One morning several weeks ago, as I walked my dog down one of the state park trails, I noticed something atop one of the trail signs. So, I went over to check it out.
Thus was I introduced to the painted rock community, people who decorate scads of small rocks and hide them in unlikely places for others to find–grocery store shelves, parking lots and public spaces, or, as in my case, along a hiking trail. Some folks take them on road trips and hide them in other states–people from as far away as California have posted in the Lake Michigan Rocks Facebook group with photos of rocks they’ve found. There are numerous other painted rock Facebook groups–the person who started Lake Michigan Rocks got the idea from a CBS news report about a Northeast Ohio group. The purpose is to brighten someone’s day, as well as to get out and walk and do something artistic and enjoyable. Communities are based all over the US, and many of them have Facebook groups where finders can post photos and artists can display their latest work.
Decorating styles range from simple to quite ornate–smileys, ladybugs, minions, flowers, birds, graphic designs. Others sport inspirational words and phrases. Guidelines state that designs should be G-rated and kind, especially since small children are often the ones who find the rocks.
Over the next several weeks. some friends and I found two more rocks at the state park, a simple smiley and a Help Me! stone nestled at the foot of a sign. I hid both again. Since they were gone a few days later, I assume they were found.
Now, as I walk through the park, or the grocery store, or just about everywhere these days, I keep an eye out for a spot of color.
Another trip to South Africa brought me back through Amsterdam. I discovered some common sense somewhere and decided to have a one night layover, and bunked at the Schiphol Hilton, a remarkable Ikea folly of diamond-shaped windows, lights that functioned from the room keycard inserted in a slot by the door, and a rain-shower filling half the bathroom.
I had an entire day. On the 10 hour flight from Johannesburg I managed to sleep, with is a rare thing for me on airplanes. The night we left Joburg, I happened to mention that some of my Belgian colleagues, while arguing about the practicality of visiting Den Haag (The Hague) in one day, had convinced me to do it. Another young colleague of mine who was also spending the night in Amsterdam, wanted to tag along.
After checking in, taking a delicious shower, and grabbing lunch—a mediocre stir-fried noodle dish—I met Hannah at the train station, which is essentially part of the airport. We purchased a day pass to Den Haag and back, and benefited from the fast Dutch trains that run on time.
The day was cold and rainy, but I live in Seattle, and you don’t let crappy weather stop you. Besides, this was Holland, and that equals cold and rainy.
Den Haag was a small city, according to my Flemish comrade (one of the Belgians). Hannah had a knack for finding her way around. I grabbed a map and am generally good at reading them, but this one being small and written in Dutch escaped me. Besides every street corner had a sign noting a city sight. Our goals were the Escher and Mauritshuis museums. The first needs no explanation of its content, the second was famous for the Flemish painters, including Vermeer, Rembrandt, Rubens and many others.
Escher in Het Palais was the first site we stumbled on. The show is staged in the former Winter Palace of Queen Mother Emma, where she resided from 1901 to 1984. The brochure told us that four generations of Dutch Queens used the house as a “working” palace until 1984. Hannah didn’t know M.C. Escher, but I did from the 1960’s when his surreal wood-cuts, etchings and lithographs appeared in the counter culture scene. Four floors of rooms were festooned with Escher prints, works for advertising, patterns for wall-papers, murals, stamps, and book illustrations.
There were also many photographs of Escher and his wife Jetta. To Hannah’s Gen-X eyes, he looked like a hipster. I had to agree.
My favorites were his Relativity, Ascending and Descending and Metamorphosis series. To call his work optical illusions is, in a way, trivializing his anal-retentive nature. In a display case I found one of his journals, and looking at his tiny handwriting in clear, straight lines, with graphic depictions of his plans for a print—the incredible detail that went into his planning, was an unsettling glimpse into this artist’s mind.
Hannah wondered aloud why he made wood cuts and lithos. A graphic artist, he needed to be able to make multiple prints from his cuts and etchings. And I wondered if in the production of some of his very complex Metamorphosis prints, that he didn’t combine several woodcuts together.
What follows are photographs of some of the remarkable chandeliers that adorn the Palace ceilings in every room. And the bonus encounter of a groom and bride, seen from the third floor as they stood in the entry.
Note: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece–ahem, 35 years ago–I have been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently returned from a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gave an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.
After my last installment, I realized that I’ve been talking a lot about the ancient Greek goddesses and gods, with photos of statues representing them. Some of you may want a refresher or introduction to the pantheon, so here goes: The twelve (or a pagan lucky thirteen, if you include both Hestia and Dionysos) deities lived on Mt. Olympos. They took over the altars after some of them killed the former ruling Titans, who were the parents of some of these Olympians. The colorful Greek myths reveal deities who fully shared the intrigues, jealousies, and battles of the mortals they both protected and victimized, while demanding the proper offerings. As a child, I devoured the exciting stories and longed to visit Greece to see the land that housed these immortal beings. A classic book is Bulfinch’s Mythology, and there are many many others. My favorite deity was Artemis (the Romans, who co-opted much of Greek culture, renamed her Diana, and she has been reincarnated recently as Wonder Woman.) She was the virgin goddess of the hunt and all wild things. I was a wild nature child myself, so it was empowering to have a model of a strong woman who also loved animals and took no guff from men!
There are a host of minor deities in addition to the major 13, not to mention many monsters and offspring of gods with mortals, and it can be pretty confusing to keep them straight. Wikipedia presents this useful breakdown, thanks to all who contributed!
The major Olympians, from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/
|Greek||Roman||Image||Functions and attributes|
|Zeus||Jupiter||King of the gods and ruler of Mount Olympus; god of the sky, lightning, thunder, law, order, justice. Youngest child of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. Symbols include the thunderbolt, eagle, oak tree, lion, scepter, and scales. Brother and husband of Hera, although he had many lovers, also brother of Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, and Hestia.|
|Hera||Juno||Queen of the gods and the goddess of marriage and family. Symbols include the peacock, cuckoo, and cow. Youngest daughter of Cronus and Rhea. Wife and sister of Zeus. Being the goddess of marriage, she frequently tried to get revenge on Zeus’ lovers and their children.|
|Poseidon||Neptune||God of the seas, earthquakes, and tidal wave. Symbols include the horse, bull, dolphin, and trident. Middle son of Cronus and Rhea. Brother of Zeus and Hades. Married to the Nereid Amphitrite, although, like most male Greek Gods, he had many lovers.|
|Demeter||Ceres||Goddess of fertility, agriculture, nature, and the seasons. Who presided over grains and the fertility of the earth. Symbols include the poppy, wheat, torch, cornucopia, and pig. Middle daughter of Cronus and Rhea. Also the lover of Zeus and Poseidon, and the mother of Persephone.|
|Athena||Minerva||Goddess of wisdom, knowledge, reason, intelligent activity, literature, handicrafts and science, defense and strategic warfare. Symbols include the owl and the olive tree. Daughter of Zeus and the Oceanid Metis, she rose from her father’s head fully grown and in full battle armor.|
|Apollo[A]||Apollo[A]||God of light, prophecy, philosophy, inspiration, poetry, music and arts, medicine and healing. Son of Zeus and Leto. Symbols include the sun, lyre, swan, and mouse. Twin brother of Artemis.|
|Artemis||Diana||Goddess of the hunt, virginity, archery, the moon, and all animals. Symbols include the moon, horse, deer, hound, she-bear, snake, cypress tree, and bow and arrow. Daughter of Zeus and Leto and twin sister of Apollo.|
|Ares||Mars||God of war, violence, and bloodshed. Symbols include the boar, serpent, dog, vulture, spear, and shield. Son of Zeus and Hera, all the other gods despised him. His Latin name, Mars, gave us the word “martial.”|
|Aphrodite||Venus||Goddess of love, beauty, and desire. Symbols include the dove, bird, apple, bee, swan, myrtle, and rose. Daughter of Zeus and the Oceanid Dione, or perhaps born from the sea foam after Uranus‘ semen dripped into the sea after being castrated by his youngest son, Cronus, who then threw his father’s genitals into the sea. Married to Hephaestus, although she had many adulterous affairs, most notably with Ares. Her name gave us the word “aphrodisiac“, while her Latin name, Venus, gave us the word “venereal“.[B]|
|Hephaestus||Vulcan||Master blacksmith and craftsman of the gods; god of fire and the forge. Symbols include fire, anvil, axe, donkey, hammer, tongs, and quail. Son of Hera, either by Zeus or alone. Married to Aphrodite, though unlike most divine husbands, he was rarely ever licentious. His Latin name, Vulcan, gave us the word “volcano.”|
|Hermes||Mercury||Messenger of the gods; god of commerce, communication, borders, eloquence, diplomacy, thieves and games. Symbols include the caduceus (staff entwined with two snakes), winged sandals and cap, stork, and tortoise (whose shell he used to invent the lyre). Son of Zeus and the nymph Maia. The second-youngest Olympian, just older than Dionysus.|
|Hestia||Vesta||Goddess of the hearth and of the right ordering of domesticity and the family; she was born into the first Olympian generation and was one of the original twelve Olympians. Some lists of the Twelve Olympians omit her in favor of Dionysus, but the speculation that she gave her throne to him in order to keep the peace seems to be modern invention. She is the first child of Cronus and Rhea, eldest sister of Hades, Demeter, Poseidon, Hera, and Zeus.|
|Bacchus||God of wine, celebrations, and ecstasy. Patron god of the art of theatre. Symbols include the grapevine, ivy, cup, tiger, panther, leopard, dolphin, goat, and pinecone. Son of Zeus and the mortal Theban princess Semele. Married to the Cretan princess Ariadne. The youngest Olympian god, as well as the only one to have a mortal mother.|
Last week, I described our visit to the Acropolis, with some stories and photos of the remnants of the marble sculptures that decorated the Parthenon. The top photo on this blog shows Dionysos lounging on his signature panther skin, in front of the rising horses of sun-god Helios’s chariot. The fragment is part of the East Pediment (the triangular space under the roof) sculptures that were partly removed by Lord Elgin, and most of them now reside in the British Museum. The new Acropolis Museum displays a model of how the original carved by master sculptor Phidias is thought to have appeared:
As I researched the reconstruction, I found that scholars have argued for competing interpretations, but the following is pretty much what the plaques at the Acropolis Museum explain: On the left are the heads of the horses pulling Helios’s sun chariot out of the world-encircling sea at dawn. They face lounging Dionysos, next to Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Artemis, next, looks like she’s ready to rush off on some important mission. Then comes possibly Ares with shield, then seated Hera, flanked by possibly two demigods who are here to witness Athena’s birth full-grown and in armor from Zeus’s head. He is on the throne in the middle, facing Athena with her shield. Hephaestus seems to fall back behind her, after assisting in her birth by splitting open Zeus’s head with his ax. Then we have Poseidon, seated, and it appears to be Apollo with his lyre. Then an unidentified male figure, then Hestia, Dione, and Aphrodite reclining seductively with one shoulder bare. The tableau finishes with what is probably the torso of Selene (the moon goddess) or Nyx (Night) and her chariot horses sinking into the sea at dawn.
The Olympians loved to meddle in the affairs of mortals, often to the detriment of the humans, notably in The Iliad and The Odyssey. The gods took sides in the Trojan War, magnifying their own feuds and picking out favorites or enemies among the mortals. Poseidon, for instance, was furious at Odysseus, and so blocked his homecoming for another ten years after he left Troy.
Zeus, with his power plays and arrogance, seems to mirror human kings of the time (and most times). This bronze statue in the Athens Archeology Museum, found in the sea, used to be considered to represent Poseidon with his missing trident, but now experts seem to favor it as Zeus, ready to hurl his missing thunderbolt.
Zeus was also an infamous philanderer, and either had consensual sex or raped a lot of goddesses and mortal women or occasionally men. Many of the deities seem to have been omnisexual, coupling with either sex and with animals, or taking on the form of animals. Zeus, especially, turned himself into such forms as a swan or eagle, or even rain, to have his way with mortals, and he also had sex with a white cow. Apollo and other deities were also bisexual, which was common in Greek culture.
Dionysos, the god of wine and revelry, seems in some of his depictions to be “gender fluid,” as he defies the usual aggressively masculine appearance of the other gods. Here, the god of the vine spends time with one of his lusty satyr companions and what appears to be Eros.
Aphrodite, the goddess of love, also had many lovers. This statue shows her in a teasing confrontation with a pushy satyr, as she threatens to whack him with her sandal. The Athens museum explanation holds that she is playing with the satyr, who is no threat to the powerful goddess.
A probably older, more austere style portrays Aphrodite in a serious pose with her signature dove:
And, again, here is a later, smaller copy of the famous 37-foot-tall statue of Athena originally installed on the Acropolis that was later stolen. She is in full martial mode here, with helmet and shield, holding Nike, or Victory, in her hand.
We’ll see her again, along with Apollo (here with his lyre and raven), when we reach Delphi, sacred to both of them.
I’ll be back next week with more glimpses of Athens, present and past!
You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect.
Continuing the October theme of death and its customs, I’d like to talk about the rather squicky topic of cannibalism. If that disturbs you, I recommend not clicking through to read the rest of this post.
From a worldbuilding point of view, I think of cannibalism as a third rail. It’s a custom that exists (or at least has existed) in reality, in many parts of the world, but including it in a story is difficult — at least if you want to use it for any other purpose than othering a society or showing how evil your bad guy is. Eating human beings is, for (probably) all of us reading this essay, so profoundly taboo that the simple horror of it can overpower anything else the author might be trying to say. Empathizing with it as a cultural practice? That’s right out.
But that’s why I decided it deserved its own essay. Because there’s more going on here than you might assume, and while I don’t expect to see it showing up in fiction a lot any time soon — nor should it, necessarily — it’s worth giving it a proper look.
First let’s talk briefly about cannibalism not as a cultural practice. By this I mean two things: first, when it’s done for survival, and second, when it’s done by a mentally ill person (e.g. a serial killer). Survival cannibalism is your Donner Party type scenario, where people stranded under starvation conditions resort to eating the dead from sheer desperation. This has happened countless times in countless places, but I’m discounting it simply because it isn’t a part of the culture. (Though cultural responses to it can be interesting: are the people forgiven on the grounds that they had no other choice, or shunned for their taboo behavior?) The same goes for the serial killer situation, where it’s an individual aberration from the norm.
With those laid aside, you can sort the cultural practice manifestations into two forms: endocannibalism (eating members of your own social group) and exocannibalism (eating outsiders). These may involve the same general act, but the meaning attached to it and the motivation for doing it are often very different.
Exocannibalism is what we tend to think of when the term “cannibalism” comes up. It’s aggressive, dominating, an expression of superiority of the consumer over the consumed or an attempt to take the power of the consumed into oneself. Was your opponent brave in battle? Then in some cultures, the idea was that eating his heart or other flesh would allow you to absorb his courage, making yourself even stronger for the battles to come. (A similar symbolic logic sometimes attaches to eating the flesh of certain animals.) In other cultures, your enemy’s defeat in battle means he was weak and pathetic, and by eating his corpse you assert your final victory over him. When you read colonial-era accounts of “cannibal islands” and other such lurid tales, they’re often talking about exocannibalism — when they’re not just making up slanders for the sake of justifying imperial conquest or extermination.
Endocannibalism is generally very different. It’s a mortuary practice: something done for members of your own community to help them pass on from this life, by by freeing them from their body, by taking their spirit into yourself or your community. Rather than being hostile, it’s compassionate. Depending on the society, it might be expected that people will consume their own close relatives, that they will consume more distant relatives, or that the dead should be consumed by people as unrelated to them as possible.
This is not simply an unusual culinary practice. I learned a great deal about endocannibalism when one of my grad school classes assigned me to read Consuming Grief by Beth A. Conklin, which discusses the practice among the Wari’ Indians of the western Amazon, and one of the things that stayed with me was the lengths they went to in order to ensure that the remains of the dead were not treated in the same way as food. For example, the bodies were often left to decay for several days before being roasted; the book’s descriptions of this were enough to turn my stomach just reading about it, so I can only imagine what it’s like in person. They ate not out of hunger or desire, but out of a sense of duty, of compassion for the loved ones of the deceased. To them, burying the dead in the ground was a shocking offense — why would you stick the remains of someone you loved in the cold, wet dirt?
When the topic of cannibalism comes up, people often point to disease as a rational, non-taboo-based reason for why it’s a terrible idea. Kuru is transmitted by prions, and used to be widespread among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea; there’s evidence to suggest it came about because one individual spontaneously developed the disease, and then after that person’s death it spread to those who ate their flesh (brain tissue especially), and so on through the group.
But the broader truth is that prion-based diseases can be acquired from the brains of a variety of animals, not just humans. The flesh of our own species is not inherently riddled with diseases waiting to strike down those who transgress by eating their kin. It can happen . . . but so can trichinosis. In the end, the main reasons for not engaging in cannibalism are cultural: we see it as an atrocity, rather than a normal part of victory in battle or the funerary process.
And because we see it as an atrocity, it’s incredibly difficult to build it into a setting. Your reader’s sense of revulsion will prime them to read it as a marker of evil or primitivism; you’ll have to work overtime to get them to see it any other way. Which skews your story — if you weren’t writing a story About Cannibalism before, well, you are now. You can’t just slip in a background reference about how three days after your hero’s mentor died, the town dug up his corpse and ate it. The idea derails everything around it.
But if you can point me at a story that makes good, non-sensational use of the concept, please do. I’m very curious.
If any sufficiently advanced technology, as the quote goes, is indistinguishable from magic, then it is also possible that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from a religion.
-Alma Alexander from a Book View Café blog post On Magic on August 5, 2016
Any fantasy that is sufficiently internally consistent is indistinguishable from science fiction.
Alma’s post was about magic and religion. This post is about magic, science, and technology.
The path via which magic evolved into technology is well-documented by historians. Frances Yates, Mary Carruthers, Ioan P. Couliano, and Evelyn Fox Keller, for example, all give interesting accounts of the centuries-long process by which magic became demonized, and magicians invented a new way of thinking about how the world worked that wouldn’t get them burnt at the stake.
The fear of fire led the new scientists into a frantic differentiation between their practice and the old magical practices. Scientists are still phobic about being associated with all those old magicians’ flammable terms, values, and even their findings. Science fiction has developed a parallel phobia of all things magical. In order to distinguish itself from fantasy, SF has defined and redefined magic, which strikes me as being like a raindrop trying to define water in such a way as to divorce itself from the ocean.
Hence Clarke’s Third Law, which Alma quoted:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Esther Inglis-Arkell at i09 wrote in 2013 in a blog post called Technlogy isn’t magic: why Clarke’s Third Law always bugged me:
“…unlike technology, we aren’t ever supposed to be able to do it. And, intuitively, we understand that. This tracks with what, traditionally, we read about magic. In science fiction, anyone can fly a space ship or upload their brain to the internet. Sure, people have different aptitudes, but it’s all possible. Technology is egalitarian. In fantasy, magic is largely an aristocracy. …even Rowling sees magic as something largely inborn. You either have it or you don’t.”
“When it comes to technology versus magic, the point isn’t the advanced state of the technology, the point is the exclusivity of the trick.”
Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Agatha Heterodyne says, a sufficiently analysed magic is indistinguishable from science. Which argues that scientists’ phobia is all that stands in the way of their understanding of magic, which then erases the word magic.
Evelyn Fox Keller, in her article on Roger Bacon’s invention of science, suggests why magic still retains its fire-phobia powers. The talking points used by Roger Bacon and his fellow proto-scientists, when trying to avert the torches, were (condensed and rephrased in American):
- “We’re unemotional.”
- “We don’t love nature. We exploit her.”
- “God gave us nature, so back off, man, we’re scientists,” which can be interpreted as “We are the top of the food chain so you can’t argue with us” or, a later and popular interpretation, “Our technology can destroy you, so we’re in charge.”
There is not one word about the scientific method in these talking points. But that’s a very common pattern seen in science: the moment of inspiration is followed by months and years of toil to produce a rational (sounding) explanation for why the inspiration works. Often the explanation falls apart upon scrutiny, even while the inspiration still stands, maddeningly, patently correct.
A long time ago at a convention far away, I was pilloried for saying that magic in current fantasy novels was way too much like technology; that it didn’t resemble real magic at all. Everyone else insisted that magic in fantasy was “acceptable” only if it was “sufficiently internally consistent.” They burnt me at the stake as a woo-woo merchant for mentioning “real magic,” an expression which apparently set off their torch phobia, and ignored my pointing to the millennia of real, historical magicians on whose work science was based.
When I wrote Trash Sex Magic, I was doing, as a lot of first novelists are doing, a lot of things all at once. Most readers noticed the sex. Some found it funny. A very few noticed the class issues raised. No one connected the dots between the kind of magic being done and the class stuff. Since then I’ve published fourteen more novels illustrating where I think magic and internal consistency and technology connect, and where they don’t.
In Trash Sex Magic, a family of trailer trash sex magicians live near a tree that used to be a man and is now a god. Then the tree is cut down, sex miracles spray all over the landscape, and a new man must immediately be found to take his place. It becomes apparent that sex in sufficiently intense quantities is magic, but it doesn’t always “act sexy.” My premise was that sex itself is so transcendent that we instinctively seek to reduce it to something lesser, something definable and controllable, in other words, less magical. My second premise was that many people can and do work magic all the time. My third premise was that the people who are best at such magic don’t have much clue how they’re doing it, having no vocabulary or training, and sometimes considerable shame about their powers. They make messes, but no worse than the messes people make using other methods. This is animistic magic.
In Hinky Chicago, five soon-to-be-six novels about an alternate contemporary world overrun with random irruptions of magic in large population centers, my protagonists discover that the spread of magic is caused by individual curses placed on various people by a single sorceress, herself cursed. Then they think it’s coming from the work of a magician, himself cursed by that sorceress, who has been trying to undo her curse on him by giving away his own magic. Every curse is calculated according to Jeeves’s “psychology of the individual” so that the victim’s deepest desires and their ruling character flaw work together to get them to curse themselves. This is ceremonial magic, which is ninety percent psychology and ninety percent meticulous scholarship. (Ceremonial magicians always overthink.)
In Slacker Demons, four novels about a bunch of retired gods now working for the Christian hell as sex demons in an increasingly magical Chicago, we learn that the pigeons from Hinky Chicago acquired a taste for smoking cigarettes when some of them flew through a magical flame generated when two love gods kissed. In general, anyone who has sex repeatedly with one of these incubi is liable to develop demonic powers, themselves. This is contagious magic, a form of magic older than medicine and possibly older than fire.
Coed Demon Sluts is a series of five novels about women with ordinary problems try to solve these problems by becoming succubi. The ladies find that, while their bodies were engineered by demons with the intention of making them infinitely adaptable to (men’s) desires, and endowed with powers aimed at working on those desires, there’s a lot more they can do with those bodies if their imagination is up to it. This argues that magic works like gleepsite, a term invented at MIT to represent a substance that can do anything you want it to, and illustrated by Joanna Russ in her story “Gleepsite” from her collection The Zanzibar Cat. In other words, this magic fulfills wishes without hinting at any explanation at all for how it fulfills them. This is magic as defined by the torch-flourishing portion of science fiction thinkers, i.e., irrational magic.
To me, these varied representations of “what magic is” in these fantasies are the same. They are invented forms or matrices applied to our world in an attempt to make sense of it. (Such could be a definition of “story” as well.) Each form works better for one person than for another. That is all.
Back to technology, science, and magic: I don’t see a conflict between magic and science. I see a continuity of historical ideas punctuated by socio-political violence. Once, thinkers called themselves magicians who claimed to practice scientia and ars magica interchangeably. Modern technology is a practice often so divorced from science that those practicing it are unaware of the science that (sometimes) gave birth to their technology…and also, they are unaware of the magic that preceded that science. (For a comical example of how muddled one’s thinking can become about the difference between science and technology, see Neal Stephenson’s nam shub for baking bread in Snow Crash.) When one considers that historical magic gave birth to science, one must conclude that many technological applications predate science.
I’ve just finished Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, a thoroughly researched and brilliant analysis of how government action in the United States built and reinforced racial segregation.
It took me several weeks to read this book. That’s not because it was difficult to read. On the contrary, Rothstein has an engaging style and presented a mix of anecdote and data that made it easy to understand both the experiences of African Americans seeking housing and the laws that put barriers in their way. Nor was it because I disagreed with what he was saying. I nodded in agreement at almost every sentence.
It wasn’t the way he said things that made it hard to read the book; it was the things themselves. Reading story after story of how Black people were denied the right to live in various neighborhoods, frequently due to provisions of federal or state law, made me so angry that I had to put the book down and take a break.
It’s not like I didn’t know a lot of this history. I knew about redlining and deed restrictions, about New Deal policies that were slanted in favor of white people because of the southern so-called Democrats who controlled Congress, about job discrimination that forced Black people into low paying jobs, even about the building of highways that cut up Black neighborhoods.
But despite my general knowledge, I didn’t realize that, by federal law and policy, FHA-insured loans – the loans that made the post-World War II housing boom happen – could not be used to buy or develop integrated neighborhoods. The all-white suburbs that surround our major cities didn’t get that way by accident or even due to individual prejudice; they were designed to be that way.
I knew a lot, but until Rothstein put it all together in this book, showing the laws, the history, and the local policies and coupling them with the violent attacks on Black people who did move into so-called white neighborhoods – attacks often sanctioned, or at least ignored, by law enforcement – I didn’t realize how much it permeated every inch of our country.
This isn’t a story of the former Confederate states. Some of the most egregious examples are from northern California, one of the places African Americans moved to for work during World War II. Nor is this an old story; many of these policies were in effect into the 1970s, and the results of them are all around us today.
I’m sure Rothstein’s book holds few surprises for African Americans, though even some of them may not be aware of just how pervasive these policies were. But the average white person in the United States has no idea of just how extreme this discrimination was and how far it reached.
Just as our history books have glossed over slavery and the Jim Crow years, they have neglected to give us the true history of discrimination against African Americans in this country. At their best, school history textbooks cite “de facto” segregation – segregation by custom or tradition. As Rothstein says, “This is mendacious. There was nothing unwritten about government policy to promote segregation in the North.”
Everyone in this country needs to know this history. It’s particularly important to start getting the facts right in a period in which white supremacists are marching in the streets and being encouraged from the White House. We need to recognize that it’s not just the hate-mongers who gave our country its racist legacy.
And we also need to understand that, as with many other things, just recognizing the problem isn’t going to solve it. Those many years of discriminatory policies mean that many Black people have been crippled financially in a culture in which your financial legacy ensures your future.
Just as an example: members of my (white and Anglo) family have owned real estate in this country going back to at least the American Revolution. My sister and I are the fourth generation of women to go to college on my mother’s side of the family. Owning property and getting a college education were givens in my family. There was never any doubt we would do that.
We don’t come from a lot of money or a lot of wealth. My folks were broke more than once when I was a kid. But they had family that could help them past the tough times, because their family had assets as well.
It’s not that there aren’t other groups that have been ill-treated under U.S. law and society over the years. The Japanese internment camps during World War II, the abusive laws that affect Mexican immigrants in particular, the current efforts against Muslims – all are other examples of the way our society is out of whack.
But the treatment of African Americans, starting with slavery and extending through the generations since the Civil War, must be dealt with directly and not just as part of an overall understanding of bad law and discrimination.
I grew up during the Civil Rights Movement. I’ve seen a lot of good changes over my lifetime. But we still haven’t dealt with all the issues that flow from slavery and Jim Crow. This book is a good place to start.
(a quickie film review; I’ll try to avoid spoilers)
I’ve been a big fan of the original “Bladerunner” since it first showed in the theaters, so was really looking forward to this sequel. I avoided seeing any trailers or reading reviews, so I could view it with fresh eyes. I’m sorry to say that it feels to me like a self-indulgent “director’s cut” that needs to be cut by at least an hour.
Clearly, the director is enamored of his creative settings and beautiful visuals, which I did enjoy, but he lingers way too long on each visual (and on actors’ faces for angsty emotions). Don’t get me wrong — as anyone who reads my novels knows, I love colorful settings. My dear, departed mother once told me that she skipped my landscapes so she could get to “the good parts.” And I forgive many a movie sin if the settings are interesting and gorgeously filmed. So when I say that much less would be way more for this film, it’s an unusual criticism.
For instance, the old, abandoned casino was really cool, but did we need to follow our bladerunner for 10 or 15 minutes while he wandered through it without anything happening? Did we need to follow him for at least 5 minutes (felt like a half hour) while he slooowly stepped through the industrial basement looking for an object we all knew he was going to find, while Loud and portentous music pounded the message home, in case we didn’t get it?
I also confess I am not a fan of Ryan Gosling, but was keeping an open mind. As my husband Thor commented after he had left for a stroll and returned to the theater, “Does he have more than one expression? At least they cast him well this time as a robot– and he didn’t have to sing.”
You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect.
Over the weekend, Darwin and I went to an apple orchard. These places abound in Michigan, an apple state. They’re half U-pick, half amusement park, half bakery. The apples aren’t any cheaper than the store AND you have to pick them yourself, but it’s a “family outing” thing, so I suppose you’re paying for the experience.
Anyway, Darwin and I ate hot donuts, drank hot cider, and picked apples. I wanted cooking apples, so we went to the orchard for Golden Delicious. We quickly filled our bags with fat yellow apples and hopped aboard the tractor-pulled wagon so the farmhand could tow us back over a bumpy, jaunty road.
On the wagon, I had my arm around Darwin and he had his hand on my leg. No one on the crowded wagon noticed–or they pretended not to. Two boys in their late teens were sitting next to each other, close but carefully not touching each other. Then they noticed us. After a while, the first boy put his arm behind the second, and a bit later, the second boy shyly touched the first boy’s hair. No one bothered them, either.
This is why we need openly gay people. Younger people learn from role models, whether they’re on a pro team, in a movie, or sitting on a farm wagon.
–Steven Harper Piziks
The photo below is from the Spring, 1957 issue of Bride and Home. The three players are me (in the vermillion romper), my mother (in the jumpsuit, in the middle, and my brother Clem (in the white footie pajamas). I would be, by the date, about three and a half.
“Handcrafts add a new dimension to the family life of Mrs. Seymour Robbins of New York City. The bead screen was her first project. Here she is working on a hooked rug. Even the children share the atmosphere of quiet relaxation this kind of activity generates.”
A few immediate thoughts: you’ll note that (aside from mis-spelling our last name) my mother has no actual name of her own. According to the mode of the time, she is Mrs. Seymour Robins, an appendage of Mr. Seymour Robins who, as it happened was her husband and my father. So there’s that. I don’t miss that.
And that atmosphere of quiet relaxation? I recall it more as an atmosphere of benign neglect: if grownups were doing some other thing, you amused yourself. I suspect we would have been a little startled by being included in the shoot. My brother and I, even at this age, were used to being photographed. My father actually used us at least twice, if I recall correctly, for packages he was designing: for Colorforms and for a pasta company (I was on the box for cavatelli). I wish we had out takes for this shoot, but it wouldn’t have been in my father’s control.
My mother disliked things like sewing and knitting–too ordinary–but more esoteric crafts she enjoyed. She made the beaded curtain in the background (my father’s design) out of approximately two billion 1/4″ colored wooded beads. The curtain made a lovely clacking sound when you went through it–and let me tell you, as the threads got older and frailer and a kid going the curtain at speed could easily break them, the sound of a couple of hundred wooden beads spraying the floor is memorable.
My father also designed the two rugs mom hooked–although I have no memory of them being so brightly colored. One was mine, one was my brother’s, each with our stylized initials. Eventually they both faded into soft gray obscurity. Mom’s last collaborative craft effort was the needlepointed covers for the seat, seat back, and reverse of the seat back of an old wooden rocking chair that was an heirloom in the family. As craft projects will, this took over a part of the real estate of our household, and I remember skeins of brightly colored yarn everywhere. The chair (which is highly uncomfortable to sit on, and in any case is of the vintage where if you attempt to sit on it people around you scream “DON’T SIT THERE!”) now resides at my aunt’s house. I have no idea where the rugs went. As for the lobster curtain? Too many threads snapped. When I was emptying my father’s house I came upon a cache of the beads folded up in newsprint paper, waiting for some crafter to generate an atmosphere of quiet relaxation.
All Ana Devlin has ever wanted was a home for her younger half-siblings. Now she has half a mansion plus half a fortune to go with it. But what good is sanctuary when her family insists on creating chaos and endangering lives in their relentless pursuit of justice?
Bent on revenging old debts, Ana’s mother, Magda, is back in town, making a mockery of a powerful presidential candidate. Ana’s brother Nick has found a boyfriend–who nearly gets them both killed for blowing the whistle on a pharmaceutical company’s dangerous painkiller. Ana’s lover, Graham, is out to destroy a Russian hacker who dared attack his secret servers. Her sister Patra is breaking the news story of the century–connecting drug lords and politicians and dangerously wealthy industrialists.
And Ana is the one who is in jeopardy. Can a family of geniuses really be worth the effort?
On Evil Genius: “This thought-provoking story includes a convoluted mystery and some fascinating characters. The interactions between Ana and the mysterious Amadeus are delightful. The ending will leave readers longing for more stories about this captivating heroine and her gifted half-siblings.” — Susan Mobley, RT Book Reviews 4 stars
I’ve suffered some disappointments this last week. Well, one major one that also hits the pocketbook. An academic gig I thought I had fell through. I thought I’d been offered the job, actually, but apparently I was mistaken. Anyhow, it’s really disappointing and a little bit of a kick to the gut. I was really excited about the job. And then I got some potentially bad medical news and I won’t get anything concrete until the doc returns from a trip later this week. So hurry up and wait. I hate that. I’m not good at waiting. I’m even worse at disappointment.
Unfortunately, that’s a whole lot of what writing is about, and the worse thing is, so often we disappoint ourselves. We don’t manage to capture in words the visions in our minds. We don’t make the worlds and characters feel as rich and compelling as they are to us. We leave holes in the logic of the plots, and we go off on tangents. The worst part is that we are the only ones to blame and for me, it’s like being sixteen again and the boy I like doesn’t like me and What’s Wrong With Me???? *wry grin*
Then we all look at what other writers are doing and compare ourselves (usually for the worse), forgetting that they went through the same angst, the same sense of failure, the many rewrites, the avoidance, the banging of the head on the desk, and so many other woes. Readers only ever see the final product which, hopefully, is an amazing read. It looks so easy from that angle and then we ridicule ourselves even worse because we tend to compare our crappy early drafts to those sparkling final versions.
We’re nuts, but according to Ursula LeGuin, all readers are. To paraphrase from the Preface to the Left Hand of Darkness, while reading fiction–especially SF/F, we believe in people who’ve never existed, in places that never existed, having imaginary conversations and doing imaginary things that only ever happened in the brain of the writer and in the words on the page. Pretty crazy, right?
I like being crazy. Except the kind of crazy where I’m freaking out about my writing.
My plan for tomorrow? Clean my office. I’m sure that will help. Right? And if not, then the kitchen and the living room and the garage . . .
Actually, it’s times like these that I remind myself of something Neil Gaiman said in his commencement address to The University of the Arts (which if you’ve never listened to, please do. It’s wonderful.) In it, he reminds us to Enjoy the Ride. All of it. And writing is fun, even though it’s hard, frustrating, and sometimes disappointing. We get to create worlds and characters and put them through the grinder all in the name of story and truth and entertainment. And get paid.
The following is a gif I love, but is potentially upsetting/horrifying, I’m putting in some space. Scroll down if you want to see.
Not too long ago I posted about the engraving of a wonderful reading chair that appeared in the early 19th century magazine, Ackermann’s Repository, but this print may just win the prize…not only for itself, but for what the editors at Ackermann’s had to say about it. Without further ado, may I present, from the October 1811 issue… Merlin’s Mechanical Chair!
Yes, that was really its name…and it was really created by a man named Merlin—one Jean-Joseph Merlin (1735-1803), a native of Belgium who later in life worked in Paris and London inventing—well, a lot of things, from the world’s first in-line skates to the carousel and several automatons—and this wonderful chair, one of which was owned and enjoyed by the blind and disabled King George III. First, the description:
This curious machine, of which a correct perspective view is given in the annexed engraving, is the contrivance of the late ingenious and well-known Merlin. It is expressly calculated for the accommodation of invalids who, from age or infirmity, are unable to walk about, or of persons under the temporary inconvenience of gout or lameness.
In the library, or on the lawn, or gravel-walk of the pleasure ground, chairs of this kind are peculiarly useful and pleasant. They are in construction an easy reclining or arm-chair, with a foot-board, and, at the extremity of each arm, a small winch handle, easily turned by the hands of the person seated, and which, by their connection with an arrangement of wheels below, propel the chair in any required direction, or with any required velocity, at the pleasure of the operator. These operating handles are seen in the drawing at A and B. C C are two wheels on which the chair runs, having each on its flat and outer surface a brass face wheel, worked by a smaller one (marked D) fitted on the long axis of the winch handle.
E is the third wheel or castor, fitted to the back rail of the chair, and which forms a third point of support, and obeys the direction taken by the wheels C C.
The mode of operation is this: The party being seated, the small brass rod seen in the drawing, passing through the right-hand arm of the chair, is pulled upwards a little way to disengage the wheels, and the winch handle set to point forward as in the position represented in the drawing.
Now, if the two handles be both turned outwards the chair moves directly forward. If turned inwards it moves directly backwards. If the right-hand winch be turned outwards, the left remaining at rest, the chair turns sharply to the left, moving on its left wheel as a center; and vice versa of the left-hand winch if turned the same way, or of the right-hand one if turned inwards or the contrary way. If the two handles be turned the same way, i.e. both to the right-hand, or both to the left, at the same time, the chair will move sharply round to the right or left, having its center, or the operator himself, as its center.
Now here’s where it gets good (boldface is my addition):
The curious evolutions which may thus easily be performed in this chair render it the means of very considerable amusement, as well as of important use, to those who require its agency; but to the mechanical observer it possesses a new interest. It would not be difficult to contrive an arrangement for moving these wheels, or winch handles, by the action of a very small and portable steam-engine, and increasing the dimensions of the whole machine, and adapting it to a suitable upper structure, to render it a most curious mode of quick conveyance, without the agency of animal labour: indeed, it seems to require no great stretch of the imagination to form of the contrivance many other highly interesting machines.
A suitable construction might be hit upon to enable it to carry a small cannon, which should be, both for itself and its operators, completely unassailable by the enemy, as well as, by the singular rapidity of its evolution, terribly and unusually destructive.
Yep—steam-powered tanks. Don’t forget that in 1811 England was at war with Napoleon, so it’s hardly surprising this concept would occur. But the jump from invalid chair to motorized tank is still a big one.
In judicious hands, the principle of the machine might possibly be advantageously used in the construction of a self-moving engine for the public conveyance of dispatches, which would have for its leading peculiarities, a rapid and certain rate of traveling, and complete inviolability as to the matters entrusted to its charge.
Of the interest and value of the contrivance in its present shape, those only can judge correctly who have experienced its singular advantages. This drawing is furnished us by Messrs. Morgan and Sanders, of Catherine-street, Strand, whose warehouses are the grand emporium for furniture combining all the essentials of elegance and comfort.
So…from invalid chair to steam-powered tank to mail truck. I think I feel a story coming on…