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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for January, 2010

Readercon 2010

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Yours truly got invited to participate in Readercon 2010.  It’s happening July 8-11 in Burlington (Massachusetts, not Vermont).

Nalo Hopkinson and Charles Stross are this year’s guests of honor. Two friends will also be there, Jack McDevitt (definitely) and Joan Slonczewski (likely).

I may give a talk, be in a panel or both. If you’re thinking of attending, this may help you decide — one way or the other! If you’re there, come say hello (I include a recent photo for identification purposes).

I’ll send a reminder when the event draws near. By then, I will know what I’ll be doing and when.

“Against Stupidity the Gods Themselves Struggle in Vain.”

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Friedrich Schiller

Scott Brown; Cosmopolitan magazine, June 1982

Now the rest of the Cosmo centerfolds know they can be elected to the US Senate. If they’re reactionary rich white men, that is, who march to orders like Caligula’s Senate-nominated horse.

The Democrats should never have forgotten the tale of the scorpion and the frog. Appeasing the now-lunatic fringe Republican party is the equivalent of trying to befriend the creature from Alien.

Welcome to the world of The Handmaid’s Tale. When is the next starship for Tau Ceti??

Contra Mundum

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

Crossed Genres is running a ‘donate for Haiti’ campaign by having SF/F authors link free stories to their site.  Contra Mundum originally appeared in After Hours (all my stories published there can be found in The Realms of Fire). The talented Joanna Barnum graciously gave me permission to use one of her lovely watercolors to enrich the story.  If you like the works, please consider making a donation to one of the charities listed at Crossed Genres.

The Tiger’s Bride © Joanna Barnum

Contra Mundum

by Athena Andreadis

Note: Ariáthne, the maiden aspect of the Minoan Great Goddess, was the Mistress of Animals. Her chariot, like that of her Semitic counterpart, Ishtar, was pulled by lions. There are persistent rumors of mountain lion sightings in the Massachusetts Quabbin Reservoir. No one has proved or disproved their existence.

——-

After an interminable interval of slate-gray skies came one day as clear and hard as a diamond. Ariáthne decided to postpone her — so far fruitless — job search and get out of the city. On the way north, she stopped at the Stoneham zoo. She had never been there before.

Her heart swelled with anger and pity. The animals were crowded, emaciated, sickly. She had left the big cats for last. Many visitors were gawking intently into the tiger pit. It was feeding time; the older, much larger male stood over the beef haunch. He periodically interrupted his eating to slap, with increasing ferocity, the young female that kept stealing up to the food, undaunted by the blows that left bloody furrows in her fur.

Ariáthne walked up to a uniformed keeper. In a voice raspy with checked wrath, she asked:

“If they don’t get along, why do you put them together?”

“We don’t have any more space,” he said helplessly. “It takes ages to have a proposal approved by the committee. We had hoped that they would tolerate each other, but the only way this could happen now is if she were to go in heat. But her weight has dropped so much, that has also become impossible. She’ll die of anemia or concussion. Or they’ll come to their senses and have her put to sleep.”

Ariáthne left, hardly knowing where she was going. She drove to Plum Island, but the beautiful place had suddenly become invisible. Burned onto her retina remained the image of the thin, multiply scarred flank of the tigress. She returned home, sat unmoving till it grew dark. Then she rummaged through her tool chest, selected a crowbar and a large file and left.

——-

She had no difficulty scaling the walls. With such lax security, she was surprised the animals hadn’t been hurt. She timed the comings and goings of the single guard, then set to work. Despite the premature arthritis which was already crippling her fingers, the years of laboratory research had given her discipline and skill. She worked so quietly that the animals were not disturbed — except for the tigress, who had come up to the bars and was watching silently, intently.

Ariáthne finally released the lock and sprinted for the wall. She tumbled into the car, then turned to look. Outlined against the stars, the zoo fence suddenly sprouted a cat-shaped bulge. Without any hesitation, the tigress approached the car in a stately trot.

She is hungry, thought Ariáthne, and fear brushed her mind. The tigress put her face and front paws against the passenger window, transfixing the woman with the lamps of her eyes. Without pausing to think, Ariáthne opened the right door and flipped the seat forward. Soundlessly, the tigress jumped in the back and Ariáthne drove away as fast as the dilapidated engine would bear.

I must be finally going crazy, she moaned to herself. If I don’t get eaten, how am I to explain this to the authorities? The neighbors? My landlord? What will I do, hide her in the bathtub and feed her cockroaches?

The big cat’s musky smell flooded the car. Soon a rumble covered the noise of the engine and Ariáthne knew that her passenger would be civil to the chauffeur.

——-

When they reached her apartment house, she considered carrying the tigress upstairs wrapped in the dusty quilt kept in the car, but she was too tired and her package too heavy. So she opted for the matter-of-fact approach and simply used the stairs, since everyone else seemed to only employ the elevators. The tigress didn’t need much coaxing. Once in the tiny apartment, she investigated it minutely. The two resident cats initially reacted with agitation; however, they eventually decided that she smelled like their long-lost mother. Shortly thereafter, all three formed a tight, snoring coil on the bed. Exhausted, and aware that her blankets were being subjected to major shedding, Ariáthne grumpily rearranged the inert mass enough to carve out a small niche for herself. Lulled by the purring and warmth, she instantly sailed into slumber.

She awoke to snuffling and discovered that she was being examined as thoroughly as her apartment had previously been. The alarm clock showed late afternoon; the light through the window was already amber. Realizing that no one had been fed for the last twelve hours, she ran out, praying that in her absence the intra-feline truce might still prevail.

As she entered the elevator, staggering under the weight of six pounds of hamburger, she saw a note on the elevator wall: “Fumigation tomorrow, 9 am to 2 pm. Please remove all pets from your apartment.” Well, she would have to put the cats on the fire ladder as usual. What a nuisance — as if it had ever made a dent into the cockroach hordes. And then she remembered.

She went in, fed everybody. Then, to clear her mind, and recalling that big cats needed exercise, she snuck into the back alley with her unlikely companion, as soon as the darkness was complete.

——-

She had never liked the place. Dark, dotted with garbage dumps, broken bottles and struggling sumac trees, it mirrored and amplified the alienation around it. She waited uneasily for the tigress to finish, her back against a pillar that once had held an electric lamp. And then, the nape of her neck bristled and her bloodbeat faltered.

“Hey, baby.” He wasn’t loud; didn’t need to be. The alley was a dead end and very dark.

“Show us the good stuff.”

They herded her towards the trash cans against the back of the alley. One carried a knife, the other a short metal pipe. It would do. Tomorrow she would be collected with the rest of the garbage. To her, the weapons were in sharp focus; the rest of them remained a blur.

From the mouth of the alley came a low cough. The taller one clicked his tongue in annoyance.

“Check it out,” he rapped. “Damn old winos. I’ll handle this — you take your turn later.”

The other grumbled under his nose, then loped towards the source of the noise. The one left jabbed her lightly in the midriff with his knife.

“Make it real easy, honey. Maybe we won’t have to mark this pretty face.”

A short scream arose, then was bitten off. The man smirked.

“Sounds like the busybody met my friend. Hey, buddy,” he half-shouted, “come share the goods.”

A quiet pad, pad, pad was approaching. Two phosphorescent orbs appeared, stopped, started slithering towards him. He looked at her, fingered his knife, uncertain.

“This some kind of trick?” he started. “Don’t try to pull…” and then the tigress came into full view, and his voice died.

His knife clattered on the ground; a dark stain started spreading in the front of his trousers. The tigress, disgusted with the lack of spirit in her quarry, half-heartedly closed her jaws over his calf. He collapsed to the ground. She released him, batted him around a few times, gave the equivalent of a shrug and came up to Ariáthne.

Ariáthne looked him over; he was alive, more in shock than hurt. Then she headed out of the alley. There lay the other one, untouched, his eyes frozen open, dead of heart failure.

She went to her car, opened the door, flipped the seat forward. Without demur, the tigress leapt in. Pulling on her gloves, as it was getting bitterly cold, Ariáthne headed westward. She entered the turnpike. At some point, the tigress decided she preferred the front seat, much to Ariáthne’s discomfort. Nevertheless, she felt grateful to have warm fur nestling next to her.

On and on she went, under the brilliance of the Hunters, Procyon, Sirius and Orion. The highway was deserted. She started humming a Springsteen tune, the usual intoxication whenever she was at the wheel stealing upon her. She turned off at the Quabbin Reservoir exit, went all the way to the entrance of the park, climbed over the fence. The tigress followed. Then she let the tigress lead, since she had better night eyes.

When they were well into the foliage, she motioned the tigress forward. Reluctantly, the tigress moved into the bushes, then came back. Ariáthne shooed her on again. This was repeated a few more times. Finally, the tigress came over, rubbed her whole length against Ariáthne and melted away silently into the dark background.

Ariáthne walked slowly back to the car, happiness rippling inside her like waves upon the shore. There had been sightings of mountain lions in the Quabbin. Somehow, they had made their way eastward across the urban sprawls. The tigress would find her own kind. In a few years there would be striped cubs frisking in a hollow — and, with some genetic luck, perhaps the beginning of a new species… Felis Ariathnénsis.

She reached her car, looked back. The sounds and movements of approaching day were starting. In her line of sight, an eagle rose, started riding the thermals upward. A good omen. She smiled; a few hours ago, she thought she would never live to see this sunrise. Now she must go back to attend to her life. It was a good thing the exterminators were coming today — she strongly suspected the tigress had harbored fleas. She headed back east, into the gates of dawn.

Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain

Monday, January 11th, 2010

“And the madness of the crowd is an epileptic fit.”

Tom Waits, In the Colosseum

Lynch_mob2Like anyone who didn’t greet Cameron’s Avatar as The Second Coming, I received predictable responses to my review. Some brave souls were relieved to hear they were not alone in perceiving that the Emperor wore slinky glittery togs but was nevertheless drooling. The percentage of these was higher than I expected, which made me hopeful that humanity may achieve long-term survival without regressing to a resemblance of the Flintstone cartoons.

Some insisted that I didn’t get Avatar’s subtle environment- and native culture-friendly message because I’m a jaded cynic out of touch with cosmic harmonies. These are probably the same people who think that positive thinking cures cancer (addressed sharply – in both senses – by Barbara Ehrenreich in her recent book Bright-Sided). I’ll believe the authenticity of their starry-eyedness when they sell their iPods and SUVs and give the proceeds to the residents of the Pine Ridge reservation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a few called Avatar traitorous liberal propaganda, demonstrating their terminal lack of grasp on concepts. But then, what can one expect of people who voluntarily called themselves teabaggers?

Several exhorted me to “lighten up, it’s only a movie, can’t you stop thinking and just have fun?” This demand is the traditional ploy when someone can’t marshal a real argument – which is one reason why it’s routinely used on inconveniently uppity Others (see Me Tarzan, You Ape for a longer explanation). Them I will leave to the tender ministrations of Moff’s Law, with the added footnote that it’s actually impossible to turn a brain off, short of irreversible coma or death.

Finally, which brings me to this article’s subject, the fanboys shrieked “Die, heretic scum!” Those were hilarious, particularly the ones that pointed out my total ignorance of biology and referred me to the Pandorapedia (no link to this, since I won’t promote brain softening). I was tempted to leave them to their wet fantasies in their parents’ basements. However, inchoate rage of the Incredible Hulk variety is becoming increasingly prevalent in this culture and it extends far beyond the multiplex. I’ve dubbed it the Waterworld Syndrome, because I first articulated it after watching that horrible mess – a movie only in name, but in fact a relentless audiovisual battering.

Hulk Smash LL

The unmistakable sign of a well-wrought book or film is that it puts us in a light trance, emphasis on “light”. We suspend disbelief, immerse ourselves in the universe unfolding before us. Yet we don’t become passive vessels. Large parts of our brain stay busy evaluating the originality and quality of the worldbuilding, the consistency of the plot, the authenticity of the dialogue and characters. If anything jolts us out of this trance, the work immediately becomes as enticing as a flaccid balloon.

Hollywood directors have decided they don’t want to work on any of these aspects. They go through perfunctory motions, relying on lazy shorthand and recycled clichés, while they put their real effort in milking profits from the lunch boxes and video games based on their movies. This is not surprising: many started and/or double as directors for television commercials. Straightforward product placement has become ever more prominent in movies, especially those aimed at younger viewers – which at this point means almost all of them. Focus groups that now routinely “pre-test” movies have removed any pretense that film making is the craft of illuminating narratives that must be told. It’s all about marketing the franchises.

But movies still need to achieve that trance, because viewers are not so zombified as to stop thinking altogether (see note about coma above). Also, directors want a movie to leave enough of an impression that people will buy the associated tchotchkes. So they resort to the Waterworld technique, which consists of arousing the fight-or-flight reflex by sensory overload. In short, they use assaultive special effects. Today’s blockbuster movies, numbingly sequelized, are members of the Doom or Wolfenstein gang, except that they enforce even more passivity than the minimal act of frantically pushing the buttons of an XBox.

The fight-or-flight reflex is an ancient survival mechanism we share with other organisms that have a complex nervous system. Once the reflex is triggered, adrenaline and cortisol spike, the heart rate goes up, the blood supply gets diverted from the viscera and brain to the muscles, glucose floods the body, thinking is suppressed and we tremble and sweat like a beaten horse. On the behavioral side, the result is anger and fear that bypass our cortex, eluding conscious control. This makes perfect sense as a prelude to action when the trigger is legitimate: if we spend too much time analyzing the possible outcomes of a tiger’s appearance, we may end up in its stomach.

Clockwork CSudden loud noises, abrupt luminosity changes, rapid irregular motion and objects fast growing in your visual field are among the triggers of fight-or-flight. Sound familiar? 3-D effects that force us to constantly flinch away from looming fronds or asteroids; car chases at a speed that our eyes can barely track; explosions, in-your-face gunshots and loud percussive soundtracks that make us jump – these are the common, blunt weapons in today’s blockbuster movie arsenal, aimed to jangle and pummel our brain into reflex mode.

When fight-or-flight is triggered while someone is in a theater seat, the resulting anger and fear are not expended because there’s no action possible beyond chewing one’s popcorn faster. The stress hormones linger, and so do the emotions they arouse – displaced, unfocused, free-floating, ready for use by demagogues and charlatans. Objectively, it’s a terrific use of the misnamed reptile brain, much better than the subliminal messages they used to flash between frames in older movies. The behavioral conditioning is now integrated into the experience. And moviegoers, stunned into sullen docility, their brain chemistry cleverly subverted, increasingly expect visceral punches instead of stories, willingly collaborating in their own mental and emotional debasement.

People who crave such entertainment turn into mobs far more readily than those who demand less crude fare and will not abandon the prerogative of critical thought. The primitive worldview fostered by such abusive spectacle diverts people from trying to solve problems rationally, making it easier to belittle knowledge and expertise, cede rights and liberties and scapegoat marginalized groups and the unlucky – which by now include much of what was once the middle class.

Furious George J LeFrançoisIf you think this is hyperbole, consider that Antonin Scalia used the TV show 24 as an authority for legitimizing the use of torture. The excuse that mindless entertainment relieves pressure at times of individual and collective stress is dangerous. It’s crucial to act as full humans not when times are easy, but when times are hard; when circumstances are best served by reflection, not reflex.

Images: 1st, Trey Parker & Matt Stone, South Park; 2nd, Louis Leterrier, The Incredible Hulk; 3rd, Stanley Kubrick, Clockwork Orange; 4th, John LeFrançois, Furious George.

Related articles:
Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas
The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art