Friday, September 30, 2005

Zen, farts, and Star Trek

The other day a three-year-old read Pooh's Favorite Things About Spring to me (and by "read" I mean made up a surreal and improbable story based on the illustrations). Personal highlights for me included the time Pooh rubbed honey all over his belly
and the time he farted after talking to Eeyore. ("It's okay," I was told: "Everybody farts sometimes.")

This of course got me thinking about Star Trek -- Star Trek: Strange New Worlds v8, to be exact, an anthology for new writers featuring my story, "Egg Drop Soup," in which Doctor Phlox from Enterprise enjoys a bowl of soup (you should still be able to find a copy in your local bookstore ;) ).

As portrayed by actor John Billingsly, Phlox possesses a Zen-like acceptance, and my idea was to write a story about what happens when Phlox encounters a problem he can neither accept nor change. The prose style is as unsentimental as I could make it: stripped down, pure reporting (y'know, Zen fiction):

A group of children gathered near the entrance to the cafeteria and Phlox decided to spare a few minutes to study the small humans. One little girl with tangled blonde hair and spots on her face -- freckles, Phlox recalled -- turned towards him, a replica of a bear clutched to her chest. Phlox smiled his widest grin, stretching his mouth farther than any human could.

“Monster!” the little girl shrieked, mouth opening nearly as wide as Phlox’s had. Screaming and waving their arms as if warding off a predator, the children scattered in every direction.

Perhaps we have a little ways to go with regards to acceptance after all, Phlox thought as he watched the children’s flustered caretakers rush after their charges.

“What are you?”

Phlox looked down and saw that one of the children had remained. It was very small, but he guessed by the intelligent eyes that it was older than it appeared. It had no hair, and Phlox could not tell what sex it was.

“I’m a Denobulan,” said Phlox, taken with the child’s frank stare. She was female, he realized, bald because of some kind of radiation therapy. Cancer was rare on Earth and radiation treatment even rarer, but Phlox surmised that this was the case here.

“Don’t you want to run from me?” he asked. “The other children seem to want to.”

The girl rubbed a thin hand over her bald head. “Sometimes they run from me, too.”

Phlox nodded, thinking that flaws filled the universe and that wishing it weren’t so was pointless. Acceptance brought peace.

He was surprised to see the sentiment reflected in the young girl’s face.

Anyway, because I tried to keep the story bare-bones, I find it particularly interesting to see where reviewers disagree with me. A reviewer on the Amazon page says:

"Egg Drop Soup" by Robert Burke Richardson: Best Enterprise story in the book. Dr. Phlox is so well-written, and this is a sweet, but very emotional story about having hope. This nearly ties with "Transfigurations" for most emotional (for me), but not quite. A fantastic story.

The reviewer at TrekWeb has a different take:

The recently-cancelled ENTERPRISE is also represented with three new tales this year for those of you who can't get enough of our most recent TREK casualty. First up is "Egg Drop Soup", written by Robert Burke Richardson. Set before the events of the series, Doctor Phlox learns how important it is to view Earth customs as he impacts one young child's life for the better.

Neither interpretation is quite what I, the author, intended, but both are cogent, honest reactions (in fact, I think I even prefer these interpretations). I like finding out I don't know what my stories mean -- it's more fun that way.


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