Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for March, 2010

Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

“Ich bin ein Berliner,” John F. Kennedy announced to West Berlin in 1963. No doubt, Kennedy’s handlers, hearing the roars from the assembled throng, thought the young president had charmed the Germans. Had they listened closely, they might have heard guffaws escaping the crowd. After all, they had just heard the leader of the Free World proclaim that he was a jelly donut.

Fast forward to 2010. An up-and-coming fantasy author has written the customary trilogy and his world-building has been hailed as “meticulous, yet fresh”. A caste in his books names its male members after precious stones. One of the two main heroes is called Nephron.

Nephron means Kidney.

I gamely pointed this out in an online magazine that featured a worshipful review of the trilogy. In response, the author descended upon the forum and spake thus:

1. He was perfectly aware that nephron means kidney but those who possess deep learning and intellectual subtlety would be aware that nephrite is the Greek name for jade.
2. Despite point 1, surely he cannot be expected to consider every possible silly nuance. After all – and here I quote him verbatim – Lord of Wind might be construed to refer to farts.
3. And despite point 2, he researched everything in his trilogy within an inch of its life and he doth challenge me to prove otherwise. I’m surprised he didn’t say he would grade me.

The fact that I’m a native Hellenic speaker does not automatically make me an authority on etymology or connotations. However, I went to one of those bloody elite schools where they forced us to learn all the flavors of our language, from Homeric to demotic. I also became fluent or competent in a few more languages through the years and I love exploring patterns, links and shifts. So I know that in most Indo-European tongues the word for jade means “kidney(-like) or flank stone” because it was thought to help kidney colic: nephritis lithos (Hellenic), lapis nephriticus (Latin), Beilstein (German), piedra de ijada (Spanish). Nephrite is one of the two distinct silicates bundled into the term jade, nephritis is medicalese for kidney inflammation, nephritic means of the kidney.

Bottom line: Nephron, unmodified and standalone, still means Kidney and no amount of sophistry or posturing can change that.

To give you a parallel example from the same work, the other main hero is called Carnelian – derived from the Latin carnis, flesh or meat, because of that gemstone’s most common color. Nevertheless, the author did not name him Carne. The sensibility of the author’s own Romance natal language led him to avoid such a lethal blow to his work’s intended Wagnerian gravitas.

While the author was holding forth, I headed over to his site and read his synopses of the first two volumes of the trilogy. His naming system is a mishmash: for example, name endings aren’t linguistically congruent even within each stratum of each culture. So I suspect that his vaunted research into the suitability of Nephron probably went like this:

Author to the corner Greek or Cypriot grocer: Hey Spiro, does Nephron sound heroic to you?

Grocer (snickering discreetly, like the Berlin residents at Kennedy):
Sounds fantabulous, mate!

Author (putting check mark next to the name): One more item deeply researched.

Tin ears and leaden tongues are not exclusive to Anglophone SF/F authors or directors with Hindenburg-sized egos. Most Japanese manga and animé blithely serve Name Mangle Royale. This actually goes down very well in satire, parody or light-hearted pastiches (think Xena or Samurai Champloo). However, it’s as enticing as thrice-thawed carne in wannabe epics that take themselves deadly seriously (Star Wars, Bleach, the Tolkien clones). In a secondary universe, character names invariably peg the creator’s ability to bring that world into life and make readers yearn to inhabit it.

Invented names and terms need to reflect the fictional culture they represent at several levels, because they serve as extra conduits into the created universe. This means they must have a fundamental integrity, and be more than half-digested scraps from shallow meta-sources. Their inventors have to be aware of the languages they base them on – their structure, rhythm, tonality, inflections. Being multilingual helps and so does research, but a good ear is even more crucial. Too little foundation, and you have cardboard; too little integration, and you have soupy cement. Poul Anderson knew this. So did Tolkien, though he got slightly carried away. So do Ursula Le Guin and Jacqueline Carey, adept at creating layered secondary worlds with names/terms that make you sigh happily and say “that’s it exactly – I couldn’t imagine this being called anything else.”

Which brings us back to Kidney and his world. As its names go, so does the rest of it. I was sorely tempted to take up the author’s challenge and write a detailed review of his doorstops. I read as much of the three novels as I could find on the Internet and found the excerpts predictable and pedestrian (and no, I don’t need to read the entire Twilight series to form an opinion of it). Besides its toe-fracturing heft, the trilogy also sounds like a fantasy version of the TV series 24: even its devotees mention that torture is graphic and constant, the action unfolds …in …real …time and the author is so enamored of world-building that the edifice creaks like Hollywood plywood town fronts. In other words, this is Robert Jordan or Storm Constantine for the kidneyed… er, jaded.

Even if I had the time and stamina to slog through such an opus, I cannot read violence porn for jollies or to prove my edgy sophistication. Torture shadowed my people till the mid-seventies and was used on my immediate family. It’s also worth reflecting that an equivalent amount of sex in the book (even the vanilla kind, let alone BDSM) would have consigned it to a very different category and we would not be having this sardonyx… excuse me, sardonic conversation.

Images: Kuzco in his llama incarnation, from The Emperor’s New Groove; cartoon, Baloocartoonblog, 2009; Ekaterina Shemyak, Therem ir Stokven – a beautifully named character in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness whose equally haunting tale can be read here.

Related posts:

On Being Bitten to Death by Ducks
Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

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

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

For I come from an ardent race that has subsisted on defiance and visions.

Two weeks ago, I was too tired to undertake the one-hour drive home after staying late in the lab.  I took refuge in a hotel with the proverbial 57 channels.  And so it came to pass that I finally saw 300, purporting to depict the life of Leonidhas and the Spartans’ stand at Thermopylae.  Except that the Spartans wore black naugahyde diapers, Xerxes was a slim version of Divine, his Immortals looked like orcs and Leonídhas showed his bravery by shoving an unarmed herald down a pit the size of an asteroid crater (in Sparta’s central square yet – bad for tots, to say nothing of fast traffic).

As I watched this dumb dull mess, it came home to me that my culture is deemed common property and used accordingly.  Yet few people really know anything about it beyond the cartoon version that passes for world history in most US schools.

As my readers know, I was born and raised in Hellás (as Hellenes, aka Greeks, call their country) and came to the US at 18.  Since my transplantation, I haven’t seen a single Anglosaxon film or TV show depicting Hellenic history or myth that was not cringe-worthy.  They’ve been so uniformly dismal that the cheerful hodgepodge of Xena was at the top of the pile (no exaggeration).  In 2005, literally everyone I spoke with asked variants of “Are all ‘you people’ like those in My Big Fat Greek Wedding?” and I had to restrain myself from wielding a baseball bat – or a spear.  There are three Hellene directors of international standing who explore the culture’s myth/history (Michális Kakoyánnis, Theódhoros Angelópoulos, Pantelís Voúlgharis) but their work appears only in art film archives.

I have also read vast numbers of historical and alternate history novels by Anglosaxon authors that take place in Hellas  – to name just a few, Mary Renault, Steven Pressfield, Barry Unsworth, Ellen Frye from the literary side; from SF/fantasy, Jacqueline Carey, Guy Gavriel Kay, Greg Benford, Jenny Blackford.  Many of these books are fine if judged solely on their literary merits, some are best passed over in silence. In most of them, the stray Hellenic phrases (even when uttered by natives) are at the level of tourist pidgin and the Hellene characters are Gunga Din sidekicks.  A few of the stories ring “real” enough that I can lower my shield and relax into them: Jim Brown’s Blood Dance, Roderick Beaton’s Ariathne’s Children, Paul Preuss’ Secret Passages.

In stark contrast, Hellenes have no literary voice in the west.  Although ancient Hellenic literature used to be the province of any well-educated Western European man, the same cannot be said of contemporary Hellenic letters.  If asked to name recent Hellene writers, people may manage to dredge up Nikos Kazantzákis, and him only because of the popularity of the movie version of Zorba the Greek.  If they are intellectuals, they might be able to name the four world-famous poets: Kostantínos Kaváfis, Odysséus Elytis, Ghiórghos Seféris, Yiánnis Rítsos.  English-speaking readers can browse through translations of just about any national literature you can name. Yet translations of contemporary Hellenic prose are still non-existent.  Nobody knows that Hellas boasts perhaps the best magic realist in the world, Evghenía Fakínou; at least three living poets of giant stature: Victoría Theodhórou, Jénny Mastoráki, Kikí Dhimoulá; and a veritable galaxy of stellar novelists.

At the same time, Westerners are convinced that they “know” my tradition by hazy general familiarity, as I had the dubious privilege to discover.  Everyone mispronounces my name even after repeated corrections.  In my chosen research domain of alternative splicing, the established terminology of exons and introns betrays the namer’s ignorance of Hellenic: exons stay in, introns are spliced out to form the final RNA.  And in a concrete example from another realm, my submission to the Viable Paradise SF workshop contained scenes of contemporary young Hellene men teasing each other.  The participants who critiqued the work were American or Canadian; none had ever been to Hellás.  Yet they insisted that “only gay people talk like this.”  They took it for granted that they knew better than a native how Cretans behave and that their stereotyped assumptions trumped my first hand experience (so much for diversity and cosmopolitanism in SF).

There have been impassioned discussions in the speculative fiction community about whether authors can write with authenticity and moral authority about cultures that aren’t their own – travelogues aside, which invariably say more about the author than the place they are visiting, P. J. O’Rourke being a poster case.  This discussion cannot help but be complex because it’s overlaid with issues of race and colonization.  Taken to its extreme logical conclusion, the injunction of “Write (only) what you know” would put a fatal crimp on fiction.  On the other hand, the sudden emergence of Victorian Orientalism in steampunk is a serious added annoyance in an already self-consciously regressive subgenre.

Hellenes spent four hundred years under Ottoman occupation as second class citizens, subject to whim death and mob violence (flaying and impalement were among the common punishments), forbidden to learn to read and write their language, forced to supply their overlords with children who were turned into janissaries or odalisques.  The Hellenes – small from malnutrition and mostly olive-skinned and black-haired – were called “dirty darkies” when they first arrived in Western Europe and the US after the bruising civil war.  They were not people of color, but they weren’t considered Aryans either, as the Nazis decided during their occupation of Hellas: each German killed by the resistance merited the execution of at least ten Hellenes, or the slaughtering and razing of the entire nearest village.  The Hellas of today is a poor EU cousin currently undergoing a major economic crisis. Unlike AIG or Bank of America, it’s not “too big to fail” even though its debt ratios are similar to those of the US.

Yet the culture had enough élan and vigor to flower four times – Mycenaean, Classical, Alexandrian, Byzantine; the latter, totally ignored even in the anemic world history books, lasted a millennium and acted as a bridge and a buffer between East and West, between the Romans and the Renaissance.  Hellas gave the world much of its science, art, politics, philosophy (and before anyone starts emoting, I’m keenly aware of the equally decisive contributions of other cultures).  Its people kept their language, identity and spirit intact through all the violations and depradations.  Hellenes ace the verbal SAT with little effort, since everything in English longer than two syllables is mostly derived from our language.

So when all is taken into account, I think we are strong enough to survive even the crude cartoonish renditions of Hellas and Hellenes in the media.  I’m not sure if we’ll weather the imminent release of The Clash of the Titans remake, however.  Judging by its trailers, it will be yet another total chariot wreck.  And to Sam Worthington, a word of advice: that buzz cut reduces your hero status to zero. Hellenic heroes had long hair, from Ahilléas to Leonídhas to the untamed outlaws who wrested the country’s independence from the Turks. A shaved head was a sign of slavery. Long hair was a signal of freedom.

Images: The Angel with the Machine Gun, Tássos, woodcut (the figure is dressed like an andártis, a resistance fighter during WWII); Iríni Pappá (Klytemnístra) and Tatiána Papamóschou (Ifighéneia) in Kakoyánnis’ film version of Eurypídhes’ Ifighéneia; Astradhení (Star Binder), Evghenía Fakínou’s first novel; Thémis Bazáka (Eléni) in  Pantelís Voúlgharis’ Ta Pétrina Hrónia (The Stone Years); Athanássios Dhiákos, a freedom fighter captured and impaled by the Turks in 1821, age 33.

Note: Now also posted on HuffPo.

Related posts:
Iskander, Khan Tengri
The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization
Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears
A (Mail)coat of Many Colors: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards
Evgenía Fakínou: The Unknown Archmage of Magic Realism
Herald, Poet, Auteur: Theódhoros Angelópoulos (1935-2012)

Queen of the World, Baby!

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Women nominated for Best Director Oscars:

Lina Wertmüller, Seven Beauties, 1976.
Jane Campion, The Piano, 1993.
Sophia Coppola, Lost in Translation, 2003.
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker, 2010.

Winner, 2010:
Kathryn Bigelow
Best Director, Best Picture.

Four nominations, one lone winner — out of 164 awards in the two categories since 1928. The award is long overdue, meager, and encouraging only if this tiny step is the first of many.

As for Bigelow’s major 500-pound gorilla competitor: sometimes bows and arrows do prevail over nuclear warheads, after all. Look at the bright side, fanbois. The price of Avatar lunchboxes should go through the floor.

Image: Angela Bassett as the formidable Lornette “Mace” Mason in Bigelow’s unfairly overlooked Strange Days.

“I Like a Little Science in My Fiction”

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

Some people walk on water //
Some just keep falling down.

— from Ramon, by Laurie Anderson

Whenever the imminent death of SF from lack of scientific knowledge and/or mindset comes up, some people wring hands and point fingers at YA fantasy or the “feminization” of the domain, some spring to action:  Kay Holt and Bart Leib, the founders/editors of Crossed Genres, just launched a blog titled Science in My Fiction.  As Kay says, both in words and in the playful image she created to celebrate the launch (right):

“The purpose of the Science in My Fiction blog is to get science fiction and fantasy writers and fans thinking ahead of science again. Playful bloggers will take a look at recent scientific developments and extrapolate potential futures from them. // This is a fight for survival of the fiction. It’s time to seize culture and do science to it!”

Visitors to Astrogator’s Logs will recognize some SiMF contributors: Peggy Kolm, Calvin Johnson, and yours truly.  The first post is Extrapolative Fiction for Sapient Earthlings by Kay Holt.  Posts will initially appear twice weekly and may increase to thrice weekly once the contributors find their rhythm.

Go take a look!