The Book: Arms From The Sea by Rich Shapero

Q: Lyle’s sojourn with the Polyp is a kind of dream. It exists outside time.

RS: There are two dimensions in Arms. One is a slave of time. The other has dealings with time but exists outside it. The Polyp and his sea aren’t mortal. The blue currents continue to flow. There’s no beginning or end to them.

Q: The god in this dream is truly alien. Could a “mingling” with a creature like that really be transformative in a positive way?

RS: That’s a good question. To the extent that humans aspire to the transcendent, what does that look and feel like? I don’t buy the notion of a kindly humanoid god. There are higher powers for us to connect with, but they are more threatening, more frightening, more alien than that.

The transcendent presences in the books I’ve written always have a threatening element, an element that’s alien and inscrutable. The idea that you can close your eyes and launch yourself out of the human shell without experiencing a trauma of the soul—that’s a fairy tale.

Q: Maybe the Polyp is just a projection of Lyle’s aspirations.

RS: Maybe. That’s a reasonable interpretation. Or you could turn it around and say that Lyle is just a projection of the Polyp’s desire to enter the world and transform it. That’s what the mingling with Nawkoo allowed him to do. These alien powers that stalk our cosmos—are they humans trying to be gods or gods trying to be humans?

Q: There’s a reverence for artistry at the heart of Arms.

RS: I had a funny moment in Ireland a couple of years ago. My wife looked at a hill that was striated horizontally, and she said, “It’s magical.” I said, “Sheep did that. Those are sheep trails.” She said, “Get out!” We were with a local later that day, and she asked him, “What makes the magic lines on those hills?” and he said, “Sheep.”

The sheep are creative, whether they mean to be or not. Or rather, everything in our world is a kind of artistry. The sheep and the magic lines they make are the work of a presence we can’t see. If you believe in a humanoid god, you might give him or her credit. If you don’t believe in a humanoid god, you might give evolution or ecology credit. If you find any beauty in life, any wonder, any magic, you’ll be reaching beyond what is strictly human for the cause. However the lines on those hills were created, it is artistry and we should appreciate it as such.

My point is that creativity isn’t a human value. It’s a supreme value for everything that exists, animate or inanimate. Artistry is the soul of the universe.

Q: The biology of the Polyp’s heaven is highly skewed toward invertebrate life forms. Why?

RS: The Polyp has strong opinions about the kinds of creatures that are suitable for heaven. He likes animals that look like plants—filter-feeders, animals that draw nutrients from water. He dislikes predators and parasites. They rankle his moral sense. He also puts a premium on physical beauty, and there too the marine invertebrates rise to the top.

The vertebrates in our world use beauty to attract mates. Visually we pale in comparison to the marine invertebrates. That’s something every snorkeler and diver knows.

Q: If you were choosing creatures for heaven, would humans make the cut?

RS: We’re omnivores and predators by design, and so are many of our mammalian pals. Dogs and cats were designed to kill. Would an enlightened god create a biology that sought to eliminate those characteristics?

In respect to beauty, most mammals are dressed in camouflage. We’re designed to disappear into our background, like soldiers. For many other animals, beauty isn’t there for its own sake. Nudibranchs are colorful to threaten predators. What kind of aesthetic is that? If you eliminated predation, you could launch a biological ethos based on beauty. If you were a god, isn’t that something you’d consider?