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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Welcomed into the Palace of Westminster

Beckoned toward our temporary home by an illuminated Big Ben, we walked past Westminster Palace, only to find that the line was nonexistent, and that Security was still letting people inside.

After being scanned, probed, photographed, and our belongings x-rayed, we were issued with badges displaying our names and faces.  We walked through the security room, out into a courtyard, and then into another building, which we learned was the old parliament building.  From atop the steps of this cavernous room, President Obama had addressed England’s cabinet ministers and both houses of parliament the previous week.  The building was filled with statues and other points of interest, but as the House of Commons had retired for the evening, we hurried upstairs, intent upon visiting the House of Lords before they too called their deliberations to an end.  

At another checkpoint, we were required to handover all cameras, phones, packages, and even our jackets to a cloakroom attendant.  So, just as Moses could not gaze directly upon the Lord’s face, so we could not photograph the faces of English lords.

While the greeters had given us several brochures, none explained to my satisfaction how the House of Lords differs from its more popular cousin.  From the “Yes, Prime Minister” episode “The Bishop’s Gambit,” I know that some of the older bishoprics include a seat in the House of Lords.  From “Yes Minister” and its sequel I know that one way the Prime Minister can curtail an ambitious minister’s power is to make him a Lord.  Alternatively, for a politician who cares more about serving the public than swaying the electorate, or who merely wishes to enjoy the status associated with being an English Lord, I gather that such a “promotion” would be welcomed.

A TV show, a play, and a learning experience?

The chamber of the House of Lords is smaller than the House of Commons, and while arranged similarly, its chairs and benches are upholstered in red, not green.  We sat in the visitors’ balcony, and looked down on a chamber that was barely half-full.  The Lords were discussing an issue regarding what was appropriate for appointed (not elected) officials who performed certain police-type duties in their community.  Obviously, the topic held us enthralled.  The Lords took no notice of us, but participated contentedly in their debate.  The instant one sat down, another rose to comment upon the previous Lord’s statement, or to make a point of his own.

Watching with us were not only TV cameras, but also carved life-size figures holding weaponry such as swords, which gave the chamber a regal feeling one may not get from the chambers of less-historic government bodies.  But impressive or not, there is only so much interest in the domestic debates of another country that can be summoned up after a day spent (mostly) on one’s feet.  So we left the House of Lords, and picked up ice cream bars along the way back to our hotel to put a sweet finish to our busy day.

In our room, we flipped channels, and watched as the coverage of the debate continued.  Unlike the House of Commons, in which a member of parliament (MP) will have to ignore cheers and jeers while he is speaking, the Lords’ conduct was more dignified.  There might have been the occasional “Here, here,” but no one booed another member of chamber, necessitating that the person orchestrating proceedings bang his gavel and demand quiet.  The greeters I had spoken with had said that the House of Lords is largely powerless these days, that it was in the process of reform, that gradually England was doing away with life-time appointments, and moving toward a point where all members were elected for shorter terms.  It is not my place to judge the merits of their reform process, but one wonders what will be lost in the process.  Will the House of Lords emerge as dignified as they are now, if those arguing in the red chamber are more aware of the cameras televising the debate?  Will they be as concerned with weighing a particular issue’s merits, as opposed to grandstanding for viewers, if in the near future they must seek the voters’ approval to serve another term?  Time, the great revealer, alone knows the answer to that question.

"Oh no, not more homework!"

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Those Most Precious to Us

In Dr. Gregory Benford’s novel The Stars in Shroud, the Quarm have infected humanity with a psychological disease.  Although Ling emerges from this state of perpetual fear, his wife and children still suffer from it.  This disease induced the colonists on Regeln to leave their comfortable homes and dig holes to hide in.  The majority of the Earth’s population must battle their fear to even walk the interior corridors of their apartment buildings.  Ling’s wife Angela begs him to allow their children Chark and Romana to be programmed by the government: better life as a functioning drone, she argues, than a life spent cringing inside their rooms, with nothing more than the TV for company.

In order to find a solution to humanity’s dilemma, and thus to secure a better life for his children, Ling leaves his family and travels to the faraway planet of Veden.  The Hindic peoples there seem strangely unaffected by the Quarm plague.  Yet civic unrest has risen lately.  During an outbreak of violence, Ling rescues a young woman named Rhandra.  She seems so weak and fragile that she reminds him of a bird that crashed into his window at home (and consequently died).  As Rhandra has no safe place to return to, his heart goes out to her, and he lets her live in his house.  Time and familiarity weave their spell:

“It did not happen that evening, or the one thereafter, but there was a glacial momentum to the event which gradually made the expectation of it fill the air between us, like a thin fog through which we spoke.”  

Thankfully, I have never been forced, by the necessities of work or military service, to spend long periods apart from my spouse.   While I’ve wrestled with depression, I’ve never faced one so dark as Ling endured, nor did I have to face it alone.  Ling’s aims are noble, but his quest to discover a cure for humanity isolates him from family and friends, and the religion that fulfills him. 

As we enter into the holiday season, perhaps we should use Ling’s experiences to reflect upon those relationships most precious to us.  Life has a way of confounding us with unanticipated developments: opportunities that seem like heaven-sent solutions to a problem can later cause us no end of tribulation.  While love and concern will always prompt us to reach out to others in need, those relationships most precious to us must be protected against threats of any kind.  Everyday, we must do what we can to nourish and strengthen them.

If not, we risk losing those most precious to us.

"A Beloved Family"

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Paul Blart, Thanksgiving Man

Life may rip cherished relationships to shreds, deprive you of loved ones, and shatter your dreams.  Sometimes it may seem as if the measure of your life would be better considered in terms of what you have lost, rather than in what you possess.  But whatever your situation, there is always something to be thankful for.  Whether we can perceive this or not influences how we approach such holidays as Thanksgiving.

The table is set.  But are you ready to eat?

In “Paul Blart, Mall Cop,” the title character sees himself as incomplete.  Divorced, still living with his mother, unable to purchase such everyday items as a cellphone for himself or his daughter Maya, and suffering from the Hyperglycemia that bars him from becoming a New Jersey State Trooper, he views himself as a failure.  Although he does his best to protect and serve everyone in the mall, he introduces himself to Veck Simms, a new Security trainee, as someone not content with his present status.  His job, as important as he sees it, serves merely as a stepping-stone toward achieving his goal of becoming a state trooper.  

When he meets Amy, the beautiful girl who runs the Unbeweavable kiosk, he finds himself transfixed by her beauty.  Given his low self-esteem, he is surprised when she seems to return his affection.  But on Thanksgiving Eve, he unintentionally drinks a margarita during an employee get-together at American Joe’s, and this initiates a series of drunken acts that disturb and frighten her.

The next day, when he eats his Thanksgiving meal with his mother and his daughter Maya, the mood at the table is dour.  He knows he should be thankful for what he has—a beautiful daughter, a loving mother, and a job that, while not all that he wants, gives him satisfaction—yet he can only think of how he has disappointed Amy.  How could he have taken such a promising relationship, in its initial, most delicate phase, and trashed it so?    

"Mm-mmm, turkey!"

As Black Friday draws to a close, armed hoodlums drive shoppers from the mall.  It seems that Veck only posed as a trainee to study the mall’s security: he is the gang’s leader, and has taken hostages in the bank.  The police arrive outside, and Sergeant Howard attempts to negotiate for the hostages’ release.  Paul follows Sergeant Howard’s instructions and prepares to leave the mall.  Then he sees her car parked outside.  He ignores orders and refuses to leave, knowing Amy’s life may be in danger.

But it is not only Amy that matters to him.  For his devotion to duty, his concern for shoppers’ safety, and the way in which he treats everyone as equals has won him many friendships among his coworkers.  He proves his capabilities throughout the night as he uses his intricate knowledge of the mall to combat the hoodlums.  He demonstrates the measure of his soul when he risks his life to save not just Amy, his daughter, and his friends, also Stuart, the pen salesman who constantly ridicules him.  

After numerous battles, Paul captures Veck and rescues Amy and Maya.  As the sun rises on a new day, Sergeant Howard decides to overlook Paul’s Hyperglycemia, and offers him his life-goal: to make him a state trooper.   Yet Paul declines this generous offer.  For he has come to realize that he has a place where he belongs, a job that is important, and people who respect him.  He no longer sees himself in the process of becoming.  He has arrived.

You may not have achieved your financial and career goals.  You may not be forced to single-handedly take on armed criminals.  But if you regard what you do as important, and see others as equally deserving, you will gain the respect and love of those around you.  As Paul Blart comes to realize, that’s a lot to be thankful for.

To Protect, Serve, and Be Thankful
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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A History of Conflict

We have all seen the Victoria Embankment in British TV shows and movies.  So much of life, commerce, and history crowd alongside the River Thames, one can easily forget that the walkway serves as an essential pathway that many Londoners traverse each day.  Numerous parks line the Embankment to give residents and workers a break from the buildings that surround them, and the ever-present crowds and traffic.  And then there are the markets and street entertainers, as well as the great celebration we passed through yesterday evening, which culminated with a giant, upside-down, purple cow.

After our first full day of sightseeing, and indulging in such delicacies as calzones and Stilton, we stopped to share a cheeseburger and chips for dinner.  The latter is the English term for what we in America call French Fries, and, for a time, referred to as Freedom Fries.  (What we call chips, they call crisps).  After picking up a few varieties of Earl and Lady Grey at the Twillings Tea shop (if not the narrowest shop in Britain, at least the narrowest shop we have ever visited), we walked along the Victoria Embankment.  Double-decker buses, taxicabs, and the occasional Aston Martin fought for road-space to our left, while such beasts as lions and sphinxes guarded the River Thames on our left.  People gathered near docks as crews readied their vessels for an evening out on the water.  The lights were coming on as the sky darkened, and we were exhausted from our day’s walk.  Never, in recent memory, had we walked so much in one day.  

"If you wish to pass, you must answer my riddle."

It would have been easy to ignore the unique setting we were traversing.  So many Londoners must view the Victoria Embankment as a means of getting from one locale to another.  We were certainly looking forward to relaxing in our room and devising our plan for the following day.  Yet there were numerous stories from the fiction we love that had drawn us here, to walk this path, and we knew we should not miss this opportunity to appreciate this (tiring!) portion of our visit.

When the Tardis arrives on the bank of the Thames in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” Doctor Who and his companions are struck by a paucity of river traffic.  In this aspect, we found reality at odds with our beloved story.  From working vessels to dinner cruises to water taxis, the traffic on the Thames is nearly as diverse as that traveling alongside it.  We considered taking a boat and seeing our surroundings from a different perspective, if only to rest our feet (not to mention our aching legs and hips). But in walking this route, we found that another aspect of the story resonated with our experience this evening.

When their attack on the Dalek spaceport fails, the human resistance fighters scatter, intent upon leaving London by any means possible.  No one seems interested in helping the former leader escape.  So it is left to Barbara and her new friend Jenny to help the wheelchair-bound Dortmun flee to safety.  But before they can traverse Westminster Bridge, first they must push Dortmun along the Victoria Embankment, hoping that no Dalek patrol spots them during their journey.

As if to reinforce the hazards of Barbara, Jenny, and Dortman’s journey, two war memorials drew our attention.  One, known as Cleopatria’s Needle, is an obelisk dating back to the time of Caesar Augustus.  It was given to the English in recognition of two military victories over the French.  It is guarded by two replicas of the well-known Sphinx, and stands as a reminder of the period in which the British Empire extended over much of the globe.  The second, a series of bronze sculptures, celebrates how Britain defended itself against Nazi aggression during World War II.  They serve as vivid reminders of the age of this nation, and all the conflicts they have endured.  

Like so many Americans, I trace my origins back to those European settlers who began arriving in The New World in the late seventeenth century.  It is hard to imagine a people who, as a country, trace their origins back to the smaller kingdoms that united under the legendary King Arthur, or even farther back, nearly two thousand years ago, to the tribes who repeatedly fought off the better-trained Roman armies.  This walk reminds me of how many times the people who lived here have had to fight for their freedom, and how many times they have succeeded.  They have much to be proud of.

Sadly, we saw no memorials to the Britons’ victory over the Daleks.  But perhaps that war is yet to come.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Completely Different World

In Dr. Gregory Benford’s novel The Stars in Shroud, Ling’s pod arrives in orbit over Veden.  After awhile, a shuttle arrives to transport him down to the planet.  He is surprised to learn that the pilot has just completed necessary satellite repairs, but soon realizes that the people of Veden could not justify the cost of launching a ship into orbit just to retrieve him.  Seventy million people might live on Veden, but the planet’s crust is poor in metals, oil, and other elements necessary to support major industrial bases.  Without the ability to attract Earth corporations, the planet’s surface is largely undeveloped, and has been set up as a reservation for the Hindic peoples.  

Veden’s sun shines more brightly than that of Earth, so when the shuttle lands Ling is given special contact lenses to filter out the higher Ultraviolet radiation, which otherwise would burn out his retinas.  He soon realizes that the brighter sunlight is not the only way in which Veden is different from Earth.  He is driven to his new house in a car propelled by a steam engine.  Along the way, he watches a winged man soar above him, taking advantage of Veden’s lighter gravity.  

The population is less cosmopolitan than on Earth or most other Fleet worlds.  When he goes to a restaurant, he sees no meat dishes on the menu: it seems that everyone on Veden is vegetarian.  His new assistants Gharma and Majumbdahr explain that, while unrest and violence occasionally break out in the cities, the population has yet to exhibit any definitive signs of the Quarm plague.  Perhaps the answer lies in their religion.  The Hindics have never embraced the game of Sabal, but are nonetheless a very spiritual people.  With such a vastly different outlook on life, Ling knows it will be difficult to sort out one particular reason why these people have remained untouched by the debilitating psychological disorder that has brought Fleet worlds to a standstill.  Yet he must, if he is to find a cure for those who suffer from the alien plague, and thus secure a better future for his family.

"In a completely different world"

Ling’s experience on a completely different world resonates with me.  Walking the streets of London only enhanced my love for the stories set there.  Before the trip, I saw bread only as something necessary to hold together a sandwich, and cheese as a mere ingredient.  After sampling so many different varieties of both, I now regularly eat toast with breakfast, and enjoy blue cheese in all its forms.  I could have watched documentaries and read books about Westminster Abbey, but I couldn’t have known how worshipping in a church filled with such a historical and secular presence would have felt.  How I approach my spirituality, and embrace my religion, has changed as a result of that experience.

To think that such subtle (and yet such profound) changes could result from experiences during the first day-and-a-half of our vacation!  I’m so glad that my wife persevered, beyond my initial reluctance, and convinced me that we must finally visit this completely different world.  Or, as Dr. Benford writes in his novel: 

“The greatest favor a friend can do for you is, every so often, to tilt the world at five degrees.  Colors dance, fresh-scrubbed.  The universe becomes a fuller place because you must notice it.”

As Ling discovered, one can read about the differences that exist elsewhere.  But transformation comes through experience.

"Everything looks different now"

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Previous entries on The Stars in Shroud

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Prince of Roum

In Robert Silverberg’s story “Nightwings,” three people travel toward Roum.  Often, they must make way for floaters, rollerwagons, and chariots, the latter of which are sealed to hide their Masters’ proud features, and are drawn by harnessed, expressionless neuters. The trio pass ancient relics such as isolated columns, fragments of an aqueduct, portals of vanished temples, and newer detritus such as defunct power drains, abandoned peasant huts, and the shells of airships.  The Flier Avluela can hardly wait to get there, for she has seen the city from high above.  Thousands crowd its boulevards, shop in its markets, work in its factories, or frequent its attractions.  The old Watcher, who has spent his life traveling, also yearns to see this wonder of his world.  Only Gorman, the Changeling, seems reticent to reach their destination.  He warns them that the Watcher should not expect to find welcome there, and that the city is ruled by a hard, cold, and cruel man.

Certainly the Sentinel who guards its gates shows them no mercy.  A fat man with a pockmarked face and jowls, he snorts in disgust at the Watcher, insists on patting-down Avluela unnecessarily, and views Gorman as a monster who should be neutered.  He puts on his thinking cap, and mentally transmits their request to the brains that have been liberated from the dead and placed in the city’s memory tanks.  He is disappointed when he receives no justification for denying them entry.

Nor is the Sentinel alone in offering them cruelty and callousness.  At the Watcher’s Inn, he learns that the Inn is full.  According to new regulations, they are not obligated to house or feed newcomers.  As the Guild expects its members to travel, the old man is aghast to discover that, after his long journey, he must throw himself upon the mercy of the Prince of Roum.

The castoffs of society crowd the palace plaza.  Their miserable plight so disturbs the old Watcher that he offers precious coins to one pitiful wretch.  When the three travelers are told to come back in four days, Gorman bribes an official to be allowed inside to request a special audience, which the officials inside expect to be denied.  Upon leaving the palace, the Watcher realizes that his duty-hour has arrived.  He sets up his instruments in the street, and begins scanning nearby solar systems.  

When the Watcher emerges from his trance, he hurries to pack away his equipment as a grand procession approaches.  Before a Master’s palanquin (carried by a phalanx of neuters) walk four masked men in elegant costumes, and three Changelings modified so that they bellow like bullfrogs.  As the procession bears down on him, Gorman tries to help him (even though this is not allowed), and neuters rush forward bearing whips.  Just in time, the Prince emerges from the palanquin and calls off the attack.  He asks about the foretold invaders; the Watcher reports that he detected no sign of them.  The Prince then ushers Avluela into his palanquin.  When she emerges, she is exhausted, dazed, and distraught.  As the procession resumes, the Watcher and Gorman learn that the Prince has agreed to house them in the royal hostelry.  

Although the Prince demands the pleasures of the Flier’s body in return for housing them, his power seems unlimited.  Surely he could take her if he wished and give them nothing in return.  Perhaps he spares the Watcher only because he fears the prophesied invaders and wants to make sure of his position.  We cannot know his thoughts.  He may win no awards for compassion or kindness, but this hardly makes him a villain.  He rules a historic and cultural hub that brings inspiration, employment, and enjoyment to many.  Yet, content with managing his city, he ignores those who cannot care for themselves: those who have fallen through the structured order of his society.  

As we go about our lives, intent upon fulfilling our duties and achieving our goals, we may not always notice how our actions affect others.  Productivity and efficiency come at a price.  Just because we do not see the bill does not mean that others are not forced to pay it.  Our individual choices and actions impact the overall structure of our society, and are eventually reflected in the way that government agencies, businesses, and charities address the needs of the poor and downtrodden.  

It’s easy to excuse my own insensitivity when others point out how I have hurt them.  It’s even easier to suggest that those I have unwittingly hurt or excluded work harder to fit into my grand schemes.  It is infinitely more difficult to remain focused upon my goals, while ensuring that I never grow blind to how my words and actions affect those around me.

If you can figure out how to make an omelet without breaking any eggs, please let me know.

Related Dragon Cache entries

Robert Silverberg's award-winning story "Nightwings" can be found in Phases of the Moon.  In the novel-length version of Nightwings, the original story is lent additional meaning with two additional stories: "Among the Rememberers" and "The Road to Jorslem."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Forever in Flux?

Americans tend to think of World War II in terms of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was followed by the battles we undertook on two fronts.  But while our attacks on Germany and Japan occurred far from home, England endured daily bombings, and her people lived in constant fear of invasion.  They endured long lines for items we take for granted, and often had to make do with a fraction of what is available today.  They left home and returned to piles of rubble.  Husbands spent their evenings in the Home Guard or the ARP or on Fire Watch.  Wives worked in the war industries.  Parents sent their children off to live outside the big cities.  While much fiction covers this era (C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, and the recent novels Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis stand as obvious examples), a British TV scif-fi/comedy show helped me better comprehend all that the English endured during WWII.  

In “Goodnight Sweetheart,” Gary Sparrow works in the present day as a television repairman.  On one of his calls, he wanders down an unfamiliar street, and emerges in a rundown area of London.  In The Royal Oak pub, he meets Phoebe and her father.  The tape on the windows, the d├ęcor, the landlord’s intense questioning of his appearance, the locals’ conversation, and the more formal dress suggest an earlier era.   He decides he must be dreaming, and opts to play along with his subconscious mind.  Passing himself off as a spy and a singer/songwriter, he entertains customers with songs by future artists such as the Beatles and Elton John.  He sells his modern pen because he lacks the tuppence farthing for a beer.  Then alarms sound, and he must hurry into the pub’s cellar before the German planes arrive and start dropping bombs.  

As the series progresses, he wonders why he keeps returning to 1940, knowing he could be killed at any time. His wife Yvonne is ambitious, and wants him to commit to elevating their social and financial status.  But something always holds Gary back: he refuses to buy a suit when interviewing for a promotion; he spends substantial sums on 1940s books and paraphernalia; he bores her and everyone else with the minutia of what Londoners endured during the Blitz.   Only his friend Ron puts all the clues together and believes that Gary can go back in time.  To everyone else, he is a loveable loser: unskilled for anything but the job he has trained for, and lacking in the aptitude and drive necessary to succeed in life.

But Gary has all he needs and more.  Armed with his expert knowledge on daily occurrences, he prevents Phoebe from dying during an air raid.  With his singing and piano-playing, he lifts the spirits of those whom the constant bombing has dulled.  He can pop into the past with bars of chocolate, a pair of tights, or even a few bananas; amid rationing and constant shortages, he breathes life into a community struggling for existence.  Eventually, he falls in love with Phoebe, which further strains his commitment to the present.  This forces him to live a double-life that complicates his relationship with Yvonne and costs him his job.  But he overcomes the hurdles he faces with inventiveness and ingenuity.  Partly this is due to the claustrophobia and fear that makes his enduring constant bombings impossible.  Partly this is because he needs access to items in the modern world to continue playing the role he has assumed in the 1940s.  But also, he never settles for one era because, as with Yvonne and Phoebe, he loves them both too much to forsake either.  

I’m not affirming Gary’s life choices, but like him, I often feel as though others must view me as a “loveable loser,” someone who dares to dream, yet lacks the aptitude and the determination to succeed.  My office is cluttered with manuscripts I never finished or grew tired of submitting.  Worse, there are the novels that, for one reason or another, I never seriously submitted for publication.  I’ve often spent too much time rewriting, and not enough on finishing and selling.  Some could claim that the time I devote to this blog will only delay my eventual publication.  (They may be right).  Everyday I believe I journey closer toward my dream of publication, yet am confronted by the reality that, as yet, I have nothing to show for my efforts.  

One day, I hope to demonstrate that I am better than Roger Zelazny’s characters Drax and Dran, who argue over the type of future they hope to create, but never build it.  I hope that every day I opt for the achievable, like Number One in “The Cage,” rather than adopting Mr. Spock and Dr. Phil’s wait-and-see attitude.  Until I achieve my goals, I hope this blog inspires others for whom life seems forever in flux.  After all, if Horace Rumpole would believe the best of me, than I want to believe in (and encourage) all who strive to achieve the seeming impossible.

WWII and the Blitz threw life into chaos.  “Goodnight Sweetheart” reminds us how bleak those times could seem.  But as Gary constantly promises Phoebe, things will be better in the future.  "The world will be a different place, where you will be able to live as you desire."  Your life may be in flux.  But that is only because you are working toward a better tomorrow. 

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Those Detestable Ofkaipan

In Dr. Gregory Benford’s novel The Stars in Shroud, Ling decides to leave Earth to undertake the job of Base Commandant in the Veden System.  This is not an easy decision, as it means abandoning his wife and children when they are still suffering from the debilitating effects of the Quarm plague.  But the Veden System is important to Earth, for it manages the Flinger, which makes it possible to supply and support all the worlds mankind has settled.  And the people of Veden seem unaffected by the psychological disorder with which the aliens have brought all other Fleet worlds to a standstill.  So, faced with an important task ahead, and a mystery whose solution might hold the key to humanity’s future, Ling bids Angela, Chark, and Romana good-bye.

Ling’s racial status marks him as an ofkaipan.  Although he rose to captain a starship, those who would discriminate against minorities capitalized on his reluctance to transport the infected colonists from Regeln back to Earth.  Hence, Ling found himself court-martialed.  Tonji, his former second-in-command, has been unaffected by the plague, and has hence risen high in the new Fleet hierarchy.  On his trip to Veden, Ling finds the ship crewed by political appointees, leftovers, and former desk-jockeys, basically anyone of the majority race whom the plague has not affected.  No Sabal games are held, which prevents the crew from achieving greater unity and efficiency.  When the Captain finally calls Ling to his office, he is told that the ship will not even expend the fuel to go into orbit around Veden.  

Ling is packed into a one-man lifepod, and launched from the ship.  For the next three days, his life pod--little more than a casket--courses through the amazing forces channeled by this spacial phenomenon known as the Flinger.  Imagine being stuffed into a water-tight barrel and tossed into a river. If your barrel is not punctured and filled with water, if your air and food supplies are not compromised, if the rapids or waterfalls you traverse do not smash your barrel against the rocks, you may arrive at your destination unharmed.  In Ling's case, without the shielding, propulsion, and maneuvering capabilities of a starship, every moment of this uncomfortable journey might be his last.  During this time, he finally realizes how everyone in Fleet society always called him ofkaipan behind his back.  When his lifepod emerges from the Flinger, a new world awaits him.  He tells himself that on Veden, the situation will be different.

As a Caucasian male, there have been few times when I have felt myself in the minority.  I can only imagine what some are made to suffer, simply because of the color of their skin.  While Ling's experiences lead him to believe that his society has always viewed him as an outsider, his primary concern remains not his own social status, but the overall health of Fleet and Humanity.  All of us are constrained by innumerable factors, many forever beyond our control.  In resolving not to worry about how others view him, Ling can better focus upon the task he is determined to accomplish.  A similar resolve may help us through the hard times that inevitably await us.

Related Dragon Cache entries

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Worthy Monster

In his story “Nightwings,” Robert Silverberg introduces us to Gorman, a man regarded by all as a monster.  His golden hue, waxen skin, red pupils, and jagged mouth mark him as a Changeling, one whose deformities bar him from entry to any guild.  Yet Avluela, the beautiful, young Flier, urges the Watcher to let Gorman travel with them, and the old man reluctantly agrees.  For Gorman is strong of build, and they might need protection before they arrive in Roum.

Most of the guildless survive on jobs that no one else will do.  Gorman refuses to accept the lowly role to which this future Earth would consign him.  He stands erect while others of his kind slink along, debasing their spirits and abandoning their aspirations.  He investigates archeological sites and the abandoned technology of a former age.  Rememberers admire his curiosity, for he asks questions not even they can answer.  Perhaps such inner strength is what attracts Avluela: even though it is forbidden, she finds joy in his company.  To the Watcher he is a conundrum.  Gorman may mock him for his anxieties, but he also affirms the old man when his faith falters, and the Changeling remains grateful to the beautiful Flier and the old Watcher for including him.

She who perceives an inner beauty

Most will never look past his imperfections.  The Sentinel who guards Roum’s gates asks, “What kind of thing are you?”  He suggests that Gorman would be of more use to humanity if he were neutered.  When the Watcher and Avluela decide to appeal to the Prince of Roum for housing, Gorman warns them not to try, knowing the Prince is a hard and cruel man.  He is correct: the Prince agrees to house the party, but at a terrible cost to Avluela.  Even a Pilgrim on his way to Jorslem refuses to acknowledge Gorman.  The masked man blames his temporary guild for his inability to travel with a Changeling.  Such an attitude seems incongruent with his aims, for one who undertakes a pilgrimage does so for the purposes of self-renewal and redemption.

Like Gorman, we all know what it is to be judged unfairly.  We have been abused, shunned, and forced to fight for what others would deny us.  Yet Gorman has learned to be content with his situation and lack of status.  Barred from joining any Guilds, he is freed from the burden of meeting others’ expectations.   He models generosity and gratitude, and remains willing to speak with any who will talk with him.  Can we say that we have not allowed life’s disappointments to embitter us?  Can we welcome and befriend those who initially saw little worth in us?  Do we strive to improve ourselves when society consigns us to a status below that of our ambitions?

Oh, to be a worthy monstrosity like Gorman!

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Propelled by Hope

Imagine that you fly to England to attend your daughter’s wedding, only to learn that she wants her stepfather to give her away.  You work in the cutthroat commercial music industry: your jingles help attract viewers to such short advertisements.  After the service, you must skip the reception and race back to Heathrow, but your taxi is slowed by traffic, and you miss your flight.  You phone your boss, promise to catch the next plane out.  With luck, you can still attend the meeting with the client.  Instead, your boss tells you not to bother.  This is a young man’s game, and you’ve lost too many projects lately.  He’s sorry, but your services are no longer required.

In the movie “Last Chance Harvey,” the title character’s intention to drink away his sorrows in the airport bar is interrupted by Kate, who is reading a novel.  Somehow, everything she says cuts right to the truth of his situation.  When she asks if writing advertising jingles fulfills him, or if he once dreamed of doing something greater with his talent, he is not angered, but intrigued.  At a loose end, he walks her to her creative writing class.  

On the Victoria Embankment, even surrounded by so many people, their interest in each other never flags.  After her class, Harvey is still there.  The people who walk past, and the ships that power along the River Thames, seem symbolic of the opportunities that slipped away.  Kate never found a successful life-partner.  Although she was pregnant once, she opted not to have the child, and has since wondered what she missed out on.  Harvey doesn’t understand how his marriage, his role as a parent, and his dreams of becoming a jazz pianist went awry.  Despite how his daughter treated him, Kate urges Harvey to return to the reception, and he agrees, if she will accompany him.

In finding another person with whom they seem able to share such intense thoughts and feelings, Harvey and Kate realize that they might just have one last shot at the lives they always dreamed of living.  But this is difficult and scary.  Harvey must confront his failure as a husband and father if he is to move on.  Kate recognizes that she has grown used to disappointment; she has found a disturbing comfort in failure.  Harvey’s interest in her threatens to strip away her comfort zone.  

Isn’t that the way of life?  Just when we get comfortable with a situation, life offers up a change.  Although we may not be fulfilled, we don’t want to work to adjust to something new.  Yet we never reach a point where we are not forced to work if we wish to better our situation, and both characters recognize that their past willingness to accept life’s disappointments has brought them to this low ebb.  Harvey doesn’t know where he will live or what kind of job he can get in England.  Yet he knows that Kate represents his last real chance at happiness.  She allows him to take her arm.  The two walk off together along the Victoria Embankment.  While they face an uncertain future, their steps are propelled by hope.

In committing to travel to England this year, we faced challenges that stripped away numerous comfort zones.  Research into where to stay, what we wanted to see, how we would get around…the list was endless, and the additional demands cut into all aspects of our lives.  Who would think that preparations for a two-week vacation could so dominate our thoughts or cut so deeply into our free time for the six months leading up to our flight?  Yet we had put off this trip for decades, and knew that if we did not make it now, we might never visit this country whose stories have entertained and inspired us.  After such a short time in London, we were tired from all our walking, but we knew our sacrifices had been worthwhile.  We did not know what opportunities or trials the next hours or days would bring, but hand-in-hand, we walked along the Victoria Embankment, our footsteps propelled by hope.

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