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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

Related Articles:

Iskander, Khan Tengri

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization

The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art

The House of Many Doors

Skin Deep

Hidden Histories

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

Mad Max: Feral Kids and Chosen Families

The Poison Tree

The Time Between

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video Interview for Feminist Futures Storybundle

Wednesday, March 14th, 2018

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

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

Public Service Announcement

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

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

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

The Last Jedi: Lunchboxes in Perpetuity

Saturday, January 6th, 2018

Everyone who’s not on a silently running nuclear sub has said their piece about The Last Jedi by now. I have a few stray thoughts of my own – few, because I don’t want this sorry contraption to take any more time from my finite allotment. Losing two-plus hours of my life to watching it was bad enough.

I found The Last Jedi sloppy and contemptuous of its audience. It shares these attributes with the rest of the Star Wars franchise except for the first two films (III and IV in the revised gospel). But it’s additionally static and derivative. Its real closest relative is Star Trek Voyager: high on woo, nil on substance, cynically hackneyed. Why bother with plot, dialogue or characterization when you can count on a base that’s conditioned for knee-jerk devotion? It’s unabashedly sodden gruel, even if it liberally uses colored water. Brief random points:

— All the nominally powerful women spend almost their entire precious time mothering infantile men: Rey pulls double duty with Luke and Ben/Kylo, it takes the two most senior resistance leaders to control Poe, Finn gets Rose all to himself. There’s no dwelling on such trivia like Leia losing both her partner and her only child, and Rey’s hero quest is abridged to gazing into mirrors – perhaps in preparation for when she starts primping like a proper Disney princess.

— Finn & Rose meet cute while she’s tasering “traitors” who are abandoning the cause – except I thought the Resistance was voluntary. Otherwise, what makes it different from the “tyranny” it opposes? Speaking of the latter, Snoke (who?) is a boring non-entity whose sole function is to remind us how appalling the dialogue has been on all SW installments.

— The Resistance appears to lack even a shred of a plan, and this cannot be disguised by the garbled, muddy dogfights that pop up like quantum clockwork (with full sound in space, yet, except for the silent end of Dern-Purple-Hair). The battles themselves are so poorly choreographed that you neither know nor care who’s who.

— The franchise owners happen to think they’ve democratized things by positing that everyone has full Force abilities and can wield them proficiently by just wishing it. It’s good that the toxic stew about the Force is no longer an officially meta-approved religion (with its acolytes gleaned by involuntary childgathering yet). However, what they’ve accomplished with this is to effectively demolish the concepts of learning and discipline, in line with the accelerating trend against the “elitism” of expertise in any domain.

— Starting with The Force Awakens, the powers that be didn’t even bother to create new musical leitmotifs. Whatever music is there is programmed to trigger leftover emotional reservoirs from previous Star War rounds.

Which brings me to the larger point. The Last Jedi is in essence lazy canon fanfic that wants to pass as original, with sketchy characters whose serial numbers are visible underneath the thin, brittle veneer: Ben/Kylo is what is known in SW fandom as “suitless Vader” with the matching facial scar and waxed torso; Rey is the obligatory singleton-per-trilogy feisty smurfette (the almost-certainly temporary placeholder about her being “not of noble blood” is beside the point: neither was Anakin whose spiritual descendant she is – the Skywalker “dynasty” is barely two generations deep just like its US equivalents); Luke fills in for gnomic Kenobi and the nasty, obnoxious Jedi leadership (including the pseudo-zen spoutings and the pernicious quasi-lies to needy apprentices); Poe is reissued Han Solo on steroids; and so forth.

To be fair, I found Carrie Fisher’s swan song moments touching (ditto Mark Hamill’s final sunrise watch).  It did my heart good to see a crone featured as a quasi-forceful figure, and “a mere girl” effortlessly wield that most taboo object, a lightsaber, without its flame, er, wilting. Rose had a nice moment of paraphrasing Hector’s last words. And there was real tension between Rey and Ben, unlike the erotic/romantic (if only) pairs in the previous trilogies. But the need to guarantee lunchbox sales in perpetuity won’t allow promising seeds to germinate, let alone become new forests.

Related Articles:

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

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

The Hue (and Cry) of Stormtroopers

Mystique: The True Leader of the X-Men

Mad Max: Feral Kids and Chosen Families

Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

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.

 

 

Related Articles

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

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

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Where are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

 

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

 

Music: Henellas, Maniot pirate song

Byzantium in Speculative Fiction

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

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

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

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

Relevant related posts:

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

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Caesars and Caesar Salads

Yes, Virginia, Romioí are Eastern European

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

Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

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

Launch of The Reckless

Monday, March 27th, 2017

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

******

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

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

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

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

As the Water Wheel Turns

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

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

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

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

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

Related articles:

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

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

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

To Shape the Dark: Liner Notes, Part 1

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

M. Fenn: Chlorophyll Is Thicker than Water

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

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

 

C. W. Johnson: The Age of Discovery

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

 

Jacqueline Koyanagi: Sensorium

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

 

Susan Lanigan: Ward 7

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

 

Shariann Lewitt: Fieldwork

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

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

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

Friday, November 25th, 2016

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

Sea Gate full

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Convenient Selective Principles

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

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

——

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

——

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

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

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

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

Related posts:

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Wrecker

How Many Swallows Bring Real Spring?

 

Three Fictional Characters

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

Merani Yehan
Meráni tanegír Yehán by Heather D. Oliver

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

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

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

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

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

Please feel free to share your own fictional affinities!

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

To Shape the Dark: Liftoff!

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

shapedark-final-cover-titles1200

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

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

Candlemark & Gleam direct sales
Reviews, interviews
Goodreads

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

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

To Shape the Dark cover: Eleni Tsami

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

The Every-Branching Universe: Forever Nethack

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nethack Map

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

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

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

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

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

nethack-wiz-29

Related Articles:

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

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

Unfurling Solar Sails: Yours Truly Acquires Candlemark & Gleam

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

“I’ll be your gypsy joker, your shotgun rider.”
– Bruce Springsteen, “Soul Driver” from Human Touch

Blue Door Stargate

When I was putting together The Other Half of the Sky (TOHOTS), my first science fiction anthology, I searched for a publisher – and, in hindsight, unknowingly dodged several bullets. The only person who gave me fair terms (without prompting on my part, yet) was Kate Sullivan, the founder of Candlemark and Gleam (C&G). I owe Sam Montgomery-Blinn of Bullspec many craft beers for suggesting Kate to me and doing the introductions.

Kate is that rarest of combinations, a deeply informed mover-and-shaker who’s also discerning, meticulous, conscientious, professional and results-oriented. She was an ideal collaborator who carefully and lovingly prepared TOHOTS for what would be a triumphant publication arc: the anthology went on to win unprecedented awards and accolades (including a Nebula for one of its stories) way before the “X Destroy Y” mode became safe to attempt – achievements that are even more momentous when one considers C&G’s infinitesimal PR budget.

Kate ran C&G single-handedly in addition to a full-time day job. On my side, I had long wanted to nurture and promote science fiction that combines quality craft and three-dimensional characters with a non-triumphalist sense of wonder, awareness of scientific principles, and original universes. So when the heroic effort tired Kate and she was contemplating closing down C&G rather than see her vision and standards compromised, I told her of my own vision.

So with great pleasure and anticipation, Kate and I announce that, as of November 16, I’ve acquired Candlemark & Gleam.  It’s a fitting symbol and a good omen that the younger sibling of TOHOTS, To Shape the Dark, will be the first book brought out by C&G under its new astrogator.

Kate will stay with me for at least one year, to ensure a seamless transition. In the past, C&G published a wide variety of speculative fiction subgenres and showcased many new authors. Although that big-tent policy will continue, I’m eager to have science fiction become the major tributary stream of C&G – especially stellar talents whom I consider neglected due to the publisher/editor stampede to be “edgy” (if only).

This means that C&G will now publish primarily by invitation and referral. However, we will also respond to queries with one-page synopses. Those who wonder what I’m likely to consider can look at TOHOTS or my reviews. Speaking of the latter, I don’t review often; when I do, I always discuss large contexts, rather than isolated works. I realize that some consider reviewing by an editor/publisher to be a conflict of interest, though many editors and publishers have been doing so with nary a qualm or ripple. I will let my author choices stand as my principal future reviews, though I’ll still do the occasional large-scale retrospective.

My thanks go to those who convinced me that such an endeavor is not madness (or, perhaps, necessary madness): Peter Cassidy; members of the Mixon report team; contributors to The Other Half of the Sky and To Shape the Dark; and my faithful shadow-id, Lilypad, who calmly delivered admonitory chomps whenever my self-confidence faltered.

Friends, companions, partners, colleagues: join me and Kate on this journey to strange skies.

Lion Planetfall

ETA: Kate writes about C&G’s trajectory.

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.

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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).

To Shape the Dark — Cover

Monday, October 5th, 2015

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

shapedarkcover-800

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

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

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

To Shape the Dark

Athena Andreadis – Astrogators Never Sleep

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

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?