Shipwreck — part 3

Jiro looked up the beach in one direction, then in the other direction, and finally inland toward the forested hills. He decided to walk along the shoreline, and look for signs of human habitation rather than immediately striking inland.

Rain continued to pour down. He walked slowly. He founds bits of wreckage, but not much. All his belongings—all the costumes, makeup, props, and texts—gone. He found a ladle lying on the sand, and paused over it, studying it bitterly. Then he picked it up and flourished it. “You are the key to my new beginning,” he said, aloud. “Ladle, I will sell you in the market for one ryo, and buy a hook and line; I will catch fish and sell them for a ryo apiece until…”

He saw something ahead on the beach, and stopped. Then he walked slowly toward it.

It was a man, dead. Jiro touched him lightly, then turned the man’s face: it was Akihiko. Jiro had not known him before boarding the ship in Edo, but he had been an amiable companion during the voyage. He had said he was traveling to attend a wedding.

Jiro sighed and rocked back on his haunches. He could not do much for Akihiko, he decided. But he straightened him, placing him face up to look at heaven, and allowing the rain to wash his face free of sand and seaweed. As he composed Akihiko’s limbs in a more dignified posture, he noticed something inside his clothes around the waist, and this was revealed to be a small box about three inches square. The wedding present? There was a fastening around it…

As he straightened up, intending to examine the box more closely, he was startled by a movement out of the corner of his eye, and he turned around quickly—and found himself staring into the face of a man who had approached, but had given no hail, no greeting. In fact, he had been stealthy, and now betrayed alarm at being seen. The man was holding an oar, half-raised. Behind him came several other men, running, and each of them also carried some implement—one looked like a forked octopus spear.

“Dog!” cried Jiro. “Why do you approach me thus? Do you know who I am?”

The man’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped slightly open. He took a step back, in an involuntary reaction.

Jiro realized that he had startled but not quite convinced. Suspicion had to be choked off before the man realized it was there. He planted his legs and shoved his face out toward the man wearing what he knew was a horrible look of barely suppressed rage. (He had seen it on Lord Hideyoshi’s face and had afterward practiced it until he had it right, once he had gotten over the shock it had given him.) He gestured towards Akihiko, and bellowed, “This is the daimyo’s son—dead!”

An appalling look of fear took over the man’s face. He almost seemed to melt. He dropped the oar, went to his knees and prostrated himself. Jiro heard muffled words, of which he could only make out “Please.” The other two men also fell to the sand.



Shipwreck — part 2

Rocks and sand. Jiro flexed his hand, wondered why he felt grit under it, and coughed. He was seized by a spasm of coughing then, and rolled onto his side.

Apparently he was alive. The sea surged up the beach and washed around his waist, and receded. Sudden fear of a great wave that could pull him back to death make him push himself upright. He felt weak and dizzy, and he started crawling. When he came to a strip of large rocks and sea litter, he stopped and rested against a rock. He still felt breathless. Another fit of coughing took him, and left him too exhausted to move.

Rain was pouring down on him. For a long time he huddled there, piecing together fragments of present and past. The water: the deep, cold, infinite water. The rain, in contrast, felt warm.

The ship, of course, was gone. He remembered the terrible shudder, the pitch of the deck, and the shock of the water. He heard the cries of the men who fell into the water with him. He remembered the brief struggle for air and life, and the confused tumble in the storm-driven sea.

A wave washed over his legs, and he raised his head in panic. Get to land, he told himself. Out of the sea. On high land. Why don’t you move?

He pushed himself up, and waded heavily through the foaming surf.


And then he stood on shore, facing green forested hills inland. In the wind and torrential rain, they were a restless green blur. He became more aware of his condition. His kimono clung around his waist, twisted and uncomfortable, and his upper torso was bare. His shoes were gone. Absurdly, he straightened his clothes and pushed his hair back.

He saw no one else. Something lay on the beach. When he walked closer, he saw it was a tangle of sail and lines. He looked back out to sea, and shook his fist. “Susano-o!” he shouted, and then coughed and began again. “Susano-o! I curse you if you wrecked our ship!” He considered. “And if you saved me, then I add my thanks!”

And then he jumped up into the air and made a gesture of defiance. On stage, it always earned huge laughter. Here was silence. But it did make him feel a little better. “Ha!” he added.

Shipwreck — part 1

Tan-tan. Let the tale be told, honestly and artfully, to delight and enlighten those who were not there. Inari, mistress and master, lend  your servant the best words to tell the tale of how a wrong was righted, how an unhappy ghost found peace, how three lowly creatures achieved greatness, and how an actor lost everything and found something else. Begin: I see a storm approaching. Tan-tan.

Jiro and Akihiko were sitting on the ship’s deck, out of the way of the sailors, playing cho-han, as they had done every day since they had sailed from Edo. Jiro shook the dice and turned the cup over, revealing that he had lost his bet. Akihiko smiled.

Jiro had lost all the money he had won over the past two days.

This, however, was merely a sign that the dice were about to start falling in his favor again.  He handed the cup to Akihiko, who dropped the dice in and gave them a shake.

A sailor shouted, and they looked up. A wall of black cloud had appeared on the horizon, and as they watched, an outrider gust of wind raced across the water, and threw spray in their faces. The ship trembled.

“I cannot be delayed,” said Akihiko. “I must deliver the gift in time.”

“Are you telling this to the storm?” said Jiro. He had a feeling of dread, and suspected that this was the culmination of his life’s misfortunes, the final event that would make all else of no consequence.

The ship’s crew were furling sails and crying prayers. Another gust hit the ship.

“No!” Akihiko protested. “I am trusted with this… I cannot fail! The gift!” He looked at Jiro, as though his companion could supply an escape.

Jiro watched the blackness, driving toward them like avenging fury. He had already endured the wrath of Lord Hideyoshi, which had led to banishment; but this power was beyond all entreaty. Fear urged him to run, but there was nowhere to go. He decided to face his doom right where he was. In the wind’s roar, he barely heard Akihiko, saying something — no, shouting — about the wedding present. And then the great fist struck them.

“We would be living in a different world” (WWII alternate history)

Nazi Euthanasia Propaganda Poster

This circa 1938 poster reads: “60,000 marks is what this person, who suffers from a hereditary defect, costs the people’s community during his lifetime… Read ‘A New People’, the monthly magazine of the Bureau of Race Politics…”

When you read the historical accounts of HItler’s stunning military triumphs of 1939-1940, when you watch the old newsreel clips and look at the maps showing Nazi Germany’s rapid conquests, it is easy for your attention to be riveted solely on this aspect of the war. The shock, even from today’s perspective, is such that you can’t even conceive of a greater threat than military defeat and disaster.

Churchill, however, did see this greater threat, and he articulated it in his speech to the House of Commons on June 18, after France had asked for an armistice with Germany. He conjures two starkly different futures — first, victory:

If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

or defeat:

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Churchill saw what could be — and this was before the death camps came into being. In hindsight, we can also clearly see that if Hitler had won the war, we would be living in a different world* — i.e., Churchill’s second image.

Can you imagine your society transformed, the Aryan race the rulers, all other lesser races servants and slaves, and Jews exterminated? Can you imagine this: that this condition is not just a tyranny imposed by brute force, but belief inculcated in people’s minds? Belief in Nazi ideology was one of Hitler’s most important efforts in Germany during the years of 1933 to 1939. Can you imagine an immense occupying army and bureaucracy sworn to his service, not a country’s? Tens of thousands of people forced to work as slaves in labor camps? A division of the government dedicated to the efficient identification, classification, collection, killing, and disposal of civilians?

One minor fact that staggers my mind is that when the gas chambers and crematoria were conceived and the plans drawn up, the designs were patented. Does this make you afraid of how minds can be deformed? Can you imagine?

And, regarding “perverted science,” let us consider what else Hitler’s scientists had in the works: nuclear fission and missiles.

Yes, we would be living in a different world — the Nazi system and ideology still alive and operating, immensely powerful, carrying out its vision, and extended over Europe and America.

Imagining that world is what Philip K. Dick attempts to do, in The Man in the High Castle, which I will discuss next.

[*I have borrowed this phrase from Michael McMenamin, in his review of John Lukacs’ Five Days in London.]

Alternate History: World War II

January 30 parade

A grim 80th anniversary approaches: on January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. The photo above shows a celebratory torchlight parade in Berlin on the evening of Jan. 30. President Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler chancellor, looks out the window.

It was the beginning of an unimaginable inferno. With the Enabling Act in March 1933, the German Parliament was largely excluded from power for the next 4 years and so Hitler went from chancellor to dictator. The numbers of men in the German army immediately began to increase, and in only two years the army had trebled in size. (It would increase 7-fold by the time war came.) The execution squads began their work in 1934 with the Night of the Long Knives. And on it went, the Third Reich, gathering power and momentum, until it seemed unstoppable.

I’ve been reading a good bit of history of World War II for the past year. I’m not sure what started me down the path, if it was anything specific at all. I think it is simply the complexity of it, the many different strands of events and people and beliefs and the colossal effort and sacrifice that went into it.

My father was in the Navy during the war; he served on an escort carrier, the USS Long Island, a converted cargo ship. He describes, somewhat sparely, the ship’s war duties as “We carried airplanes to Pearl Harbor, and we carried wrecked planes back to San Diego.” That tells a good bit — about the grueling nature of the Pacific war, and the sad loss of life. My father was fortunate enough to return home; one of his cousins, however, also in the Navy, was killed in a kamikaze attack.

For my job at a professional society, I occasionally have to write an obituary of a member who’s passed away. A year or so ago, when I called a widow to find out a little something about her husband, I found out that he had been born in Central Europe, had been 15 years old when the Nazis overran his country, had been taken from his family and placed in a labor camp, had escaped and was eventually helped by the Underground to cross occupied Europe and France to eventually reach England over a year later. He also met his wife-to-be at that time. He enlisted in the armed forces there and fought the Axis until the end of the war in Europe. Then he went to college and became an insurance actuary and came to the US. It was, to put it mildly, the most interesting obituary I’ve ever written. It’s a good life, when you’ve counted for something at the end.

The reach of WWII was vast. It was one of the great “hinges of fate” of the world (to borrow Churchill’s phrase). In the subgenre of alternate history, it is one of the two most-written-about periods of history, because so much was hanging in the balance. (The other time period much used for alternate history fiction is the American Civil War.)

So for February and maybe longer, I’m going to explore the alternate history stories that deal with World War II. Up to now, I haven’t read much of this subgenre. I read Dick’s The Man in the High Castle over 30 years ago, but I’ll have to re-read it.

The question is, Will these works really have anything to say about the war; will they show the futures that could have been, and illuminate what did happen? Or will there just be easy Nazi villains, so convenient to play against heroes? Will there just be a lot of sound and fury that signifies nothing? Because there really doesn’t seem to be any point in alternate history, unless to have characters grapple with serious political and moral issues.

Thoughts on The Hobbit (the movie)

Carpal tunnel syndrome has kept me off the computer except for what I had to do for work, so I am late in continuing with my “Hobbit”-related posts. Since the movie has been out for over a month now, I will dispense with issuing alerts against spoilers and will assume that you’ve either seen the movie, or don’t mind spoilers, or you won’t continue reading this particular post.

So, to get a few things out of the way:

  • It was 20-30 minutes too long. Did the fights have to be so extravagant?
  • It is for teens and older (much violence, and its length tries the patience even for oldsters like me).
  • Martin Freeman was terrific. He was a perfect Bilbo.
  • How does a round door work, exactly? Do hobbits have a special magic to make a single hinge hold a door without needing daily adjustment?
  • I had a sense that I’d seen far too many wargs in the space of 3 hours.

I think Jackson did not do unforgivable violence to the heart of the story, for which I am grateful. I will particularly single out for praise the scene where Bilbo must act to escape the goblin mines, when the option to kill Gollum, who stands between him and the passage out, seems to be the only possibility. The camera stays for a long moment on Gollum as he looks, unseeing, toward the invisible Bilbo, and the moment is prolonged enough to let Bilbo, and us, see the pitiful side of Gollum, and so allows us to see and feel the pity that motivates Bilbo to take a chance on leaping over Gollum. That was well done. Amid all the crash, smack, ow, boom, erg, oof, argh, and whatnot of the action, I’m not sure I would have noticed if that critical incident hadn’t been done thoughtfully, but I’m certainly glad that it was.

It partly makes up for the over-the-top absurdity of the dwarves’ battle to escape the goblins.

The filling-in of the Necromancer story and the White Council with Saruman the White wasn’t objectionable, and the expansion of the role of Radagast was kind of fun. It made me regret that the movie wasn’t suitable for young folks because they would have loved the hedgehogs and the hare sled in Radagast’s scenes. Kids would have loved the dish-throwing at Bag End, too.

The movie could have been suitable for kids and adults both, if it had been less enamored of the fighting. Really, where’s the sense of building up to something? There is a battle in the climax, when there’s a dragon hoard to fight over, not to mention Smaug’s attack on Lake Town, and is Jackson going to make that battle last an hour and deaden our senses with an assault even greater than in Hobbit part one? And of course there will also be the wizards’ assault on the Necromancer at some point, so there will be a tremendous amount of hurly-burly for the viewer to get through. But I suppose this is what Jackson specializes in now; in the LOTR he acquired his audience of those who come for the battles, and he is loath to change direction now. Perhaps in a future installment he’ll throw Radagast’s rabbits into the fray and we’ll get to see bunnies slaughtered by Sauron. Now that’s entertainment.