Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Rest
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for the 'Biology & Culture' Category

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:

Iskander, Khan Tengri

Ashes from Burning Libraries

Close Your Eyes and Think of Apóllon

Caesars and Caesar Salads

Hidden Histories (the Akritiká folksongs)

The Blackbird Singing: Sapfó of Lésvos

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 Sea, the Sea, the Sea…

Monday, April 16th, 2018

On a friend’s page, a conversation about being authentic became, in part, a discussion of what types of beaches people like. As a sea person, I had to put in my few coins’ worth.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been on Mediterranean, Atlantic (both sides) and Pacific (ditto) beaches. Sandy beaches, pebbly beaches, rocky beaches. Each type lends itself to different activities and moods. Some are for walking, others for swimming. Some for gazing at magnificent waves, some for watching falling stars, some for exploring sealife in the shallows. Some for collecting driftwood or shells, some to gather around makeshift fires and watch the fires in the sky. Some for lounging at taverns or shacks on their edges, others for wandering along tree-covered paths.

But forever united by the sea, the sea, the sea.

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

Related Articles

The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction

SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears

Safe Exoticism, Part 1: Science

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

The Making of Stephen Hawking

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

“And I do this for a living, mister,
don’t you understand
that I’m dancing, dancing, dancing
dancing as fast as I can?”
— Oysterband, “Dancing as Fast as I Can”

For the last decade, I’ve lived with relentless, incurable chronic pain on top of the joint and bone pains of aging. It’s an invisible lead weight that often causes me to suddenly deflate like a pinpricked balloon — to the surprise (even, sometimes, disappointment or indignation) of people who expect more of me based on external appearance. I recognize it as a limitation that requires pragmatic resorting to workarounds, though I still get frustrated and angry when crushing fatigue smothers me with essentially no warning. Ditto for my disappearing hearing, that’s gradually depriving me of the pleasure of music, multi-person conversations, and the ability to hear those blurry but all-important subway, train station and airport announcements.

I’ve seen the protests around the “ableist” mentions of Stephen Hawking’s ALS which formed an inevitable part of his obituary. I think that most mentions of his condition, though they’re often lazily phrased and can be read as stigmatizing, are nevertheless a recognition of his determination to get on with his life and accomplish what he wanted to get done. [NB: this lenient view doesn’t include the statements which express the hope that this committed atheist (who knew and explicitly stated – as I do – that a person ceases to exist the moment their CNS neurons stop firing) now finds himself among supernatural beings of the upstairs or downstairs variety.]

Hawking’s body shaped his brain/mind in a complex, feedback loop, as is the case with every single human. He was brilliant, courageous, incisive, driven, opinionated, mischievous, interested in fame and money (who isn’t?). He was also incredibly lucky: he happened to be located at a nexus that made his immense achievements possible (the Theory of Everything eluded him, but it’s pretty clear that reconciling general relativity and quantum mechanics may take a tesseract- or string-shaped convergence).

It was Hawing’s luck, and ours, that he could continue with the vocation that he loved and was so outstanding at – he could not have done so if he were, say, a prima ballerina who got polio (look up Tanaquil Le Clercq, who received a very different treatment from both family and society than Stephen Hawking). It was his luck, and ours, that his temperament and mettle ensured that he could keep his focus on the things that mattered. And it was his luck, and ours, that the devotion of his family and the structures and resources of his society gave him the framework that he needed to be maximally productive (which, incidentally, is the protective cocooning often vouchsafed to male geniuses that conform to certain acceptability standards regardless of other specifics; women virtually never receive such buffering, nor do men who fall outside narrow norms).

We all need Hawking’s steely determination to focus on what we need/want to accomplish, and this means a constant balancing act between our vocation and other portions of our lives and ourselves that matter. We all have to make choices, often painful ones: even under the most favorable circumstances, we will never have enough time and stamina to do even a fraction of what we’d like. This is particularly true for women, whose socially enforced roles, “progress” aside, remain fundamentally antithetical to dedicated visionary pursuits. Hawking’s family to a large extent had to act as an extension of himself; and as is invariably the case in such configurations, they paid steep prices for his brilliance and his ensuing celebrity even as their involvement made them crucial participants in his achievement. He was not a lone star but a planetary system, an ensemble work – as are we all – and his statements show that he was keenly aware of it.

We’ll also all need support equivalent to what Hawking received at one or more points during our lives, even if we start out as “perfect” – and we’ll almost certainly need it not when we’re cherubic infants who are easy to love (and just as importantly, easy to manage). We’ll need it when we’re prickly adults, with notions and expectations, with unwieldy, no-longer-lovely bodies scarred and battered with use. And at that point, absent a titanium-strong family/friends network, all we’ll have is the mindset and safety net of the culture we find ourselves in. I can only wish myself Dr. Hawking’s luck when my time comes – and I certainly plan to do my own utmost as long as I can, pain and fatigue notwithstanding.

Selected Related Articles

It’s All in Your Head

Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Where are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

Dawkins and Saul: Dudebros under the Skin

The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

Images: Top, a still from a BBC interview with Jane Wilde Hawking; bottom, M. C. Escher, “Drawing Hands”

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

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

Southpaws: The Hops in Humanity’s Beer?

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

Note: I discovered that today is Left Handers’ Day (there is such a thing?!) and so I decided to reprint an essay that first appeared on Science in My Fiction.

“Light is the left hand of darkness…” – Ursula K. Le Guin

Those who are, like me, left-handed and older than fifty probably recall being forced to write with our right hand and the frustration of using many “handed” tools, including scissors, rulers and computer mice. We also remember being told that left-handers are prone to immune deficiencies, shorter lives, depression, dyslexia, schizophrenia and a host of other woes… and no wonder, given the drizzle of harassment! Finally, there is the conflation of left with evil, wrong or inept in practically all religions and languages (sinister, gauche, linkisch…) not to mention most political systems, especially those which place high value on obedience and conformity.

Left-handedness is genetically determined, although controversy swirls around candidate genes that have been tentatively linked to the trait and the complications supposed to accompany it – most prominently a protein with the impressively lengthy name of Leucine-Rich Repeat Transmembrane Neuronal 1. LRRTM1 is involved in regulation of the synapses, the tips of the neuronal processes where exchange of information takes place by molecules bridging the gaps between cells. Other theories propose that left-handedness may arise from exposure to increased testosterone during gestation. Yet others attribute it to the asymmetry of the human brain, brought about by the appearance of language whose centers almost invariably reside in the left hemisphere (which regulates the right side of the body).

In contrast to the even distribution of paw preferences in our ape cousins, the percentage of human left-handers hovers around 10% regardless of race and culture. The most common explanation for the persistence of the trait was that left-handed warriors had the element of surprise in primitive societies. As a result of this sneakiness, they survived long enough to leave a few like-handed descendants. Notice that this explanation is exclusively male-oriented and also implies that the trait is both monogenic and dominant. In fact, LRRTM1 is maternally silent – but at least in my case, I know that I inherited my quasi-ambidexterity (loaded word!) from my mother’s side.  On the other hand, nobody who has met me can conclude that I’m low on testosterone.

From my professional knowledge of biology and my own awareness of what strengths and weaknesses I possess, I hit upon a slightly more flattering explanation for the persistence of the trait. Namely, I decided that left-handed people must be less lateralized in their thinking. This can lead (literally) to crossed brain wires – and hence to such outcomes as dyslexia. But it can also lead to less mental compartmentalizing, more efficient multi-tasking, enhanced ability to see the big picture and to think across boundaries.

Recent results from several neurobiological disciplines lend support to these speculations. Apparently, left-handers do cluster at the two ends of the IQ range; the connections between the two sides of their brain are faster than in right-handers; they often use both hemispheres for language; and they excel at complicated tasks. Lists of southpaws in history show that they are disproportionately represented among mathematicians, scientists, artists and, for better or for worse, among charismatic leaders — from Alexander the Great to Jeanne d’Arc. Moreover, a disproportionate ratio of US presidents since WWII have been southpaws, partly because schoolchildren in an increasingly un-corseted culture were no longer forced into right-handedness. So left-handers may not be a relic of barbaric times, after all. Instead, they may be the hops that add zest to humanity’s beer.

Images: top, Southpaw by RobtheSentinel; bottom, an illustrious left-hander — Marie Sklodowska Curie, Physics Nobel 1903; Chemistry Nobel, 1911.

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).

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.

Guilty Pleasures: Bespoke Perfumes

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

Humans are primarily visual creatures – though none of our senses is extraordinary. Perhaps our weakest link is olfaction, aka smell, especially if compared to insects and even fellow mammals like dogs. And yet, weak as this human sense is, we are able to register (though not necessarily identify) close to a trillion scents.

Fragrant molecules 1
Molecules that smell good to human noses (click to embiggen)

The mechanism by which the brain analyzes and categorizes scents is still not entirely understood. Some researchers argue for a lock-and-key correspondence between odorants and receptors; others for a “swipe-card” recognition model with quasi-exotic recognition components (such as vibrational frequencies). None of the hypotheses fully explain the process, which is almost certainly a combination of several mechanisms that works combinatorially – as is the case for most complex brain functions.

The olfactory neurons connect to the hippocampus and the amygdala, which makes smell a component of both long-term and emotional memory (the ability of a scent to evoke powerful déjà-vus and unearth distant memories is well-known). On the other hand, unlike most mammals, humans are not capable of registering pheromones, pop science wisdom notwithstanding: these are processed by the vomeronasal organ, located between nose and mouth – and a random mutation has rendered this organ inoperative in our species. That said, the human smelling apparatus does appear capable of sensing the major histocompatibility antigens: people can recognize blood relatives by scent, and women prefer partners whose MHCs are different from their own, as one component of attaining hybrid vigor.

Humans have been tantalizing their noses with perfumes since time immemorial – sometimes for ritual or therapy, often to mask the odors of sweat or decay – and everything has been checked for scent potential: plants from root to seed (sandalwood, vetiver, patchouli, amber); animal excretions and glands (civet, musk, ambergris). Ancient Egyptian paintings show nobles with perfume cones perched on their wigs, and the repertoire and provenance base of parfumiers are as vast as those of chefs. Savvy people know to put perfume on hair, rather than skin; to add a touch of genital fluid if out on a mating prowl; and to opt for the staying power of essential oils that don’t contain alcohol.

To those familiar with me, it will come as no surprise that my own tastes in perfume run to the dark and spicy: amber, chypre, fougère. While in college, I contented myself with commercial perfumes: Opium, Shalimar, Obsession, Calèche. But one balmy evening, I was gallery-hopping down Newbury Street, and at the back of a craft shop I noticed a small counter bristling with delicate bottles. Naturally I went to investigate – and a sylph of a young woman rose to greet me and beguile me into the world of bespoke perfumes.

She interviewed me closely. Then she proceeded to mix East Indian sandalwood, Tunisian opium, Tunisian amber and petitgrain, giving me a whiff after each minute calibration. When we were both satisfied, she carefully noted the proportions down and asked me what name I wanted to give the scent. And so I became the co-creator and delighted owner of The Long Shadow. When I met the Copper Yeti, I dragged him to Dawn’s tiny parfumerie (I had to apply some force, because he raised both eyebrows at the concept of bespoke scents for men). His scent is called The Cuddly Crusader.

Then Dawn left Boston, and I lost track of her. I was resigned to reverting to commercial perfumes, until the Google search engine got really good. At that point I looked her up – and lo, she was in Colorado, and her perfumerie had become renowned (as it should). She had kept all the old bespoke recipes, so I now have my lifelong supply of The Long Shadow. But I’ve also tested almost all of her perfumes that fall within my taste spectrum. As a result, I now can evaluate a perfume at a glance by looking at its ingredients; and a dozen miniature bottles (and thrice as many sample tubes) are in a basket by my bed, and all my fuzzies get a dab at the top of their heads as a way to keep my olfactory bulb happily busy.

Pyrgos, Cyprus
Bronze Age perfume bottles, -1850 BCE; Pyrgos, Cyprus

Of Fast Micro-Sails and Slow Swashbucklers

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

sail

Early this week, venture capitalist Yuri Milner (backed by glittering names that included Stephen Hawking, Ann Druyan, Mae Jemison and Mark Zuckerberg) announced the next step of his Breakthrough plan. Part 1 is Listen – equivalent to passive SETI efforts; Part 2 is Starshot, a mission to reach Alpha Centauri within twenty years by using miniaturized probes. Such a rapid journey is theoretically possible if the probes are equipped with tiny photon sails and accelerated to a percentage of lightspeed by ground or orbiting lasers.

All of the technology needed for Starshot has passed proof of principle, though none of the specific components is actually at hand. The concept itself has enough original aspects – and enough advantages – that it could well succeed: sending armadas of small-cross-section vehicles dilutes the risks and increases the collective chances of reaching the destination. The mission length is just short enough to sustain interest (though people tend not to mention that it will take several more years for any information gleaned by the probes to get back to us — and that the Alpha Centauri three-star system has no confirmed planets). It’s not burdened by the prohibitive demands of slow ships to Alpha-Cen, with or without live cargo. And just starting the engineering of the Starshot components will lead to a spate of innovations, whether the mission is undertaken or not.

Starshot, with its emphasis on new research on miniaturization, laser technology and materials science, underlines the almost complete lack of equivalent biological research that might make larger, slower starships possible – from self-sufficient ecological systems to ways of keeping a crew safe and sane during long star travels. Astrobiology has confined itself almost exclusively (though with some justification) to extremophilic bacteria and nobody is trying to untangle bear-style hibernation, to give but one example. The sole non-bacterial/fungal critters that seem to have engaged the interest of astrobiologists are tiny invertebrates with the formal name of tardigrades (= slow walkers).

The popular monikers of tardigrades are water bears or moss piglets, but they resemble nothing as much as eight-legged micro-manatees, including their habit of placid munching (though they have bear-shaped fangs and claws and some are cannibals). They’ve become media darlings by dint of both perceived cuteness and grace under pressure. Their average size is that of a sesame seed (1-2 mm) and, like mites, they’re found everywhere – from deep sea trenches to the slopes of the Himalayas, from the equator to the poles.

Their anatomy, habits and life cycle are unremarkable, except for their record endurance of extremes of temperature, pressure (both deep-sea high and vacuum-level low), gravity, dehydration, radiation, toxins. They accomplish this by rolling into a compact configuration known as a tun (barrel) and decreasing their water content to 1% of the normal. Just as arctic fish use glycol to keep their structures intact in freezing water, so do water bears, though they deploy another type of sugar (trehalose). Several other invertebrates can enter and exit cryptobiosis – rotifers, brine shrimp, nematodes – but water bears are the only organisms known so far to be successful at all types of it.

That said, media fail to convey the fact that this endurance is statistical: the longer and harsher the conditions, the less likely the survival of water bears – or their eggs, especially at early embryo stages. So one take-home lesson here is that we can shrug at the percentage of tuns that revive successfully, because they’re not fellow humans or even loved pets; they’re not losses that cut us to the quick. It’s also no surprise that people tried to pin the water bears’ abilities to unique genes or gene networks, whereby the tale turns to the dangers of both reductionism and love of magic bullets.

Recently, two groups published the genome sequence of a tardigrade species. One of the two reports, ahead of the other by a few days, got the lion’s share of the press – not only because it was first, but also because it made the flashy announcement that tardigrades are as sturdy as they are because ~17% of their genes come from horizontal transfer. The authors of this study hypothesized that such an influx of foreign DNA is possible when the water bears reconstitute their chromosomes during revival from tun status, at which point they’re leaky across scales. Of course, one prediction of this hypothesis is that tardigrades should have undergone incredibly rapid and divergent evolution, which is very visibly not the case (I fully expect a cult theory of tardigrades as single-point earth life ancestors to spring up as a result of this blog post).

People who know how genomes, organisms and evolution work shook their heads at this announcement and waited for the other shoe to drop. It promptly did with the close-following second sequencing study, which demonstrated that horizontal transfer in tardigrades does not exceed the average 2-3% found in all organisms, and that the results of the earlier study came from contamination of the tardigrade genomic material with DNA from bacteria in the water bears. To be fair, it’s incredibly hard to avoid such contamination, especially with something of water bear size, though there are ways of detecting and correcting it after the fact. However, separating wheat from chaff requires long, painstaking work – and in these days of dwindling-to-nothing funds for basic research, being first is at a premium.

Learning how tardigrades go through literally killing regimes will teach us much about basics, and may show the way to useful applications. But I suspect that most of that knowledge won’t be portable to large, slow-metabolizing mammals like us. What will undoubtedly be of direct use is deciphering the mechanisms behind bear hibernation. Results from such a study will not only be applicable to human spacefaring, but will also help revive patients from long comas and serious traumas with less muscle waste and/or irreversible brain and other organ damage.

Like much research nominally focused on space, investigation of other non-bacterial terrestrial biologies may not only enable us to travel into the beguiling star-studded darkness beyond our friendly base, but may also improve our life here and now. If/when we venture past our gravity well, it’s certain that the imperturbable water bears will be on board with us. And despite stringent precautions against contamination, I wonder if the Voyager craft are carrying tiny sleeping tuns on the winds between the stars.

tardigrade space

Sources

Breakthrough Project initiatives
Summary of tardigrade sequencing results in Science Alert
PNAS paper about the bacterial contamination in the first study

Related articles

Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix
The Death Rattle of the Space Shuttle
Slouching to the Right of the Drake Equation
Those Who Never Got to Fly
Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri
Damp Squibbs: Non-News in Space Exploration
Note to Alien Watchers: Octopuses are Marvelous, But Still Terrestrial
Starry, Starry Night

Images: Top, concept art of a Starshot probe and sail (Breakthroughinitiatives.org); bottom, the intrepid water bear in a challenging environment (Microbiologia General)

She Who Shapes

Friday, March 18th, 2016

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

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

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

———-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

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

Related articles:

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

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)

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.

#

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.

#

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.

#

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).

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.

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

Note to Alien Watchers: Octopuses are Marvelous, but Still Terrestrial

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

octopus_flask_(new_palace)_minoanEveryone agrees that cephalopods are fascinating, octopuses in particular. Apex marine predators, they hunt primarily by ambush and escape foes by water-jet swimming, mimicry, ink ejection and tentacle shedding (which they can regenerate, like lizard tails). Their niche dominance is buttressed by their ability to rapidly color-merge with their surroundings, squeeze through small openings (no bones or even the cartilage of cephalopod cousins) – and intelligence. They possess keen eyesight (their eyes evolved independently from those of vertebrates, as did those of insects) and chemoreceptors on their suckers allow them to taste what they touch, though their sense of shape is poor (more of that anon). Octopuses use tools, are known to play, may be capable of observational learning and are deemed so intelligent that they’re the only invertebrates almost universally protected from pain in research experiments.

Recently, the sequence of the octopus genome was published. This is an ongoing effort of gathering as many terrestrial genomes as possible, with the goal of figuring out the many black boxes still surrounding intelligence and emergence. The consensus of the genomes sequenced so far is that terrestrial life forms are as unique at the level of their genomic structure as at any other scale – yet the underlying common ancestry is also plainly visible. Of course, the PR departments of the teams doing the octopus sequencing had to figure out something to make that particular study stand out. Result: the numerous lay reports carried titles like “Don’t freak out, but scientists think octopuses might be aliens.”

I held my peace and tongue until I read the original paper itself. My verdict from reading it – which, incidentally, coincides with that of its authors – is that the octopus genome is as marvelous as its owners, and as unique as that of any other organism. However, it falls squarely within parameters in terms of structure and the organism it helps produce is therefore as terrestrial as anything else that moves on earth. So what allowed the churnalists to indulge in the customary hype? Well, primarily ignorance of basics such as the dynamic nature of genomes and the many alternative paths by which they generate complexity.

One fact touted as “amazing” was that octopuses seem to have more genes than humans (~35K versus ~22K, respectively) and the number doesn’t arise from a wholesale duplication, as it does in some insects and plants. However, there’s an immediate solution to that seemingly Gordian knot. It’s called alternative splicing. Alternative splicing (henceforth AS) is THE primary contributor to proteomic complexity and allows production of many proteins that vary in structure and function from a single gene. Some human genes produce hundreds of final products by this method, which then get further variegated by post-translational processes like phosphorylation and glycosylation (full disclosure: I spent my entire science career researching alternative splicing in the human brain and will be unmoved by arguments that “it’s mostly non-functional junk”). The AS mechanism is nearly universal in human genes but extremely limited in octopuses which instead use an on-off gene product modulation mechanism called RNA editing (ADAR). All eukaryotic species use varying ratios of AS and ADAR. Octopuses just happen to be mostly on the ADAR end of the spectrum.

Churnalists also presented two items as independent that in fact correlate: the octopus genome is rich in transposons (elements that allow genes to move around)… and gene families that arose as a result of duplication, which are most often tandemly organized, are dispersed in octopuses. Transposons are abundant in many other species (Barbara McClintock first documented them in maize, though the groundbreaking discovery took nearly four decades to gain her the Nobel she so richly deserved) and organisms with high numbers of transposons in their genomes inevitably show significant levels of gene mobility.

NodesOfRanvier

The cephalopods did not evolve just eyesight by a different path than that taken by vertebrates. The same is true of their nervous system, which is one reason why they’ve long been used for comparative studies in neurobiology and intelligence. Yet another point of hype was that octopuses appear to have more neurons than mice and have vastly expanded member numbers of two gene families involved in neuronal regulation. But as with the high gene count, there’s an interesting but non-exotic explanation for these findings as well. Namely, cephalopods need to coordinate their neuronal feedback loops locally unlike vertebrates, which depend on brain coordination.

Vertebrates have fast neuronal responses in large part because the myelin sheaths that wrap sausage-like around the neuronal axons allow what is known as saltatory conduction through the Ranvier nodes (the gaps between myelin sheaths). The loss of this propagation method is what creates most of the debilitating outcomes of such hereditary diseases as Tay-Sachs and Gaucher and the adult agonies of demyelinating diseases like Multiple Sclerosis and Tabes Dorsalis. In contrast, cephalopods don’t have myelin sheaths; the propagation of their neuronal impulses is linear which means it’s relatively slow (they also require large-diameter axons, which is one reason why these species were used as models in neurobiology research). In turn, the slow conduction requires local regulation of neuronal responses if octopuses want to remain predators instead of prey. Hence the large number of neurons and quasi-unique neuron-regulatory proteins.

So in this process, vertebrates opted for speed and integration; cephalopods for numbers and local autonomy. The locality of this coordination also means that, unlike vertebrates, octopuses have no integrative brain map. So, for example, they can minutely “taste” something within their tentacles, but cannot form a view of its overall shape. Not are they aware of the position of their tentacles, though each tentacle knows what it’s doing, so to speak. An eerie but non-mystical result of this is that a severed octopus tentacle will exhibit reflex behaviors for a while after it’s severed. But again, this is nothing exotic; it’s local autonomy at work, until degradative processes neutralize it.

The other side of this coin is that octopuses will never suffer from phantom limb pain or fibromyalgia, syndromes caused by disjunctions between a body and its brain map. The lack of integrative maps puts some limits to large-scale undertakings by aspiring octopus overlords, Hokusai’s famous Tako to Ama aside. So does the fact that octopuses die after procreation like salmon – males after mating, females after their egg sac matures. Their intelligence is individually based and they have no culture transmission, each octopus reboots de novo. Undoubtedly, their thought processes are alien. But – as I discussed in “Are We Not (as Good as) Men?” – so are those of chimpanzees, uplift or not.

Nemo KrakenI fully expect to hear theories that octopuses may be like Larry Niven’s Pak: aliens trapped in axolotl-like neoteny because earth lacks a vital ingredient that would allow them to transition into adulthood (there’s also a Polynesian myth that posits octopuses as the sole survivors from a previous universe cycle). However, the octopus proclaims its terrestrial provenance at all scales. What its genes and neurons do illustrate, unequivocally, is the near-infinite variety of solutions to common problems. Or, as another “alien” (who’s actually all too human) would say, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

Related Articles:

Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry

You Only Find What You’re Looking For

Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

”Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”

Junk DNA, Junky PR

Floating Brains and Invasive Minds

The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

Images: 1st, Minoan clay jar, New Palace period (~1500 BC, Irákleion Museum); 2nd, depiction of a vertebrate neuron with its myelin sheath; 3rd, Captain Nemo and his guests contemplating a rival intelligence in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville and Éduard Riou).