Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for January, 2011

Though the Moon Be Still as Bright

Monday, January 31st, 2011

My brief, stark story, Though the Moon Be Still as Bright, is the lead in the latest issue of Cabinet des Fées, Erzebet Yellowboy’s labor of skill and love. Better yet, immediately following it is Christine Lucas’ On Marble Threshing Floors, a story of the Byzantine Amazon Maximó whom I mentioned in my essay about the Akritiká folksongs.

Erzebet discusses these connections in her introductory editorial to the issue. And wonderfully perceptive reviews have appeared for my essays and poetry in Stone Telling.

From Jessica Wick, co-editor of Goblin Fruit, in her review of Stone Telling 1:

“By far and away my favourite nonfiction piece was “A (Mail)coat of Many Colors: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards.” I can’t even pretend detachment. It was just cool. Athena Andreadis places the area’s folk-songs into regional context, history context, into context (again!) against similar Western traditions, and she ties the whole thing into the transformative (and preservative) nature of borderlands. My imagination — and my interest — are both certainly captive, and just as I reached the end of the article and was thinking, Man, I’d really like to hear some of this sung aloud, what should the article provide but some audio of Nikos Ksilouris singing a Cretan rendition of the Death of Diyenis. And, man, let me say again: Cool.

From SF/F critic Sam “Eithin” in his review of Stone Telling 2:

This poem calls up strong echoes of classical Greek hero tales, with its bitter, proud, bronze-voiced evocations of flame, ruin, and exile, but the issue’s focus on women and the ties between women makes it a particularly interesting read. It’s an away poem, looking back but resolutely orienting itself forward; remembering, but never regretting a choice.”

Even though I’m a feral loner, I’m not immune to the motivating power of recognition. Which brings me to my last piece of news: Two poems of mine were accepted in Bull Spec. They will appear in their summer and fall issue. Perhaps Rose Lemberg, the editor of Stone Telling, was right when she told me, “The wilderness is populated by nomads who happen to greatly enjoy your clanging cymbal.” Although I must put away my shaman’s drum for a while — grant deadlines are looming.

Images: 1st, Before the Desolation, by Heather D. Oliver — a portrayal that echoes in Though the Moon…. 2nd, small wooden ship, the Cyclades, Hellas.

Distant Celestial Fires

Saturday, January 22nd, 2011

In line with end-of-the-world prophecies linked to Maya calendars, there’s sudden noise on the Internet that Betelgeuse (the bright red star that marks Orion’s left shoulder) will become a supernova in 2012. The segue is that this will first give us Tattooine-like sunsets, then singe earth and all upon it.

Betelgeuse is a gas-shrouded red supergiant of about 20 solar masses whose circumference would extend to Jupiter and whose hydrogen fuel has run out. This does mean that its days are numbered and its end will be spectacular: when it explodes, it will be visible in broad daylight and will cast shadows as strong as those of the full moon. However, it’s easy to find out that Betelgeuse is about 600 light years away. So it’s not close enough to harm us (the radius for harm is 25 ly or less).  Furthermore, if the explosion becomes visible to us in 2012, the event actually happened sometime around 1400 CE. A more in-depth search also reveals that the star’s axis does not point in the direction of Earth, precluding a potentially lethal directed gamma ray burst.

Betelgeuse is a runaway: it started life as a hot blue star in the prolific stellar nursery around Orion’s belt. This region, which includes the famous nebula that forms the middle “star” of Orion’s sword, is still giving birth to new stars. So after Betelgeuse has dwindled to a neutron cinder, it may have a successor. But its death will change the shape of perhaps the best-known constellation – a reminder that in our universe everything is born and will die.

Adrienne Rich wrote her elegiac poem Orion before many details about Betelgeuse became known. Yet she knew more and said it far better than the apocalypse pornographers of the Internets:

Far back when I went zig-zagging
through tamarack pastures
you were my genius, you
my cast-iron Viking, my helmed
lion-heart king in prison.
Years later now you’re young

my fierce half-brother, staring
down from that simplified west
your breast open, your belt dragged down
by an oldfashioned thing, a sword
the last bravado you won’t give over
though it weighs you down as you stride

and the stars in it are dim
and maybe have stopped burning.
But you burn, and I know it;
as I throw back my head to take you in
an old transfusion happens again:
divine astronomy is nothing to it.
Pity is not your forte.
Calmly you ache up there
pinned aloft in your crow’s nest,
my speechless pirate!
You take it all for granted
and when I look you back

it’s with a starlike eye
shooting its cold and egotistical spear
where it can do least damage.
Breathe deep! No hurt, no pardon
out here in the cold with you
you with your back to the wall.

Images: Top, data-congruent rendering of Betelgeuse (ESO, L. Calçada); Bottom, Orion (Hubble ESA, Akira Fujii)

The House with Many Doors (or: At the Caucasus, Hang a Right!)

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

When people think of fiction that depicts human prehistory, Jean Auel’s Cave Bear books invariably poke up their woolly heads.  The SF-learned may also recall William Golding’s The Inheritors and two Poul Anderson stories dealing with Cro-Magnons; the literati may be aware of Björn Kurtén’s Dance of the Tiger.  But few have read what I deem the best entries in this group: Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ Reindeer Moon and Animal Wife.  The riveting world she created in those novels is far closer to the truth than Auel’s sugar-coated anachronisms.

Recently I had yet another reason to think of Thomas’ works beyond their excellence as both science and fiction.  She set her universe in Siberia during a warmer spell when it was not tundra but a mixture of steppe and taiga alive with wolf packs, mammoths, herds of game animals – and the mighty Amur tigers, who leave an indelible pawprint in Animal Wife.  In the same story, her band of humans meets a band of others – different enough to awaken the fight-or-flight reflex, though not different enough to preclude progeny and with it, the tortured, conflicted love endemic in such circumstances.

Which brings us to the just-confirmed cousins in addition to the Neanderthals who walked the earth with us and mingled their genes with ours: the Denisovans.  Just like the people in Thomas’ stories, the Denisovans made their home in Siberia.  One of their homes, for they were wanderers like the rest of humanity until we were immobilized (in more ways than one) by agriculture.

The intertwined human family tree (from Nature)
[Click on the diagram to see a larger version]

Bones and artifacts can tell us much, but nucleic acids can tell us more.  Mitochondrial and Y DNA analyses have allowed us to map human migrations and group interactions, nuancing simplistic single-lineage theories.  The recent draft of the Neanderthal genome showed they still live in us, sharing 5% of the genome of non-Western Africans.  Their FOXP2 gene, which allows speech-enabling facial development, was identical to ours – and many were red-haired, making Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire eerily prescient on all these points.

Sequencing of DNA from two Denisovan bones, a tooth and a finger joint, showed they belonged to the Neanderthal clan and branched about 500,000 years ago, after an early exodus from Africa that predated that of Sapiens by nearly one million years.  Somewhere in Eurasia (probably around the Caucasus range which forms the first large obstacle), these early wanderers split into two streams.  The Neanderthals went west, the Denisovans headed east.  And like the Amur tigers, they roamed wide and were still around when Sapiens bands in their turn migrated east.  We know this because 5% of Melanesian DNA is derived from Denisovan ancestors.

There findings have caused a sea change in how we see ourselves and our predecessors.  Like all scientific findings, they can be (and have been) used to advance agendas.  Some argue that the lack of Neanderthal admixture makes sub-Saharan Africans the pure human strain, others that the Neanderthal input gave Europeans hybrid vigor.  Both choose to ignore inconvenient facts.  By the ironclad criterion of inter-fertility, Neanderthals and Denisovans were fully human.  On the other side, sub-Saharan Africans exhibit as much genetic diversity as most other human groups combined.  The take-home message is: we’re all mongrels and we do best when we acknowledge and celebrate this, instead of taking refuge in fallacious superiority fantasies.

Buddhist Monks from Central Asia (fresco, Kizil cave, ~900 CE; the one on the left is a Tocharian)

This split (as well as the agendas that attempt to harness it) has a later, equally fascinating echo.  Around 5000 BCE another migration wave broke on the Caucasus, splitting in two – the Indo-Europeans.  There’s consensus on that, even if the details are still hotly debated.  Less known is how far-flung were the travels of some of the Indo-Europeans who turned east.  The outliers were the Tocharians, a Silk Road culture that occupied the Tarim basin of Inner Mongolia from 2000 BCE to 1000 CE before being displaced and subsumed by the Uyghur.

For a long time, the Tocharian civilization was lost from sight as wars and the shifting sands of the Taklamakan desert destroyed them and most of their artifacts.  But they left behind items that are hard to ignore: a treasure trove of scrolls that include both texts and illustrations; several frescoes on cave walls; and the mummies of Ürümqi, preserved perfectly in the dry local climate.  The Tocharians were blue-eyed dolichocephalic redheads who wore garments of plaid wool and spoke a language whose closest relative appears to be Old Gaelic.  In short, the Tocharians were Celts and preliminary genetic analysis has confirmed the link.

Like Kennewick Man (who belonged to the Jomon people, the predecessors of the Ainu), the Ürümqi mummies have been used for politics: the Uyghur have adopted them as symbols in their struggle for independence, the Chinese have tried to suppress them by neglect and red tape in the way of scholars who want to analyze them in more detail.

Map of the Silk Road [Click on it for a larger version]

I don’t believe the presence of Celts in Mongolia threatens the achievements of those who succeeded them.  But I love to think of the strains mingling in that stark part of the world which nevertheless gave so much to human culture and acted as a thoroughfare between West and East.  And my heart is glad to contemplate that Alexander’s Roxanne, born in adjacent Sogdia, perhaps had hazel eyes and glints of auburn in her hair, a strand from a Tocharian grandparent woven into her tapestry.

Further reading:

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, Peoples, and Languages
Elizabeth Wayland Barber, The Mummies of Ürümchi
Susan Whitfield, Life along the Silk Road
Kenneth Wimmel, The Alluring Target

Related articles:

Iskander, Khan Tengri
Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry
A (Mail)coat of Many Colors: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards

Woolen fabric from a Tarim basin mummy (~1000 BCE).

At Long Last, Have You Left No Sense of Decency?

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

— Joseph Welch to Joseph McCarthy

The Tuscon tragedy (with more like it almost certain to follow) has really been a matter of time, because the extreme right in the US has shifted the goalposts of discourse and legislation so far that a Taliban mindset passes as normal.  An amazing part of the aftermath is to hear people say “Both sides must moderate their rhetoric.”  This would be funny if it weren’t dangerous.  As for Teabagger messiahs — ignorant bigots with narcissistic personality disorder who don’t care to understand the real meaning of terms like treason, death panels and blood libel — Professor Anthea Butler said it best.  An excerpt from her essay:

“What matters is that people like Palin, Beck and others can’t take time to figure out that this time is not about them, but about those who have lost loved ones, and their incredible hubris in not owning up to their own sideshow of hate.”

Even as we speak, Republican Party functionaries in Arizona are resigning, having received death threats from Teabaggers and their ilk.  The Westboro Baptist cult intends to picket the funeral of the 9-year old shot during the Giffords assassination attempt. The Arizona legislature, instead of banning the carrying of concealed weapons, is dithering about how many feet must separate the Westboro cultists from their targets.  And other legislators are calling for involuntary incarceration of the mentally ill, rather than address the fact that anyone can buy a semi-automatic weapon from Walmart.

I have mentioned the Weimar Republic before in such discussions.  The downspiral to fascist theocracy is accelerating.  We’ve let it go too far.  All of us are guilty of accepting increasing extremism and curtailment of civil rights.  We will all pay the price of our aquiescence, while the extremists finally get their Rupture.

Update: I urge everyone to compare Obama’s speech to Palin’s video.

Cartoons by David Horsey (top), Monte Wolverton (bottom)

The Year of Few Reviews

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

Today, SF Signal is hosting my review of Eight Against Reality, an anthology that showcases the members of the writing group Written in Blood. For those with limited time, here’s the capsule version: if only the stories had as much flair as the title (except for one, which was both thought-provoking and funny).

This year I must bear down on my research and my novel Shard Songs. So I won’t be reviewing for Rise Reviews, but I do have two reviews on my list. I promised one to my friend Sue Lange, the other to John DeNardo of SF Signal. They’ll get done, I just don’t know exactly when!