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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Strange New Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh...

Well, the winners of the Strange New Worlds X contest have finally been announced, and as I anticipated, I wasn't one of them. I thought going in that the story was a little too cute and self indulgent, so this result isn't really a surprise, but it's still a bit of a bummer.

On the plus side, now I get to inflict the story on all of you. Hooray!

For those of you not immersed in Star Trek lore, this story is a sequel to the show's first pilot, "The Cage," and its followup two-part episode, "The Menagerie." In those stories, Captain Christopher Pike, who commanded the starship Enterprise before Captain Kirk, discovered a planet of mentally advanced but physically decrepit aliens, and a human woman named Vina, survivor of a spaceship crash. The aliens, called Talosians, create a world of illusion for Pike and Vina, hoping that they will breed a new race of slaves for the aliens, for the purpose of rehabilitating their barren world. Pike foils this plot in "The Cage," but he is later crippled and disfigured in a terrible accident, and convinces his old friend, Mr. Spock, to take him back to the Talosians so that he can live in an illusion of youth and vitality with Vina.

My story takes place years later, after the death of Pike, and finds the aliens he left behind in mourning.

Waking Moments

Long ago, he had been known as the Keeper. Now, his colleagues called him the Kept, for the Talosian who was First Among Equals had exiled himself from the company of his peers and ensconced himself in the Library of Thought, his mind wrapped up in the vast recorded memories of an alien culture – and no one was certain why.

This quiet crisis had its genesis in the recent deaths of two guests of the Talosians: a male named Pike and a female named Vina. At first prisoners, the two humans had eventually become honoured guests, admired teachers, and finally dear friends. It had taken many years, but Vina and Pike’s mortal bodies finally surrendered to entropy – first the female, and then just a few weeks later, the male.

The Talosians were all saddened by the passing of the humans, but the Keeper’s antisocial reaction was unheard of within recent Talosian memory. To isolate oneself from telepathic communion was unprecedented, and no one knew precisely how to deal with the Keeper’s behaviour. Worse, no one was certain if the Keeper’s self-imposed solitude was helping him heal, or merely disguising some deep and dangerous emotional wounds.

The Archivist had been charged with discovering which, if either, was the case. And he wasn’t certain if he was equal to the task.

When Captain Pike and Vina had at last died, the Keeper had changed. Relieved of the responsibility of maintaining the illusions that kept the two humans happy, safe and intellectually challenged, the Keeper seemed lost, without a reason to justify his continued existence.

Lost, at least, until he had asked the Archivist to set aside an alcove in the Library of Thought for his own exclusive use. The Archivist saw no reason to decline – the Library was not used often enough to make such exclusivity a burden to others – and so the Keeper found his new purpose.

It was a purpose that mystified the other Talosians. For months now, the Keeper had spent nearly every waking moment in his alcove, staring fixedly at the irregular-shaped viewer laid into the alcove’s rocky wall.

It was an outdated but still operational piece of technology, one Pike had often used for education and amusement during those rare times in which they chose to experience the reality of their life on Talos rather than the illusion. “I need to be myself every once in a while,” the captain had said before the shell of illusion fell away to reveal his silent, broken body, “I need to remember that pain is part of the human condition, and that not everyone has the luxury of living forever in a dream.”

Pike’s insistence on spending time, however brief, in his broken husk of a body confused a few Talosians at first. But in time they understood. In his own way, Pike was encouraging the Talosians to rediscover the power of their own bodies, to experience the joy and the struggle of physical existence. To a species that lived mostly in a realm of unlimited possibility – the seductive trap created by their own incredible mental powers – the lesson was perhaps the most important Pike had imparted in all his years among them. Though his wasted nervous system was barely able to signal simple binary commands through his Federation-built life support chair, Pike found the will (with a little hidden assistance from the Keeper when the human’s strength faltered) to operate the Library’s control system.

On these occasions, the Keeper or the Archivist – but more often the Keeper – would offer to ease Pike’s self-imposed burden. “I can retrieve whichever records you wish,” the Keeper once said, his eyes wide with genuine alarm as Pike’s exertion became more and more obvious. “Why risk damaging yourself in this manner?”

Pike could not respond, of course, until the Keeper restored the illusion of youth and health. And even then he only said, “Sometimes it’s good for the soul to do things the hard way.”

The Archivist paid little attention to the records, books and video images Pike spent so much time reviewing. The Keeper, on the other hand, was fascinated, and Pike didn’t mind if the Keeper read over his shoulder from time to time. The human’s interests were varied, and of course he spent a good deal of his time studying Talosian history, but inevitably he returned to images of his homeworld and the Federation Starfleet ships and outposts he’d left behind.

The Archivist hadn’t been as close to the humans as the Keeper had been, but he did once share an encounter that not even the Keeper knew of; once, many years ago, the Archivist had witnessed the midpoint of an emotional conflict between Pike and Vina. It was an accident; by that time, the Talosians understood the importance these humans placed on their personal boundaries. But the Archivist had entered the humans’ current illusion – an outdoor picnic that seemed one of their favourites - for a scheduled lesson on Terran agricultural methods.

It was an appointment the couple had clearly forgotten. The female was in tears; the male’s lips were pressed into a thin line, his eyes narrowed, face flushed. Vina, her fists clenched, turned and ran, vanishing into an illusion of her own choosing, one the Archivist imagined would fulfill her desire for solitude.

“I’m sorry,” the Archivist said, “Your mate is distressed. I will return later.”

“It’s all right,” Pike said. “She needs to cool off.”

The Archivist was confused. “I thought humans offered comfort to each other in times of emotional turmoil,” he said.

Pike sighed. “We do,” he admitted, “But there’s a time to give a girl a hug, and a time to let her have a good cry. You choose the wrong response at the wrong time, and boy, you’re in hot water and you know it.”

“How do you know which action to take, and when? Without the ability to touch minds…”

Pike smiled, but it did not touch his eyes. “Intuition. Empathy. And luck. It might not be as accurate as telepathy, but we manage. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a feeling that it’s just about time for me to run after Vina and apologize.”

And then Pike, too, had vanished.

The Archivist wasn’t certain if he would ever attain the high degree of intuition and empathy that humans seemed to take for granted. And Talosians didn’t believe in luck. But the Archivist sensed that his time to gently confront the Keeper had come.

So now the Archivist found himself approaching his friend from behind, feeling like an intruder in his own domain. The Keeper sensed his presence, of course; among telepathic species, it was very difficult to startle one another.

To the outside observer, the Keeper seemed to be staring at a blank screen, but every Talosian knew that the Keeper himself was using his telepathic abilities to browse through the Library of Thought’s vast codex. The screen would only come to life if the user wished to share the materials he was accessing with others. In truth, it had only been used this way for the edification of the humans; and of late, the Keeper did not seem inclined to share.

Such eccentricity was tolerated, even embraced. Pike and Vina had helped the Talosians rediscover certain universal values: humour, compassion and respect for privacy among them. But their bemused indulgence had changed to concern, even worry. Though the Keeper appeared healthy, he had completely forsaken the congress of his fellows. His thoughts were shielded, and the only outward expression of emotion was the occasional thin smile.

“Your studies have distanced you,” the Archivist said. “We do not wish to intrude, but…we have grown concerned.”

The Keeper turned in his seat and smiled up at the Archivist.

“There is no cause for concern. I am merely adjusting to the deaths of Christopher and Vina.”

The Archivist tilted his head, thought-vesicles pulsing atop his bulbous skull. “How is the library helping you adjust?” he asked.

Without moving, the Keeper brought the ancient viewer to life. He could have shared his thoughts in direct mind-to-mind contact, but at this moment he felt more comfortable using the screen, as he would have with Christopher. Its primitivism was somehow both more and less communal than telepathy – like the ancient humans and Talosians who used to gather around campfires or electronic televiewing devices to share their stories.

The Archivist’s eyes widened in surprise as he beheld the events taking place on the screen. A Vulcan known to them both was stumbling down a corridor, and his face was wracked with sorrow.

“Spock,” said the Archivist. “But Vulcans do not typically display their emotions so blatantly.”

“They called it ‘the naked time,’” the Keeper said, “A contagion temporarily removed all inhibition and logic among the crew of Spock’s ship. It nearly destroyed them, but a cure was found before ultimate disaster struck and they went about their normal duties soon enough.”

“I see.” The Archivist was disturbed. Was the Keeper so distressed that he felt he was about to experience a similar loss of control? Was he seeking some kind of cure?

But the Keeper sensed his friend’s thoughts, and gently shook his head. “That is not why this particular memory interests me. Watch as Spock enters the next room.”

The Archivist watched. Spock stepped toward a set of pneumatic doors; they slid open at his approach. The Vulcan stepped through, paused as the doors closed, and leaned back upon them, sobbing.

The image froze. The Archivist looked at his friend, confused.

“What is the significance of this particular moment?”

The Keeper replayed the memory. Again, the Archivist failed to understand.

“The doors obviously have motion sensors; you approach, and the doors open. They close once you pass,” the Keeper said.

Now the Archivist was baffled. Why was the Keeper obsessing over such minutiae?

The Keeper explained. “Once Spock passes beyond the threshold, the doors close, as you would expect. But then, he leans backward – and rests against the doors. If the doors are controlled by a mere motion sensor, should they not have opened once more, and should Spock not have fallen backward into the corridor?”

“I fail to see…”

The Keeper stood, and he was beaming, a finger held high in the air. “Indeed he should have! And yet, the doors remained closed, as if they were supporting someone in need of comfort! The doors, Archivist, are context-sensitive!”

“Context sensitive doors..? But why…?”

The Keeper continued as if his friend hadn’t spoken. “Another example, from many decades later, on another Federation ship named Enterprise.” He pointed, quite unnecessarily, at the viewer. The Archivist watched as an older, pale-skinned human male picked up a young, dark-skinned man and flung him across the length of a room. The younger man flew straight into a set of doors – much like the ones Spock had leaned upon moments ago – and crashed through them, falling atop the derailed doors in an adjoining hallway.

The Archivist was speechless, and appalled. Why was the Keeper showing him this scene of distasteful violence?

“Do you see?” the Keeper said, “The doors should have opened as the one called LaForge flew toward them. But they remained closed! Why? To break the human’s fall! Context-sensitive doors!”

The Archivist spread his hands, a gesture he’d begun to use in unconscious mimicry of Vina. “But…but even so…”

The Keeper returned to his seat and leaned back, eyes turning toward the rocky ceiling.

“Over the years I spent with Christopher and Vina, I absorbed a great deal of human wisdom and whimsy through their arts and history. They introduced me to adventures wilder than any fantasy Talosians could have imagined. Cities in the sky, terrifying mechanical demons, heroic sacrifice, epic battle, tragic loss. Christopher introduced me to the stories of the men and women who came before him, and then watched alongside me as we looked on in awe at the exploits of his successors.”

In one of their books of mythology, there is an aphorism which states, ‘By their works, you will know them.’ Throughout their growth as a species, humans have created works both great and small, works that express their best qualities: toys that serve no purpose but to bring joy to children. Complex arrangements of wood and metal that when used properly create the most exquisite sounds. Bubbles of silicon blown into existence with nothing but the tender breaths of a meticulous artisan, created for no purpose but their intrinsic aesthetic beauty. Machinery that gives mobility to the immobile, sight to the blind. They have even learned to create virtual worlds indistinguishable from the illusions we create, but unlike us they have not succumbed to the lure of perpetual fantasy. Instead they use these worlds to teach and create as often as they use them to escape reality.

Their smallest works – their afterthoughts, like these context-sensitive doors – are perhaps the greatest expression of their humanity. From the sublime to the ridiculous, their primary motivation in all things seems to be to protect each other and to inspire and enable each member of the species to reach their full potential. Something as seemingly ridiculous as a portal that understands when to open and when not to is a reflection of the force that drives them toward greatness.”

The Archivist was silent for a while. He hadn’t realized the depth of the Keeper’s attachment to the humans and the culture that spawned them.

“You are aware of the less social aspects of humanity – their urge to do violence, their hatred, their selfishness.”

The Keeper nodded. “I am aware. And I have come to the conclusion that their ability to overcome their own nature speaks even more highly of them.”

The Archivist was beginning to understand why the Keeper had done what he had.

“You wanted to be sure,” the Archivist said, “You wanted to be certain that we had, after all, made the right choice when we drew the humans here.”

The Keeper nodded.

“Perhaps the greatest loss we Talosians suffered during our long period of stagnation was the loss of our sense of wonder. When we learned to create worlds at a whim, we forgot the value of the creative struggle, of any struggle. That is why Pike insisted that we allow the illusion to fade, if only for moments at a time, even though he knew it was likely to shorten his life in the long run.

Watching the struggles of human beings has made me realize that I need to do more for our world. Christopher and Vina’s help was invaluable; they have given us the knowledge and inspiration we need to heal Talos, and ourselves. But we must venture beyond the confines the intellect and put our imagination to work in the real world – out there, on the blasted lands above us.

I needed some time alone to consider the lessons of our time with Christopher and Vina – time apart from the community of thought that has made decision making so easy for us. Perhaps…too easy. The story of Pike’s life proved that sometimes you need to be stubborn to accomplish greatness, especially when faced with an abundance of easier choices. And no one is as stubborn as a single determined individual forced into a life-or-death struggle for survival, with nothing but the resources of his own mind and body.”

The Archivist turned away, the truth of the Keeper’s words chilling him with their implications. To leave the safety of their underground warrens, to build and live and grow on the planet’s inhospitable surface – to raise children again – the effort seemed vast.

He knew it was. And he knew it was necessary. Their species would have to rediscover the strengths of individuality and the value in ‘doing things the hard way,’ as Pike had put it. That might even mean relying less on their telepathic network and more on face-to-face interaction. Perhaps they would relearn how to read the complex signals of vocal tone, body language, eye movement.

“Have we learned all we can from the humans, then?” the Archivist asked.

The Keeper considered it. He knew the Archivist was really asking about his own recent struggles to deal with the loss of his friends, and he, the Keeper, appreciated his friend’s attempt to depersonalize the issue.

“For now,” the Keeper said. “At any rate, the exploits of the human species have grown harder to receive of late, as though some outside force has drawn a curtain between us and their stories. For some time now, I’ve been able to view nothing but repeated memories.”

The Archivist was disturbed. “Are the humans in any danger?” he asked.

The Keeper stood, and invited his friend to follow him down the hallway that led from the Library of Thought to the surface portal.

“They’ve only gone silent for a time. I have a feeling that the human adventure is just beginning – and thanks to the inspiration they have provided, our own adventure can at last resume as well. We’ll leave our world of dreams behind for a while, and when we have used those dreams as fuel to rebuild our world – why then, we’ll dream some more, and build something even greater.”

The Archivist and Keeper walked into the future they would forge together.


So, there it is. Given the perspective of time, I can see several reasons why Pocket chose not to purchase the story. Some of the prose isn't as polished as it could be, for instance. (This is why you shouldn't try to write a story over the last three nights before a deadline.) The plot references the previously unestablished death of a major character, which is against the contest rules. (I thought Pike might be minor enough for me to get away with this one.)

The largest flaw, however, is that it seems like a story in search of one high concept, the whole context sensitive doors thing, which longtime BHOB readers will recognize from a post I made here a couple of years ago. I fell a little too much in love with my own cleverness, and probably sabotaged the larger meaning of the story.

Anyway, that's my analysis. Still, I'm proud to have actually finished a piece of fiction, and to have put it in the mail for the unflinching eyes of others. My only regret is that Pocket has announced that Strange New Worlds X was the last such contest they'll run; there's no "better luck next year" for me this time.

On the other hand, maybe it's time to start seriously looking at some of those original stories I have on the back burner...


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your story, Earl. It was a pretty good read, but I do agree with your analysis in the end. The "context-sensitive" doors is too big of a left turn for the story to support.

I think you are also perhaps missing some "big picture" issues as well: 1) The key to personal enlightenment is through watching Star Trek reruns on TV (even if it is mis-shapen). This seems also as self-reflective as the context-sensitive doors, something of a gimmick. 2) Human values are the only thing that can save the galaxy. While your Talosians seem to certainly value human spirit, it does seem rather anthrocentric to assume that our Earthpersonal ideas are the best ones for every creature in the galaxy. This isn't any real fault of yours, Earl, but a common enough assumption of Star Trek and much of science fiction in general.

We seem to need to want these stories to affirm to us that we as a people can strive beyond our current condition, as well as to show us "traps" to "avoid" in our humanistic quests. However, all of our storytelling, our on-screen pyrotechnics, our deep-voiced heroes and plucky heroines, really function much in the same way as the Talosian mind illusions, albeit on a much more primitive level. We turn to SF, TV, movies, games, and books to provide a certain amount of escape from our lives, which can be sometimes mis-shapen as well. If there is instructive material to be found in those media, it's often on the level of a sales pitch - buy the toys related to the story. That's perhaps not so evident in your story, but there are elements of it -- we're going to have to search out episodes from two different runs of Star Trek to fully apprecieate your references, and last time I looked, the DVDs were not cheap.

Sometimes there's more to SF: the so-called "mirror" that society can use to see themselves within the context of the fiction. For a while, I was thinking this idea has some legs to it, but not so much any more. It doesn't work too well for a society that is sick of looking at mirrors all the time, and it makes all the difference as to what kind of mirror is being held up, and even who is lurking hidden in behind whilst holding up the mirror nowadays. I doubt people reading the golden age of SF really asked themselves that kind of question, but now, I think you may risk a certain naivete if you don't.

That's really a lot to read into a little SF story, and I wonder if much of it went beyond the basic quality issues and merchandising angles with regards to accepting some stories and rejecting others at Pocket Books.

All of that being said, we don't need Pocket Books much anyway. The chances that I would have picked up the book on my own are very short odds. We have your blog, we read your posts, and they give us more to think about, talk about, and enjoy than ever before. Please keep up the great writing, allow us our criticisms, and above all have fun doing it.

Earl J. Woods said...

Thank you for a very thoughtful and cogent analysis. It's given me a lot to ponder, particularly the idea that there's an awful lot of irony and self-awareness in literature these days. Personally I love reflexive literature and film, but there's something to be said for simply telling a might even generate a new idea by doing so, instead of, as you say, holding up yet another mirror.

In any event, the experience of finishing the story, having it turned down, and your analysis is probably a lot more valuable in the long run than an actual sale. I haven't made nearly enough mistakes yet to become a real author. It's long past time I start making some more.