De Nieuwe Batavia: For Want of A Nail

One reason I’m behindhand on De Nieuwe Batavia posts here on N2S is that I feel like someone has already written what I was going to say next. And she’s also included interesting characters, a nicely symmetrical plot, and really good prose, which puts her several strides ahead of what I’ve been toying around with.

The story in question is For Want of a Nail, by Mary Robinette Kowal. Her (unnamed) generation ship feels a lot like the mental shape of De Nieuwe Batavia I’ve been slowly developing. I’ll probably plod along, proving out and detailing the areas she sketches in a few paragraphs, but it’s difficult to see how I’ll match her verbal grace.

“For Want of a Nail” is the entirely deserving recipient of this year’s Short Story Hugo award. You should go read it; it’s free at that link. Then come back and tell me what you think of it.

Posted in De Nieuwe Batavia | 11 Comments

Babylon 5: A Distant Star

When I was a kid, I dreamed of being an astronaut. I didn’t pursue it, which was fortunate—my tendency to motion sickness alone would have been enough to disqualify me. But what do you do if you have pursued a dream for years, and suddenly find yourself shunted onto some other path? What if you figure out that you’ll never achieve your goal just when your friend who has done so stops by?

There are lots of flashy things going on in this episode, plenty of life-and-death moments and big scary things. And there’s food and physical comedy (this is the Bagna càuda episode), and tiny incidents that will have greater consequences. But if the heart of every story is transformation, then the heart of this one is the process of compromising between an ideal position and the demands of reality. And how, and why, and what results are the limbs and outward flourishes.

The major compromise is John Sheridan’s. Until his assignment to Babylon 5, his career was the classic military progression from ship to ship, each one larger than the last. He was headed for the ultimate command in EarthForce: an Explorer-class vessel. These are the ships that explore the Galactic Rim, out of contact for years at a time. The structure may be more plausible, but think of it as a United Federation of Planets Constitution-class ship (old-style; no kids, bartender, no holodecks).

And then he comes to Babylon 5. He’s Captain Kirk piloting a desk.

His growing discontent is magnified when his old friend and former commanding officer, Jack Maynard, arrives in the Cortez. Then Sheridan becomes snappish (cutting Garibaldi off in the midst of a report on shoplifting) and defensive (trying to find a way to define his job to Maynard that doesn’t make it seem pedestrian). Maynard doesn’t help at first—he starts out thoroughly disappointed on Sheridan’s behalf.

Maynard: What about you, Johnny? This isn’t exactly what you trained for. It’s not really what you wanted.
Sheridan: Jack, I can make a difference here. It’s important.
Maynard: I suppose. I just never figured that a die-hard spacer like you would wind up tied to a desk.
Sheridan: Well, it’s a hell of a desk to be tied to.

By the end of his visit, though, Maynard has seen something in the role that Sheridan hasn’t yet.

Sheridan: The adventure is out there, Jack. A man has to go and meet it.
Maynard: Well, sometimes it comes to you. Wait for it, Johnny.

The Cortez departs, leaving Sheridan even more discouraged. Ivanova tries to get him to talk about it.

Ivanova: Ever since the Cortez arrived, you just haven’t been yourself. I thought perhaps you’d like to talk about it.
Sheridan: I command starships. Not cities in space. These problems…the petty complaints, the endless bickering, the constant negotiations. Jack Maynard said this isn’t what I was trained for and he’s right. I mean, I am constantly sandbagged, swamped, drowned and snowed under by nothing but trivia. I mean, look at this desk. I can’t find a thing on it. You know me. Is this me? Huh?
Ivanova: Starships run on details. You’ve always run a tight ship. That’s an admirable trait. B5 can never run in quite the same way. But you’ve had to settle your share of crew squabbles in your time, so forgive me for saying this, but there must be something more than just that.
Sheridan: Maynard is right. I’ve been beached.
Ivanova: Hardly. Running B5 takes just as much energy, intelligence and patience as it does to command a starship.
Sheridan: There is a difference. They have turned me into a bureaucrat. A politician. And I’ll tell you one thing. If the primates that we came from had known that someday politicians would come out of the gene pool, they’d have stayed up in the trees and written evolution off as a bad idea. Hell, I always thought the opposable thumb was overrated.
Ivanova: You’re here because the President thought you could handle it. As your Executive Officer, I have the right to know: was he wrong?
Sheridan: I don’t know. Maybe he was, and it’s just taken this long to sink in.

I’ve had conversations like that, enough to have a rule of thumb: If entropy, evolution or economics is to blame, the problem is in the mind and heart. I know that Sheridan will become a superb diplomat, facing down interplanetary war and genocide, finding the narrow path of safety through a wasteland of disaster. Ivanova and Maynard know that the job he’s doing is a worthy challenge, and that he’s a worthy candidate for it. But the person who has to find the value in his role is John Sheridan. Because this is television, he manages it within the episode.

The solution is twofold: action and words. The Cortez loses its navigation beacon as it enters hyperspace, leaving it adrift and unable to return. They send out a distress call, but there’s little hope; ships lost in hyperspace simply do not come back. But Babylon 5 receives the call, and Sheridan gets to do a lot of ship-captain stuff: plan a rescue, mobilize fighters, command and coordinate. Although the dramatic rescue is performed by others (with a nice mix of peril, innovation and sacrifice, as well as a creepy view of the Shadow ship), Sheridan gets to act, and realize that his job still includes those things that he values.

And then he has a long talk with Delenn1.

Delenn: They saved others. At the right time, they were in the right place. They knew what to do. As did you.
Sheridan: What makes you think this is the right place for me?
Delenn: The universe puts us in places where we can learn. They’re never easy places. But they are right. Wherever we are is the right place and the right time. The pain that sometimes comes is part of the process of constantly being born.
Sheridan: You sound like you’ve been doing some thinking about this on your own.
Delenn: Perhaps. We are both, I suppose, going through transitions. But the universe knows what it is doing.
Sheridan: I wish I had your faith in the universe. I just don’t see it, sometimes.
Delenn: Then I will tell you a great secret, Captain. Perhaps the greatest of all time. The molecules that make up your body are the same as the molecules that make up this station, and the nebula outside. That burn inside the stars themselves. We are starstuff. (chimes in the background) We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out. And as we have both learned, sometimes the universe requires a change of perspective.

I find both the logic and the sound effects in that conversation regrettable, but they’re what Sheridan needs.2 He accepts that the task in front of him is the one that he should do, and that his choice is to do it well or badly. And that’s no choice at all; at the end of the episode, he’s sorting out his desk and, by implication, his workload.

The lesser mirror of this subplot is Dr. Franklin’s attempt to improve everyone’s eating habits. Like Sheridan, he has a vision of what he should be doing with his career, and letting the station staff eat the way they do isn’t part of it. First he tackles Garibaldi, with the excuse that his gunshot wound will heal faster if he eats properly. The diet eating plan he prints out3 bans salt, starch and fats. Since Garibaldi is preparing for his annual birthday dinner of Bagna càuda (a dish made entirely of salt, starch and fats4), he is…reluctant.

Emboldened by having imposed an eating plan on Garibaldi, Franklin then finds a reason to inflict one on Sheridan as well: the captain has gained a few kilos since moving to Babylon 5. Then, without any excuse, he also gives Ivanova an eating plan. (He does point out that being slim is not the same as being healthy, and comes very close to telling her that she is too thin, both messages that I’d like to see more of on TV. But he undoes that all with a gratuitous and inappropriate physical compliment5).

This lesser plot is played for laughs. The scene where the three of them sit down to their dinners, realize that they’re each eating what the other would prefer, swap meals, and then hastily swap back when Franklin catches them is one of the best pieces of physical comedy in the series. And Delenn’s inadvertent betrayal of Garibaldi’s smuggling, when she asks when the reception for the new aliens—the Bagna càuda whose arrival the security chief is preparing for—is scheduled, is funny too.

But in the end, Franklin, like Sheridan, has to accept that his real job is not the clean, abstract ideal he’s been cherishing. He, too, has to get into the messy interpersonal details, compromise, and grow. Rather than forbidding Garibaldi his Bagna càuda, he has to engage with his patient’s reasons for eating it. This does end up with him sharing the dish, and discovering (as so many Puritans do) that indulgence is fun. Although his personal and professional journey is only sketched out at this point in the series, it’s a useful humanizing moment for him.

Peripheral to the major and minor plots, there is also one scene of note in the episode. Delenn is approached by a leader of the Minbari community on Babylon 5. He is worried that she is no longer truly Minbari. “I am more one of us than you can imagine,” she reassures him, but the Minbari still asks to speak directly to the Grey Council to discuss her standing. This is an early pebble in an avalanche: Delenn’s status as a Minbari will be questioned on and off from this point forward.

  1. Like so many important conversations about good and evil and temptation, it takes place in the station garden.
  2. Sometimes the characters in this series are simply Not My People. I’m OK with this.
  3. Dr Franklin’s paper printouts are the third illogical form of text display shown on the episode:
    • The communications officer on the Cortez uses a PDA to take down Maynard’s message to Sheridan. I’m baffled why Maynard has to dictate it like a 1950’s executive
    • Ivanova gives Sheridan Maynard’s message printed on a piece of acetate. Have you ever tried to read a message printed on acetate while holding it over a visually complicated backdrop, such as the Babylon 5 C&C? Spurious modernity. Bah.
    • Paper printouts. Triggered by Franklin’s PDA, printed out, torn off, handed to the recipient. I’d be floored if they didn’t have PDAs themselves. They certainly don’t wear pockets or carry portfolios to store the sheets of paper.
  4. If you want to try it, we use the recipe on Epicurious. I cannot answer to its authenticity to either Piedmont or the orbit around Epsilon III, but it’s certainly delicious.
  5. Ivanova: All of my life, I’ve fought against imperialism. Now suddenly, I am the expanding Russian frontier.
    Franklin: (sotto voce, a wise move) But with very nice borders.

The next writeup, which will appear much sooner than this one did, will cover The Long Dark

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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Babylon 5: The Geometry of Shadows

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett

You know the trope. Young Trainee goes to Hidden Monastery in the Mountains (or functional equivalent) to learn Obscure Art. There follows a montage of action shots: Young Trainee attempting tasks, failing, being injured, nearly despairing, trying again, being tutored by Older Disciple, succeeding. There may be Interesting Music, gongs, or both. The Ascended Master will either look on in serene detachment or occasionally join the fray to demonstrate how effortless Obscure Art should be. Then when the real plot of the movie gets going, Young Trainee’s skills in Obscure Art play their part the final reckoning.

And there’s a sub-trope involving two trainees: the dark one and the light one. Sometimes the dark one finishes the training (Draco Malfoy); sometimes not (Jasper in A Wizard of Earthsea). In either case, the dark student’s fatal flaw, which will damage all future endeavors, also manifests itself during apprenticeship. That which the dark student tries goes awry; the lessons learned are the wrong ones. Not even an Ascended Master can make it right.

This episode is that montage, and the Obscure Art in question is authority. JMS has established most of the characters he needs for the conflict to come. But two of them—Ivanova and Londo—though the right people, are not yet ready for their roles. However quotable her inner misanthrope is, Ivanova is either going to have to get people to follow her or she is going to be a failure. And Londo’s slow-growing dreams of empire will bear no fruit without legitimacy, real or perceived.

One of the subplots is explicitly about Ivanova’s learning curve. As a result of her promotion to Commander, she’s given the task of dealing with the sudden upswing of violence among the Drazi. Every five years, the entire species divides into two groups, the Greens and the Purples, and fight. Traditionally, the violence stops when the opposition is unconscious, and the entire exercise ends when one side or the other has won an overall victory. Unfortunately, when enacted on a mixed-species space station, this particular Drazi tradition produces a good deal of collateral damage.

Ivanova tries a rational approach first: get everyone together and talk things out. She wants to find the basis of the conflict and solve it. It’s a nice, collaborative approach, fitting her mental image of how an EarthForce commander should act. But she’s doing katas, and this is the real thing: an un-discussible, baseless problem. The Drazi are fighting each other because of random assignment into the Green and the Purple sides1. Simply putting a purple sash on a green-sashed Drazi causes his former compatriots to attack him. In the melee, Ivanova is injured. (Cut to shot of pupil face-down on the training ground, face suffused with pain.)

The sensei comes in to refocus the student and test her resolve:

Ivanova: Not exactly an auspicious beginning to my diplomatic career.
Sheridan: We learn by doing, and in the process, you’re going to fall on your face a few times. Though I didn’t think you’d take it quite that literally. So. What’s your next move?
Ivanova: Other than sticking the Drazi into a ship and firing it into the sun?
Sheridan: Other than that, yes. On the other hand, look. You got pretty banged up there. If you want to give it a day or two…
Ivanova: No. No. I started this, and by God, I’m going to finish it. Getting them together to resolve their differences didn’t work, because they don’t have any differences to resolve. So maybe I’ve got to come at this from another angle. Maybe find a nonviolent way to structure the conflict so that nobody gets hurt.
Sheridan: Good! I agree, one hundred percent. So, keep me informed, and take care of that foot.
Ivanova: But don’t you want to be there?
Sheridan: I have absolute trust in your abilities, Commander. (walks away)
Ivanova: Well, that’s a hell of a thing to tell someone. Hah! No pressure.

But real events outpace the student. The Green Drazi have started killing the Purples. Ivanova’s second try at a meeting turns into an ambush. And the Greens, having begun with a small group, now expand their plan to cover all the Purple Drazi in the station. Impersonating her, they have told the 2,000-odd Purples on-station to gather in Brown sector; their intention is to space the lot of them. If she resists, they will start killing humans as well. And, rather than commanding the Drazi, she finds herself a prisoner.

This is when Older Student appears. Garibaldi is the classic senior journeyman with no ambition for mastery. He practices the Art effortlessly, but in pursuit of his own goals. People come up to him and ask him to give them orders.

Welch: Seriously, Chief, when you coming back? Everybody misses you. It’s just…you know, it ain’t been the same without you.

Garibaldi talks his way into the Green Drazi headquarters while they’re holding Ivanova prisoner. But he’s a classic Older Student, there to help Ivanova learn rather than to solve her problems himself. When she tries again, this time through research, he’s her mouthpiece but not her replacement.

Garibaldi: Going somewhere? Hey, guess what? It looks like the Purple Drazi bought that story of yours about one big fight to the death. They’re waiting for you in Brown 29. Now, I can’t let you space them, as appealing as that idea sounds at the moment, but we do have another solution. As long as they’re all together in one place like that, we’re going to keep them there for a while.
Green Drazi Leader: How long?
Garibaldi: Just a few days. Ivanova checked the data files on your people, and it turns out this stupid contest of yours lasts just one cycle. The Drazi week is six Earth days, so, in four days…
Green Drazi: (laughter)
Ivanova: What? What’s so funny?
Green Drazi Leader: Cycle not Drazi week. Cycle is Drazi year. One Drazi year equal 1.2 human years. Can you keep Purple Drazi that long, Earther? This is our way. You can do nothing.

Try four is arguing.

Ivanova: Don’t you understand? This is insane. It doesn’t make any sense to go around killing each other over a piece of cloth.
Green Drazi Leader: You do same, yes? For flag, for honor?
Ivanova: That’s different.
Green Drazi Leader: Is it?
Ivanova: Yes. Our flags at least mean something. It’s not as arbitrary as yanking a color out of a box. I mean, you’re fighting and dying over a stupid piece of cloth. (takes leader’s cloth) Look, there’s nothing special about it. It’s not patriotic. It has nothing but this stupid little star in the middle of it.

Now, at the end of her training montage, Ivanova discovers the secret of leadership. She seizes the Green leader’s sash and he suddenly snaps to attention. Tony Robbins or Steven Covey would probably explain that this is because authority is a thing to be taken rather than given, but I disagree. I think the secret is what it always is in these stories: be yourself. For Ivanova, that means lose your temper and grab something dramatic to make your point.

Green Drazi Leader: Who takes green is Green, and follows Green Leader. Who takes cloth for Green Leader is Green Leader. Greens follow Green Leader.
Ivanova: Wait a minute. You’re saying that because I’m holding this right now, I’m Green Leader? But I’m human.
Green Drazi Leader: Rules of combat older than contact with other races. Did not mention aliens. Rules change…caught up in committee. Not come through yet.
Ivanova: Yeah, Bureaucracy. Tell me about it. Well. What do you know? All right. Greens follow Green Leader, hm? Green Leader says we’re all going down to the quartermaster’s office. I’m sure there will be some dye hanging around, and those of you not spending the next two months in the brig for assaulting an Earth Alliance officer are going to look absolutely gorgeous in purple.

By contrast, the dark student of this episode—Londo—fails abjectly. His approach to acquiring authority is less to take it than to steal it: trick the technomages into meeting with him, spoof their endorsement, and thus enhance his reputation at home. First he sends Vir2 to get an appointment with them. When that fails, he tries to use Sheridan to force a meeting that he can secretly film. He tries to pilfer authority like a pickpocket, just as his power over himself is being drained away by the Shadows.

Because I retain some affection for Londo, I’m willing to theorize that he fails because he’s not acting according to his true nature. He may think he’s subtle, manipulative, and ruthless, but in comparison to the forces beginning to control him, he’s laughably transparent and marshmallow-soft. His strengths lie elsewhere: he is at his best as a lover or a friend, and in the simple power of overt action. My memory of his story arc is that he is at his most commanding when he plays to these strengths.

No Training Montage is complete without the sensei, showing us how it’s done. In this episode, it’s Sheridan, not only mentoring Ivanova, but effortlessly winning Garibaldi over. Compare this quote from the very beginning of the show:

Garibaldi: Besides…I don’t know about this guy. I keep thinking about how everybody and his brother wanted Sinclair out of here. And now, all of a sudden, this change in command. Sinclair, I could trust. This guy? I don’t know.

With this one at the end:

Sheridan: Oh, and Mr Garibaldi—
Garibaldi: Michael.
Sheridan: Michael. I’m glad you agreed to stay on.

Sheridan does a master’s turn at a specific kind of claim to authority: winning a convert. It’s a different task than Ivanova or Londo faces, but it’s clearly the same art. And Sheridan’s tricks and tactics are all on the surface. There are no conversations we don’t see, but he doesn’t need them. He lays the entire lesson out in one single speech, covering three steps:

  1. Acknowledge the other person’s position, even if it’s awkward.

    Sheridan: Good to see you on your feet. I talked to Dr. Franklin. He says you can come back to work any time you want. What do you say?
    Garibaldi: I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m ready to come back, or if you want me to come back. Maybe it would be easier on everybody if I just resigned and moved on.
    Sheridan: Probably. The universe doesn’t give you any points for doing things that are easy…

  2. Explain your decision

    …Your record is colorful, to say the least. But everything I’ve heard suggests that you know this station better than anyone else. I’d be foolish to throw away a valuable resource without at least trying to work together. I need someone I can trust running security. I’d like it to be you…

  3. Give the other guy the space to make his choice

    …Now if you decide you’d rather be someplace else, I’ll understand. I’ll hold your job open as long as I can. Don’t take too long, OK?

In addition to the leadership dojo, there are the usual crop of interesting and prophetic quotes in this episode.

  • Vir, being correct while Londo fails to listen:

    Londo: Vir, do you believe in fate?
    Vir: Well, actually, I believe there are currents in the universe, eddies and tides that pull us one way or the other. Some we have to fight, some we have to embrace. Unfortunately, the currents we have to fight look exactly like the currents we have to embrace! The currents we think are the ones that are going to make us stronger? They’re the ones that are going to destroy us. And the ones that we think are going to destroy us? They’re the ones that are going to make us stronger. Now, the other currents—
    Londo: VIR! Yes or no!
    Vir: Yes. You know, somewhat. Why?

  • Have I mentioned that I adore Vir? I adore Vir.

    Elric: You don’t frighten easily.
    Vir: I work for Ambassador Mollari. After a while, nothing bothers you.

  • A vexing misquote. Did no one think to go back to the source text?

    Elric: There is an old saying. Do not try the patience of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.

  • This sums up the technomages for me: pretentious, but quotable.

    Sheridan: If we went back in time a thousand years and tried to explain this place to people, they could only accept it in terms of magic.3
    Elric: Then perhaps it is magic. The magic of the human heart, focused and made manifest by technology. Every day you here create greater miracles than a burning bush.
    Sheridan: Maybe. But God was there first, and he didn’t need solar batteries and a fusion reactor to do it.
    Elric: Perhaps. Perhaps not. It is within that ambiguity that my brothers and I exist. We are dreamers, shapers, singers and makers. We study the mysteries of laser and circuit, crystal and scanner, holographic demons and invocations and equations. These are the tools we employ, and we know many things.
    Sheridan: Such as?
    Elric: The true secrets. The important things. Fourteen words to make someone fall in love with you forever. Seven words to make them go without pain. How to say goodbye to a friend who is dying. How to be poor. How to be rich. How to rediscover dreams in a world that has stolen them. That is why we are going away. To preserve that knowledge.
    Sheridan: From what?
    Elric: There is a storm coming, a black and terrible storm. We would not have our knowledge lost or used to ill purpose. From this place, we will launch ourselves into the stars. With luck, you will never see our kind again in your lifetime. I know you have your orders, Captain, Detain us if you wish. I cannot tell you where we are going. I can only ask you to trust us.

  • This is what happens when you try to force prophecy:

    Londo: I wanted to thank you for your amusing little gift. It took me two hours to repair the damage to my quarters, and I don’t think the smell will go away for days. Now, if I may ask, does this torment end when you leave, or am I going to spend the rest of my life paying for one little mistake?
    Elric: I’m afraid you’re going to have to spend the rest of your life paying for your mistakes . Not this one, of course; it’s trivial. I have withdrawn the spell. But there will be others.
    Londo: What are you talking about?
    Elric: You are touched by darkness, ambassador, I see it as a blemish. It will grow with time. I could warn you of course, but you would not listen. I could kill you, but someone would take your place. So I do the only thing I can. I go. Oh, I believe it was an endorsement you wanted. A word or two, a picture, to send to the folks back home, confirming that you have a destiny before you.
    Londo: Yes, it was just a thought, nothing more.
    Elric: Well, take this, for what little it will profit you. As I look at you, Ambassador Mollari, I see a great hand, reaching out of the stars. The hand is your hand. And I hear sounds…the sounds of billions of people calling your name.
    Londo: My followers?
    Elric: Your victims.

    1. I have a lot of problems with the fairly simple-minded portrayal of the Drazi in this episode. Their customs are shallow and silly; their language use is deliberately primitive, and their discovery of genocide feels weirdly unsophisticated. Their culture Other for the sake of Having an Other: classic cardboard.
      But the guy who plays the Green Leader subverts this with his nuanced, clever portrayal. He’s hard to argue with, he has a sense of irony, and he has substantial personal charisma. One wonders what he does in their community the other four years, and how rare it must be that the leader’s scarf falls to such a one on a regular basis. (Or maybe all Drazi are like that, when liberated with the marks of mastery? There might be lessons here I can’t fathom, as a human.)
    2. Vir shows a lot of character in this episode. He’s braver in the face of the Technomages than Londo is, more perceptive about the greater shape of the problem they face, and generally shows the growing moral clarity that will make him one of the great treasures of the series over time.
    3. obClarke

    The next writeup will cover A Distant Star

    Index of Babylon 5 posts

Posted in Babylon 5 | 24 Comments

De Nieuwe Batavia: Reduce

I recently cleaned out my T-shirt drawer, which had slowly gone from “full” to “overflowing”. What you see is the culled, tidied version. There are 41 T-shirts in there, 12 of which are black.

Why do I own 12 black T-shirts? Well, each is a special and unique snowflake little different, and those differences matter to me. There are long-sleeved ones and short-sleeved ones, ones with designs and plain ones, girly-fit ones and normal-fit ones. Some of them are older, stiffer and greyer; some are new, soft and coal-black.

But the real reason I have 12 black T-shirts is because I can. They’re relatively cheap1, so I can afford to buy them with very little reason. And I have room to store them.2

Neither of those conditions would apply in space3. Even if the ship is in trading range of a planet, getting a cotton T-shirt—or its component materials—out of a gravity well isn’t cheap. Out of trading range, I’d be taking the shirt out of finite ship’s stores, so I’d have to pay scarcity and opportunity costs on top of the shipping cost. And, as always in a built and pressurized environment, every cubic meter of storage space is expensive.

One could, of course, use storage areas outside the pressurized body of the ship. They’d be a lot like the self-storage units that have become ubiquitous in much of the First World. Rather than put on a P-suit and root around in there, I suspect customers would pay an access fee to have their unit repressurized while they added and removed possessions.4. Note that these units would still have mass, so if you’re writing about a ship under acceleration, account for the costs of boosting them.

So what does life look like when every garment is expensive and storage space is tight? Well, people have fewer clothes, obviously. I’d be more likely to have 4 T-shirts, two of them black, or a single black T-shirt.

But if I could only have a single black T-shirt, what would it look like? Instead of buying one of every variant of sleeve, tailoring and design that I liked, I’d have to choose. Different people would choose differently, of course: I would probably pick a neutral style, because it would to go with the other things I wore. But others would get something quirky and make it characteristic: one of those garments that evokes its owner even when it’s off5.

One trait that the few remaining garments would probably share is quality. If a mediocre €10 T-shirt and a durable €20 one both have a €2 shipping cost, then quality is a material factor in the price. In that case, I’m more likely to buy low-quality ones than I would if shipping added €40 onto the cost. This feeds off of the space issue, as well; I’m more likely to experiment with a lower-quality shirt if I’ve got a place to put it.7

Then, having the shirt, I’d wear it to death, unless I could find a way to resell it and make back some of the shipping cost. I’d maintain it carefully, mending tears and redying it when it got too faded. Then I’d use the rag for cleaning.

Now take these constraints, these particular kinds of scarcity, and expand them out. Everything in a space station or generation ship would be subject to the same pressures of room and cost. It’s a given that people in space will own less stuff. What’s interesting is how what they own will be different as a result; the changes are deeper than the fact that there’s no Costco out there in the black.

  1. Too cheap, really. Water costs in the production of the cotton, labor costs in the entire manufacturing and supply chain, and shipping costs (including end-of-life transport costs) are all lower than is morally defensible. But that’s another blog entry entirely (or, perhaps, a lifetime of activism).
  2. Until I don’t. Then I clean out the drawer again.
  3. Indeed, there are many places on earth where one or both of those conditions do not apply. Again, there’s another blog entry or ten in there.
  4. Not everything would survive the pressure and temperature variations: liquids and pastes could do interesting things. There are some story ideas in there, or at least some ideas for realistic touches in a wider plot.
  5. Combine the way sparse wardrobes increase the tendency to associate characteristic garments with the people who own them with the need to recycle6, and what do you get? Quilting. Particularly because spacefaring environments will probably tend to be a little chilly.
  6. Yes, inevitably, I’ll be writing about this in a little while.
  7. I’m also more likely to tolerate unexpected defects and false advertising. I would expect robust consumer protection to be part of the social order in a closed society in space. Picture the outrage one feels when one is being ripped off, particularly for large amounts of money. Now picture that same outrage where a person can find the merchant who ripped them off, and where the vacuum is always out there, waiting…

Posted in De Nieuwe Batavia | 42 Comments


It might be useful, considering how much I discuss worldbuilding on this blog, to define exactly what I mean by the term. Why am I banging on about it? Why do I think it’s important, particularly for science fiction and fantasy?

Well, before I get into worldbuilding, I need to talk for a moment about setting. As I use the term, setting is the physical, cultural and social space in which the story takes place. For Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer1, it was early nineteenth-century Britain; for Gene Roddenberry it was the starship Enterprise and the Federation it flew through. It can be as small as a single room, or as large as the entire universe.

The setting of a novel is like the house the story lives in.

The problem is that a lot of SF&F uses unusual, one-off settings. So the author has to build the house from the foundation up, then take the reader on a tour of it. That’s why Vernor Vinge spends time explaining the Zones of Thought, while Helen Fielding can use the phrase “granny pants” without devoting a paragraph to them.

Now, one can build a perfectly adequate setting by simply specifying all of the places and contexts where scenes of the story will take place. Since even a novel has a relatively limited number of scenes, the true setting—the building made up of the rooms the story uses—will be relatively compact.

Unfortunately, readers live in the real world, which is much more complex and intricately detailed than a little setting-house.

A writer simply can’t build a setting this rich in the space of a novel, not even by discarding all plot and characterization to do it. And this is where worldbuilding comes in. It’s the art of making a simple story-house seem as complicated and spacious as the real world.

Sometimes the change needed is tiny. Sometimes it’s just adding the smallest fillip of extra detail: another species, briefly glimpsed; an expanse of farmland just visible over the walls of the city; a characteristic figure of speech.

“I too…Well, the Glaciers didn’t freeze overnight…” Cliché came readily to his lips, but his mind was elsewhere.

Not that The Left Hand of Darkness is the product of worldbuilding by means of lightweight, unobtrusive details. But that particular phrase is a perfect example of the subtle, pervasive and persuasive tricks that Le Guin uses to make her worlds more real. Of course Gethenian languages would use snow and ice metaphors in their clichés. We build figures of speech out of universal experiences, after all. And so, reading that, I believe in the world a little bit more.

None of this is news to most SF&F writers. Like characterization and plot, setting is a fundamental building block of storytelling. And the difference in effort between telling a story in the known world and creating a whole new setting is obvious. Most of the authors I read have achieved at least a workmanlike competence in making their worlds feel realistic, long before they’ve landed a publishing contract.

But what interests me is the difference between merely adequate worldbuilding and the really excellent stuff.

When a planet has one religion or one language; when its cities are interesting but have no long tail of history written into their stones and signage; when its inhabitants have heat but no fuel2, or transport but no parking2…well, it’s kind of like the building to the left. If the viewer is willing to squint a little, or pretend that a house is supposed to have walled-off windows, then it’s just about plausible that the top floor is larger than it really is.

And if the action is moving swiftly, like a car driving through the streets so fast that everything is a blur, the setting may not need to be more than a convincing shape glimpsed out of the corner of an eye. Sometimes a mere gesture in the direction of complexity is enough, because some books only need a tiny bit of worldbuilding.

But sometimes authors need to do more than the bare minimum. It rarely takes that much more—no one has to do a Tolkien and invent syntactically consistent languages for all of the nations and cultures of a world.

Indeed, although inventing languages, cultures, religions and typographies can be fun and useful, it also presents certain temptations to the writer. There’s a real delight in sketching out plausible alien worlds and the creatures that live on them, or outlining histories of empires the story will never visit. Exercises like that make the author love the world that much more, and that love will show in the writing. But it is possible to be so enamored with all of that background thinking, or so keen to justify the time it took, that the story becomes clogged with extraneous details, bloated with erudition.

What I enjoy—what I want to explore in this blog—is that fine balance between too little worldbuilding and too much. How can a writer give the reader just the right taste of a complete and complex world? What is the prose equivalent of the shutters on that last building?

  1. One of the notable differences between Austen’s use of setting and Heyer’s is how much explanation the latter uses in comparison to the former. Heyer describes clothing in more detail and uses appositives and asides to clue the reader into aspects of the society. Some of that is a difference in writing style, but some of it is that Austen was writing about her present, in which her audience lived. Heyer, writing about a vanished past, has to give the reader more details to hang on to.
  2. Spot the future blog posts

Posted in Allochthonia, De Nieuwe Batavia, Worldbuilding | 18 Comments

Babylon 5: Revelations

Ostensibly, this is an episode where Things Are Revealed1. I recall it being very effective at the time.

But watching it again, knowing most of its secrets already, I found this episode interesting in other ways. For me, Babylon 5 is less engaging because of its great cosmic events than it is for the profound and powerful transformations of the various characters against that backdrop. The show spent the first season establishing their various personalities. Now we get to see them start to change.

The obvious transformation is Delenn: she emerges from her cocoon partway through the episode. It’s a slow reveal. First she hides under a blanket, then we see enough of her that we can tell she’s either grown scales or ended up covered in a layer of crackling blue something-or-other. What am I? What am I?, she croaks2.

Only later do we get to see what she is: herself, but with hair3. She explains that she has become more human:

Ambassador Sinclair has been allowed to live on my world as an act of good faith, to create a greater understanding between Minbari and humans4. In return, I have undergone this change, with the blessings of my government, so that I may become a bridge between our worlds, in the hope that we will never know war between us again.

What surprised me about that speech is how blatantly she lies in it. Although the Grey Council’s voted to allow her to return to the station in Babylon Squared, they didn’t exactly “bless” her transformation. We’ve known for some time that she will deceive to further her own ends (for instance, in the theft of the body in Legacies), but this is the first time we’ve seen her saying something we already know to be untrue. It’s as though another aspect of her transformation into something more human is that now we can read her better.

While Delenn has finished her transition, Londo’s is just beginning to get underway. It’s not a physical change, of course, but when he accepted Morden’s help in the matter of Quadrant 37, he began a journey of self-corruption. This episode sees him travel a few more steps on that road.

One betrayal is obvious: he tells Morden about the warship the Narn are sending to Z’ha’dum. The Shadows, warned, destroy it in a way that can be mistaken for an accident. And when G’Kar wonders aloud whether the plan to investigate the Rim world was leaked, Londo stays silent and lets Sheridan deflect the accusation.

But the signs of his gradual corruption are deeper than that. In his conversation with Morden in the garden 6, the person so recently horrified by the murder of ten thousand beings sounds the killers’ agent out about further “demonstrations”. Then he laughingly suggests eliminating the Narn homeworld. He may have been kidding, and he may be horrified when Morden’s reply is, “one thing at a time”, but he did bring it up. That’s a significant barrier between him and genocide come down: talking is a step closer to doing.

And an even more significant change in Londo is what we don’t see. Where is he as Garibaldi recovers? Only two episodes ago, he kept vigil in the hospital as the security chief hovered between life and death. Now his friend (of sorts) is awake again, and he’s nowhere nearby. The old jovial Londo, convivial mooch and ironic confidant—the Dionysus of Babylon 5—is passing away.

I miss him already.

But just as Londo goes further in his descent into the darkness, so G’Kar has started on his way up. His arc is probably my favorite thread in the larger story of Babylon 5. And it really begins here, with an unexpected and unacknowledged gift: insight. Among all of the smart, experienced politicians and soldiers in the story, he’s the only one who puts the available evidence together and comes to the correct conclusion.

When you told me about the destruction of our base in Quadrant 37, I knew that only a major power could attempt an assault of that magnitude. But none of the governments here could have done it, which left only two possibilities: a new race, or an old race.

As a Narn, and an overtly religious one, he has information that members of other species don’t. This allows him to investigate further:

G’Quan spoke of a great war, long ago, against an enemy so terrible it nearly overwhelmed the stars themselves. G’Quan said that before that enemy was thrown down, it dwelled in a system at the rim of known space. I searched for days, going from one system to another. There, on dark, deserted worlds, where there should be no life, where no living thing has walked in over a thousand years, something is moving, gathering its forces, quietly, quietly, hoping to go unnoticed. We must warn the others, Na’Toth. After a thousand years, the darkness has come again.

What’s interesting about G’Kar in this episode is that everything of substance that he says is true. All of his assertions, his suppositions, and even his off-the-cuff guesses: the old enemy of G’Quan’s day has come again and is based on Z’ha’dum. The ship sent to investigate was destroyed during the brief communications loss after coming out of hyperspace. The secret of its mission was compromised by a member of the Babylon 5 council.

And all of their races do indeed stand on the brink of extinction.

It’s tempting, seeing everyone around him disbelieving everything he says, to compare G’Kar to Cassandra. But that analogy falls down over the longer arc of the series. He is not cursed to tell the truth and be ignored forever, much less to die at the hands of a deranged axe murderer (not onscreen, certainly).

For me, G’Kar is much more like Thomas the Rhymer. You know the story? After a kiss on Eildon Hill, Thomas is taken to Faerie by the Queen of Elfland. He serves her there for seven years, and is given a rather ambiguous reward:

Then they came on to a garden green
And she pulled an apple frae a tree.
Take this for thy wages, True Thomas.
It will give the tongue that can never lie.

G’Kar is gone for much less time than Thomas, and has a rather less pleasant time of it. But he, too, encounters something outside of the ordinary, and returns with much the same gift.

I have looked into the darkness, Na’Toth. You cannot do that and ever be quite the same again.

Not all of the significant arc threads in this episode are transformations, of course. Garibaldi remains essentially unchanged as he regains consciousness7 and finds out who shot him. Jack, his trusted aide, has been a mole for a long time. He parting salute and comment link him to Bester and PsiCorps, but their sinister nature isn’t new either. And Clark, co-opting the evidence and hiding the miscreant, isn’t engaging in his first malfeasance.

Nor is Sheridan shown as changing. We’re still being introduced to him, and this time we find out about his personal life. These first two episodes have been his own small Season One. Unfortunately, they have the same leaden dialog and contrived plotting that made those episodes such a slog.

It is useful to know that Anna Sheridan’s ship was lost while on an archaeological expedition to the Rim, and that Sheridan misses her terribly. Although it has a slight flavor of “Stuffed Into the Fridge”8 right now, this piece of backstory will be relevant later.

What’s not useful is the way that the matter is revealed in fits and starts, with long pauses between. Were Sheridan my brother, telling me about his persistent feeling of guilt for having canceled a visit with his wife and failed to tell her he loved her, I wouldn’t let him stew a day or two. I’d immediately give him a verbal summary of her last message to me and dig out the data crystal later.

(Of course, I wouldn’t let anyone who used phrases like “love knows no bounds” marry my brother. Not even my best friend. Assuming I kept her as a friend after finding out that she talked like one of those greeting cards inscribed exclusively in foil-stamped script fonts.)

  1. Thus the name, of course.
  2. Note the repetition for emphasis, which is one of JMS’ unfortunate scripting tics.
  3. I don’t know why, but watching this, I spent a bemused moment wondering what Londo thought of the transformation. For him, the new Delenn is probably much more alien (and less attractive) than the old one. A female with hair?
  4. Of course, Sinclair is not the first human to go to Minbar to create a greater understanding between the two species5
  5. Oh, hush, don’t involve time travel and transformation of bodies yet. You know what I mean.
  6. So many of the conversations between those two take place in the garden. I suppose it was that or be shown eating apple pie.
  7. With the marvelously appropriate first comment to Franklin: “What’s up, Doc?”
  8. TVTropes link. If you’re susceptible to that variety of clicktrance, consider yourself warned.

The next writeup will cover The Geometry of Shadows

Index of Babylon 5 posts

Posted in Babylon 5 | 14 Comments

Babylon 5: Points of Departure

Nothing’s the same any more.
—Commander Jeffrey Sinclair

The last line spoken in Chrysalis is the lament of anyone whose old certainties—some so solid they weren’t even identifiable as certainties—have passed away. It’s an excellent summing-up of the end of the first season of Babylon 5.

This episode is about what happens next.

Ivanova: The chief of security is in critical condition in Medlab. He thinks there’s a conspiracy concerning the president’s death. Ambassador G’Kar has mysteriously vanished. After two years, we still don’t know what Ambassador Kosh looks like inside his encounter suit. And Ambassador Delenn is in a cocoon.
Sheridan: A cocoon? As in a moth, or a butterfly?
Ivanova: Yes, sir. (Gestures) About yea high.
Sheridan: Interesting place you have here.
Ivanova: Yes, sir.

The first change, of course, is that Sinclair himself is gone. Obviously, this is for real-world, rather than in-series, reasons, but the characters have to deal with it on the show. His successor, John Sheridan, is of a very different character. He has superstitions, like the requirement to give his speech within 24 hours of taking a new command. And he doubts himself.

When I got my orders, I figured this place was a great opportunity. Now I wonder if coming here was irresponsible. This whole mess with the Trigati might not have happened if I hadn’t been here. I mean, my presence, my actions in the War…I’m to blame for bringing all this trouble to Babylon 5. What was it our friend in the Grey Council1 said? If there’s a doom on this station it was you who brought it here. Well, maybe he was right.

I spoke with the President. He’s the only other human who knows why the Minbari surrendered. And he doesn’t believe this stuff about us sharing Minbari souls, and I can’t say that I do either. But they believe it. That’s why they chose Sinclair to run this place. That’s why they picked him to live on their world. He was their first human contact. Him, they trust. Me? I don’t know. If Sinclair had been here instead, maybe they might not have attacked.

That’s an enormous contrast with Sinclair, who was never shown second-guessing himself or wondering if what he did was correct. Nor is it the only difference between the two commanders. As Sheridan points out, his history with the Minbari is more problematic than Sinclair’s2. As a result, he presents a risk to the extant balance among the various powers that meet on Babylon 5. And the Minbari are not slow in reacting. They feel, and are not shy about saying, that his presence shadows the station.

Ivanova, too, speaks of change and discomfort.

I just keep seeing EarthForce One blowing up, over and over again in my dreams. All my life, I thought that I could handle everything. Fix any problem. But when I saw that, I just realized I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so helpless.

That line, by the way, and Claudia Christian’s delivery of it, sold me on the importance and impact of Santiago’s assassination in the way that nothing in the previous episode did.

But this uncomfortable sensation that everything has changed from a known reality to an unknown one is a useful feeling to take into the heart of the episode. Because the force that drives the plot is the way that the Minbari, an inherently stable society, are reacting to a profound change, one they sense more than understand.

The warrior caste see the Minbari as a people become cowards, who turned and fled from a conflict they were about to win. The friction between them and the Grey Council (along with the religious caste), is an ongoing problem in their society. It came out last season, when Alit Neroon was all too ready to restart the war over the Shai Alit’s body. Now Kalain and his renegade warship, the Trigati, are the current incarnations of the issue.

I like Kalain as a character. He knows there’s something deeply wrong in his society, something hidden by the Grey Council. It’s wrong enough to shake his faith in the old traditions, including the prohibition on shedding the blood of fellow Minbari. As a fighter, his impulse is to bring the problem out into the open and deal with it publicly, rather than let people like Hedronn manage it out of view. But he’s warrior, not a berserker. He’s not needlessly violent. He goes about his mission in a tight, controlled, honorable way.

He threatens Hedronn, but does not harm him. Given the chance to kill a security guard, he does not. He’s unflappable when interrogated, and calm about his own death. The only time he goes off-mission is the extra moment he holds the gun on Lennier, testing the younger Minbari’s courage and determination. Lennier passes, responding coolly:

If you are going to kill me, then do so. Otherwise, I have considerable work to do.

Aside from Lennier, the warrior caste definitely comes off best in this episode. Both Alit Diran, Kalain’s second in command, and the Trigati‘s fighters display the same discipline and direction as their leader. Meanwhile, the religious caste is shown as divided, uncertain, vexed.

Hedronn: So…she’s done it, has she? She’s in there. We told her to wait. The prophecy will attend to itself, we told her. Now we are committed to the path.

This ambivalence may be the product of their deeper understanding of the dissonance in Minbari society. What Kalain doesn’t know, but the Grey Council (and Lennier, somehow) do, is that that imbalance goes further back than the end of the War. And this is the episode where humans— and we—find that out.3

It is our belief that every generation of Minbari is reborn in each following generation. Remove those souls, and the whole suffers. We are diminished. Over the last two thousand years, there have been fewer Minbari born into each generation, and those who are born do not seem equal to those who came before. It is almost as if our greater souls have been disappearing. At the Battle of the Line, we discovered where our souls were going. They were going to you. Minbari souls are being reborn, in part or in full, in human bodies.

Lennier opens to us a vision of the journey of a single soul, going from perpetual rebirth in the ordered, regimented society of the Minbari to our more chaotic and fractious species, where desperation and bravery are indistinguishable. And that, really, is the image of the episode, whether we’re talking about the transition from controlled Sinclair to scrappy Sheridan, or the way the Minbari warrior caste has gone from the forefront of clean war to the excluded margins of messy peace. It’s a fair analogy for the transition of the series, too, as we move from the tried-and-true episodic structure of the first series into what was at the time a brave new world of large story arc.

The plot continues, following the death of the old-school warriors (they are hampered by the messy and ill-mannered humans, but truly foiled by the ambiguous emnity of their own kind). But that image is the heart of the show.

Of course, at the end of the episode, JMS feels compelled to plant the hooks of the next chunk of plot. He’s painfully unsubtle about it, both in the way it’s phrased and in how it’s delivered. As You Know, Cocooned Ambassador,

I only wish I could have told them the rest. About the great enemy that is returning, And the prophecy that the two sides of our spirit must unite against the darkness or be destroyed. They say it will take both of our races to stop the darkness. I am told that the Earthers will discover all this soon enough on their own. I hope that they are right. Because if we are wrong, no one will survive our mistake.

Some things never change.

One of the side pleasures of the episode, by the way, is the return of good Ivanova quotes:

And as far as I’m concerned, the transports can wait until the sun explodes. And if you’re not happy with the seating arrangements, I will personally order your seats to be moved outside, down the hall, across the station, and into the fusion reactor. Am I absolutely, perfectly clear on this?

I can only conclude that I am paying off karma at a vastly accelerated rate.

Alit Diran: The war already begun, Captain. All that remains now is honor and death.
Ivanova: And I thought I was a pessimist.

I learned a while ago that there’s enough guilt in the world to go around without grabbing for more.

  1. It’s more than a little clunky that Hedronn both accuses Sheridan of bringing a curse onto the station and authorizes Lennier to tell him the deepest secret of the Minbari race. But the revelation was clearly planned before JMS had to deal with the switch of actors. It needs to go here, by hook or by crook, to prepare the way for Delenn’s emergence in the next episode. And, at the same time, Sheridan’s reputation needs to be established right away by the ranking Minbari on the station4.

  2. At least, it’s more problematic for the Minbari. Not having been abducted, tortured and mindwiped is probably not a huge problem for Sheridan.
  3. This is interesting timing: rather than finish the last series with it, or lead up to it with a mini-arc, JMS drops it on us in the first episode of the new season. It gives him some time to work through the implications as the story heats up, but it’s a somewhat unusual approach to revelations. Babylon 5 is prone to that, and it’s frequently effective.
  4. More precisely, the ranking Minbari not currently in a cocoon.

The next writeup will deal with Revelations

Index of Babylon 5 posts

Posted in Babylon 5 | 24 Comments

Typography and Languages Redux

The city of Amsterdam’s current publicity campaign is “I Amsterdam”, printed in black and red.

There is a certain irony in using a pun-derived slogan in English to advertise a Dutch city. There is even more irony in then translating that slogan into languages with other alphabets, using the same distinctive layout and color mix. But they have, and they’ve mounted it on canvas banners around the back of Centraal Station.

And I love it. The strong design appeals to me, and parsing the red letters gives me the same brain-stretching feeling that winging it in languages I barely speak does. It’s the perfect advertising campaign for a cosmopolitan, international city.

Posted in Allochthonia | 11 Comments

Allochthonia: Typography

In the same way that a variety of languages gives texture to a world, so too does a variety of ways of writing within a single language.

Typography, at least in the West, varies slowly over time. And this long trail of changing taste in fonts, this comet-tail of letterforms, is documented in our signage and inscriptions. Any city of reasonable age has an entire linguistic and stylistic history embedded in its street signs, house numbers, and obsolete advertising. It creates a visual richness, and forms a tacit confirmation of age and permanence. These places use typography to show us their past, in finest storytelling tradition, rather than having to tell us that they’re old.

By contrast, we generally see a real typographic poverty in visual SF&F. Alien languages will have only one font, usually in only one weight. Humans, particularly in science fiction, will either use one or two special futuristic (and frequently unreadable) fonts, or pretty much the same range that we use now. To the typographically aware, both approaches underline the shallowness of the visual worldbuilding.

Now, it’s true that many of our fonts have historic antecedents (Trajan), or are a century or more old (Goudy). But every generation seems to add one or two more into common usage (Gill Sans, Helvetica, Calibri…). I’d expect a future society to use many of our extant fonts, plus one or two reasonable-looking but unfamiliar workaday additions.

Note that all of the photos in this post were taken on a single block of Prins Hendrikkade in Amsterdam.

Posted in Allochthonia | 40 Comments

Babylon 5: Chrysalis

Babylon 5 came about by working on two different ideas for series. One was a vast, galaxy-spanning, huge show following the rise and fall of empires. The other show in the back of my head was about a small space station, and people trapped in a tin can, as it were, having to deal with each other in a closed environment. Both far in the future. And I realized: no, these are the same story.

In many ways, my view of the season finale mirrors my feelings about the entire first season of Babylon 5. It has good bits, but it’s not on fire the way that later seasons are. The JMS quote above is a good explanation of the problem: it’s two shows at once, and it takes a while for them to grow into an organic whole.

This episode is particularly problematic. It’s supposed to carry a lot of emotional impact, but I found it mixed at best. It contains enormously significant events: the destruction of the Narn base in Quadrant 37 and the assassination of President Santiago. But they struck me as shallow, pointless, and rather grey. And it’s not that the show doesn’t try hard to sell them. Na’Toth’s shock and the bridge crew’s stunned silence are well-depicted. But I found it difficult to care and easy to be distracted by, for instance, the rather dated rendering of EarthForce One’s destruction.

But leaving aside the big historical happenings, there were smaller, interpersonal events that mattered more to me: Sinclair missing the chance to speak to Delenn before the cocoon is complete, Garibaldi’s shooting, Londo’s realization that he has betrayed principles he did not even know he had. This “second series” that JMS conceived of in his head carries the episode, where his attempt to give the epic the weight it needs fails.

A lot of the problem, of course, is that the plot has lost its suspense for me. I’ve seen the rest of the show, though I don’t recall all the details. I know that Garibaldi survives. I know that the guard who shot him stays in the security team like a worm in an apple. I know that all the menacing notes in Clarke’s initial speech really are flags of the bad times to come. I know what Delenn turns into.

What interested me about the episode, what worked for me, was not the points where the characters are left hanging off of a narrative cliff. It’s the moments where they have already lost their grip and fallen, watching the edge recede from their outstretched fingers, and are beginning to contemplate the ground that is rushing to meet them.

The obvious example of this, of course, is Londo. He is as he has been throughout the season: ambitious but frustrated, wryly aware of his own weaknesses, caught in what a human would call a mid-life crisis.

There comes a time when you look into the mirror, and you realize that what you see is all that you will ever be. Then you accept it. Or you kill yourself. Or you stop looking into mirrors.

It is at this moment of weakness that Morden makes his offer: his “associates” will take care of Quadrant 37. All Londo has to do is take the credit and owe them a favor. Morden sells Londo on the plan with the line, “If it’s hopeless, then there’s no harm in trying, is there?” It’s the deal the devil always makes with the down and out.

Londo knows there’s something wrong even before Vir has called Centauri Prime with his message. He makes himself a drink, but then pours the glass back into the bottle. And when the truth comes out, he’s horrified, the way one is at one’s first grave sin.

Londo: What have you done?
Morden: Only what you asked me to do. You had a problem with Quadrant 37. We took care of it.
Londo: But you killed ten thousand Narn.
Morden: I didn’t know you cared. Ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million…what’s the difference? They’re Narns, Ambassador. Your sworn enemy.
Londo: I know, but…I didn’t think…I thought that you might find a way to protect our ships, or cripple their forces, not…
Morden: Ambassador, your name is being spoken at the highest levels of the Centauri government. They don’t know how you did it. They credit you with saving them embarrassment without creating another war in the process. They’ve noticed you, Ambassador, which was the point of the exercise. I hear they have great plans for you.
Londo: Yes, but ten thousand! In cold blood?
Morden: Ambassador, you’re a hero. Enjoy it. I’ll be around.

It’s touching that the next time we see Londo, he’s joining Ivanova to watch over Garibaldi’s surgery.

If you don’t mind, I would like to wait with you. He is an annoying man, but I would miss him if he…

That trailing-off is a telling delicacy. With a few more deaths under his belt, Londo will be able to finish the sentence. The second transgression is always easier than the first. And Morden knows this.

When the time is right Ambassador Mollari will do exactly as we wish.

Another turning point is G’Kar, whose stubbornness pushes Londo too far. Sinclair sees it happening, and tries to warn him:

I’ve had this feeling lately, that we’re standing at a crossroads. And I don’t like where we’re going. But there’s still time to choose another path. You can be part of that, G’Kar. Choose wisely. Not just for the Centauri, but for the good of your own people as well.

Of course, by this point in the episode, Londo has already accepted Morden’s help. I thought at first that it would have been subtly better plotting to have this scene come before the one in the labyrinth, as though G’Kar could somehow forestall Londo’s choice. That way Sinclair would have been telling the factual truth when he said there was still time to choose another path. But ordering the episode as he does, JMS makes Sinclair’s line resonate with a deeper truth: the path G’Kar must choose is not about the Narn base, but about how he will react to the provocations and stresses of the times to come.

That choice, G’Kar still has to make when Sinclair speaks to him. And although he has his great turning later on, his calm evaluation of the situation now, his ability to deduce the existence of the Shadows, is a turning point as well. (Contrast it to his uncontrolled fury over the G’Quan Eth plant, for instance.)

The third missed opportunity is the most obvious one: Sinclair is too late to hear what Delenn has to tell him. I don’t recall, in retrospect, that it mattered nearly as much as she implied:

We have lot to discuss. In coming to you, I’m putting both our lives at risk. There’s is much you should know.

But might-have-beens and missed opportunities are always painful, and mysteries always intriguing. And it’s interesting that, after all the times that JMS makes his characters into unconscious oracles, he leaves Delenn in doubt about her own destiny.

Lennier: Are you sure there’s no other way?
Delenn: What must happen will happen. Valen said this day would come. Who are we to stand in the way of prophecy?
Lennier: But what if you’re wrong?
Delenn: Then speak well of me when I’m gone.

A more self-certain character would not have said that last line.

One excellent exchange from the episode:

Londo: This is like being nibbled to death by, um…what are those Earth creatures called? Feathers. Long bill. Webbed feet. Go quack.
Vir: Cats?
Londo: Cats. Like being nibbled to death by cats.

The next writeup will cover Points of Departure, the first episode in Season Two.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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