A technical blog I follow recently posted a side-note about some indie sci-fi books he was enjoying. I started reading the David Birkenhead series and I found it so exciting that I finished the series as far is available so far. There were a few little sections in Midshipman that I wanted to reflect on further.
Privilege and Responsibility
In the protagonist’s early years he comes under the tutelage of a great instructor, and he reflects on one of the early lessons he learned:
What my tutor wanted me to learn from the experience was that the higher a person climbs in life and the more power they accrue, the greater their obligations towards others become and the less personal freedom of action they enjoy. Life cannot in fact be lived ay other way without become a mockery of itself.
If the individuals involved have any honor, that is. Or empathy.
This realization by the hero is poignant because he is a freed slave in the process of making more and more of himself. As he does so, he finds himself obligated by a sense of duty and honor to take on more and more difficult tasks. He sense of commitment to the well-being of others less fortunate also drives him to a more difficult service than his former slavery. Furthermore, he sees both true and false dignitaries all around him, and he becomes aware of the great burden that the true dignitaries around him carry. Their sense of honor and their empathy for those less fortunate make their positions a real labor and heavy sense of responsibility, while false dignitaries only enjoy the privileges of their positions. On can see how this latter life makes a mockery of dignity and reveals a cold-hearted and false character.
Later in the book the protagonist and this same instructor are discussing fairness. In his adolescence the hero gives the too-often-used whine, “It’s not fair!” The instructor suggests others who have life even worse than the protagonist, then adds this little discourse:
“And then we might consider the destitute, the ignorant, the endless legions of the crippled…” He shook his head and sighed [I especially enjoy the genuine sympathy the greats in this book frequently show]. “Life’s never fair, David, not can it be made fair. No matter how hard people try. If I could share only one lesson with you, this would be the one. Every single person there’s every been was a universe unto themselves, and their path through life a unique, individual voyage that can’t be meaningfully compared with that of another. Nothing’s ever the same twice and therefore no two lives, or two people, are comparable.” He sighed. “So fairness is an illusion, David, and yearning for it is a waste of precious time.”
Being a father of several children, the “It’s not fair!” complaint comes around. I suppose that if what their really saying is, “That’s not just!” then I ought to intervene and fix the circumstances. But if things are just, but not fair, then the primary thing to focus on is helping my son or daughter to grow up a bit more.
Of course, adults also can waste their time contemplating how life isn’t fair. As adults, we still need to mature — grow up — from time to time.
Honor and Recognition
I’m just realizing that all three marks I made in my copy of Midshipman are discourses of the protagonist’s instructor. Here’s the bit this time:
“One of the traits I’m expected to encourage in my charges is a true sense of nobility. An understanding that being a nobleman is more about obligations than privileges, and that true honor is the greatest burden that [a man] can ever bear.” He shook his head, then turned to face me. “The greater one’s abilities and power, the greater their obligations. Some people never come to understand that, David. They become monsters like the Emperor… devoting their entire lives to seeking the very highest titles and decorations. To them [recognition or a crown] is more precious than gold. They’ll do anything – even commit terrible crimes – to obtain what they seek, all the while never having a clue about the substance that necessarily lies behind the symbol. Others, however, live quietly and try to do what’s right even when it’s not easy. They don’t seek medals or crowns or glory – instead, all they’re interested in is satisfying the demands of their own personal sense of honor. Yet, though this sort of man doesn’t chase after honors, somehow the honors tend to find him.”
I find these lessons, and the protagonist’s discovery of them and experience with them, to be a rich way to internalize these myself.
I find the David Birkenhead books exciting and thought provoking to read. I find the protagonist to be a truly an inspiring hero. I find myself wanting to share these stories together with my kids in their pre-teen or teen years, but there is some content that gives me pause. I’ll share these with you:
- Throughout the books there is war going on, and some of the effects of the violence are mentioned, including the blood and dismembered body parts. I felt the book treated these subjects with an appropriately broad brush: mentioning them, but not dwelling on them.
- In Midshipman the protagonist draws a suggestive picture in order to distract an adversary; a couple details are given about the picture that would probably fall between a PG-13 and R rating.
- In Lieutenant the protagonist sees evidence left on some clothing that one character is raping another. In my opinion the book treats this serious and sad issue situation with due gravity. I mention it because parents will generally want to control when and to what extent their children are exposed to this sad and sick reality of life.
- In Captain the protagonist struggles with the fact that the spouse he was uniquely intended for is not in his life, particularly in the area of the natural urges of a young man. He sees a doctor on the matter, who advises him to stay very busy and take long, cold showers. It’s not a major theme of the book; the whole things is described and dealt with in just a few pages.
- Commodore and Admiral haven’t been released as of the time of this writing.