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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for May, 2011

A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise

Saturday, May 28th, 2011

Note: This article originally appeared in the Apex blog, with different images. The site got hacked since then and its owner did not feel up to reconstituting the past database.  I reprint it as a companion piece to Sam Kelly’s Privilege and Fantasy.

Don’t you know
They’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution
– Tracy Chapman

In James Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” three male astronauts are thrown forward in time and return to an earth in which an epidemic has led to the extinction of men. They perceive a society that needs firm (male) guidance to restore correct order and linear progress. In fact, the society is a benevolent non-coercive non-hierarchical anarchy with adequate and stable resources; genetic engineering and cloning are advanced, spaceships are a given, there’s an inhabited Lunar base and multiple successful expeditions to Venus and Mars. One of the men plans to bring the women back under god’s command (with him as proxy) by applying Pauline precepts. Another plans to rut endlessly in a different kind of paradise. The women, after giving them a long rope, decide they won’t resurrect the XY genotype.

The skirmish in the ongoing war about contemporary fantasy between Leo Grin and Joe Abercrombie reminds me of Tiptree’s story. Grin and Abercrombie argued 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 discussed. No non-male non-white non-Anglosaxon fantasy writers were mentioned in their exchanges and in almost all of the reactions to their posts (I found only two partial exceptions).

I expected this from Grin. After all, he wrote his essay under the auspices of Teabagger falsehood-as-fact generator Andrew Breitbart. His “argument” can be distilled to “The debasement of heroic fantasy is a plot of college-educated liberals!” On the other hand, Abercrombie’s “liberalism” reminds me of the sixties free-love dictum that said “Women can assume all positions as long as they’re prone.” The Grin camp (henceforth Fathers) conflates morality with religiosity and hearkens nostalgically back to Tolkien who essentially retold Christian and Norse myths, even if he did it well. The Abercrombie camp (henceforth Sons) equates grittiness with grottiness and channels Howard – incidentally, a basic error by Grin who put Tolkien and Howard in the same category in his haste to shoehorn all of today’s fantasy into the “decadent” slot. In fact, Abercrombie et al. are Howard’s direct intellectual descendants, although Grin’s two idols were equally reactionary in class-specific ways. Fathers and Sons are nevertheless united in celebrating “manly” men along the lines demarcated by Tiptree.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I enjoy playing RPGs in many guises. But even for games – let alone for reading – I prefer constructs that are nuanced and, equally importantly, worlds in which I can see myself living and working. Both camps write stories set in medieval worlds whose protagonists are essentially Anglosaxon white men with a soupçon of Norse or Celt to spice the bland gruel. To name just a few examples, this is true of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Howard’s Conan stories, Moorcock’s Elric saga, Leiber’s Fafhrd series, Jordan’s Wheel of Time toe-bruisers, Martin’s fast-diminishing-returns Fire and Ice cycle. The sole difference is approach, which gets mistaken for outlook. If I may use po-mo terms, the Fathers represent constipation, the Sons diarrhea; Fathers the sacred, Sons the profane – in strictly masculinist terms. In either universe, women are deemed polluting (that is, distracting from bromances) or furniture items. The fact that even male directors of crowd-pleasers have managed to create powerful female heroes, from Jackson’s Éowyn to Xena (let alone the women in wuxia films), highlight the tame and regressive nature of “daring” male-written fantasy.

Under the cover of high-mindedness, the Fathers posit that worthy fantasy must obey the principles of abrahamic religions: a rigid, stratified society where everyone knows their place, the color of one’s skin determines degree of goodness, governments are autocratic and there is a Manichean division between good and evil: the way of the dog, a pyramidal construct where only alpha males fare well and are considered fully human. The Sons, under the cover of subversive (if only!) deconstruction, posit worlds that embody the principles of a specific subset of pagan religions: a society permanently riven by discord and random cruelty but whose value determinants still come from hierarchical thinking of the feudal variety: the way of the baboon, another (repeat after me) pyramidal construct where only alpha males fare well and are considered fully human. Both follow Campbell’s impoverished, pseudo-erudite concepts of the hero’s quest: the former group accepts them, the latter rejects them but only as the younger son who wants the perks of the first-born. Both think squarely within a very narrow box.

Other participants in this debate already pointed out that Tolkien is a pessimist and Howard a nihilist, that outstanding earlier writers wrote amoral works (Dunsany was mentioned; I’d add Peake and Donaldson) and that the myths which form the base of most fantasy are riddled with grisly violence. In other words, it looks like Grin at least hasn’t read many primary sources and both his knowledge and his logic are terminally fuzzy, as are those of his supporters.

A prominent example was the accusation from one of Grin’s acolytes that contemporary fantasy is obsessed with balance which is “foreign to the Western temperament” (instead of, you know, ever thrusting forward). He explicitly conflated Western civilization with European Christendom, which should automatically disqualify him from serious consideration. Nevertheless, I will point out that pagan Hellenism is as much a cornerstone of Western civilization as Christianity, and Hellenes prized balance. The concept of “Midhén ághan” (nothing in excess) was crucial in Hellenes’ self-definition: they watered their wine, ate abstemiously, deemed body and mind equally important and considered unbridled appetites and passions detriments to living the examined life. At the same time, they did not consider themselves sinful and imperfect in the Christian sense, although Hellenic myths carry strong strains of defiance (Prometheus) and melancholy (their afterworld, for one).

Frankly, the Grin-Abercrombie fracas reminds me of a scene in Willow. At the climax of the film, while the men are hacking at each other down at the courtyard, the women are up at the tower hurling thunderbolts. By the time the men come into the castle, the battle has been waged and won by women’s magic.

So enough already about Fathers and Sons in their temples and potties. Let’s spend our time more usefully and pleasantly discussing the third member of the trinity. Before she got neutered, her name was Sophia (Wisdom) or Shekinah (Presence). Let’s celebrate some people who truly changed fantasy – to its everlasting gain, as is the case with SF.

My list will be very partial and restricted to authors writing in English and whose works I’ve read, which shows we are dealing with an embarrassment of riches. I can think of countless women who have written paradigm-shifting heroic fantasy, starting with Emily Brontë who wrote about a world of women heroes in those tiny hand-sewn diaries. Then came trailblazers Catherine Moore, Mary Stewart and André Norton. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is another gamechanger (although her gender-specific magic is problematic, as I discussed in Crossed Genres) and so is her ongoing Western Shores series. Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni cycle is as fine a medieval magic saga as any. We have weavers of new myths: Jane Yolen, Patricia McKillip, Meredith Ann Pierce, Alma Alexander; and tellers of old myths from fresh perspectives: Tanith Lee, Diana Paxson, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Terri Windling, Emma Bull, C. J. Cherryh, Christine Lucas.

Then there’s Elizabeth Lynn, with her Chronicles of Tornor and riveting Ryoka stories. Marie Jakober, whose Even the Stones have haunted me ever since I read it. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, whose heroic prehistoric fantasies have never been bested. Jacqueline Carey, who re-imagined the Renaissance from Eire to Nubia and made a courtesan into a swashbuckler in the first Kushiel trilogy, showing a truly pagan universe in the bargain. This without getting into genre-cracking mythmakers like Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) and Louise Erdrich.

These authors share several attributes: they have formidable writing skills and honor their sources even as they transmute them. Most importantly, they break the tired old tropes and conventional boundaries of heroic fantasy and unveil truly new vistas. They venture past medieval settings, hierarchical societies, monotheistic religions, rigid moralities, “edgy” gore, Tin John chest beatings, and show us how rich and exciting fantasy can become when it stops being timid and recycling stale recipes. As one of the women in Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston” says: “We sing a lot. Adventure songs, work songs, mothering songs, mood songs, trouble songs, joke songs, love songs – everything.”


Images: Éowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan (Miranda Otto) in The Two Towers; Sonja, vampire paladin (Rhona Mitra) in Rise of the Lycans; Yu Shu Lien, Wudan warrior (Michelle Yeoh) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Area 51: Teen Commies from Outer Space!

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

(with due props to Douglas Kenney, National Lampoon co-founder)

Driving to work earlier this week, I heard Terry Gross of Fresh Air (NPR) interview Annie Jacobsen about her new book, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base. Jacobsen is a national security reporter, which means she is used to facing stonewalling and secrecy and therefore well aware that she must triple-check her information. It all sounded like sober investigative reporting, until it got to the coda. Bear with me, grasshoppahs, because the truth is definitely way out there.

As you know, Bobs, Area 51 is a military installation in Nevada next to the Yucca Flats where most of the US nuclear tests have been conducted. Area 51 was the home of the U-2 and Oxcart military aircraft testing programs and its resident experts appear to have reverse-engineered Soviet MiGs. Some conspiracy lovers opine that the lunar landing was “faked” there. Not surprisingly, its specifics are heavily classified, including an annually-renewed presidential EPA exception to disclosing (ab)use of toxic agents. People in the ostensibly free world can’t even get decent aerial pictures of it — which of course did not deter satellites of other nations, but who cares for rationality where national security is concerned?

To UFO believers, Area 51 is also the facility that analyzed whatever crashed near Roswell in 1947. Which is where Jacobsen’s theory comes in, backed by a single anonymous source. She proposes that the Roswell object was neither a weather balloon nor an alien spacecraft but a remotely flown Soviet craft based on prototypes by the Horten brothers, aircraft designers and Nazi party members. This part is old news, since this possibility was already considered in cold war US investigations.

Jacobsen’s addition (asserted with a completely straight face and demanding to be taken seriously) is that this craft contained “genetically/surgically altered” teenagers engineered by Josef Mengele at the command of that other monstrous Joseph, Stalin. The modifications had produced uniform results of “abnormally large heads and eyes” etc. The goal was to scare the US and weaken its defenses by a repetition of the panic created by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds 1938 broadcast.

Got that? I can safely bet that Hollywood agents are bidding frantically for the rights to the screenplay even as we speak. And so they should — it’s a guaranteed blockbuster. It has everything: UFOs, Nazis, Frankenstein monsters, government conspiracies… It ties so many loose ends together so neatly that it’s irresistible.

I will leave to other experts the issues of quoting a single anonymous source and the previous debunkings of similar Area 51 “insiders” like Robert Lazar et al. The part that made me laugh out loud was the “genetically/surgically altered” cherry on top of that fabulous cake. To her credit, Gross pressed Jacobsen on this, only to get a rewinding of the tape without any real explanation beyond “I trusted my Cigarette-Smoking Man because I spent two years talking to him.”

For those who don’t live in a parallel universe, the fact that DNA is the carrier of heredity for most terrestrial lifeforms was established in the fifties, which (*counting on my fingers*) came after 1947. So Mengele or anyone else could not have engaged in any form of targeted genetic engineering; that only became possible, in its crudest form, in the eighties. If “genetic” is intended to mean plain ol’ interbreeding, humans take a bit more than two years (the interval from the time the Russians walked into Berlin till the Roswell crash) to 1) produce children, 2) have the children grow into teenagers and, just as crucially, 3) reliably reproduce traits.

Starvation or breaking of bones during childhood can lead to stunting (as Toulouse-Lautrec’s case demonstrates) but I know of no surgery that can increase head size — hydrocephalus kills its sufferers in rather short order. Grafting was so primitive back then that it’s unlikely its recipients would have survived long enough for a transatlantic trip. The only scenario I can envision that would result to anything remotely tangential to Jacobsen’s contention is if the Soviets used youngsters suffering from growth factor or growth hormone deficiencies — genetic conditions that arise without the intervention of experimentation.

Don’t misunderstand me, I know the idiocies that military and “intelligence” agencies are capable of — from marching soldiers to ground zero well after the consquences of radioactive fallout had become obvious, to the frightening abuses of MK-ULTRA, to the Stargate “Jedi warriors” who stared at spoons and goats. But all these are extensively documented, as well as compatible with the technology available at the time they occurred. Jacobsen’s theory is as grounded as the alien craft alternative it purports to debunk. Pity that Gross didn’t invite a biology undergrad to the program.

My theory (and I’ll be happy to talk to Hollywood agents about it) is that the engineered youngsters decided to defect, commandeered the craft and crashed it while drunk on freedom and contraband beer. I even have my own impeccable source: the small store owner at the outskirts of Roswell who sold them the beer. Smoking Parodies and drinking his regular shot of Colt 45 from an oil can, he confided wistfully: “They just wanted to see the Vegas shows, like any kid their age.”

Images: top, Independence Day — the alien craft secreted and reverse-engineered in Area 51; bottom, another possible explanation for the Roswell crash: abduction lesson troubles (from Pixar’s Lifted).

What’s Sex Got to Do with It?

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

(sung to Tina Turner’s à propos catchy tune)

Two events unfolded simultaneously in the last few days: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s admission that he left a household servant with a “love child” and Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest for attempting to rape a hotel maid. Before that, we had the almost weekly litany of celebrity/tycoon/politician/figurehead caught with barely-of-age girl(s)/boy(s). In a sadly familiar refrain, an ostensibly liberal commentator said:

“…we know that powerful men do stupid, self-destructive things for sexual reasons every single day. If we’re looking for a science-based explanation, it probably has more to do with evolutionarily induced alpha-male reproductive mandates than any rational weighing of pros and cons.”

Now I hate to break it to self-labeled liberal men but neither love nor sex have anything to do with sexual coercion and Kanazawa-style Tarzanism trying to pass for “evolutionary science” won’t cut it. Everyone with a functioning frontal cortex knows by now that rape is totally decoupled from reproduction. The term “love child”, repeated ad nauseam by the media, is obscene in this context.

Leaving love aside, such encounters are not about sex either. For one, coerced sex is always lousy; for another, no reproductive mandate is involved, as the gang rapes of invading armies show. What such encounters are about, of course, is entitlement, power and control: the prerogative of men in privileged positions to use others (women in particular) as toilet paper with no consequences to themselves short of the indulgent “He’s such a ladies’ man…” and its extension: “This was a trap. Such men don’t need to rape. Women fling themselves in droves at alpha males!”

As I keep having to point out, there are no biological alpha males in humans no matter what Evo-Psycho prophet-wannabees preach under the false mantra of “Real science is not PC, let the chips fall where they may”. Gorillas have them. Baboons have them, with variances between subgroups. Our closest relatives, bonobos and chimpanzees, don’t. What they have are shifting power alliances for both genders (differing in detail in each species). They also have maternally-based status because paternity is not defined and females choose their partners. Humans have so-called “alpha males” only culturally, and only since hoarding of surplus goods made pyramidal societies possible.

The repercussions of such behavior highlight another point. Men of this type basically tell the world “I dare you to stop my incredibly important work to listen to the grievances of a thrall. What is the life and reputation of a minimum-wage African immigrant woman compared to the mighty deeds I (think I can) perform?” Those who argue that the personal should be separate from the political choose to ignore the fact that the mindset that deems a maid part of the furniture thinks the same of most of humanity — Larry Summers is a perfect example of this. In fact, you can predict how a man will behave in just about any situation once you see how he treats his female partner. This makes the treatment of nations by the IMF and its ilk much less mysterious, if no less destructive.

Contrary to the wet dreams of dorks aspiring to “alpha malehood”, women generally will only interact with such specimens under duress. They’re far more popular with men who (like to) think that being a real man means “to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” Civilization came into existence and has precariously survived in spite of such men, not because of them. If we hope to ever truly thrive, we will have to eradicate cultural alpha-malehood as thoroughly as we did smallpox — and figure out how we can inculcate snachismo as the default behavioral model instead.

Images: Top, Malcolm McDowell as Caligula in the 1979 eponymous film; bottom, Biotest’s “Alpha Male” pills.

Privilege and Fantasy

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

by Sam Kelly

This is the companion piece to Sam’s Nostalgia. The questions he raises bring to mind some of the haunting works of Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), most notably Sorrow-Acre in Winter’s Tales.

In my last essay, I talked about two forms of nostalgia, and the characterization of History within fantasy texts. This time around, it’s time for an assertion: it’s much harder for the privileged classes to write literary fantasy than it is for the oppressed and marginalized.

Let’s start with some definitions (do feel free to take issue with them in the comments—I’m not going to be ideological about them):

Literary: of enduring worth; of complexity; supporting multiple disparate readings; possessing novelty or making an original contribution. Layered and polysemous enough that it isn’t immediately accessible in its entirety. Possessing an awareness of itself as a text.

Fantasy: That Which Is Not: a change in the philosophical and/or metaphysical nature of the world, which I’ll tentatively call a diversa after Suvin’s “novum”. A desideratum, or an elegy. Passion is a necessary and perhaps sufficient condition for fantasy; there are some unpleasant words for fantasy without passion. Popular trope fantasy is perhaps the apotheosis of advertising, without any product. It’s normally impossible to tell it from pisstake fantasy.

Privileged: Possessing something inherited or innate that makes life easier for them than most people, and, in general, not aware that this makes a difference. Tending to ascribe their success entirely to hard work or luck. Generally, in the case of fantasy writers, it means “middle-class white cis urban-dwelling Western/minority-world men whose first language is English, and who aren’t disabled”, and it covers most of them.

One of the fundamental aspects of privilege is that it allows you to remain isolated from life, to an extent that others can’t. Write, as They say, what you know.

It is difficult to be sat upon all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion about them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever. — Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, regarding horses.

Worlds are complex; even the kind that are only written about must, of necessity, contain multitudes. If one aspires to realism, or even to plausibility (which I find much more palatable in fantastika generally) then one must also know, and write, multitudes.

Knowing things is easy. What’s hard, and unusual, is wanting to know things that don’t directly affect you; being aware that there are questions, and that the questions are important. Writers are better at curiosity than most, but that doesn’t mean they’re better at knowing which questions to ask. So there’s only really one way to train that into someone: teach them that there are difficult, and important, things going on around them. Things that they don’t understand, things that people don’t want to teach them, things people have a vested interest in keeping from them.

One of the biggest examples of that—fittingly for fantasy, given how rooted in place & belonging it always is—is land. Who owns the land? Whose ancestors owned the land? Is talking about land in terms of ownership always useful? Who gets to name the land? Who has what resource rights in the land? And, crucially: who knows the histories of the land? (Disclaimer: my examples are drawn from British history, because that’s what I know.)

Narrative and naming are almost always the property of the privileged classes—not the ruling classes, because those tend to be much smaller—and are unchallenged in the popular narrative. Well, I say unchallenged. Alternative narratives tend to be subjected to the usual erasure & marginalization, because the unmarked nature of the privileged classes means that (by definition) no alternative is plausible. (Unmarked: seen as “normal”, ie. people & disabled people, people & people of color, people & gay people, people & poor people…)

The two aspects of privilege combine interestingly around the issue of the legible land; the privileged classes may hold property rights in it, but they’re very rarely experts on it, or strongly emotionally invested. Many of the land-owners we see in fantasy books are… but they’re usually invested in the picturesque or the monetary aspects, not the economic or ecological ones. And, as always, the frequency of representation in literature is no guide to reality! Fundamentally, being rich means you still eat that day if you go home without a rabbit and that all you need to know about wheat or cabbage is that the brown end goes in the ground, the other end goes in your stomach, and there are some boring processes in the middle which peasants and women deal with.

Being poor, on the other hand—or otherwise marginalized and reduced in scope—means you develop an intimate understanding of the means of production. This isn’t a symmetrical thing: it’s not that privileged people understand one set of things and non-privileged people understand another. People who have lacked privilege really do have a closer and more urgent understanding of life, being closer to the sharp end of the System. NB: I’m distinguishing experiences and understandings from the results of formal education here—obviously they overlap to an extent, but the infamous ivory tower phenomenon shows that formal education can have entirely the opposite effect.

(Food, of course, isn’t the only thing that the land gives us. There’s another, equally important resource: stories. Whether it’s stories about the time Ellis Gwyn lost two fingers to a tractor engine, or about Rhiannon easily outpacing Pwyll’s hounds, one of the most important things is that they happened Right There. There’s a whole long strand here, waiting to be unravelled, about fantasy, social mobility, and the motif of travel in portal-quest stories. But that’s for another time.)

Under the definition of “literary” above, I talked about novelty & original contributions. Here, we get to invoke Sturgeon’s Law, and I can point out that the only reason the good stuff looks so good is by comparison & contrast to the masses of tedious pabulum surrounding it. Nothing can be original or different unless there’s a mainstream to swim across, and the people who tend to swim across it are the ones whose whole life experience points them in other directions. As far as “awareness of itself as a text” goes, the World Is Text, this one and all others. Taking the text at face value is a luxury privileged people have. As for layers and multiple meanings… the idea that events & ontologies may be interpreted in several different ways is brain-bendingly difficult to internalize if you start off with the luxury of unopposed certainty. However, if you have it rubbed into you every day that you are not like other people, that normal people see the world differently and get different things from the world, then the wave/particle dualities of histories are easy by comparison.

So that’s “literary”, and as an illustration: without stopping to think, make a list of ten or a dozen 18th & 19th century novelists. How many of the list are women? Do you think the proportion is an accurate reflection of how many men & women were writing at the time?

As far as fantasy goes, that one’s easy to deal with. If you passionately want the world to be different, then you’re probably less than happy with the way of things as it is. As I talked about in “The time-binding of nostalgia”, there are two ways to desire change. You can either look forward to a golden time, or look back to a golden time. The first is a perfectly normal act of imagination, but the second always involves a regurgitated lump of plastic history and a covert appeal to the idea that things were always like that, but the forces of Darkness recently changed things away from their true course. You’re probably thinking of Tolkien as an example here, which is superficially reasonable—however, the Professor’s history is deliberately self-problematizing, including as it does its own historiography, and The Lord of the Rings is not even slightly a desideratum in that sense. It’s entirely elegiac, an extended if-only-it-could-have-been.

Of course, if you aren’t passionate about your fantasy, if you’re only proposing a diversa because it’s a vaguely interesting idea or because you need some stage setting for your Awesome Characters and Plot of Awesomeness, then that’s fluff. There’s nothing wrong with fluff, so long as it acknowledges that that’s what it is.

Another frequent failure mode is where the only diversa is that for every epic problem there is an equally epic solution, and the status quo ante is restored. This is a lazy and slapdash way to construct the framework for a story, but it’s unfortunately very common amongst privileged Extruded Fantasy Product writers. A well-constructed diversa, on the other hand, narrativises the textual world by introducing crosslinks, structural rhymes, and reified metaphors, and it’s easier to think about these—to acknowledge the possibility of them, to imagine a world with innate meaning—if you haven’t had the blithely unthinking benefit of the real world’s equivalent all your life.

This is not to say that any of these things—being female, or nonwhite, or trans, or poor, or far from urban life, or disabled, or any of the many other ways of lacking privilege—gives an author a free pass to Literary Fantasist status, or that privilege forbids it; all three concepts (literature, fantasy, and privilege) are far too complex and intersectional to be reduced to those sorts of rules. But privilege does make it harder to achieve.

Images: 1st, Mingary Castle, photo by Sam Kelly; 2nd, Rogue Roman by Frank Frazetta; 3rd, Helena Bonham Carter and Mark Wahlberg in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes.

The Time-Binding of Nostalgia

Saturday, May 7th, 2011

by Sam Kelly (with an afterword by Athena)

It is my great pleasure to reprint an essay by my friend Sam Kelly (aka Eithin — Cymraeg for Gorse) who blogs at Cold Iron and Rowan-Wood. Sam was born to theatre folk and engineers, and brought up in the Essex woodlands and the Welsh mountains. Disability cut short a PhD in nanomaterials chemistry; he now lives in London, where he writes about fantastika and makes art.

I’ve been reading a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay recently (Under Heaven, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road, and The Lions of Al-Rassan) and have therefore naturally been thinking about identity, passion, and pride.

It’s a commonly accepted trope amongst many fantasy critics, scholars, and commenters that fantasy is, at its root, about nostalgia. I’ve never quite agreed with this, but I think that’s partly because nostalgia comes in several flavours. The word comes from the Greek nostos, a homecoming, and algos, pain, and was coined as a medical term in 1688 to describe Swiss mercenaries’ longing for the mountains of their home. (As a Welshman, I can relate to that! The Welsh word hiraeth is mostly untranslatable, but Heimweh does seem like a cultural analogue.)

In recent decades, however (and especially by the English) it’s been coopted to describe a kind of early 20th century idyll. You know the one—ploughmen, foaming nut-brown ale, small children waving at steam trains, The Countryside or The Beach two hours’ journey away, a distinct lack of brown people. It’s basically thinly disguised neo-mediaevalism, or rather neo-mediaevalism (in fantasy writers of a certain age, at least) is a proxy for their yearning for the kind of social certainty that supposedly existed in the recent past.

I feel compelled to point out here that that past (either of those pasts) never really existed, and the only way to pretend that they did is by wholesale erasure of the experiences and histories of women, the working classes, nonwhite people (there have always been nonwhite people in Britain, at least back to the Romans if not before) and Jews. Not to mention (and people rarely do mention) those who are more than one of those. It’s fairly safe to blame the Victorians for making up the mediaeval idyll. We’ve been reimagining recent history ever since, and it’s not as though revisionist history started in 1820 for that matter, but it was the Victorians who pioneered the mass production of History.

So that’s one way in which nostalgia is expressed in English-language fantasy fiction: the desire for an imagined past. That can be a joyful escapist wish, as with William Morris, or a heartfelt elegy for something that could never have been, as with Tolkien. In either version, the past (in the context of the novel, ie. the created world’s own imagined past) is seen explicitly as a good thing, a lost Golden Age.

There’s another version of nostalgia, however—nostalgia in its most etymologically strict sense, the pain of longing for a homecoming—and that is the one experienced by those whose home is contested, denied, erased. The interesting thing about that is that in the latter, the past-within-the-text is usually unpleasant, problematized, or generally Not Even Slightly Golden.

Athena’s afterword: There is a third group that experiences nostalgia – those who have left home (mostly) voluntarily and live as perpetual exiles, outsiders to both natal and adopted cultures, a shard of thick glass between our hearts and our words. For those who walk between worlds, home is what we carry in our heads. Even the worlds we remember never existed or no longer exist and we are feral orphans who press our faces against others’ lit windows. If we ever return home, it does not recognize us – and we are more like Angelopoulos’ Odysseus than Homer’s.

Black Swallow — a folksong of exile from Thrace, sung by Hrónis Aidhonídhis (“Son of the Nightingale”). Click on the title to listen:

My black swallow from afar,
my white dove from home,
you fly so high! Come lower
and open your wings,
so I can write to my mother,
my sisters — and my love.

And the lament of those left behind: the famous Tzivaéri mou (“My Treasure”) from the Dodecanese, sung by Dhómna Samíou.

Images: 1st, Oleg Yankovsky in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia; 2nd, Harvey Keitel in Theódoros Angelópoulos’ The Gaze of Odysseus.

Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

Warmth and comfort are yokes for us.
We chose thorns, shoals and starlight.
— from Mid-Journey

I came to the US in 1973, all fired up to do research. I have been doing research as my major occupation since 1980 and have run my own (tiny: average two-member) lab since 1989. So I fulfilled part of my dream and wrote about how it feels to do so in The Double Helix. Yet I may have to abandon it prematurely. Objectively, that’s not a tragedy. People die, people retire – hell, people have midlife epiphanies that make them join odd religions or take jobs in industry with salaries several-fold higher than their academic ones. But right now, I’m one of many who are disappearing. And our disappearance will have an impact far beyond what outsiders perceive (incorrectly) as cosseted academic careers.

Biomedical researchers in the US are on the selling side of a monopsony. If our research is very basic and/or we’re starting out, we can get small grants from the National Science Foundation. If it’s very directed or applied, we can get tiny grants from private foundations or the rare decent-sized grant from the Departments of Energy or Defense. But all these amount to peanuts. The engine behind US biomedical research is a single organization: the National Institute of Health (NIH). When the NIH says “Jump!” we ask “How high?” on the way up.

Grant submissions to the NIH have always been as arcane and painful as a complex religious ritual that includes flaying. Success depends not only on the quality of our science and the number and impact of our papers but also on sending the grant to the right study section for peer review, on using fashionable (“cutting edge”) gadgets and techniques, on doing science that is perceived to fit the interests of the NIH institute that hosts our grant, and on being lucky enough to get reviewers and program officers who agree on the importance of our proposed work (and in the case of reviewers, not direct competitors who are essentially handed unpublished data on a platter). All this, subsumed under the rubric “grantsmanship” or “being savvy”, is not taught at any point during our long, arduous training. In my youth, we learned by literally walking into brick walls.

However, when I started my PhD biomedical researchers could afford to have their egos and labs bashed by savage critiques and terrible grant scores because the NIH payline was 30-40%. This meant that one in three grants got funded – or that each of our grant applications (if of reasonable quality) got funded in one of the three tries the NIH allowed. Also, at that time the traditional university salary covered nine months. For most academic researchers, a grant meant they got the last three months of salary plus, of course, the wherewithal to do research.

My situation was different: I went to a poor institution (my startup package was seventeen thousand – the common minimum is a million) and except for my first two years and a six-month bridge later on I was entirely on soft money till mid-2008. So for me the equation was not “no grant, no lab”; it was “no grant, no job”. This was made a bit tougher by the fact that my research fit the “starts as heresy and ends as superstition” paradigm. For one, the part of my system that is relevant to dementia undergoes human-specific regulation. So unlike most of my colleagues I did not detour into mouse models, long deemed to be the sine qua non of equivalence (an equation that has hurt both biology and medicine, in my opinion, but that’s a different conversation).

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying I’m a neglected Nobel-caliber genius. But much of what I pursued and discovered was against very strong headwinds: I investigated a molecule that had been delegated to the back of the neurodegeneration bus for decades. To give you a sense of how some of my work was received, I once got the following comment for an unexpected observation that flew against accepted wisdom (verbatim): “If this were true, someone would have discovered it by now.” The observation has since been confirmed and other labs eventually made plenty of hay with some of my discoveries, but I’ve never managed to get funding to pursue most of them. I was either too early and got slammed for lacking proof of feasibility or direct relevance to health, or too late and got slammed for lacking cutting-edginess.

It is hard to keep producing data and papers if your lab keeps vanishing like Brigadoon and has to be rebuilt from scratch with all the loss of knowledge and momentum each dislocation brings. To prevent this as much as I could, whenever I had a grant hiatus I cut my salary in half to pay my lab people as long as possible (if you go below 50% you lose all benefits, health insurance prominently among them). I could do this because I had no children to raise and educate, though it has seriously affected my retirement and disability benefits.

While I was marching to my malnourished but stubborn inner drummer, the NIH payline was steadily falling. It now stands at around 7% which means one in fifteen grants gets funded – or that we must send in fifteen grants to get one. Academic institutions, grown accustomed to the NIH largesse, have put more and more of their faculty on largely or entirely soft salaries. At the same time, grants are essentially the sole determinant for promotion and tenure – for those universities that still have tenure. Additionally, universities have decided to run themselves like corporations and use the indirect funds (money the NIH pays to institutions for administrative and infrastructure support) to build new buildings named after their board members, hire ever more assistant vice presidents and launch pet projects while labs get charged for everything from telephone bills to postdoc visas. Essentially, at this point most US biomedical researchers are employed by the NIH and their universities rent them lab space at markup prices comparable to Pentagon toilet seat tarifs.

Meanwhile, the NIH has been changing grant formats for the sake of streamlining (an odd objective, given its mission). We used to have three pages to respond to reviewers. Now we have one. We were able to send last-minute discoveries or paper acceptances that would make the difference between success and failure. Now we cannot. We used to get detailed critiques. Now we get bullet points. We were allowed three tries. Now we’re allowed two. If our two-strikes-and-we’re-out submission fails, we must change our work “substantially” (nebulously defined, and up to the interpretation of individual NIH officers) and to ensure compliance, the NIH has invested in software that combs past grants to uncover overlap. And of course there is essentially no appeal except for resubmission: the NIH appeal process, such as it is, has been copied from Kafka’s Trial.

All these changes are essentially guaranteeing several outcomes: young people will have fewer and fewer chances (or reasons) to become researchers or independent investigators; new and small labs will disappear; and despite lip service to innovation, research will seek refuge into increasingly safer topics and/or become “big ticket” science, doing large-scale politically dictated projects in huge labs that employ lots of robots and low-level technicians — a danger foreseen by Eisenhower in his famous “military industrial complex” address which today would label him as fringe hard left. A recent analysis by MIT’s Tech Review showed that biomedical work still timidly clusters around the few areas that have already been trampled into flatness, ignoring the far vaster unknown territories opened up by the human genome sequencing project and its successors.

Of course, we biomedical researchers have played a significant role in our own slaughter. Because of the unavoidable necessity of peer review, we have acted as judges, jury and executioners for each other. Like all academic faculty, we’re proud we are “as herdable as cats” and like all white-collar workers we have considered it beneath our dignity to be members of a union. Our only (weak and vanishing) protection has been tenure. Many of us are proud to demonstrate how much hazing we can take, how little we need to still produce publishable, fundable science while still carrying the burdens of mentoring, committee work, teaching… The early rounds of cuts were called “pruning dead wood” or “trimming fat”. Except that for the last two decades we haven’t been cutting into fat but into muscle – and now, into bone. Too, keeping ahead of the never-abating storm swells presupposes not only a lot of luck and/or the ability to tack with the winds of scientific fashion but also personal relationships with granite foundations and cast-iron health.

In my case, after my second hiatus I succeeded into landing two small grants that last two years. The day I found out one of them would be funded was the day I was interviewing at the NIH for a branch administrator position. I turned down that offer, with its excellent terms. My heart is irrevocably tied to research. I had not abandoned my home, my country, my culture to become an administrator — even though the position I was offered can make or break other people’s research. One month after the second of these small grants got activated, I got my cancer diagnosis. Being on soft money meant I could not suspend the grant during my surgery and recovery: my health bills would have driven me to penury. So the productivity suffered accordingly. But such factors are not considered during grant review.

Biology is an intrinsically artisan discipline: unlike physics, it cannot be easily reduced to a few large truths reached by use of increasingly larger instruments. Instead, it looks like a crazy quilt of intricately interwoven threads (take a look at the diagram of any biological pathway and you get the picture, let alone how things translate across scales). Some argue that larger labs are likelier to be innovative, because they have the money to pursue risky work and the gadgets to do so. However, it has been my personal experience that large labs are often large because they pursue fashionable topics with whatever techniques are hot-du-jour, regardless of the noise and artifacts they generate (plus their heads have time for politicking at all kinds of venues). They also have enormous burnout rates and tend to train young scientists by rote and distant proxy.

Granted, we need big-science approaches; but we need the other kind, too – the kind that is now going extinct. And it’s the latter kind that has given us most of the unexpected insights that have translated into real knowledge advances, often from neglected, poorly lit corners of the discipline.

Now I’m not all I thought I’d be,
I always stayed around:
I’ve been as far as Mercy and Grand,
Frozen to the ground.
I can’t stay here and I’m scared to leave;
Just kiss me once and then
I’ll go to hell —
I might as well
Be whistlin’ down the wind.
— Tom Waits, Whistle down the Wind

Images: 1st, Sand Lily Shadow (Tudio, Falassarna, Crete); 2nd, I Stand Alone (Michellerena, Burnie, Tasmania); 3rd, Sea Gate (Peter Cassidy, Heron Island, Australia)