Monday, May 30, 2011

Star Trek and the Lady of Pain

"It's hard to believe that a man could die from loneliness."- Bones, Star Trek, Dagger of the Mind

But this, the Lady of Pain knows all too well. I've just finished reading Troy Denning's Pages of Pain (Planescape). As D&D-related novels go, it's excellent. As normal novels go, it's outstanding. Granted, it took me a while to get through - the pages of pain being, perhaps, painful also for the reader, though that's as intended - but the end result was well worth the struggle. Not that Denning's writing style is anything to lament, though I did have to re-read the fight scenes on many occasions. It's merely that so many bad things happen, and then worse things happen. And then worse things. And then things you didn't believe could happen. It's like the section in Men in Tights where Blinken outlines what happened to Robin's pets - the dog was run over by a cart, the goldfish was eaten by the cat, and the cat choked on the goldfish - though this version is anything but funny. It doesn't make for happy reading, but it does make for a compelling story.

I'm certain there must be speculation which I'm too tired to go searching for now, but the story of Pages of Pain also strikes me as very similar to that of Planescape: Torment. Though, and this is a salient and invaluable point, the Lady of Pain is one of the main characters. She's narrating the story of the main character, and she even speaks to the reader. When she did, my blood ran cold. This is the Lady of Pain we're talking about. I don't want her looking at me, not even for a second. But when she did, I couldn't tear my eyes away. She dared me to keep reading on penalty of pain. I did. She was right.

It seems impossible to relate the soul-crushing discontent I feel at the story having reached its conclusion. Not that it doesn't end well - it does that - but throughout many promises are broken, pacts between reader and narrator. The Lady lies. She says things will turn out well. She tells us the future, only to disprove her own words. She holds out hope, only to conceal a dagger. Pain Unending is the title of the final section. I can see why.

Couple this with Star Trek's Dagger of the Mind episode - where a device in a psychiatric hospital is used to subdue patients' will and make any suggestion become true in their minds - where a man can die of loneliness and you have an unhappy parallel. Wouldn't one go mad, lost in one of the Lady's mazes? It seems so simple in the game - find your way out using gates. In Pages of Pain, the exit is more metaphorical, but the pain is no less real. It's impossible to describe without relating events and, in so doing, robbing them of their power, but I'm humbled and terrified by the emotions wrought so craftily by mere words and a steady mind. I could have stopped reading at any point - did, several times - and yet here I am, my heart within me burning for people who never existed, hope betrayed to despair.

There is something incredibly powerful here, in this sadness. Can a man die of loneliness? Yes. And broken-heartedness, of a certainty. It wastes away your resolve, your longing, your desire and your will, leaving only an infinite sadness that draws you ever deeper. Grief is a bright, searing agony compared to the void of despair. When we become sentient enough, and wise enough, to know that everything will change, that we will lose the ones we love as inevitably as the tide rises and falls, and to understand our own mortality, what else can we do but fall? The brightest spark is a candleflame in darkness, and no solace from the storm.

So, what do we do? Where do we turn? To religion? To fantasy? To knowledge? To power? Each person chooses their own path, and we are each our own raft or anchor. There must be land out there somewhere. In the words of Paramore: "And the worst part is / before we get any better we're headed for a cliff / and in the freefall I will realise / that I'm better off when I hit the bottom."

This is why we have cats. They are the natural life buoys of the ocean of despair. Behold, ye mighty, and tremble.