Dunsanian in its lyricism.
A project trying to develop psychic powers results in one member of the group finding himself within the mind and body of an alien being. At different intervals of time, his mind returns to his own body, where he tries to make sense of what is happening. Eventually, he comes to realize that he is advancing through the zodiac wheel, with each successive alien he temporarily resides with mentally embodying the essence of a different sign of the classic Western zodiac.
It's a fascinating conceit, one I'd never seen done quite the same way, before or since. It also predates Quantum Leap by several years, and though the way the protagonists of both this story and that TV show "leap" from life to life is rather similar on the surface, it's different enough that it's clear that there is no connection between them.
The aliens are all engaging and radically different: from the sentient, mobile, tree-like avatars of Aries, moving ever-forward and staying just ahead of disaster, to the cocooned, spidery embodiments of Pisces broadcasting love throughout the galaxy, each alien has a lesson and a gift to give. The traveller, his mind nearly blank at the beginning of his cosmic quest, slowly gathers these offerings, gradually blending them into a greater understanding of existence.
I remember being thunderstruck upon reading this story. I was a teen then, 14 or 15, and the concepts within it were made clear by the narrative structure. It didn't hurt that it was illustrated by a young Wayne Barlowe, a couple of years after his seminal Guide to Extraterrestrials. But it was the main idea, the quick but elegant way of explaining the progression of a soul through the zodiac, that remained with me. As time pulled us all along, my copy of the magazine fell by the wayside, lost on the way as are most things...except that title, and the memory of the idea. Each passing year saw the memory fade a little more, like a photo hung in sunlight.
Then, one day, not so long ago, that title came to me again, unbidden: through all your houses wandering. I searched online, the great, collective, technological memory bank of humanity, and quickly found the magazine in which it was contained. A reread later, and the memory was again fresh; in some instances it was not as lustrous as I remembered, in others, it was more profound.
Pulling apart the zodiac in the way Reynolds does for this story, it lays out a core concept of astrology: the soul progresses through each sign, or possesses the elements of each, growing as the lessons of each become assimilated. It is shown to not just be a collection of discrete mythological creatures, but rather a prism-split examination of the human soul. Set aside the paranormal aspect of it, and it would still reveal a symbolic method of self-examination that could help one grapple with one's own limitations and strengths.
Reynolds presents each sign in a way that is vivid, but also, by necessity, rather facile. The short story format allows for bright, vivid, but broad brushstrokes. Still, it's a good primer, opening up the entire concept of astrology in a surprisingly nuanced way for a more mainstream (as much as a scifi venue can be mainstream) audience.
Besides the title, other things remained with me from the story throughout the decades. The strongest memories I had were of Scorpio and Pisces.
Scorpio was the dark, shadowy region of the zodiac. Enigmatic and powerful, the aliens embodying Scorpio were mysterious and calculating. In fact, Scorpio quickly followed the protagonist's psychic "trail" back to Earth, wresting control of his body and having him observe as the conquest of humanity hung on his wife recognizing he was not in control of his actions. Yet even recognizing the stranger within her husband, the sheer magnetism of Scorpio was a powerful temptation, enough to give man and wife pause as they considered the implications.
Pisces, though, was the most powerful image from the story for me. The writing becomes almost ethereal as Reynolds has his protagonist travel to meet the final sign of the zodiac, and the one that has the ultimate lesson to teach:
He merges with God, hovering in the immensities, containing the universe. God moves over just enough to let him in. Welcome, lost one, welcome home.
Simmons melts into the oneness, the sharing, and joins in the chorus, the chanting of the message, to all beings, all life, everywhere and anywhere.
Come, come, come join us in the whole. God is truth, God is beauty, God is love. God waits for you. Come join us, come.It's an appealing ending, with the traveler coming home at last, both spiritually and physically. Then and now it caused me to feel a twinge of recognition at the need for belonging, of being home even if only in spirit. No bombastic ending, no twist, no triumphant speeches...just a return home to a safe space of complete acceptance. It's an ending so stirring as to imprint itself on the boy I was, so that the man I became could finally begin to really understand it decades later. And that, my friends, is what a good story should do.