midnight oil…

Growing up I was not introduced to worship and faith in what I would describe as a helpful manner. That having been said, several members of my extended family were quite religious. The manner of their practice focused on the prohibitions and consequences rather than anything that could be described as love or virtue. I did get the lesson that we – human beings – were to oppose evil but there wasn’t any clear indication of an effective methodology.

Early on my experience with God distilled to an unrelenting and judgmental view of humans, in which they were essentially worthless, while giving them the loftiest of assignments. It isn’t remotely logical even to someone in grade school.

By the time I was twelve years old I divorced myself from attending church although, at that age, that wasn’t the phrase I used. I just stopped going. Theology became a cerebral, philosophical matter for me. For a time I dismissed faith as belonging to the same category as superstitious belief in fairies or magic. I did not embark on a life of deplorable behavior or debauchery. That path seemed dangerous; avoiding it was not based on the avoidance of sin. The concept of sin was also grouped with legends and fables.

As a subject theology (in a number of ways in which humanity has approached it) has stayed with me as an object of fascination. The notion of “evil” remains an idea that I’ll spend time pondering. A worthy handbook on the subject would, I think, provide 1. a concise but through definition of evil, 2. training on how to recognize it, and 3. procedures for to do when it found. Scripture and religious texts are actually fairly vague on these points – apart from praying to and praising the divine.

I have from time to time asked people how they address the first point. The most frequent answer is that evil is defined as “anything that causes harm”. On face value that makes sense but razor blade can cause harm. I wouldn’t call them evil. Given the assignment to resolutely stand against evil, usually no matter the cost – to attack it continuously until it is banished – it seems to me that evil has to be something so universally heinous that most people would agree, “Yeah. That has to go.”

From an intellectual stance and for more than a decade I used a formula in place of “evil”. What almost everyone else used that term to describe I would evaluate as a combination of stupid, crazy, and/or cruel. That does cover a wide range of objectionable behavior and wretched results. Were I to include a fourth element it would probably capture the willfully contrary and/or ignorant.

Stupidity does not require endless war; it can be “cured” with ongoing education. Insanity can be mitigated including by the hospitalization of those beyond treatment. The correction of cruelty falls in part within our education system and, failing that, our justice system. History has many example of how to correct those who deliberately oppose truth: shame, guilt, and other forms of peer pressure – resulting in exile as a last resort.

Evil would therefore be something outside those categories. I’m afraid I cannot provide Article I of a Moral Constitution. The above, I think, accounts for some of the things that evil is not. Recent research does, however, remind me that there are a few hundred named demons in past. There are fewer than 20 named demons in the Bible. Renaissance fascination with the occult provides most of the rest of the roster.

I once read that “public belial” used to be a crime. Unfortunately, I cannot find any proof of that now. Rather than working on the three-point handbook I may gradually add to a list of which demon represents what societal sin.

Belial – assholes generally; Mammon – unrestrained capitalism and obsessive greed; Baphomet – obstinate know-it-alls (à la “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.”); Dagon – anything that teaches, glorifies, or encourages poor behavior; Moloch – those who oppose and obstruct another’s effort to do an agreed upon good; Abaddon – fearmongers and those who foster enmity instead of amity; Pythius – peddlers of alternative fact and those who obscure truth.

sin-sign

In these times it is interesting to note that in 1818 Jacques Collin de Plancy gave Rimmon as the name of the demon ambassador of/to Russia. There’s another point of trivia from esoterica that I can no longer connect to a source. The above image of a symbol for sin. It is identical to one of the alchemical symbols for sulphur apart from the “rocker” at the top. Use it in good health.


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stranger, then fiction…

I am old enough to remember research before the advent of the internet. Data and inspiration for A Song Heard in the Future would have taken quite a bit longer without the worldwide web. It seems possible that some sources may never have turned up in my exploration of ancient Greek mythology. With Astral, as the current work-in-progress is set at least 550 years in the future, the process is somewhat easier. There has been, however, still some research involved.

Visiting the nearest significant library involves an hour by train and an additional half hour on foot (round trip). Topics that have informed Astral include: some of Aristotle’s views on government, Neo-Platonist metaphysics, astrophysics, forensic and police procedures, and posthumanism. Finding just a few useful details might have taken a full afternoon. Similarly, my taste for esotericism is usually unrewarded in even great bookstores.

There are, of course, two chief problems with data mining online: 1. not every page is necessarily accurate or reliable and, 2. it is too easy to find something fascinating. Some months ago, for example, while collecting details for a piece of short fiction in an upcoming anthology I found details about Keumalahayati, the 16th century Indonesian, female admiral. I’d never read about her before; I suspect that when I read more she’ll grow in my estimation as a new, old hero.

That same short story prompted digging for only a few tidbits of Indonesian religion prior to the arrival of Abrahamic faiths on the islands. I was surprised to see so many parallels to Western folklore – useful threads for the story and enjoyable due to my fondness for seeing sameness between diverse cultures.

Since the project that brought both the admiral’s career and the mythology of her not so distant ancestors to my attention involved only a few thousand words, they’ve been easy to file away for any future need or reference. More recently I have in fact fallen down the wikihole a little bit, requiring me to summon discipline.

The idea that truth can be stranger than fiction is not new – although it has been more dramatically described in the past:

who-knew.jpg

When something is unexpected and fascinating, almost regardless of how it may be presented or phrased, I think we’ll all a bit prone to rubbernecking on the information superhighway.

Within the past two weeks I have been discovering the details of a true story – from during the years of the Black Death and Europe’s witch craze. I am already resolved to both make this a novel and to let that wait its turn – until after Astral but probably before returning to work on Song. Posting about this experience – if a little obliquely – helps in setting a low priority in adapting my new discovery as a work of fiction.

ran-seven-samurai

If one imagines something like Seven Samurai (七人の侍) meets Ran (乱) — involving shifting alliances between monarchs and mercenaries, add hidden agenda on each side and occult practices on at least one — digging into this a little counts less as distraction. It can be viewed as binge watching a season of The Man in the High Castle or Stranger Things.

One very unexpected side benefit to watching this season of “Well, who knew that?” was finding something I’d been hunting off and on for at least thirteen years. In another capacity I go by DJ Zophiel, one of the characters in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Finding the sigil for the angel known as God’s spy in Hell and as the “cherubim of swiftest wing” proved impossible when I selected the alias. As it turns out, Gabriel’s got his trumpet – Zophiel could be said to have his upturned thurner horn.

sigil

The problem isn’t the wikihole but in remembering not to get stuck at the event horizon. All. In good time.


strangely familiar…

Since the release of Pokémon GO, I had been attempting to understand just why it had become a social media phenomenon. “I just like it.” That’s the most common answer given by pokénthusiasts – who are not just existing fans of the 20-year franchise enjoying a new expression of it – when asked why they play. At face value that is a perfectly reasonable explanation. Attempting to probe deeper may prompt defensive responses and/or accusations of being a hater of one type or another.

I have lately been borrowing a friend’s Pokédex to emulate their experience with the game – hatching, catching, and watching evolutions. There have not yet been any training nor any battles fought. The animation and use of color are certainly part of the appeal. The use of Google Maps in navigating the augmented reality fascinates me. First of all, it’s a very clever shortcut in coding I’m sure. It also appeals to my long-standing (and previously documented) love of maps.

Many – not all – of the creatures are cute and I cannot really claim to be immune or opposed to cute given my Pandora’s Pets creations. Like the Pets, Pokémon has a deep lore from which to draw. Admittedly, the mythology I’ve been developing for my little monsters isn’t as fast as that of Pokémon – yet. And just like the Pets, which are designed to help people with specific emotions, each of the pokémon might prompt a new thought.

One of the newest pokémon – released in Sun & Moon this past November – is Lunala, an emissary of the Moon. While preparing this post I discovered her and found myself saying, “Okay. When she’s in Pokémon GO I’ll play.” And then I found myself asking why I’d had that reaction. That is apart from her seeming particularly badass.

lunala.gif

She reminds me of Starhawk from Marvel’s original Guardians of the Galaxy comics (yet to appear in MCU films) and the Elven Man-o-war ships from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Spelljammer campaign setting.

starhawk trim.jpg

With a sci fi novel in progress and the intent to retrieving the ancient Greek myth story from the back burner, I’m not going to let myself get distracted. A few new ideas have popped up while examining this bit of zeitgeist and they’ve been filed away. But spending a little time at the PokéStop has reminded me of a few other strange things.

Johann “Trithemius” Heidenberg was an abbot known for compiling dictionaries and writing about cryptology. History also holds him to be an occultist, chiefly due to misinterpretation of his book Steganographia (written c. 1499). The term used as the title means, in essence, the art of hiding a secret message within a presumably mundane text. Trithemius chose to present this manual as a means to summon spirits that might then be forced to transmit messages over great distances. Depending on one’s perspective, the result would be clairsentience or a worldwide mystic web.

tritemius-wheel-v-pokeball

Trithemius’ decoder wheel and a poké ball.

Most of the abbot’s contemporaries seem to have missed the point – a lesson in code – and focused on the magic. The abbot was an opponent of the historical Dr. Johann Georg Faust and Steganographia inadvertently inspired a 16th century craze: catching demons. An advisor and astrologer to both Queens Mary and Elizabeth, Dr. John Dee, was all in – even designing a mystic sigil to represent himself and certain hopes. He was the first to use the phrase “British Empire” – and then as an aspiration.

John Dee would certainly have known about a number of spirit-catcher manuals including Steganographia, Ars Goetia, and Pseudomonarchia Daemonum by Johann Weyer. The latter two grimoires provide names and descriptions for a number of demons (72 and 69, respectively) along with the advantages of summoning and binding each one. King Solomon is said to have done this to speed construction of his famous Temple. Why not by Elizabeth I to expand the reach of Britannia?

medieval-pokemon-trainer

12th century Pokémon trainer waiting on that egg to hatch.

The origin of these spirits may have been the result of a misconception but they seem to be as difficult to “put back” as the woes and evils that sprang from Pandora’s box. Goetic names turned up through the French Revolution and now are mentioned in comic books and manga, TV shows and roleplaying games. At least half a dozen names that John Dee might have mentioned to his sovereign have been used in Pokémon’s cousin – Yu-Gi-Oh!

I’ve been aware of these opposite numbers to the Shem ha-Mephorash (המפורש שם, the Qabalistic hidden name(s) of God) since 1982 but from nothing more arcane that the DragonQuest rpg by Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI). The spirits that Dee hoped to harness appear in the works of Wayne Barlowe since 1998.

In a conversation with my business partner, Leanna Renee Hieber, about all of these notions she made the connection that the Elizabethan obsession and pokémania had a lot in common.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

staryu-and-decarabia-copy

Decarabia as seen in Shakugan no Shana and Staryu from Pokémon.

Peculiar creatures and imaginary lore seem to have always been poking around the marginalia of our minds and zeitgeist. This was true when – in the mythology of the founding of ThebesCadmus fought a dragon and later became (evolved into?) one. The borders of Medieval manuscripts, including apparent wars with rabbits and snails, demonstrate that weird beasts would not disappear even given 3000 years. Pokémon may be the latest expression and if so folkfauna may evolve forever.

And we may never know why they keeping turning up, precisely why we like them, or what they mean. All this to say, I’m not completely sure that I shouldn’t at least nod a little toward all of this in Astral in some way. Hmm. I’m not completely sure I’ve a choice in the matter.

fill in the blank makes the world go round…

Not being an economist suggesting an alternative to existing answers to the problem of unlimited want v limited resources would very likely not provide a utopian blueprint. With that in mind, ideal societies are probably best left as part of the domain of satire and/or fantasy. Astral – the working title for my science fiction novel in progress – does not attempt to paint a grand and perfect future for humanity the setting. Nor is the setting a dystopia.

Blade Runner (Philip K. Dick, K. W. Jeter) mentions off-world colonies and the supposition is that they are not all people might hope. In Joss Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity we’re told, “Earth That Was could no longer sustain our numbers; we were so many.” There’s a streak of disposable planet in science fiction that my first love in the genre – Star Trek – avoided almost completely. The inhabitants of Earth had, in fact, abandoned a dangerous courtship with self-extinction and Starfleet’s mission to seek out strange new worlds was not just about mineral rights.

better-worlds

As mentioned in prior entries here, the world(s) of Astral spans about 60 solar systems. The motivation for expansion splits the difference between Earth being used up and something Neil deGrasse Tyson said about a year ago (Oct. 2015): “If you have the power to turn another planet into Earth then you have the power to turn Earth back into Earth.”

Most science fiction does not concern itself with the cost of putting fleets of ships in space and terraforming exoplanets. Again, not being an economist, I’m not planning on making any estimates in that regard. However, just as I’ve been musing on alternative political structures, the future on Earth’s colonies is not mute about the downside of capitalism and its contentious cousins.

There are at least half a dozen private entities reinventing space travel and while that’s thrilling it also based on some aspect of a profit motive. That has certainly been part of the equation in all exploration – from Magellan and before to NASA and beyond. This is probably not going away but it could actually get us into space even in the sci fi sense.

A friend of mine once observed that the utopia of Earth in Star Trek was not – could not be – based on some flawless ideology and the logical consequences of implementing it. Someone prior to the career of Mr. Spock had invented a machine that turned energy into matter. The cornucopian replicator solved all the quandaries of what to produce, in what manner, and for whom.

I wanted to argue with him at that point and part of me still does. Pointing to the problems in Star Trek has always bothered me and quite a bit of my thinking over the years has gone over the same steeplechase as others in fandom to mend plot holes. With Astral that’s a reminder to avoid some of them during the making of.

The Federation is not faced with the riddle of a used-up planet somehow still able to build enough ships to colonize and exploit strange new worlds. The philosophy of “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” is a direct and natural result of technology solving major sources of waste, class-based tensions, petty behaviors and so on.

The first human colony in the world(s) of Astral was Mars. There are at least four links in a chain from there to α Fornacis/Dalim where the story opens. That chain is not a disintegrating set of broken and corroding links. There is without doubt satirical value in suggesting any human destiny in space will be a series of strip-mined worlds under runaway greenhouse atmospheres but I remain more hopeful… still.


ѱφ

reductio ad absurdum…

In 1996, long before Dennis Miller became a spokesman for conservative points of view, he released a book and associated CD – both titled “The Rants”. One track in particular discussed the tendency of people to demonize and seek to marginalize to the point of exclusion any opposed group. While this behavior is not the exclusive domain of any political persuasion, Miller did – 20 years ago – target the criticism on the Right.

The rant in question traced the tendency to its (il)logical result: a kind of societal attrition. If one faction did manage to fully suppress a perceived rival, and unsurprisingly real or imagined woes do not abate, a new source of such troubles would be designated for the same tactic. Shockingly civilization would find itself confronted with the same problem. Lather, rinse, repeat. Cleanse.

Miller concluded that eventually there’d be one person left and that hateful soul would attack his own reflection. Although his ideology flipped five years later, his observation remains true. Blaming “everything that’s wrong” on ethnic, religious, or other groups never can alleviate our shared difficulties. Scapegoats and straw men could be said to have a common ancestry in this regard. (This change happened roughly the same time Miller was picked as a new commentator on Monday Night Football (ABC) but was not the cause of it.)

The world-building for Astral has prompted some speculation about political structures, economic structures, and human nature. The last of these, it is probably fair to say, will likely never change; very little in all of recorded history unfortunately does not seem to support another prediction. In the story, there is a presidential campaign in progress. (I’d decided on this plot element many months before the Brexit decision or the recent election in the United States.) The partisan rivalry is no longer between conservative and progressive views. Capitalism has been replaced though not if favor of socialism.

But there is not a homogeneous philosophy. With apologies to Gene Roddenberry, an idyllic human government seems a bit further off than 350 years. (Human nature notwithstanding, I count myself among the group who share Mr. Roddenberry’s hope.) The population on a planet in orbit around α Fornacis has a wing that some would prefer had not been included among the colonists. I’ve been calling them Kels.

In their staunch desire to be recognized as part of the Fornacid culture the Kels have adopted an emblem that reflects but is not derived from Dennis Miller’s rant in question.

split

If two circles with equal diameter overlap based on adjacent, inscribed hexagons — follow me on this one — the resulting lens could be used represent a minority, which the Kels are. A circle with the same area as this lens would be about 5.77% of the original whole. After just 25 such schisms the “majority” would be less than 50% of its original size.

About two months ago, I presented here the flags of three other factions in Astral. The Kel flag – if and when they fly one in protest – might make use of this geometric symbolism.

kel-flag-xl-anim

Fractures in community do not follow a mathematical progression and, using this formula, such situations would never reach a hermit’s confrontation with a reflection. It does, however, help make the point that we are – now and in any future, under any flag – in this together.

— If we make that choice.


deviations from the plane of the ordinary…

In the summer of 1835, The Sun (of New York) published a series of articles that purported to describe scientific discoveries of a civilization of bat-winged humanoids on the Moon. Belief in what turned out to be a hoax was widespread. Richard Adams Locke, an editor for the newspaper, revealed himself as the author five years later. He also served as editor for Edgar Allan Poe, who claimed the story was essentially plagiarized from his own “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall”.

A little more than a century later, two men sat discussing fiction of their own on a bench near The Edgar Allan Poe Cottage (2640 Grand Concourse, Bronx, NY). The deservedly famous and still sometimes unfortunately maligned author had made his home in that modest setting during the last years of his life. The two men inspired there were Bob Kane (born Robert Kahn) and Milton “Bill” Finger – the creators of Batman.

They may not have known about the man-bats on the Moon but they were undoubtedly aware of Poe’s creation – C. Auguste Dupin, who has been on my mind while developing Astral. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is quoted as having given credit to Poe for inventing the detective genre. Doctor Watson compares Sherlock Holmes with Dupin in their very first adventure (“A Study in Scarlet”, 1887).

Of the pair, only Mr. Kane went on to fame within the comic book industry. His co-creator had been responsible for writing the first story (Detective Comics № 27, May 1939). Finger provided the origin for Batman six months later. The names “Bruce Wayne”, “Gotham City”, and the epithet “The Dark Knight” are now all attributed to Bill Finger. It wasn’t until 1989, fifteen years after the man he then called ‘friend’, did Bob Kane begin to admit how essential Finger had been. The reputation and influence of Mr. Finger is still being rebuilt.

Both Finger and Poe might have recognized in each other kindred spirits. The former died in poverty and relative obscurity. The author who inspired him was abused and disparaged by jealous peers. Batman’s computer system is, from time to time, nicknamed “Dupin” and Poe sometimes appears as a fellow investigator in the Batman universe (“The Mystery That Edgar Allan Poe Solved” – Gang Busters № 49, Dec 1955/Jan 1956. reprinted Detective Comics № 417, Nov 1971. Batman: Nevermore, 2003.)

Batman’s costume is the first I remember wearing for Halloween (at some point before 1970). I’ve been a fan of the mythos for more than four decades. So it struck me as odd to learn almost in passing at a convention I recently attended of this detail of the bench in front of Poe’s last home.

bat-poe

The image included here combines the minimalist Bat-emblem from Batman: Zero Year in DC Comic’s universe-relaunch The New 52 with a production photograph of Stefanie Rocknak’s magnificent bronze statue of Poe, which now stands on the corner of Boylston Street and Charles Street two blocks north of Poe’s first home.

As yet, there’s no statue to Bill Finger but Marc Tyler Nobleman has been attempting to have a memorial bench placed in his honor near the Poe Cottage.

warped speed…

Batman has been criticized for not doing enough and/or not doing the right things to truly help Gotham City. As the real world economy has grown since the character’s inception (May 1939) the character’s wealth has had to expand to maintain a sense of plausibility if not verisimilitude.

Forbes estimates the Wayne family fortune at $6.9 billion. And, while that’s not Bill Gates-rich, it would make Bruce Wayne roughly the 231st wealthiest person in the (real) world – just after David Geffen. A cost analysis indicates it would cost $200 million to start a career as the Dark Knight, just a little more than it takes to produce a film about him.

Batman’s enemies have from time to time suggested that he’s just as crazy as they are. Some of his detractors in the real world have voiced the opinion that Mr. Wayne is deliberately keeping Gotham poor. In his ScrewAttack! video, “Does Batman Need a New Origin??”, Bob Chipman (a.k.a. MovieBob) makes the case that the Wayne Foundation could do quite a bit more to alleviate poverty and other cause of crime than nightly patrols and subsequent kicking of ass seems to.

batwarp

But that’s not the point —

The overarching Gotham mythos has become largely based on the concept that the human psyche is fragile enough that one bad day is all it might take to cause it to snap. While the comic went nearly three years before giving Batman much backstory. when it came the story hinged on trauma. In reaction to the death of his parents Master Wayne vowed to “avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.” № 33 (Nov. 1939).

The Joker – undisputed king of the One Bad Day origin – did not appear until the following year and went on to make the trope the overt premise of “The Killing Joke” (1988). Anyone, the Clown Prince postulated, will go mad given enough provocation and that can be accomplished in a remarkably short period of time. In a sense, Bruce having been traumatized as a formative event gradually set a tone that nearly all of his opponents now follow.

Dragon Con. Sept. 3, 2016. 7:03ᴘᴍ —

I was wandering and exploring the event when I happened by a panel already in progress: Representing Disability and Trauma (in Comics). Daniel Amrhein (Journey into Awesome) was the moderator. Courtney Bliss (Bowling Green State University) and Kari Storla (USC Annenberg) were his guests.

There are a number of reasons that I chose to sit quietly in the back of the room. I was late, for one. Comics – not just Batman – have been an interest since at least the mid-70s. As an epileptic, it is sometimes easy for me to forget that I have a disability so I’ll take the opportunities of reminders in writing about them more properly when they appear. There have been a few events in my life that might technically count as trauma but I don’t often view them as such. I’ve had bad days. Who hasn’t? They didn’t make me snap.

There may be a manner in which the topics presented in the panel may be discussed without trigger warnings. We haven’t reached that stage of discourse as a society. One person did leave during the talk. A fairly wide range of life events were discussed as was the stigma that victims of traumatic experience face and, similarly, those who have disabilities. Life can be difficult enough but one of the very strong points made was that trauma or condition notwithstanding each human psyche moves on.

Toward the end of the panel, Ms. Storla made the point that mental illness, when presented in fiction, is far more often than not an oversimplified ‘sane + trauma = condition’ sort of formula. An insane character is defined by their condition without any other aspect of a personality being presented well – if at all. What the audience needs to know, authors presume, is the character in question is just crazy. Only crazy.

I’ve known at least one person who could be called “crazy”. That’s part of the personal trauma about which I’m being vague. No, I don’t mean myself. During lucid moments such people can be very aware that something is wrong – that their own behaviors are not preferable. They themselves may find certain of their words and deeds beyond both their control and comprehension. These are facets of their existence as human beings not the whole.

Mr. Amrhein observed that, “being hit on the head doesn’t make people leave riddles for Batman. Being shocked or dumped in chemicals doesn’t make someone ‘crazy’. Being burned with acid doesn’t result in dissociative identity disorder.”

I then asked the panelists that, if they were writing for ‘insane’ comic book characters, how would their approach be different. The moderator replied that rather than the reliance on outdated tropes he would like to introduce modern research and the views of experts. In his opinion – and he’s not wrong – many creators of comic books draw from preexisting canon and recycle it. This perpetuates the outmoded concepts and contributes toward perpetuating misunderstanding. Ms. Storla said she would want to bring in feminist trauma theory (which I’ll be reading up on).

Until this panel (and MovieBob’s video), I had viewed Batman’s adversaries as each presenting a facet of human obsession but that all of them represent an unfair and outdated model of a disordered psyche. Each is an exaggeration of the strengths and virtues of the Dark Knight – twisted in antisocial ways. All of this was – in the moment and lasting since – rich food for thought and a valued reminder to remain mindful with regard to characters who are out of their minds. We are stronger. We adapt. It’s part of human nature. It should be part of the characters we create.