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Artist, Heather Oliver             

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Humanity: Eloi and Morlocks

Wednesday, 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?

Wednesday, 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.

The Threads in My Tapestry

Saturday, 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

Monday, 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

Saturday, 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

Saturday, 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 Year of Few Blog Posts

Tuesday, 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”

Minna Sundberg’s Silent World

Wednesday, 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).

The Fashionable Virtue-Signaling of “White Women’s Tears”

Sunday, November 18th, 2018

I just saw Lady Macbeth, based on Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (also made into an opera that almost got Dmitri Shostakovitch sentenced to Siberia for rather obvious reasons). The film has magnificent cinematography — the Yorkshire moors never fail to form a mesmerizing backdrop — and a ferocious, career-making performance by Florence Pugh, 19 at the time. Those with Netflix access will see her equally spirited and charismatic as Elizabeth de Burgh, stalwart partner of Robert the Bruce, unfortunately played by Chris Pine.

However, Lady Macbeth stumbles in trying to shoehorn a facile, shallowly treated racial angle into an film that has (too) many messages about gender and class; and the critics made this worse by deciding to call a cast member, who’s an USian of Armenian ancestry, “a person of color” (if he is, so am I — in such classifications, the “woke” ultra-PC are as primitive and tone-deaf as their supremacist adversaries).  We can/should celebrate and firmly keep in memory the very real (and often dramatic) presences and contributions of people who found themselves between, from the two famous Alexanders — Pushkin and Dumas — to Dido Elizabeth Belle. Speaking of Belle, the riveting issue of a mixed-race upperclass male heir is posited in Lady Macbeth only to be left almost entirely unexplored, whereas Leskov’s novella is rigorous yet subversive in its character and plot logic.

The fact is, the servants in Lady Macbeth would have been treated exactly as shown no matter what their color: class, ethnicity and religion defined humanity at that particular nexus, and the Irish (and the Greeks and…) of the 18th and 19th century were treated as subhuman regardless of hair and skin tones.  This, incidentally, is also true of the recent remake of Wuthering Heights: Heathcliff is subtly coded as Irish in the original, and Emily Brontë (whose father’s unmodified name was Prunty, and whose entire family spoke in strong Irish accents, according to witnesses) wrote her paradigm-shattering novel when the Irish famine was gathering force.

It’s important to look at classics through new lenses, but selective historic amnesia is a particularly myopic one to choose. Progressives have made both a tactical and a moral error by erasing class (age, too, incidentally) from the intersectional grievance list. Lady Macbeth‘s framing fits too patly into the “white women’s tears” narrative so beloved of pseudo-pious powermongers.  If only it were that neat and easy, grasshoppas.  And, yes, before someone hastens to “educate” me, I’m fully aware of the behavior of ruling-class women in the Confederate South, British colonies — but also in such less-visited enclaves as Ottoman, sub-Saharan, Brahmin and Han households with their punitive mothers-in-law and tai-tai.

Images: 1st, Katherine (Florence Pugh) in Lady Macbeth; 2nd, Dido Elizabeth Belle (cropped from David Martin’s famous portrait of Dido with Elizabeth Murray, her cousin and co-ward of Lord Mansfield).

Related articles:

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

The Hue (and Cry) of Stormtroopers

Anything for a Son

Procrustean Beds

 

Living Out of Time

Tuesday, August 7th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

The Time Between

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video Interview for Feminist Futures Storybundle

Wednesday, March 14th, 2018

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

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

Public Service Announcement

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

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

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

Byzantium in Speculative Fiction

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

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

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

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

Relevant related posts:

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

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Caesars and Caesar Salads

Yes, Virginia, Romioí are Eastern European

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

Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

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

Launch of The Reckless

Monday, March 27th, 2017

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 25th, 2016

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

Sea Gate full

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stoking the Fire Anew

Monday, 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!

Sunday, 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)

She Who Shapes

Friday, 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

To Shape the Dark — Cover

Monday, 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