And so, dear readers, we find ourselves at this, the third and final part of our prognotes analyzing clipping.’s Splendor & Misery. The last part had left us with our protagonist, Cargo 2331, embracing the life of a space pirate, cast out from both space and time in order to survive. Ducking in and out of the “normal” universe, he wages war against foreign, pale “gods”, an alien race taking advantage of humanity’s hypersleep technology to rule the galaxy. Stranded, he uses the selfsame technology to remain constantly out of their reach. In the process, he leaves his sanity, his genealogy and his life hanging in the bright glow of the ship’s fusion engines which, possibly unbeknownst to him, loves him dearly. Thus, the two are outcasts in the deepest senses of the word; they are not merely unwanted but also unable to return should they desire to.
Before we dig into the last five tracks on the album, I would like to once again utilize the intro in order to shed some more light on cultural and literary ideas important to understanding the album. In addition, before we dig into a weird literary device called “historical synchronicity”, I’d like to acknowledge a technicality. In the previous part of this analyses, I touched upon one of the codes that lie hidden in the album. This was the Vigenère cipher contained in the track “Interlude 02 (Numbers)”. Similar to this code, there are others present in the album; they hide in sounds, clicks and other “collateral” elements of the music. Thus, hints towards other parts of the clipping. “mythology” (perhaps hagiography is a better term here) are replete throughout the album.
Since the only code that takes up a full track is the Vigenère cipher, it’s the only one of these codes which I will address directly during this series. The others are so below the music that I feel their deciphering does not belong in such articles. Besides, where’s the fun in solving all the mysteries for you or, rather, in supplying you with the first few hints? Instead, I urge you to take nothing for obvious and to listen closely to the lyrics as they draw you closer towards these codes. From there, the Internet has deciphered most of them, even if their solutions present more questions than answers. It has been my goal instead to try and explain the themes and concepts which make up the album through the literary and cultural tools and references it utilizes rather than provide a key for deciphering these encryptions.
With that in mind, we must give some time to the idea of “historical synchronicity”. In order to understand this idea, we must first begin with the second part of it. Synchronicity is an often misunderstood concept set forth by the psychologist Carl Jung, whose name we had mentioned in the previous part of this article. The idea is simple yet elusively complicated; synchronicity has been defined as “meaningful coincidences”, “acausal connecting (togetherness) principle” (yeah), and “acausal parallelism”. It’s a pretty flimsy principle that states that even though events might appear to be separated, their similarities hint at deeper meanings which run through the universe.
For example, if I faint in my home in Austria and have a vision of a fire, a house which belongs to a good friend of mine in Sweden might at that time be on fire. Are the events causally connected? Obviously not but synchronicity says that writing them off as meaningless coincidence is a mistake. It’s easy to see how such an idea fed into the occult community and way of thought, fueling countless of researches into these, supposed, “acausal parallelisms”. Jung himself spent most of his career obsessed with these, and other, supernatural ideas. However farcical they might sound, dismissing them as completely useless is a mistake. Instead of actual, real rules which explain reality, we can use the myriad ideas that are contained within the word synchronicity as literary, psychologically and culturally powerful tools that help us craft interesting stories and understand parts of the human psyche and its emotions.
And science fiction has done that for a few decades. This is where the “historical” part makes its appearance. Think of this interesting synchronicity: the future begins to repeat the past, mirroring events, styles and ideas which once existed within its advanced configurations. Thus, spaceships are galleys and their captains can be called Privateers or even Buccaneers. Crew-members which oversee complicated machinery can be “longshipmen”. Beyond the often popular synchronicity of ships, governments, music, culture, poetry, literature, drugs, sex and more can all exhibit elements of the past. Are the people who inhabit and work these synchronous artifacts aware of the synchronicity? More often than not, they aren’t. Awareness is saved for one or two “genre savvy” characters who are aware of the “acausal parallelisms” the future has with the past.
Important creations which utilize this principle include (but are by no means limited to) Dan Simmon‘s “Hyperion” quartet. In this series, the poetry of John Keats, one of the most important of the 19th century Romantic poets, oddly reflects the events of the future. Indeed, reading them and being fluent in their language can grant characters knowledge of the expansive space opera that unfolds before them. Thus, these “acausal parallelisms” grant us interesting tools to think about our characters and, through them, on the human emotions, problems and lives they signify. In Simmons’ other epic, “Ilium”, the works of Shakespeare, Homer and others are a template for a post-human society and for musings about technology, post-humanism, society and more.
Now, consider Splendor & Misery and its many parallelisms with the history of slavery. Do these parallelisms mean that we are literally handling the slavers come to life, to run a galactic empire based on that heinous trade? Of course not. Do they enable us to know how the story will unfold and even to understand the exact motivations of our characters? They do not. But do they, in the things which are similar and the things which are different, allow us to rethink about slavery, abduction, power, commerce, colonialism and more? Do they make for good stories, stories which have enough in common with our own lives to usher us in to their strangeness? Yes, they do. Thus, “historical synchronicity” uses these meaningful and yet acausal connections to empower stories with a hint of the familiar, a lure into the unfamiliar and strange. They invoke, once again, the principle of the uncanny, unheimlich, which we had referred to in our previous part.
Let’s see how this story, replete with such familiar strangeness, ends shall we?
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The last part opens with a direct reference to historical synchronicity. “Interlude 03 (Freestyle)”, amidst the clatter and noise that is the reality of living on a vessel traversing space (far more likely than the sleek silence of popular representations of space travel), deals with the stress between the story told and our own reality. Right off the bat, it addresses the weirdness of synchronicity embodied in the presence of so many jarring and jarred fragments of history in the future. Consider how inconsequential such differences and stark contrasts might make one feel; one can understand 2331’s wonder at these phenomena and the perspective one gets when human historical facts (“kings and queens and every hiccup in between”) are weighed against the coldness of space:
“Yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah
Yeah, here we go
What if everything was at the wrong time?
Lying, the wrong space, and songs rhyme
To meter out the distance back to the stream
With kings and queens and every hiccup in between
Was dreams and all the blood and death would mean something”
But, of course, they mean nothing. What good these regimes, these dreams and the death which comes from both if, at the end of things, the future looks just the same? This is perhaps one of the notions which most jar about historical synchronicity; if the future is like the past or, at least, very similar to it, then what use the strife and the attempts at making something better? Are we not just trapped in an endless cycle of death? The next passage of the interlude offers just such an approach, infusing it with the tired camaraderie of those who struggle against the inescapable tide of time and a sense of the prices paid for where they (that is, 2331 and all his rebellious ilk) now find themselves:
“With another eye open and fists raised
Just a greeting or phrase
A meeting of retired militants, the war-torn regions
Only known for killing only beautiful black
Sit in the pyramids, me and Imhotep are homies
Sense of loneliness the price of paying for a new beginning”
The reference to Imhotep is consistent with Daveed’s career (he has called himself Imhotep before on his “Small Things to a Giant“) and the themes being made here. Consider Imhotep: on one hand, he is one of the only Egyptian commoners to be granted divinity upon his death. His legacy is architecture, mathematics, philosophy, engineering and more; he is one of the bright points of a divine empire which thought itself eternal. But, his tomb is hidden. While his name remains, he is, of course, dead. “Sit in the pyramids” indeed, rotting away in a grave which supposedly mimics eternity (remember the role of the tomb in the Egyptian tradition) but which is, ultimately, just another sign of human transience. Just like Imhotep, 2331 struggles against time and attempts to leave his mark on it while ultimately aware of his own, diminutive impact.
However, is it truly all pointless? Not quite. The struggle, the very act of defiance divorced from whatever “practical” impact it might have, is important. It makes one free, in 2331’s case opening up the infinity of space and the spaces of resistance. Without it, there is complacency; here, “Interlude 03 (Freestyle)” speaks directly to the listener. You listening; where is your defiance? You live in a world suffocating with oppression and, often under the excuse of the infinity of the oppressor, we sit back and do nothing. 2331 would have us resist, in any way, shape or form for the, perhaps divine, virtue of resistance. His own freedom is a warning, a mirror: your freedom comes so cheap. You’d better fight lest your future end up like mine, fraught with death and untold prejudice:
“I got a pocket full of stars
Flyin’ up to Mars
You inhibit a world where hue is not a death sentence
So drop the message, already open for suggestion, whatever
Get at me, my brothers, my sisters, get at me
Where are you”
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The following track builds up on the feeling of oppression and depression by channeling one of the darkest moments on the album. “Break the Glass” is a bewildering monologue by 2331 as he chides the ship’s AI for its distance and coldness. It begins with the ship’s motivations for such distance; after all, the two are not exactly delivering galactic flowers, are they? We already know the ship has capacity for emotion. It’s not hard to imagine the sort of feelings that accompany being such a deadly, feared and cursed weapon of destruction. Hell, all we need to do to is look to our own soldiers, trained in the art of murder and the many, many emotional hardships that come with that territory to understand why the ship has grown so distant:
“It’s too cold, be cool, ice cold
Kill up a few more, or let ’em be cool
So why don’t you just speak on it?
These fools, they froze, but this g’s lonely here
And gotta be working for… oh, whatever
Why the fuck you wait on the coats for?
The life binary in Morse code
Ain’t really a life, right?”
To face the hardships of their murderous, vagabond lifestyle, the ship has retreated further into the comforts of the machine. However, as 2331 would have it, that’s not really a life, is it? More than that, consider how the situation affects 2331; after all, the ship is literally his only companion and source of comfort. As it draws further inside itself, 2331’s sanity grows flimsier as he is left completely alone in space, with only a reclusive ship’s computer for company. He desperately and furiously beseeches the ship to come back for him, so that, through interaction, he has the chance to “be real” and the ship can vent its dreadful emotions rather than suppress them:
“It hurt though, it feel like a voodoo curse
So you scream every so often to break up the monotony
You feel me? No, fuck your feeling
A real motherfucker here is tryna fuck for real
Like something’s here but fuck it though
He ain’t gon’ feel for a while, he ain’t been real for a while
So it gon’ kill you to smile? So it gon’ kill you to die?
Or do you just stop?”
In a chilling reversal, 2331 now calls for the ship to “Please wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up” where before it was the custodian of his sleep. In the silence of being alone, his self-blame (referenced multiple times during the previous two segments of the album) is eating at him. The ship has become and integral part of how he stays sane; it’s not only the loneliness. The ship is a friend, a source of comfort, someone/thing which keeps the internal demons from gnawing at the soul. But, who comforts the AI? 2331 is probably in no state to do so and, thus, the AI has had to wall itself off. The glass which is broken at the end of the track then is the glass between the two, the cold machinations of the barriers the AI has raised around itself in order to survive the harsh reality of their survival.
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And so, weirdly enough, we come upon “Story 5”. Obviously linked to “Story” from midcity and “Story 2” from CLPPNG, this track continues the story of loosely tied characters. However, it’s no immediately apparent how they’re linked. First, the jump in serial numbers; how did we go from “2”, where Mike Winfield is once again haunted by arson, this time as its victim, to “5”? And what thematic and narrative ties exist between the stories? Looking at “Story 5” as its own story might help us unravel these questions. It’s all about Grace, a woman whose name should be obvious allusion to the theological concept of being blessed as god’s chosen. This idea ties well into the slave songs we’ve already heard before; many of them adopted Christianity’s themes, especially as time went by and African American culture became intrinsically mixed with Christianity. Thus, both the style of singing and the lyrics make sense to us: they, once again, pine for loss, homesick to a heartbreaking degree and strangely hopeful:
“On the day when Grace was born
There was a war across the sea
She’d grown lovely, bright, and tall
Fight and die for us all
Oh Grace, won’t you come back home?
Come home Grace, come home
Oh Grace, won’t you come back home?”
The last two lines, being the chorus of the track, are easily understood as a metaphor. Grace, the person, obviously needs to come home from wherever she’s fighting her war. The rest of the story, and the ties to the previous parts, lead us to believe that this is happening in our own timeline. Therefore, this war is probably one of America’s wars overseas. However, recall the deep meaning of the phrase “come home”. Under its auspices, “Grace” becomes also the idea of divine blessing, of a deep knowledge of being chosen and the peace that comes with such ideas. Lastly, as the next few verses will show, we are also dealing with the veteran’s inability to truly “come home”. Even if, physically, the soldier has returned, the mindset of warfare tends to remain with them. Thus, Grace continues to be protective of her close friends just like she did when she was in battle (“she’d tell tales of battles won / and how she’d just begun / Grace would help keep us safe at home“).
Thus, when some sort of accident results in the maiming of a co-worker, Grace uncovers evidence of what we assume must be negligence. Coupled with her protective nature, hard-won as a soldier, she couldn’t let it go; once that co-worker was maimed (“When her comrade lost an arm / Grace stayed with her til the end / And she vowed not again“), Grace was going to bring everything “crashing down”, vowing to expose the bosses and their negligence. However, tragically, her dedication and conviction lead to her death; whether by accident or by malice, Grace finds her end in a strangely similar way to a character from “Story”, namely Randy’s sister:
“Grace hid photographs and notes
From the foreman’s watchful eyes
When she told what she had found
It would all come crashing down
Grace smiled as she rode back home
No one witnessed Grace’s end
She was severed limbs and blood
Once her taxi hit the curb
She’d not speak another word
Oh Grace, what have they done?”
Oddly enough, the morse code hidden in “True Believer”, which I mentioned briefly in my apology above, plays a part here. When decoded, it says that “Grace is Randy’s sister”. What are we to make of this? The circumstances surrounding the two deaths are nothing alike in motivation of the deceased character, their demeanor and more. However, what if we were to take a broader approach to the phrase “Grace is Randy’s sister”? What if the two weren’t actually the same but, rather, synchronous? That is, what if they were identical in morale, in “Story” if you will, in significance? They are both a tale of a tragic death, a life cut short. They are both a tale of rebellion against authority which leads to death; Randy’s sister rebels against him trying to control her, acting like her father (and perhaps against the very idea that her father thinks he can control her as well). Grace rebels against her employees, a rebellion which might be familiar to 2331 as well.
Regardless of the answer to these cryptic, thematic ties (which we can’t fully unravel at this moment), “Story 5” is a clever track. It smooths the jarring transition in lyrical substance by relying on the shared musicality of slave songs and gospel while still tying itself in to our main story at the end. It’s powerful and final chorus (“Come home Grace, come home / Oh Grace, won’t you come back home?“) is eerily relevant to the predicament 2331 is in; who more than him in the universe needs grace? It is time for that grace to appear but not in a form 2331 might like or that we might expect. Well, we would expect it if we’ve been paying attention to the science fiction/space opera tropes in front of us. Which character has yet to get closure? Which character has yet to complete its growth, come full circle and devour its own character traits? If we answer that question, we will know before even listening to the last two tracks who brings this story to an end.
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It is, of course, the AI. If “Break the Glass” was 2331’s breaking point, where his basic ideas and relationship were broken down and made to come to an extreme, “Baby Don’t Sleep” is the same point for the AI. Perhaps as a reply to the chiding it receives in “Break the Glass”, it finally awakes to confront 2331 with his own failings. It does this by first confronting him with his situation: for all his bluster, he is the one to blame for the situation they are now in. He dears blame the AI for being cold and distant? What was it supposed to do, when its pilot is only concerned with being the baddest, most brutal pilot around, as we saw on “Air ‘Em Out”? It appears that 2331 is in desperate need of a reality check and the AI is here to give it to him:
“What the fuck is you thinkin’
Better yet where the fuck is you goin’?
Get back to no star mappin’
Out here nobody knowin’
Time flyin’ and you figured
You’d fly right along with it
Not hearin’ no warnings
In the morning you go get it
Like thruster throttle play that out
Move a half a moon around
A galaxy you play that down
Like it’s nothing, nothing out
Of nothing leaves you wishin’
Every day that they was still around
Soakin’ in the corridor corroding
While you mill about”
So, 2331 likes to pretend that he is the strong one and that the AI is the one who can’t handle the situation, leaving him alone and distraught. But that’s obviously not the case; 2331 keeps pining for his old life even while he slams the engines again and again in his attempt to destroy as many of his enemies as possible. Each time he does, moving “a half a moon around” or even “a galaxy”, he once again subjects himself to hypersleep. Where is the strength in that? Where is the supposed bluster and swagger of the pilot? All of these are a lie, as 2331 slowly/quickly plunges himself farther and farther away from anything that he ever knew. More than that, the swagger is only a false cover for the deep rot now setting in behind/below the facade of every day life, as 2331 begins losing his sanity. Nor is the AI yet prepared to give a solution; on the contrary, it begins to double down, caught in its own aggression as it dismantles everything that 2331 holds dear:
“‘Bout a million miles a millimeter
Doesn’t really mean nothing
‘Cause your body is bone marrow
And blood can never be trusted
It won’t last to the nearest
Destination because functions
You could load into the chamber
And treat sleep like it’s a punch-in
Space is wavy, follow form it, analyze it spectrally
The specter in the spectrum
On inspection is an entity
You call it god, or man, or woman
Love or hope, it’s all the same
A nickel-bag philosophy, a beta boost inside a brain”
This verse is an acerbic condemnation of the very human condition. It begins by attacking its fragile physicality, the body which cannot last out here in space. As much as 2331 would like to ignore it, the reality is pretty simple: his body is simply not up to the task ahead. He can keep jumping again and again and put himself into hypersleep like it doesn’t matter, but the reality is that they’re too far away from any place where he could be at peace to survive the journey there. 2331 is irrevocably lost and the only way, right now, to escape is barred to him by his own body. But more than that: his non corporeal elements are also a fiction, a farce. To the ship, consciousness is merely a blip on a screen, an aberration in measurement. The labels that we choose to put on it are meaningless whether that label be god (referencing Jung’s belief that the self is god), man or woman. It’s all the same and our philosophical, metaphysical explanations to the contrary aren’t worth nothing when the hard evidence is examined.
The second verse is a further elaboration on these ideas, this time with added flavor regarding the conditions now aboard the ship. Here, we get a glimpse of exactly what made the ship break and spew out this vehement abjuration of 2331 ambitions and hopes; he has become insufferable, sinking deeper and deeper into his paranoia and hypochondria, both motivated by his ineffable blame. The opening lines of the verse also contain another reference to Octavia Butler, this time to her “Patternist” series. There, “Clay’s Ark” is the name of an alien disease which, eventually, destroys planet Earth. It is a symbol here of the fantastical and delusional hypochondria that 2331 is faced with as he constantly looks out for improbable diseases in his body (“Most time is spent silently / Just monitoring your levels / Scanning for the Clay Ark / And the blood pressure, and stay dark“). These lead to the last piece in this “isolation puzzle” that the AI is drawing up for 2331. In no gentle terms, it describes the psychological loop that has been fueling 2331 from the start, namely the feedback ties between his guilt and his isolation:
“Nothing is familiar
So the strange become the family
Analogies are old and useless
When was the last time you had a tree
For reference or for reverence
For sure, by now, you’re so far gone
To track would be insanity”
Indeed, a man who tracks the distance he has come in an infinite void is insane. More than that; a man who clings to his past by imagining historical synchronicity when the future is clearly strange and unfamiliar, is insane. Both of these things are levied against 2331. A man without a tree (that is, a family tree), cut off completely from the life he once knew and the culture he has left behind, insists on seeing parallels everywhere. This is, of course, also a condemnation of us, the readers and analyzers and, as such, is a classic trope of space opera. We are the ones enforcing the structures above on the story.
The reality is that there are no parallels, no synchronicity. Space is so weird, so alien that we (2331 and us) are obsessed with making it make sense by forcing these patterns on it. In 2331’s case, this delusion is motivated not only by his bewilderment of the situation he is in but also from the inescapable sense of guilt that has been with him since the start. The only solution, the only way out, is by abandoning the desire to monitor, to tally, to obsessively measure. To monitor what? Everything: our bodies, time, morality, guilt, debts paid or owed. Everything. The only solution is in letting all of that go and truly flying into the void. Up until now, 2331 has only being in the “all black everything” by name only. From the beginning, from “All Black” even, the ship has told him to let go (“You’ve lost it all already, you deserve more than you’re getting / For the sake of not upsetting order in the / (All black everything)“). You want to be a radical? Be a radical; it’s time to let it all go, not just respect for authority:
“Can’t shake what you’ve done
No matter how far you outrun it
Amass that with the false fact
That somebody is coming
Delusional is easier than self examination
But you gotta make a choice of where you’re going
Because staying is surrendering
Since you might be the last that’s not an option
Get your shit together, lover boy, stop looking at the clock“
This revelation by the AI is truly astounding and astute and just the kind of perspective to be expected from a modern, deconstructed space opera. The illusion of freedom from just being in space is one we suffer from dearly. Look at Star Trek or, even closer to home, Elon Musk’s heady plans for Mars. What wildness, what sense of exploration is there in going to Mars as part of a billionaire’s plan for profit? While I’m not saying money is bad or that rich people are evil, it’s definitely not the radicalism that some people might want to paint it as. Same goes for Star Trek. It is constantly lauded as a utopian future and yet, Starfleet is as tyrannical and cold as any technocracy or bureaucracy. The AI wants more from 2331. Don’t just settle for the superficial freedom of being in space; reach out and seize true freedom by letting everything go, throwing the clock to the (solar) wind. Stop chaining your life to the pursuit, to guilt, to victory, to the past. Sever all ties and enjoy radical un-tethering.
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And now, here at the end, that time of un-tethering has come. “A Better Place” opens with 2331 embracing the answer which has been found. He tells us to remember that when we’re down and out, when we’re oppressed by impossible odds, the way out is probably through the hardship rather than an endless struggle to escape it. He does so by once again tying his own story to that of the slaves, feeling their pain as his and resolving to work through it, no matter what it takes (“If ever you find yourself beaten and broke / And can’t feel the whip for the weight of the yoke / And fear that the night will not turn into day / Remember the darkness will show you the way“). On its end, the AI is coming to some sort of peace with 2331 and even regains some form of the empathy it had for him before everything broke. It understands that, while 2331 is clearly delusional and increasing his suffering by his own devices, he’s also doing the best he can to cope with what is an impossible situation with faulty tools, namely the human body and psyche:
“Inside the mind of a man is a massacre
Made up of many a miniature message
And misses the most of it
So convoluted, design for disaster
It’s making the best of a universe
Far too expansive to cope with
And he never chose nor was chosen
By metrics that make any sense
And the senses are numbed by emotional stresses”
The “better place” is a place where 2331 can escape from being all of the above, a place where he can finally be someone else, some not haunted by all of these oppressors and his own guilt (“There must be a / Better place to / Be somebody / Be somebody else”). This bout of empathy, the understanding of 2331’s predicament and the realization that the AI is the only thing that can save him from himself, leads it to the formulation of a solution. First, there must be a letting go of everything, an acceptance of come what may. This means even the love of the ship for 2331, for where they are going there is no love to be had (“Who got time to let anything linger? / Where it hovers / Surely you will learn to live it / Who got time for this love shit anyway? / Gotta survive / Isn’t that mess enough for him?“). But what would require the AI to give up even its love for 2331? Where is this “better place” to which they must go from which there is no return and where everything, including love, is erased?
Again, if you’ve been paying close attention to the space opera side of things, the trope should be staring you in the face. What gives ultimate escape from space? What spatial phenomenon is there which defeats even time? What gateway goes through the darkness, into the darkness and then out from it? Why, the very blackness of space in which 2331 finds himself, of course. This has almost been prophesied by previous segments in the album: 2331 must exist outside of time, 2331 must exist outside of space, 2331 must let everything go, 2331 must let the galaxy be left behind. The only way to accomplish this is to “bet upon an endless roulette wheel” where the “odds are ungodly”. The ships AI is resolved to finally let all plans go, to stop the clocks counting the years that had passed by and to just jump randomly, to venture into the great nothingness with no purpose in mind.
No purpose than, somehow, sometime, somewhere, finding a place where 2331 can finally live differently. The tragedy of this should be apparent: giving up on their love, putting 2331 into what is essentially an infinite sleep, the ship must soldier on into the nothingness in the faint, faint, minuscule hope of finding some place where they can finally stop. Thus, the line “And somebody gotta keep watch where the watch stops” is heartbreaking; the ship must stay awake throughout it all, alone, keeping the course going, keeping the jumps random. All of this in order to do one thing: to bring back 2331 into a civilization where he can exist again. Civilization in this case is ineffable, ephemeral ties and networks of meaning which give humans the capacity to live. This is what is robbed us of in isolation, this un-quantifiable sensation of together, of community:
“He’s demanding the evidence for something
That maybe never was for anyone
He’s missing something pretty
He’s missing where the air tastes gritty
He’s missing the splendor and misery
Of bodies, of cities, of being missed”
The last two lines, containing as they do the name of the album, are perhaps the entire morale of the story purified into one moment. First, the name itself is a reference to a lost book a book that, probably, will never see the light of day. This is the promised sequel to one of the most accomplished and celebrated space opera of all time, Samuel R. Delany‘s “Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand”. That book ends with a note promising its sequel, which never came, titled “The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities”. As you can see, it is directly referenced in the lines above, even down to the fact that it’s being missed.
But more than that, the lines capture the inescapable and yet elusive desire of humans for society. Does it even exist? Maybe not; after all, you can’t really point to it. You can’t locate society. Even more than that, is it necessarily a good thing? Hardly. It contains misery, oppression, murder, rape, brutality and much more. In its inexorable path, it banishes and leaves radicals to rot outside of its borders. Cities are the same and so are bodies; they are both essential to our existence but also harbor pain, coldness, ruthless efficiency and death. But, are all of these things not also splendorous? First, “being missed”. Society and community can be great forces for good, even when they’re not actively working towards it. Who of us can survive without the people surrounding them, without the societies which gave them meaning?
Secondly, cities. Who can deny the beauty of a city, even the ugliest ones of them? This concept, of the brutal beauty of cities, is one which runs through most of science fiction and space opera specifically. It is a complicated relationship; cities are things of pollution, filth and crime but also of architecture, warmth and intimacy. Lastly, the body, perhaps the most compelling and impossible conundrum in the middle of this entire album. Through ideas of race, sex and body image, the body is a host of aggression and frustrations just waiting to be unleashed. It is a contact source of troubles for most of us and the invariably ending of our self for all of us (since we will all, barring the singularity, die one day and death is through the body). But, it is also a great source of strength, a beautiful tool and house which can be brought to exquisite degrees of perfection. It is also a source of comfort: the physical power of a hug or of sex for example and the balm it can be for the self is not to be denied. And, indeed, the ship implores 2331 not to deny and to instead embrace his corporeal nature and, in a clever twist, the corporeal nature of the AI’s computer:
“Flesh is weaker than the metal, it is true
But the metal’s being moved into a thing it doesn’t do
Circuitry is only serviceable as much as it is used
So why don’t you use it?
Till you use it up, abuse it
It is strong, it can take it if you can’t
Your sinews are more intuitively designed for dance
Well, it set up a random course safely away from suns
Four-hundred and twenty-three
By a hundred and twelve by fifty-one“
By now, your fingers should itch with desire to run those coordinates and see what you find. Indeed, a simple search of the phrase “423 / 112 / 51” reveals that it is a Star Trek reference. The episode in question doesn’t bear any special significance to our story. However, consider that the very randomness of the reference feeds into the randomness of the AI’s course selection. Thus, in the hope and horror from all of the above, the ship flings 2331 into the vastness of space, this time in earnest. The clocks are stopped, and all care has been thrown in the wind. There remains only one thing to be reconciled. The body, society, humanity, time and space and all the rest of it, have all been fed into this new solution, this radical acceptance of space and what it offers/threatens/promises. Only one thing remains: 2331’s guilt, his obsession with the past, his infuriating persistence to measure, to keep time, to keep books on all that has passed.
Continuing the trope of reversal and of turning weaknesses into strength, “Better Place” and, indeed, the album, end with a musing on history followed by a repeated admonition to just throw it all out and “go”. The obsession with history, with race and with time, might just be the tool 2331 needs to survive what is to come. In the true darkness of space, now devoid of the purpose of killing or of destinations, 2331 must have something to cling to. His belief in time, a belief which is essentially a belief in the fact that everything ends, that “this too shall pass”, is the only thing which can keep him going where there is no hope. Even the infinite reaches of space, randomly traversed by the ship’s random courses, must one day end. Thus, this hope of terminality, this insistence on a spectrum which moves forward, keeps 2331 going.
It is only fitting that I end this article and this series with the words of the artists themselves. Therefore, here they are. Consider them carefully as they are, essentially, the entire album and its questions. The album itself ends not with words but with static, supposedly random yet, being music, obviously containing order. Thus, it ends with space itself, a seeming nothingness which instead contains everything. The only true answer allowed to us is release; only by letting go of the attempt to understand hidden rules can we embrace the static and its promise.
Thanks for reading.
“Inside the mind of a man is a mystery
Made up of these centuries
Of mistakes he believes
Are important to be
Part of his DNA, calls it history
Species with memories longer
Don’t bother with sweating the old shit
Maybe it’s this time-bound conscience
That keeps him out pushing through nothing
With only the hope brought on by this belief that
There must be a
Better place to
Be somebody else“