Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for August, 2009

I Prefer My Prawns Well-Seasoned

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

district_nineI saw District 9 yesterday.  This gory bore won an 88% rating at the Tomatometer?  As well as rave reviews from intelligent, well-educated people across the age spectrum?  Once again, as with Star Wars, I find myself wondering if I’m in a parallel universe.

After a gritty documentary-style start with an interesting premise, the film abandons all pretense of depth or subtlety and becomes a derivative, unrelenting splatterfest.  Toss Alien Nation, The Fly and Enemy Mine in a bowl, add a splash of Cry, The Beloved Country and Starship Troopers, mix a bit of E. T. and Close Encounters — not forgetting Kafka’s Metamorphosis with some Robocop dressing and a pinch of Chaplin via Wall-e… and you get an idea of what a jumble of recycled clichés District 9 is.

Coherence, scientific or any other kind, is non-existent.  The aliens are insectoid and seem to have castes differing in mental capacity, yet all appear to be male (since they reproduce by laying eggs, either females or hermaphrodites would be prominently represented or they would have a queen; and if the latter, the humans could have stopped their reproduction cycle by killing her).  They have bio-weapons that humans cannot use — yet the aliens can’t use them either until the mutating human’s genetic signature begins to match the weapons’ trigger setting. Their ship has remained stubbornly dead for twenty years, but activates instantly when the plot demands it.  The black fluid one of them creates is good for everything, from powering ships to altering DNA.  Two individuals with totally different physiologies become buddies.  There’s also the obligatory precocious tot (addressed, with numbing predictability, as “son” by “his father”).  The upper-caste aliens have completely human motives and responses.  All the humans except one are single-note stereotypes.  And the quasi-sympathetic anti-hero undergoes a Lamarckian change that’s as bogus as the uplifting life-lesson that accompanies it.

district9The cruelties of segregation, the plight of refugees, our treatment of Others — those are burning subjects.  So is the question of how we would interact with sentient aliens.  None of them gets real treatment here.  Instead, the film manipulates its viewers into feeling virtuous by being superficially “daring”.  District 9 is neither science fiction nor social commentary; it’s violence porn — or, as producer Peter Jackson himself called it on io9, splatstick.

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

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

hemanSeveral decades ago, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) wrote a story in which aliens eyeing the lush terrestrial real estate introduce something in the water or the air that makes men kill women and girls systematically, rather than in the usual haphazard fashion.  Recent events have made me wonder if a milder version of Tiptree’s Screwfly Solution might be affecting the brains of self-defined “technoprogressive visionaries”… in which case we’re doomed if not to extinction, at minimum to a future that will make Saudi Arabia seem paradisiacal.

Exhibit 1: The upcoming Singularity Summit, exclusively a white boys’ treehouse, about which I wrote more extensively in Girl Cooties Menace the Singularity!

Exhibit 2:  The upcoming Mammoth Book of Mindblowing Science Fiction, modestly subtitled The 21 Finest Stories of Awesome Science Fiction.  I know two of the authors in it personally, and consider one a friend.  Nevertheless, all the stories are (rewind tape) by American or British white men.  When called on this, the editor of the collection explained that stories by women didn’t peg his mindblowing meter, because “women write more about people and their feelings”.  Oooh, these nasty girl cooties again!  Not to mention that if there are no people in a piece of writing, it’s called a manual.

Exhibit 3: The Lifeboat Foundation discussion list which, unfortunately for anthropologists and cartoonists, is not public.  In it, self-identified visionaries agree (in harmonious accord with fundamentalists) that the scarcity and silence of women in most mindblowing places are natural outcomes of such proven attributes as “alpha male rape genes” and women’s “wired for coyness” brains.  These people are not even remotely acquainted with biology, but feel completely entitled to pose as experts because they’ve written clunky science fiction and now collect speakers’ fees as futurists.  I discussed another aspect of this in On Being Bitten to Death by Ducks.

Intrinsically, these occurrences are as worthy of attention as the whining of a mosquito swarm.  However, one reason that Pod People come to mind is that the excuses have been identical in all three cases. The litany goes as follows:

1.    We can’t have population quota representation, because this is all about superior quality/qualifications that non-males and non-whites simply lack.
2.    Would you rather we included token women and minorities?
3.    My wife/girlfriend/mistress/concubine is a feminist and/or non-white and she agrees with me.
4.    Your humorless PC hysteria alienates those who would support you if only you were polite.

flingpoolmaoOf course, parity is not even remotely demanded — a mere one or two representatives often suffice as a sop (to such lows have we fallen). The bleatings about qualifications and tokenism are absurd, given the vast, stellar non-male non-white talent pool.  The excuses sound even lamer (if not malicious) when one scans the predictable, often mediocre, rolodex-friend picks actually made in cases 1 and 2 above… and in more instances than I care to recall at other times.

In the vast majority of cases, non-male non-whites are overqualified for whatever position or role they are chosen to fill.  The tokenism excuse has been obliterated countless times no matter how often the goalposts move, particularly when evaluations are made truly blind.  Whenever musicians audit behind screens, or names are removed from manuscripts and grant or college applications, the number of women and non-whites skyrockets.  As soon as Harvard adopted blind admissions in my junior year, the girl to boy ratio went from 1:7 to 1:3 in one year, just from the incoming class.  This was immediately followed by shrieks of rage by alumni, who whined that more girls would lower Harvard’s standards as well as its reputation.  These, by the way, were mostly legacy admissions that had scraped by on gentlemen’s Cs.

So what we have here are people so embedded in their privilege that pointing it out to them instantly strips away the progressive veneer and elicits poop-flinging that would make a baboon blush.  Women and other Others are still furniture – and though furniture is useful and can be decorative, it’s not supposed to move, dammit!  From there it’s a short jump to the transhumanist vision of a world where, as the Sad Children cartoon says, “being white and rich will be even more awesome” – and where all others will be either properly docile courtesy of happifying pills or outright extinct in favor of infinitely malleable cyborg dolls.

I think that true equality will come when non-white non-males can be as mediocre as white men.  And when that time comes, I guarantee you that the quality of mindblowing anthologies won’t budge.  In the meantime, we’ll have to make do with the overqualified Others that occasionally squeak past the endless hazing gauntlet – if the stuff in the water doesn’t get us first.


Update: Graham Sleight reviewed Ashley’s collection in Strange Horizons… and his mind was decidedly underblown.  A fellow traveler of feminazis?  Objective pundits should investigate!

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

“But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”  Monique Wittig, Les Guerillères

la-parisienneA story of mine, Dry Rivers, just appeared in Crossed Genres. It takes place in an alternate universe in which the Minoan civilization survives the Thera eruption. Coincidentally, I recently finished a book by Dr. Cathy Gere, Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism. The author discusses how the Minoan civilization served as a mirror that reflected the social biases of the era of its discovery – particularly of its idiosyncratic excavator, Arthur Evans.

During the Bronze Age, several major civilizations blossomed contemporaneously around the Eastern Mediterranean. Many are familiar to most Westerners, if only by name – the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Hittites. But one was sui generis: the Minoans. Despite their extraordinary achievements, we know a lot less about them than we know about their neighbors. Their alphabet, Linear A, remains undeciphered. Nor do we know what language they spoke, though a few Minoan words still adorn the Greek tongue, such as thálassa (sea), lavírinthos (labyrinth, house of the double axes), hyákinthos (hyacinth) and kypárissos (cypress).

I have always been haunted and beguiled by that lost civilization. Most of my fiction, whether of the past or the future, fantasy or science fiction, involves the Minoans. Not only are they part of my biological and cultural legacy; they were also unique. Minoan art is instantly recognizable. It is possible that the Minoan civilization might have changed the flow of history, had it not been literally snuffed out by the apocalyptic explosion of the Thera (Santorini) volcano. Such was the magnitude of the catastrophe that it became a potent, defining myth that echoes down the ages, from Plato’s Timaeus to Tolkien’s Númenor: the drowning of Atlantis.

How distinctive and advanced were the Minoans? Cathy Gere argues that they were not. She suggests that the attempt to portray Minoan Crete as a pacifist, matriarchal haven of high sophistication is not supported by the archaeological evidence, but is mostly a fantasy (largely created by Evans) to act as a paregoric to a world reeling from several major wars. Gere’s style is vivacious, articulate, elegant – and she knows her history. It is also true that Evans’ reconstructions of the Knossos palatial complex and its frescoes were heavy-handed and arbitrary. And in time-honored archeological fashion, he withheld evidence and suppressed careers that contradicted his theories.

If Gere’s book were your only source on the Minoans, you would come away well informed, highly entertained and with the impression that they were just a standard variant of the Bronze Age Levantine cultural recipe. And since Linear A has not been deciphered, the Minoans cannot tell their own story. However, extensive frescoes and other artifacts that have been gradually emerging from Akrotiri, the Theran equivalent of Pompei, support major portions of Evans’ theory. Because burial under volcanic ash kept everything intact, no question of false reconstruction intrudes. The frescoes didn’t adorn palaces, but residential houses. This fact alone says something about the Minoan culture. So does the finding that the houses were multi-storied and had hot and cold running water – amenities forgotten by their successors and the rest of Europe for almost four millennia.


Even more indicative are the subjects of the frescoes: women gather saffron crocuses, boys box, crowds watch a regatta in a harbor, swallows intertwine over lilies, gazelles gambol. War is conspicuously absent – not a single battle scene, not one weapon, not even a chariot. Gods and kings, with their usual smitings, are also conspicuously absent. The focus is on nature and daily activities. This is true of all Minoan art, from frescoes to pots to seals. Too, there is a fluidity and exuberance that sets Minoan art apart from its Egyptian and Babylonian equivalents, which are oppressive with their will to power despite their beauty. And women are everywhere, always more prominent and detailed than the men, in stark contrast to their absence or subordinate status in the art of Crete’s contemporaneous neighbors.

In all other Bronze Age East Mediterranean cultures, the Great Goddess (Isis, Ishtar, Inanna) suffered dethronement at the hands of her Consort/Son. But in Crete she retained her primacy till the Mycenaeans arrived after the volcano eruption. This does not automatically imply that Minoans were matriarchal or that women enjoyed equal status in Crete. However, the scenes depicted in Minoan art suggest that women had significant rights and were active and valued participants in society. This is not surprising. Merchant and seafaring cultures are flexible and open to new ideas which they encounter willy-nilly, and Minoan Crete was both: the Egyptian, Babylonian and Hittite archives as well as the economic system deduced from the excavations indicate that the Minoan hegemony was light-handed, localized, sea-based and economic rather than military.

There is no doubt that Minoan Crete was not the utopian paradise that Evans envisioned. For one, if the Minoans had insisted on wearing only white helmets, they wouldn’t have lasted long enough to leave any legacy, wedged as they were between nations intent on empire. For another, the Minoans did have social classes: distinctions are clearly visible in the frescoes. However, it makes me happy and hopeful to think that there may have been at least one high civilization – the first one in Europe, in fact – that was not intent on conquest, enslavement and slaughter. That once perhaps there existed a people who were content to build and sail merchant ships, create ravishing art, sing harvest songs and love ballads… and gaze at the stars while sipping wine in the warm summer nights of the Aegean.


Further reading:

Introduction to Akrotiri

Minoan portal


Top, “La Parisienne”, Knossos, Crete; Middle, Saffron Gatherers (detail), Akrotiri, Thera; Bottom, Antelopes (oryx), Akrotiri