The Blackbird Singing: Sapfó of Lésvos

March 27th, 2015

Come my holy lyre, become my voice, sing!

— Sapfó, Fragment 118

Introduction: I read, write and celebrate poetry. As I said in a previous entry, I grew up in a culture where poetry was not precious and hermetic, but a vital way of expression that belonged to all. Poems were set to music and sung, poets were bards that could fuel revolutions.

The article below first appeared in Stone Telling issue 2 (Dec. 2010). It had a slightly longer title and contained a few lines of Hellenic text that WordPress won’t reproduce. I’ve rendered Hellenic (Greek) words as they are pronounced by native speakers to convey as accurate an aural impression as possible. Thus, Sapfó, not Sappho – and the p is voiced; Lésvos, not Lesbos; Afrodhíti, not Aphrodite, where dh=th as in “the” and i=ee as in “tree”. The very imperfect translations are mine.

———-

Sappho BarnardWhen I was four, I taught myself to read – I had to suss out the activity that drew my adored, adoring father’s attention away from me. My parents, bowing to the inevitable, gave me access to their entire library. About four years later, I was poring over the essays of poet and firebrand journalist Kóstas Várnalis. In one of them, he ridiculed the vapidity and reactionism of contemporary popular love songs, in which the woman was always a mute, passive object of obsession. As a salutary contrast, he juxtaposed these “immortal words from a divine voice”:

The Moon has set and the Pleiades,
it’s the middle of the night, time passes,
and I lie alone.

The language was an archaic dialect from two and a half millennia ago and I was too young to have sexual needs, so the subtext sailed right over my head. But the naked yearning pierced my solar plexus.   And that was my first encounter with the Blackbird of Lésvos, the Tenth Muse, Sapfó.

Sapfó (in Aeolian dialect, Psápfa) was born around 620 BC in Lésvos, one of the three large Aegean islands that hug the coast of Asia Minor. From an aristocratic family, she lived her life there except for a stint of political exile in Sicily – a common fate for Hellenes, who have politics in their blood.   Sapfó’s contemporaries unanimously (and, oddly for Mediterranean men, ungrudgingly) hailed her as the greatest lyric poet in the Hellenic-speaking world. Level-headed Sólon, the Athenian lawgiver, is said to have declared upon hearing one of her songs, “I just want to learn it, then die.”

Of Sapfó’s nine collections, a single poem has come down to us intact and her music is totally lost, although she’s credited with inventing the Mixolydian mode (today’s Locrian, used in both classical and jazz music). Some of her lines survived as quotes in literary textbooks of Greek or Roman writers. The rest are literally fragments – one potsherd and papyrus shreds from mummy wrappings or, most abundantly, from the rubbish heaps of Oxírynhos (“Sharpsnouted”), a Hellenistic city in Upper Egypt. Yet the shards of her poems, often not even whole sentences, have cast a long shadow over poetry.

The few, uncertain facts of Sapfó’s life come mostly from her own poetry, although her exile is mentioned on the Parian Marble, a chronological stela that haphazardly covers a millennium of history. Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine sources also give stray biographical facts but their accuracy is questionable.

Here are the tenuous gleanings from these sources: Sapfó’s father, possibly called Skamandhrónimos, died when she was a child. She had three brothers and felt protective of the youngest. She had an adored daughter whom she named after her mother Kleís, “Glory of Deeds” (Fragment 132 reads, I have a beautiful child whose face is like golden flowers, my beloved Kleís, whom I would not exchange for all of Lydia…). Her husband was said to be a rich sea-merchant, Kerkílas of Ándhros, but this is widely considered a pun since it can be translated as “Prick from the isle of Man” – though Ándhros is real enough: the Cycladic island closest to the mainland, it has a formidable maritime tradition.

Sappho & AlkaiosA far likelier lover for Sapfó was her friend and rival Alkaíos, a fellow aristocrat and poet to whose political party she belonged. His faction ended up the loser during the power struggle between the older families and the upstarts headed by Pittakós (Pittakós prevailed, ruled well, and is remembered as one of the Seven Sages of ancient Hellás, the originator of the Golden Rule). After returning from the Sicilian exile precipitated by her political actions, Sapfó founded a thíassos (band) of well-born young women whose social and literary prominence bred rival imitators. Subsequent generations have variously interpreted it as a finishing school, a cult of lay priestesses, an artists’ salon, a separatist lesbian enclave – or a circle of friends who were also colleagues in poetry and whose bonds included the physical, a configuration akin to similar groups of aristocratic and/or creative men of many cultures and eras, from Macedonian hetéroi to Shogunate courtiers.

Sapfó was said to be small and dark. Even her admirer Alkáios called her violet-tressed – but in Hellenic folk and literary tradition the blackbird is the equal of the nightingale. Finally, dating from the Hellenistic era there’s a tradition that Sapfó fell into a postmenopausal frenzy of unrequited love for Fáon, a much younger boatman. She reputedly trailed him slavishly and finally flung herself off the cliffs of Lefkás, an island in the Ionian sea. However, Fáon means “Shining” and he’s linked to Afrodhíti (“Foamrisen”) in her destructive aspect: he’s a version of Adonis. That, coupled with the fact that Sapfó considered Afrodhíti her patron god and wrote poems lamenting the wavering of inspiration with age, puts a rather different complexion on the story.

Whether Sapfó was lésvian by inclination as well as by birth has been a thorny thicket of assumptions and taboos. The time gap, the paucity of information and the physical and linguistic inaccessibility of her poetry have resulted in Sapfó being different things to different people, depending on her audience’s individual and collective context. But the issue is also hard to untangle because Sapfó lived in a time and place that not only differed radically from that of her explicators but was also unique within Hellenic culture of the early classical era.

Unlike the starkness of most of Hellás, Lésvos is green and rich. Lésvians were considered passionate, sensual and fond of beauty. Social strata were shallow and fluid in a merchant maritime culture where rulers ate the same austere food as farmers and all citizens were active in politics. Aristocrats of both genders seem to have been casually bisexual and polyamorous, though they took care to maintain inheritances and lines. Unlike Athenians, they allowed their women education and did not confine them to the house; unlike Spartans, they did not subjugate them to state purposes. Female activities extended beyond “Kinder, Küche und Kirche” and the fact that they were exiled implies at least indirect participation in civic affairs. These liberties were disapprovingly ascribed to the influence of the nearby Lydians and Carians. If classical Hellás is equated with medieval France, Lésvos was its Languedoc, which bred powerful queens, courts of love – and troubadours.

Sappho frag98And so we come to the crux: Sapfó’s ability as a maker (which is the literal meaning of “poet” in Hellenic). Her poetry is as easily recognizable as Minoan frescoes. There are several extrinsic reasons for this. She is one of the very few poets who wrote in Aeolian, an older relative of Dorian whose relationship to Ionian-derived Athenian is that of a soft Southern accent to Californian. Aeolian dropped initial aitches, frequently changed “e” and “i” to “a” and “t” to “p” and pushed word stress to earlier syllables. Moon in Ionian is Selíni, in Aeolian it’s Sélana. Whereas Ionian is a fast-flowing river, Aeolian is long, deep seaswells.

Sapfó also used a unique meter in much of her poetry, the Sapphic stanza. This consists of three eleven-syllable lines plus a fourth line of five additional syllables known as the Adonic line, a fitting term for a devotee of Afrodhíti. This meter was also used by Alkaíos, Catullus, Horace and such more recent luminaries as Swinburne and Ginsberg.

Sapfó wrote several types of poems, many for public performance: epics, epithalamia, hymns, odes, elegies, dirges. Despite the common assumption that all her poetry is personal, she did not avoid large canvases: two of her larger fragments describe back stories in the Iliad. Besides, to argue that all the poems are “personal” devalues her craft. In any case, Hellenes did not put firewalls between the personal and the political: they were always aware they represented their family, clan and city-state. Many of Sapfó’s poems are first-person and address the listener directly, which gives them a startling immediacy. Sometimes this is is a god – usually Afrodhíti, who is treated as a confidante and ally. More often it’s a beloved friend or a lover. Some of these are men; most are women.

It is safe to say that Sapfó invented the language of desire for the Western world. There is nothing coy or demure about her declarations, they’re as frank and fierce as those of a torch singer. Yet even when impassioned, her words are precise, concrete and minutely calibrated. The phrases and images she was the first to use are now so embedded in the vocabulary of love that she has become the submerged bedrock from which such poems and songs spring. When singers moan I’m on fire, You make me weak in the knees, I hunger for your touch, it’s Sapfó they’re echoing:

Love shook my mind like the wind bends the mountain oaks.

I simply want to die now that she left me.

You came – it’s good you did, I sickened for you.
You cooled my thoughts that burned with longing.

And of course there’s that cry of anguish, Fragment 31:

As a god he seems to me – that man across from you,
who attends you when you whisper to him and laugh softly.
But me – my heart tears in my breast, and as soon as I see you
I lose my voice and my words fade. My tongue is crushed
and a slow fire goes through my body, my eyes darken,
my ears ring, I sweat, tremble and turn paler than grass.
I’m near death but must dare everything, poor as I am.

Sappho_bustPoetry is essentially untranslatable. Sapfó’s even more so, given its fragmentation, dialect, meter and boldness. Fellow poets down the centuries tried to shoehorn her work into acceptable content and style norms for their era while acknowledging her incandescence. The task eluded even Hellenes. The first good translation into contemporary Hellenic was by Sotíris Kakísis in 1979; it became the basis of a song cycle. And I keep hoping for someone with the chops of Olga Broumas to do it for English.

More surprising is the dearth of novels based on Sapfó, considering what rich material she would make. Only five 20th century Anglophone novels have her as their focus. None of them captures her or her era and all have dated badly (although one of them, The Other Sappho by Ellen Frye, at least rings authentic in its settings and song snatches because Frye spent time in Hellás translating its folksongs).

In Hellenic culture, women were thought to be less disciplined than men in their erotic desire. Pragmatic and prone to compartmentalizing, Hellenes feared passionate love as an emotion that could breach boundaries, bring disorder and upheaval. They counted it among the god-inflicted illnesses (rage, ecstasy, panic) that could drive humans mad, make them forget customs and obligations. So Sapfó stands out not only because of her gender, the gender of most of her love objects and her directness (each amazing on its own). She also stands out because she unapologetically embraced this divine madness – and single-handedly raised it to an art as honed and prominent as the vaunted epic.

When Hellenes said The Poet and used a masculine suffix, they meant Homer; when they used a feminine suffix, they meant Sapfó. Sapfó is quicksilver, saffron and wild silk; seabreeze and crackling flame. To hear her, even in pieces, is to drink starlight, glimpse the elusive blackbird that ushers the dawn.

Further reading/listening

Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho

Marguirite Johnson, Sappho

Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho Companion

Sotíris Kakísis, Sapfó, the Poems

Aléka Kanellídhou sings Sapfó; music by Spíros Vlassópoulos, translation by Sotíris Kakísis

Images: 1st, The cover of Mary Barnard’s Sapfó translation (a Fayum portrait); 2nd, Sapfó and Alkaíos; Red-figured vessel from Akragas, Sicily, 470 BC; 3rd, the papyrus that bears Sapfó’s Fragment 98; 4th, Sapfó, Roman copy of a Hellenistic work

The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

March 13th, 2015

“… Now his wars on God begin;
At stroke of midnight, God shall win.”
— from The Four Ages of Man, W. B. Yeats

Pier and Sea

It’s hard, even for those who believe in afterlives, to contemplate that individual organisms become biologically irrelevant in this life once they’ve succeeded in shepherding the next generation to autonomy. It insults our deep sense of teleology, of being here for a purpose beyond just reproduction and ecosystem balancing interactions.

Luckily, humans undergo a very long period of neoteny: they need to acquire the specialized physical and mental skills required for dealing with technology and social groups, including language. So in humans (and a few other species that include orcas and elephants) experienced elders remain relevant – indeed, crucial – for a long time past peak reproduction. Even so, the average human lifespan hovered around the mid-thirties (with exceptions so rare that they were noted in myths and chronicles) until clean water and antibiotics extended it to almost three times its unaided length.

But this longevity came with a price attached. Our scaffolding was not made to last that long, no matter how precious its cargo. So anyone who goes past thirty will get acquainted with at least one of the degenerative age-linked diseases; primarily cancer and dementia. It’s also true that such diseases can strike young(er) people, but that happens to those who carry gene alleles (variants) that make them susceptible to the respective dysfunctions.

Cancer and dementia are broad umbrella terms for aggregate final-outcome phenomenology. Cancer means that specialized organ-specific cells that should have stopped dividing resume the process, spawning a mound of descendants (“tumor”) that often are semi-immortal. In contrast, normal cells die and are replaced in a set timetable for each organ, except for neurons, glia, ova and testicular Sertoli cells (it’s not just eggs that get old: sperm quality also declines with age because Sertoli cells are its maintenance crew). Incorrect resumption of propagation is usually the result of mutations, genetic or sporadic (for example, induced by radiation) that jangle the carefully calibrated choreography of the activators and inhibitors that regulate gene expression. When the inappropriately dividing cells become so de-differentiated that they no longer adhere to their relatives (aka contact inhibition), they detach and start creating colonies elsewhere in the body (metastasis). There are environmental and hormonal triggers for each organ (asbestos and cigarette tar for lungs, UV light for skin, lactation status for breast) but age is the cross-sectional risk factor.

If cancer is too many cells, dementia is too few. Many people use dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) as synonyms but, in reality, dementia is a much larger and more heterogeneous category – so much so that non-AD dementias often get misdiagnosed. This conflation is plainly visible in the statements that attribute the recent, too-early death of SF author Terry Pratchett to early-onset AD; in fact, Sir Terry suffered from Posterior Cortical Atrophy, a rare non-AD type of dementia that starts out by affecting visual perception.

Who we are as persons largely resides in our brains and the human brain is amazingly plastic. That attribute is what allows us to acquire unique skills as a species and new skills as individuals. Our brain will also reroute and rewire at moments of crisis (this capacity, incidentally, is the likely root cause of fibromyalgia), though it loses plasticity with age and adult neurogenesis is negligible, limiting regeneration abilities. If, for whatever reason – from a mutation to lack of oxygen to a blow on the head – an extended portion of brain tissue dies past the brain’s capacity to effect repairs, the eventual outcome is dementia: literally, loss of mind. If the hippocampus is affected, the result is inability to form and retain memories. If the substantia nigra, Parkinson’s Disease. If the blood vessels, impaired judgment and organizational skills. If the frontal lobe, disinhibition (inappropriate behavior), aphasia (problems with speaking) and extreme mood swings. Overall, dementia means that the invisible, seamless mental coordination upon which we utterly rely stutters: brain compartments are reduced to the mere sum of their parts and eventually even localized functions fail.

A few non-brain complications can also affect cognitive function – vitamin B12 deficiency, hypothyroidism – but these are reversible. On the other hand, brain-based dementia, once it starts, is progressive and irreversible. And although we know and continue to learn a lot about the neurodegeneration process at several scales, we have made zero headway in preventing, arresting or reversing it. We don’t even know what to look for as an early warning sign; not that it would avail us much if we did. Whereas cancer treatment has made enormous strides in terms of both effectiveness and fine-tuning, whatever medications are given to dementia sufferers are really attempts to ameliorate side symptoms – the horrific anxiety of early stages, the crippling discombobulation of later ones. In fact, currently most dementia sufferers will remain lucid and functional the longest if they’re given nothing at all.

Countless theories have been proposed about how dementia starts and spreads; although several are not mutually exclusive, many events/structures that initially seemed obvious pathogenic culprits (and hence potentially fruitful targets for therapy) have now been proved to be effects rather than causes. The most prominent casualty is the amyloid hypothesis, which posits that amyloid plaques act as poison or as dominoes that nudge neighboring neurons into the downward spiral. However, it turns out that amyloid plaques are in fact neutral depositories; the truly toxic entities are soluble oligomers – and vaccines that dissolved plaques would accelerate the progression of the disease. Furthermore, several types of dementia have no plaques (the tangle-only dementias, in which fibrillar deposits of the scaffolding protein tau are the diagnostic and causative entities). This does not mean that amyloid is not involved, since several types of early-onset AD are caused by mutations in enzymes that process the amyloid precursor. What it means is that there are many tributaries that funnel into the dementia main pipe, and a change in any of them may suffice to tilt the system into initiating the degeneration loop.

People fear suffering; but even more they fear loss of self. Dementia is the ultimate specter and its shadow is lengthening in step with our lifespan. So are its burdens on individuals and groups: half of the population older than 85 develops the disease. Also, younger people who would once have died from brain injuries sustained in explosions now survive them, only to become strangers to themselves and those who love them.

We will all face the journey into the dark. But the same sense of wonder and purpose that has made us explore beyond what we can instantly grasp – from galaxies to brains to quarks – also makes us want to meet the unknown (or the end) as ourselves.

Image: Pier and Sea, by A68Stock

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Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Leonard Nimoy, 1931-2015

February 27th, 2015

Spock's Farewell

Leonard Nimoy was much more than Spock, though that alone left an enormous cultural footprint beyond just SFF.

By now, the figure of Spock is solidly embedded in contemporary mythology. Because of the multi-leveled conflicts and dilemmas intersecting on Spock and my own interests and experiences, the character, his backstory and his culture have been an integral part of my mental map. They served as a mirror that allowed playful, hopeful imaginative extrapolations in a universe that recognized individual and collective good.

Farewell, astrogator, supporter of tikkun olam and shekhinah. The light in our courtyard has grown dimmer by your departure.

Interview with a Yeti

February 20th, 2015

A while ago, our intrepid science correspondent AA ventured into the dangers of the Himalayas, where she was able to coax an exclusive interview out of Lilypad, a sabertooth tiger in hiding. When that interview appeared, she got a request through intermediary Marie E. to present a balancing view from a different local cryptid.

AA did not have the wherewithal for a second trip to the Himalayas and internet connections in that region are notoriously spotty. However, as luck would have it, the recent heavy snowstorms of the Northeastern US made an incognito visit possible for Smoofey, the self-appointed Ambassador-at-Large of Extra-Himalayan Yeti Affairs.

Without further ado, here is that interview.

Smoofster_with_Ikebana
Smoofey proudly displaying his ikebana skills
(photo: Peter Cassidy, staff photographer and resident yeti)

AA: Mr. Smoofey, what prompted you to break your deep cover? Some might call it riding on others’ tail(coat)s…

SY: I had to correct some misconceptions propagated from Ms. Lilypad’s interview.

AA: Such as?

SY: Her contention that tigers essentially harvest yetis for food, for one!

AA: It sounded a bit like the Iroquois rotation system with denned bears… (Smoofey shudders, then wrathfully shakes his fist) I take your point! But I think we might want to clear a larger misconception. Most people think yetis don’t exist.

SY: Well, you’re talking to me, aren’t you?

AA: Can I feel your arm?

SY: (Suspiciously) Why?

AA: To prove to our viewers that the fur is real, not a costume. I don’t mean to insult you, but we have a steep uphill slog with burden of proof here.

SY: Oh, ok… Hey, that tickles!

AA: Definitely genuine. Can I take a closeup photo? The skeptics will swallow their tongues! But why is your hairdo so spiky?

SY: It’s hard to comb my fuzz, with all the burrs and ice crystals stuck in it. I can’t spend too much time on grooming, I have to use every possible weather window to forage! At the same time, I have to look good for – well, you know, we’re an endangered species! So I just put a small firecracker up there each morning. (Pats his head) Stylish, no?

AA: Devastating! But have you considered it might contribute to, er, your moniker?

SY: We yetis are tragically misunderstood. All we want are hugs! But when we try to approach humans they run away shrieking… (Sniffs quietly)

AA: That must make you sad.

SY: It does! We end up crying, and that causes avalanches.

AA: That explains a lot about the Himalayas… So, do you consider yourselves Tibetan… Kashmiri… Nepalese…?

SY: Hmph! We were fully civilized before humans showed up dressed in hides! We were philosophers, visionaries, healers – we taught humans how to meditate, to say nothing of ways to avoid frostbite and snow blindness. Ingrates! (Grumbles under his breath) Gautama Siddhartha, indeed!

AA: Somehow, the concept of rough cave-dwelling yetis as civilization beacons…

SY: We’re are epitomes of style! We get regular photo-ops in Better Caves and Logs! We’re famous for our duvet innovations and we love to arrange flowers, though we end up eating some in the process. We invented all kinds of other things, too: beer, dumplings, plaid weave, sunglasses…

AA: Plaid, eh? That explains the clothing of the Ürümchi mummies. Not the most sophisticated fashion statement, you must admit.

SY: We were aiming for arresting color.

AA: Getting back to foraging for a moment, what’s your staple?

SY: We have a nice balanced diet in the summer. In the winter, well… we snooze for much of the duration, but we still have to keep our weight up. Just hot cocoa won’t cut it. Sometimes we must resort to enticing a yak away from a settlement. (Shuffles guiltily) Some of us finally gave up, migrated to less demanding climates.

AA: Bigfoot, you mean?

SY: Yes, the cousins! We still exchange news and care packages. We used to exchange more, but now with those complicated visa requirements for future family members…

AA: Which brings us to reproduction. With your group so dispersed and isolated, how do you manage to find mates?

SY: I keep a careful registry for purposes of hybrid vigor!

AA: How many on that registry?

SY: Two. And neither is a girl. (Starts crying)

AA: Maybe I can get in touch with the Bigfoot delegation on your behalf? Unless you plan to continue westward on this trip.

SY: Would you? I don’t know if I can go over open ground without danger of being pounced on by conspiracy nuts. And it’s hard to raise the cousins. Skype let us down badly – they wanted a prepaid subscription and wouldn’t accept goats, even pashmina ones. We will make you an honorary yeti in gratitude if you succeed! And can you ask them to send me a new copy of Tintin au Tibet? I wore out my old one.

AA: Consider it done, snuggzilla! How about a hug to charge your batteries?

SY: (Hugging AA) No avalanches in Cambridge today!

Tintin au Tibet

Let This One Abide

February 12th, 2015

As anyone not in a nuclear submarine running silent must know, the movie version of 50 Shades of Grey (avaunt!) is about to descend upon us. As a counterweight, I’ll offer to those interested a subject-relevant vignette of a telepathic trio in a polyandrous matrilocal, matrilineal society. It’s part of my large Planetfall/Wind Harp universe (those who have seen Spider Silk and Shoals in Time have seen this vignette, titled Let This One Abide). Email me, curious minds!

Albrigtsen-Aurora

Image: Aurora, Tromsø, Norway (photo by Harald Albrigtsen)

How Many Swallows Bring Real Spring?

February 10th, 2015

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

“Being nice to the harmful is equivalent of being harmful to the nice.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Black Swan

Karyatidhes

The Karyátidhes, Erechtheíon, Akrópolis, Athens

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In the wake of Laura Mixon’s November 2014 report on Winterfox/Requires Hate/Benjanun Sriduangkaew/etc (RH/BS), the SFF community had discussion marathons about forgiveness and healing, diversity and inclusion, speaking up and being heard. The predations of RH/BS and her lieutenants, horrific in themselves, are nevertheless a symptom of larger systemic problems. It is becoming increasingly pressing for the inhabitants of SFF, fan and pro, to go past talking and take actions that could eventually move the domain out of perpetual parochialism and childishness. Below are some of my thoughts on the larger context; at the end of the post are links to thoughts of other RH/BS targets. As in my previous contribution to the dissection of this pathology, comments to this post are disabled.

———-

Idealistic members of the SFF community envision the genre as tolerant and genuinely inclusive. I find this vision a worthwhile one to aspire to, even though it’s mostly honored in the breach. Being human, we will never really bridge the fault lines that divide the SFF community. What we can do is try to be constructive and productive despite them, and treat each other as professionals, adults and fellow humans.

That said, I will not ask RH/BS, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Tori Truslow or anyone else in RH’s orbit to promise me anything for the simplest of reasons: their behavior after RH/BS issued disjunct “apologies” when she ran out of dodges make it crystal clear they have no intent to change. Their attempts to discredit and silence critics continue unabated (once again, I refer everyone to the fable of the scorpion and the frog). They’ve also redoubled their efforts to reconstitute the BS construct as a talented ingénue beset by jealous rivals and to deep-six the fact that they’ve systematically engaged in trade suppression, blackmail and intimidation.

RH/BS and her acolytes have set back true progressives in SFF by at least a decade and have turned “social justice” into a term of derision even among supporters of change and an apotropaic invocation for those agog to have SFF revert to the circa-fifties Leaden Era. However, of greater concern are those who are so eager to exhibit ideological purity or (belated) art-for-art’s-sake “objectivity” that they’re effectively contributing to the relentless onslaught on real diversity in SFF. Their actions have helped turn the SFF ecosphere into rigid, brittle monocultures clustered at extreme end-nodes of the political/identitarian spectrum.

I continue to see disingenuous arguments that “talent” (however it’s defined in today’s tinsel-grabbing market) trumps blatant professional misconduct and utter lack of ethics; that spouting pseudo-edgy fashionable jargon excuses sustained, de facto criminal attempts to blight lives and demolish careers and reputations. I see no real move to give voices to those who have been silenced by malice, no matter how vital their voices are pronounced to be or how talented they are (and many are visibly more talented than BS). Instead, I see cynical promotion of gaudy baubles, lip service to quality notwithstanding; self-satisfied endorsement of tokens and Pathetic Puppies, the more “provocative” boxes they tick, the better; annoyance at targets of smearing and bullying campaigns who will not obligingly remain mute or leave the arena – and who will never recover the time, energy, income and professional ground they lost; and continued erasure of mavericks who don’t fit the agendas of self-appointed correct thought supervisors or of instant-cred seekers from SFF publications and conventions.

I once said I would not take the Joanna Russ pledge because I had been at the barricades all my life. Likewise, once again I won’t utter sonorous noises about showcasing the loners and outliers, the neglected and forgotten, because I’ve been doing it all along and will continue to do it as long as I can. Whether I and other memory keepers remain cymbals echoing in the wilderness or end up with acid thrown at our writings and faces is up to the SFF community.

 

Recent thoughts from other targets of RH/BS and her acolytes

Jean Bergmann, Statement Regarding Alex Dally MacFarlane

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Writer’s Journey: Doing the Work

Rachel Manija Brown, Requires Hate/Requires Love

Liz Williams, Requires Comment

 

Selected related articles

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

A Plague on Both Your Houses

The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

Ain’t Evolvin’: The Cookie Cutter Self-Discovery Quest

Caesars and Caesar Salads

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

Aléxis Tsípras, Who Believes Human Beings Matter More Than Banks

January 26th, 2015

Something amazing happened yesterday. Greece elected Syriza, a left-of-center party, making its leader, Aléxis Tsípras, the youngest prime minister in Europe at forty.

A statue of Athena, patron of Athens, is seen near a Syriza party election campaign kiosk

Tsípras won by giving my people hope of regaining their dignity without falling into the clutches of xenophobia. We know he will most likely fail at implementing the social changes he wants, and he may even fail at renegotiating the debt: too many forces and interests are aligned against him within and without, too many will try to make an example of him in case more in the EU follow his path. But hope is something for people who have been trampled as much as can be short of outright occupation in the last seven years – with the result of 30% unemployment and 40% below poverty.

Aléxi: may you be as successful in navigating the shoals and poisonous thorns as your Komnenós namesake, who managed the Crusaders eyeing Byzantium like ripe fruit. So that we don’t end up as waiters and souvenir sellers to those who love to repeat the comfortable, comforting tale of “lazy southern darkies” and who have tried to make neo-feudal libertarian capitalism synonymous with democracy.

“And when they danced in the plaza,
the ceilings trembled inside the houses
and the glasses rang on the shelves.”

Yiánnis Rítsos, Dhéndro to Dhéndro from Romiossyni
(music, Míkis Theodhorákis; singer, Ghrighóris Bithikótsis)

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The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization

Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art

The Sheep Look Up

False Dawn, or Challenge to Germanic Hegemony?

Uppity Women and Neo-Nazi Rabid Dogs

Hidden Histories or: Yes, Virginia, Romioi Are Eastern European (And More Than That)

Authentic Ethnics

“My God, it’s Full of Physics!*” The Sciency Science of Interstellar

January 3rd, 2015

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness and The People in the Trees.

*apologies to Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick

Captain-NemoLet’s get something out there right away: most science in science fiction is wrong. That’s okay, because most science fiction isn’t actually about science, anyway, but about our relationship with science, exploring how science and technology intersects with our lives.   Frankenstein is about the quest for knowledge, no matter the cost. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea chronicles how one man’s rejection of the violent machinery of war and power leads him to be the ultimate, terrible instrument of that same violence. The movie Gattaca warns us of the dangers of using a single technological lens for measuring humanity.

Interstellar had Kip Thorne, a prominent Caltech theorist and expert in gravity, as a scientific advisor. But in the end it was the sci-fi equivalent of Peter Pan: if you clap your hands and believe, everything will turn out all right.

As I’ve written elsewhere, a good narrative should be much a good joke: surprising yet ultimately logical. In the original version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the Nautilus is trapped in a mighty maelstrom; in the movie version the crew are ambushed by a naval blockade. Both outcomes arise naturally from a central character’s underestimate of the forces arrayed against them: in the book, Nemo underestimates the power of nature; in the movie, Ned Land underestimates the cold brutality and hatred of the military. Both are surprising, but make sense in the context of the story-so-far.

By contrast, the plot of Interstellar basically boils down to this: a magical plague nearly extinguishes humanity. Then more magic saves it.

A blight which wipes out an entire food crop is completely believable, especially given our increasing tendency to monoculture. We’ve even seen that in bananas: most bananas in US stores are the Cavendish variety, cultivated by clonal cuttings. Sixty years ago you would have found the Gros Michel variety, but it was all but obliterated by Panama disease, and it is not impossible that the Cavendish may suffer a similar fate.

A single blight which annihilates crop after crop after crop is less believable, if only because: if it hasn’t happened in half a billion years of terrestrial plants, why suddenly now? Worse Michael Caine mumbles something about nitrogen, and people suffocating, which I could not follow; did the blight fix nitrogen, or oxygen? How could it possibly fix enough of either one to shift the atmospheric composition by more than a percent or two–especially given it would have to also draw upon the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is only a fraction of a percent.

This by itself is not an unforgivable scientific (or I should say sciencey) sin. I’m willing to accept a monstrous if highly unlikely plague in order to set the plot in motion.

After some more improbabilities, the accidental heroes launch into space. I’m glad Kip Thorne was able to talk Nolan out of his desire for faster-than-light drive, and the journey to Saturn takes a long time. Limitations, when consistent, provide a good verisimilitude of actual technology. I’m not sure why no one explained to Coop, the talented pilot, what a wormhole was until they were ten minutes from entering it, but, again, for the sake of the narrative I gritted my teeth and accepted it. They were surely some pretty CG effects.

But then we get to the planets. Including a planet orbiting a massive black hole.

Actually, even this I could accept. It is science fiction, after all, and I myself wrote and sold a story (“Icarus Beach”) involving characters surfing the neutrino burst from a supernova. I’m sure Kip Thorne patiently explained that to have a planet deep enough inside a gravity well for a time dilation ratio of 7 years to 1 hour but not be torn apart from tidal forces, it would have to be a really really massive black hole. Hence the name Gargantua. Thorne may have even explained to Nolan that such black holes are only found in the centers of galaxies, which are full of stars and radiation and really not that hospitable to life.

But even that I would accept–part of the joy of science fiction is the sense of wonder and the awe of extreme environments and situations. And the gravitational time dilation, although unrealistically large, fits well into the theme of constrained situations.

I never did get a good sense of the system. Are there twelve planets (like twelve disciples, get it, get it?) and a sun orbiting a sun, or what? The planet of ice clouds seemed, again, unlikely but cool.

But then we get to the mind-numbingly stupid stuff.

Chastain & Thorne

Not the falling into a black hole; I rather liked that bit. But Coop communicates with his daughter in the past, and eventually gets to meet her in the future, and it’s apparently all to do with five dimensions. Five dimensions, in Nolan-world, is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

It’s not so much bad science, because the science in the movie is, beyond phrases like “five-dimensional beings,” nonexistent. It’s bad plotting because Nolan is saying And then a miracle occurs. A miracle we expect the audience to swallow, because, science!

Let me remind you: a good narrative should be like a good joke: surprising, but logical.

It’s not logical if you invoke incomprehensible magic. If the audience doesn’t have a fair chance of understanding it, it’s poor narrative.

Even the one part that, superficially, sounded believable doesn’t make much sense if you understand the deep workings of physics. Michael Caine’s character desperately wants to crack the riddle of quantum gravity in order to, I guess, make antigravity and thus easy mass space travel. Another miracle. But they need data, ideally from passing through the event horizon of a black hole, to get it to work.

Physics is fundamentally an experimental science, so superficially this is good. But I could not figure out what kind of data would make a difference. Presumably Caine has narrowed down the range of models–what sort of gauge groups or diffeomorphisms may be involved. But if there is a possibility that a working theory of quantum gravity could lead to antigravity, you could just build the damn things–here’s one device assuming SU(10) supergravity, here’s another assuming conformally invariant diffeomorphisms, here’s another assuming Lorentz-violation at ultraviolet scales (and, for you readers out there, those are all real phrases, not shit I just made up)–and see which one produces antigravity and allows you to build colonies around Saturn. After all, Thomas Edison tried 10,000 different substances for the filament of an electric light bulb before finding one that worked. No need for a suicide mission down a black hole.*

Let me emphasize that the problem is not the bad science–it is that the narrative leans heavily upon incomprehensible science. That’s bad storytelling. And in the end, that’s the worst sin possible in a movie.

 

*I actually liked the trip down the black hole. And if the movie had ended, right there, I would have liked it a lot more, since up to that point the movie was pretty convincing about how dangerous and indifferent the universe is.

Thomas-Edison-Quotes

Images: 1st, James Mason as Captain Nemo; 2nd, Jessica Chastain with Kip Thorne; 3rd, the relevant Thomas Edison quote.

Love, Tantrums and the Critical Reviewer

December 28th, 2014

Scorpion Laughs

In the last few months there have been spikes of the age-old arguments about the interactions of authors, reviewers and fans. When the three overlap, as is increasingly the case in several genres, it’s no wonder that the injunctions are for discussions to be as uncritically gushing as they’re in fanfic.

It should be no secret by now that I don’t care if people dislike my re/views. Furthermore, my attributes and experiences make it unlikely that I’ll hold a majority view very often even within communities like SFF, futurists, space aficionados, etc. Not that I’m prone to hermetic hermeneutics: after fifty-plus years of avid reading, film watching and gaming, I remain firmly in favor of art being accessible. I like plenty of scifi and fantasy films, even Hollywood ones, even ones that are glaringly imperfect – as long as they’re not in-your-face insulting; as long as they show a scintilla of originality and love of craft.

Recently, people used terms like “curmudgeonly” and “jaundiced” to characterize my dislike of Interstellar of which I briefly said the following, as I deemed it too crappy (in all “five dimensions”) for a full-length review: “Having now seen Interstellar — a loss of three hours I bitterly regret — I’ve concluded that the praise I’ve seen must refer to a film located at the end of a distant wormhole. The clichés, clunkiness, regressive triumphalism and sanctimony are sickening. So is the misuse of Hathaway and Chastain. Interstellar wants to be Contact if/when it grows up. Even McConaughey was more bearable in the latter.” [Though I think Contact would be vastly improved if he was excised from it altogether.]

There have been similar tantrums whenever I’ve disliked a fave-du-jour, although nobody (yet) has called me “a harlot” as someone called Stephanie Zacharek for daring not to have orgasms over Guardians of the Galaxy. But you know what? Even something as smarmy as love standardized for US audience palatability can be done right in SFF films. Love is not McConaughey chewing the scenery, his neck veins throbbing like harp strings. This is love — across several dimensions yet, but without self-satisfied trumpeting:

Mal: It ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is? Well, I suppose you do, since you already know what I’m about to say.

River: I do. But I like to hear you say it.

Mal: Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.

This makes my eyes sting, even while I know it’s meant to tug at my heartstrings. And if you cannot tell why this is light years ahead of Interstellar‘s “love transcends space and time” pretentious blather, don’t bother reading my (unabashedly unibrow) reviews.

Image: The Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson) who knew how to deal with tantrums.

Curmudgeonly Reviews of Other SFF Films by Yours Truly

The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade (Samurai Champloo, Mononoke Hime)

Set Transporter Coordinates to… (the Star Trek reboot)

I Prefer My Prawns Well-Seasoned (District 9)

Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art (Avatar versus The Secret of Kells)

The Multi-Chambered Nautilus (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)

“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?” (the Planet of the Apes reboot)

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings? (The Piano, Whale Rider)

Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters (The Dark Knight Rises, The Bourne Legacy)

Hagiography in the SFX Age: Jackson’s Hobbit

“We Must Love One Another or Die”: A Critique of Star Wars

Mystique: The True Leader of the X-Men

Authentic Ethnics (all films about Greek mythology)

Annals of the Starship Reckless

December 10th, 2014

“But out there in the wind-swept dark, untamed and unbowed, still roams the feral loner who haunts the dreams and can foil the plans of the self-satisfied.”

— The closing of Mystique, the True Leader of the X-Men

adversity_by_amphirion

For a while now, people have been saying they’d like see my science- and/or SFF-relevant articles gathered in a collection.  Because of its unique viewpoint and perspectives, such a tome will almost certainly be self-published. Might as well keep frustration and amateurishness to a minimum!

As a trial balloon, I’m asking here, in Facebook and Twitter for a show of hands: how many would be interested in such a work?  The tally will close 5 pm EST, Friday. If numbers don’t reach triple digits, I’m unlikely to attempt it.

Image: Adversity by Amphirion

The Hue (and Cry) of Stormtroopers

November 29th, 2014

Temuera Morrison

Well, this is amusing, if only because it highlights the parochialism that reigns supreme in SFF. The first trailer of Star Wars 7 just appeared, and a character in it (played by actor John Boyega, who’s black) is shown wearing a stormtrooper uniform; the rumor is that he is in fact a stormtrooper who defects to the Good Guys. People pointed out that stormtroopers are clones and the person who served as the template was Jango Fett — played by well-known Maori actor Temuera Morrison.

Cue the cries of racism, because people are saying that a stormtrooper cannot be black unless the bioengineers developed multiple lines from independent templates. Never mind that Morrison is rather obviously non-white.

Now everyone in THIS galaxy knows I detested Star Wars for reasons explained in We Must Love One Another or Die. So I don’t much care about the logic of a plot that will undoubtedly be as well thought-out as that of the rest of the franchise. However, I must state for the record that people who argue that stormtroopers (as Fett clones) cannot be black aren’t racists. They just, you know, watched Star Wars 1 through 6 and know enough science to be aware that clones usually look like their prototype (although that has the usual nuances if one wants to inject real biology into the equation, something also unknown in Star Wars).

Even more importantly, people should consider the question of why stormtroopers, who are disposable fighting machines bred for obedience, are non-white. The human characters of Star Wars were actually racially diverse; nevertheless, all the primary heroic roles still went to the customary demographic group — though at least the lone female figure in each trilogy was a brunette (we’ll take whatever we can get, even pathetic crumbs).

ETA: A commenter brought up the fact that Star Wars hews to the traditional dark/light split (and value assignment) of many mythologies and religions. Currently, such dualisms may feed into racist assumptions. However, I think the original division arose because humans are diurnal, whereas their predators were almost entirely nocturnal until technology made this issue irrelevant. Before the advent of electric lighting, humans feared and respected the Night. But like almost everything, Star Wars deploys this ancient behavioral mode with zero nuance — a huge waste, because the best stories and characters develop in the ever-shifting shadowy realms between Light and Dark.

Image: Temuera Morrison

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Wrecker

November 6th, 2014

Introductory note: This is an inside-baseball article. For a quick recap of the issue, this report is the best source. For older history, consult this link. For recent history, here’s Laura Mixon’s report, with an extensive analysis and many documented cases of abuse. I will not respond to messages on this issue and have disabled comments here. Readers can comment at Laura’s site (strictly moderated). Additional pertinent posts: Robert N. Lee, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Rachel Manija Brown, Paul Weimer, Elizabeth Bear, Sunita P, Peter Schmitt, Alis Franklin, The Daily Dot, Peter Watts, Laura Mixon’s update, my larger-context discussion (I will add these as they appear).

—————-

Science fiction and fantasy (SFF) is an unusual domain. Distinctions between fans and pros are blurry, and its intrinsics attract loners, misfits, exiles and orphans. That fluidity also makes it attractive to predators who can use the domain’s tolerance to wreak havoc. Also, SFF’s self-defensive isolation from other parts of literature allows extreme pathological manifestations that would rarely survive, let alone flourish, in less parochial contexts.

About three years ago, I noticed the appearance of a shock-jock blogger mantled with the flag of social justice called Requires Hate (henceforth RH). She would sometimes say interesting things about matters that I had engaged in for a long time. So I’d occasionally comment on her blog. I also started exchanging emails with her. I was wary in our interactions – partly because her rhetoric was so extreme that I wondered if this was a put-on by someone wanting to troll the ultra-PC contingent; partly because I gradually became aware that RH was Winterfox/Pyrofennec (and another half-dozen handles) who had left a legacy of scorched earth in online communities since at least 2003: hazing, sexual and racial slurs and threats, sockpuppets, cyberstalking… with women (especially women of color and/or vulnerable) as primary targets. I also noticed that RH employed the typical grooming technique of gangs and cults for member recruitment: a mental equivalent of the Milgram experiment, in which people were pushed to deliver what they thought were ever-increasing (up to lethal) electric shocks to someone in the next room.

In one of our exchanges, RH described a story she planned to write. Such a story appeared under the moniker Benjanun Sriduangkaew (henceforth, fittingly enough, BS). This was coupled with the emergence of a treacly-ingenue persona with no prior online footprint. At that point, and once again when a BS story appeared in Clarkesworld, I recommended that she own up to the RH identity to head off any unpleasantness, including people feeling betrayed if they were blindsided about her two very different personae. It was also clear from our second exchange that BS was not her real name but yet another handle. BS/RH didn’t like my advice and, realizing I wouldn’t become one of her acolytes, eventually stopped interacting with me.

Portions of SFF swooned over BS’s veritable gush of stories, in which she used the edgiest identity-politics toolkit swathed in ethereal-purplish prose. She was nominated for awards (as RH had been, by a different SFF demographic slice) and hailed as the brightest new nova in SFF. People started swarming around her, clamoring to be part of the charmed circle. That included people who had been savaged by the RH persona, which was now mothballed. Initially I decided to say nothing, though it weighed on me. I knew nobody would believe me: they’d ascribe it to jealousy, pettiness and worse. I also knew that such a disclosure would tear the progressives in SFF apart (as it has). I kept hoping that perhaps all this adulation would assuage her raging need for attention. More importantly, I was focused on my own project: The Other Half of the Sky, an anthology of original space opera stories with women protagonists that went on to win unprecedented accolades of its own.

Then I started getting odd reactions from an increasing number of people: whispers, insults, cold shoulders, abrupt unfriendings. Some of this came from writers whom I had invited to my anthology and paid pro rates, such as Alex Dally MacFarlane (a staunch RH lieutenant, who now had some clout as the editor of a Prime Books reprint anthology and a Tor columnist). Readercon, the only gathering my health allows me to attend without strain, notified me in 2013 they had “received complaints” about my panel proposal. MacFarlane, who had originally clamored to join my panel, attempted to disrupt it. My request for a reading slot for my brand-new anthology was denied and in 2014 I was not invited to Readercon.

As more people whom I knew befriended the BS persona, I told Nick Mamatas, who had become a buddy of sorts. A few months ago, I also told three others I deemed vulnerable, all in strict confidence. One of them was enticed into breaking my confidence. She informed me that BS “was upset” and “asked what she’d ever done to you that you’d say that about her” (i.e. that she was RH). The signs were clear that BS/RH had targeted me for isolation and expulsion from the SFF community: having proved unherdable, I was a potentially dangerous loose end.

I knew that it was a matter of time before BS/RH moved to sweep the domain clear of competition – talented young progressive women authors, judging from her past rounds. When Tricia Sullivan’s “Toxicity and me” post appeared, I instantly recognized the pattern and the two principals involved, even though she didn’t use names: BS/RH and MacFarlane. Some of those they had co-opted broke ranks and confirmed what I knew or had already surmised: that BS is yet another handle; and of the active plans of BS/RH and her chief apostles to eliminate perceived obstacles (me among them) by smear and blackballing campaigns.

When I told the story to Nick Mamatas, he mentioned that BS/RH had indeed sent him a note about me “spreading unfounded rumors” and “having it in for her”; I suspect she sent similar notes to all her editors and publishers as a pre-emptive strike. Nick also let me know that bad people can be good writers, whereas BS/RH’s adversaries were jealous “has-beens”. He didn’t answer when I asked if he deemed me disposable as well. Soon afterwards, he publicly stated that BS was RH, arguing that this would stop her predation while sparing her career. Many of the people who knew but did not see fit to tell me I had been targeted for slaughter have been beneficiaries of my personal and/or professional support.

Although it was obvious at that point that the BS=RH equation had been an open secret, Nick’s airy prediction that confirmation of this fact would stop her shenanigans proved spectacularly wrong. BS/RH rallied her supporters with the perennial cries of the cornered sociopath: jealous rivals were “harassing” a gifted, vulnerable young writer; a stalker had located her due to the “outing”, etc. The defenses of the BS/RH paladins were that she was young (although she had been doing this for more than ten years) and brilliant (a.k.a. the Polanski defense); that the hate rhetoric was just flourishes – or sophisticated satire (a particularly corrosive type of special pleading); and that white men who did the same were not punished (patently untrue – see Beale’s SFWA expulsion). People who came forward to tell their stories of being abused by BS/RH in the past (most anonymously, for fear of further reprisals and trauma) were mocked or shouted down by her defenders.

The actions of BS/RH go far past the easy excuse of personality conflicts and cannot in any way be construed as the behavior of a rational professional acquainted with even rudimentary ethics. Furthermore, BS/RH repeats the same pattern in every group she enters and has never shown any substantive remorse. On the contrary, her arsons and auto-da-fés have become increasingly ambitious – and better rewarded.

As someone who headed a research lab for twenty years and who hired, evaluated, trained and mentored scads of people, this is my assessment: BS/RH is a long-term repeat abuser. Her efforts to erase or obfuscate evidence have been systematic and are ongoing. The two last-ditch Hugo-Schwyzer-style apologies posted on the RH and BS blogs and tailored to each persona’s audience (I won’t link, my stomach is cast-iron but not neutronium) are simply feints to buy time and cover until allies and colleagues have invested too heavily in the BS construct to back out. Those who insist BS/RH has reformed should read the tale of the scorpion and the frog. In her past iterations, she ravaged communities and treated people like chew-toys. That’s horrible enough in itself. However, SFF is also a professional concern. So beyond emotional damage, we’re also looking at concrete effects on careers and reputations, especially of the less established. We’re looking at crude but serious attempts to disparage contemporaries’ enterprises, eliminate competition and suppress trade.

To those who are still trying to gaslight, discredit and silence BS/RH’s victims, I can only say, as Joseph Welch did: “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

To those who were led into the trap of complicity, I say: come back to us. We all make errors of judgment. Humans are tribal, we want to be liked and to associate with success.

To those who were targeted and hurt, I say: you are not alone. Others know about the bullying and lies that almost broke you.

To those who stood in front of this wrecker, despite fear and real consequences, I say: you are the pillars who hold up the world.

I have no illusions about the repercussions of the BS/RH affair on me, personally or professionally. However, any human group that wants to remain human cannot allow people to be treated as prey for sport and profit – or because some people are deemed more important than others.

Repairing the fabric of the world is neither glamorous nor rewarding. It’s ceaseless toil – not jargon-laden purer-than-thou trumpetings.

We have work to do.

Athena Andreadis, PhD

Athena Andreadis Sitting smAndreadis Brief Bio

Athena Andreadis was born in Greece to parents who were part of the WWII resistance, spent her adolescence under the military junta and was lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She spent her adult life doing basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She has also given many invited talks (that included NASA venues and the 100-Year Starship Symposium) on the biological and cultural issues of space/planetary exploration. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. She conceived of and edited the widely acclaimed feminist space opera anthology The Other Half of the Sky (2013, Candlemark and Gleam). Her work can be found in Scientific American, Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.

Authentic Ethnics

October 4th, 2014

Fiennes Hades
Stratospheric talent and charisma – but is he authentic?!

In the latest iteration of multiculturalism as salad rather than melting pot, there has been constant discussion in social media about authenticity and representation. A recurring topic is whether roles should be assigned to actors who match the race (however defined) and even ethnicity of the characters.

Several threads make up this tangled knot: the poor representation and lack of opportunities for non-defaults in media and just about everywhere else; the industry’s stated need for face recognition (and hence bankability) of the principals; the conspicuous whitewashing of several signature works upon translation to the screen, Le Guin’s Earthsea among them; the hooha over whether there can be gender slippage in roles that “should be” cast in stone (Helen Mirren as Prospero in The Tempest); the stereotyping and category-lumping by physical appearance (tall and fair – Elf; short and dark – Orc or Southron; tall and dark – Uruk Hai; and poor Cliff Curtis keeps getting cast as an Arab or Latin American despite his long Maori lineage).

Over this hovers the flammable balloon of xenophobia which grows heavy during times of economic dislocations and tends to burst in bouts of “cleansing” whether that comes via restrictive immigration policies or outright slaughter. A “swarthy” woman with a petrified legacy accent myself, often pigeonholed on sight as Indian, Latin American or Arab except for the swagger, I’ve had customs and immigration employees yell “Speaka English? Huh?” an inch from my face. My name has been mangled throughout my adult life, I’ve suffered through “interpretations” of my mythology and history that would make cavemen cringe, and I strongly suspect that my grant, book and story proposals might have met different fates if I had submitted them under a more generic (or, ironically, more exotic) pseudonym.

At the same time, as I wrote in Caesars and Caesar Salads, the demand for total verisimilitude can be as parochial as its opposite. For one, race definitions vary significantly by culture and the current tendency of justice warriors to call anyone who’s not Anglo and blond “a person of color” hovers perilously close to definitions of traditional bigots. Also, some people identify with more than a single demographic slice, although most people of widely separate ancestries tend to choose one of their strands and cleave to it tenaciously. Finally, actors are meant to pretend to be someone else by definition. So it should be possible, with sufficient talent and training, to embody a persona beyond the narrow box of completely shared experience (ditto for writing, hobbled by the “Write what you know!” Hack101 exhortation).

Jackman Descendant
Isídhoros Bélas would be proud of his great-grandson.

Which brings us to the latest complaint during this tense moment in US history when the culture wars are raging with no resolution in sight – namely, that Welsh-born Catherine Zeta-Jones has been chosen to play the Colombian narcotrafficanta pioneer Griselda Blanco. Zeta-Jones has the right allure and fame, plus she already played an equivalent role in Traffic. But, say the purists, she’s not Latina. And it’s an undisputable fact that there are plenty of Latina thespians, famous ones at that, who could embody Blanco.

At that point, it occurred to me that I haven’t yet seen a single film or TV show about Greece or Greeks (whether myth or history, ancient or contemporary) produced outside Greece that uses even secondaries who are Greek – let alone protagonists. However, I haven’t heard a single voice raised in protest over Sam Worthington (groan) as Perséus, Brad Pitt as Ahilléus, Gerard Butler as Leonídhas, Colin Farrell as Aléxandhros… though I can live with Angelina Jolie as Olympiás and Ralph Fiennes as Ploúton.

Some will argue that, well, Greeks are white. Except of course when we’re not, to fit a different agenda (an SFF darling recently stated on Twitter that “Plato was not white”, making me wonder if he’ll say the same when the topic of The Suffocating Influence of Dead White Males comes up). Or maybe our privilege is that we, too, are Europeans… except when we’re not (the Euro Northerners, whether in 1941 or 2008, seem to agree on this). Or that we, too, have had a colonial past… except ours, such as it was, ended way before that of the Mughals, Ottomans and Russians, let alone the more customarily excoriated oppressors. Or that the “Greco-Roman” legacy is one of the foundations of Western civilization… except that what Western Europeans call the “Greco” part of this chimera is as authentic as Burton’s retelling of Shahrazad’s stories.

So as a tiny corrective, I did a recasting of Troy with Greek or Greek-descent actors. While checking out faces that could launch or stop a thousand ships, I discovered that Hugh Jackman, of Wolverine fame and nova-bright charisma, has enough Greek in him to be a card-carrying enrollee with nary a hitch (1/8, for those burning to know). The paternal side of his family once bore the surname Bélas. I was sorely tempted to cast him as Éctor, but decided on less-lionized faces. So below is my “authentic” Troy cast, with the non-diaspora names phonetically as close to correct as I can get them (click once or twice to embiggen accordingly). All are well-known in my country but, like its real mythology, history and literature, unknown beyond it except for Cliff-note versions.

Troy Cast

Related Articles:

And Ain’t I a Human?
The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!
Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry
Escaping Self-Imposed Monochromatic Cages
The House of Many Doors (or: At the Caucasus, Hang a Right!)
The Multi-Chambered Nautilus
Caesars and Caesar Salads
Hidden Histories or: Yes, Virginia, Romioi Are Eastern European (And More Than That)

Images: 1st, Ralph Fiennes as Hades (Ploúton) in Clash of the Titans; 2nd, Hugh Jackman; 3rd, my idiosyncratic (and tribal) recasting of Troy.

Dawkins and Saul: Dudebros Under the Skin

September 20th, 2014

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” – Audre Lorde

The-Four-Horsemen
Meet the new boss-prophets, same as the old boss-prophets

I’ve been an atheist ever since I could reason and a scientist (in outlook, even before I acquired the necessary tools to practice it) ever since I read Jules Verne at the impressionable age of five. Whether atheists and scientists are mud-bound clods incapable of epiphanies and a sense of awe is not my focus here; I cover that in The Double Helix. Because these two streams had a major role in shaping me, it will come as no surprise that I’ve been tracking Richard Dawkins ever since The Selfish Gene crossed my radar. Given other formative influences, it may also come as no surprise that I wrote him off as a serious thinker in either domain a long time before his knuckle-dragger clunkings on social media. I hold the same view of Dennett, Harris and Hitchens for overlapping reasons.

People have expressed surprise that Dawkins’ PR-unscrubbed utterances are as primitive and juvenile as those from Duck Dynasty, especially his EvoPsycho101 sexism and white-man’s-burden pronouncements that cannot be justified by the standard dodge of “he’s a product of his context” (male, white, Anglo, upperclass, tenured, rich, lionized). However, if you read Dawkins carefully, it’s perfectly congruent that he sounds like Saul-turned-Paul in his injunctions to women and other second-class humans to be obedient and silent: a powerful streak of patriarchal authority worship colors not just his stances but also his science, with its relentless banging on the natural dominance of ruthless alleles. It’s equally congruent that his empathy-devoid “logic” sounds like Spock at his most pompous ill-informed reductionism – because, judging from his cumulative opus, that’s how Dawkins thinks across all departments.

Supporters of Dawkins will point out that he was an articulate spokesperson for evolution and against creationism and pseudoscience before he became a full-time nurturer of his own celebrity. Yet all scientists worthy of the title have borne witness for bona fide science to the best of their abilities, most with far less fanfare and job security – and far lower fees. Before discussing the atheism part, I want to take a detour into science. As a molecular biologist who worked for more than three decades on brain gene regulation, I’ve encountered few concepts as harmful as Dawkins’ selfish gene. I’ve dubbed it I-got-mine-bitches biology and it wreaks at least two major damages, one proximal, one distal.

The proximal damage is that the concept is simply inaccurate: genes and gene products never work in isolation but as coordinated ensembles. So do organisms and ecosystems, though the strong (conscious) Gaia hypothesis is definitely wrong. A broken wheel (allele, gene) can disable a car (cell, organism) but it cannot make it function on its lonesome: cars are not a collection of wheels bent on having the shiniest possible rims (“selfish”). The name for unchecked-growth cells is cancer; too-virulent viruses and too-greedy predators become extinct if they obliterate their hosts and prey, respectively; and rape is neither hard-wired nor evolutionarily adaptive. Also, no matter at what level(s) evolution makes its selection, the process is context-sensitive. There is no optimized allele, cell, genome, organism, species or ecosystem that’s independent of time and place. “Harmful” alleles persist because they confer desirable resistances, usually to heterozygotes (sickle hemoglobin is the poster child for this) and even temporarily neutral alleles within populations allow organisms to be responsive to future changes.

On top of the factual inaccuracy, Dawkins’ view reeks of teleological anthropomorphizing: he presents genes as god-like overlords jerking will-less “meat cages” around and he approvingly notes the brutality of nature in weeding out imperfections and weaklings. However, as I discussed in Miranda Wrongs, genes do not dictate higher order behavior which is an complex if knowable emergent phenomenon. Also, nature is indifferent to human desires and convenience – or those of any lifeform, for that matter. So contra Dawkins, the universe doesn’t lurk awaiting its chance to pounce on hapless non-alphas, nor does it have an insecure ego that derives pleasure and validation from disasters.

tantrumThe distal damage is that Dawkins’ selfish gene concept has been adopted wholesale and then shoehorned into every conceivable niche by all regressive groups that like to label themselves progressive and/or “edgy”: libertarians, transhumanists, evopsychos, MRAs, one-percenters, “creatively disruptive” MBAs, grittygrotty SFF writers. The core characteristic of these groups, protestations of visionary thinking notwithstanding, is that they’re actually obsessed with auto-perks for the “worthy” and with perfectibility narratives beloved by fundamentalist clerics.

Which brings us to atheism. I was raised in a culture where orthodox christianity was imposed not just by custom but also by law. My experiences and subsequent investigations stripped all illusion of whether any organized religion is benign, an illusion often nursed by those who embrace religions eclectically and/or by choice. I do recognize that religion can be a major part of someone’s cultural identity – it was part of mine, even as I figured out its corrosive toxicity. [Meta note: This is not a 101 debate; attempts to argue that some religions are good for women/non-defaults, that you cannot have morality without fear of punishment, that religion inspired amazing art or humane politics or that many current religious leaders are “progressive” will be met with the summary ejection they deserve.  The same treatment, incidentally, will be meted out to anyone who tries to tell me that my unsophisticated brain does not grasp the subtle rigors (if only!) of Dawkins’ theories.]

My atheism is that of Camus and any temptation (or likelihood) of me becoming a prophet is additionally precluded by my attributes, both innate and chosen. The atheism promoted by Dawkins is a counter-reformation cum younger-son rebellion: he and those like him don’t really want to bring a fundamental shift in society. They simply would like to establish or maintain an alternative authority pyramid with themselves at the apex, with all the entitlements of such a configuration. It is no coincidence that the views of Dawkins and the other so-called “horsemen” seamlessly align with the classic hierarchical dualisms (female/sentiment/instinct/nurture vs male/logic/science/conquest) that have wrought such havoc on our species and our planet. Nor is it a coincidence that when crossed, Dawkins drops the enlightened façade to reveal the raw nastiness underneath, which includes the annihilation of “apostates” routinely practiced by cult leaders.

self-promotionWhat Dawkins advocates is essentially a variant of authoritarian patriarchy, with its rigid rankings and selective privileges. He may have been a promising scientist once. However, his own agendas and unquestioned assumptions (which he keeps trying to pass as objective universals) combined with the expectation for sycophancy brought by his aggrandizement have repercussions beyond basic science. Elevation of people like Dawkins has led to such outcomes as the uniform expanse of white male faces at the 100 Year Starship Symposium. We aren’t going to build or board starships or even take care of our planet if we award the mantle of thought leader to blinkered, petty self-promoters like Dawkins.

Related articles:

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
If They Come, It Might Get Built
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle
The Charlatan-Haunted World
So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?
The Misogyny We Inhale with Each Breath

Images: 1st, “The Four Horsemen of Atheism” (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett); 2nd, “Tantrum” bronze sculpture: Gustav Vigeland; 3rd, Self-Promotion (creator unknown)

The (Warrior) Women Men Don’t See

September 2nd, 2014

“A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is finished, no matter how brave its warriors or how strong their weapons.” – Cheyenne saying

Cretan AntartissesWhen asked who the Greek god of war was, most people will answer “Ares” but that’s incorrect. The Hellenes had two gods of war and made a distinction between what type of conflict each oversaw. For wars of conquest in which armies invaded someone else’s home territory, the deity in charge was indeed Ares. For wars of defense, the presiding presence was Athena (as always in those palimpsest myths, the rule’s not absolute: in the Iliad, Athena’s intense liking of Odysseus overrode her formal duties).

This is directly relevant to the endless natterings in SFF about whether it’s problematic to prominently feature women warriors, especially in the self-labeled “realistic” grittygrotty mode encouraged by the success of George Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire. One standard defense to this question is to quote names of warrior queens (Boudicca of the Iceni, the Truong sisters, Lakshmi Bai, Laskarina Bouboulina, Nzinga Mbandi, Jeanne d’ Arc), mention women who fought disguised as men and women warrior groups across eras. Frankly, the issue is irrelevant to whether women warriors existed in history and should also be irrelevant to a genre that freely postulates magic and mythical beasts.

What’s relevant is the fundamental truth that underlies the Athena/Ares split: women have fought in equal numbers to men in the defense of home territory. That’s why resistance movements always have a healthy percentage of women all the way up the ranks, including executive officers. In fact, if someone looks at the names I listed in the previous paragraph their uniting attribute is that they were all home defenders.

Many attempt to argue that the term “warrior” implies special training, implements, ethos, etc. However, Toussaint l’ Ouverture is universally deemed a warrior regardless of his relevant formal credentials. The definition of warrior includes one non-negotiable item: bravery in fighting. Women can be summarily dismissed from this equation only if one limits the definition of “warrior” to an elite caste whose entire vocation and raison d’ être is war. But most women – and, incidentally, most men – who fought in resistance movements or defensive wars against invaders and occupiers were not professionals. They were teachers, doctors, craftspeople, factory workers, farmers. Those who were still standing when the fight ended went back to their real occupations with scars and stories handed down the years.

Mountain AntartissesPeople who become warriors because they must usually lack the aura of the strutters arraigned in the finery of moran and samurai, Jedi and Rohirrim. At the same time, neither do they present society with the intransingent problems of reintegration, polarization, power differentials. And societies that are not fatally fixated on machismo recognize such bravery. In my own culture, the last stand of Dhéspo is as celebrated as that of Leonídhas. The term of my tongue for someone truly brave, pallikári, is neuter and used for everyone whose behavior fits the definition.

Both my parents were such fighters. It’s well past time for SFF to absorb the fact that bravery is a universal not particularly high in the Maslow scale nor confined to a chosen few.

Related articles:

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

A Plague on Both Your Houses

“As Weak as Women’s Magic”

Ain’t Evolvin’: The Cookie Cutter Self-Discovery Quest

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Caesars and Caesar Salads

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

We Must Love One Another or Die: A Critique of Star Wars

Images: Adártisses (women guerillas) in WWII Hellás. Top, Cretan grandmother and granddaughter; bottom, Mountain Fighters, from the Rizospástis archive.

The Successor to The Other Half of the Sky

July 11th, 2014

Other Half 160Those who have followed my tangled trajectories know that two years ago I dreamt of literary mythic space opera with women protagonists in universes where they’re fully human. The anthology that resulted from this dream, The Other Half of the Sky, appeared in April 2013 on my dad’s nameday.

The anthology received unanimously rave reviews
in venues ranging from Library Journal to Analog, was in the Locus recommended list, four of its sixteen stories were selected for “Best of” compilations, and one of its stories won the Nebula for best novelette and is a Hugo finalist. A slew of like-minded anthologies followed in its wake, several from larger presses who felt that in these circumstances a plunge into “uncharted” territory was less risky than they thought (of course, when the time for big-noise interviews came, they were invited; I was not).

Altogether not bad, for the first genre outing of an editor with a tiny (though swashbuckling) press. But that was the past; and we restless wanderers are always scanning the horizon ahead. The foray whetted my appetite for more exploration. And since one of my other hats is that of research scientist, my thoughts bent in that direction — especially because science in SF (the process and mindset, not its accuracy) is in dire need of refurbishing.

So I just finished gathering potential contributors for the next anthology. My other collaborators — publisher, co-editor, cover artist — have also declared their willingness to share this journey. The provisional name of the starship under construction is To Shape the Dark. Here are the narrative parameters:

1. Protagonists: women scientists, mathematicians or engineers who live in universes where they don’t have to choose between work and family; most emphatically not Susan Calvin clones (my interpretation of science is broad, but computer engineers and psychologists have been heavily overused in SF);

2. Strong preference for societies/cultures where science is fully integrated as a holistic, humanistic endeavor – neither hubris nor triumphalism, the nearly ubiquitous SF tropes;

3. Science fiction (cross-genre fusion is fine, mythic echoes even finer, but no straight fantasy); no “big ideas” Leaden Age SF or near-future cyber/steampunk/dystopia unless it’s truly original;

4. Content and style for adult readers; protagonists fully exercising faculties and vocations, not young adult “finding one’s self” nor the sufferings of messiahs-to-be in the hands of inscrutable mentors.

We set the bar high with The Other Half of the Sky. I intend to raise it even higher with To Shape the Dark. Wish me luck and strength to make planetfall, though the stars I see through the astrogator’s port will be wondrous.

Mythic Space

The Misogyny We Inhale with Each Breath

July 6th, 2014

“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.”

The original opening for the obituary of Yvonne Brill, pioneer rocket and propulsion engineer, in The New York Times, March 2013. The revised opening was barely better.

—-

Ann LeckieImagine you’ve landed on an earth-like planet. You can live there without erecting domes, but there’s a gas dissolved in the atmosphere that makes you slightly ill. You rarely feel fully yourself. You have some difficulty gathering your thoughts, you have to take time to parse your every action. You spend excessive amounts of effort trying to get basics done.

If you’re a woman, you don’t have to imagine this. It’s called living on earth and the toxic gas dissolved in the atmosphere is called misogyny. It leads to several outcomes:

— Women do not form schools, lineages or dynasties and exceptional women are extolled (or, more frequently, demonized) as isolated one-of-a-kind anomalies;

— Women who are extolled are always presented as acceptably feminine and/or maternal first, before their contributions and vocations are discussed – and the latter as adjunct to the prestige of the patriarchal group that absorbed them;

— Women neglect daughters (who vanish one way or another) and invest in sons, their primary conduit to proxy authority; occasionally they exert indirect power and are validated through “indulgent” fathers and/or husbands.

Every single one of these patterns is endemic in the science fiction community despite all lip service to “changes” and they were among the visible foundations of a recent article at the St. Louis River Front Times titled “Is Ann Leckie the Next Big Thing in Science Fiction?” For those who live in nuclear submarines running silent, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is the first installment of a space opera projected trilogy that won two prestigious genre awards so far, the Nebula and the Clarke. The irony is that the article was clearly written with the best of intentions – unwitting proof of the toxic-gas analogy.

The first sentence of the article (under the front photo) is: “St. Louis mother and first-time novelist Ann Leckie…” and it spends its first half-page lovingly detailing how many rejections Leckie’s novel received – a tradition when discussing women’s works. It expresses surprise that Leckie doesn’t conform to the phenotype of “a typical suburban mother of two” – especially her glittery orange toenails. The article also mentions Leckie’s doubts about finding a man who would marry a brainy nerd, and her husband’s support of Leckie’s Big Decision to attend the Clarion workshop. In short, the interviewer is at pains to prove to his readers that Leckie is “just like the girl next door” because women creators are automatically considered freaks.

Despite its title, only half of the article is about Leckie; the other half is devoted to the sorry saga of the SFWA Bulletin. About a third of the portion that deals with Leckie’s achievements consists of quotes by John Scalzi. Granted, having Scalzi’s imprimatur ranks high on some people’s radars, especially journalists who want to establish instant insider cred. Scalzi (heaped with accolades for writing sanctioned fanfic, inter alia) has made himself a conspicuous ally of righteous causes within the genre. As with many others of his demographic slice, this stance has left him thigh-deep in acolytes and worshippers while non-default forerunners who expressed similar views received ostracism and abuse.

The article contains soundbites by other contemporary SF authors, most of them part of the SFWA administrative structure during the time that Leckie was that organization’s vice president. Conspicuously absent in the River Front article is any commentary by still-living foremothers: Cherryh, Friedman, Jones, Le Guin, McIntyre, Vinge, Yolen, all of whom have written space opera that shifted perimeters and parameters, if only against mountains of passive and active resistance. In stark contrast, Le Guin did a large-context review — actually a lengthy, fulsome endorsement — of Miéville’s Embassytown when it appeared, highlighting that only investment in sons (especially pre-confirmed successes) is deemed worthwhile and pragmatic. Remember, daughters are not part of any lineage. So Leckie is once again depicted as a singleton meteor, rather than as part of a solar system whose planets have nurtured complex life for millennia.

Perhaps these foremothers read Ancillary Justice and didn’t like it. I count myself among those who had mixed reactions to it; I fall into the group that Leckie names at the end of the article: “…what I really hope is that a bunch of writers look at my book and say, ‘She didn’t go far enough.’” and also into the group that has read enough to recognize it as a (worthy) successor, not a new origin. The possibility that famous SF women writers may have been asked to comment on Ancillary Justice but chose not to do so to avoid dilemmas highlights the no-win choices we have: we can remain silent, making ourselves irrelevant; we can pull our punches, undermining ourselves and cheapening the works we evaluate; or we can state our view and be labeled regressive (or be called cunts… though the British contingent continues to insist that the latter is a non-gendered term of endearment).

Also typically, the River Front article took time to note that Leckie received her Nebula award in a shimmering red gown. For me, the annoyance at this inclusion was mitigated by the accompanying factoid that the person who handed her the award was Stan Schmidt of Analog, who listed heavily toward didactic upbeat stories with young male protagonists and who had sent her a rejection addressed to “Mr. Leckie”. But tiny revanches are not the same thing as winning wars or even battles. And terraforming a planet, especially one where we can muddle along even as it subtly poisons us, is hard, thankless work.

Related articles:

Prime-minister-julia-gillardIs It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

Why I Won’t Be Taking the Joanna Russ Pledge

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

The Iron Madonna or: Kicking Ass While Female

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

Images: 1st, Ann Leckie; 2nd, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard during her famous misogyny speech, October 2012

The Scientist in the Forest

June 20th, 2014

 by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones and Star Trek: Into Darkness.

People TreesScience is about truth. At least, some kinds of truth: its success lies in focusing on material, factual, reproducible truths. Science has been so astoundingly successful in that limited arena that we moderns assume it is the only kind of truth worth having. It’s an important distinction, because we try to force everything else into the same materialist mold as science, and often act as if poetry and politics, ethics and emotions are either true or not true in the same way it’s true that you and I are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and not true that the world is flat.

We value honesty in people, and probably with very few exceptions we each one of us perceive ourselves as honest. But people are complicated. Walt Whitman wisely wrote, Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes. But nearly two centuries after Whitman’s birth, we have become uncomfortable with contradictions, not only within scientific fact, but with the personal, the metaphorical. While for centuries people were mostly unfazed by contradictions in the Bible (with no small irony, the Scholastic movement of the late Middle Ages, which sought to iron out those contradictions, laid the logical foundation for modern science), today people lose their mind if a movie based upon a comic book differs in modest detail from the source material. While Whitman contained multitudes, a more recent spokesman for our braver newer age, Dr. Gregory House, bluntly stated, Everybody lies.

To some extent that’s true–we lie to our loved ones, we lie to ourselves–and yet it’s also trying to impose a rigid, science-inspired, axiomatic framework on goopy, non-axiomatic people, House being a premiere example of that attitude.

A new novel, The People in the Trees, explores the disturbing collision between scientific and personal truths. It parallels the real-life story of D. Carleton Gajdusek, who won the Nobel Prize in 1976 for his discovery of kuru, a prion-based disease. In the place of kuru, however, we get a retelling of the myth of Tithonos, a mortal whose immortal lover Eos (the Dawn) obtains for him eternal life. Alas, Eos forgets to also ask for eternal youth, and Tithonos continues to age, growing ever more enfeebled. In this version, Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel, a doctor discovers an isolated tribe on the tiny South Pacific island of Ivu’ivu who, by eating a rare turtle, live for hundreds of years. Alas, like poor Tithonos, while their bodies do not age, their minds senesce and they become drooling “dreamers” doomed to wander the forest subsisting on a diet of fruit and worms.

The doctor, Norton Perina, sneaks home some of the meat of the opa’ivu’eke turtle (the apostrophes denote glottal stops, common in Polynesian languages; Yanagihara grew up in Hawaii) and replicates the effect in mice. Yanagihara’s father was a research doctor who knew Gajdusek, and unlike many celebrated literary writers who have no idea and little interest in how science works, she describes with terrific verisimilitude the workings of experimental science, including the numbing tediousness of injecting mice, observing mice with daily logs for months, then killing the mice and performing an autopsy. (By the way, for an excellent and entertaining nonfiction book on aging and sencescence I recommend The Long and the Short of It, by Jonathon Silvertown, an ecologist at the Open University, Milton Keynes.)

Thus Perina demonstrates a scientific truth. But the truth is not always simple; and truth has consequences, as do lies. Perina holds back the information on mental decay, even though he observes it in his mice. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies descend upon Ivu’ivu like carrion crows. While neither Yanagihara nor her protagonist Perina fall for the myth of the noble savage living in simple harmony with nature, they are clear-eyed about the plagues the industrialized world brings: alcoholism, obesity, material envy and despair. When it becomes clear there is no elixir of immortality, the turtles having been hunted to extinction and unwilling to breed in captivity, the industrialized world abandons the island. Then plagues orphan children, and like his inspiration, Gadjusek, Perina adopts dozens of them.

And–in a turn foretold by the introduction, but nonetheless gut-wrenching when it happens–Perina, also like Gadjusek, is accused of molesting one of his children. He is tried, convincted, and sent to prison. None of the above are spoilers, by the way, as they are all outlined in the first few pages in a clunky and mostly unwarranted framing device, a still-loyal friend and colleague editing Perina’s text. (This had the effect of draining some tension from the book, but the timing of revelations is a tricky thing. Karen Joy Fowler, in this year’s PEN/Faulkner-winning novel We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves–also about flawed scientists–withholds a key bit of information for more than a third of the book; but that withholding doesn’t really add tension, not least because most reviews and the book jacket itself revealed that the “sister” was a chimpanzee.)

Was the accusation true? Perina, who is the narrator for most of the book, dances around the answer. He’s not the only one: the anthropologists he accompanies leave out of their published work any mention of the Ivu’ivuan rite of ritual sodomization of young boys on the edge of puberty. Furthermore, the novel’s framing supernarrator first removes and then, on the last pages restores, a key piece of evidence.

Great men and women often have feet of clay. The prophet of liberty and logic Thomas Jefferson held slaves and fathered children on one. Nobel prizewinner Richard Feynman, whose graphical techniques revolutionized physics, became after the early death of his first wife a womanizer who seduced the wives and girlfriends of colleagues and students. And so on. In science we seek simple, clear truths. But the truth about people, whether living in huts in a forest or working in a lab in the U.S., is seldom simple. Even to say Everybody lies oversimplifies. Whitman is right. We are large. We contain multitudes, such multitude that even beautifully written novels such as The People in the Trees cannot fully contain them.

YanagiharaAthena’s notes:  An exploration of immortality that starts similar to Yanagihara’s but goes in a totally different direction is Le Guin’s “The Island of the Immortals”.  This essay is particularly timely as the SFF community reflects on idols with feet of clay (and worse).  Last but not least, on page 2 of Yanagihara’s book, it is stated that the turtle meat brings on immortality by inactivating telomerase, which degrades telomeres.  In fact, the enzyme does exactly the opposite, and for this reason has featured prominently on tranhumorist immortality recipes (of course, keeping cells immortal is the definition of cancer).  This ground-level error irritated me enormously, but I suspect I will read nevertheless read the book.

Images: 1st, People in the Trees, paperback; 2nd, Hanya Yanagihara (credit: Scott Levy)

Mystique, the True Leader of the X-Men

June 7th, 2014

Opening note: except for a sidebar, this essay discusses only what’s contained in the X-Men films. So if anyone attempts to tell me “This problem is dealt with in issue X, page Y!” — don’t be surprised if my response tends to the curt.

Lilith Babylon 1800I’m profoundly allergic to messianic narratives, especially ones in which everyone is a tool for the godling’s quest for sanctity – and Marvel’s X-Men series employs this trope so heavily that following any story/character line more than cursorily threatens to put me in anaphylactic shock. Yet in the interests of being au courant I’ve seen all the X-Men films except for the unspeakable Last Stand, an ordeal I’ve weathered by focusing on the minor characters (who tend to be non-default) with occasional glances at Logan/Wolverine, who’s feminized despite his unsubtle cigar-chomping and Victorian sideburns. And so it came to pass that last night, knowing in advance it would annoy me into opining, I saw Days of Future Past.

As I watched the expected lingering adoration of the male godlings’ angst, I realized whose story this has really been throughout the two origin prequels: unsung, demonized and finally erased, the column on which this house stands is Raven Darkholme/Mystique. In First Class she is shown to be the co-founder of X-Men and, like all women in such positions, she’s turned into Lilith – who was not created from Adam’s rib as a helpmate, but separately and concurrently, meant to be an equal partner. In Hebrew lore Lilith devolved into the Mother of Demons for the unpardonable crime of defying both Adam’s and Yahweh’s wishes to become the mirror for their self-admiration, the vessel for their seed.

Likewise, Mystique is demonized in X-Men for the unpardonable presumption of embarking upon a reality-grounded action path that avoids the self-righteous excesses of both the Charles Xavier/Professor X superego and the Erik Lensherr/Magneto id. In an additional parallel to Lilith, Mystique in the comics is one of the parents of Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler, whose physical specifics are those of a medieval demon. Furthermore, by participating in Kurt’s genesis in male form, Mystique commits a cardinal sin in the patriarchal canon: she assumes the father role (the sin further compounded by the fact that Mystique is short on feminine-coded submissive “virtues”). In that respect, it’s interesting that Mystique is one of the few iconic shapeshifters who are female at their start; that highly subversive power is traditionally reserved for male trickster figures.

If we follow the film’s own logic, in Days of Future Past Mystique has been traveling all over the world at great risk for a decade, rescuing Mutants destined to become subjects in the horrific experiments of Bolivar Trask (who aims to create machines with Mutant abilities as a way of safeguarding humanity’s future – didn’t he watch ANY Hollywood films?). Throughout that time, the two Alpha menboys, Lensherr and Xavier, have literally sulked in their tents. This means that, unrecognized, unrewarded, unaided, laconic and matter-of-fact, Mystique has been the leader and savior of the Mutants.

Given Trask’s activities and goals, it’s not surprising that Mystique intends to eliminate him. Yet like “thoughtless” Pandora, Mystique’s measured, fully justified plan to kill just Trask (unlike Magneto’s far grander annihilation plans for all non-mutant Humans) apparently ushers in a horrible Terminator-type future that can be avoided by crippling her both physically and mentally – a task that Xavier and Lensherr, normally constantly bickering adversaries, discharge in harmonious convergence with zero hesitation or argument.

When the undermining of Mystique brings the universe back “into balance” (leaving her vulnerable to further rapine in The Last Stand), Wolverine, who acted as the messenger between future and past, is amply rewarded for restoring the status quo. Further devaluing Mystique’s actions, Trask is arrested for “selling military secrets” – not for vivisecting Mutants. Also excluded from reward even by just being present at the group hug is Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat, who made Wolverine’s time travel possible. Professor X and Magneto, Michael and Lucifer, are back to firmly ruling their respective domains.

But out there in the wind-swept dark, untamed and unbowed, still roams the feral loner who haunts the dreams and can foil the plans of self-satisfied men: Lilith, Morrighan… Catwoman, Mystique.

Future Past Mystique

Related articles:

“As Weak as Women’s Magic”

A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

The Iron Madonna or: Kicking Ass While Female

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

“We Must Love One Another or Die”: A Critique of Star Wars

Parallel thoughts by C. C. Finlay

Images: 1st, relief believed to portray Lilith, Ishtar or Ereshkigal, Babylon ~1800 BCE, British Museum; 2nd, Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique in Days of Future Past

Planetfall: Apex World SF 3

June 7th, 2014

Barring a catastrophe, the Apex Book of World SF 3 which reprints my story Planetfall will be out in North America on June 15.

Remember Tuska

The echo-laden cover, Remember, is by Sophia Tuska. Here’s the TOC:

Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods, Benjanun Sriduangkaew
A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight, Xia Jia
Act of Faith, Fadzlishah Johanabas
The Foreigner, Uko Bendi Udo
The City of Silence, Ma Boyong
Planetfall, Athena Andreadis
Jungle Fever, Zulaikha Nurain Mudzar
To Follow the Waves, Amal El-Mohtar
Ahuizotl, Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas
The Rare Earth, Biram Mboob
Spider’s Nest, Myra Çakan
Waiting with Mortals, Crystal Koo
Three Little Children, Ange
Brita’s Holiday Village, Karin Tidbeck
Regressions, Swapna Kishore
Dancing on the Red Planet, Berit Ellingsen

Here’s the Goodreads blurb:

These stories run the gamut from science fiction, to fantasy, to horror. Some are translations (from German, Chinese, French, Spanish, and Swedish), and some were written in English. The authors herein come from Asia and Europe, Africa and Latin America. Their stories are all wondrous and wonderful, and showcase the vitality and diversity that can be found in the field. They are a conversation, by voices that should be heard. And once again, editor Lavie Tidhar and Apex Publications are tremendously grateful for the opportunity to bring them to our readers.

Planetfall was originally published in Crossed Genres and a slightly modified version appeared in the World SF blog (the latter is the one reprinted in the Apex collection). It’s mythic space opera, a segmented story with several leitmotifs, and part of the large universe I discussed in The Next Big Thing. Other published stories in the same universe are Contra Mundum, Dry Rivers and The Wind Harp. Two more, The Stone Lyre and The Paths of Twilight, are searching for a place in the world.