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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Deliberations and Decisions

In the Star Trek pilot episode The Cage, Captain Christopher Pike has been captured by the Talosians.  The landing party beam back up to the Enterprise, where Number One, Pike’s second-in-command, calls a conference in the briefing room.

The Talosians looked into their minds, and thus created the perfect illusions: crash survivors eking out a meager existence in a rudimentary camp.  After further study, the Enterprise crew realize that without more vegetation and animal life, the planet would have been too barren to support the lives of the aging scientists for eighteen years. 

While one crewman insists that Pike is in danger and they must rescue him immediately, Dr. Phil, the ship’s chief medical officer, feels caution is warranted.  The Talosians are capable of generating more illusions.  If another landing party beams down, how can they be certain of anything they see or do?  Mr. Spock, as science officer, is even more hesitant.  He reminds them that a Talosian brain is three times as large as a human’s.  He warns that if they start buzzing about down there, the Talosians might not just attack the landing party, but could swat the Enterprise as if it were a fly.

The first crewman’s assertions, that Pike is in danger and in need of rescue, cannot be verified.  As Mr. Spock says, the Talosians may only wish to study him.  On the other hand, Dr. Phil and Mr. Spock offer evidence to support their positions: the Talosians lured the Enterprise here, and generated illusions that the landing party could not only see, but believed they could touch and feel.  No doubt both men would feel comfortable spending more time in deliberation, before any decision is made that will place the crew or the ship in danger. 

The deaths and injuries suffered on Rigel 7 are still fresh in everyone’s mind.  Should Number One place in jeopardy not only another landing party, but the lives of all aboard the Enterprise?  Or might further study of the planet yield other, safer options?  Ultimately, Number One decides to beam down another landing party.  They will use the ship’s power to blast through the door leading to the Talosians’ underground city. 

It’s never easy to select a course of action, and sifting through all available facts is always wise.  But history is not written by those who merely sit back and analyze, nor are dreams realized by those who merely contemplate desired achievements.  There is a difference between waiting a reasonable amount of time to gather necessary facts, and merely procrastinating.  What dilemma are you currently facing?  Are you waiting to gather all the pertinent facts, or merely putting off making a painful choice?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Captured by the Talosians

In the Star Trek pilot The Cage, Captain Christopher Pike beams down to Talos 4.  His intention is to pick up survivors who crashed there eighteen years ago.  Numbering among the landing party are Mr. Spock and Dr. Phil, the latter the chief medical officer aboard the Enterprise.  On the surface they find a number of old scientists, and a young blonde named Vena.

One crewman breaks off his conversation mid-sentence. Time seems to stand still as all of the landing party stare at Vena.  Amidst the sparse conditions of the survivors’ camp, Vena’s hair is not expertly coifed, she wears no jewelry or makeup, and her clothes are anything but expertly styled.  Previously, a glimpse of Pike walking down an Enterprise hallway suggested the presence of many young, attractive women aboard the starship.  So why does she cast such a siren-like spell over the landing party?

During a discussion with the surviving scientists, Vena describes Pike as healthy and intelligent, a prime specimen.  Dr. Phil reports that the survivors’ health is too good.  One of the scientists says that there’s a reason for their condition, but they’ve had some doubt whether or not Earth is ready to learn their secret.  Let the girl show you, he tells Pike.  We’ll accept her judgment.  Pike allows Vena to pull him away from the others.  She tells him, You’re tired, but you’ll feel better soon.  Then the crash survivors vanish, the Talosians appear and take Pike away, and a shocked Mr. Spock realizes that they were sucked into a trap and have now lost the Captain.

Pike awakens in an underground cell.  He is angered at the Talosians for deceiving him.  He is frustrated to be so powerless.  Worse, he is responsible for his ship and crew, and how can he protect them when he has been captured?  His attitude is exactly the opposite of the Talosians, who are delighted with their new specimen.  Captain Pike seems more adaptable than any other intelligent species they have tested thus far, and as we will learn, represents hope for their future.

Life sometimes presents us with unwanted trials.  We feel trapped by circumstances, or by the people who placed us in such dilemmas.  We rage: this is my life, I want to live it my way, why must others dump their problems on me?  Remember the old scientist’s words, that they had a great secret that Earth might be ready to learn, but Pike must let the girl show him, and then they will accept his judgment.  As Vena noted, Pike is exhausted, not only physically, but emotionally.  He is too worn out to recognize that his “capture” might represents a unique opportunity, not only for himself, but for humanity.

Has life dumped “unnecessary” burdens on you lately?  Perhaps, disguised deep within these new, “unwanted” responsibilities, awaits an opportunity to not only better your life, but to bless the lives of those around you.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Yeoman and Number One

In the Star Trek pilot episode The Cage, Captain Christopher Pike is recalled to the bridge.  Previously, his crew had detected a radio signal sent eighteen years ago from Talos 4.  Pike had declined to investigate, opting to rush his sick and wounded crew members to Vega Colony over following up on such an old plea.  Now his crew present him with proof that survivors of the crash still live, leaving him little option but to take his ship once more into danger.

When the Enterprise settles into orbit around this unexplored planet, his new yeoman presents him with a report he had requested.  He barks at her that he doesn’t want a woman on the bridge.  Yet, when his first officer, Number One, reacts to this seemingly sexist statement, he tells her: No offense, Lieutenant, you’re different, of course.

It’s easy to merely paint Captain Pike with a sexist brush.  After all, the show was written during the 1960s.  While the traditional role of women in society might have been actively questioned then, the rallying cry of women’s lib had yet to take hold.  In the story though, remember that Pike has confessed to the ship’s doctor that he no longer wished to be weighed down with the responsibility for all two-hundred-and-three lives aboard the Enterprise.  He feels as though duty will inevitably lead him to decide who among his crew will live, and who will die. 

After the deaths and injuries back on Rigel 7, responsibility for his remaining crew weighs heavily on Pike’s shoulders.  As his previous yeoman died during that attack, facing his new yeoman on the bridge, the ultimate seat of authority aboard his ship, would remind him of his failure on Rigel 7.  Also, a yeoman holds the lowest rank aboard the ship, suggesting that she is the least experienced of his crew, and therefore the most in need of his protection.  On the heels of his overreaction to the yeoman’s presence, he then excludes Number One from the Talos 4 ground team, opting to leave the ship’s most experienced officer behind to safeguard ship and crew. 

His crew (as well as Dr. Phil, the ship’s doctor) react strongly to several of Pike’s recent words and actions, from his initial decision not to investigate the crash on Talos 4, to how he treats both women on the bridge.  Yet Number One doesn’t call him aside to question his decisions.  Dr. Phil seems to deal with him in a less formal and direct manner than he might ordinarily.  And not once do we get the slightest hint that any member of the crew blames him for the deaths and injuries on Rigel 7.  This suggests that Captain Pike has built up a great deal of respect during previous missions.  While they recognize that he is going through a difficult period, they still trust his ability to lead them.

Sometimes life throws so much at us that we are mentally and emotionally knocked off our feet.  We wonder how we can pick up even our normal responsibilities, let alone shoulder the new ones that knocked us down. The road ahead resembles a mine field, and we lack the will, strength, and focus to navigate a path through it.  But if you’ve lived your life in the service of others, as Pike has, surely there are others nearby who love and care about you.  No one who matters will think less of you if you occasionally request a helping hand.  You might even find that they feel honored to have be asked. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Overwhelmed By Life

In the first Star Trek pilot The Cage, when the Enterprise receives an eighteen-year-old distress call from a starship that crashed on the planet Talos 4, Captain Christopher Pike declines to investigate.  He orders that they continue on to Vega Colony, where they can attend their own sick and wounded.  As their primary mission is to explore, and as they are perfectly positioned to aid any survivors, the crew is shocked by his seemingly callous decision.

Pike doesn’t stay on the bridge to gauge the crew’s reaction to his order.  Instead, he retreats to his quarters, where he calls the ship’s doctor to attend him.  Dr. Phil assures him that he won’t question the decision, but he does argue that Pike should finally take a break from the daily strain of command. 

Still plagued by the fight on Rigel 7, which cost the life of his yeoman and two others, and in which seven more of his crew suffered injury, Captain Pike opens up and shares that he is considering retirement: he could return home to ride his horses, or become an independent trader on Regulus or Orion.  He no longer wishes to be weighed down with the responsibility for all two-hundred-and-three lives aboard the Enterprise.  Dr. Phil is swift to condemn this attitude, insisting that those other life options are not right for Pike.  Dr. Phil’s prescription?  Captain Pike must lives life as it happens.  He must meet every problem head on and lick it.  Anything less constitutes turning his back on life, and consequently he will wither away.

Captain Pike has seen members of his crew suffer and die.  The universe is full of dangers, and as long as he remains in command, people who look to him for leadership and protection will suffer injury and death.  No doubt he looks back on the Rigel 7 incident and questions his actions and decisions.  But Dr. Phil insists that what Pike needs is a rest-leave, not a “safer” line of work.  There are no “safe” jobs, and neither Pike nor society-at-large would benefit from his taking a lesser vocation, one in which his unique talents and abilities go unused. 

When we’re bleeding physically or emotionally or even spiritually, it’s tempting to review our former actions and condemn them because they led us to this dark place.  Hindsight is perfect; walking forward through life demands that we make each day’s decisions as best we can.  Even the best-laid roads contain bumps, or can lead uphill for a longer distance than we’d prefer.  When your strength begins to ebb, obey Dr. Phil’s orders for a short “rest-leave.”  Then get back up and start chasing your dreams again.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Star Trek: The Cage

As far back as I can remember, Star Trek has played a part in my life.  As a child, my friends and I acted out adventures of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and other members of the crew.  As a teen, I stayed up late to watch reruns, read tie-in novels, and eagerly anticipated each movie.  Today, while I still read related books and novels, and periodically watch the movies, my interest in this classic franchise is largely centered around enjoying DVDs of the original series.

On a recent viewing, I was struck by how deeply layered many of the stories were.  Also, while many underlying story concepts addressed 1960s issues, those topics spoke equally well to contemporary issues.  The depth of the storytelling, combined with the contributions of the actors and the production crew, have given birth to more than just another TV show.  Whether people dress up in the costumes of their favorite characters, learn to speak Klingon, or simply enjoy the books and DVDs, the show has taken on a life of its own.  No doubt this is the reason for the time-tested adage: Star Trek Lives. 

Some may idolize Captain Kirk for his passion, his daring, and his dedication to his crew.  Others may identify with Mr. Spock’s strivings to subdue his emotions and base each day’s decisions upon logic.  Some may even have pursued careers due to the portrayal of Uhura or McCoy or Scotty.  Whatever you personally get from a series made nearly half-a-century ago, I hope you find inspiration in my upcoming entries based upon The Cage, the first episode ever made of the ever-powerful, ever-relevant Star Trek.

Monday, March 7, 2011

If the Stars are Gods: A Final Word

All too often, SF writers out-do themselves.  Novels weigh us down with details, explore every aspect of a character, or exhaust us with too much plot.  By fixing the reader so completely upon that which the authors wish us to see, by the time the reader reaches the final page, no questions are left for him to dwell upon.  Far from becoming a novel that could challenge the way he views reality, the story is remembered merely for its entertainment value.  One novel which escapes this trap is If the Stars are Gods by Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund.  By painting a picture of what one man could accomplish, by presenting fantastic visions of what might await us beyond our planet, and by leaving many of the big questions unanswered, this short novel generates a surprising sense of wonder.

For Bradley Reynolds, nothing is more important than humanity’s exploration of space.  By preaching the need to study Mars, not only does Earth finally send a spaceship there, but he is on it.  Later, an alien spaceship arrives in Earth orbit, and his accomplishments have made him the natural candidate to represent Earth.  When the aliens tell him they can communicate with the stars, he convinces them to teach him how.  After decades spent in a monastery, Bradley learns that aliens have again contacted humanity, but all the scientists can decipher is those who sent it call a gas giant home.  Bradley uses his guile, and his contacts, to force Earth into building a space station in Jupiter’s orbit so as to study what life in the atmosphere of a gas giant might be like.  Finally, in the waning years of his life, Bradley sacrifices everything he has accomplished by disobeying orders and traveling to Titan, where another curious life form has been discovered.  The authors do not burden us with the details of Bradley’s everyday life, yet they inspire us by portraying all that an individual, committed to his goals, might accomplish. 

Movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey paint otherworldly visions that affix themselves within the viewer’s mind.  From the aliens who visit Earth, to Corey (an augmented human encased in a metal travel machine), to the strange new forms of life the characters find in the Jovian atmosphere and on Titan, Benford and Eklund manage to convincingly portray beings different from us without fully explaining them.  The same is true of the spaceships and the space station, and even of the alien signal that prompts the mission to Jupiter.  In so doing, the authors retain that mystery of the alien that draws the reader to science fiction to begin with.

Like the above-mentioned movies, If the Stars are Gods bravely asks big questions without fully answering them.  On Mars, Bradley finds one possible source of the life that now exists on Mars.  But the realities of space travel force him to leave the red planet without knowing the full answer to how life evolved there.  When the aliens teach him to sing to our Sun, the experience leads him to embrace religion as a necessary compliment to science, but he is left uncertain as to whether the Sun is truly a sentient being.  Two of his staff on the space station, Corey and her friend Mara, are humans whose appearance and capabilities were biologically engineered to better serve the human race.  Instead of celebrating their diversity, much of humanity regards their kind with fear and suspicion.  By portraying human nature so realistically, the reader is left to wonder what it is in The Other that prompts us to such negative reactions, as well as ponder one fundamental question.  Stories that portray aliens as benevolent seem vastly outnumbered by those portraying aliens intent upon dominating or even exterminating the human race.  Could such fear and suspicion be what holds humanity back from devoting more resources toward exploring our solar system?

Indeed, If the Stars are Gods inspires us with the potential accomplishments of the driven individual, by suggesting the potential discoveries that await us in space, and by leaving us to question how we define ourselves in relation to others.  Presented as an entree, it tantalizes our literary taste buds.  Those who take time to savor its rich flavors are certain to mourn its absence of sequels.

Friday, March 4, 2011

What Drives Us

Life can grow cluttered at times.  Days grow so consumed with routine activities that when we fall into bed, we wonder what of worth we accomplished.  Goals we long to pursue seem as out of reach as ever.  Those were dreams, we rationalize.  Making money, running errands, getting dragged into activities to support family and friends: this is reality.  Yet we cannot help wonder: will we approach death regretting that we did not fight harder to pursue our dreams?

In If the Stars are Gods, authors Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund chronicle the quest of Bradley Reynolds, a man whose supreme desire is to seek out and understand all forms of life in the universe.  He has searched for life on Mars, spoken with aliens who visited our moon, and managed scientific research on a space station orbiting Jupiter.  In the final section of the novel, Bradley’s quest leads him to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, where enormous crystal lattices have been discovered.  By their behavior, he believes these structures are related to the mystifying signals that occasionally race across that moon.  As no one has yet discovered how the lattice structures and the Zeta signals are related, he decides to journey there, hoping that his unique experience will aid humanity in solving this riddle.

Bradley has not received authorization to leave the Orb.  Many see him as too old to run the space station anymore, and this action may lead to him being forced into retirement.  Yet Bradley believes that only on Titan, where he can directly observe the crystal lattices, will he discover their purpose.  This is no mere riddle for him: recent events back on Earth led to his colleagues Corey and Mara being stripped of their citizenship rights due to how their biologically-engineered origins differentiated them from the norm.  He believes that humanity must stop defining its environment in rigid, black-and-white terms.  The solution to this latest mystery might cast more light on the Alpha Libra puzzle, and add to mankind’s knowledge of his relationship with the stars.  Perhaps it might even lead the human race to expand its understanding of the universe so that the narrow-minded can no longer hide behind such rigid definitions.

At Kuiper base, Bradley convinces commander Najima to take him out to study the crystal lattices.  Traveling there in a Walker, Bradley lays on a bed, suffering from stronger gravity than he was used to back on the Orb.  They reach Way Station Four, where the crew park to eat and rest.  Then Najima receives confirmation that Bradley’s trip to Titan was unauthorized.  Incensed at the deception, he vows to return to Kuiper base after the rest period.  When everyone retires to their compartments, Bradley sneaks outside in his environment suit.

His weak heart races, and he knows each step might be his last.  But he must solve the mystery of the crystal lattices, even if it costs him his life.  The sacrifices and successes of Bradley Reynolds cause me to reflect upon the goals I have long dreamed of accomplishing, and how I might reorder my life to better pursue them.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Man in the Box

Corey is a man in a box.  Or at least that is how others on the Orb see him.  Sexless, formless, he exists in a steel housing.  He can roll himself around on his wheels, he can speak, and he can access the space station’s computer systems.  Yet, while his origin and form distance himself from others, he sees himself as a superior example of humanity.  As events unfold in section four of If the Stars are Gods by Dr. Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund, he demonstrates how his uniqueness enables him to accomplish feats beyond the ability of a normal man or woman.

Corey describes himself as a failed government experiment.  He was biologically engineered by scientists to enable him to communicate with dolphins and whales.  Yet those intelligent denizens of the sea had surprisingly little to say that humans found of worth.  Now he lives on the Orb, part of Bradley Reynolds’ team focused on solving the Alpha Libra puzzle.  Regarded as an oddity (if not with suspicion and revulsion), he exists in a continuum not of his making.  Like the blind or the deaf, he perceives the outside world in a manner different from that of his crew members. 

While others in his situation might long for a normal body (and a normal life), Corey revels in his uniqueness.  Far from feeling dependent and handicapped, he views himself as freed from the demands of the flesh.  He regards normal humans as flawed, dependent upon their bodies’ emotions and physical capabilities.  As he receives all necessary nutrients from a package plugged into his box, for example, he need not dilute the focus of meal-time conversations by physically consuming food.  While others are preoccupied by the sensory responses that food and drink naturally generate, he focuses solely upon the discussion.  Mealtime conversations often concern aspects of the Alpha Libra puzzle, and the nature of the aliens who sent it.  Unlike normal humans, his experience talking with dolphins and whales has taught him to think in a less rigid and concrete manner.  He believes that this ability will ultimately prove crucial in deciphering the aliens’ message to humanity.

Despite the isolation of his existence and the uniqueness of his mental processes, there is one person he cares about: Mara, the augmented woman who manipulates others to attain her desires.  He looks forward to their discussions and their chess games.  When Mara’s research leads her to believe that she must pilot a ship into the dangerous atmosphere of Jupiter, Corey insists that Bradley send him instead.  There is an irony in Corey’s decision to undertake such a dangerous mission.  For it is the rest of humanity, those constrained and limited by the flesh, who would ultimately benefit, should his risky venture lead to the deciphering of the alien message. 

Our appearance may not incite suspicion and loathing from our fellow humans.  We may not be physically handicapped due to birth or accident.  But all of us are unique individuals.  We perceive and interact with the world in a way different from everyone else.  We are all Corey.  Instead of wasting time wishing for normalcy, what great achievements await those who explore and utilize their unique talents and abilities?  

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

That Which Divides

Science Fiction often posits scenarios in the future to examine current social issues.  In section four of Dr. Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund’s novel If the Stars are Gods, we meet a character who feels she has been mistreated by others due to the circumstances of her birth.  Today, most of us view ourselves as enlightened, and try our best to see past others’ differences.  Yet differences due to race, culture and beliefs still prove potent enough to provoke discord and hatred.  What prompts such conflict?  What can we do to sap the disharmony that divides us?

In the novel’s future year of 2060, Mara’s life journey has led her to the Orb, a space station in orbit around Jupiter.  When her air hose snaps, she must react quickly to repair it before she asphyxiates in the vacuum of space.  Once she makes it safely inside, she asserts that someone has tried to kill her.  Bradley, who is in overall charge of the Orb, is not so quick to leap to this conclusion.  He reminds her that such equipment failures are the reason she should have obeyed the safety regulations against working outside alone.  Still, he cannot rule out the possibility of sabotage.

It is understandable that Mara should suspect others of trying to kill her.  For some time now, scientists have been exploring the potentials of biologically-engineering human.  While another of the augmented humans on the station, Corey, is a shapeless body confined to a metal box, Mara looks and acts like a typical human.  Her “improvements” were minor.  Yet her augmented origin has separated her from the rest of humanity.  Born in a laboratory and raised by foster parents, she found herself constantly regarded as too different to be befriended or loved.  Even on the Orb, which is largely inhabited by scientists, there are those who view augmented humans as dangerous aberrations.  Is it any wonder she concludes that someone has tried to kill her?

Mara has learned to use augmented status to her advantage.  She smokes cigars in meetings, knowing it will distract the other participants.  She uses argument, emotional ploys, even her body to manipulate others into giving her what she desires.  When Earth’s government caves into pressure and strips all augmented humans of their citizenship rights, she vows to demonstrate the value of her augmented brothers and sisters to the rest of humanity, and throws herself into solving the Alpha Libra puzzle.  In order to think like the aliens who sent the as-yet-undeciphered message, she attempts to isolate herself from everyone else.  Ironically, her efforts force her into working more closely with the station’s unaugmented humans.  She is surprised to learn from one woman that many on the Orb like and admire her, but have never had the opportunity to talk with her before now.

Reporters remind us daily of those who kill in the name of racial and cultural differences.  We live in fear that one day government agents will fail to prevent a terrorist plot.  People of Faith pursue agendas knowing their actions will offend their fellow believers’ opposing beliefs. When will we examine our motives to ensure that our actions draw us into closer harmony with everyone, and not merely benefit those we like or agree with?  Perhaps, if we could learn to do this, like Mara, we might learn that we are not so isolated or as disliked as we previous believed.