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“Nen lókdwenzish, Michael”: Sister-Brother Love in Science Fiction

Thursday, April 25th, 2019

“He turns the clouds into a horse, the stars into a bridle,
and with the moon as company he goes to bring her back.”
— The Dead Brother’s Song, 9th century CE
(perhaps the oldest surviving Hellenic folksong)

There’s a deeply-rooted biological reason why nearly all unforgettable stories are family sagas, whether they unfold on the plains of Troy or the spice beds of Arrakis: humans are not solitaries; we’re embedded in our kin groups. That, in turn, colors all aspects of our behavior. Whatever our technological level, we remain keenly interested in personal connections, as central throughout civilization as they were in the bands of ~100 members that comprised the initial gatherer-hunter tribes (and still do for our first cousins, the bonobos and chimpanzees).

Stories from all cultures explore the full gamut of family interactions; but mainstream and genre literature, especially the dominant Anglophone incarnations, heavily pluck only a few strings of that versatile instrument. Mainstream tends to foreground mating interactions – the inherent dilemmas between blood and chosen kin, between old obligations and new loyalties. Fantasy has walked in the steps of its predecessor, folklore, of which more anon. Science fiction (SF), on the other hand, notoriously fearful of “chick-lit” or “romance” cooties, twangs primarily on father-son conflict, with brother rivalry a distant second. Mothers are invariably dead in SF and fantasy, unless they surface as either evil stepmothers for daughters or impediments to independence for sons. The vast majority of SF has let one particular chord lie mostly fallow: sister-brother love.

Myths and folktales brim with sister-brother stories. Many pantheons have sibling pairs down several generations as their base: Gaia/Ouranos to Hera/Zeus, Nut/Geb to Isis/Osiris, Izanami/Izanagi, Yemanja/Aganju. The bond is also a major engine in literature: Electra, Ifighenia and Orestes; Antigone and her two feuding-till-death brothers; Alexander’s sister Thessalonike, ruler of Macedon after his death, said to have become inadvertently immortal and to have mourned him forever after as a storm-wielding mermaid; the Akritiká folksongs, starting with Konstantís and Aretí in The Dead Brother’s Song; the brothers in the Grimm tales turned to harts, ravens, swans protected (often at staggering cost) by their sisters; the Völsungs Siegmund and Signy aka Sieglinde, Kullervo and his nameless sister (and the Tolkien clones, Túrin and Niënor)…which highlights a reason why Anglophone speculative literature, far more priggish than its predecessors, avoids this chord except in the gritty-grotty dark fantasy cave where Cersei and Jaime Lannister dwell.

The not-too-hidden shoal, of course, is incest. Whereas parent/child incest has steep in-built power differentials, sibling incest is on almost-level ground – and several cultures have practised sibling mating, especially among groups where either “purity” of descent or retaining family property was paramount. Physical or cultural isolation also factored into this. Before the advent of DNA analysis, unless men kept punitive vigil over women, the paternity of offspring could never be incontrovertibly known, whereas children of maternal relatives were without a doubt genetically close to their mothers’ male kin. Hence, sibling matings – or, in much of the world, cousin marriages. A more benign alternative to obsessive patroling of female reproduction were the systems in which a sister’s children were heirs of her brother’s property and/or status (Fili in the film version of The Hobbit is an explicit example of this).

However, given the overall habits of humanity, there is a second, less obvious shoal. In most of the list above, even when brothers love their sisters, it’s invariably the sisters who must abjure their life, happiness or vocation to further their brothers’ objectives. Both Electra and Ifigheneia break all kinds of taboos and vows for Orestes’ sake; Antigone’s decision that she’s duty-bound to bury Polyneikes makes her forfeit her life when she’s at the cusp of a love match consummation; Leia ends up untrained in her Force potential and very much an adjunct to Luke and the shabby Jedi initiatives (the Mary Poppins act in The Last Jedi is an almost-contemptuous afterthought as is Anakin/Vader’s reaction when he becomes belatedly aware of her existence in Return of the Jedi); likewise, Alia Atreides is an instrument of Paul’s messianic goals throughout the Dune saga.

Fantasy has told tales of sisters shaping their lives around brothers, from Éowyn to Jane Yolen’s “Brother Hart”. Science fiction has mostly elected to slide by such bonds or keep them largely schematic: Leia and Luke don’t interact meaningfully once it’s established they are twins, and Leia’s great moment happens before she discovers she has a brother (Luke goes on to change the fate of the galaxy before he peters out into a damp squib). That said, two major exceptions in SF come to mind that show not only a sister and brother devoted to each other, but also a scenario in which the sister does not sacrifice herself in some way for her brother: River and Simon Tam in Firefly/Serenity; and Michael Burnham and Spock in Star Trek: Disovery.

The River/Simon arc is in some ways strongly reminiscent of The Dead Brother’s Song: Kostantís promised his mother that he’ll bring his sister home, and not even death will deflect him from his purpose. Simon, too, is committed to retrieving his preternaturally talented sister, at the cost of his family fortune and cherished vocation — though he, at least, is spared the ultimate sacrifice. It’s an incidental reward that Simon’s rescue of River uncovers the immoral experimentations of the Alliance. The siblings are lucky enough to find a hearth with the lovesome if unruly Serenity crew, where River has a hope of healing and both can forge meaningful lives.

Michael/Spock is a sentimentalized yet touching variation on Electra and Orestes. The Powers that Be mapped Michael’s character development primitively (Season 1: Logiiic! Season 2: Emotionnn!!), though it gradually emerges that she’s named after the warrior archangel for valid reasons. She also suffers from a surfeit of parents, but I’m happy that she’s granted not one but two mothers who do a whole lot more with their lives than mothering, and even happier that she evolves into a formidable mover and shaker in her own right who’s allowed a lover (standard bumps are put in that path, but at least they’re not the career-versus-family cliché). Even rarer is that the series also lets her love her little brother and be loved by him without faux-edgy penalties. Of all the interaction arcs in Star Trek – and beyond – that’s the least trodden.

[Parenthesis 1: Spock’s total silence on the topic of a sister was a major roadblock for original-universe Star Trek fans. By the end of season 2, Discovery managed to have its cake and eat it, too: remain canon by virtue of industrious retrofitting, but also allow AU scenarios by catapulting Discovery to where none has gone before. The crew that stayed behind is as interesting and fresh as the one that went ahead…and by adding Section 31 goings-on we face the prospect of at least three series, with potentially huge lunchbox/paraphernalia lucre.]

Spock’s inner conflicts, echoed by Michael’s, remain compelling and poignant. In Discovery he reconciles with his adopted sister after a long estrangement and they help each other in crucial ways (to say nothing of the universe’s long-term future). Of course, this is a Hollywood series and a franchise captive to both tradition and profit. So the derring-do is arbitrarily ratcheted for unearned drama. Nevertheless, in a manner that’s unusually quiet for Hollywood, brother and sister enable each other to fulfill their immense potential. The ending is a trailblazer on several levels: their adieu is stark and in minor key; it also shows Spock – a potent cultural icon of long standing – first willing to follow his sister into the unknown, then acknowledging her as his lodestar and role model. Mind-boggling that this happened only in 2019, but at least it happened.

[Parenthesis 2: What made a crucial difference, to me at least, was Ethan Peck’s take on Spock. It’s a welcome original angle (as much as that’s possible with the character). I vastly prefer his interpretation to Zachary Quinto’s, though some of this is leakage: I detest the reboot, which has totally abandoned Star Trek’s exploring mindset for Fast-n-Furious-in-Spaaace grinding noises.]

Sister-brother love is a hybrid like Spock, like Michael – poised between that of mates and parents/offspring, between agape and eros. It shares some of the frisson of the former, the deep hooks into the solar plexus of the latter. The next cycle of Discovery may be interesting – and, who knows, that of Enterprise as well if the producers choose parallel developments (those lunchboxes…). But it won’t have Amanda Grayson’s children of the heart urging each other to ever greater achievement. Nor is it likely that Whedon will add to the Serenity/Firefly ‘Verse. Everything must come to an end. But the gatherer-hunter part of me wishes I could see more of Michael with Spock, River with Simon…in their full flowering.

Postscript: I predict that in future seasons Discovery will be allowed to do the occasional deus-ex-machina foray into the “regular” space of Enterprise, if only for Michael to stock up on hugs with Spock, her adoptive parents & Tyler.

Related Articles:

Iskander, Khan Tengri

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Hidden Histories; or, Yes, Virginia, Romioi are Eastern European

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

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

Mystique: The True Leader of the X-Men

Mad Max: Feral Kids and Chosen Families

Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

Of Fast Micro-Sails and Slow Swashbucklers

Images: 1st, The Dead Brother’s Song (etching, Katraki); 2nd, twin bear cubs

Minna Sundberg’s Silent World

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019

While confined to bed by a chest cold, I read the entire Book 1 of Minna Sundberg’s Stand Still, Stay Silent webcomic (SSSS to aficionados) in one go. She’s an assured, accomplished stylist — the scapes and maps are simply breathtaking. The premise is interesting, the use of the Scandinavian and Finnish background is original in the comics context, the mix of “cozy” dystopian near-future SF and mythic magic mostly works, the humor is quirky and subtle, the moments of genuine anguish are wrenching. But the content doesn’t match the style in quality (in all fairness, an endemic issue in comics).

Sundberg was in her early twenties when she started SSSS and it shows in how she depicts age. I quickly got fed up with the three (eventually four) angsty self-absorbed bishonen; and the decision to make the one girl among the young contingent of the high-risk mission both a mundane and fridging material for the all-important boys left me totally underwhelmed. Character-wise, I preferred the prologue: it had a better age mix and illustrated normal messy human interactions well. Most of the disasters that happen in the main story are directly due to the protagonists’ extreme youth, lack of experience and lousy social skills.

There are no sexual or romantic relationships in the main story; all the real friendships are bromances between the four boys who are depicted as androgynous, Wraeththu in the making: tossings of fabulous hair and less fabulous tempers abound. The main story has coming of age arcs for the boys (well, up to low double-digit emotional age)…and a stoic suicide for the girl, whose “necessary” fate reminded me uncomfortably of the authorial mindset that dictated a girl’s death in “The Cold Equations”. One of the boys in SSSS, in an identical starting spot as the girl, not only survives but is additionally rewarded with the discovery he has magic powers.

On the plus side, the societies remain egalitarian and sturdily matter-of-fact post-apocalypse (the remnant tech is way higher than warranted by the specifics, but it’s good not to have the customary brutal survival narratives for once) and the two “old” members of the mission show a welcome inversion of the standard gender roles: the woman is a Valkyrie-type warrior with the temperament that goes with it, whereas the man is an unflappable medic who acts as den mother and has read enough to know/remember that logogram-based languages are not mysterious runes. He also looks like 50 though he’s ostensibly 34 (I wonder if they practice ice floe culling in this universe when people start looking “gross” by teenage criteria) and is chubby. The other roundy is the sacrificial girl, to distinguish her further from the willowy bishonen in addition to her lack of either prowess or magic.

Not surprisingly, given its location and the preferred age bracket of its protagonists, the SSSS cast exhibits very limited physical variation. Nationalities are signaled by differences in hair color: Icelanders boast copper tresses, other Scandinavians gold, Finns silver. “Old” people’s hair fades to uniform brown though two frumpy “ancient” women (probably in their fifties) in helpmate roles have black hair. That said, it’s a fact that Icelanders are among the world’s most homogeneous populations and geno/phenotypic diversity would decrease further after a global epidemic like the one posited in SSSS.

One fascinating aspect of SSSS is that this universe is governed by the Scandinavian and Finnish pantheons but not in the heavy-handed intervention mode made familiar by the Thor Marvel franchise. Instead it’s a shamanic mode that focuses on dreamtime and the uncanny (the Swan of Tuonela and a nightmare version of Sleipnir are prominent presences, as are spirit and flesh animal familiars), retaining the quietness of the Silent World.

I liked SSSS despite its irritating protagonists — the dazzling wide-angle panels and mythic segments have stuck in my memory — and I’m curious to see what Sundberg will do if/when she grows past her neoteny.

Image: The SSSS main crew (one of many artworks related to the webcomic at the creator’s site).

Naming Names

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

Today, while procrastinating over doing a stressful task, I pondered a connection between two seemingly unrelated items.

The first was an FB post by Anil Menon about one of the kerfuffles that endemically erupt in SFF. Some of it had to do with so-called “hard” SF, of which I wrote in “To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club” (though I had equally hard words for those who have zero familiarity with scientific concepts and the scientific mindset, yet demand that their work be considered SF); but some had to do with the fact that names get often mispronounced by people from other cultures, especially if they’re monolingual.

The second was a brief review of Kingsolver’s recent novel, Unsheltered, by Kelly Jennings. It apparently features two characters with Greek ancestry. My curiosity aroused, I read the Amazon sample to discover that one of them is called (by the author in 3rd person POV and, worse yet, by his wife of thirty years) “Iano”. Which annoyed me no end, because the English phonetic rendering that comes closest to this diminutive of “Ioánnis” or “Yiánnis” (puristic and demotic forms of John respectively) is “Yiánnos” for the nominative, “Yiánno” for the genitive, accusative and vocative.

Both my names get constantly — often grotesquely — mispronounced, even by the “wokest” people who go on endlessly about oppressions while remaining firmly embedded in parochial mindsets. I consider name mispronunciation lazy at best, but more often a not-so-subtle undermining maneuver; it makes me like and trust a person less when they do so more than once. But there’s no question that each language hard-codes default pronunciation settings in its speakers’ brains. I suspect I’d get a name from a tonal language seriously wrong the first time I uttered it, and I used to mispronounce tons of English words I had encountered solely in books. So I’m willing to give people the benefit of a first-order doubt. But those who fancy themselves wordsmiths and/or imagination pioneers should know — and do — better.

Long postscript:

After catching annoying glimpses of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (as described above), I borrowed it from the local library. To give you the kernel first, spare your time and gray matter, and read Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures instead.
 
Kingsolver’s tendency to preachiness shows at its worst in Unsheltered, obscuring the very real issue at the center of the book: namely, the relentless and dangerous erosion of the US middle class. The 19th century intercalation was clumsily executed, its dialogue incredibly stilted, and it was barely linked to its contemporary bookend. Unsheltered desperately needed a fearless, learned editor equipped with a set of carving knives and chisels.
 
On a more specific matter, the perfunctory Greek “decoration” in Unsheltered is appalling: the incorrect use of “Iano” instead of “Yiannos”; Iano’s (barf) one-note use of “moro” as an endearment, (which is always accompanied by a possessive when rarely used in such a context, otherwise it means “stupid”); the use of Greek exclusively for raw obscenities; the wholesale loathsomeness of the grandfather — not that Unsheltered brims with nice folks. IMO, Tig is the only character who becomes borderline likeable in Unsheltered (and Mary Treat could have become interesting, had she been drawn with less generic strokes).

The Fashionable Virtue-Signaling of “White Women’s Tears”

Sunday, November 18th, 2018

I just saw Lady Macbeth, based on Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (also made into an opera that almost got Dmitri Shostakovitch sentenced to Siberia for rather obvious reasons). The film has magnificent cinematography — the Yorkshire moors never fail to form a mesmerizing backdrop — and a ferocious, career-making performance by Florence Pugh, 19 at the time. Those with Netflix access will see her equally spirited and charismatic as Elizabeth de Burgh, stalwart partner of Robert the Bruce, unfortunately played by Chris Pine.

However, Lady Macbeth stumbles in trying to shoehorn a facile, shallowly treated racial angle into an film that has (too) many messages about gender and class; and the critics made this worse by deciding to call a cast member, who’s an USian of Armenian ancestry, “a person of color” (if he is, so am I — in such classifications, the “woke” ultra-PC are as primitive and tone-deaf as their supremacist adversaries).  We can/should celebrate and firmly keep in memory the very real (and often dramatic) presences and contributions of people who found themselves between, from the two famous Alexanders — Pushkin and Dumas — to Dido Elizabeth Belle. Speaking of Belle, the riveting issue of a mixed-race upperclass male heir is posited in Lady Macbeth only to be left almost entirely unexplored, whereas Leskov’s novella is rigorous yet subversive in its character and plot logic.

The fact is, the servants in Lady Macbeth would have been treated exactly as shown no matter what their color: class, ethnicity and religion defined humanity at that particular nexus, and the Irish (and the Greeks and…) of the 18th and 19th century were treated as subhuman regardless of hair and skin tones.  This, incidentally, is also true of the recent remake of Wuthering Heights: Heathcliff is subtly coded as Irish in the original, and Emily Brontë (whose father’s unmodified name was Prunty, and whose entire family spoke in strong Irish accents, according to witnesses) wrote her paradigm-shattering novel when the Irish famine was gathering force.

It’s important to look at classics through new lenses, but selective historic amnesia is a particularly myopic one to choose. Progressives have made both a tactical and a moral error by erasing class (age, too, incidentally) from the intersectional grievance list. Lady Macbeth‘s framing fits too patly into the “white women’s tears” narrative so beloved of pseudo-pious powermongers.  If only it were that neat and easy, grasshoppas.  And, yes, before someone hastens to “educate” me, I’m fully aware of the behavior of ruling-class women in the Confederate South, British colonies — but also in such less-visited enclaves as Ottoman, sub-Saharan, Brahmin and Han households with their punitive mothers-in-law and tai-tai.

Images: 1st, Katherine (Florence Pugh) in Lady Macbeth; 2nd, Dido Elizabeth Belle (cropped from David Martin’s famous portrait of Dido with Elizabeth Murray, her cousin and co-ward of Lord Mansfield).

Related articles:

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

The Hue (and Cry) of Stormtroopers

Anything for a Son

Procrustean Beds

 

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 Time Between

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Video Interview for Feminist Futures Storybundle

Wednesday, March 14th, 2018

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

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

Public Service Announcement

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

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

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

Anything for a Son

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Related Articles

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

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

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Where are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

 

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

 

Music: Henellas, Maniot pirate song

Byzantium in Speculative Fiction

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

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

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

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

Relevant related posts:

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

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Caesars and Caesar Salads

Yes, Virginia, Romioí are Eastern European

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

Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

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

Launch of The Reckless

Monday, March 27th, 2017

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

******

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

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

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

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

To Shape the Dark: Liner Notes, Part 1

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

M. Fenn: Chlorophyll Is Thicker than Water

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

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

 

C. W. Johnson: The Age of Discovery

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

 

Jacqueline Koyanagi: Sensorium

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

 

Susan Lanigan: Ward 7

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

 

Shariann Lewitt: Fieldwork

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

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

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

Friday, November 25th, 2016

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

Sea Gate full

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bard-Priest: Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016

Friday, November 11th, 2016

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

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

— Cohen, “Priests”

leonard-cohen

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

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

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

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

Convenient Selective Principles

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

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

——

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

——

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

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

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

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

Related posts:

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Wrecker

How Many Swallows Bring Real Spring?

 

Three Fictional Characters

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

Merani Yehan
Meráni tanegír Yehán by Heather D. Oliver

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

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

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

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

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

Please feel free to share your own fictional affinities!

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

To Shape the Dark: Liftoff!

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

shapedark-final-cover-titles1200

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

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

Candlemark & Gleam direct sales
Reviews, interviews
Goodreads

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

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

To Shape the Dark cover: Eleni Tsami

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

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

Unfurling Solar Sails: Yours Truly Acquires Candlemark & Gleam

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

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

Blue Door Stargate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lion Planetfall

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