Parable Lost
by Jo Walton


This story contains everything in the universe, but it starts with a man throwing jellyfish into the sea.

He's kind of an exemplary man, rather than a real character, but what we know about him is that he's walking along the edge of the sea. The tide's going out, and he sees a stranded jellyfish. First he walks on, because jellyfish are kind of icky and disgusting, but then he thinks better of it and goes back, picks it up and heaves it into the sea and walks on feeling quite pleased with himself. A few steps on, he finds another two, and in they go. He starts to think of himself as a rescuer of jellyfish. As he walks on there are more and more and he starts throwing them in faster and faster, picking them up and heaving them in.

Then along comes a second man. Now we all know that "man" includes "woman" so let's make our second exemplary man a woman. Let's, as she's female and the second man, call her Eve. Let's say she's five foot four, brown hair, blue coat, (it's March) likes reading SF, listening to the Beatles, and walking on the beach. After all, if she didn't like walking on the beach she wouldn't have wandered by just in time to ask our first man: "Excuse me, but what are you doing?"

"I'm throwing jellyfish back into the sea," says the first man, who we'd better call Adam, with perhaps a tinge of pride in his voice.

"I can see that," says Eve, who can see that. "But why?"

"They're stranded by the tide, and they'll die in the sun, so I'm throwing them back where they'll live."

"Well," Eve says, dubiously, "But there are so many of them. You can't throw them all back. You can't really make any difference."

"No," says Adam, "But I've made a difference to this one."

That's where this story usually ends, but there are any number of things that can happen afterwards. Eve could join him in throwing the jellyfish in. They could help some jellyfish, and maybe they could fall in love. Or she could go off and let him think he's still on his own but come back with a JCB and shovel them back in. There's something very satisfactory in that. But, there's also the Speaker for the Dead answer, where preventing what looks like a bad thing for the jellyfish is actually part of some larger good thing, if you left them alone they might turn into terribly wise trees. What do you know about the lifecycle of jellyfish anyway? How do you know what helps them, really? Maybe they're trying to crawl up onto the land to evolve. What if someone had helpfully kept throwing the lungfish back in?

So Eve walks off down the beach, with the honest intention of finding a JCB and coming back to help, but all these thoughts keep seeping into her mind. There's the Gaian hypothesis where everything the planet does it does because it knows best, and maybe killing jellyfish is part of that, maybe they actually are in distress but they're the weak jellyfish. Or maybe -- Eve raises up her eyes and sees things beyond the jellyfish, beyond the beach, factories pumping out pollution, the government putting security ankle bracelets on asylum seekers, invading other countries, the breakdown of the family. The jellyfish are only metaphorical really, and "Don't overanalyse this, it's only a metaphor," is what her last boyfriend said so often that she broke up with him. She shrugs, in her blue coat, and walks on faster.

They're only a metaphor, but they're real jellyfish too, and the real problems they stand for are real. Adam, back on the beach, throwing them in one at a time, really is making a difference to that one. But what can Eve do to help? She can't do everything, but she too can make a difference on a small scale if she can find the thing to do, if she can pick her ground and work hard on that, trusting other people to do the rest. She might even be able to make a big difference if she can find the JCB. But the things she's trained to do don't include JCB driving, or jellyfish rescue, or world rescue either, and if she starts to define typing on the internet as "helping the jellyfish" then the words "helping" and "jellyfish" have drifted beyond all semantic hope.

She climbs the steps up from the beach, thinking she could give money to people better able to help jellyfish, a solution not to be sniffed at, though it isn't the satisfaction of hands-on-jellyfish help.

Whatever she does, she has to keep breathing in and out, living her normal life as well. She can't spend her whole life standing on the beach throwing jellyfish into the sea. Maybe she could go and tell other people about the jellyfish, though it's not as if they don't know already, it's not as if the din of people telling them hasn't already tired their ears. Even if she found some new way to put it, even if she had wisdom and answers rather than just questions and uncertainty, it probably wouldn't make a difference to very many of them.

At the top of the steps she looks back down the cliff at the beach, the rocks, the sand, her line of footprints, the tiny figure of Adam, still throwing the damn jellyfish back into the receding waves, the vast expanse of sea stretching out like roiling grey silk, pounding the shore, full of reflected light, audible even from the clifftop.

Above the clouds, above the whole planet, is the sun, and beyond the sun other more distant suns, and the whole turning galaxy. In that scale, one jellyfish doesn't matter any more than Adam and Eve, any more than the whole Earth.

There's everything in the universe in this story; except answers.



About the Author:

Jo Walton is the author of two poetry collections and eight novels, including the World Fantasy Award winning Tooth and Claw. Her most recent books are the alternate history Small Change trilogy (Farthing, Ha'Penny, and Half a Crown, Tor) and the fantasy Lifelode (NESFA). She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the books and food are better. She has a blog at where she posts wordcount and poetry and assorted other things.




Story 2009 Jo Walton.