Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for November, 2010

Rises and Falls

Saturday, November 27th, 2010

As is common with me, things have once again come in groups.  In addition to the acceptance of The Wind Harp, a book has just come out with a tiny contribution from me.  It is The Rough Guide to the Future by biochemist, science historian and science writer Jon Turney.  The book surveys new technologies and their impact on humanity and the planet, and includes the hopes, fears and predictions of “fifty of the world’s leading futurologists and scientists” (blush!)  Here’s Jon’s introduction to it, and here’s my contribution:

Highest hopes: In decreasing order of likelihood, that we will conquer – or at least tame – dementia, which will make the increase in average life expectancy individually worthwhile and collectively feasible; that we will pick up an unambiguous SETI signal (search for extraterrestrial intelligence); and that we will decipher the ancient script Linear A and find out that the Minoans were indeed enlightened, if not matriarchal.

Worst fears: Most of our activities will devolve into inward navel-gazing (“social” Internet, virtual reality) rather than outward exploration, and our politics (broadly defined) will force all research into applied/profit mode, doomed to produce results and reagents that will make the long-term survival of the planet and all its species increasingly problematic.

Best bet: Barring a natural or human-created catastrophe, we’ll muddle along just as before and run out of resources and lebensraum before we’re able to establish either a sustainable terrestrial footprint or expand beyond Earth.

Additionally, I will be one of the reviewers of Rise Reviews, the brainchild of Bart Leib, the co-founder of Crossed Genres and Science in My Fiction.  As Bart said in his blog:

“I’m pleased to announce that I will soon be launching Rise Reviews, a site dedicated to reviewing quality speculative fiction that did not receive professional pay.

This is something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. See, most review sites either only review fiction from professional-paying markets, or take most of what they review from those markets. I don’t hold that against them – every review site receives FAR more review requests than it could possibly accomplish, and each one has to decide for itself how to narrow down the pile.

But the result is that, more often than not, smaller presses which don’t pay pro rates are the ones that get passed over. And that’s what Rise Reviews will cover. Many of these publishers produce excellent quality publications, and I hope that Rise will be able to help bring new writers and smaller presses to the attention of readers.”

Rise Reviews will be a partial corrective to those who think, à la Tangent, that only Leaden Era-style speculative fiction (aka boys and their toys) deserves to be read and reviewed.  And it may give an incentive to independents to start paying in more than copies, even if it’s the proverbial $5 — it will make the works eligible for reviewing in Rise.  The site will launch January 1, 2011 with a veritable avalanche of reviews across subgenres.

Images: The covers of The Rough Guide to the Future (by Tom Cabot/ketchup) and the 1st year anthology of Crossed Genres (by Nicc Balce).

Harry Potter and the Two-Part Blog Post, Pt 1: the Books

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

by Calvin W. Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Battlestar Galactica and Caprica.

(Warning: there be spoilers ahead!)

My wife and I came to Harry Potter in a difficult time. The details of our semi-permanent temporary limbo are unimportant but exiled to a hotel room, we began to read aloud to each other. We read Harry Potter.

Having read all of Harry Potter and several other series, I can sum up the reason for the renaissance of young adult literature in a single word: narrative. Modern and postmodern literary fiction, which Annie Dillard has termed the ‘fiction of surfaces,’ has all but abandoned narrative drive. But page-turning narrative and crisp characterization still abounds in young adult fiction.

Rowling showcases many of the virtues of YA books. She writes narratives that keep the reader wanting to know what happens next? In this she has mastered a key skill, namely creating plot twists that surprise but in retrospect make perfect sense, misdirecting the reader while dropping in hints that you only later recognize as pointing to the true solution. In The Prisoner of Azkaban she did this beautifully, allowing the reader to congratulate himself on figuring out that (spoilers) Remus Lupin was a werewolf, so much so that one completely misses that the true villain was Ron Weasley’s pet rat. And in The Deathly Hallows we finally learn the key to Snape, and why Dumbledore believed Snape had truly turned against Voldemort (that’s not a spoiler, we had to find out). In retrospect the solution appears obvious — and once she reveals it, Rowling bludgeons the reader for twenty pages where a couple of poignant paragraphs would have served — but only a few readers guessed in advance.

Rowling also writes vivid and memorable, if generally one-dimensional characters. Nothing wrong with such characters; Dickens created dozens of them. Of course, Rowling also mistakenly thinks that hiding information from the reader (example: Snape) counts for character complexity. On occasion, however, she manages to suggest true subtlety: by the end of The Deathly Hallows she convinces us that Dumbledore is loving and compassionate, and arrogant and manipulative. Real people are often both, and it is only after his (spoiler) death that he truly came to life.

Rowling also has her flaws. It’s important to keep in mind that she was almost literally the overnight success who came out of nowhere. She wasn’t the product of an MFA program, hadn’t toiled for years writing a stack of unsold novels. The former kept her free from literary pretensions but it also means her self-taught craft is full of amateur habits.

Although I do not begrudge Rowling her enormous success, I do selfishly wish the Harry Potter craze had come later. Around the time The Prisoner of Azkaban came out, the Harry Potter phenomenon exploded and simultaneously the craftsmanship of the novels plummeted.

The Prisoner of Azkaban is the best book in the series; Rowling had mastered this world, yet her plots and prose are still relatively lean. But the next books bloat grotesquely. Rowling’s gift for plotting became a curse, as her books festered with subplots and sub-sub-plots. Furthermore, the prose became systematically clunkier and cluttered with lazy punctuation.

I suspect what happened is this: in the early books Rowling’s editors helped shape the books into the brisk, enjoyable narratives they are. This is the job of an editor as few writers, particularly beginning writers, can pull off a novel that does not need judicious revision. But I suspect that as the Harry Potter books became fabulously successful, her agent and editors became reluctant to rein her in, fearful of killing the goose that laid the golden bestsellers. Oh, I’m sure they worked with her, sure that Rowling wrote and rewrote. Nonetheless, the books after Prisoner are flabby affairs that would have benefited immensely from ruthless, savage pruning.

Take, for example, The Order of the Phoenix. It has, easily, the best villain of the entire series, Dolores Umbridge. Lord Voldemort is a sniggering cartoon of evil. But Umbridge, a nanny-state bureaucrat gone bad, is the very model for Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. And the story of Harry’s resistance against Umbridge and the rise of Dumbledore’s Army is a cracking good story.

The rest of the novel, however, drowns under teenage hormones run amok and Quidditch jealousies and a completely irrelevant subplot devoted to Hagrid’s giant half-brother Grawp. You could remove Grawp from this and every subsequent novel and lose almost nothing. It’s nothing against Grawp. I like Grawp. But too many, too detailed subplots hurt the book.

On top of this, Rowling’s native prose is… well… clunky: relying far too much — far too much! — on ellipses, colons, semi-colons, dashes, and so on. This becomes stick-in-your-eye obvious when read aloud. Compare a random page from the first three novels with one from the last three; you’ll find the number of ellipses and semi-colons rises dramatically. And I’ll tell you this: adding ellipses… and semi-colons — not to mention colons and dashes — in large quantities does not improve the quality of prose. Once again, the later editing process failed both Rowling and her readers.

So why was Harry Potter so massively successful?

Part of it was, as always, timing. Audiences were tired of postmodern fictions of surfaces. She offered an engrossing plot. But in addition, the underlying themes of the novels touched readers, as they do in all the best fantasies. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is drenched in grief for a lost world. The novels of C. S. Lewis were all about how we lie to ourselves. And the Harry Potter books touched a wire to the hearts of young adults and also of us adult adults:

The loneliness of the modern world.

Harry is cast from the central cliché of young adult novels, an orphan raised by resentful, stingy relatives. But he isn’t the only loner. Hermione, isolated by her talents, her painfully sharp perception, and her muggle origins; Ron, lost in his family as a relatively talentless middle child.

This theme isn’t new at all but once you pull at this thread, you realize that nearly all of the characters are tremendously lonely: Hagrid, whose enormous heart can only find an outlet in loving killer dragons, car-sized spiders, and other monstrous creatures; Dumbledore himself, immensely talented but, we learn, always haunted by secrets in his past; Neville Longbottom, the fat, teased son of parents tortured into insanity, pecked at by his strict grandmother; weird Luna Lovegood who happily hangs out with Harry because “it’s almost like having a friend.”

Nearly everyone is an exile. Sirius Black is wrongly branded a murderer. Remus Lupin is a kind-hearted werewolf. And in the end we learn just how impossibly tormented Snape is, and why as penance he takes on the lonely life of a double spy, trusted and liked by no one.

Even the villains are cursed to loneliness. Draco Malfoy, bullied by his father, bullies others in response. Mad-eye Moody is impersonated by a Death Eater, the rejected son of an ambitious politician. And Voldemort’s quest to ‘eat Death’ itself arises out of his abandonment at an early age. Although Voldemort ends up a cartoon villain, Rowling makes his journey to the dark side more believable than did Lucas with Darth Vader.

Indeed, Rowling gets right what George Lucas got wrong. As Athena has written eloquently in her essay, We Must Love One Another or Die, the fake-Buddhist Jedi code requires renouncing emotional connection to other people. Lucas’ muddled concept led to the cinematic disasters of Star Wars: Episodes I-III. But in Harry Potter, the ones who learn to love are the ones who triumph. Harry is originally saved from Voldemort’s killing curse by the love of his mother. And it is not through spells or wands so much as Harry’s connection with Hermione, Ron, Hagrid, Ginny, and so many others, that he triumphs. His friends, in turn, grow under his wing. Witness Neville’s transformation over the course of the series from a dull joke into a sleek, bold resistance fighter.

Through Harry Potter, Rowling teaches that love is more important than credentials. While Death Eaters worship the authority of their Dark Lord and murder muggles and mudbloods, Harry easily and intuitively befriends and protects the marginalized, the Nevilles, the Lunas, the Dobbies, and is unafraid to defy the powerful Minister of Magic.

And in these days, when people denounce others as Nazis and communists and religious terrorists, when we fret over immigration and the cultural purity of nations — Rowling tries to tell us that compassion triumphs over blood, that our choices, not our origins, are what best define us; that it is love, not for those like us but for those different from us, that is the most powerful magic of all.

Next time: the movies.

Spoiler policy: I’d ask that while the first six books are open for discussion, commenters not give away major plot twists in the last book.

Images: 1st, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his familiar, Hedwig; 2nd, Professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), who would have pruned Rowling’s books vigorously; 3rd, Harry in a Sam Beckett setting and mood; 4th, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) and Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the feral loners who are nevertheless Harry’s devoted kith and kin.

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

Friday, November 19th, 2010

“Nothing is as soft as water, yet who can withstand the raging flood?” — Lao Ma in Xena (The Debt I)

Being a research scientist as well as a writer, reader and reviewer of popular science and speculative fiction, I’ve frequently bumped up against the fraught question of what constitutes “hard” SF. It appears regularly on online discussions, often coupled with lamentations over the “softening” of the genre that conflate the upper and lower heads.

In an earlier round, I discussed why I deem it vital that speculative fiction writers are at least familiar with the questing scientific mindset and with basic scientific principles (you cannot have effortless, instant shapeshifting… you cannot have cracks in black hole event horizons… you cannot transmute elements by drawing pentagrams on your basement floor…), if not with a modicum of knowledge in the domains they explore.

So before I opine further, I’ll give you the punchline first: hard SF is mostly sciency and its relationship to science is that of truthiness to truth. Remember this phrase, grasshoppahs, because it may surface in a textbook at some point.

For those who will undoubtedly hasten to assure me that they never pollute their brain watching Stephen Colbert, truthiness is “a ‘truth’ that a person claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.” Likewise, scienciness aspires to the mantle of “real” science but in fact is often not even grounded extrapolation. As Colbert further elaborated, “Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.” And therein lies the tale of the two broad categories of what gets called “hard” SF.

Traditionally, “hard” SF is taken to mean that the story tries to violate known scientific facts as little as possible, once the central premise (usually counter to scientific facts) has been chosen. This is how authors get away with FTL travel and werewolves. The definition sounds obvious but it has two corollaries that many SF authors forget to the serious detriment of their work.

The first is that the worldbuilding must be internally consistent within each secondary universe. If you envision a planet circling a double sun system, you must work out its orbit and how the orbit affects the planet’s geology and hence its ecosystems. If you show a life form with five sexes, you must present a coherent picture of their biological and social interactions. Too, randomness and arbitrary outcomes (often the case with sloppily constructed worlds and lazy plot-resolution devices) are not only boring, but also anxiety-inducing: human brains seek patterns automatically and lack of persuasive explanations makes them go literally into loops.

The second is that verisimilitude needs to be roughly even across the board. I’ve read too many SF stories that trumpet themselves as “hard” because they get the details of planetary orbits right while their geology or biology would make a child laugh – or an adult weep. True, we tend to notice errors in the domains we know: writing workshop instructors routinely intone that authors must mind their p’s and q’s with readers familiar with boats, horses and guns. Thus we get long expositions about stirrups and spinnakers while rudimentary evolution gets mangled faster than bacteria can mutate. Of course, renaissance knowledge is de facto impossible in today’s world. However, it’s equally true that never has surface-deep research been as easy to accomplish (or fake) as now.

As I said elsewhere, the physicists and computer scientists who write SF need to absorb the fact that their disciplines don’t confer automatic knowledge and authority in the rest of the sciences, to say nothing of innate understanding and/or writing technique. Unless they take this to heart, their stories will read as variants of “Once the rockets go up, who cares on what they come down?” (to paraphrase Tom Lehrer). This mindset leads to cognitive dissonance contortions: Larry Niven’s work is routinely called “hard” SF, even though the science in it – including the vaunted physics – is gobbledygook, whereas Joan Slonczewski’s work is deemed “soft” SF, even though it’s solidly based on recognized tenets of molecular and cellular biology. And in the real world, this mindset has essentially doomed crewed planetary missions (of which a bit more anon).

Which brings us to the second definition of “hard” SF: style. Many “hard” SF wannabe-practitioners, knowing they don’t have the science chops or unwilling to work at it, use jargon and faux-manliness instead. It’s really the technique of a stage magician: by flinging mind-numbing terms and boulder-sized infodumps, they hope to distract their readers from the fact that they didn’t much bother with worldbuilding, characters – sometimes, not even plots.

Associated with this, the uglier the style, the “harder” the story claims to be: paying attention to language is for sissies. So is witty dialogue and characters that are more than cardboard cutouts. If someone points such problems out, a common response is “It’s a novel of ideas!” The originality of these ideas is often moot: for example, AIs and robots agonizing over their potential humanity stopped being novel after, oh, Metropolis. Even if a concept is blinding in its brilliance, it still requires subtlety and dexterity to write such a story without it devolving into a manual or a tract. Among other things, technology tends to be integral in a society even if it’s disruptive, and therefore it’s almost invariably submerged. When was the last time someone explained at length in a fiction piece (a readable one) how a phone works? Most of us have a hazy idea at best how our tools work, even if our lives depend on such knowledge.

To be fair, most writers start with the best of intentions as well as some talent. But as soon as they or their editors contract sequelitis, they often start to rely on shorthand as much as if they were writing fanfiction (which many do in its sanctioned form, as tie-ins or posthumous publication of rough notes as “polished products”). Once they become known names, some authors rest on their laurels, forgetting that this is the wrong part of the anatomy for placing wreaths.

Of course, much of this boils down to personal taste, mood of the moment and small- and large-scale context. However, some of it is the “girl cooties” issue: in parallel with other domains, as more and more women have entered speculative fiction, what remains “truly masculine” — and hence suitable for the drum and chest beatings of Tin… er, Iron Johns — has narrowed. Women write rousing space operas: Cherryh and Friedman are only the most prominent names in a veritable flood. Women write hard nuts-and-bolts SF, starting with Sheldon, aka Tiptree, and continuing with too many names to list. Women write cyberpunk, including noir near-future dystopias (Scott, anyone?). What’s a boy to do?

Some boys decide to grow up and become snacho men or, at least, competent writers whose works are enjoyable if not always challenging. Others retreat to their treehouse, where they play with inflatable toys and tell each other how them uppity girls and their attendant metrosexual zombies bring down standards: they don’t appreciate fart jokes and after about a week they get bored looking at screwdrivers of various sizes. Plus they talk constantly and use such nasty words as celadon and susurrus! And what about the sensawunda?

I could point out that the sense of wonder so extolled in Leaden Era SF contained (un)healthy doses of Manifesty Destiny. But having said that, I’ll add that a true sense of wonder is a real requirement for humans, and not that high up in the hierarchy of needs, either. We don’t do well if we cannot dream the paths before us and, by dreaming, help shape them.

I know this sense of wonder in my marrow.  I felt it when I read off the nucleotides of the human gene I cloned and sequenced by hand. I feel it whenever I see pictures sent by the Voyagers, photos of Sojourner leaving its human-proxy steps on Mars. I feel it whenever they unearth a brittle parchment that might help us decipher Linear A. This burning desire to know, to discover, to explore, drives the astrogators: the scientists, the engineers, the artists, the creators. The real thing is addictive, once you’ve experienced it. And like the extended orgasm it resembles, it cannot be faked unless you do such faking for a living.

This sense of wonder, which I deem as crucial in speculative fiction as basic scientific literacy and good writing, is not tied to nuts and bolts. It’s tied to how we view the world. We can stride out to meet and greet it in all its danger, complexity and glory. Or we can hunker in our bunkers, like Gollum in his dank cave and hiss how those nasty hobbitses stole our preciouss.

SF isn’t imploding because it lost the fake/d sensawunda that stood in for real imaginative dreaming, just as NASA isn’t imploding because its engineers are not competent (well, there was that metric conversion mixup…). NASA, like the boys in the SF treehouse, is imploding because it forgot — or never learned — to tell stories. Its mandarins deemed that mesmerizing stories were not manly. Yet it’s the stories that form and guide principles, ask questions that unite and catalyze, make people willing to spend their lives on knowledge quests. If the stories are compelling, their readers will remember them after they finish them. And that long dreaming will lead them to create the nuts and bolts that will launch starships.

Images: 1st, Stormtrooper Walking from Grimm’s Pictures; 2nd, the justly famous Sidney Harris classic from What’s So Funny About Science?; 3rd, Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, photo by Robert Trachtenberg for Rolling Stone; 4th, The Gate, by Peter Cassidy.

Note: This is part of a lengthening series on the tangled web of interactions between science, SF and fiction.  Previous rounds:

Why Science Needs SF
Why SF Needs Science
Why SF Needs Empathy
Why SF Needs Literacy
Why SF Needs Others

I guess this one might be called Why SF Needs Fiction!

The Wind Harp

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Yesterday I got the news that The Wind Harp was accepted by the editor who solicited it for an anthology.  This means a lot to me, because I have several stories and six novels at various stages of completion in that particular universe.  My heart is irrevocably entwined with it, and much of my dreaming.

This is the world of Planetfall.  To those of you who read Spider Silk and Shoals in Time, the narrator is Ánassa/Antóa Tásri-e Sóran-Kerís, whose voice we hear at the end of PlanetfallThe Wind Harp tells of her first major political interplanetary mission.  We see her become formidable and meet several members of her extended chosen family.  One of them is Tan-Rys, caste warrior of Gan-Tem, vividly portrayed in the accompanying image by Heather D. Oliver — he’s the same doughty friend who almost forty years later dandles Antóa’s youngest on his knee.

Dhi kéri ten sóran…

The Volcano Always Wins

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day the main character is James Stevens, a butler proud to serve his master, Lord Darlington – a rather dim aristocrat with political ambitions who becomes close to Mosley’s philo-Nazi Blackshirts. Stevens sacrifices all vestiges of self-expression, including the possibility of love, to become the perfect servant. His dignity and sense of office forbid him to question social and political rules and he remains loyal to the master-servant ideal even when its time is long past.

A week ago, Mas Penewu Surakso Hargo, known as Mbah (Grandfather) Maridjan, died on Mount Merapi in the Yogyakarta region of Java (founded as a sultanate in 1755). Maridjan, like his father before him, had been appointed guardian of Merapi by the sultan of Yogyakarta. He was in charge of ceremonies to appease the spirit of the mountain and he described his job as being “to stop the lava from flowing down”.

In 2006 and again in 2010, Maridjan refused to evacuate when Merapi erupted, calling himself and his fellow villagers the fortress whose function was to protect the sultan’s palace. Both times, others followed his example on the strength of his moral authority. He was found in a praying position, overwhelmed by pyroclastic flow from the mountain. Also killed were thirteen people who were in his home trying to persuade him to leave. The local populace is clamoring for a new guardian, and the sultan plans to appoint one soon.

Most people consider Stevens a deluded pathetic figure, despite his massive dignity and loyalty. Ditto for Harry Randall Truman, who elected to stay on Mt. St. Helens in 1980. In contrast, many consider Maridjan admirable, a laudable example of spirituality and adherence to principle, even though his actions led to preventable deaths.

Inevitably, there are more threads to this braid. Truman and Maridjan were in their mid-eighties; both voiced the sentiment that their time had come, and that such a death was preferable to dwindling away in increasing helplessness. The people of Yogyakarta are trying to preserve the pre-Islamic heritage of Indonesia against mounting pressure from the increasingly hardline official policies and the imams who enforce them. Additionally, many Merapi evacuees were left with nothing but the little they could carry, in a nation that has a rich legacy and tremendous recources – but one that also has had more than its share of natural and man-made disasters and whose political, ecological and economic status is wobbly.

Maridjan is admired as the keeper and transmitter of endangered cultural knowledge. I have already discussed this issue from the angles of deracination and art. The time has come to also point out the problems and dangers of tradition.

There’s no doubt that unique cultural customs keep the world multicolored and kaleidoscopic. Even though I’m an atheist and consider all organized religions unmitigated disasters for women, I’m still moved by the Easter ceremonies of the orthodox church. However, I’m not interested in their Christian-specific narrative. What moves me are the layers embedded in them: the laments of Mariam for her son are nearly identical to those of Aphrodite for Adonis, and they’re echoed in folk and literary poetry in which mothers lament dead sons (the most famous is Epitáfios by Yiánnis Rítsos, set to unforgettable music by Mikis Theodorákis). When I hear them, I hear all the echoes as well, see all the images superimposed like ghostly layers on a palimpsest. For me, that’s what lends them resonance and richness.

But there are times when I must part most decisively with tradition. There are plenty of traditions whose disappearance has made (or will make – many are still extant) the world a better place: from spreading bloody wedding sheets to foot binding to female genital mutilation; from forbidding women to sing lest they distract their husbands to knocking out teeth of new wives to show they will rely on their husbands’ prowess henceforth; from slavery and serfdom to polygyny and concubinage; from having unprotected sex with virgins to “cure” sexually transmitted diseases to “laying hands” on a child sinking into a diabetic coma.

Then there are the power-mongering charlatans who prey on fear and despair, particularly when hard times fall upon people: sickness, natural catastrophe, occupation, war. It’s true that Western medicine follows the heroic model – and as such it’s outstanding at treating acute illnesses but tends to over-specialize, sometimes at the expense of a holistic approach that treats the root cause rather than the symptoms. It’s equally true that modern technology has allowed ecological depradations at an enormous scale that threaten to become irreversible. Finally, it’s painfully true that deracination and colonialism often go hand in hand with modernization. Oppressed people revive or revert to traditions, often the last vestiges of suppressed cultural identity, as an act of resistance.

However, prayers don’t shrink a tumor nor frighten invaders away and the sun rises and sets whether beating hearts are offered to it or not. Too, if someone jumps from an airplane or a high ledge without a parachute, no amount of belief in divine favor will waft them away on a magic carpet or give them wings. Nor were traditional states pre-lapsarian paradises, as an objective reading of Tibetan, Aztec and Maori history will attest.

When we didn’t know the reasons behind phenomena, such customs were understandable if not necessarily palatable. Not any more, not with today’s knowledge and its global reach. The mindset that clings to the concept that incantations will stop a volcano is kin to the mindset the refuses to accept evolution as established fact. Standing in the path of a meteor is not the same as standing at Thermopylae, romantic notions of doomed last stands notwithstanding. The 300 Spartans who stood at Thermopylae had a concrete goal as well as a symbolic one: they stopped the Persian army long enough to give the rest of the Greek city-states time to strategize and organize. And the rarely-mentioned 1,000 Thespians who stood with them did so against their particular customs – for the sake of the new-fangled, larger concept of living in freedom.

In the end, the traditions that deserve to survive are those that are neutral or positive in terms of improving human life across the hierarchy of needs (and that includes taking care of our planet). Mbah Maridjan was the guardian of the mountain, which put him in the position of caretaker of his fellow villagers as well as of the putative Merapi spirit. If he saw his function as loyalty to an abstract principle of servitude rather than protecting his very real people, he was misguided at best – and his stance had far worse repercussions than those of Ishiguro’s Stevens, who only harmed himself and the woman who hoped to love him.

I once read an almost certainly apocryphal tale of a young woman who asked her rabbi, “Rebbe, is it ever acceptable to eat pork?” “Never!” said the rabbi. “Pig meat is always treff. Why do you ask?” “During last winter’s famine, I fed my young brothers sausages,” replied the girl. “It was either that or watch them starve.” “In that case, it was kosher,” decided the rabbi.

That’s the type of humane traditionalism I can live with. Tribalism was adaptive once, but has become a mixed blessing at best. Tradition encourages blind faith, satisfaction with rote answers and authority – and history demonstrates that humans don’t do well when they follow orders unquestioningly. As for the questing mindset ushered and encouraged by science, I will close with words I used elsewhere:

Science doesn’t strip away the grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more keep appearing and coming into focus. Science leads to connections across scales, from universes to quarks. And we, with our ardent desire and ability to know ever more, are lucky enough to be at the nexus of all this richness.

Images: top, pyroclastic cloud from the Rinjani volcano, part of the Ring of Fire to which Merapi also belongs (photo by Oliver Spalt); middle, a Han Chinese woman’s “golden lotus”; bottom, wayang kulit — the Javanese shadow puppets, part of the Yogyakarta people’s heritage.