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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for October, 2011

Skin Deep

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

One of my readers brought James Howard Kunstler to my attention – yet another cranky prophet-wannabe with no credentials in the domains he discusses.  A few years ago, he opined on tattoos thusly: “Tattooing has traditionally been a marginal activity among civilized people, the calling card of cannibals, sailors, and whores. The appropriate place for it is on the margins, in the back alleys, the skid rows. The mainstreaming of tattoos is a harbinger of social dysfunction.”  You see, social collapse has nothing to do with predatory banks, preemptive invasions, punitive theocracies, unequal distribution of wealth.  No sir!  Tattooing is the true cause of the impending apocalypse.  Along with rock music, long-haired men and women in the professional work force.

I have mentioned a few times that my father’s side were seamen – captains and engineers in the merchant marine.  They lived the hard lives of sailors, probably softened by their relative status within the iron hierarchy of ships.  Several died away from home, including my grandfather and two of my father’s brothers who died in their twenties of TB, a perennial scourge of the profession back then.  We don’t even know where some are buried.  In their brief shore leaves, I suspect many of them got tattoos.  I recall seeing a shadow under the thin fabric of my eldest uncle’s summer shirt, but I didn’t get to ask him before death took him.

This August, I got a tattoo.  I asked my friend Heather Oliver (whose artwork graces this site and my stories) to create a design for me.  She rose to the challenge magnificently.  By this act I wanted to honor my father’s line, now going extinct (I’m the sole twig left of that once-great tree); to mark the narrow escape from my first brush with cancer; and to remind myself that I should try to finish and publish my stories before the Hunter stoops on me for the final time.

Tattooing means different things across people and cultures – but it’s interesting to consider that outside the West, tattooing done willingly was often a status symbol, from the Scythians to the Maori.  To a large extent, it is also considered a rite of passage and/or a signal of entry to a soldier-like fraternity, whether this is the army, a criminal organization, a prison group or the Knights of St. John; in this guise, the practice has been associated with masculine “bravery” (since it involves pain) and group identity.

These aspects of the process are highlighted in one of the best SF novels, Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite: an Earth ship has ended up on a planet whose lifeforms are poisonous, forcing the human settlers into carefully regulated cannibalism – although they have retained enough technology to engineer some foodstuffs.  Children are raised communally and watched for signs of a talent.  When one is discerned, they receive their first tattoo, become members of an extended family and acquire human status (aka: they’re no longer potential food).

In my own stories, the Koredháni people, who consciously decided to adapt themselves to their new planetary home, are matrilineal and polyandrous because of a dearth of women (they also hail from the Minoans, who seem to have had at least one of these tendencies).  The second night after a handfasting, the co-husbands give the newcomer a tattoo (using nanotech, which is prominent in their living arrangements).  The design, chosen by the newcomer, almost invariably marks his previous allegiance or provenance, so that memory of his lineage is kept alive even after he is part of his wife’s hearth.

On the individual level, people often get a tattoo to decorate a scar – a gesture of defiance against the ravages of illness.  Also, recent technology advances have made possible the use of tattoos as medical monitors: glucose meters for diabetics, for example, removing the need for constant needle jabs.  The flip side of all this neat stuff, of course, is forcible tattoing, which predated the Nazi concentration camps: slaves and soldiers were routinely tattooed in the Roman empire to prevent them from running off. It was deemed more humane than branding.  Its Hellenic name “stigma” (dotting) led to the term stigmatize, with its known connotations.

For me, it’s interesting to think that tattoos, despite their vaunted “permanence”, are among the first of our parts to disappear when our bodies rest in fire, water or earth – unless we have the luck of the young Pazyryk warrior priestess who merited six horses in her journey to the other world.  Her kurgan was filled with water which then froze.  So when Natalia Polosmak opened the tomb in 1993, its occupant emerged almost entirely intact, from her wild silk blouse to her gold-inlaid felt headdress… and the ravishing soot tattoo on her shoulder.  She was a shaman; and in the end, tattoos are talismans: a way of reconnecting with what we sundered from when we became (perhaps too) self-aware.

Images: 1st, Deena Metzger’s famous self-portrait; 2nd, a recreation of the Pazyryk shaman’s tattoo; 3rd, Candleflame Sprite; design by Heather D. Oliver, execution by Deirdre Doyle.

Kalos Kaghathos

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

(classical Hellenic: beautiful and good)

When I started dealing with computers, I learned FORTRAN for a crystallography project (this was still the era of perforated cards), then VMS, a UNIX cousin. I got used to bulky cuboids the color of chewed gum, trailing wires like tentacles of beached jellyfish. The language within them matched their appeareance – one made by and for computer geeks (though the alphanumeric version of Rogue was terrific). Late in my postdoctoral stint, however, these sleek, fast apparitions started appearing in the lab: the first Macintoshes, with such exotic capabilities as point-n-click and drag-n-drop.

Ever since then, I and almost all the scientists I know (with exceptions dictated by specific demands) have cleaved to our Apples. The machines were ahead of their time when they first came out, and have been worth every extra penny. They work flawlessly, install and run new applications seamlessly, never crash or munge data – and, yes, they’re beautiful, a feast for the senses. In short, they’re for people who want well-crafted precision instruments and don’t have the time and stamina to endlessly reboot Windows. I’m not starry-eyed about Apple’s business practices but I’m glad they stand against the Microsoft monolith, an alternative to the monoculture that threatens to get humanity conditioned willy-nilly to cynically shoddy work.

Steve Jobs was my age – I turn 56 today. A reminder that we have finite time to realize our aspirations, though he started early and did spectacularly. Few people are as fused to their work as he was to Apple, to the point where people worry about the company’s future after his death. He deserves the tributes that are pouring in and I’m grateful he persevered in his vision of excellence, not just cobble together something that lurches around sort of getting the job done. Although I feel obliged to point out that a woman with his idiosyncrasies, no matter how inspired, driven and charismatic, would have lasted all of half an hour – in Apple or anywhere else.

For my birthday present, I got one of those elegant iMacs that have the CPU incorporated in the back of their slightly curving screen and look like a starship control console. Like Steve Jobs, I too have been checked by cancer – but for as long as I can travel, his Apples will be companions on my journey.

Images: Apple logo modified by Cory Cole; Apple-inspired Eve of Wall-E (from Pixar, another visionary move by Jobs)

If They Come, It Might Get Built

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Sic itur ad astra (“Thus you shall go to the stars.”)
– Apollo, in Virgil’s Aeneid

Last Friday, several hundred people from a wide cross-section of the sciences and humanities converged on Orlando, Florida, to participate in the DARPA-sponsored 100-Year Starship symposium.  As the name tells, this was a preliminary gathering to discuss the challenges facing a long-generation starship, from propulsion systems to adapting to extraterrestrial homes.

I was one of the invited speakers.  I won’t have the leeway of long decompression, as I must immediately submerge for a grant.  However, I think it’s important to say a few words about the experience and purpose of that gathering.  Given the current paralysis of NASA, activities like this are sorely needed to keep even a tiny momentum forward on the technologies and mindsets that will make it possible to launch long-term crewed ships.

Open to the public, the event lasted two and a half days, the half being summations.  Content-wise, half was about the usual preoccupations: propulsion systems, starship technologies, habitats.  The other half covered equally important but usually neglected domains: biology, society, ethics, communicating the vision.  The talks were brief – we were each given 20 minutes total – and varied from the very broad to the very specific.  The presentations that I attended were overall high quality (though I personally thought “exotic science” should have been folded into the SF panels); so were the questions and discussions that followed them.  The age distribution was encouraging and there were many women in the audience, of which more anon.

Some aspects of the symposium did dismay me.  Structurally, the six or seven simultaneous tracks (with their inevitable time slippages) not only made it hard to go to specific talks but also pretty much ensured that the engineers would go to the propulsion talks, whereas the historians would attend those about ethics.  The diversity quotient was low, to put it mildly: a sea of pale faces, almost all Anglophones.  Most tracks listed heavily to the XY side.  This was particularly egregious in the two SF author panels, which sported a single woman among nine men – none with a biological background but heavy on physicists and AI gurus.  It was also odd to see long biosketches of the SF authors but none of the presenters in the official brochure.

Most disquieting, I sensed that there is still no firm sense of limits and limitations.  This persistence of triumphalism may doom the effort: if we launch starships, whether of exploration or settlement, they won’t be conquerors; they will be worse off than the Polynesians on their catamarans, the losses will be heavy and their state at planetfall won’t resemble anything depicted in Hollywood SF.  Joanna Russ showed this well in We Who Are About To…  So did Chelsea Quinn Yarbro in Dead in Irons.  But neither story got the fame it deserves.

On the personal side, I had the pleasure of seeing old friends and finally seeing in the flesh friends whom I had only met virtually.  I was gratified to have the room overflow during my talk.  My greatest shock of happiness was to have Jill Tarter, the legend of SETI, the inspiration for Ellie Arroway in Contact, not only attend my talk but also ask me a question afterwards.

I hope there is sustained follow-up to this, because the domain needs it sorely.  Like building a great cathedral, it will take generations of steady yet focused effort to build a functional starship.  It will also require a significant shift of our outlook if we want to have any chance of success.  Both the effort and its outcome will change us irrevocably.  I will leave you with three snippets of my talk (the long version will appear in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society):

“An alternative title to this talk is ‘Distant Campfires’. A Native American myth said that the stars are distant campfires, where our ancestors are waiting for us to join them in storytelling and potlatch feasts.  Reaching and inhabiting other planets is often considered an extension of human exploration and occupation of Earth but the analogy is useful only as a metaphor. To live under strange skies will require courage, ingenuity and stamina – but above all, it will require a hard look at our assumptions, including what it means to be human.”

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“In effect, by sending out long-term planetary expeditions, we will create aliens more surely than by leaving trash on an uninhabited planet.  Our first alien encounter, beyond Earth just as it was on Earth, may be with ourselves viewed through the distorting mirror of divergent evolution.”

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“If we seek our future among the stars, we must change for the journey – and for the destination.  Until now, we have participated in our evolution and that of our ecosphere opportunistically, leaving outcomes to chance, whim or short-term expedience.  In our venture outwards, we’ll have to overcome taboos and self-manage this evolution, as we seek to adapt to the new, alien worlds which our descendants will inhabit.

One part of us won’t change, though: if we ever succeed in making our home on earths other than our own, we will still look up and see patterns in the stars of the new night skies.  But we will also know, each time we look up, that we’re looking at distant campfires around which all our relatives are gathered.”

Images: 1st, sunset, September 27, 2011, Sarasota, Florida (photo, Athena Andreadis); 2nd, Spaceborn (artist, Eleni Tsami)