(urth) Short Story 44: Continuing Westward

Marc Aramini marcaramini at yahoo.com
Wed Aug 29 14:40:30 PDT 2012

Continuing Westward
First published in Orbit 12 in 1973, this is reprinted on pg 35 of Storeys from the Old Hotel.
After dynamiting a Turkish power line, a pilot and his observer Sanderson seem lost in a hot and timeless miasma, their plane wings damaged and their compass 30 degrees off kilter from the north star.  Despite the damages, they are able to land and encounter a group of village people whom they can not directly communicate with, even though Sanderson claims to “speaks Wog”.  After a tense meal in which the Englishmen brandish their pistols and finish eating, Sanderson sleeps multiple times with a young dancing girl who comes out to dance for them, before our narrator hears a noise in the night and imagines that she has killed his observer with a hidden weapon.  Her body is decorated with little diodes and mechanical oddities with the wires all twisted, and as she comes up to him he realizes it must be a knife hidden in her hair.  He succeeds in disarming her and then binds her and runs off into the night to his crippled plane.  Sanderson gets up
 and starts chasing after them in his underclothes “while meteors miles ahead shot up into the sky”.  Our narrator says, “We’ll do it, we’ll fly!” to his captive passenger, and believes her eyes say that she understands.
The powerline explosion has unmoored our narrator and his plane from time, and there are several key passages to look at:
“It came to me then that the scene was Old Testament biblical, and I suppose it was; people like this not changing much.” These villagers they encounter have not changed much at all even though the explosion of the power line has thrust them far far into future, though many of them seem somewhat deformed or blind in one eye (probably from an irradiated apocalyptic fall out, which has not actually affected these people, who never change much no matter how much the world changes).
“It had been bloody early in the morning when we’d landed to dynamite the Turskish power line, and I kept recalling how the whole great thing had flashed up in our faces while we were still setting the charge.  It seemed such a devil of a long time ago, and after that taxiing across the desert dragging the smashed wings while mirages flitted about – a good half million years of that, if the time inside one’s head mean’s anything.”
It probably is half a million years, because the language of the area is completely indistinguishable to the narrator and Sanderson, who supposedly speaks “Wog”.  Only a great, great passage of time could have made the language completely unintelligible to him.
Borski has an interesting but very Borskiesque analysis of this story here in which he makes some claims that the story is a retelling of the Odyssey, in which our narrator is Odysseus or “no-man” and Sanderson is somehow both a pig ensorcelled by Circe and Paris son of Priam, also known as Anaxander  (thus making Paris into Anaxanderson).  
I have several problems with his overwriting of myth onto the story, though Sanderson eating like a pig and falling asleep to a temptress does on some level resonate with Odysseus’ story.  He claims Troy is actually in modern Turkey, and that the biplane is like the lost ship of Odysseus.  
First, these guys Sanderson and our narrator are gone WAY longer than 20 years – they have been thrust into a future where our nomad village has forgotten the meaning of diodes and other mechanical devices and simply uses them as hair pieces and adornments, stripping them from the desiccated ruins of the future. Our narrator acts more like Paris than Sanderson does; and while their return does start after an operation in Turkey, and there are villagers who see only out of one eye, I feel like the mythic resonance is a little bit forced by Borski.  
The narrators need to fly at the end seems doomed to a metaphorical flight into a higher realm as those meteors rise into the sky.  Is their solidity in this future world fully established?
AMBIGUITIES: Why does our narrator think that Sanderson is dead with such certainty?  The girl does in fact seem to have a weapon hidden in her hair, but obviously has not used it.
Are the meteors rising into the sky at the end an automatic defense perimeter activated by his biplane or simply another war in progress in the future world? Are they doomed?  Are they fully “real” in this future desolation or just an echo and memory?
Why does he grab the girl?  Perhaps he is unhinged from the passage through time a bit as well.
REFERENCES: This is a Kipling homage … but to be honest Kipling wrote so very much I cannot pinpoint an exact story – I tried to rectify this but simply didn’t know where to start on his vast corpus.  The attitude of our rather smug pistol carrying pilot thrust into a foreign place (and time) perhaps evokes that “British man in a strange land” feel of some of Kipling’s stuff. 
The details of the biplane, with a Lewis mounted machine gun, indicate that it is probably a Royal Airforce Factory WWI plane.  Even though the Odyssey claims Borski makes have critically posited at least 20 years passage into the future, the changing language, the desuetude of advanced mechanical gewgaws used as jewelry (unrecognizable by the narrator because he is from a time when they were not yet invented), and his mental understanding that “a half million years” seemed to pass all point to a far future that resembles the past in this changeless primitive Turkish village.  Their mutations and visual infirmities are probably from the weapons that have been launched in the area and the fallout (the children are described as thin or bow-bellied and generally unhealthy looking).
RESONANCE WITH OTHER STORIES: Much like “Against the Lafayette Escadrille”, this story deals with a plane and a potential passage through time, though in this case it is the plane itself which is thrust into the future instead of a flight summoning a potential relic of the past, almost as if the theme had been inverted just slightly.  They do seem like two sides to the same coin, though.  Wolfe claims both were motivated by his love of model planes.
Next up is “Feather Tigers”.
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.urth.net/pipermail/urth-urth.net/attachments/20120829/cda28566/attachment-0002.htm>

More information about the Urth mailing list