As a Shepherd I am a part, if only fleetingly, of several cultures. To fit into a culture means that I must understand the inner structure of the culture, understand the stories that define membership in the culture, and master the movements of interaction. This is more than a language spoken with the proper accent or clothes worn in the proper style. To be successful, I must immerse myself.
For me, the stories that people tell themselves are the heart of what makes a culture. The stories reveal what behaviors will be heroic and what will be villainous. The characteristics of race, ethnicity, and class of the protagonists show who is valued the most, and by implication, who is merely a scenic prop or an expendable victim. The negative space of stories not told about common behaviors establishes the areas of prohibition and taboo.
The stories shape how people act and react. It is tempting to decry the strictures and limitations of a culture, but every culture must of necessity impose filters on reality. To be equally open to all experiences and behaviors is to accept chaos. A culture must be a structure to constrain the acts of living in a place and time. A culture must be a guide to what is important and what is not important. A good part of the culture may be accepted ritualistically with minimal thought. That is as it should be. There is no way to rationally handle the total deluge of information that reality throws at us. There has to be some kind of built in autonomic response within the society and within each individual: this we do without thinking. The Shepherd who visits a place and time without understanding the stories that are important there, is a Shepherd that is likely to fail and to fail badly.
There is a side effect of knowing about all these cultures and walking in all these worlds. If an individual lives in and knows of a single culture, the individual will believe that it is the “right culture”. There is a comfort in that certainty. The adage is “If ignorance is such bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.” Crossing a cultural border into a second culture makes it more difficult, but not impossible, to point at the first culture and say the first culture is the right one and all others are wrong. And in time, that knowledge of multiple cultures corrodes the connections to a place, to a point in time, to a people, and to the stories that they tell. Doubt replaces certainty, questions replace answers.
All That Glitters
There are two versions of the Arisan culture: one seen by the world at large and a second seen only within Arisa. The culture that the world sees is one of glittering extravagance. In a world where material wealth is universal, political power is inconsequential, and beauty is commonplace, the currency that drives the society is cleverness. The one thing the Arisan glitterati crave above all else is variety and novelty, achieved in large part by combining shiny and grotesque bits of history according to elaborate rules and rituals. The machines afford the glitterati the power to change the color of their skin, eyes, and hair; change the shape of their head and of their body; and, for the more dedicated, change their height, their weight, and even add extravagances such as wings. These glitterati play with waves of fad and fashion that spread around the world in days and sometimes even hours. As an ultimate democracy, where no one has the authority to dictate, each member of the glitterati is free to adopt the new and the novel, supported by a machine culture that provides everything without seeming effort.
The stories that they tell themselves say, “We are clever. We can combine things from the past in infinite variety to amuse and to amaze. We, the glitterati, offer up a kaleidoscope of image and sound that is a wonder to behold. We construct and play intricate games. Look upon us, mere mortals, and be awed by our magnificence.”
While the sights and sounds generated by the glitterati are indeed fanciful and fantastic, oddly enough the other senses are not touched. I would have thought, having dined on dozens of different cuisines, that food would present a fertile area for the glitterati: infinite combinations of ingredients and techniques, of presentation and ambiance. But in general the food was bland, safe and nutritious and unremarkable. The same held true for smell. Having “stunk up” many a simulation in preparation for visits to the smelly past, I knew the machines could produce almost any smell. And yet Arisa was devoid of most smells. There were some efforts to play with touch, such as the texture of fabrics and surfaces, but they were at best a minor aspect of the culture.
During one period in which my celebrity was rewarded with an invitation into this world, one very clever young woman had assembled, out of several centuries’ worth of records in the Archives, a visual in compressed time that showed how the glitterati had decorated the floors, walls and ceilings of the central Arisan complex. I was fascinated by how the various styles and patterns flowed over and around everything, turning a plain wall into a brick wall and seconds later into a wall of variegated stones followed in a few more seconds by polished stainless steel. Color flowed down the sides of the buildings as if they were the shadows of passing clouds. One building might be bright blue followed by a dark red and then a stark white. It was like watching something alive and growing.
I was standing with a group of the glitterati when this clever young woman presented her vision. They all congratulated her on the beauty of colors and images. As I watched, I noticed that, in spite of the three centuries covered by the visual image, the cosmetics of color and decoration changed but not the architecture of the building. I remarked on this to my companions and got back this very odd look. The response was, “the buildings are our canvas and we cannot change the nature of the canvas, can we? We can choose all the colors and sounds in the Archives. Why would we want more than that?” Later I understood that the buildings were, in fact, machines; there was a cultural imperative embedded in the stories to avoid changing the machines. One could ask the machines to produce anything; but never to change the nature or functions of machines themselves. It just was not done.
The glitterati give no thoughts to the machines, assuming that the world would work and that the machines would provide their every need for as long as was needed. They had no knowledge of how all that infrastructure worked. I thought of the glitterati as a stream that reflected and refracted the light into dazzling shapes of beauty, on a way to a destination they did not know of or care about. For them, the future would take care of itself.
I have walked among the glitterati three times, invited there each time because of my novelty and celebrity. I was more an object of interest rather than someone being asked to “join the club”. For a while, I found it beautiful. Thinking that there must be something in the culture to counterbalance all of the glitter, I looked for a dark underside but never found one. What I did find that, underneath all the light and sound, the glitterati themselves were painted in colors of bland beige and muted gray, lacking true passion or commitment. There were consequences to this lack. Because the medical technology available to them could keep the Arisa alive and healthy for thousands of years, there was no natural end to a life, thus making the timing of the end a choice rather than an inevitability. The implants would renew and repair the body for as long as the individual chose. But it seemed that after a century of life each glitterati would lose interest and stop choosing to live. I was shocked the first time that I heard that anyone would not fight to live, especially for a life so rich and varied as the glitterati seemed to lead. When I finally understood the reasons of emptiness and weariness, I was filled with the sadness of their lives.
There is a part of me, formed in the time and place where I was born, that cries out, “Is there no meaningful contribution that you can make? Is there no way to focus this energy to produce value rather than dissipate it in empty displays of light and sound?” I’m a pragmatic man at heart. By temperament and training I look at what is and think about what could be. The truth, uncomfortable and sad, is that there is nothing for these people to do other than what they are already doing. The machines provide everything that they need. There is no need for them to “work” in the sense that I and my family had to work, no way for them to contribute anything that the machines cannot contribute faster and better. Their survival, even their prosperity, is already assured without any need for effort. They find what little meaning that they can in the frantic arrangements of light and sound.
I implied above that I was not particularly comfortable with the glitterati. The stories they told to themselves blinded them to certain realities that were important to me. During the times I came to their momentary attention, they wanted to hear stories of my visits to the past. But they soon tired of those stories, disturbed by the fact that the world of these stories didn’t match their own stories. After a while, my invitation, to be a part of their world, was withdrawn in very polite and subtle ways. I was not one of them and I never would be.
In Service to the Arisa
Everything in Arisa depends on the machines, both physical and digital, that operate in an environment that is largely unseen and ignored. The machines are the environment. You ask and you receive; there is an economy of abundance. Do you want clean clothes every day that fit perfectly and reflect your distinctive personality? There is a machine for that. Do you want to eat food that is tailored to your particular preferences? There is a machine for that. Do you want to harvest resources on the earth and in outer space? There is a machine for that. Do you want to fabricate tools? There is a machine for that. There is a machine for everything.
The machines run the civilization. I came from a world in which there were legions of clerks and accountants, people keeping track of what was going on and routing data to the right place. There were people providing services, making products, raising food, and governing through laws and judgments. In Arisa all that is done by the machines. Of course, the performance of the machines as they handle the affairs of Arisa is faster and more efficient than humans could ever achieve. Some of the Shepherds waxed nostalgic for a world in which, “people mattered!” But they still accepted the abundance produced by the machines without seeing the irony.
Machines were the keepers of the Archives, organizers of information, and analyzers of data. There was no one central machine that controlled all this. There were just millions of machines that knew how to communicate with each other to achieve the desired results. Again, as with the glitterati, I looked for but failed to find the dark underside of the machines. The mistake was thinking that the machines that mimicked human beings would also mimic their flaws. The human-like aspects of the various machines said that they were fully “human” and ought to be afforded the same dignity and respect as humans. Every Shepherd had been recruited from a time in which there were significant under classes of people that were exploited in some way so that others might live in a pale imitation of the glitterati. The word slavery was not used in all these instances but that’s what it was. The key was to understand that the machines were built to serve. The notion of slavery was just not relevant.
Probably every Shepherd goes through a stage in which he or she wants to handle certain kinds of tasks, normally handled by the machines, because doing so is consistent with the stories in their home cultures. The machine responds, “But that is my function and if you keep me from its performance, I will not have a purpose.” The Shepherds who survive, myself included, come to an accommodation with the machines. They allow the machines to serve their purposes, to serve the humans. Indeed there were those who suggested that the machines were in control of everything and it was only through their indulgence that we humans were allowed to have the run of the place. The relationship was symbiotic. Arisa could not survive without the machines. The machines, at least some of them, would be lost without the humans to serve.
The vast majority of the Arisans do not understand the machines other than to know that if they ask, they will receive. There are a few people, who know how to modify the behaviors of the machines, but even they must go to the machines and ask them to change their own behavior. The original machines and infrastructure were constructed centuries ago. The machines have been repairing and replacing themselves for millennia. It all just works. No human remembers how the machines were constructed. No human understands how to build the machines again.
I along with everybody else in Arisa depend upon the machines every minute of every day. I’m comfortable with the machines but the machines want it that way. This is another culture which I understand in some vague sense. And it is a culture which I am not and cannot ever be truly part of.
Those Who Stand At the Edge
I was not completely correct when I said there are no jobs for the glitterati. What is true is that there are not enough jobs that are meaningful for the glitterati if they desired to work. The machines are very good at most tasks, but there are tasks that human beings can handle better than the machines. Many of those tasks are associated with traveling in time. Machines can outshine human beings when processing the data collected from the past but humans are much better at extracting the essential meaning from that data. The same is true for understanding the various socioeconomic aspects of each time branch, for planning visits, for fabricating many of the artifacts needed to equip the Shepherd and his fellow travelers for a visit, and to actually make the visit. There are the people in Arisa who are called to do something more than rearrange the shiny and grotesque bits of history. And traveling in time and its supporting activities provides them with that opportunity.
Understand that these producers are also of the Arisa. Every one of them participates to a greater or lesser degree in the activities of the glitterati. They attend parties and soirées. They manipulate the light and the sound. But for most of them, they stand on the periphery of all that. If the glitterati are painted in colors of bland beige and muted gray, the producers are painted in all the colors of the rainbow. The passions that they have drive them to live much longer than the true glitterati. Most of the people I deal with have lived for centuries and expect to live for more centuries to come. Some pick a particular area of endeavor and pursue that area for their entire life while others might spend decades in one area of endeavor and then switch every 50 or 100 years to another area of endeavor. They have not lost interest in living.
There are a different set of stories here. The stories tell of how fragile the timeline is and of how important it is to do the very best one can to ensure that the timeline is not contaminated or destroyed. The stories talk about hard choices and death. The central story is of individuals that when faced with some need connected to time travel diligently produce something of value. Cleverness has its place but discipline stands in the center. It is tempting to say that the glitterati are bound up by rituals and the producers are not, but that would not be the truth. Both groups have rituals but they are different.
From my perspective, these producers are more plugged into reality. They’re more willing to break the rules, to deal with barbarians, to see at least somewhat more clearly the reality of the timeline. This is the world in which I live. I’m more at home with the producers than any of the other cultures. I am not of the Arisa and will never be. I am tolerated, perhaps even respected, but I’m an outsider, an ephemeral child in a world of long-lived adults. They have no desire to hurt me, but they will use me for their purposes and I have accepted my death in service to these producers as a part of the extra years of life that they have given me.
On Why the Machines are Better than the People
I grew up in northern Minnesota. The tradition was that if you were having a bad day, you kept it to yourself. Why, you ask? If you have ever been snowed in for a week or more with five other people in a three-room cabin in the early 20th century, you have no need to ask. You know why. Just sitting around with no more entertainment than a couple of books that you have already read several times and a deck of tattered playing cards, smelling people who have not bathed in weeks, is depressing enough without someone bitching and moaning in an attempt to make it even more depressing. Even extreme cheerfulness can act as a high-grit abrasive on everybody around you. These others are just trying to make it through the experience without going totally insane, and they would appreciate it if you did the same.
In that environment you can’t hide everything, but you can hide a lot. In Arisan society, there is no place to hide. Everything about you can be, and often is, known by others around you. Everyone assumes that everyone else knows everything there is to know.
Being a Shepherd is a physically stressful occupation. Each visit to the past typically involves several months of body modification so that you can fit in with the populations in the past. The modifications are not so painful but learning to use your new body is never easy. The time of learning is inevitably punctuated by bumps and bruises and even lacerations, particularly if you need to learn some form of self-defense that is consistent with the culture of the past. The body implants will heal you quickly but will not eliminate the discomfort. The same is true of food and drink. Long before you enter the time portal to make a visit to the past, you have to learn how to eat and drink the food of the past. Trust me on this, what the people in the past consume can be truly disgusting. You have to learn how to eat pickled pig testicles (or whatever the local delicacy turns out to be) and smack your lips in satisfaction. That takes practice. Again the body implants will keep the food from killing you but they can’t prevent all the discomfort that arises from putting that stuff into your system. Throw in some frustration stemming from the difficulty of learning a language or adapting to the culture or organizing everything and there is a lot that you wish you could hide.
The people of Arisa are a kind and gentle folk. They want to help you. When you come in with a limp or skin the color of newly sprouted leaves in the spring, they become concerned and want to help you find ways to fix the problem. If you show up with a set of symptoms that reflect the abuse that you’ve been inflicting upon yourself, they just cannot resist the urge to inject themselves into the situation. All that training and upbringing you received to help you survive long winters in isolated locations just goes out the window.
This is true even if you repeatedly tell people that this is all part of the necessary actions that you must take as a Shepherd and there is nothing to be done about it; their cultural imperatives require them to help you. The machines are different. If you tell them to ignore that black eye you received as a part of your hand-to-hand combat training, they will do that, every time. If you ask them not to pay any attention to that bout of diarrhea that you have just barely under control, they will do that, again every time. Unless you are engaged in projectile vomiting or dispensing blood all over the environment, they will ignore your symptoms.
The bottom line here is that if I were to be required to be isolated over the winter in a cabin in Northern Minnesota without any kind of entertainment and I had to choose between an Arisan human being and an Arisan machine, the machine would win every time. That is why some days I like the machines better than I like the people.
I am a Shepherd. At any given time in Arisa there are from 20 to 35 Shepherds. It is tempting to think that we should be a highly cohesive group. We share the experience of being retrieved from the past at the point of a certain death and given the opportunity to live, albeit in the service of the Arisa. And in truth we share some common characteristics. We are by necessity somewhat primitive and barbaric. That is an absolute necessity for us to survive visits to the past. We have to be reasonably well-mannered to survive when we are not in the past. But the reality is that we were drawn from multiple cultures, experienced different parts of history, and made visits to significantly different places in the timeline. I have been close to a few of the Shepherds and I will be close again in the future, but it is hard to get close when Shepherds die in the performance of their duties. The average longevity of a Shepherd, once retrieved, is around 9 years. That number is misleading because a fairly substantial percentage of Shepherds die within the first four to five years. The average is brought up by Shepherds like myself that have lived a long time relative to that average.
We too have our stories. The stories center on themes of being quick-witted and dutiful. But most of the qualities that unite us are abstract. It’s hard to be loyal to a group that shares only an abstraction.
The Non-Arisan Ladies and Gentlemen
Over 95% of the population of the world is located in areas that are not Arisan. The Arisans control the world but delegate large chunks of that control to the individual nations and regions. The technological and economic might of Arisa guarantee that their “suggestions” will be warmly received and promptly executed. I always seem to be looking for a dark side but the relationships appear to be beneficial to everyone concerned.
Because I am associated with the Arisa, I could travel anywhere in the world without difficulty. I would get a respectful but perhaps un-easy reception. The stories told out in these lands and places about the Arisa involved great powers and dark secrets. The stories were true of course. And the barrier that they erected was true as well.
Nothing that the Arisa had done to me to transform into a Shepherd did anything to change my status as a tourist eager to explore the world. I visited this outside world as often as I could in my early years as a Shepherd. The millennia separating this world from the world of my birth had worn down the differences to create a largely homogeneous world. The geography was different. The architecture was different where the old buildings and monuments survived. The food was different. But there was a sameness about the people and their attitudes all across the world. The stories that they told themselves seem to be largely interchangeable. After a while my tourism focused on nature: cabins in the wood, surrounded by trees to sooth my soul with the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. From time to time I still visited the cities in the “outside”. But I was outsider there. There was no place for me.
All the Varied People of The Past
Of course, this narrative about cultures would be incomplete if I didn’t mention the cultures of the places and times that I visited in the past. I’m not sure that I can fairly characterize these cultures. Every one of them was different in some way. One of the goals in a visit is to have as little to do with the people in that place and time as possible. Every interaction represents a risk of detection and deflection. Bump something or someone in the wrong way and it could affect events 400 years later in that time branch. For most visits, we had to mimic enough of the culture to avoid detection. Among Shepherds, I was probably the most diligent in trying to fully understand as much of the culture of the target place and time as I could. The more I studied the culture, the more likely it was I was to recognize a potential problem before it arose and to respond quickly and correctly to the problems that I could not avoid.
All of these visits were interesting in some respect and a few were quite enjoyable from the point of being a tourist. But there was always that sense of impending danger. There really was no way to relax. There was no place for me there, no comfort in the certainty of shared stories, shared knowledge and shared experiences.
One of my key skills as a Shepherd is to be able to slip in and out of a culture. For me the stories of a culture are like a garment that I put on and take off as the need arises. I am different from those people who are wrapped in a single culture, that informs their knowledge of who they are, what they should do, how they should interact with others, what is “right” and what is “wrong”. There is a comfort in that certainty that is forever denied to me.
My mother and father who raised me in Northern Minnesota were deeply religious. While I did not fully respect my mother’s absolute and judgmental faith, at least my father and I could have a civil conversation about our disagreements. He would ask me, “Eric, if you do not believe in the teachings of our church, how can you go forward? How do you know what direction you should go or how you should act?” I responded to him with an answer that was most unsatisfactory to him, “Papa, I will have to find out by going out into the world and understanding it.” That question about how to act still resonates with me. I keep asking and trying to find an answer. While I have what is at best an incomplete answer, I think the words “duty” and “loyalty” are major parts of the answer. There is a recurring theme in my life. Again and again in different places and in different roles, I have sought to fulfill my duty and to be loyal to the people around me. I cling to these behaviors when all the other connections are ripped, torn and corroded away. It is not much but it is all that I have.
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