Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for February, 2011

A Plague on Both Your Houses

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Dwellers of the SF/F community may be aware of the recent debate about contemporary fantasy between Leo Grin and Joe Abercrombie.  They and their followers argue over fantasy as art, social construct and moral fable totally oblivious to the relevant achievements of half of humanity -– closer to ninety percent, actually, when you take into account the settings of the works they discuss.  I wrote an article about the topic which just appeared at the Apex blog [update note: the Apex site was hacked, so I reprised the essay here.]

Given the readership of much so-called “heroic” fantasy, I expect a larger than usual troll crop.  In connection with that, I recently read an interesting review of books about the Internet in the New Yorker.  Adam Gopnik posits that the Internet does not necessarily promote loud aggressiveness — it just removes the inhibitions made necessary by face-to-face interactions that go beyond hacking at each other with blunt or sharp implements.  In other words, the Internet shows our true selves devoid of trappings, the mighty Id included.

Science Fiction, Science and Society

Monday, February 21st, 2011

by Laura J. Mixon; originally posted on Feral Sapient.

Athena’s note: In September of 2008 I participated in the Viable Paradise workshop. The experience was lukewarm at best. Laura J. Mixon was the major exception: she gave me the sole critique of my submission I value and has since become a friend.

Laura is a working scientist who writes space opera of the highest quality. Her works brim with those beasties presumably lacking in women’s writing: ideas that are imaginative yet grounded. But unlike the “authors of ideas” who cannot write their way out of a wet paper bag, Laura also has writing chops. Her plots are intricate, her characters vivid, her worldbuilding meticulous.

Next month Tor is bringing out Laura’s new space opera, Up Against It. I was lucky enough to see the novel in draft (and opine about it at length, as is my wont when works engage me). It’s a great story and, like all of Laura’s works, it pushes all kinds of boundaries. My one complaint is that Laura’s publishers gave her a gender-obscuring pen-name for her new work. I understand the need to sell books but such practices obscure the large number of women who yes, Virginia, do write hard SF.

My publicist put together some questions for me to answer to promote the upcoming release of Up Against It, and some of my writeup ended up on the cutting room floor. I wanted to share those thoughts here.

The driving force in the book is a resource crisis. Abruptly and unexpectedly, the Phocaeans lose nearly all their energy, water, and clean air. Their own little ecosystem — Kukuyoshi, the arboretum that meanders through their living space — is under threat. They are utterly dependent on technology: the nanomachines that produce their clean air and water, their computer systems and robotics. And now, suddenly, all that is endangered. And they only have this narrow window of opportunity to act.

If you squint at it at the right angle, isn’t that similar to what we are facing here and now on planet Earth? Are we not dependent on our technology to survive? What would we do if suddenly we had no fuel for our cars and our buildings, and to produce our food and clothes and medicines? What if our own air and water were turning to poison? Do we not also have only this narrow opportunity to act?

When I was seven, I first looked through the business end of a telescope. A father of a friend of mine took us out to a park one night for some star- and planet-gazing. He showed us Saturn, Mars, Venus, and the moon, along with a couple of nebulae and galaxies (the latter of which I found rather boring: they were very faint and hard to see. Thank you, Hubble, for transforming that faint trickle of photons from the cosmos into all those amazing images for us to gape at).

I remember looking at Saturn and then Mars, first through the scope and then with my unaugmented gaze, over and over. Saturn had rings! Mars had ice caps! I had this thrill of joy and awe as the reality settled in. Those little specks of light were other worlds, and science was putting them within reach.

I had a similar reaction to the Apollo 11 landing in 1969. I was twelve. That day my family raced down to Alamogordo to watch with our cousins as Neil Armstrong hopped down off the Eagle’s ladder and said his famous words: one small step. It felt as if the whole world was holding its breath in that instant before his boots touched the dust. The scene is so familiar now that it’s hard to describe just how important it was. Here we all were, many millions of people from all over the world, watching transfixed as these two guys hopped around. In spacesuits! On another world! In sixty-six years, we had gone being land-bound, to first powered air flight, to leaving our planet’s atmosphere and landing on its moon. Holy apes in space, Batman!

Our ability to think things through, figure things out, and make things go has enabled us to launch ourselves far, far beyond our origins. Ten thousand years ago, there were about ten million of us, living in small clans dotted around the globe. Now the world supports seven billion souls. Technology has saved countless lives. It brings us fulfillment on so many levels, enabling, quite literally, a real-time conversation between people on different continents, in different cultures, who even a hundred years ago would not have been able to communicate.

And our advances in medicine are nothing short of miraculous. At the turn of the 20th century in the U.S., nearly one in 100 women died in childbirth, and one in ten infants died. Stop and think for a moment about that. My own grandmother lost her mother to childbirth. My mother required emergency abdomenal surgery in her sixth month of pregnancy with me. Fifty years earlier, she and I both would almost certainly have died.

In the fourteenth century, one third of the population of Europe died of bubonic plague. Today, bubonic plague is exceedingly rare, and of those who contract it, over nine in ten who receive treatment survive. In 1918, the Spanish flu killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people. There are still risks of deadly new viral mutations, such as a new avian or swine flu, which could cause widespread serious illness and death. But unlike our ancestors, we have an international network that tracks flu mutations and prepares vaccines and other measures to protect us. Odds of survival are better for most of us than they ever were before.

In short, I feel very blessed to live in this time and place. And yet, we have paid a high price for that success. Consider how time and again our technology has threatened rather than rescued us.

Sixteen million people died in World War I. More than sixty million in World War II. We saw the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We can’t help but wonder in the back of our minds how easy it would be for someone somewhere to trigger a nuclear war that would kill many millions more. We have watched Challenger explode, the twin towers go down, New Orleans drown, and Port au Prince collapse into rubble. These tech failures, and tech abuses, have caused so much anguish and harm to so many.

And we live with other fears as well, fears large and small: of terrorist attacks and genetically modified foods; of global warming, famine, and super-bugs like MRSA; of mass extinctions; contaminants in our food and water supply; pedophiles stalking our kids on the internet. The list goes on and on. And technology certainly hasn’t solved the problems of uneven distribution of the resources we take from the Earth. Many, many children go to bed hungry every night. It isn’t right.

As I write this, the world’s sixth great extinction event is well underway and human growth and consumption are the cause. Three entire species die off each hour—irrevocably lost. We have loaded the atmosphere with sufficient carbon to continue heating the world for another thirty to forty years, even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow. We humans are, bluntly, racing toward a cliff edge and seem unable to find a way to put on the brakes. If we don’t do it, soon, nature will do it for us.

I became an environmental engineer because I wanted to put my own passion for science and technology to work to help steer us toward that better future, in some small way. For the same reason, I wanted to write novels that cast light on some of these issues in a more personal way. I want readers to feel the same love for Phocaea and its people that I do for this world, and on some deep personal level, to have hope that if we work hard enough and work together, we might find a way through our own twin crises of resource loss and technology out of control.

To find a way through to a solution, one first has to be able to imagine it. One of the things I love most about science fiction is how it permits us to imagine what might be.

The Multi-Chambered Nautilus

Monday, February 14th, 2011

How well like a man fought the Rani of Jhansi,
How valiantly and well!

— Indian ballad

My opinion of steampunk is low. However, last week’s lovely Google doodle by Jennifer Hom reminded me that I like at least one steampunk work. After I wrote my Star Trek book, I was asked why I did so. My reply was The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction. Here is its opening paragraph:

The first book that I clearly remember reading is the unexpurgated version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Had I been superstitious, I would have taken it for an omen, since the book contains just about everything that has shaped my life and personality since then. For me, the major wonder of the book was that Captain Nemo was both a scientist and an adventurer, a swashbuckler in a lab coat, a profile I imagined myself fulfilling one day.

I was five when I first read the novel. Unlike Anglophone readers, I was lucky enough to have the complete version rather than the bowdlerized thin gruel that resulted in Verne being consigned to the category of “children’s author”. Of course, 20,000 Leagues set me up for the inevitable fall. It prompted me to read most of Verne’s other works, in which he’s as guilty of infodumps, cardboard characters and tone-deaf dialogue as most “authors of ideas”. Too, his books are boys’ treehouses: I can recall two women in those I read, both as lively as wooden idols. Even so, Captain Nemo stands apart among Verne’s characters, both in his depth and in the messages he carries.

Verne has Aronnax describe Nemo at length when he first sees him. It takes up more than a page — but even now I remember my frustration when I reached the end and found out Verne says exactly nothing about Nemo’s build, hue, eye and hair color or shape. All he has told, in excruciating detail, is that Nemo looks extraordinarily intelligent and has a formidable presence.

However, my book copy contained several sepia-tinted plates from Disney’s film version of the book (in lieu of Édouard Riou’s engravings that accompanied the original editions). I had no idea who the actors were – I discovered that James Mason was British in my early twenties. On the other hand, several hints in the book, including the “liquid vowel-filled” language spoken by his multinational crew, coded the captain of the Nautilus as different. So in my mind Nemo was olive-skinned, black-haired. He looked like my father the engineer, like my father’s seacaptain father and brothers, like the andártes of the Greek resistance. He looked like me.

He acted like the andártes, as well. He sided with the downtrodden, from helping a Ceylonese pearl diver to giving guns to the Cretans risen against the Turks. And when he lost companions, he wept. Yet he was not merely a warrior; he was also a polymath. Besides being a crack engineer, a marine biology expert and an intrepid explorer, he spoke half a dozen languages, kept a huge library, and was a discerning art collector and a talented musician. The Nautilus is the precursor of Star Trek’s Enterprise: a ship of science and culture that can also wage war. Too, Nemo’s conversations bespoke someone from an old civilization tempered by melancholic wisdom – not an insouciant triumphalist.

Then there was the Lucifer strain that appealed to me just as much, coming as I did from a clan of resistance fighters. Nemo embodies the motto by which I have come to live my life: Never complain, never explain. He’s an evolved incarnation of the Byronic hero. His name is not only the Latin version of Outis (Noone) that Odysseus gave to Polyphemus; it is also a cognate of Nemesis (Vengeance). Today’s security agencies would call Nemo a terrorist, even though he fights in self-defense and retribution after invaders massacre his family and occupy his homeland.

Since victors write history, the losers’ freedom fighters become the winners’ murderers. Beyond that, there’s a fundamental difference between Nemo and fanatics like bin Laden: Nemo is not fighting to establish an Ummah, an Empire, a Utopia, not for power, riches, or glory. He’s not a fundamentalist secure in celestial approval of his actions. He is deeply conflicted and feels grief and guilt whenever he exacts revenge.

In this, Nemo shares his creator’s determined Enlightenment outlook. Verne was never apologetic about his heroes’ secularism or love of political freedom. However, Pierre-Julien Hetzel, Verne’s excessively hands-on editor, was acutely mindful of social and political conventions. As a result, Verne has Nemo go through a deathbed act of contrition in the vastly inferior Mysterious Island – something totally at odds with his character in 20,000 Leagues. Left to himself, Verne might have given a far darker ending to the first novel, as Disney did in his film version and as Verne later did with Robur, a coarsened power-obsessed Nemo clone.

Verne had originally conceived Nemo as a Polish scientist fighting against Russian oppressors. Hetzel did not want to alienate the lucrative Russian market. Also, neither Poland nor Russia are known for their naval prowess: a Russian-hating Nemo would put a serious crimp on the sea battle drama in 20,000 Leagues. So when Verne reveals Nemo’s provenance in The Mysterious Island, he makes him an Indian prince, son of the Rajah of Bundelkhand. Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi (a region of Bundelkhand), was one of the leaders of the Sepoy Uprising, the same uprising that cost Nemo his family and home. It makes me glad to think Captain Nemo, Prince Dakkar, may have been Lakshmi Bai’s cousin – that they grew up together, friends and like-minded companions. I’m equally glad Nemo is free of the poisonous concepts of caste purity.

Who could animate Captain Nemo’s complexities and dilemmas onscreen? Mason may have been ethnically incorrect, but he truly captured Nemo – both his torment and his charisma. The incarnations since Mason have been anemic and/or off-key. In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Naseeruddin Shah did his best with the paper-thin material he was given, but the film was so unremittingly awful that I’ve wiped it from long-term memory. Besides him, I have a few other possibles in mind and I’m open to additional suggestions:

Jean Reno, real name Juan Moreno, the stoic ronin whose Andalusian parents had to leave Cadiz during Franco’s regime; Ghassan Massoud, who wiped the floor with the other actors (except Edward Norton as the uncredited Baldwin) as Saladin in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven; Ken Watanabe, who left Tom Cruise in the dust in The Last Samurai; Oded Fehr, who made the screen shimmer as the paladin Ardeth Bey in The Mummy; in a decade or so, Ioan Gruffudd, whom Guinevere should have taken as a co-husband in Antoine Fuqua’s Arthur; also in about a decade (provided he keeps lean), Naveen Andrews, the soulful Kip in The English Patient.

It goes without saying that I have an equally long list of candidates who could embody Captain Nemo as a woman – but I’ll keep these names for that never-never time when this becomes possible without the venomous ad feminem criticisms (some from prominent women) that greeted Helen Mirren as Prospero. Because gender essentialism aside, Captain Nemo was not someone I wanted to fall in love with, but someone I wanted to become: a warrior wizard, a creator, a firebringer.

Addendum 1: I received excellent additions to the Nemo candidate list. Calvin Johnson suggested Ben Kingsley, real name Krishna Pandit Bhanji, who needs no further introduction (Calvin and I also agreed that Laurence Fishburne in Morpheus mode would be great for the part). Anil Menon proposed the equally formidable Gabriel Byrne. Eloise Lanouette brought up Alexander (endless full name) Siddig who keeps getting better, like fine wine.

I also received a palpitation-inducing… er, tantalizing thought-experiment from Kay Holt; namely, a film in which each of my candidate Nemos inhabits a parallel reality. Ok, I’ll stop grinning widely now.

Addendum 2: I got e-mails expressing curiosity about my female Nemo candidates. So here’s the list.  Again, I welcome suggestions:

Julia Ormond, who radiates intelligence and made a tough-as-nails underdog hero in Smilla’s Sense of Snow; Karina Lombard, who brought tormented Bertha Mason to vivid life in The Wide Sargasso Sea; Salma Hayek, the firebrand of Frida; Michelle Yeoh, who bested everyone (including Chow Yun Fat) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Angela Bassett, who wore kickass Lornette “Mace” Mason like a second skin in Strange Days; last but decidedly not least, Anjelica Huston — enough said!

Great additional suggestions have come for this half as well: Lena Headey who made a terrific Sarah Connor, Indira Varma of Kama Sutra — both in about ten years’ time.  Sotiría Leonárdhou, who set the world on fire in Rembetiko. And, of course, Sigourney Weaver, the one and only Ellen Ripley.

Images: 1st, the Nautilus as envisioned by Tom Scherman; 2nd, Captain Nemo (original illustration by Édouard Riou; detail); 3rd, James Mason as Nemo; 4th and 5th, my Nemo candidates, left to right; 4th, the men — top, Jean Reno (France/Spain), Ghassan Massoud (Syria), Ken Watanabe (Japan); bottom, Oded Fehr (Israel), Ioan Gruffudd (Wales), Naveen Andrews (India/UK); 5th, the women — top, Julia Ormond (UK), Karina Lombard (Lakota/US), Salma Hayek (Mexico); bottom, Michelle Yeoh (Hong Kong), Angela Bassett (US), Anjelica Huston (US).