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Artist, Heather Oliver             

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Bears, Wolves and Eagles

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

I recently saw two ultra-violent historical fantasies in close succession. One was The Eagle (2011) based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth. It’s generally considered a bookend to the vastly superior Centurion (2010) but the pairing is inaccurate – their sole similarity is their focus on the “vanished” Legio IX Hispana. The other was Rustam Mosafir’s Scyth (2018 – the English title is The Last Warrior), which at first glance could be thought as the mirror twin of The Eagle. But whereas The Eagle is a self-satisfied by-the-numbers bromance, Scyth hums a whisper that becomes a scream by the film’s end. To those who haven’t seen these films, keep in mind that the discussion which follows contains terminal spoilers.

On the surface, Eagle and Scyth are indeed near-identical. Both films:

  • Are awash in graphic gore and kyriarchal machismo – honor and revenge, blood oaths and ritual scarrings, alpha circling and measuring of belt lengths; there are no women characters (the protagonist’s wife in Scyth is essentially a plot lever, though he’s shown to truly love her; Eagle has thankfully decided to omit women altogether, in contrast to Centurion that showcases powerful women even as it hews to traditional good/evil dichotomies).
  • Boast stunning scenery (the Scottish Highlands for Eagle, the Crimea for Scyth) and haunting incidental music: celebrated Allan McDonald chants canntaireachd (the verbal notation for bagpipe tunes) in The Eagle, while Scyth contains a synthed-up version of “Dle Yaman” (“Plaint”), a traditional Armenian lament played on the duduk.
  • Unapologetically use multiple languages that require (horrors!) subtitles – something also utilized to tremendous effect in Brendan Muldowney’s ferocious Pilgrimage.
  • Depict liminal places and eras, though they barely feint towards historical accuracy: northern Britain just before the Roman withdrawal (a nexus that gave rise to the Arthurian mythos); the Black Sea area when the barely-christianized Varangian warrior elites were fighting the pagan Kipchaks and Cumans (aka Polovtsians) to establish the Kievan Rus’ Federation.
  • Have chosen to depict the native adversaries of the expansionist powers as mélanges of American Great Plains peoples with soupçons of classical Sparta – though there’s a fascinating wrinkle in Scyth that we’ll explore later.
  • Show loyal retainers used as pawns and scapegoats by ruthless, power-hungry liege lords (not surprisingly, the Rus’ strongman in Scyth exhibits attributes of Ivan Grozny and Stalin – and of his likely inspiration and namesake, Oleg of Novgorod).
  • Adhere to the well-worn Thor/Loki trope of the sturdy, rule-abiding mesomorph and the wily, mercurial endomorph bonding reluctantly to achieve overlapping goals despite fundamental differences and inherited enmities.

[Parenthesis 1: A major reason that keeps The Eagle from, well, soaring is that Channing Tatum – not even a wooden plank, more like termite-chewed veneer – was chosen for the anchoring mesomorph slot of Marcus Flavius Aquila, whereas Aleksei Faddeyev (Lyutabor, the Scyth counterpart) manages to look engaged and even shows flashes of sardonic wit. As is the norm, the endomorphic tricksters steal the show effortlessly. Jamie Bell (Esca, Marcus’ Briganti slave scout) is a well-known chameleon who was equally stellar as St. John Rivers in Fukunaga’s atmospheric Jane Eyre and as Peter Turner in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. The real eye-opener, however, is Aleksandr Kuznetsov as Marten of the Wolves of Perun, a quintessence of demonic charisma. You hang on his every deed and word even when he’s doing dreadful stuff, and it doesn’t hurt that his moves are closely modeled on Brad Pitt’s Achilles fight choreography in Troy (the sole inspired aspect of that film) or that he rarely raises his voice.]

So far, so standard. But Scyth, unusually for a film of its type, actually has a quasi-coherent plot – plus a few crinkles that make you wonder what a remarkable film it could have been if Mosafir had dialed back the gore and made the unique echoes more central to the tale.

A telling early sign is how the two films portray the local cultures. The Eagle is beyond perfunctory in its depiction of the Caledonian groups that Marcus and Esca encounter. The most prolonged interaction presents a Highlands society as a homogenized goo of the Clay People in Quest for Fire, the Spartans in 300 and the Iroquois in Black Robe – and totally wastes Tahar Rahim, who was a magnetic presence in Un Prophète.

In contrast, Scyth shows several distinct cultures just sufficiently to evoke a sense of the complexity of that region and era. It’s true that a pivotal scene is straight out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and Mosafir mostly opts for the smorgasbord shorthand that denotes “barbarism” in such films. Yet the artifacts and rituals do have a semblance of specificity: sinuously-shaped gold was an integral feature of Scythian metalsmithing; equally sinuous tattoos were common in many Eurasian steppe cultures (of which more anon); shamanism is shown as a matter-of-fact backdrop; and there’s a throwaway scene – you’ll miss it if you blink – in which you hear what apparently was a major dilemma for the Rus’ and Khazars when they were debating which monotheistic religion to adopt.

[Parenthesis 2: Given that religion was a major engine in the creation of the Kievan Federation, it’s odd that there are no priests in the christianized Rus’ enclave. An equally glaring omission is the total absence of Byzantium – a major power player at that time and place, the source of Kievan Christianity and the Cyrillic alphabet – and the millennia-long Crimean/Black Sea Greek presence. The sole hint of Greek connections is that the Wolves of Perun call on Ares as their patron deity (though this contradicts their moniker: Perun was the Slavic equivalent of Zeus). But the director’s names suggest that his ancestors would have deemed Byzantium and Greece perpetual adversaries. Rustam, after all, is the preeminent paladin in pre-Islamic Parthian/Iranian sagas and Mosafir is the Persian word for traveler.]

So we come to the scream that sets Scyth apart. Lyutabor eventually meets the “Scythians” who are shown as the deracinated, beleaguered remnant of a once-proud if harsh culture, its warriors (the Wolves) reduced to banditry and ransom kidnappings for survival. The real Scythians were fearsome masters of mounted warfare who established (and for a while controlled) the Silk Road and left behind kurgan burials with magnificent – as well as gruesome – offerings. Mosafir once again resorts to shorthand by using “Scythian” to denote a group that inhabits land coveted by empire-building newcomers – a story as familiar to Russia (in both its tsarist and Soviet incarnations) as to the US and the Roman, Ottoman and Inca empires. But though the band are called Scythians, the visuals tell a different story: the Wolves’ attires borrow elements from the Byzantine Akrítai and the Scythian/Sarmatian cataphracts, but the band members’ hair colors, tattoos and accoutrements identify them as Tocharians. They, too, were a power along the Silk Road, Celts who left a fascinating record of cultural dispersal in the mummies of Ürümchi and on the cave frescoes and scrolls of the Tarim Basin.

After Marten gets killed in his attempt to become the Wolves’ leader (deflating the film considerably by his departure), Lyutabor gains the position and convinces the band’s formidable Elder that they’ll be safe under his liege-lord’s protection. When he leads them to Prince Oleg in naïve good faith, the latter calmly orders them all massacred – a reenactment of Wounded Knee with hails of arrows instead of Hotchkiss machine guns. This lengthy coda is where Scyth for the first and only time shows everyday familial love (beyond Lyutabor momentarily dandling his firstborn), crowned by a felled young husband reaching for his dying wife’s hand.

One could argue that this betrayal, the final of many, is required to propel Lyutabor into the defiant act of honor that will almost certainly result in his meeting Marten soon thereafter (the Russians are as sentimental as the Americans, but prefer downbeat endings to their epics except when Teuton knights of any era are involved). Nevertheless, the Scyth coda leaves a radically different aftertaste than The Eagle, where the two buddies saunter off bantering after they’ve cleared Marcus’ family name by delivering the legion’s recovered eagle standard to his superiors. The DVD contains a less-annoying alternative ending, in which Marcus leaves the standard on the pyre of the legion deserters who had made a life among the Celts and died protecting him.

Lyutabor’s berserker rage and Marten’s balletic fighting are customary action fare, if a notch better than the usual; their reluctant alliance, though unusually nuanced, is still standard-issue male bonding. However, in that final coda Scyth departs from sword-and-sandal territory and veers into (granted, brief) social critique. With little ado, it weighs the scales against high-flown notions of honor (and certainly against empire-building, which routinely co-opts honor to serve its ends) in favor of human-scale interactions. This goes against the grain of a genre that always glorifies individual heroism, never the ceaseless weaving that creates a society’s tapestry. And that makes Scyth subversive despite itself.

Images: 1st, Aleksandr Kuznetsov as Marten; 2nd, Scythian archers, gold, from Kerch (ancient Panticapeum), Crimea, ~400 BCE; 3rd, two members of the “Scythian” band

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Procrustean Beds

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

Today fine drizzle is falling like mist (the Scots have a wonderful onomatopoetic term for this: smirr). And once again, as I contemplate one of my novels-in-progress – Shard Songs, part of which unfolds in the Bronze Age Mediterranean – I find myself thinking about specificities of culture and how languages convey nuances of their societies.

Much has been made of the first translation of the Odyssey in English by a woman. Yet what I’ve seen of Emily Wilson’s translation has left me ambivalent. I greatly appreciate the intent and am fully aware of this particular translation’s significance. Ditto for Caroline Alexander’s Iliad. But I’m not sure about the execution, which to me feels flabby and flat despite the reviewers’ enthusiasm about “uncovering hidden inequalities” (which are actually never glossed over in the original: the Odyssey is an uncomfortable read, especially for a woman).

All recent English translations of the Homeric epics I’ve seen (as far as I could tolerate reading them) diverge significantly from the original. That’s not unusual in poetry, especially between such disaparate eras and languages. Recasting an archaic poem in plain language so that it becomes as accessible to today’s audience as it was in its own era is a sound strategy; stripping it entirely of its patina (and flattening its terms and rhythms) is decidedly less optimal.

To give one example, translations of the Iliad that cast the first word as an exclamation lose me there and then. The word is a noun in accusative form, and casting it as an exclamation completely derails that crucial stanza. For poetry like this it’s important to be a scholar, but equally so to have a feel for language. Better yet to be a poet in one’s own right. I recall the gorgeous Elytis translation of Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechuan – and how abysmally disappointed I was when I later read it in the original German (maybe Shakespeare does sound better in Klingon…). Elytis, of course, was a bard whereas Brecht deliberately used flat language as a distancing effect. So here’s my rendering of the opening of the Odyssey, with the Watson and Fagles equivalents for comparison.

Of the wily man tell me, goddess, who suffered
sore trials after he sacked the holy fortress of Troy:
he saw cities of many people and learned their minds,
and his spirit got wracked on the seas, as he struggled
to save his life and bring his companions home.

Emily Wilson’s version (2018):

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home.

And Robert Fagles’ (1996):

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.

Speaking of flattening, I recently saw someone rejoicing online that “Greek culture” (which one?) “completely normalized” gay relationships. Before we hasten to celebrate this, people must realize that most of these relationships were based on steep power differentials: a) a rigid dominance binary of active/penetrator versus passive/penetrated (as is the case in several contemporary cultures, in which only the latter is considered “homosexual”); b) a significant age/experience gap (an early-middle-aged erastes & a barely pubescent eromenos – the relationship was considered a rite of passage into manhood) and c) the firm assumption that women were not full humans, and existed primarily for labor and/or procreation.

Ironically the exceptions to the last were courtesans, heavily disempowered in other ways: inter alia they were not citizens, which meant they could be deported at whim. In this connection it’s pertinent that hetairos and hetaira had such different connotations in pre-Byzantine Hellenic: the masculine form meant an equal male companion; the feminine one, a geisha-like female professional entertainer who might get to wield significant – but always covert – power (Aspasia, Pericles’ celebrated companion, is the best-known example). James Davidson makes an additional point in his lucid, enlightening Courtesans and Fishcakes: the dominant partner was not interested in his companion’s pleasure. Sex was considered akin to eating; whether the food or the sexual vessel enjoyed the process was irrelevant.

Of course, there were (quasi-)equal gay relationships in classic-era Hellas: the Theban Hierós Lóchos, whose fierce warriors were pair-bonded lovers (though the pairs still adhered to the erastes/eromenos binary); Alexander and Hephaestion, though the descriptions (including the quips about Hephaestion’s triumphant thighs) make clear who held the upper hand – and, very oddly for one of his upbringing and milieu, Alexander’s marriage to Roxana was widely held to be the “lightning strike” kind of love-falling, especially as it conferred absolutely no political advantage; several of Sappho’s named flames – though her (male) peers granted her the dubious privilege that, as a woman, she could allow passion to overwhelm her.

This brings us to another cultural difference: it’s fairly well-known that, unlike English, classical Hellenic had several terms for “love” each with a significantly different connotation that persists, with some drift, in today’s spoken Greek. “Agape” was the dutiful feeling between parents and children, or the love reserved for abstractions; “philia” was devoted friendship between equals; and then there was “eros” – consuming passion. This the Greeks considered an all-powerful madness that could unhinge a orderly, well-regulated life. It’s oddly fitting that a powerful paean to eros (or is it an apotropaic exorcism?) occurs in Sophocles’ Antigone, a work that parses clashing perceptions of duty and love. Some argue that romantic love as we now think of it was forged by the troubadours of Eleanor’s Aquitanian court.

In fewer words: I think there was love of all kinds in all eras and cultures, but specificities do exist. Don’t squeeze behaviors of other times and places in Procrustean beds to force-fit them into today’s culture wars. Ok, back to watching my foxglove bathing contentedly in the smirr.

 

Related articles:

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Hidden Histories (the Akritiká folksongs)

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

Images: top, part of Alan Lee’s cover for The Wanderings of Odysseus by Rosemary Sutcliff; bottom, Iríni Pappá (Antigone) and Máro Kontoú (Ismene) in Antigone (1961 film version of the Sophocles play)

The Storytelling of Science

Wednesday, April 4th, 2018

“Who says that fictions only and false hair // Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?” — Jordan I, George Herbert

To Shape the Dark, SF antho about women scientists (cover: Eleni Tsami)

——

A little while ago, my friend Anil Menon commented on a Shashi Tharoor essay that discussed science versus religion. Among other interesting remarks, Anil made a statement that gave me significant pause: “Tharoor makes the mistake of posing religion as the great enemy of science. It isn’t. The great enemy of Science is Story. // When science marches in, stories march out. When fiction marches in, facts march out. When the enlightenment marches in, the enchantment marches out.”

I suspect that much of Anil’s argument hinges on the definition — is there a definitive one? — of story. The term story, of course, is derived from history. That, in its turn, is the latinized version of the hellenic istoría, which means both story and history (the hellenic word for fictional history, i. e. story, is mythistórema, which makes the fictional component explicit). Many definitions of story emphasize the fictional part. However, there’s one major definition that gives a wider, and in my view more accurate, interpretation: “A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader.”

Science, especially primary research, is a fascinating hybrid. At its best, it combines lucid dreaming (what I call “shaping the dark”), informed intuition honed by knowledge of previous iterations, the ability to recognize patterns, the strength to let go of a beloved notion if results disprove it, and the discipline to concurrently keep track of details and the big picture. One of science’s core kernels is how hypotheses are tested. [Parenthetical clarification: in scientific terminology, which in this instance differs from its lay equivalent, a theory is not hypothetical; hence, to give one example still pertinent in US politics and education, “the theory of evolution” is not up for validity debates, except in its finer points.]

But back to hypotheses — and vocations. People become scientists because they want to tell stories, preferably exciting, original ones; and once trained in their discipline they weave stories without cease — stories that attempt to explain how the universe and its inhabitants are made (they also explain why, unless someone insists on intelligent design or intent). Before the stories go into the testing crucible, they’re called hypotheses. Observations or measurements are done in the framework of a story at its hypothesis stage. If a story jibes with reality, it gets renamed to theory. To put it succinctly, science cannot be practiced without stories, without the call and response between story and world. The stories dictate what experiments/observations get done; the stories, to some extent, dictate what conclusions are drawn (and thereby can bias the venture, as all powerful stories do).

There are two differences between the stories of science and the stories of religion or folklore. One is that science stories constantly change as new facts come in (they share this plasticity with the protean retellings of folk tales, though not with religion stories which tend to petrify as dogma at some point during their development). The other is that science stories do try to hew to the truth(s) of the world, as much as bounded senses and instruments can achieve such a feat.

There are other important aspects of science related to story. One is aesthetics – making the story eloquent, incorporating once disparate elements into a coherent, compelling whole. The grand unified theory of forces, the periodic table, the genetic code, the expanding universe. These are all potent stories, even more so for being true. A related aspect is pride of craft – designing elegant experiments to shape and test these stories.

So far I’ve addressed science versus story. Now we come to enlightenment versus enchantment. Scientists are often accused of “making things dull” or “draining them of mystery” by explaining them. But, to my mind, such explanations trail immense, awesome beauty in their wakes. What is more evocative: stars as metal studs on a glass dome, or fiery engines that create elements which have made all lifeforms possible? Swallows hibernating under lake ice, or flying enormous distances guided by brain maps? Wherever scientists look, they always find beauty: the directing dances of honeybees; the vivid colors of transition element compounds, including the iron that turns our blood crimson; the intricate ideograms of equations and their descriptions of shapes found in galaxies, seashells, flower centers.

Scientific understanding does not strip away the mystery and grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more and more of them appear and come into focus. In the end these glimpses of the whole, not fame or riches, are the real reason why the scientists never go into the suspended animation cocoons but stay at the starship observation posts of humanity’s starship, watching the great galaxy wheels slowly turn, the stars ignite and darken.

The hellenic word for “awe” is dhéos; its linguistic kinship to theos/deus/Zeus is obvious. Science fully retains one aspect of awe: the sense of wonder, of ever-changing stories with ever more stories to come, many far stranger than even the wildest fiction can invent. What science strips from awe is fear. Science tells us that the sun will rise tomorrow (for the next few billion years – after which it will evolve into a red giant and, Cronus-like, engulf the inner planets). We don’t need to rip war captives’ hearts out to ensure sunrise, nor do we need to burn humans and animals in wicker cages to ensure the return of spring. Science is like the sea:

“There is the sea, and who will drain it dry?
Precious as silver, inexhaustible, ever new,
It blooms the more we reap it. Our lives are based
On wealth untold; fortune has seen to that.”

— Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon

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Anything for a Son

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Where are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

 

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

 

Music: Henellas, Maniot pirate song

The Poison Tree

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In-Depth Review of Pilgrimage at Paste Magazine 

Related Essays

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization

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

The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art

Ashes from Burning Libraries

A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Free Speech: Bravehearts and Scumbags

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

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

Byzantium in Speculative Fiction

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

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

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

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

Relevant related posts:

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

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Caesars and Caesar Salads

Yes, Virginia, Romioí are Eastern European

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

Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

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

The Bard-Priest: Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016

Friday, November 11th, 2016

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

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

— Cohen, “Priests”

leonard-cohen

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

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

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

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

She Who Shapes

Friday, March 18th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

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

Related articles:

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

Drums in the Deep: A Ninth Planet?

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

planets-w-belts

[Click images to embiggen]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orbits Planet X

Primary sources

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

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

Related article

Starry, Starry Night

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

Destination, not Destiny: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora

Saturday, October 17th, 2015

by C. W. Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Interstellar, and the works of Hanya Yanagihara, Ken Liu and Liu Cixin.

2-torus starshipScience fiction is full of ideas. But the ideas in science fiction seldom have the depth and rigor of ideas in science, or in philosophy, or politics and ethics. The reason I say this is: in fiction, the game is rigged. The debates are one-sided. The author gets the first, middle, and last word.

This is not to say that the ideas in science fiction cannot capture the imagination. Indeed many classic SF stories that have inspired careers or even presaged the future. But not all have. The ideas in SF are not fully developed theories or philosophies, but more like Edison’s famous ten thousand attempts at making electric light: we remember the one that worked and forget, mostly, the ten thousand that didn’t.

But the ones that work, either through vivid imagery or asking difficult questions or getting lucky and “predicting” the future, stay with us. Once in a great while, there is even a story that causes me to rethink my opposition to describing science fiction as a “literature of ideas.”

Such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, Aurora.

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Let me explore the concept of fiction as being rigged. Science fiction typically assumes some future technology, whether it be interstellar travel or time travel or life extension, is possible. It is only after such an assumption that we arrive at the “idea” in science fiction: a fable about unintended consequences–step on a butterfly in the Cretaceous, change all of history–or to ask, a la James Blish, Who does this hurt?

But these moral fables–for that is what they really are–gloss over the assumption of a technology. Many enthusiasts believe in a kind of technological manifest destiny: we can achieve any technology, if only we are smart enough, or put enough effort into it, or let market forces achieve it.

In support of such a view the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Project, and Moore’s Law are often cited. Such citations often ignore the fact that those successes were a matter of scaling known engineering. The basic physics of fission reactions, of space flight, and of transistors were known long before those projects and observations began.

Here’s the problem: one should not conclude, by way of analogy, that any technological goal can be achieved by sheer perspiration. The easiest and most obvious example is in human health. By a wide margin, the most crucial leaps to better health have been good sewage management and vaccines, followed by antibiotics. But after that it becomes much harder. If market forces alone were enough, we would have conquered cancer long ago, but while some cancers are curable, many others we can at best slow down. (This, of course, is because “cancer” does not have a single etiology.) There are start-up firms devoted to engineered immortality, but none have added a single day to human life spans.

In short, just because you can imagine it doesn’t mean it is actually possible. I’m still surprised how resistant people are to this basic principle.

#

Of course, interstellar flight might seem like a straightforward if ambitious scaling-up of the Apollo program. But Tau Ceti, one of the closest singlet G-class stars (i.e., like our sun), known to have at least five planets, is almost 100 billion times farther away than our moon. That’s a lot of scaling; by comparison, Moore’s law from 1971 to today has seen a mere one million times increase in the number of transistors on a chip.

And Moore’s law has a cost. As transistors shrink, the chip foundries become increasingly complex, costing over US$1 billion to build, and using prodigious amounts of caustic chemicals. The market pressures so far have masked these costs, but even so the market for personal computers has saturated and it is the market for phones which has largely driven further developments. But now with billions of phones across the globe that market too is becoming saturated. We’ll see replacements, of course, but that is linear; the pressure for geometric growth described for Moore’s law is diminishing.

And in a way, this is the story that Robinson tells in Aurora.

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tau-ceti
[Click twice to see full-size image]

Some minor spoilers ahead; I’ll keep them to a minimum, but I will outline some key plot points. If you want me to cut to the chase, it’s this: in my opinion, Aurora is the best hard science fiction novel since Benford’s Timescape, and Robinson achieves this by blowing up the usual assumptions, and jumping up and down on them until they are ground into tiny bits.

Aurora is about interstellar travel. A ship, one of many, is sent at one-tenth of the speed of light to Tau Ceti. This journey takes almost two centuries, and so generations are born, live, and die aboard the ship.

In Robinson’s novel, interstellar travel is possible, but costly. First and foremost, keeping a closed ecosystem running is not easy. Robinson has hinted at these concerns in previous novels, in Icehenge and his Mars trilogy, and here he spells them out in detail, thinking out how a generation ship would work (and not work) to a degree not achieved before. The specific biochemistry is a little beyond me, but he is married to an environmental chemist and, most importantly, the principle is sound. Managing trace elements such as bromine isn’t easy: too little can have dire consequences, but too much and you have toxic effects. The designers of the starship had to try to predict how the ecosystem would behave over centuries. Robinson assumes the designers did a pretty good job, but even in a pretty good job a few miscalculations or oversights can grow over time.

Just as big a source of problems as technology is politics. Robinson’s politics lean to the communitarian and the ship’s governance reflects this, but he recognizes that every polity can fracture and every system of governances privileges some over others. In this he echoes LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, a novel I first read many years ago in a class Robinson taught at UC Davis, and which is also set in the Tau Ceti system. And as in Robinson’s Mars trilogy, when society is stressed, some people respond badly, even violently.

The politics back home, i.e., on Earth, also shifts. People lose interest in interstellar travel, which soaks up enormous resources, leaving the crew of the ship to their own devices when things go awry.

Most SF novels assume that Things Work Out in the end. A crisis convenient for a thrilling plot pops up, but Our Heroes/ines figure out it in the nick of time, and humans triumph over the odds. This future version of Manifest Destiny has been here since the pulps and never really gone away.

Robinson attacks this idea, in detail and in depth. The technology goes wrong, and there is no magical fix, and people die. (Not always; there are some spectacular saves.) The politics goes really wrong, and more people die.

Moreover, Robinson suggests that Manifest Destiny breaks apart upon the rocks of the Fermi paradox, i.e., if there is intelligent life out there, why haven’t we heard from it? Recently I wrote of the Chinese author Cixin Liu’s solution to the Fermi paradox, a dark and paranoid vision.

Robinson’s solution to the Fermi paradox is more measured and frankly more believeable than Liu’s. In most science fiction novels people on alien worlds can easily breathe the air and eat the native organisms with no ill effect. This has always bothered me, because, for example, humans actually can only tolerate a fairly narrow range of atmospheric mixtures; and as for food, we’ve had to co-evolve to digest plant and animal tissues.

Robinson suggests that most planets are either sterile, and would require centuries or millenia of terraforming–in stark contrast to the decades he unrealistically postulated in his Mars trilogy– or the established life would be so biochemically hostile at a fundamental level that humans could not survive. The latter is of course speculative, but speculation is the game in science fiction.

The universe is full of life in Robinson’s vision, only that life is each trapped on its planet of origin. We can’t conquer distant stars; the costs are too great.

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Aurora is not a perfect novel. Like most hard SF novels, it is plot and exposition heavy. Only three characters are fully realized, and one of those is the ship’s artificial intelligence. The bulk of the prose is plain and to-the-point, which Robinson cleverly covers by having the ship itself be the narrator. Only in the opening and closing sections, not narrated by the ship, does the prose sing and does Robinson use his literary skills fully.

But few novels in my reading have examined the technology and the difficulties therein in as much detail, acknowledging that science and people are always flawed and limited. I seldom say this, but Robinson’s novel is truly an “instant classic” of SF, and the hardest of hard SF at that. The year 2015 isn’t over, but Aurora should be a shoo-in for major award nominations. Not only that, it should win.

KSR

Related Articles:

Making Aliens (six part series, starts here)

Once Again with Feeling: The Planets of Gliese 581

The Death Rattle of the Space Shuttle

If They Come, It Might Get Built

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Damp Squibs: Non-news in Space Exploration

Images: 1st, a two-torus starship like Aurora; 2nd, the Tau Ceti system; 3rd, Kim Stanley Robinson

Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

“They’re mine, there, them.”
– Lazarus Tonnerre in Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners

DF Echoes
[Click on both post images to see them full size]

It’s not an unalloyed good to come from a culture so old and layered that I find resonances everywhere – especially when they surface in works I consider deeply flawed, as I do for Tolkien’s oeuvre (and half of Jackson’s Tolkien-linked one).

It’s no secret that Tolkien was enamored of Elves but not particularly interested in Dwarves. Their development as a people in his overall work and as individuals in The Hobbit has the quality of a paper napkin. He made them literally children of a lesser god; denied them an afterlife, eventually granting them a heaven separate from the rest; drew them perilously close to ethnic caricatures; barred the rare love liaison with other Middle Earth races that was so au fait for Beren and Aragorn and so crucial for the victories over Melkor and Sauron; and sidelined their language while creating several for Elves and Men.

So when Peter Jackson decided to turn The Hobbit (TH) into an opus as epic as The Lord of the Rings (LotR) and focus as much on Thorin as on Bilbo, the gaps were enormous. Jackson’s presentation of the Khazâd is the major (though not the only) reason that his TH is best viewed as alt-universe fanfic, even if he forced its ending back into canon to dovetail with what he had already shown in LotR. As is frequently the case with exuberant composers when they’re given a weak libretto, Jackson stumbled into overpadding and nonsensical plot twists. His TH is so vastly inferior to his sweeping, immersive LotR that it looks like the work of a different person. Yet his visualization of Thorin and his people plucked a strong chord within me despite the buffoonish attributes shoehorned into their depiction.

I worried at this lapse in my taste as if it were a sore tooth and eventually touched the atavistic nerve: faithful to Tolkien’s sketchy instructions, Jackson did portray the Dwarves as broad-stroke Jews but they could just as easily pass for Éllines, aka Greeks. The appearance of the Dwarven royal trio owes a lot to Assyrian and Persian friezes. Thorin looks like a Maccabee or Sephardi malik in fully potent middle age and his madness is like that of Saul, not Lear (it helps that Richard Armitage was entering his forties when Jackson started filming TH; I wonder what Oded Fehr or Ghassan Massoud would have done with the role). But Thorin also looks and acts like the Akrítai who safeguarded the borderlands of the Byzantine Empire, or the outlaw chieftains who fought for independence against the Ottoman Turks. I know this archetype intimately from the stories and songs of my people, from Trapani to Trebizond.

I’ve had similar pings from other imperfect, unlikely works. When Schwarzenegger takes the sword from the hands of the crowned skeleton in Conan the Barbarian, its subsequent crumbling into dust always makes me recall, with a frisson, that the same thing happened to the gold-masked skeleton Schliemann found in the tombs at Mycenae. Likewise, Thorin’s hair trailing while he’s in the eagle’s claws reminds me of Éctor’s black mane unfurling behind Ahilléus’ chariot. And of course the flying braids of Thorin and his sistersons make me think of the Minoans, the lodestars whose variants haunt my own fiction.

But it goes beyond brooding and braids. Nestor-like Balin points out to Thorin that the Khazâd are not primarily warriors but merchants, miners, metalsmiths. They’re decidedly not ethereal: their hands are calloused from work, and once they drop their guard they can get rambunctious or “melodramatic” (by Anglo or Elven standards). Yet earthy as they are, they love beauty even if their taste runs to art deco instead of the Elves’ art nouveau.

The Greek diaspora, as old as the polity from which it sprang, has been a necessity dictated by the local physical and (geo)political environment. Like the Jews, the Greeks stood out wherever they went which made them easy targets for displaced anger. They, too, were mostly merchants, artisans, wrights, dragomans, mid-level functionaries. Their host cultures gawked and laughed at their occasional bursts of flamboyance, many of which are now staged as tourist spectacles. Nor were they spared abuse and slaughter in either Muslim or Christian territories: their Christianity (as much a cultural as a religious signifier) was the “wrong” kind. Later, so was their vigorous resistance to Ottoman and Nazi occupation. As a result, they became clannish, secretive, cunning – the common survival tactics of the downtrodden and deracinated – though like the Khazâd they let trusted outsiders into their hearths and hearts.

Then there’s the language. Tolkien repeatedly mentioned in the books and his letters how ugly Khuzdul was, how disjunct from the languages of all other “good” folk in Middle Earth. He cared so little about it that he only bothered with a few place names and a single title (“Balin Fundinul Uzbad Khazad-dûmu”). The language had to be retro-created for TH; even then we only hear insults and battle cries in it, except for Kíli’s yearning “Amrâl imê…” to Tauriel (“My love”, which he mouths silently again when he’s dying; Aidan Turner transplanted the phrase and tone to his Ross Poldark incarnation with devastating effect).

Hellenic is an Indoeuropean isolate, and those who can speak it are few and getting fewer. I’ve had people tell me it sounds harsh, just as Khuzdul was said to hurt the Elves’ delicate ears. For the Greek diaspora communities, it’s fast becoming a legacy fossil they can only learn in special schools – just like Hebrew for non-Israeli Jews, and Khuzdul as posited by Tolkien.

The Elves are a spent force in LotR; their presence is drenched in loss and longing, a late fall twilight afterglow. But at least they have their dazzling pinnacle in The Silmarillion and they’re still pivotal in LotR (especially in Jackson’s non-canonical yet dead-on decision to have them participate in the battle of Helm’s Deep). Tolkien never gives the Dwarves their moment in the limelight. They’re afterthoughts, sidebars viewed with equal parts grudging respect and condescension. By giving them vivid if flawed primacy, Jackson brought that point to the fore.

I was captivated by the strong Celtic tinge of Tolkien’s and Jackson’s Elves, by their love of starlight and the sea so close to my own core yearnings. I like the fierce geasa-driven Elves of The Silmarillion more than the cool, gliding apparitions in LotR, because their imperfections make them reachable. But Thorin’s people, as portrayed by Jackson, are my kin – my ghénos, my mishpocheh. I’d be fighting hammer and tongs with such a man within hours. And yet I’ve been biologically and culturally wired to keep a place in my heart for these dark, hairy, stocky, gruff men with their unshakable loyalties and touchy pride, their love of gaudy jewelry and the works of hands, their boisterous revels and minor-key songs, their penchant for bravado and doomed stands, fusions of Odhysséus and Dhighenís.

DF Hugs New

Major relevant historical work:

Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950

Related Essays:

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!
The Multi-Chambered Nautilus
Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
Hagiography in the SFX Age
Hidden Histories or: Yes, Virginia, Romioi Are Eastern European
Authentic Ethnics
If I Forget Thee, O My Grandmother’s Lost Home

Images: 1st, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and two Greek fighters for independence against the Ottoman Turks; top, Athanássios Dhiákos (by Dhionnísios Tsókos); bottom, Vassílis Ghoúdhas (by Louis Dupré); 2nd, Mediterranean-type physical affection: Thorin embraces Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his younger sisterson, Kíli (Aidan Turner).

False Dilemmas by Wannabe(e) Trendsetters

Monday, September 28th, 2015

Note: I posted a shorter version of this note on Facebook. As my account there is friends-locked to avoid random trolling, I reproduce an expanded version here. I waited for a few days, hoping the note would become irrelevant but my cautious optimism was obviously misplaced. As is always the case with such postings, comments are disabled.

———-

Lampoon DogPeople know my views on representation in life, science and art. Theoretically, the announcement of the steampunk anthology The SEA is Ours (guided by editors Goh and Chng under the auspices of Rosarium Press) would have been cause for celebration and a welcome showcasing of new and neglected talents not gleaned from the default SFF demographic.

However, the editors and publisher of the SEA anthology chose to prominently highlight a known (and still fully active) predator in the SFF community in their just-launched Indiegogo campaign. We are not talking of fandom personality clashes but of long-term, systematic sabotaging of professional reputations and careers by threat and manipulation, as presented in the Mixon report that went on to win a much-deserved Hugo.

The fact that this person targeted a disproportionate ratio of writers from the SEA (Southeast Asia) contingent of the genre makes the highlighting a particularly tone-deaf decision, no matter how many token boxes she tries to tick. Additionally, “quality” is not only subjective but also a fig leaf in view of the many non-Anglo people in SFF who deserve recognition. Lest anyone think I’m singling out Rosarium, very similar tactics and arguments on behalf of this predator have been used by publishers/editors of several quasi-prominent SFF venues, including Clarkesworld, Prime Books and Mythic Delirium.

The SEA anthology editors decided to test complex loyalties and ethical/professional stands by blindsiding everyone involved in the project – and then daring potential critics to object on pain of being labeled all kinds of -ist. Yet the ball is squarely in their court; not in that of allies to a deserving cause who are being essentially coerced into making no-win Sophie’s choices, or of writers and illustrators who stand to become collateral damage to their editors’ desire to appear edgy. The suggestion that discussion of the issue harms diversity, etc, is a tactic for displacing responsibility (and a well-known one, courtesy of the justly famous/notorious National Lampoon cover shown here).

And as the saying goes, that’s why we can’t have nice things like true polyphony and basic professional standards in SFF.

Image: The National Lampoon cover for January 1973, vol. 1, issue 13 (photographer, Ronald Harris; editor, Michael Gross).

Related posts:

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Wrecker

How Many Swallows Bring Real Spring?

Ayn Rand: Dreams that Become Dungeons

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” — John Rogers, Ephemera 2009

Ayn Rand, Cornell Cappa

From time to time items appear in news or social media that remind me I’ve long wanted to discuss Ayn Rand. The latest is the Sad Puppies’ Hugo awards campaign, whose leaders announced that next time the charge of the Lightweight Brigade will be led by women who are not like the rest of us unworthy hysterics. Prominent among the vessels chosen to carry the yellowish fluid of “pure” SF is one who parrots Ayn Rand. In this era of voided social contracts and vanishing safety nets, several of the current Republican presidential candidates name themselves Rand adherents – except that the coin she minted has proved counterfeit not only for societies, but also for the individuals she purported to champion.

Born Alyssa Rosenbaum to a middle-class Russian-Jewish family, multiply displaced by Soviet policies, possessing immense drive and the type of intelligence that made her a poor fit to any homogeneous group ruled by implicit traditions, Rand managed to emigrate to the US. Once there, she strove – with enormous success – to reinvent herself far beyond the usual name change and veneer assimilation of zero- and first-generation immigrants. She also attempted to reshape, Procrustes-like, all within her reach to fit her fantasy of perfection, including her personal past, her hapless low-key husband and eventually her acolytes.

Countless critics have dissected Rand’s juvenile “philosophy” (who seriously lists Aristotle as a decisive influence?), cartoonish characters and clunky dialogue, humorless didacticism, worship of Aryan-phenotype übermenschen and their Nietzschean prerogatives, cult-leader behavior. Equally countless admirers have cleaved to Rand’s powerful message of purpose and self-esteem, which she eventually distorted into suffocating diktats. Less discussed is a fundamental contradiction: despite her trumpetings that she stood solitary and independent as a sui generis entirely self-made construct, Rand not only had far more help than she acknowledged, but she also abjectly desired to belong to clubs perceived to occupy the top of intellectual and/or political hierarchies. This is common for many with backstories similar to Rand’s: Dinesh D’Souza, Cathy Young (Ekaterina Jung), Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, Camille Paglia, Marco Rubio, Sarah Hoyt (Alice Maria da Silva Marques de Almeida), Martin Shkreli.

Rand and the others I listed decided that the path to first-class citizenship in their adoptive US culture was to become mouthpieces for its most reactionary substreams. They’re born-again Spencerians, staunch promoters of libertarian bootstrapping myths, and as obsessed with purge-enforced purity as their ideological opponents. However, their intrinsics mean they can never be more than court jesters or spear carriers of the masters they choose; they end up becoming collaborators, cudgels against fellow disadvantaged who are trying different ways of becoming acknowledged as fully human. For the women, it additionally means they invariably become more kyriarchal than MRAs, since they must be be seen as different than the rest of their weak-minded hormone-driven gender. Before I go further, I want to make it clear that I regard both extreme identity politics and total isolationism (that is, complete refusal to interact with one’s adoptive culuture) as dysfunctional and sterile as the appeasing mimic mode that I discuss here.

Fountainhead - Cooper, NealAyn Rand is a beguiling beacon for bright, self-motivated social isolates who have no obvious tribe and decide to make a defiant virtue of aloneness. When I was fourteen and a student in one of Greece’s elite exam-entry schools during the junta, one of my teachers handed me The Fountainhead remarking it had been written with me in mind. On the surface, I was the ideal audience for its message: an overachieving loner proud of her otherness, neither feminine nor pretty; a fledgling contrarian who disliked unexamined majority views and was already being treated as “an honorary man”; the member of a family chronically persecuted for its political beliefs and actions; a believer in principles, meritocracy and perfectibility like most adolescents.

For reasons partly mentioned in Snachismo, I left my native culture for the world-dominant US polity. Though I’m not “of color” (unless it becomes convenient to someone’s agenda) as defined by the crudely reductive US criteria, I’m one of the borderline ethnics designated as “sneaky swarthons” across Anglosaxon cultures. If you believe this is no longer applicable, re-read the presentations of the recent Greek economic debacle in European media. I came to the US younger than Rand and without any family whatsoever; she, despite her later disavowals, lived with her first-degree relatives until she went to California using their money. What I had instead was a full scholarship and the buffers a well-endowed university could provide.

As I continued living in the US, I kept piling up all kinds of credentials and accomplishments. Nevertheless, I was still olive-skinned and still had an unpronounceable name and a legacy accent – with the result that I was often treated as mud (or worse) on a shoe. I later found out that I shared all these attributes and equivalent experiences with Rand herself. By all counts, I should have become a fervent lifelong Objectivist.

What saved me from such a fate? Perhaps that I had an empathy organ, which Rand (like other transmit-only narcissists) notoriously lacked. Or that I never repudiated my heritage, warts and all – even as I selectively chose what to retain from it, and what to adopt from the more cosmopolitan milieus I found myself in. Or that unlike Rand’s proud announcement that she was “a male chauvinist”, I was a feminist even before I knew the term (or movement) existed. Or that I wanted to become a scientist from the moment I could think clearly, and during my training for that vocation it got pressed into me with diamond-tipped drills that theories must fit facts, not the other way around. Or that I could never identify with Rand’s Aryan blonds, modeled on those who had tortured and exterminated my people and other “inferiors” like vermin. Or that the thought of becoming someone’s Joan the Baptist or Mary Magdalene, no matter how remarkable they might be, made me break into hives.

Yet I was still fascinated by the “there but for fortune go I” aspect. So after The Fountainhead I went on to read Atlas Shrugged, We the Living, and the Barbara Branden and Ann Heller biographies. And so I found out the desolation and insoluble conflicts behind Rand’s bravado. Like many of that personality type, her strengths gave her a strong sense of entitlement that she assumed should, and would, automatically translate to privilege. People far less intelligent than Rand rose to prominence through membership in a dominant group, so it was not surprising she felt short-changed. Deprived of the desired recognition from the alpha club (loner pretensions notwithstanding), she ended up becoming the “there can only be one” tai-tai of designated lesser beings: like her, all her inner circle were smart, ambitious Jews in a society that still imposed racial and ethnic group segregations and quotas. She considered her followers, and they considered themselves, second-best – especially the women whom she turned into typists and gofers. This resulted in shattered, stunted lives. And like all people in this no-win position, anger and depression stalked Rand throughout her life.

Atlas Rockefeller Ctr Lee LawrieI know this anger only too well. I have to keep a tight rein on it, lest it consume me. I’ve come to realize that the siren call of self-made climbing is meant to keep people like me trying solo for brass rings: box-ticking tokens at best. But unlike Rand, I figured this out early enough to choose a different path. This won’t make me beloved, influential, famous or rich. But neither will it make me mutilate my feet to fit stiletto-heeled glass slippers. For exiled wanderers like me, perhaps the only viable option is to keep our double vision intact and acknowledge the value of uncoerced cooperation and shared visions, even as we recognize that all alliances are fleeting. We will always sail on half-familiar seas, Flying Hollanders with the albatross of loneliness around our necks. Even so, we can try to become links between our natal and adopted cultures, branches tapping on windows, gravity ripples between stars.

Related Essays

And Ain’t I a Human?
Snachismo, or: What Do Women Want?
Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
Only Kowtowers Need Apply
“As Weak as Women’s Magic”
A Plague on Both Your Houses
Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
Caesars and Caesar Salads
History, Legitimacy and Belonging; or: Who’s We, Kemo Sabe?
The Smurfettes Discover Ayn Rand

Images: 1st, Ayn Rand, photo by Cornell Cappa; 2nd, Patricia Neal (as Dominique Francon) shows the proper Randian woman-worship for Gary Cooper (as Howard Roark) in the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead; 3rd, Atlas, statue by Lee Lawrie that is often identified with Objectivism and has been used as a cover for Atlas Shrugged.

Liu Cixin: Dark Victories, Hidden Thoughts

Monday, September 7th, 2015

by Calvin Johnson

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

Centauri Trio

Is science fiction really the literature of possible future histories? Or is it a veiled metaphor for the author’s own time and place, safely hidden behind a charade of robots, rocketships, and aliens?

I vote for the latter. Even science fiction that claims to be nothing more than escapist fun can be easily mined for political, social, and philosophical themes reflecting the view out the author’s window. Of course, this might be because every nation has a dark side and hidden sins, so even the most modest of inquiries can throw up menacing shadows.

It’s sometimes easier to perceive this outside of one’s own blind spots. As an example, consider Liu Cixin (instant lesson in Mandarin: it’s pronounced Lyoo Tsi-shin, and Liu is the family name). He’s one of the most popular authors in China these days, and he’s recently come to the attention of English-speaking audiences with the first volume of a trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, which won the 2015 Hugo.

Liu has apparently stated that his novels are not political commentaries, and given how Chinese premier Xi Jinping is cracking down on dissension, I can’t blame him for such claims. I’m pretty sure Premier Xi does not read this blog, so I can state openly without worrying for Mr. Liu’s safety: this is not actually true. Both The Three-Body Problem and its sequel, just published in English, is shot through with current political and social concerns.

The Three-Body Problem opens with the floridly described horrors of the Culture Revolution (described in China nowadays as “the ten years of turmoil”). The embittered daughter of one of the victims ultimately betrays the human race to menacing aliens from the Alpha Centauri system, whose triple suns’ chaotic motion continually erases notions of progress and stability.

The second book of the trilogy, The Dark Forest, tells how humankind faces impending invasion by a far superior culture and how it plays out over the centuries it takes for the “Trisolaris” to arrive. Humans are already being spied upon by sophons, higher-dimensional artificial intelligences, so we have to assume all conversations and communications are being monitored and intercepted. (No, no relation to modern day politics whatsoever.) The only refuge is in one’s private thoughts. Out of desperation humankind appoint four men to create secret plans to resist the Trisolaris, men whose orders, no matter how outlandish, must be obeyed without question.

Cultural RevolutionMeanwhile, humanity must struggle against the doomsayers and Escapists who believe the only chance for survival is to abandon home and emigrate, and those who secretly collaborate with the enemy. Worse, one by one we learn that all the secret plans for resisting the enemy involve Pyrrhic victories almost as bad as the invasion itself.

Let me pause here to say to any of you thinking this sounds a bit over the top: read recent Chinese history. Imagine if today the Zetas and other narco trafficking gangs invaded the US, defeated our military and at gunpoint forced us to sell drugs legally and openly–and you’ll have exactly the situation China faced with Western nations, led by British Queen “El Chapo” Victoria, a century and a half ago. And after that things really went down hill.

In light of that history, it’s not as shocking that by the end of The Dark Forest, the last remaining secret planner and the central figure of this volume, Luo Ji, has figured out the solution to the Fermi Paradox (“where are all the aliens?”), and boy, is it a chilling, paranoid answer, something so dark it even frightens the Trisolaris. Where this all leads will have to wait, for those of us who don’t read Chinese, for the release in 2016 of the final volume, Death’s End.

Chinese novels often do not translate seamlessly into English and English novelistic sensibilities, and this is very much so for Liu’s work. The prose, in English, caroms between between florid, overly precious metaphors and boxy, inedible infodumps. Characters are thinly drawn, women doubly so. Although I don’t see it as a fault, I suspect many English-language readers will struggle with the stream of Chinese names, even with the helpful footnotes and list of characters.

Nonetheless, I thought The Dark Forest a stronger novel in many ways than The Three-Body Problem. The themes and conflicts felt more natural and less forced than those in the first volume. (It did not help that the chaotic astrophysics claimed for the Alpha Centauri system in the first volume struck me as highly overblown.) The story arc, revolving around Luo Ji even when at far aphelion, was tighter. Most importantly, The Dark Forest, with its solution to the Fermi Paradox, comes far closer than its competitor to the putative “novel of ideas” science fiction nominally presents. Most of the “ideas” in science fiction I find shallow. Ask yourself: after reading Heinlein, did you really long for junta rule, or the joy of incest? Do you really remember any of the soporific dialectic debates among Asimov’s robots?

My own conclusion is that science fiction is not a literature of ideas, but it is a literature about our response to ideas. That’s the case here too. The Dark Forest is not that much deeper intellectually, but the mad secret at the heart of the novel, and what it says about us and the scarred fears we carry with us, is more chilling than any bat-winged tentacle-faced monster Lovecraft dreamed up. Ji’s discovery whispers of the terrors that almost destroyed us during the Cold War, that did destroy millions of lives during the twentieth century.

And have we shaken it off? Reflect on events of the past ten years, or even just the past year. I say any statement that Liu’s trilogy is apolitical is an untruth; but in his defense, one can convincingly argue it’s not just about Chinese politics. It is about living deep in the shadows of the dark forest of the human condition, everywhere, and in every time.

Athena’s postscript: I haven’t read Liu Cixin’s novels, so I can offer no opinion of either the works themselves or their translation. However, my views on SFF as “the literature of ideas” are contained in The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction and To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club.

Images: Top, comparison of size and star type between Sol and the three stars of the Alpha Centauri system; middle, Cultural Revolution poster; bottom, Liu Cixin.

Evghenia Fakinou: The Unknown Archmage of Magic Realism

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Note:  There has been intermittent discussion in SFF about the relative invisibility of non-Anglophone works.  These rumblings have once again gained volume following the awarding of a Hugo to a novel translated from Chinese (Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu).  Below is an essay about another major unrecognized talent handicapped by writing in a language other than English.  The essay first appeared, with minor variations, in SFF Portal.

—–

FakinouA while ago, I wrote an essay about the fact that writers feel free to use Hellenic contexts (myths, history, location), blithely assuming they know my culture well enough to do so convincingly. I mentioned that contemporary Hellenic literature is virtually unknown in the Anglophone world beyond Elytis, Seféris, Kaváfis and Kazantzákis – all of whom belong to the thirties. In effect, it is fashionable to pronounce Hellenic paradigms passé along with all other ‘Eurocentric’ sources, without ever having read Hellenic literature of any era. Lest you think I’m indulging in special pleading, this lacuna has been noticed and discussed by many non-Hellenes including Roderick Beaton, a formidable literary presence with a truly deep knowledge of my history and culture.

In my essay I also stated that Hellás may be home to the best magic realist alive right now: Evghenía Fakínou. In my estimation, she’s better than Salman Rushdie, Louis de Bernières, Laura Esquivel, Alice Hoffman or Orhan Pamuk. Her work does not suffer from the defects that occasionally mar their often outstanding work – Rushdie’s and Pamuk’s self-congratulatory longueurs and cardboard characters (their women especially), de Bernières’ lapses into the generic, Esquivel’s by-the-numbers sentimentality, Hoffman’s arch quirkiness. However, Fakínou’s original language and culture are heavy strikes against her. Only two of her novels have been translated, into indifferent English (a common fate, because the two languages are as different as two Indo-European cousins can be).

Fakínou was born in Alexandria in 1945, to working class migrant parents who hailed from the Dodecanesean island of Symi (a beautiful but stark place, whose cosmopolitan wandering people earned their living by fishing, sponge diving and with a formidable merchant marine fleet that played a significant part in the 1821 War of Independence). Her family returned to Athens when she was a child. She studied graphic arts and worked for several years as a graphic artist, illustrator and tourist guide. In 1976, she launched a children’s puppet theater show, Tin Town, which became very successful. Think politicized and stylistically circumscribed Sesame Street and you get the picture. She started writing children’s books first, then novels starting in 1982 – about twenty so far, plus  collections of linked stories.

AstradeniFakínou’s books have won several awards and are wildly popular in Hellás: none has ever gone out of print, aided by the Hellenic publishers’ sane policy of small runs. Her writing combines three attributes, each of which would make her work addictive by itself: compelling plots, vivid characters and atmospheric settings. She is a mistress of creating sustained polyphony, a skillful puppeteer whose strings never become visible. Each of her characters jumps from the page, fully alive. Each of her books is distinct; she never resorts to clichés or cookie-cutter tactics, never repeats a successful recipe. In some cases she sticks to one narrator, first or third person; in others she switches between viewpoints – all with the illusion of effortlessness that distinguishes great dancers.

To top this, Fakínou has what for me is the quintessential gift of the rare true storyteller: her novels are full of echoes. She seamlessly interweaves history and (usually revisionist) mythology as she roams through six millennia of my people’s ghost-inhabited, monument-strewn cultural landscape. Yet there is no infodumping, no slowing of the plot momentum to flaunt her knowledge. If her readers are not aware of the background she evokes, the stories are still absorbing. But if they are, her stories are simply unforgettable: they etch themselves on one’s long-term memory and never fade.

To give you a sense of Fakínou, I will briefly outline the two of her novels that have been translated in English, fully aware that neither my descriptions nor the translations convey the potent magic she weaves.

Astradhení (Fakínou’s first novel; the word is a rare first name that means ‘starbinder’) starts deceptively as YA. We get carried along on the matter-of-fact, stripped-down voice of its narrator, a young girl whose family has been ripped off their island home by misfortune: her little brother’s death devastated them both emotionally and financially. The transplantation to Athens brings the woes that always beset immigrants: the ridiculing of accents and customs, the loneliness and alienation, the forced homogenization into marginal/ized urban living.

So far, so common, if beautifully rendered. But a deep river runs underneath the main narrative: Astradhení has visions of the young priestesses of pre-Olympian Ártemis who danced around the open-air altar of the goddess wearing bear pelts. To shake us out of the easy YA classification, the visions don’t bring her insight, solace or strength. At the close of the story, an acquaintance of her father starts to rape Astradhení. The final words are her anguished protestations, girl and priestess fused into one.

Astradhení’s visions are rips in the fabric of time, vouchsafing us glimpses of a (real or half-dreamt) past when women had power, a place as beguiling as – and far less sugarcoated than – Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon. In that world, Astradhení would have been a seer. Rape, embedded in the overt misogynism of both Hellenic and Byzantine traditions, is a bleeding wound in my culture and the book was notable just for bringing it up (a visual parallel happens in Angelópoulos’ film Landscape in the Mist).

Seventh GarmentTo Évdhomo Roúho (The Seventh Garment) tells how women carry history on their shoulders, like the Karyatids or the wives of folk ballads, buried alive so that bridges would stand. Three generations of women – Maiden, Mother, Crone – gather to perform an ancient ritual over the death of the last man in the family: the belief is that for his spirit to cross safely to the Otherworld, the women must line up the garments of the family’s seven firstborn sons, one from each generation (underlining the so far unquestioned requirement for sons). The last garment is missing, which triggers the story’s crisis.

Through the conversations and first-person narrations of the three women, we get strobelight views of several epochs of Hellenic history: the War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire; the 1922 catastrophic defeat of the Greek army by its Turkish counterpart that uprooted the Hellenes from Asia Minor, an integral part of their homeland for four millennia; the trials of the refugees, who met a mixed welcome on the mainland; the resistance in World War II, callously betrayed by its ostensible allies; and contemporary globalization, with its atomizing effects. The men these women remember and mourn were mostly loved (though rape figures prominently again) but mostly absent: killed, imprisoned, exiled, forced to emigrate. Several myths are woven into this tapestry: Démetra’s tormented search for Persephóne and also the wanderings of Odysséus, fused with folk stories of sea-gods, both pagan and Christian.

Though Fakínou made up the details of the ritual, it is grounded in the mourning customs of the Aegean islands. The women in her story, unsung singers, maintain the traditions while subverting them at the same time. In the end, the grandmother quietly pierces herself and bleeds to death so that her drenched tunic can serve as the missing garment. The chthonic powers accept it. By doing this she becomes an ancestor, a lofty position previously forbidden to women, and heals several rifts at once, though probably briefly.

Fakínou’s books are full of vision quests, awakenings, boundary crossings. All have open endings, with their protagonists poised at thresholds on the last page. At the same time, they make their readers whole by reclaiming a past that might have led to an alternative future. Fakínou is a windwalker, a weaver of spider silk. I’m sorry she is not world-famous, but even sorrier for the dreamers who will never get a chance to lose – and find – themselves in her work.

References and Related Essays

Roderick Beaton, Introduction to Modern Greek Literature Oxford University Press, Revised and Expanded Edition 1999

Iskander, Khan Tengri

The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization

Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

Yes, Virginia, Hellenes Have Christmas Traditions

The Multi-Chambered Nautilus

Safe Exoticism, Part 2: Culture

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

The Doric Column: Dhómna Samíou (1928-2012)

Close Your Eyes and Think of Apóllon

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

The Blackbird Singing: Sapfó of Lésvos

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

Images

Evgenía Fakínou
Astradhení, first edition
The Seventh Garment, first edition

OXI — No

Saturday, July 4th, 2015

Tassos SunI cannot vote in tomorrow’s referendum in Hellás; the ability to vote remotely has not yet been implemented in my country. But if I were there, I would vote No. I was there for the first three days of the brutal fear campaign unleashed on my people, treated by their supposed allies as if they were occupied subhumans, as if we were back in the days of ’45 — except now they’re using not guns and napalm on us, but fountain pens. This is essentially financial carpet-bombing to remove an elected government and enforce long-discredited punitive policies. I have more to say, much more. For now, this will have to suffice.

Etching by Tassos (Anastásios Alevízos)

A traditional 17th century song from Máni. The last sentence says, “And we learned there’s nothing as good as freedom.”

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

Monday, April 27th, 2015

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

— Konstantínos Kaváfis, Ionian

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

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

livissi_view

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

————————————————————————-

All cultures have defining traumas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panagia Soumela

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

The Blackbird Singing: Sapfó of Lésvos

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Come my holy lyre, become my voice, sing!

— Sapfó, Fragment 118

Introduction: I read, write and celebrate poetry. As I said in a previous entry, I grew up in a culture where poetry was not precious and hermetic, but a vital way of expression that belonged to all. Poems were set to music and sung, poets were bards that could fuel revolutions.

The article below first appeared in Stone Telling issue 2 (Dec. 2010). It had a slightly longer title and contained a few lines of Hellenic text that WordPress won’t reproduce. I’ve rendered Hellenic (Greek) words as they are pronounced by native speakers to convey as accurate an aural impression as possible. Thus, Sapfó, not Sappho – and the p is voiced; Lésvos, not Lesbos; Afrodhíti, not Aphrodite, where dh=th as in “the” and i=ee as in “tree”. The very imperfect translations are mine.

———-

Sappho BarnardWhen I was four, I taught myself to read – I had to suss out the activity that drew my adored, adoring father’s attention away from me. My parents, bowing to the inevitable, gave me access to their entire library. About four years later, I was poring over the essays of poet and firebrand journalist Kóstas Várnalis. In one of them, he ridiculed the vapidity and reactionism of contemporary popular love songs, in which the woman was always a mute, passive object of obsession. As a salutary contrast, he juxtaposed these “immortal words from a divine voice”:

The Moon has set and the Pleiades,
midnight, time passes,
and I lie alone.

The language was an archaic dialect from two and a half millennia ago and I was too young to have sexual needs, so the subtext sailed right over my head. But the naked yearning pierced my solar plexus.   And that was my first encounter with the Blackbird of Lésvos, the Tenth Muse, Sapfó.

Sapfó (in Aeolian dialect, Psápfa) was born around 620 BC in Lésvos, one of the three large Aegean islands that hug the coast of Asia Minor. From an aristocratic family, she lived her life there except for a stint of political exile in Sicily – a common fate for Hellenes, who have politics in their blood.   Sapfó’s contemporaries unanimously (and, oddly for Mediterranean men, ungrudgingly) hailed her as the greatest lyric poet in the Hellenic-speaking world. Level-headed Sólon, the Athenian lawgiver, is said to have declared upon hearing one of her songs, “I just want to learn it, then die.”

Of Sapfó’s nine collections, a single poem has come down to us intact and her music is totally lost, although she’s credited with inventing the Mixolydian mode (today’s Locrian, used in both classical and jazz music). Some of her lines survived as quotes in literary textbooks of Greek or Roman writers. The rest are literally fragments – one potsherd and papyrus shreds from mummy wrappings or, most abundantly, from the rubbish heaps of Oxírynhos (“Sharpsnouted”), a Hellenistic city in Upper Egypt. Yet the shards of her poems, often not even whole sentences, have cast a long shadow over poetry.

The few, uncertain facts of Sapfó’s life come mostly from her own poetry, although her exile is mentioned on the Parian Marble, a chronological stela that haphazardly covers a millennium of history. Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine sources also give stray biographical facts but their accuracy is questionable.

Here are the tenuous gleanings from these sources: Sapfó’s father, possibly called Skamandhrónimos, died when she was a child. She had three brothers and felt protective of the youngest. She had an adored daughter whom she named after her mother Kleís, “Glory of Deeds” (Fragment 132 reads, I have a beautiful child whose face is like golden flowers, my beloved Kleís, whom I would not exchange for all of Lydia…). Her husband was said to be a rich sea-merchant, Kerkílas of Ándhros, but this is widely considered a pun since it can be translated as “Prick from the isle of Man” – though Ándhros is real enough: the Cycladic island closest to the mainland, it has a formidable maritime tradition.

Sappho & AlkaiosA far likelier lover for Sapfó was her friend and rival Alkaíos, a fellow aristocrat and poet to whose political party she belonged. His faction ended up the loser during the power struggle between the older families and the upstarts headed by Pittakós (Pittakós prevailed, ruled well, and is remembered as one of the Seven Sages of ancient Hellás, the originator of the Golden Rule). After returning from the Sicilian exile precipitated by her political actions, Sapfó founded a thíassos (band) of well-born young women whose social and literary prominence bred rival imitators. Subsequent generations have variously interpreted it as a finishing school, a cult of lay priestesses, an artists’ salon, a separatist lesbian enclave – or a circle of friends who were also colleagues in poetry and whose bonds included the physical, a configuration akin to similar groups of aristocratic and/or creative men of many cultures and eras, from Macedonian hetéroi to Shogunate courtiers.

Sapfó was said to be small and dark. Even her admirer Alkáios called her violet-tressed – but in Hellenic folk and literary tradition the blackbird is the equal of the nightingale. Finally, dating from the Hellenistic era there’s a tradition that Sapfó fell into a postmenopausal frenzy of unrequited love for Fáon, a much younger boatman. She reputedly trailed him slavishly and finally flung herself off the cliffs of Lefkás, an island in the Ionian sea. However, Fáon means “Shining” and he’s linked to Afrodhíti (“Foamrisen”) in her destructive aspect: he’s a version of Adonis. That, coupled with the fact that Sapfó considered Afrodhíti her patron god and wrote poems lamenting the wavering of inspiration with age, puts a rather different complexion on the story.

Whether Sapfó was lésvian by inclination as well as by birth has been a thorny thicket of assumptions and taboos. The time gap, the paucity of information and the physical and linguistic inaccessibility of her poetry have resulted in Sapfó being different things to different people, depending on her audience’s individual and collective context. But the issue is also hard to untangle because Sapfó lived in a time and place that not only differed radically from that of her explicators but was also unique within Hellenic culture of the early classical era.

Unlike the starkness of most of Hellás, Lésvos is green and rich. Lésvians were considered passionate, sensual and fond of beauty. Social strata were shallow and fluid in a merchant maritime culture where rulers ate the same austere food as farmers and all citizens were active in politics. Aristocrats of both genders seem to have been casually bisexual and polyamorous, though they took care to maintain inheritances and lines. Unlike Athenians, they allowed their women education and did not confine them to the house; unlike Spartans, they did not subjugate them to state purposes. Female activities extended beyond “Kinder, Küche und Kirche” and the fact that they were exiled implies at least indirect participation in civic affairs. These liberties were disapprovingly ascribed to the influence of the nearby Lydians and Carians. If classical Hellás is equated with medieval France, Lésvos was its Languedoc, which bred powerful queens, courts of love – and troubadours.

Sappho frag98And so we come to the crux: Sapfó’s ability as a maker (which is the literal meaning of “poet” in Hellenic). Her poetry is as easily recognizable as Minoan frescoes. There are several extrinsic reasons for this. She is one of the very few poets who wrote in Aeolian, an older relative of Dorian whose relationship to Ionian-derived Athenian is that of a soft Southern accent to Californian. Aeolian dropped initial aitches, frequently changed “e” and “i” to “a” and “t” to “p” and pushed word stress to earlier syllables. Moon in Ionian is Selíni, in Aeolian it’s Sélana. Whereas Ionian is a fast-flowing river, Aeolian is long, deep seaswells.

Sapfó also used a unique meter in much of her poetry, the Sapphic stanza. This consists of three eleven-syllable lines plus a fourth line of five additional syllables known as the Adonic line, a fitting term for a devotee of Afrodhíti. This meter was also used by Alkaíos, Catullus, Horace and such more recent luminaries as Swinburne and Ginsberg.

Sapfó wrote several types of poems, many for public performance: epics, epithalamia, hymns, odes, elegies, dirges. Despite the common assumption that all her poetry is personal, she did not avoid large canvases: two of her larger fragments describe back stories in the Iliad. Besides, to argue that all the poems are “personal” devalues her craft. In any case, Hellenes did not put firewalls between the personal and the political: they were always aware they represented their family, clan and city-state. Many of Sapfó’s poems are first-person and address the listener directly, which gives them a startling immediacy. Sometimes this is is a god – usually Afrodhíti, who is treated as a confidante and ally. More often it’s a beloved friend or a lover. Some of these are men; most are women.

It is safe to say that Sapfó invented the language of desire for the Western world. There is nothing coy or demure about her declarations, they’re as frank and fierce as those of a torch singer. Yet even when impassioned, her words are precise, concrete and minutely calibrated. The phrases and images she was the first to use are now so embedded in the vocabulary of love that she has become the submerged bedrock from which such poems and songs spring. When singers moan I’m on fire, You make me weak in the knees, I hunger for your touch, it’s Sapfó they’re echoing:

Love shook my mind like the wind bends the mountain oaks.

I simply want to die now that she left me.

You came – it’s good you did, I sickened for you.
You cooled my thoughts that burned with longing.

And of course there’s that cry of anguish, Fragment 31:

As a god he seems to me – that man across from you,
who attends you when you whisper to him and laugh softly.
But me – my heart tears in my breast, and as soon as I see you
I lose my voice and my words fade. My tongue is crushed
and a slow fire goes through my body, my eyes darken,
my ears ring, I sweat, tremble and turn paler than grass.
I’m near death but must dare everything, poor as I am.

Sappho_bustPoetry is essentially untranslatable. Sapfó’s even more so, given its fragmentation, dialect, meter and boldness. Fellow poets down the centuries tried to shoehorn her work into acceptable content and style norms for their era while acknowledging her incandescence. The task eluded even Hellenes. The first good translation into contemporary Hellenic was by Sotíris Kakísis in 1979; it became the basis of a song cycle. And I keep hoping for someone with the chops of Olga Broumas to do it for English.

More surprising is the dearth of novels based on Sapfó, considering what rich material she would make. Only five 20th century Anglophone novels have her as their focus. None of them captures her or her era and all have dated badly (although one of them, The Other Sappho by Ellen Frye, at least rings authentic in its settings and song snatches because Frye spent time in Hellás translating its folksongs).

In Hellenic culture, women were thought to be less disciplined than men in their erotic desire. Pragmatic and prone to compartmentalizing, Hellenes feared passionate love as an emotion that could breach boundaries, bring disorder and upheaval. They counted it among the god-inflicted illnesses (rage, ecstasy, panic) that could drive humans mad, make them forget customs and obligations. So Sapfó stands out not only because of her gender, the gender of most of her love objects and her directness (each amazing on its own). She also stands out because she unapologetically embraced this divine madness – and single-handedly raised it to an art as honed and prominent as the vaunted epic.

When Hellenes said The Poet and used a masculine suffix, they meant Homer; when they used a feminine suffix, they meant Sapfó. Sapfó is quicksilver, saffron and wild silk; seabreeze and crackling flame. To hear her, even in pieces, is to drink starlight, glimpse the elusive blackbird that ushers the dawn.

Further reading/listening

Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho

Marguirite Johnson, Sappho

Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho Companion

Sotíris Kakísis, Sapfó, the Poems

Aléka Kanellídhou sings Sapfó; music by Spíros Vlassópoulos, translation by Sotíris Kakísis

Images: 1st, The cover of Mary Barnard’s Sapfó translation (a Fayum portrait); 2nd, Sapfó and Alkaíos; Red-figured vessel from Akragas, Sicily, 470 BC; 3rd, the papyrus that bears Sapfó’s Fragment 98; 4th, Sapfó, Roman copy of a Hellenistic work

Leonard Nimoy, 1931-2015

Friday, February 27th, 2015

Spock's Farewell

Leonard Nimoy was much more than Spock, though that alone left an enormous cultural footprint beyond just SFF.

By now, the figure of Spock is solidly embedded in contemporary mythology. Because of the multi-leveled conflicts and dilemmas intersecting on Spock and my own interests and experiences, the character, his backstory and his culture have been an integral part of my mental map. They served as a mirror that allowed playful, hopeful imaginative extrapolations in a universe that recognized individual and collective good.

Farewell, astrogator, supporter of tikkun olam and shekhinah. The light in our courtyard has grown dimmer by your departure.

Interview with a Yeti

Friday, February 20th, 2015

A while ago, our intrepid science correspondent AA ventured into the dangers of the Himalayas, where she was able to coax an exclusive interview out of Lilypad, a saber tooth tiger in hiding. When that interview appeared, she got a request through intermediary Marie E. to present a balancing view from a different local cryptid.

AA did not have the wherewithal for a second trip to the Himalayas and internet connections in that region are notoriously spotty. However, as luck would have it, the recent heavy snowstorms of the Northeastern US made an incognito visit possible for Smoofey, the self-appointed Ambassador-at-Large of Extra-Himalayan Yeti Affairs.

Without further ado, here is that interview.

Smoofster_with_Ikebana
Smoofey proudly displaying his ikebana skills
(photo: Peter Cassidy, staff photographer and resident yeti)

AA: Mr. Smoofey, what prompted you to break your deep cover? Some might call it riding on others’ (coat)tails…

SY: I had to correct some misconceptions propagated from Ms. Lilypad’s interview.

AA: Such as?

SY: Her contention that tigers essentially harvest yetis for food, for one!

AA: It sounded a bit like the Iroquois rotation system with denned bears… (Smoofey shudders, then wrathfully shakes his fist) I take your point! But I think we might want to clear a larger misconception. Most people think yetis don’t exist.

SY: Well, you’re talking to me, aren’t you?

AA: Can I feel your arm?

SY: (Suspiciously) Why?

AA: To prove to our viewers that the fur is real, not a costume. I don’t mean to insult you, but we have a steep uphill slog with burden of proof here.

SY: Oh, ok… Hey, that tickles!

AA: Definitely genuine. Can I take a closeup photo? The skeptics will swallow their tongues! But why is your hairdo so spiky?

SY: It’s hard to comb my fuzz, with all the burrs and ice crystals stuck in it. I can’t spend too much time on grooming, I have to use every possible weather window to forage! At the same time, I have to look good for – well, you know, we’re an endangered species! So I just put a small firecracker up there each morning. (Pats his head) Stylish, no?

AA: Devastating! But have you considered it might contribute to, er, your moniker?

SY: We yetis are tragically misunderstood. All we want are hugs! But when we try to approach humans they run away shrieking… (Sniffs quietly)

AA: That must make you sad.

SY: It does! We end up crying, and that causes avalanches.

AA: That explains a lot about the Himalayas… So, do you consider yourselves Tibetan… Kashmiri… Nepalese…?

SY: Hmph! We were fully civilized before humans showed up dressed in hides! We were philosophers, visionaries, healers – we taught humans how to meditate, to say nothing of ways to avoid frostbite and snow blindness. Ingrates! (Grumbles under his breath) Gautama Siddhartha, indeed!

AA: Somehow, the concept of rough cave-dwelling yetis as civilization beacons…

SY: We’re are epitomes of style! We get regular photo-ops in Better Caves and Logs! We’re famous for our duvet innovations and we love to arrange flowers, though we end up eating some in the process. We invented all kinds of other things, too: beer, dumplings, plaid weave, sunglasses…

AA: Plaid, eh? That explains the clothing of the Ürümchi mummies. Not the most sophisticated fashion statement, you must admit.

SY: We were aiming for arresting color.

AA: Getting back to foraging for a moment, what’s your staple?

SY: We have a nice balanced diet in the summer. In the winter, well… we snooze for much of the duration, but we still have to keep our weight up. Just hot cocoa won’t cut it. Sometimes we must resort to enticing a yak away from a settlement. (Shuffles guiltily) Some of us finally gave up, migrated to less demanding climates.

AA: Bigfoot, you mean?

SY: Yes, the cousins! We still exchange news and care packages. We used to exchange more, but now with those complicated visa requirements for future family members…

AA: Which brings us to reproduction. With your group so dispersed and isolated, how do you manage to find mates?

SY: I keep a careful registry for purposes of hybrid vigor!

AA: How many on that registry?

SY: Two. And neither is a girl. (Starts crying)

AA: Maybe I can get in touch with the Bigfoot delegation on your behalf? Unless you plan to continue westward on this trip.

SY: Would you? I don’t know if I can go over open ground without danger of being pounced on by conspiracy nuts. And it’s hard to raise the cousins. Skype let us down badly – they wanted a prepaid subscription and wouldn’t accept goats, even pashmina ones. We will make you an honorary yeti in gratitude if you succeed! And can you ask them to send me a new copy of Tintin au Tibet? I wore out my old one.

AA: Consider it done, snuggzilla! How about a hug to charge your batteries?

SY: (Hugging AA) No avalanches in Cambridge today!

Tintin au Tibet

Related: Interview with a Saber Tooth Tiger