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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for April, 2007

Iskander, Khan Tengri

Wednesday, April 18th, 2007

khan-tengri.jpg

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.”

Roy Batty, in Blade Runner

In my college junior year, I took two semesters of archeology. Anti-diffusionism was the correct stance in the discipline back then. According to this doctrine, every new thought, every invention arose locally and independently. To say otherwise smacked of cultural imperialism.

Being a lifelong contrary, in my term paper for the first semester I described how Alexander the Great spread Greek culture and language from Siwah to Samarkand (the professors were good sports — they gave me an A). The local cultures were transformed by this influence and in turn transmuted it into such pinnacles as the Gandharan Graeco-Buddhist sculptures and Aristarchus’ heliocentric universe. Alexander’s achievements stayed indelibly in my memory. Having left my own culture, I also sympathized with the double vision he acquired as he observed other ways of living and thinking.

So I was curious to find out how Oliver Stone would handle a figure that fiction editors would reject as entirely unrealistic, except perhaps in superhero cartoons. After I saw the film (and even more so after I saw Revisited, its final version) I was puzzled by the spate of poisonous reviews it received, especially when compared to such clunkers as Troy, Apocalypto and 300. Granted, it was uneven, self-conscious, as subtle as a club and adolescently coy about Alexander’s bisexuality, a norm for most aristocratic warrior cultures throughout history. It also gave absurdly contemporary motivations — coupled with tone-deaf dialogue — to people who would have scoffed at Freud and recovery programs.

Yet the film had two unusual features that turned it into “something rich and strange”. One was its relative accuracy (with the glaring exception of the Hydaspes battle which Alexander won, as he did all his battles). But Stone got something else unexpectedly right: the ineffable yearning that distinguished Alexander from all other so-called conquerors.

There were two scenes in particular that gave me the unmistakable frisson of a brush with a fundamental. One came when Alexander stood at a Hindu Kush pass looking down on an endless sea of glittering snowy peaks, gazing east towards Mongolia and China — lands that were then known, if at all, as fables. The other came when the Sogdian women were whirling before him on dark red rugs, part Hindu apsaras, part Altaic shamans. The details of the dance were undoubtedly incorrect. Yet it plucked a deep chord, this visual shorthand of the new paths opened by Alexander’s passing, like the filaments of a nebula created by a nova explosion.

Alexander was one of T. E. Lawrence’s “dreamers of the day”. He had the charisma and great appetites of the extravagantly gifted. At heart he was an avid explorer who wanted to reach the end of the world. As an Iron Age king with an army, he pursued his quest conventionally, by engaging a convenient enemy. Yet he kept no plunder for himself, brought a bevy of scientists wherever he went, and was so receptive to the cultures he encountered that he angered his Macedonians, who preferred the rape-and-pillage approach. Characteristically, a sudden longing prompted his marriage to Roxanne and he wanted to leave not a dynasty but an immortal legacy.

With his ardent wish to excel, his denial of limitations, his thirst to know what was beyond the horizon, Alexander was the quintessential Westerner: ever seeking, never satisfied. No wonder his men rebelled when his goals exceeded their fixed mental boundaries, despite the marvels that they got to see because of his insatiable roaming. It is ironic that he went east, into cultures that were not only immobilized by their sophistication but also less defiant than the one which imbued him with the values that determined his trajectory.

It would be a cliché to conclude that hubris was Alexander’s nemesis. Stone identifies the real culprit by having Ptolemy say, “The dreamers exhaust us. They must die before they kill us with their blasted dreams.” Alexander’s killers were the increasing loneliness that engulfs a visionary who has the wrong context for his vision; the sense of failure that eventually overwhelms a romantic who can never achieve enough; and the uncritical adoration and hatred that focus like laser beams on extraordinary people, leading to loss of perspective and extremes.

Alexander was a brilliant strategist, a phenomenally brave warrior, a magnetic leader who led by example. He also seemed profoundly aware that the world held endless wonders and possibilities. The universe was his true home. And the universe is too vast and lonely, unless you have like-minded companions on the journey to keep you sane. Had Alexander lived and gone west as he intended, he would have fitted well among the fierce, demon-ridden Celts and Norse who understood larger-than-life figures. I see him crossing the Atlantic, taking an Iroquois mate and following the sun — to the Plains people, whose vision quests were kin to his own; to Japan, perhaps already obsessed with notions of honor as Homeric as his.

In Greek lore, Alexander’s sister turned into a mermaid when she heard of his death. She got hold of ships and asked their crews, “Does Alexander live?” Wise sailors replied in the affirmative. Within ten years Alexander changed the world in ways that still reverberate today. By trying to live like a legend, he became one — the exemplar of the human spirit that bursts through its perishable frame as it reaches for the ever-beyond: our blessing and our curse.

——-

Iskander (Persian): Alexander

Khan Tengri (Uighur): Lord of the Skies; also the name of the most impressive peak of the Tengri Tagh (Tien Shan) range, the farthest northeastern point that Alexander reached.

range-of-peaks.jpg

Art images: Skymountain courtesy of NASA archives
Bust of Alexander by Leochares (Acropolis Museum)
High Caucasus photo by Vladimir Kobilov

Making Aliens 6: The Descendants

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

dna7.gifThe Repercussions of Planetary Settlement

by Athena Andreadis

Art image: David Noever, NASA/Marshall Flight Center

Part 6: The Descendants

Among its consequences, genetic engineering may also reverse a problematic human trend towards biological homogenization which is as dull and dangerous as its cultural equivalent. By eventually recognizing that we are one species and interbreeding enthusiastically to celebrate that fact, we have stopped our further evolution by extinguishing isolated breeding pools. We have overtaken earth, first by being adaptable, then by dint of our technology. From a jaundiced ecological viewpoint, the recent explosion of humanity has been likened to a lemming population boom or a moth infestation. Such booms are invariably followed by busts — and in our case, a crash would also mean irreversible loss of technology.

From our very beginnings, we tended to consider ourselves the jewel in the crown of creation. We believed that at least some of us had been created in the image of the local deity. Yet by considering our germ line sacrosanct, we have painted ourselves in a biological corner. Each terrestrial species has a finite lifespan. Moreover, most successful species branch, whereas we humans are down from a half dozen relatives to a single representative — Homo Sapiens sapiens. If we insist in remaining unchanged, without evolving or radiating, we may degenerate and disappear without intervention of a great catastrophe either from something home-brewed like war or from a random event, such as the impact of a rogue comet. We’ll blink out not with a bang, but with a whimper.

In that respect, our absolute dominance in our current configuration has not served us well for the next step. Deeply embedded in all our plans and ideas is the not-so-hidden assumption that we will fundamentally remain as we are. But the difference between living on Earth and anywhere else is qualitatively different from living in New York versus living in the Arctic. Almost certainly, if we really wish to go into space as long-term explorers, rather than as tourists, we will have to accept radical change — and with it the disquieting possibility that we will not be the crowning spire of the next cycle, but its foundation.

Interestingly enough, we actually seem to be designed for rapid speciation. The successive branchings of the humanoid group have come at ever shorter intervals: the genus Homo arose 5 million years ago; Sapiens, 0.5 million years ago; Sapiens sapiens, 0.05 million years ago. If you put 1,000 people in a row, the first in the line would be the very first Cro-Magnon, the last in line one of us. Our species is actually very young, and almost certainly in biological flux — except for our insistence that we are the perfected end product.

Settling on other planets will speciate humanity even if we forego genetic engineering, because it will create relatively isolated breeding pools in circumstances radically different from those on earth. Human groups also developed characteristics specific to their terrestrial environment — the Mongolian epicanthic fold, the heat-efficient Inuit compactness, the heat-dissipating Tutsi lankiness, the enlarged heart of the Nepalese and Ecuadorians; last but not least melanin, whose dosage increased where appropriate to provide shelter from sunburn, unwittingly causing humanity endless woes. Genetic alleles that are anathema today spread quickly and widely through populations for very good reasons in the past: a mutant hemoglobin made carriers resistance to malaria, while killing homozygotes with sickle cell anemia; a mutant ion transporter did the same for cholera, but killed homozygotes with cystic fibrosis. Between the expense of interstellar travel and the discomfort from different gravity, pressure and other planetary specifics, we will see differentiation much faster.

Speciation means this, in practical terms: At some point, the pools will no longer be able to interbreed. Our colonials will not just have different accents. They won’t be Brazilian Portuguese, or Egyptiot Greeks — or even those real aliens, Australians. They will no longer be humans as we define the term. To put in succinctly, they will not be someone that we can easily love either in the fundamental biological sense or in the equally influential cultural one — and in the end, that is the commonality that binds us.

In that respect, TV science fiction has served us poorly, by depicting humanoid aliens as ersatz samurai like the Klingons or fake Tibetans like the Bajorans. Written science fiction has done much better in presenting visions of such offshoots of humanity — for example, Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite and Cherryh’s Forty Thousand in Gehenna. In effect, by sending out long-term planetary expeditions, we will create aliens more surely than by leaving picnic trash on an uninhabited planet. Our first alien encounter, beyond earth just as it was on earth, will be with ourselves as seen through the distorting mirror of divergent evolution.

The differentiation of humans into truly separate branches will force us to face our hard-wired fear of anyone who is almost like us, but not quite. The last true such encounter was roughly 40,000 years ago, between the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnon, though it has been replayed in countless first contact situations between cultures ever since (not to mention the exchanges between the sexes). Ever since humans became sapient, they enhanced their self-esteem and justified their raids by insisting that those beyond the next hill (or for that matter, those cleaning their latrines and/or bearing their children) were subhuman, despite the indisputable and well-known fact that all aliens were fully human by the sole criterion that is biologically relevant; namely, production of offspring.

Such xenophobia was once a survival mechanism, but now it’s as useful as our appendix and wisdom teeth. And despite our other strengths, embracing the alien is decidedly not high on our list of attributes. Certain segments of the scientific and space aficionado communities have been cheerfully discussing how to interact with Little Green Women and Men. Well, the armchair philosophers will get the chance to practice their theory when humanity splits into groups of cousins who won’t look like the usual Hollywood brands of benevolent aliens — not like angels, not like human newborns and not like snuggly, cuddly Ewoks.

This prospect is one of the scariest aspects of venturing into space, yet at the same time one of the most exciting. It’s also a development that will guarantee the survival if not of our species, then certainly of our legacy. It has taken us a long time to reach a fragile and imperfect unity, cemented by the understanding that we are all really one large family. To go to the next stage, we must voluntarily renounce that unity and relax our iron grip on the evolution that we have arrested. After all, don’t forget that if not for sudden jumps in speciation, most of them caused by environmental pressures — an asteroid hit here, an Ice Age there — we wouldn’t be here. Planetary settlement helped along by judicious application of genetic engineering is merely the continuation of this trend, except that some of the process will be under our control. Stasis ends in death not only culturally but also biologically. If we don’t go into the next stage, our descendants won’t just lead lives devoid of meaning, doomed to repeat outworn patterns in the confines of a worn out planet. They will also peter out, dead branches of a dried-up tree.

If we allow ourselves to grow up and give rise to other sapients, it’s quite possible that our descendants will be as kind to us as we were to our ancestral species. However, whether we like each other or not, I hope that they inherit our curiosity, because that’s the one indispensable ingredient for success. And despite all the caveats I listed, I think we will venture to the stars — for knowledge, for glory, but above all, because we thirst to know what is behind the next bend in the path. Compared to the oceans that we and our inheritors will navigate, our efforts until now are like the launching of paper boats in a bird fountain.

“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, the gods have seen to that.”

Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, by Aeschylus

Making Aliens 5: Playing God II

Friday, April 6th, 2007

flight.jpgThe Repercussions of Planetary Settlement

by Athena Andreadis

Art image: Fireflood, by Vonda McIntyre

Artist unnamed

Part 5: Playing God II

The expression genetic engineering automatically raises hackles — especially in Europe, as the flap over engineered foostuffs attests. One reason for this is its novelty: the concept of the heliocentric system sounded equally incendiary and blasphemous when it was first discussed, to the point of getting several of its adherents burned at the stake. Another is its whiff of hubris. Altering the human germ line is considered equivalent to playing god and incompatible with free will (a strange correlative, since no human has even chosen her/his parents, gender or time and place of birth). In fact, most people seem to use the words genetic engineering and eugenics interchangeably and, granted, they do overlap and can be used for nefarious ends like any other application of scientific knowledge.

Yet we do protest too much, and we know it. Everything that humans touch they engineer, whether these items are animate or inanimate. All our foods, vegetable or animal, all our clothes or structural materials which are not synthetic, our pets, our royal families, from the Levites to the Incas to the Hapsburgs, are the results of genetic engineering. Too, segments of humanity have practiced inbreeding for racial, cultural or even financial reasons — and several cultures have additionally constricted their genotypic variety by selectively killing or aborting their daughters.

We have also practiced reverse genetic engineering by allowing the continuation of genotypes that would normally have become extinct — from the short-sighted and disabled, who would have ended up inside the stomachs of a lioness pride under normal circumstances, to hemophiliacs who would have bled to death from a minor scratch before reaching their reproductive years.

Genetic engineering has advantages that outweigh those of terraforming by a wide margin, in my opinion. Genetic engineering requires neither nuclear bombs nor mirrors the size of a solar system. Its results can be seen within a few years, given the generation time of most terrestrial species, compared with the millennia of terraforming. Also, whereas terraforming is a linear, one-shot deal, genetic engineering resembles parallel processing in that several lines of inquiry can be pursued concurrently.

Last but decidedly not least, genetic engineering may well turn out to be economical. Species not so good for one world may well thrive on another. The hubris involved in genetic engineering is several orders of magnitude smaller than that involved in terraforming. At least we’re good at the former, as the variety and quality of our foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals attest. Nor would we be condemning entire worlds or species to destruction. Terraforming is a battering ram, genetic engineering is a scalpel. Which one would you prefer for a delicate, complex operation — whether this is repairing a watch, performing a heart bypass or fine-tuning a new world?

Part 6: The Descendants