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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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:

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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.

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.

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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.

What’s in it for M.E.?

A destiny in space for homo sapiens is certain – or at least I’d like to think so. What form it takes is a matter for debate. The sociopolitical part of world-building for the far future of Astral prompts questions of how humanity will change they it fits and starts toward its fate.

The backstory of space travel in Astral sees the first steps in this regard with ten colonies (between 4.39 and 19.92 light-years distant). A second tier of expansion is launched from those initial settlements and not Earth herself. By extension, through these “grandchildren” colonies, her reach grows from 11 worlds (M.other E.arth† included) to 28.

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Globalization on one world may be inevitable. Stretched through interstellar space it becomes imperialism. There is a Chinese saying‡ that suggests a family’s great wealth should not be expected to last through three generations. The proverb is often used as a reminder that a meritocracy is better than honoring tradition and legacy. Some of M.E.’s grandchildren will declare independence particularly where greater prospects derive from looking forward rather than back.

wealth

After settled planets divide into factions, M.E. and her remaining loyal worlds would seek to safeguard her dominance. Laws designed to limit rival colonial “families” would be imposed. From the moment they were enacted, however, the decline of the “Solar Empire” would have begun. Tier III of expansion, during which the events of Astral take place, would bring the count to 63 worlds and the range to 39.26ʟʏ from Earth. The original homeworld would exercise control (directly or by extension) over just 52.38%. The next jump in adding new worlds would see M.E.’s control slip below the halfway point.

With a somewhat unsafe, difficult manner of faster-than-light travel and each world using genetic engineering to make up for shortfalls in terraforming, the definition of human and the proper use of homo sapiens as a description will – of necessity – change. Evolution in isolation is known to create a wide divergence of traits, ultimately leading to entirely new species.

cats-awayAnother Chinese maxim equates to, “While the cat’s away the mice will play.” But it’s more poetically transliterated as, “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” Strange new worlds will raise new ideologies and new approaches to the economic problem. The more distant and different the world the more likely influence of any kind from M.E. will be subject to a metaphorical inverse-square law.

The culture of an extra-global humanity will grow ever more diverse. Over time, there will be a family resemblance but that will fade with M.E.’s importance. Any Terrestrial alliance will depend on keeping the extended family loyal, embracing many forms of adaptation, and implementing an active program for innovation: better genetic designs and more efficient terraforming.

Clutching to a status quo, let alone any irredentism, would require FTL capacity that was significantly better than other “humans” were using and an ability to revert to conventional warfare, an inconvenient practice between any two planets in this construct. There is in this a subtle nod toward the Earth-that-was in Joss Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity. Unlimited want and limited resources will eventually use up any world. Improvement of FTL travel may be beyond M.E.

If a human presence in space involved civil war M.E.’s side would likely be much smaller than 51 of 111 worlds in the projected Tier IV. The range in that event would probably not extend to 67.16ʟʏ. And, as it happens, we don’t have to wait hundreds of years to be concerned by hyperbolic ideology, reflexive sectarianism, or economic obsessions. There’s room for evolution there too without altering the meaning of human.


† Is this proverb used when discussing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (김정은) or a present presidential campaign in the US?

‡ “M.other E.arth” and “M.E.” are part of the copyright of Astral (working title).

 

 

seeks SFC…

For about the last 25 years I have posed this as a puzzle: Name four real people to whom you are not related that have contributed significantly to your identity. Once I’d formulated this pseudo-riddle I first answered it myself before presenting it to others. The result is not exactly a Favorite Heroes list and I’m usually suspicious of answers that come within an hour. It took me a year to provide my own response.

My selections were – Gene Roddenberry for teaching me that ideals existed and which might chosen, Jim Henson for demonstrating the value of purposeful whimsy, Carl Sagan for showing that all subject matter regardless of discipline can be interconnected, and Richard Scarry for making it clear that nothing is complete when regarded only at face value.

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From about the time this question had been crafted to the mid-90s each of these men passed away. Being dead was, therefore, not a requirement to make the Mt. Rushmore of Personal Sources. Neither should being a white male have been; it wasn’t intentional but it happened.

While it isn’t necessarily an exercise in favorite heroes (my list of those is somewhat different and longer) there is some similarity in both musings. Due in part to the emphasis in history and to traditional gender roles it’s just more difficult to find heroes who were or are also women. That may be one contributing factor in the true dearth of strong female characters.

When we do find them they seem to be required to be renegade warriors such as Katniss Everdeen or Black Widow. Further we must also see them as being in a relationship – more often with a man than not – or seeking one. A demonstration of sexuality has much more emphasis with female characters than with males. Buffy Summers’ story was sometimes more concerned with her romances with Angel and Spike than with actual vampire slaying.

The hero’s journey of a SFC takes a back seat to some man’s saga by the third act. River Song, Donna Noble, and Sarah Jane Smith (all from the Doctor Who franchise) are very capable characters and, while the series is about a titular man there’s no reason his story cannot be the B-plot. There has been some recent suggestion that the Doctor might some day be portrayed by an actress.

Dame Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep have both been advocates of broadening the roles available to women over 40 years of age to include more than just witches or grandmothers. Surely it should be easy to design a fictional role as homage to women like Abigail Adams or Dolly Madison – and without her motivation being only to support her husband in his career and ambition.

Both Molly Pitcher and Rosie the Riveter are folkloric amalgamation uncounted real women. A dramatization could certainly be written in in less than a year. But how would the writer address such women being driven back to more traditional and more subservient roles after the Revolution and WWII, respectively?

Boudica, queen of the Iceni and al-Kāhina, her Berber equivalent are worthy subjects, however both met quite tragic ends after living lives of sacrifice. These two and many other woman throughout history seem to be made to pay for their heroism-despite-gender with humiliation and/or execution. Small wonder that fictional sisters face comparable fates.

wrexie-leonarWhether it’s due to fear of aging and change or to any sense of being challenged by a woman this does have to change. “Strong female character” is not a description of a fictional person as it is the name of a problem. So I’ll be letting Carl Sagan graduate from Mt. Rushmore to Elysium – with Wrexie Leonard taking his place. She was the professional companion of Percival Lowell from about 1883 to 1916. She was a scientist in her own right and there’s no evidence she felt disappointed that she and Mr. Lowell never married or viewed life as she lived it as being tragic at the end.

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Jim Henson will be found on the other side of the rainbow now because his spot is going to Keumala Hayati, laksamana (admiral). Not only was she Indonesian (a nation that contributes 25% to my ethnicity and heritage) but also an opponent of the status quo she and officially a diplomat. Her 16th century career in the navy of the Aceh Sultanate seems very likely to have brought her to the attention Queen Elizabeth I during the final year of said monarch’s life and reign. I have yet to find any account of her death and – in my opinion that gives a wide territory in which to invent legends of the Lion(ess) of the Sea; which I now have plans to do.

My business partner and coauthor on upcoming work, Leanna Renee Hieber, has recently written about feminism in the gothic tradition. Coming from her discussion on these topics definitely carry more weight then when it’s on my mind.


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ex metum…

It seems to me that any thinking, rational humans have decided for themselves that life is precious and good – perhaps without knowing this choice has been made. An alternative view, that our sense of survival and self-preservation derives merely from instinct, would mean that none of us are more than creatures.

The universal view of how wonderful having a life and living it for as long as possible is best represented in legend by the world’s various Flood myths. Noah’s story and that of Utnapishtim (in the Epic of Gilgamesh) are the most well known but the concept is a worldwide and long-standing one – appearing in the lore of at least a few dozen cultures.

Most involve the construction of a boat; those that do not indicate that survivors climbed tall trees or the highest mountains to reach safety. In Greek mythology, there was a deluge of incredible magnitude at least three times, two of which marked the end of a specific Age. The first of the three was considered an ancient event by those we now call the ancient Greeks.

After the second the line of Deucalion and Pyrrha to the end of the Heroic Age consists of ten generations. The chronology of Archbishop James Ussher places the Genesis Flood at 2348 ʙᴄ. This can’t be made to match timelines of Greek myth as the end of the end of the Bronze Age is estimated somewhere between 1480 and 1450ʙᴄ. It is interesting to note that the 2nd Christian Age also lasts ten generations – from Noah and Emzara to Abraham and Sarah.

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I don’t mean to suggest here the Flood myths and traditions are all the same. Further, I do not support the claim that a very widespread myth is in and of itself evidence of an otherwise unsubstantiated event in prehistory. The dates can’t be forced to match. Hesiod’s list of Ages does not align with that of St. Augustine.

What all the world’s epic disasters do seem to have in common is the reaction to the perception that things are getting worse all the time. The philosophy of “life sucks and then you die” and the complaint about “these kids today and their haircuts” are nothing new but they become amplified when society is seen as being in decline.

The notion that might makes right also has a long history and gains strength in such times whether the decline is real or not. In essence, the diagnosis of social woe is: “The Divine has forsaken us for we have lost our righteous way.” From this point the reaction in myth and sociology follows a similar pattern.

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This is all shockingly familiar in today’s political climate – but really not the point of these stories if life truly is precious and good. Not to be too cute about it but I think we’ve missed the boat.

Hesiod did not suggest what Age would follow his own times. And the implied 7th Age of St. Augustine starts with the End of Days. In the first formulation one might expect something worse than the Dark Ages but even that would be preferable to the prevailing current meaning of apocalypse.

Since Hesiod is silent and we believe life is so precious and so good we’ll go to heroic lengths to preserve and maintain it, let’s not assume that the best days are behind us in an ever more remote Golden Age. Such an Age should be held as an ideal to strive toward rather than a long-ago lofty perch from which we’ve fallen (and continue to fall). If we can’t actually reach Ages of Silver or Gold, I’d settle with joy for a new Heroic Age.

Rather than paint the sort of heroism required by who is condemned and who is spared I’d prefer to define righteousness by who best points the way and lights the path.


straight on ’til morning…

Respect and trust are commonly referred to as being earned. Other aspects of human interaction are sometimes included but only these two are held in quite this regard. We speak of both, in a sense, as social commodities.

When doing so, it is often part of a critique of someone’s behavior being insufficient to warrant such credits. We also take this stance as a reminder to those who demand admiration or belief.

Imagine if society had a literal system of accounting for behavior and personal qualities. If human interaction were directly comparable to an economy, what currency buys respect and trust? What can they in turn be used to purchase? Imagine this Confidence Exchange.

Desire would drive this market just as it does real financial systems. Reputation plays a role in these hypothetical stocks in the same way real investments are effected. Given that forms of monetary transactions predate recorded history, the idea that we’ve been participating in the Confidence Exchange (and without knowing it as such) all along may not be far-fetched.

Although coin and paper currency would come later, money existed before most early legal codes. Both Hammurabi and Ur-Nammu dealt with the role of money in civil society (among other matters, of course).

The scales of the market were borrowed to serve as the near-universal representation of justice. There is then, still, an implied pessimism in the symbol – from back in the traders’ stalls where proof of a good deal was required by real measurement.

Spoken language predates barter but for the entire course of recorded history our thinking has been driven by market-based factors we don’t spend much time considering. Case in point, how we spend our time, not to mention the idea that time is money, may have grown up with the economy more than any other aspect of civilization.

There is no symbol for the intrinsic value of a person or society. There are no signs for loyalty or honor. The Anglo-Saxon and Scandic systems of weregild may have provided small, financial comfort in the aftermath of loss but the cost in coin could not reflect the nature of the person(s) lost.

Religious symbols represent institutions, tenets, and adherents but rarely (if at all) any specific virtue. Where are these signs?

It won’t catch on but I have an idea for a symbol for Hope and Optimism.

On April 12, 1981, Space Shuttle Columbia stood on Launch Pad 39A. I was in my last year of high school and four generations of my family sat in relative silence listening to journalists and scientists trade jargon and speculation. They too fell silent when the shuttle began to rumble. With seven seconds to go, the hydrogen burn-off igniters made it look like they sparked the launch into being.

For several minutes we sat without a word. My siblings and I hadn’t seen the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs; everyone else in the room had. To them this launch seemed different. Human desires that had survived on little more than hope for 15,000 years were arcing into the sky.

Finally, the eldest person in the room, my great grandmother, spoke. “When I was a little girl they brought milk to my house in a horse-drawn cart.”

I was then and remain truly awestruck by that observation. It’s probably the only aspect of my point of view that has a timestamp. If the space shuttle is a horse-drawn cart how astonishing will the future be?

So, I offer the space shuttle as a symbol of the value and virtue of hope.

Shuttle-for-blog