Anything for a Son

November 2nd, 2017

One of the cultures in my science fiction novelette The Stone Lyre (half of Wisps of Spider Silk, First Thread) has a custom to ensure that a man — especially an influential one — has a direct biological male successor. The culture is nominally monogamous; but if the wife cannot supply the requisite male offspring, the husband takes a “favored”, invariably from a less powerful family, to provide the missing asset. When she delivers, she is returned to her family with gifts commensurate to her contribution. If the “favored” produces a child with the wrong equipment, the husband takes another, then another – as many as necessary until the requirement is fulfilled. The unwanted girls are either exposed or given to the household servants, stock for the next service generation.

The culture knows enough biology to be aware that men supply the Y-chromosome to zygotes, and their technology is sufficiently advanced that they could tilt the odds with a simple differential enrichment of sperm by gentle centrifugation. But their mores forbid it. They could also adopt, but their laws require a son “of the father’s body”. So it’s the other way, no matter how much pain it causes.

Last month while in Athens, I read a novel that takes place in the Mani, the stony peninsula that forms (appropriately enough) the middle “finger” of Peloponnisos. Its inhabitants, boasting direct descent from the Spartans, lived off meager agriculture, sheep herding, remittances from immigrant family members – plus piracy, condoned (in fact often blessed) by the local priests. Like the Scottish Highlands, most parts of Mani were never subjugated by any would-be conqueror – in part because of the fierceness of the Maniots, in part because of the terrain (until recently, many Maniot villages were accessible only by boat). The Maniots successfully repelled all invaders…and when there were none at hand, their men slaughtered each other by generational vendettas that could exterminate entire clans.

Powerful families lived in fortified towers and counted their strength and influence by how many guns they could muster. These guns could be used only by sons, the “real” children; daughters were called by various derogatory terms and their arrival was greeted with deafening silence and wishes for “better luck next time” (though variants of these habits were/are true of most patrilocal societies). As is often the case in such cultures, Maniot women had some clout and brothers couldn’t marry before they handed off their sisters. But the rigid patrilineality meant that daughters were explicitly barred from inheriting the family’s primary dwelling and associated land even if they had no brothers.

The novel I read is a sentimental rose-tinted weepie (think of Mildred Pierce in 19th century rural Greece) titled The Sygria. The term is a contraction of syn-kyria, which means co-mistress. Apparently, any powerful Maniot who could not get at least one son (preferably more, so that some could be spared as vendetta fodder when they weren’t used as enforcers of the family’s interests) brought in a second bedfellow, invariably from a weaker family, often a tenant/client one, to fill the gap. After the two involved families reached agreement including gifts to the sygria’s relatives and good treatment guarantees, the young woman arrived at her new home without any public fanfare. She was cosseted during pregnancies and stayed as indoors help if she produced sons, but was turfed out to field work if she produced daughters.

The sygria’s family accepted this arrangement because it meant an enhancement to their finances and status. The sygria herself led a gentler life than she would as the wife of a hard-scrabble peasant, who was liable to use her as a combination of beast of burden, house slave and incubator. The official wife kept her status (any power among the women was wielded by the husband’s mother in any case) and, occasionally, by choosing the sygria herself in the manner of samurai wives, gained not just an indentured servant but also a household ally.

Any resulting sons were considered fully legitimate, counting their provenance solely from the father, and eventually inherited not only the tower and the family lands but also the official wife’s dowry. The official wife (buffered by the might of her birth family and the size of her dowry) acted as their godmother and de facto mother, and the church bent far enough to allow the sygria to take communion; the man, of course, was beyond reproach.

The sygria’s unwanted girls were not acknowledged as the master’s offspring: they inherited the status of their mother, somewhere between stepchildren and servants; they were essentially unmarriageable, becoming unpaid lifelong helpmates like Victorian spinsters. Sources are silent on whether some conveniently disappeared via Spartan-style exposure if times were lean at the time of their birth. If the sygria remained childless, the fault was deemed to be entirely hers and there were no limits to the insults and abuses she could be pelted with – but the husband was not allowed to take more sygrias, which means that at this point everyone knew who was responsible for the lack of offspring, even if none would utter it.

It was really hard for me to read The Sygria, even though the author had sugarcoated the interactions between the characters (everyone was considerate, loving, fair…you get the gist). And I wondered what atavistic memories made me reproduce the custom in The Stone Lyre, even though I had never heard of it when I wrote my story. It may be that when a society deems sons a compulsory asset while insisting on monogamy, the possible contortions are limited; what remains unlimited is the human capacity for hypocrisy, cruelty and waste.

 

 

Related Articles

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing (fancasting of The Stone Lyre and discussion of its larger universe)

Launch of The Reckless (includes brief discussion of the Spider Silk Wisps, First Thread diptych)

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Where are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

 

Images: Top, Wisps of Spider Silk, First Thread (contents: The Stone Lyre, The Wind Harp; artist: Heather D. Oliver); bottom, the Dhourakis pyrghos (tower) in Mani.

 

Music: Henellas, Maniot pirate song

The Poison Tree

August 22nd, 2017

A recent article by David Futrelle (of We Hunted the Mammoth fame) contains this long-known fact: “There are good reasons why MRA activism has served for so many as a gateway drug to the alt-right.” Major props to Mr. Futrelle for his long-standing public stance, though many had said this before him. But, of course, he is in the right demographic groups to be instantly heeded and signal-boosted.

Gamergaters, MRAs, Tarzanist evopsychos, White supremacists, coercive fundies — and even minor knobs like Google’s Damore — are fruits of a single poison tree. They’re all part of a single mindset configuration: the urge to dominate, the concept of automatic entitlement, the unhesitating use of corrosive dicta as untouchable “truths”. Just about all of humanity’s tragedies stem from this.  As one character in Brendan Muldowney’s ferocious Pilgrimage says, “Peace needs to be grown, cared for, nurtured. This is beyond the reach of most men.”

Damore’s “manifesto” (a whiny, stale recycling of disproved masculinist platitudes) has been thoroughly debunked by many experts, including evolutionary biologist Suzanne Sadedin PhD who has written several justly famous essays about the species-unique problems of human pregnancy and menstruation. But I want to discuss Pilgrimage a bit more, because it gives a pared-down glimpse of the poison tree.

At first glance, Pilgrimage is a perilous mission in hostile territory, equal parts Secret of Kells and Wages of Fear with a Fellowship of the Ring soupçon. Its portrayal of ambition, delusion and obsession passing for piety and loyalty makes it sibling to Marie Jakober’s riveting Black Chalice that also takes place during the cusp between paganism and full-bore monotheism. Pilgrimage unfolds in 13th century Ireland just after the Fourth Crusade, whose most prominent achievement was the destruction of Byzantium. The nucleus is a group of monks who are ordered to transport their monastery’s holiest relic to Rome.

Like all relics of this type, theirs is a combination of bizarre and gruesome: it’s said to be the rock that delivered the killing blow during the stoning of the apostle chosen to replace Judas. And, as is gradually revealed, it’s also “metal from heaven” – highly conducting meteoritic iron, which endows it with the ability to deliver shocks. Somehow, it found its way to an isolated Irish monastic community. The Pope has caught wind of it and plans to use it to separate the “worthy faithful” from the rest of the herd. As his domini canus he has sent a Cistercian who has bartered his soul to the father god by denouncing his own father as tolerant of heretics (this was an era of significant “cleansings”).

But there are others who want the rock for reasons essentially identical to the Pope’s (once the pious veneer is stripped from the orotund proclamations). Among them are Irish clans fallen into savagery after they’ve been deprived of their land and social structures; and Norman petty-noble mercenaries who have been laying waste to Eire ever since they were invited to help settle one of the perennial wars between Irish kings – an invasion authorized and blessed by the Pope, as was the sacking of Constantinople: both Irish and Greek Christianity were competitors to be annihilated.

Several recognizable character types inhabit Pilgrimage: the naïve innocent (shades of Adso from The Name of the Rose), the wise humane mentor, the atoning sinner with an unbreakable geas…and embodiments of two seemingly different kinds of ruthlessness, secular and religious, that are in fact just different ways of vying for the same trophy: the might that makes everything right.

The film boasts stunning scenery as well as gut-churning violence, and builds verisimilitude by showing seaweed harvesting, beehive cells and Culdee tonsures; and by using Gaelic and French when it should. Several reviewers called it cynical (though the correct term would have been nihilistic) because it refuses to make concessions to sentimentality: it denies any glimpse of hope or real redemption – signaled in part by a body count rivaling a Jacobean play, but even more so by the total absence of women.

The film has reduced the depiction of the poison tree to its primal colors: the will to power, the urge (and perceived right) to destroy whatever stands in the “correct” way. Whether one screams “Deus le Vult” or “Allahu Akbar”, whether one invokes sacred heritage or divine laws to justify cruelty – it’s the same poison tree that bears this strange fruit, that keeps sprouting like a toxic weed, like dragons’ teeth, in even carefully tended gardens. Only vigilant, determined decency will keep it from strangling all around it.

In-Depth Review of Pilgrimage at Paste Magazine 

Related Essays

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art

Ashes from Burning Libraries

A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Free Speech: Bravehearts and Scumbags

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

Images: Top, original cover of Marie Jakober’s Black Chalice; bottom, beehive cells on Skellig island

Southpaws: The Hops in Humanity’s Beer?

August 13th, 2017

Note: I discovered that today is Left Handers’ Day (there is such a thing?!) and so I decided to reprint an essay that first appeared on Science in My Fiction.

“Light is the left hand of darkness…” – Ursula K. Le Guin

Those who are, like me, left-handed and older than fifty probably recall being forced to write with our right hand and the frustration of using many “handed” tools, including scissors, rulers and computer mice. We also remember being told that left-handers are prone to immune deficiencies, shorter lives, depression, dyslexia, schizophrenia and a host of other woes… and no wonder, given the drizzle of harassment! Finally, there is the conflation of left with evil, wrong or inept in practically all religions and languages (sinister, gauche, linkisch…) not to mention most political systems, especially those which place high value on obedience and conformity.

Left-handedness is genetically determined, although controversy swirls around candidate genes that have been tentatively linked to the trait and the complications supposed to accompany it – most prominently a protein with the impressively lengthy name of Leucine-Rich Repeat Transmembrane Neuronal 1. LRRTM1 is involved in regulation of the synapses, the tips of the neuronal processes where exchange of information takes place by molecules bridging the gaps between cells. Other theories propose that left-handedness may arise from exposure to increased testosterone during gestation. Yet others attribute it to the asymmetry of the human brain, brought about by the appearance of language whose centers almost invariably reside in the left hemisphere (which regulates the right side of the body).

In contrast to the even distribution of paw preferences in our ape cousins, the percentage of human left-handers hovers around 10% regardless of race and culture. The most common explanation for the persistence of the trait was that left-handed warriors had the element of surprise in primitive societies. As a result of this sneakiness, they survived long enough to leave a few like-handed descendants. Notice that this explanation is exclusively male-oriented and also implies that the trait is both monogenic and dominant. In fact, LRRTM1 is maternally silent – but at least in my case, I know that I inherited my quasi-ambidexterity (loaded word!) from my mother’s side.  On the other hand, nobody who has met me can conclude that I’m low on testosterone.

From my professional knowledge of biology and my own awareness of what strengths and weaknesses I possess, I hit upon a slightly more flattering explanation for the persistence of the trait. Namely, I decided that left-handed people must be less lateralized in their thinking. This can lead (literally) to crossed brain wires – and hence to such outcomes as dyslexia. But it can also lead to less mental compartmentalizing, more efficient multi-tasking, enhanced ability to see the big picture and to think across boundaries.

Recent results from several neurobiological disciplines lend support to these speculations. Apparently, left-handers do cluster at the two ends of the IQ range; the connections between the two sides of their brain are faster than in right-handers; they often use both hemispheres for language; and they excel at complicated tasks. Lists of southpaws in history show that they are disproportionately represented among mathematicians, scientists, artists and, for better or for worse, among charismatic leaders — from Alexander the Great to Jeanne d’Arc. Moreover, a disproportionate ratio of US presidents since WWII have been southpaws, partly because schoolchildren in an increasingly un-corseted culture were no longer forced into right-handedness. So left-handers may not be a relic of barbaric times, after all. Instead, they may be the hops that add zest to humanity’s beer.

Images: top, Southpaw by RobtheSentinel; bottom, an illustrious left-hander — Marie Sklodowska Curie, Physics Nobel 1903; Chemistry Nobel, 1911.

Byzantium in Speculative Fiction

July 30th, 2017

Science fiction and fantasy have borrowed liberally from just about every mythology and history — but among the most conspicuous elisions is Byzantium (a lacuna that reflects a similar erasure in first-world history, though for somewhat different reasons).  The attempts to portray Byzantium in SFF can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and most are best passed over in silence.

On August 4-6, there will be a conference at Uppsala University titled “Reception Histories of the Future: Byzantinisms, Speculative Fiction and the Literary Heritage of Medieval Empire” organized by Dr. AnnaLinden Weller that will attempt to address this wrinkle (you can see the program here).

Dr. Weller invited me to contribute, so I’ll be giving a talk by proxy that is a variation on my thoughts of the Akrítai and their unsung songs — with a brief sidebar about the millennia-long (and also fashionably erased) history of Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Black Sea.  I’ll leave this entry open for comments, questions, etc. from anyone who attends my talk (or is interested in aspects of this matter).  After the conference is over, I will mount the Powerpoint presentation here if it’s feasible, or post a download link.

Relevant related posts:

Being Part of One’s Furniture; or, Appropriate Away!

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Caesars and Caesar Salads

Yes, Virginia, Romioí are Eastern European

If I Forget Thee, O My Grandmother’s Lost Home

Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

Image: A Byzantine wandering singer, the equivalent of a troubadour (6th century mosaic, Constantinople).

Launch of The Reckless

March 27th, 2017

“It ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is?”
— Mal Reynolds, captain of the Firefly-class starship Serenity

******

Around last year’s winter solstice, I mentioned that in 2017 my small but intrepid press Candlemark & Gleam would launch an imprint of novelette/novella-length digital works. The imprint formally launches today.

I’m calling the new imprint The Reckless (a starship that figures very prominently in my own SF saga and has given its name to this website), willing the defiant moniker to create interesting swirls and patterns. To put it less poetically: the cutoff for SFF shorter works has been creeping steadily downwards, and there are too few venues for novelettes and novellas. There’s not much room for plot layering, character development or background flourishes in 5K. I specified 10K as the upper limit for both my SF anthologies and even allowed some contributions to exceed it; the quality of the results confirms the wisdom of such a strategy.

I’m celebrating the launch by offering a diptych of my own stories as the inaugural Reckless work. Wisps of Spider Silk, First Thread contains “The Stone Lyre” (previously unpublished) and “The Wind Harp” (of which a shortened version was published in Crossed Genres in 2013). Those who buy Wisps of Spider Silk from the Candlemark website will receive an exclusive PDF version with breathtaking interior art by Heather D. Oliver. Heather also created the lovely original of the central image in The Reckless logo, whose history I discuss in Skin Deep – and whose name, fittingly enough, is The Spirit of the Candleflame.

You can click on the Wisps cover to see it in hi-res. Some of you may recall my fancasting of both its stories in a discussion of the Spider Silk universe. If you decide to go exploring with The Reckless, I hope the journeys prove wondrous!

As the Water Wheel Turns

February 18th, 2017

I’ve been relatively silent on social media for a while; work load & health issues (plus an upcoming new endeavor) have conspired against extensive broadcasting. But these items are on my mind and, when I clone myself, will become full-length ruminations:

1. Targeted gene editing has come of age: the National Academy of Sciences cautiously endorsed it even for germline alterations (in cases of debilitating genetic disease) and George Church declared that a mammoth — well, mammophant — birth is two years away.

2. In the wake of Likhain and Zen Cho’s posts on Requires Hate/Benjanun Sriduangkaew after the Apex and Future Fire cynical, eyes-wide-shut debacle I’m glad to see more people from SFF contingents that have been affected by her relentless venom take courageous stands. I’ve been pondering the obvious, extensive equivalences between RH/BS and Drumpf, including the roles of “useful idiots” (to use Paul Krugman’s term).

The upcoming new endeavor will become public in mid-March. Anyone who’s willing can help me light the beacons!

Related articles:

Blastocysts Feel No Pain
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”
Genome Editing: Slippery Slope or Humane Choice?

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?
The Misogyny We Inhale with Each Breath

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Wrecker
How Many Swallows Bring Real Spring?

To Shape the Dark: Liner Notes, Part 2

January 18th, 2017

To Shape the Dark, the younger sibling of The Other Half of the Sky, focusing on women scientists doing science not-as-usual, has become as widely acclaimed as its illustrious predecessor: among other recognitions, it won a starred review in Publishers Weekly, two of its stories have been selected by Gardner Dozois for his Year’s Best SF 2016 (Melissa Scott’s “Firstborn, Lastborn” and Shariann Lewitt’s “Fieldwork”) and two by Allan Kaster for The Year’s Top Hard Sci-Fi Stories (Shariann Lewitt’s “Fieldwork” and Gwyneth Jones’ “The Seventh Gamer”).

To deepen the readers’ enjoyment of the antho stories, I asked the contributing authors to share thoughts about their works. Part 1 of their musings appeared just before the new year. Below is Part 2.

 

Gwyneth Jones: The Seventh Gamer

I’ve been writing about autonomous self-conscious AI for a while, in various contexts, and eventually you want to write the origin story. How did this new species of conscious being emerge from the number-crunching and the robotics? How could it evade being spotted, until it was truly free? I had my ideas about the huge digital power that runs a complex video game (getting so much input from humans, and learning to behave so humanly, just for the players’ convenience, with no experimental control), and then I went along to an Anthropology Department conference at the University of Kent, by the kind invitation of Paul March Russell. Two absolutely fascinating papers I heard there gave me the background for the story called “The Seventh Gamer”.

The most obviously significant was from Susannah Crockford, London School of Economics. She’d been spending time with a group of New Age believers in Arizona, and reported the story of one of them, a retired lawyer, who had decided to leap from a sacred rock formation (anciently sacred, NB), on a certain day, convinced that by doing this he would open a portal into another dimension, and pass through it. (In a sense he was absolutely right, as the drop was huge and the fall was certain to kill him). His plan generated huge excitement, locally and globally, online and in all forms of correspondence, among people who shared the (modified) Native American sacred beliefs of this group.

The other paper was from Dr Daniela Peluso, University of Kent: who got sick while doing field work in the rainforest with a little-contacted South American tribal people. The tribal doctor treated her as best he could, but he told her she had two malign spirits in her chest, and whatever he did by day, with fires lit under her cot, infusions she was to inhale, herbal drinks she was to swallow, warm compresses, massages, appeals to the spirits, etc ( kind of Victorian level of medicine); it was no good. Every night, something undid his good work. Dr Daniela’s paper was not, however, about this very decent doctor’s failure to cure double pneumonia, without antibiotics, and with the patient sleeping in a damp tent. It was about her own growing fascination with the situation, a fascination enhanced by high fever and the strange coincidence that somebody had given her Bram Stoker’s Dracula to read on her trip. So every day, the wise doctor battled with the evil forces that were preying on her, but every night, mysteriously, she grew weaker . . . She got so drawn into it all, and so keen to find out how things turned out, she was lucky they prevailed on her to get airlifted out in time.

Anthropologists are a strange bunch!

 

Kristin Landon: From the Depths

When Athena invited me to submit a story for To Shape the Dark, the requirements she listed intrigued me immediately: to write about a woman who is a scientist, and part of a family, in a society that sees science as a natural, necessary, even joyful endeavor. I set “From the Depths” on a world that is completely covered by deep ocean, aboard a large seagoing research vessel that is also the new permanent home of a few thousand people: scientists, the ship’s crew, and their children. Rinna is an ecologist who delights in her work and her small family. Then her daughter disappears from the ship—a crisis that leads to the discovery of intelligent life in the vast ocean around them. The story is the seed of a novel, but only the seed. Rinna and I have a long way to go!

 

Jack McDevitt: The Pegasus Project

There is probably no cosmic issue confronting us more fascinating than whether there is life beyond our world. And maybe none that is more apt to irritate an audience if a speaker comes down on the wrong side. If he tells a group of listeners that he does not believe in UFO’s, they are invariably disappointed. You of all people?

Go a step further and argue that we are probably alone in the universe, and they wonder how you can be so narrow-minded? The lone argument so far that favors life elsewhere is the sheer size of everything. Billions of stars in the Milky Way. Billions of galaxies across the cosmos. How could there not be life out there somewhere?

The reality is that, as yet, we have no idea how life began. What was the first step in the process? It may well be that wherever there is water and a stable climate, life will appear. Which would certainly support the position that it will evolve, as it has here, into intelligent beings. The reality however is that we’ve been watching for indications of intelligent life for a long time, and aside from UFO accounts, we have nothing. Not even an artificial radio signal, despite the fact that we’ve been listening since the beginning of the 20th century.

It’s possible that the process that produces life has an extremely unlikely component, perhaps something with only one chance in trillions of appearing in the mix, even when the bulk of the chemistry is present. We won’t really know about that until somebody figures it out. Life can’t be something with even a reasonable likelihood of occurring or we’d see it happening occasionally on our world. Or somebody would have figured it out and demonstrated how life happens. So maybe we are alone.

Where will we be if we continue our search for centuries to come? If we develop FTL vehicles and find nothing out there but empty planets? That’s the world of the Pegasus Project. The world Ronda and Emily live in. What would it be like when, after thousands of years, the first signal comes in? And they are closest to the point of origin?

 

Anil Menon: Building for Shah Jehan

As a college student in India, I had several close friends, male and female, who were all going to do great things. Somehow it didn’t turn out that way. Once they were going to build starships. Now they delouse code, say, for some smiling American tyrant. But they are content nonetheless. Or mostly content. Or not particularly discontent. It is hard to tell the difference between words these days. Thing is, I had already met this genre of friends in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. They appear in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. I suppose Eliana Ferrente’s My Brilliant Friend is also about this shouldn’t-be-sad-but-is encounter between two childhood friends who are no longer really friends. I can’t do anything to change the past and writing the story didn’t make me feel any better, but I am glad I wrote the story.

 

Melissa Scott: Firstborn, Lastborn

“Firstborn, Lastborn” was a story I didn’t expect to write. I’d been delighted to see that Athena Andreadis was taking submissions for a second anthology, and was batting around a number of ideas, but my mother was ill that spring, and I ended up having to tell Athena — with great regret! — that I probably wasn’t going to have anything for her this round. She was kind enough to assure me that I could have every minute of the deadline, and to leave me on the mailing list, which kept the anthology in the forefront of my mind.

And then, three weeks before the submissions window was to close, I had an idea. It arrived almost whole, a synthesis of several different stories that hadn’t yet gelled. I had the characters, Anketil and Irtholin, their situation, their conflict; I could see how to shape the resolution, bitter though it had to be. By the time I had hammered out a draft, though, I’d lost the shape of the story. I finished it four days before the deadline, read it over, and very nearly gave it up entirely. I’d had to drop so many things, nothing made sense, it was all a disaster — I went to bed planning to email Athena an apology rather than a story.

The next morning, I read it again, and thought maybe it hung together better than I’d originally thought. I put in a call to a set of friends who will read rough drafts on short notice, and got both reassurance and a practical list of things that were unclear. (These are the best friends any writer can have, and deserve more chocolate than I can provide.) I sweated through a final draft, and sent the story in two days before the absolute deadline, unsure if it even met the parameters of the anthology. I’ve never been happier to get an acceptance!

 

Vandana Singh: Of Wind and Fire

During a crisis-laden, sleep-deprived period of my life that seemed to go on for months, I remember being so tired that I would keep tripping and half-falling around the house. Being a physicist means you can’t divorce the everyday from the physics, so naturally all this falling about made me think incessantly about gravity. Such a familiar force in our lives, and we’re hardly aware of it. During frequent wakings in the night, my over-tired brain would come up with strange scenarios, including one of perpetual falling. What would it be like to live an entire life where one is falling?

For the longest time I’d also wanted to write a story about a world where magnetism is a dominant force, on the scale, locally at least, of gravity itself. But when I started to write the first paragraph of what would eventually become “Of Wind and Fire,” I had no idea that magnetism would come in also. All I had in my imagination was a woman who lived her entire life falling, and I had to write the story to find out more about her.

I decided in this story to stick with the most familiar and mundane physics, Newtonian physics. So we have falling objects, and the effects of air resistance, and magnetism, nothing that would be unfamiliar to anyone who has taken a basic physics course. Unlike many of my stories, where I extend familiar physics or invent something entirely new, this story is set firmly in our universe. But despite the constraints of physics, there is still room for a wildly different world – consider how variegated are the four-thousand-odd extra-solar planets that have been discovered!

The margins within which classical physics allows us to build worlds are broad and generous. What I wanted to explore here was Vayusha’s gradual realization of patterns in the world, regularities that hint of order, of economy of principle underlying the bewildering diversity of the phenomena she experiences. I wanted to experience with her the wonder that even good old Newtonian physics reveals as inherent in the universe. And I wanted to see what would happen to her when her realizations led her to think forbidden thoughts, to go against her social conditioning. Her thoughts and actions are the seed of a paradigm shift, something that will potentially change the way her people think about the world, and how they live in the world.

Of course Newtonian physics arises in our world in a particular historical and cultural context. Vayusha’s explorations will likely lead her to a different framing of the same phenomena. If I write a sequel, it will involve her constructing such an alternative formulation or framing. But that is another story!

To Shape the Dark: Liner Notes, Part 1

December 27th, 2016

To Shape the Dark, the younger sibling of The Other Half of the Sky, focusing on women scientists doing science not-as-usual, has become as widely acclaimed as its illustrious predecessor: among other recognitions, it won a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and two of its stories have been selected by Gardner Dozois for his Year’s Best SF 2016 (Melissa Scott’s “Firstborn, Lastborn” and Shariann Lewitt’s “Fieldwork”).

To deepen the readers’ enjoyment of the antho stories, I asked the contributing authors to share thoughts about their works. Below are some of their musings. More musings will appear after the new year.

 

Constance Cooper: Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home

I decided to write about a botanical survey after hearing my husband’s stories of childhood trips with his dad the botany professor, driving across the country with bundles of specimens tied to the roof of the car. What, I wondered, would it be like to do that on an alien planet? For me, it was a short step from there to giant carnivorous plants and a murder mystery.

On a deeper level, I tried to imagine how it would feel to grow up knowing you were a stranger on your planet—not part of the fossil record, not related to any local species, separated from the animals and plants that have been part of human culture for millennia. And what if the humans weren’t there by choice? How would that affect people’s attitudes toward their world? My botanist characters are among those who’ve embraced their new home. They find their work so involving that they can’t stand to leave it–even to take a shower after getting slimed by an enormous pitcher plant.

 

M. Fenn: Chlorophyll Is Thicker than Water

My story “Chlorophyll Is Thicker than Water” got its start with a suggestion from my alpha reader and husband Roy, who wanted me to write a tale about an old woman who was known as a plant wizard in her community, but there was more to her knowledge than anyone suspected. My first thought was witchcraft, but doing some research into the science of plant intelligence inspired me to make my characters be scientists conducting their own research. Choosing to make these women Japanese-Americans who had been interred during World War II came about because of my reading about George Takei’s play Allegiance. What started as a minor point of back story eventually manifested into strong motivation for my characters.

Also, I love writing about old women. They just don’t have time for anyone’s silliness. While Susan and Hina bear little if any resemblance to the witches in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, Granny Weatherwax and Gytha Ogg were certain influences in the creation of my own powerful old women. A point of interest that some might find amusing: while all the human characters are fictional and not based on any living person that I know, the parrot who lives at Whitman’s Feed Store in North Bennington, Vermont, is very real, although not named Tony.

 

C. W. Johnson: The Age of Discovery

I have been writing a sequence of stories revolving around a particular technology, the Casimir pump (which is not real, but the Casimir effect is), and had vaguely thought of a story line involving some of the first applications. I wanted it to be a story about the love of discovery, and wanting to invert the commonplace trope of the heroic lone inventor, I wanted to place it in the context of heavily bureaucratized research. I needed my protagonist to have a foil, and I realized the best additional context to the love of discovery is the discovery of love. From these pieces I wove, with many fits and false starts, my plot.

 

Jacqueline Koyanagi: Sensorium

The central concept for Sensorium is that of communication across umwelts. If it is a fundamentally unique cognitive experience to be a particular species, then language alone falls short as a vehicle for cross-species communication. I wanted to briefly explore what might happen when those cognitive barriers are broken down technologically–particularly to the people who submit to a neural connection that dissolves the stark delineation of “the individual” that we are accustomed to. What does it mean for a mind if awareness expands beyond its natal umwelt? What changes occur when previously inconceivable sensory experiences are now accessible? What, then, does it mean to be a person? These are the questions that fueled Sensorium and the attendant books-in-progress.

 

Susan Lanigan: Ward 7

When I was approached by Athena to contribute to her new volume, To Shape The Dark, I was very excited but also a bit anxious. It had been a while since I had written short fiction that was longer than 1,000 words and I knew it would be necessary to construct a small universe in a short space of time. Also I tend to adhere to “hard” sci-fi rather than space opera, so I tend to stick to the near future rather than its more distant counterpart, just as I stick to the nearer past when writing as a historical novelist. Working with Athena was a pleasure as she proved to be a diligent and sensitive editor and I hope to repeat the experience again sometime.

 

Shariann Lewitt: Fieldwork

The moment I read the parameters about stories for TO SHAPE THE DARK, I knew I had to write about science that takes place in the field.  Most people think scientists wear white coats and work in climate controlled labs, with a rest room down the hall and a coffee bar down the street.  When I studied Evolutionary Biology as an undergrad, I learned about fieldwork the hard way, on a dig.  While I realized I definitely preferred climate control, rest rooms and coffee bars (and ended up in computational biology), I have always had the greatest respect for those who go out into the field and I knew I had to write a story that highlighted a way that science is really done–and that rarely comes to mind.  I had also just finished reading a number of articles on Europa, and a friend who works for NASA’s climate research group was posting pictures from his mission to Antarctica to drill ice cores.

Those things knocked around together in my head and out came Anna Taylor.  Irene came from a more complex and personal place, but also from a desire to turn around the SF trope on the “genius kid who saves the world.”  Because Irina is that kid–but she has to suffer the consequences as well, and later face her own very deep fears because she understands what drives Anna.  This story is immensely personal for me, both from a family perspective, and from my relationship to work I’ve done in science as well.

We Shall Not Cease from Exploration: One Year at the Helm of Candlemark & Gleam

November 25th, 2016

“It ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is?”
— Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Firefly class starship Serenity

Sea Gate full

Ever since I read the long lays of my people and watched the distant fires shimmer and beckon overhead, I yearned for speculative fiction that combines originality of imagination with quality of craft. I craved such sustenance in all my guises: as a research scientist, a space exploration enthusiast, a politicized world citizen, a self-exile who walks between worlds.

I wanted—want—SF that’s literate, nuanced, layered, mythic, that brims with non-triumphalist sense of wonder, three-dimensional characters, fully realized universes, stories that lodge in cortex and breastbone. When I could not find enough of this kind of magic food, I decided to do some conjuring of my own. I started with The Other Half of the Sky (TOHotS)—and the response it received made me realize that many others were as hungry for such nourishment as I was.

TOHotS would never have become reality without the amazing savvy and sheer ability of Kate Sullivan: the founder and owner of Candlemark & Gleam (C&G), the remarkable, indomitable small press that took a chance on my anthology. But the heroic effort of running C&G essentially solo exhausted Kate, and she was contemplating shutting down C&G rather than see her vision diluted. So I told her of my own vision. And one year ago, I became the new C&G helm with Kate as my indispensable Number One during the transition year.

The transition was like living in a house while renovating it, even with Kate’s formidable knowledge and resourcefulness. I already knew theoretically (and now know concretely) that running a small press is almost identical to running a small lab. Its astrogators have to be jills-of-all-trades and operate with essentially zero redundancy on a budget that might buy one nail in the Pentagon. Kate proved as good a teacher as she is at everything else. Now the transition year is over, and the remodeled starship is once again testing its FTL engines.

It was a fitting symbol that To Shape the Dark, the younger sibling of TOHotS, was the first book brought out by C&G under its new astrogator. Much more is in the pipeline, from amazing works that Kate bequeathed me to full-blown novels that spun out of stories I solicited for my two anthos. We just released Justin Robinson’s Fifty Feet of Trouble, a witty neo-noir fantasy full of classic pulp echoes; and in a few weeks we’ll be launching A. M. Tuomala’s stunning historical fantasy Drakon—a novel that, frankly, would have made Tolstoy envious.

In addition to the novels lining up to dock like shuttles bringing reports of the beyond, C&G will also be launching a digital small works imprint in 2017—novelette and novella length. Submission details are here, and frequencies are open.

I’m not knee-deep in flowers and rings (yet). But as long as my stamina holds, I plan to take this little starship to as many journeys as its sturdy, lovingly attended frame will bear—and if luck is with us, we’ll bring back tidings of many new worlds and new civilizations, stories wrought with spider silk. At this time in our own world, we must continue shaping the dark.

Let me set sail for open water,
With gun salutes and pealing bells!
— Odhysséas Elytis, from Sun the First

Photo: Gantry at Heron Island in the Australian Great Barrier Reef, by Peter Cassidy

The Bard-Priest: Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016

November 11th, 2016

And who will write love songs for you
When I am lord at last
And your body is some little highway shrine
That all my priests have passed?

My priests they will put flowers there,
They will kneel before the glass,
But they’ll wear away your little window light,
They will trample on the grass.

— Cohen, “Priests”

leonard-cohen

Leonard Norman (Eliezer) Cohen, whose surname underlines his descent from intellectual machers and Talmudic scholars, was a priest in the oldest sense of the word: someone who sang to his gods and demons as much to keep them returning to his burnt offerings as to keep them from devouring him.

By all accounts he was a difficult, haunted man, besieged by depression, hard on those who loved him. But he was also immensely aware and self-aware – and far more politicized than most people realize, though he was subtle about it unlike his contemporary peers. His main threshing floor was the struggle within and between persons, his realm the restless night – smoky darkness to match his smoky rough pelt of a voice. His love ballads, shot through with longing, ambivalence and pain, etch themselves on the mind and plexus with fine-tipped acid ink. Yet he also spoke of democracy and resistance, of tikkun, though he never shouted. In my view, he was as deserving of the Nobel as his mirror twin Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan.

Cohen spent formative years on Hydra, one of the iconic Aegean islands, where he met one of his muses and also forged his persona, as enigmatic and “slant” as Emily Dickinson’s. He knew exile and trying to navigate ancient traditions that suffocate while they nourish; he knew the powerful whisper of ancestral demands. And he knew the holy dark, where the profane and sacred become one, where prayers are never answered without a price in blood.

Adieu, shaman, songbird, shaper of dark light. Our world is poorer without your lais.

Convenient Selective Principles

October 19th, 2016

“Where was Gondor when the Westfold fell?” — Théoden of Rohan, who nevertheless got killed defending Gondor

——

Note to SFF non-insiders: This is part of my (now very occasional) commentary on the SFF domain/genre.  Very occasional because too many things seem to never change, and it eventually gets depressing and, frankly, boring.  As is the case with such posts, comments are disabled.

——

I was away for two weeks (multiple repairs to my now very elderly parents’ Athens house that required 24/7 supervision) and only just caught up with l’ affaire Patel. Unlike most internet denizens, I will venture no opinions about his activities because I lack knowledge of the facts (except to note that by consensus he was an avid prevailing-winds climber within SFF; the bruited probably unprofessional and possibly unethical advantage-racking is unfortunately a frequent component of this profile).

justiceI also noted that 1) the same people who were either deafeningly silent or demanded detailed receipts from the targets of Requires Hate/Benjanun Sriduangkaew/etc (RH/BS) were instantly writing reams of pious platitudes, fulminating loudly against, and summarily, ostentatiously “dropping” Patel, who apparently makes a less-risky callout target, and 2) RH/BS and her enablers eagerly joined the anti-Patel queue to re-bash their perennial favorite targets (most notably “toxic white women” because Patel is…oh, wait).

Where was the “BELIEVE WOMEN!!” brigade when the reputations and careers of RH targets (almost overwhelmingly women) were being casually destroyed?  Apparently some were the “wrong type of target” and, as such, not useful to “ethics” arbiters who make safe choices when they opt to express outrage.

Once again, I’m underwhelmed by the selective amnesia and case-specific principles of the so-called progressive SFF community. If anyone wants to see callout done right, I recommend re-reading the Mixon report.

Related posts:

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Wrecker

How Many Swallows Bring Real Spring?

 

Three Fictional Characters

September 28th, 2016

Merani Yehan
Meráni tanegír Yehán by Heather D. Oliver

I rarely respond to memes, but will make an exception for the Three Fictional Characters Who Best Describe You that made the rounds a week or so ago.  For those who’ve read the Spider Silk cycle, my closest shadow double is Meráni tanegír Yehán (marvelously rendered by Heather D. Oliver). For those who haven’t, the fusions of the trinities below are close approximations to yours truly.

The choices are exclusively from SF/F sources: the first set from science fiction — though The Matrix barely qualifies as such — the second set from fantasy.  I would have placed Signy Mallory (from Cherryh’s Downbelow Station) or Anzha lyu Mitethe (from Friedman’s In Conquest Born) in the former set if there were decent visuals of them…and probably Xena in the latter, if I could find a non-campy still.  Choices from mainstream literature or another genre would be totally distinct yet again, but would take us too far afield.

aa-three-personae-sf
The SF set: Captain Nemo (Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, James Mason), Ellen Ripley (Alien tetralogy, Sigourney Weaver), The Oracle (The Matrix, Gloria Foster)

If you want to find out more about what made these characters feel like aspects of myself, the essays below contain lengthier explanations:

Captain Nemo, The Multi-Chambered Nautilus
Ellen Ripley, Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
The Oracle, Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?
Thorin Oakenshield, Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk
Yu Shu Lien, A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise
Fin Raziel, Le Plus Ça Change…

Please feel free to share your own fictional affinities!

aa-three-personae-f
The fantasy set: Thorin Oakenshield (The Hobbit, Richard Armitage), Yu Shu Lien (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Michelle Yeoh), Fin Raziel (Willow, Patricia Hayes)

Guilty Pleasures: Bespoke Perfumes

August 11th, 2016

Humans are primarily visual creatures – though none of our senses is extraordinary. Perhaps our weakest link is olfaction, aka smell, especially if compared to insects and even fellow mammals like dogs. And yet, weak as this human sense is, we are able to register (though not necessarily identify) close to a trillion scents.

Fragrant molecules 1
Molecules that smell good to human noses (click to embiggen)

The mechanism by which the brain analyzes and categorizes scents is still not entirely understood. Some researchers argue for a lock-and-key correspondence between odorants and receptors; others for a “swipe-card” recognition model with quasi-exotic recognition components (such as vibrational frequencies). None of the hypotheses fully explain the process, which is almost certainly a combination of several mechanisms that works combinatorially – as is the case for most complex brain functions.

The olfactory neurons connect to the hippocampus and the amygdala, which makes smell a component of both long-term and emotional memory (the ability of a scent to evoke powerful déjà-vus and unearth distant memories is well-known). On the other hand, unlike most mammals, humans are not capable of registering pheromones, pop science wisdom notwithstanding: these are processed by the vomeronasal organ, located between nose and mouth – and a random mutation has rendered this organ inoperative in our species. That said, the human smelling apparatus does appear capable of sensing the major histocompatibility antigens: people can recognize blood relatives by scent, and women prefer partners whose MHCs are different from their own, as one component of attaining hybrid vigor.

Humans have been tantalizing their noses with perfumes since time immemorial – sometimes for ritual or therapy, often to mask the odors of sweat or decay – and everything has been checked for scent potential: plants from root to seed (sandalwood, vetiver, patchouli, amber); animal excretions and glands (civet, musk, ambergris). Ancient Egyptian paintings show nobles with perfume cones perched on their wigs, and the repertoire and provenance base of parfumiers are as vast as those of chefs. Savvy people know to put perfume on hair, rather than skin; to add a touch of genital fluid if out on a mating prowl; and to opt for the staying power of essential oils that don’t contain alcohol.

To those familiar with me, it will come as no surprise that my own tastes in perfume run to the dark and spicy: amber, chypre, fougère. While in college, I contented myself with commercial perfumes: Opium, Shalimar, Obsession, Calèche. But one balmy evening, I was gallery-hopping down Newbury Street, and at the back of a craft shop I noticed a small counter bristling with delicate bottles. Naturally I went to investigate – and a sylph of a young woman rose to greet me and beguile me into the world of bespoke perfumes.

She interviewed me closely. Then she proceeded to mix East Indian sandalwood, Tunisian opium, Tunisian amber and petitgrain, giving me a whiff after each minute calibration. When we were both satisfied, she carefully noted the proportions down and asked me what name I wanted to give the scent. And so I became the co-creator and delighted owner of The Long Shadow. When I met the Copper Yeti, I dragged him to Dawn’s tiny parfumerie (I had to apply some force, because he raised both eyebrows at the concept of bespoke scents for men). His scent is called The Cuddly Crusader.

Then Dawn left Boston, and I lost track of her. I was resigned to reverting to commercial perfumes, until the Google search engine got really good. At that point I looked her up – and lo, she was in Colorado, and her perfumerie had become renowned (as it should). She had kept all the old bespoke recipes, so I now have my lifelong supply of The Long Shadow. But I’ve also tested almost all of her perfumes that fall within my taste spectrum. As a result, I now can evaluate a perfume at a glance by looking at its ingredients; and a dozen miniature bottles (and thrice as many sample tubes) are in a basket by my bed, and all my fuzzies get a dab at the top of their heads as a way to keep my olfactory bulb happily busy.

Pyrgos, Cyprus
Bronze Age perfume bottles, -1850 BCE; Pyrgos, Cyprus

Stoking the Fire Anew

July 25th, 2016

It’s been a while since I wrote on my blog. The new press, health issues…and humanity looking like it’s about to go into one of its periodic regressive jags. I thought a few times, why not stop altogether? The launch of To Shape the Dark would serve as a good full stop.

New Moon

But then I experience small pleasures that make me want to talk to the world again. Watching the double hybiscus spread its silken apricot blossoms; reading Eleanor Arnason’s Hwarhath Stories; seeing Mars glitter like a ruby on black damask; anticipating seeing Star Trek Beyond, even though I detest the reboot universe; surprising a young rabbit warily chewing the parsley in a neighbor’s garden.

And I’m back to dreaming on the page again. Not fast, not easily…but the story of the launch of the Reckless is slowly rising from the mists.

To Shape the Dark: Liftoff!

May 1st, 2016

shapedark-final-cover-titles1200

Today is the day!  Spread the word, To Shape the Dark is spreading its wings. Focusing on women scientists doing science not-as-usual, the anthology is sister to The Other Half of the Sky, which won unprecedented accolades.  This family of feral astrogators may eventually have a third member — keep frequencies open!

The book, both print and digital, is available on all major online venues (Amazon, B&N, etc) but Candlemark combines the print version with a DRM-free bundle. More direct sales also make it likelier that we’ll break even. Relevant sites:

Candlemark & Gleam direct sales
Reviews, interviews
Goodreads

Analog SF said of To Shape the Dark: “…these stories make the reader think. // They challenge us to question some cherished conventions of the field… // If you like well-told, intelligent science fiction that respects the search for knowledge, you can’t afford to miss this one.”

As I say in the introduction, “Scientists are humanity’s astrogators: they never go into the suspended animation cocoons but stay at the starship observation posts, watching the great galaxy wheels slowly turn while they attend to the hydroponics. To Shape the Dark is part of that vigil.”

To Shape the Dark cover: Eleni Tsami

Music: End of “Love” theme from Joss Whedon’s Serenity (composer, David Newman)

Of Fast Micro-Sails and Slow Swashbucklers

April 16th, 2016

sail

Early this week, venture capitalist Yuri Milner (backed by glittering names that included Stephen Hawking, Ann Druyan, Mae Jemison and Mark Zuckerberg) announced the next step of his Breakthrough plan. Part 1 is Listen – equivalent to passive SETI efforts; Part 2 is Starshot, a mission to reach Alpha Centauri within twenty years by using miniaturized probes. Such a rapid journey is theoretically possible if the probes are equipped with tiny photon sails and accelerated to a percentage of lightspeed by ground or orbiting lasers.

All of the technology needed for Starshot has passed proof of principle, though none of the specific components is actually at hand. The concept itself has enough original aspects – and enough advantages – that it could well succeed: sending armadas of small-cross-section vehicles dilutes the risks and increases the collective chances of reaching the destination. The mission length is just short enough to sustain interest (though people tend not to mention that it will take several more years for any information gleaned by the probes to get back to us — and that the Alpha Centauri three-star system has no confirmed planets). It’s not burdened by the prohibitive demands of slow ships to Alpha-Cen, with or without live cargo. And just starting the engineering of the Starshot components will lead to a spate of innovations, whether the mission is undertaken or not.

Starshot, with its emphasis on new research on miniaturization, laser technology and materials science, underlines the almost complete lack of equivalent biological research that might make larger, slower starships possible – from self-sufficient ecological systems to ways of keeping a crew safe and sane during long star travels. Astrobiology has confined itself almost exclusively (though with some justification) to extremophilic bacteria and nobody is trying to untangle bear-style hibernation, to give but one example. The sole non-bacterial/fungal critters that seem to have engaged the interest of astrobiologists are tiny invertebrates with the formal name of tardigrades (= slow walkers).

The popular monikers of tardigrades are water bears or moss piglets, but they resemble nothing as much as eight-legged micro-manatees, including their habit of placid munching (though they have bear-shaped fangs and claws and some are cannibals). They’ve become media darlings by dint of both perceived cuteness and grace under pressure. Their average size is that of a sesame seed (1-2 mm) and, like mites, they’re found everywhere – from deep sea trenches to the slopes of the Himalayas, from the equator to the poles.

Their anatomy, habits and life cycle are unremarkable, except for their record endurance of extremes of temperature, pressure (both deep-sea high and vacuum-level low), gravity, dehydration, radiation, toxins. They accomplish this by rolling into a compact configuration known as a tun (barrel) and decreasing their water content to 1% of the normal. Just as arctic fish use glycol to keep their structures intact in freezing water, so do water bears, though they deploy another type of sugar (trehalose). Several other invertebrates can enter and exit cryptobiosis – rotifers, brine shrimp, nematodes – but water bears are the only organisms known so far to be successful at all types of it.

That said, media fail to convey the fact that this endurance is statistical: the longer and harsher the conditions, the less likely the survival of water bears – or their eggs, especially at early embryo stages. So one take-home lesson here is that we can shrug at the percentage of tuns that revive successfully, because they’re not fellow humans or even loved pets; they’re not losses that cut us to the quick. It’s also no surprise that people tried to pin the water bears’ abilities to unique genes or gene networks, whereby the tale turns to the dangers of both reductionism and love of magic bullets.

Recently, two groups published the genome sequence of a tardigrade species. One of the two reports, ahead of the other by a few days, got the lion’s share of the press – not only because it was first, but also because it made the flashy announcement that tardigrades are as sturdy as they are because ~17% of their genes come from horizontal transfer. The authors of this study hypothesized that such an influx of foreign DNA is possible when the water bears reconstitute their chromosomes during revival from tun status, at which point they’re leaky across scales. Of course, one prediction of this hypothesis is that tardigrades should have undergone incredibly rapid and divergent evolution, which is very visibly not the case (I fully expect a cult theory of tardigrades as single-point earth life ancestors to spring up as a result of this blog post).

People who know how genomes, organisms and evolution work shook their heads at this announcement and waited for the other shoe to drop. It promptly did with the close-following second sequencing study, which demonstrated that horizontal transfer in tardigrades does not exceed the average 2-3% found in all organisms, and that the results of the earlier study came from contamination of the tardigrade genomic material with DNA from bacteria in the water bears. To be fair, it’s incredibly hard to avoid such contamination, especially with something of water bear size, though there are ways of detecting and correcting it after the fact. However, separating wheat from chaff requires long, painstaking work – and in these days of dwindling-to-nothing funds for basic research, being first is at a premium.

Learning how tardigrades go through literally killing regimes will teach us much about basics, and may show the way to useful applications. But I suspect that most of that knowledge won’t be portable to large, slow-metabolizing mammals like us. What will undoubtedly be of direct use is deciphering the mechanisms behind bear hibernation. Results from such a study will not only be applicable to human spacefaring, but will also help revive patients from long comas and serious traumas with less muscle waste and/or irreversible brain and other organ damage.

Like much research nominally focused on space, investigation of other non-bacterial terrestrial biologies may not only enable us to travel into the beguiling star-studded darkness beyond our friendly base, but may also improve our life here and now. If/when we venture past our gravity well, it’s certain that the imperturbable water bears will be on board with us. And despite stringent precautions against contamination, I wonder if the Voyager craft are carrying tiny sleeping tuns on the winds between the stars.

tardigrade space

Sources

Breakthrough Project initiatives
Summary of tardigrade sequencing results in Science Alert
PNAS paper about the bacterial contamination in the first study

Related articles

Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix
The Death Rattle of the Space Shuttle
Slouching to the Right of the Drake Equation
Those Who Never Got to Fly
Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri
Damp Squibbs: Non-News in Space Exploration
Note to Alien Watchers: Octopuses are Marvelous, But Still Terrestrial
Starry, Starry Night

Images: Top, concept art of a Starshot probe and sail (Breakthroughinitiatives.org); bottom, the intrepid water bear in a challenging environment (Microbiologia General)

She Who Shapes

March 18th, 2016

“Who is that rising like the morning star,
clear as the moon, bright as the sun,
daunting as the stars in their courses?”

— Song of Songs 6:10, translated by Ariel and Chana Bloch

Note: This entry is inadvertently appearing just before catholic Easter (its orthodox counterpart is on May 1). It contains both what are euphemistically called “mature themes and language” and a detailed description of a story. But even for those who hyperventilate at the horrificity of “spoilers”, the story has to be seen for its full worth to be appreciated.

———-

Maryam in ClayI don’t look at porn much (unless, as one of my readers pointed out, it crosses into erotic art). Almost all porn is geared to men’s pleasure; most is hostile to women. But, true to my unibrow tastes and principles, I will dip into anything I normally dislike if it comes recommended by someone whose judgement and taste I trust. Besides, porn is known to have given rise to artwork of the first magnitude, from Utamaro’s ukiyo-e and the Khajuraho sculptures to Klimt’s soft-gauze portrayals (and their savage Schiele counterparts).

In one of my increasingly infrequent visits to Twitter, I bumped on Kay Holt’s shout-outs to comics. Kay knows her stuff and is no mean graphic artist herself. One item she named sounded intriguing: Smut Peddler 2014 from Iron Circus Comics, the successor to their well-received 2012 volume. I read an interview of Spike Trota, one of the anthology’s creators and editors. Something she said in that interview piqued my curiosity, so I bought SP2014 (which, in time-honored fashion, came wrapped in opaque black plastic).

The antho has about two dozen stories. They range far and wide in terms of combinations, body types and protagonist provenances. The quality of the stories (admittedly not the focus of such work) varies; the overall visual art, on the other hand, is uniformly excellent. The settings go from real-world to fantasy to science fiction – though the alien encounters are timid when compared to Hokusai’s Tako to Ama, still the best depiction of tentacle sex.

What makes SP2014 unique is its unabashed focus on women’s pleasure. Never before have I seen so much oral sex or lack of coercion in a single book dedicated to sex. But the antho has something more than evolved sexual mores. Tucked among the entries, just before the end, is a story that’s worth the price of the entire book by itself: Liza Petruzzo’s Clay. It’s a virtuoso performance that relies entirely on images, a seamless fusion of several mythic veins – and deeply subversive in the way it has chosen to tell a story that’s a cornerstone of christianity.

In the christian canon, Mary (Maryam) is the perfect passive vessel. She has no will or agency of her own, and is totally, unquestioningly obedient to male authority. She undergoes the ordeal of pregnancy and birth without knowing the ecstasy of either yearning or desire, and she becomes the conduit of what is essentially an affair between two male gods. In her person, monotheisms drained the power from the old, potent woman god whose son becomes first her lover, then a sacrifice to ensure that the cycle of fertility remains unbroken.

The great woman god is sometimes a virgin; sometimes she has many consorts. Her travails may end up in triumph or tragedy, but she’s never an afterthought or a channel. In stark contrast, Mary and her many incarnations are disposable, from the mother who lets her son rip out her heart in Balkan folksongs to Shmi Skywalker. Their best hope is to survive the miracle birth itself and be allowed to act as either pleading intercessors or unwilling collaborators to the dire unleashings of their sons, who have become their masters.

In art, the sand grain of Mary has produced a harvest of dazzling pearls – the Theotókoi of the east and the Madonnas of the west; the Akáthistos hymn and Easter laments of Byzantium (though the latter betray who she once was: they’re the barely-altered keenings of Astarte for Tammuz, Aphrodite for Adonis). Clay must be added to the outstanding works of Mariolatry, and to the dammed, hidden stream underneath it.

Clay starts mildly enough: a young woman gets up in the morning and heads to the nearby pond to take a bath. She’s full-bodied, plain-faced, her black hair cascading in unruly waves. She could be my mother’s sister or one of my father’s cousins in their youth. Her looks, clothing and implements place the story squarely in Bronze Age Mediterranean.

At the pond, behind the reeds, something is struggling and moaning. Parting the reeds, she sees an inchoate being – essentially a mount of clay – that reaches for her. As it looks scary and is several times her size, she’s naturally frightened. But it restrains itself before it reaches her… and intrigued and no longer afraid, she decides to shape it as Yahweh is said to have shaped Adam, as the rabbis of the diaspora tried to breathe life in their golems.

With care and joy, she fashions the creature into a handsome young man with hair longer than hers — the long swirls of the Minoan frescoes, the glorious mane that doomed Absalom. When made whole, he takes her in his new arms. They explore each other, and eventually he buries his face between her thighs until she climaxes.

When they’re finally standing up, caressing and tidying each other, the viewpoint pans out above them and you see their shadows, stretching before them in the morning light. Hers is her shape and height; his reaches the sky – and unfurls the mighty wings of the bene elohim, the sons of gods who came to the daughters of men. Yet as lovesome beings, they stand as equals. And as she shaped her lover, so will she shape the inchoate morsel his sweet tongue bequeathed her. For she is not nutrient soil, but a fearless Maker who makes her own choices.

In one fell swoop, Petruzzo reclaimed the lost power of the triple goddess and depicted the visual equivalent of that great, full-throated cry of mutual desire, the Song of Songs. If I were any of the churches whose adherents kneel before statues and icons of Mary, I’d use Clay as a conversion tool.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

Images: top, Maryam (part of a panel from Clay, shown in Spike Trota’s interview in Comics Alliance); bottom, a more conventional Annunciation (though subversive in its own way) by Henry Ossawa Tanner (painted in 1898; Philadelphia Art Museum)

Related articles:

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture: Appropriate Away
The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art
Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

Drums in the Deep: A Ninth Planet?

February 2nd, 2016

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[Click images to embiggen]

From the first moment humans looked at the sky, their eyes — with or without aids — could see five wanderers against the celestial backdrop: Mercury, fleetingly visible outside the Sun’s glare; Venus, so bright it can cast a shadow (Eosphóros at dawn, Phósphoros at dusk); Mars, its brick-reddish hue apparent even at aphelion; Jupiter, second to Venus in brightness; and Saturn, about as dim as Mercury – though someone with exceptional vision might just discern the slightly elongated shape that would later prove to be its rings.

And there the count of the solar family remained until the late 18th century, when telescopes and the mathematics of trajectories got sophisticated enough to enable astronomers to make and test predictions. At that point, the Herschel siblings established that Uranus was not a star but the planet next out from Saturn. A little less than a century later, Le Verrier noticed the “tugs” at Uranus’ orbit. Based on these, he predicted, then visually found, Neptune. But Neptune’s orbit showed irregularities also, plus its mass did not totally account for the Uranian perturbations either.

So the search started for Planet X (pedantically speaking it should have been IX, but X is the standard denotation for an unknown). And that’s when things stopped being simple.

The next iteration of the methods that had added Uranus and Nepture to the solar herd yielded Pluto. The problem with Pluto, which led to its eventual dethronement as a planet, is that there are many Pluto-sized planetesimals in the asteroid and Kuiper belts and in the Oort cloud — several with accompanying moons, like Pluto has Charon. Amusingly, many carry names of female gods or heroes and/or from mythologies beyond the Roman in a belated effort to change the heavily skewed naming ratio of the major planets.

So either Pluto of tiny mass and eccentric orbit did not deserve the distinction of being called a planet – or Vesta, Ceres, Eris, Sedna et al had to be included in the roster (side note for SFF doofs like me: Eris, named after the goddess of discord, was originally called Xena; its attendant moon is officially called Dysnomia, the Greek term for Lawless… as in Lucy Lawless, who played Xena the Warrior Princess; personally, I think they should have stuck with Xena and Gabrielle, but I’ll admit to some lack of objectivity). To the relief of both astronomers and astrologers, scientists drew the line at entities so small that, even if they’ve attained roundness, don’t have the oomph to either fling or pull planetesimals in their vicinity.

Yet the idea of a giant planet or brown dwarf hiding in the outer darkness has too strong a hold on our imagination. Starting with paleontologists Raup and Sepkoski, scientists proposed such a distant lurker whose orbital movement might have caused impact events resulting in the mass extinctions that occur on Earth about every 27 million years. For obvious reasons, they called this hypothetical planet Nemesis (Retribution). The long, systematic hunts for Nemesis yielded nothing except the conclusion that nothing larger than Saturn is rolling for several thousand AUs beyond Neptune. That’s disappointing, but there’s a large size gap between Saturn and Pluto where a respectably sized outcast can still dwell.

The productive game of checking for orbit irregularities and sweeping/herding behavior got applied again recently, when several astronomers (first Sheppard and Trujillo, then Batygin and Brown – all Kuiper aficionados and decisive influences in demoting Pluto) noticed a pattern in six “sednoids” – largish denizens of the Kuiper belt. Their behavior indicated that they had been disturbed by something large. So Brown and his collaborators fed the pertinent details to a simulator… and out popped the prediction of a planet at least 10 times as massive as Earth (i. e. Neptune-sized) with a highly eccentric, off-center orbit – a victim and survivor of ejection from the inner regions of the solar system during the early stages of its formation.

Brown was meticulous in exploring and evaluating all other possible explanations of the planetesimal disturbance pattern, just as Boyajian and her co-authors did with the anomalous brightness dips of KIC 8462852. The hypothesis of a Neptune-sized planet at that region passes the Occam’s razor criterion. But only one thing will make Planet Nine move from hypothetical to real: seeing it with a telescope. So some astronomers have been sweeping the starry dark with high-powered wide-field telescopes, while others have been comparing time-lapse photos to see if a bright needle has moved relative to the rest of the haystack.

If Planet Nine proves to be real, it will give us important insights into the workings of our solar system and will help us judge how unusual it is compared to other systems found by the industrious Kepler telescope. And if its existence is confirmed, the arguments about its specific details will pale in comparison with those over what to name it. Some want it called Jehosaphat; others, Janus. But I propose Tiamat, the exiled Great Goddess of the Deep.

Orbits Planet X

Primary sources

Trujillo, Chadwick A.; Sheppard, Scott S. (2014). A Sedna-like body with a perihelion of 80 astronomical units. Nature 507: 471.

Batygin, Konstantin; Brown, Michael E. (2016). Evidence for a distant giant planet in the Solar system. The Astronomical Journal 151: 22.

Related article

Starry, Starry Night

Images: Top, current view of the solar system (credit: NASA’s Space Place via http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/ice-dwarf/); bottom, the predicted orbit of Planet Nine (credit: (data) JPL; Batygin and Brown/Caltech; (diagram) A. Cuadra/Science)

The Every-Branching Universe: Forever Nethack

January 16th, 2016

NethackScreenshot
[Click on all images in this article to embiggen them]

You’re in the corner of a room that you can light up to half its length with your rapidly dying lantern. To your left you can see a scroll of charging, which you desperately need to replenish your wishing wand. To get to it, however, you have to bypass or eliminate the troll who is bashing you with its axe. If you kill it, you have to eat it quickly enough to prevent its resurrection. There’s also a trapdoor just in front of the charging scroll. To avoid it, you can either put on your ring of levitation or dig through the side wall with your pick axe. If you put on the ring, you need to take it off to pick up the scroll (this will occupy two moves). If you use the pick axe, you cannot wield your weapon at the same time.

While you are hacking at the troll with your life-draining Stormbringer, you are also trying to avoid trampling your tame cat, who’s frisking around you and whom you wish to keep alive long enough to polymorph into a friendly dragon that you can use as both weapon and steed. If you get the charging scroll, you can replenish your wishing wand and get a wand of polymorph. You’re also trying to block the unruly critter from falling into the trapdoor, because by the time you find it again at another dungeon level it will have forgotten you and turned feral.

Speaking of dragons, a black one just entered the dark area of the room. You know its presence and color because it’s breathing death at you; thankfully, your shield of reflection protects you and your inventory from being turned to dust. You could zap the beast with your wand of cancellation and reduce its deadly breath to harmless coughing. However, you want to kill it unmodified if possible, because eating it will make you disintegration-proof. But if you eat both the troll and the dragon, you’ll choke from overeating. If you pray to your patron god, (s)he may come to your aid. You feverishly rack your memory: did you offer enough at the last altar you passed?

Complicated, you say? Multiply this situation by a few hundred thousand times, and you get the feel of Nethack.

RPG games, now extraordinarily sophisticated in form (though still mostly primitive in content), have been enduring parallel universes for the armchair warriors who prefer their human contacts minimal, their muscles small and their repartee absent. Yet after all this programming effort, all the glitzy, expensive packages and X-boxes, after all the network chat groups and all the pneumatic avatars of Second Life, the most immersive, most addictive adventure game is an evolved species of the original sparse but nifty Rogue: Nethack.

Entirely keyboard-driven with ASCII characters, without any sound or special effects, Nethack can wreck careers and relationships — and like a truly dangerous drug, keep its victims blissed out while their world crumbles around them. And the main reason for the denomic hold of this game (besides the fact that it’s free and open source) is the same that makes books so infinitely superior to any flat-footed explicit representation: namely, Nethack uses human imagination as its engine, thereby turning what looks like a horse-driven cart into an FTL starship.

Nethack Map

Nethack has been around since the mid-eighties, though it took a while to attain its full complexity. Like all D&D style games, it’s a Tolkienesque stew with side helpings of several other pop mythologies (the archaeologist class is a nod to Indiana Jones; one of the named weapons is Elric’s Stormbringer, another is Bilbo’s Sting; the quest homebase of the tourist class is a hat tip to Terry Pratchett… you get the gist). What makes it unusual is the heroic lengths to which the huge development team went to anticipate and program all possible actions within the framework. You can drink a potion – but you can also throw it, or dip something in it. A cockatrice can turn you to stone, but if you kill it and have gloves on you can wield it as a weapon to turn your enemies to stone instead. And what makes it amazing is how many ways the story can go, how richly textured it is, and how much it rewards exploration and strategy. It’s like seeing the multiverse concept in action, including the wavefunction collapse at the narrow-funnel ending. Nethack is a labor of immense love and a triumphant example of effective collective effort – the cyber-equivalent of a great bridge or temple.

I started playing Rogue in the mid-eighties – half of my then-lab were aficionados who watched others dodge medusae and xorns with the passionate involvement (and exclamations) usually vouchsafed to group-watching of football or soccer games. I then moved to the more complicated versions – Moria, Angband, and finally Nethack itself (plus the Zork series, of which Nemesis is my hands-down favorite because it has a plot and characters that I cared for). I’ve played all classes, races and alignments in Nethack, but have never completed a game except in immortal mode, which should give a hint of how fiendishly hard it is. And I still feel the thrill of anticipation whenever I go up or down a dungeon level staircase.

Nethack had not been altered in a while, except for its tiles version becoming (grumble) inoperative in MacOs systems past the big-cat-named ones. But this December version 3.6.0 appeared and, of course, all of us devotees ran over to see what’s new. Not surprisingly, only details have changed – the game is too fine-tuned to allow much further tinkering. Gehennom levels are now of two types instead of one; vampires have become more interesting. But I have a sneaking suspicion I will now replay all class/race combinations and class-specific quests, to check if something really new has been stealthily implemented Easter-egg fashion.

The only other games of this type that have come as close to captivating me as Nethack are Eschalon and, to a lesser extent, Legend of Pandora. A few others have lodged in my long-term memory: I wept at the end of Syberia, when the mammoths came out of the mist; I fell utterly in love with the atmospherics, worldbuilding (and strong women) of Sins of the Fathers and Broken Sword; and I adored witty, sui generis efforts like System’s Twilight, The Tiny Bang Story and Botanicula. I may at some point play Mass Effect (though the reports of its notoriously bad ending have given me pause, plus watching The Expanse may fill that need slot for me) or one of Assassin’s Creed – if the upcoming movie version with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard is good enough to make me curious.

But no matter what shiny baubles come along, few hold my interest for long. Nethack has been the granite foundation of my gameplaying, my faithful companion in the sleepless watches of the night.

nethack-wiz-29

Related Articles:

The (Game)play’s the Thing: The Retro-RPG Eschalon
Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

Images: 1st, the unadorned Nethack screen appearance; 2nd, a charmingly handmade (but thorough) global Nethack map from BT-Net; 3rd, the start of Gehennom in Nethack (tile version)

The Joys of Dawdling

December 14th, 2015

Strasbourg Hidden CornerI recently returned from a short jaunt to France and the UK. My two extended sojourns were in Strasbourg and London – and for the first time, I got to ride the Eurostar and be spoiled by its attentive staff.

I had last visited Strasbourg as a teenager and I’ve been in London several times though not recently, except as a springboard for trips to Scotland. So I’ve seen all the hallmark sights: the cathedrals, big-name museums, large parks. This visit was low key, aimed primarily at meeting staunch long-distance friends. But it also gave me a rare opportunity to be “of the place” rather than surfing on it like a waterbug.

We spent an idyllic late morning/early afternoon at Strasbourg’s old town, La Petite France. The Christmas attract-tourist glitz had started (the Europeans are increasingly mimicking the US with ever earlier times for the holiday commercial mill) but it was a weekday, so it was not crowded. The weather, mild with Turner-esque clouds, was perfect for exploring hidden corners and dormant gardens; when we tired of walking, we indulged in mulled wine outside a café. One night we had tapas on a nibbles-and-wine barge swaying on the Rhine; on another evening we meandered to a nearby tiny restaurant, to discover that it offers four-star Alsatian cuisine at two-star prices.

In London I stayed at a family-run B&B recommended by a friend. I assumed the “next to the British Museum” decription was the usual PR exaggeration, but not this time. They are in fact exactly a block away from the museum yet the street is quiet, very much a lived-in place. A block away in a different direction is Oxford Street, where I acquired (for a pittance) a spiffy new handbag after the shoulder strap of my old faithful snapped. My room had a view of a kilim-sized garden; the building has a beautiful, tightly wound staircase, original woodwork intact, and canny old-fashioned window clasps (yet also granite-solid WiFi). The neighborhood is dotted with those tiny parks that act as oases in central London.

Of course, the highlight of the visit were the people. These friendship bonds were forged through ordeal; some are also professional collaborators. This was the first time I met any of them in person, although it felt like the continuation of ongoing conversations. We spent long, lazy hours in home kitchens and pubs, and the topics ranged from brain function to 9th century Wales, from space opera to the use of Celtic motifs by MacDonald and Macintosh.

One of these visits was combined with a viewing of the British Museum Celts exhibit. The organizers did a fantastic job of displaying the findings through the ages in context without overinterpretation. Some of the touches were wonderful: the videos of today’s Celtic diasporas; the gauzy dividers, evocative of the mists that shape the Celtic lands. Afterwards we repaired to the Museum café where I found meringues literally the size of cabbages.

London Hotel GardenThere was a final eldritch touch: I flew Icelandair, the only airline that would allow for an open-jaw ticket that wouldn’t bankrupt me. The cabin lights were not the usual yellowish-white but an undulating green and purple — the colors of the northern lights that were also swaying and whispering outside as I made my way home through the dreaming dark.