Windmills and Pylons

Autumn has come to the Low Countries, and with it, heavy rains. The ground got good and soaked last night, and as the temperatures dropped, the wet land breathed fog. Urban areas, with all of their hard landscaping, still had good visibility. But this morning, the nature reserve near our house was wreathed in thick white mist.  It seemed like a good day to divert my commute and cycle through it, stopping to take a picture or three.


This is the autumn of the Old Masters, spread across a landscape of ochres and browns, creamy and dimmed with the varnish of the morning mist.  And it wouldn’t be the same without the hummocked shape of the windmill in the distance, bare vanes marking the land as inescapably Dutch.

But hang on, here.  Hold the chocolate box.

When you get right down to it, windmills are not intrinsically scenic.  Oh, we treasure them now, transplanting them carefully to nature reserves and tourist parks.  But they’re really industrial equipment, power-generating and water-moving engines, as inherently romantic as an oil derrick or an electricity pylon.


Indeed, it was not much further on my commute that I came upon the most beautiful pylon standing in the pale morning sun. Its clean, simple lines balanced the last lushness of the autumn vegetation.  The grand swoop of its gently humming wires framed the clear blue sky above me, and the pure echo of its form below was a testament to the stillness and clarity of the water beside it.  At its feet the placid cattle grazed…

You’re not buying this one, are you?

But really, what’s the difference between the windmill and the pylon, apart from a few centuries and some unevenly distributed obsolescence?  They’re both part of the infrastructure of the land, the hardware on which the operating system of Dutch society runs.

Indeed, in a few centuries we may be collecting old mismatched electric pylons from all over the country and setting them up in little parks.  Enthusiasts will clean them and care for them, climbing to the tops in almost-correct period harnesses.  Perhaps they’ll string dead wires among them so that school parties can picture the old days of the electric grid.  Gaggles of tourists will take group shots around their bases before heading off in search of ice cream.

But even now, there’s a decent case to be made for learning to appreciate the inevitable artifacts of our technology.

After all, what people loathe, they neglect.  I think about the changing themes of art since the WPA’s celebratory murals of the early twentieth century, and wonder if America’s crumbling infrastructure is not as much the product of a lack of love as it is the straitened state of public finances.

Another reason to cherish these things is that they’re here to stay.  That pylon is part of a line that brings power from Amsterdam to the next major city to the north.  It’s not going anywhere.  So we who live near it can either look on it with loathing or find some beauty in its lines.

This is something that the Dutch seem to be very good at.  I’ve cycled past lovely homes that look across a river to a junkyard.  Our own very pleasant suburban house has a retail park behind it.  In general, the ways that towns here mix residential, commercial, and light industrial facilities bespeaks—at the very least—a tolerance of infrastructure in the Netherlands.

This is not to say that tolerance is uncritical.  The wires in that picture are high-voltage ones, carrying as much power as the law allows through residential areas.  There’s been pressure to increase the voltage of the line north yet higher, but that would mean removing people from the homes underneath them.  It’s caused a lot of debate in our village. One can appreciate the clean shape of the pylon against the October skies without approving of every use to which it might be put.

When I look at our future (leaving aside the possibility of the collapse of civilization), I see more technological intervention rather than less.  Given that, I hope we can learn to turn our ceaseless thirst for beauty, that common drive that gives us cave paintings, sculpture, and ruin porn alike, toward our infrastructure and the tools we use to maintain it.

I think we’d be happier if we could.

Posted in Blog, Things Dutch | 15 Comments


She sold everything after her mother died. There wasn’t much to get rid of, just ordinary furniture, drab clothing, cheap kitchen things: all the accessories of a life endured rather than lived. During the cleanup, she’d found no books, no paintings, no mad indulgences hidden in the back of a drawer. She was disappointed, but not particularly surprised. Her mother’s secrets were not the sort one finds evidence of between mattress and box spring.


Her cousin Gabe helped her clear the apartment. He was the only one of the family she was in touch with, but a day with him was about as much as she could stand. She knew how he saw her: thin, pale, stoop-shouldered, the very image of her mother. At least he had the good sense not to say so. That was probably why they were still in contact. But he still thought her odd.

He’d grown more and more restive as the stack of things for him grew, and the bags to be sold and donated piled up, but the box of things for her to keep remained resolutely empty. She was folding the mothball-scented Army blankets she’d slept under as a child when he finally asked, half-shocked, if she was going to keep anything from her mother.

“This stuff isn’t ‘from’ my mother. It was hers. She owned it.”

“But she left it to you.”

“No, she didn’t. She died intestate. The probate court said it was mine, that’s all. And the courts don’t care whether you take the stuff or the money.”

Gabe shook his head. “Girl, you’re not right.” But he did stop asking if she wanted to keep anything. When he piled the things he wanted in his car and drove away, she knew she wouldn’t be seeing much of him any more.

The one item she didn’t sell was the dress she’d worn at the graveside. It had been her grandmother’s before it was her mother’s. It was black silk crepe de chine, so simply tailored that it never seemed to go out of fashion. Her mother had worn it to her own parents’ funerals, to court for the divorce, to graduations and endings of every sort. It smelled of her.

That, at least, had to change.

The man behind the counter at the dry cleaner made her sign a waiver because the dress had no labels or tags of any sort. “We can’t accept any liability if there’s no care instructions,” he said. He stroked the fabric a little, attentively, then looked up at her. “But we’ll be careful.”


Walking back to her car, she passed a real estate agent with an enormous plate glass window. She glanced at her reflection, then started to look away. It was a bad habit, that impulsive look. Her mother had called it vanity and scorned it as she scorned everything unnecessary.

But her mother was dead.

She raised her chin a little higher and met her reflected eyes. Her image looked tired, like a woman who hadn’t slept well in years. Tired and used to being tired, worn out with tiredness.

And then she saw the listing behind the glass: a house in the desert, an old house, all on its own, listed for precisely the sum she’d inherited. And in an instant, on the strength of the coincidence and because her mother would have disapproved, she decided to buy it.

Purchasing the place meant lawyers and taxes, so she did end up paying more than the magic sum. But she had plenty of savings, because spending money is hard when you hear your mother’s voice murmuring waste, vanity, unnecessary every time you get your checkbook out. The house was the first thing she’d ever bought despite that voice: her first indulgence.

raggedIt was a messy indulgence. The place had been abandoned, then squatted in, then abandoned again. The surveyor said the structure was sound and the pipes were still in place, but very little else was usable. The wallpaper hung down from the walls in long ragged strips. The windows were filthy, the bathtub stained, and the whole structure groaned like a ghost when the wind blew.

But the light was good, out there in the desert. The wind that made the house creak also blew the fragrance of sagebrush through the cracks around the window frames. And after dark, the stars spread out across the sky, extravagant, unnecessary, uncaring. She worked hard during the day and slept well at night, for the first time in years.

Out behind the house was a junkpile of sorts, dominated by an old washing machine, a tub-and-mangle affair one step better than a washboard. Around its feet were piled various rusted oddments, some identifiable (a frying pan, an old clock face, a rocking horse, some bedsprings) and some not. She’d found six doorknobs there one morning, just before she’d planned to go into town to pick up three doors she’d ordered. So she was in the habit of going out and digging around whenever she was looking for a tool or an oddment of metal.

One day she was turning over items in the pile, hoping for hinges for a kitchen cabinet. She lifted an old plank and saw that it had a mirror attached to it. The silver was spotted and the glass was cloudy, but she brought it inside anyway. She set it up on the mantlepiece. And every time she passed it, she looked in it, with her chin a little raised, and met her own eyes.


One day as she glanced in the mirror, she noticed something small, round and unfamiliar on the windowsill behind her. She turned around, but the sill was empty. And yet, in the mirror, the round thing was still there. She took the plank down from the mantlepiece and backed slowly up, steering by the reflection.

When she was beside the window, she looked over her shoulder again. No ball. She looked away again and groped around behind her. Her fingers closed on something. It was cracked and rough, and surprisingly heavy when she picked it up. She brought her hand around and looked.

She was holding a ball that hadn’t been there before. She peered at it and saw old continents, faded letters, washed-out seas. It was a globe made out of solid wood, now bleached and split, as if it had been sitting in that window for a long time.

What do you do when you find something that shouldn’t exist? She made herself a cup of tea, then sat at the table with the old globe in front of her. There was no sense telling anyone about it, she decided. She had no proof that the globe hadn’t always been on that windowsill. And who would she tell, anyway? Gabe? Her real estate agent? Some newspaperman or internet researcher? No.

She left it on the table and picked up the mirror. Walking backward through the house, she looked for other things that weren’t there. But she didn’t find anything, so she put it back on the mantlepiece. She smoothed her hair, nodded at her reflection, and went to the kitchen to fix dinner.

Days passed. Autumn came. The house became livable, then comfortable. Wherever she walked in it, she saw things she had chosen, work she had done. It felt full of her in a way no house she’d lived in before had. She felt at home, and found it strange.


In November she found an old dress form in the attic and dusted it off. The black dress fit on it perfectly, so she stood it in her bedroom. She was only going to leave it there for a day or so, because the light would fade the silk. But the days passed, and there was always something else to do than worry about the dress.

One day she bought a new mantlepiece mirror. She brought the old one into the bedroom, wondering if she wanted to hang it above the dresser. She was holding it in place when she caught a glimpse of the dress form over her shoulder.

The dress on it wasn’t the simple black silk, the dress for endings. In the mirror, the form wore something extravagant, white and ruffled. With a shock of recognition, she realized it was the dress from her mother’s wedding pictures, which had all been thrown away after the divorce.

She glanced over her shoulder. Black dress. She backed toward the dress form with the mirror and reached out, wondering if she would feel the stiff ruffles of taffeta. But her hand brushed familiar crepe. She pulled a fold of it into her field of view, and it was black. She looked at her hand in the mirror, and saw it holding white cloth.

And suddenly it was too strange for her. She picked up the form and balanced it on her shoulder, still in the black dress, then carried both it and the mirror out of the house. She dropped them abruptly on the junk pile, hearing the mirror shatter as it fell. The dress form landed upright, and she left it there, standing behind the washing machine, facing away from the house.

She was sure she’d sleep poorly that night, but she didn’t. In the morning, she realized she’d been dreaming of her mother in the wedding dress, smiling in a way she’d forgotten her mother had ever smiled. Her pillow was damp with tears, the first she’d shed since her mother’s death.

She got out of bed and realized that she was cold. It had snowed during the night, the first real snow of winter. She dressed and went outside.

The dress form was still in the junkpile. The night’s fall had covered it, and at first she thought the changed shape was just the accumulation of snow. But when she brushed the powdery layer off, the fabric underneath was white taffeta, frivolous and unnecessary.

This story was inspired by photographs I took at Bodie State Historic Park this summer.

Posted in Fiction | 13 Comments

The voyage of discovery

The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
—Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

I wrote, in my last piece on cycling through the Dutch landscape, about the vast openness of the terrain. But I don’t know that I’ve managed to bring out how very different that vastness is than anything else I’ve seen, or why that difference matters quite so much. I have been in other vast landscapes, particularly the California desert and the Scottish Highlands, but when I call them to mind as I cycle through Noord-Holland, they don’t map. They’re not the same thing.

What makes the polder different is not the great blue and white dome above me, nor the flat ground over which I ride. It’s the join between them that makes the landscape what it is: that thing that I described last time as the intricate silhouette of civilization that marks the boundary between earth and sky all around.

The more I go out into the polder, the more I see how that narrow, dark line is the focus of the whole landscape. It gives everything else scale and context. The sky is vaster and emptier against its peaks and curves; the clouds are fluffier for its sharpness. It frames and defines the fields around me. And it surrounds my journeys as well, lying at the beginning and the end of every path. Everywhere I go, I’m heading toward it—though, like a mirage, it dissolves into individual trees, houses and villages as I draw near. But then the ever-varied unified silhouette reappears, reformed, when I leave the settlement and reach the next set of fields.

The line marks the polder as a deeply, inescapably human thing. And the humanity of the land put me off of it for a long time. There’s nothing of the wild there, and wilderness was always my refuge and the reservoir of my peace.

When I lived in California, finding that refuge was easy: drive up to the cabin, camp out in the desert, hike through the forest. Moving to Edinburgh (without a UK driving license) taught me the tricks of simulating wilderness. There was a spot in Holyrood Park, deep in the bowl of the hills, where no sign of the city obtruded. There was a place one could stand by the old Royal High School, one’s back to Princes Street, and see only a single building against the park. The Water of Leith walkway, winding through the north of the city, provided both a visual and auditory escape from civilization. And on weekends, there were always the Highlands, and my in-laws’ place in Perthshire.

Of course, even the wilderness I knew in California wasn’t really wilderness. I’ve never actually walked where no human foot has trodden. The forest of my childhood was old logging land, and its paths were only passable because our neighbors ran cattle on the mountain. The Highlands are an ecological ruin from clear-cutting and overgrazing, now scattered with rectangular patches of row-planted Douglas fir (a New World tree). And the desert has roads, inhabitants, settlements.

But even that illusion is hard to come by in the Netherlands, particularly in the Randstad, the urban conglomeration on whose northern end we live. There’s a nature reserve near our house, which is sometimes almost close enough to natural to give me the feeling of wilderness. But it’s a tenuous illusion. I spent my first years here in a kind of terrified impoverishment, hoarding my approximations of solitude. I visited and revisited the few secret places where one can be entirely away from people and their visible works. I rationed out the joy of taking unexplored paths, knowing there were only so many new vistas of supposed isolation to be found in that constrained, village-bound patch of unfarmed land. I didn’t want to run out of peace.

I know now that I was starving in the midst of plenty. But accessing that plenty required me to learn to see the world in a way that is, with the irony of which only history is capable, one of the great gifts of the Dutch to European civilization. I had to learn to see the transcendent beauty of the ordinary works of man.

To unpick what I mean by that last sentence, we need to go back in time about four hundred years. Ironically, this puts us in the same time period that the Noord-Hollands polder was created. But now we need leave the new-drained fields and venture into the intricate line of civilization.

In the rest of Europe, the 17th century was the Baroque era. Paintings emphasized the dramatic, the historic, and the mythological. Portraitists made their money by painting royalty and nobility. Beauty was the purview of the ideal and the refined, and true art lay in transmitting that to the mortal observer.

But in the Netherlands, that time was called the Golden Age, and Dutch artists were otherwise engaged. With same materials and techniques that Italian and Spanish painters used to delineate the hair of goddesses and the robes of kings, they filled their canvasses with milkmaids by windows and serious merchants.

Nor were those artists out of step with the local taste. The Netherlands was at the peak of its wealth, and the new population of rich commoners commissioned the paintings they wanted to look at. They bought images of ordinary streets, and a girl looking over her shoulder. For an entire century, while the rest of Europe was admiring cherubs and personifications, the Dutch mercantile class was demanding pictures that cherished and valued the reality of their lives. These people had found the real world to be a good place, and saw art as means of celebrating that. And the artists they hired, who shared their culture and values, obliged, creating luminous, transcendent images of ordinary life and normal people.

(In the long term, the Dutch perspective prevailed. Although we have plenty of symbolic and mythological art, a quick glance at Flickr or Instagram shows that what we produce, share, and look at most often is that which takes the ordinary world and makes it memorable.)

As for me, I’ve come to accept that my notion of wilderness was as mythical as anything in a Baroque painting. I was assembling pieces of the world around me to construct an idealized scene: Eden itself, a world unspoilt by human intervention. It’s a powerful image and an easy road to tranquility. But it’s also a profound lie about the real-world elements I was using to build it, and they are luminous enough in their own right and in their own context.

So in the end, that intricate silhouette of civilization really is the heart of beauty, not only in the polder, but in all of our landscapes. I simply had to come here, where it’s visible, to see it clear.

Open landscapes are good like that.

Posted in Blog, Things Dutch | 13 Comments

And what is this new sense of time?

What is this weight in my mind?
And what is this new sense of time?
It’s the open fields and the friends that are gone,
And I’ve been in the lowlands too long.

—Gillian Welsh, “Lowlands”, who didn’t mean it the way I’m hearing it now.

The sun is sinking behind the clouds on the horizon. The official sunset time on the internet is still about ten minutes away, but the air temperature isn’t going to take account of that nicety. I stop and put my jacket on over my cardigan. It’s not quite enough, but I’m keeping the gloves and hat in my front basket. Sometimes the promise of more warmth later is better than the warmth itself.

This is a good spot. The bike path runs between two strips of water, both bright with reflected sky. To my right is a narrow patch of reeds, its leaves beginning to turn purple-brown with autumn. The last light of the day gives them a bit of its orange, a parting gift of warmth and richness. To my left, the fields stretch out for kilometers, flat and treeless. Only the livestock and the woodwork—bridges and little stretches of fence—break the landscape between me and the outlines of the distant trees and towns. Above it all, the sky is full of light.

Then the sun disappears and the land goes grey. Time to mount up and ride on. I’m still about forty-five minutes away from my village, and I’m getting hungry.

Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been out here without a good reason. Six months ago, I was indifferent to this vast, flat, wet landscape. My heart has always been in the mountains and the desert. When I moved to Scotland, I learned to love the terrain by analogy. The rolling hills of the Borders have a lot in common with those near San Francisco1. And the way that the bones of the land show beneath the heather in the Highlands echoes the California desert and its sagebrush. The places aren’t the same, really, but the similarity is enough to make a bridge. It’s enough to find a way to love the landscape.

But there’s no bridge from anyplace I’ve lived to the Dutch polder. This is nothing like anything I have ever known. If my love of California came through the front door and my love of Scotland through the side, this sudden, inarticulate love of the Netherlands is the unexpected guest who appears one day in the living room, ringing no bell and answering no invitation. And yet here it is, and it draws me out of the house and away from the cities every bright day. I go out for half-hour rides and come back three hours later, windblown and bright-eyed.

And the Noord-Hollands polder through which I’ve been riding is the real deal: the unfiltered, unadulterated Dutch landscape, served neat. It’s undiluted by tulips and uncut by the tourist trail. It stretches out northward from the urbanized shore of the IJ to the Afsluitdijk, making up the land between the North Sea and the IJsselmeer. The fields are punctuated by towns and villages: Purmerend, Volendam, Alkmaar, Heerhugowaard, Den Helder, Edam, Enkhuizen, Hoorn, Schagen, Heiloo. Straight, elevated canals and swift roads cross them, taking the people and the freight to and fro. But the land between is filled only with a kind of vastness: long, straight lines of pasture under the endless, endless sky.

This land was reclaimed from the water in the sixteenth century, and its first crop was Dutch democracy. The hoogheemraadschappen, the water boards that manage drainage and flood control here, are among the oldest democratic institutions in Europe. 2 They have endured in the face of centuries of authoritarianism, a living assertion that the best way to get a thing done is to empower the people who do it. The landscape here is their mute, stubborn, enduring proof, an irrefutable argument in mud and grass. The water boards are the reason that Dutch political culture, which demands cooperation between fundamentally different points of view, is known as the polder-model. This land was built by people who did not agree with their neighbors, but who worked with them anyway, and the people who live here do not forget it.

But that’s history, and this is working farmland. The old wooden pumping mills have been moved to the tourist attractions and nature reserves. What remains are long, narrow fields, divided by sloten (canals used primarily as drainage ditches3). Just as the Scots make fences from the stones they clear from their land, so the Dutch make them of the water they drain away from theirs.4 Because the sloten are sunken, the only visible fences are the short, gated stretches that prevent the livestock straying along the roads the tractors take from field to field. So the land has an odd, ragged look from a distance, as if some force had destroyed all but three meters of every fenceline.

Apart from the fences, all that stand above the fields are strips of reeds beside the water, wooden bridges carrying bike paths and roads over the canals, and the occasional bench where one can sit and look out over the landscape. I don’t think there’s anything to see, sitting on those benches, but I’m always half-afraid to stop and find out, lest a further undiscovered passion take me and I never get up again.

I’m only half-afraid, mind, because it’s not just the polder that draws me, but the act of cycling through it. Noord-Holland is interlaced with networks of bike paths, all well-marked and well-paved, used almost exclusively by Dutch people. My experience of the landscape is inextricably linked with the little thrums and whirrs of my bike as I ride, the steady progression the of ground beneath my front wheel, and the occasional nods and terse greetings shared with my fellow-travelers. I treasure this feeling of going somewhere, past these indifferent cattle and disinterested sheep, over bridges and beside bright stretches of smooth water, moving always toward the intricate silhouette of civilization that marks the boundary between earth and sky all around.

It’s not a landscape for secrets. You see whom you’re going to meet well in advance, and the prosperity or ruin of the next farm over is apparent at a glance. Even the rain comes well-heralded, sweeping across the open pastureland. I’ve read many theories that the Dutch bluntness and honesty comes from the openness of their land, that it grew alongside the polder-model in these fields. I don’t know if it’s true, or provable, but cycling here, I find it entirely plausible. This clarity and openness gets into a person’s head and won’t leave it. I can’t even imagine growing up immersed in it from birth. This is an area where many of the older generation still do not have living-room curtains, but choose to spend their leisure time in full view of their neighbors.5

And yet, despite that ceaseless visibility, it is a place of surprises: the tiny clover blossoms still showing beside the cycle track; the ruined propeller of a World War 2 plane that came down in the fields, a monument to the crew that bailed out over the North Sea and died; the cable ferries that take me across the broad canal, pulling themselves along on a metal rope suspended above the water6; the honesty-box stand where I buy six new-laid eggs, still grassy, for €1.50. And underneath those lies the constant rediscovery that this land is the work of human hands, and that it is pleasant because the people who built it valued the people who would live there enough to make it so. It is a perpetual gift from the past to the future, and I am perpetually humbled to receive it, like a stranger invited to dinner and fed the best food in the house.

I’m conscious that I’m finding it hard to disentangle my sudden passion for this open land from my steady, growing understanding of and affection for the people who live in it. Indeed, I get the sense that the two are deeply linked, that I journey into this culture the way I cross these open fields, and that the destination of the two is a single thing: home.

  1. Though something in my subconscious insisted that their greenness meant it was always spring, even in the snow.
  2. Making Light readers know that I’ve voted in their elections.
  3. Unsurprisingly, Dutch has a lot of complex technical vocabulary for waterworks.
  4. In the Netherlands, by the way, Robert Frost’s neighbor is right. Good fences make good neighbors here; an un-dredged sloot can endanger all of the fields around it at flood time.
  5. The younger generation do have curtains, albeit usually left open, and self-adhesive plastic that looks like etched glass to blur the view in.
  6. I asked the operator how ships got up and down the canal. She explained that they can loosen the cable so that it lies on the water bottom; they do it twenty or thirty times a day in the off-season, and a good hundred or so during the summer.

Originally posted on Making Light

Part two: The Voyage of Discovery

Posted in Blog, Things Dutch | 8 Comments

Babylon 5: The Coming of Shadows

Spock: Edith Keeler. Founder of the peace movement.
Kirk: She was right. Peace was the way.
Spock: She was right. At the wrong time.
The City on the Edge of Forever

Somewhere in my gut, storytelling and polyphony are mapped to the same pattern. They both start with a known base state which has some kind of harmony or stability. Then things get complicated: voices move away from one another and explore the melody; characters act. Dissonance, or conflict, occurs. Conclusion is resolution, a return to some kind of harmony.

(It’s an inexact analogy, and probably reveals as much about my ignorance of music theory as it does about anything else. But bear with me here.)

A short story is like a short composition: the voices don’t stray far or for long, because the resolution is coming right at us, counting down from the three minutes and fifteen seconds we had at the start. So false resolutions are rare and tricky things. But a longer piece may tease us with the hope of early resolution and snatch it away, just to show us how deep the dissonance is, and how far we have yet to go before harmony of any kind can be restored.

This is that episode. It’s the demonstration that this is going to be a long, long piece, because even the hope of resolution is a false one. The medium of this message is the story of one of the saddest characters of the series: Centauri Emperor Turhan.

Emperor Turhan wants to go to Babylon 5. His prime minster doesn’t want him to; his health is poor, and the trip will be strenuous. But he’s determined. He goes, leaving his wig behind1: “I will go among them as I am.”

G’Kar is, unsurprisingly, outraged at his coming:

G’Kar: He’s a monster…an aberration…a criminal! His family is directly responsible for strip-mining my world. His father personally ordered the execution of a hundred thousand Narns!
Sheridan: But he himself did nothing. Am I correct?
G’Kar: A technicality!
Sheridan: In fact, unless I’m mistaken, the current emperor has gone out of his way to offer your world concessions and return lost territory.
G’Kar: Stolen territory!

Essentially, G’Kar is offended that the Emperor’s wig is coming to Babylon 5. He’s offended enough to plan an assassination attempt2. But when the man, not the wig, arrives, the conflict in this episode seems resolvable. The Emperor’s mission is to apologize:

Franklin: He wanted to say he’s sorry.
G’Kar: What?
Franklin: He came all the way out here, risked his health and endangered his life, so that he could stand beside a Narn in neutral territory and apologize for all the things the Centauri have done to your people. For all the things his family did. He said, “We were wrong. The hatred between our people can never end until someone is willing to stand up and say, ‘I’m sorry’ and try to find a way to make things right again. To atone for our actions.” He said it was the only choice he ever made in his life. And now that seems to have been taken away from him.
G’Kar: I had…I had no idea.
Franklin: No, I’m sure you didn’t. Maybe that’s the biggest tragedy of the whole damn story.

It’s tantalizing to contemplate what could have happened, had the Emperor not had his heart attack on the way to the reception. Maybe it would still have failed; maybe G’Kar would have succeeded in his assassination attempt, or been killed while trying. Had he been captured but not killed, I suspect the Emperor would still apologize.

(Also, it’s a little irritating that JMS again uses an overt mistiming to rob his characters of useful encounters. I was OK the first time he did it, when Delenn goes into a cocoon before having a necessary conversation with Sinclair. But repeating the technique is starting to feel like poor plotting. It throws me out of the story a little.)

The other mistiming, equally painful, is that G’Kar goes looking for Londo after Franklin has delivered the Emperor’s message. It’s too late for that peace offering as well: Londo has already taken his next turn toward the darkness and called the Shadows in to attack the base on Quadrant Fourteen.

But the truth of the matter is that no perfection of timing would have saved the situation. Suppose it had all run straight: imagine the Emperor had apologized at the reception. Presume that G’Kar had bought Londo that drink before the latter promised Refa that he would do “something extraordinary—something unparalleled—to stand out” from the crowd of people maneuvering for the succession.

The Shadows would still be out there, looking for cracks in the unity and good order of sentient species the way that water looks for cracks in a dam. The anger of the Narn and the pride of the Centauri run deeper than an Emperor’s apology or an ambassador’s acceptance of it can heal. Refa would no doubt use the apology as evidence of the Emperor’s weakness and work to overthrow him, with or without Londo’s help; perhaps one day soon he’d get a dark-haired human visitor asking, “What do you want?”

And Refa has none of Londo Mollari’s virtues.

We’ve been given a promising harmonic between the sopranos and the altos, but the basses’ themes are still anger and war. The B-plot is a potent reminder of this: Sinclair sends a message to Garibaldi (and, at the end, Delenn) explaining that he has agents—rangers—throughout known space. He has his troops in place for the conflict to come. “There is a great darkness coming. Some of the Minbari have been waiting for it for a long time.”

Trying to stand against this, Emperor Turhan becomes an almost tragic figure: the Edtih Keeler of the story. Like Keeler in Star Trek, Turhan is absolutely correct that peace must be made. The Centauri owe the Narn more than an apology, but an apology would be a good start. But also, like Keeler, he must fail, or the darkness that’s coming will overwhelm everyone.

As Turhan tells Sheridan, he’s made virtually no choices in his life:

I have never chosen anything. I was born into a role that had been prepared for me. I’ve done everything that I was asked to do, because it never occurred to me to choose otherwise. And now, at the end of my life, I wonder what might have been.

In the end, he has one intention and one desire. He means to “seize that one last fragile moment” to make peace—but we see that fail in this episode. And he wants to see a Vorlon. That, he does manage to do. But Kosh’s presence is not a comfort:

Turhan: How will this end?
Kosh: In fire.

Second only to the emperor in futility in this episode is poor Vir, still trying to be the angel of Londo’s better nature:

Londo: Find Mr Morden. Bring him here.
Vir: Londo, don’t do this.
Londo: I have no choice!
Vir: Yes you do! Londo, please, please, I know you don’t listen to me, but I’m asking you just this one time, don’t do this. There’s no turning back once you start down that road.
Londo: Do I have to go find him myself?
Vir: No. No, I’ll go, and I’ll bring him back. And someday I’m going to remind you of this conversation. And maybe then—then you’ll understand.
Londo: I understand just fine. By this time tomorrow, we will be at war with the Narn. May the Great Maker forgive me.

There are effective choices made in this episode, and there is hope. Sheridan dissuades G’Kar from his first, murderous impulse to dealing with Londo. Using the information the ranger passes to Garibaldi, he saves the Narn civilian population from death or enslavement in Centauri labor camps.

And although G’Kar regrets his turn toward peace with Londo, it’s a genuine one; what he says over their drink is a foretaste of his own redemption and the foundation of the two’s future complex relationship:

I believed your people capable of only murder and pain. But apparently there is still a spark of decency in your genetic code. It’s not much of a foundation, I’ll grant you that. But it’s a start. I never thought I would be saying this, Mollari, but to the health of your emperor. And perhaps to your health as well.

Over in the tenor section, they’re singing of better things.

  1. From what we know of Centauri society, that’s a significant choice: he’s abandoning status markers in a stratified and competitive context.
  2. Even making, in a gesture that’s more chilling now than it was when the show was filmed, a video record of his reasons for the murder

The next writeup will discuss The Coming of Shadows

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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Babylon 5: A Race Through Dark Places

I will look upon him who shall have taught me this Art as one of my parents. I will share my substance with him, and I will supply his necessities if he be in need. I will regard his offspring as my own brethren and I will teach them this Art by precept, by lecture, and by every mode of teaching; and I will teach this Art to all others.

The regimen I adopt shall be for the benefit of mankind according tom my ability and judgment, and not for hurt or wrong. I will give no deadly thought to any, though it be asked of me.

Whatsoever mind I enter, there will I go for the benefit of man, refraining from all wrong-doing and corruption. Whatsoever thoughts I see or hear in the mind of man which ought not to be made known, I will keep silence thereon, counting such things as sacred secrets.

—The Esper Pledge, from The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester (1953)

I’ve heard that J. Michael Straczynski is a Dune fan. He—like so many of us—has clearly internalized Herbert’s work as one of the design patterns of our genre. In particular, his use of an organization of the mystically powerful as a sort of éminence grise in the sweeping historical narrative has a rather sandy flavor for me.

But the name of Walter Koenig’s character is a pointer to a more explicit antecedent. Calling him Alfred Bester (and using a cantrip to block telepathy1) is the closest Straczynski can come to assigning The Demolished Man as background reading. I’d read it years ago. But after this episode, where all of the previous strands of narrative about PsiCorps are given depth and context, I figured it was time for a re-read.

Even more than Babylon 5 itself, The Demolished Man is a future of the past. I don’t just mean the casual sexism (“Let’s find a girl and vote her the Monarch Jumper Girl. When a consumer buys one, he’s buying the girl. When he handles one, he’s handling her.”) What really struck me was the pre-Watergate attitude toward institutions and how they work. Consider:

  • The Peepers are a voluntary organization. They have an office where latents are given a chance to identify themselves and join, but no one is constrained to do so. Latents who choose not to come in (for instance, Chooka Frood) are not controlled or hounded in any way; they’re merely left untrained.
  • The penalty for violating Peeper rules is expulsion and shunning, but nothing more. Jerry Church suffers this; he’s desperately lonely, but he’s not dead or imprisoned.
  • Peepers are only allowed to marry each other, in order to breed stronger telepaths. One of the main subplots of The Demolished Man is that Powell hasn’t found a Peeper woman he’s willing to marry. The penalty? Occasional comments at parties.

We’ve been given glimpses of how monstrous PsiCorps is before: when Jason Ironheart tried to leave it; when Ari Ben Zayn expected Harriman Gray to be corruptible because he was a member; when Alisa Beldon considered joining it; and when Matt Stoner appeared to have escaped its grip. Both Susan Ivanova’s and Talia Winters’ backstories have given us a look at how its influence distorts the lives of anyone who comes in contact with it.

But those were just traces. This episode pulls these threads together to give us—and Talia—a fuller picture, so we know what we’re dealing with in the story to come. To do that, the episode systematically violates each of the key points of Bester’s Peeper society.

  • PsiCorps is not a voluntary organization. The law is that every telepath has to register with them. We already know that people with telepathic abilities are given a choice: join the Corps or take a mind-deadening drug for the rest of their lives.

    We discover in this episode that there’s a third choice: there are relocation camps (said to be “no better than concentration camps”) where people who will neither join the Corps nor take the drugs are sent.2

    Nor does PsiCorps leave the people who choose not to join alone, not really. Not if they’re being awkward.

    He took the sleepers. They shut off his talent, but didn’t stop him from speaking out against the Corps. He wrote the Senate, the media…got interviewed by ISN. Until one day when they came to give him his injection. He closed his eyes, and never woke up.

  • Leaving the Corps—or disobeying it—entails more than ostracism. We saw what happened to Ironheart when he tried to escape, but more ordinary telepaths can’t get out either. The underground railroad that is the focus of this episode shuttles both undiscovered latents and former members to places the Corps can’t reach.

    And Bester will lie, manipulate, and kill to stop it.

  • The Corps doesn’t wait for telepaths to fall in love. We knew already that Talia Winters was paired off with Matt Stoner, and that that marriage was a disaster. What we find out now is that she was lucky.

    My talent woke up when I hit puberty. The Corps took me in. Said I was a P11: as high you can go before they turn you into a PsiCop. After two years, they picked another P11 and said I had to marry him. They wanted to increase the odds of breeding a P12 or higher. I refused.

    One night, I woke up. Heard voices. Something soft over my face. Felt hands lifting me out of bed. The next morning they tried to tell me it was all just a dream. Four weeks later I discovered I was pregnant. When she was born, they took her from me. As soon as I could walk I escaped from the hospital. I never saw my baby again.

Bester’s character is also a far cry from The Demolished Man‘s Lincoln Powell. He’s a well-portrayed monster (Koenig does a fantastic job, and he’s given very good material to work with.) When he kills the telepath at the beginning of the episode, there’s a hint of real pleasure in it for him. And he’s adept at turning every occasion into another lever to use on the people around him.

Sheridan: What about Talia?
Bester: As far as I know, she got out.
Sheridan: You mean you haven’t heard from her since the attack?
Bester: No, but I’m sure she’s fine. It’s me they were after.
Garibaldi: Unless they took her only to get to you. Has that ever occurred to you now that you’ve managed to save your own skin?
Bester: It won’t do them any good. She doesn’t know anything that could hurt me or the Corps.4
Garibaldi: Doesn’t get it, does he? Hey! wake up! It doesn’t matter what she does and doesn’t know! She could be dead right now!
Sheridan: Garibaldi!
Garibaldi: You should have told us she was missing as soon as you called in.
Bester: If you’re this worried, Mr Garibaldi, I suggest you double your efforts to find these people. You’ve got two bodies to start with. Make the best of them.

Bester is remniscent of those concentration camp guards who had lovely family lives outside of working hours. And again, this is an impression we’re led to by the scriptwriting. Tellingly, just before the narrative of the woman forced to have, then lose, her baby, Bester gives Garibaldi this touching little family scene.

Would it interest you to know that I’m married, Mr Garibaldi? That I have a five year old daughter. That on Sundays when I’m back home we pack a picnic lunch and go out under the dome on Syria Plena and watch the stars come out? Hardly the description of a monster.

Nothing and no one in The Demolished Man comes close to PsiCorps and Bester.

In among these dark visions of a significant institution, we do also learn a lot of details that are relevant to the story to come. Ironheart gave Talia more than just telekinesis, and Bester can’t read her. Talia turns to Ivanova when she’s troubled, and Ivanova is glad to see her. And Delenn and Sheridan…well, that dinner was clearly the start of something.

And Ivanova gets a good line, the first she’s had in a while:

Bester: They must be getting desperate, to try something like this. They know we’re onto them. Why else would they try to kill me?
Ivanova: Is this a multiple-choice question?

But what’s important in this episode, more than anything else, is the clear and unsettling portrait of PsiCorps. Regarding that, let me close with three relevant quotes: two for contrast, one for parallax.

Ellery West: We’re born in the Guild. We live with the Guild. We die in the Guild. We have the right to elect Guild officers, and that’s all. The Guild runs our professional lives. It trains us, grades us, sets ethical standards, and sees that we stick to them. It protects us by protecting the layman, the same as medical associations. We have the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. It’s called the Esper Pledge. God help any of us if we break it…

Alfred Bester: This is unnecessary, you know. If you just give us the information we need, we could stop this. We don’t blame you. You fell under the influence of outsiders. They used you and abandoned you. You mean nothing to them. You were raised by the Corps. Clothed by the Corps. We are your father and your mother. Don’t force us to do this.

Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam: We have two chief survivors of those ancient schools: the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild. The Guild, so we think, emphasizes almost pure mathematics. The Bene Gesserit serves another purpose.
Paul Atreides: Politics.

  1. Eight, sir; seven, sir;
    Six, sir; five, sir;
    Four, sir; three, sir;
    Two, sir; one!
    Tenser, said the Tensor!
    Tenser, said the Tensor!
    Tension, apprehension,
    And dissention have begun!
  2. This information is, tellingly, conveyed by someone who looks Native American.3
  3. While the African-American character runs the underground railroad.
  4. A nice blind spot, that ego of his. He never conceives that Talia could be a threat, not because of what she can tell them, but because of what they can tell her—and what she can do about it. He doesn’t make many mistakes, but this one is significant.

The next writeup will discuss The Coming of Shadows

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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Babylon 5: Soul Mates

This is an episode about the relationships we choose and those that we choose to abandon. Not just for Londo, though he’s the most overt example; two other characters spend this episode deciding among relationships.

But let’s deal with Londo first, because his story is the trellis on which the other subplots grow.

We’ve always known that under his genial surface, Londo is a deeply lonely man. That’s why he falls for Adira in Born to the Purple. And he mentions in The War Prayer that he’s married to “Pestilence, Famine and Death” (an oddly human metaphor for a Centauri to use)1. Before this episode, he struck me as a somewhat less sexually continent version of Mr Bennett from Pride and Prejudice: unhappy in his marriage, unable to respect his partner(s), using sarcasm and general unkindness to cope.

But he turns out to be a much less pleasant person than Mr Bennett. When the Emperor grants him anything he wants for the thirtieth anniversary of his ascension, he asks for a divorce. Unable to rid himself of all three wives, he arranges the emotional equivalent of a cage match to choose which wife to keep. His wives like him much less than Mrs Bennett likes her husband, but they’re financially and socially dependent on him. They’re fighting for genuine stakes while he watches and chuckles: the fourth Horseman in the set. War.

Daggair (Pestilence) is the kind of woman that Mean Girls grow into if unchecked. She’s entirely selfish, and seems unconcerned about the means of any path to her ends. She’s game for a threesome with Mariel if complaisance will increase her chances in the contest. She’s willing to take credit for Mariel’s gift to Londo (before it turns out to be deadly), and she points out to Timov that Londo’s death would serve his wives better than his survival. She takes no blame for what she’s become, either.

I am what I was made. By my father, by Londo, by society.

Mariel (Death, aptly), is also a caricature, one that goes back to Mata Hari: innocent-seeming, beautiful, clever, and deadly2. She acts like beauty is her only asset, but she’s more than she seems. Her parting crack to G’Kar in his quarters, as she leaves the extremely compromising meeting with him (why is he in his dressing gown? Wait. Forget I asked.), reveals a lot more wit than she lets others see.

G’Kar: I warn you, Mariel, do not be overconfident. If I can figure it out, so can he. If I were married to Londo Mollari, I’d be concerned.
Mariel: G’Kar, if you were married to Londo, we’d all be concerned.

That quick intelligence makes me think that G’Kar is correct. She didn’t buy the artifact innocently; she either recognized it for what it was, or (more likely) knew that it would be on Babylon 5. (More on that later.)

Of the three wives, the writers clearly favor Timov (Famine, again apt: too little affection) from the start. She’s the only likable one, the only one with any independent principles and admirable motivations. She refuses to be anything other than ruthlessly honest with either her husband or her co-wives. Also, she gets even more good lines than Ivanova:

The secret of our marriage’s success, Londo, is our lack of communication. You have jeopardized that success, and I would know why.

Daggair: Oh, Timov, Timov, why do you always try to draw me into your little verbal fencing matches?
Timov: Because I don’t have a real sword handy.

Timov: Do you seriously expect me to become involved in your sexual Olympics?3
Londo: They’re merely expressing their feelings for me.
Timov: I can do that. (slaps Londo)

What Timov really has that neither of her co-wives do is a value for herself as a person, at least as great as her desire for her goals. There are things she disdains because indulging in them will damage her. In the end, she saves Londo’s life because it is beneath her dignity and her principles to do otherwise. And the way she does it shows that she also has some value for her relationship with Londo, however deeply buried:

Timov: It may interest you to know that Londo and I do have one thing in common: the same blood type
Franklin: Well, why didn’t you tell me this before?
Timov: I was deciding what to do about it.
Franklin: He’s dying.
Timov: We all die, doctor, sooner or later. As for Londo, after everything he’s done, I would take some small pleasure in letting him die. But whatever you may think of me doctor, I have some principles that even twenty years with Londo cannot erase. I do not like to win my battles this way. I find it vaguely…unsatsifying. So you may have your transfusion, Doctor, on one condition. He must never know I did this. I don’t think either of us could stand the awkwardness of false gratitude.

In the end, Londo chooses Timov because she is the only one of the three of them who is honest, however unpleasant. In the light of his ongoing entanglement with Morden, it’s hard not to see this as the flailing of a drowning man, grasping for anything solid as he goes down. I don’t recall what happens to Timov as the story progresses, but I don’t sense that she’s destined for a long or happy life. Not even her iron will is likely to stand long against the Shadows.

Talia, too, has to choose between relationships that have included emotional manipulation and abuse, forced her to compromise her principles many times, and still threaten to interfere with every attempt to make any kind of lasting connection with anyone outside of them.

Her choice is between PsiCorps (which, much like Daggair with Londo, will use her to its own ends without caring what it costs) or Matt Stoner (the Mariel of the comparison, adding sexual attraction to the toxic stew). In many ways, it’s a worse set of options than Londo is faced with: despite Garibaldi’s obvious affection for her, there is no Timov, no third way.

The bigger difference is that there isn’t really a second way, either. When PsiCorps intervenes to rescue Stoner from Babylon 5’s brig, it becomes clear that he’s never really left the organization. The escape he offers Talia is really just a way into the darker side of the Corps: Bureau 13, as was4.

The fact that Stoner is the vector for the statuette that Mariel uses to try to assassinate Londo invites a whole different level of speculation. Perhaps he brought it onto the station just to sell, without any further purpose in mind. But it seems like a staggering coincidence that two sets of sinister covert forces should be passing such a deadly item from hand to hand in entire mutual ignorance. It’s more likely that Mariel either commissioned Stoner to supply it or was sent it with orders to use it.

If she commissioned Stoner, then there’s still a chance that PsiCorps is not working with some faction of the Centauri political classes. But that doesn’t fit in with his secondary mission, to ensnare Talia by any means possible (reignited attraction, promise of escape, sheer mesmerism)5. If, on the other hand, they are involved in the attempted murder, that’s a much more interesting piece of information. It would mean that they are not under the control of, or even allied with, Morden’s employers.

In the end, Talia also makes the best decision she can, staying as close to truth and integrity as her circumstances allow.

Stoner: I can’t believe you’re throwing away your chance to leave PsiCorps.
Talia: I am what I am, Matt. I don’t want to carve out a piece of myself.
Stoner:I just wanted you to come with me. I didn’t want to pressure you. I wanted it to be different this time. I was certain that if I told you about the cure you’d want to come of your own free will.
Talia: I can’t walk away from who I am or what I am. If you take away my talents, I don’t know what would be left. You can understand that, can’t you?

It’s unclear whether she’s genuinely mesmerized by him at the end of that scene, or whether she’s acting. In either case, this is clearly her choice when her mind is clear and her will her own.

The third relationship choice in the episode serves to underline how profoundly dysfunctional and damaging all of the other ones are. It’s the point when Delenn chooses to ask a human, Ivanova, to help her with her transformation from Minbari to whatever hybrid she is becoming.

It’s one of the more memorable images in the episode: Delenn, hair ratted, wrestling with her brush and snarling. She’s so vulnerable to Ivanova at that moment that one can almost forget who she is: one of the most powerful members of a species that was, only a few years ago, in a fight to the death with humankind. She has declared war, and tortured men; she has commanded commanders and rejected the call of the Grey Council. Asking for help is a profound gesture on her part.

We don’t see what happens between the time Ivanova accepts the proffered hairbrush (and trust) and Lennier’s arrival. But somewhere in there, the two have become what neither Londo nor Talia have with any of the people they must choose among: friends. The warm glance Delenn shoots Ivanova as they discuss Londo’s ascension contains everything that’s missing in the other two plots.

But Delenn’s choice, however healthy and joyous, has a downside as well. She’s clearly been relying on Lennier to help her with the various difficulties of her transition. Now he’s an outsider, so baffled by the curlers that he almost forgets to bow as he leaves the room. I see a lot of what’s to come in his tentative gesture to the top of his bald head.

  1. Indeed, according to the Lurker’s Guide, that was very nearly this episode’s title.
  2. But in this case, it’s not a frame-up.
  3. Another Terran-culture reference. I find it jarring when the writers do this.
  4. That level of duplicity and manipulation exposes Daggair as a mere amateur. Or, perhaps, opens up a line of possibilities about her relationship with Mariel. But there’s no real evidence for that.
  5. Assuming he’s doing that particular piece of work on the clock. I suppose it’s also possible that he’s obsessed with her, and is trying to re-ensnare her using all means at his disposal, figuring that he’ll make it right with his employers later. Although it seems unlikely that he’d let his feelings get in the way of his potential advancement, if he did have feelings, they’d be just that kind of creepy ones.

The next writeup will discuss A Race Through Dark Places

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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De Nieuwe Batavia: Meat is Cheaper than Metal

A thought exercise:

It occurs to me that, in a resource-constrained environment, the fact that inorganic materials break and wear out becomes a problem over time. Meat, on the other hand, grows back. I can picture a generation-ship culture that uses humans for many moving-parts operations: maintenance, transportation, EVAs.

This would particularly be the case in a mixed waking/cryo ship: the waking crew would be expected to forget a lot of the colonist expertise over the generations, so they would become basically a ship-maintenance team. The colonist-specialists would then wake up on arrival, with their knowledge and experience fresh in their heads.

Over time, the EVA suits would become more important than their wearers. I was thinking about this in the context of an accident. Say someone’s fingers get tangled in a monofilament anchor line and cut off. The shift supervisor asks whether it’s a clean cut—can the fingers be reattached?

When she’s given the severed fingers, she throws the meat in the organics recycling and starts examining the glove material.

Because meat is cheaper than metal.

Take this further, and you find that turking and monitoring are a major part of crew responsibilities, because brains can be replaced and sensors can’t. And crew members who aren’t able to work or turk are euthanized.

Take it even further, and there are lots of leather, sinew and bone artifacts around the ship. (Though it’s possible that bone needs to go back into the mineral cycle, or people start having calcium deficiencies.) Even if we keep the taboo on cannibalism, there are a lot of changes that a “meat is cheaper than metal” culture could wreak.

The challenge, both as a designer of ship’s culture and as a storyteller, is to preserve the sense that people matter in such an environment. My impulse would be to distinguish between the person and the flesh, so that the intellectual and emotional artifacts of a person become more valued as their physical selves become less absolutely theirs.

Imagine a culture of poets and storytellers, artists and philosophers. Imagine that the ship’s radio sings with collective choruses; you tune into a channel not only to listen, but to join in. Imagine a blogging and commenting culture. Imagine vast wikis of knowledge and speculation, poetry and prose.

Then imagine waking up at the end of the journey and finding the whole epic story of sacrifice and art, intertwined and interconnected. Imagine the shock of it, having gone to sleep in an Earth-standard culture. Would it even be possible to engage with that? Or would that culture then be lost?

Imagine studying it, generations after arrival. Imagine becoming a fan of it, remixing it, becoming absorbed in it. Imagine a subculture where the last crumbling human-leather artifacts are traded back and forth and treasured, where teenagers try to recapture that strange, magical time when the mind was, by necessity, separated from the meat, and flew free as a result.

Posted in De Nieuwe Batavia | 25 Comments

Babylon 5: Spider in the Web

Remember back in Mind War, when G’Kar was playing Mysterious Soothsayer to Catherine Sakai?

Let me pass on to you the one thing I’ve learned about this place. No one here is exactly what he appears.

This is another one of the episodes where we catch glimpses of that. To a certain extent, it has to be. We’ve had five episodes to get used to Captain Sheridan’s surface character. It’s time to hint that there’s someone a bit more interesting under the bluff and slightly cuddly exterior.

First, we’re reminded that, although his appointment was not as much of a thorn in EarthGov’s side as Sinclair’s was, he’s not a pushover for whatever agenda his superiors on Earth want him to pursue. In this case, he refuses to eavesdrop on the negotiations between FutureCorp and the Mars provisional government.

With all due respect, Senator, my duties as commander of B5 don’t include spying on civilians.

Then we get a glimpse of Sheridan the Explorer and Meeter-of-Aliens. This scene rang almost entirely false to me: it neither advances the plot nor adds to the texture of the world. The first contact story he tells Ivanova is the sort of basic background on the TiKar that she should already know. And when he describes his time inside their ship, his narrative subsides into verbal mush:

It was incredible. I’d never seen so much space on a starship. And the TiKar themselves are so unlike any other alien species we’d encountered. I spent two days with them, and what I learned in that time made me realize just how wondrous this galaxy of ours really is.

But the real revelation about Sheridan, the genuine unsuspected depth, comes in pursuit of the main plot. He’s the one who has a lead about the Lazarus project, EarthForce’s cyborg-building initiative. It’s his information, covertly obtained, that allows them understand what Horn is, and angle the deflectors recalibrate the station’s sensors to detect the eranium crystal’s emissions1. But why does Sheridan have this information? As he tells, Garibaldi,

Some people collect coins, or art. I collect secrets: black projects, conspiracies, secret organizations. They fascinate me.

Of course, it’s a trope in these sorts of stories that characters will have all kinds of unlikely and useful hobbies. One never knows whether a preteen girl trapped in the out-of-control dinosaur zoo will have Linux skills, but in cinema, that’s the way to bet. Likewise, Sheridan’s conspiracy-collection hobby turns out to be just the thing for the problem at hand. (It will come in useful in the future, too.)

Is it enough depth to make us trust him, as a narrator and as a strong character? Probably.

On a lesser scale, we get to see more complexity in a couple of other long-running characters: Garibaldi and Talia Winters.

As the season has gone on, Garibaldi’s habit of turning up just in time to escort Talia in the lift has become steadily more annoying for her2. She’s always passed it off rather than confronting it directly. But in this episode, she simply does not have the spoons to pretend that it’s not a problem.

Talia: Mr Garibaldi, Taro Isogi was like a father to me. I loved him as a client, and as a mentor, and as a friend. And now he’s dead. You’ll forgive me if I’m not in the mood for your usual badinage.
Garibaldi: You’re right. It’s a bad time for you. I’m being a yutz.
Talia: Apology accepted.
Garibaldi: Could you at least tell me what badinage means?
Talia: (slightly hysterical laughter)
Garibaldi: My pop always said that laughter’s better than pills for what ails you.
Talia: I think he was right.

Garibaldi presents himself very much as the stereotypical working-class guy who usually does end up in security. But his response to her request to drop the flirtation is swift and complete, with no entitlement or sullenness. He’s able to turn it into a joke on himself—a kindly thing—in short order. And although he then does end up drinking tea with Talia, he’s doing it for the pleasure of her conversation, not to put the moves on her.

(It’s possible that Garibaldi isn’t so much revealing hidden depths as conforming to a slightly different stereotype than the one I read him as. But in my universe, nice guys don’t stalk.)

Talia also reveals a good deal of complexity as the story unfolds. Her loyalties have always been finely balanced between PsiCorps and the people around her on Babylon 5: she defied the Corps over Jason Ironheart, but urged Alisa Beldon to join them. The anecdote she tells Garibaldi over tea serves two plot purposes (as well as balancing his own stories about his father):

Talia: I never really knew my father. Or my mother. I was raised by PsiCorps from the time I was five. Of course, there was Abby…
Garibaldi: Abby?
Talia: She was my support during my first year at the Center. When telepaths first come, they’re assigned a senior telepath to guide them through the early stages of the program. The first day, I was crying all the time. I was scared and confused and hurting. And then Abby came. She held me for a very long time, never saying a word. I didn’t know it then, but she was scanning me, ever so gently. And little by little, the pain and fear and confusion melted, and all that was left was this warm, safe place in my mind. It was wonderful. But the next year, Abby was assigned to another newcomer.

Leaving aside the rampant creeps that that anecdote gives me as a parent, it tells us something about what telepaths mean when they use the word “scanning”; clearly it’s not as read-only a procedure as the name implies. This is useful for understanding the Lazarus procedure described in the next scene.

It also prepares us for the fact that Talia, no matter how much she seems to be working for the good of the station and her clients, will be as reluctant to expose the failings of PsiCorps as the rest of the crew would be to embarrass their own parents. And, indeed, she makes just that choice, hiding the fact that she saw a PsiCop in Horn’s memory of his conversion to a cyborg.3.

Both of the introduced characters who have significant screen time turn out to be complex as well. Angela Carter is neither the entirely-clean politician she first appears to be, nor the fanatic that her MarsFirst! background would suggest. She’s someone who has grown and learned over time, and promises to continue doing so. One can see why Bureau 13 would want to use Horn to damage her politically. Meanwhile, in this company of the naturally multilayered, Horn himself seems almost straightforward: a single-minded man with a single-minded evil riding him.

Only the walk-ons are simple. Senator Vordreau embodies callous utilitarianism in the passive voice:

These are volatile times, Captain. Practicality is more important than principles if lives are to be saved.

Taro Isogi displays a martyr’s optimism:

Mars could be the beginning of a whole new life for the human species. As it was meant to be.

And, of course, the unknown PsiCop wallows in acquisitive evil:

All ours…

If there’s a deeper point to this episode, it’s not just that EarthGov has a spider in its web. It’s that all of the characters do too, one way or another. Some of them are monsters, and some of them are harmless, or even useful. But there are secrets in the shadows, everywhere we look, even when the people themselves don’t realize it.

Sheridan: “Tell me, what do you think of her?
Ivanova: Ms Winters? I think she’s an interesting person.
Sheridan: You’ve never described anybody that way.4
Ivanova: I mean, I don’t really know her that well. I mean, we’ve chatted from time to time. And she’s…interesting.

  1. It bemuses me that the computer can tell Sheridan which quarters the crystal emissions have been found in—Red 7, Suite 15—but he has to remember for himself who is staying there. Like the idea that the stolen plans of the Death Star can be retrieved when they’ve been electronically copied, it’s one of those hints that the script was written before a fundamental watershed in our thinking about pervasive data.5
  2. And, by the way, to me too. I think this is another example of how Babylon 5 is the future of a different time. I find Garibaldi’s behavior sufficiently creepy that I’ve been struggling to see him as a good guy. I can’t picture that a writer now would consider his behavior toward Talia a mere personal quirk.
  3. Mind you, if any member of an organization I was loyal to were to mug, grimace and gloat in her evil the way the PsiCop did, I’d keep it pretty quiet too. Not so much for the wickedness as for the tackiness.
  4. The more I think about this conversation, the more I think this reaction is intentionally marked. And the more I adore the show, stalking tolerance notwithstanding.
  5. And then there’s the hardware. Angela Carter’s compact computer in a suitcase. The inch-thick tablet computer Sheridan puts aside when Garibaldi arrives at his quarters to hear about Project Lazarus.

The next writeup will cover Soul Mates

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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Babylon 5: The Long Dark

What’s the matter with my chapter? Everything. Bear in mind that I don’t write fiction; I edit it. Chapter 15 may be written in passable commercial prose, but it sheds no light, tells no stories, leads nowhere, says nothing that hasn’t been said before, and in general has no damned reason to exist.
—Teresa Nielsen Hayden, discussing her contribution to Atlanta Nights.

This is one of those episodes that makes me question my perception of Babylon 5 . I recall the series turning into “all story arc, all the time” after Sheridan was settled into the crew, which means that episodes like this just vanished from my memory of the show. Because despite the way that it’s hooked into the broader storyline of the series—the monster first appeared during the Earth-Minbari war, and it’s headed back to Z’ha’dum like an Orc to Mordor—this is basically a Freak of the Week episode. No major character changes, or is further revealed. No new characters or significant forces are added to the setting. There aren’t even any memorable quotes.

It’s not even an original plot. Basically, it’s a washed-out version of the premise of Alien3: a monster less horrible than the Alien kills fewer sleeping people on a less alarming vessel than the Sulaco’s escape pod before it finds its way to someplace less unpleasant than Fury 161. More competent people in charge of a less destructive population then pursue it in a more efficient manner and kill it, with less collateral damage, before any obnoxious authorities get involved.

Indeed, you know what? Let’s just breeze by what actually happened in the episode. A big zappy alien that eats people’s innards has stowed away on a sleeper ship. Said sleeper ship arrives at Babylon 5, with one dead man and one lovely living woman. She’s African American, so you know she’s going to end up kissing Franklin. She does, despite being only a day, personal time, from being married to a guy now rather unpleasantly dead. The only person who recognizes the danger is a lurker with PTSD, who is dismissed as crazy but turns out to be entirely correct in every particular. Only after the monster has killed another disposable lurker do the command team start listening to the crazy guy, at which point they ambush and kill the creature. The woman then goes away rather than tangle up the storyline of a major character.

Meanwhile…nothing else happens. There is no B plot to provide relief, parallax, or depth to this distillation of tropes.

So you know what would be more fun to discuss? What would have happened had the arriving ship been the Sulaco’s escape pod rather than the rather anodyne Copernicus? How would the population of the station cope? How would the crew find and exterminate the alien? How would the station’s various races help or hinder the extermination effort?

Ideas? Sketches of scenes? The floor is open.

The next writeup will cover Spider in the Web

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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