The old man and the samurai
I was at a science fiction convention, flittering from party to party, taking in the ambience, when I overheard an odd conversation. You will say, no doubt, that there is no shortage of odd conversations at science fiction conventions, and indeed there are not. This one, however, resonated with me, as though there was some profound subtlety echoing through the conversation, an essence that impinged upon my awareness but which I could not raise to consciousness.
A young man and a woman were conversing. He evidently was a science fiction fan, young, male, intense, intelligent, and socially awkward. I didn’t know him but I knew the type. I recognized her. She was an author, not a leading light of the field, but an established successful author with a following.
Their conversation rambled from one topic to another, from raising pedigreed rabbits, to medieval weaponry and asian cuisine. And then, quite shyly, he said, “I’ve got this idea for a story. Would you like to hear it?”
Her response was a wary, “Oh.”
He took her response as assent – nothing less than a flaming sword and a battle cry of “Die, Earth Pig” would have stopped him – and plunged on.
“You see,” he said, “you’ve got a battle between an old man who is a martial arts master and a samurai. I’ve thought a lot about this. Their reason for fighting can’t be something trivial like protecting a village. It has to be fated. Even though they don’t want to fight, they know they must. I have this picture of them meeting on a battle field; nothing around them matters; the only thing that matters is that they are facing each other and that they must fight each other to the death.”
He paused. “So what happens,” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes I’m pulling for the old man, and sometimes I think they both die. I just can’t quite work it out.”
She interrupted, “The samurai wins.”
“The samurai wins. The good big man beats the good little man. The man good with a sword beats the man good with his hands. That’s fundamental.”
She paused. “So what happens,” he asked.
She thought for a moment and then answered in flat definite tones. “The samurai writes a poem.”
I wandered on; there was a party on the fifth floor that I definitely wanted to get to. I wish I hadn’t been in such a rush; I’ve always wondered how that conversation turned out. Did he write the story? Did she? Did they collaborate? Did nothing come of it? If a story was written, did it ever get published?
There was an idea there, I’m sure of it. I think what the young man was after was a paradox. You pit two perfect warriors against each other, each unbeatable: What happens? In real life there are no perfect warriors – all are flawed and all die in the end. In fiction and myth there can be such creatures.
The classic paradox is: What happens when an irresistable force meets an unmovable object. An answer is that an unmovable object can’t appear in the same story as an irresistable force. Each has to have its own story. Perhaps the old man and the samurai are like that.
Somewhere out of space and time in a reality all of its own, there is a battlefield. It is empty, that field. It waits for two warriors to appear and begin the battle that cannot be. From time to time, one of them appears. Sometimes the other appears as a shade. As the newcomer takes form his opponent fades. Never do they see each other save as ghosts. Each groans in frustration as his opponent disappears. I do not know how the paradox can be averted, or even if it should be averted. I sense their eternal frustration and eternal longing for battle, and I say:
Let the battle begin!
This page was last updated July 1, 2006.