Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for June, 2012

Republizombie Armies Checked — For Now

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

The Supreme Court, though it’s supremely conservative by my definition, narrowly upheld the Affordable Health Care law (its Three Bush-appointed Stooges, surprising nobody, voted as expected; during earlier arguments, the indescribable Scalia tried to equate health insurance with being forced to eat broccoli, which makes one wonder exactly how he made it past kindergarten, let alone  to a pivotal lifelong judicial appointment).

It’s ironic to see Mitt Romney, in his pathetic effort to ingratiate himself to the lunatic fringe, become a pretzel by bashing a law essentially based on the mandate he himself developed for Massachusetts.  It’s also funny to see CNN and FauxNews commit the “Dewey beats Truman” error with the full panoply of talking heads and floating news banners — probably because they wanted so much to see the law defeated that they didn’t bother to listen closely to the ruling.  Or maybe they got confused because it contained words of more than single syllables.  Too, it’s funny in a bitter sense to hear House Republicans, who are doubly covered in terms of health, bleat about individual freedoms.  Perhaps they should spend a month without coverage — I suspect that just having to pay for their Vi*agra would cause an epiphany.  These are the same people, incidentally, who are pushing for full government ownership and monitoring of women’s wombs.

The US is the sole First-World country not to have universal or near-universal health coverage.  Having health care tied to employers is a recipe for abuse and avalanches of paperwork from the private insurance companies (which is one of the major reason for spiraling costs but who cares as long as the shareholders are happy!).  The specter of bankruptcy hovers over everyone in this nation who has anything beyond a routine illness.  Having gone through a bout of cancer, I can tell you that the bills look unreal: they are meant to confuse and discourage.  They require a professional accountant to parse and a professional enforcer to straighten out.  I can’t imagine how someone without insurance would cope.  There is consensus that the system is not working, and even foaming-at-the-mouth Teabaggers actually come out in favor of many provisions of the healthcare bill if they get asked about the merits of individual items (as long as the unmentionable name “Obama” doesn’t come up).  Among these are allowing children to stay on their parents’ policies up to 26 years of age; and the removal of the dreadful “pre-existing condition” clause.

Not surprisingly, Republithugs are vowing to go for a total repeal of the law and will obviously use the Supreme Court decision to rally their zombie armies for November.  On the other hand, it looks like there is steady and growing support of the single-payer alternative.  But the goons who have kidnapped the Republican party do not care if they turn this nation into a smoking hole in the ground.  They are set on some version of Rapture, all else is incidental.  Those who planted and fed these dragons’ teeth knew this was bound to happen: the current outcome, which threatens to engulf the entire world, was not a bug but a feature.  For them it’s all a game, since they can retire to private islands in countries where they can have slaves.  For the rest of us, it’s our lives, those of our children and the future of whatever civilization we can keep safe from the constant onslaught of people whose fear has been skillfully channeled into hate.

Close Your Eyes and Think of Apóllon

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

The Oracle of Dhelfoí, known by her title of Pythía, was the closest equivalent to a shaman in classical Hellenic culture. In the official version, she delivered her prophecies by entering into a trance and becoming possessed by Apóllon – or by the displaced original owner of that temple and its myth: Python, the serpent/dragon that signified The Great Goddess.

In reality, the prophecies were almost certainly formulated after information had been gleaned from informants and spies (which explains the fabled ambiguity that earned Apóllon the moniker Loxías, Slanted). As for the trance, some archaeologists have linked it to the hallucinogenic effects of ethylene gas, which could have been released into air and water from the hydrocarbon reservoir beneath the limestone strata whenever the bedrock around the temple shifted or cracked. Many argue that the Pythíai were just mouthpieces for Apóllon’s “interpreter” priests. However, the fact that they were post-menopausal women from families of good standing (which, outside Athens, usually implied a modicum of education) suggests that they were more than mere passive vessels. They may have exerted real political influence behind the veils of incense, mystical blather and suffocating male authority. Either way the temple was a hive of political intrigue, as can be garnered from the surviving lists of who consulted it and what replies they received.

Given the influence of Dhelfoí and the centrality of the oracles to its function, it’s surprising that there have been so few stories about the temple’s doings. I can only recall two: Jenny Blackford’s novel The Priestess and the Slave (Hadley Rille, 2009) and Barry King’s novella Pythia (Colored Lens, Spring 2012). Both have problems that nag at me, but they’re not the disasters that often result when Anglo writers attempt to recreate another culture from the inside – especially classical Hellenic culture, which is invariably treated as public domain.

The two works share more than just their focus; they:

– eschew heroic/famous protagonists in favor of ordinary people;
– are first-person narrations by women who are decidedly non-kickass;
– take place in the same time period, just before the Persian wars (The Priestess and the Slave consists of two stories told in alternating chapters that never intertwine or converge; one of them centers on a Pythía, so I will discuss just this strand vis-à-vis King’s novella);
– incorporate extensive research and wear this effort on their chitons;
– use the occasional Hellenic word to increase verisimilitude;
– teeter on preciousness and melodrama but also contain passages of vivid prose;
– contain a fair amount of cliché situations and cookie-cutter dialogue;
– have many secondary characters that are two-dimensional stereotypes.

The first two choices are unusual, especially in combination: most writers delving in that era chose aristocratic men as protagonists, because they were free to roam physically and intellectually, able to initiate and/or witness pivotal events. The few exceptions (Bagoas in Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, Xeones in Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, Sappho in Peter Green’s The Laughter of Aphrodite) are either commoner men or noble women. Only Lykaina in Ellen Frye’s The Other Sappho is a common woman (though a gifted one), like Blackford’s and King’s protagonists.

This combination made me read both works very closely. My verdict is that Blackford treats her protagonist and starting material better than King does his, despite his stylistic bravura. As Pythíai, the narrators must deal with fake prophecies connected to Spartan ambitions: King Kleomenes in The Priestess, a soldier called Trivviastes (more about names anon) in Pythia. Both priestesses find themselves involved in events that could change the fate of many, and here is where the authors’ approaches diverge. In simplified terms, The Priestess is adult Apollonian history whereas Pythia is adolescent Dionysian fantasy. Fittingly, the totem of The Priestess is a wolf, that of Pythia, a lion(ess) – animals linked to different aspects of Apóllon, though the latter is more closely associated with his sister Ártemis, The Mistress of Animals.

Thrasylla, the narrator of The Priestess, exhibits stoic endurance and the clear-eyed, slightly weary worldview of a woman in her fifties. She had an arranged marriage to a decent, average smallholder and mourned a stillborn daughter and subsequent barrenness. She believes in the gods, but calmly, matter-of-factly. There’s no rapture in the duties she discharges soberly and scrupulously. Iola, the narrator of Pythia, is young, a virgin who starts having ecstatic, orgasmic visions after a brick falls on her head in the storeroom where she’s hiding while a Spartan soldier is raping her mother. Whereas Thrasylla tries to guide a fellow priestess who is seduced by riches (the Pythíai were a rotating triad during the temple’s heyday), Iola abandons herself to the god inside her head who manifests as was customary with his type: a playmate who morphs between human and animal, lover and ravisher.

The Priestess retains an even temper and tempo throughout; there are no jolts in it and its ending is open. It is also a relatively linear narrative, with minor flashbacks when Thrasylla thinks back on her younger years (especially her encounter with a rabid wolf, which highlights the combination of uncanniness and pragmatism that makes her an effective Oracle). Thankfully – for me, at least – Thrasylla is a rounded character who does not need to embark on a quest nor has “unfinished business”, the near-obligatory gimmicks that drive too much genre fiction. She is a fully grown human firmly embedded in her context. Despite the gender hobbling of that time and place, her privileged position gives her some power; she is aware of the consequences of wielding it but does not sidestep the associated responsibility.

Pythia reads like an angsty teenager’s diary; it’s full of jolts and indulges in time jumps to such an extent that they make the story’s sidelines hard to track (although plot is not a primary concern – it’s a Cinderella tale with Apóllon as fairy godfather). Iola is a survivor of traumatic events that broke her both physically and mentally, though they also gave her the visions that secured her the position of an atypically young Pythía. Given this premise, it is inevitable that she’s fixated on reconstituting herself and her family and avenging the wrongs done to them. However, the responsibilities of power frighten her, so she decides to “trust the Force.” Lo and behold, when she abandons all agency not only does the villain get his comeuppance but her mother and adoptive father miraculously reappear – married to each other, yet, and owners of a solid homestead where Iola can remain happily ever after.

The Apollonian/Dionysian distinction carries into the stories’ styles. The Priestess adheres to plainness that sometimes shades into grittiness. This decision means that The Priestess lacks the “echoes” that make a story haunt its reader. One example is Thrasylla’s temptation to investigate the Python legend, which is left to lie fallow. Another is the total absence – even in rumor – of Ghorghó, daughter of King Kleoménis, wife of King Leonídhas (of Thermopylai fame), and a formidable political presence in her own right. The sole flourish is the wolf leitmotif, which surfaces whenever there are glimpses of the madness of power. Pythia, besides Iola’s visions (which contain beautiful, if overheated passages) has two symbol-laden recurring images: the serpent, morphing from regenerating lizard to chthonic dragon, the older manifestation of the god that once was a goddess; and the cracked pot, which brings to mind the endless rows of fragmented, imperfectly reconstituted ceramics in museums.

At the same time, it is clear that Blackford has been to Hellás whereas the physical background of King’s story, painstaking research notwithstanding, is the generic “Mediterranean” that also mars such otherwise interesting efforts as Rachel Swirsky’s retelling of Ifighénia’s tale, A Memory of Wind. This difference carries into two other domains: the historic underpinnings of the stories and the names of the characters. Blackford makes the historical references plain in her characters’ dialogue, whereas King omits names and otherwise obscures events to such an extent that even someone steeped in Hellenic history cannot follow without an effort. This may be an attempt to reinforce the mythic atmosphere of the story, but it ends up as a distracting affectation. The names Blackford gives her characters ring mostly true, though she strikes a few false notes; King’s name choices are less fortunate. Spazakia (Iola’s nickname, which is supposed to mean Broken) is plural neuter – plus it is contemporary Hellenic, not classical. The villain is given the subtle name Trivviastes… which means Thrice-Rapist, not a name that even a hard-bitten Spartan parent would endorse.

The result is that Blackford’s novel sustains suspension of disbelief despite its workman prose and even when her characters’ actions are so contrived as to reek of soap opera (such as a seasoned Pythía literally pouting over her colleagues’ jewelry). In contrast, King’s novella, despite its layers and beautiful passages, punctures illusion because of the disempowered protagonist who embodies a gendered cliché, the too many coincidences, the forced obscurity and – for me, specifically – the names.  I appreciate what each author tried to achieve; I also appreciate the effort they obviously put into researching the background of their stories. Yet both works could have been far more resonant with a demanding editor and a few more discussions with natives of the culture they chose to depict.  If anyone wants to see the theme of a wounded young woman beset by visions treated well, I recommend Evghenía Fakínou’s Astradhení, which I discussed in The Unknown Archmage of Magic Realism.

Images: Aeghéas consulting the Pythía, red-figure kylix, ~450 BCE; Jenny Blackford’s The Priestess and the Slave — its cover depicts another notoriously ambiguous Oracle; Candice Raquel Lee’s Pythia, what the Oracle might have been like pre-Apóllon.

Uppity Women and Neo-Nazi Rabid Dogs

Saturday, June 9th, 2012

[Note: the video that shows the incident I am about to describe has gone viral. I won’t link to any of its versions, because most of the comments are literally nauseating. ]

On Wednesday, Hellenic TV station Ant1 held a discussion roundtable with parliamentary members from six of the seven major political parties. Among them were two women: 38-year old Réna Dhoúrou of SYRIZA, the leftist party that came unexpectedly a very close second in the May elections, upsetting the usual cozy arrangements; and 58-year old Liána Kanélli of KKE, the Communist party (the only one in the world that’s still staunchly Stalinist, but that’s another conversation). Kanélli is notorious – an outspoken, spirited, if arrogant firebrand, widely considered to be a lesbian (bear with me, this becomes relevant anon). As a reporter, she was the first woman in many media venues. Also invited to the talk show was 31-year-old Elías Kasidhiáris, deputy of the neo-nazi party Golden Dawn.

For those sequestered in silently running nuclear submarines, Golden Dawn got 7% of the vote in the May elections, gaining seats in the parliament – the first time such a thing has happened since World War II (not counting the junta). Its platform is the standard troglodytic garbage: ethnic purity, “natural” order – which includes the de jure disenfranchisement of women and Others – and bodily violence against those who disagree. Its members regularly assault immigrants, minorities and journalists as well as other “undesirables”, with tolerance (if not cooperation) from the police and portions of the media. Mass murderer Anders Breivik listed Golden Dawn in his diary as the likeliest group to “cleanse” Europe.

It came as no surprise that the vast majority of the half million who voted for Golden Dawn were people craving “law and order” in a country that increasingly lacks the resources to deal effectively and humanely with its flood of illegal immigrants… and policemen. Kasidhiáris himself is on trial for participating in the robbery and stabbing of an academic in 2007 (as is customary with Hellenic justice, the trial has been repeatedly postponed). Yet this did not prevent him from running and getting elected for national office.

To anyone speaking Hellenic, it becomes obvious when you watch the video that Kasidhiáris was as well-informed as Sarah Palin. The two women, Kanélli in particular, let him know this. His response was standard: first he accused them of bringing “personal matters” (namely, his impending trial) into politics. Then, after a brief exchange of verbal insults, he flung a glass of water at Dhoúrou’s face. The three male politicians present sat through this like statues while the talk host made feeble mewling noises. The only one who did something was Kanélli, who went toward Kasidhiáris brandishing a newspaper.

To show that he doesn’t take guff from uppity broads, even ones old enough to be his mother, Kasidhiáris jumped out of his seat and hit Kanélli three times. On the face. The first was a slap. The other two were left-right closed-fist punches.

He then threatened he would “return with reinforcements” and somehow managed to escape from the TV station to “parts unknown” (almost certainly the offices of Golden Dawn) to avoid the automatic arrest warrant for assault which, by a quirk of Hellenic law, expires within 48 hours of its issue. The police, not surprisingly, have been “unable to find him” – even though he issued a lengthy (and presumably traceable) statement from his ultra-secret location, in which he said that Kanélli should be the one to be arrested and face assault charges because she “attacked him first”. The head of his party stuck by him, arguing that the incident had been blown out of proportion and, in any case, the two women are really to blame because, well, they provoked him and what’s a manly man to do except respond (literally) two-fistedly?

Sound familiar? The tactics of cowardly bullies do not change across time and cultures. Yet even more mind-boggling is the enormous number of people who opined anonymously online that “the cunt had it coming” and “finally, someone put the fat ugly dyke in her place.” Kanélli infuriates many people because she won’t shut up or back down; she has been bodily attacked before as a symbol of “corrupt politics”, even though her party has never governed the country (incidentally, I disagree with many of her positions, but that’s irrelevant to this discussion).

So the obvious solution to society’s ills is to beat this outspoken woman until she stops speaking, the traditional “remedy” for termagants who do not exhibit the feminine virtues of compliance and silence. When this happens people cheer gleefully, not realizing that thugs like Kasidhiáris make no distinctions: everything around them gets smashed. Women are just the canaries in this particular mine. They are the first to become non-humans whenever fascism raises its banner, making hatred and fear steeds for its chariot. Kanélli made the point explicitly after the assault: “It happened to be my face,” she said, “but there are many faces that get hit by these people – faces of weak and scared victims that we never see.”

The only good thing about this incident, the latest of many, is that it may act as a wake-up call to all those who thought they were striking a blow against the despised political status quo by voting for Golden Dawn. Democracy has always been wobbly in the land that invented it. My parents lived through repression and persecution; I lived through the colonels’ junta. I don’t want to see my people repeat the horrific mistake of giving power to beasts who wear the skins of humans.

Images: 1st, Liána Kanélli; 2nd, Réna Dhoúrou

Related articles:

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

False Dawn or Challenge to Germanic Hegemony?

Update 1: A representative of the Cypriot equivalent of Golden Dawn was asked on TV, “Do you consider it right to hit a woman?” His response: “Do you consider Kanélli a woman?” Beyond confirming how neo-nazis define “real” women, this particular rabid dog also conveniently elided that being “womanly” has never protected women from getting beaten, raped or killed.

Update 2: The head of Golden Dawn stated that Kasidhiáris didn’t hit Kanélli, he “just kept her at a distance with his hands” — and what’s with this sudden chivalry, don’t bitches claim they want equal treatment? It would be funny if it weren’t chilling.

Update 3: Kasidhiáris, tightly surrounded by half a dozen “companions”, showed up at a police precinct as soon as the 48 hours elapsed to sue Dhoúrou, Kanélli and the TV station, and to demand that the state put taps on the phone of everyone he sued as well as on the phone of the (female) justice who issued his arrest warrant.

Ain’t Evolvin’: The Cookie Cutter Self-Discovery Quest

Monday, June 4th, 2012

I’ve been an addicted bookworm ever since I taught myself to read at the age of four. My parents never restricted my book access, leaving me to roam untrammeled through full-bore fiction and non-fiction from the get-go. My fairy tales and myths were unexpurgated; so was my country’s painful history, unfolding right before my eyes. Whenever I dipped into “age-appropriate” books, I detested the didacticism, the insipidity, the contrived dilemmas. Even with my limited life experience, I knew watery gruel when I tasted it.

So I hardly ever read Young Adult (YA) works, even when I was YA myself. From time to time I try again, only to confirm that my allergy appears to be permanent. This puts me in several quandaries: SF/F, one of my mainstay genres, has an enormous YA component – in fact, can be considered YA almost in its entirety in terms of its proclivities; the YA domain is a major venue for women writers and a major showcase for women protagonists. Yet I constantly run into bumps, even when authors try hard… sometimes, especially when authors try hard.

One of these bumps is magic, which I find tiresome with few and ever fewer exceptions. Most fantasy magic is paper-thin, incoherent and shifts arbitrarily to fit plot points and generate dei ex machina (two better-than-average recent fantasies, Sherwood Smith’s The Banner of the Damned and Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts would have been far better works without magic, in my opinion). Another is the persistent neoteny I discussed in a previous essay. Within that category, a near-constant irritant is the “finding one’s self” theme endemic in Anglophone YA fiction. Which brings us once again to cultural parochialism, lack of imagination, possibly market niche cynicism… plus that dreaded term: agency.

“Finding one’s self” appears as a near-default trope for a culture obsessed with youth’s trappings (Flat bellies! Hard muscles! Perky breasts and perkier penises!) that still believes in the libertarian myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps: the idea that you can become rich, famous and powerful provided you’re Chosen and that everyone has a near-infinity of choices for everything, from their breakfast cereal to their identity. So in a standard YA – and not just YA – story arc the protagonist must find himself (I use the male pronoun deliberately, since this narrative is essentially defined by masculine/masculinized parameters), usually through a conflict that ticks off the ersatz-mythic checklist points of the Campbel/lite quest.

Reading bits of contemporary YA SF/F (a few pages at a time is the most I can manage before breaking out in hives) it hit me why “personal growth” quests are omnipresent in them: most of the stories are products of cookie cutters. The characters are not individualized enough to register as fully dimensional people, so the canned conflicts are meant to give them some substance as well as move the standardized plot along (including the almost-mandatory assembly of the quest team, a direct import from RPG games). There is no personality delineation beyond occasional resort to verbal tricks for quick recognition, which is one reason why almost all the recent SF/F YA works I read form a single lumpy blur in my memory banks.

Mind you, Homer used such tricks: “gray-eyed Athena”, “horse-fighting Hector”. However, these occurred in a long oral epic in which they served as memory aids to both bard and audience. Furthermore, Homer did not confine his characterizations to these shortcuts. We know what Hector felt when he took leave of Andromache and Astyanax. We know what Achilles felt when Priam was begging him for Hector’s body. Homer (or whoever wrote the Iliad) did not have to write those passages, they’re not critical to the forward motion of the epic. But by doing so, the bard made us care – and Andromache, trying not to weep as she watches her husband’s jaunty helmet plume dwindle in the distance, brands herself in our memory.

The default setting of semi-infinite flexibility also plays a role in the boilerplate depictions of what constitutes self discovery. An occasional critique I get for my fiction is that my protagonists are usually fully formed when my stories start and don’t “evolve” to satisfy the growth-through-adversity mandate. Sort of like Antigone and Odysseus, who also appear fully formed, even though their actions are shaped by the sum of their external and internal circumstances. Yet I doubt either would be considered a dull thud: they have urgent lives to manage beyond just “growing into their full potential”.

My native culture has undergone more than its share of upheavals, and the ensuing hardship and instability make it less able to luxuriate in choices; by both tradition and necessity, it also demands that its members make many crucial life decisions early – and often the choices are constrained so strongly that they appear almost preordained. These constraints, incidentally, also hold for such domains as contemporary research science. For someone with my cultural background and professional experiences, the concept of fiction protagonists spending endless sequels rolling dice for their D&D designations appears neither organic nor compelling.

Not surprisingly, this brings us to agency – women characters’ agency in particular. Agency – aka women as more than decorative or useful furniture – has been a perennial issue in speculative fiction, especially in the grittygrotty pornokitch subgenre cave. On parallel lines, people have observed that the still-too-sparse SF/F women protagonists are deemed fully worthy only if they “kick ass” (with video game prototypes like Lara Croft leading the way). However, the problem is more systemic than that: characters of all ages get shoehorned into the Procrustean bunkbed of the teenage self-discovery quest. This is simply more obvious for women because, with the exception of the occasional magical crone, most SF/F hardly ever shows women past the age of “peak attractiveness” – which for the US has been relentlessly shifting to the younger and thinner end of the spectrum, except for the obligatory pneumatic breasts.

In almost all SF/F YA works we rarely if ever see full adults, especially women, doing the nuanced, shaded things adults do: work at things they care for and often are good at; love, hate and everything in between; create and preserve and sometimes destroy; grow old and experienced, if not always wise; but above all, go through the myriad small struggles and pleasures that constitute a full life. The artificiality and interchangeability of the standard conflicts makes most YA books as individualized (and as nutritional) as movie theater popcorn – in large part because their readers’ cortices register that nothing really crucial is at stake, no matter how many djinn or dark-magic wizards are involved.

To put it simply, heroes in both real life and non-popcorn fiction often have little choice (and to be crystal-clear, “heroes” include non-male people – once again I use the term deliberately because “heroine” has very different connotations). What makes non-messianic people heroes is when in unusual circumstances they surpass their usual selves. Heroes feel fear, doubt, guilt, grief for their actions; what they don’t do is navel-gaze, because they’re busy with far more substantive struggles. Give me an artisan with a thickened waist whose arthritis is hobbling her but who retains the passion to push against formidable obstacles while still appreciating her wine. I’ll take her over all the homogenized teenager Chosen Ones of YA SF/F.

War for the Country

By Viktoría Theodhórou – Poet, resistance fighter

A soft mat she found and sat down, upon the leaves.
A song emerges from the flute of her throat,
softly, so her dozing companions don’t awaken,
just so it accompanies their dreams.
Her hands don’t stay still, she takes up thread and needle
to darn their wool socks with the hand grenade
she always carries at her waist, with it she lies and rises.
The grenade inside the sock, round and oblivious
to its fire, thinks it’s a wooden egg,
that the country was freed and the war ended
and Katia is not a partisan in the snow-covered woods –
that she sits by the window behind the white lilacs
and sews the socks of her beloved, who came home whole.

Images: 1st, Tree of Books, by Vlad Gerasimov; 2nd, Hector and Andromache, Giorgio de Chirico; 3rd, magical crones: Fin Raziel in Willow (Patricia Hayes), The Oracle in The Matrix (Gloria Foster)