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February 21, 2011

Babylon 5: Grail
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:33 AM * 58 comments

When he tugged off his belt, made a loop in it, and moved clumsily toward her, the unicorn was more pleased than frightened. The man knew what she was, and what he himself was for: to hoe turnips and pursue something that shone and could run faster than he could. She sidestepped his first lunge as lightly as though the wind of it had blown her out of his reach. “I have been hunted with bells and banners in my time,” she told him. “Men knew that the only way to hunt me was to make the chase so wondrous that I would come near to see it. And even so I was never once captured.”
The Last Unicorn

There’s a lot to dislike about this episode. It’s another Freak of the Week story, and its mix of bad acting and woo makes it hard to take at all seriously. It’s not the worst of Season 1, but coming so shortly after the series looked to be taking fire, its disappointments are magnified. Sometimes the doldrums are worse than disaster.

But the biggest problem with it is that it’s trying to tell two stories from two different genres, one of which is not native to the show. The subplot about discovering what is blanking people’s mind and applying pressure to the Centauri to get the information they need is standard B5: light science fiction plus diplomacy. But the quest of Aldus and the redemption of Jinxo is basic genre fantasy† transplanted out of its habitat. And genres are like typecast actors: they make awkward guest stars.

I’m not just saying this because it’s a quest story. Indeed, it’s the setting that really pushes the story over the genre lines. The Babylon 5 that Aldus and Jinxo travel through is less a diplomatic meeting-ground and military base and more a space-faring version of one of the intricate and crime-ridden cities I’ve been reading about since I was a teen. This is a story that could be set in Sanctuary or Lankhmar, Riverside or Adrilankha, or even later Ankh-Morpork.

Something like this:

Into the twisting corridors and darkened spaces of Babhylon, Fifth of the Name, where the law’s reach is tenuous and all who survive do so by their wits, comes a searcher. Although he does not find what he seeks, the power of his quest affects and transforms those he encounters: the overworked judge, the petty thief with a fearsome curse, the criminal leader using a terrifying and exotic beast to tighten his hold on the underworld, and even the police and ambassadors of the upper levels…

(You will please, of your kindness, read all of the italicized sections in your best Heraldic Fantasy Inner Voice, and the Roman ones in a fine and steely Science Fiction Inner Voice)

We begin our tale as the Commander of Babhylon, Fifth of the Name, and his chief of plice meet in a public hostelry for their midday meal. They have barely begun before the two Minbari ambassadors arrive, announcing the coming of an important stranger to the station. Commander Sinclair and Chief Garibaldi have heard nothing of this arrival, but they abandon their food and prepare to welcome him.

Meanwhile, in the shadowed and chilly spaces of Downbelow , a man is being threatened. Jinxo, otherwise Thomas Jordan, owes a smuggler and loan shark called Deuce a large sum of money. By virtue of the time he spent building the station, Jinxo knows many hidden ways, ones the police are ignorant of. Deuce gives Jinxo a choice: pay back the money, or teach him the secrets of Babhylon. If he will not, or cannot, he will suffer a terrible fate. As proof, Deuce shows Jinxo his monstrous pet: a creature whose tentacles steal people’s minds. It dwells in an encounter suit in the Vorlon style, and Deuce addresses it as “Ambassador Kosh.”

There follows a brief and comical interlude about a lawsuit between the descendant of an alien abductee and that of the Grey that snatched him. With this we see the petty court system of Babhylon, presided over by an Ombuds who arbitrates both civil and criminal cases.

Our story then returns to Commander Sinclair and Chief Garibaldi, standing at the arrivals gate alongside Delenn and Lennier. Their quarry arrives: a tall man, dressed in pale colors and carrying a staff. He is Aldus Gajic, and he is the last of his unnamed order. He has come to further his quest, hoping that the aliens of Babhylon will be able to help him.

I am seeking the sacred Vessel of Regeneration, also known as the Cup of the Goddess, or by its more common name, the Holy Grail.

When Aldus visits a moneychanger, Jinxo steals his wallet. He is caught by Garibaldi, and must now face the Ombuds. It is his third offense, but because he is a builder of some skill, Ombuds Wellington offers to pay his passage to another station where he can find work. Jinxo will have none of it, insisting that he must stay on Babhylon or it will be destroyed. Aldus declares that he will take Jinxo into his custody and stand surety for his good behavior, and the Ombuds agrees.

Meanwhile, Dr Franklin is investigating yet another case of mysterious mindwiping from Downbelow. It’s new problem: people from the underworld are turning up with no memories, and barely enough cognitive function to be alive. They can be retrained, but their memories are gone.

The latest case annoys Garibaldi. The woman in question was going to testify against Deuce on charges of extortion. Without her testimony, the trial can’t proceed, and Deuce walks free.

Jinxo accompanies Aldus to his quarters. There he explains the curse that keeps him on Babhylon, Fifth of the Name. He worked on the construction crew for each of the five stations. The first three, each sabotaged in turn, exploded as soon as he left them. The fourth, completed, vanished as he departed. He will not leave the station lest this Babhylon suffer the same fate. If he is captured and killed by Deuce, he fears that Babhylon, Fifth of the Name, will fall as well. He begs Aldus to flee. But his companion does not believe that he is cursed, and names him Lucky for having four times escaped disaster*. He later tells Jinxo that staying on Babhylon to prevent its destruction marks him as a man of “infinite promise and goodness.”

Franklin contacts Sinclair. He’s eliminated any form of mechanical interference with the victims’ brains.. After some research, he and Ivanova identify a creature from Centauri space whose effects match their observations: the Na’ka’leen Feeder. Sinclair tracks Londo down to the casino and asks after the Feeder. Londo gives Sinclair the information he needs, but is clearly terrified. He rushes out of the casino and locks himself in his quarters.

Thereafter does Jinxo serve as a kind of esquire to Aldus, accompanying him on visits to the different ambassadors. The Minbari receive them hospitably, but have no useful information. The Centauri solicit money, but have nothing to offer either. While en route to their final appointment, the two are set on by a gang of Deuce’s toughs. Aldus repels them with his staff, and he and Jinxo continue on their way. But the meeting is with Ambassador Kosh, and when Jinxo sees the Vorlon encounter suit, he flees. Aldus must perforce follow.

Following the custom of the stories of Babhylon, Fifth of the Name, the two quests become one during the telling. Deuce’s men kidnap Ombuds Wellington. And a greater quantity of them appear to abduct Aldus. Jinxo, escaping, seeks out Commander Sinclair, and the pair of them, after summoning assistance, go Downbelow to rescue the captives. But Aldus has not been idle. He has already begun to exert whatever influence his quest and character provide. He confronts the Feeder and it does not eat his mind. He commands it out of its encounter suit and it emerges. The two of them, man and Feeder, confront each other, but are interrupted when the security patrol arrives.

In the subsequent fighting, the Feeder escapes into the ductwork. It reappears beside Deuce and eats his mind (neatly ending his criminal career). Jinxo, seeing his chance, goes to release the Ombuds. One of Deuce’s gang takes aim at him, but Aldus steps into the line of fire and is shot. The feeder reappears and is killed. The fight is over.

Aldus, mortally wounded, wills all that he dies possessed of to Jinxo, who vows to take up his quest. “I see in Thomas the Grail,” says the seeker as he dies.

Jinxo, wearing Aldus’ clothing and carrying his staff, accompanies his body off of the station. And Babhylon, Fifth of the Name, does not explode when his ship leaves.

- o0o -

See what I mean? The Aldus plot still not great genre fantasy, but it’s better fantasy than it is science fiction. It requires there to be a kind of magic in his quest, capable of bending judges to his will, redeeming the hopeless in a few short hours, and taming savage beasts. That’s a completely different suspension of disbelief than the one that allows Franklin to compensate for Centauri brain function in order to identify the Na’ka’leen Feeder’s peculiar effects.

(This episode also proves that, snark aside, the rest of Babylon 5 is not fantasy. Despite its Arthurian themes, it’s more SF than F in execution.)

There are also some useful tidbits of information in the episode. For instance, here’s Delenn on Aldus, and Sinclair:

Delenn: He is a holy man, a true seeker. Among my people, a true seeker is treated with the utmost reverence and respect. It doesn’t matter that his goal may or may not exist. What matters is that he strives for the perfection of his soul, the salvation of his race. He has never wavered, or lost faith.
Sinclair: I wish him luck. He’s probably the only true seeker we have.
Delenn: Then perhaps you do not know yourself as well as you think.

On the population of Downbelow:

Garibaldi:Make me a happy man. Let me clean out Downbelow. If I put all my teams on it, I could wipe out nine-tenths of the crime rate in one sweep.
Sinclair: Look, most of them are just people with nowhere else to go. They come here looking for a new life, a new job, and when don’t find it they can’t afford transport back. What are you going to do, Mr. Garibaldi? Shove them out an airlock?
Garibaldi: Don’t tempt me.

On the fates of the first four Babylon stations:

Jinxo: The day I started work on the Babylon station—we didn’t number the first, you know—that was the best day of my life. I worked a few months, had some leave, so I took it. And the station’s infrastructure collapsed. It was sabotage. They never found out who.
Aldus: I remember.
Jinxo: So I went to work on the second. The firm still owned my contract till the station was finished. I took leave a second time, and that station was sabotaged. And then when B3 blew up, well…that’s when I got the name Jinxo. When I went to work on B4, I didn’t take any leave. I was there every minute until we finished it. I thought the curse was gone. Then as I was leaving on the shuttle, I looked back, and the station just sort of…wrinkled. Twisted, like putty, then just disappeared. The minute I left.

On the Minbari castes:

Lennier:There are two castes of Minbari, warrior caste and the religious caste. The warrior caste would not understand. It is not their way.
Delenn: So we will not tell them, and spare them the confusion.
Aldus: These two sides of your culture, do they ever agree on anything?
Delenn: Yes. And when they do, it is a terrible thing. A terrible power, as recent events have shown us. Let us hope it never again happens in our lifetime.

And, of course, on the destruction of Babylon 5:

Garibaldi: No boom?
Sinclair: No boom
Ivanova: No boom today. Boom tomorrow. There is always a boom tomorrow…What? Look, somebody’s gotta have some damn perspective around here. Boom. Sooner or later. Boom!

† Indeed, it’s not far off being Extruded Fantasy Product
* This reminds me of the fact that in the Orthodox tradition, “Doubting Thomas” is known as “Believing Thomas”.

The next entry will look at Eyes and, possibly, Legacies. I haven’t decided yet.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

Comments on Babylon 5: Grail:
#1 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 03:30 AM:

I got this ep confused with "A Late Delivery from Avalon" from 3rd season.

#2 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 04:53 AM:

Seconding the point about the Freak of the Week episodes; I'm now on to the first couple of series 2 (must slow down) and it's pretty much all arc all the time so far, and it's much better for it.

#3 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 07:29 AM:

I forgive this episode everything, just for "No boom today."

#4 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 10:07 AM:

That quote captures Ivanova's outlook nicely....

#5 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 10:12 AM:

TexAnne (3): I agree. I had remembered that exchange as being from the later episode where the alien probe promises them advanced knowledge if they'll just answer a few questions. So it was a joy to find it here.

#6 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 11:04 AM:

I forgive this episode everything, just for "No boom today."

I think you misspelled "David Warner" there.

#7 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 11:20 AM:

ajay, 6: Him too.

There's also the setup for when Kosh really does come out of his encounter suit, which turns out to be worse than just a brain-eater starving to death.

#8 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 11:43 AM:

capable of bending judges to his will

I didn't read that as Aldus necessarily influencing the Ombud with any sort of supernatural power. Jinxo/Thomas is an annoyance to him, a petty thief and moreover not even a very good one. So I saw the judge as being kind of amused at this random monk dude attempting to reform the incompetent criminal and deciding to let him try.

@TexAnne -- Ditto. I was also delighted, despite the weakness of this episode, to have an SF show where I could go "Oh wait, no, this is the other King Arthur episode when rewatching it.

#9 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 12:02 PM:

I spent the episode wondering where I'd seen the Ombuds before: he's Bishop Brennan.

#10 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 02:16 PM:

I thought there were three Minbari castes? I don't remember what the third one is, but I could have sworn there are three later in the series.

#11 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 02:22 PM:

Linky linky: our previous discussion of Downbelow was in This Wooden O.

#12 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 02:33 PM:

Lee (10): Yes, the third is the worker caste. The warrior and religious castes definitely seem to regard them as second-class citizens, however, only there to balance the two *important* castes.

#13 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 02:54 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 12... The people who do the work that keeps things from falling apart seldom get much respect.

#14 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 02:57 PM:

Serge (13): All too true, alas.

#15 ::: Braxis ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 03:19 PM:

Serge & Mary Alleen

At least one member of the Grey Council was from the Worker caste, so they were not totally without power.

#16 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 04:38 PM:

Braxis (15): The Gray Council was three from each caste, but it sounded as if the worker caste was mainly there to be the swing vote between the other two. The Workers might regard their role differently, of course. I don't recall that we got anything onscreen from their viewpoint.

#17 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 04:43 PM:

Mary: The worker caste don't get a single line in all of B5, despite being by far the most numerous caste. (They *do* get lines in Kathryn Drennan's explicitly 100% canonical novel.)

This makes it even more a shock when [SPOILER] in season 4. (But even after that we don't hear a peep out of the worker caste.)

#18 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 04:55 PM:

Nix (17): The worker caste don't get a single line in all of B5, despite being by far the most numerous caste.

That's what I thought I remembered.

Drennan's To Dream in the City of Sorrows is excellent.

(and I'm 'Mary Aileen', not 'Mary', please)

#19 ::: Braxis ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 05:42 PM:

Mary Aileen @16 (apologies for the Alleen in the previous post - reading on a Blackberry it can be difficult to distinguish 'i' and 'l')

Deleen's speech makes much more sense in that case. With the warrior and religious castes only agreeing once every generation, the workers are needed to prevent permenant deadlock on the Grey Council.

#20 ::: Shane ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 06:11 PM:

It says a lot about Lennier and Delenn (ostensibly the sensitive, sympathetic characters on the show) that they don't acknowledge the great bulk of Minbari society even existing. Certainly not having moral agency. Like a medieval kingdom divided between King and Pope, and everyone in between is just the battlefield. I think it's one of the subtler samples of G'Kars "No one here is who they appear to be", and a fine nuance of the series.

#21 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 06:47 PM:

Braxis (19): As the permanent swing vote, the worker caste were arguably the ones making all the decisions, and thus the ones with the most real power.

(I hadn't even noticed the misspelling; I was reacting to the shortening. :)

#22 ::: Stepehn Frug ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 07:33 PM:

I agree that it's a poor episode, but somehow, it's a poor episodes with so many nice bits that I'm willing to forgive the poor main course just to get the complementary appetizers and sides. I mean, there's:

- "No boom today, boom tomorrow.";
- The tidbit Abi mentioned about Delenn, Sinclair & true seekers;
- The bit with the alien and the kidnapping charge ("his great-grandfather abudcted my great-grandfather, and frankly, we want damages"/"can I get a translation team in here") -- which, incidentally, did briefly & elegantly what the main plot of "All Alone in the Night" from S2 did at length & poorly;
- Kosh's response about the use of his encounter suit: "That makes some people a little nervous."/"Good."
- Sinclair & Garibaldi's discomfort when Delenn makes them treat Aldus seriously
- "Fools to the right of me, feeders to the left. I need to find a real job."
- From that same subplot: "I don't care who authorized it. I don't care how old the quarantine is. I don't care about 'the budget'. And I certainly don't care how much trouble it is for you."
- The neat idea of the rumor of the "curse", which is plausible that it would have developed, fun that Jinxo believed it, and fun that it didn't mean anything;
- Delenn & Garibaldi's different reactions to Jinxo at the end

...add it all up, and I like it. Again, I agree with Abi's analysis as to the whole. But #3 & #6 above just touch the surface: there are a lot of "I forgive this episode everything for"s in this episode. So in the end it wins me over.

#23 ::: Bruce Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 07:53 PM:

"Where was the kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shaking kaboom!"

I would love to see a Looney-Tunes episode of B5, something like the Coyote-Road Runner ep of Farscape. Bugs as Garabaldi, Porky Pig as Sinclair, Elmer Fudd as Londo, Sylvester as G'Kar. Oh, it would be delightful!

#24 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 08:34 PM:

@20: Either that, or JMS hadn't worked out enough about Minbari society yet, and it's an ordinary continuity error when he later, inconsistently, introduces a third caste.

#25 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2011, 08:36 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 23... Bugs as Garabaldi

Not Daffy Duck?
Remember the painting in his room?

Ivanova as Granny?

#26 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 12:30 AM:

I rather liked Londo's reaction to the news that a Feeder might be on station. Certainly shows considerable genre savvy about what to do when there's a monster around: take precautions, check things out, do not wander around where you might get brain-fried.

#27 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 12:23 PM:

The later [spoiler] event seemed especially weird, because we hadn't really seen any worker caste Minbari. They sort of showed up at the end of the episode, but played no part in any of the rest of the plot. It would have been easy to write them in in a way that would have made the outcome make sense. ("Hi, warring powerful castes. We'd like to introduce you to this idea we got from Earth literature called a 'general strike.' Good luck maintaining your warships and cities and temples and such; you guys are called to higher things, so I'm sure you'll have no trouble taking over. I'd start with keeping the sewers and water supplies running, if I were you; you won't like it much when they seize up....")

#28 ::: Jim Lund ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 01:30 PM:

The discussion of the disappearing Minbari worker class reminds me of the inversion in Pournelle's book Falkenberg's Legion. On the planet Hadley, the engineers do all the work to keep society running while the lower class are all layabout parasitic consumers. That's right, a society with no workers--the streets must pave themselves. :) With a little more self-awareness Pournelle could have written some great parody.

#29 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 02:04 PM:

Jim Lund @ 28... I thought Pournelle himself was a parody.

#30 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 03:23 PM:

Jim Lund @28
That's not just Hadley, I'm pretty sure that's how Pournelle thinks the whole universe is. (Even his "functioning" societies have this whole besieging class of layabout parasitic consumers, and Hadley's not the only world that's failing in that particularly bizarre way...)

I suspect if you were to ask him, he'd tell you that it's not just engineers, that the guy who paves the roads is cool too, it's just he believes that the whole work of maintaining a functioning society can be accomplished by 25% of the population and it'll be fine as long as the other 75% don't get uppity. (Or maybe the problem is that you do need 35-40% productive citizens and Earth, Hadley, et al dropped below that crucial level while Sparta and New Washington managed to keep just under half of the population doing something at least mildly useful. Either way it's bizarre.)

It's really too bad, because I'm actually fond of his writing whenever I'm able to scrape the politics off before consuming it.

#31 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 03:33 PM:

Devin @30, "it's just he believes that the whole work of maintaining a functioning society can be accomplished by 25% of the population"

I'm not sure that I'd rule out the possibility that he might be right on that individual point- but if he should be right on that, I'd say we should deal with that issue by letting more people work less (as opposed to the world's current practice of making fewer and fewer people work more and more).

#32 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 04:44 PM:


Yeah, it might well be right, at a sort of subsistence level, but you know? I'm thinking of my friends, and probably only about half to two thirds of them work in fields related to necessity. The rest of us do work that's farther up the heirarchy of needs. (And I'm including things like 'sysadmin for a real estate listing service' as a necessity here, on the grounds that he facilitates a service that helps make it easier to find housing, and people need housing.)

It might be possible to run a functioning society with 25% of the population on 50-hour workweeks, and it might be possible to run that same society with 100% of the population on 20-hour workweeks (there's certainly a dropoff in efficiency when you replace one full-timer with four part-timers).

I don't think it'll ever happen, though. I think if the social conditions allow enough flexibility to choose either of those options, that society is very likely to choose instead to have almost everyone on more like a 35-40 hour workweek and to use the surplus labor to do more stuff.

So I'll see your "more people working less" and raise you a "more people doing more," hey?

Looking again at Pournelle, Hadley was a sparsely-settled world and there was certainly plenty to do. Earth, on the other hand, was pretty clearly tightly controlled from above. It reads like Pournelle thought that underclasses would live in ghettos with no jobs and no chances because they wanted to. If you have any familiarity with real people and you read those passages, there's a very strong suspicion that what's really happening is that someone keeps them there, someone stops them from having jobs or meaningful hobbies or even a proper ration of circuses to go with the bread. Earth isn't really portrayed as a society that lacks the resources to let those folks have something to do, y'know?

(Anybody ever read David Drake's Seas of Venus? That had these undersea domes with kind of a similar social stratification, only there you really believed that the domes were on the edge of survival and the resources to do more than just feed and house those people would be hard to come by. But then, while I don't necessarily agree with Drake's politics, it's clear that he and I are looking at the same world.)

#33 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 04:50 PM:

Devin, #32: It reads like Pournelle thought that underclasses would live in ghettos with no jobs and no chances because they wanted to.

AKA the current Republican/TPer party line. It's how they justify treating the poor like shit; they must be lazy layabouts, or they wouldn't BE poor.

#34 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 05:02 PM:

I read Pournelle as having a bad case of Galtism; of course, he's sure he's one of the people who matters. I don't agree with him on that.

#35 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 05:37 PM:

34: well, no. "Science fiction author" is definitely not a trade vital to the functioning of a society.

#36 ::: Jim Lund ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 07:54 PM:

Speaking of the Minbari 'triangle' society with three divisions, why is it that in sf advanced, especially super advanced societies typically have a simple organization? I, for one, wouldn't trust a society organized around any structure simpler than a hypercube!

#37 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 08:21 PM:

ajay @35: In 'Footfall', the government response to an alien invasion was to collect a group of science fiction writers to advise the military.

#38 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 08:23 PM:

ajay #35: "Science fiction author" is definitely not a trade vital to the functioning of a society.

"Futurist", however, is.

#39 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2011, 09:40 PM:

I know there's a statistic somewhere on the fraction of the population working. (Children, full-time students, retired people, the idle rich, the disabled, and the long-term unemployed would be in the set of people who weren't working.) I'm not sure what that fraction is. I've often seen people discussing the ongoing demographic changes in rich countries in terms of how they will effect this fraction--as we have fewer kids and more people living into old age, we probably end up with a smaller and smaller fraction of our citizens producing current wealth, and more and more drawing retirement benefits or living off their savings. I guess having a society where more and more people go to college and graduate school also gives you that. (I don't know how you'd handle stay-at-home parents in this kind of statistic; they're plainly producing a kind of wealth, since if they went to work, they'd have to hire someone to care for their kids during the day.)

#40 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2011, 01:03 AM:

I wasn't saying that Pournelle's vocation (whether SF writer or computer columnist, for that matter) is not vital to the functioning of society.

#41 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2011, 04:02 AM:

albatross @39: "(I don't know how you'd handle stay-at-home parents in this kind of statistic; they're plainly producing a kind of wealth, since if they went to work, they'd have to hire someone to care for their kids during the day.)"

You're forgetting:

Ethan, diverted, said "Really? I don't see how that can be. Why, the labor costs alone of bringing a child to maturity are astronomical. There must be something wrong with your accounting. "

Her eyes screwed up in an expression of sudden ironic insight. "Ah, but on other worlds the labor costs aren't added in. They're counted as free. "

Ethan stared. "What an absurd bit of double thinking! Athosians would never sit still for such a hidden labor tax! Don't the primary nurturers even get social duty credits? "

"I believe, " her voice was edged with a peculiar dryness, "they call it women's work.

- Ethan of Athos, Lois McMaster Bujold

#42 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2011, 05:05 AM:

37: I will admit that science fiction authors are vital to the functioning of science fictional societies...

40: for various values of 'vital', that is; the sort of person who makes distinctions like that would almost certainly regard as 'non-vital' all sorts of jobs like 'advertising account executive' and 'cultural studies lecturer' which are just as important as 'science fiction author', if less immediately vital than 'bus driver'.

#43 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2011, 09:42 AM:


I remember laughing when I read that the first time.

One of the ways economic statistics mislead people is that they only count formal, recorded transactions for money. One result of this is that you can show a huge gain in GDP, on paper, by simply moving most of the currently informal transactions into formal, recorded ones done for money. If I watch my neighbor's kids for an evening while they go out, and they do the same for me a week later, there was no effect on measured GDP. If we pay each other $20 each time, magically, $40 has been added to GDP, even though exactly the same real-world actions took place.

There's a lot of this. As our society has transitioned from more women staying home with their kids to more women working and paying for childcare, much of the apparent increase in GDP is not real--it represents the fact that women staying home with their kids don't get paid in dollars, while childcare workers do. The added dollars in the GDP of those childcare workers isn't new wealth being produced, it's just previously-unrecorded wealth production being put on the books. Similarly, teaching Sunday school at church, leading a boy scout troop, writing a detailed Wikipedia article on some area in which you're an expert, caring for a sick friend, or pursuing your hobby/vocation as an artist or writer or musician on your own time are all non-valued activities, even though they all make the world a better, richer place.

#44 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2011, 11:11 AM:

If I watch my neighbor's kids for an evening while they go out, and they do the same for me a week later, there was no effect on measured GDP. If we pay each other $20 each time, magically, $40 has been added to GDP, even though exactly the same real-world actions took place.

This reminds me of the joke about the brother and sister who always gave each other Christmas cards with $100 inside. Except one year when they agreed to splash out and made it $200.

#45 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2011, 11:19 AM:

As our society has transitioned from more women staying home with their kids to more women working and paying for childcare, much of the apparent increase in GDP is not real--it represents the fact that women staying home with their kids don't get paid in dollars, while childcare workers do. The added dollars in the GDP of those childcare workers isn't new wealth being produced, it's just previously-unrecorded wealth production being put on the books.

This is a very good point, but may not be always the case, for two reasons:

1. Collective childcare. A society of ten women, each of whom stays at home and look after her own child, is less productive than a society where eight of them go out to work while the other two look after all ten of the kids.

2. Competitive advantage. Say you have a society of twenty women. Ten of them are aged 35 and have kids, one each. The other ten are aged 18 and don't.
In the first situation, the ten 35 year olds all stay at home and look after their kids, while the ten 18 year olds all go out to work.
In the second, the 35 year olds all go out to work and the 18 year olds each get paid to look after one child.
The earning potential of a 35 year old woman is greater than that of a 18 year old, because she's got 10+ years more training and experience. Therefore the second situation will show a higher GDP, but this will actually represent an increase in productivity; not just an accounting trick.

#46 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2011, 02:02 PM:

ajay, #45: Your second example is flawed, because how are those 18-year-olds going to get their on-the-job experience while they're being paid to stay home and take care of the kids? The system breaks down after the first iteration.

#47 ::: Jon Lennox ::: (view all by) ::: February 23, 2011, 02:42 PM:

albatross@39: It's the Civilian Employment-Population Ratio.

Peaked in the U.S. at about 64.5% in the late Clinton administration; it's now about 58.5%.

#48 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2011, 05:02 AM:

46: Lee, you are exactly right. But remember that all we're trying to explain here is a one-off effect; it's still a real increase in productivity even though (as you point out) it's not sustainable.

In some societies, you get round this problem by importing nannies from abroad. So (in our toy society) the 18-year-olds are off working and getting education, the 35-year-old mothers are working as well, while the kids are being looked after by foreign 18-year-olds who go home after a few years.

#49 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 24, 2011, 08:08 AM:

And then there's all the increase in GDP from the people hired to carry out all the criminal record checks before anyone is allowed to work with children.

#50 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2011, 08:09 AM:

I never really thought of it as a genre fantasy story - that would have meant taking the Grail thing seriously, and I never believed in that any more than I believed that the station was really going to go boom when Thomas left. For me, it's more of a character thing, not about whether the Grail actually exists, but about the consequences of the search, what it does to and for the people who commit themselves to it. It's about people who find a purpose in life, and in a way it doesn't really matter what the purpose is - and in a way the genre clash, the fact that the purpose is so at odds with the surroundings, is the point: dedication to an unusual cause that receives no support from others is more interesting and admirable than dedication to a cause that everybody else is in on too.

#51 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2011, 01:52 PM:

re 47: My guess is that much of the increase and perhaps some of the current decrease represents the boomers passing though the employed age group and now starting to expand the retiree numbers.

#52 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 25, 2011, 05:39 PM:

Just been watching a documentary on the BBC: Withing the last 70 years, the number of people working in farming in the UK has plummeted, while food production has quadrupled. In the 1930s, about 1 million, out of 45 million total population. According to the documentary, the employed workforce on one large farm in East Anglia has dropped from 100+ to 1.

Allowing for the population changes, if we went back to a 1930s style of farming, it would solve the unemployment problem, but we'd have food riots. In the last 50 years, the percentage of income spent on food has halved.

#53 ::: Tim May ::: (view all by) ::: February 26, 2011, 08:47 AM:

The paragraph starting "We begin" has some odd characters after "welcome", which seems to be breaking the Atom feed for me.

I think I'd just find this embarrassing now, but when I first watched it in my mid teens it was one of my favourite episodes. A large part of that was the Na'ka'leen Feeder - it was nice to see a genuinely non-humanoid alien for once, & I guess I found the CGI impressive at the time. And the idea of Aldus's quest appealed to me more then than it would now (or would have at an earlier age, for that matter).

#54 ::: Kaleberg ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2011, 12:17 AM:

Babylon V borrowed a lot from Tolkien, especially in the first season. Sauron is rising. Strange signs and portents are seen throughout the land. Fantastic space ships that scream like nazgul have returned, having been vanquished in an ancient war. Tell me the Minbari weren't elves. (Tolkien, in turn, borrowed a lot from World War II. It shows especially in the first movie which could have been made by the War Office during the Battle of Britain.)

Later on, after the defeat of the Shadows, they borrowed more from the Arthurian stories, complete with Sir Percival in his quest. I suppose that was foreshadowed in this early episode.

One of the things I really liked about the series was its fairy tale, fantasy nature overlaid on a space opera framework. I think it worked very well, though not every episode was a gem.

#55 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2011, 12:42 AM:

Tolkien was writing during WW2, but WW1 was a much stronger influence.

#56 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2011, 02:09 AM:

Kaleberg @54: Babylon V borrowed a lot from Tolkien, especially in the first season.

JMS always insisted that he and Tolkien were both borrowing from the same sources of old myth and stories, but then he goes and calls his bad guys' HQ "Za'ha'dum".

#57 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2011, 11:07 AM:

The GDP thing is even worse than that, because it doesn't account for capital. So every time you have a natural disaster (assuming it doesn't create some kind of production bottleneck for the rest of the economy) you get a significant gdp spike from the rebuilding. Creative Destructon ahoy!

#58 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 01:46 PM:

I saw this episode last night. I enjoyed it. I never assumed that the Grail was "real," or even that it needed to be -- the story wasn't about the thing sought, it was about seeking, and about how identities (those created by others, those we choose for ourselves) are mutable. Jinxo truly becomes Thomas. I would have liked to see more reverberations of this theme throughout the episode.

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