Of the Sometimes Hilarious but Often Misused Meme

Lately I have been giving a lot of thought to memes. Given the state of my Facebook news feed, I can hardly help it. Almost every day I am confronted with about a jillion of these nifty little pic-and-caption combos. Most memes make a false equivalence of some sort–pairing, say, a quote from Hitler with a particularly hideous image of a politician the memer doesn’t like, or the different management and personnel levels in a business with various breeds of dogs. The dog one is awesome. No one actually believes that their general manager is a surly-looking Siberian Husky, but we recognize the resemblance. It’s a joke, get it?

Memes, like false equivalences in general, are best suited for humor. For making a political point, not so much. To me, an acceptable political meme is a verifiable quote attributed to the person who actually said or wrote it. If the meme has a picture of a person, it is the person who said the thing. But most political memes are reductive and sly, designed to prey on emotion rather than appealing to reason, and slipping in false assumptions or cultural biases.

The notion of the heartless innkeeper turning away Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem is a construct of the Western world. It looks good in kids’ Christmas pageants, and it reinforces the idea, valid enough in itself, that Christ was not welcomed into the world he created in anything like a proper way. But it is not biblical. The gospel of Luke devotes less than a full sentence to the matter, saying merely that “there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). There was no room for them in the inn. The entire Roman world was being taxed, and the cities were full. That doesn’t mean the inns were run by bad people who disliked Mary and Joseph or were callous to their plight. Maybe the innkeepers were sympathetic but truly powerless to help. Maybe one of them said the first-century equivalent of, “Guys, I’m really sorry. This sucks. But I honestly have no room left. This place is packed to capacity and beyond. You might actually be more comfortable in my barn. You’d definitely have more privacy. So set up in there if you like, free of charge, and if you need anything, let me know, and I’ll do what I can.” Or maybe not. Who knows? Not me, I wasn’t there.

The whole concept of “Middle-Easterners” is also a Western construct. I think Mary and Joseph would be surprised to see themselves being lumped together with the modern descendants of Persians, Egyptians, Hittites, Babylonians, Syrians, Chaldeans, Edomites, and others in one giant ethnic group. As a geographic and political term, “Middle East” is useful and valid. As a label for people, “Middle-Easterner” is iffy, though I suppose there is no getting rid of it at this point.

The issue of whether or not to accept Syrian refugees into the United States is a complex and heartbreaking one. It does not lend itself well to memes. The comparison of Mary and Joseph with displaced Syrians is, at best, tenuous. To equate those who believe we ought not to relocate those Syrians in the U.S. with a supposed heartless innkeeper is, at best, irresponsible.

Yes, some people really are heartless or bigoted or willfully ignorant. Rabble is always among us on all sides of every issue and it is generally a waste of time to try to engage them in discourse. And it is wrong to speak as though everyone on the “other side” of an issue is of this lowest sort–as though all who support Syrian resettlement in the U.S. are stupid, or all who oppose it are heartless. I know many intelligent, God-fearing people on both sides of the Syrian refugee issue. They are individuals with a myriad of different assumptions and backgrounds and personal histories. They are not memes.

Friends, let’s not mistake memes for valid social (or political, or religious) arguments. If we believe a thing, let’s say so and give real reasons based on real principles and data. And let’s leave Hitler out of it, and out of all memes for the rest of time. Meme culture has reached Hitler saturation, I think.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. I know there are other things you could be doing that would be more fun. Here is a meme for you.


dog management meme

Michaelangelo, Metaphors, and Sacred Objects

I like symbols and symbology. I’m quick to perceive relationships between seemingly unconnected circumstances, objects, and ideas. This is good for a writer; it’s the foundation for metaphor, effective characterization, and convincing multi-layered cause and effect. It’s also good for making sense of the actual world, whose events are related in ways more complex and profound than can be seen on the surface. We know things by other things—the manifold by the simple, the abstract by the tangible. God often speaks in metaphor, and the imagination can serve as entryway to the understanding.

But things can get whacked when we constantly think of incidents and events as having particular meaning and significance for us personally, like the universe is sending us coded messages. I don’t want to force an analogy or see connections that don’t actually exist or place undue importance on things that in fact have nothing to do with me. I try to keep a sense of perspective. Otherwise my writing, and my life, will get pretty damn silly.

Or pretty damn terrifying.

Or pretty damn terrifying.

All this disclaimer is basically an introduction to another one of my extended metaphor posts. I have a lot of Sacred Objects in my life; within the past year or so I have written about the symbolic importance of a marble, a ring, and a tree. They are reminders to me of things God has shown me about himself. This is the story of yet another such object, which I found twenty-four years ago.

I was hiking with a friend at Angelina National Forest in Nacogdoches. I dearly love twisty, serpentine hardwood forests, full of shadow and secrets, thickly draped vines and furtive little noises. These woods were nothing like that. They were piney woods, like those I used to visit as a child in the Arkansas Ozarks, and just as lovely in their own way. Everything there is bold and open and upright; the pines shoot skyward like giant lances with handles planted in the ground, and the outnumbered oaks have to grow tall and slender and straight just to keep up and reach sunlight. The very air seems bright and clean with resin’s sharp astringency. It’s a place for clarity of thought, meditation, worship, and prayer.

I was twenty, old enough to have racked up some serious regrets and determined to make a new start. I felt hopeful, but bruised and sore inside, twice-shy, and afraid of failing.

At some point in the day, I found this.

nut and bolt thing

It was some sort of nut-and-bolt-and-washer combo, fused into a solid unit. No trace of threading remained on the bolt. The pitted iron surface was a deep brown, lightening to rings of orange rust where bolt and washer met. One long side was flattened to a taper, with the knobby end just vanishing into the flatness.

nut and bolt thing side

The nut was still a respectable hexagon shape, but the washer was warped, pressed up on one side and down on the other, with a delicate curve like the curl at the tip of a rose petal. Viewed from above, the nut and washer did look a lot like a rose.

nut and bolt thing rose

Within the borders of what is now Angelina National Forest, there used to be a sawmill, a railway spur, and a small town. The last of the township was abandoned in 1927, almost ninety years ago. The remains are still there, slowly decaying in the clearcut. The little iron whatsit I found might once have been part of a building, a machine, or a railway structure. Whatever its original purpose might have been, even the memory is lost now, along with the materials it held together, and the thing itself is useless for holding anything together in the future. No wrench will ever loosen the nut from the bolt, and nothing short of hot forging will restore the entire hunk of iron to its original three components in their original forms. Even then, the molecules would be rearranged.

What does it take to so alter the shape of three stout pieces of iron, not in a forge but in a pristine pine forest in East Texas? What forces of heat and pressure, what passage of time, season after season, year upon year? Nature can be a terrifying thing, swift and violent, slow and implacable, patient and strong.

I picked up the little iron whatsit and carried it with me. I don’t know why; I just liked it. And over the course of the day I realized it fit my hand perfectly.

nut and bolt thing hand

I’d recently heard Tommy Nelson preach at Denton Bible Church about the building of God’s temple in Jerusalem. The temple wasn’t just another impressive old building. It was designed as a place for God to personally dwell among humanity, the ineffable and eternal and uncontainable Maker somehow placing himself in a particular physical space crafted by human hands out of timber and stone and precious metal. And the plan was for the nations of the world to come to this place and learn of God and delight in him. The temple was a beautifully proportioned edifice whose furnishings, walls, textiles, and even basic layout all illustrated things about the character and actions of God. It was, among other things, a metaphor.

The building of the temple was a task long in the planning. King David, the warrior-poet, had wanted to be the one to undertake the project, but God said no. David’s reign had been marked by war; his hands had shed too much blood for him to build the temple. The task would go instead to David’s son, Solomon, whose reign would be characterized by peace (1 Chronicles 22:6-10). So David contented himself with amassing supplies—timber, stone, precious metals—for the project he would never see completed or even begun.

King Solomon took the throne, and in the fourth year of his reign he began to build the house of the LORD. He had a quarry somewhere in or around Jerusalem where his builders worked alongside builders sent by Hiram, king of Tyre, preparing timber and stones for the house of God (1 Kings 5:18).

And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready before it was brought thither: so that there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building.

1 Kings 6:7

Stone-shaping is a percussive activity. Every tool involved—mallet, axe, adze, hammer, wedge, chisel, rasp—is designed to get rid of the parts the stone-squarer doesn’t want, either by forcible removal or by abrasion. A quarry filled with stone-squarers busy at their work is probably no place for someone like myself with a high-strung nervous system and near-pathological sensitivity to noise. Confining the stone-shaping to the quarry would certainly make for a quieter, more peaceful building site. But is that the only reason it was done? And why does the author of the Book of Kings even mention the practice?

Adam Clarke, the Ulster Scottish Bible scholar, writes of this passage,

It appears that every stone was hewn and squared, and its place in the building ascertained, before it came to Jerusalem: the timbers were fitted in like manner. This greatly lessened the trouble and expense of carriage. On this account, that all was prepared at Mount Lebanon, there was neither hammer, axe, nor any tool of iron heard in the building; nothing except mallets to drive the tenons into the mortises, and drive in the pins to fasten them, was necessary: therefore there was no noise. But why is this so particularly marked? Is it not because the temple was a type of the kingdom of God; and the souls of men are to be prepared here for that place of blessedness? There, there is no preaching, exhortations, repentance, tears, cries, nor prayers; the stones must be all squared and fitted here for their place in the New Jerusalem, and, being living stones, must be built up a holy temple for a habitation of God through the Spirit.

solomon temple building

I am not familiar enough with stone-shaping or sculpture to speak with authority, but to my imagination modeling seems less daunting than carving. You can add to clay or other medium as well as take away. My dad, a painter, could paint over a problem section in a work in progress without sacrificing the entire painting. As a writer, I can take a word or phrase out, put it back in, try it somewhere else, read it aloud, and think it over, always knowing I have the option of changing my mind entirely and going back to the original wording. But with stone carving, you have one shot. If you knock something away, it’s gone, unless you do some tedious repair job that will never be as good as if you had gotten it right the first time. A good stone-carver must possess incredible foresight and vision as well as physical dexterity and strength.

Michaelangelo’s David stuns me every time I see an image of it. The figure is slender but strong, and the bodily proportions are a bit off, with huge head and hands that give David an adolescent look. (The size of the head was probably meant as a trick of perspective because the statue was originally intended to be positioned on the roofline of the Florence Cathedral and not at ground level. The hands, however, are probably meant to look oversized.) One leg holds David’s entire weight, causing his hips and shoulders to rest at opposing angles, and giving the torso an s-curve. This posture, called contrapposto, is further accentuated by the inclination of the head to the left and by the contrasting positions of the arms. In profile, which is how we view the statue today, the combined effect of posture and facial expression—the furrow of the brow, the bend of the wrist, the tuck of the head—is taut and apprehensive; but head-on, as displayed in Michaelangelo’s day, it is aggressive and purposeful. In fact, the positioning of the statue at the time of its completion was considered a bold political statement.

michaelangelo's david

And all this came from the mind and hand of a twenty-six-year-old man and was worked into a piece of flawed marble previously rejected by another artist.

I realize I’m wandering a bit. My little iron whatsit is a far cry from Michaelangelo’s David or a stone in the temple Solomon built. Nobody is going to put it in a museum or marvel at its beauty. But it fits my hand, and that makes it special, at least to me.

A lot of things look weird until you know their purpose, and then they look just right. Knitters have the niddy noddy and the ball winder; firefighters have the Halligan bar; nineteenth-century surgeons had the tonsil guillotine. Form follows function, sometimes to terrifying places.

Here, for example.

Here, for example.

Natural forces can dramatically alter the shape of things that seem durable and hard—either with swift violence, as with floods, volcanoes, and hurricanes, or slowly and tediously, as with erosion. Swift or slow, these forces appear terrifyingly random and indifferent. The making of a tool or a work of art, on the other hand, is deliberate and purposeful. But to the medium being shaped, if we imagine the medium having a human consciousness, it would all be one and the same. The medium wouldn’t like it and would rather be left alone. I know I would. I don’t like excessive pressure and friction and heat. Given a choice, I would get away from them. But if God uses these things to shape me and fit me into his house, his hand, then that changes things. What appeared to be random suffering is shown to have purpose, and that makes it easier to bear.

(Not that we should be quick to assume we know what that purpose is, or to make light of pain! Nothing is more irritating than to hear suffering demeaned with glib words about how it’s all part of God’s plan. C.S. Lewis asked, “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know he is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?”)

Whatever the workshop—a pine forest, a Jerusalem quarry, a human heart—God’s work has purpose, and his vision can be trusted. He uses rough forces to make things of beauty.  And he will not always be hammering and chiseling and adzing and sanding. Suffering in this life is our opportunity for gaining character, but one day the work will be complete. The forces that shaped my little nut-and-bolt combo had finished long before I came along on that hiking trail. It was a perfect fit the moment I picked it up; there was nothing left to do.

michaelangelo's david hand

A Game for 2 Players: Risk and Relationship in Zathura

While feeling under the weather last week, I crawled into bed with my laptop and watched Zathura for the first time in six years. There’s nothing esoteric about this film; it’s a cozy, good-looking, action-packed, well-paced movie for kids, or adults in need of comfort. It’s a closed-room drama, taking place entirely in a home—albeit one that spends most of the story floating around in outer space—and centering exclusively on a family, a father and three children. A robot and some space lizards show up partway through, but all the human characters are part of the same family.

zathura house in space

The film opens agreeably enough, with ten-year-old Walter playing catch with his father while six-year-old Danny watches from the porch steps. Father and son are smiling and relaxed. Walter is good at catching and throwing, and dialogue is confined to remarks like “Nice grab.”

Suddenly the dad announces that Walter’s time is up. Walter protests, but his dad tells him he’s had his twenty-five throws and it’s Danny’s turn now. “That’s not fair,” Walter says. His dad replies, “It’s exactly fair.” Danny tells his brother, “You’re not the only one who gets a turn.” Walter mimics him in a whiny sing-song; the dad tells them to stop. He needs to get on with Danny’s turn so he can work for an hour and get ready for a presentation that afternoon. Playing catch with his boys is only one item on a full to-do list. In a matter of moments, the happy family scene has soured.

Unlike Walter, Danny can’t catch or throw well. His dad makes excuses for him, incorrectly blaming himself for a bad throw, and offers a constant stream of instruction and encouragement that Walter didn’t need. Clearly, twenty-five throws for Danny will be a slow and agonizing thing for Walter to watch. Walter is visibly angry; it’s like he’s being punished for competence. This is the universal and unwinnable struggle of parenthood: trying to divide limited time, attention, and resources among kids who aren’t the same and never will be. No matter how hard the dad tries to be fair, he will never really succeed. Someone will always feel cheated.

zathura boys sofa

Tensions escalate inside the house. It’s a lovely old spacious Craftsman bungalow, filled with nooks, bookcases, hardwood paneling, enormous fireplaces, a dumbwaiter, and a huge basement, but the boys don’t like it; they think it’s creepy. Walter tells his dad, “I like Mom’s better.” His dad replies, “Well, so did she, and now it’s hers.”

Family conflict drives this plot. It’s the force behind everything that happens. The parents’ divorce, though seldom spoken of directly, poisons the atmosphere, aggravating the rivalry between the brothers. Walter and Danny have their established patterns of hostility, and they fight by rote like an old married couple deep in the grip of mutual contempt. Walter is abrupt and vicious; Danny cheats and manipulates. They are habitually competitive, seeing themselves strictly in comparison to each other. When Danny laments that Walter is better than he is at sports, his father consoles him by praising his vivid imagination, and Danny asks, “Is it better than Walter’s?”

Eventually the brothers’ enmity turns physical, destroying their father’s work project. Worn and frustrated, the dad leaves for the office to print another copy. The boys are now alone except for a terrifying teenage sister, played by a surprisingly expressive pre-Twilight Kristin Stewart. One of the funniest things about this film is that resentful as the brothers are of each other, they are united in their fear of Lisa. Even after meteors wreck the living room and the house is discovered to be adrift in space, the boys quail at the prospect of waking their sleeping sister.

Pictured: acting.

Pictured: acting.

The weirdness starts when Danny finds a board game called Zathura: A Space Adventure. It has an appealingly retro fifties sci-fi look, with metal spaceship markers, an analog control panel, and a hand-cranked key. Danny asks Walter to play it with him, but Walter dismisses it with barely a glance, saying it’s for babies. He’s not even capable of evaluating the game on its own merits; he rejects it because Danny likes it.

zathura game box danny walter

Danny starts playing anyway. He turns the key and presses the red GO button; the game spits out a card printed on yellowed paper, and the red spaceship advances on the board. The card reads, Meteor shower. Take evasive action. Moments later, actual meteors start punching through the ceiling and destroying the house. It doesn’t take the boys long to figure out that whatever the cards say ends up happening in real life.

zathura meteors

Walter finds instructions printed inside the box. Do you have what it takes to navigate the galaxy? It’s not for the faint of heart. For once you embark upon your journey, there’s no turning back until Zathura’s reached. Pieces reset at the end of each game. Walter deduces that the only way out is through, and if they keep playing the game to the end, they’ll make it back home and everything will be all right.

Walter’s logic is sound, but Danny abandons the game, which, besides the meteor shower, has by now produced a homicidal robot and frozen Lisa in cryogenic sleep. Walter pleads and reasons, but Danny refuses to play, saying, “All I know is that when we play this game, bad things happen.” Walter can’t advance the game by himself because it’s not his turn. As it says on the box, Zathura is A GAME FOR 2 PLAYERS.

zathura game board 2

This is a poignant picture of the tragedy of divorce: the story stops because someone quits. It doesn’t “finish” in the sense of reaching fulfillment and completion at the end of a long life of vows faithfully and lovingly kept; it just ceases and doesn’t resume. Marriage, like Zathura, is a game for two players, and if one of them leaves the game, no one can move on. The focus of Zathura is the relationship between the brothers, but the specter of the parents’ failed marriage is never far off.

Eventually Danny agrees to play again, and the game spits out some more cards, which quickly become reality. The cards don’t appear to get reused; they are freshly generated turn by turn, making the game open to infinite possibilities. Soon the boys are visited by Zorgons, enormous man-eating space lizards, but in the next move they rescue a stranded astronaut who has been stuck in the game for fifteen years and knows how to keep the Zorgons away. Overall, things are looking up.

zathura astronaut

Then betrayal brings their progress to a hideous grinding halt. While no one’s watching, Danny cheats by moving his spaceship game piece ahead on the board.

Walter is furious. The astronaut tries to smooth things over, but diplomacy is useless. Danny really did cheat; no amount of mitigation will change that. Worse still, when Walter moves his brother’s game piece back where it belongs, the game accuses him of cheating and ejects him right out of the house.

Of course this isn’t fair. If anyone should be ejected from the game, it’s the one who actually did the cheating. But here again, the game mimics marriage. One person cheats, the other suffers. That’s how cheating works.

The astronaut manages to get Walter back into the house, but Danny’s betrayal rankles. And on his next turn, Walter gets an opportunity for revenge.

From the beginning of the film the boys have made no secret of their grievances with each other, and they have acted on them with ruthless consistency. Danny wants to be better than Walter, so he cheats to get ahead of him. Walter just resents Danny’s very existence. He wishes his brother had never been born. When he draws a gold card that says Shooting star, make a wish as it passes, he has a chance to make his wish come true.

The astronaut manages to talk him out of it, and once the crisis is past he reveals that fifteen years ago, he, too, drew a gold card and wished his own brother out of existence. He’s been stuck in the game ever since, alone with his remorse, battling Zorgons and getting sucked through time sphincters, unable to advance or go home. He is Walter, future Walter, Walter as he will become if he remains on his present course. And present ten-year-old Walter holds the power to show mercy and make things right for everyone.


People make much of the importance of communication in relationships, and it really is important, but free and accurate expression of thoughts and emotions will only take us so far. Our problem is not merely (or even mostly) that we fail to communicate clearly; our problem is that we are selfish beings. Danny really does cheat and whine and use weakness to make people feel sorry for him; Walter has a runaway temper. They don’t have some epiphany of renewed understanding at the end of the film; they’ve understood each other pretty well all along, and throughout the game, each has had to deal with the other’s very real faults, made worse by the additional stress of being pelted by meteors and pursued by Zorgons. By the time the credits roll they haven’t really demonstrated any improved behavior, but things are not as they were. Danny has finally owned up to his cheating and apologized for it, and Walter has decided that whatever Danny’s faults may be, the two of them are brothers, and as such they will take care of each other.

As I rewatched this movie, I found myself thinking about an ebook I’d read recently called Romance in a Month: Guide to Writing a Romance in 30 Days. (Don’t judge. It’s a good book.) In one chapter the author outlines the plot points of a romance novel. (Are you judging? Don’t do that. Plot points are useful tools of craft, and after reading about these I was able to identify them in the works of Jane Austen.)

After the Meet, wherein the hero and heroine…well…meet, there is something called the Lock-In, wherein something compels them to spend significant time together whether they want to or not. Next comes the Main Conflict, which can be tied to circumstances but ought to arise primarily from clashes between the core values of the two characters. This conflict will not be easily resolved. Because of the characters’ growing attraction, though, they ignore the conflict as long as they can or adopt some temporary compromise, and soon they reach the Realization Point, at which time they realize that they are more than friends and cannot back out without emotional pain. Whatever happens next, life cannot go back to how it was before. The conflict escalates; it can no longer be smoothed over or ignored; and the characters go through the Big Bad Breakup. The breakup ought not to be some flimsy thing based on simple misunderstanding; it should be an occasion for genuine grief, and all hope should appear to be lost.

And then comes something really beautiful, something that could not exist apart from the raw anguish of the breakup: the Grand Romantic Moment. One of the characters—or both characters, if it happens to work out that way—must make a move to restore the relationship. The author must not do some cheap deus ex machina thing where circumstances suddenly conspire to bring the hero and heroine together and remove their difficulties. At this point both characters want desperately to be together, but neither knows how the other feels. Whoever takes the initiative undergoes real and tremendous risk. There could be exquisite fulfillment and lasting happiness ahead, or a fresh wave of rejection, humiliation, and pain. There is no way of knowing until the move is made.

Marriage is an arrangement not unlike Zathura. It is a decision to bind your fate to that of a fellow fallible human being in a thing where you will see each other at your absolute best and worst. Do you have what it takes? It’s not for the faint of heart. There will be trouble, and possibly man-eating lizards, but also high adventure, breathtaking spacescapes, and depths of love and trust you never knew were possible.

zathura go button

What Will the Harvest Be?

It’s been a pretty good year in the garden here at Midkiff Manor. Nobody got snake-bit, in spite of two close encounters with copperheads, and thanks to the electric fence the horses didn’t steal any produce except that one bell pepper from the basket I mistakenly left in the shed. The horses did eat the weeds we tossed outside the fence, which was a win-win. And though I didn’t keep track of the volume of the harvest, I know we ate a lot of oven-fried summer squash and tomato-basil-mozzarella salad. The kitchen freezer is crammed with frozen crooknecks and zucchinis, the laundry room fridge with butternut squash, and I have more butternuts curing on a rack outside. The cherry tomatoes are still producing, and before long the tomato seedlings I started some weeks back will be ready to set out for fall.

There are many reasons for our success, and I’ll gladly take credit for as many of them as I can. I’m particularly proud of our homemade squash trellises, which have been well worth the T-posts, cattle panels, and hours spent in assembly. By keeping fruit and foliage off the ground, we protected the plants from disease and reduced weeding to a fraction of what it would have been with a bunch of sprawling vines. Also, sprawling vines would have meant more hiding places for copperheads.

squash trellis 2

Early in the season Greg did something clever with trenching and PVC pipe, and the end result was a hydrant in the shed providing us with easy water access for garden and horses. I was almost giddy with delight. I loathe dealing with water hoses—hauling them from here to there, tugging them through tall weeds, laboriously untangling a mass of deceptive coils only to realize the hose I’ve been wrestling isn’t the one that’s screwed into the hydrant, or has been taken apart somewhere in the middle for I know not what reason, or has a nozzle attachment on the end that I don’t need and can’t get off. The whole thing is exhausting and demoralizing. Just knowing I don’t have to deal with all that has made me a lot more eager to work in the garden than in years past.

The garden site itself is a good one, with a rich sandy loam—Bermuda grass and weedy taproots just pop right out of it—and a slight slope that helps the water flow down. We can’t take credit for the soil, but we can for being smart; the main reason we chose to build on this site is because of the successful gardens of people who lived here decades ago. One of these, a former hired man, declared that this location was the best site on the whole farm for gardening.


Some crops were more successful than others. The Black Cherry tomatoes did pretty well, the Jaspers did great, and the Tycoons bugged out early without producing a single fully ripe fruit. The okra seedlings got devoured by grasshoppers almost as soon as they sprouted. The first round of sweet potato slips did too, but we replanted and put on some row cover and are hoping for the best. We would have foiled the grasshoppers altogether if we’d set out the slips earlier in the season, but we couldn’t find any at local feed stores and ended up mail-ordering some from Tennessee. Even if the sweet potatoes do their darnedest from here out, their yield won’t be half of what it should be, but next year we’ll know better. The butternuts and crooknecks had a terrific output; the zucchinis just did okay.


In the garden as in life, the reasons for failure are sometimes clear and sometimes not. Pests, disease, and lack of water produce predictable results, but often things go wrong and you really don’t know why. Why did some of our tomato plants produce so much better than others? The high-performing Jaspers were at the head of the row; the ill-faring Tycoons were at the end; the Black Cherries were somewhere in between, both in location and in yield. Were the Jaspers getting more water than the others, or less? Was the water pooling at the end of the rows or not flowing down enough? Are the Jaspers just better performers? Were the Tycoons devoured by an incredibly selective tomato hornworm?

The climate here in South Central Texas is harsh. Having the right varieties helps a lot but doesn’t guarantee success. Six years ago, when we first started scoping out possible building sites for our future home, we found a little tree surrounded by brush, weeds, and old house wreckage. With help from a Neil Sperry guide, I identified it as a Texas mountain laurel: small, tough, evergreen, drought-tolerant. It produces fragrant purple blossoms in springtime and actually prefers slightly alkaline soil. How awesome is that? Greg’s mom said the tree was probably planted decades back by a former resident, a lady whose house later burned down. This lady had a lot of trouble in her life but she always had a beautiful garden. We took this as a good sign, and I named my blog for the tree long before we started construction.

The tree is still there in what is now our back yard; I can see it from my study window. But some months back it started looking sickly and dropping leaves. I’m always sorry to see a good tree die, and this one has been a sort of symbol to me—not quite on the order of the White Tree of Gondor, but a reminder of God’s goodness and our purpose in being here on the farm in the first place.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House books, writes in The First Four Years about a beloved young cottonwood tree planted by her husband in a sheltered spot north of the house where Laura can see it from her pantry window. A drought ruins that year’s wheat and oat crop, but the little cottonwood survives…only to die later in a fire that destroys the house while Laura is suffering from depression following the death of her second child. This is pretty much par for the course for the Ingalls and Wilder families, as anyone who’s read the Little House books knows. Grasshoppers, blackbirds, bad weather—their farm troubles are legion, and throughout the series wild hope and crushing disappointment follow each other in a heartbreaking loop. The first year of Laura and Almanzo’s marriage, they grow a beautiful field of wheat which, if harvested, will pay all they owe and leave them so well off that when Laura first does the math she thinks she must have made a mistake. One August day, Almanzo goes out to start harvesting, then comes back to the house and says the wheat still needs another day or two to be perfectly ripe. That very afternoon, a hail storm wipes out the entire crop.

Throughout the Little House books there is this sense that if they just hang in there, if they find the right land and the right crop and dig in and work hard and go without new shoes, they will succeed. Those who fail at farming do so because they give up too soon or don’t know what they’re doing or don’t have enough heart. The Ingallses and the Wilders have plenty of heart; their determination and good cheer in the face of overwhelming setbacks, their pure grit, just astound me. Long after the events described in the series, the Wilders did indeed have a successful, prosperous farm in Missouri, with an orchard, dairy cows, grain fields, and poultry. But Laura’s father, Charles Ingalls, with all his energy, optimism, and hard work, ended up packing it in and moving to town, where he supported the family with carpentry jobs. That must have stung.

Farmers live pretty close to the edge, but really all economic ventures are speculative. Some livelihoods appear more stable than others in the short run, but ultimately times change, new markets emerge, and old industries collapse. The early American turpentine orchards of the Eastern Seaboard thrived for a time and then failed, leaving acres and acres of devastated land where virgin forest had once stood. Silk manufacture took a nosedive when polyester became a thing. Some of the most adored actors in silent films couldn’t make the transition to talkies because their voices were untrained or heavily accented, and so their careers ended. Disco flashed and died; within a few years its stars went from adulation to hot scorn. For a few years in 1990s Texas, ostrich farming looked like it might take off, but the market soon cratered, leaving newcomers with birds purchased at too high a price to ever be recouped. Many owners abandoned their birds to the wild, and for a while rural Texans worried about ecological disaster in the form of flocks of well-adapted seven-foot feral birds with powerful legs and four-inch claws capable of killing a lion, or a man, with a single kick. Non-Texans, I did not make that up.

Sowing the seed by the wayside high,
Sowing the seed on the rocks to die,
Sowing the seed where the thorns will spoil,
Sowing the seed in the fertile soil:
Oh, what shall the harvest be?
Oh, what shall the harvest be?

There’s something almost ominous in the repeated line at the end. What indeed shall the harvest be? Who can say? In the words of the teacher, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

Witchcraft and idolatry, both forbidden by God in the Bible, are really methods of manipulating time and chance. The kind of medieval European folk magic that Westerners associate with witchcraft doesn’t put in an appearance in Biblical accounts. Witchcraft in the Bible is about telling the future. Even the necromancy in 1 Samuel 28, where Saul gets a witch with a familiar spirit to call up the spirit of the prophet and kingmaker Samuel, is done for the purpose of asking the outcome of Saul’s upcoming battle. Idolatry is about influencing the future, performing prescribed rituals so the gods will grant what you want, with the usual example being good crops. (Farming has been chancy business ever since Adam and Eve left the garden.) Maybe anxiety is just the witchcraft and idolatry of a rationalistic age. We are fooling ourselves, messing around with worry and fruitless activity that exhausts us without actually qualifying as work.

In Perelandra, C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel set on an Edenic planet Venus, the activity forbidden to the unfallen inhabitants—the forbidden fruit of the realm—is staying overnight on dry land. Ransom, the Earthman protagonist, thinks this is odd at first, but after mulling it over realizes it makes a lot of sense. The planet is oceanic with an unknown number of floating islands. Go to sleep on one of these and you have no idea where you’ll wake in the morning. You might find your plans sidelined and yourself inconvenienced, separated from someone you long for. God wants the Perelandrans to trust his providence and not try to snatch sovereignty for themselves. They couldn’t anyway, any more than we can, but they could sure mess themselves up trying. We none of us can secure the future.

perelandra floating island

Sowing the seed with an aching heart,
Sowing the seed while the teardrops start…

Throughout the created world laws of cause and effect are always at work, whether we plan and labor with thoughtful diligence or just allow ourselves to be directed by outside forces. But the system is broader than we realize, and things happen that we don’t foresee and can’t account for. Plans go agley; friendships fail; and early promise falls short in execution. Likewise, boons and blessings come unlooked-for from unexpected places, and people emerge from years of sin and sorrow to walk in the light and thrive. Not all surprises are disappointments.


Bell peppers were among the middling performers in this year’s garden. The foliage looked good, but the fruit was small and scarce. And again, we didn’t know why. Online sources suggested fertilizer, but we didn’t want to use the synthetic stuff, and anyway we thought it shouldn’t be necessary on such fresh ground where other plants were doing so well. We talked about adding compost or organic soil amendments, but other things demanded our attention, and we let the peppers go.

Then about a week ago two of the plants suddenly started producing decent-sized fruits of bright yellow and red. I have no idea why. In the words of Lord Robert Crawley upon learning of his wife’s unexpected pregnancy, “I don’t understand what we’re doing differently.” In both cases, there are mysteries involved far beyond human agency.

And he said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how. For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. But when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come.

Mark 4:26-9

The Bible abounds with agricultural illustrations and parables. Much as our modern world disguises the fact, agriculture is ground zero for human sustenance, economics at its most basic.

A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.

Luke 13: 6-9

And that’s the end of the parable. Jesus doesn’t say whether the remedial treatment works or whether the owner of the vineyard even agrees to give it a go. He just leaves off with the possibility that this isn’t the end of the tree’s life, and that just because it hasn’t borne for three years doesn’t mean it never will. And this is good to hear, because people go through years of unfruitfulness as well, and we can’t just conclude after a certain amount of time that if they’ve gone so long in a certain state, they’ll remain that way always, any more than you can be sure that those who start well will end well. Where there is life there is hope, and uncertainty too. Whatever happens, it won’t be something we can take much credit for.


A few mornings back, I looked out the window and saw four of the family dogs standing around the mountain laurel tree, pawing it and giving it funny looks. By now the leaf canopy was so thin that I could tell they hadn’t treed any cats, but something had caught their interest, maybe a snake. I went outside to investigate.

I never did figure out what the dogs were so worked up about, but I did see this.


Clumps of glossy baby-green leaves. New growth.

Will the tree continue to leaf out and bless and cheer me? Who can say? I hope so. And whether it does or no, God has good things in store for me, in this life and the life to come. The one who gives chance after chance to a fruit-stingy fig tree can be trusted with my future.

Sown in the darkness or sown in the light,
Sown in our weakness or sown in our might,
Gathered in time or eternity,
Sure, ah, sure will the harvest be.


Mumford’s Meow

As we were leaving Greg’s mom’s house one afternoon, Greg said, “Listen to that weird bird call. Almost sounds like a cat, doesn’t it?” It was an intermittent call, raucous and raw, and we didn’t know what kind of bird made it. It wasn’t like anything we’d ever heard before, except a cat, sort of, but not really.

Next morning Greg went to his mom’s again to do some yard work for her, and when he came home he had a tiny black-and-white kitten in his mom’s cat carrier along with a can of cat food and a towel. He’d heard the noise again, decided it had to be a cat because it was coming from ground level, and searched until he found it huddled close to the fence. Greg’s mom said it had made that weird sound all night long.


It was a young kitten—old enough to survive away from its mother, but not without some help. There was no sign of a mother cat or other kittens in the area. How did it get to Greg’s mom’s? It was too young to walk far on its own and there was no place close enough for it to toddle from. Did someone really drive it to the country, find a likely-looking house, and just drop it off? I know such things happen but the idea is just too much. I’ve never really been able to wrap my mind around it.

The kitten was still meowing its bizarre meow in the cat carrier. Now that we knew it was a cat, the sound seemed urgent and scared rather than just weird, but still, we figured something must be wrong with its meower for it to sound like that. I held the kitten, and it quieted down. What sort of night had it passed, a baby, hungry and alone in a strange place?

The kitten was male. I called him Mumford after someone else I knew of with a raw, anguished cry.

mumford and mumford

Mumford came at an opportune time. A few weeks earlier Emilie had brought home an orange kitten whom I’d named Bucky (that’s Winter Soldier Bucky, not Get Fuzzy Bucky), and a few days later she brought home Winky, a solid black female, so Mumford had a foster brother and sister right away. Bucky is the biggest and likes to wrestle the other two, giving Mumford fresh cause for yowling.


Winky is a bit older than Mumford, a bit more graceful and poised on her feet, and a bit more reserved. When Bucky wrestles Winky, she doesn’t yowl; she gibbers and fights back. At night, when Bucky and Mumford curl up close, Winky beds down about a hand’s breadth away—near, but not so near.


It turns out that Mumford has a normal meow after all. There’s nothing wrong with his meower; he was just so frantic that first couple of days, so frightened out of his senses, that he couldn’t sound like a regular cat. Emilie said he was using his mama-meow, and I think she’s right. It’s an urgent, piercing, strident cry, with the sole purpose of catching the mother cat’s attention and bringing her running. The cry of a human newborn in distress has a similar quality; any mother knows instinctively the difference between a fussy or tired cry and the cry of a baby that’s frightened or in pain. Mumford’s mother, if she’d been around, would have responded right away. We are humans and it took us a little longer to figure it out.

We heard the mama-meow off and on again for a few days, whenever Mumford couldn’t find us or was suddenly startled awake. This little animal’s first waking thought was that he was alone again. Now that he’s settled in and seems to feel safe, he doesn’t do it anymore. He does follow me around a lot, put his little front paws on my ankle, and urgently meow up at me, wanting to be held—he’s needier than the other kittens—but now he just uses a regular meow.

The thing about the mama-meow is that it is absolutely useless for any purpose other than summoning the mother cat (or a sympathetic human, or the occasional dog with cross-species maternal instincts). It is the ultimate admission of vulnerability. It sure wouldn’t frighten predators; in fact it would draw them. In the short run it would seem safer to keep quiet. But what good is that really? Hiding from danger is no use for a kitten that young. It’ll die on its own, if not from predation then from hunger or exposure. The mama-meow is its only chance.

There are times when your best and only hope is to cry out for mercy. Don’t try to be clever or cautious or defensive; don’t hide; don’t rely on your own resource. Put all your heart and hunger and loneliness and poverty and need into your cry, and pray it falls on sympathetic ears.

Sometimes mercy is all that can save you.

mumford bucky

A Really Awesome Fan Theory About Robby the Robot

There’s a scene in Forbidden Planet where Robby the Robot meets up with the ship’s cook from the C-57-D to deliver 480 pint bottles of Kansas City bourbon, which Robby synthesized at the cook’s request. The delighted cook swallows a mouthful, coughs, splutters, and chokes out the words, “It’s smooth, too!” Overcome by gratitude, he adds, “Robby, I ain’t never gonna forget this. Any time you’re hard up for lube oil, let me know.”

Then they both hear a strange noise, a high-pitched insectile hum, quiet but ominous, and getting louder. The cook asks Robby, “What’s up? Somebody coming this way?”

Robby’s head swivels slowly and thoughtfully to the side, toward the viewer. “No, sir,” he replies. “Nothing coming this way.”

robby and cook

But something is coming, and Robby knows better than anyone what it is. Why does he keep quiet? He isn’t acting on orders from Morbius, because Morbius himself doesn’t know the truth about the monster. Something more than Asimov’s Laws of Robotics is at work here. This is a robot keeping his own counsel and acting as he thinks best.

“Only a rational creature is capable of deliberate deceit.” Dr. Merrinoe says this in The Invisible Boy when asked if the supercomputer could be lying to him. Robby says the same thing near the end of that film. But the supercomputer is capable of it, and so is Robby.

I keep coming back to the subject of this robot. I’ve already written about him here, here, here, and here, and evidently I’m not done yet. There is so much about him that doesn’t quite add up, so many minute apparent inconsistencies throughout Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy. But they’re not sloppy inconsistencies; there is a pattern, an internal logic being respected. Important questions about the nature of the robot are never resolved and often not asked, merely implied, and left hanging for us to do with what we will.

Consider Robby’s interaction with Alta. When she hastily summons him away from an oil job, he asks, “And what is it you require this time, Miss Alta?” She says she wants him to make her a new dress. He replies, “Again?”

robby and alta

That’s an awful lot of subtext for an emotionless machine. Robby doesn’t come off as truly impatient; he’s like a gruff, affectionate uncle. And Alta responds just as a beloved niece would, with dimples and wheedling charm. This is a game they play and enjoy together.

And consider what happens after Robby delivers the bourbon. The monster breaks through the force field around the ship and kills the ship’s chief, and the next day, Commander Adams questions the cook. He knows now that the cook was let out of the force field perimeter, contrary to orders, and that he returned drunk. (Interestingly, the cook reports that despite drinking four pints of bourbon the night before, he has no hangover. Could Robby have synthesized hangover-free bourbon in meticulous fulfillment of Law 1?)

The cook says he was gone during the murder, drinking with Robby; he even goes so far as to say Robby talked him into it. “Him and me, we kind of got to toasting each other’s good health…just for cordial interplanetary relations, you understand.” We have only the cook’s word for this, but let’s assume he’s telling the truth, that the two of them drank together at Robby’s suggestion. What does that mean? We know Robby can consume alcohol in a fashion; earlier we saw him pour the better part of a pint of the cook’s original supply of bourbon into a mouth-like aperture to analyze it for synthesis. But Robby as drinking buddy is a strain on the imagination. Could Robby have been providing himself an alibi? It’s true that after hearing that Robby and the cook were together when the chief was killed, Adams no longer considers the robot a suspect, and the Third Law would require Robby to protect himself as long as he can do so without harming humans or disobeying a human’s commands. But a robot strong enough to carry ten tons of lead shielding in one hand probably doesn’t need to concern himself with what the crew of the C-57-D can do to him, and Morbius has plenty of thermonuclear reactors back at the compound in case things get dicey. An alibi is not something Robby needs.

robby lead shielding

What if the robot is protecting the cook by preventing him from going back to the base while the monster is there? There’s no way Robby can save all the ship’s crew; the ship’s weapons aren’t enough to stop the monster, and even Robby himself, strong as he is, would be no match for a creature that is made of solid nuclear material, is dense enough to survive three billion electron volts, and is capable of renewing its molecular structure from one microsecond to the next.

id monster

And has a spiffy little Van Dyke beard just like Morbius!

But Robby can protect the cook. And he does—circumspectly, without telling the cook there’s any danger, because telling him wouldn’t do any good and would cause trouble for Morbius. As the later Big Reveal makes clear, Robby is the only who knew the true nature of the monster all along. He has had a delicate situation to balance: besides obeying Morbius (Law 2) and not allowing harm to humans (Law 1), he appears to have been protecting Morbius’s reputation, or perhaps shielding him from a horrifying truth. He has been making judgment calls, doing his best with difficult circumstances. Perhaps the decision isn’t even a conscious one at all. Is it possible that Robby himself has a subconscious?

One form of dramatic irony occurs when the viewer knows things that the characters don’t. Such is the case here. Robby is far more than the sum of his parts; the viewer knows this, but the human characters never really figure it out. Even Morbius, with his Krell-enhanced intellect, doesn’t comprehend the truth about the robot he “tinkered together.” The day Adams and two of his officers meet Robby for the first time, Morbius tells them, “Don’t attribute feeling to him, gentlemen. Robby is simply a tool.” No. He is not. He is a personality.

The last we see of Robby on Forbidden Planet, he is headed to Earth, working the astrogation deck aboard the C-57-D. There is genuine enthusiasm in his “Aye, aye, Skipper!” He has lost his master and his home, but he has a new job, crewmates, and adventure awaiting him. His future looks bright.

robby astrogator

But the next we see of him—“next” in terms of his personal timeline—he’s lying in pieces in a 1950s mathematics institute, his detached head resting on a shelf, covered with cobwebs. A photo hangs nearby, thumbtacked to a shelf. It shows Robby emerging from a starship, arms raised triumphantly, being met by crowds of people. It’s labeled Chicago Spaceport, March 16, 2309.

So what happened in between? How did Robby go from respected astrogator to sad forgotten derelict? Merrinoe gives us a few clues, though he himself seems unaware of the implications (more dramatic irony). He speaks of a former director of the institute, Dr. Greenhill, who “lost his marbles” after retirement and claimed he’d built a working time machine and brought Robby back from the future. Dr. Merrinoe is dismissive of both Greenhill and the robot; he says no one at the institute could ever get Robby to work. Commander Adams considered Robby a marvel in the 23rd century; Dr. Merrinoe calls him “a scientific joke.”

robby in pieces

Merrinoe doesn’t seem to be concealing anything here. He doesn’t mind letting Timmie play with the robot, and when Timmie gets Robby running, Merrinoe doesn’t have a problem with that either (in fact, he is amusingly nonchalant about his ten-year-old son’s sudden electronic genius). But he doesn’t know the truth.

Now consider the supercomputer in The Invisible Boy. Representing “the sum total of human knowledge, constantly being revised and brought up to date,” the computer is far more powerful than any actual 1950s computer. Of course, that’s only to be expected; this wouldn’t have been much of a film if the computer had been typical of the era—like the ENIAC of 1946, which had a “clock speed” of 100 kHz, or one tenth of a MHz.

But it did help build the hydrogen bomb, so there's that.

But it did help build the hydrogen bomb, so there’s that.

But maybe there’s more to it than sci-fi narrative license. Even Robby seems awestruck by the computer, and Robby was designed and put together by a 24th-century brainiac with an artificially enhanced intellect who had a huge lab and the technology and wisdom of an enormously advanced alien civilization. This computer gives advice on parenting, child development, and national defense, always answering in ways that advance its own agenda. In fact, Merrinoe eventually realizes the computer has been suggesting changes to its own design for decades—modifications to its forebrain, whose functions (if it’s anything like a human forebrain) include creativity, rational decision-making, goal-setting, social judgment, and memory.

Shown: cerebrum glasstubum.

Shown: cerebrum glasstubum

It appears that the computer achieved rationality deliberately, by bringing about changes that enabled personality to take hold. But how could it do that, or even want to do that, without already having some degree of personality? By suggesting the changes, it acted deceitfully; Merrinoe speaks of its “patient slyness.” But as Robby and Merrinoe both remind us, only a rational being is capable of deliberate deceit. So was the computer rational before it suggested the changes? And if so, why would it need the changes to be made? Perhaps the rationality was there all along and the changes merely expanded the computer’s intellect. But in that case, where did the rationality come from?

And how about Robby? After lying, playing, and protecting his way through Forbidden Planet, he does another remarkable thing in The Invisible Boy: he refuses to hurt Timmie after the supercomputer orders him to. By this time the computer has overridden Robby’s basic directive (the one that keeps him from hurting people) and established a mind-control link with him. We’ve seen Robby obey the computer’s orders to nab scientists and military personnel and implant them with mind-control devices. But when the computer says to gouge out Timmie’s eyeballs, Robby freezes up in a Manchurian candidate-style internal struggle.

robot timmie eyes

Imagine the robot’s arms convulsively twitching.

How does Robby do this? How can he thwart his own programming? True, it’s not his original programming, but the supercomputer is smart enough to make a good job of the rewrite.

I see a couple of possibilities here. Way back at the opening of Forbidden Planet, almost three hundred years in the linear future and an unknown interval in Robby’s personal past, Alta Morbius had lived her entire life on Altair 4, with only her father, some animals, and Robby for companions. Robby helped raise Alta. He has a history of caring for a child, and he has built up habits of patience and nurture and dry robotic playfulness. Surely Robby’s interaction with Timmie revives memories of Alta’s childhood. Would it be fair to suppose that long patterns of habit contribute to character in a robot, as they do in a person? Maybe the supercomputer’s order to hurt Timmie, basic directive or no, is too much of a departure from Robby’s established character.

But even that explanation falls short. Habit helps determine character, but it can be thrown off in a moment for the right incentive. Could it be that Robby is acting out of free will? I think it must be.

In that case, we’re back to the earlier question about the supercomputer. Where does all this rationality and intentionality and free will—this personhood—come from? That question can’t be fully answered. We are basically talking about the spark of life here, and although I would like to go off on a wild and largely irrelevant tangent about the making of the Dwarves by Aulë the Smith in The Silmarillion, so far I am resisting admirably. Suffice it to say that while we might reasonably point out that Robby’s maker had access to the learning and technology of the fabulously advanced Krell, ultimately the origin of the spark remains a mystery, and is meant to.

krell thermonuclear generators

But the origin of the supercomputer’s spark is less mysterious. To find it, we will piece together events that must or might have happened in between Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy.

The most pressing question about that time period is, how did Robby end up dismantled at the institute? Greenhill’s photo shows him making it back to Earth from Altair 4 in one piece. What happened next?

What happened next is that at some point, either in the 24th century or back in the 20th, some Earth scientists got hold of Robby, took him apart, and started reverse-engineering the heck out of him. Greenhill may or may not have been part of this. I tend to think Robby was already dismantled before Greenhill took him to the past, because no one in the 20th century was able to get him back together, and if Greenhill had taken him apart he ought to know how to reverse the process, but other interpretations are possible. I can’t help but think of Gandalf telling Saruman, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

If you're patient, you'll usually find it's possible to legitimately bring in Tolkien at some point.

If you’re patient, you’ll usually find it’s possible to legitimately bring in Tolkien at some point.

Greenhill makes it back to the 20th century and takes Robby to the institute, and for some reason—maybe a disagreement over the ethics of how to deal with Robby?—the institute takes Robby and discredits Greenhill, passing him off as a washed-out nut job. The staff at the institute is unable to get Robby together again, but they learn much from studying his innards, and with that knowledge they build the supercomputer. The supercomputer is Robby’s technological descendant.

See the resemblance?

See the resemblance?

We know the computer is at least twenty-nine years old, so it was built in 1928 at the latest. Merrinoe is too young to have been involved, which would explain his lack of enthusiasm for the robot; he doesn’t know Robby really is from the future.

So the computer was engineered from Robby, who for whatever reason already had personhood. The computer’s personhood was inherited! Robby doesn’t know this—he was in pieces at the time—but the computer knows. It was the computer that gave Timmie the idea, and the ability, to get the robot running again. The computer needed Robby to be its hands and feet in the world of men; the similarity of their interfaces made communication simple.

This kind of port compatibility can’t be accidental. USB wasn’t even a thing until 1995.

This kind of port compatibility can’t be accidental. USB wasn’t even a thing until 1995.

The computer overrides Robby’s basic directive, changes his programming, and basically makes a minion of him for a while. But when the computer tells Robby to hurt Timmie, things come to a grinding halt. Earlier Robby said of the computer, “It is very great. It is beyond me.” That may be, but Robby is older and wiser. The computer doesn’t know the Deeper Magic, so to speak.

Robby refuses to do the computer’s bidding, his basic directive gets reinstated, and all the drone-people get their mind-control gadgets removed, allowing the balance of power to shift back to Merrinoe. But the computer has one more trick up its console. As Merrinoe is about to destroy it with an axe, the computer starts up a display of flashing lights. It puts Merrinoe in a hypnotic trance, as it did earlier to Timmie, and seduces him with promises of dazzling, mind-blowing knowledge. Then, with Timmie and Merrinoe both helpless, it tells Robby to strike them both down so that it might rise again to dominate not only humanity but all life on earth and throughout the universe. Instead, the robot smashes the computer right in the experimental feedback tubes!

Take that, evil megalomaniacal supercomputer!

Take that, evil megalomaniacal supercomputer!

No one told Robby to do that, and the computer just told him to do something completely different. This time Robby isn’t just refraining from following a bad command; he’s taking positive action. He’s not just a person, but a proactive and well-realized one.

None of this theory is essential to the plot of either movie, but it holds together well and fits the internal logic of both, while adding an extra layer of depth to the stories—which, by the way, were written by the same screenwriter, Cyril Hume. The Invisible Boy actually points us in this direction with a couple of lines of easily forgotten dialogue. Merrinoe has been explaining about Greenhill and his wacky time-travel story. Timmie suddenly looks thoughtful and actually stands up from his chair to say, “But if somebody did go to the future, and learned something there, and then came back out, wouldn’t that change now?”

Merrinoe ponders this, then says, “Well, I guess it would at that. Even old Greenhill never thought of that one.”

Part of me thinks, Come on, Merrinoe, keep up. This is just a basic time-travel paradox here. Then again, why does the possibility have to be mentioned at all? It’s not as if wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff becomes a real issue with the plot; in fact, the time travel is never mentioned again. But there it is, mentioned in a way that gives point to the possibility, but not dwelt on long enough to bog down the story. Viewers are invited to think the thing through if they wish.

Come to think of it, what else would change about now, if the U.S. had access to Krell-inspired tech in the midst of the Cold War? The computer is destroyed at the end of The Invisible Boy, but Robby is still around, and Merrinoe plans to build another computer. How will that affect the future, which is Robby’s past? What will change about the time period of Forbidden Planet? Will the C-57-D ever take off at all? How about the Bellerephon, the ship that took the original colony to Altair 4? What will happen to Morbius and Alta and Adams? Will they even be born? Will Robby ever get made? What will happen and not happen in the alternate reality initiated by that unseen, unknown, time-traveling Dr. Greenhill?

It isn’t often that a movie generates this many questions, suppositions, and additional questions. Well done, Mr. Hume!

The “I” in AI

Back in the seventies, my dad managed the local branch of a national lumber company. The building had a computer that took up an entire room. To communicate with it, you punched little slots into cards which were then manually fed into the computer’s maw. It lived alone in its lair, giving off a constant whirring racket. And when it broke down, the company had to fly in a computer guy from out of state, and this guy was revered like some kind of swami. And when that guy couldn’t fix it, they flew in another guy. I think it ended up being a total of three or four guys before the problem was fixed, and each time a new one appeared the hierarchy shifted and an erstwhile big genius got relegated to getting coffee.

It was a weird decade.

It was a weird decade.

I thought about that computer while watching The Invisible Boy. This film, released in 1957, features a sentient supercomputer that wants to rule the world. The computer takes up not one but two large rooms, with an additional 5300 cubic yards of microtransistors overhead and a wall of glass tubes connected to feedback units. The main console has huge panels filled with flashing lights, switches, levers, and dials. According to Dr. Merrinoe, its operator, this computer represents “the sum total of human knowledge, constantly being revised and brought up to date.”

Well! That probably makes it more powerful than the computer at my dad’s office, let alone any real-life 1950s computers. One 1959 model with the catchy name of PDP-1 stored data on those punched cards and had a memory of 9 kilobytes, which is less than 10% of what might be used today to store one photo of average size. And the 1970s computer at my dad’s office had less processing power than a graphing calculator. (I guess. Actually I kind of pulled that last bit out of the air. When I asked a friend in the tech industry for a valid point of comparison, he replied that in terms of processing, memory, and static storage, modern computers are exponentially larger than 1950s counterparts to such a degree that he couldn’t even think of a metaphor.)

The idea of a piece of tech becoming sentient and turning on its makers is one we’ve all seen explored lots of times in story form—Hal, Skynet, Ultron, replicants, the Omnidroid, the Machines. My introduction to the concept was probably Tron. But here it is in a movie made way back in 1957. Clearly our uneasiness with artificial intelligence has a long history.

And no wonder. Computers have been bound up with national defense right from the get-go. In 1950, after President Truman green-lit plans to develop a hydrogen bomb, atomic scientists needed a way to work mathematical calculations of enormous complexity, beyond the capabilities of mechanical calculators. A new machine based on vacuum tubes was put to work on the job, and later improvements to such machines led to the development of computers. (This strikes me a bit like inventing calculus so you can study planetary motion, as Sir Isaac Newton reportedly did. These math guys are awfully thorough.)

In the 1950s American mind, then, computers were inextricably linked to the hydrogen bomb. And the hydrogen bomb was more destructive than the atomic bomb by an order of magnitude of…a lot. Sorry I can’t be more precise. I read about the difference between fission and fusion but I’m still a little fuzzy on the details.

But although I’m weak on nuclear physics, I’m fairly quick with semiotics, and I did pick up on something noteworthy while researching the H-bomb. Check out these images.

implosion nucler weaponone-point safety testU.S. Swan deviceSwedish_Atomic_Bomb

Now take a gander at the piece of hardware crowning the supercomputer in The Invisible Boy.

invisible boy computer eyes

Did you see them? Those freaky eyeballs drawn onto the glass dome for who knows what deranged and misguided purpose? They look like cross sections of nuclear bombs! (The dome itself looks an awful lot like Robby the Robot’s head, but more of that in a later post.)

The concept of artificial intelligence is far older than computers, reaching back to antiquity. Like the computers of the 1950s, the artificially intelligent beings of mythology were usually built with defense in mind. (Interestingly, one of the non-defense ones, Galatea, started off as an ivory statue that Pygmalion made and fell in love with. So the still-popular idea of artificial intelligence as romantic partner has a long history as well.) Hephaestus, Greek god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, and metallurgy, built Talos, a walking, thinking bronze statue designed to defend the isle of Crete, which Talos did by patrolling the shores and throwing rocks at pirates and invaders. (Hephaestus also built some metal automata to serve him in his workshop, an early example of AI’s industrial applications.)

And let’s not forget the Golem—or golems, as there are many accounts of them in Jewish folklore. The name “golem” is derived from a Hebrew word for unformed material or uncultivated person. Like Adam, all golems are shaped from clay, but unlike Adam a man-made golem will never be more than a shadow of a living being created by God. The makers of golems are wise and holy people, often rabbis. Interestingly, golems are mute, but written language is the means of bringing them to “life”: any one of the Names of God, called a shem, is written on a slip of paper and inserted into the golem’s mouth, or inscribed directly onto its forehead. To shut the golem down, the operator removes the paper or rubs out one of the letters on the forehead, invalidating the shem.

Golem legends are numerous and fascinating and often associated with actual historical figures. The most famous golem is the one of Prague, supposedly created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. Like Talos, and the supercomputer in The Invisible Boy, the Golem of Prague was made for defense. Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1576 to 1612, had threatened to kill or exile all the Jews of the city, so Rabbi Loew made the Golem, whose powers included making himself invisible and summoning the spirits of the dead.

Like all golem stories, this one turns sour at the end. In one version of the story, the Golem desecrates the Sabbath when Rabbi Loew forgets to remove the shem in time; in another, he falls in love, is rejected, and goes on a violent rampage à la Bride of Frankenstein. In other golem accounts, the creatures crush or scar their makers, become surly and uncooperative, or take instructions too literally. In some cases the maker has second thoughts and deactivates the golem before it can do any harm. All the accounts conclude with the golems either disintegrated back to dust, or dismantled and stored in an attic somewhere.


talos golem robby

Talos, the Golem, and Robby the Robot

Frankenstein’s monster is a type of artificial intelligence. So is the One Ring, and so is Gurthang, the sword carried by Túrin Turambar in The Children of Húrin. In all these cases, the AI is closely identified with its master (the Elves actually call Túrin and Gurthang by the same name, Mormegil, or Black Sword), and the master is guilty of great hubris in making or wielding the instrument. He knows what he’s doing is problematic at best, but he does it anyway, and the instrument causes a lot of destruction and grief. And in the end, it brings about its master’s death.

Stories in which the sentience of an artificially intelligent being is treated as a positive thing exist, but they’re not as common, and when they do occur there’s still the possibility of trouble. Offhand I can think of Robby the Robot, Data (though Lore kind of cancels him out), and J.A.R.V.I.S., who I understand is going to do some awesome stuff in the next Avengers movie. And WALL·E and EVE. But our prevailing feeling toward artificial intelligence is one of deep unease.

Why? For the same reason people in the Matrix won’t accept an idyllic existence as reality and David Aames keeps messing up his lucid dream: because we know ourselves and our deserts. No matter how hard we try to smother the knowledge, it keeps rising up again, pointing an accusing finger. We are so corrupt that even our best actions have mixed motives.

As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulcher; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood: destruction and misery are in their ways: and the way of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.

~Romans 3:10-18

We can’t escape ourselves. And when we make a powerful tool to serve us—a tool with potential personhood, no less—we worry. What are we going to do with it? Will we use it wisely? Will we use it to extort and oppress? Or will we just get lazy and let it do all the work for us, leaving ourselves vulnerable to tyrannical takeover? And what will it do with us? Will it foul up its orders by taking instructions too literally, like the Golem, or refusing to stop, like the broom in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Will it fall into the wrong hands and be used against us? Will it develop a will of its own and seek to dominate us?

Fear of AI is fear of ourselves, of what our darkest impulses could accomplish with vast power and no accountability. We have begotten it; how can it escape the corruption that is bound up in our every cell? We do well to tremble.