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.


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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.

Mirror, mirror…

Authors frequently make the claim they are able to hear their characters speaking – about their own motivations and the world into which they find themselves planted. This is usually not meant to indicate the actual lines of dialog that may appear in the fiction although that can certainly result.

The longer an author, and hopefully any reader, spends involved with the story the more the characters begin to behave like real people. They inform the author precisely who they are as if conversations or interviews with them had actually taken place. If resisted, the writer runs the risk of presenting them merely as puppets.

While world-building and developing some of the science for Astral (working title), many of the intended characters have begun having arguments with each other in a non-dialog manner. The political situation that has grown out of the “realities” of FTL travel and genetic engineering has resulted in the citizens of Dalim entrenching themselves as opposite camps. I have to admit a bit of surprise at this. No author with whom I’ve ever talked mentioned this aspect of character talk.

Flight of the Pegasus

The Flight of the Pegasus

A novel set against the backdrop of human colonization of a few score exoplanets needs details about ships and speed. While developing Astral I’ve consulted a few people who are more adept than I about mathematics, astrophysics, and CAD programs. Chris Newstead and his MOLIMI team are adept and amiable collaborators in helping me envision spaceships. The Flight of the Pegasus is not their work. Stay tuned for that. I’ve no doubt it will impress. Similarly, Roger Sorensen and Ben Adams have been providing assistance with a range of sciences frequently found in sci fi.

World-building in science fiction may involve knowing the star system one has selected has two suns and that the characters living on a planet there would cast two shadows. Letting the characters be more than shadows themselves means more than giving them a backstory and description. I don’t have images for the characters as yet but I know what they think when they look in the mirror.

orbits

The distances traveled and methods for the trip are not as important as really listening to a character’s tales of woe and joy upon reaching the destination. Speculation about future innovations and inventions matters far less than understanding a character’s perspective on their life and plans for living it — and hopefully well regardless of an author’s ideas about any obstacles.

It is part of the writer’s job to obstruct his or her characters. That’s what makes any story interesting. But muting those characters and/or depriving them of the thoughts and skills they claim to have is a disservice to them and a mistake in presenting their saga.

Jules Henri Poincaré was a true polymath of the Victorian–Edwardian era and one of the fathers of special relativity and chaos theory. He has become a new hero of a sort as I’ve been working on Astral.

Dr. Poincaré has been quoted as having said, “If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.” I’ve adopted a comparable point of view about what I must allow for my characters.

 


sententiae antiquae…

An admission of a bias in thinking due to the near-total immersion in Ancient Greek mythology and philosophy must be made. There is the concept of (Abraham) Maslow’s hammer, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Recently, the question arose in two parts of whether writers in this modern zeitgeist are consciously using elements of the philosophy of Plato (et alia) in their works of fiction. Parallels seem strongly evident; are they always intentional? Are the tropes of ancient thought strong and pervasive enough that even those who are not aware of their origins – or seeking them out – are almost destined to use them?

George Lucas is known to have based Star Wars on his study of Joseph Campbell’s work, which was in turn a summary of many others, Plato included. Similarly, Lana and Andy Wachowski may have based their Matrix (at least, in part) on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

IDEA

The reimagining of Battlestar Galactica (2003-2012) probably could not avoid using Greek myth as source material with many of the characters named after the Olympians. BSG also paralleled Ecclesiastes 1:9 and Peter Pan when Six and President Laura Roslin (among several others) presented variations of “All of this has happened before, and it all will happen again.” The verse in the Bible goes on to postulate “…and there is no new thing under the Sun.” – an idea about which I’ve previously railed.

The past week’s musing has given me a series of ideas that may cause me to adjust my perspective for A Song Heard in the Future, my novel-in-progress set 3.5 millennia ago.

Some scholars of myth believe that Teiresias was a well-known character before he was written into the tragedies of nearly all kings of Thebes, including the trilogy of Oedipus’ life. Of the dozen or so tales that include Teiresias and still exist only a small percentage of them could be said to feature him as the main character.

Hesiod is said to have written about the famous seer almost 2700 years ago but that story has been lost. At roughly the same time Homer also included Teiresias but as a shade in the Asphodel Meadows neighborhood of Hades. The intent in Song is giving Teiresias back the lost story of his life.

If an author’s themes are preordained, if there truly is nothing new, the task at hand is to make the best of it. To craft the best from it. If Song is reimagined based on last week, there’s a very good chance the book will be better. Oddly, it will also take a few steps closer to the reason for researching Teiresias in the first place. Psychic abilities have always fascinated me whether they exist or not. (And I blame Spock for it.)

A leap to someone in Ancient Greece who could see the future seems obvious but the road was not quite that direct. During my middle school years, I sometimes would construct fantasy timelines of reincarnations I might have had. My birthday was in mid-December of 1964; who died earlier that year that I might have been? And who just prior to their date of death? And so on… This fabrication of an uninterrupted line of past lives would extend as far as my knowledge of history would permit.

Something very like this led to Teiresias but I allowed the tracking and musing to move into legend and then myth, as records grew less authoritative. To my mind, the jury is still out on the details of reincarnation. I’m not sure we can be certain who we may once have been. Here the innumerable ex-Cleopatras have to be discounted.

In psychical research there is a term “anomalous cognition” that is meant to describe having knowledge without learning it. The best example of this may be the understanding some aspect of a dream without the establishing that would be required if the same plot were presented in fiction. Psychic studies go beyond that point but it means knowledge without a source or explanation. There had to be a word for the idea that we can retain knowledge from past lives, if any.

In the field of psychology (if I have this right), anomalous cognition is used to describe specific exaggerated reactions. As both science and paranormal research employ AC and with neither usage hitting the nail on the head, there had to be a more precise word. With all due respect to reverse dictionaries, they nearly always far short. Finding a new word is simple. Read more. Talk to smart people. Finding an extant but unknown word that precisely fits a specific concept is not so easy.

Just yesterday, while exploring Plato’s ideas, I discovered the word anamnesis. This is precisely what I find fascinating in anomalous cognition while not preferring the term. What you knew in a past life is something your education may serve to remind you of that past knowledge.

Plato suggested that we are reincarnated based on what we know. Ultimately, aisa (“αἶσα” meaning “destiny”) doesn’t matter in our thinking and work. It is how we think and work that remains our own.

Maybe there is nothing new under the Sun. When Song is published, however, I’ll invite you to curl up against a tree and read it in sunlight. If it surprises you – that may disprove predestination. If not, welcome back.


Except it isn’t like that…

 

A month ago I wrote about a selection of Seven Wonders of Fictional Worlds and concluded with the fantasy of time travel to visit the traditional Wonders of classical antiquity. One of them, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, is seen in the background of this imagined hall of the Great Library in that same city.

Library

In 1980 Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage reinforced a story I’d learned in school. About 20% of both the first and last episodes of that documentary miniseries recount the importance and grandeur and then the tragic loss of the Great Library of Alexandria. The account makes it seem like a seven-century run that came to an end on one disastrous day. The last librarian, Hypatia, was murdered by a mob of zealots and the scrolls were burned.

Historians and scholars, along with both fans and authors of science fiction, hold onto the fantasy of time travel to before that terrible day. What books would you save if you had the chance? Dr. Sagan is not immune here:

“If I could travel back into time, this is the place I would visit. The Library of Alexandria, at its height, two thousand years ago.”

The story of the apparently sudden disaster portrays the mob as ignorant acting in defense of its ignorance. The loss to knowledge remains incalculable and is, probably rightfully, regarded as a one or two thousand-year setback to nearly all fields of study. Dr. Sagan provided a sense of perspective on this loss:

“We do know that of the 123 plays of Sophocles in the Library, only seven survived. One of those seven is Oedipus Rex. Similar numbers apply to the works of Aeschylus and Euripides. It is a little as if the only surviving works of a man named William Shakespeare were Coriolanus and A Winter’s Tale, but we had heard that he had written certain other plays, unknown to us but apparently prized in his time, works entitled Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet.”

There are nine missing books of the poetry of Sappho and none of the works of Pythagoras survive. A full inventory of what was lost is also lost!

In the 2009 film, Agora, Hypatia is the hero and acts out our fantasy of salvage.

Hypatia

Hypatia was not merely the last librarian. In an age when women were still widely regarded as little more than property she was among the world’s leading mathematicians and astronomers. Further, she was a philosopher and teacher.

The mob that killed her and destroyed the Library is painted as acting out of fear but it seems more likely they were motivated by anger. In addition to the roles mentioned above, Hypatia was also not afraid to express political views. She is believed to have been a supported of Orestes, the governor of Alexandria; this made her an opponent of Cyril, that city’s bishop and successor to Theophilus.

But it didn’t happen quite that way.

As presented, the tale of the final moments of Hypatia and the Library is often a summary of at least four events and a compression of almost 400 years. The impression that there was just one very bad day at the Library is a false one. Julius Caesar did damage in 48 ʙᴄ and more may have happened toward the end of the reign of Aurelian (c. 275 ᴀᴅ).

There were at least two other libraries in Alexandria and – in summary – they may all have been conflated into one. One of these other libraries was part of the Serapeum Temple, which was ordered destroyed by the Bishop of Alexandria – Theophilus – in 391 ᴀᴅ.

This means Hypatia was more likely the victim of an assassination rather than a martyr of scholarship and/or science. The manner of death was particularly brutal to be sure but it cannot have been part of the attacks by Caesar or Aurelian; she wouldn’t have been born yet. She doesn’t seem to have come to prominence in Alexandria until nine years after the destruction of the Serapeum and its own library. The murder took place fifteen years later still.

“The books were distributed to the public baths of Alexandria, where they were used to feed the stoves which kept the baths so comfortably warm. Ibn al-Kifti writes that ‘the number of baths was well known, but I have forgotten it’ (we have Eutychius‘ word that there were in fact four thousand). ‘They say,’ continues Ibn al-Kifti, ‘that it took six months to burn all that mass of material.’”

Luciano Canfora, The Vanished Library (University of California Press; 1st edition (Aug. 29, 1990))

The Library of Alexandria is said to have held between Eutychius’ estimate and one million scrolls. Many of these were the result of the “books of the ships” policy. All ships entering the harbor of Alexandria were inspected. Any books found aboard were seized and a copy was made. The originals are said to have been kept for the library, the original owner of the books got the copies.

In addition to the time travel fantasy: What answers and inspirations would you save of you could? – we should also ask: Were the scrolls and books in the library during its destructions the last copies in existence? What’s easier – inventing time travel or holding out hope while in diligent search for missing copies?

Note: The title of this post is a quote from Nova: Season 8, Episode 12. “It’s About Time” (Dec. 30, 1980).

You are invited to rampantly speculate and muse in answer to these questions via comment on this post. Given that this blog is [Thankfully] visited by people from 78 nations and counting, the perspectives are sure to be fascinating.


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Equal rites…

I know anecdotally that editors can be quite thankful when they do not have to remind an author that people have different ethnic backgrounds. Characters should also. Recently, as the research phase for A Song Heard in the Future came to a close, I found that is was not going to be difficult to include a range of heritage.

Given that almost any (every?) story set within the world of Greek mythology and worship will be a Mediterranean tale, the likelihood of an all-majority cast seems very, very low. That said, several of the major characters are not actually Greek.

diversity mapThe first king of Thebes was initially from Phoenicia and one of the kings of Thrace was a Libyan immigrant. Pygmalion (or Pumayyaton), the famous sculptor, was a Cypriot. The more-traveled characters may even have heard of a Titan by the name of Gadeiros from what would become Spain and Norax, a hero on the island we call Sardinia and the Greeks knew as Ichnūsa.

The biggest revelation to me regards the ancestry or a demigod famous for Twelve Labours. His great great grandparents were Ethiopian royalty. Is the world ready for a Hercules who is at least one-eighth black?

There is another story about publishing I’ve heard. I won’t repeat it here because it’s absurd and offensive but it regards the readership of science fiction and fantasy. We’ve moved beyond that, right? In this case, I’m hopeful that any future editor of Song will be intrigued by the prospect.