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.
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.
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:
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.”
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.
I 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.
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)
“…they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn…” — Semíra Ouranákis, captain of starship Reckless (“Planetfall”).
[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
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.
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.
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
[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.
Images: 1st, the ghostly ruins of Livissi; 2nd, Panaghía Soumelá, the religious center of Pontian Hellenism
*apologies to Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick
Let’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.
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.
Images: 1st, James Mason as Captain Nemo; 2nd, Jessica Chastain with Kip Thorne; 3rd, the relevant Thomas Edison quote.
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).
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.
“She headed back east, into the gates of dawn.”
— Athena Andreadis, ending of Contra Mundum
It 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.
Images: top, scaling — yet more — castle walls (photo by Peter Cassidy); bottom, a Delta 2 launch.
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?
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.
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.
Women’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):
John 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
“Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Herbsttag
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.
“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
We 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.
I 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.
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.
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.
I 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)
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).
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.
In the meantime, Charles Tan interviewed me for the World SF blog specifically about the anthology. This interview is a bookend to an earlier one I gave to SF Signal. The two give a lot of insight into what I wanted to achieve with this venture:
As I get older, it’s harder to find books or films that surprise me – pleasantly, that is. I went to see The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) and The Bourne Legacy (TBL) more as a means to avoid the New England summer humidity and give my cortex a chance to cool down between edits of my SF anthology. Both films had the expected scads of sound and fury, yet one of them managed to surprise me. To be clear, I’ve read neither the Miller comics nor the Ludlum or Lustbader books; so those who plan to use arguments of the type “But this is explained on page 4 of issue 13!” can save their breath.
I detest Christopher Nolan’s ponderous dourness. The only film of his I found remotely intriguing was The Prestige. Auteur pretensions aside, the closest relatives of Nolan’s Batman opus are the abysmal Star Wars prequels. The two trilogies share pretty much everything: the wooden dialogue, the cardboard characters, the manipulative sentimentality, the leaden exposition, the cultural parochialism, the nonsensical plot, the worshipping of messiahs and unaccountable privileged elites, the contempt for “mundanes” and democratic structures, the dislike of women and non-hierarchical relationships. To be sure, Nolan’s second Batman film boasted the unforgettable performance of Heath Ledger’s Joker. But TDKR should have been called Bat Guano or Darth Vader Meets the Transformers.
The reactionary politics (Billionaires and police know best! People left unherded devolve instantly to mob rampaging and kangaroo courts!) are bad enough. So are the obvious telegraphings and pious ersatz-mythic strains (“Rise! Rise! Rise!” — and of course, sob, the orphan boys). But the film is dull, unfocused, lumbering and messy even within its own frame: why the elaborate (and totally fallow) Wall Street takeover if Bane intends to blow the city up anyway? The protracted mano-a-mano between Batman and Bane is frankly dumb. All Batman has to do is rip out Bane’s breathing muzzle – incidentally, a lousy way to deliver pain meds. The reversals of the two women (antagonist becomes ally and vice versa… and the villain, naturally, is the one who removes her clothes) are so much by the numbers that I felt literally itchy. The hero rejoins the living twice, once as Bruce, once as Batman, for zero reasons of either plot or emotional logic.
The two male protagonists are boring one-note ciphers. Batman doesn’t earn his increasingly stale angst; even less so the unquestioning loyalty of his long-suffering allies (as laid bare in a great analysis of Gary Stuism). Christian Bale isn’t capable of more than one facial expression anyway – in Terminator Salvation he was more wooden than Sam Worthington, which is a real achievement. Needless to add, he has zero chemistry with either of the romantic interests put on Bruce Wayne’s silver spoon. Nolan criminally wastes Tom Hardy, who can really act: he made a feral, magnetic Ricki Tarr in the remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the one glimpse of his face when he’s about to be swallowed by the raging crowd in TDKR shows what he’s capable of. The Bane/Vader parallel is obvious: the raging slave of great ability who dares to love above his station and heroically serves a cause intrinsically hostile to him – yet is demonized because he doesn’t fit the Messiah profile, first due to his “wrong” pedigree, later due to severe mutilations that limit his potential. The equivalence is made plain by several touches beyond the breathing mask, including the camera lingering on the frantically kicking feet of someone in his grip.
Oddly enough, both principal women fare fractionally better as characters, despite (or because of?) Nolan’s palpable disinterest in them. Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle owes more to Charlise Theron’s slinky yet formidable Aeon Flux than to past Catwomen, which is to the good. On the other hand, the obsessive zooming on her ass while she’s maneuvering the Batbike is emetic (when Batman does it, his nether cheeks are decorously covered by his cape — which finally gives a reason for its existence). There is also a hint that she’s bisexual, which makes her truly intriguing. But for my money, Marion Cotillard’s Talia al Ghul is hands down the most arresting presence in the entire Batman film parade. I’d be happy to see a whole film with her as the protagonist. Hell, a trilogy. Although I’d have preferred that she had gone after her mother’s killers rather than her father’s – especially taking into account her father’s shabby treatment of her savior, to say nothing of his daffy agenda (“cleansing the earth of humanity” using nuclear weapons: unassailable logic, if you’re five years old).
Despite its superficial similarity to TDKR, TBL is a very different beast; I agree with MaryAnn Johanson that it’s high-quality fanfic – specifically, AU fanfic with OCs (in English: alternative universe with original characters). Don’t misunderstand me, it’s far from perfect. It’s uneven, lumpy and ends on a blatant “To Be Continued” note. Nevertheless, it has four great assets besides its intricate interweaving of the Bourne prequel threads: the two principals, Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross and Rachel Weisz as Dr. Marta Shearing, come across as complex persons – even setting aside the lagniappe of Oscar Isaac as Aaron’s fellow enhanced killing machine; Aaron’s plight is more relevant, interesting and wrenching than that of Jason Bourne; the dialogue is snappy, non-generic, character-specific; and it gets its science as right as Hollywood possibly can. As is often the case with me, I’m in the minority. TBL’s Rotten Tomatoes rating is significantly lower than TDKR’s, in part because many reviewers (like orthodox fanfic readers) want canon, not AU; some have also opined that Jeremy Renner lacks Matt Damon’s charisma.
To each his own. To me at least, Damon has the charisma of a particle board plank. Renner, on the other hand, with his lived-in pug/cherub face, comes across as truly dangerous: you’re never sure if he will kiss or kick, yet you trust him when his smile reaches his eyes – a volatility he engaged to stunning effect in The Hurt Locker and to single-handedly elevate The Town into something eminently watchable. Weisz, on her part, radiates intelligence and competence in whatever role she appears, from The Mummy to Agora to The Constant Gardener. She is one of the very few actors who’s entirely believable as a working scientist.
What makes Aaron’s plight closer to my heart and to real life is that he’s in a Flowers for Algernon situation: he got brain damage during his tour of duty, which made him ripe for the poisoned apple of the top secret augmentation program; for him, stopping the medications that leash him to his handlers is equivalent to a sentence of living death. This pegs the jeopardy meter far harder than Jason Bourne’s thriller-cliché amnesia. When Aaron decides to renounce his newly won freedom for the sake of keeping Marta safe, we feel that real stakes are involved. Aaron and Marta are true partners with equally instrumental overlapping skills. Marta does not spend any length of time impersonating quivering jello, nor does she get relegated to the helpmate slot – though knowing Hollywood’s stance on fully human women, I tremble for her fate in the inevitable sequel.
The science is stunningly accurate for a Hollywood film. That’s a real lab in the chilling massacre scene; when Marta injects Aaron with the viral stock that might cut his indenture bonds, she withdraws it from a real cryovial. When she described the delivery problems of viral vectors, I didn’t wince once and the enhancement route she outlined (mitochondrial ratcheting) is in the domain of the possible. She made one error when she segued into brain function: it’s plasticity, not elasticity… but I’ll take it over ANY other Hollywood science in my memory banks. Nor are the slippery slopes ignored: Marta knows that she let her fervent wish to do cutting-edge science override her moral judgment, choosing to close her eyes to the applications of her work.
In the end, Aaron is kin not to Jason Bourne but to the fascinating loners that we glimpse all too briefly in the Bourne franchise: the Professor (Clive Owen), Jarda (Marton Csokas), Outcome 5 (Oscar Isaac). It occurs to me, of course, that these guys fall in my snacho category… which may be one more reason why I liked TBL far more than TDKR.
Images: Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy); Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf (La Vie en Rose); Jeremy Renner as William James (The Hurt Locker); Rachel Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovaç (The Whistleblower).
I have the bad habit of site-jumping when a topic snags my interest. Recently, starting with a tale of blatant plagiarism by a top YA book reviewer (who issued the standard non-apology and accused her victims of being mean to her, thereby setting up a bullying spree by her followers), I found myself skimming the plagiarized pieces. Two dealt with blogging don’ts. Those who know me will guess the rest: I looked up “blogging no-nos” in Google.
Several sites later, suffice it to say that the advice is as harmonious as a skua rookery. There are, however, a few near-consensus points for non-business blogs:
content über alles (if only);
fast loading good, pop-ups and multi-clicks bad (unless they help the site’s hit count);
also bad: spelling mistakes, eye-hurting design and music autoplay (the latter makes it hard to secretly net-surf at work, for one);
well-chosen pictures are mandatory (a thousand words and so forth);
so is replying to all comments and having painless spam filters (everyone’s whims must be catered to the max, otherwise they won’t keep reading the blog);
don’t exceed a certain length (below 1,000 words good, below 750 even better – after all, people are busy surfing);
use social media – newsletters, Share buttons, Twitter (establish a presence!);
do 10-Things lists, polls, contests (with awards);
update frequently or risk being forgotten (people must be constantly entertained, after all);
find a content niche and stick with it like a burr (or else no community for you).
Now, the first four are commonsense and should be obvious – though judging from what I saw during this particular dip, they’re not. This observance-in-the-breach includes the common associated clause of “don’t be negative” for point 1: if anything, flamewars seem to feed blogs like dry twigs feed brushfires. However, I break the last six with abandon and in full consciousness. This may explain why my blog flipflops wildly at various ranking sites, and why I haven’t yet been awarded a Pulitzer or a regular column at, say, Nature or Tor.
Points 5-9 can only be followed if your blog and the activities it promotes are the focus of your entire existence – or you’re paid what passes for a pro rate (whatever that is, in today’s “content yearns to be free” mindset). It does so happen that I don’t live in my parents’ basement pushing XBox buttons: I have a research lab and an academic job that demand more than passing attention. Besides, I’ve seen Twitter, Facebook and Livejournal close up and found them less than enticing. “Loyalties” that spring from social media are shallow and brittle. It takes more than exchanging snarky soundbites to build sturdy alliances that go beyond “Like” or “Headdesk”.
More fundamentally, having entered the last third of my life, I sometimes tire of old issues springing up again and again like dragons’s teeth: the relentless fundamentalist war on women’s rights in this country and elsewhere; grittygrotty SF/F authors calling their pornokitsch fiction subversive and invoking “rape modules in male brains” (although I and several others tackled this from the writing angle and I intend to discuss it in a near future post from the biological angle); young women and self-labeled “progressive” men saying that feminism is passé, having achieved its goals (equal pay? easy access to contraception?); fanboiz whining that I’m elitist because I don’t like Avatar, Accelarando or the pronouncements of Kurzweil, or that I’m hard on armchair tourist authors who get famous (or at least solvent) from tone-deaf depictions of non-Anglo cultures. Which brings us to the major issue, point 10: content focus.
What people write on their blogs depends on their goals. Some use them as pulpits, others as public diaries, yet others as marketing tools (“Here are my Hugo nominations, now go vote!”). Focused-content blogs tend to become watering holes for the like-minded. In some cases, their owners become oracles to a worshipping group of reader-acolytes. Personally, I’m interested (more than casually) in several domains: science, history and language, literature and the arts, space exploration, politics. I also believe that none of these strands can be examined in isolation. To give a recent example, my critique of the John Carter film included all these angles – and when I was asked to take out “the review bits” for possible reprinting on a popsci-oriented blog, I realized I couldn’t do so without essentially rewriting the entire piece.
I’m also allergic to acolytes because at some point they take you over. Not that women attain prophet status without becoming Ayn Rand or the equivalent, mind you – women who denigrate their own, thereby becoming pillars of the status quo. Being a non-Anglo woman who is a non-joiner by temperament and falls between more stools than I can either avoid or count, I’m reconciled to the idea that if I were a man I would probably be knee-deep in accolades, awards and groupies eager to have my babies. But I’m happy to be a feral nomad instead. “I cannot be tethered, while I still hear the night winds moan and call.” 
So here we are – done in less than 1,000 words this time! Bottom line: this blog will continue to be unapologetically eclectic in topic selections but neither a diary nor a collection of laundry lists. It’s a salon where friends and passing guests gather for conversations, subject to my tides of mood and health; a review along classic lines that reflects its opinionated editor’s interests and viewpoints. For me it is a window to the world. All kinds of neat things alight here as I sing for my own pleasure. And that’s good enough for a pagan outlaw loner like me.
ERB had several strong influences while creating the fictional world of Barsoom. One came from his experiences in the late 1890s as an enlisted soldier with the 7th U.S. Cavalry at Fort Grant in Arizona (still a US territory at the time). The vast desert landscape of the Southwest served as a geophysical model for his drying and dying Mars. The surrounding Native American population became the Tharks. The native women – whom he found to be haughty, beautiful, and very proud – may also have served as ERB’s involuntary muses for Dejah Thoris.
ERB’s other prominent influence for the formation of Barsoom came from a fellow who was also a resident of Arizona around the same time: Percival Lowell. A member of a very prominent Boston Brahmin family, Lowell became fascinated with Mars after the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported observing a series of long, straight dark lines on the Red Planet starting in 1877. His intense and focused interest in Mars (along with his wealth) led Lowell to build a professional observatory in remote Flagstaff, Arizona, where he felt he could properly study our neighboring world to better discern its compelling features.
Lowell and others soon came to the conclusion that such formations had to be artificial in nature. Lowell believed that a race of beings much older, wiser, and more advanced than humanity dwelt on Mars. These Martians built a vast network of giant canals to bring water from their arctic regions of ice to their cities on and near the equator. Their plan was to stave off extinction as their ancient world began to dry up, taking the native flora and fauna with it in the process. Lowell and his followers thought they were witnesses to the last great act of an alien civilization.
Lowell’s hypothesis for Mars were not completely pulled out of thin air, for his ideas were based on a combination of contemporary thoughts and observations: From what astronomers could see through their telescopes about the Red Planet from their vantage point on Earth many millions of miles away, the fourth world from the Sun appeared to be more like our globe than any other place in the Sol system. Mars possessed two white polar caps, an axial tilt and rotation rate very similar to Earth’s, and light and dark regions which changed in color, shape, and size through the long Martian seasons. Many conjectured that these mobile surface markings were the life cycles of native plants or even the migration of animals.
Another idea popular at the time was the Nebular Theory of solar system formation. This plan declared that the outer worlds cooled and condensed first ages ago from the cosmic cloud of dust and debris that would become our Solar System. These places would thus develop the conditions to support life sooner than the worlds closer to the warming Sun. As a result, the outer planets would also one day find themselves becoming less able to sustain their ecosystem sooner than the inner planets. This is why Lowell concluded there were canal-building intelligences on Mars without being able to actually see any such beings to learn whether he was correct or not.
Whether Percival Lowell was eventually right or wrong about the true state of the Red Planet ultimately mattered little to authors such as ERB and H. G. Wells. They found in Lowell’s ideas a fertile field for their imaginary worlds, though of course in Wells’ case, the Lowellian conditions on Mars served as a literal springboard for his octopus-like inhabitants to seek a better place to live, by force no less, thus creating the alien invasion scenario that remains popular to this very day. The only major difference between Wells’ creatures and their fictional descendants is that they now spring (mostly) from worlds circling other suns.
In contrast, ERB’s Martians remained on Barsoom despite the similarly debilitating environmental situation. There was and is a lot of high technology across Barsoomian society in both the novel and the film, including aerial flying machines, but they did not seem to focus on space travel, if you exclude the Therns’ guarded method of celestial transportation. Nevertheless, at least Helium appears to have had some rather powerful ground-based telescopes, as in the film version Dejah Thoris eventually realized that John Carter was a native of Jarsoom, while in the novel the princess was well aware of human civilization on Earth long before Carter arrived on her world.
Obviously the main reason I am emphasizing the John Carter connection with Lowell’s Mars is due to its important influence in bringing about the world of Barsoom. My other motive for bringing up the era defined by what Lowell created, pursued, and essentially preached about the Red Planet – namely from the latter half of the nineteenth century to July of 1965, when the American robotic probe Mariner 4 revealed with its t relatively crude images of the planet’s surface and other measurements a shockingly Moon-like Mars – is to highlight a period of astronomical history that is both fascinating in its own right and a relevant lesson in our current pursuit of extraterrestrial life.
John Carter did give some tantalizing hints about the Lowell era of Mars at the beginning and end of the film, very briefly displaying some real early hand-drawn maps of the planet. Included among these charts was one of the famous Lowell maps of the Martian canals, where it turns out that ERB rather closely modeled the various city-states and other features of Barsoom upon in numerous cases. See here for the details:
I also took special pleasure in noting that John Carter’s tomb looked rather similar to the one Percival Lowell was buried in on Mars Hill at his Flagstaff observatory in 1915. It is these touches and obvious indication that someone did their historical research which I appreciate very much.
While it is clear to us (and a number of astronomers from that era) that Lowell went much too far in speculating on what the Martian canals were all about (sadly, even the canals turned out not to be real but rather optical illusions caused by real surface features being just beyond the resolution of most telescopes), his influence and imagination were the important catalyst in spurring both classic works of fiction and the people who would go on to study and explore the real Red Planet. A film about that era could be quite successful in my opinion. Certainly there would be enough real excitement, romance, and drama to work from.
Final Thoughts – The White Messiah
When Athena initially asked if I was interested in writing a review of John Carter, we briefly touched upon the “White Messiah” complex that exists in most films such as Avatar, Dances With Wolves, and certainly the John Carter series. Of course one could not create a John Carter story absent of its white male American hero without radically changing the focus and point of what ERB was trying to do (in addition to making a living at writing): to get American boys to become manlier like their forbears were presumed to be.
While researching John Carter, I read that ERB was concerned about the growing population move from the farms and fields to more urban areas. ERB felt that boys who were not able to spend their youths hunting, fishing, and partaking in other outdoor activities were in danger of losing their manhood and possibly becoming – gasp – intellectual sissies! So ERB conceived of a character that would inspire young males to become bold, daring, and adventurous (along with pursuing beautiful women) under the guise of an entertaining plot.
I have my doubts that this idea was actively considered or even known of by the makers of the John Carter film. If anything, the snachismo concept Athena has written about here in her blog was quite in play: John Carter was still indeed a manly man, but he was also shown to have a sensitive and caring side, including a back story that did not exist in the novel so far as I know. And for a “Gentleman from Virginia” of the Nineteenth Century, Carter recognized and respected Dejah Thoris’ numerous abilities, despite her being – gasp – a woman.
The White Messiah idea does have some literal merit for John Carter (note the initials). This article in Slate magazine goes into some interesting and revealing depth on the subject. One has to wonder why our society seems to always be waiting and hoping for one particular individual (or even an advanced ETI) to come along and save the rest of us from ourselves? Is it just because we are social mammals hardwired to defer authority to an Alpha Male?
While works like John Carter were not really aimed at exploring this topic, they can stir us to move beyond these basic plots and concepts to create our own ideas and stories of worlds and beings who think and operate in ways different from our current culture. After all, that is one of the key features of science fiction, to imagine alternate scenarios and societies and see how they might play out.
It was nice to see on the big screen a fairly well done rendition of and tribute to a series that inspired so much of our popular science fiction stories today. Now that a century has passed, I think it is time for cinematic science fiction to start graduating to more complex and daring concepts, which we did see a few times in the pre-Star Wars era. If done and sold right, I think audiences are becoming sophisticated enough to handle stories outside the mainstream “comfort zone”. At the very least, perhaps next time we will have a story about a Dejah Thoris type who simultaneously inspires young women and saves the world.
Athena’s coda: I already expressed my views of how well-made/progressive I deemed the JCM film in part 1. ERB is one of the forefathers of the grittygrotty contingent in SF/F. Its members are invariably linked with regressive tropes, evopsycho paradigms that extol reactionary mores as universal (the Alpha Male canard among them – there are no such creatures in the human species, biologically speaking) and hack writing. I won’t list names, lest I spread the disease; nevertheless, it’s indicative that this contingent went ballistic because the JCM film updated the novel to lighten its deeply reactionary nature vis-à-vis women and non-whites.
Percival Lowell’s social prominence and wealth allowed him to indulge in his passionate hobby, and concrete good came of it: namely, the discovery of Pluto (he could have spent his money on golf clubs or financing conservative politicians). However, it was already widely accepted during Lowell’s heyday that the Martian canals (a mistranslation of Schiaparelli’s original term, which meant channels) were natural formations. It’s entirely likely that his “maps” of Mars and Venus were in fact depictions of his retinal blood vessels.
Mars, by dint of all its intrinsics as they gradually unfolded before us, has been a perennial object of fascination. The issue of whether it once did or still does harbor life has not been resolved and I, for one, am all for a crewed expedition that will not only attempt to definitively answer this question but will also be useful in showing up the pitfalls and limitations of longer space travel.
On the art side, it’s true that there hasn’t yet been a film depiction of Mars that does it justice. The obvious candidate (for a series rather than a standalone film, given its length) is Stan Robinson’s trilogy. But for my taste, the hands-down choice would be Alexander Jablokov’s River of Dust: it shows a Mars that harbors a precarious but culturally vibrant underground human colony after a terraforming attempt failed, and it overflows with mythic echoes, dramatic situations that matter, exciting ideas, unique settings and vivid characters.
Images: Lowell’s “map” of the Mars south pole (1904); Lowell’s mausoleum; Valles Marineris, one of the largest canyons in the solar system (NASA/JPL); Alex Jablokov’s marvelous River of Dust
by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado (plus a dissenting coda by Athena)
There is an interesting parallel between John Carter as the main character of the Mars series of adventure novels begun by Edgar Rice Burroughs (from here on called ERB) one century ago this year, and the recently released Disney film of the same name.
Both arrived on their respective worlds – the fictional man Carter on planet Mars, a.k.a. Barsoom, and the motion picture John Carter in cinemas all over planet Earth (a.k.a. Jarsoom) – with relatively little fanfare. Both Carters initially encountered natives who had no real idea who they were and were ready to kill them off. Yet somehow both survived their hostile environments and slowly earned the understanding and respect of their newfound worlds, eventually going on to change things for the better and having a wild time in the process.
Now of course the film version still has a long road ahead to achieve its equivalent of what the novel hero achieved in his fictional and serialized lifetime. To be honest, I do not know if it will ever become as popular and influential as the novels were in their day, if for no other reason than too many other fictional series influenced by the ERB works have left their much stronger mark on the cultural mindset in the intervening century. In addition, while John Carter is better than I feared, the very ironic fact that it looks rather derivative of the very genre it spawned may permanently hobble its journey across the cinematic and cultural landscape.
So why should I make a big deal out of a film and series that its parent company will probably write off as a financial loss, one that most of today’s audience is almost totally unfamiliar with, and in truth its core plot was not terribly original or new when ERB produced its first installment back in 1912?
For the following reasons: The film did not become the bloated mess that I thought Hollywood was going to turn it into (and which many film critics who I do not think would know or understand science fiction and its history if they proverbially bit them continue to insist it is while mentioning its big budget in the same breath). The John Carter series deserves to be honored, understood, and appreciated for all it has done both for science fiction/fantasy and for influencing later real scientists like Carl Sagan, who talked about his love for the series as a youth in an episode of Cosmos. Finally, the real story and history behind the influences – hinted at in the film – that spawned John Carter and affected our views of life on Mars and elsewhere are more than worthy of being reintroduced to new generations as well.
The plot of John Carter is essentially that of ERB’s first novel in the series, A Princess of Mars: Confederate war veteran and Gentleman of Virginia John Carter goes into a cave in the Southwestern United States and wakes up millions of miles away on the planet Mars. There he meets several of the remaining native populations on that world, all of whom are battling with each other and the elements as Mars is slowly drying up. Carter’s Earth-developed muscles allow him to jump quite high and punch very hard in the lower Martian gravity, abilities which quickly earn him the awe and respect of key natives. In the end, our hero defeats the bad guys, wins the hand of the beautiful Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris, and then involuntarily ends up back on Earth. Carter spends most of his Jarsoomian exile trying to get back to Mars and his wife, which he eventually does.
I must confess: I did not read any of the John Carter novel series until rather recently, despite knowing about them for most of my life. I am not a big fan of fantasy fiction and that is what I considered these works to be. I also assumed that the prose would not have aged well in the intervening decades.
I have since read the first novel and, like the film, found it to be not as bad as I feared. Both were rather entertaining and I found myself actually caring about the characters, always a key point for me with any story. As just one example, I recall being both surprised and moved when it was revealed in the novel that Sola was the daughter of Tars Tarkas.
Based on past experience with Hollywood’s efforts at science fiction (and John Carter really is basically SF and not fantasy), along with Disney’s historical habit of making major changes in their productions to suit their intended audiences and their less-than-stellar promotional efforts for this film, I expected John Carter to be an expensive and flashy mess, one that was as much about the original A Princess of Mars as the “re-imaged/re-invented” Star Trek film from 2009 was about the original Star Trek television series: A shell resembling the franchise but full of hot air and junk underneath. Instead I witnessed a film that actually got the main characters and plot points, along with the essence and feel of the novel – no small feat there. I just wish that more people were aware of this and could appreciate it. Ironically, science fiction is starting to become more “acceptable” to the mainstream audience due to the reimaged Battlestar Galactica and especially The Hunger Games series, whose first film came out right after John Carter and financially steamrolled our Martian hero and every other current movie in its path.
I found the film to capture the feel and look of the novel as I and others imagined it quite well. From the flying battle cruisers to the appearance and behavior of the warrior Tharks, this cinematic world of Barsoom is one I think ERB would have said well matched his visions of his creation.
There were a few notable changes from the novel, most of which only make sense in light of the medium and era. One was the addition of clothing on John Carter and the residents of Barsoom. In the novel, most natives went either naked or nearly so and did not even think twice about being in such a state (Dejah Thoris only wore strategically-placed ornate jewelry, for example). John Carter even arrived on Mars sans clothing. For obvious reasons the film could not replicate this situation from the novel; besides, it probably would have been too distracting even if such a thing were allowed by the modern film industry.
The women of Barsoom fared rather well from their “modernization” in the film, though it should be noted that even in the first novel I did not find them to be just the damsels-in-distress one might be led to believe from the decades of artwork depicting that alien world.
The two main Martian city-states depicted in the film, Helium and Zodanga, employed female soldiers as readily as male ones. I had to wonder if this situation was due to the fact that the Martian environment was dying and people and resources were in ever-dwindling supply, but no one ever seemed to question or even react to the idea of women in their military. The audience was not given enough cinematic time to learn very much about these societies in any event.
The Thark Sola was an intelligent and compassionate individual in addition to being a strong warrior. She endured a fair deal of suffering from her harsh culture to remain true to herself and her beliefs. Sola also became open to new ideas as the story progressed, such as flying, despite her father and chief Tars Tarkas earlier intoning that “Tharks do not fly!”
The most notable woman of the series is of course Dejah Thoris. While she remained a beautiful princess and the focus of John Carter’s admiration and desire, for the film Dejah also became a highly capable scientist as well as a warrior who more than held her own in battle. When the Helium leadership was ready to cave in and acquiesce to the demands of the Zodanga leader to marry Dejah in the hope of saving their society from defeat and destruction, Dejah was the only one who not only balked at this forced union but saw how Helium’s being united with the more barbaric city-state of Zodanga would actually undermine her culture and eventually all the people of Barsoom.
Dejah’s demonstrated scientific knowledge and technical skills were strong enough that the main “bad guys” of the film, the highly advanced species known as the Thern, considered Dejah to be a serious impediment to their plans for Barsoom while simultaneously admiring her abilities. As for the actor who played the Princess of Helium, Lynn Collins was an excellent choice for the character. She not only played Dejah with both intelligence and an air of royal nobility, Collins’ years of martial arts training also showed convincingly in her numerous scenes of hand-to-hand combat – including the several occasions when Carter got behind Dejah for protection!
The Thern are another cinematic modification from the novel. In A Princess of Mars, Martian natives make a trip down the River Iss when they feel ready to pass on from this life. They believe at the end of that river is where they will meet the goddess Issus and go on to a paradisiacal afterlife. Instead the mythology and the journey are a trap set by the Thern, descendants of the White Martians, who use monstrous creatures such as the white apes to kill and eat the unwary pilgrims and enslave or consume in turn those who survive the ordeal.
In the film, the Thern are an advanced alien race (they appear as humanoids but can also shapeshift) who travel from one inhabited world to another and “feed” off the energies expended by the native populations as they struggle with each other and use up or neglect their planet’s natural resources. One Thern named Shang implies to Carter that Earth and humanity are next on their menu once they are done with the dying Barsoom.
The Thern have a very interesting and quite alien technology which looks like a tangled mass of blue fibers, whether it is one of their structures or a weapon (Dejah Thoris recognizes its artificial nature). They also travel between worlds by sending “copies” of themselves similar to a fax using a medallion that operates on specific verbal commands. Whereas in the novel, Carter mysteriously arrives on Mars after simply falling asleep in a cave, our hero is accidentally transported to Barsoom by Thern technology. While of course there is no actual explanation given as to how the mechanism works, the audience is at least handed some kind of plausible reason for Carter’s celestial journey that is no worse than using a faster-than-light drive for a fictional starship. Besides, the JC series is all about the destination, not the journey.
The film version of the Thern left me wondering if perhaps there are advanced societies in the galaxy who view other alien species as lesser creatures to either be ignored or utilized for their own purposes. While they held some genuine admiration for Dejah Thoris, I got the impression that their whole attitude about using Barsoom until it was dry and dead and all the other worlds they have come across could be summed up as “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.”
I have often wondered if an advanced ETI, using the Kardashev Type 2 or 3 labels for simplification, would mow over whole worlds and species as they developed their interstellar existence in the same way a construction crew would run over an ant colony on their building site. I would like to think that such sophisticated and experienced beings would be a bit more sensitive than that, but we are still so very clueless about anyone else in the Milky Way galaxy and beyond.
Athena’s afterword: Unsurprisingly, my view of John Carter (henceforth JCM) is far more jaundiced than Larry’s. JCM is dull, curiously inert, with zero frisson or sensawunda despite the non-stop eye candy. Although the novel it’s based on predated and influenced Star Wars, Avatar, etc, it was a given that the film’s late arrival would doom it to looking stale unless its makers were truly bold. Pressing Pixar’s Stanton into service made success a possibility but Disney standard hackery prevailed: the deletion of crucial words from the film’s title (Mars, because other films with Mars in their titles bombed; Princess, because… it might give the film girl cooties) signals this fatal lack of conviction.
True, JCM is not a total failure; however, given its semi-infinite budget and the longueurs recognized even by its champions, this is a pathetically low bar. It’s a near-failure even as film space opera — which by tradition has low standards for coherence, opting instead for assaultive FX pyrotechnics. Of course, JCM’s science is non-existent even within its own silly framework (example: the intermittence and variability of Carter’s locust-like jumping abilities). At least, unlike Cameron’s Na’vi, Stanton forbore from putting breasts on female Tharks. In fact, JCM’s core failure lies in its clumsy, generic narrative and its paper-thin worldbuilding and characters, for whom it’s impossible to care. Additionally, by being mostly faithful to the novel, JCM’s makers reproduced its highly problematic underpinnings.
The cultures in JCM are based (snore) on ancient Rome and the Celtic and German nations that opposed it – as filtered through the lens of someone who learned history from comics or fifties Hollywood films. JCM’s obvious muscular-christian underdrone further underlines its poverty of imagination. There is no internal logic to the conflicts: they must simply exist, so that 1) we can see the neat-o flying machines and 2) the savior can become indispensable and lead his disciples to victory. Its pace is as lumbering as its six-legged war beasts; neither its tone nor its visuals ever coalesce. The relentless battles and fights are choppy and muddy. The dialogue is clunkier than that of Lucas (a feat I considered impossible), the characters look and speak like Pharaonic wooden statues and the two leads have as much chemistry as pet rocks. The aptly named Taylor Kitch, blander than lo-fat cottage cheese, doesn’t deserve Lynn Collins’ hot chili and the best that can be said about Thoris and Sola is that neither is a bimbo… or a blonde.
The clichés that literally sink JCM have dogged Hollywood space operas even in their self-labeled progressive incarnations like Star Trek: the White Messiah who out-natives the natives and has their princesses begging for his babbies; the lone feisty-but-feminine metal-bikini-clad woman among a sea (desert?) of men, bereft of any female interactions; the total absence of mothers, when even the non-dyadic Thark family structure gets twisted into providing Sola with a father; natives as noble savages who prevail, Ewok-like, over much superior technology once they choose the right (non-native) leader; hierarchical dog-eat-dog warrior societies; imperial rule by charismatic autocrats as the sole viable method of governance; the dog-like mascot whose sugary cuteness could elicit a full-blown diabetic coma.
People will undoubtedly try to argue that ERB was “a man of his time”. This is an excuse used ad nauseam for other SF/F “founders” such as Tolkien – who in fact was deemed a regressive throwback even by his own circle before he got canonized into infallibility by his acolytes. Ditto for ERB. As one example, John Carter is a “gentleman of Virginia” who served with distinction in the Confederate Army. Romantic lost causes aside, it means that ERB deliberately made his hero someone who chose to uphold the institution of slavery. And, of course, the names… oh, how they thud! Zodanga. Woola. Tardos Mors. Barsoom (rhymes with bazoom and va-va-voom, underscored by the Frazetta opulent pornokitch depictions so adored by Tarzanist evopsychos).
Such material can be salvaged in only two ways: either by radical re-imagining (which briefly was the route of the Battlestar Galactica reboot before it collapsed under its maker’s pretensions) or by being played as stylish high camp (which was why the Flash Gordon 1980 remake was such a breath of fresh air). Like a good bone structure underneath flesh gone to flab, there were glimpses of what might have been had Stanton and his paymasters been braver. But that would be a parallel universe where Barsoom truly came alive. Stanton tries to elicit extra sympathy (and remind us of Wall-E) by dedicating JCM to Steve Jobs – but his latest opus resembles a clunky, bloated Microsoft PC. It makes me once again think how immensely grateful I am that The Lord of the Rings was not directed by an American.
Images: John Carter (Taylor Kitch) realizing that not even super-jumping abilities will get him out of this mess; Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) all undressed up with nowhere to go; Dejah Thoris and John Carter trying to find escape clauses in their contracts; Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton) in WTF? posture.
Dhómna: Lady, Mistress (Latin original: domina – a title given to noblewomen who held a barony in their own right.)
Tradition lies heavy on my people, yet it makes us who we are – for good and ill. One of its greatest champions just left us: Dhómna Samíou, a tireless collector and preserver of folksongs who began to sing them herself in her forties, in a distinctive voice that thrummed like the finest Damascus steel.
Samíou’s parents were working-class refugees from Asia Minor; her father had been a prisoner of war in Turkey after the disastrous war in 1922. Her childhood was spent in abject poverty, in a shack without water or electricity, but also in the strong social net of mutual support that sprang up in such circumstances. Her father and sister died during the German occupation. She might have starved or been killed herself – the shacks were in a neighborhood of Athens famous for its urban resistance, which the Germans punished accordingly. She escaped the roundups because she had started working at twelve, first as a seamstress in a small tailoring establishment, then as a live-in maid in a middle-class home.
The family she worked for heard her sing constantly while she worked, so they brought her to Símon Karás, a famous music teacher and pioneering collector of traditional music. He accepted Samíou into his choir on the spot, stipulating that she should finish high school (a rare feat in that context, particularly for girls). Work in the mornings, music lessons in the afternoons, school in the evenings: that was Samíou’s life for several years. In 1954 she started working in broadcasting under her teacher. National radio (all radio was national then in Hellás) started airing traditional music, as well as making and selling records of it.
As Hellás tried to show it belonged to the First World, traditional music tottered under the onslaught of Western popular music. Samíou, like Karás, could not imagine her people’s culture without it. During her vacations she started going around the country, on her own dime, to identify and record the fast-disappearing authentic versions of folksongs. When she started becoming too independent, Karás slowly removed her from his orbit: despite his initial generosity and crucial formative role in her life, he would not brook a competitor or even a successor – especially a woman.
When the junta came, Samíou was given tenure at her job but couldn’t stomach the repression. She resigned at 43 with no safety net. At that crucial moment, Dionyssis Savvópoulos – the iconoclastic, obscenely talented enfant terrible of Hellenic music – invited her to appear in his politically and artistically daring events. That launched her career as a singer of the songs she had so lovingly found and fought to save. After the junta fell, national television commissioned Samíou to do Musical Travel, a documentary series about traditional music that is considered a classic, the foundation for all subsequent such works. Below is a part celebrating Épiros, my mother’s part of the world.
Samíou worked with all the virtuoso singers and players (usually informally taught), whether famous or obscure, who carried the songs that run in our blood. She traveled all over the world to give these songs and players an audience – not only to the diaspora communities, who drank them like water in the desert, but to non-Hellenes as well, who realized for the first time that Hellenic folk music was not just the bouzouki they heard in tourist traps. She received a huge number of honors and prestigious commissions. Yet she never behaved like a celebrity, never lost her deep connections to things that mattered or her common touch.
Samíou continued singing, teaching, recording and archiving tirelessly till her death. Others shared her love of traditional music and the effort to keep it a living, breathing concern but her knowledge, thoroughness and exactitude were unparalleled. She was a national treasure, a towering presence.
May the earth lie lightly upon you, Dhómna Samíou, Mistress of Songs.
Videos: two famous folksongs — First, Háidho from Épiros; singer/tambourine, Mánthos Stavrópoulos; clarinet, Konstantínos Neofótistos; violin, Konstantínos Saadedín; lutes, Stávros Saadedín & Napoléon Tzihás. Second, Samíou sings Tzivaéri mou (My Treasure) from the Dodecanese.