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Artist, Heather Oliver             

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The Time Between

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

Long travels are limbo—but, if you can keep exhaustion from overwhelming you, they also grant time to catch up on long-postponed reading and watching. So in my latest Atlantic crossing, I finally read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and watched Black Panther.

Station Eleven is close kin to Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play, although their eras are very far apart. It’s elegiac, layered, hopeful about culture surviving a nearly irreversible technological collapse. The framing device of the graphic novel is handled unusually well. And I really liked that its dystopia isn’t the savage type of The Road or The Handmaid’s Tale.

Black Panther was way above the standard MCU movie level: it had flair and style; a coherent story brimming with relevance and cognizant of ethical/moral ambiguities; and vividly etched characters. I particularly appreciated the prominence of powerful women of all ages (and that T’Challa is a thinker, not a reflexive warrior); the portrayal of a never-colonized non-Western culture whose people don’t need external saviors (they showed it as a pan-African mix, but I understand their reasons); and the witty banter.

However, the total reliance of Wakandan long-term viability on a hereditary king (chosen by combat and not constrained by a constitution), is a serious issue in this utopia that remains unquestioned even after its weakness has been fully exposed. Not surprisingly, the film is not entirely free of many standard Hollywood tropes that now pass as universal, (including the perennial Campbell-lite mythical conflicts/dilemmas.

Black Panther is a landmark in many dimensions, and an artistic achievement to boot. I, for one, can hardly wait for a sequel focusing on Shuri the scientist-as-hero—or Nakia, who walks between worlds. [Recent interviews indicate that director Ryan Coogler is willing to do a movie centering the women of Wakanda, if he can get the financial backing.]

But the most unforgettable point of the transition was looking out the plane’s tiny window and seeing a sickle moon, Antares and Jupiter glimmering next to each other, tarnished silver, brick-red, pale gold. Wonder never wanes at such sights.

Video Interview for Feminist Futures Storybundle

Wednesday, March 14th, 2018

Cat Rambo graciously invited me to participate in a StoryBundle with the acclaimed science fiction anthology To Shape the Dark, focused on women scientists doing science not-as-usual.

The storybundle, curated by Cat, has the evocative title/theme Feminist Futures and runs till March 29. In its wake, Cat did 10-minute interviews of several of the participants; and as a result, you can see me dreaming and opining on YouTube (personal note: for those curious about how I look/sound, this is your chance).

Public Service Announcement

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

Apparently the Usual Suspects are trying to paint me again (still) as a bigot in whatever way they think will stick. As my time is precious and I’m profoundly bored by virtue signaling, my sole response will be: all anyone has to do is check my output as science ambassador, writer, editor/publisher, including every entry (none deleted or altered) on this blog.

[The main song starts at 1:30 and is about Prometheus]

Byzantium in Speculative Fiction

Sunday, 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

Monday, 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!

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

Friday, 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

Stoking the Fire Anew

Monday, 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!

Sunday, 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)

She Who Shapes

Friday, 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

To Shape the Dark — Cover

Monday, October 5th, 2015

“…they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn…” — Semíra Ouranákis, captain of starship Reckless (“Planetfall”).

shapedarkcover-800

[Click twice on the image for a high-resolution version.]

This cover is the best birthday gift I could get. I’ve been champing at the bit to share it. As with the story teasers, I won’t say more – I think the art speaks for itself. The artist who gave such dramatic, eloquent visual summation to the stories is Eleni Tsami whose work has graced other book and magazine covers, The Other Half of the Sky prominently among them.

The wraparound version is as breathtaking as the front shown here and I will link to it when Eleni unveils it. [ETA: here’s the promised link.]  For those who missed it the first time, here’s the anthology TOC:

To Shape the Dark

Athena Andreadis – Astrogators Never Sleep

Constance Cooper – Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home
M. Fenn – Chlorophyll is Thicker than Water
Jacqueline Koyanagi – Sensorium
Kristin Landon – From the Depths
Shariann Lewitt – Fieldwork
Vandana Singh – Of Wind and Fire
Aliette de Bodard – Crossing the Midday Gate
Melissa Scott – Firstborn, Lastborn
Anil Menon – Building for Shah Jehan
C. W. Johnson – The Age of Discovery
Terry Boren – Recursive Ice
Susan Lanigan – Ward 7
Kiini Ibura Salaam – Two Become One
Jack McDevitt – The Pegasus Project
Gwyneth Jones – The Seventh Gamer

Mad Max : Feral Orphans and Chosen Families

Saturday, July 11th, 2015

“Tell me who you loved, the rest is dross.”
— Oysterband, “The Boy’s Still Running”

Vuvalini

Note: I will not revisit important points raised by other reviewers (links at the end of the article). Instead this article will focus on the larger context of the Mad Max universe.

———

I’ve seen all four Mad Max films. In my view, they don’t constitute a series but variations on themes beloved by storytellers (and listeners) since we acquired language: the reluctant loner hero; the creation of kinship by choice; plus, of course, derring-do with fast chariots.

The first draft, Mad Max, is essentially throat-clearing on George Miller’s part. Mel Gibson still carries baby fat. So does the film, a by-the-numbers Bronson-style revenge fantasy fueled by the standard family-fridging event. It’s really a prelude to the sand-blasted hellscape of the successors in which society has regressed to least common denominators: young men as expendable weapons, fertile women and their children as owned assets.

The second take, The Road Warrior, is widely acknowledged as one of the apexes of action B-movies and one of the cornerstones of the post-apocalyptic film subgenre. Everything is pared down to bare essentials: dialogue, scenery, plot, Gibson. The only flamboyant notes are the outré costumes of Max’s opponents, a blend of cyberpunk and faux-tribal. There’s a half-hearted concession to the value of forging kinship bonds, but Miller opts for the Damnation Alley alternative: the potential new kin are slaughtered like Leonidas’ Spartans, an inevitable outcome of the decision to act as sacrificial decoys. This includes the woman who may be too “feisty” to pass on her genes or attitudes. The sole named survivors are the Gyro Captain – Sanzo Pancha to Max’s Quixote – and the Feral Kid, of whom more anon.

The third pass on the by-now-mythic franchise, Beyond Thunderdome, split reviewers – no surprise, as it’s two films. One continues the depiction of Max as a cross between Shane and Moses. This culminates with his descent upon a tribe of lost children stranded in a pocket Eden, whom he reluctantly must lead back to what’s left of urban civilization. There are again attempts at kinship, but Max remains outside the cooperation circle: as with Achilles, whatever he does is entirely from/for his own sense of amour-propre.

But there’s a second strand: Bartertown, struggling to make do in a desert empty of father gods. Crucially, Bartertown is shown as viable (if riddled with inequities), not dependent on gasoline… and ruled by a older woman king. Tina Turner’s formidable poise as Entity and her Pharaoh-like hairdo accentuate these points – plus she delivers a Parthian shot to would-be messiahs: “Today cock of the walk, tomorrow a feather duster.” It’s indicative of the direction Miller’s thoughts were taking that he allows Entity to survive and continue leading Bartertown, even if she’s stranded in the wilderness like Lilith. Not for her the glow of resurgent cities “when they sees the distant light, and they’ll be comin’ home.” It’s this strand that becomes dominant in the fourth variation, car chase ecstasies aside.

Max Women

When Fury Road appeared to near-universal acclaim, its subversive slant was duly noted by endorsers and detractors alike. Max is a secondary player in this round, he essentially acts as a witness. The pivotal hero – as is made explicit by the male form of her signifier adjective – is Imperator Furiosa. Much has been made of her central placement; but she doesn’t merely incorporate most of the stoic loner protector attributes hitherto allotted to Max. In fact, she’s a younger, more palatable version of Entity – because her dreams are not of hifalutin honor but of community and of survival beyond brutal coercion.

Underneath the heroism (and notwithstanding the unsubtle discussion of “redemption”), Furiosa is a competent pragmatist with a strong humane streak – an engineer, if you will. Like Entity, she probably did a lot of amoral or immoral things to get where she is. In many ways, she’s an alt-universe Anakin complete with the Cain mark of the prosthetic arm.

Whereas Entity is the proverbial lone Smurfette in Thunderdome (as is Savannah Nix among the lost children), in Fury Road Miller reverses the usual gender ratio – and focus – of action films. Immortans Joe’s War Boy horde consists of undifferentiated bobbing blurs punctuated by grotesques calculated to arouse limbic responses. In marked contrast, the women surrounding Furiosa are not only many and foregrounded; they’re also sharply delineated and inhabit a wide gamut of individual personalities, each with full agency.

The matriarchal foundation of Fury Road goes beyond just the demonstration that Joe’s rescued wives are more than mere pretty bodies. When Furiosa establishes her bona fides, she recites her matrilines — and crucially, she lists both biological and cultural mothers. And of course the sine qua non is the appearance of the Vuvalini, the eternally invisible old(er) women, the wise crones who fight without fanfare while keeping songs and seeds alive, the socializers of humanity. The name clearly derives from vulva but there’s an additional possible cognate root: “ox” – vouvalos, buffalo, denoting stubborn strength.

What of the two male co-protagonists, Max and Nux? Nux, who resembles the tentative, forlorn kodama of Mononoke Hime, is both literally and metaphorically an embryo: someone who must be (re)born among mothers and fully socialized by grandmothers before he can be accepted into a family. Max, beyond being played by someone other than Gibson, is clearly not the original person/a. My theory is that the character played by Tom Hardy in Fury Road is the Feral Kid of The Road Warrior, now grown up and at a decision fork about who he will become long-term.

There’s a major signifier of this unique provenance: the Max of the first three films had a now-dead son; the guardian spirit of the Fury Road Max is a daughter – one whom he may have, who’s leading him, Ariáthne-like, out of the labyrinth of isolation and away from Minotaurs like Immortans Joe. But she’s not just a helpmeet: she’s an assertive figure who will fit right in as Entity and Furiosa’s descendant, apprentice and successor.

Miller may choose to revert to conventional tropes in the inevitable next film in the cycle. However, if characters remain true to themselves, Furiosa and Entity will not fight like queen bees when they meet. They will trade: Bartertown fuel for Citadel water and food… and civilization may rise in the desert, aided by the many mothers and grandmothers willing and able to weave kinship tapestries. And the strands separated by the one-father – the Polynesians used as milch-cows, the Aboriginals used as miners, the European-descended used as enforcers and missiles – will reblend. It will not be a pyramid but a web, sets of intercalated wheels of equals. But first among equals will be Furiosa, with Entity and the Keeper of the Seeds smiling behind her – and around her, the co-parents of the once-feral kids who will no longer be either kindling or property.

Mad Kids

Related Articles:

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations
The Iron Madonna or: Kicking Ass While Female
Where Are the Wise Crones in SF?
“We Must Love One Another or Die”: A Critique of Star Wars
Mystique: The True Leader of the X-Men
The (Warrior) Women Men Don’t See

Other Fury Road Reviews:

Tansy R. Roberts
Laurie Penny
Jacobin Magazine
Leah Schnelbach

Images: 1st, the Vuvalini; 2nd, the women kings: Entity (Tina Turner), Furiosa (Charlize Theron); 3rd, the past and the future: Glory Child (Coco Jack Gillies), Feral Kid (Emil Minty)

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

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Though we smashed their statues,
Though we exiled them from their temples,
That doesn’t mean the gods are dead.
Land of Ionia, it’s you they love still,
It’s you their souls still remember.

— Konstantínos Kaváfis, Ionian

“My two hands here did not do the work, and still they are knotted with it; should not my mind keep the knots as well?”

– Granze in Isak Dinesen’s “The Fish”, Winter’s Tales

livissi_view

[Note: people will have to do their own confirmatory explorations — it’s too painful for me. Also, frustratingly, WordPress won’t render the Turkish diacritics correctly.]

————————————————————————-

All cultures have defining traumas.

For my people, such a trauma is the 1453 fall of Constantinople, the capital of the 1000-year long Byzantine Empire [the current name, Istanbul, comes from the Greek expression “Is tin Pólin” – To the City, with the meaning of which “City” clear]. This ushered an Ottoman occupation of Asia Minor and the Balkans that lasted ~500 years. During that time, non-Turks (which included several Balkan Muslim groups) were by law second-class citizens, subject to religion-specific taxation and penalties, whim deaths and pogroms, and the custom of devshirme (childgathering) to ensure a steady supply of janissaries and odalisques for local beys and the Sultan’s Porte.

Another trauma is the forcible relocations, massacres and uprootings of the Greeks of Asia Minor (Ionia and Pontus), who had lived there uninterruptedly from about 1500 BCE to 1922 CE, giving rise to the first natural philosophers (Thalís, Anaksímandhros, Irácleitos, Empedhoklís), the song cycles of the Akrítai and just about all the pagan and christian architecture now prominently featured in Turkish tourist brochures. Variants of Yunan (Ionian) is the term for Greek(s) in Turkish, Persian, Armenian, Arabic and Hebrew.

The ethnic cleansing undertaken by the Young Turks to ensure homogeneity was an extreme manifestation of the nationalism that arose after WWI ended several multicultural empires (Ottoman, Austrian-Hungarian, Russian). In nascent Turkey, the Greeks were not alone in their fate. The Armenians of Asia Minor, descendants of the Hittite and Mitanni empires and the kingdom of Urartu, and the Assyrians and Chaldeans of once-mighty Mesopotamia were also systematically dispossessed, forcibly relocated, violated and massacred. The total toll stands at 3.5 million and all Turkish governments (like the Japanese vis-à-vis the Koreans and Chinese) have steadfastly refused to acknowledge these events, placing mention of them under the larger “insult to Turkishness” that can lead to imprisonment or even execution.

For non-Aboriginal Australians and non-Maori New Zealanders, a defining trauma is the casualty-laden and ultimately failed engagement at Gallipoli. WWI claimed 18,000 New Zealanders and 53,000 Australians – for the former, the highest per population combatant toll of that war. However, the Australians were volunteers in their entirety (two conscription referendums were defeated) and conscription was introduced in New Zealand in 1916 — after the Gallipoli finale, when gung-ho war enthusiasm had subsided, depleting enlistment rosters.

The anniversary of the Armenian massacre is April 24. Australia and New Zealand celebrate ANZAC day on April 25. The two dates mesh because the genocide started just before the Gallipoli engagement, to ensure absence of “fifth columnists” within Turkey. There has never been a cinematic depiction of the Asia Minor massacres by a Western director, unlike the countless treatments of equivalent events in WWII Germany and USSR. Peter Weir showed a gritty, if idealized, take of the Gallipoli event through Australian eyes in 1981, with Mel Gibson in his proto-messiah days as protagonist. But all Anglo male stars, it seems, must go through messianic and prophetic phases. Thus we have Russell Crowe’s 2015 The Water Diviner, with its release timed for one of these anniversaries but referring loudly, by both omission and commission, to the other – at least to those familiar with Asia Minor’s tangled history.

The Water Diviner, boasting authenticity because it was filmed in Turkey with official approval, shows an Australian father’s attempt to repatriate the remains of his three sons. Such an unspeakable loss is rich dramatic territory, though the mother is conveniently fridged five minutes in. It is said to be based on a true event, though I wonder if the book source contains as much ugly exoticism and cheap sentimentality as the film. Since Crowe cannot deny himself anything, not only is he near-psychic (he instantly locates a family keepsake in a sea of churned mud) but he also shoehorns in a lightweight romance with a comely, demure and fast-forgiving war widow (augmented with the staple adorable young son) played by Olga Kurylenko, who did much better as the implacable “Pict” scout Etain in Centurion.

In addition to authenticity of location, The Water Diviner also bruits that it deals “honestly” and “even-handedly” with history. Yet when Crowe’s outback naif Joshua Connor gapes at the Aghía Sofía interior, his guide never mentions the place’s history – though one who knows it can just see the mosaics glimmering through the whitewash. The Armenians are not mentioned even once, and the Greek “soldiers” shown as barbaric invaders in an encounter deep in Anatolia actually wear Pontian ethnic dress (they also speak heavily broken Greek and resemble nothing as much as Peter Jackson’s Southrons). Last but not least, the place where Joshua Connor finds his surviving son (magically turned into a Mevlevi dervish) is Livissi, once a thriving large village and now a graveyard haunted by ghosts.

Perhaps Crowe didn’t know or care. Perhaps this slant was necessary to get his local filming permits. But by trying to honor one trauma (albeit at the price of seeing him in every single frame except the battle flashbacks), he completely and facilely excised or distorted several others. The Australians and New Zealanders of Gallipoli were volunteers fighting a war not on their own soil. The Turks, at least, were fighting on their own ground, and the circumstances that led to the 1922 exchange of populations were not black-and-white. Politics aside, the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian civilians, also in their own long-time homes, were first dispossessed and slaughtered, then erased – for convenience and, in Crowe’s case, for palatable narrative.

There is, however, a film that depicts some of this complexity and does so taking full account of the humanity of all involved. This is Yesim Ustaoglu’s 2003 Waiting for the Clouds – and, unlike Crowe, she braved the Turkish authorities’ displeasure by daring to do so. The main character shares the name Ayshe with the consolation trophy in The Water Diviner (though she has a second, suppressed name) and Waiting for the Clouds also boasts authenticity of location. Thankfully, these are the sole commonalities between the two films.

Waiting for the Clouds is also based on a book, Tamama by Ghiórghos Andhreádhis (by sheer coincidence, my father’s names; Andhreádhis was deported from Turkey because of his books). It unfolds in a Pontian village around 1960, shifting to Thessaloníki for its ending. It interweaves a major and a minor strand that carry all the sorrows of that land. In the stylistic tradition of Angelópoulos, Ustaoglu uses uninterrupted takes, shuns grandstanding and doesn’t explain anything. You have to know history to realize the full impact of what’s being portrayed.

The major strand is of two elderly sisters devoted to each other. The death of one isolates the survivor, Ayshe, who withdraws into herself, spurning her female neighbors’ powerful support network. The connection that still compels her is her love and storytelling for Mehmet, a neighbor’s young son, whose father has “left” – gone to Russia, a common fate for most Balkan and Asia Minor leftists throughout the twentieth century, who routinely faced the choice (if it can be called that) of exile, imprisonment or execution. The minor strand, which acts as a catalyst to the major one, is the return of one of these men – as a leftist Pontian Greek, a triple exile, who returns just to place his hand on what’s left of his family home. [Note: The song that Thanássis sings when he staggers off the boat is famous — a poem by Nobelist Odhysséas Elytis (“The Blood of Love”, part of his Áksion Esti cycle), put to music by Míkis Theodhorákis.]

Ayshe has a faded picture at which she gazes whenever her onerous tasks allow (women in that part of the world double/d as beasts of burden). It slowly emerges that her real name is Eléni, the photo is of her lost family – and Mehmet is an echo of Níkos, her younger brother, who may have managed to reach mainland Greece. The Turkish family of her now-dead sister took her in when she fell behind in one of the death marches of the cleansed and raised her as their own. Nevertheless, the price for her survival was the necessity to suppress her own name, history and language. As a historical note, the Pontian Greeks walked from their Black Sea mountains all the way to Greece, a modern-day repetition of Ksenofón’s Anávassis. They had to leave many behind. Most died; a few had Eléni’s fate.

The return of Thanássis, the exile, sparks Eléni’s desire to find her brother and Thanássis is able to help her locate him. When she allows herself to remember, she speaks in the archaic Greek that is the Pontian dialect – but this is not the sappy, happy reunion that Hollywood would have undoubtedly indulged in. Eléni’s brother is as reluctant to remember as she has been. “Where are you, in all of these?” he asks her, pointing at mountains of family albums of his wife, children, local kin. Eléni silently hands him the single picture that has sustained her – then the film segues into real stills and reels of such families.

Both Waiting for the Clouds and The Water Diviner made me weep, for very different reasons. One embraces all affected, fully acknowledging individual and collective complexities. The other opts for crass erasure dressed in self-righteous veneer. Like Ustaoglu, my mother’s mother hailed from Trebizond; like Eléni, her Greek was accented. Her family had to leave everything behind once and move to Constantinople but as my great-grandfather said, “As long as my children’s head count comes out right, the rest matters not.” Then they had to leave their home in Príngipos, a home they had built from the ground up in their second start – and relocate destitute to Greece, to be called “Tourkósporoi” (Turkish spawn) by local nationalists.

It’s people like my grandmother, and millions like her, that Crowe so callously caricatured and erased. I still can’t summon the strength to investigate if that house in Príngipos still stands, if it still bears the plaque with my grandmother’s last name, Kseniádhis. If I find it, it will probably be as with Thanássis: I, too, will likely place my hand on a ruin. I bear no ill will to whoever inhabits it, if it still stands. But this knowledge will never cease to lacerate my heart, as long as I live.

Panagia Soumela

Images: 1st, the ghostly ruins of Livissi; 2nd, Panaghía Soumelá, the religious center of Pontian Hellenism

“My God, it’s Full of Physics!*” The Sciency Science of Interstellar

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness and The People in the Trees.

*apologies to Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick

Captain-NemoLet’s get something out there right away: most science in science fiction is wrong. That’s okay, because most science fiction isn’t actually about science, anyway, but about our relationship with science, exploring how science and technology intersects with our lives.   Frankenstein is about the quest for knowledge, no matter the cost. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea chronicles how one man’s rejection of the violent machinery of war and power leads him to be the ultimate, terrible instrument of that same violence. The movie Gattaca warns us of the dangers of using a single technological lens for measuring humanity.

Interstellar had Kip Thorne, a prominent Caltech theorist and expert in gravity, as a scientific advisor. But in the end it was the sci-fi equivalent of Peter Pan: if you clap your hands and believe, everything will turn out all right.

As I’ve written elsewhere, a good narrative should be much a good joke: surprising yet ultimately logical. In the original version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the Nautilus is trapped in a mighty maelstrom; in the movie version the crew are ambushed by a naval blockade. Both outcomes arise naturally from a central character’s underestimate of the forces arrayed against them: in the book, Nemo underestimates the power of nature; in the movie, Ned Land underestimates the cold brutality and hatred of the military. Both are surprising, but make sense in the context of the story-so-far.

By contrast, the plot of Interstellar basically boils down to this: a magical plague nearly extinguishes humanity. Then more magic saves it.

A blight which wipes out an entire food crop is completely believable, especially given our increasing tendency to monoculture. We’ve even seen that in bananas: most bananas in US stores are the Cavendish variety, cultivated by clonal cuttings. Sixty years ago you would have found the Gros Michel variety, but it was all but obliterated by Panama disease, and it is not impossible that the Cavendish may suffer a similar fate.

A single blight which annihilates crop after crop after crop is less believable, if only because: if it hasn’t happened in half a billion years of terrestrial plants, why suddenly now? Worse Michael Caine mumbles something about nitrogen, and people suffocating, which I could not follow; did the blight fix nitrogen, or oxygen? How could it possibly fix enough of either one to shift the atmospheric composition by more than a percent or two–especially given it would have to also draw upon the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is only a fraction of a percent.

This by itself is not an unforgivable scientific (or I should say sciencey) sin. I’m willing to accept a monstrous if highly unlikely plague in order to set the plot in motion.

After some more improbabilities, the accidental heroes launch into space. I’m glad Kip Thorne was able to talk Nolan out of his desire for faster-than-light drive, and the journey to Saturn takes a long time. Limitations, when consistent, provide a good verisimilitude of actual technology. I’m not sure why no one explained to Coop, the talented pilot, what a wormhole was until they were ten minutes from entering it, but, again, for the sake of the narrative I gritted my teeth and accepted it. They were surely some pretty CG effects.

But then we get to the planets. Including a planet orbiting a massive black hole.

Actually, even this I could accept. It is science fiction, after all, and I myself wrote and sold a story (“Icarus Beach”) involving characters surfing the neutrino burst from a supernova. I’m sure Kip Thorne patiently explained that to have a planet deep enough inside a gravity well for a time dilation ratio of 7 years to 1 hour but not be torn apart from tidal forces, it would have to be a really really massive black hole. Hence the name Gargantua. Thorne may have even explained to Nolan that such black holes are only found in the centers of galaxies, which are full of stars and radiation and really not that hospitable to life.

But even that I would accept–part of the joy of science fiction is the sense of wonder and the awe of extreme environments and situations. And the gravitational time dilation, although unrealistically large, fits well into the theme of constrained situations.

I never did get a good sense of the system. Are there twelve planets (like twelve disciples, get it, get it?) and a sun orbiting a sun, or what? The planet of ice clouds seemed, again, unlikely but cool.

But then we get to the mind-numbingly stupid stuff.

Chastain & Thorne

Not the falling into a black hole; I rather liked that bit. But Coop communicates with his daughter in the past, and eventually gets to meet her in the future, and it’s apparently all to do with five dimensions. Five dimensions, in Nolan-world, is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

It’s not so much bad science, because the science in the movie is, beyond phrases like “five-dimensional beings,” nonexistent. It’s bad plotting because Nolan is saying And then a miracle occurs. A miracle we expect the audience to swallow, because, science!

Let me remind you: a good narrative should be like a good joke: surprising, but logical.

It’s not logical if you invoke incomprehensible magic. If the audience doesn’t have a fair chance of understanding it, it’s poor narrative.

Even the one part that, superficially, sounded believable doesn’t make much sense if you understand the deep workings of physics. Michael Caine’s character desperately wants to crack the riddle of quantum gravity in order to, I guess, make antigravity and thus easy mass space travel. Another miracle. But they need data, ideally from passing through the event horizon of a black hole, to get it to work.

Physics is fundamentally an experimental science, so superficially this is good. But I could not figure out what kind of data would make a difference. Presumably Caine has narrowed down the range of models–what sort of gauge groups or diffeomorphisms may be involved. But if there is a possibility that a working theory of quantum gravity could lead to antigravity, you could just build the damn things–here’s one device assuming SU(10) supergravity, here’s another assuming conformally invariant diffeomorphisms, here’s another assuming Lorentz-violation at ultraviolet scales (and, for you readers out there, those are all real phrases, not shit I just made up)–and see which one produces antigravity and allows you to build colonies around Saturn. After all, Thomas Edison tried 10,000 different substances for the filament of an electric light bulb before finding one that worked. No need for a suicide mission down a black hole.*

Let me emphasize that the problem is not the bad science–it is that the narrative leans heavily upon incomprehensible science. That’s bad storytelling. And in the end, that’s the worst sin possible in a movie.

 

*I actually liked the trip down the black hole. And if the movie had ended, right there, I would have liked it a lot more, since up to that point the movie was pretty convincing about how dangerous and indifferent the universe is.

Thomas-Edison-Quotes

Images: 1st, James Mason as Captain Nemo; 2nd, Jessica Chastain with Kip Thorne; 3rd, the relevant Thomas Edison quote.

Authentic Ethnics

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

Fiennes Hades
Stratospheric talent and charisma – but is he authentic?!

In the latest iteration of multiculturalism as salad rather than melting pot, there has been constant discussion in social media about authenticity and representation. A recurring topic is whether roles should be assigned to actors who match the race (however defined) and even ethnicity of the characters.

Several threads make up this tangled knot: the poor representation and lack of opportunities for non-defaults in media and just about everywhere else; the industry’s stated need for face recognition (and hence bankability) of the principals; the conspicuous whitewashing of several signature works upon translation to the screen, Le Guin’s Earthsea among them; the hooha over whether there can be gender slippage in roles that “should be” cast in stone (Helen Mirren as Prospero in The Tempest); the stereotyping and category-lumping by physical appearance (tall and fair – Elf; short and dark – Orc or Southron; tall and dark – Uruk Hai; and poor Cliff Curtis keeps getting cast as an Arab or Latin American despite his long Maori lineage).

Over this hovers the flammable balloon of xenophobia which grows heavy during times of economic dislocations and tends to burst in bouts of “cleansing” whether that comes via restrictive immigration policies or outright slaughter. A “swarthy” woman with a petrified legacy accent myself, often pigeonholed on sight as Indian, Latin American or Arab except for the swagger, I’ve had customs and immigration employees yell “Speaka English? Huh?” an inch from my face. My name has been mangled throughout my adult life, I’ve suffered through “interpretations” of my mythology and history that would make cavemen cringe, and I strongly suspect that my grant, book and story proposals might have met different fates if I had submitted them under a more generic (or, ironically, more exotic) pseudonym.

At the same time, as I wrote in Caesars and Caesar Salads, the demand for total verisimilitude can be as parochial as its opposite. For one, race definitions vary significantly by culture and the current tendency of justice warriors to call anyone who’s not Anglo and blond “a person of color” hovers perilously close to definitions of traditional bigots. Also, some people identify with more than a single demographic slice, although most people of widely separate ancestries tend to choose one of their strands and cleave to it tenaciously. Finally, actors are meant to pretend to be someone else by definition. So it should be possible, with sufficient talent and training, to embody a persona beyond the narrow box of completely shared experience (ditto for writing, hobbled by the “Write what you know!” Hack101 exhortation).

Jackman Descendant
Isídhoros Bélas would be proud of his great-grandson.

Which brings us to the latest complaint during this tense moment in US history when the culture wars are raging with no resolution in sight – namely, that Welsh-born Catherine Zeta-Jones has been chosen to play the Colombian narcotrafficanta pioneer Griselda Blanco. Zeta-Jones has the right allure and fame, plus she already played an equivalent role in Traffic. But, say the purists, she’s not Latina. And it’s an undisputable fact that there are plenty of Latina thespians, famous ones at that, who could embody Blanco.

At that point, it occurred to me that I haven’t yet seen a single film or TV show about Greece or Greeks (whether myth or history, ancient or contemporary) produced outside Greece that uses even secondaries who are Greek – let alone protagonists. However, I haven’t heard a single voice raised in protest over Sam Worthington (groan) as Perséus, Brad Pitt as Ahilléus, Gerard Butler as Leonídhas, Colin Farrell as Aléxandhros… though I can live with Angelina Jolie as Olympiás and Ralph Fiennes as Ploúton.

Some will argue that, well, Greeks are white. Except of course when we’re not, to fit a different agenda (an SFF darling recently stated on Twitter that “Plato was not white”, making me wonder if he’ll say the same when the topic of The Suffocating Influence of Dead White Males comes up). Or maybe our privilege is that we, too, are Europeans… except when we’re not (the Euro Northerners, whether in 1941 or 2008, seem to agree on this). Or that we, too, have had a colonial past… except ours, such as it was, ended way before that of the Mughals, Ottomans and Russians, let alone the more customarily excoriated oppressors. Or that the “Greco-Roman” legacy is one of the foundations of Western civilization… except that what Western Europeans call the “Greco” part of this chimera is as authentic as Burton’s retelling of Shahrazad’s stories.

So as a tiny corrective, I did a recasting of Troy with Greek or Greek-descent actors. While checking out faces that could launch or stop a thousand ships, I discovered that Hugh Jackman, of Wolverine fame and nova-bright charisma, has enough Greek in him to be a card-carrying enrollee with nary a hitch (1/8, for those burning to know). The paternal side of his family once bore the surname Bélas. I was sorely tempted to cast him as Éctor, but decided on less-lionized faces. So below is my “authentic” Troy cast, with the non-diaspora names phonetically as close to correct as I can get them (click once or twice to embiggen accordingly). All are well-known in my country but, like its real mythology, history and literature, unknown beyond it except for Cliff-note versions.

Troy Cast

Related Articles:

And Ain’t I a Human?
The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!
Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry
Escaping Self-Imposed Monochromatic Cages
The House of Many Doors (or: At the Caucasus, Hang a Right!)
The Multi-Chambered Nautilus
Caesars and Caesar Salads
Hidden Histories or: Yes, Virginia, Romioi Are Eastern European (And More Than That)

Images: 1st, Ralph Fiennes as Hades (Ploúton) in Clash of the Titans; 2nd, Hugh Jackman; 3rd, my idiosyncratic (and tribal) recasting of Troy.

Anticipated in 2014

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

“She headed back east, into the gates of dawn.”
— Athena Andreadis, ending of Contra Mundum

Athena and Castle at Dennis cpIt has become almost obligatory for bloggers to do “last year’s best and worst/next year’s resolutions” in late December or early January. Never much a fan of such lists, I will instead share with you what I look forward to in 2014. Mind you, these are concrete items – I won’t bother with “less misogyny/more equitable structures” or equivalents.

1. Greek bookstores and publishers are starting to offer e-books: water in the desert to the parched exile, book addict that is me. I will finally make a dent in the lengthy list I compiled with a longing I thought would remain unrequited. Also, I intend to renew my forays into contemporary non-US literature, with Susan Lanigan’s White Feathers high on the list.

In mystery, I have a guilty jones for the next Provincetown tale by Jon Loomis, as long as he doesn’t shear any of the black sheep milling around the goody-two-shoes Frank Coffin. In SF, much as I dislike sequelitis, I’m curious for the continuation of Up Against It by Laura Mixon (Morgan Locke), which I briefly discussed in Space Operas and Gender Shoals. It’s my fervent hope that in the sequel we’ll see much less of Geoff and much more of the troubadour troublemaker Vivian/Thondu wa Macharia na Briggs – a walking seal of approval for advanced gene splicing and a shapeshifter across all phenotypes, including gender.

ETA: And how could I forget — the conclusion of Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona comic, the only pastiche I have ever not just liked but grown attached to (though I have a bad feeling about the fate of its protagonists).

2. The final installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. This may come as another surprise, since I made it plain how much I detested the opus in Hagiography in the SFX Age. The sole reason I’m eager for part 3 is that I’m curious if my hunch about Tauriel is correct.

I predict that Tauriel will die alongside Kili in the Battle of the Five Armies. Women are dispatched casually in (space) operas and sagas but they’re dispatched with particular glee and sadism when they dare to mate with men who are shorter, younger, poorer or more marginal than they (see: Brunnhilde, Padmé Amidala). Mind you, Kili is a Dwarf prince (though from the inferior maternal line) whereas Tauriel is as low-ranking as an Elf can be – she would be working class if Elves had such a group. But since Tolkien made Dwarves literally the children of a lesser god, you get the gist. Plus it will make the canon purists happy.

3. On the other hand, I look forward to seasons 2 to N of Elementary. The series has only gone up in my initial high estimation: Jonny Lee Miller is still a white-hot Holmes, Lucy Liu’s Watson is now an equal partner and the acerbity between the two stings like good balsamic vinegar. I could use a bit less of the pious recovery platitudes and quite a lot more of both Rhys Ifans’ Mycroft and Natalie Dormer’s Moriarty (who was far more interesting in her most recent appearance than the monochromatic and rather dim villain of the season 1 ending).

4. The concluding game of the retro-RPG Eschalon series (*taps foot*). Yes, Virginia: though of the female persuasion, I’m an avid gamer — strictly solo, multigaming leaves me colder than Olympus Mons in Mars. This finale has been long in the making, but the care put in its older siblings and the preliminary preview noises suggest strongly it will reward the wait.

5. More of the perfumes conjured by Grand Magistra Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. Dawn dedicated two evenings of sampling and measuring to make personal perfumes for me and the Copper Yeti way back when the world was much younger and Newbury Street was the abode of real art and artists. My scent is The Long Shadow, a dark elixir of opium, amber and sandalwood grounded by petitgrain; his is The Cuddly Crusader, a sandalwood/musk sharpened by bay rum, cedar and juniper berries. Dawn has since become justly famous, and I never tire of sampling the fruits from her meticulously cultivated scent orchard.

6. Sarma, the appetizer-oriented restaurant just opened by fusion wonder Ana Sortun whose departure from Casablanca was a cause for universal lamentation. The iconic Casablanca itself is now closed, another blow from which Harvard Square will not recover after the loss of Wordsworth, HMV, and all non-chain small stores that gave it distinction and taste. Sortun’s first solo venture, Oleana, ushers you into paradise (literally, since she explored and reinterpreted less-frequented nooks of Armenian, Persian and Turkish cuisine) but it’s a bit too formal. The new place promises a looser atmosphere – so my QC squad is donning bibs even as we speak.

7. The new-new wing of the Museum of Fine Arts (I can hardly wait to see Fired Earth, Woven Bamboo) and the sui generis explorations of the Peabody Essex. The latter has mounted truly unforgettable boutique exhibits – from a comprehensive collection of Joseph Cornell’s haunting box assemblages to an in-depth retrospective on Maori ta moko.

8. Delve more deeply into composers I like – from Sofia Gubaidulina to Zoë Keating (who, I just found out, has composed music for Elementary. Purr, purr). And continue picking new likes from hearing snatches of music in unlikely places, which is how I bumped into Gorecki… Radio Tarifa… Fleet Foxes…

9. A possible brief sojourn in Aotearoa. I’d like to stand on some of the beaches, glens and glacial meadows I first saw in Xena and Mr. Snacho’s photos, later in The Piano and LotR. There’s a danger associated with this: the Copper Yeti criss-crossed both North and South Island for six months in another life and is threatening to lose our passports once we’re there.

10. Reading submissions for the successor to The Other Half of the Sky. Tentatively titled Dreaming the Dark, it will focus on women scientists from cultures and futures past the “girls don’t/shouldn’t do science” knuckledragging stage, and on worlds where science is more nuanced than the standard SF binary of either hubris or triumphalism. I already have my gaze fixed on writers whose work I want to see in this compilation. You know who you are.

11. Writing a necklace of linked stories for a Spider Silk universe collection. Readers have caught glimpses of this world in Dry Rivers, Planetfall, The Wind Harp and The Stone Lyre – but these are foam flecks on a Hokusai-height wave.

12. And, of course, more interviews with cryptids, having started on a high note with a saber tooth tiger.

Dawn Jetty Park

Images: top, scaling — yet more — castle walls (photo by Peter Cassidy); bottom, a Delta 2 launch.

Hidden Histories or: Yes, Virginia, Romioi Are Eastern European (and More Than That)

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Byzantium 1025

The Byzantine Empire, 1025 AD (medium extent)
[click on image for bigger version]

A slight variant of the article below first appeared in Stone Telling issue 1 (Sept. 2010) with the accompanying images in different internal locations. The reposting was triggered by two events but has been in my thoughts for a while, partly because of the recent fashionability of “hidden histories” in SFF. This directive considers “European-based” narratives undesirable as over-represented, shopworn, colonialist, etc. Like many western European history scholars, though for different reasons, the holders of this view (and, ironically, their ideological opponents) conflate “Europe” with its northwestern/central part and erase/ignore portions of European history that have always been unfashionable because they can’t be neatly slotted. Among those so erased are the Byzantines, who weren’t exactly a blink in history’s eye: they bridged east and west for a millennium. Yet on a rapid skim, I can count a single fantasy short story based on them, Christine Lucas’ “On Marble Threshing Floors” (Cabinet des Fées, Jan. 2011).

The shorter fuses that lit my decision to repost came from Twitter. One was an exchange with someone deemed a “scholar” in the SFF domain who informed me that “Greeks aren’t Eastern European, according to Wikipedia” (which makes me weep for the level of “scholarship” in SFF). The second was a link to someone’s article in which they called St. Basil of Caesarea “a Turkish bishop” again invoking Wikipedia as their authority – even though Logic 101, coupled with a modicum of historical knowledge, should have led them to wonder: a Turkish… bishop… in 330 AD?

So without further ado, here’s the article — a companion to Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture: Appropriate Away! and The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization.

A (Mail)coat of Many Colors: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards

Today the sky is different, today the light has changed,
Today the youths are riding out to join in the battle.

— Start of The Song of Armouris, the oldest Akritikón

In the first chapter of Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, enemies overrun the protagonist’s mountain fortress home. Rather than suffer the usual fate of captive women, his mother leaps to her death from the parapet. Western readers considered this a dramatic gambit, but to me it was routine fare: I had already encountered it in the history and folksongs of my people; prominently so in the Akritiká, the songs of the Byzantine border guards.

The common view in the West is that the Roman Empire fell in the fourth century, when it was overrun by the Goths, Vandals and Alans. In reality, only the western half disappeared under the waves of invaders. The eastern portion became a great multicultural empire that lasted a thousand years, acted as both a buffer and a bridge between Asia and Europe, and gave the Rus Vikings of Kiev the Cyrillic alphabet. Instead of Latin its lingua franca was a Greek evolved from the Alexandrian koiné, and its dominant religion was Orthodox Christianity. Renaissance scholars called it the Byzantine empire, but its citizens called themselves Romioí, Romaíoi – Romans – and they retained much from the older empire.

One of the Roman customs that the Byzantines kept was the entrusting of their eastern border defense to local militias in addition to the professional army. Ákron is the Greek word for “edge” – so these guards became known as Akrítai. In exchange for their service, they received small land holdings and tax exemptions. Not surprisingly, they were an ethnic and religious kaleidoscope. They were Greek, Armenian, Syrian, Bulgar, Thracian; they intermarried, changing religions as they did so. Usually they acted as guards and scouts, sometimes becoming the brigands they guarded against. They reverted to farming whenever the din of war subsided, though that never lasted long for them to put away their weapons.

Digenis Spyros Vassiliou

From the 8th to the 10th century, the Akrítai were instrumental in checking Arab incursions into Asia Minor, from Syria to Persia to Armenia. They helped the Byzantine army push back the formidable armies of the Damascus Caliphate. They became crucial again in the Black Sea Byzantine empire of Trapezous (Trebizond), founded after the Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 in their zeal to punish those the Pope declared schismatics (the Byzantines compounded their unnaturalness by giving some power to women and “effeminate” men and they also happened to possess astonishing riches as well as decadent habits, such as using forks).

From this liminal zone at the edge of the empire arose the earliest Greek folksongs to survive till our days: the Akritiká. The earliest versions hail from the 9th century. Some scholars consider them the beginning of modern Greek literature. The main figure in them is Diyenís (Two-Blood) Akrítas, a cultural hybrid representative of his entire group.

The songs tell that a Saracen emir kidnapped the daughter of a Byzantine general. Her five brothers hunted him down and the youngest challenged him to a duel, the prize being his sister’s freedom. The emir was defeated, but he had fallen in love with her. To keep her, he decided to convert to Christianity and live among her people. Diyenís was the child of this marriage. The lays of the exploits of Diyenís and the other Akrítai are equal parts Homeric saga and chanson de geste – and like them, they were sung by wandering singers (ayírtai) kin to troubadours.

The songs thrum with thirst for honor and glory, attainments that obsess men in such settings: the heroes swear unbreakable oaths, avenge murders and kidnappings of kin, duel and become blood brothers with worthy enemies, receive counsel from faithful horses and prophetic birds, fight entire armies single-handed, slay preternatural beasts. In deeds and attributes they are close to Herakles, Achilles and Cuchulainn, even to the extent of the berserker fury that can possess them in the heat of battle. These echoes have deep and tangled roots. The Akrítai not only lived and died on the plains of Hector’s Troy and the hills of Medea’s Colchis, but long ago the locals had also absorbed the Celts that once comprised the Anatolian nation-state of Galatia.

The songs also echo with laments about courtship and star-crossed love, loveless marriage and abusive in-laws, devotion or hatred between children and (step)parents, enslavement, exile. Through these preoccupations, the other half of humanity appears in the Akritiká. Byzantium was a stiffly patriarchal society that deemed women inferior, temptresses if not controlled. Nevertheless, its women were better off than their Roman, Frankish or Slav counterparts. They did not suffer the inequities of Salic law: they owned their dowries and were equals in inheriting and bequeathing property and status to their children; they could own businesses, be heads of households, even Emperors; and they were at least basically literate, while the upper class produced several female scholars and historians whose works are still studied today.

Young women in the Akritiká are invariably single daughters, prized and cosseted. The apple of their parents’ eye, they are surrounded by an army of devoted brothers. Perhaps the most famous Greek ballad, The Dead Brother’s Song, begins: “Mother with your nine sons and with your only daughter/ Twelve years she had reached and the sun had not touched her/In the dark her mother bathed her, in the dark she combed her/By moonlight and starlight she braided her hair.” A woman’s brothers drop everything to defend, rescue or avenge her.

Although Byzantine marriages were usually arranged, the Akritiká sing the praises of romantic love, just like the courtly love lays they resemble. Their heroines are often kidnapped (sometimes in raids, sometimes by a smitten spurned suitor) but equally frequently they elope with men whose singing or looks they like – as Yseult did with Tristan. The Akritiká also reflect the fact that women wielded real authority in the household. They marked their children’s lives by blessing or cursing them and, as with the Iroquois or contemporary jihadis, only mothers could give their sons permission to go to war.

Amazon Attic, Brit MusWomen’s power partly arose from the constant war footing of the society portrayed in the Akritiká. It is a sad fact that women’s status is often higher in warlike societies, from the Spartans to the Mongols: they have to keep everything going when the men are absent or dead. In the case of the Akrítai, there was an additional wrinkle. The Byzantine border populations came in touch with the more matriarchal (or at least less patriarchal) Scythians, Sarmatians, Phrygians and Lydians. Around the Black Sea, archaeologists have been excavating kurgans that contained skeletons adorned with jewelry and mirrors – but also with daggers, javelins, quiverfuls of arrows and weapon-inflicted notches on their bones. These tomb occupants merited human sacrifices and their pelvic angle leaves no doubt that they were female, once again vindicating Herodotus whose descriptions tally with the findings.

So women in the Akritiká are not just the “Angels (or Demons) in the House” but appear in yet another guise: as warrior maidens who hold besieged castles and best all men but the hero in single combat. Taking his cue from his Bronze Age confrères (Theseus and Hippolyta or Antiope, Achilles and Penthesilea) Diyenís almost finds his match and soulmate in the Amazon Maximó, a renowned fighter and the leader of her own band. But the more common tropes and mindsets prevail: the encounter ends with her rape and/or murder – and the warrior maidens in the Akritiká either fall to their death (just like Bagoas’ mother in The Persian Boy) or become diminished consorts to their conquerors. Just like the real-life sworn virgins of the Balkans, the women, unlike the men, can only have half a life.

Death, often chosen, awaits the women who cross boundaries. Death is also where the pagan bedrock surfaces in the Akritiká. If illicit lovers cannot reconcile their kin to their decision, they invariably die by suicide, the church teachings ignored. And the afterlife in these songs is not the Christian or Moslem garden of delights, but the dank, dark underworld of The Odyssey and of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea. When Charon (Death) comes for Diyenís, he comes as the warrior whom none can withstand. For three days and three nights the two clash on a stone threshing floor. But Charon always wins, and the hero knows this when he agrees to the duel. The goal is to maintain honor by giving him a good fight. As a final shamanistic turn, the hero’s blood brothers dance and sing around him fully armed while he dies, defiant to the end.

Inaugurating the major shift from the older dactylic hexameter, the Akritiká are in blank verse iambic heptameter: fifteen syllables with a caesura after the eighth one. The style is known as “politikón” (civilian – that is, secular) or “galloping chariot” because of its rhythm. Like the British Border ballads, the songs are unadorned and straightforward, with barely any adjectives or adverbs. They also have a strobe-light effect, highlighting some telling minute action but compressing large swaths of events into a few words. The songs are sung either a capella or with a flourish-free instrumental background – usually the three-string Cretan or Pontian lyre (known as the kemenché to those familiar with World Music albums by Peter Gabriel or Yo-Yo Ma).

Just as the Akritiká were birthed at the borders of Byzantium, so did they persist there. While the rest of the Byzantine territory evolved different songs under Ottoman rule, the Cretans, the Cypriots and the Pontians of the Black Sea continued to sing them. From those peripheries, always more culturally conservative than the center, the lays survived to our days, shards of once great diadems. My people used the Akritiká as rallying cries during times of oppression – the Ottoman era; the German occupation and the resistance to it during WWII; the military junta of the sixties. I was raised and nourished on them. They run and murmur in my veins with all their glories, blind spots and contradictions.

The time has come to let the songs themselves take center stage. Included is a Cretan rendition of the Death of Diyenís by the famous singer and lyre player Níkos Ksiloúris (who, like Diyenís, fought Charon at the flower of his maturity). Here is a bare-bones translation of the text:

Diyenís struggles for his soul and the earth is frightened.
And the gravestone shudders — how shall it cover him?
As he lays there, he speaks a brave man’s words:
“If only the earth had stairs and the sky chain links,
I would step on the stairs, seize hold of the links,
Climb up to the sky and make the heavens quake.”

Sources and further reading/listening (partial list):

Pontians Trabzon 1910John Julius Norwich, Byzantium – The Early Centuries, The Apogee, The Decline and Fall
Neal Ascherson, The Black Sea
Christódoulos Hálaris, Akritiká – Odes of the Byzantine Empire Border Guards vol. 1 and 2

Images within the article:

Diyenís Akrítas, woodcut by Spiros Vassiliou
Amazon, Attic white-figure vase, 470 BC, British Museum
Armed Pontian Greeks dancing to the lyre, Trabzon, 1910

On Being a Ghost

Saturday, November 9th, 2013

“Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Herbsttag

Wanderer and shadow, BobCatD

I’ve spent my life being a feral orphan – an outsider in my adopted culture and in both my beloved vocations. I suspect the attitude formed and hardened early, a result of being a bright loner and part of a politically persecuted family. In school I always sat in the very back, against the wall, able to see everyone and be seen by none. In science I consciously chose to explore paths rarely traveled – which set a feedback loop of invisibility even when the results of my research carved new paths. By deciding to write fiction and poetry in English but with content (and, in part, a mindset) rooted in my natal culture, I ensured invisibility in that domain as well.

At the same time, by becoming a bench scientist, I tethered myself to equipment, to the need for lab personnel. Being a hostage, a captive chained to oars, went against my grain. Sometimes I felt like Anakin immured inside his prison shell. Whenever I contemplated my precious unique reagents, I always thought of my great-grandparents, forced to abandon their home in Constantinople. Such an uprooting happened to me, too, though I kept control of the ensuing Viking funeral. I disassembled my lab with my own hands, walked away from my academic title with its ambiguous perks and prestige. Now I’m free again, a leaf on the wind, a nomad with few possessions except what’s between my ears.

As I write this, I am attending a two-day conference focused on RNA metabolism and its effects on brain function. I watch well-known names jockeying for dominance and more fame, newcomers fighting to establish territories and alliances, the stomping-till-churned-to-mud over this year’s “hot topics” and I find myself hard-pressed not to smile. Science and writing can no longer scrape my heart, even though I still love them passionately. Pain goes through me like neutrinos through matter. I wonder if that’s what Virginia Woolf meant when she spoke of the Olympian detachment she deemed the highest attainment for a creator – though I suspect she knew, as do I, that passion is the last thing to die in us.

Moon-Owl“They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me…. I’ll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south //. I’ll have no call now to be going down // in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won’t care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening.”
– Maurya, in Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge

Images: The Wanderer and Her Shadow, by BobCatD; Moon-Tree-Owl (detail)

Sympathetic Magic

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

SingerWe get attached to places and things. They define us as much as what’s inside our heads. We take handfuls of earth or tile fragments from our homes when we emigrate. We hold on to items of clothing that have become part of our bodies. We keep heirlooms, with their long stories of how they got made and handed down the generations. This knowledge is a major thread in the tapestry of civilization and in the definition of one’s self in a larger context. I had reason to think of this recently, when I lost something I loved.

As long as my memory remains intact, I will remember the stories associated with objects that I’m attached to, including my artwork and jewelry: where, how and why I got a piece, who was with me at the time, the history behind each work. Like the time an artist wordlessly handed me a stunning mixed-media sculpture marked “Not for Sale” (and refused to take money for it until I grew forceful) because I uttered words that echoed her own deepest sense of the work.

The first year I became faculty, I attended a conference in San Diego. In a La Jolla gallery, I saw two lovely pieces of art that I felt were linked. One was a palm-sized wooden mask called Singer. The other was a silver/copper brooch the size of my thumb joint, called Spirit of the Seaweed. I put one on my bedroom wall, the other on my favorite black coat. At night I sometimes fancied I could hear soft harmonizing.

The coat went around the world with me, got taken off countless times for airport security, got hung up in homes, restaurants and hotels. The two singers kept murmuring in my dreams. And then, one evening this November, I looked at the lapel of my coat and found it empty.

I knew it was hopeless, but I kept my eyes on the ground whenever I re-crossed a path. The loss left an aching spot in my ribcage. I didn’t mind if someone had found the brooch and was wearing it with as much pleasure as I had. My fear was that it had been swept up as trash and destroyed – or that it was even now lying abandoned somewhere. And I felt bereft, too, at the thought that Singer was now lonely.

SingersI decided to use sympathetic magic. After a search, I found a very different brooch, an antique Zuñi sunface made of silver, turquoise, coral, abalone and onyx. I put it on and willed someone to find mine, so that they would wear it as I wore this one, with its own long history and legacy of loving care.

Last week, I was leaving work late. I caught a twinkle at the corner of my vision that made my gaze veer to the cash register of a small food kiosk in the lobby, on which someone had placed two rubber action figures. One was a wizard, a biotech company mascot. I went up to it, peered closely. Pressed into his palm was my lost brooch.

I took it home and put it near the mask. I don’t believe in gods or demons. But I like to think that the Wizard summoned me and Spirit to the same place; that Singer joined forces with Sunface and sang its little companion home.

Hagiography in the SFX Age: Jackson’s Hobbit

Friday, December 28th, 2012

Note: for a larger context of this discussion, interested readers may want to look at A Plague on Both Your Houses.

Arwen Ford

I did not write a review of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (henceforth LotR) trilogy. One reason was my extreme ambivalence over Tolkien and his oeuvre. Another was that the potential for LotR to be a cinematic disaster was so great that anything short of a shambles would do. In fairness, the film version of LotR was a great achievement within its context. It says much that a Kiwi schlockmeister gave us a far better work than any Hollywood director ever could.

I was introduced to Tolkien in high school by one of my exchange US teachers. He intoned solemnly (and with zero sense of irony, given the cultural background of his students) that here be immortal myths. In fact, most of Silmarillion and LotR are rechurned mythic/folktale tropes coupled to something remarkably close to the “Aryan paganism” promoted by the German national socialists with an uneasy overlay of Manichean catholicism. The Nordic components are most prominent in the myth salad (Húrin’s Children is Sieglinde and Siegmund without even the serial numbers filed off), per Tolkien’s wish to create a Saxon mythology free of Frenchified corruption; and the works literally swarm with Miltonesque angels and demons, Lucifers and Messiahs, falls and redemptions, smitings and apocalypses (sorry, “eucatastrophes”).

Tolkien may have disliked Nazism on record, but his work says otherwise. It is telling that in his universe dark skin and lack of mainstream beauty equal moral depravity (them honorless swarthy Southrons!) and “blood purity” is the sole criterion for legitimacy of rule: Denethor can never become king, no matter how capable he is, because he comes from a line of “lesser men”. Propagation also looks fraught, given that none of Tolkien’s races seem to have more than about one woman – and they’re all pedestalized, fridged or both, with rape the most frequent cause of death (an odd obsession for an otherwise ultra-prudish permanent-Victorian-by-choice).

The less said of Tolkien’s style, plot, pacing, characterization and dialogue the better, so I won’t analyze these aspects except to say that he sounds unstrained only when he describes environments close to what he inhabited in real life: a place where everyone knew and kept their place, industrialization hadn’t reared its ugly head, country squires led guilt-free lives secure in their righteousness, and gentlemen of privilege and leisure spent their time discussing lofty matters and puffing pipes in comfortable Oxbridge rooms, their every need attended by angels in the house and servants. In short, the Shire.

Despite its eye-gauging problems, Tolkien’s work launched a thousand careers of both dutiful and rebellious acolytes to the everlasting detriment of epic fantasy (respective examples: Guy Gavriel Kay and Joe Abercrombie). The most common defense of Tolkien (beyond “he is the bestestest and your limited unsophisticated mind cannot encompass his greatness”) is that “he was of his time” – and a don in an ivory tower besides, plus a survivor of WWI. However, here are a few of his broad contemporaries, and I’m restricting myself solely to Britain: Wells, Orwell, Woolf (who was ten years older than Tolkien). In 1938 Virginia Woolf wrote her incandescent criticism of fascism, Three Guineas, some sixty years before “intersectional” became the fashion du jour for internet social justice warriors. In 1936 Tolkien wrote… The Hobbit. Tolkien’s true soulmates are the pre-Raphaelites, who consciously withdrew into an idealized past that confirmed their bedrock conservative values. I find Waterhouse and the late Rossetti very beautiful; but I cannot help but be aware that these were contemporaries of the Impressionists and early Cubists.

So when I heard that LotR was about to be filmed, I was wary – although some signs boded well: the director was not from Hollywood, though he was best known for splatterfests; and the film would not only be a trilogy (aka no Procrustean shoehorning to fit arbitrary length standards, like Ralph Bakshi’s pathetic attempt) but would also be filmed in New Zealand. Aotearoa is one of my Tír na nÓgs, and I had already seen enough of it in Mr. Snacho’s photos and in Xena to know that a movie filmed in that spectacular scenery could not be a total loss.

Aotearoa Kaso

But Jackson achieved far more than that. By integrating acting, scenery and sound, he managed to create a secondary world that felt almost real – real enough that you let yourself be carried in its current even if, like me, you don’t really like LotR. Despite the longueurs (especially the boys’ treehouse intervals), he managed to elicit the difficult chemistry of camaraderie among most of his principals. And perhaps influenced by his two women screenwriters and advisors, he also chose wisely what to include (Arwen’s vision of her fate; Éowyn’s dream of the fall of Númenor) and what to omit (Radagast and Bombardil, of which more anon), where to stick to canon and where to abandon it.

In my opinion, Jackson’s best departures from canon were the decision to have Arwen, rather than Glorfindel (who?), convey Frodo to Rivendell; and the appearance of the Elf army, dressed in its best finery like Hellenic freedom fighters, to aid the Rohanese at Helm’s Deep. The former made Arwen more than the passive prize Aragorn will reap if he succeeds; and the latter underlined the Elves’ love for Middle Earth and their investment in it – especially if, as some “Tolkien scholars” believe, Elves killed in battle forfeit eternal life in the West.

Jackson made some serious missteps as well. The portrayal of Galadriel kept veering towards evil queen bee and Arwen became another generic couch-fainting damsel as the trilogy progressed. The choice to depict tragic Denethor as a crazed coward needlessly added yet another single-note character to the ones already amply present in the original. And of course the jokes about Dwarf women and Éowyn’s cooking got old after the first second or so. Also, it was a pity that Jackson chickened out of showing Sauron incarnate in the last battle, especially if he had presented him as the beautiful tempter he once was and could still become. More disturbingly, Jackson hewed faithfully to Tolkien’s distinctions when casting: all his Orcs had cockney accents, all his Uruk-hai were Maori and all his Southrons were Indian, Iranian or otherwise olive-skinned.

But with all these caveats and more, the LotR trilogy aspired to Gesamtkunstwerk status and to a large extent attained it. That’s more readily visible in the director’s cuts that smooth over some rough patches (the worst being Aragorn’s nasty dismissal of Éowyn in the theater version; on the other hand, Jackson relaxed his grip on schlock control in the totally unnecessary skull-stomping scene). The films received their due: awards up the wazoo, billions in ticket receipts and merchandise, serious career boosts to the less famous participants (most notably Viggo Mortensen, a maverick journeyman who enjoys unconventional roles) and the funds and clout for Jackson to do his disastrous King Kong.

So it came as no surprise when it was duly announced that Jackson had decided to also film The Hobbit. What came as a surprise was that it was to be… a trilogy. The Hobbit is wee and twee, including Tolkien’s intrusive coy asides. No matter how you dress it up, it’s a childish children’s book: it’s not an expurgated fairytale, like the ones written for adults and later laundered for the supposedly delicate childish earshells (in fact kids are supremely bloodyminded and take folktale atrocities in stride). The Hobbit was bland and quotidian from the get-go, written by a Victorian for Victorian tastes and mores.

Making a trilogy out of that flat pillow requires a huge amount of straw. And apparently that’s what Jackson did. We now get Radagast in all his non-glory – borne on a chariot pulled by bunnies, no less. We get expositions and declamations and endless walking (through admittedly breathtaking landscapes). We get more of the crude humor that jarred and clunked so badly when Gimli had to be its vehicle in LotR. We get stormtrooper-type adversaries and battles that blur into sameness. We get Thorin as a quasi-Aragorn, robbing Bilbo of any reason for being included in the adventure. We get Galadriel posed as a mannequin in a shop window, to paper over the fact that there were exactly zero non-males in The Hobbit. And of course we get ecstatic fanboys (and not a few fangirls) who want moremoremore of the same, even if it’s gloppy corn syrup covered with red food dye instead of fresh strawberries.

It’s true that ever hoarier iterations are the essence of franchises: feeding the fans increasingly watered-down gruel while selling more lunchboxes. But Jackson, like Lucas, seems to also have succumbed to his sense of his own sacred mission. Whereas Lucas wanted to be a Jedi Master (an ambition most people outgrow by the emotional age of seven), Jackson apparently wanted to be the perfect Tolkien worshipper. It seems that people in such large-scale ventures have lost the capacity to discern when they have reached whatever peak is possible. For Star Wars, that point was The Empire Strikes Back. LotR did better – the entire trilogy stands as a seamless whole that invited people who knew nothing of Tolkien into Jackson’s enticing universe. In stark contrast, The Hobbit is for insiders, a members-only fan club; a creation that demands adoration not of its strengths but of its weaknesses, like a whiny godlet.

Three GuineasI was elated to watch LotR consistently exceed my (initially not very high) expectations. But after The Hobbit, I feel dread at the thought that Jackson may decide to embark on The Silmarillion next. Perhaps he should read the folktale of the fisherman’s wife. Or read what Marx said about repeating history: the first time, it’s tragedy; the second time, farce.

Images: 1st, Arwen’s stand against the Nazgûl; 2nd, a still from Nathan Kaso’s Aotearoa video; 3rd, Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (original edition, cover by Vanessa Bell)

Discussions of other SF/F demigods:

We Must Love One Another or Die: A Critique of Star Wars

The Star Trek reboot

Cameron’s Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

“As Weak as Women’s Magic” (Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle)

Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters (The Dark Knight Rises)

Gender Essentialism? Elementary, My Dear Watson!

Gender Essentialism? Elementary, My Dear Watson!

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

I first read the collected Sherlock Holmes stories in a really good translation when I was very young.  I recall that even back then I wondered about its attitudes towards women.  Beyond the single token appearance of Irene Adler and the long-suffering Mrs. Hudson (a typical caretaker role), it was a universe of men.  Yes, this was Victorian and Edwardian England where you could live as sex-segregated a life as in a country with sharia law – and of course Watson plays the role of admiring helpmate to a cranky genius – but even so the stories made repeated, explicit points about women being “clutter” that might impinge on the pristine state of that incandescent Holmes mind.

There have been countless Holmes adaptations, both film and television, but most were period (indulgently defined – “period” was extended to include Basil Rathbone battling Nazi spies).  Fast forward to 2010.  The BBC started airing the series Sherlock, in which the stories are kept “intact” but happen in the present.  Holmes and Watson are played by two talented actors whose stars are rising: Benedict Cumberbatch has been appearing in career-making roles since 2007 and Martin Freeman is about to become a household face by playing Bilbo in Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit.  Critic accolades, prestigious awards and aficionado swoons rolled in.  General verdict: “Flagrantly unfaithful to the original, yet wonderfully loyal to it in every way that matters.”

This fall, CBS started airing Elementary, also based on Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes is played by Jonny Lee Miller, another sharp actor, as a recovering addict taking time out in New York.  Watson is played by Lucy (Yuling) Liu.  Two episodes have aired so far, to positive reviews. What is the Holmes worshippers’ verdict?  I will spare you the suspense: “How dare they desecrate gospel?!”  One of the most vocal purists is Victoria Coren of The Observer, who essentially reprised Ursula Le Guin’s denigration of Helen Mirren playing Prospero in The Tempest.  Beyond that, Coren decried the cultural shift of a fundamentally British “myth” (Has she ever used adapted Hellenic myths?  If yes, she should stop right now.)  She also bemoaned the “Will they, won’t they vibe” (discernible only to her), ignoring the fact that the original Holmes stories and all their successors have an obvious homoerotic tinge.

I’ve seen four episodes of Sherlock and both episodes of Elementary.  My verdict: although it’s too early to make a definitive decision, Elementary so far is head and shoulders above Sherlock in terms of originality, chemistry between the two leads, lack of preciosity and (yes) elementary human resonance.

I saw only four episodes of Sherlock because I found it frankly repellent.  The settings tend to brutalist deco (edgy, dontcha see), the style is consistently pseudo-sophisticated smug (Dr. Who half a notch up… not surprising, given who the directors are).  Irene Adler is shown as a high-end prostitute who wears furs with nothing underneath and sheds her furs every few minutes whether it’s relevant to the plot or not.  Cumberbatch’s self-satisfied smirking becomes oppressive after a while, despite his brilliance otherwise; Freeman’s slack-jawed adoration, ditto; and the misogyny is up-front and blatant, unlike Conan Doyle’s quasi-passive elision (there’s also nudge-nudge treatment of homosexuality, which is odd to say the least).

Elementary is subversive along more axes than just its choice of Watson, though it retains some traditional default tenets.  Watson is a helpmate, so casting an Asian woman perpetuates stereotypes, and Holmes’ behavior would not be tolerated for a split second if it came from a woman (see discussions about how beloved Harriet Potter and Edwina Rochester would be).

However, core carryovers are spot on.  The cases remain outré and Holmes performs his acrobatic intuitive leaps, both hallmarks of the original.  Placing the series in New York makes sense: today’s London is not as central to the world as it was in Conan Doyle’s time.  New York still is.  Making Holmes a recovering addict is not new; what is new is that it’s not just a tick to make him fascinating in the Luciferian mold.  Instead, his adjustment process is integrally linked to both his investigations and his own personal decisions.  Also new and welcome is that he’s given kith and kin connections beyond a cardboard brother with convenient top-government access.

Watson remains a doctor, but she is not the cipher of the original or the dumb follower of most other versions.  She has a full backstory of her own that plays an important, organic role in the developments, and she has already become an almost-equal partner in the cases because her medical knowledge is put to active use.  And Aidan Quinn, with his dissipated good looks and easy-going manner, makes a perfect Lestrade stand-in.

What has really improved is the depth of the characters.  Both central actors speak volumes with their face and body language and they submerge themselves in their roles, rather than strut in them like mannequins on a stage.  The chemistry between them is marvelous, the repartee as fast and furious as world class tennis – and it has zero eroticism, but tons of friction and compromise as genuine as you can get on TV.  Too, Watson isn’t following Holmes because he gives meaning or adds spice to her life: it’s a job, with specific boundaries and mutual obligations.  For more details, I recommend Beatrice Eagle’s thorough comparative analysis of the two series.

Through ages and cultures, women were forbidden to do many things by the explicit or implicit decree that they weren’t “equipped” for it (because lower head equals upper head).  This went from praying to the ancestors, forming a minyan and ruling as heads of state to becoming craftspeople.  To that must be added women taking roles in iconic works of art that have been infinitely reinterpreted, Shakespeare prominently among them.  Everything has been altered in these stories upon retelling, from shifts in the time and context to changes of the race, class or sexual orientation of the principals.  As long as these have been done well, they are still recognized as legitimate variations of the original.  All, that is, except to introduce girl cooties by casting women in roles deemed “inalienably male” (just as Tiptree “could not possibly be a woman”).

It’s fine not to like anything but canon.  However, using gendered slurs like “menopausal” and “blundering half-naked” (Le Guin for Mirren), “trendy feminizing”, “sexy lady cohort” and “castrating fiction’s greatest sidekick” (Coren for Liu) are statements not of aesthetics but of politics: gender politics as regressively essentialist as those of Rand, Paglia and Coulter.  Women who use such expressions may be jealous of someone assuming a role they fantasized playing themselves; or, perhaps, they simply don’t like attention being diverted to other powerful women (de facto disproving the idea that women are gentle nurturing creatures incapable of aggressiveness).  But given the still-parlous status of women in the world, people who consciously use such expressions in their critiques deserve the gender-neutral epithet of another body opening.

For those whose minds are not welded shut, I suggest watching the first two episodes of Elementary, available on the CBS site.  I do, nevertheless, agree with Coren on one point: I’m looking forward to a version that casts Holmes as a woman (Tilda Swinton is my first choice, followed by Judy Davis).

Related articles:
“As Weak as Women’s Magic”
We Must Love One Another or Die

Watson (Lucy Liu) and Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) in Elementary

Addendum: Elementary has steadily grown even better, if possible. As I said in another venue, Sherlock is the firstborn son at an Anglo entailed estate: sure of his righteousness & worthiness. Elementary is his suffragette sister.