Our Lady of Chernobyl is a collection of short fiction by the Australian science fiction writer Greg Egan, published in 1995 by MirrorDanse, in Sydney. It has a cool purple drawing of a brain on the cover and contains 4 stories, all of which were first published in Asimov's Science Fiction or Interzone:

  • "Chaff" (1993)
    Colombian drug cartels have made the Amazon rainforest into biotechnological nightmare/utopia of staggering (and cool) proportions. A U.S. operative dives into the morass in search of an itinerant scientist and questions his convictions about the nature of identity.
  • "Beyond the Whistle Test" (1989)
    A full understanding of certain neural pathways results in the creation of a song that gets permanently stuck in the heads of listeners.
  • "Transition Dreams" (1993)
    An elderly man agrees to have his mind (or, if you prefer, in information stored in his brain) copied to computer. Because copying must act on data, and because, Egan proves (to materialists), acting on integrated brain data is equivalent to causing experiences (see: REM sleep), he is told that in the process he will undergo unremembered dreams. Further explores a subset of the territory covered in the extraordinarily cool Permutation City.
  • "Our Lady of Chernobyl" (1994)
    A recently deceased oligarch, a mysterious stolen icon, a private detective, a murder.

I've read all of these but Beyond the Whistle Test, because all but Beyond the Whistle Test are also contained in another Egan collection, Luminous, and because Our Lady Of Chernobyl hasn't been published in the U.S. (Luminous hasn't either (a great injustice) but I'm enough of a geek to have ordered it from amazon.co.uk)

For completists: there's a French edition under the title of "Notre-Dame de Tchernobyl", translated by Sylvie Denis and Francis Valéry, published by DLM éditions/CyberDreams, Pézilla-la-riviére


"Our Lady of Chernobyl" is also, as you have no doubt gathered by this point, a short story.

First published in Interzone #83, May 1994, then reprinted in Our Lady of Chernobyl, Notre-Dame de Tchernobyl, Luminous, Hayakawa's SF Magazine (Japanese translation), and the Italian edition of Luminous, as "Nostra Signora Di Chernobyl". Unlike those artsy Eurasians, we Americans are apparently too stupid to understand it.

Those familiar with some of Egan's other work may be a bit surprised -- there's no physics here, no philosophical explorations of the nature of consciousness and reality. This one's SF noir, through and through (albeit with a subtext that meditates on religion from an atheist perspective), a dark, twisty tale revealed to the reader as it is revealed to the P.I. protagonist, in fits and starts.

There's a free exerpt -- the beginning of the story -- at fictionwise, which I'll reprint here:


Luciano Masini had the haunted demeanor and puffy complexion of an insomniac. I'd picked him as a man who'd begun to ask himself, around two a.m. nightly, if his twenty-year-old wife really had found the lover of her dreams in an industrialist three times her age--however witty, however erudite, however wealthy. I hadn't followed his career in any detail, but his most famous move had been to buy the entire superconducting cables division of Pirelli, when the parent company was dismembered in '09. He was impeccably dressed in a gray silk suit, the cut precisely old-fashioned enough to be stylish, and he looked like he'd once been strikingly handsome. A perfect candidate, I decided, for vain self-delusion and belated second thoughts.

I was wrong. What he said was: "I want you to locate a package for me."

"A package?" I did my best to sound fascinated--although if adultery was stultifying, lost property was worse. "Missing en route from--?"

"Zürich."

"To Milan?"

"Of course!" Masini almost flinched, as if the idea that he might have been shipping his precious cargo elsewhere, intentionally, caused him physical pain.

I said carefully, "Nothing is ever really lost. You might find that a strongly-worded letter from your lawyers to the courier is enough to work miracles."

Masini smiled humourlessly. "I don't think so. The courier is dead."

Afternoon light filled the room; the window faced east, away from the sun, but the sky itself was dazzling. I suffered a moment of strange clarity, a compelling sense of having just shaken off a lingering drowsiness, as if I'd begun the conversation half asleep and only now fully woken. Masini let the copper orrery on the wall behind me beat twice, each tick a soft, complicated meshing of a thousand tiny gears. Then he said, "She was found in a hotel room in Vienna, three days ago. She'd been shot in the head at close range. And no, she was not meant to take any such detour."

"What was in the package?"

"A small icon." He indicated a height of some thirty centimeters. "An eighteenth-century depiction of the Madonna. Originally from the Ukraine."

"The Ukraine? Do you know how it came to be in Zürich?" I'd heard that the Ukrainian government had recently launched a renewed campaign to persuade certain countries to get serious about the return of stolen artwork. Crateloads had been smuggled out during the turmoil and corruption of the eighties and nineties.

"It was part of the estate of a well-known collector, a man with an impeccable reputation. My own art dealer examined all the paperwork, the bills of sale, the export licenses, before giving his blessing to the deal."

"Paperwork can be forged."

Masini struggled visibly to control his impatience. "Anything can be forged. What do you want me to say? I have no reason to suspect that this was stolen property. I'm not a criminal, Signor Fabrizio."

"I'm not suggesting that you are. So ... money and goods changed hands in Zürich? The icon was yours when it was stolen?"

"Yes."

"May I ask how much you paid for it?"

"Five million Swiss francs."

I let that pass without comment, although for a moment I wondered if I'd heard correctly. I was no expert, but I did know that Orthodox icons were usually painted by anonymous artists, and were intended to be as far from unique as individual copies of the Bible. There were exceptions, of course--a few treasured, definitive examples of each type--but they were a great deal older than eighteenth-century. However fine the craftsmanship, however well-preserved, five million sounded far too high.

I said, "Surely you insured--?"

"Of course! And in a year or two, I may even get my money back. But I'd much prefer to have the icon. That's why I purchased it in the first place."

"And your insurers will agree. They'll be doing their best to find it." If another investigator had a head start on me, I didn't want to waste my time--least of all if I'd be competing against a Swiss insurance firm on their home ground.

Masini fixed his bloodshot eyes on me. "Their best is not good enough! Yes, they'll want to save themselves the money, and they'll treat this potential loss with great seriousness ... like the accountants they are. And the Austrian police will try very hard to find the murderer, no doubt. Neither are moved by any sense of urgency. Neither would be greatly troubled if nothing were resolved for months. Or years."

If I'd been wrong about Masini's nocturnal visions of adultery, I'd been right about one thing: there was a passion, an obsession, driving him which ran as deep as jealousy, as deep as pride, as deep as sex. He leaned forward across the desk, restraining himself from seizing my shirtfront, but commanding and imploring me with as much arrogance and pathos as if he had.

"Two weeks! I'll give you two weeks--and you can name your fee! Deliver the icon to me within a fortnight ... and everything I have is yours for the asking!"


Some spoilers follow. If by this point you're sure you're never going to read "Our Lady of Chernobyl", by all means continue; otherwise, it's probably not worth ruining an entertaining 30 pages. You may want to find a copy of Luminous, or, if you're conservative/broke/geeky, to get the story, individually, as an ebook -- http://www.fictionwise.com/mindwise/authors/245.htm


Our Lady of Chernobyl -- not called that in the catalog, of course -- is an icon, about yea high. Colored flatly, deliberately 2-dimensional, a direct copy of an older item, with a catolog picture distinguished only by a photographic artifact (a white horizontal line inexplicable in an age of digital photography) it is an unremarkable 18th century icon, not an outstanding 15th century one, but up for auction following the death of its wealthy owner, it fetches a price fifty times the reserve, and is stolen shortly thereafter. A private investigator is hired. Plot twists and a little nanotechnology ensue amid the slums and cathedrals of Venice.

Eventually, everything falls into place. Our hero is captured, sort of, and the capturer (unseen; the screen of a VR rig intersects the detective's gaze) explains a few things:

"This (a space between two paintings in the VR cathedral) is where Our Lady of Chernobyl belongs."

"Chernobyl? That's where it was painted?"

"Masini didn't tell you anything, did he?"

"Didn't tell me what? That the icon was really 15th century?"

"Not fifteenth. Twentieth. 1986."

My mind was racing, but I said nothing.

He recounted the whole story in matter-of-fact tones, as if he'd been there in person. "One of the founders of the True Church was a worker at the number four reactor. When the accident happened, he recieved a lethal dose within hours. But he didn't die straight away. It was two weeks later, when he truly understood the scale of the tragedy - when he realized it wasn't just hundreds of volenteers, firemen and soldiers who'd die in agony in the months to follow, but tens of thousands of people dying in years to come, land and water contaminated for decades, sickness for generations -- that Our Lady came to him in a vision, and She told him what to do.

"He was to paint Her as Vladimir Mother of God, copying every detail, respecting the tradition. But in truth, he would be the instrument for the creation of a new icon -- and She would sanctify it, pouring into it all of Her Son's compassion for the suffering which had taken place, His rejoycing in the courage and self-sacrifice His people had shown, and his will to share the burden of the grief and pain that was yet to come.

"She told him to mix some spilt fuel into the pigments he used, and until it was completed to hide it away until it could take its rightful place in the iconostasis of the One True Church."

The white line, the artifact, was a radiation trail across the photo sensor, left in to alert those in the know of the painting's real nature (a bit of an oversimplification, but to explain further would require revealing the entire plot, which would be tedious, and, as I've already revealed a big part of the conclusion, anticlimactic). All the death, all the the violence, stemmed from a belief in a holy artifact born in the radiation drenched Ukraine.

Like much of Egan's writing, this story may annoy some theists -- after all, it seems to use a futuristic Christian sect to show the sheer bizarreness inherent in so much religion. Really, though, that's missing the point. The world constructed here is solid and rich enough to accomodate mulitple reader viewpoints; whether you see allegory or just trenchcoats in the night, it's a fun, fascinating read.

(And all that aside, creating a science fiction story that's still perfectly believable more than halfway between the year of its publication and the year of its setting is no mean feat.)

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