To push the rock or not in Galaxy Express 999

Sometimes it’s best to start at the beginning with one of these posts. I don’t really have a clever anecdote or a personal revelation to start this with.

I just have a quote. A perfectly nonsensical quote stuck sideways in my head. It comes near the end of Episode 52 – Artemis of The Transparent Sea – Part 2. Here it is, sans context:

“I want you to tell everyone that I did not come onto the rails myself. I am a lifeform that cannot control our own movements [stet]. I wander the stars as fate allows. I am a lifeform with no predetermined destiny.”

Artemis’ mother

For the time being, let’s assume that fate and destiny are different things. I’ll endeavor to use them separately. Just for context, this is uttered by a giant lifeform that drifts through space. It reminds me of some sort of D&D ooze going through a dungeon, randomly eating anything that crosses its path.

So on the face of it, that sentence makes no sense.

If it can’t control its own movements, then all it has is destiny. It is literally a giant ball guided by the hand of fate to be placed on the tracks.

On the other hand, if it could control its movements, well, it might still be governed by the hand of fate, but there is a chance for it to avoid destiny.

So it’s a real possibility that there was an error here. Maybe the translators meant to say that it is a lifeform that is all predetermined destiny. Because really, from my basic understanding of free will and predeterminism, that is what we have here. It doesn’t have a means or method to avoid its destiny.

It’s equally possible the words used don’t have an easy translation; perhaps there is some meaning that isn’t conveyed in the words used.

Well, I have to discount that for two reasons. One is that I can’t prove it one way or the other. I don’t know enough Japanese or enough about Japanese culture to piece together if there is a link missing. But if I just give up analysis by feigning ignorance, that wouldn’t be fun.

The other reason is that this show isn’t rife with strange subtitles. It’s a long show, so if there was a problem with the translation, I’m sure that I would have seen it before this. So I’m not inclined to believe that it was a problem with the translation.

Which means that those lines are on purpose. So what are we to make of this nonsensical line? And how should we consider it in the context of the larger story of the episode?

While I think Quiddity is correct that this is a story about parents and children, I will take my analysis of this two-part episode in another direction entirely. You can read his write-up of Artemis of the Transparent Sea – Part 1 and 2 here, and you can find the Galaxy Express 999 wiki posts here and here.

So let’s start with talking about Artemis and Artemis’ giant mother who lacks any destiny.

Artemis and The Transparent Sea

We start this episode with something blocking the path of the 999. We don’t see it immediately, but the Galaxy Railways responds with force. And after the explosion, we see hundreds of gelatinous space disks flying in the opposite direction. They are trying to warn the 999 that their mother is ahead of them on the tracks. 

The conductor says they can’t change their course so easily. Look, I’m sure there is someone out there that will point out that the 999 changes course all of the time. I know. Space train physics don’t make sense. They change depending on what the plot demands. It’s a quirk of the show. You either deal with it, or you don’t. 

Anyway, they finally come across the slime’s mother, a planet-sized slime directly ahead of the train. The 999 ends up crashing into it. The planet moves to cushion the crash but isn’t able to avoid the collision. 

No one and nothing is seriously damaged, but the 999 is stuck with two problems. The first is that it can’t escape, and the second is that the 999 is slowly getting pulled inside. We see ships that have evidently already sunk into the planet. 

This is where we get to the primary tension of the episode. To free the train, the Galaxy Railways wants to shoot a “pulsating wave” to destroy it. Tetsuro realizes that it’s a living thing and a mother and wants to save it. 

As they are talking, a ship crashes into the planet, and a woman steps out and nearly immediately collapses onto the surface. 

This is Artemis. She is one of the daughters of this planet who fled in her pursuit of a dream. She wanted to get a mechanical body. Well, as we’ve already seen, mechanical bodies aren’t free, so Artemis went to a planet and got one but soon found that she was in the workhouse paying off her debt. 

Well, at first, she was happy with the trade-off. She got a beautiful mechanical body, and all she had to do was work for soul-crushing hours. The work finally took its toll on her, and all she wanted to do was return to see her mother and apologize for being wrong. 

Artemis survives just long enough to tell Tetsuro and Maetel her story before kicking the bucket and being laid to rest with her mother. 

It isn’t too much longer before the Galaxy Railways decides that the only way to save the 999 is to destroy Artemis’ mother. Tetsuro can’t accept that, but this is when the planet talks. That is where the quote I started with comes from. She says that he’s a kind-hearted boy, and she hopes that he will make sure that no rails are placed in the way for her children. 

The planet is destroyed, and the 999 is freed. 

While I agree that story is very much about motherhood and what mothers will sacrifice for their children and children respecting their parents, I’m stuck on that line from Artemis’ mother and what their stories say about fate and free will. 

Pushing the Rock

There is a thought experiment in philosophy that goes something like this: 

Imagine you’re standing at a pool table is preparing to take a shot. 

We know that everything on a molecular level has a dictated path. Electrons will circle atoms. The forces that bind those atoms together will vibrate at an expected frequency. Nearly everything on a molecular level is predictable to some degree. 

It only becomes more predictable when you move to a cellular level. Your muscles are going to react the same way every time your brain sends a signal to it. Given the same time, experience and other factors, you’re going to think to hit the ball the same way. 

Given a way to measure those, we could predict how you’re going to hit that cue ball with 100 percent accuracy. 

Since we know all of those things, do you really have free will, or are you just predestined to make the same shot 100 percent of the time no matter what? 

I’m hoping that I explained that right. If anyone is a philosophy expert, please correct me. I’ve always been fascinated by this problem. Because, at best, it doesn’t matter because we can’t predict what the outcome would be 100 percent of the time. But that changes the rules of the argument. 

So without cheating, this would imply that everyone is acting on some sort of predestined course whether or not we like it or not. 

Think of it like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill. He will continue to push the rock up the hill for all eternity. He doesn’t have any choice about it. By taking any action, he is fulfilling his destiny. 

We can see this with Artemis. She is so determined to pursue her free will and her dreams that she flies right into the arms of her fate. Like the cue ball in our puzzle from earlier, she would make the same choices 100 times in a row given the same knowledge, and she would meet the same end. 

But what if we just don’t play? What if instead of hitting the cue ball, we just set the stick down and play darts? Or better yet, what if we just sit down on the floor and refuse to do anything? Do we have any fate at all then? 

This isn’t necessarily changing the rules of our thought experiment. It’s just not participating if that makes sense. 

Imagine that this is Sisyphus, just sitting down on the ground and refusing to participate at all. Now he doesn’t have any destiny because he decided to cast it all aside. 

Now, as soon as he took any action, it would be right back to pushing the rock up the hill. 

This is Artemis’ mother. She doesn’t have a destiny because she doesn’t take any action. Predetermination requires that you hit the cue ball. If you don’t hit it, then nothing can happen. In this case, the planet doesn’t move of its own will, so it doesn’t have a destiny. It’s just acted on by other’s destinies. 

What does it all mean?

So I’ve struggled to figure out what the show is hinting at with this idea. I think it’s too easy to believe that the show is saying that we should give up, and by giving up, we will be happy.

I’m not confident that there is a more significant meaning. The show doesn’t cast either Artemis or her mother as a winner in this situation. Struggling against the trap or just sitting down and giving up doesn’t make any difference. You end up just as dead either way. 

Maybe the best we can do is embrace the hopelessness of it all and find joy in that. 

That is all I can say about that. 

As always, thanks for reading. 

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