The Power of Nothing

Watched an episode of Torchwood last night (“Out of Time”, for those who want to go back and keep tabs) and I was struck by how this is the SECOND good show on TV to use ‘nothing’ in a way that has a visceral power over people.

 

In Torchwood, an evil force targets the team – they all see visions of people they have loved (Tosh’s mother, Owen’s lover, Gwen’s boyfriend, Ianto’s vanished girlfriend) all urging them to open the Rift and release time, because “…if nobody else will do it, YOU will have to.” The clear implication is that this act will have a profound effect of some sort on their individual losses or potential losses of those loved ones – if only they will open the Rift, they could have it all. They could have it all BACK. Every wish could come true.

 

In Babylon 5, years ago, there was an episode in which one of the mysterious and all-powerful Vorlons – of whom we have only seen their odd and strange and vaguely menacing “encounter suits” – is forced by circumstances to finally shed that suit and reveal himself. The creature that emerges from the suit is seen by the humans – those on the Babylon 5 station, as well as those of us in our armchairs back home – as the classic angel figure, white, shining, ethereal, winged, powerful and benevolent. But representatives of every other race in the crowd see… something different. Something that in THEIR culture translates into what we think of as angels. All of them. Every one of them.

 

All except one. Londo, the one who has damned himself by allying with the Shadows, stands alone and abandoned and tragic and stricken.

 

“What did you see?” somebody asks.

 

“Nothing,” Londo says, and his expression says it all – he’s looked into th abyss and it’s dark, very dark. “I saw NOTHING.”

 

More recently, the TV show “Flashforward”, based on a book by Robert Sawyer, has a similar idea embedded in it. The premise is that the entire world blacks out for a couple of minutes during which every individual sees a glimpse of their future – what would happen, or be happening, to them on a certain date six months from that moment. One of the main characters (and, we later discover, others, too) saw… nothing.

 

Nothing, there it is again, that word. Nothing, just blackness, just blankness. And what this means is that somehow this character has glimpsed a future world in which HIS future doesn’t exist. And it’s traumatising. For him, and for others. ‘Nothing’ can be extremely powerful in a person’s life.

 

Even kids’stories know the power of Nothing. It is what swallows the magical empire in the Never Ending Story – just… Nothing. An emptiness where something real and loved and cherished used to be a moment before.

 

Hell, I’ve done it myself. The monster that my young protagonist in the Worldweavers series has to face down in the first book is a Nothing – a faceless monster of a shadow that feeds on the very things that are supposed to vanquish it, by the simple expedient of enveloping them in itself until they themselves cease to exist… and then there’s… nothing.

 

We realise it early – that this kind oblivion means that we are suddenly alone, cut apart from everything we’ve ever known and loved, a soul adrift and out of time and space, floating in some place where there isn’t even air. We are torn out of our culture, of our history, of our background, even of our future (because without a past there is nothing to build a future ON).

 

We are taught that there are rewards for certain actions. That one good turn deserves another, as it were. Our fairy tales put our Princesses through individual hells, but they all find their Prince in the end and live happily ever after. Some part of us lives our entire lives waiting for that sort of closure – for the reward – look at me I’ve been GOOD, and therefore when my angel appears I will be granted the grace to see it.

 

But Londo sees NOTHING – there is a second kind of ‘reward’, the kind that follows thoughts and acts of great evil. There’s nothing but a formless blackness – you cannot see – you cannot hear – you cannot feel – you cannot even cry out. You are suspended in oblivion.

 

Part of it might be a religious background where good people go to Heaven – and that’s a reward. But in certain Eastern religions Heaven is perilously close to our Western ideas of obliteration. As I understand it (and I may be wrong in fundamental ways but I’m sure that I will get corrected if I am) the basic tenet of something like Buddhism is that you are returned to the living throng in several reincarnations until your soul has learned enough life lessons to be worthy of being taken up into the celestial light and freed from the reincarnation wheel – but once this happens, you lose that cohesion that defines you as a “self” and become one with that light, that enlightenment, that celestial whole that is out there.

 

It’s a sort of oblivion, for those of us on the outside looking in. We cling to the concept of our individuality, and our own boundaries, physical and spiritual. Our souls are our own, to guard and to keep and to polish, but even when they enter into their eternal reward it is a Something, it is a Somewhere, we have to have to have a destination to which we will arrive (if blessed, and lucky, and permitted) as ourselves, as the beings that we have already learned how to be, without any changes to our fundamentality other than the necessary shedding of the physical body in order to transcend the reality of the workaday and the ordinary and the profane, and to enter into the plane of the sacred and the holy. Shedding our bodies is the equivalent of taking off our shoes politely before we enter God’s house, as it were.

 

But that ‘nothing’ – it’s a powerful thing. As incentive, as punishment, as warning.

 

We, the human race,  are born having to dream. We need it. We need to look up into the sky and see the stars, and believe in them, or in a God who dwells beyond them – something – something – SOMETHING…

 

The concept of a nothing diminishes us, makes us feel insignificant, valueless, punished, somehow fired from the ranks of the human race itself – for if we were human, truly human, we would deserve more than that ‘nothing’. It is alienating, separating, frightening, even terrifying; it seems totally juvenile and silly to admit that you are afraid of ‘nothing’, but we are, we all are, all the monsters are born there and from there they come out to haunt us.

 

The ‘nothing’ is the Universe before the Big Bang, when all the things that were evil and scary and dark and dangerous had not been born yet… but they were about to be, oh, they were about to be, and they would be scattered in their multitudes, these star-demons, until they all found a soul to haunt with the visions of the empty darkness of their own origins. The place where we ALL, once, began. The place where we will all, probably, eventually, return. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Stars to stars. Nothing to nothing.

 

It’s a promise of mortality. And it scares the living daylights out of us. When a character on a TV show says bleakly, “I saw nothing” – you look into the abyss with that character, and you recoil, you run screaming from what you see. We are all afraid of being empty… and sometimes the true punishment of that ‘nothing’ is that something we have done or thought has twisted our insides so badly that we are afraid of looking into that darkness and finding… a mirror.

 

 

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  1. 1. Elias McClellan

    Ms. Alexander, as always, you post to provoke thought. I am a long time B5 fan and I love Molari most of all as he is, (with the possible exception of Garibaldi) the most human of all B5 characters. He is arrogant, debacherous, vengeful, and without hope; just like us.

    I agree with you that the ‘Nothing’ he faces, the Nothing we all face is more terrifying than anything. It’s more terrifying than plague-era depictions of hell or Dante’s depiction of hell. It is Nothing that is most frightening. That is why Dante ‘saved’ Moses and the philosopher-poets in the Elysian Fields; that their memory and work not be lost to Nothing. It is the basis of most organized religion; good and you get heaven, bad and you get hell. But Nothing is too drastic a notion to embrace.

    We must have a reward for doing right aside from the act it self. Conversely we must have a punishment extreme enought to keep us straight. Or, in the words of Abigail Adams, ‘In the abscence of death, all men would be tyrants.’

    Even us bad guys can stomach that. But Nothing? That’s just too vast to contemplate. All my acts of ‘good,’ meaning nothing more than that moment? All my acts of ‘evil,’ meaning nothing beyond my life? Nothing? Damn, that’s cold…

  2. 2. Amanda Eveleigh

    I like this post, enjoyed this one thankyou for putting up.

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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