“God’s Ashes: Apocrypha” by Marga Ortigas

Marga Ortigas Marga Ortigas

Some things about Filipino author Marga Ortigas are clear after reading her recent novel God’s Ashes. She can write. She has a fertile imagination. She knows a great deal about a wide variety of things from politics to culture and technology. She knows how to craft a complicated, detailed, intricate plot. 

God’s Ashes, a sort of mystical techno-thriller, ranges from London to the Marshall Islands, with stop-offs in Borneo, the Philippines, Nan Madol (look it up), Taiwan and Pulau, from the 1980s to the present day, and loops in everything from geopolitics to nuclear waste management. Characters are Chinese, Filipino, Pacific Islander, Ingush (look it up) and the occasional Westerner. The book has a lot going for it: it is fast-moving, intriguing and based mostly in islands of the Pacific: few novels link up Guam, Pulau, Manila and Kota Kinabalu.


God’s Ashes: Apocrypha, Marga Ortigas (Penguin Southeast Asia, June 2024)
God’s Ashes: Apocrypha, Marga Ortigas (Penguin Southeast Asia, June 2024)

The God’s ashes of the title come from a kind of coral that has been subjected to nuclear radiation. It is both a narcotic (of interest to cartels) and a raw material used in a kind of new superchip (of interest, then, to a different kind of cartel). The chip is central to a fast-growing new app that raises consciousness (personal and social). The potential results in murder, assassination, spying, conspiracies, high-stake elections, surveillance and cross-continental chases. It’s not all rushing about: there is a love affair (albeit a same-sex one set as far back as the book goes).

The so-called dεUS (as in “deus” or “god” if you’re not paying attention) app is a sort of crypto spin-off: it’s distributed and runs off a block-chain; its system of rewards and feedback seems to be in reference to China’s social credit system. The mysterious Asian techie responsible bears some resemblance to Bitcoin’s Satoshi Nakamoto (or the myths thereof); there’s a lot of normal crypto (here JUN0, as in the Roman goddess), a globally-dominant Taiwanese chip manufacturer whose founder is dabbling in Taiwanese politics (any guesses?). The pre-iPod mini-disc music player makes a cameo as does the “Dome” where the American nuclear waste is stored in the Marshall Islands.

If that sounds all a bit complicated, that’s because it is. But this complexity is leavened by in-depth and bucolic descriptions of Rye in East Sussex and the island Pulau and somewhat less bucolic ones of the Marshall Islands.


There’s enough material here for a hard-hitting TV mini-series … and therein lies the rub, for it’s rather too much for a book. Although Ortigas ties the various plot elements together, it can nevertheless be hard to follow in the meantime; it can also be hard to focus on which character is which (made worse by the fact that one seems to be suffering from “dissociative identity disorder”).

The problem is not so much that some readers might have trouble keeping track of what the book is about, but rather, because there isn’t enough room for Ortigas to develop all the various characters and plot lines, they remain less differentiated than they could have been. At least a couple of characters and subplots deserve a book of their own.

The book contains a great deal of social commentary—on the danger (and promise?) of technology, climate change, nuclear weapons, geopolitics, injustice, sexual orientation—but the ground covered is too great, and the events and situations are too removed from reality, for the messages to land with much impact.

Ortigas might perhaps have relied more on her evident skills as a writer rather cleverness. She invokes mathematics:


Maggie thought humans the most complex series of mathematical equations. But she was certain that Euler’s Identity—the God formula—would help her discover the logic. The harmony underneath Life’s chaos. And once deciphered, she would find a way to reconstitute it.


Yet it’s unclear how Euler’s Identity underpins the tech in the book: one suspects its attraction is  in the moniker of “The God formula”.

To be fair, the book is subtitled “Apocrypha”, so it’s possible we’re not supposed to take these things entirely seriously. But these flourishes—along with such visual ones as a surfeit of fonts, symbols and italics—distract rather than deepen an ambitious novel replete with ideas of considerable potential.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.