"There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture. The most universal article of my own Logic is Distinguo. I always mean to speak well of what is good..."
-Michel de Montaigne, "Of the inconstancy of our actions", tr. M.A. Screech
"There's that word again: heavy. Why are things so heavy in the future?"
-Doc Brown in Back to the Future
And we continue the "'Tis Fifty Years Since" vein of the previous post. It is also fifty years since a somewhat less momentous event: the publication of Hal Clement's hard SF novel Mission of Gravity. Long out of print, Mission is now available as part of a handsome Tor omnibus entitled Heavy Planet, along with the sequel Star Light, some short stories, and the essay "Whirligig World" about the design of the planet Mesklin. It is not, sadly, followed by a note akin to the one that Poul Anderson once received after giving a world-building workshop: "Dear Mr. Anderson, That is not the way I do it. Yours sincerely, God." Also missing is a program Clement once wrote to calculate the shape of Mesklin, which turned out to disagree with that of the books.
Once upon a time I had everything Hal Clement had written, up to the forgettable The Nitrogen Fix, and at some point when I was purging my SF books I think I flushed most of it. Though I went off him at one point, I'm enjoying Heavy Planet - I finished Mission of Gravity and the short stories, and am now in the midst of Star Light. What exactly am I enjoying? It can't be character - all the characters are sketched in great, big brush strokes, and in Mission there are really only three - the Mesklinites Barlennan and Dondragmer, and the human Charles Lackland.
In the grand SF tradition, a big dollop of blatant exposition is probably needed at this point, for those who haven't read this stuff. Mesklin is a planet with 16 times Jupiter's mass, which spins at such an absurdly fast rate that it has the shape of a fried egg ("I wanted to call the book Pancake in the Sky, but Isaac Asimov threatened violence"), and an atmosphere the depth and pressure of Earth's, roughly, instead of being a gas giant. The other significant consequence of the fast rotation is great variation in perceived gravity, due to centrifugal force: from 700g at the poles, to 3g at the equator. (Intuition pump, following some back-of-the-envelope calculations: if you drop an object at 1g, Earth gravity, in one second it will fall 5m and acquire a speed of about 36 km/h. At 700g, it will fall 3.5 kilometres in a second and reach a velocity of about 7 km per second. ) On this planet, a species of exoskeleton-bearing centipedelike organisms, roughly two feet long and two inches in diameter, has evolved sentience and developed a roughly medieval level of technology. Though they mostly live close to the poles, a trader/explorer named Barlennan (like Marco Polo, driven equally by the love of profit and a fascination with the unknown) travels to the equator - the only part of the planet where humans can actually exist, and indeed there are some of us there, and contact is made. This is the back story: at the opening of Mission of Gravity, Barlennan is already well acquainted with the human visitor Lackland. A human probe has crash-landed on Mesklin near the pole, and since, for some incomprehensible reason, it was storing all its data on board instead of transmitting it, the humans ask Barlennan to pretty please take his ship and crew and some cameras and visually scan the instrument readings for them. (For some reason, it seems to frequently become important in SF to abuse a high-bandwidth video link for conveying low-bandwidth information: just off the top of my head, this happens in Sterling's "Green Days in Brunei" and Bujold's The Vor Game. At least in The Vor Game it's being used as a covert channel, which is more defensible.) And off they go.
Neither humans nor Mesklinites really seem to have a culture at all; no religion, no myths, no customs, no taboos. The Mesklinites have a well-developed rational fear of heights (which they define as anything above about an inch - see above for acceleration at 700g) and having things above them (same), but like the human fear of darkness and large predators that's not really culture. There's no sexuality at all; there might be more information in Star Light, but from all you can tell the Mesklinites are all male. It's a very boyish fictional universe, and in a lot of ways that makes it soothing to re-read, for me: humans and aliens interact in a very relaxed meta-culture based on trade, science, and a general respect for the well-being of other sentients. Probably, when I was a teenager failing miserably at understanding the not-very-rational culture of my schoolmates, I found this very reassuring.
So, really, this is science fiction that is actually about science. And since the protagonist is a trader, it is, to a great extent, about applied science, and about the relationship between theoretical understanding and embedded knowledge. The humans have vastly superior theoretical knowledge of physics and chemistry; but time and again it is much less useful than it ought to be, because of their lack of intuition about conditions on Mesklin - and Barlennan picks up on this very quickly. The human advisors lack the embedded experience he and his crew have, but their science is able to supplement Mesklinite informal knowledge. This process of synthesis of being-in-the-world and abstract understanding is, basically, the narrative engine of Mission of Gravity, and the various incidents and setbacks just give it a form. Well, it's a fine boy's adventure story in hundreds of gravities, also.
Barlennan's character is not convincingly alien, really, but the fine balance between wanting to know things for profit and wanting to know them for the sake of interest is a familiar one that I've seen in many a technologist. When he admits to the humans that he could be tempted to give up trading for the sake of learning, I wanted to jump up from my chair and shout "Yeah!"; but when he (or, more usually, Dondragmer) turns a bit of abstract human science into something useful in the world, that makes me smile too.
Small outstanding problem: what does the name 'Mesklin' mean, really? The two things it calls to mind by association are salad greens and a psychoactive drug, and I'm not sure either of those is quite right. Actually, maybe they are closer than they might seem: I find Heavy Planet a nourishing read, even if it doesn't hold up as a novel of character at all ("Salad isn't food! Meat and potatoes are food!"), and as a travelogue to an imaginary alien landscape, where terrestrial assumptions are all wrong, there is much to be said for it too.
"Genius need not always wear an Einstein's saintlike mien."
-James Gleick, Chaos
Google reminds me that today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Crick and Watson's Nature paper on the structure of DNA. The one in which Rosalind Franklin's name is not, so far as memory serves, even mentioned, when by many reasonable standards her contribution was sufficient to warrant a place as co-author.
Watson's memoir The Double Helix was urged on me by my mother, and I enjoyed it; though I took a dislike to Watson himself early on, enough so that I can't recall even registering the abuse he heaps on Franklin. A quick re-flip through the book brings up plenty, which doesn't really seem to be counterbalanced by his sheepish confession in the afterword of a later edition that she deserved more credit. I'm not even sure my mother noticed it; principally she identified with Francis Crick, and always regretted learning that you could be clumsy in the lab and still be a good scientist too late to do anything about it. After all, in the book there's just Watson's opinion, and given his continued loopiness on the subject of eugenics there's every reason not to entertain an opinion of James Watson's very long unless it's actually about biochemistry; the systematic sidelining which Franklin suffered, institutionally as well as from spiteful individuals like Watson, does not appear at all. Again, I am working from memory here, but I would be surprised if Watson saw fit to mention that Franklin was barred from the lunchroom at King's College on grounds of sex.
But then, my mother has also often claimed that you can accomplish anything at all, as long as you don't care who gets the credit; and every evidence is that Rosalind Franklin would have agreed. Still, justice should be done; and general knowledge about Franklin's contribution seems to be diffusing. I've even managed to work in a bland reference to "Crick, Watson and Franklin" while giving a talk, which I was absurdly happy about. Current accounts, I've noticed, tend to work in a cautious note about how she could be a difficult person, so not everything can be explained by sexism; and that's doubtless the case, but of course we have no idea what would have happened had she been extended the tolerance usually due to male scientists with difficult personalities (who exist by the trainload). It's quite clear that both Watson and Crick showed up late and out of breath when they were handing out the social graces, come to that.
For instance: recently David Gelernter cracked me up in this review by referring to James Watson as "His Eminence". Actually, the fragment bears repeating:
...the cheerleaders are not a pretty sight. Someone asks His Eminence James Watson, co-unraveler of DNA, whether "enhancement" isn't a lot like eugenics, the weeding out of genetically inferior human stock. "It's not much fun being around dumb people," Watson answers. Michael West, the first cloner of human embryos, explains why the US Congress is unfit to oversee such affairs: Who wants "insurance salesmen from who knows where," he asks, "pontificating on such important issues?" So much for democracy.
which in turn reminded me of Bart Kosko's pungent dictum from Fuzzy Thinking:
I'd rather be governed by the first five hundred names in the phonebook than by the combined faculties of Stanford and MIT.
which I have to agree with; though, in fact, I'm a strong believer in governance by the unwilling, and this is something that scientists (indeed, all academics) are deeply familiar with - when my department appointed a new chair recently, the general reaction was a desire to send him condolences, rather than congratulations. posted 1:41 PM |
[Wednesday, April 23, 2003]
The very existence of a Charlie's Angels sequel - at least, one which doesn't entirely consist of Lucy Liu dominating computer geeks, fully one-half of the frog's-hair-slender justification for the first movie's existence (the other being Crispin Glover's badassery) - goes some way towards diminishing faith in the cosmic order. A look at some of the details of the IMDB entry does not restore this any:
I forgot "Demented Mongol". This is bad enough in itself, but in this role is Daxing Zhang, fight co-ordinator of note, and the Tough Warder from The Last Emperor - I'm guessing, the one who keeps wringing more confessional out of John Lone, only to eventually wind up publicly humiliated as a capitalist running-dog in the Cultural Revolution. That was a great role - the committed Party man who can be harsh but still has a vision of a better future, not realizing how his leaders have betrayed it. As the "Demented Mongol", however, we can only hope for something slightly less embarrassing than an extra from The Shadow. Yeah, the Alec Baldwin Shadow.
(and a half) Having said that, didn't John Lone already play a demented Mongol in the Alec Baldwin Shadow? "Join me.. orr diiie." Zhang can probably still preserve more pride than either him, or fellow Last Emperor alumnus Peter O'Toole. Bad O'Toole roles are legion, but the one that sticks out most for me was as the monk in a remake of Kim nobody saw, with the least convincing bald wig I've seen in my life. But I was trying to stick to dissing the Charlie's Angels sequel..
The presence of the Olsen Twins, as themselves
Resurrection of Crispin Glover's bad-guy: on the face of it a good sign, this doubtless means he'll be phoning it in, big time
The presence of Shia LaBeouf, star of Holes. Okay, I'm being needlessly nasty, because for all I know he's actually quite talented. But the Holes trailer was irritating as hell, and secondly, dude: your first name is a sect of Islam, and your last is the French for beef, misspelled. Parents of the world, please: not every word can be made into a name!
Please, will Luke Wilson just go away forever?
Not mentioned in the entry, but the unconvincing and unsexy pleather from the first movie will doubtless return
Today is St. George's Day. To the oft-asked question "Where is St. George?": St. George Street is a few flights of stairs from where I'm sitting. Despite the rather nice dragon motif in signs for the subway station, though, it was not named directly for St. George, but for a French émigré businessman who took the name St. George in honour of his adopted country. It's disappointing, but on the other hand Christie Street really is named for Mr. Christie, he of the good cookies.
The legend of St. George is also a reminder of the strands connecting us with ancient Mesopotamia. It's not, cannot be, absolutely certain that there is an unbroken connection between the myth of Marduk's fight with Tiamat (referenced last week in these pages) and the myth of St. George and the dragon. If the connection is real, then there is a commonality of inheritance; if not, then there is a commonality of dreams and fears. Though I admit a preference for the human St. George over four-eyed, four-eared flame-shoots-from-my-mouth-when-I-speak ol' Marduk, who after defeating Tiamat turns to his fellow gods and says "Well, that wore me out. Why don't we create humans to do all the hard work, while we lounge around on the Couch of the Gods hitting 'Smite' and 'Flood' on the Remote of the Gods every so often to keep things from getting tedious?" I'm reluctant to mine historical texts for evidence of ethical progress, but at least we get to kill our own dragons now. The downside being that we no longer have any good reason to build a ziggurat, and I kinda like them; I'm envious of the Mexicans, who have those Aztec step pyramids that Frida Kahlo and Trotsky climbed up in Frida.
"They choke the air and bleed us, these noble men who lead us / So leave the factory, leave the forge, and dance to the new St. George." -Richard Thompson
"St. George he was for England, and when he killed the dragon / He drank a pint of English ale out of an English flagon." -G.K. Chesterton
"Where is St. George? / Oh, where is he, O? He's out in his longboat, all on the salt sea-O." -Padstow May Song, Cornwall
I notice that the 2003 Hugo Award nominees have been announced. Ken was up last year for The Sky Road, but even though Dark Light was a probable candidate for this year it didn't make the cut. Damn. However, China Miéville's The Scar and Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt did make the Best Novel list, and they were two of my favourites; I think the only top-5 novel of mine missing is Karl Schroeder's Permanence, which in its own quiet, soft-spoken way was as subversive of established SF tropes as MacLeod's work. The sympathetic culture of Permanence, the Cycler Compact, is a set of solar systems linked by slower-than-light starships in a framework dependent on mutual aid: systems that defect are 'punished' by receiving less in turn from the others, and having fewer cyclers willing to visit them. One mainstay of the Compact is the meta-religion Permanence, one of whose many functions is seeking the numinous in alien landscapes. And they have a great citizenship ceremony. It's my sense that the culture of Permanence and the Cycler Compact is as much influenced by Schroeder's Mennonite background (and by not-yet-dead Red Toryism) as by game theory or anarcho-socialism; though those, clearly, play a role as well.
There's interesting political ideas in The Years of Rice and Salt, as well: as in Dark Light, interestingly, the culture of the Six Nations provides a source of inspiration. In Dark Light it yielded ideas for an indigenous culture, but in Years of Rice and Salt the Hodenosaunee themselves, being situated much further away from the Chinese colonizers of North America than from European colonizers in our timeline, are able to mount a much more formidable resistance, and enter the 21st century as a second-rank world power, and a general Force For Good. Presumably in the intervening time they got over that nasty prisoner-torturing business which was made so much of in my education, particularly at Catholic school. A few years ago I was working my way through the books of Thomas B. Costain, a historical novelist and popular historian who was popular in this country in the early part of the century, but no longer seems to be read at all except by specialists. The People of the Longhouse are plenty scary in his The White and the Gold, a history of the French regime in Canada ("the spiders of the Finger Lakes" is a typical description), but he juxtaposes a vivid description of the deaths of the Jesuit martyrs with one of the slow, gory execution of Ravaillac, the assassin of King Henri IV of France. It was a perspective I hadn't expected to find; Costain pulled a similar trick on me in The Black Rose, a historical amble from post-Conquest England via the Near East and the Silk Road to China. The protagonist loads up on Chinese high-tech to bring back to the west, for fun and profit, and it all sinks; when he returns to Europe, the sight of knights riding to the Crusade, formerly stirring, just depresses him: he sees it for the bloody waste of lives and resources it is. Mind you, this is less surprising, on a little thought: as in Walter Scott, we get the voice of the bourgeois triumphant, smirking at the counterproductiveness of the old order. Maybe, though, all that Chinese cargo would have destroyed what was good about the medieval European social order, as well as the folly: not that we didn't do it all by ourselves with great thoroughness.
Ahh, there's a big "we", isn't there? There's much talk about communication between cultures, but of course this concept has a scent of the statistical to it: communication actually happens between individuals. As an anglo, I have the privilege of mostly not speaking for my culture: any opinions I express are considered to be my own, and not those of my employer, Consolidated White Folks Ltd. There are times when I would like to speak for some group I am identifiable with - generally English Canadians, descendants of Irish Catholics, or products of the culture of Latin Christendom. On the flip side, though, I've seen how people's faces fall when somebody asks them "As a [member of group], what do you think about [issue]?" enough so that I only ever do this, with lots of qualifiers, if curiosity utterly overwhelms me. The ulterior motive underlying some of this kind of questioning was nicely subjected to bright light in this article recently.
Anyway, back to the Hugos. I've been thinking of late that one of the nice things about speculative fiction is that it provides a way to do relatively safe thought experiments about cultures: safe, as in free from the pitfalls of attempting to speak for a culture that's actually lived. In The Scar, some of the major strands are the idea of loyalty to a place in spite of the flaws of its institutions, and how such loyalty can be used and abused; the question of how desirable a just society is if you aren't allowed to leave; the place of myths and tales in the making of power structures. This is all done through invented cultures, and even though in the city of New Crobuzon there's more than a small hint of Miéville's native London, it's clearly not just a disguise. In The Years of Rice and Salt, all the cultures are real ones - principally China, Islam, and the Hodenosaunee, though others play a role too - but they are altered by the complete devastation of Europe in a much-more-virulent Black Death.
I'm happy, as well, to note that Miyazaki's Spirited Away is nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation, though I don't hold out high hopes for it to win. There is not much by way of politics or sociology in Spirited Away, but its dream logic seems to thread together elements drawn from different folkloric and literary traditions with complete seamlessness, and I'm sure there's something very important about that too.
I'm hugging the kid to my side and looking at the cheerful, chatting faces, and thinking Just you wait, you bankers! Just you wait! Our day will come, again.
This weekend I attempted to see the new Christopher Guest and Co. outing, A Mighty Wind, twice, only succeeding on the second attempt. The first time I ended up sitting in the lavishly appointed - yet somehow still uncomfortable - Varsity VIP room watching Lost in La Mancha instead.
This is the documentary of Terry Gilliam's ill-fated attempt to film Don Quixote. Well, not quite: what he's trying to film is in fact The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a postmodern take on the story in which Johnny Depp, as a modern-day adman, travels back in time and becomes Sancho Panza. A very svelte Sancho Panza - you'd think even the Quixote would notice that his right-hand man Lefty had dropped a few stone. The movie doesn't exist, and I haven't see the full screenplay or storyboards, so I ought to withhold judgement, but actually this to me sounded like a terrible idea.
However, it did yield the hilarious scene where Depp, as adman/Panza, holds a live fish in his hands and cusses it out: "You fuckin' wanna fuck with me? Huh? Fucker." Meanwhile, the crew desperately tries to get Rosinante to amble forward and push him into the pond, to no avail; the investors look on, and to their eternal credit none of them seemed to have hunted, despairing looks on their faces.
The movie hits the Gilliam-as-Quixote note in many places, though maybe the Gilliam-as-own-worst-enemy could have been brought out more: for instance, the scene near the beginning where he smilingly tells the crew "Please tell me if you can't do anything, so I can keep from making a fool of myself" rings false even then, and when he later snarls at an assistant "Why didn't you tell me we were fucked?", it's perfectly clear why they didn't tell him: because he would have bitten their heads off. Much is made of what an unmitigated disaster Baron Munchausen was, though actually I liked it enough to see it twice. I probably won't see it again, because it demonstrates how much Sarah Polley has aged since then: by now, I doubt I could even stand the contrast between Joe's So Mean To Josephine and the present day. Oh well. On the other hand, John Neville doubtless still looks exactly the same, but ever since Regeneration he gives me the creeps, through no fault of his own. (Okay, really, it's through the fault of him being a very good actor, but not good enough that a new role can make me forget how scary-ass he was in Regeneration.)
Sunday night I did manage to see A Mighty Wind, and this was a much more rewarding experience. The two poles of the cast are Bob Balaban as Jonathan Steinbloom, the obsessive-compulsive (all the reviews say anal-retentive, but I know OCD when I see it) son of Moses Asch-like folk impresario Irving Steinbloom, whose death kicks off the action, and Eugene Levy as Mitch Cohen, former half of singing duo Mitch & Mickey, and now borderline schizophrenic. Actually, you sense that Mitch has always been that way, except that he lost the ability to channel it productively. In one of the film's many funny-sad moments, Catherine O'Hara's Mickey reads out the first poem Mitch wrote to her, while in the hospital with his jaw wired shut: I can't reproduce it, but it is a short lyric about yearning for a vision of misty loveliness. Levy leans forward and says: "I really just wanted a glass of water." It's a laugh, and it sounds like ordinary stage banter, but actually you sense that he is dead serious: we've heard him talk that way about mundane things several times during the movie, in a halting, monotonous stutter. It underlines in a flash of lightning so much of why and how their relationship was so dysfunctional, and really how messed up they were to start with. Mitch & Mickey are an amalgam of any number of real-life folk couples: Ian and Sylvia Tyson are usually cited, but the disconnect between Mitch's obsessions and Mickey's painfully needy definition of herself in terms of him brings Richard and Linda Thompson to mind, and the slow, painful unravelling their relationship, as recalled by themselves and onlookers, recalls that of Bob Dylan's relationship with Joan Baez as shown in Don't Look Back l. (Now that was a documentary that didn't make nice to its principal subject: I don't think I've ever forgiven Dylan for that scene where he carefully, systematically humiliates an eager young fan.)
The spotlight is entirely on the more commercial end of the folk music revival. The three guys who played Spinal Tap (Guest, McKean, and Shearer) incarnate the most authentic of the acts, the Kingston Trio-esque Folksmen, but despite their mutterings about what sellouts the squeaky-clean Main Street Singers are and were, the Folksmen are pretty pop. None of their numbers are traditional, there's no hint that, a la Pete Seeger or Alan Lomax, they ever actually collected songs; no hint, basically, that the music we're hearing was part of an attempt to draw from a long, unbroken tradition. It may have been a ham-handed attempt, putting the music to political ends that didn't fit well, robbing it of much of its power and originality by forcing it into standard 19th-century harmonizations and strict rhythm with no room for improvisation, and marginalizing the mostly-poor, mostly-Appalachian, mostly-not-very-telegenic population who had actually maintained the tradition in the first place, but the attempt was real. Ebert complained that the left-wing politics of the original folk revival had been effaced; that's a valid complaint, but to my mind it's the disappearance of that connection to a continuous tradition which is more serious. But if that had been shown, we would have had a different take on things: rather than the Spinal Tap-like spectacle of slightly sad but likeable obsessives trying to excel in something which is inherently lightweight, and basically succeeding, we would have seen sad but likeable obsessives trying to excel in something that they weren't, for the most part, capable of understanding at all, and that would have probably either tipped the balance of funny/sad overwhelmingly to sad, or alternatively tipped the balance of gentle/mocking humour very much to mocking, and in either case the tone would have been different and noticeably darker. But there would have been some idea of the good and the beautiful which I thought was sort of missing, because I'm sort of old-fashioned like that.
That criticism of the setting aside, though, I actually think this is a great movie. Eugene Levy is very, very good: though clearly mentally ill, and only barely able to handle tasks like travelling by bus and showing up for a concert on time, we never feel sorry for him: he also shows a formidable intelligence and musical and verbal talent. Nobody actually says "What a noble mind is here o'erthrown", but you sense that the Mitch Cohen we would have seen before his delicate balance was lost would have overwhelmed everybody else on screen even more than he does now.
Oh, yeah, and it is funny. Good moments: one of the New Main Street Singers explaining how her former life as a porn star led to folk music: "I learned to play the ukulele for a role in Not-so-Tiny Tim." Bob Balaban, getting twitchier and twitchier as the show approaches, criticizing everything in the theatre, from the flower arrangement: "These branches are at eye level, someone could poke their eye out; and elderly people could trip on these vines" to the set: "Can you have a real three-dimensional object next to a flat one painted to look three-dimensional? Does that work? Why isn't the back painted?" while Michael Hitchcock, as the bowtied theatre manager gets shirtier and shirtier: "Yes, those are the lights. That thing above them is the ceiling." Finally, Hitchcock loses it and just bops Balaban on the top of his bald head, not hard but resoundingly. I'm certain it was unscripted (I don't know how much improv was involved; supposedly a lot, but presumably there was a skeletal script and a lot of re-takes), and it was the perfect way to end that scene.
And everyone else under the sun has levelled this criticism, and it's valid enough that I'll add my chorus: not enough Parker Posey! If I was Christopher Guest, and I had a Parker Posey, I'd Parker in the morning, Parker in the evening, y'all know the rest. It's hard to give everyone in an ensemble cast time to shine, but if Fred Willard got all that time to do his rubber face and hyena laugh, Parker Posey should've had plenty more opportunities to deliver the funny.
Final word: I have some issues, but, really, this has been one of the most memorable movies I've seen this year. I woke up the next morning still thinking about the characters, who were really given lives of their own. It's not just funny, but actually a comedy.
Life Imitating Art Postscript: on my way home to the subway, a mighty wind did indeed blow up along Bloor Street, whipping dust into my eyes. And, cycling along the waterfront the next day, I got a good look at the new power-generating windmill at Exhibition Place. It is too high to tilt at, probably fortunately, but though minimal and white it is actually quite striking to look at, and when you are up close it makes a very low, pleasant hum.