20 April 2011

Who's the "Devil" in "The Devil in the Dark"

I was watching the classic Star Trek episode "The Devil in the Dark" the other night and, for the first time, it struck me how arrogant the story's underlying assumptions were. It occurred to me that the "devil" of the title might not be the creature that menaced Kirk and his crew. It saddened me because I will never be able to enjoy the story in quite the same way ever again.

The plot is straightforward: Enterprise is called to Janus VI, a long established mining colony that supplies critical minerals to nearby worlds. After 50 years of uneventful and profitable mining, something begins killing the colonists, dissolving them with a powerful, corrosive acid. The miners' weapons are ineffective, and vital shipments are not going out. Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to investigate. Spock quickly figures out that the most likely agent of the attacks is a silicon-based lifeform that moves through rock like humans (or Vulcans) move through air. The only puzzle piece missing is "why?" Why, after a half-century, has the creature begun to attack the miners? Before any progress can be made answering that question, the alien steals the coolant pump of Janus' antiquated fusion reactor, and Kirk faces the utter destruction of the colony if he can't get it back. So Enterprise's entire security detail, Kirk and Spock begin combing the shafts, hunting the creature. Naturally, it's Kirk who stumbles across it but oddly it doesn't immediately attack him. Instead it shows him a wound caused by an earlier phaser shot, and appears to want something. Spock joins Kirk and uses the Vulcan mind meld to communicate with the creature. In the meld, he learns that the alien is a "horta," the last survivor of the previous generation of horta and the guardian of the eggs of the next. It turns out that the miners had recently breached the incubation chambers and were killing thousands; the horta was only trying to protect her children. There's a minor contretemps when the colonists overwhelm the security men and try to kill the alien but when Kirk explains the situation both sides come to a modus vivendi where the horta would live as they had always done, the humans would follow and use the resulting tunnels to extract the ores, and both would share in the profits. All things end happily for all concerned.

Or - realistically - would they?

"The Devil in the Dark" is one of Star Trek's best episodes but it raises some disturbing questions if thought about too deeply.

The first is the question of how "friendly" the horta is. Her change of attitude and good will comes suspiciously fast. Perhaps, having shared minds with Spock, she realized how outclassed she was and how easily Starfleet could wipe out her entire species. She doesn't make nice with the colonists because she realizes what a swell bunch of guys they are but because she's terrified that they'll slaughter her and her children if she doesn't.

And what of the future? The horta are not a hive mind - one consciousness, many bodies. It's hard to imagine that every newborn will accept their mother's solution to the "human infestation." Is is not possible that an insurgency could spring up dedicated to finishing what mom had started? And how would the Federation respond? Or let's consider this: A nonviolent movement arises among the horta that wants the humans off world. It gains enough support so that the Federation is formally asked to leave. How would the UFP respond to that? If the Federation were to live up to its ideals of freedom and noninterference then the answer is obvious: They'd leave. But, as we know all too well in the US, a country's founding ideals often founder on the shores of so-called vital interests and national security. After 50+ years, the interests vested in keeping the Janus mines open would exert enormous pressure on Starfleet to keep them open no matter what. And there's the horta who are OK with humans on Janus. Would Starfleet provide them with aid to suppress the anti-human faction? I can easily see the mining lobby explaining to the Federation Council that the anti-human horta don't represent the species as a whole and have no legitimacy. That Starfleet needs to aid the pro-human side because they're being oppressed.

And let's not even begin to think about what kind of consciousness a silicon-based lifeform that looks like this:

would be like. On its face, to assume the horta perceive and think like humans and Vulcans is absurd.

And what are the effects of a human presence on a silicon-based ecology? Assuming the horta are the only lifeforms is another absurdity never addressed by the episode, there must be a host of other creatures moving through the rock.

The point - if I can dignify this posting with a purpose - is that I've been thinking lately about the survivability of civilization-as-we-know-it and coming to some pretty gloomy conclusions. "The Devil in the Dark" is an example of the exploitative, extractive, consuming-all attitude that characterizes our culture. There's no thought to the long-term consequences of our appetites in our zeal to satisfy our short-term needs, and now that we're running up against the limits of our planet, we're beginning to see the price we and our descendants are going to pay.

Alas, for the days of my youth when Star Trek was just plain old fun to watch.

01 April 2011

REVIEW: The Crippled God, Steven Erikson

Spoiler Alert – Unlike some others who’ve reviewed this book on their blogs, mine is chock full of spoilers and references to events and characters from the previous books. You have been warned if you’re still set on reading further:

To paraphrase “Jerry Maguire,” Steven Erikson had me at Gardens of the Moon, a cool drink of water in the midst of an SF drought. I didn’t mind being thrown into the deep end of the pool and expected to swim. In fact, it was a refreshing change – an author who expected his readers to walk with him into his world rather than be led by the hand. I was immediately reminded of Glen Cook, one of my favorite authors, and the Dread Empire and Black Company series. Cook was one of the earliest authors to inject an element of earthy realism and moral ambiguity into the SF genre with characters like Croaker and Lady, who were more “real” and their actions more relevant (and understandable) to modern audiences. I sensed too, in Erikson’s work, an underlying complexity that promised more than just a medieval setting with fantastic trappings. From page one, Gardens of the Moon hit all the right buttons.

That would not have been enough, however, to keep me reading the nine subsequent volumes. Robert Jordan’s and George Martin’s ubiquitous series have similar elements but I don’t care about anyone in their worlds. Erikson displayed a knack early on for creating characters I cared about.

Unfortunately, he kept killing off my favorites.

Perhaps it’s a rebellious streak in me but I’ve never bought into the Anomander Rake “love” nor have I been interested in Karsa Orlong’s story nor have I been interested in most of the Bridgeburners. No, my favorites are Tattersail; the Imperial historian Duiker; Fist Coltaine; and above all Trull Sengar, the Cassandra of the Tiste Edur who saw the disaster his people were headed for but never lost his hope, compassion or humor. (See below for the B-list of favorites.)

Trull’s senseless murder at the instigation of the Errant was awful but consistent with Erikson’s worldview and viscerally effective. I was angry and upset, and was happy to see Draconus cut the Elder God down in The Crippled God.

Come book six – The Bonehunters – and I met the only character to rival Trull Sengar in my affections, Tavore Paran, Ganoes’ and Felisin’s older sister and Lorn’s replacement as the Empress’ Adjunct. The woman who took command of the 14th Army in the aftermath of the Chain of Dogs and ended the Whirlwind’s rebellion. Unlike the Bridgeburners, who were established and wiped out off-stage and in flashbacks, readers were with the Bonehunters from the beginning – from their forging in the literal fires of Y’Ghatan and their birth from the sewers of that holocaust to Laseen’s betrayal in Malaz City, where Tavore gave the following speech that set the tone for the army’s future:

“There have been armies. Burdened with names, the legacy of meetings, of battles, of betrayals. The history behind the name is each army’s secret language – one that no-one else can understand, much less share. The First Sword of Dassem Ultor – the Plains of Unta, the Grissian Hills, Li Heng, Y’Ghatan. The Bridgeburners – Raraku, Black Dog, Mott Wood, Pale, Black Coral. Coltaine’s Seventh – Gelor Ridge, Vathar Crossing and the Day of Pure Blood, Sanimon, and the Fall.

“Some of you share a few of those – with comrades now fallen, now dust. They are, for you, the cracked vessels of your grief and your pride. And you cannot stand in one place for long, lest the ground turn to depthless mud around your feet….

“Among us, among the Bonehunters, our secret language has begun. Cruel in its birth at Aren, sordid in a river of old blood. Coltaine’s blood. You know this. I need tell you none of this. We have our own Raraku. We have our own Y’Ghatan. We have Malaz City.

“In the civil war on Theft, a warlord who captured a rival’s army then destroyed them – not by slaughter; no, he simply gave the order that each soldier’s weapon hand lose its index finger. The maimed soldiers were then sent back to the warlord’s rival. Twelve thousand useless men and women. To feed, to send home, to swallow the bitter taste of defeat. I was…I was reminded of that story not long ago….

“We too are maimed. In our hearts. Each of you knows this.

“And so we carry, tied to our belts, a piece of bone. Legacy of a severed finger. And yes, we cannot help but know bitterness….

“The Bonehunters will speak in our secret language. We sail to add another name to our burden, and it may be it will prove our last. I do not believe so, but there are clouds before the face of the future – and we cannot see. We cannot know.

“The island of Sepik, a protectorate of the Malazan Empire, is now empty of human life. Sentenced to senseless slaughter, every man, child, and woman. We know the face of the slayer. We have seen the dark ships. We have seen the harsh magic unveiled.

“We are Malazan. We remain so, no matter the judgement of the Empress. Is this enough reason to give answer?

“No, it is not. Compassion is never enough. Nor is the hunger for vengeance. But, for now, for what awaits us, perhaps they will do. We are the Bonehunters, and sail to another name. Beyond Aren, beyond Raraku and beyond Y’Ghatan, we now cross the world to find the first name that will be truly our own. Shared by none other. We sail to give answer.

“There is more. But I will not speak of that beyond these words: ‘What awaits you in the dusk of the old world’s passing, shall go…unwitnessed.’ T’amber’s words….

“They are hard and well might they feed spite, if in weakness we permit such. But to those words, I say this, as your commander: We shall be our own witness, and that will be enough. It must be enough. It must ever be enough.” (Reaper’s Gale, pp. 381-82)

This is my kind of epic: Not only a near hopeless quest to save the world but a near hopeless quest to save that world that no one will ever know about, succeed or fail. And the point is driven home in Tavore’s speech to the Bonehunters before facing their final battle against the Forkrul Assail:

“Does anyone know you? You, who stood in the shadows of the heavies and the marines. Who are you? What is your tale? So many have seen you marching past. Seen you, standing silent and unknown. Even now, your faces are almost lost beneath the rims of your helms….

“Corporal Grid Ffan, Third Squad, Eleventh Company. Bonehunter. You carried Sample – the soldier on your left – on your back. The last day in the desert. And, before the Blood for Water, the only thing that kept you – and her – alive was your love for her….

“Where stands Wreck-Eye?...

“When Lostara Yil lost consciousness protecting my life on the day of the Nah’ruk, you led your squad to recover us. Myself. Henar Vygulf. Captain Yil. You lost a brother, and to this day you can find no tears for him. But be at ease. There are those in your squad who have wept in your stead. At night, when you sleep….

“Sergeant Ordinary Grey. When Sergeant Gaunt-Eye’s squad of marines broke and tried to murder him, you and Could Howl held them all off – you cut them down to save Gaunt-Eye. Because once, long ago on the Holy Desert of Raraku, he showed kindness to you….

“Who are you? I know who you are. What have you done? You have stayed with me since the very beginning. Soldiers, hear me! This day is already lost to history, and all that happens here shall remain forever unknown. On this day, you are unwitnessed.

“Except for the soldier to either side of you. They shall witness. And I tell you this, those soldiers to either side of you, they are all that matters. The historians’ scrolls have no time for soldiers like you – I know, for I have read hundreds of them. They yield a handful of words to speak of defeat or victory. Perhaps, if so warranted, they will make mention of great valour, extraordinary courage, but the weight of those words is no more and no less than those used to speak of slaughter and murder. Because, as we all know, one soldier can be hero and villain both.

“We have no place in their histories. So few do. They are not us – they were never us, and we shall never be them.

“You are the Unwitnessed, but I have seen what you see. I have felt what you feel. And I am as much a stranger to history as to any of you….

“On the day of the Nah’ruk, they stood for you. Today, here, you shall stand for them. And I shall stand with you, my beloved soldiers…. Say nothing. We are walls of silence, you and me. We are perfect reflections of the one we face, and we have faced each other for so long now.

“And the meaning of that silence is none of the enemy’s business….

“Bonehunters. Yield only in death on this day.” (pp. 846-47)

It reminds me of Henry V’s exhortation in Shakespeare: It stirs the same emotions and would have convinced me to follow this woman into a hopeless battle.

I have invested about six years in following The Malazan Book of the Fallen and the ending of their tale did not disappoint – much. Many of the threads that Erikson has woven together are finally and satisfactorily tied off: Onos Toolan and Hetan; the penultimate battle at the Spire, where Stormy’s and Gesler’s sacrifices free the Crippled God’s heart; Brys Beddict’s destruction of Diligence, the Forkrul Assail general; his rescue by Aranict, Faint, Precious Thimble and Amby Bole. Others – tangential to the Crippled God’s tale – still hang loose: What’s Grub’s future role? What is the fate of the Shake and the returning Tiste Andii? What are Shadowthrone and Cotillion’s motives for instigating this convergence? What of the reborn Imass? The Jaghut? The K’Chain Che’Malle? I could go on…

But, in the end, I think Erikson quailed before the demands of his story – the Bonehunters lived! For five books, for near 5,000 pages, Erikson built up the expectation that Tavore and her soldiers were doomed even if they succeeded but when the final battle played out…it’s a fairy-tale happy ending: Tavore lives and is reunited with her brother, Ganoes.

While a part of me is glad Tavore made it, another part (dominant at the moment) doesn’t think the story ended correctly – Tavore and the Bonehunters should have died unwitnessed! It’s as if Achilles survived the Trojan War or Lear regained his throne. Reading the final chapter, I felt similarly to watching “The Search for Spock.” It was nice to have Spock back among the living but it utterly undercut the visceral power of “The Wrath of Khan” – from a narrative point of view, Spock should have remained dead. From a narrative point of view, Tavore should be dead.

My disappointment is moderate, however – nowhere near that of watching the final episode of “Battlestar Galactica” – and I should mention some of the (many) positive things in the book: It is always better when an author and reader are more or less in tune philosophically, and I liked where Erikson went in his analysis of capitalism (Letheras) and environmentalism (the Imass, among others) and his take on the “meaning of life” (about which nearly everyone opined at some point) and his exploration of the paradox of civilization (which underlay the Forkrul Assail’s attempted genocide and leads to a moment of introspection on Karsa Orlong’s part (p. 750)). Another thing I found effective was Erikson’s hopping from squad to squad as the 14th marched across the Glass Desert, getting into their heads and building them up as distinct characters.

Skimming The Crippled God and contemplating the other nine volumes, I realize that I could talk about any number of things that make this series so good but my fingers grow cramped from typing and – let’s be honest – anyone who’s made it through the previous books is not going to be balked by anyone’s review, good or bad, from finishing. Suffice to say that The Crippled God brings The Malazan Book of the Fallen to a good enough conclusion. There are a few books I come back to again and again, so often that I know each scene by heart and every character is a comfortable companion, because I keep finding new things in them and I think that these books are going to join that company.

The B-list (by no means complete): Fiddler, Onrack, Masan Gilani, Sinter, Kruppe, Tehol, Bent and Roach, Apsalar (aka Sorry) and – of course – the elusive Nefarias Bredd.

Bonus thought – Most-unexpected-but-obvious-in-hindsight-reveal: Tavore (and probably T’amber as well) is a Talon:

“The lid creaked as Tavore opened it, startling Lostara.

Reaching inside, she drew out a necklace – a simple leather string and an eagle’s talon of brass or gold. Then she turned to the captain. ‘Would you tie this for me, please?’

But Lostara simply stared at the talon.


She looked up, met Tavore’s eyes.

The Adjunct sighed. ‘I am a child of the Emperor – what more is there for you to understand, Lostara Yil?’” (p. 844)