Babylon 5: A Voice in the Wilderness

Live with a man forty years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.
Xian Yu, as quoted in Firefly

With this double episode, we are finally back to the big plot, back to dialog that resonates with deeper meaning and wider implications, back to characters who are allowed to change and events whose effects extend beyond the closing credits. It’s been a while coming, after the brief, vertiginous glimpse in Signs and Portents faded back into Freak of the Week episodes. But from this point on, the balance between one-offs and pieces of the story arc shifts. This is when the show wakes up, stretches, and gets good.

The plot-triggering event is a series of seismic disturbances on the planet below Babylon 5. Like most quakes, it is notable not only for its immediate violence, but also for the subtle, permanent shift it makes in the landscape around it. Things happen when worlds shake. People show their true natures, and are changed by the revelations around them and inside themselves1.

The other early event of the story, which will have its own long-term implications, is the outbreak of revolution on the Mars Colony. The Free Mars movement strikes suddenly, rebelling against the Earth-controlled provisional government. We’ve only had hints of the tension there before, and even now it has very little impact on the station as a whole. But it’s Garibaldi’s own personal earthquake, shaking him out of his habitual ways of dealing with the past.

(This is a particularly interesting set of storylines to consider right now, by the way. We’ve just had an earthquake leading to a risk of nuclear disaster2, we’re seeing popular uprisings in distant countries, and the faction that wants to bomb everything it can’t control is calling on the com channel again. One almost wonders if certain world leaders have had a recent visit from a mysterious stranger who wants to know what they want. But I digress.)

The story opens with the usual Babylon 5 tropes: a stranger arrives on the station. Garibaldi is being a jerk (in this case, sexually harassing Talia Winters3). Ivanova is coordinating things in C&C while Sinclair mediates a treaty negotiation between Delenn and Londo. Even the seismic investigation by Dr. Tasaki’s team is an ordinary activity, until the beam of energy nearly shoots their shuttle down.

But you know all these things are going to matter this time, because the dialog has started ringing like a bell again.

Delenn: I would suggest there is a difference between being unreasonable and being angry. Ambassador G’Kar is angry much of the time, but even the greatest anger fades with time.
Londo: My dear Ambassador Delenn, I am sure that for you this is true.  But for G’Kar and his people, they will do all that they can to destroy us, until the universe itself decays and collapses. If the Narns all stood together in one place and hated, all at the same time, that hatred could fly across dozens of light years and reduce Centauri Prime into a ball of ash. That’s how much they hate us.
Sinclair: You don’t have to respond in kind.
Londo: Of course we do.  There’s a natural law. Physics tells us that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction. They hate us, we hate them, they hate us back. And so here we are, victims of mathematics.

JMS has his thumb on the scales, of course, and the characters are speaking like oracles. Everything they say is going to come true, one way or another. This is particularly the case with Draal, the Minbari whose arrival starts the first episode off. His first conversation with Delenn centers on a philosophical concept4 he taught her years before:

The third principle of sentient life is the capacity for self-sacrifice: the conscious ability to override evolution and self-preservation for a cause, a friend, a loved one.

That opening line is like a red shirt in a landing party. Start off like that, and you know that someone is going to be sacrificing themselves before long. And Draal is clearly a character in search of a vocation, a key in search of a lock:

My feet are firmly on the path and the road beckons me down to the sea. There I will find the purpose and meaning that I have lost among my own people. Be glad, Delenn. Be glad.

It’s not entirely clear what “going to the sea” means in Minbari culture. It’s not death, but it seems to lead to it, because Draal talks about “being of service before the end”. It’s clearly irreversible. Delenn says, “Then when you leave here, I will never see you again.” I don’t know that it’s further explained in the series, and it has the feel of an insufficiently thought-out piece of alien culture, dragged in for short-term plot utility. On the other hand, I don’t know how easy it would be to explain a character joining a monastic order in a few short strokes of dialog, either.

(Also, peripherally, however great Draal’s service to the universe ends up being, his first act as Guardian is to kill all the viable remnants of a nearly-extinct species. Once Varn dies, a few days after the end of the episode, his people will be gone for good. I’m a little uncomfortable with this being portrayed as a good thing.)

But Draal is not the only one in the story haunted by a sense of destiny he’s not sure how to fulfill. Garbaldi’s subplot about the woman he left behind6 on Mars Colony is another instance of the same class. He becomes increasingly sure, as he goes to greater and greater lengths to get news of Lise, that she is in some way his soul mate.7 (“She’s all right. She has to be. That’s all there is to it.”) Even though it turns out that she is married to someone else, the episode feels like a turning point for Garibaldi. As we saw in Survivors and TKO, he has all but given up on his own agency in relationships. His way of dealing with people from his past is entirely reactive: if they don’t contact him, he doesn’t know where they are or what they have become. He won’t let himself care about them, or put any effort into the relationship.

The effort to find Lise demonstrates a substantial change in that pattern. It’s not just that he exerts himself to get in touch, either. He thinks about what he feels, and what he wants. He talks about it. He admits uncertainty and vulnerability. I don’t get the feeling that he’s done much of that in the past. I’m not sure that this change has any longer-term plot significance, but it’s one more strand in the theme of vocations woven through the storyline.

Another character who gets shaken out of old habits is Londo. At the start, he is what he has been for most of the series: a buffoon. He charms Garibaldi out of his black mood (ironically, with a story of romance gone bad), then stiffs him for his drink. His parting comment is classic character self-declaration:

Now I go to spread happiness to the rest of the station. It’s a terrible responsibility, but I have learned to live with it.

And then, immediately after he has so characterized himself comes the first tiny quiver of his own earthquake, the first seismic shift from clown to what he will become. He sees a projection of Varn, the dying alien on the planet below, who is looking for someone with a vocation for self-sacrifice to replace him. Obviously, this is the lock to Draal’s key, not to Londo’s. But it rouses something in him:

As a young and foolish Centauri, I swore I would die on my feet, doing something noble, and brave, and futile.  Perhaps it was not so wild a dream as I thought.  Or as foolish.  It is better than waiting for the inevitable.

It’s true that Londo’s thirst for a great destiny is one of the engines of destruction in Babylon 5, and that some are yet ungotten and uborn that shall have cause to curse the moment he stops telling funny anecdotes and cadging drinks. Not all the threads in this story are light ones. But they’re necessary, and this one starts here.

Even the minor characters get to talk in terms of vocations and destiny (though since they’re minor characters, their prophecies don’t come true). Dr. Tasaki, the planetologist who investigates the effect of the seismic activity, asks Ivanova, “What better way to go out than in the cause of advancing scientific knowledge?” (Ivanova’s reply: “Is this a multiple choice question? Because I have some ideas.”)

One person who is quite obviously being fitted up for a destiny that is not furthered in this story is Sinclair. Varn appears to him as well, well before he does to Londo and Draal. But he spends the episode being less a character with a vocation and more an updated version of Jim Kirk. First he risks two thirds of the command crew on a dangerous trip planetside. Then he has to assert his primacy over the EarthForce captain who turns up and tries to control the situation8 before battling the aliens who want to claim the advanced technology he and Ivanova found. And in the meantime, he’s worrying about the practicalities of evacuating the station (Though not, I notice, making any plans or reviewing existing ones. Don’t they do contingency planning?).

He also, in my opinion, acts unjustifiably high-handedly about Ivanova.

Sinclair: One last thing, a favor. If we have to evacuate, you know we’ll never get everyone off the station.  Ambassadors, women and children, civilians go first.  Some of the command staff will have to stay on board until…
Garibaldi: (nods)
Sinclair: I’d appreciate it if you could make sure Ivanova gets on the last ship out. She’ll want to stay, but she’s got her whole career ahead of her.
Garibaldi: Understood. She’ll be on it if I have to drug her and toss her in before the doors close.

The kindest interpretation I can put on this is that he is so deeply in denial about his own hunger for a greater destiny that he projects that onto Ivanova. My first reaction, though, was that it served him right that Delenn denied him much the same right to choose for himself when she took Draal planetside:

Garibaldi:Ask you a question? Why the end-run around us? When you figured out that someone was going to have to take Varn’s place down there, why didn’t you come to us and let us handle it?
Delenn: Because if I had, I know in my heart that Commander Sinclair would be the one down there right now. He’s looking for a purpose. But his destiny lies elsewhere.

Delenn is interesting in this episode for a slightly different reason. She’s not, at this point, at the start of her own transformative journey. We’ve only had hints so far, but she’s already underway on something as dramatic and risky as Draal’s assumption of the role of Guardian. And yet she is still profoundly changed by the events in these episodes. At the start, she’s the voice of a kind of bone-deep optimism:

Without a hope that things will get better, that our inheritors will know a world that is fuller and richer than our own, life is pointless, and evolution is vastly overrated.

But her cri de coeur, seeing Draal silent in the Guardian’s machine, has none of that hopefulness left:

Tell me that it is a wonder, so that I may sleep at night when all I can see is this place.

Of course, Delenn does not have a history of taking the loss of a mentor easily. Her reaction to the death of Dukhat was to cast the deciding vote to make war on Earth. Being able to consent to and assist with Draal’s sacrifice is a form of self-sacrifice for her as well, a kind of growing up.

In the midst of all this personal growth, we do also get some plot elements that will come back again. The Mars Colony rebellion will be complicated, difficult, and a magnet for yahoos for some time to come. EarthDome’s deeply divided attitude toward Babylon 5, and the overly aggressive style of conflict-handling it favors, will continue to be a problem for the station commander. And Draal and his machine will be intermittent allies to Babylon 5 during the Shadow War.

It’s worth noting that this is not an Ivanova episode. She doesn’t grow or change. What she does do, of course, is get all the best lines:

And just one more thing.  On your trip back, I’d like you to take the time to learn the Babylon 5 mantra: Ivanova is always right.  I will listen to Ivanova. I will not ignore Ivanova’s recommendations. Ivanova is God.  And if this ever happens again, Ivanova will personally rip your lungs out.  Babylon Control out. 9(Looks round. Everyone previously frozen in place quickly disperses)
(Looks up) Just kidding about that God part. No offense.

Ivanova: Commander, we don’t have a lot of time. We’re cut off from the way we came in. We don’t know if we can find another way back to the ship before we run out of air.
Sinclair: We can’t leave him like this.
Ivanova: I know, I know. It’s a Russian thing. When we’re about to do something really stupid, we like to catalog the full extent of our stupidity, for future reference.

Ivanova: Ambassador, do you really want to know what’s going on down there right now?
Londo: Yes. Absolutely.
Ivanova: (in Londo’s ear) Boom…boom boom boom…boom boom…boom!  Have a nice day.

  1. I know this from personal experience, too. The overwhelming kindness and generosity of the days after Loma Prieta quake in 1989 destroyed any temptation in me to see the great mass of people as selfish and unruly, a force of dark impulses only controllable by the external imposition of law. My social liberalism, my anti-authoritarian love of self-organizing communities, and my general trust in people were hugely strengthened by that time.
  2. I must briefly aargh that Ivanova says that “the fusion reactors are approaching critical mass.” Aargh. There. Done.
  3. I do wish Sinclair had told him to knock it off. Or that Talia refused to help him because he was being such a creep.
  4. Although the nugget in question is useful for these episodes, it reminds me of the rule that people should not try to write characters who are wiser or smarter than themselves. Surely the religious caste of Minbari—the moral arm of an ancient race full of very smart people—would treasure slightly more layered aphorisms.5
  5. In an ironic way, my bemusement echoes Londo and the Hokey Pokey. “Six thousand years of recorded history. A history that includes remarkable composers, astonishing symphonies. But what is the one song that half of them sing to their children, from generation to generation?”
  6. Why is The Girl He Left Behind not a TV Trope, by the way?
  7. Spoiler: She is, but there’s a lot of plot between now and then.
  8. Honestly, if Sinclair is a Gary Stu, JMS’s great fear is losing creative control of his work. Everyone tries to take over some piece of his command, every chance they get: Bester in Mind War, Kemmer in Survivors, Zento in By Any Means Necessary, Ben Zayn in Eyes, even Neroon in Legacies.
  9. This is my favorite quote from the series. I even riffed on it for my own professional Mantra.

The next post will discuss Babylon Squared.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

– o0o –

Cross-posted on Making Light.

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41 Responses to Babylon 5: A Voice in the Wilderness

  1. TexAnne says:

    I remember this one better than many other eps…except that I’d shoehorned Zathras in there, too. There is never enough Zathras, I’m sure you’ll agree.) I’d forgotten Garibaldi being a jerk to Ms. Winters, perhaps because I *liked* him, and didn’t want him to be That Guy.

  2. @TexAnne:

    Zathras actually turns up in the next episode, so you’re only a little ahead of yourself remembering him here. I’m looking forward to seeing him back. (Though talk about a character ridden and defined by his vocation!)

    I was disappointed by Garibaldi’s treatment of Talia. I hadn’t remembered him being quite that obnoxious. And then I was disappointed right back when she still tried to help him contact Lise after that. If he keeps treating her the way he has so far in the series, I’ll move from disappointed to something stronger. Exasperated, perhaps.

  3. Laina says:

    “(…One almost wonders if certain world leaders have had a recent visit from a mysterious stranger who wants to know what they want. But I digress.)”

    I’ve been thinking a lot about Heinlein’s “Crazy Years”, but in some ways the mysterious stranger makes more sense.

    When I followed the link to your professional Mantra, I got a 404 Not Found.

  4. @Laina:

    I’ve fixed the Matra link.

  5. heresiarch says:

    “Although the nugget in question is useful for these episodes, it reminds me of the rule that people should not try to write characters who are wiser or smarter than themselves. Surely the religious caste of Minbari—the moral arm of an ancient race full of very smart people—would treasure slightly more layered aphorisms.”

    Even the cleverest writer would have trouble generating aphorisms supposedly honed and refined for thousands of years. He probably should have stolen one from a real religion and filed off the serial numbers.

  6. David Harmon says:

    One almost wonders if certain world leaders have had a recent visit from a mysterious stranger who wants to know what they want.

    Despite my atheism, I’ve been saying for a while that demonic possession would explain a hell of a lot about current politics. (“Mere” diabolic influence would probably work too.)

  7. MacAllister says:

    Garibaldi’s stalker tendencies were awfully hard for me to feel comfortable or even charitable around and towards. There’s just too much ooginess there. Which is a shame, because in other ways, I find Garibaldi an extraordinarily sympathetic character, and very much relate to some of the other traits we see him display.

    Especially that aspect of agency you’ve so succinctly identified: “he has all but given up on his own agency in relationships. His way of dealing with people from his past is entirely reactive: if they don’t contact him, he doesn’t know where they are or what they have become. He won’t let himself care about them, or put any effort into the relationship.”

    I drifted through most of my thirties in precisely that state of mind, and passivity — so I really, really want to root for Garibaldi in this episode…but when we see him actually displaying any agency, he’s being a creep.

  8. Something to file under ‘poetry, not written by me’:

    The Ivanova Blasphemy Song
    Sung to the tune of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,’ traditional carol
    New Lyrics: Matt G. Leger from an idea by I Abra Cinii
    Parody lyrics (c)2000 by Matt G. Leger. Redistribution, archiving and performing freely permitted as long as this credit is maintained.
    Acquired via, Tue, 25 Apr 2000

    Ivanova is always right,
    Ivanova is God;
    And if you don’t believe this
    Then you are a thumping clod!
    You’d better listen to her
    Or she’ll rearrange your bod,
    Always do what she says that you must do,
    Rapidly, too!
    Always do whatever she says you must do.

    Our first mate is of Russian blood
    And has the gift to scry
    When danger is a-coming
    And we’re all about to die.
    So even if things seem calm now,
    Obey her — don’t ask why!
    For tomorrow there always is a “boom,”
    With it, our doom;
    Yes, tomorrow there will always come a “boom!”

    So when you’re on our station,
    There is one thing you should know:
    Ivanova is watching you
    Wherever you may go.
    Telepathy will soon reveal
    What cameras cannot show,
    So remember, Ivanova is God —
    Shake your head, nod —
    Yes, you understand Ivanova is God!
    (Spoken softly, looking up) Sorry!

  9. kate says:

    It’s not entirely clear what “going to the sea” means in Minbari culture.

    …Hrm. I suppose you’re right. It always felt like… Well, a sea-change. Something irreversible yet not, necessarily, involving death. (But which might be just as close to death for anyone who once knew them.)

    But I realize I’m infusing it with elements from other fantasies. (Tolkien in particular, obviously.)

    I guess I’m OK with some things being vague-but-meaningful.

    (Also, the Ivanova-is-God is my favorite of hers, too. Though “…if you’ll excuse me, but I’m in the middle of 15 things, all of them annoying. Thank you for coming by,” comes close.

  10. alex says:

    Not wanting to quibble overly with your and Johann Hari’s social optimism, but there is and will always be a very important difference between a situation in which a definable danger has come to pass, leaving tragedy in its wake, but also the prospect of rescue, and of a return to normality; and one in which the danger persists, no help is forthcoming, and things like the basic supply of food are threatened, not just for the short term, but enduringly.

    Not that in either situation people are necessarily going to be reduced to ravening beasts, but the extent to which others will come to be perceived as a threat in the second scenario, come what may, will be much higher. For evidence, I point to the course of human history, and how pleased we all were, roughly 3/4 of a century ago, when at last things started to feel less like scenario 2 on a permanent basis. As for the future, you can bring up some interesting scenarios by googling “water wars”.

  11. Tim May says:

    Hey, Abi. There seems to be another block of rogue control characters after “victims of mathematics.” which is breaking both the RSS feed here and the Atom feed at Making Light. (I think I see another block in front of “And just one more thing”, though I don’t know if those will cause feed problems or not; the validator only seems to have a problem with the first.)

  12. @Tim May:

    I’ve fixed both of those — just counting my backspaces told me there was a problem with them. Can you try again?

    I think it’s an artifact of the text editor I’m using to compose my posts. I need to find a really temperamental XML parser to check these thing on. IE, perhaps.

  13. @heresiarch:

    He probably should have stolen one from a real religion and filed off the serial numbers.

    That is precisely what I told my husband when we got into this discussion. I don’t expect JMS to be a profound moral philosopher, or an aphorist. What I wanted him to be is a very good thief.

  14. @alex:

    I think the real distinction is between the time of a disaster and the time after a disaster.

    During a disaster, some people behave selfishly and some unselfishly, even self-sacrificingly. And no one knows which they will be, not until they’re already there and in the midst of it. Hari’s point there is that very few of them panic in that situation, whether they help themselves or others first.

    After a disaster, my experience is that the overwhelming majority of people behave well, even admirably. They help their fellow people. Many of the defenses we erect against getting to close to one another are stripped away, and there’s a powerful fellow-feeling. The term that was used in 1989 was “earthquake love”.

    But a situation in which the danger persists, no help is forthcoming, and things like the basic supply of food are threatened, not just for the short term, but enduringly is not after the disaster. That’s in the midst of a slower, greater disaster, and my first paragraph applies there.

  15. alex says:

    Indeed – we just have to hope that there will always be an “after the disaster” to look forward to. And then there’s after after the disaster, in which things get back to normal, and people start wanting stuff…

    What? Me? Dark?

    Though I do also think that Hari was having a dig, for digging’s sake, at rootin’ tootin’ USAian-type head-for-the hills survivalism. Not sure why, as he’s a Londoner, and We Can Take It, as is long-established, but hey, eyeballs are currency, or something.

  16. @alex:

    Though I do also think that Hari was having a dig, for digging’s sake, at rootin’ tootin’ USAian-type head-for-the hills survivalism. Not sure why, as he’s a Londoner, and We Can Take It, as is long-established, but hey, eyeballs are currency, or something.

    I think it’s a dig-worthy thing, but that’s not where I saw the really heavy shovel-work. What I saw it as — and this is the bias I described in the footnote — was a commentary on the notion that the howling mob of the populace will need strong leadership to prevent them from going completely to pieces.

    Some of this is probably said leadership’s delusions of necessity coming out. But like the thuggish union organizer, the welfare queen, and the dirty old man in a mac at every play park, the panicking disaster victim is more than just a comfort for people who want to feel needed. It’s a narrative that infantilizes us and teaches us helplessness; it causes us to look on our neighbors as competitors rather than as potential allies.

    It damages people’s emergency preparedness. Not nice.

  17. albatross says:

    How long the disaster lasts seems like it will drive how people respond. There seem to be three different threads to this:

    a. Do you expect that the world you were formerly a part of will come back into being? Will the lights come on and the National Guard show up in a few days to set things to rights? The answer to that question seems like it should have a big impact, but I’m not sure. The recent Haitian earthquake is a good example of the kind of disaster where the answer is “no”–things aren’t going back to normal anytime soon, and that must have been obvious to many people soon after the earthquake. By contrast, most disasters in reasonably rich countries don’t look like this–nobody stuck in New Orleans during the Katrina disaster thought the US government had disappeared or that they’d never see police and national guardsmen and red cross people handing out coffee and doughnuts–those folks just hadn’t arrived yet.

    b. Does this change what “normal” means? Some disasters last a long time–think of the Depression. At some point, you’ve been living in disaster-land for so long that it’s normal to you, and your behavior and assumptions adapt to it. Sometimes that can be really destructive, as with someone who adapts to living in a war zone or a prison in violent ways. But it’s inevitable.

    c. Your long-term adjustment to the new normal created by the disaster (which might be “I pay more for insurance” or might be “there’s no more Jewish community anywhere in Central Europe, what future there is for me and mine is somewhere else”) is surely dependent on what happened to you along the way. This is familiar to us all from disaster stories, right? The world of Mad Max isn’t just what happened when people lost their government and economy, it’s the result of the scars acquired by the survivors, and the stable self-re-enforcing patterns they built up. A century after the Zombie Apocalypse, the survivors’ social order is radically different than their pre-Zombie ancestors’, in ways far more fundamental than different burial protocols for the dead.

  18. Bryan Feir says:

    Heh. And you missed one Ivanova quote:

    “Worst case of testosterone poisoning I’ve ever seen.”

  19. heresiarch says:

    @ abi: “I don’t expect JMS to be a profound moral philosopher, or an aphorist. What I wanted him to be is a very good thief.”

    Which begs the question of which aphorism he ought to have stolen from whom. I’m curious what suggestions people have.

    (Is there a plan for a preview button?)

  20. heresiarch says:

    @ abi:

    “But a situation in which the danger persists, no help is forthcoming, and things like the basic supply of food are threatened, not just for the short term, but enduringly is not after the disaster. That’s in the midst of a slower, greater disaster, and my first paragraph applies there.”

    I feel “disaster” is defined by a contrast with “normal”–if the disaster state becomes the new normal, then it’s not a disaster anymore, it’s just a really awful sort of normal.

  21. alex says:

    Clearly, there are two sorts of people: those who plan which of their neighbours they’d eat, and in what order, and how to arrange the killing-floor so as not to get too many bloody footprints trodden through the kitchen, and a good hanging-space for the sides of meat…

    And those who, *ahem*, don’t….


  22. @heresiarch:

    I feel “disaster” is defined by a contrast with “normal”–if the disaster state becomes the new normal, then it’s not a disaster anymore, it’s just a really awful sort of normal.

    The recent index case there is probably Haiti. When does the aftermath of the earthquake there become the ordinary life of a country with very bad infrastructure, a large number of ruined buildings, and a large proportion of disabled and traumatized people in its population?

  23. Tim May says:

    Thanks, that’s fixed the problem. ^_^

  24. Jules says:

    “if Sinclair is a Gary Stu”

    If? Come on… you think it’s coincidence that both Sinclair and his replacement have the initials JS?

  25. Jacque says:

    Terry Karney @5: Ok… the Rush link is scary. If I were to grow my mustache out that much, I’d look a lot like that.

    Rush link? I’m missing something…?

    Requests: this is probably out of your control, but over at ML, I really like that I can adjust the column width.

  26. Jacque says:

    Oops. Wrong thread. ‘Scuse please.

  27. albatross says:

    heresiarch/abi (re disasters):

    I think there’s some happiness research[1] which suggests that your happiness in your current situation is partly based on calibrating against what seems “normal” to you based on recent experiences. That is, if you take someone very wealthy and drop them down to middle class lifestyle, they’ll be really unhappy about it for awhile, but will eventually adjust. And similarly the other direction–take a poor person and bump them up to middle-class, and they’ll feel great about it, but will eventually recalibrate “normal” and start mostly taking their lack of poverty as the way things are supposed to be.

    It seems like there’s going to be an effect of this w.r.t. a disaster, too. A couple weeks after the disaster that wrecked your country, you’re probably still deeply depressed as you shovel the last of the looted furniture from the ruins of the neighbors’ house into the fireplace for warmth. Ten years later, assuming you’re not in dire want, things will probably seem normal to you most of the time. No big deal, just the way things are. (Think of the old Americans in the middle of _Earth Abides_, or the way the Qeng Ho adapt to their changed situation in _A Fire Upon the Deep_.)

    I’m not sure what kind of time frame is involved here. People seem to recover, most of the time, even from horrible tragedies (loss of spouse or child, crippling injury or illness, bankrupcy and financial collapse), with enough time. Never fully–there’s always that sadness and pain there–but most people come out the other end of those things and are capable of happiness and laughter and normal life again, despite starting at a lower baseline[2].

    [1] Which all seems a bit built-on-sand and surface-level for my tastes, but probably still tells us something useful.

    [2] This line of thought always makes me extremely uneasy, because in most ways, my life is amazingly good and blessed. And I recognize places it surely won’t last–my parents are still alive, but with increasing health problems–and places where there’s no guarantee it will last–my job and children and wife and marriage and health are all apparently okay today, but any of those could suffer some kind of disaster that would be horrible to live through, even though I hopefully would survive the horror and come out the other end capable of happiness and laughter and normal life. That’s hard to even acknowledge in my own mind, though it’s so obviously true it’s embarrassing to admit it.

  28. David Harmon says:

    heresiarch, abi, albatross: I think the word you’re groping for is “homeostasis”. Absent repeated traumas, people’s emotional state does tend to revert to their natural baseline. In contrast, repeated traumas (e.g. ongoing abuse) can reset the baseline downwards, with dire effects.

  29. albatross @27:

    Your footnote 2…wow. It’s definitely one of the threads of my emotional life.

    I am always conscious of how well things have worked out for me, even in comparison to other people who started life with the same staggering (particularly on a global scale) level of privilege. And that leads naturally to my tendency toward balance and symmetry, and to the consciousness that it could all go away, and I wonder quite deeply if I would have the mojo to handle that loss.

    And David Harmon @28 is correct: I still find, even with all this good fortune, that I get profoundly depressed from time to time, and tend toward a quiet pessimism more often than not. Homeostasis strikes.

  30. Lizzy L says:

    An interesting thing happened on my way to joining this conversation… I stopped watching B5. I enjoyed this episode mildly, found Babylon Squared dull, and then watched the next two episodes, and found my level of involvement dropping, dropping, until at the end of the second, I realized I no longer cared about any of these people nor what was happening to them, and the series had ceased to interest . Ah well.

  31. Lizzy @30:

    I’m sorry to hear that. I thought you might really enjoy G’Kar’s profound change of character through the later seasons of the show; he really does have a powerful and (as I recall it) well-constructed journey toward a kind of holiness one rarely sees on TV.

    But if it’s not held your interest, there’s not much to do.

  32. albatross says:


    Yeah, I look back on how I got here, and I think that if I could rerun my whole life from, say, starting college on a million times, with different rolls of the dice, I would probably have ended up worse off than I am now in 90-95% of those worlds. So in some sense, for me, it’s not just a baseline assumption that the dice have no memory, it’s a fervent hope.

    Anyway, less than an hour after I wrote my previous comment, I got word that my stepfather is in the hospital for heart arythmias. The dice don’t read blog comments, either, but it’s a re-enforcement of the fact that good health doesn’t stick around forever, in any of us.

  33. Lizzy L says:

    albatross, best wishes to your stepfather. A visit to the hospital for anything is always profoundly unsettling, but speaking as someone who survived a heart attack thanks to the medical staff at Kaiser Hospital in Richmond, CA, while medicine in this country is imperfect and unfair, one thing it does know quite a lot about is hearts: what goes wrong with them, and how to address it.

    There are, of course, no guarantees: as they say on Wall Street, past performance is not a predictor of future gains.

    abi: I like G’Kar as a character — Londo, also. Ivanova, too. But Sinclair, Garibaldi, Winters, the doctor, Delenn: sorry, I just don’t care what happens to them. Garibaldi in particular could have been a very rich and complex character, the flawed warrior, but he’s given awful lines, and I just don’t believe some of his decision-making. I see the tremendous potential in the series, but it doesn’t fulfill the promise, much.

  34. albatross @32:

    I do wonder how long my dice can keep rolling the way that they do. But, dice notwithstandng, I hope that all goes well with your stepfather. Please keep us posted, either here or on Making Light.

    Lizzy @33:

    Fair enough. I feel bad for having got your hopes up in the series and not given you something you’d like. It does get better in the second season, but if the first one has put you off, that doesn’t really make a difference.

  35. Paul A. says:

    The element I found myself inserting into the concept of “going to the sea” is that of a boat, which one gets into and sails off in to see what life holds on the other side, perhaps without any certain knowledge that there is another side. And Draal, having seen what’s on the other side of all the seas on his planet, and found nothing for him there, has turned, as he says, to the “sea of stars”.

    I don’t know if that’s what was intended, but it’s what makes sense to me.

  36. Mary Aileen says:

    Paul (35): That’s how I’ve always interpreted it, too.

  37. Paul & Mary Aileen:

    I think the rather crustacean look of the Minbari cranial crests made me think of something more primal and less technological than boats. As though, perhaps, the humanoid form was originally an intermediate one, whence they would transform into an aquatic form. But perhaps they then tended to prolong their humanoid stage, to the point that few of them would ever “go to the sea”.

    You’d think, from this, that I’d read rather more Niven than I actually have.

  38. Jim Henry says:

    If I recall correctly, “going to the sea” is referenced a few times in later episodes — I think twice in season 5, but I’m not sure which episodes — but still somewhat enigmatically, with no exposition about what it means.

  39. Mary Aileen says:

    “Going to the sea” is referenced in the final episode, at least.

  40. David Harmon says:

    Albatross @33: Yeah, I look back on how I got here, and I think that if I could rerun my whole life from, say, starting college on a million times, with different rolls of the dice, I would probably have ended up worse off than I am now in 90-95% of those worlds.

    I wouldn’t be too sure… I’ll bet if you look closely enough, a lot of the “chances” involved represent choices, based on what you knew at the time, and on what you were capable of. Others represent character, where you did what you did, because that was the sort of person you were.

    For me, the turning points started way earlier — when I was born (a month premature and small-for-dates) it was not at all clear that I’d survive. Throughout childhood and much of school, my life was heavily shaped by the choices of those around me, which affected the tools and lessons I had available. Yes, sometimes it looks like a single change could have multiplied, but it’s not always obvious how the original course was constrained!

    A single example: Way back in grade school — perhaps 7th grade — I read a book titled Son-Rise, about a man who claimed he’d “cured” his autistic son with, essentially, TLC. This will be important later: At the time, I was attending a private school, which served a mix of “rich kids” and variously handicapped kids (like most of the latter, my way was paid by the state Board of Education).

    Fast-forward 3 or 4 years; I’d graduated from the private school just ahead of its collapse, and been mainstreamed into the local high school. As it happened, one of the teachers from that private school had landed in my new school’s “Learning Center” for learning disabled kids. One day, she came to me, and said “You know, I’ve been reading about this new diagnosis called Asperger’s. It seems to be a kind of autism –” And I cut her off with “oh, I’ve read about autism, I’m not autistic!”.

    It would be another 25 years before I again encountered the idea of the “autistic spectrum”, and began to understand the mysteries of my life. By then, of course, I’d had some of the sharp edges knocked off my 15-year-old self… and learned that Son-Rise was a deeply misleading book, by a man who’d invested far too deeply in the idea that He Could Save His Son.

    How many choices? Well, getting into the private school came from a mother who fought for me with all her heart, who knew I needed to get away from grade-school bullies and find someone who could fill my hunger for learning. That book was there because the school was devoted in large part to children with learning disabilities — indeed, the boy it described became one of their students! (Unfortunately, at 5 or 6, he wasn’t quite up to explaining his worldview!) I read that particular book because I was reading “all” the books, working my way through the school shelves. My response to Mrs B. came from who I was then, with a teenager’s “I know everything” ego reinforced by both an Aspie streak of inflexibility, and her uncertainty about this new diagnosis. Chance, choice, character, or cause and effect?

    Back then, I wouldn’t have understood the question. I didn’t have much sense of “free will” until well into college, and a lot of what I did was reactive in one way or another. There were a lot of times I flinched away from unexpected choices — sometimes because I couldn’t handle the multiplicity of possibilities, sometimes because I didn’t understand there was a choice, sometimes because I didn’t understand what was going on, and “unknown == scary”. And even when I learned that I could do things differently, I’ve always been sharply aware of constraints both internal and external.

    Yes, there are points where “things could have gone differently”. But surprisingly often there are reasons why they went the way they did. Yes, we can each shape the world a little, but the world is always shaping us. Some choices confront us with a decision; far more pass unnoticed, because we made those choices long ago. Yes, we have a will that can seek out what we desire. But so does everyone else, and we often get in each others’ way. We humans love to think ourselves the masters of our destiny, shaping the world with every decision. When the world declines to be shaped, we speak of higher powers: “It wasn’t meant to be”, “the gods are playing with me”, “no man can escape his weird”. But we don’t need heavenly meddling to see why we don’t always get our way — we only need to admit that “the sea is very large, and my boat is small”.

  41. David Harmon says:

    Looking back at my last comment, I see I drifted well afield… But just to tie it back to albatross’ comment, I’ll note that Chance can also be invoked as a “higher power”.

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