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Anticipated in 2014

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Jetty Park

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

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

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Byzantium 1025

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Start of The Song of Armouris, the oldest Akritikón

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

The common view in the West is that the Roman Empire fell in the fourth century, when it was overrun by the Goths, Vandals and Alans. In reality, only the western half disappeared under the waves of invaders. The eastern portion became a great multicultural empire that lasted a thousand years and acted as both a buffer and a bridge between Asia and Europe. 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 – Romans – and they retained much from the older empire.

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

Digenis Spyros Vassiliou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and further reading/listening (partial list):

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

Images within the article:

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

On Being a Ghost

Saturday, November 9th, 2013

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

Wanderer and shadow, BobCatD

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

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

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

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

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

Sympathetic Magic

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last week, I was leaving work late. For some reason, my gaze veered 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 thought to myself: “Why does his wand look so odd?” I went up to it, peered closely. Pressed into his palm was my lost brooch.

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

Hagiography in the SFX Age: Jackson’s Hobbit

Friday, December 28th, 2012

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

Arwen Ford

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aotearoa Kaso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussions of other SF/F demigods:

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

The Star Trek reboot

Cameron’s Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

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

Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters (The Dark Knight Rises)

Gender Essentialism? Elementary, My Dear Watson!

Gender Essentialism? Elementary, My Dear Watson!

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Launch of the First Stage Approaches

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

As many of you know, I decided to conjure an anthology of original stories that are (broadly interpreted) mythic space opera with women protagonists. I will be releasing the TOC of The Other Half of the Sky in the next few days.

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:

The World SF interview

The SF Signal interview

Keep eyes on telescopes for the next stage of the launch!

Image: Eleni Tsami, A Fisherman of Ares Vallis

Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

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).

Internet Scofflaw: Breaking the Blogging Commandments

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

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:

  1. content über alles (if only);
  2. fast loading good, pop-ups and multi-clicks bad (unless they help the site’s hit count);
  3. also bad: spelling mistakes, eye-hurting design and music autoplay (the latter makes it hard to secretly net-surf at work, for one);
  4. well-chosen pictures are mandatory (a thousand words and so forth);
  5. 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);
  6. don’t exceed a certain length (below 1,000 words good, below 750 even better – after all, people are busy surfing);
  7. use social media – newsletters, Share buttons, Twitter (establish a presence!);
  8. do 10-Things lists, polls, contests (with awards);
  9. update frequently or risk being forgotten (people must be constantly entertained, after all);
  10. 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.” [1]

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.

[1] From Though I Grow Old with Wandering… in Realms of Fire

Images: 1st, Curious Cat (Jane Burton); 2nd, self-explanatory; 3rd, how I see the blog.

 

Looking at John Carter (of Mars) — Part 2

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado (plus a coda by Athena)

Part 1

Burroughs’ Influences

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

Looking at John Carter (of Mars) — Part 1

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

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.

Part 2

The Doric Column: Dhómna Samíou (1928-2012)

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

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.

Herald, Poet, Auteur: Theódhoros Angelópoulos (1935-2012)

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

These stones that sink into the years, how far will they drag me?
The sea, the sea, who will manage to drain it dry?
I see the hands beckon each dawn to the vulture and the hawk
bound as I am to the rock that pain has made mine,
I see the trees breathe the black serenity of the dead
and then the smiles, frozen in place, of the statues.

— Ghiórghos Seféris, Mythistórema, Part 20

Like many other cultures, mine has funerary customs that are thinly disguised pagan rites.  One of them is the mnemósyno: forty days after someone’s death, friends and family get together to reminisce.  It has been that long since the death of filmmaker Theódhoros Angelópoulos, whose work I found flawed yet deeply compelling.  So this is my mnemósyno for him.

Angelópoulos, killed at 76 in a completely preventable accident while filming the final installment of his latest trilogy, was a director’s director.  If you don’t know his name, don’t rush to download his films from Torrent or Hulu.  He requires enormous patience and dedication: his films are long (several reach four hours) and he was famous/notorious for unbroken takes that last more than ten minutes and include unapologetic dead time.  He was not the only Hellenic director to become internationally famous (Koúndhouros, Kakoyánnis and Ghavrás are familiar names, to non-Americans at least) but he was the one who stayed steadily in the limelight, piling up awards like kilims.

Fellow directors and film critics likened Angelópoulos to Antonioni and Kurosawa, but his true siblings are Tarkovsky and Malick.  The three share many attributes: they are masters of oneiric images drenched with nostalgia for lost Edens.  Their characters are semi-abstract symbols, their dialogues vestigial: the poetry resides in their stunning images, often coupled with equally haunting music.  All three have a powerful affinity for water, and they often use specific colors as emotional or mythical signifiers (for example, the rare flashes of red in Angelópoulos’ The Weeping Meadow; in one instance the color appears on an unraveling scarf that serves as Ariáthne’s thread between two long-persecuted illicit lovers at the moment they part for the final time).  Their best films (Malick’s New World, Angelópoulos’ Odysseus’ Gaze) are hypnotic, otherworldly.  When their inspiration flickers, their works become ponderous, pretentious to the point of parody – and they have not one atom of humor between them.

Angelópoulos had an additional burden that nevertheless enriched his art: the heavy pieces of beautiful but broken statuary that are the Hellenic legacy.  Unlike Malick and Tarkovsky, he’s intensely political and his films are palimpsests of myth and history.  Scenes often start in one epoch to dissolve into another – and they are inhabited by characters who are simultaneously everyday people and ancestral archetypes that cast long shadows.  His films can be appreciated entirely as aesthetic achievements but for those who know Hellás they are full of echoes and ghosts.  His lost Edens are not the innocence of childhood nor prelapsarian wilderness; they’re the lost homes and historic opportunities of his people.  His wanderers do not seek to find themselves; they seek once-safe harbors now guarded by fog and barbed wire.

As one example, The Travelling Players at first glance is a slice of life: it depicts the precarious, picaresque existence of a group of wandering actors who go through the provinces in the forties and fifties, playing a pastoral potboiler.  However, the film has at least two more layers: the actors, who are an extended family, reenact the tragedy of the Atreides.  They also bear witness to the Nazi occupation, the resistance to it, and the devastating civil war that followed it.  As another example, Odysseus’ Gaze is the story of a Hellene emigré filmmaker’s quest to discover a lost reel by the Manakis brothers, photographers who pioneered film art in the Balkans and recorded everyday life across ethnicities.  It is also an elliptic, allusive odyssey through the region’s past (a time of deep-rooted diaspora communities, extinguished since by resurgent nationalisms) as well as its fragmented present, including the brutal war that dissolved Yugoslavia.

Angelópoulos was sure of himself to the point of obsession and self-indulgent hubris but this certainty also gave him the focus and bravery of those who have an overarching vision.  Some of his films were made during the time of the military junta.  He gave the censors false scripts and shot in remote locations, counting on his crew and the locals not to betray him.  He used well-known international actors in his later films (Marcelo Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, Bruno Ganz, Michel Piccoli, Harvey Keitel, Maia Morgenstern, Irène Jacob, Willem Defoe) but kept them under iron control.  They were never allowed star flourishes, and he was demanding to the point of tyranny on the set.  Like all self-absorbed geniuses, he attracted talented, loyal partners who became near-lifetime collaborators: his cinematographer, Ghiórghos Arvanítis – the Nykvist to his Bergman; his music director, Eléni Karaíndhrou, her fey, melancholy pieces as distinctive as his film techniques.

I’ve seen most of Angelópoulos’ films.  I liked some far more than others, but each contained moments that transported me, that made the hairs rise on my arms: the red-sailed boats in The Hunters, floating by like swans to the heart-stopping strains of Elytis’/Theodhorákis’ Blood of Love; the mounted brigand rising into view at the Soúnion temple in Meghaléxandhros, wreathed in the molten gold of sunrise and the arabesques of Chrysanthos’ voice; the mother in The Weeping Meadow, as young as Michelangelo’s Pietá Mary or Sofoklés’ Antighóne, talking to her two dead sons who fought on opposite sides in the civil war; the brief but searing soliloquy of Thanássis Véngos, the Hellenic Chaplin, in Odysseus’ Gaze.  Angelópoulos eschewed the locales most people associate visually with Hellás.  He preferred the beautiful, forbidding north, snow, mist, bare trees, black waters, slate roofs glistening with rain.  That is my mother’s part of the world, very different from my father’s sunny Aegean but just as much what makes us – me – who we are as a people.

The films of Angelópoulos were an umbilical that nourished me, a spirit home.  The world is a poorer place without his idiosyncratic art, despite the stone-heavy hand he put on his creations.

Their souls became one with the oars and the oarlocks
with the solemn face of the prow
with the rudder’s wake
with the water that shattered their image.
The companions died one by one,
with lowered eyes.  Their oars
mark the place where they sleep on the shore.

No one remembers them.  Justice.

— Ghiórghos Seféris, Mythistórema, Part 5

Images: Theódhoros Angelópoulos; Harvey Keitel in Odysseus’ Gaze; “Get up, get up, my sweet boy…” — Eléni (Alexándhra Aidhíni) in The Weeping Meadow.

The Circus Ringmaster: John le Carré

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love.

— William Butler Yeats, An Irish Airman Foresees his Death

My mother used to joke about me, “Put a sheet with moving shadows in front of her and she will watch them.” Indeed, outside the lab I’m restless unless I’m reading books or watching films that engage me; both activities make me go instantly still for as long as the process lasts. My first encounter with le Carré was the film version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in the late sixties. Shot in stark black and white, with Richard Burton and a luminous Claire Bloom, it was that rare thing – an adaptation that honored its source.

So the day after I saw the film I marched into my extremely well-endowed high school library, searched the “Restricted” section (where all the interesting books were sequestered) and pounced. The librarian already knew me too well to object; I spirited my booty to safety and devoured it during my more boring classes, tucked inside textbooks. This was how I imprinted on le Carré. My appetite for him has remained unslaked down the decades. Among his (happy sigh!) still-lengthening output, my favorites are The Little Drummer Girl, The Constant Gardener and the two bookends of the Smiley trilogy.

Le Carré succeeds in what most authors dream of but few achieve: he creates fully realized worlds inhabited by complex human beings (well, men) dealing with complex issues. He manages this without resorting to infodumps or appendices. He is so self-assured that he commits several cardinal sins, according to the recipes of writing workshops: he always starts in media res, he never explains terms (Circus, mole, lamplighters, scalphunters, babysitters, wranglers, inquisitors) and he shifts viewpoints constantly and unapologetically. We get strobe glimpses of people and events from multiple angles. As these accumulate, they coalesce into a shimmering tesseract: the puzzle that inhabits the center of each story.

Le Carré’s books require attentive reading and are genuinely thought-provoking within their framework, whether this is Cold War rivalries, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or big pharma shenanigans. To put it succinctly, they’re meant for mental and emotional adults. This defining attribute places them far above run-of-the-mill genre hackeries. It comes as no surprise that he was nominated for the Booker Prize. His characters highlight the often irreconcilable dilemmas of personal versus professional loyalties; in this he continues the work of Graham Greene, without Greene’s sanctimonious religiosity.

Much has been said about le Carré’s George Smiley being the antithesis to James Bond. Bond is the cardboard alpha male, festooned with glitzy gadgets and pneumatic trophy women. Smiley is one of the competent faceless geeks who uphold the world. In le Carré’s world of ambiguous morality and shadow games, Smiley hews to one lodestar: loyalty to “his people” – the people who become his chosen extended family by dint of putting flesh-and-blood humans above abstract principles or power plays. When he passes judgment on Bill Haydon in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy it is clear that in his eyes Haydon’s real betrayal was to choose status over people: the casual use and disposal of lovers and colleagues, not of the sorry parochial “principles” of the British Empire.

Smiley rarely wins: in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold he loses Alec Leamas and Liz Gold; in Tinker, Tailor he loses his home plus most of his clan. But when summoned to be a nettoyeur of Augean stables, he metes out justice like a Hollywood vigilante. Except he does it not with a gun but with information files; not with jazzy torture devices but with understanding of the fault lines that run through the hearts of men. Which brings us to the blind spot of Smiley and his creator. [Those of you who glaze over at the mere mention of women can skip the next three paragraphs and resume reading when I get back to issues deemed “universally” interesting.]

People will argue, correctly, that in showing the arrant sexism of mid-twentieth-century Britain le Carré was simply hewing to reality – as Prime Suspect did, decades later. After all, we speak of a culture that still manages to publish all-male “best of” anthologies and whose contemporary “literati” still publicly defend the use of cunt as an acceptable term of censure. However, le Carré’s women are not just abstractions on the page – they’re also abstractions to their own men. They fall into two overlapping categories: Bitch Goddesses and Distant Beacons, Arwens to pre-Andúril Aragorns. Bear in mind that le Carré is neither reactionary nor prudish: he included homosexuals without ostentatious ado even in his early works (Jim Prideaux, Connie Sachs) and Bill Haydon is a poster case of the Alkiviádhis-type lethal bisexual charmer. Yet his women fade into a pre-Raphaelite haze of watercolors and violin strings.

Ann Sercombe Smiley is both Bitch Goddess and Distant Beacon to everyone within her radius. Yet all we learn of her is that she is nobly born, radiantly beautiful and joylessly promiscuous (heaven forfend that even a heavenly “slut” should enjoy her urges). Most le Carré women are solely there to spur the men into action: the prototype is the tragic Irina, who’s summarily dispatched after she awakens Ricky Tarr’s slumbering conscience in Tinker, Tailor. Similar fates befall Liz Gold, a maiden/mother helpmate in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Katya Orlovna, almost entirely a parade of creaky pseudo-delphic utterances, in The Russia House (at least she may get ransomed); and Sophie Maplethorpe in The Night Manager. Louisa Pendel is there essentially as a bromance conduit in The Tailor of Panama. And Tessa Quayle, the ostensible moral center of The Constant Gardener, is safely dead and pedestalized before the novel even starts.

The exceptions are telling as well: Connie Sachs, the formidable intelligence analyst in the Smiley novels, is that universally derided stereotype, the bluestocking fag hag (“All my lovely boys!”). Her lesbianism, inexplicably elided in the recent film version of Tinker, Tailor, is shown as the constricting “loving jailor” Yourcenar/Frick variety. Charlie No-Last-Name of The Little Drummer Girl is an actress who is literally an empty vessel to be filled in by the men around her. Interestingly she was played by Diane Keaton, another male muse who was essentially a collection of tics, although the role was meant for Vanessa Redgrave, who knows full well what it means to be a strong woman embedded in dynasties of male-only “begats”.

Le Carré’s two depictions of quasi-real women occur in Smiley’s People – possibly because they are the baits he uses to reel in his Soviet doppelgänger and nemesis, Karla, and hence they must demonstrate they deserve their glory-by-association. One of them, Maria Andreyevna Ostrakova (the always peerless Eileen Atkins), even breaks the mould of La Belle Dame sans Merci: she is almost elderly, unglamorous… and ferociously alive, attaining the stature of le Carré’s other fully realized humans. The other, Alexandra/Tatiana, is a tortured cipher who nevertheless shows glimpses of a specific person/ality buried in the cliché.

Alexandra is Karla’s daughter by a lover he adored but killed because he considered her a danger to the purity of his goal. Smiley uses this chink of humanity in Karla to break him. It is characteristic that he sunders all of his own human ties before this undertaking, so that he has no Achilles heel that jeopardizes his final task. In the end, Smiley reverses roles with Karla. By defecting to protect his daughter, Karla becomes flesh; by using Karla’s daughter to defeat him, Smiley turns to stone. Le Carré himself, moving from early Smiley to late Karla, maintains his stance of ambiguity up to his middle-late works. However, after the Cold War novels, his moral judgments become more absolute as his novels move out of the cloistered enclaves of MI6 and into the larger world where boardroom power games translate to millions of deaths and stunted lives.

Inevitably, many of le Carré’s works have been adapted to the screen. Given their complexity and the artificial demand that they be fitted to two-hour slots, they are mostly shadows of themselves. Beyond The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the partial exceptions correspond to three of my four favorites. Le Carré agrees with my assessment, because he makes cameo appearances in two of them: The Little Drummer Girl and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The Little Drummer Girl retains a fair amount of le Carré’s Chinese puzzle structure and draws riveting performances from Klaus Kinski (a fiery Martin Kurtz) and Sami Frey (a spellbinding Khalil). However, the film is doomed by the total miscasting of Charlie (Diane Keaton, as discussed earlier) and Gadi/Joseph (Yórghos Voyagís) who drain their pivotal characters of both charisma and erotic chemistry. The Constant Gardener flattens most of the plot and character intricacies but boasts Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle (Ok, you can take away the smelling salts now…) and Rachel Weisz (Tessa Quayle) who can convey intense intelligence despite her beauty, as witnessed in her depiction of Hypatia in Agora.

And so we come to the jewel in the crown – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The film has enormous shoes to fill: it must measure up not only to the book but also to the BBC series that also includes the other bookend, Smiley’s People. I watched it several times, once in a marathon session of fifteen hours spanning a new year transition. A TV series has the room to do justice to plot complexities and to showcase the ensemble acting of enormously talented professionals that has been a traditional glory of the British. Indeed, many people consider the BBC diptych the definitive version of the works. Its atmospherics are impeccable, exemplified by the increasingly frowning matryoshkas and a haunting rendition of Nunc dimittis in the credits. The characters are brought to electrifying life by the illustrious likes of Ian Richardson (Bill Haydon), Ian Bannen (Jim Prideaux), Alexander Knox (Control) and with Alec Guinness as the calm but formidable eye of the storm. The series unquestionably deserves all the accolades it gathered.

Tomas Alfredson’s film also boasts impeccable period atmosphere (a feat, considering the distance from the time the book was written as well as the era it depicts) and once again the ensemble acting of high-octane professionals. Standouts: Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux), breaking his usual typecasting, speaks volumes with his eyes; Tom Hardy (Ricky Tarr) is as feral as the young Brando; John Hurt (Control) pulses with obsession and choler, wreathed in whisky fumes and cigarette smoke; and Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), here shown as a closeted homosexual rather than a lady-killer, is a reluctant but conscientious convert to Smiley’s philosophy.

Gary Oldman, one of the few blonds in my personal gallery of talented eye candy, gives us a restrained, nuanced George Smiley. We cannot help but extrapolate to the turbulent waters underneath, if only from his previous portrayals of such tortured souls as Sid Vicious, Count Dracula and Sirius Black. Also, the fact that he’s a decade younger than Guinness when he portrayed Smiley makes the sudden yawning emptiness in his life far more palpable and poignant. Not surprisingly, there is incredible plot compression but the film never condescends to its audience: like the book, it demands focus and attention. There are countless small touches that convey enormous amounts of information – glances exchanged across tables, the lowering of a car window to let a bee fly out, a hand tightening on a banister.

Several items have been changed, some in the service of streamlining, others clearly aesthetic choices on the director’s part. I found two objectionable: Ann Smiley, whose face is never shown, is nevertheless implied to be far younger and more vulgar than her rarefied book persona (maintained in the series by the otherworldly Siân Phillips). Also, Jim Prideaux kills Bill Haydon with a long-distance rifle instead of snapping his neck, although in both cases Haydon is shown as aware and accepting of what is about to happen. This diminishes the emotional weight of the action, particularly on Prideaux’s side of the equation.

These caveats aside, the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a worthy incarnation of the book, different enough from the TV series to be appreciated in its own right. Like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is an unexpected gift. And gods and demons know how rare such gifts are, especially for someone like me who will still watch moving shadows on a sheet, but would rather watch truly original retellings of old myths.

Images: 1st, Shadow Theater Tales, Alexander Ovchinnikov; 2nd, Eileen Atkins as Maria Ostrakova in Smiley’s People; 3rd, the final matryoshka in the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy BBC series credits; 4th, husked grains in Tinker, Tailor: Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy), Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Though the Moon Be Still as Bright

Monday, January 31st, 2011

My brief, stark story, Though the Moon Be Still as Bright, is the lead in the latest issue of Cabinet des Fées, Erzebet Yellowboy’s labor of skill and love. Better yet, immediately following it is Christine Lucas’ On Marble Threshing Floors, a story of the Byzantine Amazon Maximó whom I mentioned in my essay about the Akritiká folksongs in the first issue of Stone Telling.

Erzebet discusses these connections in her introductory editorial to the issue. And wonderfully perceptive reviews have appeared for my essays and poetry in Stone Telling.

From Jessica Wick, co-editor of Goblin Fruit, in her review of Stone Telling 1:

“By far and away my favourite nonfiction piece was “A (Mail)coat of Many Colors: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards.” I can’t even pretend detachment. It was just cool. Athena Andreadis places the area’s folk-songs into regional context, history context, into context (again!) against similar Western traditions, and she ties the whole thing into the transformative (and preservative) nature of borderlands. My imagination — and my interest — are both certainly captive, and just as I reached the end of the article and was thinking, Man, I’d really like to hear some of this sung aloud, what should the article provide but some audio of Nikos Ksilouris singing a Cretan rendition of the Death of Diyenis. And, man, let me say again: Cool.

From SF/F critic Sam “Eithin” in his review of Stone Telling 2:

This poem calls up strong echoes of classical Greek hero tales, with its bitter, proud, bronze-voiced evocations of flame, ruin, and exile, but the issue’s focus on women and the ties between women makes it a particularly interesting read. It’s an away poem, looking back but resolutely orienting itself forward; remembering, but never regretting a choice.”

Even though I’m a feral loner, I’m not immune to the motivating power of recognition. Which brings me to my last piece of news: Two poems of mine were accepted in Bull Spec. They will appear in their summer and fall issue. Perhaps Rose Lemberg, the editor of Stone Telling, was right when she told me, “The wilderness is populated by nomads who happen to greatly enjoy your clanging cymbal.” Although I must put away my shaman’s drum for a while — grant deadlines are looming.

Images: 1st, Before the Desolation, by Heather D. Oliver — a portrayal that echoes in Though the Moon…. 2nd, small wooden ship, the Cyclades, Hellas.

Never Complain, Never Explain

Monday, December 27th, 2010

I’m the wall with the womanly swagger. – Judy Grahn, She Who

During Thanksgiving dinner at a dear friend’s house, another guest airily stated that climate change is a myth.  An environmental scientist and once a department chair in a well-known university, he now writes regularly for such venues as The Wall Street Journal using arguments along the lines of “There was radical climate change on earth way before humans came along.”  And like many self-satisfied self-promoters, he’s set on Transmit Only.

I was spoiling to kick him in a tender spot of his anatomy and it was obvious the other guests shared my wish.  But then the visit would have revolved around him.  So I looked straight at him and said, “If you really believe this, go discuss it with the people of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Maldives, who are watching their land go under water as we speak.”  We all essentially ignored him for the rest of the visit. We had a terrific time.

I thought of this incident during the Stone Telling 2 roundtable.  Among other questions, Julia Rios, the discussion moderator, asked me, “In your own life you’ve chosen to engage in battles, and to speak out against things you perceive as unjust. How do you reconcile those choices with the costs attached to them, and is there ever a time when you choose not to engage?”

After I had answered Julia’s question, it lingered in my thoughts.  I often say (only half in jest) that humanity consists of several subspecies which happen to be interfertile.  We’re far more hardwired culturally than we’d like to think.  Progressive notions notwithstanding, facts almost never change the minds of adult humans unless something happens to affect them concretely in their health, status or wallet.  Battles against injustice, vested interests, willful ignorance, complacency, cruelty never end.  Before this relentless flood, people like me are Dutch boys with fingers in the dam.

Halfway through my fifth decade, I still haven’t learned to leave well enough alone.  By deed and by word, I’m still fighting on many fronts.  I’ll go to my grave angry, though the waters of Lethe will close over my small efforts as if I’d never been.  Yet after a lifetime of battles, I don’t have even a partial answer about how to engage effectively — especially since anger is still a heavily punished transgression for women.

Naturally, intelligent fighters adjust their strategy and tactics to fit circumstances.  Sometimes you have to be Odysseus, sometimes Alexander.  But I think there are two powerful weapons tikkun paladins need to use more often.  One is laughter.  Another is celebration.  The two share a crucial attribute: they’re not defensive; they assume legitimacy.

Accusing someone of humorlessness is a standard bludgeon used by knuckle-draggers of all persuasions.  “Can’t you take a joke?” is the constant taunt to outsiders grudgingly allowed into previously exclusionary clubs.  In all fairness, much humor relies on Us-versus-Them distinctions.  What’s amazing, though, is how fast bullies crawl off (bawling “You’re mean to me!”) when you turn humor against them.  There’s a reason why satirists and cartoonists are among the first to be arrested in dictatorships.  Of course, this tactic can get you badly hurt or killed.  Men in particular grow furious when women laugh at them.

I once was at another party where the guests were finance professionals.  The host held forth about the deep wisdom of polygamy: it’s nature’s way, our ape cousins have harems (obviously he knew zilch about either bonobos or chimpanzees) and as a dominant male himself, etc.  The other women guests were fuming, but too polite to contradict him.  Finally, I smiled at him sweetly and said, “I agree with you.”  Into the dead silence that ensued, I dropped, “Personally, I could handle at least three husbands.”  The women burst out laughing.  Several of the men spent the rest of the evening huddled in the kitchen, muttering darkly into their drinks.

The other way to short circuit reactionaries is to celebrate.  When some dim bulb bleats “Diversity brings down quality,” my reflex reaction is to verbally rip them to shreds.  However, a far more satisfying response is to issue invitations to a feast and call the endless rosters of Others who excel in a specific domain or task.  Women don’t write space operas?  Andre Norton, Ursula Le Guin, Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.), Joanna Russ, Joan Vinge, C. J. Cherryh, C. S. Friedman, Joan Slonczewski, Octavia Butler, Melissa Scott, Laura Mixon, Sydney van Scyoc, Kristin Landon, Elizabeth Bear, Gwyneth Jones, Liz Williams… without pausing to think and listing just those whose works I’ve read.

Celebration serves a dual purpose.  Not only does it lift the morale of those who stand arrayed against oblivious idiocy; it also prevents (ab)use of the “tone” argument.  Celebration recognizes past achievements and encourages forging ahead, rather than stooping to pick up every piece of broken furniture flung in our path.  Let god-wannabes stew in their own toxic wastes.  We have worlds to build and sustain.

Here’s the small personal roster of worlds I’m part of and want to celebrate as loudly as possible: my modest contribution to alternative splicing regulation and dementia research; Crossed Genres, Science in My Fiction, Stone Telling; my slowly emerging fictional universe, and the artists who depicted it so beautifully: Heather D. Oliver, Kathryn Bragg-Stella; and this site, now starting its fourth year, whose blog portion consistently hovers at high positions in Technorati rankings.

“Well we made a promise we swore we’d always remember,
No retreat, baby, no surrender.
Like soldiers in the winter’s night with a vow to defend,
No retreat, baby, no surrender.”

Bruce Springsteen, No Surrender

Images: 1st, Pict warrior Guinevere (Keira Knightley) in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur; 2nd, andártissa (resistance fighter) in WWII Greece (national historical archives); 3rd, Haldír of Lórien (Craig Parker) in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

Stone Telling Issue 2: Generations

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Stone Telling Issue 2 went live this morning. As I said in an earlier entry, this magazine is the brain- and heart-child of Rose Lemberg who wished to elicit and showcase poetry that crosses boundaries. I’m triply represented in the latest issue by a poem, an essay and participation to the contributor round-table.

The focus of issue 2 is the chains that sustain us even as they bind us.  My dear friend Francesca Forrest has a deeply affecting poem in it, The Old Clothes Golem, amid a dozen equally stunning others.

I originally wrote my poem, Mid-Journey, in Greek. It is about feral loners like me who walk between worlds. The Greek text is there alongside my English translation, and there is also an mp3 file of me reciting it in the original.

My essay is about Sapfó, the Tenth Muse, the Blackbird of Lésvos. She has been different things to different people, so I thought I’d write about who she really was — and why she deserves her immortality.

Footprints on Two Shores

Monday, December 13th, 2010

A lengthy quote from my article The Agency That Cried “Awesome!” appeared in today’s Guardian on a page that tracks the NASA debacle.  Another chunk appeared on Futurismic (thank you, Mr. Raven!).  The post itself showed up on the front page of The Huffington Post.

Also, L. Timmel Duchamp, author of the Marq’ssan Cycle and founder of Aqueduct Press, invited me to the year’s-end roundup she hosts at her blog, Ambling Along the Aqueduct. My list of books, albums and films, with commentary, appeared today.

Image: Cool Cat, Ali Spagnola

Harry Potter and the Two-Part Blog Post, Pt 2: the Films

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

by Calvin Johnson (and a coda by Athena)

Previously: the books.

Translating a well-loved book into a movie is a tricky business. Translating a series of books into a series of movies is even harder.

Peter Jackson did it brilliantly for The Lord of the Rings, through a combination of breathtaking New Zealand landscapes, well-crafted digital special effects, and above all, allowing his actors to act.

Other series were not so lucky. The movie versions of both Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (drawn from three out of thirteen books) and Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass were badly received, especially at the box office, making sequels unlikely. And the Narnia movies are struggling despite a ready-made fan base.

The Harry Potter films, on the other hand, have been a phenomenal success. Last week I wrote about the book series; now, with the release of the penultimate movie, I’ll delve into Harry’s cinematic career.

How and why a movie succeeds or fails is a mystery. Often it’s a matter of a poor match to the strength of cinema, telling a story in images. The Lemony Snicket books were too metafictional to translate well to the big screen. The Narnia books, while bedecked with fantasy flourishes, are primarily about small, personal moral quandries, not a topic that leads to blockbuster multi-repeat viewings (I prefer the BBC Narnia series, with cheesy special effects but a tighter focus on the stories).

Rowling’s books, in contrast, were made for cinema, a criticism in fact leveled at her writing. Although she has her philosophy – that categorizing people by the circumstances of blood and birth is the root of evil – and although Harry has his internal debates, the conflicts in the novels are primarily visual: dramatic revelations, spectacular duels between wizards.

The first two movies were respectful to the point of being stiff. This is unsurprising, as they were directed by Chris Columbus, a protege of Steven Spielberg who learned Spielberg’s maudlin tendencies but none of his visual genius. The series got a real boost in the middle two movies, especially Alfonso Cuarón’s lyrical Prisoner of Azkaban. Leaping up from the best book in the series, Cuarón’s visual inventiveness matched the eccentricities of the Potterverse. Mike Newell managed to keep the spark alive for the magical tournament in The Goblet of Fire.

Alas, the flame guttered low in the remainder of the movies, directed by David Yates. Both The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince were grim, bloated, and not infrequently tedious books, and while Yates hacked out some of the extraneous material, what remained were grim, rushed, and above all obligatory summaries of the books. The Deathly Hallows is famously being broken into two films so it feels less rushed, but viewing Part I felt less like joy and more like an assignment.

Any story, be it book or movie, can be thought of as a tent, much like the wedding tent magically raised early on in The Deathly Hallows: Part I; the structure hangs supported from two or three poles. The problem with The Deathly Hallows is that there are far too many tentpoles and the movie must visit most of them. The flight of the Harry Potters. Dumbledore’s will. Bill and Fleur’s wedding. The escape and fight in the heart of London. Harry’s inherited house. Harry’s birthplace. Luna Lovegood’s home. The House of Malfoy. In between we camp in the wilderness. The book felt lost at this point, as if Rowling knew where she wanted to go but had no idea how to get there, and the feeling is reproduced all too accurately in the movie.

Indeed, although Yates is deft and visually more nimble than Columbus, the movie follows the book a little too faithfully. Part of the challenge of making a movie from a well-loved book is to both keep the uninitiated on board and to make those who have loved the book to tatters see it anew. Peter Jackson succeeded in The Lord of the Rings, allowing us to feel the burdens that Aragorn and Gandalf carry, helping us to see the tides of war rise and ebb in the chaos of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

Unfortunately, having to cover so much Yates can add little insight. The most moving scenes are the very beginning and the very end of Part I, as our no-longer-so-young protagonists suffer painful losses in their war against Voldemort.

So why have the Harry Potter movies succeeded? Again, there can be no simple answer, but the producers did have an advantage. For all her flaws, Rowling always understood the series to be Harry’s story, and she resisted having a plethora of viewpoint characters.

The trend in doorstopper fantasy and science fiction novels to have a large number of viewpoint characters is one I have come to loathe, because it makes it harder to emotionally engage with any of the characters. Peter Jackson (last time, I promise) succeeded with The Lord of the Rings because the first movie focused on Frodo’s journey.

By contrast, A Series of Unfortunate Events was more obsessed with Jim Carrey’s Count Olaf and his big eyebrows, and less with the hapless Baudelaire orphans. The Golden Compass would seem to have all the right elements for success: big name stars, dazzling visuals. But one of the joys of the novel is the rebellious, tart-tongued heroine Lyra; onscreen she got lost among the special effects, leaving a leaden, rudderless movie.

Harry Potter was different. J. K. Rowling, the screenwriter Steve Kloves, and the producers and the directors have none of them forgotten that the books and movies are all titled Harry Potter and the Something Something. With tiny exceptions, every frame of the movies is about Harry, and we see the other characters primarily through his eyes. So although the narratives have far too many plot tentpoles, there is one and only one character tentpole. Thus in retrospect having a pedestrian director for the first two movies may have been a wise move. Without this focus I don’t think the audience for the books or the movies would have been nearly as engaged.

Books and movies can both be magical, transcendent experiences that take us into new worlds, showing us new windows even on subjects we think we know intimately. If the Harry Potter films have not quite risen to that level, their popularity show a hunger for magic in our lives. And somewhere out there someone is writing or filming the next magical experience–not perfect, but a story that puts a wire to our hearts, a spark to our imaginations.

Athena’s coda: I haven’t read the Potter books, but I’ve seen all the films except for The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince. I greatly enjoyed the occasional inventive visual: the Lewis chess set brought to life-sized life in The Philosopher’s Stone; the hippogriff making itself comfortable, housecat-like, in The Prisoner of Azkaban; the final exit of the two guest schools’ conveyances in The Goblet of Fire. And I found some of the characters interesting: Snape, McGonagall, Lupin, Black (Dumbledore, not so much – enough lovably irascible father figures already).

However, my overall sense is of fatigued déjà vu, of bloated, plodding spectacles. The borrowings from the Arthurian cycle, the Brontë sisters, Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin’s Earthsea and the X-Men are obvious — and like a stew with clashing and stale ingredients, they leave me with a sour mind.

Having a single character peg may cover many sins but it uncovers others – especially because Harry’s character is tapioca-bland in the films. For one, it accentuates the fact that despite the sermons about loving everyone regardless of their “race”, this is a hierarchical universe where magic ability is genetically inherited, automatically creating castes (just like the infamous Star Wars midichlorians). Hell, Hagrid practically tugs his forelock. Even within the ranks of magic wielders, some lives are worth more than others: by the end, Harry has a long tally of sacrificed pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, queens… Even Neo’s body count was less in The Matrix trilogy.

For another, a Messianic avenger needs a worthy antagonist and, as Calvin mentioned in Part 1, Voldemort is a moldy caricature — not even a Sauron, let alone a Lucifer. Come to think of it, he looks like Gollum’s brother. Just as you wonder why the hordes of Janissary Pretorians… er, Jedi, cannot handle two Sith in Star Wars, so you wonder why the formidable lineup of white-hat wizards in the Potterverse cannot overcome that whiny slitherer.

Just as crucially, a hero needs a partner of equal stature. In the films, at least, it’s blindingly obvious that Harry’s true soulmate is Hermione (highlighted by the total lack of chemistry between the Hermione/Ron and Harry/Ginny dyads), just as in the X-Men films Wolverine’s true partner is Rogue. I can see Ron getting a consolation prize – but what does Hermione get, who is as good as Harry yet not the Chosen One because of the incorrect location of her body bulges and wrong family pedigree? I predict at least one divorce in the future Potterverse, when she gets tired of washing everyone’s socks. But that is another country.

Finally, the magic in Harry Potter is arbitrary, slaved to the plot twists. This makes it as interesting and attractive as an engine that keeps sputtering out at random moments. People hungering for magic deserve better than regurgitated, least-common-denominator myths.

Images: 1st, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in that unexpected triumph, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings; 2nd, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) trying to protect his charges from more plodding Potter films; 3rd, pieces from the Lewis chess set (walrus ivory, 12th century); 4th, a far more effective guise for Ralph Fiennes to play an evil or ambiguous antagonist (here shown as Heathcliff in an adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights).

Harry Potter and the Two-Part Blog Post, Pt 1: the Books

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

by Calvin W. Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Battlestar Galactica and Caprica.

(Warning: there be spoilers ahead!)

My wife and I came to Harry Potter in a difficult time. The details of our semi-permanent temporary limbo are unimportant but exiled to a hotel room, we began to read aloud to each other. We read Harry Potter.

Having read all of Harry Potter and several other series, I can sum up the reason for the renaissance of young adult literature in a single word: narrative. Modern and postmodern literary fiction, which Annie Dillard has termed the ‘fiction of surfaces,’ has all but abandoned narrative drive. But page-turning narrative and crisp characterization still abounds in young adult fiction.

Rowling showcases many of the virtues of YA books. She writes narratives that keep the reader wanting to know what happens next? In this she has mastered a key skill, namely creating plot twists that surprise but in retrospect make perfect sense, misdirecting the reader while dropping in hints that you only later recognize as pointing to the true solution. In The Prisoner of Azkaban she did this beautifully, allowing the reader to congratulate himself on figuring out that (spoilers) Remus Lupin was a werewolf, so much so that one completely misses that the true villain was Ron Weasley’s pet rat. And in The Deathly Hallows we finally learn the key to Snape, and why Dumbledore believed Snape had truly turned against Voldemort (that’s not a spoiler, we had to find out). In retrospect the solution appears obvious — and once she reveals it, Rowling bludgeons the reader for twenty pages where a couple of poignant paragraphs would have served — but only a few readers guessed in advance.

Rowling also writes vivid and memorable, if generally one-dimensional characters. Nothing wrong with such characters; Dickens created dozens of them. Of course, Rowling also mistakenly thinks that hiding information from the reader (example: Snape) counts for character complexity. On occasion, however, she manages to suggest true subtlety: by the end of The Deathly Hallows she convinces us that Dumbledore is loving and compassionate, and arrogant and manipulative. Real people are often both, and it is only after his (spoiler) death that he truly came to life.

Rowling also has her flaws. It’s important to keep in mind that she was almost literally the overnight success who came out of nowhere. She wasn’t the product of an MFA program, hadn’t toiled for years writing a stack of unsold novels. The former kept her free from literary pretensions but it also means her self-taught craft is full of amateur habits.

Although I do not begrudge Rowling her enormous success, I do selfishly wish the Harry Potter craze had come later. Around the time The Prisoner of Azkaban came out, the Harry Potter phenomenon exploded and simultaneously the craftsmanship of the novels plummeted.

The Prisoner of Azkaban is the best book in the series; Rowling had mastered this world, yet her plots and prose are still relatively lean. But the next books bloat grotesquely. Rowling’s gift for plotting became a curse, as her books festered with subplots and sub-sub-plots. Furthermore, the prose became systematically clunkier and cluttered with lazy punctuation.

I suspect what happened is this: in the early books Rowling’s editors helped shape the books into the brisk, enjoyable narratives they are. This is the job of an editor as few writers, particularly beginning writers, can pull off a novel that does not need judicious revision. But I suspect that as the Harry Potter books became fabulously successful, her agent and editors became reluctant to rein her in, fearful of killing the goose that laid the golden bestsellers. Oh, I’m sure they worked with her, sure that Rowling wrote and rewrote. Nonetheless, the books after Prisoner are flabby affairs that would have benefited immensely from ruthless, savage pruning.

Take, for example, The Order of the Phoenix. It has, easily, the best villain of the entire series, Dolores Umbridge. Lord Voldemort is a sniggering cartoon of evil. But Umbridge, a nanny-state bureaucrat gone bad, is the very model for Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. And the story of Harry’s resistance against Umbridge and the rise of Dumbledore’s Army is a cracking good story.

The rest of the novel, however, drowns under teenage hormones run amok and Quidditch jealousies and a completely irrelevant subplot devoted to Hagrid’s giant half-brother Grawp. You could remove Grawp from this and every subsequent novel and lose almost nothing. It’s nothing against Grawp. I like Grawp. But too many, too detailed subplots hurt the book.

On top of this, Rowling’s native prose is… well… clunky: relying far too much — far too much! — on ellipses, colons, semi-colons, dashes, and so on. This becomes stick-in-your-eye obvious when read aloud. Compare a random page from the first three novels with one from the last three; you’ll find the number of ellipses and semi-colons rises dramatically. And I’ll tell you this: adding ellipses… and semi-colons — not to mention colons and dashes — in large quantities does not improve the quality of prose. Once again, the later editing process failed both Rowling and her readers.

So why was Harry Potter so massively successful?

Part of it was, as always, timing. Audiences were tired of postmodern fictions of surfaces. She offered an engrossing plot. But in addition, the underlying themes of the novels touched readers, as they do in all the best fantasies. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is drenched in grief for a lost world. The novels of C. S. Lewis were all about how we lie to ourselves. And the Harry Potter books touched a wire to the hearts of young adults and also of us adult adults:

The loneliness of the modern world.

Harry is cast from the central cliché of young adult novels, an orphan raised by resentful, stingy relatives. But he isn’t the only loner. Hermione, isolated by her talents, her painfully sharp perception, and her muggle origins; Ron, lost in his family as a relatively talentless middle child.

This theme isn’t new at all but once you pull at this thread, you realize that nearly all of the characters are tremendously lonely: Hagrid, whose enormous heart can only find an outlet in loving killer dragons, car-sized spiders, and other monstrous creatures; Dumbledore himself, immensely talented but, we learn, always haunted by secrets in his past; Neville Longbottom, the fat, teased son of parents tortured into insanity, pecked at by his strict grandmother; weird Luna Lovegood who happily hangs out with Harry because “it’s almost like having a friend.”

Nearly everyone is an exile. Sirius Black is wrongly branded a murderer. Remus Lupin is a kind-hearted werewolf. And in the end we learn just how impossibly tormented Snape is, and why as penance he takes on the lonely life of a double spy, trusted and liked by no one.

Even the villains are cursed to loneliness. Draco Malfoy, bullied by his father, bullies others in response. Mad-eye Moody is impersonated by a Death Eater, the rejected son of an ambitious politician. And Voldemort’s quest to ‘eat Death’ itself arises out of his abandonment at an early age. Although Voldemort ends up a cartoon villain, Rowling makes his journey to the dark side more believable than did Lucas with Darth Vader.

Indeed, Rowling gets right what George Lucas got wrong. As Athena has written eloquently in her essay, We Must Love One Another or Die, the fake-Buddhist Jedi code requires renouncing emotional connection to other people. Lucas’ muddled concept led to the cinematic disasters of Star Wars: Episodes I-III. But in Harry Potter, the ones who learn to love are the ones who triumph. Harry is originally saved from Voldemort’s killing curse by the love of his mother. And it is not through spells or wands so much as Harry’s connection with Hermione, Ron, Hagrid, Ginny, and so many others, that he triumphs. His friends, in turn, grow under his wing. Witness Neville’s transformation over the course of the series from a dull joke into a sleek, bold resistance fighter.

Through Harry Potter, Rowling teaches that love is more important than credentials. While Death Eaters worship the authority of their Dark Lord and murder muggles and mudbloods, Harry easily and intuitively befriends and protects the marginalized, the Nevilles, the Lunas, the Dobbies, and is unafraid to defy the powerful Minister of Magic.

And in these days, when people denounce others as Nazis and communists and religious terrorists, when we fret over immigration and the cultural purity of nations — Rowling tries to tell us that compassion triumphs over blood, that our choices, not our origins, are what best define us; that it is love, not for those like us but for those different from us, that is the most powerful magic of all.

Next time: the movies.

Spoiler policy: I’d ask that while the first six books are open for discussion, commenters not give away major plot twists in the last book.

Images: 1st, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his familiar, Hedwig; 2nd, Professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), who would have pruned Rowling’s books vigorously; 3rd, Harry in a Sam Beckett setting and mood; 4th, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) and Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the feral loners who are nevertheless Harry’s devoted kith and kin.