Urban Falconry

December 3rd, 2023

Two days ago, we were driving down a street when a squirrel ran across the roadbed. And then just above it came a lightning-fast flurry of wings. Missing its prey, the ivory-silver hunter perched on the electric wires — a full-grown rough-legged hawk or northern harrier. I’ve seen ospreys flying home with flounders in their talons, and our neighborhood was for a while the territory of a pair of peregrine falcons. I remember how birds would fall still and deathly silent when they heard the peregrine shriek. But watching the harrier stoop was a visceral experience. Hard not to think of Tony Curtis loosing his in The Vikings!

Image: Rough-legged Hawk

In Times like These

October 13th, 2023

We cannot cross until we carry each other,
all of us refugees, all of us prophets.
No more taking turns on history’s wheel,
trying to collect old debts no-one can pay.
The sea will not open that way.
…all of us must be chosen.
This time it’s all of us or none.

From Red Sea
by Aurora Levins Morales

Image by Eyasu Etsub (Unsplash)

The Year Wheel Turns Again

September 23rd, 2023

Today is the fall equinox; the still golden light is here, and the crickets’ shy songs. Critters are busy restocking larders and refurbishing dens, and the leaves are dreaming of fiery journeys.

Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends.
From the nuts we shell time and we teach it to walk:
then time returns to the shell.
— From Corona, by Paul Celan

Image: Leaf Spiral by Carol Goodwin, after Andy Goldsworthy


Dwindling into Silence

September 17th, 2023

Faced with a few shoals in my sea of life, I know I’ve reneged on my wish/promise earlier this year to reactivate my blog. If the latest round of ordeals leaves me standing, I will try to remedy that. At times like these, I always think of how much I haven’t done or seen yet…but also how lucky I have been in my friendships and experiences.

As age inexorably overtakes us, our intrinsic abilities get blunted: memory, stamina, input from the senses. All these changes weaken, isolate us and encroach upon both calmness of mind and ability to experience pleasure. What we once achieved effortlessly becomes difficult or impossible. But athletes and dancers learn this hard lesson much earlier in life—as do sufferers of incurable chronic or progressive diseases.

Too, if we’ve opined on many things—as I have—it feels redundant to discuss them again unless we’ve had a major change of mind/heart. This results in further isolation and an ever-growing sense (and bona fide status) of irrelevance. And the fact that so much of my fiction lies half-finished, put aside while I’ve been running my tiny indie press single-handedly, has been haunting me nonstop.

Vows made to ourselves during a crisis are often forgotten when we enter calmer waters. But I made two today, and will do my utmost to honor them if I’m granted the leeway. I’ll catch up with my precious friends, and stay in touch thereafter. And I will revisit the universes I created, where I spent long spells of unclouded bliss. My heartfelt thanks to the beloved companions who shared portions of this journey.

Thirty years Together

February 19th, 2023

Unbelievably, this February marks the 30th year in which The once-Copper-and-now-mostly-Silver Yeti and I have been together. It feels like no time at all, because it has been a steady seaswell of companionship, adventure, laughter, stories. Love you, Peter Cassidy. Wherever you are is the world — and home.

Spacetime Geodesics

Long ago,
I became astrogator in the arcships.
I drew flight paths, watched over
the sleeping cargo, listened to the starwind
carrying messages and cosmic background.
Far and wide I roamed under strange skies,
rarely making landfall.
Until a small, faint source grew strong
and constant on my instruments
and, as I swerved to investigate,
it resolved into pulses that whispered —
home, home… home.

— Athena Andreadis, Bullspec Issue 6

Humanity: Eloi and Morlocks

January 18th, 2023

“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” – NRA slogan


“Intelligent” AI, though still wishful thinking as far as emergence goes, has been quietly expanding its territory for at least two decades; but recently it burst prominently into mainstream awareness by two applications (which also happen to touch my interests and expertise): ChatGPT and Midjourney. Both give rise to products that look uncannily like creations by humans—until one looks below the top layer of these frothy millefeuilles.

There have been countless dissections of the apps’ obvious pros and cons. If one does look below the surface, it’s clear that both spectacularly lack larger context and concept integration—especially ChatGPT, which can appear to be “hallucinating” (for example, in a lengthy essay that extols churros as precision surgical tools). It’s a cliché to say that any technology that has been invented will be used (mostly true, with a few notable exceptions like human cloning unless we believe the reports from Korea and China), and that technology has no intent, only its users do (almost entirely false—bombs don’t have subtle hidden uses). It’s also true that there was significant initial resistance to digital art, and that both newcomers would be extremely useful to artists as generating and winnowing helpers at project starts. And, of course, past surges in technology made entire categories of artisans and professions obsolete, from arrow makers to switchboard operators.

Now comes the turn of writers and illustrators, with the twist that the two AI apps won’t extinguish these vocations; they’ll just further depress the already abysmal incomes of artists, allow corporations to bypass creatives altogether, and turn artistic occupations into hobbies for anyone who has the time—and, low be it spoken, the money—although fanfic and fanart have been realities for centuries, especially before the advent of rigorous copyright laws.

Which brings us to the ethics wrinkles. One is that to train both apps, their inventors used gazillions of artistic works without consent or opt-out mechanisms from their creators (or, needless to say, compensation). The second is that their use is by the subscription/rental model that has become SOP for e-books, creative apps, games… In effect, people no longer own entire swathes of crucial helper apps for which they could once buy lifetime-use licenses and have permanently residing on their devices, subject to the occasional update cost; now all they can do is merely rent them, and the rent can be raised or withdrawn at the landlord’s whim (as was the case during the catfight between Amazon and McMillan). And of course the surface facility of ChatGPT is already benefiting grifters, scammers and shortcut-seekers, from phishers to students unwilling to write their own essays.

Midjourney and ChatGPT, with their ability to generate plausible-looking results from simple inputs, feed directly into the American disdain and suspicion of expertise and preference for instant abracadabra-type solutions; but each “opening” of a skill to everyone brings consequences, both predicted and unintended. As one example, when everyone was “freed” to do their own investing, most who did so committed colossal errors from lack of relevant knowledge; the rich got richer, the middle class shrank (not the only reason for the shrinkage, but a contributor nevertheless).

The systematic deskilling and evaporation of specialist nexuses has led to recitals of rigid scripts, removals of vital redundancies (for the sake of MBA-invented “efficiencies”) and of expertise-based discretion (from judges to NIH branch officers); and has left entire domains vulnerable to charlatans. Humans do share two attributes with expert systems: they can utter (and, worse, believe) mellifluous authoritative statements that are nonetheless utter, and often malicious, nonsense; and they go wildly astray when they opine on matters far beyond their knowledge base—for example, physicists explaining to me that arsenic-based DNA is an amazing new fact of biology unless you have a closed mind.

It’s also interesting that the current AI onslaughts are increasingly targeting objectives above the customary parameters for non-conscious labor—possibly because the latter are not “breaking things” sufficiently to attract Silicon Valley startup funding. What about functional housecleaning robots? Robots that make decent sandwiches & hand them out reliably? That wash dishes and clean sidewalks without smashing them?

Instead we have humans delivering groceries and packages, washing carpets, walking dogs, and we have FAA computers down for most of a day—while computer programs generate “art” that can sorta kinda pass as the real thing if one forcibly suppresses the uncanny valley frisson reflex (and ignores the fundamental factual errors of ChatGPT, which could indeed result in airplanes falling out of the sky, as Stack Overflow foresaw). The NASA rovers and robotic expeditions show we have the capacity to make highly capable helpers; what’s lacking is the social and political will.

But even when the two apps have been debugged, the core question remains: will humans become 24/7 cubicle and household drones grinding through repetitive maintenance tasks, with only pockets of stolen time to pursue skill-requiring vocations as unpaid dilettantes, while machines have taken over creative pursuits as primary “content generators”? Societies are already sliding into the brutalisms portrayed in cyberpunk dystopias; and humans, between increasing powerlessness and the drug habit of social media, are in eminent danger of becoming simultaneously Eloi and Morlocks. Such a configuration bodes ill for the long-term survival and thriving of our species and our already ailing civilization.

As for truly intelligent AI, a trodden-to-death topic in science fiction, we may see emergence at some point. If and when we do, it will not resemble us in the slightest—because, despite facile equivalences, a human brain/mind is nothing like a computer.

Image source


Related articles:

Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite!

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

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Octopuses are Marvelous, but Still Terrestrial

Whither Blogging and Personal Websites?

January 4th, 2023

As our time and stamina have been consumed by attempts to survive the increasing instability in our world, social media have also shortened our attention span. Things change fast online, and it’s possible that the constant rapid scrollings and headline browsings are making our behavior revert to gatherer-hunter fight-or-flight reflexes.

With the advent of Tumblr and Medium, long entries on WordPress blogs were deemed passé, TLDR. Many bloggers fell silent, went communal, or funneled their content into paywalled Patreons and Substacks. However, the recent implosion of Twitter has made longer writing come somewhat back into fashion — though “longer” usually means the 500 characters allowed on Mastodon, rather than essay-length musings.

In my case, the avalanche of tasks in the last three years as well as an infrastructure-mandated overhaul of my entire website led to mostly silence on my blog in 2021 and 2022. My readers, understandably, wandered away. I also found myself wondering if I still have anything worthwhile to say: I started the blog in 2006, wrote slews of posts on the fleet of subjects that interest me, and I’m now firmly in my third youth. It’s harder to get excited (or annoyed) sufficiently to craft lengthy articles and find fitting accompanying images.

But I missed writing on the blog sorely, just as I missed the small but wonderful community that had grown organically around it and around the constellations of subjects it explored. So I’ve decided to see if we can once again gather around this hearth and share stories until the time comes for the long sleep.

Perchance to Dream

January 1st, 2023

I’ve neglected my online home for a slew of reasons; the absence made my heart sore.

The sky is clear tonight, the Moon, Mars and Jupiter burn brightly near the beacons of Orion and his faithful hounds. A sight that lends me strength to tackle the New Year.

Pity is not your forte.
Calmly you ache up there
pinned aloft in your crow’s nest,
my speechless pirate!

— from Orion, by Adrienne Rich


The Sweet Tooth Brigade

March 19th, 2022

A while back I had provided feedback to a magic realism story. A few days ago, the author sent me a note that the story had been accepted for publication.

Bees featured prominently in the story. And today a troupe of tiny honey-filled bears showed up on my doorstep, across the amber range in hue. The resident cryptids have set up a tasting station.

The photo shows maestra Ursula B. Heftly, PhD in sleep research, surveying her new lab members.


Related articles:

Interview with a Saber Tooth Tiger

Interview with a Yeti

The Threads in My Tapestry

January 8th, 2022

It has been too long since I wrote a blog post. 2021 was a stressful year and the difficulties persist: the continuing pandemic ordeals, the increasingly disquieting path of the US. I haven’t seen my family in Athens for nearly three years now.

But things got accomplished in 2021, too. Exciting highly-praised books got published; flowers flourished in porch boxes; the Copper Yeti and I managed to briefly visit the Outer Cape in early summer, when things were briefly looking hopeful; there was incremental progress in writing the launch of the Reckless, a cornerstone in my fictional universe and the name of the novella imprint of my small but intrepid press.

One high note of 2021 was the interview I gave to Gareth Jelley, the engine behind Intermultiversal. He asked informed questions and, as a result of his astute probing, I found myself plucking at all the threads that I’ve woven into my life tapestry—science, writing, science fiction, myth, history, linguistics, walking across cultures & down starry lanes. If anyone wants to know what fuels my own dreams, as well as my eliciting & nurturing of the works of others, you can find all that in this interview.

“They did more than wish. They wrought tirelessly to make it come true.” — Athena Andreadis, “Planetfall”

Lights in Bleak February

February 15th, 2021

Valentine’s Day is not part of my natal culture and I find it manipulative. It carries an unmistakable whiff of smarm and commercialism, Hallmark on an estrogen binge. Instead, when I was a child, February was the season of Carnival, the descendant of Saturnalia, with its masked balls and processions and the license granted in them. Its Hellenic name is Apókries (“away from meat”), heralding Lent with its special dishes—unleavened bread, fish roe salad, legumes, olives, grilled seafood—and flying of kites in the March wind. And when I came to New England, February became the month of howling snowstorms and numbing cold that turn sidewalks into tunnels and cars into igloos.

But since 1993, February has been something more. It’s the month in which Mr. Yeti and I knew we loved each other and started to share our lives. Ever since then, a gorgeous arrangement (most often ikebana style, my favorite) arrives in early February, rain or shine, snowstorm or hurricane. Given the weather at that time of the year in New England, it’s a wonderful way to keep spirits buoyant and give the senses a feast.

And since we’re speaking of flowers, I’ll share one more story of resilience and discovery. Any of my flowers that survive the fall come indoors for the winter, and their final fate is determined when the time comes to reconstitute the flower boxes in May. Among these I’ve long nurtured a small ficus tree, the type called Indian Laurel. Summers on the porch, winters in the living room.

One year it started getting root-bound and mounted the usual response: namely, it unfurled small ivory cantelabras which then became tiny purplish berry-like fruit. I carefully plucked a couple and chewed them, to discover they taste exactly like figs. At which point I looked the genus up, and found out that, indeed, the two are first cousins. I should have sussed it out from “ficus”. I gave it a larger pot as a reward, and it’s still at the archway between living room and study, currently losing leaves galore but determined to see another spring.

Image: this year’s ikebana, with Lilipad, the crypto-saber-tooth micro-tiger, hiding behind the lilies (inspired by Rousseau’s Dream).

Cultural Pop amidst the Ruins

December 5th, 2020

It has been a longish while since I last wrote a post. The madness of US politics and the pandemic hardships, on top of the never-shortening to-do list, temporarily saturated my bandwidth. But that doesn’t mean I’m totally off the swim of cultural pop, as the opinions below demonstrate.

The Mandalorian has confirmed itself as dedicated fan service with its assiduous mining of archives in classic missing-scene fanfic mode. Yodling/Grogu/whatev remains consistently annoying and my views of the Jedi remain unchanged (in an interesting sidebar about childgathering in Star Wars that has been left to lie fallow so far, Din Djarin himself is revealed to be not just a janissary, but also a member of a extremist splinter cult in his adoptive culture).

That said, Rosario Dawson made a poised and poignant Ahsoka Tano (Anakin’s name trembles on her tongue at one point, reminding us of the Jedi Council’s lethal self-satisfied stupidity); and Katee Sackhoff was a steely, unflappable Bo-Katan Kryze. However, Temuera Morrison’s Boba Fett looks to be phoning his part in, even if we take the character at his full age and hard living. Where’s Julian Arahanga (as fierce as Morrison in Once Were Warriors) when you need him?

Discovery is also mining its archives (Andorians, Trill symbionts, empaths) while threatening to become full-time therapy cinema; too, I think Saru making Tilly his Number One because she’s not fully qualified and has nebula-sized insecurities is an appalling decision. The series creators appear to be advancing the tenet that it’s good to have a wobbly high-ranking officer (“No elitist experts!”) plus it’ll be convenient when disobedience suddenly becomes the right stance for a plot twist. It also brings up, yet again, the fact that Starfleet is in fact military, despite its pious mouthings about scientific priorities.

Equally against not just common sense but also principle is the Vulcan president’s unilateral decision to covertly hand over potentially dangerous data to a powerful entity that may not be benign, despite the stated cogent reasons—as well as the transparently self-interested wishes—of all the motley groups that make up this universe’s Vulcan-with-Romulans. Parenthetically, it’s interesting that (with the partial exception of Enterprise) no Star Trek series has managed to make Vulcan just going about its business arresting on its own, resorting to variations of blowing it up instead—perhaps the “Follow your feeeeelings!!” crowd’s ultimate revenge.

The transportation of the Qowat Milat sisterhood of lost causes from Picard into Discovery adds a potentially bracing condiment to the stew, but Gabrielle’s initial behavior towards her daughter is inexplicable unless you chalk it up to convert zeal; likewise, Michael’s avoidance of finding out how her little brother fared once she literally left him behind is equally against character. At least David Ajala (Cleveland Booker, the worthy inheritor of the Book moniker from Firefly/Serenity and a far better partner to Michael than Ash/Voq) remains balm on both brain and eyes, just as Ethan Peck (younger Spock) and Anson Mount (Captain Pike) did in the previous season.

Both The Mandalorian and Discovery try to show what happens after an empire has fractured into tribal splinters. The Mandalorian is better at capturing the anomie, opportunism and potential of this configuration, whereas Discovery dangles reconstruction optimism in typical Star Trek fashion. Of course, the franchise hedges its bets by having its concurrent Picard outing hard at work to deconstruct this hopeful mirage. The combined view from Discovery and Picard suggests that the Federation was/will be as good an overlord as the Empire. At least Discovery is no longer summarily killing its mother figures, while The Mandalorian hews to the Lucas diktat of bringing kids up without them. On the third hand, I’d hate to see Ahsoka Tano abandon her own quests to help raise Gluglu, despite fetching Madonna-and-Child poses in that episode.

— I recently finished two science fiction novels that looked extremely promising at the start but fizzled out spectacularly midstream: The New Wilderness by Diane Cook and Goldilocks by Laura Lam.

Wilderness is an apocalyptic limited-knowledge-POV diptych that’s admittedly atmospheric but totally lacks character depth (everyone remains a cipher) and context underpinnings. Goldilocks starts with the launch of a fascinating unsanctioned mission (with interesting correspondences to the Mercury 13), only to then spring all the hoary tropes on record: demonic powermongering crone, unplanned pregnancy as an unexpected boon, deus ex machina global rescue. Where are good editors when you need them?

— Last but not least, I saw Ammonite, a film purporting to “freshen up” the story of Mary Anning, one of the intrepid explorers who changed science despite the strictures laid upon her by Victorian mores. Beyond being a second-class human (aka a woman), Anning was also working-class and self-educated, additional stones in an already bulging bucket of handicaps. Cuvier accused Anning of fraud, since someone like her could never possibly have achieved what she did. And of course the conclusions forced by her findings (she was Darwin’s contemporary) went directly against the dictates of what was then state-sanctioned religion.

It comes as no surprise that the “freshening up” in Ammonite is a no-holds-barred sexual bonfire between Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison, respectively embodied by Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan—both outstanding at portraying complex characters. In real life, Anning and Murchison hunted fossils together and became close friends; and of course Victorian-era close friendships between women could be anything from the equivalent of the Han laotong to full-blown love affairs and Boston marriages.

The chemistry between the two performers is incandescent, the sex scenes undeniably hot. And Winslet, in particular, excels at presenting Anning as a formidable presence who won’t be bent into performing the traditional feminine appeasements even for love. However, the focus on the love affair detracts from seeing Anning at her work. The glimpses we get are thrilling, and we crave more. Additionally, Murchison was not the wilting, lisping princess of this film: she was a geologist who traveled all over the world pursuing her interest, and it’s unlikely she had the brittle Betty Boop mannerisms that Ronan adopted for this incarnation.

If you want a truly insightful, absorbing view of Anning that does full justice to her vocation, read Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures. Chevalier chose a different counterpoint for Anning: Elizabeth Philpot, who’s reduced to a doleful spurned lover in Ammonite but was a far more dynamic figure in real life (inter alia she was Anning’s mentor). Women who broke molds deserve happiness and hot sex; but they also deserve full embrace—and illumination—of their creative fires.

Images: top, Bo-Katan Kryze and Ahsoka Tano in The Clone Wars animated series; middle: Book with his familiar; bottom: Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures

Selected related articles:

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
Those Who Never Got to Fly
Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?
“We Must Love One Another or Die”: A Critique of Star Wars
The Hue (and Cry) of Stormtroopers
Of Fast Micro-Sails and Slow Swashbucklers
The Last Jedi: Lunchboxes for the Next Generation
“Nen lókdwenzish, Michael”: Sister-Brother Love in Science Fiction

Muskets and Double Axes

July 11th, 2020

I saw two very different movies recently. One was the filmed version of Hamilton; the other was The Old Guard, a twist on the immortal superhero ever-plowable vein.

Hamilton is awash in energy, talent, and witty, singable passages. I recognized several cast members, whom I’d first seen in other endeavors (primary among them Renée Elise Goldsberry, a fiery Quellcrist Falconer in Altered Carbon). The attempt at recasting history is far less successful, because the immigrant angle doesn’t graft seamlessly on this portion of the US origin myth.

The Old Guard features several glittering names in its cast: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofor. The revisionary revisiting of what it would actually mean to be Logan/Wolverine (or Duncan McLeod, aka the Highlander) is engaging both intellectually and emotionally, and Theron’s “Andromache the Scythian” character emits strong Xena vibes. The trope is trodden and worn, but director Gina Prince-Bythewood added depth and nuance to the customary angst and balletic violence, while avoiding the lone Smurfette syndrome along several dimensions. I detect the beginning of a franchise — not left in much doubt by the cliffhanger ending.

Image: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Related articles:

A Plague on Both Your Houses

Mystique: The True Leader of the X-Men

Mad Max: Feral Kids and Chosen Families

Bears, Wolves and Eagles

The Wrenching and Unavoidable Choices of the Pandemic

May 20th, 2020

Opening note: This topic obviously changes at near-lightspeed, but the essential facts in the essay won’t change.  I wrote it thinking as both research scientist and citizen of the world. I’ve chosen not to use any images this once, the text must be the focus; and because of rapid developments, links to primary sources would be too cumbersome to keep up to date.


The Angel of Death Touches All Doors

As humanity stumbles and reels under the SARS-CoV-2 (CoV-2) assault, the grimmest failure of this dark hour is executive abandonment of the responsibility to inform polities (which right now includes just about all of us, everywhere) of the nature of the threats at their gates and the costs of the choices before them. The nonfeasance is an unforgivable omission because of the rich and instructive history of the 1918 influenza outbreak and the substantial advances in the epidemiological and virological disciplines since that epidemic took the lives of some 50 million.

The decision tree we must establish and act upon could mean the difference between effectively containing COVID-19 mortality and collateral fallout or enduring losses of the scale our parents and grandparents witnessed 100 years ago.

The damage that will be done because of our collective failure to frame our choices responsibly, and act on them with alacrity and precision, will not only determine how many lives will be saved or lost. As importantly, and here is where the omissions we are writing off as mere political disagreements enter the equation, it will inform the body of crucial knowledge that we provide to future generations who will confront stealthy interlopers like CoV-2—or worse. Sadly, the (approximate) prosperity of the First World from 1950 to 2000 and its evolved medical technology allowed stupidity with near-zero consequences.

In the absence of a comprehensive assessment, I’ve undertaken a brief review of papers and researchers’ discussions of the programmatic response choices before us at successive levels. We’ve never been richer in resources to confront the CoV-2 menace, but the fly in this therapeutic ointment is that political talent and principles trail their scientific equivalents. This, incidentally, is also true of other clouds on the horizon of our civilization, like climate change; but CoV-2 is literally staring us in the face in ways that are impossible to ignore or finesse.

The Nature of the Beast Tells Us the Dimensions of Its Cage

By now everyone knows that CoV-2 is an RNA virus whose surface glycoprotein (spike S1/S2) attaches to cell receptor ACE2 (angiotensin-converting enzyme-2, a regulator of function in lung, heart, kidney and GI tract). CoV-2 is a close relative of SARS and MERS, with bats as its primary reservoir. The fact that it’s an RNA virus means that it can mutate rapidly, though CoV-2 seems to do so on a slow scale; other RNA viruses include hepatitis C, Ebola, HIV, polio, and influenza.

Like other viruses that bedevil humanity, CoV-2 is zoonotic: systematic human encroachments on ecosystems and the appetite of the rich for prestige-exotic animal food are major engines behind the species jumps. But CoV-2 has characteristics that make it a perfect predator of a species whose brain is not good at statistics and that has become dependent on an unusually long run of good luck—which allowed such dangerously destructive behavior as the flourishing of anti-vaccine movements not only in fundamentalist communities but also in “educated” elite enclaves. SARS, MERS and Ebola are far more virulent, but they don’t spread by aerosols nor from pre-symptomatic carriers as does CoV-2; and they kill hosts so quickly that even symptomatic carriers have few contacts. H1N1 flu (the 2009 burst) and the other flu viruses spread easily via aerosols like CoV-2, but are far less virulent and produce symptoms much faster, allowing rapid alerts.

Two possible treatments put early on the table for CoV-2 were hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug (also used for lupus and arthritis) that blocks the release of viral RNA into host cells; and remdesivir, an adenosine analog that gets used by viral RNA polymerases, short-circuiting viral replication, originally developed to treat Ebola, Marburg & MERS.

From these clinical trials remdesivir is known to be non-toxic, and the CoV-2 polymerase is close enough to its original targets to be successfully decoyed. Hydroxychloroquine is established but has some alarming side effects: cardiac arrhythmia that can be lethal (which means doses must be carefully calibrated according to weight), permanent retinal or kidney damage (increased chances if used long-term). The reservations around hydroxychloroquine proved correct, whereas non-blind remdesivir trials have raised cautious optimism, made trustworthier by its creator company’s collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

High-gear efforts to develop vaccines are also proceeding apace—there are at least 90 ongoing projects—with the Oxford University and Moderna candidates leading the pack.

Demagogic effusions aside, at this point we have no drug or vaccine that’s effective against CoV-2. It is possible we may never get one, as is the case with many RNA viruses due to their rapid mutation rate. As an example, we never developed an HIV vaccine; AIDS has been turned into a chronic disease instead of a death sentence by antivirals, for those who can afford them—but the HIV transmission route has a far higher threshold than the simple exhalation sufficient for CoV-2.

The scientific complexities around a vaccine are dizzying: selection of viral target, choice of methodology (protein or nucleic acid based? dead or weakened live virus?), decision on delivery vehicle; then testing for efficacy and safety, preferably in double-blind studies, first in animals, then in humans.

Just looking at this very partial list, one can tell why a wildly optimistic window for developing a vaccine exceeds a year. The only advantage in this round is that there were vaccines on the way for CoV-2 cousins SARS and MERS (abandoned part-way for lack of funding when the outbreaks got contained), so the effort can resume instead of getting started from zero.

Magic Bullets Are Delivered by Trains and Traded by Mortals—When the Shouting Stops

If/when we do get a vaccine, the issues of side effects, correct dose and stage of administering, scaling up, distribution and pay structuring will remain formidable. It has become painfully clear that the federal US administration knows little and cares less about any of these aspects, pitting state governors against each other according to their ethics and abilities. But at least if we do discover or create effective tools, we’ll have a real chance to undo this Gordian knot—and hope will have to serve as a prop until we can all line up for the sip or jab that saves.

Put simply, the current global strategy is based on the fact that lockdowns slow down the infection rate enough to give healthcare systems leeway to handle cases without buckling; they also give time for development of coordinated, robust long-term protocols. This was the strategy in 1918 as well. This response, the sole one possible in the absence of a vaccine, nevertheless puts horrific triaging onuses on medical personnel, themselves at highly increased risk of death from constant exposure, especially with inadequate protective equipment—and tilts lethality to people whose livelihood does not afford them the luxury of remote work.

Systematic lockdowns have unquestionably flattened infection and lethality rates, but they’re also causing enormous suffering beyond often-irreversible economic carnages and hardships: people are dying from non-coronavirus causes (bone fractures, tooth abscesses, eclampsia, strokes, heart attacks, inflamed appendices and gall bladders, blood pressure and glucose spikes…) because they’re either afraid to go near a medical facility or must resort to an overwhelmed one.

There are also the rising specters of collapses in mental health and general wellbeing, as well as the inevitable surges in domestic abuse and race/age profiling. On the other side of this Janus gate, re-opening too soon will result in secondary spikes with people literally dropping dead in offices and public places—and until tests for present and past infection become highly reliable and readily accessible, there are no guarantees or protections against successive outbreak cycles.

On the third hand, effective lockdowns will significantly slow down the development of herd immunity, which can come about from either systematic vaccination or the appallingly brutal path of random chance. The effective CoV-2 immunity threshold is calculated to be 70% infection, and the inadvertently fully-contained experiment of the Diamond Princess pins the CoV-2 total fatality rate at ~1.3%, which makes it at least 10x more virulent than the slippery “common” flu. Putting the two together, immunity-by-luck would mean potential deaths of 80 million globally—comparable to the 1918 pandemic numbers. Furthermore, as the flu has taught us, immunity to RNA viruses is transient due to their high mutation rate. So if we want our world to ever resemble what it once was, we must develop a vaccine—though it will require regular renewals, and we don’t yet know the length of immunity to CoV-2.

The Costs of Living With Something Less Dispositive Than ‘Winning’

CoV-2 testing is a huge muddy pit right now. For one, each nation is using widely different criteria for test eligibility and reporting methodology (which explains, for example, why conscientious Belgium’s numbers are so high, whereas most countries tried to suppress the appalling tolls from nursing homes and hospices). There are two broad categories of tests nominally available: RT-PCR checks for CoV-2 RNA and targets current infection; antibody checks for antibodies against unique CoV-2 protein regions and targets past infection. For dependable accuracy, they need to be both sensitive and specific in the 99% range. These two stringent and partially-competing requirements already indicate that national plans to issue “clean health” passport equivalents are near-certain recipes for medical and civic disasters.

By their intrinsics, PCR tests are so sensitive that they can generate false positives from RNA fragments of inactive virus being shedded or harmlessly floating in the body. This is almost certainly the explanation for the “re-infection” alarms from South Korea, who did well to err on the side of excessive caution of interpretation. Antibody reagents can cross-react with proteins from related viruses (recall that CoV-2 belongs to the SARS family) and the pressure for getting them released has led to a glut of variants on the market, many of whom haven’t been subjected to independent quality controls.

It’s crucial to know how long it takes for antibodies to appear post-infection and how long they persist. Errors in the former would lead to false negatives; in the latter to a false sense of security. But the (not yet peer-reviewed) Chinese study that pronounced total absence of antibodies in 6% of recovered COVID-19 cases is almost certainly mistaken. As Dr. Fauci said, lack of post-infection antibodies would be unprecedented—and CoV-2 is still a regular virus, not a Frankenstein monster. This is true despite the political wish, especially in the US, to classify CoV-2 as a consciously created bioweapon, against all the evidence gathered by intelligence agencies; the only weaponization here is the desire to distract US voters in a pivotal election year.

Tracing protocols worked for Taiwan and South Korea, nations that are small, homogeneous and have a record of trusting (or, at least, obeying) their rulers…and, to my continuing surprise, draconian lockdowns also worked in my native Greece. Tracing poses a raft of questions about privacy and policing, and neither governmental nor private venues of such panopticons have covered themselves with glory in this matter.

Isolation and confinement, our sole instruments in this fight so far, go against both fight-or-flight reflexes and cortical emotions. For so counterintuitive a strategy, we need composure, self-discipline and an advanced sense of communal involvement and responsibility. But it’s clear that the US is already getting restive, with thugs brandishing assault weapons storming state houses. The expression “Blue Lives Matter”, once meant as a solidarity shout-out to police personnel, has acquired a whole new meaning after the cynical activation of fringe power bases. Anger is justified, but it should be laid at the doorstep of the White House and the Senate. And (too) many people in the US still believe that death will only harvest the “old and weak”, not having read any history.

Viruses are totally indifferent to borders, political parties, religious convictions, celebrity or riches—though the rich and powerful will continue to have far better access to life-saving care and first dibs at any effective treatment. Our civilization remained recognizable after the 1918 outbreak, (10% fatality, minimum estimate), and quasi-recognizable after the Black Plague (30%). In marked contrast, the native civilizations of the Americas (90% fatality) not only disappeared after the European-introduced pandemics, but their existence and achievements were nearly forgotten—perhaps because that served the claims and consciences of the inheritors.

The universe is not hostile but indifferent, and it is not ruled by a divine gaze that “sees all” and weighs individual fates on balances…which means that the collective responsibility for our path remains entirely with us. Prayers and scapegoats won’t avail us. What’s in our favor now is our scientific knowledge and lessons of the relatively recent past, which nevertheless require principled and intelligent will to be effectively deployed.

After the best Athenian minds had been lost to the plague during the first Peloponnesian War, the attempt to divert attention with facile political/military tricks cost that renowned city-state not just its primacy but, eventually, its sovereignty and geopolitical existence. In the end, only coordinated scientific effort—and trust in its practitioners—will save from the worst choices, including failing to make any that leverage all the resources we have at hand this time around. Those of us who meet on the other side of the shore will rebuild the world, as our predecessors did so many times, provided we don’t pass an irreversible turning point. Perhaps this time we won’t forget the lessons we got taught by reality, although human intelligence avoids unpleasant memories. This, too, is a survival tactic—though not an ideal one for shaping long-term solutions.

Thoughts during the Pandemic

April 1st, 2020

Preamble: a few days ago, I received an anguished cri de coeur from a beloved friend in Athens (another beloved friend was among the first COV-2 victims in Greece). I sent the reply below, my effort to conquer my own fear. I’m only too aware of how easily societies can slide into savagery.

My dear,

I completely share your anger with the shenanigans of the so-called “leaders” across the globe, and the horrible sense that we’re trapped and powerless in the midst of this raging storm. The early lukewarm responses were essentially theater for rapid, easy reassurance. Unfortunately, the world chose incompetent rulers for this era. The (approximate) prosperity of the First World from 1950 to 2000 and the evolved medical technology allowed stupidity without consequences. The increase of the average human lifespan from 30 to 90 resulted exclusively from clean water, antibiotics and vaccines; and public health requires ceaseless vigilance. The crisis we’re facing demands leaders with courage and knowledge, with intellectual and moral stature. Not callous incompetents who won posts by dynastic wealth and demagoguery.

Let’s briefly examine the science of the pandemic before we continue to matters of individual and collective health. It’s entirely unknown whether temperature increases will slow the spread of the virus. We already know much about SARS-COV-2; today’s biomedical research and technology gave us the ability to learn facts almost instantaneously. But we still haven’t pinpointed what causes its rapid transmission, and exactly what in its genome makes it lethal. We have informed hunches, but they need to be confirmed. And since we don’t have herd immunity or effective drugs or vaccines, the current inhuman, corrosive isolation method is our only tool (I will return to this).

There can be no doubt that the real number of infections is at least tenfold higher than the official tally—and, as you say, this presents an inaccurate picture of susceptible groups, targeting them for further suffering and dangerous discrimination. Already, too many (“leaders” among them) have opined that as long as “old ones” are preferentially smitten it’s no big deal, just as they said at the start “third-world problem, nothing to do with us”. However, the underestimation of the real numbers contains two positives: 1) the fatality rate, though significantly higher than that of the regular flu, is lower than the unsophisticated index of current statistics, and 2) we may possibly be already developing herd immunity via asymptomatic carriers.

The current crisis has brought us once again face to face with a painful realization: we have 21st century technology (and problems), with still-Paleolithic physiology and behavior, and the complex interdependencies of our civilization have made it fragile and vulnerable. The human species hasn’t changed significantly since the time it evolved the large prefrontal cortex which gave it the ability to flood the planet with its descedants and the aftermaths of its technology. This means that we still think and act like our distant ancestors, who lived in small, closed groups for whom xenophobia was an important survival strategy.

One other attribute adds to our difficulties: we have two emotional centers, thalamus and cortex. From the former come the instinctive reflexes—among them, fear, which is also a survival tool, bypasses rational thought and instantly searches for scapegoats. For the cortical emotions and behaviors to prevail, we need composure, self-discipline and an advanced sense of communal involvement and responsibility. Yet another thorny problem is that the demand for isolation does not only affect our physical and mental health—with their requirements for motion, sense of freedom and choices, etc—but it also runs against our altruistic urges towards family, friends, colleagues, neighbors… At the same time, wishes for quick enrichment, revenge, dominance are always lurking (see the tragedy of ex-Yugoslavia, without going further in history).

Our civilization as we know it will endure as long as we remain collectively our best selves. The medical profession/vocation has proved its dedication to this ideal, continuing the unequal struggle without pause. Unfortunately, the good behavior of most humans stops at the threshold of their houses—hence the frequent appalling condition of most public spaces (which include parks and beaches) except for countries that have gained their citizens’ mutual trust. The US once belonged to that category, but not since it decided to revert to plutocratic feudalism. This means that societies may be able to obey hard orders willingly only when they trust those in charge…which brings us to previous paragraphs of this essay.

Previous similar crises show that humanity usually recovers from them, but not always: the world recovered from the 1918 influenza (10% fatality), Europe from the black plague (30-40%), China from SARS (15%). In marked contrast, the native civilizations of the Americas (90% fatality) not only disappeared, but their existence and achievements were nearly forgotten—perhaps because that served the claims and consciences of the “heirs”. The universe is not hostile but indifferent, and it is certainly not ruled by a divine gaze that “sees all” and measures fates in balances…which means that the collective responsibility for our path remains entirely with us. But each of us, justifiably, feels pain, fear, anxiety—and what most of us can do is endure, keep faith with our deepest sense of humanity, and become bulwarks against the flood. Those of us who meet on the other side of the shore will rebuild the world, as our predecessors did so many times, provided we don’t cross an irreversible turning point. Perhaps this time we won’t forget the lessons we got taught by reality, although human intelligence avoids unpleasant memories. This, too, is a survival tactic—though not an ideal one for shaping long-term solutions.

I kiss you both with love, and hope we’ll get to hug each other again,


Hold on, my heart, hold on, for years upon years,
Like mountains hold heavy winters,
Like trees hold strong winds,
Like the sea holds all those ships,
Like the sky holds all those stars,
Like iron holds hammer blows,
Like bronze holds in the smith’s hands.
Hold on, my heart, hold on, whether you want or not.

—Folksong of Pontos

Image: beached ship hulks in Moy’noq, once a port on lake Aral, another major disaster from willful stupidity (photo: Arian Zwegers)

Possible Helpers in the Fight against COV-2, Explained

March 21st, 2020

Image: RNA virus life cycle (NIH image via Wikipedia; Creative Commons)

COV-2 is an RNA virus whose surface glycoprotein attaches to cell receptor ACE2 (angiotensin-converting enzyme-2, a regulator of heart and kidney function). COV-2 is a close relative of SARS and MERS, with bats as its primary reservoir.  The fact that it’s an RNA virus means that it can mutate rapidly; other RNA viruses include hepatitis C, Ebola, HIV, polio, and influenza. COV-2 already has two variants. Not surprisingly, the most recent one causes higher lethality.

There are three potential treatments in train to help stem the COV-2 avalanche that’s now paralyzing our world. The main catch: to work, each has to be administered before people go into respiratory arrest or cytokine storm. My brief, lay summation of each potential therapeutic path follows. Please bear in mind that this is a rapidly evolving topic, and my earnest hope is that a vaccine soon gets added to the list.

1. Remdesivir, an adenosine analog that gets used by viral RNA polymerases, short-circuiting viral replication. Remdesivir was originally developed to treat Ebola, Marburg & MERS — and it does, though less efficiently than competitors. From these clinical trials, it’s known to be non-toxic, and the COV-2 polymerase is close enough to its original targets to be successfully decoyed. Because human RNA polymerases differ significantly from their viral equivalents, this treatment is likely to have low side effects.

2. Losartan and its relatives, anti-hypertensives that bind to the same cell surface receptor co-opted by COV-2. A known entity with established dosage and relatively low-key side effects, it exists as a generic. One major shortcoming is that it cannot be taken during pregnancy.

3. (Hydroxy)chloroquine, a well-established anti-malarial also used for lupus and arthritis, which blocks the release of viral RNA into host cells. As with losartan, it’s well-established but has some alarming side effects: cardiac arrhythmia that can be lethal (which means doses must be carefully calibrated according to weight), permanent retinal damage (increased chances if used long-term). The side effects have made compliance difficult even for people with malaria, but this would not be a barrier with COV-2 emergency treatment.

At this point, some US hospitals are already using Remdesivir and chloroquine, and the NIH has started expedited trials. I suspect the hospitals are not doing double-blind studies, because they’re faced with real life-and-death decisions. The true picture of efficacy, side effects, correct dosage, etc. will emerge from the NIH and its equivalents across the world, and it will take time. Where saving lives is involved, doctors at ground zero may have to opt for rapid non-guaranteed deployment of whatever promises to work.

ETA: a reader has also mentioned favipiravir, a synthetic molecule that disrupts the function of viral RNA polymerase.  Favipiravir has shown promise equal to that of remdesivir in preliminary sallies.

Sites with important information:
National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Johns Hopkins
Centers for Disease Control (CDC)

The Year of Few Blog Posts

December 31st, 2019

It has been a busier-than-usual year, and the blog fell by the wayside back in April — though I intend to remedy that in 2020, regardless of who still reads it.  The Starship Reckless site also had to go through a major mandatory update of its PHP which necessitated a huge amount of invisible but demanding tinkering (my heartfelt thanks to Carlos Ramirez, whose formidable skill and meticulous care made a perfect transition possible).

Because this year is also the end of a decade, people are doing lengthy reviews.  I won’t do that. Instead I’ll share a post by one of the authors of my tiny press, Christine Lucas, whose haunting collection Fates and Furies just appeared. It’s all there: the dreaming and striving that make or move worlds.

Goodbye, 2019, and thanks for all the stories

“Warmth and comfort are yokes for us.
We chose thorns, shoals and starlight.
We vowed ourselves irrevocably to battle.
We will die exiles, mercenaries to strangers,
Having seen and dreamed imperishable beauty.”

— Athena Andreadis, “Mid-Journey”

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

April 25th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles:

Iskander, Khan Tengri

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Hidden Histories; or, Yes, Virginia, Romioi are Eastern European

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

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

Mystique: The True Leader of the X-Men

Mad Max: Feral Kids and Chosen Families

Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

Of Fast Micro-Sails and Slow Swashbucklers

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

Minna Sundberg’s Silent World

January 23rd, 2019

While confined to bed by a chest cold, I read the entire Book 1 of Minna Sundberg’s Stand Still, Stay Silent webcomic (SSSS to aficionados) in one go. She’s an assured, accomplished stylist — the scapes and maps are simply breathtaking. The premise is interesting, the use of the Scandinavian and Finnish background is original in the comics context, the mix of “cozy” dystopian near-future SF and mythic magic mostly works, the humor is quirky and subtle, the moments of genuine anguish are wrenching. But the content doesn’t match the style in quality (in all fairness, an endemic issue in comics).

Sundberg was in her early twenties when she started SSSS and it shows in how she depicts age. I quickly got fed up with the three (eventually four) angsty self-absorbed bishonen; and the decision to make the one girl among the young contingent of the high-risk mission both a mundane and fridging material for the all-important boys left me totally underwhelmed. Character-wise, I preferred the prologue: it had a better age mix and illustrated normal messy human interactions well. Most of the disasters that happen in the main story are directly due to the protagonists’ extreme youth, lack of experience and lousy social skills.

There are no sexual or romantic relationships in the main story; all the real friendships are bromances between the four boys who are depicted as androgynous, Wraeththu in the making: tossings of fabulous hair and less fabulous tempers abound. The main story has coming of age arcs for the boys (well, up to low double-digit emotional age)…and a stoic suicide for the girl, whose “necessary” fate reminded me uncomfortably of the authorial mindset that dictated a girl’s death in “The Cold Equations”. One of the boys in SSSS, in an identical starting spot as the girl, not only survives but is additionally rewarded with the discovery he has magic powers.

On the plus side, the societies remain egalitarian and sturdily matter-of-fact post-apocalypse (the remnant tech is way higher than warranted by the specifics, but it’s good not to have the customary brutal survival narratives for once) and the two “old” members of the mission show a welcome inversion of the standard gender roles: the woman is a Valkyrie-type warrior with the temperament that goes with it, whereas the man is an unflappable medic who acts as den mother and has read enough to know/remember that logogram-based languages are not mysterious runes. He also looks like 50 though he’s ostensibly 34 (I wonder if they practice ice floe culling in this universe when people start looking “gross” by teenage criteria) and is chubby. The other roundy is the sacrificial girl, to distinguish her further from the willowy bishonen in addition to her lack of either prowess or magic.

Not surprisingly, given its location and the preferred age bracket of its protagonists, the SSSS cast exhibits very limited physical variation. Nationalities are signaled by differences in hair color: Icelanders boast copper tresses, other Scandinavians gold, Finns silver. “Old” people’s hair fades to uniform brown though two frumpy “ancient” women (probably in their fifties) in helpmate roles have black hair. That said, it’s a fact that Icelanders are among the world’s most homogeneous populations and geno/phenotypic diversity would decrease further after a global epidemic like the one posited in SSSS.

One fascinating aspect of SSSS is that this universe is governed by the Scandinavian and Finnish pantheons but not in the heavy-handed intervention mode made familiar by the Thor Marvel franchise. Instead it’s a shamanic mode that focuses on dreamtime and the uncanny (the Swan of Tuonela and a nightmare version of Sleipnir are prominent presences, as are spirit and flesh animal familiars), retaining the quietness of the Silent World.

I liked SSSS despite its irritating protagonists — the dazzling wide-angle panels and mythic segments have stuck in my memory — and I’m curious to see what Sundberg will do if/when she grows past her neoteny.

Image: The SSSS main crew (one of many artworks related to the webcomic at the creator’s site).

Naming Names

December 3rd, 2018

Today, while procrastinating over doing a stressful task, I pondered a connection between two seemingly unrelated items.

The first was an FB post by Anil Menon about one of the kerfuffles that endemically erupt in SFF. Some of it had to do with so-called “hard” SF, of which I wrote in “To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club” (though I had equally hard words for those who have zero familiarity with scientific concepts and the scientific mindset, yet demand that their work be considered SF); but some had to do with the fact that names get often mispronounced by people from other cultures, especially if they’re monolingual.

The second was a brief review of Kingsolver’s recent novel, Unsheltered, by Kelly Jennings. It apparently features two characters with Greek ancestry. My curiosity aroused, I read the Amazon sample to discover that one of them is called (by the author in 3rd person POV and, worse yet, by his wife of thirty years) “Iano”. Which annoyed me no end, because the English phonetic rendering that comes closest to this diminutive of “Ioánnis” or “Yiánnis” (puristic and demotic forms of John respectively) is “Yiánnos” for the nominative, “Yiánno” for the genitive, accusative and vocative.

Both my names get constantly — often grotesquely — mispronounced, even by the “wokest” people who go on endlessly about oppressions while remaining firmly embedded in parochial mindsets. I consider name mispronunciation lazy at best, but more often a not-so-subtle undermining maneuver; it makes me like and trust a person less when they do so more than once. But there’s no question that each language hard-codes default pronunciation settings in its speakers’ brains. I suspect I’d get a name from a tonal language seriously wrong the first time I uttered it, and I used to mispronounce tons of English words I had encountered solely in books. So I’m willing to give people the benefit of a first-order doubt. But those who fancy themselves wordsmiths and/or imagination pioneers should know — and do — better.

Long postscript:

After catching annoying glimpses of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (as described above), I borrowed it from the local library. To give you the kernel first, spare your time and gray matter, and read Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures instead.
Kingsolver’s tendency to preachiness shows at its worst in Unsheltered, obscuring the very real issue at the center of the book: namely, the relentless and dangerous erosion of the US middle class. The 19th century intercalation was clumsily executed, its dialogue incredibly stilted, and it was barely linked to its contemporary bookend. Unsheltered desperately needed a fearless, learned editor equipped with a set of carving knives and chisels.
On a more specific matter, the perfunctory Greek “decoration” in Unsheltered is appalling: the incorrect use of “Iano” instead of “Yiannos”; Iano’s (barf) one-note use of “moro” as an endearment, (which is always accompanied by a possessive when rarely used in such a context, otherwise it means “stupid”); the use of Greek exclusively for raw obscenities; the wholesale loathsomeness of the grandfather — not that Unsheltered brims with nice folks. IMO, Tig is the only character who becomes borderline likeable in Unsheltered (and Mary Treat could have become interesting, had she been drawn with less generic strokes).