September 20, 2012

In 1957 the Australian sci-fi writer Bertram Chandler“€”probably the only person ever to have envisaged a future Australian Empire”€”published a short story titled The Cage. The human passengers and crew of an interstellar liner are marooned on an unknown planet with a hot, humid atmosphere loaded with fungi spores that eat away all their clothes, wristwatches, and other possessions”€”even dental fillings”€”but spare living flesh.

Aliens from a nearby civilization”€”also hitherto unknown to humans”€”capture four of the castaways. They are taken away to the aliens’ home planet.

The aliens have taken the naked humans to be a species of local fauna. They install their four captives in a zoo, in a glassed-in cage with an interior climate precisely reproducing that of the other planet.

The captives ponder the question: How to persuade the captors that they are rational beings? Create artifacts? They spend three days weaving baskets from the vegetation in their cage. The aliens take no notice. As one captive points out, there are animals that make artifacts”€”beavers, the bower bird.

Then they find a small, mouse-like creature sharing their living space. They take him up as a pet and fashion a small cage for him, feeding him scraps.

After three days of that, the aliens suddenly free them, apologize profusely, and arrange a spaceship to rescue the other castaways. But what, asks one baffled captive, made the aliens realize their captives were rational beings?

“€œThere are some doors man was never meant to open.”€

Replies the group’s leader: “Only rational beings put other beings in cages.”

So we do, so we do.

I was sitting in the lounger with my laptop, idly browsing the Internet when my daughter Nellie came down from her bedroom. Nellie, age 193/4, is the apple of my eye and a dear girl in innumerable ways, but even a doting daddy cannot help but notice that she is a wastrel with money. No sooner does she acquire a few dollars than she is overcome with the impulse to spend them on the most useless item she can find in the local malls.

Faddy foodstuffs account for a lot of the expenditure: Greek yogurt, black soy milk, and vegetarian bacon (?). The family refrigerator is clogged with this stuff. Her room is likewise overflowing with items of high-teen-appeal inutility: electronic gizmos, fitness contraptions, decorative tchotchkes, clothes, clothes, clothes, and shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes.

When she came down the stairs that evening, I could see she was holding something in both hands, but I couldn’t make out what it was.

“Dad, I want you to meet Ike. Dad, Ike; Ike, Dad.”

Ike, it quickly became apparent, is a snake. To be zoologically precise, he is a ball python. On this introductory occasion, Nellie had him wrapped around one wrist and nestled in the other palm.

“That’s great, honey. Hi there, Ike! How ya doin’?”

No, that is not what I said. What I said was more along the lines of: “Are you out of your mind, you stupid bimbo nitwit? Your poor mother will freak out. She HATES snakes.”


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