Temba, his arms wide (contest)

Having (re)watched the original Star Trek, I’ve recently introduced my girlfriend to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Growing up in the eighties and nineties, I was able to catch new episodes of my favourite science-fiction universe, alongside re-runs of the original series and the cinematic releases of new Star Trek movies. If I recall correctly, new episodes of the show aired a few years after they had first debuted in the United States, but I had no idea back then, in those pre-Internet days.

We’ve been ploughing through the series on Netflix, which is showing the remastered episodes that have also been released on Blu-ray. The show looks fantastic – better than I remembered, with rich colours and excellent special effects. But Star Trek: The Next Generation is mostly about its main characters and the various situations they find themselves in. Like the original series, The Next Generation is ‘soft’ science-fiction, i.e. focused on social and political issues, despite the occasional technobabble (which is far less obtrusive or frequent than I remember or that Internet memes suggest).

The episode ‘Darmok’

Last Monday evening we watched the classic episode ‘Darmok’. The Enterprise investigates a signal sent in the El-Adrel system by a vessel belonging to the Children of Tama (or ‘Tamarians’). It’s obvious that the Tamarians want to communicate with the Federation, but their language proves unintelligible. This leads to a classic Star Trek line when Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) observes, ‘Are they truly incomprehensible? In my experience, communication is a matter of patience, imagination. I would like to believe these are qualities we have in sufficient measure.’

But communication does prove next to impossible. As Picard and the crew soon figure out, the Tamarians speak using metaphors. This requires not just an understanding of a language’s grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, but also a deep understanding of their history and mythology, of the stories that they tell that are important to them. The Tamarian captain, Dathon (Paul Winfield) decides that the best way to forge understanding is to have Picard and himself re-create one of their original stories, in which the heroes Darmok and Jalad fought alongside each other on the island of Tanagra.

Screenshot from the episode 'Darmok; copyright CBS Studios/Paramount

I won’t go into much more detail; it’s an episode that you should really check out for yourself if you haven’t seen it yet. But I will discuss a few examples of Tamarian phrases, since they’re rather fun and go to the heart of what this blog post is about. For example, when Dathon gives Picard a burning log to keep warm, he says, ‘Temba, his arms wide’, meaning ‘I give (this)’ or ‘Take (this)’. When Picard later offers something to Dathon’s first officer, the latter responds with, ‘Temba, at rest’, meaning ‘You keep it.’

There are many more references to ancient stories of the Tamarians. When something goes wrong or fails, or when Dathon gets frustrated, he exclaims, ‘Shaka, when the walls fell.’ When Picard’s first officer, Riker (Jonathan Frakes), doesn’t get what his opposite number is trying to say, the latter responds with, ‘Kiteo, his eyes closed’ (i.e. ‘He doesn’t understand’). And when Picard finally figures out what the Tamarian captain wants, Dathon happily cries out: ‘Sokath, his eyes uncovered!’

Picard at one point tells Dathon a brief, but accurate summary of the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, comparing that story to what he’s figured out about Darmok and Jalad. At the end of the episode, Riker finds him reading a book, and asks, ‘Greek, sir?’ Picard responds: ‘Oh, the Homeric hymns. One of the root metaphors of our own culture.’ He then adds, ‘More familiarity with our own mythology might help us relate to theirs.’ If you ever wanted another defence of why studying the ancient world is important: well, there it is. A better understanding of your own culture might help you to understand others.

Contest: create your own story

Which brings me to the topic of this blog post. Over the course of time, I have acquired a number of books that have by now all been reviewed (mostly in Ancient Warfare). I've sometimes received more than one copy of a book and theyve been cluttering up my desk. So I figured, why not organize a contest and offer these books as prizes?

The books in question are the following:

  • Robert Southworths novel, Spartacus: Talons of an Empire

  • Hillary & John Traviss Roman Body Armour

  • Paul Elliots Everyday Life of a Soldier on Hadrians Wall

  • Elizabeth Jamess Constantine the Great: Warlord of Rome

  • Christopher Matthews The Tactics of Aelian

  • Ian Hughes, Belisarius: The Last Roman General

Six books in total, which means there can be six winners. Each winner will be given a book at random, so keep that in mind when you apply. And what do you need to do to win? Simple: write an interesting story based largely on metaphors drawn from the ancient world. The more metaphors, similes, and the like you can use, the better. You can draw from ancient mythology (Achilles, his heel wounded!) or from history (Nero, when Rome burned), and don't worry: you don't necessarily have to follow the 'Darmok' structure of a proper noun followed by a brief sentence.

The contents of the actual story told I will leave up to you, but something based on the ancient world seems most applicable. The challenge is in creating something that relies on metaphors and a knowledge of the ancient world – someone unfamiliar with ancient mythology and/or history most likely shouldn't be able to decipher it. Its going to be a tough nut to crack (‘Like Alexander at Gordion!’), I guess, but I think it will be incredibly fun, too.

Keep the story short – no more than about 100 to 300 words, I'd say. The writers of the six best entries, decided by me on an entirely subjective basis, will be randomly awarded one of the books listed above. The winning stories will also be published here on the website.

The deadline for this competition is Monday, 15 May 2017, to give you time to prepare and work up something fun. You can send your story to me via email.

Good luck!

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