The Fabric of the World

September 11th, 2018

I flew from Boston to Salonika for a conference in early October 2001 (one of the very first international flights allowed), feeling dazed and numb but determined to do my part in re-weaving the fabric of the world. Manhattan had been briefly home, my first glimpse of the US…and in its messy, raucous, kaleidoscopic vim and vigor, the incarnation of some of the best aspects of my adopted culture. The harnessing of this wound to cynical powermongering was a second tragedy that’s still affecting the world today and has led to many of the travesties we’ve endured ever since.

Spirits above and behind me,
Faces gone black, eyes burnin’ bright,
May their precious blood bind me,
Lord, as I stand before your fiery light.
— Bruce Springsteen, The Rising

Image: One World Trade Center by Ryan Emond

Bears, Wolves and Eagles

August 23rd, 2018

I recently saw two ultra-violent historical fantasies in close succession. One was The Eagle (2011) based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth. It’s generally considered a bookend to the vastly superior Centurion (2010) but the pairing is inaccurate – their sole similarity is their focus on the “vanished” Legio IX Hispana. The other was Rustam Mosafir’s Scyth (2018 – the English title is The Last Warrior), which at first glance could be thought as the mirror twin of The Eagle. But whereas The Eagle is a self-satisfied by-the-numbers bromance, Scyth hums a whisper that becomes a scream by the film’s end. To those who haven’t seen these films, keep in mind that the discussion which follows contains terminal spoilers.

On the surface, Eagle and Scyth are indeed near-identical. Both films:

  • Are awash in graphic gore and kyriarchal machismo – honor and revenge, blood oaths and ritual scarrings, alpha circling and measuring of belt lengths; there are no women characters (the protagonist’s wife in Scyth is essentially a plot lever, though he’s shown to truly love her; Eagle has thankfully decided to omit women altogether, in contrast to Centurion that showcases powerful women even as it hews to traditional good/evil dichotomies).
  • Boast stunning scenery (the Scottish Highlands for Eagle, the Crimea for Scyth) and haunting incidental music: celebrated Allan McDonald chants canntaireachd (the verbal notation for bagpipe tunes) in The Eagle, while Scyth contains a synthed-up version of “Dle Yaman” (“Plaint”), a traditional Armenian lament played on the duduk.
  • Unapologetically use multiple languages that require (horrors!) subtitles – something also utilized to tremendous effect in Brendan Muldowney’s ferocious Pilgrimage.
  • Depict liminal places and eras, though they barely feint towards historical accuracy: northern Britain just before the Roman withdrawal (a nexus that gave rise to the Arthurian mythos); the Black Sea area when the barely-christianized Varangian warrior elites were fighting the pagan Kipchaks and Cumans (aka Polovtsians) to establish the Kievan Rus’ Federation.
  • Have chosen to depict the native adversaries of the expansionist powers as mélanges of American Great Plains peoples with soupçons of classical Sparta – though there’s a fascinating wrinkle in Scyth that we’ll explore later.
  • Show loyal retainers used as pawns and scapegoats by ruthless, power-hungry liege lords (not surprisingly, the Rus’ strongman in Scyth exhibits attributes of Ivan Grozny and Stalin – and of his likely inspiration and namesake, Oleg of Novgorod).
  • Adhere to the well-worn Thor/Loki trope of the sturdy, rule-abiding mesomorph and the wily, mercurial endomorph bonding reluctantly to achieve overlapping goals despite fundamental differences and inherited enmities.

[Parenthesis 1: A major reason that keeps The Eagle from, well, soaring is that Channing Tatum – not even a wooden plank, more like termite-chewed veneer – was chosen for the anchoring mesomorph slot of Marcus Flavius Aquila, whereas Aleksei Faddeyev (Lyutabor, the Scyth counterpart) manages to look engaged and even shows flashes of sardonic wit. As is the norm, the endomorphic tricksters steal the show effortlessly. Jamie Bell (Esca, Marcus’ Briganti slave scout) is a well-known chameleon who was equally stellar as St. John Rivers in Fukunaga’s atmospheric Jane Eyre and as Peter Turner in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. The real eye-opener, however, is Aleksandr Kuznetsov as Marten of the Wolves of Perun, a quintessence of demonic charisma. You hang on his every deed and word even when he’s doing dreadful stuff, and it doesn’t hurt that his moves are closely modeled on Brad Pitt’s Achilles fight choreography in Troy (the sole inspired aspect of that film) or that he rarely raises his voice.]

So far, so standard. But Scyth, unusually for a film of its type, actually has a quasi-coherent plot – plus a few crinkles that make you wonder what a remarkable film it could have been if Mosafir had dialed back the gore and made the unique echoes more central to the tale.

A telling early sign is how the two films portray the local cultures. The Eagle is beyond perfunctory in its depiction of the Caledonian groups that Marcus and Esca encounter. The most prolonged interaction presents a Highlands society as a homogenized goo of the Clay People in Quest for Fire, the Spartans in 300 and the Iroquois in Black Robe – and totally wastes Tahar Rahim, who was a magnetic presence in Un Prophète.

In contrast, Scyth shows several distinct cultures just sufficiently to evoke a sense of the complexity of that region and era. It’s true that a pivotal scene is straight out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and Mosafir mostly opts for the smorgasbord shorthand that denotes “barbarism” in such films. Yet the artifacts and rituals do have a semblance of specificity: sinuously-shaped gold was an integral feature of Scythian metalsmithing; equally sinuous tattoos were common in many Eurasian steppe cultures (of which more anon); shamanism is shown as a matter-of-fact backdrop; and there’s a throwaway scene – you’ll miss it if you blink – in which you hear what apparently was a major dilemma for the Rus’ and Khazars when they were debating which monotheistic religion to adopt.

[Parenthesis 2: Given that religion was a major engine in the creation of the Kievan Federation, it’s odd that there are no priests in the christianized Rus’ enclave. An equally glaring omission is the total absence of Byzantium – a major power player at that time and place, the source of Kievan Christianity and the Cyrillic alphabet – and the millennia-long Crimean/Black Sea Greek presence. The sole hint of Greek connections is that the Wolves of Perun call on Ares as their patron deity (though this contradicts their moniker: Perun was the Slavic equivalent of Zeus). But the director’s names suggest that his ancestors would have deemed Byzantium and Greece perpetual adversaries. Rustam, after all, is the preeminent paladin in pre-Islamic Parthian/Iranian sagas and Mosafir is the Persian word for traveler.]

So we come to the scream that sets Scyth apart. Lyutabor eventually meets the “Scythians” who are shown as the deracinated, beleaguered remnant of a once-proud if harsh culture, its warriors (the Wolves) reduced to banditry and ransom kidnappings for survival. The real Scythians were fearsome masters of mounted warfare who established (and for a while controlled) the Silk Road and left behind kurgan burials with magnificent – as well as gruesome – offerings. Mosafir once again resorts to shorthand by using “Scythian” to denote a group that inhabits land coveted by empire-building newcomers – a story as familiar to Russia (in both its tsarist and Soviet incarnations) as to the US and the Roman, Ottoman and Inca empires. But though the band are called Scythians, the visuals tell a different story: the Wolves’ attires borrow elements from the Byzantine Akrítai and the Scythian/Sarmatian cataphracts, but the band members’ hair colors, tattoos and accoutrements identify them as Tocharians. They, too, were a power along the Silk Road, Celts who left a fascinating record of cultural dispersal in the mummies of Ürümchi and on the cave frescoes and scrolls of the Tarim Basin.

After Marten gets killed in his attempt to become the Wolves’ leader (deflating the film considerably by his departure), Lyutabor gains the position and convinces the band’s formidable Elder that they’ll be safe under his liege-lord’s protection. When he leads them to Prince Oleg in naïve good faith, the latter calmly orders them all massacred – a reenactment of Wounded Knee with hails of arrows instead of Hotchkiss machine guns. This lengthy coda is where Scyth for the first and only time shows everyday familial love (beyond Lyutabor momentarily dandling his firstborn), crowned by a felled young husband reaching for his dying wife’s hand.

One could argue that this betrayal, the final of many, is required to propel Lyutabor into the defiant act of honor that will almost certainly result in his meeting Marten soon thereafter (the Russians are as sentimental as the Americans, but prefer downbeat endings to their epics except when Teuton knights of any era are involved). Nevertheless, the Scyth coda leaves a radically different aftertaste than The Eagle, where the two buddies saunter off bantering after they’ve cleared Marcus’ family name by delivering the legion’s recovered eagle standard to his superiors. The DVD contains a less-annoying alternative ending, in which Marcus leaves the standard on the pyre of the legion deserters who had made a life among the Celts and died protecting him.

Lyutabor’s berserker rage and Marten’s balletic fighting are customary action fare, if a notch better than the usual; their reluctant alliance, though unusually nuanced, is still standard-issue male bonding. However, in that final coda Scyth departs from sword-and-sandal territory and veers into (granted, brief) social critique. With little ado, it weighs the scales against high-flown notions of honor (and certainly against empire-building, which routinely co-opts honor to serve its ends) in favor of human-scale interactions. This goes against the grain of a genre that always glorifies individual heroism, never the ceaseless weaving that creates a society’s tapestry. And that makes Scyth subversive despite itself.

Images: 1st, Aleksandr Kuznetsov as Marten; 2nd, Scythian archers, gold, from Kerch (ancient Panticapeum), Crimea, ~400 BCE; 3rd, two members of the “Scythian” band

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Living Out of Time

August 7th, 2018

Traveling for pleasure has dwindled the last few years, but my last outing was worth even ounce of effort it took to organize and execute it.

There’s an annex of Rivendell in West Virginia, where gracious living is made to seem as easy as taking breath, where beautiful art is created, where conversation veers effortlessly from quantum entanglement to universal myths. I took a brief moment out of time there and, as always before, emerged inspired and renewed.

While there, I also went to the stunning, haunting Bodice Project exhibit.  The project, sister to Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party but also a reminder of what it takes to deal with breast cancer physically and emotionally, plans to create additional nexuses across the nation and perhaps even beyond. The bodices, moulded around the bodies of individual cancer survivors, make the spirit soar while remaining clear-eyed about how fragile and finite we are.

Kathryn and Josh, thank you for another glimpse of Tir-na-nÓg.

Image: One of the ~20 project bodices. Artist: Kathryn Bragg-Stella

Procrustean Beds

July 3rd, 2018

Today fine drizzle is falling like mist (the Scots have a wonderful onomatopoetic term for this: smirr). And once again, as I contemplate one of my novels-in-progress – Shard Songs, part of which unfolds in the Bronze Age Mediterranean – I find myself thinking about specificities of culture and how languages convey nuances of their societies.

Much has been made of the first translation of the Odyssey in English by a woman. Yet what I’ve seen of Emily Wilson’s translation has left me ambivalent. I greatly appreciate the intent and am fully aware of this particular translation’s significance. Ditto for Caroline Alexander’s Iliad. But I’m not sure about the execution, which to me feels flabby and flat despite the reviewers’ enthusiasm about “uncovering hidden inequalities” (which are actually never glossed over in the original: the Odyssey is an uncomfortable read, especially for a woman).

All recent English translations of the Homeric epics I’ve seen (as far as I could tolerate reading them) diverge significantly from the original. That’s not unusual in poetry, especially between such disaparate eras and languages. Recasting an archaic poem in plain language so that it becomes as accessible to today’s audience as it was in its own era is a sound strategy; stripping it entirely of its patina (and flattening its terms and rhythms) is decidedly less optimal.

To give one example, translations of the Iliad that cast the first word as an exclamation lose me there and then. The word is a noun in accusative form, and casting it as an exclamation completely derails that crucial stanza. For poetry like this it’s important to be a scholar, but equally so to have a feel for language. Better yet to be a poet in one’s own right. I recall the gorgeous Elytis translation of Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechuan – and how abysmally disappointed I was when I later read it in the original German (maybe Shakespeare does sound better in Klingon…). Elytis, of course, was a bard whereas Brecht deliberately used flat language as a distancing effect. So here’s my rendering of the opening of the Odyssey, with the Watson and Fagles equivalents for comparison.

Of the wily man tell me, goddess, who suffered
sore trials after he sacked the holy fortress of Troy:
he saw cities of many people and learned their minds,
and his spirit got wracked on the seas, as he struggled
to save his life and bring his companions home.

Emily Wilson’s version (2018):

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home.

And Robert Fagles’ (1996):

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.

Speaking of flattening, I recently saw someone rejoicing online that “Greek culture” (which one?) “completely normalized” gay relationships. Before we hasten to celebrate this, people must realize that most of these relationships were based on steep power differentials: a) a rigid dominance binary of active/penetrator versus passive/penetrated (as is the case in several contemporary cultures, in which only the latter is considered “homosexual”); b) a significant age/experience gap (an early-middle-aged erastes & a barely pubescent eromenos – the relationship was considered a rite of passage into manhood) and c) the firm assumption that women were not full humans, and existed primarily for labor and/or procreation.

Ironically the exceptions to the last were courtesans, heavily disempowered in other ways: inter alia they were not citizens, which meant they could be deported at whim. In this connection it’s pertinent that hetairos and hetaira had such different connotations in pre-Byzantine Hellenic: the masculine form meant an equal male companion; the feminine one, a geisha-like female professional entertainer who might get to wield significant – but always covert – power (Aspasia, Pericles’ celebrated companion, is the best-known example). James Davidson makes an additional point in his lucid, enlightening Courtesans and Fishcakes: the dominant partner was not interested in his companion’s pleasure. Sex was considered akin to eating; whether the food or the sexual vessel enjoyed the process was irrelevant.

Of course, there were (quasi-)equal gay relationships in classic-era Hellas: the Theban Hierós Lóchos, whose fierce warriors were pair-bonded lovers (though the pairs still adhered to the erastes/eromenos binary); Alexander and Hephaestion, though the descriptions (including the quips about Hephaestion’s triumphant thighs) make clear who held the upper hand – and, very oddly for one of his upbringing and milieu, Alexander’s marriage to Roxana was widely held to be the “lightning strike” kind of love-falling, especially as it conferred absolutely no political advantage; several of Sappho’s named flames – though her (male) peers granted her the dubious privilege that, as a woman, she could allow passion to overwhelm her.

This brings us to another cultural difference: it’s fairly well-known that, unlike English, classical Hellenic had several terms for “love” each with a significantly different connotation that persists, with some drift, in today’s spoken Greek. “Agape” was the dutiful feeling between parents and children, or the love reserved for abstractions; “philia” was devoted friendship between equals; and then there was “eros” – consuming passion. This the Greeks considered an all-powerful madness that could unhinge a orderly, well-regulated life. It’s oddly fitting that a powerful paean to eros (or is it an apotropaic exorcism?) occurs in Sophocles’ Antigone, a work that parses clashing perceptions of duty and love. Some argue that romantic love as we now think of it was forged by the troubadours of Eleanor’s Aquitanian court.

In fewer words: I think there was love of all kinds in all eras and cultures, but specificities do exist. Don’t squeeze behaviors of other times and places in Procrustean beds to force-fit them into today’s culture wars. Ok, back to watching my foxglove bathing contentedly in the smirr.

 

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Images: top, part of Alan Lee’s cover for The Wanderings of Odysseus by Rosemary Sutcliff; bottom, Iríni Pappá (Antigone) and Máro Kontoú (Ismene) in Antigone (1961 film version of the Sophocles play)

The Time Between

May 15th, 2018

Long travels are limbo—but, if you can keep exhaustion from overwhelming you, they also grant time to catch up on long-postponed reading and watching. So in my latest Atlantic crossing, I finally read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and watched Black Panther.

Station Eleven is close kin to Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play, although their eras are very far apart. It’s elegiac, layered, hopeful about culture surviving a nearly irreversible technological collapse. The framing device of the graphic novel is handled unusually well. And I really liked that its dystopia isn’t the savage type of The Road or The Handmaid’s Tale.

Black Panther was way above the standard MCU movie level: it had flair and style; a coherent story brimming with relevance and cognizant of ethical/moral ambiguities; and vividly etched characters. I particularly appreciated the prominence of powerful women of all ages (and that T’Challa is a thinker, not a reflexive warrior); the portrayal of a never-colonized non-Western culture whose people don’t need external saviors (they showed it as a pan-African mix, but I understand their reasons); and the witty banter.

However, the total reliance of Wakandan long-term viability on a hereditary king (chosen by combat and not constrained by a constitution), is a serious issue in this utopia that remains unquestioned even after its weakness has been fully exposed. Not surprisingly, the film is not entirely free of many standard Hollywood tropes that now pass as universal, (including the perennial Campbell-lite mythical conflicts/dilemmas.

Black Panther is a landmark in many dimensions, and an artistic achievement to boot. I, for one, can hardly wait for a sequel focusing on Shuri the scientist-as-hero—or Nakia, who walks between worlds. [Recent interviews indicate that director Ryan Coogler is willing to do a movie centering the women of Wakanda, if he can get the financial backing.]

But the most unforgettable point of the transition was looking out the plane’s tiny window and seeing a sickle moon, Antares and Jupiter glimmering next to each other, tarnished silver, brick-red, pale gold. Wonder never wanes at such sights.

The Sea, the Sea, the Sea…

April 16th, 2018

On a friend’s page, a conversation about being authentic became, in part, a discussion of what types of beaches people like. As a sea person, I had to put in my few coins’ worth.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been on Mediterranean, Atlantic (both sides) and Pacific (ditto) beaches. Sandy beaches, pebbly beaches, rocky beaches. Each type lends itself to different activities and moods. Some are for walking, others for swimming. Some for gazing at magnificent waves, some for watching falling stars, some for exploring sealife in the shallows. Some for collecting driftwood or shells, some to gather around makeshift fires and watch the fires in the sky. Some for lounging at taverns or shacks on their edges, others for wandering along tree-covered paths.

But forever united by the sea, the sea, the sea.

The Storytelling of Science

April 4th, 2018

“Who says that fictions only and false hair // Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?” — Jordan I, George Herbert

To Shape the Dark, SF antho about women scientists (cover: Eleni Tsami)

——

A little while ago, my friend Anil Menon commented on a Shashi Tharoor essay that discussed science versus religion. Among other interesting remarks, Anil made a statement that gave me significant pause: “Tharoor makes the mistake of posing religion as the great enemy of science. It isn’t. The great enemy of Science is Story. // When science marches in, stories march out. When fiction marches in, facts march out. When the enlightenment marches in, the enchantment marches out.”

I suspect that much of Anil’s argument hinges on the definition — is there a definitive one? — of story. The term story, of course, is derived from history. That, in its turn, is the latinized version of the hellenic istoría, which means both story and history (the hellenic word for fictional history, i. e. story, is mythistórema, which makes the fictional component explicit). Many definitions of story emphasize the fictional part. However, there’s one major definition that gives a wider, and in my view more accurate, interpretation: “A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader.”

Science, especially primary research, is a fascinating hybrid. At its best, it combines lucid dreaming (what I call “shaping the dark”), informed intuition honed by knowledge of previous iterations, the ability to recognize patterns, the strength to let go of a beloved notion if results disprove it, and the discipline to concurrently keep track of details and the big picture. One of science’s core kernels is how hypotheses are tested. [Parenthetical clarification: in scientific terminology, which in this instance differs from its lay equivalent, a theory is not hypothetical; hence, to give one example still pertinent in US politics and education, “the theory of evolution” is not up for validity debates, except in its finer points.]

But back to hypotheses — and vocations. People become scientists because they want to tell stories, preferably exciting, original ones; and once trained in their discipline they weave stories without cease — stories that attempt to explain how the universe and its inhabitants are made (they also explain why, unless someone insists on intelligent design or intent). Before the stories go into the testing crucible, they’re called hypotheses. Observations or measurements are done in the framework of a story at its hypothesis stage. If a story jibes with reality, it gets renamed to theory. To put it succinctly, science cannot be practiced without stories, without the call and response between story and world. The stories dictate what experiments/observations get done; the stories, to some extent, dictate what conclusions are drawn (and thereby can bias the venture, as all powerful stories do).

There are two differences between the stories of science and the stories of religion or folklore. One is that science stories constantly change as new facts come in (they share this plasticity with the protean retellings of folk tales, though not with religion stories which tend to petrify as dogma at some point during their development). The other is that science stories do try to hew to the truth(s) of the world, as much as bounded senses and instruments can achieve such a feat.

There are other important aspects of science related to story. One is aesthetics – making the story eloquent, incorporating once disparate elements into a coherent, compelling whole. The grand unified theory of forces, the periodic table, the genetic code, the expanding universe. These are all potent stories, even more so for being true. A related aspect is pride of craft – designing elegant experiments to shape and test these stories.

So far I’ve addressed science versus story. Now we come to enlightenment versus enchantment. Scientists are often accused of “making things dull” or “draining them of mystery” by explaining them. But, to my mind, such explanations trail immense, awesome beauty in their wakes. What is more evocative: stars as metal studs on a glass dome, or fiery engines that create elements which have made all lifeforms possible? Swallows hibernating under lake ice, or flying enormous distances guided by brain maps? Wherever scientists look, they always find beauty: the directing dances of honeybees; the vivid colors of transition element compounds, including the iron that turns our blood crimson; the intricate ideograms of equations and their descriptions of shapes found in galaxies, seashells, flower centers.

Scientific understanding does not strip away the mystery and grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more and more of them appear and come into focus. In the end these glimpses of the whole, not fame or riches, are the real reason why the scientists never go into the suspended animation cocoons but stay at the starship observation posts of humanity’s starship, watching the great galaxy wheels slowly turn, the stars ignite and darken.

The hellenic word for “awe” is dhéos; its linguistic kinship to theos/deus/Zeus is obvious. Science fully retains one aspect of awe: the sense of wonder, of ever-changing stories with ever more stories to come, many far stranger than even the wildest fiction can invent. What science strips from awe is fear. Science tells us that the sun will rise tomorrow (for the next few billion years – after which it will evolve into a red giant and, Cronus-like, engulf the inner planets). We don’t need to rip war captives’ hearts out to ensure sunrise, nor do we need to burn humans and animals in wicker cages to ensure the return of spring. Science is like the sea:

“There is the sea, and who will drain it dry?
Precious as silver, inexhaustible, ever new,
It blooms the more we reap it. Our lives are based
On wealth untold; fortune has seen to that.”

— Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon

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The Making of Stephen Hawking

March 15th, 2018

“And I do this for a living, mister,
don’t you understand
that I’m dancing, dancing, dancing
dancing as fast as I can?”
— Oysterband, “Dancing as Fast as I Can”

For the last decade, I’ve lived with relentless, incurable chronic pain on top of the joint and bone pains of aging. It’s an invisible lead weight that often causes me to suddenly deflate like a pinpricked balloon — to the surprise (even, sometimes, disappointment or indignation) of people who expect more of me based on external appearance. I recognize it as a limitation that requires pragmatic resorting to workarounds, though I still get frustrated and angry when crushing fatigue smothers me with essentially no warning. Ditto for my disappearing hearing, that’s gradually depriving me of the pleasure of music, multi-person conversations, and the ability to hear those blurry but all-important subway, train station and airport announcements.

I’ve seen the protests around the “ableist” mentions of Stephen Hawking’s ALS which formed an inevitable part of his obituary. I think that most mentions of his condition, though they’re often lazily phrased and can be read as stigmatizing, are nevertheless a recognition of his determination to get on with his life and accomplish what he wanted to get done. [NB: this lenient view doesn’t include the statements which express the hope that this committed atheist (who knew and explicitly stated – as I do – that a person ceases to exist the moment their CNS neurons stop firing) now finds himself among supernatural beings of the upstairs or downstairs variety.]

Hawking’s body shaped his brain/mind in a complex, feedback loop, as is the case with every single human. He was brilliant, courageous, incisive, driven, opinionated, mischievous, interested in fame and money (who isn’t?). He was also incredibly lucky: he happened to be located at a nexus that made his immense achievements possible (the Theory of Everything eluded him, but it’s pretty clear that reconciling general relativity and quantum mechanics may take a tesseract- or string-shaped convergence).

It was Hawing’s luck, and ours, that he could continue with the vocation that he loved and was so outstanding at – he could not have done so if he were, say, a prima ballerina who got polio (look up Tanaquil Le Clercq, who received a very different treatment from both family and society than Stephen Hawking). It was his luck, and ours, that his temperament and mettle ensured that he could keep his focus on the things that mattered. And it was his luck, and ours, that the devotion of his family and the structures and resources of his society gave him the framework that he needed to be maximally productive (which, incidentally, is the protective cocooning often vouchsafed to male geniuses that conform to certain acceptability standards regardless of other specifics; women virtually never receive such buffering, nor do men who fall outside narrow norms).

We all need Hawking’s steely determination to focus on what we need/want to accomplish, and this means a constant balancing act between our vocation and other portions of our lives and ourselves that matter. We all have to make choices, often painful ones: even under the most favorable circumstances, we will never have enough time and stamina to do even a fraction of what we’d like. This is particularly true for women, whose socially enforced roles, “progress” aside, remain fundamentally antithetical to dedicated visionary pursuits. Hawking’s family to a large extent had to act as an extension of himself; and as is invariably the case in such configurations, they paid steep prices for his brilliance and his ensuing celebrity even as their involvement made them crucial participants in his achievement. He was not a lone star but a planetary system, an ensemble work – as are we all – and his statements show that he was keenly aware of it.

We’ll also all need support equivalent to what Hawking received at one or more points during our lives, even if we start out as “perfect” – and we’ll almost certainly need it not when we’re cherubic infants who are easy to love (and just as importantly, easy to manage). We’ll need it when we’re prickly adults, with notions and expectations, with unwieldy, no-longer-lovely bodies scarred and battered with use. And at that point, absent a titanium-strong family/friends network, all we’ll have is the mindset and safety net of the culture we find ourselves in. I can only wish myself Dr. Hawking’s luck when my time comes – and I certainly plan to do my own utmost as long as I can, pain and fatigue notwithstanding.

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Images: Top, a still from a BBC interview with Jane Wilde Hawking; bottom, M. C. Escher, “Drawing Hands”

Video Interview for Feminist Futures Storybundle

March 14th, 2018

Cat Rambo graciously invited me to participate in a StoryBundle with the acclaimed science fiction anthology To Shape the Dark, focused on women scientists doing science not-as-usual.

The storybundle, curated by Cat, has the evocative title/theme Feminist Futures and runs till March 29. In its wake, Cat did 10-minute interviews of several of the participants; and as a result, you can see me dreaming and opining on YouTube (personal note: for those curious about how I look/sound, this is your chance).

Public Service Announcement

February 25th, 2018

Apparently the Usual Suspects are trying to paint me again (still) as a bigot in whatever way they think will stick. As my time is precious and I’m profoundly bored by virtue signaling, my sole response will be: all anyone has to do is check my output as science ambassador, writer, editor/publisher, including every entry (none deleted or altered) on this blog.

[The main song starts at 1:30 and is about Prometheus]

The Last Jedi: Lunchboxes in Perpetuity

January 6th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles:

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

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

The Hue (and Cry) of Stormtroopers

Mystique: The True Leader of the X-Men

Mad Max: Feral Kids and Chosen Families

Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

Anything for a Son

November 2nd, 2017

One of the cultures in my science fiction novelette The Stone Lyre (half of Wisps of Spider Silk, First Thread) has a custom to ensure that a man — especially an influential one — has a direct biological male successor. The culture is nominally monogamous; but if the wife cannot supply the requisite male offspring, the husband takes a “favored”, invariably from a less powerful family, to provide the missing asset. When she delivers, she is returned to her family with gifts commensurate to her contribution. If the “favored” produces a child with the wrong equipment, the husband takes another, then another – as many as necessary until the requirement is fulfilled. The unwanted girls are either exposed or given to the household servants, stock for the next service generation.

The culture knows enough biology to be aware that men supply the Y-chromosome to zygotes, and their technology is sufficiently advanced that they could tilt the odds with a simple differential enrichment of sperm by gentle centrifugation. But their mores forbid it. They could also adopt, but their laws require a son “of the father’s body”. So it’s the other way, no matter how much pain it causes.

Last month while in Athens, I read a novel that takes place in the Mani, the stony peninsula that forms (appropriately enough) the middle “finger” of Peloponnisos. Its inhabitants, boasting direct descent from the Spartans, lived off meager agriculture, sheep herding, remittances from immigrant family members – plus piracy, condoned (in fact often blessed) by the local priests. Like the Scottish Highlands, most parts of Mani were never subjugated by any would-be conqueror – in part because of the fierceness of the Maniots, in part because of the terrain (until recently, many Maniot villages were accessible only by boat). The Maniots successfully repelled all invaders…and when there were none at hand, their men slaughtered each other by generational vendettas that could exterminate entire clans.

Powerful families lived in fortified towers and counted their strength and influence by how many guns they could muster. These guns could be used only by sons, the “real” children; daughters were called by various derogatory terms and their arrival was greeted with deafening silence and wishes for “better luck next time” (though variants of these habits were/are true of most patrilocal societies). As is often the case in such cultures, Maniot women had some clout and brothers couldn’t marry before they handed off their sisters. But the rigid patrilineality meant that daughters were explicitly barred from inheriting the family’s primary dwelling and associated land even if they had no brothers.

The novel I read is a sentimental rose-tinted weepie (think of Mildred Pierce in 19th century rural Greece) titled The Sygria. The term is a contraction of syn-kyria, which means co-mistress. Apparently, any powerful Maniot who could not get at least one son (preferably more, so that some could be spared as vendetta fodder when they weren’t used as enforcers of the family’s interests) brought in a second bedfellow, invariably from a weaker family, often a tenant/client one, to fill the gap. After the two involved families reached agreement including gifts to the sygria’s relatives and good treatment guarantees, the young woman arrived at her new home without any public fanfare. She was cosseted during pregnancies and stayed as indoors help if she produced sons, but was turfed out to field work if she produced daughters.

The sygria’s family accepted this arrangement because it meant an enhancement to their finances and status. The sygria herself led a gentler life than she would as the wife of a hard-scrabble peasant, who was liable to use her as a combination of beast of burden, house slave and incubator. The official wife kept her status (any power among the women was wielded by the husband’s mother in any case) and, occasionally, by choosing the sygria herself in the manner of samurai wives, gained not just an indentured servant but also a household ally.

Any resulting sons were considered fully legitimate, counting their provenance solely from the father, and eventually inherited not only the tower and the family lands but also the official wife’s dowry. The official wife (buffered by the might of her birth family and the size of her dowry) acted as their godmother and de facto mother, and the church bent far enough to allow the sygria to take communion; the man, of course, was beyond reproach.

The sygria’s unwanted girls were not acknowledged as the master’s offspring: they inherited the status of their mother, somewhere between stepchildren and servants; they were essentially unmarriageable, becoming unpaid lifelong helpmates like Victorian spinsters. Sources are silent on whether some conveniently disappeared via Spartan-style exposure if times were lean at the time of their birth. If the sygria remained childless, the fault was deemed to be entirely hers and there were no limits to the insults and abuses she could be pelted with – but the husband was not allowed to take more sygrias, which means that at this point everyone knew who was responsible for the lack of offspring, even if none would utter it.

It was really hard for me to read The Sygria, even though the author had sugarcoated the interactions between the characters (everyone was considerate, loving, fair…you get the gist). And I wondered what atavistic memories made me reproduce the custom in The Stone Lyre, even though I had never heard of it when I wrote my story. It may be that when a society deems sons a compulsory asset while insisting on monogamy, the possible contortions are limited; what remains unlimited is the human capacity for hypocrisy, cruelty and waste.

 

 

Related Articles

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing (fancasting of The Stone Lyre and discussion of its larger universe)

Launch of The Reckless (includes brief discussion of the Spider Silk Wisps, First Thread diptych)

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Where are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

 

Images: Top, Wisps of Spider Silk, First Thread (contents: The Stone Lyre, The Wind Harp; artist: Heather D. Oliver); bottom, the Dhourakis pyrghos (tower) in Mani.

 

Music: Henellas, Maniot pirate song

The Poison Tree

August 22nd, 2017

A recent article by David Futrelle (of We Hunted the Mammoth fame) contains this long-known fact: “There are good reasons why MRA activism has served for so many as a gateway drug to the alt-right.” Major props to Mr. Futrelle for his long-standing public stance, though many had said this before him. But, of course, he is in the right demographic groups to be instantly heeded and signal-boosted.

Gamergaters, MRAs, Tarzanist evopsychos, White supremacists, coercive fundies — and even minor knobs like Google’s Damore — are fruits of a single poison tree. They’re all part of a single mindset configuration: the urge to dominate, the concept of automatic entitlement, the unhesitating use of corrosive dicta as untouchable “truths”. Just about all of humanity’s tragedies stem from this.  As one character in Brendan Muldowney’s ferocious Pilgrimage says, “Peace needs to be grown, cared for, nurtured. This is beyond the reach of most men.”

Damore’s “manifesto” (a whiny, stale recycling of disproved masculinist platitudes) has been thoroughly debunked by many experts, including evolutionary biologist Suzanne Sadedin PhD who has written several justly famous essays about the species-unique problems of human pregnancy and menstruation. But I want to discuss Pilgrimage a bit more, because it gives a pared-down glimpse of the poison tree.

At first glance, Pilgrimage is a perilous mission in hostile territory, equal parts Secret of Kells and Wages of Fear with a Fellowship of the Ring soupçon. Its portrayal of ambition, delusion and obsession passing for piety and loyalty makes it sibling to Marie Jakober’s riveting Black Chalice that also takes place during the cusp between paganism and full-bore monotheism. Pilgrimage unfolds in 13th century Ireland just after the Fourth Crusade, whose most prominent achievement was the destruction of Byzantium. The nucleus is a group of monks who are ordered to transport their monastery’s holiest relic to Rome.

Like all relics of this type, theirs is a combination of bizarre and gruesome: it’s said to be the rock that delivered the killing blow during the stoning of the apostle chosen to replace Judas. And, as is gradually revealed, it’s also “metal from heaven” – highly conducting meteoritic iron, which endows it with the ability to deliver shocks. Somehow, it found its way to an isolated Irish monastic community. The Pope has caught wind of it and plans to use it to separate the “worthy faithful” from the rest of the herd. As his domini canus he has sent a Cistercian who has bartered his soul to the father god by denouncing his own father as tolerant of heretics (this was an era of significant “cleansings”).

But there are others who want the rock for reasons essentially identical to the Pope’s (once the pious veneer is stripped from the orotund proclamations). Among them are Irish clans fallen into savagery after they’ve been deprived of their land and social structures; and Norman petty-noble mercenaries who have been laying waste to Eire ever since they were invited to help settle one of the perennial wars between Irish kings – an invasion authorized and blessed by the Pope, as was the sacking of Constantinople: both Irish and Greek Christianity were competitors to be annihilated.

Several recognizable character types inhabit Pilgrimage: the naïve innocent (shades of Adso from The Name of the Rose), the wise humane mentor, the atoning sinner with an unbreakable geas…and embodiments of two seemingly different kinds of ruthlessness, secular and religious, that are in fact just different ways of vying for the same trophy: the might that makes everything right.

The film boasts stunning scenery as well as gut-churning violence, and builds verisimilitude by showing seaweed harvesting, beehive cells and Culdee tonsures; and by using Gaelic and French when it should. Several reviewers called it cynical (though the correct term would have been nihilistic) because it refuses to make concessions to sentimentality: it denies any glimpse of hope or real redemption – signaled in part by a body count rivaling a Jacobean play, but even more so by the total absence of women.

The film has reduced the depiction of the poison tree to its primal colors: the will to power, the urge (and perceived right) to destroy whatever stands in the “correct” way. Whether one screams “Deus le Vult” or “Allahu Akbar”, whether one invokes sacred heritage or divine laws to justify cruelty – it’s the same poison tree that bears this strange fruit, that keeps sprouting like a toxic weed, like dragons’ teeth, in even carefully tended gardens. Only vigilant, determined decency will keep it from strangling all around it.

In-Depth Review of Pilgrimage at Paste Magazine 

Related Essays

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization

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

The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art

Ashes from Burning Libraries

A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Free Speech: Bravehearts and Scumbags

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

Images: Top, original cover of Marie Jakober’s Black Chalice; bottom, beehive cells on Skellig island

Southpaws: The Hops in Humanity’s Beer?

August 13th, 2017

Note: I discovered that today is Left Handers’ Day (there is such a thing?!) and so I decided to reprint an essay that first appeared on Science in My Fiction.

“Light is the left hand of darkness…” – Ursula K. Le Guin

Those who are, like me, left-handed and older than fifty probably recall being forced to write with our right hand and the frustration of using many “handed” tools, including scissors, rulers and computer mice. We also remember being told that left-handers are prone to immune deficiencies, shorter lives, depression, dyslexia, schizophrenia and a host of other woes… and no wonder, given the drizzle of harassment! Finally, there is the conflation of left with evil, wrong or inept in practically all religions and languages (sinister, gauche, linkisch…) not to mention most political systems, especially those which place high value on obedience and conformity.

Left-handedness is genetically determined, although controversy swirls around candidate genes that have been tentatively linked to the trait and the complications supposed to accompany it – most prominently a protein with the impressively lengthy name of Leucine-Rich Repeat Transmembrane Neuronal 1. LRRTM1 is involved in regulation of the synapses, the tips of the neuronal processes where exchange of information takes place by molecules bridging the gaps between cells. Other theories propose that left-handedness may arise from exposure to increased testosterone during gestation. Yet others attribute it to the asymmetry of the human brain, brought about by the appearance of language whose centers almost invariably reside in the left hemisphere (which regulates the right side of the body).

In contrast to the even distribution of paw preferences in our ape cousins, the percentage of human left-handers hovers around 10% regardless of race and culture. The most common explanation for the persistence of the trait was that left-handed warriors had the element of surprise in primitive societies. As a result of this sneakiness, they survived long enough to leave a few like-handed descendants. Notice that this explanation is exclusively male-oriented and also implies that the trait is both monogenic and dominant. In fact, LRRTM1 is maternally silent – but at least in my case, I know that I inherited my quasi-ambidexterity (loaded word!) from my mother’s side.  On the other hand, nobody who has met me can conclude that I’m low on testosterone.

From my professional knowledge of biology and my own awareness of what strengths and weaknesses I possess, I hit upon a slightly more flattering explanation for the persistence of the trait. Namely, I decided that left-handed people must be less lateralized in their thinking. This can lead (literally) to crossed brain wires – and hence to such outcomes as dyslexia. But it can also lead to less mental compartmentalizing, more efficient multi-tasking, enhanced ability to see the big picture and to think across boundaries.

Recent results from several neurobiological disciplines lend support to these speculations. Apparently, left-handers do cluster at the two ends of the IQ range; the connections between the two sides of their brain are faster than in right-handers; they often use both hemispheres for language; and they excel at complicated tasks. Lists of southpaws in history show that they are disproportionately represented among mathematicians, scientists, artists and, for better or for worse, among charismatic leaders — from Alexander the Great to Jeanne d’Arc. Moreover, a disproportionate ratio of US presidents since WWII have been southpaws, partly because schoolchildren in an increasingly un-corseted culture were no longer forced into right-handedness. So left-handers may not be a relic of barbaric times, after all. Instead, they may be the hops that add zest to humanity’s beer.

Images: top, Southpaw by RobtheSentinel; bottom, an illustrious left-hander — Marie Sklodowska Curie, Physics Nobel 1903; Chemistry Nobel, 1911.

Byzantium in Speculative Fiction

July 30th, 2017

Science fiction and fantasy have borrowed liberally from just about every mythology and history — but among the most conspicuous elisions is Byzantium (a lacuna that reflects a similar erasure in first-world history, though for somewhat different reasons).  The attempts to portray Byzantium in SFF can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and most are best passed over in silence.

On August 4-6, there will be a conference at Uppsala University titled “Reception Histories of the Future: Byzantinisms, Speculative Fiction and the Literary Heritage of Medieval Empire” organized by Dr. AnnaLinden Weller that will attempt to address this wrinkle (you can see the program here).

Dr. Weller invited me to contribute, so I’ll be giving a talk by proxy that is a variation on my thoughts of the Akrítai and their unsung songs — with a brief sidebar about the millennia-long (and also fashionably erased) history of Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Black Sea.  I’ll leave this entry open for comments, questions, etc. from anyone who attends my talk (or is interested in aspects of this matter).  After the conference is over, I will mount the Powerpoint presentation here if it’s feasible, or post a download link.

Relevant related posts:

Being Part of One’s Furniture; or, Appropriate Away!

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Caesars and Caesar Salads

Yes, Virginia, Romioí are Eastern European

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

Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

Image: A Byzantine wandering singer, the equivalent of a troubadour (6th century mosaic, Constantinople).

Launch of The Reckless

March 27th, 2017

“It ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is?”
— Mal Reynolds, captain of the Firefly-class starship Serenity

******

Around last year’s winter solstice, I mentioned that in 2017 my small but intrepid press Candlemark & Gleam would launch an imprint of novelette/novella-length digital works. The imprint formally launches today.

I’m calling the new imprint The Reckless (a starship that figures very prominently in my own SF saga and has given its name to this website), willing the defiant moniker to create interesting swirls and patterns. To put it less poetically: the cutoff for SFF shorter works has been creeping steadily downwards, and there are too few venues for novelettes and novellas. There’s not much room for plot layering, character development or background flourishes in 5K. I specified 10K as the upper limit for both my SF anthologies and even allowed some contributions to exceed it; the quality of the results confirms the wisdom of such a strategy.

I’m celebrating the launch by offering a diptych of my own stories as the inaugural Reckless work. Wisps of Spider Silk, First Thread contains “The Stone Lyre” (previously unpublished) and “The Wind Harp” (of which a shortened version was published in Crossed Genres in 2013). Those who buy Wisps of Spider Silk from the Candlemark website will receive an exclusive PDF version with breathtaking interior art by Heather D. Oliver. Heather also created the lovely original of the central image in The Reckless logo, whose history I discuss in Skin Deep – and whose name, fittingly enough, is The Spirit of the Candleflame.

You can click on the Wisps cover to see it in hi-res. Some of you may recall my fancasting of both its stories in a discussion of the Spider Silk universe. If you decide to go exploring with The Reckless, I hope the journeys prove wondrous!

As the Water Wheel Turns

February 18th, 2017

I’ve been relatively silent on social media for a while; work load & health issues (plus an upcoming new endeavor) have conspired against extensive broadcasting. But these items are on my mind and, when I clone myself, will become full-length ruminations:

1. Targeted gene editing has come of age: the National Academy of Sciences cautiously endorsed it even for germline alterations (in cases of debilitating genetic disease) and George Church declared that a mammoth — well, mammophant — birth is two years away.

2. In the wake of Likhain and Zen Cho’s posts on Requires Hate/Benjanun Sriduangkaew after the Apex and Future Fire cynical, eyes-wide-shut debacle I’m glad to see more people from SFF contingents that have been affected by her relentless venom take courageous stands. I’ve been pondering the obvious, extensive equivalences between RH/BS and Drumpf, including the roles of “useful idiots” (to use Paul Krugman’s term).

The upcoming new endeavor will become public in mid-March. Anyone who’s willing can help me light the beacons!

Related articles:

Blastocysts Feel No Pain
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”
Genome Editing: Slippery Slope or Humane Choice?

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?
The Misogyny We Inhale with Each Breath

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Wrecker
How Many Swallows Bring Real Spring?

To Shape the Dark: Liner Notes, Part 2

January 18th, 2017

To Shape the Dark, the younger sibling of The Other Half of the Sky, focusing on women scientists doing science not-as-usual, has become as widely acclaimed as its illustrious predecessor: among other recognitions, it won a starred review in Publishers Weekly, two of its stories have been selected by Gardner Dozois for his Year’s Best SF 2016 (Melissa Scott’s “Firstborn, Lastborn” and Shariann Lewitt’s “Fieldwork”) and two by Allan Kaster for The Year’s Top Hard Sci-Fi Stories (Shariann Lewitt’s “Fieldwork” and Gwyneth Jones’ “The Seventh Gamer”).

To deepen the readers’ enjoyment of the antho stories, I asked the contributing authors to share thoughts about their works. Part 1 of their musings appeared just before the new year. Below is Part 2.

 

Gwyneth Jones: The Seventh Gamer

I’ve been writing about autonomous self-conscious AI for a while, in various contexts, and eventually you want to write the origin story. How did this new species of conscious being emerge from the number-crunching and the robotics? How could it evade being spotted, until it was truly free? I had my ideas about the huge digital power that runs a complex video game (getting so much input from humans, and learning to behave so humanly, just for the players’ convenience, with no experimental control), and then I went along to an Anthropology Department conference at the University of Kent, by the kind invitation of Paul March Russell. Two absolutely fascinating papers I heard there gave me the background for the story called “The Seventh Gamer”.

The most obviously significant was from Susannah Crockford, London School of Economics. She’d been spending time with a group of New Age believers in Arizona, and reported the story of one of them, a retired lawyer, who had decided to leap from a sacred rock formation (anciently sacred, NB), on a certain day, convinced that by doing this he would open a portal into another dimension, and pass through it. (In a sense he was absolutely right, as the drop was huge and the fall was certain to kill him). His plan generated huge excitement, locally and globally, online and in all forms of correspondence, among people who shared the (modified) Native American sacred beliefs of this group.

The other paper was from Dr Daniela Peluso, University of Kent: who got sick while doing field work in the rainforest with a little-contacted South American tribal people. The tribal doctor treated her as best he could, but he told her she had two malign spirits in her chest, and whatever he did by day, with fires lit under her cot, infusions she was to inhale, herbal drinks she was to swallow, warm compresses, massages, appeals to the spirits, etc ( kind of Victorian level of medicine); it was no good. Every night, something undid his good work. Dr Daniela’s paper was not, however, about this very decent doctor’s failure to cure double pneumonia, without antibiotics, and with the patient sleeping in a damp tent. It was about her own growing fascination with the situation, a fascination enhanced by high fever and the strange coincidence that somebody had given her Bram Stoker’s Dracula to read on her trip. So every day, the wise doctor battled with the evil forces that were preying on her, but every night, mysteriously, she grew weaker . . . She got so drawn into it all, and so keen to find out how things turned out, she was lucky they prevailed on her to get airlifted out in time.

Anthropologists are a strange bunch!

 

Kristin Landon: From the Depths

When Athena invited me to submit a story for To Shape the Dark, the requirements she listed intrigued me immediately: to write about a woman who is a scientist, and part of a family, in a society that sees science as a natural, necessary, even joyful endeavor. I set “From the Depths” on a world that is completely covered by deep ocean, aboard a large seagoing research vessel that is also the new permanent home of a few thousand people: scientists, the ship’s crew, and their children. Rinna is an ecologist who delights in her work and her small family. Then her daughter disappears from the ship—a crisis that leads to the discovery of intelligent life in the vast ocean around them. The story is the seed of a novel, but only the seed. Rinna and I have a long way to go!

 

Jack McDevitt: The Pegasus Project

There is probably no cosmic issue confronting us more fascinating than whether there is life beyond our world. And maybe none that is more apt to irritate an audience if a speaker comes down on the wrong side. If he tells a group of listeners that he does not believe in UFO’s, they are invariably disappointed. You of all people?

Go a step further and argue that we are probably alone in the universe, and they wonder how you can be so narrow-minded? The lone argument so far that favors life elsewhere is the sheer size of everything. Billions of stars in the Milky Way. Billions of galaxies across the cosmos. How could there not be life out there somewhere?

The reality is that, as yet, we have no idea how life began. What was the first step in the process? It may well be that wherever there is water and a stable climate, life will appear. Which would certainly support the position that it will evolve, as it has here, into intelligent beings. The reality however is that we’ve been watching for indications of intelligent life for a long time, and aside from UFO accounts, we have nothing. Not even an artificial radio signal, despite the fact that we’ve been listening since the beginning of the 20th century.

It’s possible that the process that produces life has an extremely unlikely component, perhaps something with only one chance in trillions of appearing in the mix, even when the bulk of the chemistry is present. We won’t really know about that until somebody figures it out. Life can’t be something with even a reasonable likelihood of occurring or we’d see it happening occasionally on our world. Or somebody would have figured it out and demonstrated how life happens. So maybe we are alone.

Where will we be if we continue our search for centuries to come? If we develop FTL vehicles and find nothing out there but empty planets? That’s the world of the Pegasus Project. The world Ronda and Emily live in. What would it be like when, after thousands of years, the first signal comes in? And they are closest to the point of origin?

 

Anil Menon: Building for Shah Jehan

As a college student in India, I had several close friends, male and female, who were all going to do great things. Somehow it didn’t turn out that way. Once they were going to build starships. Now they delouse code, say, for some smiling American tyrant. But they are content nonetheless. Or mostly content. Or not particularly discontent. It is hard to tell the difference between words these days. Thing is, I had already met this genre of friends in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. They appear in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. I suppose Eliana Ferrente’s My Brilliant Friend is also about this shouldn’t-be-sad-but-is encounter between two childhood friends who are no longer really friends. I can’t do anything to change the past and writing the story didn’t make me feel any better, but I am glad I wrote the story.

 

Melissa Scott: Firstborn, Lastborn

“Firstborn, Lastborn” was a story I didn’t expect to write. I’d been delighted to see that Athena Andreadis was taking submissions for a second anthology, and was batting around a number of ideas, but my mother was ill that spring, and I ended up having to tell Athena — with great regret! — that I probably wasn’t going to have anything for her this round. She was kind enough to assure me that I could have every minute of the deadline, and to leave me on the mailing list, which kept the anthology in the forefront of my mind.

And then, three weeks before the submissions window was to close, I had an idea. It arrived almost whole, a synthesis of several different stories that hadn’t yet gelled. I had the characters, Anketil and Irtholin, their situation, their conflict; I could see how to shape the resolution, bitter though it had to be. By the time I had hammered out a draft, though, I’d lost the shape of the story. I finished it four days before the deadline, read it over, and very nearly gave it up entirely. I’d had to drop so many things, nothing made sense, it was all a disaster — I went to bed planning to email Athena an apology rather than a story.

The next morning, I read it again, and thought maybe it hung together better than I’d originally thought. I put in a call to a set of friends who will read rough drafts on short notice, and got both reassurance and a practical list of things that were unclear. (These are the best friends any writer can have, and deserve more chocolate than I can provide.) I sweated through a final draft, and sent the story in two days before the absolute deadline, unsure if it even met the parameters of the anthology. I’ve never been happier to get an acceptance!

 

Vandana Singh: Of Wind and Fire

During a crisis-laden, sleep-deprived period of my life that seemed to go on for months, I remember being so tired that I would keep tripping and half-falling around the house. Being a physicist means you can’t divorce the everyday from the physics, so naturally all this falling about made me think incessantly about gravity. Such a familiar force in our lives, and we’re hardly aware of it. During frequent wakings in the night, my over-tired brain would come up with strange scenarios, including one of perpetual falling. What would it be like to live an entire life where one is falling?

For the longest time I’d also wanted to write a story about a world where magnetism is a dominant force, on the scale, locally at least, of gravity itself. But when I started to write the first paragraph of what would eventually become “Of Wind and Fire,” I had no idea that magnetism would come in also. All I had in my imagination was a woman who lived her entire life falling, and I had to write the story to find out more about her.

I decided in this story to stick with the most familiar and mundane physics, Newtonian physics. So we have falling objects, and the effects of air resistance, and magnetism, nothing that would be unfamiliar to anyone who has taken a basic physics course. Unlike many of my stories, where I extend familiar physics or invent something entirely new, this story is set firmly in our universe. But despite the constraints of physics, there is still room for a wildly different world – consider how variegated are the four-thousand-odd extra-solar planets that have been discovered!

The margins within which classical physics allows us to build worlds are broad and generous. What I wanted to explore here was Vayusha’s gradual realization of patterns in the world, regularities that hint of order, of economy of principle underlying the bewildering diversity of the phenomena she experiences. I wanted to experience with her the wonder that even good old Newtonian physics reveals as inherent in the universe. And I wanted to see what would happen to her when her realizations led her to think forbidden thoughts, to go against her social conditioning. Her thoughts and actions are the seed of a paradigm shift, something that will potentially change the way her people think about the world, and how they live in the world.

Of course Newtonian physics arises in our world in a particular historical and cultural context. Vayusha’s explorations will likely lead her to a different framing of the same phenomena. If I write a sequel, it will involve her constructing such an alternative formulation or framing. But that is another story!

To Shape the Dark: Liner Notes, Part 1

December 27th, 2016

To Shape the Dark, the younger sibling of The Other Half of the Sky, focusing on women scientists doing science not-as-usual, has become as widely acclaimed as its illustrious predecessor: among other recognitions, it won a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and two of its stories have been selected by Gardner Dozois for his Year’s Best SF 2016 (Melissa Scott’s “Firstborn, Lastborn” and Shariann Lewitt’s “Fieldwork”).

To deepen the readers’ enjoyment of the antho stories, I asked the contributing authors to share thoughts about their works. Below are some of their musings. More musings will appear after the new year.

 

Constance Cooper: Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home

I decided to write about a botanical survey after hearing my husband’s stories of childhood trips with his dad the botany professor, driving across the country with bundles of specimens tied to the roof of the car. What, I wondered, would it be like to do that on an alien planet? For me, it was a short step from there to giant carnivorous plants and a murder mystery.

On a deeper level, I tried to imagine how it would feel to grow up knowing you were a stranger on your planet—not part of the fossil record, not related to any local species, separated from the animals and plants that have been part of human culture for millennia. And what if the humans weren’t there by choice? How would that affect people’s attitudes toward their world? My botanist characters are among those who’ve embraced their new home. They find their work so involving that they can’t stand to leave it–even to take a shower after getting slimed by an enormous pitcher plant.

 

M. Fenn: Chlorophyll Is Thicker than Water

My story “Chlorophyll Is Thicker than Water” got its start with a suggestion from my alpha reader and husband Roy, who wanted me to write a tale about an old woman who was known as a plant wizard in her community, but there was more to her knowledge than anyone suspected. My first thought was witchcraft, but doing some research into the science of plant intelligence inspired me to make my characters be scientists conducting their own research. Choosing to make these women Japanese-Americans who had been interred during World War II came about because of my reading about George Takei’s play Allegiance. What started as a minor point of back story eventually manifested into strong motivation for my characters.

Also, I love writing about old women. They just don’t have time for anyone’s silliness. While Susan and Hina bear little if any resemblance to the witches in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, Granny Weatherwax and Gytha Ogg were certain influences in the creation of my own powerful old women. A point of interest that some might find amusing: while all the human characters are fictional and not based on any living person that I know, the parrot who lives at Whitman’s Feed Store in North Bennington, Vermont, is very real, although not named Tony.

 

C. W. Johnson: The Age of Discovery

I have been writing a sequence of stories revolving around a particular technology, the Casimir pump (which is not real, but the Casimir effect is), and had vaguely thought of a story line involving some of the first applications. I wanted it to be a story about the love of discovery, and wanting to invert the commonplace trope of the heroic lone inventor, I wanted to place it in the context of heavily bureaucratized research. I needed my protagonist to have a foil, and I realized the best additional context to the love of discovery is the discovery of love. From these pieces I wove, with many fits and false starts, my plot.

 

Jacqueline Koyanagi: Sensorium

The central concept for Sensorium is that of communication across umwelts. If it is a fundamentally unique cognitive experience to be a particular species, then language alone falls short as a vehicle for cross-species communication. I wanted to briefly explore what might happen when those cognitive barriers are broken down technologically–particularly to the people who submit to a neural connection that dissolves the stark delineation of “the individual” that we are accustomed to. What does it mean for a mind if awareness expands beyond its natal umwelt? What changes occur when previously inconceivable sensory experiences are now accessible? What, then, does it mean to be a person? These are the questions that fueled Sensorium and the attendant books-in-progress.

 

Susan Lanigan: Ward 7

When I was approached by Athena to contribute to her new volume, To Shape The Dark, I was very excited but also a bit anxious. It had been a while since I had written short fiction that was longer than 1,000 words and I knew it would be necessary to construct a small universe in a short space of time. Also I tend to adhere to “hard” sci-fi rather than space opera, so I tend to stick to the near future rather than its more distant counterpart, just as I stick to the nearer past when writing as a historical novelist. Working with Athena was a pleasure as she proved to be a diligent and sensitive editor and I hope to repeat the experience again sometime.

 

Shariann Lewitt: Fieldwork

The moment I read the parameters about stories for TO SHAPE THE DARK, I knew I had to write about science that takes place in the field.  Most people think scientists wear white coats and work in climate controlled labs, with a rest room down the hall and a coffee bar down the street.  When I studied Evolutionary Biology as an undergrad, I learned about fieldwork the hard way, on a dig.  While I realized I definitely preferred climate control, rest rooms and coffee bars (and ended up in computational biology), I have always had the greatest respect for those who go out into the field and I knew I had to write a story that highlighted a way that science is really done–and that rarely comes to mind.  I had also just finished reading a number of articles on Europa, and a friend who works for NASA’s climate research group was posting pictures from his mission to Antarctica to drill ice cores.

Those things knocked around together in my head and out came Anna Taylor.  Irene came from a more complex and personal place, but also from a desire to turn around the SF trope on the “genius kid who saves the world.”  Because Irina is that kid–but she has to suffer the consequences as well, and later face her own very deep fears because she understands what drives Anna.  This story is immensely personal for me, both from a family perspective, and from my relationship to work I’ve done in science as well.

We Shall Not Cease from Exploration: One Year at the Helm of Candlemark & Gleam

November 25th, 2016

“It ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is?”
— Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Firefly class starship Serenity

Sea Gate full

Ever since I read the long lays of my people and watched the distant fires shimmer and beckon overhead, I yearned for speculative fiction that combines originality of imagination with quality of craft. I craved such sustenance in all my guises: as a research scientist, a space exploration enthusiast, a politicized world citizen, a self-exile who walks between worlds.

I wanted—want—SF that’s literate, nuanced, layered, mythic, that brims with non-triumphalist sense of wonder, three-dimensional characters, fully realized universes, stories that lodge in cortex and breastbone. When I could not find enough of this kind of magic food, I decided to do some conjuring of my own. I started with The Other Half of the Sky (TOHotS)—and the response it received made me realize that many others were as hungry for such nourishment as I was.

TOHotS would never have become reality without the amazing savvy and sheer ability of Kate Sullivan: the founder and owner of Candlemark & Gleam (C&G), the remarkable, indomitable small press that took a chance on my anthology. But the heroic effort of running C&G essentially solo exhausted Kate, and she was contemplating shutting down C&G rather than see her vision diluted. So I told her of my own vision. And one year ago, I became the new C&G helm with Kate as my indispensable Number One during the transition year.

The transition was like living in a house while renovating it, even with Kate’s formidable knowledge and resourcefulness. I already knew theoretically (and now know concretely) that running a small press is almost identical to running a small lab. Its astrogators have to be jills-of-all-trades and operate with essentially zero redundancy on a budget that might buy one nail in the Pentagon. Kate proved as good a teacher as she is at everything else. Now the transition year is over, and the remodeled starship is once again testing its FTL engines.

It was a fitting symbol that To Shape the Dark, the younger sibling of TOHotS, was the first book brought out by C&G under its new astrogator. Much more is in the pipeline, from amazing works that Kate bequeathed me to full-blown novels that spun out of stories I solicited for my two anthos. We just released Justin Robinson’s Fifty Feet of Trouble, a witty neo-noir fantasy full of classic pulp echoes; and in a few weeks we’ll be launching A. M. Tuomala’s stunning historical fantasy Drakon—a novel that, frankly, would have made Tolstoy envious.

In addition to the novels lining up to dock like shuttles bringing reports of the beyond, C&G will also be launching a digital small works imprint in 2017—novelette and novella length. Submission details are here, and frequencies are open.

I’m not knee-deep in flowers and rings (yet). But as long as my stamina holds, I plan to take this little starship to as many journeys as its sturdy, lovingly attended frame will bear—and if luck is with us, we’ll bring back tidings of many new worlds and new civilizations, stories wrought with spider silk. At this time in our own world, we must continue shaping the dark.

Let me set sail for open water,
With gun salutes and pealing bells!
— Odhysséas Elytis, from Sun the First

Photo: Gantry at Heron Island in the Australian Great Barrier Reef, by Peter Cassidy