should think. Personally, I’ve had eleven years or so to come to terms with it, but at the time I distinctly remember thinking “oh, noooo. Why?” Now, there is an argument to be made that the author’s own presence is necessary to the story he’s trying to tell. After all, it has been clear for a long time that most (if not all) of King’s fiction ties into The Dark Tower in one way or another. This makes sense, considering the concept of the Tower itself: each story is its own level of the Dark Tower. Further, there is a sort of narrative saving grace inserted into the scene in which Roland and Eddie show up at young Stephen King’s house. As it transpires, King admits to being nothing but a conduit for the story. Roland isn’t really a creation of Stephen King, rather, Roland is an agent of the White, subject to the whims of ka like anyone else, whose story must be told in the true reality (ours), and hey, this guy King sells a lot of books so why not? Look, King’s appearance in his own book is problematic. However, it is not inconsistent or out of place given the world that has been created.
On the other hand, placing himself in his own damn story can be interpreted as self-indulgent at best, and allowing ego to ruin the overall story at worst. After much internal debate, I have allowed the fanboy in me to win out. It’s fine. It works. Having read pretty much everything the dude has published, introductions and afterwards and author’s notes included, I know that King has been consistent over his entire career when it comes to his method of storytelling. The Stephen King Roland meets in Song of Susannah is who he says he is. He’s never claimed to be anything other than a conduit for the stories he tells, and he’s been claiming that since the 1970’s. And that’s why I give him a pass. Unless his entire career has been some sort of long-con to ruin everyone’s experience with his most important books, then I’ll take him at his word when he says that how they story unfolds isn’t really up to him. Since King truly believes that the story is outside of him, then King himself is only important in his role as storyteller. It’s less ego than just accepting truth. All things, after all, serve The Beams.
Okay, so now that I’ve convinced myself (again) that everything is as it should be, there is the matter of magic and technology to be considered. Now that the series is in its endgame, the time for answers has come. With a story as draped in mystery as The Dark Tower, this could be problematic. Thankfully, despite a rash of new terms and concepts that weren’t foreshadowed in previous volumes (which is understandable considering the amount of time that separates the genesis of the series and the finale), most of the exposition that occurs makes sense. Moreover, it feels right. Once upon a time there was a primordial soup of magic, called Prim, and all was chaos, or Discordia. From this disorganized magic rose structure: The Beams. At their center, The Tower, and reality spun forth from this nexus. Then, as in any creation myth (including the scientific one), entropy sets in. Mia, the newly mortal elemental who has hijacked Susannah’s body in order to give birth to Roland’s demon-son, explains:
“The magic went away. Maerlyn retired to his cave in one world, the sword of Eld gave way to the pistols of the gunslingers in another, and magic went away. And across the arc of years, great alchemists, great scientists, and great – what? – technicians. I think? Great men of thought, anyway, that’s what I mean, great men of deduction – these came together and created the machines which ran the Beams. They were great machines, but they were mortal machines. They replaced the magic with machines, do ya kennit, and now the machines are failing…. The machines are going mad. You’ve seen this for yourself. The men believed there would always be more men like them to make more machines. None of them foresaw what’s happened. This… this universal exhaustion.”
Mia, as a supernatural being, is probably pretty biased when it comes to magic versus science, but her monologue captures the overall essence of The Dark Tower pretty well. The world has moved on, after all, and that always begs the question: to where? Mia answers this with the flat certainty of truth: to universal exhaustion. Entropy, then, which of course comes back around to science, deduction, and the rationality which is killing the world. The life-giving magic, irrational and unknowable, went away. Why? Same answer as always, the curse of knowledge. Stupid humanity and their stupid insatiable curiosity. Once all the world was magic and wonder, then we were all like, “yeah, but why is all this cool stuff so cool?” and then we fucking ruin it. Boom. Expelled from Eden. The Prim recedes. Merlin takes off because he can’t even believe it. Humanity came together and decided that ancient, eternal, life-giving magic is bullshit and that machines and rational thought are awesome because what could possibly be better than humans? Nothing, that’s what.
And so machines triumphed, for a while. Yet machines fail. They wind down. The more sophisticated the machine, the longer the process of decay. But in the end, all things fail. The machinations of the universe are in a constant state of decline, and eventually the Tower must fall. That’s… man, that’s a heavy bummer. In the face of this, Susannah – and by extension everyone else – can do one of two things: despair, give up and fail, or stand and be true where they will probably fail but perhaps win through. Guess what the gunslingers choose?