Friday, November 22, 2013

Submarine movies and the art of avoiding what you can't see.

One of my favorite things - say, up there in the top 100, assuming all of us have thousands of favorite things cutting across the spectrum of things to rank - is watching submarine movies. The cramped space and the threat of annihilation at any moment while churning ahead blindly makes for a tense and eminently watchable scenario.

Best of all, to me, is the inevitable scene where everyone goes silent while nervously gazing upward as they await the depth charges that will almost certainly come. I can't help stifling a laugh when that scene finally makes it onscreen. Not because it's funny in itself, but because it's almost always done the same way in every movie, and I admit that I love the familiarity of it. Just as an example, here it is in U-571:
Gotta love it.

Another favorite scene for me is the somewhat less common, but still pretty recurrent, maneuvering blind scene. In this one, the crew has to trust their charts and instruments, and, often enough, the instincts of their skipper, to avoid crashing into something - a submarine net, a submerged mountain, the ocean floor. You get the idea. My absolute favorite of these scenes comes from one of my very favorite movies, The Hunt for Red October:
Add a whole bunch of points for them being chased by a torpedo, to boot.

So what does any of this have to do with anything, besides me bloviating here on my blog about random stuff? Only this: in many ways, it seems to me that submarine movies are a lot like the way we maneuver through our lives. The analogy that often leaps to mind is that we live life while facing backwards down the path, only able to see and analyze everything in retrospect. But I'm starting to think it's more like piloting a submarine. We may not be able to directly see what is in store for us, but we can use all of our senses, all of our past experiences, all of the knowledge we've managed to glean from others, and our own instinctual sonar to get a pretty decent idea of what surrounds us. We're never perfect, of course, and we may blunder and scrape bottom or be caught flat-footed by depth-charges we didn't expect and can't predict, but we do have some idea of how to keep moving ahead, carefully navigating the treacherous canyons and peaks that loom in the murky dark around us.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Galaxy M64, image courtesy NASA
           "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself." - Carl Sagan
Images of galaxies fascinate me. I can look at them for hours. Go out and look at the night sky sometime; consider the sheer immensity of the starry vista you see above you. What you see, as huge as it might seem to you, as filled with stars as it is, it is only a tiny patch, one pixel in a large picture, of the entirety of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Then consider that some of those stars and bright spots may well be galaxies as well, containing hundreds of billions of stars themselves. Consider even further that what you're looking at when you view one of these galaxies is roughly the same size as the Milky Way, our own galaxy. Consider: something the size of the Milky Way, itself so vast that, at best, we can catch sight of it as a pale arch spanning the sky, is a bright, fragile mote to your eye.

Think about that: all the stellar history, stars winking into being and exploding into spectacular death, or collapsing into a crushing senility, all in that mote. Much of all that history occurred before the Earth - or the Sun! - had formed. The empty gulfs of space and time and burning glory stretching into a near-eternity, eons before our own star had begun to form, maybe even while the stars whose deaths would have to occur to provide the raw material for the Sun to come into being were still pulsing along in the midst of their own lives.

Then think of all the countless billions of galaxies known to be out there, and all the untold multitudes we will never even suspect existed. Each galaxy whirls silently in the night-bound sky, a multitude of stars coalesced into a titanic pinwheel. It's a thought that can make you feel small, inconsequential.

We aren't inconsequential, though. We fill a very important role, all of us, as we grasp at understanding, each one of us adding his or her own knowledge and wisdom into the great collective consciousness of humanity. To us, as individuals, with our mayfly-lives sparking into being and almost as quickly fading from view, it may seem we have struggled for eons as a species to reach some greater understanding. The tapestry of human history stretches off behind us into what looks like a dim past. In cosmic terms, of course, we have hardly arrived yet, fresh on the scene, impatient to begin. We strive and delve and compete and contemplate and explore, our pace dizzying when compared to the slow, stately procession of events that turn the universe. That pace seems to have accelerated even more, to a breakneck speed, within the last century or so. The knowledge we gain seems to grow exponentially with each revolution around the Sun. And we do all this together, pouring our experiences and thoughts into the vessel of our potential, filling that void rapidly.

We are all important, because we carry the potential of us as a species within each of us as individuals. What we do with that potential is up to us. As tiny as we might feel at times, as lost as we might seem in the teeming multitudes here on our planet, itself infinitesimally small in the great sea of stars that stretches into infinity, we each can contemplate our surroundings and attempt a greater understanding of ourselves, and thus, the universe as a whole. We are made of "star-stuff," as Sagan said; we are an extension of the universe itself that has gained sentience, and is now attempting to know itself. We each have the potential to increase that knowledge. How much more important can we be?

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Old Man

 He was loud, blustering, bullying, set in his ways, and quick to anger. He'd sooner whip you as look at you. He lived life his way and didn't care what you thought about that. He literally died in my arms late on an October night. He was my dad. The Old Man. He wouldn't have cared if anyone wished him a happy Veterans Day or thanked him for his service, so just to spite him, let this picture do both.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

An astrological tour-de-force: "Through All Your Houses Wandering" by Ted Reynolds

My interests in the paranormal and science fiction seem to have sprang into being at roughly the same time. The two go hand-in-hand, really, since both speculate on reality as it might be. The two actually merge fairly often, but almost as often I find myself shunning such hybrids; keep your paranormal chocolate out of my scifi peanut butter, please. On rare occasions, though, a story comes along that is arresting in the way it melds these subjects. In the March, 1981 issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, astrology and science fiction meet in a tale that has stuck with me across the decades.

"Through All Your Houses Wandering"'s a lovely, evocative title, almost Dunsanian in its lyricism.

A project trying to develop psychic powers results in one member of the group finding himself within the mind and body of an alien being. At different intervals of time, his mind returns to his own body, where he tries to make sense of what is happening. Eventually, he comes to realize that he is advancing through the zodiac wheel, with each successive alien he temporarily resides with mentally embodying the essence of a different sign of the classic Western zodiac.

It's a fascinating conceit, one I'd never seen done quite the same way, before or since. It also predates Quantum Leap by several years, and though the way the protagonists of both this story and that TV show "leap" from life to life is rather similar on the surface, it's different enough that it's clear that there is no connection between them.

The aliens are all engaging and radically different: from the sentient, mobile, tree-like avatars of Aries, moving ever-forward and staying just ahead of disaster, to the cocooned, spidery embodiments of Pisces broadcasting love throughout the galaxy, each alien has a lesson and a gift to give. The traveller, his mind nearly blank at the beginning of his cosmic quest, slowly gathers these offerings, gradually blending them into a greater understanding of existence.

I remember being thunderstruck upon reading this story. I was a teen then, 14 or 15, and the concepts within it were made clear by the narrative structure. It didn't hurt that it was illustrated by a young Wayne Barlowe, a couple of years after his seminal Guide to Extraterrestrials. But it was the main idea, the quick but elegant way of explaining the progression of a soul through the zodiac, that remained with me. As time pulled us all along, my copy of the magazine fell by the wayside, lost on the way as are most things...except that title, and the memory of the idea. Each passing year saw the memory fade a little more, like a photo hung in sunlight.

Then, one day, not so long ago, that title came to me again, unbidden: through all your houses wandering. I searched online, the great, collective, technological memory bank of humanity, and quickly found the magazine in which it was contained. A reread later, and the memory was again fresh; in some instances it was not as lustrous as I remembered, in others, it was more profound.

Pulling apart the zodiac in the way Reynolds does for this story, it lays out a core concept of astrology: the soul progresses through each sign, or possesses the elements of each, growing as the lessons of each become assimilated. It is shown to not just be a collection of discrete mythological creatures, but rather a prism-split examination of the human soul. Set aside the paranormal aspect of it, and it would still reveal a symbolic method of self-examination that could help one grapple with one's own limitations and strengths.

Reynolds presents each sign in a way that is vivid, but also, by necessity, rather facile. The short story format allows for bright, vivid, but broad brushstrokes. Still, it's a good primer, opening up the entire concept of astrology in a surprisingly nuanced way for a more mainstream (as much as a scifi venue can be mainstream) audience.

Besides the title, other things remained with me from the story throughout the decades. The strongest memories I had were of Scorpio and Pisces.

Scorpio was the dark, shadowy region of the zodiac. Enigmatic and powerful, the aliens embodying Scorpio were mysterious and calculating. In fact, Scorpio quickly followed the protagonist's psychic "trail" back to Earth, wresting control of his body and having him observe as the conquest of humanity hung on his wife recognizing he was not in control of his actions. Yet even recognizing the stranger within her husband, the sheer magnetism of Scorpio was a powerful temptation, enough to give man and wife pause as they considered the implications.

Pisces, though, was the most powerful image from the story for me. The writing becomes almost ethereal as Reynolds has his protagonist travel to meet the final sign of the zodiac, and the one that has the ultimate lesson to teach:
He merges with God, hovering in the immensities, containing the universe. God moves over just enough to let him in. Welcome, lost one, welcome home
Simmons melts into the oneness, the sharing, and joins in the chorus, the chanting of the message, to all beings, all life, everywhere and anywhere.
Come, come, come join us in the whole. God is truth, God is beauty, God is love. God waits for you. Come join us, come.
It's an appealing ending, with the traveler coming home at last, both spiritually and physically. Then and now it caused me to feel a twinge of recognition at the need for belonging, of being home even if only in spirit. No bombastic ending, no twist, no triumphant speeches...just a return home to a safe space of complete acceptance.  It's an ending so stirring as to imprint itself on the boy I was, so that the man I became could finally begin to really understand it decades later. And that, my friends, is what a good story should do.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The stage is always filled with Titans.

"The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expending realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form - all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void." - Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces 
An image, a thought, a dream, really, that fascinates me is that of finding an opening, a hole, in one's bedroom, or living room, or whatever room you find the most safe and secure. This opening is found accidentally, though it's obvious it must have been there all along, and it's clear at the moment you find it that Fate and Destiny have caused you to find it now, of all times. Down it leads to a vast subterranean world, one that is vast beyond belief, occupying space in a seemingly impossible way, somehow almost intersecting but always just avoiding doing so with basements and other excavations you know in your neighborhood. 
It is a deep and dark place until you gaze at it long enough, when it becomes clear that you can see without real problem, as long as you concentrate on doing so. So down you go; perhaps you don't brave the opening physically, but allow your gaze to travel down, down, down into the depths, until your eyes ache and urge you to finally move and head downward into the dark. Or maybe you're the spelunking type, and you kick stones and a plug of mud out of your way and stumble-slide down, craving to explore.
What do you see? I see everything important to me - friends, family, memories, dreams, wishes. This subterranean realm is, of course, your own soul, as deep as you wish it to be, your own personal emotional memory palace that you may never have known you constructed. But you have: every scraped knee; every screaming argument; every hug you wished would never end; every first day at school and last day together; every thundering storm and rayon vert; every warm summer evening with lightning bugs; every empty mailbox you opened hoping to find a certain message; every smile and locked gaze and holiday crowd and smell of diesel and side-aching laugh and broken heart...all of these and more are here, accumulating and building on their own a vast and baroque palace, where you may wander from time to time in dream or memory, your heart soaring here and eyes tearing there.
At times we need to delve into that great manse, searching for the shades that haunt us so as to cast them out and let the light in. We, all of us, have our own pack of Cerberuses, our own Jörmungandr, that roam about the place, ready to set upon us until we face and conquer them. Those struggles are usually painful and often life-long, but sometimes, sometimes, we finally steel ourselves and head into our underworld and wrestle with these monsters, bringing them to ground and sending them off into oblivion...or, perhaps, into their own corner of the memory palace as decoration, now-harmless reminders of past terrors.
At times, I'm sure, many of us have looked back to the past and found heroes there we feel we cannot emulate. The grand stage of history is filled with colorful and powerful figures, each of whom filled a role that seems larger than life in many instances. Like Titans, they strode about the world stage, their wills seemingly irresistible. Yet they all were simply like us, each with their own underworld to tame and bring light into. We are here and now to take our place upon that vast stage, to fulfill our own destinies and bring light into the darkness. There is no need to look for Titans to come and save us; we are the Titans now. The stage is always filled with Titans.