Guilty Pleasures: Bespoke Perfumes

August 11th, 2016

Humans are primarily visual creatures – though none of our senses is extraordinary. Perhaps our weakest link is olfaction, aka smell, especially if compared to insects and even fellow mammals like dogs. And yet, weak as this human sense is, we are able to register (though not necessarily identify) close to a trillion scents.

Fragrant molecules 1
Molecules that smell good to human noses (click to embiggen)

The mechanism by which the brain analyzes and categorizes scents is still not entirely understood. Some researchers argue for a lock-and-key correspondence between odorants and receptors; others for a “swipe-card” recognition model with quasi-exotic recognition components (such as vibrational frequencies). None of the hypotheses fully explain the process, which is almost certainly a combination of several mechanisms that works combinatorially – as is the case for most complex brain functions.

The olfactory neurons connect to the hippocampus and the amygdala, which makes smell a component of both long-term and emotional memory (the ability of a scent to evoke powerful déjà-vus and unearth distant memories is well-known). On the other hand, unlike most mammals, humans are not capable of registering pheromones, pop science wisdom notwithstanding: these are processed by the vomeronasal organ, located between nose and mouth – and a random mutation has rendered this organ inoperative in our species. That said, the human smelling apparatus does appear capable of sensing the major histocompatibility antigens: people can recognize blood relatives by scent, and women prefer partners whose MHCs are different from their own, as one component of attaining hybrid vigor.

Humans have been tantalizing their noses with perfumes since time immemorial – sometimes for ritual or therapy, often to mask the odors of sweat or decay – and everything has been checked for scent potential: plants from root to seed (sandalwood, vetiver, patchouli, amber); animal excretions and glands (civet, musk, ambergris). Ancient Egyptian paintings show nobles with perfume cones perched on their wigs, and the repertoire and provenance base of parfumiers are as vast as those of chefs. Savvy people know to put perfume on hair, rather than skin; to add a touch of genital fluid if out on a mating prowl; and to opt for the staying power of essential oils that don’t contain alcohol.

To those familiar with me, it will come as no surprise that my own tastes in perfume run to the dark and spicy: amber, chypre, fougère. While in college, I contented myself with commercial perfumes: Opium, Shalimar, Obsession, Calèche. But one balmy evening, I was gallery-hopping down Newbury Street, and at the back of a craft shop I noticed a small counter bristling with delicate bottles. Naturally I went to investigate – and a sylph of a young woman rose to greet me and beguile me into the world of bespoke perfumes.

She interviewed me closely. Then she proceeded to mix East Indian sandalwood, Tunisian opium, Tunisian amber and petitgrain, giving me a whiff after each minute calibration. When we were both satisfied, she carefully noted the proportions down and asked me what name I wanted to give the scent. And so I became the co-creator and delighted owner of The Long Shadow. When I met the Copper Yeti, I dragged him to Dawn’s tiny parfumerie (I had to apply some force, because he raised both eyebrows at the concept of bespoke scents for men). His scent is called The Cuddly Crusader.

Then Dawn left Boston, and I lost track of her. I was resigned to reverting to commercial perfumes, until the Google search engine got really good. At that point I looked her up – and lo, she was in Colorado, and her perfumerie had become renowned (as it should). She had kept all the old bespoke recipes, so I now have my lifelong supply of The Long Shadow. But I’ve also tested almost all of her perfumes that fall within my taste spectrum. As a result, I now can evaluate a perfume at a glance by looking at its ingredients; and a dozen miniature bottles (and thrice as many sample tubes) are in a basket by my bed, and all my fuzzies get a dab at the top of their heads as a way to keep my olfactory bulb happily busy.

Pyrgos, Cyprus
Bronze Age perfume bottles, -1850 BCE; Pyrgos, Cyprus

Stoking the Fire Anew

July 25th, 2016

It’s been a while since I wrote on my blog. The new press, health issues…and humanity looking like it’s about to go into one of its periodic regressive jags. I thought a few times, why not stop altogether? The launch of To Shape the Dark would serve as a good full stop.

New Moon

But then I experience small pleasures that make me want to talk to the world again. Watching the double hybiscus spread its silken apricot blossoms; reading Eleanor Arnason’s Hwarhath Stories; seeing Mars glitter like a ruby on black damask; anticipating seeing Star Trek Beyond, even though I detest the reboot universe; surprising a young rabbit warily chewing the parsley in a neighbor’s garden.

And I’m back to dreaming on the page again. Not fast, not easily…but the story of the launch of the Reckless is slowly rising from the mists.

To Shape the Dark: Liftoff!

May 1st, 2016

shapedark-final-cover-titles1200

Today is the day!  Spread the word, To Shape the Dark is spreading its wings. Focusing on women scientists doing science not-as-usual, the anthology is sister to The Other Half of the Sky, which won unprecedented accolades.  This family of feral astrogators may eventually have a third member — keep frequencies open!

The book, both print and digital, is available on all major online venues (Amazon, B&N, etc) but Candlemark combines the print version with a DRM-free bundle. More direct sales also make it likelier that we’ll break even. Relevant sites:

Candlemark & Gleam direct sales
Reviews, interviews
Goodreads

Analog SF said of To Shape the Dark: “…these stories make the reader think. // They challenge us to question some cherished conventions of the field… // If you like well-told, intelligent science fiction that respects the search for knowledge, you can’t afford to miss this one.”

As I say in the introduction, “Scientists are humanity’s astrogators: they never go into the suspended animation cocoons but stay at the starship observation posts, watching the great galaxy wheels slowly turn while they attend to the hydroponics. To Shape the Dark is part of that vigil.”

To Shape the Dark cover: Eleni Tsami

Music: End of “Love” theme from Joss Whedon’s Serenity (composer, David Newman)

Of Fast Micro-Sails and Slow Swashbucklers

April 16th, 2016

sail

Early this week, venture capitalist Yuri Milner (backed by glittering names that included Stephen Hawking, Ann Druyan, Mae Jemison and Mark Zuckerberg) announced the next step of his Breakthrough plan. Part 1 is Listen – equivalent to passive SETI efforts; Part 2 is Starshot, a mission to reach Alpha Centauri within twenty years by using miniaturized probes. Such a rapid journey is theoretically possible if the probes are equipped with tiny photon sails and accelerated to a percentage of lightspeed by ground or orbiting lasers.

All of the technology needed for Starshot has passed proof of principle, though none of the specific components is actually at hand. The concept itself has enough original aspects – and enough advantages – that it could well succeed: sending armadas of small-cross-section vehicles dilutes the risks and increases the collective chances of reaching the destination. The mission length is just short enough to sustain interest (though people tend not to mention that it will take several more years for any information gleaned by the probes to get back to us — and that the Alpha Centauri three-star system has no confirmed planets). It’s not burdened by the prohibitive demands of slow ships to Alpha-Cen, with or without live cargo. And just starting the engineering of the Starshot components will lead to a spate of innovations, whether the mission is undertaken or not.

Starshot, with its emphasis on new research on miniaturization, laser technology and materials science, underlines the almost complete lack of equivalent biological research that might make larger, slower starships possible – from self-sufficient ecological systems to ways of keeping a crew safe and sane during long star travels. Astrobiology has confined itself almost exclusively (though with some justification) to extremophilic bacteria and nobody is trying to untangle bear-style hibernation, to give but one example. The sole non-bacterial/fungal critters that seem to have engaged the interest of astrobiologists are tiny invertebrates with the formal name of tardigrades (= slow walkers).

The popular monikers of tardigrades are water bears or moss piglets, but they resemble nothing as much as eight-legged micro-manatees, including their habit of placid munching (though they have bear-shaped fangs and claws and some are cannibals). They’ve become media darlings by dint of both perceived cuteness and grace under pressure. Their average size is that of a sesame seed (1-2 mm) and, like mites, they’re found everywhere – from deep sea trenches to the slopes of the Himalayas, from the equator to the poles.

Their anatomy, habits and life cycle are unremarkable, except for their record endurance of extremes of temperature, pressure (both deep-sea high and vacuum-level low), gravity, dehydration, radiation, toxins. They accomplish this by rolling into a compact configuration known as a tun (barrel) and decreasing their water content to 1% of the normal. Just as arctic fish use glycol to keep their structures intact in freezing water, so do water bears, though they deploy another type of sugar (trehalose). Several other invertebrates can enter and exit cryptobiosis – rotifers, brine shrimp, nematodes – but water bears are the only organisms known so far to be successful at all types of it.

That said, media fail to convey the fact that this endurance is statistical: the longer and harsher the conditions, the less likely the survival of water bears – or their eggs, especially at early embryo stages. So one take-home lesson here is that we can shrug at the percentage of tuns that revive successfully, because they’re not fellow humans or even loved pets; they’re not losses that cut us to the quick. It’s also no surprise that people tried to pin the water bears’ abilities to unique genes or gene networks, whereby the tale turns to the dangers of both reductionism and love of magic bullets.

Recently, two groups published the genome sequence of a tardigrade species. One of the two reports, ahead of the other by a few days, got the lion’s share of the press – not only because it was first, but also because it made the flashy announcement that tardigrades are as sturdy as they are because ~17% of their genes come from horizontal transfer. The authors of this study hypothesized that such an influx of foreign DNA is possible when the water bears reconstitute their chromosomes during revival from tun status, at which point they’re leaky across scales. Of course, one prediction of this hypothesis is that tardigrades should have undergone incredibly rapid and divergent evolution, which is very visibly not the case (I fully expect a cult theory of tardigrades as single-point earth life ancestors to spring up as a result of this blog post).

People who know how genomes, organisms and evolution work shook their heads at this announcement and waited for the other shoe to drop. It promptly did with the close-following second sequencing study, which demonstrated that horizontal transfer in tardigrades does not exceed the average 2-3% found in all organisms, and that the results of the earlier study came from contamination of the tardigrade genomic material with DNA from bacteria in the water bears. To be fair, it’s incredibly hard to avoid such contamination, especially with something of water bear size, though there are ways of detecting and correcting it after the fact. However, separating wheat from chaff requires long, painstaking work – and in these days of dwindling-to-nothing funds for basic research, being first is at a premium.

Learning how tardigrades go through literally killing regimes will teach us much about basics, and may show the way to useful applications. But I suspect that most of that knowledge won’t be portable to large, slow-metabolizing mammals like us. What will undoubtedly be of direct use is deciphering the mechanisms behind bear hibernation. Results from such a study will not only be applicable to human spacefaring, but will also help revive patients from long comas and serious traumas with less muscle waste and/or irreversible brain and other organ damage.

Like much research nominally focused on space, investigation of other non-bacterial terrestrial biologies may not only enable us to travel into the beguiling star-studded darkness beyond our friendly base, but may also improve our life here and now. If/when we venture past our gravity well, it’s certain that the imperturbable water bears will be on board with us. And despite stringent precautions against contamination, I wonder if the Voyager craft are carrying tiny sleeping tuns on the winds between the stars.

tardigrade space

Sources

Breakthrough Project initiatives
Summary of tardigrade sequencing results in Science Alert
PNAS paper about the bacterial contamination in the first study

Related articles

Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix
The Death Rattle of the Space Shuttle
Slouching to the Right of the Drake Equation
Those Who Never Got to Fly
Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri
Damp Squibbs: Non-News in Space Exploration
Note to Alien Watchers: Octopuses are Marvelous, But Still Terrestrial
Starry, Starry Night

Images: Top, concept art of a Starshot probe and sail (Breakthroughinitiatives.org); bottom, the intrepid water bear in a challenging environment (Microbiologia General)

She Who Shapes

March 18th, 2016

“Who is that rising like the morning star,
clear as the moon, bright as the sun,
daunting as the stars in their courses?”

— Song of Songs 6:10, translated by Ariel and Chana Bloch

Note: This entry is inadvertently appearing just before catholic Easter (its orthodox counterpart is on May 1). It contains both what are euphemistically called “mature themes and language” and a detailed description of a story. But even for those who hyperventilate at the horrificity of “spoilers”, the story has to be seen for its full worth to be appreciated.

———-

Maryam in ClayI don’t look at porn much (unless, as one of my readers pointed out, it crosses into erotic art). Almost all porn is geared to men’s pleasure; most is hostile to women. But, true to my unibrow tastes and principles, I will dip into anything I normally dislike if it comes recommended by someone whose judgement and taste I trust. Besides, porn is known to have given rise to artwork of the first magnitude, from Utamaro’s ukiyo-e and the Khajuraho sculptures to Klimt’s soft-gauze portrayals (and their savage Schiele counterparts).

In one of my increasingly infrequent visits to Twitter, I bumped on Kay Holt’s shout-outs to comics. Kay knows her stuff and is no mean graphic artist herself. One item she named sounded intriguing: Smut Peddler 2014 from Iron Circus Comics, the successor to their well-received 2012 volume. I read an interview of Spike Trota, one of the anthology’s creators and editors. Something she said in that interview piqued my curiosity, so I bought SP2014 (which, in time-honored fashion, came wrapped in opaque black plastic).

The antho has about two dozen stories. They range far and wide in terms of combinations, body types and protagonist provenances. The quality of the stories (admittedly not the focus of such work) varies; the overall visual art, on the other hand, is uniformly excellent. The settings go from real-world to fantasy to science fiction – though the alien encounters are timid when compared to Hokusai’s Tako to Ama, still the best depiction of tentacle sex.

What makes SP2014 unique is its unabashed focus on women’s pleasure. Never before have I seen so much oral sex or lack of coercion in a single book dedicated to sex. But the antho has something more than evolved sexual mores. Tucked among the entries, just before the end, is a story that’s worth the price of the entire book by itself: Liza Petruzzo’s Clay. It’s a virtuoso performance that relies entirely on images, a seamless fusion of several mythic veins – and deeply subversive in the way it has chosen to tell a story that’s a cornerstone of christianity.

In the christian canon, Mary (Maryam) is the perfect passive vessel. She has no will or agency of her own, and is totally, unquestioningly obedient to male authority. She undergoes the ordeal of pregnancy and birth without knowing the ecstasy of either yearning or desire, and she becomes the conduit of what is essentially an affair between two male gods. In her person, monotheisms drained the power from the old, potent woman god whose son becomes first her lover, then a sacrifice to ensure that the cycle of fertility remains unbroken.

The great woman god is sometimes a virgin; sometimes she has many consorts. Her travails may end up in triumph or tragedy, but she’s never an afterthought or a channel. In stark contrast, Mary and her many incarnations are disposable, from the mother who lets her son rip out her heart in Balkan folksongs to Shmi Skywalker. Their best hope is to survive the miracle birth itself and be allowed to act as either pleading intercessors or unwilling collaborators to the dire unleashings of their sons, who have become their masters.

In art, the sand grain of Mary has produced a harvest of dazzling pearls – the Theotókoi of the east and the Madonnas of the west; the Akáthistos hymn and Easter laments of Byzantium (though the latter betray who she once was: they’re the barely-altered keenings of Astarte for Tammuz, Aphrodite for Adonis). Clay must be added to the outstanding works of Mariolatry, and to the dammed, hidden stream underneath it.

Clay starts mildly enough: a young woman gets up in the morning and heads to the nearby pond to take a bath. She’s full-bodied, plain-faced, her black hair cascading in unruly waves. She could be my mother’s sister or one of my father’s cousins in their youth. Her looks, clothing and implements place the story squarely in Bronze Age Mediterranean.

At the pond, behind the reeds, something is struggling and moaning. Parting the reeds, she sees an inchoate being – essentially a mount of clay – that reaches for her. As it looks scary and is several times her size, she’s naturally frightened. But it restrains itself before it reaches her… and intrigued and no longer afraid, she decides to shape it as Yahweh is said to have shaped Adam, as the rabbis of the diaspora tried to breathe life in their golems.

With care and joy, she fashions the creature into a handsome young man with hair longer than hers — the long swirls of the Minoan frescoes, the glorious mane that doomed Absalom. When made whole, he takes her in his new arms. They explore each other, and eventually he buries his face between her thighs until she climaxes.

When they’re finally standing up, caressing and tidying each other, the viewpoint pans out above them and you see their shadows, stretching before them in the morning light. Hers is her shape and height; his reaches the sky – and unfurls the mighty wings of the bene elohim, the sons of gods who came to the daughters of men. Yet as lovesome beings, they stand as equals. And as she shaped her lover, so will she shape the inchoate morsel his sweet tongue bequeathed her. For she is not nutrient soil, but a fearless Maker who makes her own choices.

In one fell swoop, Petruzzo reclaimed the lost power of the triple goddess and depicted the visual equivalent of that great, full-throated cry of mutual desire, the Song of Songs. If I were any of the churches whose adherents kneel before statues and icons of Mary, I’d use Clay as a conversion tool.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

Images: top, Maryam (part of a panel from Clay, shown in Spike Trota’s interview in Comics Alliance); bottom, a more conventional Annunciation (though subversive in its own way) by Henry Ossawa Tanner (painted in 1898; Philadelphia Art Museum)

Related articles:

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture: Appropriate Away
The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art
Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

Drums in the Deep: A Ninth Planet?

February 2nd, 2016

planets-w-belts

[Click images to embiggen]

From the first moment humans looked at the sky, their eyes — with or without aids — could see five wanderers against the celestial backdrop: Mercury, fleetingly visible outside the Sun’s glare; Venus, so bright it can cast a shadow (Eosphóros at dawn, Phósphoros at dusk); Mars, its brick-reddish hue apparent even at aphelion; Jupiter, second to Venus in brightness; and Saturn, about as dim as Mercury – though someone with exceptional vision might just discern the slightly elongated shape that would later prove to be its rings.

And there the count of the solar family remained until the late 18th century, when telescopes and the mathematics of trajectories got sophisticated enough to enable astronomers to make and test predictions. At that point, the Herschel siblings established that Uranus was not a star but the planet next out from Saturn. A little less than a century later, Le Verrier noticed the “tugs” at Uranus’ orbit. Based on these, he predicted, then visually found, Neptune. But Neptune’s orbit showed irregularities also, plus its mass did not totally account for the Uranian perturbations either.

So the search started for Planet X (pedantically speaking it should have been IX, but X is the standard denotation for an unknown). And that’s when things stopped being simple.

The next iteration of the methods that had added Uranus and Nepture to the solar herd yielded Pluto. The problem with Pluto, which led to its eventual dethronement as a planet, is that there are many Pluto-sized planetesimals in the asteroid and Kuiper belts and in the Oort cloud — several with accompanying moons, like Pluto has Charon. Amusingly, many carry names of female gods or heroes and/or from mythologies beyond the Roman in a belated effort to change the heavily skewed naming ratio of the major planets.

So either Pluto of tiny mass and eccentric orbit did not deserve the distinction of being called a planet – or Vesta, Ceres, Eris, Sedna et al had to be included in the roster (side note for SFF doofs like me: Eris, named after the goddess of discord, was originally called Xena; its attendant moon is officially called Dysnomia, the Greek term for Lawless… as in Lucy Lawless, who played Xena the Warrior Princess; personally, I think they should have stuck with Xena and Gabrielle, but I’ll admit to some lack of objectivity). To the relief of both astronomers and astrologers, scientists drew the line at entities so small that, even if they’ve attained roundness, don’t have the oomph to either fling or pull planetesimals in their vicinity.

Yet the idea of a giant planet or brown dwarf hiding in the outer darkness has too strong a hold on our imagination. Starting with paleontologists Raup and Sepkoski, scientists proposed such a distant lurker whose orbital movement might have caused impact events resulting in the mass extinctions that occur on Earth about every 27 million years. For obvious reasons, they called this hypothetical planet Nemesis (Retribution). The long, systematic hunts for Nemesis yielded nothing except the conclusion that nothing larger than Saturn is rolling for several thousand AUs beyond Neptune. That’s disappointing, but there’s a large size gap between Saturn and Pluto where a respectably sized outcast can still dwell.

The productive game of checking for orbit irregularities and sweeping/herding behavior got applied again recently, when several astronomers (first Sheppard and Trujillo, then Batygin and Brown – all Kuiper aficionados and decisive influences in demoting Pluto) noticed a pattern in six “sednoids” – largish denizens of the Kuiper belt. Their behavior indicated that they had been disturbed by something large. So Brown and his collaborators fed the pertinent details to a simulator… and out popped the prediction of a planet at least 10 times as massive as Earth (i. e. Neptune-sized) with a highly eccentric, off-center orbit – a victim and survivor of ejection from the inner regions of the solar system during the early stages of its formation.

Brown was meticulous in exploring and evaluating all other possible explanations of the planetesimal disturbance pattern, just as Boyajian and her co-authors did with the anomalous brightness dips of KIC 8462852. The hypothesis of a Neptune-sized planet at that region passes the Occam’s razor criterion. But only one thing will make Planet Nine move from hypothetical to real: seeing it with a telescope. So some astronomers have been sweeping the starry dark with high-powered wide-field telescopes, while others have been comparing time-lapse photos to see if a bright needle has moved relative to the rest of the haystack.

If Planet Nine proves to be real, it will give us important insights into the workings of our solar system and will help us judge how unusual it is compared to other systems found by the industrious Kepler telescope. And if its existence is confirmed, the arguments about its specific details will pale in comparison with those over what to name it. Some want it called Jehosaphat; others, Janus. But I propose Tiamat, the exiled Great Goddess of the Deep.

Orbits Planet X

Primary sources

Trujillo, Chadwick A.; Sheppard, Scott S. (2014). A Sedna-like body with a perihelion of 80 astronomical units. Nature 507: 471.

Batygin, Konstantin; Brown, Michael E. (2016). Evidence for a distant giant planet in the Solar system. The Astronomical Journal 151: 22.

Related article

Starry, Starry Night

Images: Top, current view of the solar system (credit: NASA’s Space Place via http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/ice-dwarf/); bottom, the predicted orbit of Planet Nine (credit: (data) JPL; Batygin and Brown/Caltech; (diagram) A. Cuadra/Science)

The Every-Branching Universe: Forever Nethack

January 16th, 2016

NethackScreenshot
[Click on all images in this article to embiggen them]

You’re in the corner of a room that you can light up to half its length with your rapidly dying lantern. To your left you can see a scroll of charging, which you desperately need to replenish your wishing wand. To get to it, however, you have to bypass or eliminate the troll who is bashing you with its axe. If you kill it, you have to eat it quickly enough to prevent its resurrection. There’s also a trapdoor just in front of the charging scroll. To avoid it, you can either put on your ring of levitation or dig through the side wall with your pick axe. If you put on the ring, you need to take it off to pick up the scroll (this will occupy two moves). If you use the pick axe, you cannot wield your weapon at the same time.

While you are hacking at the troll with your life-draining Stormbringer, you are also trying to avoid trampling your tame cat, who’s frisking around you and whom you wish to keep alive long enough to polymorph into a friendly dragon that you can use as both weapon and steed. If you get the charging scroll, you can replenish your wishing wand and get a wand of polymorph. You’re also trying to block the unruly critter from falling into the trapdoor, because by the time you find it again at another dungeon level it will have forgotten you and turned feral.

Speaking of dragons, a black one just entered the dark area of the room. You know its presence and color because it’s breathing death at you; thankfully, your shield of reflection protects you and your inventory from being turned to dust. You could zap the beast with your wand of cancellation and reduce its deadly breath to harmless coughing. However, you want to kill it unmodified if possible, because eating it will make you disintegration-proof. But if you eat both the troll and the dragon, you’ll choke from overeating. If you pray to your patron god, (s)he may come to your aid. You feverishly rack your memory: did you offer enough at the last altar you passed?

Complicated, you say? Multiply this situation by a few hundred thousand times, and you get the feel of Nethack.

RPG games, now extraordinarily sophisticated in form (though still mostly primitive in content), have been enduring parallel universes for the armchair warriors who prefer their human contacts minimal, their muscles small and their repartee absent. Yet after all this programming effort, all the glitzy, expensive packages and X-boxes, after all the network chat groups and all the pneumatic avatars of Second Life, the most immersive, most addictive adventure game is an evolved species of the original sparse but nifty Rogue: Nethack.

Entirely keyboard-driven with ASCII characters, without any sound or special effects, Nethack can wreck careers and relationships — and like a truly dangerous drug, keep its victims blissed out while their world crumbles around them. And the main reason for the denomic hold of this game (besides the fact that it’s free and open source) is the same that makes books so infinitely superior to any flat-footed explicit representation: namely, Nethack uses human imagination as its engine, thereby turning what looks like a horse-driven cart into an FTL starship.

Nethack Map

Nethack has been around since the mid-eighties, though it took a while to attain its full complexity. Like all D&D style games, it’s a Tolkienesque stew with side helpings of several other pop mythologies (the archaeologist class is a nod to Indiana Jones; one of the named weapons is Elric’s Stormbringer, another is Bilbo’s Sting; the quest homebase of the tourist class is a hat tip to Terry Pratchett… you get the gist). What makes it unusual is the heroic lengths to which the huge development team went to anticipate and program all possible actions within the framework. You can drink a potion – but you can also throw it, or dip something in it. A cockatrice can turn you to stone, but if you kill it and have gloves on you can wield it as a weapon to turn your enemies to stone instead. And what makes it amazing is how many ways the story can go, how richly textured it is, and how much it rewards exploration and strategy. It’s like seeing the multiverse concept in action, including the wavefunction collapse at the narrow-funnel ending. Nethack is a labor of immense love and a triumphant example of effective collective effort – the cyber-equivalent of a great bridge or temple.

I started playing Rogue in the mid-eighties – half of my then-lab were aficionados who watched others dodge medusae and xorns with the passionate involvement (and exclamations) usually vouchsafed to group-watching of football or soccer games. I then moved to the more complicated versions – Moria, Angband, and finally Nethack itself (plus the Zork series, of which Nemesis is my hands-down favorite because it has a plot and characters that I cared for). I’ve played all classes, races and alignments in Nethack, but have never completed a game except in immortal mode, which should give a hint of how fiendishly hard it is. And I still feel the thrill of anticipation whenever I go up or down a dungeon level staircase.

Nethack had not been altered in a while, except for its tiles version becoming (grumble) inoperative in MacOs systems past the big-cat-named ones. But this December version 3.6.0 appeared and, of course, all of us devotees ran over to see what’s new. Not surprisingly, only details have changed – the game is too fine-tuned to allow much further tinkering. Gehennom levels are now of two types instead of one; vampires have become more interesting. But I have a sneaking suspicion I will now replay all class/race combinations and class-specific quests, to check if something really new has been stealthily implemented Easter-egg fashion.

The only other games of this type that have come as close to captivating me as Nethack are Eschalon and, to a lesser extent, Legend of Pandora. A few others have lodged in my long-term memory: I wept at the end of Syberia, when the mammoths came out of the mist; I fell utterly in love with the atmospherics, worldbuilding (and strong women) of Sins of the Fathers and Broken Sword; and I adored witty, sui generis efforts like System’s Twilight, The Tiny Bang Story and Botanicula. I may at some point play Mass Effect (though the reports of its notoriously bad ending have given me pause, plus watching The Expanse may feel that need slot for me) or one of Assassin’s Creed – if the upcoming movie version with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard is good enough to make me curious.

But no matter what shiny baubles come along, few hold my interest for long. Nethack has been the granite foundation of my gameplaying, my faithful companion in the sleepless watches of the night.

nethack-wiz-29

Related Articles:

The (Game)play’s the Thing: The Retro-RPG Eschalon
Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

Images: 1st, the unadorned Nethack screen appearance; 2nd, a charmingly handmade (but thorough) global Nethack map from BT-Net; 3rd, the start of Gehennom in Nethack (tile version)

The Joys of Dawdling

December 14th, 2015

Strasbourg Hidden CornerI recently returned from a short jaunt to France and the UK. My two extended sojourns were in Strasbourg and London – and for the first time, I got to ride the Eurostar and be spoiled by its attentive staff.

I had last visited Strasbourg as a teenager and I’ve been in London several times though not recently, except as a springboard for trips to Scotland. So I’ve seen all the hallmark sights: the cathedrals, big-name museums, large parks. This visit was low key, aimed primarily at meeting staunch long-distance friends. But it also gave me a rare opportunity to be “of the place” rather than surfing on it like a waterbug.

We spent an idyllic late morning/early afternoon at Strasbourg’s old town, La Petite France. The Christmas attract-tourist glitz had started (the Europeans are increasingly mimicking the US with ever earlier times for the holiday commercial mill) but it was a weekday, so it was not crowded. The weather, mild with Turner-esque clouds, was perfect for exploring hidden corners and dormant gardens; when we tired of walking, we indulged in mulled wine outside a café. One night we had tapas on a nibbles-and-wine barge swaying on the Rhine; on another evening we meandered to a nearby tiny restaurant, to discover that it offers four-star Alsatian cuisine at two-star prices.

In London I stayed at a family-run B&B recommended by a friend. I assumed the “next to the British Museum” decription was the usual PR exaggeration, but not this time. They are in fact exactly a block away from the museum yet the street is quiet, very much a lived-in place. A block away in a different direction is Oxford Street, where I acquired (for a pittance) a spiffy new handbag after the shoulder strap of my old faithful snapped. My room had a view of a kilim-sized garden; the building has a beautiful, tightly wound staircase, original woodwork intact, and canny old-fashioned window clasps (yet also granite-solid WiFi). The neighborhood is dotted with those tiny parks that act as oases in central London.

Of course, the highlight of the visit were the people. These friendship bonds were forged through ordeal; some are also professional collaborators. This was the first time I met any of them in person, although it felt like the continuation of ongoing conversations. We spent long, lazy hours in home kitchens and pubs, and the topics ranged from brain function to 9th century Wales, from space opera to the use of Celtic motifs by MacDonald and Macintosh.

One of these visits was combined with a viewing of the British Museum Celts exhibit. The organizers did a fantastic job of displaying the findings through the ages in context without overinterpretation. Some of the touches were wonderful: the videos of today’s Celtic diasporas; the gauzy dividers, evocative of the mists that shape the Celtic lands. Afterwards we repaired to the Museum café where I found meringues literally the size of cabbages.

London Hotel GardenThere was a final eldritch touch: I flew Icelandair, the only airline that would allow for an open-jaw ticket that wouldn’t bankrupt me. The cabin lights were not the usual yellowish-white but an undulating green and purple — the colors of the northern lights that were also swaying and whispering outside as I made my way home through the dreaming dark.

Unfurling Solar Sails: Yours Truly Acquires Candlemark & Gleam

November 18th, 2015

“I’ll be your gypsy joker, your shotgun rider.”
– Bruce Springsteen, “Soul Driver” from Human Touch

Blue Door Stargate

When I was putting together The Other Half of the Sky (TOHOTS), my first science fiction anthology, I searched for a publisher – and, in hindsight, unknowingly dodged several bullets. The only person who gave me fair terms (without prompting on my part, yet) was Kate Sullivan, the founder of Candlemark and Gleam (C&G). I owe Sam Montgomery-Blinn of Bullspec many craft beers for suggesting Kate to me and doing the introductions.

Kate is that rarest of combinations, a deeply informed mover-and-shaker who’s also discerning, meticulous, conscientious, professional and results-oriented. She was an ideal collaborator who carefully and lovingly prepared TOHOTS for what would be a triumphant publication arc: the anthology went on to win unprecedented awards and accolades (including a Nebula for one of its stories) way before the “X Destroy Y” mode became safe to attempt – achievements that are even more momentous when one considers C&G’s infinitesimal PR budget.

Kate ran C&G single-handedly in addition to a full-time day job. On my side, I had long wanted to nurture and promote science fiction that combines quality craft and three-dimensional characters with a non-triumphalist sense of wonder, awareness of scientific principles, and original universes. So when the heroic effort tired Kate and she was contemplating closing down C&G rather than see her vision and standards compromised, I told her of my own vision.

So with great pleasure and anticipation, Kate and I announce that, as of November 16, I’ve acquired Candlemark & Gleam.  It’s a fitting symbol and a good omen that the younger sibling of TOHOTS, To Shape the Dark, will be the first book brought out by C&G under its new astrogator.

Kate will stay with me for at least one year, to ensure a seamless transition. In the past, C&G published a wide variety of speculative fiction subgenres and showcased many new authors. Although that big-tent policy will continue, I’m eager to have science fiction become the major tributary stream of C&G – especially stellar talents whom I consider neglected due to the publisher/editor stampede to be “edgy” (if only).

This means that C&G will now publish primarily by invitation and referral. However, we will also respond to queries with one-page synopses. Those who wonder what I’m likely to consider can look at TOHOTS or my reviews. Speaking of the latter, I don’t review often; when I do, I always discuss large contexts, rather than isolated works. I realize that some consider reviewing by an editor/publisher to be a conflict of interest, though many editors and publishers have been doing so with nary a qualm or ripple. I will let my author choices stand as my principal future reviews, though I’ll still do the occasional large-scale retrospective.

My thanks go to those who convinced me that such an endeavor is not madness (or, perhaps, necessary madness): Peter Cassidy; members of the Mixon report team; contributors to The Other Half of the Sky and To Shape the Dark; and my faithful shadow-id, Lilypad, who calmly delivered admonitory chomps whenever my self-confidence faltered.

Friends, companions, partners, colleagues: join me and Kate on this journey to strange skies.

Lion Planetfall

ETA: Kate writes about C&G’s trajectory.

Small Victory Against Entropy and Inertia

November 7th, 2015

Home office 11-2015

When you move, boxes that remain unopened for more than a month often never get opened. When we settled into the cozy cottage in 1998, I shoved several leg-bruisers as heavy as boulders into the closet of my study (aka home office). These contained much of my writing: drafts, sources, correspondence.

Since then, I reorganized the study after my cancer bout and after I left academia, but piecemeal. This time, I decided to go all the way to the roots so that I’m ready for the grand venture slated to officially start in a few days (T minus 10 and counting). I took this opportunity to not only organize and streamline my study, but to also tuck straggler books into niches that make sense. It took about a week, with stops to accommodate the grumblings of the fibromyalgia, and four huge sacks of paper hit the recycling bin.

It’s done now, and I feel inordinately pleased about it. I deem it fitting that I finished on the year anniversary of the publication of the Mixon report, another milestone in organizing science fiction for the greater good. The new configuration is airy, functional and hip-friendly. Entropy will make its steady stealthy inroads. But small achievements count, and I can finally cross off the longest-standing item on my to-do list.

Starry, Starry Night

October 28th, 2015

Julian Kay - Conjunction, Oct 2015

This morning, an hour before dawn, I put a coat over my sleeping togs and went outside.

In the west, the Hunter and his Hounds were accompanying the near-full moon, Sirius as bright as a mithril coin. In the east, where the black was starting to turn to indigo, was the jagged procession of the three bright candles – silvery Venus, golden Jupiter, bronze Mars.

It never ceases to grip me, this beauty that floods my breastbone with longing.

Part of this yearning is our eternal quest for companionship, recently sharpened by the report of odd light dips of the F-type star KIC 8462852 — nicknamed Tabby in honor of Tabetha Boyajian, the lead author of the study and the head of the crowdsourced Planet Hunters project that sifts through the Kepler Space Telescope findings.

About 1,500 light years away in the direction of the Cygnus constellation, the star is too old and stable to have a dust accretion disk. The dips could be the result of a cometary collision or gravity darkening from rotational flattening… but for the first time the SETI community uttered the words “Dyson swarm” with the slight, slight likelihood they might be more than fond wishes.

We have to be dispassionate and rigorous in this, as in all other scientific explorations – especially ones that we’re vested in. After all, pulsars were first designated LGM (Little Green Men) before the non-sentient basis of their regular pulsing was deciphered. But now there’s at least one reputable paper out that outlines how to distinguish megastructures from natural planetary bodies.

If there was a civilization around Tabby that was advanced enough to create sunlight-capturing structures, what we see may no longer exist or may have evolved into something “rich and strange”. More time on different types of telescopes may resolve this. In the end, the yearning will remain; we’re wired for wonder. There’s a reason (beyond the fact that I sorely miss my own beloved father – ally and confidante since toddlerhood) why the alien in the guise of Ted Arroway caressing Ellie’s cheek in Contact brings tears to my eyes.

Sources and Further Reading

Ross Andersen, “The Most Mysterious Star in Our Galaxy” The Atlantic, October 13, 2015.

Boyajian et al, “Planet Hunters X. KIC – Where’s the Flux?” Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. (preprint)

Wright et al, “The Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. IV. The Signatures and Information Content of Transiting Megastructures”. Submitted to Astrophysical Journal (preprint)

Conjunction 2015 photo by Julian Kay. Left to right: Jupiter, Mars (faint), Moon, Venus.

Destination, not Destiny: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora

October 17th, 2015

by C. W. 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, Interstellar, and the works of Hanya Yanagihara, Ken Liu and Liu Cixin.

2-torus starshipScience fiction is full of ideas. But the ideas in science fiction seldom have the depth and rigor of ideas in science, or in philosophy, or politics and ethics. The reason I say this is: in fiction, the game is rigged. The debates are one-sided. The author gets the first, middle, and last word.

This is not to say that the ideas in science fiction cannot capture the imagination. Indeed many classic SF stories that have inspired careers or even presaged the future. But not all have. The ideas in SF are not fully developed theories or philosophies, but more like Edison’s famous ten thousand attempts at making electric light: we remember the one that worked and forget, mostly, the ten thousand that didn’t.

But the ones that work, either through vivid imagery or asking difficult questions or getting lucky and “predicting” the future, stay with us. Once in a great while, there is even a story that causes me to rethink my opposition to describing science fiction as a “literature of ideas.”

Such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, Aurora.

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Let me explore the concept of fiction as being rigged. Science fiction typically assumes some future technology, whether it be interstellar travel or time travel or life extension, is possible. It is only after such an assumption that we arrive at the “idea” in science fiction: a fable about unintended consequences–step on a butterfly in the Cretaceous, change all of history–or to ask, a la James Blish, Who does this hurt?

But these moral fables–for that is what they really are–gloss over the assumption of a technology. Many enthusiasts believe in a kind of technological manifest destiny: we can achieve any technology, if only we are smart enough, or put enough effort into it, or let market forces achieve it.

In support of such a view the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Project, and Moore’s Law are often cited. Such citations often ignore the fact that those successes were a matter of scaling known engineering. The basic physics of fission reactions, of space flight, and of transistors were known long before those projects and observations began.

Here’s the problem: one should not conclude, by way of analogy, that any technological goal can be achieved by sheer perspiration. The easiest and most obvious example is in human health. By a wide margin, the most crucial leaps to better health have been good sewage management and vaccines, followed by antibiotics. But after that it becomes much harder. If market forces alone were enough, we would have conquered cancer long ago, but while some cancers are curable, many others we can at best slow down. (This, of course, is because “cancer” does not have a single etiology.) There are start-up firms devoted to engineered immortality, but none have added a single day to human life spans.

In short, just because you can imagine it doesn’t mean it is actually possible. I’m still surprised how resistant people are to this basic principle.

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Of course, interstellar flight might seem like a straightforward if ambitious scaling-up of the Apollo program. But Tau Ceti, one of the closest singlet G-class stars (i.e., like our sun), known to have at least five planets, is almost 100 billion times farther away than our moon. That’s a lot of scaling; by comparison, Moore’s law from 1971 to today has seen a mere one million times increase in the number of transistors on a chip.

And Moore’s law has a cost. As transistors shrink, the chip foundries become increasingly complex, costing over US$1 billion to build, and using prodigious amounts of caustic chemicals. The market pressures so far have masked these costs, but even so the market for personal computers has saturated and it is the market for phones which has largely driven further developments. But now with billions of phones across the globe that market too is becoming saturated. We’ll see replacements, of course, but that is linear; the pressure for geometric growth described for Moore’s law is diminishing.

And in a way, this is the story that Robinson tells in Aurora.

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tau-ceti
[Click twice to see full-size image]

Some minor spoilers ahead; I’ll keep them to a minimum, but I will outline some key plot points. If you want me to cut to the chase, it’s this: in my opinion, Aurora is the best hard science fiction novel since Benford’s Timescape, and Robinson achieves this by blowing up the usual assumptions, and jumping up and down on them until they are ground into tiny bits.

Aurora is about interstellar travel. A ship, one of many, is sent at one-tenth of the speed of light to Tau Ceti. This journey takes almost two centuries, and so generations are born, live, and die aboard the ship.

In Robinson’s novel, interstellar travel is possible, but costly. First and foremost, keeping a closed ecosystem running is not easy. Robinson has hinted at these concerns in previous novels, in Icehenge and his Mars trilogy, and here he spells them out in detail, thinking out how a generation ship would work (and not work) to a degree not achieved before. The specific biochemistry is a little beyond me, but he is married to an environmental chemist and, most importantly, the principle is sound. Managing trace elements such as bromine isn’t easy: too little can have dire consequences, but too much and you have toxic effects. The designers of the starship had to try to predict how the ecosystem would behave over centuries. Robinson assumes the designers did a pretty good job, but even in a pretty good job a few miscalculations or oversights can grow over time.

Just as big a source of problems as technology is politics. Robinson’s politics lean to the communitarian and the ship’s governance reflects this, but he recognizes that every polity can fracture and every system of governances privileges some over others. In this he echoes LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, a novel I first read many years ago in a class Robinson taught at UC Davis, and which is also set in the Tau Ceti system. And as in Robinson’s Mars trilogy, when society is stressed, some people respond badly, even violently.

The politics back home, i.e., on Earth, also shifts. People lose interest in interstellar travel, which soaks up enormous resources, leaving the crew of the ship to their own devices when things go awry.

Most SF novels assume that Things Work Out in the end. A crisis convenient for a thrilling plot pops up, but Our Heroes/ines figure out it in the nick of time, and humans triumph over the odds. This future version of Manifest Destiny has been here since the pulps and never really gone away.

Robinson attacks this idea, in detail and in depth. The technology goes wrong, and there is no magical fix, and people die. (Not always; there are some spectacular saves.) The politics goes really wrong, and more people die.

Moreover, Robinson suggests that Manifest Destiny breaks apart upon the rocks of the Fermi paradox, i.e., if there is intelligent life out there, why haven’t we heard from it? Recently I wrote of the Chinese author Cixin Liu’s solution to the Fermi paradox, a dark and paranoid vision.

Robinson’s solution to the Fermi paradox is more measured and frankly more believeable than Liu’s. In most science fiction novels people on alien worlds can easily breathe the air and eat the native organisms with no ill effect. This has always bothered me, because, for example, humans actually can only tolerate a fairly narrow range of atmospheric mixtures; and as for food, we’ve had to co-evolve to digest plant and animal tissues.

Robinson suggests that most planets are either sterile, and would require centuries or millenia of terraforming–in stark contrast to the decades he unrealistically postulated in his Mars trilogy– or the established life would be so biochemically hostile at a fundamental level that humans could not survive. The latter is of course speculative, but speculation is the game in science fiction.

The universe is full of life in Robinson’s vision, only that life is each trapped on its planet of origin. We can’t conquer distant stars; the costs are too great.

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Aurora is not a perfect novel. Like most hard SF novels, it is plot and exposition heavy. Only three characters are fully realized, and one of those is the ship’s artificial intelligence. The bulk of the prose is plain and to-the-point, which Robinson cleverly covers by having the ship itself be the narrator. Only in the opening and closing sections, not narrated by the ship, does the prose sing and does Robinson use his literary skills fully.

But few novels in my reading have examined the technology and the difficulties therein in as much detail, acknowledging that science and people are always flawed and limited. I seldom say this, but Robinson’s novel is truly an “instant classic” of SF, and the hardest of hard SF at that. The year 2015 isn’t over, but Aurora should be a shoo-in for major award nominations. Not only that, it should win.

KSR

Related Articles:

Making Aliens (six part series, starts here)

Once Again with Feeling: The Planets of Gliese 581

The Death Rattle of the Space Shuttle

If They Come, It Might Get Built

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Damp Squibs: Non-news in Space Exploration

Images: 1st, a two-torus starship like Aurora; 2nd, the Tau Ceti system; 3rd, Kim Stanley Robinson

Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

October 7th, 2015

“They’re mine, there, them.”
– Lazarus Tonnerre in Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners

DF Echoes
[Click on both post images to see them full size]

It’s not an unalloyed good to come from a culture so old and layered that I find resonances everywhere – especially when they surface in works I consider deeply flawed, as I do for Tolkien’s oeuvre (and half of Jackson’s Tolkien-linked one).

It’s no secret that Tolkien was enamored of Elves but not particularly interested in Dwarves. Their development as a people in his overall work and as individuals in The Hobbit has the quality of a paper napkin. He made them literally children of a lesser god; denied them an afterlife, eventually granting them a heaven separate from the rest; drew them perilously close to ethnic caricatures; barred the rare love liaison with other Middle Earth races that was so au fait for Beren and Aragorn and so crucial for the victories over Melkor and Sauron; and sidelined their language while creating several for Elves and Men.

So when Peter Jackson decided to turn The Hobbit (TH) into an opus as epic as The Lord of the Rings (LotR) and focus as much on Thorin as on Bilbo, the gaps were enormous. Jackson’s presentation of the Khazâd is the major (though not the only) reason that his TH is best viewed as alt-universe fanfic, even if he forced its ending back into canon to dovetail with what he had already shown in LotR. As is frequently the case with exuberant composers when they’re given a weak libretto, Jackson stumbled into overpadding and nonsensical plot twists. His TH is so vastly inferior to his sweeping, immersive LotR that it looks like the work of a different person. Yet his visualization of Thorin and his people plucked a strong chord within me despite the buffoonish attributes shoehorned into their depiction.

I worried at this lapse in my taste as if it were a sore tooth and eventually touched the atavistic nerve: faithful to Tolkien’s sketchy instructions, Jackson did portray the Dwarves as broad-stroke Jews but they could just as easily pass for Éllines, aka Greeks. The appearance of the Dwarven royal trio owes a lot to Assyrian and Persian friezes. Thorin looks like a Maccabee or Sephardi malik in fully potent middle age and his madness is like that of Saul, not Lear (it helps that Richard Armitage was entering his forties when Jackson started filming TH; I wonder what Oded Fehr or Ghassan Massoud would have done with the role). But Thorin also looks and acts like the Akrítai who safeguarded the borderlands of the Byzantine Empire, or the outlaw chieftains who fought for independence against the Ottoman Turks. I know this archetype intimately from the stories and songs of my people, from Trapani to Trebizond.

I’ve had similar pings from other imperfect, unlikely works. When Schwarzenegger takes the sword from the hands of the crowned skeleton in Conan the Barbarian, its subsequent crumbling into dust always makes me recall, with a frisson, that the same thing happened to the gold-masked skeleton Schliemann found in the tombs at Mycenae. Likewise, Thorin’s hair trailing while he’s in the eagle’s claws reminds me of Éctor’s black mane unfurling behind Ahilléus’ chariot. And of course the flying braids of Thorin and his sistersons make me think of the Minoans, the lodestars whose variants haunt my own fiction.

But it goes beyond brooding and braids. Nestor-like Balin points out to Thorin that the Khazâd are not primarily warriors but merchants, miners, metalsmiths. They’re decidedly not ethereal: their hands are calloused from work, and once they drop their guard they can get rambunctious or “melodramatic” (by Anglo or Elven standards). Yet earthy as they are, they love beauty even if their taste runs to art deco instead of the Elves’ art nouveau.

The Greek diaspora, as old as the polity from which it sprang, has been a necessity dictated by the local physical and (geo)political environment. Like the Jews, the Greeks stood out wherever they went which made them easy targets for displaced anger. They, too, were mostly merchants, artisans, wrights, dragomans, mid-level functionaries. Their host cultures gawked and laughed at their occasional bursts of flamboyance, many of which are now staged as tourist spectacles. Nor were they spared abuse and slaughter in either Muslim or Christian territories: their Christianity (as much a cultural as a religious signifier) was the “wrong” kind. Later, so was their vigorous resistance to Ottoman and Nazi occupation. As a result, they became clannish, secretive, cunning – the common survival tactics of the downtrodden and deracinated – though like the Khazâd they let trusted outsiders into their hearths and hearts.

Then there’s the language. Tolkien repeatedly mentioned in the books and his letters how ugly Khuzdul was, how disjunct from the languages of all other “good” folk in Middle Earth. He cared so little about it that he only bothered with a few place names and a single title (“Balin Fundinul Uzbad Khazad-dûmu”). The language had to be retro-created for TH; even then we only hear insults and battle cries in it, except for Kíli’s yearning “Amrâl imê…” to Tauriel (“My love”, which he mouths silently again when he’s dying; Aidan Turner transplanted the phrase and tone to his Ross Poldark incarnation with devastating effect).

Hellenic is an Indoeuropean isolate, and those who can speak it are few and getting fewer. I’ve had people tell me it sounds harsh, just as Khuzdul was said to hurt the Elves’ delicate ears. For the Greek diaspora communities, it’s fast becoming a legacy fossil they can only learn in special schools – just like Hebrew for non-Israeli Jews, and Khuzdul as posited by Tolkien.

The Elves are a spent force in LotR; their presence is drenched in loss and longing, a late fall twilight afterglow. But at least they have their dazzling pinnacle in The Silmarillion and they’re still pivotal in LotR (especially in Jackson’s non-canonical yet dead-on decision to have them participate in the battle of Helm’s Deep). Tolkien never gives the Dwarves their moment in the limelight. They’re afterthoughts, sidebars viewed with equal parts grudging respect and condescension. By giving them vivid if flawed primacy, Jackson brought that point to the fore.

I was captivated by the strong Celtic tinge of Tolkien’s and Jackson’s Elves, by their love of starlight and the sea so close to my own core yearnings. I like the fierce geasa-driven Elves of The Silmarillion more than the cool, gliding apparitions in LotR, because their imperfections make them reachable. But Thorin’s people, as portrayed by Jackson, are my kin – my ghénos, my mishpocheh. I’d be fighting hammer and tongs with such a man within hours. And yet I’ve been biologically and culturally wired to keep a place in my heart for these dark, hairy, stocky, gruff men with their unshakable loyalties and touchy pride, their love of gaudy jewelry and the works of hands, their boisterous revels and minor-key songs, their penchant for bravado and doomed stands, fusions of Odhysséus and Dhighenís.

DF Hugs New

Major relevant historical work:

Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950

Related Essays:

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!
The Multi-Chambered Nautilus
Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
Hagiography in the SFX Age
Hidden Histories or: Yes, Virginia, Romioi Are Eastern European
Authentic Ethnics
If I Forget Thee, O My Grandmother’s Lost Home

Images: 1st, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and two Greek fighters for independence against the Ottoman Turks; top, Athanássios Dhiákos (by Dhionnísios Tsókos); bottom, Vassílis Ghoúdhas (by Louis Dupré); 2nd, Mediterranean-type physical affection: Thorin embraces Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his younger sisterson, Kíli (Aidan Turner).

To Shape the Dark — Cover

October 5th, 2015

“…they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn…” — Semíra Ouranákis, captain of starship Reckless (“Planetfall”).

shapedarkcover-800

[Click twice on the image for a high-resolution version.]

This cover is the best birthday gift I could get. I’ve been champing at the bit to share it. As with the story teasers, I won’t say more – I think the art speaks for itself. The artist who gave such dramatic, eloquent visual summation to the stories is Eleni Tsami whose work has graced other book and magazine covers, The Other Half of the Sky prominently among them.

The wraparound version is as breathtaking as the front shown here and I will link to it when Eleni unveils it. [ETA: here’s the promised link.]  For those who missed it the first time, here’s the anthology TOC:

To Shape the Dark

Athena Andreadis – Astrogators Never Sleep

Constance Cooper – Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home
M. Fenn – Chlorophyll is Thicker than Water
Jacqueline Koyanagi – Sensorium
Kristin Landon – From the Depths
Shariann Lewitt – Fieldwork
Vandana Singh – Of Wind and Fire
Aliette de Bodard – Crossing the Midday Gate
Melissa Scott – Firstborn, Lastborn
Anil Menon – Building for Shah Jehan
C. W. Johnson – The Age of Discovery
Terry Boren – Recursive Ice
Susan Lanigan – Ward 7
Kiini Ibura Salaam – Two Become One
Jack McDevitt – The Pegasus Project
Gwyneth Jones – The Seventh Gamer

False Dilemmas by Wannabe(e) Trendsetters

September 28th, 2015

Note: I posted a shorter version of this note on Facebook. As my account there is friends-locked to avoid random trolling, I reproduce an expanded version here. I waited for a few days, hoping the note would become irrelevant but my cautious optimism was obviously misplaced. As is always the case with such postings, comments are disabled.

———-

Lampoon DogPeople know my views on representation in life, science and art. Theoretically, the announcement of the steampunk anthology The SEA is Ours (guided by editors Goh and Chng under the auspices of Rosarium Press) would have been cause for celebration and a welcome showcasing of new and neglected talents not gleaned from the default SFF demographic.

However, the editors and publisher of the SEA anthology chose to prominently highlight a known (and still fully active) predator in the SFF community in their just-launched Indiegogo campaign. We are not talking of fandom personality clashes but of long-term, systematic sabotaging of professional reputations and careers by threat and manipulation, as presented in the Mixon report that went on to win a much-deserved Hugo.

The fact that this person targeted a disproportionate ratio of writers from the SEA (Southeast Asia) contingent of the genre makes the highlighting a particularly tone-deaf decision, no matter how many token boxes she tries to tick. Additionally, “quality” is not only subjective but also a fig leaf in view of the many non-Anglo people in SFF who deserve recognition. Lest anyone think I’m singling out Rosarium, very similar tactics and arguments on behalf of this predator have been used by publishers/editors of several quasi-prominent SFF venues, including Clarkesworld, Prime Books and Mythic Delirium.

The SEA anthology editors decided to test complex loyalties and ethical/professional stands by blindsiding everyone involved in the project – and then daring potential critics to object on pain of being labeled all kinds of -ist. Yet the ball is squarely in their court; not in that of allies to a deserving cause who are being essentially coerced into making no-win Sophie’s choices, or of writers and illustrators who stand to become collateral damage to their editors’ desire to appear edgy. The suggestion that discussion of the issue harms diversity, etc, is a tactic for displacing responsibility (and a well-known one, courtesy of the justly famous/notorious National Lampoon cover shown here).

And as the saying goes, that’s why we can’t have nice things like true polyphony and basic professional standards in SFF.

Image: The National Lampoon cover for January 1973, vol. 1, issue 13 (photographer, Ronald Harris; editor, Michael Gross).

Related posts:

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Wrecker

How Many Swallows Bring Real Spring?

Ayn Rand: Dreams that Become Dungeons

September 15th, 2015

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” — John Rogers, Ephemera 2009

Ayn Rand, Cornell Cappa

From time to time items appear in news or social media that remind me I’ve long wanted to discuss Ayn Rand. The latest is the Sad Puppies’ Hugo awards campaign, whose leaders announced that next time the charge of the Lightweight Brigade will be led by women who are not like the rest of us unworthy hysterics. Prominent among the vessels chosen to carry the yellowish fluid of “pure” SF is one who parrots Ayn Rand. In this era of voided social contracts and vanishing safety nets, several of the current Republican presidential candidates name themselves Rand adherents – except that the coin she minted has proved counterfeit not only for societies, but also for the individuals she purported to champion.

Born Alyssa Rosenbaum to a middle-class Russian-Jewish family, multiply displaced by Soviet policies, possessing immense drive and the type of intelligence that made her a poor fit to any homogeneous group ruled by implicit traditions, Rand managed to emigrate to the US. Once there, she strove – with enormous success – to reinvent herself far beyond the usual name change and veneer assimilation of zero- and first-generation immigrants. She also attempted to reshape, Procrustes-like, all within her reach to fit her fantasy of perfection, including her personal past, her hapless low-key husband and eventually her acolytes.

Countless critics have dissected Rand’s juvenile “philosophy” (who seriously lists Aristotle as a decisive influence?), cartoonish characters and clunky dialogue, humorless didacticism, worship of Aryan-phenotype übermenschen and their Nietzschean prerogatives, cult-leader behavior. Equally countless admirers have cleaved to Rand’s powerful message of purpose and self-esteem, which she eventually distorted into suffocating diktats. Less discussed is a fundamental contradiction: despite her trumpetings that she stood solitary and independent as a sui generis entirely self-made construct, Rand not only had far more help than she acknowledged, but she also abjectly desired to belong to clubs perceived to occupy the top of intellectual and/or political hierarchies. This is common for many with backstories similar to Rand’s: Dinesh D’Souza, Cathy Young (Ekaterina Jung), Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, Camille Paglia, Marco Rubio, Sarah Hoyt (Alice Maria da Silva Marques de Almeida), Martin Shkreli.

Rand and the others I listed decided that the path to first-class citizenship in their adoptive US culture was to become mouthpieces for its most reactionary substreams. They’re born-again Spencerians, staunch promoters of libertarian bootstrapping myths, and as obsessed with purge-enforced purity as their ideological opponents. However, their intrinsics mean they can never be more than court jesters or spear carriers of the masters they choose; they end up becoming collaborators, cudgels against fellow disadvantaged who are trying different ways of becoming acknowledged as fully human. For the women, it additionally means they invariably become more kyriarchal than MRAs, since they must be be seen as different than the rest of their weak-minded hormone-driven gender. Before I go further, I want to make it clear that I regard both extreme identity politics and total isolationism (that is, complete refusal to interact with one’s adoptive culuture) as dysfunctional and sterile as the appeasing mimic mode that I discuss here.

Fountainhead - Cooper, NealAyn Rand is a beguiling beacon for bright, self-motivated social isolates who have no obvious tribe and decide to make a defiant virtue of aloneness. When I was fourteen and a student in one of Greece’s elite exam-entry schools during the junta, one of my teachers handed me The Fountainhead remarking it had been written with me in mind. On the surface, I was the ideal audience for its message: an overachieving loner proud of her otherness, neither feminine nor pretty; a fledgling contrarian who disliked unexamined majority views and was already being treated as “an honorary man”; the member of a family chronically persecuted for its political beliefs and actions; a believer in principles, meritocracy and perfectibility like most adolescents.

For reasons partly mentioned in Snachismo, I left my native culture for the world-dominant US polity. Though I’m not “of color” (unless it becomes convenient to someone’s agenda) as defined by the crudely reductive US criteria, I’m one of the borderline ethnics designated as “sneaky swarthons” across Anglosaxon cultures. If you believe this is no longer applicable, re-read the presentations of the recent Greek economic debacle in European media. I came to the US younger than Rand and without any family whatsoever; she, despite her later disavowals, lived with her first-degree relatives until she went to California using their money. What I had instead was a full scholarship and the buffers a well-endowed university could provide.

As I continued living in the US, I kept piling up all kinds of credentials and accomplishments. Nevertheless, I was still olive-skinned and still had an unpronounceable name and a legacy accent – with the result that I was often treated as mud (or worse) on a shoe. I later found out that I shared all these attributes and equivalent experiences with Rand herself. By all counts, I should have become a fervent lifelong Objectivist.

What saved me from such a fate? Perhaps that I had an empathy organ, which Rand (like other transmit-only narcissists) notoriously lacked. Or that I never repudiated my heritage, warts and all – even as I selectively chose what to retain from it, and what to adopt from the more cosmopolitan milieus I found myself in. Or that unlike Rand’s proud announcement that she was “a male chauvinist”, I was a feminist even before I knew the term (or movement) existed. Or that I wanted to become a scientist from the moment I could think clearly, and during my training for that vocation it got pressed into me with diamond-tipped drills that theories must fit facts, not the other way around. Or that I could never identify with Rand’s Aryan blonds, modeled on those who had tortured and exterminated my people and other “inferiors” like vermin. Or that the thought of becoming someone’s Joan the Baptist or Mary Magdalene, no matter how remarkable they might be, made me break into hives.

Yet I was still fascinated by the “there but for fortune go I” aspect. So after The Fountainhead I went on to read Atlas Shrugged, We the Living, and the Barbara Branden and Ann Heller biographies. And so I found out the desolation and insoluble conflicts behind Rand’s bravado. Like many of that personality type, her strengths gave her a strong sense of entitlement that she assumed should, and would, automatically translate to privilege. People far less intelligent than Rand rose to prominence through membership in a dominant group, so it was not surprising she felt short-changed. Deprived of the desired recognition from the alpha club (loner pretensions notwithstanding), she ended up becoming the “there can only be one” tai-tai of designated lesser beings: like her, all her inner circle were smart, ambitious Jews in a society that still imposed racial and ethnic group segregations and quotas. She considered her followers, and they considered themselves, second-best – especially the women whom she turned into typists and gofers. This resulted in shattered, stunted lives. And like all people in this no-win position, anger and depression stalked Rand throughout her life.

Atlas Rockefeller Ctr Lee LawrieI know this anger only too well. I have to keep a tight rein on it, lest it consume me. I’ve come to realize that the siren call of self-made climbing is meant to keep people like me trying solo for brass rings: box-ticking tokens at best. But unlike Rand, I figured this out early enough to choose a different path. This won’t make me beloved, influential, famous or rich. But neither will it make me mutilate my feet to fit stiletto-heeled glass slippers. For exiled wanderers like me, perhaps the only viable option is to keep our double vision intact and acknowledge the value of uncoerced cooperation and shared visions, even as we recognize that all alliances are fleeting. We will always sail on half-familiar seas, Flying Hollanders with the albatross of loneliness around our necks. Even so, we can try to become links between our natal and adopted cultures, branches tapping on windows, gravity ripples between stars.

Related Essays

And Ain’t I a Human?
Snachismo, or: What Do Women Want?
Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
Only Kowtowers Need Apply
“As Weak as Women’s Magic”
A Plague on Both Your Houses
Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
Caesars and Caesar Salads
History, Legitimacy and Belonging; or: Who’s We, Kemo Sabe?
The Smurfettes Discover Ayn Rand

Images: 1st, Ayn Rand, photo by Cornell Cappa; 2nd, Patricia Neal (as Dominique Francon) shows the proper Randian woman-worship for Gary Cooper (as Howard Roark) in the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead; 3rd, Atlas, statue by Lee Lawrie that is often identified with Objectivism and has been used as a cover for Atlas Shrugged.

Liu Cixin: Dark Victories, Hidden Thoughts

September 7th, 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, Interstellar and The Grace of Kings.

Centauri Trio

Is science fiction really the literature of possible future histories? Or is it a veiled metaphor for the author’s own time and place, safely hidden behind a charade of robots, rocketships, and aliens?

I vote for the latter. Even science fiction that claims to be nothing more than escapist fun can be easily mined for political, social, and philosophical themes reflecting the view out the author’s window. Of course, this might be because every nation has a dark side and hidden sins, so even the most modest of inquiries can throw up menacing shadows.

It’s sometimes easier to perceive this outside of one’s own blind spots. As an example, consider Liu Cixin (instant lesson in Mandarin: it’s pronounced Lyoo Tsi-shin, and Liu is the family name). He’s one of the most popular authors in China these days, and he’s recently come to the attention of English-speaking audiences with the first volume of a trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, which won the 2015 Hugo.

Liu has apparently stated that his novels are not political commentaries, and given how Chinese premier Xi Jinping is cracking down on dissension, I can’t blame him for such claims. I’m pretty sure Premier Xi does not read this blog, so I can state openly without worrying for Mr. Liu’s safety: this is not actually true. Both The Three-Body Problem and its sequel, just published in English, is shot through with current political and social concerns.

The Three-Body Problem opens with the floridly described horrors of the Culture Revolution (described in China nowadays as “the ten years of turmoil”). The embittered daughter of one of the victims ultimately betrays the human race to menacing aliens from the Alpha Centauri system, whose triple suns’ chaotic motion continually erases notions of progress and stability.

The second book of the trilogy, The Dark Forest, tells how humankind faces impending invasion by a far superior culture and how it plays out over the centuries it takes for the “Trisolaris” to arrive. Humans are already being spied upon by sophons, higher-dimensional artificial intelligences, so we have to assume all conversations and communications are being monitored and intercepted. (No, no relation to modern day politics whatsoever.) The only refuge is in one’s private thoughts. Out of desperation humankind appoint four men to create secret plans to resist the Trisolaris, men whose orders, no matter how outlandish, must be obeyed without question.

Cultural RevolutionMeanwhile, humanity must struggle against the doomsayers and Escapists who believe the only chance for survival is to abandon home and emigrate, and those who secretly collaborate with the enemy. Worse, one by one we learn that all the secret plans for resisting the enemy involve Pyrrhic victories almost as bad as the invasion itself.

Let me pause here to say to any of you thinking this sounds a bit over the top: read recent Chinese history. Imagine if today the Zetas and other narco trafficking gangs invaded the US, defeated our military and at gunpoint forced us to sell drugs legally and openly–and you’ll have exactly the situation China faced with Western nations, led by British Queen “El Chapo” Victoria, a century and a half ago. And after that things really went down hill.

In light of that history, it’s not as shocking that by the end of The Dark Forest, the last remaining secret planner and the central figure of this volume, Luo Ji, has figured out the solution to the Fermi Paradox (“where are all the aliens?”), and boy, is it a chilling, paranoid answer, something so dark it even frightens the Trisolaris. Where this all leads will have to wait, for those of us who don’t read Chinese, for the release in 2016 of the final volume, Death’s End.

Chinese novels often do not translate seamlessly into English and English novelistic sensibilities, and this is very much so for Liu’s work. The prose, in English, caroms between between florid, overly precious metaphors and boxy, inedible infodumps. Characters are thinly drawn, women doubly so. Although I don’t see it as a fault, I suspect many English-language readers will struggle with the stream of Chinese names, even with the helpful footnotes and list of characters.

Nonetheless, I thought The Dark Forest a stronger novel in many ways than The Three-Body Problem. The themes and conflicts felt more natural and less forced than those in the first volume. (It did not help that the chaotic astrophysics claimed for the Alpha Centauri system in the first volume struck me as highly overblown.) The story arc, revolving around Luo Ji even when at far aphelion, was tighter. Most importantly, The Dark Forest, with its solution to the Fermi Paradox, comes far closer than its competitor to the putative “novel of ideas” science fiction nominally presents. Most of the “ideas” in science fiction I find shallow. Ask yourself: after reading Heinlein, did you really long for junta rule, or the joy of incest? Do you really remember any of the soporific dialectic debates among Asimov’s robots?

My own conclusion is that science fiction is not a literature of ideas, but it is a literature about our response to ideas. That’s the case here too. The Dark Forest is not that much deeper intellectually, but the mad secret at the heart of the novel, and what it says about us and the scarred fears we carry with us, is more chilling than any bat-winged tentacle-faced monster Lovecraft dreamed up. Ji’s discovery whispers of the terrors that almost destroyed us during the Cold War, that did destroy millions of lives during the twentieth century.

And have we shaken it off? Reflect on events of the past ten years, or even just the past year. I say any statement that Liu’s trilogy is apolitical is an untruth; but in his defense, one can convincingly argue it’s not just about Chinese politics. It is about living deep in the shadows of the dark forest of the human condition, everywhere, and in every time.

Athena’s postscript: I haven’t read Liu Cixin’s novels, so I can offer no opinion of either the works themselves or their translation. However, my views on SFF as “the literature of ideas” are contained in The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction and To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club.

Images: Top, comparison of size and star type between Sol and the three stars of the Alpha Centauri system; middle, Cultural Revolution poster; bottom, Liu Cixin.

Evghenia Fakinou: The Unknown Archmage of Magic Realism

August 26th, 2015

Note:  There has been intermittent discussion in SFF about the relative invisibility of non-Anglophone works.  These rumblings have once again gained volume following the awarding of a Hugo to a novel translated from Chinese (Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu).  Below is an essay about another major unrecognized talent handicapped by writing in a language other than English.  The essay first appeared, with minor variations, in SFF Portal.

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FakinouA while ago, I wrote an essay about the fact that writers feel free to use Hellenic contexts (myths, history, location), blithely assuming they know my culture well enough to do so convincingly. I mentioned that contemporary Hellenic literature is virtually unknown in the Anglophone world beyond Elytis, Seféris, Kaváfis and Kazantzákis – all of whom belong to the thirties. In effect, it is fashionable to pronounce Hellenic paradigms passé along with all other ‘Eurocentric’ sources, without ever having read Hellenic literature of any era. Lest you think I’m indulging in special pleading, this lacuna has been noticed and discussed by many non-Hellenes including Roderick Beaton, a formidable literary presence with a truly deep knowledge of my history and culture.

In my essay I also stated that Hellás may be home to the best magic realist alive right now: Evghenía Fakínou. In my estimation, she’s better than Salman Rushdie, Louis de Bernières, Laura Esquivel, Alice Hoffman or Orhan Pamuk. Her work does not suffer from the defects that occasionally mar their often outstanding work – Rushdie’s and Pamuk’s self-congratulatory longueurs and cardboard characters (their women especially), de Bernières’ lapses into the generic, Esquivel’s by-the-numbers sentimentality, Hoffman’s arch quirkiness. However, Fakínou’s original language and culture are heavy strikes against her. Only two of her novels have been translated, into indifferent English (a common fate, because the two languages are as different as two Indo-European cousins can be).

Fakínou was born in Alexandria in 1945, to working class migrant parents who hailed from the Dodecanesean island of Symi (a beautiful but stark place, whose cosmopolitan wandering people earned their living by fishing, sponge diving and with a formidable merchant marine fleet that played a significant part in the 1821 War of Independence). Her family returned to Athens when she was a child. She studied graphic arts and worked for several years as a graphic artist, illustrator and tourist guide. In 1976, she launched a children’s puppet theater show, Tin Town, which became very successful. Think politicized and stylistically circumscribed Sesame Street and you get the picture. She started writing children’s books first, then novels starting in 1982 – about twenty so far, plus  collections of linked stories.

AstradeniFakínou’s books have won several awards and are wildly popular in Hellás: none has ever gone out of print, aided by the Hellenic publishers’ sane policy of small runs. Her writing combines three attributes, each of which would make her work addictive by itself: compelling plots, vivid characters and atmospheric settings. She is a mistress of creating sustained polyphony, a skillful puppeteer whose strings never become visible. Each of her characters jumps from the page, fully alive. Each of her books is distinct; she never resorts to clichés or cookie-cutter tactics, never repeats a successful recipe. In some cases she sticks to one narrator, first or third person; in others she switches between viewpoints – all with the illusion of effortlessness that distinguishes great dancers.

To top this, Fakínou has what for me is the quintessential gift of the rare true storyteller: her novels are full of echoes. She seamlessly interweaves history and (usually revisionist) mythology as she roams through six millennia of my people’s ghost-inhabited, monument-strewn cultural landscape. Yet there is no infodumping, no slowing of the plot momentum to flaunt her knowledge. If her readers are not aware of the background she evokes, the stories are still absorbing. But if they are, her stories are simply unforgettable: they etch themselves on one’s long-term memory and never fade.

To give you a sense of Fakínou, I will briefly outline the two of her novels that have been translated in English, fully aware that neither my descriptions nor the translations convey the potent magic she weaves.

Astradhení (Fakínou’s first novel; the word is a rare first name that means ‘starbinder’) starts deceptively as YA. We get carried along on the matter-of-fact, stripped-down voice of its narrator, a young girl whose family has been ripped off their island home by misfortune: her little brother’s death devastated them both emotionally and financially. The transplantation to Athens brings the woes that always beset immigrants: the ridiculing of accents and customs, the loneliness and alienation, the forced homogenization into marginal/ized urban living.

So far, so common, if beautifully rendered. But a deep river runs underneath the main narrative: Astradhení has visions of the young priestesses of pre-Olympian Ártemis who danced around the open-air altar of the goddess wearing bear pelts. To shake us out of the easy YA classification, the visions don’t bring her insight, solace or strength. At the close of the story, an acquaintance of her father starts to rape Astradhení. The final words are her anguished protestations, girl and priestess fused into one.

Astradhení’s visions are rips in the fabric of time, vouchsafing us glimpses of a (real or half-dreamt) past when women had power, a place as beguiling as – and far less sugarcoated than – Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon. In that world, Astradhení would have been a seer. Rape, embedded in the overt misogynism of both Hellenic and Byzantine traditions, is a bleeding wound in my culture and the book was notable just for bringing it up (a visual parallel happens in Angelópoulos’ film Landscape in the Mist).

Seventh GarmentTo Évdhomo Roúho (The Seventh Garment) tells how women carry history on their shoulders, like the Karyatids or the wives of folk ballads, buried alive so that bridges would stand. Three generations of women – Maiden, Mother, Crone – gather to perform an ancient ritual over the death of the last man in the family: the belief is that for his spirit to cross safely to the Otherworld, the women must line up the garments of the family’s seven firstborn sons, one from each generation (underlining the so far unquestioned requirement for sons). The last garment is missing, which triggers the story’s crisis.

Through the conversations and first-person narrations of the three women, we get strobelight views of several epochs of Hellenic history: the War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire; the 1922 catastrophic defeat of the Greek army by its Turkish counterpart that uprooted the Hellenes from Asia Minor, an integral part of their homeland for four millennia; the trials of the refugees, who met a mixed welcome on the mainland; the resistance in World War II, callously betrayed by its ostensible allies; and contemporary globalization, with its atomizing effects. The men these women remember and mourn were mostly loved (though rape figures prominently again) but mostly absent: killed, imprisoned, exiled, forced to emigrate. Several myths are woven into this tapestry: Démetra’s tormented search for Persephóne and also the wanderings of Odysséus, fused with folk stories of sea-gods, both pagan and Christian.

Though Fakínou made up the details of the ritual, it is grounded in the mourning customs of the Aegean islands. The women in her story, unsung singers, maintain the traditions while subverting them at the same time. In the end, the grandmother quietly pierces herself and bleeds to death so that her drenched tunic can serve as the missing garment. The chthonic powers accept it. By doing this she becomes an ancestor, a lofty position previously forbidden to women, and heals several rifts at once, though probably briefly.

Fakínou’s books are full of vision quests, awakenings, boundary crossings. All have open endings, with their protagonists poised at thresholds on the last page. At the same time, they make their readers whole by reclaiming a past that might have led to an alternative future. Fakínou is a windwalker, a weaver of spider silk. I’m sorry she is not world-famous, but even sorrier for the dreamers who will never get a chance to lose – and find – themselves in her work.

References and Related Essays

Roderick Beaton, Introduction to Modern Greek Literature Oxford University Press, Revised and Expanded Edition 1999

Iskander, Khan Tengri

The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization

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

Yes, Virginia, Hellenes Have Christmas Traditions

The Multi-Chambered Nautilus

Safe Exoticism, Part 2: Culture

Herald, Poet, Auteur: Theódhoros Angelópoulos (1935-2012)

The Doric Column: Dhómna Samíou (1928-2012)

Close Your Eyes and Think of Apóllon

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

The Blackbird Singing: Sapfó of Lésvos

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

Images

Evgenía Fakínou
Astradhení, first edition
The Seventh Garment, first edition

Note to Alien Watchers: Octopuses are Marvelous, but Still Terrestrial

August 18th, 2015

octopus_flask_(new_palace)_minoanEveryone agrees that cephalopods are fascinating, octopuses in particular. Apex marine predators, they hunt primarily by ambush and escape foes by water-jet swimming, mimicry, ink ejection and tentacle shedding (which they can regenerate, like lizard tails). Their niche dominance is buttressed by their ability to rapidly color-merge with their surroundings, squeeze through small openings (no bones or even the cartilage of cephalopod cousins) – and intelligence. They possess keen eyesight (their eyes evolved independently from those of vertebrates, as did those of insects) and chemoreceptors on their suckers allow them to taste what they touch, though their sense of shape is poor (more of that anon). Octopuses use tools, are known to play, may be capable of observational learning and are deemed so intelligent that they’re the only invertebrates almost universally protected from pain in research experiments.

Recently, the sequence of the octopus genome was published. This is an ongoing effort of gathering as many terrestrial genomes as possible, with the goal of figuring out the many black boxes still surrounding intelligence and emergence. The consensus of the genomes sequenced so far is that terrestrial life forms are as unique at the level of their genomic structure as at any other scale – yet the underlying common ancestry is also plainly visible. Of course, the PR departments of the teams doing the octopus sequencing had to figure out something to make that particular study stand out. Result: the numerous lay reports carried titles like “Don’t freak out, but scientists think octopuses might be aliens.”

I held my peace and tongue until I read the original paper itself. My verdict from reading it – which, incidentally, coincides with that of its authors – is that the octopus genome is as marvelous as its owners, and as unique as that of any other organism. However, it falls squarely within parameters in terms of structure and the organism it helps produce is therefore as terrestrial as anything else that moves on earth. So what allowed the churnalists to indulge in the customary hype? Well, primarily ignorance of basics such as the dynamic nature of genomes and the many alternative paths by which they generate complexity.

One fact touted as “amazing” was that octopuses seem to have more genes than humans (~35K versus ~22K, respectively) and the number doesn’t arise from a wholesale duplication, as it does in some insects and plants. However, there’s an immediate solution to that seemingly Gordian knot. It’s called alternative splicing. Alternative splicing (henceforth AS) is THE primary contributor to proteomic complexity and allows production of many proteins that vary in structure and function from a single gene. Some human genes produce hundreds of final products by this method, which then get further variegated by post-translational processes like phosphorylation and glycosylation (full disclosure: I spent my entire science career researching alternative splicing in the human brain and will be unmoved by arguments that “it’s mostly non-functional junk”). The AS mechanism is nearly universal in human genes but extremely limited in octopuses which instead use an on-off gene product modulation mechanism called RNA editing (ADAR). All eukaryotic species use varying ratios of AS and ADAR. Octopuses just happen to be mostly on the ADAR end of the spectrum.

Churnalists also presented two items as independent that in fact correlate: the octopus genome is rich in transposons (elements that allow genes to move around)… and gene families that arose as a result of duplication, which are most often tandemly organized, are dispersed in octopuses. Transposons are abundant in many other species (Barbara McClintock first documented them in maize, though the groundbreaking discovery took nearly four decades to gain her the Nobel she so richly deserved) and organisms with high numbers of transposons in their genomes inevitably show significant levels of gene mobility.

NodesOfRanvier

The cephalopods did not evolve just eyesight by a different path than that taken by vertebrates. The same is true of their nervous system, which is one reason why they’ve long been used for comparative studies in neurobiology and intelligence. Yet another point of hype was that octopuses appear to have more neurons than mice and have vastly expanded member numbers of two gene families involved in neuronal regulation. But as with the high gene count, there’s an interesting but non-exotic explanation for these findings as well. Namely, cephalopods need to coordinate their neuronal feedback loops locally unlike vertebrates, which depend on brain coordination.

Vertebrates have fast neuronal responses in large part because the myelin sheaths that wrap sausage-like around the neuronal axons allow what is known as saltatory conduction through the Ranvier nodes (the gaps between myelin sheaths). The loss of this propagation method is what creates most of the debilitating outcomes of such hereditary diseases as Tay-Sachs and Gaucher and the adult agonies of demyelinating diseases like Multiple Sclerosis and Tabes Dorsalis. In contrast, cephalopods don’t have myelin sheaths; the propagation of their neuronal impulses is linear which means it’s relatively slow (they also require large-diameter axons, which is one reason why these species were used as models in neurobiology research). In turn, the slow conduction requires local regulation of neuronal responses if octopuses want to remain predators instead of prey. Hence the large number of neurons and quasi-unique neuron-regulatory proteins.

So in this process, vertebrates opted for speed and integration; cephalopods for numbers and local autonomy. The locality of this coordination also means that, unlike vertebrates, octopuses have no integrative brain map. So, for example, they can minutely “taste” something within their tentacles, but cannot form a view of its overall shape. Not are they aware of the position of their tentacles, though each tentacle knows what it’s doing, so to speak. An eerie but non-mystical result of this is that a severed octopus tentacle will exhibit reflex behaviors for a while after it’s severed. But again, this is nothing exotic; it’s local autonomy at work, until degradative processes neutralize it.

The other side of this coin is that octopuses will never suffer from phantom limb pain or fibromyalgia, syndromes caused by disjunctions between a body and its brain map. The lack of integrative maps puts some limits to large-scale undertakings by aspiring octopus overlords, Hokusai’s famous Tako to Ama aside. So does the fact that octopuses die after procreation like salmon – males after mating, females after their egg sac matures. Their intelligence is individually based and they have no culture transmission, each octopus reboots de novo. Undoubtedly, their thought processes are alien. But – as I discussed in “Are We Not (as Good as) Men?” – so are those of chimpanzees, uplift or not.

Nemo KrakenI fully expect to hear theories that octopuses may be like Larry Niven’s Pak: aliens trapped in axolotl-like neoteny because earth lacks a vital ingredient that would allow them to transition into adulthood (there’s also a Polynesian myth that posits octopuses as the sole survivors from a previous universe cycle). However, the octopus proclaims its terrestrial provenance at all scales. What its genes and neurons do illustrate, unequivocally, is the near-infinite variety of solutions to common problems. Or, as another “alien” (who’s actually all too human) would say, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

Related Articles:

Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry

You Only Find What You’re Looking For

Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

”Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”

Junk DNA, Junky PR

Floating Brains and Invasive Minds

The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

Images: 1st, Minoan clay jar, New Palace period (~1500 BC, Irákleion Museum); 2nd, depiction of a vertebrate neuron with its myelin sheath; 3rd, Captain Nemo and his guests contemplating a rival intelligence in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville and Éduard Riou).

Personal Book Clubs

August 11th, 2015

Gift of a Second Life (Full)

It’s tremendous fun to have people read your work. There’s a group doing so for The Other Half of the Sky even as we speak.

As a lagniappe, I am adding a bundle of my recently published stories (link below). These belong to a much larger universe, with additional stories and novels in progress. The bundle also contains Heather D. Oliver’s lovely illustrations plus an unpublished vignette (please note, it’s erotic and very explicit).

Happy delving in my worlds!

Andreadis, Driftwood and Sea Glass FFA

ETA: If anyone wants to see whom I see cast as the characters in The Wind Harp, the relevant panel is here (near the bottom of the article).

Image: Gift of a Second Life, one of the illustrations for The Wind Harp by Heather D. Oliver