Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for April, 2015

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

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Though we smashed their statues,
Though we exiled them from their temples,
That doesn’t mean the gods are dead.
Land of Ionia, it’s you they love still,
It’s you their souls still remember.

— Konstantínos Kaváfis, Ionian

“My two hands here did not do the work, and still they are knotted with it; should not my mind keep the knots as well?”

– Granze in Isak Dinesen’s “The Fish”, Winter’s Tales


[Note: people will have to do their own confirmatory explorations — it’s too painful for me. Also, frustratingly, WordPress won’t render the Turkish diacritics correctly.]


All cultures have defining traumas.

For my people, such a trauma is the 1453 fall of Constantinople, the capital of the 1000-year long Byzantine Empire [the current name, Istanbul, comes from the Greek expression “Is tin Pólin” – To the City, with the meaning of which “City” clear]. This ushered an Ottoman occupation of Asia Minor and the Balkans that lasted ~500 years. During that time, non-Turks (which included several Balkan Muslim groups) were by law second-class citizens, subject to religion-specific taxation and penalties, whim deaths and pogroms, and the custom of devshirme (childgathering) to ensure a steady supply of janissaries and odalisques for local beys and the Sultan’s Porte.

Another trauma is the forcible relocations, massacres and uprootings of the Greeks of Asia Minor (Ionia and Pontus), who had lived there uninterruptedly from about 1500 BCE to 1922 CE, giving rise to the first natural philosophers (Thalís, Anaksímandhros, Irácleitos, Empedhoklís), the song cycles of the Akrítai and just about all the pagan and christian architecture now prominently featured in Turkish tourist brochures. Variants of Yunan (Ionian) is the term for Greek(s) in Turkish, Persian, Armenian, Arabic and Hebrew.

The ethnic cleansing undertaken by the Young Turks to ensure homogeneity was an extreme manifestation of the nationalism that arose after WWI ended several multicultural empires (Ottoman, Austrian-Hungarian, Russian). In nascent Turkey, the Greeks were not alone in their fate. The Armenians of Asia Minor, descendants of the Hittite and Mitanni empires and the kingdom of Urartu, and the Assyrians and Chaldeans of once-mighty Mesopotamia were also systematically dispossessed, forcibly relocated, violated and massacred. The total toll stands at 3.5 million and all Turkish governments (like the Japanese vis-à-vis the Koreans and Chinese) have steadfastly refused to acknowledge these events, placing mention of them under the larger “insult to Turkishness” that can lead to imprisonment or even execution.

For non-Aboriginal Australians and non-Maori New Zealanders, a defining trauma is the casualty-laden and ultimately failed engagement at Gallipoli. WWI claimed 18,000 New Zealanders and 53,000 Australians – for the former, the highest per population combatant toll of that war. However, the Australians were volunteers in their entirety (two conscription referendums were defeated) and conscription was introduced in New Zealand in 1916 — after the Gallipoli finale, when gung-ho war enthusiasm had subsided, depleting enlistment rosters.

The anniversary of the Armenian massacre is April 24. Australia and New Zealand celebrate ANZAC day on April 25. The two dates mesh because the genocide started just before the Gallipoli engagement, to ensure absence of “fifth columnists” within Turkey. There has never been a cinematic depiction of the Asia Minor massacres by a Western director, unlike the countless treatments of equivalent events in WWII Germany and USSR. Peter Weir showed a gritty, if idealized, take of the Gallipoli event through Australian eyes in 1981, with Mel Gibson in his proto-messiah days as protagonist. But all Anglo male stars, it seems, must go through messianic and prophetic phases. Thus we have Russell Crowe’s 2015 The Water Diviner, with its release timed for one of these anniversaries but referring loudly, by both omission and commission, to the other – at least to those familiar with Asia Minor’s tangled history.

The Water Diviner, boasting authenticity because it was filmed in Turkey with official approval, shows an Australian father’s attempt to repatriate the remains of his three sons. Such an unspeakable loss is rich dramatic territory, though the mother is conveniently fridged five minutes in. It is said to be based on a true event, though I wonder if the book source contains as much ugly exoticism and cheap sentimentality as the film. Since Crowe cannot deny himself anything, not only is he near-psychic (he instantly locates a family keepsake in a sea of churned mud) but he also shoehorns in a lightweight romance with a comely, demure and fast-forgiving war widow (augmented with the staple adorable young son) played by Olga Kurylenko, who did much better as the implacable “Pict” scout Etain in Centurion.

In addition to authenticity of location, The Water Diviner also bruits that it deals “honestly” and “even-handedly” with history. Yet when Crowe’s outback naif Joshua Connor gapes at the Aghía Sofía interior, his guide never mentions the place’s history – though one who knows it can just see the mosaics glimmering through the whitewash. The Armenians are not mentioned even once, and the Greek “soldiers” shown as barbaric invaders in an encounter deep in Anatolia actually wear Pontian ethnic dress (they also speak heavily broken Greek and resemble nothing as much as Peter Jackson’s Southrons). Last but not least, the place where Joshua Connor finds his surviving son (magically turned into a Mevlevi dervish) is Livissi, once a thriving large village and now a graveyard haunted by ghosts.

Perhaps Crowe didn’t know or care. Perhaps this slant was necessary to get his local filming permits. But by trying to honor one trauma (albeit at the price of seeing him in every single frame except the battle flashbacks), he completely and facilely excised or distorted several others. The Australians and New Zealanders of Gallipoli were volunteers fighting a war not on their own soil. The Turks, at least, were fighting on their own ground, and the circumstances that led to the 1922 exchange of populations were not black-and-white. Politics aside, the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian civilians, also in their own long-time homes, were first dispossessed and slaughtered, then erased – for convenience and, in Crowe’s case, for palatable narrative.

There is, however, a film that depicts some of this complexity and does so taking full account of the humanity of all involved. This is Yesim Ustaoglu’s 2003 Waiting for the Clouds – and, unlike Crowe, she braved the Turkish authorities’ displeasure by daring to do so. The main character shares the name Ayshe with the consolation trophy in The Water Diviner (though she has a second, suppressed name) and Waiting for the Clouds also boasts authenticity of location. Thankfully, these are the sole commonalities between the two films.

Waiting for the Clouds is also based on a book, Tamama by Ghiórghos Andhreádhis (by sheer coincidence, my father’s names; Andhreádhis was deported from Turkey because of his books). It unfolds in a Pontian village around 1960, shifting to Thessaloníki for its ending. It interweaves a major and a minor strand that carry all the sorrows of that land. In the stylistic tradition of Angelópoulos, Ustaoglu uses uninterrupted takes, shuns grandstanding and doesn’t explain anything. You have to know history to realize the full impact of what’s being portrayed.

The major strand is of two elderly sisters devoted to each other. The death of one isolates the survivor, Ayshe, who withdraws into herself, spurning her female neighbors’ powerful support network. The connection that still compels her is her love and storytelling for Mehmet, a neighbor’s young son, whose father has “left” – gone to Russia, a common fate for most Balkan and Asia Minor leftists throughout the twentieth century, who routinely faced the choice (if it can be called that) of exile, imprisonment or execution. The minor strand, which acts as a catalyst to the major one, is the return of one of these men – as a leftist Pontian Greek, a triple exile, who returns just to place his hand on what’s left of his family home. [Note: The song that Thanássis sings when he staggers off the boat is famous — a poem by Nobelist Odhysséas Elytis (“The Blood of Love”, part of his Áksion Esti cycle), put to music by Míkis Theodhorákis.]

Ayshe has a faded picture at which she gazes whenever her onerous tasks allow (women in that part of the world double/d as beasts of burden). It slowly emerges that her real name is Eléni, the photo is of her lost family – and Mehmet is an echo of Níkos, her younger brother, who may have managed to reach mainland Greece. The Turkish family of her now-dead sister took her in when she fell behind in one of the death marches of the cleansed and raised her as their own. Nevertheless, the price for her survival was the necessity to suppress her own name, history and language. As a historical note, the Pontian Greeks walked from their Black Sea mountains all the way to Greece, a modern-day repetition of Ksenofón’s Anávassis. They had to leave many behind. Most died; a few had Eléni’s fate.

The return of Thanássis, the exile, sparks Eléni’s desire to find her brother and Thanássis is able to help her locate him. When she allows herself to remember, she speaks in the archaic Greek that is the Pontian dialect – but this is not the sappy, happy reunion that Hollywood would have undoubtedly indulged in. Eléni’s brother is as reluctant to remember as she has been. “Where are you, in all of these?” he asks her, pointing at mountains of family albums of his wife, children, local kin. Eléni silently hands him the single picture that has sustained her – then the film segues into real stills and reels of such families.

Both Waiting for the Clouds and The Water Diviner made me weep, for very different reasons. One embraces all affected, fully acknowledging individual and collective complexities. The other opts for crass erasure dressed in self-righteous veneer. Like Ustaoglu, my mother’s mother hailed from Trebizond; like Eléni, her Greek was accented. Her family had to leave everything behind once and move to Constantinople but as my great-grandfather said, “As long as my children’s head count comes out right, the rest matters not.” Then they had to leave their home in Príngipos, a home they had built from the ground up in their second start – and relocate destitute to Greece, to be called “Tourkósporoi” (Turkish spawn) by local nationalists.

It’s people like my grandmother, and millions like her, that Crowe so callously caricatured and erased. I still can’t summon the strength to investigate if that house in Príngipos still stands, if it still bears the plaque with my grandmother’s last name, Kseniádhis. If I find it, it will probably be as with Thanássis: I, too, will likely place my hand on a ruin. I bear no ill will to whoever inhabits it, if it still stands. But this knowledge will never cease to lacerate my heart, as long as I live.

Panagia Soumela

Images: 1st, the ghostly ruins of Livissi; 2nd, Panaghía Soumelá, the religious center of Pontian Hellenism

Genome Editing: Slippery Slope or Humane Choice?

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015


Science fiction is awash with engineered humans, from the now-classic GATTACA to the demi-gods of Banks’ Culture; the concept is linked to that of cloning and carries similar strains of hubris and double-edged consequences. As with cloning, gene engineering is no longer science fiction. Protein and Cell just published the results of a Chinese research team that used a DNA editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9 to alter early trinuclear (triploid) IVF embryos.  This technique has been used in many organisms, including mice, to successfully change specific genes. It’s a variation of gene therapy; the major difference is that in this study the repair was done at the low-number cell stage instead of postnatally.

[Parenthesis for the detail-oriented: CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat, a common configuration in gene editing methods derived from bacterial defense systems. Cas stands for CRISPR-associated system – a CRISPR and its associated nuclease, which recognizes and clips the palindrome. The technique puts a target sequence with a desired nucleotide change in the CRISPR construct and introduces it plus a modified Cas enzyme into a cell or organism; the introduced system replaces the endogenous target sequence with the engineered one].

Triploid embryos, ova fertilized by two sperm, are mostly miscarried during the first trimester. The extremely few fully triploid infants that survive till birth have severe defects and without exception die a few days after delivery. The experimental triploid embryos additionally carried a thalassemia mutation in the HBB (beta-hemoglobin) gene. Thalassemic heterozygotes can lead a quasi-normal life with occasional blood transfusions, provided they are monitored. Homozygotes live a life of gruesome suffering and die before age 20 unless they undergo bone marrow transplantation.

The study documented several serious stumbling blocks, though none were unexpected: primarily low efficiency and low fidelity. Dependable introduction into cells is not trivial and the difficulty increases the more specialized the cells are, which is one reason why germline or embyronic editing is easier than its adult counterpart. Also, techniques of this type, which include RNAi, are prone to off-target effects (changes of quasi-homologous non-target sequences) and mosaicism due to expression variation – particularly with gene families, of which hemoglobins are one. As the study’s authors explicitly state, the technical issues must be competely resolved before such methods can go into clinical mode. Which leaves us with the other part: the eternal battleground between “can” and “should”.

Given the embryos’ triploidy and homozygous thalassemia, the primary ethical dilemma of tinkering with potentially viable entities did not arise in this study. Even so, Science and Nature rejected the paper summarily citing ethics concerns, and the usual people were interviewed saying the same things they said about IVF and cloning (briefly: unnatural hence unethical, slippery slopes, designer babies). Beyond the original furor over IVF babies, recall that a few months ago the UK allowed the generation of triparental embryos for people who carry mitochondrial mutations that would result in disease. And although many diseases are multigenic, others, equally devastating, would yield to such therapy.

Not surprisingly, many scientists and ethicists have called for a temporary moratorium on such experiments until consensus guidelines are developed. This happened at least once before, with recombinant DNA (the famous Asilomar conference of 1975). The original fears around gene splicing proved baseless, the grandstanding of Cambridge mayor Alfred Vellucci notwithstanding. The same is true of IVF, which has resulted in millions of perfectly normal humans, though the wars around gene therapy and GMOs are still raging, partly driven by issues other than feasibility or outcomes.

In my opinion, the meaninful dividing line is not between humans and all other animals. The real dividing line is between repair and enhancement (and what the latter really means). It’s almost certain that such methods will be tried on the less privileged first and, once perfected, will be preferentially accessible to the well-off – possibly indefinitely, if the current re-stratification of humanity by wealth persists. At the same time, it’s equally clear that the CRISPR technique has passed the proof of concept test and will eventually be used. I, for one, cannot imagine many future parents who will opt for no intervention if they are told that their child will develop Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia or Huntington’s disease.

The burning question, of course, is if attributes deemed socially desirable will also be on the table with CRISPR. Thankfully, almost all suchlike attributes are polygenic and/or strongly susceptible to environmental input. Closer to the bone, a condition like monogenic deafness carries the dilemmas now associated with cochlear implants (I will not discuss “IQ” or autism, since these are not defined by single genes or, in some aspects, at the gene level and therefore don’t fall into this conversation). There is also the issue of consent, which means that adults are likelier to be eventually allowed to try exotic changes – with far greater risks attached, because of the intrinsic difficulties I discussed earlier.

At one end of this lurk the specters of eugenics and coercion – and, if financial and power stratifications escalate, the fear that humans may eventually split into Eloi and Morlocks. However, speciation requires total isolation of founder populations… and masters rarely withstand the temptation to mate with their slaves and servants, whether it’s an act of love or lust. Another fear is that the editing of an “undesirable” gene variant into extinction will have unforeseen consequences, since germline or embryonic editing is heritable. Many disease alleles have persisted because they confer advantages to heterozygotes: sickle cell to malaria, cystic fibrosis to cholera. As I never tire of repeating, “optimal” status is context-dependent. But if we fine-tune the editing techniques to the point that they become safe for routine use, re-introducing known alleles will be equally easy (creating new ones is definitely terra incognita, though these could, and should, be pre-tested in non-human systems).

On this, as with recombinant DNA, I’m a cautious optimist and venture to hope that the perfected CRISPR technique will be used with awareness and care for good – to ensure that monogenic diseases don’t lead to shortened or stunted lives. We may end up with a mosaic of guidelines, but eventually familiarity will dispel our wired fear of the new. We’ll still have to struggle with diseases that are less tractable, like dementia. And if CRISPR gives rise to a few more blue-eyed babies, I think we can live with that.

Blue Eyes

Related articles:

Equalizer or Terminator?

Blastocysts Feel No Pain

The Quantum Choice: You Can Have Either Sex or Immortality

Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

The Smurfettes Discover Ayn Rand

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

“The simple lives of heroes,
The twisted lives of saints,
They just confuse the sunny calendar
With their red and golden paints.”

— Leonard Cohen, Priests

Preamble: if I were prone to using (avaunt!) mood indicators, this essay would sport one with the “annoyed” designation. But even Cincinnatus had to leave his farm. So I’m taking time out of writing my stories, articulating my thoughts on roofed ocean worlds and editing To Shape the Dark to discuss a few genre-related items, including a troublesome trend among young(er) women in the quarters I frequent. Since I’m solidly in the ice floe age bracket, feel free to ascribe what follows to me being a temperamental oldster. Comments are once again disabled.

LONELY HOUSE, Valentin2007

I have a bad habit – well, more than one, but we’ll leave the rest for future conversations. I seldom engage in fashionable internet controversies. This is partly because many are of the “first as tragedy, then as farce” type and at this point in my life I’ve seen too many unwitting parodies – what I call “discovering black holes… once again!” Also, by inclination and training I prefer to research things rather than jump with both feet (and no upper head) into a scrum. Practically speaking, this means that by the time I’m prepared to say something the internet magpies are pecking at the next scrap of shiny tinfoil. Finally, if I bestir myself enough to do a peroration it’s the end of the conversation for me: once I’ve fielded an issue, I’m unlikely to revisit it.

This year’s Hugo implosion was loud enough to be heard outside the genre ghetto. The fact that the Whiny Puppies (SFF’s Teabaggers) invited the GamerGaters to the bash guaranteed page clicks and Klout score increases for all who opined. Everyone said something. Some said better things than others. The tangible outcome is that the Hugos (eminently gameable, riddled with cracks and a poor fit to SFF’s current protean sprawl) are now definitively broken, sea lion dronings about the perfection of current Hugo rules notwithstanding.

I won’t discuss either the aptly-acronymed VD, aka Theodore Beale, or the equally unspeakable John C. Wright. Their own words grunt for themselves and I’ve already discussed the general pathology of knuckledraggers. I will also not discuss Abigail Nussbaum’s screed, as Joshua Herring (whom I don’t know) did an excellent dissection. Clearly, wisdom is not about to strike Nussbaum [ETA: or, for that matter, Shaun Duke]. But it’s time to say that lack of rudimentary empathy and presentation of slanted “facts” calculated for retaining insider status make for lousy content, especially when one tries to pass the result as olympian objectivity or high principles.

I’ve been eligible for Fan Writer and Related Work Hugos since 2008. I’ve never been nominated but don’t feel slighted thereby (unlike Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen who apparently do despite ample visibility and professional success, from publications in ever-predictable Analog to repeated award nominations). Nor have I jettisoned my ethics in the forlorn hope I’d be nominated if I kowtowed to the right clique (à la Deirdre Saoirse Moen). For the sake of completeness – because I clearly thirst for popularity – I’ll add that I find at least two perennial hoverers on recent SFF award lists (Charles Stross and John Scalzi) unreadable and as a space opera aficionada I deemed Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice good but not particularly original. However, subjective tastes, pseudo-democratic voting, etc.

Among this year’s Hugo nominees is one whose qualifying work contains some of my own bone marrow. Laura Mixon is in the Best Fan Writer category for her report on the damage wrought to fandoms and professional SFF by RequiresHate/Sriduangkaew/etc and RH/BS acolytes and enablers. This damage was all the more insidious because it a) largely targeted the marginalized and b) was slotted into the “acceptable because dressed in social justice accoutrements” category.

I already discussed (obliquely) why I think Mixon deserves the award in the larger context of today’s SFF. I will note that many of the camel-swallowers and gnat-splitters who are complaining that Mixon was nominated for a single work are the same people who gave the Best Fan Writer award last year to Kameron Hurley for a single work as well (and a hot mess, at that, even if it sorta kinda lunged in the right direction). I will also note that by writing her report Mixon took considerable personal and professional risks with zero expectations of reward, only for the sake of trying to make SFF an open-door house rather than a mud-churned battlefield.

The Mixon report touches upon what I call the Macha Smurfette syndrome: the tendency of some young(er) women who label themselves progressive to re-create hierarchical value systems that disdain scapegoat/displacement attributes coded “female”. I think such women are seeking male approval as abjectly as the non-feminists they excoriate, essentially saying “Look, pa, I’m not like those emo girls! I’m alpha stuff!” Invariably, they become tokens used by reactionaries to bludgeon true subversives and/or purity policers of their peers. Ayn Rand, Ann Coulter, Camille Paglia. Badass wannabes who disparage women that express any fear and who use Dawkins-type “Dear Muslimah” false comparisons to gain attention and brownie points. It’s no surprise that stories written by women who hold such views resemble soggy cement and the societies they come up with, “edgy” veneers aside, are as essentialist as those in Leaden Era SFF. Lack of empathy and powermongering tend to flatten vision. [NB: This applies to men as well; one difference is that smurfettes get discarded as soon as the conveyor belt delivers younger ones.]

Because of my personality, primary occupation and cultural background, I default to the Strong Silent™ type myself. I don’t use my own health, personal history and relationships as anecdata in public arguments. There’s a practical reason for this: experience has taught me that anything I say about myself will eventually be used as ammunition by people eager to humiliate or discredit me, even while I’m aware that my reticence robs me of support networks. But the deeper reason for this stance is that I do deem myself a failure if I don’t remain standing at all times. I believe public forums are the wrong venues for private unburdenings and I use the word “spoons” exclusively for matters related to cooking. However, I consider this a valid modus vivendi solely for me. It’s a matter of persona, not morality; of conditioning, not values.

Being a liaison between cultures and disciplines granted me the decidedly mixed blessing of across-the-spectrum vision. The lifelong wandering has turned me into a cat, a badger, a soliton, unmoved (if not untouched) by either carrots or sticks. I will eventually fall silent, when my body abandons me. Until then, I will continue to walk between worlds, telling stories. I’ll welcome those who journey to my distant campfire to sing with me, to enlist my help with planting and building. Tradition decrees that astrogators remain sleepless at the helm; but all kinds of hands and minds are needed to send starships to Tau Ceti.

Sea Gate full

Images: 1st, Lonely House by Per Valentin; 2nd, Sea Gate by Peter Cassidy.