Friday, October 30, 2009

The kid in me goes to an art museum.

One of the nicer parts of the University of Oregon campus is the art museum, which overall has a nicely diverse selection of works on display, ranging from ancient artifacts to classical fine art to contemporary abstract horrors. Not having been on campus for a while, I was surprised when a friend of mine tipped me off last night about the museum's latest featured exhibition: Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Art of the Superhero. Greatly excited by the notion, I rushed off this morning to size up the exhibit, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

The majority of the pieces on display are original pencil and ink drawings of covers and pages, the real nitty-gritty of composition, as it were. There are a handful of vintage issues on the floor, including a copy of Superman #1 in very good condition, and a number of paintings, posters, and special commissioned works to add a dash of color to what is otherwise a lot of black and white. I was especially pleased to see the work of Alex Ross out in force, but it would of course have been ridiculous not to include some of his paintings, given his completely unique take on super-hero visuals. There was also plenty of love for Jack Kirby, as is plainly the man's due.

The exhibit is arranged roughly as a visual history of the genre, but while it covers a lot of ground, it's not as comprehensive as it could have been. Most of the important points are covered, but some are notably absent; for example, one piece of handy guide text on the wall explains the political circumstances that led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, the self-censoring body that kept explicit references to drugs, sex, and other naughty things out of the industry. No subsequent text or pieces get into the story of how the stifling atmosphere under the CCA was ultimately dispelled in the wake of this issue of Amazing Spider-man (with help from the Nixon administration, no less). Instead, we simply jump from the largely sanitized Silver Age of the 60's to the gritty, violent, and (sometimes) socially relevant 70's. But while the factual element of the history is patchy (though by no means inaccurate), the visual element is totally satisfactory. Most of the most famous and influential books and artists are represented, including classics (and personal favorites of mine) like Marvels, The Killing Joke, and Watchmen.

There's not a lot of focus on the writing of comics, apart from a corner devoted to the inimitable Alan Moore and the sadly over-imitated Frank Miller. There is a great deal, however, devoted to the examination of themes like race, gender and the perceptions thereof. Writers haven't always been smart about these issues (witness the over-the-top blaxploitation lingo of early Luke Cage comics), but there's some pretty smart essays about them in the reading material on the gallery's big round couch. I didn't read most of them, but the exhibit's open until January third. Presumably, I have some time.

The gallery housing the exhibit has an alcove, which inexplicably holds exactly two small paintings. This section is devoted to the comic book industry's reaction to the terror attacks of 9/11, often cited as a clear demonstration of the cultural relevancy of comics in the 21st century. Overplaying that angle might have been in bad taste, but it's easily the most boring part of the exhibit; setting aside that much space for so few pictures is just a bad call. "Here, Superman plays with children of various ethnicities and builds new towers out of blocks. Here, Superman admires the Real Heroes. Move along." That section could have really been fleshed out more, or at least put in a smaller space.

The most unusual object in the whole show (and thus, my favorite) is a large mixed-media promotional painting for the New Mutants, an X-Men spin-off from the 80's. It's a mad mixture of swirly abstract paint and embedded computer chips, with a handful of the series' characters placed in one corner like an afterthought. Easily the most arty thing in the room, I had half a mind to take it home with me. Getting the wheelbarrow full of money needed to accomplish this task, unfortunately, is slightly impractical for my budget.

I loved the exhibit. I only wish it were bigger, but as it is, it takes about an hour to view and fully appreciate everything there, which is plenty of time to make a point about a much-maligned art form. Super hero comics come alive in vivid colors on a page, but I doubt any true fan of the genre would be disappointed to see the art they loved taken seriously in an academic setting. The exhibit is great for children, too; I feel confident in saying this because I shared the gallery with a pair of hyper-excited eight-year-old boys. Here's hoping that comics don't grow up too much.

Finally, here's a short video, showing some of the pictures on display, along with a little academic commentary by the guest curator of the exhibit.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wrench in the gears

Chapter Thirteen, the dramatic conclusion of On the Second Floor, was supposed to go up this week. It didn't because I realized while I was writing it that I didn't like it.

My writing process typically works like this: first, I get an idea. Once the idea is obtained, the next step is to sit down with pen, paper, and build a setting around that idea. Then, through arcane mysteries known only to druids and amateur writers, I make the idea happen on the page. Once the idea is safely stored in the ink, I wait until update day, whereupon the transcribing/editing phase of the process begins. Sitting down with my manuscript, I type it up on the computer, ruthlessly fussing over punctuation, tense, diction and structure. If all goes well, a reasonably readable short piece finds its way on to the site, and I get to thinking about my next idea.

Well, I've had an idea for how this chapter should go since this whole project began. I developed the idea, by which I mean I idly thought about it every once in a while, in the months since. The problem is, once I had it mostly written down, I no longer liked it. This is not merely self-criticism; the longer I wrote, the more I felt my already dubious craft disintegrate into repetition and tedium. I tried to power through it, but I came to realize that the ending I had conceived was trite, and my attempts to infuse it with emotional weight were hopelessly clumsy.

So I gutted the chapter, keeping a few pages as a springboard, and resolved to think of a better idea. It still adheres to the Big Idea I had at the story's inception, but my new approach is more forthright, and the hope is that it will resolve itself with less melodrama. Forcing a "stunning revelation" into the final scenes of a story is unnatural, and it's an error I really should have seen coming. But I think I have it under control now.

The new, improved Chapter Thirteen should go up on Monday Next, and all will once again be right with the universe.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

WFJ Book Club #2: The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb

This book marks my first substantial introduction to the work of R. Crumb, one of the most brazen and controversial, yet venerable, artists in the world of comics. I know him solely by reputation, and his is perhaps the definition of colorful (though he prefers, to all appearances, the look of black and white in his own work). A product of 60s counterculture and LSD, Crumb has accumulated a high charge of of shock value over his career; he is after all the creator of Fritz the Cat, a strip later adapted into the first X-rated animated film in American history. Let it be said, there are a great many people who no doubt find the presence of Crumb's mark on holy scripture to be blasphemy in and of itself. Surely Crumb knows this, and his illustrations he could never be accused of prudery; however, the end product is a surprisingly modest and thoroughly serious adaptation.

The text of the book is Genesis, down to the very last verse, melded together from several versions. The introduction especially cites Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses as a source, but others, including the King James Version, were used. It also contains footnotes to help explain some of the book's more obscure puns and linguistic tricks, though not anywhere near the scholarly depth found in most conventional versions. The text is rendered in an unmistakeably comic book style, all-caps and with dramatic punctuation - never before has a Bible seen so many exclamation points! Chapter divisions remain in place, but the individual verses are no longer marked in the text (they would only get in the way). Dialog goes in word balloons, where it belongs, but never drops out of its proper place in any given verse, a testament to expert scripting.

The art is where most of the interpretive work is done. Crumb mostly plays it straight, showing literal depictions of what is described in the text. This is where the controversy is born: when the text describes sex, violence, or both, the artist supplies the imagery. Chapter 19, wherein Lot and his daughters commit incest, contains easily the most censorship-baiting imagery in the whole book; but while graphic, in context the pictures are not quite pornographic, and they are not dwelt upon, with only two panels devoted to the sex acts themselves. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah on the previous page, meanwhile, is a full page of charred bodies writhing in agony, as fire rains down upon a horrifying cityscape of destruction.

Crumb's style is devoted to detail, with both background and foreground objects treated to a nearly equal avalanche of tiny pen strokes, all bounded by chaotic, almost squiggly outlines. There are pervasive elements of cartoon style, like emotive backgrounds and surprise lines (because Biblical characters are often surprised), but the book is also obsessively realistic. Extensive research shows in the detailed accuracy of clothing, equipment, and architecture. The end of Chapter 3 even includes realistic Cherubim; not the fat babies of Valentines day cards, but winged lions straight from the mythology of the ancient Near East.

Genesis includes a number of genealogies and "nation tables," exceedingly long lists of people begotten by other people which most readers, myself included, tend to skip. Crumb, however, seizes the opportunity to show off the fruits of his research, with scenes from family and working life, presenting visually what is ultimately the point of these genealogies; the miraculous proliferation of human life. Most of the names listed belong to characters who don't have very much to do in the story, but the pictures bring them to life anyway, providing an important visual bridge from the time of Adam to the time of Noah, and so on to the time of the Patriarchs.

Though the text is not altered, the pictures add a new emotional subtext that reveal the author's interpretation. Facial expressions do an incredible amount of leg work; when Adam blames Eve for feeding him the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, she gives him a subtle, dirty look that speaks volumes about gender politics. When Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him the blessing meant for Esau, the latter's desperate reaction is beautifully enhanced by his wild eyes and tears. Actions are backed up by emotions, which words alone often fail to convey thoroughly.

These pieces never add up to a ham-handed counter-argument against the text, but they do confirm the author's position. When the Bible describes God creating humans twice, it's easy for a true believer to fuse the two events into one in his mind. When Crumb draws the event twice, it becomes an affirmation of the scholarly view that they are, in fact, two separate stories, stitched together by priests into a roughly coherent whole. As Crumb admits in the introduction, he does not believe in Genesis, or any other part of the Bible, as an infallible account of real happenings. For him, Genesis is among the foundational myths of western civilization, and he wants to do the story justice in the modern age.

If Crumb's work has a fault, I must say that its scope is too small. The book ends with the death of Joseph, and the stage clearly set for the events of the book of Exodus. Putting together an entire Bible in this manner would have taken many years of painstaking research (Crumb spent four years alone on this one), but separating Genesis from the rest of the Bible, especially its four companions in the Torah, gives a necessarily incomplete picture of the whole of the Judeo-Christian traditional stories. Exodus especially is among the most dramatic, and well-known, of Biblical books, and so it seems a shame to leave it out.

Like Crumb, I do not accept a literal interpretation of Genesis, but I readily perceive the value of a literal visual representation of it. If the words themselves have value for us today, then the pictures must serve to emphasize the words. This is the real strength of Crumb's work, and the strength of the medium of comics, allowing the artist to cut in both directions at once; to revel in the visual splendor of myth, while supporting a sober and thoughtful subtext.

The last few pages of the book feature commentaries by Crumb on various chapters, including some illuminating examples of how his research influenced his depictions, and his theories on the significance of certain obscure passages. It's a nice bit of amateur scholarship, worth reading for a better understanding of the story proper.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On the Second Floor, Chapter XII

Day Ten

The next morning I lay motionless in my bed for several minutes, checking the extent of my resolve against the magnitude of my task. My artificial environment was so remarkably consistent, one day was just the same as another, and there were no omens, no signs of special importance; but it was important, I reminded myself. It was the last day of school, if school were a bubble of inertia and self-doubt. It was New Year's Eve at the turn of a brand new century.

I got up and performed my Judgment day stretches, knowing I would have to be limber in body and mind. It was a token gesture, and I didn't know the first thing about proper stretches and exercise. What really mattered was focusing my brain, actions synchronizing with intent; preparation for the great unknown. In a moment of peaceful clarity I prayed for success, though niggling doubts of its efficacy remained in my mind.

I rummaged through the cupboard looking for a powerful breakfast, and I settled on honey nut cheerios because there was nothing else to be had. "Grant me the strength of the honey bee," I said, relishing the absurdity of every crunchy spoonful. There was no milk, but the cereal itself provided the necessary sense of fortification. "Lower my cholesterol too, if you can."

Important days call for special attention to one's physical appearance, when 'routine' matters of hygiene pass from quasi-optional to unquestionably essential. So I pulled my electric razor from the drawer and shaved my face, shearing down four days' stubble with ruthless efficiency. Shaving on an irregular basis is a haphazard affair, and I wondered if it made any difference among aliens or not. This is not about what they want, I sternly reminded myself. It was time to make a point.

I went to the closet and donned my people's ceremonial armor: a black, single-breasted business suit, rarely worn but all the stronger for it in my imagination (I come from a long and storied line of professionals). The entire ensemble hung conveniently assembled on a coat hanger, the classiest coat hanger I owned, and I was pleased to see that the fabric bore no prominent wrinkles. The tie, a modest blue pattern to match the shirt and blend with the coat, was a recurring enemy from formal occasions long past; I did my best, and I make no claims to aesthetic excellence in the art of tying ties.

I elected to wear tennis shoes, reasoning that the aliens would never know the difference, and reckoning comfort a higher priority than the strictest formality. My formal dress shoes were only a liability, buried in depths of the closet where they belonged, to the extent that they belonged anywhere within miles of my feet. The tennis shoes were black, and that was qualification enough for the occasion.

It was an outfit fit for a warrior, or a diplomat, or a spy; whichever role I might be called upon to play, the suit evoked a ruthless spirit I could rely upon to make me stronger than myself. The clock struck twelve, and I fiddled with my tie, hoping against hope to tease perfection out of its appearance. Finding none, I settled for less, because a tie is an impossible thing and a man must know his limits. The armor was on, and sufficient to the cause; it was for me then to believe in it, to invest it with strength from my own soul. The suit was invincible.

There was as usual no indication of when Dayus would arrive, but that was no concern of mine. I focused on my own preparations, the most critical element of success. The room was inundated by the music of Wagner, who lent his trademark audacity to a task that required much of it. I washed the dishes from the night before (and admittedly the night before that as well), unsure as I was about when I'd get another chance. The fate of the dome, and the apartment, and my property within it, was all an open question as far as I knew. I brewed the tea, the linchpin of the entire operation, more so even than the tie. The universe expanded and convulsed in wild, explosive waves, unabashedly unpredictable on every conceivable plane, just as it always had and always would; but in the sphere of my senses I was finally in complete control, and more determined than ever to use it to my advantage.

When the tower stirred at last, my preparations were in place. The music, German opera of the highest tradition, was like a transcendental storm, quivering with wind and strings and fearful noise. I read from the works of Ovid, stories of transformations on a multitude of scales. Outside my window, just such a transformation was taking place. As the tower receded, sunk deep in the ground, in its place stood Dayus, eight feet tall and noble, untouchable and unassailable as the pillar itself. He approached the door, and I welcomed him in.

"I notice your clothes are different," he said.

"This is formal clothing. If I'm going to be meeting the big wigs tonight, I want to look my best, don't I?"

"It is good that you take your position so seriously. Now, there are certain matters we must discuss."

"Certainly." I got up to place the Metamorphoses back in its place on the shelf, nestled amongst books of religion, myth, and philosophy.

"I'm sure you are curious about your future living arrangements."

"Yes, actually. Specifically, I want to know what's going to happen to the apartment, and all of my belongings."

"There is a space in my laboratory which is large enough to hold this building," he said. "The simplest option would be to re-transplant the structure to that place for the time being. You could continue dwelling there, if you wished, but your movements will necessarily be limited by laboratory security protocol."

"I can see that getting annoying after a while," I said, wondering at his poor sense of irony.

"I thought perhaps you might think so. Which is why I allocated money in my research budget for the purchase of an apartment in the capital for your use."

"Hold on," I said, eyebrow set to maximum surprise, "you guys have money?"

"It is probably not entirely similar to your conception of currency," he explained, "but money, in some form or another, is used in the overwhelming majority of advanced societies. Does this surprise you?"

"Well, a little." I felt a little foolish and resentful at the question, an emotion I had thought I was through with. "It's just that I never considered the possibility. That's all."

"I would hope this information would comfort you in some way," he said, "to know that the world you are about to enter is not so different from the world you have left."

"Yes, you're right," I said. God forbid it, I thought.

I rose from my seat on the couch and rubbed my face, still burning slightly from the razor. The time was as good as any; "you should drink some tea with me," I said, and he assented.

I retrieved the drink from the refrigerator, a rich Darjeeling blend on ice, and poured it in a pair of tall glasses. I mixed in the appropriate additives for each, shaking the glasses gently for a complete, even distribution, as my guest waited in the living room. The music, which was reduced to a volume more suitable for conversation, grew louder with the silence, asserting itself into the foreground with the absence of talk. I handed Dayus a cup, and he drank.

"This seems to taste different," he observed, "from the last such drink you offered me."

"That's because it's a different pmixture." I took a mouthful from my own cup, savoring the hint of lemon juice and mint that infused it. "Eating and drinking," I said, "are sacred actions in all human cultures, and a variety of preparations serve a variety of purposes."

"Explain," he said, taking another sip.

"Drinking especially," I continued. "Of course, water is essential for daily living, so we have to drink it every day. Water gives life, and that's why it's the prototype - the natural prototype, that is - of the magic potion."

"You ascribe magical properties to these substances?" His skepticism was plain, and not unwarranted, but I had more to say.

"Not in a literal sense, no, though we did just that in ancient times," I replied. "But I think that's still the best word for it - a magic potion." I drank more, leading him onward, and guiding by example. "If magic is a means to transform nature, and natural things, and states, then we have a host of potions to accomplish those changes. Take coffee, for example: usually, we drink it in the morning, when we feel sleepy and dull. The caffeine acts on our nervous system to wake us up, but we don't perceive the chemicals, only the effects; what we feel is a magical transformation of our cognitive states. We drink alcohol for the same reason: mental transformation. Many people drink drugged potions for religious reasons, to commune with the gods." I took another gulp. "Sometimes," I added, "a malevolent person might take another person's drink and poison it. You might call that 'black magic.'"

"And what about tea?" he asked, putting his cup down from yet another sip.

"Well, tea is a stimulant, just like coffee, but it has other chemical properties that give it a relaxing quality. For my money, it's the ideal drink for socializing, and relaxing on a sunny day like this."

"Yes," he murmured, closing his eyes slightly, "I do feel relaxed." Breathing deeply, he seemed at a loss for words. Like a good host, I filled the gap.

"So you see, two people coming together to share a drink, it's an act of friendship and trust. It's a common experience, of spiritual, vital significance."

"Yes, I can see how it is so." Dayus drank again, eyes closed, and I did as well, cherishing the moment. "This music," he said, "it's very...bold."

"You really have to be in the mood for Wagner," I said. "His style is very intense; he's a perfectionist, working on an absurdly big canvass. The man actually invented new musical instruments to make all the sounds he wanted. What it's really good for - what I really like about his music, though - is it sense of purpose."

"Purpose," he said, distractedly.

"Yes," I said, "purpose. It's a quality I admire in an artist, and probably art's greatest contribution to human society. It's the will to overcome self-doubt, to act heroically, boldly; to do what needs to be done." Dayus made no response, and his glass sat three quarters empty on the corner table. I watched as, weakly, he attempted to climb to his feet.

"The spider has a sense of purpose too," I continued, "though it took me a while to see it clearly. I finally figured it out, the difference between my way of doing things, and the spider's." I took a final gulp of tea from my own glass, and swallowed it, instantly feeling refreshed. "The spider has the nerve to pounce when his prey is in the web."

Dayus collapsed, landing mercifully with his head on a couch cushion, and enough sleeping drug in his system to drop a stallion. It had been too easy, but it was only right; just what he deserved for underestimating me. I took his glass and poured the remainder down the sink, rinsing it out quite thoroughly. I turned off the kitchen lights, taking care not to waste electricity, and returned to the living room to frisk his pockets. I took possession of his recording device, which I decided must have other functions, some of which might very well prove useful. Lastly, I grabbed my pocket knife from its place on the corner table, and tucked it in my coat pocket.

Outside, the sun was high and bright, and the air soaked warm with its rays; perfect weather for an afternoon siesta. I saw the elevator platform, a pale disc anchored in a sea of grass, awaiting the return of its sleeping master. I stepped cautiously toward it, and found that its defensive force field had disappeared. Trembling slightly, glancing quickly in all directions, I stepped to the center.

My doubts multiplied. The time for bold action came, and I seized it, but in doing so I felt as though I'd done a terrible wrong. My dishonesty, my treachery was the least of it; the amount of sleeping agent dissolved in that tea was positively criminal. I put so much in to compensate for his great stature, and to ensure success, but it was all guesswork. Dayus' body was different from mine, and there was no telling how his body might metabolize the drug. He'd been breathing when I left, but there was no guarantee that he would continue doing so. Not when he was so different than I; different in every conceivable way.

My gaze turned upwards, and I beheld the black hole. There was the exit, the entrance to the real Elysia, whatever it might look like. The pillar began to rise, uncertainly, as if it took its cues from my own vacillating will, and I crouched in the center, because I was afraid of heights. I rose above the roof; I rose higher, above the tree tops, and saw the whole length of the shadows they cast in the light of the sun. Higher and higher, perhaps a mile up, a gentle breeze kept me rooted in place, for fear I might be blown off and fall.

As my altitude increased, the dimensions of the space seemed to change. I could perceive the curvature of the domed sky more easily, as well as the circular plane of the ground, and even the crease which separated them. I saw the finite course of the brook, its water so clear that I could see the sandy bottom (shallow as it was). Daring even to look straight down, I saw my apartment, looking oddly natural in the artificial landscape. The air was cool, but barely more so than it was on the ground, it was so homogeneous. As I passed even the sun in height (I could see it crawling steadily down the western wall of the sky), the illusory perfection of the environment was nowhere to be seen. The light was scattered and diffuse, and the colors faded from the landscape, to leave the little world benighted, in a sad state of greenish grey.

The black hole grew in size, and what was once little more than a speck in the sky was now clearly large enough for the elevator to pass into. Yet even as I approached, even to within a few yards, there was only impenetrable darkness inside. The frightful gap was my destination, and the security of terra firma was more distant, less comforting with every passing foot. A stray thought crossed my mind, as the darkness engulfed me at last; how beautiful, and relieving, it must look on the way down; to look down and watch the land become real, to see the colors come to life, and escape the all-encompassing shadow.

For a minute it was all dark, even as the elevator ground to a halt. And then the lights - harsh lights, much harsher than my artificial sun - flashed on, nearly knocking me back to my knees. stood, shaking and stumbling, and reached out with my hand to block the worst of the glare. It was a modestly-sized room, uncrowded by boxes or equipment; metallic, but as pearly white as the tower itself when it glistened in the morning, strangely warm in spite of its austerity. Worried that I might be taken down once more, I quickly moved off the platform and stood in a corner, trying desperately to regain my bearings. On the left adjacent wall was the only other exit: a large, chalky door, carved with indecipherable symbols.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On the Second Floor, Chapter XI

Day Nine

"Good Morning, Toto," I said to the spider, who clung to the corner of his tousled web, waiting for his next meal. Toto was a comfort to me, but I had begun to accept that he would very likely die soon. There were no native bugs to sustain him in the dome, and if there were any other stowaways to be found near the apartment, none of them appeared to have been ensnared in his trap.

And yet he lived, for the time being. I have no idea how long a spider can last between meals, but Toto was unquestionably a survivor. Impossibly tiny, ignorant of his ultimate fate, doomed by unavoidable circumstances; starving for the sole reason that it was my window where he'd elected to make his home. Was I responsible for the spider? In some small way I must have been, but I could think of nothing that I could do for him; so for the sake of my conscience I joined him, hoping that when the time came, if it did, we might not be alone.

I sat their that morning, on the grass outside my window, with the sun upon my face and my mind in outer space, as my surroundings seemed more concrete, and more illusory, than they ever had before. I was thinking, but in circles, reaching no significant conclusions but the most obvious ones; namely, what a strange state of affairs had brought this all about, to have brought me so far with nothing to show for it. With all that had been taken from me, I'd been given only stories and intimations to show for it; and only a hungry little spider to share them with.

I brought a book with me, but I only half-read it, being more interested in the idea of reading it, than in actually putting effort into the process. My desires had grown, multiplied beyond what was either possible or reasonable, but even as they did they decentralized, dislocated themselves from one another, and I realized at last that they were no longer a part of myself. I had only one desire now: to be wise and know the truth; to admit to myself all the things that seemed too painful to be true; to accept it, and to own the guilt that was surely mine.

"I don't know what I can do for you," I said to the spider.

I was tired, as usual, but I had slept adequately the night before. It wasn't the lack of sleep that tired me, but the notion that I had never really been awake, and had never put aside the beauty of dreams for the truth of reality. I had stubbornly insisted that they were one and the same, and I was tired from the effort of believing it. And worst of all, I had begun to believe that I might never, ever awaken.

I smiled. "Maybe I can't do anything at all. And maybe that's a sin. If I am incapable it must be because I've made myself that way. If I am powerless, then it's because I've never wanted power. If I am trapped, it's because I will not free myself." And he said nothing.

What was real? The grass, the sun, the beautiful things around me? They had never been real, ever before. The tower? What was real that could not be touched? I forgot them, turned my thoughts within myself, and considered only wordless impulses and indescribable emotions. In my weakness, I nearly fell asleep.

So I hardly noticed when Dayus arrived, though his entrance was accompanied by the typical noise of gears and beams. Until he was standing over me, I did not stir from my position, sprawled on my back like a child. I glanced upwad with a wordless greeting, and pretended again to read my book.

"It's good to see you again," he said. "We have very nearly reached our destination."

"Oh yeah?"

"We will arrive tomorrow evening," he continued, "as time is counted in this dome. When we land in the capital city, however, the local time will be closer to mid-day."

"That's good," I sighed, and rested my book upon my lap, no longer interested in pretending. "I'm tired."

That same look of concern crossed his face; he was warmer now, more personable. Of course, I thought, he's been working hard, doing whatever it is that he does. The journey was at an end, or it almost was, and he could begin to relax, couldn't he? Does he really care about me? Maybe he does, but why should he?

"Have you been unable to sleep?"

"No, I slept fine. I told you, it comes and goes; sometimes I just need a little help."

"Then there is an unknown, underlying cause to your condition. Have you made any effort to understand, or diagnose it?"

"Sort of. But I think I'm beginning to understand why I feel the way I feel now."

I got to my feet, slowly rising as I brushed the damp blades of grass from my legs. "By the way," I said, gesturing to the window, "this is Toto."

Dayus perceived the spider in a moment, then approached the window for a closer look. He had obviously never seen such a creature before, and so was naturally curious; he raised his hand, as though he wanted to touch him, but but I warned him of the spider's bite. Even I didn't know if this one was a poisonous type, but where spiders are concerned, it's always better not to risk it. He lowered his hand.

"I see. And this creature preys upon other creatures of similar size?"

"Yes. Do you see the web here? He waits for something to get stuck to the fibers, and then he pounces."

"What does it do when no prey is forthcoming?"

"Well...hmmm. I guess he starves. But he will keep on waiting, as long as it takes. And you know, on Earth, spiders are everywhere, so I guess it works enough of the time."

"It is fascinating," he said. "I am not a zoologist, but similar creatures are found on my world as well. Such a peculiar strategy, though..."

"It is fascinating," I agreed, "no matter how many times you see it."

"Jonah," he said, as his tone became serious once more, "the next several days will likely be very stressful for you. Are you quite sure you're alright?"

"I guess so," I said, growing ever wearier of his words of warning. "I'm only tired, is all."

"If it is not the lack of sleep that is exhausting you, it may indicate that something is wrong." How grave! I was in the midst of a spiritual crisis, and he thought I was sick. Whatever the substance behind his show of concern, it was almost touching.

"I'm tired of feeling the way I do," I said, putting as best I could my recent thoughts into words. "Every day I'm tired, or bored, or angry, because I'm always waiting. I'm waiting for things to change, to where they're just right, and I can jump in, and shake things up, seize control of my own life. I want to take control, I want to do all of those things. But, I'm too tired to jump."

"You want to wait, just like the spider."

"Huh, I guess I do." I turned to the corner, inspecting the little niche in the windowsill. "How do you do it, little guy? Everything just comes to you, and you just sit there, and cast your net, and take what it catches." What a life! "And nobody criticizes you for it, either! They say your web is beautiful, and nobody minds if you sit in it all day, as long as you keep it tidy, fix it when it's broken... I hope you realize how good your kind has it!"

"I don't believe the creature can understand what you're saying to it."

"I know." How best to explain? "Talking to animals just makes me feel better. They might not understand, or answer back," I said, as I turned my attention back to Toto, "but they hear, and sometimes, I just need to be heard." The spider was more active now, seeming to patrol his web with renewed expectations; perhaps he knew something that I didn't.

How odd we must have looked to Dayus, a man with no qualms about abducting innocent people for science. Could he understand what I said? Could he see himself in the spider's web, as I could? Was he a spider, or a fly?

"...I will not keep you long," he said at last. "I have matters elsewhere that require my attention."

"Big day coming up, eh?"

"Yes. When Elysia left port, there was some cause for anxiety at home. Due to the distances involved, I have not received any news of the situation, and I will not be able to until we decrease to sub-light speeds."

"What kind of anxiety?"

"A mere matter of politics. I am sure nothing has come of it."

"That's weird," I said. "I can barely believe you even have politics."

"But of course we do. I told you so yesterday."

"But your society is so advanced now. With my people, politics is a seriously ugly business, full of liars and cheaters who keep anything real from getting done."

"Politics do not often bring out the best qualities of any people."

"I guess not. But your people must have come far; you said you had a unified world government, right?"

"Yes," he said, "based upon the principles of knowledge, cooperation, and mutual welfare."

"Then whatever it is, couldn't be so bad," I said. "I'd like to see it; if for nothing else, than to be sure it really works."

"Not to worry. Before we left for Earth, I arranged an audience for you with our Chief Minister." My shock was apparent, as he continued, "I know you consider yourself a prisoner here, Jonah, but you will not live as such during your time on my world. You will be the object of study, yes, but you will also be an honored guest. Just as my comrades are our envoys to your governments, so shall you be received as your world's envoy to ours."

I stared blankly, humbled by the impact of his promise. I suppose I always knew this; how many times had he assured me that I had nothing to fear from my captivity? But it was real now, something to believe in. The waiting was almost over, the end fast approached, and a new time was about to begin.

And yet, as we said our goodbyes, and Dayus ascended once more to his celestial stronghold, I knew that it wasn't enough. I would play the ambassador, but neither he nor his Chief Minister would lay their secrets bare to me. So long as I was smaller, weaker, more foolish than they, the skies would be their domain, and the dirt at best my fiefdom. I knew what I would be told: "all that I needed to know," all that they, in their arrogance, believed that I could understand.

Initiative; I needed the initiative. I had it once, or I thought I did, but who knew if it was ever enough? It was certainly not enough to impress them. I had to be desperate, and I was; I had to be crazy, and I wasn't sure if I was or was not. But I knew I wanted to go up there, on my terms, and not theirs. As humanity's envoy to the universe, I could not settle for any less. But as for myself, I could only wonder whether I had it in me, to risk it all for the sake of pride, andpick myself up again if I should fail.

And then what should appear before me but a fly, a common house fly, another little stowaway; zipping to and fro as such creatures are wont to do. Perhaps he was disoriented, perhaps not, but in short order he made a fatal error - he was trapped in the spider's web. As he buzzed and struggled, patient Toto nimbly crept from his corner and began hisritual task, stunning the fly and wrapping him for easy consumption.

What were the odds? What a universe, where even an unfortunate spider could wait his troubles out, and find a meal a million light years from home!

"Toto, you are incredibly wise."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On the Second Floor, Chapter X

Day Eight

"You've gotten better at this game." Part of me couldn't believe it, refused to believe that Dayus could learn the game of chess so thoroughly in a single day; still another part of me found it maddeningly typical. Of course he would, the extraterrestrial with the huge head, infinitely smarter than I could ever hope to be, only had to think about it to achieve perfect play- why shouldn't I be fighting for my life after only twelve moves? What a bloody disgrace, the jerk.

"I would say your technique has diminished since last we played; perhaps your overconfidence has affected your strategic thinking."

"Yeah, I guess," I said, ready for any excuse to avoid admitting my obvious inferiority. Another devastating strike from his bishop put away my hopes for a renaissant defense. "I mean, I'm tired, too. I barely slept last night."

His eyes flashed with concern, even as he mercilessly analyzed my line for weaknesses, plotting to exploit them in his regicidal siege. I thought of how unseemly it was for a scientist; to get so wrapped up in his experiment as to descend to the level of his subject chimp, playing his little puzzle right along side, and outwitting him, and for what, what gain? It was nothing but some hyper-ironic, mundane tragedy, like an exercise in fooling no one. But all the same, he looked concerned.

"I know what you're thinking," I sighed.

"Do you?" was his only reply. He only had to call me on my tedious bluster.

"Yeah. Look, it has nothing to do with you, or this environment, or how 'comfortable' I am. Sometimes, I just can't sleep," and I yawned for emphasis. "And that, that, good sir, is why today I suck at chess." I brought out a rook, my last rook, blocking his approaching queen in a desperate, fatal gambit.

Attrition - it was my only hope. Attrition and stalemate, the only path and destination of dignity still available to me, and only one opportunity to seize it, if I could only erode his offense, take his key pieces, keep mine on the board just long enough...

"The truth is, my technique has improved." He indicated with his recording device as he explained. "Based on your description of the game's rules and objectives, I conducted automatic simulations to develop effective strategies." As he moved to reinforce his queen's position, he added, "if your playing has worsened, it's only because you are panicking."

"Probably. Do they have games like this on your world too?"

"There are similar principles which I was able to apply. But more importantly, I am worried about your sleeping problem."

Really worried, or only worried that I might spoil his experiment? "I told you, don't be. It's got nothing to do with you, or any of this, this stuff here. It's just a problem.. an issue I've always had, really."

"I may still be able to help."

"I've got pills," I said. "If I can't get any sleep, I'll just take them, and they'll put me to sleep." How pathetic, he must have thought, to hear such an admission. But it was the truth. I didn't need the sleeping pills every night. I didn't even usually need them most nights. On Earth, before my life went all science fiction on me, I might have one or two hopelessly sleepless nights a month.

I did my best to keep my pill consumption limited to those extreme instances, for fear of becoming addicted. But this was the second time in less than a week; was it stress, some sort of space madness? Or was I more dependent than I thought? Maybe that's why I was losing so badly; the insidious work of drugs on my tortured neurons. It made me sick.

"My medical technicians can help, once we have arrived at our destination."

"That'll be fine."

"Is that a yes?"

"That'll be fine." Only a few moves had passed, and my gambit looked increasingly hopeless, a lost cause for mankind. I was boxed in, immobile, effectively impotent. I was forced to reckon with the loss of my attack pieces; forced to choose between useless moves and stupid ones. And there, at the center of the board, hovered the instruments of my destruction, the horsemen of my own apocalypse, a pair of avenging knights, backed by a rook.

"Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide," I murmured, half-heartedly arranging my few remaining pawns in a defensive triangle. Got to give myself just enough room. Just enough to force a stalemate. Just enough to keep my dignity.

Three moves. Two counter-moves, with no third forthcoming. My goose was cooked. I sat defeated, trapped in a cage of my own design.

I slumped in my chair, tipping precariously on the back legs, and suddenly kicked the table; hard enough to make the smaller pieces jump, but not enough to erase the evidence of my disgrace. Computer simulations, eh? Dirty cheater.

"Would you like to play again?"

"No. No. No, I would not." I rose to fetch a glass of water from the kitchen. "Definitely not. No, I'm too tired."

"This seems to be an unusual sort of exhaustion. Are you sure you're alright, Jonah?"

"Well if I'm not, it's your fault!"

"So you were not being honest when you said it wasn't?"

"Aw hell. Mother hell, you jerk. You ass," I fumed, "I'm all stressed out. I don't know what is up, what's true anymore."

Almost without looking, Dayus had been reorganizing the pieces, placing them neatly in the box (neater than they had any particular reason to be). His hands moved deliberately, but I could see on his face a look bordering on confusion. "Jonah," he said, holding his pause as if anticipating m response, "does it really bother you that much to lose to me?"

What? What!? What the hell!?

I nearly choked on my water, had to fight to keep my reaction subdued. Who's the jerk now, who's the poor sport? Who's the "real" bad guy here? No, no, this could not stand. I was not about to concede the bigger game.

"No, not really," I said, summoning my sincerest-looking smile for the mighty task. "I told you before, I'm stressed, and I'm not sleeping well. That's all, it's fine. It's all fine." I laid myself down on the couch, I closed my eyes, and kneaded my temples slowly with my fingers. I felt better as I rubbed my cheeks, focused, then unfocused, as I willed myself into a state of half-delirium. "I'm fine. How are you?"

If he wasn't confused before, he certainly was now. "I'm alright. Quite alright."

"Good, good," I closed my eyes, the better to conceal my thoughts. If anger, if accusations could get me no progress (and it sure looked like they couldn't), then I had other methods to employ. "How's your family, Dayus?"

"They are quite alright as well."

"What are they up to?"

"My son is board this ship, acting as a navigator. My wife is at home."

"Nice, I see. Your son, is he the one who sent us off course a few days ago?"

"...that was merely a minor, unavoidable course correction, due to factors beyond anyone's control." How adorable.

"I see," I said, feeling myself on the right track, guided by the warm inner glow of achievement. "How's your home planet?"

I opened my eyes to see his reaction, but he had averted his gaze; how very interesting! This was a spool of thread worth following, whether it led out of the labyrinth or not.

"You will see it in due time," he said, and I pressed for more with my silence, subtly prodding for an elaboration, provoking with a smile. I was shameless with my smarm offensive, but he had no defense against it. It must have been hard for him, with all he meant to keep hidden from me; but he couldn't leave, not with my behavior turning so strange. He had to stay, and he had to answer.

"My planet is a complex world, with many thousands of years of recorded history. It has seen the rise and fall of many cultures and civilizations, and today, it is home to what you would recognize as an advanced society. It is too...multifaceted to explain in any significant way in the short time which we have here."

"Now that is interesting," I said. "My planet is much the same: so old, so complex, so 'multifaceted,' sometimes it's difficult to know what to talk about. You know, scratch that. It's always hard, because it's almost impossible in principle."

"Nevertheless, your contributions have been invaluable to my research."

"But you see, that's the interesting thing." I was sitting up now, becoming animated as I sensed an opening, taking careful aim at the target even as he insisted on clouding the issue (perhaps there was an embarrassing admission? I could only hope!). "It's just so inefficient. Your method, I mean. You pick me up, you put me in your little box, that's fine, for what it's worth."


"No, hang on, I think I've got a real point here." Just shut up already. "You see, I'm only one human, and trust me, I'm not typical. I'm still not convinced that you don't have other people on this ship somewhere, but even if you had a hundred, you wouldn't get anything like an accurate representation of humanity, anything close to what you really want out of this whole endeavor. Most of them, they'd be ignorant of anything outside the everyday experiences of their own lives, and once you'd isolated them from humanity, they'd probably lose their perspective and forget half of that too. It's an even worse idea with only one subject; for all you know, I could have been a total idiot."

"Well, even if you knew nothing important about your people's history or culture, I would still have gotten useful data from the broader aspects of your personality."

"But you didn't need to take me off planet to do that. You could have just observed all of us humans at once, you know, in our 'natural habitat.' Or, here's an idea: you could have just approached us and said 'hello,' and we could have had an honest-to-goodness cultural exchange. Think of how much more productive that would be! Instead, you've put all the pressure on me; as if I could ever make sense of it all for myself, you want me to make it all clear to you? What good could that do?!"

"There were compelling reasons to bring a single human back with us."

"Oh really? Scientific ones?"

"Yes, of course. What other reasons would there be?"

"That, Dayus, is a very good question."

"Besides, I already explained this to you, at our first meeting. I did leave a contingent behind to make contact with Earth's governments, and conduct just the sort of research you suggest. When we re-establish contact with that party, we can contrast it with the information gained here.."

"OK, OK, I thought had you there, but I was wrong. Again." So much for my daring breakthrough. "Let's just forget it. What's it like on your planet? How do you, you know,get things done?"

Dayus was more relaxed now, perhaps calculating that my attacks had finally ceased. "Originally, there were many political divisions among my people, taking the form of nation states. However, over time, a super-national authority developed, which has unified disparate elements of our various cultures, superseding various local interests in favor of advancing the collective interests of our race." It didn't sound nearly so rehearsed when he said it, but I strongly suspected that it was.

"That doesn't sound so complicated to me. It sounds like your institutions have trended toward simplicity over time."

Dayus looked at me, becoming suddenly quite direct, as though he'd realized some critical error he'd nearly overlooked; there was a quiet intensity in his voice. "Jonah, I have studied dozens of civilizations across this galaxy. I have learned many things, and I believe it is a universal truth that societies never trend toward simplicity."

Oh. He was right,of course. How foolish of me to build his pedestal too high.

"No, no I guess they don't." I was growing more tired by the minute.