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Artist, Heather Oliver             

“Nen lókdwenzish, Michael”: Sister-Brother Love in Science Fiction

Thursday, April 25th, 2019

“He turns the clouds into a horse, the stars into a bridle,
and with the moon as company he goes to bring her back.”
— The Dead Brother’s Song, 9th century CE
(perhaps the oldest surviving Hellenic folksong)

There’s a deeply-rooted biological reason why nearly all unforgettable stories are family sagas, whether they unfold on the plains of Troy or the spice beds of Arrakis: humans are not solitaries; we’re embedded in our kin groups. That, in turn, colors all aspects of our behavior. Whatever our technological level, we remain keenly interested in personal connections, as central throughout civilization as they were in the bands of ~100 members that comprised the initial gatherer-hunter tribes (and still do for our first cousins, the bonobos and chimpanzees).

Stories from all cultures explore the full gamut of family interactions; but mainstream and genre literature, especially the dominant Anglophone incarnations, heavily pluck only a few strings of that versatile instrument. Mainstream tends to foreground mating interactions – the inherent dilemmas between blood and chosen kin, between old obligations and new loyalties. Fantasy has walked in the steps of its predecessor, folklore, of which more anon. Science fiction (SF), on the other hand, notoriously fearful of “chick-lit” or “romance” cooties, twangs primarily on father-son conflict, with brother rivalry a distant second. Mothers are invariably dead in SF and fantasy, unless they surface as either evil stepmothers for daughters or impediments to independence for sons. The vast majority of SF has let one particular chord lie mostly fallow: sister-brother love.

Myths and folktales brim with sister-brother stories. Many pantheons have sibling pairs down several generations as their base: Gaia/Ouranos to Hera/Zeus, Nut/Geb to Isis/Osiris, Izanami/Izanagi, Yemanja/Aganju. The bond is also a major engine in literature: Electra, Ifighenia and Orestes; Antigone and her two feuding-till-death brothers; Alexander’s sister Thessalonike, ruler of Macedon after his death, said to have become inadvertently immortal and to have mourned him forever after as a storm-wielding mermaid; the Akritiká folksongs, starting with Konstantís and Aretí in The Dead Brother’s Song; the brothers in the Grimm tales turned to harts, ravens, swans protected (often at staggering cost) by their sisters; the Völsungs Siegmund and Signy aka Sieglinde, Kullervo and his nameless sister (and the Tolkien clones, Túrin and Niënor)…which highlights a reason why Anglophone speculative literature, far more priggish than its predecessors, avoids this chord except in the gritty-grotty dark fantasy cave where Cersei and Jaime Lannister dwell.

The not-too-hidden shoal, of course, is incest. Whereas parent/child incest has steep in-built power differentials, sibling incest is on almost-level ground – and several cultures have practised sibling mating, especially among groups where either “purity” of descent or retaining family property was paramount. Physical or cultural isolation also factored into this. Before the advent of DNA analysis, unless men kept punitive vigil over women, the paternity of offspring could never be incontrovertibly known, whereas children of maternal relatives were without a doubt genetically close to their mothers’ male kin. Hence, sibling matings – or, in much of the world, cousin marriages. A more benign alternative to obsessive patroling of female reproduction were the systems in which a sister’s children were heirs of her brother’s property and/or status (Fili in the film version of The Hobbit is an explicit example of this).

However, given the overall habits of humanity, there is a second, less obvious shoal. In most of the list above, even when brothers love their sisters, it’s invariably the sisters who must abjure their life, happiness or vocation to further their brothers’ objectives. Both Electra and Ifigheneia break all kinds of taboos and vows for Orestes’ sake; Antigone’s decision that she’s duty-bound to bury Polyneikes makes her forfeit her life when she’s at the cusp of a love match consummation; Leia ends up untrained in her Force potential and very much an adjunct to Luke and the shabby Jedi initiatives (the Mary Poppins act in The Last Jedi is an almost-contemptuous afterthought as is Anakin/Vader’s reaction when he becomes belatedly aware of her existence in Return of the Jedi); likewise, Alia Atreides is an instrument of Paul’s messianic goals throughout the Dune saga.

Fantasy has told tales of sisters shaping their lives around brothers, from Éowyn to Jane Yolen’s “Brother Hart”. Science fiction has mostly elected to slide by such bonds or keep them largely schematic: Leia and Luke don’t interact meaningfully once it’s established they are twins, and Leia’s great moment happens before she discovers she has a brother (Luke goes on to change the fate of the galaxy before he peters out into a damp squib). That said, two major exceptions in SF come to mind that show not only a sister and brother devoted to each other, but also a scenario in which the sister does not sacrifice herself in some way for her brother: River and Simon Tam in Firefly/Serenity; and Michael Burnham and Spock in Star Trek: Disovery.

The River/Simon arc is in some ways strongly reminiscent of The Dead Brother’s Song: Kostantís promised his mother that he’ll bring his sister home, and not even death will deflect him from his purpose. Simon, too, is committed to retrieving his preternaturally talented sister, at the cost of his family fortune and cherished vocation — though he, at least, is spared the ultimate sacrifice. It’s an incidental reward that Simon’s rescue of River uncovers the immoral experimentations of the Alliance. The siblings are lucky enough to find a hearth with the lovesome if unruly Serenity crew, where River has a hope of healing and both can forge meaningful lives.

Michael/Spock is a sentimentalized yet touching variation on Electra and Orestes. The Powers that Be mapped Michael’s character development primitively (Season 1: Logiiic! Season 2: Emotionnn!!), though it gradually emerges that she’s named after the warrior archangel for valid reasons. She also suffers from a surfeit of parents, but I’m happy that she’s granted not one but two mothers who do a whole lot more with their lives than mothering, and even happier that she evolves into a formidable mover and shaker in her own right who’s allowed a lover (standard bumps are put in that path, but at least they’re not the career-versus-family cliché). Even rarer is that the series also lets her love her little brother and be loved by him without faux-edgy penalties. Of all the interaction arcs in Star Trek – and beyond – that’s the least trodden.

[Parenthesis 1: Spock’s total silence on the topic of a sister was a major roadblock for original-universe Star Trek fans. By the end of season 2, Discovery managed to have its cake and eat it, too: remain canon by virtue of industrious retrofitting, but also allow AU scenarios by catapulting Discovery to where none has gone before. The crew that stayed behind is as interesting and fresh as the one that went ahead…and by adding Section 31 goings-on we face the prospect of at least three series, with potentially huge lunchbox/paraphernalia lucre.]

Spock’s inner conflicts, echoed by Michael’s, remain compelling and poignant. In Discovery he reconciles with his adopted sister after a long estrangement and they help each other in crucial ways (to say nothing of the universe’s long-term future). Of course, this is a Hollywood series and a franchise captive to both tradition and profit. So the derring-do is arbitrarily ratcheted for unearned drama. Nevertheless, in a manner that’s unusually quiet for Hollywood, brother and sister enable each other to fulfill their immense potential. The ending is a trailblazer on several levels: their adieu is stark and in minor key; it also shows Spock – a potent cultural icon of long standing – first willing to follow his sister into the unknown, then acknowledging her as his lodestar and role model. Mind-boggling that this happened only in 2019, but at least it happened.

[Parenthesis 2: What made a crucial difference, to me at least, was Ethan Peck’s take on Spock. It’s a welcome original angle (as much as that’s possible with the character). I vastly prefer his interpretation to Zachary Quinto’s, though some of this is leakage: I detest the reboot, which has totally abandoned Star Trek’s exploring mindset for Fast-n-Furious-in-Spaaace grinding noises.]

Sister-brother love is a hybrid like Spock, like Michael – poised between that of mates and parents/offspring, between agape and eros. It shares some of the frisson of the former, the deep hooks into the solar plexus of the latter. The next cycle of Discovery may be interesting – and, who knows, that of Enterprise as well if the producers choose parallel developments (those lunchboxes…). But it won’t have Amanda Grayson’s children of the heart urging each other to ever greater achievement. Nor is it likely that Whedon will add to the Serenity/Firefly ‘Verse. Everything must come to an end. But the gatherer-hunter part of me wishes I could see more of Michael with Spock, River with Simon…in their full flowering.

Postscript: I predict that in future seasons Discovery will be allowed to do the occasional deus-ex-machina foray into the “regular” space of Enterprise, if only for Michael to stock up on hugs with Spock, her adoptive parents & Tyler.

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Images: 1st, The Dead Brother’s Song (etching, Katraki); 2nd, twin bear cubs

The Last Jedi: Lunchboxes in Perpetuity

Saturday, January 6th, 2018

Everyone who’s not on a silently running nuclear sub has said their piece about The Last Jedi by now. I have a few stray thoughts of my own – few, because I don’t want this sorry contraption to take any more time from my finite allotment. Losing two-plus hours of my life to watching it was bad enough.

I found The Last Jedi sloppy and contemptuous of its audience. It shares these attributes with the rest of the Star Wars franchise except for the first two films (IV and V in the revised gospel). But it’s additionally static and derivative. Its real closest relative is Star Trek Voyager: high on woo, nil on substance, cynically hackneyed. Why bother with plot, dialogue or characterization when you can count on a base that’s conditioned for knee-jerk devotion? It’s unabashedly sodden gruel, even if it liberally uses colored water. Brief random points:

— All the nominally powerful women spend almost their entire precious time mothering infantile men: Rey pulls double duty with Luke and Ben/Kylo, it takes the two most senior resistance leaders to control Poe, Finn gets Rose all to himself. There’s no dwelling on such trivia like Leia losing both her partner and her only child, and Rey’s hero quest is abridged to gazing into mirrors – perhaps in preparation for when she starts primping like a proper Disney princess.

— Finn & Rose meet cute while she’s tasering “traitors” who are abandoning the cause – except I thought the Resistance was voluntary. Otherwise, what makes it different from the “tyranny” it opposes? Speaking of the latter, Snoke (who?) is a boring non-entity whose sole function is to remind us how appalling the dialogue has been on all SW installments.

— The Resistance appears to lack even a shred of a plan, and this cannot be disguised by the garbled, muddy dogfights that pop up like quantum clockwork (with full sound in space, yet, except for the silent end of Dern-Purple-Hair). The battles themselves are so poorly choreographed that you neither know nor care who’s who.

— The franchise owners happen to think they’ve democratized things by positing that everyone has full Force abilities and can wield them proficiently by just wishing it. It’s good that the toxic stew about the Force is no longer an officially meta-approved religion (with its acolytes gleaned by involuntary childgathering yet). However, what they’ve accomplished with this is to effectively demolish the concepts of learning and discipline, in line with the accelerating trend against the “elitism” of expertise in any domain.

— Starting with The Force Awakens, the powers that be didn’t even bother to create new musical leitmotifs. Whatever music is there is programmed to trigger leftover emotional reservoirs from previous Star War rounds.

Which brings me to the larger point. The Last Jedi is in essence lazy canon fanfic that wants to pass as original, with sketchy characters whose serial numbers are visible underneath the thin, brittle veneer: Ben/Kylo is what is known in SW fandom as “suitless Vader” with the matching facial scar and waxed torso; Rey is the obligatory singleton-per-trilogy feisty smurfette (the almost-certainly temporary placeholder about her being “not of noble blood” is beside the point: neither was Anakin whose spiritual descendant she is – the Skywalker “dynasty” is barely two generations deep just like its US equivalents); Luke fills in for gnomic Kenobi and the nasty, obnoxious Jedi leadership (including the pseudo-zen spoutings and the pernicious quasi-lies to needy apprentices); Poe is reissued Han Solo on steroids; and so forth.

To be fair, I found Carrie Fisher’s swan song moments touching (ditto Mark Hamill’s final sunrise watch).  It did my heart good to see a crone featured as a quasi-forceful figure, and “a mere girl” effortlessly wield that most taboo object, a lightsaber, without its flame, er, wilting. Rose had a nice moment of paraphrasing Hector’s last words. And there was real tension between Rey and Ben, unlike the erotic/romantic (if only) pairs in the previous trilogies. But the need to guarantee lunchbox sales in perpetuity won’t allow promising seeds to germinate, let alone become new forests.

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